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Better Than A Paid Life

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Gerard doesn’t see the Dracs until it’s too late. He’s not fully paying attention to the horizon, more interested in their surroundings. Zone two is nearly all abandoned city. It’s well picked through, most of what’s left is the raw concrete of half collapsed buildings. Still, it’s easy to unfocus his eyes and let the hazy outline of buildings ping his imagination. Gerard, like most of the zonerunners, likes to think about what things might have been like fifty years ago. He’s not naive, it couldn’t have been the one hundred percent freedom some people claim. Things must have sucked in some form, to build up to the point where dropping a firebomb that ruined most of North America was considered an option. At least they didn’t have Better Living Industries, and all that entails.

He blinks and they’re there, glints of white in the far distance. Gerard’s not sure why, he’s almost positive they didn’t pass in front of any cameras. Maybe patrolling is just what the lobotomised and reanimated do for fun, how the fuck would he know? The point is they’re totalled. Even if they dump the supplies and speed off, their dust cloud will be spotted.

He mentions the swarm to Mikey, who shrugs and keeps on doing what he’s doing. There’s no recrimination. The difference between in time and too late is about half a second, and if they start blaming each other for little things it’ll end badly. The Dracs closing in isn’t disaster, but their partnership breaking up would be.

As the band of motorcycles gets closer, Mikey continues to pass him the bottles of water and cubes of ammo. Only when they’re in shooting distance -and Gerard can tell because the first blast explodes against the Community Pool sign- do they stop and run to the car. Half the time they can get it to a higher speed than the motorcycles and get away, the other half the one who isn’t driving sits backwards and shoots them dead.

Well, to tell the truth, speeding and shooting both happen either way. It’s more fun that way.

They’re both great shots, but it’s Gerard’s day to drive. He hustles to the side of their obnoxiously spray painted, vintage ‘99 car and steps on the gas. The wheels squeal on the concrete before it zooms forward. He’s heading straight for a bunch of poolside lawn chairs but he’s not worried. They’ll scatter. If he tries to swerve around them it’ll give the Dracs a bigger target and it’ll jostle Mikey’s shooting arm.

The chairs don’t scatter. The only movement is his bumper and hood, both of which crumple as the car comes to a halt. Apparently the chairs are set into the concrete. The bumper and hood and themselves, because the seatbelts were hacked out of the car at probably the same time as the airbags and the sun visors. Gerard slams into the steering wheel, ribs screeching in protest. He doesn’t care about the pain, only cares that he’s apparently a fucking moron for not noticing the permanent fixtures of the public pool. He could have kicked one in the twenty minutes it took Mikey to unload the vending machine and realised it didn’t move. Worst recon ever. Fuck.

“You have got to be kidding me.”

Gerard turns the key and revs it, but it refuses to be joking. It just hisses, irritably. Now the crash isn’t just eating escape time, it’s completely fucked them for getting away at all.

“This is a really gritty time for the car to break,” Gerard screeches at Mikey. Mikey’s forehead is pink and bleeding, he must have smashed it on the dash. Maybe Show’s got a point, wearing a helmet any time he’s not stationary.

“I happen to agree with you. We’ll get a strawberry one next time, if we don’t splatter.”

Mikey’s got a point. The time to be scared and pissed off is later. Gerard’s not denying the emotions, he didn’t leave Battery City so he could repress in the sand. He’s just delaying them. Right now they’ve got to not die.

Staying in the car probably isn’t the best way to make that happen. It’s not much protection if it won’t run. It’s fast, they bought it for it’s speed, but it doesn’t have any glass left in the windows.

On the other hand, the row of changing stalls on the other side of the lot is getting superheated with blasts. Dracs aren’t known for their accuracy, not like the humans working for SCARECROW. Motorbabies get ghosted because there are twenty Dracs with shitty aim, not three with good aim. Shitty technique coupled with distance means he and Mikey haven’t even got grazed yet, the changing stalls are eating all of it. Within the next three or four the building will burst into flame, Gerard’s sure of it.

There’s only one other option, as far as Gerard can see. “Into the pool!”

Gerard sprints as fast as he can, positive that Mikey is close behind. He jumps in, not really bracing himself. A broken ankle is less devastating than a sprained wrist right now. Like everyone in the zones knows, the aftermath is secondary.

Shooting from the pool doesn’t give them the best angle. It’s hard to stay flat against the rough wall; disintegrating tile bites into his stomach and the floor is slanted. Raising their arms and shooting above their heads lowers their accuracy too. Still, one by one the Dracs go down. In the zones, that’s really all you can ask for.

***
They wait until the burning globe is high in the sky before they head for the beach. Some greenpockets are open at night, and most that don’t maintain full blackout hours are able to be convinced, for the right price. But Mikey knows where he wants to go and according to him it’s not open until morning.

Gerard wakes to the sound of Doctor Death Defying giving a morning speech before putting a cassette in one of the myriad of players he owns. Mikey and Show are already up, though Gerard’s pretty sure that Mikey’s only been awake a few minutes. He’s still finger combing his long bangs. It’s impossible to tell with Show, who is busy colouring in the white polka dots on his black spandex pants.

It takes him a few minutes to sit up. The movement is encouraged when he sees the cup of CHNO beside Mikey’s foot. Caffeine in liquid form is rare, ninety nine percent of what Better Living makes are pills. Gerard loves them all, but the heated crushed beans are best, and it smells like that’s what Mikey has. He can’t let him drink it all.

It’s better that they hitch a ride with Show Pony. Show and Doctor Death have a van with the seats ripped out in case Doctor ever needs to move. According to Mikey they can’t make a straight trade of yesterday’s stolen Drac motorcycles for a new car. They’re equal in value, but Vinn-E doesn’t take anything but cash. So they have no choice but to haul the bikes to a part stripper first, and if they don’t have a car they’ll be stranded.

Accelerate beach isn’t really a beach, of course. That would imply water. Gerard’s heard rumours about water to the far north, but there’s no chance of a large freestanding pool of water anywhere near Battery City. At least not water that’s not highly corrosive. Gerard can barely even imagine what that would look like. They’re not heading to an expanse of cool clear water and happy teenagers spread out on towels without worrying about skin cancer, they’re heading to the land closest to Battery City.

Zone one is littered with car dealers. It’s one of the least offensive forms of rebellion and the SCARECROWs don’t usually bother raiding. The common consensus is the officials are pleased that at least it’s still all about money, even if it’s illegal trade. Selling off the bikes doesn’t take more than a few minutes, just about everyone has a use for new parts. It’s finding the specific car park his brother wants that takes forever. Show passes half a dozen without even a flicker of expression on what they can see of his face from the open visor. Gerard’s not frustrated about Mikey insisting they go to one specific dealer, and apparently Show Pony isn’t either, even if it is wasting gas. When Mikey gets insistent it’s usually for a good reason.

Eventually though, his curiosity wins and he has to ask. “What’s so special about this guy?”

“Vinn-E does two for one deals. Every car comes with something. It’s how me and Show met, don’t you remember? He wanted the records our first car came with, I wanted to know what use he had for records.”

“So?”

“So when was the last time you ate something that wasn’t from a can. Vinn-E has oranges, Gee.”

Almost immediately upon entering Vinn-E’s lot on Gerard knows which car he wants. It’s got a white body that’ll make it easier to spray paint whatever idea he gets. It’s long, and wide, so he’s got space to spray whatever he wants. And bottom line, if cars could speak it would say fuck off. Their last car worked for their needs, this car is going to be their best friend.

There’s another guy looking at it. He’s sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open, hands with tattooed knuckles curled around the steering wheel. Gerard doesn’t feel bad at all droning in on Vinn-E. Whoever makes first deal wins, after all, there’s no sharing in the zones. The guy will find something else. There are probably a refill’s worth of cars scattered over zone one. Besides, he doesn’t deserve something so nice. He’s going to get himself ghosted or captured any day now, he’s clearly out of his depth in the zones. What kind of idiot only wears denim shorts in 110 degree weather? He and Mikey are both wearing UV treated jackets so they don’t get sick from the sun.

Mikey doesn’t object to Gerard handing over the stack of money without haggling. He’s never really cared about vehicles. That’s probably why they’ve been through three cars already, they’re both cottonbrained about the industry. They’ve learned a lot of things after leaving the numbing safety of Battery City, mechanics aren’t one of the topics.

Vinn-E walks them to their new ride, telling them the details of it. How fast it goes, how the engine’s been remade, that it’s type is a Trans Am and it was vintage even before the bombs fell. The black haired motorbaby is still sitting inside. He hasn’t left, only slid over to the passenger seat. If he doesn’t get out of his car soon, Gerard’s going to have to bitch him out. Finally, obviously bored with hearing specs, Mikey asks what Gerard’s wondering. “So what’s with it?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re a double dealer, or at least you were the last time we were here. What’s with the car?”

Vinn-E rolls his eyes and claps his hand on the shoulder of the motorbaby through the window. “Vixen here got traded when one of the companion houses got closed down. I don’t suck exhaust, so there’s no sense in me keeping him.”

Vinn-E tries to hand the keys to Mikey. He doesn’t take them. He probably doesn’t even see them, his entire line of sight is on Vixen. On the person they’ve just bought. When he doesn’t take them the greenpocket just tosses them onto the wide white car hood. “Enjoy.”

Gerard shakes himself out of his stupor to hiss at Mikey. “You said it would records, or some cheese, or something.”

“Gerard. We shouldn’t talk about this here.”

“What, so I should put my shopping in the back seat?” Gerard’s shouting sarcastically, but Vixen takes that as a clue to slither over the seat. Some innocent stranger is following his wishes, and it just makes Gerard want to hit things.

“Get. In. The. Car. Gerard,” Mikey says forcefully.

Gerard’s older, he’s not sure why he’s listening to Mikey. But he gets in the driver’s seat. His irritation ratchets up a notch when he sees Vixen in the rear view mirror. Vinn-E pats the roof, and Mikey mutters at him to start the car, and Gerard does that too.

Away from the lot he opens his mouth, not sure what’ll come out except that it’ll be loud. Mikey cuts him off. “You know what happens if you decide you want a refund from Vinn-E? He blasts you dead. I saw it my second time out here. So not Hallmarking.”

Gerard doesn’t expect Mikey to say sorry, not for keeping him alive when he was unknowingly jeopardising himself. They stand back to back, that’s how they haven’t gotten ghosted yet. That doesn’t mean the situation is all strawberries and creme. He puts the radio on, loud enough that he can’t hear the different breathing patterns of two instead of three.

They’re halfway to one of their hideouts when Mikey points out what should be obvious; Vixen isn’t going to fit into their few changes of clothes. Gerard has no choice but to turn the car around. The satisfaction of doing a doughnut is nothing against the irritation he’s salted in. “This time I’ll make certain that the item of clothing comes with another item of clothing, not a blitzing sex slave.”

“Vinn-E only sells cars with additions, not-”

“That was not my fucking point-” he cuts off before he uses Mikey’s real name in front of a stranger, and says “Kobra Kid” in only a slightly less peevish tone.

Vixen speaks up from the back seat. “Look, you obviously don’t want to keep me. Okay. Toasty. But can the trade wait a few days? I’m really tired, I’d just like to sleep for a bit first. You two seem like you’d allow that. I don’t know what my next owners will be like.”

Gerard can’t help it. He reaches out and punches Mikey. This is his fault. Gerard’s got enough to worry about, rebelling towards the whole of Battery City. He doesn’t have time to worry about the ethics of the zones.

“We’ll figure it out later,” Mikey replies firmly. “First you need a shirt and pants.”

By some miracle they get clothing for Vixen without acquiring another slave. Gerard doesn’t say another word until they’re parking in front of a organic fruit store. It’s the only shack near the road in either direction for a while, but there are no vending machines so the Dracs don’t tend to stop. He puts the keys in his pocket, makes sure both of his holsters still have their blasters and crosses his arms facing his brother. “Fix this Mikey. The Killjoys do not buy whores.”

He stomps off. He needs to shoot things, his aim isn’t as accurate as it should be. Or at least that’s what he tells himself, so he doesn’t have to admit he’s wasting ammo because he’s pissed off. He’s a rebel, rebels don’t have temper tantrums like unmedicated three year olds.

When he comes back he can easily see Mikey has not fixed things. In fact it’s pretty much the opposite of what Gerard had in mind. Mikey’s not either explaining that they don’t have the room/time/supplies to take care of a newly minted motorbaby, or giving him supplies and helpful hints on how to survive on his own. Instead Mikey has their deck of cards out. He’s obviously already taught Vixen how to play the game they made up when they were kids in Battery City, the man is slapping cards on the pile and laughing.

Well, fine. That’s just blitzing toasty. Mikey wants to keep the slave. Gerard can maybe see how that would be better than tossing him onto the highway by himself. He’ll just have to be the best fucking owner ever. “Vixen-”

He shakes his head, chin length black hair flying. “My name’s really Fun Ghoul. They just called me Vixen because I wouldn’t tell the house owner my real name. I didn’t want anyone to be using it.”

“Aren’t we anyone?” Gerard doesn’t know why he’s pushing it. Maybe it’s the way Vi- Fun Ghoul is sitting, knee pressed into his brother’s bony limb.

“Nah. Or at least Kobra Kid isn’t, and he RXes you, so.”

“You should put on the cotton we got you.” It’s decent stuff, a bright yellow shirt, a red shirt, a pair of jeans, a vest, absorbent socks. The clothes they left Battery City with nearly fell apart in the first strong wind. Not to mention they were white.

“Need some radiation first. I was on my bunk for three weeks, no windows. Gimme the wind for a bit.”

Fuck. If he has to give permission for the rest of his life he’s going to go insane. “It’s not my choice to tell you if you can or can’t sit in the breeze.”

“He didn’t mean that, Party. Dumbass.”

Gerard can’t do this. He does an about face and marches back into the sand to shoot more shit.

***
“Where did you go?”

“Huh?”

Gerard adds to the question. “Where did you go last night, and where are you about to go now?”

“I went for a walk last night, and I’m going for a walk now.”

Gerard’s not buying it for a second. Fun Ghoul at least respects him enough to realise that he’s not a placebohead. He crosses his arms and changes the story. “Fine. There’s a broken down construction site about an hour’s walk from here. I saw it yesterday when you drove us in.”

“So?” Fun Ghoul’s right, there is. And Gerard can understand him walking to see it last night. But not a second time. There’s nothing there. Wanting to be alone two nights in a row is suspicious. Especially that he’s doing it under the cover of night. Mikey’s still sleeping, and if Gerard hadn’t stayed awake purposely to catch Frank, neither of them would have been any the wiser. Not knowing what strangers around you are doing is one way to end up ghosted, fast.

“So I’m scavenging.”

“There wasn’t any food there.”

“No. But there’s splinters of plywood and shards of glass.” Fun Ghoul grins nastily. Gerard remembers the broken windows, but doesn’t know why it matters. He asks as much. “Because I’m building a shrapnel bomb.” Fun Ghoul can obviously see no idea what he’s talking about, he continues with an explanation. “Shrapnel is basically a tube with sharp things, then when the tube explodes, the sharp things go everywhere, at a really fast speed.”

“Where are you using it?”

“Dunno yet. I need to track down the Dorothy squad.”

“Who are they?”

“Wow. You’ve only been a motorbaby a day, huh?”

“Longer than you.” Gerard hasn’t been a boundary boy in a long time. Even if he just converted yesterday, he wouldn’t lose face by admitting it. Reputation counts for a lot in the zones. Everyone wants to have an alias others have heard of.

“Doubt that,” Fun Ghoul retorts.

Gerard isn’t going to play this game all night. “You’re bombing this gang the Dorothys because...?”

“They’re not a zone gang. The Dorothys work for the SCARECROWs. When the real SCARECROW agents, the ones with names, are too busy to collect people and make new Dracs, the Dorothys do it for them.”

“Any particular reason you want to bomb them?” It could be a dumb question. They sound like horrible people, if they’re even fully people. Gerard can understand bombing them just in principle. But he doesn’t think it is a stupid question. He thinks there’s more to it than that.

Fun Ghoul’s silence just confirms that.

“Wait a second.” Gerard walks away. Being on foot in the zones is a constant game of trying to balance speed and confident stature with not actually knowing how even or well packed the terrain is. Not to mention cameras and traps. It’s a game that gets even more difficult when everything is only lit by the smoke covered moon.

He retrieves what he needs, all in a case beside Mikey’s head, then comes back. He wouldn’t have been surprised if Fun Ghoul had left, but he hasn’t. Gerard holds out the blaster, butt end first. A powercube of replacement ammo is in his other hand, although hopefully he won’t need to spend two packs. If he does, he’ll probably be dead regardless. Ghoul’s eyes are only on the blaster.

“Where did you get this?”

“We have lots.”

“How?’

This time it’s Gerard’s turn to stay silent. He’s not about to tell a stranger -even a stranger he fucking owns- that Mikey has a rare VendAHack. That it wasn’t until they had that -and its guaranteed access to blasters, ammo, h2o, and food- that they were confident enough to make the move from boundary boys to motorbabies.

“Thanks. I’ll give it back.”

“Don’t die on your way back,” Gerard says instead. He doesn’t really care if Fun Ghoul doesn’t return it. They can easily get more. But after yesterday yet more handouts would probably make Ghoul suspicious. More suspicious, really. Gerard doubts companion-slaves have a very trusting nature.

Fun Ghoul doesn’t respond to that, just begins the long walk he’ll have to take. His stride is pretty regular. Either he’s used to the poorly packed sandy dirt, or he’s faking it extremely well.

Gerard considers his options before deciding to go back to the shelter to sleep. Ghoul probably won’t turn around and try to kill them. Even if he does, unless he sticks the blaster in their open mouths the heatshot won’t kill in a single shot. Gerard would like to believe he’s zippy enough that he’d wake up if someone knelt over him and stuck a blaster in his gob. And if he did get ghosted, Mikey would avenge him. Nothing is ever a sure bet, but he’s confident enough in his analysis to head for bed.

***
The Trans Am has a radio. There’s the Battery City news on AM and the Battery City muzak on FM, and that’s all there’s supposed to be. Two choices, more than enough for any consumer. Some citizens want to listen to manufactured stories about the dangers of the zones, and the blatant Better Living Industries advertising breaks every three minutes. Other citizens want to listen to identical soulless sludge, nearly all of it lyricless, and blatant advertising every three minutes.

Neither are options for Gerard. There’s nothing any division of BLI could produce that he’d want to consume. Luckily there are two real alternatives.

Zone eight is a music hub for the true zone runner. Boundary boys can’t get out in time, by the time they hear about something, it’s already over. Hell, even most zone runners attend things accidentally instead of planning out an evening. Good for everyone then, that most of the bands reproduce their shit, which sells easily in the markets.

If you don’t have anything to trade, or are more interested in the prologue than the sequel, there are a lot of pirated channels over FM. Nearly everything is classical, played recordings of pre-bomb bands. Or at least he’s heard. Gerard doesn’t channel skip. He and Mikey are loyal; they only listen to Doctor. They owe him that much. Maybe more.

Their last car only had a docking station. This beautiful fucking Trans Am lets him listen to all of the slaughtermatic sounds Show Pony has provided Doctor so he could give them to the world. Or at least those smart enough to listen.

Full blast is pretty loud. It’s loud enough that there’s no reason not to crank it and lay on his back on the front. He can still hear it perfectly through the open window. The metal is hot through his altered jacket, but more importantly his legs are almost fully stretched out. After driving all morning to find a Pegasus to break into, it’s nice to not be bent in the driving position.

Not that he was driving. That was all Mikey. Turns out Fun Ghoul has a thing for trick driving. Mikey does spins better than Gerard, so they switched spots pretty early in. When they parked in front of the decimated farm Ghoul was still talking about it. Gerard decided to stay outside rather than listen to Mikey brag and Ghoul applaud.

In the city, you enjoy when you pay for. Out here, you need to be able to make your own fun. That pretty much necessitates simpler pleasures. In the city Gerard would have done at least two other things with the BLI brand music melding into one multiple hour piece in the background. Out here Gerard just listens. It’s all he needs. That, and to sing along on the rare occasion that he recognises a song. If they’re still alive a year from now, maybe he and Mikey will move to zone eight and form a band. Gerard could sing, he thinks. It’s not about quality anyway, not always in the recordings and even less on the thrown together stages. It’s about passion. At the very least, Gerard’s sure he has that.

It takes an acoustic song for Gerard to catch it. He misses the title of the song but knows the artist is Johnny Cash, he recognises the croaking voice. It’s strawberry, and exactly his point about music not needing beauty if it has emotion. Because he sings so lowly about running before God cuts people down, Gerard can easily hear groaning in the distance. It doesn’t take much logical thought to place it. It’s definitely sex sounds, and apart from Gerard Ghoul and Mikey are the only people in a few square miles.

Gerard doesn’t like it. It’s exploitative. Mikey should not be using Fun Ghoul like this. It’s wrong.

Gerard considers storming into the barn and demanding they stop immediately. In the end he doesn’t. Probably the only thing worse for Ghoul than Mikey being a Lonely is Gerard crashing in like a Iceberg Slim and controlling his customers. It’ll be better for Ghoul’s self esteem if he only brings it up with Mikey.

***
“Mikey, I really don’t think you should have sex with Fun Ghoul.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah!”

“Interesting.” Mikey tilts his head and lets out a barrelling yell. “Hey Ghooo-awl!”

Fun Ghoul comes jogging over, hair bouncing, some of the strands sticking to his sweaty forehead. “Yeah?”

“Party thinks we shouldn’t fuck.”

“Why not?”

“Ask him.”

Fun Ghoul fixes his gaze on him, and all of a sudden Gerard feels less certain. Still, he has to say it. Even as he hesitates, Ghoul asks in a louder tone “why not?”

“Because we technically own you, so you can’t consent.”

The silence stretches for at least thirty seconds. It’s horrible. Then Frank says with a threat in his voice, “seeing as I’m not a chair, I’m going to suck Kobra’s dick now.”

And that’s Mikey making a point too, because as Fun Ghoul drops to his knees in the dust, Mikey doesn’t push him away. Gerard has no choice but to flee.

***
“Five times,” Gerard announces to the room as he slips into his looser sleeping pants. They still have a blaster holster, of course, but the elastic against the top is nicer against his belly than his jeans beltband is.

“I’ll wake up seven times,” Mikey bets. Mikey’s number is always higher than Gerard’s.

“Twice, I think.”

No one ever has an uninterrupted sleep. When you come off the standard BL/Ind formula you don’t sleep for days. Your body doesn’t know how to. If you can survive the detox of that and all the other pills you’ve been in the zones long enough to know a deep sleep leaves you unaware, and unaware gets you killed. That being said, Ghoul’s wake up counts are always lower. By a lot. The only thing Gerard can figure is that Ghoul must have trusted his safety in the companion house. It’s the only way he’d have made a routine of deep rest.

Gerard goes to sleep the same way he has the last few days; on the opposite end of the pillow. He and Mikey used to share it, each on their own half. For the last three days Fun Ghoul and Kobra Kid have slept beside each other, heads on the width of the pillow, and Gerard does his best to keep himself on the perpendicular edge. It’s not perfect. He’s constantly waking to Ghoul’s hair on his face, and one drool spot effects them all.

Sooner or later they might trade for a second pillow. Right now there are more important things to trade for. A soft place to rest your head is both a comfort and a luxury. New boots every few months are a necessity.

The first time Gerard wakes up it’s to the sound of rustling. Ghoul’s hair is still on his forehead, so he hasn’t sneaked off to the construction site again. A rattlesnake is moving through the sand, probably. They’ve tried to catch them before, following instructions a friend of Show’s gave them. Meat would make a milkshake switch up to the constant diet of Power Pup. Neither he nor Mikey have actually managed to.

The second time Gerard wakes up choking. Beside him Mikey and Ghoul are doing the same. He can barely see them, even inches away. The air is nearly opaque purple with Xenic dust. Gerard immediately feels like a plaquer. You always listen to the weather report. Doesn’t matter how tired you are, how injured you are. At least once an hour you check the weather channel on FM, and doing it each time you wake up during the night is the best practice. He hasn’t, and if he dies it’s his own damn fault.

Mikey and Fun Ghoul immediately stand. Gerard repeats the movement a moment later, body shaking with the force of his hacking cough. Xenic dust is heavy like smoke is light. In a fire you crawl to avoid the inhalation that’s more likely to kill you. Xenic dust is likely to kill you regardless, but it does sink. The higher they get, the better off they’ll be.

Thankfully they’re still in the barn. They’d be pretty zapped if they’d squatted at the fruit stand again. The barn has large shelves coming out of where the wall and sloped roof meet. It’s almost like the owners started to build a second floor before giving up and not bothering to rip down what they had.

It’s their only real option. The Trans Am rides too low, the dust would suffocate them before they could get to an area that’s not storming. The roof is obviously higher, but it’s deeply sloped, too much so to be able to perch there, even if they could get up on it.

Frank scrambles up the ladder first before either of them make it over. It’s hard to hold a grudge when another cough wracks Gerard’s body and nearly makes him fall off, and Frank reaches for the collar of his jacket.

There’s enough room for all of them to sit down. There’s enough room for all of them to lay down and go to sleep. For a minute Gerard considers it. They can’t get any higher up, if the dust gets thicker or a wind kicks it up higher they will die. Being awake won’t save them. It’s just that wasting what are potentially his last minutes sleeping seems stupid.

“That was my second,” he calls out when he thinks he can talk without coughing.

“Fourth.”

“First.”

This isn’t the first time he and Mikey have been caught in nightmarish weather. From Fun Ghoul’s calm attitude Gerard guesses it’s not his first either. Most motorbabys firsts come within a week of running past the city limits. The zones are not a healthy place to live. Gerard’s not stupid, he knows that much. Any boundary boy that expects safety is highly deluded.

The thing is, Battery City truly isn’t that much better. They still have pollution fogs and acid winds and high temperatures, just like the zones. It only seems better because most of the buildings are treated with special chemical barriers, and because most citizens don’t go outside -their apartments have enclosed skywalks to their high rise jobs, which have a subway line to shops-, and because the citizens are easily led into not caring. In the zones there’s no hiding, no surplus of enduring buildings, and every motorbaby cares.

Particle by particle the dust dissipates. Gerard doesn’t see it looking at it, but when he looks at Mikey and Fun Ghoul while they’re talking then looks back there’s noticeably less.

“We need to get rebreathers. Today.”

Gerard thinks that’s partially Mikey’s fear talking. They’ve made it through other pollution fogs before without ‘breathers. He agrees anyway. If they’re too expensive they can always say no there. And it’ll give them something to do besides drive all the way out to zone six and hope to see something.

In Battery City there are malls, if you care enough to pay the entrance fee to possibly buy objects that have a mark up just because they’re stacked beside dissimilar objects. It’s an inconvenience tax.

Bellsuns has the same randomness as a mall. The shopkeepers switch out all the time, depending on who’s ghosted and who’s out raiding the city for more stuff to hock. No matter who’s present, there are always a variety of items. There’s also a price to get in.

In the zones you pay with your rep, not a surcharge. If you’re a well known motorbaby and you endorse a greenpocket it gets them more customers. If you’re a newb you provide entertainment when everyone realises you’re buying a jacket because you don’t have one yet, not because the last one got contaminated with D-vik pollution, or burned to cinders by a few well aimed blast shots. Gerard likes to think at this point he and Mikey fall right in the middle. No adoration, but no scorn.

That’s where the similarities end. The objects in Bellsuns have colours and thoughts, retrofitted and revamped for use rather than staying soulless shades of grey. There are no taxes. There aren’t even set prices; it’s all according to what you own and how willing the seller is to let you have what you want.

“I need some new spray paint for the car,” Gerard says, coming to a halt in the loosely defined parking area. It’s a clusterfuck of poorly chosen angles. Odds are by the time they want to leave someone will have parked with their door to the Tran Am’s bumper. Gerard parks anyway. They don’t have to go anywhere in a hurry. If Dracs happen to come by no one will be able to peel out and run, but Bellsuns is a crowded market, they’ll surely outnumber any patrol.

“I’ll get it.”

Gerard’s pleased by the offer. Even though all their resources always have been and always will be pooled, when Mikey buys something Gerard needs, or vice versa, it’s like getting or giving a gift. It’s a great feeling. It’s a feeling you don’t get in Battery City, where everything has a set price and there are no favours.

“I need better boots.”

“Yeah, you do,” Mikey answers. Ghoul’s feet don’t safely fit either of their spares, so he’s still in his made for sex appeal companion boots.

Once out of the car they split up. It’s for conversation as much as acquiring the things they need. Gerard loves his brother, but sometimes you need outside stimulation. A chat about some of the better graffiti he’s seen is more fun when he gets the chance to describe the work. He can’t with Mikey, they’ve seen all the same things. No doubt Fun Ghoul wants information about the Dorothys so he can continue his crusade. They’ve got each other twenty four hours a day, they can afford to separate for a few hours.

The rebreather stall is a fancy affair. It’s more like a tent, a metal frame holding up fabric on three sides, as well as a stretched roof. There’s a table full of helmets, most plain colours. There’s no sign offering paint customization, but Gerard knows the signs of an artist. One of the two women sitting on stools has green spray paint up to her elbows. Apart from that splash of colour, both are deathly pale, a feat that should be impossible living in the zones. They must wear full length clothing, as well as their own work whenever they leave their squat.

Gerard hands over Mikey’s helmet, keeping his own by his ankle. He wants to see how well the rebreather is added before he commits their second. If the woman butchers it at least they’ll only have ruined one. If it goes well he’ll probably get a third, already assembled one for Ghoul. Probably the newly painted green one. Fun Ghoul’s said a few times that it’s his favourite colour. The speckled woman pulls out a tool kit and goes to work. Not wanting to distract her, Gerard starts a low toned conversation with the other woman.

The helmet works out fine. By the time the woman is done crafting it though Gerard’s attention is fixed to Curled Death, who’s drawn back the curtain to shelves of rebreathers. Gerard hadn’t even noticed the cloth wasn’t the back wall until she moved it. “You seem the type that would appreciate these. We don’t sell them to just any ‘runner.”

The shelves have some beautiful pieces on them. More than just rebreathers, they’re statements. Art pieces, every last one. Sure they have a function, but that’s secondary, like his Trans Am being a fast smooth ride matters less then the fact that it’s a metal canvas.

There are at least twenty five on the shelves. Thicker than normal helmets, only four fit on a single shelf. Gerard wastes-. No. Not wastes. Takes. Gerard takes a few minutes to try and see the details in each. He doesn’t ask to try any of them on. Not yet. Works like that, if he so much as shifted his weight from one foot to the other they’d think he was trying to steal it. Best case they’d blast him. At the best of times he doesn’t like being heated, on only a few hours sleep it would be even more annoying. Worst case the owners wouldn’t have a blaster and he’d be more severely injured with nun-chucks or something. As a greenpocket they should have trade including blasters, but Gerard doesn’t feel like testing that assumption. Better to stay hands off until he knows which one he wants.

There are a few in particular that catch his eye. One is the flattened oval of a pill. It would go nicely with his zone name and the logo sprayed on his jacket, even if his jacket is blue and red, and the pill is green and yellow pastel. Another looks like an aquarium, square with blue jelly except for transparent eye holes. Both are contenders until he sees it. It’s a hybrid; half mouse, half cat. It’s bright blue, and it’s got makeup. And Gerard needs it.

He and Mikey don’t tend to dicker prices. Their income is easy, unless the Dracs stumble upon them. But that just makes it a thrill. Easy got means easy trade. Besides, you can’t give someone half a can of Pup, or half a blaster. The woman with green paint -he didn’t actually get her name- grins at the sight of a white blaster. As he walks away she’s already on her hands and knees, no doubt digging through a container of paint colours. He mentally wishes her all the art in the world.

Once bought, he has to show it off. He doesn’t want to wait the few hours until they converge on the car, he wants them to be impressed now. Gerard decides to find Fun Ghoul first. Mikey could be anywhere, Ghoul will most likely still be at the shoe dealer. Gerard knows from experience it can take a while to try on all your options. Most people don’t bother with clothes, relying on eyeball measurements and holding it up to their fronts to make sure the side seams hit their sides. It’s more important that boots and sneakers fit perfectly. Eyeballing that and getting it wrong means easily infected blisters, or tripping at a crucial moment.

He finds him pretty easily. It’s not hard to miss Ghoul’s purple dyed jeans against the hardpacked rusty dirt. Not that he can see the whole stretch of leg. Fun Ghoul is half folded, on his knees, wide heeled pvc boots gleaming.

Gerard wants to believe he’s not seeing this. Ghoul’s been with them almost three weeks. He’s been with Mikey since the first or second day. There’s no reason for this. His hands are flat on the seller’s thighs, his face only inches from the seller’s crotch, and there’s no reason for it.

“As your owner, I command you to not touch her!” At least Gerard’s pretty sure it’s a her. The clothes are cut to look androgynous, but there are slight curves under her jacket that could be breasts. Regardless of gender, this is wrong and Gerard’s not about to let this happen.

Fun Ghoul startles. Gerard can see the shock on his face warp into something harder. “Excuse me?”

Gerard repeats himself. “As your owner, I demand you don’t touch her!”

“You can’t have it both ways, Party Poison! If you own me, tell me! And then tell me how else I’m supposed to pay for boots I can actually fucking run in! Except you wouldn’t. As my owner you’d just loan me out to get the trade made! So shut the fuck up and let me get shit done!”

The seller looks offended at the idea that they’re a chore. Gerard is offended by their fucking people exploiting existence. His blaster is practically vibrating in its holster, reminding Gerard it’s ready for use. Bristling, he puts his hand on the butt end sticking out of the sheath. He won’t do something unless the seller forces it.

Somehow sensing drama on the other side of the lot, Mikey is besides him. He’s got a cardboard box under one arm, just like Gerard’s got the mousecat head under his. “Everyone calm down.”

“I am calm.” It’s a lie, and Gerard’s sure everyone around him, everyone that’s gathered to watch Fun Ghoul get exploited like it’s better than television, can tell.

Mikey doesn’t reply to him. Instead he takes a few steps closer to Ghoul than Gerard had and directs his next words to him. He doesn’t crouch, or do anything condescending, just speaks in the same level voice. “No one owns you. You’re not a companion for a Lonely, you’re a zonerunner. Which means you don’t have to follow my orders, or Party’s. But please don’t pay like that.”

“Kid, my timetable moved up. I need running boots. Today. You trade what you have. I don’t have salvage on me. I have my body. So you and Party are going to have to deal.”

There’s not a chance Gerard is going to just deal with Fun Ghoul prostituting himself. He opens his mouth to explain that as voraciously as he has to, but Mikey gets there first. Takes a different route, but if Gerard’s honest, one that Ghoul will probably listen to more than simple outrage. “Emerald’s boots for some Power Pup, then.”

“I don’t take charity.” He looks so proud, on his knees. Gerard really wants to punch him in the face.

Gerard puts the rebreather on the ground and takes the blaster out of the holster. He doesn’t raise it, keeps it down in a tight grip beside his hip, but he is ready. “Trade the Pup, or I’ll have to ghost the seller to get the boots, and then the other greenpockets will be offended and everyone will pull their blasters and a lot of ‘runners will die today. Take the fucking Pup.”

The next few minutes are tense. The trade of purple laced hiking boots for cans of food occurs almost silently. Gerard’s not sure what this incident is going to do for their rep, and he doesn’t fucking care. If they can’t go to Bellsuns to get gear anymore, they’ll find somewhere else. It’s not like there’s only one market in all of the six zones.

It’s only when they’re back in the car, by some insane luck only blocked from to back so he’s able to drive forward and leave, that the words start. It’s a repeat of what Fun Ghoul said at the market, and he sounds just as frustrated as he did ten minutes ago. “I am not a charity case.”

“No, you’re my fucking boyfriend, so we merge resources. And Party is my brother, so we merge resources. So shut the hell up and put on your shoes.”

Gerard puts on the radio so the rest of the drive isn’t silent. None of them are in a chatty mood, but Doctor Death Defying always knows the few right words to say between tracks.

He drives them back to the barn. In the next few days they’ll have to find a different squat, a routine is never safe. But for now it’s close, and there’s enough room to spread out and not aggravate each other more. If Mikey and Ghoul end up having some kind of vengeance sex -or, alternatively, make up sex- Gerard needs to be able to run away.

Mikey climbs out of the passenger side and pulls his seat forward to let Ghoul out. Ever stubborn, Ghoul instead kicks the back of Gerard’s seat until he’s out of the car and the seat actually moves. Climbing out backward, he tucks his old companion boots under his armpit so he can use both hands to pull the bomb out of the back seat. Just like Mikey always has his VendAHack even when they don’t need food, and Gerard takes his jacket even if he’s too overheated to wear it, Ghoul’s been carrying the shrapnel bomb everywhere with him. Some things you can’t bare to have out of your sight, even when you know you don’t need them.

“Where’s the nearest still working camera?”

Gerard doesn’t think it’s a very good idea to answer him, so of course Mikey does. “About a mile north. Why?”

Fun Ghoul raises his elbow so the boots fall to the dirt. “Well, fellow motorbabies, it’s been milkshake, but I gotta go get myself noticed.”

“What? Why?”

“I figured out where the Dorothys are. Guy at the market knew. It’s too far to walk, which mean I need to get a bike from a Drac, so I gotta get Drac attention.”

It’s not particularly hard to kill a Drac and steal a motorcycle. In some ways it’s a rite of passage between Boundary Boy and real zonerunner. They call themselves motorbabies for a reason. Gerard’s as confident as it’s possible to be that Ghoul will win the imminent battle. Still, Gerard doesn’t like the idea of Fun Ghoul disappearing forever. For every familiar face, there are people you have conversations with that you never see again. Gerard doesn’t want Ghoul to be one of those people.

“We’ll go with. We’ll take the Trans Am.”

This time it’s Ghoul’s turn to say it. “What? Why?”

“There’s safety in numbers,” he answers evenly. Actually, he’s not sure if that’s true. It’s logical that the more bodies there are, the more things for the Dorothys to shoot. All the same, if he and Mikey didn’t want to fight the various authorities, what was the point in leaving the city?

As Fun Ghoul and Gerard stare at each other, each waiting for the other to back down first, Mikey stealthily leaves. Gerard only notices when Mikey’s back and putting the end of a second blaster in his hand. Just like his primary it’s yellow, but this one has white polkadots. Gerard took a good few hours masking them off before spraying the blaster. The effect is pretty cool, but there’s sentiment attached to his primary. Mikey’s is similarly red, but Frank’s second is white, obviously recently hacked. His brother’s got the right idea. It’ll be easier to toss the icy blaster down and raise a second than it would be to try and remove the cold powercube of ammo and align a new one in the middle of a battle.

“I know you’ve got your bomb, but just in case.”

“You can drive,” Gerard allows. “Since you know where they are.”

They’re really not giving Fun Ghoul an out, and after a minute he seems to accept it. He takes the few steps back to the car and pushes the driver’s seat back. Gerard climbs in the back, behind Mikey, and tries to mentally prepare himself. He’s never seen human trafficking before, but he can’t imagine it’ll be nice. He needs to be able to use the rage and disgust productively, channel it into accurate shots and steady footsteps. It’s either use it well or push it away entirely, and he’s got a short drive to figure out what will work better.

“What’s the ratio,” he asks eventually.

Ghoul glances at him through the rear view mirror. “What?”

“Dracs-”

“Dorothys,” Ghoul corrects. “Dracs in training.”

“The ratio of them to us? And how many ‘runners are gonna be there?”

“I dunno.”

Mikey frowns. Sitting in the back seat Gerard can’t see it, but he can hear it in his voice. “How many people were there when you left?”

Ghoul’s voice is tense. “See, Dorothys get paid bulk rates. It’s not worth it to turn in less than fifty. None of us could get weapons to fight back, and a fist doesn’t do much. So instead of me and Jet and Grace trying to escape and dying from one of a dozen things I lead at least half of the string away. Strength in numbers, like you said. Thirty people down bides a lot of time for Jet. But there was no way that would work. We didn’t have transport, we didn’t have clothing. We couldn’t have made it to the markets alive. So I took everyone right into a Companion house. I acted out, got labelled worthless, got traded, found an opportunity and took it.”

“How are the others that left with you?”

“Not my problem, Party. I have an alliance of three.”

Gerard can’t help but notice he hasn’t upped it to five. Frustrating, considering they might get ghosted helping him with this.

Ghoul pulls to a stop maybe an hour later, in what looks like it was once an upscale neighbourhood, all tiny boutiques and art galleries. Everything’s ruined by the elements, all the windows of every building are decimated, and half the walls are melted by some of the nastier chemical fogs. Fun Ghoul gets out and closes his door slowly so it doesn’t thud. Gerard does his best to repeat the action once Mikey gets out.

Half a block away from where they’ve parked, the Dorothys are sitting inside the remnants of a cafe restaurant. Gerard’s never really been much for recognisance. Still, it makes sense that they’re scanning the scene. If this is a rescue mission, as well as an attack, best to do it when there’s some sort of advantage. Which really, appears to be now. The Dorothys number ten that Gerard can see, and they’re all eating. They’re as distracted as they’re going to be. Gerard thinks it’s time to go in. He passes the binoculars to Mikey who agrees once he gets a good look.

Mikey passes the equipment to Ghoul. It would be best if it’s unanimous. Gerard doesn’t want to storm in if they’re not all ready. Instead of nodding or giving his approval, he wails. It’s a high pitched sound, ugly and raw. It takes a few seconds for Mikey to stop it with a gloved hand. No, not stop. Ghoul’s still keening, Mikey’s only muffling it.

“What?” Gerard asks, half desperately. Aside from maybe alerting the Dorothys depending on how well the sound is carrying, Gerard needs it to stop because it’s hurting him. There’s a world of pain in the high moan, and it’s too close to how Gerard sometimes feels to not need to get away from it as soon as possible.

“Didn’t you see? They’re all wearing collars!” Gerard saw, but obviously he doesn’t understand the significance. Fun Ghoul explains, voice brutal. “They’re temporary corpse controllers, before they get the Drac upgrade. Everyone is dead. Jet and Grace are gone!”

Gerard’s not sure he’s touched Ghoul before this. It was weird, between him fucking his brother and unwanted ownership. Nothing in the world could hold him back now. Mikey joins Gerard on the other side of Ghoul so they can sandwich him.

“We’ll kill them slowly, and we’ll make sure your two can’t be repurposed, okay?” Of course it’s not okay. But it’s the Zones and it’s the best Ghoul is gonna get.

They run towards the building. It would make more sense to just throw the bomb through the window, but no doubt Fun Ghoul wants to see the looks on their faces, so they storm the door. The confusion is so nice it’s almost a shame to burn it off their fucking faces. Still, Gerard doesn’t really hold back from laying into both the Dorothys and the scattering of partially animated corpses. Most of them aren’t even active, but every body that goes back to SCARECROW is a Drac coming to the zones to hunt them down a month from now.

Time stops for a second when a man’s voice screams out “Fun!”

Fun Ghoul is standing beside him, Mikey with his back against theirs. Looking to the side, Gerard can see the hate transform to hope on his face.

“Spare blaster?” the same voice shouts the question. Whereever the man is hiding, he wants to join

Gerard only brought two, and one is almost entirely cooled, maybe three shots left. He has no doubt Mikey’s in the same situation. Instead of wasting time explaining that he shouts out “anyone else?”

“Six!”

Gerard loses the thread of conversation for a moment as his leg bursts into flame from one too many hits. He has to drop to the ground and roll to put it out. He’s more worried about how bad the burn is going to be than that he’s going to get blasted again. Mikey’s covering him, and the erratic target is making him a harder target. He just needs to stop it before his skin gets too wrecked.

Then Ghoul’s wrenching him by the back of the jacket. Gerard automatically resists a second before backwards crabwalking to help. He’s obviously doing it for a reason, even if Gerard doesn’t know what it is. They end up behind a tipped table, Mikey squished beside him. Over the heavy clatter of others -most likely mystery man and his six- tipping more, Fun Ghoul mutters “Cover your faces.”

He does, instinctively pressing his nose to the hardwood as he covers his ears. The explosion is loud, but not permanently damaging. At least not for him. When they carefully look over the edge of the table after the sounds of shrapnel embedding itself in things stops, most of the Dorothys are severely injured.

The next few minutes are carnage. Gerard doesn’t join in. He understands the zonerunner that kicks one of the Dorothys until she stops moving. If he was in the same situation, he’d do whatever he could for revenge. But as is, he doesn’t need that. This doesn’t affect him personally. He has a generalised loathing of the idea of stealing people and using them as fodder, not a specific need to break the kneecaps of the SCARECROW wannabe that laughed when someone cried.

After the Dorothys are dead most of the ‘runners take off. The white motorcycles in a line at the side of the restaurant rev one by one. Soon only a tall man and a little girl are left. Gerard wasn’t expecting a child. They’re both naked, like all the dead zonerunners. Mikey slides off his jacket and hands it to the kid. She stares at him for a minute before she sticks her arms in the sleeves. With the zipper done, it’s almost like a really loose dress for her. He’s not sure where in the zones they’re going to find children’s clothing, there’s not really a market for it. Zonerunners don’t exactly make good parents. Boundary boys don’t tend to be families of four.

The man casually starts to strip the Dorothy with the least amount of blood stains and scorch marks. The white pants and shirt are a poor fit, but at least once he’s dressed Gerard doesn’t have to hate himself for checking out his ass. It’s so inappropriate he wants to blast himself in the face for it.

“Not that I’m not thrilled to see you alive-”

The man says with a quirk of a smile “is there a ‘but’ in there?”

“I just didn’t-” Ghoul cuts off, takes a breath, and tries again. “You were wearing the collars!”

“They starved us all to death. Nearly all truly, but a few of us faked it.”

The child speaks up. “It was easy to sneak water once they weren’t watching to see if you were dead yet.”

“I’m sorry it took so long. Fuck, I’m so-” Ghoul gets cut off abruptly as the taller man grabs him and pulls him into a hug. His face gets buried in the man’s collarbone, his hair ruffled comfortingly, like Gerard’s done to Mikey. It’s nice, and Gerard refuses to interrupt, even though they have some pressing matters at hand. They can wait, Ghoul obviously needs this. Curls isn’t exactly in a rush to let go, maybe he needs it too.

Eventually they pull away, and the introductions start. “Guys, this is Kobra Kid in the yellow stripes, and Party Poison with the red hair. Guys, Jet Star’s the one with the manly manly arms, and Grace is the awesome one.”

“I dunno what your long term plans are, but we’ve got a bunch of supplies at one of our squats, if you want to come with?” Gerard’s not sure if Mikey is extending the offer to Jet Star and grace, or Jet Star, Grace, and Fun Ghoul. It’s hard to say how this is going to shake down. Ghoul’s been biding his time for a while to rescue his two companions, it’s unlikely he’ll be ready to leave them to travel the desert with himself and his brother. But for Mikey’s sake, Gerard hopes Fun Ghoul isn’t ready to leave them either.

“That sounds like a good idea,” Grace says firmly. She sounds like she doesn’t know she’s a kid. Gerard thinks that’s a little sad, though realistic.

“We should take the leftover bikes though. Me and the kid need to trade for food and gear.” Jet’s words are logical. His sleeve hems are already ripped and the rest of the shirt is strained; it obviously won’t last long. And Grace isn’t wearing anything of her own. Gerard nods his agreement and heads for the door.

Walking out of the broken down restaurant they stand midway between the car and the three bikes with the large cage trailer beside it. Gerard puts his hand on the child’s shoulder and begins to lead her to the car.

“Where are you taking her?” Jet Star growls.

“She can sit in the car where she’s safer.”

Three things happen in a row, very quickly. Grace kicks him as hard as she can before scurrying over to Jet Star, Jet tenses enough that his sleeves rip a little more, and Fun Ghoul gives her his newly customised bright green blaster.

“Guess that answers that,” Mikey says lowly.

“We don’t separate.”

“Nope.”

Gerard can understand that. But he really thinks Grace should be in the car, not on the back of a motorcycle when none of them have helmets. “What if it was me and Fun Ghoul on the bikes, and Kobra and you two in the car?”

That seems to work for everyone. Mikey remembers that they said they’ve been starved, and he wanders outside to hack the nearest machine. Into the quiet Gerard asks a basic question. “What else do you need? Clothes, and food, obviously. But anything else?”

Expecting a rebreather, or a toy for Grace, he’s surprised at Jet Star’s answer. “To visit Teiholda Lodge in zone six.”

“Um. Why?”

“That’s where they sold my guitar. I want it back.”

Suddenly Gerard is even more attracted to him. He clamps down on it, tells himself enough firmly, and waits for Mikey to come back with the food.

***
It’s been a week since they rescued Jet Star and the rest of the zonerunners, and Gerard still can’t stop looking at him.

He’s in better fitting clothes now, no more split seams. Among them there’s not a speck of white. His jeans are nearly black, his undershirts are all plain black, much less flashy than the stuff he and Kobra and Ghoul like. His one concession to gaudy zones fashion is his jacket. It’s patchworked, denim and plastic, the entire back painted upholstery material. Gerard loves it, maybe more than the green vest that’s become Fun Ghoul’s favourite piece. It’s real art, the same way his mousekat rebreather is.

Gerard likes watching Jet Star in his subdued clothes, he has to admit it. He wants to see under the clothes too. It’s becoming a problem. There are a lot of ways to deal with problems, any motorbaby worth their boots knows that. Unfortunately for him most don’t apply. He can’t blast his desire until it dies. He can’t relocate. He could never leave Mikey and Ghoul is quickly falling into the same category. He can’t trade it away to someone else that has use for it. Lust doesn’t work that way.

Talking to Mikey won’t solve anything. He’s not that naive to think brothers can fix everything, and Mikey’s the little brother anyway. But in the zones interpersonal relationships matter, and Gerard thinks he’ll maybe feel better just because Mikey knows.

He waits for Jet Star and Fun Ghoul to start playing with Grace to approach. It doesn’t take long. The three have a pretty much constant game of tickle-tag going on. Mikey’s been joining in on occasion, but this time he’s still sitting. Gerard sits beside him. The asphalt is warm through the jean leg on his right leg, downright hot on his bare left calf. The bandage for his burn is large enough that the left pant won’t fit on top of it. It’s not worth it to buy a new pair though, not when the medical market consultant said it would only take two or three weeks to heal. According to Daily Apple, before the bombs people would go to hospitals for second degree burns. He doesn’t have that option, Better Living Industries owns the hospital. The best he can do is keep stocked up on clean bandages for when the bloody blisters weep.

“I think I like him.” There’s absolutely no reason to name names. Gerard’s not a Draclicker, he’s not going to make a move on Mikey’s boyfriend. Show Pony and Doctor Death Defying are in their lives only a handful of days a month. Other runners they know by name are even more sporadic.

“Gee. Party. You don’t have to hook up just because we’re hooked up.”

Of course, feeling better for talking to Mikey hinges on the idea that Mikey won’t be an asshole about it. Frustration kicks up and Gerard snaps out “hey, don’t second guess my motives. You own your lover! What does that say about you?”

“I meant what I said at Bellsuns. We don’t own him.”

Gerard presses the point. “Technically we do though. I don’t like it as much as you don’t, but we do.”

“No. He didn’t stay there, trading himself for whatever others wanted to give. It was a plan. It was a short step on his devious zonerunner plan. He’s a fucking motorbaby, and you can’t own a motorbaby. No one can. Shit happened to them, it could have just as easily been us. You’re telling me you wouldn’t be a Companion for a month, if it was the only way to save me?”

“I’d do anything.” It’s not a question. Not even close to one.

“Fun Ghoul and Jet Star don’t have to be brothers to be brothers.”

“I know.”

At that Mikey stands. He runs a few car lengths and tackles Ghoul in order to pinch at his ribs and make him shriek with laughter. Gerard doesn’t join in. The last thing he needs right now is for Jet to tackle him. If Jet pulls him to the ground and forces him to stay in place with tightly squeezed thighs, Gerard will come all over everything. If anyone else pulls him to the ground he’ll probably scream in pain. Daily Apple offered analgesics, but drugs are drugs are drugs, and he didn’t come to the zones to do more drugs.

***
It’s scorching hot outside. Last weather report claimed it was 121. Too hot to wear a jacket without passing out, too sunny to survive without bad burns without a jacket. Outside it would be a hard choice, and Gerard doesn’t envy the motorbabies stuck in vast desert plains. Lucky for them all, they crashed last night in a deserted diner. It’s got shade, and shade is excuse enough for them to all strip down. It’s almost bearable, with all five of them only in underwear.

It’s one of the more habitable buildings; all the walls as well as the roof are intact. The mirrors in the bathroom are still whole, and the booth seats are long enough that you barely have to curl to sleep on them. The sentiment is obviously shared by numerous zonerunners. The plywood board where the door once was are covered in happy graffiti. You don’t waste spray paint on places that suck.

Best of all, the stove has been teched so it can still cook meals. Hot Power Pup doesn’t taste much better than room temperature Power Pup, but the clever can do better than that. Jet Star is a prime example of that. Mikey and Grace are playing cards in one of the booths, Gerard set to play the winner, and Ghoul is wincing as Jet Star slices thin strips of snake to turn into jerky. Apparently all you have to do is soak it in spices then bake it for a few hours and you’ve got meat that can be eaten months later.

Jet frowns at Ghoul’s scowl. “I don’t get how you think this is fucked up. It’s an animal. It’s meat. You eat meat, you eat Power Pup.”

“Oh, like that’s real meat,” Ghoul scoffs.

“Well, I’m not not making it, just because you feel queasy.”

“Just promise if we ever find fruit you’ll dry that too.”

It’s so unlikely it’s nearly impossible, but Jet promises. And that’s when Gerard goes insane. That’s when he peels himself off the booth with a squelch and crosses the restaurant with only a slight limp. He joins Ray at the counter and kisses him.

It’s the best twenty seconds of his life, maybe excluding one or two experiences. Then Jet pulls away. He shakes his head. “No.” He walks away.

Shameless seconds before, now Gerard’s glad he can still hear Mikey and Grace chattering about cards. It means they didn’t witness it. It’s not like he’s not going to tell Mikey, but it’ll be better if he can do it his way. But there’s still Fun Ghoul. He has to have seen it, he’s on a stool about three feet away from where Ray was standing.

Deciding to beat him to the punch, Gerard turns to face him. Posture ramrod straight, hands on his scantily covered hips he asks “You have an opinion?”

“I do. Are you going to listen, or are you going to be a bitch about it?”

“Try me.” His voice sounds challenging, he’s not quite ready to back down. But the truth is any insight he can get on what the fuck he should do next would be helpful.

“You have to understand how much he loves Grace. We found Crash Chord and Grace when she was three.” Gerard would guess Grace is six or seven now. They really have been in the zones longer than he and Mikey have.

“She was really sick, one of the pollution fogs. She died a few months after. We took Grace, of course. Just because the markets don’t have teddy bears doesn’t mean you send someone so innocent back to Battery City to rot from the inside out. Jet tries his fucking damnedest to give Grace a stable life. He could see I loved Kobra from the second he saw I trust him enough to stand back to back. He doesn’t know if you love him, and he won’t have a relationship with someone that doesn’t want to stay together until both are ghosted.”

“I do love him. Or, at least, I think I do. The city didn’t really teach a course on how to make your emotions known. But I can do it stably, I swear. Even if the sex ended up bad I’d want to keep fighting beside him.”

“Then keep on, and he’ll see it.”

***
Gerard wakes up with a cough. It’s a warning sign, enough that he sits up straight and squints against the darkness. It’s harder to tell if there’s a problem in the middle of the night, the colours of pollution fogs don’t show up as well in the darkness. Especially indoors. No one else has woken up, which is probably a good sign. Better that he accidentally swallow a bug in his sleep than more Xenic. Still, he’s paranoid enough to stand and walk to the car. There are always weather reports on somewhere, he just has to wait.

Show Pony’s voice eventually assures him of what he’s pretty sure of; no current flare ups. Gerard nods at the baritone and closes the door as lightly as he can. The pile of Killjoys are a good twenty feet from the Trans Am, which is still close enough to wake them up if he slams it.

To his surprise, Grace is awake. She’s sitting straight up, dancing her toy against the cracked sand. He’s sure he would have heard her shouting to wakefulness from a nightmare, even with the windows up. Certainly the three of them would have heard her. The only explanation is she woke up without reacting. He can’t help but wonder if she learned that when she was with the Dorothys, or if being born into this world she grew up sleeping in phases.

Gerard can’t get back to the wadded up jeans he’s using as a pillow without crossing past where she’s sitting. And if he crosses past her, he’ll have to try to coax her back to sleep. Gerard’s not sure he wants that responsibility. It would be easier to wake up Fun Ghoul or Jet Star with a heavily slammed door. They’d notice she wasn’t beside them and go talk to her. Shit, even Mikey would be a better choice; he has the beginnings of a relationship with her. Gerard’s the only one she doesn’t like.

He can’t blame her for not liking him. In hindsight trying to take Grace to the car was a really stupid first move. A kid like that, the things she’s been through, trust is hard won. He pretty much guaranteed he’d never have it when he tried to take her away. Still, each day it becomes more obvious that they’re going to be a long term quartet. It would be better if she didn’t hate him.

Gerard sinks to the sand, loosely crosslegged with the brown leather of his boots touching at the ankles. He can’t fold them tighter, his left leg still can’t tolerate the weight of his right. The sand is hard packed, it barely shifts under his him. He doesn’t wait for her to talk, he doubts she will. “Did Jet Star ever tell you about real stars?”

For a second he wonders if she’ll reply. Then she asks indifferently “what’s that?”

“So you can see the moon, right?”

She looks up as if to point out the obviousness of his statement. Gerard doesn’t let it bother him, he’s handled worse sarcasm from people a lot bigger than her. “Well, there are stars in the sky alongside the moon. It’s harder to see them, because they’re a lot smaller than the moon. Except they aren’t really smaller, they just look smaller because they’re further away. But they look smaller, and it’s easier for the pollution to cover them up. But they’re there. And even better than stars are constellations. People used to draw imaginary lines between the stars, and call the drawings they made constellations and tell stories about them.”

“That’s silly.”

“I dunno. You try it.” Gerard quickly and randomly pokes a few dozen holes into the crusty sand. “Think of something. Then draw it, using only straight lines to connect the dots.”

She makes a diamond, then looks at him.

“Can you tell me the story?” It’s a better way of phrasing than ‘what is it’ would be.

“One time Fun got me a kite. We flew it a lot in zone three, they have a lot of little dust storms. But it was green so you could always see it. But then one time a big dust storm kicked up, and it ripped out of my hand and he tried to get it for a second but then we had to run to the car so we wouldn’t choke to death or go into the air. Both of us, even. Fun is smaller than Jet.”

“So that’s the sky’s kite?”

“The moon’s kite,” she corrects.

She draws a second constellation in what’s left of the dots. It’s even harder to figure out. “And that story?”

“It’s a cat. Momma had three, before the city said they were a waste of resources. I remember a story she told me, that Purr and Mushroom would always eat Bottle’s food, no matter where she put the dish. So after a long time they were fat and slow, and Bottle was still playful and the nicest one too.”

“I’ve never had a cat. I bet it would be nice. I’d want a nice cat, but I wouldn’t care if it was fat.”

“Do you like Party or Poison or Party Poison better?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”

The truth is that he’s becoming more and more used to answering to any of the three. A few days ago when they were driving to get more gasoline Mikey had to nudge him to get his attention, calling out Gerard wasn’t doing it. He’s not sure how long it’ll take to think of his brother as Kobra Kid, but that will surely happen if they survive any length of time.

“Oh.”

“Why? Do you like one better?”

“No. Not really. Only I’m Graceful Notes, because my momma told Jet to make sure I’m always singin’, pure and loud.” She says it like a quote, like it’s something Jet Star has told her a hundred times, or every night before bed. “But that was what my momma called me. Fun and Jetty only call me Grace. And they said Grace, so you and Kobra say Grace. And.”

Gerard looks at her. She’s still got her finger swirling in the sand, but off to her right, not messing with either of the constellations. He takes a stab in the dark at what she might be trying to say. “What do you want me to call you? Or something totally different?”

“Like what?”

“I dunno. I could call you poop in a bucket. Piba for short.”

Grace giggles. Something in Gerard wants to hear it again.

“You can call me Grace. Cause you’re not my momma, and you’re not Fun and Jet, but they like you so I like you. But if you ever try to take me away from Jet again, I’ll hate you forever. And I’ll take a blaster and blast you.”

It’s not hard to imagine. For all intents and purposes she’s Fun Ghoul’s daughter, and he built a bomb to settle his score. “Sounds fair to me. Are you ready to go back to bed?”

“You can. I’m gonna make more stars.”

He stays, crawling opposite her so they can both start poking more stars into the ground. Not because they would be upset if he left her alone, though that much is true. He stays because this is a good start, and he doesn’t want to throw it away.

***
From the shake of the can, there doesn’t seem to be much blue spray paint left. Gerard’s not too concerned. According to the pattern in his mind, he’ll need more red than blue, and the red can’s almost full.

He doesn’t hear the footsteps, only jumps at the hand on his back. His hand goes to his holster for his blaster, but of course it’s not anyone hostile. A Drac would have just shot him in the back a dozen times before he went down, maybe not even seeing the stupid mask before he died. Lucky for him.

“I didn’t want to interrupt, but are you painting what I think you are?”

“If you’re thinking American flag, yeah.”

“If I’d known, I would have let you borrow my jacket.” Jet twirls in a manly fashion to demonstrate.

“Wouldn’t be good for you. You’d be stuck indoors until I was finished.”

“Not necessarily. I could sit in the car as you worked.” He pauses for a second then adds “not that I’m saying I don’t trust it out of my sight.”

“I know. You literally just offered it to me, I think you have some sense of trust.”

“Can I ask why? I mean, I get that you do the art. From what Kobra’s said, your other cars have been just as milkshake as the sketches you’ve done on the abandoned buildings. But I mean, why the flag?”

“‘Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave, over the land of the free and the home of the brave’. That’s us. That’s this. The zones and it’s runners. We deserve that anthem. We deserve that flag, not the City! So I’m making it ours.” He’s gripping the spray can so hard his knuckles are white. He loosens his grasp and tries to drop the orating out of his voice. “I dunno. It makes sense to me, and Kobra’s not going to complain.”

“No, it makes sense. It’s on my back for a reason.”

They just look at each other for a second, and Gerard really wants to kiss him. But he won’t. Not again, not until he knows Jet Star won’t frown and pull away. Much too late for it to be relevant to the conversation he nods his head.

“So, I guess, enjoy yourself, I guess. And I’ll see you later?”

“It’s not like I go into a trance. You could stay here, if you wanted? We could talk?”

Grinning, Jet hops up to perch himself on the hood. His weight tilts the car slightly, but not enough for Gerard to complain. He probably wouldn’t regardless of what Jet Star did. Mikey, or Ghoul, maybe, but not Jet.

The red stripes of the flag run from the front bumper to the windshield of the driver’s side. They’re straight enough to suit him, but not bright enough yet. They’ll need at least one more coat. Gerard squats, hissing as the denim drags against his lightly gauzed leg -they need to go pick up more decent bandages- and starts the process again. It would be easier if he had tape to mask off the white parts, but he doesn’t. A carefully held rag is the best he’s got. There is one good point to the method though. It requires so much concentration to make sure the red doesn’t drip that it’s easier to forget that he’s about head level with Jet Star’s junk.

Jet breaks the silence with “Grace told me you’re a good person. You know how many people she’s said that about?”

Gerard would feel silly about being vetted by a six year old, except that would be rude to Grace. Besides, it’s been made pretty clear Grace’s approval is the stamp he needs. Her telling Jet that can only be a good thing. “I’m glad to hear that. We got off to kind of a rough start.”

“If you ever hurt her, you’ll wish for days that you were dead. Weeks, maybe.”

“Obviously.” They’ve had a few altercations with patrolling Dracs in the last two weeks. Jet’s killed his fair share. Gerard has no doubt he’d be just another body if it came down to it.

Jet bends awkwardly to the side and kisses him. It’s nice. Jet Star doesn’t stop, doesn’t pull away and regret it, just keeps kissing him. It’s more than nice. It’s been a long time since his last, Mikey’s more interested in liaisons with other runners than he ever was. When he does pull away it’s only to ask if they can do it in a way that doesn’t make his side cramp. Gerard obliges quickly by standing up and pulling Jet to him.

Jet’s lips are chapped, rough against his tongue. His mouth opens easily, like under the facade of normality for Grace’s sake he’s wanted this just as much as Gerard has.

“Can I touch you?”

Gerard doesn’t answer in words, just crams his hands as far down the back of Jet’s light coloured jeans as he can. His jeans are tighter, so Jet just unzips them at the front and pushes them to mid-thigh. The wide patch of white strings barely holding together feels great against his cock. The problem is it’s harder to rock firmly with neither of them against a hard surface. Gerard starts to takes the few steps to trap himself against the car, but Jet spins him and bares him down to the sand instead.

“Be careful of my leg,” he requests as Jet pulls his pants off the rest of the way. It’s sensitive, and Gerard doesn’t have a pain fetish. Jet solves the problem by hiking his right leg up until his knee is nearly on his chest for more room.

Things stall for a moment, long enough that Gerard wriggles to remind Jet what he was about to do. Instead of proceeding to do it, he frowns. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t.”

“I’m big, and I will. We’ll trade a blaster for some supplies, but that isn’t gonna work today. Can you hold your own leg up so I can have my hand free?”

Gerard does. A minute later he sees why Jet Star needed it. Both hands are holding his cheeks apart, and Jet’s tongue is licking down his crack. It’s not being fucked, but in some ways it’s better. It’s teasing, the way Jet’s playing with his hole. It’s maddening.

“Jesus. Jesus SCARECROW fuckshit. God!” Gerard tries to curl his fingers into fists and only manages to plunge them into the sand. It’s not enough to grab, there’s no resistance to make it count. “Fuck. Jet, fuck. I. I can’t-”

“Then you can,” he answers simply, voice gritty.

He gives his hand a rough scrape against his jacket to get the sand off then strokes the head of his cock with his thumb. A few strokes is all it takes before he’s coming, arching so it gets on his jacket instead of in Jet’s hair. There aren’t exactly a lot of opportunities to wash your hair when you’re a zonerunner.

There’s no misinterpreting the bulge behind Jet Star’s zipper. Gerard wants to fix that for him. “What do you want? You could sit on my face and I could return the favour?” He’s never eaten out a guy, but there’s a first time for everything.

“For now wanna suck me off?”

“I don’t think I can kneel, so you need to lay down, or go on your side or something.”

Jet Star wasn’t lying. His cock is pretty huge. Gerard doesn’t even entertain the possibility of sucking it all, he knows his limits. He spits on his hand a few times and does his best to stroke the shaft with the same rhythm that he sucks the head. Jet doesn’t babble the way he did. Instead he writhes, from side to side with the occasion helpless buck that nearly chokes him. Gerard tries to follow his movement, for his own safety as much as for his pleasure.

“Gonna-”

Gerard doesn’t move. Ejaculate isn’t the best tasting thing in the world, but it’s better than Power Pup, and he has that every day.

“You think they heard us,” Jet asks. He stretches an arm and feels for Gerard’s discarded jeans without moving the rest of his body. When he’s got them he executes the exact right wrist flick to fling them to him.

“I think it probably doesn’t matter.” There’s a good chance they haven’t. Gerard parked the can pretty far from today’s squat, he didn’t want Grace to see the paint and want to get involved. With other projects, sure, but not the Trans Am. But it’s not like they’re going to hide it, and it’s not like Mikey and Ghoul wouldn’t notice if they tried.

“Get those on so you don’t get sunburned, and lay beside me for a bit.”

Gerard hates the way this world is. Still, there’s something spectacular about being somewhere so public, but having such a private moment. It’s something that could never happen in Battery City. From what he’s been told it wouldn’t have happened anywhere pre-bomb either. The population then was just as cramped and communal, there just used to be more. Amongst all the shit, there are a few things to be grateful for.

***
“Where are you going?” Grace says it, but they all look up in interest at Jet Star who has halted halfway to the vehicles.

“I need to go get a string. Mine broke. Already. I’ll be back later today. Unless one of you wants to come with?”

Gerard doesn’t need a engraved invitation. He stands up and goes to their second recently liberated motorcycle. It looks new too, still white. Gerard’s fingers itch to fill that space, but Ghoul called it. It wasn’t worth it to fight about it. It’s just annoying that he won’t paint until they have a large quantity of green. Fuck only knows how long that’ll take.

The rebreather makes a great helmet, but it makes speech pretty unclear. Jet’s helmet isn’t much better. Add that to having to shout over the roar of the engine and it’s simpler to just not talk until they get to zone six.

Once they park, Jet Star heads off. He seems to know exactly where he’s going. Gerard hangs back. He doesn’t need his hand held to buy more accessories for something Gerard doesn’t even know how to use.

As he’s standing and casually observing the motorbabies around him, one comes up to him. She looks milkshake; striped jacket with a bunch of burn holes and large sunglasses that take up half her face. “What have you done recently?”

There are two types of ‘runners that ask that. Either they’re one or two days in, still detoxing and looking for the heroic story that convinces them that leaving Battery City was a good idea. That, or they’re the veterans, proud of surviving and making a difference and wantng to share how. Either way there’s no harm in answering. “I took down a pack of Dorothys. You know who those are?”

“Yeah. I heard about that. That was you? You know there’s this SCARECROW, Korse, chasing you for doing that?”

“If you see him, tell him I’ll keep running.”

They talk for a few minutes and then Jet Star is back. He’s got a package in hand, and a grin Gerard wants to lick. “Found my string. Traded less than I thought he would want.”

“You could have paid whatever.” None of them would put a price on Jet Star being able to play for them. Ghoul uses the guitar when Jet isn’t, and Mikey’s expressed an interest in learning. It’s become an important piece of being a Killjoy.

“I know. But cheaper still makes me happy.”

Gerard nods at Dandelion -apparently so named because in the old days you could behead them from your lawn and they’d just keep growing- and follows Jet back to their bikes. Gerard does his best at a leer as he asks “that didn’t take long at all. What’re you gonna do when we get back?”

“Play for you all afternoon.”

“And tonight?”

“Fuck you all night, of course.”

“Sounds like the good life.”

And the thing is, he’s not being sarcastic. The life isn’t for everyone, but it can be great for some. And Gerard is one of them. Everything in the zones is just pretty damn great.