Author's Notes: So, this is kind of a weird comic book/movie combination, which leads to the troublesome problem of Roque's race. Aaaaawkward. I think I just tried not to mention it? Whatever. Choose whatever face you want; the scar is the same. I also used some bits from the original Losers script that was leaked online, because I just liked some of it better than the version in the movie (i.e., Roque's character).

Anyway, I loved the movie, even if it wasn't quite the same tone as the comic books. And of course I loved that mah boy Cougs didn't die at the end. And I loved all the subtle (SPOILER ALERT) Max-is-a-twin hints they gave you throughout the movie. Anyway, so, here's my obligatory Cougar character study in three parts.

I'm sorry for all the Spanish. It really couldn't be avoided. I've put the translations at the bottom.

Oh, um, also, my epigraphs are getting out of control, but for srs, I can't say no to Marge ADubbs no matter how hard I try.

Title: your heart is a shaken fist

Author: dress without sleeves / ohladybegood

Rating: R, for language and violence, also some sexytimes (what more could you possibly want?)

Characters, Pairings: Roque/Clay angsty bromance of the decade, Pooch/Jolene, Aisha/Clay, eventually Cougar/Jensen (WTVS IT'S PRACTICALLY CANNON)

Summary: Cougar doesn't talk a lot, but he sees everything.

your heart is a shaken fist

1.

love! love! sing the soldiers, raising

their glittering knives in salute.

then there's the two of us. this word

is far too short for us, it has only

four letters, too sparse

to fill those deep bare

vacuums between the stars

that press on us with their deafness.

it's not love we don't wish

to fall into, but that fear.

-margaret atwood, variations on the wordlove

.x.

The man who will be known as Cougar is born Carlos Alvarez on the edge of El Paso, Texas, so close to Ciudad Juárez that for the first five years of his life nobody knows whether he is a citizen of Mexico or the United States. Eventually, somebody stops worrying about it and he becomes both.

He is the heart of eleven children. Five on his left and five on his right: all sisters. When he is six, his mother dies during the birth of the youngest girl; as she goes, she reaches for her son's hand and murmurs, "No me olvidas, Carlito. Prométome. No me olvides.1"

"Prometo," he whispers back. He takes the baby from the midwife's arms and wipes a smear of blood off his sister's face. "Voy a cuidarte," he murmurs. He looks at his mother and says again, "Prometo."2

.x.

In the wake of everything that comes after (nine black dresses and a little black suit, hung up in the closet like shadows), they name the child Soledad, but everyone calls her Sole. She is beautiful, the most beautiful thing that Carlos has ever seen, and she is his shadow until she is old enough for him to become hers.

Their father is kind, but lost; he does everything for his children but pay attention to them, so they raise one another. Angélica and Mirabel cook; Lucía and Rosaura clean; Alma and Célia tend the garden; Ernesta and Dorotea shop; and Felicia, the oldest, already married and with a baby of her own, sweeps in to settle disagreements. Carlos drops out of school when he turns eleven (this is his lucky number, he decides, this is the number he will call his own) and gets a job with Felicia's husband in a gun shop, stocking ammo and cleaning floors. His father pays the taxes but forgets things like water and electricity, forgets school uniforms and textbooks. These Carlos pays for.

Felicia's full name is Felicidad. Carlos will always think that his sisters were reversed in heaven: Soledad, with her wide smile and laughing eyes, is too bright for her name; Felicia, treated as an adult since the age of three, was born tired, burdened. But her husband Camilo is a kind, broad-shouldered man who sees something in Carlos. He teaches him to win at cards, and the he teaches him how to shoot, because he says you cannot to the first without knowing how to do the second.

Camilo teaches him how to build a gun, how to clean it, how to load it, how to shoot it. He teaches Carlos that a gun is not its own thing but an extension of man, a part of his anatomy. Violence is not in a gun's nature, Camilo explains. A gun's nature is protection, and violence is the consequence.

.x.

When he is thirteen years old, a cougar finds its way into the Alvarez family's backyard. Sole is the first to see it: she runs from the back porch with her arms outstretched, smiling as she cries, "¡Gatito! ¡Gatito!"

His sisters start yelling for her, vuelvevuelvevuelva3and diosmioporfavorno4, and then someone thinks to look at him and command: "¡Dispárelo!"5

Carlos gets his father's gun from above the mantle. He aims, but he is not a good shot, and he misses, striking instead the tree that shades their neighbor's yard. Startled, the cougar bats its paw. Sole screams, falling to her knees, and the cougar runs, the muscles in its legs tightening as it leaps over their fence and disappears.

They take Sole to the hospital. There is a scar across her mouth, thin and silver. In a few years, she will forget about it; her sisters will forget about it; when she marries Juan Réguel at the age of twenty-five, he will never notice.

But Carlos never forgets.

.x.

He practices on tin cans and rotten fruit, lined up in the lot behind Camilo's store. In each target he sees the cougar's eyes, yellow and narrow, frightened. In each shot he hears the hears the crack of their neighbor's tree as his bullet embedded itself into the trunk. The first time, he misses seven out of ten of his targets. The second, he misses three.

The third, he doesn't miss any at all.

.x.

When he turns eighteen, he makes a choice. He is happy in Camilo's store, but his brother-in-law cannot afford to give him a raise, much less medical and life insurance. He does not want to move out of his father's house until it is completely empty of people that he loves; but even his younger sisters are getting older, and both Célia and Rosaura want to go to college. Alma, seventeen, is already engaged, and wants a big wedding. Sole is a year away from high school, where she will need a new uniform.

They need things that Carlos' current salary and their father's negligence cannot manage, so he agrees to give up his Mexican citizenship and joins the United States Army.

He is the perfect soldier: neat. Quiet. Efficient. And a perfect shot. A superior officer in boot camp notices him, recommends him for sniper training. Carlos hesitates, but the pay is higher, and the life insurance payout greater. So he agrees.

Three years later, he is posted as transport guard of former Lieutenant-Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith. The former Lieutenant-Colonel is quiet for most of the ride, eyes dark, bottom lip caught between hungry teeth.

"I don't know why you'd do it," Carlos' fellow guard says to Smith as they pull up to the prison. "You and your team were legendary."

Smith looks over the man's shoulder and meets Carlos' eyes. His voice catches when he says, "You are what the world makes you, son."

.x.

Two days before his twenty-first birthday, he's transferred to a special operations unit under the command of Colonel Franklin Clay. When he asks what Carlos wants to be called, Carlos thinks of the sound Sole made when his bullet missed its target. He thinks of Smith's words: you are what the world makes you, son.

He says, accent thick, "Cougar."

Clay takes his hand. "Well, Cougar," he greets, and gestures to the two men flanking him. One has a long scar down the side of his face, and the other is as bald as the full moon. "On my right is Captain William Roque, and on my left Sergeant Linwood Porteous."

The Sergeant winces. "Pooch," he corrects. "Seriously, call me Linwood and we're gonna have a problem."

Cougar nods. "Mucho gusto." The three men blink at him, and he grins. He speaks quickly: "¿Hablan español? Porque no hablo inglés. Espero que no va a ser un problema."6

"Um," the man called Pooch says.

"Listen, soldier," Clay adds, coughing into his hand. "If language is going to be a problem, we can have you transferred to a unit where you're more—"

"If you can't speak English, why the fuck did you join the U.S. Army?" Roque interjects, raising an eyebrow. "Are you even a fuckin' citizen? Jesus. Ladies and gentleman, the world's most powerful military, at your service."

Cougar laughs. He wishes he had a hat that he could tip like in those western movies Sole loves. "I am kidding," he tells them. They're silent for a minute, and then Roque lets out a startled laugh.

"Fuck," he says. "You piece of shit. Welcome to the team, you fuckin' loser."

It is as easy as that.

.x.

Cougar wakes up once to the sound of a woman screaming. He is on his feet with his gun in his hand before he realizes it, but relaxes when he sees Pooch huddled in front of a computer, headphones in.

"Shhhh, baby, shhh!" he hisses at the screen. "I'm sorry, I won't forget next year, honest to God—"

"I mean, Jesus, I don't expect you to be prompt with these things, I understand the position you're in. And how many wives in the world world say that to their husbands, Linwood? Hm? How many?"

"Just you," Pooch mumbles.

"Just me."

There's a pause, and Cougar notices the woman's lips twitch. Pooch breaks into a grin. "I'm a lucky son of a bitch, Jolene," he says to the computer, and his voice has a thread of such longing in it that Cougar looks away, embarrassed.

"Yes you are," she murmurs back, voice soft. She reaches out to touch the camera and Pooch echoes the motion. Cougar climbs back into bed, not wanting to impose on the moment. But as he falls back asleep, he thinks he finally understands the tone Pooch and Clay use when they say Jolene.

.x.

Their first year of ops go smoothly, but the second year their tech fails and they have to abort on two separate occasions. Clay, to whom failure is worse than a bullet to the balls, spends two days shouting into a phone and breaking things before he emerges with the announcement that they're going back Stateside to pick up a new guy.

Cougar, Roque, and Pooch are playing poker. Cougar is winning, because Cougar never forgot the lessons Camilo taught him; he wins, and Roque and Pooch shut up about it because just last week they saw him kill a moving target from 900 yards away.

Pooch rolls his eyes at Clay's announcement, but Roque groans, handing over his favorite knife to Cougar as he asks, "He's not a freak, is he? Because if this is another one of your fuckin' projects—"

"This is about the two failed missions in the passed six months," Clay growls back. "Or do you wanna talk about how that douche-bucket Fahd got away again?"

Cougar has gotten used to this. He understands the way that Roque and Clay talk to one another, the way they fight and bitch and needle until someone throws a punch. He understands because it is the opposite of what girls do, and he understands almost everything about girls.

Roque and Clay are best friends who cannot stand each other. Both would lay down their life for the other, and the other would always fucking hate him for it.

Pooch leans over and murmurs quietly, "If Roque was a girl, I'm pretty sure this would be foreplay," as the dam breaks and Roque leaps at Clay with a snarl. "Seriously, if one of them had a vagina they would be Bonnie and fuckin' Clyde."

"Bonnie and Clyde," Cougar repeats, "they both died, no?"

Pooch shrugs.

.x.

Cougar's first thought when he meets Corporal Jake Jensen is of Sole. Jensen is just . . . bright, from his burning blonde hair to his boldly lettered shirts to the way that he speaks and laughs and moves his fingers across a keyboard. He has big eyes, like her, and exactly one year later he will see that he has scars like the one on her mouth, undeserved scars given to him by someone who mistook violence for protection.

His first thought is of Sole, and his second is that he actually hates this new guy, who talks at 4,000 miles a minute about shit that no one cares about, especially not Cougar.

"Pooch and Cougar, huh, now we just need like a Tweety Bird and we've got the whole set," he says cheerfully on the plane. They're being shipped to Morocco. Clay hasn't said why.

Roque is playing with one of his knives. Cougar remembers fondly long trips in peaceful silence, Pooch plugged in to the internet emailing his wife, Clay sleeping or reading up on whatever special documents the higher ups gave them, and Roque sharpening something or clipping his toenails.

"You volunteering?" Roque asks threateningly from his seat, rubbing at his forehead. "Because I've been craving bird meat."

Jensen doesn't notice or ignores the warning. He laughs. "Me? Nah, man. I couldn't be a fuckin' bird, they don't even have hands. It's frankly un-American, a soldier without hands. Cougs, we have got to get you a hat."

The last is to Cougar, who debates whether or not to acknowledge the new nickname. At last his curiosity gets the better of him and he raises an eyebrow.

"It's the Mexican-themed thing you've got going on," Jensen prattles on, leaning his head against his seat. "It's missing something, and I just figured it out. It's the hat. You look like a man who wears a hat, and you're not wearing one, and I'll bet it's because in training they didn't let you wear a hat, but now you're on special ops, brother. It's a whole new ball game. You're already growing the hair out, and I respect that, I do, but seriously, you'd score twice as much tail if you just added a little headwear. Trust the man with a computer for a brain. Women like hats."

"Then why don't you wear one?" Pooch asks, unplugging from his headphones as Cougar begins to clean his gun.

"Me? Nah. I look stupid in hats. Sometimes baseball caps are okay, I mean, I've got this narrow face, kind of a roundish narrow thing, much better suited to facial hair and caps, not really a hat kind of dude. Now, and this is key, you don't want to have serious facial hair and a hat, because that tips the hand from sexy to sleazy in a woman's eyes, so you've gotta pick, and since I've got the facial hair thing covered, a hat for Cougar it is."

Cougar lets the sound of Jensen's voice wash over him as he takes apart his weapon. He can tell by the way that Pooch is sitting with his headphones in his lap that the bald man will be the first one to become fond of Jensen; this is not a surprise. Pooch is always the first of them to like anybody.

He shares a look with Roque.

"I'll hold him, you shoot," the scarred man mutters, and Cougar grins.

.x.

The first word that Cougar ever says to Jensen is muttered three months after they meet. He has maintained his silence because responses fuel Jensen's fire, and without them the blonde man tends to peter out after a while, until he's merely mumbling to himself or humming quietly some strange tune that never changes.

The first word that Cougar ever says to Jensen is: idiota.

They are in Turkmenistan, on an op for some Company man named Fennell. The plan is simple: Cougar sets up on the roof of a nearby hotel, Pooch hotwires a window-cleaning company's van and parks it outside the target building, and Roque and Clay set up as entrepreneurs. Jensen sets up his tech in the back of the van and hacks into the building's system to loop the security cameras and give Clay and Roque walking directions to the target's office. Cougar never asks what they say to the targets once they meet them; he watches through his scope and keeps his finger on the trigger at all times, in case. What happens outside that scope is none of his business, or, frankly, interest.

Cougar has always been a people person, as unlikely as it might seem. His entire childhood was organized around others, protecting them and being devoted to them, and this life is no different. He doesn't care about the ops. He doesn't care about the locations or the targets or what happens to them after. He cares about getting his team in and getting them out again.

His eye is trained on Clay and Roque as they enter the target's office, and this is why he does not see the four men surround Pooch's van and toss him out of it. He does not even know it has been hijacked until Pooch's voice comes on his comm: "Guys. We have a problem."

Cougar leaves his gun trained on the target and uses his binoculars to look down. Pooch is standing on the sidewalk, his lower lip bleeding, brushing gravel and dirty out of cuts on his hands.

Cougar uses the laser on his gun to tap out a message in Morse code for Roque and Clay, who are radio-silent: ABORT. He taps it out twice and then packs up, taking the stairs by fours because it's faster than the elevator.

"What happened?" Clay barks into his comm as soon as he and Roque are out of the target's office.

"I don't even fucking know, boss," Pooch answers. He sounds distressed. He sounds pissed. "I saw 'em coming but they didn't look—I fuckin' saw them coming and I didn't—"

"Don't worry about that now," Clay says firmly as they walk through the door into the hotel room they've all been sharing throughout the mission. "Worry about finding Jensen and getting our op back on track. Then worry about blame. Now: what. happened. Was it Azat's men?"

Pooch shakes his head. "I don't think so. They were too sloppy—if I'd thought they were a threat before they were on me, I could have taken them. But they were big—too fuckin' big to take once they'd got the jump. And Jensen doesn't even have his gun, that stupid shit left it in the front seat with me. Boss, this is going to sound crazy but I think . . . I think they were the guys I stole the van from."

Roque barked out an unamused laugh and Clay rubbed at his face. Cougar's fingers itched towards his gun. "So you're saying that a bunch of pissed off window washers got the jump on you and now they have Jensen, Jensen's computer, and a cashload worth of the US Government's top-secret information?"

Cougar sits on the bed. As he does, he feels his comm press up against his thigh and it makes a crackling sound. Then Jensen's voice fills the room: "What the actual fuck. You guys are seriously the tensest window washers I've ever met. Seriously, anybody ever tell you that you should smoke a little? Might help you relax, and definitely put on weight, because you sir are Mr. Skinnypants."

There's a pause.

"Not into food-talk, got it. Okay. Then let's talk about this whole . . . prisoner thing. Clearly you're all upstanding gentlemen with honorable fathers or whatever, so let's try and figure out a way we can all walk outta here, you know what I'm saying? Oh! Hey, how about a thumb war, you guys know how to thumb wrestle? Winner gets the guns and losers have to apologize for hitting the winner's friend in the face."

Cougar, Roque, and Clay and Pooch look at each other at the same time and Cougar scrambles with his comm, pulling it out to the front so they can look at it.

"Motherfucker's got his finger on the talk button," Roque breathes, grinning. He sounds proud. "Smart little shit."

There's the sound of skin-on-skin: Jensen loses his breath at the impact and Cougar feels a tightening in his stomach, unfamiliar and unwelcome. "Okay, so, no thumb wrestling, then," Jensen mutters, voice choked as he recovers from the hit.

Someone speaks rapidly in whatever-the-fuck language they even speak in this country, but Cougar doesn't understand it. He looks up at Roque and Clay, but both men shake their heads. Pooch is tugging at his ear the way he always does when he's upset.

"Okay, well, how about we talk, then? Where are we, exactly? Because if transportation is a problem, I'm sure I can find a bus or—"

The unmistakeable sound of the butt of a gun colliding with teeth. Cougar tenses. His brain flashes with the image of himself leaping through the airwaves and coming out on Jensen's side, and then shooting out the teeth of the man who has been hitting him.

Their tech guy talks too much, and tries too hard, and doesn't know when to quit, but he is their tech guy, he is part of the fucking team, and Cougar blinks to get the blood he's seeing out of his eyes.

"I can see that we are next to a grocery store," Jensen breathes after a few seconds of recovery. "I can see that we are still in the city. I can see that I am in a basement. It is cool, and wet, and I think I hear a business going in upstairs. So—are we in your place of business? Because seriously, I can walk home from—"

"Pooch," Clay says, grabbing his gun.

"Got it," Pooch answers shortly. They're all moving. Cougar is still clutching the comm, his rifle slung over his back shoulder, none of them even bothering to hide their weapons as they leave the hotel room and head to the lobby.

Cougar keeps the comm on as Jensen's situation deteriorates. They are so fucking close to him but the streets are crowded, and the car moves slowly, even with Pooch's crazy driving. The techie keeps up a steady stream of joking and sarcasm, broken off each time by some kind of blow. A muscle in Clay's jaw is twitching. Eventually he bites out, "Jesus, Jensen, shut the fuck up, they're going to kill you you dumbshit! We're coming we're coming we're coming."

Something shatters and then Jensen isn't talking anymore and the comm goes silent as his finger slips off the talk button.

"Pooch," Cougar says tensely.

Pooch notes the silence and nods. "I got it," he says again, and despite the red light and the cars on every side of them, presses the gas.

.x.

When they find him, Jensen is nearly unconscious. He's in the basement of the window-washer storefront, though upon investigation Roque discovers that these window-washers are about as qualified as Pooch and Jensen: the store is a front for some serious mafia-type shit.

Cougar breaks every tooth in the mouth of the man closest to the techie, because even if he's not the original, he has some of Jensen's blood on his hands, and that is fucking good enough for Cougar.

"Oh, hey, guys, I see you got my call," Jensen gurgles, spitting out blood. "Window washers, not to be trusted, amirite?"

Cougar crouches in front of him as Pooch slices through the binds on his hands and Roque and Clay make things crash upstairs. Pooch has been muttering a stream of profanities and apologies, but Jensen keeps shaking his head. "No harm, no foul," he says as Pooch starts work on the ropes around his ankles.

Cougar is still studying him for injury, but besides some cuts and bruises on his face and a dislocated shoulder, he actually looks . . . okay. Pooch is frowning tightly. "No fucking harm, Jensen?" he snarls, and points a finger at the tech guy's face. "The fuck do you call that?"

Jensen grins, spitting out blood. "A makeover," he says.

Cougar helps him to his feet. "Idiota," he murmurs, but maybe it comes out a little fonder than he meant to, a little less accusatory.

Jensen's head lolls to look at him. "It speaks!" he cries, and then coughs and doubles over a little. "Shit. Ow. But the good news is: Cougar is not a mute. Now will someone get this man a hat?"

Cougar looks over Jensen's head at Pooch. The bald man is grinning, despite himself, and shrugs. "Man's got a point, Cougs," he says. "You have the face of a man who wears a hat."

"See," Jensen mumbles triumphantly. "What did I tell you. Hats, man. The bread and butter of making friends and getting laid." His eyes are drooping. "I'm fuckin' sleepy, man."

They get him to the car and back to the hotel with minimal discussion. They'd been rotating on who got to sleep on the bed, but no one argues when Pooch and Cougar lay Jensen on it. Cougar's the only one who has a clue about how to patch someone up, and he only knows because Mirabel became a nurse and used to let him watch her practice. She said teaching him helped her learn, and he'd been an excellent student.

"Stay awake," Cougar commands tersely as Jensen begins to drift off.

"I'm bored. I'm hurt. Have mercy, Cougs, and let a man sleep it off," Jensen whines.

Cougar knows he is going to regret this. "So talk to me," he says. "Tell me about hats."

"Hats, man," Jensen sighs, almost dreamily. Nothing else. Then: "I have a family, y'know. A niece, Beth. And my sister. Sophie. She's . . . she's great, man. Older'n me. Smarter, maybe, 'cept when it comes to men 'cause she picked a fuckin' loser to get pregnant with. 'S why I joined up. Medical. Growin' a baby is expensive. Surprising, right, you'd think it'd have the decency to wait to be born before bringing the hospital bills, but. Nope."

His head lolls to the side and his breathing evens. Cougar finishes his examination and shakes Jensen awake.

Pooch won't leave the room, too guilty about Jensen's capture, but Clay and Roque go out into the hall to re-design the plan that had been interrupted. Clay hesitates at the door, looking back over his shoulder, but leaves anyway.

"Stay awake," Cougar says again.

Pooch looks up. "Tell us about your niece," he says, because family is something that Pooch understands.

"Beautiful," Jensen mumbles. He doesn't open his eyes, but as long as he's talking, Cougar doesn't care. "Most beautiful thing in the world. Blonde, like me. Tiny. Just . . . fuckin' . . . short, man. Shoulda seen her when she was a baby. Fit in the palm of my hand, just this little Polly Pocket sized motherfucker. Born early, but strong. She's fine now. Perfect. Blonde. And tough. Plays soccer. She's the star, too, center forward or some shit. Soph sends me videos sometimes. Beth scored the winning goal in her game two weeks ago, you shoulda seen the other team's faces. She's so fuckin' fast, man. Comes out of nowhere, all bright and strong and you don't see her until she's there, and she has this smile, like. Like the fucking sun. You'd need a hat, Cougs, or your face would burn right off, that thing is so bright."

"She sounds great," Pooch says softly. He's looking at his wedding band. "Jensen, I'm—"

Jensen cracks an eye. "Stop apologizing, Pooch," he orders. "Seriously. Just fuckin' stop. It was an accident. I didn't have my gun on me. Window washers are evil. Whatever, man. Lesson learned. Shit happens." Then he starts grinning as he closes his eye again. "And really, I should be thanking you. The Pooch got the Cougs to talk to me. That's a fuckin' miracle, man. He even called me idiota, which I'm pretty sure means hi, you sexy blonde merecat in Spanish."

Cougar rolls his eyes as Pooch laughs. "Idiota," he says again, and this time he knows it sounds as fond as if he had said querida.

.x.

He keeps a closer eye on Jensen, after, because the man has zero sense of self-preservation and can't be trusted to look after himself.

If anyone notices, they don't say anything.

.x.

Two days later, on vacation in Mexico, he runs across a shop in the airport that sells cowboy hats. He hesitates, because Cougar doesn't really buy things for himself, especially not things like genuine leather cowboy hats, for God's sake, but Jensen's voice is in his head, clear and prodding, and he gives in.

"Idiota," he says for a third time as he hands over his credit card and puts the hat on his head, but this time he is talking to himself.

Sole and Célia pick him up from the airport. Sole is seventeen now, Célia twenty-one, and both of them more beautiful than he remembers. Célia graduated from college last year and is working as a secretary for a lawyer in town; Sole writes him long letters about wanting to pack a bag and run to some far away place, someplace you've been, Carlos, someplace I can imagine we are together. He writes back that of all the places he has been, he likes home the most.

His sisters laugh at his hat when they see him, but already it is comfortable on his head and he does not take it off. He sweeps both girls into his arms and spins them at once.

"Caaaaaaarlos," Célia groans, but she is smiling.

Sole giggles against him and doesn't ask to be put down. Her hair has gotten long, and light; when the sun hits it, she looks almost blonde. (He thinks of Jensen.) "Hola, angelitos," he greets, planting a big kiss on both girls' cheeks. "¿Cómo están?"

"English," Célia orders, and Sole rolls her eyes.

"Célia thinks she is very important now that she is working for that pendejo of a lawyer," Sole mock-whispers. "It is only English for her now. No español como todos los demás."7

Célia rolls her eyes as they walk to the car. Carlos (yes: he is Carlos now, he has left Cougar on the airplane, to be picked up on his next flight) didn't bring much home. His clothes all fit into one carry-on bag. "We are practically in the United States," Célia says in crisp, clear English. Her tone suggests it's an argument she's had many times before. "Sole, Carlos is an American citizen. He isn't even Mexican. Don't you think we should try to—"

"Carlos is Mexican where it counts," Sole cuts her off fiercely, glaring as she takes her brother's hand.

Carlos grins at the two of them. "I'm not American," he says, "y no soy Mexicano. Soy un Alvarez. Now let's go home, hmm?"

.x.

The vacation is the loud kind of quiet he is used to: everyone is always shouting and moving, a thousand things going on at once, but nothing actually happens. They eat and shout across the table at one another; Célia refuses to speak Spanish and Lucía makes Mirabel cry. Carlos visits Camilo at the old store and helps him clean and stock; he talks about the guns he uses in the army, though he doesn't tell anyone exactly what it is that he does.

When they push, he smiles and deflects with stories of Jensen running his mouth and Roque getting in fights and Pooch sending emails meant for his wife to Clay. And because the Alvarez family is made up of people like Carlos, they are distracted enough by his stories to forget that he has not answered their questions.

A few days in, he finds himself alone in the backyard, beer in hand, eyes closed. There are a few quiet sounds from inside, but nothing else; he relaxes into the silence. He'd gotten used to silence, before Jensen signed on to the team, and he finds that he misses it, sometimes. He creates his own silence.

Still. He sends his friend a text:

bought a hat.

A few minutes later, Jensen replies:

FINALLY WHAT KIND

Carlos takes a long pull of beer and laughs quietly to himself. He considers taking a picture and sending it, and then changes his mind.

wait and see.

.x.

He lets his sisters take him out dancing two nights before he goes back Stateside. He feel naked without his hat now, so he takes it with him, resting happily atop his head.

Jensen's going to be a smug motherfucker when he gets back.

Carlos dances with each of his sisters in order of birth, Sole first and Felicia last. Both of Felicia's sons are almost adults now, thirteen both of them, and she seems lighter than when he left her.

"You know," she tells him cheekily as they spin, "with Célia out of college and Sole wanting to run off and become una gitana, we don't need the extra money from your Estados Unidos."

He raises his eyebrows. "¿Sí?"

"Sí. Come home, Carlito. Get married. Camilo would love to have you back in the shop, and we miss you. There are too many girls everywhere, with Alma's little babies and Angélica con dios niñas. Por favor."

He has missed the way his family talks, slipping in and out of Spanish without noticing. He smiles. "No puedo, querida," he says, kissing her cheek. "My team needs me."

And you don't goes unspoken between them, but she seems to understand. "Well," she sighs, "at least pretend you'll consider it."

He does pretend: all night, he looks at the girls in the bar and considers if he would marry them. Rosaura's friend Eufrasia has grown into someone beautiful, someone with long blonde hair who looks at him from under dark eyelashes. She talks through their dance, about everything, about nothing, the cadence of her speech familiar but Carlos can't quite place it.

When they stumble into her bedroom later, she runs her fingers along his jaw and murmurs, "I like the hat."

"Good," he breathes against her mouth, "because I am leaving it on."

.x.

Sole drives him to the airport. She cries when he hugs her goodbye and whispers fiercely into his ear, "No me olvides, Carlos."

He laughs, but she takes his face between her hands and orders, "Prométome." His breath catches, and he kisses her firmly on the forehead.

"Prometo," he whispers.

.x.

Jensen, Clay, Pooch, and Roque are waiting for Cougar on the other side. When he steps off the plane, they all burst into applause and laughter.

"Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a fuckin' hat!" Jensen declares joyfully, reaching out to grab it. Cougar ducks out of the way, glaring.

Pooch gives him a quick hug and nods approvingly. "I'd fuck you," he decides, and then adds hastily, "if I weren't one-hundred percent devoted to my beautiful wife, who I love very much."

He glances over his shoulder, as if Jolene is watching. Cougar wouldn't be surprised if she was.

"It's 'whom,'" Jensen says distractedly, still eyeing Cougar's hat, looking pleased.

"No one gives a shit," Roque says flatly, but then adds with a grin, "if Pooch wants to talk like the black person he pretends to be, let him."

"Roque," Clay says warningly, mouth twitching upwards.

Roque raises his hands. "What? I'm just sayin'. Some people are black, and some people are black. Same for white people, Asians, even Mexicans like Cougar over here."

"Dude, you're offending, like, every race right now," Jensen says. "And you know what? I'm diggin' it. Let's go blow some shit up."

"Where to, boss?" Cougar asks, slinging his back over his shoulder. They walk as a pack to the terminal as Clay hands them each a ticket

Cougar looks down and reads the destination as Clay speaks:

"Bolivia."

(end part 1)

Footnotes:

1: Don't forget me. Promise me. Don't forget me.

2: I'm going to take care of you. I promise.

3: Comebackcomebackcomeback

4: myGodpleaseno

5: Shoot it!

6: Nice to meet you. Do you speak Spanish? Because I don't speak English. I hope this isn't going to be a problem.

7: No Spanish like the rest of us.