Jensen almost told Pooch once, back when they were jacking the chopper in the ass-end of New Mexico.
Well, not really. But it was as close as he’d ever come, because how the hell do you slide that sort of shit subtly into the conversation?
“Cats, man,” he says, miming a golf swing because it’s been a long time since he’s done anything so brain-meltingly normal. It’s been a long time since his life was normal. “Not to be trusted.”
Okay, so there’s no way to subtly tell your unit, oh by the way, every full moon, or when I’m pissed, shit-scared or otherwise emotionally compromised, I turn into a common black house cat. Hope that’s not a dealbreaker for a normal working relationship.
Jensen calls his less-than-human form Cat. It’s not very creative, but Jensen doesn’t have another name for him that doesn’t involve multiple swear words in three languages. Besides, Cat is shorter. Cat is the reason that most people think Jensen’s moderately unbalanced. Cat requires distraction techniques and excuses. Cat requires a verbal twenty-four-seven variety act because if people think you’ve just been skipping your ADHD meds, they don’t think things like, huh, maybe he actually * is* a bona-fide freak of nature, and maybe he turns into a house pet according to lunar cycles. Which should be completely stupid, but Jensen’s lived his whole life in crowded foster homes, army barracks, in Iraq where you couldn’t take a shit without the whole platoon knowing, and now with a special Ops team who’ve been trained to notice a mosquito die in, like, the next building. And no one’s worked it out yet.
Cat doesn’t have a lot of pull in Jensen’s day-to-day existence except around the full moon, when he stages a hostile takeover of Jensen’s brain, higher motor functions, and apparently, genetic makeup. Well—Jensen would like to think Cat’s got no say in most of his life, but it’s probably not true. He can put away sushi at a rate that both awes and terrifies his teammates, and if he hasn’t rubbed up against Cougar yet, trying to transfer scent that he doesn’t have in this body, well, Jensen’s pretty sure that’s only a matter of time.
Cougar. Man, Cougar is a problem on his own. Cougar exists in like, another universe compared to his other problems. The whole clusterfuck in Bolivia, those kids he can still hardly think about, Max trying to kill them, and Cat. Cat has some very definite ideas about Cougar. Ideas which involve rubbing his face over any part of Cougar he can reach and then rolling over hopefully.
Jensen’s getting increasingly concerned that Cat’s way ahead of him on this one.
He talks to Sarah about it, after the shitstorm in L.A., because even Clay wouldn’t drag them back into the chase without a breather first. Plus, Jolene could justifiably kill him, and she’s got a mean right hook for a woman with a baby on her hip.
They’re sitting on the roof of Sarah’s little house on the outskirts of Hanover, looking at the stars and slowly draining the bottle of Glenlivet. Jensen’s just drunk enough to talk, which was probably Sarah’s sneaky plan in the first place, because his sister was always better at planning ahead. Sarah turns to face him, her face a pale oval in the moonlight. Jensen can’t see her expression very well, hasn’t changed recently enough for the heightened senses to carry over. Still, there’s concern in her scent, just at the very edge of his perception.
“Your problem,” Sarah says, taking a quick pull from the bottle. “Your problem is you disassociate too much. When I got pregnant with Emma,” she says, suddenly dropping her voice because her kid’s asleep one window over, “I was so angry and freaked out every time I changed. I figured for sure that I was going to hurt my baby, maybe really badly because I was a freak who turned into this thing every month. But nothing happened, I was just a giant pregnant cat instead of giant pregnant human being for a few nights a month. And then Emma was born healthy, and you know what? That was the first time I actually saw this as normal, you know? That’s when I knew she was just part of me, instead of some weird outside force. Because I could have a healthy little girl who, granted, started turning into a kitten after her fifth birthday, but what can you do?” Sarah shrugs, the movement fluid in the dark despite the Scotch. “This is Emma’s normal,” she says, “and I think it’s finally mine too."
That’s all well and good for Sarah, but she inherited all the calm and practical genes along with the tendency to turn into a house pet once a month, while Jensen got shitall and had to invent his own coping mechanisms, thank you very much.
Sarah snorts, like she can tell exactly what he’s thinking. “Full moon’s in three days,” she says, nudging the Glenlivet bottle in his direction with her toes. She always had better taste in booze than him. “You sticking around?”
Jensen considers how to explain an extra three-day delay in Hanover, New Hampshire to Clay, settling on Emma’s divisional soccer finals. That’s actually a pretty reasonable excuse, for him.
A few nights later, his team is crashed on every flat surface of Sarah’s house, Jolene and Pooch in the guest room with the baby in the bed between them, Clay and Aisha on the couch with their legs tangled together, Cougar on the area rug in front of the fireplace with a quilt pillowed under his head. Everyone’s edges are a little softened in suburbia, everyone’s still a bit drained from L.A., so maybe his team is sleeping a little harder than usual, and that’s why Jensen feels safe.
And that’s why he’s in the backyard, letting Cat chase moths with Emma, who’s still a tiny ball of soft grey nothing, trying to coordinate her paws while Sarah watches perched in the oak tree, her elegant silver stripes catching the moonlight and radiating contentment, which changes to smug when she leaps from the branch and pins him. Off, off, Jensen yowls at her, no beating me up in front of the kid, and Cat gets his hind legs up and kicks at her until she leaps free, tumbling into Emma who gleefully drops her moth to grab Cat’s tail instead.
There are times when he really envies his sister, the way she can take the craziest shit and fold it into her life until she makes it completely normal through sheer force of will. Jensen’s never had that knack.
There are many, many things that still bother Jensen, even after all these years, such as, where does the other one-hundred sixty-odd pounds of mass go? and why the fuck can’t my clothes come with me? and maybe most importantly, what’s going to happen if one day I change back and my dick stays inside my body?
Still, one of the weirder things is the way his senses amp up right before the full moon, or the way they sometimes linger hours or days after he’s changed back. The human brain is not really designed to interpret Cat’s sensory input, he’s decided, and that’s why things tend to manifest as weird, weird twinges at the edge of his normal perception.
Like that time in Iraq a few years back when he earned that one lonely commendation among all the black marks in his record, when he’d been attached as a temporary RTO for a recon team and scouting an abandoned hamlet while on patrol sixty miles north of Al Basrah. It had been a quiet day, nothing in sight except their Humvees on the dirt track when the hair on the back of his neck had lifted and adrenaline suddenly kick-flooded his system, and he’d started yelling into the radio, clear the village! Clear the village! Everyone get clear now! And thank you god everyone just reacted without thinking, because if anyone had thought to stop and call him on it, they’d have been caught flat-footed in the massive explosion from the airstrike that, due to an exceptional command fuckup, had come down nineteen miles south of its intended position.
Or that time in Columbia, later, when Pooch had broken some ribs after their truck had gotten rammed by some corrupt politician who was definitely trying to kill them at that point, and Pooch had tried to shrug it off while Jensen kicked up holy hell because he had a really, really bad feeling about this.
“It’s just a busted rib, man,” Pooch had said, wincing. “Tape ‘em up and let’s get moving.”
Clay, Roque and Cougar hadn’t been there to back him up at the time, so Jensen had broken out the big guns. “My laptop’s in the truck, Pooch. Even in this shithole town, how long before you think I can get a wireless signal? I am composing an email to Jolene in my head as we speak.”
And Pooch had been sullen and in pain and pissed at him until they got to the hospital, and afterwards the doctor told them the busted ribs had ruptured Pooch’s spleen in two places and he’d probably have bled to death in a couple more hours.
So maybe Cat is useful, sometimes, but it’s stupid and uncontrollable, because for every useful, life-saving tipoff, there’s a thousand mornings, afternoons and nights stuck in a truck, in a cargo plane, in a command post in some godforsaken desert, tundra or jungle where sudden, random sensory inputs suddenly hit him like a punch in the gut: the abrupt, overwhelming awareness that no one’s showered in the last week, that Clay’s ringworm has flared up and his feet itch like fuck, that Roque’s carrying so much tension it practically hums off his skin, and Pooch is radiating longing so strong it tastes like blood in Jensen’s mouth and it just beats against him in waves until it suddenly shuts off and he can unclench his jaw.
So yeah, it’s basically the worst superpower ever.
Cougar is quiet. Not just in the verbal sense, because that goes without saying. Even before Bolivia, he was never exactly chatty, and after—well, if you got five words at once, that was like, a run-on sentence of James Joyce proportions for Cougar. It’s more like he’s quiet under the skin, like he holds control of himself in a way Jensen can’t really describe. All he knows is, he doesn’t pick up a fraction as much from Cougar as he does from Clay and the others. And that’s really fucking calming after another afternoon of TMFI Theatre.
Just for instance, this afternoon he’s lying on his back on the motel bed, sun streaming in around him, and he’s idly tapping at his laptop, because he’s already found the cash trail leading to Max’s weapons connection in the Phillipines, and now it’s a matter of waiting for Clay and Aisha to get back from New York. Cougar is sitting cross-legged on the bed next to him, one of his rifles disassembled on a drop sheet in front of him, his hands moving deftly as he inspects and cleans each part. And everything’s copacetic, and he’s getting a low buzz of calm, calm off Cougar when he has the sudden urge to roll over and stick his face into that vulnerable curve between Cougar’s shoulder and neck and just breathe.
Shit. He can’t even blame that one entirely on Cat. That one was mostly him. And it’s been happening more often lately.
So to be honest, Jensen’s not really sure when hanging around Cougar stopped being because Cougar was easy to handle, and started being more about wanting to jump Cougar’s bones. It sort of crept up on him, if he’s honest, although he’s pretty sure tall, dark and scary had never really been his type before.
It’s just—it’s Cougar. Jensen doesn’t know how anyone could not want him, even just a bit.
The thing about being Cat, which Jensen spends most of the month repressing to death, is that being Cat feels awesome.
Cat's quick. Cat can slink though the night like the quietest motherfucker on the planet, provided Jensen opens the window first because Clay's not great about picking their safehouses based on the availability of cat flaps. Cat can trot along a fire escape rail and jump twenty feet down and land in the alley without making a sound. Cat can see things, hear things and smell things that light up the world like a hyperkinetic fireworks display inside Jensen's head.
If Jensen had more control over this, he might be able to handle it better. As it is, when Cat’s driving, Jensen’s just along for the ride, and he hates that, and not just because some mornings he wakes up vomiting half-digested mouse parts. Cat doesn’t have to worry about being declared dead, about having a world-class psychopath and half the CIA chasing them, about Aisha maybe planning to kill them all in their sleep someday. Cat can perch on the ledge of the tallest building on the skyline and let the noisy, lit-up pulse of the city night wash over him and all that shit just doesn’t matter.
Each time, when Cat leaps lightly down from the window, flexing his claws and flicking his tail, Jensen wonders what would happen if one day, he just stayed like this. But it’s gone in a moment, and he thinks about Clay, about Pooch and Aisha and god, Cougar, and then he feels like the world’s biggest asshole for days after.
They’re in Miami, waiting for Valeri, one of the local gun runners, to make contact with a supplier who allegedly sells weapons to Max, a proper scumbag named Benjamin Ibsen. The intel they have didn’t say when the meet was taking place, only that it was within the next week. So they’re stuck tailing Valeri until he makes contact, which is made even worse by the fact that Valeri leads an incredibly boring life. Jensen follows him all morning and most of the afternoon, his shoulders starting to burn and freckle, board shorts and flip-flops blending into the spring break crowd. Valeri visits his bookie, his money launderer, and then sits outside a bar for the rest of the afternoon, repeatedly pushing his designer shades back up his nose and pecking away at his laptop.
Jensen’s having a bad afternoon, Cat-wise. He keeps getting flashes of things he shouldn’t be hearing, conversations in Cuban Spanish in the cafe behind him, the slow infrasound pounding of the surf a few blocks away. The dumpster in the alley smells so close, it feels like someone’s holding his head inside and forcing him to inhale. The sun’s too hot on his shoulders, and Cat’s tugging at him to go find someplace dark and quiet and just sleep.
So it’s a bad afternoon, and when Clay’s voice crackles through his earpiece, he almost jumps. “Jensen, report.”
Jensen sighs, everything shutting off for a blessed few seconds. He flips to the next page of the terrible, terrible Grisham novel he found in the coffee shop. “Watching my youth and boyish charms slip away while Valeri checks his Facebook page,” he says, and doesn’t add while trying to figure out ways to gut the cat living in my head. “Why do you ask?”
Clay snorts. “Pack it in, Aisha’s two blocks out. Cougar’s staking out his apartment tonight. You can take over again at 8 AM tomorrow.” Clay’s voice lowers. “Go get out of the sun for a bit, Jensen. Cougar says you look cooked.” Jensen flicks his gaze upward, sees a flash of reflected light wink at him once, twice, from the top of an office block a few hundred yards north of his position. He has another sudden Cat moment, or maybe just imagines he can catch Cougar’s scent on the breeze, like soap and sweat and gun oil and something else, something he doesn’t have a name for in either body.
That night, Jensen decides to try out an experiment. The full moon’s not for another two weeks, so there’s no claws pushing at his skin, trying to get out, but an unexpected night off can’t be wasted. The apartment is quiet, Clay and Aisha are gone out, and Pooch is asleep on the couch, one arm flung over his eyes. Jensen pushes the window open, presses one palm to the cool concrete ledge outside. Then he closes his eyes.
Jensen can change outside the full moon, but it takes a crazy amount of effort on his part, or a really bad stress trigger for Cat. Imminent death works pretty well. He remembers kneeling on the pavement in the L.A. shipyards with a gun to his head, everything under his skin straining to change, fighting it with everything he had because what good would it have done? Out in the open like that, seventeen pound Cat body against four men with automatics, and Pooch and Cougar would still be dead in the end.
Sarah and Emma can’t do this at all, this is just him. He focuses everything inward and shifts.
It’s incredibly, excruciatingly painful, to force it, and he bites back a howl, but he can feel bones shifting and muscles pulling in and down, and he flexes his fingers, only now they’re curled black toes and feels his claws flex outward.
Cat’s tail whips the air, his spine curves in a graceful, stretching S-shape. He’s confused, Jensen can feel it, because Jensen never lets him out voluntarily.
Let’s go, Jensen says, you can have a run now, and you stop bugging the shit out of me when I’m doing surveillance tomorrow. Deal?
Cat doesn’t really understand, not at anything like a human level, but he’s out and Jensen can feel his quiet animal pleasure as he stretches out, uncaged, with a new city stretched out below him. A purr rolls out, making Jensen’s throat vibrate. And then Cat leaps out into the night.
Cat’s smart about staying above street level, Jensen has to give him that. Cat can jump from one roof to the next with a running start, and he instinctively knows when a jump’s too long, or too far down, and finds another way around. A mile or so from their apartment, he stops on a fire escape and starts to groom his paws. Jensen’s a little breathless, because this is closer to the surface than he’s ever been while Cat’s driving, and Cat makes an odd, rough little noise that’s definitely directed at him, and strokes a soft black paw over the side of his head.
Maybe he should let Cat out more often.
Cat purrs loudly, and it’s so weird to feel that sound coming out of his own throat. Don’t get any funny ideas, Cat, thinks Jensen, we’re just out for a stroll.
Cat takes off again, and then something weird happens. Since he’s currently riding shotgun in a cat body, weird is relative, but still. They’re at the corner of a low building, maybe eight or nine yards to the edge of the next roof. Cat pauses at the ledge, sniffing the air, uncertainty colouring his mind. Through Cat’s eyes, pupils wide in the dark, Jensen gauges the distance. You can do it, he thinks, and besides, it’s only two stories down. You can always land on your feet.
Cat turns, trots back a few yards, then runs hard at the ledge. As the long muscles in his hind legs bunch and start to launch him upward, something ripples weirdly between them, like an echo ricocheting back and forth between their two minds, and Jensen’s suddenly aware of this body like he’s never felt it before, feels the tiny muscles working at the base of every twitching whisker, feels the cool concrete under his pads, and he instinctively shoves up hard. Cat hurtles across the gap and barely manages to stick the landing, which knocks Jensen back into his own consciousness. He looks back; they cleared the edge of the roof by a good ten yards. Jesus Christ.
Cat is affronted, and sits down to groom his tail while Jensen thinks, what the hell just happened?
Maybe it’s because they’re both rattled, and that’s why when Cat picks up Cougar’s scent on the wind, Jensen doesn’t stop him. He could try, but he doesn’t particularly want to explain to the cops why he’s free-climbing down the side of this apartment building, naked, in the middle of the night.Besides, it’s not like Cougar’s going to know it’s him.
Jensen likes Cougar. Cat likes Cougar. It’s one thing on which they can agree absolutely.
Cougar’s in position on the top floor of a half-finished condo development across the street from Valeri’s apartment. The financiers went bust halfway through construction, and now building is stalled in a mess of litigation and court battles. There’s a pair of guards patrolling the grounds, but they’re not interested in the upper levels. Cougar probably got past them with his eyes closed.
They’re also not on the lookout for cats, or genius-level ex-Special Forces hackers currently occupying feline bodies. Cat slips past them, not even a blur in the darkness, and leaps onto a first-floor girder, climbing up and up.
Cougar hears them coming, and he’s got his tranq gun levelled in their direction when Cat glides out of the shadow, his eyes flashing in the light.
Hey man, says Jensen, surprised to see me? It comes out a rumbled, throaty sound, which Cat punctuates with a low purr.
Cougar blinks, then holsters the gun. And then he actually smiles, a little. “Hello, gato,” he says, his voice low. “Gonna rat me out to the guards?”
Obviously, they’re not a threat, and he turns back to the scope that’s propped just inside the window, out of anybody’s sightline. Jensen absolutely, absolutely wasn’t going to do this, but Cat obviously has other plans because he’s bumping his head against Cougar’s elbow, still purring.
Cougar glances away from the scope, looks down at him, and Jensen feels like he might actually die of embarrassment, but then Cougar’s smiling again, a small soft smile Jensen’s never seen on him before. “Blue eyes,” he says, and strokes one thumb down the side of Cat’s face, along his neck and shoulder and down his front leg, where there’s one thin line of white fur on his otherwise black coat, marking the scar tissue where Aisha shot him.
That feels, actually, ridiculously good, and Jensen can’t blame Cat for amping up the purring, because he feels like doing the same thing. Cougar turns back to the scope, but his left hand stays, stroking slowly, methodically along the line of his spine.
Everything’s so still and quiet up here, the sounds of late-night traffic muted, the roll of the surf a distant, unimportant thing. It’s like the whole world has narrowed down to just the two of them--well, three with Cat— alone up here in the quiet darkness. And Jensen knows this is going to suck so badly in the morning, when he knows what Cougar’s hands feel like on his body, but he can’t bring himself to care. It’s just—he’s wanted this so badly, for so long. So he stays where he is, and Cat curls his tail around Cougar’s forearm and makes a rough, comforting sound.
There’s a faint smudge of light on the horizon by the time Jensen nudges Cat into motion, and he slinks out from under Cougar’s big hand. Cat stretches, spreading each paw wide and flexing out his claws while Jensen kicks his way out of the fog of sleep and warm and Cougar. He needs to get back to the apartment, before Pooch wakes up, before Clay sticks his head in to check on him. He’s got Cougar’s scent all over him; he’s not going to sleep again tonight.
Sorry, man, says Jensen, and it comes out as a low, rough and melancholy sound. I know this is fucked up.
Cougar frowns slightly, reaches out a hand, but they’re already gone.
Valeri’s life doesn’t get any more interesting the next day, either. Jensen’s exhausted, but Cat’s actually making himself useful today, and every time he starts to zone out, there’s a sharp nudge inside his head, like Cat’s batting him hard with one paw.
That night, he stands on the fire escape for a long time, indecision tearing at him, long enough that Pooch gets off the phone with Jolene and climbs out next to him. Pooch punches him companionably in the shoulder, jerks his head to indicate the coastal sprawl of Miami laid out under them.
“You should go out, man. There’s enough drunk college girls in this town tonight that at least one of them might not laugh at the shirt.”
Jensen snorts, smiles a little. There’s a certain kind of girl whose eyes will get warm and will lean in really close to hear about your niece’s soccer team. Maybe it will help with this crawling want under his skin.
In a new development, Cat has decided he hates bars, and right now, Jensen’s half- inclined to agree with him. The music’s too loud, a salsa-influenced club beat, and the crush of bodies is hot and oppressive.
Pooch is right, though, it’s ridiculously easy to get laid in Miami.
Her name is Gina, and she’s got freckles around her eyes and a wide-open smile. She’s a chemistry major at Penn State. Her friends are clustered around the bar, suntanned and giggling, drinking margaritas. One of them eyes him speculatively. “Nope, definitely not a serial killer. They don’t wear pink shirts,” and they all burst out laughing.
She takes him back to their motel room on the beach and he lets her tumble him into bed, the sheets gritty with sand. She’s laughing, a little drunk, beautiful in the moonlight. Jensen runs his hands up her back, feels her warm skin under his palms, and it’s good. It’s really good.
It’s not what he wants.
The sun’s coming up as he’s getting dressed, and Gina’s sleepily punching her number into his phone as her friends stumble in, drunk and happy and young. Cat’s rumbling under his skin, unsatisfied. Jensen always thought any sex was good, that Cat just liked the closeness, the animal comfort of it all, but not anymore, apparently.
Jensen closes his eyes. Great. They’re both fucked.
Pooch is already awake when he gets back to the apartment, and he laughs, punches Jensen in the arm. “See, even skinny white boys can get some in Miami. Call the Pope, we got a bona-fide miracle on our hands.”
Cougar’s sitting at the kitchen table, hat pulled low. He doesn’t look up at Jensen.
Pooch goes on, “And Valeri finally confirmed the meet last night around midnight, I picked it up on the bug Cougar planted. Ibsen’s in town today, Clay and Aisha are out setting up surveillance now. We can finally move in on this guy.” Pooch grins, stretches. “Follow the guns, follow the money, find the crazy psychopath.”
Jensen carefully doesn’t look at Cougar as he brushes past him, heading for the shower. He gets a sudden whiff, and whoa. Cougar is pissed.
It’s stronger than anything he’s ever picked up off Cougar before and he hustles into the bathroom, his heart jackrabbitting in his chest. In his head, Cat is making stupid, happy noises. It doesn’t mean anything, Jensen tells Cat sternly. It’s probably just justified rage that he got laid while Cougar was stuck watching Valeri play GTA4 half the night. Jensen hauls off his shirt, winces at the smell of a stranger—Gina, Gina—all over his skin.
Maybe shaking down Benjamin Ibsen will help. Maybe a little action, a little adrenaline will settle him down for a while. He’s really got to get over this thing, one way or another.
So, Jensen really, really wants a do-over on today. They’re locked in what is turning out to be an exceptionally sturdy cell in the basement of Ibsen’s compound near the Utah-Arizona border, and the private security goons—and just once, Jensen would like to meet some nice guys in this line of work— aren’t fucking around. Jensen’s cuffed back to back with Cougar, feeling the planes of his back rigid with tension against his own shoulder blades. Pooch is still unconscious on the floor, blood oozing sullenly from the gash on his temple.
They dragged Clay out twenty minutes ago.
Fuck, next time he’s listening to Aisha when she says, it’s a fucking trap.
The door’s got a hinged slit for food trays, maybe six inches high. Perfect for jamming a high-powered automatic through and blowing out a few kneecaps. Or it would be if the guards had been thoughtful enough to leave them their guns.
The opening’s maybe six inches. Maybe five. Lots of space. Maybe.
They’ve had Clay for twenty minutes.
Behind him, Cougar’s fingers are straining upward. But the angle’s all wrong, and he swears in Spanish, drops his hand. “Jensen,” he says, his voice low and harsh from the punch he took to the throat, “Reach up. Pick’s in my hair.”
Cougar’s wire pick might get them out of these cuffs, but that’s a heavy steel door with no lock on the inside, and there are at least five guards with AKs somewhere outside.
Jensen really hoped it wasn’t going to come to this.
Cat? Come on, buddy, you’re going to have to help me out here.
Simple emotions are good. Cat responds to desperation the same way he responds to Jensen’s fear, to loneliness. He’s ready to claw his way out, to defend his own as soon as Jensen lets him go.
“Cougar,” he says, and something in his tone makes Cougar go suddenly, abruptly still against him. “Get Pooch up. Make sure you’re ready to move.”
Jensen is suddenly, pathetically glad that Pooch is still unconscious, that Cougar’s cuffed against his back, that he can do this one last time with no one seeing, no one knowing. Then Jensen shifts.
Pain, pain, ridiculous pain and Jensen just yells through it, tapering down to a low yowl as his larynx compresses and then Cat’s shaking out of his clothes, cuffs swinging loose against Cougar’s back.
Jensen’s a coward and doesn’t look back, just darts through the flap, which really, really shouldn’t have been designed to swing both ways. Turns out a narrow profile and detached clavicles are extremely useful sometimes. Just like in Miami, Jensen thinks, we do it together, okay?
He can feel Cat’s focus, narrow and intent as a laser, like Cougar with his eye to the rifle scope, and feels that weird quicksilver shiver between them again, only this time he doesn’t fight it. He latches onto it, doesn’t let go.
The hallway outside’s dark, but suddenly he’s right behind Cat’s wide eyes, and he can see everything, feel the cold concrete under his paws, feel the vibration of footsteps and the smell of people, guns everywhere, Clay, where his boots dragged against the floor. Then they’re off, running down the dark hall fast as lightning and quiet as death. There’s no one here, no one here, and then the lights overhead snap on and a guard rounds the corner, AK-47 slung across his back. He sees Jensen, pauses a moment, then laughs.
“Fuckin’ cats getting in, least you could do is kill some of the fuckin’ rats,” he says, and then grabs at the automatic on his belt holster.
And this is so much easier when he and Cat do it together. He runs at the wall, launches off hard and shifts in midair, much faster than he’s ever managed it before. Easy as breathing, if you ignore the pain.
Not so easy for the guy who suddenly has one-eighty pounds of solid human muscle and bone smacking into him at speed. The gun goes flying, guy goes down hard and shocked and Jensen cracks his head once, twice against the concrete floor until the guard goes limp under him. He plants his forearm against the guy’s carotid in case he’s faking, but he’s not. The whole thing’s over in about a second and a half.
Cat howls suddenly, and there’s another guard rounding the corner, wheeling a crate on a furniture dolly, and he’s obviously not expecting to see, woah, naked guy crouched over a body, and suddenly Cat shifts them and is leaping for the guy’s throat.
Cat’s teeth have been designed by millions of years of mammalian evolution to sever the spinal columns of small animal prey, but combined with his claws, they latch on to the guard’s face pretty effectively. The guy shrieks, grabbing at Cat, and Jensen shifts them back, and this time he barely even feels the pain. The guy tumbles backward, and Jensen pins his legs, gets an arm around his throat and it’s all over.
The crate’s tipped on its side, and Jensen pries the lid off, hoping for ammunition, and gets Christmas and his birthday instead. C4, packaged with conveniently wrapped timer-detonator combos. Thank god for weapons dealers and their stockpiles.
There’s keys hooked to the second guard’s belt. Since this is the guy who punched Cougar in the throat earlier, Jensen kicks him once in the kidneys for good measure. He slings the AK over his shoulder, shoves a package of C4 under one arm and the detonator and timer under the other. He grabs both guards’ handguns, and sprints back along the hall, bare feet slapping on the cold concrete, Cat keyed up and thrumming just under his skin.
Jensen’s hands hardly shake at all as he rams the key into the lock, shoves the bolts open and swings the heavy door inwards. Cougar’s crouched inside the door, cuffs swinging loose off his left wrist. Pooch is propped against the wall, awake now. They’re both staring at him. Jensen is abruptly conscious of the fact that he’s naked, and that he’s got blood all over his teeth. He ignores it; if they get out of this alive, he’s going to spend an entire day devoted to some extremely violent freaking out, but right now, they have to move. He tosses the automatics to Cougar, unslings the AK-47 and sets it down with the explosives at the threshold of the cell.
He locks eyes with Cougar, because he might be a coward, but sometimes there are things you just have to do. Cougar stares back, and there’s a lot going on behind his eyes, but nothing he has time to interpret. Jensen unconsciously wipes the blood off his mouth. “Get Pooch clear,” he says, and this a bad way to leave things, but Jensen never really planned this far ahead. “There’s propane tanks at the end of the hall. Rig it to blow, give me five minutes. I’m going to get Clay.”
Cougar doesn’t say a word. And then he just nods, once, sharply.
It’s quieter this way, so Jensen shifts, and he and Cat sprint down the hall, tracking Clay’s scent. The whole compound’s a maze, probably to slow down the law if they ever made it out here. Ibsen’s a home-grown supremacist, sells weapons to very bad men, and is apparently paranoid as fuck. Clay’s smell disappears at the stairwell, and instead of shifting, Cat launches himself out the small window, and they’re suddenly clawing up the stucco, practically defying gravity, and Jensen’s going to be very impressed with both of them when things aren’t quite so desperate. The count is ticking in his head, five minutes down to a very big bang. Somewhere a floor or two down, there’s shouting. Gunfire.
He can’t think about it right now, has to trust Cougar to take care of Pooch, to look after himself. Cat hauls them in though the window, one floor up, hind paws scrabbling hard at the outside wall. Jensen shifts, has a moment to register the guard’s what the fucking fuck expression before Jensen piledrives him and gets his gun, snaps it up at Cat’s crowed warning and shoots the guard coming around the corner.
Clay’s scent—heavy-hot-rage—is strongest towards the end of the hall. Jensen, still on the floor, leans just around the very edge of the corner. There’s one guard at the door, gun in hand, looking conflicted. In the room behind him, Jensen can hear Ibsen shouting—those fucking dogs locked up downstairs, I’ll blow their fucking heads off and make you watch—
Clay is laughing, a slurred wet sound. They’re already loose. And you’re gonna die bloody.
Clay always did have the biggest balls. Jensen shoves the gun around the corner, sees it skitter along the tiles, sees the guard’s eyes snap towards it. Then he grabs tight to Cat and they shift.
Turns out Ibsen really should have invested in better marksmanship training for his goons, because the guard fires three times and misses before Cat’s skidding through his legs, Jensen shifting out fast and kicking him in the side of the kneecap, one hand grabbing the sliding gun as it hits the door jam, and shoots the staggering guard before he can even get upright.
And Jensen remembers that this, right here, is why he should never improvise because now he’s naked, flipped on his side with the gun trained on Ibsen, who’s got his own gun jammed into Clay’s temple. Clay’s shackled to a heavy chair, blood on his face, eyes looking drugged but with hot awareness starting to fight its way out.
Under his skin, Cat is hissing, and Jensen can feel the hair at the back of his neck trying to stand up. Ibsen looks absolutely crazed, sweat spiking his greying blond hair, and his grip on Clay’s hair tightens and he practically shrieks, “What kind of fucking freaks did you bring here?”
Jensen tenses hard, and Ibsen whips the gun around to point at his head. “Don’t you fucking move!”
It’s an instant of distraction and it’s all Clay needs. He plants his feet and rams the heavy metal chair sideways into Ibsen, who stumbles hard. Ibsen’s finger works reflexively on the trigger but the shots just miss, bury hard in the wall and then Jensen shoots Ibsen once, twice, right in the center of his mass.
The stink of blood is almost overwhelming, and Jensen wants to heave, but time, time, they have to get out of here. He hauls himself off the floor, grabs the keys off the dead guard in the doorway, and tries not to look Clay in the eyes as he works at the shackles.
“Jensen,” says Clay, turning to spit blood on the floor, his voice pretty mild, considering the circumstances. “Jensen, they shot me up with something psychotropic, but you’re naked, and I’m pretty goddamn sure you were a cat just a second ago.”
“Nope,” says Jensen, and he’s proud that his voice only shakes a tiny bit. “Absolutely not. This is just a crazy hallucination, and we’re all going to have a good laugh about it over the many, many beers you’re going to buy me—” the last lock springs apart, and Clay is up, stumbling forward, going for Ibsen’s gun, “—but right now, we’ve got about two minutes before this place blows sky high, and I’d strongly suggest that we’re not inside when it does.”
Clay’s got an arm over his bare shoulder, heavy, but they’re moving pretty quick when they get pinned down at the junction ten yards from the stairs. Three guards, silhouetted by the big window, behind heavy crates, one of them armed with an AK. Guy’s spraying bullets wildly, inaccurately, but he doesn’t need to be good, just lucky.
Jensen looks at the window. They’re four floors up. Doable. Sort of.
Clay peers out fast, fires Ibsen’s gun, makes one of the guards duck. “Jensen, I’ll cover you. Get down the stairs.”
“Oh no,” Jensen answers, annoyed, because he didn’t go through all this trouble so Clay could go out and get heroically shot in the head. “You are so not the boss of me anymore. You get down the stairs, I’m right behind you.”
And before Clay can say anything, Jensen shoves out around the corner, shoots at the window until it’s a mass of spiderwebbing cracks—should have gone for bulletproof, Ibsen, you cheap dead bastard—and shifts.
Cat’s running on sheer adrenaline at this point, they’re moving so fast the walls and floor just blur around them, and then they leap, shift, and come down hard on the guard and his AK. Jensen leaps up, shifts again as bullets spray where he was just crouched, but it’s close quarters, and he scratches, claws at faces and hands, and they’re both so animal-crazed that they can’t stop moving, and then a bullet grazes his side—shot again, godfuckingdammit—and they hit the wall as a boot’s about to stomp down hard, so he shifts—
And then Clay’s right there, and with his last two bullets, he shoots the guards.
Jensen’s naked, bleeding and probably concussed. His left eye is starting to swell shut. He officially hates today. “There are four men about to come around the corner, and this building’s going to go in about fifty seconds. Get downstairs, I’ll hold them off.” Clay’s about to argue, he can tell, and Cat’s really gotten in deep today because his lips pull back and he practically snarls at his commanding officer, Jesus Christ. “I’ll be coming out that goddamn window and you’d better fucking catch me. Sir.”
Clay goes low as Jensen starts shooting up the hall, three guards stuck in the junction where they’d been a moment ago, and their aim is much better than the last guy’s, but Jensen’s cover fire does the job, and Clay vanishes down the stairs.
The guards keep shooting, and Jensen fires back, prays Clay’s fast enough, that Cougar and Pooch didn’t get pinned down and trapped in the basement—Cat yowls at him, annoyed, and Jensen closes his eyes. Sorry, Cat. From someplace far away, there’s the sudden stink of propane, and a moment of stillness.
Jensen’s already moving towards the window when a roaring wall of flame rips up through the hall floor, obliterating everything in view. His back hits the weakened glass and it’s suddenly gone, they’re falling, falling—
Come on, Cat, thinks Jensen, once more for the road, and they shift.
The ground is rocky, burning debris everywhere. The pads of his paws are scorched, and his whole body hurts, adrenaline draining away, leaving only the slow pulse of pain and exhaustion. The graze along his ribs is bleeding sluggishly and his left eye won’t open, and right now, he’s moving basically on autopilot, one paw in front of the other, down towards the dirt road, away from the burning compound.
Suddenly there’s boots scrabbling over the rock and it’s Pooch, crouched in front of him, his eyes wide. “Jesus Christ, man, what the hell?” He reaches out one hand, gently touches the uninjured side of Jensen’s face.
Ow, ow, fuck off—Jensen tries to say, though it comes out as a pretty desperately pathetic mew. Cat’s making pained animal noises at him, and Jensen desperately wants to shift, to give Cat’s body some respite, but he absolutely can’t. He couldn’t shift right now if someone had a gun to Cougar’s head.
Cougar. Whose boots, followed by Clay’s, have now entered Jensen’s line of vision. He’s acquired a rifle in the handful of minutes since Jensen’s last seen him, slung across his back, and his hat’s shoved low over his face. Cougar crouches, and Jensen’s only got one good eye, so he turns his head despite the pain and looks right at him. Cougar’s eyes are fucking fierce.
Then he reaches out, and picks Jensen up very carefully, his big hands surprisingly delicate. He traces his thumb, very carefully, along the single line of scarred white fur.
Over the distant roar of the burning compound, there’s the sudden rumble of a big engine, and a bright red Mercedes SUV skids to a stop a few yards away, kicking up a cloud of dust and gravel. Aisha’s voice. “You guys better hurry up, I only lost the cops two miles back and I think they’re pissed.”
There’s two big fingers on his face, turning it gently back and forth, and Jensen opens one eye and wishes he hadn’t. Another crappy motel room, and Clay’s leaning over the bed, his face streaked with ash and blood, his eyes exhausted. “Jensen, you have to—hell, you have to change back. I can’t stitch you up like this, I’m not a damn vet.”
Cat’s tail twitches feebly, and Jensen closes his eye. Don’t watch, he tries to tell them, reaches deep, and shifts.
It doesn’t hurt as bad this time, although it could be that his whole body’s already a mass of pain competing for his attention, but it’s slow. Jensen swears he can feel every bone lengthening, every hair pulling back under his skin. The worst part, the worst part is his team watching, because he doesn’t want them to see this, never wanted anybody to see this. He tries to lay his ears back, discovers they’re back to being round and human, flexes fingers instead of claws. His body is a solid mass of bruises, blooming blue-black across his skin and the graze on his ribs burns like a line of fire.
His opens his good eye just in time to see Aisha’s eyebrows hit her hairline. Heh. He’s never seen that woman surprised before. Cool.
When in doubt, start talking. Any stupid comment is better than silence, after all. Jensen shoves himself up on his elbows, winces at the pain, and glares as hard as he can with one eye swollen shut. “I swear to god, the first person, the first person who makes a pussy joke is getting their eyes scratched out, I shit you not.”
And jackpot, there it is, that familiar exasperated twitch on his team’s faces, which must be fucking reflex by this point. Jensen snickers helplessly. Maybe this is going to be okay.
And later, it is, kind of, okay.
Clay says, dryly, “Jensen, I feel I’m going to have to contact some of your previous commanding officers, because there are a few minor details missing from your personnel file.”
Pooch smacks him in the back of the head, open-handed. “Jensen, man, you exceed my tolerance for shit-crazy on a daily basis, and one day I’m just going to hit you with the truck,” and follows that up with, “You got any other creatures of the night hiding in that big damn brain? You can tell me, you know, if you do.”
Aisha just shrugs. “This isn’t even the weirdest thing about you, you know.”
And things would be really, actually okay, but Cougar’s avoiding him, in that stealthy, in-the-same-room-but-impossible-to-corner way he’s got. And maybe Jensen would chicken out and let it keep going until Cougar started talking to him again—sometime between six to eight months after the heat death of the universe, Jensen estimates—but Cat’s been sulking loudly in his head, and after four days, Jensen finally mans up and goes after him.
They’re holed up in a rented house in Oceanside, while Clay and Aisha go to L.A. to track down one of Ibsen’s associates. Jensen’s supposed to be recuperating, which means sitting on his ass watching his bruises change colour and remembering why he hates getting shot so much. Cougar is haunting the house with his semi-automatic jammed down the back of his jeans, and sleeping with the rifle by his bed. Pooch keeps giving Jensen speculative looks, and makes himself scarce for hours at a time.
Cornering Cougar would be easier if he could shift, because Cat’s an order of magnitude sneakier than he is, but Jensen doesn’t want to rip his stitches, since having his teammates sew him back up is only marginally less painful than getting shot in the first place. So he decides if he can’t be stealthy, he can at least play dirty, and corners Cougar coming out of the shower the next morning.
There is absolutely no way Cougar should look threatening with his hair dripping wet and a little white towel wrapped around his waist, and yet somehow he manages it. Maybe it’s a superpower. Jensen keeps his hands visible, and tries to smile. “So I was thinking we should talk, or, you know, maybe I could talk and you could just glare. Like you’re doing, uh, right now actually.”
Cougar doesn’t look like he’s going to soften up anytime this century, but Jensen tries again anyway. “I’m sorry man, I know this is completely insane, and I’m sorry you got stuck dealing with this-”
Cougar narrows his eyes. “Before,” he says suddenly, “In Miami.”
And a lot of shit happened in Miami, but Jensen’s pretty sure Cougar’s not talking about the weather. “Oh, that. Listen, I’m sorry, man, I was just trying to settle down a bit, I shouldn’t have been sneaking around you, but it was kind of a rough night—”
Cougar’s suddenly in his space, and Jensen backpedals fast, hits the bathroom wall hard enough that every bruise on his back flares in pain. Cougar leans in, his hands on the wall on either side of Jensen’s head, blocking his escape. Inside his head, Cat makes a hopeful sound. Shut up shut up, thinks Jensen, you are not helping.
Cougar’s in his face, eyes still narrowed. “In Miami,” he says again. “What the hell was that?”
Jensen was really hoping he’d get through this week with at least one secret still intact, but he ducks his head and says, “It doesn’t have to be anything, I swear, Cougar, I—”
And then Cougar leans in even closer, and his lips are almost brushing Jensen’s ear when he says, softly, “You think you need to be a cat to get my hands on your body?”
Jensen blinks, once, twice, and then Cougar grabs his face and kisses him hard.
Cat makes a victorious sound that is utterly and completely smug, and really, the cat in his head should not be smarter about interpersonal relationships than he is. With that in mind, Jensen abruptly gets with the program and starts kissing Cougar back.
The bathroom’s steaming hot, and the tiles are wet and slick against Jensen’s back. Cougar breaks the kiss, tilts one corner of his mouth up into a smirk, and then steers them out into the bedroom. Jensen stumbles backward, lacking grace as he pulls his shirt up over his head, and ow, stitches, he forgot about those.
Cougar pushes him back onto the bed, pretty gently, all things considered, and climbs up after him. He drops the towel and straddles Jensen’s thighs, and Jensen has to remember how to breathe, because Cougar is naked and very close to his rapidly-hardening dick, and he’s still wearing shorts, so clearly something is very wrong with this picture.
And then Jensen has to close his eyes as Cougar leans down and mouths at one of the bigger bruises on his chest, and it stings but Cougar’s mouth is so hot, and Jensen feels something small and critical in his brain just roll over and die.
Cougar’s paying some serious attention to all the damage he picked up, the cuts and the bruises, and Jensen’s totally going to make him stop as soon as that attention stops coming in the form of Cougar’s tongue on his skin. In the meantime, he drags his palms over the long lines of Cougar’s back, loving the slick hot slide of his skin, still wet from the shower.
Cougar moves down, and then he’s pushing the loose waistband of Jensen’s shorts down low. Then he drags his teeth along the bruise on Jensen’s hipbone, and Jensen digs his heels into the bed, arches his back and grits out, “Cougar, you bastard, you’re going to have bruises if you don’t touch me this fucking second.”
Then Cougar’s big hand palms him though the shorts while at the same time, Cougar grinds his own dick against Jensen’s thigh. Jensen makes a very manly noise that is definitely not a whimper, and Cougar grins, leans in and mouths the wet fabric of his shorts where his dick’s straining against it. Jensen makes another incoherent noise and buries his fingers in Cougar’s thick wet hair.
In his head, Cat is purring loud enough that he’s positive Cougar can hear it. Okay, Cat, okay, thinks Jensen, dizzy with the scent of Cougar all around him. You are totally the smartest. Now please shut up.
So it turns out that co-operating with the cat living in his head has unexpected benefits, like better control over Cat-related sensory flashes—because knowing how many men are behind that wall, and how many guns, is fucking helpful sometimes—and despite Pooch bitching about black hair on the upholstery, no one is complaining about extra space in the backseat. Jensen can roll on his back, and even Aisha will forget sometimes and absently stroke him while Jensen kicks his paws in silent, gleeful victory.
And when he and Cat come back to the motels, to the safehouses in the half-light of dawn, tail twitching, drunk on adrenaline and all the scents in the night air, Cougar’s waiting, and is not averse to stroking his thumbs along the small hollows of Cat’s skull until his eyes roll back in pure animal pleasure. He’s also not averse to pinning Jensen to the bed after he’s shifted back, either, so really, everybody wins.
And on those four-legged days, Cougar always carries his backup pants, so Jensen’s pretty sure it’s love.