It started in China, not that any one believed the reports of the dead coming back to life, overrunning cities and towns, killing everyone only to have the newly dead join their ranks. Even Jake, who had planned for the Zombie Apocalypse, joked about ergot and LSD. By the time the proof was inescapable, Asia and the Middle East were over run. Northern Africa and Eastern Europe were threatened by both refugees and the plague itself.
Zombies, Z's, Zed; whatever you called them, they were nearly unstoppable. They didn't eat, didn't sleep, and they attacked anything that made a sound. The only way to put them down permanently was by destroying the brain, which wasn't a problem for Cougar, but most military and police were trained to aim for the center mass, the torso, and were eaten before they could adjust to new tactics. The ranks of the zombies multiplied exponentially within days, but the Western Hemisphere didn't help. They were safe, they told themselves, an ocean between them and the threat.
Until the dead began washing up on East coast.
The Losers had been on leave as the first reports of Z overrunning Florida cities came in. All of the Army had been recalled well before that, training to take out zombies, just in case the “impossible” happened. No one thought it would, though, or they would have been at high alert. They wouldn't have been allowed leave. Jake…
Jake would have been with them.
Cougar tried to be grateful, tried to remember that it all could have been worse. Most of the team was intact as Pooch hadn't been able to get an earlier flight to see Jolene. Clay, Roque and he had no one to go home to, so they'd have been on base either way. It was hard, though, knowing Jake was gone, home to his sister and his niece, and the world was collapsing. For a few days, Cougar thought they'd see Jake at any moment. All leave had been canceled, but Jake didn't return, didn’t call. Pooch had spent the days at Cougar's side, praying for a different face to show up at the base’ gate, or hear another voice from a ringing phone.
They were both disappointed. Neither Jake nor Jolene were among the refugees that arrived and no one called. No one.
Cougar tried not to imagine the worst, but he dreamt of Jake's face - rotting with hungry eyes - every night. They weren't anything, couldn't be and stay Losers, but there was something between them. Cougar loved Jake more than he'd loved anyone. Jake was his home, his compass, his hope when the things he had done haunted him at night. He was sure Jake felt the same, but they were both waiting. Waiting for their tours to be over, to be civilians, to have a life together. And now Cougar might never have that because the dead wouldn’t stay dead.
When the base was mobilized to defend D.C., Cougar almost gave up hope. Jake and Jolene wouldn't know where to find them once they left. Assuming they were alive to look.
“They're alive,” Pooch had said. “They're alive.”
Cougar clung to those words, served and protected the people left in the Capitol. He tried to keep his responsibilities in mine, remember his duty to the American people, his oaths… He tried not to think about Jake, out there on his own, with the Zed.
Then the Z's overran the western walls in Washington. They’d closed the breech, but everyone knew it was a matter of time. That night, Pooch looked Clay in the eye and said, “I'm leaving.”
No one had to ask why. Jolene had been pregnant and what passed for leadership had fled to the other side of the Rockies, leaving them behind to protect a city that was collapsing around their ears. There was no point in staying, no rescue coming, but there was Jolene. And Jake, somewhere out there, with the Zoms.
“We're leaving,” Clay had corrected. “Roque, get us food, water, supplies. Cougar, arms and ammunition. I'll break into medical. Pooch, something that can handle off road travel.”
“Finally,” Roque grumbled, already on his feet.
Cougar smiled tightly.
“After Jolene,” Clay said after a moment's thought. Cougar didn't like it, but he nodded, knowing Jake had the higher chance of survival. He would have to trust Jake could take care of himself for a while longer.
Once they got out of the city, it was easier to travel. There were plenty of Z's, but they were scattered, not clustered about the buffet that had been D.C., and easy to take down. They'd learned quickly that a gunshot only drew more enemies, so they each had a silent weapon. Cougar had found a crossbow and a book on how to craft arrows in a half-looted sports store in Virginia. Roque had taken a longsword off a group of raiders who had also ‘gifted’ Clay with a pitchfork. Pooch kept it simple, discovering a baseball bat while raiding a home for dry goods.
Unfortunately, keeping quiet made travelling slow. The plague had been in the states for three months before they deserted, five by the time they drove through Pooch's empty neighborhood and parked before his home. Before they could stop him, Pooch had leapt from the vehicle and charged into his home shouting Jolene's name for any nearby Z to hear.
Cursing, Clay snapped, “Cougar, find high ground and keep watch. Roque, follow him. I'll keep an eye on the jeep.”
They hustled to obey, listening to the sound of Pooch crashing through his home, calling out for a woman who wasn't there. Cougar knew she wasn't even as he hauled himself up a telephone pole. She would have answered if she was, if she could hear. As Cougar anchored himself in place and looked around, he could see the only one's who heard anything around here were already dead.
“Contact!” Cougar shouted. There was no point in being quiet now. The zombies were already moaning. One moan traveled for miles, attracting any other dead within ear shot, and all headed their way. He slung his rifle off his shoulders and chambered the first round in months. Distant accuracy was going to be more important than the silence his crossbow offered.
“Roque!” Clay shouted, knowing Cougar wouldn't be about to fire a gun unless he had spotted a horde. “We have to go! Now!”
Roque's voice joined Pooch's distant shouting, but both were drowned out by the booming of Cougar's rifle. The nearest Z collapsed like its strings were cut, a boneless, rotting heap. He focused on the next and fired again, then again, and again. Always the closest, always making sure his shot was perfect before he took it. The only advantage they had was that the Z's were slow and shambling, their bodies rotting and stiff. Cougar wasn't about to let his shots go wild, waste precious ammunition, when his enemies were so numerous.
Pooch's shouting stopped, but Cougar didn't climb down. He kept killing the dead sons-of-bitches until Clay shouted for him to ceasefire. Then he scrambled back down, hit the pavement, took another shot at the nearest of the twenty Z he could see, and ran for the jeep.
They raced out of the city, back toward the forests where there would be less Z's, and prayed the bastards would find something else to catch their attention. If they didn't, they'd wander in a straight line, the massive hoard following the last known direction of their would be victims. That hoard could easily overrun another survivor, or small outpost, and all because Pooch had lost his fucking mind.
The miles between them and the Z had been silent, but once they stopped for the night. Clay was quick to make his displeasure known.
“That had better have been worth it,” Clay growled.
Pooch glared, then handed Cougar a piece of paper before beginning to unload their supplies. When he read it, Cougar's hands shook so bad, Clay had to take it to read it himself.
“Lineus,” he recited to Roque, “I'm leaving with Jake. I can't wait for you anymore; it’s not safe, but he will take care of us. We don't know where we're going, but I will pray for you and love you every day. Jolene.”
“Well, I'll be damned,” Roque muttered.
Cougar closed his eyes. “He deserted.”
“Good,” Pooch snapped, taking Cougar's words the wrong way.
To make him understand, Cougar said, “Yes,” and watched Pooch's shoulders lower.
“Now we have to find them,” Clay said, a sigh in his voice. “If I were Jake Jensen, running from zombies with civilians in tow, where would I go?”
They stared at each other for a silent moment before Roque growled, “I will not think like Jensen.”
Cougar chuckled quietly and said, “North. To heavy snow.”
While Roque went to help Pooch set camp for the night, Clay turned to him.
“And you know this, how?”
“Zombie apocalypse, yes? Jake says all gamers have a plan. Jake's is to go north, where the zombies will freeze in the winter, hunt game, farm, set traps.”
“There's a lot of ground to cover ‘north’,” Clay mused.
Cougar fixed him with a hard look. If Clay wanted to give up, he was more than willing to. He and Pooch would never stop looking.
The meaning must have been clear, because Clay held up his hands in surrender.
“North it is.”
North turned out to be as difficult as it sounded. Many people had gone north, but most had run out of gas, abandoning their cars in droves along the highways. That left little to no gas for the Losers to siphon. They had to leave the jeep a few hours north of Montreal. On foot, they discovered that Jake had been right about the zombies freezing with the weather. An early winter had helped, dropping temperatures well below freezing, and leaving mounds of snow no one plowed any more.
Cougar tried not to think about the people who might have tried to escape north without knowing what to bring, or how to handle weather this severe. They trudged through foot deep snow, avoiding bodies that could have been from exposure dead, or chasing the living. Neither moved, not when nature had frozen them so tightly. For now, at least. If the weather eased, they would be surrounded by a horde.
It was a thought those before them had held as well. The line of abandoned vehicles stopped, but the bodies continued north and north, where winter was harsher and Z’s stood no chance until Spring. Most of the Losers’ experience was in tropical climates, but they’d all had survival training for the off chance they were shipped to the tundra, or Moscow. It wasn’t anywhere near fun, and they didn’t even know if they were headed in the right direction, but they didn’t have many other leads. None of the cars they’d passed belonged to Jake, or Jolene, which could mean they hadn’t come this way, they’d brought enough gas to get to their destination, or Jake had stolen a car. They kept going on Cougar’s memories of Jake’s rambling plans for the “coming zombie apocalypse” no one else had thought was actually coming.
Every night, Pooch said, “They’re alive.”
Cougar wasn’t sure Clay or Roque believed it, but they weren’t dodging zombies any longer and the elk, deer, and other game was surprisingly plentiful. Water was easy to acquire as well, seeing as it lay frozen all about them and there hadn’t been a raiding party, or hostile survivor, since they’d abandoned the jeep. No zombies and plentiful food in the cold was better than zombies, no food, and warmer weather.
It was another month before the Losers encountered the first settlement since leaving the States. It wasn’t hard to spot. They found someone had smashed down the wall acting as a sound break around the highway leading up to the the makeshift wall that stretched across the entire highway. A gate with armed guards manned ramshackle turrets and must have had reason to be wary as they weren’t sleeping, dozing, or horsing around. Behind the wall, smoke rose from several dozen chimneys. It would have been impressive if Cougar had been of a mood to be impressed.
“I don’t like it,” Roque declared, once they had scouted the settlement. It was the size of a small suburb, encompassing old commercial and residential buildings. “We approach and they could shoot us on sight.”
“They might have information,” Clay pointed out.
“Jolene might be there,” Pooch snapped.
When Cougar didn’t say anything, Clay said his name. He frowned, then, realizing he hadn’t said a word in at least a week. Jake was usually the reason he spoke at all, outside of combat situations, and Jake was…
Cougar took a breath; he had to find Jake.
Nodding toward the guards, Cougar said, “They are watching for something.”
Clay wasn’t Jake, but he caught on well enough.
“If we find out what they’re guarding and who they’re guarding against we’ll know their intentions.”
“It’s not the Z,” Roque conceded, but he spit to show he still hated the idea. “What else is out here?”
“Wolves?” Pooch asked, but it didn’t sound like he believed it.
Clay smiled for the first time in months.
“Alright, Losers, let’s do some recon.”
Recon in frozen weather was miserable. Frozen weather in general was miserable. Cougar had never been the kind of man who enjoyed the cold, but sitting high in a tree for hours was a particular brand of misery. They were a few miles from the settlement, ensconced by a now-empty drainage pipe with enough room for the four of them and their hidden fire.
Roque had agreed to share shifts in the tree during the daylight hours with Cougar. Pooch and Clay prowled around the outskirts of the settlement, watching for anyone coming or going. All Cougar learned while freezing his balls off was that the settlement had pairs of guards walking between the stationary turrets and there were a lot of homes with steepled roofs surrounded by that wall. Then Cougar had seen someone approaching across the grounds kept of any obstructions for thirty feet all around that wall. Three armed men with a deer carcass on a branch between two of them were hailed by the guards who took their weapons, then opened the gates.
A few hours after that, a bundled up women with several rabbits tied to her belt was allowed in after the guards confiscated her bow. To his surprise, both groups left through the same gate at the same time an hour after that. Their weapons were returned and they disappeared back into the trees as quietly as they’d come. Each carried a box, or bundle, but no animal carcasses.
A trading post, Cougar realized. They’d found a trading post.
When he spotted Clay and Pooch returning, Cougar climbed down and tapped Roque’s shoulder. He was positively buzzing with excitement and the knowledge that humanity was surviving in a recognizable, civilized fashion. Not only the violent and ruthless were making it through the apocalypse, but normal people who had built a town to cooperate.
“Saw a few people,” Clay said as he and Pooch settled in close to the fire to warm up. “Most heading into the fort, some heading out. Not sure what they’re up to.”
“It is a trading post,” Cougar announced.
“Some dead animals don’t prove that,” Roque argued. “You didn’t see them actually trading anything, just bringing in food and leaving. Maybe they’re the fort’s hunters, Cougar. You don’t know.”
Cougar glared, but Clay said, “Roque’s right, but,” he added as Pooch opened his mouth to argue, “it’s our best lead. We can’t keep marching like this for the entire season. Waiting for Spring to come isn’t a grand idea either, neither is heading back to warmer climes. At least here we’re not on the dinner menu.” When no one objected, even though Pooch wanted to as much as Cougar did, Clay went on. “I say Cougar and I head inside, see if they’re as welcoming if they seem. See if they know of Jake, or Jolene. If they do, great. If they don’t, let’s see if they need some more hands. Once the snow thaws, we’ll reassess.”
Cougar knew what ‘reassess’ meant. It meant Clay was done looking. Jake had never been the man’s favorite - too loud, too brash, too reckless - but Cougar had never thought the Colonel would leave him, or Jolene, behind. While Clay might be right about finding a place to wait out the Winter, he was an idiot if he thought Pooch or Cougar would ever give up their search. From the murderous look in Pooch’s gaze, he understood as well.
“You are making a mistake,” Cougar rumbled before Pooch could get a head of steam and say something he might regret.
Pooch snapped, “When the snow thaws, I’m out of there, and you better believe you won’t stop me.”
“Us,” Cougar amended.
Clay eyed them, but nodded once, sharply.
Roque was shaking his head, not looking at either Pooch or Cougar, and it clicked where this was coming from. Their SiC wasn’t the kind of man who loved easily and would never understand what Pooch was going through, let alone Cougar. Jake wasn’t his lover, though Cougar loved him fiercely, and Roque would never have searched this hard for any of the team, including Clay. Clay was choosing Roque, which might be good for the world, but still burned bitterly in Cougar’s stomach.
With a gesture, Clay motioned for Cougar to follow, and headed out of the pipe. Cougar shared a look with Pooch, assuring him again that they were in this for the long haul, before he followed. If Pooch thought he was alone, he might do something reckless, or stupid, and Roque wasn’t known for his even temper.
The few miles to the settlement passed in silence that would have been comfortable if Clay hadn’t made his loyalties known. It was because they were missing Jake, Cougar decided. Roque, Clay and Cougar were the kind of men who could get lost in the violence, in the darkness in their own hearts, and they relied on Pooch and Jake to keep them level. The tech was their heart, while Pooch was their hope, and Pooch hadn’t been able to bring them out of their darkness when he didn’t know if Jolene and his baby were alive or dead. They had been alone with all the evil things they’d done, with the violence that came to them so easily, and Roque had given up trying to be more than a killer. Clay was trying to keep Roque sane and he wouldn’t be able to do that on his own.
“Declare yourselves!” a guard called when they were still quite a ways away. It was hard to miss them against the snow covering the highway.
The other clarified, “Friend or foe!”
“Friend!” Clay shouted back. “If you are!”
Cougar wasn't so sure about that. Nevertheless, he kept his hands from his rifle and out to his sides. He didn't want to take a bullet because someone got nervous, though he also could have killed these two before they'd known what had happened. They weren't used to fighting men, after all, just the dead.
“Then, friend, set your weapons on the ground and we'll let you in, though it doesn't look like you have anything to trade.”
As Cougar had expected, Clay's friendly smile was replaced by a harsh scowl.
“Is that a requirement?”
“No outsiders can enter with weapons,” the other guard explained. “It's the law. You'll get everything back once you leave.”
Clay’s scowl dug deep trenches along the sides of his mouth, but he didn’t speak. Cougar watched as he weighed his options: give up his weapons or lose the potential to winter here in safety; lose a civilized place to get Roque back on an even keel. If Cougar hadn’t agreed they didn’t have the supplies to make it through Winter alone, he would have kept silent. He didn’t want to wait here for months before looking for Jake again, but being dead wouldn’t get him to Jake’s side at all.
“They are smart to ask this,” he said and Clay actually twitched. He really had become too quiet these days. “Desperate men do desperate things.”
With a sigh, Clay nodded and unclipped his holster. His rifle and Cougar’s were set in the basket the gate guards lowered, along with their pistols and knives, sword and crossbow. If they were caught with any weapons inside, the guards promised they wouldn’t make it out alive. Cougar was pretty sure they would be fine with a knife, but he obeyed the rules. Intel was hard to come by and an actual town, no matter how small, might have heard of Jake and Jolene. If not, someone coming to trade might have news. Pissing off the people in charge would get him nothing.
Only once the basket with their gear had been lifted over the fence did the door’s creep open. Inside was another set of gates and two more guards with hard eyes who carried baseball bats and covered head to toe in thick, leather gear. Clay frowned as he stepped forward and Cougar followed.
“What’s this?” Clay demanded as the gates closed behind them.
“Check to see if you’re sick,” said a female voice from under the heavy catches helmet that had hid her identity. “Come here and stand real still.”
Clay moved to stand before the woman and Cougar the man. Above them, the two guards hovered, guns at the ready. The man leaned close to Cougar, enough he could see brown eyes darting about his face, looking for signs of infection. No one touched him, though, or ordered him to strip. A bite could easily be hidden from this search so Cougar didn’t see the point.
Clay didn’t either as he said, “Exactly what is the point of this?”
No one answered for a few moments before both the man and woman stepped back.
“They’re clear,” the woman called to the two above before explaining, “If you’re bitten, you’ll be out of here before the infection takes you. You die out there, we don’t care.”
That was fair, Cougar thought, but Clay wanted to stay.
“And if we want to stay?” Clay asked, getting right to the point.
The woman snorted.
“Take it up with the boss, but don’t expect a yes. We’re full up and only make exceptions for the skilled.”
The second set of doors started to open as Clay asked, “Where do I find the boss?”
As the woman gave directions, Cougar took in the changes to the highway. These people had cleared it of any cars and set up a huge market on the concrete that ran from this door to the another just visible over the brightly colored awnings. The place wasn’t exactly bustling, but there were men and women in a mish-mash of heavy winter gear wandered here and there. At first glance, Cougar saw a man butchering a fresh elk carcass, a caged-in square full of electronics protected by tarps strapped to metal poles, and a woman stitching together pieces of leather while surrounded by hand-crafted clothing. Whoever had kept this place together had set up a good thing. There was a man surrounded by bottles and jugs of water, a woman stretching the a large animal pelt between poles, and in the distance the distinctive flare of a fire.
“Well, shit,” Clay said as he turned from the woman and got his own look.
Cougar grunted an agreement before following Clay inside. It was obvious who was local and who wasn’t as the locals stared at them as they passed, suspicious, curious, or both. Here, too, the highway’s walls had been smashed down so the homes were no longer separated from the highway. Likely this was where the demolition had begun and Cougar wished he had been there to see it. Keeping all these people from tearing each other part, the zombies out, while constructing a literal fort was no mean feat. But was really impressive, was that Cougar could see lights inside the homes themselves.
“Electricity,” Cougar murmured, keeping his voice low as they were being observed.
Clay nodded to indicate he’d heard, but kept quiet.
They proceeded between the houses, keeping to the middle of the roads someone had shoveled clear. Here and there, pockets of kids played in the packed snow, running past in their own hand made snow gear. Men and women worked on the homes, or passed carrying bundles or baskets. Cougar estimated there were at least a hundred people here and they were keeping up enough trade to suggest a surrounding population of a thousand, maybe more.
At a house no different from the rest of the cookie cutter neighborhood, Clay turned up a neatly shoveled walkway. There were no guards here, no guards on the streets at all past the highway. There were eyes, sure, but no one armed stalked them, which Cougar thought was foolish. If they wanted, they could take the walls down; it wasn’t like anyone had searched them for more weapons. While there were guards on patrol, they weren’t expecting the kind of threat four Losers could pose.
Clay knocked on the blue door and smiled at the armed man who opened the door.
“I’d like to speak to whoever is in charge.”
Tall and blond, the man snorted as he observed them with watery blue eyes..
“New to town?” he asked without moving from the doorway.
“Hoping to stay,” he said.
With a roll of his eyes and a grunt, the man stepped back to let them in. He also placed his hand on the butt of the gun resting in his side holster.
“Jared and Rya are in the living room planning…” The man trailed off, seemingly deciding to keep whatever plan that was in the making to himself. “I’ll see if they have time for you.”
Cougar shook his head and followed behind Clay as they walked through a perfectly normal looking entryway to an equally normal living room attached to a kitchen. Light illuminated the large, open space from above, showing five people seated around a coffee table. A darkened hallway lead immediately off to the right, but Cougar could see at least one more door propped open down there. Across the living room, a closed door was notable for the small, grey paws batting at the air in the small gap between the wood and carpet. The three men and two women looked over with suspicious eyes.
The biggest, a man over six feet with long black hair and a dark beard in need of a trim, was downright hostile.
“Jared?” the watery-eyed blond asked.
A woman with long, dark hair with silvery strips gave their guide a tired look.
“We heard, Will. The door is, like, ten feet away.”
The large hostile man snorted while a shorter, well-groomed man in a page-boy hat and round glasses chuckled. The second woman barely cracked a smile. The final man with wavy blond hair and rectangular spectacles hadn’t even looked up from what appeared to be a map spread over the low coffee table.
“So…” Will glanced at Cougar and Clay, then looked back to the big man. “You have time?”
The woman threw up her hands and plopped into the seat she stood beside. Now the hostile man laughed and patted her knee before facing them and standing. All amusement left his face as he asked, “Who’re you and why should we let you stay?”
“Right to the point, I like that.” Clay still had his best grin on his face, but it didn’t seem to be working on this guy. “Jared, I take it?”
The man nodded.
“I’m Clay, and this is Cougar. We’re former special forces and that is why you should want us to stay.”
“So you say,” Jared grunted. Cougar smiled; this guy had sense. “You’ll have to prove your worth.”
“That’s fair. What do you need us to do?”
“First you go through quarantine,” the woman said, tucking her hair behind her ears. “Three days in the isolation house. Then we’ll set you a job. If you’re really special forces, it shouldn’t pose any trouble.”
Jared looked at her.
“You have something in mind already?”
She smiled thinly, a strained look Cougar was used to seeing on the faces of front line soldiers. Everyone was a soldier at this point, he realized. Even if they hadn’t ever seen a war, they’d survived an apocalypse.
“I’m Rya,” she said, ignoring Jared’s question. “It’s nice to meet you, Clay and Cougar.”
“There’s two more of us,” Clay said and Jared’s huge bulk flexed, making Cougar reach for a knife he didn’t have. “Roque and Pooch.”
Page-boy hat said, “Interesting names.”
Without batting an eye, Rya said, “They’ll have to go through quarantine as well. Anyone staying for more than a few hours has to go through quarantine, no exceptions.”
“Not even for special forces,” Jared growled.
Clay said, “No problem,” and flashed his most charming grin again.
“Can we get back to work?” the blond with glasses interrupted.
“A question,” Cougar said quickly, stepping to Clay’s side. Since the Colonel didn’t seem about to ask after Jake and Jolene, he would. “We are looking for someone - two, someones. A woman named Jolene and a man named Jake. He might go by Jensen. They came North. They are… important.”
Rya’s eyes softened, but Jared spoke before she could.
“Even if we knew, how do we know they want to be found?”
Cougar blinked, looking up at the big man. This was not a scenario he had expected to encounter, certainly not in this new world. Then again, the rest of the world wasn’t like this place. This place had been rebuilt, had children running around playing, and let people in and out with little supervision. Now, looking at a man who would protect Jolene and Jake from someone he considered a stranger, Cougar knew it was a place he would like to stay. A place he could call home.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“We call it the Homestead Trading post,” Will answered.
Nodding slowly, Cougar made a decision.
“If you know them, if you see them, tell them Cougar and Pooch are looking for them. They will know us.”
Jared stared at him as if his stare could see through to his intentions. Rya said, “I’ll spread the word to the traders, they deal with most outsiders. Barbara?” The quiet woman turned, her bushy hair bouncing like bungee cord. “Can you go get the isolation home set up for four?”
Barbara said, “Sure,” and stood to walk past Clay and Cougar without another glance.
To Clay, Rya said, “Go get your friends. We’ll keep your gear safe if you make it through quarantine.”
“And if we don’t?” Clay asked.
Jared smiled, showing rows of crooked teeth.
“You won’t care what happens to your gear.”
“I dunno, Colonel,” Roque said back at camp. “Quarantine sounds like a great way to kill us in our sleep and take our shit.”
“They don’t need it,” Clay pointed out. “Trust me, they’re doing just fine in there. And so can we.”
Roque scowled and Pooch said, “Just for the Winter.”
“Pooch,” Clay started, but Cougar cut him off.
“If they are not here, we will leave. It is your choice if you remain here or not. That is the end of it.”
Quietly, Clay rubbed the bridge of his nose, and then nodded.
“Right, well, for now let’s go through quarantine. We can spend the Winter here, spreading word through anyone that comes through that we’re here. You know it’ll be easier for us to find Jake and Jolene if we stay put. We could have passed each other already.”
Ignoring that Clay was right, Cougar crossed his arms. If Clay wanted to keep them together so badly, he would come with them when Spring came.
“Maybe we’ll find them before Spring,” Pooch said, surprising Cougar with hope he hadn’t expressed in a weeks.
The spark in his eyes had Cougar slowly uncrossing his arms, a small smile hovering on his lips. It would make sense that they could find Jake here. The people here were thriving more than anywhere they had been so far. The word about a place like this would spread far and wide. Jake was skilled, too, more than any of them except Pooch. Clay, Roque and he could kill things really well. Jake and Pooch could build things, fix things, too.
The relief in Clay’s eyes as they both obviously caved took Cougar by surprise. Was he that worried about continuing the search? Was Cougar blinded by his… devotion to Jake?
Grabbing his pack, Cougar decided he had an entire Winter to figure it out.
Cougar hadn’t realized how high his hopes had gotten until they passed through the two gates again and Jake wasn’t waiting for him inside. There was only the bushy haired woman, Barbara, and she didn’t look happy to see them. Then again, she hadn’t look happy in any of their interactions.
“This way,” Barbara said, turning on her heel and marching past the stalls into the streets on the side of the highway they hadn’t been on yet. She didn’t speak again and neither did they as they navigated the streets. The sun was cresting the trees, dripping everything in shadow. Now would have been the perfect time for an ambush, if that had been their intention. Cougar wasn’t sure how this place hadn’t been taken over, yet. Surely someone out there was cruel enough and stupid enough to think having control of this place would give them the power they craved.
They passed turned the corner of another street and Cougar’s head snapped sharply to the side as he caught a flash of reflected light in his peripheral vision. Roque had also seen it and they both stared down the street at one of the tourettes lining the Homestead’s walls. Leaning over the edge, he could just see a head and shoulders holding a long rifle. It wasn’t pointed outward, either. That flash had been the sun setting on the man’s scope.
So they hadn’t been left to their own devices after all.
“Sneaky fuckers,” Roque muttered.
Barbara either didn’t hear, or didn’t care. She continued walking on at a quick pace as Roque gestured to the tower for Clay and Pooch’s benefit.
“Huh,” Clay grunted. “Not as stupid as I thought.”
“Ha!” Barbara barked, drawing their eyes her way. “No one still alive is stupid. Jared and Rya are smarter than most.”
Cougar thought he had to agree. It would have taken their level of training to spot the sniper who had likely been dogging their every move. And that assumed there was only the one. This place might actually survive this thing, might get the world back on their feet. Once he had Jake by his side again, Cougar was sure he would want to come back here. Stay and make sure no one, dead or alive, brought these people harm.
The isolation house turned out to be just another house, but surrounded by a high, chain-link fence. It was guarded by a pair with huge swords swung over their shoulders, which said exactly what they would be guarding against: Them, if they turned and tried to come for anyone outside.
One opened the gate and the Losers trooped past without comment. Three days of quarantine was nothing. None of them were bitten. The biggest threat would be driving each other insane with boredom. Since it wasn’t their first time alone with nothing to do and no one way to escape each other's company, Cougar knew at least one fight would happen. They weren’t armed though, so whatever fallout happened wouldn’t be that bad. It would have been less if Jake was there to distract him with makeshift puppets, or crazy stories about time spent off duty, or with random facts he had memorized for no apparent reason.
God, Cougar missed him. He didn't even know if Jake was alive, not really. He hoped and he prayed, but in his heart he wasn't sure. If it wasn't for Pooch's stubborn repetition that they were alive he would have given up with Clay. Maybe sooner. It was hard to have faith while watching the world fall apart. So many people had died, more every day, and those that survived weren't the same. Like Barbara.
Jake was strong, he tried to remind himself. Jake was smart. He would do everything he could to keep Jolene, Beth, Jess, and Pooch's kid safe.
The thing was, not even smart and strong kept you safe from Zoms. Not when they could swarm in hundreds, thousands, and overwhelm any person through sheer persistence. That was how humans had dominated the world, stalking their prey until it dropped. Only, they weren't the best at it any more. No one was better at it than the dead.
The isolation house didn’t have much in the way of entertainment, or even furniture; just some mattresses, blankets, and food. Chips had been an okay substitute for checkers - BBQ versus regular - until they ate them. They made it two days before it went to hell. Two days of mostly keeping to themselves, a few conversations, and attempted games with the few objects lying around the house. Being cooped up and stationery was really what did it. They had spent nearly the last two years in each others’ pockets, but they could leave, or work, or just survive. This was… nothing. A whole lot of nothing and no Jake to keep them occupied.
Cougar was in the room he had claimed as his own, cross legged on the floor, meditating, when it happened. Of them all, he handled doing nothing the best as that was what he did as a sniper 90% of the time. Nothing could have kept him from hearing the shouting when it started, though. If it had been Clay and Roque’s voices, he wouldn’t have leapt up as fast, or run to the living room. He might not even have gone with the way they had been acting lately. But it was Pooch and Roque, and Roque would have to go through Cougar before he hurt Jake’s best friend.
Despite his speed, Cougar arrived in time to hear Pooch scream in incoherent rage and rush Roque, slamming a shoulder into the bigger man’s stomach. Roque’s clasped hands slammed down onto Pooch’s back, lifted for another strike, and both Cougar and Clay were on the two. While Clay merely meant to wrestle them apart, Cougar had to restrain himself from punching Roque in the face on principle. There was no doubt in his mind who had started this - it was always Roque - but he knew that any escalation would only set off a new skirmish. Fighting in here was pointless. Roque and Pooch, however, didn’t agree; both struggled against the arms restraining them.
“You’re a soulless, psychopath!” Pooch shouted.
Roque growled, “Come over here and say that.”
“Enough!” Clay bellowed, getting them both to stop shouting. Pooch stopped fighting, shoving Cougar off him, but Roque struggled for a few more moments until Clay again shouted, “Stop! Roque, for fucks sake, shut up!”
With a shove of his own, Roque snapped, “Get off a me,” and broke free from Clay’s hold. He didn’t rush at Pooch, though, so no one stepped in to grab him again.
Clay glared from Roque to Pooch.
“What the hell is going on here?”
Roque answered first.
“This fuck head can’t handle reality.”
“Reality has nothing to do with giving up on my child,” Pooch shot back.
Clay grunted, “Oh boy.”
Before he could say more, the door opened. Considering it had been both locked and barred behind them, this took all four of them by surprise. What was more surprising was when Jared walked in first, the two sword wielding guards at his sides. He surveyed them dispassionately, before gesturing to someone behind him to come forward.
“You have a new guest,” he informed them. “He’s been bitten, so I suggest you lock him up in one of the back rooms.”
“Whoa, wait a minute,” Clay snapped, “Keep him somewhere else.”
“No can do.” Jared shrugged like it didn’t matter to him that they might end up with a zombie on their hands. “We only have the one isolation house. Oh, and your quarantine will be extended another three days.”
“You can’t do this,” Clay started, but snapped his mouth shut a second later.
Jacob Jensen stepped around Jared’s bulk, pale and wide eyed. The left lense of his glasses was cracked, his hair and beard had grown out, the tips still blond but the rest a light brown. It was tied behind his head, but stuck out to the sides in a wild mess from the fight he’d clearly been in. The fight that had left his right shoulder crusted with dried blood.
“He can,” Jake said flatly. “Sorry to… impose. I guess.”
Ice water washed away the happiness and relief Cougar had felt at seeing Jake. This was not the reunion he wanted, not the one he had dreamed of. This was a nightmare, the worst case scenario. No one survived a bite. Three days and the infection from the zombie’s mouth would take you, you would die, and then you’d come back.
“You were looking for him,” Jared reminded them. “Here he is. Jake,” he added, his voice gaining a bit of warmth, “good luck, man.”
Then he and the two guards trooped back out of the house, shutting and barring the door behind them.
“Well… I’d say it’s great to see you guys, but…” Jake trailed off and shrugged. The vibrance in his voice was nowhere to be heard. His tone matched his palor, grey and lifeless.
With a jolt, Cougar realized he didn’t care. Jake was dying and he would have done anything to make it stop, but he couldn't. No one could, but at least they had now. Jake wouldn’t die alone. Not like so many.
Striding across the empty living room, Cougar caught Jake in a fierce hug that took his friend by surprise. Then his tall frame was collapsing, face burying in Cougar’s shoulder. He shuddered, but no tears came. He just held on so hard to Cougar that bruises would show sooner or later. Cougar didn’t care, he held on to Jake just as hard.
“Um…” Pooch’s voice had Cougar lifting his head, but Jake didn’t move, didn’t even relax his hold. “Jake?”
His name seemed to bring Jake from wherever he had gone. Looking up at Pooch, he smiled weakly.
“Hey man,” he said and started to let go of Cougar. “Jolene’ll be happy to see you.”
The relief that filled Pooch’s eyes was ruined by the guilty expression on his face. Jake saw it, too, and his smile gained some life.
“Don’t, man. You should be happy. We were hoping - waiting for you guys to find us.” The smile dipped. “Wish I could see you meet Lineus Jr., though.”
“Don’t,” Cougar said roughly. “They put you here. There is hope.”
Hopeless wasn’t an expression Cougar had ever seen on Jake before, but he was still Jake and just said, “Yeah, okay.”
“Not to be insensitive,” Roque started, making Pooch snort loudly, “but why the fuck didn’t they just put you down?”
Cougar turned sharply, lips pulling back from his teeth as he smiled at Roque.
Even Clay looked surprised when Roque held up his hands, palms outward.
“I only mean that it’s pretty dumb to let the infected wander around inside the walls, so maybe we don’t want to stay here.”
Jake’s fingers tangled in Cougar’s shirt, surprising Cougar enough he uncrossed his arms and leaned back into the touch.
“They need me enough they’re hoping I’ll be one of the rare cases when someone doesn’t get infected. If someone else could keep the electricity running around here I’d be dead.”
Clay nodded thoughtfully.
“Instead you get a chance to turn. Okay, well, I’m with Jared then. Good luck, but -”
Jake sighed, his fingers slipping away. Before he could say another word, agree with Clay more, Cougar caught his hand and squeezed hard.
“I am with you.”
“Cougar,” four voices argued at once, but he held up a silencing hand.
Looking Jake in the eye, he said, “I will not be apart from you again. Understand?”
Even though he smiled, Jake said miserably, “I don’t wanna eat you, man.”
“As if I would let you.”
Jake considered that, then squeezed Cougar’s hand in turn.
When Clay sighed, Cougar knew he wouldn’t put up any more of a fight. Which was good, since he would have lost.
“We’ll bring you guys meals, but Cougar... Don’t be stupid.”
Cougar nodded and pulled Jake down the hall to the room he’d just left. He had no plans to be stupid. If Jake was going to turn, Cougar would make sure he didn’t stay a monster. Then he’d figure out how to end his own life. He wasn’t going to stay in this hell without Jake.
Or at least, that was the plan until he settled Jake on the bed and began pulling the bandages off the wound to get a look at it. He’d barely started when Jake said, “I need a favor.”
Cougar grunted, Anything, and smiled when Jake did, because he still understood Cougar when he didn’t speak.
“Jess and Beth; Jared lets them stay because of me. Jolene and Lineus, too, but they’ll have Pooch now, but Jess and Beth… They’ll be kicked out, Cougs.”
“No,” Cougar said, his hands going still as he looked into Jake’s eyes. “Do not ask me that.”
How well Jake could read him hadn’t changed at all, Cougar realized. Jake placed his hand over Cougar’s and gave him a weak smile. He knew. He knew what Cougar had planned to do and was making sure he couldn’t.
“I gotta. They’re as much family as you are, Cougs, and I can’t ask anyone else. No one else would say yes.”
“Pooch,” Cougar argued.
Jake shook his head.
“They have a mechanic. They won’t need him as much as they needed me. I got an exception for both all four of them; Pooch won’t. It’s gotta be you.”
Closing his eyes, Cougar bowed his head. He couldn’t say no. He had no desire to live without Jake, but he couldn’t say no the same way he wouldn’t have been able to let Roque hurt Pooch. The people Jake loved mattered just as much to Cougar. He couldn’t let anything happen to them.
“Thank you,” Jake whispered. Calloused fingers brushed Cougar’s cheek. “So this is it, huh? The end of the world and I finally get to have you?”
Cougar looked down at Jake helplessly. Until now, he hadn’t let himself regret the past. There had always been a tomorrow, a dream once they were discharged, where he and Jake finally could act on the unspoken bond they had. Where they lived happily ever after, together for better or worse. It had been the only choice. Fraternization would have ended in a court martial, but that was before the end of the world. Before he had Jake lying on an old mattress, his body being taken over by whatever it was that brought the dead back to life.
Somehow, Cougar found his voice.
“It could be worse. I could be late.”
Jake laughed, hand falling to hold his belly as his entire body shook with mirth.
“God, I missed you.”
Cougar smiled and answered by leaning down and finally finding out what it felt like to kiss Jake.
A few hours later, Cougar got a look at the bite. It was a ragged thing, still bleeding weakly, and clearly untreated. What possessed him to bang on the door until one of the guards shouted to know if he was dead he didn't know, but he did it. No one stopped him, either, which made Cougar wonder at the expression on his face.
“Antibiotics, antiseptic, bandages,” Cougar answered.
The surprised guard asked, “For the tinker?” before blurting, “Are you nuts?”
“If he is valuable, you will get me these things. Survival of the bite means nothing if he dies from infection.”
“No way!” the first guard laughed.
Another voice said, “We’ll ask,” before Cougar could respond, though. “It’s up to Jared, not us.”
Grunting, Cougar didn’t respond. He turned and stalked back to Jake, who gave him a fond, sleepy look.
“Don’t waste good supplies on a dead man, Cougs.”
Harshly, Cougar snapped, “Silence,” and for once Jake obeyed. He held out his hand and Cougar took it, linking their fingers together and letting himself be pulled down to the mattress by Jake’s side. Curling up behind Jake, he held him close, nose pressing into the hair hanging over Jake’s collar. It was in bad need of a shower, but Cougar wasn’t going to trade this moment for anything, not when he may not have another.
“I love you, too,” Jake whispered and Cougar closed his eyes as tight as he could.
For the next several hours, Jake didn't say much and the others left them alone. Cougar spent his time wrapped around Jake, trying to make up some of the time they'd wanted. He was still grateful they'd gotten at least these moments, but it was a lie to say he didn't want more. There was little he would have given up to erase that bite from Jake's shoulder and the inevitable moment he ended Jake's unlife.
Cougar didn't want to think about it, which meant he couldn't stop thinking about it. No matter how many times he ran his hands over Jake’s warm arm, hip, or over his face. No matter how many times Jake drew in a breath, or caught his hand just to hold it. None of it erased the heavy knowledge that Jake was dying. When Pooch trailed Clay into the room, he almost chased them out, but a distraction was a distraction.
Sighing, Jake sat up and told Cougar, “You have terrible timing.”
Me? he asked by raising his eyebrows.
“Yeah, you.” Jake huffed, tried to run a hand through his hair and grimaced instead. “Now with the cuddling and kisses? Terrible timing.”
That was a fair point, so Cougar looked at Clay, asking what it was he wanted. It definitely was not to the time to talk about regrets.
Before Clay could speak, Jake said tiredly, “He wants to debrief me and Pooch wants to hear about Jolene and Lineus Jr. Right?”
“Yes,” Clay said as Pooch nodded.
Jake waved a hand a the bare floor.
“Then get comfortable; it’s a long one.”
As Pooch and Clay found places to rest, Jake caught Cougar’s hand and pulled it around his shoulders. Then he leaned back, resting his weight against Cougar’s side. It took Cougar a moment to fight the instinct to pull away and another to find a way to balance them both. In the end, Jake sat half in his lap while he sat with his legs crossed. It was far more intimate than Cougar would have normally been comfortable being with an audience, but he had enough regrets.
“When the plane landed, I heard the first reports of Zed in Miami. Jess picked me up and we went straight to her place, packed, and we took off to find Jolene.”
“Wait,” Pooch interrupted. “Immediately?”
“I knew we weren’t prepared. If they hit the shore, it was over and I wasn’t going to leave Beth and Jess on their own. I figured,” he gestured at Pooch, “you would do the same and we’d meet up at your place. Only, you didn’t show.” His hand brushed Cougar’s. “No one showed.”
“Why didn’t you call?” Clay demanded.
“You say that like I didn’t.” A flash of a smile, there and gone. Cougar’s stomach turned to ice. “They didn’t let our calls through. Pooch, you think Jolene didn’t try to reach you?” He looked to Clay. “What do you think Pooch woulda done if she’d gotten through?”
Clay muttered, “They had us locked down.”
“To keep their good little soldiers in line.” He sighed, turned so his nose bumped Cougar’s jaw, then returned to his story. “We waited… longer than we should have, but Jolene didn’t want to leave. She was sure you’d come,” Pooch closed his eyes, “and it took losing Yonkers for her to realize you wouldn’t.”
“We were in D.C.,” Pooch whispered. “They put us in D.C.”
“I figured. When did you bug out?”
“When the first wall was breached,” Clay answered. “We found Jolene’s note.”
Jake nodded again.
“I couldn’t leave directions. Didn’t want any looters to follow. There weren’t any yet, but it was a matter of time, and with the kids…”
“No explanation necessary,” Clay insisted. “Go on.”
“I always figured a zombie wouldn’t be able to handle the cold. A dead body is still a body. A frozen body can’t move, dead or alive, so I took everyone North. Raided a few camping stores on the way -”
Pooch interrupted, “Raided?”
“There was a reason I knew looting was inevitable,” Jake said slowly. It was a non-answer, but no one there doubted what Jake meant. He knew there would be looters because he also planned on stealing what he couldn’t get his hands on.
Cougar kissed his temple and Jake’s smile flashed briefly across his lips.
“We were just in time for the early Winter,” Jake went on. “We had the gear so I brought us farther north than others, acquired a cabin,” Pooch opened his mouth, but closed it again slowly without interrupting, “and tried to figure out how the fuck you hunt in a blizzard. Never did manage that.” Jake rubbed at his mouth. “Ended up not needing to figure it out when Jared found us. When he found out I could get the lights running here, they found a home for us and we moved in. That was… five months ago? Six? Time has gotten a little funny.”
“What about the…?” Clay gestured at Jake’s shoulder.
“Stupid. Just plain stupid. There’s a power relay station a few miles away that had some parts I need - needed.” Cougar pinched his bicep and Jake changed the word back to, “need. Jeeze, be gentle, Cougar.”
Rolling his eyes, Clay said, “Stay on topic.”
“Right.” Jake rubbed his arm, then laced his fingers with Cougars. “No one here knew how to take apart part of an electrical grid, though, so I had to go in person. At one point I had the option to hold my gun or get electrocuted, so I put my gun down and… the Z decided it was the perfect time to rush me.”
“No one was with you?” Cougar asked, outrage and just plain rage boiling in his blood.
“I helped clear the place, Cougs, no one saw it. My protection detail was watching for Z coming in off the perimeter, not ones five feet away. It was on be before I could so much as shout, grabbed me, went for a bite…” Jake sighed deeply, pulled off his glasses, and rubbed his eyes with grubbing fingertips. “I clubbed it with my wrench, but it was too late. I killed it as it tore through my vest.”
Cougar tightened his hold on Jake, only noticing how still Clay had become from long years of training to notice everything around him. If he had been there, Jake would be fine now.
“Jensen,” Clay said, his tone low and fierce, “you killed it as it bit you?”
“It bit, I smashed -”
“You pushed it away,” Clay interrupted. “Did it bite you as you pushed it away or before?” When Jake didn’t immediately answer, Clay snapped, “Damn it, Corporal, this is important.”
“I…” Jake’s eyes went distant, remembering, “As. It got me as I killed it. Why?”
“Because dead Z don’t bite.” Clay gestured at Jake’s shoulder. “But they’ll tear.”
“Why does tearing matter?” Pooch asked, arms crossed tight across his chest. “A bite is a bite.”
Clay shook his head.
“The infection isn’t in their teeth; it’s in their saliva. You might be infected, we can’t say you’re not, but you might be the luckiest son-of-a-bitch alive.”
“Wait,” Jake blinked, then looked up at Cougar, “I’m not dying?”
Heart in his throat, Cougar wished he had an answer for that. Pooch stood before he could push a single word past his lips.
“I’ll go bang on the door some more.”
Clay reached out and patted Jake’s ankle.
“Hang in there, kid.” He stood and Jake sagged back into Cougar’s arms. “Let you boys get cozy again.”
“Jealous,” Jake grumbled, head rolling to the side so his nose pressed against Cougar’s throat.
Cougar met Clay’s gaze, daring him to say another word about it. Wisely, Clay left. For a moment they sat in silence, Cougar adjusting his hold on Jake to pull him just that much closer. His emotions were in turmoil, unable to process after yet another bout of whiplash. First Jake had been there, then he’d been drying, and now he might not be.
Repeating his thoughts, Jake said, “Might still be dying.”
“No,” Cougar said, his voice loud.
Jake actually laughed, pushing himself up and turning in Cougar’s embrace to meet his gaze.
“You can’t just will the world to be like you want.”
Cougar raised an eyebrow, Watch me, and Jake laughed again.
“God, you’re something else.” Reaching out, he splayed his fingers along Cougar’s collar bone. “And you’re really… here.” It was obvious that Jake didn’t mean physically when he said ‘here’. Cougar wasn’t as good at reading Jake to know what he did mean, though. “We’re here… We’re doing this.”
By tilting his head to the side, Cougar asked, What?
Jake laughed, the sound tinged with an edge of hysteria that took Cougar by surprise.
“This,” he repeated, pressing his hand harder against Cougar’s chest. “Us. It’s not… It’s not just because I was… Might be - because you’re not that nice a guy, Cougs, I just never expected… this. I’ve been in love with you for years, pretty sure you knew, but it was never a thing. We were just friends - best friends - and you know I’ll take anything you give me, but this? I never thought you wanted this.”
Guilt stabbed through Cougar’s heart. Closing his eyes, he covered Jake’s hand with his own and slowly exhaled through his nose. A gesture or a look wouldn’t be enough to answer Jake’s worry. And worry it was, Cougar knew Jake that well. He hadn’t thought Cougar shared his feelings, had believed Cougar knew how Jake felt and ignored it until the end of the world. It was true, to an extent. He had always known Jake loved him, but he was the only one thinking of what they could be once they were through with the Army and DADT because he had never said those words aloud. Everything he had felt stayed locked inside, because talking had never been Cougar’s strong suit, and Jake had never known the truth.
Squeezing Jake’s hand hard, he opened his eyes and said, “Marry me.”
Jake’s blue eyes tried to jump out of his skull.
“Yes. We are friends.” Lifting Jake’s hand to his lips, he kissed his palm. “We are everything. Marry me.”
“And they say I’m crazy.” Jake took a shaky breath. “Yes, of course yes. Like anyone else would put up with me.”
“Like I would let anyone else have you,” Cougar growled.
Slowly, Jake grinned.
“Oh yeah? Good to know.”
To be sure Jake understood, he said, “I do not share.”
“I am so okay with that.”
Realization of what that shiver meant hit Cougar like a freight train. His eyes darted down to Jake’s lips in time to watch him suck one between his teeth. Letting go of Jake’s hand, he eased Jake back down to the bare mattress, leaning over him. His beautiful eyes were wide, darting about Cougar’s face, his breathing already quick and rough. When he caught Cougar’s hand, tangling their fingers and squeezing tightly, Cougar smiled. When Jake sucked in a deep breath and held it, he fell in love all over again.
“Breathe,” Cougar instructed gently. “This moment isn’t the last.”
Jake exhaled in a rush.
“Cougs… Carlos.” It was Cougar’s turn to shiver. “I’ve dreamed of… this. I’m either already dead, or it’s happening, and you expect me to not want to savor every moment?”
“You have to breathe,” Cougar said.
Cougar smirked, Okay, and Jake’s eyes turned to saucers once more.
There was more than one way to show Jake he was loved. Cougar started by stripping Jake from his clothing, mindful of his shoulder, peeling back each inch with the new knowledge that this wasn’t about work. He’d seen jake naked plenty of times, knew his body as well as his own. Usually it was for showering, but sometimes because he was their medic, but now it was because he wanted Jake naked. Because Jake wanted to be naked. Because soon he would have Jake in his hands, their bodies moving together. Already Cougar was aching, pressing against the zipper of his pants, but he didn’t stop to adjust himself. Not when he had Jake Jensen under his hands.
How so many women could look at Jake and not want him baffled Cougar. Muscles rippled beneath Jake’s tanned, smooth skin. He was built like a tank, thick but with an impossibly small waist. Biceps, thighs, abs; each muscle was perfectly defined and begged to be caressed, each ridge and valley mapped by his fingertips. Then again, Cougar had always been fascinated by Jake’s. He’d imagined having them in his hands - squeezing them, teasing the nipples - and now he could. If he wasn’t distracted by Jake’s cock, that is. Full and heavy, it leaned to the side above his hip, swaying with Jake’s every breath. A bead of pre-come had spilt down the side, leaving a glistening trail that begged to be licked up.
“You’re wearing too much,” Jake said, his voice hoarse with lust, interrupting Cougar’s thoughts on where to start.
Cougar cleared his throat and shed his own clothing in seconds. When he was naked, he leaned in to kiss Jake - having decided to start with his mouth - but blinked when Jake caught his shoulders in his wide palms. Though still wide eyed, there was a new glint in his gaze as it darted over all of Cougar, from chin to knees.
“Lemme… Lemme just…”
‘Look,’ never left Jake’s lips, but Cougar knew what he wanted. Letting the urgency leave his limbs, Cougar fell still, letting Jake look his fill. Like Jake, he was muscled, but nowhere near as defined. His cock was just as hard, though, thick, uncut, and red from how badly he wanted Jake. He’d always wanted Jake, but now he could finally have him.
When his gaze got to Cougar’s cock, Jake whispered, “Carlos… wear the hat.”
It took Cougar a moment to register the request, but only a moment to scoop his had up from where he had set it atop all their clothes. He put it on and Jake moaned deep in his chest and Cougar couldn’t help but grin. He kept grinning as he kissed Jake, capturing his mouth and licking at his lips. When they parted to let his tongue pass, he lowered himself along Jake’s body, fitting them together so their cocks rubbed together. Jake gasped into his mouth, hips thrusting upward so they rubbed together just right.
“Like this,” Cougar said quietly. “Just like this.”
Jake’s head bobbled as he nodded urgently, only stopping when Cougar kissed him again. They moved together, slow at first, but building as the pleasure built in each of them. It was Jake who slipped a hand between them, gathering their cocks into his hand, and squeezing rhythmically. Cougar moaned, but didn’t stop kissing Jake. He fucked into his hand, rubbing along Jake’s length, and pressed sloppy kisses to his lips. Pleasure built behind his eyes, sparkling and heated, driving the breath from his lungs in harsh, panting breaths. Jake was beautiful beneath him, muscles bunching with tension as his own pleasure built, skin glistening with sweat, making that stunning body more incredibly every moment.
Cougar gasped out, “Next time, I want to watch you.”
Jake’s eyes opened, pupils so blown the blue was hardly visible.
“Yeah?” He licked his lips, neck arching as he thrust upward against Cougar. “Okay, Carlos. Anything you want.”
“I want to watch you,” Cougar purred. “You’re so… incredible like this.”
Jake bit down on his lip as a loud moan broke free of his chest. So far, he had been quiet, just the occasional moan with plenty of panting. Cougar smirked, thrusting faster. He wasn’t a talker, but for Jake he would do anything.
“Yeah, look at you. All those muscles, your pecs bouncing; I could look at you all day.” Jake squeezed his eyes closed, another moan escaping him, then another. “Going to come, yes? I can see it, want to watch. You will be beautiful.”
With a sharp cry, Jake came. White semen spurted from between his fingers, over his abs and chest. As Cougar had predicted, he was beautiful. He arched, head, neck and back, pushing his chest toward Cougar. He shuddered, spasms making his muscles tremble. His nipples were hard beads pointing into the air. Reaching up, Cougar pinched one between his fingers, and another jet of semen burst from Jake’s cock. Now he really shouted and that, as much as the feeling of Jake’s cock and hand sliding along his shaft, pushed Cougar over the edge.
With a gasp, Cougar collapsed atop Jake and the mess they had made. For the moment, he didn’t care. Nothing mattered except the blissful feeling coursing through his limbs and the warm heat of Jake’s body against him. He didn’t even care that the others would have heard them. If they had a problem with it, they could keep it to themselves.
“I love you,” Jake murmured into his hair.
Cougar smiled against Jake’s shoulder.
“I love you, too.”
“Worth the wait?”
Cougar snorted, but shook his head.
“Should have done this long ago. I am… I am sorry, Jake.”
Another kiss was pressed into his hair.
“You still have terrible timing, but I’m just glad you have timing.”
Cougar chuckled and closed his eyes. A nap sounded like the best plan right then. When he woke, he would get them clean, get Jake the supplies he needed for his shoulder, and take care of that as well. He ignored the niggling doubt at the back of his skull that said he shouldn’t be sleeping with someone bitten. Jake would be fine. There was no other reality Cougar would accept.
Cougar sighed, glancing up at Clay. For the past two days, it was the same question. They woke up, Pooch brought them food, and Clay asked, “Well?”
“Wounds do not heal that fast,” Cougar snapped.
Slowly, as if he thought Cougar was being particularly stupid, Clay said, “No, but people do die from bites that fast.”
“He is not dying!”
Jake’s fingers slipped into his own and Cougar took a breath, letting his fiance - fiance! - calm him.
“I feel the same,” Jake said. “Not worse, not better, just the same. The antibiotics are working to stave off any infection, but there’s still another twenty four hours before we know for sure.”
“Good. That’s good.”
Pooch rolled his eyes.
“That great, J. You’d feel it if you were dying.”
Cougar growled, “He will not -”
Jake waved a hand, “Die. We know. You’re a broken record.” Cougar glared at him and Jake sighed, then kissed his cheek. “Okay, I’m not dying.”
Nodding, Cougar looked to Clay and raised an eyebrow to ask if he wanted anything else.
“Uh,” Clay rubbed a hand over his head, then added, “keep it down, huh?”
Cougar narrowed his eyes and Clay retreated again. Just another twenty four hours; Cougar squeezed Jake’s hand. Soon. They’d know that Jake was fine soon.
When Jared opened the door and walked in with the sword-carrying guards, Jake said, “Hey man, how’s it hangin’?”
Cougar had the pleasure to watch an actual emotion cross the big man’s face: surprise. He looked Jake up and down, then looked over Clay, Pooch, Cougar, and Roque as if they were somehow pulling one over on him. Cougar smirked, lowering his head so his eyes were hidden by the brim of his hat.
“No trick,” Cougar said.
Jake happily agreed, “Nope!” and slung an arm around Cougar’s waist. “Now you can meet the Losers!”
Jared blew out a breath and tension eased around his eyes. Then he smiled, showing rows of crooked teeth, and the intimidating aura faded. Cougar wasn’t sure he would take the guy on in a fight, but he didn’t think he would be stabbed in the back, either.
“Thank Christ. Rya’s been having a heart attack trying to figure out what we’ll do without you. Which,” he rolled his eyes and stood back, holding the door open, “is now a new problem you’re going to be asked to solve.”
Jake nodded, “Of course.”
“And us?” Clay asked.
Before anyone could answer, footsteps pounded up the stairs outside and three people rushed inside. “Lineus!” Jolene shouted and threw herself at her husband. The baby on her hip shrieked and was soon trapped between the two as they hugged. “Where have you been!?”
Whatever Pooch said was drowned out by the two women who nearly tackled Jake off his feet. Over six feet herself, Jess wasn’t a woman to be messed with, and her daughter had inherited her good looks. Cougar barely held them all up, planting his feet as they hugged Jake and babbled so loudly neither’s words could be distinguished.
“Whoa whoa!” Jake shouted. “I’m okay! Gals, I’m just fine! Now one at a time!” Jess smacked Jake upside the head and Beth promptly followed her mother’s example. “Ow! What was that for?”
“For being an idiot!” Jess shouted. She had stepped back, but Beth still held onto Jake about his waist. “How dare you almost -” Her finger swung into Jake’s face, inches from his nose. “You’re lucky Cougar’s here now, or you’d get more than a smack!”
“Yeah!” Beth added.
Jake squawked, “What’s he got to do with it?”
Jess rolled her eyes.
“Obviously, he’s smarter than you and will make damn sure nothing happens to you.”
Cougar nodded, feigning solemnity while trying not to laugh. He had missed Jake’s - his - family.
“Oh shut up,” Jake grumbled, rubbing his head.
Cougar let himself grin and kissed Jake’s cheek.
Beth shouted “Finally!” as Jess gasped and Cougar’s grin grew so it felt like it was swallowing his whole face. He still didn’t know what he had to do to prove himself to Jared and he was sure their lives wouldn’t be easy, but he knew they would be fine. They had each other, they had a foothold, and whatever they had lost it had gotten him Jake. From now on, Cougar had his happily ever after.