Volumes in Silence
Jensen never did know when to shut the hell up.
It's why he was always getting himself into nasty predicaments and social faux pas, or why Clay was always warning him to watch his mouth, and it was probably why Aisha had picked him as her target in lieu of one of the more reputable armed targets, of which there were a few in the room to choose from. And it was why, even now, reaching Jensen's side in two strides while he writhed in pain on the ground, even Cougar wanted to throttle the boy a little.
The sniper rolled the injured man over, prying his arm away from the gunshot wound so he could get a better look. "Cougar, be gentle!" Jensen admonished, pulling away instinctively and squirming far too much for Cougar to inspect him properly.
"Siéntate tranquilo," the older man warned, a blunt and stern reprimand that actually succeeded in getting Jensen to quit fidgeting for a few seconds, because Cougar didn't speak often so when he did, you can be damn sure you ought to listen to him.
Upon closer inspection, the wound was deep, and bleeding a lot, but it wasn't as serious as it could be with Aisha's finger on the trigger. That girl had been and would now continue to be host to a whole mess of problems that everyone would no doubt have their say in, but none of that mattered right now. Clay and the others could handle the girl; their fallen teammate was Cougar's first priority.
Pooch was the first one back in the room, tossing Cougar a towel from the bathroom while shaking his head in that unmistakable look of defeat. So Aisha had escaped. Interesting…
His movement fluid, Cougar caught the towel, ripped it into two strips and swiftly—but gently, adhering to Jensen's wide-eyed look of terror—secured it around his arm. He was already hauling the dazed man to his feet by the time Clay and Roque walked back into the room.
"Time to go," Clay ordered, but he didn't have to elaborate. Someone would have heard the shootout; it was their first priority to stay under the radar, with medical attention for their teammate coming second.
"Can't believe that bitch actually shot me…" Jensen muttered, tilting forward slightly.
"Yeah, yeah, I hate to tell you J', but I think you mighta been asking for it," Pooch said, grabbing the door as Cougar took Jensen's good arm over his shoulder and supported him on their way out.
There were a few more shocked protests on Jensen's behalf but by the time they'd found a drugstore in a less-than-populated section of town not too far from the docks, Jensen wasn't saying anything at all, and that's how Cougar knew he was hurting.
Cougar knew a thing or two about silence. People wondered why he chose to be so reticent all the time, but in truth, he felt people could say a lot more with silence than words could ever express. He had always been laconic, but the others found the characteristic even more striking since Bolivia. The team had their own way of dealing; Cougar found comfort in keeping his words to himself. It hadn't seemed to matter much, in truth. The others could read his silences almost as well as he could read theirs.
Jensen's was the most striking. He talked when he was nervous, he talked when he was scared, he talked when he was thinking, lying, flirting, putting up a front, excited, angry, or just plain bored. The only times a conscious Jensen was reserved was when he was hurting. Cougar had seen in before, in their black ops days before they'd been burned, and on that fateful day the chopper exploded, and he was seeing it now as the younger man hoisted himself up on the Pharmacy counter awkwardly, reluctantly taking Pooch's help when offered.
Cougar snuck a glance at the injured man while he roamed the shelves, rounding up supplies wordlessly. Jensen sat on the edge of the counter, legs dangling, massaging his forehead with his uninjured hand. The kid was tired, beat, in pain, and it took all the talk right out of him. Cougar wished he could say he enjoyed the rare peace, but he never did, not at the expense of Jensen's well-being. He wrapped up his scavenging as quickly as possible and rejoined his teammates at the counter.
There was something else that went unspoken—unless it was his own self in need, it was always left up to Cougar to do the patching up. No one needed to tell him to look after his team; it just came naturally. He supposed it was because he had the steadiest hand that it was left to him to thread the needle.
Pooch walked up with a bottle of aspirin, breaking it open and handing five to Jensen, who downed them dry. The pilot's silences were easily read too. Cougar could tell in the way that he avoided Clay's eyes that he was angry at the Colonel—for exposing them to a traitor, for letting them down—but worry was also a strong factor. Pooch worried foremost for his family—his wife and unborn baby and to a lesser extent, the four men who surrounded him, his brothers. It was this clashing mix of anger and concern that lengthened the other man's calm withholding, but they wouldn't last long. He respected Clay, but his loyalty lay first with his family, and he would speak his mind when the time was right.
Once the small sewing needle he'd found had been sterilized, Cougar pushed a reluctant Jensen back onto the counter and removed the now-bloody rag. Cougar began immediately after he ripped the sleeve open, cleaning the wound first before beginning to sew it up, swiftly but with care. No one called attention to Jensen's grimaces, or the trinket he'd found on the counter and used to bite back his pain and maintain the stoicism that was expected of him. To his credit, the kid was better at handling pain than anyone might give him credit for, at first glance. He may seem soft, easily broken, but he was made of tougher stuff than most. You didn't get as far as the Losers did without learning how to manage your pain.
"So, you still want to tell me your girl's on the level?" Roque spoke up, directing the question at Clay. It was catty, but nobody was stepping forward to stop him, given the reality of their situation.
"She burned us, the whole ops' blown. She knows our names, our faces," Pooch summed up, leaning heavily on the countertop. "Does she know about our families?" This too was aimed at Clay, and this too the Colonel received in silence. "Damn it, Clay, look at me. Does she know about our families?"
"Yes," Clay answered finally. He knew the reprimand was coming since the moment Aisha pulled the gun back on the boat, and he knew who it would be coming from as well, but no amount of forewarning could prepare for him an acceptable answer, and therein lay the foundations for Clay's silences. Always stoic, usually commanding, the Colonel wasn't subdued often, but forces outside of his control could drive him into long bouts of quietude, and the current driving force was guilt. Pooch and Jensen couldn't see it; they were young, and had other worries. Their respect for the Colonel bordered on fear, so it was difficult for them to fathom Clay's vulnerability. It was not that Cougar didn't respect Clay, but he understood him better.
There was something to be said for the solitude of silence; it gave him enhanced insight into his team, like a blind man's sense of hearing. Their tells, their motivations, sometimes the things they didn't even know about themselves. Clay felt guilty for what happened to Jensen. He was the one who brought Aisha in, and he was the one who persuaded the others to trust her, even when they were all positive she had her own agenda. Now that she'd flipped, she could easily come after any one of them, though it was Clay she had her eye on out of revenge for her father—another thing for Clay to feel guilty about.
This penitence had been a key factor in the Colonel's moodiness since Bolivia, but not for Fadhil. He felt responsible for what had happened to all of them, especially those kids, even though there was no conceivable way he could have known. He did the right thing. If only he could get Clay to believe that… maybe the rest of them could begin to believe it themselves.
"I gotta go home, back to Springfield," Pooch said, shaking his head sadly. He was panicking, and it was sending him into flight mode. "Jensen can come with me. His niece is in New Hampshire. We're done."
It sounded so simple. End the vendetta, duck and run, let Max forget about you after a few decades… but of course it wouldn't be that easy. They all knew that, and some part of them already knew what was coming next.
"Well, I'm going to the port, okay?" Roque said, which Cougar found a bit odd, considering Clay's second-in-command had been ready to quit just a few weeks ago. He supposed the events since returning stateside had had a profound impact on all of them. Perhaps Roque had gained some of that old resolve back.
Predictably it was Clay who spoke up next, nodding approval of Roque's determination to go ahead with the plan. "You get back to your families. We'll get Max. I did this; I made the call in Bolivia. I put your families in danger."
"Just let me and Clay finish this," Roque added.
"You two idiots are gonna go in there blind?" Pooch asked skeptically.
It was just like Clay too, to put himself on the sacrificial altar. He wasn't the only one who felt guilty, and he wasn't the only one who needed salvation. Cougar would be damned before he let the Colonel shoulder that burden alone. "Three," he replied, cocking his gun to emphasize his meaning.
Jensen, seeming to pick himself up a bit since they'd arrived, was the next to speak up, staring vacantly at the ceiling. "Hey, getting' shot is great. I'm up for doing it again." Cougar felt a small grin tug at his lips. There was not a doubt in the sniper's mind that the kid would join them. He cared about his brother and niece, and he was scared as hell—it radiated from every fiber as obvious to Cougar as anything Jensen emoted—but he was loyal and tough, and he'd be by his team's side until the end, whether that came tomorrow or not.
"Four idiots," Roque grinned.
Pooch sighed, feeling none-too-pleased that he'd been emotionally roped into this scheme. Of course no one would blame him for backing out. He was a family man, and a dedicated one. What Cougar knew that Pooch and the others did not was that Clay had children as well, a daughter and a son, both of whom were grown, but they lived with their mother and Clay hadn't seen them in over twenty years. His dedication to parenting was limited to yearly birthday cards and child support—whatever their mother would accept from him—and the occasional phone call that never went smoothly. Cougar had always supposed that Clay's unnatural obsession with obtaining revenge on Max for the slain Bolivian children found roots in his seldom spoken-of posterity. In essence, he'd failed another set of kids where he ought to have protected them. It was a failure that would haunt him for the rest of his life, just like his failure as a father.
Massaging his temples, Pooch finally came around to completing the circle. "You sons of bitches," he muttered. "I'll drive."
"Five," Clay finished, turning immediately to walk away. If they were still planning on descending on the Port of Los Angeles tomorrow to expose Max, they had a lot of work to do. Roque followed him and Cougar watched him go.
Roque was the only one whose silence Cougar couldn't quite figure out. He talked a lot of trash, and he was the one person least afraid to stand up to Clay, but even he was prone to pensive bouts of solitude. Some of the usual reasons were there—worry, grief, fear—the things men usually kept well hidden—but there was something else too… Cougar was never able to put a name to it, but everyone was entitled to their secrets, and Cougar had other worries on his mind that were more demanding of his attention, namely Jensen's struggle to push himself into a sitting position with his right arm, while craning his neck to inspect Cougar's handiwork. "Lookin' good, Coug'. You ever think of taking up cross-stitch?"
Good, Cougar thought. He was wisecracking again, and some of the color had returned to his features, though he still looked dizzy. Cougar moved around to the other side of the Pharmacy counter and took hold of Jensen's sleeve, swiftly yanking the ripped fabric even further apart to get access to his wound. At the sudden jarring, Jensen winced harshly.
"Lo siento," Cougar apologized sincerely, and Jensen shook his head, eyes squeezed shut against the persistent throbbing in his arm.
"No, it's alright." He looked down at his torn sleeve, stained red. "I guess my shirt was kinda ruined anyway, huh?"
"You have enough ridiculous t-shirts anyway, J'," Pooch cracked, pushing himself up from the counter and standing straight.
Cougar set to work ripping open a package of medical tape from the first aid kit and wrapping it around Jensen's arm, securing it firmly, then stepped back to survey his patient. The younger man leaned against the wall, hugging his injured arm to himself to steel against the pain.
"Time to get some rest," Cougar said, less a suggestion than an order, and Jensen shook his head, eyes still closed.
"No way, there's too much to do still."
"Yeah, well you ain't gonna get any of it done if you pass out first," Pooch argued.
"You think I can get any more of that aspirin?"
"No," Pooch replied, pocketing the bottle, eyes narrowed. "Not for a couple hours, at least."
"Please?" Jensen persisted, giving Pooch a respectable puppy-dog face.
"OK, but… you do realize we're in a drugstore and I can get them myself, don't you?"
"Just get some rest, Jensen," Pooch shook his head, exasperated, and wandered off to find Clay and Roque. "I'll wake you in a couple hours."
He may have been a bit loopy, and no doubt still hurting, but at least there was no doubt in Cougar's mind that Jensen was back to some semblance of his normal self. He pushed himself off the counter gingerly, Cougar standing by to steady him if he needed it. Over Jensen's shoulder, near the back of the store, he caught Clay looking their way, concern etched clearly into his features. He shifted his gaze to Cougar, who gave the Colonel a slight nod, as if to say Yes, he's alright, you can stop worrying now. Satisfied, Clay returned to what he was doing and it occurred to Cougar, all of the sudden, that it wasn't just the ghosts of Clay's past that pursued him. He may have failed to protect the Bolivian children, and there were two grown, independent youths out there in the world that had no use for him, but Clay was still protecting kids in his own way.
"Thanks for patching me up, Coug'," Jensen smiled awkwardly, rubbing the back of his head with his right hand.
"De nada," Cougar replied, the hint of a smile flashing on his features, and he impulsively reached over the countertop and snatched up a sucker from a box he'd spotted next to the cash register, handing it to a delighted Jensen. "For being a good patient."
Jensen grinned, turning to wander off towards a bench at the back of the store, pocketing his sucker for later.
Yes, Cougar thought. That ought to shut him up for awhile…