It was destined to be a shitshow from the start, but Jensen was pretty sure that was what was written under their names in whatever super-secret People for Hire for Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap book people kept: The Losers, specialists in catastrophes, disasters, and shitshows. It was the only explanation for their job offers.
But the shit didn’t usually single Jensen out.
Everything was going according to plan. They’d had only the standard, normal kinds of difficulty penetrating the Best Western of Doom. (Jensen had a lot of questions to ask Edward Bernhard, and the second most pressing currently was, “Who sets up a mad scientist’s lair in a former Best Western hotel?” Because this shit was just embarrassing.) They were following the plan to get the mysterious device their mysterious employer was willing to pay top dollar for. Pooch was waiting outside in the getaway vehicle, Clay and Aisha were holding down their egress route and keeping their eyes open for the guards Bernhard mysteriously seemed not to have, and, in the former second floor balcony room 212, Cougar was watching Jensen’s back while he did his magic on Bernhard’s systems, trying to find the doohickey they’d come to steal. Unfortunately, their employer had been able to supply some drawings, an unhelpful description, and a location that boiled down to “somewhere in the hotel.” And there was a lot of hotel, and it was full of junk. Piled on other junk. With more junk inside it.
It was a combination hotel/lair/garage sale from hell, and it was getting on Jensen’s nerves.
“This would be a lot easier,” Jensen observed, “if this entire place wasn’t basically ready to host an episode of Hoarders: Mad Scientist Edition.”
Cougar didn’t say anything, but that didn’t matter. He was on a level with Cougs, they got each other, he could feel his silent support.
“Like, what the fuck is this?” Jensen gestured at the spiky roundish thing on top of what seemed to be a box of random gadgets located near the computer he was currently working on. “Is that decoration? A lamp? Some kind of removable drive?”
Hmmm. That last one felt like maybe a possibility. Jensen let his hands keep typing without supervision, trying to find an inventory, while he ogled the spiky roundish thing. No visible ports. “Hand me that, would you?” he said to Cougar, who stalked soundlessly over, picked up the spiky thing by its least spiky part (the sort of bulb thing on top), and handed it to Jensen.
No ports on the – well, he couldn’t call it the back. The other side. Or on the bottom. He handed it back to Cougar, who put it down carefully and headed back to his vantage point ten feet away, back against the only wall space not covered in shelves full of random things.
“Is it too much to ask that things have labels?” Jensen asked. Cougar remained motionless, but Jensen knew he agreed. “Like, I am not asking for a ‘Steal This One, It’s What You Want’ label, but a simple –” Jensen broke off in mid-sentence and froze.
Cougar already had one fist up. He’d heard it too. A distant, quiet beep. Five seconds later, there was another one.
Jensen met Cougar’s eyes and read the message there perfectly: fall back?
Jensen hesitated, because beeps were not good – beeps potentially meant bangs in their very near future – but there wasn’t anywhere else to get the information they needed. He whispered, “Five more minutes, max,” and Cougar nodded.
Thirty seconds later, the room started to fill up with fog, and Jensen revised that to a “Fall the fuck back right now right now right now right now,” but Cougar already had him by the vest and was pulling him along the hallway they’d come down. They picked up Aisha just inside the chokepoint at the fire doors leading to the stairs to the ex-lobby. She looked at them, eyebrows raised, but didn’t say a word, just covered their six as they ran down the stairs towards Clay’s position.
Then they had to double-time down the road, since this was the stupidest lair in the world, and you couldn’t park within about four miles of it without sticking out like a – well, like a thief. So they ran, which was maybe not the best choice for people who had recently been gassed, but Jensen’s life wasn’t about making good choices.
At least it was a temperate island. Not a jungle or anything. That was something to be thankful for, while you were jogging down a green lawn surrounded by green trees, probably dying from a mystery fog.
“Okay,” Clay said, once they were clear of the lair, with Pooch driving casually back through the quaint little town like they were just a bunch of tourists, doing tourist stuff. In the middle of the night. While all dressed in black. “What the fuck just happened?”
“Death fog,” Jensen said.
“Death fog,” Aisha repeated carefully.
“Look, I don’t know that it was a death fog, but it was definitely not a good thing – there were beeps, right, two beeps –”
“Three,” Cougar corrected.
“Fine, okay, three beeps, and then this slight hissing noise, and then the room started to fill with fog. So Cougar made the extremely reasonable tactical decision to get the fuck out of there, fall back, report, and assess.”
“Death fog,” Clay repeated, like the words hurt him to say.
“At the very least, it was a suspicious fog,” Jensen pointed out.
“We’ll get you checked out,” Clay said. “Make sure nothing’s wrong. But we’ve got a delivery date on this. We’ll have to go back in.”
Aisha said, “Oh, we’ll go back in, all right.” She looked like she took it personally when death fogs interrupted her plans.
Well, actually, that made sense. Jensen took it personally when death fogs invaded his airspace and tried to set up shop in his lungs. He could see her point.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” she said, shrugging. “Your vital signs are normal. Your lungs and hearts sound good. You aren’t reporting any symptoms. Certainly you could be suffering ill effects from this, um, gas you say you inhaled, but nothing I can detect with the equipment I have.”
“So they’re fine,” Aisha said.
“That isn’t what I said. My suggestion would be to go to the hospital on the mainland and get it checked out.”
Clay and Aisha exchanged glances. Aisha said, “Okay, then that’s what we’ll do,” but Jensen already knew they wouldn’t be. When you were fugitives from the government, you didn’t go to the hospital unless you were really sure you would die without it.
Instead, Clay and Aisha made the executive decision to wait it out. “Maybe you’re fine,” Aisha said, shrugging. “Maybe it was just supposed to scare you away, since that’s what it did.”
“Maybe it made you smarter,” Pooch offered.
Jensen perked up at that. “You mean maybe we’ll develop superpowers? Because I’m already pretty damn smart for a normal human.” He inspected his hands, hoping for some sign of spider powers or something. “I’ve always felt like I was right for a superpower, you know? Like it was my destiny. Right, Cougar?”
Cougar considered that one. “No,” he finally decided.
“No what? No superpower for me? I’m hurt. I thought we were friends, but no one who cared about me would deprive me of my lifelong dream.”
“No superpowers for me,” Cougar said. Then he smiled a little. “No more superpowers, I mean.”
Jensen stared at him. The thing was, he wasn’t entirely sure Cougar was kidding.
Cougar really did seem like the kind of guy who might have superpowers. It was the look, partly – he just had that whole sleek hot-ass bad boy thing going for him, plus eyes you could fucking drown in, plus that hat. But it was also, well. If Jensen got a superpower, the whole world was going to know inside of five minutes. But he could totally believe Cougar could get a superpower and keep it a secret. Maybe, depending on the power, not even ever use it, just keep it there. Under his hat. Literally.
Jensen was in the middle of imagining Cougar with elastic powers, or invisibility, or maybe a magic rope, when Cougar laughed. “No,” he said. “I won’t tell you my superpower.”
“You would if you had one,” Jensen said, most of his brain focused on the many, many interesting things Cougar could do with magic rope, because sometimes a guy had to make his own fun. “I’m a very curious person and you’re morally opposed to torture.”
Cougar smiled. “Not in every situation,” he said, which unfortunately dovetailed a little too well with Jensen’s magic rope imaginings, so he had to change the subject pretty quickly and fiercely.
Good thing no one on this team appreciated women’s soccer, even though it was obviously the only real sport and Jensen’s niece was going to win a gold medal in it when she grew up. Fifteen minutes on Megan Rapinoe’s cross to Abby Wambach in 2011 and his brain was right back on track.
“That resort hotel,” Cougar pointed out as they settled in to wait for the death fog to kill them enough to be worth going to the hospital about.
“It’d been bombed,” Jensen said.
“Still had running water,” Cougar said. “And beaches.”
“Yeah, okay, that place was pretty sweet, too.” But their current safe house had actual cookware and a stove that you could use without setting anything on fire and one and a half bathrooms. It reminded Jensen of his sister’s place in New Hampshire, actually; it had the same kind of bunk beds in the room Jensen and Cougar had claimed. (Jensen liked the spaceship theme. Cougar liked the sightlines.)
“IKEA,” Cougar said.
“Makes sense. Do they even have IKEA in New Hampshire, though?”
“Good point, well made,” Jensen said, and offered Cougar a high-five. He responded – Cougar was a giver when it came to high-fives – but he had a slight wrinkle to his brow, like he was worried about something. “What is it? Is the death fog starting to get you? I pretty much figured it’d get me first.”
“No,” Cougar said. “No death fog.” But Jensen could tell he was still worrying.
“It’s been forty-five minutes,” Aisha said. “I’ve seen you spend forty-five hours on stakeout.”
“Stakeouts have the potential for interesting!” Jensen protested. “Sure, each individual moment is boring, but you know there’s something interesting going to happen soon. It makes all the difference.”
“He bitches on stakeout, too,” Pooch pointed out.
“He waits longer to start, though.” Aisha considered Jensen. “So stake out Cougar. Watch him for signs of the death fog affecting him.”
“Okay, but staring at Cougar is going to get old fast,” Jensen warned her. “I’m going to be complaining again in ten minutes.”
“I will appreciate every minute of silence you can give me,” Aisha said, and returned to reading her actual book on actual paper because she was a Luddite or something.
Jensen fixed his eyes on Cougar. Probably best, he figured, to establish a baseline; that way he’d know for sure if Cougar deviated from it. Cougar was sitting in one of the slightly stretched out papasan chairs this vacation cottage was furnished with, and while Jensen knew for a fact it was impossible to get into, stay on, or get out of those chairs gracefully, Cougar was managing it. He was in what Jensen thought of as Cougar Idle Mode, where he just waited, still and calm, and it seemed like he was sleeping with his eyes open, except that he’d react at the speed of sound if anything happened.
But nothing was happening, and Cougar was just stretched out in the papasan chair. For once, he had his hat off – there was a hat rack in the cottage, and he made a point of using it – and his hair was falling over his face a little. It was – coquettish, Jensen would have said, except it was Cougar, so obviously it wasn’t. Cougar had probably gained a little muscle recently, given the way his worn t-shirt stretched at the arms, his biceps straining at the fabric. Just like his thighs – everything on Cougar seemed hard to contain, and that brought Jensen’s mind helplessly to Cougar’s package, which was, like every other part of Cougar, really something to see. Jensen had never seen Cougar actually fully naked, or at least he’d never taken more than a glance, but he had some extremely cherished mental pictures of Cougar in sweatpants, Cougar in boxers, Cougar in swim trunks –
Cougar sat forward sharply, looking first at Jensen, then at Aisha, Clay, and Pooch. Aisha marked her spot in the book with her finger and raised her eyebrows at Cougar; Jensen noticed with some bitterness that she wasn’t complaining about Cougar’s interruption. Pooch and Clay, apparently alerted by the quality of the change in the silence, looked up almost in unison.
“No one heard anything,” Cougar said.
It wasn’t a question, but Jensen felt compelled to answer anyway. “There wasn’t anything to hear, unless your superpower kicked in and it’s super hearing, which – honestly, I’d hold out for better if I were you.”
“I heard something,” Cougar said. “I heard you talking.”
“I, uh, wasn’t talking. I don’t think I was talking. Sometimes the internal monologue gets a little bit external, that happens to everyone, but – I wasn’t talking, right?” Jensen looked at Clay and Aisha.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Aisha said, closing her book entirely. “What did he say?”
“He was talking about my...hair,” Cougar said, but the way his eyes swept down Jensen’s body and stopped for just a second somewhere around his midsection told a different tale.
“Okay, that’s weird,” Jensen said. “Wait, did your superpower manifest and it’s telepathy? That’s a worse power than super hearing.” Honesty compelled him to correct that, “I mean, obviously it’s an incredible power, but, uh, speaking as your friend and teammate I’d pretty much rather you got anything else. Professor X is creepy as fuck. I used to have nightmares about ending up at his school because I was obviously a mutant, right, and then he’d –” Jensen broke off his somewhat panicked babble because Aisha handed him a sheet of paper.
He looked at it. Blank. He looked at the other side. Also blank. “Uh, thank you?” he said.
She handed sheets to Clay and Pooch and kept one for herself. “This is easy to test,” she said. “Cougar, close your eyes. Everyone, turn so he can’t see you and write a word on your paper.”
Clay wrote something immediately, and Aisha almost as quickly. Jensen hesitated – he thought about motherboard, but that was obviously something he’d pick, same with mothership, and then he thought about chocolate, but again, obviously him, so – in the end, he wrote FLOWER.
“Jensen wrote Flower,” Cougar reported, his eyes still closed.
Jensen, struck speechless, held up his paper.
“Interesting,” Aisha said thoughtfully.
“Disastrous,” Jensen corrected her, and he was right, he knew he was right, but no one listened to him.
“So he doesn’t have mindreading powers,” Jensen said, covering his eyes with his hands because the world was just too hideous to risk seeing. “He has Jensen-reading powers. Great.” He started making a list of all the things he shouldn’t think about – Cougar, sex, his fear of – and then forced himself to make a list of every season of Power Rangers in order instead. After a few seconds of that, he felt okay about looking at the world again. Power Rangers was magic.
Pooch eyed Cougar thoughtfully. “So how much can you get from him? Everything? Just surface thoughts?”
“What if we didn’t test this?” Jensen wondered out loud to the room, but everyone ignored him, so he went back to trying to remember if Power Rangers Lost Galaxy came before or after Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue.
Cougar frowned. Jensen was sprawled on the floor because that was the best way to deal with disaster, and he was staring up at Cougar because staring up at Cougar was fun.
Cougar smiled at Jensen and bowed his head slightly, as if to say thanks, and Jensen collapsed back on the floor and pointedly thought about Dino Thunder. Cougar shook his head and said to Clay, “At first, I got just the occasional thought. Now I get more. Not everything, or even most things, unless I concentrate hard. But more.”
“So it’s developing,” Aisha said, her tone thoughtful. “And we have no idea where it will end.”
“Oh god,” Jensen said faintly. “Are Cougar and I about to mindmeld? Are we about to become a gestalt entity?”
“Please, no,” Pooch said. “That’s more than any human should be asked to bear.”
“Finally, someone’s on my side,” Jensen said.
“I meant me,” Pooch said. “I’ve got a child. I’ve got to think about my future.”
Jensen started vengefully humming Call Me Maybe.
Clay frowned. “This could get bad.”
He and Aisha exchanged glances, and Jensen saw some kind of decision get made, without any input from the people actually experiencing the telepathic disaster, and also without any actual words spoken, so obviously telepathy was more widespread than he’d ever suspected.
Jensen shifted his gaze to Cougar. “I really thought that if I ever had to say the words ‘telepathic disaster,’ it’d be a lot cooler than this is turning out to be.” Cougar didn’t really respond, but Jensen could tell he sympathized. “How is pretending to be telepathic so much more awesome than actually being telepathic?” Jensen said mournfully.
“No mind bullets,” Cougar said thoughtfully.
“You’re right. You’re right. That is absolutely what the problem is here.” Jensen reflected on the turn of fate that gave Cougar the ability to read thoughts and no one the power to telekinetically drive a quarter into someone’s brain. “The world is a fucked up place,” Jensen told Cougar sadly.
“Okay,” Aisha said, standing up.
“Okay what okay?” Jensen asked.
“If it’s getting worse and we don’t know when it’ll stop, that’s a situation,” Clay said. “That’s something we need to address.”
“Ideally before they grow tentacles or something,” Pooch said, nodding, and great. Now that was another thing Jensen had to imagine.
Cougar with tentacles was sexier than he’d have expected. Huh. He glanced up, saw Cougar looking at him, eyebrows up, and pulled a throw pillow embroidered with “World’s Best Grandma” over his face and contemplated his own probable death from embarrassment. Then Aisha kicked him in the thigh, and that was a much more immediate threat, so he took the pillow back off again.
“Clay and I are going to go back to the lair, try to figure out what happened to you two,” she said.
Jensen sighed. “Great plan! Then you’ll get death fogged and you’ll get telepathy, and then you’ll kill each other before you even make it back here.”
“No, we won’t,” Clay said. “Because forewarned is forearmed.”
Jensen pointedly muttered, “Knowing is HALF the battle,” but Clay ignored him.
“Gas masks,” Aisha told him. “We’ll go in with full face covers. Should be okay.”
“‘Should be okay’ will be your famous last words,” Jensen predicted, but, again, no one listened to him.
“Makes sense,” Jensen said. “Pooch is the guy you want in telepathic disaster emergencies.”
“We’ll be back in 12 to 24 hours,” Aisha said to Pooch.
“Try to keep them from developing any more mind powers,” Clay added, and ignored Pooch’s extravagant this is not on me arm gestures.
And then they were gone, and Jensen was left alone with, but not alone in, his thoughts. This was definitely one of those situations where the observer changed the experiment, because knowing that Cougar was listening in took his mind down – well, down certain paths, which he definitely wasn’t actually going to take, except he was already thinking about them. He risked a glance over at Cougar, who was looking back at him, one eyebrow raised.
“Okay,” Jensen said out loud. “I’m going to think about something else.”
“Fine by me,” Cougar said, and settled back.
“I’m going to have a beer,” Pooch announced. “In the weird-free kitchen.”
Jensen started by determinedly focusing on telecommunications equipment, which led him to considering their own current comms equipment, which sucked and was inadequate, and so was their operational security. Clay was, frankly, not someone who should ever be picking code words or passwords, because he didn’t understand the art form, and also he tended to default to laughably guessable things from ancient cartoons, instead of the far superior cartoons of Jensen’s youth.
Five minutes later, Jensen was deep in contemplation of the He-Man and She-Ra oeuvre when Cougar said, “Ow.”
“What?” Jensen jerked his head around. “Is it the death fog? Is it killing you?”
Cougar just stared at him. “How do you live with all” – he gestured with his hands – “that in your head?”
Jensen considered this. “I can’t help being an interesting person.”
Cougar pressed his hands on his temples and said, “It’s time to learn a new skill.”
“This is part of that,” Cougar said. “It’s the part I’m willing to teach you.”
Jensen was honestly impressed with Cougar’s patience. Most people couldn’t handle filtered Jensen for more than half an hour or so at a stretch, and Cougar had survived no filter Jensen for close to an hour now.
“That’s probably some kind of record,” Jensen speculated. “In Basic, they’d already have duct-taped my mouth shut.”
“Don’t tempt me,” Cougar said. And then he demonstrated for Jensen again. He put his hands on his knees, took a deep, noisy breath, and breathed out, obviously according to the count he’d given Jensen, but Jensen couldn’t remember what that was. “Four,” Cougar reminded him.
“Right, four.” Jensen took a deep breath, obediently counting to four in his head. “Is there a specific reason it’s four? Would five work? Has there been research on this?” Cougar shot him a look that said, pretty clearly, that he was once again feeling tempted by the duct tape, and Jensen breathed out for a count of four. “Does it count if it’s not the same breath I breathed in?” he asked.
“It counts if you’re counting,” Cougar said firmly.
Jensen breathed in, one two three four, and then he opened his mouth to ask – but Cougar was looking at him again, so he held his breath instead, one two three four. By that time, he needed to breathe out, so he took care of that, one two three four. Then he looked at Cougar and waited for applause.
“Again,” Cougar said.
“Seriously? This is already the longest I’ve been quiet in like four months. I don’t think you’re getting the whole, my whole concept.”
“Believe me,” Cougar said. “I am getting your whole concept.”
And the thing was, now that Jensen was really looking, okay, yes, Cougar looked as hot as ever – Jensen had seen Cougar covered in blood after a gunshot wound to the shoulder, he’d seen him after three days of desert travel, and he’d seen him in a MOPP, so at this point he was comfortable saying there were just no circumstances where Cougar was both alive and not hot – but he also looked a little strained around the eyes.
“Yes,” Cougar said pointedly. “I have a headache.”
“That’s what she said,” Jensen rejoined on automatic, but his brain was already spiraling through all the things that might mean. What if Cougar’s brain wasn’t mean to go full Jensen? Honestly, few brains were. What if Cougar’s just broke? What if he had seizures, or went into a coma, or –
“Not helping,” Cougar said.
And, right. Jensen needed to try to make sure Cougar’s brain stayed functional and not dripping out his ears, which meant he needed to do this stupid square breathing thing. And, okay, this wasn’t exactly Jensen’s wheelhouse. It was exactly the opposite of his wheelhouse, pretty much. But if there was one thing he’d learned in the Army, it was that you do what you have to when you have to.
“Okay,” Jensen said. And he breathed in, counted four, held his breath, counted four, breathed out, counted four, held his breath, counted four. After a couple of cycles, weirdly enough, he felt his heart rate slowing, his mind slowing – which was unfortunate, just in the sense that Jensen considered himself the king of overclocking his own brain, but – right, breathing.
After two minutes, it got easier. It got a lot easier, weirdly, and all at once. He felt calm, in a way that he didn’t usually, and he kept picturing a – swimming pool? He breathed some more, and no, he was picturing being in an ocean. Being totally underwater, in a weirdly warm ocean. And that. That was not right.
“Cougar?” Jensen said, opening his eyes. “Are you imagining being underwater in an ocean? Because that’s what I keep thinking about, and that is the last fucking thing that would ever make me relax, so I think. I think I’m getting that from you.”
Cougar stared at him. “Shit,” he said.
Jensen really didn’t have anything to add to that.
“How can you not find the ocean relaxing?” Cougar asked, like that was their main problem here.
“It’s full of fish,” Jensen explained. “It’s full of fish and some of them are sharks and some of them are whales and any of them can touch you at any time.”
Cougar stared at him, and Jensen was pretty sure he could actually feel some of Cougar’s astonishment. “You get shot at. For a living,” Cougar reminded him.
“Yes, but not by fish,” Jensen said, and he felt like he’d made his point perfectly, but Cougar was visibly unimpressed.
Unless that was the telepathy.
Pooch pressed both his hands against his temples like he was trying to keep his brain contents in, despite being the only person in the entire group with a guaranteed unaltered brain. “Guys, can we focus? Does the telepathy being two ways now mean it’s worse, or is this just the same level of bad as before?”
There was a pause as they all considered this, and then Cougar shrugged. Pooch sighed and got another beer.
“You know,” Jensen said, sipping his terrible coffee. “I always believed that telepathy would make life easier. Knowing what people were thinking, not having to guess – it just seemed like such a problem-solver.”
“I never thought that,” Cougar said.
“Well, you were right.”
Cougar tipped his hat.
Pooch eventually went up to bed, telling them to wake him if their brains exploded or Clay and Aisha came back.
But Clay and Aisha didn’t come back, although their comms stayed quiet. Jensen could think of at least fifty separate reasons they might not be yelling and still not be fine, especially given that they were apparently up against the kind of guy who could invent a telepathy fog, but he only got to spend about five minutes thinking about them before Cougar, his eyes narrowed like he planned to glare telepathy into submission, decided it was time for another round of breathing.
“I also never thought I’d be tired of breathing,” Jensen said mournfully. “Today is full of disappointments.”
Cougar patted Jensen’s shoulder in what Jensen could tell – thanks, telepathy – was entirely fake sympathy.
“Could be worse, though,” Jensen said. “I could have someone else reading my thoughts.” He considered this, running through all the candidates. “Who do you think would shoot me the fastest?”
Cougar wrinkled his brow at Jensen, who admitted, “Yeah, I know, it’s not even in question. Aisha’d shoot me while Clay was still having feelings about it.”
Cougar, head tilted, considered that. After a full fifteen seconds, he nodded.
Jensen sighed. “I love this team, you know? We’re family, maybe the only real family I’ve ever had.” Cougar looked over at Jensen, forehead slightly creased, and Jensen realized he was being unfair. “No, it’s just – my sister and I have been a team from day one, or at least the day I was born. She’s really who taught me about being a team, I guess. But you guys, you taught me about family. When I was a kid, I used to watch all those heartwarming Christmas movies and wonder if they were made by aliens, because family was about you and your sister watching each other’s backs and trying to get each other through. But then I found the Losers, and” – Jensen groped for his train of thought and found it, somewhere in the memories of leg lamps and ringing bells and his father yelling – “What I’m saying is that I love every one of you. But I think we’re all halfway to crazy, even without the telepathy.” That got him a raised eyebrow and a slightly lean forward, which was flattering. From Cougar, that was one hell of a sign of interest.
A minute later, Cougar cleared his throat and said, “So. Kirk or Picard?”
“That is an unfair question, my friend,” Jensen said. “But the answer is obviously Picard. Kirk is hot as hell, though, and seriously talented, and when I was 13 we got a lot of Trek reruns on TV after school, and I beat off to Kirk at least a dozen times, so the answer is obviously Picard except that really it’s Kirk.” He blinked, kind of surprised at himself, but probably the main advantage of having a telepathic friend was you no longer really needed to worry about TMI. TMI was the nature of the beast. Although Cougar was looking tenser now, so maybe he needed to worry about it again, except –
Cougar broke in before Jensen could finish his thoughts. “Do you ever wish you could play Pokemon Go?”
Cougar was holding his body perfectly still, the kind of stillness he had right before the shooting started, and it was making Jensen’s hindbrain go on red alert even though there was obviously no reason to be.
Jensen answered the question without really thinking about it, because he was mostly watching Cougar, waiting for him to indicate which way they should run. “Of course not, it’s a security nightmare, but Jesus what I wouldn’t give to be fucking walking around and catching a Charizard, so of course I do.”
Cougar stared at Jensen, and maybe it was telepathy or maybe it was just years of experience, but Jensen could tell Cougar was thinking oh, shit.
In the light of Cougar’s sudden switch to Defcon Three, Jensen considered some of the stuff he’d said recently, and it didn’t take him long to spot the problem. “Seriously? The fog has more side effects than just telepathy?”
“What kind of sick fuck invents telepathy fog and then decides to add truth serum to it?”
“Edward Bernhard,” Cougar said grimly.
Jensen, still sitting on the floor from his three thousandth round of counting his breaths, collapsed back on it. “I hate my life,” he moaned.
“Makes more sense to hate Bernhard,” Cougar pointed out, getting up and stretching out his back and arms like he wanted to be ready in case the gunfire started.
“Cougar, I have an involuntary truth-telling telepathy curse. I get to hate everyone and everything.” And then he felt compelled to add, “Except you. I still don’t hate you, and I’m not sure why that is, and the fact that I’m telling you that is freaking me out, because what if I start to tell you everything I feel about you?”
Cougar got up, walked into the cottage’s kitchen, and came back with a popsicle. “Hard to talk while you’re eating,” he offered, and handed it to Jensen.
“I love you, Cougar,” Jensen said, and shoved the popsicle into his mouth before he said anything too damning.
“Why aren’t you freaking out?”
Cougar blinked at him. “How would that help?” Jensen stared at him, for once with nothing to add in his outside voice or his inside voice, and Cougar added, apparently against his will, “This is not the weirdest or worst thing that’s happened to me.” And Jensen couldn’t entirely get what Cougar was remembering – somewhere dark, something loud, screaming, but nothing concrete, no words or anything. He wasn’t sure he wanted to get more detail than that, honestly.
“Sometimes you scare me,” Jensen said. “Which isn’t criticism, by the way. Hanging out with terrifying hotasses is pretty much my life’s work.”
Cougar tipped his hat again. Two hat tips in one evening. Jensen was flattered. “I’m flattered,” Jensen said. “That makes me feel really good about myself. And, wow, it’s kind of amazing that there are new levels of overshare for me to reach.” He considered that. “Whoa. Shit, that’s it! That’s what this stupid fog is for.”
“Interrogation,” Cougar said.
“Interrogation. And if it makes you tell anything, and gives people the ability to read your mind...”
“Clay and Aisha.”
“If they got captured, they’d be an open fucking book.”
Cougar considered that for a full ten seconds, his head tilted slightly to one side, and then he stood up and went upstairs to wake up Pooch. Jensen started sorting through their gear. Unfortunately, Clay and Aisha had taken most of the weapons – it was disturbing but also awesome how two people, objectively not all that big, even, managed to fit complete arsenals on their persons without disturbing the lines of their clothing – but they’d left the personal weapons behind. And they had comms equipment to burn, because Jensen knew what mattered.
“Communications is essential to every operation,” Jensen informed Cougar.
Cougar tapped his temple. “Good thing we’re going, then.”
“Uh,” Pooch said from the doorway where he was standing, go bag on his shoulder, “you guys do remember you still have to communicate with the Pooch, right? With actual words and everything?”
“That’s why we have these,” Jensen said, and passed him an earpiece and one of Jensen’s patented comms boxes.
Fifteen minutes later, they’d geared up, double-checked their weapons, and hit the bathroom. “Cougar, my man,” Jensen said. “Pooch. You ready to take this freak show on the road?”
“No, but what choice do we have?” Pooch said.
“Always,” Cougar said
And they headed out.
“This is an affront to our dignity, but we can work past it,” Jensen said, loading up the hatchback with their spare gear. “We just have to remember we’re better than this. We’re more than this.”
“I mean, I’m more than this,” Pooch said. “That’s definitely true. You guys, though...”
“Hey,” Jensen said, gesturing at his extremely badass self. “I am a fucking ninja. I deserve ninja transportation.”
Cougar looked Jensen up and down and made a tilty hand gesture, which might have been hurtful, but he was actually thinking that Clay’s insistence on giant black cars was bad OpSec and pointless, and also that the Honda Civic was functionally invisible in any North American setting. It was kind of weird, finding out the full sentences lurking behind Cougar’s silences and tiny gestures. Jensen felt weirdly privileged, and weirdly compelled to share that with everyone.
“You think you know a guy,” Jensen said as Pooch backed down the rental house’s driveway at speed, “and then you start reading his mind.” Jensen thought he caught a minute spike of something from Cougar, but he couldn’t place it before his mouth continued, “And you find out he’d rather be doing his thoroughly awesome, totally illegal, mind-bendingly cool work in a fucking Honda Civic.” Jensen shook his head sadly.
Cougar thought very pointed thoughts about security and camouflage all the way to town, which was admittedly only about ten minutes, but that was way more focus than Jensen had ever had on anything in his life, so he was impressed.
Edward Bernhard was trying to be a traditional weirdo bad guy, clearly, but his execution was a little lacking. The Best Western hideout was problem number one, yes, but the vacation destination tourist town was a problem all on its own. As they drove to the hideout, they passed antique stores and souvenir stores and restaurants that sold Chilean sea bass with lemon chutney and brown butter for $35 a plate. It was a fucking embarrassment.
“Embarrassing?” Cougar asked.
Jensen gestured pointedly out the window at a place called The Sea Cow, a quaint little bar with a sign outside advertising toasted hazelnut bourbon and a Sancerre and organic honeydew cocktail. “Is sinister just too much to ask for these days?”
Cougar shrugged, but he was thinking about living in a normal town, about the rich tourists discovering the place, about the way every place became about them and for them and not even accessible to the people who’d made the town, about the way it looked during the week, with most of the houses shuttered and empty. Cute and touristy were sinister as hell to Cougar.
Jensen blinked at this unexpected doubling of all the information he had ever had about Cougar’s childhood. “Okay, fair point.”
“At least pretend to have both halves of the conversation out loud,” Pooch yelled from the front seat. “Do it for Pooch, okay?”
Cougar’s mental response to this was both obscene and hysterical, so Jensen laughed, which caused Pooch to threaten to abandon them on the roadside for excessive creepiness. And then they were through the now-creepy touristy town and on the road that should, by rights, lead to a craggy mountain with a castle on top of it or a building made entirely of glass and white laminate, like the world’s largest Apple Store. Instead, they got. Well. The Best Western of Doom. Peach stucco exterior, brick red shingled roof, big windows, and all.
“Good sightlines, though,” Cougar said.
“You have no romance in your soul,” Jensen said sadly. “Breaks my heart.”
He couldn’t read Cougar’s reaction to that at all; he’d gone full mental blank wall. Despite the lacking setting, the inadequate car, and the embarrassing target, the guy was apparently already in the mission zone. Jensen couldn’t lie. He was impressed.
Thanks to the Best Western’s disastrous approach situation – fucking acres of rolling green lawns, which Jensen could appreciate the sense of and still hate with his whole heart – Pooch parked four miles out, in the only decent cover they’d found in all their recon of the place.
Jensen mulled on the injustice of all this as they unpacked their gear and prepared to trek over to the hotel. Then he checked in on Cougar’s brain; Cougar was apparently focused on their singular lack of intel about Aisha and Clay’s mission, kicking himself for not getting more of a plan before they went.
“Not our fault. We were kind of distracted by the mindreading thing,” Jensen pointed out.
“I’ll be right here, in this car, monitoring communications, assuming you guys still know how to talk out loud,” Pooch said. “Don’t get even creepier in there, okay?”
“Good luck to you, too,” Jensen said. Cougar knocked on the Honda’s roof, and they set off, onto the green lawn of zero cover.
Jensen couldn’t figure out what the machines were for. Nothing communications, nothing computer related, that was all he could get out of it. He could imagine a lot of stuff, though – obviously, Edward Bernhard did mindreading via fog, but maybe it was a death ray, or a giant laser, or a mind control device, or –
Cougar tapped Jensen on the shoulder, and they had a silent debate about whether the room could be considered cleared. No enemies, Cougar pointed out. No explosives or traps or dangerous devices.
Jensen indicated the machines pointedly. Dangerous devices, right here, hello.
Do you know what it does?
Are you going to figure it out in the next ten minutes?
Jensen hated to answer that, but Cougar was already barreling on, apparently taking his reluctance as the answer. So we go, Cougar thought at Jensen, and Jensen nodded sadly.
The hallway on this level was familiar; they’d encountered the death/telepathy/interrogation fog on the second story, and Jensen figured he’d never forget this particular ugly carpet, patterned with leaves and also covered with various drips and burn marks that probably hadn’t been in the hotel designer’s décor plan. They moved down it silently but not swiftly; each room had an electric door lock that Jensen had to open with his master keycard, and that ate up time.
Eventually, they cleared the floor and headed up the stairs; only four more floors to go, unless of course Bernhard had taken to interrogating people in the lobby or basement.
The third floor was the same as the second; filled with random crap and zero Clays, Aishas, or mad scientists. As they walked up the stairs to the fourth floor, Jensen could see his future before him: endlessly opening hotel rooms, finding nothing except junk and machines that he didn’t understand. Which was pretty much proof that they hadn’t triggered any kind of silent clairvoyance trap, because when they opened the fire door to the obviously converted fifth floor, a voice said, “Seriously? Another one? Is this just a fucking idiot parade or what?”
Jensen had had point, so he walked in, hands up, surveying the situation as well as he could. He was in a giant open area, clearly formed by taking down the walls between a bunch of hotel rooms – Jensen could see where the carpet from the former rooms met the hallway carpet pattern. The immediate space was filled with comfortable chairs and the computer equipment they’d been hoping to find on the other floors.
While Jensen checked out the area, he felt Cougar melt away down the stairs, rapidly forming contingency plans that Jensen really needed to not be distracted by.
“Well?” the voice snapped, and it was clearly Edward Bernhard. Jensen had seen pictures, and while the short brown hair, pale skin, and wrinkled polo shirt and chinos could belong to anyone, that sour expression was Bernhard’s alone. “So. Can you talk and hold your hands up at the same time, or is that beyond you?” He took an angry sip from the giant travel mug he was holding in one hand, although Jensen was more focused on the gun he was holding in his other hand. He didn’t look like he knew how to use it all that well, but that was actually more threatening. Jensen had been around an awful lot of disasters caused by incompetent people with guns.
“Came to see where my bosses got to,” Jensen said.
“I am so done with this shit,” Bernhard said. “You’re interrupting me, you’re invading my space. I can’t work like this!”
“Well, you could kick us out,” Jensen offered. Cougar had retreated all the way to the third floor and was talking to Pooch over the comms, explaining what was happening.
“No, I can’t, because you’ll just come back again.” Bernhard sounded bitter about the whole thing. “I already tried waiting you out. Now I’m trying information gathering, so tell me, why the fuck are you here?”
And this, Jensen realized, was not at all the right time to be suffering from a close encounter with a truth serum telepathy fog. “To steal something,” he said bitterly. “Except you’re so disorganized that it’s impossible to find.” He slowly lowered his arms, to see what Bernhard would do.
“Finally!” Bernhard threw his hands in the air, sloshing coffee around and making Jensen duck away from the gun being flung around like a dog toy. “Thank you! Jesus, I’ve been grossing myself out trying to get coherent answers out of those two, and all the time I could’ve been talking to you if I’d just searched the place. Teach me to cut corners.”
Jensen considered this in the light of his extensive experience with bad guys. “Usually that’s when people send their minions to search the place,” he said, hoping Bernhard didn’t actually go there. Although at least he could warn Cougar in plenty of time. Telepathy was an A+ mission accessory, he had to admit.
Bernhard rolled his eyes. “Are you kidding me? I don’t have minions. A, they’re people around all the time, which is exactly the opposite of what any rational human being wants. B, they cost money that I could spend on gear. C, I’d end up spending all my time telling them what to do and then fixing their mistakes, which is why I fucking quit Microsoft in the first place.”
Jensen blinked. He’d never felt so much sympathy with a bad guy. “I totally get all of that,” he said, amazed. “This is kind of freaking me out,” he continued, since openness and honesty was apparently the way he was going to have to operate from now on. “We just have so much in common. It’s weird, isn’t it? We’re on opposite sides, but we’re such similar people.”
Bernhard stared at him, eyes narrow. “Did you trip the fog trap in 211?” he asked.
“Yes. And let me just say, telepathy and truth serum together are an absolutely amazing mix, and you’re sick for even imagining that, let alone making it a reality.”
“Uh,” Bernhard said. “Telepathy? Telepathy’s not real, buddy.”
Jensen’s stomach took a fast nose dive to the first floor, to Cougar’s alarm. “It’s not telepathy truth serum fog?”
“Why the fuck would I want to give my enemies telepathy?” Bernhard said. “I want them to tell me the truth, in actual words, not read my mind. Oh, Jesus fuck, are you reading my mind right now?”
Jensen wanted to maintain the operational advantage, he needed to, he had to keep his mouth shut – “No,” he said, wanting to strangle his own tongue. “I can only read the mind of my friend.”
“Your friend,” Bernhard said. “Your friend?”
And, okay, probably Bernhard was looking for some information on the friend’s location, but Jensen had a lot of truths he could tell, here. “He’s gorgeous,” Jensen informed him sincerely. “Legs for days, an ass like you would not believe, lips I have spent probably four hundred hours thinking about kissing. He’s basically the hottest human being alive, and I get to look at him every damn day. Envy me.” In the back of his head, Cougar said, I definitely envy you, and Jensen suppressed a snicker.
“Yeah, no,” Bernhard said. “Envy is not the emotion I’m experiencing here.” And he opened his mouth to ask another question, but it was probably going to be something about where Cougar was or what he was doing, so Jensen couldn’t let him do that. Fortunately, he had discovered the way to block the truth serum: talk. Forever.
“This is the job I was born to do,” Jensen told Bernhard, and then rapidly added, “but first let me tell you about Cougar’s hands.”
“Being attracted to a very hot human being isn’t perversion. It’s human nature.” For maybe the twentieth time, Jensen tried to tune in on what Cougar was doing, but it was surprisingly hard. He wasn’t getting any clear thoughts at all, just some kind of vague impression of – looking for something? Waiting for something? Attention?
“Telling someone every detail of your attraction to a very hot human being even after they’re begging you to stop is seriously perverted, dude.” Bernhard cautiously took his hands down from his ears, but he looked ready to slap them up there any time.
Jensen felt like his conscience was clear on this one. “Well, if someone hadn’t invented a truth serum fog and made a trap from it, he wouldn’t have to be listening to my extremely normal and not at all perverted thoughts about my friend.”
“You broke in!”
“It’s what we do! Anyway, you had to know someone was going to at some point. You have a literal hotel filled with weirdo science stuff.” Jensen’s impression of Cougar was getting, if anything, fainter. It was kind of freaking him out. Was the telepathy going away? Was Cougar going away? Was he dying? What?
“It’s not weirdo science stuff. It’s the results of serious advancements in mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering combined with state-of-the-art computer programming, and I would appreciate you giving it the respect it’s due.” Bernhard was pouting. There wasn’t another word Jensen could think of to describe the face he was making. Cougar, are you seeing what I’m seeing? he sent, but there was no answer.
“Fine. But you had to know someone was going to come after your advancements in engineering and et cetera, but you still put out the truth serum fog trap, so after that, any truth you hear is on you.”
“Okay,” Bernhard said. “So how about you tell me about the other two? The woman and the man I caught first?”
Jensen blinked. “Clay and Aisha? They’re” – and he caught up with his truth-serumed mouth and went back to what he knew worked – “also seriously hot. Like, it is just my fate to be surrounded 24/7 by hot people, and I for one am completely okay with that, because, yes, fine, my sex life is sadly not all that great, but what I always say is a good fantasy and a good right hand and you’ve got everything you need, and believe me, I have everything I need.”
Bernhard clapped his hands back on his ears, and Jensen couldn’t suppress a warm glow of satisfaction. Sure, Cougar had the ridiculous eyesight, the patience of a rock, the suppleness of a snake, and the ability to look cool in any situation. Plus he was apparently resistant to telepathy and truth serum. But Jensen had a mouth that could make people interrogating him beg for mercy, and that right there was something to be proud of.
“Shut up,” Bernhard said. “I wanted to ask you --”
But right then Jensen’s Cougar-sense came rushing back, to Jensen’s surprised relief. Find out where Clay and Aisha are, Cougar said.
“Wait,” Jensen said, not listening to Bernhard, because truth serum couldn’t work if you weren’t paying attention. Which was, hey, yet another superpower Jensen had never appreciated before. He was so much more awesome than he’d ever understood. “Where are Clay and Aisha, anyway?”
Subtle, Cougar said.
I’m a subtle guy. And Jensen honestly enjoyed Cougar’s burst of amusement at that.
“They’re in one of the containment rooms. 444. I came out here to get away from them.” Bernhard shuddered.
Jensen felt his forehead wrinkle. “Because they…?” he prompted. He could feel Cougar’s stillness, waiting for the answer, and it was actually helping him keep focused, which was weird. To their advantage, though.
“Like I said, they’re worse than you. I applied CTY-77B, which is basically an upgrade on the stuff I put in the fog you got.”
“I don’t think it needed upgrading,” Jensen said.
“Everything needs upgrading! Everything can be improved, that’s the whole point.” Bernhard was making frustrated hand gestures now. “And, anyway, I wanted to see if I could produce a better result by combining an inhibition-reducer with the truth-inducer.”
In his head, Jensen felt Cougar’s horror. It blended neatly with his own. “Uh, you gave Clay and Aisha inhibition-reducers?”
“Yes!” Bernhard sighed. “Mostly what I’m learning from today’s experimental results is that when you strip away the filters and inhibitions, the entire human race is a bunch of freaks.”
Jensen was still back on Bernhard giving Clay and Aisha drugs to lower their inhibitions. “That was seriously a bad idea,” he told him, and Cougar clearly agreed, because his horror was still a loud but wordless presence in Jensen’s head. “Do you have any idea what happens when they even get drunk?”
“Well,” Bernhard said grimly, “going by what happened when I gave them CTY-77B, I’d guess that they ignore everyone else in the world, including people with guns who are asking them very important questions, and alternately fuck and beat the shit out of each other.”
This was sadly accurate. “You would not believe how many hotels and bars and cities we’re banned from because of them.”
“I really would. Which is why you’re my favorite truth serum subject so far. At least you’re not violent, and you sometimes listen to me. Although maybe that’s because I didn’t get this Cougar guy along with you, or maybe you’d be doing the exact same thing.”
Jensen had a response for that, but it was overridden by Cougar’s mental, Only if we were a lot luckier than we’ve ever been, which was definitely an interesting comment that Jensen wanted to think about a lot at some point when he wasn’t a) being questioned by Edward Bernhard, the world’s least competent interrogator and b) having his thoughts overheard by Cougar.
“So I’m basically just waiting for it to wear off at this point. Don’t go in there, that’s my advice.” Bernhard sighed and sat down on one of the comfortable chairs, looking glum. “This is why I don’t like having people around. It gets dumb. And complicated.”
Find out about the telepathy, Cougar said.
“So, like. What’s the deal with the telepathy? How did we get it if it wasn’t in your fog stuff?” Jensen started moving around experimentally, seeing if he could get a little closer to the door. Turned out he could. Bernhard should maybe hire some guards after all.
“I don’t even believe you are telepathic, and if you are, it’s definitely nothing to do with me. I don’t believe in” – Bernhard made wavy gestures with his hands, and adopted a weird, high-pitched voice – “woo-woo hippy-dippy psychic crap.”
“You make truth serum fog traps.”
“Totally different deal,” Bernhard said.
“I guess if you say so, but dude, I think you’re walking a fine line here.” And Jensen could see that Bernhard was getting riled up, so he waved his hands in the air. “But, whatever, that’s not the point. The point is, we weren’t telepathic, and then we broke into your lair and triggered the fog trap, and then we were. So how do you explain that?”
Bernhard folded his arms stubbornly. “I have no clue. That’s on you.”
And that was when Cougar walked up behind him, silent as a ghost, and put a gun to his head. Bernhard, who apparently hadn’t won any Best Survival Skills (Mad Scientist Division) prizes, turned his head into the gun to see what was going on. “Great,” he said. “I bet this is Cougar.”
“Hey,” Cougar said, and nodded at Jensen. And even with the telepathy, he wasn’t exactly handing over pounds of information, here, but Jensen didn’t need it.
“So,” he said. “Can I call you Edward? Edward, let’s take a walk.”
“It’s Ned,” Bernhard said. But he got up carefully, so Jensen counted that a win.
“We’re looking for this,” Jensen said, and pulled the picture out of his pocket.
“I am not going to help you steal from my – wait, what?” Bernhard took the picture, his eyebrows creasing. “That’s not even mine! You came here to steal something I traded for? This is fucking offensive.”
“Look, this isn’t on us. We got hired to steal that thing. Blame whoever hired us.” Jensen mentally gave thanks for not knowing who that was. It was true what they said: the only real OpSec is being completely clueless.
“Why can’t whoever hired you just trade for it? I did. This is ridiculous. I don’t even know where I left that thing.”
“I have a gun,” Cougar reminded him.
“He’s a really good shot,” Jensen said helpfully. “Basically, our choices here are you take us to the thing and give us back our bosses, and we’re done in an hour and you can get back to work, or Cougar shoots you somewhere that won’t kill you right away and you do a lot of bleeding and screaming before we take the thing and our bosses. And after.”
“Fine,” Bernhard snapped. “Anything for a peaceful life far away from you perverts. But for the record, I don’t like you very much.”
“Noted,” Jensen said. And they headed off.
Knock wood, Cougar said grimly, and Jensen did.
The thing turned out to be small, orange, and weirdly lopsided. “The woman who made it is a straight-up loon,” Bernhard said. “Real mad scientist type.” Jensen and Cougar both stared at him, and he added, defensively, “I am not a mad scientist. I’m a hermit engineer. Totally different deal. And also I don’t make weird-ass shit like she does. Half of her stuff doesn’t work, and sometimes it explodes.”
“Why do you have it, then?” Jensen asked.
“Because the other half of the time it’s amazing. I don’t know how she does it. I take her shit apart and I still can’t figure out why it works and how it does what it does.” He looked the unhappiest Jensen had seen from him so far. “Anyway, just take her dumb toy and go, okay? I’m seriously sick of having you guys around. It’s annoying. And creepy. And I don’t even want that thing anyway.” He added, muttering under his breath, “I hope it explodes in your pocket and takes your balls off.” Jensen couldn’t even think of a word for how whiny and immature he was.
Petulant, Cougar provided helpfully. To Bernhard, he said, “Clay and Aisha.”
“I don’t know what to tell you there. I don’t have, like, Hannibal Lecter masks for you to put them in.”
“Just give them back to us. We’ll take it from there,” Jensen told him.
Fortunately, Clay and Aisha were through the fight-and-fuck stage. They were passed out in the spectacular ruins of containment room 444, mostly naked and covered in bruises. “And a good time was had by all,” Jensen said, shaking Clay awake.
“Not by me,” Bernhard said. “I notice no one cares about that, though.”
I cannot wait to be done with this mission, Jensen told Cougar. But all he got back was a weird sense of tense worry. Cougs, man, what’s wrong?
Cougar said, “Do you have any other things that woman made in that room?”
“Yeah, a ton of them,” Bernhard said. “That's where I store everything she swapped me that I haven’t tried yet. And, honestly, it takes a while for me to try them. Not many days I feel like pressing a button on something that might blow up, you know?”
“Not at all,” Jensen said, bewildered.
“What’s her name?” Cougar asked, and he sounded casual, but in his head he was way too intense about it. He really, really wanted to know her name.
“No clue,” Bernhard said, shrugging. “We’re not stupid. We all use randomly-generated names and ship to remailers.”
Cougar wanted to get more, Jensen could tell, but Bernhard probably didn't have any more to give. And Jensen had mostly gotten Clay up on his feet, but he wasn’t going to stay up long. We’ve gotta go.
Cougar nodded, a tight, frustrated jerk of his head, and they headed out.
“Bye, dickwads!” Bernhard yelled after them. “Come back never!”
“Maybe clean up your place a little so the next team doesn’t stumble over a clairvoyance trap!” Jensen yelled back at him. Don’t play with the target, Cougar told him. That isn’t nice.
I’m providing valuable life advice.
You think we can tell other people how to live?
Jensen had a lot of important thoughts to share about that, but Pooch pulled up to the former lobby area – no point in hiding now – and he had to help Cougar load Clay into the car.
By the time they closed the door behind them, Clay was already snoring. Pooch sighed heavily. “Well,” he said. “Any day you walk away from is a good day.” And he headed off to the bedroom he’d claimed.
Jensen followed Cougar down the hall to their room – Jensen had claimed it because it had space decorations, and Cougar had opted to bunk in with him rather than Pooch. Jensen liked to think it was because he, too, appreciated the awesomeness of sleeping under a rocket ship comforter.
“Always wanted one of these,” he said as he undressed for bed. “Bunk beds we had, but rocket ship bedspread? No way.”
Cougar, who was folding his jeans because he was some kind of weirdo neat freak, said, “You could take it with you. We paid cash.”
“Nah. Leave it here for the next person with excellent taste to enjoy.” Jensen climbed up to his bunk and snuggled in. A few minutes later, Cougar hit the lights and Jensen heard him get into his own bunk. And, yeah, this was quiet time, but he had to ask – You never wanted a rocket ship bedspread?
I had one. And Cougar gave him a mental image of what had to be his childhood bedroom. Two little beds with planet sheets. One half of the room had NASA posters on it; the other half had animal posters – tigers, lions, bears, wolves.
Jensen knew whose side was whose. You liked the predators, huh?
Cougar laughed out loud; it was startling in the quiet darkness. Always.
What’s your brother do?
Manages a seafood restaurant. Cougar offered another mental image – a kitschy, net-strewn restaurant that would fit right in on this island.
Nah, Cougar said. I get it. If you can’t beat ‘em, make ‘em pay you. He’s doing okay. Cougar’s mind was a warm, happy place, thinking about his brother, about his family, about growing up in that room, and Jensen found himself drifting along with the warmth, enjoying it like those were his memories, like that had been his bedroom.
Yours wasn’t like that, Cougar said.
It wasn’t a question, but Jensen answered it anyway. He was half asleep, so he just sent the first picture in his mind – the middle of the night, the house cold and dark, crying, helping his sister pack their clothes into pillowcases and garbage bags. Wish I’d had yours.
He felt it like a nudge at the back of his mind, Cougar offering to show him something, and when Jensen sent a wordless agreement, he found himself watching the extended Alvarez family, approximately eight thousand of them, having a loud, happy cookout. There was a lot of noise and kids running through the sprinkler and three men who had to be brothers having a quiet, intense battle over grilling technique. Everyone was half-shouting to be heard, except the sprinkler kids, who were mostly just screaming.
None of them seemed like Cougar, though. Where were you?
Cougar’s amusement was all on the inside this time, just for the two of them. Where do you think? And he showed Jensen the hiding place in the shrubbery where mini Cougar was watching the party unfold, seeing everything, fascinated by all of it.
Jensen fell asleep to Cougar’s memories, Cougar’s family, the calm, happy warmth in Cougar’s head.
So Bernhard hadn’t been lying, and they were still telepathic.
“Maybe you just spontaneously leveled up in weird,” Pooch suggested at breakfast.
“Maybe the truth fog broke something in their brains,” Aisha said from behind her dark glasses, and bit a piece of toast like it had personally offended her.
“Maybe we could stop this useless speculating,” Clay said tensely. He had dark circles under his eyes, even though he’d slept until almost noon, and he was wincing at light and food while drinking coffee like he’d die without it. “We need information, not guesses.”
“Well. We could break back into the Best Western,” Pooch said, sounding like he really did not want to do that.
“If we do,” Jensen said, “it’s your turn with Bernhard.”
“So that’s a no,” Pooch said, relieved, and took a bite of the scrambled eggs he’d insisted on making, since they had a kitchen and all.
“No point, really,” Cougar said. He took the toast off Clay’s plate, and Jensen had to admire his target selection. Clay was seriously in no shape to defend his territory.
“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” Jensen said.
There was a short, sharp silence, which Pooch broke with, “You see? This is what it’s like around them, now.”
“It’s what it was like around them before, pretty much, though,” Aisha pointed out, eying them thoughtfully.
“Use complete thoughts,” Clay said, biting off each word. “Spoken out loud.”
“Well, as it happens, I did bring enough to share with the whole class,” Jensen said smugly, and then, when they all cringed, he added, “while some people were hiding in the car or” – he caught Aisha’s eye here and smoothly changed what he was going to say – “doing, um, other stuff, I was successfully interrogating the target, despite being chemically impaired via truth fog. And he told us that room was full of devices made by a weirdo scientist lady. So if we want to know how we got telepathic, we should probably ask her.”
“That’s all you have on her? She’s a weirdo scientist?” Aisha rolled her eyes. “That’s not exactly a home address and an estimate of her defenses.”
“We also have her email address.” Everyone looked at him. “Cougar’s idea. We emailed Bernhard this morning, asked if we could have her email address so we didn’t have to break in again. Bernhard said he would happily give us a thousand email addresses, or even all the email addresses in the world, if it meant he had no more interruptions and never had to spend any more time with our perverted asses.” Jensen was pretty proud of this. They’d somehow become so annoying people would give them whatever they wanted just so they’d go away. We’re amazing, he thought smugly.
Cougar, across the table, looked serene, but Jensen knew he was struggling not to smile. For certain values of amazing, he said.
Any kind of amazing is good enough for me, Jensen told him.
Cougar gave Jensen a speculative, thoughtful look. Oh, really. Any kind? And the interested tone of his thoughts – that was definitely not all in Jensen’s head. Or only in Jensen’s head, anyway.
And then Clay said, “Okay,” very loudly. Like he’d said it a couple times already. “You email that lady. Find out what the fuck is going on in your brains.”
Jensen, for some reason, did not feel all that great about this plan. “You know,” he said. “The telepathy was an operational asset.”
“It is not a life asset,” Clay said grimly.
“Maybe not for normal lives,” Cougar said, looking at each of the Losers in turn.
Clay squeezed his eyes shut. “And while we wait, you two are going to practice getting this shit under control, and talking out loud, and acting normal.” He pushed his chair back from the table and stood. “I’m going to, uh. Clean my gear.” And he headed for the stairs. Aisha picked up her coffee cup and followed him.
“He means you gotta find a way to look less freaky when you’re doing your weirdass mind shit,” Pooch interpreted helpfully.
“I’m basically a computer god,” Jensen said out loud, because other people did.
“And you’re telling us this because…?” Pooch said, raising his eyebrows.
“Cougar wanted me to share with all of you, because he’s a sharing kind of guy.” Cougar looked up, shrugged minutely, and went back to cleaning his gun, which was – honestly pretty disturbingly erotic, both to look at and to listen to.
Pooch put his head on his folded arms and sighed heavily. Aisha ignored them completely and turned another page in her book.
Jensen kept working, trying to find the mad scientist lady using only her annoyingly anonymous email address, wondering what other powers she could give people, since she’d apparently given them telepathy. Like, say, heat ray vision. That would be – not great, actually, as superpowers went. How often in did anyone really want to set something on fire? Not more than once a day, in Jensen’s experience. And you’d end up getting used as a lighter with legs. He could hear them now: “Jensen, come over here and roast this marshmallow with your eyes.” Definitely not as cool as telepathy, even the kind without mind bullets. Our superpower is way better, buddy.
You mean your superpower, Cougar said. And my superpowers.
Jensen stopped typing, turned around in his chair all the way, and stared at Cougar. “You have got to stop saying shit like that,” he said. “You’re going to drive me crazy.” Cougar didn’t look up from his gun, but Pooch was staring at Jensen, his mouth open. “What? I’m very susceptible to curiosity-based death. It runs in my family.”
“So you’re a cat,” Aisha said flatly.
Meow, Cougar said in Jensen’s head, and he laughed so hard he nearly hurt something.
An hour later, Jensen stopped typing. “I think,” he said, “we’re going to have to wait and see if she emails us back.”
“That’s it?” Aisha said. “No more one last things to try, no more weird ideas?”
“That’s it,” Jensen said. And it was it, pretty much. There was no point in chasing down low-likelihood leads and inventing new methods just to find the woman. The telepathy wasn’t hurting them or anything.
You like being telepathic, Cougar told him.
Who wouldn’t like having a superpower? And it’s absolutely not hurting us, and it’s operationally useful, and –
You don’t have to convince me, Cougar said.
“Okay, so, that’s it, then?” Clay said doubtfully, staring at Jensen.
“Totally it. We wait.”
“Fine.” Aisha said, and looked pointedly back down at her book.
Clay studied them. “You guys sure about this?”
“It’s low priority,” Cougar said.
“Pooch?” Clay asked.
Pooch sighed. “If I couldn’t get used to weird, I’d have died of it five years ago.”
“Point,” Clay admitted.
“New rule, though: they have to play one hand in every card game from now on. I’m not betting against telepaths.”
Clay looked at Jensen and Cougar, eyebrows raised, and Cougar nodded.
“Wow,” Jensen said. “I feel like Cougar and I have really progressed to a new level of intimacy in our --” and then he stopped talking, because Clay and Pooch were up and heading for the front door.
“Second rule,” Pooch called back to them. “No talking about intimacy! Of any kind!” And he slammed the door behind him.
Jensen was prepared to agree with that, but the room was suddenly empty of all their fellow losers.
Where’d Aisha go?
Out the window,Cougar said.
“Well,” Jensen said. “It’s a nice day out. I’m sure they’ll all enjoy a walk.” He shut down his laptop, folded it up, and shoved back from the desk. “What now? More practice at being normal?”
Cougar finished with his gun and put it away. “Normal?” he said. “Really?”
It was a fair point. Setting impossible goals was a good way to end up like Clay or Aisha: tense, worried, only able to let off steam by getting drunk, destroying stuff, and fucking someone’s brain out. “Not,” Jensen hastened to say, “that I’m against any of that. Obviously. All that is 100% a-okay with me. I just want to have options, you know? I want to not be wound so tense that that’s my only choice.”
Cougar nodded – he clearly did know, because Cougar was a reasonable guy – and said, “Meditation?” So, not entirely reasonable.
Jensen sat on the floor cross-legged and sighed. “I’m just really bad at it, is the thing.”
“Relax. I downloaded an app.”
“A control-your-telepathy app?” If there was one, Jensen promised himself, he’d take back every awful thing he’d ever said about iPhones.
Cougar held up his phone with – a meditation app. Great. Jensen resurrected all the bad things he’d ever said about iPhones, added one more to their number, and prepared to breathe.
You’re cut out for breathing. Even in telepathy, Cougar’s teeth-gritted determination came through. I know you do that.
“Yeah,” Jensen said out loud, “but usually I’m doing something else and breathing. Breathing all by itself is not me.”
Cougar sighed and poked his app a few times. “You’re supposed to be thinking and breathing,” he said. “Try this one.”
Jensen settled back into his meditation posture and took a deep breath. The problem was, actually, that he could make a list of three thousand things he’d rather be doing than meditating. Three hundred thousand if he could include things he could do without Cougar watching, and – shit. Was this it for his sex life? His Jensen-on-Jensen personal time? Because there was beating off in your bunk after lights out with at least a medium probability that the other guys in the room were asleep, and there was beating off with one of the guys literally in your head, watching everything you did.
You could wait until I’m asleep, Cougar pointed out. That’s what I’ve been doing. Now meditate.
But no no no no, that was exactly the wrong mental image for Cougar to provide if he wanted Jensen to meditate, because – Jesus. That mental image was – somehow Jensen had never thought, never really imagined Cougar jerking off. And that was obviously a mistake, because thinking about it now, well. He wondered if Cougar liked to take his time, liked to go as slow as he could. He seemed like the kind of guy who’d do that, who’d draw it out until his whole body was taut and beaded with sweat and –
Cougar cleared his throat.
“This is not my fault,” Jensen said.
Jensen tried. He seriously did. He shoved all the thoughts about naked Cougar, hand wrapped around his dick, thighs tense as he – no. Jensen shoved all the thoughts he was not having into a mental box, locked the box, and dropped into a metaphorical lake.
He took a breath. In. Out. Maybe not as slow or smooth as best meditation practice suggested, but he was genuinely working on it, anyway.
“Check in with your body,” the meditation lady said. “What’s happening with it right now?”
Jensen obediently checked in with his body, except what was happening with it was that it wanted to get off. His dick was uncomfortably hard already, and sitting cross-legged on the floor did not help with that, and his whole body felt flushed and eager.
Any chance you feel like sleeping right now? he asked Cougar.
No, Cougar shot back, and Jensen got – huh. Like a little edge of something there, like maybe Cougar was thinking he’d like to see Jensen beat off. Like he was interested.
You’re beaming porn into my brain, Cougar pointed out.
And Jensen was glad for the telepathy, grateful for it, because he didn’t have to do any of this conversation out loud, or without any clue what Cougar was thinking or feeling. So, like, would you be into, uh, maybe more of that? Jensen said, his heart pounding.
Cougar reached over and turned off the app. Okay. Show me what you’ve got. He stretched his legs out in front of him and leaned back against the couch, clearly getting comfortable.
And Jensen could hardly believe he was doing this, but at the same time, there was zero fucking chance he wasn’t going to do it. Still, it felt daring, like jumping out of an airplane (with a parachute pack on). He reached out and unbuttoned his jeans, and his gasp of relief was loud in the very quiet living room.
Cougar’s focus sharpened. Jensen had seen this a thousand times on missions, Cougar switching into high resolution, suddenly intent, like every cell in his body was paying attention to just one thing. But this time, Jensen was the one thing. And he could feel the focus, as much as he could feel his hand wrapping around his own dick – could feel Cougar’s intensity, could feel him absorbing every bit of this moment, and that was. That was better.
“Think I just went from zero to exhibitionist in sixty seconds,” Jensen said shakily.
“Then exhibit,” Cougar said. His voice was deeper, a little rougher. He was perfectly still, and his dark eyes were fixed on Jensen, obviously waiting. And Jensen knew what he was waiting for. He gave himself a single stroke, and this time the gasp wasn’t his alone; he heard Cougar take a breath, soft but audible. Jensen stroked himself again, his body humming, his brain resonating with Cougar’s focus and his own pleasure, and it was so good, so fucking good.
And then Cougar moved. Jensen barely saw it – one second, Cougar was across the floor, and the next he was a foot away, his attention still fixed on Jensen. Take them off, he said, and Jensen was flooded with the desire to show Cougar, to be seen by Cougar, and he yanked off his shirt and shoved down his jeans. When he looked up, Cougar was just watching him again, and that was – not right, not exactly.
Cougar nodded and started taking his own clothes off. Jensen simultaneously watched him unbutton his shirt and felt the buttons under his fingers, watched him strip off his pants and felt his hands on Cougar’s thighs, and it was a doubling of the experience that left Jensen shaking, left Cougar gasping, and Jensen wanted Cougar’s hands on him and a second later Cougar was holding his hand above Jensen’s thigh, eyebrows raised. “Yes?” he said, and his voice was scratchy now.
“Yes, yes, come on, you know the answer’s yes, fucking touch me,” Jensen said.
Cougar did. And Jensen could feel it, simultaneously touching and being touched, feel his mouth on Cougar’s, feel hands skimming along his back, feel their dicks touching, and all of it was pleasure, multiplying, endlessly reflected between the two of them, sharper and bigger and more intense with every passing second, and then they were coming, and Jensen’s brain whited out, a brilliant, endless flash of pleasure and light and Cougar and yes.
Jensen managed to find his way back into his own body at some indeterminate point later. They were both naked, Cougar still on top of him, their bodies touching everywhere, and Jensen felt bizarrely alone in his own head.
“Cougar?” he said out loud. What if we broke it? he asked, and he felt a pang of worry when Cougar didn’t respond immediately.
A few seconds later, Cougar lifted his head and shook it sharply. Then I guess we bought it, he said, and it was entirely the relief that made Jensen laugh, because it really wasn’t funny.
Took telepathy for me to figure out what a loser you actually are.
Then you really do have a problem paying attention. Cougar rolled off Jensen and lay next to him, laughing.
“So you’re still weird,” Clay said, sighing.
“Pretty sure that’s going to be a permanent condition,” Jensen said, and he could feel himself smiling, too big, too dumb, and way too happy.
“Aw, hell,” Clay said, and went into the kitchen. He came back carrying a bottle.
“Better call Aisha before you drink that,” Jensen said. “You’re not ready for our jelly.”
Clay, it turned out, could drink straight from a bottle while texting.
The scientist lady, it turned out, did respond to emails. Eventually. Jensen read her email from the screen, Cougar reading along even though he was on the other side of the room:
So, yeah, the “spiky thing” you touched is my Latent Psionic Ability Activator and Amplifier.
Glad you like the telepathy, because – good news? I guess? – I’m like 98% sure it’s permanent. Alterations to your brain, no way to change back, yadda yadda blah. This is why I never live tested it, but I guess sometimes the universe just lets a subject pool fall into your greedy hands.
But I tell you what: I won’t be trading any of my babies to what’s-his-dick again. Men never understand the importance of keeping the really next-level stuff locked up.
If you get around to it, run the attached tests on yourself so we can get a baseline. And don’t superpower your brains to death or anything. Gotta run, keep in touch, all that jazz.
“She’s less helpful than Bernhard,” Jensen said, amazed. “How is that possible? How are these people running around alive and free?” It made him hesitant to break into places, honestly. People just didn’t think enough about the comfort and safety of highly trained thieves, and that was basically everything that was wrong with the world, right there.
“So. I guess we should run these baseline tests. Science and all that,” Jensen said, clicking to open the attachments.
Cougar shook his head. Been there, done that. No more superpower testing. And the thing was – Jensen could tell he was serious, deadly serious, because he was in Cougar’s head.
Jensen turned his chair all the way around. “Okay,” he said. “That’s it. I demand full disclosure on this other superpower issue. We’re telepathy buddies. Bros. Boyfriends. Whatever. My point is, sharing is what we do. Share.”
Cougar looked around the room carefully. Then he angled his body so that it blocked the view from the window, and nodded down at his hands. There was a slight noise, kind of a popping one, and then Cougar had fucking claws. Long ones. Badass ones. Not metal, unfortunately, but some kind of actual animal claws, from some kind of tiger, which was almost as cool. And when Jensen concentrated, he could feel a phantom impression of the claws in his own hands.
“Oh my god,” Jensen said. “I almost kind of have fucking Wolverine claws. This is the best day of my life.”
Cougar did something – Jensen couldn’t entirely feel what – and the claws disappeared. Want to make it better? he asked.
Oh, hell yeah, Jensen said, and pounded on the wall between their room and Pooch’s, to let him know to put the earplugs in. Let’s do this.