Once upon a time, William Roque arrived at Madame Cheng's Pearl Garden to find a going argument between Madame Cheng and the lead dog of a half dozen ragged mongrels. Madame's voice rose steadily in a stream of Mandarin invective while the unwelcome visitors wandered her nearly tastefully decorated parlor and pestered the clientele, frightened the waitresses, and made the bartender nervous for the safety of his best hooch.
Roque stood braced in the doorway and bellowed irritatedly, "Someone want to explain to me what the ruttin' hell is goin' on here?"
A moment of quiet fell over the parlor as startled eyes turned toward him.
Lead Dog snorted, "None of your gorram business." He was a big son of a bitch, had a mulish look about him, short-sighted and hot-tempered.
"William!" Madame yipped. "These men have no manners! Look how filthy they are! I don't want them touching my girls! My girls are clean, inside and out!"
"I do not appreciate the way you keep callin' me and my crew inferior," Lead Dog snarled at Madame. "This is a gorram whorehouse. You got whores, and me and my men got coin and an itch that needs scr--"
"Bi zui!" Roque interrupted. "That is enough! No one wants to hear about your disgusting itches." Roque was not in the mood to have his long-awaited dirtside leave ruined by some malodorous gang of scow-jockeys stomping into his playground, disrespecting Madame, and terrifying the pretty little birds Roque had flown all this way to snuggle.
"Apologize to Madame," Roque demanded. He threw in one of his better scowls, emphasizing the glare from his right eye, the side of his face with its long, ragged scar, just to make his point.
Lead Dog took a step back, but argued stubbornly, "Hell if I will!"
Roque took two steps forward, and drew his second-favorite pistol.
Madame swore and told the bartender to go get the sheriff.
"Apologize to Madame," Roque ordered again. The ornate lights from the ceiling glinted prettily over the bright steel barrel of Roque's weapon, over the shelves of glittering liquor bottles behind the bar. It was a shame, Roque thought, that he was likely not going to taste any of that tonight, the way things were shaping up.
The unshaven mutt lurking behind Lead Dog slid a long-barrel six-shot out past his captain, and after him the rest of the pack began to reach for their weapons and circle wide.
Roque berated himself for having been hesitant to bloody up Madame's nice wood floor right from the start. It'd likely get even bloodier now, and some of that might be Roque's. The thought made him downright grumpy.
Lead Dog grinned, "You gonna make me-- Yahh!" He staggered as a china tea pot slung past Roque and smacked him in the left eye. It splattered hot tea down the front of him, and shattered on the floor at his feet. "Ai ya!"
Roque turned his head just enough to note out of the corner of his eye a man standing in the corner slightly behind and to his right, one of Madame Cheng's girls peering out wide-eyed from behind him. Roque appraised him with quick practice; young, blond, spectacles, tall side of average, athletic build, good aim.
No ruttin' gun.
Lead Dog spluttered through the hot tea and grimaced at the youth. He spat on the floor. "Ta ma de! Qu ni de, you uppity little stray! You filthy traitor, you are fired! You even try to go back to the ship to get your gear, I'm gonna kill you."
The young blond shrugged. "One of these days, Captain, and by these days I mean sometime next week, that flyin' chum bucket is gonna shake itself to pieces trying to bust atmo. Forgive me if I don't grieve overmuch for not being on it when that happens."
At which point the kid's irate ex-captain shot him.
The kid dropped like a sack of spare engine parts, and the girl behind him squeaked in terror and dropped to the floor next to him.
Roque fired off two quick rounds, wounding one scruffy crewman and, regrettably, demolishing a decent bottle of whiskey, and dove behind a green velvet settee. Lead Dog, the man with the long-barrel, and their friends put a barrage of pistol slugs into the settee, sending up a flurry of shredded green velvet and white duck feathers.
The sheriff arrived, accompanied by the nervous bartender and a couple of eager young deputies, and hollering to know what the hell was happening. Lead Dog turned with his gun still half-raised, and one of the eager young deputies dropped him, followed shortly by three of his men with him, all before he could open his mouth to lie.
In the startled silence after, the white feathers from the perforated green settee drifted slowly down onto the corpses littering the bloody floor of the Pearl Garden's front parlor. The kid recently fired from the scow bled into a slowly widening red puddle, while the girl he'd been with gamely attempted to plug the hole in him with one of her petticoats.
Madame Cheng stood with her hands on her hips in the middle of the carnage and demanded, "Who's gonna clean up this gorram mess?"
"Now, we didn't really need another pilot," Roque explains. "Pooch is a damn fine flyboy. Point him at just about anything that jumps up off the ground, and he'll handle it, easy. Trouble is, he gets bored stuck up top by himself, and he starts itchin' to get back and fuss with the engines. Jensen on the other hand... well, Jensen makes his own fun."
Roque makes a circular gesture near his own ear. "Jake Jensen speaks waves and wires like Madame speaks Mandarin. That boy can make the Cortex and anything hooked into it stand up and sing gospel for him. Surprise him upstairs one day, and you might hear him and Jolene chatting. The wide-eyed way he perceives the 'verse baffles me most days, I admit, but I have watched him make us invisible to hostile eyes, and that is a value I can weigh. "
Cougar perches on a side counter of the infirmary, his knees drawn up tight against his chest. For three hours before Roque ambled in to distract him he'd been watching Jake sleep the sleep of the well-drugged on the single bed in the room – operating theatre, recovery. Cougar closes his eyes and rubs his hands over his face, sliding his fingers back through his dark hair. There’s still blood staining the cuticles of his fingers.
"A whorehouse on Jiangyin," Cougar clarifies. "That's where you met him."
"God's honest," Roque says. He scratches at his chin. "Didn't have the little beard yet, back then. Underfed, too. Looked about sixteen years old, except for those barn door shoulders. He's grown into 'em since."
Cougar lifts one eyebrow. "When you adopted him, your stray boy, did you know he could do all of these things?"
Roque grins. "Nope. But the damn kid had got himself shot on my account, what the hell was I supposed to do?"
Something flinches behind Cougar's dark eyes. It's barely there and then it's gone, and Roque doesn't know what it means, but that it was ever there is interesting.
Perched on one of the infirmary's little rolling chairs, Roque leans back against the cupboard doors beneath the counter, and slants a thoughtful look over at Cougar, who looks steadily back at him across his forearms folded over his knees. "You saw worse than this during the war. The belly shot he took at Madame Cheng's was worse than this, and he pulled through that. Any particular reason a comparatively uncomplicated gunshot has got you rattled so badly?"
“Pendejo wasn’t even aiming at Jake,” Cougar growls.
"Yeah." That some city-bred fei fei pi gu carrying a gun too big for him took a shot at Cougar for flirting with his girl and hit Jake instead, well, that's clear cause for aggravation, but Roque's fair certain it's only half of what's bothering Cougar.
Once Jensen quit hollering and bewailing the tragic ruination of his favorite yellow t-shirt and passed out cold from the dope, Roque finally got a good look at Cougar's face and he thought, just for a moment, that Cougar was going to be sick.
Cougar got past it quick and did as fine a job fixing Jensen up as any medical man Roque's ever seen, but something is eating away at him inside, and it's got to be fearful strong for it to show itself on a man Roque has figured to be as habitually taciturn, and generally disinclined to turn precious at the sight of blood as Cougar.
Roque gets up and stretches, feeling his lower spine pop pleasantly. He gives Cougar a quick, reassuring slap on one shoulder and tells him, "Boy's gonna be fine. You, get some sleep. You're no good to him exhausted. I'm for a little shut-eye, myself. Clay'll be back from finishing up in town soon, and then we'll blast this mudhole."
On his way up the stairs toward the crew dorms, he looks down through the infirmary window, and watches Cougar uncurl from his perch and cross the narrow space toward Jensen. Roque nods, satisfied, rolls his shoulders 'til his neck cracks, and continues up the stairs.
Cougar steps over the shredded remains of Jake's favorite yellow shirt, the one with the happy, gun-toting T-Rex on it, and stands near him, watching him sleep. The surface of the gauze packed over the wound has reddened a little in spots, but the blood stains are drying around the edges. The entry wound isn't bad, but the exit left a notable hole out the back of Jake's trapezius, just above his collar bone and his left shoulder blade. Cougar hasn’t sewn the bullet wound closed. The shot was a mostly straight through-and-through and for now, Cougar's priority is keeping an eye on the wound for infection.
He watches the pulse in Jake's neck, strong and steady as he sleeps. He gently pulls the top of the blanket down until he finds the old scar a bit above and to the left of Jake's belly button, a shallow depression of pale, hairless skin, slightly puckered around the edges in a couple of places.
Cougar notices the pattern of the dark blond hair on Jake's chest, thinner over his belly, the way it sweeps symmetrically inward, making a narrow, fluffy line straight down his middle. He hopes he's not taking too much of a liberty if he rests one hand there, over Jake's heart, feels the soft scratch of Jake's chest hair against the flat of his hand, firm muscle and warm skin beneath.
Roque wasn't with them in the market square today. He was with Clay, talking to their new client in the tavern. What Roque is not aware of is that Jake wasn't wounded merely by an unlucky shot from an inept marksman. Jake moved when the man drew his weapon. Jake spotted him approaching in the crowd before Cougar did, because Cougar was busy playing a stupid flirting game with a pretty stranger, and Jake moved.
Jake frowns slightly, a tiny crease between his eyes. He makes an uncertain noise, and opens one eye tentatively.
Cougar leaves his hand where it is against Jake's skin.
Jake opens the other eye, takes a slow breath and says, his voice scratchy and small, "Hey. You look mighty serious. Checkin' to make sure I'm still here?"
Cougar nods. "Yes."
Jake's right hand lifts, flailing slowly toward Cougar's left. Cougar catches it, pulls their two hands up to rest together against Jake's belly, and Jake settles. "I do not like getting shot. Remind me not to do that."
Then why in God's name did you intervene? Cougar doesn't ask, not yet. "Are the pain meds working?"
"Meds are shiny," Jake smiles, a bit loopy. "Good meds." He yawns. "You're blurry without my specs."
"You want them?"
"Mmmm, too sleepy. Focus later." But Jake watches Cougar for a few moments, looking thoughtful. Cougar watches him back, meeting Jake's blue-eyed gaze steadily, until Jake comes to a decision and says, "Curandero."
Cougar blinks, "Shen me? What?" Because this word reminds him of his uncle Julio.
"Looked it up on the Cortex. It's the word for healer, isn't it? Where you're from, a Curandero, that's what you are."
Cougar smiles a little. "For a doctor, it's 'médico.'"
Jake yawns again and closes his eyes. "Yeah. But I looked up healer."
"Oh," Cougar replies softly, watching as Jake falls easily back to sleep. "That is the word, then." Although, just as often it means, shaman.
Less than a week ago Cougar arrived on Jolene. He woke up naked, damaged and disoriented, expecting to find himself amongst strangers hostile to him and worse. He was exhausted enough to faint, but too wary and too bone-deep cold to rest, and Jake offered him water, food, a weapon to hand, and the warmth of Jake's own body - Jake's open trust that Cougar wouldn't kill him in his sleep. Cougar wonders how Jake knew to handle him this way. He wonders whether he has imprinted on Jake, like a newly-hatched duckling.
Cougar learned to handle a sniper's rifle simply because at a certain point during one battle of many on a far-flung planet he realized there was no one else left alive in his company to do it. He abandoned his empty med-kit on the field and picked up a dead man's rifle, and he drifted from unit to unit, battlefield to battlefield, always the lone figure on the hill, and in the years since the war the same, always the same, until now.
Jake talks to ships, and he knows how to tame a wild thing. He reckons the universe with the kind of open wonder that leaves him most vulnerable to it.
Cougar looks down at his hands, the one still tangled with Jake's, the other still splayed over Jake's breast as it rises and falls slowly, warm beneath Cougar's palm. Cougar knows a great deal about bullet wounds. Medicine or murder, it's all the same to Cougar's hands. He has become one of Jolene's weapons, and his attachment to Jake Jensen is not like a duckling's at all.