Allegro, con violenze
Before the team, before the Losers, there was just him and Holly. And he talked fast and confident and made jokes and pulled off miracles. Because he was the big brother, because he was Jake, and he was all Holly had. Because first she was just too young, and then the ugly part of reality set in: the part that said a smart, stupidly fearless fifteen year old boy could survive a lot more shit than an average, kind, caring thirteen year old girl, and that didn't change much with time or years. He could get away with things she could never do.
Could take getting hit harder, too, and that mattered, until their dad finally kicked off.
Then there was Bethy. Almost a lesson in what seventeen year old girls really couldn't get away with. Now Bethy was perfect, now Bethy was the best thing that happened to either of them. But then, back then, she almost sank the whole thing, after their dad died and everything looked like it might be home-free. Then they weren't: then there was a baby. And if Jake never has to remember how hard Holly cried, because they couldn't afford . . . well, anything, he'll probably die a happy man.
Bethy's everything a mom, an uncle could ever want, but she was almost the end.
Instead, she was the best thing that ever happened, and she was the cause of the second best thing, because fucked if Jake would have thought of the military if he hadn't needed the medical - the medical, more than the money. He could get money other places; it was easy enough to get money, at least in batches. It was hard to get obstetric care, even mediocre obstetric care; the easiest way to get it was to enlist and make Holly his dependent. Then they were still the only thing each of them had, except they were miles away and Jake was getting shot at.
He started off in the Army, but that didn't last long. He wound up with Lt. Col. Franklin Clay's Losers because he pissed somebody off.
Jake was good at that. He talked too much, because talking was like siphoning off the pressure in his head. Their dad, he almost never talked, he just hit people instead; sometimes Jake thinks his brain decided that meant that talking a lot - all the time - would keep him from turning into his father. Sometimes he thinks this has more merit than you'd expect: his two "striking a superior officer" citations were from times he'd been trying to keep his mouth shut, until everything boiled over and he lost it.
It's a trade-off. Always a trade-off. He talks too much instead, and half the time what he says pisses people right the hell off - so he got wished on the guy everyone else kind of wished would go away, would disappear, but who kept pulling off miracle missions instead. Sometimes Jake thinks it was supposed to be sabotage.
Instead, because he is good at what he does, thanks, the Losers got better.
And because the Losers were what they were, are what they are, Jake found home.
He felt fuck-off guilty about that for a while, because "home" was supposed to mean "little sister". But when he got State-side on leave, it was to find out that Holly had a part-time job at the school as a playground monitor. It was a good job; it was a job that let her take Bethy with her, meant she didn't need daycare. And she had friends, moms and dads of the kids at the school and the women from her pregnancy support group.
If she was still a good five to ten years younger than the most of them, they were good at looking after her, they were good for her, and he didn't have to carry her alone anymore.
Jake had exactly ten minutes of screaming jealousy at being replaced.
Then it was all relief, the kind that makes you want to send out thank-you cards. Because going on regular suicide missions (us against fifty dudes with AKs, it'd been funny because it's how it always turns out, more or less) meant he got paid more, which meant he could send Holly more money . . . but it also seriously upped the chances of him getting killed. Now, that wouldn't be the end of it; now, he wouldn't be leaving her and Bethy completely alone.
And Bethy still counted as the best thing that ever happened.
It worked like this:
The colonel liked him because Franklin Clay liked misfits who gave the system the middle finger, at least a little bit, and then because Clay gets possessive of his team, because that's how the colonel is. Jensen was okay with that, is still. It's nice to know someone cares if you get your head blown off.
Roque hadn't ever liked him, frankly, but Jake Jensen fit under the spot in Captain William Roque's head labelled my team and he didn't have to like his team, he just had to live with them. At least until the bonds of my team gave way in the face of self-interest.
Pooch liked him because of all of the people on the team, Pooch was the one you could actually call a good person, just by being who he was - the boss tried, Roque didn't, Jake Jensen pretended hard. And then there was Cougar. Jake had assumed Cougar hated him for ages, until the first time Cougar got mad at Jensen for endangering his own life; the first time Cougar'd given him the shortest, most succinct lecture he's ever got, after the all-clear. Cougar was two people, really. The good person, the safe person, the person kids would fucking run to under fire - and then the guy you could tell to kill everything that moved that he could see, and he would, provided what moved wasn't an unarmed kid.
Once upon a time, Jake suspects that had been provided it wasn't a kid. Then there was Afghanistan, which even Jensen doesn't know the story for. Afghanistan changed it. Now if a kid has a gun there's a dead kid, same as anyone else with a gun, and Cougar just gets quietly drunk later.
And slowly, Jake realized that these people had his back; and slowly, he realized he really was home; and slowly, he stopped thinking of himself as Jake except in Holly's house. He started thinking of himself as Jensen instead, because that's what they called him, because that's who he was, who he could become. A little bit of magical thinking: like he could be the better person, like he could make it all safely knit together. Like he just be the lighthearted dork who could be insanely brave and save lives (take the less lethal option) because someone would save his ass if he did something stupid, and switch everything else off.
Like the name he used to think about himself could be a kind of spell to keep it that way.
Jensen has a lot more fun in the world; Jensen's a better guy, a better friend, better soldier, and Jensen doesn't have to look over his shoulder every day of his life, waiting for the axe to fall. The only time he's Jake anymore is when his sister's there, a talisman of the other home - and with Bethy, who changes the spell by putting Uncle in front.
Sometimes he doesn't think Jake really exists anymore.
Jake shakes loose with Clay's single-word, single sound of explanation at the port, when they know they're all going to die. The way the colonel says Roque rips through Jake's lungs, as everything about home goes sideways and it's not just death, it's everything. They're not just going to die; they're going to die and the world just broke. Fucking Roque just ripped a fucking hole in it, opened it up to the vacuum.
So if he had a crush on Aisha before, he resigns himself to being more than a little bit in love with her when she steps into that hole complete with fucking rocket-launcher (and on top of everything, how badass is that?); it's like the whole world wrenches almost back into place. If he's even a bit more ridiculous than normal in the space afterwards (It makes you sound like a pirate!), well, they're all doing the shoot-for-your-life thing and it fucking well is a vibrating easter-egg from Hell, so nobody notices. Or at least, nobody says anything about noticing.
In turn, Jake doesn't say a goddamn thing about how well Aisha slides into the place where Roque used to be - better than Roque, and if it's a bit of treason to think it it's nothing to Roque's, so fuck that. He just keeps quiet, and just tries to let Jensen slide back into place. Tries to ignore the part where home isn't safe yet. Not because of Max. They can handle Max, that's something he's absolutely sure about. It might take a while, but they can do it. No, not because of Max, but because when they do finish with him, Jake doesn't know what their new 2IC is going to do. She might break everything. Which means that logic (a certain kind of logic) dictates they get rid of her as soon as possible.
The trouble is, they need her. Now, and maybe forever. She's in that place. She fills the hole that Roque left - and without that, they'd probably bleed to death. Metaphorically speaking.
Instead they're . . . almost better than they were before.
Frankly, Aisha and Clay fight less than Clay and Roque. It's just louder and more shit gets broken. It's intrusive, sure, but Jensen'd rather hear it. Rather know that everything's right out in the open where everyone can get a good look, than have there be the festering, quiet battles of will that put Roque in whatever the fuck place was that made him do what he did. Whatever stupid fucking thought it was.
It's not peaceful, not always, but it doesn't matter. When Aisha thinks a plan is fuck-off stupid, she'll say so and she'll have reasons, and she's still their bankroll (because in addition to Fadhil's little trust-fund, she's got investments everywhere, she's like Bruce Wayne, it's fucking crazy) so Clay has to listen if she won't move.
It makes Pooch roll his eyes; most of the time, he gives up in disgust and goes to do something somewhere else, calling, Let me know when the happy couple are done, okay? as he does it. But even in private, he never suggests she should go, so Jensen figures even he can see the difference.
Jake can't find an answer. So Jensen is an uneasy veneer over Jake, and Jake's the part that's panicking, and he did not need to know how fragile the difference was. Pretty much the only thing that lets him make it work is that, for some reason he has yet to explain to Jensen (not that this is new), Cougar's dead certain that Aisha's not going to kill Clay.
Even when it's all over.
That might be because Cougar intends to kill her himself, which he's good at. Could easily be that. People lose track of him, because of the quiet, or sometimes they think they've got his number when he's got about twenty more (metaphorically speaking) to pull. So maybe that's his game. Or maybe he knows something Jensen doesn't, which is always possible, even likely.
But when Cougar knows something he tends to be right. And if there's anyone more invested in this team than Jensen, it's Carlos Alvarez, which is why it was always going to be him that killed Roque, no matter what the circumstances. And Cougar says he knows it's not going to happen.
So Jake kind of goes to uneasy sleep, and Jensen can be outraged at Aisha for betting against the Petunias even if Pooch gave her points (and what the hell was that, Pooch?) and home can be home, for now.
But he can't quite stop looking for signs.
Jolene likes Aisha, too, which is a pretty solid character reference. Jensen doesn't have his sister's take, because Holly hasn't met her yet, because she was still so mad at Jake for being alive and not telling her at all ("It's called the internet, you fuckhead, it's called fucking anonymous webbased fucking emails do not fucking give me that bullshit I thought you were dead and so did Bethy!") that she wasn't technically talking to him, at the time of the soccer-match. And it was never a good idea to introduce Holly to new people when she technically wasn't talking to him. Especially not dangerous people who had technically shot him once, even if Jensen now absolutely believed that Aisha'd grazed his arm instead of aiming for real center of mass on purpose, which meant she never meant to kill him. Holly could be all unreasonable about that.
And then they had to split: it was one thing to know that going after them in the middle of New Hampshire or Maine was taking shit public and that Max had a lot more to lose if shit went public than they did. It was another thing entirely to tempt fate.
But what holds, what the anchor is, is Cougar's sure that it'll all turn out fine. It's probably a full round of stupid that Jensen believes him even if he doesn't have the first fucking clue why Cougar thinks so. But the thing about Cougar is that he doesn't actually lie, even when he's not saying shit. If he doesn't say it with words, it's there in his body, and that, Jensen knows pretty well by now. He gives Cougar shit about not trusting the quiet ones because it's a joke between them, because Jensen can read him like a book and the most that happens is that sometimes, sometimes that book is shut tight and all you know then is that Cougar is fuck-off unhappy.
Cougar's the lynchpin of what's keeping Jensen together.
That means when the mission turns out to be a trap, because these things happen, and it all goes south, and Cougar's the one who doesn't make it to rendezvous - it means Jensen shatters into a thousand tiny pieces, and Jake is all that's left.
Pooch needs a hospital, and badly.
They're back in fucking Bolivia, although that's just a stupid coincidence, and only matters because of another kind of magical thinking. The kind that believes in curses and jinxes and fixed bad luck; the kind that says Bolivia is bad news for the Losers. They're in fucking Bolivia and the camp's in the middle of the forest again. And if they're really, really lucky Pooch can get into Trinidad and a hospital in time. If he doesn't move around a lot and the ribs don't go into his lung.
Jensen might give his friend playful shit for getting shot in the leg again and adding a broken arm and broken ribs this time. He might needle Pooch, and if nobody would admit it, everyone'd be a little less fucked up when he was done.
Jensen's not really here, though, and coming from Jake it wouldn't be playful. And since what Pooch did to get these injuries is pretty much what saved them all (the four of them left, don't mind the empty space in the corner, what filled it never talked anyway) it's out of line.
Besides, Pooch is stoned out on morphine and only half-conscious. So Jake keeps his mouth shut, reloads, refills everything, and doesn't bother fucking saying that he's going back. Because if anyone argues with him he's going to fucking shoot them.
He's always known there are things he just can't do. He was just kind of hoping he'd never run up against one of them.
Let alone this one.
The colonel gives Jake that look he gets when things are completely fucked, all hollow and empty; and the colonel says, quietly, "You know he's probably already dead."
Which is less giving up, and more - fuck, honestly, more a dad not wanting to lose two of his kids in one day. But Jake has gone to a lot of work not to put Clay and "dad" in the same thought, because of all that underlies that whole idea in his head and how ugly it gets. And now is not the time to test; now is not the time to try the boundaries of that. Not when Clay's saying this.
It's not that Clay's wrong. He's right. This is something they all know. They aren't the army. They aren't the rest of anything. They are ghosts, they are invisibles, they are the ones that get the dirty jobs, the ugly ones. They are the ones that know that sometimes, you do fucking cut your losses and in their world, people do get left behind.
"He's dead when I see a fucking body," Jake says, not loud and not quiet and not open for discussion. He ignores the way Aisha looks up from where she's sewing her arm closed, ignores the way her face turns speculative. He can't really deal with her right now. He can't deal with anything right now.
Clay doesn't argue. Just looks at Jake for a bit with a different expression, the one that says the wheels are turning. Then he says, "Aisha, you're going with him."
Jake says, immediately, "I don't need her," because Jake doesn't trust her, and right now he doesn't want anything to do with anything he doesn't trust. It's impulse more than sense; it's a world of Do Not Want.
"Yes, you do," she answers, quiet and simple with none of the exasperation or the contempt she can pull out, and Jake's not quite sure what to think of that. But before he can say anything she's talking to the colonel: "You know Trinidad?" and when Clay says yes, there's a string of directions and a name, a doctor, Lev Ortiz.
"You trust him?" Clay asks, because that matters, now.
Aisha half-smiles - that is, the corner of her mouth turns up and her eyes don't move at all - and she's got the trace of accent she does sometimes, Arabic, when she says, "He was in love with my mother. Tell him I sent you, and yes, I do."
The colonel accepts it. They're in the land of utterly fucked if it's not true, anyway. Jake doesn't bother arguing any more, because even if he doesn't want anything to do with the woman who might disappear completely and finish wrecking everything, the part of him that's got a brain knows that completely on his own he's probably dead. And the colonel's got twenty years on both of them. It's just smarter if Clay takes Pooch into Trinidad, if Aisha goes with Jake.
It doesn't matter, anyway. Girlfriend can come if she wants.
Jake uses the time she takes to finish getting ready to boot up the satellite connection and send Holly a message: Might really die this time. Email when I can if I live. I love you, and I love Bethy; tell her for me.
If it weren't Cougar, Holly might shit a brick - but she's been giving Jake shit about when he was going to just give up and admit he had a boyfriend for years now, so this time, he thinks she'll understand.
By the time he's done, Aisha's ready to go.
They make good time. Really good. Jake wonders if he'll ever stop being amazed that Aisha can keep up; it's pure prejudice on his part, and he knows it, but it's still there. Today, he's still amazed, so today isn't that day.
Aisha's not bad to work with. She doesn't bother talking while they move, and that's almost comfortable, which is weird.
What makes it not comfortable, not really, is the awareness that she's watching him the whole damn time, that the wheels are turning behind her eyes, and he doesn't know how to read her yet. Not well enough to figure out what those wheels are turning towards. What that look says, what it indicates inside her skull.
So he doesn't know what conclusions she's drawing, or what that might mean.
When they do stop to piss, she asks, "Do you honestly think he's still alive?" and if it were a rhetorical question Jake might just rip her head off and he's not sure he's speaking figuratively. But it's not: it's a real question. It's something she wants to know. And it's a pretty fucking reasonable one, too, and one that might have stumped him back at the camp. But he actually has an answer now, even if he figured it out while they were moving, not before he decided what he was going to do.
Jake takes a breath, and tries (and here's for irony) to figure out how to put words around it, around what he knows. It's simple in his head: he can't get inside Max's brain most of the time because they have no fucking idea what he's actually doing, so it's hard to find the place to start with, but the fucker isn't actually complicated. Psychopaths rarely are. And they think everyone on the world works at least a little bit like them.
Jake says, "Max is exactly the kind of fucking idiot who would think Cougar could tell him shit about us he doesn't already know." He glances over, takes the canteen she hands him to put it back in his bag. "He works in webs and plans and intricate fucking bullshit and he thinks everyone else does, too. It doesn't fucking occur to him that some people have a really simple goal, and try to get there in a straight line."
"Okay," Aisha says, like she's still collating fucking data, and he wishes he knew to what end. But she sounds like she thinks he's got a point, so that's something. She just asks, "Then do you think he's still here?" and that's the fucking question he doesn't want to dwell on.
"You seen a helicopter yet?" Jake retorts. "Heard one?"
"No," she grants.
"Let me know if you do."
They get moving again after that, and sink back into silence. She doesn't ask what kind of shape he expects to find Cougar in, or what they'll do when they find him. Jake appreciates that, because he doesn't want to fucking think about it. Because he knows exactly what the possibilities are, has seen the aftermath before, and he can't go there right now.
He's honestly down to hoping Cougar's eyes and fingers and legs all still work (can recover), because he thinks if Cougar can still shoot, if he can still be Cougar, then he can live through anything else. It might suck, it might be Hell, but as long as that's there and they're there (Jensen and Pooch and Clay and even Aisha, home and purpose in life), Cougar can survive.
Jake just doesn't want to actually think about what there might be to survive. It won't help anything; it'll just make him sick, and angry enough to be stupid.
Stupider than this already is.
But there are things he's always known he can't do, and walking away from this, leaving Cougar behind, that's one of them. Even if it's probably what Cougar'd want him to do, and even if Cougar's probably going to kill him, assuming they survive. Jake doesn't give a shit.
Assuming they survive, maybe later he'll figure out what Aisha's thinking right now. If it matters.
"Allegro con violenze" - rapidly, with violence
She's used to watching people. Cataloguing their responses, sorting out what each thing makes them do or not do. It lets her run the games she wants to run; it lets her get what she needs.
You can't actually run a game well on more than one person, which is why she focused on Clay, but she'd read Roque, too. Once her head cleared. Once she started thinking again. Once the gut-kick of knowing she lay right beside her father's killer wore off and years of thought-patterns, of habits came crashing back.
And the quiet defeat in the words It's a good plan come through, the way Roque stopped trying to kill her settled, and she figured out they, the boys, were royally fucked.
Aisha hasn't come up with a reason why she didn't let them die there, not a satisfactory one. It turns out lucky she did - she didn't know Max was planning to blow the port, just that the mission was a trap. But luck wasn't something she counted on; she didn't think God was looking out for her much, and didn't believe in fairy-godmothers.
She wanted to know why she did it.
She could tell herself it was because they were her best chance of getting Max. That if Clay had pulled the trigger, he was only at her father's compound because of Max in the first place - and that's setting aside what'll happen to the world, if Max is allowed to go unchecked. She could tell herself it was because she wanted to kill Clay herself. And they were true, these reasons, but they weren't true enough.
Aisha's not in the habit of lying to herself. It's a good way to get royally fucked; a lie to yourself is a blindspot you can't cover. And Clay's ego aside, it wasn't him, either. He was attractive enough, but the attraction died with knowing her father's blood was on his hands - and it had only been enough for playing him not to be unpleasant, in the first place.
These reasons, the one she knows, are not enough to explain why she watched a girls' soccer game, bet on it, and kept Jensen from killing the ref. Or why she helped get Pooch into the hospital. They definitely don't explain why she'd loved every minute of both. Or why she's sleeping better now than she had since her mother died - sleeping better in camps and on missions with four men who know when it comes to the end of this, they're going to have to try to kill her to keep her from killing Clay.
She can't figure out what the hell is going on in her own skull.
It makes her all the more careful to figure out what's going on in everyone else's. And at the camp she'd watched the Jensen she thought she had figured out disappear, and someone sharper emerge - someone sharper, harder, someone Clay didn't argue about a suicide mission with.
She's here with Jensen because it's smart. Because if this is all going to shit, she might as well go out doing something. Because this team won't survive another loss. Because this team only survived the last one because she could fill in the blank space. That Jensen's pulled out a whole new version of his personality, the minute it looked like they'd lost another one, only makes her more sure of that. And two really do have a better chance of coming back than one.
Because Aisha can plan. She's not sure if this Jensen's any better at it than the one she's been around for the past months, the one who yells at referees at a children's soccer game.
But mostly, she's here because she needs to know this man, too.
The enemy camp - if you could call it that, anymore - is deserted. Aisha's not shocked. But she waits, before she says anything. Waits to see what Jensen will do, what he'll notice, where he'll go from here. She takes in the disorder; going into the hut, she hooks a drawer open on a beat-to-shit desk to find a Glock and ammunition. "They left in a hurry," she says, over her shoulder.
"Yeah," Jensen says. He's focused, and more familiar now: means there's overlap, then, in who he is when he's working. More intense than the clown; less sharp than the man who came here with her. "You know what else I'm seeing? Or, rather, not seeing?"
Aisha follows where he's looking, tries to think what Jensen would noticing - "No electricity," she says, catching it. "Solar - "
"No generator," Jensen agrees. "Two jeeps, no extra gas-tanks. This isn't the base. They knew we were coming, and they drew us here."
Aisha's jaw tightens. "Which means - " she starts, and apparently he's thinking along the same lines.
"I'd be shocked if it were Maclean," he says, means the second of their sources for this, "but I wouldn't bet on German having the brains to pull this off, and I've been shocked before."
And this new side of him is interesting, because there's a knife under those words. He's talking about Roque, but he's also talking about her. Which is new. It's not that it hurts, not even a sting: it's that Jensen doesn't tend to do that, doesn't tend to put verbal knives into people. He'll joke and smartmouth until you want to shoot him to get him to shut up, but it's like being poked with a knitting needle, not lashed at with a knife.
And like the other three, he doesn't talk about Roque. Not even obliquely.
"Figure it out later," Aisha says; there are two tracks running in her head, and only one of them's about Jensen. The rest of her mind's on the scene, on what she can see and what she can't, what's possible and what isn't. "Helicopter couldn't get down here," she says, and watches him.
It means she catches the relaxation, just slight, in Jensen's shoulders; it lets her know he was hoping she'd say that. He shakes his head. "No," he says, agrees. "They have what's in the jeeps, for gas. Limits their range, and means they have to go where they can drive. No bodies here, means they took their wounded. Give me the map."
Aisha watches him spread it out on the stained wood, and notes what he doesn't say: their wounded aren't the only reason the enemy'd have to take the jeeps, or why they'd be stuck going where jeeps could go: Cougar's the hardest of all of the boys to get a bead on (or so she'd've told you before this new Jensen was born from the old Jensen's forehead) but she knows Cougar well enough, and knows enough of what he can do, to know nobody was walking him anywhere as a prisoner. His nickname is the graceless kind, the kind without any depth, the kind that puts its accuracy right in your face: corner that kind of big cat and it might back down just long enough for you to turn your back. But then it'll try to get its teeth around your neck and crack your spine.
It's something Aisha admires, to be honest - but then, she's been compared to a cat more than once.
Cougar would take the chance of getting shot long before he'd cooperate. Jensen has to know that as well as she does, if not better, but he doesn't say it. That tells her a lot. It tells her that this is something raw and open. It fits with his being here at all - but it means she can't trust him to have the sense God gave stunned rabbits, if it comes down to ugly.
Jensen marks out the perimeter of all the places they could have made it to, distance-wise, and then where the jeeps could actually move, and, what they'd need to be near - fresh water, either stable ground for a generator or clear enough for solar - and finally, where helicopters would be able to land, if they were that well-outfitted, or if Max could get one regardless.
Aisha just watches. Jensen works in near silence, just the occasional half-breathed comment to himself. If you'd told her two days ago she could stand this close to him and he wouldn't feel the need to talk for this long, she'd've told you that you were insane. And now, here they are.
But it doesn't make him unreadable. This close, she thinks she can see the panic he's working through, what he's pushing down and compressing and using as fuel.
Jensen and Cougar are something everyone knows about, and nobody says anything; the closest Aisha's heard anyone get was Jolene, and that was oblique as hell, a note about Jensen's Bethy and how she got two uncles for the price of one these days. Aisha's wondered how deep it runs: before now, between Cougar's reserve and Jensen's hyperactive attachment to everyone (even, she suspects, to her - at least starting), it's been hard to tell.
Watching Jensen now, it isn't.
It narrows down to two possible sites. Jensen circles them, wide curves of pencil over the topographic coding.
"How stupid are they?" he asks, looking up at her, and Aisha raises her eyebrows. She gestures to herself, to him, to the camp.
"Smart enough that we're here," she says. "Stupid enough to work with Max in the first place."
Jensen nods, slowly. "First is more important," he says, and then draws an X on one of the circles. "Second's just money-stupid. A lot of very dangerous fucking people have plenty of money-stupid."
Another comment with a knife-edge, though not aimed at her this time. Just at the ghost of the person she replaced: if Roque hadn't stayed for the money, he might still be alive. "More work for water," Jensen says, of the place he's marked off, "but more defensible, better balance of the space for the chopper and the ability to hide."
Aisha considers it, and says what she doesn't think he'll want to hear. "We can't get there today."
"We can," Jensen disagrees, and goes on quickly, "we just can't get there today and be any good for anything." And Aisha looks again, chewing on the inside of one cheek in thought, and she thinks he's right. Flat out, they can make it; trying to mount any kind of rescue after would just be fucking stupid.
With rest, they might not commit suicide. But iff they get out of this, they're both going to feel it. Aisha hopes Lev still is there, and more that he can give them the space they'll need, because they can't travel by air until everyone can hide their injuries. With Pooch that'll be at least weeks. Assuming they found Cougar alive - impossible to tell.
She's not worried about whether Lev will give them the space, if he can. She told Clay she trusted him, and why, for a reason. With her name behind it, he'll do everything he can, and probably some things he shouldn't. She's lucky enough to look more like her mother than her father, on that score - and she's a girl.
Jensen's waiting for her to argue more, wound up like a spring. He unwinds again, slowly, when she just nods.
"Okay," she says. "You have a plan?" she asks, as Jensen folds up the map to just the part they might need. While she thinks of it, she gets the Glock out of the drawer, checks it, and puts the ammunition in her bag. An extra gun isn't a thing to leave behind.
"Get there, sleep, find a way in, kill everyone, get Cougar, steal a fucking jeep and get the fuck out of there," Jensen replies. "You got a better one?"
That's still Jensen, though: the question is real, not defensive, because planning is not his job. And he's pretty much egoless, in some ways - especially about things that aren't his job. If she has a better plan, he'll be happy to hear it.
Aisha just says, "Ask me when we get there."
On the way out the door, she sees a sealed bottle of cheap white rum, knocked over and half-rolled behind a box. She gets that, too, and puts it in her pack. She doesn't say anything about the possibility of his guessing wrong - that if he does, then this really is over, that they do not have enough food, enough water, enough anything to hunt around everywhere that the enemy could be. There's no way Jensen doesn't know, and if this isn't making him stupid, he's not rational either. He's watching her as much as she's watching him; he's waiting for the moment she tries to make him quit, and that - Aisha figures that'll be an ugly moment. And there's no reason to face it before she has to.
Unless she has to.
Jensen's guess isn't wrong. Aisha can see him take a breath, soundless and deep, when they're close enough to know.
They do recon without bothering to do much except drop their packs far enough away to hide, to plausibly be where they sleep tonight; they're tired enough that Aisha's stopped noticing anything about Jensen and he's stopped watching her, and if they stop, it's going to be that much harder to keep going.
The enemy is entrenched; they look comfortable. Their sentries aren't bad, but they aren't on high alert, either. The men in the camp are speaking mostly Portuguese, so they're not local, which means they won't have much or anything in the way of support beyond themselves. There's about twenty of them left, which, if she and Jensen don't wind up corpses, will come close to doubling her body-count.
Because she and Jensen can't afford to leave anyone here alive.
There's one central cabin, big, with outbuildings. One of them's windowless, feeds directly into wall of the central structure; Aisha bets on that being where Cougar is, if he's alive. There are what look like eight fresh graves along the side, which says they either had a lot of wounded that didn't make it, or they're human enough to have collected their dead to bury.
No way to tell if one of those is Cougar's.
She's about to go back, when someone comes out of the building; there's an irrational moment, one where trappings make recognition, before her brain kicks in and she knows it's not Cougar, can't be Cougar, lazily taking the two steps from the cabin to the ground. It's just someone with his hat - which is a good sign, which tells her they're not chasing echoes and there's not a body somewhere in the forest they'll never find.
It's the anger that catches her off-guard. The fury. The way it's hard not to take the shot she has, blow her cover but take the fucker right in the chest.
Fuck, she breathes to herself, and then adds the full range of curses in the other languages she speaks.
Aisha's not one to lie to herself. Not on purpose. And it would be a lie not to know, not to realize, not to recognize a sign of investment for what it is. Not to recognize what it means to react like this, to the insult, the pettiness, of a transgression centered around a single stupid quirk. A single stupid thing a man has about a hat.
She cares; she's fucked.
The anger at herself mixes with the anger at the bastard she didn't kill. It makes her half-stupid, or at least reckless: she gets closer. Slowly. Crawls towards the clearing until she can hear conversation, instead of shouted words. Until she can hear conversation she can parse. It's stupid and reckless and a test: she's really knows she's fucked when relief hits like a new shot of adrenaline, makes her want to slip into her mother's prayer of thanks, because she hears what they're saying.
Jensen beats her back to the bags. And he's agitated when he sees her, and almost snaps at her; comes up short and sudden when she says, "He's alive. He's there. They're expecting pickup in the morning."
Aisha pretends she's just getting out her canteen and that she has to look down at her pack to do it: she's not up for taking in what runs across his face, or how slow the breath is that he takes, slow and careful. Not and keep her composure, and keep from maybe solving all her problems by shooting him, leaving Cougar to Max and disappearing, fast.
Fast and far.
Instead, she just gathers her pack up in silence, lets him do the same, and without really talking about it, they move to find a place close enough to hear engines or arrival by air, but far enough away to edge off the chill with a fire, maybe, or at least talk without whispering.
"Appassionato" = with passion, with intensity
By the time they're set, Aisha's got her mind half-settled again. At least enough to see how bitterly funny this is, and to admit that she still doesn't know why. And for memory to be sour.
The others. You care about what happens to them.
And you think that's a weakness.
I know it is.
She was playing a part, because Franklin Clay likes to save people, and she was no exception. So she showed him the soft side she doesn't really have, threw out the lines he'd think showed something sad, a woman so much younger than him and so cynical, so closed off. As a role, it worked well. It manipulated his focus in a way that would make him discount anything else she did, any other signs she gave off.
It was also true, but like the reasons she didn't let all four of them die, it wasn't true enough. It is a weakness. But everything's a trade-off, and nobody gets away without weaknesses. You just pick and choose, balance weaknesses to strengths and make damn sure your vulnerable places are covered. Caring what happens to others is a weakness because it leaves you open, either to them or to someone using them against you. Or, like with Roque, to both. Others caring what happens to you is the counterbalance.
It's just that this isn't a trade-off she ever wanted to make.
The place they find is sheltered enough to risk a small fire, for which Aisha is grateful: she's cold, and she'll need the light to bandage the blisters on her right foot (and it's always the right one). Tending to the fire also gives both of them something to do, something to fiddle with, to fill up the silence.
Aisha's the one who breaks it, with the question that falls under the heading of things she'd rather not ask, because clearly Jensen'd rather not think about it and she doesn't need him any more highly strung if they're going to get through this without getting killed. It's something she'd rather not ask - but that she needs to know.
"Cougar can't tell Max anything useful," she says, after she puts the last of the moleskin over the gauze on her right heel and sits up. "What would he tell them," and she jerks her head in the direction of the enemy - mercenary - camp, "about us?"
Jensen lets out a breath. Stares at the fire, rubs a hand over the top and back of his head. But when he answers, his voice is at least normal, like he's in control. "He'd tell them how few of us there are and that protocol when things go fucked is to scramble and disappear," Jensen says. "It's the truth, and it also makes it less likely they'll look for us - we're only five, we have no other support, and there's a lot of space to disappear in. It means nobody's likely to follow them back here, because it'd be a suicide mission."
At that he looks up at her and grins, crookedly; she's half-smiling back before she realizes it. "Which explains why their sentries are so relaxed," she says, to cover it.
"Pro forma, standing habit, but they don't actually expect anyone," Jensen agrees. "For that matter, he probably told them fucking protocol is that we don't come back for each other, if things get this fucked."
Which, it's not like she didn't know that, but Aisha looks at him levelly for a while anyway, to see what he'll do. And the amusement looks a lot more like the Jensen she knows, free and at his own expense as much as anything, but like it's coming through a twisted mirror: bitter, vicious and angry underneath.
"If we live through this," he says, matter-of-fact, "he's going to fucking kill me."
Aisha snorts. "If you were down there I'd be here with him," she retorts.
Jensen shrugs and doesn't say anything, and Aisha files that away, because it gives things the beginning of a shape she can't quite see yet: he doesn't agree, but he doesn't flat deny it, either. Which, she thinks, means that he doesn't believe it, but he wants to. That's telling.
"After that," Jensen goes on without prompting, "he'd start lying." He sits back, leaning against the fallen length of a small tree. "Hasn't been long enough to run out of lies yet."
Aisha nods, acknowledging, believing him. Then she goes for the food-like substance that was the MRE, and the bottle she brought. She holds it up. At this point, it counts as medicinal; she doesn't know that he's going to be able to sleep otherwise, and he needs to.
Jensen doesn't give her any signal, yes or no - just sits against the tree with his eyes narrowed. Aisha recognizes the look - it's a darker cousin of one he has all the time. So she knows when he takes the breath to speak that they're about to start fencing; she's actually ready when what he says is, "It's interesting."
"What is?" she asks, willfully oblivious, because part of fencing is making your opponent work for everything, even to make you move - tire them before you can tire yourself.
"Well," he says, in the slow way that might be called a drawl, if he had a different accent, "I've never really known what it was to be an insect sample under a microscope before."
She should make him work more, but she her heart's not in it; she just says, "You haven't suddenly switched personalities before, either."
"That you know of," he counters, using the edge: new girl, not one of us. She deflects it, snorts.
"If you did it all that often," she replies, letting her voice drop, "Clay wouldn't've stared at you like he was afraid you were going to turn into a grenade without a pin, right in front of his eyes."
And it's almost going to be a stalemate, but it itches, the idea of silence itches. Aisha realizes she's willing to take hits, if it means she can test him, if it means she can figure out what the hell this new Jensen is and what that means. Instead of letting it go, she tosses him the bottle whether he wants it or not - and when he catches it she asks, mocking, sing-song and with her Bolivian accent in place, "Truth or dare, papi?"
Jensen stares at her for a second; then he winds up laughing. Quietly, shaking his head. He twists open the bottle and says, "Truth," like she was pretty damn sure he would.
"Explain the personality switch," she says, sitting on the other side of the fire, legs crossed and both her boots off.
Jake can't quite believe they're doing this. Which isn't a feeling that's unfamiliar, by any means. He's wound up doing a lot of things, being in a lot of situations, that he can't quite believe. Good and bad. The unbelievable isn't really unbelievable in his life. And right now what's running his head (dangerous, but there it is) is her voice saying he's alive, he's there. Like a chant in his head, like the answer he needed, the only one he'd accept, but the one he was pretty much fucking terrified he wasn't going to get. And now he feels half like he wants to grin like a fucking idiot and half like he wants to throw up, because that's how it always works. Because the comedown from terror has always been the worst part, and if it were around anyone but her - or at least her and everyone else - he'd be as fucking ridiculous as he was at the port.
Maybe. He thinks. That's usually how it works, but then, he's usually a lot closer to the other side of his little magic-thinking exercise. He's usually thinking of himself as what they're calling him, and even with that, he's not.
Because "he's alive" might answer the first question, the biggest one, but that just lets all the other ones through, and there's more of them. And now Aisha's asking him why he got a personality transplant, and she's more fucking perceptive than he's comfortable with, if she caught the part where Clay was waiting for him to detonate.
He doesn't think Clay has actually seen Jake before, but the colonel is who he is: he might not know what he knows about his people, and he might ignore it, but in the end, managing them, moving them around, is what he's for. He failed with Roque because Roque stopped being his people before they even left Bolivia the first time, to be honest; he fails with Aisha because the one thing that will fuck with Clay's brain is his dick. Otherwise -
Jake takes a drink, closes the bottle and throws it back to her. "My dad was an asshole who drank to much and hit people," he says, flat, going for the shortest and sparest version possible, wanting to see what she'll get from it. "I raised Holly once I was old enough to figure out how. Being shit-poor and having an asshole for a father doesn't make you a nice person. He died, Holly had Bethy, I enlisted, life got better, I decided I didn't want to be that person anymore. I stopped."
Aisha caught the bottle when he threw it; she rolls it between two hands, her look appraising, and he's pretty sure she read between most of those lines. "Never goes away, does it," she says, putting the bottle down and ripping open her MRE. She says it like she knows what she's talking about, which he supposes she might.
Food is a good idea, even if he's going to have to force himself to eat - if there was something stupider than attempting a rescue with just the two of them against twenty guys (with AKs, no doubt, and an entrenched, defendable position), it was doing it hungry and exhausted. And Aisha either made a good guess or is being fucking unsettlingly perceptive again - at this point, he kind of does need to drink some to unwind.
Jake doesn't like that, never has, but it stays true.
When she's got her MRE open and started to work on what's dubiously called "food" inside, Aisha takes a drink herself and tosses him the bottle again. She asks, "Did you decide you didn't want to be that person before, or after you got stuck with the rest of these losers?" She's mocking again, accent back (it's not like the American English one is her real accent, after all), making the last word lower-case, descriptive, instead of their own nickname.
"After," he says, honestly, and then pauses - "Kind of at the same time."
And he thinks there's something in the fact that she asked that; he thinks there might be something in the look she gets afterwards, like it's turned inward.
A drink and he sends the bottle back. "Your turn," he says, and mirroring her earlier mock, adds, "Truth or dare."
Aisha laughs, short and dark, and it's probably the most honest expression she's had since the port, since she decided not to shoot Clay there and then. "Ask me a question, papi," she says.
She's not sure what he's going to ask, because (she realizes) she's not sure what he knows enough about to ask, or what would matter. She would have told you he knew next to nothing, but that was before.
Aisha's not, on reflection, sure whether she likes this new Jensen, but he's a hell of a lot more interesting. And the question doesn't disappoint.
"Why do you want to kill the colonel for a guy who'd use kids to run drugs?" he asks.
A lot more interesting; Aisha wouldn't've called that one, wouldn't've expected him to hit that hard. She takes a swallow and says, experimentally, "He was my father."
"Bullshit," Jensen replies, catching the bottle from her as she tosses it back. "Where the fuck were you when Max was bombing him? Why the fuck didn't Max follow up and kill you? You're good, babe, but you're not that good. Not by yourself."
This Jensen is smart, too; then again, fathers would be a sore-spot, given what he just told her. The fascination overwhelms what little sting there might be: she's watching him again, slotting everything she sees into place. She feeds a few branches into the fire, and he goes on, "So if he didn't, it's because he didn't think you knew jack-shit about whatever your father'd figured out, which means for a daddy you'd kill someone even you think is a good man for, you didn't talk to him much."
It's not clear to her, yet, whether he just needs to know, or if he thinks knowing will give him a weapon to use, something to do about it. It's not a question she'd normally answer: Cougar wouldn't ask; she'd tell Clay to fuck off; she'd laugh at Pooch; and she'd even laugh at the other Jensen, the one she knew, the one who got into buildings by acting like a jackass and used Skippy as his pseudonym because he knew someone would rescue him when it all blew up in his face. That Jensen she'd blow off; that Jensen, she'd lie to. But this one -
Aisha's not sure if she likes this Jensen more, or this side of him. Liking isn't the issue, though; he's insane, but she can almost respect it, and respect demands honesty.
"It's a long story," she says, letting the mocking go for a minute. Jensen shifts, and his glasses reflect the light.
"Does it start with once-upon-a-time?" he asks, and she laughs again, short and sharp.
"Sure," she answers. Her MRE's gone except for the candy, eaten while he was talking; she reaches for her water, instead of asking for the booze.
"Once upon a time, there was a kid from Gaza who got out," she says, and she knows she gets her mother's accent now, knows it's there around the edges. "He learned how to make money selling guns and drugs, and he got as far away from the fucking desert as he could, and came to Bolivia. He wasn't a very good person." She doesn't mock, but the paraphrase of what Jensen just said about himself is deliberate when she says, "Most people who grow up like him aren't. They learn how to kill things to survive, and they learn that everyone else will kill you if you give them half a chance, so you shouldn't. Kill them first, take everything they've got that's worth money, and use it to make good."
"And his name," Jensen says in a portentous voice, "was Fadhil." She thinks the paraphrase got him, at least a sideswipe: this is lashing out, instead of parrying like before.
"Not then it wasn't," Aisha corrects, not acknowledging the snap. She really can hear her mother's accent in her voice, knows it'll tell him something. Leaves it there anyway. "Back then it was Yousif. He only named himself Fadhil later, when Yousif got in over his head for a bit, and had to disappear. He just started up again, though. He was good at it. He made a lot of money from very bad things."
"I sense an 'and then'," Jensen remarks, and she feels her eyes narrow for a second, because that's the other Jensen, blending in with the sharp-edged one. She schools her face, though, and just inclines her head.
"Then he fell in love with an Egyptian woman named Fatima," she says; she almost lies about her mother's name, and then can't think why, can't think what there is to protect. The dead don't really care, and a given name is nothing to go by. "She said she'd marry him if he stopped with the guns and drugs."
The look Jensen gives her is pure scepticism. "What, he open up a corner store?"
Which is a step further than Aisha's willing to take. She gives him the two finger salute, with her left hand; whether he gets it or not, it makes her feel better. "Guns and drugs are only a fraction of the black market," she retorted, as if she was talking to an idiot. "He made plenty of money elsewhere. Pharmaceuticals - the kind hospitals use. Food. Luxuries. Cars, boats. Stolen art."
Jensen acknowledges with a lifted hand, and she settles a little - and then there's the itch at the fact that he managed to make her rile at all. She goes back to the story. "They had a daughter. Perfect underworld fairy-tale."
"So," says Jensen, "the black magic arrives in ten, nine, eight - "
"My mother died," Aisha tells him. "Cancer." The words makes him inhale sharply, even if nothing shows on his face; she notes to herself that his story didn't have anyone called mother in it at all. "Rapid metastasis, by the time it was diagnosed it was in her lungs, her stomach, her pancreas, everything. Three months, from diagnosis to death. I was ten."
She pauses to open the canteen and take a drink before she goes on. "My father lost it," she says, frankly, and her American accent is back, her mother's gone: she wonders if he'll notice, what he'll make of it. She wonders what she wants him to make of it. "It was like he started doing things just to spite her, for dying and leaving him. He didn't just go back to arms-smuggling and the drug trade, he added human trafficking and actively cooperating with terrorists. I honestly think she'd've killed him, if she were still alive.
"I didn't know - I was the sheltered little princess. He still loved me; I got everything I wanted. Unfortunately, I'm not stupid."
Jensen throws her the rum again, saying, "No, that you're not." She takes a mouthful and then toys with the cap, cheap metal harsh on her fingertips.
"It was the human trafficking," she says, honestly; then names it for what it is, amends, "the slave trade. He could have sold me on the guns, the drugs - but not the people. The next time I was in America, didn't come back. I told him he disgusted me. I told him my mother would be ashamed of him. I told him I didn't want to speak to him again. And I didn't, until last year."
"So," Jensen says, "the martial arts and the guns and the knives - " She shoots him a smile, lets it be half-conspiratorial. "Boston was boring. I picked up hobbies."
"So it's just your personality that leads those hobbies to be things that kill people."
"It's all part of my charm," she agrees. More seriously she says, "Last year, he came to Boston to talk to me in person. He told me I was right." Jensen's looking interested again. Aisha says, "He told me that he'd found out that he was being used, and he knew who by. He told me Max wanted to remake the world the way he wanted it, regardless of what he had to tear apart to get there. Was already starting. My father told me he had a lead, and if he could follow it, he could find enough to take public, and that would put an end to Max's whole plan. But he needed my help, and he needed me in the US to do it."
"You bought the whole change of heart?" Jensen asks, and the note of scepticism is quieter than she expected.
"No," she says. She takes another mouthful of the alcohol. "But I thought that now he was asking, now that he was willing to admit to . . . anything, I could do what my mother did. And he was my father. And then he was dead."
Jensen's frowning, and he says, " . . . are you telling me that it took you less than a year to piss off every secret agency in the world?"
Aisha shrugs. "What can I say? I work fast." It's even true.
It's been a long year. She thinks it's only likely to get longer.
Jensen folds his hands over his lower ribs and says, contemplatively, after a moment, "Still not much of a reason for homicide."
Aisha makes sure he's looking right in her eyes, before she says, "If it turns out Max used these mercenaries, that they're half-decent people trying to make money and he just used them, just like he used Clay, and if it turns out Cougar dies tonight, you're going to let them walk away? 'It's okay, he fucked us too'?"
Jensen's the one who breaks eye-contact. He says, looking at the fire, "Still going to have to stop you."
"I know," Aisha says. It takes them back to their detente.
Jake almost leaves it; then he doesn't. He might not get another chance. "The game is truth, you know," he points out.
The look's good. But the advantage of her talking, talking about herself, is he can take that and take everything else and do a better calibration. He thinks he can read her better, and he's pretty sure that look of incomprehension is a mask.
Jake shakes his head, just slightly. "We were at your dad's compound, Aisha. I don't care how much his princess you were, you're right: you're not stupid. It wouldn't be possible," he finishes, sitting up and digging around for his own water, because it's a good idea, "to shelter you that much."
He's been an asshole, more than a little: he's already pretty sure he knows these answers, can piece them together from what she's said and what she hasn't. But the swipe she got him with actually hurt (it's okay, he fucked us too - ) and, well, Jake's an asshole sometimes. It's why he doesn't like being Jake that much.
He gets that appraising look from her again, the same one she got back with the colonel. This time, he doesn't ignore it, and he sees the wall behind it. He's half-prepared for a hit back. He forgets that with words, honesty and vulnerability are their own weapons. He shouldn't have, but he does.
He's half expecting her to lie, to say he hid it better when she lived with him and Jake doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about. So when she answers, it's a counter; it's retaliation when she says, low and flat, "When the only person you have in the world lies to you, you believe it. When the person who is everything you have left happens to be the same person who has all the power over you in the world, and he lies to you? You believe it all the more. And when the only time that person turns on you is when you ask too many of those kinds of questions, you stop asking."
The breath he takes is slow, because he doesn't have a fast answer to that one. He manages to keep eye-contact; Aisha's the one who looks away this time, covers it by making it look like she's going for the alcohol. "You're right," she admits, evenly. "I wasn't that sheltered. I was deliberately blind. It just got to a point where even I couldn't ignore it anymore."
Jake doesn't have a graceful way out of this one; he's almost shocked when Aisha just closes the bottle again and tosses it to him. "Your turn," she replies, lighter, even if the lightness is a lie.
They've both got about two more swallows before they need to stop, and sleep. Jensen settles back again and says, "Shoot."
She's got a lot of different smiles - one, he figures, for every emotion she's trying to get out of someone, or maybe a fairer way of thinking about it is one for every emotion she's got herself. Either way, this one's a bit crooked, and it's almost like a retreat, back to circling instead of engaging, when she says, "Does your sister know? About you and Cougar."
It is a retreat - that's a tap, a taunt, not a real hit. He and Cougar are the open not-a-secret, where everyone just doesn't talk about it because before, it would royally fuck with their careers, and after, that might be awkward, and why would you need to? This, this is a token, as a question. Maybe an invitation to do the same. Maybe a peace-offering.
Jake half-obliges when he snorts. "Does that even count?" He doesn't wait for an answer, just says, "Yeah, Holly's been giving me grief about wording for two years now." He takes his drink, rolls the bottle back over this time just for a change. "Your turn."
Aisha takes her drink first, then says, "Go ahead," and he gives her the rest of his answering taunt.
"Did you really collect human ears?" And then he does actually grin at the look she gives him, halfway through the motion of giving him back the bottle.
"Jensen," she says, flat.
"What the fuck would I do with human ears?"
"So you're not from the wilds of northern Africa, either?" And the move, the impulse back to the light, back to the stuff he is when he's Jensen is - unexpected. He reigns it in a little as she rolls her eyes.
"Your turn," she retorts. He opens his arms in silent answer, takes his last drink, and then catches his breath for a second when she goes back to engaging: when what she asks is, "What are you going to do if he is dead?"
Jake swallows what's in his mouth, painful as it is. He takes the seconds eaten by rolling the metal cap back on the bottle to steady the breathing again, and then turns honest and open back at her.
"I don't know," he says. It's all he says. And it's the truth. And it's the wall.
Aisha nods, and there's something in her right now he thinks he should see, but he doesn't have the key yet. So he just gave the last throw of the bottle, doesn't wait. Just asks. "Why did you come?"
It's another test, kind of: the obvious answer is because Clay told her to, but that's not it, and it doesn't answer why her answer was directed at him, at his I don't need her. Why she told him he did.
Aisha's holding the bottle by the neck. She looks at it. "I don't know," she says, like he did, but she doesn't stop there. She shakes her head. "I didn't, anyway. Maybe because you reminded me of my father." She unscrews the cap, takes her final drink, closes it up and puts it away in her pack. "Can't shoot cancer, though."
She didn't ask about his mom. He has the feeling it's because she didn't have to. "No, you can't," he says.
Jake takes first shortened watch; he puts the fire out to do it, lets Aisha get some sleep.
Something just happened here, tonight, he's pretty sure. He's just too tired to figure out what the hell it is.
"Adagio" = at a stately, reserved pace
Agitato (con moto)
"Morning" comes by consent, not by nature: they sleep in two hour watches that finish by four am, when Aisha nudges Jensen awake with her boot. Morning is four am, and it's still mostly dark.
The night didn't bring anything like clarity, not even the hours she was awake alone. What rattles around in her head doesn't find answers; she's not even sure what the questions are, and everything feels a little hollow. It makes her look forward to what's coming. Makes her look forward to the fight, to the blood and the kill. If there's anything that always gives her her footing back, it's this. If there's anything that clears her head, it's this: simple objective, simple task, kill everything that stands in the way.
Aisha's never been sure if her mother would be horrified by her, now. She thinks, maybe, it would have depended most on what Fatima's daughter used this part of herself for. For now, it doesn't matter: for now, this is exactly what they need, because ten to one are the kind of odds that need the one to stack the deck.
Her hands move in the familiar patterns, her ears take in familiar quiet sounds: the clicks of checking and loading guns, the faint ring of buckles on belts for holsters and sheaths. Jensen carries slightly more than she does, because her advantage really is speed, speed and killing in the first strike (first shot) if she can; too much extra weight will slow her down.
She lets her hair down, finger-combs it, braids it back tight. "We can't leave anyone here alive," she says, the first words either of them have said since they've both been awake. Jensen's cleaning his glasses. She keeps meaning to ask him why he hasn't just had laser surgery, but now isn't the time. "You know that, right? When that helicopter gets here - "
"Dead men tell no tales," Jensen replies, putting the glasses back on and pushing them up the bridge of his nose. It's a flicker of the Jensen she would have recognized a week ago; when he says, "Won't be a problem," the echo fades out. Mostly, cold-blooded killing bothered the boys, all of them, and more than a little: they all took the stance that when someone was shooting at you it was one thing, and after they'd surrendered was another. They took that stance without thinking. It made them good soldiers, she supposed.
It made them men, too.
But they can't afford it, two of them with a third wounded (if he's still alive, and if they're lucky); they have to disappear, and anyone that comes in the helicopter has to have no idea what the fuck happened. She and Jensen and Cougar have to be long, long gone.
There's not much else to say; there's nothing else to do. Before they leave, Jensen catches up the bottle again and takes a small swallow, passes it to her. Says, "To suicide."
Aisha snorts, and takes it, but before her swallow of what they used to call liquid courage, what she says is less poetic, more edged: "To pulling it off."
He's going to the north-west, she's going to the east - as they start to walk away, he pauses and says, "Aisha?"
"What?" She half-turns.
"Don't die," Jensen tells her. There's a story in his face, but she doesn't have time to read it. She just lets him see a smirk.
"I've already got a habit of surviving," she says. "Worry about yourself."
Then it's just her and the quiet.
Killing is like a kind of dance.
The first time she killed anyone was six months before her father died, and she used a knife. She'd still rather use one, given the choice. Knives feel right in her hands; they move the way she wants them to move, and they're quiet, and they let her get close.
The studies say it's hard to teach people to kill up close. That it's harder to teach them to slide the knife into the sweet spots. That most people, no matter their training, have an easier time slashing across skin than they do burying metal in someone else's body. Something about the mind rebels (says the literature) against the violation, the way it feels for skin and muscle and tissue to give way before a stab-wound, the way it feels to slide the knife in - at least compared to the quick, clean feeling of a slice.
It wasn't a problem for her then, and it still isn't. If you hit the right spot, aiming for the renal artery, you don't even have to cover your target's mouth - the pain, the way the nerves scream, it paralyzes him; by the time the brain would be catching up, he's already bled out. Is no longer your problem. Step up behind, catch and slide the blade in; pull back to let the blood flow, clean the blood off if there's enough to make it slippery and fuck with your grip, and then move on: next body, next life.
It's kind of like a prayer. It's exactly like a dance. It's precision and it's art. It takes everything and makes it clear, simple and raw. It gives you something to pour everything into, to aim everything at, to purge everything through. (And this time, this time there's a lot to purge, there is every bit of blame she can pour on them, from the concrete to the ephemeral, from what they've done to one of hers to the deep, deep terror stirred by realizing that she cares.) Kill, and move, and kill again. Her dance.
There are three sentries, somewhere around the perimeter; there are four men going for firewood. Aisha kills one of the sentries first - one, because he's the only one she has to kill to get past, to break the perimeter. He doesn't even know what kills him.
She manages all three of the firewood boys, because one of them went to piss and one of them fell behind to get a rock out of his boot. Waiting behind a tree for the third to turn his back and let her slip in behind (so fast, so far, that he hasn't even had time to realize his buddies are dead yet, to go looking for them), Aisha grins, shows her teeth.
If nothing else, Max might start finding mercenaries got very, very expensive.
The third firewood carrier is her fourth kill, and he's the guy from yesterday, the guy with Cougar's hat. For him she makes an exception: she does cut his throat. So when he drops to his knees and clutches at the gash in a futile attempt to stop the bleeding, she can kick him over on his back; she can make sure he sees she's killing him when she drives the knife into his heart.
It isn't necessary. It gets blood on her shirt, on her boots. She does it anyway She still twists the blade once, just as he's dying, just as he'll stop feeling it. So he can take it with him to Hell.
Kill, move and kill again.
She gets kill five, in sight of the main cabin - but six manages to get a shot off. It comes nowhere near hitting her, but the sound breaks the morning, and breaks it open, like was almost inevitable. Luck works like that: he just looked around at the wrong second, and if he was a bad shot he had a fast hand. He beats her to the draw, not fast enough to save himself (her bullet hits him center of the chest) but still fast enough that he fires as he dies.
Aisha curses him; it's reflex, she doesn't even remember which words, which language she uses. The trees here aren't thick enough for cover, and nothing else is, but the undergrowth gives her concealment and she uses it. She could get past the ones who come running, sure - but she'll have to kill them anyway.
She counts her breaths, makes them slow, lies absolutely still; she thinks, six and if she assumes (she has to) that Jensen's got at least four, that's half of them dead. Plus, maybe, however many more come to look.
There's something elated, under the simplicity in her mind right now. It's something that says they might actually pull this off.
Knifework is quiet, a dance; firefights are chaos, cacophony, ruled over by chance. Chance and hope. Knives are intimate, keep things between two, maybe three bodies. Bullets go everywhere. Guns send them everywhere. With a knife, you plan; with a gun you throw yourself at what you want and hope you survive.
And if you're lucky, like she is, when you do almost get caught, get pinned down, there'll be an explosion (grenade) across the compound, in the circle of trees. If you're lucky (like she is) that'll make your enemy startle just enough for you to shoot him first, and Aisha does - him to kill, the other to crumple when she puts a bullet in his knee. When he's on the ground (like she is, using the water cistern for the poor cover it provides) she shifts her aim and shoots him in the face.
Seven, eight. Maybe nine - she couldn't see, before, whether some of her shots connected. There's less fire. Impossible to tell if that's because there are less people to shoot or if it's something else.
But when she looks around the cistern, it's to find there's someone in the cabin, shooting from a window: he's not that good, but he's good enough that trying to go from here to the cabin-wall would be fucking stupid, and fucking stupid she isn't. She squirms back instead, to get back into the trees and go around.
Seven, eight, she thinks. Assume four; twelve left, at most. Maybe less. And this (she knows, knows as she moves, as she runs) is how they took her father's compound. This is why they win. Because nobody would try to take Fadhil's home with five men; nobody would try with less than an army, an army you could see coming. They win because by the time you figure out they're that fucking crazy, they've already shot you, and then it's over.
And all that's left is their incredulous, elated laughter, the triumph of having done it again.
On the north-west side, Aisha finds the underbrush burning sullenly, sluggishly, and a man half blown away and moaning in pain. When she cuts his throat, it's more mercy than anything else - mercy and disgust, and not wanting to listen to the noise.
There's a bigger tree on this side, and Jensen's using it for cover: it means he doesn't see the guy who tries to slide around it, until Aisha marks him as kill number nine and paints this side of the trunk with his blood. Then she dives for the cover of the massive tree herself, as whoever's in the cabin swings around and bullets start looking for her.
"Hi," Jensen says, like they're meeting on the street. "Thanks."
Aisha just says, "How many?" because anything else breaks the spell, brings her back down to earth where she'll have to notice how badly she just bruised her leg. It's not time for that yet. Not even close.
"Seven," Jensen says, understanding, "not including the guy who may or may not have been blown up by the grenade - wasn't looking."
"Dead," she says, "along with nine of the others."
And then they look at each other, because that makes seventeen out of twenty and there are only three bodies left alive to shoot at them. Only three. That was almost even odds: one and a half each.
"I think we might fucking survive this," Jensen says, and his eyes are lit up.
This is how they took her father's compound; this is how they took the port. Be good, be crazy, be fast, and your target's still asking himself what the fuck just happened when he dies. And it's good. It's almost better than sex - and better, the worse the odds, the bigger the miracle.
(Somewhere under the trance of killing is a part of Aisha that tells her she just lost; she doesn't have the space to wonder what.)
"One in the house," she says.
"Two," says Jensen. "Other fucker just went in."
"That leaves one somewhere outside," Aisha notes.
"Behind the closest outbuilding," Jensen says, and, "I'll cover."
"The guy in the window," Aisha starts, and Jensen finishes for her.
"Not their sniper," he says, shaking his head. "Think we must've killed him in the first engagement. Poor bastards were definitely not getting paid enough for this job."
It's a thin joke, but it makes her give a harsh laugh anyway; then she braces herself. "Ready?"
When Jensen is, he says, "Go."
Eighteen's better than most of his buddies, and Aisha feels the graze on her arm (her other arm, for balance) as a distant thing; eighteen dies all the same.
Nothing comes from the window; she's got a better angle, she can see that it's empty, the post abandoned. Jensen beats her to the cabin, and that means he's the one to kill number nineteen, shooting before the poor bastard can start to get out the words of surrender.
Jensen beats her to the cabin, but not by much; Aisha's right behind him and she stays behind him. Because if Cougar isn't dead, if the one guy left is less interested in revenge than he is in getting himself out of here with his skin in one piece, she knows what he'll find, what Jensen has to walk into. She knows what she would do; knows it's the only thing to do.
And she's right: what Jensen finds is their number twenty with a gun trained at Cougar's head, and an ultimatum. It means she hangs back, around the corner, out of sight of the doorway to the windowless box built on the side of the cabin. She hangs back, and she waits, pistol ready.
The last, desperate target probably can't hear the undertones in Jensen's voice when he says, I lay down, you lay down, I let you walk out of here, but Aisha can. He'd do it, too. Necessity and honour, and it'd kill them when reinforcements came.
(That's why there's two of them. That's why she's here.)
When number twenty rounds the door, gunless and relieved, Aisha shoots him point blank in the face. Because she never promised anything. There's not even the look of shock as his body falls backwards.
Aisha doesn't wait for it to fall, pushes past and ignores what she sees to stop Jensen where he is, to block him with her arm, and then her body. Because she knows what happens next, too. At least, she can guess. Given the drive to here, given what he's willing to risk, she can guess.
"Get one of the jeeps," she says, pushing him back, away from the crumpled form she's not looking at either, not yet. Because they can't afford whatever Jensen's brain is going to do, cannot afford to think it's over yet, because they're not out. Can't lose momentum, and he will - she knows, is dead certain he will.
(Because she would. If everything changed. If she'd been there, when her father died.)
He tries to side-step her; she winds up in front of him, blocking him, taking the rage in the look he gives her and throwing back a wall that won't move behind her own. "We're not done," she says, sharp and hard and low. "Not yet. You can't do this, and you know it. Go get the fucking jeep."
When he does it, when he takes a step back to leave and do what she says, Aisha's not sure she's ever been more shocked in her life.
Jensen can't do this; Aisha can.
She can because all the parts of her that care can be put back away; she can because she half doesn't believe she has them. They can just slide back into their places and wait for her to let them out, the same way she flicks the safety back on her gun. Aisha's spent a very long time without caring about anyone beyond herself; Jensen hasn't ever been without some kind of devotion. He would rattle apart here, and they don't have time.
She can just holster her gun and crouch down beside Cougar's prone form; can take out a knife (the one she's just done killing with) to cut bindings on his wrists, on his legs. Can take a moment to see what kind of shape he's in.
It's not good, but it's not worst, she doesn't think - there's nothing missing. One arm looks broken, but not badly; there's bruising and the angle is off, but only a little and no broken skin that she can see. Some of the blood isn't his; some of it is, and that's mostly around an ugly graze just above his left hip. Bruises, face and everywhere else; split lip and abrasions, plenty and everywhere. But nothing's missing, not even his fingernails. That much is good.
He's unconscious, breathing is really shallow, which isn't. She puts one knee down so she can pause and check his pulse.
It makes him stir. She can see fresh blood - fresher blood - in his hair. Not much, when she brushes it back to look. Small break in the skin, at the center of a what will be a spreading bruise, but the skull's intact underneath. Just-hard-enough, which means they probably put him out when the first gunshots went, to make sure he couldn't do anything.
Which would be smart. Because even as he is, even a mess, when he comes to it's all at once and he's got hold of her arm with pressure that actually hurts before even she has a chance to react.
"Calm down," she says, and it comes easiest in Spanish; sometimes her instincts know what they're doing. "Calm down. It's Aisha. Calm down."
She says it a few more times before it seems to sink in. When it does, his grip on her arm relaxes and he lies back, slowly. Very, very slowly and carefully.
When he does, she realizes he was holding her with his broken arm, and that tells her something; she says aloud, "You're drugged," and gets a minute nod. He has his eyes closed. "Barbiturate?"
"Sodium amytal," he replies, carefully, the way drugged people speak when they know they are and can't stand the idea of showing it.
Drugs explained why he wasn't more of a mess. You use torture or drugs; both at the same time is a waste, is pointless. She's not sure if that'll be better or worse, in the long run; some people have more trouble with the memory of the drugs than with the memory of pain.
There's the sound of an engine outside; as yet, no percussive drone of a helicopter. But that might not last, so she asks, "Can you get stand?"
"Probably," he says, and it's undoubtedly the drug that means he goes on, "though I may fall over again."
"You can fall over in the jeep," she says, keeping it light. "You have a helicopter full of new friends on its way to meet you."
"I'm thrilled," he replies, pushing himself up to sitting with his unbroken arm.
Then he's pausing to retch, leaning over on his good arm, even with nothing in him to throw up. The ataxia's setting in, too, the shivering starting now that he's awake. Maybe when he looks up at her, he sees something in her face, shakes his head. "I burn it off fast."
It pisses her off that he knows that. Even this morning she might have thought disproportionately, but she's almost given up on that edge of that. Is giving ground to the idea.
Aisha has nothing to say to it, either. She just slides herself over to kneel beside him, so that he can use her as a prop to start standing up. She moves with him so he doesn't fall over. "It's a good thing I know people in Trinidad," she says, casually, testing.
"Is there anywhere you don't know people? You or Fadhil?" Cougar demands, telling her yes, the barbiturate is still working; she doesn't think he'd've said that to her, otherwise.
"Sweden," she replies, just because it needs an answer. "Mongolia."
There's a shrill whistle from outside, closer over the engine. Cougar's face tightens. "Jensen," he says, and Aisha shakes her head.
"You're as bad as he is," she tells him. "And stupid, if you thought he wouldn't," but that might be too much, right now so she goes on without stopping - "Yes. Me and Jensen. Pooch and Clay are already in Trinidad, Pooch needed a hospital. Are you okay to walk?"
Jensen doesn't wait, meets them halfway through the cabin's ground-floor. He moves to take Aisha's place, and only half because he's taller and stronger. But she doesn't say anything about it; just lets him.
Cougar says only, "Idiota," and Jensen shoots back, "Aw, you remember me," with more of a bite to it than anything else so far. Whether it's that or something else that keeps Cougar from saying any more, Aisha doesn't know.
She falls a few paces behind them. That means she's the one who grabs Cougar's hat off the table in the cabin kitchen, the one who notices it's there to grab. When she takes the driver's seat, she turns around to drop it in the boys' general direction, and doesn't stop to see what their faces might say.
If she'd been Jensen (even this Jensen, and she wonders how much he'll change again, now that it's over, and whether she'll be able to tell) she might have pointed out she slit a man's throat for that hat. But it feels like it would be admitting something, and she's not Jensen, so she just puts the jeep in gear and drives.
"Agitato, con moto" - "agitated, with movement"; "Presto" - very fast; "Tenuto" - held.
They're an hour away and it's full light by the time they hear the distant sound of the helicopter. Cougar's passed out again, in the back, arm set and immobilized against his body with a makeshift sling. He's patched all over with gauze, and his hat's on the floor of the jeep. He looks like shit, but Jake's not thinking about that right now.
Jake's not sure what to make of Aisha picking the hat up, on her way out. For now, he doesn't make anything, doesn't bother to try and take it apart and only partly because he has to watch where they're fucking going. It's just a considerate touch.
He's taking his turn to drive, while Aisha gets out of the shirt with blood all over it and zips on her jacket instead. She uses wet-wipes on her hands and her arms, because apparently she decided to do a lot more of her killing by hand today than he did.
"What do we do once we get there?" he asks, more to break the silence than anything.
"A jeep's a jeep," she says, running a clean wipe around her neck and over her face, taking off the grime and the spatters of blood there. "Nobody's going to care. I'll tell you where to go."
She's quiet - no, she's terse, since they started heading back in. Like every word is coming out around something in the way. Jake wants to guess what it is - and then again, he doesn't.
What he wants to say is give up on revenge and stay with us, completely graceless, completely tactless, drunk with the impulsive (to be honest) giddiness that comes from having pulled this off. From the worst not happening. From saving everything. Because they have: nothing's going to be broken, not permanently. Cougar was weirdly talkative until he passed out, for Coug, but that's what sodium amytal does, why they use it.
In the end, he breaks the silence just so he doesn't say anything like that. Because this isn't something he should do by accident. Whatever he thought "this" was, which he isn't sure. It's just something. Something's shifting. Shifted. Maybe.
"Did that seem like a really long twenty-four hours to you?" is what he asks aloud, following it with, "I mean, beyond the obvious tension."
Jake thinks she's about to say yes, when she shakes her head minutely. Instead, she says, "Jensen?"
"Shut up and drive."
She stares out the side when he does. Her body's turned away, closed over, in the kind of position that isn't a protective curl yet, but could be in a split second. The palm of her left hand rests on one of her knives. Her jaw's tight. And the back of Jake's head makes his guess for him whether he wants to or not.
Sometimes, something that hits you shakes shit loose, throws it out where you can't ignore it anymore. Sometimes, that needs to happen. And Jake, Jensen, thinks maybe they'll figure out a way for everything to be alright. After, you know, they get rid of the psychopathic super-spook and save the world - and the thought makes him smile, slightly.
It's been a long twenty-four hours. But Jensen's sliding back over Jake like a more comfortable skin, and that's good.
They find the road later, stop just before it to eat. The road means the pace gets to pick up, and they don't want to stop any more than they have to. The illusion of safety in Trinidad is probably just that, but right now, Jensen'll take it.
Cougar's lapsed back into silence, and it's one Jensen knows fairly well; he leaves it alone. He'll probably have to kick at it later, but not until later. Not until it's even halfway reasonable to try to get Coug to let his guard down. For now Jensen just hands Cougar food and the canteen as needed, keeping in mind that Cougar can only use one arm.
Cougar eats maybe half of what he should, lies back down in the back of the jeep and puts his hat over his face, which as a signal is pretty clear.
Aisha's still quiet. Jensen spends a good ten minutes deciding if he really wants to say this, what's been forming on the drive. And he eventually he decides he does, because if it fucks everything up it was never going to work in the first place, and it might just help.
(And he's thinking about a warehouse, and he's thinking about her cleaning a gun, and he's thinking how that went sideways. But he was trying to flirt, then, which he really isn't good at; this isn't flirting. It's not about a hot chick cleaning a gun and wanting to get to know her. It's a lot more important than that.)
Jensen rips open the wrapper for the candy bar in his MRE and says, "Can I tell you something I figured out, last night?" which is only a little bit of a lie. Most of the real work did happen last night. It just took till now to get the finished product.
He has actually stared down a tiger once, by accident, yet another spectacular turn of fate that he got into because he was letting himself relax and got out of because he had someone to save his neck. Looking at her, right now, meeting her eyes, is almost exactly like staring down that tiger: she could kill him, she's not sure she wants to (if he's going to make her want to), and if he's really lucky he'll get exactly what he wants.
For an instant the stupid part of his brain, the part connected to the libido, wonders if she'd kill him for calling her Tiger (or should it be Tigress?), but luckily, he manages to keep it shut up inside his skull and not let it come out of his mouth.
"Thrill me," she says, evenly, projecting unimpressed that Jensen just reads as wary and is pretty sure he's right. And the corner of his mouth quirks up, because he can do this: because unlike so many other people, he has mastered the art of not being a threat, posture and voice and everything else, which means that he can say this without triggering the need to kill him to defend her secrets.
Jensen's mastered the art, that is. It's part of why he likes being Jensen better.
"I don't think I remind you of your dad," he says, honestly, looking right at her, keeping his gaze level while Aisha pauses, and looks sharp and right back at him. "I think I remind you of you."
Her expression is empty, and one step away from hostile; Jensen goes on anyway, because he thinks he may be making his point. "I think you haven't had anywhere you didn't need to watch your back since your mom died, but you didn't know what you were missing until now," he says. "Because there wasn't anything to compare it to. I think you could find another way to kill Max if that weren't true. I think you'd be pushing harder if that weren't true. I think part of you is happy to let everything stall so you don't have to choose."
Nothing in her face changes, not even a shade. She doesn't answer, either. Just, after a second, she gets up and walks away, puts trees between them; Jensen doesn't follow her, or try to stop her. He just sits back, and hopes he guessed right.
"You're not as stupid as you pretend you are sometimes," Cougar's voice says, from behind him, from the jeep. It eases something. It's dry, but it's something else - it's the way Cougar's voice is supposed to sound. He's probably faking it, but at least it's still there to fake. Jensen doesn't suppress the half-smile when he answers.
"You know me," he says, the three words so loaded and so straightforward. He gathers up what little they took out for the stop, puts it in the jeep and gets back in the driver's seat. "If people weren't making fun of me I just wouldn't know what to do with myself." He twists around, and grins. "You know, I could probably actually steal your hat right now?"
"I'll kill you in your sleep," Cougar tells him, matter-of-fact, and it's another little test that holds.
When Aisha comes back, she doesn't actually look at him. Just gets in shotgun and pulls the door closed with more force than is needed.
"Shut up and drive?" he offers. He's watching her face, carefully, just to see if the minute flicker is there - and it is. She leans her elbow on the door and the side of her head on her hand.
"Shut up and drive," she agrees.
(Fermata: Breve Rest)
Jensen isn't as stupid, or as inept, as he pretends to be.
Or maybe it's better to put it another way - Jensen's not as inept at people as he lets himself be. If he bothers, Jensen can read anyone; if he needed to, he could play most of them. It would take work - more importantly, it would take a choice and a change, and it would make him something uglier. Which is why he doesn't. But he could.
Jensen's not an easy person to get to know. He hides himself under the layers he makes up, and you have to have enough patience to wait for one of them to slip and let you see through. Cougar's been doing it for a while; he knows the signs, now, when Jensen's letting go of one of the masks built up. Even, sometimes, if Jensen doesn't.
They're leaving. Back to the US first, long enough to track down and deal with Maclean, and then to regroup for whatever's next. The first flight's in four hours, which means the boss is on the phone arguing with someone in broken Spanish. Cougar says nothing. Out loud. In words.
Eventually, the colonel gives up, tells Cougar what he wants to happen, and gives him the phone. It takes five minutes to get the connections changed. When he hangs up, Cougar still doesn't say anything. The colonel's just stir-crazy and angry, still, that everything went wrong.
"You know," Jensen says, as he goes to find the last of his things, that he's spread around the house their host (their very tolerant host) is finally getting back to himself, "if we never come to Bolivia again, I could die happy? I mean, great country at all, but let's just not."
"And you didn't even get shot," Pooch calls after him, dry. He's still sitting at the table, his leg excusing him from packing. Cougar shakes his head, snags one of the packs with his unbroken arm to take it out and put it in the jeep. It's more an excuse to get out of the closed space.
It's a problem, again. It'll go away in time.
Aisha's leaning against the hood of the jeep, in jeans and a wrapped shirt. Her arms are folded, her hair back except the strands that always fall in her face, like token curtains. Sunglasses hide her eyes. She's got almost the same look she has since . . . they got back to Trinidad. Almost the same.
There's just enough difference that he stops after he gets rid of the pack, stands where she can see him and waits for her to meet his eyes.
"Why do you stay?" she asks, the accent on her Spanish still different than the English he's used to hearing. She asks like it's an idle question. If it were, he might not even answer. He could point out that they're still fugitives; he could point out he still has his own revenge to want, and this is the best way to get it; he could point out all kinds of things that would be an answer.
Instead, he shrugs.
"Where else would I want to be?" he counters, question for question. He tilts his head and adds, "Where else would you want to be?"
Aisha looks away. Cougar watches her teeth dig into the inside of her lower lip. "He was my father," she says, still looking over into the street, into the distance.
"Was," Cougar counters. When she looks back, he shrugs again. "Now he's dead," he says, bluntly. "You're not."
"That's about it," she says, like she's agreeing - when she's sidestepping, really.
Cougar weighs the thought, weighs whether he wants to answer that with anything. Then he leans against the side of the jeep and says, "Your father had a knife to a little boy's throat," and watches her jaw tighten as she waits for what she expects. He doesn't give it to her, because that isn't the point: she was right, when she said it didn't matter. "The colonel went in for the boy. At that point we honestly didn't give a damn about your father, or anything else, other than getting those kids and ourselves out of there. Your father put the knife down. He let the kid go. It was over. Then he went for the knife again."
He stops when her breath is sharp, hitched. The way her mouth curves is painful, half shaped like a smile and half not. It's a new one, new face, so Cougar just lets the quiet sit to see where it goes.
"Of course he did," she says, as if to herself. She takes her sunglasses off, giving up their shield, and looks at Cougar direct. "That way I'd get the money."
And it clicks before she says anything else, but she goes on anyway, "Max didn't know about me. If Abi was compromised enough that Max would send you in, he'd just hope I wasn't. I'd get the money, and I'd have the reason. Finish his work."
It's the first time Cougar's heard her call Fadhil anything other than my father or Fadhil. When he makes an open gesture with his bad arm, it barely twinges anymore. "I don't think he ever stopped thinking life was cheap," she finishes, in a voice that says she's not sure he was wrong.
Then she adds, "I think that's the most words I've ever got out of you."
Cougar replies, "Barbiturates," and she actually laughs for just a second. It's a brief thing, like the sun in a cloud-break, before her gaze is level again.
"Is that the truth?" she asks, and he doesn't pretend not to know what she means.
"Does it matter?" he counters, but she only shakes her head, a tiny motion of rejection, and repeats herself:
"Is that the truth?"
Cougar glances at the house, at the movement at the door. He says, "I don't lie to my team."
Aisha asks, "Do I count?"
Her jaw is tight, locked. And this is the edge, but Cougar lets her stay there, because it only really works, only really counts, if she chooses which side to fall on.
She squints into the sun so she doesn't have to look at him. Eventually she says, "He was right." She nods at Jensen, where he's arguing with Pooch in the doorway. "He does remind me of me."
She stands up, moves to go, and Cougar stops her with a hand that brushes her arm - doesn't close, doesn't hold, just the touch. "That's not an answer," he points out.
Aisha's smile is one he's worn before, when she says, "Yes, it is," and flicks a hand at the brim of his hat. When he moves back so it's out of range, she smiles, and finishes walking away, back to the house to push Jensen and Pooch and their argument apart so she can get in.
"Andante moderato" - at a moderate walking pace; "Fermata; Breve rest" - hold silent for several beats; "Tempo simplice" - at a simple, ordinary speed