Jared jerks awake, head slamming against the car window. “Son of a bitch,” he growls as he rubs the aching spot on the side of his face.
“Easy,” Misha soothes. “Should I ask what you were dreaming about?”
Jared shakes his head and checks his fingertips for blood, which, thankfully, there isn’t any. “Same as always.” He squints at the horizon; the sun has risen and is lazily making its way across the sky. He’s guessing it’s sometime around midmorning, if that even matters. “How long did I sleep?” He figures that’s a better question to ask than what time is it? Misha always looks at him funny when he asks that.
“About three hours as the crow flies,” Misha replies.
Jared snickers because Misha’s nothing if not predictable, even if his predictability rests in riddles and fancy prose. “So three hours, more or less.”
“Perhaps less than more.”
Jared groans. “I haven’t been awake long enough for this.”
Misha starts humming a tune Jared has never heard and isn’t sure if it’s even the melody of an actual song. Misha’s random like that. He’s a good guy, though. More than a good guy. He’d picked Jared up off the side of the road four days ago when Jared was thirsty and thought he wouldn’t make it another night. He’d been traveling for days on foot after a car he’d taken had run out of gas somewhere in the middle of backwoods nowhere. He’d found a group of people hiding out in a dilapidated Wal-Mart warehouse and had been chased off at gunpoint; people aren’t willing to share to share what little food they have left, and Jared can’t find it in himself to blame them. Charity isn’t how you survive anymore, and this world doesn’t give out points for being a good person.
So when Misha pulled off on the side of the road and asked if he knew the way to Disneyland, Jared just stared at the beat up PT Cruiser and wondered if this guy was insane or actually an angel in disguise. As it turns out, he’s a little of both.
Jared had asked him where he was heading, and Misha had responded does it really matter? When Misha passed him a bottle of water without being asked, Jared decided he’d follow him to the end of the earth if that’s where he was going.
Jared started driving on the third day because Misha couldn’t hold his head up any longer. Misha stubbornly refused to stop, even with the increased risk of machine activity at night. He thought Misha had long since fallen asleep when the man starting talking, voice muffled where he’d pressed his face against his folded up jacket. “There’s this place, somewhere out west, that welcomes everybody. They’ve got food, crops, and real beds. It’s supposed to be the most beautiful place in the world.”
Jared bit his lip, unable to make out Misha’s face in the dark. “Do you think it actually exists?”
“I think it’s worth trying to find out,” Misha replied.
Jared’s lost count of how long they’ve been traveling. The days bleed into nights and all he knows is that his body isn’t going to hold up if they don’t get out of this car. Their fuel supply is running dangerously low; all the cans Misha had stored in the back are running dry. He doesn’t give up on the idea of some mecca out there somewhere, some place where people are still welcomed, but he doubts they’ll ever find it.
It’s been over a week since they’ve seen another human being, which is why he screams bloody murder when Misha almost sideswipes a yellow Jeep that darts across the road. Jared’s got his arms braced on the ceiling of the car, and he turns to stare wide-eyed at Misha, who’s looking equally shocked.
“Do we follow him?” Misha asks. They turn in unison to see the brake lights of the Jeep as it idles about thirty yards away.
“We’re almost out of fuel,” Jared points out.
“And you think they’re going to offer us some?” Misha asks. He sounds more curious than condescending and Jared appreciates his positive attitude.
“Who knows? Maybe this is that nirvana you’ve talked so much about.”
“In the desert?” Misha shrugs and turns to follow the Jeep. “Stranger things have happened.”
They follow the vehicle slowly, miles into the barren wilderness, careful to give it enough distance in case they have to turn tail and run. It happened to them almost two weeks ago when a couple tried to hijack the Cruiser. The sad thing was that Misha would have let them come along if they hadn’t pulled a knife and tried to steal the car.
Misha parks about twenty feet from the Jeep, and they stay in the car with the engine running. A skinny man with blond, spiky hair ambles over and knocks on Jared’s window. Jared blinks twice and glances at Misha before rolling the window down slowly.
“Um… hi,” Jared replies cautiously.
“Name’s Chad,” the man offers, nodding once in their direction.
“Misha and Jared,” Jared says, pointing at Misha first, then himself.
“Where ‘ya heading?” Chad asks.
“Mecca,” Misha replies quickly.
Chad smirks, tapping his fingers against the car door thoughtfully. “Mecca, huh? Well, let me know if you find it and I’ll join you.” A loud whistle echoes across the empty landscape, and Jared cranes his neck to see where it’s coming from. “Lunchtime,” Chad announces and ambles away.
Jared watches him go, more confused than when they almost T-boned the Jeep on the highway. “Was that an invitation?”
Misha shrugs and opens the car door. “Why don’t we go find out?”
Jared can’t remember the last time he’s had anything resembling a decent meal, so at this point he’s more than willing to try his luck. If they’re asked to go, he and Misha will leave without comment. “People don’t give out free food,” Jared points out as he trails along beside Misha.
There is a group of twenty or so people milling around and talking quietly amongst themselves. Jared feels inquiring gazes tracking their movements, but it doesn’t feel unwelcome or aggressive, just curious, as if asking who are the new guys? No one looks particularly surprised that there are newcomers joining them, and Jared takes that for a good sign.
Jared stops before he gets to the pot of simmering kale and some type of soup sitting next to it with a ladle resting just below its surface. He’s not just going to take these people’s food without introducing himself. His momma taught him better than that.
“I’m Jared and this is Misha,” he announces, gesturing between him and his travel companion.
“They almost ran me off the road,” Chad offers, grinning when Jared rubs the back of his neck nervously. Making a spirited attempt at killing someone is usually not the best way to make nice with the locals.
“Not surprising,” one man replies. “You can’t drive for shit.” He nods in Jared’s direction. “I’m Mike.”
A woman picks up a child who’s making a determined attempt to stick his hand into the simmering soup and rests him on her hip. “I’m Alice and this is James.”
Introductions flow freely after that, people offering names and friendly smiles which Jared returns in kind.
“Come on, let’s eat,” Danneel says and shoves a bowl into Jared’s hands. She passes a bowl to Misha and pours a generous amount of soup in. “Be sure to eat your greens,” she instructs, pointing to the kale.
“Has everyone else gotten some?” Jared asks. Misha pauses with the spoon halfway to his mouth.
Chad chuckles. “It’s fine, man. Don’t worry about it.”
Misha blinks several times, drops his spoon in the bowl and pinches Jared’s side.
“Ouch! What the hell?” Jared yells, trying to rub away the sting.
“Just checking to see if this is real.”
“So you pinch me,” Jared grumbles.
Chad grins and points his spoon in their direction. “I like these guys.”
“We like you, too,” Misha agrees as he stares at his bowl like he’s contemplating licking it clean. He doesn’t get the chance before Danneel drops another ladleful into the bowl, smiling brightly at Misha’s gleeful cheer.
“You don’t know him yet,” Mike says. “Give it time. You’ll grow to hate him just like the rest of us.” It’s said without any malice; just friends badgering each other, and to Jared it’s like balm to a weary soul.
“Hey!” Chad yells.
They help with the dishes, washing them in a tub of soapy water and laying them in a clear, plastic covered bin to dry in the sun. Jared spends the afternoon talking to Chad, discussing music and shit that doesn’t matter anymore but feels good to talk about anyway. Misha has wandered off with Mike and Danneel to discuss problems with the irrigation system. How Misha knows about irrigation systems, Jared isn’t sure, but he goes with it.
They come back together in the early evening, and Jared helps Alice with dinner. It’s more kale with rice this time, and it looks even more delicious than lunch.
“So, uh, how do things work around here?” Jared asks.
Chad stops stirring the pot to look at him. “Whaddya mean?”
Jared meets Misha’s gaze in a silent question – should we ask? Misha’s head barely tilts, just a mute acknowledgment. “If we, uh, maybe wanted to stick around awhile, do you think we could? I mean, is there someone we should ask?”
The group shares a few collective glances. It’s like a silent conversation going on all around them. “No one runs this place directly, if that’s what you’re asking,” Danneel says.
“I’m sensing there’s a ‘but’ in that sentence,” Misha says. “What’s a sentence without a good but?”
“It’s a democracy around here,” Mike says. “You pull your weight and don’t act like an asshole –”
“All the time,” Chad clarifies.
Mike nods. “Don’t act like an asshole all of the time, you should be fine.”
“Is this everybody?” Misha asks, gesturing to the group.
Danneel shakes her head just as a four-wheeler rumbles up beside them, kicking up a cloud of dust. “Damn it, Chris!”
The man smirks and kills the engine on the ATV. He’s dirty, sweat beading across his forehead as he climbs off the back and starts untying a bundle of kale from the back. His shoulder-length hair is tied back in a loose ponytail, and his eyes are glinted by the sun. When his gaze falls heavy on Jared, Jared figures this is it. They’re gonna be asked to leave.
“Picking up strays again,” Chris says, his voice even.
“I’m Jared,” he says in a rush as he quickly sticks out his hand. Chris eyes his outstretched arm before he steps forward and grabs Jared’s hand in a firm shake. Jared grabs Misha’s shoulder and pulls him forward. “This is Misha.”
“Misha? Interesting name.”
“I’d like to hope I have a personality to match,” Misha replies.
Chris doesn’t smile; his lips don’t move as he reaches for Misha’s hand. Jared swallows nervously as Chris assesses them, dark eyes raking over them more than once. “You’re a big guy,” Chris says eventually. “Are you good doing manual labor?”
“Manual labor, carrying very heavy things, first aid, whatever you need,” Jared says in a rush as if he’s justifying his mere existence.
“First aid, huh?” Chris muses, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
“Yep,” Chad says. “He even taught it for Red Cross.” Chad nudges Danneel, like this is a detail she’d be particularly interested in hearing, before adding, “Where he volunteered.” Jared’s not sure how Chad remembers that; he casually mentioned it when he talked about patching up a burn on Misha’s arm that he got when the car broke down.
“Could be useful,” Chris murmurs. He sounds like he’s talking to himself, so Jared doesn’t respond.
Apparently he doesn’t have to, because Chad says, “Definitely useful. Very useful.”
Chris chuckles. “I’m not the one you have to impress, kid.”
Jared’s about to ask to be pointed in the direction of whoever it is that he has to impress, because he really doesn’t want to leave this incredible place that’s filled with amazing people that are willing to share their food with complete strangers.
“Smells good, Danni,” Chris comments, moving past Jared as if the whole conversation is over, and if the jury is still out, Jared’s not sure.
“Alice cooked,” Danneel says. “If it was me, you’d be eating soup again.”
The sun is setting, casting shadows across the plains as they tuck into their food. There’s food left in the pot when they finish serving, and Jared listens to the conversation drifting around him, voices warm and content; a meal shared amongst friends. An engine sounds in the distance, and Jared thinks it’s another four-wheeler. No one seems alarmed, so he continues to eat, watching as people shift their gaze to see the newcomer’s arrival.
Despite the hazy evening, Jared can see a man sliding off the four-wheeler. He’s not wearing a shirt, muscles stretching as he presses his hands to his lower back for support and leans back, mouth slightly open as he groans softly.
A collective silence falls over the group, but Jared doesn’t sense fear. If anything, it feels more like peace, and maybe a touch of hope.
“Is he going to join us?” Danneel whispers.
The man nods once to the group and a couple of people wave back. He makes his way through the shadows like he’s done it a thousand times before and slips beneath the surface of the ground, disappearing from sight.
“Guess not,” Chris replies, sighing.
“He’s been working all day,” Danneel replies angrily. “He needs to eat something.”
“You gonna tell him?” Chris asks.
Danneel considers this, weighing her options silently. “Fine, but he’s eating a big breakfast whether he likes it or not.”
The conversation picks up after that, moving past the strange man in the darkness that wouldn’t join the rest of the group. Chad nudges Jared’s knee and nods in the direction the man went. “That was Jensen,” Chad says quietly. “And it’s his place.”
It’s still dark, just the first signs of hazy morning light slipping across the sky, when Jared pushes the hatch open and pulls his body through the man hole. Misha continues snoring, an arm and a leg tossed over the side of the small cot. Jared’s never been a late sleeper, always preferring to meet his day head on. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, but he figures he can find whoever’s on breakfast duty and offer an extra pair of hands.
The camp is silent. If he didn’t know better, he would have no idea that anyone lives here, because the couple of broken down pole barns are nothing out of the ordinary. If Misha hadn’t nearly run over Chad, they’d never have known there was a whole community hidden underground nearly five miles away from anything resembling a normal road.
He peers into the darkness when he hears the screech of a hatch being opened. It’s not one of the rooms that he saw people disappearing into last night, but that doesn’t mean anything. He steps farther into the shadows, holding his breath even though at this distance it would impossible for someone to hear him breathing.
A man climbs out of the underground room, a couple of books tucked under his arm, and Jared narrows his eyes as if that will hone his vision so he can see better.
It’s Jensen, the man from last night who refused to join the group. Jared considers going up to him and properly introducing himself, asking what he can do to help, but there’s something about the guy, a back-off vibe that seems to radiate from the center of his being. There was a time when Jared would have approached anyway and fallen over himself to get to know the man better, but considering the way things are now, the way the world is now, Jared needs a place to live more than he needs new friends.
He remembers Danneel’s promise to make sure Jensen has a huge breakfast. When Jensen climbs onto the ATV, Jared figures that promise was made in vain. He watches, still concealed in the shadows, when the engine turns over and drives away. It’s another hour before the camp shows any signs of life.
Breakfast is a quiet affair; most people are still bleary eyed while the day’s activities are planned. Jared stays quiet, trying to learn where each person fits in and figure out where he might be the most help. At this point, he’s willing to do just about anything.
“You’re looking a little too bright eyed and bushy tailed this morning,” Chad comments after he swallows a bite of bread.
Jared shrugs and takes the piece of crusty loaf Chad offers him. “Always was an early riser.”
“We’re gonna have to break you of that bad habit,” Chad says, even though everyone knows fighting the machines is near impossible at night so just about everything has to be done during the day. Jared smiles at Chad’s joke anyway.
“You’d sleep the day away if we let you,” Mike comments, shoving Chad out of the way to get some food.
Chris joins them, slipping between Mike and Danneel. “Speaking of sleeping the day away, who wants to wake Jensen?”
Chad groans. “I did it last week and got a boot tossed at my head. Never again.” He nudges Danneel. “You do it. He’s less likely to hurt you.”
So he’s antisocial and violent. Awesome, Jared thinks.
“I won’t repeat what he said to me last time I told him to get his lazy ass outta bed,” Mike says. “I ain’t going near there.”
“Rock, paper, scissors?” Chris suggests.
“Hell no,” Mike replies, shaking his head. “You always cheat.”
“Um… guys?” Jared says quietly, trying not to speak out of turn. When everyone turns to look at him, he swallows. “It’s probably not an issue, but he’s already gone.” Wind howls through the camp, and Jared watches a lone tumbleweed roll by. It’s like being on the set of an old Clint Eastwood western.
“When?” Chris prompts.
“About an hour ago,” Jared says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder in the direction Jensen went. “He took one of the four-wheelers.”
“I swear I’m gonna put a bell around his neck,” Chris grumbles before stuffing the rest of his breakfast in his mouth. For a second Jared thinks he’s going to choke, but Chris manages to get it down with two big swallows.
“Chances are he didn’t sleep last night,” Danneel huffs. “I swear I’m going to start sleeping with him just to make sure he actually stays in bed more than ten minutes.”
Mike raises his hand. “I have trouble sleeping.”
“Dude, you’re sawing logs the second your head hits the pillow,” Chad replies, rolling his eyes.
“If you’re so concerned –” Jared starts, then quickly snaps his mouth closed when he realizes he has no business saying what he’s about to say. Chris waves at him to continue. “Well, why don’t you just talk to him? Tell him you’re worried or… whatever.”
Chad actually laughs in his face, and Mike smirks like Jared’s just said the stupidest thing ever. “Yeah, that’s rich, man. We’ll just talk to Jensen.”
“Stage an intervention,” Chris agrees mockingly. “Danneel, bring the tissues.”
Mike pulls it together first. “Jared, you don’t just talk to Jensen.”
“Not if you want your head to remain attached to your shoulders,” Chad agrees.
So this Jensen guy is an asshole and everyone’s afraid to approach him. Jared figures if it wasn’t Jensen’s place, people would be a lot quicker to speak their minds around the man. Not rocking the boat must be the status quo.
It becomes clear no one is going to go after him, and Jensen is best left to his own devices.
“We know we’ll see him tonight at least,” Mike offers as breakfast is being cleared away.
“Why’s that?” Jared asks.
Chad smiles and slaps Jared on the back excitedly. “It’s Thursday!”
Jared lost track of the days a long time ago and since Chad’s bouncing beside him, barely able to contain his excitement, Jared feels a little silly for prompting, “And that’s important because…”
“Fireside chat night,” Mike says, stealing Chad’s thunder.
Jared’s heard about the chats from other people he’s met along the way. From what he’s learned, it’s a series of radio broadcasts coined after President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats from the thirties. Since all major methods of communication were destroyed in the first few months of the war, ham radio is the only thing left.
“Wow,” Jared says, feeling pretty overwhelmed at the thought of being able to talk to other people. “Do you guys use it for communication?”
Chris shakes his head. “No. Can’t be too careful, you know? Who knows who could be listening?” Jared thinks Chris should amend that sentence to what could be listening. The fucking machines are always listening.
“So what do you talk about?” Jared asks.
Danneel shrugs. “Whatever the speaker wants. Sometimes the person tells a story; sometimes they read a book or an article.”
It seems pretty silly to Jared, a waste of valuable communication, until that evening when he hears an older woman reading a chapter from one of the Harry Potter books. They’re gathered around the radio, pressing against each other and hanging on every word. Jared closes his eyes and lets the story take him away.
The woman finishes with a soft, “Stay safe out there.”
Danneel pulls her feet underneath her and pushes off the floor to turn the radio off. They spend the next fifteen minutes discussing dueling wizards and how badass it would be to be able to fly. Misha recounts his childhood attempts at building a flying machine, which has everyone rolling on the floor laughing in a matter of minutes. Apparently the flying machine came to an abrupt and tragic ending when it crashed into their neighbor’s pool cage and took the whole thing down.
All in all, Jared decides, it was a damn good day.
He forgets to ask if Jensen ever joined them.
Jensen rolls out of bed before daybreak. If people keep joining them, they’re going to have to work out other living arrangements, because if he’s doing the math right, they’ve only got room for roughly five more, and he knows he won’t be able to turn anyone anyway. He hasn’t done it yet, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to start now.
He figures he should make an appearance at breakfast, because Chris gave him an earful for the disappearing act he pulled the other day. Usually Chris won’t outright call him on his bullshit, but Jensen was told to leave a fuckin’ note next time he decides to pull his Houdini act. Jensen doesn’t blame him. He couldn’t even muster a believable excuse save he’s got a lot of shit to do, and unless enough food for a year magically appears in their storage facility, everyone needs to get off his back.
He doesn’t shower; he knows he’ll be filthy by the end of the day and he figures a trip to the river wouldn’t be remiss because they should refill their water stores. He also needs to check the early warning systems that are surrounding the camp. In addition to that, he needs to check the watch duty schedule Mike has drawn up because he knows he hasn’t had a day in at least a week. He shakes his head to clear his mind: one thing at a time.
Daylight is just breaching the horizon, coloring the sky with shades of pink and blue. He sees Jared fumbling with breakfast, dragging out the plates and silverware. Chris and Danneel had filled him in on the newcomers and spoke quite highly of both of them. Chad seemed especially taken with Jared, and Jensen had grinned to himself when he’d seen Chad following Jared around, laughing loudly at whatever he said.
Jensen had seen Jared watching him the first morning after he’d arrived. Jensen didn’t say hello, and since Jared didn’t approach him, he figured it was probably better that way. He has a mutual understanding with most members of the camp. Usually only Chris or Danneel force him to have some human contact now and again.
Jensen doesn’t think of himself as antisocial or standoffish. He’s just got a lot on his mind, things to do and tasks to finish, his to-do list growing every second of the day. He takes off on the four-wheeler before anyone else stumbles out into the dim morning light.
Jared spins around in time to see the ATV race away in the crisp dawn. He shakes his head as he watches Jensen disappear in a cloud of dust. He doesn’t know the guy from Adam, but would it actually hurt him to say hello? They’ve been here for almost a week and Jensen’s been no more than a ghost, leaving in the early morning hours or, he’s heard from Danneel, succumbing to exhaustion after Chris threatened to sit on him, and sleeping the afternoon away.
He mentioned it to Misha last night. “What’s Jensen’s deal?” he asked when they were alone in their underground room.
“You mean besides working all day and generally being seen and not heard?” Misha replied, lifting an eyebrow curiously when Jared huffed at him.
“I’m just saying it’d be nice to actually meet the guy,” Jared replied, pointedly looking away from Misha’s inquiring gaze. “From what I gather, he’s basically an asshole.”
“So why do you want to meet him?” Misha asked.
Jared shrugged; score one for Misha. “I don’t know.” And truthfully, he doesn’t. No one talks about Jensen much. It’s more just in passing – has he eaten? Where’s he working? Maybe someone should see if he needs something.
Jared’s usually not the type of person who judges before he actually meets someone, but he’s got a pretty good handle on who Jensen is. Jared figures Jensen is the kind of guy who rules with an iron fist. He must be ruling from behind the scenes, though, because Jared’s only seen the guy from a distance.
Cool fingers press against his arm, and Jared nearly jumps out of skin.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Danneel says apologetically as she rubs his bicep gently. She glances past him at the food he’s started to prepare. “Oh, honey. You didn’t have to do this. Not that I don’t appreciate it.”
He wonders if he should ask her about Jensen. If he’s the one running the camp, Jared figures he should know as much as he can about the guy. “Hey, Danneel…” He lets it hang in the air unfinished because he suddenly feels stupid, like he might be speaking out of turn.
“What?” she prompts as she tears bread into smaller pieces.
Jared swallows and presses on. “About Jensen…”
Danneel lifts her head, her eyes narrowing. Her words are clipped when she says, “What about him?”
Jared knows he shouldn’t put her in this position. It’s obvious she’s uncomfortable, maybe even a little nervous. If she’s afraid of Jensen, he shouldn’t force her to talk about it. “Nothing,” he says, shrugging and giving her a small smile. “Never mind.”
“What were you going to ask, Jared?”
“Um…” Think fast. “Do you know what his favorite breakfast food is?”
Danneel stops, her hands full of bread, and stares at him. Soon she chuckles. “Yeah, whatever he doesn’t have to cook.”
So he’s lazy, too, Jared thinks. “Well, good thing he never cooks, then.”
Danneel looks at him sideways as if she’s going to say something else, then rolls one shoulder awkwardly. “Yeah, good thing.”
Jared moves the conversation to safer topics – the hot as hell weather – and Danneel rolls with it. People start filtering in for breakfast, eager to fill their stomachs with crusty bread and more kale, and the camp comes to life around him.
“Dude, Wolverine could totally take Cyclops,” Chad argues.
“Cyclops shoots death rays out of his eyes,” Jared replies. “Wolverine wouldn’t even get close.”
“Wolverine would just heal himself then claw out Cyclops’s eyes while he slept,” Chad grumbles, refusing to give in.
Jared inclines his head, thinking. Well, he hadn’t considered that scenario. “Touché.”
Chad grins and bumps his shoulder. “Heh. Knew I’d get you eventually.”
Danneel shrieks behind them, and Jared nearly drops his plate in the dirt. Chad spins around, arms raised like he’s about to karate chop someone. Danneel’s holding a bucket, peering at the contents, and Jensen’s standing in front of her, rubbing the back of his neck. He looks like he wants to disappear.
She lifts her hand and succulent, plump blackberries slip between her fingers. “When did you have time to pick all these?”
“Um, this morning?” Jensen offers. “There’s a patch about a mile from camp.”
Danneel shakes her head, smiling wide, and leans forward to press a kiss to his cheek. Huh. She doesn’t look like she’s afraid. If anyone looks scared, it’s Jensen.
“Come on, let’s get these washed,” Danneel says, dragging Jensen along by his arm.
“I’ll take care of it,” Mike offers, reaching out to take the bucket from Danneel. “You guys eat.”
“No, really, it’s…” Jensen watches sadly as the bucket is carried away, and eventually allows Danneel to push him into a seat.
Danneel piles an enormous amount of food on his plate, more than any single person could eat, and Jensen quietly thanks her and scrapes half of the food onto James’s plate as soon as her back is turned. Jensen’s younger than Jared thought he’d be; he’s tan and muscular from long days spent working in the sun. People fill in the spaces around him almost immediately, and Jared half listens to the conversation around him. Jensen says no more than five words throughout the meal, just offering the occasional nod or hum of acknowledgment.
Jared figures he’ll withhold judgment on the camp leader until he’s gathered further evidence. His momma always said he’d make a good detective.
He’s supposed to go to the fields today with Chad, and he’s anxious to start actually pulling his weight around the camp. Thus far he’s carried heavy things – a lot of heavy things – and helped with the meals and cleanup. Not that that’s not important, but he’d like to see how they manage to keep everything running; how they keep food on the table and enough clean water for people to drink. He’d also like to see some of the security systems that Chris has mentioned, but he hasn’t gotten up the courage to ask. He knows there are things they haven’t shown him yet, and he hopes one day they’ll trust him enough to share.
Raised voices pull his attention away from the last of the breakfast dishes he’s cleaning, and he jogs over to see what all the commotion is about. It’s the first time he’s heard yelling since he and Misha arrived.
“That’s bullshit and you know it,” Jensen barks. Jared skids to a halt, trying to hang back and hear what’s going on without being too obvious.
“Why are you being so difficult about this?” Mike replies. It’s obvious he’s trying to keep his irritation in check. Chad’s glancing nervously between the two men like he’s unsure whose side he’s on, but he seems to be leaning in Mike’s direction.
Apparently Jensen has no such qualms with letting his frustration show. “Fix it. That’s all I’m saying.” Jared’s eyes widen at the clear directive. He rules with an iron fist.
“Don’t you think you do enough?” Mike replies, crossing his arms over his chest.
Jensen sighs. “I’m asking you to fix it, okay?” He pushes past Mike and stalks away, and for whatever reason Jared steps directly into his path. Jensen stares at Jared’s shoes, and Jared wiggles his toes under the fabric of his tennis shoes.
“Um… hi,” Jared says. “I’m –”
“Jared,” Jensen finishes flatly. He lifts his head and meets Jared’s gaze head on. “You got here six days ago with Misha in the PT Cruiser. You taught first aid for the Red Cross and apparently can lift really heavy things. What can I do for you?”
Jared’s about to suggest he remove the large stick that’s firmly wedged in his ass. “Well, since this is your place and all –”
Jensen’s eyes widen and narrow so fast Jared gets whiplash. It feels like it just dropped thirty degrees outside, and Jared fights the urge to rub his arms. “Who told you that?”
Chris and Danneel are standing in the background like a couple of referees and Jared wonders what the hell he’s just started.
“I just heard in a roundabout way that…”
Jensen cuts across him. “Let me clear things up for you, Jared. It’s not my place. Whoever told you that is wrong. Dead wrong. I don’t run a damn thing around here, and you certainly don’t need my blessing to stay if that’s what you’re worried about.” Jared’s about to thank him for the clarification, but Jensen’s already past him, stalking away as quickly as he can without actually running. “Fix the damn schedule, Mike!”
“Nice going,” Chris mutters after Jensen tears out on the ATV.
Jared’s not sure why he feels bad. It’s not like he said anything wrong. At least he doesn’t think he did. He’s been known to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease.
Chad walks over to them, joining the group now that the action is over. “You weren’t supposed to tell him that.”
Jared points to Chad. “But you said it was his place! I kind of figured he was the group… well, whatever.”
“Unofficial group leader,” Danneel says.
“Yeah, we just haven’t told him yet,” Mike says. “There was a vote and he wasn’t invited.”
From what Jared’s seen, he wouldn’t follow Jensen out of a paper bag. The guy has a chip on his shoulder a mile wide and an attitude to match.
“And we ain’t telling him,” Chris says. “He’ll throw an even bigger hissy than what he just did. At least we can blame this whole debacle on Jared being new.”
Jared’s starting to wonder if the whole group has gone insane. Maybe there’s something in the water out here, because he’s just not seeing it.
“So what was Captain America pissy about this time?” Chad asks. Yeah, Jared definitely wants to hear this. Did someone not harvest enough kale for his liking?
“I should have known he’d figured it out,” Mike says glumly.
“Ah, the watch schedule,” Danneel says, nodding as if it all makes sense now.
“I told you he’d catch on,” Chris says. “You knew he’d never let that fly.”
“Um… watch schedule?” Jared prompts, trying to catch up as the conversation zooms past him.
“He came armed with math,” Mike says. “There are twenty-eight adults here, twenty-five that have been here long enough for watch duty. That’s three point five seven nights a week per adult. I’m surprised he didn’t make a damn pie chart.”
Chris chuckles. “That explains why he was spitting numbers at you.”
“I still don’t get it,” Jared says, trying to wrap his head around the conversation.
“Mike took Jensen off the schedule,” Danneel says, breaking it down in the simplest terms. Oh, God, they don’t trust him with watch duty.
“Excuse the hell outta me for thinking he should get some sleep,” Mike mutters.
“It was a doomed plan from the start,” Chris says consolingly, patting him on the shoulder. “Your heart was in the right place, though.”
“He does a lot,” Mike says. “I figured it’d help.”
“Dude, he came armed with numbers,” Chad says. “You didn’t stand a chance.”
“I guess that’s enough excitement for one morning,” Chris decides. “Come on, guys. We’ve got work to do.” He starts walking off with Danneel. “So how long do you think it’s going to take us to undo the damage of the whole group leader comment?” They’re too far away now, so Jared can’t hear her response.
“Can I give you some advice?” Mike offers quietly.
Jared looks at him sideways and figures that’s more of a statement than a question. “Sure. Go ahead.”
“He’s not an asshole, okay?” Mike says. “He’s just Jensen.” He shrugs. “You get used to it.” Jared’s not entirely sure he wants to get used to it.
“I don’t get it,” he says. There’s got to be something redeeming about the guy, because everyone seems perfectly willing to overlook his character flaws. Jared’s not a complete idiot – he’s not going to openly bash their unofficial group leader.
“Do you like it here?” Mike asks suddenly.
Jared gives him a strange look. What does that have to do with anything? He looks out at Danneel and Chris arguing over whose turn it is to change the bath water supply; at Misha who’s teaching Alice how to face paint and using James, who’s giggling and unable to hold still, as a test subject. The two other children in the camp are crowding in close, begging to be next. Everyone looks content, like whatever life they’ve carved out here is a good thing. It may not be perfect, but it’s their home.
“Yeah,” Jared says, holding his breath deep in his gut. “I like it here.”
“Then stay the fuck outta Jensen’s way.”
Jared’s jaw drops, and he watches Mike amble away from him like he doesn’t have a care in the world.