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the antechamber of another world

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Jensen glared up at the flickering light, the damn thing making the workshop look even dingier than it usually did, and that was saying something. Every time a cart went by outside, the light rattled in its metal scaffolding. How was he supposed to work like this?

He pounded on the wall. "Pooch! Get that generator in gear or I will go out and fix it myself."

There was a muffled response on the other side of the thin sheet metal that separated their apartments, but he couldn't tell if Pooch was going to fix the generator or roll over and spoon Jolene. He put his money on Jolene.

The light flickered again and he put down his soldering gun to rub his eyes. It was late, and he had to get up early tomorrow to take his stuff to market. If he worked all night, he might actually get the fire-breather done, but he wouldn't be able to test it. If something went wrong that'd be seriously bad for business.

He gave up, unscrewing the bulb and shuffling the three feet to his bed to faceplant among the spare parts and tools.

<<<>>>


There was one thing Jensen didn't skimp on, and that was his transportation. Maggie was a top-of-the-line automaton – a gorgeous draught horse that knew her way back to Pooch's compound from every marketplace and supplier within fifty miles.

Pooch had done that, of course. Jensen wasn't sure how, some sort of homing beacon or something, but he was never more grateful for it than the trips home from market when he was wrung out and too tired to pay attention. He'd often wondered if Pooch could get her to take him to the markets, but he didn't push his luck. He didn't often go alone, anyway. Pooch'd stayed home to help Jolene with the baby; there was a nasty flu going around, and Jerrod didn't look so good. Jensen's niece'd come down with it too, but it was running the usual course with her; Abby was having lots of aches and vomiting but no long quiet periods or deathly paleness like Jerrod. She was eight; maybe it was just dangerous to the little ones.

Jensen put it out of his mind. He wasn't going to be able to sell anything if he was distracted.

<<<>>>


When Jensen came into the market (from the end opposite his stall, always; he needed to show Maggie off), it was already booming. He'd gotten a late start – it was overcast and his ability to wake up with the sun actually depended on the sun being visible, apparently – and while it meant more people would gawk at Maggie as he drove the cart past the rows and rows of stone stalls, it meant he'd lost a few of the first few sales that came from newbies with the first blush of being at the market, blowing all their money on the first thing to catch their eye.

Jensen scoped out the other stalls as he guided Maggie through the market. A good mix this time -- one knife seller that looked high end, a woodworker with beautifully carved items, another tinker with lousy products. The young tinker frowned ferociously as Maggie clopped by. There were six food carts and a number of other stalls and carts offering services he was either not interested in or smart enough to avoid.

One of the food sellers – the one with really good noodles, Jensen remembered – came out from behind their stone counter to reach a hand out to Maggie. Jensen stopped her and let the woman put a hand on her nose. Maggie shook her head a little, letting her mane gently brush the woman's arm.

Maggie was a showstopper like that. The frame was a see-through crisscross of metal and leather straps, emulating the sleek lines of a draught horse, but a sort of outline more than a fully formed one. Sections of the clockwork mechanisms were visible but unreachable – not that Jensen'd tried, but there were always curious kids around – and the start button, hidden under her mane of leather straps, somehow coded only to Pooch and Jensen. Pooch had even given her some horse-like actions and sounds, so she would shake her head and her mane would go wild and she'd whinny and put her nose down for petting if there was someone directly in front of her. Jensen was still finding out stuff Pooch'd done, customizing Maggie for him, every one a surprise, though he'd had Maggie for two years now.

By the time Jensen got to his assigned stall, he was surrounded by kids, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over Maggie, reaching their hands up to see if she would put her nose down. Jensen smiled and hauled his bag of merchandise out of the cart, setting up Pooch's smaller animal models and his own toy guns in alternating rows on the wooden tables.

<<<>>>


Jensen wasn't a hawker by nature. He didn't need to be – he wasn't selling meat buns, for crying out loud. Sometimes, though, people he knew he could hook needed just a little encouragement. He could tell with the dark-eyed guy across the way. He'd been ogling Jensen's stuff from under his hat all morning. Jensen knew he had to get the guy closer to see the craftsmanship, but he wasn't sure what tack to take.

Before he could decide what to do, his best-worst customer strolled up, and you didn't stay in Aisha's good graces for long if you didn't give her one hundred percent of your attention.

"If it isn't my favorite customer," Jensen said, giving Aisha a broad grin. He tried not to be nervous, but just knowing she had at least three of his custom creations hidden somewhere on her body made him want to back away slowly. There was no doubt she had at least that many knives, probably just in her hair.

"Relax, Jensen," she said. "I'm not here to commission anything today."

Jensen breathed in slowly, not wanting to tip her off any more than he already had. "Well, what can I do for you then?" Most of the high-profit stuff he did was custom-made and more than half of it was commissioned by unsavory types; if she didn't want something made specifically for her, he didn't know what else she'd ask for.

"I'm looking for someone."

Jensen swallowed. His customers paid for their privacy, and while he didn't think he'd have any information she couldn't get easier and quicker elsewhere, he wasn't sure, and not being sure around Aisha was a dangerous prospect. "Who?"

"The Losers."

Jensen let his breath whoosh out of him. He hadn't even realized he was holding it. "Don't know who they are," he said honestly. He'd heard of them, of course. They were almost as well known as Aisha in the mercenary world.

"There are three of them," Aisha continued, as if Jensen hadn't spoken. "They like guns."

Oh shit. He'd probably made guns for one of them and not even known it.

"One of them's a sniper," Aisha said calmly. "Would've ordered a long distance weapon. Something big but easy to carry."

Jensen had never made a gun like that, so that was one down. He shook his head.

"Another one is fond of knives, but he likes his guns handheld and powerful."

Jensen rolled his eyes. She'd just described three quarters of his customers. "Have to be more specific than that."

She frowned. "Semi-automatics."

Jensen shrugged. That was one of his specialties. Pooch helped him with the automatic part; once he'd figured out how that worked, he'd gone about making it less disruptive to the shooting process. He was all about accuracy; there was no point in something that just sprayed bullets everywhere.

"Fine. The last guy, the leader. Goes by the name of Clay."

Jensen waited for her to expand on it, talk about the guy's preferences in firearms, but apparently no more information was forthcoming. He shrugged again. "Never heard of him."

She held his eyes for a long time. It wasn't easy, but he wasn't lying so there was nothing to give away. "If you hear anything, you let me know," she said, dropping her eyes to his stall. She picked up one of his toy guns, running a finger down the barrel. "Heard about the flame gun."

Damn it, he thought. He didn't really have specific plans for the fire-breather, but he'd hoped not to put it in the assassin's hands. He would've thought it'd be too broad for her line of work.

"Not done," Jensen said. "And it'll take a while to test and tweak, you know how I work."

"I know you don't want to disappoint me, tinker," she said. "And I was so hoping I'd have it by next market day."

Jensen just nodded. "It'll be done."

"Good." Aisha leaned in to kiss him on the cheek. He held very still – he'd heard she kept a razor blade in her mouth, and he didn't exactly trade on his pretty face, but it didn't hurt business. "See you next time."

"Can't wait." Jensen smiled wide enough to crack his face in half. She smiled at him acidly and started walking, looking idly at the next cart in his row. "Can't wait," Jensen mumbled again, and promised himself that he'd finish the fire-breather in the next week so he could do extensive testing. Aisha was one customer he never wanted to disappoint.

He glanced over to the bench where the dark-eyed man had been sitting, but he was gone. Jensen sighed. Just great. This market trip was going to be a total bust at this rate.

<<<>>>


The three day market had a definite cycle to it. There was usually a rush early on the first day, lots of people looking and touching, but very few buying – except folks new to the market and those with custom jobs who were waiting for their orders. Jensen insisted on half his fee up front. Not everyone could do that, but his workmanship was known throughout the tri-borough area, and sometimes even foreigners knew who he was.

The second day was usually mild in terms of sales. Small things – a lot of flint lighters and rubber pellet kiddie guns. He never put the real guns on display – those were all custom, and you had to come with a recommendation from one of his current customers before he'd take you on. His machines weren't for any old folk. He had standards.

The third day, today, was a frenzy of people, those that were trying to decide where to spend their hard-earned money. This was his bread and butter, and he had to be on his game to lure people in and convince them they wanted his stuff and not the inferior junk that kid was selling down the street. He hawked like his life depended on it – and his livelihood did anyway, so he supposed that was true.

Packing up, he realized the dark-eyed guy hadn't come back. Too bad. He was intense, handsome in a wiry kind of way, and while it could have been Jensen's wares he was looking at, it could have been Jensen's wares he was looking at. It'd been a while, and all that intensity bottled up in such a tight little package…

"I need a gun."

Jensen nearly jumped out of his skin at the mildly accented voice. He turned to look at the owner of the voice and his heart skipped a beat when he saw the dark-eyed man in the hat.

"Well," Jensen said, putting on his best smooth voice, "I'm almost packed up, but for you, mister, I'll dig out one of my pellet guns."

"Not a toy gun."

Jensen stopped. He didn't take on strangers; he was tempted to with this guy because, damn, hot, but they would have had to have done measurements yesterday at the latest, and there was no way Jensen was going to hang around another night in a market town that would be completely deserted by nightfall. "I think you may have me mistaken–"

"Roque. Said you were the best."

Oh, that bastard. He'd tracked Jensen down in his workshop, and that's just not the way things are done in Jensen-land. "Well, that's one thing Roque is right about. But unfortunately, I needed to spend a couple of hours getting your measurements and watching you shoot, and right now I have to get on the road so I can make it home before Pooch locks me out."

"I will come with you."

Jensen turned around and blinked at the guy, and his brain was already forming the words oh, hell no, you will not, I know you're hot but my work is separate from my play and this is just not happening when his mouth said, "Okay. Hop in."

The guy gave him a sly half-smile and grabbed one of the bags of Jensen's gear, easily tossing it with his own huge duffel into the back of the cart. Shit, Jensen thought. I hope he's worth it.

<<<>>>


It was a good thing Maggie knew her way home, because Cougar – and right, if that was his name, Jensen would eat his glasses – was a damn fine looking guy, and the last thing Jensen wanted to concentrate on was the route home.

For all his quietness, Cougar had a catlike grace that went along perfectly with his nickname. He was fast, smooth, and quiet. Stealthy. And Jensen could not help sneaking looks at him. His narrow face with its pink lips, outlined with that dark hair, short on his chin and long under his hat. Jensen always liked guys with mustaches and beards and he couldn't stop thinking about what it would feel like against his skin.

Whether by design or luck, Cougar didn't catch Jensen peeking. He dozed for a while, settling his hat over his face and leaning back in his seat. Jensen had outright stared then, imagining taut muscles under his denims, wiry and strong enough to keep Jensen in his place, though Jensen probably had a good fifty pounds on him. The way he handled Jensen's gear told him more than enough about what Cougar could do if he wanted to.

Jensen daydreamed a while, only keeping basic tabs on where they were going. Maggie knew her way home and he trusted her to do it. As long as he didn't fall asleep at the reins, they'd be home, safe and sound before nightfall. And then Jensen had to figure out what to do with Cougar. He only had one bed, and while it was big enough for two, he wasn't one hundred percent sure Cougar was up for sharing his daydreams. He could curl up on the couch or maybe make Cougar take it, since he was shorter. He hoped it didn't come to that.

He was drifting in and out, half daydream and half actual dream, when he noticed Maggie pulling to the right. If she were a normal horse, he would've said she was being skittish. "Whoa," he said, pulling back on the reins. "It's all right, Maggie, we're almost home."

They were in the middle of the woods a couple miles shy of the compound, actually, and Jensen knew there were bandits around sometimes, but they'd never bothered him before. "Take it easy, girl, let's just get the rest of the way home."

Cougar looked like he was still dozing under his hat, but there was something off about him. He wasn't loose-limbed and riding the road anymore. He was tense, even if he didn't look it to the casual eye. Jensen was about to say something when two kids, no more than fifteen, dropped out of the trees and Maggie whinnied and shied to the side to avoid them.

"We're not looking for any trouble," Jensen said, though he knew it wasn't his intentions that would start something.

"Neither are we," the first kid said. "We just want your money."

Jensen put his hands up, friendly-like, and smiled. "Money bag's in the back," he said. "I'll have to get it out." He did keep his money in the back, though the majority of it was in a secret panel in the side of the cart. There was a bag with a few coins in it, some silver and enough brass to make it feel like they were getting a nice haul if they didn't look too closely. There were at least five of them, another in the trees and two more on the ground, and even with Cougar's likely-awake state, two on five was not good enough odds to do anything stupid.

He gently set down the reins, whispering to Maggie, and moved to get out of his seat. Cougar was faster than he would have thought possible, though, and he was off the cart and knocking the two kids on his side unconscious before Jensen's mouth could fall open to gape at him. He took out a gun and shot the one kid out of the tree; Jensen went cold because you had to be a hell of a shot to be that accurate, and he might have just gotten himself in with someone that he really didn't want to be in business with. Cougar turned and pointed his gun in Jensen's direction, but four strong hands wrestled Jensen out of the cart and down to the ground, forcing him in front of them as a shield.

"Put it down," one of them growled, low and threatening, right next to Jensen's ear. "Or we'll see that your friend here has a matching hole for the one you put in our sniper today."

Jensen tried to smile at Cougar, to let him know it was okay, there wasn't anything worth risking their lives over, even if they got all his money and gear. Cougar nodded and threw the gun away, putting his hands up. "Good," the other one said, a higher, smoother voice, almost feminine. Then he heard a gun being cocked and rolled his eyes. "You said the money was in the back."

The first guy left Jensen to grab Cougar's gun and point it at him. He was big, still a little youthfully gangly, but with huge shoulders. He had short, curly, orange hair.. Jensen tried to ignore him and get to his decoy money bag, but he had a bad feeling something was going to happen to Cougar if he took his eyes off him. He was right – two more kids came up from the woods behind Cougar, and one of them took out his knees with a tree branch.

"Here," Jensen said, yanking the bag out from the back of the cart and holding it out for the person behind him. "Just take it and we'll be on our way. We don't want any trouble."

"Should have told that to your friend there," the person behind him said, grabbing the bag. Jensen watched helplessly as the three guys surrounding Cougar knocked him to the ground and took turns kicking him.

"Come on," Jensen said, edging around the cart. "Leave him alone."

"That's for Jaden," the ginger said, aiming a kick for Cougar's head. Cougar rolled sideways and avoided the blow, making the ginger lose his balance and nearly fall. Jensen took the opening and ran over, getting between the two of them.

"Enough. You've got your money. Get out of here."

Cougar got up on his hands and knees, and Jensen tensed. If it came to a knock-down drag-out fight, the four guys with two guns were going to win.

There was a moaning sound, and everyone turned around to look at its source. Jaden, apparently, clutching his wounded shoulder and shambling toward them. "Guys?" he asked, and just like that, all of the thugs ran over to him.

Jensen grabbed Cougar and threw him into the passenger seat, jumping over him to slap the reins on Maggie's ass. "Git!" he yelled, and Maggie took off, a jerking start right into a gallop. The bandits didn't seem too bothered by their escape, still running toward their wounded comrade.

"My gun," Cougar rumbled, and Jensen had to keep a hysterical laugh from getting out.

"I'll make you a new one," he promised, ducking when he heard shots fired after them. Luckily, the bandits were nowhere near as accurate as Cougar.

<<<>>>


There was no calming Maggie down after that. She went full speed the last couple miles home. Jensen was glad of that because Cougar didn't look so good, and he was clutching his belly like it hurt. Jensen tried not to worry about it. They weren't even an hour out and Jolene was the best stitcher he knew. She could put right anything you got out of sorts in your body, and she was fast and no-nonsense about it.

Cougar passed out at some point and Jensen had to make a grab for him before he fell sideways out of the cart. When he did, Cougar's hat fell off, and his hair whipped behind him in the wind. Jensen debated stopping for the hat, but the 'no worrying' thing hadn't really worked out for him, and it was starting to get worse, with the passing out and all. He'd buy Cougar a new hat, if he missed it that badly.

By the time they got to the compound and Pooch opened the doors, Jensen was freaking out. Cougar looked really pale, and Jensen didn't like to think about what that meant. "I need Jolene, man," he said, jumping out of the cart and carrying Cougar into his workshop. "Pronto!"

Jolene was already poking her head out when Jensen nodded for her to follow him. She followed without another thought, barefoot and barely decent in some short-short pajamas. Jensen saw Pooch grab Maggie's reins and he knew she'd be taken care of just fine.

"What happened?" Jolene asked, winding her way past through his workshop to the table in the living area on the far side. "And who is this guy?"

"Cougar," Jensen said, just nodding his head in agreement with Jolene's raised eyebrow. "And we got into a scuffle with some bandits. He got kicked around. They must've gotten a lucky kick in or something. Didn't look like it was that bad."

Jolene nodded and cleaned off Jensen's work table with brutal efficiency, sweeping her hands down it and letting things fall where they may. Normally Jensen would've complained – some of that stuff was delicate, damn it – but not now. He laid Cougar down and that was the first time he noticed the spreading wet patch on Cougar's jeans.

"Looks like someone had a bootknife," Jolene said, unbuttoning the denims and pushing them out of the way. "He's lost a lot of blood."

Shit. Shit. Jensen fisted his hands and thumped one rhythmically against his thigh. He knew Jolene would tell him what to do if she needed anything, but he was adrift at the moment, just wishing and hoping and shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

Cougar moaned, and that made Jolene smile. "Oh, good. Cougar, are you in there?"

Cougar's eyes fluttered open and were ridiculously aware, sizing up Jolene in a heartbeat before he glanced at Jensen and relaxed. "Here," he said.

"Good." Jolene pressed her hands on his abdomen. It was obscene, the brown of her hands against the wrongly-pale skin of his hip; the pressure made the skin lose even more color – almost white, and then some color flowed back into it when Jolene let up on the pressure. Cougar grimaced but didn't make a sound. "Okay," Jolene said. "How about this?"

She ran her fingers down his jeans, pushing them out of the way, revealing more skin and dark curly pubic hair, and Jensen couldn't look away. He knew he shouldn't be horny in this situation, but even with worry eating at him, he couldn't help swallowing as he watched Cougar being slowly exposed.

"Ah!" Cougar cried, and Jensen snapped out of it, stepping in to put his hands on Cougar's shoulders and press him back down to the table. "That hurts."

"Yeah," Jolene said. "Sorry. How about this side?" She pressed down underneath the denim on his other side. There wasn't any blood over there and Cougar shook his head. She lifted his shirt and methodically continued the pressure-testing, nodding with a look of grim satisfaction when Cougar didn't have any more complaints. There were a couple of blooming bruises but no more cuts.

"All right." She wiped her hands on her pajamas. "It's superficial. We'll only need to stitch you up. You're lucky – any deeper and we'd have to do a whole lot of digging through your insides. If you can help us get you out of your clothes, I won't cut them off."

Cougar nodded and pushed his denims down, lifting his ass so Jolene could pull them the rest of the way off. Jensen flicked a glance down the table, wishing he hadn't as guilt hit him just as hard as his erection did. He helped Cougar off with his shirt, and that didn't make things any better.

"Okay," Jolene said, after folding the clothes haphazardly and setting them on the bench next to the table. "I'll be back with drugs and tools. Don't go anywhere."

Cougar started shivering when she opened the door. It wasn't winter yet, but the autumn evenings had some chill in them, and Jensen felt for Cougar. He didn't think he'd be quite so nonchalant about being naked on some stranger's table, but then, maybe if he had a gut wound, he would.

Jensen got out his spare blankets and put them under and around the parts of Cougar that weren't cut open, thankfully giving Jensen something to do until Jolene came back, Jensen's sister and Pooch in tow, Jensen and Cougar's bags over their shoulders. "I'm going to need all hands," she said, like Jensen was going to protest. Or Cougar, Jensen realized, as Pooch tactfully ignored the naked half of the half-naked man on Jensen's table, and his sister ogled it.

"Hey," Jensen griped at Sara. "Eyes off."

She raised her eyebrows and shrugged, going around the table to stand next to Jolene. "Sara," she said, smiling down at Cougar. "Jake never did get the hang of introductions."

"Oh my god, he could be dying here," Jensen said, and then cringed, because shit. He looked down at Cougar, who at least seemed somewhat amused.

"Not dying," Cougar said, and Sara's eyebrows went up again.

"Nice accent," she said. "Where are you from?"

Cougar couldn't answer because Jolene had just stuck him with something or other, and his eyes rolled back in his head. Thank fuck, Jensen thought, because it was totally unfair for his sister to interrogate people before he even got to sleep with them.

"All right," Jolene said. "This might take a while."

<<<>>>


An hour later, after several rounds of disinfection and two layers of stitches – seriously, Jensen could have gone his whole life without knowing that the skin and the muscles underneath had to be stitched separately – Cougar was declared okay.

"He's lucky it wasn't any deeper," Jolene said, taping the gauze on top of the wound. "He'll be sore, but he'll be okay to get up and wander around in a couple days. Back to new in a couple of weeks, depending on how fast he heals. Take it easy on him, Jensen."

"What?" Jensen asked, wrapping Cougar in one of the blankets he'd been using as a pillow and carrying him to the bed. "You think I'm going to have athletic sex with someone whose guts were stitched up five minutes ago?"

Jolene shrugged. "Just, take it easy. And tell him, too. I don't think he's going to be easy to keep still."

"Yes sir, Jolene sir," Jensen said, and Jolene just shook her head at him as she herded Pooch and Sara out the door, Sara grabbing at something before she left.

He debated sleeping on the couch for a nanosecond and then decided that the bed was plenty big enough for two, especially if one of them wasn't supposed to move much.

"This is not the way I planned on getting you into my bed," Jensen said, tucking the blanket in around Cougar's body before climbing in and getting comfortable, facing Cougar so he could keep an eye on him in his sleep.

<<<>>>


Crash.

Jensen sat straight up in bed and looked around wildly. "What? Who –"

Cougar was standing next to the bed, looking meekly at the box he'd knocked over, which used to be full of springs; springs that now littered roughly a third of the workshop floor. He was wearing his blanket over one shoulder, like an off-kilter poncho, and it wasn't doing a thing for his modesty.

Jensen swallowed. "Uh, sorry, I didn't think to wash the blood out of your clothes last night. You can –" He stopped, noticing the neatly folded pile of laundry on the corner of his work table. He vaulted out of bed and saw the attached note in his sister's precise handwriting. You owe me.

"Apparently," he said, taking the note off the top of the pile and pushing it across the table to Cougar, "my sister is more thoughtful than I am."

Cougar nodded but didn't reach for the clothes. "I need the –"

"Right," Jensen interrupted, "right, the WC, it's through here." He went over to the narrowest set of shelves and swung them open. Cougar looked suitably impressed. "I know, it seems extravagant, but that's kind of what my sister does. Her and Jolene did most of it themselves." Sara's engineering skills were what got them into Pooch's compound in the first place – they wouldn't give another tinker a second look if it hadn't been for her.

Cougar nodded again, slowly making his way across the room. Even slow and in obvious pain, he was remarkably graceful. Jensen wondered if an offer to help would come across as too weird and decided it would. He just paced the length of the room until Cougar emerged, looking a little pale, but determined.

Jensen reached for the pile of Cougar's clothes, but Cougar gave him a shake of his head. "Shouldn't put on anything binding."

Of course. The denims were too restrictive – they'd probably tear the gauze off, or maybe even the stitches. He could just wear the t-shirt, Jensen supposed, but that would hardly do anything for the important part of his naked predicament.

"Well, you shouldn't be moving around anyway." Jensen scratched a hand through his hair. "Why don't you just lie down, and I'll cook some breakfast. I make a mean scrambled egg."

Cougar said nothing, which Jensen was quickly discovering was his modus operandi, and moved slowly toward the bed, setting his pillow against the wall so he could half-sit and watch Jensen putter around the kitchen.

Jensen hadn't actually meant he was cruel to the eggs, but having Cougar's sharp eyes on him meant he was nervous, and after cracking the third egg too hard and having to pick out the eggshell bits again, he put his back to Cougar and started talking, letting the flow of words take away his jitters.

"My mom taught me this," Jensen said, putting in salt and whatever other spices were laying around. He thought the light gray-brown might be garlic powder, but he wasn't sure until he dumped it in. Yep, garlic powder. "She taught Sara how to cook a lot of other stuff, but breakfast was always my domain. I can make pancakes, too." He heard a soft exhaling sort of sound and chose to believe that was a Cougar-laugh. "We don't get much citrus fruit in the off-season, so no juice," he explained, whisking the eggs to a froth and pouring them into the cast iron skillet. "But we have fresh milk, and there's tea, of course. I've got some really good honey."

He chanced a glimpse over his shoulder, and Cougar was smiling at him, looking amused and comfortable. Jensen liked the look of him, there in Jensen's bed, and if this had been a normal morning after, he might be tempted to turn the stove off and climb back in. Since it was most definitely not a normal morning after, he took a spatula to the scrambled eggs and went to his chill box to pull out his last four strips of bacon. He'd been saving it – they bought it from the farm down the road, but bacon was expensive, even with Jensen and Pooch's repairs on their milking equipment. Curing, Jensen supposed, though he didn't know much about it.

"I hope you realize how much I like you," Jensen said, unwrapping the package and shoving the eggs over in the pan to make room for the bacon. "I don't share my bacon with just anybody."

"Thank you."

Jensen turned around too late to actually see Cougar's lips moving, but he was smiling in Jensen's direction, like he might think Jensen was actually charming. Score one for the tinker. He went back to cooking and talking about his mom, smiling to himself and humming snatches of things that came to mind when he ran out of things to say.

<<<>>>


After the least romantic breakfast in bed Jensen'd ever had, he got up, got dressed and took a look at the state of his shop. There was blood on the table – ewww – and all of his inventions were in a heap on the floor. He cleaned the table, talking as he scrubbed. First about the catgut sutures Jolene'd put into Cougar, then about the cleaning solution that Jolene'd made herself and how it cleaned up blood like it'd never been there (not that Jensen did a lot of cleaning up blood, you understand, just that it came in really handy when he did), then about his projects as he scooped up the jumble of half-finished gadgets and separated them into piles so he could see what needed to be fixed.

The next time he looked over, Cougar was asleep, breathing deeply and looking completely relaxed. Considering the short but informative hours he'd spent with the guy, Jensen thought it was probably remarkable that Cougar was able to sleep like that in a strange place. Jensen grinned and set to recalibrating the fire-breather.

<<<>>>


The next two days were spent stealing meals from his sister and Pooch and Jolene and working on his stuff while Cougar slept a lot. He thought maybe Cougar constantly ran a little low on sleep – he seemed to wake up instantaneously, moving before his eyes were even open. Then he'd grimace, look around, spot Jensen, and relax back onto his pillows.

At least he wasn't waking up at all of Jensen's little sounds around the shop anymore. The first time Cougar'd flailed awake, reaching for a phantom something under his pillow (a gun Jensen's hindbrain told him, and he thought it was probably right), Jensen worried that maybe he should hide the cooking knives and put away the more dangerous gizmos until Cougar was gone. Then his stomach dropped at the thought of Cougar being gone, and he gave up and went to his sister's place to steal her herbal tea – all of his had caffeine in it, and he thought maybe Cougar didn't need the uppers.

<<<>>>

The third day after his inauspicious arrival, apparently Cougar had caught up on his sleep and was antsy, because while he stayed in bed, still sitting halfway up against two pillows, he watched Jensen like a hawk. Every movement Jensen made while he was tinkering, everywhere he paced while he was working out a problem, every face he made while he was thinking. Jensen wouldn't be surprised if Cougar was trying to read every thought that didn't automatically come out of Jensen's chatty mouth. Coming out of the WC to see Cougar's eyes on him, narrowed and observant, made Jensen want to turn around and go back in to jerk off.

Cougar listened, too, and Jensen wasn't sure how he knew that, but he did. He knew if he gave Cougar a pop quiz, he'd be able to recount every single story Jensen'd told about his mom, Sara, Abby, Pooch, Jolene, Jerrod, Maggie, and probably everything he talked about in his sleep. Shit, he hoped he didn't talk about Cougar in his sleep.

It was all so nerve-wracking, especially since Cougar only said five or six words a day, and most of those were variations on thank you. Still, he didn't complain when Jensen climbed into the bed with him each night, pulling the comforter up and breathing Cougar's scent in, warm and rich and devastating.

<<<>>>

The thing was, Jensen was a flailer. He was a cover hog, a sleeptalker, and a drooler. He was about the worst person to share a bed with and he knew it. The first couple of nights he shared a bed with Cougar, he slept lightly, waking up any time Cougar moved. This seemed to keep the worst of his bad habits at bay. The third night, though, something clicked over because he slept like a log, at least until he heard a strange chattering noise – he'd been dreaming about squirrels – and woke to feel the whole bed shaking from Cougar's shivering.

Jensen rolled over, wrapping himself fully and completely in the coverlet and realizing Cougar had only the thin woven blanket covering him. He hadn't woken; apparently, Cougar could sleep through anything if he didn't feel directly threatened. Jensen wiggled out from underneath the covers and straightened them out, piling them up a little on Cougar's side to give him a little extra if Jensen felt the need to play human burrito again.

He doubled up his pillow, using it to prop up his head as he laid on his side, looking down at Cougar for the couple of minutes it took for his eyes to get heavy again. He'd almost gone back to sleep – the squirrels had come back – when he felt a bunch of tiny ice cubes on his shins.

"Whoa," he said, opening his eyes to find Cougar looking at him in that all-consuming way he had. He realized the ice cubes were Cougar's toes.

"Cold," Cougar said, and shifted over some, rolling up onto his good side and pressing himself (and the yards of material between them) against Jensen.

"Okay." Jensen plucked at the bunched-up comforter until it was out of the way and scooted over the last few inches until he and Cougar were almost pressed together. Cougar's freezing-cold fingers squirmed under Jensen's t-shirt, and Jensen put his hand over both of Cougar's, intending to keep them there until they warmed up to a real human being's temperature.

It shouldn't have been hot, but Jensen figured that there was a black hole somewhere, sucking all the hotness out of the universe, and when it all came out the other side, it was concentrated in the dark-haired bastard who could make Jensen horny while he was getting a gut wound stitched up. This was a lot sexier than that, and he and Cougar were only slightly misaligned, so when Cougar's mouth met up with Jensen's shoulder, Jensen was instantly hard. He tried to wiggle his hips back a little, keep himself from unintentionally sexually harassing the guy who just wanted not to be a popsicle, but he shook the whole bed, which made Cougar crack an eye open. He gave Jensen that assessing look, the one that said he probably knew every secret Jensen'd ever kept and would be happy to use them for blackmail if he moved again.

Jensen swallowed and squeezed his eyes shut.

<<<>>>

When Jensen woke next, he was facing the other direction, sweating, his morning wood helped out by the fact that he could feel Cougar tucked in behind him, sporting a little morning glory of his own. When Jensen tried to edge away from Cougar, he got an arm around his ribcage so fast and so hard that he didn't dare move or he'd be breathless for an entirely different reason.

"Okay?" is all Cougar said, soft and demanding, even though Jensen knew it was an honest question.

"Um," Jensen said, clearly not at his most eloquent just before sunrise with the hottest person he'd ever known plastered along his back, "I… this… I…"

"Shhh." And the iron grip Cougar had on Jensen's chest loosened slightly. "Your brain is very loud. Let me listen to your body."

Besides being the most words he'd heard Cougar string together in a row, they made Jensen's entire body buzz like a live wire arcing all over the place.

Then Cougar put his hands on Jensen, and for once, Jensen's brain shut the hell up. Cougar got his hands under Jensen's t-shirt, pushing it up and out of the way as he scoped out the planes of Jensen's back, first with his hands, and then with his mouth, kissing in the hollow of his shoulder blade and then licking his way down Jensen's spine, the blankets kicked off the end of the bed. Jensen could feel Cougar in the way he moved down Jensen's back but the expected shift of weight on the bed never happened, and it made Jensen briefly wonder if he was hallucinating all this. Then Cougar pulled down Jensen's underwear and bit him on the fleshy part of his ass, and his brain happily went back to radio silence.

"Okay?" Cougar asked again, this time as Jensen heard the snap of Cougar opening the container of lube (the good stuff, the stuff Jolene made and handed out to everyone, no questions asked) he kept in his bedside table. He gave a brief thought to the fact that he hadn't heard or felt Cougar move for the nightstand but let it go. He was enjoying the not-thinking too much to stop now.

"There is very little I would say 'not okay' to," Jensen said, leaving off the with you. "And that is very much okay."

"Good."

Jensen clutched at his pillow, the spare one that he usually woke up cuddling, and stuffed down the random thoughts that came up while Cougar took him apart with agonizing precision, piece by piece. Usually Jensen hated this part –he wanted it to be over with as soon as possible so he could get to the good stuff. With Cougar, this was the good part, opening for Cougar's fingers, steadily fucking into him – so slowly he couldn't even feel the stretch. He felt Cougar, though, and all he could do was stare at the far wall, the one thin sheet of metal separating his workshop from Pooch and Jolene's rooms, and let his eyes fall to half mast.

"Ready?"

Jensen had been ready for this about five minutes after he'd first seen Cougar, but he knew what Cougar meant, and this time, even his words were gone. He nodded, the shift of his hair against the pillow scraping in his ear.

It'd felt like forever, Cougar's fingers stretching him open, but it couldn't have been that long, judging by the burn. That or Cougar was hung like a bull. He hadn't seen Cougar hard, but he'd be surprised if that was the case – he had a nice cock, but not astoundingly huge. The stretch was good, though, it gave Jensen a sharp point to concentrate on, something to keep his mind in neutral, idling and empty.

Cougar pushed in slowly but insistently, and Jensen's concentration thrummed with his hammering heartbeat. He had no leverage, lying on his side like this, no way to push back, trying to get more, trying to be greedy. Cougar had to know that; he had to be counting on it, because he pulled out equally slowly, his hand firm on Jensen's hip, like he planned to be at this a while.

Jensen hugged the pillow to his chest. Moving his hips worked against him, and Jensen had a feeling he wasn't supposed to do anything with his hands (least of all touch himself) so he was bound here, trapped by his own inertia – he would have to take that out on Cougar next time.

He realized he was thinking again, his mind wandering along the twisted paths of his brain, and he brought his concentration back to Cougar, relentlessly pressing in, smooth and slick and forever. Jensen just closed his eyes and breathed.

Impossibly, he felt his orgasm coming – like the slow motion weather fronts that took forever to arrive but ravaged the compound when they finally showed up, like the tornado that'd taken the roof off of more than one building. Cougar was a force of nature, too, and Jensen did nothing – could do nothing but wait and trust and exhale into the pillow.

Maybe this was what going insane felt like; Jensen wasn't sure he was going to hold on, keep himself together intact while he endured the slow motion tempest that was Cougar's single-mindedness. Finally, Jensen felt the very edge of his orgasm, like the first pristine snowflakes of an oncoming blizzard. As if he could feel it too, Cougar shifted gears, no less thorough, but faster, just a little, and Jensen clawed for it – yes, fuck, yes, thank god – and just like that, the storm was on him full force and he came, release and relief and hope all flooding out of him.

<<<>>>

"So you're probably feeling good enough to get dressed," Jensen said, after they'd cleaned up and changed the sheets and Cougar'd stood between Jensen's legs and kissed him for so long he thought it might be tomorrow already.

"Yes." Cougar picked up his shirt from the stack of clothes on Jensen's dresser. "Are you trying to get rid of me?"

"No!" Jensen half-shouted, and Cougar's smirk just proved he was as evil as Sara, taking advantage of Jensen's earnestness like that. "No, I just meant we can go out shooting so I can take your measurements and make you that gun."

"Those guns."

"Excuse me?"

"Those guns," Cougar repeated. "You told me you'd replace my handgun, and I am hiring you to make me a rifle."

Jensen gulped. He'd forgotten about the pistol Cougar'd lost to the bandits. That probably was their biggest net gain from that day; guns were expensive and held onto their value as long as they were well-cared for. Jensen had a feeling that Cougar took care of his guns with painstaking thoroughness.

"Rifle," Jensen said, something niggling at the back of his brain. "What kind of rifle?"

"An accurate one, as far as possible."

A goddamn sniper rifle. "You're a hunter, then?"

"Yes."

"Deer, elk, those damn annoying squirrels?"

Cougar shrugged, his strange burst of verbosity gone in a patch of awkward avoidance. Jensen couldn't find the words or will to ask more questions, so he gave up, left Cougar in the shop, and wandered around the compound, gathering up as many of his guns as he could find: Pooch's semi-automatic, Jolene's six-shooter, Abby's snubby, Sara's long-barreled showpiece. That was enough to start with.

<<<>>>

Cougar had amazing aim. Jensen watched him shoot up the target wall with each of the guns. Two shots to get his bearings and then he put them in the same place, every time. The target wall was densely-packed clay, the shots leaving black pock marks, though not visible at this distance (one hundred yards, Cougar insisted, and it was the farthest back they could go before they backed up against the piles of scrap metal that were the border of the junkyard). Still, they made the spread obvious when the clip was done or revolver empty.

Half the compound came out to watch. Gamma brought out her knitting and sat on one of the oil drums, lap blanket tucked around her. They didn't know whose grandmother she was, but she'd adopted the whole compound, and that meant warm sweaters and socks and mittens for everybody. Even better, it meant Abby had already learned a trade – and she made good money from her knitting. Once she got faster at it, there was a real likelihood she'd out-earn them all.

Cougar nodded at Gamma, putting two fingers up to his forehead in what looked like a half-hearted salute. A brief flash of irritation crossed his usually calm face, and he turned around and started on the next chunk of wall with Sara's gun, the long barrel throwing him for a loop on the first shot.

"I like this one," he said, making Jensen blink. Sara always told him she felt more confident with that gun; he never really believed her, though. There was a snickering behind them, Doyle and Darby (the idiot twins, Jensen always thought of them as, though they weren't actually related) pointing at Cougar.

"That's a girly gun," Darby said, laughing behind his hand at least. "Little Abby can shoot that gun."

Cougar didn't rise to the bait – he took his second shot, and the dust spray showed it was practically on top of his first. The third through sixth shots were just as close. Jensen put his hand up and jogged down to the wall. From close up he could see the edges of the bullet holes – all connected in the middle but holes punched out of center by each bullet – it looked like a goddamn daisy.

While he was up there, he looked at the rest of Cougar's spreads. All of them had tightly-clustered shots within half an inch of each other, but there was nothing like this.

"Damn!" Jensen ran back. "That's amazing."

"Amazing," Doyle echoed, and for some reason, that was what got Cougar's goat. He turned around, pointed the gun at Doyle's chest and closed the ten feet between them with a slow but purposeful three steps.

"Nice hat," Cougar said, glancing up at it. Now that Jensen looked at it, it did look awfully familiar.

"Yeah, nice hat," Jensen said. "Where'd you get it?"

"Found it." Doyle gulped and pulled it off his head. "On the way to Chan's farm. It was just sitting there on the side of the road."

"It's Cougar's," Jensen said, not bothering to threaten because there was nothing scarier than the man on his right with all the power of his concentration centered on you. Jensen knew that from personal experience. "I suggest you give it back."

Doyle stuck his hand out, holding onto the tiniest bit of the hat's brim, offering it to Cougar from the absolute limit of his personal space. "Here you go!"

Doyle's falsely enthusiastic voice didn't cover his fear, but it didn't matter. Cougar lowered the gun, took the hat, and perched it on his head. Jensen hadn't realized how naked he looked without it. Doyle and Darby decided they were needed elsewhere – didn't Gamma need them to pick something up from Sandro the potter? – and hightailed it out of the courtyard.

Pooch came out from the junkyard as Doyle and Darby were tripping over themselves to get out of Cougar's sightlines, and Pooch looked between them a couple times before busting out in a laugh. "Oh Jensen, you sure can pick 'em. Listen, Jolene's serving up dinner tonight and she says you two better be there. We're sick of all this reclusiveness."

Before Jensen could open his mouth, Cougar said, "Can't wait."

Pooch grinned, throwing the huge metal pipe onto his shoulder and giving Cougar a thumbs up. "Damn straight."

<<<>>>

Sara and Abby were at dinner too, so it was a rowdy affair, everyone talking over each other and one-upping each other's stories. When Cougar started a halting story about his sister's first date, though, the table went silent. He was a good storyteller, though Jensen was starting to think he was just hypnotizing everyone with his eyes. Cougar was halfway through his story when Jensen realized he was completely and utterly bullshitting them. Jensen didn't know how, but he knew. When Cougar finally got to the end of the story and his sister was covered in mud and storming down the road to their house, asking for a machete to kill her brothers, Jensen couldn't hold back anymore. He started laughing. Jolene caught on next, and Sara right after. Abby was just looking at them all like they were stupid, and Pooch was chuckling along in that way that meant he didn't get the joke.

Cougar was grinning from ear to ear, a strangely joyful look on the face of someone who seemed so serious all the time.

"I think for that," Jolene said, picking up Jerrod from the highchair and settling him on her lap, "Sara and I should kick your ass at poker."

<<<>>>

Jensen knew better than to play poker with Jolene or Sara, but Pooch was stuck, and Cougar didn't seem anxious to be leaving, so Jensen excused himself to his workshop to get a head start on Cougar's gun. Cougar'd liked the long barrel and probably the revolver mechanism, too. The problem was the limited number of shots. Jensen sketched several different ideas – a single barrel with twelve shots and a double barrel with twenty shots, one with a clip sort of mechanism. He couldn't quite get it to sketch right, and he thought it'd be jerky anyway – that was the thing about a revolver; it was smooth.

He fell asleep at the table, his head pillowed on his arms and the sketches scattered all over the place.

<<<>>>

Jensen spent the next couple of days feverishly working on Cougar's gun. The design came to him while he was sleeping, a combination of two of his sketches, and he bounced out of bed and over to his table without a backward glance. He did look up briefly as he started sketching the new gun, but Cougar was still sleeping,

Cougar didn't distract Jensen while he was working, which was a small miracle in and of itself. He usually locked his door when he went into a frenzy like this – he didn't care about being cranky to Sara since she was used to his "episodes," but he'd yelled at Abby once, and she wouldn't talk to him for a week afterward. Having Cougar in the room meant he could take the measurements while he was working, though, making sure the gun was going to feel like an extension of Cougar's hand, which some little part of him was balking about, how dangerous Cougar was, and what did he do for a living, anyway? Did Jensen really want to be involved with a mercenary? He couldn't force himself to think about what, exactly, he meant by "involved."

Once the sketching and the math was all done, Jensen started on the rough shaping. He was quiet and focused, his nervous chatterbox ways lost in the groove of a new project. He heard Cougar talking to him, real words, real stories, but he only had half an ear and an even smaller percentage of his brain to pay attention.

In an amusing turnabout, Cougar began feeding Jensen, sometimes going out and scrounging from the compound – once he brought back a whole pot full of Gamma's lentil soup, complete with two mitten-like potholders that Jensen was never giving back – and sometimes cooking up something from Jensen's rapidly depleting stores.

He knew where everything was in the apartment – he never asked where to find the collander or the hand towels or the extra soap. Jensen thought he might be snooping around while Jensen was distracted, which probably should've bugged Jensen but didn't. There wasn't anything Jensen minded him finding. Besides, he already knew where Jensen kept his lube.

The table was littered with cast parts, the frame waiting to have the hole punched out for the barrel, when Cougar said something that grabbed Jensen's whole and complete attention.

"My mama taught me to shoot. She had a Jensen gun, too, passed down from her grandmother."

Jensen turned to stare at Cougar. "You told me Roque –"

"He did." Cougar nodded. "I didn't know there were still Jensens making guns. That gun was my great-grandmother's."

It was a surprising thing to have in common, being trained by your mother. Jensen's mom had wanted to train Sara but Sara was having none of it. "I don't want to make guns," Sara had said, drawing her plans for grand buildings instead. Jensen sat in her workshop for hours (not like his, not with anywhere near the space or equipment – she did much more by hand), watching her, trying to teach himself. When Sara apprenticed herself to the engineer in town – what a fight that had been, Sara moving to town when she was twelve – their mother had quietly despaired for months, until one day she turned to Jensen and said, "Jake, it's your turn." He was sixteen and already making other stuff – he made all the flint lighters his mom sold – but he took to it like a fish to water, and he and mom had spent hours arguing about automation, Jensen trying to convince her that there were other ways to make guns, better ways, but she was too set in her ways to listen.

His mom would probably scoff at the guns he was making now, but they'd earned him a name. He was known for his speed and the accuracy of his guns – something his mom's guns couldn't touch, though they were state-of-the-art for the time.

Jensen snapped out of it. Cougar was already talking about something else, a recipe for a self-heating salve, maybe, that he was planning to share with Jolene.

When Jensen started on the grip, teasing just the right shape out of the rosewood (this part he always did by hand, his mom would be proud of that), constantly pressing it into Cougar's palm to check the feel and fit. The fifth or sixth time he did this, he had a sudden need to suck Cougar's cock, because the only thing hotter than Cougar normally was Cougar with one of Jensen's guns in his hands, pretending to sight down a barrel that hadn't been attached yet.

<<<>>>

Cougar stopped talking suddenly. Jensen didn't notice until he stopped filing – the silence in the room was heavy and unfamiliar.

"Cougar?" Jensen asked, but Cougar put a finger up to his mouth and shushed him. Jensen did as he was told, though biting back the irritation was tough. Judging by the level of crankiness, he was three quarters finished with Cougar's double-barreled revolver.

Cougar started moving toward the door – his speed had come back these past two days – and then he was running and the door slammed shut behind him. Normally, Jensen would keep working, but Cougar was acting strangely and that was enough to break through the blinders of his intense concentration.

"Cougar?" Jensen asked, jogging after him.

When he got in to the courtyard area, he saw Pooch pointing his guns at two guys on the other side of the gate and Cougar gesturing frantically for him to put the guns down.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Jensen said, pissed that he hadn't realized this might be a shootout and therefore forgotten his own damn gun. "Pooch, what's going on?" He glanced at the two guys, assessing the threat level – high, scary high – and then did a double take. "Roque?"

"They said they'd blow their way into the compound if we didn't bring Cougar out." Pooch didn't drop either gun, but Jensen could tell he wasn't aiming to kill.

"And look," Roque said, sounding as cranky as Jensen'd felt two minutes ago, "here he is. You had us worried, asshole."

Cougar shrugged. His stifling silence was back, and between that and the hat that was tipped low enough to hide his eyes, Jensen shuddered involuntarily.

"Well, let's go," the guy who wasn't Roque said. He was older, grizzled, but sharp, and Cougar bristled at the command.

"No," Cougar said.

"Damn right, he's not leaving," Pooch added. "He's been injured –"

Guns came out of nowhere and were suddenly pointed at Pooch and Jensen. Roque and his man weren't aiming for arms or legs, though, no, they were aiming for kill shots, and Jensen stared down the barrel of the gun he'd made Roque two years ago.

"No!" Cougar leapt in front of Jensen, yanking on Pooch, trying to get him behind him as well. "Thieves. Stupid kids. I'm fine."

Jolene came out of her apartment with Jerrod on her hip. "Boys," she said, sounding amused. Either she was reading something about the situation that Jensen was missing, or her balls were just that much bigger than Jensen's. Probably both. "Why don't we invite these gentlemen in for lunch. I think there's a lot to talk about."

She stood there, waiting, and Pooch lowered his gun. Cougar stared down Roque and the other man, and they lowered their guns as well. "Thank you, ma'am," the man said. "It'd be a pleasure."

<<<>>>

Sitting around Pooch and Jolene's table, being introduced to Clay – oh, shit, Jensen was in a bucket-load of trouble now – and re-introduced to Roque, Jensen thought about how completely fucked he was. The one bright spot in this pisser of a day was Cougar's insistence that he was not going anywhere.

"He's still healing," Jolene said as she cut some cured meat. "He shouldn't be traveling that far."

Clay and Roque looked exasperated. "Cougs," Roque said. Cougar tipped his head back slightly, like he might be listening, though his eyes still weren't visible under his hat. "Cougs, you've ridden home by yourself, half-dead. Don't tell me that's what this is about."

Cougar shook his head.

"Okay, fine, then if you want to wait until Jensen finishes your gun, I'm down with that – it'll only take a couple more days, right?"

Jensen swallowed. "I haven't started on the rifle yet," Jensen said, "and to be honest, I don't get many orders, so they take longer and there's more trial and error, and –"

"No." Cougar was leaning back in his chair, quietly staring down the rest of his team, the rest of The Losers, oh god, kill him now, what the fuck was Jensen thinking, messing around with this guy?

"This is a good place." Jolene turned around and flashed Cougar a smile. "There's real food and good people. Knitters. A farm down the road. And a doctor," Cougar finished, nodding Jolene's direction. He sounded like he was… what, trying to convince The Losers to stay at Pooch's compound? Shit, that was a bad idea.

Except Cougar was one of them, and Jensen couldn't quite wrap his head around the fact that Cougar was part of one of the most notorious merc groups out there. Cougar, who'd been traipsing around his shop, telling him stories about his family, cooking terrible-tasting concoctions out of Jensen's collection of canned and preserved goods. Cougar, who'd marveled at Jensen's homemade fucking machine he thought he'd completely concealed in its little hidey hole, and then grinned at Jensen and said he couldn't wait until he was feeling one hundred percent again. Damn it, Jensen was a disaster where this guy was concerned, not able to tell heads from tails.

"Hang on a minute," Pooch said, bringing the plate of meat and cheese and bread over to the table. Four hands immediately reached out for it – arguing was hungry business – and Jolene interrupted to ask what people wanted to drink.

"Now wait just one damn minute," Pooch said. All eyes turned to him. "I like Cougar, so he can stay as long as he likes. I'm not sure I want the likes of you two here. There are a lot of kids in this compound."

"Hey, bro, we weren't really gonna stay," Roque said, pushing away from the table and standing up. Cougar sat forward, his gaze firmly on Roque. Jensen was sure he was keeping an eye on Roque's hands – and shit, one of them was fond of knives.

"Calm down." As ever, Jolene was the voice of reason. She put a gentle hand on Pooch's arm. "Cougar's stuck here for at least another week. We can put them up for that long."

<<<>>>

One week turned into two, and the fevered excitement Jensen'd had while building Cougar's custom handgun was banked while he worked on the rifle. Cougar pulled out his current rifle – why Jensen hadn't realized there was a rifle in Cougar's duffel, he would never know – and shot for him. Standing, crouching, lying down, all the positions he'd ever fired a rifle in. There were dozens, and more than a few looked like acts of extreme contortionism. It gave Jensen ideas.

Cougar found the rope and pulley system Jensen'd made for his bed, the one that he used to suspend himself while he used the fucking machine. The difference between buckling himself into three of the leather cuffs and holding on to the fourth and Cougar buckling him in completely and being in control of the fucking machine was immense. Jensen's way was good. Cougar's was perfection.

Clay and Roque didn't seem to care that Cougar was shacking up with Jensen, and they didn't seem to have a clue about proper visiting hours either, because the knocks on their door came at all hours of the day and night. Jensen didn't really care if he was working. They'd just take Cougar with them and go wandering the junkyard or shooting at the target wall. He didn't mind that much if he was sleeping, either, because Cougar usually just rolled over and slung an arm over Jensen, and they'd fall back to sleep in seconds. They never knocked while Cougar and Jensen were fucking, and that weirded Jensen out a little, because he hadn't thought he was particularly noisy, but the evidence seemed to contradict his theory. Especially since there was often a knock on the door not too long after they'd finished. Once, Cougar'd got out of bed, still naked as the day he was born, and answered the door. Jensen supposed anyone who'd be knocking would've seen it already – the only person who hadn't was Abby, but it wasn't like she didn't know what a naked man looked like, and besides, she never knocked, she just strolled in like she owned the place.

It'd been Roque and Clay, of course, and they were talking in low voices about a mission – a mission for pete's sake, like they weren't mercenaries getting paid to kill people or fuck them over.

"We're not bad men," Cougar whispered into Jensen's back that night. "You know this, yes?"

If it had just been Cougar, it'd be easier to believe. Roque and Clay were hardened, bitter. It was hard to believe they were out there doing good deeds. At least until Clay came back to the compound one day with the curly-haired ginger kid who'd held them up on the way home from the market.

"This him?" Clay asked. Cougar nodded. The kid looked like he was about to piss his pants.

"Don't kill me," he begged, dropping to his knees when Clay let go of his collar.

Cougar frowned at him. "Where's my gun?"

Jensen tried not to be disappointed. Cougar obviously liked his double-barreled twenty shot revolver. His old gun was probably the antique – one of his grandma's models, maybe, or great-grandma's. A family heirloom, for both of them.

"We sold it," the kid said, bursting into tears. Jensen felt sorry for the kid. The gun had probably netted them enough food to stock up for winter, maybe a couple of blankets, too.

"Get up."

Roque came out of the apartment Pooch'd given them temporarily while Cougar "recuperated" – Roque still seemed to think that they'd be leaving when Cougar's business was done here – looking from Clay to the kid. "This him?"

"Yep," Cougar said. Jensen felt sick. He hoped they weren't going to kill the kid in the middle of the compound.

"All right, let's go."

Clay and Roque marched the kid out of the compound and into their wagon. Cougar gave Jensen's arm a squeeze and went with them. Jensen turned his back on them, going into his shop and pretending to work on the rifle.

When they came back two days later, the entire bunch of bandits – seven of them – were in the back of the wagon, looking scared. Pooch let them in without a word, though, and directed them to the back forty, the area of the compound set aside for more living space, should they outgrow their current apartments.

Roque had two of them setting up a temporary camp – their own tattered tents and belongings, looked like – and Clay got the rest of them busy breaking ground. Apartments were dug in here; it was the most efficient way to regulate temperature. Jensen would've stood around watched the kids for hours but Cougar tugged on his arm and took him back to the workshop. Relief had made Jensen feel so light he was floating, so he let Cougar pull him along, wondering how the hell The Losers had gotten such a badass reputation. It certainly wasn't from taking care of bunches of displaced kids.

<<<>>>

"Jensen!" Pooch's yell was annoyed and frustrated and, Jensen thought, scared. He ran out of his workshop, grabbing the gun Cougar'd insisted he start keeping by the door. Cougar was right behind him, gun in hand, too.

Aisha stood at the front gate. She wasn't armed – at least, she wasn't pointing anything threatening at Pooch – but Pooch had both his guns on her.

"I feel like you're bringing in a bad element, Jensen," Pooch said, his voice light but still wary. No Jolene at the door to diffuse this situation, either.

"Aisha," Jensen said, trying to be calm. "What a pleasant surprise."

She smiled at him, a sly, disturbing smile, and her eyes locked onto Cougar. "Alvarez."

Cougar tipped the brim of his hat at her.

"I hear you've got the whole team in there, Jensen." She stared hard at him. "You lied to me."

"No," Jensen answered, quickly enough that he knew she could hear his nervousness. "I didn't even know Cougar's name when you asked me, and I didn't know Roque was one of them, and I hadn't met Clay."

Aisha shrugged, smiling, a strange carefree sort of smile. He'd think she was crazy if she wasn't so completely in control of herself all the time. "They're here now. Clay! Roque!" Cougar kept his eyes on Aisha, but Jensen couldn't help looking toward their door, waiting to see if they'd come out, or try to bluff their way out of this, somehow.

The door swung open and Clay took a step out of it, not bothering to come further into the courtyard. "Aisha."

Jensen held his breath. His only real hope was that Sara and Jolene had gotten the kids to another part of the compound so they wouldn't get hit by stray bullets. He didn't think he'd be so lucky himself.

Aisha grinned, catlike, this time, quixotic. "I've got a job for you."

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Maggie

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Cougar's gun

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