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A Little Unsteady

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       Cougar doesn’t often like family dinners. There aren’t many good ones in his memory beyond the ones made with the Losers in the humid forests of god knew what country they were invading for a various number of reasons. He remembers late nights drinking contraband whiskey and listening to Jensen sing off key with Pooch. Eventually Jensen coaxes Clay and Roque to join in, drunkenly waving his arms in the dancing light of the campfire.

       A faint smile twists on his lips, the memory of Jensen warm and solid against his side at the forefront of his mind. There’s the tap tap tap of footsteps drawing his gaze from the off-brand magazine in his hands. Laughter fills the hallways and he watches with veiled curiosity as Jensen comes running into the room with his niece on his shoulders, three small children racing close behind squealing with laughter. “Ahh!” The Jensen’s niece is shrieking with glee as the other three children circle Jensen’s legs with their arms. Cougar raising a brow when the other man pretends to go down, clutching his chest with a cry, “Oh no, they’ve got us! Man down, we got a man down! Save yourself Princess!” Jenny, all scrawny four feet of her, is wiggling off her uncle’s shoulders in favor of clamoring over the back of the couch.

       Cougar watches Jensen’s mother, Martha, come in from the kitchen and wipe her hands off on her apron with a fond smile. “Kids you leave poor Jake alone, he’s only got two hands.” There’s three different variations of disappointment rise in the wake of her words and Pooch is poking his head out with a bark of laughter. “Man Jensen, your nana don’t play around,” he says with a whistle before Jolene shows over his shoulder to fuss over the newborn in Pooch’s arms. Cougar smirks when Jolene flicks him square in the nose with a fond smile on her lips. It still is strange seeing them, knowing this is something close to family (or what family should be) instead of nights that are too hot and a stomach that is too empty. Now it’s just a matter of getting organized and finishing cooking food. The difference is enough to have him sitting off to the side, observing rather than interacting. It’s safer that way. Cougar doesn’t have to worry he’s done something wrong.

       Jensen is plucking the magazine out of his hands and pushing his way into Cougar’s space like he’s entitled to lay his legs across the sniper’s thighs. Martha is herding the kids back into the kitchen, offering them a few of the cookies that’ve come out of the oven. Fingers rest, hesitant and unsure across the denim at Jensen’s thigh as another voice rings out over the commotion, “Jenny, sweetie take your friends into the living room and go spend some time with your grandpa.”

       Muscles tense under his fingers, Cougar senses Jensen is ready to move and say something in his niece’s defense. Jolene has long since ushered Pooch into one of the guest bedrooms and Cougar can see their teammate peeking out at the mention of Jensen’s father. It’s a sore subject and even the football game, laughter, and loud voices isn’t enough to set the tension at bay. Cougar chances a glance towards Jensen, following the lines of worry from his brows down to his lips. “Okay Mama,” Jenny finally says, reluctant to follow her cousins out into the living room. Linda is bending down, watching her daughter with a brief smile and tucking back a strand of hair. Cougar can’t make out the words but he knows that what follows isn’t the best situation for all of them. In fact, he remembers it going too fast and by the time he comes up for air he’s being shoved outside and there’s shouting outside.

       Sinking down onto the front step, he massages the knuckles of his hand feeling bruises threatening to swell up. “The hell are you wearing?” Cougars remembers Jensen’s dad saying when Jenny came into the living room and took a seat on the ground. Jensen was up before him but Cougar held him back, a steady hand and a simple word, “Wait.” Some fights you had to fight on your own and he knew this — an old man looking with disdain — was a fight Jenny would have to take on by herself. The world wasn’t kind as the women in the kitchen who believe the best of people too much, too often.

       “Because it’s comfortable Poppa,” came the timid voice. There was a scoff and Cougar moved without thinking, Jensen a distant thought at his back. “Comfortable? Jacob, you’re a boy for Christ sake you shouldn’t be wearing dresses. What’re you a fag?” The words were abrasive and Jenny’s eyes were watering, her small hands clenched in her dress. “N-No Poppa,” she said meekly despite how the rest of her family whispered that maybe Jensen’s dad is being too harsh. It was waved aside by a large hand and a stern voice, “No you gotta break this habit early on, it’s not natural.” Cougar remembers feeling Jensen at his back and this time there were hands holding him back. Pooch was watching him, his gaze worried.

       “Go change right this minute, Jacob, wear something appropriate for once,” came the cutting words, causing tears to fall in fat droplets down Jenny’s young face. Cougar’s jaw clenched and he stepped forward, shaking off Jensen’s hands like they were shackles. “No,” he said, a hand steadying a small quaking shoulder and gaze unapologetically cold upon Jensen’s father. “She is dressed just fine,” Cougar paused, giving Jenny a reassuring glance, “She deserves an apology.”

       “My grandson is my business you gay spic.”

       Suddenly there had been too much silence. Linda and Martha watched and were saying something, Jensen fended them off loudly and forgot about Cougar one minute too long. The silence erupted into noise and Jenny’s soft sobs were enough to spur Cougar into action. When it had come rushing back, the old man was down on the ground with a broken nose and there were three sets of hands bodily dragging him away.

       Which lead him back to here, to shaking hands and watching his breath steam in the cold air in front of him. The door cracks open and there’s a brief glance over his shoulder. Jenny’s red face greets his eyes, hesitant, afraid, and something cold curls in his gut. “Come here, mija,” he says softly, patting the porch step beside him. The little girl hesitates, glancing back inside to the chaos and raised voices before finally closing the door behind herself. She takes a seat beside him, looking down at her hands and picking quietly at the chipped pink nail polish.

       Cougar smiles briefly, shrugs off his jacket, and drapes it over her small shoulders before drawing her closer. He remembers stories Jensen told him about this little girl, remembers hearing the good and the bad. Her tiny fingers clutch his jacket close and she melts against his side. It didn’t take long for them to get along, for Jenny to get under his skin as much as her uncle. His fingers gently card through her hair, smoothing back the wild blond strands. “Thank you,” comes her small croaking voice against his shirt. Cougar clicks his tongue and hoists the little girl into his lap with a hushed, “Oh mija.” Jenny trembles, quaking with sobs and gripping his shirt with little reservation. Cougar holds her close, speaking to her softly, telling her in his own way that this too would make her stronger. A door slams and there’s a car revving to life, peeling down the driveway and into the night. It always seemed so surreal at family gatherings, watching tempers flare hot and violent. Cougar never would have stopped in the past when he set to swinging his fists.

       There’s soft breathing against his neck, Jensen’s niece worn thin from crying and fast asleep. Small miracles, he mused as the front door swung open and this time it’s Jensen that comes to sit next to him outside. “Man my old man sure knows how to liven up a party huh?” Jensen is smiling but Cougar knows him well enough to spot the anger mixed with relief. An arm drapes over his shoulders and dark eyes glance questioningly at the other man. “I’m glad,” the blond confesses, looking over Cougar’s face quietly, “You managed to do what we’ve all been too afraid to yknow. That man is a terror but we — I should’ve done something sooner for Jenny. I didn’t think it was this bad.”

       Fingers pluck away Cougar’s hat, placing it atop Jenny’s head and shielding her from the cold. Jensen is smiling, his fingers tentatively curling back dark strands. “What did you talk about?” Cougar asks, quiet and tense beneath those fingers. Jensen laughs, airy and humorless, and looks out into the darkness of the front yard. “I might’ve said you were my boyfriend and if Jenny wanted to wear a dress then hell she was entitled to wear a dress. Old man got upset, threw a fit about how no son of his was a fag, and I might’ve accidentally told him that hey not only was his son gay but he liked getting bent over and well, yknow.” Laughter bubbles up, soft and genuine, Cougar is shaking his head and muttering a fond swear word under his breath. Leave it to Jensen to one up him. Then those fingers are coaxing him back and he sees it, notices the tremor and the wild look to those eyes in the half-shadows of the porch. How did he not realize Jensen was as scared as his niece coming out like this to his whole family? His gaze softens a bit, “You’re okay, nene.” Cougar’s hand settles over the line of Jensen’s jaw. “Your family loves you, one bitter man won’t get rid of that.”

       Jensen smiles, tears at the corners of his eyes as manic breathless laughter slips free. They’re forehead to forehead and Jensen is holding on to him like an anchor. “Yeah?” Cougar doesn’t like how lost he sounds, what it does to him, how it makes his chest feel too tight. “Si, nene,” he whispers against the curve of cold lips, leaning forward to steal a whisper of something dangerous. Jensen is the one that lunges blindly, fingers too tight in his hair and mouth desperate.

       “Uncle Jake?”

       Cougar is the one that pulls back, his mouth aching and a light feeling in his veins. Jensen glances down, a lopsided smile on his lips as he tips Cougar’s hat back to let Jenny peak out. “Hey sunshine,” he says fondly, cupping her cheek and bending to press a kiss to her forehead. “Did Uncle Carlos keep you safe or what? He’s pretty great huh?” Cougar feels a smile rise as Jenny nods against his chest and murmurs, “Yeah, he’s the best.” Her small hands reach for Jensen and he hoists her up into his arms, rising to his feet and heading back inside.

       Cougar thinks, again he is the outsider, the one looking in at a family.

       “Hey you coming?” Jensen’s voice pulls him from his thoughts, drawing his gaze away from the snow drifts and back over a shoulder to where Jensen and Jenny are waiting expectantly. All the sudden Cougar feels stupid, like someone pulled the blindfold off his eyes and forced air back into his lungs. It should’ve been clear since the first day Jenny’s small hands gripped his fingers and Jensen looked at him like that.

       Cougar was in love with the blond holding a fragile child in his arms.

       “Of course,” he says, pushing himself upright as the front door is opened and the smell of warm food wafts out washing away the bitter taste in his mouth. Martha spots him and smiles, relief easing her shoulders. Linda is smiling where she’s talking with the rest of Jenny’s cousins as he closes the door behind himself. “Sweetie,” Martha says, looking at him and surprisingly him, “Come help me set the table won’t you?” Jensen gives him a nudge and Pooch is in the corner talking about something with Jolene. A smile returns to his lips and he ducks his head, weaving through Jensen’s cousins that clap him on the back or step aside.

       Stepping into the kitchen, Martha’s hand descends upon the heft of his shoulder. Cougar expects her to give him a stern word, her verdict the final sentencing on whether he stays or goes. “Frank is a bit of a bastard,” she says instead, blunt as Jensen and honest as Linda. “It takes some time for an old coot like him to accept things as they are, but sweetheart I ain’t ever seen my Jake so happy as he is with you.” There it is, the tight feeling. Martha touches his cheek, pats it gently and offers him a smile. “Don’t you think of breaking my boy’s heart, y’hear?”

       “Mom! Don’t give him the shovel talk!”

       Cougar watches as Linda steps in, the two women talking animatedly while guiding him around to help them. The smile merely grows further and he catches himself offering a few words here and there. His arms are full with the turkey when Cougar finally catches Jensen’s gaze from where the blond is sitting with his niece wrapped up in Cougar’s jacket and hat. No, he still doesn’t like family dinners. He doesn’t like the loud fights and the inevitable drama. But — he thinks as he sees Jensen sharing that quiet sort of fondness in that look, that maybe he could learn to love them, to love this family, as much as he loves that lopsided smile and rattling laughter.