Cougar became aware of himself in degrees, linoleum warming beneath his cheek, the air cold from the air conditioner rumbling from somewhere above him. He pushed himself up, palms planted flat on the ground, and opened his eyes. He was blinded for a moment by the fluorescent lights burning brightly around him, but he acclimated, plucking his hat off the ground as he levered himself the rest of the way up. He looked around the room, slow and measuring, but it seemed as if he was the only one there. There were a line of computer screens against the right and left walls, and he could even see the chairs that the rest of his team had sat on, spread out like spokes on a wheel. In the center was a short, squat machine, a light pulsing red in the center of it.
He had no idea what it did. Jensen was the one who'd know more, but it looked like Cougar was out of luck. He prowled forward. Everything was blinding white, and he wondered where he was, his memory a little foggy. He thought he remembered going after Max, only days after they'd stolen the courier van, and the layout of this building seemed very much like Max's taste — simple, clean, functional. Cougar felt for his weapons, the knife at his ankle and the gun stuck into the back of his jeans, and he could see where his KA SR-25 lay on the ground, right where it fell.
Cougar heard a soft sound and whirled to face it, his heart pounding with a sudden burst of adrenaline. He was more than a little surprised to see Roque, his broad, wary frame filling the entrance. It was a relief. Roque saw him a moment later, and Cougar tilted his hat in acknowledgement before he leaned down to grab his rifle from off the floor.
"Any idea what happened here?" Roque cut straight to the chase.
Cougar shook his head in response. It was good to see someone else. He'd begun to wonder if he were alone in the complex. Roque moved forward, eyes darting warily from side to side as he flexed his fingers on his gun, holding it out just in case. Once Roque confirmed that no one was here besides Cougar, he relaxed, although Cougar could see the line of tension rigid in Roque's shoulders.
"Have you seen anyone else?"
Cougar answered once again with a shake of his head, but his eyes dropped to the earbud dangling uselessly from Roque's shoulder.
"I tried our frequency," Roque explained, seeing the line of Cougar's gaze. "No one's answering."
Cougar nodded in understanding. They spent a minute going to the computers that lined the wall, but they were all password protected. It was annoying, but Cougar hadn't expected anything less. Roque jerked his head toward the entrance, and Cougar fell in line, just as wary and cautious as Roque was as they moved down the hallway. They opened doors, seeing labs, rooms full of boxes that turned out to have guns, and some bathrooms. They stole some ammo from the weapon boxes, still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
There was nothing but silence.
They walked down the long corridors, and before every corner, Cougar could feel his heart ramp up in anticipation only to be disappointed with his next step. He took point for the next several hallways, Roque a comforting presence at his back, but it didn't matter. Everything was empty, the labs free of scientists even though all the computers were blinking with screensavers.There were no soldiers patrolling the halls, no cooks in the kitchen, no Clay, no Jensen, no Pooch, no Aisha, no Max.
They found the soldiers' quarters and broke open the footlockers without a word wasted between them, searching for anything that might be useful: comuniques, alarms, any messages that would tell them what happened here and where they might be able to find their friends, but there was nothing.
They found a map of the installation in what they assumed was the CO's office, and Roque took charge of it, marking off each room with a highlighter he'd taken from the desk. They moved quickly through the building. They found the exit, and Roque and Cougar looked at each other. Roque held one finger out, then two, then three, and Cougar nodded. He kicked the door open and dropped to a knee, already sighting down his rifle for his first target.
Nothing happened. Even through the blinding sunlight, which made Cougar's eyes ache after the white fluorescents, he could tell there was no movement. It was just the two of them, and Cougar slid out and rose to his full height, still looking for a possible attack.
"The hell," Roque muttered, and Cougar agreed.
There was no activity as far as Cougar could see, no drills being run with soldiers, no scientists walking from building to building, no vehicles rumbling down the roads.
Roque pulled out the map again, and they spent another precious minute looking down at it before Cougar pointed at the map, suggesting a new building to search.
"Yeah, man, sure," Roque agreed, and Cougar could feel the same determination he saw in Roque's eyes. After everything that had happened, Bolivia and the hundreds of missions before that, there was no way they'd be able to leave without verifying every inch of the island to make sure their team wasn't being held somewhere.
The next building was empty and quiet, their footsteps echoing. It was as though everyone had disappeared at the same time without warning. There wasn't a single sign of panic, computers on and experiments in the middle of any number of steps. If that were the case, though, then what happened to everyone else and why were they the only two left behind? Cougar wondered if perhaps their attack had forced Max to use some sort of device that was still in testing and it backfired.
"Let's move," Roque said, marking off the last room in that particular building, and Cougar followed.
It didn't make a difference. With every empty building they entered, Cougar went from adrenaline-fueled to unease, no longer waiting for a bullet but deeply disturbed at the silence and emptiness around them. Roque was, too, he could tell. Roque kept fingering the hilt of one of his many knives, eyes darting restlessly from side to side and never settling on anything.
It took them the entire day to scout the rest of the buildings, and Roque called a halt as the sun began to set. They found their way back to the kitchen, and Roque set down his gun and began looking through the cabinets. Cougar was willing to watch his six, eyes skating back and forth over the empty cafeteria while Roque made them burgers.
After they ate, they took one more look through the buildings closest to them. Cougar was grateful that the facility still had electricity, although there was no way to know how long it would last, whether they were on generators or burning through the last of the electricity created by the turbines. Cougar turned off all the lights in the room they passed, just to be safe. Roque gave him a look but didn't comment, and Cougar was fine with that.
It was growing late by the time they finally made it to the barracks, and Cougar looked at his watch only to find it blank. It occurred to him that he hadn't paid attention to the clocks before, going strictly by the position of the sun as they walked through each building, but he noticed it now. His digital watch was blank, like the battery had died, and as a precaution, he looked at the clocks in the next rooms that they passed, finding that the analog clocks had lost their numbers as well.
Cougar tapped Roque's shoulder and jerked his head at the clock as they passed it, and Roque nodded. "Yeah, I know. I could really go for one of Jensen's explanations right now, right?"
"I'll take first watch." Roque sat on a foot locker close to the door. Cougar took the bed directly behind Roque and laid down, adjusting his hat over his face. He slept deeply, with the immediacy of someone used to stealing rest whenever they could find it.
Cougar woke up a few hours later, and Roque was still in place. He didn't budge when Cougar sat up and rubbed his eyes clear of sleep. They switched positions without a word, and Cougar smiled as he heard the sound of Roque's knife sliding beneath his pillow.
His watch was slow, everything silent and still around them. There were some distant sounds — the air conditioner whirring in the vents, birds outside the window — but other than that, there was nothing. Silence. Emptiness. No movement.
Cougar woke Roque when the sun caught in the windows. They found a couple of new toothbrushes and toothpaste in the locker supplies, and then Cougar made them eggs and toast for breakfast. The electricity was still holding out, but they couldn't be sure how long it would last.
"We need to get off the island." Roque gestured with his fork. "Find people, see if anyone's seen anything, see if we can track down the rest of our team. Maybe see if that little girl knows anything." Roque's expression darkened as he stabbed his food, his voice lowering as though he had forgotten Cougar was there for a moment. "Hell, Aisha's probably behind this. I keep telling Clay he's going to be over his head someday."
Cougar considered that carefully, thought of the way that everyone on the island seemed to have vanished. He doubted for a moment that Aisha would know anything more. Clay trusted her enough to follow her leads, and that was good enough for Cougar — but he gave a short nod of agreement anyway.
"Great." Roque took a deep breath and gathered their plates, like there was someone who was going to care if they left their dishes in the middle of an empty cafeteria. Cougar arched an eyebrow at Roque's back until Roque turned around and saw his expression, giving Cougar a level stare. Cougar shrugged and pulled his rifle over his shoulder, following Roque out of the cafeteria.
They did one more circuit of the island, just to make sure they didn't miss anyone during their search, and found a boathouse on the west side of the island. Roque looked at Cougar. Cougar shrugged, and that was how he found himself steering a white, medium-sized boat toward the thin line of mainland he could see on the horizon.
It wasn't just the island.
When they reached shallower waters, they found no boats out, no people playing or fishing, and as they got closer to the mainland, it became clearer that no one was there. The unnatural silence was starting to prickle between Cougar's shoulders. It made everything feel wrong, slightly off center, too large and empty.
Roque stared at the marina for several minutes before he rolled his shoulders and pulled himself up onto the pier. He reached down, gave Cougar a hand up, and then turned to look at the marina again, at the boats moored nicely out of the way, the lack of movement of anything besides birds and a couple of squirrels running up a tree.
"All right." Roque took a deep breath and jerked his thumb toward a line of buildings along the waterfront. "I'll check the boathouses, see if there's anyone in there. You check the main lounge, see if there's anything there that might give us a hint."
Cougar nodded and started forward up the paved roadway that led to the lounge. Each door Cougar tried was locked, and after he did a circuit of the building, he carefully broke the window of the entrance, reached in to unlock the door, and let himself in. The electricity was still going, lights left burning in several rooms that Cougar passed. There was a radio playing, and for a moment, Cougar's heart jumped. Radio meant that perhaps someone was still out there — either that, or it was one of the stations that ran on a preset number of hits, in which case meant it would fall into static after a couple of days. Cougar dared to turn on a couple of the televisions, but it was static, except for a few stations that, once again, ran on autopilot.
The silence made every creak, every rustle stand out, and Cougar checked all of them to be completely thorough. He didn't find anything, though, so he left and headed back down the road to meet up with Roque.
Roque ran a hand over his head, a nervous gesture that Cougar hadn't seen very often, and he said, "I didn't find anything. I tried some of the radios on the boats, too, but no one answered. Did you find anything?"
Cougar shook his head, and Roque took another long breath. "Okay. Clocks aren't working, there's no one here, and nothing looks like it was moved or disturbed in any way." Roque crossed his arms. "There was a machine in the room we woke up in, right?"
"Maybe it has something to do with that, then," Roque suggested.
"Ah, hell." Roque scratched his chin and shrugged as well. "I don't know anything about it, so the way I see it is, we have two choices. We can wander around with the hope that we find someone who can explain what the hell happened, or we can hole up and maybe the team will find us on their own." Roque fell silent for a moment. "I'm thinking we should make a base camp in one of these houses and go from there."
Cougar thought about it for a moment, trying to decide if he would do something different, but he supposed it didn't matter. Roque was his commanding officer, and more importantly, his friend. They had to look out for each other. Cougar nodded his agreement, tilting his hat, and it made Roque relax a little.
"Okay." Roque pointed up the road, where the lounge was, where the rest of the city opened up, and they started walking again. "Assuming that the electricity isn't going to last forever, the food in the refrigerators isn't going to last long either. I'm thinking we need to find a place with a generator, maybe see if there's gas still in the pumps. We could stockpile it, make sure we have enough supplies to wait this out until the rest of the team finds us."
They walked up to the lounge, and Cougar scouted the cars in the parking lot. He decided on an unlocked BMW and tried to remember what Pooch used to say about hiding places for spare keys. He looked under the seat, at the visors, and found the extra key at the back of the glove compartment. He sent up a silent thank you to Pooch, wherever he was right now, and started the car. Roque flashed him a quick smile and slid into the passenger seat.
"I left a message, just in case the rest of our team pops up."
Cougar smiled and gave a nod before he pulled out of the parking lot. They stopped by a gas station, broke in for a couple of gas containers, and filled the tank and the containers, stashing the extra gasoline in the trunk.
Driving was simpler than Cougar expected. There were no cars blocking any roadways, no traffic to worry about — it was as if no one had been driving, or at the very least, they had the decency to pull over and park before disappearing. The sign at the edge of town told him they had just been in Eastport, Maine, but fortunately, the tide was low now and they could use the causeway to move forward. The drive itself was silent, with Cougar concentrating on the road in front of him and Roque peering out the windows for any signs of life.
They stopped at a supermarket for hot dogs and chips, packed a few first aid kits just in case, and packed a cooler full of ice, stocking it with some sandwiches and a few drinks for the next day. Cougar checked the daily papers while Roque stocked up on ammunition, but they didn't have any information about what might have happened. This close to the island military installation, though, they couldn't be sure if this was a local phenomenon that occurred because of Max, or something else entirely. They returned to the road, and each empty city and town they passed made Cougar's stomach sink lower. If he were to estimate, the towns they had passed would have contained a combined hundred thousand people, at least, and just the sheer scope of the disappearances made Cougar want to cross Max off the list. He decided not to say anything to Roque and kept driving until it was dark. They pulled off the road for the night and Roque built a small fire. They roasted the hot dogs, ate, and then Cougar took first watch.
He perched on top of the hood of the car, alert as always, but there was no movement, no sounds except for a few birds. Cougar wondered where the team was, where everyone was. He would follow Roque's lead for as long as he needed to, as long as it was necessary, but he couldn't help but be curious. Would there be an order of command if the Army no longer existed? In the next couple of days the food they kept living off from refrigerators would go bad, so they would have to decide on a more permanent solution if their isolation lasted longer than a week or two. He wasn't sure if they should leave the east coast or not, and the possibilities made him a little dizzy if he thought about it for too long.
He woke Roque up at what he approximated was midnight, and Roque gave him a nod of acknowledgement. Cougar laid down in the back seat of the BMW, but it was so quiet that he couldn't quite bring himself to sleep. Still no sound. No humanity. It was bizarre, and Cougar resented the fact that it could unnerve him like this so easily. They had spent time in jungles, far away from civilization, but somehow, it had been entirely different.
He resolutely kept his eyes shut and fell asleep to the lulling sound of Roque sharpening a knife against one of the whetstones he'd taken from the store.
The days started to blur together, long periods of wakefulness with no time or date. The electricity died when they hit New York, but it barely affected their schedule. When they weren't on long, intensive searches for survivors, they weren't staying in city limits any longer than it took to stock up on non-perishable items and take showers.
"I'm thinking," Roque said absently one evening as he was making dinner, "we should make ourselves a base of operations once we go far enough south. It looks like whatever happened wasn't limited to that island or even just Maine."
I'm tired of running, was what Cougar heard, and that was fine with him. He knew Roque wanted to get his life back, put down roots again, and Cougar wasn't surprised that hadn't changed. What surprised Cougar was how good that sounded to him — choosing a place to call home and sticking to it. He caught Roque's eye and gave a short nod, rewarded when Roque gave him an almost suspicious look.
Cougar shrugged and smiled at Roque's obvious delight. They ate, and instead of going back to sleep in the car, Cougar flopped down, the grass soft and a breeze cooling the spring-warm air. Roque dropped down next to him, and Cougar pulled his hat over his face, crossed his arms behind his head, and went to sleep.
It was daylight before he woke. He looked around for Roque, eyes squinting against the light. Roque was curled on his side, back to Cougar, and by all appearances, deeply asleep. It occurred to him then that they had both slept through the night. There was no one to watch for anymore.
They continued their slow trek southward, pausing in each town they reached to see if there was anyone around before moving on. They never found anyone, and the guilt that Cougar felt after each small robbery for supplies started to fade. He suspected that they were the only ones left from the team, and the idea hurt, leaving an ache in his chest when he tried to imagine a world where he would never see Clay or Jensen or Pooch again.
Roque still left signs indicating their direction, just in case, and Cougar remembered how close Roque had been with Clay, unable to bring himself to talk to Roque about the possibility that they were never going to find the others. It was looking more and more like they were the only ones left entirely.
They reached North Carolina before Roque cleared his throat to gain Cougar's attention. "We should start looking for a place to set up a base. The water's probably all shot to hell unless we take it bottled from the market. We should look for a place that has a well or something."
Cougar nodded and looked out the window again. They were staying off the highway. It was easier to search for other people when they were wandering from town to town on the smaller roads.
They had just finished searching Dunham when Roque spoke again, his voice quiet. "We aren't going to find anyone else, man."
Cougar opened his mouth, unsure what to say. Instead, he reached over and squeezed Roque's shoulder. It didn't have the calming effect Cougar had been hoping for. Roque went tense and stiff beneath Cougar's hand, his fingers tight around the steering wheel. There was a muscle jumping in Roque's jaw, and Cougar drew his hand away, throat suddenly dry. It had been at least a week since either of them had touched anyone — for Roque, it had probably been longer. Cougar felt the urge to apologize for touching Roque without permission, even though they were friends and it wasn't that big a deal, but instead he looked out the window again, rubbing his fingertips together as if he would be able to remember the way his skin had buzzed from the contact.
They fell silent again as they drove, and the view out the window went from city and suburb to greenery. Roque started to slow down as they began to see farms, and Cougar made a motion to the sign at the city limit: Smithfield.
"This could work." Roque was mostly talking to himself, but Cougar appreciated being kept in the loop of Roque's thoughts.
They stopped at the edge of town, as had become their pattern, and Cougar grabbed his guns as Roque slid a couple of knives into their sheaths. They walked down the road, back to back and on high alert, just as they did in every new city, and Cougar paused in front of a realtor to break the window and get them a couple of maps. They stopped there and reviewed the layout of the city. The northern part of the town was divided into a neat grid by South Brightleaf and West Market, and Roque gave a nod, jabbing his finger at the map.
"Okay. We'll start at North 3rd and look for a secure base. Once we've got a temporary base, we'll expand our search."
Cougar nodded, and they resumed their positions, Roque going to the west and checking the first line of houses he came to. Cougar followed after him, and once they were sure the house was empty, Cougar went east, focused on his own row of small houses. The garage of the first house was open, so he broke the small lock to the inner door and moved inside, walking quickly from room to room before he circled around and went outside again, Roque a steady familiar presence at his side.
It was growing tiresome, moving in and out of each abandoned house, forcing him to stay sharp when he and Roque were the only moving things as far down the street as he could see. There were no pets scrabbling to get out of the empty houses, either, and Cougar wondered at that, what it would take to remove everyone and their pets, but still leave animals roaming and refrigerators working.
Roque marked a couple of houses on the map that would be suitable for their needs, and once they'd covered a radius of four blocks, they returned to a house that was small and easily defensible. Roque relaxed just enough to rummage through the house, finding bottled water and several cans. There was a small fireplace, so Cougar looked around and found a tinder box, making a fire so they could cook. Roque found a flashlight in one of the drawers and set it aside for later, once the sun had set.
Roque talked himself through the process of preparing dinner, his voice a soft undertone that Cougar wasn't sure he was even supposed to hear, and Cougar stood and went to the window, peering out and trying to give Roque some semblance of privacy. After they ate, Cougar found a deck of cards in one of the drawers. They played double solitaire until it was too dark to play.
They set up a watch again, since they had been able to cover such a small section of the city, and another empty day passed.
In what Cougar approximated was three weeks, they finished surveying the city. There was a small farm on the eastern outskirts of the city, and they relocated. The farm had its own generator, and they siphoned gasoline from a station to fill it.
That night, they had electricity, and more importantly, hot water.
There were cows grazing in the fields, and Cougar wondered if their routine had been disturbed in the slightest with their owners gone. Roque roped two cows and brought them to the farm they were staying at. The first night they successfully milked the cows, they both got sick off the milk. It made Roque more surly than usual, and Cougar retreated to his stolen bed, feeling miserable and lonely.
Cougar slept late but found Roque sitting at the kitchen table, still sharpening his knives like they could grow any sharper.
"I saw a Lowe's when were were scouting," Roque said once he acknowledged Cougar was there, his eyes still on his whetstone. "We should go there and see if they have any solar paneling. I checked out the wiring this morning, and it should be simple to convert it." Roque flashed a smile at Cougar. "It would make me feel better if we didn't have to rely on the generator all the time."
Cougar ran his hand through his hair and readjusted his hat, thinking about it for a moment before nodding. They left after breakfast and drove through the empty city until they found the hardware store. Roque shattered one of the doors, and it was bizarrely loud in the silence. To Cougar's surprise, they actually did find solar paneling, as well as some books on how to convert from a traditional set-up.
When they pulled into the driveway of their new base — new home, Cougar supplied silently — he was distracted by a rustling in the bushes, something white near the edge of the bush line. He motioned to Roque, who immediately cut the engine and peered out the window. Cougar slowly opened the door and eased out, creeping over to the bush. There was a squawk, and a chicken ran out, wings flapping. Cougar was surprised, but his reflexes were still quick, and he grabbed the chicken with both hands, clapping a hand over its beak so it wouldn't peck him.
"You found yourself a chicken!" Roque laughed, and Cougar shot him a narrow look.
Roque raised his hands in surrender and got out of the car. There was some wood in the barn, and he used that and some tools to make a small chicken coop. Cougar hadn't seen any chickens in most of the other farms they had visited in the city, but he supposed that most of the hens would have gotten free whenever possible. Once they put the first chicken in their makeshift chicken coop, they hunted through the shrubbery for more. They found two more after a half an hour of searching and put them in with the first.
The chickens were loud, and it grated on Cougar's nerves after all the silence, but Roque said, "We should keep them close in case a coyote shows up. Do they have coyotes here?"
Cougar answered with a look of amusement, and Roque flipped him off.
"Smartass. Just wait. If the chickens get free, I'm going to make you go after them yourself and laugh at your stupid ass."
Cougar smirked and went to the back of the car to help unload the solar panels. They stacked them against the side of the house and then Roque took a book and began to read. Cougar tapped his shoulder and jabbed his thumb in the direction of the door, and Roque gave a nod.
"It's your turn to make dinner."
Cougar tipped his hat and went outside, thinking about getting food for the chickens and maybe surprising Roque with some berries, but those thoughts were hovering at the back of his mind, lost behind the simple pleasure of walking in a field on a warm afternoon. He had been walking for nearly twenty minutes when he found a copse of apple trees and climbed one to grab an apple. It was nearly perfect, warm from the sun and ripe, and he grabbed a few more, setting them on the ground to gather them more easily later.
He sat on the ground and leaned against the tree, staring back toward the house. It was pretty, picturesque, and for the first time, Cougar thought that he could get used to this. He finished his apple and tossed the core behind him, settling against the tree and drawing his hat over his eyes, soaking in the warmth of the sun.
Cougar woke up feeling too warm, his face sweaty beneath his hat, sweat soaked into his shirt. The sun was setting, which meant that Cougar had spent more time outside than he'd anticipated. He stood and brushed down his jeans, gathering his scattered apples before he started heading up the road to the farm house. It was growing dark when he got there, but Roque hadn't started the generator, and the house was empty and quiet. Cougar let himself in and turned on the lights, frowning. He knew it was his turn to cook dinner, but the silence began to unnerve him again. His heart began to pound as he paused, listening intently.
The house was silent, and Cougar felt a shiver of nervousness curl into his stomach that he refused to acknowledge. He went into the backyard and started the generator, filling the half empty tank with some of their gasoline reserves. He checked the chicken coop, and everything was in order there. He fed the hens with some Cheerios that he'd found in the cupboard, unopened, and they seemed to like it. Afterward, he went back inside to start dinner, taking deep breaths to keep himself calm. He had just put a couple of cans down on the counter when the door swung open. Cougar snatched a knife from the knife block, spinning towards the loud slam of the door against the wall. It was Roque, sweaty and panting and a little wild eyed. When he saw Cougar, the tension that Cougar could see in the line of his shoulders and shaking fists seemed to relax.
"Cougar." Roque took a breath and closed his eyes. "You're here. I thought—"
Cougar blinked and set the knife down on the counter, a rush of guilt making him feel sick. Cougar had been gone longer than he'd intended, and Roque must have thought Cougar had vanished like everyone else. Cougar took a step forward, reaching out until he could touch, and he squeezed Roque's arm, tight and reassuring and indisputably there.
"Lo siento." Cougar's voice was husky and soft from disuse, and when Roque's eyes snapped to his at the sound, Cougar realized that they had been in this empty world for several months at this point, and Cougar had never said a word. Roque's arm was shaking beneath Cougar's grip, and Cougar rubbed his thumb reassuringly over Roque's forearm, the touch leaving his throat dry as they stared at each other.
"Say that again." Roque seemed surprised at his own request, his throat bobbing as he swallowed.
Cougar took a step closer, his pulse thrumming, and he knew immediately what was about to happen, growing light-headed at the possibility in front of him. He hesitated for a moment before he raised his other hand to cup the back of Roque's neck. It was sweaty and made Cougar's palm damp. "Lo siento."
Roque made a pained sound — Cougar doubted Roque even knew he made it — and pulled Cougar to him, lowering his head. He froze for a second, a minute, hovering less than an inch away from Cougar's mouth, shaking from the effort of holding himself back, and it was Cougar who made the next move, tightening his hand on the back of Roque's neck and dragging him in for a hard kiss. Cougar whispered his apology again, the sound lost between their mouths, and Roque twitched like the words hurt, like he'd just been hit, and Cougar slid the hand that had been on Roque's arm up until he could cradle Roque's face between both hands and take the kiss Roque seemed so reluctant to give.
Roque's arms curled tight around Cougar's waist, jerking them together in a hard movement that dragged a gasp from Cougar's throat, and Cougar wrapped his arms around Roque's neck as he licked his way into Roque's mouth, slick and hungry. Cougar cataloged the differences immediately. Roque was taller than any of the women Cougar had been with, more solid and hard and demanding than he had expected, and he found himself shaking as he curled his tongue with Roque's, silently coaxing Roque to give him more with every touch. It wasn't a battle for dominance, as he'd sometimes imagined it would be. It felt more like a testing of boundaries, new and slow, the dawning realization that this was more than he had expected it to be.
Cougar was trembling, his fingers burning everywhere they touched — over Roque's hair, his ears, his throat, the hard jut of his jaw. He kissed Roque fiercely, his head buzzing as he nipped and sucked at Roque's mouth, and Cougar had this terrifying vision of Roque pulling away. He clutched Roque tighter, panting against his mouth. He felt dizzy from the contact, desperate after months where he hadn't felt skin at all, and he had a sudden, irrational terror that if he let go now, Roque would stop and leave him cold.
One of Roque's hands followed the line of Cougar's spine until his fingers curled tight into Cougar's hair, and Cougar could feel his hat fall with the movement, but it was less important than the urge to dig his fingers into Roque's back, than Roque's tongue in his mouth. Cougar felt an unexpected curl of desperate arousal, and he ripped at Roque's shirt, wanting skin, wanting the heat and the sweat he could feel rising from Roque in waves. Roque groaned and lifted Cougar up, curling an arm beneath Cougar's ass and walking them back until he hit the dining room table.
Roque was only a little more careful than Cougar had been, shaking fingers unfastening two buttons before his hand jerked, ripping the next. Cougar scrambled for the edge of his shirt, breaking the kiss just long enough to pull it over his head. Roque lowered his head, his tongue a hot, wet line against Cougar's stomach, and Cougar hissed in a breath, his legs curling around Roque's hips as his hands mapped every curve of Roque's ribs, the raised lines of his scars, muscles tensing beneath his skin. Cougar shuddered and arched against Roque, dragging his fingers over Roque's scalp and mouthing at Roque's throat. Cougar couldn't help but catalogue everything in the back of his mind, how Roque got this scar from a knife in his back, how Cougar knew the stories behind these marks because he had been there, even if Clay had been the one to patch Roque up. He felt overwhelmed, dizzy with memory. There were so many things flying about in Cougar's thoughts, telling him that this was wrong, against regulation, maybe even a betrayal — but he ignored the sense of guilt, the way he was trespassing and shoved it all away, focused on the way Roque's shoulder felt beneath his tongue, the smell of sweat building between them.
Roque groaned and turned his head for a wet, hungry kiss, hands fumbling at Cougar's belt and squeezing Cougar through his jeans. They fumbled for a moment, kicking off boots and tugging at their jeans just far enough for Cougar to get his hand around both of them and squeeze. He curled his free hand around Roque's shaking shoulders, and Roque lowered his head, hiding his face against the curve of Cougar's throat, panting as he rocked his hips into Cougar's grip, his hands tight on Cougar's back.
Cougar pulled his hand away, spat, and curled his fingers around them both again, eyes squeezing shut against the sensation, his stomach knotted with desire as he and Roque rutted against each other. Roque came first, breathing a small, startled sound, and Cougar could feel the jerk of Roque's cock, come splattering his hand. He opened his eyes and pulled Roque into another kiss that was all desperation, working himself until his own climax hit.
They panted for breath, leaning against each other, and Roque cleared his throat, turning away to get a towel. Cougar yanked him back, hand tight around Roque's arm, and it was only through a sheer feat of will that Cougar was able to let go, still craving the touch of skin on skin. Roque gave Cougar a look, and then went to find a towel in the bathroom. He cleaned them both up without a word, tucked Cougar back into his jeans, and then picked Cougar's hat off the floor, placing it on his head.
"We should get dinner ready."
Cougar smiled, extending a leg to nudge at Roque's hip, and tilted his hat in agreement.
They lingered over dinner, Roque opening and closing his mouth as though he wanted to say something but couldn't bring himself to force out the words. Cougar gathered up the dishes and set them in the sink, the back of his neck prickling from the sudden tension.
"Roque?" Cougar's voice was soft as he turned around, but Roque simply shook his head and went to his room, closing the door behind him.
Cougar couldn't imagine this being easy for Roque — hell, it was difficult for Cougar to think about, and he was used to touching — but he didn't know if he should push the issue and speak with Roque about what had happened between them or if he should just leave it unsaid. Now that it had happened, though, Cougar felt like he was crackling with energy, his skin hypersensitive to every change of pressure in the air, to Roque just one door away. Cougar decided to leave Roque alone for now and finished the dishes before retreating into his own room.
Once there, the door safely locked, Cougar took a breath and went to take a shower to try and calm himself down. Instead, the water only reminded him of some of the beautiful women he'd been with before they had come back to the U.S. to hunt down Max, the invitations he could coax out of them with a look and a tip of his hat. He closed his eyes and licked his lips, his thoughts briefly flickering to Roque as he slid his hand down his stomach. Cougar thought of the women he'd known, their names and the curves of their bodies, their sweet laughs and eager moans, and he rested his head against the wall, the shower pouring water over him as he worked his fingers over his erection. He held his breath and tried his best to make it fast. After his climax, he remained standing there, the water pounding into his back free from the tension that had been gathering in his shoulders.
When he got out of the shower, the house was quiet. He knew Roque was still awake, because Roque was the type to brood, even over something he couldn't change, and Cougar resolved to apologize over breakfast the next morning. They both needed time to process what had happened between them, and if Roque never wanted Cougar to touch him, Cougar would respect that. They were teammates and friends, first and foremost.
Cougar made eggs for breakfast, vaguely wishing for bread because he craved toast, of all things. He was setting the plates on the table when Roque came out of his room, skin damp from a shower.
"I was thinking," Roque began. His voice startled Cougar, who had been working his way up to apologizing for the night before. "I could use your help figuring out how to set up the solar panels."
Cougar looked at Roque for a moment and then cleared the table, washing the dishes as he weighed the situation. It was obvious now that Roque didn't even want to talk about what had happened last night, and Cougar didn't want to force it. If Roque wanted to talk about it later, well — it wasn't as though Cougar was going to go anywhere.
After he finished the dishes, Cougar turned to Roque, still seated at the table, and nodded as he dried his hands. Roque didn't wait for Cougar to say anything else before he turned to the door. Cougar helped Roque carry out the solar panels, and they were lucky to find a ladder in the garage.
"Hold this steady for me." Cougar hid a smirk and held the ladder steady. Roque climbed onto the roof and started making some noise. After a minute of waiting to see if Roque would give any further instructions, Cougar climbed the ladder himself, slow and careful.
"How can I help?" The sound of Cougar's voice made Roque jump, and Cougar caught the hammer that Roque dropped before it slid off the roof.
Roque shot an annoyed look in Cougar's direction. "These things are supposed to be bolted to the rafters. I thought they'd be easier to find."
They ended up having to pull the shingles of the roof off in an attempt to find the rafters, and Cougar found himself darting quick looks over at Roque as though he were waiting for something. Roque remained quiet, though, and Cougar wished desperately that he could read Roque better, wished he knew what Roque was thinking.
Cougar took a deep breath as he began to bolt the panels to the rafters of the house and began talking, the words hesitant and slow, about the weather, the generator, how he was going to build a coop for his chickens, whatever he could manage to force out of his throat. Roque stared at him the entire time, until Cougar felt too uncomfortable to continue and trailed off.
He climbed back down to the ground to get some space, charged with the task of putting in the inverter, and Roque called down for Cougar to flip the switch, see if it took some of the stress off of the generator. Instead, the house went black. Roque cursed — Cougar double-checked the inverter while Roque took another look at the solar panel wiring before Cougar tried again. This time it worked, and Cougar pumped a fist to the sky while Roque whooped in satisfaction. They had a celebratory beer, and then went right back outside.
Cougar found some wire in the garage and started building a genuine chicken coop, recycling pieces from the cage they already had. He continued working even when Roque popped up behind him to watch him test the steadiness of the new coop.
"I was thinking," Roque said, long after Cougar expected him to say anything, "that we should probably let the chickens—"
"Rosa." Cougar pointed to a chicken with a brown tuft of feathers on the top of her head. "Carlita. Anita."
Roque laughed, the sound booming in the quiet around them. "You named them? Right. Okay. Anyway, we should make them a henhouse, maybe see if we can track down a rooster at one of the other farms. What do you think?"
Roque quirked a smile. "It would be easier to breed them than it would be to catch new ones, right?"
Cougar grinned and gave another nod, standing and clapping Roque on the shoulder. He felt a ripple of movement beneath his palm, but then Roque took a deep breath, looking at the work they had done. "This isn't bad at all."
"No." Cougar shook his head and let his hand slide from Roque's shoulder. They stood there and grinned at each other for a moment, and then Cougar could feel the coil of tension growing between them, their faces slowly becoming more somber. Making plans like this — solar panels, chickens, cows — they were the framework to something larger, an acceptance that they could only rely on each other.
Cougar missed the rest of his team. They would have broken through the quiet. "Tomorrow."
Roque nodded and cleared his throat, stepping away from Cougar. Cougar let his hand drop. "I'm going to take care of the cows."
Cougar gave Roque a look and grinned, shaking his head before he headed toward the cows' pasture.
It took a couple of minutes for Roque to fall into step next to Cougar, but when Cougar chanced a glance, Roque seemed a little more relaxed. Roque stuck his hands in his pockets. "This is your way of saying you're coming to help? Couldn't just say 'I'm helping'?"
Cougar gave Roque another fond look. "I'm helping."
Roque grinned, a barely there flash of teeth, and then they fell silent again as they walked to the pasture. Cougar checked the water in the trough as Roque circled around the fenced enclosure, making sure there were no openings for the cows to wander through. The cows hadn't eaten their way through all the grass yet, so they decided to leave them be for the day. As they were leaving, Roque cleared his throat until he got Cougar's attention.
"Fred." Roque pointed to a black and white spotted cow. He pointed at a mostly black one and continued, "Porsche." He looked indecisive as he stared at the last one standing closest to them, blankly chewing the cud. "Clay."
Cougar blinked and stared at Clay the Cow, and he had to turn away, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter.
"If we ever see them again," Roque said, unlocking the gate and stepping through it, "you have my permission to tell Clay that story."
Cougar nodded and followed after him.
There wasn't anything special about the rest of their day. Without televisions, computers, or missions to fill their day, they broke everything into sections. In the mornings, they took care of the animals and searched for any other loose animals they might be able to use, and then in the mid afternoon, they focused on building a vegetable garden. The previous owner had obviously had one, but the plots had died as months passed without any tending, so Cougar decided it would be best to start from scratch.
He and Roque had driven into the city and gathered everything they needed — seeds, books, potting soil, garden tools — and tore up the remains of the dead garden to begin their own. The biggest concern they had was the humid, heavy heat and the near-omnipresent sunlight. Cougar thought they could keep the garden watered with their well if they didn't get enough rain, and once again, he was struck by the surreality that this was his life now. Cows, chickens, gardens, and Roque.
They played cards once the sun went down — Spades and War and anything else they managed to think of — and when that lost its charm, Roque made a lucky find of some jazz. They listened to music for the first time in months, and Cougar sat back in his seat, letting the notes wash over him. It was calming, soothing, and in the back of his mind, Cougar made a note to head into town again to see what other music he could find. Maybe he would get lucky and find some Romero.
Cougar wasn't sure what time it was when they decided to go to bed, but it was obvious in the way that Roque shut the door to his bedroom firmly behind him that what had happened between them was a mistake that wasn't going to happen again. Cougar didn't need words to understand what Roque was saying.
The weeks blurred into one another, just as they had when Cougar and Roque had been on the road. Livestock, garden, cards and music, sleeping alone in opposite rooms.
On one of their forays into the city for some tools that they had forgotten, Cougar found a cookbook with instructions on how to make cheese and butter, and his mouth watered suddenly at the thought of cheddar and swiss. He had to close his eyes and focus on his breathing until he could wrestle the craving back down.
"You okay?" Roque asked, giving Cougar a concerned look. Cougar nodded and showed him the book. "So someday soon we're going to have cheese. Looking forward to it."
Cougar had a moment of possessiveness, wanted to tell Roque make your own damn cheese, but even then, Cougar knew he was being irrational, because cheese. He wondered briefly if he was finally cracking under the strain of an empty world, but then grinned, tipping his hat at Roque in acknowledgement.
Roque watched Cougar for a moment and then shrugged, continuing to move deeper in the store for the rest of their supplies. When they got back home, the rest of Cougar's day was spent trying to figure out exactly how the cheese-making process worked. Roque occasionally dropped into the kitchen to watch Cougar work. Cougar ran into a snag when he read about needing a cheese press, and he consigned that first batch to the trash.
It took a month and a half to get it right, but Cougar couldn't help his glow of pride when he unveiled his first cheddar wheel and it actually tasted right. Roque watched him carefully eat a piece of the cheese and then took the slice that Cougar offered him. Roque rolled it between his fingers for a moment, stared at it, and then took a bite. Cougar didn't realize he was holding his breath until Roque smiled.
"Not bad at all, Cougs. Good job."
Cougar shrugged and then proceeded to mix the cheese with the chili they were having for dinner. Sometimes, Cougar had to admit that he was pretty damn awesome.
Cougar woke with an unnerving suddenness, unsure for a moment of where he was. Awareness snapped in a moment later, and he felt rattled that he'd forgotten in the first place. He showered and got dressed, the routine calming him down a little. There were cheese omelets for breakfast and some coffee, and it seemed like it should be a perfectly normal morning, but Cougar couldn't sit still.
"Is everything okay?" Roque asked, his forehead creasing in a frown as he watched Cougar play with his fork, turning it over his knuckles.
Cougar nodded and put the fork down. He tipped his hat and strode out of the kitchen, trying to run out his nervous energy by chasing the cows to the barn to be milked, checking the hens for fresh eggs, and walking through the garden to check for any signs of bugs or wilt on the vegetables.
Roque kept his distance, and Cougar was grateful for the peace. He felt itchy beneath his skin, stretched too tight. He pulled his hat low over his forehead and stalked into the house.
"Cougar, chill." Roque crossed his arms over his chest, standing in the doorway to the kitchen and watching Cougar pace around in circles. Cougar took several deep breaths to try and calm himself down, but it felt like it was only minimally working. "Look." Roque's voice was firm enough that it attracted Cougar's attention, and he focused on it, stilling just enough to give Roque his full attention. "It's only us here, Cougs. If you lose it, that's it."
It was on the tip of Cougar's tongue to apologize again, maybe to vanish for a little while again and check to see if any of their signs were disturbed, and Cougar nodded. He rubbed a hand over his face and readjusted his hat, heading out the door he had just come in.
Roque didn't follow him, and it allowed Cougar to breathe a little easier. The garden had already been tended to, so Cougar took a long walk instead, trying to shake out his nerves. He decided a mile out that some of the fencing needed to be mended, and spent a couple of hours digging out old wooden posts and replacing them. When he was finished, Cougar wiped his forehead and looked at the sun. It looked like it was only a little after noon, and his stomach was starting to protest. Sure enough, Roque had made lunch.
Cougar gave Roque a brief nod of acknowledgement and went in for a shower. When he came back out, Roque set a bowl of soup on the table. "You okay?" Roque squeezed Cougar's shoulder as Cougar sat down, and Cougar tensed, fighting his instinctive urge to turn into the touch. Cougar's tension seemed to vibrate into Roque, who went still, his hand heavy on Cougar's shoulder. Cougar picked up the spoon, tightening his fingers around it.
"Yes," Cougar managed to say, eyes focused on his lunch. "We're good." Roque's hand remained on Cougar's shoulder, and it felt like it grew heavier with every second that passed. Roque squeezed Cougar's shoulder once more before lifting his hand. Roque settled across from Cougar to eat. It left Cougar feeling uneasy, and he ate as fast as he could before hiding out in his room.
It slowly grew darker, and eventually Cougar turned on lamp so he could continue to stare down at the book he hadn't been reading. There was a soft knock at the door, and Cougar tossed his book aside, opening the door and leaning in the entrance as he looked up at Roque.
"Cards?" Roque shook the deck hopefully, and Cougar nodded. Roque grinned, the open pleasure on his face almost peculiar, and Cougar found himself swaying forward. Cougar stopped himself from leaning in at the last moment, choosing instead to slide past Roque and head toward the table, but Cougar could feel the weight of Roque's eyes between his shoulders.
Cougar couldn't bring himself to pay attention to their game, though, carefully cataloging every time their fingers touched, every quirk of Roque's mouth and eyes instead of his cards. Roque was looking at him like he was a puzzle. Cougar didn't want to be solved, and after their last hand, he pushed back from the table, the chair legs scraping against the floor.
Roque stood when Cougar did, and it made Cougar feel unaccountably nervous, as if he were about to go into a warzone with no sit rep. Everything in him urged retreat. Cougar shook his head, hoping that would be enough for Roque to accept, but instead, Roque's face went calm, like he had suddenly understood something Cougar couldn't.
"Cougar." Roque paused. "Carlos. Come here."
Surprised that Roque had used his name, Cougar took the few, small steps between them. The air between them suddenly felt still and heavy, and Cougar's heart pounded in his ears as Roque reached up and removed his hat. Then, as though it were something easy, as though they hadn't both agonized over it, Roque slid his fingers against Cougar's jaw and tilted his head up, the kiss firm and chaste.
Cougar shuddered, fingers fastening like manacles on Roque's wrists. His heart pounded a rhythm against his chest, his pulse a roar in his ears, and somehow Roque's arm was around Cougar's waist, pulling them flush together. Cougar gasped against Roque's mouth and pressed against him, feeling the damp of Roque's shirt from sweat, his skin warmed from the sun, and Cougar had to touch him, had to slide his hands beneath Roque's shirt and feel the muscles move as Roque's inhaled, the smooth line of scars like a surprise to his over-sensitive fingers. He almost didn't kiss Roque back, overwhelmed by the rise and fall of Roque's chest, the quickening breath, the pound of Roque's heart in his chest. Cougar fought down the urge to claw at Roque, to raise welts against Roque's skin and know he was affecting Roque somehow, leaving signs that he was there, that he was more. Instead, he nuzzled at Roque's throat until he could fasten his teeth against Roque's pulse, where he could feel the rush of blood beating beneath his tongue.
Roque walked them back, every step slow and measured, and Cougar let him lead, too focused on trying to touch Roque to care where they ended up. Cougar tugged Roque's shirt up, following the curves of Roque's ribs, and Roque paused their kiss long enough to tug his shirt over his head, reclaiming Cougar's mouth in a harder, wet kiss. Cougar made a hungry sound deep in his throat and lost his balance when he hit the edge of the mattress. Cougar broke the kiss long enough to fumble his way onto the bed and the quick glance of the room he stole made him lose his breath. His heart thudded in his chest, a slow, painful drum of surprise and a strange sort of humility as he looked up at Roque. There was something solid, something precious about being with Roque in his room, on his bed, and Cougar's hands were shaking when he reached up to pull Roque into another kiss.
Roque's eyes were dark, but his hands were sure when he reached down and tugged Cougar's boots off, and Cougar's throat went dry as Roque cupped his hands around Cougar's knees and pushed them apart, kneeling in front of Cougar. Cougar might have said something, a plea or a statement of sheer disbelief, because Roque looked up at Cougar and flashed another one of his quick grins.
Cougar couldn't remember a time when he'd seen Roque smile that much. As soon as he thought it, Cougar knew exactly when Roque had become tense and withdrawn, and he jerked his thoughts away from it, reaching out to stroke Roque's cheek again, both a plea and a question.
It was one that Roque didn't want to answer. Cougar watched as Roque lowered his head, and the gentle swipe of his tongue didn't feel real at first. He stared down at the top of Roque's head as if that would make a difference, as if Roque would stop and give him answers, but there were no words, only the wet, sloppy sounds of Roque's mouth on his cock. Cougar reached out, hand shaking when he stroked a hand over Roque's head, moving to trace the edge of Roque's ear and the line of his jaw. Cougar's breath was coming quick, and he gathered his thoughts together, wanted to ask why now? but then Roque would lick him, his hand squeezing Cougar's balls, and the words would flutter away again, leaving him silent when he opened his mouth.
His climax, when it came, almost hurt, and it made Cougar squeeze his eyes shut, teeth sunk deep into his bottom lip as he dug his fingers into Roque's shoulders. Roque sucked Cougar just long enough that Cougar's toes started to curl from sensitivity, and then Roque pulled away, leaving Cougar lying limp and winded against the bedspread.
The water ran for a minute, and then Roque was back, kneeling carefully in front of Cougar again. "You okay?"
Cougar opened his mouth without realizing he had nothing to say and then closed it again. He had never been particularly clever, even when he spoke more than he did now, so he abandoned words, choosing instead to lean forward and capture Roque's face between his hands. He kissed Roque hungrily, fingers curling into Roque's hair as he ravaged Roque's mouth, kissing Roque like he'd die if he had to do anything else. Roque made a sound, a short, choked off noise, and that was enough of an answer for Cougar.
He tugged Roque up, half dragging, half pulling, until they were on the bed together, kissing Roque over and over. His hands shook a little as he stroked Roque's chest, taking the time now to learn Roque's body in a way he hadn't permitted himself before. He ran his tongue down the line of Roque's neck, bit at Roque's shoulder, always moving slow, unsure how much Roque would allow. It felt insane and luxurious that Cougar could spend so much time learning a person, and he couldn't help but wait anxiously for the moment when Roque said no, said it was too much and backed away again. Cougar didn't think he could take the rejection.
Cougar looked at Roque again when he moved to unzip Roque's pants, and Cougar could feel his heart pound from how much he wanted Roque's cock in his hand, how he wanted to learn every response, every trigger, every sound. He gave his hand a quick lick and tugged Roque's cock out of the opening in his fly, his breath catching at the heat, the way Roque's eyes bore into him. There was something heady about watching Roque — unlike Cougar, who had a tendency to reach out, who wanted his partners as close as possible, Roque seemed to be the opposite. He grabbed the sheets instead of Cougar's shoulders, breathed soft grunts instead of moans, and Cougar leaned down again to press another kiss to Roque's mouth.
Cougar kept the pace of his hand as slow and sweet as their kiss. He could feel the tension start to build in Roque as he came closer to his orgasm, muscles going tense, breath light and shallow against Cougar's mouth. Cougar pulled back to watch, swept the thumb of his free hand against the curve of Roque's bottom lip, wet and swollen from Cougar's kisses.
Cougar wasn't quite ready for it to end, not when he didn't know what Roque's reaction would be after it was all done, so he teased, rubbing the slit of Roque's cock with his fingertips, the lightest of touches. He skimmed his hand over the length of it, memorized each bump and curve of Roque's erection as though that moment would be the last he'd ever have. Roque's eyes were dark on him when he chanced a glance up, and he quirked a smile, arched an eyebrow in a question. Roque laughed and shook his head, reaching out to curl his fingers into Cougar's hair. Cougar pushed into it, his eyes fluttering closed for just a moment before he refocused his attention on Roque again.
Roque squeezed his eyes shut when he came, and Cougar couldn't help but wonder if he was thinking about someone else. He couldn't begrudge Roque his fantasies, though, wouldn't dare ask, so instead he feathered kisses against Roque's jaw and shoulder, gently squeezing Roque's cock with each shudder that ran through Roque's body.
Eventually, it was too hot for Cougar to lay on top of Roque, so he slid off to the side and stared at the ceiling. There was a distant part of him that told him he should wash his hands and return to his room, that there was nothing here for him, but he couldn't bring himself to listen to that bitter part of himself. Instead, Cougar his sticky hand hang over the edge of the bed, too lazy to actually clean up just yet.
It was Roque who got up first, but he came back before Cougar could start to panic, wiping Cougar down with a washcloth with such brisk efficiency that Cougar wanted to tease him, but Cougar didn't do that, either. Instead, he caught at Roque's wrist and pulled the cloth out of Roque's hand, curling into Roque and savoring the closeness. He dropped Roque's wrist only to trace the lines of Roque's body all over again, the terrain of Roque's muscles and the road map of his scars. He could go to sleep like this. For a moment, he imagined a lifetime of waking up to Roque, of their cows and chickens and their farmhouse in an empty world. He could love it, exactly this, forever.
Cougar swallowed hard, shaken by his thoughts and the sound of Roque's voice. "Roque."
Roque tensed beside him, and Cougar wondered how that one word, that name, had been the wrong thing to say. "I'm sorry," Roque said, and he pulled away from Cougar, fumbled into his clothes as he headed for the door. Cougar took a breath, two, and heard the front door slam.
Cougar laid in Roque's bed until he couldn't bear the silence anymore, and he got up, collecting his clothes from where he'd shed them. He went to the kitchen and made coffee, moving on autopilot as he filled his mug and sat down at the kitchen table.
Roque didn't come back until the morning light had stated to filter through the windows, and Cougar's coffee had long since grown cold.
He thought, perhaps, that this would be when Roque pulled away for good, when he said it was too much and he couldn't do it, but Roque just stared at him for a long time, his eyes dark and measuring. Cougar stared up at Roque, unblinking, feeling very much like he was waiting for a judgment. Roque took a step, footfalls slow and steady, and sat across from Cougar. He took Cougar's hand, slowly entwining their fingers.
"We'll figure this out, okay?"
There was so much Cougar could hear in that single sentence — loneliness, team, friendship. Cougar had never ventured far into his team's personal affairs, but now he wondered at the dark look Roque sometimes got in his eye, wondered who put it there. He thought about Clay the cow and wondered if that might be a clue. Cougar knew that things were hard to talk about, love certainly one of them, and he felt an irrational pang of despair. Whatever this was between them, it never would have happened if the rest of the world hadn't left them behind.
"Okay," Cougar answered.
It would have to do.