to be alive is to know our purpose
Elizabeth Isobel is tiny, scrunched, and kind of looks like Winston Churchill. She cries a lot, sleeps the rest of the time, and has epically gross diapers, and sometimes the mess doesn't stay in the diaper, which necessitates a hell of a lot of laundry. She sleeps - but she doesn't sleep at sane hours or even for many hours in a row, and Jake figures Holly hasn't had a normal night's rest since the baby was born, because Jake sure as fuck hasn't since he came home on leave. In the daytime, the wake-ups come with wide fascinated eyes; at night, they come with screaming.
When Elizabeth Isobel screams, she looks like Winston Churchill right after the booze ran out.
So clearly, baby-smell should be right up there with LSD for "mind altering substances", because Jake knows all that, and she's still the most beautiful thing that ever - no, that ever thought about existing. Which means Jake's actually okay with being the one to get up at 4AM, to send Holly (who kind of looks like death warmed over, if not also dragged through all seven levels of Hell without Virgil as a guide) back to bed and sitting with the Bethy-baby and a bottle until she goes back to sleep.
. . .well, until she shuts up. She stops sort of halfway through the bottle and refuses to drink anymore, but she doesn't start crying again while he cradles her. Just stares up at him with big blue eyes and sticks a fist in her mouth, gumming it mercilessly.
It's oh-dark-fucking-hundred, and he's sitting in a nursery that isn't pink, because . . . . well, because of something Holly rattled off when he got back and pointed it out, that had something to do with something Amanda from her pregnancy-and-nursing-support-group explained about gender-stereotyping. Jake didn't really follow it. But the point is, it isn't pink, and here he is.
He'd had to learn how to hold her, when he first got back, because he only started looking after Holly when he was seven and she was four. Not that he didn't know the principles, anyone with any brains knew that, but it was a totally different thing to actually be handed a real live very fragile baby with no muscles at all, not even to keep her neck from breaking, especially when the baby is his sister's and that means she's his niece.
You want to hold babies like they're made of spun glass, except what they want you to do is hold them like you know exactly what you're doing, love them like crazy, and don't have a single worry in the world about anything, but especially not about them.
He's getting better at it.
He's pretty tired, and oh-god-hundred always has a kind of unreal feeling to it (unless you're getting shot at, at which point it feels like any other time of the day you're getting shot at, because people trying to kill you is kind of timeless), and he winds up shifting her around so he's holding her on his knees, instead of in the crook of his arm. They look at each other for a minute.
Bethy-baby very solemnly tries to fit her entire fist into her mouth.
And Jake says, really quietly, "Your grampa was kind of the world's most monumental asshole, Bethy, so I'm kind of making this up as I go along. But your dad was a complete fucking worthless piece of shit, so I had to run him off, and that means it's just you and me. Well, and your mom."
One hand to support her head gives him the index finger of the other one to work into the grip of the hand of hers that wasn't being gummed. "You should have a whole big family to love you," he says, because it's oh-god-hundred and there's nobody to hear. "You've only got us - but you've always got us, right? Always got me. As long as you're patient with me, I figure we'll be okay."
He's not sure if he's telling her or himself, whether it's something he thinks will go into her baby-brain and sort of lurk there, as an unquestioned knowing, or whether he's psyching himself up, because this is fucking scary.
For her part, Bethy-baby yawns in answer, and then starts to fuss a bit.
Jake gives her the rest of the bottle, she spits up on the burp-rag over his shoulder, and then falls back asleep. For at least a whole two more hours.
enough to get underway
The first time Jake calls to say he's bringing someone from his team home with him, Holly's dubious as hell.
She knows about the guys he serves with, if at all, ever, through his stories. And the stories are all about a) all the shit they get into or narrowly missed on leave, or, nowadays, with this new team, b) the absolutely insane fucking shit they pull off while under orders. Half the time, with the latter, if she didn't know Jake wouldn't lie to her, she wouldn't even believe it. And while there's nothing wrong with either of those, necessarily, and hell she'd probably party with them, given the chance, if it weren't for Beth -
But there is Beth. And Jake's bringing one of them into the same house as Beth and that makes Holly really, really leery.
She winds up agreeing anyway, because Jake can talk her into anything and she knows it. She saves herself the trouble, and the twisting feeling that comes with trying to say no to her big brother, and just bites her fingernails a bit.
The man's name is . . . .well, his name is God-knows-what, because Jake sure as hell hasn't ever used it talking to her, but apparently the unit calls him Cougar and almost everything Holly knows about him can be distilled down to "he doesn't talk much" and how good he is at killing people from how far away - and, to be fair, how many times he's saved Jake's ass which, at this point, seems to be rounding out at about three, personally, and eight or nine if you count him doing something that pulls most of the unit out of the fire. (Not that she's supposed to know that, but what's some completely classified information between brother and sister?)
It's honestly probably that last part - the saving-part - that means she doesn't argue at all. They've got leave and Jake says he's got nowhere else to spend the time except a hotel, and she can't really say no about the guy who keeps Jake alive.
Their plain lands at seven, but Jake says they'll get a cab, and Beth's in the middle of getting over her round of pneumonia. That means Holly hasn't slept this badly since Bethy was teething, and she'd probably be a menace on the road anyway. But it does mean that she's at home, all day, without even having to look forward to when she's got to pick them up, and that means she winds up falling victim to her own stupid, weird, crazily-misplaced version of domestic pride.
She winds up bugging Dominic and Andy for something even she can't screw up, which gets her a recipe, a lecture about self-deprecation, and a bottle of wine they insist she take, because that's Dominic and Andy. She manages the recipe, but she cheats for the brownies, and just takes them out of the grocery-store plastic to put them on a plate.
It might have been awkward, she might even have worked herself up into a nervous fit - she might be in the middle of doing so, when she hears the taxi come up the driveway, while also being in the middle of wiping Bethy's face because she's not stupid enough to try and get a sick four year old to eat with grownups . . . .
Except that right after she hears the doors to the taxi slam and it drive away, she hears Jake's voice, talking at about a mile a minute, and liberally scattered through with "fuck" and its lesser cousins, so that even as he is opening the door she's barking, "Jake! Watch your mouth! I do not want to explain to the pre-school where Beth learned that while she's still too little to get why she can't use them!"
Bethy's squealing "Uncle Jake!" underneath Holly's bark, and Holly's following her baby out into the living-room where the door is as she's talking, so she catches the part where the tall, pretty guy with the hat is really obviously suppressing laughter as Beth flings herself off the top step and Jake catches her.
"Sorry!" he says, over the top of her head. Beth starts coughing before she can answer, and then his attention's all on her, with an, "Aw, Bethy, not better yet?"
"Cover your mouth, baby," Holly says, automatically. Not that the way Beth can figure out to cover her mouth is actually going to do much for the spread of germs, but it's the early training that's important. Beth shakes her head at Jake, and then looks over his shoulder at his friend, and demonstrates she still hasn't learned how to make strange with anybody.
"Who're you?" she demands, and, "Are you a soldier with my uncle? How many people have you shot?"
Holly puts her hand over her face, Jake is grinning like an idiot, but at least it mostly just makes his friend smile. Anyone who thinks Beth's terrifying lack of shyness and propriety is cute can't be all bad.
He does have a real name, apparently. Well, other name. Legal name, which on consideration Holly does know better than to think of as his "real" name, all things considered. It's apparently Carlos, but the way he offers it makes it seem like a kind of a dusty thing. Like a coat he doesn't wear often and gets put in a closet somewhere to be ignored until the rare time he needs it. Holly figures, fuck it, and just calls him Cougar like Jake does, and he actually seems to relax a little when she does.
Cougar really doesn't talk much; given the accent, Holly wonders if it's a language thing, or if he's just really laconic by nature. Could be either, or both. But his silence is weirdly expressive - even when she can't read it, she could see how it could be read, and she never got the sense that he was hiding anything behind it.
In fact, the thing that made her a little wary was actually how quickly he made her feel comfortable. And he seemed to take Jake with a kind of fond, exasperated amusement, which was really the only way to get Jake, honestly, especially when he got going.
And he does, with Beth in his lap, eating around her while he starts on his dump of everything he couldn't tell her while all his communications were going through official channels and might get read. Holly thinks that at the start of the stories, she sees Cougar give him a sharp look, but he doesn't say anything and soon enough he's adding the occasional, brief comment, either illuminatory or contradictory, and sometimes Holly's laughing and other times - frequently - she's staring at her brother like he's crazy.
Which, of course, she knows he is and always has been, but it feels like he's constantly getting worse. He's in the middle of describing how a necessary change of plans lead to a shoot-out of five-versus-at-least-thirty-but-he's-not-sure when he catches sight of her expression, and says, "What?"
"You mean other than the part where you're f - " and then she cuts herself off and substitutes for 'fucking' " - completely insane?"
"What?" Jensen says again, defensively, as Bethy looks up at him and then over at Holly, trying to decide if there was real upsetness here.
"'What'?" Holly mimics. "What part of going out that window was remotely anything other than completely and totally insane?"
"I thought we talked about you arm-chair critiquing my tactics," Jake says, and Holly makes sure her eyeroll is a little bit more dramatic than it needs to be, so that Bethy knows this is playing. Because it is.
"And I thought we talked about your tendency to unnecessarily suicidal courageous idiocy," Holly. "Oh wait! I thought that because we totally did the last time you got shot - "
"Grazed," Jake corrects, affronted.
"Shot," Holly repeats, firmly. "Because it wouldn't occur to you to that maybe, just possibly, the life of the person who can, you know, work with his own system might actually be of at least equal value with finding out where the last bit of someone's secret damn files are when you've already got enough to do what you actually need to do which is identify who the leak is - "
Bethy, Holly notices, is actually looking at Cougar and (because she knows this is playing) happily interrupts to ask him, "What's so funny, Mr Cougar?"
And he is laughing, in that silent, contained way really quiet guys usually laugh. And Jake gets as far as, "Don't you even fucking dare - " which is as good as admitting what Cougar's about to say, and Holly's already gloating when he answers Bethy, so much that she forgets to tell Jake off for the swear-word.
"Your mama's saying almost exactly what our boss said," he tells her daughter, solemnly. "Except he used more bad words."
"I hate you so much right now," Jake says, at the same time as Holly points at him and says, triumphantly, "Hah!"
Jake, maturely, ignores her and instead says to Beth, "Hey, kiddo, you can't use that word Uncle Jake just used, okay?"
"Fucking?" Beth says, innocent and three and that's the point where Cougar actually cracks up, and Holly puts her face in her hands, leaning her elbows on the table.
"Yeah, that one," Jake says. "That's a bad word only grownups get to use, okay? Not good little girls."
"Okay, Uncle Jake," Beth says, because she'd happily walk off a cliff if Jake told her to, and now that people were mostly laughing and smiling she was quite sure everything was alright.
Holly sends Jake to put Bethy in the bath, because her hair needs to get washed and because Holly pretty much enables Beth having as much Uncle-Jake-time as she can whenever he's home, and takes blatant advantage of the part where Bethy is thrilled to do stuff she normally starts a battle of will over . . . as long as it's with Uncle Jake.
Amanda asked her once if that ever made her jealous, and Holly'd had to do a kind of mental adjustment before she could make the question make sense. It did, eventually, if she thought about how other people would look at it. Then she just had to find a way to say, no, because it means he's home and besides it's hard to be jealous of someone who's the only kind of father she'll ever have except he missed her being born, the day she started to crawl, her first step and her first tooth, that didn't sound weird and pathetic. It was hard for normal people to get what living under siege for your whole life with only one other person to turn to built between people.
Jake lives here, even if only a fraction of the time; he has a room, he has stuff that lives here, he's her brother, not a guest.
For his part, though, her actual guest doesn't so much offer to help with the dishes as he just starts clearing the table and handing her the stacked plates, like this is the most natural thing in the world after eating. Holly doesn't mean to look at him askance, so much as she's actually taken aback, because she can't remember any guy other than Dominic ever doing this, and Dominic is a special case and kind of advertises it. Even Andy needs a prod.
Cougar gives her a look that clearly says that he sees she's giving him an odd look and is curious. Holly sorts it out in her head, and eventually what she says is, kind of wryly, "Okay, so how big a family did you come from?"
The half-smile he gets matches her voice for the wry. "Eight of us," he says, and holds up the chicken left over on the serving-plate with a questioning look. Holly pulls open the bottom drawer to hand him ziplock containers. And notes, to herself, that with seven brothers and/or sisters, and presumably a mom they came from, Jake was on the phone to her saying the guy had nowhere else to go on leave.
"Don't talk to them much, huh," she says, and it's not a question. Cougar shrugs. It's expressive, even if she can't quite figure out everything it's saying.
"Old story," he says, and she can tell that this means he doesn't actually want to talk about it, and, hey, it's none of her business anyway.
"Their loss," she says, instead, and when he looks at her, shrugs herself. "Unless you turn out to be an axe-murderer, I think I can handle a guest who helps me clean the kitchen," she says, lightly. "Assuming the crazy doesn't ensure you never want to come back."
" . . . you and your brother are a lot alike," he informs her, and Holly narrows her eyes at him in mock-outrage.
"Quit while you're ahead," she says, waving a spoon in threat. He laughs.
Tucking in is always a matter of "and", not "or": of course Bethy wants Uncle Jake to tuck her in too, but promptly demands Holly right afterwards. Sometimes, she tries to talk for a long time, to keep herself awake, but the edge of illness means she just drops off to sleep, thumb in her mouth and blankie clutched to her chest.
Sometimes, watching her daughter fall asleep makes Holly ache a little bit with jealousy, that she can do it so easily, that it would never cross her mind to be afraid and how Holly still doesn't know how to do that. Mostly, though, it terrifies her a little bit. It's so fragile. She's never sure when she's going to screw it up.
Jake's leaning on the wall in the hallway when she closes the door. He keeps his voice down when he asks, "So how sick was she really?" because they both know she'll lie a bit when he's actually on some kind of mission.
Holly tilts her hand, leans her back on the opposite wall. "She only gave me one really bad scare, and she was on antibiotics the next day. Mostly she's just been miserable, and she can't sleep when she's coughing."
Jake grimaces, nods. "You do kinda look like hell," he tells her, and she wrinkles her nose at him.
"Thanks, Jake," she says, mock-sour, and he reaches over to try to tweak her nose with a smile.
She blocks him, and more seriously, he says, "Thanks," and tilts his head towards downstairs, where Cougar presumably is.
Holly single-shoulder shrugs, says, "He's nice," which is mostly he way of saying you're welcome. Jake tugs her arm over to give her a hug, and for a minute she lets herself just be happy about the fact that nobody is dead and everything's okay.
Then Jake says, "Dinner was really good, by the way - when did you learn how to cook?" and she has to punch him in the ribs.
The third time "leave" means "houseguest again", Holly clues in and stops bothering to set up the actual guest-room, so that nobody has to make the effort of messing it up just to pretend it got used. It means less work and less laundry anyway.
In the end, she's torn between being mostly pleased, and honestly kind of relieved even if she doesn't try to untangle the rhyme or the reason for the relief, and the way her guts twisted up over the idea of having another person to worry about.
to know you give love so freely
Kindergarten is like pre-school except the toys aren't as neat. Beth isn't impressed.
"Can I go back to pre-school?" she asks Mommy when Mommy picks her up after lunch to take her to Annabel's to play for the afternoon. Mommy just strokes her hair, and shakes her head.
"You're too big for pre-school, baby," she says, and Beth folds her arms and glares out the window. She forgets that she's mad, though, as soon as Annabel shouts come play outside! through the house, and Mr Dominic shouts for her to stop shouting.
(Mommy thinks that's funny for some reason, but grownups are weird).
On Tuesday, though, she makes friends with a boy in her class who wasn't there on Monday, called Rory. She makes friends because she sees him crying, even though he's hiding it: his mom left yesterday to go fight in Iraq, and that's why he wasn't there. He tells her because she asks, even though he was trying to hide it.
Beth's allowed to say when Uncle Jake is in Iraq or Afghanistan (anybody could be there, so it's not giving away secrets, like it is when he's in South America or Eastern Europe or other places like that), and he is now, so she tells Rory, "My uncle's there, too, except he's kind of more like my dad." Because Mommy says when you're upset about something, it helps to have someone who knows what it feels like.
It seems to work for Rory. When it's Circle Time, he sits beside her; when it's time to pick partners for Reading Exercises, she picks him. He goes all the way from snack-time to the end of kindergarten without crying anymore.
He asks her what her uncle does; she says, "Uncle Jake does communications," because that's what she's allowed to say, even though actually Uncle Jake's "communications" jobs include things like hacking into really special computers, and lying to people, pretending to be someone else, so he can get to where his unit needs to be.
Rory tells her his mom is a chopper pilot.
So on Tuesday Beth doesn't ask Mommy if she can go back to pre-school. She tells Mommy about Rory instead. Mommy reminds Beth about all the things she's not allowed to tell people even thought Beth already knows all of that; then Mommy says that was a good thing to do.
Today, lunch at Annabel's is tortellini; that makes Beth really happy.
On Wednesday, Miss Fredericks tells them to draw a picture of their family, to put on the bulletin board outside. She hands out the really nice paper and the good markers, the ones that smell nice, and reminds everyone not to smush them hard on their points, or hide them anywhere. And then last she tells them that she will come around at the end and help them write everyone's names underneath the pictures.
Beth watches Rory draw his mom and his dad and his big sister. Rory's a really good drawer: he even puts his mom in her combats and draws the little camouflage spots. Rory's dad has a wheelchair, and his big sister dyes her hair purple.
Miss Fredericks comes around and crouches down beside the table at Beth's arm. "How come you're not drawing, Beth?" she asks. Miss Fredericks has a nice voice. Beth thinks she might like her, but she usually waits a whole week to decide if she likes a new grownup. And the question makes her nervous.
"My family isn't like everyone else's," she says, eventually, after thinking about it. "I don't know who to draw. I don't want to do it wrong." She takes the lid off the marker and then puts it back on a couple times. It leaves little marks of black on her fingers.
"There are lots of different kinds of families," Miss Fredericks says. "Why don't you draw everyone you call family?"
Beth looks at her and decides she might like Miss Fredericks already, and just nods her head. Miss Fredericks gets up and goes to look at someone else's table.
Beth isn't as good a drawer as Rory, so she just draws everyone in civvie-clothes. She draws Mommy, of course, in Mommy's pretty blue dress, and she gives Mommy a flower in her hair, too, a pink one. Then Beth draws herself, in her favourite soccer shirt, and she makes a soccer ball by her feet even if it isn't very good because she can't make the black-and-white places work right.
Uncle Jake goes beside Mommy. His glasses are really hard to draw, and she just does squiggles for the words that go on his shirt. Aunty Wendy goes on the other side of Mommy, except Beth has to put up her hand and wait for Miss Fredericks to come answer her. "Aunty Wendy's hair is white," she says, "and there's no white marker."
Miss Fredericks finds her a white crayon and that works okay. The brown marker is a little bit too light for Aunty Wendy and a bit too dark for Uncle Cougar, but Beth supposes you can't have everything, and there's only so many colours in the marker boxes.
Beth decides she's going to have to tell Uncle Cougar that his hat is really hard to draw. He's new, newest family-person, but Mommy says anyone who can do their own laundry at the house is family. Beth thinks that makes sense. It means they live at home with her at least part of the time.
Miss Fredericks doesn't even ask, when she comes around to help Beth write the names. Just helps her find the right letter-shapes and holds her hand for the hard ones.
Beth puts her picture up next to Rory's. She thinks they kind of match.
always take the long way 'round
There's something ridiculous about being envious of an eight year old, but knowing that doesn't actually stop it.
It's definitely envy, not jealousy; Aisha could care less, is completely comfortable with the part where Jensen will drop anything he's doing (short of times when that'll end with someone dying) for his niece. She'd think less of him if he didn't, honestly. She knows him well enough by now to know if he's not paying attention, if he's not willing to change direction for you at a moment's notice, it's because he doesn't give a damn. Jensen has an on-switch, and off-switch, no gradation in between.
("So why the hell didn't you just go home, with Pooch?" "Well, Cougar was staying - what?" "Nothing." "Liar. Anyway, and, maybe I didn't really think you'd do anything."
These are the things that get filed away, bits and pieces of a picture she can fill in now down to the tiniest corner.)
No, it's envy. Pure, childish and old, story told a thousand times. Because Jensen'll roll his eyes at the World Cup, but he knows every rule, every wrinkle of the game, and will move heaven and earth to make sure he can get ahold of as much as he can for each game between a bunch of eight (almost nine) year old girls. Envy from a woman who'd still got mary-janes when she'd moved on to combat boots, because the man buying them for her just didn't notice, and erased everything that didn't fit with what he knew from his mind.
She'd feel more ridiculous if she weren't kind of fascinated, because it's been a long time since she felt something this . . . light, this unimportant. Or noticed that she did. She'd feel more ridiculous if it weren't so new - or so funny. If she felt more ridiculous, she might have stamped on it a long time ago, or dug the feeling out and got rid of it, something she's good at doing.
Which means if she felt more ridiculous, she might not have noticed how carefully Jensen's been avoiding any plan of action that might end with Aisha and his sister meeting. It's not obvious; there's always a good reason, a solid one, for why the detour doesn't happen, even when Pooch's do. There's always some work a hacker can be doing, after all. And most of it's important. But because she's watching him, because she's figuring the feeling out, she notices.
Once Aisha notices, she knows Clay has, too, and watches his amusement on the couple of times she lets slide by just to test the theory. Clay doesn't miss much, and doesn't pass on many opportunities to think something's funny as hell. It might have bothered her once that he was laughing, in part, at her - but at this point, it just means he's paying attention, and that's something she approves of.
She lets the two times go by because, frankly, it's cute. But when Clay sets up to meet someone in Boston - someone from Bolivian Intelligence, with the flat notes, "No, she's not crazy, no, she doesn't hate me, no, she's not going to kill me, and yes, she can help us, no, you coming would be a bad idea," and Aisha considers him a long time before she decides he's not being defensive, not covering something up, and so assents - she can't quite resist saying, idly, "So what's the excuse going to be this time?"
They're sitting in the loft they're sharing. Clay's on the phone to a hotel and a car rental company, fake IDs in hand; Pooch is passed out on the bed, because he's planning on driving out as soon as he wakes up; Jensen's at his computer; and Aisha and Cougar are both at the table, satellite photographs spread out in front of them, trying to decide if a skirmish near Kandahar was routine or just another case of Max covering something up.
"Huh? What?" Jensen says, looking up and looking mildly bewildered as he comes out of his working headspace. Aisha glances up at him, keeps her face in careful control, showing nothing but off-hand curiousity.
"For why you're not going to see your sister," she elaborates, and catches the look Cougar gives her, the one that points out that she's evil sometimes. The first one he really gave her, for that matter. Even if it was behind a mask, that time. "I was just wondering."
" . . . what?" Jensen says, but there's this quick guilty expression, the one he hides by carefully closing down the program he was working in. Aisha reaches over to pick up one of the other photographs, pull it back to the one she's already looking over, trying to decide if the difference in angle and image mean anything. Or pretending she is.
"It's just I was having a hard time deciding what it would be, because this time it would need to be kind of involved." She looks up at him, absolutely open, and ignores Clay's spreading grin, starting laughter, out of the corner of her eye.
He must be on hold.
She goes on, "If I didn't know better, I might start thinking you don't want me to meet her, or something." She says it mostly to give Jensen something to move on from the obvious stall she'd got his brain into, so that he can latch onto that and do what he does.
Which is to say, "What? That's ridiculous." He points at her. "You're paranoid."
"Yes," Jensen says, firmly. "You are definitely, absolutely paranoid, I haven't been trying to do anything like that. Or thinking anything like that. That's ridiculous."
"Really," she says; she hears when Clay comes off hold, because he winds up having to go from complete-bastard laughing to some kind of serious answer and the transition stutters with, what? Yes - uh, yes, sorry, I wanted to -
"Yes," says Jensen, and adds, "as a matter of fact I was just going to bring it up."
"You were," Aisha says, sceptical and letting him see. If he were a bird, his feathers would have all been ruffled.
"Absolutely, I was just about to point out that since we're, um, in that general area anyway, I should . . . call Holly, and see if she's around, because it's, um, it's summer," he lights on the idea, gesturing to try to make it sound more plausible, "and she might be . . . camping, or something, but if she's not, we should . . . . see if Pooch would mind swinging around to drop us off before looping back to Springfield - "
"No problem," Pooch says, from the couch where he's apparently not so asleep after all.
" - and, uh, visit. Yeah." He finishes with what he probably hopes is a convincing expression, and isn't.
It's starting to get hard not to laugh at him, but Aisha manages to just say, "Okay. Sounds good."
"Good," Jensen says. And then, " . . . I need a phone - " and Aisha pulls hers out of her pocket to toss at him. "Thanks," he says, and then, after he's slid it open, "Why would you even think that, anyway?"
Aisha can only suppress this one into a smile. "Habit of paranoia," she says, obligingly.
"Well - stop it," he says, and before she can answer he's talking to the phone: "Holly, hi - "
Cougar's still giving her the you're kind of evil look, but there's laughter behind it, too, and she just gives him a loose shrug, while Jensen discovers that (of course) his sister is in town this week, and would be very happy to see him.
Aisha does note, though, that she's not explicitly mentioned by name.
if I ever leave this world alive
Jensen and his sister yell at each other. It's just a fact.
Mostly, they yell at each other when he's just done something that scares Holly badly, because (Cougar figured out pretty early on) Holly Jensen doesn't have much of any other way to deal with fear that doesn't involve crumpling up and going silent, and she won't let herself do that anymore. Cougar's also, by now, figured out a pretty good map of what's going to scare Holly, and so mean a shouting match, even if the shouting is mostly Jensen trying to defend his reasoning loud enough for her to hear him over her own voice.
Aisha - the three of them, the fact of it - is definitely going to qualify. Knowing that means that once the glancing, polite introductions are done, once Holly's got past the shield of Polite she keeps up and Jensen's put Beth down from squeezing the air out of her, Cougar's looking for an excuse to leave them alone to it, because an audience only makes the whole thing worse.
So when Beth alights on the idea of showing them her project for her summer science camp, Cougar has a hand against Aisha's lower back and is giving her a look he hopes she'll read when he says, "Sure."
"You go on, baby," Holly says, "I need to talk to your uncle for a minute." And her smile is a smile built on years of dealing with clients, and when Beth leads them into the garage, Cougar closes the door.
Aisha raises an eyebrow. "Something I should know?" she asks, in a murmur. Cougar just holds up a finger, telling her to wait, and listen; years of familiarity means he knows the rhythm of these things, and is actually counting, silently, four, three, two -
"WHAT?" Holly's voice is loud enough to go through the garage door. "You're WHAT?"
Aisha's hand goes over her mouth, to hide the smile. Beth blinks at both of them, and at the door. Jensen's voice is only a murmur of sound, but Holly's comes through loud and clear all over again.
"Overrea - Jake, that woman shot you! - Don't you fucking correct me Jake Jensen, don't you dare, she SHOT YOU."
"Ah," Aisha says, still hiding amusement behind her hand.
"She gets stuck on that," Cougar says, with a one-armed, open-handed shrug. And she does: there's something about Jensen getting shot (as opposed to all the other ways he courts death, now and then, but to be fair Cougar doesn't bring that up, because the woman doesn't need more things to fixate on), getting shot specifically, that winds Holly's brain up into a little knot of crazy that she usually has to shout for a while to unwind.
"You shot my uncle?" Beth says, tilting her head at Aisha, and the funniest thing - to Cougar - is that she's more quizzical than upset. She's better at trusting things than her mother, for any number of reasons (good ones), and that means she's automatically pretty sure that neither Jensen or Cougar would bring anything, anyone, dangerous into her life.
"I grazed his arm," Aisha says, frankly. "It was a misunderstanding." Which, Cougar supposes, is probably the only short way to say it. "We worked it out. It was also," she adds, "the only way to break the standoff without someone really getting killed - I hit what I was aiming at."
Which is the first time she's said that aloud, explicit. It's a good thing to hear, even if he'd guessed it almost at the time.
"Oh." Beth frowns, thoughtfully, and then, her forehead smoothing, says, "Okay. Mom'll be okay in a bit," she adds, sitting up beside the table she has set up, "so I can show you this while they're sorting things out."
Beth has her back to him, which let's Aisha give him a wordless gesture, the question clear - she took that pretty calmly.
Cougar holds up both hands. She's like that. She has all the faith in the world, at least in some things. Jensen tends to figure it means he's doing something right. Or so he says.
It takes less time than Cougar expects - and no more shouting - for Jensen to come out, pretending nothing just happened, and look at the slowly growing crystals and carefully constructed model volcano. If Holly's still a bit . . . careful, it's nothing to take much notice of.
Cougar watches Aisha carefully choose which facet of herself, of all the ones she's got to show, is going to smooth the way the most. What turns up is one they don't see often, one she turns to for women, not for men: friendly, steady, all the edges turned in and away. It works, even on someone with the reasons Holly has to be suspicious.
Food is delivery pizza, which is a long way to come in comfort from the apprehensive hostess Cougar first met. Beth talks them into playing Uno, and then talks Jensen into teaching her how to play poker. They play for Smarties and all pretend Beth can bluff to save her life, which she can't.
She's pushing her luck when she aims for getting to take tomorrow off school, but since it's already nine-thirty when they look up from poker, she ends up winning.
By the time Beth and Jensen are both pushing for a movie, Cougar's trying not to smile, because they're both doing the same thing: filling up the silence with so many words, so many things, that no one gets the chance to think too hard about anything, swept along in the river of it.
They end up watching something called The Peacemaker, made sometime in the nineties, Beth's newest favourite. They start at nine-forty-five: Beth, sitting between him and Jensen on the longer couch, passes out about halfway through. Winds up leaning against Cougar's side, Jensen's fingers interlaced with hers, dead to the world; Cougar smiles and shakes his head.
Aisha's giving him a disbelieving look - he sees it when he goes to look back at the movie. He returns one that's a question, and she shakes her head now, gestures to the eight-year-old girl. "When I hear something described as you-without-the-cuddly-side, I assume it's irony," she says, sounding bemused.
"The first time he was here, he helped me with the dishes," Holly offers, as George Clooney and Nicole Kidman have to chase someone with a nuclear bomb down the street, because of a shot the movie's sniper couldn't take. It's the first time Holly's volunteered at anything at Aisha. "I didn't even have to ask."
Cougar shakes his head, half-smiling, and doesn't bother with an answer.
It takes all of them a minute to notice that Jensen's asleep, too.
the city spins around
It's early when the light on her face wakes Aisha up. She's part of a tangled pile of limbs and bodies, but she's used that by now. It's comforting: you wake up, you know no one died, no one left in the night, because you've got one boy on an arm (that's going to sleep) and one on a leg, or a leg tangled up in yours, and one's fishbelly white and one's light brown and then there's you.
Of course, the downside is that neither one of them tends to want you to move. Cougar's not so bad; he lodges his protest by pretending he's still asleep, which means he's heavy, but since he sprawls asleep she can push him over. Jensen, though, is a damn squid and more than once (today included) she has to stop and say, levelly, "Jensen, if you don't let go of me, I'm going to cut your head off."
If he's wrapped around her, they've got their own room, so there's no winces from Pooch or Clay at the private joke she's making, the one that would have edges for the other two but is just a step around the truth for the three of them. "Seriously," she adds, today, "I'm not your fucking teddy-bear, and I'm getting up."
Eventually, he lets go. Aisha crawls out from between them and finds her bag, pulls on shorts and a loose shirt so she can leave the room and find the bathroom without risking a scene. Because that's something that wouldn't help right now. She doesn't blame Jensen's sister; in her place - well, she wouldn't be as upset, but that's only because she's always lived in a world where the line between someone you shoot and someone who's your only hope gets crossed three times a month. Holly Jensen doesn't. And while trust me, if I'd been trying hurt him, he'd've been down, and if I'd been trying to kill him he'd be dead might be comforting in Aisha's world, it rings a little off in suburbia, and she knows it.
She meant to wait until one of her boys were awake to bother the woman, but fate has Holly in the kitchen, finishing up making coffee, when Aisha's just looking for water and some place to wait. Not optimal, maybe, but that's how it goes; she says, "Morning," and gets a gesture with a coffee mug in answer. Somehow, she's not surprised Jensen's sister runs off caffeine.
Holly actually pours Aisha some without either asking or anything awkward, and then holds up the cream; when Aisha shakes her head, the woman ours it in her own and then folds up the carton spout to put it back in the fridge. She waves a hand towards the table, so Aisha sits, waits for the other woman to do the same. Watches her, while she does.
Holly looks like her brother, washed out a bit, turned small and female. The shape of the face, the colour of the eyes - Holly's hair is longer, but it's pulled back so Aisha can see the hairline is the same. Myopia's apparently a family trait, because she's got glasses (fashionably square, instead of ridiculously round, meant to blend in instead of stand out) perched on her nose, too. She's got a more graceful way of moving, but half of that is fear, kept folded away and stamped down: it's the grace that comes from always, always watching what you do, controlling what other people see, the way a woman has to and a man doesn't.
Aisha sits at this woman's kitchen table and waits to see what's going to come out from behind the eyes that are narrowed at her.
"I have two people in the world," Holly Jensen says, at last. "Jake, and Bethy. That's it." Her fingers are curled around each side of the mug, and she almost manages to hide the tension in them.
Aisha inclines her head to acknowledge that - what it means, even if it isn't, she doesn't think, completely true - and meets Holly's eyes, lets her go on.
"Everything that matters, comes from them," she says, and that's a bit more true, closer to it, because it's not hard to see every connecting line out of this woman going through her brother and her daughter, to Cougar (and the rest of the team, maybe) through Jensen, to the other parents through Beth.
Jensen's sister leans forward. "If you hurt my brother," Holly tells her, fiercely, ash-blonde and tiny and all, "I will hunt you down and cut you to little pieces and feed them to my neighbour's dog. While you're still alive. And then I will make Bethy a necklace out of your teeth."
She means every word of it. Aisha knows that, and has a heartbeat to contemplate what this woman would be like, on that kind of vendetta. To guess, anyway. And in that heartbeat, Aisha decides she likes Holly Jensen. A lot.
"Do you understand me?" Holly demands, presses, fingers still tight on her mug.
"Completely," Aisha replies, with probably more truth than anyone else who's ever said that to this woman in her life. She even raises her coffee cup a bit, like she's drinking to it, which in a way she is. Like coffee needs more significance in her life than it already has, but she pushes down the smile at the thought: not time for that. Not yet.
Holly gives her the kind of look you have to call "searching", which is more about intimidating the other person into giving things away than it is about actually being able to look inside them, see through them. Aisha makes sure she's showing what she wants Holly to read - in this case, even more importantly, what's true.
Eventually, Holly says, "Okay." Drinks her own coffee, like they're entering a compact. Takes a breath, and her fingers go loose against the porcelain.
Then, in a completely different tone, she demands, "What the hell is a woman like you doing with Jake anyway?"
Aisha almost inhales her coffee, and after she coughs it back up she puts the cup down. Answers a question with a question. "Has anyone ever told you that you and your brother are a lot alike?"
Holly's eyes narrow like a laser, but one that's laughing, one that has, in fact, heard this before. "Only the first time," she says, sourly. "Before I punch them."
And Aisha laughs and says, "I bet," and it's actually a shared joke, already.
When Jensen wanders out about four hours later to find them sitting in the living-room, still in their sleeping clothes, and chatting over fresh croissants, he looks - well, after the five seconds of relief, he actually looks a bit worried. For, Aisha supposes, a completely different reason.
She smiles at him. And out of the corner of her eye, she sees Holly doing the exact same thing, and it makes her laugh. Jensen's eyes narrow.
" . . . I'm going to get coffee," he says.
This time, Holly's laughing, too.