Jared’s still trying to wrap his mind around their supply run. All in all, it was a huge success. They recovered bags of seeds and found some fruit, almonds and pecans growing from the forgotten trees in the dilapidated greenhouse. Everyone seems pleased: the group is joking and teasing each other on the drive back.
The offload goes quickly because everyone shows up to help. Jared gives James a handful of almonds and the little boy smiles as if Jared’s just given him his first baseball bat and glove.
“I call that a job well done,” Chris says, rolling his neck and wincing when it pops loudly.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I could use a drink,” Chad announces with a clap of his hands.
“If by drink you mean that crazy wine you’ve got brewing in your room, I’m not sure about that,” Mike says. “Last time we tried it, I was blind for nearly a week.”
Chad shakes his head. “Nah, I got something better.” He pulls a bottle of scotch out from behind his back. “Have a look at that!”
Chris checks the label and whistles appreciatively. “Where the hell did you get it?”
“One of the desks in the administrative office.” He nudges Jared. “Eh? Looks pretty good, don’t it?”
Jared nods. He can’t remember the last time he had a good drink, and he’s nearly salivating at the thought. They agree to meet back in a half hour, and disperse to change and find something to eat.
Cups aren’t required, Jared soon learns as the bottle is passed from person to person. Jared takes a long pull and swallows the contents with a cough. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve and leans back, resting his weight on his elbows as he stares at the twinkling stars above. His thoughts are fuzzy and his belly is full. Yeah, he feels pretty good.
“I didn’t hear a damn thing.”
Chad nudges his ankle with his foot. “Huh? What you talkin’ bout, Willis?”
Jared looks at Chad, his eyelids drooping low. It takes him a second to realize he’s said that out loud. “At the Center, I didn’t hear anything. The machine, I didn’t…” He shrugs and picks at a loose thread on his shirt. It’s not that he feels outright bad about it, but he should have known something was up. He’s lived with the reality of the war and the world it’s left behind as long as everyone else.
Mike passes Chris the bottle and falls over, resting his head on Danneel’s thigh. “Don’t feel bad. None of us did.”
Chris takes a deep breath, blowing cigarette smoke out of his nose. Not everything they take is necessarily important (or good) for survival. Some of it’s just bonus, small comforts they used to enjoy, and Chris savors each puff from the cigarette like it’s a fine Cuban cigar.
“Do you see now?” he asks quietly, flicking the ash to the side. Jared’s eyes track the burning cherry as Chris continues, voice low and somber, “Do you see why we need him?”
“He sees shit no one else does,” Danneel continues. “I don’t know how he does it, and he damn sure won’t tell any of us, if he even knows, but somehow…”
Mike picks up when she can’t find the words to continue. “He gets it, you know? Everything with the machines. He just… fuck, I don’t know.”
“And that’s why you follow him,” Jared concludes. Jensen doesn’t demand respect; if anything, he actively runs away from the responsibility. Everything that’s given to him, the admiration that’s afforded to him, they give willingly and freely.
“Just don’t tell him that,” Chad replies. “He’ll throw another hissy fit and we’ll all suffer the consequences.”
“So why isn’t he with us?” Misha points out after taking a lengthy swallow from the bottle. Jared’s glad he’s not the one to point it out, even if Jensen’s absence is palpable. He’s tried talking about Jensen to Danneel and Mike before, and usually he’s shut down before he can get any answers.
Chad snickers. “Did you check the river? He’s probably down there walking on water.”
Chris lifts his head. “He’s somewhere close.” He scans the area and points to the right with a nod. “Over there.”
Mike lifts his head and narrows his eyes in the darkness. Jensen’s resting on the hood of the Jeep about thirty yards from them. “Now that’s just creepy,” Mike mutters.
Jensen stays close, but it’s not close enough. He should be part of the group, an active participant in the celebration. Jared decides he’s going to fix that.
“I’mma get him,” he declares and pulls himself to his feet. His legs wobble as he tries to get his feet firmly underneath him. He justifies it by reminding himself that it’s been a long time since he’s imbibed.
Chris outright laughs. “He’s with the group. Sort of.”
“’S not good enough,” Jared replies as he trips over Chad’s legs and barely manages to make it over to Jensen. Jensen’s lying on the hood, one arm folded behind his head. Jared cocks his head and looks at the other man. Jensen’s eyes are closed and he’s breathing in and out deeply.
“Jensen ain’t moving,” Chris mumbles, watching Jared stand next to the car and Jensen’s lack of response. They’re too far away to hear any specifics if the conversation is muted, but Jensen isn’t yelling, so Chris takes that as a good sign.
“Reinforcements?” Danneel suggests.
“We are stronger as a group,” Mike says, smiling up at Danneel, who rewards him with a scratch behind his ear.
They stumble to their feet and wander over to Jared. After a harrowing day, even though no one will actually say it, it’s like they can’t be separated for long. The camaraderie is always strongest after a raid, and Jared’s happy to be a part of it; to finally feel like he’s part of this crazy and passionate group.
“Holy shit,” Chad mumbles, staring down at Jensen, who’s dead to the world.
Chris shakes his head, smiling fondly. “It was bound to happen sooner or later. Even Wonder Boy has to sleep once in awhile.”
“We can’t leave him out here,” Jared says quietly.
“You wake him up,” Chad says, taking a large step back.
Jared nods, willing to accept that task. If Jensen wakes up with fists flying, Jared figures he deserves to land a punch or two, because at some point, Jared’s pretty sure he’s earned it. He still feels marginally guilty over the way he treated Jensen when he confronted him in the war room.
Jared slips his arm under Jensen’s shoulder and pulls gently, easing his body off the hood. “Come on, Jen. Time for bed.”
Chris eyes him sideways and mouths, “Jen?”
Jensen’s eyes open to slits, green flashing from behind lowered lashes. “Wha…”
“Come on, easy,” Jared murmurs. “Bed time.” He pulls Jensen’s arm over his shoulder when his body sways uncertainly, and Jensen stumbles before Chris appears at his other side, taking some of his weight. His body is heavy, refusing to cooperate as they nearly carry him to his room.
Chad runs ahead and opens the hatch as Danneel slips inside to fold the covers back. Jensen’s compliant, putty in their hands, as they ease him into the room. Mike pulls off his shoes right after Jared lowers him down on the bed.
Jensen rubs his eyes, fighting to get his bearings. “I should…”
“You should get some fucking sleep,” Chris demands. He keeps his voice soft, as if he’s afraid to speak too loudly and risk Jensen fully waking.
Jensen yawns, white teeth flashing as Jared pushes him back on the bed with one hand. He pulls the covers around Jensen’s body, and Danneel drops a kiss to his cheek.
“Sleep now,” Danneel murmurs, running her fingers through his hair. They stand around the bed, keeping vigil as Jensen’s eyes flutter and drift closed, his body too tired to do anything but succumb to exhaustion. Even though they’re staring, it doesn’t feel awkward. If anything, it feels right, like they’re protecting something, someone important.
As they filter out of the room, Jared’s struck by just how much he wants to stay.
“He’s fuckin’ beat,” Chris announces after the hatch has been secured.
“Last time we tried that, he came up swinging,” Chad says. “He’s got to be dead on his feet.”
“We should have got him sooner,” Jared mumbles.
Chris pats him the back. “You did good, kid.”
Danneel collapses on the ground, folding her legs underneath her. “I say we finish the bottle here.”
Everyone’s quick to join her, falling where they stand as exhaustion and the need to be together melds into one. Even if no one will say, Jared knows they all want to be close to Jensen. He presses his hand against the cool metal of the hatch and pretends the feelings swelling deep in his gut are completely platonic, a sign of a fledgling friendship and nothing more.
Jensen’s been out in the field with Brock and Alice all morning, replanting the crops they lost to the machines. He’s vague on the details of the night before. He remembers their return to camp and unloading the vehicles. He knows the group decided to share a drink from the bottle Chad took from lord knows where. He’d lain on the hood of the Jeep, content to listen to the hushed conversations of victory from his friends. That’s the last thing he remembers. He’d woken up in his bed early in the morning feeling rested.
Alice touches his arm and offers him a canteen of water. He nods his thanks and takes a couple of deep swallows before passing the container back to her.
He bites his lip, debating how far he wants to go with his inquiry. Chances are someone from the group dragged his lazy ass back to bed or he found his way there on his own. It wouldn’t be the first time he was dead on his feet, running on fumes after being awake for forty-eight hours, and still managed to find his way home.
Her eyes widen, and Jensen inwardly winces when he realizes she’s surprised he’s talking to her. If he was a better man, he’d work to rectify that. “Yes?”
“Last night, after we got back. Did you hang out with the raid team?” The term ‘hang out’ seems so outdated, but he can’t think of anything better to call it.
She curbs his discomfort when she chuckles and says, “You mean did I join the Kumbaya circle and take a few swigs from the bottle?”
Jensen shrugs and rubs the back of his neck. He’s rubbing dirt and grit into his skin and he can’t seem to stop, even if he’s going to itch like a son of a bitch later.
“The answer is no, then.”
Jensen pulls three seeds out of the bag and drops them into the tilled earth. “You could have. You’re always welcome.”
She drops to one knee, covering the small hole with soft dirt. She rests her arm on her knee and looks up at him. “So are you, you know.”
He swallows and takes a step back, unsure what to say. He knows he could join the group whenever he wants. On a rational level, he knows this. He’s just not sure he knows where to begin. He’s not Chris, who’s friendly and loyal to a fault, or Mike who always seems to know how to welcome a frightened newcomer or what to say when no one else can find the words. He’s not Chad, who makes people laugh in the face of the most heinous evil they’ve ever seen, or Danneel whose comforting words and gentle caresses make the worst pains fade away. Jared and Misha have found their strides, bringing exciting differences and new talents to the group. He’s just not them and can’t find it in himself to be something he’s not, so he stays on the fringes and watches them grow and turn into the most amazing human beings it’s ever been his pleasure to know.
“I’m sorry if I’ve upset you,” Alice whispers, eyes cast downward as she deposits more seeds in the ground.
He shakes his head. He’s not going to let an innocent person take the blame for something she has no fault in. He was fucked up long before she ever got here. “It’s not you.”
“If you finish that with ‘it’s me,’ I’m going to have to laugh at you.”
Jensen snorts. He’s not stupid enough to say that even if it’s the truth. “Nah, wasn’t going to go there.”
“Good.” She smiles to herself, looking across the fields at nothing. “My husband used to say that to me, and it drove me up the wall.”
Jensen bites down on his lower lip. This is usually where he runs away or shuts the other person down. He doesn’t talk about the past, because to him, none of that matters anymore. The life that he knew is over, and this is what he’s got left. What he had before certainly wasn’t anything to write home about, so if anything, the life he’s carved out here is better than what he’s known because he has a purpose now. All he can do is try to make it work, and hope like hell he survives. This is his life and he’s dealing with it, but the way he chooses to deal usually isn’t the way everyone else copes.
“Scott, my husband, when we would fight, used to say ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ and that’s such bullshit. What it means is that it really is you, and I’m just trying to absolve myself of any guilt and make you feel better by saying it’s not.”
Jensen chuckles and tries to think of something to say. He knows a response is expected, and he should make some sort of effort at a human connection. At least that’s the bullshit Chris keeps swearing by. “I’m not gonna lie and say I’ve never used that line.”
Alice stands up and leans back to stretch. “I think everyone has used that line at least once.” She pauses, gazing thoughtfully at the ground, and Jensen knows she’s not seeing dirt but images of her past. “It’s amazing to think about it now. All the crap I used to say and the stupid things I thought were important. To think about the things I let bother me, the things I should have said…”
Jensen swallows. The shoulda, coulda, wouldas. They all have them, a constant companion in the darkness. He glances at the horizon, wishing for all the world that Mike or Danneel or anyone but him was here. He says the only thing he can say: “You’re a good person, Alice.”
She huffs disbelievingly. “You don’t know me, Jensen. You don’t know a damn thing about me.”
He shrugs because whatever happened in the past should stay there, and he’s the last person in the world who has the right to judge. “Don’t have to. I’m basing this purely on what I see now, and from where I’m standing, that’s what matters.”
Her nose crinkles when she looks at him, trying to find inconsistency or hesitance in his words. There isn’t any, because Jensen stands by what he says. Out here, your word is all you have. “You’re a strange one. I hope you know that.”
Jensen laughs. “Yeah, heard that before.”
She grins and covers the last of the seeds in the row. Her stomach rumbles and she presses a hand against her belly. “I think that means it’s time for lunch.” He nods and turns to start on the next row. “Is it okay if I stop for food?”
“I’m not your warden, Alice. If you’re hungry, take a break.”
She glances at the ground, kicking at the soft topsoil. “Yeah, but…”
He rolls his eyes, mock sternness in his voice when he says, “Fine. I’m ordering you to take lunch.”
Alice smiles and snaps him a sloppy salute that leaves smudges of dirt on her forehead. “Yes, sir.”
He groans. “Ugh. Don’t ever say that to me again.”
She sticks her tongue out at him. For a second she looks impossibly young, and Jensen’s heart splinters. She doesn’t belong in this broken world. None of them do.
“You want anything?”
He scrutinizes the seeds with fervent intensity as he drops them in the hole. “No, I’m good.”
She wanders off, leaving him to his work, and he loses himself in the familiar motions.
It’s mid afternoon when a shadow falls across him, too tall to be any of the usual suspects. “You eat yet?”
Jensen pats the soft earth, concealing the seeds safely underneath, and pushes his weary body to his feet before moving on to the next hole.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“Good afternoon to you, too, Jared,” Jensen says as he bends down. Chris is usually the one that drags him out of the fields and forces food down his throat. At least in the beginning he did. After a while, things got dismissed as being typical Jensen and he was left to his devices, which has worked just fine for him.
Jared smiles brightly. “Afternoon, Jensen.” His eyes narrow almost immediately, as if he’s thought this through and he’s not prepared to accept anything less than Jensen stuffing himself until he’s ready to puke. “Now come eat.”
Jensen sighs and slings the burlap bag of seeds over his shoulder. “Everyone is way too concerned with my dietary habits.”
“Are you kidding? That’s one of the hottest conversation topics around here.”
“Hobbies. You all need one.”
Jared laughs and passes over a bucket of water for Jensen to wash his hands. “Who needs hobbies when we have you?”
Jensen squirms when Jared’s gaze refuses to move from his face. He’s never liked being the center of attention, preferring to remain on the fringes, content to let things pass him by.
“You don’t like it, do you?” Jared muses, eyes never leaving Jensen’s face.
Jensen glances at the folded-over bag on the back of the four-wheeler. Anything to change the subject. “You promised me food.”
Jared smiles, and Jensen knows he’s getting a pass. “So I did.” Jared passes him a bag of almonds and some sliced tomato. It’s not much, but it’s more than enough to tide him over until dinner. “Danneel said you’re not much of a lunch eater, so I improvised.”
Jensen crunches down on several nuts and reaches for the canteen of water. “Did she tell you I prefer to be left alone?”
“She might have mentioned that. I wasn’t really listening.”
Jensen rolls his eyes and swallows a bit of juicy tomato. Jared will lose interest; they all do eventually. In a lot of ways Jensen knows he makes his life harder on himself because people assume he’s a mystery, a puzzle to be solved. He knows the truth: he’s not that interesting.
“You were supposed to sleep late,” Jared says, crossing his arms over his chest and fixing Jensen with a raised eyebrow.
“I’m fine, Jared. Really.” He waves to the field. “Just got a lot to do.” He leans against the fender of the ATV as he swallows down the rest of his food.
“Whoa, slow down,” Jared chides. “No one’s gonna take that from you.”
“Like I said, I have a lot to do before I lose daylight.”
Jared smiles knowingly. “One man army, huh?”
Jensen doesn’t dignify that with a response, just scoffs and slings the bag of seeds over his shoulder again as he sets out to finish the row. “Thanks for the food.” Heavy footsteps plod after him, and Jared follows him back to the spot where he retrieved him from.
Jensen opens the bag and Jared’s hand darts past him and pulls out a handful of seeds. “Three, right?” Jared asks, dropping to one knee.
Jensen watches him drop the seeds in the soil and carefully cover them with dirt, patting the ground in what can only be described as a loving manner. “Um… what are you doing?”
Jared looks at him curiously. “Helping.”
There are two ways Jensen can handle this. He can tell Jared to fuck off, or he can let him help and maybe teach him something in the process. He could also ignore him and hope he goes away. That’s three ways, actually. He gives a mental shrug. “Two’s good. We’ll weed out the weaker plants later.”
Jared nods and moves ahead of Jensen to dig the next hole. They work in silence for several minutes, and Jensen thinks maybe this isn’t such a bad idea. Jared’s a hard worker, and he’s got a young back which is worth its weight in gold out here. Maybe Jensen can teach him how to…
“So where are you from?” Jared asks, leaning back to rest on his foot as he waits for Jensen to drop the seeds.
Jensen’s gut clenches, and he struggles to white out his mind. “Let me tell you how this goes, Jared: I don’t talk about the past. I don’t want to talk about people I’ve known or my family or rehash my glory days of when I was young and stupid. If you want to work with me, this is what I’m offering – work. If you want good conversation, I suggest you find someone else to spend your day with.” Jensen swallows the dust that’s collecting on the back of his tongue and waits for Jared to storm away.
“I stole my parents’ car when I was fourteen.”
Jensen blinks, stares and blinks again. “What?”
Jared backs up to the next hole, and Jensen drops the seeds. “Yep, stole their new car after they’d gone to sleep. I was so damn proud of myself; thought I was some big shot, a real grownup. I went to pick up my buddy and take him joyriding with me. I knocked on his front door, and as he was coming out, the car rolled down the driveway and right into his front porch. We barely got out of the way in time.”
Jensen chuckles and shakes his head, and Jared continues, “Left the stupid thing in neutral.”
“I bet your parents weren’t amused,” Jensen surmises.
“I spent that summer rebuilding a porch, and half of high school grounded. What do you think?”
“You stole their car,” Jensen replies. “What’d you think was gonna happen?”
Jared shrugs one shoulder. “Dude, I was fourteen. I wasn’t thinking at all.”
Jensen makes an understanding noise in his throat because he’s been there, young and stupid, thinking he had all the time in the world to get it together, to get things right. He nudges Jared’s hand with the toe of his boot to keep the row straight.
Jensen’s not ready to let the conversation die, and he can’t remember the last time he’s felt like that. The question is out of his mouth before he can stop himself, before he can talk himself out of it. “You’re a pretty big guy. Football or basketball?”
Jared smiles up at him, all teeth and dimples, before launching into a story about his foray into high school sports.
That’s how their afternoon goes, with Jared telling stories from his past, and Jensen, for no reason that makes total sense to him, hanging on every word.
Jared inhales his breakfast, eager to meet Jensen at the western field to finish replanting the crops. They’ve managed to seed almost everything they lost in less than a week. If they put in a full day, Jared thinks they’ll finish.
“Where you going in such a hurry?” Chad comments as Jared wipes the crumbs off his mouth with the sleeve of his tee shirt.
“Back to the fields.”
“With Jensen,” Chad says. There’s something in his tone that causes Jared to raise his head and meet Chad’s gaze.
“Yeah,” he replies. Is this a problem?
“He doesn’t like you, Jared,” Chad says bluntly.
Jared steps back, wondering if he’s being that obvious and if there’s anything there to be obvious about. He just wants to help, and if Jensen’s the one doing the work, then that’s the person Jared’s going to help. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Let me spell it out for you, then,” Chad says. “Jensen doesn’t like any of us. He tolerates us, and that includes you, in case you were wondering.”
Working side by side with Jensen the last week has shed some light on things, but nothing all that informative. Jensen doesn’t talk much unless it’s to explain the reason why he’s doing something a particular way. He’s definitely not a sharing and caring kind of guy, but he doesn’t tell Jared to shut the hell up when he wants to talk, and Jared’s more than happy to fill the void of silence. On second thought, maybe he is just tolerating him.
“I’ve seen the way you look at him,” Chad continues. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing – we’re all human. I get it, man. I really do. I’m just saying it’s a lost cause because Jensen can’t see past himself.”
Jared’s eyes widen as realization sets in. Chad doesn’t really think… “Are you saying he doesn’t care about us?”
“Oh, he cares,” Chad amends. “In a survival of the fittest sort of way.”
“Dude, what’s gotten into you?” Jared asks. “If you think he just tolerates us, why don’t you ask him –”
Chad barks out a laugh. “He tolerates you guys. He wouldn’t piss on me to put out a fire. I fucked up, Jared.”
Jared stares at him, trying to piece together what had happened in the last twelve hours. He keeps coming up blank. “What did you do?”
Chad shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter. I’m just telling you how it is.”
Apparently Chad swallowed a whole bucketful of crazy last night. “I don’t know where this is coming from, but it ain’t healthy, man. We have to stick together.”
Chad rolls his eyes and waves his hand dismissively. “Save it, Jared. I don’t need to hear the ‘all for one’ speech, okay? I know I’m the odd man out, the weakest link, and that’s okay. I still have a place to live, and out here, that’s all that matters.” He shrugs and kicks at the ground. “As your friend, I’m just telling you to back off. You’re barking up the wrong tree, okay?”
“Yeah, I… I have to get to work,” Jared says.
Chad waves him away without a parting glance.
The sun is already shining brightly overhead when Jared makes his way out to Jensen, who’s tilling the last of the field. Jared watches him work, muscles rippling underneath a fine sheen of sweat. He blinks several times, trying to match what Chad said to the man standing in front of him. It’s not working.
“Morning,” Jared says.
Jensen’s eyes dart to the side, to the sun that’s already crawling its way to its high point, and grunts, his typical morning greeting.
Jared should get the seeds and follow along behind him, performing the same tasks they’ve done together the last few days. He should keep his mouth shut and get to work. Unfortunately Jared was never good at the former. “So Chad thinks you hate him.”
Jensen pauses, hands frozen with the hoe in midair. He shakes his head, blinks and continues on.
Jared’s eyes narrow. Jensen should say something, and he should do it now. “Did you hear me? I said Chad thinks you –”
“Yeah, I heard you,” Jensen snaps. He doesn’t stop working, his movements precise and controlled. “Just wondering why I should care.”
Jared’s jaw drops and he stares blankly at Jensen. “Why you should care? Jensen, he thinks you hate him.”
“Dude, what is your major malfunction?”
“I don’t have time for this, Jared.”
He’s being dismissed, but he’s not going quietly. “You should make time,” Jared replies angrily. “For whatever reason, there are people here that think you can’t stand the sight of them, and –”
“And what?” Jensen interjects, voice rising. “I’m supposed to give a shit about that? I care about surviving, Jared. Everything else is just… everything else.”
Suddenly Chad’s cryptic words are making more sense. It’s like the wool is being lifted from his eyes. “There’s more to life than having a full stomach.”
“Not in my life there isn’t.”
Jared stares at him, the dream dying in his eyes. “You really don’t give a shit about anyone else, do you?”
“You act like this is news,” Jensen growls, shouldering past Jared to continue down the row. “I’m a survivor. If other people happen to make it with me, it’s just gravy.”
Jared stares at his back, swallowing down the bile in his throat. “You’re a fuckin’ asshole.”
If Jensen responds, Jared doesn’t hear it.
Jensen spends the next two days in isolation, working long hours and coming back to camp after dinner has been taken away. Judging from the wary looks he gets when he’s in camp, he figures Jared has spread the news of their discussion in the field. It isn’t pretty, but he wasn’t expecting to make any new friends. They don’t have to like him or enjoy his company. It’s not a prerequisite for survival.
He had all but taken Chad’s head off when he found him fast asleep while on watch duty. He’d bitched Chad up one side and down the other before dismissing him to his room while Jensen took the rest of his shift. But it was done. Finished. And Jensen is the last person who’d ever rat someone out. Let Jared believe whatever he wants to believe. It isn’t Jensen’s story to tell.
On the morning of the third day, Chris is waiting for him when he crawls out of his room.
“Mornin’,” Chris says, passing him a cup of coffee. It’s instant and it tastes like heaven. Jensen doesn’t ask him where he got it. Chris has been known to harbor things in his room. “So you’ve been making friends.”
Jensen grunts, determined not to let anything ruin his first sip of coffee in over a year.
“Well, you know I ain’t one for small talk so I’m going to cut to the chase,” Chris says. “Me and Chad are going on a run today.”
Jensen’s eyes widen and he chokes on his second sip of coffee, fighting like hell not to spit it into the dirt. “You’re doing what?” This might be the stupidest thing he’s heard all month.
“We need a change a change of scenery,” Chris says. “Anyway, I wanna see if I can get more smokes.”
“You’re full of shit. You know we don’t make raids without –”
Chris raises his hand. “Save it, Jenny Bean. It’s a fuel run. That’s all. I’ve done them a dozen times without you.”
“It’ll be fine,” Chris promises. Jensen knows his mind is made up and wonders how long they’ve been planning this without him. “Anyway, the kid’s in a funk. Gonna try to rattle his cage a little and see if I can bring him out of it.”
Chad has all but run in the opposite direction every time Jensen has made an appearance lately, so if there’s a chance this might help, Jensen’s going to roll with it. He might not like it, but in the end, it’s not his decision.
“If something happens to you, I swear to God I’ll kick your ass from here to California.”
Chris grins and slaps him on the back. “That’s the spirit.” He goes to find Chad and they leave together in the Jeep. Jensen tries to tamp down the sinking feeling in his stomach that this might somehow be the beginning of the end.
Everyone sticks close to camp, making up various reasons for needing to be here when Chad and Chris get back. As day gives way to night, Jensen doesn’t think something’s wrong, he knows it. He doesn’t eat dinner, and no one says a word when he stalks from one end of the camp to the other as the night slowly crawls by.
The night bleeds away to dawn, and the sounds of an engine rumble down the dusty road. Everyone runs to meet the Jeep, but Jensen hangs back, struggling to keep air in his lungs.
“Oh my god,” Danneel screams.
Jensen finds his legs then, and runs to the Jeep where Jared and Misha are helping Chris out of the driver’s seat. His leg is shredded, eyes rolling back from pain as he struggles to speak. Chad is lying in the backseat, bloody, broken and gray. Jensen’s breath seizes in his lungs, and he can’t move. He could have stopped this. He shouldn’t have let them go. If he’d thrown a big enough fit, Chris would have listened to him – chalked it up to Jensen being a fuckin’ pussy, but they would have stayed and Chris would still be in one piece and Chad wouldn’t be broken almost beyond recognition.
“Mike,” Jared orders, meeting Mike’s gaze in the muddled light. “Help Misha with Chris. We need to get Chad inside.”
“It was the same one,” Chris says, eyes wide and painfully alert. “The same fuckin’ machine that keeps comin’ after us.”
“You don’t know that,” Danneel soothes, running her hands down Chris’s arms.
“Bullshit,” Chris roars. “Fucker was missing an eye. Had the same splice goin’ down its side. It’s the damn machine that came after me and Jensen when we went into the city the first time. It’s the one Chad shot a few months later. They’re healing themselves. Somehow – they’re healing themselves.”
“Come on, man,” Mike encourages, pulling Chris’s arm over his shoulder. Chris takes one fumbling step and his eyes roll to the back of his head. He goes down harder than a stack of bricks. Jared is talking to Chad in hushed tones and issuing orders left and right. When they carry him out of the backseat, Jensen knows he’s not breathing. He’s not breathing.
And then there’s nothing. All the noise is drowned out, and Jensen can see mouths moving, people screaming, but there’s no sound.
All of Jensen’s senses are honed to one specific point: someone is going to pay. That machine will die.
It ends now.