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playing for keeps

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Coyote knows what’s about to happen before everyone else does. He’s known Hangman the longest of the group, been friends for years. They have a mutually assured destruction pact to never spill certain secrets, no matter what happens. 

So Coyote doesn’t say anything as they all push a little longer, grab another round, in their post mission celebration. They’ve all been awake for too long at this point, running on adrenaline and each other’s excitement. He hasn’t even been back to his apartment yet - they’d gotten off the carrier and wound up at Hard Deck within the hour. 

Penny’s letting them be loud and annoying in the corner and everyone’s happy. Everyone’s happy and only slightly sleepy. Coyote knows he’s exhausted, yawning as he surveys the pool table. He’s on a winning streak and refuses to give in to how tired he is just yet. Payback is hiding his yawns in his shoulder. Bob, always sober, is nursing a cup of coffee and watching them all quietly. 

Hangman walks over to the pool table, unusually quiet. That’s how Coyote knows - a quiet Hangman is an exhausted Hangman. It was always Coyote’s canary in the mine before Hangman globbed onto him. 

Poor Bob just smiles as Hangman sits down on the stool next to him, leaning against the pillar heavily. Coyote can’t hear what they’re saying over the chatter and jukebox, but he sees Hangman yawn. Bob looks a little surprised, offering Hangman his coffee. Hangman shakes his head and rests his head back against the pillar. Bob shrugs and looks back at the table. 

Coyote moves around the table, looking for his shot. He’s about to line up when he sees Bob out of his peripheral, jumping slightly. 

“Uh, Hangman,” Bob says lightly, laughing nervously. Coyote covers his mouth as he turns and sees that Hangman’s head is on Bob’s shoulder, his eyes nearly closed. “You need to go home, bud?”

“M’sleepy,” Hangman mumbles, looping his arm through Bob’s and holding it against his chest. Bob’s face flushes and he looks to Coyote for help. Payback rounds the table, hand shoved against his mouth, as they assess the situation. 

“Then you should go home,” Coyote tries, but he knows it’s useless. 

“Don’t wanna miss the party,” Hangman grumbles, frowning up at Coyote. Coyote can see Payback moving away, covering his laugh by moving into the noise. 

“You’ll miss it if you fall asleep,” Bob says patiently, trying to pull his arm away from Hangman. The pilot groans, holding on tighter. Coyote coughs to cover his laugh. 

“He’s uh,” he starts, trying to pull himself together. Phoenix has wandered over now, mouth open as she looks at the scene in front of her. “He’s cuddly, when he’s sleepy.”

“Javy,” Hangman hisses, though it’s not nearly as biting as it could be. “To the grave, dude.”

“You’re literally using Bob as a human pillow,” Phoenix says, shooting her friend a confused look as Bob pleads silently with her to help. 

“Bob’s warm,” Hangman says, but he sits up slightly. He keeps his arm looped with Bob’s. “I’m sorry, Bobby, I can move.”

The apology catches Bob off guard, as his face falls and he sighs. “No, Hangman, it’s fine. Just… warn a guy next time, yeah?”

“Requesting permission to lean on, Lieutenant,” Hangman says, letting his head fall onto Bob’s shoulder again before the man answers. Phoenix laughs into her hand, eyes sparkling in the bar lights. 

“How long have you been sitting on this?” she asks as Bob pats Hangman’s arm and settles back against the pillar again. Coyote counts on his fingers. 

“Too long,” he says, grinning. Across the bar, at the piano, he sees Rooster staring at them, in a similar state of shock Phoenix had been when she walked over. Coyote winks at him and Rooster rolls his eyes in response. 


Hangman’s the last to arrive at Mav’s house for their late Christmas celebration. 

He’d flown home to see his parents for a couple days, taking advantage of a few days off to see them before he’d booked a red eye back to California. Mav’s positive that the man hasn’t slept in about twenty-four hours when he walks into his house. 

Hangman follows the sound of his friends to the living room, Mav right behind him, and they both smile as the room erupts in greetings. Phoenix stands to give Hangman a hug as Mav slips around them, heading for the tree. He places the bag Hangman had brought with him under the tree, along with the dozens of other presents there. His living room is going to be a disaster when this is all said and done. 

Mav heads into the kitchen, where Penny is drinking a cup of tea as she watches the timer for the oven. Mav kisses her cheek in greeting. 

“Hangman’s here,” he says, and she nods. “You know, the guys told me something the other week, about Hangman. I have a feeling we’re about to witness it.”

“Do I want to witness it?” Penny asks, laughing softly. Mav shrugs. 

Rooster walks into the kitchen, smiling at the pair as he fills a water bottle Mav is sure he saw in Hangman’s hand a few seconds ago. 

“You need any help, Penny?” Rooster asks, smiling at her over his shoulder. Penny shakes her head. 

“No, thank you.” She smiles. “You two go catch up - I’m fine here.”

Rooster doesn’t need to be told twice, and neither does Mav, so he kisses Penny on the cheek and heads for the living room again. Rooster follows. 

Mav hears Rooster missing a step before he sees the scene on the couch and he has to fight down a laugh. 

In the corner of his couch, Phoenix sits with Hangman practically laying on top of her. His head is on her shoulder, and her arm is around his shoulders, hand in his hair. Someone’s put a blanket over him, and Mav sees at least two people taking photos. 

Rooster moves around Mav, his shoulders stiffer than they were a moment ago. He walks over and places the water bottle he’d just filled down on the table next to Phoenix, who just smiles up at him. She gestures to Hangman with a look that Mav can’t quite decipher. It’s almost apologetic. 

“Do we start presents without him?” Mav asks the room quietly. Rooster moves and sits down on the other end of the couch. Mav doesn’t miss the look on his face. 

“He can go last, be the center of attention. He’ll love that,” Coyote says with a smirk. Mav shrugs and heads for the tree. 


Phoenix swears she’s never drinking again when she wakes up on New Year's Day. 

Everyone’s asleep on various surfaces throughout the beach house they’d rented together. She steps over Payback on her way to the kitchen, Rooster and Hangman on separate couches in the living room. There’s a bottle of champagne on the table between them. 

She finds water first, and then the ibuprofen Bob brought. She’s staring at her phone, willing it to give her an idea for breakfast, when Bob comes into the kitchen, as chipper as ever. She scowls at him and he laughs softly, kissing the side of her head in greeting. 

Others start to wake up as Bob pulls the breakfast supplies from the fridge. Always prepared, Bob was, and that meant that he’d thought ahead for breakfast. 

Fanboy and Payback wander into the kitchen as Bob starts sticking slices of bread in the toaster. They sit at the breakfast bar, emptying their water bottles as they wake up. None of them say anything, all too sensitive just yet for voices. 

Payback starts the coffee and that’s what gets Coyote and Hangman up. Phoenix knows that, despite his name, Rooster will be the last to rise. 

Hangman comes up behind where Payback is standing at the counter, watching the coffee machine do its job. He rests his head against Payback, sighing heavily. Bob snorts as he butters a piece of bread. 

“Still sleepy?” Payback asks, turning slightly so he can wrap his arm around Hangman’s shoulders. Phoenix bites her bottom lip as Hangman yawns, a blanket from the living room around his shoulders. 

“What time is it?” Hangman asks, squinting around the kitchen. Bob looks at his watch. 

“Oh nine-hundred hours,” he replies easily, handing off toast to those closest to him. Hangman groans. 

“Went to bed at five,” he says, rubbing his eyes. He leans heavily against Payback, who doesn’t even flinch. He keeps a steadying arm around Hangman’s shoulders. 

“I’m never drinking again,” Phoenix mumbles, the rest of the room agreeing with her easily. 

The coffee machine stops brewing and Payback moves to start pouring cups. Hangman’s still leaning on him heavily, eyes closed, so Payback wedges Hangman into the corner of the counter, keeping an arm around him, as he grabs mugs. Phoenix has to admit, it’s an effective way to work. Let the counter do half the work. 

The smell of coffee must have finally broken through his sleep, because Rooster stumbles into the kitchen finally. He squints around the room, his eyes lingering on where Hangman is still using Payback to keep him upright. Phoenix catches Coyote watching him too. 

“Toast?” Bob asks, pulling Rooster’s attention away. His face softens and he takes the toast with a smile. 

“Thanks, Bobby,” he says, patting the man on the back as he heads in the opposite direction of Hangman and Payback. Phoenix would roll her eyes, but her head throbs at the idea. 


It’s not everyday they get to drive out into the Mojave and do some cool test piloting. Bob’s just happy he got to come along, but he’s sure that’s Phoenix’s doing. Or Mav. The man seems to have a soft spot for him. 

The only downside to it is the nearly four hour drive between the testing facility and home base. They’d all been so amped up on adrenaline and excitement at the start of their day (a perfectly reasonable 0500) but now, at nearly midnight, they’re all fading fast. 

Bob’s squished between Phoenix and Rooster. The former is leaning against his side, her eyes closed as she rests. Bob’s okay with that, has been here before - they’re friends, and it’s something of an honor to know she’s comfortable enough with him to rest on his shoulder. 

Rooster’s head is against the window of the van, his jacket bunched up under his neck. He’s been like that for the past hour, eyes closed. Bob knows he’s not sleeping - Rooster snores, a fact he learned when he bunked with Rooster on the carrier for the suicide mission. No, Rooster is awake, but only just. 

They’re all the way at the back of the van, which means Bob can see the rest of their little squad all passed out in front of him. Mav is sitting shotgun, Hondo driving, and the other two rows are filled with similarly sleepy pilots. Fanboy and Payback are both resting against Omaha, one of them snoring softly, in the first row of seats. In the second, and right in front of Bob, Coyote sits against the window, in a similar position to Rooster, only he has someone asleep on his shoulder. 

It’s Hangman, who had sat down next to Coyote and promptly cuddled up to him. Coyote seemed the least fazed out of all of them, simply wrapping an arm around Hangman’s shoulder and letting his cheek rest on the top of Hangman’s head. Bob supposes that makes sense, as they’ve been friends for years. Coyote’s probably very familiar with this part of Hangman’s personality. Fritz, on Hangman’s left, is curled up in a weird pretzel that Bob thinks cannot be comfortable. 

Bob hears Rooster yawn next to him and he turns his head, smiling as Rooster’s mustache twitches. The look has grown on Bob, though he’s sure he’ll never try to replicate it. 

“Can’t sleep?” Bob asks softly, turning his head so the words only go towards Rooster. 

“If I fall asleep, everyone else will wake up,” Rooster says with a grin. Bob huffs a laugh, shaking his head. 

“You ever thought about getting that checked out?” he asks, curious. Rooster shrugs, adjusting the sweater under his head. 

“The Navy says it’s okay,” Rooster says simply, resting his head against his sweater again. His eyes fall on the men ahead of him, and Bob watches in fascination as Rooster’s brow furrows and his mouth pinches. The memory of Christmas, when Hangman had fallen asleep against Phoenix and Rooster had sat with what could only be described as a pout came back to Bob. 

“Oh my God,” Bob whispers, wincing when Rooster hears him. He turns and has the decency to look sheepish when he catches the look that Bob’s shooting him. 

“Shut up,” Rooster mumbles, turning his head again. He realizes his mistake when his eyes fall back on Hangman, and he looks at Bob. “Shut.”

“I’m not saying anything,” Bob says, miming zipping his lips. Rooster rolls his eyes and turns away, closing his eyes this time instead of gazing at the back of Hangman’s head on Coyote’s shoulder. 

Bob files that away to talk to Phoenix about later. He knows she’ll have thoughts. 


Payback thinks that this might be the incident that breaks Rooster. 

The bonfire is roaring, Hondo sitting next to it feeding it slowly. The sun’s long since set, and the bonfire’s the main source of light as they all mingle around the beach. For March, it’s not that bad. It’s never that bad in California. 

Some of them had dragged logs over to use as benches, and Payback’s sitting on one with Fanboy when he watches Hangman sit down next to Mav. The old man has his own beach chair sat down a few feet away from where the rest of them are sitting. Hangman sits in the sand and it looks like they start to talk. 

But that’s not what has Payback’s attention. 

Hangman leans against the side of the chair, his head resting on Mav’s arm. Whatever they’re talking about, Mav doesn’t seem to mind the physical contact. Payback’s seen Mav be gentle with them like that before, especially Bob, but it’s the first time he’s seen Hangman in Mav’s orbit. 

“Hey, dude, look,” Fanboy says, nudging Payback. He turns his head to look in the direction Fanboy is looking and nearly pisses himself laughing. 

“What is Rooster’s problem?” Payback asks quietly, covering his mouth to make sure his voice doesn’t carry. Fanboy laughs next to him. 

“Honestly, I think he’s jealous Hangman hasn’t cuddled up to him,” Fanboy says, getting in Payback’s space to demonstrate. Payback laughs, though he does hug his friend for a moment. 

“Would he let Hangman snuggle up to him like that?” Payback frowns, thinking. “Or how he fell asleep on Coyote in the van back from the Mojave? Or the way he let Halo play with his hair that one day after training, when he’d been exhausted?”

Fanboy chuckles, sitting up straight. Hangman is still sitting next to Mav, but Mav’s moved his hand to Hangman’s back. There’s something fatherly about the scene. Payback smiles at that. 

“I’m beginning to think he would,” Payback says, looking at Rooster again. There’s something there, something Payback hasn’t been able to really identify before. He’s beginning to think it’s honest to god jealousy. 

Fanboy hums at that, also looking at Rooster. His concentration breaks when Phoenix walks up to him, and Payback can tell by the set of her shoulders that she’s calling him out. 

“Phoenix will call him out,” Fanboy says, and they watch as Rooster’s face rolls through several different emotions at what Phoenix says. She walks away, and Rooster looks back towards where Hangman is now sitting quietly next to Mav, both of them holding a beer and staring at the fire. 

“What do you think? $20 says they bone by the end of the week,” Fanboy says. Payback laughs. 

“$20 says they don’t just bone but start dating,” Payback says, shaking his hand. 

plus one. 

Their clothes still smell like smoke when they collapse into Rooster’s bed, exhausted. Hangman lays still for a moment and Rooster watches him cautiously, unsure of what’s about to happen. 

He’s taken people home before, stripped them of their clothes, and had a good time. But he’s never done the cuddling after, the spending the night. He’s never had anything be just about physical touch, intimacy not based in sex. 

But he’s been watching Hangman cuddle up to everyone in their squad, everyone but him, and he’s going insane. 

“I can feel you staring at me,” Hangman mumbles, pulling his face out of the blankets to look at Rooster. He’s smiling, his eyes shining with mischief as he turns on his side. He mimics Rooster’s pose (head propped up on hand, other arm resting against his side) and offers Rooster a smile. 

“Weird talent,” Rooster replies. Hangman shakes his head. 

“No, see, it’s a skill I’ve learned over the past four months,” he says, a smirk growing on his face. “Because someone’s been boring holes into the back of my head.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rooster says, rolling his eyes. Hangman chuckles at him. 

“If you don’t know what I’m talking about then why am I here? Crashing at your place, as you so put it, when I could easily walk home to my own apartment.”

Hangman has him backed into a corner and Rooster doesn’t know how to get out of it. He knows he’s caught, knows that anything he says now to try to lie his way out of this will only make Hangman believe his own version of the truth more. 

So Rooster decides to tell the truth. 

“Why not me?” he asks, hating himself instantly at the way he sounds. Hangman blinks at him, obviously thrown off by the change of tone, and frowns. 

“Why not you what, darling?” Hangman asks. Rooster feels himself flush at the pet name. 

“You’ve been cuddling up to everyone but me. You even cuddled up to Mav, who’s basically my father. But you’ve purposely avoided me.”

Hangman purses his lips. There’s something in his eyes, something that Rooster thinks is anxiety. He’s never seen it there before, so he wouldn’t know for sure. 

“I’m a cuddly person,” Hangman says, flashing Rooster a smile. Rooster snorts. 

“You’re an asshole,” Rooster says, shaking his head at Hangman. The other man frowns. 

“Does that mean I don’t deserve to seek out comfort?” he asks, serious suddenly, and Rooster feels himself stumble despite laying down. 

“Well, I mean,” Rooster falters, trailing off as he sees the mischief in Hangman’s eyes again. “You’re trying to distract me.”

“I was distracting you,” Hangman corrects, smirk back on his face. 

“Why not me, then?” Rooster asks again, reaching out to tug at the sleeve of Hangman’s Naval Academy hoodie. Hangman watches him quietly for a moment before speaking. 

“Because you’re you,” he says quietly, looking at Rooster’s chest instead of his face. 

“Huh?” Rooster says, brow furrowed. Hangman rolls his eyes. 

“Because you’re you, and I knew I’d… I’d like it too much,” Hangman says, face red. He still won’t look at Rooster. 

“Wait, you want to cuddle with me?”

“Duh, Bradshaw.” Hangman sighs, looking up at him through his eyelashes. Rooster’s stomach swoops. “I knew if I snuggled up to anyone else, I could pull myself away easily. But not with you. I’d want…”

He trails off, his hand waving in a circle in the air. Rooster knows what he means though. It’s in the way Hangman’s face is flushed a deep red, eyes moving back to Rooster’s chest. It’s in the jealousy that Rooster’s starting to identify, the longing he’s felt. 

Carefully, knowing that Hangman’s one to lash out when feeling vulnerable, Rooster reaches across the bed and pulls Hangman into his arms. He’s dead weight for a moment, obviously unsure about what Rooster’s thinking, but then he presses himself into Rooster’s chest and relaxes slightly. 

Rooster tilts his head down and hides his nose in Hangman’s hair. He feels Hangman relax, sigh deeply as he wraps an arm around Rooster’s waist. Rooster smiles. 

They lay in complete silence for a few moments, just the sound of the waves off in the distance. Hangman lets out another sigh, this one more wistful than resigned, and Rooster feels him scoot that much closer. Rooster leans back slightly, a question, and he smiles when Hangman follows him back onto the bed. Rooster grabs a pillow and pulls it under his head as Hangman rests his head on Rooster’s chest, eyes closed. 

“I can feel you staring,” Hangman says, eyes still closed. Rooster brings a hand up to cup his jaw, tilting his head up slightly. Hangman’s eyes flutter open, pretty in the soft light of the bedside lamp. Rooster’s breath catches in his throat. 

“What would you want?” Rooster asks, knowing Hangman understands what Rooster is talking about. 

Hangman bites his bottom lip. “More. I’d want more, Bradley.”

That’s all Rooster needs. He pulls Hangman up and meets him in the middle, pressing their lips together softly. There’s no pressure, no rushing, and it feels so antithetical to how this always went in Rooster’s head. There’s no teeth, no grasping of each other’s clothes, no pushing each other against walls. 

It’s just them, lying quietly in Rooster’s soft bed, kissing for the feeling of kissing. 

“I have more, to give,” Rooster says softly when they pull back. Hangman looks at him like he’s weighing his options. Slowly, he begins to smile. 

“Yeah?” he asks, the look on his face knocking the breath right out of Bradley’s chest. 

“Yeah, Jake.” Rooster kisses him again, holding them together for a beat longer. When he pulls back, Hangman’s already grinning at him. 

“Wanna start now? I’m tired,” Hangman says, yawning around his words. Rooster touches his face gently, smiling. 

“I’d like nothing more.”