It takes Gen half the morning to persuade Jared it’s time to leave. He’s convinced there’s someone they should be telling. “What about Drake? I mean, we might not be back—”
“Probably not,” Gen agree, and shoves him towards the door. It gains her a couple of inches; a girl her size is not going to shift a guy Jared’s size unless he wants to be shifted. Another day, it might be funny.
“—and we should let him know—”
“Drake’s dead, Jared.” Gen doesn’t actually know this; no one’s told her the building supe is dead, and she hasn’t seen a body. But she hasn’t seen him alive in days, and that’s certainty enough for her.
Anyway, it’s not like she gives a damn. “Jensen,” she tells Jared. “If we don’t get Jensen out of here, I don’t know what he’s going to do.” That’s closer to the truth. There’s not a lot left of Genevieve Cortese just now, but what there is is very worried about Jensen.
This, finally, is an argument Jared hears. He lets her push him the rest of the way out their door and down the one flight of stairs.
Jensen’s sitting in the 4Runner, his eyes and expression hidden behind his aviators. Even since he finished packing the gear, he’s been sitting there – desperate, Gen thinks, to get away from the mass grave where his dad and sister are decomposing right now. And Gen, she is by God as ready to get out this city, this state, this unbelievable nightmarish future as Jensen is, even though her parents have been lying peacefully under a cemetery lawn for years.
Jensen doesn’t say anything as Jared climbs in the front passenger seat. Gen bundles one last grocery bag of canned food under the back seat, slams her door shut, and buckles her seat belt.
“So, Texas,” Jared says.
“Texas,” Jensen confirms. His voice is dry like powder. Gen remembers him now, this closed, unknowable guy with the razor tongue, her boyfriend’s terrifying platonic lifemate. She hasn’t thought of Jensen that way in years. He says, “Guess we should start by getting out of Seattle.”
“I can plan our route,” Jared says, for all like this is a vacation and they’re going to spend it driving to Mount Rushmore. He spreads a road map across his knees. Gen’s pretty sure the map is only for Washington and Oregon. A conflicted sound bubbles in the back of her throat; she can’t tell whether it’s a laugh or a sob. She swallows it down.
“We should probably stay off the freeways, right?” Jared asks. “At least until we get out of the city.”
“Why?” Gen asks. “You afraid of hitting the morning rush?”
With the power off – and the TV signal, too, probably, not that they have any way of telling – the only news they’ve had in days is what’s been passed around the apartment complex. Not in face-to-face conversation, because no one dares get so close to another human being, but shouted across the parking lot or from windows cracked open. What few rumors they’ve heard about the roads are contradictory: they’re desolate and empty; they’re jammed with the cars of people who tried to get away from the disease and died in transit.
There’s no traffic on the streets now, though. “Look,” Gen says. “If 405 is packed, we can always just, like, turn around and go back up the on-ramp, because I sure don’t see anyone coming up behind us.”
Jensen doesn’t say a word through it all. He takes the turn onto the on-ramp, which is a point for Gen, she supposes. For all the acknowledgement he makes, he might not have even heard them argue.
The freeway is desolate. There’s a car pulled onto the shoulder here and there, but Gen’s seen worse during the winter when the roads turn slick. “Probably keep an eye out for debris,” she cautions. Jensen grunts. It’s the first thing he’s said to her today, and Gen is pathetically grateful for it.
In ten minutes they take the ramp onto I-90, and then they fly. They’re up the Cascades in less than an hour. Snoqualmie Pass is pristine, air clear, sky blue, like the landscape of another life. Down the other side , they pass a couple of cars going the other direction. Gen stares at the people in them. They look straight ahead, mouths pinched, and make no eye contact.
Jared hums to himself, Christmas songs and TV jingles and the occasional 80s ballad. Half of Gen wants to slap him – doesn’t he get it? doesn’t he get that their world is over, that he is possibly the last person on the planet to remember the “Sometimes you feel like a nut” commercial? – and half of her wants to curl up in the warmth of his voice and never leave. It’s gotta be safer there. Cheerful.
For a while there, she thinks Jensen might slap Jared for her. Or he might be miles away. He’s like the people in those other cars, his shoulders rigid, his stare fixed on the road ahead. He’s going to be sore tonight, Gen thinks.
She reaches up to ruffle the hairs on Jared’s arm. He grips her hand, and they stay like that awhile, until Gen’s back starts to ache from the awkward position and she pulls away. She arranges herself on the back seat, head pillowed on Jared’s duffel. She dozes.
Jensen doesn’t think about what lies behind him. There’s no point. He doesn’t think about what’s ahead, either, beyond the road opening out before him. There’s a destination he’s pointed at, and he’ll get them there, because Jared needs it and Gen needs Jared. There’s nothing there for Jensen, though.
He doesn’t think about it.
They’re almost at a quarter-tank when they reach the outskirts of the Tri-Cities. Once they get past Pendleton, it’s going to be a lot of hours of empty countryside. Jensen pulls off the freeway, and Gen sits up. She blinks at him in the rearview mirror.
“Gas,” he says, and she nods. Jared sleeps on.
Jensen turns in at a Fred Meyer and pulls up next to a nondescript little coupe. The store’s closed and looks like it has been for days; the car’s owner almost certainly won’t be coming back.
Gen makes a confused noise. “Power’s out,” Jensen explains. No convenience store gas for them. He goes around to the back of the 4Runner and gets the hosing he brought along for the purpose. He’s siphoned gas before, and it doesn’t take long.
When he gets back into the car, Jared’s munching on one of the cucumbers he insisted they bring on the grounds that they’d go bad otherwise. Gen squeezes Jensen’s shoulder. “How are you holding up?” she asks.
“I’m good for now,” he says. “We can switch off in a few hours if you want.”
Gen twists her lips in disappointment. Tough shit. The car’s his, and the road’s his, and they’re the only things left that are. He’s not giving them up.
Jensen never does hand over the wheel, not that Gen really minds. They’re a half an hour past Boise – via a long, circuitous route on country highways, to avoid any possible tangle in the city itself – when Jensen suggests they pull over for the night.
Anything so cushy as a motel bed – or even one in some abandoned house – is out of the question. People are a bad, bad idea. People mean contagion, and even if they don’t, they won’t trust the health of outsiders any more than Gen and Jared and Jensen trust them.
Instead, Jensen finds a park with campsites. That means chemical toilets – which still function, unlike anything that requires running water – and a flat place to pitch their tent, and a fire pit they don’t have to make themselves.
They get started unpacking the camping gear. When Jensen organized this trip, he made sure there were enough sleeping bags to go around and insulating pads to lay them on, a big enough tent, a Coleman lantern, thermal underwear - “Jensen, it’s the middle of July.” “Doesn’t matter.” - starter fluid, enough first aid supplies to dress every wound at Gettysburg, and on and on. Gen can’t believe – doesn’t dare imagine – that they’ll need half of what Jensen wedged into the 4Runner. It’s like a circus trick, the way Jensen fit it all in, except with survival supplies instead of clowns.
Guns, too, although Gen doubts Jensen realizes she saw those. Gen isn’t comfortable around guns, but in the abstract she understands that Jared and Jensen are Texas boys, and that means taking certain things for granted. In practice, she really, really hopes there’s never any call to bring them out, much less use them.
Jared chatters while they eat. Gen would think he was oblivious to it all, to what they left behind, except for how every so often his eyes will slide over to Jensen and slide away again, just a little more worried than before.
Maybe it will always be this way, she thinks as puts the last of the food into the cooler. Maybe they will drive on forever on empty highways and make camp in campgrounds and rest stops that will never see use again. Maybe this is the afterlife, and they’re actually already dead.
Maybe the distinction is irrelevant.
“Maybe you think too much,” is Jared’s response, once she suggests a little bit of it to him. “Look, we’ll get to Austin, and my parents will put you guys up” – which presumably is code for let you live with them, because where else is Gen going to go? Or Jensen? – “and things will start looking up.”
He’s untouched, is Jared. Untouchable, maybe.
Gen doesn’t want to think about what they might find in Austin.
Jensen’s within range of the whole discussion, but he doesn’t add anything. Gen isn’t sure he hears it. It’s dark enough now that he’s taken his glasses off, though seeing his eyes isn’t giving her any new information. His shoulders look stiff. She walks around the table and sits on the picnic bench next to him.
Words seem pointless. He’s like a rain slicker: she’s pretty sure anything she said would roll right off of him and puddle at her feet. Anyway, she knows the banality of words spoken to the grief-stricken; she endured enough of them herself when her parents died. She won’t inflict them on him.
Instead she lays a hand on his arm. She half expects him to be hard to the touch, like marble; she’s almost surprised to feel warm, living flesh under her fingers. When Jensen doesn’t say anything or move away, doesn’t do anything at all to imply that she’s unwelcome – or welcome, either, but she’s ignoring that – she scoots closer until they’re touching, shoulder to shoulder.
They sit like that a while. Jared, back from somewhere – peeing, Gen assumes – crouches next to the fire and starts poking at it. He can keep that up for hours, she knows, especially if he’s got something for fuel, like the fir cones that are scattered all over the ground.
Sometime later, Jensen slowly turns to look at her. She can’t read his expression.
To break the silence, Gen says, “Back rub?”
There’s a long moment before Jensen nods. “Okay.”
“Probably easier if you straddle the bench,” Gen says. After a pause, Jensen throws a leg over, and she scoots up behind him and starts to work his shoulders. She was right; they’re more knot than muscle.
“You could let one of us drive tomorrow,” she says. “You wouldn’t be so sore.”
“It’s fine,” he says. She can feel his words through her hands.
“If we switched off, we could get there in another couple of days, couldn’t we?”
He stiffens up even more, if that’s possible. He twists around to look over his shoulder at her and asks, “We’ve been fine, haven’t we? You and Jared, you’re fine?”
It seems like a weird word to emphasize, given the circumstances, but they’re not sick or injured or catatonic, so, sure. “Yeah, we’re fine.”
“Then...?” For a moment she sees something in his eyes, an honest-to-God emotion. He looks utterly lost.
“Never mind,” Gen says. “Just let us know if you need a break.”
“I will,” he says.
Eventually Gen works out most of the stiffness in his shoulders and moves down to his back. Her thumbs give out long before she’s finished, but Jensen doesn’t seem bothered when she stops.
“Thanks,” he mutters. He gets up and strides purposefully towards the 4Runner.
Gen’s been sitting so long that she’s stiff, too. She gets up and stands next to Jared, still crouching at the fire.
“Something wrong?” Jared asks, straightening up.
Gen realizes that she’s staring at Jensen, who’s standing at the car’s open door and fidgeting with something.
Jared follows her gaze. “Jensen, man. Give it a rest and come do something to this fire. I think it’s dead.”
Something in Gen loosens in relief. She folds her hand into Jared’s, which gets his attention, and then she stands up on her tiptoes and leans into him. It’s their signal. Immediately, reflexively, he palms her shoulder and bends down to kissing height. He tastes like always, and it’s warm and familiar and tinged with garlic from the chips he munched on with dinner. It makes her want to cry. Her breath starts to hitch before she can hold it in.
“Hey,” Jared murmurs. “Hey, what is it?”
Like Everyone is dead isn’t enough to bring a girl to tears? But it wasn’t five minutes ago. Gen tries to trace her thoughts backwards, and finally she settles on, “You can still read my mind.”
Jared chuckles. “What?”
Gen peeks around him, and there’s Jensen, staring blankly at them. Gen flushes; she didn’t mean to make a display. Still, she can’t help burying her face in Jared’s chest. His arms wrap around her, enfolding and secure. “I’m worried about Jensen,” she whispers.
Jared’s hold on her tightens. “I know. Me, too.”
Jared has a hard time getting through the evening. He’s never not been a physical guy, and he’s never been shy about touching Gen. She usually endures it with good grace, whether he pulls her into his lap at a frat party he’s dragged her to or the restaurant at the top of the Space Needle. Lately, though - since the first day he showed up to wait tables and found Luigi’s closed to business – it feels like every inch of him needs to be in contact with her.
Gen packs away the garbage on the picnic table, and Jared leans over to nuzzle her hair. She passes by him on the way to the car, and he pulls her in for a kiss that heats up and melts down into some serious foreplay.
“Jared,” Gen whispers sharply, pushing herself off from him. “Not appropriate right now.”
He feels himself flush with shame. “I’m, God, I’m sorry.”
Softening, she whispers, “Jensen. It’s not fair.”
Jared hears that, he does. And yet his hand’s already reaching towards her. He doesn’t know what he’s aiming for, which turns out not to matter, because she catches his hand with both of hers. “Can’t I just hold you?” he pleads.
“Tonight,” she promises. “We’ll join up our sleeping bags.”
Jared nods jerkily and lets her go.
He knows things aren’t quite right with him; he’s been catching the look in Gen’s eye, the same one she throws him at parties around the time he has a baby carrot up each nostril. However, her usual embarrassment and annoyance is cut with something else he can’t put a name to. He doubts she could either, if he asked.
But Jared can’t help the things he says. They burble out of him without any input on his part. There’s a buzz in him, an unwell energy racing along his nerves and jerking his muscles, and he knows if it ever flags he’ll just. stop. He lets it flow out of him in stupid puns and snippets of song, on the theory that the energy’ll keep on coming just so long as nothing stops it up.
He doesn’t really know if his family will be alive when they get to Austin. He and Jensen and Gen haven’t even discussed what they’re going to do when they get to Austin. Jensen refuses to drive through cities and won’t stop at rest stops. Jared knows Jensen’s got a revolver under the driver’s seat, and every time they come up on another car – it hasn’t happened often, maybe five times total today – Jared can see Jensen turn twitchy.
So Jared’s family’s probably dead, except he won’t let himself think about that, or else they’re alive and huddled away somewhere Jared could never find them even if Jensen gave him the chance to, which Jared doesn’t dare consider either.
Instead he’s got this: Gen and Jensen and weird manic laughter lurking at the back of his throat, which he manages to stifle, mostly. He’s got Gen’s lips and her eyebrows like streaks of pure sarcasm and dark hair that she lets him bury his face in pretty much whenever he wants. He’s got her little sharp gasps of pleasure-pain as he teases into her with his finger, and...
And the world is ended. Now is not the time to be giving himself a boner.
Inappropriate is right. He’s never been anything else. He’s never really tried. Now he’s not sure he could if he wanted to.
Jensen pitches the tent while Gen’s back is turned, it feels like. She wonders if this is what it was like having a butler, back when people had butlers: silent, efficient, anticipating your every need. Or maybe she’s thinking of valets instead.
She ought to just appreciate it. It’s not like she loves putting up tents. Only now that Jensen’s finished, he’s standing there staring at the fire, his hands buried in his pockets, and she’s not sure he won’t stand there all night unless someone says something.
The sticky heat is leaking away, and the sweat of the day is starting to chill on Gen’s skin. She wishes for a shower. Maybe tomorrow they can pick a campsite near a lake. Hell, maybe tomorrow night Jensen will break out the marshmallows and chocolate and they can all make s’mores. They’ll sit around the campfire and tell stories of old ghosts, spirits that died of respectable things like suicide and murder, not the creeping subterfuge of microbes. Jensen’s story will be by far the most unsettling, and when he’s finished and she and Jared are thoroughly creeped out, Jensen will laugh out loud, and his eyes will crinkle in the corners.
“Gen?” Here’s Jensen now, peering at her in worry. She doesn’t understand why, and she’s startled when he lifts a hand toward her face. His finger brushes her cheek, and when it retreats she can see that it’s wet.
Suddenly her breath has gotten all wobbly. “It’s nothing,” she says.
Jensen’s eyebrows peak in that oh-so-familiar concern. His hand falls to his side, limp.
“I’m fine,” Gen says. “Are we all ready for bed?”
“Uh, yeah. Everything’s secure.”
Not precisely what Gen meant, but close enough.
Jensen sits cross-legged on his sleeping bag with a flashlight within reach of his right hand, a sheathed knife to his left.
It’s high summer at night in country that comes just a few precipitative inches shy of desert. Jensen’s spent time in places like this before; his dad’s taken him hunting for antelope in low brown hills just like these. Rattlesnakes are the main hazard, at least in summer. There are no people but Gen and Jared and him for miles, dead or alive, he’s pretty sure, and his revolver’s tucked behind his duffel, just in case.
Gen and Jared are murmuring to each other between their sleeping-blanket sheets. The material swishes softly against itself as they shift. Farther off, crickets chirp in a chorus that blankets miles.
From out of the dark, Jared whispers, “Jensen.”
It takes Jensen a moment to answer. “Yeah?”
“Are you going to sleep or what?”
“I’m fine,” Jensen says.
The sleeping bag next to him rustles. From an altitude level with his ear, Gen says, “So am I driving tomorrow?”
Jensen snorts. “Like I’m ever letting you touch my car.” The words are automatic, already spliced together.
“Well, you’re not driving unless you sleep tonight,” Jared says. “I’ll hogtie you and lash you to the luggage rack.”
“I’m fine,” Jensen says.
“You keep saying that,” Gen says.
Jensen doesn’t have an answer for that. All his conversation is already pre-fabricated, old retorts waiting to be made again, old assurances ready for further use. He only has so many, though, and Gen’s gone off-script. “It’s not safe,” he says finally. That one’s done him well, the last couple of days. It’s kept them all whole.
Something touches his arm, and he flinches. “Shh,” Gen says. “It’s just me.”
“You guys sleep,” Jensen says. “I’ll be fine.”
She rubs at his shoulder, up and down. He closes his eyes to the dark and listens to the friction of her fingers against his shirtsleeve. The pressure of it warms his skin. After a while it stops, and Jensen jerks himself awake. “Go to sleep,” he says. He can’t get distracted like this. He has to keep watch.
“Come on,” Gen says. Her hand closes around his arm. “Come to bed.”
“What?” he stutters out. But she doesn’t answer; she grips him harder and begins to tug. “What are you doing?”
“Come on,” she repeats.
He doesn’t understand, but he gets up onto his knees and follows her across the foot of tent that separates him from them. “You should bring your sleeping bag,” Gen adds.
Jensen doesn’t ask. He leans over for a handful of synthetic fabric and polyfiber fill, and he pulls it along behind him until he’s somewhere in the middle of Jared and Gen’s sleeping bag nest. Jared’s up against one wall of the tent - Jensen can tell by the way the tent is heaving around them - and Gen’s at Jensen’s side. “You go here,” Gen says, and lets go.
“I have to keep watch,” he says again.
“Nobody’s coming after us, man” Jared says. He sounds only half-conscious.“It’s not the zombie apocalypse.” He’s right at Jensen’s elbow, and Jensen startles, but Gen’s on his other side, and now she’s tugging at him again, downward.
“Bedtime,” she says firmly in that voice he’s heard her use when babysitting the neighbor kid from the apartment next door – the kid that belonged to the family Gen says is dead.
The thought freezes him. He can’t be lying down. “My revolver—”
“Stays over there,” Gen finishes for him. He remembers now that he wasn’t going to tell her about the revolver. He knows how jumpy she is around guns; he wasn’t going to bring his into the open unless he had to. But all Gen says is, “Sleep.”
Now Jared’s hands are on his shoulders, heavy and certain as gravity, and Jensen struggles under them.
“Please?” Gen says in his ear. Her breath is warm, and it tickles. Her hand slides up his arm. “It’s okay. We’re safe. Promise.”
You can’t promise that, he wants to say, but he can’t force the words from his throat. While he’s still trying, Jared and Gen pull him down until he’s lying on his side between them. There’s some shuffling and rustling, and at one point Gen knees him in the shin as she gets settled. Jared closes in behind him, a spindly furnace at his back whose knobbiest joints all seem to be in contact with Jensen.
He can’t sleep. He has to keep them safe. He can’t respond to threats when he’s tangled up with other people’s bodies like this.
Gen’s insistent fingers slide his t-shirt sleeve up, and her hair brushes his skin as she kisses his shoulder. “Shhhhh,” she says. Then she folds herself in against his chest until there’s no place to put his arm but over her.
They breathe against him, one on each side, and the rhythm of it steadies something in him. Maybe here they’re okay, for a little while. Maybe here it’s safe.
He can’t really believe that, but his body believes for him, and he lets go.
Someone jostles Jared awake, and suddenly the heat he’s been snuggling pulls away. There’s nothing left but a gaping drafty hole . He pulls the sleeping bag tighter over his shoulders and barely hears the door of the tent as it unzips and zips again
A few minutes later, he hears banging from outside the tent. Metal, he thinks muzzily. To keep bears away.
The next thing he knows, someone’s shoving at his shoulder. “Come on, sleepyhead.” It’s Gen’s voice, but Gen wouldn’t be so cruel as to drag out him into that air that is, he knows by sheer instinct, much, much too cold for contact with human skin. He groans out some fraction of this train of thought.
The hands shove again. “Come on, I think Jensen’s getting antsy.” That’s enough to pop Jared’s eyes open. Gen’s face is hanging over his. “Hey,” she says fondly. He blinks, and she pushes hair out of his eyes. “There’s breakfast,” she sing-songs.
Jared shoves himself upright and snakes his hands around her shoulders. “I like breakfast,” he says, and leans in to catch her mouth before she can pull away. She stiffens for a moment, but then she relaxes, opening her mouth to tease at his lip with her teeth.
Something clanks outside, and Gen startles backwards. Jared falters, off-balance at the loss of contact. “We should get going,” Gen says. She gets to her feet, and Jared reluctantly follows, snagging his hoodie on the way.
He’s right, it’s too cold out for a human being who spent all night as one bread slice of a sandwich and way too early for one who made a point to never take classes before ten. It’s kind of pretty, though, Jared thinks. Southern Idaho is not on anybody’s top ten list of postcard views, but now, the shadows long and the light a warm glow behind the hills, there’s something in it, something quiet and clean, that he likes.
He sidles up next to Jensen at the fire. Jensen shies a little to one side and then meets Jared’s eyes. He peers like he’s searching for something, but damn if Jared knows what it is. “How’d you sleep?” Jared asks.
“Good,” Jensen says. His eyes narrow, and he keeps on looking.
Screw this. It’s too early in the morning for dominance rituals, or whatever the hell this staring contest is. Jared turns aside, shoulders up against Jensen, and stays there. Jensen’s warm, just like last night, and kind of tense, like Jared remembers him being in the ten seconds or so before Jared fell asleep. Jensen huffs, but he doesn’t move. That feels like a victory, although Jared’s not really conscious enough to remember what kind.
Gen joins them at the fire. Jared pulls her in and tucks him under his arm. She lets him. This is good, he thinks. He likes them here, his people, one snug on each side. “I think it’s going to rain,” she says.
Now that she’s said it, Jared feels it: a heaviness in the air. “It doesn’t rain here, does it? Not in the summer.”
“Plenty of thunderstorms, though,” Jensen says. He shifts away from Jared. “We should get a move on. Austin ain’t getting any closer.”
The distant rumble Jared was ignoring suddenly rolls through him like a crack of thunder. He forgot.
“Jared?” asks Gen.
“I’ll DJ,” he says. “My IPod’s still got battery for a day or so. Who’s up for some Queen?”
Gen rides shotgun today. There’s nothing to look at. The landscape’s boring, just brown and more dusty brown. She keeps the window halfway down to try and defuse some of the heat. Jensen won’t turn on the A/C; he says they’re conserving gas.
Other than brief, absolute directives like those, he’s still not talking. She tries a couple of times to make conversation, but his answers keep getting shorter, and finally she gives up. Every so often she asks him how he’s doing, and after he grunts or repeats his mantra of “fine,” she gives his arm another rub.
She keeps expecting him to ask her about that. They’ve never been all that touchy-feely. They get along fine, but he’s Jared’s friend, and even he and Jared always grounded that friendship in the universally-approved physicality of boys: shoving and wrestling and dunks in the pool. Every time Gen looks at Jensen, though, hiding behind his sunglasses, he seems more distant, journeying ever farther in his thoughts even as he sits there with the wheel in his hands. She wants to hold onto him before he drifts away right before her eyes.
So she keeps patting his shoulder or brushing her elbow against his leg as she reaches around to hunt for a water bottle, and he keeps not saying anything. She misses Jared, though, all the way in the back seat. Sometimes she reaches around behind her and he grips her hand for a while until her shoulder starts to ache.
They haven’t seen another living soul since they woke up this morning.
They pull off onto the shoulder for a lunch break. As soon as they roll to a stop, Jared jumps out of the car, hops the guardrail, and disappears over the side. “Anything dangerous?” Gen asks when he comes back a couple of minutes later.
He shrugs. “Couple of tarantulas.”
Gen is very, very still, and she stares at him very hard. It’s a good ten seconds before he breaks into a grin. Then he leans down and kisses her, quick and sloppy, and strolls on past. “You ass,” she calls after him.
She already dug a roll of toilet paper out of the car. Now she crawls over the guardrail and a little ways down the embankment, careful not to touch any wet spots on the way. Or any tarantulas. When she gets back, Jensen snags the toilet paper from her and strides away like a man with a purpose.
Jared sidles up next to her. “What are you thinking?” he asks.
“Was it weird, last night?”
Jared toes at a rock with his shoe. “With Jensen?”
He shrugs. “It was good. I think... yeah, I think it was good. We needed it, you know? All of us.”
She thinks she has him all figured out, and then he surprises her. Always. “Yeah.” She waits through another pause. “So, not weird cuddling with the platonic lifemate?”
Jared’s grin turns wicked. “Just because he’s my best friend doesn’t mean I don’t have eyes.”
Gen snorts. That’s as much answer as she’ll get, she supposes. “We should keep doing it.”
“Yeah.” Jared throws an arm over her shoulder and pulls her in close. She feel the heat of his breath on the top of her head. Softly, he says, “Yeah, we should.”
They’re standing there like that, a damp, sweaty border joining them, shoulder to hip, when Gen hears a distant noise. It’s a vaguely familiar noise, but it takes her a moment to recognize it. “Car,” she yelps. She wriggles out of Jared’s embrace for a better look. They’re pulled off on a hill; dumb, probably, but it wasn’t like they were worried about traffic. Now, though, she can hear the mutter of an engine approaching.
Jensen jogs past them. “Get in the car. Get in the car!” He’s already pulled open the driver door. He’s going for the gun, Gen realizes.
“It’s okay, come on, get in the car. Roll up the windows!”
Gen scrambles into the back and thanks heaven that the windows are manual. She rolls them up to the top, as though they were airtight, which, hah. Jensen’s going to peel out, she thinks. Is that really necessary? Do they have to? It might just be another load of college kids on a quest, like them.
But they’re not peeling out, because dear God, Jensen’s standing at the driver’s side door, watching the road. She wants to yell at him to get in, get the hell away from anyone who might be a carrier – if the disease even has carriers, if it’s even a disease, no one knew and now no one’s alive to find out – but he keeps on standing there. His shoulders are back, his hands hanging loose at his sides, but Gen can see just around his leg to the sleek black threat of the revolver’s muzzle.
This is dumb. Is this dumb? It’s dangerous. There’s no way it’s not.
Gen follows Jensen’s line of sight as the car crests the hill. It’s a pick-up truck, actually, one that’s seen probably twenty years of better days. Past the glare on the windshield, Gen can just make out a figure at the wheel. The truck was only going maybe thirty-five to begin with, and now it pulls to a sharp stop. Jensen makes no move.
A head pokes out over the roof of the pick-up cab. It’s a man, Gen sees, older, maybe fifties. He’s yelling to Jensen, but Gen can’t make out the words. Jensen doesn’t relax, but he doesn’t open fire, either. He calls something back. They yell back and forth a couple more times, and then the other man drops back down into his truck. Pretty soon it drives on past them. Jensen turns to watch it until it’s out of sight, and then for another half-minute or so after. Finally he raises the revolver – clicking the safety on, Gen realizes, and feels a fresh chill – and then he opens his door and climbs in.
“What did he say?” Gen asks.
“Wanted to know if we’d broken down.”
“When were you planning to shoot him?” Jared asks.
Jensen shrugs. “I wasn’t, unless he tried to get close.”
“Color me relieved,” Jared says drily.
Jensen turns a sour look on him, and something in Gen’s chest seizes up. “I’m not letting anything happen to you guys, okay? Nobody’s gonna touch you or breathe your air. Not on my watch.”
“Okay, man. Jensen, it’s okay.”
Jensen snorts. “Dude, I know it is. Do you know it is?” For a moment he sounds like his old self from ages – weeks – ago, and Gen could cry for how much she misses that Jensen. Then he seems to slough it off, like the itchy remains of an old skin. “Let’s get on the road,” he says. “If we hit up the next little burg for gas, I think I can get us out of Utah by nightfall.”
That night, Jensen finds them a campsite on a reservoir just inside Colorado. There’s a discussion first – what if the disease is waterborne? What if the reservoir is contaminated? – but Gen eventually says: “The air might be contaminated, too. Are we going to stop breathing now?”
Jensen gives her a long, hard look.
Gen’s a better man than Jared; she doesn’t quail a bit. Her expression softens, and she says, “I’m not going to never get clean again because I might die of something that might travel through water. Okay?”
Jensen takes a deep breath, and he nods. “Okay.”
Jared’s unspeakably grateful for this outcome. The sky above them is a mood-dampening gray, but that’s all it’s dampened so far, and his shirt’s sweat-soaked and starting to chafe. He hangs around the car long enough for Jensen to satisfy himself that they’re alone, and then Jared’s racing for the water.
There’s no beach to speak of; the reservoir doesn’t look like it’s been around all that long, and its shores are stump-lined. The slope he’s on drops straight into the water and probably keeps right on going. There’s a boat ramp, though, and as soon as Jared strips down to his boxers, he walks down it into the water.
The water’s still cool, even in July. It laps at his calves as he steps further in. When he reaches the edge of the ramp, he has to go more slowly; the last thing he needs is to gash his foot open and get an infection. Finally he’s all the way in, the water up to his chest and deep enough to float in, and he flops onto his back and basks.
This is it. This is all he wants to do for the rest of his probably short and grief-stricken life. He wants to float here on the surface of a man-made lake in the southwestern tip of Colorado. Probably sometimes he’ll want to get out and find something to eat. Jared’s no engineer, but Jensen’s pretty handy with mechanical things; probably between them they could figure out how to siphon power off the hydroelectric plant at the end of the reservoir, and he and Jensen could hunt and fish. They’d put Gen in charge of figuring out how to make traps, for when the ammo ran out.
Jared’s just gotten to the construction of the log cabin – easier to do with horses, maybe they can take the 4Runner on a raid – when suddenly a sheet of water shears over his face. He flails upright, wipes the water out of his eyes, and opens them to find Gen grinning at him from a few feet away. She’s in nothing but underwear, too. “Whatcha thinking?” she asks.
“I think you and I should build a cabin on this lake and make babies.”
Gen snorts a laugh. “Oh, you do. You planning on serving up an epidural when I go into labor?”
“Sure,” Jared says, although he has only a hazy idea what that is.
“And what about Jensen?”
The question pulls Jared’s wandering fantasy to a halt. He glances up the bank, where Jensen is pulling off his tennis shoes. “Built-in babysitter?” Jared offers. But the fun’s over; the fantasy’s soured.
He knows Gen feels it, too; her dark eyes have gone serious. “And your parents?”
Jared ducks into the water up to his neck to distract himself from looking at her. “I’m sure they’d be hanging around somewhere.”
Gen splashes over to him, finds his hand, and squeezes.
“Don’t get any of it your mouth,” Jensen calls. “Or your eyes, if you can help it.”
Gen’s eyes grow huge. Her hand rises to Jared’s face, and her thumb brushes damp hair away from his eyes. “It’s fine,” he whispers to her. “If it’s in the water, pretty sure we’re screwed either way.”
She nods, slow and terrified, and he can’t help it; he bends down and kisses her. On the cheek, not the lips, because hell, still better safe than sorry. He follows the line of her jaw to the sensitive place just below her ear. She gasps, and a hand rubs aimlessly up and down his arms. The water’s cold and she’s warm and he knows from glorious experience that she’s even warmer inside than out. She’s buoyant here; he could cup her gorgeous ass in his hands and lift her to just the right height, and she’d wrap her legs around him and make him forget the chill altogether.
Gen pushes at his chest, and he opens his eyes. She’s looking past him, and he twists to see Jensen staring blankly back.
Jared has a weird moment. For one hallucinogenic instant, the obvious thing to do is wave Jensen over, too. In his mind’s eye, Jared sees himself sliding his hand up Jensen’s stubbly jaw, drawing him in and kissing him like in those idle daydreams Jared used to entertain.
Then Jensen calls across the water, “You guys want the soap?” He holds Gen’s bottle of body wash over his head.
“Just leave it,” Gen calls back.
Jensen turns away and starts back up the boat ramp, and Jared realizes Gen’s staring up at him. “What?” he asks.
She shakes her head. His arms gripped tight in her hands, she says, “Just screw me already.”
Far be it from Jared to turn down an invitation like that.
When Gen and Jared get back up to the car, they find Jensen’s already pitched the tent and has a campfire half-built. Gen sneaks around behind the 4Runner to swap into fresh underwear – thank God she has plenty of that still – and put on some clothes. She feels a thousand percent better now. Her hair may smell like lake weed, but at least her skin isn’t sticking to itself anymore.
Dinner is more stuff in cans. Jared grumbles about it, and Jensen gives him a speech about perishable, calorie-dense foods, which seems to boil down to: stale bread would have taken up too much room, so shut up and eat your sandwich-free tuna.
Gen makes a point of taking a spot on the ground next to Jensen – no picnic table, since this isn’t technically a picnic area, or a camping area, either, although it isn’t like anyone’s going to come finger-wagging now. Jensen glances over and gives her something that could grow into a smile, if it were watered and given lots of sunshine. On impulse, she scoots in and shoulders under his arm. After a puff of laughter, he settles the arm around her.
Jared’s got that look in his eye again, the one she saw out on the lake, a faraway, speculative look. She still doesn’t know how to read it, and gives up trying.
The sun’s barely set when they head towards the tent. All this sitting in the car is exhausting, not to mention the spike of adrenaline when they met that car earlier today or the exercise she and Jared got in the lake. She’s bone-weary. She crawls in and sits on her and Jared’s sleeping bags. Jensen put them together, she notices, while his is over on the other side of the tent.
Jared scrambles through the tent flap and shoves playfully at her until she moves so that he can get underneath the sleeping bag she’s sitting on. Jensen’s last, and Gen watches him crawl over to his bag without looking at either of them.
Maybe better to ask, this time. “Jensen?” He turns to look at her. Gen takes a deep breath. “Do you want to come sleep with us?”
When he doesn’t respond, she wonders whether they’re justified in insisting two nights in a row, or whether they ought to leave him to his own devices. Then he nods. “Yeah, sure.” Nonchalant, like this isn’t even a thing. He knee-walks over to them and then pauses, looking lost.
This, she has no qualms about helping him along with. “Inside or outside?”
The question doesn’t seem to help him. “Um.”
“Inside,” Gen decides. She scoots over to let him past her, next to Jared, and then she helps him arrange the two top sleeping bags over the three of them. Again, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself, so she curls up into his side and rests her arm on his bicep. “G’night, Jared,” she calls.
Softer, she says, “Good night, Jensen.”
There’s a pause, and he whispers, “Good night.”
Gen presses herself a little more firmly against him before she drifts off to sleep.