Actions

Work Header

Sweet You, Sweet You

Work Text:

Title: Sweet You, Sweet You

 

If asked, Carlos Alvarez would say that the biggest change now that he was out of the army was that he was no longer getting shot at regularly.

He still woke up early every day. He still exercised every day. He still went to the range to keep his skills in check. He still had to listen to orders from people who thought they knew everything.

"All I'm saying, really, is that you need to take more pride in your work. It's not even that hard! Just bring me what I ordered before it gets cold. Look at this! This soup is ice cold! I'm sure it's a fine gazpacho, but that doesn't matter if it's not served before it gets cold." the customer said, prattling on as his date glanced around awkwardly.

Carlos never thought he would run in to a civilian scenario that would make him think fondly of mortar fire, yet there he was.

Carlos discreetly used the mirrored wall of the diner to look at the clock. It was close enough to two o'clock that he could get away with handing the rude customer off to his cousin. From the sound of all the over-privileged whining Carlos knew he would not be getting a tip anyways.

Carlos turned his back on the table and walked away, huffing when the rude customer's whining picked up in pitch. He ducked in to the kitchen and looked for his cousin, Mercedes. When he found her, he cleared his throat to get her attention.

"Carlos! Hey, you better get going. You don't want to miss your appointment." Mercedes said.

"I'm going." Carlos said, handing over the notebook he wrote orders in. "The gringo at table six is snobby and said I should have gotten his gazpacho to him before it got cold."

Mercedes frowned and sighed, "Gazpacho is supposed to be served cold!"

"Good luck explaining that to him." Carlos said.

He left Mercedes in the kitchen and went to the staff room to hang up his apron and grab his bag. He clocked out at exactly two o'clock and went to catch the bus that would take him to his appointment.

"So, how are things going this week, Carlos?" Dr. Grant asked, smiling gently at him.

"Had a customer today who chewed me out for serving his gazpacho cold." Carlos said, reclining in his chair.

Of all the therapists Carlos had gone to, both during and after his time in the Army, Dr. Grant had the best chairs. Soft enough to feel luxurious, but firm enough to actually support him. More than once Carlos had given thought to asking where she had gotten them, so he could buy one to nap in.

"Isn't gazpacho supposed to be served cold?" Dr. Grant asked.

"Yes."

"The joys of customer service jobs." Dr. Grant muttered. "So how have you been sleeping?"

"Mostly the same." Carlos said, picking at a hangnail.

"Don't pick." Dr. Grant chided gently.

"My mother made a beef stew for dinner last week. I woke up in the middle of the night, bile in my throat, tasting MRE. Don't know how much time I lost." Carlos admitted.

"Not being able to eat certain foods due to their close association with traumatic experiences is fairly common, Carlos." Dr. Grant said. "There's no shame in avoiding things that trigger you, even if it's a meal."

"Tell that to my mother." Carlos muttered.

"Is she still having issues adjusting to you being home?"

"She still acts like I went on vacation for eight years. Asks me if I saw tourist attractions. Like I was not at war, fighting for my life." Carlos said. He sank down further in the chair and sighed. Putting his emotions in to words was never easy. "She acts like I am still Carlito. To her I am still a child. To her I am inexperienced. Innocent. She has never seen Sergeant Alvarez. She has never heard about Cougar. She does not see the blood on my hands."

"Is that something you want her to see?"

"It's complicated." Carlos said.

"Families usually are." Dr. Grant said, smiling ruefully.

"I wish that there was more acknowledgement of that fact that I have changed." Carlos said slowly. "I also wish that more had changed."

"In what ways?" Dr. Grant prompted.

"I went from being eighteen, living at home, working in my family's restaurant, to being twenty-six, living at home, working in my family's restaurant." Carlos explained. "I signed up to get away from my family and live my own life. I have ended up back where I started."

"Maybe a change in living conditions would help. The VA has resources for veterans looking for roommates and tenants." Dr. Grants suggested.

"Maybe." Carlos said, shrugging.

"I know you're not overly fond of dealing with strangers, but a fellow veteran would at least know what it's like to transition back to a civilian lifestyle." Dr. Grant pointed out.

Carlos shrugged again, not wanting to think about it at that moment.

"It would also be a good idea for you to get out of the house for more than just work, exercise, and errands." Dr. Grant continued. "There's a group here at the VA that I think would be very helpful for you to attend. It's a mix of different military branches and periods of service, but they're all ex-special forces in some way. A number of them have worked in the black as well. I think it would do you some good to attend their meetings."

"I am not so good at talking. You may have noticed." Carlos responded dryly.

"One of the good things about the VA groups is that other people will be talking as well. You don't need to speak if you don't want to, or can't bring yourself to. Sometimes it's helpful just to listen." Dr. Grant said. "Just talk to the group counselor before you leave today and see if their meeting schedule matches up with your free time."

"Okay." Carlos said, trying to reign in his usual reticence.

"His name is Linwood Porteous. If you ask the clerks at the front desk they'll be able to point him out to you."

"I will speak with him." Carlos said, reminding himself that Dr. Grant was legitimately trying to help him and actually knew what she was talking about.

 

After his therapy session, Carlos asked at the front desk about Linwood Porteous, and was directed to a room where a group session was already in progress. He waited outside, overhearing the low murmurs of the session happening inside, but not bothering to move close enough to hear anything clearly. He was not part of that group, so it would be rude to pry in to their session.

When it sounded like people were getting up to leave, he moved across the hall so it would not look like he had been eavesdropping. After most of everyone had left, Cougar went to the doorway to see if he could find Porteous. He noticed one man who seemed to be giving instructions to the remaining people who were helping stack chairs against one wall.

"Porteous?" Carlos called.

The man turned to Carlos and smiled widely. "That'd be me. How can I help you?"

"I was told to speak with you about joining a group." Carlos said, eyeing the other people in the room.

"Tell you what, help me get the coffee station in the corner cleaned up and ready for tomorrow and we'll talk about whatever you need." Porteous said, pointing to a table against the opposite wall, far enough away from the chairs that they would not be easily overheard.

Carlos followed Porteous over and started picking up stray napkins and used paper cups to put in the trash bin.

"So, how long have you been back?" Porteous asked.

"Eleven months. Coming up on one year, soon."

"There's a couple of support groups for veterans that operate out of this VA. Each of them has a wide variety of people from different units, and different decades of service. Mind if I ask who recommended you to me, specifically?" Porteous asked, unplugging the coffeemaker.

"Dr. Grant." Carlos said, opening the machine to take out the used filter and grounds.

"Dr. Grant. She's a good one. Really cares about her patients. Also tends to take ones who have a hard time talking, either for emotional reasons or legal ones."

"I was a Ranger." Carlos said, answering the question Porteous had hinted at.

"I do lead a group that's specifically for ex-Rangers." Porteous said, nodding his head. "It's on Thursdays in the afternoon, from four to six. It's open for people to swing by when they can, even if it's just for a few minutes, though a lot of people will stay the whole time."

"I should be able to make it." Carlos said. He worked mornings at the restaurant, so unless there was an emergency he would be able to attend the meetings.

"Cool. Just so you know, there's no pressure to talk at the meetings. You only need to say as much as you're comfortable with. Some people get comfortable really quickly and can share things easily. Others need time to warm up. And just because you share stuff one week doesn't mean you gotta share something every time. We all go at our own paces and do what we can, when we can, yeah?"

"Yeah." Carlos agreed, pursing his lips. The group sounded good, but Carlos was not sure it would actually be of any help to him. He would go, to appease Dr. Grant, but he did not think sitting in a group of people who already had their lives back on track was going to do wonders for his progress.

 

Carlos caught the bus home, getting in just before most of the children were due to return from their various after school programs. He set out some fruit for all of them to grab as a snack when they would inevitably stampede through the house before making a simple sandwich for himself and taking a beer from the fridge. He brought his snack to his room so that he could relax before dinner by drawing, or playing an RPG on his laptop.

After dinner, Carlos went to bed as early as he could, knowing that nightmares would likely wake him before his alarm would have the chance.

 

In the morning, after he stopped shaking, Carlos took a quick shower to rinse off the sweat his nightmare had produced before slipping out of the house in the predawn dark to go jogging.

Since his return exercise was a necessity for Carlos rather than the pleasure it had once been when he was younger. Half remembered nightmares of a faceless enemy tracking him down as soon as he let his guard down were a frequent motivator to keep himself in fighting shape. He was not quite sure what he would do if there had not been a 24 hour gym within running distance of his parents' home. Possibly something noisy that would make his mother look at him sadly, like he was letting her down by not being better already.

Compulsive, nightmare-fueled workouts inside the house were a sign of failure. Compulsive, nightmare- fueled workouts outside the house were part of a routine, something normal, meaning he was getting better.

When he returned from his workout he showered properly before getting ready for work. In order to compete with other businesses his family had made the decision last year to begin opening the restaurant very early in the morning to offer some to-go breakfast and coffee options. The breakfast foods , mostly sandwiches and wraps, were prepared the day before by the cooks, so all Carlos had to do when he got in was brew the coffee and unlock the door. It was normally a quiet shift with only a few bursts of activity that usually centered around the bus schedules in the area.

When he got to the restaurant that morning, however, there was someone already waiting in front of the door. Carlos tried to do a threat assessment of the man, but with him being curled up in a crouch and seemingly fast asleep it was hard to tell. Most of what he could see was blond fluffy hair, round glasses sliding off a large nose, and dark circles under the man's closed eyes.

The man's clothes looked fairly new and well cared for and he did not seem to smell, so Carlos was leaning away from homeless and closer to either bar hopper or college student.

And then the man's chest started crying.

"Snrk-guh! What? Oh fuck. Hey hey hey easy... Um... What did your mom name you?" the man said, quickly opening his light jacket to reveal a fussing baby. "Okay, okay. I got ya, little buddy. Let's see... K.... Katelyn? Really? Okay I'd cry too if that was my name."

"What is wrong with it?" Carlos asked, somewhat bewildered by the man in front of him who apparently did not even know his own child's name.

"Whuh? Oh, Jesus! You startled me, man!" the man said as he stood, settling the quieting baby against his chest.

Carlos blinked, stunned by how tall the man turned out to be. He had to be at least six feet tall, and what Carlos could see of his chest through the open jacket looked broad and well muscled. He felt a momentary spark of jealousy at the baby that was cuddled close to the man's pecs.

"As to the name thing, well. While there are many fine and noble variations of the name Katelyn, this particular child does not have one of them. There is a truly terrible trend where my fellow white folks name their children like they're trying to reserve a name in an MMO." the man said holding out a corner of the baby's blanket where there was a name embroidered.

"K... Kuh-vi-lyn?" Carlos read out.

"Letters two, three, four, and five are roman numerals." the man said.

"V-I-I-I is... Eight." Carlos said, frowning. A second later the penny dropped and he realized what the embroidery meant. "Her name is KVIIItlyn? Really?"

"This poor kid is gonna want a name change as soon as she hits eighteen." the man said, cuddling the baby close.

"Her mother did not ask for input when choosing her name?" Carlos asked, taking out his keys so he could unlock the front door.

"Fuck if I know. Her parents are wealthy enough to hire me to look after her overnight two days a week, but not enough to have a full time nanny vetted before the kid's born." he said before yawning widely.

"So you are her babysitter?" Carlos asked, opening the door to the restaurant. He hesitated for a second before gesturing for the man to enter with him. If anyone found out he let a customer in before the restaurant was actually open, Carlos would say he did not want the baby to get cold.

"Technically I'm a nanny, since I do this professionally. But yeah. I work from home doing stuff that involves a lot of sitting and breaks while stuff processes, so I figured I could double up and look after babies at the same time." he said as he looked around the restaurant.

"Take a seat at the counter," Carlos said, "I will get the coffee started."

Cougar pressed the button on one of the coffee machines before heading back to the staff room to put his light jacket away. He turned on the lights he knew he would need before checking that the various coffees teas and hot chocolates he would need during the morning rush were sorted as they should be. The sound of the hot nanny playing with the unfortunately named baby provided a surprisingly relaxing backdrop for him as he worked. His preparations went quickly and he was out front again to take the hot nanny's order in no time.

"You wanted coffee?" Carlos asked.

"Yes please! In a to-go cup if you don't mind." Hot Nanny said brightly as he bounced the baby in his lap. "Could I also get a pan dulce, please?"

Carlos nodded and put together the order, not bothering with writing a name on the coffee cup since they were the only ones there.

"Sorry about kind of crashing on your front door by the way. I'd been up for a while already when Eights over here started crying and wouldn't stop unless we were walking around outside. I passed by and saw you guys would be open in about forty minutes so I figured I'd wait and get a coffee. Guess I got comfy and dozed off."

"Not a problem." Carlos said as he handed over the man's order.

"Thanks! Have a nice day!" the man said, putting a twenty on the counter and a ten in the tip jar before grabbing his stuff and leaving.

Carlos shook his head at the man as he exited the restaurant. As Hot Nanny had seemed, Carlos could not be entirely certain if he was aware that he just tipped Carlos 25$ for a 5$ order.

The rest of the day was uneventful, and life seemed ready to slip back in to its normal routine for Carlos. He did mention to his mother that he had a group session to attend on Thursday. He emphasized it was a trial, to see if he would fit and if it would help him at all. She insisted he take her car to go there, wanting to make sure he would have a way to get home no matter what time he left. Carlos was hesitant about it but eventually agreed to use her car for the first session, as it would allow him to get out of there the fastest if everything went wrong.

 

He got to the VA early on Thursday, and found the room easily enough. There was a table similar to the one he had seen in Porteous' other group, with a coffee machine, some bottles of soda and water, and some packages of dry looking cookies. He helped himself to a bottle of water and went to check the sightlines of the room's windows.

He finished checking the windows in time to not get caught by most of the group. A few who had also shown up early mostly just nodded at him or ignored him.

When Porteous came in everyone seemed to settle a bit, breaking off from their conversations to greet him or grab seats.

"Okay everyone! We've got a few minutes before I'll get us started, so if you need to use the bathroom or something, get going." Porteous said, smiling. He opened his mouth to continue, but was interrupted when someone smacked in to the doorway.

"Shit! Fuck! Shitfuck! Sorry! My car's in the shop and Clay is a shithead." Hot Nanny said.

"I don't even want to know what he did this time, Jake." Porteous said, shaking his head.

"I asked him last night to drop me off today and he said sure. He never showed so I pinged his phone. Fucker's in Vegas.."

There was a chorus of low groans around the room. It seemed Clay had something of a reputation.

Hot Nanny, or Jake as it turned out, shuffled off to the refreshments table in the corner while others left to use the washroom. Most people there simply took the time to choose their preferred seats. The chairs were spread out in a loose circle, so the only factor affecting Carlos' seat choice was keeping the windows and door in sight. As he sat down, Carlos tried not to feel awkward about not knowing anyone in the room, but it was difficult.

"Hey there!" came Jake's voice from right beside him, startling him. "Mind if I sit with you?"

"Feel free." Carlos said, gesturing to the seat next to him.

Jake sat down and smiled at Carlos like they were already friends.

"Sorry again about crashing at your workplace. I don't always make the best decisions about where to rest when I've been up for more than forty hours."

"It was no problem." Carlos insisted. Nobody had even found out that it had happened.

Jake smiled and settled in his chair, sipping from a Coke.

"Okay then, let's get this started." Porteous said a moment later. "To start with we have two new members with us. Sam over here is former Air Force, and on the other side we have Carlos, from the Army."

"Another Army guy, huh?" said a grizzled older man, holding a coffee cup in a hand that shook slightly.

"If you guys want to engage in some inter-military branch based teasing and whatnot save if for after the session. We are all here because of one, big, unifying reason: we get it." Porteous said, looking around the room compassionately. "We've all gone on missions where we didn't know if we would come back in one piece, knowing full well that what we did probably would never be acknowledged, beyond a dutiful 'thank you for your service'. We're all here because we know what it's like to be in some of the worst places on earth and have no guarantee we'll even be looked for if we don't come back. And we are all here because we did make it back, and sometimes that's harder to deal with than still being in hell."

Carlos felt his eyes prickle and had to look away.

"Life can be pretty fucking hard out there most days." Porteous continued. "And it's worse in the strangest of ways when people who insist they care and want to support you just don't understand what's going on in your head. And I'm sure some of you even have people expecting you to just tell them what happened. Like that'll make everything better somehow."

"My cousin is like that." said a man a few seats over from Carlos. "She thinks that if I just tell her about what happened then we can talk about it and put it behind us. Like getting attacked by children with machine guns is the same as explaining I don't like hand washing dishes because touching soggy food makes me dry heave."

"That's as good a place to start as any. Think about those frustrating things your friends and family are doing that are fucking you up because it shows that, no matter what they say, they just don't get it." Porteous said, leaning back in his chair.

People in the group slowly started speaking up about the everyday things their friends and loved ones did that alienated them in various ways. One man could not stand the smell of gasoline after being trapped under a burning car, but his uncle kept trying to hire him to work at his garage, where gas leaks were common. Another person had not been able to eat rice since they had served in Vietnam, but after moving in to the spare room in their daughter's house they was being lectured about being a picky eater. Carlos did not speak up himself, but he did think about how his mother acted like nothing had even happened to him. How she always seemed disappointed when Carlos said or did something that showed he was not a carefree 18 year old anymore. Like if she pretended hard enough then she would get her son back, and anyone who prevented that was being unfair to her.

After everyone who seemed willing to speak had vented some of their frustrations, Porteous went through a few of the common issues people were having and had everyone brainstorm how to tell those friends or family members that they were hurting more than helping. Some suggestions were practical, like setting up a meeting between the civilians and a counselor or therapist; or asking them to attend support groups for family and friends of veterans. Others were more fanciful, like Jake's suggestion to hire a skywriter to paint giant 'MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS' messages over people's houses.

After that, Porteous went on to ask how their week had been. People brought up moments where they had struggled. Whether it was nightmares or flashbacks or just straining to manage whatever symptoms of PTSD, depression, or anxiety their time in the army had gifted them with. People talked about their insomnia and Jake mentioned being up for more than 40 hours before falling asleep outside of a coffee shop.

People in the group talked, and most of them were coping with at least one symptom that Carlos had been fighting to control since he got back. Nightmares, hypervigilance, panic attacks, insomnia.

When everyone who was willing to speak up had done so, Porteous then told them that setbacks were normal. He told them all that recovery was an ongoing process that happened at a highly individualized pace, and that it was almost never a linear process. He looked around at everyone in the room and did his best to reassure them that they were all doing their best.

To wind down the session, Porteous had everyone recount moments of success from throughout the week. It did not matter how big or small the moment was, only that they shared it if they felt comfortable.

The man with the shaking hands talked about how he had bought a hand loom, since he could no longer hold the needles steady enough to knit with his granddaughter. Sam mentioned sitting by a dog park for an hour, even though he had been deathly afraid of dogs when he first got back. Someone else spoke about finally sending a handwritten letter to their father after being estranged for nearly a decade.

When the group session was done, Carlos left to find the closest restroom. Once inside, behind a door that could be locked for a moment of privacy, he took time to just breathe. Breathe and figure out what he was feeling, like Dr. Grant was always urging him to do.

He felt lighter than he had before the group started, but also emotionally tender in a way he was not sure he liked. It felt... good, in a way, to know that he was not alone. It was a similar feeling of support that he used to have with his platoon, before everything went wrong.

Similar, but not the same. Carlos would have counted on his platoon to have his back in a fight, or reassure him if he was concerned about a mission. He was not sure he would have counted on them to listen to his worries about his mother, or complaints about rude customers. But this group at the VA would. Today he had seen as much when the others were discussing small things that interrupted their days in a way civilians would not truly understand.

He was not sure he had it in him to speak up, just yet. But if this was what sessions were usually like, then maybe he could speak up in future. Maybe they would listen. Maybe it would help him.

Carlos washed his hands and splashed water on his face before leaving to find Porteous, to thank him for leading the group session. Porteous waved off Carlos' thanks and offered him a card with his numbers on it, in case Carlos needed anything. He took it, thanked Porteous again, and left.

On his way out of the building, he spotted Jake near the entrance, speaking to someone on a cell phone.

"But you said... That's not how it works Jess!... There's no fucking magical cure for PTSD!... No, what you're doing is abandoning me because you think some shitty blogs are more accurate about my mental health than multiple therapists... Really? You're gonna try and use your daughter as a bargaining chip? That's fucking cold. Good job on turning out just like Mom."

Carlos could hear tinny shrieking on the other end of the phone as Jake hung up. Carlos could also see the faint tremor in Jake's hands as he pocketed his phone and wiped over his mouth almost compulsively. Jake seemed to be searching for something outside, but his breathing was shaky and irregular.

Carlos could have walked by, could have left him to some sort of privacy after what was undoubtedly a terrible phone call. It would have been polite to do so.

Carlos walked right up to Jake.

"Jake?"

"Jesus Shitfucking Christ!" Jake said, startling and grabbing his chest as he whipped around to stare at Carlos.

"Did your ride home cancel?" he asked.

"Uh... Yes?" Jake said, blinking rapidly. "Sorry, my brain is going nyoom right now while my heart goes in to lightspeed."

"Sorry." Carlos said, knowing he was typically bad about moving quietly. His father had installed a small clerk bell in the kitchen after the fourth time his mother had thrown half cooked dinner ingredients at Carlos for not making enough noise when he entered the room.

"It's... It will be okay. Just... maybe don't do that if I'm holding a baby, okay?" Jake joked, rubbing his chest and trying to control his breathing.

"If your ride home canceled, I can offer you a lift." Carlos said.

"Uh... You sure? I don't want to bother you if you've got somewhere to be." Jake said.

"I am sure. If I go back home right now people will want to know how things went and ask too many questions."

"But if you go back home with a story about helping someone who got stranded by their own flesh and blood it'd take the heat off of you. I see, I see." Jake said, starting to smile, even if it was strained.

It may not have been Carlos' actual motivation for offering, but it was good enough.

"I am not parked far." he said, heading for the door.

"Alrighty." Jake said, following him out and over to his car.

They got in, and Jake gave Carlos directions to his home. Silence fell, and Carlos saw Jake grow restless.

"How long have you been back?" Carlos asked.

"Four months. Five, if you count hospital time." Jake said. "I was planning on leaving after Pooch left, but I was gonna wait for my contract to be up. Got sent home early after getting injured. And since it's not a visible injury unless I'm wearing shorts, my sister acts like I should be over it already."

"And all the things that come with being injured." Carlos said, thinking of beef stew and bile, of hot sand under his hands and the screams of people he called friends.

"Yeah." Jake said, twitching his fingers. "I, uh. I was in a humvee with a bunch of other assholes, on loan from my usual team while they tried to find us a new transport specialist, when someone - one of the Par Sec 'contractors' we were working with started killing us from inside the fucking humvee. No real warning, just got a call on his fucking sat phone like he did every twenty minutes, from whoever was pulling his strings, and starting taking us out. I managed to get out of the humvee, and that's probably why I'm not dead right now." Jake took a deep breath and swallowed.

"What my brain has translated this in to, though, is that public transportation, a situation where I'm riding with a bunch of strangers in a closed space, is a big no-go. My sister thinks that if I try hard enough, then I can go back to normal. Hence her ditching me when she knew I was depending on her."

"That's cold." Carlos said quietly.

"And if I do really well, then I can see my niece this weekend. Because obviously I need motivation to 'just try harder, Jakey'."

Carlos groaned in sympathy.

"How long've you been back?" Jake asked.

"Almost a year."

"Has the urge to salute anyone who barks your name gone away yet?" Jake asked, smirking.

"No, but my family learned not to do that after I almost put my cousin through a wall."

"I should try that." Jake mused.

Eventually they pulled up to a duplex and Jake got out of the car.

"If you're interested in escaping the interrogation for a bit longer I have beer, soda, filtered water, and a carefully curated collection of takeout menus." Jake offered.

Carlos opened his mouth to turn the offer when a sign in the window caught his eye.

UPPER DUPLEX FOR RENT. 4 1/2

Carlos stared at it for a moment, recalling Dr. Grant's suggestion about finding a different place to live.

"Carlos, bro. Should I be worried about how you're looking at that sign?" Jake asked.

"I'll buy the takeout if you tell me about the area." Carlos said, turning to catch Jake's eye.

Jake stared at him for a moment, chewing on his bottom lip.

"Alright. Sounds like a deal."

They headed inside and Jake gave Carlos a tour of the place once the food had been ordered.

"Two bedrooms, a den and a dining room." Jake narrated. "Or that's what the real estate agent said when I bought the building. Upstairs is the same layout, except the front door is located where my door to the basement is. I've got a good washer and dryer in my basement, along with some basic workout equipment, and for the nominal fee of a case of beer I'm willing to share. The building itself is a bit old, so you might need to seal your windows in winter if it gets drafty. And the back wall comes in to make a bit of an alcove, which can cause some howling wind noises if it comes from the east or west."

"Wind does not bother me." Carlos said, checking the sight lines of the windows. They were not as bad as he would have thought for an area as densely populated as this.

"Do babies bother you?" Jake asked. "I nanny for four different families about six days a week. They cry, they scream, they shit themselves and blame it on Morticia."

"Morticia?" Carlos asked, raising an eyebrow.

Jake pointed over Carlos shoulder to a patch of shadows with green eyes. After a moment a pair of black paws stretched out and pulled a long black cat from the corner. It was skinny looking, and overly long, with long fur that looked wet ink, making the cat look almost like a dripping shadow.

"She came with the place. Showed up a few days after I moved in and politely scratched at my back door until I let her in." Jake said, his voice fond. "She birthed a bunch of kittens a few days later. Those were actually what gave me the idea to start nannying. If I could sit and program stuff while seven kittens slept in my lap, then it should be no problem with a baby."

"What happened to the kittens?" Carlos asked.

"Got them weaned, then adopted them out with a standing order that if anyone changed their mind about having cats they should just bring the kitten back instead of sending it to a shelter or pound." Jake said, scooping up Morticia when she came close enough to rub against his ankles. "One of them was really tiny and needed extra care. The vet kept her, she's their office cat now. The others went to group members, or my old squad mates. There was one pure white one with blue eyes, completely deaf. My old XO took him. Only time I've seen that guy not be scary."

"Your XO left the military as well?" Carlos asked.

"Well without me and Pooch, that meant there was just two people left in the team. Our XO was kind of only hanging around because of the team, so he decided to leave around when I was getting out of the hospital. After that our CO decided to retire early. He shares a duplex with our XO a few blocks from here, now. When he's not fucking off the Vegas at the last minute." Jake explained.

So that's who Clay was.

The takeout arrived soon after, and they sat down to eat it after Carlos called home to let them know he was grabbing dinner with a friend. Carlos could almost hear his mother struggling not to demand more information than he was giving.

Over the course of dinner, Jake gently grilled Carlos for information about himself. The questions ranged from what sort of work schedule he had, to what he did in his time off. It took longer than he felt it should have for Carlos to realize that Jake was not being nosy for the hell of it, he was seeing what kind of person Carlos was. Considering Jake had young children over at his place regularly, he did have an obligation to make sure that any tenants he had would not be a danger to them.

To Jake's credit, he did at least make most of the questions part of a cohesive conversation.

When dinner was done, Jake gave Carlos an envelope with an application form in it.

"Fill that out, return it, then I'll run a background check. If it all checks out, you can move in any time."

Carlos filled the application out first thing in the morning, instead of going to the gym.

 

It took about a week for Jake to get back to Carlos once he sent the application in.

Carlos went through his days with a feeling of anticipation that he had not felt in a long time. He was more upbeat at work, and his session with Dr. Grant did not feel as emotionally taxing as usual. His nervousness before his next group session had more to do with seeing Jake again and getting an answer.

Luckily, Jake seemed just as excited to see him that day, showing up ten minutes early instead of five minutes late.

"Carlos!" Jake said as soon as he was close enough that his voice wouldn't carry through the whole room. "Good to see you! I ran every check I could think of and you've come up as clean as I could hope for. I've got a copy of the lease with me if you're still interested."

"Yes! I am still interested!" Carlos said, feeling relieved.

"Jay, you know I love to see you happy," Porteous said, coming up behind Jake, "but if you're corrupting one of my group members I'm gonna have to step in."

"Chill, Pooch!" Jake said, making Carlos blink. "Carlos here is gonna be my new tenant."

"Don't let him give you any cats." Porteous said, sounding very serious.

"Ignore him. His wife loves the kittens they took, and he's just cranky because they try to suffocate him while he sleeps."

"Pooch?" Carlos asked.

"Nickname from when I served. Jake here was on the same team, so he still uses it." Porteous explained.

"My therapist actually thought it would be unethical for me to be part of Pooch's group at first. But I told him that if I could trust anyone to guide me through figuring my shit out, it'd be the guy who spent three days lost in a forest with me, running from our CO's ex-girlfriend, wearing nothing but peanut oil and fish scales." Jake said, nodding surely.

"Why must you remind the Pooch of that?" Porteous asked, looking pained.

"Why must the Pooch talk about himself in the third person?" Jake shot back.

"My therapist theorizes that it's a way for me to dissociate from all the shit that happened. If everything happened to the Pooch, then Linwood was fine." Porteous said.

"Oh, damn! Do you want me to stoop calling you Pooch?" Jake asked, looking concerned.

"Nah, it's cool." Porteous said. "We're starting soon, so make sure to save yourselves some good seats."

"They're all good seats, bro."

Porteous lightly punched Jake's arm and smiled at him before heading off.

"So, uh. Better to tell you this now than when you're already moved in, in case it changes things for you." Jake said, scratching the back of his neck. "In the process of looking you up I found some stuff. If you hadn't left the army when you did we still would have met."

"What?" Carlos asked, confused.

"Pooch and I were part of a team you were tentatively slated to be assigned to. You left before it happened though. Pooch let his contract lapse a month later, because the guy they assigned instead was a total shithead." Jake said.

"How did you get my file?" Carlos asked.

"Tech and comms specialist. I know how to get information intel can't or won't give my team." Jake said, looking serious.

Carlos frowned, thinking back to what he could remember of the Ranger rumor mill. He recalled something about a bunch of losers... No, The Losers. They had a crazy colonel who couldn't keep his dick in his pants, the scariest XO in the army, the handiest transportation office, and the squirreliest tech who always seemed to be misbehaving, but somehow never had anything stick to him.

"Corporal Jensen." Carlos whispered.

"At nobody's service, now." Jake said, nodding solemly. "I didn't peek at suff in too much detail; boundaries are important. I just needed to make sure the kids would be safe. And while I might be a verbose motherfucker, I do know how to keep other peoples' secrets."

"I..." Carlos said, feeling a little shaky.

"I understand if this is something that makes you not want to rent from me. No hard feelings whatsoever, okay?" Jake said.

"It's not that. I need time to process." Carlos said.

"Okay! You have my number in there with the rental information." Jake said, stepping back. "Come on, the session's gonna start."

Carlos followed him, still feeling off kilter.

 

The session that week was more somber. One of their usual members had needed to be hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. Porteous passed out emergency numbers they could all contact 24/7, and reminded them all that they could call him as well. Jake also spoke up and gave everyone his number, insisting that anyone could call him and he could talk to them if they were having a bad night. This prompted the man with the shaking hands to offer his number as well.

One by one, more people in the support group added their numbers to the sheets, until all eleven of them had added their information. Porteous looked so proud of them all that he had tears in his eyes.

Porteous spent most of the session asking people about the things they were struggling with. He did not offer solutions when people shared them, he simply listened and commiserated. Most of the group could relate to difficulties sleeping, jumping at sudden noises, or frequent nightmares. Jake mentioned feeling aches and pains in parts of his leg that didn't exist anymore, and one of the others talked about how he wished he could eat hard, crunchy food that he had loved before most of his teeth had gotten knocked out in a fight.

Porteous talked about how there wasn't really a whole lot that could be done about certain things, but that did not mean there was no hope, or that their only solace could be found with alcohol or drugs. He asked everyone who spoke up to name a person, place, or activity that helped them when they were feeling their worst. Some of them named family members, other people chose roommates or friends. The man with the shaking hands talked about his granddaughter. Jake mentioned his niece, his cat, and a window box with an electric blanket that got plenty of sun. Sam talked about his collection of family recipes, and how making them always reminded him of his childhood.

Carlos did not speak at that meeting, but he still thought of what answers he would give. The worst for him were the nightmares that kept him from sleeping. The closest thing he had to naming something that helped him was his routine.

When the session ended, Carlos went home. He did not stop to speak to anyone, he simply wanted to rest.

He slept most of the night, to his surprise, and woke in the morning still feeling drained, but also determined to change how things were. He rolled out of bed and opened the rental package. Jake had already filled in most of the information, and had highlighted the areas Carlos needed to fill in.

Carlos grabbed a pen and started writing.

 

Carlos dropped off the paperwork the next day after work. He took it as an opportunity to figure out the bus route from work to what would be his new home. Jake answered the door shirtless, with a baby dozing off against his chest.

Carlos has never worked so hard to maintain eye contact in his life.

Jake flipped through the completed rental agreement and lease, double checking that Carlos was okay with the cost of rent. Carlos had a suspicion that Jake was under charging him for rent, but resolved to find out for certain when he was more established as a tenant. At that moment what he cared about most was getting some kind of tangible progress in his life.

Carlos returned home and spent his free time over the next two days planning how to move from his parent's house to his new apartment.

 

By Wednesday night he had enough outlined that he decided to tell his family what was happening. When he was asked at dinner how his day had gone, he announced that he had found a cheap enough apartment not too far away and was planning on moving within the next week or two.

"Absolutely not." his mother blurted out.

"Mama, I have already signed the lease agreement and given my deposit. I am going to move. I need to. The only thing left to decide is what day." Carlos said, trying to be patient.

"You're not ready to live on your own, Carlito!" his mother said.

"I lived on my own for years before I left the Army." Carlos said, frowning.

"And look where that got you." his mother snapped.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Carlos asked. He could feel his heart beating erratically, and a cold lump grew in his stomach, knowing that a huge fight was likely unavoidable.

"You came back, after eight years away, barely able to take care of yourself. You were a mess! I don't want to have to clean up after you again." his mother spat.

"You won't have to, since I'm moving out. You won't even have to see me at all if you don't want to." Carlos said, quiet but determined. He was going to move out, because he knew he needed it. He was tired of feeling stagnant, like he was just drifting along instead of living his life.

"Marie," Carlos' Tio Antonio said, "Carlos is a grown man. You can't keep him here if he does not want to be here."

Carlos' mother turned to stare down Antonio, and he shrank back under her glare.

"Fine," she snapped, "if he wants to leave so badly, he can leave tonight."

Carlos sat there for a moment, staring hard at his mother. He knew she was lashing out at the moment, but he was also done letting her get her own way just because it was easier.

Carlos stood up from the table and left. He went to his room and pulled out the luggage he had used when he moved back home. He used his phone to call Porteous and ask for an emergency pickup while he packed up his clothes, his books, his sketchbooks, and his laptop. The duffle that held all his military stuff was still packed from when Carlos had come home.

Carlos dragged it all downstairs and out the door, leaving his house keys inside the mailbox. He was outside, waiting for Porteous to come and get him before his family had even finished dinner.

Porteous helped Carlos get everything in his truck quickly and efficiently, and made the drive to Jake's place in silence. When they pulled up, Jake was waiting outside, as was a kind looking woman with a baby on her hip.

"Carlos, this is my wife, Jolene, and our son Jamie." Porteous said, "Jolene, this is Carlos."

"Oh, honey." Jolene said, looking at Carlos. "Are you okay with being hugged?"

"Not right now, please." Carlos said, feeling prickly and fragile.

"Alright. Just know that any time you need or want one, I've got a good hug ready for you, okay?" Jolene said gently.

"I haven't got an air mattress, and there's no furniture in your place. But there's a futon in my guest room, with a really soft blanket." Jake said, carrying two of Carlos' bags.

"You don't need to do that." Carlos protested.

"I know." Jake said, walking a little faster towards his front door.

"Linwood and I live just two blocks over. When we got your call I took the liberty of bringing some food over." Jolene said as she followed Carlos in to Jake's place.

"Jolene's cooking is amazing. Her family's from Louisiana, so she's got all those good Cajun recipes." Porteous said, bringing up the rear.

Carlos felt his eyes prickle with moisture, knowing these people who were practically strangers to him had dropped everything to make room for him in such a short amount of time.

"Man, if your eyes are watering already I gotta say you may not survive the spicy goodness of Jolene's jambalaya." Jake joked, pulling a surprised laugh from Carlos even as Porteous reached out to swat him on the shoulder.

"We will have to see if I am up to the challenge." Carlos said, smiling slightly.

"Good man, Carlos. Drop your stuff in the guest room and get your butt in the dining room!" Jake said, grinning brightly.

Carlos dragged his bags in to the guest room and took a moment to breathe deep and remind himself that, no matter what his mother thought, he was not alone and he could do this.

In the morning, Jake drove Carlos to work just in case his mother managed to pressure Antonio in to firing Carlos. Antonio was in the office, fast asleep on his desk when Carlos got in. When Carlos woke him up, Antonio rushed to say that Carlos still had a job, it would just be in the kitchen, preparing food for the chefs instead of dealing with customers. Antonio wanted to avoid tempting Marie in to starting an argument in the middle of the restaurant if she happened to drop by, and Marie would not be allowed in to the kitchens so long as she was not an employee. Carlos would still man the counter first thing in the morning, but when the early morning crowd shifted to the brunch crowd, he would switch to working in the kitchen.

Carlos agreed to those terms, and let Jake know what was going on. Jake offered to pick Carlos up from work, seeing as Carlos needed to buy furniture for his bare apartment.

The morning passed as smoothly as it could. There were whispers happening just out of Carlos' hearing range, but that was to be expected after what happened. That did not mean it didn't grate on Carlos' patience, but at least he had expected it, rather than being blindsided by people gossiping about him when he first came home.

Jake picked Carlos up in the afternoon, and drove them to a small shopping center he said would have good deals. They parked in a handicapped space, since Jake's Jeep had a sticker for it, and walked towards the entrance.

"How dare you!" someone called after them. Carlos turned to see a middle aged woman glaring at them angrily. "How fucking dare you take that parking space! It's reserved for people with disabilities!"

Carlos closed his eyes and sighed.

"The fucking audacity of you people, taking a spot away from the handicapped like this!" the woman screeched.

Jake put one hand on Carlos' shoulder before bending down and sticking his other hand up his right pant leg. The woman kept yelling at them, slowly drawing a crowd. After a moment of fiddling, Jake straightened up and thrust his below-knee prosthetic high in the air.

"IS MY DISABILITY VISIBLE ENOUGH NOW?" Jake yelled. Several people in the crowd gasped, and the woman looked poleaxed. "NO, REALLY! AM I HANDICAPPED ENOUGH YET?"

"I- I don't-" the woman stuttered.

"What's the line, huh?" Jake demanded, still loud but no longer yelling. "How disabled do I need to be for it to be enough for you? If getting half of my leg blasted off in the same attack that killed half of the squad isn't enough to let me use a parking space, then what is? Should I have lost the whole leg? Both of them? Should I have just lost my life, instead?

"How visible does my disability need to be, for it to be enough for you? They don't hand out handicapped parking stickers for a fucking stubbed toe, ma'am. But the sticker's not enough for you, is it? Because you don't get to feel good about someone managing their disability well enough to pass as fully able bodied person, do you? Me, minding my own fucking business as I go about my day, thanks to a prosthetic that chafes and leaves sores on my leg if I wear it too long, isn't enough of a fucking display for you, is it? What is it that you need to make you realize I deserve to be treated with basic respect and dignity? Should I hobble around on crutches? Do you need to touch my fucking stump to believe my leg's gone?" Jake asked, lifting his leg out so the empty length of fabric below his knee blew in the wind.

"I didn't-" the woman stammered.

"There's a whole fucking country full of people like you, willing to judge others for not being obviously, visibly handicapped enough to need help. And each and every one of you is full of shit. Makes me wonder what the fuck I was fighting for over there." Jake said, bending down to put his leg back on.

Once the prosthetic was back on, Jake threw an arm around Carlos' shoulders and pulled him towards the mall entrance. When they were far enough away from the gossiping crowd, Jake leaned in to speak quietly.

"I am pissed that she did that, but I gotta admit I have always wanted to really go off on someone for being an ableist shithead."

Carlos snorted, and bumped Jake's shoulder with his.

"What? It felt awesome, okay? I was filled with a sense of righteousness and justice. I'm pretty sure the bald eagle population went up as a direct result of that."

 

They spent a few hours picking out some basic furniture pieces for Carlos' new apartment. Jake confessed that Jolene and Pooch were planning on surprising him with some basics like lamps and towels. Carlos was not sure he felt comfortable accepting that much generosity until Jake assured him that they were re-gifting some things that well-intentioned-but-pushy family members had given the Porteouses when they bought their home. Apparently Jolene had one aunt who became very insistent that they have two full sets of dark gray towels, to the point that she gifted the sets to them when they already had their towels picked out in yellows and greens, to compliment their bathroom decor.

Anything small enough to fit in the back of Jake's Jeep they took with them, everything else was arranged to be delivered the next day. They grabbed an early dinner together in the mall before heading to the VA for their group session.

When Porteous asked the group if anyone had anything they wanted to talk about, Carlos spoke up. He talked a bit about feeling trapped by his family's memories of who he had been, and his decision to move out and get his own apartment. He kept his words brief when talking about his mother's reaction, but the empathy he saw in the faces of the others made him realize that in this, too, he was not alone.

At the end of the session, the man with the shaking hands approached Carlos.

"Hey, kid. Uh, Carlos, right?" he asked.

"Yes?" Carlos said, slightly confused at being referred to as a kid.

"My name's Hiram. You mentioned, when you were talkin' earlier, that you grabbed your sketchbooks before you left. I was wondering if, at some point, I could take a look at them. It's okay if you don't want me to see 'em, I just have the beginning of an idea, is all."

"I can bring some next week?" Carlos suggested, confused.

"Perfect. That'll do fine." Hiram said, nodding to himself as he wandered off.

"That was a little weird." Jake whispered from behind Carlos.

Carlos turned and stared at Jake with one eyebrow raised.

"I know that sounds weird coming from me, but Hiram never asks for stuff. He either butts out completely or bulldozes in to the middle of a conversation." Jake said, shrugging. "I doubt it's anything nefarious, but he's definitely got something up his sleeves."

"I have enough to worry about. I am not going to think about this if I don't have to." Carlos decided, feeling wrung out.

"Let's get our butts home. We've both got early days tomorrow. And considering you work with food I'm going to hope yours won't involve nearly as much crying and pooping as mine will."

 

Part of Carlos had worried that moving out would not change much for him. That he would fall in to another set of dull routines that would define his waking hours. In hindsight his was painfully misplaced.

"Thought I'd come by and help with any unpacking you have to do." said a very shirtless Jake, with a baby on his hip.

"... Sure." Carlos said, rather proud that he did not squeak.

"Awesome! Just point me where you want me."

If there had not been a baby present, Carlos could not be certain he would not have directed Jake immediately to his new bed.

Carlos did not have very much in the way of worldly possessions, but the help was appreciated anyways. They spent a few hours going through Carlos' stuff, and finding places to put things so that it looked not just orderly, but like someone actually lived in his apartment. Jake even helped Carlos go through his military duffle; unpacking his uniforms and hanging them in the hall closet, and finding a discreet place to display his small collection of medals.

"Sweet cowboy hat." Jake said at one point, admiring the hat Carlos had placed on top of his dresser.

"My grandfather, before he died, always sent a good hat for my birthday."

"Wait... Are you that guy the higher ups would bitch about for never taking your cowboy hat off?" Jake asked. When Carlos nodded, Jake gave a tiny fist pump, "I always wondered who the fuck they were talking about. They would all get so angry, like a hat was somehow equal to treason in their minds."

Carlos smirked, remembering how many officers had tried to stare him down about his hat. He initially started wearing them on missions only, but when his grandfather passed he took to wearing his last hat all the time. His commanding officer had been understanding of the affectation, so long as he had still been able to do his job.

"You had a call sign, right?" Jake asked. "I know you did, I remember thinking it was really cool."

Carlos hesitate for a moment, before remembering that Jake accepted Pooch's nickname, and would probably understand how those kinds of names came to be, "Cougar."

"I was right, that is a cool name." Jake said, bouncing the baby gently. "I've been calling you Carlos this whole time since everyone else did, but if there's a different name you prefer just say so. Pronouns, too. Just say the word."

"I... think I would like to try it." Carlos admitted, searching for a way to express something that had been brewing in the back of his mind since Dr. Grant had mentioned it. "Not the pronouns, I am a man. I think I would like to try going by Cougar again."

"Alrighty. And if that changes at any point, tell me and I'll stop." Jake said, smiling gently.

After finishing unpacking everything, including Cougar's military duffle bag, Jake invited Cougar down to his place for lunch, seeing as Cougar had not yet gone grocery shopping.

"Just to let you know, on the weekend I watch over a set of triplet toddlers." Jake said, feeding himself with one hand while holding the baby to his sculpted chest with the other.

It was entirely possible that Cougar had been single for too long.

"They get here at about eight in the morning, and usually get picked up between three and four. I try to start them off with coloring and learning shapes for the first hour or so before they can horse around, but they can be noisy if they get excited, so it might wake you if you're still asleep. Also, I'm pretty sure Morticia can turn in to a sentient ink blob, because I've seen her suddenly appear in your apartment when I was renovating it, and I know I closed and locked the doors and windows. So you might get a visitor, since she doesn't like how grabby toddlers can get."

"I will do my best to remember the glowing green eyes are friendly." Cougar said, viciously stomping on the urge to feel jealous of a baby.

Why was Jake shirtless so often?

Not that Cougar was complaining, it was just messing with his ability to form thoughts and full sentences.

 

Cougar did, in fact, end up with Morticia in his apartment the next, but it happened much earlier than he had expected.

Cougar was having a nightmare. It started like most of them, with his team in the middle of the wide open desert, and storm clouds over head. But when it got to the part where the sky started to rain blood, Cougar could hear a rattling sound that did not fit. A faint squeaking cry followed it, almost like a baby's. Cougar worried that somehow one of Jake's babies got on to the battlefield, but then remembered that is could not happen because he had not met Jake yet.

Cougar's eyes flew open just as thin, needle sharp claws reached out of the darkness and patted his chest worriedly.

"Morticia?" Carlos whispered, confused.

A short purr came out of the shadows and the claws retracted in to her paw before she climbed on top of his chest and lay down. She leaned forward and sniffed at his mouth before settling down more comfortably. Cougar was going to push her off, bring her back downstairs to Jake. But he was so tired, and she was warm and soft and had started a deep, rumbling purr that sounded so soothing.

Cougar woke again when the light from the sun was shining in to his room too brightly to be ignored any longer. When he checked the time and saw it was almost 10 am, he felt dazed. He'd slept 11 hours, almost uninterrupted.

Needle sharp claws gently touching his arm had Cougar turning to face Morticia. She mewed softly at him, sniffing daintily.

"Thank you." Cougar whispered.

She purred at him before stretching in the sunlight and bumping her head against his hands.

"You're a good cat." Cougar whispered, rubbing the side of her jaw.

After petting her for a few minutes, Morticia got up and hopped off the bed, meowing loudly.

Cougar's stomach chose that time to remind him it was empty, so he had a good idea of what it was that she wanted. He pulled some clothes on and tied his hair back before heading down to Jake's place with her. Jake answered the door wearing a tank top, and Cougar was not sure if he was relieved or disappointed.

"Morticia! Oh, wow! You look well rested, Cougar. Come on in for some food." Jake said, turning away from the door and granting Cougar a glorious view of what Jake's ass looked like in loose yoga pants.

Cougar really needed to do something about those thoughts.

"Damien, Dakota, and Danny, this is my friend Cougar. Cougar, these are the kids I'm looking after today."

"Hi!" said the three toddlers, not even bothering to look up from whatever they were doing with colored blocks.

"Hello." Cougar said softly, before following Jake to the kitchen.

Cougar spent the rest of the morning in Jake's apartment, watching Jake teach the toddlers to build things and recognize letters. He even managed to get two of them to help put away the toys they had used before lunch. Jake took them to the park after lunch, and Cougar took the opportunity to go grocery shopping.

If he picked up a water dish and some cat treats while he was out, that would just be between him and Morticia.

As the week went on, Cougar adjusted to living above Jake. Morticia visited him often, but only really stayed if he was losing sleep to his nightmares. He and Jake would often do breakfast in Jake's apartment and dinner in Cougar's.

 

When Cougar had therapy on Monday, there was a duplicate of the soft blanket from Jake's guest room waiting in front of his door when he got home.

They carpooled to their Thursday group session together, and had to turn back five minutes in to the trip when Cougar realized he forgot to grab a sketchbook before leaving.

Hiram showed up early enough to flip through the book, humming or grunting at the contents as he went. When he got to the end he asked Cougar if he had ever considered applying for a tattoo apprenticeship. Cougar admitted that he had considered it in high school, but had chosen to enlist instead.

"Swing by my shop tomorrow and check it out. I'm too shaky to work on skin these days, but I still know what makes for a good tattoo. Everything else is down to practice." Hiram said before leaving to find a seat.

"I can't tell if he just doesn't care about social niceties or if he genuinely doesn't know how to have a conversation." Jake said, grinning.

"Considering he is wearing a shirt with the name and address of his shop on it, I think it's the first one." Cougar said dryly.

 

After work the next day, Cougar went with Jake to Hiram's tattoo parlor. The shop was small, but well lit. Tattoo art was hung on the walls, and there were glass cases with prop ears and noses modeling piercings and jewelry throughout the shop. It was easily cleaner and better stocked than the shop Cougar had gone to for his sacred heart tattoo.

After poking around and discussing things with Hiram, Cougar agreed to take an apprenticeship in his shop. It would start in the afternoons, a few hours after he was done in the restaurant, with the days he had therapy or their group session kept free.

It made for a full schedule, but Cougar found it suited him well. As the weeks passed he grew more comfortable in the group sessions, and went out of his way to speak at them when he realized something was bothering him. His appointments with Dr. Grant became more effective now that Cougar felt motivated and supported in his life. He still had bad days, days when all he wanted was to curl up with Morticia and keep sleeping, but his busy schedule forced him to keep moving most days. And if he was having an especially bad day, Hiram knew what it was like and would send him home early.

After a few weeks of learning about different kinds of ink, and how different skin types and tones would handle different pigments, Hiram had Cougar start practicing tattooing on fake skin. It was an unusual sensation, having a tattoo gun vibrating in his hand while he tried to draw straight lines. It happened more than once that he accidentally spilled the ink out of the gun because he was unfamiliar with having to keep his drawing tools balanced like that.

Once Cougar got the hang of using the equipment, and was starting to show some actual skill, Hiram enlisted Jake's help to challenge him. They taped a bunch of fake skin to Jake's prosthetic, and made Cougar figure out how to tattoo it from every angle.

Never has there been a greater test of Cougar's concentration skills than having to tattoo a leg while Jake's ass was almost right in front of him.

"Watch your reservoir, Cougar." Hiram instructed. "You're gonna lose your ink again."

"Yeah, Cougar, watch your reservoir." Jake said, his nose buried in a children's book he was vetting before deciding if it was a good choice to read to his kids.

Cougar pinched Jake's real leg in retaliation.

"Don't forget to check in with your client as you're working. Some people can zone out when you're tattooing them, others can sort of get trapped in the feeling. Every client is different, so it's important to check in and see if they're doing okay."

"You're doing great, Cougar! I can't even feel it!"

Cougar had to stop tattooing, or he risked fucking up the design while laughing.

 

Nearly two months later, Cougar got a call from one of his cousins while he was working at the shop.

"Miguel?" Cougar said, recognizing the number.

"Carlos? Do you know where everyone is?" Miguel asked, sounding nervous.

"What do you mean?" Cougar asked.

"I'm still at school." Miguel explained. "All of us are still at school. No one has come to get us."

Cougar looked at the clock on the wall. It was nearly 7 pm.

"Wait right there. I'm coming to get you."

"Okay." Miguel said.

Cougar called Jake and asked him to meet at the school before explaining to Hiram that he needed to leave. Hiram offered to drop Cougar off so that he would not have to take a cab.

Cougar arrived at the school to find seven of his cousins waiting outside.

"Carlos!" Miguel said, jumping up and running to hug him.

"Have you been able to call any of your parents at all?" Cougar asked.

"No. We left messages, but their voicemails are full now." Teresa said, hefting a backpack almost as large as she was.

"Okay. We're going to go to my place, and you're going to get started on your homework while I look for a way to yell at your parents." Cougar said.

"How are we getting there?" Soledad asked.

"A friend is coming to pick us up, mija." Cougar explained, looking around for Jake's Jeep.

"Tia Marie said you don't have any friends." Teresa said, sounding doubtful.

"Tia Marie doesn't know everything, and you should always be wary of someone who is willing to speak ill of someone behind their back." Cougar said.

The beep of a car horn made Cougar turn. Jake's Jeep was there, and behind him was Jolene's SUV.

"I called backup, since I remember you telling me you had a lot of cousins." Jake said, grinning.

"Good thinking." Cougar said, nodding in approval. "Miguel, Ramon, Cesar. You three go in Jake's Jeep. Teresa, Soledad, Anna, and Isabella, you go with Jolene."

The kids listened well enough, and climbed in to their respective cars. Jake set up a call with the hand free set so that the kids could all still talk to each other even though they were in different cars. They got home safely, and Cougar let the kids in to his apartment.

"Alright, kids! We haven't been properly introduced yet. My name is Jake, I'm a friend of Cougar's, and I'm going to stay here and help with any homework you have while Cougar puts the fear of god in to your parents. Any questions?"

"Who is Cougar?" Ramon asked.

"That's what I call your cousin Carlos." Jake answered.

"Why do you have a spit stain on your tank top?" Anna asked.

"I'm a professional nanny on the side, and one of the babies I look after thinks pectorals are the same as breasts." Jake answered.

"I've seen the mother for that one." Jolene whispered to Cougar. "Compared to what she's got up top, the poor baby probably thinks he's hit the motherload when Jake holds him. To this day that's the only baby Jake always puts a shirt on before holding."

"Why does he hold them shirtless so often?" Cougar whispered back.

"Babies settle easier with skin contact. Their skin is still so delicate and sensitive that whatever your wearing, no matter how soft it feels to you, might very well feel like sandpaper to them." Jolene explained.

Cougar dragged one hand down his face and took a deep breath. "First, I need to make some calls. Then I need to get some food for them." Cougar said, gesturing to the kids Jake was distracting.

"Go use Jake's place to make your calls." Jolene suggested. "They'll have a harder time overhearing stuff if it does come to yelling, and Linwood is in there heating up some food anyways. We figured the kids would probably be hungry by now if they've been at school this whole time."

"Thank you, Jolene." Cougar said, hugging her tightly. "This would be going so much worse without you, Jake, and Pooch."

"Don't sell yourself short, Cougar." Jolene said, smiling gently. "Now go find Morticia and pet her while you try to get hold of your family."

Cougar made his way down to Jake's apartment, knocking on the door as he opened it.

"Pooch?" Cougar called.

"In the kitchen." Pooch answered.

Cougar walked through the apartment to the kitchen, stopping in the doorway when he saw what was going on. Both babies were in rockers on the kitchen table, and Morticia was moving between each of them, sniffing and purring. While she was sniffing Jake's baby, Pooch's baby was getting tickled by her tail, causing him to laugh. Hearing the laugh, she turned around to sniff Pooch's baby, causing her tail to tickle the other baby. Pooch, of course, was standing to the side, filming it.

"How are the kids?" Pooch asked when he stopped filming.

"Nervous, and hungry, but Jake is distracting them." Cougar said, watching Morticia rub her face on Pooch's baby's feet.

"Any idea where their parents are?" Pooch asked.

"About to call them now." Cougar said, holding up his phone.

"Alright. I've got two frozen casserole cooking right now. If any of the kids have allergies, let me know and I'll make something just for them."

"No allergies, but Isabella can't eat raw tomatoes. The texture makes her spit them out." Cougar said, heading in to Jake's dining room.

He looked through his contact list, trying to find the numbers for their parents, but eventually decided to just call the restaurant. If none of them were there, at least the other workers would know some of what was happening.

The phone rang 4 times before someone picked up. "Antonio's Mexcian Eatery, Mercedes speaking."

"Mercedes, where is everyone?" Cougar asked.

"Carlos? What do you- oh shit! No one called you!" Mercedes swore. Cougar could hear her moving around, and a door closing nearby, cutting off the background noise. "Marie showed up today, a few hours ago. She started hounded Antonio, trying to say that keeping you on board was just encouraging you to be reckless. She was really trying to make it sound like firing you so you would have to come home would be in your best interest. They went in to Antonio's office after a bit, and we could hear them fighting. After a few minutes Marie came out, yelling for someone to call an ambulance. Antonio's had a heart attack."

Cougar sank down in one of Jake's chairs, feeling shaky. "Is he- will he be okay?" he asked.

"I don't know. All of the immediate family went with him to the hospital. We've got a skeleton staff right now, and we're going to close early." Mercedes admitted.

"Are you going to the hospital to see him?" Cougar asked.

"Of course. Do you need me to give you a lift?"

"No. I need you to tell everyone they forgot their fucking kids at school."

"What."

"I got a call about forty minutes ago from Miguel. All the kids were still at school. They tried calling their parents, but no one answered, and the voicemail got full and stopped taking messages." Cougar explained, feeling angry on the behalf of the children.

"Are they still-"

"The fuck do you think, Mercedes?" Cougar snapped. "You think I would leave kids out in the cold? I went and got them. They're here, dinner's in the oven, they're doing their homework, and I'm left wondering how the fuck I'm going to explain to them that their parents still love them, they just got distracted by the fact that their grandfather is in the hospital because my mother shouted him in to a heart attack."

"Carlos, I didn't mean it like that. I'm sorry." Mercedes said.

"It's okay. Just... When you see them, tell them they fucked up and forgot their kids. The kids are safe, and they can stay until their parents are ready to go home. But they still fucked up." Cougar said, sighing.

"I will. Thank you for standing up for them." Mercedes said.

"Of course." Cougar said.

"I need to get going, but I'll definitely pass on the message. Take care of yourself, Carlos." she said.

"You too." Cougar said, hanging up the phone.

Cougar slumped back in the chair, rubbing one hand over his face. After a moment he felt a dainty paw tapping his leg. He looked over at Morticia, and once he made eye contact with her she jumped in to his lap. Cougar gathered her close, burrying his face in her soft fur. She purred and meowed at him, rubbing her face on every part of him she could reach.

Cougar let himself indulge in what Jake called "fuzz therapy" for a moment, before standing up. Morticia curled up in his arms, content to be carried. He walked back to the kitchen to update Pooch on what was happening.

"My Tio Antonio had a heart attack."

"Oh, shit! Is he gonna be okay?" Pooch asked.

"Don't know." Cougar said. "Everyone's at the hospital, waiting for news."

"And the cell phone ban at the local one means no one has their phones on." Pooch said, nodding. "They still should have noticed their kids are missing, though."

"Apparently not." Cougar muttered. "I need to go tell the kids."

"Alright. Dinner should be done in about five, but it'll need another ten to cool enough to eat."

"Thank you."                

"Don't even worry about it, man." Pooch said, waving Cougar off.

Cougar made his way back upstairs and pulled Jake aside. "Antonio is in the hospital. Heart attack. How the fuck do I tell these kids that?"

"Gently, but don't lie. Kids don't appreciate that after age nine or so, and these ones are all over eleven." Jake said, leaning over to poke Morticia's toes.

Cougar brought Morticia in to the room with him and sat down with the kids.

"Oh! A cat!" Teresa said, immediately entranced.

"I found out why your parents forgot you," Cougar said, getting their attention, "and why they have not answered their phones. Tio Antonio had to be taken to the hospital. Something happened to his heart."

"Is he okay?" Miguel asked.

"I don't know." Cougar admitted. "Nobody has stepped out to call anyone else with updates. Antonio is a healthy man, and from what I know they called for help quickly. He should have a good chance of being fine. What I do know is that you will be staying here until your parents come to get you. There is dinner being cooked downstairs that should be ready soon."

The kids were quiet after that, washing up for dinner without fuss. They started off eating quietly, but eventually began talking amongst each other again. Jake pointed Morticia at the quietest ones, and by the time dinner was done she needed a bath to get cheese and sauce out of her fur, but it seemed to help.

Partway through dinner the mother of the baby Jake was watching swung by to pick him up.  The kids got excited for a moment, hoping it was their parents. Cougar wanted to punch his cousins for putting the dejected looks on the kids' faces.

Cougar got them ready for bed, loaning them all t-shirts to sleep in. Jake and Pooch hauled up the futon from his apartment, so the kids could crowd on to it and watch nature documentaries until they fell asleep. Morticia slept of the back of the couch, one she was dry enough to forgive Jake for the impromptu soaking.

At around 3 am Cougar's phone started buzzing. He slipped out of the den to take the call in a different room.

"Hello?"

"Carlos? Carlito? It's Juanita. Are my kids there? Mercedes said my kids were there!"

"Yes, Juanita, Cesar and Soledad are here." Cougar said, rolling his neck to release tension.

"Put them on the phone!"

"Are you stupid or do you not know what time it is?" Cougar asked flatly.

"What?!"

"It is three in the morning! Your kids are alseep right now. I'm not waking them up so you can apologize for forgetting about them. You can do that in the morning." Cougar said.

"They are my children-"

"And you fucking forgot they existed because family drama caught your attention. I know for a fact that Mercedes headed to the hospital more than six hours ago, so unless you're going to try and tell me she waited six hours to tell you that you forgot your own fucking kids then I'm not going to believe any of your bullshit." Cougar said. He took a deep breath and tried to reign in his temper. "It is three in the morning. Come by and pick them up around seven. They'll be awake and dressed, and you can spend all day trying to make up for what happened. But if you come here, in the middle of the night, and wake them up just because now you actually have the time to think about them, they will not forgive you. Your children are smart enough to figure out when they're being bullshitted."

"I... Carlito..."

"Just tell the others to come by around the same time, Juanita. I would like to go back to bed." Cougar said.

"... Okay." Juanita said, sounding very small.

"Thank you. Goodnight." Cougar said, hanging up the phone.

Cougar went back to the living room and sat back down next to Jake. Jake shifted in his sleep and blinked his eyes open to look at Cougar.

"You okay?" he whispered.

"I will be." Cougar answered, leaning back so Morticia could have more room as she crawled in to his lap. "The parents are coming at 7 am for the kids."

"Good. Always better to let kids sleep if they can." Jake said, shuffling over until he was half draped on Cougar.

"When this is done, I owe you a dinner." Cougar said, resting his cheek on Jake's head.

"It's a date." Jake whispered. Cougar froze. "You know, if you want it to be."

"I do." Cougar said, wrapping an arm around Jake's shoulders. "I really, really do."

"Heck yeah." Jake mumbled, already dozing off.

Cougar fell asleep like that, with Jake cuddled against him, Morticia in his lap, and a smile on his face.