There are many things that Jake Jensen's been trained for. Complex algorithm decryption. Covert warfare. Combining the perfect ratio of peanut butter to jelly.
Coming clean about the square root of his love life, however, is not one of them.
So when he sits his sister down at precisely seven o'clock — because they've synchronized all their watches out of solidarity, or at least the alarm pings on all of their phones — he isn't sure how to start. Which is unprecedented enough. Historically, he's never had a problem with words.
Liz looks at him expectantly, and he steeples his fingertips together and decides to simply state the facts.
"Three things," he says. "One, I'm in love with Cougar."
She raises an eyebrow, as if he's only stating the obvious. "This is the talk? Because I could be watching Grey's Anatomy."
Well okay, then.
He hadn't thought they'd been that transparent, but as baby steps go, this is pretty painless. If he just powers through the rest, it might be like ripping off a Band-Aid — a quick sting and a little stickiness, and then it's ice cream all around.
"Right, so, two. As it turns out, I may or may not be in love with Pooch." He shifts in his chair and shrugs. "If both 'may' and 'may not' mean 'why yes, I totally am.'"
The other eyebrow shoots up. Clearly, Thing Two is news to her.
"As in 'also'?" she says, gaping like a guppy when he gives her a nod. "You're serious. Jesus, Jake. Pooch? What about Jolene?"
He throws his hands up, touchdown-style. "Thing the third!"
"Oh, Jakey." She links her fingers over her forehead and lets her eyes slip closed, and he can't tell if she's disturbed or disgusted or damaged beyond belief. Then she drops her hands and gets to her feet, and for a split second, he's terrified — the four of them are worth the fallout, but the thought of losing Liz, and Beth, and everything he's ever had before this, is enough to make him nauseous.
Liz comes up behind him, wrapping an arm around his neck and propping her chin on the top of his head, and he reaches up to hold on tight while his lungs start producing oxygen again.
Her lips in his hair make her voice all muffled. "You never make anything easy, do you?"
"Not if I can help it," he says. "It's a sickness."
"So tell me how this is all going to work." She sighs and straightens, patting his shoulder. "There's a pint of Butter Pecan in the freezer. This might be even better than Grey's."
They plot a triangle of points — from Liz and Beth in Concord to Pooch's parents in Boston to Jolene's mother just outside of Springfield — then pick a place in the middle, not far from the border.
The mock selection process involves a blindfolded Cougar, a map of eastern Massachusetts, and a particularly sharp paring knife, but when Jensen is entirely too amused that the bullseye is on the outskirts of Middlesex County, the official democratic process kind of goes out the window.
Seriously, Middlesex. That's already one of his favorite places to be.
Hudson is a tiny town, about twenty thousand people, with a decent domestic body shop and a quaint little hospital looking for nurses and an Intel production plant where Jensen heads up IT. It's not like they have to work — the thing about being wrongly accused of treason and stopping a nuclear terrorist and saving several million people in the process is that the government pays you pretty generously to shut up about it — but they've done everything for too long to do nothing, and someone has to set a good example for Jamaar, and Cougar's really the only one who'd rather stay home to cook and clean and watch his stories.
The house is on a couple of acres, with a big, bright nursery and an in-law suite in the basement and a Petunia-pink bedroom just for Beth. They knock down the wall between the back rooms and add an extra bath, so the master can handle two kings strapped together and everybody gets their own sink, and it's cozy and domestic and awesome. Mostly.
"Cougs, fuck, you're hot," Pooch mutters.
"Yes," Jensen says groggily, "and that's why we're so fond of him."
He knows Pooch hadn't meant it that way — for whatever reason Cougar runs about eight hundred degrees warmer than the rest of them, so it makes no sense that he's always hogging all the blankets — but sometimes Pooch is just fun to fuck with.
It's the third Thursday of the month, which means Delta Rotation — Jensen's third from the left, with Cougar curled into his back and Jolene's sweet, sweet ass nestled in his lap.
So basically, on a scale of one to oh-shit-yeah, Delta Rotation falls somewhere between beta-testing top-secret unreleased tech and getting blown while beta-testing top-secret unreleased tech. But Pooch kind of hates hanging out on the end, doing nothing but hugging Cougar's hot back, and Jensen usually ends up swapping places with somebody, so he suspects that Delta Rotation may go the way of the dinosaur.
He raises his head to hiss a whisper over Cougar's shoulder. "Do you need to switch?"
"Naw, I'm good," Pooch says, fidgeting like he's not, and damn, "need" is so not the right word to use with him in situations like this. When Jensen's not half-asleep, he usually knows better.
"You can switch with meeeee," he singsongs.
"It's fine, J. Go back to sleep."
Pooch fidgets some more and flops onto his back and finally kicks the covers away, and Jensen rolls his eyes and wonders for the millionth time why they hadn't gotten the memory foam mattresses.
He goes up on one elbow so both hands are visible above Cougar's head. "Hey Jensen," he says, duck-talking, "The Pooch would really appreciate it if we switched places." He changes hands. "Really? Because The Pooch just got through saying that he was all good, even though he's down there squirming like a seizure patient." Aaaaand switch. "Pay no attention to what comes out of The Pooch's mouth. Clearly The Pooch would rather melt like the wicked witch of the west than actually let someone help him when he's miserable."
"If The Pooch wakes up the baby," Jo cuts in, her voice dreamy and deadly, "that hand is all either one of you will have for a very long time."
Pooch blinks at Jensen, and Jensen blinks at Pooch, and they both clear their throats.
"Okay. Should we…"
"Yeah. You wanna…"
Jensen makes a big production of slipping out of his spot, scooting Jo over, and settling in on her other side, and after a minute, Pooch slides in next to him, one arm thrown over his hip. He takes a moment to mourn for Delta Rotation and all its lovely perks, then snuggles into his new spot.
At some point every night they all end up in a giant puppy pile, so it doesn't really matter much, anyway.
Pooch is a wizard with a wrench. Like the Car Whisperer. There isn't an engine or an alternator out there that he can't tame.
Which doesn't mean shit when you hit a deer coming down a two-lane highway.
The deer walks away. The 'Vette needs a tow and some serious body work. Pooch is never a happy camper when it comes to paying for something he thinks he should be able to do himself, but this is beyond even his DIY skills.
Jensen picks him up at the garage, cringing when he catches sight of the car and again when he sees Pooch's face. There's a gash on his forehead where he'd probably hit the steering wheel, half-covered with a bandage sporting little yellow ducks, and Jensen reaches up to touch his cheek and turn the spot toward the light.
"Aww, baby," he says, sticking out his lower lip and laughing a little. "Did they at least kiss it better first?"
One of the mechanics shifts uneasily on his feet, and the big blond guy in the back coughs into his hand, and Jensen looks between them both and thinks, really?
He takes Pooch's hand and turns back to the mutilated Corvette and tests the waters with both fucking feet. "This is tragic. I mean, you've had sex on this car. Epic, epic sex." Some dude drops his drill, and Jensen blinks, the picture of wide-eyed innocence. "Sadly, not with me. But it's a good mental picture, right?"
Back at home, Pooch pushes the front door open a little harder than is strictly necessary, since the knob leaves a hole in the drywall.
"It's Massachusetts," Jensen says, trailing in after him. "Land of the liberal! Home of marriage equality! Who gets bent out of shape by a little boy-touching?"
The hilarious thing is, they keep having this same argument. Because Pooch is the pragmatic one. The one who wields the schedules and worries about medical power of attorney and wonders what Jamaar will call them all once he's old enough to talk. The one who still hasn't told his parents what's really going on in their big house in the middle of nowhere.
"This is my job, J."
"Right." Jensen nods and shoves his hands in his pockets. "And this is your life."
It's date night, Epsilon Edition, which means that Jensen's knocking back beers at the bar on Main Street while Cougar hustles some poor bastard at darts. Basically business as usual, except for the one guy at a table in the corner he'd swear is staring.
To be fair, Jensen does have a world-class ass, and this stool is at optimum viewing level, so the guy can hardly be blamed.
Cougar comes back over, stashing a stack of twenties in his vest and fingering the fletching of the dart between his fingers. He slides a slow hand down Jensen's spine and picks up his beer, and the latest sucker has a shit fit.
"Hey, man, we're not done here!"
The dart leaves Cougar’s fingers while he’s taking a long swig and isn't even looking. It sails to the center of the board, and he sets his glass down and tips his hat.
Jensen scratches the back of his neck and tries not to openly drool. "Okay, that was hot," he says. "That was ridiculously hot. That is easily the hottest thing I've seen in the last… twenty minutes." Cougar quirks an eyebrow, and Jensen shrugs. "Jolene did a thing in the shower."
Cougar chuckles and leans in a little closer, and his eyes do that sparky, smolder-y thing that doesn't usually happen until later on date night. Much, much later.
Yeah, they might have to call this one.
But Cougar is already ordering another round, and over his shoulder, the lookie loo in the corner has turned up his lip.
Damn. Things were so much better in the land of ass appreciation.
The bartender brings their beers, sets them down with uneasy silence, and for a minute Jensen wonders if it's all in his head. But Cougar's gone all coiled and tight, and he's muttering to himself in Spanish, and the fire in his eyes has vanished — they're razor-sharp again, tracking the guy's every move. Which might be the worst of it. The fire always means the promise of delicious, slightly-debauched, things in the near future. The tracking thing usually means bloodshed.
Jensen sets a couple bills on the bar, chugs his beer like a frat boy, and tries to bring the fire back.
His hands come around to cup Cougar's ass, tug him into the space between his thighs, and he sees a flash below the brim of the hat before their lips lock. Then Cougar's hands are in his hair and Cougar's tongue is in his mouth, and he forgets where they are and why they're doing this and quite possibly his own name.
Later, with his back on the floor and his feet on the bed and Cougar sprawled sideways across his chest, he fumbles for his glasses and grins.
"Well that was fun," he says. "Next time we should play pool."
The four of them have set schedules. Their schedules have schedules. There are rotations for everything — dishes and diaper duty and date nights in every permutation. But grocery shopping always falls to him and Jo. Unlike Pooch, Jensen actually enjoys it, and Jolene's the only one Cougar trusts with spice selection.
They try some new place on Tenth, and he rides the cart down the diaper aisle while Jo squints at the list. "Did we grab olive oil?"
"Yeah." He tosses a pack of Pampers in and turns the cart around. "Oh, we need more chocolate syrup."
Her eyebrows pull together. "Didn't we get some last time?"
"About that," he says. "Pooch and I might have polished it off." She glares, and he holds up his hands. "What? You worked late."
"Mmhmm," she says, and smacks him on the ass. "Go get the bread."
A middle-aged woman wearing way too much makeup is manning their checkout lane, scanning items at the speed dial-up. Jo leans into his side and thumbs through a tabloid, head tipped back to his shoulder, and he drops his face into her hair and tries not to reach for the Kit Kats.
The clerk keeps watching them, dragging things slowly across the scanner, and snorts when Jolene asks for paper instead of plastic. And something about the sound makes Jensen freeze and frown and find the faces in all the other lanes — all the customers, all the employees, half of whom are watching them, too.
Besides the bags, Jo's pretty much the brownest thing in here.
He could be wrong. He has to be wrong. Because people don't still care about this shit, do they? Not in this day and age, not even in ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-percent pale New England.
Tammy Faye finishes ringing and gives Jo the fakest fucking smile that Jensen's ever seen.
"We don’t take food stamps here," she says, wrapping their eggs in a plastic bag, "but did you have any coupons today?"
Jo knows him too well, and her hand is on his arm before he's stopped seeing red. "It's fine," he says. "No no, it's fine." He shakes her off as gently as he can at the moment, squeezes past the shopping cart to the end of the lane, and starts shoving shit into paper bags. "I guess here in Pleasantville you still sleep in separate beds and have kids to advance the bloodline, so maybe spending your life with someone you love is a foreign concept."
"Jake," Jo warns.
He punches the bread into a bag so hard that his hand comes out the bottom. "I mean, this one is so incredible I can't even keep her to myself. I am literally not man enough for her. There are four of us. Like 'Big Love' without the bowties. Everybody's browner than I am, and we all live together with our little chocolate love child."
"Jake." Jo scoots around the cart and puts herself between him and the bags, then stares down the appalled store clerk.
"You know what," she says, deathly calm, "we don't need any of it."
He looks over his shoulder as she drags him away. "And you know what else?" he calls out. "We put things in every hole. All of them."
They seem to have staged an intervention.
Well, Pooch and Jolene have, anyway. They're sitting on the sofa when he gets home from work, looking worried and weary and facing a lone wicker chair. Cougar's leaning in the kitchen doorway, looking mildly amused.
Jo bites her lip and reaches for his hand. "Come here, baby."
He hesitates for half a second, then lets her pull him down. "Is this about the Piggly Wiggly? 'Cause I can buy my Cheetos someplace else."
"It's not that, specifically," she says. "We're just trying to understand what's going on with you."
"Nothing's going on with me."
"Right." Pooch shakes his head. "So you're not the least bit bothered that you can't drink, drive, or shop in this town without people wondering whose tonsils you've tasted today."
Jensen blinks. "It's pretty much just the three options, isn't it?"
"Okay, I can't talk to you."
"See, I don't get why this is a problem. Isn't this why we came to Podunk in the first place? To live the way we want to live?" He looks from Pooch to Jo, who both stay silent, then to Cougar, who never looked like he was on board with this, anyway. "That's what I thought. And hey, it totally works when we're here. In here, we're the four musketeers. Clearly, I am D'artangnan. But we go out in the world in pieces."
"It's not that simple, J," Pooch says, and Jensen snorts.
"No, simple would've been you two being married, and maybe me and Cougar getting married, and the four of us swapping spouses once every blue moon, like big-ass bed bingo. We could've done simple in Springfield."
"We did not choose simple," Cougar finally chimes in. "We chose this."
Jensen stops to take a step back, because it's really not them that he's mad at. It's the system, and the small-mindedness, and the simple fact that he can't have the three of them the way he really wants them.
"It's just… different for you," he says softly. "You're husband and wife. You're Jamaar's blood. There are about a billion legal, binding things that say you belong to each other. And sometimes, it just fucking sucks not to have that."
Cougar nods and Pooch looks at the floor, but Jo slides from the couch to settle between his knees and take his face in her hands and kiss him so sweetly it hurts.
"Oh, baby," she breathes, "I would marry you tomorrow if I could. Both of you."
It stops his heart dead for a second, because there's always been something in her eyes, something a little afraid to admit she loves either of them as much as she loves Pooch. And Jensen just can't see it anymore.
She smiles, and it's like the sun coming out. "If you need a piece of paper to know that, then we'll get one some kind of way."
He finds a blank copy online, because Google is a gift from the gods. And if he'd known all it would take was a few hours in Photoshop to feel this much better, he would have done it ages ago.
Out in the family room, Pooch and Cougar are planted on the couch and Jamaar is having a hissy fit on Jolene's hip and this, this is how he wants to spend the rest of his life.
Sure, a lot less hissy, but they're in the ballpark.
"Hey guys," he says, "it's official."
He takes Jamaar and hands Jo the printer-fresh paper, blowing raspberries on the baby's belly while she blinks her disbelief. Then Cougar is there, taking the paper before she can drop it, and she clutches his arm, waves at her face like she's trying not to cry, and laughs out loud, instead.
She makes them get dressed up to sign the marriage certificate — because where there's Jolene, there will be pictures — then slips it in a frame and hangs it above the fireplace, next to Jamaar's first footprints. And they stand there staring at it, grinning like idiots.
Pooch slides an arm around his waist and yanks, and Jensen smirks and bumps him back. "So things went well?"
"They want to know how many more grandkids they get out of it." Pooch purses his lips. "In hindsight, I should've seen that coming." Jensen laughs, and it's cut off when Pooch turns to slant their mouths together.
He tastes like champagne and contentment and more than a little like chocolate, which may mean bad things when Jo sees the cake.
"I love you," Pooch says gravely, palming the scruff of his neck. "You know that, right?"
Jensen nods, then spreads his hands wide. "Well come on, who wouldn't?"
He glances down the line at these people he loves so much, and they finally feel like one family — the man who can hack anything, the man who can drive anything, the man who can shoot anything, and the woman who terrifies them all. With lineage like that, Jamaar could take over the world.
But first things first. The baby has an eight o'clock bedtime, they've officially entered the honeymoon phase, and somewhere in the bedroom, there's a brand new bottle of chocolate syrup.