Not Always The Quiet Ones

by Anne-Li

Author's disclaimer and notes: I don't own them, I just dream of doing so. Feedback is better than a Strawberry Crunchy. Corrections to my language are welcome as are comments! Ask if you want me to archive it anywhere. You may link to this story if you want or to my main page. 67.794 words. Written in 2011.

Betaed by Heather Sparrows and Telwoman, with some other inputs. I thank you all, you're all wonderful!


Minus twelve hours.

The world changed forever in a small hotel room in Lexington, Kentucky. After another near-miss with Max in Baltimore, involving the Yakuza, carnage and an extremely long ladder with Cougar on the top, the Losers had opted to hole up, waiting for Aisha to return from one of her various contacts around the globe. Jensen didn't mind. Aisha was eyeball-smokin' hot, but since she told him about her ear-collecting youth, he had decided to stick to safer hunting grounds. Cougar might shoot him for making a pass, but Jensen felt confident that mutilation would stay off the schedule.

Jensen sat at his comfy computer table, which Pooch had quickly assembled once they realised that the team would be stationary for a few days. "Arthur", Jensen had dubbed the IKEA-like structure. He had his stockinged feet on the table and his latest baby laptop, "Merlin", burning against his bare thighs. He wore only his Ravenclaw boxers (not an easy find for a man his size, but eBay sooner or later provides to the patient hunter) and his bestest, pinkest "Go Petunias!"-t-shirt. Across the room he had a nice view of his BFF/crush Cougar stretched out on the other bed, reading Terry Pratchett's Good Omens*. A classic and totally Jensen's recommendation. Judged by the faint grin, which made Jensen feel all warm inside, the book was Cougar Approved.
*=This might, or might not, be a hint of what is to come.

Jensen worked the net, gathering information (and fan art). Occasionally he had to stop for a longer stretch of typing or a slow download. Now and then he also bent forth to suck some lukewarm coffee through a straw from a mug standing by his keyboard. Since he wasn't one of those sad creatures unable to type without staring at the screen, much less at his nimble fingers (much use had even worn some of the symbols on his keyboard until they no longer had legible characters on them), he sometimes would take the opportunity to rest his eyes on the team's sniper, tempting himself with glimpses of that olive-dusky skin and the long, black hair under that seriously sexy hat.

The Kentucky weather was - to absolutely no one's surprise - hot and humid. Even Cougar, who normally flourished in sunlight like Superman, had deigned to wear shorts, showing off really nice legs with a tempting shimmer of black hair. Legs that dreams were made of (or at least some of Jensen's dreams). On occasion Cougar would change page at the same time and their eyes would meet: mocha brown to sky blue. Then Jensen would feel a little frisson of connection, like an electric tickle down his spine.

During the latest mission he and Cougs had shared a little ... moment. Nothing overt; no words said: no heavy, sweaty man-on-man, x-rated, NC17 action: merely the way Cougs had looked at him when he found him still alive; gun-calloused fingers on his arms after swiftly cutting his bonds even though touch hadn't been strictly necessary; and Cougar's tiny smile once the gag had been tugged off and Jensen could resume talking. Nothing more had happened so far, but Jensen could feel something ... budding. Or so he hoped.

Dismissing the page as a troll's work, he followed another link, tapping a password with a flowing finger flutter worthy of a world class pianist. Then he froze, fingers poised.

His eyes repeatedly scanned the page.


Cougar's voice registered. Jensen even heard the hint of concern. Instead of answering, though, he scanned the page once more. His exceptional mind made connections, mapped possibilities and drew conclusions. While most men would have questioned someone's sanity - their own, if no one else's - Jensen accepted. After all, why question his own sanity when everyone else did it so nicely for him? He barely noticed the sniper sit up, check his hat and put away the book. Instead Jensen loaded the mini printer and hit CTRL+P. Normally he always kept close attention on Cougar, especially when the man went verbal, but just this once he had something even more tempting in sight.

As soon as the paper fell free he snatched up the document and rushed out, ignoring the surprised grunt from his abandoned roomie.

"Colonel?" Jensen called out and waved the paper. "This is it! Colonel! Pooch Man! Oh Roque one! Olly olly oxen free! Come out, come out, wherever you are! Cougs, you too. This is it!"

Between bouts of intense excitement Cougar enjoyed nothing more for down time lately than to watch Jensen perform his keyboard magic and breathe the same air as his best friend. Maybe topped off with a funny book and an Almond Roca to lick clean and chew to pieces. Once upon a time an evening on the town, two eager chicas and getting so drunk he forgot how to load his gun had been a good night's aim, but during the last months only if Jensen tagged along, flirting wildly with anything remotely female and then letting Cougar lean heavily against him as they stumbled back to the nest.

Since their latest Max-finding mission - the Yakuza, carnage and Jensen outclimbing bullets on a wall Cougar could have sworn too smooth to climb - Cougar had been gearing up his nerves to see if he could further their relationship. This being a long cherished dream of his. Jensen seemed receptive, but nothing had actually happened yet and considering all those women his tech tried out horrendous pick-up lines on ("Want to see if my tab A is compatible with your slot B?" Seriously? Not even Cougar could have pulled that one off), Cougar would rather lead up to things gradually than to destroy their friendship with asking for something he could live without if only they remained friends. Their friendship formed the cornerstone of Cougar's universe and had been what had kept him functioning through the aftermath of Bolivia.

//"There is a tiny metal thing above it",// Cougar read. //"The kraken stirs. And ten billion sushi dinners cry out for vengeance."//

He chuckled, envisioning the unexpected guest the Kappamaki was about to receive, even if she was just a whale research ship. Cougar had started in on the next section, when Jensen's rapid typing abruptly ceased. He looked up. Seeing how Jensen nearly vibrated with excited tension sent his adrenaline level soaring.

"Jensen?" he asked and sat up, ready for anything.

As if not having heard him, Jensen loaded that silly mini printer of his. His fingers absently tapped on the workstation surface as a single page rolled through the machine. Then he snapped up the result and rushed out to the living room of their rented suite, shouting for everyone to gather and something about "This is it!", whatever that meant.

Cougar followed. As Jensen's tension hadn't come from immediate danger he opted to leave his rifle by the bed where he could still reach her with a quick grab, bringing only his Smith & Wesson. He leaned against the door frame, curious as to what had his friend so worked up. However, from experience he knew perfectly well that the excitement might be just another case of "The Petunias are in the league semi-final!" or "There's a new book out by Naomi Novik!" or some other such Earth-shattering news that Jensen felt an irresistible urge to declare to the gathered Losers.

Roque and Clay emerged from their shared bedroom. Pooch turned back from the television-set.

"He's in his boxers again!" Roque hissed. "Clay!"

The colonel did look a little disapproving, but all on all the team had gotten used to Jensen's irregular dress code, especially in warmer climates. This to the point of Cougar finding women in thong bikinis distinctly boring and nipple coverers merely made him long for more colourful outfits, with ironic messages or amusing graphics. Or perhaps he was just "Jensen can touch my hat and live to tell about it"-in love with the man.

"Jensen? What's up?"

"Yeah, JJ, what's cooking?"

Jensen held up his hands in a grand gesture for silence, while bouncing on the pads of his feet like an energiser bunny getting ready for take off. "Pentagon! They're willing to deal! They're willing --Oh, this'll be so good! - to 'find' us. We'll do the whole 'captured by the enemy' spiel, we'll be 'found'--" He bunny-eared freely. "--by 'American troops’ and return as 'heroes'!" Possibly he was bunny-earing a little too freely. "Bolivia was a 'tragic misunderstanding', not 'our fault' at all! We're talking 'interviews', 'talk shows' - Oprah, Ricky Lake, Doctor Phil. Books, maybe a movie! Chris Evans can play me. Unless I play me, which would like, totally rock. My friends will write fics about us! We could--"

Clay raised a hand firmly and Jensen broke off his happy litany. Cougar smiled. He knew perfectly well that the lack of talking would only last for ten seconds tops, unless Clay started issuing orders, but at least this proved that Jensen could be taught. True, it had some drastic methods involving cold water sprays to teach him, but in the end their effort had paid off.

//Talks in his sleep; talks in the shower; talks when he eats; talks when I'm stitching him up. Nice voice, though. Will he keep up a running commentary in bed? I wouldn't mind.//

"The Pentagon contacted you?"

Jensen bounced again, grinned like a loon and waved the paper suggestively.

"Hallelujah," Pooch breathed. "We can go home!"

Cougar's heart tightened. Home ... //Bring Jensen to my hideout outside Austin. Just the two of us. Enough booze so that he can be quiet and I can talk. Put my hand on his knee, keep it there, see how he reacts. If he doesn't pull away, move it higher.// Plan.

He was almost convinced that his advance would be welcome. But again, he'd wait things out like a good sniper should, never risking a shot until there was no chance in hell he could miss.

"I sense an 'if' here," Roque said. Cougar nodded his agreement. "What do they want from us? Is it a suicide mission? Wet work? What?"

"No, no, no!" Jensen bounced some more, still waving the paper.

Cougar had never had sex with a man. To tell the truth he felt slightly daunted by the concept. On the other hand, the mere thought of having all that seemingly inexhaustible energy focused on him had kept him company on many a long, still snipe-out.

"That's the beauty of it," Jensen continued, clutching the paper to his chest. "It's not even a suicide mission. I mean, like, twenty guys, tops, maybe thirty if you count the goons, which I think we should, because they have the guns. Anyway, they're just in a hurry, it goes down just after midnight and we're the only group close enough! Yeah, yeah, Mr Spielberg might have to rewrite the script to make it more exciting. He'll probably add some half-naked women with really enormous breasts. Too bad Aisha's not here, she'd so be a love interest, but I ain't complaining. Ears, brrr. Cougar, you better watch out so they don't make you a lady cougar instead. Carlita or something. Don't worry, as long as they keep the hat you'll still be hot."

"Hallelujah!" Pooch repeated.

"What about Max?" Roque grumbled, but then he shrugged. "Nah, forget it, I just want to get us home."

"Details," Clay demanded and reached out for the paper. Jensen slipped the document behind his back and puckered his lips for a kiss. "Jensen!"

"Oh, you're no fun, Colonel. All right, then. Guess. Come on, guess. You'll never guess what they want us to do. Not in a million years!"

Cougar, finding himself, as so often, in a strategic position, deftly snatched the paper.

"Cougar! You're spoiling my fun! Okay, you can look, but don't tell them. OK, Cougs? I want to tell them!"

Cougar grunted assent. He had mostly just wanted to tease Jensen anyway, and had been a bit curious as to what mess this new, all-important mission would land them into. He hoped they wouldn't go somewhere cold again - though that time in Norway when he'd climbed into Jensen's bed to avoid frost bites was a fond memory. The paper was a printed e-mail, with a sender address he recognized from some of Jensen's rants as one of his Pentagon hacker buddies. Other than that he noted several attachments and a handful of compact paragraphs. He scanned the latter. Then he read them again, more carefully this time, but they still held no discernible meaning. //[This doesn't make any sense.]//

"We're going to stop the apocalypse!" Jensen squeed and continued in a song-song: "We're going to stop Cthulhu! We're going to stop Cthulhu!"

Minus three hours.

"Jensen? " Clay asked in his most sensible tone of voice. "Why are you and Cougar wearing matching 'All Hail Cthulhu'-t-shirts?"

Blue eyes blinked up at him with an innocence which would have been adorable on a baby seal and was kind of cute on a black-ops specialist as well. "In case they succeed, of course! If Cthulhu conquers the world we want to be on the winning side, don't we, Cougs?"

Cougar, in fact, only wore the intensely yellow t-shirt because Jensen had told him to put it on and because to do so would annoy Roque to no end. Maybe it wasn't quite like wearing Jensen's letter jacket, but Cougar hadn't received that many presents in his life that a t-shirt from Jensen was something to sneer at.

"The Pooch's question is," Pooch mumbled, "where the fuck did he even get them matching 'All Hail Cthulhu'-t-shirts?"

"Special delivery. Got one for you too, Pooch! And you, Colonel. And you too, oh Roquest of Roques!"

"Colonel, Jensen's rooting for the enemy and he's brainwashed Cougar. I vote for shooting him in the head. Cougar we can try to reprogram."

"Jensen!" Clay growled. "A: Cthulhu is not real!"

"That's what they want you to believe," Jensen chirped, pointing at Clay with a stockinged foot. "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'ngl fhtagn, ya know?"

"Cthulhu is a monster from a horror book!"


"It's fiction, Jensen! Fiction! Like those soft porn stories you read off the internet! It's a book!"

"The bible's a book too, Colonel, you don't hear me calling it fiction."

"Oh, I'll pretend you never even went there, Jensen! And B: as idiotic as I feel even saying this, our mission is to stop that crazy sect from bringing forth Cthulhu and we damn well will stop the bastards!"

"Sure, sir, whatever you say, sir! I really hope so. Because I really don't want to live in a world ruled by Cthulhu. Just in case, though, can you pronounce R'lyeh?"

Minus 40 minutes.

On Lexington's outskirts, a stone throw from the Kentucky Horse Park, lay the Temple of Cthulhu. Of course, the congregation wasn't registered as worshippers of the Great Old Ones, but as The Church Of Eternal Waiting: eternal as in a thousand years anyway, as apparently the ritual awakening could only be performed once a millennium, during a span of less than ten minutes, when the stars were just right. The preparations had taken the Grand and Esoteric Order of Cthulhu well over a decade of careful planning, hard work and considerable moolah.

Roque was all for ignoring the stupid nonsense, let the idiots do their worst for ten minutes, then bash the fuckers over the head when they came out, tails between their legs. Jensen, however, had been very vocally against that. Of course, he was always very vocal, but in the end the others had been forced to acknowledge his insistence that if they didn't actively work to prevent the upcoming apocalypse, maybe TPTB wouldn't keep their word. Also, Jensen's pout when he accused them of not wanting him to become a movie star was very convincing. So, less than an hour before the appointed time the Losers penetrated the temple ground, ready to save the world - again.

The Grand and Esoteric Order of Cthulhu was filthy rich but tiny in numbers. Jensen speculated that maybe if Dan Brown had written about The Millennium Ritual, rather than the Da Vinci Code, the ranks would have swelled, as Brown seemed to appeal more to the masses than Lovecraft. According to his hasty research the sect relied on information handed down for countless generations, since the last millennium ("So they tried before, but it didn't work. Maybe they found out what they did wrong back then, the old 'should have turned upside down'-thing or whatever. Or maybe they just decided to change something willy-nilly, see if that works better. A thousand years are a bit steep for iterative testing if you ask me, but to each their own.")

Hired goons patrolled the outside. Cougar made quick work of most of the gorillas using knock-out arrows, then let the others earn their keep by hauling away the unconscious bodies out of immediate sight, just in case. Only the final two required a more hands on approach, courtesy of Roque, so that was easily enough accomplished. The five crept into the inner part of the temple with a good quarter of an hour to spare.

Cougar did what cougars do best: he headed for high ground.

The inner dome was about fifteen square meters. At the top the red marble walls arched inwards, giving the impression of a man-made cave. Red sand covered the floor and strong, white light flooded the area from an eclectic mix of fluttering torches and cold electricity, but there were no windows. Normally the open brightness would have made it a little more complicated for Cougar to sneak up to his favourite altitude. Luckily the twenty believers and their high priest were completely engrossed in their strange dance (in Cougar's opinion the shuffles and claps looked suspiciously like aerobics) and energetic chanting. To him the strange words did sound a lot like the calling ritual Jensen had rattled off earlier.

Minus ten minutes.

//Strangest mission ever,// Cougar thought idly. Which was saying a lot, considered Antarctica and Maine. He had found a nice little ledge to lie on, just below where the walls arched inwards to form the ceiling, which crested several feet above him. From this vantage point he had an excellent view of the unfolding events. He hardly even needed his scope, but used it anyway, of course. One of the nearby torches burned with a strong, musky scent that scratched at his nose. The generated heat nearly bordered on uncomfortable. In his ear, Jensen kept up a constant chatter, in a voice so low it was nearly sub-vocal, had it not been for Cougar's sharp ears.

"One and two and three and four and five and six, that's 21, that's the high priest and the top members of the organisation. Well, it's pretty much the entire cult, how easy do you think it is to find 20 other nut cases who also want to bring about the Apocalypse and the downfall of civilisation as we know it?"

Cougar found Jensen's ability to say all that in a single breath a little scary - but also, undeniably, potentially very erotic.

"Yeah, yeah, they talk about the peace and safety of a new dark age, but I think the keyword there is 'dark', don't you think? And two wears red and three wears green and four wears blue and five wears yellow and six wears white. First three should be enough for anyone, if you ask me, I can make works of art with RGB any day of the week, give me just 16 bits and 32 or even better 64 and I'll show you a rainbow you've never seen before - heh, that rhymed - and the guy in black is the head banana. Whatever you do, Cougs, take him out before he tosses that giganormous diamond into the bowl, that's what starts the whole knocking on Cthulhu's gate thing. There's a cold one in it for you."

Cougar obediently lined up his SR-25 for a head shot. He noted that the leader's pupils were pin points, the man blinked constantly and drops of sweat ran down his face.

"The bowl in the middle, the one they're circling, it's like 30.000 years old or something, before the last ice age anyway. It's made from meteor rock formed in a bath of blood from willing virgins. What a waste of willing virgins and it must've taken forever to make, we're talking Mu here, man. The meteor bowl's filled with sand from all over the world, collected grain by grain, one from each beach and it has to be filled new each time and can you imagine last time they did this? Or maybe some viking, let's call him Erik Eriksson or something, that's Eriksson with a k and an o and two s. Anyway, like, about a thousand years ago, it's not exactly a thousand years, it all depends on the stars and it's not easy to keep track of, but I'm fairly sure they did their math right this time. Anyway, he's going in his long boat with this really cool dragon head, from beach to beach, going 'Oh, here's one grain' and 'Oh, here's one grain' and 'Here's another damn grain and, oh, say, do you have any willing virgins around here?' Say, Cougs, all this talk about willing virgins makes me kinda horny. When the movie premieres, I bet the chicks will really throw themselves all over us, eh?"

The litany had Cougar smiling. His thoughts had brushed along the subject of willing virgins too, but more along the line of himself never having had sex with a man. If Jensen wanted a willing virgin, Cougar was in a position to oblige.

With his non-dominant eye he took a quick stock of his friends. Everyone was in place, ready to move in.

"And that bling bling he's kissing, it's a diamond. It's called The Eye of R'leyh, which doesn't make any kind of sense at all, because R'leyh is a place, not someone with an eye, Cthulhu's got a house there, where he waits, dreaming. Or so they say, I bet he's hung over from too much partying. I mean, they say he's dead too, so what do they know? Any-ho, see how blue it is? That's boron in it, that makes it a semiconductor too, that's part of everything. A blue diamond sold for 9.5 million US dollars a few years back and it was only 7 carats. We could split this spiffy baby in five and be rich forever. It's bigger than the Kooh-I-Noor, the Hope, the Mazarin stone - though the Mazarin stone wasn't real, it's part of Sherlock Holmes canon. Did you know that The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone was one of only two Holmes stories Doyle wrote in third person? They rewrote it for the TV show; I didn't like that at all. They mixed it up with The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, which was a real waste, 'cause that's one of my favourites. Mycroft did all the detecting in the TV version, Sherlock was hardly in it at all. Brett was the best Holmes ever, of course, but I love Sherlock, like, it's epic. And if we don't deal with Cthulhu, there won't be any more Sherlock episodes, which will, like, really suck."

Cougar, who had spent a few baffled hours with his hat held hostage so he would keep quiet while Jensen watched the show (the way Jensen had clutched the hat during the more intense moments made Cougar forgive the normally fatal sin of hatnapping), agreed.

Minus six minutes.

A blood bath began.

"Just let them cut themselves. They're not suicidal or anything, and they're half-stoned anyway, so don't worry. The blood's just a ceremonial offering to the keeper of the gate. That's stupid. I mean, sure, human blood, slurp, I'm sure he likes that, but if you ask me he'd prefer some really kinky hentai. Just let them bleed, they'll be out for the count and then we only have the leader, Mr. I Thought This Was A Good Idea, to deal with. Okay, remember, Cougs, it's Scht, like you're hawking and then spit it out and huluh. Yeah, yeah, Lovecraft says its Khlul-hloo, but what does he know? 'The syllables were determined by a physiological equipment wholly unlike our, hence could never be uttered perfectly by human throats' - my pink ass. All hail Cthulhu, Cthulhu, Cthulhu."

Cougar wasn't quite sure Jensen was right, as some of those sprays looked pretty arterial to him. Not that he particularly cared about a bunch of locos who wanted to jump-start the Apocalypse bad enough to use scalpels on themselves. No skin off his nose.

Minus five minutes.

"I'm on it," Jensen announced.

Electric yellow moved into Cougar's peripheral vision, very loud amongst the more subdued hues worn by the cult members.

By then most of the nut cases had toppled to their knees or lay out cold. Cougar wondered idly if the red sand had been selected specifically to hide the blood pools that his sensitive nose hinted at must be spreading. In the center remained the black-clad high priest, holding the - to quote Jensen - "giganormous" diamond. The man, from what Jensen's Pentagon pal had written, was otherwise a respectable member of society, father of three with a high-ranking job, trophy wife and hardly a parking ticket to his name. What had made him want to bring back the Great Old Ones was anyone's guess. Maybe he'd had a bad childhood. The man chanted gutturally - "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'ngl fhtagn" - lifting the Eye of R'lyeh towards the domed ceiling. The receiver in Cougar's headset clicked delicately, informing Cougar that his friend had adjusted the volume so that Cougar wouldn't get a nasty surprise when Jensen spoke out loud. Jensen could be very sweet like that.

"Hi, nice to meet you. No, no, I'm with you, I can prove it - look at my T-shirt. See? All hail Cthulhu! Spiffy blingbling you've got there, can I just have a look at it, thanks, I'll-- Cou!"


"Thanks, Cou, I knew you love me."

//Si, corazon.//

The annoying part was, of course, that Jensen always said stuff like that. Even to Roque, who threatened to cut off his nostrils. So such a casual love acceptance didn't necessarily mean much. Yet, each time Cougar heard such a declaration the words felt like a soothing caress over some aching, wild part of himself.

The other three jogged out from the sidelines. Once they reached the congregation they worked their way towards the center, using pistol butts and knife hilts on anyone not yet out cold.

Minus three minutes.

Clay sounded very satisfied when he made his pronunciation of: "Outstanding!"

"No, no, no, no, no, no, no!" Jensen protested, making abortive gestures. "Let me, let me, let me! Announcement time!"

Cougar found himself grinning. End of a successful mission and Jensen would do something fun for their amusement. Even Roque didn't protest until after Jensen had held one of his announcements. Cougar, ready to let that beloved voice flow through him, kept his teammate in sight - finger on the trigger guard, of course.

Jensen cleared his throat and rounded the strange bowl to face them all. "See here, in the sand. C for Cthulhu?"

Cougar moved the sight and, sure enough, drawn in the mostly white sand was an elegant C, by the width and depth of the grove written with a finger. Then a hand - unmistakably Jensen's, Cougar recognized those long, elegant digits blindfolded - reached in and smoothened out the sand, obliterated the single character written on it.

"First of all, I want you guys to know that I love you all."

// Yo también te quiero, corazon.//

"Once more, the natural order of things is restored and the Losers rule! Then, I would like to personally thank you guys, profoundly, for your part in saving the world from the rule of Cthulhu, may his suction cups dry out and his tentacles cramp. I wouldn't have liked it; you wouldn't have liked it and, to be honest, I don't know if Cthulhu really would have liked it either, old Fish Face's a bit of a schmuck. Anyway, I only have two more minutes, so I really want to say that it has been an honour and a privilege to serve with you. I've really enjoyed myself, well, not the Max thing, and Roque, you're still scary as fuck, but I've had great fun, I really have. And--"

//That sounds like goodbye,// Cougar realised with growing alarm. //He's quitting the team?//

The idea felt foreign: impossible. Of course, if they got their identities back, they'd be able to get other works, to live "real" lives, but ... Once a Loser, always a Loser. Without Jensen, they'd just be, they'd be ... just some losers. What would Cougar do?

In the next instance he knew exactly what he would do. If Jensen left, he'd leave with a Cougar-shaped shadow. //[As simple as that.]// Stomach-muscles Cougar hadn't even been aware of tensing started to gradually relax.

"-- I will always remember you with affection, but you keep telling me I don't actually have to talk in order to breathe--"

//[I never did!]//

"-- and I really must stop talking now, because I've run out of time, so all I wanted to say is, that, like, goodbye, all right? Goodbye."

//That doesn't sound like he's leaving the team. That sounds final. As if we'll never see him again. Ever.//

Cougar wasn't sure, but his sniper senses alerted violently for ... danger? He glanced around, trying to find whatever had set off his alarm.

//Fuck it! Not now! And what is that crazy white boy talking about?!//

Could a member of the congregation be more aware than they seemed? Not the head honcho, that was for sure. Cougar's shot had taken perfect 10 center, no getting up from that, unless they suddenly found themselves as extras in a zombie movie. //Jensen'd love that.//

He saw movement - but only from Jensen, who reached out again to touch the white sand.

Cougar found himself strangely unable to look away, as Jensen's long index finger drew, not a C such as the one he had already erased, but a different character: elegant and stylized. It was a J.

//What is that silly boy up to now?//

But through the scope he saw Jensen - and he saw Jensen's eyes, which had just started to glow.

"Not all of me actually wants to do this," Jensen said, in a voice with a slightly different timbre than his own. The radiance from his eyes shone increasingly brighter by the second. "And yet I must. I have waited a thousand years for this."

And then he flicked the Eye of R'leyh towards the bowl.

Cougar clearly saw the giganormous diamond tumble through the air - slowly, as if time itself had slowed down. He saw the cut sides of the blue stone reflect and glitter and - yes - he could have taken the shot.

The trajectory was easy to follow; the speed child's play for a man who kept up his skill by shooting small insects. However, beyond the glimmer of the Eye of R'leyh glowed two other diamond eyes, in an even more intense, brighter shade of blue - the Eyes of Jake Jensen.

He couldn't take the shot.

And then the diamond fell.

And then it was too late.

The Eye of R'lyeh landed in the Sand of a Thousand Beaches with a thunk like an echo of thunder across the world.

In the oddly overwhelming silence which followed, Cougar couldn't even hear the frantic pumping of his adrenaline-chased heart: he could only feel the squeeze in his chest like a grenade about to explode.

A sphere of slowly expanding sunlight spilled from the ancient bowl. Or to Cougar it appeared as if the light expanded slowly anyway, yet when he forced his stiff muscles to act, he hadn't more than lifted his fingers from his rifle, when the sphere had already reached the rim of the room and surged towards him.

The light didn't burn, it only engulfed him, but by then he had already fallen.

With ten meters to the thin layer of red sand below and strangely paralysed Cougar knew that he might be falling to his death - but perhaps that was just as well.


J-Day + 5.

//What a crazy dream!// was Cougar's first thought on waking.

//I shouldn't have let Jensen convince me we needed to watch The Call of Cthulhu before going to bed,// was his second.

While he had a vague memory of a nightmare just before waking up, the specific details already started to elude him. Something about Jensen leaving the team in some pretty fucked up, spectacular way, that was all.

//Puta, this bed is sweet,// was his third thought. The bed really was perfect; giving in exactly the right amounts in exactly the right places, the pillow firm and both the sheet and the blanket fresh and soft, yet warm and comfy. It even smelled nice. Just because he could lie immobile for hours at a time during a snipe didn't mean he preferred discomfort.

He hoped idly that they'd stay a while wherever they were - he could be friends with this bed. For some reason his mouth tasted sweetish, almost unpleasantly so. //What did I eat last night?// For the space of a held breath he burrowed, then he blindly reached out, found the hat and opened his eyes as he put it on.

"You do realise that we can see you without the hat even if you can't see us, don't you?" Jensen occasionally teased him. "You're not a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, you know." Which was entirely too complicated to understand without coffee, but to wake up to Jensen-babble was an essential part of any good morning in Cougar's world.

He found himself in an anonymous hotel room of the slightly better kind, at least three digits a night. The ceiling was white, the carpet pale green and the wall paper sand yellow in some discreet pattern. There were two king-sized beds with matching beddings in white and pale green. A small, mahogany table stood between them. Opposite to the beds were a dark brown desk with a small chair in front and a mirror on the wall above. There was also a cabinet with a television on top. He could see two doors, at a guess presumably one leading out and one to a bathroom. Pooch lay in the opposite bed.

Cougar blinked. If Pooch and Roque had argued, - which they did, if rarely - that meant he got to bunk with Roque as Jensen was otherwise likely to get his tongue cut off in his sleep. A stray notion occurred to Cougar and unexpectedly took hold. //Did Jensen and I fight?//

//No.// On the very rare occasions that he and Jensen argued (or, rather, Jensen argued at Cougar while Cougar would never confess to eating the last of Beth's cookies. Besides, everyone knew that cookies went bad if you didn't eat them within 48 hours after having seen them), they always resolved their disagreement before bedtime (Cougs would never confess to eating the last cookies, but he could make Jensen's favourite hot sandwiches and wash Jensen's at that point honestly rather disgusting coffee mug) or, again, Cougar would have been the one to bunk with Roque. Still, his current roomie was unmistakably the Pooch, against all expectations. Unless ...

//I didn't come on to him, did I?//

This new notion and the possible ramifications thereof made his skin crawl. Cougar's worst nightmare was that Jensen would take a come-on badly, no matter how carefully planned and executed. If the tech rejected him violently and subsequently didn't even trust him enough to sleep in the same room as him, well ... the next trigger Cougar pulled might very well be at a slightly awkward angle.

//Stupid cat! Tranquilo! Now remember what the fuck happened last night!//

He took a second to look around, hoping for anything to jog his memory. //Maybe I took a hit and they dumped me here?// A hopeful notion occurred to him. //Maybe the Pooch did too and that's why he's here as well?//

The room was poorly lit, partly by a weak lamp over the mirror and also from light penetrating through the curtains pulled over the window on the other side of his bed. He could barely make out that Pooch lay supine, breathing evenly.

//On his back?//

That was off, too. Pooch always slept on his right side. Cougar might not bed in the same room as the man if Jensen was a viable alternative, but the team often only had one room/cave/tent/desert sand between them and all the Losers knew and respected one another's sleeping habits. If the Pooch moved in the night he would shift to a prone position or to his left. He only ever lay on his back while reading or if sedated.

The memory thing started to get very bothersome.

//The Pooch looks ok,// he judged, but while the light was comfortable for sleeping the faintly yellowish tint wouldn't let him catch the finer details of his teammate's health. Cougar rose, feeling a lingering lethargy, like the tail of a hang-over, but without the headache. He ran his tongue around his mouth, to try to dislodge the sweetish taste, but to no avail. //Feels like I went to sleep with a mouthful of cotton candy.//

On reaching the window he swept the curtains aside and took a final step closer to look outside.

"La puta madre."

Cougar stepped out from the bedroom to find his CO with 2iC playing cards across the living room table. The room followed the same colour scheme as the bedroom, with green carpet floor, sand yellow walls, dark brown furniture and light green details. He noted a kitchen alcove and a second door to the right, while a third door led straight ahead. The chairs around the table were comfy-looking and in the same sandy yellow shade as the walls. There was a flat big-screen TV, much larger than the one in the bedroom, in front of a brown leather sofa.

Clay and Roque at once rose and he stared at them as they approached him. They both looked drawn. Roque's left wrist was wrapped in gauze and Clay's lips were puffy. Strangely enough, Clay wore a purple, pink-striped silk shirt and Roque a skin-tight, pale blue t-shirt bearing the slogan "If I don't sleep, nobody sleeps!"

"Cougs, good to see you awake!"

"You looked out the fucking window, didn't you?"

Slowly, he nodded.

"Cougs, how are you? Physically?"

"Is the Pooch still out?"

He nodded again, yes to all their questions. His superiors reached out to touch his shoulders in that age-old way of soldiers reassuring themselves that one of their own remained amongst the living. Cougar opened his mouth in aborted words before he finally forced out: "Una pesadilla."

They both shook their heads. Clay said "Not exactly a nightmare" a moment before Roque gave his own opinion on the matter as: "We're still living it."

"You might want to sit," Clay said, reaching out as if wanting to take hold of Cougar's elbow, but Cougar had already started to move towards the table.

"We don't have much, but we do have beer," Roque added. "Weak as dog piss, but it's beer."

Coffee would have been nice. Considering the circumstances beer sounded bloody fantastic.

Step after step, Cougar walked until he reached the table. Then he dropped into one of the chairs, slid his legs out in front of him and stared blindly ahead. When a Coronita appeared hanging in the air before him, courtesy of Roque, he grabbed the opened bottle automatically, tilted his head back and relaxed his throat. A slice of lemon might have improved the taste, but at the moment he wasn't feeling picky.

Half a bottle later, he asked: "Pooch, boss?"

"In some kind of coma. As were all of us. Roque and I've been up since yesterday."

"Jensen?" To get the name across his lips was difficult, even by Cougar's usual taciturn standards.


Cougar felt his eyebrows lift in response.

"Jensen?" he tried again, hoping that neither of his team-mates would comment on the faintly pleading tone in his voice.

Wearing identical, grim looks the others shook their heads. Cougar up-ended the Coronita and let the beer drain down his throat. At the exact same moment he placed the bottle on the table the door he had guessed led out opened.

As if the utterings of his name had summoned him, Jensen entered.

Only it wasn't Jensen.

Jensen never moved with such utter, seamless grace. Oh, their tech wasn't actually clumsy, though he easily gave that impression, but he slouched a little and bopped a lot: a bundle of raw energy in constant need of an outlet. Jensen wore funny t-shirts and roomy shorts. This Jensen wore sleek black, glittering faintly in gold. His eye colour remained the same - but this Jensen's eyes lacked the black and white components normally associated with human ocular organs.

Cougar's stomach contracted painfully. He wanted to not believe his eyes, but as a sniper he relied too much on them to disregard their input.

"Sergeant Carlos Alvarez," said the non-Jensen. The name cut to Cougar's soul. Jensen all but never used his full name, not even when scolding him.

"I have already explained to Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Clay and Captain William Roque. You will pay attention."

Cougar met the otherworldly gaze even though his every nerve screamed at him to get away from a very real danger. Roque had said that they were still living the nightmare and suddenly Cougar understood all too well what he had meant.

"The world you knew no longer exists. I am Jenkharsten. I rule this planet. You might as well mourn Jensen: he is no more. I have, however, found that I retain some lingering affection for this team of his. Until I no longer do, I require your presence here. Do not be unduly alarmed. Behave and your stay will be in reasonable comfort. Afterwards you will be allowed to leave. Do not misbehave. You have understood?"

The voice was precise and with a faintly darker pitch than usual. Cougar had to suppress a full-body shiver. Wanting to scream a protest he instead nodded numbly.

"I insist that you show respect by answering verbally. Fail to do so and you will regret yourself, Sergeant Carlos Alvarez. Have you understood?"

Cougar blinked. Instinct screamed at him to drop eye-contact, as if the being before him was some feral dog, prone to otherwise attacking. There was danger there, very clearly. Still he couldn't force himself to break contact with those bizarre eyes.

"Yes ... Jen-ah-kar-sten," he managed, stumbling through the unfamiliar sound-combination.

Apparently his effort was deemed acceptable, as the non-Jensen inclined its head. "Sergeant Linwood Porteous will wake up in approximately four or five days’ time. Being near the center of my Ascension, you were all exposed to eldritch radiation. Sergeant Linwood Porteous unfortunately proved sensitive, as were you, Sergeant Carlos Alvarez, if to a lesser extent. Now that you have woken up, there should be no side-effects." While the speech was long, it lacked the near-manic tone of intense glee that normally accompanied Jensen-babble. "I will return when Sergeant Linwood Porteous wakes."

Whereupon the non-Jensen turned and briskly marched back the way he had come.

Once the thud of the closing door had died out the remaining, conscious Losers simultaneously reached for more beer from the six-pack of Coronitas.

Cougar drained half his bottle, holding the glass steadily to make sure that his hand didn't shake. Then he finally gave in to his overwhelming impulse on seeing Jenkharsten and crossed himself. Finally he turned to what for years had been the most stable point in his world. "Boss?"

But Clay just shook his head.

"I don't know, Cougar. I just don't know."

Nothing more was said until towards the end of the next six-pack.

"I woke up first," Clay said. "Looking out scared me nearly shitless. Roque came to about an hour later. And then he came in soon after we started talking."

Clay raised a hand to his swollen lip. "Let's just say that we didn't take him as calmly as you did, Cougar."

Rouge snorted and touched his bandaged his wrist meaningfully. Cougar realised that there must have been an altercation.

"As prisons go," Clay continued, "we've all been in worse. The kitchen is stacked and refills overnight. We get new clothes every morning as well." He added the last a bit ruefully, fingering the purple silk. Roque made an annoyed noise and glared at Cougar as if daring him to comment on the t-shirt. "We stole your deck of cards while you were out of it."

Cougar nodded forgiveness.

"He told us that you'd wake up today and that the Pooch would take even longer, though he didn't tell us why, so that's good to know, whatever that radiation thing is about. Right. We've been looking at possible escape routes. We have to wait for Pooch to wake up."

There was, needless to say, no talk about leaving the Pooch behind. As one of their many mottos said: you never leave another Loser behind.

"The door is easily jimmied, but there's two guards outside. Big black mothers, armed with stun guns and knock out darts. They're at a distance too, so we can't just storm them. Going through the windows might be easier, but it's a bit of a drop - and I'd like to know what that blue sand is before I step on it. There's guards outside too."

Cougar nodded. From what he'd heard so far it was a good set up to keep them in. And, yes, to drag the Pooch along in his unconscious state would be problematic, unless they deemed it completely necessary. Besides, he wasn't quite ready to leave just yet, not before he knew more of what was up with Jensen or whatever/whoever currently possessed his body.

Boredom followed.

For the next few days the three of them ate, drank and played cards. Escape plans were hatched, but none deemed viable. Occasionally they took extended baths simply to pass time. The bathrooms were quite luxurious, equipped with both shower stall and a bath tub long enough even for Roque to stretch out in. Cougar took the times in immersion to think deeply about the mess they found themselves in and to consider their past, searching hard for any clue of Jensen's hidden nature. In hindsight it was all too easy to interpret his sometimes inexplicable actions as less ADHD and more Alien.

Even to a sniper the boredom soon felt a bit mindless. The number of days in themselves weren't much to write home about, but on a mission there was at least a shot to prepare. Here he could do nothing.

Occasionally one of them would look out the windows, but for most part the curtains stayed drawn.

J-Day + 8.

"Jenakarthasasen?" Cougar asked Clay on the third day. The question had bugged him for some time.

Clay frowned, then shook his head. "Jenkharsten."

Cougar concentrated. "Jenkha-arstein?"

"No. Je-nkh-ar-sten."



Cougar nearly yelped at the unexpected, smooth reply from behind him. For a second he stared at his own surprise echoed in Clay's suddenly stiff stance and widened eyes. Then he pivoted to find himself face to face with the Supreme Ruler of Earth, ex-Jensen, all hail Jenkharsten. His stomach clenched hard and he hastily lowered his eyes, unnerved by the too wide, too blue stare. He had decided to make an effort not to antagonise Jenkharsten, as that seemed his best option to find an answer to the questions that were constantly on his mind.

"Why was my name called? I require an answer."

"I--" Cougar heard his own voice and forced his lips to keep moving. "--didn't know how to pronounce your name." He risked a glance up. The being stared coldly at him, seeming to expect a fuller explanation. It wore a dark blue sweater today, grey slacks and loafers. "Clay told me," he quickly clarified. He realised that he was babbling uncontrollably when a third sentence emerged from his mouth: "I didn't know you heard."

"Acceptable. Refrain from doing so unnecessarily in the future. Sergeant Linwood Porteous will sleep for approximately two or three days. I will return at that point. Do you require any information prior to that?"

For some reason the question seemed aimed at him, rather than to everyone in general, so Cougar nodded and risked another quick glance up. Then he asked the one thing which had burned at him ever since he had first seen those terrible, alien eyes. "Was there ever a Jensen?"

That was the angle and the wind speed, as well as the air pressure, the temperature, the visibility, the distance and the humidity of it all. Had Jensen been Jenkharsten from the start or had Jenkharsten taken over Jensen's body at some point? Was Jensen trapped somewhere behind those monstrous eyes? The answer was of vital importance for Cougar's future plans.

He realised that some might have found his question a bit cryptic. Possibly he should have expanded more to explain better. On the other hand - if Jenkharsten really ever had been Jensen, Jensen would have known what he meant. Jensen was the only man in the world non-native, yet fluent at Cougar-speech.

In the shining gaze he saw a hint of something ... familiar.

"No," Jenkharsten replied, the word a little softer than anything he had said so far. "I am all there ever was."

Cougar filed the answer away to be considered in depth later, but he knew that he needed time to process the possible ramifications. Right now he had to concentrate. An opportunity seemed to have presented itself and he needed to press on.

"Jolene?" The question would be the first thing out of Pooch's mouth. They'd better have an answer ready for him or there'd be hell to pay.

"Alive. Safe."

"Jessica? Beth?"

"Servants of mine. Jenthiska rules Southern America now and M-Bethaali rules Australia."

For a second all Cougar could think of was sweet little Beth, "Tiny" as her proud uncle most often referred to her as, running up to him when he followed Jensen home between missions, squeeing in his ear with apparent joy of seeing him, and declaring that she wanted a sniper just like him when she grew up. He'd even given her a sniper doll for Christmas, and then he'd heard from Jessica that she'd had to sew the sniper doll a hat, because Tiny insisted that all the best snipers had such hats.

//Stupid cat!// he berated himself. //No time for that now. Hurry!// He dropped his gaze, eyes on the material covering Jenkharsten's knees. "Your affection for ... Jensen's team. May I beg a boon?"

The Jensen of old would have joked about cougars being feline, not canine, and he hoped for some reaction. //Clay'll watch. He'll tell me if Jen ... kharsten reacts.// To see for himself would have been best, but he knew to the marrow that a show of deference would get a better result.

"I make no promises. You may ask."

The curt words from a voice he was used to hear incessant babble from was rather unsettling. Cougar bent his neck a little further and shifted his weight from foot to foot to signal reluctance and nervosity. "May I have my scope, por favor, Je-nkh-ar-sten?" He pronounced the name as carefully as possible, syllable by syllable like Clay had earlier.


He glanced up, shifted his weight again and shrugged. "I'm going crazy." Which was utterly true: he felt ready to climb walls.

And maybe he could spot a shade of familiar understanding in the blue gaze.

"That might be possible."

"Maybe a few books?" Clay broke in.

"And some stronger booze," Roque quickly added.

Cougar could have growled at them - would growl at them, later. Not that he begrudged his friends some books and stronger booze, of course not, but by the time Roque had said his piece the hint of mildness his sharp sniper eyes had detected in the non-Jensen had abruptly vanished.

"Your requests will be considered," Jenkharsten said briskly, turned and left.

When the door had closed, Cougar turned and growled.

Clay held out his arms imploringly. "Sorry, but I'm going stir crazy too."

"Exactly," Roque added. The man had taken to carrying around one of the kitchen knives and stare at it pitifully. Besides, something stronger than beer would be nice for all three of them, Cougar had to admit.

He still gave them both the evil eye.

"And look!" Clay said, with sudden excitement.

A flat, dark grey object lay on the living room table, something that hadn't been there a minute ago. At first Cougar couldn't tell what he was seeing - then he recognized the device.

"A knittle?" Roque asked, with a sneer in his voice.

"Kindle," Clay corrected. He had already grabbed the e-book reader, slid it to active mode and was tapping fast. "There's a collection with 15 books on it. Yes, I like, I like, I haven't read, that's porn, no, yes, perfect. Surfing seems a no-go, though, it says it won't connect."

Perhaps this hadn't been exactly what had been asked for, but Clay sounded happy enough. Suddenly Roque stiffened and hurried over to the kitchen. Cougar heard the sucking noise from a refrigerator opening, followed by a heartfelt: "Yes!"

Cougar patted his breast pocket, where he sometimes kept a spare scope. On finding it flat he slipped into his and the Pooch's room and then whooped with joy when he saw what lay waiting for him.

Seconds later Clay and Roque looked in. They both grinned at the sight of their sniper in bed, Knight's Armament SR-25 in his arms and a near-beatific smile on his face.

J-Day + 11.

Since Cougar spent a good 80 percent of his time in the bedroom anyway - mostly prone with his bed pushed up to the window, surveying the world outside - he was automatically assigned Pooch-watch. However, since he was off mission, he occasionally got up: to eat, shower, fleece the others at cards, steal Clay's kindle and do whatever else they could think of to pass time.

He had just buttoned up his fly, when he heard the hoarse yell and rushed out to find a wild-eyed Pooch clinging to Clay, screaming about having been slipped drugs and seeing black octopuses floating in the sky. It took all three of them to manhandle Pooch onto the couch. Cougar sat down next to him and mostly shared his presence with a hand on Pooch's shoulder, patting occasionally and shaking his head that, no, Clay hadn't gone completely batshit insane. This was actually happening. Jensen had taken over the world. At the moment they were some sort of kept pets of Jensen's, until he tired of them.

"This is insane! Completely insane! You're all insane! We've all eaten poisonous mushrooms. These are all hallucinations! You're all mad! Jolene! I must get to Jolene, now! Jensen? Fuck that Jensenkhartsen crap! Fuck all of this, the Pooch is on his way out of this bloody lunatic asylum."

Pooch rose and headed towards the exit. Cougar got up to stop their transport specialist, but at that very moment the door opened, and Jenkharsten stepped through as if on cue. At seeing the well-known shape Cougar's heart skipped a beat.

"Oh my sweet God," Pooch said - and Cougar noticed a faint twitch at Jenkharsten's lips which might hide a smile. "What the fuck did you do to your fucking eyes, Jensen?"


The all-blue eyes made it difficult to be completely sure, but as far as Cougar could tell Jenkharsten's eyes were firmly on Pooch, so he took the opportunity to study what his former friend had become.

"Jenny-whatever. Where's Jolene? Are you behind this fucking madness?"

And then Pooch poked Jenkharsten in the chest.

//Que mala idea,// Cougar thought.

Jenkharsten looked down at the offending digit. "I realise that your team-mates have yet to inform you of your change in circumstances," he said, his voice so cold and precise that Cougar suppressed a shudder.

"Informed me? They babbled all kind of crazy nonsense! Outside looks like a fucking nightmare! What did you do, some virtual reality crap and trapped us inside?"

The theory impressed Cougar. It actually wasn't all that far fetched, all in all, taking into consideration Jensen's insatiable hunger for cool technology. He might even have been tempted to subscribe to the theory, if not for the intense non-Jensen vibe of Jenkharsten.

"Whatever you're getting off on, stop this!" Pooch yelled. And then there was more poking at the dark blue velvet shirt.

//Que mala idea,// Cougar repeated to himself. Not a good idea at all. The normally rather level-headed Pooch was being stupid and Jenkharsten's eyes were getting paler by the moment.

"You will cease this behaviour, Sergeant Linwood Porteous, or die in severe pain."

The threat was delivered with smooth, icy precision, yet sent so strong warning signals down Cougar's spine that answering rushes of cold sweat ran down his sides from his armpits. He desperately searched for words that would make Pooch understand what incredible danger he was in. Couldn't the man feel the near-electric tension? Seeing Clay and Roque's rapid approach in the corner of his eye he grabbed hold of Pooch's arm, intending to drag him away.

Pooch elbowed him sharply, with enough force to make him let go. Then the Pooch leaned into Jenkharsten's face. "Get me to Jolene! Now!"

And then he poked again.

Jenkharsten, eyes nearly white, retaliated with a sweeping blow that sent Pooch flying across the room, nearly knocking over Roque in the process. Cougar jumped back, muscles twitching in helpless indecision. Then the non-Jensen took a step in the direction of the Pooch's now limp body and Cougar's marrow screamed of impending bloodshed.

A sudden flash of knowledge, maybe from some deeply buried primal instinct, told him of the one option left that might still be even remotely viable.

Cougar threw himself on his knees before Jenkharsten.

For a second the world stopped.

"Don't kill him! Por favor, mi señor, he's confused, he just woke up, we hadn't told him about Jolene yet."

Realising that he was staring into Jenkharsten's changed eyes he demonstratively lowered his own and finally bent his neck. Saving Pooch goes before personal pride.

"Por favor, mi señor! We tell him. We explain. He's just scared for Jolene and the baby! He'll never do this again, I swear. Lenience, I beg of you!"

Under his spread fingers the linoleum felt cold and hard.

The strangest part was that he might have dreamed of being on his knees before Jensen, kneeling to him as he had never knelt to a man. He might even have dreamed of worshipping Jensen - he had just never figured he might do so quite as ... literally.

On the positive side, Jenkharsten stayed frozen in place.

"Por favor, mi señor?" Cougar asked again and raised his eyes as far as he could without moving his neck. Then he saw those long, elegant hands - fingers rolling like a professional pianist warming up before a concert. On seeing them some of that wire tenseness leaked out of him. Those were Jensen's hands! Cougar would have recognized that nervous tic from 700 yards without a scope. Some people would mouth words when agitated; some would gnaw their teeth; some would pace. With Jensen Cougar knew that if he could just put those hands to a keyboard, he would have every thought on Jensen's mind in writing, well over 100 words per minute and sprinkled with emoticons. He'd give his left nut to be able to read those swiftly moving fingers.

That he couldn't see more, however, had his adrenaline pumping. Would he see a frown? A leer? A wrinkled forehead? Nothing? He went as far as to seriously consider taking off his hat, maybe press it to his chest, but then the long fingers came to a sudden halt and he knew that a decision had been reached.

"Sergeant Carlos Alvarez, you may rise." The voice was still precise, but at least not laced with ice like before.

Cougar rolled to his feet. He kept his neck bent, though, eyes firmly fixed on the black jeans covering Jenkharsten's knees.

"You will inform Sergeant Linwood Porteous of the circumstances. His behaviour is now your responsibility. During my next visit I expect proper deference from all of you."

Cougar nodded. After a second he remembered the curt instruction for verbal responses and hastily added: "Yes, Jenkharsten."

Once ex-Jensen had left, Cougar turned to his remaining team-mates and, needing to know any least bit of information, no matter how irrelevant, raised an eyebrow to Clay.

"He reacted all right," Clay said with an affirmative nod. "Stared at you. Huge eyes. I think he swallowed. You saw the hands?"

Roque returned from where he had settled Pooch. "Probably surprised at how easy it was to get you on your knees," he said with a sneer. "Always knew he was a faggot."

Cougar glared and bared his teeth in a hiss.

"Roque!" Clay ordered. "Cougar - you too! Keep it together, Losers. What's the stat on Pooch?"

Cougar kept glaring at Roque, who returned the eyeballing with a vengeance, until Clay bapped them both over the head.

"Priorities, gentlemen! Glenfiddich Ancient Reserve first. We'll discuss what just happened later."


J-Day + 13.

"Eyes closed, Jensen," Cougar mumbled as he heard the hacker move around the room. "Sleep."

"I didn't mean to wake you, Carlos Alvarez," a well-known voice whispered.

Cougar's consciousness snapped online and he barely managed to control the reflexive grab for a rifle not even loaded. He must have been just conscious enough to identify the faint sounds of someone sneaking through the room and slot them into that narrow space of friendlies. Only ... Maybe this "friendly" wasn't exactly a friend any longer.

He saw Jenkharsten's silhouette in sharp contrast to the orangey light from the changed night sky shining in from the window. A glance to the opposite bed confirmed that Pooch was still fast asleep, perhaps also lulled into false security by the familiarity of the steps and even the hushed voice that sounded so very right. Or maybe he was just better than Cougar at recognizing the difference between Jensen and Jenkharsten, and had opted to play possum.

Cougar contemplated his options, then reached for his hat and sat up, girding his head. In important company to remove a hat might be more polite, but he banked on Jenkharsten knowing the importance of the hat and allowing what otherwise could have been considered a sign of disrespect.

"Jenkharsten," he said low by way of greeting. "We call you that?" He had called the whatever-Jenkharsten-was "mi señor" several times already, but he wasn't willing to offer the deference needlessly. And no matter that Jensen had "owned" him for months in any sense of the word that the man had expressed an interest in, if so far mostly in friendship.

"You may do so," came the reply. Even in the orange-tinted darkness Jenkharsten's eyes reflected blue in a way that human eyes simply shouldn't. Cougar only glanced at them, though, keeping his own eyes mostly averted. As for the statement, he interpreted the answer to be that, no, humans in general didn't say merely Jenkharsten, but were expected to add considerable deference. He decided to treat the familiarity as the privilege he suspected the name to be.

After a moment's hesitation he stood, letting the pale green blanket fall back on the bed. He had slept in just his boxers and felt oddly self-conscious in displaying his scarred body, even if he knew perfectly well that Jenkharsten-as-Jensen had seen every inch of him, repeatedly, - hell, had tenderly washed off his blood and shit, as necessary, after various wounds and incidents.

He also refused to feel embarrassed about his boxers, just because they happened to be decorated with little green alien heads. Glow-in-the-dark little green alien heads, at that. After all, they all dressed in clothes provided by whatever silent servant spirits that stocked their kitchen and bathroom with necessities. Cougar suspected that Jenkharsten actually decided himself on their wardrobe, amusing himself by selecting clothes sure to annoy Clay and drive Roque batty. Roque had worn the same shirt for three days now, rather than changing to an available alternative. He even slept with the sorry piece of cloth under his pillow.

"We're under house arrest?" The door out was locked and Clay had reported about guards outside, but no one had actually said as much, so he figured that a simple question couldn't hurt. It wasn't as if Jenkharsten didn't know that the day Cougar couldn't jimmy such a simple lock was the day he ate his hat.

Jenkharsten glanced at Pooch, then nodded his chin towards the door. Cougar padded after him. They slipped out into the living room, where Jenkharsten handed him a Norrlands Guld, Cougar's favourite (a discovery on a mission in Stockholm. Luckily they had visited Sweden during the summer or else he felt sure that he would have frozen his testicles off. The beer even had small white moose on it, which turned blue when the tin was at optimal drinking temperature - how cool was that?), which had not been in stock the night before, nor would not-Jensen have had time to retrieve the can from the kitchen if it had been. Accepting the offer Cougar curled up on the sofa, on Jenkharsten's left, where he usually sat. A quick check verified that the moose was properly blue.

"Yeah," Jenkharsten finally answered. "Lots of organisations are still working against me, even if things are stabilising. It's starting to click into place, but I have, like, a gazillion and fourteen things on my NTD-list. You distract me, so better you stay here."

Cougar nodded. "I'm good. Roque wants to hit sandbags." Not that he actually owed Roque to ask since Roque still teased him about kneeling to Jenkharsten, even if he had done so to prevent what they all agreed easily would have turned very bad.

Jenkharsten snorted. Something about the familiar sound told Cougar that Jenkharsten had understood just what Cougar meant: that the question he had asked was for Roque, not for Cougar. Small difference, but importance. "I might be able to swing somewhere you can run."

Somewhere which might also have sandbags, of course, they all liked those on occasion, but they wouldn't be there because Cougar had asked it on Roque's behalf.

"Gracias. Pooch's worried about Jolene." Not that he owed Pooch either, as Pooch seemed to view said kneeling as Cougar somehow being involved in Jensen's VR scheme gone horribly wrong. Some of the things he had said actually smarted, but Cougar hoped that his friend would soon come to his senses.

One of those horrendous caffeinated beers Jensen favoured, a Guatemalan Coffee Stout, had appeared in Jenkharsten's hand and he opened it with a fizz. He sniffed the bottle absentmindedly, like Jensen always did, making a face. "She's fine. She's with Jenthiska in the Jenthiskaia in Rio."

"He could email her?"

Cougar made sure to pronounce the statement like a question, to lead Jenkharsten in the right direction without making a demand or even a request. He was fairly sure that was the key to dealing with him and usually what he would have done earlier anyway, to nudge the hacker's hurricane thoughts in the right direction.

The next second Jenkharsten gestured wildly. "No, no, no! Oh, you had to say it, Cougar, didn't you? Ya had to say the e-word! Aaargh!" Caffeinated beer splashed over the living room table. "Oh, fuck me with a pole! Why did I do that? Oh, that was stupid! Cougar!"

Maybe Cougar clenched his can just a fraction too hard, making the soft metal bend under his fingers. On the other hand, he felt more relaxed than he had in well over a week.

"I've been trying to get it back up, but it's just not there yet. Do you get it? I haven't checked Twitter for over a week! Facebook thinks I'm dead! Well, no, because there is no Facebook! I haven't updated my LJ in forever and ever! I wanted to add to my LJ: Did today: Took over the world! I'm in withdrawal, Cougs! I knew it! I knew this would happen! Aargh! Before we headed out to the church, I trolled AO3 and downloaded six entire fandoms! The Coders would kill me if they knew I could do that! I would so get booted from Slack. Person of Interest, Supernatural, Smallville, From Eroica With Love, Merlin, Grimm! Otherwise I would be dead now - dead I tell you, Cougs! I've compiled huge lists of stories to give kudos to and I've written comments for copy-paste later. I've even read post-rift Smallville! I don't even like post-rift stories! I read Clark/Oliver!"

The words floated across Cougar's nerves like balm. Jensen-babble! He only understood about half of what was actually said, but he could recognize Jensen-babble from a block away during a gun fight.

Jenkharsten dropped back into the sofa, long legs sticking out. He took a long swig from that so-called beer of his, then pressed the presumably still cold bottle to his forehead.

"Tumblr!" he moaned. "Dreamwidth! I miss you so! I tell you, Cougs, at this point I'd trade gold for ten minutes at!"

Cougar felt like purring. //Jensen-babble! Jensen's still there! Jensen-babble!//

"You'll fix it," he consoled.

Jenkharsten turned towards him and smiled, just a little. "Of course I will. My Google kung fu is the best."

To Cougar most computer technology was indistinguishable from magic (even if Jensen had spent several hours attempting to teach him something that didn't even have vowels in its name). As far as he was concerned Jensen was a modern day reincarnation of Merlin. Even he, however, suspected that getting the internet back up had little to do with Google, which you use to search for porn.

A sound emanated from Clay and Roque's room. Jenkharsten looked over in that direction and then visibly took a deep breath.

"Well, I ... should get going. People to see; countries to subjugate. Well, not really, I sort of vanished all nukes and large bombs, so I think everyone got the hint that I’m playing for keeps. Max's still hiding, by the way, you can tell the others if you want. I haven't forgotten about him, though, don't you worry. Anyway, it's late, I ... Someone must have mumbled my name in their sleep or something. So I came to check. Well, and I owed you a cold one, didn't I? Um ... But, yes, sure, when I get the net back up - oh, please, let it be soon or I'll go postal, I swear I will, - when I get the net up I'll let the Pooch mail her."

He rose and performed that bone-breaking stretch Cougar knew so well, but when he turned back one last time, his eyes radiated that disconcerting, solid blue, which Cougar for a moment had forgotten.

"Sleep well, Carlos Alvarez," Jenkharsten said. And then he left.

J-Day + 14.

Come morning Cougar summed things up as: "Jenkharsten broke the net again. We're under house arrest until he gets it back up. Max's still hiding." Which was all true, of course, but perhaps didn't quite tell the entire tale.

He didn't feel ready to talk about the Jensen-babble he had heard. Not just yet. What had actually transpired during the night was important and he needed to consider things very carefully before he tried to explain to anyone else.

During the night, "someone" had replaced Roque's shirt with a pale pink one proclaiming that "My Tech Took Over The World And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt".

J-Day + 17.

Food kept appearing in their refrigerator, usually ready to nuke, though tacos were also a staple, with generous selections of spreads. Good quality food too, not at all prison swill. One minute Cougar was filling and folding and trying not to get guacamole all over his shirt (not that stains would be very noticeable, as said shirt had a pattern of overlapping symbols in all the colours of the rainbow. On seeing it on his chair in the morning he had sighed, but then he had noticed "I'm under abstract camouflage" written on the sleeve, which had made him smile), the next Jenkharsten stood in the open doorway, still as if he had just waited to be noticed.

"You may remain seated," he pronounced regally - and probably just as well, as none of them had moved an inch to rise. "I put maps over the Jentheniskaia in the living room. You may move freely within the building, but do not attempt to leave."

A stampede past him followed, with Pooch in the lead. Cougar, for whom waiting was nothing and most what he needed was currently present in the kitchen (his SR-25, even if she was unloaded, leaned between the table corner and his leg), stayed. When Jenkharsten turned back to him, looking just a hint petulant, he nodded up, saying simply: "Gracias."

They knew better than to try to escape the minute the cage door opened. Of course, Cougar could all but hear Jensen list pros and cons as to why that meant that they really should try to run away at the first given opportunity, as no one would expect them to. Except that, first of all, Jensen-as-Jenkharsten would be prepared for exactly that, since he would have been the one to suggest it. And, regardless, they needed to reconnoitre, to see what they actually were up against. So they studied the maps, located strategic points (as well as the exercise facilities quite near their room) and only then did they venture out on scouting missions.

In the days prior Cougar had spotted both armed guards and tool-toting gardeners in his scope, so they had known humans worked in the area. It turned out that the Jentheniskaia sustained nearly a village of its own. Though not only the number of humans was surprising.

"I don't see it," Roque grumbled, arms folded hard over his chest.

"Really?" Pooch challenged with a snort that sounded more like the old Pooch than he had since waking up. "If it walks like a Roque; if it sounds like a Roque; if it looks like a Roque - it's a Roque. Quack, quack, quack. Even if they let Jensen dress them. Quack. Quack."

Cougar sniggered and quacked along with Pooch, happy that their transportation specialist was picking on someone else for a change. He was getting very tired and sad about the way his friend alternated taunting him and ignoring him. And many of the guards really did look similar to Roque: tall, dark and surly, most of them with their dark hair in crew cuts. Some of them could easily have passed for his cousins, if not for his brothers. Apart, that was, from the pale pink t-shirts with yellow J:s on the front and cartoons or funny messages on the back, each one of them different. Pooch was immensely amused - until they scouted the garage and found, apart from a flock of really fast, really expensive cars - predominantly canary yellow - also a group of drivers, mechanics and janitors, among them several who shared some physical resemblance to the Pooch. That time Roque and Cougar quacked in chorus, but Cougar felt a hint of unease. Could the resemblances really be coincidental or did Clays and Cougars wait around some corner? And … why?

They worked the Jentheniskaia in a grid pattern, returning to the nest to compare notes, tally numbers, and share intelligence. The workers knew of them in general terms, and treated them politely but seemed to view them with some suspicion. Cougar didn't even try to engage those he met in conversation. He could get into the strangest places unnoticed, but blending in by chatting wasn't his forte (apart from chatting up the chicas, of course, but that only took a slow smile and some eye contact).

Slowly, they began to gather the necessary information.

Pooch gave the borrowed laptop the four-fingered assault - index fingers for the letters and thumbs for spaces and capitals. He was typing into a word-file, which he would then have to print and put in an envelope and then it would have to be taken in person by some unlucky clod to wherever his wife was kept. All Jensen's fault. Breaking the fucking Internet - the bloody menace had really outdone himself this time! And it had taken the stupid, techno-addicted monster days to remember that letters didn't necessarily need to be sent electronically!

Dear Jolene,

Are you both all right, honey sweetness?

They had better be.

Jensen is behind all this.

He would pay for it too. //Crazy white boy!// Or crazy pale-assed monster, whichever was the case.

He is Jensen, I don't care what he's up to.

Some of the keys jammed a bit and he had to hit them so hard his fingertips smarted. Taking a short pause he drank a Carlsberg, even if it tasted pissy.

He nearly broke Roque's wrist and fractured two of my ribs.

Actually, he wasn't quite sure they were fractured, but they still ached. He awkwardly reached back and rubbed near his spine.

Cougar seems a lost cause. I always said there was something going on between those two.

The way they always ogled one another when they thought the other wasn't looking - or, lately, even when the other might be looking. Right, so the Pooch certainly didn't lean that way, but he was secure enough in his masculinity not to care if two of his male co-workers hooked up and bumped uglies. However, if one of them was the tentacle monster from Hell, then freaky it was and that was all the Pooch had to say about it. The Pooch had both read and seen The Call of Cthulhu and if that was what got Cougar purring, the Pooch so didn't want to visualise.

Clay'll figure something out.

And he better fucking well do so soon! The Pooch needed to get away from the bloody hell hole known as the Jentheniskaia. How, however, was the question.

I love you, honey sweetness. And you too, Baby. Write me quickly so that I know that you're fine. Don't trust Jensen.

Because Jensen couldn't be trusted. And the Pooch intended to keep an eye on Cougar as well, just in case.



J-Day + 18.

After the initial information gathering Clay had told Cougar to relax and wait until his particular set of skills was required. Most of the time, he stayed in the nest, prone on his bed, aiming at the outside and watching the octopus-clouds.

"They're all over the world!" Pooch complained. "All over! If we don't do as he tells us to, they'll descend and eat us!"

Cougar made a mental note to ask Jenkharsten about that, if an opportunity arose. As far as he could tell, Pooch's scenario was just a prevailing rumour. Jenkharsten hadn't said a word about the octopuses, apart from assuring him that they could not, in fact, reach the earth. He saw them clearly in his scope and actually thought they looked kind of cool. The yellowish tint to the sky, on the other hand, bothered him on some primal level, as if the colour hinted at some as of yet unknown danger ahead.

On returning to the nest after a solo scout Cougar nodded curtly to the current guard – who was taller than Roque, but seemed to have a very Roquish attitude. The Roque-a-lot glared at him, but stepped aside to let him pass. Cougar didn't sneak in. He seldom snuck anywhere. It was just that after so many years of caution his movements were naturally smooth and silent, even in the cowboy boots he favoured. Roque and Pooch's voices drifted in from the kitchen, so he headed over to join them.

"-- just like Cougar!" Pooch said. His tone was angry and scornful, which made Cougar frown. Had the speaker been Roque he wouldn't have taken the tone personally. Roque usually sounded like that, as if the world was out to insult him personally and he was doing his best to get even in advance. Pooch, on the other hand, was normally the team peacemaker and, more than that, he was Cougar's bro. If the whole world conquering thing hadn't happened and instead a Jensen/Cougar romance had ensued, moving Jensen from friend to lover, the then open position as Cougar's best friend would have been slated for the Pooch.

"Yeah. Fucking weird. Perv. Really Makes ya wonder. Let's tell Clay when he gets-- Oh, Cougs! You found anything? We thought we'd head over to the training room. You in? We'll just talk to Clay first, see if he wants to tag along. Good, yeah?"

Puzzled by the rather non-Roqueish babble, Cougar nodded. He was up for a good run. Pooch and Roque exchanged looks, however, and he had to wonder what they had been talking about when he interrupted them. "Just like Cougar" what?

The net remained down and while critical communication had resumed, all non-critical still failed. However, Roque had found a kindred soul amongst the Roque-a-lots, who filled them in on most of the basics.

At first all communication had failed, even common radio signals. A little later Jenkharsten channel came on-line, broad-casting the same, constant message 24-7, informing mankind what had happened and what was expected. In an even hundred languages, including Esperanto and Klingon.

"That's just stupid!" the Pooch foamed when he had heard. "He's insulting everyone with not even taking it seriously!"

Even Cougar had to agree that it was a little silly, if a suspiciously Jensen thing to do.

Jenthiska had been greeted well in Rio, where the worship of their Pale Lady quickly spread. Unconfirmed rumours had it that M-Bethaali ruled Australia, a.k.a. Petunialand, with an iron fist. And of Max they heard not even a whisper.

Jenkharsten had proclaimed himself an absolute, yet benevolent ruler. Magicking away all heavy arms not under his direct control had forced the nation leaders take him very seriously, even if there had been considerable uproar. Everything would be allowed to continue as before, as long as everyone obeyed his least instruction. Well, apart from the yellow tint of the sky and the flying octopuses, neither of which Jenkharsten deigned to explain (Cougar had a sneaking suspicion both might have something to do with some movie he and Jensen had watched and the breathless whisper of the word "cool"). Tithes were demanded, but not for much more than what most heads of state received to keep up appearance and live a life in abject luxury. Workers were also demanded, but paid most handsomely.

Cougar listened carefully to Roque's report. All in all, to him that didn't sound too bad. Things could have been so much worse. So he caught the others' attention with a low whistle, nodded and shrugged.

"No, that does not sound fucking all right at all!" the Pooch growled. "He's a good for nothing usurper! Yeah, he's trying to lull us into accepting him, but it won't end here! You know Jensen. When he's on a trip he doesn't know when to stop! Just you wait. He talked in that interview about being worshipped by the Aztecs - they had human sacrifices! And I've heard slave rumours and he's keeping us prisoner's, isn't he?"

What Cougar vaguely remembered from history lessons, not all Aztec Gods had demanded human hearts served still beating from the chest. Besides, the way Roque retold the incident Jenkharsten had just laughed when the interviewer brought up the idea. He had said that he preferred if people gave their hearts in love, not in blood. Cougar was down with that, but, again, made a mental note to ask about the slave thing. And yes, Jenkharsten did keep them prisoners.

He listened to Pooch's continued rant and felt tempted to argue, but Pooch didn't sound interested in listening to arguments. So in the end Cougar just cleaned his gun instead.

Cougar left his and Roque's room - Pooch had switched bedrooms, which had hurt Cougar's feelings even if he didn't voice a protest. On the other hand, not to have Pooch in the room made for a more relaxed sleep. Sometimes it felt like no matter what he said or did the Pooch would growl at him.

Just as he emerged, the Pooch turned back from the door leading out, waving a paper. "Jolene wrote again!" he announced.

Thinking that this was a fairly safe subject, Cougar smiled and nodded up.

To his surprise, Pooch's smile instantly faded and he abruptly sat on the sofa, staring at the paper.

"She says they're fine, blah, blah, blah, nothing for me to worry about, blah, blah, blah, Baby's fine too, blah, blah, blah - but she's not saying anything!"

Cougar didn't say anything either, a bit puzzled as to what the problem was.

"I mean, yeah, she knows that someone--" Pooch's angry tone made just who he thought this "someone" was very clear. "--checks the letters, but still. The letters are just empty, faded; nothing of Jolene in them at all. This one doesn't even smell like her. Maybe she's afraid to write anything important."

Considering that Jolene was about as fearless a person as anyone Cougar had ever met who wasn't either suicidal or plain stupid, he found that highly unlikely. Which he rather thought that Pooch should know. He tried to formulate a sentence that would clearly transfer to the Pooch that to get emotions through on paper was rather difficult and that writing letters often was far different personality wise than talking to a person. Before he had time to line up the words properly, though, Pooch's rant continued, concluding with a bitter: "If it's even her."

Cougar blinked, too stunned to say something even if he had wanted to.

"What the fuck are you yammering on about?" Roque said sharply. He had been playing a one-man-version of Go Fish at the table and now stared at their mechanic.

"It could be anyone answering these letters, couldn't it?" Pooch replied sharply and stared at the written words. "How does the Pooch know it is even Jolene writing him? The signature looks like hers, but anyone with a scanner and a bit of ink could forge a signature. It could be anyone." Again, his tone made it quite clear who this "anyone" might be.

Cougar felt like yelling at the stupid man. What point could Jenkharsten possibly have of impersonating Jolene? That made absolutely no sense at all. However, the Pooch had that hard, strange look in his eyes that said he wouldn't listen to reason. So, in the end Cougar just cleaned his gun again.

Across the world enormous castles had appeared. The one they found themselves in, the Jentheniskaia, was located in New Hampshire, on a plain that had not been there before. Then there was the globe-shaped Bethenaskaia in Melbourne and the Jenthiskaia in Rio.

Jenkharsten would act however he pleased and whenever he wanted. Indications were given that he would work for swift peace on Earth and that he intended to stop starvation and even cure some common diseases, once everything was back up and running. Not everyone believed him, of course, but that was another matter. At the moment, however, Jenkharsten had More Important Things to deal with.

When Pooch relayed that particular piece of gossip, Cougar smiled into his beer, as he suspected that Get The Fucking Net Back Online Before I Go Bug Nuts might be very high on Jenkharsten's NTD-list.


J-Day + 20.

Cougar curled up on the sofa with Clay's kindle and Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik. As most of his reading material, Jensen had suggested the series and Cougar found himself in favour. Dragons! Big ones! He wondered idly if they would fly evenly enough so that he could snipe from one of them. As he read he licked clean an Almond Roca. A 20 oz can with the golden-wrapped treats had appeared in the kitchen and was obviously for him, as he was the only one who liked them. He had the entire nest to himself, as he had returned from a training pass to find the others off on some investigation.

Life was, all in all, rather good. Well, better than 50 guys with AKs, anyway.

Movement between the brim of his hat and the top of the kindle drew his attention. He began to toss away the reading device, reaching for his SR-25. His baby girl remained frustratingly unloaded, but the instinct remained. However, before his fingers even touched the stock an incredible power grabbed him by the neck like a rag doll and then he hung two feet off the ground, head spinning and with an unyielding pressure constricting his throat. He could barely draw air and his entire line of vision was filled with fangs.

//La puta madre! Fangs! Jenkharsten's got fangs!//

A powerful shake had him gasping for air and clinging to Jenkharsten's arm. Then he found purchase with a foot against the sofa and began to wrap his other leg around the creature's midsection. Another rough shake, with enough brute force to rattle his spine, convinced him that a much better alternative was to, so slowly that the movement nearly hurt, lower his legs.

"Where the fuck are they?"

All Jensen-babble was gone, instead the voice shook with intense rage, clawing at his ear drums. Cougar had only ever heard it aimed thus towards others and even then only ever as part of an assumed personality.

"Where are they?"

The request went straight to some primal part of Cougar's soul. His overwhelming instinct was to offer name, rank and serial number, but Jensen already knew all that and besides, it was Jensen.

"Who?" he gasped.

"Pooch!" A shake. "Roque!" A shake. "Clay!"

The unforgiving eyes were so pale that they nearly burned - and the face beyond twisted to a furious sneer. An unfamiliar cramp of fear clawed at Cougar's stomach, but it was Jensen!

"I don't know."

He was shaken with such force that white hot pain erupted in his neck and his hat fell off.

"Do I have to fucking tear--" Shake. "--the fucking truth--" Shake. "--out of your fucking throat?!" Shake.

Cougar stared at what his friend had become and sucked as deep a breath as the hand squeezing his throat allowed. "You can make me lie," he acknowledged, his voice hoarse and tight with pain. "The truth is - I don't know."

Jenkharsten stared, with his hard, alien eyes digging into Cougar's very soul and Cougar knew, with marrow-deep conviction, just how easily Jenkharsten could tear whatever answer that suited him from his throat, just as he had threatened, and no matter how hard Cougar might try to stick to the truth.

//Fuck, he even knows my trigger words!// No use slipping into a coma if the person torturing you could just bring you right back out again.

Jenkharsten's jaws moved, fangs catching the light. They were bright white and slightly curved back, not at all pretty boy vampire fangs, but predator fangs for ripping and tearing.

"This morning Pooch talked about checking the cars again. Why do you think they're gone?"

And, somehow, just like that, he won. Or at least he was lowered until his feet finally touched the floor again. However, the hand at his throat remained, like a stiff band of hot iron.

"They blipped off my 'dar. I can't feel them. They're not anywhere near the Jentheniskaia. That shouldn't even be possible! But now there's only you." The voice was harsh with anger, but also a touch bewildered.

Cougar also felt a touch bewildered. "Don't know why they went, " he said. “[Truth]."

The grip loosened a fraction. Maybe the eye colour shifted to a faintly warmer hue. But then Jenkharsten shook his head dismissively and when he continued his voice was just as lethally cold as before and the fangs just as sharp. "We might be losers, but we never leave another Loser behind."

Their creed. Well, one of their creeds, but one they all respected.

Cougar would have nodded, if only he could have moved his head. "Never leave another Loser behind," he confirmed.

The grip around his throat tightened and he was lifted in the air again. Jenkharsten growled: "So why did they fucking leave--" Shake. "--you fucking alone--" Shake. "--here?"

Sharp, white pain at the last shake almost blinded him and his mouth flooded with a distinct mix of copper and salt.

"No, Carlos Alvarez, you must know where they have gone! Or they would fucking not--" Shake. "--have fucking left--" Shake. "--you alone!"

The lightning strike flashes of bones cutting against bone nearly crashed him into unconsciousness, yet somehow they lasted forever, giving him time to connect the dots and draw the only conclusion he could that made any sense without considering complete betrayal.

"You're wrong!" he hissed back. "You're not thinking!"

The solid eyes narrowed and a final shake nearly cast him into oblivion, but he clawed at his very soul to keep conscious. He was dimly aware of an odd smell that had begun to saturate the air - and felt ridiculously grateful that he'd just been to the bathroom, so the smell couldn't come from him.

"I could kill you so very easily, Carlos Alvarez," the Jenkharsten growled.

//You're killing me now,// Cougar thought, but that wasn't what he must say. "Don't you see?" he forced out, only barely managing the word without stuttering. His nose felt wet and he sent up a quick prayer that the dampness was snot or blood. "They didn't!"

"I can't feel them any longer!"

"They didn't leave me alone! They had to go--" //Pooch needed to get to Jolene. Or they found some way of hiding from Jenkharsten and took their chance? Clay knew I wasn't ready to leave just yet. But they could have told me!// "--and you never leave a Loser behind. Not alone. But they didn't!"

He managed to lift his hands again, to place them gently on Jenkharsten's forearm. The hard flesh nearly burned under his fingers. When he drew a shuddering breath, the air ached like a nasty cold down his throat. "We split up. Them three went scouting. Left us in the nest. Two of us. I'm not alone. I'm with you."

Having offered all he could, he hung silently in Jenkharsten's hand for what felt like eternity. He knew that if Jenkharsten opted to kill him, there was nothing he could do but to die.

Jenkharsten gasped and let go, abruptly pulling back.

Cougar had managed to land on his feet and stood very, very still.

"Oh, God, Cougs! I'm so sorry! I never even ..."

Jenkharsten swirled away from him and Cougar felt a mounting panic at seeing Jenkharsten's back.

"Carlos Alvarez, I ..." The Ruler of the World sounded tired, so very tired. "I ... apologise for my inexcusable behaviour."

Moving very carefully, Cougar wiped his nose. Glancing at the back of his hand he saw a clear, faintly pinkish fluid which was neither snot nor blood. "That hint of affection you mentioned?" he said slowly. "Still got it?"

A shudder shook the powerful shoulders before him. "For them? Right now I don't fucking know what to think. For you, Cougs? Oh, God, Cougs, of course, yes, always."

"Good," he said, not moving more than his lips, "'cause I think you cracked my spine."

Jenkharsten whirled again, eyes so wide and Jensen-like that the solid, blue stare didn't even make Cougar flinch. Which was very good, because he hadn't kidded about the spinal injury thing.

"C ... ou ..."

Jenkharsten's hand came up to cover his once again fangless mouth and Cougar flash-backed to that time in Nigeria, when Jensen had turned back from his computer with just such huge eyes and whispered, like a child sensing imminent spanking: "I think I just might have wiped out every electronic document in Lagos."

In Nigeria Cougar's first instinct had been to give their tech a consoling hug. As they hadn't been that touchy feely yet, he had instead rolled up a newspaper and made threatening motions. He wanted to offer a hug this time as well. Except for the "Not Moving Really Good Right Now"-thing. Which pretty much ruled out newspapers as well. He opted to just keep standing very, very still.

"Oh, God, Cougar! Oh, shit. Oh, no! Yes. Right. Great Old One with powers unimaginable. I can do this. I can do this! Okay. Okay, Cougar. Just ... Ah ... Stand very ... very still, okay? Please."

Then Jenkharsten came to him. His hand visibly shivered when he raised it once more to Cougar's throat, this time to gently wrap the long fingers and hot palm around his neck. The touch burned, hot and oddly reassuring against Cougar's abused flesh. After a second something ... moved, for lack of better word, behind his Adam’s apple, but Cougar merely ate the pain, happily trading any discomfort for Jenkharsten's touch. When the hand finally slipped from his skin he felt the disappointment almost as acutely as the earlier discomfort. He turned his head experimentally to the side. When no blinding pain erupted, he followed through with the motion, moving his neck back and forth. Finally he met Jenkharsten's tense, worried gaze and flashed him a smile.


"Least I could do. Shit, Cougar, I'm so fucking sorry. I ... forgot my own strength. I was just so pissed that they would run away and I, I, I thought you knew, you know?"

The genuine misery in the blue eyes tugged at Cougar's heart. "You fixed it," he assured. When Jenkharsten still didn't look convinced he added: "No harm; no foul."

Jenkharsten gesticulated wildly in denial. "But I could have fucking killed you, Cou! I cracked your spine!"

Cougar nodded. Then he shrugged and leaned down to fish up his hat, which had landed on the table. He put it on, tugging the brim in place, feeling better already, even if a quick shower to wash off the cold sweat would have been nice. Then, with no fear, he reached out to box the Great Old One in the shoulder. "'s okay," he assured. "'m going nowhere. Te lo prometo, Jen-ah, Jenkharsten."

He couldn't quite read those different eyes, but he knew what he hoped to see in them and decided to risk that he might just be deluding himself. "Don't know why they went. I stay until you tell me to go. You find me missing, they knocked me out and dragged me away. Te lo prometo."

The smile he received was worth everything.

When left to his own devices again, though, Cougar was less than pleased with the damn mess the others had dropped him in. Even if he felt positive that the being hadn't meant to actually hurt him the way he had, Jenkharsten could easily have killed him, during that first, blind rage. After all, Jenkharsten seemed to have forgotten, but when the Pooch woke up, he'd made Cougar responsible for the man's continued good behaviour.

Sure, the guys must have had a good reason for leaving. And, sure, had they asked him, he wouldn't have gone with them anyway. There was still the mystery of Jenkharsten that he needed to solve. And he certainly didn't begrudge them going. It only annoyed him - and hurt him - that they hadn't even told him what they had planned. What, did they think he was a fink? He tried to tell himself that there must be some perfectly logical explanation, that some opportunity had opened, something time critical, and they had been forced to seize the moment and go without him.

Only, some of that explanation rang false. "You never leave a Loser behind" he had told Jenkharsten. That was their creed and regardless of Jenkharsten's presence, Cougar now did find himself to be quite alone. Oh, he was a loner at the best of times, but during the years under Clay's command he'd acclimatised to the other Losers. To hear their breaths in the dead of night was to know that all was secure. Pooch's snoring lulled him back to sleep when he woke from a bad dream. Clay yet again using the bathroom always startled him awake, but he could slip right back into sleep afterwards. And, of course - foremost and best of all, day or night - Jensen making sweet music on his computers by tapping to a rhythm (Cougar could often guess at which music played at Station Jensen by the steady rhythmic taps) or babbling softly about one thing or another. The silence of the abandoned nest made him feel uneasy and tense, as if he was alone on look-out in possibly hostile territory.

The first day he contended himself with kindle and Almond Rocas, followed by tacos and cleaning his SR-25. Not a bad day. The next day he got bored. He gathered the maps of the Jentheniskaia, made notes of which areas he hadn't yet personally investigated, and then set up a schedule that would let him explore the remaining sections over the next couple of days.

J-Day + 22.

On the second day alone Cougar found the Clays. In the kitchen, of all places, but when he considered this afterwards he could see the point. Clay had, on occasion, made delicious meals for all of them. He might be reluctant to get started, but once on a roll he had a mean hand with the spices - if perhaps too lenient taste buds for the alcohol. On the other hand, a meal that could get you drunk without lifting a glass wasn't a meal to sneeze at, in Cougar's humble opinion.

Only a few of the kitchen staff physically resembled Clay, but when Cougar could still smell the kitchen from half a corridor away, he felt convinced.

Of course, this only piqued his curiosity. He almost decided that many of the cleaning personnel displayed near Aisha-like attitudes. Why Jenkharsten would have her do cleaning, though, he didn't speculate on, unless her rejection of Jensen's in all honesty almost painfully embarrassingly bad flirtation still smarted. Cougar had tried to dissuade him, and not just because he disliked watching the man he adored flirt with anyone other than himself.

He hadn't seen any Cougars, yet, though. Once he even maxed out his scope to study the gardeners. After all, once just before Bolivia he had kept Jensen's pet petunia alive for almost a week while the other had gone to visit Jessica and Beth. Cougar hadn't been able to go with him due to participating in a medical trial. Beth had even sent him a "Get well soon, Uncle Cougar!"-card. Very sweet, if unnecessary, as Jensen had hacked the army database to make sure Cougar got placed in the placebo group.

Not even the scopes helped, though, as most of the men he caught glimpses of were, if anything, a little Wadeish, except not in as many slices.

J-Day + 23.

Cougar located a barber shop in the eastern wing, as well as a small DVD-library. He contemplated checking something out, maybe the box set of Grimm he had seen on display. The German names of the creatures always amused him when Jensen caught an episode.

Then he turned to the right and found a guarded door. On seeing the heavily armed Roque-a-like man outside, Cougar consulted his map. The room was listed as "Server Room". Which sounded either like something really kinky or like some computer jargon Jensen spouted - Cougar did listen to the nice sounds, even if he didn't understand most of them and over time he'd come to recognize a few as carrying particular meanings. He vividly remembered Jensen babbling about a flame war over naming some servers for his internet porn organization.

The guard stared at him with very Roque-like disdain, bordering on hatred. Roque was better at it, though, and Cougar had never been intimidated by Roque in the first place.

Taking the disdain as a challenge, Cougar put a bit of swagger to his gait and sauntered closer, studying the guard with wide-eyed fascination. The guy really did look a lot like Roque, except for the noticeable lack of facial scars. Cougar was kind of grateful, because if the guy had had an eye scar too, that would definitely have put things into creepy territory. He took another step closer and noted the name "Whitney Terrin" on a purple name tag on the pink T-shirt.

The guard's sour expression never wavered and he obviously wasn't going to step aside. Judging that an attempt of non-verbal communication would just be ignored, Cougar took a deep breath. "What's in there?"

"What's it to ya, faggot?"

Very Roque-like, yes. Cougar decided against killing the guy since Jenkharsten might have difficulties finding suitable Roques and thus might get annoyed. Instead he smiled his sunniest smile, the one that Clay had labelled Cougar's "Ordered to take an impossible shot"-smile. "Just curious."

"Fuck off. Go get fucking curious back where you belong. Or go give Jenkharsten a blow job or wriggle your ass at him or whatever."

//Wriggle my--// For a terrible moment, Cougar felt mortified to his bones. Had he? Wriggled his ass? At Jenkharsten? In such an obvious way that everyone knew he had the hots for the geeky tech/ancient monster/Ruler of Worlds? Hell, some of these days even Cougar wasn't too sure of his own feelings.

Only - there had never been any strangers in their nest. Only the other Losers had ever seen him with either Jensen or Jenkharsten. Could Roque have told his lookalikes something? To chat them up had been part of Clay’s plan. Or maybe Pooch had gossiped with his counterparts? The Pooch was angry with him, but no, Cougar refused to believe that. Not during these circumstances. Losers might get other Losers drunk and tattooed, but Losers didn't rat other Losers out.

As Cougar considered a more appropriate response than "You think he'd be interested in a blowjob?" the non-Roque continued: "Get lost, little twerp. Run back to your master's lap, you fucking pet. You shouldn't be here! I don't even think you're allowed outside your room. Run off or I'll mess you up. Whatever he sees in you, he damn well won't see it when I'm done with you!"

Cougar counted in his head to ten easy ways of terminating the stupid, ignorant fuck. He might not currently carry live ammo, but while a rifle was his weapon of choice, a cat has more than one set of claws. Then he tipped his hat with another sunny smile and sauntered back the way he'd come.

//Pet?// The word tasted sour. Abruptly tired of exploring he returned to the nest, where he got a little drunk and only his natural taciturnity kept him from shouting for Jenkharsten to come and show his pale face. When he himself came, however, he might have hissed something that could be constructed as beginning with the letter J.

J-Day + 24.

Cougar spent most of the next day in bed, aiming out at the world beyond, dry-clicking at anything that moved. Pooch and Roque and Clay were out there somewhere. Maybe to join them wouldn't be so bad?

In the evening he lay on the sofa, hat over his face but unable to sleep, when he suddenly knew he wasn't alone and flicked up the brim of the hat. Jenkharsten sprawled on the opposite chair, eyes shimmering with miscellaneous light. He wore a hot pink "Take That, Cthulhu!"-t-shirt and grinned that half-crazy grin of his that should send computer-owners all over the world reaching for the off-switch. Cougar couldn't help but to smile back as he sat up, pushing his hat in place as he did. He might not like the situation in its entirety, but Jenkharsten’s presence had always made him feel better, no matter what, it was an automatic reaction by now.

Jenkharsten leaned forward and clapped his hands together. "I did it!" He looked happy enough to start bouncing.

Cougar lazily held up two fingers in victory, at the same time as he raised an eyebrow.

"It's up!" Jenkharsten performed Jensen's patented sitting victory dance.

"The net?"

"They said it couldn't be done, but I did it!"

"The net?" Cougar prompted again. He wasn't quite sure why the Internet went up and down rather than on and off, like most electric equipment, but Jensen always talked about getting the net "up" again whenever he broke it.

"Oh yes, baby, yes!" Jenkharsten raised both arms in complete victor. "Yatta!" he exclaimed, to what purpose Cougar had no clue. "It's a bit slow yet and hardly anyone but us poor addicts has noticed that it's up again, but I gorged myself all day. Oh man, that was sweet. I'm half-way through Leverage now. Parker's cooler than Aisha, though Aisha's more, you know, stacked."

He let his head loll back on the headrest of the chair and sighed happily.

"Good!" Cougar praised. In truth, he didn't do computers much. Mostly he used his e-mail for the Snipers_United mailinglist and to communicate with Jensen when their tech went so deep into cyberspace that he was otherwise unreachable. More than once an e-mail consisting of only the subject line "Food!" had resulted in Jensen blinking owlishly at him while reaching blindly towards a plate set next to whatever object that doubled as his mouse pad.

"I'm happy," Jenkharsten crooned, just like he always did when he had hacked something particularly difficult.

Cougar found himself smiling.

"And you, my favourite Cou? Everything sharp and spiffy?"

He was pleased to note that the dreaded "Carlos Alvarez" had yet to resurface since the cracked spine incident. Hinting that some live ammo would really improve his life quality seemed to be just a little early yet, though, so he opted to aim for something he had a better shot at. "A guard said I wasn't allowed in a corridor. Where can't I go?" Okay, so that wasn't exactly what the non-Roque had said, but he'd elucidate if prompted.

Jenkharsten frowned. "No, no. Not at all. Like, totally untrue. You can go wherever you want, Cou. Except for leaving. Ixnay on the eavinglay. I'll make sure all the guards know. Sorry about that. He didn't give you any grief, did he?"

But Cougar was no fink. He fought his own battles. Jenkharsten would talk to the guards and the Roque-a-like Mr Stupid with the sexual hang-ups would know which incident Jenkharsten referred to and he would sweat, wondering what else Cougar had tattled about. Next time he and Cougar met, Cougar would smile at the poor fuck. Cats do so like to play with their prey.

"Right. well, now I need to get everything else on track too. Then, my man, I'm going after Max. You in?"

Cougar nodded firmly. Of course he was. Maybe they could get the others back that way too.

"Great-o. Right. Oh, yeah, I'll get you a laptop, if you wanna?"

He considered the offer. To find out what was happening would be good. To see what the boys at the S_U - and the four revered ladies, never to be forgot or underestimated - thought about the whole Jenkharsten taking over the world thing would be interesting. Surely at least some of them would be involved in plotting against Jenkharsten, which would be good to keep an eye on. Maybe he could even reach Clay somehow. Sadly, all the Losers' usual emergency communication protocols centered firmly around systems set up by their tech specialist-cum-world-conqueror, but one baby step at a time.

Verbal responses no longer seemed strictly necessary, but he finally nodded and said, simply: "Cool."

After Jenkharsten's visit, Cougar didn't feel sleepy any longer, so instead he pushed the table closer to the sofa and began to dismantle his rifle. Not that he'd shot with her for an indecently long period of time, which was starting to seriously grate, but there was always dust and insects and the very idea of a spider nesting in his gun made him want to take a shower. In his opinion there was no such thing as "too often" when it came to cleaning his favourite lady.

While he cleaned he let his mind consider things or more precisely: Jenkharsten. And Jensen. The differences between the two and the similarities. Ever since that first day he woke up and saw those solid, blue eyes, he had been on the fence of what he really thought about those differences.

Jenkharsten had said that they might as well mourn Jensen, that he "was no more". Might as well. Was. On the other hand - when asked point-blank there ever was a Jensen, he'd said no - and that he - Jenkharsten - was "all there ever was".

That was all Cougar had to go on. All things said out loud, that was. And if you believed them. People lied, that was something Cougar had learned early on to expect. Still, the statements were interesting in themselves and well worth contemplating.

However, no matter how much Cougar enjoyed listening to flowing streams of Jensen-babble, he had always been of the firm opinion that action spoke louder than words.

On one side there was Jenkharsten the World Usurper. Standing tall and impressive, with a cold, distant voice; demanding obedience and giving the general impression that he found humans to be little more than a necessary nuisance. Jenkharsten, with shining blue eyes and fangs. Who had rattled Cougar's spine so hard that it cracked, who had thrown the Pooch half across the room, blackened Clay's eye and nearly broken Roque's wrist. Who, the Pooch had pointed out countless times, had used the Losers in his plot to high-jack the Cthulhu-apocalypse. Not very Jensen-like behaviour at all.

On the other side there was Jenkharsten the Almond Roca provider, bringer of really good beer and soothing Jensen-babble. Who had been almost pathetic in his net withdrawal. Who had let the Pooch write Jolene, who fixed a training facility for them, who wore funny t-shirts and who had given Cougar back not just the asked for scope, but his rifle as well. Who air-typed when agitated and who had been on the verge of completely losing his shit when he realised that he'd nearly killed Cougar by accident. All in all, very Jensen-like behaviour.

So ... Could the real Jenkharsten please stand up or at least wave a stockinged foot? Could both be the true Jenkharsten? Did it even matter?

The thing was, Cougar had only seen Exhibit A on a handful of occasions, and only ever once when it had been just the two of them. And, to be fair, that time Jenkharsten had come in gunning for blood, since he thought Cougar had betrayed him. Perfectly understandable - if you allowed for someone that bright being that stupid.

There was, of course, still the odd chance that Jenkharsten just played at acting like Jensen most of the time. But for the life of him, Cougar couldn't figure out why a completely non-Jensen Jenkharsten would find that amusing for any length of time. Maybe he even would end up betting his life on that particular bet, win or lose.

Now, Cougar wasn't a man to trust easily. As a rule, he simply didn't. He had walls around his heart a mile high, with mines on the ground and a sniper at the top. Jensen had just hopscotched past the mines and climbed the wall to keep him company.

He trusted Jensen. Sure, he wanted Jensen and loved Jensen too, but that was beside the point . Most of all he was Jensen's friend and their friendship was the most precious thing he had ever owned. He refused to believe that it might have all been a lie. When he had thought that Jensen was leaving the team, the decision to simply go with him had been taken between heartbeats, without the slightest hesitation and Cougar knew to the core of his being that he never would have regretted his choice. He would have followed Jensen like an affectionate shadow to the ends of the Earth and maybe, along the way, he would have found the guts to tell the man ”Yo te quiero” and maybe, just maybe, Jensen would have said "I love you too" and they would have gone off and been ridiculously, stupidly happy together.

Just maybe.

But that was a future which was never going to happen.

You never got everything you wanted.

Sometimes you just had to make due with what you had.

What he had wasn't all that bad.

He had his hat.

He had his rifle. Sure, she wasn't loaded, but he had found the armoury and a pack of 7.62 x 51 mm calibre was now stashed away in the bathroom, hidden in the vent for a rainy day. Except for two bullets secured away in the hidden compartment of his lady's stock. To get them out would take a few seconds, as would loading, but if push really came to shove, at least they were there.

He had a really great bed, a nice apartment all to himself, a gym, a sweet bath-tub, good food, fresh clothes every morning (some of them even made him smile on seeing them), a kindle linked to a possibly unlimited Amazon account, and a steady source of all the Almond Roca a sniper could lick clean and chew to pieces that he could ever want.

All pros.

Con. He didn't have his Jensen. Not exactly.

But he did have a Jenkharsten. And maybe, just maybe, if there had never been a Jensen, a Jenkharsten was the next best thing?


J-Day + 25.

Going to work sucked. Especially on the sixth day of a six day long stay in the middle of nowhere. With about 0 females, apart from some really stuck up, snotty bitches on the cleaning squad. Whitney had a wife, but she was clear on that when he was away on a mission, whatever happened on the mission stayed on the mission. A man's just a man and a man has needs. However, his current assignment had him working almost a full week, then go home for four days and that made her less understanding. So he hadn't had any for five days and still had the day to get through before he would get to go home.

Going to work to guard what was either the Antichrist or some alien monster who had taken over the world sucked even worse. The Earth belonged to the humans, damn it! To the meek, if necessary, though that part of the Lord's Bible Whitney had never been too keen on. However, the pay was through the roof and he had been handpicked, albeit he wasn't quite sure exactly which of his many qualities qualified him as a member of Jenkharsten's guard. Comparing himself to some of the others had even worried him at first, making him suspect that the new Ruler of Earth might have a hard on for tall, dark and crew cut, but for everyone's safety, that didn't seem to be the case, praise the Lord for small mercies.

Going to work and finding out that the alien monster/Antichrist had called to a lunch meeting really topped off Whitney's day. Seeing the creature scared the bejesus out of him every time, something he really tried to avoid. Also the SMS telling him of the meeting arrived the second he left his assigned room, which proved that they were all watched. Something that gave him the shivers to consider.

Still, he ate breakfast, wondering vaguely how come the porridge tasted like vodka again, and then took up his morning duty outside the server room. At least his post to guard the computers was important and, unlike the poor SOBs selected to guard the throne room he was unlikely to see things that could never be unseen. Some of the stories he'd heard filled him with righteous disgust.

Having been relieved for lunch he headed on over to the mess hall and heaped a generous helping of curry chicken and rice on his plate. The curry chicken tasted of something sharp, like Whiskey, but it wasn't nauseating, so he wasn't complaining. He had almost managed to forget the lunch meeting, when chairs began to push back near the door, the noise quickly spreading throughout the room. His fellow guards started to stand at attention, so he quickly followed suit.

Standing up, he saw the reason for the sudden silence calmly make his -or "its" way across the room to the open area near the kitchen entrance. They all turned with him, standing straight, eyes forward, chest out, knees straight, feet together at 45 degree angle.


So human-looking. Seeing him those first days on television, Whitney had been absolutely sure that it must all be just a hoax. He couldn’t understand why other seemed to believe it – including so many in the high military. Yeah, there had been the eyes, but in this day and age that was easy pie to fake. Harder perhaps in real life than in a movie and he had found it very odd that no one who had met the Great Old One, as the monster called himself, seemed in the least bit doubtful. Still, to hear that something out of a horror movie - a B horror movie, and at that based on a book that even Whitney had read at school - had taken over the world and that they now belonged to him, well, that was just stupidity.

Human-looking, sure. "Humanoid" he was referred to as.

The second Whitney had laid eyes on the creature, however, that's all she wrote. That six sense most soldiers develop rang out like the Lord's trumpets, clarion calls of unmatched intensity, screaming that before him was a horror unlike anything Whitney had ever seen before - a demon or the Antichrist, if not the devil himself. Cleverly disguised, yes, for the most part, but Whitney had almost shit himself when the monstrous, blue eyes had rested on him for a second before the creature had nodded that it deigned to find him acceptable to keep watch over its computers.

Not human at all. Not by a long shot.

Whitney hated being scared and he hated being in service to a horror flick monster, but after having accepted his assignment and been paid a ridiculous amount he could only wait for some opportunity to leave while still in good standing. You really didn't want to get on Jenkharsten's bad side.

"Greetings, guards," the entity said. Its very voice was an affront to the human ear. Whitney had to hold back a full-body shudder.

"Greeting, Lord Jenkharsten," they answered, almost in a chorus.

To show proper deference was extremely important. That was the first thing Whitney had been informed about, even before he had seen the creature. Everyone had heard stories of what happened to the poor sods that managed to insult the "Great Old One" or who had angered him somehow. No one had been eaten so far, but Whitney was sure it was only a matter of time.

"I have previously instructed you regarding the four men in the special apartment."

The prisoners or not quite prisoners or guests or whatever. Only one of them remained, from what Whitney had heard. Maybe the other three actually had been eaten.

"As stated previously, these men have permission to move freely within Jentheniskaia. Yesterday, one of them was denied this right."

Whitney's stomach suddenly twisted. //The Spanish pretty piece of rough trade. Oh fuck! Is Jenkharsten-- Can Jenkharsten be--//

"Carlos Alvarez, also known as Cougar, is allowed to move freely within the Jentheniskaia. I am displeased with what occurred."

//He is. Oh shit! He is.// Whitney might not know the Spanish toy boy's name, but it fit together. //Jenkharsten is talking about me! Oh shit!// His bladder suddenly felt a bit too tight for his morning coffee.

"Carlos Alvarez will be shown deference and not be bothered in any way. He did not tell me details of what transpired, but nothing of this kind will happen again."

The "or else" was rather obvious.

//Fuck me! I'm so screwed. Little bum boy ratted me out to his sugar daddy! Why the fuck didn't the little spic point the finger, though? Fuck!//

Jenkharsten smiled. The sight sent sweat dripping down Whitney's sides.

"I trust that I have made myself clear," the creature said, his tone silken and horrible.

Then he turned and strode out. They all remained at attention until the door swung shut behind their ruler.


Cats also like heights.

One thing he had searched for especially during his explorations was a roof exit. On finally finding one Cougar eagerly climbed the building's upper level. To feel sunshine on his skin again nearly made him purr with delight.

Perhaps it had been silly of him, but he had been worried about that the changed sky would no longer be as warm as he preferred. It was. Still, he wasn't completely at ease. It just wasn't the same to look up and, instead of maybe cotton clouds on sky bluer than Jenkharsten's eyes see dirt-black fogs against yellow and those glistening, black limbs dangling down. It wasn't a scary sight - he could easily measure that there was no way those things could ever reach him. Still. The octopuses just weren't supposed to be there, they were simply wrong, somehow. Already they had noticed him and a flock began to drift closer, stretching down. With a grin he waved tauntingly with his hat at the closest one. It snatched wildly after him, then went into limb-curling pharynxes of frustration.

//It's more fun than hiding Roque's knives,// he decided and teased the poor things some more.

An elongated rhomb formed the inner courtyard. He could see a soccer field, a small park and a field of pink flowers. A quick zoom in confirmed, that, yes, Go Petunias! A few workers were smoking in a corner. While there were a few shrubberies he couldn't see through, Cougar decided that he'd get to the hidden areas from a different angle, later. He went on to scoop out the building before him, finding this much easier to do from the outside anyway.

Ten minutes later he found the throne room.

Cougar had to look away and then reset his eye to the scope before forcing himself to admit that, no, he wasn't hallucinating. It took a third look before what he saw began to make some sort of demented sense.

The room he scoped out spanned four huge windows and a glass balcony that would have made Evita swoon with envy. For a moment he thought he looked into a greenhouse. He saw what looked like a dense, almost jungle-like growth, but which he then realised was just large flower arrangements against a backdrop of walls painted in entwined shades of green and yellow.

Smack in the middle, on a raised platform and wearing his batman underwear, sat Jenkharsten, slouching with his long legs stretched out before him and his fingers playing a keyboard symphony. His upper body swayed to a slow rhythm, lips moving as his bare feet tapped along.

Cougar must have seen Jensen hack away just like that, hundreds of times. All in all it was such a well-known, welcome sight that Cougar could have purred. That was, however, before he saw the Cougars.

Part of him had expected to find them, of course, sooner or later. When Jensen did something silly, at least no one could accuse him of not going the whole nine yards. Finding employees that reminded of the Losers obviously had amused him – or might have been part of his attempt to get rid of that ‘lingering affection’. So, with Roque-a-likes all over the Jentheniskaia; the Pooches mostly holed up in the garage or working on various technical problems; with Clays and possible Aishas "accidentally" starting fires on a regular basis - Cougar had heard both stories and fire alarms. He had half expected to find Cougars on the roof top: a band of silent watchers keeping a tight eye on everything without ever being spotted, not even by one of their own. That would have been logical. He would even have liked that.

But no. Not on the roof tops.

There they were. And his heart shrank.

Golden skin; miles of legs; perfectly groomed ebony hair half-way down their backs; not a scar in sight; wide, dark eyes like fucking does. Eight of them, most wearing only black shorts stretched sinfully tight both back and front; one more handsome than the other was beautiful.

He stared at them for several minutes. Their bright faces; their attention and apparent devotion to Jenkharsten. One of them, with particularly long hair, sat constantly by Jenkharsten's feet, being absently patted. A second one, in a gold mesh shirt, knelt on his other side and held up Jensen's OTW mug each time he wriggled his fingers so he could suck the content through a straw.

//I washed that fucking mug a hundred times!//

Cougar hadn't lain anywhere near long enough to start to stiffen up, so he smoothly rolled out of his sniper's stance and trudged to the door leading back into the building, returning to the nest with an aching heart. While he walked he forced himself not to dwell on what he had discovered. Just like in Bolivia he concentrated on keeping a clear head, just going on automatic until he reached safe ground, ignoring the bitter taste of failure in his mouth.

In Bolivia, safe ground had been a hovel they had found after a four hour march - and holding Jensen tight while the younger man (or what he had, at that time thought was a younger man, anyway) cried on him. This time, Cougar had no such luxury. Once he was in the nest, in the bedroom he ought to have shared with Jensen, he laid back and pulled his hat firmly down over his face in his most distinct "disturb at peril"-gesture. Then - and only then - did he allow himself to face facts.

There had been a hint of attraction between himself and Jensen. That was undeniably true. He hadn't deluded himself. Might be that he hadn't been quite ready to offer his heart and body yet. He had wanted to wait with taking that last, big step until they were no longer on the run or at least more settled. Silly and bloody stupid and, in hindsight, perhaps just as well.

Jensen had noticed him - yeah, sure. Same way you eventually start noticing the fat woman with the strange fashion sense when your only other options were the devout lesbian and the hooker you had seen coming out from a VD-clinic. Especially if Fat Girl had red hair: you always had a weak spot for fire pussies and, well, she was fat, right, that meant big breasts. A man's just a man and Mrs Palm and her five daughters grew a bit too incestuous after a while. So far, so good.

Only now the bar doors swing open and in rush a dozen members of the Red-Headed League's cheerleading squad - and they all fall madly in lust with you on the spot. They invite you home for an orgy.

At this point, how many straight guys with working dicks would stop to think "Hmmm, well, yeah, but that sloppily dressed fat woman over there would kill armies for me and if I just give her a chance she will love me to her dying breath"? Um ... Yes, the answer is a big, fat zero.

And could there be anything more pathetic than if Fat Girl tried to push aside the cheerleading squad and demand attention? Even if she had been there from the start and actually already had killed at least a company or two for you!

Cougar slowly moved his head back and forth, breathing evenly.

He wouldn't humiliate himself. Hints of lingering affection only went so far. Perhaps Jensen, ah, Jenkharsten still liked him, in a friendly way, but--

//Stupid cat! Don't wallow, drama queen!//

Jenkharsten did still like him. In a friendly way. No "perhaps" about it. That was rather glaringly obvious from the way he kept popping up and babbling things at Cougar, despite having an entire entourage of sexy Hispanics hanging on to his every word and no doubt spreading their legs for him at the drop of a hat.

//I wear the hat,// Cougar thought fiercely, though he wasn't quite clear on what exactly that meant.

But he wouldn't delude himself either. Any sexual component that perhaps could have been added to their friendship had gone the way of the Dodo. Jenkharsten had an honest to fuck harem now - and scarred snipers with countless hang-ups and stalkerish ideas about romance did not get included in a God's harem.

//[So, just forget it.]//

With Jensen - quirky, nerdy, needy Jensen, who had the self-preservation skill of a snail happily toiling away across a highway, who couldn't flirt successfully if his balls depended on it and who sometimes cried when reading stories from that AO3 place he volunteered for - with Jensen, Cougar had had a chance, with proximity and stubbornness. Even a good chance.

With Jenkharsten ...

Cougar filled his lungs with air and held his breath until they started to ache. Breathing out slowly he tried to push away the softer feelings he had nurtured for his former teammate.

//I'll love you forever, corazon, but if I can only keep your friendship, I'll never ask for more.//

J-Day + 26.

Cougar exercised first thing in the morning. When he returned he noted a dark purple laptop on the sofa table. He showered, dressed and had breakfast at leisure - cheese and ham sandwiches and ready blended porridge - pour hot water on, stir, add jam (and, in the case of Clay, vodka) as desired.

Then, feeling ready to face what the day might bring, Cougar sat down before the laptop, noting to his surprise the Lamborghini raging bull logo on the top. He had no idea that Lamborghini made computers as well. Go figure. He opened the laptop and waited patiently as it started. Next to his account icon (why did computers have "icons" and not images? Not even Jensen had been able to answer him this when he'd finally asked), he typed his password "changeme" with easy keystrokes. He still felt that "changeme" was a strange sort of password to have. Surely Jenkharsten could have thought of something else. Still, who was he to argue?

Jenkharsten had, just like Jensen always did, fixed the new computer so that Cougar had his own background and everything. Which was good or else he'd be totally lost. He opted to interpret this as another sign that Jenkharsten still cared, if only that dratted "lingering affection". The background was a variety of practice targets which Jensen had designed for him over a year ago, as way of apologising for accidentally stabbing him in Tunis. His mouse pointer was a cross sight! How incredibly cool was that? The computer even made a little coughing sound when he clicked, exactly like when he was dry-clicking his favourite rifle. He had no clue how Jensen had managed that, but it sure made clicking around a lot more amusing.

He checked his mail. There were only six mails on the S_U - most of his fellow snipers clearly hadn't noticed that the net was back up again. Four of the emails had nothing to do with the new world order at all, but were lingering comments on an intense discussion regarding the merits of a new type of urine receptacle. The other two were about the octopuses. For a moment he considered mailing in, telling the others WMTDN - What My Techie Did Now -, but manfully resisted the urge. He closed the program again - Jensen had guilt tripped him into always closing programs before turning off the computer. This despite that as far as Cougar could tell, the programs all turned themselves off anyway.

Then, with great relish, he clicked CTRL+ALT+RIGHT ARROW. The screen blackened out, only to return after a few moments.

"Oops," Cougar said, shaking his head in stern disapproval. "Carlos Alvarez, you are not allowed at this laptop any longer."

To walk with the laptop's screen up was a bit awkward. Cougar ended up carrying the computer like he'd carry a baby that at any time might make an escape attempt, leaving him to be blamed. On his way through Jentheniskaia's maze of corridors he radiated the concentration of a man fully occupied with his precious burden. In reality he had perfect awareness of his surroundings. He could almost feel the close scrutiny from the two guards that stood outside the throne room. They were mostly for show, Jenkharsten had babbled at some point. Still, that didn't mean that they were purely ornamental. Cougar kept walking until he got close enough that it would be unreasonable for him to pretend not to see them. Then he affected a mask of complete innocence.

"Hola. I'm Cougar. I'm here to see Jenkharsten."

And, oh yes, that worked better than open sesame - Jenkharsten had quite obviously instructed the guards in no uncertain terms. Go Cougar! The door opened wide and through he went, eyes once more fixed on his baby laptop.

He didn't sneak in. He never really snuck. He didn't even work hard to blend in. He just relaxed, concentrated on his mission and not to mix prematurely with anything else. Since he was there to walk with the delicate laptop, walk with the laptop he did. A steady flow of keyboard tapping guided his steps, so he ignored everything else in hope that everything else would ignore him as well. Glances from under the brim of his hat kept him informed of that there was nothing threatening in the immediate surroundings.

The ceiling was a bit higher than he had seen through the scope - he estimated about twenty feet up. Since the temperature was comfortably warm the room must be a bitch to heat, come winter. Music played, some soft, melodic, Indian tones. He smelled chlorine, like from a pool. Earlier on, in the scope, he'd seen wet hair on some of the guys, so that made sense.

Jenkharsten remained in the swivel chair on the raised platform, just where he had been when Cougar had scoped the place earlier. Cougar kept walking naturally, as if he had every right to be there. Nothing special, just good old Cougar, move along people. //Security's not very tight here,// he noted with general disapproval, even if it came in handy at the moment.

He had come as far as the foot of the platform before voices began to rise in query. So he'd been seen, but that was fine, no problem. He was no criminal: he had a right to be there. Just Cougar, walking his laptop, no problem. He kept his eyes firmly on the computer, radiating "I'm very concerned with what I'm seeing"-vibes.

A quick glance showed him the top of Jenkharsten's hair over the back of the blue swivel chair. The last steps up he tapped his feet gently, the way he always did to attract Jensen's attention when Jensen was too deep into in his binary world (whatever that meant Cougar wasn't sure, but it was some computer thingy) to pay attention to his surroundings and prone to throw caffeinated brewages over his shoulder if startled. The choice between tapping his feet, wear bells or get coffee showers had been easy. Of course, if Jensen had sunken even deeper into hacking mode not even the cocking of a gun next to his ear would alert him - Cougar had tested this too.

The light sounds instantly resulted in stiffened shoulders; the keyboard tapping slowed to a still and the feet he could just glimpse stopped bopping.

For some reason Jenkharsten didn't look back at once. Instead he first moved his head as if sweeping his gaze across the room in front of him. Cougar lifted the laptop in preparation, turning it so that when Jenkharsten finally did slowly swivel the chair in his direction, the machine was directly in the other's line of vision.

"Sorry to bother you," Cougar said in a hushed tone, letting embarrassment colour his voice, "but you said if I try to fix a computer I fucked up again, you'd break my fingers."

Jenkharsten blinked. His face looked flush. Cougar hoped that he hadn't interrupted porn surfing again. That would be fucking lousy timing. But it wasn't as if he could start over, so he just waited with sniper patience, knowing that he stood at a knife edge juncture. Would Jenkharsten have him thrown out on his ears or would he--

A long-fingered hand reached for the laptop and then Jenkharsten stared at the twisted image in wide-eyed puzzlement. "More exactly what did you do to fuck it up?" Cougar was asked, just like Jensen always asked him more exactly how he had fucked up his computer.

"I just typed a little!" Which was utterly, completely true. Cougar did his best to radiate baffled innocence.

Jenkharsten's eyes narrowed. "You didn't spill gun oil on it again, did you? And tried to wipe it off with one of your wipes?"

Cougar shook his head in denial: eyes wide now, going for injured innocence. He had only done that once, damn it, must Jenkharsten bring that incident up every time something strange happened with his computer?

Jenkharsten swirled his chair back to the desk, pushed his center-most laptop to the side and put Cougar's down in the place of honour. Cougar took his usual stance with a hand on the top of the chair, just where the top of Jenkharsten's hair would brush against his fingers if he leaned back. When Jenkharsten had stared at the laptop for several seconds without moving, he asked: "[No hope, doctor]?”

The hispanic pretty boy kneeling at Jenkharsten's side gasped and stared at Cougar as if he was an ax-murderer. //No, that'd be Roque.//

"Nah, no need for it to cross the binary bridge. It's not really a problem. It's a feature, not a bug. Don't ask me why, but it's a setting. I suppose some people are so bent they need tilted screens to see straight. I just never needed it myself, so I'm trying to think. If I was a screen-tilting feature, where would I live my life in quiet harmony with my setting buddies?"

Cougar assumed that to be a hypothetical question. He was actually feeling a moment of triumph: he knew something about computers that Jenkharsten didn't! Granted, only because he'd managed to tilt his screen about a year earlier, at that time completely by accident, on the first day of a two week leave for Jensen, that time Cougar had been in a medic trial. After he had used the screen tilted for three days the S_U had exploded in a flame war (the merit of using spotters). He had been dragged into the mess (sure, spotters could be good to help avoid eye fatigue, but S_U was a list for snipers, wasn't it? And who did the shooting in a team? Some spotters could get really uppity. Besides, Cougar had never really needed one, though sometimes he persuaded Jensen to "help out", mostly for the company).

In the end he had admitted defeat and, rather than go crawling to some other team's tech at the base that the Losers currently nested at, had sent an OTTQ (Off Topic Tech Question) regarding the screen situation. One of the other snipers, Hilary Becker, had asked his team's tech guy, some Brit computer whiz named Connor, who had solved the problem - and had also explained exactly what Cougar must have done to achieve the tilted screen. Hilary hadn't told the Connor guy just who needed to know and snipers stick together in not tattling to their respective tech support about silly stuff like that. The Snipers_United had a surprising number of OTTQs (and Cougar wasn't the only one who had tried to use gun wipes on their computer, so why was Jenkharsten giving him a hard time about it?). His secret should be safe.

"Aha!" Jenkharsten crowed. "Got you! Am I good or am I good? This would be 270 degrees, so we just need to get it back to zero or normal. I think. Oh, yeah, here we go. Come on, baby. Cougar, did it-- Oh, yes! Voila! Do I rule, Cougar, or do I rule? Who's your daddy?"

Jenkharsten looked up with a wide grin. His eyes shimmered with such happy expectancy that Cougar hardly even noticed the lack of whites and pupils, only the familiar blue.

"You rule, Papi," he admitted, like he always did when Jenkharsten saved his computer from that "binary bridge". "Muchas gracias. Nice dig."

Jenkharsten looked around again, his movement a bit jerky. Then he laughed. Cougar automatically catalogued the sound as typical Jensen, his "Oh, shit, Cougar, I'm about to need flying bullets in zero plus 10"- one.

"Well, um yeah, I, thanks?" Jenkharsten said. Then he smiled, this time with his teeth showing in a way that Cougar filed under "Make that 0 minus 10, fuck me, just shoot 'em up, Cou!"

Cougar touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgement. Then he took an open look around, meeting everyone's stare with his sweetest, most innocent, "I'm really not a psychopath"-smile. Finally he tipped his hat, reclaimed his baby laptop and strolled out.

//Contact established. Fat Girl just wants to be friends.//


The Jenthiskaia, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Pooch had visited Carnival City during his and Jolene's fifth anniversary. An experience that outshone most of the Losers' most dangerous missions in intensity and strangeness. Jolene had clutched his hand so hard as not to get separated that his wrist had been bruised for well over a week afterwards and Jensen had given him a pamphlet on spousal abuse. Not fucking funny.

This time he was there with what remained of his team, but Jolene was constantly on his mind. They were there to rescue her. One of the resistance movements had reached out to them, providing them with information regarding the movements of the Pale Lady. Tomorrow Jenthiska would be away from the city, travelling to Bogota on some state visit. Most of her entourage and a considerable number of guards would accompany her. Jolene, however, as a prisoner, would stay. That was when they'd strike.

The Jentheniskaia, New Hampshire, USA.

A carefully guarded sniper secret is that one of the most important keys to a good wait is that if you know for sure that something will happen, it is best not to concentrate too hard on it. It is just a matter of time anyway, so you might as well use that time wisely. Sure, on a mission Cougar kept his eye on the target, just in case, but as there was nothing to keep under constant surveillance in the nest, he curled up on the sofa, first to clean his SR-25 and then to read on the kindle. With the net back up, he could turn wireless on again, to get the important 3G-symbol and download to his heart's content. He wasn't totally sure how kindle really worked, he just clicked "Buy" on whatever looked good and tried not to speculate why the device suggested that he might be interested in American Idol. Empirical evidence suggested that Jensen's Amazon account was limitless and had been so since long before the world conquering. Cougar had never questioned that, though he never misused the fact either.

He was deep into chapter three of The Name of the Wind, when the door leading out opened and Jenkharsten "snuck" inside. Cougar ignored him, at least until the Ruler of the World had situated himself on the opposite chair and begun to twitch about in the classic "Jensen might be able to cover his mouth with his hands to keep quiet, but he can't hold the rest of his body still"-manner. Finally he glanced over the top of the kindle and nodded up in greeting.

"Oh, hi, Cougs!'"

Cougs formally tipped his hat and flashed a welcoming smile.

"So ... No more tilted screens, then?"

He shook his head. After a moment he added: "Gracias," mostly because he always used a verbal response to award Jensen when he had been especially good and he suspected that Jenkharsten might react positively as well. Then he slid the kindle to sleep and placed the device beside himself on the sofa. He felt oddly secure despite that perhaps he had no reason to do so, as if something previously unbalanced had begun to settle.

Jenkharsten sat with his head tilted as if he wanted to ask a question, and he still twitched, if less obviously.

Cougar said nothing. He knew well that Jensen had never been able to out-wait him, but would break sooner rather than later. At least, if things hadn’t changed too drastically, but somehow he didn’t think that they had. However, when the twitches started to look a bit painful he raised an eyebrow, just to speed things along.

"So," Jenkharsten began and then coughed loudly. "How did you, ah, know where to go? To find me, I mean? In the throne room. And by 'me', I mean, I guess you kinda noticed I had company?"

Cougar shrugged minutely and glanced over to the maps now folded neatly at the edge of the table.

"Oh, yeah, stupid question. Even if the throne room wasn't marked as such. But you haven't been there before. Have you?"

He shook his head a fraction, nodded his chin at the laptop and then gave another minute shrug.

"Yeah," Jenkharsten answered. "Sure, no problem, I'm always happy to help and, you know, I meant it about breaking your fingers, after what you did to Methos. Um. So, you ... Ah ... The guys you saw. I ... don’t know how to, ah …"

Cougar decided to have mercy, even if he honestly found the hesitating words rather cute. "Roque."

"Roque!" Jenkharsten's voice almost hit the "Aisha is aiming at my dick"-note. "Roque found out? He was in the throne room? He saw the guys? He told you about them?"

One of the reasons why Cougar didn't speak much was that if he just waited a little, he wouldn't have to answer every question posed, just the important one at the end. Things were much more efficient, that way. He shook his head again. //Pooch and Roque did say something about "like Cougar". Guess that's what they meant, that they saw the harem or heard about them. Fuckers. I can never be anything like those guys.// That, however, was neither here nor there. "Said you're queer."

"He said what? That I'm queer? Ah, yeah, kinda. Bi, I guess. Xeno, if nothing else. Heh. So. He didn't see them, then, he just said that anyway? I mean, the guys-- I'm not forcing them to anything. Just so you know, 'kay?"

Cougar nodded. Of course he believed that Jenkharsten wasn't forcing the guys to do anything against their will. He hadn't even considered that possible aspect of the situation, not seriously.

"Good. So ... What did you ... think? Are we cool?"

"Always," he opted for, because that really said everything. Sure, he was less than fucking thrilled with the Red-Headed League's cheerleading squad, but that wasn't an issue he could force, so cool with it he would be. Even if he'd have to snort ice dust.

Jenkharsten's hesitant, yet hopeful smile was almost worth the ache still lingering in Cougar's heart. "Right. Good, that's good. Good." Jenkharsten shifted position in the chair, bringing his long legs up to rest his feet on the coffee table. "Good," he said again, breathing the word out in a content sigh.

"The others?" Cougar asked casually, as this seemed like a good moment to ask something which might possibly have a slightly negative connotation.

The small smile vanished and Jenkharsten looked at him so sharply that Cougar's stomach moved restlessly. Then the shining eyes closed for a second and Jenkharsten shook his head. When he spoke again, his voice was mild, but Cougar recognised the tone of Jensen talking to Beth just after having rescued the tortured soldiers in Syria, with rage pushed back hard as not to take his emotion out on someone who was not to be blamed. "Not a peep from them. I'm ... looking for them, but they've gone to ground. Probably so deep down that Clay's horns are growing out again, eh?"

The affectionate tone sounded genuine. Cougar smiled in memory of a shared joke from another time that the Losers had gone to ground. "I could e-mail Jolene," he said, a statement open to contradiction if Jenkharsten preferred if he didn't.

"Ah ... Yes, sure, if you wanna, I'm cool with that. I'll forward you her e-mail address. Um. Ask her if she needs anything. Tell her, um ... no, don't tell her you got it from me. I think Pooch's still pretty pissed at me. Which I understand, I fucked that up too. I really need to deal with him." The words didn't sound ominous in themselves and so Cougar tried not to read things into them that might not be there. "Well, um, no, tell her whatever you like, okay? You don't have to, um ... Whatever you like to write, it's fine."

Cougar had assumed that his mail was checked somehow, one of those "I know you know that I know"-things. Which was cool, he didn't want to write any secrets anyway. So he just nodded. "Pool?"

"Huh? Pool? Whaddaya mean 'pool'? Play table or swim pool or polo or-- Oh, in the throne room? Yeah. It's a Jacuzzi for 12, heated and all, it’s a dream. Not for laps or anything, I'm having a swim hall added to the Jentheniskaia later. But if you want to use it you're welcome. I mean, you can visit any time you like, no problems of all, you're always welcome."

Cougar pinched the denim of his trousers.

"That's right, you do need something to wear. Unless you wanna go skinny dipping, some of the guys do, not that I'm implying that you're one of the guys. Um. I. Actually, strike what I just said, I'll tell them not to do that anymore, it's not hygienic anyway. And there are swim suits there, for the guys, you could borrow one - or have one, that's even better, yeah. Um, oh, um, you remember Amazon? Where kindle lives? They have clothes too. If you want to, order away. Any clothes you want. Or anything else you want too. I've updated the delivery address, though I didn't change the name of the account, the password's still the same too. Or if they don't have anything you want, just let me know and we'll ... fix something, okay? Heh, heh, Great Old One with powers unimaginable here, right?"

He nodded up, then added a quiet: "Gracias."

Cats in general might not like to bathe, but after a long stake out, a soak could be a slice of heaven. Cats however, also like to climb. "The roof?" he asked hopefully.

Jenkharsten blinked, then nodded. "Sure. You can even tease the octopuses if you wanna. It's so much fun! They hate it, but they're not allowed to go within grabbing distance. Oooh!" Suddenly he leaned forward, eyes literally shining. "That's how you did it!"

Cougar had a second of cold regret before he registered that the voice hadn't been pissed, just eager and happy - Jensen's "I've solved the encryption!"-voice.

"You were up there! On the roof! All sniper-like and sniping! You saw me. Didn't you? That's why you know where I was and all that. And now you ask me, all big, brown-eyed innocence if you can go there! Sneaky Cougar! Who's your daddy?"

"Papi," Cougar admitted instantly.

"Damn right I am your daddy! But I never said you couldn't, did I? Hmm ... Yeah. Yeah, yeah, you can go there, it's not a problem. Just, ah ... Don't try to leave. Okay? You can go wherever you want and so on within the Jentheniskaia, just never try to leave. Okay? Cougar? No, don't just nod at me - tell me, I need to hear you say the words."

"I said it before," he complained. "They have to drag me away. Te lo prometo."

And Jenkharsten relaxed back into the sofa. "Yeah, you did say that before, didn't you?" He closed his eyes with a content smile. "Yes you did. You did."

If Pooch hasn't reached you yet, Jensen is Jenkharsten. I stayed with him.

Cougar looked at the mail and at the taunting prompt. The latter blinked at him, urging him to add more words. He carefully typed:

- Cougar

at the bottom. Nothing was more humiliating than misspelling your own name. He considered ending with "Greetings", "All the best", "the best", "best regards," even "Love", but in the end decided against it. Then for the subject line. You always needed a subject line, Jensen had told him that it looked so phony otherwise and that a letter might easily be regarded as spam or malignant.

TL, Jolene

Easy enough. Not really a subject per se, but she would notice the abbreviation for The Losers and her name, then she'd check the from-field and see his address,

The letter did feel a bit on the short side, though. But she would know that the Pooch was alive and on his way. It also explained about Jensen and even why Cougar wasn't with Pooch. That should be enough, shouldn't it?

Do you need anything?

He felt guilty that he couldn't even really promise her the shirt off his back, but Jenkharsten had told him to ask. Presumably, if she did need anything, Jenkharsten would provide.

Something was missing. He lifted his hand off the keyboard (he couldn't type with both hands, like some tech support that will remain nameless, but after several flame wars on the S_U he could reach a reasonable speed with his right hand and left thumb) and contemplated the mail some more. Should he add something about Jenkharsten? About what happened? About that any reply to the letter would probably go through a screening process before reaching him? So that Jolene didn't say anything that potentially would upset Jenkharsten? Of course, all the Losers always assumed that mail could be intercepted. Jensen had insisted on that from the get go, that no email should ever contain anything that an enemy could use. Jolene knew this too. No, that letters could be searched wasn't the problem. It was more like ...

He's still pissed that they left.

Yes, that was more important. While he flat-out refused to believe that Jenkharsten would ever hurt Jolene on purpose, Jenkharsten had cracked Cougar's spine in his fit of rage. Sure, he had fixed it again - Cougar shifted his neck cautiously - and been very upset and extremely apologetic about what he had done. Still. And while Cougar might have been an easy target after the fact, he hadn't actually left. Jenkharsten must have been so much more angry with the others. Bearing that in mind it sounded only reasonable that Jenkharsten would keep Jolene under strict surveillance, hoping to catch the three that got away. Cougar resolved to try to remind Jenkharsten that the others had also been his friends too, before. For the moment the situation was the way it was, though. Jolene better know that, so that she didn't forward some sensitive information from Pooch to Cougar, thinking that he needed to know.

//But Jenkharsten could easily have written her like Jensen,// he reasoned. //Or even like me. He's letting me write her instead. So it can't be all bad.// However, Jenkharsten still seemed tense about the whole thing. Understandable, but caution would be wise.

Finally he added

Take care,

prior to his name and hit "send".

J-Day + 27.

The next day Cougar did do some roof top intelligence gathering in the morning, but kept it low key like a good sniper should. After lunch he sauntered back to the throne room. The guards let him through, just like before, but this time they announced his arrival, rather loudly. Possibly Jenkharsten had reprimanded them after his first visit. Cougar didn't mind, as he had a different objective this time and also Jenkharsten's explicit invitation to come.

He let Jenkharsten introduce him to the guys. Three of them, Miguel, Alexandro and Henry, were from Spain; two were from Portugal, Joseph and Enrique; and the remaining three from Mexico, Emilio, Diego and Esteban. To get the guys' measure without Jenkharsten hanging over them and babbling nervously was difficult, though, so Cougar rather quickly excused himself.

The Jenthiskaia, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"Clear," Clay's voice sounded a bit tinny in the receiver in Pooch's ear.

The Pooch sat in a yellow truck across the street from the Jenthiskaia. The multi-level, sprawling pyramid in slick, white marble hadn't existed prior to the Ascension, but somehow houses and parks across Rio had been pushed aside, half of the city shifted to make room for the home of the continent's new ruler. Apparently this had wreaked hell on the cartographers.

Pooch left the truck, patting himself habitually to make sure he carried all the necessities. The Jenthiskaia rose high above him. A particularly stupid legend claimed that Jenkharsten himself had erected the palace in a single night for his appointed ruler. The very thought made Pooch spit angrily at a white wall next to him. //That stupid loon is probably eating up the way people admire him up with a spoon.//

That was almost the most difficult thing for the Pooch to comprehend. A surprising number of people seemed to actually like Jenkharsten. Oh, there had been unrest, sure. Fear, talk about Judgement Day, Armageddon and doom and the Antichrist and false gods and a horror rule by an absolute dictator, an alien usurper - and hadn't everyone seen those television shows, right, like V? They all ended with the alien snacking on wriggling rats and having their faces ripped off to reveal their true self.

Even in the Rio heat a cold shiver down the Pooch's back made him shiver.

There should have been resistance and an epic final battle in which mankind emerged battered and bleeding, but victorious, damn it!

And there was some resistance, yes. But nowhere near as much or as intense as there should be. Instead, most people just seemed to accept what had happened, as if it was something they had waited a long time for. Perhaps not looked forward to, no, because there were certainly plenty of gossiping and doomsday prophets and dire warnings and talk about rebels and resistance, but almost inevitable, in a strange sort of "Oh, fuck, but at least that was the second shoe finally dropping"-kinda way.

"Move," Clay ordered and the Pooch moved. With considerable care, though. Strange how big a difference it made that they no longer had a sniper who would provide backup if something went to hell in a hand basket.

//Fucking traitor!//

The part of him that Cougar had bailed out of fire more times than you could shake a stick at pointed out that they hadn't actually given Cougar a choice whether he wanted to come along or not. Which might in part be completely the Pooch's fault. When one of the Roques had offered to get them out, Pooch had been the one pushing for them to go at once, needing to get to Jolene. Clay had been hesitant and Roque had mumbled something about Cougar, but in the end he'd managed to persuade them. Pooch made himself ignore that part - they both know that where Jensen went, Cougar would already be hiding in the shadows, finger on the trigger guard.

The plan was simple. Roque was on the opposite side of the Jenthiskaia, creating a spectacular diversion with a rather large bomb, courtesy of one of Clay's more volatile exes. Clay, as their second-best shooter, provided his 2iC with back-up - after all, they wanted everyone to think that was where they were going in. Meanwhile, the Pooch would slip in at the side entrance, locate Jolene and Baby and get them out. The team even had a map, courtesy of the resistance movement that had reached out to them. Maybe not the most brilliant, well-thought-out plan in the history of plan making, but sans sniper and tech support it was the best they could do.

The Pooch rushed down the slope to the service tunnel leading under the Jenthiskaia. It only took him a minute to reach the door - which was locked electronically. If that bloody fucking alien tech wizard had been with them, Jensen would no doubt have been able to open it remotely, but between the three of them, Clay, the Pooch and Roque could barely program a DVD-player (though the Pooch could fix it if they managed to break it in their attempt). Of course, they had planned with this in mind. In a shopping bag the Pooch carried a baby version of the bigger bomb, just large enough to blow his way inside.

As if on cue came an explosion in the distance, echoed through his ear buds. The noise was pretty impressive. If he hadn't been so worked up worrying about Jolene he would have found it fucking awesome. However, the blast had been carefully planned to do maximal damage with minimal human injuries.

The Pooch snorted. //Of course, those guards are collaborators, they only have themselves to blame if they get hurt!//

"Those ants are swarming," Clay said, sounding amused, and then the Pooch heard the low, coughing sound, dulled by the receiver, of a fired rifle. "Pooch - blast that popsicle stand."

His hand dipped into the Walmart bag and--

-- the door opened.

A man with a full head of black hair; a sunburned complexion, a pale grey, pin-striped suit; blue tie; single glove; dark glasses and a white-toothed smile looked out at him.

"Sergeant Linwood Porteous!" the man greeted him cheerfully, reaching out as if expecting a handshake. "What a surprise!"

The Pooch had started to go for his sidearm, but on hearing his name he froze. Not because of the naming of names, though. No, not at all because of the naming of names.

"Actually, that was a lie. I'm not very much surprised at all. Or maybe I am. A tiny bit. Sometimes Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Clay is such a hands-on leader. When he's sober, anyway. But my money was on you, so you won me a dollar. Well, you lost me a dollar too, because no-one would bet against me other than myself, since an unfortunate event a few years back. Honestly, if a man says he'd bet his left nut on something, he really should be prepared to pay up, don't you think?"

It was that voice. That familiar, unforgettable voice.

"Anyway, it is a pleasure to meet you at last Sergeant Porteous. Now that we're on the same side again, it'll be such a pleasure working with you, I'm sure. For the good of America!"

Just after lunch there was a quick knock on Cougar's door. He'd been in the bedroom, just getting down to business of fondling himself through his jeans when he heard the noise and went for his rifle. He had the hidden compartment open and a bullet in hand when a male voice called out "Package" before the door closed again. Cougar was already in the living room, but if someone had slipped inside they wouldn't have had time to get out of his sight. A packet stood by the door, a light brown box with a kind of smile drawn on it.

Mood lost, Cougar voted to wait with the self-abuse and instead opened the package to find it a shipment from Amazon, more precisely his new swimming trunks and several crates of beer. He tried the trunks on, finding them a good fit. Tucking them into his trouser pocket he got his SR-25 and left the nest, heading for the roof.

Careful stalking had shown that Jenkharsten was often out on errands between ten and two. So, seeing he wasn’t likely to be present, Cougar headed on over to the throne room. Twenty minutes later he was neck-deep in the really, really nice hot bubbly pool.

The harem guys flocked around him, understandably curious as to who he was. With a good-natured grin, Cougar let them play twenty questions, nodding occasionally, but from habit dodging any question of substance.

"So ... What exactly are you to Jenkharsten?" one of them, Emilio, asked hesitantly and they all looked at him, expectantly waiting for him to explain.

He shrugged a little, as if it didn't matter and wasn't very interesting besides.

"Oh come on, tell us!" Emilio pleaded and they all chimed in to get him to spill.

"A friend," he eventually offered. Because, when all was said and done, that was true. He was a friend to Jenkharsten and maybe the opposite still had some truth in it as well.

"Oh. So, you're not his lover?"

He blinked at the blunt question of a subject that was so very dear to him. To cover his hesitance he grabbed his Marrakesh Ice Tea standing next to the bubble bath and sipped, enjoying the chill in his throat and the subtle blend of mint and lemon.

Finally, he shook his head. Because, when all was said and done and no matter what he might still ponder and had once hoped for, that was also true.

Strangely, the looks traded among the eight seemed almost relieved.

After some more of the Q & As with more Qs than As, Cougar finally gathered up enough words to A a couple of Qs himself. Well, or to circle the Jacuzzi with his finger, indicating all of them, while lifting an eyebrow to Emilio, anyway. The latter frowned as if that wasn't clear enough, but then he rambled on with all the information Cougar could have wanted. Jenkharsten's eight were all there voluntarily. They belonged to an elite net-work of high-ranking escorts. They had been hand-picked for their looks, but also for their willingness to overlook such minor imperfections as their john not being a card-carrying member of the Homo Sapiens family. Originally there had actually been ten of them, but two had balked the first day, something that the remaining eight seemed to find somehow embarrassing. They had signed on for half a year, with options for extensions if all proved satisfactory. No sums were discussed, but Cougar had an idea that none of them would ever have to hesitate about whether or not to buy themselves anything ever again, afterwards.

Cougar began to worry that apart from the prettiness, Jenkharsten might like these guys better than him because they talked almost as easily as Jenkharsten himself did. They certainly rambled on easily enough.

The reason why they had even contemplated the idea of him being Jenkharsten's lover soon became apparent. While some of them might have been willing to bed Jenkharsten even without the money, Jenkharsten had yet to demand sex of any of them. The furthest anyone claimed to have gone was to second base.

On hearing that something in Cougar relaxed.

"This is quite unnecessary," Max said cheerfully. Much, much too cheerfully for a man tied to a solid pipe with a generous helping of the Pooch's number one little helper, duct tape. "Sergeant Porteous, haven't you ever heard the age-old saying 'The enemy of your enemy is your friend'? I assure you, I only have your best interest at heart."

Why, oh why had Clay stopped him from just killing the fucker on sight? "You're not my friend! You killed all those children! You started this entire mess!"

Well, perhaps not the Jenkharsten mess, Jensen had done that fuck-up all on his own, unless Cougar really had been in on it from the start.

"And I'm deeply, truly sorry for what I did!" Max said, sounding deeply, truly sorry in an exaggerated way that grated on Pooch's nerves. "However, don't you think we better join forces against the alien who has taken over America? Who kept your unit prisoners for weeks, if I recall correctly, and who hid in your midst, pretending to be your friend, and proved to be nothing of a sort? Who is holding your wife hostage, in this very castle if I'm not mistaken."

Pooch really wanted to hit the man over the head. "Boss?" he asked roughly.

Clay could handle this type of fucked up situations. Not the Pooch. Besides, he had rather pressing things to deal with.

"The guards won't be distracted for much longer," Clay said, his voice tight. "Proceed with the mission objective."

So, Pooch double-checked the duct tape, then legged it down the corridor.

Behind him, Max sighed theatrically and rolled his eyes.

When the Marrakesh iced tea was drunk and he felt warm to the marrow from the soak, Cougar decided that he didn't want to be in the throne room on Jenkharsten's return. Better to avoid questioning, for now. So, he borrowed a towel to dry himself off with, then headed on over to the exercise room to work out and think about what he had learned.

They had chosen for Pooch to enter through the servant tunnel as it was only a short distance from the room in which Jolene and Baby were kept. Pooch ran hard, shotgun at the ready. He was prepared to kill anyone who tried to stop him from reaching his goal. Whoever they were would only have themselves to blame. However, much to his surprise the way was deserted. Sure, Roque's little explosive stunt would have pulled most remaining guards to Jenthiskaia's main entrance, but it still felt a bit strange.

Not even outside Jolene's room did he encounter any guards.

That threw the Pooch for a moment, but then he shrugged. By herself Jolene wasn't much of an escape risk. With Baby along, she would know that the best thing she could do was to stay low and wait for him to come for them. Jolene knew that he'd always come for them. Besides, feisty and lovely and perfect as she was, Jolene couldn't jimmy locks or kick down a door, so a simple lock would be enough to keep her inside. On second thought he wouldn't even have wanted for her to escape. With the current international unrest she wouldn't have been able to make the trip back to the US easily and would have risked being swallowed up alive by Rio.

He didn't rush in like some idiot, though. There might be guards inside, instead, alerted by the rather spectacular explosion. So he emptied his other Wal-Mart bag and applied his second baby bomb to the door's lock. A second after that the bomb had gone off he was through the door with his 870 at the ready.

He stepped into an empty room. It looked pretty much like the living room back at the Jentheniskaia, in the same shades of white, green, brown and sand yellow. Maybe Jensen and his sister hired the same interior decorator.

Something smelled wrong.

A second later he saw the smears of blood leading into what in the Jentheniskaia would have been one of the two bedrooms. The smears of someone being dragged.

Five seconds later, he started to scream.


To play nice and even talk with the harem boys had left Cougar tense and restless, so he put himself through a rather intense program in the exercise room. Afterwards he rinsed off with a quick, cold shower. Then he drew himself another bath, remembering how nice it had felt to relax in the Jacuzzi. The tub in the nest wasn't quite as nice, but it would do.

In hindsight, perhaps to take a second bath had been an unwise decision. Especially since the dollop of green that promised to be invigorating instead made him feel as if his brain was mush. He didn't exactly feel exhausted, he hadn't trained anywhere near hard enough for that, but he certainly felt disinclined to move, with all his limbs heavier than they should be. Deciding to treat himself to an afternoon nap he staggered over to the very comfy, just-long-enough sofa and sank down, absent-mindedly pushing his hat over his face.

Sleep eluded him, so for a long while he rested, on the verge of sleep but not quite falling over, enjoying the drowsy lethargy.

Minutes or hours later he became aware that he was being watched. Someone was in the room with him. Someone who had arrived either without making any noises or alerting his sixth sense.

Squinting through an air hole in his hat he saw Jenkharsten sprawl bonelessly on one of the chairs by the sofa. Long legs stretched out in front of him, arms hanging to the sides and head tilted back. He wore a bright orange t-shirt with a cartoon on it, but Cougar couldn't make out what the drawing depicted.

Jenkharsten looked about as tired as Cougar felt - and he was quiet. The latter was worrisome. Granted, he was in a room with someone who presumably was asleep under his hat, but still. A quiet Jenkharsten was unnatural.

//If two negatives makes a positive, does an unnatural Great Old One make for a natural human?// Cougar speculated fuzzily. Then the logical riddle was cancelled by quiet words from the being in question.

"Sorry, man, didn't mean to wake ya. I just came in to tell you they have finally rescued Jolene now, yay."

Cougar smiled, feeling something in his chest relax even further. //Bien.// That would hopefully get the Pooch off his case. The Losers had quickly learned that the Pooch's wife was his one sensitive area, now together with Baby, of course. Pooch was good-natured and kind, the sanest of them all, but say one unkind word about Jolene and he'd take you apart like one of his machines, except not as tenderly. Nor would he put you back together again.

The Losers had all borne the brunt of his annoyance at one time or another, when they had been on a mission for too long and the Pooch's lack of Jolene had started showing. Then Jensen had joined the team. The clever hacker had, after exactly one joke about lonely women waiting at home for their soldier husbands and Pooch's subsequent attack, hooked the man up with feeds from various security cams placed in or near the Porteous residence. Afterwards they all breathed much easier around the then much more manageable man.

“There was blood on the scene still, but no bodies."

Someone got hurt. Cougar felt guilt start to scratch inside his belly. He had been the default team medic as he had more training in that area than the others. With someone hurt, he should have been there. //They might have needed me prior too. Maybe I could have prevented them from getting hurt in the first place.//

"Yeah, it feels strange, doesn't it? It does to me too, you know. I feel like I really should have been there. Helped them. But, like - I can't be, because I must do this now, I can't do that as well. Um, I ...” He ducked his head and gave Cougar a sheepish grin. ”Okay, so I might have heard they were in the area and asked her to leave for a few days, so there would be less guards. Just in case."

The tight thing in Cougar relaxed a bit further. //Good. Only ...//

Jenkharsten tapped the tabletop firmly, in a manner Cougar recognised from a keyboard hit just a bit too hard. "There shouldn't have been any blood at all. I didn't mean for anyone to get hurt. Fuck it."

Cougar could easily see several explanations, like--

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Some macho guard with a happy trigger finger. Or mixed up information. Or thinking he knows better than his superior. Heat of the moment. Trying to be a hero. All of the above. I asked Jenthiska to look around. Roque might have stashed a guard in the vent system again and otherwise they won’t find him until he starts smelling. Fuck it, though, it should have been easy pie for them, just a quick in-out. Maybe it was even an accident. Heeeh, do you remember that time when Roque cut himself in the thumb with that big-ass knife of his? The one with the ivory inlays? That really, really sweet one that I won off him in ... was it in Oslo? It might have been Copenhagen, I guess. Anyway, yeah. He bled like a stuck pig, didn't he? Maybe someone slipped and fell and broke their nose or something."

Cougar nodded faintly under the hat. Those had been a few of the possibilities that he had considered. Still, he felt uneasy about what had happened.

"So Jenthiska was away, a visit down south. She's on her way back now. I've asked her to see if she could find out what happened. She sends her best, by the way. When she has everything settled, she'll come up and visit. M-Bethaali too. That'll be nice. We could have a barbeque."

Cougar wasn't quite sure how he'd react to M-Bethaali and Jenthiska now, but he'd gotten more or less used to Jenkharsten, so hopefully the same would apply to them. He had seen pictures of them. Both had the same type of solid, shiny blue eyes as Jenkharsten, but had grown out their hair like cloaks down their backs, tendrils of which would whip about likes the snakes of Medusa. He moved a hand vaguely to indicate that he was generally on-board with this idea.

"Sweet. So, anyway, carry on sleeping, kitty."

He hadn't been actually sleeping, just resting. It had been nice, though. And he could actually do with a few minutes of actually crashing, to jump-start himself again.

"Silly sheep, go to sleep," Jenkharsten mumbled.

He was not a sheep and he was not silly.

"I will watch around you keep."

That sounded nice. Someone to keep watch for him and have his back.

"Though the night be dark and deep."

But night didn't get very dark anymore, did it? Not with the changed sky. Cougar didn't like that. Night was supposed to be black, not dark orange. He missed the old sky.

"Nothing past me dares to creep. Go to sleep."

Cougar obeyed.

"Again, I am deeply, truly sorry for what happened," Max said, smiling imploringly at the king of the Losers, Clay, and the sad remains of his unit.

They stared back at him, eyes hard and wild. Angry animals, poked with sticks for much too long. And yes, Max had held one of those sticks and it had been so much fun to poke - poke - poke. For the good of America, of course. Must always think of the good of America.

"I really am," he added sincerely. And the sincerity really was sincere. His very best shirt had blood stains that never would go away and a button had been ripped out as well. And it was his favourite shirt! He didn't even have his Wade to send to the dry cleaner any longer - he would have to throw the shirt away!

They just stared at him, measuring him up. Max, who knew all his measurements, merely looked back, chewing his gum.

"Of course, had I had any idea that the monster planned on killing your wife today of all days, Sergeant Porteous, I wouldn't have waited for you by the door!"

Of course he wouldn't have. If Jenthiska or Jenkharsten had actually planned on killing the Jolene woman, he could have stayed well away from the Jenthiskaia.

Not killing the baby had been rather a nice touch if he did say so himself. Not because of any emotional objection he had against killing babies - where would the world be today if people objected to minor things like the slaughter of the innocents? - but when the momentarily deranged father had come back down through the servant tunnel carrying both baby and Mama Corpse, he had looked wild enough to do lasting damage, so Max had quickly offered to carry the lady in question.

To carry a dead body was distasteful to say the least - that's why you had henchmen. However, Wade was now Slices of Wade and of no use to anyone not into seriously kinky necrophilia, which Max wasn't, and so Max had ended up with even more blood on his favourite shirt. Though, of course, that helped to cover up the older blood stain, so a win-situation in the end, really. //Go me!//

"From now on I just hope that we can co-operate to bring down the alien usurpers," he said smoothly.

For the good of America!

J-Day + 32.

Cougar visited the throne room a few more times, sometimes when Jenkharsten was there, sometimes when he wasn't. Mostly just quick in-and-outs, to familiarise the eight with his presence and make them relax. When he judged the time ripe he waited until he saw Jenkharsten leave in a yellow Lamborghini. Then he took his hoarded stock of Young's Double Chocolate Stouts and other beers (ordered off Amazon, was that place good or what?) and threw an impromptu poker party over in the game corner.

Hidden from view both from the windows and visitors not let past the platform was a cosy corner with a U-shaped sofa capable of holding up to twelve, a lazy boy chair, a giganormous wide-screen TV and a table in between. Stacked to knee-height was a pile of board games and consoles. Cougar even recognized some games from various places around the globe where the Losers had stayed for longer than a couple of days in a nest and things had started to accumulate, usually near Jensen's Arthur-table.

Occasionally the other Losers would deign to play with Jensen, even if he happily played games on his own that normally required 3 - 6 players. Cougar kind of liked Carcassonne, especially the extension pack with the dragon and the elf - to hear Roque claim the elf always had him grinning.

Today, however, he had something else on his mind and as the poker game progressed he managed to, by way of careful eyebrow-lifting, hat-touching, inquisitive noises and gestures, get Jenkharsten's eight interested as well and speculating amongst themselves. The beer helped too - oh, Jenkharsten provided them with high quality food and even reasonable amounts of alcohol, but men are men and free beer is free beer, even if it tastes of chocolate.

By the time Jenkharsten returned from whatever he'd been doing they were all a bit tipsy.

"Honeys, I'm home," Jenkharsten called from across the platform.

Cougar felt a momentary warmth at being a "honey", even if Jenkharsten used plural and had absolutely no idea that his former team-mate was even present. //If he's omnipotent he knows!// he told himself firmly, but then called himself silly.

The Ruler of the Known Universe came swaggering into sight. "I'm up for hugs and cuddles today and--" Rounding the table he stopped abruptly and stared. "Ahm. Oh. Hi, Cougs. Uhm. Oh, so, I see you all started without me, eh?"

Miguel and Joseph actually giggled at him, while Alexandro simpered. Cougar, sitting at the far end of the sofa, touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgement. He felt a bit like a, well, tenth wheel, which didn't make any sense, but he wasn't about to leave just yet. He'd spent too long prepping the afternoon not to see the outcome.

Jenkharsten took the lazy boy they had left him and looked around, smiling if a bit hesitatingly. "So, did you leave me any beer? I've been hard at work today. World peace, things like that. Not quite a go yet, but I'm working on it, like, really hard. I think they’re all listening to me now. I deserve beer."

Cougar dipped into his dwindling supply and sent an Espresso Stout down the line. The bottle was quickly opened, sniffed, made a face at and drunk from. "So, what were you girls - and manly, manly special ops sniper, possibly one of the most dangerous men in the world - gossiping about?"

Which again had Miguel and Joseph giggling. Cougar sipped his beer and did his best to radiate "I've never met these people before in my life"-vibes. Then he signalled Emilio with a sharp glance and a finger towards Jenkharsten.

"We were wondering about something," Emilio said to Jenkharsten and the others grew quiet.

"If Cougar has said anything about me forgetting he was in the room and jerking it to a really hot PWP, he's a lying liar who lies and who might be brought up for treason charges if he continues these outrageous lies of his. If not, yes?"

"Is Cthulhu really real?"

"May his fins dry out and his scale itch until he's madder than he already is, old snout-face, sure he is. He is also boring like something really, really boring, though, none of you'd like him, I promise. I'm much more handsome and not as likely to suck your brains out through your eye-sockets." He then made a quick grab for Alexandro, who sat nearest, making a noise that apparently was meant to sound like brain-sucking. Alexandro squealed, but not too loudly, and bashed him over the shoulders.

Cougar rolled his finger at Emilio.

"He has like, feelers and scales and such? Like those stories say?"

Cougar had highlighted appropriate quotes in his kindle - a feature he had discovered all by himself and felt very proud of - and had made Miguel read them out loud to the others.

Jenkharsten released Alexandro - a bit too slowly for Cougar's liking. Then he nodded. "Sure. Pug ugly I tell you. The book is a bit spot on, actually. He had something going with Lovecraft, sending him images or something, I don't know, he did write about Cthulhu influencing dreams of sensitive individuals. I nearly laughed my head off reading some of his stuff, though, it's just so bizarre. I kind of liked Cool Air and The Outsider, though. And The Whisperer In Darkness."

Cougar rolled his finger.

"Wings too? He really has wings?"

"Oh, yeah, sure. Though as for the whole 'live in interstellar space and flying through it on clumsy, powerful wings'-thing, I--"

"Do you have them? Wings?"

Jenkharsten looked a bit surprised. "Wings?"

"We want to see wings," Emilio said firmly. "Kisses from everyone if you show us your wings."

Cougar blinked. He certainly hadn't encouraged any type of bribery. Jenkharsten was an exhibitionist and bribery shouldn't be necessary at all - and kisses from everybody? That ... could end badly.

Jenkharsten looked around hastily, then shook his head, though not quite in negation, more like in "What is going on here?"

"Wings!" Emilio started. And a moment later they all fell into the chant, including Cougar. "Wings! Wings! Wings!" was chanted in that time-honoured rhythm of men demanding boobs.

Jenkharsten stared at them, eyebrows furrowed and mouth half-open. Cougar's stomach started to twitch. They were definitely over-doing it. To get the guys involved just because he was curious to see if Jenkharsten really had wings apparently hadn't been a smart idea. What if Jenkharsten was insulted to be chanted at like some striptease dancer for a tit show and--

Hands went up in a gesture of surrender.

"Wings!" Jenkharsten laughed. "Sure, okay. I haven't had them out in forever, anyway. Since you're all my peeps - and super studly, long-range eliminator, of course. Maybe if you're good boys, I'll even take you flying one day. But today you only want to look, right?"

Happy shouts - and a brisk nod from Cougar - indicated that this suited them all just fine.

Jenkharsten stood up and pushed back the lazy boy. Cougar was momentarily cast back to a simpler time, when Jensen would make a large production of showing off his undoubtable “skillz” at making shadow puppets or impersonating superiors.

Of course, Jensen didn't tend to strip when doing those things. Unless he impersonated Clay fleeing from one of his more volatile conquests.

Cougar had seen Jensen in various states of undress before, needless to say - even buck naked, more times than he could count. Sometimes he had even ogled some, when presented with the opportunity. Sometimes a bit of the ogling might have taken place through the scope of a sniper rifle. This, though, was the first time he was invited to look for the sake of looking (and not to stitch up a wound or dig out a bullet). Look he did. Subtly, of course, he wasn't one to howl and pant at the object of his affection - and, besides, they weren't exactly alone.

The bared chest, however, was the stuff little snipers dream about when they fantasise in the shower. Wide; muscular; with lovely, pink nipples and just a light brush of dark gold hair leading the way down those sinfully tight denim trousers.

Jenkharsten stood still, giving them a few seconds to properly admire his physique. Then the living god turned his back to his harem - and his sexually frustrated sniper buddy - to present them with an equally delectable, broad back.

//His scars are gone?// Cougar suddenly realised. The muscular expanse of flesh was unmarred by anything other than a few birthmarks. Those Cougar remembered and he supposed the scars had been easy enough to fix for a being capable of healing cracked spines with a touch. //Why did he keep the birthmarks, though?//

The lower back tapered into the trousers and an ass which was really something to behold, making the cat in Cougar want to purr happily just thinking of curling up with all that goodness.

Arms - muscled, not bodybuilder-fat with writhing veins or anything, but strong and capable - stretched out to the sides, making the shoulder blades ripple with strength and--


Didn't make the shoulder blades ripple with strength.

Or maybe they did, but that was beside the point.

Something moved under the tightly stretched skin.

//La puta madre.//

Pushing from within, like a horror movie monster grown in someone's body, breaking out of its host.

Cougar's stomach turned. The sight was unnatural, horrible, ungodly. He aborted an instinctive grab for his rifle - which he had left back in the nest anyway, stupid cat!

//Madre de Dios. Save us from all evil.//

Over the suddenly frantic pounding of his heart he heard worried mumbles from the other guys. In the corner of his eye he saw Miguel cross himself and worried dully that Jenkharsten would take offence even as his own hand twitched to repeat the gesture. Sure, the official line was that Jenkharsten tolerated human religions - as long as everyone paid him the dues and respect owed to him - but as of yet that had not been tested.

Then the wings unfolded.

Some part of Cougar, when imagining Jenkharsten with wings, had thought of them like angel wings, with white, fluffy, soft feathers. That maybe seeing a Great Old One fly was what had started the legend about angels in the first place.

Not even remotely so. There were no feathers. They weren't devil's wings either, which Cougar associated with the leathery, dry wings of bats. Butterfly wings would certainly have explained Jenkharsten's reluctance to show them in public - and maybe clear neon blue wings would have suited Jensen's eclectic personality - or maybe even petunia pink ones.

They weren't.

Instead they were of a thick, semi-translucent membrane, a bit insect like, though wide at the base like eagle wings. They had a slick, almost oily surface, faintly green or maybe just reflecting the dominant colour of the room.

The bases emerged running from the top of the shoulder blade down to the middle of his lower back. A thicker ridge ran along the upper arch, though if there was a skeletal part within, this seemed to slide within the membrane in a way that twisted Cougar's insides.

Both wings had four joints, each clad with dense, gold blond hair about a foot long.

When the wings had fully unfolded, they shook once, hard, sending a musky scent across the room. Then they rose until the tips brushed the ceiling some twenty feet up.

Cougar's stomach didn't quite heave, but alerted him sharply that something was so very wrong that flight might be a good response, and to flee would go faster on an empty stomach. The Young's Double Chocolate Stout he'd drunk earlier opined that the same might be true for an empty bladder as well.

The wings were terrible. Unnatural. Impossible. Against God.

His hand twitched up again, for him to cross himself, but just then Jenkharsten turned back. Blue eyes sought out Cougar's and he couldn't meet them. He could only stare like prey fixed by a predator's presence, at the otherworldly appendixes stretching up in the air.

Jenkharsten's wings.

Cold and heat and fear rushed through him - yes, he had known that Jenkharsten wasn't human, the eyes alone showed him that every day, but ...

The wings!

Jenkharsten's nostrils twitched and the solid gaze moved across the room. His shoulders began to pull up, the muscles of his impressive six pack fluttered and his fingers pulled back to form loose fists.

Maybe Jenkharsten understood Cougar's inarticular expressions almost fluently, but Cougar would have to be blind and drunk not to see Jenkharsten's uncertainty.

Jenkharsten worried about their reaction.

To the wings.

He expected them to react badly - and to his shame, Cougar had.

Cougar swallowed. The wings were Jenkharsten's wings. He forced himself to look at them again, to the way that the light caught in the gelatinous material. The strands of hair looked dense like a mink's pelt, only with much longer strands. Their hue echoed nicely Jenkharsten's body hair. Very touchable in itself, Cougar's fingers had always itched to play with Jensen's hair, both above and below. The surfaces of the wings still bothered him, because he couldn't tell how they would feel - would they be warm or cold? Hard or giving? Slick or dry? Anything could be true.

Just as he wondered if he could make himself touch the wings, they began to swiftly fold back. Since Jenkharsten faced them, they appeared to melt out of sight. Another wave of the strange, not-sour smell wafted through the room. When the wings were gone, Cougar could look at Jenkharsten's face again - and see the blank look there, hiding all of Jenkharsten's feelings.

Instantly, Cougar wanted to hit himself. What kind of a friend was he? He should have met Jenkharsten's eyes as soon as he turned back and he should have smiled - anything to establish that he didn't find the wings as revolting as he instinctively had.

The wings had been beautiful too.

He whistled low, caught Jenkharsten's eyes and smiled. Maybe too fucking little; too fucking late, but the shuttered look his friend currently sported was too much for him to bear. He nodded acceptance - and never mind the sweat that still chilled his arm pits and sides.

"Well," Jenkharsten said, his voice tense. "That was a disaster, wasn't it?"

Looking around Cougar saw the rest start to emerge from their dazes - whispering anxiously amongst themselves and throwing fearful looks Jenkharsten's way. Cursing himself for not anticipating that the wings might not be shown simply because they tended to overwhelm the human mind, Cougar caught Emilio's attention and motioned for him to get up.

"I suppose I should have had you eat some Innsmouth tarantulas first, but, you know, spider gut - yuck. Not that it would help either, I have no clue why Innsmouth tarantulas would help. Do they even have wild tarantulas in Innsmouth or are we talking someone's pet tarantulas here?"

Emilio stared at Cougar as if not understanding what the rolled finger and gesture towards Jenkharsten, followed by a sweep of a hand and a tap to the other actually meant. Cougar sighed inwardly. Seriously, he needed to teach these boys how men communicated.

Though right now he desperately needed to salvage something about this fucked up situation. A louder whistle had everyone's attention and a series of finger waves had them standing. A little more persuasion went into making them form an semi-ordered line and then Cougar pushed at the shoulders of Alexandro, first in line, towards Jenkharsten. Who was standing a bit away, watching them verily with his arms crossed over his - still naked - chest. He was noticeably not talking, which Cougar recognised as a dire sign.

Alexandro refused to move. "No!" he said and tried to slip past Cougar to Cougar knew not where.

"[Kisses]!" Cougar hissed at him. "[Now]!" He pushed harder, but the Spaniard was slippery and suddenly Cougar found himself stumbling to the head of the line with Jenkharsten glaring at him as if this was all Cougar's fault. //Which it is. I'm sorry.//

Cougar looked back over his shoulder, nailing the sissies with his best death glare. He noted with some satisfaction that this made a few of them pale even further. Then he took a deep breath and drew himself up to face the music. He walked up to his tech support cum world conqueror.

Who followed his approach with eyes so wide they looked worried.

Up close he could still scent the wing musk or whatever it was. The unfamiliar smell perhaps wasn't unpleasant per se, but something about it definitely screamed of unnaturalness.

"He promised kisses," Cougar said in a low voice to remind Jenkharsten that at least that hadn't been his idea. Then he shrugged. Even so, he always paid his debts.

So close to the otherworldly being his chest tightened up and his stomach moved restlessly. He reminded himself firmly that he had participated in drinking games with said being, until one of them threw up or lost consciousness - and that he had won more often than he had lost.

Finally he raised up on his toes - was Jenkharsten taller than Jensen? - and leaned in. He pressed a quick kiss to Jenkharsten's left cheek and said meekly, "Thank you for showing us your wings, Jenkharsten."

And Jenkharsten smiled at him: a wide, happy Jensen-smile.

Mission accomplished Cougar turned back to glare at the rest again - really hard, this time, so they knew that a horrible fate awaited them if they didn't kiss their master on the cheek and thanked him like good boys, just like Cougar had done.

To his relief they obeyed. Jenkharsten received them all in turn, holding a hand to his left cheek and offering them his right to kiss.


Paying a bloodied debt, of ripping and tearing and making people pay for what had hurt him gave him immense satisfaction and left him feeling good and happy with his day. To be forced to wait was annoying, but he had an excellent imagination and could easily envision how his plans would play out, in all their blood-stained glory, oh yes. He could easily have taken out the sad losers he currently hung with, but from the moment he had realised the identity of Jenkharsten Max had known that his best bet to take out the Monster Who Stole America was its former unit. Even that the monster had kept his pet Mex worked in Max’s favour, because the wetback was who Max wanted most keenly to take his vengeance on. Clay might have called the shot, but Alvarez’s finger had been on the trigger of the gun that had shot the bullet that had killed Max’s Wade.

Needless to say, they would all die, but to get at the Mex he’d have to get at Jenkharsten first –and the rest of the losers would get him there, of that he was sure. They were still – naturally and healthily, if annoyingly so - weary of him, but Max played nice as he waited and watched. His plan was already more or less formed. Now it was just a matter of wait and see, until the time was right. Meanwhile, he prepared his pitch. The trigger-happy sniper would get what was coming to him.

A play smiled on Max’s lips and he whispered to himself, “For the sake of North America, then.”

The same evening, after an punishing work out session, Cougar ate waffles. Not the healthiest meal in existence, but on returning to the nest he'd found a waffle maker on the kitchen bench and a batch of batter in the fridge. He could take a hint like the next man.

He made the waffles one at a time, eating in between, because he liked them best when they were fresh off the waffle maker - preferably a little crunchy from roasted butter. When one had reached the desired shade of brown gold he slathered it with a mix of whipped cream and strawberry jam - both of which had also appeared in the fridge. Then he withdrew to the living room, where he would eat the treat in joyful concentration. Only when the waffle was all gone would he return to the kitchen and pour another one.

Except that while he finished off his third waffle, Jenkharsten stepped out from the kitchen, carrying a platter with a waffle nearly invisible under a thick layer of vanilla ice cream - Jensen preferred ice cream on his waffles (or, as the Pooch said, preferred a bit of waffle under his ice cream) - and plunked down opposite to Cougar. Correction - he had carried two platters, one of which had been half hidden under the other. On the second lay a single, bare waffle, which he deftly transferred to Cougar's own plate. Where there was just enough left of the jam and cream mix that he could start eating right away. The waffle was just perfect too, more dark brown than golden.

Cougar made a suitably grateful grunt and started in on cutting out the waffle hearts.

They ate under a companionable silence. Then Jenkharsten gathered his long legs under him, lifting his platter. "'nother one?"

Cougar estimated the situation and then nodded, holding up his plate.

"You're so demanding," Jenkharsten groused, but took both plates back with him to the kitchen.

For a second Cougar wondered if Jenkharsten really had become annoyed, but without the plate, how was Jenkharsten supposed to give him more jam and whipped cream?

Before long he was rewarded with another perfect waffle and a generous helping of his favourite toppings. He made another grateful grunt and settled in to diminish the bounty. By now he was getting fairly full, but kept eating with the silent single-mindedness taught by too many missions during which food had been irregular at best. Besides, the waffle was really great, with an odd hint of spice that made it taste extra interesting.

"You don't need to get the guys to ask for you, you know," he heard about three quarters through and glanced up to see Jenkharsten study him with a fond smile.

Cougar sighed and moved his fork apologetically.

"Yeah, yeah, busted kitty. But really, you can just ask if there's something you want to know."

Cougar raised an eyebrow.

"Sure you can. You're my peep, aren't you? 'course I know you're curious. Everyone is. Wings, though, man - wings they never ask me about. I kinda like my wings. Did you think they were gross?"

Cougar shook his head. Not exactly gross, no. They had startled him considerably, though, touching some very primal part of him that kept insisting that wings were unnatural for humans and thus Jenkharsten wasn't human. On the other hand, Cougar knew that already fully well: he wasn't sure why his subconsciousness had made such a big deal about it. Maybe it had been the strange scent that brought it home, unlike anything he had ever smelled before.

"Great, man. Um. I wasn't sure, because you were all--" Jenkharsten widened his eyes like saucers. "And then you were like--" Hand went up to push at a non-existent hat-brim, then pulled it down, correcting the side of the hat and pushing up the brim again. "And your shoulders were all--" He pulled his back. "And you were licking your lips too." Cougar felt a sharp stab of desire at seeing Jenkharsten demonstrate. "Um. So, I wasn't sure. But then we're cool?"

Cougar nodded and ate the last bit of his waffle.

"Good. So ... Another one? No? D'ya have more questions? Ask to your little heart's content, my peep, I don't mind. I'll just go get another one, just a sec. Ice cream?"

Well, dessert was an entirely different matter. Cougar held out his plate again. While he waited, he considered things carefully. When they were both seated again, Jenkharsten with another waffle and Cougar with a satisfactory amount of ice cream and a small spoon, he forged in.

"I wanted them to ask. They laughed at me."

Jenkharsten's eyebrow raised inquisitically. "That's not buddies. Who, my Cou? The guards?"

He shook his head impatiently and touched his cheek.

"Oh. Them. Oh. Okay, um, so what did you want them to ask? Apart from the wings?"

"Lovecraft." Cougar had downloaded The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories on the kindle, pouring over them trying to find anyone remotely resembling Jenkharsten. Not finding anyone, he had concentrated on Cthulhu, as by Jenkharsten's own accord Cthulhu existed and Cougar had the idea that they were related or at least of the same species. And Jenkharsten always made degrading comments regarding certain physical aspects of Cthulhu, which, combined with the descriptions in the books made Cougar wonder about ... "Tentacles?"

He wasn't quite prepared for Jenkharsten to start laughing at him, so hard that the entity had to put down his plate with the half-eaten waffle. Deciding that Jenkharsten was too silly for words, Cougar concentrated on his ice cream, using the spoon to twirl it into a soft mess. The laughing gritted on his nerves - he hated getting laughed at, even if Jenkharsten's laughter was a lot nicer than most people's.

"Oh, boy. Tentacles, Cougar, really? I forget you were in a coma those first couple of days. Tentacles, man, tentacles! I got asked about the tentacles more times than you could shake a stick at. Not wings, though, but tentacles, man - that got everyone concerned. Heh, heh, heh. And the guys all asked me about that, before, too. Oh, oh, oh Cougar, or were you asking - Cougar?" Cougar looked up, to see Jenkharsten leering at him. Waffle plate was on the sofa and Jenkharsten had spread his legs lewdly, tilting his hips. "Or are you asking about the tentacle, Cougar?"

Which felt a little too close to home for comfort, so Cougar tugged down the brim of his hat and ate his ice cream.

"Awww, Cougar, come on, don't be like that. Okay, okay, so you're curious about my tentacles. Which I have. Yes. And no, I won't show you. The wings are bad enough. I know they freak some people out--" Cougar felt guilty. "--but the tentacles aren't like the wings, Cougs. They're worse than Aisha on a bad hair day. The tentacles are scary stuff. Mind-breaking scary, ya know? Run off into the night scary stuff. Not at all the kind that Japanese school girls thinks are sexy and more's the shame. So the official word on that kind of appendages is, that, yeah, got 'em, but no show and tell and under no circumstances no touchy feely. 'kay?"

Cougar nodded. Maybe he didn't deserve to see the tentacles anyway, after what had happened with the wings.

"'kay. More ice cream?"

Cougar held out his plate.

“So, Pooch … Pooch, is it, yes? Why Pooch, that’s an odd name. Well, so’s Linwood, I guess.”

“Oh, just shut up, Max!”

The sharp tone made Max frown. For a while now he had carefully groomed Porteous and his careful words should have swayed the man by now. But no matter, there was still time. He considered the situation. Maybe he shouldn’t have tried as the newly widowed transport expert had been changing the baby (it had smelled bad. Someone should invent a like a dishwasher for babies). He chalked this up to a learning experience. He would wait for a better opportunity to push. And how Max loved to push! Pooch was his ticket in, he knew that. Soon enough, the dog would have his day.

J-Day + 35.

Jensen-watching had for a long time been one of Cougar's favourite sports. He was aware of that some people might find being studied through the scope of a sniper rifle somewhat unsettling. On the other hand, most people never even knew he was looking.

Things were just so much clearer in his scope - so much more accessible. He could trace every vein hinted at in Jenkharsten's skin, see even the tiniest wrinkles, any faint irregularities or birthmarks, even if he still wasn't sure why a Great Old One would have the latter. Knowing of Jenkharsten's inhumanity raised his scrutiny to a new level of intensity, as he sought to find any visual differences, apart from the eyes. He found none, though, apart from a suspicious absence of some scars he definitely remembered mapping on earlier Jensen watching occasions.

In his experience, if he looked hard at someone when being in the same room as they, most people would eventually catch on. How, Cougar had no clue, but even if he sat directly behind a person and there was no way on Earth they should know he was looking, sooner or later most of them started to, well ... twitch.

From longer distances, though - like from the opposite roof, with his target indoors, snug as a bug in front of their computer, reading mail or porn or both - very few reacted to that. Neither did Jenkharsten. Somehow Cougar had thought maybe he would, even if Jensen once had gone so deep into code mode that he had missed the Pooch taking out two of Max's goons when they where sneaking up on him.

The day was sunny, even if the yellow sky took away some of his enjoyment of the warmth. Cougar took his time, looking over the throne room, checking that everything was as it should. Soon enough he swung the scope back to Jenkharsten, having another little fill of the man, before aiming towards his laptop. A new one, purple Lex when the old one, Merlin, had been black. Lex was turned at an angle away from him, so he saw only blobs of red and grey on a white background. The combination looked vaguely familiar, but he wasn't there to spy, so he didn't move to get a better look.

He clicked the laser on and off. Moved the sight about two inches to the side. Clicked again. Moved another inch, down this time, then kept the laser on as he completed a half circle to an inch below the first click. Then he quickly moved his aim back to Jenkharsten, who was just turning his way, shiny blue eyes already locating him. Cougar nudged the brim of his hat in acknowledgement, then deemed that to be enough contact for the moment, and turned his aim away from that particular window, starting to instead investigate the uppermost floor.

He'd looked through two rooms already, when he noticed the octopuses swirling above, fishing down with their dangling limbs even though he was sure that even the dumbest animals should know by then that they simply couldn't reach all the way down. He sat back to follow their antics, then turned to find Jenkharsten on the roof, taunting the creatures by waving his arms at them.

"I can't help it," he said gleefully, "they're just so much fun to tease!"

Cougar smiled, agreeing. A moment later Jenkharsten threw himself down next to him. He lay so close that Cougar could feel his body heat like a comfortable caress down his side. "What's up, Cougs? A smiley to make me smile more?"

He shrugged. He had done the symbol mostly on impulse, letting Jenkharsten know that he was there - perhaps just in case, if someone detected a man on the roof aiming in at the throne room. But yes, he had also suspected that a smiley would make the other smile.

"Cool," Jenkharsten answered easily, as if Cougar had explained all that, or given him some other, perfectly reasonable explanation. "So ... Oh, oh, I know what we'll do! This will be so good, Cougar! Ready? Ready! I spy, with my little eye ... something beginning with an ... S!"

Feeling warm affection flood his chest, Cougar took a deep breath. "Sniper."

"Yes! Cougar, you are good!"

It was always a sniper.

"Cougar, Cougar - your turn."

Cougar randomly selected a number between 1 and 26, 8, and said "H". Then he glanced about, trying to find something beginning with an H, not that he thought he would actually need it.

"No, no, no, Cougar! You have to say 'I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with an ...'"


"Aww, Cougar! You suck at this! H? Okay, H. H, H, H ... A hornet? A house? Something hydraulic? A hydrant! Someone hyperactive? A hound? A hacker! It would be really cool if you saw a hadrosaur. A hag? Hair? Haggis, maybe, can you see the kitchen from here? I've eaten Haggis. Or do you see a--"

Knowing that this could go on for a very long time, Cougar nodded.

"What? Hair?"

He nodded again.

"I rule! Right, right. I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with an ... D! Ha! Take that!"

Cougar estimated what angle Jenkharsten lay, his field of vision and what most obviously began with the letter D.




"I rule! No!"


"Awww, Cougar! Yes, a door." Jenkharsten rolled over onto his back, gazing up in the sky and waving at the still flocking octopuses. No prompting for another letter forth-came, so Cougar just lay there, looking around lazily, enjoying the warmth and taking in the sight of the Ruler of the Known Universe lounging beside him. At length, Jenkharsten dropped a hand to slowly rub his stomach. "Cougs, do you know what I want?"

He shook his head.

"--what I want, what I really, really want?"

Cougar lifted an eyebrow, then rolled a finger to make Jenkharsten continue talking – a gesture he as a rule didn't have to use very often.

"No, no, you're supposed to say 'No, tell me what you want, what you really, really want'."

Cougar rolled the finger again.

"Right, since you're so eager to know - Mama ... Carmen's ... Taco ... Specials."

Cougar moaned, suddenly aching for the same.

"I know! I know! Just think of how fat and full they are: how they burst when you bite into them and how all the flavours just squeeze into your mouth and it's like a tongue orgasm, and you just have to chew and swallow as quick as you can, so you can have more and more and more?"

Cougar moaned again, just a small noise deep in his throat to indicate that oh, yes he knew so very well what Jenkharsten was talking about.

"And a beer. A cold one. The smell of Mama Carmen's place. That guitar music she has on a loop. We really need to watch Once Upon A Time In Mexico again. And another beer, maybe. And some of that hot, black coffee that tastes like your socks."

Cougar didn't moan at that, but nodded wistfully.

"I thought of sending for her food, you know," Jenkharsten said, sounding sad, "but it just wouldn't be the same. And how could she give you extra ice cream if she doesn't even know it is for you? Besides, the food'd be cold and it wouldn't smell right and she wouldn't send that coffee, I think."

Cougar nodded. He could all but smell the strange mix of spices, cigarette fumes, sauce, beer, wine and sweat. It should smell horrible, but instead it was familiar, good and strangely safe. He sighed wistfully.

"Cougar! Up!"

His team-mate's voice held a sharpness that indicated that speed was of essence. Cougar reacted instinctively in mindless obedience, but Jenkharsten grabbed his arm and they ended up kneeling together. Jenkharsten's intense, blue eyes burned into his, filled with mischief and joy, so Cougar's heart, sent rushing with adrenaline at the order, started to stabilise.

"Cougar! Look! There!" His left hand was released as Jenkharsten's right pointed out across the castle towards the distant horizon. Then Jenkharsten's voice rang out with sincerity: "There's lies the promised land, where Mama Carmen's Taco Specials will fall onto our plates like manna from Heaven and we shall slake our thirst in honestly rather bad, but very cold beers."

Cougar looked out over the plain country beyond. Then he looked back at Jenkharsten and narrowed his eyes.

"I know, Cougar, I know! What lies before us is terribly dangerous ground, full of enemies and dangers. But we shall prevail! We shall conquer all evil, vanquish all danger and in glory be hailed as paying guests at that lost Eden known as Mama Carmen's!"

He raised an eyebrow, then tilted his head demandingly.

"You are right, good Sir Cougar! We must be very, very careful. We must first escape this prison with horrible guards who treat us really, really badly. Then we must avoid our pursuers like crafty dogs, hiding in caves and shadows and darkness: always on edge, always with one ear to the ground - though not literally, because that would make it very difficult to run."

Unable to help himself, Cougar smiled. Then he snorted.

"Yeah, yeah, I know, but I can't go to Mama Carmen's as Jenkharsten, Supreme Ruler of the Known Universe. Mama Carmen would have a heart-attack and then we'd never, ever have her tacos again. Unless I turn time back to before she has the heart-attack, but that really takes an incredible amount of power, you know, I don't have anywhere near enough juice to do that again right now, not even for the tacos of glory."

Not sure if Jenkharsten kidded or not, Cougar decided to let that "again" slip until later, possibly after beer. Instead he shrugged and tilted his head some more.

"Sure, we could take a car, but I really feel like just, you know, going? Just run away for a few hours. Elope." His blue eyes shimmered with mirth and he continued before Cougar had time to point out that jogging to town would take several hours, which he thought was a rather long run even for the best kind of tacos, though to elope sounded good to him. "You won at 'I Spy', and I think that counts as being a good boy, so how about I take you flying? I promised that I would, didn't I?"

If Cougar had been the flinching kind, he might have flinched, but damn if he would show any hesitation to the wings again, so he nodded helplessly and pulled back the corners of his lips to a smile. Luckily, Jenkharsten still seemed intent on the distant goal. He took off his t-shirt in a fluent movement worthy of a professional striptease artist. Cougar's mouth went a bit dry at the sight of all those lovely muscles he so often dreamed of being allowed to touch in passion. The shirt (his black one with the I gun zombies, Cougar vaguely remembered it from rising from their coffins when Aisha had smuggled them out of Bolivia) was stuffed in a trouser pocket. Then Jenkharsten made that strange limbering-up motion and those huge, strange, unearthly, beautiful, terrible wings unfolded. In the sunlight the odd membrane shimmered faintly and the joint hairs fluttered in the wind. Jenkharsten stretched them, shifted them about and beat them once - a strong gust of air pushed at Cougar, who nearly took a step back when the musk penetrated into his nostrils.

"So ..." Jenkharsten said slowly and gave him a nearly shy smile. "I'm no Clark Kent, so no defying gravity unless in case of extreme emergency. I mean, no graceful gliding side by side like Lois and Superman. That never made sense to me anyway and besides, Lois was a bit annoying. Not as annoying as Lana, granted, but, come on, Lex, man, Michael Rosenbaum is just sexy man walking."

Cougar, listening only with one ear, nodded. He had heard all that before, while watching Smallville with Jensen. Not that much flying had ever gone on in that show and Jensen had apparently mostly taken the opportunity to complain about what happened in the older movies. At the time Cougar had thought that Jensen got a little too intense in his argumentation, as if personally affronted by the illogical flight of Lois next to Superman, and, considering the wings, perhaps that really had been the case.

"Oh, and Jenkharsten Air isn't normally a passenger flight. I mean, yeah, I've carried off a human or two in my day, but they usually kind of kicked and screamed. Well, the Aztecs were kind of good about it all, did I mention that they worshipped me? Anyway, but you're different, Cou. You won't kick or scream, will you? You know what I'd think'd be easiest? If you knelt on my back." Cougar's stomach clenched, but Jenkharsten smiled happily at him, so he refused to let his friend see his unease. "You can hold onto the upper ridge, hook your elbows over them if you feel unstable, or hold over my shoulders or something. My neck's free too, I really don't need to breathe anyway. Sounds ok by you?"

Cougar just kept smiling and nodding and wondering vaguely why, if Jenkharsten didn't need to breathe, Cougar had been forced to give him extended mouth-to-mouth when the clumsy sod had been stuck under a submarine in the Mediterranean Sea.

Only once he had rounded Jenkharsten did he allow his smile to slip and he took a deep breath. Then he reached up, forcing his hand to touch the right wing. The surface was warm to his touch, but dry rather than slick like his eyes told him to expect. The skin gave a little, but no more than a quarter of an inch before he encountered something hard. Up so close, the musky smell was strong, nearly ripe, but once he'd breathed it in a few times, not overwhelming. While he touched Jenkharsten stood rock still, but after a minute the great wings beat once more.

//Stupid cat. Right, now you've felt them. You act like a virgin touching cock for the first time. Up, before he thinks you are panicking again.//

He took a deep breath, pointedly did not cross himself, slung his rifle to the middle of his back and then hopped up, knees over Jenkharsten's hips, elbows over the wing ridge and hands on the shoulders.

"You can't break them," Jenkharsten said, looking back over his shoulder. "You'd need an A-bomb even to scratch 'em. So don't be afraid to lean. Now hold on to your hat, my cat, and yowl if you need to talk to a steward. Don't tease the octopuses when we fly below them - oh, what am I saying, do feel free to tease them all you want!"

Then he took a long step forward, off the roof, and they fell together. Cougar bit back a scream, knowing for a second that they would both die. Then the wings beat once, caught their weight and held. The next beat forced them around and then up they went, over the castle and off towards that lost Eden known as Mama Carmen's.

Clay had left earlier. A glance towards the sofa confirmed that Roque was asleep with Baby on his chest. Goodie. Max pitched his voice low, “Such a sweet child,” he lied, knowing that parents liked talking about their children. “Very healthy lungs. Too bad about his mother. Jolene. You were high-school sweethearts, am I right?”

Of course he was right, he was always right.

Hard, black eyes – far harder than they had looked in the briefing folder Wade had first shown Max – met his and he measured them easily.

“What do you want, Max?”

//America safe and sound, and if I need to wash the filth away from her with a wave of blood I’ll put on a swim suit.// “I just got a new note from my contact in the Monster’s palace,” he said instead, because even Wade had looked funny at him when he said things like that. “Jenkharsten and, what did you call him, Panther?”

“Cougar,” Pooch bit off.

“Ah yes, I knew it was one of the big kitties. Anyway, the one who is staying with the tentacle kid who killed that sweet baby’s mother.” Well, as far as Max’d been able to tell, the losers had kind of left the Mex behind, taking for granted that he’d stay anyway, so they hadn’t exactly given him a chance. Still. No need to be scrupulously accurate. ”Strange, that. He does know what happened with your dear Jolene, by the way. Jenkharsten told him everything.”

He could tell by the faint frown that the driver didn’t want to believe him, not really, not actually, not yet. But Max could be patient. “Here you go, if you want to see the report,” he offered and held out a printed e-mail. “Fresh from the printer. We can show Clay when he comes back. Have a read, though.”

Pooch did take the paper, still frowning. Max smiled. //Yes, read. Seeing is believing, on such a very basic level, even if we know we ought to be sceptical. Read, see, believe. Take your time. Consider the words. See them. Believe them.//

The words were highly believable. Max should know. He had chosen each one himself.

Ten minutes later Cougar had almost forgotten his earlier hesitance in the heady feeling of flying free without even a parachute. He estimated the speed to about 90 miles an hour. Wind battered at him with considerable force, but he had a good grip with his knees, clenching firmly like he was riding a mechanical bull. Besides, if he fell he knew that Jenkharsten would catch him. The wings brushed against him on each upstroke, like a hot flutter against his sides. Musk came in heavy waves for each stroke.

//I could shoot from here,// he thought idly, but opted not to suggest this just yet. //Oh. And I've got Jenkharsten between my legs!//

A hot wave of desire flushed through him and he desperately thought of Slices of Wade to make sure Jenkharsten didn't feel the evidence in direct contact with his back.

When his cock had calmed down, Cougar tentatively placed a hand on the surface of the right wing, letting his arm be moved with the slow, powerful beat. Then he touched the joint hairs, which felt incredibly soft and seemed to want to tangle around his fingers. Fascinated, he let it. Then he had to pull gently to disentangle himself. He tried again. The same thing happened, only a little more distinctly this time, long strands wrapping firmly around his fingers and wrist. He had to tug hard to get loose.

"Cougar, stop--" he heard, but the wind swallowed the last words. Realising that he was, de facto, playing with Jenkharsten's body hair and knowing how he himself disliked when someone touched his hair without explicit permission, Cougar returned his hand to Jenkharsten's shoulder. However, for each beat of the wings the long strands strained towards him as if trying to bind him again. He ducked out of their next swing - and felt something brush against his left elbow. A hasty glance told him that the joint hair on that side was also playing Catch Cougar.

Stomach fluttering in unease he ducked down, pressing his face to the gently heaving muscles below.

His private airplane abruptly went vertical, almost bucking him off in the process. The great wings were extended, vibrating softly against Cougar's sides.

"Cou, I really need you to climb up front instead." He'd never heard such tenseness in Jenkharsten's voice, like he held back something huge which could explode at any moment. "Hurry."

Cougar immediately dropped. For a moment he hung from Jenkharsten's belt, then he was grabbed by strong hands and lifted. Feeling a bit like Lois clinging to Superman nevertheless he couldn't help but to grab Jenkharsten around the neck. Jenkharsten's face was taut.


Jenkharsten shook his head, his smile a little forced. "No. I'd just forgotten something. So that was a bad idea, like flirting with a Honduras general just because you buy into the stereotype that he's gotta be straight. Wasn't that embarrassing? Um. It'll take a bit longer to fly like this, but I think it's better. Monkey or baby?"

Cougar blinked, not sure what the question referred to. Jenkharsten's smile grew a bit brighter, then he shifted Cougar's weight with ease. Cougar found himself carried like a baby - or possibly a bride across a threshold. He nearly protested, then considered the alternative of spending the remaining trip clinging to Jenkharsten monkey style, legs around a body straining against him, rather than flying away from him. Good luck trying to hide an erection then. No, baby style was definitely the smart alternative. The powerful wings began to beat, propelling them forward. Wind speed had increased, so he turned his face towards Jenkharsten's chest, inhaling the fresh scent of his friend mixed with the deeper wing musk. It wasn't so bad after all.

If not for his sharp ears he never would have heard Jenkharsten's next words, tinged with deep embarrassment.

"My people mate on the wing, you see."


They arrived at Mama's half past six. The whippet-thin woman - both Cougar and Jenkharsten agreed that a woman so great at cooking had no business being that thin - recognized them both as soon as they stepped through the front door. Chiding them for staying away for so long she ushered them to their regular table, at the very back by the emergency exit, so they would be able to leave quickly if necessary. Cougar took his customary place facing the rest of the room (he got itchy otherwise) and Jenkharsten sat opposite.

The restaurant smelled just as horrible and familiar as Cougar remembered, and the bustle and sounds were just as they should be. He figured that he even still had a good chance at double desserts too.

Jenkharsten looked around happily, bouncing a little in his seat. The tech/world conqueror had, of course, shifted his eyes back to human. For Cougar to see them like that again, combined with adorably dorky round glasses felt both very familiar and yet somehow strangely alien. Other than that he felt entirely at peace. Now and then he even had to remind himself of the whole Jenkharsten-thing.

"You're looking at me as if I'm growing horns," Jenkharsten estimated. Then he blinked and hastily patted himself on the head. "Just checking. So - what's up, Cougs? The flight freaked you out, didn't it? Damn. I knew it was a stupid show off, I just wanted to stretch them a bit. They get a bit cooped up, you know, and it's nice to feel air under them. It's like when you wear really tight underwear for too long, you know? You just want to get it all out and let it hang. Um, I probably shouldn't compare my wings to my genitalia, right? Um, anyway, I'm sorry, Cou. That can't have been a lot of fun for you. We can take a cab home. A cab! Ha! Let's get more Lamborghinis! You can have a black one and I can have another yellow one, and we can race them back, what do you say? That would be awesome! Did you see the 'ghinis down in the garage? Sweet, aren't they?"

Cougar nodded. Then he shook his head.

"I can read you like a book, my friend! But I think there was a power failure, because the light just went out. I can't see a word and Braille seems out of the question. What? Yes? No? Yes to go by car, but Lamborghinis are not sweet? Oooh, ooh - light just went on again, I could read that! Exasperation and you think I'm being obtuse. 'kay, fine, I'm really stupid, but, Cougs, what?"

"Cars're good, but I liked the wings." He took another deep breath. "Turn back time?"

"Oh, that got your pretty little head turning, eh?"

Cougar opted to touch the brim of his hat in an enigmatic manner. He knew that "pretty little head" was just a figure of speech, but he still kind of liked it. Of course, normally he would have busted the gut of any guy daring to call him pretty, but being the Ruler of the Known Universe should have some privileges.

Jenkharsten sipped his beer and then gesticulated with the tin. "It's one of the most difficult things we Great Old Ones can do. Well, not difficult, but power-draining, exhausting - it's one of the few things that could easily kill one of us, if they didn't have enough fuel before they got started. So, yeah, I can. When I'm loaded. It takes massive amounts of power. Currently I'm so tapped out you're lucky I had enough juice to fix your neck, my cat, after turning time back once and then taking over the world like the cherry on a pretty please. Even with the Grand and Esoteric Order of Cthulhu doing all the leg work and the stars being just right, that still wasn't a walk in the park, I tell you."

Out of the blue Jenkharsten smashed himself over the head.


"No, no, Cougar, I deserved that. Stupid gets as stupid is. If I'm stupid, I need stupid punishment. And turning back time when I knew that the stars were moving into position to weaken the world defences, well, that was stoopid with two o:s. Not to mention that I did it in a stupid fucking way. Well, it was the right thing to do, I'll defend it to my dying breath, not that I need to breathe nor do I plan on ever actually dying or anything, so that's a long, long time I'm prepared to defend it, and I did it for the right reasons too, but it was still stupid like fuck."

Cougar made an enquiring sound.

Jenkharsten sighed. "Oh, you'll be on that like a dog with a bone from now on, right? Or a Cougar with a ... what would you like, Cougs? A really fat rabbit, maybe? Or a tin of those Almond Rocas you like so much. I don't get how you can eat them so slowly, Cougs. It's, like, disgusting. Lick, lick, scrape, lick, lick, scrape, bite, crunch, crunch, crunch, lick, lick, bite, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. A guy could get complexes, watching you eat one of those things, Cougs."

Cougar shrugged faintly. There was a right way of eating Almond Rocas, and he knew it.

"Right, so ... " Jenkharsten painted idly with a finger on the plastic sheet covering their table. "This is, like ... difficult for me, okay?"

Cougar nodded, doing his best to radiate encouragement and understanding, even if Jenkharsten seemed to find the red, blue and white pattern of the table cloth immensely fascinating.

"There was this ... guy?" He looked up as if asking Cougar to verify the gender.

Cougar nodded sagely, though on the inside he felt a rising annoyance. //First a freaking harem and now some other guy to compete with?//

"Yeah, so, this guy. A human. He, well, kinda got himself blown up by a bomb. Really nasty. Like kaboom, 'kay? I thought I would be able to save him, but I totally miscalculated. And I ... liked him. Liked him-liked him. Kinda thing. So I ... I just couldn't let it end like that, it was bad and wrong in so many ways and totally pointless. And, besides, I just couldn't bear the thought of him ... of there not being a him, you know? So I kinda ... went back in time and made it better, you know?"

Fucking great. Some guy Jenkharsten had bloody well liked him-liked him. So much he even turned back bloody fucking time to save him, when the careless bum got himself blown to smithereens.

Jenkharsten sank down further in his seat. "And that would have been fine, ya know, only I ... kind of messed up."

Cougar tilted his head, hating the sad tone in Jenkharsten's voice even more than this new rival of his.

"So, it happened, like, and I just needed to fix it. I think I was in a bit of a shock to tell the truth. Not thinking straight. The thing was, I knew it might happen and I had been human for so long I kind of forgot that I could prevent it, well, no, that's not true either, I think it was just so deep in my mind that I couldn't, like, let anyone know about, well, me, so I didn't think of the possibility and I thought there was another way and it didn't work out. And then it was too late. Cougs, it was just too late! And my mind was just a big, fat blank. I couldn't think properly and I just ... did it. Only ... I didn't go back far enough."

He made a questioning sound. Maybe the careless fool had died anyway and Cougar wouldn't have to worry about him?

"It's a fucking long story. There had been some ... other things happening. Bad things. Big, bad things. And ..." Jenkharsten slumped even further. "If I had just ... thought about it some more before I acted, I could have gone back in time a bit further, you know? Fixed some more things. The entire Max thing and … all. Everything would have been so much better then. But I didn't. I just reacted. And so it wasn't. And yeah, I saved him, but ..." He shrugged. "I couldn't go back again, to fix it better. You can't cross timelines like that. Otherwise, I might have done so anyway, keeping enough juice to take over the world be damned. A thousand years is a bit of a bitch to wait, yeah, but ... it would have been worth it, it really would have been."

Cougar blinked. "You knew?"

"What do you-- Oh. About that the Great and Esoterics planned to call Cthulhu and have him take over the world? No, not really. Not like you mean. I knew that the time window would open soon, sure, I mean, I could see the stars and all, but I wasn't aware of the exact day or year or anything and I thought it wouldn't be for a while yet. The different calendars really mess me up sometimes. I had planned to make a little app for it, nothing fancy, or perhaps just a count down on my webpage, but you know how things are, one thing after another and I just never got around to it. And I kinda had more important things going on. Cross my heart and swear to eat Roque's socks. I was as surprised as any of you when I found the information."

Cougar nodded. He wanted to ask Jenkharsten about that guy, the one Jenkharsten had loved so much he had turned back time for him, but then Mama Carmen came in with two of her daughters, all three carrying trays for their table, so he leaned back to let them serve. Mama Carmen dropped a kiss on his cheek and promised extra ice cream, just like she always did, and he smiled wide in thanks.

Clay finally returned (when Max had asked earlier, Roque had grumbled something about a woman – volatile, Pooch had added). By then Roque was awake and Pooch had changed the baby’s napkins again (Max really wanted a Babywasher).

So Max showed them the report he’d given the driver earlier and watched as they read. They weren’t quite as ready to believe as Pooch, that Max could see with just a glance, especially not the leader. Too bad, but not a big problem. Funny, that. In the beginning, Max’s money on who he’d persuade most easily to his side would have been Roque. For some reason, though, that route seemed firmly closed to him. Oh well, he was betting on another dog now, one that he was sure could win him the race.

"This is great!" Jenkharsten crooned softly, a few minutes into their meal. "I like it here, it is nice, it is a nice place. I'm here with my favourite person. This tastes good and I could eat a cow now, I'm hungry. Happy, happy, happy. So, Cougs, I've been thinking, you're not, like, really a prisoner any longer. You know that, right-o?"

Eager, blue eyes locked hopefully into Cougar's, but with a hint of worry lurking in the corners.

"I mean, you could leave, if you, you know, like, really wanted to. 'kay?"

Actually, he hadn't been too sure of that, mostly due to the cracked spine incident. However, he had begun to suspect as much, so he slowly nodded up. However, while for Jenkharsten to keep him around for so long in the way he had was a bit odd, to have his state confirmed evoked a mixed reaction. To be kept "prisoner", even if in a rather loose fashion (if he had put any effort into it, Cougar could easily have escaped at any time he wanted), was a reason for him to stay and in some bizarre way he felt wanted. Jensen's team had been kept due to lingering affection, that had been Jenkharsten's words. On one hand - ammunition he didn't have to hide would be brilliant, sure, but for Jenkharsten to tell him that he was free to go was tantamount to Jenkharsten saying he didn't want him there any--

"But I've been thinking about a few things and I have a few ideas and I would like to run them by you first, 'kay?"

Feeling a lot less happy about their impromptu outing, Cougar shrugged.

"Outstanding. Right. Well, you know. A guy gets lonely. And I have my peeps, you know, they're nice and all and I really like them, and you're the greatest of all things great and so on and so forth. Thing is, I was thinking, this Ruler of the World gig - not really all that much fun 24 - 7, you know? Who knew there was so much work involved? So, maybe, I was thinking, like, someone to help me run the place, a bit, you know? So, um, well, I was thinking, kinda, perhaps, wouldn't it be great if I had, like, a consort?"

Liking things less and less by the minute, Cougar frowned.

"It's like, you know, a queen, but very much a guy, but you can't call him king, because that would be confusing, I mean, I'm not a king, but I'm a ruler and you can't have two with the same title, you know? And a prince is, like, the son of the king and that would be, like, incest and that would be totally wrong on so many levels it's not even funny, you know, so they call it a 'consort'. Like king consort - or queen consort, if the ruler's a queen. I guess technically, if the ruler's a queen, they could call her husband a king, but then he'd be the king and she'd just be the queen and I know it's all sexist and bad and wrong, but that's the way the world works, you know, Cougs? And maybe it'd be ruler consort or something, I'm not quite sure yet, okay, but what do you think?"

Cougar was not at all a happy cat. //Is this that fucking guy again, the one he went back in time for? Fuck! I've barely managed to infiltrate his bloody harem and now he's talking about getting a fucking boyfriend or husband or whatever? And he wants my bloody blessing? He can go fuck whoever the fuck he wants, it's not like I can tell him off or anything, but fuck if I'll encourage him!// He had been Best Man at Pooch's wedding - Clay had given Jolene away -, but if there was ever a Jensen-related wedding, he had planned on saying "I do" loud and clear and that was all there was to it.

Jenkharsten pointed at him. "That is not your happy face, Cougar. That's your scary, about to shoot people in the head face, Cougar. Okay, bad idea? You don't like. Okay, no problem, I'm cool with that, it was just a random idea anyway, you know how they pop up in my head. I have no brain-to-mouth filter at all, I know, so strike that, I withdraw the suggestion. I just thought it might be something to consider, you know, but it wasn't anything definite in any way, okay, but I have another idea instead!"

//He should know better than to rattle out stupid ideas without even thinking them through first!// But did Jenkharsten have to look so bloody sad about it? //Crazy white boy.//

"Yeah, yeah, I know, but this one I've really thought about, like, for longer than since five minutes ago, okay? Okay. Well, it's kinda similar to the other idea, but not at all. Well, it's like the same thing, but without the crazy amounts of hot, sometimes just the itsy bitsy tiniest bit of kinky sex and the title, because, you know, I could really use someone by my side to help me out with a few things. Someone I could trust, you know? Really trust? Someone, you know, trustworthy?"

That actually made sense, even if Cougar didn't have to like things.

"And I was thinking to myself, I was thinking, like 'Right, so who do I trust to help me when the shit is flying out the fan?' and I was gonna make this list with pros and cons for everyone and maybe a diagram: a pie chart or something, I don't know, and it was going to be all kinds of awesome, right?"

Cougar nodded. Given the least bit of free time on his hands Jensen was prone to doing diagrams and pie charts and stuff like that. In general they were rather awesome, even if they could range on topic such as "Best Bond Actor", "Best Star Trek Alien Species" and "Best Movie We Ever Saw In A Language None Of Us Spoke So We Had Actually No Idea What Was Going On."

"Right. And I made the executive decision to use Excel, I mean, yeah, yeah, so uncool and it's not really the best out there, but it works and it's easy enough and you can import it to pretty much anything, 'kay? So, right, I had the old X'n'L up and I started on a list and it's kinda funny, but thing is, the thing is, like, five minutes later I still only had one name on the list. I mean, I did think of some others, I won't lie to you. Okay, some people who should remain nameless are trying to stage a revolt against me even as we speak and that's just not buddies, so I'm not even considering Clay and Roque and the Pooch, 'kay? But there are some really incredible people over at a certain Slack Chatroom who are, like, awesome in so many ways I can't even start describing how awesome they are and, ho boy, our latest campaign made money like you wouldn't believe and everything is going so well I could pee a little. I'm getting us new servers and this time they'll get really cool names, just you wait and see. And if I recruit some of those people, well, you know, support tickets will start building up again and there'll be really uncool bugs and the feature request list of doom will be back before we know it."

Cougar didn't understand a lot of this Jensen-babble, so he just waited for something to come along and make sense. Meanwhile he just enjoyed the steady stream of sound. Since Jenkharsten seemed to have reached some kind of break point, he nodded up in encouragement.

"Right, so, you know, one name. Right there, right at the top. And, like, I thought - well, he is the best one anyway, who am I trying to kid, because he's my bestest buddy, right? You're my bestest buddy, right, Cougar? BFFs?"

He nodded firmly. In return he received a wide, happy grin. Smiling back, unable to help himself, he rolled his finger.

Jenkharsten reached with both hands under the table for something. Cougar frowned, not having seen the other bring anything with them on their trip. Then the hands came up again - one of them carrying a small, square box with 7.62 x 51 mm NATO bullets, and the other a Smith & Wesson X29 with a 3 inch barrel. Both gifts were shyly pushed his way.

"So. Um. Carlos Cougar Alvarez, would you do me the honour of becoming my 2iC?"

About an hour later.

Cougar shook his head.

"Neither have I," Jenkharsten said sadly. "The twenty that paid for our food was my last. I'm the ruler of this fucking planet and I don't have a cent to my name."

Cougar shrugged. "We fly," he assured. Once he had got used to it, he hadn't exactly minded flying. Especially the closeness and heat of Jenkharsten's body and how firmly, yet gently he had been held. Too bad that Jenkharsten had a problem with flying with someone on his back. Though he had laughed when Cougar had suggested a platform carried under him that Cougar could aim from. Cougar had been half-way serious, but more than just about anything did he love to make Jenkharsten laugh.

"But look at them! They're pretty! I want them! I don't have my VISA with me either and I don't think they'd accept PayPal. Besides, I'm still using the Jake Jensen card whenever I need to buy anything online."

//Great Old Ones must be part magpies,// Cougar decided. He nodded, though, because the cars really were very pretty. Even he could see the "ooh, shiny!"-appeal.

"Screw this," Jenkharsten decided. "We're going in anyway. Cougar, cover me."

He crossed the window they had been standing before and entered the shop. Cougar shadowed him. No lot here, no, the cars were all inside, on display with carefully set up spot lights and softly playing classic music. Each car was washed so thoroughly that the varnish sparkled. Stepping up next to a dark purple one Cougar found himself wanting to touch the shimmering surface, just to run his hand over it to see if it felt as good and rich as the image promised, like some sort of candy he wanted to lick or taste, just because it looked so mouth-wateringly delicious.

A well-dressed woman with faultless haircut and make-up approached them, looking at Jenkharsten with some worry and at himself with clear disdain. Cougar pointedly tipped the brim of his hat at her and saw some of the disdain waver into a mixture of desire, disdain and confusion, which then hardened into resolve. She opened her red lips, possibly to call for the guards - two of the latter had already approached, obviously as certain as the seller that neither himself nor Jenkharsten fitted the mold of Lamborghini-buyers in general.

"You like that one, Cou? Yeah, it's real purdy. Right. Hi there, pretty lady! We'll take that one and ... that one, over there, the Petunia pink one. I was going to go for a yellow one, but that's petunia pink if I've ever seen it, so I changed my mind. And I can do pink, pink's actually not a feminine colour at all. Around 1920 to 1940 it was pink for boys, blue for girls; pink being the stronger colour and blue delicate and dainty. Not that there's anything wrong with being feminine, if you want to be, you know, no slight intended. You pull it off lovely, miss. I'm just saying that I can do pink. So, the pink one's for me and Cougar's having the dark purple one, which I hadn't counted on at all, I totally thought you'd go for a black one, Cou, but that's cool, I'd never dream of holding a man's choice in car colours against him. So, yeah, and we'll drive them off, so you don't have to wrap them or anything."

The well-dressed sales woman looked more and more alarmed, though perhaps less in a "shabby ruffians in the store"-way than "shabby lunatics in the store", and she was definitely throwing "rescue me"-glances towards the guards.

"Sirs," the shorter guard said, his voice low and authorative, "I think perhaps it would be best if you step outside with me for a moment."

Jenkharsten tilted his head to look at him, frowning faintly. Then his eyes started to glow. "No," he said haughtily. "I rather think we will not."

"That was almost better than sex," Jenkharsten said with a happy sigh once they had left the Lamborghinis in the hands of a genial-looking Pooch-a-like in the garage.

Cougar hummed. Well, perhaps the Lamborghini race hadn't actually been better than sex, but it had certainly been fun. He felt pleasantly relaxed and at ease. He wondered vaguely if Jenkharsten owned any Rolls Royces. He'd always wanted to drive one of those, to see if the loudest noise in them really came from the clock, as legend claimed.

"Right, so, I called for an assembly of the guards. Not all of them, obviously, but the off duty ones. They work in shifts and to call off the on-duty guards would be monumentally stupid. We'll have to do this twice more, yeah, sorry about that. For the less important stuff I only do it once, then the rest watch a recording, but I can't think of anything more important than this, well, maybe I could, but it's the same kind of league important, anyway, so, we do it now and then again in a couple of hours and once more tonight. You cool with that?"

Not really. He hated these sort of things. Of course, he understood the necessity and they might as well get things over with. So he nodded and shrugged.

"Outstanding. Heh! You know, all the other evil overlords are going to be so jealous of me!"

Cougar frowned. Other evil overlords? Not that he actually considered Jenkharsten all that evil, all things considered, more like "on too much sugar", but the key word was "others". Were they talking about Jenthiska or M-Bethaali?

"No, no, silly Cougar, it's this list, the Evil Overlord list."

The evil overlords had a list? An e-mail list? Like the S_U?

"No, no, it's this list of things you shouldn't do if you're an evil overlord. Um. It's an internet thing. With advice for evil overlords. Like turning into a snake. That never helps. So if you're an evil overlord, you shouldn't turn into a snake. Heh, that's one of my favourite ones, but there's this other one, about completely trusted lieutenants, and that you should never, um. Never have a completely trusted lieutenant unless you, um, really, really know you can trust him. And I really, really trust you, Cougar. So, like, all the other evil overlords will be so jealous of me!"

Ah, typical Jensen madness. Still. "Lieutenant," he said proudly.

Jenkharsten laughed. "Yeah, well, you can pretty much decide what rank you want, it's the trust-thing that's important. But," he admonished in a serious tone, "Cougar, you have to stop making me laugh now. I need to, ya know, get into the right mind-set and it's very difficult when you make me giggle all the time."

Cougar lifted an eyebrow in question.

"Oh, you know," Jenkharsten said, with a gesture that Cougar automatically interpreted as "grab your parachute", then he dropped his goofy smile, stood up straight and looked haughtily at Cougar down his nose. "Shiver before our eldritch might, puny mortal!"

When the cold, otherly tones impacted on his eardrums, Cougar very nearly stopped and very nearly crossed himself. Instead, he just smiled.

Whitney had gone a bit early to the mess hall, so he had time to eat before seeing the monster would put him off his food (and whose idea was it to add vodka instead of wine or beer to the stew anyway?). Still, having a belly full didn't exactly make him feel better about things when the alien came parading in, followed by - which really added insult to the injury - that Spanish catamite of his who Whitney had run up against earlier.

//What the fuck's the spic doing here? Will he give Jenkharsten a blow job if he gets horny while he speaks to us? Or did he spit out my name when Jenkharsten was boning his narrow ass?//

But if that was the case, surely Whitney would have been taken aside, not be addressed in front of the other guards? He moved a little to the side so that the little spic couldn't see him clearly when the guy took up a position to Jenkharsten's right, standing at attention as if the little fuck was actually proud of being the monster's butt boy. And what the fuck was up with that hat?

"Greetings, guards," Jenkharsten said, in that horrible voice like a rock dragged across a church-bell.

"Greetings, Lord Jenkharsten."

"The man beside me is Carlos Alvarez. From this moment onwards, he is my completely trusted 2iC of the Jentheniskaia. You will obey his word as you do mine."

//The fuck!?// Jenkharsten was putting one of his bloody courtesans in charge? //The fuck!?//

Whitney wasn't the only one with some serious question marks regarding this. He could hear a low mutter going around and Jenkharsten, who had been turning towards the exit again, whipped back his head, effectively silencing them all with a glare from his razor-blue eyes.

"This is my will. You will obey." He began to turn away again, then checked himself as if just having remembered something. "Oh, and a word to the wise - never touch the hat."

"Mama Carmen's?" the Pooch growled. "He dined Cougar at Mama Carmen's?"

"Why, yes, I do believe that is what I just said. Do you want me to say it again? Mama Carmen's. Her full name is Carmen Aldia, age 54, married twice, mother of five, all fathered by her second husband, Emilio Aldia, though I haven't done any blood testing to check that. As far as I can tell she has no direct ties to either Jenkharsten or Alvarez, though cross-referencing the restaurant credit card receipts showed that several members of your unit have paid for large dinners there over the years. In fact--"

"Every fucking time we're in town," Roque hissed. "Mama Carmen's Taco Specials. They're the finest in half the country. She gives Cougar extra ice cream for dessert, because the fucker reminds her of one of her sons."

"Then Jenkharsten requested two Lamborghinis from a dealer, telling the seller to send a bill to the Jentheniskaia and they left, heading back towards the castle. A police patrol couldn't catch them, though chased them for ten minutes until Jenkharsten phoned the mayor, who phoned the police chief, who called off his men."

"Cougar is a traitor," the Pooch said, his mind set and clear on this matter. "He's not being held against his will. He's with Jenkharsten. With the monsters."

Clay nodded slowly. "It does appear that way," he said, his voice tinged with regret.

"Doesn't it just," Max asserted cheerfully. "Well, you did tell me they were awfully close. The rest of Jenkharsten's harem looks just like Alvarez as well, so obviously he has a type. Now then, the last piece of news I have for you: come get it while it's fresh, straight from the press - or rather my inside man at the Jentheniskaia - informed us that Jenkharsten might have a bit more use for your former sniper than boning him silly - he just made him his 2iC, with full authority over the Jentheniskaia."

"Traitor!" Pooch shouted, so loud that Baby woke up and started to scream as well.

After a long day, with the flight, the dining, the race, the guards and starting in on his new duties, Cougar was finally able to retreat to the nest. Jenkharsten had offered him larger quarters, but Cougar kind of liked the rooms, so he had opted to stay.

Things felt as if they were heading in the right direction. With miles to go, still, but he was making some sort of headway.

The Smith & Wesson hung nice and snug where it belonged. After over a month unarmed, the gun felt heavier than usual, but the weight also felt secure; an old friend returned to him.

As for his SR-25 she lay before him on the table, newly cleaned and so pristine and beautiful that he almost wanted to take her apart one more time, just because.

On the sofa lay the Lamborghini laptop. He had just made it download the day's S_U mails. Nothing special, though some of the guys had an off again, on again discussion about the Harris swivel-base bipod that Cougar followed with some interest. He had just opened the internet, gone to Google and entered a search phrase. The result came almost instantly and he clicked on one of the links, as it looked promising. Of course, the internet stalled, when he shot it with the mouse it turned all white and wouldn't continue. That had happened more often recently and he vaguely wondered if he should mention this to Jenkharsten.

As he waited he opened the box of ammunition that Jenkharsten had given him and, with ritual movements, loaded his baby, holding her for a moment and just enjoyed the knowledge that now he felt as prepared for anything as he'd ever be.

The browser finally came back to life. The title of the page read The Evil Overlord List. He started reading. The list began with

After I captures the hero's super-weapon, I will not immediately disband my legions and relax my guards because I believe who ever holds the weapon is unstoppable. After all, the hero held the weapon and I took it from him.

Which Cougar found to be sound advice. He kept reading, amused by what he found. He could easily understand why Jenkharsten would love the list.

A bit down did he come upon a reference to completely trusted lieutenants. He frowned.

Thinking maybe that the reference wasn't the correct one, he kept reading all the way down, smiling now and then. He did find several references to lieutenants, and considered them all, even if none of them felt applicable. As he read he took several mental notes of dos and don'ts which could come in handy in his duty to protect Jenkharsten.

However, he found nothing more about completely trusted lieutenants. Finally he went back to the only possible advice and studied it in depth. Could this really be the one?

Then he frowned again.

I will classify my lieutenants in three categories: untrusted, trusted and completely trusted. Promotion to the last category is only done posthumously.

PART 10.

J-Day + 37.

Cougar ran the shower one last time over his head, then switched off the water and, reaching for one of the big, fluffy green towels, stepped out into the bathroom. Steam lifted from his body like a fine mist, but the temperature was nice and cosy, no need to rush things, unlike in most of the bathrooms he'd been forced to make due with over the years. As he dried himself off he noticed his own reflection in the mirror covering an entire section of the wall between the shower stall and the bathtub. The surface hadn't steamed up at all, which made him wonder if it was specially treated somehow. Acting on impulse, he took a step closer and shimmied his hips to let the towel fall to the floor.

The mirror put a faint gloss over his reflection. He liked the effect, even if it meant that in real life he was just a little duller.

He wasn't a tall man - but there were few points of references in the bathroom to give away his exact height. Besides, he didn't think his height was any problem. Jenkharsten's eight harem boys ranged from his length and upwards. Sure, no one shorter, but no one that much taller either. //[Not a problem.]//

Legs - long for his height. Strong and lean. A bit hairy. He was fairly sure that at least some of the eight waxed their legs, though Enrique most definitely did not (the man was so hairy that his leg hair cast shadows). So, leg hairs - //Not a problem either.//

He did have scars on his legs, though, several off them. And that really nasty patch of burned off flesh on the right ankle, courtesy Chinese torturers. And the four pock mark remains of to-and-throughs, one of which had nearly taken out his knee cap. //Not good.// Nothing he could do much about, though, unless he got extensive surgery.

Crotch. //No complaints there!// Well, sure, all guys wished they were longer and thicker, but realistically - no problem. He had what he was supposed to have and knew how to work it. Perhaps not with a guy in particular, but none of the ladies had ever voiced a complaint, so never mind that now.

Ass. Girls seems to love it and plenty of gay guys had looked appreciatively at it as well. However, while it was a bit more difficult to study properly in a mirror, to him it looked muscular enough to seem just a hint flat. Some of the guys in Jenkharsten's harem had, well, not to put too fine a point to it, butt. Indicating Jenkharsten's preference for that? But it wasn't as if Cougar could do anything about his butt-dimensions. Apart from eating more and turn into a fatso, which might work to fill out the back of his jeans, but would kind of defeat every other purpose ...

Stomach. He ran a hand across it. Despite his considerable sweet tooth he'd never had a problem with his weight. He was in fact rather pleased with his six-pack - and during his daily work-out sessions he always took time to make sure his belly stayed nice and flat. A scar just by his belly button, but not a very prominent one.

Chest. He ran his hand across that too, pinching his nipples lightly for good measure. Nice abs. But, again, scars. Always scars. He wouldn't even look at his lower back, which was a bit of a mess. He'd been lucky to get back from that with full movability.

Arms. Nice ones. Not overly muscular, but he remembered Jensen making very disparaging comments about bodybuilders in some semi-gay magazine they'd found in a safe house in ... South Korea, maybe? Taiwan? Scars there too, yeah, sure.

Hands. The little finger on his left hand stuck out a bit after having been broken too many times and the way his right index finger twisted slightly outwards, which he couldn't swear was due to too many squeezed triggers, but might also be the reason why the triggers pulled so very straight for him. Nails of uneven length - he did tend to bite them into proper length. //That's fixable.//

Face. He had nice eyes. Countless girls has told him so. Nice lips too - and he certainly knew what to do with them. At least kissing a guy would be just like kissing a girl, or so he assumed. Then there was the hair. The lady bait, the chin fuzz, the full eyebrows, the sideburns and his head hair. The latter tended to frizz a bit and wouldn't stay in shape for anything but a pony tail.

He wasn't much of a conversationalist, that was true. His rifle spoke more eloquently than his mouth ever did. It wasn't that he was stupid, most of the times the words just didn't come easy to him and by the time he had lined them up properly, the target had moved on. But he refused to hold that against himself, at least in this. Sure, some of the eight were regular chatterboxes, but Jenkharsten had never needed more than an ear to listen to him as he babbled - and Cougar could listen. He was a bloody Olympic class listener!

Sometimes Jensen had even asked him to play a game called "Dead Programmer" with him. Which wasn't at all a really kinky sex game, which was probably for the best, but it consisted entirely of Jensen explaining to Cougar why a piece of hacking code really should be working, even though it didn't, and Cougar making encouraging noises as if he understood even a tenth of what Jensen nattered on about, until Jensen suddenly whooped in realising what was wrong, solemnly shook Cougar's hand and called him the best dead programmer he'd ever had the privilege of programming with. That was how good a listener Cougar was!

Inspection finished, all in all he wasn't completely unhappy with the result. He decided to get himself some new clothes, though. Look through that place where kindle lived and get himself some decent civilian get ups. But to sum things up, he didn't have much to be ashamed of. Some of those scars he'd received hauling Jenkharsten's pale ass out of whatever fire his mouth had dropped him in. Really, being a Great Old One with powers unimaginable explained a lot about Jensen's haphazard relationship with his own safety.

On the other hand, that meant that there simply wasn't much Cougar could improve to make himself more palatable to said Great Old One either. If he changed anything much, he wouldn’t be Cougar any more – and if he wasn’t enough as Cougar, he would never be enough anyway. He could keep his body fit, but that was about it. At least without visits to plastic surgeons or some such shit, and that would be really fucked up.


A hair trim.


The guys in the harem tended to look much, well, neater than he did.

Not have his eyebrows plucked like some chick or anything!

But the plain truth was that he wasn't very good with his hair. Shampoo, check; conditioner, check - if he had any left and if he wasn't in a hurry. When his hair was newly washed and combed it looked pretty enough, but five minutes later - not so much.

He stroked over the lady bait and the chin fuzz.

The castle really was a bit of a village. The guards worked in shifts, staying in the palace around the clock, going home every sixth day for a longer leave. Pretty much everything one could want was present in one way or another. Including a barber. Cougar had stumbled onto this little fact during one of his outings, cataloguing the place. An older man with two younger assistants.

Cougar hadn't visited a barber since that time in Seville when Jensen had made them all go together. That had been nice.

//Spoil myself a bit.//

He was used to chicks flinging themselves at him, not so much to competing against a harem of much prettier guys. Looking neat with a proper hair trim might give him a bit more self-esteem.

Four hours later.

He woke, wondering what had alerted him.

"Cougar? Cougar, where-- Cougar, is that you?"

Oh. Even if his body recognized Jenkharsten as a friendly, some louder noise must have woken him anyway.

"I see a Cougar-lump. Ho ho? Olly olly oxen free? Is there a Cougar within?"

Actually, he wasn't feeling completely Cougarish at the moment.

"You are breathing, right, Cougar? Cougar? Not to sound like a total jack-ass here, but did you by any chance stab my barber through the hand with his scissors? His assistances gave a description of a slim Hispanic guy with a hat and a rifle, so while I might be totally out of line here, it sounded an itty bitty little bit like you."

Cougar shrugged. He might or might not be the guilty party. "Sleepy," he grunted.

Jenkharsten sighed, then Cougar's nest wobbled as a weight settled next to him. "Cougs? Ready or not, here I come."

Whereupon his blanket was gently pulled at and slipped away from him.

"Cougar! What happened!? Oh no! Oh God! Cougs! What have you done to yourself?"

Cougar glared up at the horrified-looking Ruler Of The Known Universe and made a "That's so obvious I'm not going to bother answer you, because if you don't see what's going on you really are a complete, total jack-ass!"-gesture.

"Yeah, um, sorry, yeah, stupid question, but Cougar! Your hair!"

Cougar sent him a hostile "I know!"-look, grabbed his hat and slammed it down on his head.

"Okay, so I can, like, totally understand why you stabbed him. Bastard's lucky you didn't go for the jugular. Fuck! What was the man thinking? Fuck, you look - Cougar, you look, like, twelve!"

He bloody well knew! But he couldn't do anything about that now, could he? He had trusted that fucking doddering old barber and hadn't really paid attention to how much the man had used his scissors and snip, snip, snip ...

"The hat makes it look a bit better, like you've just got your hair in a pony tail, but, God, that look just isn't you, Cougar. You really look twelve - I feel like a pervert just sitting on your bed. But the chin fuzz and the lady bait will grow out again, Cougs. Give it a few days and you'll be your usual, ruggedly handsome, irresistible self."

He shrugged his shoulders, letting the other one know that he was very well aware of that fact or else he might very well actually have gone for the guy's jugular. The beard and the 'stash wasn't the problem, even if they did make him look all of twelve, rather than all neat and trim. But everyone knew that Jenkharsten wanted long hair on his men, so why the fuck had that bloody barber done something so unbelievably fucking stupid?

"The man is fired," Jenkharsten said with deep conviction and sympathy. "Absolutely. I mean, what the fuck, Cougar? Idiot. He'll never work in this town again. Oh, Cougar - your hair!"

He did feel a bit naked, to tell the truth. Exposed. All Alvarez suave charm, gone!

"No, no, Cougar, don't look like that. You're right, it really looks awful, but, hey - look at me. Cougs?"

He slowly looked over to Jenkharsten, who surprised him with a gentle smile.

"I can fix this, Cougar. Hey - Great Old One with powers unimaginable here, eh?"

Cougar raised an eyebrow, not feeling very hopeful. Done was done, so he better just get over his moping. As Jenkharsten had said, with the hat on he looked like he was just wearing a pony tail and he always wore the hat anyway. And, again, the facial hair wouldn't take long to regrow. He would just have to get over the involuntary haircut. But of course he had stabbed that fucking joke of a barber. This ruined any chance he might have fooled himself into thinking he had. Fat Girl didn't even have her red hair any longer - and had plastic surgery to remove her breasts. All Jenkharsten's guys have long, pretty hair. His had at least been fairly long. Hell, perhaps he should have just shot the guy, instead of stabbing him.

"Cougar? You trust me, right?"

He nodded, then looked distrustfully as Jenkharsten carefully reached for his head.

"I'll fix this, Cou. Um. It might feel a bit funny, but just ignore that, 'kay? Okay, here we go."

And then one of Jenkharsten's large hands came up around Cougar's neck, fingertips winding into what was left of his hair, reached his skull, and started up a firm but gentle massage.

"Don't worry, Cou. It's just me. Relax."

But to relax was impossible. Cougar could hardly breathe, captured in the arms of the otherworldly being who all but cradled him now, mesmerised by the incredible sensation produced by the steady pattern of fingers against his scalp, rubbing out the tension of the past hour. Jenkharsten touched him so gently Cougar almost didn't dare to believe what his skin told him - almost like a lover.

"You'll start feeling a bit woozy soon, I expect," Jenkharsten said, his voice low and mild as he lifted off Cougar's hat for better reach. "It's the keratin. I'm kinda draining you now, working it into your hair instead. Don't worry. I wouldn't say that it is exactly good for you, but it's not bad for you either. Um. I'll get you something nice and icky to drink later to make up for it. Shhh, just relax. Sorry that it takes so long, but I can't hurry it up without shocking your system. Galloping heart attacks are such a bother, ya know."

Cougar was not complaining.

No, sir. Not complaining at all.

Possibly popping a boner, but not complaining about that either.

The oh so clever hand at the back of his head moved about, fingers rubbing in tiny circles, soothing and ... coaxing in a strange way that Cougar felt his body respond to, both above and below. He bit his jaw together hard to keep from moaning.

Then the woozyness Jenkharsten had warned for made its presence known, like a lump in his throat, quickly followed by its friend, nausea. He nearly welcomed it, as his groin quickly lost some of its interest in the proceedings. On the other hand, barfing over the target of his affection would not improve matters. He opened his eyes - when had he closed them, anyway? - and was confused to find Jenkharsten higher up in the bed, almost cradling Cougar's upper body. He could smell wing musk again, and wondered muddily if that was Jenkharsten's natural body odour.

A small note rose in the back of his throat, to indicate confusion and that he wasn't feeling very well.

Jensen - no, Jenkharsten - shushed him, mumbled something soothing. The careful massage to his head felt more like a firm caress. "Does it feel icky when it slides out?" he heard, as from some distance. "Heh heh, that sounded dirty, didn't it? I'm almost done now, just a little longer. You tired?"

Lethargic. Yes.

"Sleep, then, Cougs. I've got your back. Silly sheep, go to sleep."

His eyelids fell like black curtains.

Something touched his lips.

Softly, like butterfly wings, flittering across his lips, then a full out pressure, so fleeting he hardly had time to register the sensation before it was already gone.

Cougar blinked his eyes open and then worked on focusing on the familiar visage before him: no round glasses, but side burns and goatee. Jensen - no, Jenkharsten - sat by his side, with a warm, strong arm around his waist to hold him up. It should have been an awkward position, but Cougar felt relaxed and protected.

Jenkharsten smiled, his happy, bright, "I just made the Pentagon servers my bitches"-smile. "There. All done. Just a sec and I'll do the chin fuzz too."

Still a little groggy and not completely sure if he wasn't still dreaming, Cougar saw Jenkharsten's hand rise again, to stroke him ever so gently over the chin, leaving behind a brief itch. A touch of nausea poked at his belly and he winced.

"There," Jenkharsten finally mumbled, smiling down at him so goddamn tenderly.

Unable to look away, Cougar brought up a hand, feeling fuzz on his chin and upper lip. Then he tried to reach further back, without noticeable success since he was as weak as a newborn kitten. Jenkharsten produced a mirror from God knew where.

Cougar inspected the result.

He had hair again. Long hair, just like he normally kept it - but evenly grown and without a split end in sight. The "lady bait", as Jenkharsten kept referring to his 'stash, as well as the chin hair, also looked dense and healthy. The edges were clipped with military precision, completely even and exactly as trim and proper as Cougar had envisioned when going to the barber.

He met Jenkharsten's hopeful gaze and narrowed his eyes in query.

"Oh, sure, it looks great, Cou. Just like always. The ladies will crawl over glass to get at you."

Not that he'd been fishing for compliments, but that sounded nice enough.

Then a sudden wave of nausea clawed at his belly.

"Shit. Okay, on your back, Cou, and I'll get you something really icky to make you feel better."

Fighting to hold back what felt like projectile vomiting he gratefully let himself be eased back into the bed. He kept his eyes closed against a suddenly rotating world and held very still - and, excellent sniper that he was, that was very still indeed.

After what felt like a really long time, the bed dipped again next to him. "Okay, open up, Cou, icky milk shake for you."

Something small poked at his lips, so he opened them to accept a straw to suck through. The taste wasn't really icky as much as a strange flavour he'd never encountered before and didn't care much to try again. However, he'd drunk far worse (mystery night at The Taboo with Clay and Roque competing to come up with the strangest drink combos came to mind) and almost at once he felt a little better.

"There," Jenkharsten finally said while reaching out to place the empty glass on the bedside table. "All better?" he asked, still smiling in that strange, tender manner.

Cougar nodded. "Question?"

"You do realise that it is actually redundant to ask if you can ask, right? But, sure, my favourite cat, shoot."

"You kissed me just now?"

"Oh! No! No, no, no, no, no. Cou! You're-- Ah, um, I fixed your 'stash! That was all I did! No taking advantage of keratin-deprived team-mates to molest them in their semi-unconscious state at all!"

Of course, the hasty denial held more than a little panic, which was proof enough for Cougar.

"You did."

"Absolutely not, no, no, Cougar, no, I - it was just a little peck. To help the circulation! Um - saliva! Yeah! That's it! Saliva! Elder saliva is like incredible for the blood circulation in the hair roots!"

"You spat in my hair?"

"What? No! Cougar! I--! You--! No!"

Cougar shook in silent laughter.

"I? You? Cougar? Bastard!"

Jenkharsten bapped him over the head and then leaned closer to scoop him up in long, wide arms. The embrace was so warm and hard it nearly hurt. Jenkharsten's beard scratched near Cougar's ear and his hot breath burned against his cheek.

"Yeah, okay, so I didn't spit in your hair. I kissed you. Happy now?"

Cougar nodded, his heart so swollen that he couldn't have voiced his feelings even if he had tried.

"You are? Um. I mean? You are okay with this?"

He nodded again. Of course he was.

"Because I will never do it again if you don't want me to, or anything else at all, I promise. And no hard feelings in any way. Um. I mean that, Cou. I mean, you don't, like, owe me or have to or anything, just because of who I am or anything, you do know that, right?"

After a final squeeze Jenkharsten eased him down so that they could look at one another. His blue eyes had a wild edge.

For a third time, Cougar nodded. "I know," he said softly and put a hand on Jenkharsten's wrist. "I trust you." Because that was the angle and the wind speed, as well as the air pressure, the temperature, the visibility, the distance and the humidity of it all.

Jenkharsten pulled back even further. Cougar met his gaze calmly, not even trying to keep track of the many emotions flickering through that solid, blue stare. Instead he just waited. What would happen would happen soon enough and until then he concentrated on firmly ignoring both the nausea and the hard fist that clenched in his belly, insisting that part of what lurked behind those big, blue eyes, was not very good at all.

Then Jenkharsten's jaws clenched and he ducked his head, breathing out hard. Midway through the sound turned into a frustrated moan and then Jenkharsten was off the bed and smashed his fist so hard into the opposite wall that Cougar's bed shook.


Jenkharsten's other fist joined its mate, plunging into the wall in a burst of white smoke and wood splinters.

"Jenkharsten! Stop!"

He started to rise, flinging the flimsy cover to the side and dropping his feet - only his knees had apparently taken a holiday and he ended up on the cold floor with a pained grunt, whereupon he promptly vomited.

Things got a bit blurred for a while and he might have blackened out for a few seconds, because rather than face-firsting into a puddle of his own vomit, Cougar found himself back in the bed. For some reason his mouth wasn't sour with puke, but instead tasted as if he'd bit into a salt block. Jenkharsten sat on the bed, pressing his forehead against their joined hands. He was mumbling something in a rushed, scratchy voice. Cougar tuned his hearing until he heard the litany.

"--to be trusted, Cougar, that's just stupid, I could have hurt you so very much and I'm dangerous and you shouldn't trust me, Cougar, because to trust me is stupid and it's something you shouldn't do, because you're not stupid and I'm dangerous and--"

He didn't exactly feel A-okay, but at least some of the nausea had receded. Deciding that enough must be enough he gently tugged his right hand away from Jenkharsten's grip, then slapped him not very gently at all on the top of his head.

The litany broke off in a startled: "Ow?"

"Quit slandering my friend." A friend who had sneaked a kiss from him not too long ago, which Cougar would much rather concentrate on than whatever guilt trip Jenkharsten was on. He glanced over at the wall, where two fist-sized holes remained. Then he slapped Jenkharsten's head again, just to make his point.

"Ow! Cougar, be gentle!" The Ruler of the Known Universe squirmed, but then he suddenly grabbed Cougar's hand again and kissed his knuckles, very effectively derailing any thought Cougar might have had regarding further slapping.

Jenkharsten pulled back, but kept his hard grip on Cougar's hands. Heavy anxiety and misery lined his face and the blue in his eyes had taken on a nearly purple hue.

Cougar let his hands talk, rubbing Jenkharsten's wrist with his fingertips as he waited.

Jenkharsten looked even more miserable.

"I trust you," Cougar repeated, just as firmly as before.

A violent shudder ran through Jenkharsten's strong frame. "That's what I was telling you," he said, sounding exhausted. "You shouldn't. Not really. Before. I nearly hurt you, really really badly, before, Cougar."

He had dealt with Jensen in guilt mode several times, like when Jensen got him shot in New York. Or that time he had accidentally stabbed him in Tunis. Considering that Jenkharsten was now King of the Universe, the amount of chocolate that might at this very moment be heading Cougar's way could fill a Willy Wonka factory. "The keratin-draining?"

Jenkharsten shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. "Earlier."

Cougar drew a blank and rolled a finger.

"I wasn't going to tell you, but then I kissed you and you said you trust me and I, fuck, I just -- I have to tell you. It wouldn't be fair, not to tell you! Oh fuck, fuck, fuck, I don't want to have to say this!"

Cougar sighed. Sometimes his friend could get hung up on the strangest thing, so until he heard exact details, he'd reserve judgement. Like Cougar really cared if Jensen wiped out his entire school record, when Jensen could just make him a new, even better one? And give him a bag of 1000 Almond Rocas as an apology present? The bag with gold-wrapped treats had lasted for months. He rolled his finger.

Jenkharsten made a faint, keening noise. "Okay, okay, okay, I'll tell you. I'll tell you." He took a deep breath, glanced up at him and breathed out hard through his nose. Then he took another deep breath.

Cougar rolled his finger.

"Remember, um, the, ah, um, ah, the whip lash neck thing?"

Oh. That. Was that what Jenkharsten was on about again? "You fixed it." Come to think of it, though, in hindsight Cougar hadn't received anywhere near enough apology chocolate for that. "Godiva," he added slyly, just in case.

Jenkharsten blinked. "You're calling me a diva?"

Cougar preferred not to answer.

Jenkharsten stared at him for a few seconds longer. Then he gave a full-body shudder, like he usually did to distance himself from a problem in order to concentrate on something more important. "Yeah, well, I fixed your spine, but that's not what I meant, it's what I didn't do, what I was about to do, because that's what was so bad and I was really going to hurt you and that's not at all buddies and I'm sorry like fuck and you need to know before, um, before we, ah, before anything at all, okay?"

So, what he apparently needed to know - and which Jenkharsten was scared ball-less of telling him - had something to do with something Jenkharsten actually hadn't done? Cougar bit back a sigh. The nausea had turned into an insistent headache just in front of his ears. He rolled his finger one more time.

Jenkharsten took another deep breath and caught Cougar's hands again, not kissing this time, just holding them between his hot palms. His skin had always been warm, even before the "revealing himself as an elder god"-thing. Cougar well remembered that time in Norway, with the snow and the hail and how he had felt cold to the marrow. He had been amazed at how Jensen had worn only one of his silly t-shirts - the one with "I'm a tasty piece of candy, lick me" on it, until Jensen had held out an arm, inviting him to feel the heat almost radiating from his flesh. That night Cougar had dreamed of lying in snow with Jensen keeping him warm by touching him firmly all over. There might have been some licking involved too.

"I was ... kinda angry."

Cougar nodded gravely. He had noticed. Hence the spinal injury.

"At them and ... at you. Because I thought you had ..." He paused, jaws working but no words emerging. "Betrayed me. Perhaps ... I wasn't thinking too clearly? I just ... reacted. I had to ... do something. Get you to admit to what you'd done or ... explode. That's what it felt like, anyway, as if I'd just ... explode, I dunno." With one hand he made an exploding gesture, accompanied by a frrumphing noise.

Cougar could sympathize. "Banner," he offered, attempting to keep things light.

Jenkharsten laughed, if a bit shrilly. He still addressed Cougar's hands when he spoke. "Oh, yeah, the Hulk? 'Don't make me angry, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry?' Yeah, right, exactly like that. Except for, you know, wings and talons and fangs and tentacles and, well, all kinds of terrible, instead of just buff and green. But I really liked him in The Avengers."

There was another long pause. Cougar waited, never doubting that Jenkharsten would start talking again. Besides, sometimes the pauses were the most important parts of a conversation.

"So ... I was going to ... get you to admit to it. What you'd done. Betrayed me. Right?"


"No, no, no! I know that now! Oh, Cougar, of course I know!" The living god bent down to kiss his knuckles again. "But I didn't. Then. So I was going to make you confess. And then ..."

Cougar flashbacked to hanging helplessly in Jenkharsten's grip, being rattled viciously and having accusations screamed at him. The fangs. Over the memory, though, he saw how Jenkharsten tried to continue, how he drew breath and then stopped, drew breath and stopped, nearly rocking with effort where he sat. The sight worried him. Unless a gun was aimed directly at his head (or at his dick), it was very difficult to get Jensen to shut up - and to be honest, a gun only worked part of the time. Cougar deftly freed his right hand and reached up to touch his friend's shoulder.

He felt tiny shudders under the "Go Petunias!"-t-shirt and began to rub gently. Soon he felt the shivers taper out, but he kept rubbing.

Jenkharsten's head twisted towards him, eyes nearly white. A sudden spike in adrenaline made Cougar freeze.

"I've always wanted you," Jenkharsten hissed, but somehow the words sounded more like a threat than a love declaration. "Since the day I met you. So ... full of life and so perfect and gorgeous! That hair! That hat! Those eyes! That tight little ass and lithe, strong body. I wanted you, Cougar! Badly. That's ... why I stayed with the team, when I really should have prepared to take over the world. I fell in love with you later, Cougar, just because of who you are, you ... wonderful, gorgeous man, you! That's why I turned back-- Argh! Why I did a lot of things. But I wanted you from the moment I saw you!"

The grip on his left wrist tightened until his bones ached.

"And I was going to have you, Cougar."

//Have me?//

"I was going to fuck you, Cougar."

//Fuck me?//

"I was pissed beyond words, ready to explode and you had betrayed me and all I ever wanted was for you to ... All I ever wanted was to be with you. But you had fucking betrayed me and I was going to explode and I thought I had lost you forever anyway. So I was going to have you. I ... I was going to drag you into this stupid little room." Jenkharsten nodded up, indicating the room they were in. "And I was going to rend your clothes and fix you to the bed and rape you." The wild, blue eyes met Cougar's, holding him, and Cougar didn't have a shadow of a doubt that the otherworldly being before him meant every hoarse word.

"I was going to rape you, Cougar. Over and over and over again. And if ..."

Jenkharsten broke off for a second, as if the words themselves hurt him, before he rallied.

"If you were still alive when I had sated myself? I ..."

He pulled back, letting go of Cougar's wrist and throwing his head like a spooked horse. Then he fixed Cougar again with his riveting stare.

"I would have turned into my other shape, wings and talons and fangs and tentacles and, well, all kinds of terrible. And then I would have raped you again."

He jumped off the bed, turning away.

"That's who I am, Cougar," he said. His voice was calm again, but sounded so very sad and exhausted. "It would have broken your mind. Probably killed you too, but it would have broken your mind for sure. That is who I am, Cougar. Don't trust me."

Cougar loathed when people turned their back on him - it made communicating so much more difficult.

"If I had carried ammo by the time I found the throne room," he offered slowly, "I would have killed off your entire harem in fifteen seconds."

Jenkharsten swivelled and stared at him with wide eyes.

Cougar shrugged.

"You wouldn't!"

He shrugged again, unapologetic. "Twenty," he conceded. If any of the guys would have had the wits to actually start running it might have taken him twenty.

Then he stood, swallowed a suddenly rising nausea and reached up to pull Jenkharsten's head down for a kiss.

It was a kiss of kisses; hot, raw and hard, like the best kind of sex, leaving him breathless and possessed; owned and richer for it. Cougar took it all, giving his heart away with open hands, receiving back everything he had ever needed, filling him to the brim.

The kiss lasted until he felt lightheaded.

Jenkharsten laughed and caught Cougar's weight when his legs started to wobble. Then he oh so gently lowering him back onto the bed.

"You're a fucking extraordinary, incredible man, Carlos Cougar Alvarez," he whispered. Still a bit woozy and with his mind racing with what had just happened, Cougar patted his hand twice on Jenkharsten's chest to indicate that he had heard and that the feeling was mutual. "Cougar, I've been meaning to say this for, like, forever, but ... I kinda love you, man."

Cougar literally felt his heart expand in his chest. He tightened his hold possessively, making a satisfied noise. "Love you," he echoed.

Jenkharsten laughed, Jensen's "I'm so happy I could pee a little"-laughter; Cougar knew the sound well. His forehead was kissed, followed by his eyelids and his nose and finally his mouth again.

"I've wanted you for, like, years, Cou. I really did. And I love you."

Cougar nodded that he understood. "Me too." Then he hesitated. "Not a concubine."

"Shit, Cougs, a-course you're not! Besides, I don't need any of those when I have you, anyway. They're just ... distractions, ya know? Boring stuff like curing the common cold is much easier if you've got pretty things to look at when you take a break, you know."

//Get butterflies,// Cougar thought, but kept a neutral face.

Oblivious to this, Jenkharsten kept babbling. "Oh, and I kinda went a bit overboard with the whole ‘trying to get people who looks like my team’, yeah? Yeah, yeah, I know, just me being silly and I thought it might help getting over you. Besides, I asked you about what you thought of becoming my Consort, didn't I?"

Cougar felt like slapping himself on top of the hat. "Me?"

"A-course, you crazy sniper, you. Okay, so I chickened out like the yellowest of all yellow chickens and didn't exactly ask you in so many words, but, yeah, I mean - who else'd put up with me?"

Cougar snorted.

"Yeah, yeah, you say that now, but wait until you've lived with me for a couple of years and-- Oh, wait, you already did that, huh?" His grin became nearly blinding. "Well, then I guess you'll just have to keep me, eh?"

Cougar nodded firmly. From now on, anyone who tried to take his Great Old One away from him would have to keep a safety distance of at least 2.700 yards, if not more.

"I'll get rid of the guys in the morning, okay? I'd do it now, but it's kinda late, so let the poor unemployed sleep, 'kay?"

He shook his head.

"Kick them out now? Okay, anything you say, Cougs. I wasn't trying to keep them around or nothin', I just thought we'd let them sleep."

He shook his head again. The harem guys could stay, they'd work well as-- "Distractions."-- as long as they kept their grabby hands away from his Great Old One, of course. Besides, Cougar himself was-- "Not the consort-type either."

"Yeah, I see what you're driving at. And, yeah, I got the 'no touchy feely' glare loud and clear. So ... Okay. Yeah. And do you wanna stay here in New Hampshire? We could move somewhere warmer, if you like? Hawaii? Like the Russian tsar, we could have a summer palace and a winter palace. Or anything you want. Heh, some of my people live under the waters, so I'm not picky."

Had Jenkharsten, living god and Ruler of Earth, just given him veto right for where they were going to live? Not bad. He shrugged. "'m fine here." At least for now. They could see if the Jentheniskaia got cold when winter came.

"Best sniper ever," Jenkharsten said and snuggled him tight.

//Best haircut ever//, Cougar thought.

PART 11.

J-Day + 39.

Cougar woke surrounded by a truly lovely warmth all around, like he had slept in sunshine. Most of the heat was concentrated along his back, his left thigh and over his left arm. He lay on his right side, which placed the heat behind him, where hard areas pressed up against him all along his back, ass and legs. Something soft and cotton-y stroked softly over his left foot.

Apart from being comfortable and snug and feeling really good about everything, he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was safe and he was loved and he was ... with Jensen?

//Si ...//

That treasured night in Hell, Norway (literally in Hell, Norway. They had stayed in a village in Norway called Hell. Jensen had made the reservations and giggled for hours), when he had crawled into Jensen's bed with honestly no other intention than to get his feet warm enough so that they wouldn't fall off from the cold. Jensen had called him a baby and snorted at him, mumbling about downs and fire and air and a lot of other things, but had never once hinted at that his presence was unwelcome in the bed or even a threat to the tech's machismo. They had slept wrapped tight like puppies during the night.

They had woken up like this too then, with Jensen being the big spoon behind Cougar. The touch hadn't been sexual then, not quite, not really, but feeling Jensen's morning woody making nice with his ass had certainly made Cougar re-evaluate some of his own assumptions about his sexuality.

This time beat Norway hands down, though, even if Hell had turned out to be a tiny slice of Heaven. This time, Cougar remembered kisses. Kisses which had stopped only because he had still felt ill and needed to rest. His final memory was of Jenkharsten gathering him up close, holding him and rocking him just minutely with a hand spread out over Cougar's flat belly. A sensory check found the hand again, but spread out possessively over the right part of Cougar's chest. He also felt, rather prominently and this time far more welcome, the sign that Great Old Ones apparently shared the human male's habitual morning salutation.

If Cougar really had been the animal they had nicknamed him after, he would have purred.

A shift of weight alerted him, then he was kissed on the cheek bone. His Jenkharsten-blanket constricted in a full-body hug. "Morning, Cougs," Jenkharsten muttered sleepily. "You have no idea how many times I've dreamed of waking like this."

He pushed back into the embrace, pressing himself along the hot body. Normally at this point into the morning he would grab for his hat, but for once his head gear was far from both his head and his mind.

Another kiss landed on his cheek and then a third on his jaw. Cougar shifted to the right and Jenkharsten pulled back a fraction, giving him room. A moment later Cougar found himself on his back, once more with a Jenkharsten-blanket and only flimsy t-shirts and boxers between them. The bedding under him was still warm from their collective heat, but the tall, firm shape on top of him was hotter still, in every sense of the word.

Jenkharsten scooted down a few inches, until they lay face to face. His solid body pressed Cougar's slimmer frame into the bedding. No woman he'd ever been with had felt like that on top of him - and it felt delicious. Cougar raised his hands to touch the narrow waist, not quite ready yet to explore either north or south. His crotch - cock getting more interested by the second - was trapped against Jenkharsten's stomach while Jenkharsten's legs slowly pressed down between his own.

//Between my thighs.//

With a jolt of realisation Cougar quickly spread his knees, a little lightheaded with the way his heart raced as Jenkharsten's lower body settled, so warm and solid between his legs that he nearly wanted to escape, but just as he was teetering on the edge of flight, Jenkharsten leaned forward and captured his lips, so sure and gentle that Cougar let himself be kissed and, after a second, joined the festivities. Kissing he could do like nobody's business. He'd made a young woman come once, just by kissing her and looking deeply into her eyes.

Jenkharsten's hands moved in soothing circles over Cougar's arms, as if he'd sensed his inner turmoil. After what could have been one minute or ten, Jenkharsten broke off the kiss, smiled at him - Jensen's wide, open, happy, "We're all still alive. Go us!"- smile and kissed him swiftly again. Then he scrambled up, straddling Cougar's hips - oh, and little Cougar liked that just fine, movement and pressure and very nice angle, fuck yeah. Gazing down at Cougar with such intentness in those beautiful, blue eyes, Jenkharsten stripped off his pale pink t-shirt. Cougar's mouth suddenly ran dry as he saw all that muscle, towering above him.

At the sight a lesser man might have become self-conscious and maybe Cougar would have been too, if not that familiar face peered down at him a little anxiously. Cougar was abruptly reminded that the chest he saw so temptingly on display above him was actually his to touch.

He reached out and slowly let his hands explore - over the taut muscles on the trim waist first, patting the tight abdominal muscles lightly, then slowly moving higher, pressing firmly enough to feel the flesh strain back against his touch.

Jenkharsten looked down at him, heavy-lidded, waiting with a patience that struck Cougar as more than human, maybe even sniperly. He ghosted his hands over the chest muscles, over the smattering of dark gold hair emerging from the boxer shorts - Hufflepuff ones this time, with "Hufflepuffs work harder for it", he noted - and over the pink nipples, which firmed to his touch like a woman's.

The groan that tore from Jenkharsten's throat when Cougar rubbed his nipples was not even remotely human. Even so, Cougar felt something deep inside of himself respond to the sound. He bucked up once, into the lovely, hot cavern formed by their boxers and Jenkharsten's legs.

His partner groaned again, the sound humming through the room. He bent to catch Cougar's mouth one more time, their tongues touching; teeth clinking; lips pressing; a lovely taste of Jenkharsten and spice; heat like a furnace. At the same time his right leg slipped smoothly between Cougar's legs. Even with the cloth in between, the hot ridge of his cock burned against Cougar's hip.

A hand stole up to play with his own nipples, pinching them gently at first, then harder. Girls seldom went for his nipples and he never asked in fear of seeming unmanly, but he loved the touch and Jenkharsten's strong fingers were the best he'd ever felt. Then Jenkharsten abandoned his mouth, but after a moment of crushing disappointment Cougar was perfectly fine with that, as his partner instead caught one of the nipples between his lips, sucking gently, then flicking over the sensitive flesh eagerly with his tongue, sending a flash of intense pleasure straight to Cougar's cock.

Cougar's breath hitched and he clenched his left hand hard over Jenkharsten's shoulder even as he tried to get his right in between them to return at least part of the favor. His hips bucked by themselves and he moved restlessly, struggling to achieve better friction.

"[On top of me]!" he finally growled and with a breathy laughter Jenkharsten rolled fully on top of him again. Cougar spread his thighs and raised his knees to trap the strong, hot body. He nearly moaned when Jenkharsten moved a little higher, bringing their groins in perfect alignment even as their mouths met. Then he did moan when Jenkharsten started sliding back and forth on top of him, with a little downward twist for just that perfect pressure.

For a few beautiful minutes everything was all Cougar could ever have hoped for. Then Jenkharsten stilled his slow trusts and, with one last, lingering kiss, leaned rather heavily on Cougar's chest while reaching down to urgently tug down their boxers. The pressure nearly pushed all air from Cougar's lungs, but he whole-heartedly agreed and then he felt a hot, slick length - quite hard, too - against his lower belly. His cock was skin to heated skin, rubbing against soft pubic hair - and against that other hot, slick length and he could finally take another shuddering breath.


"Love you, Cougs," was panted into his neck and he nodded hard - he had heard the words; he understood them; he agreed; the feeling was mutual.

"Si!" he growled, thrusting up and keeping a firm hold with his knees and thighs. The feeling of a solid body between his legs felt decidedly strange and unfamiliar, but it was Jenkharsten and it felt so right; so true. He wanted everything so badly he would have begged, only he knew to the core that Jenkharsten had no intention of stopping.

"So good, Cougs! It feels so fucking good! Do you feel it, do you? My cock, your cock, our cocks. Your stomach; mine. Your legs around me. Oh yeah! Oh yeah! So sweet, oh yeah, do that again, twist like, oh--! Yeah, Cougar, yeah! You look so good, gorgeous, I've wanted to do this, for, like, since I saw you for the first time. Well, not just this, of course, you know that, don't you, Cougs? Yeah, yeah, sure you do, sure you do. I want to suck you so badly, Cougar. I would have gone down on you right then and there, at Fort Braggs, if you'd let me. I'd do it now if I could, only I can't stop doing this and it feels so fucking good, right, Cougs? Wanna fuck you too, you'll let me do that, won't you, Cougs? We could fuck like this, if you wanna, you on your back, legs over my shoulders, sweet as sin, not that I think it's a sin or anything. Nothing this good could be a sin. Not now, though, not right now, that is - oh, God, just the thought of being inside of you, Cougs!"

And, yeah, Cougar would let him. Of course he would. Not now, no, he was nowhere near ready for that, but he needed to have Jenkharsten fuck him, even if the mere thought sent a cold rush down his spine and, besides, he never, ever wanted to stop the steady thrusts. Jenkharsten moving inside of him, though, technical hesitance aside - the very idea made his cock feel ready to explode.

"And you in me, when we fly. I want to do you on the wing, too, Cougs, but it'll have to be you on top for that, I think. And I want that too, so I ain't complaining. Yeah. You on me and I'm on the wing and your arms aren't very long, but that's okay, you can reach the middle joints and it'll be glorious, don't you worry, it'll be just perfect. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, like that! Perfect! Oh yeah, perfect, you're perfect! Oh, you know what, I bet we could do it the other way around too, if you cling to my front as I fly. Might be a bit tricky to get it all started, but, um-- God, Cougar, I'm gonna, I'm gonna, yeah, oh!" Jenkharsten bent down, thrusting hard, and bit into Cougar's shoulder, hard enough to hurt, but not hard enough to either break the skin or quench even an ounce of his passion. "Ah! Ah! Ah! Cougar! Aaaaaahhhh .... Ah. Ah. Ah."

Cougar teetered on the edge, trying to hold back from coming too soon - they'd only been at it for a few minutes, but embarrassingly enough he was already ready to blow his load. Just then Jenkharsten shuddered hard against him and wet spurts of hot liquid on his stomach tugged him over and he came too, digging his fingers into Jenkharsten's back, clutching with his thighs and knees, arching his back and pouring himself in frantic bursts against the warm body pressing him hard into the mattress.

They lay together, cosy under the super-soft cotton comforter, touching each other's naked bodies. Cougar's heart still pumped too quickly for him to ever hope to get a decent shot in between heartbeats and he still felt light-headed, almost giddy.

"Me and thee, Cougar," Jenkharsten mumbled in his ear and snuggled him a bit firmer. "Me and thee."

He groaned and snorted.

"Starsky and Hutch are classics, man. No knocking the classics."

He made a content hum. Then, feeling a familiar pressure in his bladder and, intending to locate his hat, he opened an eye. Closed it quickly. Opened it a little longer, looked around, closed it. Opened both eyes, squinted, closed them hard, opened them again, and frowned.


"Huh? What's that, my cat?"

He blinked again. Then - keeping his eyes closed - he slapped Jenkharsten hard enough to signal that alertness was desired.

"Ow? Cougar?"

When he opened his eyes again, the weird phenomena remained.

"Everything glitters," he expanded.

A strange, golden glitter floated over everything. He was acutely reminded of that morning in Norway, when the low temperature had turned the world into a frozen frost glimmery, shimmering winter wonder land. Jensen had been ecstatic, likened the phenomena to walking in a sea of diamonds and he had blabbered about frost, snow, air humidity and what not. Cougar had just enjoyed the sight and the presence of his thrilled friend. As he did now, except now the colour was more golden.

"Oh!" Jenkharsten squeaked. "Um. That, ah ... I can explain."

Cougar rolled a finger, momentarily entranced by how his finger nail had a golden edge.


It sounded more like a question, so he promptly suggested, "Tourette's?"

"Hm? Ah. Oh. Hah. Hah. Hah. I mean, um. Sperm. Mine. On. You. Your skin. Absorbed. Um. And glitter. It'll go away in, um, okay, maybe twenty minutes or so. I'm sorry?"

Cougar took a deep breath, as he incorporated this information into his by now very large folder marked Jenkharsten, and glanced around the room, fascinated by the persistent glitter. "Girls?"

Jenkharsten stiffened beside him, and not in the fun erection kinda way. "You feel you're going to need them?" he asked in a brittle tone of voice.

Cougar promptly hit him over the head again, not completely gently. "Before. Didn't they ask about this? Or guys?" He had never seen Jensen with a guy prior to discovering the eight harem boys, but apparently there was a lot about his friend that he hadn't known. His species, for one.

"Oh. No, um, I try never to ejaculate when I'm with a, um, when I was with a, um, human - before, that is. Not on their skin, anyway. I mean, better that way anyway. Way, way, way, that's many ways."

Cougar squinted and decided to feel flattered. "Not on missions," he ordered. Aiming with the golden glow would be doable, but not optimal.

Jenkharsten guaffed. "Roger that. Um. Well, there's the glow and then there's not wanting to knock anyone up either. Half-elders does not for sweet babies make."

Cougar nodded understanding. "That's why the guys?" he asked. On reading the Lovecraft stories he'd come across a mentioning about sacrificing young men (as well as maidens) to god-like things living under the sea, which had made him wonder just what kind of sacrifices had been going on.

Jenkharsten rolled closer, rose on his elbow and smiled his sunny bright "Perhaps they used to be your servers, but I think you'll find that from now on they respond only to me"-grin. "Nah, I didn't want to knock any of the guys up either." Then he, slowly and quite deliberately, reached down to rub gently over Cougar's six-pack. "When I knock someone up I do it on purpose." He patted Cougar's belly twice, tenderly.

Cougar's heart stumbled and he froze, torn between leaping out of bed or just grabbing for his now loaded rifle, when Jenkharsten started laughing so hard he bent over and clutched his stomach - his own stomach, as Cougar never, ever was going to let him come anywhere close to Cougar's stomach again for as long as they lived.

"Oh, for the look on your face, Cougar! That was - priceless! Perfect! Oh, oh, why didn't I install security cameras in here? Oh, yeah, because you'd have gone medieval on my ass. But I should have, oh, I knew I should have!" He glanced up at Cougar, then started giggling helplessly.

Cougar promptly hit him over the head - hard.

"Ow! Elder abuse! Heh, heh, heh, heh, yeah ..." Then he finally quieted down and leaned back. "Sorry, Cougs, I just had to. Like that time in Panama, when we painted Roque's hands blue and then put blue hand marks on Pooch's ass, because we just had to. Even Clay agreed with me when I told him so."

Cougar kept scowling. He remembered Clay's "You had to?", sure, but this had been said in an incredulous tone of voice, followed by dressing them both up and down and assigning them Roque and Pooch's household duties for a month. And Cougar had just crept into Roque and Pooch's room to administer the knock out darts - the whole thing had been Jensen's brain child from the start and Jensen had done all the painting, so he felt that his part of the punishment had been very unjust.

"Yeah, yeah, but it was fun, admit it. And this was fun too. Um. And it was also very immature and stupid and I am sorry I implied that I might have knocked you up or intended to do so. Um. Because I haven't. Won't. Aren't. Can't. Really. Honestly. It was all just a joke. Um, unless you really, really would want me to, but then I'd have to change reality and that's just a complete bummer and I don't have enough power at all for something like that, please don't make me do that?" He sounded a bit anxious, so Cougar felt himself start weakening.

Jenkharsten wiggled his eyebrows. "Some of my people live under the waters. Technically speaking, you know, I don't have to breathe. How about making me give you a really spectacular apology blow-job, eh?"

Cougar lay back down.

//I'll still make him wear a condom,// he decided. //At least right before a mission.// On the other hand, sometimes shooting was so easy he welcomed an additional challenge. //Or maybe not.//

Jenkharsten really didn't need to breathe and Cougar discovered that Jenkharsten's supernatural attributes included some special structure in his throat. What natural purpose this served he had no clue, but when Jenkharsten went down on him he felt a mindblowingly incredible, steady suction of something extremely warm, verging on uncomfortably hot, slowly pulsing up and down his dick. The blow job easily topped any head Cougar had ever had before and the ladies love their Cougar, so he'd had plenty of experience.

Of course, getting really good head was more than just a matter of mouth meet dick. Looking down gave him a truly mouth-watering view of Jenkharsten's gorgeous mouth wrapped around the base of his cock, nose to the side. Jenkharsten had a look of firm concentration and content etched all over his face. A long-fingered hand lay flush against his side, holding Jenkharsten's weight, while the other moved eagerly over Cougar's side, caressing his skin lightly or firmly; fingers brushing over erect nipples, sometimes dipping between his legs to play with his balls - once slipping next to Cougar's cock into that talented mouth and then further between his legs, rubbing gently against his back passage.

Swallowing dryly, Cougar spread his legs a little to signal willingness, even as his stomach tensed up and he suddenly was not quite as impressed with the stimulus burning around his cock.

"Hmmmmm. Hm-mghh, hmmmm. Hmmm, hmmmmm, hmm. Hmmmm." Even Jenkharsten's cock-gagged moans were strangely vocal and Cougar knew that his friend-cum-lover had felt the change and tried to soothe his irrational worry.

The finger wriggled a little, then stroked lazily back and forth from his balls to his opening. Cougar had never been as aware of that tiny area of his body before. The touch felt completely strange: daring and wrong at the same time. Then the finger started to burrow into him, startling him even though he had fully expected the penetration. Of course he knew Jenkharsten's fingers to be long and comparatively slender, yet the digit felt wide like a cock when it slowly moved further inside of him, where he knew that Jenkharsten's dick would go soon enough.

"Hmm, hmmmm, Hm-mghh. Hm. Hm. Hmmmm. Hrummm, hmm hmmm."

The finger pulled almost all the way out, then moved in again. Jenkharsten shifted a bit, moving his mouth in the same pattern, out and in again, Cougar's cock being massaged the entire way as whatever that was inside Jenkharsten's throat rippled rhythmically.

Then Jenkharsten moved again, this time actually pulling his mouth off Cougar's cock, which was cruelty to human, and smiled wide up at him.

"Fuck me, but you even taste good, Cou. Like a dream. And you're so tight that part of me wants some quality time with Mrs Palm, fantasising about all kinds of really fucking hot things I want to do with that sweet little hole of yours. But just one finger for now, nothing more, I promise."

Cougar was half-ready to offer Jenkharsten to live out some of those fantasies if he'd just get back to business first. Leaving a man hanging in the middle of a blowjob just wasn't buddies! Before he had time to say something, though, Jenkharsten shifted his weight and sat up. His cock presented itself to Cougar in its full glory - about nine inches, fully human by the look of it, head glistening with precum. While it was only about an inch longer than Cougar's own, he thought it looked very large, at least since Jenkharsten's one finger had been big enough to feel uncomfortable. Just as he tried to make a mental comparison on how the cock would fit into his ass, Jenkharsten pulled out his finger.

"Just need a little more slick for it," he reassured and rubbed over his cock head, collecting some of the sticky. "A bit of gold will make it even nicer," he then promised, grinning.

Cougar stared at both the finger and the cock uncertainly, but then Jenkharsten looked at him again, sighed theatrically and pronounce, "Back to work!" before deep-throating him at the same time as gently pushing the finger back in.

This time the slide went much smoother and while the finger still felt much wider than it should, something about the easy slide in and out felt almost as fascinating as the heat rippling up and down his cock.

"No," Clay said firmly. "The Jentheniskaia is not a viable target, Max. We simply don't have the resources. We need to wait until Jenkharsten leaves for somewhere we can get to, so that we can get a clear shot at him."

"You sure?"

"Positive. From what your source informs us, the security in the Jentheniskaia has really tightened since ... Alvarez took command of the guards."

Max popped one of his pills. "Bummer that. I would have thought you knew all of Sergeant Carlos Alvarez's tricks, though?"

"I do," Clay said, nodding uncomfortably. "The problem is that Alvarez knows all of mine too."

"Right, sure. I see. So, we'll wait. Too bad, though. Oh, did I tell you that my man was on roof watch yesterday? Alvarez is circling them, instead of keeping them at stationary positions. Anyway, now, I'm not making any judgements of any kind, to each his own I say and all that, I've been around the block a time or two myself. The dear late Wade wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but I kept him around because, well, let's just say that when he moaned 'Shit, I wish you had two of them', I had a bit of surprise in store for him. No, never mind, I'll explain some other time. Anyway, just for completeness sake I thought I'd mention that my man swears he saw your sniper kiss the tentacle monster."

"Traitor!" Pooch growled.

Clay shrugged. For the last couple of months prior to J-Day he had watched Cougar and Jensen grow progressively closer, as if perhaps something was ... budding between them. As their SO he hadn't been sure about how to handle things, but as their friend he had been pleased for them. Now ... He would do what needed to be done. But part of him wanted to cry.

After over 20 years in existence, with about a hundred core members from all over the world and many others who had come and gone over the years, the S_U had, as so many other mailinglists, developed its own traditions. Like the OTTQ; the Four Ladies Who Must Be Obeyed; the annual grill party at Lady Elz's place where everyone was invited to come within shooting range; the annual shooting competitions in Scotland; the mocking of the shooting competitions at the Olympic Games; acronyms such as ITWAR (In Trouble Without A Rifle), SICP (So, I Can't Spell), CICP (So, I Really Can't Spell), WHAATDSY (We Who Are About To Die Salute You. Usually tacked after a name when someone headed out on a mission that promised to be particularly dangerous), SISAYNHF (Sorry I Shot At You, No Hard Feelings), MTIITA (My Tech Is In Trouble Again. Cougar might have come up with that one), and so on. The Four Ladies (two of which were now stay at home mothers) had regular get-togethers to watch movies and would report in any sniper activity in them, good or bad.

Cougar liked the list. The S_U was a friendly place and even if he hadn't met all that many of the people on it (though, a little to his embarrassment, he'd actually hit three of them), he considered his list siblings in general as friendlies (at least when they didn't shoot actively at him, but everyone had agreed that WHIRLSIRL - What Happens In Real Life Stays In Real Life. The list had gone through a phase when they made acronyms of pretty much everything).

Which was why Cougar, after having received the best blowjob of his life (and quite possibly the best blowjob of anyone's life), wrote a very important mail to the list - a CoSH. A Change of Safe Haven.

Safe Havens was another list custom. The active snipers were used to being shipped back and forth across the world to shoot whoever needed shooting. Home was where you laid your hat for the night - and Cougar often enough slept with his on his chest, if not over his face. However, almost everyone had somewhere special, where loved ones lived, to where they would long for during missions and once in a great while actually visit. Those places they labelled their Safe Havens. Lady Elz, Not Our Leaderess Because We Don't Have One, retired mother of six who could outshoot most of the president's 100 on a bad day, kept an updated list of all Safe Havens. If someone failed to check in for six months, a discrete investigation would follow. And should the worst have happened, a box with gold bullets would be sent to the Safe Haven, courtesy of everyone on the list.

For several years, Cougar had lacked a Safe Haven. Getting on the S_U had been one of the very few technical things he had achived B.J. (the list had started on ONElist, moved to eGroups, then Yahoo!Groups before one of the sniper's techs had found out and deemed yahoo much too unsafe and had the list moved to some private server). Lady Hetty - also retired, but not with children as far as anyone knew, just some very hush-hush job in Los Angeles - had approached Cougar on a shooting range one day, to invite him onboard.

Later he joined the Losers and a bit later than that, there had been Jensen. And Jensen's sister and Jensen's sister's daughter and Jensen's sister's house and Jensen bringing him along on leaves. He became used to coming to New Hampshire to find a fold-out bed from the attic ready for him in Jensen's room. Until one day, when the fold-out bed had been replaced by a real bed, with a sniper-rifle patterned blanket (specially ordered off the net), a spike in the wall over the pillow for his hat and a narrow shelf over the bed for his rifle. And in the morning he had written the list with the subject line "Attention Lady Elz - CoSH."

Most members sent CoSH-letters to the list itself, rather than privately to Lady Elz, to let everyone who might be interested know. Since a Safe Haven was a permanent fixture, not just any passing nest, a change was a big thing, like a marriage announcement. You needed a reason to change your Safe Haven and that reason was usually a dozy. Also, while a sniper can't very well turn down an ordered mission, to know you went up against a Safe Haven was to know that you could expect the place to either be heavily guarded or carry retribution with all means given to the other sniper - because snipers may forgive, but they never, ever forget. The one time a sniper deliberately went up against another sniper's Safe Haven he wasn't just kicked off the list. The Ladies banded together and Dealt with the matter. Creatively, Cougar had heard. He'd also crossed his legs and winced.

He wrote the letter carefully, filling in the details with pride. About half-way through he started smiling to himself, and then he sent off the letter with a flourish.

Then he promptly panicked and hollered Jenkharsten's name three times in a row.

The living god's hands automatically accepted the laptop. "Cou? I was playing Tetris! Don't bash the classics! What's up?"

Cougar cleared his throat and gestured at the computer, realised that he would have to go verbal for this and did. "Can you return a mail?"

"Um, yeah, Cougs, it's called to 'reply' to them. You click 'reply' and then you type--"

He gestured empathically that this was no joke and that he was dead serious.

"Return a mail? Expand on that, Cou, I don't understand what you want to do."

"If it's sent? Can you get it back so no one reads it?"

"Not unless I change reality or turn back time and we've already gone through that; I'm not up for that right now, majorly too down on mojo to waste it on a mail. It would kill me and then it wouldn't work anyway. What did you do? Did you send naked pictures of yourself to someone you met on a chat group? Because I told you never to do that. Unless he calls himself 'Jelder', because Jelder's a really hoopy frood and I would love to have some naked pictures of--"

Cougar slumped on the sofa, covering his eyes with his hat.

"--you, um, but-- Cougs? What? What did you send, what did you ..."

The voice trailed off, replaced by a mouse click and then another one.

"I'll assume its the last e-mail that has you wringing your hands? Did you send a private mail to your list? Don't worry, everyone-- A CoSH? You filed a CoSH? That's so neat, Cougar! It's the sweetest thing of all things sweet. To, here, and you-- Oh, Cougs! What did you write!?" Then Jenkharsten laughed. "Oh, Cougar! This is precious! This is perfect! Oh, my belly hurts!"

Cougar glared from under the brim at the very stupid Ruler of the Known Universe. Then he was grabbed around the waist and, rather unceremonially dragged onto Jenkharsten's lap and kissed with considerable enthusiasm and skill.

"You outed us, you crazy sniper, you!"

Cougar made a frustrated sound. "Mad?"

"Of course I'm not! I think it's brilliant beyond words! Um, but I could stop this, actually, if you want me to?"

Cougar raised an eyebrow in question.

"Um, you do know that your mail is monitored, don't you?"

He nodded and then felt stupid.

"Yeah. So, this should still be in the filter system, waiting for approval. Seriously, though, Cougs, I think it looks gorgeous. I want to have a clandestine affair with it. Or at least print it and hang it somewhere. Maybe over ... there? Maybe put it on a t-shirt, would you like that? I could have one that says the opposite. Oh, or 'I took over the world and I've got the sniper to prove it!' But it's your friends; your call, Cougs. I don't mind, really. I say let's be out and proud!"

Jenkharsten kissed him and Cougar eagerly kissed back, never tiring of Jenkharsten's lips and the unique taste of his mouth, so fresh and warm, with a hint of spice as if he'd just eaten some foreign food that you might not be able to pronounce, but which you strongly suspected that you could live off from now on.

Finally he pulled away and, his mind made up, nodded.

Jenkharsten laughed and captured his mouth once more.

Reason for change: My tech took over the world, so I moved in with him.

PART 12.

J-Day + 42.

Ruling the Universe wasn't exactly a 9 - 5 job. Even so, much to Cougar's amusement, he had found out that a lot of the time Jenkharsten wasn't playing WoW or Tetris or porn surfing at all, but was in constant communication with the lesser rulers, dictators, prime ministers, kings and presidents across the globe, working to make the world a better place for humans and Great Old Ones alike.

Cougar mostly spent his days instructing the guards, training them at long range (it was his speciality, after all), trying to get a grip of the Jentheniskaia security and any other duties he could assume to ease Jenkharsten's work load and help his lover.

He usually broke off his own working day about sixish and would then spend some time hanging out in the throne room, lounging with the harem, soaking in the Jacuzzi or even playing a game of Apples And Apples or something with Jenkharsten's eight. The guys weren't all that bad he had grudgingly decided, now that the natural order had been restored and Jenkharsten once more belonged to Cougar, as was only proper. Nothing had explicitly been explained to the guys, but for some reason they seemed to act differently around Cougar now, not quite so giggly and annoying, which he approved of. As part of his long-term plan he had even taken the eight to the shooting range, giving them their first shooting lesson. Eight additional guards whom no one would ever suspect would be excellent.

Of course, it wasn't as if Jenkharsten actually needed bodyguards, but it was the principle of things. Cougar took his responsibilities very seriously. Also, Jenkharsten had told Cougar that getting shot wasn't fun. While it couldn't kill him - an A-bomb couldn't kill him - it did hurt and it did take strength to heal the wounds. Strength he had precious little of. So Cougar's job was important.

He noticed that Jenkharsten no longer typed so ferociously and instead mostly scrolled with the mouse: eyes intent on the screen, jaw relaxed and a faint smile on his face.

Cougar played out the hand, winning of course, then left the others with a tip of the brim and went up on the platform to peer over Jenkharsten's shoulder. He recognized the site as that red-grey one that Jenkharsten volunteered for, which kept some sort of written porn Jenkharsten liked.

Having sensed his presence, Jenkharsten glanced back and greeted him with a smile. "I have my own tag now," he announced happily, whatever that meant. "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff people dream up. Um, some of them not entirely untrue, I will say, but you're not allowed to read any, because you'd flee screaming into the night and I intend to have my wicked, wicked way with you first. Seriously, that tentacle joke I made? So not funny, it turns out. Anyway, you done? Yeah? I just want to finish this one, it had some ... really interesting tags and I haven't seen any of that yet and I want to know what she's up to. She's really good and I don't want to be naming names, but I so could be naming names, that's all I'm saying. Anyway, I see kudos in her future, possibly even a comment. Gimme twenty?"

Cougar smiled back and nodded. When Jenkharsten returned to the story, though, he left the throne room, heading back to the nest to prepare.

He knew very well that twenty minutes of reading very easily turned to an hour or two, so he chanced taking a quick shower - fantasising just a little about sharing one with Jenkharsten, but they'd do that one day for sure, just not this day. He shaved away the 5 o'clock shadow that had begun to dull the edges of his 'stash and beard; dried and brushed his hair; then settled on the sofa opposite to the door; slid on his kindle and unwrapped an Almond Roca with his free hand. Waiting was always best done in comfort.

Obviously, the story had taken Jenkharsten a bit longer than 20 minutes to finish or perhaps something had distracted him from returning to the nest. Cougar didn't mind. When the chips were down he knew Jenkharsten would keep both word and clock, but that otherwise his concept of time was slightly fluent. Of course, as a sniper, Cougar was well used to waiting, so even if his stomach moved a bit restlessly when he considered what he was waiting for, he focused on the present and steadily thumbed his way down The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

When the door started to open he had just read about a very depressed robot named Marvin. He hastily hid the half-licked Almond Roca in the golden wrap and placed the kindle on the sofa beside the towel he sat on, leaned back and let his legs fall open.

Jenkharsten stepped through the door back first.

"--discuss the matter with your immediate superior, guard. He is not unreasonable."

He closed the door before finally turning.

"Cougs, you know Johansson outside? His-- Oh, sweet Jesus!"

Cougar noted with some amusement that linguistic habits apparently died hard, even for someone who, in fact, was as close as any to a God currently walking the Earth. With a smile he tilted his head invitingly.

"I shouldn't have said that, yes? Um. Remind me to tell you about Johansson when I have brain cells again, would you? Fuck, Cougar, if I could come home to this every day I'd-- Come home six or seven times a day, that's what I'd do and I'm omnipotent so I can do that if I want to."

Cougar was fairly sure that the omnipotent part of the statement was a complete exaggeration, but touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgement.

"The hat! Oh, Cougar! The hat! I'm going to raise fucking monuments to your hat! Well, if that Alexander kiddo could do it to that great big black horse of his I can do it to your hat, you just see if I can't. I'll name cities after it too. Your hat, its ... epic, Cougar. Oh God ..."

Jenkharsten adjusted himself. Then he took two steps closer to Cougar and dropped to his knees.

"Or maybe a statue of you, Cougar. Sitting just like that. But I'd have to kill whoever makes it and then hide it, so that only I can see it. Wait!" He threw up his hands. "Pictures! I can have pictures!" A cell phone was promptly produced and Cougar waited with sniper-like patience while his picture was taken.

"For Jelder?" he asked, loyally pushing back a tiny little bit of annoyance.

"Yeah, right! That lech would cream himself if he saw your naked chest. Actually!" Jenkharsten then said and dropped the phone in one of his pockets. When he spoke again, all joking tones in his voice were gone, replaced by complete sincerity. "Seeing you like this is now burned into my mind forever, Cougar. I'll remember this moment for a billion years. When the sun dies, Carlos Cougar Alvarez, I'll remember you just like this."

A cold shiver breezed down Cougar's spine.

For a long moment they just looked at one another. Then Jenkharsten knee-walked the last bit up to the sofa. He put his hands gently on Cougar's knees, slowly sliding them up the outside of his legs and back down Cougar's arms until he could entwine their fingers. Then he stretched up until Cougar leaned down to meet him in a long kiss. As their tongues lazily explored one another Jenkharsten's hands slipped from Cougar's loose grip and went exploring in turn, soon shafting Cougar in a friendly way that had him shift his hips in time with the even strokes.

When the kiss finally ended, Jenkharsten knelt up and stepped back. He began to undress, humming the first bars to and then crooning softly "You can keep your hat on," as he stripped. Cougar leaned back to enjoy the unveiling. Despite being very familiar with the body put on display for him, he sure found it a beautiful sight to behold and some small, greedy part of himself wished that he, too, could remember exactly what he was seeing until the dusk of time.

A sudden pain in his chest blossomed as he suddenly realised how brief his moment with Jenkharsten would be. Even if they stayed together for every second of every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of his life, that time wouldn't even be a blip in the eternity of Jenkharsten's existence.

He ruthlessly pushed the morose thought aside. Instead he got to his feet and approached the ruler of the universe as the latter straightened back up from having pulled off his Slytherin underwear - Jensen had ordered a pair of each Hogwarts House, boxers and socks, when he'd found them online, and switched between the four pairs as his mercurial mood struck him.

Needing to feel connected Cougar stepped in close and sighed lightly as the hot body pressed against his own. Even if the room kept a nice, comfy temperature he enjoyed warmth and Jenkharsten was throwing heat off in spades. He also enjoyed the hard muscles, including the very hard one poking him in the stomach. Well, he was doing his share of poking himself, so that was only fair. More kissing followed and meanwhile hands moved in hot caresses over his back, down his spine and finally cupping his ass gently but firmly, squeezing his buttocks and pushing him forward, into the kisses, the hardness and the heat.

He didn't even notice moving until uneven pressure was exerted to make him turn a little. Then he looked up and realised that they had moved a couple of steps away from the sofa, closer to the bedroom. He glanced that way, then up into Jenkharsten's glowing eyes before lowering his eyelashes demurely.

"Heh! Why, yes, Mr. Alvarez, I fully intend to take you into your bedroom and have my wicked, wicked way with you."

Mr. Alvarez grinned up at the ruler of the universe, grabbed his hand and dragged him in the right direction. Only for a few steps though, then Jenkharsten caught him and lifted him. Cougar generally disliked being carried unless injured, but he allowed the manhandling just this once, and then they were in the bedroom and Jenkharsten gently laid him down on--

Cougar looked around in amazement, then up at Jenkharsten. Who shrugged, a bit sheepishly. "I figured we'd be more comfortable on a bigger bed. Ya know? So we can spread out a bit. Hope you don't mind?"

He shook his head. Actually, the bed - though that colourful description of giganormous did come to mind - wasn't what had surprised him the most - he could have sworn that the room itself was larger than before.

Then Jenkharsten slowly kissed his way down Cougar's chest - placing a nibble and a kiss on each nipple before moving further south. Cougar pushed the room's unexpected growth spurt into the folder marked "Not important right now," which contained pretty much everything not actually currently in bed with him.

It was a good bed, though, still the kind of bed he could be friends with.

Penetrating attention was paid to his belly button, which sent drops of pre-cum dribbling down his achingly hard cock. The slick was collected, joined with some of Jenkharsten's on his fingers, then his hand found its way between Cougar's thighs - which he spread willingly. First one, then a second intruder gently worked their way up inside him.

Finger fucking they had done before, so Cougar waited, breathing shallowly, for the searching digits to find that special spot inside of him which Jenkharsten had taken such joy in acquainting him with, the one that only yesterday had had him spilling his load like a virgin down Jenkharsten's throat when the double assault had dragged him over the edge.

This time, though, the fingers seemed to skip the happy spot on purpose, instead concentrating on pulling at him from the inside. The slide combined with Jenkharsten's genius tongue paying homage to Cougar's dick had him moaning softly. He didn't think to protest when a third finger joined the merry dance. He leaned up on his elbows, watching the creature - god or incubus or whatever - playing freely with his body.

//Jenkharsten is going to fuck me.//

Even if he had known from the start that that was where they were heading, the knowledge still struck him like a sledge. It was about to happen - actually happen. Jenkharsten's mouth was sucking and licking at his testicles, slowly driving him towards what could be a truly spectacular orgasm, but his hand was busy preparing Cougar's ass for Jenkharsten's cock.

Lust flushed through him. He moaned softly and spread his legs further, thrusting into the cool air.

Jenkharsten's mouth left his testicles and then he was smiled at tenderly. "That's right, yeah. Just lie there and let me love ya. You taste like gold with a little salt on top, Cougs. And you feel so good it's got to be a sin. In fact, I declare that it is a sin. For anyone else than me to taste and feel, that is."

With his right hand busily at work between Cougar's thighs, Jenkharsten pumped his own cock slowly with his left. Cougar couldn't look away from the hand pleasuring the pale flesh. A small part of him wondered if it differed from Jenkharsten's true organ, in his real shape - the tentacle joke did occur to him, but he wasn't ready to ask. Maybe one day.

A thin, glistening coat of pre-cum covered the cock. The foreskin was cut - during Cougar's first attempt at a blow job the other day (which had started out a bit hesitant and with a few embarrassing misjudgements, but in the end proved that Cougar did have a very talented mouth, at least for things not involving actual talking), Jenkharsten had explained that he'd removed the foreskin to blend in better in the military service, but that he could easily grow the hood back if Cougar preferred - it hadn't seemed important, compared to Cougar’s strong suspicion that the taste of Jenkharsten's cum was highly addictive.

Jenkharsten stretched sideways to reach a vial on the bedside table. Cougar hadn't noticed it before and would have been willing to bet that it simply hadn't been there. He watched - hips rolling restlessly in time with the fingers curling tantalizingly within him - as Jenkharsten opened the bottle one-handedly, then poured a thick, transparent gel over his cock, flinched and then jacked with the slick lubricant.

The fingers within him pulled out, pressing a sweet goodbye across his prostate on their way out. Cougar's stomach tensed, but before he had time to protest more of the thick gel was applied to the fingers, which then dove back inside of him, filling up what he had just realised felt strangely empty. The slick was worked around inside of him - it felt cool for a moment, then turned into just another source of pleasure.

Jenkharsten leaned over to kiss him. "Lie down," he whispered, blue eyes like diamond stars. "It'll be easier that way. Just try to relax. You okay with this?"

Cougar couldn't have answered out loud with a gun pressed to his temple, so he just nodded. It wasn't that he was scared, he really wasn't. Everything just felt so unreal that he wasn't sure what would happen when reality came crashing down on them. But he did his best to relax and let his legs be spread further to allow Jenkharsten to kneel between them.

"God, you're beautiful, Cougar. I can't believe we're here. I've wanted you for ages--"

One of his legs was transferred to Jenkharsten's shoulder.

"--and I've dreamed of you for so long. It shouldn't be like that, you know. I have met, like, billions of humans--"

Jenkharsten's beautiful, blue eyes shone at him like a caress. He could all but feel his body relax under the warm gaze.

"--and you should be just another mortal, but you are my 'one in five billions' and that's an X-file quote and I should stop quoting TV-series, like, right now. You are so beautiful, Cougs. All right, okay, take a breath, breathe in, hold it and--"

Jenkharsten came closer, warmth flowing from him into Cougar. His fingers slipped out and then Cougar felt something wide and slick poke at his ass.

"--let me in, Cougs, just let me do this and don't worry, it won't hurt much at all, I think, you shouldn't feel anything much at all--"

And ...


... that was a bloody lie.

True, there wasn't much pain to speak off, but then, Cougar had been tortured and things like physical discomfort tended to be rather easily pushed aside after that (though he still hated paper cuts).

He felt the cock opening him up just fine, though.

"Relax, Cougs. Relax. Oh, God, I want to come right now, you're so tight it feels so fucking good! Or press down, that should-- Relax! Shhh..."

The wide cock head slid into him and he couldn't really breathe, but he relaxed as Jenkharsten told him to, the gentle order surprisingly difficult to obey. When he shakily breathed out the head slid deeper, shaft following, holding him open. Jenkharsten's hands were everywhere, stroking his thighs, caressing his chest and all he could see was Jensen between his legs - Jensen and Jenkharsten, they were two, they were one and there never was a Jensen, because it was Jenkharsten, always, always Jenkharsten!

Jensen-babble from the outside matched his internal confusion, telling him repeatedly to relax, that he was beautiful, that he felt incredible, and there might have been talk about silk and velvet and heat and--

"I love you, Cougar."

The world stopped, just for a second.

And then Jenkharsten was all the way inside of him, all the way, and Cougar couldn't move for the foreign hardness that claimed his very core.

"I ..." he started, then hesitated for a second before switching to his mother tongue. "Yo te quiero." For some reason, ”I love you” sounded real to him in Spanish, in a way the words never did in English.

"Pglafh gah'na luigna," Jenkharsten moaned back and Cougar never doubted the meaning of the rolling words.

When the other began to pull out, Cougar almost protested. He had wanted Jenkharsten inside of himself and he wanted him to stay there. At the same time, of course he knew how fucking went. To say anything would be stupid: a man's got to move and a moment later he, too, had to move, when Jenkharsten's cock slid slowly back into him, sliding hard along that happy spot that had him groaning in pleasure.

Soon the room filled with the sound of their love making and while Jenkharsten happily babbled on, Cougar quickly found that he had quite a lot to say as well.

J-Day + 45.

Cougar was a man of few needs. He had found himself in the lap of luxury, where everything he had ever desired was lavished upon him.

Some things still bothered him. Not the part where his tech support had turned out to be a Great Old One bent on world conquering. Certainly not that the two of them now had ridiculous amounts of mind-blowing sex. Those were perks. He even enjoyed the way his neck ached, just a little bit, after Jenkharsten bit down gently while fucking him. However, he did miss the bright sun on a blue sky - and his other team-mates. Cougar formed attachments with great difficulty and now he missed his bro Pooch, reliable Clay and even surely Roque like limbs hacked from his body.

Jenkharsten's eight didn't bother him much. Jenkharsten was a flirt of the highest rank, but he was completely inept at the actual flirting part of the flirtation. Seriously - who tried to get girls by singing songs about hedgehogs? What had been almost scary, though, was the one time this had almost worked. Cougar could clearly remember the group of giggling young women hanging around Jensen and singing along in the refrain. They had even applauded when Jensen came up with extra lines:

"--bugger a Cougar, if you're prepared to die;

you can bugger a Pooch, if you're name's Jolene;

you can bugger an Old One, if you're into hentai;

but the hedgehog can never be buggered at all,

can never be buggered at all,

can never be buggered at all, the hedgehog--"

In order to break up what threatened to possibly become a successful seduction, Cougar had growled and proceeded to hunt the hacker. Besides, if your name was Jensen, you might just have a chance with a Cougar. In hindsight, perhaps even a Jenkharsten might have one.

So, despite the flirtation going on in the throne room, sex was strictly limited to their nest. Sometimes Cougar felt like he walked in a constant golden haze, but the shimmer did make the world a pretty place, so he wasn't complaining.

The work as Jenkharsten's 2iC wasn't overwhelming either. He was absolutely no General material, but simple things like safeguarding the Jentheniskaia he could handle. Put thieves in charge of burglar-proofing your house, hire assassins as body guards and follow the sniper's advice on how to avoid a bullet you never even heard fired. Simple enough.

Cougar took control of the guards, telling them - with words, when all else failed - how to make improvements. He had already decided that the next time Jenkharsten went on a state visit, Cougar would accompany him together with Emilio and Alexandro, both of which had picked up hand guns like shooting was the new black.

On average, Cougar felt content.

PART 13.

About half past eleven Cougar headed to the throne room. He fully intended to sit his bum down on Jenkharsten's desk and look hungry until he was fed - or possibly until Jenkharsten tore himself away from the computer and they had quick lunch nookie. On his way he passed by the guard's rest room and decided to check in, to make sure all was as it should. He did try to be available if any of the guards wanted to talk at him.

He didn't sneak in. He just walked in his natural soft way, feet neatly put to the floor so that his boots would not make any sound, something which he actually found somewhat embarrassing when they did. When he heard Jenkharsten's name he listened, of course - it was a topic close to his heart.

"--has to be some bloody poof? It's fucking weird. And wrong."

Cougar registered the voice as belonging to Whitney Terrin. Good with a rifle, if no-where near sniperish skills. Smart, but a bigot. He'd been the guard who had assumed Cougar was one of the eight, that time near the Server Room. Cougar had pointedly not acknowledged this, amused by the way Mr Sexual Hang-ups sometimes stared at him.

"Don't let him hear you say that, Terrin, he'll have you strung up for treason or whatever."

The answer came from Mike Smith. A very talented man with a knife, decent with a hand gun and improving steadily with a rifle, under Cougar's tutelage. Smart, but lazy.

"Rather that, than letting him fuck me for the job, like the Spanish Inquisition."

Cougar blinked.

"I think you're mixing things up. The Spanish Inquisition were torturers, I think, trying to find witches or whatever."

"Well, the little shit tortures me - he ordered me to run for two hours yesterday!"

"He ordered all of us to run for two hours yesterday. Ran with two of the groups himself."

"What, you're in love with him or something? Fuck the little spic. Only Jenkharsten's been there already, so he's probably stretched loose like a cow now."

"Been fucking many cows, have you? You're disgusting, Terrin. Let it go, man."

"What? Everyone knows Alvarez let Jenkharsten bone him to get the job. Collins should've had that position. Not that anyone in their right mind wants it now, if you have to suck tentacle to get it."

Smith laughed and Cougar backed out, this time keeping his steps soft on purpose, not wanting the men to know that he'd overheard them.

Suddenly he wasn't hungry any longer - nor did he feel any desire to pull Jenkharsten away for some lunch nookie.

Sure, he'd heard plenty of slurs before - as a child, in school, during training and afterwards. He wasn't a large man, but he was tough as nails in a fight and could hold his own against men twice his size. Sticks and stones might break his bones, but words he'd remember and get revenge for at some later date, after due consideration. Only these men hadn't even aimed their words at him. If so, they'd both be bleeding now. But Terrin and Smith had just been talking, shooting the breeze like men do, telling truths as they saw them. That they plainly thought that he had traded the job for sex bothered him.

//He gave me the job before we got together,// he told himself firmly.

After some mindless walking he found himself back on the roof. The sun was up, but the yellow sky did nothing to improve his mood. He took a quick peek into the throne room to locate Jenkharsten at his desk. Then he sat down, cross-legged, placed his rifle over his knees and started to order his thoughts.

For once, focus didn't come easily to him. He considered going to the edge and aim at something instead, but while that always cleared his mind, he wanted to reason, not lose himself to the scope.

So he just sat there, feeling the light wind and the warmth. He considered his past and wondered what his future might be like. In fifty years, would Jenkharsten still want him? What about in twenty? Shying away from what he suspected might be an unpleasant truth, he concentrated on the present, just brushing past everything, not yet ready to deal in depth with any of the topics, even if he knew they were important.

"Oh, lookie, someone left their sniper on the roof! Finders keepers!"

Steps approached, long steps that he would have recognized even without the voice. Then Jenkharsten settled behind him and enveloped him like an over-friendly octopus. The heat was perfect, as was the smell - warm and spicy and with just a hint of the otherness that he associated with Jenkharsten's non-human nature. His jaw-line was kissed and their cheeks rubbed together. He leaned back, for the moment completely at ease.

"Hola, babe. I kinda thought I had a lunch date with the hottest, most bad-ass, manliest sniper in the building. I was all planning on letting him make me his bitch up against some wall before we had to get back to work. Then I saw this really cute, but also very bad-ass, manly sniper - very hot, too, just for the record - up on the roof and he looked sad and lonely, so I thought that I'd go up and see if I could seduce him to the dark side with some screamin' skull. Interested?"

Cougar snorted and batted ineffectively at Jenkharsten's hand, which had crept stealthily under his shirt during the babbling and now inched towards his nipples.

"'s up, Cou? Something wrong? Did you smell a rat, my cat?"

Cougar shrugged.

The embrace tightened. They sat in silence for a good while, which Cougar very much appreciated. He knew how terribly difficult it was for Jenkharsten to keep quiet, that to do so was so hard for him that he most often simply had to start talking not to start yelling instead.

"I miss the blue sky," he suddenly blurted out, not even having thought the matter through until the treacherous words slipped past his lips. //That's why I shouldn't talk so much,// he scolded himself.

Jenkharsten's forehead fell to his shoulder. "Yeah," was mumbled into his back. "Me too. I mean, yeah, it felt like a good idea at the time, you know? And the octopuses, they're, like, really the coolest thing ever. But ... Yeah. Another one of those 'really should have thought things through first'-decisions. Sorry."

Cougar shook his head. He hadn't looked for an apology. Just so that there would be no misunderstandings, he turned back and kissed Jenkharsten's forehead with all the tenderness he was capable of. His lover looked as sad as Cougar felt.

"I really have to save up my energy. When I've filled my emergency reserve, I'll deal with the sky, all right? We need blue skies and sunsets that aren't so ... orange. Still, I kinda like the octopuses, do you think I could keep the octopuses? I would really like to keep the octopuses."

Cougar nodded firmly. If Jenkharsten wanted octopuses; Jenkharsten could have octopuses, as simple as that. A blue sky would be nice, though.

"Best sniper ever," Jenkharsten said and rubbed their cheeks together.

Cougar took a deep breath. "What about them?"

He felt Jenkharsten stiffen. "What about them?"

"Clay'd be a better 2iC," he said. //And no one would ever accuse Clay of sucking tentacle.//

Jenkharsten sighed. "They're still on a trip on how evil I am. I had really hoped the Pooch would calm down when he got Jolene and Baby back. Eldritch radiation can sometimes cause paranoia, which I think he got a nasty case of, and I think he got hung-up on not getting to see Jolene right away too. I ... should have taken her and Baby to the Jentheniskaia instead, not kept them apart. But from what I hear tell the guys are planning to see if they can find a way to take me out. I think Pooch is still the angry one, but Clay has his shades on and Roque, well--" He shrugged. "Roque will do whatever Clay wants."

Cougar nodded in acknowledgement. Then he, too, sighed. "Capture them? Talk to them?" He was fairly sure that Jolene could be reasoned with and she'd get Pooch to think things through. He really missed his bro.

"I'm down with that. Heh, you know me, talking is what I do best. Anyway, sure. I-- I miss them too, Cougs."

He nodded and pushed back. Jenkharsten nibbled on his neck, which sent a hot tingle of lust down his belly.

"Anything else you want to talk about, Cougs? You seem to be on a bit of a roll, here, I think you haven't spoken this much in a week. Though I did make you scream for me last night, didn't I?"

Cougar nearly blushed. Last night Jenkharsten had introduced him to something new and spectacular, which really had severed the firewall normally raised between his mouth and brain. Words had just slipped out and he didn't even remember all of them afterwards, though most of them seemed to have something nice to say about Jenkharsten's self-proclaimed "skillz" with his tongue.

He shook his head. He didn't want to discuss the guards with Jenkharsten. He'd deal with them himself. He had just needed a moment to think things through. "Hungry," he said instead.

"When I saw you up here I said to myself 'Jenkharsten, you're looking at a man who needs a bit of Mama Carmen's lovin''. So I cancelled all my appointments for the next couple of hours." He hesitated for a second, then added. "You up for another flight?"

Cougar nodded, suddenly feeling a lot better about everything.

"That's my bottomless pit of a sniper! Yes, Cougar!" Jenkharsten nearly lifted him up. "To the promised land!" he cried out and pointed towards the horizon.

Snickering, Cougar took the hastily ditched shirt, a surprisingly sedate black with "Oh, R'leyh?" in purple, and swung his rifle onto his back. When the incredible wings stretched over the roof top, he jumped up on Jenkharsten's back with no hesitation. A second later, they flew.

Smiling in anticipation, Cougar reached out and tangled his fingers with the long strands of hair on the second wing joints. Jenkharsten bucked and shouted his name over the wind, but Cougar kept tickling the strands and they had barely reached out of sniper range from the Jentheniskaia, when Jenkharsten dove towards the ground and, rather unceremoniously, tugged down his trousers even as Cougar climbed off his back.

"Well, come on then, you wing-teasing, sorry excuse for a sniper! Zipper down and fuck me already!"

Jenkharsten leaned over a convenient rock, wings arched stiffly and legs spread.

What's a wing-teasing, sorry excuse for a sniper to do?

Cougar zippered down.



"My man just reported in. They were spotted flying away from the Jentheniskaia towards town."

The fuck had been quick, hard and highly enjoyable. A few days earlier, when he had fucked Jenkharsten for the first time, Cougar had been a bit hesitant, but Jenkharsten had managed to persuade him that he really liked it hard and fast (though with thorough reassurance that he quite often liked slow and sweet too, not to worry). Part of the perks of dating the world ruler seemed to be some kind of internal lube that made everything nice and slick and wonderful.

Cougar's jaws ached a little, but he had found it immensely satisfying on a primal level to - at Jenkharsten insistence - bite down, as far as he could on his lover's neck, not going for blood, but to get as much of the neck into his mouth as possible. Jenkharsten had really gone wild after he had done that.

Now they finally winged over to the city. With Cougar up front again and with stern orders to keep his grabby hands away from Jenkharsten's joint hairs, unless he really wanted to get fucked on the wing.

Which, granted, was tempting, but Cougar rather thought they'd better lead up to that some more - and bring more lube when they did - so he was an obedient sniper during the ride, keeping still and just sniffing the wings a little. Well, he was mostly an obedient sniper, but it wasn't his fault if Jenkharsten was a bit too good at reading Cougar's signals and interpreted them in all kinds of perverted manners.

Mama Carmen greeted them just as warmly as always, kissing Cougar's cheek and pinching Jensen's bottom. They scored the same table as well, though had to wait a few minutes as Mama Carmen moved a previous sitter.

"Let's go here often," Jenkharsten decided, once they had settled in. "Like, weekly, or something. It's our place now, right? I almost-proposed to you here, didn't I? We need to get away sometimes. And--" His blue eyes could twinkle just as well when they looked human as when they didn't. "--getting here gives us plenty of time to explore, eh? Next time, Cougar, at least one of us is getting off in the air. Deal?"

Cougar grinned and nodded up. "Deal," he said, because some things really needed to be said.

Jenkharsten sang a few bars about a balrog, as he toe-flirted with Cougar under the table. "And maybe 'ghinis on the way home. Oh. Or maybe ... have you ever gotten head while driving one of those, Cougs?"

He lifted an eyebrow in response.

"No, actually, I haven't either. See - new experiences to share together! Maybe a yellow one this time or would you prefer something else? A Koningsegg, maybe? Definitely a yellow one. And I promise that we'll try to find Pooch and Clay and talk to them."

Cougar tilted his head. "Roque?"

Jenkharsten shrugged. "Yeah," he said, though his eyes wouldn't quite meet Cougar's.

Cougar lifted an eyebrow and when Jenkharsten started in on a tangent on strawberries he interrupted the word flow with a quick headshake. He nodded up, demanding information.

"Um. Ah. The thing is. Remember that thing I talked about last time we were here? About when I turned back time because, well, kaboom?"

Cougar nodded slowly and tilted his head. Actually, he wasn't quite sure what had happened, but someone had died. And he had begun to suspect that the person in question just might, possibly, be himself.

"Roque ... Let's just say that before I turned back the clock there for a bit, he ... struck out on his own, kinda thing." His careful tone of voice was enough to let Cougar know that this was far from the entire story.

Cougar felt his eyes go wide.

"Yeah. Um, I ..." Jenkharsten slumped a bit and didn't continue until Cougar caressed one of his legs with a foot. "I turned back time enough that I had time to save him as well, let's just say. It was a near miss, I tell you. I didn't actually set out to do that, it just worked out that way. Anyway, and then I managed to get Clay to reel him back in. You know that thing at the harbour, when you shot Wade? Well, Roque would have been on their side and things played out a bit differently. At least I managed to get us our Roque back, because that, man, kinda sucked. But I didn't think to turn it back as far as I should have, to fix the rest of the stuff as well." Blue eyes met his, suddenly full of misery.

And, at that, Cougar couldn't help himself. Sure, they were at Mama Carmen's and, sure, there were all kinds of bigots out there, but to hell with everything if his hacker (and Jenkharsten still hacked, oh yes he did) would be this sad and upset while Cougar could still breathe and aim a rifle, much less settle for the easy solution and reach right across the table to pull Jenkharsten in for a long, tender kiss.

Mama Carmen smiled at them.

An hour later.

Cougar was happy.

As he walked away from Mama Carmen's, brushing shoulders with the being he loved more than anything, his belly was full and so was his heart.

He never even heard the bullet that killed him.

The longest record for a sniper kill is 2.707 yards. This was accomplished in November 2009 by CoH Craig Harrison of the British Army, in Afghanistan. The difficulty with longer distances is mostly due to limitations in materials.

On the other hand, any Pooch can fire a rifle from across the street and no matter who wields the gun, if the bullet hits the target, the result is still the same.

Jenkharsten was happy.

The world was his and so was the best sniper in the world: his one and only Cougar, the human he had lost his heart to: the man he had been sure he could never have and now had. Also, he'd just had a truly delicious (if probably very bad for you) meal. Only this morning he'd set in motion a truly awesome plan for a fan con in New Hampshire, to where he would send paid invitations to all his internet friends and reveal himself to them. If the Gods (that was to say - himself) and Cougar were good, he'd even get a dessert of Cougar au naturel on the drive home. In summary, everything was a-okay in his world.

When he heard the first bullet he reacted instinctively, throwing Cougar to the side and then he yowled in pain when the second shot hit him in the head. Swearing a stream of words that would have made even Roque blush if he'd understood R'leyhian, Jenkharsten snapped out his wings, holding them up as a protective shield.

Of course a mere bullet could do him no actual harm. Under the pale, human flesh his real self lay tightly folded, so strong he could dive into an active volcano with no fear of even an itch. However, he had worn the more fragile, human guise for so many years now that he considered it as much part of himself as the tentacled version. It was an excellent structure, mimicking a Homo Sapiens almost perfectly. Its pain receptors helped him react as if a shot actually hurt him - though on some level they did even hurt, he could just opt to ignore the pain. The wounds themselves melted away in seconds. If he had time on his hand and were alone, he liked to make them sparkle blue as they healed, just because he liked Highlander and, oh, yeah, Methos - hot.

"Mission failed, abort, get the hell out of there Pooch!" The radio call sounded high up in the opposite house, but with his senses stretching across the city, Jenkharsten even heard the ghostly echo of Clay's real voice from the east and cursed his former CO.

He launched himself in the air, towards the window through which he clearly saw Pooch stare down at them. A primitive part of himself delighted at the terror in the other's eyes at his rapid approach and he made a suitably impressive grab from the window, stretching his claws through the tops of his human fingers and feeling just a little bit like Freddy Krueger. He allowed the Pooch to barely escape him and slide out of the apartment door.

Cougar had asked that they would capture the others and talk to them. He'd even said that he wanted Clay to take over as 2iC. That he missed them - even Roque! So, even with this assassination attempt in mind, Jenkharsten was willing to let his former team slip away. Part of him did miss them a lot as well. Later on he and Cougar would capture them and talk to them, just like Cougar wanted.

Jenkharsten was willing to do quite a lot of things that Cougar wanted.

Still, so far the outing hadn't been completely bad and he still had Cougar cocktail to look forward to on his way home. //Is there a Koningsegg-dealer in town? Probably not, I think they're custom built or something. Oh well.//

All in all, Jenkharsten was still pretty much okay with his day. He looked admiringly at his lovely claws - //Wolverine, eat your heart out!// before carefully folding them back in. Part of him longed for the day when he could show his true self to Cougar, but they'd have to lead up to that gradually. He didn't want a repeat of the wings incident, even if Cougar now seemed fairly all right with the appendages.


He swung around.

In the air before him hung a pale shade of Cougar, watching him with worried eyes under a semi-transparent hat.

Jenkharsten gasped as lightning struck his nerves. With a Great Old One's strength he broke his own paralysis and wrenched his eyes to the street far below - and the rag doll body, limbs akimbo and hat rolled aside to reveal a black hole, perfect forehead center.

"No ..."

Then he forced himself to move his gaze back to the shade still hanging before him, waiting patiently, as if it could wait forever, when he knew all too well that a soul only lingered for moments after death.

It smiled at him, if a bit tremulously. Most souls he had ever seen had been content, winging towards heaven without a thought of what they left behind. This one, however, looked sad, as if it had regrets.

They had only had a week together.

"Remember me," it said, large mocha eyes longing for what they would never have, "when the sun dies."

Jenkharsten, eyes white with rage, threw back his head and howled.

Then he struck.

The world might have started with a big bang, but it ended with a bullet.

PART 14.

According to Lovecraft, some of the creatures he wrote of had lived in interstellar space, flying through it on clumsy, powerful wings which had a way of resisting the ether.

That is not true.

Oh, one day, perhaps, when the sun does die, the Great Old Ones will spread their wings and take off, starting a long, ponderous journey to another solar system in order to start anew. But that is not the main reason for the wings.

The wings are for travelling, only not between stars.

The wings are for travelling across time.

In a place that doesn't exist - because it is outside of time and thus inaccessible by any other mean - the Great Old One moves like a bubble through glass. Wings of thick, colourless membrane work hard, each beat pushing against the strongest enemy of all, gaining only minute victories, because their owner is so tired that the space that isn't a space vibrates with a constant howl of pain.

The owner of the wings is as terrible as he is beautiful and mortal eyes are not meant to gaze upon one such as him, for rapture will follow madness just as easily as the other way around.

Far, far behind him - what would eventually have been before him, except that he travelled in a direction that only the likes of him can travel - lay a future that will never be. The future is devoid of all life, awash with blood from a slaughter the like of which will never be seen.

The world behind him is dead. Of course it is. It is of no more use to him.

"First of all, I want you guys to know that I love you all."

Cougar blinked. He lay on a narrow ridge, overlooking a round room. The floor was covered with red sand and bodies in bright colours. His teammates were below, among them Jensen in a bright yellow T-shirt.

// Yo tambien te quero, corazon.//

Of course he loved Jenkh-- Jensen? Of course he loved Jensen.

"Once more, the natural order of things is restored and the Losers rule! Then, I would like to personally thank you guys, profoundly, for your part in saving the world from the rule of Cthulhu, may his suction cups dry out and his tentacles cramp. I wouldn't have liked it; you wouldn't have liked it and, to be honest, I don't know if Cthulhu really would have liked it either, old Fish Face's a bit of a schmuck. Anyway, I only have two more minutes, so I really want to say that it has been an honour and a privilege to serve with you. I've really enjoyed myself, well, not the Max thing, and Roque, you're still scary as fuck, but I've had great fun, I really have. And--"

Something was wrong.

//That sounds like goodbye,// Cougar realised with growing alarm. //He's quitting the team?//

That really was wrong.

The idea felt foreign: impossible. Of course, if they got their identities back, they'd be able to get other works, to live "real" lives, but ... Once a Loser, always a Loser. Without Jensen, they'd just be, they'd be ... just some losers. What would Cougar do?

But was that the wrongness that bothered him so?

In the next instance he knew exactly what he would do. If Jensen left, he'd leave with a Cougar-shaped shadow. //[As simple as that.]// Stomach-muscles Cougar hadn't even been aware of tensing started to gradually relax.

He started to tense again.

"-- I will always remember you with affection, but you keep telling me I don't actually have to talk in order to breathe--"


//[I never did!]//

That wasn't what was wrong, it couldn't be.

"-- and I really must stop talking now, because I've run out of time, so all I wanted to say is, that, like, goodbye, all right? Goodbye."

Something else was wrong. Whatever it was tickled at the back of his mind, aching to get out.

//That doesn't sound like he's leaving the team. That sounds final. As if we'll never see him again. Ever.//

A shot to the head ...

Cougar wasn't sure, but his sniper senses alerted violently for ... danger? He glanced around, trying to find whatever had set off his alarm.

He had experienced a momentary pain, followed by absolute clarity.

//Fuck it! Not now! And what is that crazy white boy talking about?!//

He had been shot in the head.

Could a member of the congregation be more aware than they seemed? Not the head honcho, that was for sure. Cougar's shot had taken perfect 10 center, no getting up from that, unless they suddenly found themselves as extras in a zombie movie. //Jensen'd love that.//

And he hadn't gotten up either. He had flown up, though, towards Jenkharsten on the wing, wanting to see him one last time, before he had to ... go.

He saw movement - but only from Jensen, who reached out again to touch the white sand.

That was what was wrong.

Cougar found himself strangely unable to look away, as Jensen's long index finger drew, not a C such as the one he had already erased, but a different character: elegant and stylized. It was a J.

He was starting to remember.

//What is that silly boy up to now?//

He had been here. Right here. Before.

But through the scope he saw Jensen - and he saw Jensen's eyes, which had just started to glow.

And then, and then ...

"Not all of me actually wants to do this," Jensen said, in a voice with a slightly different timbre than his own. The radiance from his eyes shone increasingly brighter by the second. "And yet I must. I have waited a thousand years for this."

He remembered it all. Every bit. Every nuance. Every touch.

And then he flicked the Eye of R'leyh towards the bowl.

Jenkharsten had taken over the world.

Cougar clearly saw the giganormous diamond tumble through the air - slowly, as if time itself had slowed down. He saw the cut sides of the blue stone reflect and glitter and - yes - he could have taken the shot.

An alien power; a Great Old One lurking in their midst - talons, fangs, wings and tentacles - incredible and terrible in its beauty. He had seen it all, after he had ... died.

The trajectory was easy to follow; the speed child's play for a man who kept up his skill by shooting small insects. However, beyond the glimmer of the Eye of R'leyh glowed two other diamond eyes, in an even more intense, brighter shade of blue - the Eyes of Jake Jensen.

And Cougar had loved him every last bit the same.

He couldn't take the shot.

Through thick and thin; for better and for worse - and, apparently, through world domination and death.

And then the diamond fell.

They had laughed and they had loved and then Pooch had shot him through the head and he was dead.

And then it was too late.

Just before it tumbled onto the Sand of a Thousand Beaches, a hand flashed out and snatched the Eye of R'leyh out of the air.

And then it was really too late.

"And the crowd goes wild!" Jensen crowed and tossed the diamond up in the air again, catching the stone with ease. "Heh, heh, heh, fooled you, didn't I?"

Cougar blinked, his belly cold. //[What did just happen]?//

Jensen's eyes no longer shone like blue beacons. They were just ... Jensen's eyes, blue and wonderful in their own right, but oh so very human.

"Anyway, so what I was going to say was, I've decided to take a break from the team. No, no, don't cry, Roque, don't cry! I will be back, never fear! But I really need a bit of me time. Sun, a beach, a couple of ladies with really big tits smiling admiringly at the awesomeness which is me. Maybe visit with sis for a bit. She told me that Tiny hacked her first server the other day, I'm so proud I could pee a little. But anyway, so I'm off for a couple of weeks. Cool?"

This was all wrong. Cougar remembered everything with scope-sharp clarity now. He had been with Jenkharsten. They had lived in a palace in New Hampshire. They had laughed and loved and Jenkharsten had had wings!

In his scope, Jensen grinned happily at them all, playing with the blue diamond.

"Oh, and yeah, of course, I'm not stupid, running off on my own like the scantily clad heroine in a really bad horror B-movie. I always said that she should just bring a really fucking big gun with her, but I'm prone to forgetting mine, so I'm taking Cougar instead."

All of Cougar's senses felt muted. Including fear, because he knew, intellectually, that he should be afraid. Something was going on; something which was very, very wrong.

Mission successfully completed, they returned to the hotel and the small rooms that currently formed their nest. Seeing Pooch head towards his bedroom, probably for some quality time with Jolene over the phone, while Roque and Clay got ready to leave for the nearest bar, Cougar wanted to scream at them - anything to get a reaction, to stop them from leaving. His mouth wouldn't obey. Then Jensen had the door to their own room open and shepherded him inside (whistling and making whuffing noises as if Cougar really was some sort of sheep). His traitorous boots moved quite without consulting his head, leading him away from the relative safety that the others might have been able to provide.

But then, really, what could they have done to help him?

//Either I've gone nuts or --//

He wasn't sure. Was he crazy? Did he want to be? Did he even want the others to help him, if he was?

Having closed the door, Jensen headed over to his precious computer, crooning to Merlin that Papa was home again, that all was well with the world and that they'd play together in the morning.

Cougar stood rock still by the door, watching and waiting. He barely breathed, as each breath felt eternal and tore at his throat as if he would start hawking blood at any moment.

He couldn't have had some sort of flashback, could he? Hallucinated or dreamed the entire thing? But how could he have made up Jenkharsten's terrible, beautiful wings and the metallic taste of his lover's cum in his mouth?

Jensen turned around, smiling, but as he met Cougar's quiet gaze the smile faded.

"Cougs?" he asked hesitantly.


The smile widened a little, though it still looked a bit strained.

"Yeah? What do you think? I'm open for suggestions, but Hawaii is on the table, just so you know it. Hawaii, leis, black beaches ... I vote for Hawaii, do you vote for Hawaii?"

"Pentagon?" There had been no more talk about the Pentagon offer. There should have been talk about the Pentagon offer.

"Hawaii would be a lot warmer and softer. The Pentagon does not have beaches, I'm fairly sure of it. Unless they have, like, access to underground caverns or wormholes to other dimensions, which would be really cool, like, I'd really like that. You sure not Hawaii?"

He gave an annoyed headshake - was Jensen being obtuse on purpose? Surely he must know what Cougar was asking, how much clearer could he get? He took a deep breath. "The offer."

"Oh. Yes. Um. The offer. Hah, hah." Jensen's nervous little "Oh shit I'm in so much trouble now"-laugher, often followed by the "Help, Cougar, shoot them now!"-meep.

Cougar tilted his head and lifted his left eyebrow.

Jensen actually blushed a little. "The offer. Um. Might have been. What in some circles are knows as a Boolean negative. Or, you know - false. I ... um. Fibbed. A little." He held up his right hand imploringly, distance between thumb and index finger measuring quarter of an inch, presumably to indicate exactly how little he had actually fibbed.

Cougar let the right eyebrow follow suit.

Jensen snorted and held out his hands in a "Well, what do you expect?"-gesture. "I couldn't very well tell the team that I needed my man, the bestest sniper in the world - and don't think I don't know that you won that competition you guys set up when you all snuck off to Glasgow last summer, I know these things - to take out the head priest so that I could take over the world, now could I?"

And then his eyes started to glow.

Jenkharsten’s stomach clenched. Cougar's possible reaction seriously had him worried. Sure, things would have been going pretty much awesome back in the future, but that would have been to be and this was now and everything in between no longer would have been.

Cougar had died and Jenkharsten was just Jensen again. Loud-voiced, awkward, geeky Jensen. Sure, hiding a Great Old One tucked tight within his human skin, yeah, but it hadn't been until Jenkharsten ruled Earth that Cougar had deemed him snogging-material.

Not that he couldn't take over the world again if that really was what Cougar got off on. One of the most dangerous things in the world is a bored computer programmer, right, and he wouldn't even have to use more than human intellect to get the ball rolling. Yes, he could so take over the world the hard way if Cougar--

Oooh ... armful of cuddly sniper!

Jenkharsten let momentum push him back and he sank onto on the sofa with a long-range elimination specialist straddling his lap. Strong, capable hands cupped his face and Cougar stared at him, if a bit wild-eyed under that seriously hot hat.

"What--" Cougar said, and then cut off Jenkharsten's answer by way of scooting even closer - something Jenkharsten would have thought impossible, but who was he to argue when Cougar went vocal? - "--did you do?" Then he kissed him.

Jenkharsten accepted the kiss and revelled in it. He drank Cougar's love with the touch of their lips; his acceptance in the way their tongues did battle. Forgiveness was in the way hands stroked lightly across his shoulders, friendship in the ease in which their bodies touched, and forever in the way Cougar didn't even break the kiss when Jenkharsten involuntarily managed to knock off his hat.

Good. Because Jenkharsten kinda wanted forever.

He returned the kiss with all his might, touching the sniper all over: sometimes soft and reverent, sometimes holding hard, imprinting the touch in flesh that so far he hadn't had the pleasure and privilege to feel. Ooooh, Cougar smelled so good!

Finally he pulled away, just enough to let Cougar grab for his hat and give himself a chance to put together words for what needed to be said.

"I love you, Cougar."

Cougar's smile was worth everything.

" Yo también te quiero. What--" He was kissed again, but softer now. "--did--" Another kiss. "--you--" He could really get used to kisses between each word, but preferably if Cougar would do it when Jenkharsten spoke as well. "--do?"

He ducked his head and stopped himself from rattling out a glib answer. Instead he took a deep breath. "You ... died. Again. And I couldn't let that happen. This time either. So ... Yeah. Like the song goes, you know. 'Oops, I did it again ...'"

Okay, to so starting to sing in falsetto might not keep things serious, but Cougar just breathed out an understanding, amused breath.

Jenkharsten cleared his throat. "Um, so, that happened, and I turned back time again and changed a few things on the way. No one else mentioned the Pentagon offer, because I kinda removed it from their minds."

Cougar blinked. "You said you had too little power to turn back time."

Jenkharsten lifted a hand to tenderly trace Cougar's left eyebrow. "All that and smart too. I’m the luckiest Great Old One in the world! Um, yeah, that's true. I ... Let's just say that I found a way--" A terrible, terrible way. "--to fill up a bit. Now I'm completely drained, though, I couldn't even shift shape if I wanted to." Which was really a shame, because he had really, like really looked forward to fucking Cougar on the wing - or have Cougar fuck him on the wing, he wasn't picky. Oh well, sooner or later they'd get around to that.

Cougar frowned and glanced to his rifle, as if to make sure they were protected. "Then fill up some more," he demanded.

If only it was that simple. Jenkharsten smiled, doing his best not to remember too much of what would have been, in the future, when he'd caught Cougar's drifting soul, tucking the flickering shade firmly under his own skin to keep it Earth bound, and then, in burst of frantic inspiration, had started to tear the universe apart.

"I'd ... rather not. Right now. I … It, um, well, I had to kill ... somebody." Anthropomorphically speaking, that wasn't a lie. Even if, technically speaking, it would have been more correct to say, just, well, everybody …

Cougar snorted in a way which Jenkharsten easily interpreted as if that was all it took, then very soon Cougar would start hinting heavily at him that it was really time to find a suitable person to kill and how about Max? Oh well, he'd deal with that later. Right now to just stay in Cougar's arms was far more important, loving that epic man and reaffirming the bond which had nearly been torn asunder during the travel through time.

He hadn't known if it would even work: if Cougar's soul would be able to withstand the pressure, even protected as it was by Jenkharsten's own flesh. Nor had he had a clue as to what would really happen, when he poured the essence of the soul back into its owner over a month before he would have taken it. To his relief, though, the souls had merely blended, strengthening. Already repeated exposure to eldritch radiation had created a space inside his lover that Jenkharsten could work with, quickly pouring in his own remaining strength and even a hint of his own essence, filling the hollows around the soul with what to Jenkharsten's otherworldly eyes looked like golden frost.

He kissed Cougar again, hands sneaking down the man's spine to cup his lovely little behind, massaging the ass cheeks through the denim and making Cougar breathe out a throaty moan. Then Cougar leaned away from him, which was not at all cool, even if it was just a few inches.

"Why go back so far? You missed the window."

Ah, yes, that 10 minute window when the stars were just right. Which kind of sucked, yeah. He shrugged. "You wanted a blue sky and the team back together again."

Which was, oh, at least two thirds of the truth. Armageddon had filled up his reserves, enough to let him start the ponderous, dangerous journey back in time. It would have left him bereft of any power - it should have taken him centuries before he could even have stretched his wings again. So he had gone back even further - once the wings were beating across seconds, the actual moving didn't take all that much power, there was just the mind-numbing pain to live through and an eternity of his own, frantic hopes and fears - until he had reached a time when he had still been comparatively strong. Not full, no, saving Cougar the previous time had already robbed him of too much of his strength, but enough to fill his reserves and to have just enough for that one little miracle which he had so desperately needed.

Cougar just rolled a finger at him.

Jenkharsten shrugged. "Look - ruling the universe, I mean - yeah, but, on the other hand, meh. I ... Okay, so I can't say I wasn't looking forward to it, but, you know, it wasn't all that it was cracked up to be either. It's easy to think you want something more than anything when you haven't had everything yet. Sometimes ... Sometimes when you get all you want, you realise that it was something you had all the time you really needed, you know? Like a Highlander Reboot, but they don't put Methos in it, right? Completely pointless. Um, or like I saw you drool over that XM2010 ESR for months and then, when I hacked an order for you, you were happy as a clam, humming and bopping and Roque thought I had slipped you uppers. But what rifle are you still using, huh? It's like that."

Something in the dark brown gaze warmed with the faintest glimmer of gold. "You gave up the world for me?"

How to explain to Cougar that after having lived eternity more or less alone, Jenkharsten's entire existence had changed in the few years he had known Cougar? How just a mortal lifetime with Cougar would have easily been worth waiting another millennium - and so much longer besides?

There was more, though.

Most of the extra strength returned to him had also gone into Cougar's soul, gently sealing the golden glow that had begun to solidify around his core. Jenkharsten would keep at it, feeding the budding strength with every ounce of extra power he managed, keeping only the base reserves for himself.

Having turned back time for Cougar twice already - having to see the man he loved die twice already: there was no chance in Hell that Jenkharsten could do it a third time.

//Oh, who am I trying to kid? Of course I'd do it a third time. And a fourth time. And a fifth.//

But already a mere bullet would not be enough to kill Cougar. That was something. In time, he would grow progressively stronger, until he would be able to gather strength all on his own, just like Jenkharsten could. An A-bomb would be nothing to him.

And time was something they would have now.

//I'll wait thirty years or so, before I tell him,// Jenkharsten decided, hugging the sniper possessively to his chest. //If he hasn't figured it out by then or I haven’t blurted it out already.//

And who knew, maybe in a thousand years, they'd rule the world together. And in a billion years, they'd fly away from the dying sun.

His hug turned gentle and he dropped a tender kiss on his sniper's lips. "No, Cougar. The truth is - I couldn't give you up for all of the world."

The End

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