Everything goes white, and then black.
The blackness lasts a long time. It’s cooler than the dusty, dry heat he’s used to, and Mikey’s content to let himself float in it, relaxing as it starts to seep into his fingers where they’re limp and empty. He’s waiting for it to keep going, to cool the rest of him, empty him out gradual and easy and then there’ll be nothing left. Simple. It’s how it works.
Except this time, it’s not -- the dark starts to recede, and then the cool. Mikey feels warmth settle like a blanket over him, comforting at first and then oppressive, dry and itchy and too much.
“Hey.” The voice is too loud, and too close. It pauses, then comes back even louder. “Hey. Wake up. C’mon.” There’s something shaking him, then, a hand. He feels fingers press into his shoulder, and he groans in protest.
“That’s it, c’mon. Get up. We gotta get out of here.”
Mikey cracks his eyes open, just a sliver, then shuts them tight again at the too-bright burst of whiteness, flaring across his retinas. “Fuck,” says the voice, and then the hand on his shoulder is joined by another one, and he’s being heaved bodily off the ground.
He stumbles a little, eyes slitting open again for a second, then closed. His feet feel heavy and leaden in their boots and his back aches. “Hurry up,” the voice says, and Mikey snaps out, “Fucking hang on, all right?”
The voice falls silent.
He takes a deep breath, then another, and opens his eyes a third time. The light is still piercing, too-bright, but it’s bearable now, and he blinks owlishly and looks over at the guy that’s been talking to him. It’s not what he was expecting, exactly--the voice is high-pitched, breathy, and Mikey was thinking it’d come from someone Frank’s size, maybe even smaller. Instead, this guy is taller than Mikey, and broader, with shoulders like engines and a huge black helmet covering his whole face.
“Good thing I wake up pretty easy,” the guy says, bending to re-tie his boot and mumbling a little. “You were out cold.”
Right, Mikey thinks, I was out -- “Ghosted?” he asks, and the guy nods, standing up and dusting off his knees.
“Drac ambush. Supply drop-off, I was supposed to meet you and word must have got out. I’m Jet Star, by the way.”
“Kobra Kid,” Mikey says absently, remembering. He’d left Gerard at the camp, and Frank was over delivering their latest zone report to Dr. D. It was supposed to be a routine run, new parts and some info, but there were Dracs waiting. He didn’t have much of a chance. Alone, none of them did.
“Where’s your runners?” he asks the guy--Jet Star--and doesn’t wait for an answer before turning around and looking, scanning for their wheels.
“Don’t have any,” Jet Star says, going for nonchalance, but Mikey can see the way his shoulders tense up while he waits for a reaction. He’s trying to figure out how the fuck this guy gets around by foot out in the zones when he realizes Jet Star’s means he hasn’t got a crew. Mikey blinks at that. It’s--not usual, to run solo. Not unheard-of, but fucking difficult. With no one to wake you after a ghosting, you don’t make it long, and--
“Fucking wait,” Mikey says. “There was only you on the drop-off? And they ghosted both of us?”
Jet Star nods, the helmet bobbing jerkily.
“How the fuck did you wake up?” Mikey knows his voice is hard, shocked, but he can’t help it. Waking up alone--that’s just now how it fucking works. Ghosting pulls something out of you, something you can only get back from someone else, someone awake. A voice, a hand, a life--it doesn’t matter, it’s easy enough, but only if one of you is awake. Someone has to be awake.
Jet Star shrugs. “I don’t know. It’s just--it’s something I can do, I guess. They didn’t get me that bad, anyway,” and just like that his voice goes higher, cheery, like he’s smiling at Mikey under the massive helmet.
Mikey does not grin back. “Wheels?” he asks abruptly, looking around again. HIs eyes scan briefly over the baked landscape, hot tar road and a few boulders and not much room to hide a vehicle.
“Follow me,” Jet Star says, noticing him look. “I hide my shit well.”
* * *
The car’s the exact color of the earth, brown-roasted nothing, dust, and Jet Star dropped it a fucking mile and a half down the road, in the shaded dip behind a half-assed hill. Mikey’s sweating by the time they reach it, bandanna soaked through, and he whips it off and ties it around his forehead to keep the drops out of his eyes. Jet Star’s eyes go wide at that, and Mikey remembers belatedly that he’s not with the Killjoys. Gerard and him -- they’d never not known what each other looked like, anyway, and when Frank joined them it was just too much fucking effort to start covering up all the time. Same with D and Pony, and they don’t see anyone else that often. Mikey just forgets, sometimes, that faces are something to be hidden now, like music and color. Fuck.
He pulls the bandanna back down, grimacing at the feel of clammy wet cotton against his face, but Jet Star makes an abortive noise, then shakes his head clumsily.
“It’s not--” he starts. “I mean, if you want. I don’t mind.”
Mikey squints at him. “Good to know you don’t mind seeing my face,” he says, dry and sarcastic. “Memorize it, why don’t you, and I’ll stare at that helmet.”
“I didn’t--” Jet Star starts, and breaks off. He sounds hurt, and Mikey wishes he could see the guy’s eyes, at least, through that fucking helmet.
“Sorry,” he says, voice tight. “I forget, sometimes.”
“Yeah,” Jet Star says. “Me, too.”
They walk in awkward silence for a while after that, feet kicking up small puffs of desert dust like the smoke out of an old time gun. Mikey counts his footsteps in the back of his head, keeps his eyes up and on his surroundings. He’s up to five hundred twenty-three when Jet Star stops abruptly and makes a sharp left turn, and there it is, a Jeep rising out of the sand like a dust-colored optical illusion.
If it were ten degrees hotter, Mikey would pass it off as a mirage. When they approach, the Jeep’s solidity confirms his temp estimate -- it’s all hot metal and busted seats but it’s real, and it has wheels, and it’ll take him back to Gee and Frank.
“Okay,” Jet Star says once they’ve thudded over the small hills and found themselves back on the shimmering, busted-up tar of Route Guano, “where to?”
His voice sounds lighter, and Mikey feels lighter, too, when he names the cross-marks of their latest hideout. “Radio?” Jet Star asks, hand reaching for the dial.
Mikey nods, and he imagines Jet Star looking pleased as his fingers reach for the dial. The familiar crackling of the Traffic Report fills the car, and Mikey listens in companionable silence to Dr. D’s rundown of the latest news from the zones -- drac sightings, supply dumps, skirmishes. He lets the staticky sound wash over him and fade out to mostly-meaningless, looking out the smudged-up windshield at the way the heat shimmers over the blank tar of the endless road. He doesn’t really hear it until Jet Star makes a soft, questioning noise, head jerking over to look at Mikey like he’s waiting for some reaction: the sudden, changed tone of Dr. D’s voice, the words he’s saying.
...looks like Jet Star and the Kobra Kid has a clap with an exterminator that went all Costa Rica -- got themselves ghosted, dusted out on Route Guano, so...
His first reaction is another quick jolt of surprise at the fact that he’s awake, against all odds, and then he gets it. Shit, Mikey thinks, like a punch to the solar plexus -- Gee and Frank, they think I’m gone.
“How much faster does this thing go?” he asks Jet Star, voice tight. Because they have a pact, the three of them, is the thing -- don’t wait, don’t be sentimental, don’t fuck around. Something happens, someone goes down, and you get out. Move on. Eliminate all traces and just fucking survive.
Jet Star must get it somehow, because he accelerates without saying a word, knuckles tightening on the stick shift. Mikey draws his bandanna up higher on the bridge of his nose and pulls in his feet, rests his chin on his knees and lets the thudding vibrations of truck over busted road echo up through his body. His teeth would be chattering regardless; even in the splitting heat, he’s shivering.
Through the windshield, what little landscape there is rushes by in spurts -- a fallen saguaro, a bleached-out skull, a pile of rocks too small to hide even a single drac. Mikey catalogues it all without thinking, lets his brain cross off the routine warning flashes of ‘threat’ as quickly as they scroll past. They pass a zone boundary, 3 into 4, marked only by the tattered remains of a road sign and the sudden increase in heat, ratcheting up from too much to totally unbearable. Some people say it’s the radiation, that it’ll kill you if you hang around in it too long. Others blame the exhaust from the massive air conditioners that temp-trol Battery City. All Mikey knows is it makes it hard to breathe for the first half-hour or so, until you adjust. Next to him, Jet Star’s taken one hand off the wheel and is tugging at the zipper of his leather jacket. Beads of sweat march out from under his black helmet, and he shakes his head a little like he’s trying to clear them out of his eyes.
He doesn't slow down, though, and Mikey feels a rush of gratitude, cool in the impossible heat. He looks away, out the window, and says, “If you wanna take it off, I won’t look. The helmet, I mean.”
There’s silence, and then the sound of fumbling. “Thank fuck,” Jet Star says, relief in his voice.
“Thought I might crash, for a second there. Fucking zone shift, shit.”
His voice is clearer without the helmet covering his mouth, brighter, and Mikey doesn’t look at him. They’ve past the second-to-last landmark, now, a half-buried rocket launcher left over from some long-forgotten skirmish. It might’ve happened as long ago as five years, or it could have been last month. Time tends to become less rigid the farther out you go in the zones; Gerard always talks excitedly about it, how it’s just more proof that society controls far more than anyone ever thought they could, how even the things we always took for granted, before, were never close to real. When he starts talking like that, he goes on until Frank starts laughing at him, helpless and not totally sane, and then he pouts until Mikey can change the subject and distract them both.
“How much farther?” Jet Star asks, and Mikey jerks away from that line of thinking, focuses back on the road. The Trans Am should be right past that rock formation, the one with a sizable chunk blown off its left side -- Frank practicing with the rocket launcher.
“Turn here,” Mikey starts to say, but the words die in his throat. Just off the paved road in front of them he can see fresh tire tracks, heading out from behind the rocks and disappearing onto the swallowing dark of the tar. They’re gone.
They check the hideout, just to make sure. Nothing’s there, though, not a single empty can of supplement or splash of dye smeared over the ground. Mikey spends twenty minutes looking at the bare rocks, waiting for some message to appear, a clue. A trace.
Finally, Jet Star reaches out and grabs his shoulder. Mikey doesn’t turn around.
“Kobra?” Jet Star asks, voice soft. “We gotta get out of here.”
Mikey doesn’t really think about the meaning of that “we” until they’re back on Route Guano, heading through a part of the zone that he hasn’t run in a year, at least. The numbness is starting to fade, a little, replaced by a frantically scrolling series of plans, all of which boil down to “find them.”
The fastest way is through the airwaves, of course. “We gotta get to Dr. D,” Mikey says, and looks over at Jet Star.
He’s -- he hasn’t put the helmet back on, and Mikey hadn’t noticed until now. “Sorry,” he says, quickly, and looks away. Next to him, Jet Star sighs.
“Look,” he says, “it’s hot as fuck, and I just -- I don’t care. I hope we’ve established by now that we’re not enemies, at least.”
Mikey hears the “we might as well be friends” that Jet Star leaves off, and his skin feels tight.
You’re not them, he wants to say, flat and definitive and mean. But “friends” doesn’t come close to what Frank and Gerard were -- are -- and something in Jet Star’s tone of voice tells Mikey that maybe he knows that, so he doesn’t say anything at all, just looks over and takes what he’s being offered.
It’s hard to notice anything but the hair, at first, hanging down in thick soggy curls that cover Jet Star’s neck and crowd around his ears. It’s brown, and it looks undyed, natural. Where there isn’t hair Mikey can see a face, overlarge features -- nose and lips and eyes that look like they’ve been exaggerated at random, without regard for any kind of purposeful artistic cohesion. Still, though, they come together in a way that’s strangely soft, given Jet Star’s size, and the tilt of his mouth and curve of his nose seem -- kind. Mikey shakes his head. He hasn’t seen a new face in a few years. He’s forgotten how to think about them.
“That’s where I’m heading,” Jet Star says, and Mikey remembers what he’d just asked. He watches Jet Star’s hands, easy on the wheel, and lets the muscles in his shoulders unclench the slightest bit.
The reddish dark of night is falling as they pull behind an abandoned shell of a building, one of the many former warehouses or bunkers or sometimes houses, scattered throughout the zones. There’s nothing in this one, though -- it only has two and a half walls and the remnants of a roof, but there’s a trailer parked halfway through the hole in the third wall, light leaking out of the cab.
Jet Star parks the Jeep and Mikey follows his quickening steps across the short expanse of sand. He’s almost running by the time he gets to the trailer’s door, and Mikey doesn’t understand why until he sees a small figure, shadow like an inkblot on the bright doorway behind, emerge from the trailer to greet him. As Mikey gets closer, the blot of the figure starts to take on a more distinct form -- a miniature person, he thinks, a smaller Jet Star. Same hair, but so small, it doesn’t make any --
“You came back!” the person says, and their voice is high and sweet, and it’s like something is unlocking in Mikey’s mind and he thinks, suddenly: child.
The word, even unvoiced, is enough to stop him in his tracks and he stumbles, breathing hard. Too many impossible things in one day, and maybe he never woke up after all, because there aren’t, any more. The children are gone -- to the labs in Battery City, every one, haven’t been seen for five years now, or six or three.
Mikey looks towards the trailer again, mind whirling. Silhouetted in the light coming from the open trailer door, he can see Jet Star holding the -- child -- up, its small hands reaching for his hair and face. Jet Star’s voice is rumbling, soft and happy, and Mikey feels a sharp pang of loss, a space at his side where Gerard should be standing.
Slowly, he walks toward the trailer. His footsteps must remind Jet Star that Mikey’s there, because when he turns around his broad face with its too-wide features is hard and wary, and he stands himself in front of the child, putting a hand on its miniature shoulder. Mikey opens his hands, a silent gesture of peace and maybe of pleading -- “I won’t tell,” he says, “I promise. I just. Wasn’t expecting a--”
“Motorbaby,” says Jet Star, face still closed off. “Is her name.” There’s a hint of emphasis on the “her,” and girl tumbles, almost as rusty as child, across Mikey’s mind. The girl-child’s face is like an adult’s, but so much smaller. She looks at him with curiosity, eyes wide and unmasked. Mikey doesn’t know what to say.
He settles on “hello,” finally, even though it sounds rough and awkward when it finally leaves his mouth. “I’m Kobra Kid,” he adds, and thinks for the first time in a long time about that “kid,” about how young he was when they started running -- still so much older than this Motorbaby standing in front of him. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Motorbaby’s still, eyes still wide and shining with silent interest, until Jet Star’s fingers tighten almost imperceptibly on her shoulder. “You too,” she says, then, and giggles.
“Inside, now,” Jet Star says to her in a voice like Gerard uses with Frank when he’s sick, sometimes, “I’ll be right behind you,” and she clambers back into the trailer. Outside, Jet Star waits until the door is closed, then takes a step closer to Mikey. He opens his mouth like he’s going to say something, closes it, and then looks like he’s changed his mind again, suddenly, and speaks.
“No,” he says, and his voice is thoughtful. “I don’t think you will say anything. I don’t think you’ll ask questions, either. You don’t talk a lot, do you.”
Mikey shakes his head, and the wall that’s built across Jet Star’s face comes down, just a little. He opens the trailer door and gestures, standing back and letting Mikey lead the way inside.
“So,” Dr. D finishes, leaning back in his chair and wiping his mouth, “I’ll put out a daily call, rotating location for where you guys will be. Too dangerous to stay in one place, codes can be cracked! They’ll have the radio on, though, they’ll be listening. Shouldn’t take more than a week, all told, if things go the way they should -- which they won’t of course, ha! Gotta hope they get the message, so to speak, before the ‘crows do. Which they will, if they’re smart enough. That Party Poison’s a smart one. Strange, of course. But smart.”
D’s trailer is a riot of color and words, posters -- some from as far back as Before -- and pictures, snapshots and splashes of paint. It makes Mikey’s head hurt, a little, but at least it’s somewhat familiar. He’s been here before, with Gerard. Gerard had loved it, had gone out the next day and repainted the back half of the trans am.
“A week,” Jet Star says, uncertain, and Dr. D interrupts. “At the outside, Star. Three days is more like it, I think. Depends on if they’ve got the radio on, listening to the Traffic Report.” Jet Star chuckles, and Mikey feels the urge to smile. Everyone listens to the Traffic Report -- it’s pretty much the only given there is, anymore.
“Thing is,” Dr. D says, leaning forward and looking at Jet Star more closely, “I can’t watch the Motor -- I’m on the move, I’m a target. Too dangerous, for more than a day every now and then. You know that, of course. Take her with you, and be careful. No place for a kid, out here, Jet Star. No place at all.”
“And in Battery City, is that the place for her?” Jet Star asks, voice low and angry. “Fuck, D, I don’t have a lot of options, you know that, I can’t --”
“I know it, I know it,” D says, hastily. “You’re doing real good, kid. No easy answers, but you’re doing real good. Forget I said anything at all. Take the girl with you, stay out of trouble. Party Poison and the Ghoul should be along before you know it.”
Mikey feels irritable, impatient -- a week at the outside is too long to wait, and he knows if they didn’t have to move around, if D could announce the same location every day, Gerard and Frank would find them in no time. But staying in one place and giving away your landmarks like that, that’s asking for a showdown -- something Mikey would risk, to get back to Gerard that much sooner. With this -- this child, though, they can’t. He can’t do it without Jet Star, and Jet Star has a -- has some bond with this girl. Slow and safe and fucking frustrating, and Mikey hates that there’s no other way.
They leave in the morning for the first hideout, Mikey back in the passenger’s seat of the Jeep with his bandanna pulled up high and hand over his eyes to shade out the angry morning sun. His sunglasses must be back on Route Guano somewhere, shattered maybe. He thinks of them there, alone, little reflective pieces of plastic sprinkled everywhere like confetti. He hadn’t calmed down long enough to notice they were gone until now, and it occurs to him that Jet Star’s been able to see his eyes this whole time. It also occurs to him that he’s supposed to care about that, and that he doesn’t.
The child, Motorbaby -- she’s belted into the back but Mikey notices in the rearview mirror that she’s twisted herself around and has her face pressed against the back window, watching the trailer recede into the distance.
“We’ll see Dr. D. in a little bit, M,” Jet Star says, noticing the same thing Mikey’s been watching silently for a minute now. “Turn back around and sit down.”
“Don’t wanna,” she says, petulant, and Jet Star shakes his head.
“Do not make pull this car over, because I--” he starts, and another dusty chunk of memory that comes loose inside his head and then Mikey’s laughing, low and helpless. Driving down to the shore with him and Gerard in the backseat, fighting over comic books, a hundred things that are as far away from this world as anything in existence but here’s a piece of it all, right next to him and happening.
“What?” Jet Star asks, startled, and Mikey shakes his head, pulling the bandanna more firmly around his face. If Gerard was here, he thinks, I wouldn’t have to explain. Of course, if Gerard was here, he wouldn’t be here, with Jet Star, at all -- he’d never have seen it in the first place. Mikey shuts his eyes and leans his head against the hot metal of the Jeep’s frame. Jet Star makes a soft noise, half-curious and half-exasperated, but when Mikey peeks from just under his eyelids he can see Jet Star’s lips twitch, a smile. In the back, Motorbaby pounds against the window and kicks her feet in time with the music blasting from the radio.
She’s asleep by the time they reach the hideout, later into the evening than planned because of a busted tire somewhere back before noon. Mikey watches as Jet Star carries her small body out of the car, cradled against his, and lays her out on a bedroll. His big, rough-looking fingers brush the hair out of her face and linger there, just a moment, before he turns and walks back to where Mikey’s building up a fire.
Mikey wants to ask him about her, but he can’t because Jet Star had said that he shouldn’t ask questions, and besides. It’s not like he even knows what to ask. He’s just curious, a little, because she’s so unexpected. Just another thing about Jet Star that’s surprising, Mikey thinks, like the waking up on his own. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him -- he’s not crazy like Frank or a genius like Gerard, Mikey doesn’t think. The hair is pretty wild, though. Gee’d want to draw it, if he saw it, and Frank would reach right out and touch it, probably. He’s not great at boundaries. Mikey feels his cheeks twitch a little at the thought, and Jet Star must notice even with the bandana still firmly in place, because he quirks an eyebrow at Mikey.
“What’s up?” he asks. Mikey shakes his head, but he lets the twitch grow into something fuller, safely covered by the sweaty cotton.
“I get the feeling you wouldn’t be any easier to read even without that thing over your face,” Jet Star says, but he sounds more amused than frustrated.
Mikey shrugs. Gerard can read him perfectly, always has been able to, but that’s different, of course. Frank can do it better than he could when they first found him. “It’s an acquired skill,” he says, finally, and Jet Star nods.
“I’m a good learner,” he says, and Mikey hears something like the careful determination that Frank gets when he’s fixing an engine or making a bomb. A problem to be solved, he thinks, and leans his head back against the window. He’d hate the idea, maybe, if he could convince himself that nothing in Jet Star’s voice made it sound so much like a problem worth solving.
“I taught myself guitar, once,” Jet Star is saying, and Mikey tries not to tense at the way “before” is trying to burst out of the cracks in that “once.” “My brother had one, he’d saved up forever and I wasn’t allowed to touch it. I’d sneak into his room when he was at work, though.”
“Any good?” Mikey asks, thinking about Gerard, how completely awful he was at guitar and how much Mikey had lied to him about it. Jet Star shrugs, but he’s smiling.
“Good enough that when he finally caught me he was too impressed to beat me up,” he says, and Mikey can imagine it, Jet Star’s big hands with their long fingers stretched around the neck of a shitty guitar. Callouses--but those are probably gone now, replaced with the forefinger trigger callous Mikey has, too.
“One time my brother tried out for this band,” he hears himself say, and Jet Star turns away from the fire to listen.
Mikey tries to stay up all night, waiting. It’s freezing with the sun down and no buildings anywhere in sight to break the whipping wind, but he just huddles further into himself and pulls the bedroll around his shoulders, watching. There’s a light somewhere far, far off in the distance, but it doesn’t move. An hour goes by, then another, and they don’t come.
“Get some sleep,” Jet Star says, behind him. “I’ll keep an eye out.” He doesn’t say, they aren’t coming tonight, and Mikey’s glad. Still, he shakes his head, doesn’t get up.
Jet Star sits down next to him. “C’mon,” he says. “She’ll get scared if she wakes up and there’s no one next to her.” He gestures to the bundle of blankets on the ground that’s rising and falling almost imperceptibly with Motorbaby’s breath.
“She doesn’t even know me,” Mikey says.
“She knows I like you,” Jet Star says. “That’s enough. She’s smart like that.” He sounds quietly proud, and Mikey bites off another unbidden question.
“You like me,” he says instead, unsure.
“You’d never have met her if I didn’t,” Jet Star says, and enough of an answer that Mikey lets it go.
“Seriously,” Jet Star says. “You’re about to fall asleep, and then you’ll be no help to anyone. If anything happens, I’ll wake you up. Promise.” He nudges Mikey with his shoulder, and the unexpected contact is unsettling enough that Mikey can’t find the words to argue.
He puts his bedroll down next to the pile of blankets, just close enough that the child will be able to grab him if she needs something -- he thinks of what that might be and has a vague memory of nightmares, of Gerard crawling into his bed, back when things like beds existed. He turns his back to her, looks out across the desert, and falls with his eyes still half-trained on the distant point of light.
In the morning, they’re still alone. Jet Star hands him a cup of the weak stuff that passes for coffee out in the zones these days, and Mikey pushes his bandanna aside to gulp it down before it cools. The sun’s not up yet, just the reddish haze of early dawn promising its arrival, and the bone-deep chill of night is still working its way out of Mikey’s joints. The coffee is hot, near burning, and Mikey looks up at Jet Star and nods his thanks.
It takes him a second to figure out why Jet Star looks away so quickly, hair bouncing as he drops his head down and to the side, and then a gust of wind tugs at the bandanna where it’s pooled around his neck and Mikey remembers, recognizes the stinging of the wind on his bare face.
“Um,” he says, awkwardly. His hand goes to the bandanna, cotton worn and soft against his fingertips, but he doesn’t pull it up.
“Fuck, I’m sorry,” Jet Star says, still not looking at him.
“No,” Mikey says, before he can think about it. “No, it’s okay. I mean. I saw you, I’ve seen you, for a while now. You’re not -- I’m not. Worried about it, I mean.”
“Okay,” Jet Star says, running a hand through his hair before he turns to face Mikey again. “That’s -- thanks. Thank you.”
It feels weird, to be thanked for letting someone look at your face. Mikey doesn’t know what to say back, so instead he watches Jet Star look at him. His eyes are wide and careful and surprised, and Mikey imagines them taking him in one too-sharp angle at a time, cataloguing him and making a decision. Like everything Jet Star does, though, there’s a gentleness about such a thorough examination. Mikey thought he would feel exposed; instead, he feels -- appreciated, maybe. Taken in, like Gerard used to tell him to look at all those abstract canvases in art galleries. Look at them slowly, he would say. You don’t have to understand them, but if you look long enough, you’ll feel them, instead.
It seems like Jet Star’s been looking at him for an hour, and then he looks down and that shrinks to just seconds, nothing at all. Mikey has the stupid urge to ask if Jet Star feels him now, but instead he just clears his throat and hands Jet Star back the empty mug.
The silence stretches longer, and then it’s broken by a small voice -- Motorbaby, her hands tugging at Jet Star’s belt.
“Come see my drawings,” she asks, eager, and Jet Star follows her over to where the stick lies abandoned on the ground. Mikey follows at a distance. The air feels strange on his cheeks, after so long, and he fights the brief urge to tug the bandanna back up. Instead, he tucks his hands into his pockets and stops a few feet back from where Jet Star is kneeling over the pictures on the ground, just a child’s stick figures, one tall and one short with wild, curly hair spiraling out in all directions. To the side, there’s another, with oddly jointed knees and a triangle of bandanna.
“Amazing,” Jet Star is saying to Motorbaby, reaching out to grab her up in a hug. “We gotta erase them, though, M. You know that.”
“Cause the dracs might know we were here,” she says, clinging to him, and Jet Star nods.
“I’ll do it,” Mikey says suddenly. “If you want to start packing up the Jeep or whatever. Um, unless --”
“No, that would be awesome,” Jet Star says with a little relief, like erasing the drawings is something he’d rather avoid. From the way he hurries Motorbaby away, Mikey can guess why, a little. With Gerard, the art is usually supposed to be permanent, messages and threats and hope. Sometimes it’s not, though, or the message changes, and he has to get rid of it, has to let -- make -- Frank blast it off the rocks or the wall. The rest of those days are never good, Gerard morose in the back of the car and Frank shooting too quick at everything that throws a shadow in their path, from armadillos to tumbleweeds.
Mikey picks up the stick and goes to cross it through the figures, but remembering all that makes him stop first, pause and then draw a more deliberate line, then another. He bites his bottom lip in concentration and when he’s done it’s nothing like what Gee paints but there are two more figures there, one short and one medium, and he knows who they are even if no one else would ever recognize them. He looks a second longer, letting the image sink in, then draws the stick methodically back and forth until there’s nothing left but angry jagged lines.
“Those pictures were really good,” he tells Motorbaby back at the Jeep.
“I like your face,” she says in response, squinting up at him against the rising morning sun, and Mikey tries out a smile for her. He leaves it on when he hears Jet Star tell her, “me too.”
Motorbaby’s in a better mood that day, Mikey figures, because she spends the car ride singing along loudly to The Mad Gear instead of kicking sullenly at the back of his seat. Mikey feels happier too, lighter, like there’s only so much time before Gerard and Frank catch up with them now. The bandanna’s still crumpled in his pocket, and he likes the way Jet Star glances at him in the rearview mirror when he thinks Mikey won’t notice.
Outside the window is the familiar blur of cactus, rock and sand, nothing to break the easy monotony until Jet Star speaks, just loud enough for Mikey to hear him over the radio and Motorbaby.
“I know I don’t really have the right to ask you questions,” he says, “but I was wondering about your -- Party Poison, and the other one. And I thought maybe you wanted to talk about them and thought I didn’t want to listen, which isn’t true.”
He glances over at Mikey, eyes curious, and Mikey doesn’t know what to say. You don’t tell people about your crew, is the thing -- you don’t tell people anything at all, out here, unless it’s with speed and color and dirt. But not words, and Mikey should be freaked that Jet Star’s even asking. Jet Star’s voice is more wistful than eager, though, and it hits Mikey in a new way what it might mean that Jet Star hasn’t got a crew, that maybe he wishes he could trade stories with Mikey and instead he just has to ask outright.
It occurs to him that it’s easier to trust someone when you can see their face, and how dangerous that is.
“Party refused to wear a mask, when we first got out here,” he finds himself saying. “He kept talking about how we were trying to escape anonymity and emptiness in the first place, and masks were just another way to hide the stuff that was hard and ugly. He’s got a lot of stuff like that, crazy ideas that always turn out to not be so crazy after all.”
“Like what else?” Jet Star asks, turning down the radio, and Mikey tells him over the sound of Motorbaby’s sleepy sighs from the back seat.
The attack comes just as the light’s fading out of the red sky, Jet Star slowing just a little as he and Mikey scan for a spot to spend the night. Must have run into someone else’s ambush, since no one knows where they are -- and that’s all Mikey has time to think before the almost-imperceptible buzz of rayguns skitters across his consciousness like a burst of static.
He cracks open the door and leans out to return fire, closes everything out except the angle and the target and the weight of the gun in his hand. There’s a clump of them out there, a white stain on the dust of the desert, and all he can think is these could have been the ones that ghosted him before, that separated him from Gee. He gets off five good shots, at least one hit, and then the blot of dracs starts to recede and he feels the hot rush of victory tinged with frustration, the old familiar eagerness to get the fuck out of the vehicle and run the parasites down, exterminate them all.
It’s not until his head starts to clear that he feels the forward motion of the Jeep, and shit. The dracs aren’t running, he is.
“What the fuck, man, I could’ve dusted a couple more,” he snaps, turning to Jet Star. “What are you doing?”
Jet Star’s face is drawn tight and pale, though, and he’s not listening to Mikey -- instead, his eyes are locked on the rear view mirror, and in it Mikey sees a small face, even paler than Jet Star’s, cheeks wet with tears and shoulders trembling.
“Oh fuck,” he says, realization chasing the last of the adrenaline out of his veins, “I didn’t remember.”
“No shit,” says Jet Star, and it’s the first time Mikey’s heard him sound angry.
“I’m sorry,” Mikey says, biting at his lower lip and glancing back and Jet Star out of the corner of his eye. “I’ve never -- I’m not used to, to this. I wouldn’t have --”
Jet Star sighs, and Mikey sees his unclench his hands a little bit where they’re digging into the wheel. “You’re a quick draw,” he says, then, “Thank you. I haven’t had someone ride shotgun in a while. I’d forgotten how much it helps.”
A noise from the backseat saves Mikey from having to think of what to say next; in the mirror, he sees Motorbaby open her mouth to let out a real sob, and Jet Star’s face goes tight with worry all over again.
“We’ll stop the car soon, I promise,” he says, sparing a glance over his shoulder as the Jeep speeds over the fractured blacktop. “I’ll tell you a story and you can sleep between me and Mikey and you’ll be safe, it’s okay --”
Her sobs only get louder, and before Mikey can think too hard about what he’s doing, or why, he’s clambering awkwardly over the gearshift and into the backseat.
“Hey,” he says to Motorbaby, and she closes her mouth and blinks at him, expectantly.
“Uh,” he says, “you okay?” He has no idea what he’s doing. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that she’s not okay.
Predictably, she shakes her head, curls whipping back and forth across her face.
“That was sort of scary, wasn’t it,” Mikey asks, and he’s rewarded with a silent nod. “Yeah,” he says, “Dracs are kinda scary. But sometimes, they’re silly, too.”
Motorbaby doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t start crying again either, so Mikey keeps talking.
“One time, my brother set up this ambush. He’s an artist -- kind of like you are, right?” Mikey’s got one eye on the road, still, and in reflection on the windshield he sees Jet Star crack a smile.
“We were trying to set up an ambush once, but we were out of rockets and ammo,” Mikey continues, and squeezes into the slim space between the car seat and door. The story about Gerard’s brilliant idea for a paint ambush -- and the resulting rainbow of paint-spattered dracs, stumbling around helplessly because they couldn’t see out their eyeholes -- has the intended effect, and Motorbaby giggles her way into a tentative slumber.
Mikey doesn’t realize that he followed her lead until the Jeep’s rumbling to a stop jerks him awake. His neck aches where it’s settled against the hard plastic of Motorbaby’s seat, and one of his legs is numb. He cracks the door open and stumbles out, stretching and glancing up at the sky, where the heavy darkness tells him only that it’s some time between the extremes of late and early.
“Thought we’d try to get at least a little sleep,” Jet Star says, coming around to unload the blankets from the back. He looks in at Motorbaby, then shakes his head.
“I know I told her we’d sleep next to her, but I don’t want to wake her up -- what do you think?”
It takes Mikey a second to realize that the question’s directed at him, and he blinks. Inside the Jeep, Motorbaby’s chest is rising and falling steadily, her hands limp at her sides.
“It’s cold out,” is all he can think to say, but Jet Star seems to accept it as an answer, nodding and leaning into the Jeep to tuck a blanket around her small form, slow and gentle. He presses a kiss to her forehead and shuts the door quietly, then turns to Mikey.
“You’re good with her,” he says.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” says Mikey.
“Neither did I,” Jet Star says, “I still don’t, really. Every time -- fuck. If you hadn’t been there, I don’t -- having her out here is the only choice I have, but it doesn’t get any less terrifying.”
Mikey thinks about asking how she got out here, but he doesn’t know how to and he’s a little afraid of the answer, anyway, and Jet Star is looking at him with wild hair and calm, calm eyes so Mikey leans forward and kisses him.
Jet Star’s lips are cool and dry in the night air and it crosses Mikey’s mind that maybe he should pull back and apologize, but he can’t really think of a reason why, not when Jet Star is kissing him back slow and open, one hand coming up to cup Mikey’s cheek, brush the dusty slick of his hair back away from his face. It’s good and easy and not real enough, so Mikey bites and Jet Star’s lip and pushes forward, letting himself want it. Jet Star’s hand tightens in response, his breath coming faster against Mikey’s lips, and Mikey can feel him, hard against his thigh.
“Sorry,” Jet Star says, a little breathless, “it’s been a while,” and Mikey thinks about how for him it hasn’t, not at all, how the anonymous bodies he brushes up against at Factory X or even during his recon trips into Battery always turn out to be willing, equally anonymous partners when he wants them to be. Sex is sex, and it’s fun even with masks on, and Mikey’s good at it -- and then Jet reaches up to touch his cheek, presses their faces together again and his lips are big and warm against Mikey’s and this, this is what he’s forgotten. You can’t kiss with masks on, and you can’t look at the way someone’s eyes are looking at you, a little scared, and Mikey remembers, vaguely, how it had been weird to kiss with your eyes open, Before, how kids had laughed about that in high school. He can’t understand that, he thinks, how you could shut this out if you had unfettered access to it, and he thinks maybe Jet Star can’t either, because his eyes are still open, warm and wide, and Mikey licks into his mouth and tugs at his big lips with his teeth and swallows his noises with a thrill that reminds him of the first time he pushed a button and watched something far away explode at his command.
He’s done this in the Zones, too. Jet Star’s belt opens easily under his hands and he makes a shocked noise when Mikey drops to his knees and takes him in his mouth, keeping his eyes on Jet Star’s face, wide eyes, the whole time. Jet Star twitches his hands against his thighs like he wants to move them, thread them through Mikey’s hair, maybe, and Mikey can get behind that.
He pulls off, twitches something close to a smile.
“You can touch me, you know,” Mikey says. “If you want.”
“Yeah,” says Jet Star, “yeah, I -- thanks,” and he sounds grateful in this kind of breathless way, and when his big hands come up and settle too gently on Mikey’s skull it’s good, it’s what Mikey wants.
He loses himself in the feeling of it, after that. The heavy taste and the way it chokes him, a little bit, the swelling ache in his jaw and the slick rasp of his lips, the way it gets him wet and messy and raw. It hasn’t been this good in a long time. Something about the way Jet Star’s fingers tighten in his hair and Mikey groans into it, the way he keeps glancing up at Jet Star’s face, his eyes still wide and shocked.
“Kobra,” Jet Star grits out, meaning it as a warning. But when Mikey pulls off he finds himself answering as though it were a question, instead.
“It’s Mikey,” he says, reckless and sloppy, “it’s Mikey, call me Mikey,” and just like that Jet Star’s coming, thighs shaking under Mikey’s hands, hot stripes of it landing on his cheek, his chin.
“Shit,” Jet Star says, “shit, I’m sorry, I didn’t, I couldn’t.” He stops, reaches down and runs a thumb over Mikey’s cheek. Cleaning him up, maybe, but the touch is slow and wondering.
“Mikey,” Jet Star says, and his voice is shattered. “You can’t just -- Mikey. Mikey,” again, like he’s trying it out, convincing himself it’s there.
It’s not -- Mikey didn’t expect that, either. It just happened, and he’s more shocked than anything to realize he doesn’t care, doesn’t give a shit at all.
Every time Jet Star says it, though, Mikey gets harder. He can feel the slide of a wet spot when he stands to kiss Jet Star hard, tasting his name on his tongue.
And then, suddenly, he can’t get enough, grinding against Jet Star and feeling it build within him, desperate and frantic and somehow new, even though this is nothing, he’s done this a hundred times, a thousand. His teeth scrape against Jet Star’s lips and Mikey feels him wince but he doesn’t stop, neither of them stop, and then Jet Star’s half-stuttering into his ear.
“Ray,” he says, “my name is Ray, Mikey, say it, will you -- can --” and Mikey says it, over and over, and there’s a hand on him, Ray’s hand, and when he comes he feels blown out, gone, ghosted.
After that, there’s nothing left to hide.
“They want to take her away, to study her,” Ray says, later, in the spreading silence. “It runs in the family or something, the -- immunity, I don’t know what to call it. Ghosting doesn’t stick to me for long, and that’s weird enough -- but it doesn’t stick to her at all, just doesn’t work, and the drugs don’t either, or the programs. None of it does. It’s like -- like she can see right through Battery City, and they know that and they want to understand it. They want to fix it.”
“How do they know--” Mikey starts, but Ray’s face slams like the door of a car and Mikey realizes the only possible answer, that they know because they tested her, because she was in there once and Ray got her out, only her and not her parents.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, and it’s laughably inadequate but everything is, nowadays. Gerard would paint a whole mural about it if he knew, Mikey realizes, a stylized, graphic series right on the fucking walls of Battery City, the little girl superhero and the uncle that saved her, and it might give some people something to look forward to even if it didn’t help at all.
“That’s why I don’t run with a crew,” Ray says. “Partly I don’t need one, but mostly -- I can’t take the risk. The kind of reward they’re offering for her, it’s enough to turn even most of the crazy rebels out here. I’ve got her, though, and that’s enough.”
There’s so much he isn’t saying, like the “almost” that Mikey can hear on the end of that sentence, and an explanation of why he’s telling Mikey, now, when he’s never told anyone else. They trust each other by now, sure, by as many standards as the desert has to offer, but he knows Mikey runs with the Killjoys and he’s heard stories about Gee and Frankie but he doesn’t know them. He’s got to know that Mikey’s loyalty to them is stronger than it is to Ray -- and it is, Mikey realizes with a jolt, but only barely. He doesn’t think he could betray Motorbaby, not to save Frank and maybe -- a terrifyingly possibility for the simple fact of its existence -- not to save even Gerard.
Mikey wants to give him back something in return, some kind of guarantee, but all he has to offer is Frank’s name, and Gee’s, and those aren’t his to give. So instead he leans up and kisses Ray, tangling a hand in his sweat-drenched hair, and pulls away long enough to say, “fuck me, please,” with all the desperation he feels right now running through the words. But when Ray tries to lay him out on the sleeping bag, to kiss down the curve of his spine, Mikey stops him and rolls over. “Like this,” he says, “I want to see you,” and the look on Ray’s face tells Mikey that he gets what he’s being offered.
It’s like he thought it would be, everything stripped down until all he can do is feel and look, and all he can see is Ray, for a few shining seconds at least. Afterwards, Ray opens his mouth like he’s about to thank Mikey, maybe, and Mikey’s surprised by the fierceness of his own, “don’t.”
“It was for me,” he says, and then adds, “too. Okay?”
“Okay,” Ray says, and Mikey knows it’s a haphazard truce, but its weight is comforting enough to fall asleep under.
In the morning, Gee and Frank are waiting. Mikey wakes up with Ray breathing soft and slow next to him, still, and when he opens his eyes the Trans Am is parked next to the Jeep and Gee and Frank are leaning against it, waiting.
He extricates himself from Ray, gathers his clothes. He thinks about waking him to make introductions, about calling him Jet Star again, so soon. About Ray putting his helmet back on before he can shake hands with Frank and Gerard. About Motorbaby, asleep in the car, and how Gee would ask questions for days and never take no for an answer.
“Let’s go,” he says, ignoring Frank’s attempt at a clinging hug, and gets in the back seat.
“I didn’t think you were that dumb, Mikey,” Frank says, three days later when Mikey finally breaks down and explains the itchy, irritably mood that’s followed him since that morning, and smacks him.
“What was I supposed to do, stay with him?” Mikey asks, rubbing angrily at his shoulder. “Leave you and Gee out here alone? Fuck you.”
“Wow, you really are that dumb,” Frank says. “Hey Gee, Mikey’s proving once again that you’ve got all the brains in the family.” He laughs uproariously at himself.
Mikey looks at Gerard for support, but Gee’s pacing back and forth, thinking, and when he sees Mikey looking all he does his start talking out loud.
“We could set up a meeting point with Dr. D, but no -- Drac patrols lately, and look how long that took this time, that won’t work. A code, maybe, our location only but a changing code, so we don’t have to move, or -- that’s it! A message, no code, no loc, we just stay put and let the Traffic Report to it’s thing, and -- hey, Mikey! Don’t worry, I’ve got it figured out.”
“Got what figured out?” Mikey asks, exhausted. If Gee’s getting manic like this then it’s only a matter of time before they’ll have to take off and take care of him, and they’ve gotten through it before but it makes Frank pinched and angry and Mikey feel like he’s barely holding on himself.
“It’s a surprise,” Gerard giggles, and Mikey’s worry grows but Frank’s laughing too, not nervous or sad, so maybe it won’t be that bad, this time.
He goes to bed with a pounding headache, and keeps waking because the sleeping bag feels too loose around him, like the cold is seeping in.
The next week passes in a haze of dust and desert heat, BLI supplements straight out of the can and Gerard and Frank talking in loud whispers that Mikey doesn’t even bother to overhear. He smiles when they look at him, and when Frank trips over a half-buried, rusted wheel and falls flat on his face Mikey’s laughter is genuine. There are other blurs of brightness: getting his finger back on the trigger of Frank’s big blaster, Gerard’s paint-covered hands, the way Frank looks at Gee and then back out the window, quickly, over and over again. Evenings, around the fire, they press themselves into his sides and he feels solid and warm, but the nights are cold and waking up is hard to do.
And then one morning he open his eyes and Gerard and Frank aren’t gathered around the fire making shitty coffee. Instead, they’re over at the edges of the campsite, and they’re talking to Ray.
Mikey’s first thought is that this is a pretty shitty dream for his brain to hand him, but at least it means he’s still asleep. But he’s sweating in the morning heat and there’s a rock digging into his side, and the sun’s cutting into his eyes. He stands up slowly, runs a hand through his hair, and tugs on his boots without remembering to check for scorpions.
“Mikes!” Gerard’s beaming so hard Mikey thinks he might bust a forehead vein; behind him, Frank is fidgeting with barely-controlled glee. There’s only one reason they would have invited Ray here, to their best hideout; the same reason Frank’s been building a new blaster, clearing out half the backseat of the Trans Am. Mikey wants to throw up with how much he wants, and how furious he is that they won’t just let him say no.
“What the fuck,” says Mikey. Gerard’s face stutters a little.
Mikey turns to Ray. “Why are you here,” he says, and it’s not a question. Ray’s got mirrored sunglasses on, ones Mikey hasn’t seen before, and Mikey’s not sure if he’d rather see his eyes or his helmet.
“Mikey,” Ray says, too hopeful, and Mikey fucking can’t.
“You aren’t a part of my family,” he says, and refuses to look down. “We don’t need anyone else. You’re a liability.”
“Mikey!” says Gerard, and now he sounds angry, ashamed. Frank’s got his arms crossed.
“Gerard.” Mikey looks at him, desperate. “You don’t get it, okay? I can’t explain. We just can’t. It’s not fair to us. And it’s not -- Jet Star,” he says, and he sees Ray flinch at the name, “you don’t know what you’re asking. We could -- we could fuck up real easy, okay? Poison and Ghoul, even me. We’re fucked up already. You’re better on your own, you’re -- more people is a liability, you know that.”
“More people is protection, it’s a crew. Everyone needs runners, and he doesn’t have --” Frank starts, sounding confused.
Mikey looks at Ray, mouth tight. They both know he doesn’t need protection in the same way that Frank means. “He’s done fine so far,” Mikey says.
“Mikey, please,” says Ray, and Ray’s never asked him for anything before, not directly like that. He takes off the glasses, and there’s too much asking in his eyes. Behind Mikey, Frank and Gee cough; Mikey imagines them looking down.
“It’s not safe,” says Mikey, and he wills Ray to hear what he can’t say out loud -- it’s too dangerous to share her, even with Frank and Gee. It’s too dangerous to trust anyone else with something that Korse will go to any lengths to get back. Frank and Gee are Mikey’s family, but they’re just people. They could break; Korse will try to break them. They could all be destroyed.
Ray just shakes his head. “When we got out of Battery City, we got back a lot of shit: color, music, freedom. Fuck, Mikey. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to add trust to that list.”
“My name is Ray,” Ray says then, turning to Frank and Gee, and Frank just gapes. Gerard gets it more quickly -- he blinks, twitches a little like he’s trying to remember how this works, and holds out his hand. “Gerard,” he says, and Mikey wants to throw up, fear and adrenaline and joy roiling in his stomach. Gerard smiles at Ray, then elbows Frank in the stomach.
“Shit, sorry. I’m Frank,” Frank says, still looking a little shellshocked. Ray grins, and Mikey clamps down on the part of him that wants to crack open in defeated welcome.
“Hey,” Ray says, and he’s talking to his Jeep now, not them. His voice goes lower, nervous and trying not to show it. “Come here, M. Come meet Frank and Gerard.”
Mikey sees the curls before he sees her, tied back from her eyes today with something yellow and red -- his bandanna, and fuck, could Ray possibly make this any harder?
“Hi,” Motorbaby says in a shy voice, peeping out from behind Ray’s strong legs. Her eyes light on Mikey then, and she runs to him and grabs him around the waist, buries her head in his stomach and clings.
“Hi,” he says, softly, and feels the cracks grow. And then, before he can step back and regain some control for all their sakes, Ray makes it impossible.
“Hi,” he says, speaking to all of them but looking straight at Mikey.
“This is Grace.”
After that, it’s a done deal. They can’t know her name and not be her family -- it might be possible with Ray, with an adult, but not with a child. Frank keeps muttering “a kid, a kid,” like he can’t believe it, and when he catches sight of her unexpectedly he jumps a little, then grins like he’s realizing all over again.
Ray declares her officially old enough to go without a carseat, so they cram her in the middle of the backseat, broad shoulders like armor on either side of her too-small body. Frank shows her how to use the blaster, to Ray’s chagrin. One morning, Mikey watches Gerard help her paint her own design under his latest mural. They’re laughing and there’s blue and yellow and pink flecking their faces, and the cracks inside him tremble and nearly give altogether.
They don’t, though. He hasn’t spoken to Ray any more than he can help it, and after her initial clinging hug, Motorbaby -- Grace -- won’t even speak to Mikey. When he says something to her, she crosses her arms and looks away.
“She’s upset that you left,” Ray says when Mikey breaks his silence to ask, and doesn’t smile. “She thinks you’ll leave again.”
“What if something happens,” Mikey says, softly. “What if we fuck up, Ray, I can’t --”
“Then we fix it, Mikey, come on,” and Ray’s voice is more hopeful than it’s been since Mikey first said no. “The four of us fix it.”
Mikey wants him to be right, so much that it hurts, and then Ray’s hand finds his in the dark and links their fingers together, slowly. “We could do that,” Mikey says, and when everything inside him finally tumbles down it feels more like opening up than breaking apart.
“We really could,” Ray says, and his smile is so big and slow that Mikey kisses him just to hurry things along.
In the morning, Mikey wakes up with the first dusty-red light and slips out from under Ray’s arm. He spends a few minutes by last night’s campfire, then slides into the backseat of the TransAm.
“Grace,” he says, and she wakes up with a confused yawn. When she sees who it is, she scowls.
“I know you’re kind of mad at me right now,” says Mikey, “but I wanted to show you something. I promise it’ll be quick. Please?”
She gets out of the car with him, even though she refuses to hold his hand. They walk side by side over to the campfire, where the stick Mikey used to scratch at the baked desert earth lies abandoned next to his picture: five misshapen figures, two with wildly frizzy hair stand next to a truly awesome car. The shortest one is in the middle, and they’re all holding hands. “Promise,” Mikey whispers, and hopes it’s enough.
“Gerard can draw better than you,” is all Grace says, but she rides on his shoulders back to where the rest of the Killjoys are just starting to wake up, bathed in the growing dawn.