A/N: So...I'm in the process of trying to get all my fic from various communities in one spot, and since my primary fanfic site is here, I'm uploading everything to ffn for everyone's viewing pleasure. If you've already read these on the other sites they were posted on, I apologize in advance for the repeat! If they're new to you, enjoy!
Oh, and this one has a lot of sad/angsty parts with some things that sensitive readers may be, well, sensitive to (dogs and children are not immune to my twisted mind!). You've been warned!
Police crews, firefighters, and paramedics were everywhere. Jensen could barely see past all the yellow tape and the scrambling rescue workers and the flashing lights and the smoke...so much smoke... He tried to push his way forward, the dust from the concrete blown into so many lung-filling particles making him cough and causing his eyes to burn. A hand suddenly gripped his arm, stilling his progress.
"Sir, I need you to come with me," a disconnected voice called to him.
He couldn't see through the haze in the air, through the haze in his mind. "My friends...my friends were in there," he choked out.
"I understand, sir, and we'll do everything we can to find them. Why don't you come over this way; it's where we'll bring the survivors."
The hand continued to gently guide him to some spot beside a row of ambulances, the vehicles creating a barrier that blocked his line of sight from the destruction. Someone poured something into his eyes to clean them out, put a mask on his face to help him breathe. What they couldn't do was take away the fact that some psycho decided to go kamikaze with a fucking truck-turned-bomb on their hotel; or change the possibility that his chosen family lay dead, buried beneath several tons of rubble; or remove the guilt he felt over his need for a stupid sugar rush at four-fucking-thirty in the morning that took him away from them. Now they were in there, maybe gone forever, and he was sitting in the back of an ambulance breathing clean oxygen and getting some gash on his arm stitched up. He'd thrown it in front of his face when the building blew, protecting it from the flying shrapnel he was far too close to. He didn't remember feeling any of the debris hit him, or the force of the explosion knocking him backwards, twisting his knee in the landing. He didn't notice the blood running from a shallow cut on the side of his head. He didn't notice anything accept the familiar numbness that had a tendency to take over in times of crises.
An old woman covered in patches of soot was led up the ambulance beside his holding an ice pack to her elbow. She looked into his haunted eyes and a sadness filled hers. "You don't have to hold it in, young man. I won't tell anyone if you cry."
The shake of his head was slow, mechanical. "I don't cry," he said. She frowned at the hollowness in his voice; she was talking to him and he was responding, but clearly he was not there with her. No, he was somewhere else, lost in some distant, tragic memory...
"Dad, don't, it was an accident, please!" Jake screamed, pulling frantically at his father's arm.
Gun in hand, the man shook off his eight-year-old son's weak attempts to stop him as he wrenched open the kennel gate. "Dog's don't bite on accident," he said gruffly.
Jake pushed between his dad's legs and stood in front of the Doberman mix. "It was an accident! We tried to get the ball at the same time, that's it! It's just a scratch!"
"Scratch my ass, cost us a lot of money you damn well know we don't have to get you patched up." He grabbed the boy's arm and roughly pulled him aside. Jake continued to claw at his sleeve, begging his father not to shoot his dog. He stopped, sighing with relief when the man turned his attention away from the Doberman. "Boy, are you crying?"
Jake went rigid and scrubbed furiously at his eyes. "No, sir, it's dust."
"Goddammit, I told your momma I didn't want my son growing up to be a damn sissy bitch crybaby. Guess she'll need a little reminder."
"No, Dad, it's not her fault, I swear! I won't do it again!"
His father looked at him for a moment and then shoved the gun in his hand. "Fine, boy, prove it to me. You shoot that dog without blubbering, I'll leave your momma alone."
Jake looked from the gun to his beloved pet. She wagged her little nub tail at him excitedly, but her ears were back. She knew something wasn't right and was staring at him with soft brown eyes, waiting for some cue from her master that would take away the confusion she so obviously felt. He stepped back and aimed the gun at her head, the weight of it causing his hand to shake.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Then he froze as a single tear traced its way down his cheek. With alarming speed the gun was taken from his hand, and a split second later his dog was gone and his dad was making a beeline for the house. Jake stood in shock as he heard the front door open and slam shut followed by the usual yelling match. He took off, knowing what would happen when the yelling stopped, and knowing that this time it was his fault. That was a pain he didn't want to feel, not on top of the one already caused by the still mass of bloody fur he left behind. In fact, he didn't want to feel anything, nothing at all; and with each foot fall the tears dried up and the pain lifted away.
A hand touched his arm and Jensen snapped out of his daydream. The old woman was staring at him, her face a mask of genuine concern.
"Here, hun, let me take care of that for you." She reached for the compress he held loosely in his lap and pressed it against the head wound. "They really should have taken you in. You could have a concussion."
"No, I have to be here," he said quietly, staring at the ambulance blockade as if he could see right through it. He swallowed past a lump in his throat, which spurred another coughing fit.
"Put this back on," the woman ordered, bringing the mask he had discarded up to his face, doing her best to keep up a conversation with him. "You must have been nearby when that truck hit…"
"I was right there," he mumbled, his voice strained. "I was so close…"
"Shut up, Kyle, you're gonna get us caught," Jake hissed, a smile on his face as he landed neatly on the other side of the tall chain link fence.
Kyle, his best friend, fell to the ground with a thud beside him. Jake had to clap a hand over his mouth to stop from laughing out loud as he hauled his pal to his feet.
"Can we go to jail for this?" Kyle whispered as they crept over to the carnival slide.
Jake grabbed a burlap sack and began to climb the stairs to the top. "We're thirteen, they can't throw us in jail. Besides, it's not like we're hurting anything. This was your idea, anyway."
"I didn't think you'd actually agree to it!' Kyle whined, but followed in his friend's steps, anyway.
The boys stood at the top of the slide and grinned at each other mischievously. They sat down on their sacks and on the count of three, pushed off the bars that sent them careening down the slope. Jake was first to hit the bottom and promptly rubbed his win in Kyle's face as quietly as possible. They raced a few more times before a light shone in their direction.
"Oh shit! Run!" Jake shouted, and they took off back towards the fence, the security guard hollering at them from behind.
Jake leapt and hit the fence halfway up, scurrying over the top of it with practiced ease. Kyle was clumsier, of course, but managed to scramble his way to the other side. They made a clean getaway after that, their adrenaline still pumping high as they reached the edge of the main road. Kyle, despite his ineptitude with fences, could always best Jake in a dead sprint and hit the road first, forgetting to look. Jake reacted just a second too late, just missed the sleeve of Kyle's hoodie as he stepped out right into the path of a speeding Mustang. It wasn't until help arrived that Jake realized he had been screaming, and it wasn't until his dad came to take him home that he realized he had been crying.
Jake attended the funeral with his arm in a sling and a black eye that matched his mother's. A hand gripped his and his sister reminded him ever-so-softly not to cry. He listened, his face completely devoid of emotion as his best friend was lowered into the ground.
"We found someone!"
The man's shout rang out amidst the shuffle of chaos around them and Jake was on his feet in a heartbeat. The woman called after him as he limped away, but he had already shut her out. That voice, that phrase, it was the only thing he could hear, the only thing he would follow.
Hands grabbed at him but he pulled away from them, zeroing in on the crowd of rescuers ahead who were frantically digging at one area of the fallen building. A firm grip finally snagged his injured arm and the burning pain it caused triggered his instincts. Flying around, his fist caught the face of a police officer, his own momentum and unbalanced weight on his bad leg sending both of them to the ground. Another officer was on him in an instant, then another, and they pinned him down.
"I'm sorry," Jake grunted. "I'm sorry, I just needed to know. I needed to know…"
A soft, elderly voice piped up. "Please, officers, he's injured and I think maybe he's having some difficulty thinking straight. He has family in there, you see. He just wants to know if they're okay."
Jensen lay still, sucking in more of the brick dust coating the ground as he forced himself to try to calm down. He closed his eyes and waited for the pressure to lift off his legs, off his arms, off his back; and let his mind drift as he waited for the news on who it was that had gotten lucky enough to cheat death.
"I said no," Jake reiterated as he faced off against several members of the wrestling team in the boys' locker room.
Randy, the "leader" of this little band of wannabe cheaters, stepped in closer and pressed a hand against the locker next to Jake's face, pinning him in. "You just have to go in and change our test scores. It's not like it's rocket science."
Jake grinned in that smart-ass way that had a tendency to land him in trouble. "Oh, well if it's so easy, you can do it yourself, then. Thanks for saving me the trouble."
He patted Randy's outstretched arm, a mistake that resulted in him being turned around and harshly pressed up against cold metal. One of his hands was yanked up behind his back while his face was pushed against the grating on the locker door. It cut him slightly and he could feel the warm blood sliding under his chin.
"Fix our scores Jensen, or we'll make your life a living hell," Randy hissed into his ear.
"You already do," Jake spat back. "I'm gonna need a little extra incentive."
The next second, he found himself facedown on the ground with a few of the guys holding him to the floor. He struggled against them but the more he tried to shove them off, the more pressure they placed on him. The knee in his back was the worst; a little more weight on it and Jake knew he'd be looking at a broken rib. Taking in a shallow breath, he forced himself to stop moving.
"Oh, are we ready to listen now?" Randy grinned, pacing back and forth in front of Jake's face. "It's simple: I tell you to make it so we all pass, you don't get hurt. Deal?"
"Fuck you," Jake whispered.
The janitor found him an hour later beaten fairly badly, but he refused to go to the hospital. His dad came and whisked him back home, tending to his son's injuries with an odd gentleness he had never shown before. Jake kept an impassive expression on his face throughout the ordeal until his father laid a calloused hand on his shoulder.
"Got a call from Tom's dad, said Randy got taken to the hospital with a busted wrist and bawling like a damn baby. You do that?"
Jake clenched his jaw. "Yes sir. He deserved it."
A rare smile crossed his father's face. "That's my boy," he said, and patted his son's arm once more before leaving the room.
Jake was left with an odd, conflicting sense of feeling disgusted, proud, relieved, disturbed, and strangely gratified all at the same time. For the first time in his seventeen years, he had his father's approval. All it took was shoving down the pain and breaking someone's wrist to do it.
Somewhere along the line some kind soul had brought over some chairs for Jake and the old woman to sit in. He didn't remember it happening, just felt the sensation of sitting, of skilled hands wrapping his head wound until he could get it tended to properly, of frail fingers lacing between his. With eyes glued to the rescue crews in front of him, he was barely conscious of the fact that each time a body was hauled up from the wreckage his own fingers tightened around hers. When someone finally came up alive – a man, a kid, really, probably a surfer – he was aware of himself just enough to keep from snapping the bones in her hand. She never said a word, just allowed him to latch onto that lifeline she was creating for him.
The digging resumed and Jake settled back into his chair to maintain his vigil. Without turning away from the scene and with a voice so soft she almost didn't hear it, he began to ramble. "They're not actually family; I mean, they are, but not by blood… Well, no, that's not right either, because we've bled enough for each other that…nevermind. I've got family, like real family, a sister and a niece. They're in New Hampshire, they're fine, good, great actually; but the people in there…"
He tapered off and fell silent again. She laid her free hand over the top of their interlaced fingers and gently squeezed. "I know a military boy when I see one, sweetheart, was married to one for not one minute too long. I know what type of family you have in there, and I know what it does to boys like you to lose them."
His eyes shut for a second as he took in a few short, fast breaths. When he opened them again they had regained that far away look, and with it came yet another flash of pain.
"A monkey was tried and convicted in South Bend, Indiana for smoking a cigarette," Jake stated very seriously.
He sat back and eyed his two teammates, a sly smile growing on his face. Peters was studying him closely with a slight squint in his eyes. Badescki shook his head.
"I call bullshit," Badescki stated, throwing his Lando figurine into the betting pile.
Peters came to a decision and tossed in a glow-in-the-dark d20 roleplay die. "I have to agree. That's pretty random, even for you, J."
Jensen's grin got bigger. "All facts are on the table and all bets are placed, gentlemen… And….go!"
At the same time all three men swiveled their chairs away from the table and typed away on their computers, looking up each other's random so-called facts. Jensen cursed at losing his favorite Smurf to Peters' useless knowledge – apparently Jenga really was the second best-selling game of all time. He had thought Yahtzee, because really, who doesn't love blurting out Yahtzee in a moment of victory? Badeski's "fact" that a lead pencil can draw a line fifty miles long was bullshit and Jensen had called him on it – a pencil could only draw thirty miles worth of line – and therefore was able to hang on to his James Bond decoder ring. Both the Lando figurine and the d20 were totally his, though.
Just as they finished divvying up their winnings, their CO flipped the tent flap open. "PB&J, you're up. Get a move on, soldiers."
"Finally," Badescki grinned, "I was startin' to think we weren't gonna get to do anything this mission."
Grabbing their already packed gear, they bumped fists and headed out on their first big operation since they had graduated boot camp only a few months before. It was supposed to be simple: the Ops guys were supposed to have cleared the base of enemy reinforcements so the three techs could get in, gather intel, and get out. It wasn't supposed to be the death trap it turned into.
The "hacker dream team" had barely gotten into the systems when the shooting started. Between the three cornered men, the Ops guys trying to fix their mistake, and the horde of enemy soldiers firing at random, the mission quickly turned to chaos in Hell. Someone had hit a power source and the lights went out, blanketing everyone in complete darkness. The gunfire kept up, mindless of whether friend or foe was slain.
Jensen stayed low, gun at the ready, as he crawled around looking for his teammates. "Badescki! Peters!" he shouted, knowing he probably couldn't even be heard over the sound of bullets ricocheting off metal walls. He kept at it, anyway, the need to find his friends driving him on.
Something punched him high on the right side of his chest, throwing him to the floor. For a second he couldn't breathe and had to fight the instinct to rip away his Kevlar, but his training won over and he made himself focus on taking one small intake of oxygen at a time until he regained control. The vest had taken the brunt of the impact, saving his life no doubt, but the warm wetness told him it hadn't stopped the bullet entirely. It hurt more than anything he had ever felt before; but it wasn't the time to fret about the pain. He had more pressing matters.
"Jensen! Dude you hit?"
It was Peters, and the sound of his voice brought a relieved smile to Jensen's face. "Yeah, through the vest, but I'll live," he grunted. "Badescki?"
"I don't know, man, I can't find him. We gotta get you outta here." Peters reached an arm down and slid it under Jensen's shoulders.
And then the flash went off.
It was days later when Jensen woke up in a field hospital with bullet and shrapnel from the explosion removed. His first thoughts were of his friends and he nearly pulled the IV from his arm trying to get out of bed to find them. Once the doctors were able to mildly sedate him, they informed him that Peters' body had shielded Jensen from the full force of the blast. The man had lived, but his military career was over. The government couldn't be bothered with a one-armed hacker on the field. They also certainly couldn't make use of Badescki – he hadn't been found. He would be labeled as a POW for a designated amount of time, after which it would be presumed that he was KIA.
And just like that, the "hacker dream team" was gone. His friends, his brothers, were gone; and all because the damn Ops guys didn't fully do their jobs.
And just like that, the numbness took over; and Jensen vowed if he could help it, it would never happen to anybody else. From then on out, he was going to be the one going in first. He signed up for Ops training the second he was medically cleared.
Another flurry of movement from the rescuers had Jensen snapping back to the present, sitting on the edge of his chair again as a few more bodies were pulled up from beneath the rubble. The old woman was speaking to him again, telling him to breathe, and somewhere in his subconscious mind he made his body respond to the order. Something else must have been written on his face that made the woman speak to him again.
"Is that one of yours?" she asked softly.
He watched intently as a man in a black suit was placed in a bag. The face of the man was destroyed, but the body build was right… Something tightened inside of him and the numbness threatened to fall away, but still he held back the tears.
"Here, let me help you," the woman suddenly said, and it was only then that he realized he had gotten to his feet. With a shaky nod, he put some of his weight on her and limped over to intercept the body's trek to the ambulance. He said nothing as they approached, just stood quietly while the old woman explained the situation. The medics nodded and unzipped the bag. Jensen didn't even bat an eye at the mess of red that used to be a man's face. He wasn't looking there, he wasn't looking at something else.
"It's not him," he breathed, touching the spot on the man's hand where a teddy tattoo should be.
And then he did look closer at the face and wondered if all of his friends maybe looked like that. Maybe there was nothing left to find, just like before…
Words wouldn't come.
Jensen stood back and watched Cougar fall to the ground on his knees, sending up a prayer to the Heavens for the souls of those twenty-five children, moisture clouding the man's brown eyes. Pooch stayed several paces back not bothering to fight off his own tears. There was a frightening moment when Jensen saw the utter loss in Clay's features as he stared down at a burning bear. Roque, as was his usual reaction, was angry, but there was a deep sadness in his hardened face, as well.
Jensen was numb.
He stood there and stared at the fiery pieces of the chopper, the only evidence left of what had once been a helicopter full of smiling faces just moments before. Everything else was gone, burned in a second to nothingness, young lives reduced to so much ash at the push of a button. The children were dead, the soldiers who had come to pull their asses out of Bolivia were dead, they were supposed to be dead…
And Jensen was completely and utterly numb.
He tried to cry, it felt right to cry, but it wouldn't come. He couldn't compete with the lifetime of knowledge that his tears would only create more pain, that burying his sorrow and reacting with either laughter or violence was what people expected of him.
But this time he didn't react at all. He handed over his dog tags when Clay demanded them, just threw away his life at his Colonel's command and didn't look back, wouldn't look back. He would bury the pain like he always did and keep looking forward, make a new life, follow this family wherever it lead him. He would stay strong for them, make them laugh when they needed him to, play his part and do his damn job like he was supposed to.
And he would do it without tears, because like it or not, they just wouldn't come.
There was another rush of activity, the excited voices of the rescue workers filling the air. There was talk of more survivors, of a sound of metal banging against metal in Morse code. Jensen stood as close as he was allowed, the grip of the woman's hand firmly latched to his elbow. There was an unspoken understanding between them, that if these survivors were communicating in code, there was a very real chance….
But if it wasn't them, if the people trapped in that unearthed elevator weren't the members of Jensen's missing team, his devastation might just win over. The woman would stand there beside him, giving him strength with her touch until that moment came when he would either be freed from his turmoil or fall to it. If he did fall, she would be there to try to lift him back up. She wouldn't leave him alone to deal with his quiet suffering.
"We got it, we've got four survivors!" a voice shouted, and a maelstrom of cheers rose up.
Jensen remained utterly still, rigid, as he waited for whomever it was to come crawling out of that hole in the mass of tangled metal and concrete. Once again he seemed to have forgotten how to breathe, but this time the old lady just let it go. He wouldn't risk passing out, not at a moment like this.
Then there it was, covered in dust but he recognized it just the same – a hat. The tired face that followed beneath the brim confirmed his hopes. It was Cougar, and it was Cougar coming out on his own two feet, looking relatively uninjured.
"It's them," he muttered.
She smiled and let go of his arm. "Then go, help your family," she said, then stepped back to let him free. He had taken a few shaky steps before she called to him one more time. Something in her voice made him stop, but he didn't turn to look at her, just listened. "It's okay to show them how you feel," she said quietly. "Next time you may not have the chance to."
He shut his eyes and bowed his head for a second, feeling something new pass through him. Then he was off, running, mindless of his injuries, mindless of the few officers who only made a passing attempt at trying to stop him, mindless of the way Cougar grunted and almost fell when Jensen latched onto him. Another second later and he peered past the sniper's head to see Pooch stepping into the light. He let go of Cougar and instantly gripped Pooch in a tight embrace, one that was joyfully returned and with Cougar's hand still resting on his shoulder. When Aisha came out he hesitated just slightly until she smirked and grabbed him towards her, first, his wide smile growing as she patted him on the back. Then came Clay, and as Jensen hugged his Colonel - the man that treated him more like a father than his real dad ever had - he felt that little something new inside of him open itself up. The tears had finally come and he laughed as he let it all get absorbed into Clay's dirtied jacket, all the years of pent-up emotion and hidden pain flooding out of him in one moment of pure joy. The others didn't say a word, just huddled around and wrapped their arms around him until he was calm, and only then did Clay pull him away.
"I thought you were dead," Jensen said with a tight voice, but his brilliant grin lit up his face even as he wiped at his eyes.
Pooch chuckled. "Probably would've been if you hadn't been going on about your damn ice cream craving for an hour straight. Man, you made us all want some. We were in the elevator on our way to meet up with you when the explosion hit."
Jensen laughed again and shifted onto the wrong leg, almost going down before Cougar caught him. The look of concern on the sniper's face made the physical pain that much more bearable, and he shrugged it off as he took back his own weight. Cougar maintained his grip on the arm, anyway.
"I'm okay, Cougs, really. Now that I know you're not-"
He cut himself off and shook off the shudder that threatened to ride up his spine. Thoughts of his friends being trapped, being crushed, didn't need to plague him anymore. They were there, in front of him, seemingly unscathed minus some minor cuts and bruises. His family was still with him.
He smacked his forehead. "I should introduce you to-"
Again he cut himself off as he turned to look for the woman that had helped him through it all, the woman that had told him it was okay to cry and had been right. She should have been right there by the street where he left her but she was nowhere to be seen. His eyes scanned the crowd and then flicked over the row of ambulances. Nothing. She had vanished, and he hadn't even gotten her name.
"Jensen, you okay?" Pooch asked.
"There was a woman…" Jake mumbled softly.
Pooch looked at him a little closer. "How hard did you hit your head?"
Aisha rolled her eyes. "Figures a building would fall on us and you'd be the one who got hurt."
Clay gripped Jensen's other arm and with Cougar's help began to guide him back towards the waiting paramedics, Jensen continuing to search the faces of the people milling around, looking for the person that he needed to thank. He never found her.
A ceremony was held at the hotel site a few weeks later and the Losers all showed up to pay their respects to the ones who hadn't been so lucky. A row of memorial pictures lined the sidewalk, all framed in white roses. Jensen hobbled past them slowly on his crutches, remembering some of the people he saw as mangled bodies being drug out one by one, cringing inwardly as he recalled the way in which he couldn't help but feel relieved that none of them were his friends. The others kept pace beside him, understanding what he was feeling and sending silent thank-you's that they weren't the ones being pictured there.
At one particular photo Jensen froze dead in his tracks, his eyes wide as he stared at the woman pictured amidst the roses.
"You know her?" Pooch asked.
"Yeah," Jensen choked out after several seconds. "She was the one I was telling you about… she didn't even look really hurt… I didn't… If I knew…"
Clay frowned at the letter tacked beneath the memorial picture. "You sure this was her?"
Jake nodded slowly. "Positive."
"It says she's one of the ones they couldn't find," Clay continued. "She was checked into a bottom floor room, closest to the impact site. There's no way-"
"It's her, Clay, I know her face," Jensen insisted.
Aisha shrugged. "Maybe she got lucky like us and wasn't in her room when the truck hit. She probably just walked off and didn't want to come back here."
She stepped away towards the next picture and Pooch, then Clay slowly followed. Jensen remained where he was, staring at the picture of the woman - a Ms. Lenore Salvatrice.
"Yeah, maybe Aisha's right, maybe she just took off and didn't tell anyone," he finally said.
Cougar, who remained standing behind him, leaned over slightly to speak into his ear. "Or maybe she was an angel."
The sniper winked and walked off to catch up with the others, leaving Jensen by himself. Jake reached up and slid a finger down the pictured face. "An angel, huh? Yeah, that could be right." He chuckled lightly. "Thank you, Lenore, thank you for helping me feel again. I won't forget."
A single tear rolled down his cheek and he wiped it away with a smile. He looked up to see his friends, his family, waiting for him and he hobbled off to join them. It was just the start of a new day, of a new existence, and he would face it with the belief that maybe a guardian angel named Lenore would be watching out for him and his loved ones. With her face and finally her name burned forever into his memory, he walked gratefully with his family; and for the first time since his father had put that gun in his hand so many years ago, he felt amazingly whole.