They were suffering downtime after their last narrow escape. Partly, they were waiting for the hole in Roque’s leg to heal. Partly, they were waiting for their next tech.
None of them liked downtime without liberty, because it meant they were stuck with their memories and each other and nothing to do. So they played Rummy for boodle.
Cougar had several candy bars and a bag of peanut M&Ms, and it didn’t look like Roque and Pooch were going to give up their futile hope of winning any time soon.
“What d’you think this one’ll be like?” Pooch asked, to fill the silence while he discarded.
“Whiny little bitch like the last however-many,” grunted Roque. “Seriously, man, how do they make it through Q?”
A scuff of boots on concrete alerted Cougar even before Clay opened the door and called out to them. “Listen up, Losers.”
They paused. While Roque and Pooch were staring at the Colonel and the new guy, Cougar flipped a joker into his hand from under the table.
Then he looked up and saw their new comm specialist.
Fucking cock-sure kid with a mile-wide hundred-watt smile and NSI glasses. Big, too; only about an inch shorter than Clay, and heavy in the shoulders like Roque. He looked nothing like their previous techs (nothing like any tech Cougar’d ever seen). He was exactly Cougar’s type (which consisted of pretty and curvy for women and pretty and well-built for men, in spite of Roque’s unflattering insistence that Cougar’s type was ‘semi-conscious and at least eighteen’).
“This’s Jensen,” Clay said. “I went to a lot of trouble to get him for us, so don’t chase him off or let him get shot. The Old Man said that if we lose this one, we don’t get a replacement for a while.”
Pooch shook hands with the kid. “Porteous—call me Pooch.”
“Roque,” the scarred man said. He must’ve been glaring, because the kid quickly diverted from trying to shake his hand.
“He’s Cougar,” they both said.
“What, can’t the guy talk for himse—” The kid trailed off as they made eye-contact (god, he had the bluest eyes, and distractingly long eyelashes). “Cat got your tongue?” he joked feebly.
Cougar stared for another second before grinning. “Makes you nervous?” he asked.
“What, me? Oh, no. No, just that you kinda have this look in your eyes like you’d garrote me in my sleep—that whole thousand-yard-stare thing. Itty-bitty cold-blooded Mexican killer vibe. Like Antonio Banderas in El Mariachi. Honestly a lot scarier than Scarface over here.”
Pooch laughed. “Naw, man. Cougs is a fluffy little kitten as long as you don’t piss him off—or if you give him candy. Now Roque, he’s almost more likely to stab you if he likes you.”
The kid nodded. “Right. So, bribe the fluffy kitten, try not to endear myself to the psycho. I can live with that.”
“You girls play nice,” Clay called over to them. “I’ve still got to finish the paperwork. The op is proceeding as scheduled; wheels up at twenty-thirty tomorrow.” And he left.
Jensen had strayed over to the empty rack next to Cougar’s. “Holy crap…President’s Hundred, seriously?”
Ah, he’d seen Cougar’s field jacket, then.
“As a heart-attack,” said Pooch. “All things being equal, Cougar hits nothin’ but bullseye.”
The blond turned and wiggled a finger through the air. “So we’re up to ‘fluffy Mexican sniper-kitten with a sweet-tooth.’”
“Hey,” grunted Roque. “Jensen, right?”
“I got one question for ya.”
Roque turned to glare (Cougar stealthily swapped out another card). “Do you ever shut up?”
Jensen shrugged and tossed his duffel onto his bunk. “Sure. Sometimes. Probably.”
“Arrogant little fucker,” Roque grumbled. “Yo, Pooch, are you gonna draw, or what?”
“Yeah, yeah,” sighed the driver, scooping up the top five cards from the discard. “It wouldn’t kill you to not threaten our techs once in a while. Maybe try being more personable.”
“Personable? Mother-fucker, I’m the LT, I don’t have to be fuckin’ personable as long as I get shit done.”
Pooch raised his eyebrows. “Mm-hm. Just sayin’. And the Pooch is not afraid of your gorilla-chest-pounding bullshit, because the Pooch is married to one badass former drill sergeant.”
Roque shuddered. “All right, I’ll give you that one. …When the hell did he put those eights down?”
“Pay less attention to the brat and more attention to the game,” Pooch admonished.
“Hey, this brat could kick your ass, grandpa,” Jensen retorted.
“Yeah, I believe ya,” Pooch said with a wave of a hand. “You ain’t built like a guy who sits in dark rooms and stares at computer screens.”
“That’s because I’ve done more CAPE than Wonder Woman.”
Roque just scoffed. “How old are you, little boy?”
Jensen put his hands on his hips and puffed out his chest like some cartoon superhero. “Old enough to drink, have a degree, and listen to classic rock.”
“Good answer,” said Pooch, giving up a card that let Cougar set out another meld. “Dammit…”
Jensen’s answer seemed to give Roque pause. He frowned like he’d been expecting a foolishly proud reply of ‘almost twenty-one.’ “Better than Cougar, anyhow,” he said, sounding mollified.
“What’s that mean?” Jensen asked, locating the fourth chair (being used as a radio stand in the corner) and pulling it up.
Cougar made a face and shook his head.
Roque, however, wasn’t about to give up a chance to reminisce about Cougar’s embarrassing youth. “Means he wasn’t even twenty when he got those tabs put on his shoulder. And he looked like he was maybe seventeen for five years after that.”
“Vete a la chingada,” Cougar grumbled.
“Bet he still got laid more ‘n you,” said Pooch.
“At least twice as much,” Roque admitted. “Bastard passed himself off all sweet ‘n innocent, with the wide eyes and the curly mop and pretendin’ he didn’t know English.”
And then Cougar forgot to be annoyed, because Jensen was laughing. It was a nice kind of laugh, full-bellied and sincere, and it made those blue eyes twinkle.
“You sly fucker!” the blond praised, slapping him on the back.
Roque and Pooch instinctively pushed their chairs away.
Usually, being touched by a stranger would’ve made Cougar react with what Roque termed ‘vigorous physical correction,’ and the guy would end up pinned face-down with a boot on the back of his neck.
Cougar was too dazed to react. He stared for a while, then set down the rest of his hand in a six-card meld.
“Again!” Roque howled, throwing his cards onto the table. “Goddammit, now I remember why I hate playin’ against you. I miss the old days, when you were scared you’d get in trouble for beating a superior at cards.”
“Yeah, the Pooch is out, too,” said Pooch. “Enjoy your winnings; I hope your teeth rot.”
“I volunteer to be a good friend by saving his teeth from one of these Hershey bars,” Jensen announced.
“Whoa, no, bad idea—” Pooch started, but Roque held him back.
“No, no, let him find out the hard way,” Roque said with a vindictive grin.
Cougar caught Jensen’s hand just as it touched the pile of candy. He squeezed down hard on one of the pressure points.
“Ow, jeez, holy shit!” Jensen yelped. “Agh, what is that, like a ninja death grip or something?”
“Ask,” Cougar said firmly.
“What? Oh, c’mon, it’s just a little candy, it’s not like—ow, ow, you mean little bastard! Man, this is just like my last relationship…”
Cougar arched an eyebrow. “Ask,” he said again.
Jensen schooled his pained grimace into a pleading pout. “Pretty please, can I have one of those Hershey bars? Seriously, I’ve been kicked from one hardass unit to another, I haven’t gotten anywhere near junk food in eight months, I’m dying of chocolate withdrawal.”
Cougar let go and handed him the chocolate he’d been reaching for.
“Tried to warn ya, man,” Pooch apologized. “Cougs is scary about his sugar intake. Last guy tried to steal candy from him ended up with eight stitches from a ‘high-speed forehead-to-table collision.’”
That was what had been on the report, anyway, and the guy was scared enough not to refute it. The Old Man had given Cougar his very sternest scowl, but even he couldn’t beat Cougar’s poker face. In the end, Cougar had gotten away with a growled warning to ‘limit such collisions in the future.’
Jensen carefully flexed his bruised hand for a moment, then grinned. “Dude, that was fucking badass! Where’d you learn how to do that? Fucking David Carradine shit—‘I could kill you with just these two fingers.’ Fucking awesome. Can you teach me how to do it?”
“Aw, that’s cute,” muttered Roque. “Now Cougar has himself a puppy.”
“You’re just jealous nobody’s ever gone all twinkly-eyed-fanboy on you,” snorted Pooch.