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Drawn into the Concrete

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Aisha lingers in the background, passively surveying the neighborhood. There are no clean-cut lawns or white picket fences. The homes are maintained, but they have a certain gritty exterior of the working class, those trying to get by. Aisha supposes this should have said more about Pooch's wife, but she's too busy sweeping the perimeter, waiting for the baby greeting party to be over.

She barely spares a glance toward the door when the screen bangs shut and Jensen bounds up the stairs with a bright, "Hey, Jo-Jo. Aww, look at him. He's like a plushie!"

Somewhere in the circle of men, there's a quiet, feminine laugh and then a soft-spoken, "Yes, you can hold him."

Aisha flicks her eyes up to the porch and watches Jensen eagerly step forward to accept the baby. Her eyes automatically slide to the right when she catches the slope of a shoulder, and then she's staring into soft brown eyes warmed by a smile.

Pooch's wife steps around Jensen, fingers briefly running over her child's bald head and then squeezing Jensen's arm. "Hi," she says as she descends the stairs, the boys keeping to the back but tracking everything. "I'm sure you already know, but I'm Jolene."

Aisha inclines her head and accepts Jolene's outstretched hand, expecting a brief, dainty touch of their fingertips or an awkward fumble. But Jolene's hand slides smoothly into Aisha's, and her grip is firm and secure.

"Aisha."

Jolene smiles and then releases Aisha's hand. "Nice to meet you." She looks behind Aisha and then at the vehicles parked on the curb before angling back to look at the boys. "Where's Roque?"

Cougar slouches against the banister of the stairs and lowers the brim of his hat over his eyes, bouncing the question to Pooch, who looks at Clay because Jensen's too occupied with poking the baby and making him gurgle and laugh. Clay eases down the stairs with a grin, and Jolene turns to fully face him. The exchange is silent, and Aisha knows there's something she's missing, especially when it ends with Jolene's decisive nod.

Jolene tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and glances at Aisha over her shoulder. "Would you like something to drink? Are you hungry?"

Aisha declines with a shake of her head, the corners of her mouth pulling into a smile that feels sharp. "No, I'm fine, thanks."

There is a flash of something in Jolene's answering smile, something quiet yet fierce, and it's more dangerous than any of the weapons hidden beneath Aisha's clothes. This petite woman standing in front of Aisha is more than just Pooch's wife, and Aisha can't risk getting tangled in Clay's connections.

"What about us?" Jensen asks, but he ducks his head when Jolene turns to him, his voice softening as he adds, "Pretty please?"

Jolene laughs and heads back up the stairs, her stride perfectly even and unhurried. "You know where the kitchen's at," she says and scoops the baby out of Jensen's arms with a gentle wiggle.

"You can't cut a guy a little slack for saving the world?" Jensen asks as he follows Jolene into the house.

Aisha doesn't hear Jolene's answer.

Clay's team files inside, and Aisha watches each man, from Jensen to Cougar, scrub their shoes on the doormat before entering the house. Aisha takes a final look around the neighborhood — notes the group of boys a block down jostling each other and laughing, the neighbor across the street peeking through the window, and an elderly woman grabbing groceries out of the trunk of her car — and then heads inside. Before she does, she pauses to wipe her shoes on the doormat, scraping the soles of her boots against the block letters that say 'welcome.'