A/N: I wrote this story way back in 2011 as a Secret Santa gift for a friend. I was asked to write a fic based on Julia Fordham's song, Missing Man and tried to write something serious but struggled (as usual) and this silly little story is what I ended up with!
The usual disclaimers apply.
Lt. Colonel Franklin Clay stared at the ugly, monolithic building in front of him and sighed heavily. He turned to stare at the rest of his team with a look of sheer determination and asked seriously, "Are you ready, men?"
A chorus of synchronised affirmatives was Clay's answer. The rest of the team looked equally serious, with the exception of Jensen, whose adrenaline levels appeared to have skyrocketed and he was practically bouncing with anticipation.
Clay took one last drag of his cigarette, threw it on the ground and crushed it beneath the toe of his boot. "Then let's go... remember to stick to the plan and watch your six."
Nervous tension engulfed the men sending rivulets of sweat down their bodies despite the frosty chill in the air. This was an important mission and failure was not an option and so they marched sombrely towards the entrance, totally focused on their objectives, Clay and Pooch taking the lead and Cougar and Jensen following closely behind.
Just before reaching the door, Clay turned to his men, "We have one point five hours to complete our mission," he looked at his watch and continued with his instructions, "We all know what's expected of us so we go in, get the job done and rendezvous at 1500 hours in the cafe on the fourth floor. This should give us enough time to make a quick getaway."
And with that they walked purposefully through the large, sliding doors and into the chaos that could only be last minute Christmas shopping in a department store on December 24th!
Christmas Eve has always been the time of year when a great many men suddenly realize that there is no more time for procrastination and, in a sudden panic which is only controlled by the belief that they are such good shoppers that they can purchase everything within a matter of minutes. Their gender specific routine is to go into a certain shop, buy the first thing they see and leave the premises... job done! Or it would be if most of the male population didn't have the same idea, thus creating havoc.
The Losers were no exception and despite their carefully thought out plans, they knew from previous experience that they were in for a stressful hour and a half. Well, apart from Jensen who happened to love shopping and having already purchased his gift for Aisha, who would be the only member of the team receiving gifts this year since she was new and Clay claimed that it would make her feel welcome. Jensen decided to accompany his friends so he could help Cougar buy something for the woman.
And so, the four men walked into the crowd of wide eyed men in thick overcoats as they jostled their way through the hordes while pretty shop assistants sprayed small pieces of paper with perfume which they wafted in front of the noses of anyone passing by in an attempt to capitalize on the impulsiveness of as many of these last minute shoppers as possible.
The cheerful Christmas music playing in the background had little or no influence in reducing the stress levels of the harried shoppers. Cougar snarled, recognizing it to be a subtle form of crowd manipulation. Even though they had only just arrived, the faster he was out of this Hell hole the better!
Jensen laughed when he saw his friend's expression; this was going to be fun! "Hey, Cougs," Jensen had to raise his voice to be heard over the cacophony. "Let's check out the music section, I know what Aisha likes." Jensen's grin was a complete contrast to the look of consternation Cougar sported.
Pooch watched as his two friends headed for the stairs, then turned to his boss with a pleading look. He didn't know what to buy Aisha and hoped that Clay could give him some advice but Clay ignored the puppy dog eyes and shook his head, "Don't give me that look! Use your initiative Pooch... or buy her perfume."
"What kind of perfume?"
"I don't know... how about Poison, that sounds Aisha-esque!" Clay couldn't help but laugh out loud at his own joke.
"What?" Pooch squealed, "She'd shoot me!" he didn't find the situation funny at all. He needed advice and the one person who could help him was making jokes.
Clay grinned and headed for the elevators. This was an obvious signal that he wanted to split up and that the brief conversation was over but Pooch suddenly panicked at the idea of being left alone. "Where are you going?" he asked his voice embarrassingly high.
"Underwear department and I don't need you there to help me choose what to buy my woman."
Pooch sighed. Maybe perfume wasn't a bad idea after all. It was one of those safe, fallback purchases when inspiration has taken a holiday. He looked around and even though he was already in the right department he wanted some impartial advice so he decided to call Jolene, 'She is a woman of exceptional taste,' he thought, 'After all she married me.'
He took out his cell phone from his jacket pocket and frowned slightly when he realized that there was no reception inside the store, so he weaved his way through the jostling crowds to the same doors he had come through just minutes before.
With Jensen's help, Cougar had swiftly made his first purchase, a CD for Aisha. The queues were a little more tolerable in the basement, probably due to the fact that the toy department was also situated there and by Christmas Eve, most of the children's gifts had already been bought. By women.
Jensen was distracted by the toys on display and Cougar smiled for the first time that day at his young friend's enthusiasm. Jensen turned to the sniper and asked seriously, "Do you think Aisha would have played with Barbie when she was a kid or do you think Captain America is more her thing?" Jensen picked up a Captain America doll and, even though it was still in a box, made it dance. Cougar just rolled his eyes.
Jensen then practically leapt in the air, stuffed the doll back on a shelf and picked up another box, this time containing The Human Torch. "He's back!" Jensen looked like a little kid in a toy shop – which wasn't far from the truth. "I can't believe they killed him off but now, he lives again, only this time he'll be more powerful than you could ever imagine!"
"I don't like him, he talks too much." Was Cougar's opinion, which was ignored as Jensen was far too preoccupied with Johnny Storm.
"Why did they kill you, Johnny Storm, why?" Jensen asked the doll, not really expecting an answer; then he looked at the features of the toy he was handling and frowned, not liking this particular version of his favourite superhero. "And what have they done to your face? The little shits who did this to you should be sued for emotional distress!"
The lingerie department was on the top floor.
Unlike the basement, this floor was crowded with men trying to find presents for their wives or partners. These greedy men reminded Clay of pigeons scavenging for discarded crumbs and they were in his way!
The leader of the Losers was exasperated as he had spotted a camouflage print lingerie set, the ideal gift for Aisha but too many people were in the way and if he didn't force his way to the front then the only merchandise left to buy would be granny style underpants and that was not an option!
Clay managed to nudge his way through, resisting the urge to throw some of these men behind him like sack of potatoes.
He reached his destination and saw a hand aiming for the exact same set he had his eye on. With lightning speed he grabbed the lingerie set and without even checking the price or sizes, whisked them away, making a hasty retreat while the other unfortunate customer looked on open mouthed. Clay grinned at the other man's angry expression; he never knew that shopping could be so much fun!
Jensen and Cougar decided that they had enough time to have a look around the menswear department on the third floor but it was becoming increasingly difficult for the two men to stay together.
The less than friendly crowd had become almost unbearable and Jensen gasped when he saw Cougar's hat on the floor, already showing signs of being trampled. Cougar was nowhere to be seen.
The corporal picked up the hat and tried to mould it back into shape and wipe away the dusty boot print that covered the right hand side of the famous headgear. Cougar was going to be royally pissed when he saw the damage.
"Where are you, Cougs?" Jensen said softly to himself as he scanned his surroundings, and then breathed a sigh of relief when he saw his friend as he disappeared behind a rail of men's suits.
"COUGS!" Jensen's yell alerted the sergeant, who leaned backwards and looked incredibly relieved to see Jensen waving his hat at him, whether the relief was due to him seeing Jensen or his hat was debatable.
Jensen tapped his watch three times then pointed upstairs. "It's nearly 3 o'clock, time to meet up with the others."
Cougar, who by now had made his way over to his friend looked at his hat and frowned, Jensen merely shrugged and plopped the cowboy hat on the darker man's head. "Don't worry Cougs, it's fixable." Jensen reassured his friend, although not too convincingly.
La Terazza, 3.02pm and Jensen and Cougar are waiting in the extremely long queue; maybe this wasn't such a good meeting point after all.
3.15pm and the two men are nearly at the counter, Cougar notices Clay sitting at a nearby table and they wave to each other.
3.32pm and the three men are sat together, waiting for the fourth member of the team. There is no sign of Pooch and nobody has seen him since they initially split up two hours previously.
"Out of all of you, Pooch is the only one who I expected to make it on time." Clay's annoyance was more to do with the fact that Pooch was the designated driver and they needed him to get home. He looked at Cougar. "What happened?" he asked, pointing to the hat, which was battered and seemed to balance precariously on his head.
"Christmas Eve." Cougar replied, as though that was the only explanation needed.
Jensen decided to try to call Pooch on his cell phone but swore when he realized there was no reception. "So, boss, what do we do now, wait here or go looking for him? I saw some binoculars for sale that might help!"
Clay looked at his watch again, hoping that he had made a mistake and it was earlier than he thought. "We finish our drinks and if he doesn't show up then we go and find him." Clay took a sip of his cappuccino and slammed the cup down. "Dammit, the last thing we need right now is a missing man, especially Pooch!"
"Gee, thanks boss!"
"No offense Jensen but he's the driver. We still have to buy food for tomorrow and if we don't find him soon we're going to be stuck in traffic. Now drink up and let's go find our man."
They decided that the best course of action would be to split up, search each of the floors individually and meet outside the main doors at 4.15pm.
Clay, having already finished his coffee got up and made a start, the small pink bag he was carrying looked out of place on the tough as nails leader.
Jensen was heading down the stairs when he thought he saw his missing friend in the distance. He was so excited that he missed a step and tumbled down the stairs, his screaming was drowned out by the cheerful Christmas music playing in the background.
Cougar's experience as a sniper made it inevitable that he would seek out a position where he would have the greatest vantage point, so he stood at the top of the stairs so he could scope out the entire ground floor area.
His method was effective and his sharp eyes surveyed the myriad of people like he was on duty and searching for a designated target, not looking for a friend.
From his elevated viewpoint Cougar noticed a long haired young man taking a wallet from an old man's jacket pocket. His expression grew more serious and his primary objective to find Pooch was temporarily discarded as he set off after the pickpocket.
Clay strode through the store like a man possessed. He weaved his way through the crowds of last minute shoppers, his eyes darting to and fro, oblivious to everything except his search for his missing man.
He was so engrossed in his endeavour that he jumped when he felt somebody tap him on the shoulder. He turned round to see the man who he had encountered in the lingerie department – the one who was after the Camouflage print lingerie set that Clay now had in his possession.
The stranger had a look of sheer desperation and said, "I'll give you $200 for your underwear!"
Before the stranger had a chance to react, Clay drew back his fist and punched him square in the face with all his might.
The unfortunate man would have fallen to the floor if there weren't so many shoppers in the way. He was still conscious but obviously stunned and his nose was streaming with blood.
Some of the fellow shoppers laid the injured man gently on the carpet while Clay felt his arms being restrained by a security guard and a store Santa who had suddenly made an appearance. The only thought that went through Clay's head as he was marched away from the scene was a sarcastic: 'Outstanding!'
Jensen, meanwhile wasn't having much luck either as he shook off an old lady's offer of assistance after he had landed awkwardly at the bottom of the stairs.
Despite his incredibly sore ankle and bleeding lip, the only thing he was concerned about was finding Pooch.
A quick look around and he spotted his prey. He was heading towards the cash point.
The young hacker limped after the dark man and breathed a sigh of relief when he caught up with him, which soon turned to utter frustration when the man turned round and it wasn't Pooch but a stranger with a passing resemblance and wearing a similar padded jacket!
Meanwhile, Cougar's focus was on the pickpocket.
It didn't take long for the sniper to catch up with the younger man and when he did he spun him round with such ferocity that the kid nearly fell.
"Give me the wallet!" Cougar demanded, glaring at the young thief with fierce intensity.
From behind him, another voice entered the (so far) one sided conversation. "What's going on here?"
Cougar looked around and saw one of the male assistants staring at them with his hands on his hips and looking as serious as a 5ft 4" man with a tiny mustache could be.
The pickpocket noticed that the assistant was directing his question and assertive but bordering on aggressive body language to the man in the beaten up hat and took the opportunity to twist the situation to his advantage. "This man is trying to steal my wallet!" he exclaimed loudly.
Cougar shot him a disbelieving look and turned back to the assistant, whose stance was now adjusted to an even more menacing position. This little man was quite prepared to fight for what he believed in but unfortunately it looked like he believed the wrong person!
"This man stole a wallet from one of your shoppers," Cougar tried to explain, "If you would just have a look at it..."
"Look inside!" Cougar urged the little man. "Check to see if there are any credit cards. I bet you he can't tell you what name is on them."
The assistant looked as though he was actually considering this option when the pickpocket suddenly pushed Cougar into the small man and they fell while the thief disappeared into the crowds, pushing away anyone who had witnessed the proceedings and who attempted to apprehend him.
"Madre de Dios, these people are useless!" Cougar muttered as he got up and started to chase his quarry.
This incident had been witnessed by Jensen, who realized that they were no closer to finding their missing teammate and so it was time for some drastic action.
While the crowds were watching the man in the bashed hat chase the long haired kid, Jensen slowly walked towards a small glass box and, with a quick glance around to make sure he wasn't being watched, set off the fire alarm.
Outside in the bitter cold, Jensen watched as the hoards of people exited the store. He was already on the ground floor so he was one of the first to exit the building and chuckled as he saw Cougar leaving, dragging the pickpocket with him by the ear and a few minutes later, Clay being escorted outside by a menacing looking man and Santa Clause.
Then he saw their missing friend and he felt such relief and a feeling of victory that he wanted to kiss the man.
Pooch also saw Jensen and stomped towards him, looking rather annoyed. "Where were you?" Pooch asked furiously.
It took a moment before Jensen could actually speak; he was so surprised at the question. "Where was I? Where the hell were you, Pooch? We waited in La Terazza for 40 minutes, and then we looked all over for you when you didn't show up."
"La Terazza?" Pooch's voice quietened. "I was in Bar 77, I waited there for over an hour and spent the rest of the time looking for you!"
The hacker couldn't help but laugh, Pooch didn't see the funny side and then he noticed his friend's swollen lip. "What happened to you?"
"I was chasing your doppelganger... only this dude was much better looking!"
Sirens announced the arrival of the police and Jensen suddenly thought that it would be a good time to make a hasty retreat. He was sure he hadn't been seen activating the fire alarm but he didn't want to be in the area if the surveillance cameras had picked up on his antics.
He grabbed his friend by his sleeve and dragged him away from the scene, watching from the corner of his eye as Clay, Cougar and two unknowns were led into the police van.
Christmas morning and the whole team were sat in front of the large Christmas tree in their rented accommodation.
Clay and Cougar were allowed to leave the police station after a few hours of questioning. The pickpocket was instantly recognised by one of the officers at the scene and needed a statement from Cougar while Clay's victim decided not to press charges because he would have to explain why he wanted to buy skimpy underwear in a small size to his rather large wife.
Aisha was flattered that these men had bought her Christmas presents since they had informed her that gift giving wasn't a tradition among the Losers.
She gave Clay a WTF look when she opened her neatly wrapped parcel, Clay just wiggled his eyebrows and smiled.
She then opened Jensen's present, a boyfriend remote control.
"Thanks, Jake but you shouldn't have bothered!" she said sarcastically. Clay scowled playfully at Jensen but the younger man just laughed.
Pooch's small, beautifully wrapped gift was the next to be passed to the young woman. He looked nervous as she started ripping it open. "Jolene helped me choose it!" he said nervously, like he was getting ready to blame his wife if she didn't like the perfume.
She took out the elegant purple bottle and a smile lit up her face. She seemed genuinely delighted at the choice. "That's my favourite perfume, Pooch. Thank you!"
Pooch felt like a great weight had lifted off his shoulders and visibly relaxed. His wife was a remarkable woman.
It was Cougar's turn next and he handed Aisha the gift that Jensen had helped him choose.
Aisha opened the CD box and once again, a genuine smile crossed her face. "Concrete Love... Julia Fordham is my favourite singer, how did you know that?"
Cougar glanced at Jensen, how exactly did Jensen know that? The most obvious answer was that he must have been snooping, but thankfully Aisha seemed far too happy to care.
"Yet another day slides into midnight," Aisha started singing one of the songs from the album, her voice was, much like the woman sat before them, incredibly beautiful. "From your camp there's not a single word, seemingly you have forgotten, I'm still your girl," she looked directly at Clay, then continued.
"People tell me I am strong," she turned her attention towards Cougar, who tipped his hat.
"I might have to prove them wrong, as the cracks begin to show," she looked at Jensen this time, who laughed out loud. "I'm trying to find the strength to let you go,"
Finally, turning to Pooch, she continued, "Missing man, hope turned out to be a dangerous lesson, faith a shallow river in disguise, running through my patient spirit, drowning my pride."
For more than one reason, the song would become forever identified as the piece of music that symbolised Aisha's first Christmas as part of The Losers.
"Thank you," she said after she had finished her rendition. "Now who's doing the cooking?"
A/N: I hope you enjoyed this little yuletide offering. This is a modification of the original version, which has a slight interactive element so if you're interested, it's on AO3. My profile page gives my alternative username which I use for that site.