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Wanna Dance?

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"You drive, Rico," Skipper says, and Rico grins because it means they're going to their favorite coffee shop.

(The first time Skipper said, "Surprise me", Private played dumb and ordered him the most ridiculous thing on the menu. Now, letting someone else drive is the only way Skipper can get fancy coffee without admitting he wants it. He says "Surprise me" every time.)

The barista at the drive-through is sweet and fiesty and clever, and Private knows her eyes linger on Rico every time they stop by. Despite the scar, Rico is still ruggedly handsome.

Her eyes light up when Rico pulls up to the window because Rico has never ordered before. Skipper seems to be engrossed in his phone, but Private can tell he's watching carefully.

When he gives her their order, she smiles, leans out the window, and says, "I'm sorry; I'm not familiar with your accent. Will you say that one more time?"

Rico will usually tolerate two cycles of "What?" before whoever is in the passenger seat orders for him, and he doesn't even bother to try at a drive-through with a speaker. He leans out the window and tells her again.

And damned if she doesn't get it right.

Private knows that Rico doesn't really give a damn about what people think of his face or his voice, but Private loves seeing his happy, cockeyed grin in the rearview mirror.

 


 

"Where's the rest of the crew?" The barista asks one evening when just Private and Skipper walk up to the coffee stand. It's a warm summer night, and it's almost closing time. "It's not often I see you guys apart."

"I have a plan, and it involves you," Skipper says, grinning. Something about Skipper's charm lets him get away with being blunt all the time. Private knows he'd get slapped if he tried.

She smiles, curiosity lighting her eyes. Skipper winks at him and gestures at the SUV. 

Private snags his coffee and heads back; he locks the doors, starts the engine, and moves the side mirror so he can keep them in view. He's not paranoid, just well-trained.

Skipper sits at an outdoor table, crosses his ankles under his chair, and licks the whipped cream off the top of his coffee as he waits for the barista to finish closing up.

Dangerous to harmless in two-point-five seconds. Private shakes his head.

She turns off the lights and locks the door, then stands across the table from Skipper, hands tight around her purse straps. Skipper talks and doesn't move, except to drink his coffee, and he keeps his feet under the chair. Private takes a mental note for if he ever has to play harmless.

Harmless-er.

Private doesn't know if he's surprised or not when she finally laughs and sits down. Skipper has an astonishing ability to bend the world to his will.

 


 

A week later, Skipper's kicked Rico out for his monthly head-clearing motorcycle ride and Sarah the Barista is perched up on the heavy common room table in HQ.

Kowalski rolls Dolly into the bright afternoon light beside the table. Skipper's digging through their disguise box, grumping about how just because they aren't delicate scientific machines doesn't mean that wigs should just be shoved in a box with no regard for how long it takes to style fake hair, KOWALSKI, and do it again and you'll get KP for a month.

Kowalski rolls his eyes.

Dolly is a five-foot-six dressmaker's mannequin with an old department store head, lovingly hand-painted with twinkling blue eyes and bright red lips and wearing a long blonde wig. The dress Rico just finished making for her is white with red polka dots. Rico left his gun belt slung over her shoulder, gun included (he carries one in his ankle holster when he rides).

"He'll either love this or freak out," Skipper says as he arranges all kinds of makeup on the table beside Sarah.

"If he does freak out, he's like a fireworks show - big and loud and overwhelming but completely safe. He's not violent."

Private chokes at that, and Skipper quickly amends, "I mean, he's explosive, unpredictable, chaotic, and more than a little insane, but he's not violent. He prefers explosives. He won't lay a hand on you. But if it worries you, you don't have to stay."

Skipper has carefully left an open path between her and the door.

She smiles softly, the way Private always thinks Dolly would if she were real.

"No," she says. "I think your plan is worth a try."

Skipper doesn't bother to hide his smile.

He holds two makeup jars to her face and tosses one back on the table.

"He was injured ... in the war," he says simply as he begins applying cream to her face with a small sponge. Skipper's put makeup on all of them before (surprisingly, Skipper makes one hell of a woman, and Private has never figured out exactly why he feels so strange about that), but he's never seen Skipper so gentle, his movements so slow and measured.

"He's still as sharp as a knife. He never really felt the need to talk all that much, anyway."

"Kaboom," Kowalski says from across the room, head buried in his workbench. Private grins. (Rico and KJ accidentally (they claim) blew up an entire block in the old Warehouse District once. Rico is no longer allowed to hang out with KJ without a chaperone.)

Private doesn't actually know how Rico was injured, and he's never asked. He started to, once, and got as far as, "How..." when the sight of Rico's quirked eyebrow over the jagged scar through his mouth made him rethink how necessary it was for him to have that information. He decided it wasn't at all necessary. Ever.

"He came back damaged - too much death and blood crammed into his head," Skipper says, and dips a long brush into a tiny jar of color. "And when he came home, his girl was waiting for him with wide open arms. It was the best thing for him - to forget about us and the war.

"Close your eyes," he murmurs, and presses the color carefully into her eyelids.

"Six months and we hadn't heard a thing. It was 0330 hours and the phone rang. 'There was a car accident.' That's all he said."

Skipper dips a big, fluffy brush into a wide jar and taps off the excess powder before brushing it gently over her face in long, smooth strokes. He applies her mascara in light flicks and rolls, and her eyes become big and wide and bright.

"He never recovered," he says simply. There's an ache in his voice that Private has never heard before, and it makes his chest hurt.

"Do you have a picture of her?" Sarah asks.

"No. Most everything was ... lost in a fire sometime after. But it's not about recreating her. It's about him feeling safe with Dolly, and giving him a little bit more, if he wants it."

Skipper holds up lipstick after lipstick until he finds the one that matches Dolly best. He cuts the tip off into a small dish and dips into it with a tiny brush, then tugs her mouth open with a thumb and brushes the lipstick on in long, slow strokes.

Watching makes Private's breath hitch and he doesn't know why.

Skipper plugs in a curling iron and gently brushes out her hair while it warms up: her hair is almost the same gold as Dolly's and it flickers between his fingers. He takes small ropes of it and twines them up expertly in the curler, one after another, until soft glowing curls spill over her shoulders. She was beautiful before, but she's lovely now, and Private never knew there was a difference.

'How Skipper Became A Beautician' is just the latest in a long line of mysteries that Private isn't sure anyone's ever going to tell him.

Skipper takes Rico's gun belt off of Dolly and straps it loose across his hips and tight across his thigh, then covers Dolly with Rico's bathrobe before taking her dress off. Sarah smiles at his courtesy, and he shrugs as he grins back. It's the closest Private has ever come to seeing Skipper blush.

When Sarah appears in the dress a few minutes later, Private has no doubt in his mind that all of Rico's wishful thinking has finally brought Dolly to life.

Skipper, as always, knows exactly what he's doing.

 


 

At the sound of Rico's motorcycle pulling into the driveway, Skipper barks, "Clear out!" and both Private and Kowalski hightail it out the back door and around the house where they wait for the sound of the garage door closing before they head to the SUV parked out front.

Private usually minds his own business (since it's hard enough to get any privacy living in each other's back pockets), but he can't help himself this time: after all of that buildup, he desperately needs to know how Rico will react.

"Forgot my phone," he mutters to Kowalski, who's already absorbed in the tech station they installed for him in the back seat.

"Don't get caught," Kowalski murmurs.

Seemingly absorbed. Some days Private isn't sure how much of Kowalski's "Nutty Professor" act is real. Kowalski grins at him in the dark.

Private closes the door quietly and slips back to the front of the house.

Pressed into the shadows of the porch, Private cracks the front door open just enough so he can see. Skipper is standing with Rico just inside the door to the garage, and Rico's knuckles are white where he's holding his helmet; whatever Skipper said has kicked up his adrenaline.

Rico is actually pretty predictable until his emotions get involved, but when that happens, Skipper's the only one who can keep him and everyone else safe. It's not like Rico lashes out at anyone; his grip on reality just slips a little - which is utterly terrifying when you're hurtling down the freeway at a hundred and ten miles an hour with a laughing madman behind the wheel who currently doesn't understand that things like "gravity" and "death" actually do exist, and may abruptly apply themselves to reality at any given moment.

(Afterward, when Rico cocked his head shyly at Private and rasped out a "sorry" with those big, honest eyes, it was easy to forgive him.)

Skipper looks at Rico intently and says something that Private can't quite make out, and Rico relaxes. He puts his helmet down on the table, rakes his fingers through his sweat-soaked hair, and nods.

This will go very, very well, or very, very badly. Private is suddenly afraid.

Sarah steps shyly out of the kitchen in Dolly's summer dress and cowboy boots. She looks like a rodeo queen in the warm afternoon light.

No one breathes.

"Dolly?" Rico finally croaks. She smiles wide and warm. Private wonders if Skipper told her not to talk, or if she just somehow knew.

He gets closer, step by step, and she just waits, not moving, because Dolly is magical and knows just what Rico needs.

When he gets to her, he gently takes her hand and runs his thumb across her cheek.

"You look 'eautiful," he rasps. "Wanna dance?"