If one more person says he’s the group leader, unofficial or otherwise, he’s going to blow his fucking top. He doesn’t know how many other ways he can say it. He doesn’t want, doesn’t need the fucking responsibility. Just because he got here first certainly doesn’t mean he deserves any special attention. Yeah, he makes sure things stay running – the food stays stocked, there’s enough supplies to keep everyone fed, and, sure, he thinks about how they’ll make it through the winter. Everyone thinks about that, worries if they’ll have enough food and supplies for the future. It’s a democracy, a group effort, and he does not reign supreme.
Chris says he’s got a gift when it comes to the machines, that he knows how to fight them; he knows to fight and stay alive. As far as Jensen’s concerned, he was never good at much, so if he’s good at this or anything, it’s probably just a fluke and most likely won’t last. Before the war, he was barely hanging on, fumbling through life, going nowhere fast with no future and no interest in getting off his ass and doing anything about it. For Jensen, life started when the war did, when the machines stormed Texas and blew his world apart.
The last thing he wants is for anyone to trust him, to blindly follow him like he’s the one with the answers, like he’s got a fucking clue what he’s doing. He doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone else, and he’s made that perfectly clear. He doesn’t want to carry that burden. It’s just too much. So if people think he’s a selfish asshole and give him space, it’s better that way.
A shadow falls across the hole he’s currently waist deep in, and Jensen doesn’t bother to cover his groan. He digs the shovel into the ground, leans on the handle and peers up at the stranger. After he snapped at Mike, he figured no one would get within fifty yards of him for at least twenty-four hours.
“I come in peace,” Misha announces, lifting both hands with his palms facing outward.
Jensen chuckles without thinking and shakes his head. “Hey, Misha.”
Misha inclines his head formally. “Hello, Jensen.”
“Did you bring a shovel to go with that peace?” Jensen asks.
Misha pulls a shovel out from behind his back. “In fact, I did.”
“Good, then you can help,” Jensen says as he hefts another shovelful of dirt over the side. It’s going to take days to finish this job, so, despite his mood, he’s not going to turn down an extra set of hands.
Apparently Misha isn’t much of a talker, which suits Jensen just fine. He is, however, a singer, and Jensen’s not sure how he feels about that. Whatever. The guy’s helping him dig a huge freaking hole in the middle of the desert, so he’s not going to complain.
When Misha starts with the Bone Song, Jensen has to stop him. Anything but the Bone Song. “Hey, Misha. Did you go to college?”
Misha finishes the song before he replies. “Yes, I did.”
Jensen nods, mulling it over in his head. “Any good at science?”
“If you’re asking if I can build a bomb, then the answer is probably.”
“I already know how to do that,” Jensen replies, leaning to stretch the muscles in his aching back. He’s picked up a vast array of skills he never thought he’d have since the war started. Making basic explosives was one of the first things he’d learned after he’d hooked up with a couple of paramilitary guys. He didn’t stay long, because they were ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ types, and that had extended to more than just the machines.
“If you don’t want me for my bomb-making skills, then what can I do for you?” Misha asks.
Well, there’s no harm in asking. “I’ve been collecting some textbooks. I was thinking maybe… the kids, you know?” He hopes he doesn’t sound as stupid as he feels. Jensen never went to college, and he never really thought about it again until kids started showing up. He wants them to have the opportunity to learn. They teach the kids what they can, each person freely sharing the skills they possess, but Jensen thinks they could pull together something close to a real classroom. And Chris had given him so much shit for taking that blackboard from Whiskey Creek Middle School.
“I’m afraid I don’t know, Jensen. Would you please explain it to me?” Misha asks. Jensen looks at the other man and doesn’t know him well enough to know if he’s pulling his leg. He’s used to Danneel and Chris, who are able to fill the gaps.
“I’m asking if you’ll teach the kids,” he says in a rush. When Misha doesn’t respond, just stands there gaping at him like a fish out of water, Jensen continues. “Look, I’ve seen you with James, Katie and Austin. You’re good with them. And just because we’re living in bumfuck nowhere, that doesn’t mean we have to be uncivilized. If you could maybe… I don’t know.” He returns to shoveling, hefting the dirt with enough force that he’ll be worn out inside of ten minutes.
Misha drops a hand on his shoulder, and Jensen freezes with the shovel in midair. “I’d be honored.”
Jensen smiles down at his blister covered hands. “That’s great. Thanks, Misha.”
“So does this whole unofficial group leader thing mean anything to you?” Jared asks after he flops down on his cot. He can’t get the exchange with Jensen out of his head. It’s what Mike said that stuck with him: stay out of Jensen’s way. They’ve got to be eating some type of weird cactus root or something, because they’re all delusional.
“Jared, why are you fixated on this?” Misha asks, as if he’s willing to entertain his slightly annoying bunkmate for awhile. Jared’s not sure when he became the annoying one.
“I just want it to make sense,” he grumbles. He knows he has a bad habit of not being able to leave things alone, and it’s a personality characteristic that usually serves him well.
“We live in a world that doesn’t make sense,” Misha replies as he rolls over, tucking his arms underneath his body. “I thought you knew that.”
“How can he be the leader when he doesn’t know he’s the damn leader? Explain that to me.”
“What you think you are and what your friends think you are can be two very different things. In reality, you’re probably somewhere in the middle.”
Jared groans and tosses his arm over his eyes. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Little in life does.”
It’s obvious Misha’s not going to indulge him any further, but Jared’s not ready to fall asleep yet. “So what’d you do today?”
“Dug a hole.”
“Okay.” From what he’s seen, Misha’s not big on manual labor, but he goes with it. “Why?”
“Because Jensen looked like he needed the help.”
Jared drops his arm off the side of the bed and sits up, kicking at the sheet when it bunches around his legs. “You spent the day with Jensen?”
“I spent the day digging a hole. Jensen happened to be there.”
Misha groans. “I swear if you ask me what he’s like, I’m going to throw my one sacred pillow at your head.”
“Jared,” Misha warns.
“You were digging a hole and you don’t know why you were digging it?” Jared asks instead.
“Nope,” Misha replies. “I did get a job, though.”
“You got a job,” Jared repeats.
“You’re looking at the new official teacher.”
Jared flops back down on the bed. “I’m not calling you professor.”
“Don’t hate, Jared. Don’t hate.”
Jared’s sitting next to Alice, who’s trying to explain the differences between kale, spinach and mustard greens to James, and why it’s important to eat something green even if you don’t like the taste. James doesn’t seem impressed.
“I can’t say I blame the kid,” Mike mutters. He shovels a forkful of kale into his mouth when Danneel glares at him. “Yum…” He smiles at James, green bits of leafy vegetable stuck between his teeth.
“Ugh,” Chad groans. “We’re supposed to make him want to eat it. Now I just want to barf.”
A shadow falls across the table, and Jared looks up to see Jensen standing behind them, his shirt twisted and folded around his neck. From the looks of it, he’s been working for a while. Beads of sweat lazily trace familiar paths down his chest, tanned skin peeking out from behind the dirt. Jared swallows and looks away.
Jensen’s hand falls heavy on Mike’s shoulder and he squeezes once. Mike looks down at the table, the slight hint of a smile on his lips. Whatever happened yesterday has been forgotten.
“Change of plan,” Jensen announces as he pops a couple of blackberries into his mouth. Jared watches as purple juice dribbles down his chin, and Danneel licks her thumb and smears it away. “Today we’re gonna make concrete.”
Chris presses his hand to Jensen’s shoulder and pushes him aside so he can look past him. “You hiding a concrete mixer somewhere that I don’t know about?” His fingerprints are left in the dirt on Jensen’s skin.
“Hey, if the Romans could do it so can we,” Jensen replies.
Chad groans. “This is going to be a disaster.”
“No, it’s not,” Jensen says, flicking dirt in Chad’s direction. “Misha’s going to teach us.”
Jared shifts his gaze to Misha. “You know how to make concrete from scratch?”
Misha shrugs and polishes his fingernails on his button-down shirt. “As it just so happens, I do.”
“See,” Jensen says, slapping Chad on the back. “So we’re all going to learn.”
“Why can’t you learn?” Chad grumbles. “I don’t see why we all have to know this.”
“Because I might not always be here,” Jensen says. It’s not particularly ominous, but everyone turns to stare at him, wide-eyed and concerned.
Chris cracks first. “Got something you want to tell us?”
“Look, none of us should be irreplaceable. What if something happens to me?”
“Nothing’s gonna happen to you,” Chris grumbles. The not on my watch goes unspoken.
Jensen gives him a placating smile. “I’m not trying to be all doom and gloom.”
“Yeah, ‘cause it’s way too early for that shit,” Chad complains through a wide yawn.
“I’m trying to be practical here,” Jensen continues. “It’s something we should all know.”
“Last time you said that, we spent a week under the hood of the Jeep,” Chad grumbles.
“And you can tune up an engine now, can’t you?” Jensen replies, tossing his sweaty shirt at Chad’s face.
“Gross, dude! You reek!” Chad hollers, knocking his chair over as he scrambles to get away.
Jensen grins devilishly at Chad’s discomfort and wanders away, leaving everyone to complain in his absence.
“Well, today’s going to suck,” Mike says.
“We could always stage a mutiny,” Chad suggests.
“Viva la resistance!” Danneel hollers, pumping her fist in the air.
“Um, guys? What Jensen said actually makes a lot of sense,” Jared says, wondering how he became the practical one. It’s painful to say, but he can see the other man’s point. If the worst does happen or someone decides to move on, the camp should be able to function without them. It’s not about doom and gloom, it’s about survival.
Chris laughs, dropping his hand on Jared’s shoulder like he’s odd man out in a private joke. “Of course it makes sense.”
Chad sets his chair upright and plops down in the seat. “Yeah, it was never about that.”
Jared gestures widely to the group. “So why all the hoopla?”
“Because bitching makes us human,” Mike says.
“Amen, Mike. Amen,” Danneel agrees.
They spend the day gathering pieces of rock, ceramic tile, rubble and leftover steel rebar that had been collected during salvage trips. Lime is used as a binding agent.
Misha’s a far more adept teacher than Jared had given him credit for. He explains each step, breaking it down and making sure everyone understands before moving on. He does have a tendency to go off on tangents, so when he starts rambling about rheological plasticity, Jared thumps his elbow and gestures to the group. Chad looks like he’s about two seconds away from falling asleep on a pile of broken bricks, and Mike’s drawing graphic pictures in the dirt that, if they are what Jared thinks they are, are inappropriate for minors.
“I think you’re losing them.”
“We could always do this naked,” Misha suggests. “I bet that would hold their interest.”
“Let’s not,” Danneel replies as she drops an armload of ceramic tile at Misha’s feet.
In the end, they only fill one sealed wooden pallet with their makeshift concrete. “I want to see how strong it is before we do more,” Jensen advises as Misha scrapes out any lumps using a large rolling pin.
“Don’t lie,” Chris says. “You just want to make sure this is going to work first.”
Misha presses his hand to his chest. “You don’t trust me?”
“I want to know if it’s going to be able to support three to four feet of dirt on top of it before we go ahead,” Jensen says.
“We’re using steel rebar to reinforce it,” Mike says, piercing the ground with one of the steel poles. “This isn’t going anywhere.”
Jensen nods and rubs his chin thoughtfully. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”
“Remind me again what this little experiment’s for?” Chad asks as he deposits an armful of bricks. Jared jumps out of the way a second before his foot is crushed.
“You’re just now asking that?” Jared asks. Daylight hours are precious; surely they haven’t spent the day doing backbreaking labor for a social science experiment. Jensen might be an asshole, but he can’t be that cruel.
Jensen wipes the sweat off his brow with his tee shirt that’s clinging to his sticky shoulders like a second skin. “We’re gonna need more room.”
“Feeling the need to expand?” Mike asks. “Your one room palace isn’t enough for you?”
“The way I figure it, we’ve got sleeping quarters for five more people.”
“You know there’s ways around that,” Chris replies.
Jensen doesn’t miss a beat when he says, “Yeah, we expand.”
“And where are these people gonna come from?” Chris continues. “You planning on posting flyers or something?”
Jensen eyeballs Chris, and Jared, even without knowing them well, senses the shift in Jensen’s mood. “They’ll come from wherever the hell everyone else comes from.” He points to the horizon. “Where Alice and James and Misha and Jared came from. Out there somewhere.”
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled…”
“Fuck off, Mike,” Jensen growls as he turns and stalks back to the pile of rebar.
Jared’s starting to wonder if he ate some cactus for breakfast, because he’s beginning to see what all the fuss is about. Jensen won’t turn anyone anyway. Even if he doesn’t outright say it, Jared knows newcomers will be welcomed as he and Misha had been. He feels something move deep within his chest that he hasn’t felt since the war started.
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I need a damn bath,” Danneel announces as she flicks a lump of dirt off her arm.
Chad takes a deep breath and shivers. “Yeah, I smell myself. Never a good sign.”
“River?” Chris suggests.
“Hell yeah,” Mike agrees. “Let’s go.”
Jared shrugs and follows the group. He feels sticky and disgusting. He pauses when he notices Jensen isn’t following, instead opting to beat a boulder into tiny pieces with a sledgehammer like it’s just offended his mother.
Chris puts a hand on his arm before Jared can approach him. “Yeah, I’ll take this.” He moves past Jared and goes to Jensen. They talk in hushed voices, and after a minute Chris tosses his hands in the air and stalks away.
“Come on,” Chris orders, not even slowing down as he passes Jared.
They’re almost caught up to the group when Jared says, “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, he just gets like that sometimes,” Chris replies. It’s clear he’s annoyed, so Jared doesn’t ask anything else.
Jared’s helped with water runs before, but he hasn’t actually swum yet. Chad has already stripped down to his boxers and is jumping in with a whoop when they arrive at the river’s edge. Jared struggles to keep from staring when Danneel strips down to her bra and panties and sticks her toe in the water.
“It’s cold,” she complains. Chad resurfaces a few feet from her, and it’s like watching a disaster in slow motion when Chad uses both arms to skim the surface and sling water all over her. “You asshole!” She dives in after that, hell bent on delivering revenge. Chad’s scream echoes across the desolate landscape.
Mike nudges Jared and grins. “A family that swims together stays together.” With that nugget of wisdom, he cannonballs into the water.
“Or kills each other,” Chris amends before shrugging and following them into the water.
Misha appears at his side, already stripped down to his brightly colored orange boxer briefs. “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
Jared chuckles, pulls his shirt over his head and jumps into the water with a whoop of joy. The first ten minutes are filled with dunking matches, and since Jared is so tall, he’s got a good advantage over the others. Apparently Danneel is fully prepared to fight dirty, though, and she tickles his sides. Two seconds later he’s underneath the surface, choking on river water.
They tire quickly, a hard day’s work having sapped all extra energy, and soon they’re floating on their backs, relaxing their aches away. It’s a great ending to a good day even if Jensen isn’t here to enjoy it with them.
“We better get out before we freeze to death,” Danneel suggests as she dog paddles to the shore.
Jared pulls his legs underneath him and stands on the soggy river bottom. His eyes track movement and he sees Jensen rolling to his feet about twenty yards from the river’s edge. He dusts the dirt off his pants and turns around, sauntering away in the evening haze. Jared opens his mouth to call him back – Jensen’s got to be feeling disgusting after working all day – but he swallows the words. If Jensen wanted to join them, he would have. Jared might not understand it, but he knows enough now to leave it alone.
Jared figures his life, all things considered, isn’t so bad anymore. He could get used to this, this life carved out of the rock and earth in the middle of nowhere. He dreams of flying wizards and fire-breathing dragons.
When he crawls out of bed in the morning, he meets the day with his usual enthusiasm until he sees that nearly everyone is awake. They’re standing around looking lost, eyes studying the ground. Jaws are clenched and tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Jared approaches Chad slowly. “What happened?”
“It’s bad, man. It’s really fucking bad.”
Jared swallows the sinking feeling of dread. “Is everyone okay?”
Chad nods, wiping angrily at his face. “Fuckin’ dust out here. Gets me every time.”
“Yeah, the dust,” Jared agrees, resting his hand on Chad’s shoulder. He squeezes once and leaves his hand there, a gesture of friendship, when Chad doesn’t pull away. The feeling of overwhelming disappointment and hopelessness is palpable in the air, and Jared doesn’t know what to do. He feels lost and helpless.
“Goddamn fuckin’ machines,” Chris growls, slamming his fist against the side of the old pole barn.
“Hey,” Danneel says. “Chris, it’s all right.”
“No, it’s not all right,” Chris snaps. “Fuckin’ machines took out all the western crops. That was supposed to feed us this winter. And now what? What the fuck are we supposed to do?” His fist retraces the same path, slamming with enough force to rock the dilapidated building.
“Stop,” Jensen orders in a tone that leaves no room for argument. Jared turns and sees Jensen approaching the group, somehow with his head held high. “I mean it,” he says, leveling his gaze at Chris. “Stop.” Chris heaves out a deep breath like it’s being pulled from the depths of his soul and steps away from the wall.
“Here’s the deal,” Jensen announces as he steps back to address the group. “Foot soldiers took out the western crops last night. Judging from the tracks, they were just passing through.” A collective gasp is heard from the group, and Jensen lifts his hand. “But we’ve planned for this. We’re going to be fine. Things are gonna be tight, but we’ll make it through.” He drops his gaze to his hands and rubs his fingers over his knuckles. When he lifts his head again, his voice doesn’t waver. "I give you my word we’ll make it through this.” No one asks how he can be so sure. No one says anything, just stares at Jensen like what he’s said is gospel.
“Just… stick together, okay? We’re stronger when we’re together,” Jensen says quietly as he rubs his hand tiredly across his face. And then, as if to be contrary, he turns around and walks away. Jared shakes his head as he watches Jensen go, disappearing down one of the hatches. Whatever solidarity Jensen’s speech mustered disappears quickly after he leaves.
“What are we going to do?” Alice mumbles, holding James close.
“It’ll be fine,” Danneel says, rubbing her shoulders gently.
“He didn’t say how it was going to be fine,” Alice replies. “We’re just supposed to believe him.”
For all Jared knows, Jensen is currently preparing his escape plan or licking his wounds in private. To be honest, Jared has no idea what Jensen does in the hours he spends away from the group. As he watches everyone fall apart without the man they’ve all got their hope pinned on, he decides he’s going to find out. Enough with staying out of Jensen’s way. Jensen might not owe him an explanation, but he can damn sure explain to the group what his plans are. He owes these people that much.
Jared stalks off in the direction Jensen went, not acknowledging Chris when he yells his name. If he wants him to stop, he’s going to have to physically intervene because Jared’s had about enough of this shit.
The hatch opens easily, and Jared doesn’t bother with the ladder, just dropping to the floor. Books and maps are scattered across the table, and Jensen’s tossing books over his shoulder as he curses his way through the makeshift library.
“All right,” Jared announces. “What. The. Fuck?”
Jensen doesn’t bother to turn around, still pulling at books and plans in a frenzied rush. “I don’t have time for this, Jared.” Well, at least Jensen’s calling him by his name. That’s progress.
“Well, you need to make time,” Jared growls, stepping forward.
Jensen spins on his heel, fire in his eyes, and Jared actually backs up a step. “No, I fucking don’t. I have to figure out how to get into the city when there’s heavy machine activity in the area. I have to figure out how in the hell we’re gonna get enough plants back in the ground to have food next year.”
“But you said we’d be fine,” Jared accuses.
“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Jensen hisses back. “This year. Those crops the machines took out? That was the seed crop. Those were the farthest away from camp on purpose. We’ve got enough for the year, but if we’re going to sustain ourselves in the future, we need to get a seed crop back in the ground.”
Jared blinks, opening and closing his mouth several times before he finally forms a coherent thought. “You think that far ahead?”
Jensen pauses, maps clenched tightly in a white-knuckled grip. “Yeah, don’t you?” No, Jared really doesn’t, even if he probably should. “So if you wanna take a shot, go ahead and get it over with, because I have work to do.”
Jared shakes his head. “Wait – take a shot? You think I wanna hit you?”
“You came down here looking for a fight, so do your worst and let me get back to work.” Jensen squares his shoulders and waits, lifting an eyebrow like it’s an invitation. If Jared hits him right now, he knows Jensen won’t try to stop him.
“Jensen, I…” Jared rubs the back of his neck nervously and opts for the only thing he really can say. “How can I help?”
Jensen’s other eyebrow joins his hairline. “I’m looking for the Arizona Department of Agriculture printout.”
Jared nods and joins in the search. They spend the next three hours standing over maps and schematics. Well, Jared mainly stands there while Jensen mulls over the printouts and occasionally tosses out random thoughts that Jared makes appropriate noises to. He does shove a tomato into Jensen’s hand as he passes by to retrieve another printout from the shelf. Danneel had passed it through the hatch about an hour ago and gestured in Jensen’s direction. Jensen declined the first three times Jared offered it to him, so eventually Jared opted for brute force and snatched the pencil out of Jensen’s mouth and put the tomato in his hand instead.
Jared wanders out in the afternoon to let everyone know they’re not dead, and Chris gives him an appraising look. “He hasn’t thrown you out yet? Impressive.”
“I’m not entirely sure he knows I’m there,” Jared replies, shrugging.
“So what he’s planning?” Mike asks.
“Raid,” Jared says.
“Cool, what are we looting?”
Jared’s not entirely sure, because Jensen flipped through maps so fast Jared didn’t bother to try to keep up. Instead he just offered his two cents when Jensen’s brows furrowed like he was trying to solve a particularly annoying algebra equation. He must have said something useful a couple of times because Jensen made a noise in his throat, nodded and wrote a couple more lines in his notebook.
“Best go down there and figure out what he’s planning,” Chris says. He nods to Jared. “You go. For whatever reason, he’s letting you stick around.”
Jared nods, feeling like he’s been given an important mission, and he marches off in the direction of the hidden bunker.
“So what’s the plan?” Jared asks after he watches Jensen jot down another paragraph.
Jensen uses the chewed up eraser of his pencil to point to the map. “Biology center. It’s got a whole section for botany.”
Jared follows the eraser along the paper. “You don’t think that’s been hit yet?”
Jensen shakes his head. “People want an instant payoff and there’s no food there. Chances are there’s still something left.”
Jared nods because it makes sense, and he hopes like hell Jensen isn’t wrong. “So when do we leave?”
“We?” Jensen repeats, lifting his head and meeting Jared’s gaze with wary eyes. “You’re not going.”
“Like hell,” Jared replies, crossing his arms over his chest. “This includes me, too. I’m not just gonna stand here with my thumb up my ass while you guys run headfirst into danger.”
Jensen points to the ceiling, referencing something else entirely. “They ain’t going either.”
Jared shakes his head, silently thankful that he’s not odd man out just because he’s still one of the new guys. Jensen’s smart, but he can’t be so thick as to actually think his friends are going to consent to him doing this solo. “They’re not going to let you go alone.”
Jensen sighs and rubs his eyes, digging his fingers against tender flesh, and Jared winces. “Those machines – we’ve never seen that kind of activity around here. I’m not going to ask them to come. It’s just too much.”
Jared heaves out a breath and knows he needs reinforcements for this. If he’s been reading everyone else correctly, they’re not going to let Jensen run off without them no matter what he’s thinking. “Fine.”
Jensen lifts his head slowly, bloodshot eyes wide and untrusting. “Fine?”
“Fine,” Jared repeats and stalks out of the bunker to fill the group in on Jensen’s little solo mission.
Needless to say, the plan goes over like a lead balloon.
Jensen glares at Jared despite the fact that Mike, Danneel, Chris, Misha and Chad are now crowding into the room.
“So what’s the plan?” Chris asks, leaning back on a chair and crossing his ankles. He hasn’t outright accused Jensen of anything. He prefers to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
“Biology center,” Jensen says tersely.
Mike folds his arms on the table and rests his chin on his hands, eyes scanning the maps scattered across the table. “You’re going to have to give us more than that.”
“Look,” Jensen says flatly. “I know what you guys are doing.”
“Do you now?” Danneel says. “Good, then we can skip the whole you going alone fight.”
“There’s not going to be a fight because I’m –”
Chris’s chair drops to the floor with a resounding thud that echoes in the enclosed space, and Jensen’s mouth snaps closed. “You don’t run things around here, and last time I checked, I don’t answer to you.” Jared’s gaze swivels to rest on Chris, and he’s sure his eyeballs are about to drop out of his face. “If this goes down, we’re doing it as a group.”
The only sound that fills the room is Jensen’s breathing, short puffs of air as he processes Chris’s words. No one else chimes in; no one has to because Chris just covered it all. Now they’re just waiting for the fallout.
Jensen’s fists slowly unclench at his sides. “Fine.”
Chris raises an eyebrow, a move that looks remarkably like the one Jensen had pulled on Jared hours ago when he found him tearing apart the library. “Fine?”
“You’re right. I don’t run things around here, so –” Jensen gestures to the group. “You guys have every right to be there. It’s not my decision.”
Chris shakes his head tiredly. “Not the message I wanted you take from the conversation, but so be it.” The ends justify the means.
“Now that’s settled and we’ve been spared the ‘all for one’ speech,” Chad says, stepping forward to the table. “Let’s get down to business.”
Everyone gathers around as Jensen lays out the plan, tracking each step across maps and city diagrams. There’s a backup plan, a backup to the backup plan, and a whole lot of crap that Jared thinks they probably don’t have to know to accomplish tomorrow’s goal. He goes with it, though, because if Jensen’s not prepared to leave anything to chance, Jared’s not either. It’s late when Jensen finishes, and he tells them they’ll go over it again in the morning briefly, in case there are questions.
“If anyone changes their mind during the night, no hard feelings, okay?” Jensen says as they’re breaking to get some sleep. “There’s no expectations, and if you’re not at the outpost in the morning, no one’s going to think less of you.” No one responds, and from the looks that are passing back and forth, this is something Jensen’s said before.
The group filters out of the hatch and into the darkness. Jared pauses to wait for Jensen, feeling like he should tell the man goodnight or something. Chris rolls the hatch closed, leaving Jensen concealed underneath.
“Shouldn’t we wait for him?” Jared asks.
Chris shakes his head. “It’ll be awhile before he stops, and we need to be as rested as possible, so if you think you can sleep, you should try.” It feels wrong leaving Jensen down there working while everyone else goes to bed. Chris seems to sense Jared’s discomfort and says, “If he wanted someone to stay, he would have asked.” This is the man that was going to go on a supply run alone and leave a group of fully capable adults behind, so Jared thinks he’s a little entitled to be untrusting of Jensen’s ability to voice his needs.
Chris stops when he realizes Jared’s not following him. “Look, I get it. I don’t like leaving him either, but we’ve pushed him enough for one day. He’s got a lot of shit on his mind, and this is how he works through it. You’re just gonna have to trust me.” It’s clear Jared’s going to have to defer to Chris’s experience, because if he goes back down there and Jensen throws him out on his ear, he’s not going to know what to do. “Try to get some sleep.”
“Yeah, okay. You too, Chris.”
Misha’s already underneath his blankets, curled on his side and staring at the wall when Jared drops into their sleeping quarters. He’s left the lamp on, casting soft light across the room.
Jared pulls off his shoes and shirt, switches off the lamp and falls into bed. The room is pitch black, and Jared folds his arms behind his head, squinting up at the ceiling as if that will clear his vision.
“What are we doing?”
It’s nearly a minute before Misha replies. “The right thing.”
Jared nods even though Misha can’t see him. “Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.” Sleep comes surprisingly easily after that.
Jensen lifts his head and tugs at the piece of paper that’s stuck to the side of his face. He blinks down at the drool mark on the page and slams the book closed. He scratches at his face, trying to force feeling back into his body. He glances at his watch, not surprised to see that only an hour has passed; the others will be waking shortly. He grabs the notebook he’s been writing in; he’s got enough time to go over it once more.
The sun is still hidden when he climbs out of the hatch; only the first signs of daybreak are bleeding across the horizon as he makes his way across the camp. He checks the supplies in the Jeep and van and tops off the gas tanks.
Chris wanders toward him, AK-47 resting on his shoulder. The guns normally don’t make a huge difference unless you’re a crack shot and can actually hit a connecting cable or the eye socket of the machine, and that only has a ghost of a chance of working on one of the bigger machines. Having tangible weapons seems to make them feel better, the illusion of protection, so Jensen goes with it.
“You sleep at all?” Chris asks as he drops the AK on the back seat of the Jeep.
“About as much as you,” Jensen shoots back.
Chris nods acceptingly, because this isn’t the time or the place for that conversation. Jensen knows Chris well enough to know that even if he was in bed, he wasn’t getting a lot of rest.
“I was thinking,” Jensen begins, spitting out the words without giving them much thought, “about what you said last night. You were right. None of you answer to me, and for me to plan everything and think that I should be the one that –”
Chris lifts his hand. “You can stop right there. All I’m saying is that we’re in this together.”
Jensen nods. “Exactly, and for me to make all these crazy plans and expect everyone to go along with it is just wrong. And I think that –”
“What you think is complete bullshit. Jensen, you’ve got a gift for this.”
If by gift Chris means pulling it out of his ass and hoping like hell it doesn’t blow up in his face, then yes, he does.
“You’re telling me I’m complete bullshit then complimenting my intelligence in the same breath?”
Chris glares at him. “Yeah, something like that.”
“I just don’t want to give the impression that I’m running things around here.”
“Ah,” Chris says knowingly. “So that’s what this is about. Should have known.”
Jensen turns to face his longtime friend, annoyed that once again that he’s on the outside of a private joke. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
Chris shakes his head. “It means that now is not the time to have this conversation. We’ll talk about it tonight, okay?” Jensen mumbles his agreement. Chris is right: now really isn’t the time to be discussing this. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll die out there and spare ourselves the heart to heart.”
“One can only hope,” Jensen mutters.
Chris grins and slaps him on the back. “That’s the spirit, Jenny Bean.”
“We’ve been up for thirty minutes and you’ve already managed to piss him off,” Mike comments as he walks over with the rest of the group trailing behind him.
“He hasn’t been to bed yet, so it doesn’t count,” Chris comments, jerking his thumb in Jensen’s direction. “For all we know, he’s still pissed about last night.”
Jensen rolls his eyes, allowing the familiar banter to wash over him. Everyone always assumes he’s pissed off about something, but Jensen rarely gets mad. If anything, he’s resigned, accepting what he has to do to keep things going and hoping he doesn’t fuck it all up in the process. He doesn’t have time to get mad.
Chad groans. “I’m not riding with him. I’m crunchy and taste good with ketchup.”
“You do realize he’s not a dragon,” Misha points out. “He doesn’t have a tail.”
“He does breathe smoke, though,” Mike says. “I’ve seen it.”
“Yeah, because you were probably trying to blow it in his face,” Danneel comments, rolling her eyes.
Jensen turns around, facing the group with a raised eyebrow. “Finished?” There are a few smirks and a couple of nods. “I made an outline for the other vehicle in case we get separated.” He passes the paper to Danneel, who scans the document quickly.
“Just whipped this up in your free time?” she asks.
Jensen ignores the question, pressing on with a brief recap of what the plan is. He finishes, sucking in a deep breath and holding it for a couple of seconds before slowly blowing it out his nose. “Questions?”
No one replies, and Jensen nods. “Okay. Stay safe and stick together. Don’t take any stupid risks and don’t try to be a hero. We’ll all be fine.” He shrugs and climbs into the Jeep without any further fanfare. Motivational speeches were never his thing.
Chris climbs into the passenger seat next to him, which is what he expects. As Chris has pointed out, why break up a winning team? What does surprise him is that Jared and Misha climb into the back seat. Usually people are falling over themselves to get away from him. He’s seen Chris bribe Chad with chocolate to get him in the backseat.
Chris drops his arm over the seat, resting his hand on the back of Jensen’s headrest. “Ready, boys?”
“There’s an AK in my lap. I’m absolutely ready for this,” Misha replies, grinning at Jared.
“You know how to shoot that thing?” Chris asks. Jensen snorts when Misha shakes his head no. “You’ll learn.” Chris nods to Jared. “What about you?”
“I’m from Texas. What d’you think?” Jared replies.
A Texas boy, Jensen muses as he pulls out onto the dusty road. He thought he recognized the accent. If it was a different time, Jensen would have piped up and said he was from Texas, too, and they’d have a long conversation rehashing the comforts of home and how things really are bigger in Texas. Who knows? Maybe they’d split a six pack and wile away the hours discussing their families and dead end jobs they’d worked. Maybe it would lead to something more. Jensen might be an asshole sometimes, but he’s not blind. He’s seen Jared half-naked and soaking wet – he’s not hard on the eyes. But it’s not a different time, and where you come from doesn’t matter any more than how attractive you are, so Jensen keeps his mouth shut and drives.
He watches the road, his mind going over the plan again and again, and Jared watches him in the rearview.
As always, Jensen has prepared for the worst and silently hoped for the best. He thinks this might be one of the rare times when the best case scenario actually happens as they’re throwing bags of seeds in the van, the payoff exceeding even Jensen’s highest hopes.
A puddle of water on the tile floor ripples, just the hint of vibration sending droplets dancing across the surface.
Jensen narrows his eyes. “Shut up,” he whispers, straining to hear. Chad belts out a laugh at a raunchy joke from Danneel, and Jensen grabs him by the shoulder and clamps a hand over his mouth. “Shut the fuck up,” he hisses, eyes darting to the group as they stop what they’re doing immediately. Jensen nods, and everyone backs up slowly. “The back hallway, get down and stay down.” He’ll never have them hide in a room with no easy exits. If the machines found them, it’d be a slaughter.
Chris gives him a sidelong look, but slinks through the building anyway. No one else heard anything. There are large underground drainage systems, just like the plans had depicted, to allow the excess water to drain from the greenhouse. It hooks up to the city water system which, although not ideal, could get them out if need be.
Chad licks the back of his hand, and Jensen lets him go immediately, glaring as Chad shuffles away. They climb down the ladder and hide in the darkness as water laps around their ankles. Jared sinks down next to him and gestures as if to ask what exactly are we doing down here?
Jensen holds his breath and waits. Maybe he’s wrong. Maybe what he saw was something else entirely or nothing at all. Maybe he’s been at this too long, and his mind is playing tricks on him. Wouldn’t be the first time.
Jared opens his mouth, sucking in breath to speak. Jensen squeezes his thigh, willing him to be quiet, and feels the muscles tense underneath his fingers. If there’s even a small chance… A moment later there’s a metal thud, followed by a second, then a third, and heavy, metal footsteps echo above them, rattling the foundation around them.
Jensen closes his eyes and listens to the dull sounds of machinery overhead; feels his body rocking with the vibrations as he leans against the wall and wishes like hell that one day he’ll be wrong.
They wait for three hours after the sound of footsteps echoes away.