Chapter 1: New Deal
“Sergeant Fiona McDunn. Field medic. Sapien.” Clay ground out the words like they were broken glass. “Alvarez is a good enough medic for us. Why her?”
“You know the rules, Clay. Spec Ops units need two sapiens, minimum. Wilkes was a good man, a hero even, and we gave your team time to mourn him. Now you need to-” Coleman stopped abruptly when Clay slammed the file down on the table sharply. Most sapiens would be terrified of an angry Shifter in close proximity, but Coleman was an old friend of Lt. Col. Franklin Clay. His moods were predictable enough, and the glower on his face was far from pissed off enough to shift into his animal form.
“Why her?” Clay repeated. “What makes her Loser material?”
“Her current CO wants her cashiered from the Army for gross insubordination. She tried to overrule him on calling for a medical evacuation while on an op. Normally, as a Combat Medical Officer, she would have that right, but it would have cost us our only chance in over a year to hit a major target. He says she’s too flighty and overstates minor injuries. He also made some implications regarding her hormone cycle, but that really only flagged him, not her, you know my policies. At any rate, she’s out of that unit no matter what.”
“But?” Clay knew there was a ‘but’ coming. There was always a ‘but’ for a new Loser.
“But, I saw the appendix she removed, on site, from the sniper. So did several surgeons from Base Medical. Everyone agreed making a guy with something like that in his gut lie face down in a nest would have killed him. Not only did she do major abdominal surgery in a mountain cave in a country ending in -stan with only her field kit and send the kid home alive, she went above and beyond biohazard containment protocols to bring it back. She saw the move her CO would make on her and made sure to pickle the damn thing in alcohol as evidence. There’s also the small issue that after performing surgery, she wiped off her hands, picked up his gun, and she climbed into the nest and made the kill shot they were there for. She’s a good shot, actually. Not like Alvarez, but quality.”
“So she’s good, but her CO wants her gone. Not usually my problem, Sir. I got half my people straight from the brig. I’m not seeing it.”
“It’s the sixth time a superior has tried to get rid of her, and that’s just in the past year. She’s too good for us to be able to afford to lose, and honestly, I think she’d fit well with your team. Better than any non-Shifter we currently have available, and you need one. The Losers are her last chance before I decide she needs to find employment elsewhere on Base where I can keep an eye on her. At Medical, if she’s willing to take the extra testing, but that’s her best shot if you pass on her. Otherwise, a good medic and a decent soldier is gonna be driving a desk as my secretary. So take her, Clay.”
Clay grunted. It was all that was required, and they both knew it. Coleman had rank as a General and his status as a sapien. Legally, there wasn’t supposed to be any discrimination, but everyone knew there was. The very fact Clay was a Colonel and led a team at all had caused many to doubt Coleman’s sanity, but a promise is a promise and a debt is a debt and if Clay wanted a mostly-Shifter unit, he was going to get one.
Clay snapped off a salute just the proper side of insolent and left to go collect his new medic. He’d gone into the meeting expecting worse than Fiona ‘Firebird’ McDunn. Her name was frequently heard on base, especially by Shifter standards. They had a slightly different way of passing rumors, so that he’d audibly heard of her spoke for her in some way, he just wasn’t sure how. It was conflicted. He ran over what he’d read in the file.
She had discipline problems but so did his XO, his Tech and on bad days his Transpo. The only one who came to them without a problem with orders was Cougar, mostly because he requested the transfers out of units who treated him like glass or a wild beast after they heard he was a former POW.
She made people uncomfortable. Hell, his team was mostly Shifters, even if they didn’t do it often or at all. They unnerved people by their mere existence, despite the world knowing about them since before the American Revolution.
She had anger management issues. Possibly a problem if she had been a Shifter, but not so much for someone who couldn’t turn into a snarling beast. Also, Roque was a good XO and his picture was practically next to the definition of anger management issues in the dictionary. Actually, it was carefully pasted into the margins in the copy that Jensen had bought for unknown reasons.
She was a good shot, she could do field surgery, rated both for non-Shifters and the more difficult certification for Shifters. She spoke multiple languages. She showed no sign of bigotry, but that wouldn’t necessarily come out in the file. He was willing to take the cursory psych eval at its word for now though, because of what he’d gotten unofficially. He carefully wiped the grin from his face. Only his team would notice the tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth and identify it as a grin, but he needed to be stern if he was going to take a sapien. If she was going to get scared by Shifters, better get that known right away. The Losers were the only Shifter-led unit in the army and if the Firebird wanted to hunt with them, she needed nerves of steel and an iron spine.
He found her free climbing the underside of an incline climbing wall. Her signature red hair hung below her in a thick, tight braid. Base rumor had it that she braided a spiked strap into it to prevent the braid being grabbed. Of course base rumor also had it that Sgt. Alvarez was a telepath and that Roque got his facial scars in an underground Fight Club. Base rumor had been known to be wrong.
“Sergeant McDunn,” Clay asked in a way that was obviously less a question and more an order. With far more grace than he was accustomed to from sapiens, she turned and dropped the ten feet from her spot on the wall to the padded mat beneath, ending in a three point landing. She trotted up and saluted. So either she knew who he was or assumed anyone with that tone was a superior officer. The first could be acceptable, the second was dangerous, it meant she made assumptions. A small frown tugged his lips.
“Colonel Clay,” she said with a smile. “Please tell me this means the General is switching me out of my unit.”
“If you know who I am, then you know my unit is your last stop before being kicked out of the Army for good, or being given permanent desk duty. And we’re only taking you because we legally need a sapien to replace Wilkes.”
“And if you knew literally anyone from my last unit you would understand my sympathy for Simon’s appendix, because we both got removed from similar situations moments before exploding and killing someone.”
Clay looked at her skeptically for a moment. Sgt. McDunn looked very pleased with herself for a woman who just got transferred not only to the Army’s ‘last hope’ unit, but also as the second token sapien in a Shifter unit that only took the minimum required number of sapiens. She might have a few screws loose. Of course that’s what he’d thought when he got handed a program-binged out Jensen from the drunk tank, and he was, inexplicably, right when he called himself an underappreciated genius. He decided not to jump to conclusions before the rest of the team met her. “Well, let’s get this shit storm over with, come meet the crew.”
McDunn giggled. His estimation of her sanity was dropping steadily. “Well said, Sir.”
“Don’t call me sir, I work for a living,” he bit out without thinking. It was true he had said the same to all his team members, but he wasn’t sure how long she would last and didn’t fully consider her one of his yet despite the paperwork. Something about her was putting him off his game; hopefully Roque could pick up the slack. Without further talking, he turned and started walking towards their on-base housing.
Fiona was thrilled. She’d hated all her previous teams, their petty rivalries and casual bigotry turned her stomach. Even the decent ones never spoke up, never sided with her when she stood up for Shifter rights. She felt pity for the Shifters who had to endure it, and a great deal of respect for their self-control. Not to mention, despite measures and protocols and all her safeguards there was always the risk that someone would find out. She knew the Army was a dangerous proposition, but she never had run from danger in her life. But getting assigned to the Losers? The first and only Shifter-run Spec Ops unit, the only unit that could ever possibly accept her? That was winning the lottery, despite the Colonel’s rather transparent attempt to frighten her. And he got her excrement joke! He even joked back! She resisted the urge to skip as she followed the older man to a house she’d seen many times but never entered.
Chapter 2: Down Card
Fiona meets the Losers. Neither side is impressed that much. Then again, neither side is showing everything they have, either.
Just to keep the non-card players in the loop name wise, a 'down card' is a card dealt so only the player it belongs to can see it, often one of the first cards dealt in a Hold 'Em or Stud poker game.
This chapter is dedicated to lolli1066 for kudos and to Winterfirefly for commenting
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Inside, Jake Jensen was exasperatedly attempting to hack his way through their new team-mate’s life, to limited success. They were due another sapien, and with the subtle cues in Clay’s body language when he left that morning the fateful time had arrived. General Coleman had the personnel files locked away on what he thought, and would continue to think, was a secure server, and the moment the new file entered the Losers meta-file, Jake was on it. He finished the heavily redacted file quickly and moved on. He knew her name, both from the file and from hearing it around base, usually followed by either aspersions of her character or reverent whispers about her healing talents. He knew she had little or no connection to social media that he could find, and that was worrying. She didn’t even have a Facebook account! How was a hacker supposed to find out who she really was and what she was like if she wouldn’t get with the new millennium and wire up? He didn’t realize he’d been narrating his inner monologue until a cheerful female voice interrupted him.
“You could always just talk to me.”
“Roque, make introductions, I have a headache, I’ll be in my room catching some sleep,” Clay ordered in his not-particularly-bossy voice which meant he really did have a headache. That was weird; Shifters didn’t usually get small maladies.
“Captain William Roque, second in command, and explosives expert,” Roque said as he stood from the intense game of Mario Kart that had been going on before Clay had walked in with the girl in tow. He scowled, making sure to put his scars to good use, while keeping his tone as pleasant as it got, the last thing his team needed was the accusation they purposely ran someone off. “You are?”
“Sergeant Fiona McDunn, medic. I’m sure you know my species designation given the circumstances, but it will help me do my job if I also know yours.”
“Technically, everybody in this room is human. The Supreme Court made that ruling before any of us, possibly barring Clay, were even born. I assume you meant to say sapien.” The stench of Roque’s irritation reached the other three men. A silent conversation involving eyebrows and sub-vocalizations was had and they nominated Jensen to keep their new medic alive.
“Hi, Jake Jensen, comms and tech. I’m a raven-Shifter, I forget the species designation. I…don’t shift. Ever. Medical prohibition.” He paused and waited for her to press. Instead she nodded. He got the feeling she was committing that fact to memory. The silence was bothering him so he pointed at their transportation specialist. “That’s Pooch. He’s transportation and heavy armaments, wolf.”
“He means Canis lupus,” said the slim black man on the middle seat of the sofa.
“I know I’m new and all but doesn’t that bother you?” asked Fiona, disappointed. She had been hoping the Losers would be better than this.
“Jensen forgetting species designations?”
“No, Jensen calling you Pooch. It’s kinda a bigoted nickname for a canid.”
“Oh totally, it came from a bigot and at the time the only way to spite him was to take it from him and make it mine. And it is better than my given name. Anything is better than Linwood.”
“So you prefer it?”
“So there’s Colonel Clay, Captain Roque, Jensen, Pooch and….”
“Cougar,” replied the softly accented voice of the remaining man, emerging from under the brim of a cowboy hat that hid his eyes.
“That a nickname or a designation?”
“Cougs isn’t big on words,” Jensen warned. “But he’s a great shot, second best in the last four President’s Hundred competitions. Some ass that’s classified to the teeth keeps beating him, pretty sure that guy has bird of prey in him somewhere. Meet Carlos Alvarez, our sniper and until now, medic.”
“Is there a reason none of you have told me your ranks too?” She looked at Capt. Roque, who was still snarling at her. He didn’t seem like he wanted to talk. Jensen filled the void easily.
“You’re in the Losers now, so you should, as the hippies say, grok this sooner rather than later. Clay’s rank matters because he’s the first Shifter to get that far. Roque’s rank matters because his unofficial job is to outrank the worst assholes and send ‘em packing. Nobody is ever going to give a flying fuck that I outrank Roque by two weeks as Captain, because theoretically I could turn into a bird, maybe.” His tone was light but there was a slight bitter twist to his lips.
“I’d like to argue on behalf of human decency, but the cesspit from whence I came sort of makes me agree. Sorry.”
“Eh.” Jensen made a hand waving gesture at her. “You cited Hammond v. Kansas, at Roque, while he was giving you murder eyes, within the first five minutes of arrival. You may be sapien, but you aren’t Jerkus bigotus. Whole ‘nother breed.”
“Right, well.” Fiona seemed to flush, but there were no accompanying scents of embarrassment or pride. The Shifters in the room shared puzzled looks. “On to business then, when were your last well-body check-ups?”
Four pairs of eyes locked onto her. One by one she checked for emotions hidden in them. Roque was the easiest, a tiny glint of fear, a slight shifting of shame. Pooch looked ever so slightly confused. Jensen was giving her the very passive look she’d learned was Shifter body language for distrust. Cougar’s eyes held nothing, and that alone frightened her.
“Out with it,” she snapped.
“Wellll,” Jensen drew the last letter out into awkwardness. Cougar shrugged, and Pooch very carefully averted his eyes in submission. Turning to Roque, the only sapien, and therefore easiest to break, and she raised an eyebrow.
“I. Don’t. Like. Repeating. Myself.” She bit out each word with the crisp and brutal enunciation and slight lifting of the eyebrow learned on Shifter wards, shadowing the base nurses to help her pass her SFSCT, the Shifter Field Surgery Certification Test. This way of speaking had put antsy Hyena Shifters back in bed and gotten paranoid Kodiaks to take their pills. When he paused her eyebrow went up yet another notch.
“Wilkes was with us seven years ma’am.”
“And that has to do with the price of tea in China how, exactly?” The eyebrow reached previously unknown heights.
“He argued against well-body checks for this unit. He said we got shot up enough that we were likely getting enough medical examinations anyway, and aside from me an’ him, it’s all Shifters. You ever see a Shifter get a cold?”
“Where is he now? I’m gonna kill that stupid SOB!”
“Try Arlington,” snapped Jensen. “A Honduran General got to him first.”
“Good!” She realized she was yelling about a dead comrade in front of his pack and took a deep breath. “Look, you probably saw him as a friend, a brother in arms, but what he did to you is inexcusable, even posthumously. Captain Roque just pointed out why. He said, and I quote, ‘You ever see a Shifter get a cold?’ No, but I’ve seen cold and flu symptoms that were indicative of cancer before. Lt. Col. Clay just said he had a headache. He’s a fucking Ursus arctos! Do you even know the shit that has to happen for him to have headaches?” Everybody looked properly ashamed. Jensen raised his head.
“He was our medic, our friend, our packmate…I understand that he did something wrong, but he cared about us, I know he did.”
“Jensen, you said you had a medical prohibition on shifting. Aside from whatever is causing that, and I’m sure it’s bad enough to warrant watching, Shifters heal best going back and forth at least once every twenty-eight days. You don’t shift, so the odds of you being that one Shifter who gets a cold go way up. The physical act of shape-shifting replenishes a Shifter’s immune system. Choosing not to shift is like choosing to go on immuno-suppressants, it might save your life, but it also makes death by contaminated paper cut much more likely. You may have been his friend, but his actions were not those of a friend, or a medic. And if, knowing this, you still want to call him a packmate and agree with his asinine decisions about your medical health, I will walk off this base with my stuff tonight, because this is the last hope unit and if I refuse to stay in it with such reckless assholes as those that would disregard serious medical concerns that will get them all dead, then I guess I’m getting a room at a motel in Fayetteville.”
“Jake,” said Cougar. The two Shifters had a silent conversation for a minute.
“Ok. I guess he…I’m not going to say he wasn’t pack after he died instead of me in Honduras, but he maybe wasn’t thinking about my safety in terms of the not-getting-shot-or-blown-up areas of healthcare.”
“I can live with that. Well bodies, tomorrow, first thing I want you all at Base Medical.”
“Do we have to,” asked Roque in an almost whine. Then he remembered he was a scary SOB Captain in the US goddamn Army and cleared his throat. “Base Medical is disinclined to like the unit.”
“They hate our ever-loving guts,” Pooch translated.
Maybe because you’re reckless assholes, thought Fiona. “We can do it here, but I’m calling in a nurse from the base. She owes me and two sets of hands are better.”
“Tomorrow, then. First thing is half an hour past dawn, I hope you know. We work harder and longer. First to rise, last to lie down.”
“That’s not a problem,” Fiona said smiling, she’d been training for this for a long time. She pulled out her phone and texted Jolene.
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“Guess you’re better than the docs at Base Medical.”
“Damn straight. I’ll give you a lollipop if you’re good.”
Chapter 3: Pair of Ladies
The Losers get their well bodies, and Jolene is in the house to kick but and take temperatures. Pooch is doomed.
For the non-card players, a Pair of Ladies is the term for two Queens.
Dedicated to Winterfirefly.
For those unfamilliar with my marking system, a line of O's indicates a scene cut, by space, time, or POV, whereas > means end flash back.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The next morning began ten minutes before true dawn for Fiona. She’d moved her stuff into the Colonial on the side of the base the Losers shared, but the room she’d been offered was a closet, (literally, she could tell someone had removed a walk-in and maybe four feet off the Master to make room for an extra room) and still had half of Wilkes’ stuff in it. So she wasn’t there when she woke up in the false dawn.
Despite her desire to burn all the irresponsible bastard’s things, she just shrugged and took a left to the stairs to the third floor attic, which was a large and open space. Until she could get a bed up here, she could bunk on the ground. Jensen, who had been following her, let out a sound of surprise.
“I didn’t know this was up here? How did you know, you’ve never been here?”
“Mom worked in old house restoration, this is a Southern Colonial, there was going to be a servant’s garret up here.” Fiona shrugged. “It’s been wired for electric, probably at the same time as everything else, and I’ll bet you ten bucks that door leads to a bathroom, half bath at least.” She nodded to the door at the other end from the stairs.
Jensen went and checked, came back and handed Fiona a ten-dollar bill.
“If I clean it, this could double as a decent infirmary for your maintenance checks and stuff.”
“Maybe.” The hacker seemed unusually tense. “Bye.”
“Guess I’m getting some bleach,” Fiona said to herself.
Setting up her field kit on the side table she’d stolen from the closet of a room, she looked over at the set-up she and Jolene had arranged. A folding chair sat in the light of an east facing dormer window, and a cot had been re-purposed into a table for the equipment Jolene brought with her from Medical, along with a hearty thanks and a ‘congratudolences’ card apparently printed off and given to every medic the Losers were assigned. A bio-material collection kit lay open next to a blood pressure cuff, an otoscope (commonly known as an ear scope) and ophthalmoscope (also known as an eye scope). Fiona bought her own thermometer and it was better than what Jolene had access to. Everything looked ready.
At 6:05, ten minutes before Roque’s definition of ‘first thing’, Fiona went downstairs and knocked on everybody’s doors. Muffled swearing in Spanish from Cougar was the nicest response.
“McDunn, what in the ever loving hell do you think you’re doing?” demanded Roque when she forcibly ripped his blanket from the bed, leaving him shivering as he sat up to glare.
“Well bodies, Captain Roque. First thing. You said that was half an hour after dawn. I’d say you have six minutes to get dressed and wake the Colonel before I expect my first patient to be up and in my infirmary on the third floor.” Roque looked at his clock, six minutes until his alarm.
“Says the man with grizzly claw marks on his face. Don’t think I didn’t reference check the pattern.”
Roque swallowed hard. It was an eyes only secret that Clay had been hit with an aggression inducing pheromone and Roque had let himself get hit to give Alvarez the chance to tranq him.
“I’ll wake Clay.”
“Good. As a sapien, and therefore the most likely to need preventive medicine, I expect you to be the first one upstairs. I’d prefer Captain Jensen go last, his is likely to take longest, considering I couldn’t find his medical records and will need to re-create them.”
Eight minutes later, Roque walked through the door. He was obviously going for big and intimidating, probably to get a less thorough check up. That back-fired horribly on him, as there was nothing in this world Jolene hated more than a macho patient. She gave him the most thorough examination of what was likely his life, including a manual scan for abnormalities in the breast tissue, since men can get breast cancer too. He was a lot less cocky when Fiona handed him the final test.
“The hell is this?” he demanded.
“The cheapest, most accurate, least invasive prostate cancer scan known to man,” Fiona said, still offering the plastic wrapped stick. “Unless you want me to tell Clay you asked me to stick my fingers up your ass.”
“That’s against the law. There’s confidentiality laws.”
“For civilians, yes. The laws are different in the Army. For one, I’m not an MD and I took no oath to obey medical privacy laws, for another, as your unit medic, I’m obligated to inform the commanding officer of unusual or medically unsound action. Most men hate manual prostate examination, so refusal of an accurate non-invasive scan is unusual, and this can catch problems long before I could. So it’s also the medically sound choice. So take that cup,” she pointed to the sealed sample cup in his hand, “and the damn EPT stick, and go give me a urine sample for each. Bathroom’s through there.”
He took the stick and huffed off.
The rest of the exams went similarly, Clay really didn’t want to pee on a pregnancy tester, but Jolene leveled murder eyes at him, while Fiona calmly pointed at the other sticks in the collection kit. Cougar was their easiest patient, calmly doing as told and giving complete, if concise answers. Pooch was a close second, making doe eyes at Jolene every time he thought she wasn’t looking. In the break between Pooch and Clay, Fiona teased her about it.
“Honey,” Jolene said, “if that pup really thinks he can handle me, then I’mma let him try. But if all he’s gonna do is stare at me, I reserve the right to taunt him until he dies.”
“You, my friend, are evil,” laughed Fiona.
“They don’t call us ‘bitches’ for nothing,” remarked the Canis anthus Shifter.
“Yeah, well I don’t turn into a wolf, so riddle me that, wise gal.”
“You ever seen footage of you the week before your period? You scare me, and I could probably kill you.”
“If you could catch me, when’s the last time you did a triple PT?”
“Never, and it’s gonna stay that way. You just happen to be crazy and like exercise.” She looked at her watch. “You got one more guy right? The missing records dude?”
“Yeah, I got the feeling I’m going to have to scrape him off a ceiling and tie him down.”
“Kinky…but not something I have time for. I have rotations in fifteen and that’s across Base.”
“No worries, I can handle this. I’ll bring in the kit when I’m done, yeah?”
“Sounds fine. Good luck.”
“I bet you could get Pooch to drive you!” Fiona called as Jolene went down the stairs, only to see a raised hand flipping the bird disappear as Jolene left.
Jensen was pacing in Cougar’s room. The sniper was already back from his exam, laying on the bed with his hat pulled down. Jake was nowhere near as calm. He’d wiped his record for a reason, dammit. And here was this puzzle of a medic poking into it. Jake loved puzzles, he just hated not being able to solve them. She tested Sapiens, or the Brass couldn’t have put her with them, laws against that had been passed after the cluster fuck of all cluster fucks that was Omega Squadron’s Suicide Mission in Vietnam. The bill even shared the acronym for the famous bad decision to put a Polar Bear, Spotted Hyena, Katanga Lion, Dingo, and a fucking Snow Petrel in one of the hottest and wettest parts of the world during monsoon season. All five of Omega Squadron’s Shifters died of natural causes, i.e. nature killed them. Only their Sapien CO survived, and he lobbied for changes. Hence the passing of the Overuse and Segregation of Shifters in the Military Act. The OSSM Act had altered the use of Shifters in war, but it hadn’t done as much as Jensen could have wished. So she had to be a sapien, but her scent was off, muted, he wasn’t even sure she had one until he smelled her anger when they were in Wilkes’ old room. It smelled like fury, but her eye didn’t so much as twitch, a stillness he’d only ever seen in Cougar and a few other ambush Shifters. And when she flushed when he pointed out she wasn’t a bigot, the scent had been so faint, nobody had smelled it until Pooch sniffed the air around where she stood, and he had said it smelled weeks old. McDunn was odd, and as much as Jensen liked that (and maybe in ways he shouldn’t think about a fellow Spec Ops soldier) it also scared him. So when she poked her head around Cougs door, maybe he could have handled it better than jumping onto a bookshelf and making the sign of the cross with his fingers.
“You’re doing it anyway, here or Base Medical, your choice. If you run I think you can catch Pooch drooling over Jolene as he tries to offer her a ride. Also, I take a medicine that dulls my scent.” He narrowed his eyes and thought furiously about the kinkiest sex he’d ever seen porn of. “I’m not reading your mind; you were using your out loud voice.”
He sighed and climbed down. “Guess you’re better than the docs at Base Medical.”
“Damn straight. I’ll give you a lollipop if you’re good.”
“Really?” He looked at Cougar, who pulled a purple sucker out of his mouth as proof. “Cool, do you have the red ones?”
Jensen’s basic exam went well; it was getting his medical history that was like pulling teeth. When she finally extracted everything going back to his enlistment, she handed him a cherry lollipop and broached the real question.
“So, your medical prohibition on shifting, which doctor gave you that?”
“Dr. Kim. He worked intake exams for Boot Camp when I went through. I think he retired to Florida.”
“And what was his reasoning?”
“CT scan came back funky. Don’t remember the detail, just that stuff lit up that shouldn’t and stuff didn’t light up that should, and I can’t shift.”
“Why was an intake doctor doing a CT?” Fiona wondered out loud. She hadn’t meant it as a real question, but Jensen got defensive anyway.
“I enlisted straight out of the hospital. I figured if I was gonna get killed I might as well do something good with it. Massive head trauma, I was in a coma for three days, I literally woke up because they pulled the plug on me and it shocked my system enough I sat up as the doctor was calling time of death.”
“How’d that happen?” Fiona put down her notes.
“Silver studded belt to the head. A nice little going away gift from my Dad when I told him I was going to MIT and not working at the auto-repair shop for the rest of my life like him. I had a bus ticket I’d saved for and was leaving in the morning. Jess went to Yale Law, but she’s a girl so he didn’t care. I was the son; I had to carry on the fine Jensen male tradition of mediocrity in a small town auto shop that was going slowly bankrupt anyway. Never mind the fact I already had a scholarship, or that I was class valedictorian, and that I was capable of more, that I wanted more, that I deserved more. He left me behind the dumpster of a diner where a busboy found me while taking out the trash the next day, from what I’m told.” He shrugged bitterly. “I only remember the belt coming at me.”
“Forget Wilkes, I’m killing him. Please tell me he’s dead or in jail.”
“Nope and nope. I don’t know where he went, but it isn’t a place I can find. At least I have a restraining order that actually appears to be restraining. I think he just decided he didn’t care anymore.”
“Does the team know?”
“No. Well, Cougs does, I tell him everything. But the others, no way.”
“Nice to know this pack is so honest and trusting,” Fiona said sarcastically.
“They never asked. They can tell I’m touchy about it so they don’t dig. I can’t shift and they know that. They’ve seen some of the scars, and they’ve heard some of the nightmares, I’m sure they have it pieced together by now.”
“Alright, message received. You do realize as your medic I had to know, right? I wasn’t digging out of idle curiosity. I want to take care of you as best I can and that means details. I’m sorry. You want to verify my good intent, take a whiff.” She held her arm out so he could sniff at her wrist, a strong scent-point. He did, for a second longer than she thought he would, and she tensed. He let go immediately. “I’m putting you on immune supplements. They’ll help counter-act the fact you don’t shift. I can pick them up for you; I need to take this stuff to Medical anyway.” She started to put away the last of the samples in the clearly marked drawers.
“Thanks, Doc,” Jensen said softly as he left.
My tumblr is bairnsidhe.tumblr.com
Remember, comments are love.
“Jolene likes my mom’s candied bhut jolokia. Especially the kind dipped in dark chocolate. Maybe I should tell her you think she’s lost her mind….”
Chapter 4: Door Card
Jensen likes puzzles and figuring them out. Their new medic is a tempting puzzle indeed, and it doesn't hurt that Cougar is making enchiladas, they deploy soon, and Pooch severely needs her help with his love life.
I'm depressed with something at school, so y'all get a new chapter early. I may be altering my posting schedule anyway, to Fridays and not every alternate Wednesday.
For non-card people, the Door Card is the first card played face up in front of a player. It gives the other players a sneak peek at what they might have.
Dedicated to Cougars_catnip, Annabellelee13194, and Jade01 for kudos and to Jade01 again for comments.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It hadn’t been as bad as Jensen feared. She’d been fairly professional and hadn’t fluttered at him like some nurses did when they found out (hence the wiping of his file), but she obviously cared about his health. She also had some Shifter-like behavior, he decided as he compared notes with Cougs. She stood like an alpha, but she also put herself lower than the team when asking hard questions, and her offer of an arm so he could get a decent sniff was near automatic, although the tenseness was strange. She showed no fear, but her anxiety over the whole thing was weird. Had something made her think her scent was bad? He kinda liked it, personally. An organic apple body-wash blended well with her own cinnamon spiciness. Like pie, and who hates pie? Cougar just shrugged in the way that means to leave it alone.
It bugged him though. Like the way he only saw her at team PT and sometimes across the mess hall when he passed it, despite the team usually eating home cooked meals in their house. Sure, nobody let Roque take a turn, so he ordered in from a delivery place, but still, Jensen had the cooking skillz. Not like Cougar, though, and frankly missing Cougar Dinner Night was suspicious in and of itself. He resolved to get to the bottom of it.
As Fiona was leaving the house early, like she usually did, per the history on the home security system, Jensen caught her on the porch.
“So you got a problem with enchiladas or something?”
“Uh…” She flushed and it was still weird that her scent was so muted. “No? I love enchiladas.”
“Then why in the name of all that is good and right in the world are you leaving? You never eat with us, you always eat at the mess, and I know for a fact Cougs is making his super awesome enchiladas, complete with homemade mole sauce with actual grated cocoa and fresh ground cinnamon. I know you know this since we have a house cooking roster for the month posted on the fridge and you keep that weird tea you like in there so you have to have seen it.”
“I…” She looked down and away. “I don’t have a lot of, that is….” She looked back up, firm resolution in her eyes like she was facing a firing squad. “I was raised with some funny expectations about food. Who gives it, when you can accept it, it’s a cultural thing on my Mom’s side. Taking food without paying for it is still, it’s a rough spot.”
“So you subject yourself to the slop in the mess hall why? You don’t pay there.”
“It’s a form of payment in itself. It’s in our contracts when we enlist, the Army provides food for our term of service. I’m paying by being a soldier.”
“You pay in the form of killing your taste buds if you keep eating it. Why do you think we don’t let Roque cook? Damn bastard spent too long eating mess food and MRE’s to know real food. You’re eating with us tonight. I’m using my Captain Voice here, McDunn.”
“If it makes you feel better, you picked up that order of immune boosters for me and I never got a chance to pay you back. A medic can literally be called to save the lives of their team at any given moment. I want you to eat with us so that you know and maybe even like us when you’re stitching our insides back together. I can’t lose another pack member so soon, and we get deployment papers tomorrow.”
“I- we do?”
“According to Scuttlebutt, yeah.” He didn’t mention that ‘Scuttlebutt’ was the name of his back door program. Let her believe in the security of General Coleman’s secure server.
“Alright. But this is pre-emptive payment for any services rendered on deploy.”
Jensen couldn’t have known what he was offering her. Not without knowing her secret and she was sure he didn’t. Still. Only family offers food freely. Only food cooked by someone you trust is to be taken without paying. Rules drilled into her since she was little. Promises must be kept, food is a bond, and never do harm without caution.
She sat down stiffly at the table, warily eyeing the kitchen over the breakfast bar. Cougar’s hat tipped a bit in his way of a nod of acknowledgement from the counter facing the dining table as he rolled out a batch of tortillas and placed them on a tray, but mostly ignored her presence from what she could tell. The rich scent of baked corn flour wafted out of the kitchen on a gust of hot air as he pulled the last batch from the oven to insert the new tray. She watched his hands deftly flick the flat rounds out on the counter to be filled. The sound of hissing oil told her he was going to be filling them and cooking them soon. She was so focused that she nearly jumped when the Tech officer who got her into this stupid situation to begin with sat down in front of her.
“So,” Jensen said. “Fillings? We have ground beef, some shredded pork, although you are going to be fighting Roque for those, he loves them with a fiery passion matched only by his love for things going ‘boom’.” He used his hands to mime an explosion. “We also have veggie mix and cheese, with or without onion…what’s your pleasure? I take the beef personally; Cougs has this secret seasoning mix he won’t share that makes it divine.” His face conveyed his sensory rapture at the thought of it. She took advantage of that distraction to plan an answer that left no-one bound.
“Veggie mix is fine,” she got out. This was a fine line she walked. She didn’t want to screw her chances up, or slip her secret just yet, and honestly this was the first unit she’d been in that seemed to care that she ate at the mess. She had no prep here. “I don’t imagine there will be much competition in a house of preferential and obligate carnivore Shifters.”
“You don’t need to worry about that,” he waved as if dispersing her words from the air. “I was kidding when I said you’d fight Roque. There’s always enough of everything.”
“Then I don’t need to pick now, do I?” she challenged.
“Oh, come on,” he whined. “I peed on a pregnancy tester for you and you won’t say what kind of enchiladas you like best?”
“Well….” She drew it out long to tease him so he couldn’t notice her hands grasping the fabric of the knees on her fatigues. “When I cook them I use a little of everything. Some fajita veggies, a few types of cheese and at least one type of meat in each one. I don’t want to make someone else follow my recipe, everyone cooks them their own way. And I’m pretty sure you don’t have my favorite kind of fajita pepper either.”
“What’s your favorite pepper? I’m betting red bell, you look like a red bell kind of girl.”
“Maybe I should check your eyesight,” she teased lightly, even though the tension was still there, she was feeling it lessen as they talked. “One, I’m not a girl, I’m a woman, and two, I like bell peppers just fine, but they don’t touch the glory of bhut jolokia.”
“Ghost Peppers? Seriously? No wonder you can eat the crap the mess hall serves, you already numbed your tongue for life.”
“My family eats spicy foods fairly often at home,” she shrugged. “I like the flavor, and you’re the one with taste bud problems if you are about to say they just taste hot, or hot is not a flavor.” Jensen closed his mouth. “Even the ones grown in New Mexico barely top one mil of Scovilles,” she finished smugly at his shocked expression.
“And I am officially no longer the craziest person on the team,” Jensen said as Pooch walked in. “Pooch, you will not believe this…”
“Of course I don’t, you are always the craziest person in the room, any room, JJ. Woah, the mirage is real and sittin’ at our table.” He did a double take at Fiona. “How did you manage that? If a tranq gun or hostages were involved I am throwing you under the bus when the MPs come for us.”
“He pulled rank. And the pack card, and the ‘bribing the CMO so she’ll want to save us’ card. I gave up when it looked like he might use puppy eyes at me. I haven’t seen them yet, but I bet he does great big pleady ones. He has the bone structure for it.”
“I do not do puppy eyes,” muttered Jensen.
Pooch shrugged, “whatever, man, you got the job done.” Looking at Fiona he smiled with too many teeth to be fully friendly. “We don’t do that whole pulling punches thing. Just answer me one question, because this is troublesome. Why does Jensen think he’s not the insane one anymore?”
“She eats Ghost Peppers,” the hacker told him. “Willingly.” He shuddered dramatically.
“My mom candies them,” Fiona said. “I just put them in the skillet and caramelize the crap out of them. It’s tasty in fajitas and other veggie based dishes and if I slice them thin first, they reduce nicely for sauces.”
“Oh dear lord,” the Transpo officer deadpanned, “we got two crazy people now.”
“Jolene likes my mom’s candied bhut jolokia. Especially the kind dipped in dark chocolate. Maybe I should tell her you think she’s lost her mind….”
“No!” he yelped. “Please, I have been trying to get that woman’s number for weeks, I’m begging you, don’t set me back.”
“In the interests of pack unity I’ll tell you a secret. She’s a canid, but she’s not your standard Canis lupus. Normal stuff does not hit her like you would think it should. Go read up on Canis anthus mating habits.”
“Argh, my cousin married an anthus. I can’t believe I missed that. So I notch up the mojo? Go all in trying to impress her? I send the woman flowers every week, how do I go up from that?”
“If anyone asks, I didn’t say this, but Jolene may or may not have a slight make-up fetish. I’d advise you to buy eyeliner, gold or maybe green to complement your eyes.” She looked at him critically. “And mascara, your eyelashes ought to be illegal.”
“Who did something illegal?” Clay asked as he walked in, acting as though this was commonplace.
“Nobody that I know about, Sir,” Fiona answered as she moved to stand.
“Sit your ass back down, McDunn,” he sighed. “And stop calling me ‘sir’. I’m not Sir unless there’s Brass nearby. You make me twitchy when you call me ‘sir’; I keep expecting a General to pop out at me.”
“Sure thing…Boss.” Fiona smirked. Clay rolled his eyes.
Jensen emerged from the kitchen to which he had retreated when Jolene got brought up (muttering the whole way about how he did not need to hear more pining), “First round of enchiladas will be ready in a few minutes gang.”
Roque popped his head in. “Enchiladas?” He saw Fiona. “How’d you lot get wallflower in here?”
“HEY!” she protested.
“You can’t exactly blame him when you avoid us like the plague,” Pooch told her. “We all wonder what you do when you aren’t around, which is a lot.”
“I train. At the gym, or the range, or I do a round with the nurses on the Shifter wards.”
“Seriously?” Jensen looked at her like she had grown a second head. “You do nothing in downtime for fun. You have to be joking. Nobody trains every waking hour.”
“I mend my uniform and tend my kit so it’s field ready at all times…. Sometimes I write home.” She shrugged. “I can’t help liking improving my skills. I enjoy it. Being good at things is fun.”
“Colonel, permission to teach our medic how to party?” asked Jensen helplessly.
“Not tonight. First off, it is enchilada night, and enchilada night is sacred per your own rules, and secondly, Coleman asked me to stop by at 0800 and I don’t think it was an invitation to a tea party.”
“Deployment,” Fiona nodded as she spoke. This, at least, she understood and could do.
“Where’d you hear that?” he asked her sharply. Another soldier might have felt fear at the cold knife’s edge look he gave her, a bear-Shifter focusing in on her like sighted prey. She shrugged.
“It was just some scuttlebutt, I didn’t know if it was reliable until you said General Coleman wanted to see you, but it’s probably accurate if you really are going to see him. There aren’t many other reasons he’d need to talk to you officially.”
“She heard it from me, Clay,” Jensen said before Clay could grill her, which she was thankful for. “You know my Scuttlebutt is accurate.” Clay also knew his scuttlebutt came from a computer program of the same name.
Clay grunted and Cougar deftly ended all conversation by putting a plate in front of Fiona.
“Eat or don’t. Someone will if you won’t.” The taciturn sniper walked off. Honestly, his blasé attitude took the pressure off. It helped that she was starving, but the food was amazingly good.
Clay watched his new medic carefully. He already knew she logged extra gym and range time, but he’d thought the unaccounted hours were spent on some kind of hobby she was afraid would get mocked, like needlepoint. Doing rounds at Medical, specifically the Shifter ward, on her off time, that was some kind of crazy. Of course he’d thought that about most of his men. Of course all that extra work was quite possibly putting her in more danger. Few Shifters liked medical care, especially in the field, and a medic had to be like pack for them to have a hope of getting in. Distance wasn’t good for McDunn’s continued health, or for that of anyone who savaged her when she tried to patch them up. Firing squads might be a thing of the past, but even if he got them home in one piece, a Shifter soldier who attacked a medic was lucky to get a dishonorable and not a sentence. Hopefully Jake’s way of talking about everything and nothing, carefully adding important questions in amongst the pointless chatter, irritation interrogation as he called it, could pull out useful intel to bind the pack with their outlier. He listened for anything valuable.
Jake was ecstatic, he hadn’t had a verbal sparring partner since Jess left for college. His sister had taught him, how to fence, dancing in a flurry of words until the right ones hit home, how to dodge, never letting them score on you. Fiona was obviously a master at it, calmly ignoring the pointed nudges and answering the meaningless flash instead. He was going to enjoy this, if they survived deployment. He knew the numbers as well as anybody. They needed more time to fully integrate her before she could do a field medic’s job. Why she’d stayed away was a mystery, she had to know the stats too.
Cougar loaded a plate silently, watching his best friend play word tag with their medic. He knew Jake liked the game, but he wasn’t good at it himself. Sometimes the past stays with you too much to learn, or re learn, new skills. He switched her empty plate for the full one as she lifted her fork. She was too skinny, all muscle and strength and no fat reserves to protect any of that taut wire strength. Or he was turning into his Abuela, like his Mama warned him would happen.
Fiona smiled as she ducked another question. Cougar had slipped a third plate in front of her, carnitas, this time, and Jensen was grinning like a madman every time she sidestepped him in their little verbal judo match, Pooch had pulled up a make-up catalogue on his laptop, and even Clay and Roque seemed relaxed. If she could just swing the deployment, this could work.
My tumblr is bairnsidhe.tumblr.com
Remember, comments are love.
"I outrank my CO, I outrank you, if the god-damn President, Commander in Chief of all Armed Forces and leader of our nation were in here too, I’d outrank him.”
Chapter 5: Ace on the River
The first deployment with Fiona along. I goes better than it could have, the team sees her protective side, and one thing is now certain.
The Losers will never be the same.
We're officially moving schedule to Fridays as of next week.
For non-card players, the River is the last card flipped in a hold-em game, and as anyone at the table can use it, can spell salvation or disaster. An Ace card there doesn't mean anything special, but Ace can also be used to mean a skilled player.
Dedicated to tigrislilium and Cougars_catnip.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“So Bossman, where to and why?”
“Like you don’t already know, Jake.” Clay rolled his eyes before catching sight of the corner of the living room where McDunn applying, was that eyeliner? Which wouldn’t be weird except she was putting it on his transport officer. “What in the…?”
“Pooch is making one last run at the iron curtain of Jolene’s love before we ship out and Firebird’s lending an assist. Because the only other person in the house who can apply make-up is Cougar, and that was for the undercover op in Milan five years ago.”
“Ah, yeah, with the fashion thing. Why is she putting eyeliner on him?”
“Jolene has a neither confirmed nor denied thing for men in make-up, Boss.”
“I think you’re good.” Fiona put down the artist’s detail brush she’d been using.
“So I go and I say, what, look I wore make up?”
“No. You stand in the middle of a group shot I ask my CO to take of our team for deployment and I send it to her. Then she’ll have all deployment to think about it. On the plane back, I’ll take a selfie with you, and one of the others, and send it to her to tell her we’re coming home. I’ll do you up then too. If she doesn’t jump you the moment she sees you again in person, I’ll eat my stethoscope.”
“Ok,” Pooch nodded, psyching himself up. “Clay, come take a picture.”
“We have jobs people,” he growled half-heartedly. At least it wouldn’t be Pooch who killed her.
“Not until briefing, and this is a pack unity thing,” Jensen added, handing a red smart phone to Clay and moving opposite McDunn.
“Pack unity? You aren’t gonna start rambling about naked, pot filled weeks in the woods again man, are you?” Roque said from the stair.
“No, I’m trying to get my sister from another mister laid,” Fiona told him, “and that increases pack unity because then he might shut up and stop everyone else from killing him.”
“Oh, ending the pine-fest. I’m in.”
“Stand by Pooch, Cougar get off the beams and stand by Jensen.”
“How’d you….” Pooch looked from the beam Cougar had been perched on to the man beside him.
“I put that liner on you and I can take it off,” Fiona said sternly. Pooch decided not to push. “Good, like that. Everybody say deployment.”
Clay clicked the buttons on the touch screen. After one that had nobody blinking or messing around he handed Jensen the phone, who tossed it to McDunn. She fiddled a bit and got a beep, followed by several beeps, followed by a broad wink she gave Pooch. Jensen set up the projector and mapped out simple extraction the CIA had been pulling that got more complicated when a bomb linked to an anti-Shifter terrorist group went off and the peaceful protest that had been the cover turned riot.
“In summary, I know where they’ll drop us, I know when and where they’ll pick us up, I know where our guys are, but I don’t know how we get from A to B to C in time.”
“Jensen, there’s a clock on this before the disavowals come down from on high like manna,” Clay grumbled. “Bad manna. Are you saying it can’t be done?”
“We’re the Losers, we always get short straw jobs,” Jensen replied. “The thing is, this isn’t even a job, it’s more like a chance to ventilate our insides all over scenic Velika Kladusa.”
Fiona’s head shot up from her notes. She was taking notes, and in any other situation, Jake would find that adorable. “Did you say the town in question was Velika Kladuša?” Her pronunciation of the Bosnian town’s name was near native from what he could tell.
“Yeah.” What did it matter? The town didn’t have an emergency alert system, it didn’t have an overabundance of police either, which was part of why the CIA did the pull there. They barely had internet, there was no way to hack this. He wasn’t even aware he’d spoken aloud until she grinned at him.
“Which is why you’re not going to. Give me a sat phone, I can get us in.”
“Why am I in Croatia, McDunn?”
“Sir, sorry, I meant Boss. But still, Boss, I’d have to say that’s between, you, God, and your Army recruiter.”
Clay sighed, “I mean, you had our drop off pitch us on the wrong side of the border. We need to be in Bosnia. Do you know what the border crossings are like in Bosnia?” He batted another branch out of his face. “I fucking hate Croatia.”
“Doesn’t everyone?” asked a clear, bell like voice rippling with laughter.
“Auntie,” Fiona smiled as she hugged the older woman who had just hopped off a tree branch. “You didn’t have to come so far; the road is close.”
“Pah, the day I can’t get to the woods to help my favorite godschild go rescue the damsel like the knight she always wanted to be, you can nail the box shut and put me in the ground.”
Fiona rolled her eyes. “Auntie, meet the team I’m with now, guys, Auntie Boto. She’s our way in.”
“Um, exactly how is a civilian of…superior years, going to get us past some of the most aggressive border patrols known to man?” asked Jensen carefully. He liked Fiona, he didn’t want Clay booting her, and while ‘contacts’ had sounded reasonable at Bragg, a diminutive woman with pale pink hair and old leather skin in a forest in Croatia was less impressive.
Auntie Boto laughed, her head tipping back to reveal sharp shredding teeth. “Smart-boy, you should read less about computers and radios and more about the legends that made you. The Quiet-boy knows.”
“Jake,” Cougar said quietly, “Botos are deadly hunters, their main prey is piranhas. When I was held, they tossed a man who betrayed them into the river. Botos took him. Do not anger the Boto-Shifter, Jake.”
“That…is a lot of words from you Cougar. You solid man?” Pooch asked.
“Oh, Pup-boy, he knows I won’t hurt him,” Auntie Boto said with a shake of her head. “Come, my car is this way.”
Her car was a large converted school bus that looked inside like an RV had a love-child with an ambulance. Clay and Roque, the most threatening looking of the team, huddled in the back, while Fiona sat up front talking a mile a minute in some language none of them knew. Jensen had checked around.
“For such a smart woman, Fire-girl, you’re being very dumb,” Auntie Boto said in the old language of her father, who shared a connection, if not a line, with Fiona’s mother.
“I’m very sure I don’t know what you mean, Auntie,” she replied in the same language, looking out the front windshield.
“Don’t play proper and ignorant, little one. I like you best, but that does not mean as much as it could, and only gets you so much.”
“I know Auntie, but they’re Pack now. I waited for them. The Losers. Best unit in the whole armed forces. And then I folded like a man with nine-high nothin’ at a poker game the moment they offered. I’m bound to them, and you know what rejection does to someone like me. I’d rather not see if I can actually reincarnate.”
“Oh, what’s some fun among Pack?”
“It’s an Army Pack. There are rules. And I wouldn’t even know…well, obviously the pup is out, there’s a claim I don’t want to challenge there, and I don’t trust Roque like I should, and I’m not Clay’s type, but Auntie, how do you decide between the one who claimed you first and the one who fed you first?”
“Why not both? You all are young and strong. And Smart-boy looks…creative. If I were younger….”
“If you were younger, I’d never let you near my CO. He likes young, dangerous, and insane.”
“In that case, I’m not that old.”
“Auntie!” She sobered her tone as she pointed. “Border guards.”
“I know dear.” She slowed the bus to a crawl, but never fully stopped it, and when a young and eager guard came near she shifted her face to the long spear of the Amazonian River Dolphin, her sharp teeth gleaming under the sun. The guard scrambled back and Auntie Boto let out a peal of clicking laughter as she shifted her face back to normal.
“Not that one, you fool,” scolded a senior guard. He lifted the gate and they drove through.
“See, Smart-boy,” she called back as they crossed the border. “Auntie Boto gets things done.”
Jensen nodded and tried not to dwell on the razor mouth he’d seen. They took the R401 to a turn-off that led to a river. Fiona climbed out and helped her godsmother unpack a cube of rubber and a rope from a hidden side compartment while the team pulled out all their gear.
“We take the river from here, all the fighting in town is north, the river cuts south. Growl-man, take the tarp and cover your Pack while I swim. I often bring goods by river, you will not be noticed until you want to.” Clay moved to the compartment as the Boto-Shifter unfolded the rubber into a raft. With the ease of great practice, Fiona slammed her heel on the auto pump and continued tying off the harness without pausing. Jensen, Pooch and Roque loaded the tools of their trade into the raft, and helped Fiona drag it by the harness to a muddy slope. Clay got in and tossed the grey tarp over them as Auntie Boto removed the house dress and shifted, snatching the metal lead-ring in her deadly jaws as she slid them down the slope and into the river.
Soon, the light filtering in faded and the raft stopped. Auntie Boto pulled the tarp back and proceeded to let them out, while bickering with a Bosnian man about prices. Jensen led them north into the city with his GPS, only to get stuck two blocks from the house their extraction targets were staying in. A large mob of angry people and animals blocked the way as the riot continued, Shifter Rights activists clashing with Anti-Shifter terrorists and the small town’s meager police force. Clay signaled Cougar to get to a perch, and the man vanished soundlessly. Roque looked ready to just crack heads all the way in and out again, but Jensen conferred with Pooch, and determined a nearby car’s speaker could be hotwired into a sonic distraction, if they just found a high enough frequency. Clay gave the go-ahead and dug some ear plugs out of a pocket, as did everyone else, except Fiona who hadn’t known they’d be potentially necessary. So she was the only one who heard Jensen over the riot moving towards them.
“I need a high pitch, and something that will rile the non-Shifters out there!” he yelled. Fiona grabbed her phone, paged through some menus and held the track listing in front of him. He grinned a wild grin and plugged it in, set it to repeat the song, and they got across the street and into an alley with an easily hoppable brick wall dead ending it. Pooch remotely turned the big SUV on, and the speaker system began blaring “Least of My Kind” by Echo’s Children at top volume. Using the confusion and sudden incapacitation of a fifth of the rioters, the Losers hopped the wall and ran along rooftops to reach the house. Jensen got there first, his unused Shifter nature giving him better balance so he could parkour at a flat out run. He slipped in an open window and caught Fiona who’d been right behind him.
Fiona wasted no time in checking the CIA team for injury, sealing a scalp cut that was bleeding too much to be strictly healthy, and cracking the seal on a chemical cold pack for a nasty shiner. Clay and Roque cleared a path back through the riot with carefully aimed elbows and knees. Fiona helped the man with the bruise-closed eye walk the narrow path of casual violence back to the car. A crazed woman leapt at Jensen on her other side, so she tripped him and caught a glancing blow after the woman’s head exploded with a distant popping sound. She hauled him up and he looked in horror at her gore covered arm.
“Splatter mostly,” she called over the din. “Cougar got her.” Jensen nodded and they kept moving.
Breaking free of the riot was a bit like jumping into a swimming pool at a big party. The noise was there, but clearing the edge muted it down from ‘solid wall of sound attempting to crush everything’ into ‘that’s a fair amount of noise’. Everything seemed a little stiller, a little calmer, as the Losers moved away from the riot. None of them had worn insignia, so anybody with a busted face would have nothing to go on to track them, and Cougar’s rifle was modified with a rifling adaptor in it’s suppressor, so the bullet that brought down the woman with the knife wouldn’t match his gun. Fiona saw Jensen grab her phone from the car whose sound system they hijacked, but all this was processed in the calm distant way that occurs when your body has given up on telling you not to be a dumbass and let you go numb.
They got their charges back to the river and under the tarp. Auntie Boto got them back to the van. Inside the van, Fiona checked her team, her pack, before anything else. Clay had taken a cheap shot from a beer bottle and she had to pick the glass out before the wound closed. He snarled a little but a stern glare and a cold word shut him up long enough to get it all. Jensen had some scrapes on his palms from hitting the ground when she tripped him that required disinfecting. Roque growled at her as she poked his ribs, but his heart wasn’t in it, and the taping was divine when she declared them bruised but not broken. The head of the CIA team tried to go after her for not treating his people first, when she finally got to the second look at them. This proved to be a mistake.
“Look here, you little James Bond wanna-be, I am a Combat Medical Officer. That means, in the field, whether actively stationed in the Sandbox, or in the back of my Aunt’s van in Bosnia, I outrank every-damn-body, unless there is another Combat Medical Officer. I outrank my CO, I outrank you, if the god-damn President, Commander in Chief of all Armed Forces and leader of our nation were in here, I’d outrank him.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “I chose to treat the people most likely to have taken hits first, you little shit. Because they are, for one, mostly Shifters and therefore more likely to need immediate aid to prevent a cutaneous inclusion of debris that could become a cyst and go septic, and two, they’re my people. Tell me you wouldn’t make the same call about yours. Now sit down, shut up, and let me look at that knee, I don’t like the popping sound it made when you stood up.”
That ended any fight she might have gotten. Some athletic wrap and a few scratches later, she sat down next to Cougar and Jensen and closed her eyes. She woke up when someone set her arm on fire. After swinging and missing the big cat Shifter, she realized he’d touched her arm, where she took the blow from the knife.
“We are at your Aunt’s house. The extraction is flying in now. Clay wants to see you.”
“Sure, I’ll be right there.” She stood up and wavered on her feet. Cougar caught her.
“You are not alright,” he said simply. One medic to another.
“No, but I’ll be damned if I let those spooks know I’m injured.”
“You can barely walk. Sit.” Strangely, she did. She let him cut away the fabric of her sleeve to get at the wound. She let him clean and bandage it. She let him help her stand and walk to the door of the van. As she stepped out, Auntie Boto greeted her in her own tongue.
“You bleed in there, Fire-girl?”
“Yes, Auntie. Can you clean it for me?” she asked in the same language.
“Of course. It’s why I’m here. Tell your mother to call more often.”
Fiona laughed weakly. “Sure,” she said in English. “I will.”
In the cargo bay of their extraction bird, Fiona used her stable left hand to paint gold eyeliner and a touch of green shadow on Pooch, who came out of the whole thing unscathed. The CIA team looked like they wanted to protest this, but Jensen slipped into the frame on Fiona’s flank as Cougar blocked Pooch’s side and held the camera of the phone on the three, and Roque growled menacingly at the four spies. Identifying who was a Shifter and who wasn’t could be hard, so none of the team new for sure that the large angry Captain wasn’t a Shifter. The picture was taken and sent, and Fiona’s phone promptly exploded in alerts. She wouldn’t show them to Pooch, no matter how he begged.
“So, the Losers, I guess you’re all just as broken and wiped out as the rumors say,” said a smarmy man with dark hair. “You’ve got a man in drag, a wild card medic, and your team acts like this is normal. I knew you couldn’t have been as scary as people say.”
Every Loser went still, and a silent conversation was had about who should handle this and how. Roque stood down first, “it’ll be more fun to watch,” he said, apropos of nothing verbal. Clay grunted and leaned back. Cougar snorted and tipped his hat down over his eyes. Finally, Jensen spoke, his cheerful chatter turned into a hard sharp voice that cut.
“Broken things are more likely to kill you if you handle them wrong, Agent Hastings.” The man startled at his real name. “Or do you prefer Black Bishop? What was that about wiped out? I can list your social security number if you want. Aside from a few days when I was in a coma, I remember every second of my life, including the seconds I spent going over your files.” Fiona grinned, she knew he’d been hiding behind the hyperactive scatterbrained genius persona. He was, but he was also this. “And some after-battle war paint is a wide spread tradition in many cultures across the globe. In the animal kingdom, so is colorful pigmentation on males to entice female interest. Pooch is doing both, not drag. And Sergeant McDunn saved my life, potentially all our lives, because without a local contact who can become a piranha eating dolphin to get us across lines, we all would have been dead within a half hour of landing in Bosnia. That’s not ‘wild card’ behavior you saw, that was a medic who knows how to do her goddam job. Respect my pack, Agent Hastings. If you don’t feel like it, I can open the bay doors and you can try sky hitchhiking instead.”
“Hastings,” said the head of the spy team, who’d gotten slapped down earlier. “I suggest you take the man up on his offer. Either one, because I have no problem reporting you killed in the explosion.”
Hastings shut up.
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Remember, comments are love.
"You are in no shape to do everything; you are not Wonder Woman. Maybe Black Widow, but you’re still human."
Chapter 6: Tilt
The Losers deal with the fall out of Fiona's injury.
For non-card players, tilt is a state of playing while emotionally unstable. It's inadvisable as you tend to have more obvious tells in tilt than when cool.
Dedicated to Cougars_catnip, tigrislilium and quadrad for commenting, and to wenchred, quadrad, Chimmychanga, and tigrislilium for kudos.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
On the ground, they debriefed with Coleman, and Jensen lodged a formal complaint about suicide missions that should have been impossible.
“Without McDunn’s Croatian contact we never would have made it in close enough to pull it off, Sir. Even then, we didn’t get out unscathed. Sure, some scathing is to be expected in SpecOps, but really? I was almost impaled, except McDunn tripped me to get Alvarez a clean shot.”
“Captain Jensen, I respect your analysis of the situation, but after succeeding it’s hard to classify this as a suicide mission. Even if CIA brass didn’t know about Sergeant McDunn’s local contacts, you’re known for doing the impossible. It raises your bar when you live through a suicide run.”
“Sir,” Cougar said carefully, measuring out his words. “If you’re done with my report and Sergeant McDunn’s, I think I need to take her to base medical.”
“What?” Coleman asked, genuinely surprised. Fiona peeled off the jacket a flight tech at the air strip had loaned her to show her bandaged arm.
“I’m fine,” she slurred. “It’s a scratch. I’ll call Jolene and we can patch me up at the house. I can keep going until then.”
“Holy God, McDunn!” Coleman yelled. “You have an injury on you large enough to require an ABD pad and you didn’t go straight to medical? You were supposed to be the one keeping the reckless morons that are my best team from pulling this crap. Who else is hiding an injury?”
“Nobody, Sir,” Pooch said. “Only blood in the room that I can smell is hers.”
“Someone get her to a medic, now,” Coleman ordered.
Cougar helped her stand but she said just loud enough for Shifter ears “Jolene, she knows my records. Home.” He nodded and took her back to her room/infirmary in the house, and used her phone to call her friend.
Back in the briefing room, Coleman shook his head. “You lot lose another medic in the field and I’m not sure I can get another. But the two sapiens rule stands, so someone will have to leave to make room. Keep her alive, gentlemen.”
“Sir, we did our level best, and she got that injury protecting me from a worse one,” Jensen said. “That’s why I’m calling it a suicide run. Our best possible outcome ended with our medic hurt and too hopped up on fear and adrenaline to let us know until she passed out on us. Cougar had to aggravate the injury to get her awake enough to treat it, and we used two epinephrine shots from the kit just to keep her conscious during evac.”
“Best possible outcomes do not end with my medic passing out literally on top of my Tech and Comms Officer, Dave,” Clay said in a calm, passive voice. It was this voice, not his snarls or his door slams or any other outwardly aggressive posture that signaled possible violence. David Coleman was not a stupid man. He knew that about Clay. He’d seen it, right before he saw a seven and a half foot tall, 800-pound roaring bear take the place of his junior officer and rip the kidnappers who were holding guns on his kids into hamburger meat. He had no desire to ever see that side of Clay up close again.
“No, they don’t, Frank,” he agreed. He sighed. “The analysts said it was theoretically possible to do, or the orders never would have made it to us. Now, I’m thinking those analysts were using words like ‘acceptable losses’ in their meetings.”
“We’re a Shifter unit, Dave,” Clay said calmly. “Our team is pack, family, if it was a question of Susan or Katie or Zeke or God forbid, Frankie, being called an acceptable loss, what would you do? Would you let that stand?”
At the mention of his wife and kids, Coleman flinched. “No. You know I don’t believe in any acceptable loss other than an informed choice to die if it saves lives. Acceptable losses aren’t. I’m going to make very sure that anyone who has a docket they want me to give you knows that.”
Clay grunted. Jake wasn’t as satisfied. “Sir, as a matter of unofficial record, if we get handed another suicide run, I will personally destroy the lives of everyone involved in sending us on it. I don’t shift, but I can sure as shit make a man’s life a living hell. I will change passwords and delete magnetic swipe codes, and leak embarrassing browser histories. I’ll do everything in my considerable digital power to dig up enough dirt on those people to bury a man deeper than Jimmy Hoffa and release it publicly.”
“If Fi gets hurt like this because of bad analysis again,” Pooch said, “I’m quitting. I will settle down and raise kids and train PTSD dogs and never soup up another hummer again. No more engine upgrades, no more Pooch-tech big bang guns, nothing.”
The amount of R and D Porteous did for the Army when not on deployment was large enough that his threat was about as terrifying as Jensen’s. Jake Jensen could destroy a man or woman utterly with some keyboard voodoo Coleman didn’t follow, but Porteous had kept the Army on the same level as some major bad guys, and his quitting would put them back in the slow lane. Coleman was actually a bit shocked at how vehemently the notoriously prickly team was defending such a new member.
“That’s not going to be a problem, I will see to it. And if I ever do hand you a suicide docket, you come tell me and I’ll rescind the order. Any personal corrective measures you take on your own time is none of my business.”
Jensen nodded and stood up, cocking his head very much like the carrion bird that lurked in his body, before walking out. He didn’t salute and Coleman didn’t reprimand him for it.
Both Shifters and Roque, who’d added his two cents by pointedly sharpening a big hunting knife, stood and walked out by way of an answer. Maybe giving them Firebird wasn’t such a great idea, Coleman thought as he got his heart rate back into normal range. Or, he thought as he poured some scotch into a glass, it was an amazing idea. The two sapiens ruling had kept Shifter soldiers from being used up and thrown away in pointless use of their capability, but it had left the Shifter run unit constantly on edge and divided. He’d given Clay a free hand with the best of the best of Shifters, and it had given him a team that did the impossible so often they no longer saw it as strange, but he’d scrabbled to find one, let alone two, sapiens who got even grudging acceptance. This loyalty could only make them stronger.
The team went back to the house in a subdued state. Everyone knew how close Clay had gotten to snapping, the level of threats Jake and Pooch gave the General. Somehow, they had all formed a Pack bond ridiculously quickly. Even Roque, who only knew the basics of the deep instinctual need to protect and care for Pack, knew this was deep and fast. They got in, and Cougar was cooking soup of some kind in a battered old Crock-Pot. Jensen, the closest with the taciturn sniper, walked into the kitchen and sniffed the pot. “Abuela Jaenada’s secret Sopa de Lima recipe?” he asked.
“Si, she lost a lot of blood, the soup will help.”
“The last time you made Sopa de Lima, Cougar,” Pooch pointed out, “Jensen almost tore his leg off and was stuck in medical for three months.”
“Si,” said the sniper. “He lost a lot of blood too.”
“How in the hell did McDunn lose an amount of blood with a knife wound comparable to the blood loss Jensen had from failing a tuck and roll off a fucking train?” Roque demanded.
“Jensen got medical aid almost immediately, and we kept him off his feet,” Clay pointed out. “There was enough of the attacker’s blood on McDunn that we didn’t even know she was injured until she passed out. I make it two, maybe three hours to bleed while using the arm before we even knew, and we had to clear the spooks out before Cougar could do the patch job, because I’m sure we all know how treating her in front of them would have gone.”
“Not well,” said Cougar. “Too independent.”
“Damn,” Roque said, doing the math on blood loss over time. “She would have had to lose at least two pints, and at her size she’s lucky if she had ten. Jensen’s bigger, and statistically men have more blood, and he only lost about two thirds that in the train thing…. McDunn’s a badass,” he concluded with a low whistle.
“McDunn’s a soldier,” came a strong female voice. It was a sign of how worried they all were that Jolene could come downstairs unremarked. It was further proof when Pooch opened his mouth.
“How is she, honestly.”
“She’s Fiona, she’s cracking wise and picking at her bandage when she thinks I don’t know.”
“Exactly how bad would consuming a stethoscope be for a person?” Jensen wondered out loud.
“Bad, why?” answered Jolene.
“For the safety of our medic’s continued well-being, can I tell her you climbed Pooch like a tree? Normally I assume statements that end with “I’ll eat” and then a non-edible item are hyperbole, but after what she did, I’m not sure she isn’t crazy enough to actually do it.”
“Tell her I’ll climb him like a tree when I’m not coming off a triple and covered in my best friend’s blood. All I want is a shower and sweet, sweet unconsciousness. Oh, and tell her all my little stabby knife emoticons from the picture with the green shadow were before I knew she’d been stabbed, because she didn’t tell me, and she needs to stop teasing me. Although that may have been a Vicodin reaction.”
“You liked the look?” Pooch asked, hopeful but tired.
“I can’t believe she ratted on me. I was in the Shifter Ward when I got that second picture, you know how hard it is to get a Lieutenant to take you seriously when you smell like that?”
“It was a confirm nor deny situation. There were bets on it being a joke. Roque owes Cougar a mega-size Hershey Special Dark bar now,” Jensen said as he took a bowl from Cougar up past Jolene.
“IT SEEMED STUPID AT THE TIME!” Roque protested loudly.
Upstairs Jensen finally got a good look at Fiona’s room. It was really big, most of the house’s footprint, but it was bare and empty. One side had infirmary gear set out nice and neat for any time someone might need it but not want to go to medical. The other had a tiny camping cot and a sleeping bag with a footlocker underneath the head sticking out at the side to provide a side table with a small lamp. In the tiny cot was Fiona McDunn. She smiled lazily at him and he had to remind himself she was injured, under the influence, and a teammate.
“Delivery from Coug’s Kitchen,” he said brightly. Her grin got bigger.
“Meat?” she asked hopfully.
“Sopa de Lima, chicken and lime soup. His special family recipe.”
She got a goofy look on her face that was probably from the Vicodin, pushed up with her left arm into a sitting position and made an aborted attempt at a ‘gimme’ gesture. She hissed between her teeth as she moved the bandaged arm. Jensen recalled she’d turned to help him up with her other hand, and now he knew why. The cut was deep enough to impair movement. And she’d still pulled her own weight and treated injuries after they were clear. He owed her more than soup, even if it was Cougar’s granny’s special get-better soup. He crouched down and held the bowl to get a spoonful of soup to her. She gave him an unimpressed look.
“I can do airplane or train noises if you want,” he offered. “You can’t sit up, and hold the bowl, and use the spoon. Two out of three if you try hard enough, but you shouldn’t use that shoulder for a while. Did you know it takes a liter of blood loss for someone to pass out from it? The average sapien female has 4.7 total. Over a fifth of your blood got left in Bosnia or Croatia somewhere. You are in no shape to do everything; you are not Wonder Woman. Maybe Black Widow, but you’re still human. You saved my life when you tripped me, and now I am going to feed you soup. Deal with that, McDunn, you’re stuck with me now.”
“Food is a bond, feeding is intimate, be careful, be…” she mumbled rules that seemed rote before drifting into happy drug land. Eh, it worked. He helped her eat the soup, only once having to balance it on a knee so he could pry her fingers away from the spoon.
“Let me help you, damnit,” he growled. Her hand let go of the spoon and went down to rest on his knee. Jensen felt a deep keening whine of unfairness building and squashed it. Any other circumstance he’d be over the moon to have a woman like her put her hand on his knee, but the laxness and her hazy eyes as he slipped more chicken broth between lips that didn’t resist and swallowed automatically reminded him. She was hurt, drugged up on pain killers. Painkillers she wouldn’t be on if she hadn’t taken his hit. She mumbled something and put her good hand over his mouth, which he guessed had been working, he talked when stressed, sometimes about the most random things. He fed her the last of the chicken from the bottom of the bowl and helped her lay down. Her eyes fluttered closed like she was trying not to sleep. He’d seen Beth do that once, right after she was born and he took leave to visit. He brushed hair off her forehead and pressed a light kiss to her forehead, like he had with Beth.
“Sleep tight Doc.”
Fiona dreamed. She dreamed of her mother, the stillness of her, the grace and speed when needed, when they were hunted. She dreamed of Auntie Boto, who saved them, and took them through so many countries with so many identities no one could follow the trail. She dreamed of dancing in the flames for the first time, of her mother’s rules taught to her so carefully. She dreamed of chicken and lime soup and a blonde man with sad words that should be happy words, she dreamed she stopped his sad words. She dreamed a kiss on her head. She dreamed of dancing in air with him, red body and black spiraling up into forever. She dreamed of the gun oil and leather smell of the cat, and how his cooking filled more than her growling stomach, and how his hands tended her wounds. She dreamed of more than wounds being touched, more than foreheads being kissed. She dreamed and when she woke, someone gave her water in a bendy straw and she slept again and did not dream.
The team kept a rotating watch on Fiona as she slept off the injury. She woke up enough to let them give her water or juice and more soup, but she was always hazy when she did, rambling lowly about things nobody knew what she meant by. They chalked it up to her Vicodin and nodded when she talked about dancing in fire and air. Her temp was 100, but Jolene marked it as normal when she came through to change dressings every day.
A week later she sat up, startling Roque out of his reading, Anna Karenina in the original Russian because he was the only one who was full fluent and he needed to keep sharp. Fiona lifted her damaged right arm to rub the sleep gunk out of her eyes and he bolted to stop her before seeing her movement was as good as before, if a little slow.
“How long did it put me down?” she croaked and he handed her a bright red cup with a bendy straw and a picture of some comic book character in a black cat suit who kinda looked like McDunn. She drank the water and laughed at the character. “Black Widow? Really Jake?”
Roque shared an eye roll with her, before answering the real question. “You were down a week. I don’t know what Jolene puts in those shots she gave you, but I wasn’t thinking you’d move that arm for a month.”
“It wasn’t bad, just ugly. Thankfully I don’t scar.” He heard the certainty, and wondered how many other wounds she’d taken that she knew that with certainty. “Did Cougar really make me soup, or was I hallucinating?”
“No, you got the soup. He only makes it when one of us has a bad injury. His qualifications for ‘us’ are higher than normal, so be happy. You’re Pack now, McDunn. It’s a big deal to them.”
“I grew up around Shifters, I know that. I’m just surprised it happened so fast.”
“We did some thinking while you were out of it. Yeah, you avoided us, but not until we were a bunch of babies about you doing your job. We pushed you out, and then you helped us above and beyond. Called in favors, got Jensen the right music for his Sono-Bomb, took a wound that could have killed him, patched all of us up before any of us knew you were hurt. We still don’t know how you did that, by the way, you used both hands to tape my ribs.”
“I was scared. Fear gives me power. I used that power to shut off the pain. Guess I forgot to turn it back on when I was done.”
“You’re a badass, McDunn, what were you scared of?”
“I was seconds away from watching Jake get impaled, if I’d been a touch slower… I’d have lost him. That’s terrifying to any decent medic, I just use my fear more effectively.”
“Next time tell us if you’re hurt, we actually like you, so try not to die.”
“Sir, yes sir!” she snapped out with a weak salute.
“Just drink the damn water. I got a book to finish.”
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Remember, comments are love.
"Hand feeding is exceptionally intimate behavior, even in sapien psychology.” Damn it mouth, you were doing well, did you have to point out your mate-feeding kink?
Chapter 7: Angle
Fiona shares some of her background, sets up a surprise and uses Jake Jensen's hotness for morally ambiguous reasons.
Jake learns a thing or two about Fiona he never knew.
For non-card players, an Angle or the playing of an Angle, is a borderline illegal play. It's not /against/ the rules, it's just sort of unethical.
Dedicated to Cougars_catnip, tigrislilium and quadrad for commenting, and to SALIGIA_the_seven_deadly_sins, and walk_N_Gal88 for kudos.
Quick note, my midterms are coming up, so if I miss next week's post, I'm just sleeping off post-exam zombification, and will try to get it up as soon as I'm human again.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Recovery was usually a long, slow, torturous process. Between the doctors poking and prodding at you and making sure nothing was going back instead of forwards in the injury department, and the sadistic nature of Physical Therapists, not a single Loser thought McDunn was going to be anything but miserable. They were wrong. Instead, she did all her own poking and prodding aided by Jolene, who was very happily dating Pooch, and because of a vague explanation about lazy therapists and an actual ban from medical for McDunn to use rehab equipment on base, she mostly just went out to the VA hospital in Fayetteville, and came back with a smile usually reserved for post coital bliss and (in Jensen’s experience) watching a really wonderful prank come to fruition.
“It’s not that I like the Fayetteville VA better than any other VA,” she told them over Indonesian food Jensen had made. “I just like VA hospitals better than base ones for rehab. Nobody ever says ‘what the hell are you doing, you’re going to set back recovery’ at a VA, they aren’t staffed well enough to have the manpower to care if I’m active duty, and once assured I know how it all works, they just ask if I want a spotter on anything. This retired Marine with missing legs has been spotting me. He locks the wheels and the chair spots him if the bar goes past him. Also, next week, I think I’ll try the baby climbing wall. The wheel locks are solid and acting as my belay should help him with hand strength.”
“How are you even…” Jensen complained. Nobody who had the kind of wound Cougar had told him about should be looking forward to a climbing wall a month after coming out of some kind of medically induced deep sleep state.
“I heal fast,” she said. “It’s part of why I have Jolene handle the medical record stuff I can’t. I explained about it years ago to her, when I was getting re certified for Field Surgery and she was teaching the Fast Healing Can Kill 101 class. It’s not as strong as if I were, y’know turning into a wolf every weekend, but it’s fast enough I can relate. That thing I said about cutaneous inclusions, back in Bosnia, yeah, been there. Fell off a trapeze being a dumb little shit and was too embarrassed to fess up, so I treated it myself. Missed a bit of sand in one of the scrapes.”
Cougar and Pooch both hissed. Cougar, because he knew what could happen when someone with rapid healing left particulates in a wound from his medical training, and Pooch because he’d had it happen.
“It go septic on you?” Clay asked. She’d mentioned that was a possibility, back in Bosnia when she was making sure all the glass was out of his face.
“Like woah,” she said. “Please note mud show sand floors are not super hygienic. They thought the hand might have to come off, when I got caught with a ping-pong ball of fluid on my palm. The vet for the animals pulled off the lance, drain, flush and sterilize maneuver, so I kept the hand, but I also kept a pretty vivid memory of a thing I don’t want to do again.”
“You ran off and joined the circus?” Roque asked around a mouth full of mie goreng noodles.
“It’s not running off if you take a parent with you,” she corrected. “Mom read fortunes. I took acrobatics and flying lessons, did a pretty good stall act on the silks, when someone needed extra time.”
“I thought your mom was in construction,” Jensen said.
“She was, after. The mud show only lasted three rounds, third to sixth grade. There were some… extenuating circumstances that led to joining, and when I got asked to join the flying show….” Her voice filled with reluctance and she put down her chop sticks.
“Flying?” Cougar asked softly. Better to put her mind on the happy part.
“Trapeze work. In the business it’s flying, and a mud show is a dinky carnival-style circus not a big operation.”
“That sounds fun,” Jake said wistfully. “I haven’t flown for reals since I joined up.”
“Jensen, you may not run away from the army to join the Circus and learn trapeze,” Clay said with a resigned note in his rumbling voice. “Put it on the list.”
Fiona got an idea. She’d rebuilt his records, so she knew the timing. She just had to get the others in on it.
Jensen had no idea why McDunn was dragging him to Hell, ok, Base Medical, close enough. He knew why she needed to be there to pass physicals so she could start doing her regular triple-PT insanity, but why take him? He drummed his fingers on a chair arm as he waited. The cleaners on this ward were harsh and chemical and hurt his nose. The waiting was killing him. He wasn’t sure, but he was pretty close to sure, 88% maybe, that he would be the first person to die of boredom. The things you do for mates. Packmates, yeah, that was what he’d been thinking, not the way he’d melted when she put her hand on his arm to ask him to come with her. Definitely not about how he’d agreed before his brain caught up to what she’d asked. Absolutely not about how one of her tees had ended up in his laundry (to be fair if it was pink, it was a good bet it belonged to Jensen) and he’d ‘forgotten’ to give it back.
Yeah, no, he totally kept it to sniff, because he was apparently a creepy stalker who just needed to find the right target. God, he was done for. Of course, he’d also almost walked in on Cougs sniffing around his pillow where he’d stashed it, so either he wasn’t the only creepy stalker, or Cougs was under the impression Jake and Fiona were… more than just fellow soldiers. It’d be hard to believe the second one, because Jake was, well, the exact opposite of that guy in the cheesy cologne commercial who kept getting followed by women. Also, had he in fact been having inappropriate relations instead of fantasies about inappropriate relations, the scent ratios would skew more in Fiona’s apple pie scent than they did. Not as extremely as when Pooch got back from the Walk of Shame after a date with Jolene, because of the medicine that muted her scent, but more than a dirty tee could bring.
On the other hand, the only other person he’d felt like that around was Cougar himself, and both of them were simultaneously touch-starved and touch-avoidant. They only survived that mix by allowing a certain laxness in the hetero-normative bull that normally represented the Army. More than one night he’d woken up in Coug’s bed or vice versa. Cougs could have been trying to figure out an odd scent addition to the bad nights. And Jake would be lying if he said they hadn’t swapped shirts when sharing a bed became not an option, like when Cougar was bed-bound from a leg break he took rolling out of a nest to avoid fire. Maybe he should slip a shirt to Fiona? But she wasn’t a Shifter, it wouldn’t mean the same thing.
Before Jake could think himself into a stupor, which he had done before, stupid head trauma, Fiona bounded out and squealed “Jake!” He stood up and got an armful of Combat Medical Officer high to the chest. He compensated by grabbing and turning and no, it was not her happy giggle that made him do a full rotation like she was Beth. It was nothing like Beth. Ok, one of those statements was true. He set her down.
“I’m cleared! Praise all applicable deities, I am at full health!”
“That’s great, did the doctor give you candy, because you’re acting kinda high, and if you have a stash, you should share.”
“The last thing you need is uppers Jake,” she said, plastering herself to his side as they left. It put her head at a good height for him to get her happy scent. “Besides, there’s a birthday surprise for you, and I cannot in good conscience as a Medical Professional, let you enjoy it while under the influence.”
“Birthday surprise?” He did a little mental math. Yeah, if today was Friday, his birthday was tomorrow. So-called photographic memory aside, he had to be actively trying to recall something from the mental data banks, and his birthday wasn’t something he dedicated a lot of hard drive space to. Jess’s birthday, Beth’s birthday, Cougar’s birthday, yeah, all of those had mental alerts, probably soon to be joined by Fiona’s, but his own? Nah.
“It took some doing,” she said, blissfully unaware of his mental sorting system. “But I think if we take the long loop past the motor pool and the BX, it’ll be in place when we get back.”
“What takes that long to set up?” he asked out loud as they took a path to the left that would take them right by motor head central. He started to pull away when the engine grease smell hit him.
“It’s a surprise,” she told him, “I could have stalled us in Medical, but that would have been cruel and unusual punishment. Do me a solid and put your hand on my hip?”
Not that he minded but, what? He may have said that out loud, because Fiona kept talking.
“There’s a guy there who said some shit about my attractiveness and I feel petty, so I want a hot guy fondling me within base legality where Marcson will see or find out about it.”
Hot? Had she just called him hot? Reboot and stall, Jake.
“So stand here and look pretty?” he joked.
“No, hold me and look hot,” she corrected, ignoring or missing the joke at his expense. “I want Marcson’s head to explode when he sees the unfuckable wonder with a hot guy running his hands all over her.”
Again, what? She wasn’t a person you called that, she was perfect mate material, this was just a fact of existence. Grass is usually green, the sky is normally blue, and Fiona McDunn won the freaking hotness lotto for women, same as Cougs won the male division.
“What kind of head trauma are we talking about here, because as a person with brain damage, I don’t want to torment a fellow sufferer.”
Fi rolled her eyes at him. “I was his CMO when he said it, unless he’s better at erasing records than you are, he’s fine, medically speaking. And I know it’s not a great ass, but could you try to look less like I’m coercing you? I realize I am, but we’re getting near sight lines.”
“It is too a great ass, a fantastic ass,” his mouth said without his permission. Obviously the sedition ran deep because his hand decided now was a great time to slip into Fiona’s pocket. Her back pocket. Dammit. “I just don’t think it’ll help much, these guys don’t have high opinions of me in the dating department.” Ok, good stall. He was corralling all the parts of him that wanted to rebel and making sure to special tag his memories of the feeling of Fiona plastered to his side, his hand on her as previously stated fantastic ass, which, OK, Cougs was right could use maybe a half inch of fat supplies, because it was super muscular. He snapped his head up and away from nuzzling the scent spot on his mate’s, damn, Packmate’s head, when he heard a low whistle.
“Guess you can get a man in bed without beer-goggles, McDunn,” said Specialist Marcson as declared the patch on his BDUs, and Jake narrowed his eyes. “He just has to be a loser.” His buddies laughed, and Jensen felt the stiffening at his side as Fiona noted the lack of capital in that sentence. There was a slight audible difference, every Loser learned it.
“Oh, I don’t think either of us loses much,” she replied slowly, edging some sex into her voice, and yeah, Jake was totally adding that to his easy access primary folder. “Well, unless you count clothing, inhibitions, the ability to avoid alcohol poisoning during a game of ‘never have I ever’ with my old sorority….”
Marcson snorted. It pissed Jake off. Jake’s mouth was suddenly running party line.
“And who said anything about beds?” He did the Corvidae head tilt he knew disturbed people. “Beds are mostly unnecessary.”
“That,” Fiona started, and then paused, obviously getting an idea. “Is actually very true. Bosnia was a converted school bus bench seat. But hey, anything that gets my head and your…lap in closer proximity. I know we got told it was bad decision making later, but we didn’t die, so, I don’t care.” She shrugged lazily, turning a factually true statement about passing out from blood loss into an implication of road head
“Not dying was an excellent life choice,” he agreed. “It allowed for so many more things we might be told are bad decisions later to happen.”
“True,” she said with smug satisfaction as Marcson’s eyes bugged out. “Your…bratwurst, let’s call it, is sooo good.” The sinful way she drug it out made the implicated organ instantly hard in his jeans. And damn straight it was good, there is literally no reason to make your own biala sausage if you aren’t going to make it well. “My only complaint is the size is a little much. I’m not sure it’s legal to be so full.”
“That is not entirely my fault,” he defended, ruse forgotten in the need to defend the extra helpings of literally everything that Cougar constantly slipped her and the fact that she had asked for seconds when he made bigos myśliwski. She never asked for seconds, he was proud that even on the first heat-up his Polish sausage and sauerkraut based stew rated that. “Cougs was involved and you know how situations involving you, Alvarez, and kielbasa end. Additionally, you asked for that, in a literal sense, there were words, I heard them.”
“ALVAREZ?” Marcson yelled in a pitch Jake usually only heard at Beth’s pee-wee soccer games. Jake swiftly realized the context changed food-related pride into, well, a separate kind of Pride altogether. The kind Marcson couldn’t ask about and Jake couldn’t tell about. Also, Cougar was well known for dating very hot women and sleeping with even hotter ones. He wasn’t the lothario people thought, he mostly got drunk pretty girls home, got them aspirin and water and got them asleep before leaving.
“Carlos is a very… generous man,” Fiona said in solemn simplicity that neither implied a threesome nor denied it. “Very giving. Without him, I don’t think Jake would have done some of the more important parts of what built our relationship as it is.”
“That’s true, I was ready to hate you on principal when we met. Cougs calmed me down. And he made that soup I fed you. Hand feeding is exceptionally intimate behavior, even in sapien psychology.” Damn it mouth, you were doing well, did you have to point out your mate-feeding kink?
She smiled at him, and it wasn’t overtly sexual, but it warmed him in places he hadn’t known were cold. It lasted a minute, an eternity before Marcson broke that quiet, perfect unity with a barely heard remark about Cougar that had Jake seeing red. Then literally seeing a flash of red hair as Fi moved with light and easy speed to deck Marcson hard, putting him on the ground. Standing over him with a strong, Alpha stance she snarled at his buddies in a move right from a Shifter protecting pack, mates or young.
“You. Never. Speak. Like. That. About. Them,” she spat down at him, punctuating the words with kicks to belly, legs and kidneys. She was facing Jensen when she leaned down and he saw red fire dance in her green eyes, predatory and fierce. “Ever.” Her voice was the ice to her eyes’ fire. She did something almost gentle looking to his arm and walked away, unconcerned about her uncovered back.
Jake needed no instruction to hold her as the fire died down. “Hey, didn’t you say there was a birthday present? You never told me what it was.”
“It’s a surprise. I’ll give you a hint, it involves acrobatics and doing exactly as I say.”
“Two of my favorite things. Bye, Marcson.”
Down the road, near the BX, Fiona started laughing, and Jake joined her. It was almost as primal as the violence earlier.
“I can’t believe you said that,” she gasped. “Is Cougar going to care about that?”
“If he knew what they’d been saying, he would have said it too. Well, he wouldn’t, but only because he doesn’t talk much, he’d have done something else. Same effect. What I can’t believe is you busting up that guy. Seriously?”
“How much did you see?” she asked warily.
“Enough to know not to make you angry, Hulk. Your eyes.”
“I’ll tell you later, it’s… touchy. Like mixed parentage Shifters but, not.”
“I hear you. I guess I was expecting me to snap. Mean mechanics.”
Fiona nodded. No more was needed; she knew what he meant. He nodded, because he knew what she meant.
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“If you fight an Alpha on their turf, it is… muy atractiva, even more if you fight for someone who might be seeing you as a possible mate.”
Chapter 8: Double Down
Dinner is eaten, secrets are shared, and Fiona makes a request that might change everything.
For non-card people, to double down can mean to double your bet, or bet twice the initial ante before looking at your cards. It's risky.
To quadrad, wenchred, tigrislilium, and Cougars_catnip for comments and Andria for kudos.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The dinner table was massive, a refurbished antique with no fewer than three leaves to make it larger, all of which had been pressed into service. The dinner itself was globally eclectic, tamales and eggrolls and Kenyan banana fries for sides, seafood étoufée, curried vegetable biryani and a beer-smoked chicken were laid out for main dishes, and a positively enormous pan of cherry claufouti waited for dessert. A bizarre mix of patterned paper plates and plastic cups sat in the middle waiting for people to serve themselves.
“My Faves!” Jake cried. “Cougs, how did you even know?”
“Ok, so these are his favorite foods?” Jolene asked. “Because I have been trying to find a method in this madness all day.”
“Jensen keeps a running list of the best foods every place we get sent,” Pooch explained. “Cougar tracked down the list, and then found reliable recipes for the top ten. Which, because Jensen will eat anything once and is crazy weird, includes escargot, haggis, and Ojos de Buey.”
“It’s prunes wrapped in bacon,” Fiona reassured her around a mouthful of étoufée and biryani rice. “Only looks like eyeballs.” She swallowed and looked Jake dead in the eye. “But if there is haggis, you are sharing, birthday or not.”
Jake’s heart fluttered. Now he knew she knew what she was saying. What it meant.
“The abominations are in the kitchen because you have to eat your crimes of nature away from the sane people,” Roque said, slightly ruining Jensen’s mood
“Sir, yes, sir,” Fiona said cheerfully. Jake blinked and moved to the kitchen. Everything in the main room would hold until later, escargot and haggis less so. Fiona followed him and he was intensely aware of her at his back, a kind of scary-fun thrill on his spine of new ideas he was allowing. He’d had them, but he’d shut them down before.
In the kitchen, he slid the plate of Scottish sausage at her while he popped a buttery snail in his mouth.
“Nope, if you do this, you do this right.” She pulled a large knife that looked like a mini-sword out of the leather bag in the knife drawer he’d been too smart to touch after it arrived with her. She nudged the plate back at him and held the knife out hilt first.
“Your birthday, your stab.” He stared at her. “Oh, my god. What heathen bastards fed you haggis without stabbing it? It’s a crucial part. Here, I’ll help.” She took his hand and wrapped it on the hilt, raised his hand above the haggis, knife pointed down, and looked at him. All the air left the room and his hand plunged down, someone screamed, and he realized it was him. The sword-knife was half in a casing rapidly emptying its contents onto the plate in an oddly satisfying movement. Roque stuck a head in the door, confirmed no-one was bleeding and left. Jensen snapped out of the trance when Fiona took the knife.
“Ok, now I see why that’s a pretty important step. Get high prior to eating with hindbrain adrenaline.”
“Yeah. Basically. Some people sing to the haggis, but it’s not necessary as far as I’m concerned.” She scooped up a bit of ground meat and vegetables on the tip of the knife and offered the food to him. Jake could feel his heartbeat rising. “Like you said, hand feeding is an intimate action. You fed me, let me do the same. Just, don’t try to lick the knife, it’s sharp. You can trust me.”
“I know,” he told her and leaned in so she could place the delicious mix on his tongue. His moan both sounded and felt sexual. He grabbed a fork and gave her a bite as well.
Fiona loved haggis. She had since she was a child, living in Scotland with her parents before the hunters came and she and her mom had to go. The ritual of it, the savory flavors mixed but separate, adding up into something greater than meat and vegetable and a knife. She’d kept the family dagger for haggis, but hardly ever had the time to make it. Or the materials. She wasn’t sure where Cougar shopped, but she knew she needed to find out when Jake put the first bite in her mouth. She wasn’t sure exactly what happened next, she lost about ten minutes, but the haggis was gone and Jake was offering her a neatly skewered snail. She’d had it, but she wasn’t as fond of escargot as she was of other things. Instead, she carefully held it between her teeth and offered it back to him in a kiss. His hands went around her waist, and she pushed up against him. His hot hardness pressed into her belly, but she didn’t care.
“No sex in mi cocina, you savages.”
“You can always join in, Cougar,” she said, and for a moment was shocked at what she’d said. He laughed.
“No sex in mi cocina, even if I am having it.”
“You’re no fun Cougs,” Jake complained.
“Eat your snails, Jake. I want nuestro amor for a bit.”
Looking between the two, she smiled a bit and nudged Jake’s arm. “I’ll be there when you’re done, Jensen. He and I need as much bonding as you and I. I’m the new one here. You said you wouldn’t make me pick.”
“I won’t,” he assured her and let go. Cougar tossed him some clothes underhand. Seeming to just now realize they hadn’t changed out of the gear, he smiled. “Thanks Cougs.”
Cougar had watched them, traced the circles they danced around each other, drawing nearer and nearer. A petty, jealous part of him resented how easily words came to his Jake, words that made her laugh or smile, words that made her eyes gleam with ideas. Jake’s words worked a kind of magic on people who paid attention to the meaning underneath them, sparking imagination to new heights, awakening notions that had lain dormant. Cougar did not have those words.
Cougar had his skills, his supposed air of mystery, but it never held anything together long. He tried his best to crush the petty jealousy, and he cooked for his loves. He lost any skill with words long before meeting even Jensen, who rapidly became his words, knowing what needed to be said and saying it. But food he could make. It began with the enchiladas, realizing she was avoiding taking food. She did not trust them. It can be dangerous, taking food from a pack to which you do not belong. So he made it simple. The food was there, in front of her, and if she chose to eat, or not eat, it was all the same. A watering-hole truce. Then she was hurt. He had seen the knife hit her, but she acted as though it had not harmed her, so he did not use his careful ration of words in front of the outsiders. When she fell asleep, he knew it was not sleep and flashed a quick sign to Clay.
When he treated her wound, the blood smelled like cinnamon, like hot candies. He remembered Auntie Boto and the words none of them knew. He remembered the old stories. He got her home and a better medic than he was, and he made her soup. He added the things he left out of sapien mixes, the herbs that sped the healing of those not entirely human, beyond what they already had. It would not taste as good, but she was awake in a week. Better than any Shifter, even with the herbs. She was mítica. He knew it.
And still the dancing circles he never felt a part of, he would feed them and love them and safeguard them, but he never hoped for anything. He watched as her lean frame gained a touch of softness that was not weakness, he watched Jensen fall deeper and deeper in love, his friend lost to another’s grace he could never match. He helped with her plans, because even if he was never with them, it would be beautiful to watch. He cooked, and partly it was for Jensen, partly it was to prove to himself he could provide for a mate.
The, unexpectedly, he learned three things. One, Fiona McDunn, mítica or not, had no idea how attractive she was. Two, Jake Jensen, genius or not, had no idea how attractive he was. Three, somehow, thanks be to all the saints, they wanted him. That third part was still a little hard to believe. So he watched them, aware he was a part of the circle, even as he stood on the ground as they flew. He watched them devour the haggis in raw animal glee, knowing he had given them that, that Fiona no longer feared him, that she loved him, that she loved Jake. He got Jake’s clothing and interrupted before they could defile his domain in their passion, although he’d be lying if he claimed joining them did not appeal. He took Fiona upstairs, moving quietly, and then turned to her. He did not have words like Jake did. But he could act, he was very good at actions. He tilted her face to his, aware how close she chose to stand.
“What do you want.” He did not say it as a question, he said it as an offering. “Of me, name it.”
“Cougar, I… I don’t know what I want. I… it was never an option. I’m not….”
“You are mítica, special. I know.”
“That you are, si. What you are, no. That does not change my feelings. They were there before I knew, they are still there, only now. Now I can offer. What do you want.”
“Cougar, I… please hold me?” Her voice sounded broken and small. A side he had not seen, even when she was dizzy from blood loss and epinephrine. He wrapped her in his arms and nuzzled her ear. She was not taller than him. That was both good and hard to find. He felt breath on his neck and knew she was sniffing him, holding his scent even as he was clinging to her spicy scent. He gently moved her to a wall, cornering her against it carefully, ready to back away if she needed to bolt. She mewled softly as he slid his hands to hips only beginning to fill out, aware now she had kept them slim, that the new softness of her body was trust.
He held her there for a moment or a lifetime, not kissing, just pinning her in and feeling her trust him to do so. “I want….”
“Si, whatever it is, si.”
“Don’t make promises you might not want to keep,” she warned him, the glint of red mítica shine in her eyes. She pushed him on one arm and he let her. She rotated them so he was against the wall. Her hands went to his hair, for once unshielded by the Hat. She tilted his head back and licked a line across his throat. Had her tongue been a knife, he would be dead. “You don’t even know what I am. Some of us kill, revel in it. Barely human, do you still trust me enough to offer anything I want?”
“Si.” Her eyes flashed wide in shock and pleasure, and he could feel her body heat against every line of him where they pressed together.
“I want you to tell me why. Why you want this. I read your file, I know what was done to you. I have my hands in your hair and your throat bared to me. Why do you want me so much, you like this? I smell it on you, taste it, why?”
“You are,” he paused, his words were not what he used to say this, but she had said to tell her, and he would obey. “You are the light. Jensen brought me sound, and I was fine being a sharp-eared blind man. Until I knew what light was. Until you gave me color and shape. You are the scope on a rifle, making everything clearer, easier. I can exist without you. But I cannot fully live. You and Jake together, you give me back things I did not know I did not have. Even in risk, in placing my life with you, knowing. There is a peace, a power in that. In submitting to what you want.”
“For a guy who doesn’t talk much, you do sound pretty.” Her hands slid back down and she grabbed his wrists and pressed them to the wall. “Tonight, third floor, you and Jensen. I don’t know how to do soft, or gentle or sensuous. It’s going to be primal, instinctive. Make sure you both are prepared for that. I need to change.” Then she was gone, empty air where she held him.
In her room Fiona’s heart pounded as she changed into some soft tan jeans and a blousey black top. “Did I really just do that?”
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“Good. I’ll take Roque out drinking. Wake the neighbors and explain this yourselves, I will not be bailing you out of lock-up.”
Chapter 9: Inside Draw
The party wraps up, Cougar fills Jensen in, Fiona reveals her secret, and there is much sex.
For non-card players, an inside draw is a risky move that can really pay off where you need one or more cards of which there are very few in the deck (like, specifically a six and a seven, which only have four each) to be given to you, or else your hand is worthless.
To quadrad, Cougars_catnip, and tigrislilium for comments, and HannokiKaen, kaisen, and VoxxyKitsune for kudos.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Fiona went downstairs to enjoy the party, eating lots of food and for once not caring, telling jokes and getting into a vicious pun war with Jolene. Jolene got a bark of laughter out of Clay with a morbid medical joke, and smiled smugly. So Fiona told a really long shaggy dog story that ended on a truly awful pun that had Roque gasping for air.
“How do you do it?” Jolene demanded as she slapped a ten in Fiona’s hand.
“He speaks Russian, the pun is better in Russian. I go big or go home.”
“I think I’m gonna go home and take my ‘big’ with me,” Jolene said with a devilish grin. As Pooch followed her out the door Roque laughed.
“Man, is that guy whipped.”
“Only if he’s been a very, very good boy,” Fiona said lightly. “And I think he likes it that way.” She walked off to the sound of coughing from her superior officers.
Cougar had come down shortly before Fiona, and cornered Jake near a wall, smelling of arousal and cinnamon.
“Aww, man, you didn’t.”
Cougar raised a brow.
“Ok, no, obviously you didn’t, you wouldn’t do that to me.”
“She wants us in her room tonight. It will be of the old school.”
“Really?” There were many customs that were specific to Shifter species, or subspecies designations, but some transcended all of that. Claiming a mate, for a season or a lifetime, was one. The new ways, brought on after European sailors saw Shifters in the New World and their crewmates went running out to greet cousins, emphasized human gentleness, the respect for the fragility of your mate, trying to disprove the bestial accusations. The old ways were primal and instinctive, often rough and trusting your mate to be strong enough to handle it. When Jake was young, before he was broken, he’d dreamed about mating in the old ways. “Which positions…” he almost finished the sentence as his mid supplied Fiona above him, riding him into the ground, sweat dripping down her skin as her nails raked him, and then of Cougar behind him, claiming him, maybe biting his neck, he’d heard that was a turn-on for felines.
“Her den, and some of how she was… I will not fight for Alpha.”
“Me neither,” he said as he heard her parting comment to the two officers scraping their jaws off the floor.
“Hey guys,” Fiona said smiling. Jake must have let his arousal show, since she followed it with a grin. “I see Cougs told you the plan? If it’s alright. If you want to use the new ways, you can lead, I’m alright with that, I just… all I have to work with is instinct.”
“No! Uh, I mean, um, all I would have is instinct too, and unless Cougar wants to….”
“No, the old ways, I like them. And from what I saw upstairs, you will make a good Alpha mate.”
She flushed again, pink flooding her face, and now that he knew what to expect, he smelled the light spice and cinnamon notes take a heavier musky tone. Arousal. And he was at least part of that. It made him a little dizzy, actually, like he was drunk.
“Good,” she said, “I’ll need to get some things. I’ll be back by tonight; I just have to run to town.”
Jake nodded and wondered what she needed. It’s not like he and Cougar didn’t have condoms and lube. He smiled as she excused herself and Clay came over to talk, which, honestly, Jensen had expected.
“One of you claiming tonight?” he asked casually. He couldn’t outright ask about the relationship per Army sapien rules, but for Shifters, the rules got a little bent to accommodate for certain needs that might happen and the risks in certain choices.
“Actually, Boss, it’s Fiona. The two of us. Package deal sort of thing. You, uh, might want to clear the house, we’re going old school.” Clay’s bushy eyebrows shot up.
“Does she know that?”
“Of course, she picked it. She is obviously the most dominate and protective of all three of us, she’ll be the Alpha. Not that you aren’t still our Pack Alpha, just that within the mating, she’s a way better choice than me, and Cougs doesn’t want to fight her for it.” Jake saw Clay looking at Cougar, and realized that may have come out sounding like Cougar was weak. Before he could step in, Cougar spoke.
“She had my hair in her hands, and I liked it. I will not fight someone who can give me that.”
Jake blinked. Cougar had serious issues about his hair. It was left as long as it was because he very rarely could let anyone cut it without at least partially shifting, and the Psych department had issued a special exemption because he was too good to lose over something so easily worked around as a trauma response to a haircut.
“If it works for you, that’s great. Don’t let any of this fuck up a future mission,” Clay said after a moment’s surprise.
“Frankly, Boss-man, I don’t think Fiona would let us.”
“Good. I’ll take Roque out drinking. Wake the neighbors and explain this yourselves, I will not be bailing you out of lock-up.” With that he walked off.
Fiona went straight to a store she’d staked out ages ago, for her personal time needs. Walking in, the woman at the counter smiled. “So I see you came back. And from that glow, I’d say you need supplies.”
“Yes please. Candles, and if you still have that fire play safety kit, I need it too.”
She walked out with a large paper bag of things half an hour later. Heading back to Base was an exercise in hiding her feelings. Even her sent-muting medication could only do so much. By the time she was back at the house, the sun was setting and she took the stairs two at a time, only to find her cot had been replaced by a queen-sized mattress with soft sheets.
“We thought about it, and decided we didn’t want to go so old school we get sore knees,” Jensen said from his place at the foot of the bed. “We can put everything back, but we thought…” He was muffled, again, by a kiss, a hard and bruising one.
“I love it. Thank you both.” Cougar tipped his hat at her from behind Jake, where he’d been giving the more agitated man a backrub.
“So,” she said. “I think I promised to explain a few things, and you should totally know them before you decide to take the plunge here. Jake, have you heard of Mythicals?”
“Yeah, I mean they’re in a ton of story books and stuff. What does that have to do with anything?”
“A Mythical is born when someone not human takes a Shifter mate. My mom is a Fae, she met and fell in love with my Dad, who was a Rook-Shifter. You weren’t that far off when you said I act like a corvid.”
“Like a legit Fairy was your mom?”
“She doesn’t like that word, but yes, pretty much. There’s weird stuff out there that’s not in the least human, and I’m half that. A Mythical. I can shift, but my kind are hunted, for various reasons, and so I try not to. Ever wonder why there’s so much crap about hunting unicorns? Equine Shifters in Europe practically in-bred trying to avoid making a kid who’d be a target when they shift.”
“That’s what you meant about it being like Mixed Parentage. You can’t shift as often as anyone else, because you’d be in danger.”
“Actually, other people would be in danger.” She pulled out a candle from her bag. Releasing the hold on her other form, she let red-black pinions shoot from her fingertips, catching fire as they hit air. She lit the candle and reigned in her form, making sure her fingers were safe again before continuing. “I’m a phoenix. Which is why I had to go get this.” She pulled out the safety kit. “It’s for people with a fire kink, but it’s basically as necessary as any other protection with me. Someone will need to be on safety when I climax. I’ve caught sheets on fire before. Are you still willing to be my mates?”
“Fiona, I don’t know why you’d think this turned me off or whatever,” Jake said. “You’re amazing, this is just the extra dose of awesome.”
“I told you before,” Cougar said, “it does not change my feelings. You are who I want, both of you.” He paused in thought. “The condoms will not melt, si?”
“No,” Fiona laughed, blowing out the candle and flinging herself at them. “The fire’s only on the outside.” She tussled with Jake a bit, grinning wildly. “Are you particularly fond of this shirt?”
“No, I sort of assumed our clothes would get shredded, so I changed. Everything is fair game.”
Fiona ran a finger down the shirt from collar to hem, leaving a singed trail of broken fabric. Then it was easy to push it to either side and lick the opposite path. His hips bucked up under her as she flicked his Adam’s apple with her tongue. Behind her, Cougar had moved her hair aside and was kissing her neck. She paused just long enough to pull off the top and undo her bra, tossing them aside. She went back to exploring all the planes of Jake’s torso as Cougar continued to lavish her skin with hot scorching kisses. And when she thought that, she meant it. Finally, her licking turned to nipping and Jake let out a sound that wasn’t quite a scream, almost like he’d shifted his voice and nothing else. Cougar brought a hand around her to cover Jake’s mouth as she raked burning fingers lightly over the jeans between her and her goal, shredding them before getting close enough to her goal to take him in her mouth. Flicking her eyes up, she saw Jake, wide eyed and gripping Cougar for support as he wailed under the hand. A deep swallow and his hips bucked again. She pulled off and gestured for Cougar to get the condoms and lay out the special sheet protector while she slipped out of her jeans. Jensen’s face when he realized she’d been commando under them was almost worth the wait.
Straddling Jake was a whole new kind of thrill, different than flight, either with wings or without. Her kisses turned to biting, and soon his beautiful chest had a mark claiming him as hers. The same rush in her gut as when she peaked in the sky went through her at the sight, the same almost dizzy feeling of a flight high, as she rode him to her own climax, his voice long since gone hoarse rasping her name as she coaxed one more orgasm out of both of them. With an incoherent yell, she collapsed on his broad chest, which was rising and falling with his own gasping breaths. She sort-of registered the cool feeling of the flame smothering spray on her back and feet.
In what seemed an eternity later, Cougar pulled her up to him and kissed her, soft, but letting it become harder as she gained her energy back. He whispered endearments in soft Spanish as she tugged his hair so she could suck a deep purple mark on his collarbone to match the one on Jensen’s pectoral. She wound up underneath him, but there was still no doubt she had claimed him, she had marked them as hers, she had her mates. Cougar took his time, lavishing attention on every part she’d ever thought was untouchable or unlovable, unerringly finding each hidden spot of shame for what she made herself out of fear, and making it a spot of joy and love. By the time his lips reached her thighs she was writhing and moaning. Then he let a slow lick push her over the edge. When she was back from that, he had a condom on and Jake was helping to lube him, and wow, that was so hot. Cougar slid in easily, her body loose and ready from the previous exertions, and he swore low in Spanish. She locked her legs around his neck, using flexibility training that had never been meant for this. Jake let out a moan, and Cougar began his strokes, steady and unwavering as Fiona came to pieces under him.
And that was only the beginning of the night.
Fiona awoke tangled in three unfamiliar things, soft and almost satiny sheets, Jake Jensen, and Cougar Alvarez. She smiled at all her aches. No doubt had she really been a sapien, walking would be out of the question for the next twenty-four hours. Lucky her, she wasn’t. Cougar brushed hair away from her face and laid a gentle kiss on her lips. The shifting must have awoken Jake, since he grabbed her closer and mumbled into her breast about not wanting to get out of bed.
“That’s sweet,” she said with a rough voice, throat still hoarse from last night. “But I need to take my suppressants unless you want to burn to death in my new, very nice bed?”
“Jake, if you wake up, I will make pancakes.”
“With chocolate chips?”
“Si, but only if you get up now.” Jake rolled and stood, stretching out in the morning sun. Fiona admired him, then got up with Cougar’s help. She took her pills and found some soft cotton panties and yoga pants that didn’t hurt too much to wear, as the men, her mates, got dressed in the back-ups they’d brought. She wondered how the team would take it, but for now, these men were hers.
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“Normal is a setting on a dryer, McDunn, you just happen to live with the people who took that dryer apart and built a bomb with it.”
Chapter 10: Shuffle
The team, in it's various members and groups, finds out what this new arrangement means for the team as a whole, Fiona confirms her crazy, and Jensen encounters the consequences of everyone knowing his crazy already.
Even non-card people probably know what shuffling is, but it's the re-arrangement of cards in a deck.
To Cougars_catnip, quadrad, and tigrislilium for commenting and carikate and Wolfstarblade for kudos.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Clay had made sure to keep Roque out late and long, so they wouldn’t stagger in on anything he really and truly didn’t want to see. Of course, that also meant his second in command was going to be crankier than ordinary in the morning when he woke up with a massive hang-over from trying, yet again, to out-drink a shifter. You’d think the man would learn Clay just ducked out back to shift a few times behind the bars when he got drunk, but he remained convinced Clay just didn’t get hang overs.
As such, it was very little surprise when Cougar was the first downstairs, hat firmly in place and Jensen draped across his back. It was a sweet domestic scene made sweeter when McDunn pried Jake away and hiked up his shirt to check a small injury of some sort. Not that he planned on ever telling those three he thought that. They’d obviously put effort into not smelling too much like new mates, which was smart. The other Shifters on base wouldn’t bat an eye at them, but if a sapien could pick it up, the whole team would be in trouble.
“Morning,” he said curtly as he poured coffee flavored sludge into his mug.
“Morning Boss,” Fiona greeted him. “Now that I’m cleared, are we going group PT today?”
“If you feel up to it,” he hedged. He’d had a sapien ex-wife who liked mating in the old ways but complained vociferously the next day.
“I might not be at my top yet, but I’m sure I can get back to my old proficiency just fine,” she said, brushing off his concern. Either they’d changed the plan or Fiona McDunn had a higher pain tolerance than any sapien he’d met.
“Then as soon as our wayward wolf gets back, I suppose we’ll do a round.” As if summoned by magic, Clay heard Jolene’s pick-up pull into the drive.
“Jensen, eat your pancakes,” Fiona ordered. “I estimate ten minutes of heavy make-out before she realizes she also has a job and releases him. Then about five of trying to excuse himself for being late while Clay laughs at him. Internally, of course.”
“Mi amante, you should eat too.”
“Are those butterscotch chips?”
“Si, I’m not stupid.”
“You are amazing, love you.” About half a minute after the exchange, Fiona darted her head up with a startled expression, staring at Clay.
“Don’t worry, I know. Shifter,” he tapped his nose, “remember? If this doesn’t affect your work it’s not my problem. Don’t make it my problem.”
“Ah, yeah. Of course, Boss.”
Pooch skidded into the room and took in the tableau of Fiona and Jake eating pancakes while Cougar cleaned the skillet between bites of his, and Clay leaning on a wall with his coffee.
“You can’t be mad at me, if what I’m seeing is real.”
“I can if you put us behind schedule and they didn’t, Porteous.”
“Didn’t what?” rumbled Roque.
“Put us behind schedule,” Fiona answered him. “Cougar, can you grab him a Gatorade? I want to go get my thermometer, Roque looks a little sick,” she explained as she exited the room.
“Was McDunn in yoga pants?” Roque asked. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her out of base standard uniform, except to do the circus thing, and the party.”
“Why?” Jensen asked a little too casually as Cougar passed the larger man a bright red bottle. “Checking her butt out?”
“Uh, no? Not only would that be against regs, McDunn’s not my type. I’m just curious, because McDunn out of uniform is like you in uniform. Not something I really ever expect to see.”
“I wear a uniform!”
“Not to regulations, you don’t Jensen,” Clay reminded him. “Neither does Cougar because of the Hat, or Pooch because of the modifications, or Roque who likes running around without the jacket too much, or even me. Of the entire Losers unit, McDunn is the second person we ever had who wore a proper, to the regs uniform when not directly ordered to.”
“Who was the first?” Pooch asked, likely to get further off the topic of his walk of shame.
“Tomsen, he had your job, until he tested the wrong weapon and… well, it wasn’t an open casket funeral. Last time I ever agree to work with another white-throated dipper, I tell you, his kid was twice as bad as Jensen and kept sneaking on base. Thank God she decided to join the Marines. I’m not sure I could have handled Ona as a subordinate.”
“Hear, hear,” Roque toasted with his Gatorade. “She’s what, a sergeant major now?”
“Yeah, last I heard,” Clay said as Fiona re-appeared with her fancy ear-thermometer. “She must have had one hell of a drill sergeant if they got even a quarter of the reckless crazy out. So, what’s the prognosis, Doc, he gonna live?”
“If he gets a day on bed rest, I don’t see why not,” Fiona answered. “It’s probably dehydration, keep drinking that,” she said, pointing to the bottle. “We doing PT or what?”
Clay noticed she’d changed into her training uniform when she was upstairs as Cougar pushed her half-finished plate in front of her. “Eat first, be crazy later.”
“Spoil-sport,” she teased, but ate anyway. Cougar passed plates out to the other three men, and started a batch of eggs. This might be good for the team, Clay thought.
Fiona wasn’t sure if she actually had gotten out of practice, or if her lingering soreness and exhaustion from last night was holding her back. At any rate, she was working to hit sapien maximums, not to hold herself back to them. As she rounded the corner on the obstacle course she saw the float bar. A balance beam suspended by four springs. Her shaking legs were not having this, she decided.
“What’s the matter McDunn? Tired?” yelled a soldier from another unit. She knew him, vaguely, not enough to be irritated by the comment. It did draw her sharp hearing to the group.
“Ten bucks says she drops,” drawled an all too familiar voice. Myers, one of the few Shifters on base she genuinely disliked, and the feeling was mutual. He’d been transferred out of their shared unit before her. He liked living down to his species designation’s worst qualities as a black rat snake, which he insisted on, despite there being plenty of better naming options.
“Ten bucks and a steak dinner says she doesn’t,” challenged a female voice. Lydia Iwata, Mustela itatsi Shifter. Fiona had treated her a few times in the ward.
“You’re on Iwata, she’s barely standing.”
“Hey, you still good?” Jensen asked as he came up behind her.
“Yeah, it’s only my legs.” She grinned at him. “I’m totally winning Lydia a steak,” she said, seemingly out of nowhere, a daring move but frankly, she liked Lydia enough to do it. Flipping in the air she landed in a handstand on the bar, causing it to dip and sway as she hurried across on her arms. She flipped for the dismount and came face to barrel-chest with Clay.
“McDunn, you are a reckless idiot. What do you have to say about that?”
“You knew that when you got me Boss, or you wouldn’t have gotten me. If you booted every reckless idiot in our unit, there wouldn’t be a unit.”
“God help us all, you really are a Loser. Get your overworked ass back to the house and stop showing off.”
“Gotcha Boss,” Fiona smiled as she passed Lydia and a gob smacked Burt Myers. “Having fun, guys?”
“I told you Burt, when it comes to Firebird, always bet on the crazy, the crazy comes through,” Lydia said.
“I used to be in the circus,” Fiona told him flat-faced. “Gotta go, CO’s orders.”
Roque startled when the front door opened. Seeing Fiona he relaxed back into the pillow on the sofa he’d jury-rigged into a sort of bed, because frankly bed rest in an actual bed was the worst. She passed him a bottle of water and collapsed on the ugly recliner Jensen had bought a year or so ago for reasons unknown.
“What’re you doing here?” he asked. Fiona not training when training was to be had was just weird.
“Clay booted me off the course. Apparently, I’m supposed to use my feet to cross the float bar, not my hands. I maintain handstands are a perfectly valid way of moving.”
“McDunn, you just got cleared after an arm injury, why would you even try that?”
“Because my therapy kept my arm strength near normal, but I haven’t been allowed to run in a while and I pushed my legs too far. And somebody said some crap, so I had to prove them wrong, it’s an honor thing.”
“Who said what crap?” Roque demanded, suddenly feeling much more protective than he normally ever did. The tiny red-head medic laughed at him.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were a Shifter, man. Relax, it was some random idiot and Myers saying I looked too tired or some shit. Seriously, if people flipped out on Myers every time he said crap, he’d be dead. He’s like that, and I handled it. Got all the way across the float bar in a handstand.”
“Yup, you are definitely, without a doubt, a Loser,” Roque said settling back down to sip his water.
“Clay said that too. I like to think I was already. Didn’t you say they made me Pack?”
“There’s a difference. Pack also includes Jake’s sister and niece, and as soon as the obvious happens and Pooch proposes, Jolene. Pack is family, but being a Loser is something else entirely. It means being the crazy one, who makes the stupid calls that end with others at least sort of winning, even if you lose. It’s the soldier who jumps on the grenade, you know?”
“Yeah, I could see that. None of us really have all our screws in the right places.”
“Normal is a setting on a dryer, McDunn, you just happen to live with the people who took that dryer apart and built a bomb with it.”
“How the hell do you make a bomb with a dryer? It doesn’t have any explosives, does it?”
“And the fact you are now asking me that proves, you are a Loser.”
Jake was in the locker room for the base showers, per the rule regarding falling in any of the slime-filled trenches that littered the course, when someone noticed.
“Holy… Jensen, congrats man,” said a smiling Shifter. He knew the guy, well enough to smile back.
“Thanks. She is really amazing.”
“I can tell, nice mate-mark. Um, not to pry, but… I noticed Alverez earlier…” the man stumbled to a halt as a couple sapiens passed them.
“He’s pretty happy with her too,” Jake said nearly inaudible. “Stay cool?”
“Yeah, of course. You guys be happy, ok?”
“We are.” As he left the locker room in the plain white tee that was so standard nobody ever cared too much if you stole one and a fresh pair of pants, he saw Cougar waiting for him with Pooch.
“Hey man, you up for a gaming session?” Pooch asked him. “Or are you going to be busy?”
“Hells to the yeah I am, and seriously, you really think she’s going to stop us? She’ll probably join us and kick our asses with Peach. It’s gonna be fun, let’s go!” It was pretty sweet, being mated, even if most of the people on base would have no idea he was. He caught a few congratulatory looks as he brushed past people, smiles a little wider, a certain scent of happiness for another, all subtle, but still.
“Jake,” Cougar said gently, “stop beaming so much. You’re scaring the sapiens.”
“To be fair,” Pooch told him seriously, “that look usually happens just before some unlamented bastard has their embarrassing browser history published. Or the time you ordered that one guy a freaky dildo from the super kinky online sex toy place. If I didn’t know the story, I’d be scared.”
“Fine.” Maybe he needed to work on the being mated thing. “And it’s not that kinky, it just specializes in human size replicas of shifted form genitals. Now, you want kinky, there’s a place that sells ovipositors that can actually lay gelatinous eggs up there. There is a reason you don’t see bug Shifters, and that reason would be a completely understandable reaction to how they have sex.”
“Why do you even know that?” Pooch asked, but before Jensen could answer, he raised a hand. “Nope, changed my mind. Don’t want to know.”
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All in all, everything seemed to be going well. Which is why they really should have seen the disaster ahead of them.
Chapter 11: Muck
Domestic shmoop followed by a nice Bolivian vacation. Well, nice is a strong word.
For non-card people, 'muck' is another term for the discard pile.
Also, now that we enter canon-zone, I may start using bits of dialogue from the movie, although there will probably be a few non canon chapters of that time-skip between the mission and when Clay meet Aisha.
To quadrad, and tigrislilium for commenting and lukymiko, for kudos.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The group settled in to its new configuration easily. Even as a sapien, Roque caught on to the newest relationship within a week, and very congratulatory didn’t ask. They, very thankfully and happily didn’t tell. The unit got sent on more missions, now that Fiona was cleared. Mission success remained high, even if the rest of the joint task force Coleman put them on was more than a little worried when Fiona did a triple somersault out an upper window yelling “catch” seconds before the way-point house of a gun-runner exploded into flame. The fact she cackled for about 20 minutes afterwards was also less than appreciated by the ATF members. Slightly more appreciated, by their explosives expert if no-one else on either team, was her explanation that they hid their explosive rounds in the bathroom, right next to five colognes and a bottle of isopropyl alcohol.
It took two days in the Alps before Fiona broke down at everyone’s bitching about the cold and had Jake and Cougar help her cobble together one six-person sleeping bag from the six one-person bags they had with them. Everyone was too damn cold to complain, and Pooch got some good cell phone pictures of Roque using Clay like a teddy bear.
At home, the number of random pranks dropped sharply, as the number of highly targeted and much more aggressive pranks against the worst bigots went up. Shifters across the base noticed a dramatic lessening of overt anti-Shifter crap aimed at them, and sapiens started adjust a few accepted if immoral phrases out of their vocabulary. After a particularly bad Major was dishonorably discharged with a pending investigation due to a few things he said in rage over the latest prank, a large gift basket appeared with no warning on the Loser’s porch.
Fiona finally met Jess and Beth Jensen at a Losers Family cookout. Jess took one look at her and started rapid fire quizzing her on the proper care and keeping of Jake, who was both embarrassed, amused, and eventually proud when Fi got the official stamp of approval. Beth was easier to bring around, all it took was a short lesson on the silks that were still up in the back yard.
Pooch proposed two years after he and Jolene started dating, and dispensing with most formalities, mostly to irritate Jolene’s mother who was widely agreed to be a bitch in a way that had nothing to do with Shifter status, they were married in a small ceremony in Pooch’s hometown. Fiona’s deep burgundy Maid of Honor dress matched Pooch’s brother’s tie and vest. Their mother insisted, and Pooch backed up the decision by saying he couldn’t have four Best Men and did not want to have to choose among the team. Clay got to walk Jolene down the aisle, and the others were delegated background roles. Roque was surprisingly good at floral arrangements. The team finally met Mrs. McDunn, who stepped in to play mother of the bride and pay for the wedding. She and Mrs. Porteous got on well enough that after the wedding, bets were laid on when and where their eventual global domination would begin.
All in all, everything seemed to be going well. Which is why they really should have seen the disaster ahead of them.
It may have seemed to begin later, but the first signs of things going horribly sideways began with a series of CIA ops they were sent on in fast succession, no down time to rest in. Clay and Coleman both tried to lobby for a break, but somehow there was always another crisis that required the very best team that could be fielded, which was the Losers. The one break they got after a seven-week stint in the Gaza Strip, the team scattered. Pooch all but sprinted back to the little house he and Jolene shared off base the second they landed. Roque went to the nearest bars, liquor stores, and houses of people who liked to party, trying to drown the memories of the two months of rapid deployments to crisis zones, Clay went with him, only to disappear later.
Fiona, Cougar and Jake went to Jess and Beth’s place up in New England. Aside from a rapid re-mating when Jess was at work and Beth was at school, followed by a thorough cleaning of the house and the liberal use of scent neutralizers, they wound up doing different things. Cougar cooked enough for a small army, which Jess gratefully froze most of for later re-heating, Jake tweaked his sister’s home security system and played with his niece, and Fiona spent a large chunk of time studying for her re-certifications. By the time they all came back to the base, Roque had a new scar on his back he didn’t remember getting, Clay was dating a woman everyone pegged as crazy the moment they saw her drop him off at the base, Pooch was non-stop googling baby names and Fiona was gone from the house half the time for re-certification classes and tests. Cougar remained the silent caregiver of the group and Jensen remained the light-hearted if somewhat skewed sense of humor, but everything was slightly off.
That’s when they got the Bolivia mission.
The sweltering heat and humidity were normal, for the Losers value of, anyway. The mission briefing seemed mostly to their specs, drug cartel, take the leader down, not even really that hard. It was almost a vacation, until they called in the change after Cougar saw the kids and the whole thing went sideways fast. Eight minutes later, Fiona was bandaging a bad blow to the head Clay had taken from the drug lord Jaguar Shifter’s paw as they sped through the jungle in a yellow school bus.
“What kind of blast radius are we looking at?” Roque asked Jensen since Clay was obviously not in leadership mode at the moment. Jensen held up a tablet and it must have been bad because the next thing she heard was “Pooch, I’m gonna need you to make this bus go a little faster, man, now!” The bus rev’d into high gear, jostling Fiona from her crouch on the aisle of the bus, sending her rolling to the back and something went pop in her leg. By the time they reached the pick-up zone, Cougar had gotten her hip in place again, but she couldn’t put weight on it. She didn’t even fight when Cougs and Jensen insisted she get a spot on the crowded helicopter.
Cougar and Jake let out identical screams when they saw the rockets headed to the ‘copter full of kids and their mate. Their injured mate they had loaded in themselves. The fireball was huge, the wave of heat reaching the ground and the light temporarily blinding the team. When they could see again, the team saw a large golden fire in the shape of a bird hovering over scared, slightly singed, children on the ground. Jake tackle-hugged the bird who swiftly became the team’s red haired medic. Cougar checked over the children while Jake fussed over Fiona, shielding her now naked body with his.
“So, I guess I left some stuff off my enlistment form, huh, Boss?”
Clay’s glower was not diminished by the gauze on his head.
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“I don’t know about anybody else, but, the Pooch would like an explanation.”
Chapter 12: Burned Hand
The team learns about Fiona's past, fakes their deaths, and try to find lives as a mismatched family.
For non-card players, a burned hand is a hand dealt to take cards out of the deck to reduce cheating.
To Cougars_catnip, quadrad and lolli1066 for commenting.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jake had sacrificed his tee shirt for Fiona, and despite being nearly skin tight on him, it could almost work as a clubbing dress on her much smaller body. She had joined Cougar in making sure the kids were OK, completely unconcerned by the ashes and lingering heat.
“Jensen, care to tell me why your mate was made of fire just now?” Clay asked in the way that he knew made it less of a question.
“To quote the great Lady Gaga, she was born this way.”
“Not helpful, Jensen,” Roque growled.
“Not my story, Roque,” Jake countered.
“I don’t know about anybody else, but, the Pooch would like an explanation.”
“Can it wait until we get the kids to a city, please?” Fiona interrupted. “I’ll talk, but I want to get them out of the jungle, ok? We all smell like blood and fear right now and that’s like putting an all you can eat sign on us in this area, I’ve been here before, the local animals do not care that we have Shifters, we’re meat to them. Let’s move.” She got the smallest girl on her back and carried her back to the bus, which had stayed, somehow, mostly intact. Pooch got them to a small town on the edge of the jungle and while he, Cougar and Jensen got the kids to the local church for safe-keeping, Fiona dug spare clothes out of her bag. Clay and Roque watched her closely, but she didn’t seem to care. When the team re-united, Fiona laid it out. Her birth, her parents, her fire being seen and sought, her father holding off hunters while her mother took her and ran, hearing him going down fighting for them, her mother taking her across oceans and continents trying to lose the hunters, taking all sorts of migratory jobs until Fiona was old enough to safely take suppressants and pass as sapien.
“Well, shit,” Roque said.
“You speak for all,” intoned Jake. “I mean, we knew about the phoenix thing, we had to,” he said gesturing to himself and Cougar. “We’re in a relationship where fire extinguishers are as important as condoms to safe sex. But yeah, same reaction. No wonder you don’t talk about your family much. That’s a Batman level tragic backstory there.”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “What now? They think we all died in that ‘copter. Except there won’t be any evidence of us being on the thing when it blew. I got the kids, but I couldn’t grab the pilot too, so they’ll see it wasn’t hot enough to destroy bone. The man on the radio will know we aren’t dead.”
“Max,” Clay growled. “He wants us dead, we’re dead. We’re going back to the crash site.”
Jake thought the whole thing was insane, which said something coming from him, but he faithfully tossed his tags in beside the others, Fiona and Pooch stopping for a moment to get the rings they kept on the chains back. Her mom’s Claddagh ring was something Fi would never part with, and Pooch was damn sure keeping his wedding ring. Cougar was helping Clay and Roque scatter the pilot’s bones. Fiona handed him her back-up blood supply packs to drip on the wreck and draw in animals, who would hopefully disturb the site more. When all that was done, Clay nodded and she used a hand of feathery fire to crack the teeth on the skulls. No DNA aside from their own stored blood, no dental. The heat warped their tags, it looked like they died here. Cougar said a quick prayer of apology to the pilot for what had to be done, and then they headed back to town.
Guess he got to know what happened after you die, Jake thought grimly. He just hoped Jess and Beth would forgive him.
Life in Bolivia wasn’t as bad as it could have been, Cougar could admit on his better days. Some days weren’t better days, they were days when he watched the news clips on Jake's computer hours on end. It burned him inside that his family had been told he killed the children, but then, much of his extended family hadn’t liked him being capable of loving another man, or joining the Army or both. His Abuela Jaenada, Tio Jaenada and his Mama had been the only adults who still supported him after both those facts came to light. He didn’t know what that would do to them, being told he killed children. It helped that when the nuns that ran the church they left the children with couldn’t find placements for a few, Fiona had agreed to take them as fosters. They were here with only Jake’s faked up papers and new identities, so adoption was out, but Azmina, Estela, and Ignacio stayed with them in the house Fiona bought the team with the money from one of the mítica bank accounts her mother had gotten her access to, if she ever had to run. There was a surprisingly well structured underground for people like Fiona. They sometimes had to host another mítica on the run, and he and Jake found jobs at a factory to help pay back the fund and raise the money for their children’s needs, but he was happy.
Pooch wasn’t. It was clear to the whole team, and after a week of badgering he told them about Jolene’s pregnancy. He didn’t want to be another statistic, a black father not there for his kids. Fiona roped him into helping with their three, and Clay used the connections he was building to find the man on the radio to land Pooch a job working at a car shop so he wouldn’t have as much time to brood. Which meant exactly zero about his own brooding, Cougar noticed. He ended up making Clay’s favorite foods more and more just to get the man to come home from his cycle of searching for leads, gambling, and drinking himself into a stupor. Which shouldn’t even be possible, he was a shifter. Roque getting drunk nightly would make sense, but the large man had found another destructive outlet in fight rings. Fiona was almost always getting calls in the middle of the night to go patch him up and help him get home.
In fact, she was out when Azmina came in to their bedroom. He and Jake were up in seconds, but Cougar pushed his lover back down, since he was more prone to sleep disruption and nobody needed a repeat of the Labor Day weekend bender of ‘07.
“What do you need, Niña Temeraria?” She giggled at the name, like always, she didn’t see her own strength and bravery, much the way her mother in all but blood never saw her own beauty unless it was pointed out.
“Ignacio is sick, Papa.” Cougar frowned. He wasn’t as skilled as Fiona, but he was a decent medic and he hadn’t noticed anything. He followed his eldest to her brother who was near naked and sweating. Sweeping back the boy’s hair, Cougar felt the rough stubble of new fur.
“Fetch your Dad, Niña. Your brother is having his first shift.” Her eyes went wide and she ran down the hall yelling for Jake. Soon everyone except Roque and Fiona was waiting outside the room as Jake and Cougar tried to talk the boy they hadn’t even known was a Shifter comfortable through the first change.
“Isn’t he young for this?” Pooch asked. “I didn’t hit mine until I was fifteen, Iggy’s only seven.”
“Young shifts happen, Porteous,” Clay said. “I was ten.”
“Will you two shut it and get me some cool water and a towel!” Cougar snapped. High temperatures during the first shift were standard, but never this hot. To his relief the cool cloth was handed over by Fiona, who also had a dark bottle of liquid in her hand. She poured a shot of it and helped Ignacio drink it.
“What was that?”
“He’s a Mythical, some of the transformations can kill you if you don’t dose up first. You can tell because child Mythical doesn’t smell like anything odd. Even terrified, he didn’t smell like anything but a nervous young boy. My suppressants act to put me back there, in the state where I was hidden by my biology. But it creeps out sapiens who aren’t used to it, which is part of why our kids had a hard time finding parents. From the hooves and the bump on his head I’d say Camahueto, but I can’t be sure, I’ve never seen a fully shifted Camahueto for the same reasons I’ve never seen a shifted unicorn.”
“Our son is going to be hunted?” Jake asked, scandalized.
“Hell no,” rumbled Roque. “I like that kid, he ain’t gonna get hunted.”
“I contacted the network, they can get him to safety, but not yet, in the meantime, we are his family, and we take care of ours, right.” Everyone nodded, even Azmina and Estella. After a few hours of helping him, Ignacio was a wobbly calf with a curling horn on his forehead. Azmina had taken to petting him as Estella tried to get him to walk in his new form.
“So all three are Mythicals?” Jake asked Fiona.
“Yeah. From the area, facial features, and the behavior, I’d say any day we start looking for ‘Mina to have her feet turn backwards and her face to get foxish. She fits the Caipora mold. Playful, protective, good singing voice. Estella looks a lot more Castilian than anything, so that opens up almost all of Europe. No ideas on her.”
“But why’d he shift so young?” Pooch asked.
“It happens, especially with the ones that might get, well. I was only a year older than he was, and my bits aren’t as prized.”
“Liar,” Cougar said into her hair, now hot with the cinnamon smell of her as she eased off the suppressants. “We prize all your bits.”
“Y’all nasty,” Pooch said. “I only prize the bits that keep my bits from dying.”
“Oh, shush, Kibbles,” Jake scolded.
The next three months saw Roque, Clay and Pooch get separate housing, as the three Mythical children came into their shifted forms. Estella turned out to be a Gryphon, her feline coloring matching Cougar’s tan and dark brown, with a distinctly raven head. Fiona teased her men about Estela taking after them until the day their child lit up the UFO sighting websites with her first, fire trailing, flight. After that it was mostly the rest of the team teasing them about how Estela didn’t play favorites.
Roque fell into the favorite Uncle role pretty quickly, and stopped doing as many risky fights, in case he called Fiona when her kids needed her. He even took the time to get Clay mostly sobered up so they could pull a two-man con, pretending to have a bitter fight feud and planning who would win each fight ahead of time so they could have a cycle of intermediary bookies bet on the winner. Roque was a known fighter who had taken Shifters down before, but the odds evened out when his main event fights were almost always with Clay, who wasn’t shy about his status as a Grizzly. They played up the scars on Roque’s face a lot, too, throwing in witty banter before, during and after a fight, and although he would never admit it, he ripped a lot of material from Jensen’s digital collection of comics. They got paid well, when they combined the pay for the fight and the various bets. Roque was pretty sure the ring bookies knew they were rigging it, but the fights were bringing in a higher end clientele now that they had a strong story to sell, so the pair never got called on it. Clay always showed up partially shifted, so nobody knew the famed fighter known as Papá Oso was also Roque’s friend Clay, except the Shifters in the crowd who seemed to find the staged fights amusing if for no other reason than that the sapiens had no idea that they were staged. The only fly in the ointment was Clay’s continuing need to find Max, the man on the radio. They’d argued a hundred times about it, and that fateful night four months after the chopper went down, wasn’t any different.
But when he said goodbye for the evening, how could he know they next day would turn their lives on end?
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"Your correct answers are ‘yes, Combat Medical Officer McDunn, anything else would be stupid, reckless and irresponsible’ or ‘no, Combat Medical Officer McDunn, I was knocked unconscious and need you to come render medical aid’."
Chapter 13: Lady Luck
Clay calls Fiona, Fiona has Jake dig until rock bottom on Aisha, then keep digging. Cougar observes, and Aisha faces one foe she can't beat, her own soft spot.
To Cougars_catnip, wenchred, and phoenix_173 for commenting, and to phoenix_173 and RainyDayReader for kudos.
You'll note I'm moving some of the dialogue I kept around, just because it made more sense that way. Also, say goodbye to a significant chunk of canon, it had to be reworked with the direction I decided to take Aisha and the kiddos in. I'm purposely having Fiona be vague about Aisha's genetic state because confidentiality, but feel free to ask me what's up.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Fiona had just gotten the kids onto math worksheets when Clay called that morning.
“If this has to do with the arson downtown, I had nothing to do with that,” she began.
“I know you didn’t, McDunn,” Clay said with a hint of amusement in his voice. Satisfied, no more than that, sexually satisfied amusement.
“Oh dear lord, Clay, I’m the only one in the unit allowed to set things on fire while,” she glanced at her kids, “having a tickle fight.”
“Tickle fight? What the hell… oh, kids in the room.”
“Yes and you know you have a horrible track record picking out tickle fight partners, but this even goes beyond the woman who put a… whoopee cushion in your car, ok?”
“I have to say, I don’t know whether to be amused by your word substitution or terrified I let you and Jensen get within five hundred yards of each other. But for your information, even though I thought something else for a moment, it was a fight fight, not a… lord help me I’m going to say it, tickle fight. Thus, fire.”
“Ah. I assume you made it out with an unremarkable amount of scathing or you would have come to me? By the way, your correct answers are ‘yes, Combat Medical Officer McDunn, anything else would be stupid, reckless and irresponsible’ or ‘no, Combat Medical Officer McDunn, I was knocked unconscious and need you to come render medical aid’. Nothing else. I remember Zoe.”
“Zoe wasn’t that bad.”
“She convinced you to have a make-up tickle fight in the woods so she could trick you into stepping on a bear trap, Clay. You’re lucky that wasn’t silver edged and you had your cell phone on you, or you wouldn’t have your right foot. You’d have to change the phrase ‘starting off on the right foot’ because that would be a foot you didn’t have to start off on. Not that you ever start things on the right foot anyway, but still.”
“Definitely regretting letting you meet Jensen. Look, her name is Aisha, she has a lead on Max and can get us to America. Don’t you want your name cleared? To see your Mom, and Jolene and Jess and little Beth? To go home?”
“You know I do Clay, but I have children to think of. Iggs can barely run while shifted, ‘mina trips on her feet when not shifted, and Estela is having issues with fire control. The next lifeboat in this area goes on a three-month tour, and won’t be here until next Friday. I’m not leaving them for that long, even if we do the impossible, again, and get Max on the first try. Clay, I can’t abandon my cubs, you know that.”
“She can get them the same safe passage; didn’t you say lifeboats were more active in the states?”
“I don’t trust random women who burn down hotels with the knowledge of the lifeboats existing,” Fiona said.
“Fi, she’s a Mythical.”
“What?” Fiona had known there was more than just her pulling from the local accounts, but she had no idea who.
“I lived with your freaky lack of scent for three years, McDunn, you don’t think I know what’s going on when a woman tries to kill me, never shifts, and comes away smelling like we had a stern argument? She’s on the suppressants, the only reason to be on them is to be a Mythical. Even sapiens who want to lie will use perfume first. So do you want the kids in America or not?”
Fiona sighed. Her boss knew exactly what buttons to push. “Fine, but I’m having Jake dig up every single secret on this woman and if I don’t like the color of her dirty laundry, I’m staying put and you can go on your suicide mission short a medic, and most likely a sniper and a hacker. I try not to make them choose between us, but I will if I don’t trust her with my children.”
“Understood, Colonel Clay out.”
Sighing she called Jake’s cell phone. When she hung up to check the kids, Azmina looked at her with her head tilted like Jake.
“Tio Clay is being an idiot again, isn’t he?”
“Your Tio Clay is always an idiot, mi dulce niña. But he may have a way to take us all home where you can meet your Tia Jolene and Tia Jessica, and your Prima Beth and the new baby that Tio Pooch and Tia Jolene are expecting. You’ll even get to meet your Abuelas and Bisabuela Jaenada.”
“I’d like that. It won’t be safe will it?” her little girl asked, all grown up. “The men with the truck said we were going to America, and that wasn’t safe.”
“Sweetheart, if the woman your Tio thinks can help us is anything like that man, we will stay right here. I’m not letting her hurt you, any of you, ever.” Fiona swooped in for a big hug.
“Mama!” Azmina protested without force. “I’m too big to hug!”
“Nope, you are always the right size to hug. You could be twenty feet tall and I would still hug you.”
“You’re silly, Mama,” Ignacio said from the door.
“Of course I am, I’m a Mama, it is one of the benefits of the job, I get to be silly. And you’re next, mi hijo fuerte.”
Jensen predictably turned up quite a bit of dirty laundry on Aisha al-Fadhil. His children’s safety made him more thorough than he might have been otherwise. Numerous agencies wanted her dead or captured. Bombs, terrorism, quite a bit of blood on her hands, as well as a more personal connection to the case. Fiona looked in at the kids drinking milk and coloring.
“Look at her childhood,” she said.
“That would be; A, very intrusive, B, very wrong, and C, impossible, she had it erased,” Jensen said.
“A and B don’t bother me when it comes to the kids. You’ve done the impossible before, and she has no record of any hits on children. I want to know why that is. The average crazy vicious bitch with this rap sheet and family connection will have at least one child bystander. But her? Despite who her father is, nope, not a single case. Dig.”
What he turned up would haunt Fiona the rest of her life. She got the kids into long sleeved, long legged outfits liberally sprayed with scent neutralizer, added a heavy coating of a cheap apple and vanilla scented oil to her scarf and the outside of her cardigan and headed out early. Her men had their orders.
Cougar felt a little odd, riding behind a woman who wasn’t Fiona, but at least he wasn’t trying to maximize distance like Jake. It was ridiculous, they smelled firmly mated, and not to the pair of drivers. As Jake was apologizing for being late because of Pepito’s birthday party and cluing the team in about a side run using Beth’s team’s shirt, Cougar exchanged friendly face rubs with the other two feline shifters.
He came away as Clay was asking what had been found. Well, given the clues and Fiona’s absence, what Jake was willing to say. Everyone knew Fiona wouldn’t have sent them alone, even if she was refusing to go. His eyes scanned, looking for her, but didn’t find her.
“Her Company file is blank. CIA has a standing kill order on her, as does Hamas, Sinn Fein... pretty much everyone with the exception of PETA wants this chick am-scrayed.”
“Think you're thinking clear on this? Huh? 'Cuz every time we mess up, it's because of a woman,” Roque pointed out.
“Be fair,” Jensen scolded, “sometimes it’s actually Clay, not the woman. Although he does radiate a certain animal craziness magnetism that brings all the cuckoo clocks to the yard.”
“Name one time that I...” Clay started. Before he could continue, Roque cut him off.
“Amber wasn't the problem,” Clay insisted. “Amber's husband was the problem.”
“Uh-huh, Amber's husband wasn't the one who shot you,” Pooch pointed out.
“It was only in the leg. Not even silver rounds.”
“What about Emma?” Jake asked.
“Emma doesn't count,” Clay said. “I didn't sleep with Emma.”
“No,” Roque agreed peaceably before following up, “because she put a bomb in your car!
“All right, I admit - that did take a little of the romance out of it,” Clay caved. “But this is strictly business, Aisha isn’t that kind of hook up.” Everyone stared at him.
“There is precisely one member of this team who gets a free pass on accidental arson without extreme questioning as unto sanity or lack thereof, Clay,” Roque growled. “It’s not you.
“I'm clear, Roque,” Clay insisted.
“Well, you better be, because I ain't getting killed by no girl,” Roque said and Cougar went on alert. There was only one reason Roque would say that when he knew Fiona could kill him in ways that would never be detected. He saw the woman from the pre-work briefing coming towards them from downwind.
“Been a long time since anyone called me a girl,” she told Roque before dismissing him. “She put a bomb in your car?” she asked Clay. Clay shrugged.
“She was volatile.”
Jensen watched and listened carefully as Aisha al-Fadhil gave them an offer too good to be true. It was, he’d done enough digging to know that. She was out for revenge and thought they would be easy to sucker into playing the trigger men for her. Little did the woman know, Fiona had her own plans.
“So you can stay here in Bolivia and rot, or you can go home, and get revenge on the man that framed you,” Aisha said. Perfect bait, Jensen had to admit. If it weren’t for their hidden advantage. He smelled pie, and the next he could track, Fiona was right in front of Aisha.
“Miss al-Fadhil,” she said politely, and Jensen had to hide the grin he had over Aisha’s shocked face as the team rested passively. “I think revenge is your game, not ours. We can, if you’re willing to work by certain rules, be assets in each other’s causes, but please don’t think we’re in this for the same reasons. I’m sorry for your loss. Not sorry enough to risk my children, though.”
“Ch… children?” Aisha choked out.
“Yes, I wanted to get close enough to confirm before exposing them.”
“Exposing them to what? I don’t hurt kids.”
“I know. Growing up a child soldier until you discover your true strengths and weaknesses will leave a person like that.” She unwrapped her scarf, the pie smell following it and her own pure cinnamon heat pushing through.
“Mítica,” Aisha breathed.
“I’ve been here four months, you don’t think I monitor our accounts?”
“You have children,” Aisha said accusingly.
“Not like you. Not by blood, I know what happens, what happened to you and I'm sorry someone put you through that. But my kids were all adopted right out of the burning chopper they were in with the other 22 or so kids we pulled from Daddy Dearest’s base before it went boom. So, Miss al-Fadhil, answer me one question honestly. Are my children safe near you?”
Aisha pondered the question. She’d vowed never to hurt a child as an adult, because she was made to kill too many as a child. It had been encouraged, her brutal, vicious sides, the parts that collected ears and reveled in blood splattering her face like warm rain. Then her real monster had come out and she ran to Fadhil, took his name, became his little Princesa, took his protection in exchange for his dirty work. She hadn’t even seen how disgusting it was to use a girl that age as a goon. When she parted ways with him, it had not been on good terms. She kept the name because it was useful.
She hadn’t expected the need for revenge when he died. Her monster wanted out, wanted to kill and destroy the one responsible. Her monster didn’t care about children.
“I don’t know,” she finally answered. “I’m not the one who makes that choice sometimes.”
“But you?” the woman asked patiently.
“I don’t hurt kids.”
“Excellent,” the woman beamed. “I’ll get them and we can start with how you’re getting us into the states.”
Before Aisha could fully process that, the fiery mítica woman had vanished. She turned to Clay, the man she had thought most vulnerable. “Colonel?”
“Don’t call me that.” He looked past her at the sapien who had called her a girl. “I’m not a soldier.”
The mítica woman reappeared with three children. “I’m Fiona, these are Azmina, Estella, and Ignacio,” she introduced. “Say hello to Senorita al-Fadhil.”
“Call me Aisha. I’m not the one who thinks of that man as my father. I only use the name when it’s useful.” The three children nodded and the boy, heedless of his older sister’s grab, darted forwards to hug her, burying his head in her stomach where her fear was building. She felt it fade and realized, she would fight to protect these children, from anyone who would hurt them. Her monster growled in agreement.
“If we do this, you do realize we’ll be declaring war on the CIA?” she asked the team. They weren’t the patsies she had thought.
“They started it,” Clay and Fiona replied as one.
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“One, you’re mated to a cat, and two, do me a favor and never say that to Jolene. She can rip you apart in a thousand ways and you will make a thousand different sounds.”
Chapter 14: Tells
In which the team smuggles themselves across the border, go bird hunting and establish the lines of pack loyalty and unknown divisions.
For non-card players, a tell is something a player does that communicates what the hand is like to the table, usually subconscious. Having a lot of, or very obvious, tells is not what you want in a high stake game.
To Cougars_catnip and tigrislilium for commenting.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The original plan had to be slightly reworked. There was simply no way to smuggle children in coffins. Not only would it be child abuse, even if Azmina thought it sounded fun, but none of the three could have kept as still and quiet as needed. Instead, Aisha provided the team with covers as families, Pooch bought an RV off a family that had a blown-out ignition, fixed it up and soon the extended pack was on their way. Jensen, Cougar and Fiona had aliases as mates, because the border guard was heavily populated with Shifters who would know. Pooch, Roque and Aisha were all undercover as half siblings, the only way to pass off two sapien smells and a Canid as relatives, and Clay was roped in as Fiona’s uncle. Fiona and the kids all wore clothing washed in scent neutralizer and Roque and Aisha wore a competing set of cologne and perfume to further muddy the scent of the van.
The Bridge of the Americas was packed. Normally, this would worry Clay. He’d gotten so used to safety in not being seen that crowds bothered him. Not today. The guards checking the van were obviously overwhelmed, and the two Shifters were trying not to wrinkle their noses from the last car. The kid’s enthusiasm also helped. It wasn’t in many Shifter’s natures to see cubs as threats, and Ignacio wanted to show them all the places he’d hidden his toys, coloring books, and schoolwork. You just couldn’t see a lie in his cheerfully demonstrating how his ‘biggest sister’ had helped him get the cushions loose to hold Estella’s giant collection of discard dolls and stuffed toys from Cougar and Jake’s job at the factory.
When they got waved ahead, he tackle hugged the female sapien with his head, like he had Aisha.
“Don’t worry, the bad things will all fall apart and you can have babies. If you want to make them yourself. Mama and Papa and Daddy wanted kids who were already made. That’s ok too, I like being chosen special.”
“Ay, Madre de Dios, Ignacio!” Cougar complained from the front seat. “Stop doing that, you scare people.”
“He has a really sensitive nose,” Fiona explained. “We don’t know if it’s Shifter or what, but he has a thing about women who are pregnant, or who can’t get pregnant. It’s weirdly accurate, but nothing a true dolphin can’t indicate. We’re trying to get him to stop blabbing medical histories.”
“It’s alright,” the woman laughed. “My husband likes psychics, and he’ll be happy to know the fertility problem’s not with him. Thank you, Ignacio, but maybe try not to do that to everybody, si?”
Ignacio nodded and they drove into El Paso, Texas. A few minutes later, Clay noticed Estella eating colorful licorice whips he hadn’t thought they packed.
“Where’d you get that from, Niña Colorida?”
“Just ‘cause Iggs showed his hideys doesn’t mean we had to,” Azmina said, reaching behind a loose wall panel. “Read us a story, Tio Clay!”
“Do I even want to know how much excess we have in here?” he asked Fiona.
“No, they asked Jake for help, so no, you really do not want to know,” she told him with a straight face. “He did swear nothing perishable was stored anywhere it might get too hot. We shall not experience a Brigadier General Collins anytime soon.”
Clay shuddered, remembering how the particularly bigoted man had replaced four new cars over one summer because Jensen, Cougar and Fiona kept stuffing discounted frozen seafood into his radiator grills. “That’s good,” he said weakly.
“What’s a Brigadier General Collins?” Aisha asked from where she and Pooch were browsing a Sephora catalog.
“You do not want to know, baby sister,” Roque said. “Nobody wanted to know, but it really could not have happened to a more deserving guy.”
“Yeah, he wasn’t a bigot,” Pooch said, “he was a Dirty Harry bigot, you know, he hates all the minorities equally. He should be glad he never met our sis, here.”
“It should bother me you insist on calling me that when there’s no surveillance,” she said dry as the desert she was born in. “Somehow, it doesn’t. I’m more bothered by not being bothered.”
“I know, right?” Fiona asked. “These weirdos will Pack Bond with anybody. Pack sluts, the lot of you, and Roque’s no better.”
“Little pitchers have big ears, Fi,” Jake scolded lightly. “You swear like a soldier.”
“I am a soldier, Jake. And I do not. I swear like a sailor. They get creative, all those long deployments and nothing better to do.”
Cheerful ribbing continued into the El Paso West RV Park, which was actually in Anthony, New Mexico on the border of Texas and New Mexico. They set two extra tents up for the two ‘families’ to stay in and Clay wound up in the RV with the kids. The next day, they went bird hunting.
It bugged Jensen his acting had gotten so rusty, but the chopper with the EMTs came anyway. Then his mouth made the fatal mistake of saying what was happening in his head. It did not surprise him when she went down to a tranq dart from one of his mates. It surprised him even less when Cougar cuffed his head as Fiona ignored him to place the medics in the shade at the side of the road in rescue position. She even put water bottles by them rather than make eye contact. What did surprise him was Cougar writing a note.
“Para mi madre,” he said. Okay, not good. Cougar going back to Spanish was fine, as long as he spoke in long sentences. They hadn’t even known until Fiona how much his monosyllabic or short form speech was connected to his mental state.
“Look, if this is about the EMT, you know I have a type, pretty people who can sew my insides back together. I would never actually cheat on you, I just… lost control over my words. And I’m pretty sure getting darted took any chance she’d even want to.” Cougar nodded at him and tucked the note in the chopper pilot’s hand.
“Si. It’s not the flirting.”
“Then what is it? You have me flying blind and I hate that.”
“Jensen,” Fiona called. “Leave it. Pooch just got the call from Clay, he found a spot to reinforce and repaint this baby, and Azmina twisted her ankle again. I’m going to take care of ‘mina, you two help Pooch.”
“You are an awful subordinate,” Roque said.
“Why do you think I went for the only career path in the Army that lets me outrank generals? Take care of them?”
“Duh, McDunn, that’s my job.”
“I mean Aisha too, it’s hard being half mythical. The controls are fuzzy, and almost anything could make her snap, so keep an eye on her level. The others rely on their noses too much. It’s why we need you. Because when the only tool in the toolbox is a hammer, the IED looks a lot like a nail. I won’t, I can’t, lose any of you. I made too many promises I have to keep.”
“I got it, Fi, go home to your kid.”
Pooch rigged the GPS cannon and tried to deal with a mopey Jensen. Mopey Jensen was scary Jensen, it was in everyone’s best interests not to let the lover’s tiff get out of hand. Good opening gambit, ask him a question.
“Hey J, what do you think is up with Clay and the whole ‘don’t call me colonel’ thing? He never liked Sir, but he’s always been proud of his rank.”
“Classic loss of identity. Clay defined himself by his place in military structure. It was his way of measuring the good he did in the world, without it, he’s just another loser like the rest of us,” Jensen rattled off like a psych textbook. Which it probably came from, the eidetic memory meant Jake sometimes read the strangest shit in case it ever became useful, because he knew he wouldn’t forget it. Which he proved with his next question. “Did you know cats can make a thousand different sounds and dogs can only make ten? Cats. Not to be trusted.”
“One, you’re mated to a cat, and two, do me a favor and never say that to Jolene. She can rip you apart in a thousand ways and you will make a thousand different sounds.”
“That… is fair and very accurate. Can we shoot that? It looks like mostly duct tape”
“I'm the black MacGyver. Duct tape obeys the BlaGyver,” Pooch dead panned. He lined up the shot that would go farthest with the GPS payload, and fired. “Now that is what I’m talking about, that’s a rocket!”
“That’s great, we need to move, Pooch,” Roque called. But at least Jensen was smiling again and Roque was looking less like a deadly statue, so that was all good.
In Miami, they found a Wal-Mart to park the RV at and a motel nearby for the secondary car Clay had picked, a canary yellow Pinto. This time, Pooch wound up on kidlet duty, and Roque pulled Clay and Aisha into a talk.
“Look, how sure are we that this is going to work? I want Max taken down as much as anybody, but I can also walk away from this. It’s one of the few advantages of being the only sapes on the team, no animal instincts, no Pack bonds, nothing that can skew me aside from shit that skews any man. I do wanna watch those kids grow up, though. So do you know this will work?”
Aisha shifted uncomfortably. Roque politely didn’t mention the other major advantage of being a sapien, no enhanced senses meant he learned to read people the old-fashioned way, and her suppressants couldn’t fool him. She would talk when she was ready. People tended to become ready faster with him staring at them. It wasn’t a glare, just the steady pressure of waiting eyes.
“I don’t know for certain it’s Max,” she finally said. “Just that it’s something he’s interested in enough to have the same security that he would on himself. I don’t like Max getting interested in anything. Even Fadhil was smart enough to know that no offer can be so good that it’s worth working with a man who treats world maps like Etch-a-Sketch drawings. And that’s what happens when he gets interested. For the sake of the world I live in, I hope it’s Max, but if it’s not… I’ll be willing to take the rest on my own, Fiona was right, that’s my game, not yours.”
“You made it our game when you made us your Pack,” Clay said gently. Roque was surprised. He didn’t often see that in his commanding officer. Especially when Clay was into someone. Of course, Aisha radiated that broken and deadly vibe most of the team had when they got handed to the Losers. Not his place to judge, but he did have to admit, even after a few days, it was hard to see the team without Aisha in it.
“Alright then,” Roque said before anyone got uncomfortable with that revelation. “If it’s Max, we get him to confess to framing us, blowing up a base he thought had kids in it, actually blowing up a copter with kids in it, and anything else we can squeeze out of him before we dust him, job over, lives back. If it isn’t, we save the world, then get Max to confess, dust him, job over, lives back. I’m good with the plan.”
“Why do you trust me?” Aisha demanded. “I know your type, the mindset. You should be growling and snapping and threatening to kill me if I step out of line or you even suspect a trap. It would be fair enough, you don’t know me, and as you said, you don’t form Pack bonds.”
“Iggy likes you,” Roque said, shrugging. “Kid is a good judge of character, smart as his Dad, perceptive as his Papa and has this thing about saving what can be saved like his Mom. He sees something in you that’s worth saving, something that is savable. I won’t argue with him, he has yet to be wrong. If he is, though? You’ll die and I have no illusions I’ll get there before his parents.”
“Makes sense,” she said after a long, thoughtful pause. “Let’s get to work.”
“Tomorrow,” Fiona said coming up. “We made great time, and Pooch said the mod job won’t take long. We already have the basics, so now, you all get to hit the beds and get some sleep. No arguments,” she said warningly. Roque nodded. The medic was right, and besides, you don’t argue with the medic. That was Army Survival 101.
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"“You’re right,” Clay said calmly. “I can’t, but you do a damn fine job of that without orders."
Chapter 15: Maniacs
Everybody is acting a little crazy and it takes Cougar's cooking, Fiona's blunt honesty, and Jake's sharp wit to bring them back to center.
For non-card players a maniac is a player who does a lot of aggressive raising, betting, and bluffing. A true maniac is not a good player, but is simply doing a lot of gambling. However, a player who occasionally acts like a maniac and confuses his opponents is quite dangerous. (See Also: Jake Jensen.)
To Cougars_catnip, phoenix_173, and ValkyriePhoenix for commenting.
I might take a small hiatus soon, Holidays plus winter illness crud, not ideal for writing.
With the helicopter that they had appropriated from the Army medics repainted to fit in civilian, urban skies and reinforced as much as Pooch could with limited supplies, the team moved into action. Fiona and the kids stayed behind the projected line of possible spill-over, since she could barely handle being in the half-grown over warehouse Pooch had painted it in with it. Helicopters might be a problem for her forever, but at least today that didn’t matter. The kids were safe at the motel and she was only going near the spill line if the op went south and they needed a medic or extra gun.
Aisha hopped in beside Pooch, calmly explaining that she could survive a low altitude bailout if need be, and provided a building or trees to slowfall on, possibly save Pooch too. She was worried about small arms fire, which nobody could really blame her for, their bullet proofing was phone books. Aisha had always fought out in the open fray or in the shadows, never from anyplace fortified. With Pooch’s permission, Roque put a bullet from a comically large pistol into the side, opened the door, and showed her unblemished quilted lining.
Jensen was obviously on ‘cheer people up’ mode, and had been since the social disaster the pretty paramedic had catalyzed. Cougar still refused to clarify, and Fiona was getting grumpy he wouldn’t tell her the problem. So Jake overcompensated with his loudest, most inappropriate tee shirt, his jokes going wilder, and modifying an unconventional weapon on the grounds that ‘crossbows are cool’.
Clay monitored his team, like he always did. Alverez’s silence was a danger sign, but he needed to get farther before it became a real threat. McDunn’s grouching and slight panic, the scent not as strong now that she was back on suppressants, were more worrying for their newness. Fiona rarely got truly bad-tempered, and she never panicked. Or rather, she panicked after fixing a problem, usually with good natured fussing at the person worrying her. Cougar wasn’t letting her help him, though. That was bad. Jake trying to be liveliness enough for three was putting everyone on edge. He needed to fix this.
“Cougar, when you pick a perch to shoot from, be sure you can cover Jensen, too,” Clay said softly.
“Cougar, what I mean is, Jensen is hyper over whatever is bugging you and Fiona. He gets reckless, sloppy, acts like he has a death wish. You didn’t see that, he stopped right after you joined up with the team. But he spent one year out of his three with us before you in Base Medical. He’s the reason they hate us, because his own recklessness kept setting his recovery back, and he tended to break out to slip banned foods into the bedbound patients. Hyper Jensen gets himself half-dead. I need, Jensen needs, you to cover him. If that means shooting a threat, shoot it. If that means shooting him so he can’t do something that will last longer than a bullet? You shoot him.”
“I will not shoot Jake.”
“You say that now, but what happens if he steps into the line of fire to buy one of us time? What happens if he blows up a chemical bomb at arms-length as a distraction? He’s done that before. What happens when he decides he’s the expendable one? Do you prove him right?”
“I will not hurt Jake,” Cougar growled, his eyes flicking into reflective gold and his teeth elongating with a grating sound of growing bone. “He is my mate, I love him, and you cannot make me hurt him, Alpha or no Alpha.”
“You’re right,” Clay said calmly. “I can’t, but you do a damn fine job of that without orders. Pick your perch, you know where we’ll be stationed.” He walked off, deliberately not turning his back in a calculated move to send Cougar the message in case he missed it. If Cougar wasn’t going to protect Jake in any way necessary, if he wouldn’t talk the man down or lame him to keep him from hurting himself, then Clay didn’t consider him Pack, he considered him a threat. Cougar’s face shifted back to full human as Clay took a corner. God, he hoped that got through.
Jensen as everyone knew he would, acted like the attack on the caravan was a joke. Fiona had to stop herself from breaking cover to go over and yell at him. As it was, she barely got a decent shot at the leg of the man shooting at Pooch and Aisha with what was decidedly NOT a small firearm. The pain distracted him enough that the pair got away with only minor damage to a billboard, though, so she counted it as a win. She slipped away into the screaming crowd easily, and melted the gun with her hands before tossing it in a sewer drain. The burning plastic of the grip masked her own scent and she moved through a small department store, being bombarded by extra perfume scents, before circling back to the warehouse, where Cougar was pumping gasoline into the van.
“So, if they decide to be dumb, you want me to fry them?” she asked, mostly relaxed.
“If they decide to be dumb, their own muzzle-flare will fry them,” Clay said. “Help on the teeth would be appreciated after, though. I’d prefer it if the only people who see your fire are dead.”
“You’ve seen my fire plenty,” she pointed out as Jensen prepared to pop the doors.
“And I’m dead, what’s your point?” he asked her as the guards piled out. Then he was busy explaining why firing a weapon was dumb.
Jake grabbed the package they were transporting and Aisha swore violently.
“It looks like these men have served their purpose,” she growled an octave too low. Fiona didn’t like that, Aisha’s other side caused her pain, letting it out could be dangerous.
“I agree,” she interrupted. “Allow me.” She snapped her fingers to disguise the feathery source of sparks that hit the ground a little shy of the fuel pooling on the ground. “Unless they want to be helpful, tell us where Max is and what he’s interested in.”
“Who the fuck is Max?” asked the leader.
“Wrong answer,” Fiona said, brushing a wet lock of hair off his face. “Bye.” Her hand became flaming feathers and he went up like a firework, the rest of the guards roasting as well, her fire spreading fast.
“I thought I told you to wait,” Clay said as she stepped back from the flames.
“That lighter was a gift,” she shrugged. “And they annoyed me.”
Cougar was seeing what Clay had talked about, how Jake and Fiona were acting differently. Reckless, brutal, near suicidal. He wasn’t sure it was anything he could fix, but he had to try. Another situation and that coldly uncaring use of her fire could have gotten Fi chased by hunters. Jake’s motormouth almost got him spotted at the attack on the caravan. He didn’t think he could shoot them, the way Clay implied might be necessary, but he could tell they were hurting. The circling spirals they flew were out of balance, out of step with each other and with him. They’d lost some invisible center, and he had to help them get it back.
He started as he had before, with food. He tempted Jake away from his work on the drive with savory dishes he’d made in the kitchen of an understanding Cubano woman. His words were gone, lost with Jake, but almost everyone understood ‘my mates, I need to cook’ and a pain-stricken look he couldn’t fake as a justification for borrowing a restaurant’s kitchen after hours. Not all the ingredients were right, his spices had been left behind twice, one set at Bragg, one set in Bolivia. He made do, he made it work, he made the enchiladas that had brought the three of them into harmony once before.
Fiona was the first to identify the smell, looking up sharply from her kit, being reorganized from perfect to slightly more perfect again for the third time.
“Enchiladas, cheese, beef, and… holy mother of good food, you didn’t.”
Jake was up as she said ‘enchiladas’ and peering in the boxes Cougar held out. “He did. Ghost Peppers. Where did you even find those, Cougs?” he asked as he took the box with less of the reduction sauce Fiona had taught them. Cougar handed the other and a fork to Fiona, who flipped shut her kit mid-organizing, which was unheard of.
“Little Cuba, the cooks there… understand.”
“Understand what?” Fiona asked around a forkful of melted cheese and seasoned beef.
“My mates need me. So I cook.”
“You realize food was not what we wanted from you, right?” Jake asked. “We like it, but we were worried about you. Fi said not to push you, because you were acting a little traumatized, but we just wanted you back with us. I hate it when you aren’t there, I get all knotted up like spaghetti code.”
“I was here,” Cougar said in confusion. He’d been right there, the entire time they fell further away.
“No, you weren’t,” Fiona said, setting aside the box of food. “Not in your heart. Something happened when we crossed the border, and by the time we brought down the bird, you were gone. We need you, Cougar, you center us. You said once I was the scope on the rifle, making things clearer. Well to me, you’re the current in an AED, you make everything come alive when I thought it was dead. Jake is the voice instructions, telling me how, but we can’t do it without you. I can only do chest compressions so long, Cougs. I’m tired. It’s not a good look on me.”
Cougar thought about how being in his home state, even just barely, had made him ache for his family. His family who thought he was a child murderer. It had hurt, been distracting to the mission. He’d turned it off so he could focus, left a note to be passed on explaining he was innocent, and then… not turned the pain back on.
“I needed focus, but there was pain.” He looked at them, silently begging his mates to hear the words he didn’t have. “I needed to protect us, our children. It all hurt, so I made it…” he dropped off where he couldn’t explain.
“Cougs,” Jake said gently. “You can’t turn off one part of your emotions. You turn off pain, you turn off pleasure. You turn off sad, you are also turning off happy. You turn enough off and we can’t find you in there. You went radio-silent, Cougs, do you know how scary that was for us?”
“Lo siento, I did not know. I was trying to do the job, so we can go home. So you can see your families.”
“Carlos Alvarez,” Fiona snapped, her tone appalled. “I can’t believe you’d say that. Our family is right here. You, the kids, you are our family. Do I want to see my Mom, and Jess and Beth again? Of course, but my family, my heart, is standing in the room with me. And since I don’t really feel like dying of a snapped mate bond, I hope you agree.”
“Hold up,” Jake said. “Dying? When did anybody say anything about dying? Snapped bonds hurt like fuck, but they aren’t lethal.”
“For me they might be. My mom’s side has a tendency towards literal broken hearts. As in, they stop working. Now, I’m also a phoenix, so I might do what I did in the explosion, but I don’t know if it would work if I didn’t see it coming and start the shift beforehand. Or if it was a slow thing. When Dad got taken by the hunters, Mom got sick, but there was a Baba Yaga in the life-boat with us on the trip across Europe, and she did… I don’t know. But it halted the spread. Mom still won’t wear low-cut anything, she hates the cyanosis spot on her chest.”
“Carina,” Cougar said slowly, gathering his words. “You could have died from a snapped mate bond and you didn’t tell us? Ay! What were you thinking? Para una mujer tan inteligente que era muy tonta. Por qué harías eso? We could have accidentally killed you!”
“Well, doubling the bond lowered my risk,” Fiona defended weakly, he could tell this was just the same rationalizations she’s told herself. “And it felt… blackmaily. That if you broke the bond I might… so I didn’t tell you. I figured if it was going to end, I’d see it coming and ease off the bond slowly. I was more worried about the Pack bond, but by the time I could explain any of that to them… we had enough troubles without borrowing.”
“Fi,” Jake said with a scowl. “You are an idiot, but you’re our idiot. No dying allowed. Eat your crazy spicy food that Cougar made and get some sleep, you’re running on half a bar of battery. Red Medic Needs Food Now, okay?”
Cougar huffed at Jake using a riff from Gauntlet to fuss at Fiona, but his tone was fond. They’d come back, and the invisible center was apparently only invisible because it was him. His mates ate, snuggled, and rested. Tomorrow would come soon enough, now was for them.
Chapter 16: Fouled
With the two sane Losers acting a little insane, the rest of the team makes mistakes. Now they all come to a head.
For non-card players, a 'fouled' hand or card is anything that is ruled unplayable because of an irregularity, such as a hand being found with too many or too few cards, having been mixed with cards of other players or the muck, any card having fallen off the table or been revealed when it should not be.
To Cougars_catnip, wenchred, ValkyriePhoenix, and tigrislilium for comments and Sergeant_Disaster for leaving kudos.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jake got up early to finish his work on the drive. It was encrypted so heavily that he wasn’t sure even working through the night would have gotten him farther, so he didn’t correct Clay’s assumption when he walked in on Jensen hacking in his underwear while Fiona and Cougar slept.
“I hate this thing, Boss. Nothing should be this secure, the blueprints of the Pentagon, and yes I mean the full set with the secret basement levels, are not this secure. I’m going to need months to crack this on my own.”
“We don’t have months, Jake. We might not have days, what little we do have on Max says him securing anything means an abrupt and permanent change in the world order. We need what’s on there. Figure it out.”
“This isn’t a damn set of Christmas lights, Clay!” Jake barked at his leader. “It’s a Gordian knot of code. I can tell you one damn thing about it, I need a decryption key from a Goliath system computer to read the drive or it’s a really cool paperweight. Get one of the most highly paid corporate conglomerate department heads to loan me, the dead guy in knock off Deadpool boxers, his work computer, containing millions of corporate secrets each worth millions of dollars, and it’ll be cake.”
Clay looked at him and Jensen realized he’d stood up and was waving angrily. Oh crap.
“It’s good to have you back, Jensen. I’ll work on the Goliath computer for you.”
“The hell?” Jensen said as Clay nodded and walked out.
Aisha may have had a monster inside her, but that didn’t mean she was a mindless beast. She heard the mild-mannered tech specialist shouting and watched Clay walk out of the motel room smiling.
“Is that normally how you run things?” she asked him lightly.
“No,” he said evenly. “That’s how I make sure things are back to normal. Jensen was running hot under pressure, that’s good for nobody. Now he’s not. If he can yell at an Alpha, he feels safe with that Alpha. He didn’t feel he could yell at anybody the past few days.”
“So he didn’t feel safe,” Aisha followed the line of thought. “I never had an Alpha. I don’t react that way. I’m not wired right, but I contain the problem. Fadhil was the closest when I was young, and scared, and confused, but he wasn’t… my safety was not what he worried about and I knew it. I knew why. I’m hard to kill.”
“Not dead isn’t the same as safe,” Clay said in that annoyingly gentle tone, like she was a child.
“I know that Clay. I’m not an idiot. I’m also not human. Safe isn’t a concept I apply to me, it’s one I apply to people around me. If I control the beast, they stay safe.”
“And that’s what matters to you, isn’t it?” he asked with a tilt of his head.
“Isn’t that what matters to everyone?” She looked at the Ursa Shifter. “Isn’t that what matters to you?”
“It is, I’m an Alpha. That’s normal for us. Your ‘problem’ you’ve been containing isn’t not having an Alpha, it was not having a Pack. Aisha, what’s your first instinct about Pooch? Gut reaction, no thought, what does Pooch need?”
“Jolene,” she answered instantly. “He needs his mate and cub back.”
“Now think,” Clay said. “How do you know that? How many times has he said it? How many times did he mention them?”
“Of course he wants his family back, they make him happy. He talks about… no he doesn’t.” She paused. “He said her name twice, the whole time I’ve known him. I don’t even know the gender of his child. How did I know that?”
“You’re an Alpha. He’s obviously permanently mated, he mentioned a baby once, you figured out what he needed. That’s what Alphas do. We figure out what is needed. You know who my second in command is?”
“Fiona. No, no, your second is Captain Roque. I read your files.” She shook her head. Why wouldn’t her head make sense? Her control was slipping.
“Files won’t tell you anything about a Pack. You’re right. Fiona is the next best Alpha, possibly actually better but she’s never chosen to fight me on it. I’m glad because she might win. When we were floundering in Bolivia, she took care of us. Got us a home, took in kids so we had someone relying on us, a reason to live. Even Roque knows, if I get taken out, they won’t look to him, they’ll look to her. Hell, he’ll look to her.”
“Because she knows what they need.” This felt right, her sense of self was settling under her skin.
“Yes. And you know what they need, too. You’re an Alpha, Aisha.”
“No,” she denied. Her arms wrapped around her middle. “I’m not. I’m no leader. I play people and I’m good at it, that’s all.”
“If you aren’t ready, you aren’t ready. But half of what I do is play my own team like a flute,” he said. “They know I’m doing it, usually. When they don’t is when I worry, because they aren’t paying attention. You pay attention, usually, at least to us. You might try paying some to yourself. I’ll see you at breakfast.”
“Wait!” she called as he walked to his room. “Why don’t we… go over plans, before breakfast?”
“Because I know what will happen if we do, and you already said you aren’t willing to be the Alpha female of this Pack.”
He walked off. Shit.
Roque couldn’t say he was surprised by Aisha and a bottle of whisky appearing at the door of the room he and Pooch shared. A bit disappointed Clay hadn’t handled it better, but not surprised. He’d been looking for signs since Clay got gentle with her.
“What happened?” Pooch asked as Roque sat her down and pried the whiskey loose.
“My bet, Clay, in his ever so graceful way, dropped the A-bomb.”
“I’m not an Alpha,” Aisha insisted.
“Sure you aren’t Sis, why don’t you help Pooch pick the right shade of lipstick or whatever for making up with his woman. I gotta go kill Clay.”
“Oi!” Pooch shouted as he left. “No actual damage, you hear me? Fi will be pissed if she can’t fix it.”
Roque rolled his eyes. Time to go threaten a superior officer with death and dismemberment. Again. Why did he like these people?
Fiona woke to Cougar placing Estella between them in the bed.
“Hola beautiful, what brings you here?”
“Tio Clay and Tio Roque are fighting. ‘Mina took Iggy off to find Daddy and keep him safe.”
“Ay, those men. Stay here with your Papa, okay, sweetie?” Estella nodded and Cougar caught her eyes to pass a message of sympathy.
Fiona barged into the room Clay had rented and barreled a shoulder between her commanding officer and his XO who was sporting a raised bruise on his cheek. A moment's look told her it was nothing serious. “Ay! Someone is telling me what this is about, or this will not be about.”
“I’m gonna cut his head off!” Roque growled.
“Good for you,” she dismissed. “Now tell me why.”
“He’s unhappy how I handled a new Alpha in the Pack,” Clay said.
“Oh. Proceed,” she told Roque. “Just try to keep him quiet, you spooked the kids.”
“SERIOUSLY?” demanded Clay.
“With Aisha’s mental health the way it is, you should have first talked to the informed and competent medical officer. I could have told you not to do that. Now I have to go mop our newest packmate off a floor somewhere. Where is she?” she asked Roque.
“Room with Pooch, talking make-up, I think.”
“Alright, have fun, keep it down, and put this one in the ‘not actually the woman, just Clay interacting with the woman’ category. Make my children or Jake cry and I’ll cauterize shut things not meant to be cauterized at all.”
“Jake?” Clay asked, concerned.
“Large angry Alpha doing violence within the Pack. Where do you think his head went? Minimize my clean-up gentlemen.”
Clay looked stricken and stood down. Roque backed up a step as well. “Shit. This didn’t… his shit with… I didn’t put him…” Roque stalled out.
“All I know is Estella came to tell me Azmina is caring for her brother and her daddy. My little girl should not have to do that. Fix your shit, I’m needed elsewhere.” She stormed off to check on Aisha.
“I’m not an Alpha,” were the first words the other woman said.
“Okay. That’s good, I don’t want a challenge anyway.”
“I’m the female Alpha of the Pack. I’m not mated to Clay, thank the gods, but I fill the role. If you were joining us as an Alpha we’d have to figure out where you fit. That means questions I don’t have time for. Do you take that role? Do I keep it, even though I know Clay would be more interested in mating with you? Do you let me keep the place of Alpha among my mates? Do we leave rather than risk the mate-bond? Do you pose threat to my children? Okay the last one is dumb and outdated, but it’s still a question I have to ask. If you aren’t an acting Alpha, no harm no foul.”
“Clay needs to learn to keep his mouth shut. Yes, you have the potential to be one. Deciding to develop it is on you. Mythicals and our offspring have that choice. It’s like being bi, Jake and Cougar had the ability to love men, and women. But who they invest the time and energy into is who they wind up with, in that case, best of both worlds. I’m also bi, but I decided to let my attraction to women, and men really, take second place to my love of medicine and saving people. I didn’t need it in my way. When it became something I did need, I wound up needing it with two men. I can still find women sexually attractive, but I don’t act on it. Why would I? I’m happily mated. You can decide you don’t want the commitment of being the Alpha, the heavy burden, and choose to ignore your instincts to care for us in ways we don’t even see, or do that and just not take the name. You can decide that following an Alpha is too hard on your past traumas, and reject that role too. Or embrace it, the feeling of someone else carrying the weight, of knowing someone is always watching your safety and happiness. Or embrace the satisfaction of caring for people. It won’t change your potentials, just what you do with them.”
“Being an Alpha isn’t a choice,” Aisha hissed.
“Not for them. For us? We’ll always be both Alpha and Follower. What we are in any moment as they see it will be what we do. But we will always be both.” She clasped her hand and Aisha’s together. Brown contrasted pale, the callouses just as thick but in different spots. “Either, Neither, you pick your action, but you are Both. So am I. And that’s alright. It means we can adapt. Adaption is how humans took the dominant species slot when the bodies don’t exactly match that ‘the fittest’ thing.”
“I’m not human.”
“So?” Fiona asked. “Neither is my mom, and I’d like to see the asshole who thinks he can take her try to convince her that means she’s lesser than. You want some orange juice? I want orange juice. Pooch, do we have orange juice?”
“Yeah, we got some, anything else?”
“Find where my kids stashed Jensen for me?”
“Can do. Clay dead?”
“Not when I left. Probably not at all, Roque found out Jake and the kids were up and heard….”
“And now he’s twitchy. I’ll handle it,” Pooch said easily, passing her the cheap vending machine bottles. Fiona passed one to Aisha and cracked hers open with her free hand, the other still holding the woman coming out of shock.
“Pooch acts like both,” Aisha said as he left.
“Yeah, he does,” Fiona said as she took a sip. “He’s getting ready to be a dad, that makes them all act like both. He knows Jolene is his Alpha in the relationship, but she’s pregnant enough defending herself is hard, so he has to be. Any time the normal Alpha can’t be that, the others try to do that too. It’s rough on them emotionally. That’s why there are usually at least two acting Alphas in a pack larger than one mate set and the offspring.”
“Sometimes more. If you wanted to be an Alpha to us, we could fit you. But you said you don’t. We can deal with it later. Drink the juice, and don’t think about it for a while.”
“Drink the juice… I can do that.”
My tumblr is bairnsidhe.tumblr.com
“I am the prettiest of Princesses,” Jake agreed solemnly. “I even do rapid clothing changes and musical numbers."
Chapter 17: Bluff
Jake pulls the Goliath op.
For non-card players, a bluff in card games is to bet or raise holding a hand you believe to be weak, either to make money or to disguise play patterns. A bluff in regular life can be anything that makes you seem not what you appear, like Jensen does here. Gosh I love puns.
To Cougars_catnip, quadrad, tigrislilium, and ValkyriePhoenix for commenting, and to elemgi for leaving kudos.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The group got back into the RV to head for the United States Headquarters of Goliath Multinational. Pooch had had enough of his Pack bickering and breaking down, so before he turned out of the parking lot, he turned off the engine and looked back at Clay and Roque, who still weren’t looking at each other, Jake, the kids, or Aisha.
“All right, look. We're not going anywhere until you two squash this problem.”
“Pooch, we're on a schedule here,” Clay complained. “Let's go.” Yeah, like that was going to work, they had plenty of time and Pooch knew his commanding officer was aware of the issues. He just didn’t like feelings or dealing with them.
“Oh, "we're on a schedule?" That’s where you’re going? The Pooch has broken land-speed records on every continent except Antarctica. But you gonna look me in the eye after what you pulled and tell me we’re on a schedule? Fine, we go nowhere.” He pulled the keys out and tossed them to Fiona, who would know when to give them back. She had a good read for how much was enough.
“Please keep in mind you are talking in front of my children, Sir,” she said. The ‘set a good example or else grievous bodily harm will befall you and no one will fault me for it’ was implied. Estella giggled and nudged Iggy.
“Tio Clay is in trouble,” she sing-songed.
Clay sighed. “Roque... I'm sorry I hit you in the face.”
“That was good,” Pooch said, smiling past Clay at the kids. “That was a good sorry. Roque? You wanna get in on this? Or we going without you?”
“Tio Roque is in trouble too,” sang Azmina, and Ignacio started to smile. Roque’s façade crumbled.
“Clay... I'm sorry I threatened to cut your head off.”
“VERY good!” Pooch complimented him. Look at them, talking like grown second graders. Just about enough to make a man’s heart grow three sizes like in that children’s book Jensen liked to do dramatic readings of. “Wow. Don't you two feel so much better?”
“NO.” Clay and Roque insisted with identical glares. Pooch smiled into the rearview as he caught the keys.
“I don't care, because I feel great. I say we go watch Jensen almost get himself killed, yeah?” Turning on the engine, he glanced at the kids. “He always winds up getting rescued,” he reassured them. He didn’t want to make them afraid, but the smiles said they didn’t think it was a risk. “I can tell you guys know it’s great family fun, don’t you?”
“Daddy is the pretty Princess,” Ignacio said out of nowhere.
“I am the prettiest of Princesses,” Jake agreed solemnly. “I even do rapid clothing changes and musical numbers. Disney would be lucky to get their hands on my story.”
“That makes Papa the Handsome Prince,” Estella said and Cougar tipped his hat to her.
“Then who’s your Mama?” Aisha asked with one brow up.
“The good fairy,” Azmina answered without hesitation. Every single Loser lost it as Fiona turned bright red, matching her hair and Pooch pulled onto the highway.
Jensen had not been kidding when he told his kids he did clothing changes and musical numbers on ops, he had found that while clothing helped change a character, it was the voice that sold most of his cons. Any shifter worthy of the name could track a scent, which is why each set of clothing was washed in a different cologne, but sapiens could care less about scent unless it was obnoxious. Now voices, voices could fool anybody. So, he paired his cheap frat house blend with a bright and ugly delivery outfit, and had Fiona run him the karaoke track of Can’t Stop Believing in his iPod com. That was a distinctive character nobody would forget, and in fact, nobody would get on the elevator with him either. Not that Jake blamed them, he did not have the right vocal register to sing Journey, and he made it very clear he intended to keep singing. Nobody had the patience to deal with that in an enclosed space. Which gave him the room to strip down, spray scent neutralizer on himself, and change into the mild-scented Skippy from Tech Support. In theory.
In actuality, because Jake was a living example of the Law of Murphy, he got stopped mid change while Fiona was on the coms waiting for a transfer to Anderson’s office to convince him to leave. He was caught, quite literally pants down, in front of a group of women. As always when confronted with women and socially awkward situations, Jake opened his mouth to defuse the situation… and made things worse.
“Ladies, liking the uh, angle of the dangle?” Despite the social awkwardness, a few gave him a look that said yes, they did like the angle of his dangle, and Jake back pedaled as fast as possible by letting his back hit the wall of the elevator and yanking down his tee shirt to show his mate mark. Really rude, but at least they left it at appreciative glances.
“Jake, what the hell?” Clay asked. The doors closed with a ding.
“Either Fiona is right and I actually can be attractive to females, or somebody spiked the coffee on floor fifteen with sex pollen. I uh, had to show my mate-mark.”
“They were licking their lips, Clay, what was I supposed to do?” he asked as he shrugged Skippy’s violet and chamomile scented shirt on. He chewed a handful of grapefruit candies to artificially lower his perceived age. Nobody knew why people reacted to those who smelled faintly of grapefruit as younger, but they did and with Jensen’s face, he could, aided with candy, gum or cough drops range his age from early twenties to mid-thirties. Forty if he was willing to chew Nicorette.
“Hello, Mister Anderson, this is Rachel Kurtz from Internal Security,” Fiona said on the line. “I would like you to come meet me in the lobby.”
“Can I ask what this is about,” came the scratchy sound of a relay from Fiona’s line to Anderson.
“Well, it’s a matter of a somewhat sensitive nature involving an individual, ah, exposing himself to women in the elevator.” Jake choked back a laugh and swallowed his candy. Trust Fi to fit his own faux pas into her ruse. “Nasty business, best discussed in person.”
“I’ll be right there,” he said as Jake settled his awkward geek persona into place. Neatly grabbing the door for Anderson as he stormed out, he slipped in to the office, introducing himself in a bright, overly pleasing tone. He tapped his ID card and put stress on the word ‘Tech’ to give the secretary the impression of an eager young man given an assignment that he felt could make or break his career.
“I like your dress,” he said, tossing her off entirely as he plugged into the computer. At the speeds Jake could use them, hardly anyone could tell he wasn’t actually installing a firewall. As he packed up, he got confronted by his worst mission related nightmare. A guard who knew the identity he’d snagged. You can’t hack people. Crap.
“Clay, I need an exit!” Fiona heard on her coms as Anderson tried valiantly not to stare at her cleavage. Thank all the gods for self-aware sexists, he was totally off balance as she lectured him on sexual harassment and the liability of Goliath Multinational in lawsuits. She couldn’t help Jensen directly, but she could help with moral support, re-engaging his musical track with her phone as she called up camera footage with the capture program Jake put on there of his obnoxious messenger getting on the elevator, complete with dance moves. She swallowed her anxiety and pointed out the lewdness of certain dance moves.
“Circle around the north side of the building,” Clay coached on the line through the light strains of music. “You’ll have cover.”
“I have you, Carino,” Cougar told his mate. “There’s a big glass window by the elevators. The prince rescues the princess, remember.” Dear Mother of God, let it be true, he added silently. Don’t let this be the day Jake goes too far, don’t let this be the day my aim is not enough or my firing not fast. Let me protect my family.
Jake entered his field of vision on the scope, shooting a glance at the most likely perches as he jabbed the elevator button. “Come on, come on,” Jake groaned softly. Three guards came in, guns drawn.
“Carino, I have you. Deep breath, make me a good signal for the two at the sides, the one in the middle has you for a shield.”
“Well this just got serious,” Jake sighed.
Jake honestly had no idea what he was doing. He tried not to have any idea what he was doing aside from Cougar’s instructions about handling the middle man himself and signaling Cougar for the other shots. His brain would only get in the way as he used the plan that always, somehow, worked. Going with the crazy.
He settled his shoulders and made clear finger-guns to point at the three men. One was a Wolf Shifter, another a fox of some sort, they would smell a lie, but they couldn’t smell the crazy. That’s why the crazy was the one plan that always worked, even if it did give him a hit to the dignity. “I'm warning you, I am a lethal killing machine. It was a secret government experiment. They did stuff to me. Spooky stuff...” he trailed off to give the impression of remembering. He was actually wondering what freaked most guys out aside from castration, and he knew he couldn’t pull on that, he’d mated too recently with Fiona. “Anal stuff,” he finally settled on, letting Coug’s soft huff of laughter sooth him into a worrying level of calm. “It turned me into a dangerous telekinetic. As the ancient Tibetan Philosophy states, don't start none, won't be none,” he bullshitted with extreme conviction. For a moment, he thought he’d gotten them on the first try. The two Shifters were having a sub-auditory conversation of some kind that while he didn’t know them well enough to figure out words, seemed to be going in favor of not fucking with Batshit Man, powers or no powers. Not the sapien, though.
“Telekinetic your way outta this,” he said, holding up silver handcuffs. Jake could see the difference in the metal, and the uneasy glance of the others, as he jerked a finger-gun and let out a loud cry to cover the glass breaking behind him. The music swelled, encouraging him not to stop believing as he indicated the suddenly more aggressive vulpine Shifter with another “pow!” and a snap of the finger-guns. Training both on the one Wolf who was still standing, he snarled.
“Face down, or I make your heart stop beating with my mind,” he growled. He’d known enough Wolf Shifters to know even the campiest threat would work with sufficient cause- like proven threat to more dominant pack members- and the very alpha-ish sapien and the aggressive fox, who would admittedly probably heal up before Jake could skip town, were still on the floor as evidence. He stayed in character long enough for the guy to get to the ground. Once there he sighed and flashed an okay at the window. “Thank you, Cougar.”
“De nada, come home safe. We can try for another ‘secret government experiment’ when you do,” he teased. “I suppose we were keeping it secret, did in a way work for the government, and with our respective histories, it was experimental.”
“The best lies aren’t lies,” Aisha said on the com. “But please, for our sake, lie about that when you all are on open coms. I did not need that mental image, thank you.”
Jake blushed and ducked on the elevator with his case and let the doors slam shut before anyone could recover from either shots or shock.
No teaser today, I'm wiped out from holiday stuff.