Like yesterday, Jensen’s the first one to stir. Gen has her face pressed into his t-shirt, and Jared’s arm is slung over both of them. Jensen would expect it to feel stifling, closed in, but the air’s cooled enough that he appreciates their body heat, and as long as he can touch them both, as long as they’re both right here, he doesn’t have to worry about them.
There’s something else, too, something that he hasn’t let himself examine. It wouldn’t be fair to Jared or Gen. He’s caught himself a few times the last couple of days, looking when he shouldn’t look, stealing glimpses of an intimacy that doesn’t belong to him. This, though, Gen’s hair tickling his chin, Jared’s breath warm on the back of his neck: this is his. For a little while – for the rest of the trip, maybe, the few days that remain – he can have this.
He’s thoroughly awake now, though, and logistics intrude. He needs to get a fire started if he wants coffee, and there’s a maintenance shed set off a ways from the parking lot that he wants to raid for tools and maybe gasoline, if there’s a lawnmower. He never got that scrubdown in the lake he wanted yesterday, either, because Jared and Gen... Well, he just never got the scrubdown he wanted.
Cautiously he extricates himself from between them. Gen moans when he sits up, but she settles down again once he spreads the top sleeping bag back over her. Jared’s breathing doesn’t even change.
Looking at them, Jensen finds himself blinking at tears. The hell? He rubs at his eyes, and then he gets himself out of the tent as fast as the tangle of feet and blanket will let him.
He goes down to the lake and strips to nothing, because there’s no Gen to see him now. He soaps himself up and rinses himself off, and he swims back and forth along the shore a couple of times just to stretch out a little.
He stops for a breather and just stands, neck-deep. For a moment it’s nice, feeling at the squishy ground between his toes. The longer he stands there, though, the more he feels the quiet seeping into him, as sure and as dangerous as the cold. There’s no sound but a few birds chattering. The 4Runner and the tent are over the rise of the bank and out of sight. He has no proof that there’s anyone in the world but him.
He’s been in the water too long; he’s getting the chills. Hurriedly he wades back to shore. He has things to do, anyway.
By the time Gen stumbles out of the tent, Jensen’s made his raid on the maintenance shed, shifted things around in the 4Runner, and gotten his fire started and his water heated. He offers her a cup and the can of instant grounds, and she mutters vaguely in his direction. Eventually she wanders off to do “girl things,” which Jensen chooses not to question.
This time, it feels almost natural when Jared crowds into Jensen’s space again like he did yesterday, shoulder to shoulder. Later in the day it’d be weird, but somehow isn’t yet, because Jared was spooned up behind him only half an hour ago.
“Seriously, it’s going to rain,” Gen says. She sidles up on Jensen’s other side, his arm reaches out and pulls her in of its own accord.
“It better rain,” Jared says.
It will. Already it feels like the air’s sweating, it’s so humid. “Let’s get on the road,” Jensen says. “If we’re in for a storm, I want to get as far as possible before it hits.”
Within an hour they pass the Welcome to New Mexico sign. By mid-morning the damp tension that’s been hanging over them for more than a day has gathered into a darkening front to the east, visible when they’re on the flat or cresting a hill. It’s still a long way off, but it’s building.
“Hey,” Jared says, “aren’t there Anasazi ruins up around here somewhere?” Because seriously, when are Indian ruins not cool?
Jensen shoots him a look, but it must say something about how long they’ve been on the road, how far they’ve gotten from civilization and all they left behind in it, that Jensen answers anyway. “Yeah, maybe. You wanting to take a look?”
Jared shrugs. “I’ve never been up this way before.”
Jensen rolls his eyes, but there’s a hint of a smile on his lips. “We’re not going to go look at ruins, Jared.”
“Just a thought.”
Jared swaps Gen for the back seat and dozes for a while. Distantly he listens to the murmur of her and Jensen’s voices. That’s good, he thinks. Jensen’s hardly talked at all since they left. Since before that, even, not since that black bottomlessness in his memory that Jared’s thoughts carefully skirt.
His next conscious thought is that the car has slowed down. He sits up and blinks. “Where are we?”
“Española?” Gen offers uncertainly.
Jared assumes that’s a town, but he doesn’t see one. They’re not even on the freeway anymore, although who knows how long ago they got off it; Jensen said something this morning about taking back roads to avoid Albuquerque. Now all Jared sees is long low hills against a solid slate-gray backdrop. “Pit stop?” He could use one, now that he thinks about it.
“We’re looking for shelter,” she says.
“Everything okay?” The sky is nearly black, and Jared knows he didn’t sleep the day through. He doesn’t like the looks of this. If he were home in Austin, he’d be looking for tornadoes about now.
“Everything’s fine,” Jensen says. “We’re gonna find some place to hole up, and we’ll be fine.”
Jared peers around the seat. Jensen’s knuckles are white. “Sure we will,” Jared says.
He doesn’t know where they’re going to hole up, though. The road they’re on is the only sign of civilization he can see. Safer in the car than out of it, at least. Barring tornadoes.
“Lightning,” Gen says quietly, pointing.
It’s already gone by the time Jared turns to look, but he starts counting anyway. At thirty seconds, he hears a distant rumble. “Thirty miles?”
“What?” says Jensen. “No. It’s five seconds to a mile.”
“Are you sure?”
“Dude, boy scout here. I’m sure.”
“Uh, so, six miles, then.” Another bolt flashes towards the ground. Gen sucks in a breath.
It’s just a thunderstorm, Jared tells himself. He hasn’t seen one in a while; Seattle doesn’t get them often. Still, some dark clouds, some rain: a nice break to the heavy, lethargic heat. He used to love them when he was a kid, the blaze of lightning filling his eyeballs, the distant thunder getting right up close and quivering in his bones.
Except now it’s only him and Gen and Jensen and a fiberglass shell between them and the storm. The thought doesn’t exhilarate him the way it would’ve once. At least, not in the good way.
They keep driving, and Jared keeps counting the thunder after each lightning flash. At three miles, he gives up; the lightning’s coming too close together now to tell which roll of thunder goes with which strike.
Jared spots something in the distance, off to one side. It’s a reddish, rectangular blot on the dirt-and-tumbleweed landscape. “That looks like some kind of structure.”
“Watch for a road,” Jensen says.
A half a mile on, Gen points it out. Jensen makes the turn. The road’s gravel, potholey and ribbed from people driving over it too fast. Jensen slows down to a crawl just to keep the teeth from rattling out of everyone’s heads.
The dark blot resolves into a barn. At first Jared can’t imagine what a person would do with a barn around here; this doesn’t exactly look like farming country. Then he spots the corral, and it makes sense. Someone kept horses here once. Not for a long time, though; one of the corral’s vertical posts leans crazily, and the barn’s white trim is gray and peeling.
“Abandoned,” Jensen says. “Awesome.” Translation: no contagion here. Jared feels the same relief.
Something starts patters against the windshield. Gen yelps.
“Hail,” Jensen says.
They come up on a driveway to the barn, and Jensen slows to a stop. There’s a gate across the driveway. A rusted chain holds it closed, and Jared can make out a padlock.
“Right,” Jensen says. “Off road it is. Jared, you think you can get to the toolbox?”
“Get the wire cutters and see if you can cut that barbed wire and pull it aside. I don’t want to puncture a tire.”
“Aye-aye,” Jared says. He hops out of the car. Instantly his skin is stinging with hail pellets. They’re not that big. He hopes they stay that way. Around back, he pops the rear door and digs around Jensen’s toolbox, which is as well and as redundantly stocked as the first-aid kit, and thanks be to Jensen for that.
The fence posts are already sagging. Cutting the barbed wire would be an easy job if it weren’t for the thunder rolling through him almost constantly and the lightning flashes sneaking right up on him, it feels like. Not to mention the hail, still pelting down on him.
As soon as Jared’s cleared the wire, he waves Jensen through and across the shallow ditch between the road and the fence. There’s a soft scraping sound as the undercarriage runs over a tumbleweed, and then the 4Runner’s up one the other side. Jared hops back in. “It’s hailing harder!” he says.
They drive the last couple of hundred feet to the barn. “Is it even grounded?” Jared asks. “We might be better off in the car.”
“It had power once,” Gen says, pointing lines just visible around the structure’s other side. “We should be fine.” At Jared’s look, she smirks shakily. “Jensen’s not the only one in this car who was a scout.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jensen says.
“What?” Jared asks.
Jensen doesn’t answer; he just drives right on through the barn’s gaping door. Oh. Right. Jensen pulls to a stop inside and says, “Come on, let’s see if we can get that shut.”
Jared follows him out. The barn door hasn’t been used in who knows how long; the wheels seem to have rusted in their track. Jared finds he doesn’t mind. The barn’s dark enough inside; close the door and it’d be pitch black.
“Give it up, man,” Jared says. “Doesn’t matter anyway. We’ll be fine.”
Jensen hesitates, and finally he nods.
“Great. I’m gonna take a leak.” Jared thumbs towards the great outdoors. Jensen waves him off, and Jared goes. Not far, because this is not the kind of weather a guy enjoys pulling his dick out in, but enough so he feels vaguely sanitary.
When he gets back, he finds that Gen has dragged the sleeping bags out onto the floor of the barn and is sitting on one of them, working on opening a can of tuna by the light of the Coleman lantern. Jensen’s already eating out of his can. Jared drops down next to Gen. “Hungry?”
“We skipped our lunch stop, looking for someplace to stay. That highway Jensen had us on? There was nothing.”
“I got you here, though, right?” Jensen asks.
“Yeah, you did,” Gen says, patting his knee.
“Damn straight,” Jensen says.
Jared nabs a couple of tuna cans for himself. For a while, the only sounds inside the barn are the soft rattle of forks against cans and the harsher clatter of hail on the roof. Outside, thunder continues to crack.
When Jared finishes both his cans, he collects everyone’s and stashes them in the garbage sack. Coming back, he wedges himself between Jensen and Gen. That same feeling washes over him from the other morning, that inexplicable feeling of peace: here are his people, right where he wants them. He leans over and kisses the top of Gen’s head.
And then, because it’s the obvious, the only symmetrical thing to do, he leans over the other way and presses his lips against Jensen’s hair, just above his ear.
Jensen stiffens. On Jared’s other side, he hears the intake of Gen’s breath.
Jared has a choice, here. He doesn’t have to articulate the options; he already knows what they are and which he’d rather choose. It isn’t only his choice, though. He pulls far enough back to look Gen in the eye. She bites her a lip.
Thunder rolls through Jared, catching his breath in his lungs.
Slowly, minutely, Gen nods, and Jared lifts his eyebrows. She has to be sure. He - they - can’t do whatever they’re about to do unless she’s sure. She nods again, more firmly this time, and she gives his arm a squeeze for good measure. Okay, then.
Jared shifts his weight as he turns to Jensen. Jensen hasn’t moved. He follows Jared’s eyes as Jared scoots around so he’s at a decent angle. Jared reaches up with his hand like he’s always wanted to do, always, except the timing was never right, and he caresses Jensen’s jaw. “Can I kiss you?” he asks.
Jared waits. When Jensen doesn’t say anything else, just keeps staring, frozen and wide-eyed, Jared leans in and kisses Jensen’s mouth. Jensen’s lips are soft and full and everything Jared always knew they’d be. He waits one beat, two, and then he pulls a few inches back.
Jensen’s breath stutters. Finally, he manages, “What was that?” The words are warm puffs against Jared’s lips.
“Do you want me to stop?”
There’s a long pause. Jared pulls back further. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpses Gen: alert, intent. In front of him, Jensen’s eyes are full with some emotion that isn’t disgust or shock or even lust; something painted as brilliantly as any of those but interlaced with subtler, more complicated hues.
“No,” Jensen whispers brokenly. “God, please, don’t stop.”
This time, when their lips meet, Jensen kisses back. Jared was aiming for gentle, but Jensen clearly is not. He mouths hungrily at Jared; his hands clutch at Jared’s arms and the fabric of his t-shirt. “Hey,” Jared whispers, pulling back for a breather. “Jensen?”
For a moment Jensen only stares, eyes wide, and then he scuttles backwards. “I’m sorry,” he says hoarsely. He turns to Gen. “God, I’m sorry.” Then, before Jared can move, Jensen does possibly the most un-Jensen-like thing Jared has ever seen: he draws his knees to his chest, wraps his arms around them, and buries his face against his arms. His shoulders begin to shake.
Jared looks to Gen for guidance. By her expression, she’s as freaked as he is. After a moment, she scoots towards Jensen. Jared cautiously follows. He’s the one who did this, apparently; he doesn’t want to make it worse.
“Jensen?” Gen says gently.
“I’m sorry,” Jensen says again. The words are muffled against his legs.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” she says. When Jensen doesn’t respond to this, Gen lays a hand on his shoulder. “Jensen, what is it?”
Jensen lifts his tear-streaked face to look at her. “I’m fine,” he says. His voice breaks on the second word.
Gen laughs, a little shakily; it sounds like she’s about to cry herself. “You are, are you?”
“I can’t... I have to protect you. I have to take care of you.”
She palms his cheek. “We can take care of you, too, can’t we?”
“You don’t understand,” he says. “There’s no one else. You’re all that’s left.”
“I have to take care of you,” Jensen repeats. Gen pulls on him until he’s leaning into her arms, and she holds him as he starts to sob openly.
They all come tumbling in, the memories Jared’s been hiding from: the bodies abandoned where they fell on the sidewalks, the sickly odor of death and panic that hung in the hallways and wafted from the windows, the sinking in his chest when all the lights went suddenly dark. Gen, hardly willing to let go of his hand. And Jensen, stumbling in the second day after the power went out, his eyes a thousand years old.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Gen says. She’s crying too, now.
Jared knew it, then, before Jensen even opened his mouth. Jensen’s family was dead, every last one, or there’s no way he would ever have left them. We have to go, Jensen said, and Jared could think of no reason in the world to disagree.
Jared scrambles across the dirt floor until he’s within reach. He reaches for Jensen’s neck and begins to rub up and down the back of it. “It’s okay,” he says. He knows it’s not true, it’s as meaningless as Jensen’s fine, but he can’t help himself. “It’s okay, man. It’s okay.” He finds himself kissing Jensen’s hair again. Jensen doesn’t pull away this time. He clutches Jared’s arm and one of Gen’s hands, and he sobs, harsh and uncontrolled and broken. It’s the first time Jared’s seen him cry since this all started.
Finally, when Jensen can’t seem to catch his breath, Gen starts to untangle herself. “Don’t go,” Jensen pleads, still holding onto her hand, and some small of fragile piece of Jared’s heart breaks.
“I’ll come right back,” Gen promises. Once Jensen lets go, she gets up and walks off to the car. She comes back with one of their towels, which she hands over to Jensen. “You wouldn’t let us pack any Kleenex,” she says.
Jensen coughs a laugh.
The storm’s still raging when Jensen finally calms down. Sometime when Gen wasn’t paying attention, it started to rain, and the sound of it on the roof is almost as loud as the hail was before. Jared gets the other two sleeping bags out of the car, and they arrange them on the barn floor in a big polyfill nest with the three of them at the center. They don’t talk. Eventually, gravity and the tired aftershocks of grief pull them down into a heap, and they sleep.
Gen’s shoulder is stiff. Her lower back feels a little weird, too. Groggily she tries to push herself upright, but whatever she was bracing against gives way. She blinks at it. Oh. Jensen. He blinks back at her. “Hi,” he says. His voice is still a little rough.
“Hi,” she says.
“Do you want to, um...” He looks around, maybe for a place to brace his hands.
“Here’s good,” Gen says, adjusting herself so her shoulder’s at a better angle. She ended up as the middle of the sandwich this time, so she’s mostly lying on and against Jared and is just far enough away from Jensen to see his face. She pulls his arm down over her, and he watches her do it.
“Mm,” mumbles Jared at her back.
“So what now?” Jensen asks.
It’s still raining, Gen notices. “We wait until Jared wakes up,” she says, “and we try again. If you want.” She watches Jensen carefully.
His eyes are still red, but they stay dry. After a moment, he nods. “Okay.”
“Or we could wake him up now...”
Jensen chuckles. It’s been a long, long time since she’s heard that sound. “Let him sleep.”
So instead Gen nestles against Jensen and breathes him in, the sweat and the green tang of lake water and the basic animal odor of humanity that hangs around all three of them more and more. She presses her hand to hischest and finds his sternum. Through his t-shirt, she follows it up to his collarbone traces it with her thumb. She’d kind of like to lick it, she thinks, although possibly when he’s cleaner. She’s never let herself think about him like this before. Jared was hers before she ever met Jensen, and Jared was more than enough.
Then again, her school, her city, her life has been snatched away from her in the space of two weeks; getting Jensen Ackles to savor in return is the least the universe can do. Right?
She’s almost asleep again by the time Jared stirs. Gen does sit up this time, so she can give Jared a kiss. “About time you woke up. You hungry? Need to pee?”
“No, I’m good, thanks,” Jared says, blinking. “Why?”
“Because we’re going to have sex with Jensen now.”
“Oh, yeah?” Jared asks. He starts to grin.
The making out is unhurried this time – on Jensen’s end, too. There’s none of his frantic desperation from before. Each of them kisses him in turn, and it’s thorough kissing, but it’s careful, like their collective crying jag earlier has left them all too sensitized for more. Eventually hands stray and items of clothing are lifted off or pulled down. Touches are exchanged along with the kisses, questing, gentle.
Gen wondered a little if this was as far as things were going to go, this near-platonic exchange of heat and comfort, but after a while it’s clear Jensen’s dick wants in on the action. Jensen catches her looking down and suddenly, bizarrely, he blushes. He props up his knee to hide himself.
And that? That is just not necessary. Gen scoots up to him and reaches over. She slides a palm low across his belly and down, and he shivers. “You want?” she asks, gripping lightly.
Jared’s watching the exchange with his whole body, it looks like. “Go ahead man,” he tells Jensen. “This one’s all yours.”
Wide-eyed, breathless, Jensen says, “Okay.”
He’s already thick and full in her hand. It takes just a few short strokes before he comes with a shudder, gasping hotly against her shoulder.
“My turn?” Jared asks, nuzzling her neck, and she is not some assembly line, but what she is is plenty revved up, and it is high time someone with a dick did something about it. She sprawls out on her back, and gives him the eye. His grin is eager and filthy and brilliant.
But there’s Jensen, too, looking on and suddenly bereft. “Hey,” she croaks, because she’s smooth like that when she’s horny. She reaches vaguely for Jensen and keeps reaching until he scoots close enough to touch. She grips his hand. “Do you want to take this?” Which this, she isn’t sure – Jared or her or both.
“Just...” In the shadowed dimness of the barn, Gen can just glimpse a blush starting to rise. “Will you let me watch?” There’s a plea in his tone, but the look in his eyes is all hot-blooded want and not the least bit shy.
“Oh, yeah,” she says, and the way he grins back pushes her just that little bit farther. Then she’s too busy meeting Jared thrust for thrust to think of anything else, except every so often she catches glimpses of Jensen, eyes avid and shining in the dark. The thought flashes through her mind: Shoulda done this sooner.
Afterward, they all lie in a sweaty heap on top of the sleeping bags, catching their breath. Rain patters lightly on the steel roof. Through the barn door, the unnatural dark is deepening. It’s hard to tell, with so much heavy cloud cover, but Gen figures they’re well into late afternoon now.
“We saddling up?” she asks. She hopes the answer is no. She doesn’t really want to move. Except possibly to put some clothes on, because between the damp in the air and the damp on her skin, she’s starting to feel a chill.
“Jared?” asks Jensen.
“We got a solid day’s drive to Austin, I figure, or two if we want to take it easy. If we pick up a couple a couple of hours now, we’d be outside Austin by tomorrow night, no trouble, assuming the roads are still good.”
Gen marvels. It’s the most words Jensen’s said together since they left Seattle. Should have gotten him laid sooner. Gen giggles to herself, because giggling beats the alternative.
Jared sits up, draping his discarded hoodie around himself. “Whichever, I guess.”
Jensen gives him a sharp look, but what he says is, “We’re not rolling into Austin in the dark, so a few hours either day won’t matter much.” He peers up into the shadowed heights of the barn. “Not a bad set-up we have here, anyway.”
“Awesome,” Gen says.
This time, the others don’t ask Jensen if he wants to sleep with them. After dry clothes and food and other preparatory things, Gen and Jared both huddle down in the sleeping bag heap, and they just look up at him, expectant. And so he crawls into the heap and lets Jared drape an arm over his waist and pull him in.
Jensen doesn’t cry. His tears have run dry. But once Gen’s settled in next to him, he grips her hand and holds on for dear life.
When Gen opens her eyes, she finds Jensen only inches away, looking back. “You’re still here,” Gen whispers. “Don’t you have to get up and do... stuff?” She’s not actually sure what Jensen gets up to in the mornings before she manages to crawl out of bed, but she assumes it’s important.
Jensen shrugs minutely. “I guess not.”
“That’s nice,” she says. “It’s warmer when you’re here.”
He grins that show-stopping grin that had half the girls on campus asking Gen for his phone number. It occurs to her that, per current arrangements, she’s allowed to kiss it now. She scoots in and mouths at his mouth, working his lips open with her tongue. After moment she pulls back. “Ugh, morning breath.”
“Right back at you,” he says, grinning at her. Soon, though, the expression shifts into something less easy, less open. There’s a moment there where he looks at her like he’s shocked to find her right there, and she figures they’re done, good-morning kiss over with. Then he leans in and kisses her again, wet and warm and not so shy anymore. There’s a confidence in it that Gen likes very much.
Too soon she breaks it off; any longer and she thinks it might feel awkward without Jared awake and enjoying the action. She nestles down against Jensen’s chest, fingers splayed over his t-shirt. “So how’re you doing?”
She feels the force of his snort. She figures that’s answer enough. Eventually, he says, “How’d you do it?”
“Do what?” She doesn’t look at him. This sounds important, and she’s afraid if she looks, he’ll stop talking.
“When your parents... when they died in that car crash,” he says.
Gen closes her eyes. God, she wants to get this right, and she has no idea how. “It was awful,” she says.
He shifts closer so that his breath is warm on the top of her head. “Is it... less awful, now?”
“It was a long time ago,” she says. Probably that doesn’t sound like an answer. “You just, you keep going, you know?”
“Do you ever, do you wish it was you?”
She squirms a little to get a look at him. “Shouldn’t you be asking whether I wish I was one of the ones who got sick?”
“Gen,” he begins, looking pained.
“Because, you know, why am I still here? I don’t have any family to miss me. Jared’s the only one who needs me, and he still...” Gen doesn’t say it out loud, for fear of jinxing it: he still has his family. In Austin.
“Not just Jared,” Jensen says sharply.
The sentiment is sweet, it is, and it stirs something in Gen’s chest that she didn’t know was there to be stirred. Still, she prods, “Wouldn’t you rather have your sister? Or your dad?”
Jensen’s eyes squeeze shut, and she can see tears glistening on his eyelashes. “I’d rather the world wasn’t fucked, Gen, if that’s what you mean. I mean, yeah, I wish Kate were alive, and Dad, and Linnea even though we broke up a year ago, and Aunt Diane because she was awesome and my cousin Leo even though he was only fifteen and already on a fast track to hell. Yeah. I wish that.” His voice has gone gravelly and he swallows. “But I can’t trade people for other people, like you’re saying.” His head shakes. “I can’t. I can’t.”
“Well, I can’t, either. And I’m fucking glad you’re here, okay?” She pokes him in the chest, hard.
“Okay.” He pulls her in against him, his breath shuddering. “Okay.”
Jared groans awake and finds himself alone. He takes a moment to recognize where he is: musty old barn, daylight pouring in through the open door. Yesterday the air was heavy with humidity; today it feels clean and smells of sage brush and dirt baking dry in the sun.
Distantly he hears voices. He pushes himself to his feet and follows them, out the door and around the side of the barn. Jensen and Gen are sitting in the sun on a stack of weathered-gray two-by-fours, eating out of tuna cans with forks. Gen’s knee leans casually against Jensen’s knee.
It’s another one of those moments of decision, Jared dimly recognizes. He could decide now that he’s upset, his best friend and his girlfriend canoodling without him. It’s one thing to kiss Jensen himself and another thing to share Gen with him when Jared isn’t even around. Because Gen, he knows, enjoyed herself just fine yesterday, flushed and bright-eyed as she massaged Jensen to the edge and over it. By the time she was on her back, urging Jared in, she was more than ready: no further prep required.
But that same feeling keeps washing over him at odd moments: these are his people. These are both his people.
There’s a good chance these are all his people. He’s not thinking about that.
Then Jensen throws his head back and laughs like it’s just another brilliant day in the New Mexico sun, like there’s nothing bad in the world, and it takes Jared’s breath away.
“Hey,” Jared calls, and starts walking over to them. He finds his mouth’s gone dry.
Jensen’s grin abruptly falls away, and suddenly he’s six inches farther away from Gen than he was before. “Hi,” he says. Gen turns to look at Jared, and boy does Jared know that look. It’s the one that says Don’t screw up.
So he doesn’t. He gets close to Gen and kisses her good morning, just a few sweet seconds of
Hello gorgeous, and then he walks around to the other side of Jensen and sits down, crowding him enough in the process that Jensen scoots back over those lost six inches towards Gen. Jared leans in – it’s kind of funny watching Jensen’s eyes cross as he approaches – and kisses him just the same he did Gen. Or maybe a second longer, because kissing Jensen, bristly-faced and man-sweaty, hasn’t even come close to wearing out its novelty value. Then he pulls back and grins. “Hi,” he repeats.
“Hi,” says Jensen, hoarsely. Beyond him, Gen looks charmingly pink. Jensen clears his throat. “So, um, we should probably get a move on. Figure we can camp out near Sweetwater, which leaves us maybe another three hours tomorrow? I mean, we could punch it, get into the Austin outskirts tonight—”
“Tomorrow’s fine,” Jared interrupts. He gets up. “I’m gonna go grab breakfast.” He knows Jensen’s giving him another one of those sharp, thoughtful looks, and Jared is just not up to dealing with those now. Or never, really. Never is a good time.
The morning is an easy drive. Once they get on the highway again, Jensen gases up courtesy of an abandoned Volvo; it should be enough to get them to Lubbock, he hopes, without breaking out the spare gas can tucked in the back. Pretty soon after, he’s skirting the edges of Santa Fe. Santa Fe’s not so bad, not nearly so big as Salt Lake or Boise, and they leave it behind before too long.
It feels like something between the three of them has come unstuck. Jared still talks in these occasional cloudbursts of words and speculation and remembered Star Wars minutia that Jensen hasn’t cared about in years and, he suspects, Gen has never cared about at all, but the bursts feel more natural now. They’re just another part of the same climate as the silences that stretch in between – silences like the ones that fill the empty desert country Jensen’s driving through, rich with their own meaning, not uncomfortable.
Gen reaches up from the back seat and pats Jared on the shoulder, and where before her fingers snatched at that moment of contact and disappeared, now they linger, brazen. And then, a few minutes later, it’s Jensen’s shoulder her hand lands on and squeezes. The warmth of the touch seems to soak past the sleeve of his t-shirt and right on through to the frozen core of him, still unthawed.
A few hours in, they cross into Texas. Gen points out the sign to Jared, and Jared shrugs. By now, Jensen has maybe half an idea about what’s going on with Jared. Bringing it up doesn’t seem like it’d help, though, so he doesn’t.
They eat lunch in the car; it’s more comfortable traveling with the windows wide open than sweating it out in the futile shade of a rest stop. Every couple of hours they take a necessary pit stop to find some bushes, although given the landscape they’re driving through now, the bushes are mostly metaphorical. On one of the stopovers, Gen offers to drive again. Jensen tells her maybe later. He thinks he might mean it this time.
In mid-afternoon, Jensen begins the tedious business of navigating around the greater Lubbock area. He doesn’t like picking his way along the edges like this, down two-lane backroads and industrial avenues on which he might conceivably encounter another vehicle. It’s just that he likes a whole lot less the thought of going through the center of the city, risking traffic jams (damned unlikely) or roadblocks put up out of sheer malevolence (unlikelier yet). Everything is so concentrated in a city: the living, the dead, and contagion. The very air must be tainted, he thinks, with his heart if not with his head. The water surely is. The farther out of it they stay, the better.
So he keeps on meandering, taking highways when he can if he thinks they head in the right direction.
Death is quieter out here on the periphery, less vivid. It’s too hot to expect anyone to be out on even an ordinary day, so there’s only the emptiness of the road – interrupted here and there by cars jutting off onto the shoulder, their drivers probably taken too suddenly by the plague to do anything but die where they sat – to remind Jensen what world this is. That, and the vise grip his own muscles have him in.
At one point, Jared reaches over to punch the radio on. Jensen slaps his hand.
“Sorry, man,” Jensen apologizes, flushing. “Sorry. I’m a little... Just leave it off, okay?”
“I want to know,” Gen says. “If someone’s still broadcasting, I want to hear it.”
“Fine,” Jensen bites out. “Just... just keep the volume down unless you actually find something.”
But Jared doesn’t find anything. He seeks carefully through the entire FM band and then the AM band, and they get nothing but static, which harshes on Jensen’s nerves something fierce. Finally Jared gives up and turns it back off.
The question is, is there no electricity – not even generators? – to power the signal, or are there no human operators to send it? There have to be some survivors, but Jensen supposes their energies are being applied elsewhere.
Every so often he or Jared or Gen spots a living person. They all wear dust masks that Jensen’s damn sure do them no good. They stare as the car goes by, and they don’t wave.
As he comes up on a beige, blue-trimmed bungalow sitting on the edge of the desert, Gen gasps and points. An inflatable pool sits under a giant umbrella on the crisp brown remains of a lawn, and in the pool splashes a little girl, maybe five years old.
“I didn’t think there were any kids left,” Gen whispers.
Jensen glances at Jared; from a holiday spent with the Padaleckis, he vaguely remembers a nephew that Jared was pretty fond of. Jared keeps his gaze fixed out the window and says nothing at all.
A woman sits outside the edge of pool, very still. Jensen has a horrible moment of wondering whether the she’s dead, but then her head turns to follow them as they pass.
After another half hour, they’ve left the straggling outskirts of Lubbock behind, and Jensen begins to feel like he can breathe again. He breaks down and turns on the A/C; they’re into serious summer heat now, and Jensen figures it’s either drain the gas a little faster using A/C or go through their entire bottled water supply to compensate for what they sweat out. The mood in the car improves immediately. Jared resumes his soliloquies with their pinball logic; Gen’s heat-lulled expression clears.
It could be all in his head, obviously, this change in the air he’s been feeling since yesterday. For now, though, every touch to his shoulder or his hand, the spontaneous kisses from Jared and Gen both this morning: it’s all proof that they’re still here, that he’s still here. He wasn’t sure sometimes, before, staring down the freeway’s white-dotted line.
Gen mans the maps that evening and finds them another dammed-up lake not too far out of Sweetwater to camp by and cool off in. The weeds down the embankment are still stubbly from the law mow; the water at the bottom is tepid and murky. There’s nothing in it that appeals to Jensen, despite the heat, and he declines to go in. Jared splashes around a while. Gen eventually gives up on any kind relief from the heat, scrubs herself down with a rag and soap, and gets back out. She makes a point of not getting her hair wet this time, saying she’d rather it smelled like sweat than like the mud-and-algae biological funk of the reservoir.
Dinner happens at a lone picnic table. It’d be a pleasant enough meal except for the will-sapping heat that Jensen moved to Seattle to get away from and the fact that every plan he tries to make, Jared interrupts.
“We have no idea where your family might be,” Jensen tries to tell him. “We need a plan. Recon.”
Jared keeps turning the conversation aside, and it’s all crap about club badminton his sophomore year or movies he likes or doesn’t like or has no firm opinion on. Jensen has an idea what this is, though, these constant detours, so he keeps on ignoring Jared and then picking up where he left off each time Jared runs out of steam.
When Jensen happens to glance over at Gen, she looks fit to strangle them both.
Eventually Jared runs out of words, and then Jensen finds that he has, too. Then it’s just the three of them sitting around the picnic bench, Gen’s eyes half-shut and Jared’s mouth fallen slack, all of them as still and golden from the sunset glow as if they’d been caught in amber. For a moment, Jensen lets himself believe that this won’t ever end, that if there is nothing else in the world but them, there is at least all three of them, always.
He finds himself staring: at Jared’s mouth, soft-lipped and so rarely still, at Gen’s dark eyes, huge with feeling, and his chest squeezes with something he can’t articulate even to himself, much less say aloud. He wants a piece of this amber for himself, to take with him and hide in some deep inner pocket of his memory. He wishes he knew how to ask for it. He wishes he even knew what to ask for.
Instead, he says, “I’m going to bed. We need an early start tomorrow.”
Jensen wakes up when the sky is still the sky pre-dawn gray, the air only comfortably warm and rich with dust and sage. Sometime during the night, he and Jared collapsed in around Gen so that now she’s spooned up against Jensen with her face to Jared’s chest, and Jared’s octopus arms enclose them all.
Jensen should get up, should roust them both and drive into Austin and discover what’s become of it, but they’re like the pull of gravity, these two. He doesn’t have the energy to pull himself out of that planetary well, not yet.
His fingers are splayed over Gen’s stomach, flat and warm. His mouth is inches from her hair. He leans across those few inches and kisses it. He shifts his free hand away from Gen and onto Jared’s arm, and he thumbs lightly across it, letting the hairs tickle his skin. Neither of them stir, so Jensen lies still, touching and holding, and waits for dawn.
Crossposted from Dreamwidth. Comment here or there. ( DW replies)