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The real ironic fuck of the matter, Jensen realizes, staring down the line of the knife, is that today's a special occasion.

 

For a long time, Jensen was pretty sure he knew how his story went. Loudmouth boy grows up, joins the army. Loudmouth boy gets recruited for spec ops by gruff new father figure. Boy makes a whole team of scary friends. Boy thinks things are pretty good, on the whole, and then abruptly a whole lot of shit goes down. 

 

The special occasion is, in fact, the anniversary of the start of shit going down. Today's the day Jensen has officially been dead for five years. Five years to the day, when he threw his dog tags into that burning helicopter in Bolivia, chains tangled up with Clay and Roque's, Pooch and Cougar. Five years, and he's still never picked himself free, because sometimes family is tangled-up dog tags and playing dead in the road together. It's getting drunk, and doubling up on beds in cold safehouses. Sometimes it's forgetting your gun but always having someone there to watch your back anyway. 

 

And sometimes, it's waking up, and realizing, too late, that loudmouth boy is twenty-eight years old now, and is tangled up in bed with a scary, beautiful guy and he’s in love with him. And, that feeling this way is the most dangerous thing that's ever happened.

 

Well. Dangerous metaphorically, anyway. In the actual, literal sense, holy fuck I'm in trouble, today is climbing the charts.

 

Clay and Pooch and Cougar aren't here. They went to rendezvous with Aisha in Jakarta, on account of she's got a fistful of hot intel that she bought with a bullet, and she's lying low in the meantime. Which means Jensen came to Sofia alone.

 

Jensen came to Sofia alone, and it should have been fine, it should have been no problem. He was just supposed to get their hardware set up, everyone else coming in forty-eight hours behind him. It was supposed to be easy . It was supposed to be computer shopping

 

What it's turned out to be, however, is this: someone, probably Max or one of Max's little goons, because fuck that fucking guy, tipped the local mob to his face. Someone made him, and someone clubbed him in the thickest part of his skull about five minutes after he got off the train. And now he's handcuffed to a chair behind a stack of crates, industrial lighting and dirty windows showing nothing but black night outside, and it's this: Jensen, a half dozen-odd Bulgarian heavies and a table full of knives.

 

The long and the short of it is, fuck everything about this situation.

 

"Tell me where your friends are," says the first guy, again, and he picks up a fucking big knife for emphasis. Jensen makes himself breathe slow, and look him in the face. Just another ugly fuck, in a long line of ugly fucks who don't mind cutting people up for a living. And Jensen is cold, and he’s scared. But he can- he can sit here, and he can keep his mouth shut, he can, and Pooch and Clay and Aisha and Cougar are gonna be okay, these fucks aren't ever going to touch them. Jensen's going to make sure of it.

 

"Well, the first rule of fight club-" says Jensen, and he doesn't even get to finish before the guy backhands him across the face. White stars explode across his vision and there's blood in his mouth, and then the guy cuts him fast, once, twice, three times, across the meat of his upper arm.

 

The shock of it almost outruns the pain, and Jensen has half a second to spit blood and cough out, "Okay, dated, I know, teenage hyperfixations die hard-" before the guy jams the knife straight into his left shoulder and Jensen runs right into a howl.

 

Past the white hot scream of pain, someone is laughing. Says, "Not so smart now, huh? Your friends. Now. Time and place."

 

And, okay, it was probably always going to end like this. Jensen knows that. It's a shitty end to a story, though. Light-headed and losing blood, tied up in the cold fluorescent light in some shithole warehouse in Sofia. Jensen had always thought maybe it could have been better, maybe a better story to end it all. But it's-it's okay. He'll keep his team safe, and when he doesn't check in tomorrow, Clay will know it's gone bad, and they won't follow him. Clay won't let any of them follow him. He'll go down knowing that, and that's enough.

 

Cougar , he doesn't say. He just wishes-fuck, he wishes-

 

Breaking glass, and then there's a sound, abrupt and wet, and you'd never know what it was if you'd never spent the better part of your twenties in every combat zone on earth, and also if you'd never been in love with a stupid good sniper and seen what he could do from six hundred feet out in the dark. Cougar , he thinks, again, suddenly, and it's fucking crazy, but the guy in front of him hits the floor with half his head blown off. The knife clatters out of his hand.

 

There's yelling, another guy goes down, and then all the lights go out.

 

***

 

Spec ops is like any other world. Hang around for long enough, and it has a culture, fucked up as it may be, and it has stories.

 

Some of them are about ghosts.

 

***

 

Something smashes in what's left of the window, and in the sudden muzzle-flash brightness, Jensen sees someone moving. A silhouette, moving fast, and even bleeding out, half-conscious, he can tell it's not Clay, not Pooch, and definitely not Aisha, which knocks the list of people who know guys with long-range rifles and who give a shit about Jensen right back down to zero. Everyone around Jensen is yelling, pulling a gun. Someone kicks the chair and Jensen goes over, gut-punched and sucking air, somehow still tracking and the guy just-

 

Moves .

 

Whoever he is, he's fast as fuck. He weaves, ducks a spray of glass from his sniper's next bullet, ducks and rolls as another guy goes down, and comes up with-

 

A machete? No, a sword .

 

Whatever it is, guy knows how to use it. Big rangy body, black tac gear, but moving so lithe and quick it's like everyone around him is swinging in slow motion. The room is full of Bulgarian mob heavies, and they're all big and armed and know what they're doing, and this guy is just cutting through them like paper targets, and every few seconds he drops and the sniper takes out another one, easy as breathing.

 

Everything happens very fast, and then all of a sudden, it's quiet. There's a roomful of dead guys on the ground and nothing else to hear but the occasional fragment of glass, dropping from the shot-out windows. And Jensen, arms twisted up behind his back, chair kicked over on its side. He's breathing hard, and everything is nerve-pinched agony, and the guy-

 

-the guy is wiping blood off his sword and moving towards Jensen, all in one quick motion. Jensen braces himself, badly, half on the floor already, vision tunneling. Ready to move, to go down swinging , but then there's a light, a little bit of light, and it catches the guy's dark eyes, and-

 

-they're soft , warm and concerned, and Jensen abruptly realizes oh, this isn't how it ends , and the adrenaline runs out of him like water. 

 

Which is just as well. Jensen couldn't have lived with getting killed by a guy in a backwards snapback.

 

The man flips his sword onto his back and rams it down into the sheath, already reaching out towards Jensen with his other hand. He's scruffy and he's covered in blood. He just killed at least eight guys and he's the most beautiful thing Jensen's ever seen. And people say it's hard making friends as an adult.

 

"That was extremely fucking sexy," says Jensen seriously, and then he passes out.

 

***

 

The thing about ghost stories, though, is that they always start off as stories about people.

 

There's the normal shit, like Laura Dyson, the analyst who got six calls from her dead husband's cell phone, and missed her convoy the morning it got hit by Taliban insurgents. There's the dark shit, like Marcus Borrow, who started killing innocent people instead of marked targets, and when they caught him, he apparently said it was to keep them safe from him, that he'd be in Hell and they'd be in Heaven and out of his reach.

 

In this case, there’s a story Jensen has heard a dozen times, from a dozen guys, in the Spec Ops equivalent to holding a flashlight under their faces in a treehouse at night, and it’s about the Old Guard.

 

It's the team you call when everything's fucked , when you've blown straight past fucked and everything’s still accelerating rapidly. They're the team you call when no one else could possibly do the job.

 

Jensen has always given that story the exact degree of credulity it deserved, which was precisely fucking none, but hey, he's a walking dead man who was once at least twenty percent responsible for blowing up the Port of LA, so maybe there's room in this life for a little faith.

 

***

 

Jensen wakes up upside down over someone's shoulder, and everything hurts.

 

He somehow manages to keep from yelling about it, which is good, because there's some kind of conversation happening. And it's either another concussion- and Jensen has got to get the brain injuries under control, this is so bad for you - or someone's having a conversation in two languages.

 

Jensen's Arabic is pretty good and he can keep up with Cougar in Spanish which is kind of like Italian, and this conversation is kind of like Arabic and it's kind of like Italian and it's also happening upside down.

 

"The house is the best option-"

 

"Habibi, no , it gets the good light in the kitchen."

 

"- Yusuf- "

 

" Fine- when we burn it, you're explaining it."

 

Please don't burn down any houses , Jensen tries to say, and he's not sure what language he meant it to say it in, because all that comes out is a raw animal sound.

 

Immediately, the guy carrying him- not-habibi , the other one, Yusuf , the one who thinks kitchen light is important- slows his pace. His hands are big and gentle where they're holding Jensen steady. "Easy, be easy," he says. He has a deep burr of a voice, low and coaxing. "It's all right. We've got you." 

 

The way he says it, it sounds like something he's said a hundred times before, and always  meant it. So Jensen's brain adds up big shoulders and nice voice and not currently trying to kill me , comes up with friend-shaped object , and decides they can check out again.

 

 ***

 

As the story goes, Loudmouth Boy usually doesn't wake up in a strange bed wearing someone else's boxers. But Jensen has woken up in much worse places. Jensen has woken up in worse places today.

 

There's a guy sitting on the bed next to him, cleaning the shallower cuts on his arm with the practiced efficiency of a career ER doc. The pain hits his brain the same second, and Jensen hisses, twitches away. The guy puts a hand on his arm, but carefully, so that ranks him as Jensen's second favourite person of the night.

 

The guy smiles a little. He has sleepy green eyes, and he looks-odd. A little strange, a little alien. He looks like he's listening to something happening in another room. "Sorry," he says. "But I must clean this. You need more stitches."

 

When he talks, the strangeness dispels a little. And okay, clearly the Italian half of the conversation has joined the chat. Jensen sees a familiar-looking gun case over his shoulder, propped against the wall, then cuts his gaze right back to the Italian. Who's already stitched up the worst of the cuts with quick, practiced movements. There's a heavy white bandage taped over the mangled bit of his shoulder. Pooch would kill for stitches this good.

 

"Thanks," says Jensen, and his voice rasps on it, but hey, human language, this is progress. And he means, thanks for the stitches and the shooting and the underwear and for talking your Yusuf into taking me somewhere nicer than a Bulgarian back alley . He means, thanks for saving my life, I was going to die and I wasn't ready for it, I just wasn't finished yet, but he can't catch his breath, can't quite line it all up. So he breathes out hard through the last of the stitches and the sting of alcohol and he says, "I'm Jensen. Fuck , thank you. Thanks."

 

And hell, maybe the guy gets it anyway. He looks like he might be the kind of guy who understands the things you can't say. "Nicky," he says, suddenly intent, and then he smiles, warm and steady and fuck he's beautiful, what the hell , where do these guys come from , Jensen would like to know why he only meets beautiful boys when he's stupid with blood loss. Cougar notwithstanding. With Cougar, he's just stupid in general.

 

A sound stops in the other room-water running, shutting off, and then a moment later another guy strides in, nakeder than Jensen was expecting to see anyone today. Nicky shoots the guy a look and says, " Yusuf ," and his tone is loaded with enough meaning that Jensen does a silent double take.

 

Jensen had pegged them as not American about three words after he woke up. Maybe contractors of some kind, with this kind of medical training as well, but he's seen them fight, and Jensen doesn't know a military on earth that trains anyone to fight like that. 

 

Jensen hadn’t expected to peg them as married but today has been full of fucking surprises.

 

"Sorry," says Yusuf, smiling. He doesn't sound sorry. Flashes his ass at Jensen as he turns back to grab a towel and Nicky rolls his eyes. "Ignore him," he says. "He was raised by jackals. Here, follow this light?"

 

Jensen's done enough post-concussion protocols that he could probably do them on himself, so this part's the easiest part of the night so far.

 

It's just- there's something off about them. About both of them. 

 

It's like being ten years old again, on a boat off the Gulf Coast with Jane and his uncle, and seeing a whale slide past underwear. Like you're just seeing the edge of something huge and alive and hidden, something too big and too remote to touch.

 

Jensen blinks at the light. Clearly he hit his head but good this time, and that almost explains it.



***

 

Jensen wakes up and it's morning. He’s on a cot in the main room. Someone’s loaned him a sweatshirt. He sits up on his elbows, blinking and yeah, okay, the light in here actually is really nice.

 

A few feet away, Yusuf is standing in front of the stove, cracking eggs into a heavy skillet full of smoking tomato sauce, and it smells better than anything cooking in the morning following a head injury should smell.

 

He smiles when he sees Jensen’s awake, and for fuck’s sake, that’s too good a smile to exist in this world. Particularly when it comes attached to food.

 

Jensen’s a shit cook. Cougar’s worse. Pooch is the only one of them who can cook worth a damn, and this, specifically, is the reason why he’s the only one who’s ever managed to get himself married, at least according to Pooch. “I’m Joe,” the guy introduces himself, and okay, Jensen mentally updates from friend-shaped object to Yusuf to Joe . “You want some breakfast?”

 

Shakshouka, hot and peppery and better than he's ever eaten. Jensen's halfway through the plate, eating fast and one-handed, when he abruptly realizes he's rested, stitched up and fed, and this is so, so far from where he thought he was going to be last night that he has to stop and breathe through it. 

 

Then Nicky comes in from the other room. His hair’s a haystack and he’s wearing jeans and a sweater that’s too big for him, neither of which, Jensen notes in quiet dismay, make him any less beautiful. “Good morning,” he says, and Joe pivots out of his way in the narrow space between the stove and table, a hand on his hip, while Nicky dishes out his own breakfast. And the way they move together - it's effortless, unthinking. Just weaving in and out of each other's orbit like a routine they've done a thousand times. Like the fight at the warehouse. Like Cougar firing at the guards from the building opposite when Jensen cocked his finger guns, if he and Cougar had another decade or two to live in each other's pockets. If Cougar felt the same.

 

Nicky’s still eating when he stands up. Joe takes his plate out of his hands. “I’ll go look after the car,” he says.

 

“Make sure you get-”

 

“I know, don’t worry. Ti amo.” He shoulders into a leather jacket. Touches the bandage on Jensen’s shoulder, lightly, touches the gun bag, and then he’s gone. 

 

And then it’s very quiet in the house with the good light in the kitchen.

 

Jensen looks across the table at Joe, and he wants to ask so what’s a nice guy like you and your husband doing out here rescuing stray American idiots from Bulgarian human traffickers and incidentally why do you have a sword and maybe even just what’s your story. The last question’s the simplest, or maybe it’s not. 

 

But Jensen’s tired, and he’s only got one working arm, and honestly, these guys are fucking nice, well and beyond even Jensen’s incredibly low standards, and so it’s not really fair to make Joe tell him a huge lie. Which is somehow what he knows he’s going to get. 

 

“So,” says Jensen, “Nicky. You guys are partners.” He winces because it’s stupid and inane, and not something that describes two guys who can move together like that. Joe gives him a sharp look, but then softens when he sees whatever look’s on Jensen’s face. 

 

“Yes,” he says. “Yes, for a long time.”

 

"Was it worth it?" Jensen asks, and wants to throw himself straight out the window for asking, but he just can't stop talking . "What if it didn't work, or if he didn't-" love you back , Jensen doesn't say, because his throat closes up around the words. The window, where's the window, he's probably up high enough that he can die to escape his own stupid mouth , but Joe suddenly cups a hand on his good shoulder, warm and steady. 

 

"The only thing that could ever be worse," says Joe, softly, "is knowing how I felt, and still never trying."



***

 

They leave him in front of the crowded station in Belgrade. Nicky takes his phone, squints at it for a long moment before Joe rolls his eyes, takes it, and carefully punches in a number. "You need help, you call us, all right?" Jensen is, in fact, pretty sure that if he sticks around for any longer, they're going to low-key kidnap him, and while they are Jensen's new favourite murder couple, he does have other places to be. So he shoulders out of the backseat. Taps the roof of the car, and Nicky smiles at him, soft and sweet, and luckily Joe swerves back into traffic before Jensen can rethink the whole kidnapping thing.

 

Joe drives like a maniac. It's adorable .

 

Jensen parks himself and his bag of borrowed clothes on a bench with his back to the wall, sightlines in all directions and with a hundred-odd witnesses before he dials.

 

Cougar picks up after two and a half rings. "Hey," he says, and he sounds amused. Jensen is six hours early checking in. Well, six hours early, give or take a quick round of torture, a murder spree through Sofia's criminal underground, a nap, and a half-day roadtrip across the Balkans with a pair of hot married good Samaritans who're suspiciously good at criminal underground murder. He gives himself a long moment to just listen to Cougar's voice before he says, "Cougar, sorry, time for plan B."

 

There's a second of silence and then Cougar says, away from the phone, " Boss ." And then he's back, and he says, tight and clipped, "Keep talking to me."

 

And-that's perfect. Jensen feels all the tension run out of his spine. "I'm here," he says. On the other end, he can hear Cougar take a long breath. "I'm not going anywhere."

 

 He's still talking to Cougar an hour later, when the plane leaves the tarmac in Jakarta and the line abruptly goes dead.

 

Jensen hunches down into the soft grey hoodie, and wraps his arms around his bag of borrowed clothes. Now that he's alone, his brain is racing again, almost painful. 

 

He could find out who they are, if he wanted. He doesn't have a laptop, but this is Belgrade, he could get his hands on cheap tech in twenty minutes flat. He knows their faces, and he has a phone number. Jensen's found out shit on people with much less to go on than that.

 

But he lets the thought go without picking at it. Pulls his hands into the sleeves of the overworn sweater instead, sets a timer on his phone and settles in to wait. Sixteen hours flying time from Jakarta to Belgrade.  

 

Sometimes, it's better if things stay stories. 

 

***

 

Years and years later, Jensen sees them again. It's only for a moment, and he'd almost think he imagined it, but no. It's sunny, a beautiful day in peak tourist season in Roatán, so Jensen is practicing the fine art of old-man-slow-walking in front of the most annoying American assholes when he sees them. Just for a moment, ahead of him, in the crowd of tourists in the sunlit market: Joe, sunglasses pushed up in his curly black hair, laughing, one arm resting easily on Nicky's shoulders. Nicky is smiling, green-eyed and sly, sleeves of his white linen shirt rolled up, flicking a finger against Joe's ear. Both of them looking exactly the way they'd looked that night in Sofia, so long ago that he should have forgotten it.

 

The tourist crowd bunches up, and then they're gone.

 

Jensen rubs his shoulder, then his arm. Under his worn pink shirt, the scars are still there, old and white, faded under his tan.

 

Cougar comes up on his left. Canvas bag of fruit and wrapped-up fish, straight off the reef, his beat-up hat tipped low against the sun. Kisses Jensen on the cheek and hooks their trigger fingers together. "You look far away," he says, low and amused. The lines around his eyes deepen. He's aging more gracefully than Jensen, the bastard, because, apparently, skinny white boys aren't bred for sunlight like this.

 

Jensen laughs and shakes it off. Bumps his hip companionably with Cougar, and says, "Nope. This is the only place I want to be."



***

 

The thing about ghost stories is, they start out being stories about people, but they always end up being stories about love. 

 

Jensen's all right with that.