Jensen wasn't a drifter, appearances to the contrary. Sure, he had his thumb out at a dusty turnoff on a hot Texas highway; sure, he was miles from anywhere with a backpack at his feet and his last fifty dollars tucked safely in his sock; sure, his boots were worn and he hadn’t washed his clothes in – well, let’s just say a while. Still, he wouldn’t describe himself as a drifter, exactly. He was going somewhere, he just wasn't sure where – yet.
There’d been a time not so long ago when he’d had a plan – after the Army he’d move to Manchester, get an apartment near his sister’s place, find a dog at the local shelter, land a job at one of the new tech companies that had sprung up in the time he was overseas, and take over coaching duties for the Petunias, whose current coach wouldn’t know a soccer ball if she was walking around with one up her ass (which, in Jensen’s opinion, she was). That was the plan, and it was a damn good one.
So of course, it all went to shit.
Fortunately, Jensen had skills. Mad hacker skills. If you can hack into the DOD, the NSA, Interpol and the World Bank, then you could make yourself disappear if you needed to. And Jensen had most definitely needed to.
Because he knew things. Really big things. Really, really dangerous things that he learned on what he thought was a totally legit mission – the mission of the multiple governmental/international agency hacks, code name: FML. Or at least that was what he called it now, because it had.
He was fucked, in just about every way it was possible to be, except for the ways that might have actually been fun. Yes, he was fucked in so many, many un-fun ways.
The whole mission had been a set-up. Jensen still wasn’t sure who had been on the receiving end of the highly classified intel he’d collected, but he knew now that it wasn’t the government of the United States.
There were a few things Jensen knew with absolute certainty:
- He was a fucking awesome hacker
- The firewalls on governmental cyber storage sites were a joke
- His CO, Col. Maxwell, or “Max” as he was known, was a very bad man and wanted Jensen dead
- Sooner or later, Max and his goons were going to catch up with him
- Molly Jensen was the best forward in the state of New Hampshire
Jensen’s entire team was dead, picked off one-by-one after Mission FML in a suspiciously convenient and orderly manner, as if someone was ticking items off a to-do list. Jensen had seen the writing on the wall in time to go AWOL before it was his turn, and had been on the move ever since. Homeland Security had labeled him a rogue operative, a cyber-terrorist, armed and dangerous.
So, no move to New Hampshire, no comfy tech job, and the Petunias would never reach the heights for which they were destined if only Jensen could have ousted their pathetic excuse for a soccer coach and guided them to greatness.
Another car zoomed past, blowing a fine spray of dry Texas road dust over him.
“Jesus!” Jensen exclaimed, giving the receding car an emphatic finger. “I’m out here miles from fucking anywhere, you asshole! Go ahead, just drive by in your fucking Mercedes!”
He closed his eyes, took a deep, cleansing breath. Let go of the anger, he told himself. Anger is unhealthy. There is only this moment. He emptied his mind, focusing on the here and now. He let it fall away… the empty road; the fake mission that had screwed him eight ways from Sunday; the suspicion that it might not matter all that much if Max and whoever the no doubt scary people he worked for, or with, as the case may be, managed to catch up with him; the likelihood that he might not see his sister again, or Molly; the fact that the sun was getting low in the sky and this barren desert crossroad was going to make a very inhospitable place to spend the night if his luck didn’t change pretty quick. He breathed, and worked hard not to think, which was nowhere near as easy as you’d imagine. Jensen had been meditating for nearly six months and it was still Monkey Mind all the time inside his head.
He’d just mentally told the monkeys to shut up when he heard a deep rumble in the distance and opened his eyes to see a hazy dark shape approaching. He stuck out his thumb, muttering, “C’mon motherfucker, stop the car. C’mon, do it. I’m just a friendly guy looking to get a little further down the road, definitely not a terrorist, not in any way terrorist material. Oh, c’mon, fuck you, man!” He turned as a truck sped by him in a blur of rust-colored red. But then, “Oh, oh, yes!”, as it belatedly swerved to the side of the road, kicking up an arc of gravel as it skidded to a stop.
Jensen grabbed his backpack and jogged to the waiting truck, an old F150 with faded paint and a dented bumper.
“Thanks for stopping,” he said, leaning in the window, his best non-threatening, non-terrorist, non-armed and dangerous smile fixed firmly in place. “I’ve been standing here forever and you wouldn’t believe how many cars just drive right by, it’s enough to make you doubt… Uh.”
Wow, he thought, as his mind and his mouth stuttered to a stop. That is one really, really hot dude. In a tank top. With fucking great arms. And gorgeous brown skin. And long, dark hair under a really cool hat. Strong features and a don’t-even-think-about-trying-to-fuck-with-me expression. Soft brown eyes under black brows. Jensen’s eyes were drawn down to take in the smooth skin at his collarbone, the suggestion of a nicely muscled torso, long legs in faded jeans, then back up, getting caught on his mouth, his really nice, kissable mouth. The setting sun washed through the car’s windshield, casting Smoking Hot Dude in the most flattering light possible, and Jensen, for one speechless moment, achieved the perfect emptiness of mind he’d been striving for moments before.
He fumbled for something, anything to say.
“Hey. Hi. Going my way?”
Oh my God, he was such an idiot.
“Get in,” Hot Dude said with a nod, just a hint of a Hispanic accent. No smile, but he didn’t come across as unfriendly, exactly.
Jensen dropped his backpack down amid what looked like about 25 cases of liquor in the back of the truck and slid into the passenger seat. Before he’d even shut his door, the guy had stomped on the gas and they were back on the road, heading west and moving fast.
“I’m Jensen.” He snapped his mouth shut, but it was too late to take it back. He’d been so rattled by Smoking Hot Dude’s smoky, sultry charms that he’d blurted out his actual name instead of the fake one he’d been using.
Crap, he really was such an idiot.
Jensen’s eyebrows rose as he considered the name. “Cougar,” he repeated. “Cool name.” Cougar said nothing. “Thanks again for stopping. I was starting to think I’d be spending the night by the side of the road and, believe me, I was not looking forward to that.”
Cougar made a quiet humming sound that Jensen interpreted as agreement.
“So, where’re you headed” Jensen asked.
Considering that they were barreling toward the sun which was sunk halfway into the horizon, that wasn’t exactly news.
“Yeah, me too, but where?”
“Does it matter?”
Cougar had a wrist resting on the steering wheel, fingers dangling delicately. Jensen was studying them with maybe a little too much attention when he realized Cougar was looking at him. “Anywhere’s better than back there, eh?”
“Well. Yeah,” Jensen admitted. He slouched down in the seat, resting his bent knees against the dash. Whatever. It hardly mattered where he ended up anyway.
Darkness fell fast in this kind of wide open country. The sun had just disappeared behind the low hills in the distance and already it was hard to see out the window. Cougar turned up the radio a bit, but the songs were in Spanish so Jensen couldn’t understand a word.
“There’s beer, if you want,” Cougar said. The light from the dashboard painted his face in shadows and blue light. He gestured toward Jensen’s feet. “Help yourself.”
Jensen felt around, found a six-pack tucked under the seat, the bottles cold and sweating. He pulled out two and popped the caps with the buckle of his seat belt, handed one to Cougar who took it without taking his eyes off the road. Jensen got lost for a moment by the line of Cougar’s neck when he tilted his head back to drink, before he brought his own bottle to his lips.
“How'd you end up out here in the middle of nowhere?” Cougar asked after the silence had stretched for a while.
“My last ride got a bit too friendly,” Jensen said. "And when it turned out I wasn't feeling friendly in return..."
"They left you?"
Jensen nodded. It had been an unpleasant incident, but he'd known the guy was dicey when he'd taken the ride. He should have followed his instincts.
Cougar said something in Spanish that sounded like it must be a swear word, or, possibly, a string of them.
"Are you okay?" He shot a series of concerned glances Jensen's way, checking his face, his body, in a rapid assessment that would feel clinical but for the look of worry on Cougar's face. "Did he - he?" He glanced at Jensen and at his confirming nod, continued, "Did he hurt you?"
"Nah, I'm fine. Really," he added, when Cougar gave him a doubtful look. "I can take care of myself."
"I'm sure you can," Cougar muttered and Jensen couldn't tell if he meant it or if he was giving him shit. After another long silence, Cougar said, "Don't see people hitching much anymore."
“I'm on my way to see some friends in Phoenix,” Jensen lied. It was his standard story that he used whenever anyone asked.
“You don’t have a car?”
“Naah. You see more traveling this way. Get to know the real America, figure out what this country’s about, you know? Amber waves of grain, purple mountains’ majesty, all that stuff.” Jensen sighed maybe a tad melodramatically. “When it’s just you and the road and the great outdoors, that’s when a man learns what he’s really made of. Facing the wilderness and – and –”
“Kicking its ass?” Cougar shot Jensen a sideways glance, a smile tugging at the corner of his lip. He was laughing at him, Jensen realized, but not in a mean way. He looked genuinely amused and also a little surprised.
“That’s right,” Jensen said emphatically. “Kicking that wilderness’s ass! That’s how a man knows he’s a man.” He raised his bottle. “Here’s to wilderness ass-kicking.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Cougar said, and they tipped their bottles back.
The truth was, Jensen was just between cars. He'd dumped the last one outside of Houston that morning, thinking he was being followed, and had caught a ride from Mr. Handsy Asshole right away and he hadn't exactly had the opportunity to appropriate another vehicle since.
“So,” Cougar said, a few more miles down the road. “Where’d you serve?”
Jensen froze. No, no, no, he thought. How had Cougar made him as a soldier so fast? Jensen always thought of himself as a very un-military type of military guy; he’d never looked the part. Even at his most spit and polish, he’d always looked like an overgrown nerd, which was, basically, what he was.
“Uh, no man, you’ve got it wrong,” he said, slouching farther down in his seat. “I get that question a lot, must be something about me – I give off military pheromones or something. But I’m not military material, believe me. Way too many rules, and I hear you have to get up really early, and the marching. I’m just not much of a marcher, when you get down to it. Not my thing, marching. Unh-uh.”
Cougar turned and gave him a long look. Long enough that it made Jensen really glad that the road was an unwavering straight line and that there were no little critters trying to cross it at that moment. Cougar’s eyes glittered in the dark, but Jensen could not see his expression. Finally, he made a soft noise, just a quiet “Hunh,” that seemed say that he was not convinced but was willing to let it drop.
That’s when Jensen realized that Cougar must be a vet – otherwise he’d never have pegged Jensen for one. The accent had thrown him off, but now that he knew he could see it. There was something about the way a person held themselves – even though Cougar was kind of slouched in his seat too, even though he had long hair and a beard, even though he looked more like an outlaw out of an old Western than any of the Joes he’d served with, Jensen could see it in his posture, in his air of patience and control, in the quiet confidence he exuded. It had been there in that quick assessing look he had given Jensen when he asked if he was okay, inventory taken on a comrade in the field to determine the extent of injury.
“You?” Jensen asked, even though he should probably drop it. He was just dying to know. “You a vet?”
“Special Forces.” Cougar said. “Afghanistan. And other places.”
Shit. He’d have to be Special Forces, Jensen thought. What are the chances that the one guy that would stop for him would be another Special Forces vet? On the other hand, who would be more likely to pick up a hitchhiker on a long stretch of lonely highway than a guy who knew how to kill you twenty different ways with his bare hands?
“Thank you for your service.” He saw Cougar grimace. That was what civvies always said, but no one Jensen had met in the service liked to be told that. It did put an end to that line of conversation though, which was for the best. Jensen didn’t think he’d be able to keep up the pretense, especially since he’d done a pretty crappy job of it so far.
They rode in silence for long enough for Jensen to start another beer, though he started nodding off before he’d finished it. Too many short sleeps and days spent looking over his shoulder. Add a couple of beers on an empty stomach and Jensen would’ve needed a gallon of coffee and a cold shower to stay awake. Somehow the low growl of the truck engine as it ate up the night and the quiet sound of the music on the radio were comforting, as was Cougar’s presence beside him, even though maybe he should have made Jensen nervous. Jensen was so tired it probably wouldn’t have mattered if it had been Max himself driving the car, he couldn’t keep his eyes open another minute.
“Hey, time to wake up,” a quiet voice said. A nice, deep voice, with a sexy Hispanic accent. Something jostled him. “We’re here.”
“What?” Jensen struggled to open his eyes. It was still dark, a nearly full moon shining through the windshield. “Where? What time is it? Where are we?” He brought the world into focus: the truck was stopped in a dirt lot in front of dark, hulking building. Jensen squinted, just making out Last Chance Saloon painted in faded, old-timey script on the front of the building above the porch roof.
“It’s one in morning,” Cougar said. He had turned in his seat to face Jensen, leaning toward him. Jensen, still foggy-headed, stared at him unabashedly, wishing he’d lean a little farther. Then he realized his glasses were askew and his mouth was hanging open. He hoped like hell that he hadn’t been snoring, or worse, drooling. He sat up, straightening his glasses.
“Come on,” Cougar said, getting out of the truck. He went around to the back, opened the tailgate and started moving cases of booze around.
“Wait, where are we?” Jensen asked, thoroughly confused. He slammed the truck door shut, then yawned hugely, then stretched, then blinked up at the façade of the building. It looked old – how old he couldn’t say, but it would have fit right in on a Western movie set, minus the electric lights above the doors and the neon beer signs in the windows. He could tell the place had seen better days - the porch sagged and even in the dark he could see exposed patches of weathered wood where the paint had chipped off. Maybe once this had been a nice hotel, but it had clearly gone through some hard times since then.
“Wait a minute,” Jensen said. “Where the hell are we? You never said where you were going.” He gestured to the open space surrounding them. Other than the shadowed forms of some large trees clustered on either side of the building, there was nothing to be seen but darkness. No other buildings, no lights beside those on the porch, no people. “You could be an ax murderer, for all I know.”
Cougar grinned. “Nearest town’s five miles that way.” Cougar pointed back in the direction they’d come. “Austin, an hour and a half.” He pointed in another direction. “San Antone, an hour and a half more.”
“Why didn’t you just drop me in town?” The comforting weight of his Glock, resting against his ribs, was reassuring. He didn't really think Cougar was an ax murderer, but it didn't hurt to be careful. Maybe he was paranoid, but his paranoia had served him well so far. He was still alive, after all.
“Here is better,” Cougar said, an answer that was no answer at all.
“Look, no offense,” Jensen said, taking a few steps in the direction of the road, “but I think I’ll just hike on a ways.” Cougar seemed okay, but out here in the middle of nowhere Jensen wasn’t so sure. Not trusting anyone was how he’d made it this far, and even though Jensen really wanted to trust Cougar, he also really believed in self-preservation.
Cougar tilted his hat back on his forehead, and in a tone that was the verbal equivalent of a shrug said, “Fine. It’s up to you, papi. Here, we got food, a bed, a cerveza or two. But if you want to move on, you go ahead.” He turned back to the truck, hoisted a box under each arm and headed toward the building, disappearing into a door with a small sign above it, labeling it the “Bar”.
“Fuck,” Jensen whispered, looking down the long, dark, deserted stretch of road, then up at the sky, eyes widening at the unexpected brilliance of bright, countless stars blazed across it. Caught off guard at the night’s gaudy display, he stared heavenward for a moment, just breathing.
He really wanted to trust Cougar. He really wanted a bed and a beer and something to fill his empty stomach. He really did not want to venture out alone in the middle of the night down that uninvitingly empty road.
“Oh, what the hell,” he said to the night and started toward the building, belatedly realizing he should probably help with the boxes. He jogged back to the truck, grabbed a case in each arm and hurried after Cougar.
Inside, all was quiet and dim. Obviously, the place was closed as there were neither customers nor staff in sight. Jensen looked around him, taking in the long bar that stretched along one wall, the worn bar stools, the brass foot rail. As he walked in farther, looking for Cougar, the room opened out into a large space filled with tables and chairs, a stage at the back. A jukebox glowed against one wall; along the opposite stood a trio of ancient pinball machines.
The boxes Cougar had been carrying were sitting at the end of the bar so Jensen put his beside them and wandered around the room, checking out the pinball machines, studying the posters of scantily clad ladies advertising various brands of liquor that were tacked up to the wall, poking his nose in a side room that held a couple of pool tables. He was just thinking about checking out what was behind the door with the "Staff Only" sign on it when he heard voices coming from behind it, one of them Cougar’s, getting louder as they approached.
“Are you sure?” the voice that wasn’t Cougar’s asked. A low voice, gruff. “How do you know?”
“I just know,” Cougar said. “How did you know, when it was me?”
The sound of a chuckle. "I just knew."
“Okay, fine, I’ll meet him.” The door at the back opened, and Cougar emerged, followed by a swarthy man in black slacks and a white dress shirt, open at the collar. Before they were even halfway across the floor, Jensen knew this guy was military and not just that, but used to command. His bearing, his stride, the easy authority with which he held out a hand for Jensen to shake and said, “Jensen, my name’s Clay. Cougar tells me you need a place to stay.”
Jensen gave Cougar a confused frown because he had said nothing of the sort, but Cougar was apparently fascinated by the worn floorboards at his feet. Clay was watching Jensen with an appraising look that had Jensen hoping that the guy was just in the habit of sizing people up and not in the know about alleged cyber-terrorists with standing kill orders out on them.
“Well then,” Jensen said, “I guess I do, if Cougar says so.”
Cougar looked up, gave him a quick wink before ducking his head down again and Jensen felt his stomach flutter.
“I mean, if you’ve got room,” Jensen added hastily. “I can pay.” As long as it’s under fifty dollars, he added silently, but no need to let them know that.
“No need,” Clay said. “You can help Cougar bring those cases in, then he’ll get you set up. I was just about to turn in, so I’ll see you two in the morning. Good job tonight, Cougar. Gracias, amigo.”
“De nada,” Cougar murmured. “’Night, Boss.”
“’Night,” Jensen called to Clay’s retreating back. “Thanks for letting me stay.”
Clay waved a dismissive hand as he walked away.
“C’mon,” Cougar said. “Let’s finish unloading.”
A half hour later the truck was empty, the cases of booze were neatly stacked in the storage closet down the hall and Jensen was digging into a big bowl of chili and a hunk of cornbread the size of his fist, washing it down with the promised cerveza. Beside him at the bar, Cougar added a liberal amount of Tapatio sauce to his bowl and held the bottle up in question.
“No thanks,” Jensen said. “It’s already plenty spicy for me. I’m from New Hampshire, y’know.” Cougar looked at him blankly. “We don’t really do spicy.”
Cougar snorted. “Good luck with that around here.”
“So, Clay owns this place?” Jensen took another bite of chili. It really was good, even if it did make his eyes water.
“And you work for him?”
“For how long?”
“A while now.”
“You like it?”
Cougar shrugged. “It’s a job.”
Jensen eyed him sideways. “You always this chatty? Because I gotta tell you, Cougar, you are talking my ear off.” Cougar just smiled and took a bite of cornbread.
After they’d eaten, Cougar led him outside and around the back of the building to an outside staircase that led to the second floor. There were eight rooms. Clay had the two adjoining ones at the front that had the benefit of a balcony, Cougar informed him.
“It’s fucking noisy up there when the bar’s open, but Clay sleeps like the dead, so he doesn’t care.”
Cougar’s room was at the back. Someone named Roque had one of the rooms next to Clay’s. Jensen had his pick of the remaining four, all of them spare and simple, with big, lumpy beds and braided rugs on the floor. He chose the one across the hall from Cougar so that he wouldn’t have to share a wall with either of the bathrooms.
Cougar rustled up a set of sheets and a towel from somewhere and tossed them on the bed.
“You set?” he asked. He looked good, Jensen thought. Good enough to fuck, but he hadn’t given the slightest indication that he’d be amenable to the idea. Maybe if Cougar had been a different kind of guy Jensen just would have gone for it, but there was something about Cougar that made Jensen really not want to screw things up. Even if he left in the morning and never saw Cougar again, it was important to Jensen that Cougar not think badly of him.
Or maybe he was just chickenshit. Yeah, probably that.
“Sure, I’m good,” Jensen said.
“Okay. G’night then.”
Cougar froze for a second on his way out the door, then continued, closing the door softly behind him.
“Cougs”, Jensen said to his reflection in the mirror above the dresser. “Too fast. Jesus, Jensen, you don’t call people by a nickname right when you meet them. That’s too much. Always too much with you, too fast.” He sighed. “Plus, I’ll bet his mother didn’t just name him Cougar. Cougar’s already a nickname for something. So you just nicknamed a nickname, dumbass.”
He went over to the window and looked out. He could see the dark shapes of a row of large trees, but beyond that nothing. The only sounds were the buzz of night insects and the rustling of leaves in the trees. Jensen drew the shade. This place was likely as safe as anywhere he could be. He put his gun on the nightstand. He stood staring at it for a minute, then put it in the drawer instead.
Lying in bed a short time later, he listened to the building creak as it settled for the night. It was old, and it made a lot of noises and Jensen kept thinking he was hearing footsteps on the stairs. But eventually, exhaustion won out over paranoia, and he slept.
Jensen’s first thought upon waking was where the hell am I? He blinked up at the ceiling, but the wooden rafters offered no answer. He took in the faded red flowery wallpaper, the brass bed frame, the little porcelain sink in the corner and it came back to him – Cougar and Clay and the Last Chance Saloon.
The shade was pulled down, leaving the room in twilight and Jensen couldn’t tell how late it was. He fumbled on the nightstand for his phone, but he’d apparently been so beat that he hadn’t even plugged it in to recharge. No clock in the room either, as far as he could see. He got up and went to the window, raised the shade and bright daylight flooded through. The trees that had been only shadows the night before were revealed to be sprawling, ancient oaks, probably as old as the building itself. Beyond was open pastureland, rising to gently rolling gold hills in the distance, spotted with dark dots that Jensen guessed must be cattle.
He got dressed humming Deep in the Heart of Texas. Halfway down the stairs the smell of bacon hit him hard and he followed it into the bar, where he found Cougar and Clay occupying two of the stools, plates piled high with bacon and eggs, accompanied by steaming mugs of coffee on the bar in front of them. Next to Clay was a man Jensen hadn’t met yet. Even from behind Jensen could tell that he was an imposing presence and when he turned and gave Jensen a hard-eyed stare the impression was confirmed.
“Who’re you?” the guy said, eyes narrowing. He was actually attractive, Jensen thought, big, hard-muscled, with deep brown eyes and really dark skin. But he didn’t look all that friendly, and the scar that traveled down his face, just missing his right eye, gave him a distinctly piratical look, and not in a “Yo-ho-ho” way; more in a “I’ll slit your throat if you look at me wrong” way.
Cougar and Clay turned as one. “Cougar brought him in with him last night,” Clay said. “Name’s Jensen. Picked him up out in the middle of nowhere, told me he needed a place to lay low for a while.”
Jensen looked at Cougar because he had not said anything about laying low and where the hell had that even come from? But Cougar was absorbed in his breakfast and gave no indication that he was listening.
“Great,” the big guy said. “And why does he need to lay low?”
Clay just shoveled another forkful of eggs into his mouth and picked up the newspaper that was spread out across the bar.
“You didn’t ask?” the guy rolled his eyes, then turned his attention to Jensen. “So Jensen. What’s got you on the run and what kind of trouble are you gonna bring down on us?”
“No trouble,” Jensen quickly assured him. “Not on the run. Don’t know where Cougar came up with that one.” He laughed awkwardly. “Boy, I must look suspicious or something.” He smiled sunnily and endeavored to look as innocuous as possible, definitely NOT like the kind of guy currently being hunted by every law enforcement agency out there and a bunch of people who were about as far from law enforcement as possible. “Sorry to have given the wrong impression.”
“Mierda,” Cougar muttered, giving Jensen a look that said he was not fooled in the least.
“Jensen, meet Roque,” Clay said, gesturing to Jensen’s interrogator. “Our welcome committee.”
“Whatever,” Roque said, still eyeing Jensen with distrust. “I don’t like unknown quantities, especially when they’re under our roof.”
"Take it easy," Clay said, casting frown Roque's way. "The dude's SF and he needs a break is all. You got a problem with that?"
Jensen opened his mouth to deny it, then closed it again. Cougar had figured him out despite the lie, Clay was convinced of it; he wasn't going to be able to fool these guys, no matter what he said, so he might as well go along with it and trust that he could at least manage to keep the rest of his story secret.
Roque started to say something, then registered the look on Clay's face. He sighed. "Okay. It's your call."
Cougar got up and went around the bar, put a mug down in front of Jensen with a raised eyebrow. Jensen grimaced and gave him an apologetic shrug. He felt badly for giving Cougar a fake story, but he'd grown used to mistrusting people.
“Thanks,” Jensen said as Cougar poured the coffee. Cougar gave him a little nod. Cougar’s nods, Jensen was starting to learn, were a language unto themselves.
“Roque,” Clay said a moment later.
Roque sighed in what Jensen thought was an overly dramatic way, put down his fork and stomped into the kitchen, emanating waves of annoyance. A few minutes later, he was back with a heaping plate of eggs and bacon which he put down in front of Jensen none too graciously.
“Thanks,” Jensen said. Roque ignored him, taking a seat again and devoting himself to his own breakfast.
“Roque’s our cook,” Clay said, loud enough for Roque to hear him. “He spends too much time alone in the kitchen with his knives. Sometimes he forgets how to play nice.”
“Fuck you,” Roque mumbled around a mouthful of bacon.
“I rest my case,” said Clay, grinning.
Jensen dug in to his breakfast with enthusiasm. Even though he’d had that bowl of chili the night before, it had been a long time since he’d had two good meals in a row and he must still be working from a deficit because he was starving. As breakfasts go, it was top-notch. The eggs were fluffy, with little bits of onion and green pepper and melty chunks of cheese and the bacon was thick and peppery and just the right degree of crisp. To top it off, the coffee was strong and rich and inky black, just the way Jensen liked it. He thought he might want to drink a gallon of that coffee. He could write a poem to that coffee, in fact, he could write a whole fucking opera about that coffee. He inhaled the steam, closing his eyes.
He opened them to see Cougar watching him, an amused quirk to his lip. Jensen met his eyes and got lost there for just a second. In Jensen’s defense, Cougar’s eyes were easy to get lost in, so dark and somehow warm and soft, even though soft was not a word Jensen would use to describe Cougar in any other respect. But his eyes… yeah, they could be soft, at least they were right now. Jensen’s gaze dropped to his mouth again, to that half smile and the way it made these little lines appear at the corner of his lips.
“It’s – it’s good coffee,” he stammered.
“Si,” Cougar said. “Clay is particular about coffee.”
“Clay’s a fucking coffee snob,” Roque interjected. “And a beer snob.”
“Shut up,” Clay said mildly. “You’d have a fit if we dared to serve sub-par coffee and shitty beer with your precious food, and you know it.”
“Throw a fit?” said a new voice. “He’d probably murder someone.”
Jensen turned to see the new arrival, a light-skinned black man with a shaved head. Like the others, he looked really fit and pretty badass. Jensen was beginning to wonder about this place, about Clay’s crew. They just didn’t seem like your average bar staff.
The new guy draped one arm over Roque’s shoulder and the other over Clay’s. “Hey bro, you got any more of that for the Pooch?” He nodded toward Roque’s nearly empty plate.
“The Pooch was supposed to be here half an hour ago,” Roque said. “So the Pooch can help himself.”
“You ever try to get anywhere on time when you’ve got a six-month old kid and a wife who was up half the night? No? I didn’t think so.”
“Pooch, this is Jensen,” Clay said. “He’s going to be helping out today.”
Jensen opened his mouth to correct him, because he had no plans to help anyone with anything today, but Pooch was holding out his hand to shake so Jensen took it instead.
“Hey, Jensen,” Pooch said with a friendly smile. “Good to meet you.”
“So, how’d you get mixed up with these troublemakers?”
“I was hitching last night. Cougar picked me up.”
“You poor thing! Didn’t have a clue what you were in for, did you?” Pooch slapped him on the back. “Let that be a lesson – don’t take rides from mysterious strangers. Now you’re stuck helping us fix the porch, dude.”
“Fix the porch?”
“You know anything about carpentry?” Clay asked.
“Yeah, some,” Jensen admitted. “I got an uncle who’s a contractor, I worked for him for a while after high school, but –”
“Excellent,” Clay said, a big smile lighting up his face. “I knew you’d turn out to be useful.” He stood, rifled through the paper until he found the crossword page and folded it under his arm. “We’ll reconnoiter out front at oh nine hundred. Pooch, Cougar, get the tools together. Jensen, you can help them. Roque -”
“I’ve got lunch prep, if you want there to be any chow for the customers.”
“Okay, but when you’re done, you can join us.”
He headed out through the “Staff Only” door at the back of the bar.
Cougar checked his phone. “Twenty minutes. C’mon Jensen.” He nodded at Pooch. “We got this. Get some breakfast.”
“Thanks, man,” Pooch said, heading toward the kitchen. “There better be some left.” He pointed at Roque. “Or I will end you.” Roque gave him a leisurely finger and Pooch laughed, slamming through the swinging door to the kitchen.
Jensen followed Cougar out of the building and around the back, to a dilapidated structure that might once have been a garage, and before that, maybe a stable. There was a work table with tools stacked on top of it – hammers, hand saws and drills, boxes of nails, all of it at least fifty years old.
“Really?” Jensen picked up a drill and twirled it a few times. “You guys really like to kick it old school, doncha?”
He turned at the sound of Cougar clearing his throat to find him standing beside a pile of shiny new metal cases that had apparently been under the tarp that he had in his hand. Cougar smirked and flipped the latch on one case and opened it to reveal a nail gun, then opened another that held a sawzall.
Jensen laughed, holding up the hand drill. “I didn’t really think this was your speed.” He dropped it onto the work bench. “Though you never know. Guys can be funny about their tools.”
He hadn’t really meant to stay and let himself get roped into helping out. He kept meaning to make his excuses and hit the road, but Clay had given him a bed, and he’d fed him twice, and Jensen figured he owed something, so he stayed
The porch project was basically a clusterfuck. As far as Jensen could tell, aside from himself, Clay was the only one of them who knew anything about carpentry. Pooch had no experience, but was willing even if he did mumble about how engines and carburetors made a lot more sense than God damn wood. Roque never even showed his face; apparently lunch prep was taking all morning. By mid-morning Clay sent Pooch to get the bar ready to open. He, Jensen and Cougar got the demo done by lunchtime, which meant the customers had to negotiate the job site, stepping around piles of old wood and tar paper and across the plywood that covered the bare joists where the porch floor used to be.
When the fifth or sixth car pulled into the parking lot, Jensen stopped working to watch a group of twentysomethings in office clothes approach them. The group before had been three middle-aged guys in Carharts and work boots, and before them a family of four, mom with blue hair, dad with ear gauges, kids, a boy and a girl, both in tutus.
“Seems like you’ve got a varied clientele here, Clay,” Jensen said.
“Yeah.” Clay straightened up, wiping his hands on his jeans. “The lunch crowd comes for the food. Roque’s kind of a legend around here. People drive for miles for the barbecue pork tamales and sweet potato fries.”
He was sweaty and dusty, tanned skin flushed from the heat, and it was a good look on him. Jensen would have to be dead not to notice that Clay was a really handsome dude, in that movie star kind of way where he’d look just as good in a tux as he did right now in faded jeans and a white t-shirt. The businesswomen in pencil skirts and heels noticed too, as they greeted him by name and stopped to flirt. Clay’s shit-eating grin made it obvious that he wasn’t minding the attention one bit.
Jensen ambled over to where Cougar was standing. He nodded toward Clay. “This place must be a gold mine when it comes to the ladies.”
“Aisha’d kill him if he even thought about it,” Cougar said.
“Clay’s woman.” Cougar leaned in close. “She’s volatile.”
“Hunh. Sounds interesting.”
“Cui-da-do,” Cougar singsonged, looking at Jensen from under his hat. “That chica is crazy.”
“Duly noted,” Jensen said. “I’ll proceed with caution.”
He couldn’t think of a way to ask Cougar whether he took advantage of the gold mine of available women that no doubt frequented the Last Chance without looking like a total dork, and even though in the normal course of things Jensen didn’t give much thought to things like that, he really didn’t want to look like an idiot to Cougar. Jensen was pretty sure Cougar wouldn’t have time for fools, and Jensen needed Cougar to want to spend time with him. Or failing that, at least not mind it too much.
“Guys, let’s take a break,” Clay called to them. “Get some lunch.”
Cougar and Jensen sat among the wreckage they had made of the porch on some old folding chairs Cougar pulled out of the shed, and ate cold chicken and coleslaw and watched customers come and go. The sounds of conversation and classic rock drifted out from inside, punctuated by Pooch calling orders and Roque barking out, “Order up!” every few minutes.
“So, how’d you end up here?” Jensen asked, once they had filled their bellies and were seated with their feet propped up on a pile of lumber, lazily nursing big, sweating glasses of sweet tea. Cougar’s hat was pushed back on his forehead for once, damp strands of hair curling against his neck below his ear.
Cougar sighed, and for a minute Jensen thought maybe he wouldn’t answer. Cougar was so quiet, so reticent, and yet Jensen was 100% sure that it wasn’t shyness. There was some other reason, and Jensen really wanted to know what it was. It wasn’t that he didn’t respect Cougar’s privacy, he totally did. It was just that Jensen didn’t actually have very many filters and if he wanted to know something he was going to ask.
“I passed through here after I was discharged,” Cougar said. “I met Clay then. He told me there was a place for me here, if I wanted it. I wasn’t ready – I was messed up and going in the wrong direction. Things were… bad. It took me a while to decide I wanted a future.” He stared out toward the road. “When I showed up here, Clay put me to work, just like he said, and I’ve been here ever since. That was two years ago now.”
That was by far the longest speech Jensen had heard Cougar make, and even though for Cougar it was wordy, there was a lot that Jensen knew had been left out.
“And the rest of them? Roque and Pooch?”
“Clay and Roque served together. The way it works for them is, wherever Clay goes, Roque goes. Clay hired Pooch after he was discharged. He was having a hard time finding a job. He’s got a wife and kid, they were living on food stamps, you know? It’s not right, when he’s a vet.”
“Damn straight, it’s not right,” Jensen agreed. “Wait, do you mean everyone here’s been in the military?”
“We’re all Special Forces,” Cougar said. He reached into the pocket of his jeans and produced a Challenge Coin, holding it up to Jensen with a sly smile. “Coin check, amigo.”
Jensen groaned. “It’s in my wallet. In my room.”
Cougar chuckled. “What’s it doing there?”
“Not much.” He grinned at Cougar. At least now he had an excuse to have a drink with him later, even if he’d be buying the first round.
It was a Tuesday night, so the place wasn’t exactly packed, but there was a good crowd of friendly regulars who all seemed to know each other, and a couple of tables of hipsters who, Cougar informed Jensen, would have driven in from Austin, and a group of grizzled bikers with Bandidos insignias on their leather jackets who were hanging out in the room with the pool tables. “They know better than to cause trouble here,” Cougar assured him.
Johnny Cash’s voice poured from the speakers, competing with the buzz of animated conversation and occasional peals of laughter. Pooch was making the rounds of the tables, Roque was putting out a steady stream of steaming plates piled high with frizzled onions and barbecued ribs, Aisha, who Jensen had been careful to be very polite to when they’d met, was keeping the drinks flowing from behind the bar while at the same time cracking wise with anyone who was brave enough to flirt with her. Jensen and Cougar were seated side by side at the end of the bar, nursing their Negro Modelos since Cougar was off that night, and Jensen owed him a round.
Cougar didn’t talk much, but he said a lot with his eyes. Jensen didn’t have any trouble picking up on his unspoken language. It wasn’t like Cougar didn’t have things to say. He had a lot to say, he just didn’t say it with words most of the time. Jensen liked being around him. Not only was he pretty much the best eye candy around, but he had this sense of inner stillness that made Jensen’s overactive mind breathe a silent sigh of relief. If he could bottle Cougar’s inner stillness… well, if he could bottle it he’d probably get drunk on it, which was a weird thought because what would Cougar’s inner stillness even taste like, and would it give him a hangover?
He pondered this as Cougar ordered another round. When Aisha put it down in front of them there was a shot glass next to their beers.
Jensen sniffed it. Tequila. “What, no salt?” he turned to Cougar. “No lime?”
“Aiy,” Cougar sighed in disgust. “No salt, gringo.” He knocked the drink back without so much as a twitch, then looked to Jensen, waiting with a challenge in his eye.
“Oh, that’s how it is?” Jensen said. Cougar just smiled.
Jensen took the shot, unable to repress a grimace as he swallowed. Tequila was not necessarily his favorite beverage, though he had to acknowledge that it had its place. And apparently, that place was here because Cougar was already signaling Aisha for a refill.
An hour later, Jensen had his phone out and they were watching the Petunias’ most recent game. Jensen was pointing out the multiple instances of egregious officiating that had resulted in the team’s eventual defeat. Cougar was the best audience Jensen had ever had for this demonstration. Usually people got bored a few minutes in, but Cougar was actually paying attention and making commiserating sounds at the right moments. Jensen shifted his bar stool a bit closer and leaned in, ostensibly so Cougar could see better, but it had the added benefit of getting him that much closer to the guy. Cougar was nice to be close to, Jensen had decided. He was pretty and he smelled like something woodsy and spicy, which must be deodorant or cologne or something, but whatever it was, it was nice. Cougar had these little wisps of hair too, that curled around behind his ear. If Jensen was just a bit drunker, he would put his nose right there and those wisps of hair would tickle, and he’d inhale that nice Cougar-smell. But he wasn’t quite drunk enough for that, although since Cougar was ordering another round it was possible that he might be soon.
In another hour, Jensen was leaning against Cougar, one arm looped over his shoulders. “This’s a good place,” he said, surveying the room. Roque, done for the night, was sitting with Clay a few seats down, rolling dice for drinks. The bikers had moved on and the late night crowd had settled in for the long haul, pitchers of beer for the groups at the tables, cocktails for the regulars at the bar. The night was cool enough to have the doors and windows open and a soft breeze wafted through.
“’m glad you brought me here – even though I totally did not ask you to.” Jensen swayed even closer. “Why’d you do that, anyway?”
Cougar’s eyes flicked sideways to him. “You needed a place. I could tell.”
“How’d you tell?”
“I’ve been there,” Cougar said, drawing a triangle on the condensation on his pint glass. He motioned toward Clay and Roque and Aisha. “We’ve all been there.” He turned toward Jensen, his eyes dark and soft and so easy to fall into. “What’re you running from, bro?”
Jensen sighed. “Oh man, Cougs, I wish I could tell you. I really do.”
“So tell me.”
“Can’t. Too dangerous.”
Cougar smirked. “Maybe I can handle a little danger, you ever think of that?”
Jensen leaned his forehead into Cougar’s shoulder for a moment. It felt good to lean on Cougar. He’d like to be able to do a lot more of that, but doubted it would be in the cards.
“I got in with a bad crowd – isn’t that how it always starts?” Jensen laughed. “I trusted the wrong people. It was – I mean, it was my CO and all, and…” He sat up straight and fake-saluted. “I was just following orders, honest! But it’s true. Not that it matters. Now I’m AWOL and there’s a kill order out on me and everyone thinks I’m a terrorist.” He hung his head. “I fucking hope Molly doesn’t know I’m a terrorist.”
Cougar rolled his eyes. “You’re not a terrorist.”
“Might as well be,” Jensen mumbled miserably.
Cougar patted him on the back, but then he left his hand there, letting it linger distractingly.
“I’ve always been able to just make things open up for me, you know? Systems, firewalls, encryptions. I can get into places that are supposed to be impossible to get into. Everyone’s got a talent, right? Yours is being sexy and mysterious, mine is getting into places I’m not supposed to be.” Cougar smiled sexily and mysteriously. “Anyway, I got into the wrong places and now I know a bunch of stuff that’s going to get me killed, and the kicker is I didn’t even know what was happening until the guys in my unit started winding up dead. Pretty stupid, huh?” He shook his head. “I didn’t even know I was fucked.”
“These people who are after you – they are military?”
“Black ops,” Jensen said hopelessly. “Totally off the books. Nobody even knows they exist.”
“Hmm.” Cougar looked thoughtful. “It’s a problem.”
Cougar put his hand on Jensen’s arm. Jensen looked down at it then up at Cougar, who was watching him seriously. “I will help you.”
“No, Cougar, no,” Jensen protested. “No way, man. You don’t know these guys. These are bad guys, Cougar, like, scary bad. It’s too dangerous, dude. I won’t let you get involved. I’m leaving in the morning anyway, so it doesn’t matter, I’ll be long gone and you can just go on with your life here an’ all. That’s what I want, Cougs.” He looked around at the room of people talking, laughing, drinking. Pooch was sitting at a table talking quietly with a pretty woman who must be his wife. Clay leaned across the bar to steal a kiss from Aisha. He looked at Cougar, who he’d just met, but who for some crazy reason was willing to help him. “I don’t want to bring my trouble down on this place. On you. On any of you. You don’t deserve that.”
Cougar shrugged, turning fully to face to Jensen. He leaned close, fixing Jensen with a look that said plainly that he was not convinced. “Trouble’s nothing new to me – to any of us. You don’t have to do this alone, hermano. If you want it, we’ve got your back.”
Jensen felt tears sting his eyes and blinked to get control of himself. He’d been on his own for a long time, and the offer of support, so freely and unexpectedly given, caught him off guard.
“Thanks, Cougar.” He cleared his throat, wiped the corner of his eyes. “Aw, shit. I’m sorry. Guess I’m feeling a little emo.”
“No problem. C’mon, let’s get you to bed.”
“Okay, sure, yes, great,” Jensen agreed, stunned for a moment that Cougar was taking him to bed until he realized that Cougar was actually only taking him to bed. “Oh. Oh, no, that’s okay, I got it,” he insisted, getting to his feet and heading in the direction of his room. Until Cougar grabbed him and spun him 180 degrees, wrapping an arm around his waist and heading toward the door.
“It’s the tequila,” Jensen averred as he stumbled along, trying to keep his feet. “It really doesn’t like me. I’ve tangled with it before, y’know. It is a very dangerous substance.”
“Es verdad,” Cougar agreed, helping Jensen navigate the stairs up to the second floor. “Muy peligroso.”
“Pel-i-groso,” Jensen repeated. “You know what else is peligroso? You. You are peligroso. To me.”
“No.” Cougar stopped where they were at the top of the stairs. “No, Jensen. Not to you.”
“Yes.” Jensen knew he was going to say things that he shouldn’t and he couldn’t make himself stop. He was too drunk and when he was drunk he had even less of an interior editor than normal, which basically meant that anything he thought instantaneously came pouring out of his mouth. “You are dangerous, because I need to go and you make me want to stay. You make me want to stay and do dirty, dirty stuff with you. Just shut me up if I’m outta line here, Cougs. But you’re makin’ me crazy.” He reached up and clumsily tugged at the collar of Cougar’s denim jacket. “I don’t even know what I’m doing,” he said helplessly.
“That’s okay,” Cougar said. “I do.”
He backed Jensen up against that wall, hands tight on Jensen’s shoulders, little steps until they’d come together, Cougar’s body pressed lightly all along Jensen’s front, and he moved in slow, slow enough to give Jensen time to avoid him, as if that would ever happen. Jensen’s heartbeat kicked into overdrive, and his stomach dipped as a thrill of anticipation shivered through him. He had not expected this, and he couldn’t believe how lucky he was about to be. He bit his lip, then smiled at Cougar, who smiled back in the second before their lips touched so that when they did it was teeth first
“Ow,” said Cougar, rubbing his lip.
“Hey, we’re smooth,” said Jensen and then he dove back in and it got much better from there.
Cougar, bare, was all lean muscle and beautiful golden-brown skin that Jensen wanted under his mouth and hands. He pushed Cougar down onto his bed, once they’d somehow made it to a bedroom and managed to tear the clothes off each other, came down on top of him and shivered at how good it felt. Cougar pulled Jensen closer, slid a hand down to his backside and tilted his hips up to bring them together. Jensen got the idea, and maybe it was hurried and a tad frantic, and maybe it wasn’t carried out with the most finesse, but when Cougar spread his legs and grabbed Jensen’s ass with both hands and threw his head back on a groan, Jensen couldn’t ask for much more.
He leaned up on his elbow, wrapped an arm around Cougar’s thigh and thrust. “Fuck,” he gasped, his head dropping forward as their cocks rubbed against each other.
“This okay?” he managed to ask between gulps of air.
Cougar laughed, and then he groaned as Jensen moved again, and then he kissed Jensen, so Jensen took that as a yes.
They found a rhythm, Cougar moving with him. Wrapped around each other as they were, Jensen was aware of nothing but Cougar – the way it felt everywhere their bodies touched; his hands, gliding over Jensen’s skin; the sounds he made, quiet gasps and an occasional word in Spanish. Jensen couldn’t tell for sure, but thought Cougar was saying how good Jensen felt or maybe even how hot he was – at least that was what he liked to think.
Cougar surged beneath him, pushing Jensen onto his side. He climbed over him, straddling Jensen’s hips as Jensen rolled obligingly onto his back. His hair cascaded around his face and he pushed it back with both hands, grinning down at Jensen. Jensen curled up, reaching for him, because having Cougar so far away was unthinkable, and Cougar folded down over him, settling on top of him, one hand gathering their cocks together and starting to pump.
Jensen drew a shivery breath. “Oh, man. Yeah. Yeah.”
“Yeah?” Cougar’s mouth hovered over his, lips almost touching.
“Yeah.” Jensen groaned, as Cougar worked them a little faster. “Fuck, yeah.”
Jensen drove up into Cougar’s grip and it felt amazing, hot and slick and tight and Cougar’s cock right against his, his mouth on Jensen’s, open and devouring.
“Cougar,” Jensen gasped, shaky-voiced and teetering on the edge. “Cougar, I’m gonna –”
But that was as far as he got, coming in a burst of feverish pleasure all over their joined cocks and Cougar’s encircling hand. Apparently that was all it took for Cougar, because he followed Jensen over the edge, groaning into his shoulder and spurting in hot spatters across Jensen’s belly.
For a long moment they remained still, regaining their breath, Cougar’s weight slowly settling onto Jensen. Then Cougar rolled onto his back, feeling around on the floor until he found a discarded shirt and handed it to Jensen to wipe himself down.
“Whew,” Jensen said. “You move fast.”
Cougar traced a finger along Jensen’s jawline. “When I see something I want, I take it.”
Jensen grinned, pleased. “So you want me?”
Cougar rolled his eyes. “Obviously.”
Jensen scooted closer and Cougar obligingly wrapped an arm around his middle, pulling him close. “Well then, you have good taste.”
Cougar pinched him in the soft place above his hip, though it was really more of a tickle and it made Jensen squirm up against Cougar even closer, and that was fine. Cougar kissed the top of his head.
“Good night,” he whispered.
Jensen sighed contentedly. It felt amazing to be held like this by Cougar, all that warm skin and strong muscle up against him. He hadn’t felt this safe in years. It felt so good that he fought to stay awake, but it was no use. He barely had time to mumble, “G’night, Cougar,” before he drifted off.
Jensen’s morning dawned ugly, with a pounding head and a mouth that tasted like death. He squinted around him at the room, filling in the events of the night before as he took in his clothes laying haphazardly around the room where they’d been thrown, the rumpled sheets half falling off the bed, and Cougar, a fond smile on his face, sitting on the edge of the bed holding out a steaming cup of coffee.
Jensen’s heart leaped just to see Cougar sitting there. He grinned helplessly, then grimaced as his skull throbbed. Cougar became his official favorite person ever when he opened his palm to reveal two Tylenol pills.
“The service in this place is excellent,” said Jensen, dry-swallowing the pills and following them up with a slug of coffee. He scooted into a sitting position, leaning against the headboard so he could get a better look at Cougar. “You seem pretty chipper this morning.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Maybe because we downed about a hundred shots of tequila last night, which was entirely your fault, by the way. I’m laying the blame for this hangover on you, Cougar.” Jensen did his best to look stern, or disappointed or something, but didn't have enough energy to make it convincing.
“But the tequila was counteracted by all the sex, pobrecito. It doesn’t work that way for you?”
Jensen sighed. “I guess not. Seems unfair.”
Cougar tipped his head down, hat hiding his face. “Maybe the sex was no good. That would explain it.”
Jensen sat up straight. “No, Cougar! The sex was great, the sex was amazing. You were amazing. Oh my God, don’t even say that. Last night was incredible, don’t think –” He narrowed his eyes at Cougar’s teasing grin. “You’re just fishing for compliments aren’t you? That’s low, dude, especially from someone in my condition.”
“Yeah, my condition of having a raging hangover.” Jensen slumped back against the headboard, crossing his arms over his chest.
“You know the best cure for a hangover?” Cougar asked.
Jensen look at him suspiciously, nervous that Cougar was going to spring something on him involving disgusting ingredients like raw eggs and hot sauce. He’d tried that before, and the result had not been pretty.
“What?” he asked.
Cougar moved onto the bed, placing on hand on each side of Jensen’s hips. Slowly he leaned forward as if he was going to kiss Jensen, then at the last minute detoured to his ear.
“A blowjob,” he whispered.
Jensen turned toward him, and Cougar was right there, so close and utterly beautiful.
“Yeah?” Jensen said hopefully. “You offering?”
Cougar didn’t reply, but he did lean in for a quick, soft kiss before sliding fluidly down the bed, peeling the bedclothes down with him. Cougar took him in soft, worked him until he was hard, then some more until he was babbling and some more until he was speechless. Jensen did, in fact, feel much better afterwards, in ways that had nothing to do with a cure for his hangover which, in fact, didn’t disappear until mid-afternoon.
He should have left that day. That had been the plan. But how could he, with Cougar shooting him flirty glances at breakfast (Cougar, chorizo and eggs; Jensen, dry toast) and the front stoop all torn up and Clay giving him the puppy-dog eyes to convince him to stay “just one more day”, Jensen being the only one among them who was actually able to be of much help when it came to construction.
And then, after lunch, just about when Jensen was thinking that it wasn’t actually too late to leave if he did it right away, Cougar, who’d been given the job of cutting the new floorboards, complained of the heat and stripped off his shirt, and the sight of him, lightly sheened with sweat, jeans riding low on his hips and the cut of muscle there at his hipbone, all conspired to make Jensen forget about leaving altogether, and by the time he remembered again the sun was starting to set and the front porch was finished, though still unpainted.
The three of them stood in the parking lot looking at it, cold beers in their hands. Clay clapped Jensen on the back and told him what a good job he’d done and Jensen felt a surprisingly strong swell of pride. They clinked beer bottles and stood admiring their work until the neon lights in the windows blinked into brightness and they went inside to see what Roque had scavenged for them for dinner before the rush. There was no way in hell Jensen was going to leave then, with the promise of another night in Cougar’s bed.
The next morning Clay showed Jensen the Last Chance’s sad, sad website. So he couldn’t leave that day.
The next day, with the new website live, Jensen switched his focus to the Last Chance’s social media presence, which consisted of an inactive Facebook page and a bunch of sour Yelp reviews from back when the place was under different ownership. By evening, Jensen was bouncing off the walls on too much coffee and the Last Chance was active on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest and the revamped Facebook page was garnering more Likes by the minute and he’d created enough good reviews on Yelp and Google to put it at four and a half stars.
There was lasagna for dinner and a live band playing that night, and Cougar, who dragged him away from the back table where he’d been glued to his laptop all day, manhandled him into the storage closet, backed him up against a metro rack and kissed him until he thought he’d go out of his mind, then went down on his knees. After that, Jensen didn’t have the strength to go anywhere.
The next day was Thursday, which would have been a good day to pack his bags and head down the road, only Pooch and Jolene had invited Cougar and him for dinner that night and he’d already said yes and they’d been real nice to him, so standing them up would have been a dick move. Anyway, there was a lot to do to get ready for the weekend at the Last Chance. Clay had him sweeping floors and washing windows and restocking the bar, and then he sent him back to the kitchen to work prep with Roque. That didn’t go so well because it turned out that Roque was very particular when it came to the size and shape of his onion dice, and that spinach leaves needed to be washed not one, not two, but three times, and that when Roque asked for chopped parsley what he actually meant was parsley that had been minced so fine it was practically powder. Working with Roque was nerve-rattling, and when Cougar poked his head in and said he needed Jensen’s help out front, Jensen was so grateful he wanted to kiss him. Although wanting to kiss Cougar was a constant for him these days, so that was nothing different.
Friday night was hopping at the Last Chance, full of folks intent on shaking off the work week and getting an early start on the weekend. Clay had all hands on deck – Aisha and Cougar behind the bar, Roque in the kitchen, Pooch alternating between backing Roque up and waiting tables, Clay doing whatever was needed, including breaking up a fight and kicking out the brawlers and their friends. Jensen bussed tables, restocked, ran food out and did whatever else he was asked to do that didn’t take any particular skill.
When the last of the customers staggered out of the place at closing, Cougar lined up a row of beers on the bar and everyone gratefully sank onto a stool, happy to get off their feet.
“This beer tastes really good.” Jensen observed it critically for a moment, then decided why the hell not? and chugged the rest of it.
“Oh ho,” said Roque, with a sideways grin, apparently having forgiven Jensen’s trespasses with vegetables, “so that’s how it’s gonna be?” He chugged his own and slammed the glass down on the counter.
Cougar raised a brow at Jensen from his stance at the taps. “Mas cerveza, por favor!” Jensen crowed in an execrable Spanish accent.
Cougar scowled at him, shook his head in disappointment and huffed “Ay de mi,” but he refilled their glasses nonetheless.
Alas, beers were chugged, shots were downed, money changed hands over games of pool, Clay and Aisha demonstrated that you could totally have sex on the dance floor without taking off your clothes if Marvin Gaye was on the jukebox, and if anyone hadn’t realized that Jensen and Cougar were fucking, chances were they had figured it out by the end of the night since they spent a good part of it making out like teenagers in the back hallway by the walk-in.
Saturday night was a replay of Friday, only turned up a notch. The Last Chance was packed with high spirited, hard drinking partyers. The surprisingly good local country rock band that Clay had booked tore up the place. Everyone was on their feet, whooping and hollering, and Jensen was in the weeds all night, trying to keep up with the amount of food and alcohol being consumed.
“Are Saturdays always like this?” he asked Cougar as he passed by, grabbing a handful of pitchers waiting to go out to the tables.
“Pretty much,” Cougar said, never pausing as he poured gin in a row of glasses, topping them off with tonic from the soda gun. “Clay knows how to throw a party.”
Jensen had to agree. Despite the location all on its own five miles outside of a Podunk town in the middle of nowhere, despite the run-down building and, until very recently, lack of any online presence, the Last Chance was clearly the place to be on Saturday night.
After hours was a lot calmer that night, just a beer or two while sitting at the bar. Cougar sat beside him counting out the tip jar while Aisha z-ed out the register.
“Did you see that guy?” Cougar asked.
“Uh, what guy? There were about a hundred guys in here tonight, Cougs.”
“Came in late, around midnight. Alone. Quiet, didn’t talk to anyone. Put a lot of energy into not being noticed.”
“Well, I guess it worked, ‘cause I didn’t notice him.” Jensen propped his elbow on the bar and leaned his head on his hand so he could look at Cougar. “Why?”
Cougar shrugged and started dividing the piles of cash, one pile for each person who worked that night. “There was something about him. I think he’s Special Forces.” Cougar paused. “He had a metal arm. I don’t know, I just had a feeling about him.”
Jensen thought about that. “Like, a sexual feeling? Because I’m okay with that, just so you know.” Cougar drew in a breath to speak, but Jensen kept on. “Or if you wanted to get it on with the guy, or something, that’s cool too, I’m not possessive that way.” Cougar was staring at him, a funny look on his face. He opened his mouth again, but Jensen continued. “Or a threesome, foursome, hell a whole orgy. Whatever makes you happy.”
Cougar waited a beat, but when Jensen said nothing more he started to speak, but then closed his mouth, sitting back. Finally, he sighed. “I don’t know what kind of feeling it was. Like he’d seen things. Things like I’ve seen. Maybe worse.”
“Oh.” Jensen was a bit crestfallen after his effort to be GGG.
“But I appreciate what you said,” Cougar mumbled. Jensen leaned closer to hear. “I don’t like feeling caged.”
Jensen put his arm around Cougar’s shoulder and drew him in until their foreheads touched. “I would never try to cage you, Cougar.”
“I know.” Cougar kissed him, soft and quick. “I like that about you.”
The next day was Sunday, and they slept in late. The Last Chance was closed on Sundays and Mondays so they had a whole two days to laze around and fuck. Or at least Jensen thought they did, but when they managed to stumble downstairs at around noon, Clay was outside with about ten paint color samples which he’d painted big swatches of on the side of the building.
“Are you planning to paint this thing?” Jensen asked doubtfully, eyeing the structure. It was a big-ass building with a fair amount of trim. He did a quick estimate in his head; two weeks of prep, a week to paint, minimum.
“Don’t you think she needs it?”
Clay opened a can of pale gray-blue and started slapping it over the siding.
“Well, yeah. But that’s a big job.” Jensen glanced at Cougar who was eyeing Clay skeptically.
Clay pushed his hat back on his head and grinned at them. “Lucky for me I’ve got a good crew.”
So Jensen spend much of Sunday scraping old paint with the rest of the guys, one of his all-time least favorite things to do, although it wasn’t so bad, really. There was a lot of fucking around and joking and even though they groaned at some of Jensen’s attempts at humor, they didn’t really seem to mind his running commentary all that much. Luckily, when the heat got unbearable around mid-afternoon by common agreement they knocked off to head out to some swimming hole in the country.
Jensen expected a muddy pond with a rope swing, so when they had to hike in a half mile he was not happy about it. But that was before he actually saw the place. First of all, it was huge. And the water was a gorgeous blue-green, clear and cool and fresh. And there was a huge cave that arched over part of the pool leaving it in shade, and a fine wall of water that fell over the rim of the cave into the pool, and as if that wasn’t enough, there was a freaking waterfall to boot.
“This place sucks,” Jensen said, turning around. “I’m going home.”
Jensen had Spongebob Squarepants swimming trunks that he’d picked up at WalMart on the way. The guys gave him shit about them, but he secretly kind of liked them. Cougar swam in cut-offs and he looked sexy as hell. Jensen thought about peeling them off him later, still wet and with nothing on underneath.
Which was the primary reason that he didn’t even consider leaving that day
Monday he and Cougar piled into the truck for a liquor run, the same trip that had led to Cougar picking Jensen up exactly one week before. Clay bought his liquor from some shady dealer outside Fort Worth because it was cheap, Cougar said, and he didn’t mind doing the long drive by himself, though he also didn’t seem to mind Jensen tagging along. Jensen figured six hours there and back alone with Cougar in the truck was a good enough reason to stick around for another day.
On Tuesday there was more paint to scrape and so he spent the day on a ladder with little chips of old paint sticking to his sweaty skin. It wasn’t fun exactly, but the other guys were in the same boat, so he didn’t complain. He could leave any time, of course, but it seemed like a shitty thing to do, to take off just when the work got onerous and to leave it to the rest of them to finish the job.
That night, after a nap and a shower, Jensen came downstairs for his nine o’clock shift to a find the Last Chance was having a slow night. There were some guys playing darts in the back and a few couples, the usual assortment of regulars, and that was it. He looked for Cougar, spotted him down at the end of the bar, leaning forward over it deep in conversation with someone.
“Hey, Cougs, whazzup?” Jensen called, heading his way.
Cougar turned and Jensen could see who he’d been talking to then – it was the guy he’d told Jensen about, the one with the metal arm. He was hunched over the bar, long hair and a baseball cap hiding his face. The guy looked up and Jensen took in wide blue eyes, and fine, almost pretty features contrasted with his expression, which was alert and on point and focused on Jensen with startling intensity.
Cougar held a warning hand out to Jensen, below the level of the bar where the guy couldn’t see, and cast a meaningful look his way. Jensen, who’d been making a study over the past week of all the many ways Cougar communicated without words had no trouble reading his meaning: Take it easy, go slow.
Jensen turned his exuberance down a notch. “Hey,” he said quietly, sliding onto the bar stool next to Metal Arm.
Up close, he could see the guy was built, muscular definition showing even through his thick cotton shirt and black jeans. He had a glove on his left hand, hiding the prosthetic Cougar had mentioned. There was something off about him, Jensen thought, a blankness behind his eyes and Cougar’s words echoed in his mind. I think he’s seen things.
“This is my friend Jensen,” Cougar said, a gentleness to his voice that Jensen had only previously heard Cougar use when the two of them were alone. “Jensen, this is Jim. He’s new around here.”
“Hi,” Jensen said, holding out a hand and making an effort to project an aura of non-threatening amiability. “Welcome to the Last Chance.”
Jim looked down at Jensen’s hand like he had no idea what to do with it, then it was as if something clicked in his mind and he took it, pumped it three times and quickly let go.
“Hi,” he mumbled. He looked down at the bar. “Glad to meet you.”
On the bar in front of Jim were five shot glasses filled with liquids that varied from clear to a rich red brown. “What’s going on here?” Jensen asked.
“We’re just trying a few things,” Cougar said, shooting Jensen another warning look. “Jim’s just trying to decide what he likes."
“Oh.” Jensen looked from Cougar to Jim, confused. “You don’t know what kind of booze you like?”
“I – I don’t remember,” Jim said.
Jensen’s eyebrows rose and he met Cougar’s eyes. PTSD, he mouthed to Cougar.
“Try this first,” Cougar nudged the clear liquid toward Jim. “Vodka.”
“Vodka,” Jim murmured. “I remember something… It’s – Russian?”
Cougar nodded. Jim squinted at the shot glass as if it might bite him, then slowly brought it to his lips and took a sip. The face he made was almost comical and he pushed the glass back toward Cougar.
“No,” he said with certainty, “not this one.”
He subsequently rejected tequila, brandy, whiskey, bourbon and scotch. Finally, Cougar resorted to mixing him a shot he said was called a Brain Eraser, but Jim couldn’t choke that one down either.
“At least you won’t have to worry about developing a drinking problem,” Jensen told him.
“I can’t get drunk,” Jim stated.
“Well, if you don’t drink you sure can’t,” Jensen agreed. “You know, it starts to taste better the more you drink it. See, most of the rest of us got past the fact that booze is in fact poison and does actually kind of taste like it could kill you back in high school when we were stupid enough to drink it anyway. You’re at a disadvantage now.”
Jim picked up the Brain Eraser and looked at it as if trying to work up the nerve to take another sip.
“Try this,” Cougar said, setting a pint glass filled with ice cubes and amber liquid in front of Jim.
Jim’s face brightened as he took a drink. “I like this,” he said. He took another sip. “This one is very good.”
“It’s an Arnold Palmer. You can get it most places.” Cougar gave Jim a soft-eyed smile and added a straw and a lemon slice to his glass. Jim smiled tentatively in return.
Cougar was definitely crushing on this weird, scruffy, awkward guy, Jensen realized, and he had to admit that there was something about Jim that was strangely appealing. He had a pretty face and a great body, but it went beyond that. He seemed lost and kind of vulnerable, even though Jensen had no doubt that he was at the same time as tough as they come.
Jim sipped at his drink and Jensen went into the storeroom to put away the liquor he and Cougar had brought back from Fort Worth. A few minutes later he heard the door open and a pair of strong arms wrapped around his middle.
“Hey, mi carino,” Cougar said, pressing a kiss to Jensen’s neck.
Jensen covered Cougar’s hands on his stomach with his own.
“I have no idea what that means, but it sounds nice.”
“It is nice,” Cougar murmured low in his ear.
Jensen turned in his arms and Cougar kissed him, slow and sweet, tongues sliding together. Jensen groaned, hands going to Cougar’s hair, fingers twining in it to hold Cougar to him. When Cougar drew back Jensen stood for a moment, eyes closed, still lost in the sensation. When he opened them Cougar was watching him, a little smile on his lips.
“Is it closing time yet?” Jensen pulled Cougar to him, giving him a flirty look from beneath his lashes. “Because I am ready to call it a night.”
Cougar draped himself over Jensen, arms around his shoulders and Jensen’s around Cougar’s back. They stood like that, embracing each other, for a long moment. Jensen didn’t think he’d ever just held someone like that; not kissing, not making out, not anything sexual about it. Just… together. He buried his face in Cougar’s neck, inhaled his scent. Cougar made a contented humming noise and held Jensen a little tighter.
When they disengaged, Jensen felt a little pink. He wasn’t really used to that sort of kind of thing – hugging, or whatever. But he liked it. He liked it as much as Jim liked that Arnold Palmer.
“So, that guy, Jim,” Jensen said.
“Mmm.” Cougar adjusted his hat, tilting it a bit lower on his forehead.
“You kinda like him, I think.” Jensen ducked down to see Cougar’s face. Cougar shrugged and looked away, but a smile tugged at the corner of his lip. “You’ve got interesting taste in men, I gotta say. I mean, clearly you have awesome taste,” he held his arms out, palms up, “but, interesting.”
“He’s been through a lot,” Cougar said. “He’s trying to get his feet under him again.”
“You guys talked?”
Cougar nodded. “Earlier. Before you came down.”
Cougar, who hardly talked to anybody other than Jensen and the rest of the guys, had had an actual conversation with Jim, a virtual stranger. Jensen was surprised and a little impressed.
“So he’s a vet?”
Cougar hesitated. “I think maybe black ops. Dark, secret stuff. He didn’t say, but…”
“Yeah,” Jensen agreed. “He’s got that look. Not even a look. You can just tell.”
“If you like him,” Jensen said, “it’s okay. I don’t mind.” He took Cougar’s hand, rubbing a thumb over his ring.
Cougar turned his hands over, grasping Jensen's and leaned in to kiss him on the temple. “I like him,” he said. “But not like I like you.”
He turned and walked out, leaving Jensen feeling pink and warm again, stomach fluttering, a stupid smile on his face.
Jim came back every day after that, showing up in the afternoon when it was slow, taking the bar stool at the very end, the one that faced the door. Cougar would slide an Arnold Palmer in front of him and Jim would sit there all evening, sipping on the straw and talking with Cougar when he had time. Jensen didn’t catch much of their conversations; they spoke quietly, usually with both of them leaning in over the bar. He knew Cougar had told him about Afghanistan, and hell, Cougar hadn’t even told Jensen about Afghanistan. Jensen’s interactions with Jim were friendly enough, but the guy wasn’t at ease with him the way he was with Cougar. It was weird, Jensen thought, the way those two had connected on some unspoken level. Cougar said Jim didn’t trust anyone, but that wasn’t true. He trusted Cougar.
Another week passed. Jensen’s time was taken up with prepping for the big paint job and working on the Last Chance’s online presence and Cougar and hanging with the guys. Friday and Saturday were even crazier than the week before, which Jensen liked to think was at least partly thanks to his efforts. Jim showed up both days at his usual time but cut out early when the bar started to fill up and things got rowdy.
“He can’t really handle crowds,” Cougar explained when Jensen asked where Jim had gone. “To much input.”
Jensen nodded. He’d known guys like that. They came back from their tours and people just made them jumpy. It was pretty common.
On Sunday, they were sitting around the bar after breakfast, Clay, Roque, Cougar and Jensen. The record weekend had pretty much fried them all and there was no talk of working on the building for once. Jensen was thinking about the possibility of a nap, maybe preceded by some lazy Sunday afternoon sex, and he’d just nudged Cougar’s leg with his knee and given him the look, when the door to the bar opened and Jim poked his head in.
“Hola,” Cougar said, motioning him in. “Guys, this is Jim, I asked him to come by,” he said to Clay and Roque “He’s a vet.” That was all the introduction they needed, and they made room at the table and pulled up a chair.
Jensen watched their eyes flick over Jim, assessing: his guarded expression, the tense way he held himself, how he didn’t look them in the eyes, the cautious way he took a seat as if he expected to be reprimanded. The gloved hand, the military bearing. Roque and Clay exchanged a look that said they’d both caught on right away.
They kept the conversation light, talk about the bar, the busy weekend. Jensen showed Jim the new website on his phone. Cougar got him an Arnold Palmer. After a while, Aisha showed her face, yawning and disheveled, poured herself a cup of coffee and disappeared again upstairs. Jim sat quietly, speaking only when asked a direct question and giving, for the most part, monosyllabic answers. Jensen could tell Clay and Roque weren’t sure what to make of him – in truth, Jensen wasn’t sure what to make of him either. Only Cougar seemed entirely relaxed, but then Cougar spoke only minimally more often than Jim, so they were perfect for each other.
Jensen suggested the swimming hole, but motivation was low, and nobody made a move. Eventually, Clay went upstairs to join Aisha, Roque went to inventory his pantry. Things got pretty quiet then. After a few minutes of silence, Jensen caught Cougar’s eye.
You guys want some alone time? he asked in Cougar’s unspoken language.
Would you mind? Cougar’s eyes said in return.
Jensen smiled. He got to his feet, stretched extravagantly. “Think I’m gonna take a nap. See you guys later.”
“See you later,” Jim said.
Cougar winked at him, mouthed thanks.
Jensen slept until evening and woke disoriented. Orange-tinged light slanted in through the window, a warm breeze blowing over his skin. He heard a rustle, opened his eyes to see Cougar sitting beside him in bed, reading. He was about halfway through Lonesome Dove.
“Hey,” Jensen said, rolling onto his side and propping his head on his hand.
“Hi.” Cougar carefully marked his place and put the book aside.
Cougar did him the courtesy of not pretending he didn’t know what Jensen was asking. “We went for a drive, to the river. I kissed him.”
Jensen blinked at him, not sure what to say. “Oh… how was it?”
Cougar started to answer, then stopped, staring at the wall opposite for a moment. He pressed his lips together and shook his head, looking down at his lap.
“It was like… like he’d never been kissed before. He said he doesn’t remember.”
“Really? Really?” Jensen tried to work that idea through his mind. PTSD was one thing, but it didn’t make you forget everything. “What the hell, Cougar?”
“What wipes your memories like that?” Jensen sat up. “Was he a part of a secret government experiment or something? Yeah, I bet that’s it. Maybe they turned him into some kind of lethal killing machine.”
“He’s not a machine.”
“No, I know, I know.”
Cougar ran his thumb over the pages of the book in his hands. “He wouldn’t say much. Just that there’s a lot he doesn’t remember. He doesn’t even know whether he’s into dudes or ladies.”
“Well, if he liked it when you kissed him, we can assume he’s at least into dudes,” Jensen said.
“He liked it.”
“’Course he did,” Jensen asserted. “He’s not stupid.” Jensen thought that anyone who didn’t like being kissed by Cougar would have to be an idiot. Cougar was the best kisser Jensen had ever known, hands down.
“Actually, Jensen.” Cougar took a slow, deep breath and blew it out softly. “Can we bring him into this, with us?”
Jensen’s mouth dropped open. “Oh. Okay. Wow. Hunh.”
“It would be temporary. He’s not staying around.” Cougar glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “He said he’s moving on in a few days.”
“You want to help him,” Jensen said.
Cougar shrugged. “Maybe. And I like him. And he’s hot.”
Jensen thought about it. He liked Jim well enough, and he was definitely attractive, so no problem there. If he was moving on soon that would certainly lessen the possibility of complications. Cougar wanted it and Jensen was highly motivated to do whatever made Cougar happy. So the only reason not to would be if he wanted to keep Cougar all to himself, and Jensen was smart enough to know that when Cougar said he didn’t like to be caged he was telling the truth. He’d had a couple of threesomes in the past, and it wasn’t such a big deal.
“Whatever his issues are,” Jensen said. “Things might not work out like you're hoping. He could freak out.”
“It’s possible.” Cougar did not appear deterred.
“Okay,” Jensen said. “I’m in.” Cougar looked at him in surprise, a smile breaking out on his face. His dark eyes glowed with affection and gratitude and that, right there, that was enough for Jensen. “Do you think he’d want to though?”
“I maybe already asked him,” Cougar said ruefully.
Jensen chuckled. “Of course you did. And he said?”
“He said he’d watch, but…”
“But you think you can convince him to do more than watch.”
Cougar turned to him, pushing him down on his back and leaning over him. He traced his fingers over Jensen’s chest, lightly circling his nipples. “When he sees how hot you are, mi amor, he will not be able to resist.”
Jensen arched into Cougar’s touch. He thought Jim was probably going to be too distracted by how utterly hot Cougar was to pay much attention to him. And that was okay, this was Cougar’s show, Jensen was just along for the ride.
Cougar reached for his phone on the bedside table.
“Why’d you stop?” Jensen complained.
“I’m texting him.” Cougar’s fingers flew over the keypad.
“What, now?” Jensen leaned up on his elbows. “Tonight?”
“Si, hombre,” Cougar laughed. “Why wait?”
Jensen had been afraid that it would be horribly awkward. After all, Jim didn’t exactly have the best social skills in ordinary situations, so he kind of expected him to freak out or go all zombie-like or something. But Cougar managed it well, getting Jim situated on the only chair in the bedroom, making sure he was comfortable, checking that he was okay. Jensen was already in the bed because they’d decided to dispense with the niceties and just get down to what they were there for. Cougar was going to blow him, then fuck him, unless the scenario changed because Jim decided to join them. Then everything would be up in the air and they’d just have to wing it.
Before he joined Jensen on the bed Cougar, who still had his jeans on but had removed the rest of his clothes except for the hat, slid onto Jim’s lap, straddling him. Jensen saw the move was a shock to Jim, saw his eyes widen and his shoulders tense.
“Shh, querido,” Cougar soothed. “Just a kiss.”
Cougar moved in slowly, giving Jim every chance of pulling away. But he didn’t. He let Cougar kiss him, soft and open-mouthed. Cougar put a hand on the side of Jim’s face and held his hair back, shifted on his lap to get a better angle. Jim’s hands rose from where they hung at his sides, hesitating, then he carefully placed them on Cougar’s back. He still had the glove on and Jensen could see only a glint of metal at his cuff.
Jensen caught a glimpse of tongue; Cougar was going for it. It was fucking hot watching them, Cougar full of restrained want, Jim kind of unsure but obviously also into it. They parted and Cougar held Jim’s face between his palms and whispered something in what sounded like Spanish. It went on for a while, Jim’s eyes never leaving Cougar’s face. Jensen supposed Jim might speak Spanish. At any rate, whatever Cougar said seemed to relieve Jim’s anxiousness a bit. At the end, he nodded curtly and Cougar backed off and came around to the bed, standing at the side and looking down at Jensen.
With a swift movement, he grabbed the sheet and flicked it back, baring Jensen to his, and Jim’s, gaze. He looked up and smiled at Jim, then took off his hat, tossing it with well-practiced aim on the dresser.
Okay, Jensen thought. Here we go.
Jim’s presence was motivational, Jensen decided, as Cougar pinned him to the mattress and worked him over with his incredible mouth until he was panting and squirming and had stopped caring that there was someone else in the room watching them. Cougar was on fire, obviously having decided he was going to make it easy for Jensen by making it impossible for him to do anything but let Cougar have his way.
“Jesus,” Jensen choked out. “Cougar, Cougs, oh fuck. C’mon, please.” Cougar chuckled, swiping his tongue along Jensen’s dick while he wormed a hand between his legs, slick, questing fingers finding his hole and pushing inside. Jensen arched up with a cry that went up an octave when Cougar slid his mouth tightly down Jensen’s shaft. Jensen was wrecking the bed; the blanket had been kicked off and now he had handfuls of sheets in his hands, pulling them off the corners.
“Oh my God,” Jensen blurted, seeing stars as Cougar did this crazy-good thing with his fingers while he took him in deep. Jensen struggled for control because he was going to lose it pretty quick if Cougar didn’t let up. He blinked his eyes open, striving to focus, turned his head to see how Jim was handling watching Jensen lose his mind.
Jim looked gut-punched, hanging on by a thread, a thin sheen of sweat painting his features. His mouth was open, his eyes focused unblinkingly on where Cougar’s mouth met Jensen’s dick. The bulge in his pants was clear evidence that he was into it, and Jensen wondered at his control to sit still and do nothing to relieve the ache. His hands clenched at the chair seat and Jensen would normally have been alarmed to see that the wood had splintered under his metal hand, but Cougar chose that moment to swallow around him and Jensen lost his train of thought. He grabbed onto Cougar’s hair, looked down so he could see that pretty mouth open around his cock. Cougar looked at him, his eyes so dark full of things he did not need to say out loud, and that was it. Jensen curled up off the bed, muscles contracting, body shaking, coming with a cry down Cougar’s throat.
The sound of their breathing was loud in the room; Jensen’s heaving pants, Cougar’s wet gasps, Jim’s quieter inhales. Jensen stirred, sighing, wanting to just lay there and let the lassitude take him over, but conscious at the same time that Cougar deserved some reciprocation and that what Jim would do was still in question.
“Come on,” Cougar said. Jensen opened his eyes to see Cougar holding out his hand to Jim. “Please. Come on.”
Jim grimaced, his face telegraphing how strung tight he was between desire and… it was fear, Jensen realized. Jim was actually afraid of joining them, though whether it was fear of what they would do or of what he might do, Jensen couldn’t say.
“We’ll take it slow,” Jensen coaxed. “Nothing you don’t want.”
He’d been fine with the possibility of Jim joining them before, but now he actually wanted him to. There was something so hungry about him, and all that uncertainty just made Jensen want to convince him to throw caution to the proverbial wind and let him and Cougar show him how awesome they could make him feel.
Jim got to his feet. The room was so small, he had to take only a couple of steps to reach the bed.
“My arm –” he started.
“Dude, it’s fine,” Jensen said. “We don’t care about that.”
“No. It’s… different.”
“Okay.” Jensen got up onto his knees on the bed, moving closer. “Just don’t crush us with it like you did that chair and we’ll be okay.”
Jim looked at the chair, apparently noticing the damage for the first time. “Sorry,” he said sheepishly.
“That stupid chair doesn’t matter,” Cougar said. “Now come over here.”
Jim came around the bed and stood in front of Cougar, who reached out and tugged off his glove.
Jensen couldn’t help staring. When Jim had said different he hadn’t been exaggerating. He’d never seen anything like Jim’s hand, articulated metal panels that moved as fluidly as flesh. Cougar pulled off Jim’s jacket, then lifted his shirt over his head. There was a hiss from Cougar, a whispered “Ay Dios mio”. Jensen shifted on the bed so he could see, then froze. The arm was the same perfectly calibrated metal all the way to his shoulder where it met flesh in a knarled mess of reddened scar tissue.
“What did they do to you?” Cougar breathed. He touched the join of metal and skin and ran his fingers over the spidery scars that spread out from his shoulder.
Jim’s face spasmed, and he looked away. “Don’t,” he choked out.
Cougar drew his hand away. “Sorry.” He drew in a deep breath and exhaled unsteadily. “I – I’m sorry.”
Cougar turned to look at him and there was outrage in his eyes. Jensen could only gaze back helplessly with no idea of what to do, what to say to make it better.
In the end, Cougar just resumed undressing Jim, pulling off his boots and socks, stripping pants and underwear off and leaving them in a heap on the floor. Jim stood still and let it happen, the look on his face strange and far away, as if he’d divorced himself from what was happening. He’d lost his erection and he looked vulnerable, standing there with a such emptiness in his eyes.
Even so, Jensen was conscious of how beautiful he was. The arm and its scars did not mitigate that at all. Jensen thought he was okay in the looks department, and Cougar was incredible, with his earthy, feline sexiness, but Jim was otherworldly, each muscle sculpted to perfection, like a Greek statue brought to life. His skin was smooth and unmarred, nearly hairless, near perfect but for the scars at his shoulder. Jensen had seen a ton of naked men in his day, thanks to sports and the military and a couple of formative trips to Fire Island in his youth, but he’d never seen anyone who looked like Jim.
Jensen was sure Cougar had the same reaction, but he recovered quicker, stepping in front of Jim and resting his hands on Jim’s shoulders as he looked into his eyes. “Where are you?”
Jim blinked, refocusing on Cougar, gaze flicking to Jensen, then back. “Here. I’m here.”
“We can stop,” Cougar said. “Any time, we can stop.”
“I know.” Jim nodded resolutely. “I’m okay.”
Cougar gave him a long, searching look until Jim reiterated, “Really, I’m okay,” and managed to give Cougar a bit of a smile. Cougar wrapped an arm around Jim’s waist and pulled him in tight. “You’re okay now,” he said, “but you’re gonna be great in a few minutes, I promise.”
Jim rested his hands gingerly on Cougar’s waist, the real one and the metal one – and leaned in to place a kiss on Cougar’s lips, seemingly to prove his words true. Jensen didn’t know if Jim was actually okay, would probably have bet against it if made to choose, but ultimately it was up to Jim to decide what he wanted. Sometimes you have to just put your head down and push through, even when it’s hard, and if that’s what Jim was doing, then Jensen could respect that.
Cougar had clearly decided Jim was with the program, taking his mouth in a long, deep kiss while at the same time bringing them both down to the bed, Jim on his back, Cougar leaning up over him. Cougar lowered his hips into a slow, dirty grind that seemed to have the desired effect. Jim’s eyes fluttered as he arched his head back into the mattress his mouth falling open on a muted gasp. He kept his metal arm around Cougar’s waist, fist clenched on air, while his other hand slid haltingly down Cougar’s back to rest motionless of the rise of his ass. Cougar bore down and Jim’s fingers twitched, then dug in, drawing him down again.
Cougar backed up onto his knees, kneeling between Jim’s spread legs, tracing his hands over Jim’s chest, down his sides, along the dip of his hips, his touch and his gaze appreciative. Meeting Jim’s eyes again, he asked, “Still okay?”
“Yes,” Jim said. His face flushed, whether from arousal or embarrassment Jensen wasn’t sure. “It’s – it’s good.”
“Oh, we’re just getting started,” Cougar said. He looped an arm around Jensen’s neck. “Are you going to make me do all the work?”
“I was just enjoying the show,” Jensen protested. “You guys seemed to be doing fine without me.”
Cougar kissed him filthily, with lots of tongue and wet, smacking noises. “But we’d be doing so much better with you,” he said as he pulled away.
Jensen looked down at Jim, who was watching them with fascination. He couldn’t tell if Jim would want to kiss him or not. Then his hand gripped Jensen’s arm and he tugged, bringing him down close. Jensen went, sank onto the bed beside Jim, who turned to him and surprised the hell out of Jensen by reaching to touch his face.
“Ever since I met you,” Jim said, brushing his fingertips over Jensen’s cheek, “I been trying to figure it out. You remind me of someone…” He trailed off, staring at Jensen, a line of concentration between his brows, but apparently the memory wouldn’t coalesce. “I think I knew him a long time ago.”
“Someone devastatingly handsome, obviously,” Jensen said. He grinned, hoping that had been the right thing to say. Jim looked kind of sad, like maybe the guy had died or something.
A ghost of a smile played over Jim’s lips. “Yeah, I guess he was.”
Cougar appeared behind Jim’s shoulder and gave Jensen one of his looks. Kiss him already! it said, so Jensen did.
Jim’s kiss was halting at first. Jensen slid closer, put a hand behind his head, tried to go slow, which wasn’t easy with Jim all warm and smooth and naked against him and Cougar reaching from behind Jim, grabbing Jensen in the soft flesh above his hip and pulling him firmly forward. They were making a Jim sandwich, thought Jensen, which seemed like a pretty good idea, actually. Jim was getting into it too, his kiss going lax and sloppy as he moved between them, reaching back to clutch at Cougar, sliding a leg between Jensen’s so their cocks snugged up close. He made these shuddery, moany little exhales like it was all just too good that kind of drove Jensen crazy.
Jim tossed his head back and groaned loud, full-throated, and Jensen looked down to see that Cougar had his hand around Jim’s cock, was jerking him to a measured rhythm, sensing as Jensen did that Jim was strung too tight and might not do well if they pushed him too hard. Jensen thought of what Cougar had said about Jim not remembering and wondered how long it had been for him. Maybe a long time, and if that was the case they really should make this extra-nice.
He propped himself up on his elbow to check on Cougar. He was plastered to Jim’s back, mouthing the back of his neck, his hips moving in this gorgeous, carnal motion against Jim’s ass. His eyes lifted to Jensen, heavy-lidded and lustful, and he blinked slowly as if stoned.
“I’m gonna –” Jensen said.
“Yeah. You should.” Cougar grabbed Jensen’s arm, just hanging on. He put his mouth at Jim’s ear. “He’s gonna blow you, okay? You’ll like it.”
“Okay.” Jim gulped a breath, exhaled with that shaky little moan that was so fucking hot. “Just don’t –”
They waited, but when nothing was forthcoming, Cougar said, “Don’t what?”
“Don’t hold me down,” Jim said.
Jensen’s eyes met Cougar’s in a moment of silent communication.
“No,” Cougar said. “No, nothing like that, we swear.”
Jim nodded, a single jerk of his head, and Cougar shot Jensen a glance that said go ahead then.
Jensen slid down the bed, stopping when his mouth was level with Jim’s crotch. Cougar still had him, and as Jensen watched he resumed stroking. He glanced up to see Cougar curled forward over Jim’s back, Jim twisted around toward Cougar, his arm encircling Cougar’s head as they lost themselves in a fervent kiss.
Jensen licked over Cougar’s hand, over Jim’s cock, painting them with his tongue and punching muffled moans out of them both. Then Jensen got down to it, wrapping his arms under and around Jim’s heavily muscled thighs to hold him in place and sliding his mouth down nice and tight. Jim’s entire body tensed, his hips flexed up against Jensen’s grip, and the moaning pants he’d been making got a little louder and a little more desperate. Cougar had let go of his cock and was running his hands all over Jim’s body, pinching his nipples, reaching down between his legs to cradle his balls. Jensen pulled off with a slurp and licked Cougar’s fingers, then took Jim down again, bobbing his head and sucking. He glanced up again to see Jim watching him, something wild and disbelieving in his eyes. Cougar had his face buried in Jim’s neck while he rubbed off against him, his movements rougher than before, more demanding. His hand landed on Jensen’s head and he pushed him down onto Jim’s cock, forceful pressure that made Jensen moan even as Jim’s length filled his throat. Jim's back bowed and Jensen felt the muscles in his thighs go taut, felt his cock swell as he swallowed around him.
Jensen heard Cougar murmur softly, "Yes, querido, give it to us now, that's right. It feels so good to give in, just let it happen." He glanced up to see Cougar leaning on his elbow, looking into Jim's face, stroking his hair, Jim staring back at him. Jensen bobbed his head a bit, and that was all it took to knock Jim off the ledge. His eyes slammed shut, he pulsed against Jensen's throat, hips working to jam his cock in deeper and Jensen had to just go along for the ride because the dude was fucking strong. Jim cried out, a half-strangled wail, then twitched and shuddered as orgasm wracked his body, moaning quietly, then gradually relaxing with a sigh.
Watching Jim come undone had been too much for Cougar, who was thrusting against him hard and fast until, with a deep growl-like sound he lost it against Jim’s hip, shaking, clutching at him, eyes squeezed shut, teeth biting into his lower lip.
Jensen blew out a deep breath, wiped his mouth on the sheet. Not bad for a first effort, he thought. Not bad at all.
Cougar blinked his eyes open and gave him a contented smile. Jim stirred, just enough to roll onto his side. Jensen was a good sport and got up to grab a towel, handing it to Cougar. When he was done he spooned up behind Jim, resting his chin on Jim’s shoulder.
“Stay,” he said. "Please."
Jim's hair hid his face, but it looked a bit pink and Jensen could see the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth.
Jensen climbed back in bed. It was only a queen and there wasn’t a lot of extra room, but they made it work. He lay on his back, resting his head on his arm, staring up at the ceiling, thinking how it’d be a good time for a cigarette, if he smoked.
“That was acceptable,” he said.
“Acceptable?” Cougar scoffed.
“Okay, it was fucking hot,” Jensen admitted. He turned to them, leaning up on his elbow. “Who’s up for round two? Because I totally am. Cougs? Jim? C’mon, guys, I’m counting on you.”
For a moment all was quiet, then unexpectedly, Jim piped up. “I'm game.”
Cougar groaned and flopped onto his back, flinging an arm over his face. But Jensen knew it was just for show, which was confirmed when Cougar peeked out from under his arm and winked.
Jensen woke abruptly, a spike of adrenaline driving him straight up into a sitting position. His eyes tracked around the room taking inventory; no disturbance, nothing out of place, Cougar asleep in the bed beside him. He spied a figure at the window and in the dark it took him a second to realize it was Jim, standing stock still just to the side of the opening.
Jim’s hand shot up, palm out and Jensen’s mouth snapped shut. He slid out of bed, grabbing a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt off the floor and coming around the bed to stand beside Jim who was wearing just his boots and jeans.
In the light of the half-moon Jensen could see figures in the lot behind the building. He counted four, in combat gear, carrying weapons.
“It’s me they want,” Jensen whispered. “Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“You?” Jim flicked a surprised glance his way, then his attention returned to the window. “You sure about that?”
“Yeah. It’s a long story. There’s a kill order out on me. I know stuff they don’t want to get out, basically. God dammit, I should’ve left, I shouldn’t have… Fuck, I should have left a long time ago.”
“Who are they?”
“I don’t know exactly. Special Forces? CIA? Some scary government agency we’ve never heard of? Your guess is as good as mine.”
There was a pause.
“Are you armed?”
“I’ve got a Glock in my room. No idea what Cougar or the others have.”
Jim was quiet for a moment.
“I’m going down there,” Jim said. “Wake Cougar. Stay here and cover me.”
“Wait,” Jensen hissed, grabbing his arm, the metal one, cold and unyielding in his hand. “There’s gotta be at least ten of them. Maybe more. Are you even armed? You’ll get yourself killed.”
“Hey, que paso?” said Cougar from the bed.
Jensen turned to him and Jim was gone before he could react, gliding through the door silent as a shadow.
“Shit!” Jensen hissed. “Cougar, I am so, so sorry, I fucked up and those guys I told you about, they’re here and Jim just went down there and I don’t know what he’s doing going down there without backup.” He took a breath. Cougar was already up and pulling on his jeans, which made Jensen realize he was still naked. He hurriedly pulled on the sweatpants and t-shirt “It’s not good, man. Not good.”
He couldn’t believe he’d fucked up so royally. He had convinced himself somehow that staying a few days more, and then a few days more after that, wouldn’t make a difference, and because of that, Cougar and Jim and everyone at the Last Chance were now in some very serious shit, and it was all his fault.
Cougar ducked down and drew something out from under the bed; a case, which he quickly unzipped and started unloading. It took a minute for Jensen to realize that Cougar was assembling a sniper rifle. He hadn’t even known that Cougar was a sniper.
“Get Roque and Clay,” Cougar whispered. “And Aisha, if she’s here. Tell ‘em to lock and load.”
Jensen scrambled to his feet, rushing to his room to grab his gun and the three loaded magazines he had for it, slamming one of them home, then bolting down the hall. Clay’s door wasn’t even locked so he was able to enter without making a racket. He and Aisha were sprawled across the bed asleep, but when he stepped on a creaky floorboard he suddenly had a very large gun pointed his way, held by a very awake Aisha. Clay was slower to rouse, but when he saw the gun in Aisha’s hand his eyes widened.
“Jensen,” he said. “Honey, it’s just Jensen. What the hell are you doing here?”
“No time to explain,” Jensen said, crouching down beside him. “At least ten men, heavily armed, surrounding us right now. They’re here to take me out. Cougar’s got the back covered. Jim went downstairs. Shit, I’m sorry you guys.”
“So, Jim’s here?”, which was kind of a weird thing for Aisha to fixate on out of that whole explanation, but that was Aisha. She raised an eyebrow, letting Jensen know she knew exactly what the significance of Jim's presence there in the middle of the night.
They were both already up, pulling on clothes, shoving their feet into boots. Clay opened the closet and started tossing weapons to Aisha – Jensen saw a M4 and a H & K MK23. She pulled out a metal ammo case, punched in the combination and was loading as fast as she could.
“Yeah. He, uh. We, um. What the hell?” Jensen said, distracted by all the weaponry. “You’ve got a whole armory in here.”
“Old habits,” said Clay.
Clay pounded on the wall and a second later Jensen heard the door to Roque’s room open. He appeared in the door in just a pair of sweats, took in the arsenal on the bed in one glance.
“We havin’ a party?”
“Yes, we are,” Clay said, slotting a magazine into the M4. “And our boy Jensen here is the guest of honor.”
“Oh, Jensen’s friends are here? The ones you told me about?”
Jensen stared at Roque, then at Clay. “What? Does everybody know? It was supposed to be a secret.”
“You know how chatty Cougar is,” Clay smirked. “That kid can’t keep a secret to save his life.”
Aisha handed Roque a pistol. “You got your knives?”
Roque’s eyebrows rose. “Oh, so you think it’s gonna get dirty?”
Aisha shrugged. “You never know.” She looked at Jensen. “Tell Cougar we’ll take the front.”
Roque stuck his head around the door frame. “I’m heading down,” and he was gone.
Aisha bent low and slipped out the door to the balcony. Jensen watched her crawl toward the front on her stomach. She stopped, resting the M4 on the bottom railing. After a moment she held up a hand, four fingers extended.
“Stay with Cougar,” Clay said. “Tell him we’ve got eyes on four in the front. Go!”
Jensen ran back to Cougar’s room. He was set up in the window, sighting down his scope. Jensen crouched down beside him and passed on the info on positions and the plan, such as it was: purely defensive and without much hope of success.
He was reeling from how quickly it all happened. His training was not kicking in as it should, and he felt panic welling up in him. He leaned against the wall and focused on his breathing, tried to work through why his reactions were off. He glanced at Cougar. His hair was still a mess from earlier and he had no shirt on and he smelled like sex. He must have felt Jensen’s eyes on him because he turned and gave him a smile just as if none of this was happening.
That’s when Jensen figured it out. There had been no hesitation in any of their reactions. Not one of his friends had asked why this was happening or how Jensen could have brought this trouble down on them. Their reactions had been instantaneous: defend, protect. Even Jim, or maybe especially Jim, who hardly knew him, had reacted without hesitation.
Jensen had never in his life had anyone who was willing to lay down their life for him. It meant a lot, more than he could ever say.
It also meant that he couldn’t let them do it.
“Be right back,” he whispered to Cougar, making it to the door in a crouching run.
“Where are you –” he heard Cougar hiss, but he shut the door behind him.
The stairs in back led outside, but the ones at the front would take him down to an entryway just inside the front door. He needed to go out the front. Wade would be at the front and he needed to talk to Wade before the situation escalated. He just needed to buy a few minutes to make a deal. He wouldn’t live to see if it worked, but he had to try.
He didn’t see Roque or Jim. At the bottom of the stairs he took a quick scan out the window but the sky was just beginning to lighten and all he could make out were the indistinct shapes of what he knew were trees and the dumpsters out near the road. Cautiously, he slid the window open.
“Wade!” he called. “It’s Jensen! I need to speak to Wade!” His voice sounded loud in the pre-dawn quiet. He knew his friends had heard him, that they must be wondering what the hell he was doing.
There was silence, but Jensen wasn’t deceived by it. The attackers had his location now, they’d be adjusting accordingly.
“Hey, Jensen!” Wade’s voice was casual, friendly. It was coming from the left, not too far away, maybe around the corner of the building. “Long time, no see, buddy. How about you come out here so we can have a little chat.”
“I will,” Jensen called. “Just as soon as we have a deal.”
Wade laughed. “A deal? We’ve got you surrounded, Jensen. We don’t need to make a deal.”
Jensen drew in a breath to reply, but at that moment he was thrown back against the opposite wall and Clay was in his face, spitting mad. “What in the name of fuck are you doing?!”
“I’m making a deal,” Jensen said. “Maybe if I offer to give up without a fight they’ll let the rest of you go!”
“They don’t care about that,” Clay said, giving Jensen a shake. “They’re not gonna let anyone walk outta here.”
“You don’t know that,” Jensen insisted. “It’s me they want, and if I can convince Wade that we’re ready for them it’ll make sense to him to get what he wants without risking losing any men –”
“I do know that,” said Clay. His eyes bore into Jensen’s and even in the dimness Jensen could see the anger in them. “I know it, because it’s what I would have done.”
From the back of the building came the sudden crack of gunfire. There was a yell and the sound of glass shattering.
“Looks like it’s too late for a deal,” Clay said, and in that second the window behind them exploded in a hail of glass shards and bullets.
“C’mon!” Clay grabbed him and they sprinted up the stairs. Clay rounded the corner into his rooms, diving down below window level and belly-crawling toward Aisha on the balcony where she was returning fire from her position behind an overturned metal table. There was the sound of gunshots from directly below Jensen’s feet and a scream that cut off at its crescendo.
Jensen sprinted down the hall, to Cougar, no clear idea of what he was going to do, just knowing that he needed to be at his side.
Cougar was in the same position, only now he pulled the trigger once as Jensen watched. He repositioned slightly, then froze. When he moved, it was just to follow something with his scope, something that appeared to be moving very quickly. He lifted his head, squinting down into the yard. “What the –?”
“What is it?” Jensen asked, crouching down beside him.
Cougar nodded toward the window and Jensen cautiously scooted forward so that he could get a look out into the back. There was a lone figure, dark against the gray dawn, moving fast toward the side of the building, then disappearing around the corner. Jensen could see he carried an AK-47 against his shoulder. He wore no shirt and his left arm reflected the first of the sun’s rays.
“It’s Jim,” Cougar said. “He signaled that the back’s clear.”
“Clear? Did you – ?”
“Two. But there were five that I counted, maybe more.”
Jensen looked out the window again, but nothing moved. In the growing light he could see a couple of bodies sprawled on the ground, dead or unconscious, he couldn't tell.
From the front of the building came the sound of gunfire. “Go,” Cougar said. “I’ll maintain position.”
Jensen sprinted to the front, flinging himself to the floor as bullets sprayed across the room. He crawled forward until he was beside Aisha, aimed his Glock down at the parking lot, and –
And there was nothing out there. No movement, no noise. A car drove by, its occupants blissfully unaware that anything unusual was going on.
“Where are they?” Jensen whispered. Beside him Aisha, shifted her M4, scanning the yard with the scope.
Movement caught his eye. Aisha’s too, as she lined up a shot.
“Wait!” Jensen knocked the barrel of the carbine down just as she pulled the trigger, the bullet harmlessly gouging the dirt. Jim had stepped out from behind one of the dumpsters. As he came into view Jensen could see that he was dragging a person, one foot clutched in his metal hand. Jensen got to his feet, followed by Clay and Aisha. Jim stopped below them, dropped the man’s leg and looked up at them. Blood was bright on his chest and arms, splatters of it on his face.
“Cougar!” Jensen called, as he bolted for the stairs. “We’re clear!”
He burst out of the front door, coming to a stop in front of Jim, panting.
“What did you do?” Jensen said. “Jim, holy shit. Are they all dead?”
Jim’s eyes were wide and scarily empty, his face devoid of emotion. “Five dead, nine incapacitated.” He nudged the man on the ground onto his back with his foot. “Is this Wade?”
His face was caked with blood and dirt, but it was Wade. “Yeah,” Jensen said. “That’s him. Is he dead?”
“Not yet. Who’s his superior?”
“He’s a colonel. My old CO. He goes by Max.”
“Colonel Maxwell,” Jim said. His brow furrowed and he rubbed his forehead, leaving a streak of blood. “I – I remember him.”
“You – how? How would you know him?”
He looked up as Cougar joined them, followed by Clay, Aisha and Roque. Jensen was relieved to see them all relatively unharmed, though Clay had caught some glass in the face when the window had shattered, and Roque had a split lip and a bloody cut on his arm.
Cougar threw his arms around Jensen, pulling him in to a tight hug. “Never, ever do that again, or I will kill you myself.”
Jensen just squeezed him tighter, burying his face in Cougar’s neck for a quick minute before Cougar pulled away, turning to Jim. He put a hand on his arm, heedless of the blood.
“Are you okay?” Cougar said, looking Jim over anxiously. “Ay, que paso aqui?”
Jim squatted down beside Wade and rifled through his pockets until he found a cell phone.
Is he okay? Cougar mouthed to Jensen. Jensen could only shrug, totally at a loss. “Physically, yeah,” he said softly. “Otherwise, not so sure.”
“I can hear you, you know,” Jim said. “I’m fine.” The hint of exasperation in his voice was reassuring, though that hollow-eyed look Jim had worn just a moment ago prevented Jensen from taking his words at face value.
Jim stood, cell phone in hand. He looked at it, then at Wade’s prostrate form. “Can someone get a bucket of water?”
At first Wade didn’t want to call Max, but after a few minutes of quiet conversation with Jim he was all too happy to be helpful. Aisha kept a gun trained on him as he made the call, though with his team out of play and as roughed up as he was, he wasn’t much of a threat.
“Describe me to him,” Jim ordered.
“Yeah, it’s Wade. No. No. Hold the fuck on. Max, there’s a guy here with a metal who says I need to describe him to you, that you’d know him. No, the team – the team’s gone! What?! I am calm!” Jim nudged him with his boot; more of a kick, really. Jensen noticed and approved.
“Okay. He’s got a big fucking metal arm with a red star on it and he pretty much disabled the squad single-handedly, so – What? Yeah, a red star. Okay, okay, hold on.” He handed to phone to Jim. “He wants to talk to you.”
Jim took the phone. “Do you know who I am?”
He listened for a moment. When he spoke, his tone was the clipped, expressionless one and it gave Jensen the chills, it was so completely wrong to hear coming out of Jim’s mouth. “That’s right. You will send a team by 1100 hours to collect your dead and wounded. You will then forget that the people at this location exist. There will be no further attempts on anyone’s life and no surveillance. Jensen’s kill order will be rescinded and his military record restored. Should there be deviation from this order to even the slightest degree, then you, personally, and your entire organization will become my mission. Do you understand what will result if that happens?”
He listened for a moment.
“That’s right. With extreme prejudice.” He ended the call, took the phone in his metal hand and crushed it, letting the pieces fall to the ground.
“We need to clean up,” he said to the rest of them. As if to emphasize the point, another car drove by, slowing down as they passed, probably trying to see what was going on.
“You should get inside,” Jensen said to him. “You need to wash off all the…” He gestured to Jim’s torso, where the blood had dried and was starting to flake. “Nothing to see here folks! Just a half-naked man covered in blood standing around in the parking lot.”
“I’ll go with him,” Cougar offered. He draped an arm lightly over Jim’s shoulders and led him into the building.
The rest of them set about restoring order. Aisha collected the more noticeable weapons and went to put them away. Roque and Jensen gathered up the wounded and incapacitated attackers, all of whom had been effectively restrained with bits or rope or wire - apparently whatever Jim had found around the yard. They reinforced his efforts with zip ties and locked them into the shed out back. Cougar returned and he, Clay and Jensen started dragging the dead over to the shed, figuring they could keep their luckier companions company for a few hours until the pick up.
After that, Clay turned his attention to the building, which had sustained a lot of damage in the attack. They’d have to do something about all the broken windows today, Jensen realized. Later, though. He was feeling the post-adrenaline-rush jitters. He needed to sit down. Or lie down. He needed food, or coffee or maybe a shot of whiskey. Actually, all three of those sounded pretty good.
Inside, the roadhouse was a mess, broken glass everywhere, tables and chairs overturned, an arc of blood spattered against the back wall.
“Your boy got into it in here,” Roque explained, coming to stand beside Jensen. “Saved my ass too. They had me pinned down. He took ‘em all out like it was nothin’.” He blew out a breath. “Believe me, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen bad shit, and crazy shit, and just fucking weird shit. But I have never seen anything like that.” He shook his head. It was strange to see someone as solid as Roque unnerved, but what he had seen unfold in here had done it. “Are you sure he’s human? There’s been all this stuff in the news lately about enhanced beings. I think he must be one of those.”
Jensen opened his mouth to deny it, but the truth was, he wasn’t so sure what Jim was. “Does it matter? He saved us.”
“It don’t matter to me. Not after what he did. But don’t tell me you don’t know there’s something off about him. Having him here’s just asking for more trouble.”
“Whatever,” Jensen said. “Right now, I just need a fucking cup of coffee, Roque. That’s all I’m asking is for one fucking cup of coffee before we decide if Jim’s a Cylon or from Azeroth, or something dreamed up in the Stark labs. Can we do that?”
“Yeah, sure,” Roque said quietly. “We can do that.”
Two cups of coffee, a shot of whiskey, and half a plate of chorizo and eggs later, Jensen felt more like himself. They had righted one of the big tables and were seated around it – Cougar, Jim, Clay, Aisha and Jensen. Roque joined them, taking the one open chair and putting a pitcher of orange juice and a plate of warm tortillas on the table. It almost felt like it could be an ordinary Monday morning at the Last Chance, if they weren’t surrounded by the destruction left by the gun battle.
“What the hell happened here?” Pooch exclaimed, bursting through the front door. He stopped, taking in the scene – broken windows and bullet holes, upended tables and chairs, broken glass everywhere and the six of them in the middle of it calmly eating breakfast. “Ho-ly shit. I can’t leave you alone for one day without you kids getting into trouble, can I?”
“Coulda used your help, Pooch,” said Cougar. They shifted around, making room for Pooch to pull up a chair.
“Un uh. Whatever it is happened here, I am glad I missed it. The Pooch has better things to do these days than getting himself shot at.” He grabbed a tortilla, folded it up and stuffed half of it in his mouth.
“And what was the Pooch up to while we were nearly getting our asses handed to us in a firefight?” Clay asked.
“Family portrait day,” Pooch said around his mouthful of tortilla. He pulled out his cell phone and scrolled until he found what he was looking for and handed it to Clay.
“Aww,” Clay said, studying the images with a smile. “Now that’s a fine looking family.”
The phone was passed around the table, everyone making admiring noises.
“Did you meet Jim?” Clay asked. At Pooch’s negative response, he introduced them. “Jim’s the reason the Last Chance is still standing, and us with it,” Clay explained, then added directly to Jim, “I guess we haven’t said thanks yet, so I’m saying it now. You didn’t have to help us; hell, you hardly know us, but we’re sure glad you did. You’ve always got a place here, if you need it. Remember that.”
The rest of them made sounds of agreement. Cougar put his arm around Jim’s shoulders and gave him a squeeze.
“Thanks,” Jim said quietly, and Jensen had the impression that even that was hard for him to get out. But he did it, and that counted for something.
The pick-up crew arrived at 10:58, transferred the surviving members of their team to two black SUVs, the dead and weapons to a truck, then swept the property, picking up bullet casings, spent magazines and anything else they could find that could implicate them. Somewhere there must be vehicles that were being collected as well – Jensen hadn’t seen any but they were probably concealed along the road somewhere. Clay had them all in position with weapons in conspicuous view, but Jensen had a feeling that the real threat was Jim, leaning relaxed and weaponless against the side of the building and watching every move the crew made.
After they left, Jensen handed his weapon back to Aisha and walked over to Jim. He leaned against the building with a sigh. The shade felt good. It was looking like it was going to be another scorcher, but at least with all that had transpired that morning, they wouldn’t be scraping any paint that day.
A moment later, Cougar joined them, leaning up against the clapboards between them. Jensen figured he knew as well as Jensen did what Jim was up to.
“You taking off?” Cougar asked.
“You don’t have to,” Jensen said. “You heard Clay. You can stay, if you want.”
“I do have to,” Jim said. “You should be safe now, but it’s best if I’m not here. Once my location is known there will be people looking for me who are not as easy to neutralize as the ones who were looking for Jensen.”
“Easy for some, maybe,” Jensen mumbled.
“And anyway,” Jim said with finality. “There’s something I have to do. Someone I need to find.” He glanced at Jensen, a long look as if memorizing his face.
“Okay, querido,” Cougar said, resigned. “If it’s what you’ve gotta do.”
He leaned into Jim, nudging his shoulder. Jim turned to him with a smile, a little sad and unsure, but genuine. His was a face that was made to smile, Jensen thought, and it looked like it hadn’t much in a very long time.
Jim said he was going inside to say goodbye to Clay, then he'd be back to say goodbye.
“I’m gonna worry about that one,” Cougar said, his eyes following Jim’s retreating back until the door banged shut behind him.
“He’ll be okay,” Jensen reassured him. “God knows, the man can take care of himself.”
“But there’s different kinds of taking care,” Cougar said.
Jensen leaned in, his head resting on Cougar’s shoulder and Cougar turned and kissed him on the forehead. Jensen found his hand and threaded their fingers together.
“I kinda want to stay. Would it be okay with you if I did?”
Cougar squeezed his hand. “You’d better. I’ve gone to a lot of effort to make sure you wouldn’t go anywhere.” He turned to grin at Jensen and Jensen’s stomach did that dizzy little flip that Cougar’s smiles always caused. Jensen smiled in return and wondered if Cougar’s stomach did any flipping of its own.
They went inside to find that Jim had gone without saying goodbye. It wasn’t a surprise to either of them.
Upstairs, Cougar’s rifle was still set up, the room was still a mess. They ignored it all, stripping down to nothing and climbing into the rumpled bed.
“Clay’s gonna be after us to come down and help,” Jensen yawned.
Cougar mumbled something about where Clay could stick his help and was asleep in seconds, but Jensen lay a while, staring at the ceiling, listening to voices downstairs, the buzz of insects outside, the occasional sound of a car passing on the road, and the soft, steady sound of Cougar’s breathing.
Three Months Later
It was a slow night at the Last Chance, the place only half full. Jensen was chatting with some regulars he knew, a tray of empty glasses in his hand.
“Hey!” Pooch yelled over the sound of the music and conversation. He gestured toward the television, tuned to one of the 24-hour news channels. “Isn’t that the guy who saved your asses when all that shit went down a few months back?”
Jensen looked up and there on the screen was an image of Jim, obviously taken from surveillance tapes. The picture was grainy, but there was no doubt. It was Jim’s build, his gait, his hair. When he looked toward the camera, they were his eyes.
“What the fuck?” Jensen said, moving closer without taking his eyes from the screen.
Cougar, who was tending bar, glanced up at the TV, then looked again. He scrambled for the volume lever for the sound system while at the same time grabbing the TV remote and unmuting it.
“…should be considered extremely dangerous. Sightings can be reported to the number at the bottom of your screen.”
“What the hell is this?” Clay asked, coming to stand beside Jensen, hands on his hips. Roque was with him, and he told the room in no uncertain terms to shut the fuck up.
There was Jim all in black, wearing a mask, Jim with a baseball cap pulled low on his forehead, Jim with – Jensen blinked, not believing his eyes. With Captain America. Who was also a fugitive. Jensen felt like his world was being turned upside down.
“Whaaat?” Pooch exclaimed. “That dude Jim knows Cap?”
Steve Rogers visage filled the screen, a shot from one of his press briefings in more congenial times. It hit Jensen like a bolt out of the blue.
“Oh!” He drew Cougar a little closer. “Remember, that night, he said I reminded him of someone.” Jensen pointed to the screen. “Well, there he is.”
Cougar looked from Jensen to the TV and back again. “Que?” he scoffed. “You think you look like Captain America?”
Jensen was about to argue his case, but the feed cut to an address by the President, detailing the efforts being made to locate the fugitives.
“This is insane,” murmured Clay, attention riveted to the TV. “Did you know any of this?”
“No,” Jensen declared. “I mean I joked about a secret government experiment, but I was joking.”
Cougar had come around the bar so he could see the TV better, and as they listened to the report list the crimes attributed to an assassin known as the Winter Soldier, his expression hardened, growing more and more resolute.
“I don’t care if he did those things,” he said quietly. “It’s not the whole story.”
“No,” Jensen agreed.
The news report had segued into a panel discussion about the dangers of unregistered vigilantes with superpowers. Cougar dragged Jensen away by the arm.
“He needs our help,” he said, as soon as they were out of earshot.
“Our help?” Jensen stared at him. He wanted to help Jim too, but he couldn’t imagine what they could possibly do that Captain America and Falcon couldn’t do better, and he said as much to Cougar.
“They’re, like, five guys,” Cougar hissed, “and they’re fighting everyone! You think they’d turn down a little backup?”
“Cougs, we don’t even know where to find him,” Jensen argued.
“You can find him,” Cougar said.
Jensen was grateful Cougar had such faith in him, but in this case he thought it was probably misplaced.
“I don’t know, Cougar. If he doesn’t want to be found, I don’t think anyone can find him.”
“Maybe the others, then,” Cougar persisted. “They may not be as careful. You have to try, at least. After what he did for us.”
Jensen hesitated, but he was met by one of Cougar’s non-verbal messages, delivered via a very determined stare: I have made up my mind and nothing you say is going to change it.
It was the please that got him. Cougar didn’t ask for much from Jensen, seemingly happy with whatever Jensen chose to share. He was asking for this though, and Jensen didn’t have the heart to say no. And a part of him wanted to try. He hadn’t hacked anything more challenging than the Last Chance’s social media accounts since the FML mission and it was making him twitchy.
“Okay,” Jensen agreed. “I’ll try. But don’t get your hopes up.”
“I won’t,” Cougar said. He smiled, and that right there was the best reason of all for doing it.
Three days later, Jensen banged into Cougar’s room. He’d barely slept or ate in the intervening time, and Cougar kept coming into his room where he was hunched over his computer, bringing bottles of water and insisting that he stand up and walk around so he didn’t get a blood clot or something.
But, he had it. Maybe. Security footage from an abandoned doll factory in Bolivia.
“A doll factory?” Cougar wrinkled his nose. “Why a doll factory?”
“I don’t know, it’s creepy if you ask me,” Jensen said, his fingers flying over the keyboard. “There.” He turned the screen so Cougar could see. Three guys and a woman about to enter a building. The woman’s face was obscured, and all you could see of one of the men was a baseball cap and long hair shielding his face, but the others just might be Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson. The time on the video feed was five hours ago.
“Let’s go,” Cougar said. He dragged a bag out from under his bed, already packed and ready.
“We’re doing this?” Though Jensen had to acknowledge that it wasn’t really a question if you already knew the answer.
“Yeah, we are.” He kissed Jensen, quick, but sweet nonetheless. “Now, go, gear up.”
They were going to Bolivia, in search of their friend Jim, also the world’s deadliest assassin, to help him and his friend Captain America, who also looked a lot like Jensen, Cougar’s opinion notwithstanding, to help him… Jensen was still a little foggy on exactly what they were going there to help with, but he figured he’d work it out on the fly. He was good at that.
Cougar was already out front, truck idling in the parking lot. Jensen ran down the front stairs. He heard Aisha shout, “Last call!”, caught Clay’s eye as he pushed through the door.
“Hey, where are you guys going?” Clay called, coming to stand on the porch.
“Save us a seat at the bar!” Jensen yelled. “We’ll be back!” He threw his pack in the truck bed and jumped into the cab, slamming the door behind him, and Cougar stepped on the gas. Jensen twisted around, watching the Last Chance recede in the distance, then turned to Cougar. “We’ll be back, right?”
Cougar smiled at him, reaching out and taking Jensen’s hand.
“Absolutamente, mi amor.”