It was sometime after dinner that Jared headed toward the back door, intending to get himself some fresh air. His roommates were challenging a couple of the other guys to a 'high stakes' poker game – the winner gaining all the others' weekly rations of sweets. Once, Jared might have been up for joining in, but of late he was finding it hard to feel any kind of real motivation outside of being in the field. It had been two months since S1 team's sudden shut-out from Mission Command, and two months since they'd been on any kind of mission of import. It was like they'd been demoted or something. And shit, for all he knew maybe they had. All Jensen would tell him was that his Base Command contacts were hedging, trying to evade any direct questions or answers. And considering it was Jensen they were doing it to, of all people, Jared had every notion to be suspicious. And that suspicion was slowly grinding his insides to a pulp.
Hence the need for air. And perspective.
The end of the barracks building he was heading through was empty now, and had been for three weeks. Ever since Jensen had nominated five of their nineteen to be transferred to a separate advanced-standing team. His reasoning to the rest of them had been that this other team had requested additional support. His reasoning to Jared had been 'trust me'.
And he did. Probably to a fault. But Jensen hadn't steered him wrong yet, hadn't given him reason not to trust.
Jared was just passing the last lot of bedroom doors when an arm wrapped around him from behind, a hand clamping over his mouth to stop him from calling out. He'd been so close to fighting back, barely a second away from elbowing his assailant in the gut with all his strength, but then he caught wind of it – he knew that smell. Perhaps he shouldn't, but he did. Unashamedly.
So he let Jensen drag him backward into the room he'd emerged from. It should have been empty. Officially, Jensen's room was about ten doors down, but for whatever reason he was apparently stowing away in this one. He could make out that there were two beds (not bunks) to one side, with a desk and chair occupying the opposite wall space. The room was devoid of any personal items, but there was a canvas bag on the floor, an open Safe Case on one of the beds – paper and notebooks spilling out of it – and a laptop on the desk. The overhead light was out, so as soon as Jensen moved to pull the door closed they were left with only the pale blue-grey light of the laptop screen.
Jared breathed through the waning swoop of adrenaline, and couldn't help but notice that Jensen was still standing close enough that he could feel his body heat.
For a long moment they just looked at one another, and Jared was struck by the play of light and shadow over the planes of Jensen's face. He'd done more than his fair share of staring at this man, but to see him up close like that, unhindered, near enough to point out the faintest of freckles across the bridge of his nose, the beginnings of a five-o'clock shadow over his lip and jaw, and the deepened creases beneath his eyes that spoke of sleepless nights…
What exactly had Jensen been doing in there? And had he dragged Jared in there for some kind of confession or just extra-curriculars?
"Gimme a second," Jensen shushed him with a harsh whisper. "I'm just… trying to reconcile my desires with my duties right now. I've done my fair share of reckless things – I wouldn't have made Master Sergeant if I hadn't – but this is by far the most… you know…"
Jared blinked. "No, I don't know. You haven't really given me any idea of what's happening right now, so-"
Before he knew it Jared found himself pushed back against the wall. Jensen's chest pressed in close against his own and his lips covered Jared's in a not-entirely-chaste kiss.
Jared froze. But Jensen didn't move. Didn't pull away. He just waited for Jared to finally let go, let down the walls he'd built up over the last however many months of living in close proximity, but never allowing them to get truly close. Ever since that conversation they'd had, the first time they'd ever been alone in a room together, things had been tense between them. Which shouldn't really be that much of a surprise. If only Jensen had kept his mouth shut, kept his 'not dissimilar' feelings to himself, then maybe Jared wouldn't have had to pull himself back so completely, and force himself to keep his feelings in check every time they had to speak – mission-related or otherwise.
It still bothered him to think about it, that Jensen had let his thoughts at the time slip so easily, but Jared couldn't deny that his desire for the Master Sergeant hadn't weakened one iota. If he were to be honest, with all the time they now had to spend together as the two commanding officers of their team, all the instances Jared had been able to closely observe Jensen's skill and strength in his position, it had only caused his feelings to grow deeper. Meaning that, despite the mutual denial between them up until that point, wasn't this everything Jared had wanted?
Dammit all to hell.
With a pained gasp, Jared gave in.
He parted his lips and let Jensen inside, let their tongues slide together, moans and desperation passing back and forth between them. The release of all that pent-up energy had them both getting rough with their hands and mouths – belts and biceps and shirt collars were gripped with bruising intensity, and Jared caught the tang of blood on his tongue when someone's lip caught a tooth. He had no idea if it was his own.
Jared's hips rolled and Jensen leaned in more heavily against his front, humid breaths heating the curve of his neck. And as Jared reached down to take Jensen's waist in his hands, bringing them more firmly together, he caught the hard length of Jensen's cock pressing blatantly into his thigh.
"Fuck damn," Jensen cursed, breaking through the chorus of heavy breathing and the scritching of their uniform fabric. He had one leg pointedly edging in between the gap of Jared's thighs, only to start shamelessly rubbing himself off against Jared's growing hard-on. He groaned so deeply Jared could feel it resonating through his chest. "Knew you'd be big, Jay. Knew you would."
The words fed his ego like nothing else he'd ever heard, and within seconds Jared was hard enough to pound nails.
"Like that, Jen?"
"Shit, yeah. Want it in me so fuckin' bad."
Jared growled at the carnal images the words conjured up in his mind. But there was no time to indulge in them when Jensen suddenly started pulling them towards the bed, dropping down on the mattress and pulling Jared up over him. At this angle, with only the laptop screen's light emanating from the other side of the room, Jared had to feel his way down the buttoned column of Jensen's shirt, the zipper of his pants, very nearly resorting to tearing them open instead. Jensen only laughed at his frustration and finally decided to help out, and they both scrambled in the dark to pull their own clothes off.
Still with half a leg in his pants, but too eager to wait any longer, Jared crawled back on the mattress and took his time running his palms over Jensen's naked body. He only wished he could see it in its full glory. But with his nearest teammates only a couple of rooms away, they were going to have to keep quiet and keep a low profile, lest the wrong person discover them. Jared leaned down to mouth along the planes of Jensen's chest, and he could sense the movement of muscle under his lips as Jensen fished around for something in the canvas bag by the bed. He heard the flick of a plastic cap, and he followed Jensen's hands by touch as they skimmed past his cock and dropped somewhere down between his thighs. He could only imagine what it must look like – the perfect flush of Jensen's cock and balls hiding the furled muscle of his hole… Though, between Jensen's hitching breaths, the squelching sound of lube on his fingers, the bump of elbow and forearm against Jared's stomach as Jensen's hand moved about – it proved erotic in its own right.
"Okay, okay, that's enough," Jensen said, more to himself than anything. And then he was pouring more lube and wrapping his fist around Jared's hard dick, guiding him in the rest of the way. Flesh met flesh, and Jared made a dive for it, pushing himself inside an inch at a time. The tight heat wrapped around him like a glove, and he didn't stop until he was buried to the hilt – Jensen's thighs resting on his hips, his balls lightly pressing against the lower edge of Jared's stomach. The perfect fit.
A low whine sounded deep in Jensen's throat, body squirming on the bed sheets.
"Fuck fuck fuck, Jared, Jesus Christ."
He settled, Jensen biting down on his own arm to quiet himself, and then he started to move.
He wrapped his arms around Jensen's shoulders and used the position to pull Jensen back down against him at the same time he thrust forward. The slap of flesh on flesh was the loudest sound they made, Jensen's teeth bearing down hard enough that Jared wondered if he'd broken the skin yet.
Somewhere in the midst of the chase Jared felt Jensen's hand crawl in between their bodies, his rhythm faltering just for a moment. He could tell the instant Jensen took his cock in hand since he felt the immediate reaction, Jensen's ass contracting so tightly around his dick he nearly lost it then and there. But he breathed through it, kept on with the fierce pounding of his hips, kept on chasing until Jensen's body suddenly pulled tight like a bowstring, and only then did Jared finally let himself go.
Jared's hips stuttered to a halt, filling Jensen's hole with his load. He pulled Jensen's arm from between his teeth and kissed him through the aftermath, playfully dragging a thumb through the mess on Jensen's stomach.
Yes, it had been a rough, scrappy affair with barely enough time spent to enjoy it, but no, Jared wouldn't have changed it for anything. Somehow he decided that rough and scrappy suited them perfectly.
Eventually Jensen pulled back from the kiss and gave Jared a nudge, both of them gasping as Jared withdrew. He grabbed one of their undershirts from somewhere on the floor and gave each of them a quick wipe clean, before settling back on the mattress and pulling up the blankets from where they'd been almost kicked completely off.
"What brought this on?"
Jensen snorted and then barked out a sudden laugh, quickly muffling the sound with his hand.
"That's what you're going with?"
Jared shrugged. "Could be worse? But, I mean… I don't want to ruin the mood or whatever, I just feel like your jumping me didn't just come out of nowhere? After all these months of nothing… I feel like your self-control is better than that."
With his hand looped over Jensen's chest, he could feel the rise and fall of it as the Sergeant sighed.
"I guess I shouldn't be surprised… And yes, something did bring this on. It's true – my self-control is excellent."
Jared couldn't help the fist he put into Jensen's side. He really couldn't.
"Okay, fucking ouch. I deserved that. Son of a bitch… Okay, then. So. I may have been called away to the WASP base camp."
"Meaning you're leaving." Jared pushed down the hurt. "For how long?"
"I don't know. There's no way to answer that."
Jensen shifted against him, burrowing his head against Jared's shoulder and nodding.
"Got no choice. You know how it is."
"Even if you did, would you stay?"
"I…" Jensen heaved another sigh, warm breath skirting over the surface of Jared's skin. "Probably not, no. I wasn't given details but—"
"It's probably some sort of special ops mission, right? I've actually considered this scenario, and I figure that's probably the only thing your superiors would fight you over."
"There's a good chance," Jensen admitted with a tired groan. "I think it might even be related to that lead that Adrianne decoded before."
Jared's head spun. "The one that basically got our team decommissioned."
"Yeah. So I can't really ignore an assignment like this. Not when it could be something worthwhile for once."
"It’s okay. I get it. I'd go too if I could."
"I know you would. I would want you by my side, fighting the good fight and all that."
"Whatever," Jared muttered, brushing off the sentiment. "But just… do something for me, would you?"
"Just… try not to be your reckless self if you can help it? I'd really like it if you came back, you know?"
"Jay, I'm the star child here. If anyone's going to make it out it would be me."
Jared could see Jensen's deflecting for what it was, and he didn't like it one bit.
"You don't think you're coming back at all, do you?"
Meaning that this had been a goodbye fuck? Was that it? Jared wanted to be angry about it, he wanted to lash out, he really did. But the ache of Jensen leaving was so much worse than the hot flash of his own anger. He lamented under his breath, "Stupid motherfucker. I hate you but I love you but I hate you."
Jensen's hand was gentle as it squeezed his where it lay around his waist. "Yeah, ditto."
It was weeks before they heard anything.
Jared had called through to the base communications department nearly every day. He only had to hear the beginnings of those rote monotonous 'explanations' to know they were stonewalling.
When they finally began to get the smallest of trickles of information coming down from above, Jared could see why'd they'd been trying to keep things quiet. As it was, the only news that was for certain was that the whole of the strike team, Jensen amongst them, was gone. Disappeared into thin air.
It took both Rosey and Tom's combined efforts to hold him down and keep him from breaking something, including himself.
The whole of the thirteen remaining team members were on his side though, they even said as much. And every single one of them wanted answers. But even with Adrianne's skill at breaking into classified files, they were at a loss. No one had a clue where Jensen's team had really been sent to, much less where they might have disappeared. There was literally and figuratively no trace of them. But they kept looking.
The Staff Sergeants that oversaw their barracks eventually returned to officially disband the S1 unit. Jared had known that Jensen left things behind for safe-keeping – namely his Safe Case – but Jared couldn't bring himself to retrieve it. Couldn't bring himself to even go into Jensen's room at all. So he picked up his own case and left the place without a second glance. He'd been informed that the barracks were to be shut down and sealed once they'd left, so he figured that was that. It wouldn't stop him looking for answers, though.
Time passed and Jared's heart crumbled. But his resolve only grew.
Peeling open his eyes, he acknowledged the words carved into the wall just by the mattress. He'd managed to pry a screw loose from the bedframe and write with the pointed end.
He knew where (vaguely), who, and what he was, which meant today would be a good day.
Metallic thuds echoed from out in the hallway, faint faraway screams bouncing off the hard walls. Eventually they worked their way down to his door and a tray was pushed through the slot in the middle. His meals were little better than salted cardboard, but at least they were mostly edible. They'd been stupid enough to try to poison him in the beginning, but he'd left a trail of bodies behind in protest. They hadn’t put anything untoward in his food since. Some of the others there weren't so lucky.
Sometime later they returned to collect his empty tray and pass him a clean set of clothes – or pyjamas, more like. Jensen recognised the hands of the guy doing it. He was the tall one with the hair that hung past his ears. It reminded him of Jared. Which was why he was usually the one to attend to Jensen, since he was probably the only one Jensen hadn't attacked yet.
Thinking of Jared made his heart hurt. In good and bad ways. Jensen wondered what he was up to, and what had become of him and the team. Where Jensen was… it was hard to keep track of time. He was pretty sure he was underground somewhere, neatly packed in this lovely concrete box. It had definitely been years, but by now there was no way to know exactly how many.
Had Jared looked for him? No doubt the team had been told some kind of useless lie, but Jared would have been smart enough to see through it. Even if they'd named him dead, Jared would know. But again, it had been years… How long could a person keep searching when there were no clues and no answers and nothing to stop him from moving on.
Sometimes he had dreams about Jared looking for him. Finding him…
But even should someone manage to blast their way through the proverbial front door, would Jensen be able to bring himself to go? He wasn't what he had been. He was different now. Outside might be a place he couldn't exist any more. It was a grim reality, but Jensen was a realist. He'd been a senior officer. Before. It was in his interests to make decisions 'for the good of the people'.
He got to his feet and pulled the paper packet from the door slot, opening it up. He frowned when he saw the grey clothing inside. He preferred blue. Because grey meant he would be expected to comply.
Jensen didn't realise until the pain set in – he was on the ground, curled up, his own fingers digging into his face. He could scarcely breathe.
Don't make me do it, don't make me do it, don't make me…
It seemed today wouldn't be a good day after all.
Jared gave the signal and watched his team fan out around the building's perimeter. Their steps were near silent, agile and well trained, ready to strike at the slightest provocation. Each member was linked by an in-ear comm unit and digital eye shield which showed their location to each other, but Jared had been with these guys long enough that he had a feel for them now, knew that they would be in position by the estimated mental count he kept up in his head. He let everyone settle for just a moment and then tilted his chin, giving the go ahead into his collar where the comm link was set.
He heard the distant whirring from around the side of the building – one of the laser drills working on the door jamb. And then Chris, who was standing next to him, busted down the front door with a small electric pulse device. It was just one of the new gadgets granted to his team by their employer – some under-the-radar rich bastard with a military-kink and a taste for guns and revenge. Jared had never met the man face to face, but Eric had always been supportive of whatever missions Jared and his team chose to take on on his dime, so Jared figured that made him an okay guy.
Jared couldn't help but wonder what Jensen would think of him now – and the majority of the S1 unit for that matter – bowing out of the army and hitching a ride with a private contractor. It was all the rage these days. They'd tried to keep things up with the team back then, but the army was turning out to be a lost cause. Wouldn't listen to reason. Going after the wrong targets – targets that were so very clearly not what they should have been wasting their precious time on. Nor were they the only group to notice the suspect shift in military 'priorities'. So they'd left. As a team. And when word had gotten around about it, they'd had offers coming in from all sides. Apparently they'd made a bit of a name for themselves without even knowing it.
Hunting the Infected would do that to you. No team in all of known record had taken down as many as their S1 unit had, not anywhere in the world. Not that it was a statistic Jared was particularly proud of. He was proud of his team and their accomplishments, sure, but what sick sons of bitches would they have to be to take such pride in putting down rabid dogs. Jared had almost grown to hate the whole thing. What they'd seen by now, the horrid sights they'd witnessed because of the Infected… the screams, the rivers of blood, the exploding bodies…
Jared snapped back to the present as they began storming the building, guns raised, prepared to shoot to kill. Because that was their mission. This poor excuse for a house was reportedly hiding some kind of illegal medical facility – one possibly associated with research on Infected – and any life within it had to be cleansed. And surely, they found more medical equipment than they knew what to do with, but not a single sign of life.
"Jay-bird reporting," Jared grunted into his comm unit, linking to the operations liaison, "Location is a bust. Orders?"
"Catalogue and return to base, Jay-bird," came the voice.
Jared rounded up his troops and had them heading back toward their pickup point. He tried not to look as dejected as he felt. Despite the opportunities that had come their way, it had been five years since he'd last felt like he was doing some meaningful and relevant. Five years since he'd last felt like he mattered.
Jensen had been missing for five years.
A reputation to kill for, every weapon at his disposal, high-priority missions for miles, but Jared just didn't feel like himself any more.
Another thread of hope followed by another fail.
This time the facility had been completely empty. Not even a table or chair to be found. So they'd packed up into the v-jet and headed off.
Rob and Richard where at the wheel, so to speak. They had apparently been former teammates of Jensen's, so when they'd turned up on Jared's doorstep looking for a new unit to be a part of, he couldn't say no. Turned out to be one of the best decisions he'd made so far. The two of them together were masters in the front seat of a jet, and Jared trusted their judgments from all facets. Which was why they were flying low on this occasion. They were cutting through old military territory which was still monitored, albeit barely. They hovered little more than fifteen feet above the ground, and followed what appeared to be old roads. Jared was staring out the narrow window, taking in the barren scenery, when something caught his eye.
Rich turned around to give him the eye. "Eh? Seriously?"
"That structure to the East, pull up there."
"You're the boss," Rich turned back with a shrug and did as ordered.
Within minutes they were disembarking, and Jared could hear the exclamations of surprise from the rest of his team. He left it to someone else to explain where they were to Richard and Rob, while he strode forward and kicked down the perimeter fence – finding that it wasn't even armed. He moved to the front door and took out the locks with a quick shot from a heat-type galvanic handgun, and pushed his way inside before he could think better of it.
The S1 unit barracks looked just the way they'd left them. It was eerie.
He could hear the footfalls of the others as they followed him inside, someone getting the overhead lights going again. Jared let his feet take him where they would, so perhaps it was no surprise that he ended up in front of the door to Jensen's room. That one door he hadn't been able to make himself walk through five years back.
But he would now.
He took the handle in hand and turned, letting the door swing back with a subtle creak. A fine layer of dust covered everything, and it kicked up around his boots as he walked in, disturbing the years-long calm. And there, on the bed, just as he must have left it, was Jensen's Safe Case. He could sense someone was standing behind him but he didn't turn to acknowledge them, only kneeled down on the floor by the bed and pulled the case towards him. Without even hesitating, he punched his own birthday into the keypad and heard the immediate snap of the lock as it opened.
Jared snorted. "That motherfucker."
Looking inside he was surprised to find nothing but tech and paper. There were small boxes of computer parts, enough plastic and wires and silicon to make a whole bunch of homemade chips, probably even enough to make a small motherboard. Then there were the notebooks. Jared had seen some of them before, but he'd never noticed just how many there were, nor what they contained. He flipped one open only to find lines and lines of letters and numbers – to the untrained eye it would have looked like nonsense, but Jared knew a location code when he saw one.
Pulling out the books, all twenty-something of them, he uncovered the grand prize underneath – Jensen's laptop.
He was almost shocked to find it. Jensen had been so secretive and protective of the thing, but it just served to drive home how sure Jensen had really been that he wasn't coming back from that last mission. Jared felt his limbs go numb with shock.
"Jared, Jared, hey hey hey!"
Adrianne appeared in his field of vision, a worried frown on her pretty face. She kept on saying his name, trying to get him to respond, then finally resorted to a hefty slap when he wouldn't react.
"There you are. Back with us now, Sunshine?"
"Yes, yes. Fuck."
She left Jared to comfort his cheek while she took the laptop from his hands and hooked it up to a power source. She booted the thing up and ran a lite decrypt to get through Jensen's main password screen and firewall.
"If I need to get through more password entries are you gonna have all the answers?"
Jared grimaced. "Best guess? Try my name or my birthday. It's already worked once today…"
"Christ," Addy choked, "Excuse me while I gag a moment."
Sitting idly by, Jared just listened to the clacking of computer keys as Adrianne wormed her way through Jensen's files. She probably knew as well as he did that Jensen had always been hiding something massive. They just had to find it.
Minutes passed, and Jared started to get worried. But then Addy's fingers seemed to freeze, hovering all of an inch above the keyboard.
"Holy fucking Swiss cheese, Batman."
Jared shuffled over on his knees and glanced over her shoulder. He stared at the screen, trying to get his head around what he was looking at. Until it suddenly clicked.
"That's… That's the SPUD system?"
"It's the SPUD, but not the official system. Or, not the one I've seen. To me? This looks like he's mapped out the whole entire map by himself. That would take some serious time and patience, and some very serious smarts, Jared."
Jared breathed through his shock. "But how? And, more to the point, why?"
"No telling for sure… But there would be no way to retrieve this level of detail without actually bugging the system."
"…You're telling me he hacked the SPUD?"
"For all intents and purposes, yes." Adrianne glanced back over to the bed, where all Jensen's things were now spilling out of the Safe Case. "All that stuff in the plastic boxes there? That's more than enough to make a reprogramming chip. If he managed to stick enough of those in enough of the actual SPUD towers? There's no telling how much information he could pull, or how much he'd be able to manipulate the system without detection."
"I don't even know what to say."
Addy turned to him with a grin. "You know, I always knew he was up to something. I confronted him about it once. When I first came into Jensen's unit, I managed to clone a message stream belonging to one of the Sergeant Generals, and so I'd been watching all his incoming and outgoing correspondence. I knew from there that they were going to try and manipulate how and where Jensen worked, get him under their thumb. So even though I was massively freaking out I managed to warn him, and he was able to escape that fate at the time. But I guess he couldn't escape it forever."
"So you've both been spying on our own military?" Jared could barely get the words out. "I don't know how to react to this."
"Don't be so shocked. You know as well as I do that they're corrupt as they come. Someone was going to have to infiltrate, and I guess Jensen was it."
"Yeah… you're not wrong."
A knock on the door interrupted both their thoughts, and a moment later Chris was sticking his head in the door, looking at them both curiously.
"Something you guys wanna share with the class?"
"Uh, yeah," Jared decided, clearing his throat, "Get everyone in here."
Adrianne kept tapping away at the keyboard while Jared pulled the notebooks towards himself, flicking through the pages. The location code he'd found was clearly something to do with the location of the SPUD towers, but then there was a whole lot of other calculations that just made no sense to his uninformed eyes. He kept looking as the rest of the team filed into the room, either sitting on the opposite bed or finding a place to stand. When they were all at ease he turned to face them.
"So it turns out that Jensen was even more of a maniac than we took him for."
"Not news to me," Rob piped up with a grin.
"But you broke into his computer?" Alona crossed her arms over her chest, clearly sceptical of their motives.
"Yes," Jared admitted with a heavy-hearted sigh, "If only I'd done it five years ago… But it's too late for that now. Addy and I have found more than we bargained for. Jensen's apparently been spying on the SPUD system for as long as he's been in the military. One of his notebooks dates back to NSE 44, which means he's been working on this since before he even enlisted."
"What exactly do you mean by spying?""
Adrianne took over, moving aside to show the team the laptop screen. "He hacked the SPUD from over a dozen locations, and was able to create a fully digitised map of it – umbrellas, gaps, tears, high and low power areas. The whole shebang."
"And then some," Richard responded, moving closer to get a better look at the screen. He reached down to type something in, and suddenly the 'map' came alive, coloured lines pinging from one side of the image to the other. "Not only did he manage to map the thing, but we can actually remotely detect various signals being bounced off the umbrellas."
Richard turned to face the rest of the unit. He was the oldest among them and had been in the military the longest, so his knowledge pool was a deep one. "You might say it was the 'happy accident' of the SPUD deployment. Of course it was designed to keep things out, or at least make a big ol' fuss if something tried to get in, but it deflects just as well from the underside as it does from the topside. Basically, if you get the angles right, you could bounce almost any kind of signal to almost anywhere you wanted."
"Like in that old-timey game with the flippy things," Rosey said, looking terribly pleased with himself, "Pinball, I think?"
Richard nodded. "Just like that. So when the EDOT cottoned on to this, they had to find a way both to monitor it, and to exploit it. What Jensen has happened upon is something like the monitoring system. But what they also managed to do was use the umbrellas to detect things that aren't being bounced anywhere – not just signals, but concentrations of people or energy as well. All of this stuff was practically common knowledge back in the day, but they hushed it all up somewhere along the line."
"So essentially they can track and monitor us whether we like it or not."
Jared clenched his teeth and felt the tension pinch in the side of his jaw. It was an endless supply of betrayal – the EDOT, who controlled base operations like mission command and housed the 'upper echelons' (as Jensen had always put it), just continued to let them all down with their continuous lies and deceit. As a kid, he'd always thought the military would be his saving grace. If only he'd known how wrong he would turn out to be.
He turned to Adrianne, who had brought something new up onto the screen.
"I've just started rolling back the clock on this thing. If we can get to the right date we might be able to track Jensen and his special ops team."
It was difficult holding his heart in his throat as he waited, but for the first time in as long as he could recall, Jared felt genuine hope. Minutes passed, then hours. The team dispersed, but Jared refused to leave, parking himself next to a pile of Jensen's notebooks. Richard and Addy took turns at the keyboard, pointing things out to each other as they searched, but eventually, mercifully, they hit jackpot.
With Richard's shout of success, everyone came stumbling back into the small dorm room, peering at the tiny blinking blobs on the laptop.
"These are the bio signatures of the team," Addy explained, "So we can see that they hit this building here, but something rushes outta there in one hell of a hurry and gets the better of all them."
The red and orange blobs Jared took to be people, but the blob that mows them all down was neither colour.
"I think it's an Infected," Addy cut in.
Jared's stomach dropped.
"But look – then more people appear. The assumed Infected is still present, but it's stopped. The whole mass travels to somewhere nearby and disappears, most likely underground."
A hush came over the team. Apparently base communications hadn't been completely talking out their asses when they'd said Jensen's team just disappeared into thin air. But Jared still wanted to crush them with his bare hands.
He found himself momentarily lost in the conflict of anger and desperation, but after a long moment the haze cleared, and Jared looked up to find the every other occupant of the room staring at him. Waiting for orders, Sir!
"What'll we do now, Sarge?" Chris asked, earnest as ever.
There was really only one thing they could do. "We go to this location and find 'somewhere nearby', wherever the fuck that is."
Their employer found the idea of their quest to be a curious one, so he got them a fully kitted-out, military-grade helicopter.
Needless to say, Rich and Rob were in heaven.
They hit the ground running and Jared didn’t have to say a thing this time. With the addition of the two pilots, there were sixteen of them altogether, and they all had their respective and well-practised parts to play. Adrianne and Mark (their blonde-haired tech geek) were stationed nearby to their makeshift landing pad. They had Jensen's laptop as well as various monitoring equipment set up, allowing them to relay suggestions and directions through the comm units.
Richard had managed to land them in precisely the last location that had registered on Jensen's map, but it wasn't until they were there, ankle deep in ash-grey dirt, that they could see the partially-buried building. Tom and Alona swept for motion sensors and energy fields but strangely found nothing. They advanced in formation, approaching the building front, and it was hardly surprising to find the visible part of it to be a façade. They all made their way up the creaking stairs and the through the rotting wooden door, but it's just as Jared's passing over the threshold that he feels the most intense sensation of vertigo that he's ever felt.
He must surely have been about to tip, but suddenly there were strong hands grabbing him from either side, holding him upright. He could hear their voices talking to him, about him, but it seemed as though they were far away. His head pulsed, like he'd been struck, but from the inside. And he dropped whatever it was that he'd had in his hands, clutching at his temples.
"Jay? Jay! Talk to me, man!"
Jared hissed, clumsily attempting to slap away whoever was yelling at him.
"Crap dammit, Jay!"
"Fucking loud," he groused, forcing his eyes open only to find himself kneeling on the dusty floor. Everything felt impossibly heavy. "What hap'n?"
"Nearly passed out on us, Jay."
"Rob got a little weird on us, too, but at least he stayed upright!"
Groaning with the effort it took, Jared forced himself back onto his feet. Didn't they have a job to do?
"I guess all this weird shit means we're in the right place then."
Alona looked concerned. "You sure you're good?"
"I'll be fine. Small beans, 'lona."
She huffed and stepped to the side while Jared put himself back together, gathering the gun he'd dropped to the floor. Once he was good to go he immediately started to feel better again, so he gave the signal, and Rosey moved to an oddly placed section of wall, aiming at it with one of Mark's specially made pulse devices. The wall seemed to shudder, then pause, before rolling back to reveal a metal-lined stairwell. Again, Tom and Alona go first, scanning for hidden security measures or anything that might be seeking out intruders, but still they didn't appear to find anything. Jared dutifully moved to follow, and was all of three steps in when he heard it:
You can't be here.
He stopped dead, eyes darting around as if he might someone other than his teammates. But of course there wasn't. He knew there wasn't. So he took a breath, paid no mind to Richard standing at his six, looking at him strangely, and continued down the steps.
You can't be here.
The voice came again, this time more forcefully.
But he grit his teeth, ignored it, and kept going. It clearly wasn't Mark or Adrianne's voice. It wasn't even like the voice was coming in through his ears. It was just… in his head, of all things. For a split second he could almost pretend it sounded a little like Jensen – that tone that he used to love hearing, that easy strength he could convey with a single word… But that would just be ridiculous, right?
WHY? Jared suddenly shouted back at the voice, not able to stand it any longer.
Not safe, came the answer. And Jared nearly tumbled over his own feet, right on top of Alona.
"You alright, buddy?"
Jared wasn't sure he could get his voice to cooperate, so he just spotted Richard out the corner of his eye and gave him a quick nod.
Why is it not safe? he dared to ask, half fearing that even after everything he'd been through, he'd finally cracked.
They're going to come back. They'll kill you.
Jared could practically hear the distress resonating through the disembodied voice.
Who are they?
Military. But… secret.
His gasp slips out unbidden.
Why would they…? How? What are they doing here?
The best thing you could possibly do here would be to bomb the crap out of this hellhole and get away as fast as you can.
Somehow Jared just knew that he was hearing the truth. That for whatever reason, it was what they should do. But he couldn't. And maybe (probably) it was selfish of him, but he needed answers first. He refused to leave this place without answers.
I'm not going to do that. Not yet.
Who are you?
The silence stretched as Jared continued to make his way down the stairs. All he could see were the backs of Tom and Alona's heads and stairs and stairs and stairs. He was just about to wonder if they might reach the centre of the Earth when they finally came to a plateau, the floor spreading out into a hallway full of more hallways. It was a fucking maze.
Who are you? he asked again, wondering if he'd chased the phantom off.
…You already know, Jared.
He barely made it away from the rest of the team before his breakfast came straight back up to meet the floor. He coughed and spluttered and grabbed at his water flask to rinse out his mouth. Whoever it was that was supposedly coming back to kill them would find his vomit before they found him, at least.
"Dude," Chris said with impatience, "What the fuck is going on with you?"
Jared pushed himself back onto his feet and sighed.
"If only there were words to explain it…"
You're not going to leave, are you.
The words were resigned. Tired.
Not without you. I'd never forgive myself.
That's not going to happen, but I know how bull-headed you can be. I guess I should give you a chance to fail. So do as I say.
"Hey," Rosey perked up, "Anyone hearing Mark or Adrianne at all?"
"Fuck," Chris muttered, "Comms are down. We must be pretty deep down here."
Why can't you speak to the others?
I've got a personal connection to you, Jay. I could find you anywhere. The others… not so much.
"Do you guys trust me?"
Jared found himself staring out at thirteen pairs of questioning eyes. The 'right now?' was obvious, and he didn’t blame them after his 'dizzy spells' and the whole vomiting thing. But he knew in his heart that they would follow, no matter what he did. He just hoped he wasn't leading them into oblivion.
"Awesome. This way, then."
He listened to Jensen's instructions as they passed through his mind, leading his teammates through door after door, hallway after hallway. It nearly made him dizzy all over again.
Take the far door on the right.
Jared didn't question it, his feet instantly moving to follow.
"Tom, take that door. Over there." He pointed.
Tom and Chris both looked at him strangely but managed not to argue. The door brought them into yet another long hallway. More doors lined each side, all the way down. But unlike previous versions, these were made of reinforced metal, numbers painted on the front. It reminded Jared of an old-school prison. Like something out of the history books.
Every second door is safe.
He caught Rosey just in time, his hand already on the locking mechanism.
"Not that one. The next one."
Rosey did as he was bid, opening it to find an empty room. Except, not exactly empty. It was lined with with electronic equipment and one way windows embedded the walls. In what must have been behind the first and third doors, they could see rooms that looked like something out of a hospital, and there was someone on the bed in room one, and someone curled up and shaking on the floor of room three.
They're not safe. Don't disturb them.
"Leave them be," Jared said out loud.
"Jay, you're scaring me, dude." Chris had his concerned face on.
"Just… trust me. Please."
It was all he could say.
Come to the last door. Come alone.
He gestured for everyone to stay put. Heart thudding in his chest, he moved to the last door and manoeuvred the locking mechanism, the heavy metal swinging open wide. He almost dared not look, but Jared's eyes moved of their own accord, and there. Sitting curled on the bed. A man nearly swallowed by pale blue pyjamas. Holding himself.
"Oh, fuck." The words barely passed his lips. "Oh, fuck." Again, but louder.
It happened too fast, too slow, but in the space of a moment Jared was at the bedside, pulling a shaking Jensen into his arms. He felt like skin and bones.
"I got you."
Jensen said nothing, only clutched at Jared's shoulders hard enough to break the skin. And that probably said enough.
"I'm not me anymore, Jared."
The words were muffled, said into the padded front of Jared's uniform jacket. They still managed to convey everything he needed to know however, which was that Jensen had been pushed to the very limit, probably even over that limit altogether. Jared could practically taste the damage. And he wanted to make these people bleed for what they'd done, but only after Jensen was safely away from it all.
"You can't, you can't," Jensen insisted, shaking his head against Jared's shoulder.
"Can't what? Take you away from this place?"
And then that voice again.
I'm one of them now, Jared. You can't let me out.
"What? One of what? Jensen, talk to me."
An Infected. They've turned me into an Infected.
"That's impossible. It's an uncontrollable alien virus. They can't just—"
"That's the part we never figured out, Jay." Jensen's eyes stared up at him, dark and bruised and so fucking tired. "It was all a mistake. The Leonisians did nothing but make a mistake. Humans are the ones who ruined everything, Jay. The gift was a plant – some sort of flower. The oil that comes from it is what causes the Infection. These scientists… they've weaponised it. They've been experimenting with it the whole time."
Jared didn't know what to say. It was a possibility he'd never properly considered, but only because he'd never know what the 'gift' was. A flower, of all things… And they'd been growing it right there on Earth, experimenting with it… on innocents… making them into—
"Lucid?" Jensen nodded like his head weighed a hundred pounds. "Much more than I'd like. In control? Mostly. But… I'm still different now."
"Like how you were in my head."
"There's a lot of explaining to do, I know. But we don't have much time."
"Come on. I'm getting you out of here."
"Jared, no. They're coming. You—"
Jared dragged Jensen out into the hallway and there was a collective gasp as everyone realised who it was that was wrapped in Jared's arms.
"Oh, fuck me."
"You all need to leave," Jensen urged with all the strength he could muster, "Right fucking now. They're already coming back. There's no… There's no time!"
Except that nobody moved. The whole team merely stood there, weapons in hand, determined looks painting their faces.
"I…" Jensen shook with irritation, glaring back at Jared. "I see that they've all learned your bad habits."
"Guess I'm just a fashionable guy?"
"Oh, please," Chris scoffed.
And as easy as that, the mood broke. Jensen finally resigned himself to whatever fate came upon them, while Jared suddenly had all the hope in the world. He would get them all out of there if it killed him.
"Time to start talking, Jen."
So he did.
He drew a map of every exit that he knew of, including the vent shafts, which would allow them to send a signal to Adrianne and Mark at the surface.
It made him happy to know that Addy had stayed with Jared and his team, and that she'd helped so much in discovering the truth. In all honesty, he'd forgotten about his Safe Case. And the laptop. All his research. He supposed he'd had bigger problems to worry about while he'd been locked in that concrete box. And he wasn't home free just yet.
But Jared. Just seeing him gave Jensen strength.
It had barely been two days since he'd last had to comply. He still had no idea where they got the subjects from, whether they were criminals or other people they'd been experimenting on… In any other circumstance he might have felt sorry for them. But not there. All he could think about were the horrors he'd see. All the pain that he'd have to endure when they forced Jensen to reach into the subject's mind and pluck out all the little things that he was told to. 'Training' they called it. He could've laughed.
He still had no idea how they figured out his ability. All he could think of was that they'd managed to push him into a delusional state at some point. Maybe they'd drugged him to the gills. Had him dreaming awake and talking while he hadn't even been aware of it. They must have. Because he went to great lengths to keep them away, to keep them from poking and prodding him like an animal. It made him wonder how unique he was, whether he was the only one to stay this coherent after being 'turned'.
Several of the ones he'd been witness to either exploded on impact, or went instantly manic and killed themselves and everyone in the room. Most tended to seem okay at first, but took anywhere from days to weeks to work up to the same point – mania and destruction. Through utilising his ability here and there, he'd managed to find out that those were the ones he'd once been responsible for hunting down. The research teams would purposely let them loose from their labs and then track them, waiting and watching to see when and how it all went down.
It might as well have been a game to them.
And shit, if only they hadn't kept him locked up, hadn't kept him starved to the point of exhaustion, he would have killed them all by now. All of them. With his mind or with his hands – it wouldn't have mattered.
But now, he had half a chance to make his wish come true. With Jared and the remnants of the S1 unit on his side…
Doubt still threatened to creep in, though. Once upon a time he'd been filled with everything but doubt. Five years later and he barely went a moment without it.
Taking a breath, he sent his feelers out. He'd made enough contact now to be able to sense Richard, Rob, Alona, and Chris, so he could tell they were making good time and that Addy and Mark were on the surface, ready to fight. Jared was elsewhere – in one of the research labs. He would alert him when the time was right, but for now Jared was collection as much evidence as possible, taking video and photographic footage via his eye shield. Soon the world would know.
He could sense the moment that the scientists returned, back-up troops in tow.
He felt the panic from Rob and Richard, the irritation from Chris… There were more soldiers than they'd bargained for. Shit.
Jensen went out into the hallway and unlocked the first and third doors. Samantha and Steve immediately walked out, as though they knew.
Sam was focussed, as lucid as she'd ever been, her hands already beginning to redden with molten heat. Steve was on the edge, though. But with a touch of Jensen's finger he settled, the mania abating for now. Steve rolled his shoulders with a smile and a cool breeze kicked up out of nowhere.
These two – both of them from Jensen's special ops team – somehow they'd held on. Perhaps Jensen was partly to blame (to thank) but they'd still held on through their own force of will. He couldn't leave them, and he couldn't let them not be part of the fight. They had as much desire to be out in the world again as he did.
He reached out again, stretched his mind to the limit to locate the closest team members, only to pull immediately back.
"We're overrun. Two of S1 team are already dead, and the rest are struggling."
Sam and Steve headed in the directions Jensen guided them to, while he headed towards Jared.
He immediately met two enemy combatants in the hall, but with a flick of his hand they fell. The mind could be so delicate – all he had to do was pull lightly on just the right string and…
A string of bodies left in his wake, Jensen stumbled into the research lab.
He was teetering on the edge, body on its last reserves of strength. He didn't know how much more he could aid in this fight. For all that it could appear so easy at times, doing what he did required energy, and energy was something he hadn't possessed much of all of the past five years.
But what he happened upon when he pushed open that last door, was a scene he could never have imagined. He'd known Jared was fighting hard, attacking with both his weapons and his body, but is his distraction Jensen had failed to notice that Jared no longer had the upper hand. It was over twenty well-equipped soldiers against one, and they had Jared backed into a corner. His guns were left on the ground, and there was no way he could retrieve that pulsers from his belt without having someone shoot him first. His only options were whatever was left in plain sight – some medical supplies, a couple of near empty chemical containers, and the medication fridge which had fallen open in the fight.
Jared hadn't spotted him yet, naturally too preoccupied by the guns trained on him, but just as Jensen attempted to slip back into his mind, Jared started to move.
It seemed to happen in slow motion – Jared's hand reaching for the fridge, fist wrapping around the ready-use injections on the top shelf.
It was only as he pulled them toward himself that Jensen realised what they were, what Jared was attempting to do…
He screamed as Jared forced two of the injections into his neck, violet liquid draining into his body even as the blasting of energy guns went off around him. Jared's eyes seemed to cloud over, muddled green-brown sinking into black.
And then it happened.
Every part of Jared's body, every little piece, vaporised in an instant.
Tiny black granules held suspended in the air for a too-long moment, and then tumbled to the ground all at once. They pulled all together like metal shavings to a magnet, forming a murky sea of black, slithering around on the vinyl floor. It had the thickness and opacity of oil, yet it glittered and swayed like the ocean.
Jensen had seen his share of newly 'turned' spontaneously exploding. But never had it looked like that.
The soldiers were looking around with confusion, unable to comprehend what had happened, nor how they should proceed. That was, until one of them finally spotted Jensen. Next thing he knew he was their next best target. Twenty minutes ago he perhaps could have dealt with them, but after everything that had just happened, there was simply no way.
Closing his eyes, Jensen prepared for the end. Yet once the sound of the galvanic guns going off met his ears, all he felt was… nothing.
Blinking open his eyes, Jensen could barely bring himself to breathe.
Before him stood a shield.
A shield made of oozing black diamonds.
Jensen was never going to forgive him. Or so it felt like.
Exposing yourself to weaponised alien flower venom and getting turned into tar-coloured mercury was apparently just not something a person could be so easily forgiven for.
Jared was still hopeful, though.
Six weeks had passed since that day. A day that would never be forgotten. A day where they all both won and lost: Jared had won Jensen, but lost a significant portion of his humanity. They'd won the battle against the research facility's combatants, but they'd lost three of their own in the process.
His recovery of evidence had worked out well in the end. Adrianne had leaked just enough onto the netstream to expose the truth, while keeping just enough back for the military research divisions to be taken to the international courts. It was an exciting prospect, if a damning one for their country, but it was out of Jared's hands now, so all he could do was sit back and watch.
And that was something he'd done quite a bit of lately.
Jensen who was getting stronger by the day, and slowly getting the help he needed to assimilate back into the real world. Jared wished he could do more – despite Jensen's insistence that he was doing more than enough already – but it was true he had his own issues to worry about. Largely, learning to control his newfound ability. Because spontaneously dissolving into a viscous liquid tended to lose its shine after a while.
He was getting better at it, though. Already he was down to just two 'episodes' a day.
And in order to help both of their healing processes, he and Jensen had taken a break and moved house. To the great wide wilderness of… Portland.
According to Jensen, the largest tear in the SPUD in the whole of the world sat just over the western side of Oregon. Meaning there were plenty of alien races hanging around, since obviously they were there for a reason. But more to the point, they'd fit right in.
Still, making a 'home' together, being outside of the armed forces… It was new territory for them both. They would have to get to know each other all over again. (Not that that was a bad thing.) They'd have to find new comforts, new hobbies, new habits—
You need to stop thinking so loud.
Jared pursed his lip.
Well, considering I'm usually alone up here in my head, you'll have to forgive me for not being as accustomed as you.
'Sorry. I'm going to have to get used to the whole blocking people out thing. I spent so long in that place where there was hardly anyone in reach except Sam and Steve. And they weren't always 'all there', y'know?
"That's why we're here," Jared said out loud, "And we'll stay here as long as you need."
Jensen hedged, picking at his nails and refusing to look Jared in the eye. "But what if it's forever? What if I'm never okay,"
"Then we'll stay here forever," Jared said with finality.
Jensen's fingers slowly entwined with his own, and Jared took the greatest of comfort in that small gesture. He always did. Jensen could get so twitchy now when he was close to people, but he was almost always fine around Jared, and that was as much as he could possibly ask for. It meant they could share a bed together, even if Jared would end up waking alone for the most part, but it was all a starting point. That was all this was – a new start.
So many things were different now; the whole fucking world was a different and unfamiliar place.
"Thank you for coming to get me back then."
Jensen would get like this sometimes – despondent, guilty, timid, falling back into that headspace he was always trying so hard to climb out of.
"Yeah, five years too late."
And Jared had his own issues, of course. Though his mostly focussed just on guilt. Survivor's guilt, if they were getting into specifics. Between his parents and Jensen, it was one hell of a deep-rooted tree.
"Better than ten years too late," Jensen sing-songed, "Or even six years, you know?"
"You're amazing. And terrible."
Jared pulled him close. They were out of the military perhaps, but this was them setting out on mission: recovery.