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Let Me Show You, Baby, I'm a Talented Boy

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"Don't kick a guy when he's down," Jake said, thinking that just being up-front with his CO might surprise Clay into being nice, and that the team, following Clay's lead, might be confused enough to go easy on him. He had some time while he was double-checking all of the code for the vidchat program he was setting up on Jules's laptop, so it was worth a shot. "Junie made me get rid of my baby."

Roque piped up in the background, which meant that Clay had put him on speaker like that was totally fine and not a gross violation of trust. "That tablet with all the stupid-ass sound effects and stickers?"

"Nah, gotta be the laptop with the little Black Widows that kick the apps into opening," Pooch said, as if such nerdery was beneath him. Pooch was the one who'd wanted to see how high she could kick in the first place.

If he strained a bit and refrained from snorting derisively at these feeble-ass guesses, Jake could hear Cougar saying something in the background. Honestly, would it kill the man to project his voice past that sexy murmur?

"Shit, really?" Clay said, and Jake couldn't tell if that was meant for him or Cougs.


"He said it was your sad little beard," Clay said, all prompt like he thought he was being helpful. Roque was already laughing, the bastard. They were all bastards, really.

In a flash, Jake was on Google Translate. "Really? Cougar said it was my barbita triste?" That at least got a rumble, like the sexiest thunder ever, and Jake knew Cougar's chest would be warm and vibrating with laughter. "Cougs, man, how did you know?"

"Never mind, Peach Fuzz," Clay said. "Report back at 0700 or your ass is grass."


"Junebug," Jake said apologetically, marveling again at how small she was, how completely heart-pwning, even when she was frowning at him hard enough that the freckles on her cheeks all kind of scrunched together and made her look three shades closer to insta-tan. "I can't have another tea party with you now. I need to finish packing and be up early in the morning to get back to base."

He could see the wheels turning in her little head. "I'll help you pack," she said magnanimously, lifting her arms up to be carried around like a queen. Jake suspected he'd spoiled her a little, but Jules was the one who'd have to deal with her after he was back with his team.

"Oh, you're too good to me, my lady," he said, and she darted her head in to kiss him right where his cherished beard had once been, rubbing her nose appreciatively against his now smooth skin. "I bet Mommy wants to help too, don't you think? Or maybe we can tickle Mommy into helping?"

June's face lit up. "'Be vewwy, vewwy quiet,'" she quoted, and seriously, this child, flipped upside down in his arms so her nose was brushing his knee, was perfection.


Why was it that the plans he made for the team worked like a charm – firewalls went down, codes unfurled in all their elegance, files were lifted – but the plans he made for getting by in his own life fizzled out every time? By which he meant, of course, that the team, from Clay on down, had to be total pricks about his naked face.

Clay said something about not realizing teenaged virgins were allowed on base, Roque stroked a finger along Jake's jaw and laughed, and Pooch just said, "You pretty bastard." Jake snapped his teeth at Roque's finger, without real intent, while he made elaborate plans for revenge. Did these people have nothing better to do than loiter at 0700, waiting for his return?

Cougar, at least, was nowhere to be found, so Jake pushed past the other three and headed for the bedroom he and Cougar had shared last time they were on base. He hadn't slept as well as he'd meant to on the bus – there might have been a lot of cookie-dough ice cream during the packing party – and since Clay hadn't shoved some crummy requisitioned laptop at him and demanded he pull up the sewer system underneath some gun-runner's palace, he figured he was free to take a power nap. All the more powerful if it lasted a couple of hours.

Cougar was, it turned out, in the room, and his pants were unobligingly pulled taut across his fine ass as he made up his bed with perfect hospital corners. It wasn't like him to rise so late, to still be at his morning routine when even Pooch was up and about. "Cougs, man, everything okay? You're not comin' down with something, are you?"

Cougar turned his head, and Jake could read the surprise in his eyes, which lost their sharp fish shape to grow round for the briefest moment. There was enough sunlight streaming through the window to make them very warm, like honey on buttered toast. God, he wanted to eat him up.

"What? What is it?" Jake asked, setting his bag down with a thump, shrugging off the knapsack that held his Widow-enhanced laptop. Cougar just shook his head, lifted one corner of his mouth, and reached out a hand to give him a welcome-home handclasp. Jake went with it, because he'd have to be the dumbest motherfucker alive to not take an opportunity to touch, and the gentle slam of Cougar's shoulder against his breastbone felt so good.


Roque was cooking, so the kitchen smelled great, and Jake happily settled down in a corner, out of the way but still in range of all the good smells, with his laptop. Cougar and Pooch turned up a few minutes later, neither one of them willing to admit he'd followed his nose, but Jake knew. Roque probably did too, but he continued to play hardass like Clay was even around to impress. Clay, poor fuck, was most likely arguing with the other higher-ups which mission was going to be their next near-death experience.

"Roque," Jake said, "my Spidey-sense is telling me those boots you wanted are down at the Exchange." If setting up a few alerts was what it took to keep a man with an unprecedented knife collection happy, Jake was more than willing to do it. No one at the Exchange would even think to call until they were already back out in the field. "And so is Pooch's latest box from the love goddess." Damn, he was good.

"Cookies," Pooch said, smiling the smile of the deliriously happy. Jake got it, because Jolene was unbelievably hot, and somehow Pooch's bald ass had locked that down. "Jay, man, lemme get on there and say thank you to my girl."

"Pushy," Jake said, continuing to type, even though he'd stopped coding once Cougar sat down, because he didn't have the brain-power to code effectively while Cougar's feet were tangled with his underneath the table; all he was writing was random lyrics to songs that wouldn't get out of his head. "I haven't heard word one about how many of those cookies are mine." He couldn't help looking at Cougar, whose face was serene in concentration, as he typed the last one: let me show you, baby, I'm a talented boy.

"Bro," he heard, and looked up in time to catch the peeled carrot Roque threw his way. "Thanks."

Jake eyed the carrot suspiciously. It was large – uncomfortably large, large enough to maybe have had a part as a stand-in on some porn set – but it was fresh and still damp, and he did enjoy a good Bugs Bunny routine, and his was the best. Cougar flicked off the droplet of water that had fallen on the back of his hand from the carrot's airborne arc and kept cleaning the handgun spread out in front of him. Jake wanted to shake the Mondo Carrot and cover Cougar with water so that he sparkled. Instead, his laptop made a noise – the very specific noise of Black Widow taking a deliberate fall, rolling, and popping back up in a three-point crouch – and the super-secure vidchat app he'd created opened up and asked if he wanted to engage.

"Hey, Junebug!" he said when he saw her little face, alight with anticipation.

"Uncle Jake, Mommy said you'd help with my homework," June began, big green eyes imploring.

"Homework?" Roque muttered. "How young they got these kids lugging books around?"

"Can do," Jake said, disregarding his team. "I am the best at homework help!" Jules, crossing in the background with a laundry basket, snorted at that. "Pay no attention to your mother, who should know that snorting isn't at all ladylike. What's the matter, Jules, pre-K homework got you stumped?"

Jules leaned in close to the camera, close enough for him to count freckles. "I doubt you'll get through it without reinforcements. Who all's around?"

"Roque, Pooch, and Cougar," Jake said, watching her smile when they all chorused a hello.

"Mommy," Junie said firmly, and Jules took off for the laundry room. "Okay, Uncle Jake, the question is, how does food work?"

Pooch started guffawing first, but Roque was laughing hard enough that he had to put his knife down. Only Cougar was still silent, though there was an edge of lip tucked under his wide smile, like he was biting down to keep from laughing. Jake catalogued all of their reactions while trying to think how on earth to explain nutrition to a small child. He had only the sketchiest understanding of how it worked himself – all he remembered was the food pyramid and making faces at the green beans that showed up like soggy revenants on dinner plate after dinner plate.

His eyes focused on Cougar's hands – those slim, strong hands that looked like they'd been lifted from some old-master portrait – manipulating the bore brush and felt a flash of inspiration. "Okay, remember that dolly you had when you were little?" Pooch snorted, picking up Jules's bad habit, and made the teeny-tiny sign with his thumb and index finger, and yes, Junebug was small, but not ridiculously so. "The one who could pee?" Cougar's eyes widened in surprise at that, and Pooch's hand reached out for his shoulder. "What did you name him again?"

"Bruce!" June reminded him, and he smiled. The doll had worn purple pants, after all, before Junie had ripped them off to get a load of what she called its winkle.

"Right, well, remember that when you poured water into Bruce's mouth he'd start peeing right away?" How that doll was supposed to teach children about being potty-trained, he had no idea. "Until you plugged Pooch – I mean Bruce – up with a Q-Tip?" Cougar's hand came up to pat Pooch's hand, still wrapped around his shoulder. "Because it didn't make sense, right? What's the point of drinking some nice water if it comes out right away? But we're way more awesome than stupid Bruce." Forgive me, Dr. Banner. "When we put food in our mouths and chew and swallow, it goes through our bodies and then all the good stuff in it gets taken by our bodies."

He stood up, aware that the room had gone silent, though Cougar's eyes were smiling at him. "So I eat a bite of my carrot," he said, toasting Roque in acknowledgement of the awesome prop, miming a bite, "and it goes down, down, down," drawing a finger along the length of his throat and chest and stopping just below his ribcage. "And then, blam – SURPRISE MOTHERF-, I mean SURPRISE BABYDOLL – my body is smart enough to grab all of the nutrients from the carrot, all the vitamins and good stuff, as it goes through my stomach. And then . . ." he waited, because he knew she knew this part – he'd bought her the book himself.

"You poop!" she cried cheerfully.

"Yay!" he said, and Roque was full-on wheezing into his sleeve, ratatouille completely forgotten. "Any questions?"

"Nope," she chirped. "Thanks, Uncle Jake!"

"No problemo," he said, watching Cougar wince at his inability to pronounce even a single word of Spanish correctly. "Catch you later, Bugaboo." He clicked out of the session, set up a new one, and turned the laptop toward Pooch. "Jolene's waiting, Poochie-poo."

"Fuck you, man, now all I got in my head is Everybody Poops. Ain't no way to get romantic about that."

"You weren't gonna get romantic at the table with me and Cougs and Roque right here," Jake rebutted. He wasn't being a hypocrite – he wasn't – because he knew Pooch simply did not have that honey-eyed thing that Cougar did, that way of making any place romantic and imbued with promise. He picked up one of the car magazines Pooch'd brought with him because fair was fair, and leaned over Pooch's shoulder to put in a special request for the cherry-chocolate cookies Cougar liked so much the next time Jolene was in a baking mood. The curve of Cougar's mouth, as flexible and lithe as the rest of him, was spectacular.


Way back when, back when Jake had realized how completely fucked in the head he was over Cougar, which was honestly six weeks after they'd met and already saved each other's asses once, he'd thought it would be romantic – wait, that wasn't the right word, maybe he meant wish-fulfilling, or maybe just flat-out pathetic – to shower right after Cougar, always the earliest riser of the lot of them. He'd thought about which tile Cougar might have braced himself against while jerking off, mentally mapped the paths that the water would take through that long hair and down that taut body, and wanted the steam that Cougar had generated to press thickly against his own skin. What he hadn't counted on was that the tiles would be murderously slick, and he'd nearly brained himself, scrambling to get out of the blast of water, cranked all the way past hot to instant lobster dinner.

These days, Jake knew better. It was much more satisfying to lie in bed like the lazy ass he was, casually slip on his glasses, and watch beads of water streak down Cougar's chest and listen to his melodious humming, the way he did on mornings that they had that kind of time, like the heat of his shower had warmed the little bird that lived in his throat. This morning, the threadbare towel Cougar had wrapped around his lean and golden hips was red, and he wore it like a king, his crown the spill of wet curls.

Sometimes Cougar patiently toweled his hair dry with a thin little towel that folded down to the size of a handkerchief, and on those days it would hang in thick, straight lines to his shoulders. Other days he didn't bother, and it stayed in riotous curls, just hitting the nape of his neck. Jake'd thought at first that it must have something to do with the time he had available for getting ready, but there really wasn't a pattern. And he was allowed to speculate about this kind of thing – if Pooch could get Roque to shave his head for him with the best-loved of all his knives, then Jake had every right to consider the weight and texture of Cougar's hair, how it would feel against his hand, his face, his thighs. Yes. Absofuckinglutely.

Whatever Cougar was humming was low, sweet, and just syncopated enough that Jake could feel the emptiness that should have been filled by a drum. He didn't miss the drum, though, because Cougar's movements – one hand up to rake through his hair, gauging the dampness just beginning to dissipate; pulling on underwear, jeans, a shirt, and his hat; snapping the red towel in the air – were all done on the beat, like he was accompanying himself.

Wait – he knew that snap. That was Cougar's way of drying out the towel as quickly as possible before stuffing it in his extra duffel, the one with the wonky strap that only got used to haul around laundry. "Wait for me?" he asked, swinging his legs out from under the covers. Cougar didn't speak or stop humming, just nodded as he continued to pack the bag.

Jake beat Clay into the shower by a matter of milliseconds and he remembered to turn the knob to a cooler temperature before the water hit his skin, so he'd fully earned those victory arms. He probably looked like Junebug when she was gesturing for him to pick her up. She liked to go high, high, high, like a sniper, and yeah, he was shutting down that entire line of thought right now. He soaped up, ran something that smelled like Palmolive through his hair, rinsed, and opened the door to Clay's unimpressed face and greying chest hair. "Laundry calls, boss," he said. "That's not an offer."

Clay rolled tired-looking eyes at him; he seemed to gain steam as the day wore on and was never at his best first thing in the morning. And it was pretty early for all of them except Roque, who had discipline like nobody's business, and Cougar, who had insomnia, a brain that wouldn't quit, and no outlets that wouldn't rouse the whole team. "Enjoy the down time," Clay said, rough voice still not fully awake. "Throw your stuff in with Cougar's, see if he can beat some of the pink out of your clothes." Like Clay wasn't deliriously happy to have him around in all his technicolor glory.


"I've been meaning to ask you," Jake said, pausing to let Cougar grunt an acknowledgment, but no noise came; Cougar just kept funneling clothes from his duffel into one of the battered oversized washers. "How do you get your whites so white?" It was mostly idle chatter to get Cougs to crack a smile – there, that was a little stifled laugh – but he kind of meant it, too, because he remembered his high-school baseball uniform looking distinctly and irrecoverably grungy after a few games' worth of dirt and sweat.

One of the moments that had tipped him over into awareness of Cougar as not just a teammate, not just a friend, had been the first time Cougar's skills had saved his ass; he'd looked up from the system he'd been coaxing into giving up all of its naughty secrets, and there was Cougar, nothing but blue sky behind him, sweat turning his white henley to something translucent and diaphanous. Cougar had tilted his hatbrim down, and Jake had felt the gesture like a brand of ownership, a promise that Cougar would always keep him safe. Heart-eyes, motherfucker! was too small a phrase to express everything he'd felt at that moment, from the pleasurable shiver that'd worked up his spine at the thought of Cougs looming over him to the raw satisfaction of seeing the system's capitulation on the monitor, and he'd pushed all of it away until he was in the back of Pooch's latest rescue, Cougar's thigh a long line of heat against his. The hem of that white henley had flipped up, and it was like he couldn't look anywhere else. "Thanks," he'd finally said, and Cougar had responded by letting his knuckles brush Jake's knee.

"No, seriously," he said, getting up to dump his own clothes into a washer, "I've seen that white shirt of yours pretty often, and it's always pristine." He kissed his fingertips. "What gives?" Jake turned to find Cougar steadfastly ignoring him, booted feet propped up on an empty chair – Cougar did always manage to time things just right so that he'd be left alone – and reading a paperback. Rebecca, it said, which sounded vaguely familiar.

"Is that a novelization of some seedy telenovela?" Jake asked. "You can admit it to me. I won't judge." All of those telenovelas seemed to have been named after women – blameless, gravity-defyingly voluptuous, motor-mouthed women. Cougar tilted his head so his face caught the light and raised an eyebrow, moving his finger off the author's name. Like "Daphne du Maurier" was supposed to mean anything other than somebody had a fancy-ass pen name.

He'd been known for his fastballs, way back in the day, but he'd always had a pretty good slider, too, which made for a hell of a change-up; he could lull Cougs into a false sense of security and then spring the real question on him. The rumble of the washers drowned out most of the other sounds, but Jake could hear Cougar turning the pages of his paperback. He probably needed a new prescription, since he couldn't see which used bookstore the sticker on the spine was from. "Hey, Cougs," he said when he'd sat in a painful silence easily long enough for the guy to plow through a chapter and a half, "how'd you know about my beard?"

"No rasp," Cougar said without looking up and Jake's fingers stilled on his chin – he'd only grown the thing so he'd have a prop to stroke when he needed to say exxxcellent without sounding too much like Mr. Burns. He knew his impressions were tolerated even less than his regular rotation of pop-culture catchphrases, but he'd had no idea playing with his beard had become such a habit that anyone could note the absence of the sound it made. Except for omniscient snipers, apparently, who also liked to startle the bejesus out of him by asking follow-up questions. "Why did Bug say no beard?"

Cougar was chary with words, everyone knew that, but especially so with words beginning with a J, which always seemed to take him a beat longer to translate from Spanish-sounding to English. When he said Jensen or Jake, the J was softer, almost lisped. So June became Bug, and Jake split the praise for that particular piece of heart-stopping cuteness between Juniebelle's abundant charms and Cougar's own shyness. Shit, he still hadn't given Cougs an answer, and those eyes were slowly dragging themselves up from the book.

"She said it was too rough to kiss," Jake admitted, purposely thinking unsexy thoughts rather than contemplating how soft Cougar's own facial hair looked, all those curling wisps. Cougar just nodded and kept on reading.

Trust Cougar to figure out there was another question he was suddenly bursting to ask, that he was keeping quiet only because he didn't know if the question was kosher, Hebrew National or Oscar Mayer. Cougar actually stuck a finger in his book and held the cover closed with his thumb, meeting Jake's eyes squarely. "Sí?"

"What's that song you were humming before?"

"Mi papá," Cougar said, thumb smoothing over the cover. "For us." He set the book down gently when the buzzer on his washer sounded.


For us slammed into him at a hundred miles an hour when Jake sat with his laptop at the table, keeping an eye on Cougar, who'd thrown him out of the kitchen and made all the preparations for tomorrow night's pulled pork. It didn't seem to take him long, and Cougar settled by the window with a contented sigh, the natural light perfect for his task of reinforcing the seams of his freshly laundered clothes with stitches so fine as to be nearly invisible. Cougar flexed his bare, brown, blistered feet as he sewed, and Jake could see the ball-chain on which his tags hung resting against the fairer skin of his throat, framed by the vee of his faded red t-shirt. This level of pining should have been ridiculous, but its object was Cougar, who was coolly competent at life and unfairly hot at all times, so Jake figured he probably got a pass.

Jake knew he should be deciding what to put on the table that night, or even just asking Cougar about his family like a normal person would, but instead he was skipping past untold levels of security – Spec Ops sec, so the fuck what – and piecing together redactions to find out who the man called us.

It wasn't sheer dumb luck, but it wasn't much more than that either that got him a middle-school yearbook from Bernalillo, New Mexico, a sixth-grade Cougar grinning out at him, first picture in the second row. God bless the yearbook girls who'd scanned all of these pages, truly. Carlos – Carlito, he was willing to bet – had had a mop of curls and a disarmingly wide smile. The next year's collection showed him what he'd missed the whole time he'd known Cougar. There was another little Alvarez next to him, Caridad, with the same bright and dimpled face. So Cougar had a twin sister, and Jake felt stupidly bereft that he hadn't known.

There they were, year after year next to each other, both with an uneven bottom row of teeth, showing that the Alvarezes hadn't had the money to give their kids generic American smiles, but it wasn't like he'd be revising his opinion that Cougar's smile was the sweetest he'd ever seen.

Jake looked up, obscure guilt making him twitchy, to look at Cougar, memorize the lines of him one more time. Cougar's hat was nowhere in sight, and his uncovered head was catching the buttery afternoon light. He wasn't smiling, but he had his mouth pulled taut in concentration, revealing one of the dimples his scruff usually kept hidden. Jake could see his throat fluttering with steady breaths. And then Cougar's eyes snapped up to meet his, unerring in their aim, and Jake just sat there like an idiot staring back at him.

Thank sweet baby Dromiceiomimus for Pooch, who strolled in just then, panting and sweating his ass off. "I know he's weird-lookin' and all, Cougs, but I swear that that really is our Jensen, just minus the Brillo pad taped to his chin," Pooch gasped out, sticking his whole head under the kitchen tap. "You can tell by his stupid-ass shirt – you don't need to try to break him with your lethal gaze," Pooch said, slandering Jake without a second thought.

Jake took the excuse to drop eye contact with Cougar and scowl dramatically at Pooch, who wasn't paying him any attention anyway. "Fuck you, the Springfield Isotopes rule," he said, snapping his laptop shut and scuttling while the scuttling was good.


Cougar's pulled pork was always spicy and sweet and Jake knew it would be even better the second day, when it could sit on a plate next to the red-flannel hash Jules had taught him to make years ago. Jake chewed and swallowed mechanically, not even tasting it, because he'd gone cybersnooping and Zamboni'd the hell out of his tracks so no one could ever tell he'd been there, and all he could think about was what he'd found. He'd been in love with Cougar for so long, his stillness and smile and trigger finger and head for physics, and he'd had no idea that the man had a twin sister, a brother-in-law, two nephews, a niece, parents, and a grandmother, all tucked away in New Mexico. Cougar's mother's family had been running a restaurant for generations – the real stuff: salsa roja, salsa verde, mole, plus live music – and Cougar's dad married in and became the house violinist when his wife became the head chef. Caridad married Juan Martín, her dad's lead guitarist, and taught comp lit at the community college. Rebecca was on her Narrative Techniques syllabus that semester.

How had he not known any of it? Why hadn't Cougar said anything?

Pooch poked him in the side, which no one less cute than Juniebelle could do with impunity, so Jake reflexively slapped at his hand. "You gonna defend your own honor, Jay, or are you gonna make the Pooch do it for you?"

"He's blissed out on the food, bro. Even a mook can tell the difference between real food like this and the nonsense he tried to serve us last night." Roque apparently had no problem talking with his mouth full.

"Hey!" Jake said, finally tuning all the way in. "Breakfast-for-dinner is a stone classic! I will go down with that ship!" Scrambled eggs, pancakes, sausages, and toast with cheese – there was nothing wrong with any of that. Brain food. Sort of. "Clay shoveled it in like it was going out of style!"

A hush fell over the table, a kind silence that offered him room to walk back from the indefensibly stupid position he'd taken up. Cougar's eyes were lit with empathy, Pooch's smile was pitying, and Roque actually put down his fork to make his point. "Jensen," Roque said almost gently, "Clay killed all his tastebuds and his common sense in one fell swoop when he was a small, stupid child. He eats whatever's in front of him whether he's hungry or not, whether it's good or not."

"You're saying all of Clay's appetites are fucked?" Jake asked, like he was bucking for King of the Idiots. Clay wasn't an ass man or a breast man or a leg man, or even a sucker for a pretty face; he genuinely went for women with an insane gleam in their eyes and the promise of drama written all over them.

"What are you, new?" Pooch asked, as Roque shamelessly started double-fisting, an extra fork appearing in his left hand, bringing pork to his mouth at the same rate as the utensil in his dominant hand. Jake was impressed, and had to admit Cougar's pulled pork was worth it.

Too bad there wasn't gonna be any left over for Clay. Or for hash in the morning.


"Up, up, up," Roque was merciless in the morning, and Cougar had already risen and escaped, so Jake couldn't even shush Roque by pointing to a peacefully sleeping teammate; Jake was beginning to realize that Cougar did nothing good for him bed-wise except star in his dreams all night. "We're running now."

"I don't have a whole pig to work off," Jake said, too sleepy still to know what his mouth was even saying. "Not even a piglet," he continued, and then he was unceremoniously upended on his ass. The ground didn't have to be that hard, did it?

"Hydrate and let's go," Roque said, finishing off his own water with a swallow so long it was a little uncomfortable to watch.

Jake stumbled to the bathroom, rubbing his sore ass as he went, and followed Roque to the track. He was coming awake at that point, just from being in the fresh air, and his eyes scanned the horizon for Cougs, who prowled and climbed compulsively, doing the math from every elevation he could find. Roque smacked him upside the head to get him to start stretching, and then they were off, chasing each other around the track.

They got back to their rooms to find Clay eating separate ingredients out of the refrigerator – was he trying to drink ketchup? – while saying something to Pooch about Norway. Pooch was nodding and pulling out his binder of maps and notes, but he looked up in time to catch Jake's eye and say, "I know, I know, pining for the fjords. What I'm pining for is the chance to run a ferry like a boss."

"I'm pining for those Danish butter cookies we used to get in a big tin for like five bucks at the grocery store," Jake said, wondering if the Exchange stocked those tins. That sugar on top had featured in some choice pre-Cougar dreams.

Clay eyed him like he was slow, waving a circle of over-processed lunchmeat for emphasis. Clay preferred that stuff to actual meat, which made Jake want to ask him who had harmed him as a child. "Norway, not Denmark."

"Close enough for government work," Jake said, shrugging and heading for the shower Roque had just left, making a command decision as he went. Growing out his cherished beard had meant weeks of itchiness; it was probably not worth it to try again. "I can pull up better maps if you want," he offered, setting his razor out by the sink and poking his head out of the bathroom to hear the response.

"Cougs might need the aerials," Pooch agreed. "Google Earth is definitely in the running for our new best friend."

"Shut your mouth," Jake said. "Google Earth bows down to me."

"Yeah, okay, White Shaft."


Jake had never been a language savant – unless it was coding languages – but everyone on the team spoke at least a couple. Cougar had apparently never met a romance language he hadn't made his bitch, and he had more than enough Hindi and Arabic to get by. Which was hilarious, because that meant it was only English, their sole common language, that he wouldn't speak, at least not in Jake's earshot. Roque had Portuguese, Vietnamese, Dari, and Pashto; Pooch had Mandarin and Japanese – which should have made him more appreciative of Jake's willingness to discuss Godzilla at any time of day or night, rather than less. Jake and Clay were the dummies, with only one foreign language apiece, and still Clay, that German-speaking bastard, had the nerve to try to school him. "Norwegian is not 'Russian by way of the Swedish Chef with Scandinavian hand-gestures'!"

"Bork, bork, bork," Jake muttered rebelliously, because he just needed to look Norwegian, not hold eloquent conversations in the damn language, and Russian was as close as he could get to any kind of useful fluency. Under the table, Cougar's foot tapped his like a silent, shared laugh, but when Jake looked up, Cougs was wearing a studiously innocent face.

"Closer to German than Russian," murmured Cougar, the voice of reason.

"So Jensen's the face and Clay's the voice," Pooch summarized.

"Oh, awesome. I can totally wire us up for that, and you can whisper sweet nothings in my ear all day long, boss-man." Roque shot him a look. "What?" Jake glanced over and Cougar didn't look any happier. "Bork, bork, bork?" he tried again, tentatively.

At that Pooch cracked a smile, and said, "Jay, you ain't crazy enough to be Clay's type." Roque flipped a knife absent-mindedly in his hands, nodding in satisfaction, and Cougar sat back, letting his spine actually touch the back of his chair.

Clay couldn't stop being a grumpyass for whatever reason. "You better look the part, dress right," he warned.

Before Jake could stop himself, he'd answered. "Actually, I dress left."

Clay sighed. "Try not to get us all killed," he said, like they'd died several deaths before at Jake's hands. Seriously, their fearless leader was such a drama-queen.


Back on American soil, their first stop wasn't even in question. Norway had been a success – Jake could admit that, even if he was still seething about ending up with twink-gold spikes because Clay insisted that his hair needed to be lightened – but there was no point turning down a night out to exorcise the last of the mission-jitters. Pooch said he knew a place near their temporary digs, and they trooped into a club with him like the world's scariest kickline, all in one disciplined row. Cougar had just gotten through the door when there was suddenly a base-bunny on either side of him, and Roque veered sharply left when a tug on his waist pulled him in that direction. Jake huffed, resigning himself to following Pooch, who was flashing his ring like it was a magic shield, and Clay, who only had eyes for the bottles behind the bar, but a persuasive finger in one of his belt loops led him astray.

"Hey, cutie-pie," the redhead in front of him said, neatly unhooking her finger from his jeans.

Jake grinned. It was nice to be appreciated. "I think that's my line."

"No, I'm pretty sure you were gonna buy me a beer as your big opener," the redhead said, so Jake took his cue. He stopped halfway to the bar because there was Cougar, back against the bar, leaning his weight on his elbows, having a friendly conversation with the dude next to him. Cougar caught his eye and smiled at him, but kept talking, that rapid-fire Spanish that managed to be both melodic and staccato in a way that reliably fucked with Jake's head. Cougar hadn't strung more than six words together in the past week, and Jake was basically a junkie for his voice, even if he had to get his fix between the pounding thumps of a ridiculous club beat and the interjections of some random guy who'd glued himself to Cougar's hip.

A guy that Cougar hadn't pushed away, he realized, stutter-stepping closer involuntarily. Cougar had ditched the girls and was happily settled at the bar like he had no intention of picking up that night. Unless it was this guy he was planning to bring home.

Jake had never seen Cougar so animated with anyone whose ass he hadn't personally saved – Clay still teased Roque for thinking their hideout was haunted when Cougar finally spoke up after their first mission together, back in the day – and disliked the new guy all the more. This was Cougar relaxed and happy – irresistible, because he still had that knack of looking like he'd been posed for a grandmaster's portrait no matter what casual angle he struck against the bar, no matter whether his hands were still or in motion. Jake went and loomed over them when the guy's eyes didn't drop as Cougar lifted his beer to his lips and tilted his head back, exposing a long, strong throat.

The guy spared Jake an assessing glance, looking hatefully unruffled by the up-close-and-personal scrutiny by a Spec Ops soldier though Jake would swear the man was no combatant, and said something to Cougar that sounded like novio. And that, finally, was what got Cougar to flash angry eyes at the guy. It was just Jake's luck that the moment Cougar sinuously rolled his back away from the bar, the drums and horns paused and Prince crooned sexy motherfucker, the words winding through the club. Like it was an accompaniment he'd expected, Cougar let loose a torrent of runaway Spanish, and the only words Jake could make out were "Juan Martín" and "novio" again. That was gonna be a Google Translate search just as soon as he got back to their room.

Cougar shoved his beer at the guy, who fumbled at it for a second, saying, "Carlos!" and that this prick had gotten to a first-name basis with Cougs was ratcheting up Jake's hatred of the guy, but Cougar was already walking out the door and Jake followed without a second thought. He kept his eyes fixed on Cougar's ass and only remembered the redhead when Cougar slid him a dark sidelong glance from under his thick lashes. Jake looked quizzically back at him, hoping it wasn't him Cougs was pissed at, and bucked right the fuck up when Cougar shook his head and turned up one corner of his mouth in a tiny smile.

"Well," he said, to keep his mouth busy enough to stop his hands from reaching out and pulling Cougar close – and that shouldn't have worked, since the hand-bone wasn't connected to the mouth-bone, but it kind of did, "that was no fun. Pooch needs to shut his cakehole and remember the epic fail of this night the next time he insists he knows all the best spots." Jake saw Cougar's eyebrow rise in what he liked to think of as the Scully Special. "What? Were you having fun in there?" He hadn't even gotten to see Cougar dance.

"No." Cougar was eyeing him strangely, but Jake was used to getting weird looks from his team. Cougs had never looked at him like he was a puzzle before, though.


"Don't freak out," Jules warned, which was a terrible opening line, because Jake could feel his spine knotting up instinctively. Not to mention that with the time difference, he'd been close to falling asleep, and untroubled sleep had been hard to come by recently, since they'd come back tattered from Honduras.

"Oh my god, what's wrong?" he asked, just as Cougar walked into their room, sweating after his workout.

Jules went silent, and Jake peered at her frozen image on the screen, wondering why he had to be halfway around the world when his tech crapped out. No, wait, she was moving, breathing these rapid little breaths, and he turned to see what her eyes were fixed on. It was Cougar, who'd stripped off his shirt and pulled his sweat-curled hair free of its low knot in preparation for climbing into the two-foot-square upright coffin that passed as a shower in this particular hellhole. Cougar's tags were hanging between his scapulae, cool against damp, golden skin, and he seemed completely unaware of the picture he made, walking out of the room and heading for the bathroom.

"Jeeeeeeeeeezus H.," Jules said, fanning herself.

"Don't," Jake warned her. "Now, what's wrong? What am I not supposed to freak out about?"

"June's been taking dance lessons and she's going to be one of the sunflowers in the recital, but now she's claiming to have stage fright." He was obviously missing something, because she looked at him expectantly like he should already have figured out what stage fright was a smokescreen for. "I think she's just upset you won't get to be there. Do not blame yourself for this."

"Put her on," he asked, and after a small delay in which his heart basically tried to eat itself, there was his best girl, her little face surrounded by yellow petals taking up the whole screen.

"Hi, Uncle Jake," she said, much more quietly than usual.

"Hey, Juniebelle," he said, trying to figure out what to say to her. He'd never liked leaving her, and he knew nothing he said was going to make this any easier on her. "What's this I hear about my Junebug being shy?"

She set her little chin determinedly, leaning back enough that he could see Jules's hand on June's back, grounding her the way she'd always grounded him. "'m not shy!"

"Yeah, I didn't think so," Jake said. "My girl's ten feet tall, can do anything she wants, right?"

"Yeah! Wanna see the dance?"

"Of course I do," he said, then watched her face brighten when she caught sight of Cougar, back from his shower. "Uncle Coo does too," he added, scooching over in his shitty twin bed and giving Cougar an imploring glance.

Cougar nodded and said, "Hola, Bug," and sat right there in his damp towel, hot skin smelling like soap. Jake swallowed compulsively and fixed his attention on the screen instead of his sleeve, growing wet from contact with Cougar's bicep.

June's dancing was basically a terrible parody of ballet, but it'd take a heart of stone not to find it flat-out adorable. He didn't catch on that the awkward move at the end was a curtsey until Cougar started solemnly applauding, so he did the same and added an and the crowd goes wild roar. Junie fell to the floor, giggling, a little green-leotarded lump, and then Jules took over the screen again.

"Thanks, Jake. Thanks, Cougar," she said. A wicked look crossed her face. "Sleep tight, you two."

Jake clicked out of the chat before she could get him into trouble. "Thanks, man."

Cougar shrugged as he stood, turning away to get ready for bed, and Jake could see the tiny dimples just above his towel. "Easier to handle than your singing," he said, which was so rude, even if it was indisputably true. Jake pressed his face into the damp spot on his bed just to cool himself down.


For the record, Cougar's hair wasn't silky. It was coarse and warm and still somehow soft as it brushed Jake's face, and Jake had no complaints at all. Not that he could have uttered a word, with Cougar's mouth slotted demandingly against his, their hands entwined on the bed above his head. There was a rush to knowing he could only breathe when Cougar said he could, how completely Cougar owned him. Cougar drew back then and Jake panted, frantic to have his oxygen cut off again, trying to lift his heavy head off the bed. Still sitting on Jake's hips like they were his throne, Cougar just eyed him silently, dark eyes gleaming, and the only word for what he was at that moment made Jake shiver. Conquistador.

Cougar held him at his disinterested mercy for uncounted moments while Jake twitched like a wild thing caught in a trap, vaguely embarrassed by his lack of self-control. And then Cougar dipped down until his sacred-heart tattoo was pressed against Jake's naked chest, and said something that sounded like mirarte, laughing like a lord under his breath.

And Jake knew what that meant, look at you, and he obeyed what must have been casual mockery rather than a command. He could see himself stretched out full-length, his pallor hidden under the slinky curve of Cougar's bare body, and when he tried to work out how he could be seeing his whole body, whose eyes he could possibly be using, it hit him that he was dreaming, and he woke up, ready to scream with frustration. Across the room, in the other bed, Cougar was curled up on his side, and Jake could see the spill of curls on his shoulders and the slim protruding line of his spine shifting with each slow breath.


Cougar swore up and down that he didn't cheat at cards, but Jake had never known anyone – let alone a born Loser – to have the kind of luck he had. When Cougar won the pot for the third straight time, he had had enough. "Are you fucking kidding me?" he snapped, then scooped up the deck and slapped it into Roque's big hand.

"Whoa, Jay, we're literally playin' for toothpicks here," Pooch said. His throat was still scraped a little raw from being sick enough to lose his voice for a week, and instead of his usual beer there was a mug of honey-scented tea in front of him.

"No, he was playing us," he said, pointing at Cougar, who sat there silently, big dark eyes that could drown Jake fixed on his face.

"No," Cougar denied quietly, letting Roque rest a comforting hand on his bare shoulder, and Jake lost it. When exactly every little thing had started to take on momentous importance, he couldn't say; all he knew was that the walls felt like they were closing in on him when he realized that he could love Cougar all he wanted but there was no way Cougar would love him back. It wasn't just the walls; it felt like his skull was contracting too.

"Jensen," Roque said carefully like he was a skittish horse, while Cougar couldn't be bothered to say another word in his own defense. Jake jerked his arm away from Roque's questing hand, swaying a little on his feet. Cougar never did speak much – why did he need to, when he said everything so clearly with the clean line of his jaw, the set of his shoulders, the flash of his eyes.

The heel of one hand pressed to his temple, Jake looked wildly between them, Cougar the still center of the ring of Losers, and knew they'd all back Cougar on this. Cougar and Roque had running jokes going in Portuguese, Pooch wasn't about to turn on the person who'd nursed him through a shitty respiratory illness – Roque was the one with creative and effective approaches to PT, but Cougar had the deft hand with stitches and the patience and knowledge to heal the sick – and Clay was always, when it came down to it, gonna jump the way Roque did. Everybody knew that, except Roque and Clay.

He was gonna lose his team over a game of cards – no, over anger that the one he loved didn't love him back. Small fucking wonder, if this was how he was behaving; Jules would spank him like the immature brat he was if she only knew. Jake locked eyes with Cougar, solemn and still, and every particle of rage vanished. That wasn't a relief, because love was even more of a fucker to cope with. He brought his other hand up so his fists were jammed against his temples and said, "Sorry. I'm sorry." He was, too.

A look of alarm flashed across Cougar's face and Jake wondered why Cougar was suddenly leaping from his chair, but the world went black and he never got an answer.


"Hey, fuckhead," Roque said, setting him gently down in his bed. Roque kept talking, so Jake figured he must know that Jake was awake again; how Roque knew when Jake wasn't even sure was a question for a less fucked-up day. "Don't give him any shit," Roque continued to lecture. "He's already worn out from sitting up with Pooch, but he's insisting on taking care of your sorry ass too."

At that, Jake opened his eyes – so he really was awake, good to know – and looked up at Roque, who was wearing his no-kidding-around face. They eyed each other in silence for a long moment, and then Roque's big hand was pushing through Jake's hair in a rough caress. "Don't think I feel sorry for you for a second," Roque muttered in an undertone right next to his ear, "you prize idiot." Roque stood up, and Jake could finally see Clay and Pooch flanking him, all of them looming over him like the judgment of a vengeful god.

"Out," Cougar said, drying his hands on a hand towel he flipped over his shoulder, and they all jumped, Jake included. Cougar took up the spot next to the bed that Roque had vacated and reached out to him.

Jake dodged, head sliding across the pillow with a sound like a thousand ocean waves. "I'm sorry." He had to say it again while Cougar's face was bare enough to read – his hat was sitting on his bed, and his hair had been tied up high, leaving his cheekbones unshadowed; there was a faint stripe of pink on each one now.

"It's fine," Cougar said curtly, extending his hand again, growling a little when Jake shifted once more. "My hand or the thermometer," he warned, so Jake held still and let Cougar make contact with his forehead with the back of his veined hand. Cougar closed his eyes, and Jake held his breath, the cool of Cougar's hand and the image of those sooty lashes curled against the dark circles around his eyes too much to process. "How long?" Cougar asked, snapping his eyes open to glare accusingly down at him.

"Dunno," Jake mumbled guiltily. Cougar's hand moved down to try to remove his glasses and Jake, left with no room to maneuver, improvised. He pressed his mouth to the inside of Cougar's slim brown wrist, just over his pulse. Cougar snatched his arm away and sucked in a gulping breath, but his other hand darted out and pulled the glasses off Jake's face, which meant Jake couldn't see more than a blur above him. "Please," he begged, not even sure what he was asking for, but Cougar exhaled tiredly, cupped his cheek softly, and sat down beside him, which was more than he deserved.


Juniebelle looked manifestly unimpressed with him but Jules looked disappointed, which was even worse. "You know you turn into a raging" – asshole she mouthed silently – "when you get sick, and if there's one person who doesn't deserve that, it's Cougar." June's frown deepened, clearly not liking the thought of anyone, even Uncle Jake, being mean to Uncle Coo.

"Yeah, but they didn't know that until now." He laughed bitterly. "It's worse than that," he admitted, unable to meet either pair of green eyes taking up a healthy percentage of his laptop screen. "I can't remember what I said to him while I was hallucinating from the fever, but it's got to be bad. He's hardly looking at me, Roque's steering clear of me, and I think Pooch keeps running errands just so he doesn't have to be around." He didn't bother to mention how sore his throat was, as if he'd been screaming for days straight; she could hear the rasp in his voice for herself.

The list of things he might have spilled ranged from the relatively inoffensive – how Clay and Roque needed to man up and admit they were each other's long-term plan – to the truly terrible – a litany of all the horizontal things Jake wanted to do with Cougar, say, or a demand to know what it would take to coax Cougar into sharing and caring.

Jules knew better than to offer hollow comfort, a promise that Cougar would magically reciprocate his feelings. "Well, we love you anyway," she said, and Junebug blew him kisses. "Just hang with Clay for a while, and they'll remember you're hardly the worst one there," she said, cracking a smile and making him laugh for the first time in weeks.

Jake clicked out of the vidchat, letting silence fall down around him. Clay was at some dinner he couldn't get out of, and Roque and Pooch had decided what Cougar needed after ten days of sitting up with Jake was to go out, shoot some pool, and get rip-roaringly drunk. Pooch hadn't been able to help extending the invitation to him, but Jake had shaken his head, certain that Cougar needed some space from him. And if Cougs found a nice girl to take him home, Jake would plaster his brightest grin on his face and not piss in his morning corn flakes.


"Package for you down at the Exchange," Jake heard as he did his cool-down walk and he looked up to see Sergeant Jansen doing jumping jacks by the side of the track. He nodded his thanks and strolled off, wondering if it was what he'd ordered or a care package from his girls. Turned out it was both, which was another cause for celebration after finally being healthy enough to do his workout again.

Tucking both packages under his arm, he jogged home. Pooch and Clay were playing darts, Roque and Cougar nowhere to be found. Perfect. He went into his bedroom and tore open the package from the little used bookstore near Jules's house. Inside was a paperback in pretty good condition – The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. He'd never heard of it, but Cougar was bound to want it soon, because it was next on his sister's syllabus; it was as eloquent an apology as he could make to a man who seemed to have no interest in looking his way anymore. He left it on Cougar's bed and went to wash the stink off himself.

Hastily drying off, he pulled on a pair of sweats and his Blue Sun t-shirt and sat on his bed, curiosity about what the girls had sent winning out over hunger. He ripped the waterproof pouch open. Wrapped inside a towel that said Don't Panic was a plastic-framed picture of Junie in her sunflower costume, arms spread wide like she was gunning for a hug. While he was still grinning down at the picture, Cougar walked in, paused, and then pivoted to shut the door.

That was ominous enough to get Jake to look up; the click of his jaw snapping shut was loud in the silence of the room. Cougar's back didn't relax when he saw the paperback on his bed, which just ratcheted up the tension Jake was feeling in all of his joints. As if he felt Jake's gaze – which, of course he did, because Cougar knew him far too well, knew him and could take him or leave him – Cougar turned his head just enough to look back at Jake out of the corner of his eye. The curved, spare lines of his cheek and throat were stunning, and Jake found himself tugging desperately at his new towel, twisting it into knots that were safer by far to look at.

Cougar moved so silently that his reaching out to rescue the towel took Jake by surprise. "Are you talking to me again?" he asked, looking up at Cougar, whose gaze was down and uncatchable.

"Thank you for the book," Cougar said. "Cari likes for me to keep up."

"Does she still look just like you?" he blurted out.

Cougar raised his eyes in surprise at that, then shrugged. "I do not like to think so." One long lock fell forward, and he tucked it back behind his ear, the curl curving around his lobe just so.

"Her hair can't be prettier than yours," Jake teased, but he had just enough sense not to say a word about Cougar's liquid eyes or soft mouth.

Cougar shook his head, unwilling to play, and Jake cursed himself for being an idiot again, some more. "She looks happy. I want her to be," Cougar faltered for a moment, lifting a hand to sketch a kind of halo around his face, which meant he was translating into inadequate English, "shiningly happy."

So it was confession time. "She wants the same for you, right? So what would that take?"

That frustrated laugh was all wrong for Cougar, and Jake almost closed his eyes against how desperately unhappy Cougar looked at that moment. He couldn't, though, not if Cougar was resorting to sign language. He nearly swallowed his tongue when it looked like that fine-boned hand was gesturing at him.

"I did apologize for being an asshole, right? That wasn't just another of my kooky hallucinations?" he asked. "I don't actually think you cheat, though I have never seen anyone go on a run like –"

"Tú eres mi buena suerte," Cougar said quietly, and Jake could just about piece that together.

He did close his eyes then, and tipped his head forward until his forehead was just touching Cougar's lean belly. "That seems a little unfair. So I play cards with you, you win every hand? I go to a bar with you, you pick up every girl?" It wasn't like that didn't happen, but still, verbalizing it made it seem like even more of a cosmic joke. From this vantage point, he could see Cougar's boots, braced in a resolute fighting stance, his own bare feet bracketing them like oversized parentheses. "Makes you wonder what it's all about, doesn't it?"

"I have been thinking," Cougar said, the lilt again betraying that he was switching languages in his head. "Why looking at you is –" he raised his hand once more but cut the gesture off, instead burying his fingers in Jake's hair.

"Is what?" he mumbled into Cougar's bellybutton, arms climbing to drape around Cougar's hips.

"Is good," Cougar finally said, simply, and tucked a finger under Jake's chin to tilt it up.

Jake held his breath, waiting, but there was no way he was beating a fucking sniper at any kind of staring contest, so he blinked first. And by blinked he meant snapped, pulling Cougar into his lap, one hand high on his back so the other could coax a limber leg to lie flush against his own, then swapping – who knew he was that coordinated? – so that Cougar was on his knees, thighs spread over and around his, those soft jeans stretching in unaccustomed ways. And Cougar went pliant in his arms, a rush he had never expected, to see those sharpshooter eyes close so trustingly, to watch him lift his head blindly, knowing Jake would make good use of his mouth.

Cougar's mouth was soft – unholy, ungodly soft – and more than half-open. His weight rocked on top of Jake almost dazedly, like he was working on instinct alone; that set Jake on fire as much as the hand spread wide over his cheek, positioned so he could feel against his jaw the thrum of Cougar's pulse in that wrist he'd so desperately kissed.

Cougar's hair spilled over his fingers – it was soft and already knotting around his knuckles – and they were both panting by the time he pulled back. "Yes," Cougar said, casually divesting him of his fogged-up glasses, "is good."

"Right?" Jake asked, laughing as he tried to catch his breath. "This is the best." Cougar was just a little blurry, this close, but Jake could see he was smiling, radiant at long last. "Let me show you, baby, I'm a talented boy."