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The Battle-Born Highway

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The road isn’t really a road. It’s more of a dirt trail across the desert and even then Jensen can’t see where it’s heading.

“Are we going the right way?” Jensen asks again as the wind picks up, knocking pebbles and grains of sand across the Jeep’s windshield. “How can you see?”

“Jensen, you worry too much,” Chris says as they hit a bump and Jensen has to grab the oh-shit strap as his head hits the roof. His glare only makes Chris laugh. “I know exactly where we’re going.”

They’ve been driving for thirty minutes longer than they should have in these conditions and the ventilation system in the Jeep is already wheezing as it continues to filter the air. Jensen tugs at the neck of his tactical vest as the heat and dust presses in.

Nothing seems to bother Chris who continues to focus on the twenty feet of road they can see in front of them. Sandstorms were a menace in this part of the desert before but after the nuking of downtown LA, they’ve turned into creatures that pounce and all the soldiers in Zone Seven call ‘em “dirt dragons”.

Chris swerves to miss some debris in the middle of the trail when it happens. Sounds like a gunshot at first but it’s a blown tire. He pulls over and sets the emergency lights, and they listen intently for any suspicious noises or gunfire above the howl of the wind. This stretch of road isn’t a known hot spot but the warlords in this area are getting more aggressive in attacking although most hunker down during the storms, like the soldiers they attack. Comms go down so protocol is to wait out the storm which is why these terrorists slip through their fingers again and again - they aren’t afraid to head straight into the storm.

Chris pulls down his goggles and yanks out his bandana, and Jensen grabs his arm.

“Just wait, Chris. Tom and Mike are right behind us.”

Chris flashes that smile that says he’s not going to listen. “Don’t sweat it, Jenny. Ain’t no one around here in this shit storm.” He wraps the bandana around his nose and mouth and steps out into the howling wind.

Jensen knows they should stay inside, but Chris never waits. Not even when it’s orders. Not even when it makes good goddamn sense. He has to charge his way through and Jensen can’t just sit by. He yanks his neck bandana up and his goggles down before stepping out to help.

“Chris, just wait. We’ll fix this later—“ He calls out in the wind but stops when he sees the shadow emerge behind Chris and his friend crumples to the ground. “No!”

Jensen pulls his weapon and aims at the figure - no, two figures - that come towards him. He can’t see clearly but the black and white scarves across their faces mark them as one of the group out of Vegas. The taller one notices Jensen and raises a weapon at him, but Jensen shoots them both down.

He fights his way through the sand that weighs his boots down and the shifting wind tosses him side to side. Out in the open like this, he can barely move forward through the headwind and he lowers his head. That’s when he sees the blown-out tire. Except it isn’t blown out - there’s a metal spike, a butterfly, sticking out of the top.

Chris’s pulse is thready when he gets around the back end of the Jeep, and he puts pressure on the wound. As the wind howls, Jensen wraps himself around his friend.

“Dammit Chris, you gotta hang in there,” he yells. “They’ll be here soon. Just hang in there.”

The first thing he sees every morning when he wakes up is Dani’s face. His heart is still racing from the dream, so he focuses on her and it helps him to calm down. The perfect blush across her cheekbone, how her eyebrows curve in a smooth arch, and the curtain of red hair lying like silk across her pillow. The cotton sheets are smooth and clean under his fingertips, and the sounds of thunder and rain play on an endless loop over the comm.

It’s been three years since he left the army, but his memories don’t seem to be in a rush to leave him.

His breaths begin to calm down, but no breath come from the bot. Her closed eyes are just an illusion. One touch on the shoulder and her eyes shutter open brightly.

“Good morning, Jensen!”

“Good morning, Dani.” He leans in for a quick kiss. Affection isn’t really necessary for a bot. They don’t notice or care when it’s gone, but Jensen likes the routine, the softness of a morning ritual, that helps him to face the day ahead.

She pulls on a white robe over her pajamas, as she studies his face. “You look stressed. Would you like a backrub? A bath? Maybe a blowjob?” Her eyelashes flutter when she talks about sex. Factory settings, he knows, to simulate flirting but it takes him out of the moment every time. Another thing he may ask Jim to fix next time he’s downtown.

He sits up against the headboard and runs a hand through his hair before pulling the sheet up to his chest.

“Coffee, first, then bacon is fine, honey.” He swings his legs over the side of the bed to stand up, and pauses for a minute. “And maybe a blowjob afterwards.”

She smiles at him sweetly as she heads out the door. “You know I love to suck your cock, Jensen.”

****

Their unit is high up enough to afford a partial view of the city. He sips his coffee and watches the cars on the street, people heading off to their jobs, and a glimpse of the bay beyond. Not a grain of sand in sight. He was smart with his pension and found a job as an engineer that he doesn’t think about when he goes home at night.

After everything he saw out in the Wastelands as a soldier, the ebb and flow of the city is comforting; the mundaneness is like warm bath water.

Dani’s constant activity around the apartment is soothing too. She’s dressed in a tank top and pair of boy shorts, with her hair pulled back in a high ponytail, humming one of Jensen’s favorite songs while cleaning up the morning breakfast dishes. Some owners keep their bots in lingerie or naked all day, something Jensen’s always found distasteful. Dani is gorgeous and she’s programmed for that, but he wants a companion. The sex is just a bonus. A nice bonus.

He wanders over to open the front door. It’s Wednesday so there aren’t many people out in the hallways or down in the front courtyard as he picks up a printed daily announcement sheet that sits on his front door mat and scans it for news. The residents have an app that they can check for that kind of information but it seems to be glitchy (again), like the washing machines in the basement or the trains he takes to work. All these things are supposed to make his life easier and none of them do.

Before he can shut the door, the one across the hall swings open and his neighbor, Glen, steps out, dressed in his running tights and headband. Most of the other tenants in the building are dentists or lawyers or executives. Glen is a podiatrist. A nosy podiatrist.

“Jensen! How ya doing?” He waves and then stretches his quads. Every morning the guy hits the streets and runs five miles. Jensen never did get running as hobby, unless something was chasing you.

“Good, I’m good.” Jensen tries to shut the door but Glen sidles up next to him and looks past his shoulder into the apartment.

“How’s Dani? You know if you ever need someone to look after her when you go to work--”

“No, Glen. We’re fine. She’s fine.” Bots are common, especially for those who can afford to live in this building, but Dani is unusual. She’s an older model, and while she’s gorgeous, system breakdowns are a problem. Jensen can’t remember seeing any around the last few years so Dani attracts attention whenever they go outside together.

Jensen tries to close the door again but his neighbor’s palm holds it open.

“Wait, Jensen—“

“Is Glen bothering you?” Dani moves up behind Jensen silently and makes him jump. “Would you like me to remove him?”

“No, Dani, it’s okay.”

It’s funny. Some people have no idea of when they’re in danger, no awareness of what’s going on around them. Those are the soldiers that go down first in battle, and Glen would be the first on that list.

His door is still open and Glen stands there and smiles at Dani, unaware that the bot would break his arm if he made the wrong move. Jensen’s last apartment was broken into last year, and Jim made a few upgrades to her security program, including an enhanced facial recognition sensor that lets Dani detect even the smallest anxiety in Jensen. If he said the right word, she would crush Glen’s vocal chords.

“Got some stuff to do but we’ll talk later.”

“Okay,” Glen says, not looking at Jensen, stepping back from the door with an awkward little wave at Dani.

Dani’s system is on alert. She doesn’t move, staring at the closed door through squinted eyes as if she could bore a hole through it. Jensen pats her left shoulder, signaling her to stand down. Her face relaxes and she turns to him with a sunny smile.

“You looked stressed, Jensen. Why don’t I run you a bath while you finish your breakfast?”

“Great.” He picks up his coffee and watches her leave. What a perfect soldier Dani would be - no fear, no second guessing, always on the alert. They could have used a few of her out in the Wastelands.

He refills the cup and sits at the kitchen island, pulling the plate of scrambled eggs and bacon over, scanning the announcement sheet. A barbecue on the back patio coordinated by Glen. No thanks. A reminder that bots are not allowed in common areas without their owners. What kind of idiot lets them wander off? A notice that garage service is still not picking up and they should take their trash down to the incinerator in the meantime. Big surprise.

Hamburgers on the grill and overflowing garbage. This was the life he wanted - something normal. Despite his bad attitude, this beats food rations and sand in your shoes any day.

The last of the eggs are halfway to his mouth when he hears it. A metallic thunk and water splashing that makes Jensen cringe.

“Dani?” There’s no response and he puts his fork down and starts to move towards the back of the apartment. “Dani!”

He comes skidding through the open doorway. The bathroom is large with a tub big enough for him to soak his bad knee, wide enough to fit two people. But bots like Dani aren’t made for water and they both know that. It was one of the rules that Jim outlined for him and Dani’s programming won’t let her do the dishes or the laundry without special gloves on. Everything seems in perfect order except the bathmat on the floor has been kicked away from the tub. Dani must have been leaning over to turn off the faucet, instead of walking around the tub.

He races over to shut off the tap but he already knows that this isn’t good. Dani’s red hair floats above her face; her body has sunk to the bottom of the tub while the water from the tap continues to fill. One of her hands with its pristine red fingernails extends gracefully above the waterline. She might have been trying to grab the side of the tub before she went under, but her it looks like she’s reaching for him to help.

Jensen’s not sure what the protocol is on how to pull a bot out of the water and whether Dani could shock him like this. In the end, it doesn’t matter because she’s his responsibility.

He grabs her hand, wrapping fingers tight around the wrist that sticks out above the water and pulls. It’s awkward and takes some effort; her circuits are water-logged and she’s no longer responsive so her legs and back are stiff and inflexible in the sloshing water, but he gets her out and lays her out on the bathmat. He pushes her hair back from her face, expecting her expression to be confused or upset but it’s blank, her eyes white from where they have rolled back into her head.

“Dani, respond!” He pats her face to see if there is any sign of activity; he’d even take the flirtatious bat of her eyelashes at this point. “C’mon, Dan, wake up.”

Even a shoulder tap, which puts her in security mode, does nothing. Her white eyes stare up at the ceiling as she lays motionless, her pink lips forming a perfect cupid’s bow as if she’s going to speak, and Jensen’s chest is about to explode.

****

The big guy drops his duffel at the end of the bunk and Jensen looks up from his book. He arrived the first day and has been watching as the new members of the team arrive and get settled.

“Top or bottom?” the big guy asks.

“Uh, I’m already in the bottom bunk?”

“Huh, you’re right. Top it is.” He leans down and sticks his hand out. “I’m Chris. And you must be Ackles.”

“How’d you know?”

Chris reaches out to flick Jensen’s uniform name strip. “Right there, you moron.” His big smile fits his broad shoulders and neck, and Jensen thinks the guy may be short and he could probably make a living on the MMA circuit.

“Where ya from, Bottom Bunk Ackles?”

Jensen glares but can’t stay angry as the guy pulls two candy bars out of his bag, and waggles one at him in a peace offering.

“Grew up in Texas. This is my first time out of the state.”

“No shit, me too. Guess we’re both popping our travel cherries today. I hear we have a hard-ass captain, a real gung-ho type.”

Jensen saw the guy earlier. He would give MMA Chris here a run for his money when it comes to being thick and muscular.

“Yeah, but he seems like a good guy. Got a good feeling about him.”

****

He pulls his large army duffel bag out of the back of the closet and lays it on the bathroom floor. It’s four feet long and army green and faded in spots to white. Jensen carried it for four years, humping it across his back from place to place with JD and his special ops team. All of them learned to be good packers, quick and efficient, as they threw everything inside and ran to the trucks for their next assignment. One of the guys, sick of losing pictures of his kids, sewed a pocket on the inside where he could slide those mementos in for safekeeping. He offered to do the same for Jensen, but there was no need. He had no family, no special person in his life, only the friends he made in his unit. No need to pack that in his bag.

The towels wrapped around Dani are damp again from the water that continues to drip from her circuits. Nothing changes. He changes them out and holds her across his lap.

He calls in sick to work and his boss won’t mind - he never takes off days or goes on vacation - and then he wanders back out to the kitchen and unloads the dishwasher. Each glass is lined up on the shelf and the bowls stacked neatly. When that’s done, he bags up the trash and heads out to the garbage chute on his floor, wishing Glen would make an appearance because he needs to punch something. But his neighbors are nowhere to be found, probably all enjoying the barbeque out on the patio. It’s quiet in the hallway. It’s quiet back in his apartment.

This is what he thought he wanted - peace and quiet and something normal. But it’s not and Jensen is climbing the walls.

He’ll hit Jim’s place tomorrow. Get Dani fixed and everything will be back in place tomorrow night.

The repair shop looks like a pile of junk from the outside, but Jensen knows that there is a mad organization underneath. Gynoids and service bots in all stages of repair hang from hooks along the walls, with buckets of spare parts surrounding them, while fully retrofitted gynoids are carefully displayed in the center of the shop on a spinning yellow platform.

There is a Marianne, blond and perky, looking too young for Jensen's taste in her cheerleader outfit. Cecily is next to her, reminding Jensen of a sexy librarian with her long dark hair and faux glasses. The display spins to reveal a beautifully reconditioned Saki, hands crossed in front and eyes cast downward. Jensen shudders at these cliched options and thinks that none are as perfect as Dani.

He shifts the heavy duffel bag slung over his shoulder to the other side as a gruff, bearded man makes an appearance.

“You finally in the market for a trade-in?” Jim scratches his head and looking every bit the crazy genius with his magnifying spectacles pushed back into his gray and brown hair.

“Sorry to disappoint, Jim. Just want the one I have back.”

Jim huffs and gives Jensen a long look before waving towards his workbench at the back. Jensen sets the bag down on the table and unzips the bag, brushing Dani’s long hair out of her frozen face, as he unfolds her limbs and lays her out.

Jim pulls his glasses off the top of his head and inspects the prone bot, rolling her over on her side facing away from him. “What's the problem this time?”

“Well...” Jensen starts to explain, his hand flip-flopping in the air as he tries to describe Dani’s dive into the bathtub.

Jim ignores the extended explanation as he lays Dani on her stomach and pulls up a touchscreen with her schematics. His fingers press a few points in her neck and spine simultaneously that release twin panels in her back and reveal the dead circuitry. Jim frowns as he pulls out a pair of large tweezers from his tool drawer and prods along the wiring and connections with the tweezers for several minutes. Jensen’s stomach turns over to see Dani like this and to be reminded of what she really is. He turns away as Jim continues to sigh while he does his diagnostic.

“Looks like the processor that runs all along the bot’s spine here-”

“Dani, her name is Dani.”

“Yeah, yeah.”Jim puts the tweezers down on the workbench and scratches his beard. “Whether you call it by its name or not, there’s nothing I can do. Processor is burned out all along the redundancies in the system. I've said this before. These Dani models are high maintenance. Give you a discount on a trade-in.”

Jim hits a button and the display platform across the room begins to rotate slowly. Jensen looks them over again and shakes his head

“Still not interested. What's my other option?”

“A live person?” Jim says, laughing for the first time. “I know you’re attached but this one’s fried. No coming back from that.” Jim threw himself down on a stool. “Or you save the memory chip and find another Dani model.”

“Great. That's what I want.”

“It's not like those are just lying around the city, Jensen. Dani’s were last generation and no one’s making them anymore.”

“How much will it cost to order?” He’s frugal with his money but this is a situation where he’d spend whatever he needs to get her back.

Jim lets out an exasperated sigh. “You’re not hearing me, boy. If you want another one, you're gonna have to get it. Yourself. And that’s not here in the city.”

“Okay, where do I look for it?”

Jim twists in his chair away from Jensen to face his workbench, not looking him in the eye. “Zone Seven.”

Jensen blanches. “You’re kidding, right?”

Zone Seven - the Wastelands - was one of the worst-hit areas during the war. Empty shelled out buildings and sand. Lots of sand. He was there with his unit - he lost most of his unit there - and the last thing he wants is to go back. He looks down at Dani on the worktable. Her head has fallen to the side, her eyes rolled back and blank like a doll’s. In the last few years, she's the only thing that’s kept him together. If he can fix her, he will.

“Find yourself a good tracker.”

“A tracker?”

“Yup, someone who will get in and out and retrieve it for you for a fee. A hefty fee.” Jim turns back around to face him. “Given what you’ve gone through, Jensen, you don’t need to face that again. Hire yourself a tracker.”

“Fine. Where would I find a good tracker?”

The old man sticks his pencil behind his ear. “Now that I can help you with.”

****

Jensen sees the car first. It's tough not to notice a bright red 1965 Dodge Challenger. It's a classic, even if the paint job could use a touch-up and the black racing stripe has faded to grey. But the real reason Jensen comes to a stop in the middle of the sidewalk is the guy lounging on the hood.

He's sprawled like a street tough punk - black leather and a dirty white wife beater, with a gun holster under one shoulder and an ammo belt around his narrow hips. A dribble of sweat is running down the guy’s throat to disappear into the neckline and his hair is crazy, thick and dark, with bangs hanging over his face. When he looks up at Jensen, his face is young. Definitely too young to be a tracker into Zone Seven.

Jensen looks down at the business card in his hand and back up at the building. Orange paint is flaking off the cheap storefront and one window boarded up and the other one is frosted with wire mesh embedded, and the place blends right in with the rest of the rundown and broken buildings here in the Narrows. There’s no number listed on the front but there’s a sign by the door that says JP Tracking if he squints.

“You looking for someone?” The kid speaks with a bit of a drawl that Jensen recognizes from when he was a kid running the streets. Before the army. Before his respectable life.

“Uh, yeah, I'm looking for a tracker, uh, Jared Padalecki?” Jensen's eyes go wide as the kid stands up, unfolding six and a half feet of muscled arms and legs.

He spreads his arms as wide as Jesus on the cross, one of those hokey crucifixes Jensen used to see in the rundown evangelical churches in the Narrows. Jared gives him a dimpled smirk. “Well, it must be your lucky day cuz you found him. You the guy Jim sent over?”

“Yeah, no, that's not possible. No offense, but you look like you should be in high school.”

The smile drops and the tracker shrugs his shoulders. “Never been in school, but whatever.” He digs an old-fashioned brass key out of his pocket and steps up to the front door of the shop and inside the gloomy, crowded space.

Jensen considers the open door for a minute and what Jim said about his limited options. If he wants to do this, if he wants to save Dani, then he needs to hire someone. He pushes through the door, following behind Padalecki.

The kid shoots a look over his shoulder at the sound of the door, showing off a pair of dimples. “So, you couldn't stay away? I know I'm irresistible.”

“Jim Beaver said you could help me get something from Zone Seven.”

The tracker shakes his head as he begins to pull off his leather jacket and remove his gun holster, piling them on top of an old wooden desk. “Dude, Zone Seven is a hardcore trek. I just came in from busting my left nut out there. How about I shower and you can tell me more?”

He pulls up the edge of his tight white tank and peels it off, dropping it on the floor, as if the desk was suddenly too far to reach. Jensen glances at the floor and has to stop himself from picking it up. When he looks back up, his mouth falls open at the tight leather pants that are unbuckled and hanging low on the guy’s hips and the flat, muscled skin that rises from hip to shoulder.

“Listen, I can wait outside if--”

“No, man, I don’t mind. It’ll only be a few minutes.” The tracker shimmies out of his pants, dropping them next to the t-shirt, and then saunters into a small bathroom off to the side of the office.

Jensen searches for somewhere to sit amongst the piles of file folders, trash, and weapons. He picks up a dried-up bowl of ramen and drops it into what he thinks is a trash can.

“So, what is it you want me to retrieve?” Padalecki says as he turns on the water.

Jensen draws a blank on a response to the question, as he glances through the open door at the lean muscles of the tracker’s back and ass as he leans over the bathtub. For all his height, the kid is lean with broad shoulders that taper down into narrow hips. His skin is tanned and broken up by the occasional scars, and when the kid turns around to reach for a towel Jensen catches sight of a solid cock bumping up against his thighs.

He licks his lips as he turns away.

In a world where everything about sex is negotiated in advance, where every date and intimacy has some kind of price, this kid is just putting it out there on display. For free. For anyone to see. Jensen wants to cover him up and tell him that this is not how the real world works.

He thinks of soft curves and flawless skin and remembers why he’s here.

“I need to find a Dani 2000 unit. One that works.”

“A sexbot? You're kidding, right? Drive all the way to Zone Seven for a sexbot?” Jared laughs and pokes his head out of the doorway, looking Jensen up and down. “You're a reasonably attractive guy. Why would you need to go to all that hassle? Plenty of real men and women would give you what you need.”

Jensen blushes and crosses his arms. No way he is going to explain this to some overgrown child who can’t pick up his clothes off the ground. “Just need to get a few parts. Can you do it or not?”

Jared pulls back into the bathroom and steps into the shower without answering. The thin shower curtain does nothing to hide the ass that Jensen’s eyes keep coming back to, so he paces the office floor. It takes five minutes before the kid steps back out, a small white towel wrapped around his bony hips.

Jensen shakes his head to clear those thoughts as the tracker continues to talk.

“It's gonna cost ya. That kind of trip ain't easy. Things are hot right now in the wasteland and I'm gonna need a partner to ride shotgun, so you need to pay for two of us.”

“I'll ride shotgun with you.” Jensen surprises himself. He walked in here to hire someone to do the dirty work. The last thing he wants to do is go back out to the Wastelands, but this punk seems too young - too messy - to get the job done right.

“No way. I need someone I can count on for driving and shooting. It's rough out there, and I’m not sure what those manicured hands of yours would be good for. Well, except for one thing.” He winks, pulling on a new black t-shirt and stepping into dark cotton briefs.

“I have experience.” The minute Jensen said it, he knew the innuendo would get a snort out of the tracker and isn’t disappointed. “Hey, I was riding shotgun in the Wastelands before you were out of diapers.”

“Please, you're not that much older than me.” The kid is watching Jensen while absently smoothing the t-shirt across his chest and stomach, long fingers spread wide in obscene circles on the cotton and Jensen can't stop watching. “Okay, fine.”

“What?” Jensen says, breaking eye contact with the t-shirt, trying to remember what he asked the kid in the first place.

“You can ride with me. Bring your own guns and ammo. Also food rations, because I don't have time to get you stocked. By the way, I’m Jared.”

He extends his hand and Jensen takes it. “I’m Jensen.”

“Well, Jensen, be ready to meet here tomorrow and we'll leave at 8 a.m., all right?”

Jensen nods and heads for the door, and wonders if Jared likes bacon first thing in the morning.

****

Apparently the answer is coffee. Jared is sitting on his stoop sipping some cheap automat brew when Jensen walks up, huge army duffle across both of his shoulders. When he drops it on the curb, Jared picks up a second coffee cup off the step and hands it to Jensen.

“Think you packed enough for a four-day trip?” Jared nods at the duffle.

Jensen accepts the cup, sniffs it, before taking his first sip. At home, he prefers whole beans, freshly ground, but this hour of the morning in this part of town, he isn’t picky. Coffee is coffee. “Why? If you don’t have room in the trunk, we’ll put it in the backseat.”

Jared slips off the step in a fluid motion that reminds Jensen of a big house cat. The tracker’s still got on his black leather jacket and skin-tight pants that hide nothing.

Stealing glances, Jensen has to remind himself that he wants his nice, orderly life back. To get Dani back to normal. And not to be heading into the Wastelands again. If he’s going to make that happen, then he needs to stuff any feelings he might have deep down into the garbage can of his mind.

Jared walks over to the trunk, and flips it open, revealing one black bag inside. “Your stuff needs to fit in here. Weapons and cooler with supplies can go in the back seat.”

Jensen drains the coffee and tosses the paper cup into an overflowing trash can in front of the shop. The army duffle makes a metallic clank when he lifts it into the trunk, and Jared holds up his hand.

“We got to travel light across the Wastelands and whatever is in the bag - rocket launcher, hoverboard, diamond drill - it’s too much for this trip.”

“Too bad.”

A wary stand-off between the two men continues in silence when Jensen makes no move to move the bag. When Jared reaches in to grab the straps, Jensen grips his wrist, hard enough to bruise.

“Not happening.”

Jared pulls away, rubbing his wrist. The tracker is a big guy but Jensen has about fifteen pounds and eight years of military experience on him and knows how to immobilize an opponent.

“Well, then, I guess we’re not heading to Zone Seven after all.” He brushes his hair back from his face. When Jensen doesn’t respond, he shrugs and walks to the storefront.

Jensen’s shoulders drop and he lets out a sigh. All he wanted was a guy to get in and get out with a new Dani and already things are more complicated than he liked. “Wait.”

Jared pulls up, and for all his tough talk, he waits as Jensen instructs. The thick brass zipper on the duffle bag is pulled down, with a view to impossibly folded limbs and a delicate hand with red fingernails.

“Oh, hell no!” Jared shakes his head and points down at the bag. “That is not happening. We can’t afford to be weighed down with something like that.”

“First, Dani is not a that. Second, she goes with us. I’m not dragging my ass all the way to the Wastelands with you and find out the parts don’t work once we get home.”

Jared runs his fingers through his hair, pulling it away from his scalp. “Don’t you get it? You can’t fuck around out there. Warlords like the Kingsnake kill trackers for crossing their territories. We travel light or not at all.”

Jensen holds the handles on the bag, not giving up ground, and Jared walks past again, brushing his shoulder against Jensen to throw the front door wide open.

“It stays here or you find another tracker.”

Jensen looks up and down the street, wondering about his options. It would take time to find another tracker and the kid has a point about traveling light, although Jensen would hate to admit that now. He nods and walks past Jared into the shop. As he looks around for a clean place to set down the bag, someplace private that’s not visible from the windows, Jensen hears a stream of muttered comments from outside the shop.

“Just set it anywhere,” Jared says through the open door. “Doesn’t matter to me.”

Jensen grimaces as he walks back out. “Obviously.”

All the bags are loaded in the trunk of the car and Jared is leaning up against the fender, shaking his head. When he opens the passenger door, a wadded-up ball of used napkins rolls onto the sidewalk followed by a crusted-over bowl of something. Jensen peers past him.

“Get in,” Jared says and rolls his eyes, and heads over to the driver’s side.

“I’m afraid to.” Once he settles into the seat, Jensen is surprised that the rest of the car looks clean, well-cared for.

“Haha, funny guy.”

Jared walks around the car and Jensen watches with fascination as he climbs in, wondering where those long legs would fit, but Jared tucks into the bucket seat and starts up the Challenger with a throaty roar. The engine’s roar becomes a whine as Jared gives it more gas than it needs and punches it one more time as they take off down the street.

The thrum of the engine settles them into a comfortable quiet and Jensen watches rolling miles of what used to be fertile farmland and is now anemic almond trees and stunted winter wheat.

He turns away from the view outside and eyes the Challenger’s oiled leather upholstery and pristine dashboard which is so at odds with the tracker’s messy shop back in the city.

“Sweet ride.”

“Thanks. It was my dad’s. At least, that’s what I was told.”

Jared’s long fingers tap out a rhythm on the steering wheel to an unheard song. A chain with a tiny teddy bear dangles from his keys on the wheel column. Its brown fur is dusty and out of place in this suped-up machine, and Jared strokes it absently.

“You weren’t close to him.”

“He died in LA. Mom was visiting family in Texas and missed all the fireworks. All she ended up with was this car and a baby seven months later.”

Jensen has no answer for that. He doesn’t remember much of the world before the blast but he does remember the time of the relocations. Over a million people heading out of Southern California, by car or by foot if they had nothing, and looking to start a better life elsewhere.

Jensen looks back at the little teddy bear dangling off the keychain.

“Where’s your mom now?”

Jared squints at the rear-view mirror and reaches up to adjust it. “She died. Cancer.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Happened a long time ago.”

Jensen waits but Jared doesn’t fill the silence. “You must have been young.”

“Fifteen.” Jared taps his fingers then drops his hand down to rummage in a shoe box filled with CDs in front of the stick shift. He pops one in, and the throbbing bass fills the back of the car, pushing against Jensen’s eardrums and his seat. He reaches out and turns the volume down.

Before he can ask anything, Jared jumps in. “So, how long have you had your girlfriend? That thing must be special for you to make a trip like this.”

“What?” It takes him a second to realize that Jared is talking about Dani. “She’s not my girlfriend and she’s not a thing. She’s… my friend.” No one has ever asked how he feels about the bot, where she fits in his life, and saying it out loud sounds foolish.

Jensen waves a hand in Jared’s direction as a distraction. “So, why the leathers? I could see if you had a bike, but...”

“You don’t like 'em?” Jared licks his lips and runs his palm along his thigh to get Jensen’s attention. “I think my ass looks pretty sweet. You were looking too, I saw.”

Jensen snorts and looks away with a sudden interest in the passing flat landscape and a desire not to shift in his seat.

Jared turns back to the road, his lips curled up at the corners. “Does your robo-girlfriend know you’re into dick, too?”

When Jensen blushes and glares at him, Jared grins and starts to tap out the rhythm of the song on the steering wheel.

“You’re an asshole.”

“Yup. Nice guys don’t last out here. Probably explains why you live in the city.”

Jensen ignores the last zinger and settles further down in the seat, turning his attention back to the window. They are heading into Zone Four, so the sparse fields are turning into hills covered with wild grass and scrubby oak. He scans them for wildlife. The deer disappeared pretty quickly as well as the large predators. At least small animals like rabbits and foxes seem to be making a comeback, but for now, there’s no movement along the old highway and he closes his eyes against the sun’s glare.

Could be worse, he thinks, surprising himself as he drifts off to the rumble of the Chevy’s engine and the boredom ahead. Could be sitting in my cubicle right now.

****

Lights out was an hour ago and yet Jensen sits on his bunk, field stripping and cleaning his weapon. It’s the third time tonight and he knows that Chris is done with it when he takes a swing with his pillow from the top bunk, hitting Jensen in the head.

“Dude, stop making noise and get some sleep.”

He inserts the gun in the holster and lays it out for tomorrow. It’s his first mission and he’s nervous. The soldiers sleeping in the bunks around him will be counting on him and he doesn’t want to disappoint them.

He starts to repack his duffel and then realizes how quiet it’s gotten in the bunk room. The usual snores and snuffles are white noise to Jensen, comforting in their rhythm, and without them, it’s just dead air.

In the darkness, he slips off the mattress and stands up. All the bunks are empty. The sheets and blankets are mussed; the thin mattresses are dented in the middle, but no one is there.

“Hey, Chris, where is everybody?” He looks at the top bunk and his best friend is gone as well. Disappeared like a ghost, like the others around him.

“Chris!” he calls out as he walks down the row of bunks. His heart is thudding against his breastbone, a thick buzzing blocks his ears.

He throws the front doors open and when he steps outside, he falls.

****

“Hey, hey.” A hand shakes his arm and Jensen jumps awake. His head pounds and he squints in confusion at the dash and through the windshield to the world beyond.

“Are you okay?”

Jensen looks down at the fingers wrapped around his forearm. They are long, almost delicate, with veins running under the tan skin like a racehorse.

“You were making noises in your sleep,” Jared says, as he lets go of Jensen’s arm. “Didn’t sound too good.”

He rubs the sleep out of his eyes. The dreams are never good, and that’s why he has Dani. Jared continues to glance over at him, his attention split between Jensen and the road. His forehead is wrinkled in thought in a way that Dani’s never could be, and it’s nice to see.

“I’m fine,” he says as he sits up. “No worries.”

****

That first day is dusty and long. The road heading west is pocked and its edges are crumbling, but it’s good enough to take them two hundred miles into the Central Valley. By afternoon, Jensen feels molded into his seat and numbed by engine noise and irritated by the smell of leather and dust.

A few towns show up, no more than a cluster of buildings lined up like a break against the ever-blowing wind. They stop for gas at midday, and an old man wanders out. His face is as withered as a raisin, but it cracks open in a gap-toothed smile when he sees Jared get out of the car.

“Boy, what are you doing back so soon?”

“Got a job.” Jared nods to Jensen as he gets out. The two continue to talk, something about rations and water, while a small boy runs out. He’s no more than four or five, and he grabs onto Jared’s arm to pull him away.

Jensen’s muscles are screaming after hours of doing nothing and he stretches out by the pumps. Must be hard living out here, he thinks, as the old man fills up the Challenger at the closest pump while Jared walks out onto a sunny patch of gravel with the little boy.

The boy is begging for something and Jared looks like a giant, towering over him as he smiles and shakes his head no. When the boy starts to walk away, dejected, Jared grabs his arms and starts swinging him around like a helicopter. Squeals of delight fill the air as Jared spins him high and then low.

The old man next to him doesn’t watch Jared and the kid like Jensen does but keeps his eyes on where the gas hose goes into the car.

“Heading south, huh?”

Dark eyes set deep in wrinkled skin look over at him. Jensen stares for a moment, wondering if this is the kid’s father or grandfather, and then glances back at Jared who has set the boy down again.

“Yeah, we are.”

The old man caps off the tank with a click and takes his time settling the hose back into its rusty hook. He turns back around and looks Jensen up and down. Over his shoulder, Jared has tucked the boy up under his arm and is tickling more squeals out of him.

“You look like you can handle your own.”

Jensen nods. “Yes, sir. I can.”

The old man pulls a rag out of his back pocket and wipes the dust off his face. “Good. Keep him safe. That boy’s helped us out more than I can say. He talks tough but he needs somebody watching out for him.”

Jensen’s about to ask when Jared comes up behind the man, the little boy kicking his legs out as he play struggles.

“All done with the gas, Ray?”

“Yup.”

Jared plants the kid back on the ground. “Gotta go. Catch you on the flip side.” He and the boy exchange fist bumps before the boy runs back over to Ray. Jared doesn’t look back, climbing in on the driver’s side and folding his long legs up to get behind the wheel.

Jensen looks back to say goodbye to Ray but the pair has already gone back inside. He scans the surrounding flats and low foothills, with its stunted trees and yellowed grass, and wonders how anyone makes a living out here. How many trackers or travelers stop for gas? Despite the ugly, it is peaceful out here but tough to make a home at the side of the road.

A dust devil whips up at the edge of the parking lot, no taller than Jensen. It twists around like a djinn about to ask Jensen for three wishes before it whirls through where he stands, stinging his skin even though the canvas jacket, and it blows itself out seconds later. Jensen appreciates why Jared wears the leathers - just another kind of uniform out here.

“Are you gonna keep eating sand or are you getting in?” Jared steps on the gas to give it a throaty roar as Jensen leans in the open window.

“Got a better idea. How about if I drive?”

Jared rolls his eyes and lets out a huff. “Over my dead body.”

****

Jensen is sad to see the old guy and the kid go because there won't be a lot of folks up ahead in Zone Five. The blast that leveled LA also sent waves of radiation over this part of California resulting in a withering death of any vegetation through the years. Even the sand has a different color out here, dirty grey and porous like crushed lava rocks. When he was in the army, they would laugh as they crossed it and it crunched under their tires. Chris called it moonwalking.

Good news was that Zone Six would be slightly better, protected by the foothills of the Sierras from the dust storms and some of the radiation, but still too wild for most people to live there. They would stay in one of the valleys there and make the run into Zone Seven at first light.

Jared opens up the Challenger while the road is still visible and gives it all he’s got. His window is down and the bangs that hid his face earlier are blowing back. Pretty soon, the dust is too much and he rolls it back up again. Jensen watches as Jared is constantly in motion. He changes the CDs in and out of the dash, not looking at the labels, randomly choosing bands and songs. That should make Jensen crazy but he begins to appreciate the strange rhythm to Jared’s actions, how he taps his fingers on the steering wheel before he fast forwards to the next song, how his nose wrinkles up before he runs a hand back through his hair or the way he rubs his palm along his thigh before picking up the water bottle.

“So, tell me,” Jared starts, breaking into Jensen’s thoughts about his thighs, “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m an engineer. I help design buildings.”

“Huh. I didn’t know anyone was still building things. Where I live in the Narrows, things are falling apart. Homes, apartments, businesses. Doesn’t matter. The world keeps going downhill every day. One day we’ll all crumble away to dust.”

Jensen squints at Jared to see if he’s joking. “That’s rather Old Testament.”

“Look around you. That’s just reality. I’m just dealing with what’s in front of me.”

They find a spot at sunset. The packaged rations they share for dinner are marginally better than what he would eat in the army, but he misses the steaks Dani would grill or the bread she would bake and how the smell would fill his apartment.

He watches Jared shake out his sleeping bag next to the fire pit they dug. He unrolls his bag so that the heads are next to each other, and starts to hunt for kindling close to their campsite.

Maybe Jared has a point, he thinks as he looks around them. There was nobody within twenty miles. Maybe everything was just crumbling back to the earth. It might be true, but he had to believe that someday, things would get better.

Jared stripped off his leather pants and jacket to crawl in the bag, wadding up the jacket to put it behind his head as a pillow. Jensen knew there was no one around to see but he still kept his jeans on, in case something happened in the middle of the night. He lived through enough skirmishes and ambushes to know better than to relax completely.

****

It’s dark when he wakes up and he can’t breathe because there’s an odd weight on his chest.

“Shhh, don’t move,” Jared whispers in his ear, his hand wrapped around Jensen’s mouth as he lay draped over his body. “Someone’s out there.”

Jared’s breath is hot in his ear and the kid is heavy, but Jensen holds still and listens to the noises around them. Sure enough, he can hear the crunch of gravel as someone walks toward their fire. They aren’t trying too hard to hide it, which is probably worse. Either they have no fear or they’re too stupid to know better. Jared is breathing too loudly now, his inhales stepped and the exhales tight in fear, and as the footfalls start to come around the car, Jensen makes his move, spinning Jared off him, so he is free to reach the knife under his sleeping bag.

“Jared?” the person calls out, right before Jensen tackles him to the ground. It doesn’t take much, the guy weighs less than Jensen and is thin like Jared. Jensen wrenches one of his arms high on their back while he holds a knife at their throat. “What the fuck, man? Who are you? Where is Jared?”

“Who are you?” Jensen digs his knee further into the guy’s back and is happy to hear the whine of concession.

“Jensen, stop! Let him go.” Jared pulls him off but as they stand up, Jensen shields him and doesn’t lower the knife. “This is my friend, Chad.”

Chad picks himself up and groans as he dusts off his clothes. “Who’s the ninja dude?”

“Maybe you should think twice before sneaking up on people, asshole,” Jared says, as he pushes around Jensen to hug the guy tight, tucking his chin over Chad’s shoulder while wrapping his arms around him. “Missed you, man. Where ya been?”

Chad untangles himself long enough to reach into the beer cooler by Jared’s sleeping bag to pull out a soggy-labeled leftover and twists off the cap. “You won’t believe it if I tell you,” he says before tossing the beer back. He wipes his lips with his sleeve and nods at Jensen. “Nice moves.”

Jensen studies the guy as he flips his knife, not putting it away. Chad is thin and wiry, a buck fifty soaking wet and every inch a desert rat, but his eyes soften as he looks at Jared. Another tracker then. Maybe something more.

Jared hands him another beer before plopping down, his back against the car, long legs crossed in front of him, and Chad hefts himself up on the hood above him, his heel banging against Jared’s shoulder.

“So what’s up?”

“Just spent the last few nights at the Kingsnake’s house,” Chad says around another swallow of beer.

Jared tilts his head up and bumps Chad’s foot with his shoulder. “You’re such a liar. Kingsnake hates trackers. If he caught you, you’d be dead.”

“Too lucky to be dead.” The two snort together and Chad leans down to hand his beer to Jared. Jensen watches the exchange, too wound up to sit, pacing a short distance away.

“How do you two know each other?” He looks at Chad but Jared answers.

“Chad and I grew up together in the Narrows. We’ve been making runs to the Wastelands since we were fourteen.”

That stops him in his tracks. “Fourteen? Why would two kids need to travel this far out?”

Chad squints at Jensen, looking at him for the first time since being put in a chokehold. “Weapons, bots, medicine. When you don’t have money, you find stuff you need or things to sell.”

“And your mom was okay with that?” he asks Jared. “You running around with this idiot?”

“Hey!” Chad pushes off the car, but Jared grabs his leg before he steps forward.

“Chad, let it go.”

Jensen watches as Chad settles back down on the hood of the car, running his mouth under his breath. Jared’s chin drops and wraps his hands around his knees, pulling in on himself, and Jensen’s questions about his mom die behind closed lips.

“This Kingsnake - what’s he like?” Jensen asks Chad.

“Tough son-of-bitch. Rules a patch of ground near Vegas, with a bunch of his fucking ex-military cronies. Hates trackers.” Chad goes for another beer in the cooler on the ground and Jared perks up and grabs his wrist.

“You still didn’t answer me, dickweed,” Jared says. “How’d you escape? I hear he’s got a fortress out there.”

“Nah, just one of those old movie-star places up in the mountains. Big place, bar, pool, and a nice view if you’re not in handcuffs.”

“Handcuffs, huh? And you just slipped out of ‘em?”

Chad takes the beer and settles back up on the hood. “I got skills you don’t know, Padalecki. Picked the lock and crawled past the guards staked out around the pool. Fucking Houdini is what I am.”

Jared laughs and tosses his head back, and Jensen watches how his face transforms when he’s happy. His cheekbones and white teeth shine in the moonlight, and Jensen wants to be able to make him laugh like that again. He sits on his sleeping bag and eyes Jared’s bristly-haired friend.

“So, Houdini,” Jensen says. “Did you walk all the way here from Vegas?”

“Hell no. Stole me a sweet ride from his garage, a souped-up Camaro, yellow and black like fucking Bumblebee. Stashed it a ways back when I saw your car. Wanted to make sure it was you.” Chad twirled the beer bottle between his hands. “Kingsnake likes to collect cars and motorcycles in a big garage next to his fancy house. Probably doesn’t even know this one is gone yet.”

****

Two hours later, after their last beer is gone, Chad leaves. He and Jared exchange a long hug goodbye and Jensen has to look away because Jared hugs with his whole body, closing his eyes against it, and it makes his heart squeeze. He makes himself busy putting the empty beer cooler in the back seat of the car and gathering up the empties to throw in a nearby gully when Chad slips off into the night.

Jared straightens his sleeping bag back out, pulling them more side by side, and stretches out, lacing his hands behind his head. Jensen settled down on his, a companionable silence shared between them for a moment.

“I get it,” Jared speaks up. “Why you want to fix Dani.”

It’s the first time he’s called her by name. Jensen doesn’t respond, not sure where Jared is going with this.

“If something happened to Chad, I’d do whatever I could to help him.”

A shooting star cuts across the sky, and Jared lets go a soft, “hey, look at that”, while following its progress with his finger. As the trail fades, he soaks up the quiet and the expanse of the black night sky above him, listening to the steady breathing of Jared next to him.

Jared shifts up on his elbow, and Jensen glances over at him. The kid’s eyes are taking in the same sky as Jensen, but there’s a yearning there, an innocence of appreciation, and Jensen is free to take his fill of that look.

“My mom used to take me out of the city to go star watching,” Jared says. “We’d drive out into Hill Country with a blanket and a thermos of hot chocolate.”

“That’s nice.” Jensen tries to remember the last time he wished on a star or even left his apartment to look at the night sky.

“I think she was hoping my dad was out there somewhere, that he survived and was looking up at the same sky that we were.”

Jared rolls over to lay on his stomach, bunching the leather jacket under his head, and within a few minutes, he’s snoring lightly.

Sleep is a long time coming for Jensen. Tomorrow, they head into the heart of the desert.

Crossing over to Zone Seven came to an abrupt stop the next morning.

Pieces of the bridge they needed to cross lay scattered on the dry creek bed below, the victim of whatever flash flood ripped through here in the few days since Jared came back. Two sections of roadway fell straight down, giant blocks of asphalt and twisted metal supports half covered in dried mud below, with another section carried further down the washout and wedged against an old drainage pipe.

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” Jared’s hands are on his hips as he looks over the side, studying the wreckage of the bridge below, kicking chunks of asphalt over the edge.

Jensen leans back on the hood of Challenger and shakes his head as Jared continues to pace the edge. They were so close to entering the Wastelands, a few more hours down the road, and he had pumped himself up to believe this might be the quick in-and-out Jared had promised. Jensen’s never seen one of the flash floods that rip through the desert in the spring, when the sky opens up and rushing water carves out these washouts. Looking at the raw damage on the bridge abutments, he’s glad they weren’t around this time.

“This is gonna set us back. Way back. Need to backtrack and take the north road down the other side of the mountains,” Jared says. “Adds another day at least, unless more bridges are down, then maybe two.” He kicks some of the remaining debris over the edge, which makes a dull thunk as it hits the bottom.

Jensen turns his face towards the sun above them, trying to relax and remember the clean quiet of his city apartment, as he closes his eyes to soak the warmth in. Another day is not ideal, but it’s doable.

“Shit. Shit.” Jared’s voice and irritation rise, and Jensen opens his eyes again to watch as Jared stands on the jagged edge and kick chunks of broken asphalt and twisted rebar off the side. There’s no satisfaction in the sound they make as each one lands in the dust of the creekbed fifty feet below.

“Listen, we’ll figure it out--” Jensen hears the loud whispers of crumbled rock and dirt running down the sides before he sees where the abutment begins to crack under Jared’s feet. The action is in slow motion, as most things of importance are, and he watches as the cracks begin to spider web out from where Jared is standing. He sinks a little before he tries to spin away from the edge. Jared grabs for a piece of rebar sticking out, and his face transforms from irritation to concern into something younger, more vulnerable than Jensen has seen before.

Jensen’s off the hood of the car in a heartbeat but it’s not fast enough.

He sees Jared’s left hand wrapped around a single piece of rebar, bent and dirty where it sticks out from the edge, and his knuckles are white from holding on. Jensen edges out where the road seems to be holding together and he sees the rest of Jared dangling below. There’s no place for Jared to brace his feet since the sides of the creekbed have crumbled away.

“Jared, look at me.” The debris digs into Jensen’s knees as he settles carefully at what seems to be the solid edge of the pavement. Jared’s face turns up and his eyes are wide with shock.

“I caught it,” he says.

“You sure did. Now, give me your other hand, Jared.” Jensen looks for something to anchor himself down and settles for lying flat, toes digging into cracks in the road five feet back. Jared tries to grab another piece of rebar with his right hand but it pulls out and throws him off balance to swing in the air, grimacing as the metal digs into his palm.

“Jared. Take my hand. I got ya.”

The angle is awkward and their fingers touch a few times before Jensen can get a firm hold, going palm to palm, hooking their thumbs together, to pull Jared up over the edge. The whisper of the dirt falling away below grows louder and he yanks Jared by the arm to throw both of them back from the edge as it begins to crumble again.

“Go, go, get in the car. Move!” The two scramble to climb in as Jared digs for the keys in his pocket, pulling them out by the little teddy bear. The engine catches right away and Jared throws it in reverse. The wheels spin out and the car guns back another fifty yards before they stop again and watch as the edge where they were standing crumbles away piece by piece into the washout below.

Jared winces as he stretches out the fingers of his left hand and Jensen sees a glimpse of where the skin on his palm has been torn but before he can say anything, Jared wraps them around the steering wheel again and spins the tires out again as he does a U-turn to head north.

****

Jared refused to stop on the way north. He gave the road in front of them a thousand-mile stare. Jensen waited for Jared’s adrenaline rush to crater out, but the kid kept driving. As they zigzagged on the back roads, the scenery around them switched over from flat sand into mountain scrub at the higher elevations. There were signs for other bridges along the way, but when Jensen pointed out the exits, Jared shook his head and kept driving.

Twilight puts the pine trees in a soft purple profile around them. The smell in these hills is tangy clean, a world away from the sweat and grit of city life or the dusty burn of the desert and Jensen rolls down his window to taste it. Outside of a sprinkling of signs or the bones of a few decayed buildings, he can’t remember the last sign of humanity, just the same rolling road beneath their wheels. Ahead of them, the color of the asphalt has leached away to white and the road rises to look like the spine of some great beast long buried in these hills.

The drive and his now comfortable silence with Jared reminds him of his time in the army, bouncing along in the back of a transport, shoulder to shoulder with the other soldiers. Only then, when he’d looked out the window, there would be a trail of refugees in their beat-up cars and some on foot, trying to get away from the Big Black Hole on the southern coast. People moving through the area to reach Salt Lake or Denver, where life would be better for them, or so they were told.

Everyone looking to survive. No one knowing where they were going to end up.

“We’re stopping up here for the night.” Jared’s voice wakes him from his reverie. “There’s a spot off the road to camp.”

Jared pulls the Challenger off the road and parks it where it’s hidden from view, and the two start unpacking their things. It’s quiet work and they do each chore without instruction as if they’ve known each other for years, instead of two days. Jared strips off his leather jacket and throws it in the front seat before he picks up both of their sleeping bags, throwing them over this shoulder before making for a flat dip of land not far away, surrounded by rock outcroppings.

Jensen takes the cooler out of the trunk, and pauses when he sees a small first aid kit tucked in the wheel well.

The soft light is fading and the temperature falls. Out here in the open, the cold of night can get you as much as the heat of the day, but tonight, the cool feels good as he sits down on the sleeping bag which is laid out side by side with Jared’s. Jared fixes a small fire in front of them and drops cross-legged on the other sleeping bag, looking up at the sky.

Jensen follows the glance upwards as he pulls the first aid kit onto his lap and has to pause. The higher elevation makes the stars feel that much closer, like you could reach out and touch them with your bare hands. Their twinkle is brilliant, white chips that are sharp against the dark black, even with the three-quarters moon shining above. He looks over at Jared, who seems to be studying the constellations as well, and in the stillness, the moonlight sculpts his cheekbones and jawline into black and white.

“Gorgeous view,” he says, and Jared hums back his agreement.

“Here, give me your hand,” Jensen says, pulling out bandages and antibiotic cream, but then puts them away when he spots a small aerosol can of silver plaster. Jared looks over, his expression questioning before Jensen grabs his wrist. “We need to fix up this hand so it doesn’t get infected.”

Jared shrugs and his hand lays lax in Jensen’s grip. The cuts on his palm, once cleaned off, are not as bad as Jensen first thought. The metal rebar scraped Jared’s palm and the pads of his fingers, and Jensen can still see some of the criss-cross patterns in the skin.

“Should have done this right away. You were lucky,” he says as he holds Jared’s hand up to better examine the scratches by the campfire light. “Ray told me to watch out for you. I’d hate to disappoint him. And Chad, well, he might come after me, if you don’t come back in one piece.”

Jared grunts back but he’s looking up again. Jensen pulls the skin together in spots and starts to spray the silver. Probably stings a bit but Jared doesn’t pull back, instead leaving his hand to rest across Jensen’s thigh. The antibiotic spray coats the wound, flexible and shiny in the moonlight, and Jensen wipes at the stray flecks of it on his pants.

He offers Jared a beer from the cooler but gets a wave off. Jared lays back on his bag, crossing his hands behind his head and a minute later, Jensen sets his beer aside and mirrors his pose. At night in the army, he was surrounded by noise. The other guys would talk or joke or in Chris’s case even sing. He liked having that feeling of family close around him, but this quiet settles deeper inside him.

Jared rolls up on his side, propped up on his elbow, so close that Jensen can feel his breath before he turns to look.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Jensen can’t see Jared’s eyes from this angle, just darkness where his eyes should be beneath the bangs that hang down. “How do you do this by yourself? Doesn’t it get lonely?”

“You do what you have to,” he responds. “Chad and I worked jobs together for a while, but I started working alone when my mom was getting worse. Just got used to it.”

Not being able to see Jared’s eyes makes him brave enough to ask the questions that he couldn’t in the car. “How long was she sick?”

Jared begins to play with the zipper on Jensen’s bag. “She got cancer when I was fourteen. There was treatment at first but then the chemo and drug shortages hit that year and doctors said there was nothing to do, if we couldn’t pay for it. I heard that there were hidden stashes of drugs out in Vegas. All those rich doctors and surgeons escaping LA and setting up shop for people who could afford it. Thought they could just live their lives while everyone else suffered. Feels like karma what happened in Vegas after that.”

Jensen knows that story well.

They were called out to fight throughout Zone Seven when the warlords moved in. What was supposed to be a new and better LA instead devolved into a war zone with increasingly violent incursions by different gangs and unpredictable weather blowing in from what used to be the LA basin. What was supposed to be the new LA became an empty husk. Jensen never fought in Vegas proper but heard the stories and saw the pictures. All those gorgeous buildings and homes, broken and scoured. The warlords set up shop because the army gave up on policing it and they fought amongst each other for a share of the hoards of goods and supplies left behind.

Before Jensen can respond, Jared rolls over and places his hand on Jensen’s chest; the weight and warmth of it stops his breath before Jared’s lips touch his. The first kiss is gentle and hesitant, a subtlety that Dani never had, even with all of her programming. He threads his hands through Jared’s hair and sighs as the kid’s tongue pushes in. He shifts to pull Jared on top of him, but something nags, and he tugs Jared back by his hair until Jensen can see his whole face in the moonlight.

“You don’t have to do this just because--”

“Shut up.” Jared moves in, cutting off the protest. He nestles in against Jensen’s chest, working his leg in between Jensen’s. He begins to suck on his jawline which sends a charge down Jensen’s spine, an electric current that causes Jensen’s thighs to clench about Jared’s leg. “I’m doing what I want.”

This is another story that Jensen knows well.

A bunch of young kids putting themselves on the front lines day and night, and then after the worst of it, they’d come back to tents and things would happen. No one would question. They’d look the other way, pretend to sleep or get busy doing it themselves.

Sex makes you feel alive, especially after close calls. Often times, it had nothing to do with affection. Jensen partook.

This kid is different but the need is the same. Jared’s not some soldier or a fighter but he almost killed himself today. He lives his life without a safety net. He’s reckless and everything that Jensen isn’t, but Jensen can’t help wanting him and wanting to protect him.

Jensen wraps his arm around Jared’s waist, pressing him against his side, satisfied by the soft warm pressure there. But Jared pushes away and before Jensen can protest, he gets up on his knees, yanking the white tank top over his head, making his hair stand up in a mad ruffle. Jensen laughs and that little bit of space between them seems too much so he reaches for Jared’s hips to yank him back down when suddenly Jared jumps up to shimmy out of his pants.

Oh yeah, pants, good idea, Jensen thinks. He struggles to sit up to undo his own but Jared shoves him down flat on the sleeping bag and wrestles with the opening to Jensen’s jeans before pulling the pants and underwear down himself. Jensen lets out a surprised noise that’s covered up by Jared’s lips.

Jared straddles his hips and their skin is warm where they are pressed up together. The noises Jared makes as he takes their cocks together in the palm that isn’t injured are sweet, unexpected, and real - different from the catalog of sounds that Dani pulls from when they kiss - and Jensen can’t get enough of it.

"No one is around. You can make all the noise you want." Jensen cups Jared’s face, his hair ringed with light from stars and moon, and then strokes his hair back from his face. “I want to hear all of it."

Jensen tries to sit up to capture a kiss again but Jared pushes him back once more with a broad smile, and grinds his hips down, making Jensen moan as their cocks rub together. Jared leans down for a kiss, their lips brushing before Jensen grabs the back of his neck, threading his fingers through the hair there and yanks it back. The thinnest possible space exists between their bodies in that moment.

“Don’t do that again,” Jensen says. Jared stops and looks confused. “I don’t want to lose you.” Jensen closes the gap between their lips and when they break the kiss and Jared is left breathless.

“I won’t,” he whispers. Jared fumbles on the sleeping bag for a moment for a bottle of lube into Jensen’s hand. Jensen looks down at it and laughs - the kid must have been thinking about this during the drive up.

As he pours the cold lube over his fingers, Jensen wonders if fucking strangers is something new to Jared and then remembers Jared in the shower when they first met. The cocky attitude is now hiding behind an impatient smile as he straddles Jensen and watches as he warms the slick between his fingers. The sloppy kisses start again and everytime Jensen touches his hole, Jared arches his back and makes a noise that Jensen wants to file away forever. He slides the first finger in and Jared squirms, bucking up and back as Jensen starts to pump it in and out. Jared’s chest and thighs are smooth and Jensen runs his other hand up and down them. When Jensen pulls his finger out, Jared straightens up and looks down at Jensen with wild, dark eyes.

“I want to ride you.”

Patience is not Jared’s virtue. He wraps Jensen’s cock inside his silver palm and begins to stroke, and a smile steals across his face as he watches Jensen’s face and how his mouth opens and closes while his cock fills in his fist.

Jared positions himself over the shaft, working the tip inside himself. Jared’s abs tighten as Jensen enters him without enough prep and he bites down on his lower lip to stifle a shout. Inch by inch, he sinks down and about halfway down, Jared grips Jensen’s bicep, digging his nails in the meat of his arm before sliding the rest of the way down. The sensation is so tight that when Jensen closes his eyes, he can see the shooting stars on the inside of his eyelids while Jared lifts back up to drop down again and again.

“I need this.” Jared’s eyes shine in the moonlight and Jensen isn’t sure if it’s from pleasure or pain from his expression.

“What do you need? Tell me. I’ll give it to you.”

He leans down to bite down on Jensen’s bottom lip and then lick it. “I need you.”

That’s all Jensen needs to hear before his hips lift off the ground, grinding into Jared and coming hard. As he’s trying to focus his eyes again, Jared begins to shake apart on top of him, stroking his cock until his shoulders fall forward and he comes on Jensen’s chest. A moment later, Jared throws his head back with a laugh.

“We need to do that again.”

****

He wakes with a weight on his chest. Again. This time, Jared’s arm is slung across him and his head tucked in Jensen’s neck and they are half covered by the other sleeping bag. It’s nice having a warm body next to his, someone who needs him. Things moved so fast last night, that now Jensen wants to take his time. He closes his eyes again to listen to the sound of breathing, soft and uneven, afraid to move. Somewhere nearby, a bird begins to sing.

“Good morning,” Jared says, as if he knows that Jensen is awake the whole time. .

“Morning.” Jensen kisses the top of his head, takes a moment to savor the smell. Jared is sweaty and dirty, his hair is mop of brown tangles, but he’s beautiful and Jensen tries to remember the last time he was with a real person.

Jared pushes upright and stretches his arms up, running his hands through his hair which settles into place. Jensen notices a scar that runs down the inside of Jared’s arm, a pale pink ridge that's old but before he can ask, Jared speaks up.

“We still going to Zone Seven today?” His voice is tight now as he scans the valley below them. “This is a good place to turn back. Once we cross over, we’re committed. I’ll finish the job for ya - just need to know that’s what you want.”

Jensen wants nothing more than to take Jared and go back to the city. Maybe find the kid a job that’s not dodging warlords and scrapping for weapons. Maybe hole up in a cabin up in the hills here far from the city or

But then he thinks of Dani folded up in that duffle back in the shop, and he pats his jacket pocket where her memory chip sits. He can’t just leave her like that. A heap of parts. She took care of him at his worst. He used to have trouble leaving his apartment and now, here he is, breathing clean air, thinking about having a future with a real person. Dani did that for him and she deserves more than to sit in a shop or on a scrap heap.

He kicks at the dirt in front of him before turning to Jared. “Yeah, I guess we should finish this up.”

Jared frowns and nods in agreement. “Sure, I get that. That’s what you paid me for.”

Jensen wants to say something else, but Jared has already turned away and is putting a little extra muscle into rolling the sleeping bags and stuffing them into their little bags.

They continue to pack the car in silence. Jensen goes into the trunk and digs out the Sig Sauer gun out of his duffle, turning over the piece to check if it loaded and the safety’s on. He has the compact model, which is smaller than the piece that he carried in the army, but it’s still heavy at a pound and a half. He puts on a shoulder holster over his clean black t-shirt and tucks the blocky gun inside before putting his jacket back on.

Jared joins him at the trunk. In addition to the gun he carries, Jared pulls out a hunting knife and straps its leather holder to his belt so its blade taps him on the thigh as he walks.

Not until they’re armed and ready do they climb back in the car and head out.

Jared downshifts as they approach a large red and white sign and the highway narrows down to one lane. The Challenger rolls to a stop on the gravel shoulder underneath the sign, and when the engine is turned off, the silence is complete.

CAUTION: ZONE SEVEN AHEAD

Jared squints through the windshield at the sign and begins another dance of his fingers across the steering wheel. “It’s put up or shut up time.”

There's an energy around the kid and Jensen recognizes it - the excitement and nerves before going into battle. He glances up at the sign. During the war, he fought mainly in the north end of the zone, when rebels tried to cut off water supplies to the city before that last mission led them south.

Zone Seven was not something he wanted to think about. The desert here was unforgiving; the weather infinitely changeable. If you made a mistake, it could be your last one. He knows that better than anyone.

“If you’re sitting next to me for this part, I need to know I can count on you.” Jared’s voice is a little higher than it’s been and Jensen turns his eyes back to the tracker again. The kid’s black leather sleeves are pushed up and Jensen eyes the scar he saw last night. “How many runs have you made across here to Zone Seven?”

Jared shrugs and his hair dangles in his face. The gesture reminds Jensen again of a kid too young to be out here in the Wastelands.

“Eight. Nine, now. Gotten into a few scrapes but always got out of ‘em by myself,” he says, defensive against a question Jensen hasn't asked yet.

The wind blows a tumbleweed across the road in front of them, and Jensen thinks of old Western movies that come on the free stations late at night when he can’t sleep. Jared settles back against the driver's seat and looks Jensen up and down. “What about you?”

Jensen licks his lips and looks away from Jared’s open curiosity. Despite what happened last night, the details of his past in the army aren’t open for discussion.

Jared continues to look at him and Jensen shrugs and turns to study the swirls of never-ending dust outside his window. Some kind of lizard big enough to be seen runs across the gravel, its stick-like legs flailing out to the side as it sprints to follow the tumbleweed’s path and then darts out to hide beneath the next rock.

Jared gives a dramatic sigh. “Fine. You don't pay me to talk.”

He pops the CD into the dash and flicks the key in the ignition. The car revs before Jared throws it in gear. He tears past the sign in a cloud of dust.

***

As they head south, swathes of the sand in Zone Seven look grey but in spots, it turns almost black, like the dust dragons licked across the salt and sprayed the dust with their flames. The smell changes here too, and they keep their windows rolled up as the earthiness of dirt fields and the tang of pine are replaced by pockets of stink that hang in the air like a slaughterhouse. His sergeant, JD, used to say it smelled like God was sitting back and blowing cigar smoke rings after a job well done fucking up the Earth.

Even before the war, this stretch of land in the middle of the state was scorched earth. Weapons testing and military bases where the government did gods know what.

The hours roll by as they go deeper into Seven.

A blast of sand hits their windshield and draws Jensen’s attention back to the driver inside the car. The skin around Jared’s eyes is tight as he squints out at the dashboard. “You okay? Want me to drive?”

The tracker snorts and gives the car more gas. “No way. These back roads disappear when the winds kick in. Don’t need some amateur driving my car in that.”

Jensen looks out the window again. “I’ve driven in worse.”

“You say that stuff, but then you never tell me—“

The blowout sounds like a pop gun being fired and Jared swerves to keep them from crashing into some nearby yucca plants. “Fuck, hold on.”

He manhandles the wheel of the Challenger and pulls them off onto a flat area, huffing out a breath as he turns off the engine. Now that it’s quiet, Jensen can hear the sand storm outside, hissing like a snake as it hits the glass, and bile fills his stomach because this can’t be happening again.

“Well, not gonna just sit here,” Jared says, and before Jensen can answer, Jared is out of the car. He swallows hard against the need to be sick and jumps out after him.

“Jared, get back in the car. Right now!”

Jared’s hair is swirling in the changing wind, the dark strands already turning light from the blowing sand, and he ignores Jensen’s call - if he can hear it at all. He opens the trunk, digging out the jack, and Jensen’s nerves have lit up like the fuse to a stick of dynamite.

As he walks back, he looks at the blown out tire, and crouches down. There’s no tell-tale hole out the side of the whitewall, no weak spot in the rubber. His fingers run along the hot rubber before touching the large metal butterfly spike still embedded in the front tire.

“Jared—“ he yells as he stands back up but his words are eaten by the wind’s crescendo.

A dark shadow emerges from the storm behind Jared as he shuts the trunk.

Demons, Jensen thinks. His feet are frozen in place. Like a djinn that spins out of the wind and swallows up the things that Jensen cares about, and it’s back again.

“Jared!”

He breaks out of his paralysis and starts to move as Jared winces and grabs at the side of his neck. The man-shaped shadow gets closer, and another appears behind it, as Jared finds the dart stuck in his neck and crumples forward into Jensen, spinning them both around. His arms are full when he feels the sting of pain in his own neck and crumples to the side, still holding Jared, and everything goes black.

***

When Jensen comes to, the first thing he feels is damp. His body senses it; it fills his nostrils and sits on his skin, and he thinks of the workout room at his building, a crowded basement room filled with sweating bodies on old bikes and worn rubber mats. But when he breathes this in, the smell is clean with a whiff of desert and dust underneath.

His eyes flutter open and he is looking at a woman with sun-streaked brown hair and concerned eye wrinkles. He knows this face.

Samantha Ferris.

His old lieutenant.

“He’s awake,” she yells over her shoulder and Jensen hears footsteps across the stone and pushes himself up into a sitting position.

A pool stretches out in front of him, kidney shaped and aqua colored, surrounded by tiki torches, and he blinks his eyes because this must be a dream. There is no way that the XO from his army unit is here taking care of him next to a goddamn swimming pool in the desert.

She lifts her hand to touch his brow and Jensen pulls back. Her eyes and mouth set tight in disappointment, and she drops her hand. “It’s good to see you, Jensen.”

“How are you here?” he asks, looking around. The pool is surrounded by flagstone and a few lounge chairs, and a ring of tiki-style torches. There is a pool house or bar structure on the other side that’s closed up, and behind all of this is a huge glass and stucco structure with a stream of water that runs out of the house along a channel through the double doors and spills into the pool in a waterfall. Too big to be a house. It must have been a resort in the before.

“Where am I?”

Samantha opens her mouth to answer but steps come up from behind him.

“How do you like my place?” Jensen could never forget the rumble of that voice - it woke him up enough at sunrise during his time in the army. He turns to stare at the large hand extended to him and whispers, “This isn’t possible.”

His old captain.

JD Morgan.

Broad shoulders, big smile and white teeth, and very much alive.

A calloused hand circles his forearm and yanks him upright. “Boy, it is good to see you again.” Jensen finds himself wrapped tight in a hug and swamped by a world of memories, and he falls into the hold, just like he did when he was eighteen and joined up.

His brain is going into overload because finding JD and Samantha here in Zone Seven makes no sense at all.

The hug ends and he stares into dark brown eyes that are wet with affection, and the years fall away like they were nothing, and he is that young recruit, his uniform unmarked by dust or decoration or death. The guy who trusted this man completely.

JD died. That was the official story. He was missing in action after one of the warlord skirmishes out in the high desert. The two soldiers with him were dead, left behind by the vehicle that was gutted for parts and electronics, and there was so much blood. No way JD didn’t die that day.

Jensen looks around at the house and the palm trees and the pool and shakes his head. There is a swimming pool in the middle of the desert. He must have knocked his head when he and Jared--

“Son, it is so good to see you.” JD interrupts his thoughts and cups Jensen’s face between two big palms, and he can’t help but smile back. “Come inside, you must be starving.”

He waves to Samantha to join them and then takes Jensen by the elbow to steer him towards the house.

Calling this structure a house is like calling a blue whale a fish. The enormous flagstone deck wraps around the large kidney shaped pool and then spills through multiple sliding glass doors into the interior of the house. Three stories of modern glass windows look over the pool and into the desert valley beyond where it flattens out into sand and salt. On the valley floor, Jensen can see tall buildings lined up in a strip with windows that reflect back bits of the sun. There is a spray of smaller buildings and homes that radiates out from the strip, and at one end, he can see the remains of airport runways, their straight lines still visible under the shifting sand. There’s no movement below that he can see. The city isn’t alive like San Francisco; it’s just a collection of abandoned glittering husks. The heart of the Wastelands: Vegas.

He and Jared were only about an hour outside of Vegas when they were ambushed.

“Wait. What happened to Jared? The guy I was with?”

Even under the beard, he can see JD’s mouth tighten and Jensen can’t breathe. This can’t be happening again. His chest tightens as he thinks back to those last moments when Jared was brought down with the same kind of dart used on Jensen. If he survived whatever happened, then maybe Jared did too.

“Is he here?”

JD lets go of Jensen’s arm and walks ahead into the house and nods to two guys waiting by the glass sliders. Dressed in matching desert camo pants and tan t-shirts, leather gun holsters around their shoulder with weapons tucked in and ready to use, Jensen knows that these are JD’s men.

“The tracker’s fine,” JD says over his shoulder. “Not that he deserves it.”

“What?” Jensen shakes his head. “Where--”

“It’s a long story. Why don’t we enjoy our lunch first?”

JD continues in without looking back again, and Jensen falls in line behind him. Jared is fine. JD and Samantha are here. He should be able to relax, but his nerves feel on fire at the wrongness of what happened on that dirt road outside of Vegas.

The inside of the house is expansive, with the curved ceiling of the living room arching three stories up, with lots of teak wood and flat cushions. The polished flagstone of the floor climbs the wall to surround an enormous fireplace that takes up one end of the great room.

JD doesn’t wait for him and moves to a wooden dining room table set for seven. He pulls out the seat at the head of the table and gestures for Jensen to sit to his right. The food set out on a few platters in the center is nothing special, sliced meat for sandwiches, some kind of potato salad, and sliced tomatoes.

Surreal is what Jensen thinks, staring at those juicy slices of red and compares it in his mind to the blue pool out in the yard.

“Sam grows the tomatoes in a greenhouse off the kitchen.” He looks up at Samantha, whose hand rests on JD’s shoulder and it clicks for Jensen. The two were close as CO and XO but now he sees the casual affection between them.

“So, tell me, boy,” JD says as he pulls a sandwich on his plate. “What the hell you doing with a tracker in the middle of Zone Seven? Last I heard, you were living in the city.”

“How did you hear that?”

JD strokes a hand through his beard. “I keep an eye on all my soldiers.” He raises his eyebrows and Jensen feels the need to go on.

“It’s my bot. I need to replace it.”

JD’s eyebrows climb a little higher at that and he glances at Samantha and waits for Jensen to continue.

Jensen blushes and look down at his plate. “It’s an older model - a Dani 2000 - and they don’t make parts anymore.”

“Let me get this right. You hired a tracker and came all the way out to Zone Seven to find yourself a new sex bot?” JD’s guffaws make Jensen want to crawl under the table. “That’s what I call devotion.”

JD motions for one of his men to come over and whispers in his ear. They exchange nods and then he goes back to his lunch.

“But good for you,” he says, as he digs into the sandwich. “You must be doing well for yourself.”

“This is great, ma’am,” Jensen says as Samantha sits down to join them. Chris called her a tough bitch, in the best possible way, and Jensen enjoyed working with her because Samantha liked rules and Jensen liked to follow them.

“How did this happen?” he waves at the room and the beautiful furnishings around them.

Samantha fills a water glass for him and smiles. “Well, that’s kind of complicated.”

Jensen looks down at the food on his plate but the thought of taking a bite turns his stomach. All the activity of the last three years - leaving the army, taking classes, getting a normal desk job, buying a sex bot - was designed to fill a hole that started with JD’s disappearance and Chris’s death. To find out that his commanding officer is not only alive but a criminal is too much.

He turns to face JD and the fondness in those brown eyes almost does him in before he can say a word.

“What happened to you? We thought you were dead.”

JD leans back in his chair and runs a hand down his beard. “I was captured.”

“We thought you were dead. The transport was blown to bits. Tom and Mike were dead.” Jensen squeezes his eyes shut and can see a trail of blood led from the road to some surrounding rocks. They never found a body and assumed the coyotes or the warlords took it. “Captured? By who?”

“The Kingsnake.”

“Wait, what?”

“Original Kingsnake. Guy was one of the criminals attacking convoys in that area. His men set a trap that killed Welling and Rosenbaum and wounded me. Tried to drag myself away but his men found me. The insignia on my uniform got their attention and they took me back, along with all the tech that they could scavenge from the command truck.”

Jensen shakes his head, tries to get past the image of his two dead friends to get his arms around what JD is saying. “Why? Why would they save you?”

“Who knows for sure,” JD says and shrugs. “Maybe the old man thought I knew more about the army’s plans for Zone Seven, that I could help defend against the incursions. When they figured out that I didn’t know much about units outside my own, I thought they’d kill me. But I got lucky - the old bastard liked me.”

Jensen sees one of the guys on the wall glance over at the other one. He doesn’t recognize either of them from JD’s former unit, but they carry themselves like ex-military, and wonders if they were part of the old Kingsnake’s gang.

“Big Tommy and I got to talking and turns out that we weren’t that much different. He was in the military once upon a time. When you get down to it, it’s all about order. Zone Seven is like the wild west, boy, and it needs a good sheriff in charge.”

“Fighting fire with fire is what we’ve been doing,” Samantha speaks up. “And it’s made a difference here.”

News from Zone Seven has been quiet over the last few years, and he wonders how much of that has been due to JD. Then he thinks about the ambush on the road and how Jared was taken down, just like Chris.

“So, while you were out playing sheriff or cowboy or whatever with your new friends, the guys in your old unit were dying. Chris died in an ambush like the one that hit me and Jared.”

“I’m sorry about what happened to Chris but I had nothing to do with that.” JD shakes a finger at Jensen, and then pops a tomato in his mouth, juicy and red and it turns Jensen’s stomach. “Problem is there are always new punks trying to move in and we’ve got to protect ourselves. I’ve lost some good men myself recently. When you’re short on men, you have to take shortcuts.”

“So, that’s what you call setting a trap on the road and capturing two innocent people who are minding their own business - a shortcut?” Jensen’s voice rises and it suddenly became imperative to know where Jared is so he looks at Samantha. “Where’s Jared?”

“Don’t be fooled, Jensen, because this one’s helping you and has a sweet face. There’s nothing innocent about those trackers,” JD drawls. “They’re nothing but thieves, disrupting the system. You steal from us; you pay the price. And you two were planning to steal from us.”

JD signals to the two guys on the wall, who suddenly pull up to attention and leave the room. The absence of the goons and JD’s tone doesn’t bode well, and Jensen turns to Samantha for some indication of what’s happening but she sits quietly with her eyes down.

Jensen turns back to JD and swallows down his anger about Jared. “JD, if I knew you were alive after that ambush, I would have done anything to find you. You have to know that.”

 

JD pulls himself out of his chair, to stand up tall over Jensen, and the fond look from before is back. He pats Jensen on the shoulder. “I know. That’s why you’re not dead.”

“Jeff, I don’t think--” Samantha starts but he waves her off and walks over to the middle of the great room, looking out at the view.

The two guards walk back in from outside, dragging Jared between them, and Jensen jumps up but JD holds him back, blocking him with an arm across the torso.

Jared’s hands are cuffed in front of him and his ankles are shackled together, and the chain clinks as he walks. His eyes meet Jensen’s before they fall to JD’s hand where it sits now on Jensen’s stomach, and his brows crinkle in confusion. “Jensen?”

“You okay?” Jensen asks.

“I’m fine, other than being manhandled by these assholes.” Jared tries to yank away but the guards get a firm grip on his biceps. He looks back at JD who still hasn’t dropped his arm. “You know these people?”

“I--” He pushes past JD to stand in front of Jared. “Jared, this is my commanding officer from the army. JD, you gotta let him out of those--”

“Not gonna happen, Jensen. I need to make an example out of people who steal from me.”

“An example?” Jensen says. “He’s just a kid--”

“Where’s my car?” Jared interrupts. The kid is more concerned about his Dad’s car than his own self-preservation, and Jensen knows this whole situation is going to go downhill fast if Jared doesn’t shut.

“Jared, I’ll handle this.”

“Shut up, Jensen,” JD says, and one of the guards shifts to put his hand on the gun in his holster, with a smile that says shooting Jensen would make his day.

Jensen’s shoulders fall. He was hoping that he could talk their way out of this and walk out the door, head back to California without giving Vegas another look, but that’s not happening. The JD he knew and loved is gone.

JD turns to Jared with a smile that’s lost all the fondness he showed for Jensen. He looks him up and down, and Jared stares right back.

“So, you’re one of those desert rats who keep stealing my stuff.”

Jared lets out a snort and clenches his fingers under the cuffs. Jensen already knows that whatever JD was hoping for - an apology, a confession - he isn’t going to get it from Jared.

“Your car’s pretty sweet and you’re friends with Jensen. At least you got good taste, kid.”

JD’s smile is all teeth now and he pats the top of Jared’s head. Jared tries to duck away but the Kingsnake lives up to his name and strikes. The blow knocks Jared flat to the floor and Jensen tries to jump in, but this time Samantha is the one to hold him back.

When Jared pushes himself upright, Jensen can see the cut bleeding down his cheek. JD grabs Jared’s hair to yank him upright. “Think I’ll keep the car and Jensen. You, on the other hand, are expendable.”

JD drags Jared along the floor, unconcerned about the hurt noises the kid is making behind him. He slips a knife from the holster on his belt. “Last tracker got away from me. That won’t happen again.”

“Wait, wait.” Jensen starts forward, hands up towards JD, heart pounding. “You said you were short men out here, right?”

JD looks patiently at Jensen but the knife still hangs from his hand, inches from Jared’s throat.

“What if,” he starts, licking his lips, “what if I could vouch for him? What if both of us joined you?”

The pain and fear on Jared’s face twists into something else, and Jensen catches his eye for a moment before looking back up at JD.

“And why would I want to do that?” JD reseats his grip on Jared’s hair.

“He’s smart and can handle himself. I’ve never seen anyone drive like he can. I could train him.”

“I doubt that.” JD’s laugh rumbles out of his beard, as he looks at Jensen’s face. “Really? And you would stay? Leave that cushy life in the city, leave your little sex bot for this kid? Wow, you got it bad, boy.”

He tosses Jared to the floor. Jared pushes himself upright again and turns to face JD. “I would never—”

This time the big metal ring on JD’s right hand catches Jared’s cheek and when Jared goes down, he doesn’t get up. “Jensen here is vouching for you and you still can’t shut up?”

The room quiets except for Jared’s ragged breathing, and JD seems to have lost his energy.

“Sam, why don’t you put him in the pool bar until I decide what to do.”

She nods, her face pale, and indicates for the two guards to help her. Her eyes briefly meet Jensen’s as she walks away. They pick up Jared by the arms and drag him outside. Jensen moves to follow, but JD stops him.

“Jensen, sorry you had to see that. If you’re really going to stay, we should celebrate.” JD pulls Jensen in under his arm and Jensen grits his teeth at the hug and forces a smile on his face. “Damn, I’ve missed you, boy. I got a good feeling about this.”

***

After a few beers together, JD gets a call from one of his guys down on the valley floor about an altercation and leaves Jensen to settle into a spare bedroom. He hasn’t seen Samantha again and wanders outside, spotting her through the open shutters of the bar.

“It looks worse than it is,” she says, not even turning as he walks up behind her. The cut on Jared’s forehead is still bleeding as she dabs at it with a soft cloth where it is still running red into his eyebrows. Jared’s wrists are handcuffed to the brass bar rail above his head and his chin has dropped to his chest.

“What happened? He was all right when they took him out.”

He hunkers down side by side with Samantha and grabs Jared’s chin and lays his fingers against the pulse point in his neck. Jared’s non-responsive but the beat is strong. He runs a finger along the silver bandage on Jared’s palm and wrist and thinks about that night under the stars.

“He’ll be fine.”

“This is no place to keep him. We could move him to my room—“

Samantha's look over her shoulder stops him. “That’s not gonna happen, Jensen. JD doesn’t like ‘em in the house. Out here, the boys can keep an eye on him.”

“Them? So JD’s kept a lot of people locked up in his pool bar?” Jensen tries to play it calmly. “Do you hear how crazy that sounds, Lieutenant?”

“Don’t call me that. Not that anymore.” She wipes her hands on a towel and throws it on the bar. “You don’t get to tell us about crazy. We deal with it everyday. Out here in the desert, you have to fight crazy with crazy.”

She’s shorter than Jensen but that’s never stopped her from intimidating the hell out of him.

“What the hell happened here, Samantha? Last time I saw you, we were sending out search parties to find JD. Now, he’s holed up outside of Vegas in this fucking palace, running things.”

“The trackers are nothing but scum, no different than the other criminals that come through these parts,” she says, her mouth tight. “Jeff is bringing order to this messed-up part of the world. He’s the only one who is strong enough to make a difference.”

Jensen stands up and looks at the big house and the kidney-shaped pool before he looks back down at the beat-up kid at his feet. “So, killing kids. Is that part of keeping order?”

She colors when he looks up. “It’s not like that and he’s not a kid, Jensen, no matter what you think. These people are stealing stuff, hurting people.”

“Jared’s never hurt anyone,” he says. It’s something he feels more than knows, a gut instinct, but he’ll say whatever he needs to win her over. “C’mon, Samantha. He started coming out here when he was fourteen to find medicine for his dying mom. Jared’s no threat. Just a kid on the fringe trying to make a life.”

“Jensen.” Jared’s voice is soft and slurred and Jensen drops beside him again.

“You okay?”

Jared smacks his chapped lips together. “Thirsty.”

Before Jensen can stand up, Samantha is filling a glass and putting a straw in. “Here, make him use the straw so he doesn’t choke.”

“Here you go.” Jensen gets close and places the straw on Jared’s lip, watching him take a few sips.

“She gave me something,” Jared says and tries to glare past Jensen at Samantha, but his head starts to loll and Jensen catches it between his palms. Now the look is turned towards him. “These assholes are your friends?”

Jensen sighs and nods. “From the army. Let me talk to JD and get this straightened out—“

“Kingsnake.”

“What?”

“Your friend. ‘s the Kingsnake.” Jared slurs. “Man, you need a better class of friends.” His eyes droop but the pulse under Jensen’s thumb is strong so he lets Jared’s head fall to rest on his chest.

“It’s just a little something to take the edge off,” Samantha says behind him.

“Right.” He studies the cuts on Jared’s face and notices more on his knuckles and arms, before seeing that his feet are bare. “Where are his shoes?”

“Not getting anywhere in this desert without ‘em.”

He nods. Samantha is the same after all these years, strong and sure, and he wonders what he missed before that she could be involved in all of this. He brushes Jared’s hair off his forehead before standing up.

“The desert must be making you crazy, Samantha, to give someone with a potential concussion a bunch of painkillers.”

She crosses her arms across her chest. “The boy needs to stay quiet. JD’s already upset enough with the last tracker who escaped with one of his cars—“

He laughs bitterly. This is all Chad’s fault. It’s too much, and he walks out to the pool’s edge, tikis torches lined up as if for a party, and the reflection of the two-story windows looking down at the valley. It’s nice here, peaceful, but it comes at such a cost. Samantha’s footsteps come up from behind him.

“Outside the cities and the cushy life you live, Jensen, it’s a mess out here, full of criminals and murderers. Some of these guys would kill you for a tank of gas. The old man was trying to organize some of the people out here to fight back and JD saw how he could make a difference doing the the same thing. It’s not perfect, but we’re making a difference.”

She said that before, making a difference.

“This is Big Tommy’s house, isn’t it? Where is he now?”

“Died about four years back from cancer.”

Suddenly, Jared’s comments about drugs being hoarded out in the Wastelands made sense. All those runs out here and he still couldn’t save his mother. Big Tommy protecting his stash with violence and that still didn’t help him to survive.

“Samantha, you know this isn’t right--”

One of the guards slides out of the big doors then, his hand on the gun in his belt, before she can answer Jensen. “JD says he needs you on something. Right now.”

Samantha nods and walks back in. Jensen starts to go back in to check Jared, but the guard gives him the signal to follow inside and locks the doors behind them.

***

Dinner was tedious and full of stories about old Big Tommy and some of the other warlords up and down what used to be called Nevada. Vegas, in particular, was built with the help of criminals so it wasn’t surprising that the foundation of becoming the new Los Angeles with all of the rich refugees making their way here would crumble under corruption. People like Big Tommy were just there to pick up the pieces.

Now, JD plans to rule the valley in the same way. Same message of discipline and law, just from the other side of the fence.

Jensen tried to bring up Jared again, but JD brushed him off to talk about where Jensen could fit into the organization, taking over some of Samantha’s duties. He waited until everyone was asleep and the house was dark before walking back downstairs and into the great room. He waits, expecting a patrol of some sort, and when it doesn’t materialize, he steps outside, an extra pair of shoes he found in the spare bedroom dangling from his fingers.

The pool area is lit up brightly, and it diminishes the stars’ brightness above. Jensen thinks of the night before this. It feels like weeks ago, when the sky above them in the mountains sparkled like diamonds above Jared’s head.

A sound from inside the pool bar interrupts his thoughts and Jensen walks over, glancing around the pool for any guards he missed. A single flood light shines over the bar but its shutters are pulled down. Jensen guesses the locks were originally installed to keep guests out of the inventory of alcohol, not to lock one of them inside.

Inside, he can hear the deep murmur of a man’s voice and the sounds of a muffled struggle. He rattles the small side door but it seems to be locked from the inside.

“Stay still, you little bitch.”

“I’ll bite it off, I swear—“

Jared. When he hears more grunts and the sound of breaking glass, he steps back and throws all of his weight into kicking down the door.

It opens with a pop as the thin wood around the lock splinters. Jared looks the same - blood running down from the cut on his forehead, sitting on the floor at the end of the bar, his wrists handcuffed to the brass rail above - but now the guard from early is standing over him and a bottle of rum is broken on the floor, filling the room with the sickly sweet smell.

“What the fuck?” The guard’s pants are open and sag down past his thin hips. Despite the interruption, he has a hard grip on Jared’s jawline and his thumb is pushing its way inside Jared’s mouth, forcing it open for the pasty cock hanging out of his pants. “Get your own, asshole.”

Just like the army, Jensen thinks. Jackasses who think people are there to use, that they deserve to take what they want. You can’t get away from em. The punch he throws catches the other guy by surprise, and he starts to fall backward, his pants a tangled mess, but Jensen catches his arm to land another punch to the side of his head that knocks him out. He drags the guy away from Jared and lets him fall to the floor in the spilled rum. A quick search of his pockets turns up the keys to the handcuffs.

“Whoa.” Jared’s eyes look a little wild as he checks out the fallen guard and Jensen gets to work on the cuffs. “You knocked him out. Good.”

Jensen gets the first one open and Jared’s arm drops into his lap. After so long in that position, pins and needles must be running through his hands and forearms. The second one sticks a bit but finally pops open.

“You okay?” Jensen touches the gash on Jared’s forehead. It could use stitches and a bandage to stop the bleeding but at least he seems alright. His wrists seem the worst, bruised dark red where the metal was digging in. His eyes drop to the torn t-shirt before looking into Jared’s.

“Thank you,” Jared says, blushing in a way that says he doesn’t use those words much.

Jensen wants to ask more questions, to tell Jared that it’s gonna be fine, but they don’t have any time. Someone may already be on the way.

“We need to go,” Jensen says and Jared nods back. Before he can stand up, Jensen pulls him in for a forehead kiss. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

Jared laughs and Jensen feels relief. He may be hurt now but he’ll be okay when this is over. Jared leans on him a bit when he first stands up, and Jensen is there to catch him before he steps on the broken glass. “Watch out.”

As they step out of the claustrophobic little room, Jensen stops to take a deep breath and figure out their next steps. With Jared’s injury, they aren’t walking out of the desert. Chad said something about a garage nearby--

“There’s another storm coming tonight,” says the voice behind them and Jensen freezes in place. Samantha walks around them and stops in front of them. Her hair is already blowing around her face in the gusts coming off the valley floor, and Jensen knows she’s right. They need to get out now before the winds pick up.

“Sam, that bastard deserved it--”

“You’re right. He did.”

Jensen stops at that and adjust his grip on Jared’s waist.

“You’re also right about something else you said earlier.” She gestures at Jared. “This kid doesn’t deserve to die. I love JD, always will, but his pride is getting in the way of the mission and things are going too far in some cases.”

Jensen looks back over at the house. The lights are low and the sliding doors to the living room are open, but there’s no motion inside. When he looks back at Samantha, she is standing with her hands on her hips.

“So, I guess you better get going before anyone sees you.”

“Won’t you get in trouble?”

“Have you ever known me to back down from trouble?” she says it with a smile and Jensen can’t help but smile back, the first real smile he’s had since he got here.

“We could use your help with one other thing.”

She cocks her eyebrow at him. “Now you’re pushing your luck.”

There’s no camera and no alarm on the big garage at the front of the house, only a guy walking up and down the driveway with an automatic weapon. They watch from the shadows as the guy heads back to the other end before dodging inside the side door.

The line of classic cars is impressive. A restored Shelby Mustang, blue with a white racing stripe, sits next to a silver Chevelle SS. Whoever collected these had a fine appreciation for horsepower which makes sense in the Wastelands where speed is more important than luxury, although as Jensen runs a hand over a pristine wine-colored Camaro, he wonders how often they get to open up the throttle and run.

“Found her.” Jared is at the far side and waves him over to where his Challenger sits, less pristine but more loved than any of the others. “Keys are in it.”

Jensen looks at the small windows in the garage and sees the guard with the gun held loosely in his hands walking back towards them. He holds his breath as Samantha comes out and speaks urgently with him. The guard doesn’t hesitate to follow her back inside, ostensibly to check out the empty pool bar and missing prisoner, and they have their opening. Jensen counts to five before lifting the paneled door in front of Jared’s ride. By the time he turns back to the car, Jared is already in the driver’s seat starting her up.

“Get out of there. You can’t drive.”

“You’re wasting time. Climb in.”

There’s nothing Jensen can do but jump in the passenger side and Jared accelerates out onto the driveway and then takes off down the hill.

****

His heart is racing as they make they’re way down the dark hillside. Jared didn’t want to turn on the lights yet, giving away their position to JD’s men. It’s smart but slower going than he would like. There’s still no lights behind them after fifteen minutes and Jensen blows out a breath.

“Who knew,” Jared says. He corrects the car as it approaches a curve in the dark and gusts of dust and wind try to push them off into the gravel along the shoulder. He pulls them back on the road.

“What?”

“That the Kingsnake’s old lady would be the one to let us go,” Jared says. Before Jensen can reply, the dust storm starts to hit them and small stones are ticking off the glass. Jared keeps driving for a few minutes, but he soon needs to pull over because they can’t see a thing out the front window.

“Good news is we got a head start on those bastards. They’re not going anywhere in this either.”

Jensen is looking out the windows because it’s never a good thing to get stuck in the open during a storm. The sand is going scour the paint off the Challenger and there’s nothing to deflect the gravel that’s hitting the windshield. Can’t move forward and we can’t go back, Jensen thinks.

“Hey, where’d the first aid kit go?” he says and roots around in the footwell behind Jared’s seat to come up with the white metal box with a red cross on it. He douses what he thinks is a clean towel with dregs from the water bottle, but when he makes a move for Jared’s face, Jared pulls back, confused.

“You need something for that big cut on your cheek.”

Jared reaches a finger up tentatively to touch the spot Jensen pointed to and winces when he touches it and pulls it back bloody. “When did that happen?”

“You don’t remember?” Jensen blots at Jared’s wound and gets even angrier at JD for that punch to Jared’s head.

Jared is tense at first but relaxes as Jensen holds his jaw in place and moves down to clean off the rest of the scratches on his face. He runs his thumb along Jared’s cheekbone and gets lost in the green and yellow fleck in the blue of his eyes. He wants to kiss him then remembers the guard holding Jared’s mouth open and it makes him sick to his stomach.

“You okay?” Jared asks and Jensen turns back to search through the tape and band-aids in the kit. “You don’t look so good.”

“You worrying about me is kinda funny,” he says and Jared looks confused again as Jensen wraps one of his wrists in gauze. “You’re the one who took all those hits and then that guy--” He stops, unable to finish his thought and the bandage.

A particularly hard gust of wind rocks the Challenger back and forth and he grabs Jared’s arm as the car settles down. Before he can start to wrap it again, Jared swoops in for a kiss, catching Jensen by surprise and pushing him back into the headrest as he licks into his mouth. He digs his nails into Jared’s arm and Jared grabs Jensen’s bicep with a moan, the gauze fluttering off his arm. The kiss is sloppy and aggressive, but it feels alive, something that Jensen hasn’t felt in a long time, no matter how many nights Dani was at his side.

When Jared does stop, he is panting hard and the sound is loud inside the dark car. “Thank you.”

Jared’s long fingers are already trying to find their way up under Jensen’s t-shirt, and Jensen shudders when he finds skin. Bucket seats and that damn console between them are Jensen’s enemy right now and he leans across to nuzzles into Jared’s neck, sucking the skin underneath his ear. He whispers into Jared’s ear. “Tell me. What are you thankful for?”

The way Jared is shaking Jensen wonders if he might either climb over into his seat or shake apart and come from his words alone, and that makes Jensen even harder. Jared’s head is tilted back, his long throat exposed and his pink lips are open, filling the car with noise. Jensen has one hand on Jared’s chest, feeling the heat and the heartbeat underneath, and he thinks Alive. This is what it feels like to be alive. The way Jared grips and releases Jensen’s shoulder with his free hand is part of a wave of motion, building in its intensity, but then it suddenly ebbs back out and Jared is looking at him with a light burning behind his eyes.

“I would do anything for you. You saved my life.” Jensen stops and waits for the second part of the tease, a snarky comment, but Jared’s sincerity is sharp like a hook and it sinks deep into his heart to tug at him. “Anything,” Jared repeats.

“You don’t owe me.”

Jared moves in again and whispers, “But I do. Let me show you”, against Jensen’s lips and it stops him cold. He squirms off to the side.

“No, you don’t.” He tries to read Jared’s eyes but it’s dark and they are crushed together. “I don’t want your gratitude.”

It’s awkward, the sound of that silence. He’s used to Jared being in his space, the heat and the sloppy energy, and when he pulls away, the space between them feels so empty.

“Is that what you think this is? What I feel for you? Obligation.” That last word is spat out as Jared settles back into his seat.

“I want to be sure this is what you want,” Jensen says but he can tell that Jared’s done with this conversation, the kid’s emotions moving as quickly as the storm around them.

“I don’t want anything,” Jared looks out the windshield and nods ahead of them. The storm has died down and the valley floor below is turning a sandy pink from the dawn. “Eye of the storm. We got some time so let’s put some miles behind us.”

He twists the keys in the ignition and revs the engine a few times, blowing out any sand that might be clogging up the intake or the valves. After the howl of the storm, the noise is sharp and wakes Jensen out of his thoughts. They’ll head home and he’ll have time to think about the two of them and his life. That’s what he needs: time.

Jared pops the car into gear and drives off the shoulder down onto the flat sand that stretches miles around them. Jensen doesn’t know or care if Jared takes the north or south route, as long as they get out of Zone Seven and away from JD and his men. Instead, the Challenger takes off doing eighty miles an hour towards the tall buildings rising up from the desert floor. They’re heading towards Vegas.

***

Jensen waits. Jared is focused on the road, or lack of a road, and twists the wheel back and forth like they’re running an obstacle course. Glancing behind them, Jensen doesn’t see any chase cars from JD yet. Either he doesn’t know they’re gone or he doesn’t care. Based on what Jensen heard at dinner last night, it isn’t the second one.

“Should we be heading south?” he says, hanging onto the door handle as Jared avoids a cactus. “Isn’t that the fastest route?”

Jared glances at him. Despite the same bandage over his eye, this is not the same kid that kissed him in the storm. “Not gonna find a Dani 2000 that direction.”

The bot. Dani. He forgot all about her and for a minute, he feels guilty. Dani was good to him and he hasn’t thought about her at all. The next minute he feels confused and angry.

“We made an enemy out of a warlord who wants to kill you, we’re on the run for our lives, and you want to stop to pick up the bot?”

“That’s what you’re paying me for,” Jared says to the windshield in front of him. “I know how much she means to you.”

“Jared, we need to get out of this valley and away from Zone Seven.”

The hum of the engine is the only answer he gets. Jared’s eating up good time under his wheels, his eyes flicking over the hood and out to the wall of wind and sand that hangs a few miles away. Second half of the sandstorm will be hitting any time and it looks like a big one.

“Jared,” he says, this time tapping his arm. “We leave Dani behind and get out of here.”

“No,” Jared replies. He turns the car towards the south end of what used to be the Strip and guns it to jump the curb and climb up on the road. “I got the shit beat out of me for this job. I’m gonna finish it.”

They careen down the road and Jensen looks around. He hasn’t been in Vegas since he was part of JD’s company. Several buildings were bombed and chunks of concrete and rebar lie along the sides of the road. The neon signs that lit up the nighttime are smashed, whether from vandals or skirmishes between factions, it’s impossible to know. Many of the taller buildings are still there, but many of their windows are dulled or broken from the ongoing storm that starting sweeping the desert after LA was bombed.

A roar makes Jensen look up to see the storm start to hit the north end of the Strip moving towards them.

“Jared, c’mon. Let’s find a spot and hole up.”

“We’re almost there.”

For every block that the Challenger covers from the south, the storm moves in from the north. Jensen bites his bottom lip as he watches and waits. Jared is dodging debris but it feels like they are flying but he seems to have a specific destination in mind.

The storm is only two blocks away when Jared swerves into what was the valet parking for The Golden Nugget. It was one of the older hotels on the Strip, not fully renovated yet before Vegas started to fall apart around it. Jensen swears he feels the car rock up on two wheels as they squeal into the parking garage. Outside, the sand and larger debris begin to pelt the building and blows bit and pieces down the ramp behind them. The garage forms an echo chamber for the throaty sound of the engine underground. Jared spins around and back the car in by one of the stairways and throws the car into park. Sloppy parking job for a quick getaway.

“Alright, let’s go.” He jumps out and begins to rummage around in the trunk, while Jensen does some deep breathing exercises in the front seat before getting out, but none of that helps when he sees Jared pulling out a sawed-off shotgun and loading it.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

Jared keeps going, stuffing what appear to be grenades in the pockets of his leather jacket. He picks up a small handgun and looks at it before throwing it back in the pile.

Jensen walks around to the trunk and puts his hands on his hips, but Jared won’t look up. “Will you just stop and look at me?”

“Whatever you got to say can wait. We’re on the clock now,” Jared replies. He leans in and yanks Jensen’s duffel towards the front of the trunk. “Get your weapons out. The Kingsnake isn’t the only game in town. We’re in and out as soon as the storm clears. Understand?”

Jensen opens his mouth as if to say something but then nods. He unzips the duffel and pulls out his Sig Sauer, which rests heavy in his hand. The gun hasn’t seen much use since he got out of the Army, but he’s kept it in good shape. He puts the safety on, stashing it in the back of his waistband, while Jared pulls out a large hunting knife in its sheath and attaches it to his belt. Flashlights are tested and handed out and then Jared is moving fast for the stairwell.

Jensen pats his jacket to make sure that Dani’s memory chip is still safe in his chest pocket. Now that they’re here, he’s glad they came. In and out as Jared said. The storm raging outside should keep out anyone looking to cross their path or protect their stash.

Jared takes the stairs two at a time with his long legs, and Jensen moves quickly to keep up. His flashlight beam shows large floor numbers painted on the cement walls as they pass: P2, P1, L, 2. The hallway smells of mice droppings and motor oil from the parking lot, but it’s cool compared to the summer heat that boiling up outside. Jared hasn’t said where they’re going but Jensen is surprised to find that he trusts him completely.

They stop in front of a sign that warns only stage hands and performers are allowed inside. Jared turns back to him, with one hand on the door handle and the other on a Smith & Wesson MP .380. “You ready?”

He pulls his gun out from behind his back and nods at Jared. “Ready.”

The double doors open into a backstage area for the main auditorium. Ropes and pulleys hang from the thirty-foot high ceiling along with scaffolding and lights above the curtain line. Rows of velvet drapes hang musty and dark, waiting patiently for another opening night to start. Jensen runs his finger along one of them and wonders how long it’s been since the last show. Fifteen years ago? From the outside, this place like a lot of the other hotels looked trashed but backstage, it’s neat and orderly like the employees finished the last show and walked out the front door. He’s looking over what seems to be a lighting control panel when he hears Jared call out.

“They’re back here.”

He follows Jared’s voice to more metal doors tucked under a catwalk. Chains are wrapped around the handle and a heavy lock hangs in the front. Jensen picks it up and lets it fall back down with a clunk. “Got some bolt cutters?”

Jared laughs and shoulders Jensen out of the way, “I got something better than bolt cutters.” He gets on his knees and pulls out a lock pick kit. No more than two minutes go by before Jared unhooks the lock and unlaces the chains.

Jensen smiles and raised his eyebrows in appreciation. “Nice work.”

“Ready to find your girlfriend?” Jared says. He doesn’t wait for an answer before throwing the doors open dramatically.

Jensen has no idea where Jared learned about this place, but it is the mother lode.

Row upon row of bots fill the large climate-controlled storage room. The hotel must have used them for the shows because many of them are dressed in costumes and headdresses like dancers in the chorus line, while others are wearing evening dresses of different styles and lengths to meet the needs of the hotel’s high rollers. As he walks by a row of Mariannes, dressed in yellow sequins with long bird feathers in their hair, he runs the feathers through his fingers and laughs. All that money spent on a beautiful sex bot and they dress her up like Tweety Bird.

“Jared, you got to see--” He stops in his tracks when a glimpse of shiny red hair and lipstick catches his eye. There’s only one Dani in the room as far as he can see. “Jared, come here. I found her.”

He doesn’t wait. As he weaves his way through the others, he can’t believe his good luck. The chance of finding this bot with parts that work was a million to one, but Jared did it.

Her face is no different than the one he left behind four days ago - the warm smile, the heart-shaped face with perfect hair and skin. Her outfit, however, is the same unfortunate Tweety bird dancing girl costume. He pushes back the yellow feathers and red hair to find her interface, right above the left ear. The little flap that covers it is designed to be hidden, and he giggles it open carefully, blowing out any dust that sits on the surface. There’s another memory chip inside that he slides out before sliding Dani’s old one in the slot.

Jared should be here when he starts her up, after all he did.

“Jared,” he calls out one more time but there’s no answer and he decides that maybe he’s outside looking around for other items worth taking. After one last look over his shoulder, he presses the flat, flesh-toned panel shut.

There’s no movement at first, just a buzzing noise as the system resets itself. After three minutes, he’s ready to find Jared when her eyelashes flutter open.

“Jensen!” Dani says with a dazzling smile, and he gives a hoarse whoop. She looks around the room at the other bots and down at her outfit. “Where are we? I need a checkup and an update on several systems.”

He laughs and pats her shoulder. “It’s good to see you again, Dani.”

At his touch, her face and the stance of her body shift from happy to protective. “Jensen, do you need my assistance?”

“What, no--” he replies when a noise from out front catches his attention. Finally, Jared. He wanders through the sea of bots and out the double doors with Dani at his heels. “Jared?”

The sound of a scuffle on the stage carries through the thick curtains and he hears Jared shout, “Jensen, run!”

The thick velvet muffles his movements as he makes his way towards Jared’s voice. Dani shadows him, and for a bot that’s been sitting for years in that store room, she does a good job at keeping quiet. Placing his eye to the small gap in the curtains, his vision adjusts to the low light on the other side and he can see two men on the far side of the stage but he doesn’t see Jared yet.

“Come on out, boy. I can hear you.”

JD’s deep voice is unmistakable as it echoes across that empty stage. Jensen freezes, before leaning back to whisper to Dani, “Wait here, until I call you, okay?” She nods and the ridiculous yellow feathers on the back of her head bob up and down. He pulls his gun out and skirts the perimeter behind the curtains to get a better view of the action.

There’s a grunt and the sound of something hitting the boards. “Enough of the games, Jensen. I’ll slit his throat if you don’t show yourself by the count of three.”

He stops and can see JD on the right side of the stage holding Jared in front of him. JD’s got that big hunting knife of his held to Jared’s throat.

“One.”

Jared tries to move again and JD gives him a nick on the neck that stops him struggling.

“Two.”

Jensen tucks the gun in his waistband again before he steps out from behind the curtain.

JD smiles, teeth gleaming in the darkness of his beard. “You left without saying goodbye and I’m hurt, Jensen.” He adjusts his hold on Jared to catch Jensen’s attention. “And you took something that was mine.”

“How’d you find us?” Jensen only sees the two men with JD, and one of them is the guy he knocked out in the pool bar. Better odds than he thought - JD must have been in a rush to catch up to them in the storm.

“Saw your tracks heading to the city, and there’s only one place to find a Dani 2000. Luckily, the Nugget is my place now. Kinda funny, don’t ya think? I could have given you exactly what you came after if you’d just asked me nicely.”

Jensen begins to sidle to the left by the two guards and JD points his knife at him. “Stay right where you are. You know, I can’t figure you out, Jensen.”

“Nothing to figure out,” he says and shrugs in an attempt at appear casual. “I’m the same guy you knew before, JD.”

“With a sex bot and a piece of trash boyfriend?” JD shakes his head and lowers the knife. “If I’d known how kinky you were, maybe we could have made a go of it.”

 

There’s a bead of sweat running down from Jensen’s hairline that’s winding it way across his clavicle, and his stomach is twisting in ways it hasn’t since his last days in the army, but through it all, he keeps eye contact with his former captain.

“You always were a twitchy one when it came time to fight,” JD says with a chuckle.

“And you’re nothing like the man I remembered. And what about Samantha?” Jensen asks and JD’s brow creases at the question. “She doesn’t seem so wild about all of this. Think she’d be pretty disappointed if you killed us.”

“Yeah, she wants me to let you go. This one too,” JD says. “But Sam is loyal to me no matter what happens here.” He points the knife at Jensen. “You couldn’t just leave, could ya? Had to push it and get your bot.” He wraps his fingers tight around Jared’s neck, causing him to grimace and grab onto JD’s arm. “Man, I really hate to disappoint her.”

“No need for that. Letting us is an easy thing.” Jensen starts to circle around but that gets the attention of JD’s goons, so he puts his hands up in the air again.

“For Sam’s sake, I’ve decided to split the difference. We’ll drop you off in the desert up north to find your own way home.” JD shakes Jared by the neck, pressing the big knife into his ribs. “This one I’ll deal with when you’re gone.”

“C’mon, JD, he’s just a kid.” He’s talking to keep JD’s attention and steals a glance over at the two guards who seem to be enjoying the show JD’s putting on, not paying much attention to Jensen in the moment.

The tip of the knife presses in and a ring of red starts to grow on Jared’s white cotton tank spreading bigger, and Jensen can’t wait a second longer.

“Dani, I need your help.”

She pushes through the curtain from where Jensen left her. The gold sequins sparkle in the dim light like a new coin and her legs look a mile long in the high-heeled dancing shoes. As she walks forward, the feathers in her hair ruffle away from her face. Instead of Big Bird, she’s a vision in gold and the two guards are suddenly paying attention only to her. The jackass who attacked Jared lets out a wolf whistle.

“Well, hello sweetheart,” the guard drawls. “Aren’t you’re a sight for sore eyes?”

Dani is programmed to be polite but right now, she doesn’t have eyes for anyone other than Jensen. “Are you alright, Jensen? You looked stressed.”

“I am a little stressed, so maybe you can help.” His eyes shift to Jared, who is watching every move Jensen makes, his eyes screwed up in pain but ready to move when Jensen makes his play. “You can help my friend, Dani.”

JD was smiling and relaxed when Dani walked across the stage towards him and unprepared when she lunges. She grabs his arm with the knife and twists it. JD is strong and holds his own but he can’t shake Dani’s hold while he’s still holding Jared, so he tosses the tracker to the side and throws his weight against the bot, but Dani holds steady as a rock.

While everyone else’s eyes are on Dani, Jensen tackles guard number one to the ground. He’s a big guy, taller than Jensen but not as fast, and can’t get out from under when Jensen pins him to the ground and starts pummeling his face. Three punches later and the guard is out.

JD always said to take em out quick. One down, two to go, he thinks as he turns around to face guard number two - the asshole who attacked Jared. The guy ran across the stage to help pull Dani off JD, and when yanking doesn’t work, he jumps on her back and tries to choke her out, too dumb to realize that move won’t work on a synthetic bot.

Jensen starts to intervene but Jared gets there first and delivers a kidney punch that has the guy letting go of Dani’s back and gasping in pain. Now that they’re standing side by side, it’s apparent that Jared is taller and bigger in all ways, and that he’s no longer that hurt kid who’s been beaten and handcuffed and completely at his mercy. The guard backs away, hunching over in pain.

Behind them, Dani has disarmed JD and thrown him to the ground. His face is a snarl of frustration while hers continues to have a soft smile while she crushes her dancing shoe into his ribcage. JD grimaces and looks over at Jensen. “Are you gonna let a sex bot do your work?”

With their attention pulled away, the second guard makes a run for it and jumps off the stage and races up the aisle and out the door. Jared starts to run after him but Jensen grabs his arm.

“Looks like your men know a sinking ship when they see it.”

“What are you gonna do, kill me?” JD asks.

“Do you want me to kill him?” Dani says brightly and Jensen hesitates. He can’t kill him and he can’t let him go, and JD gives that charming shark smile again, thinking he’s won this game.

“No, knock him out.”

JD starts to protest but it’s cut off as Dani raises the butt of the hunting knife to bring it down on his temple, knocking him out cold.

“Tie him up good. Gag him too,” Jensen says before he walks back over to Jared, who’s looking over the guard on the ground. “Nice work.”

“Thanks.” Jensen reaches for Jared’s arm and turns him around to look at the wound on his chest. This time Jared is resigned to Jensen’s hands-on triage and lets him pull his shirt up. The knife point pierced his skin but it’s a swallow wound. The shirt’s ruined but they’ll worry about that once they get back to the car.

“Jensen,” Dani interrupts. Jared begins to move away but Jensen won’t let him, pulling him back to his side. “Are you going to introduce me to your friend?”

“This is Jared. He’s important to me, so treat him well.” Jared looks in surprise at Jensen, his lips parted but speechless for once, and Jensen fusses with retying the bandage on Jared’s wrist to avoid saying more.

“Will do.” She smiles and extends her hand as she’s programmed to do. “Nice to meet you, Jared. What should I do with that?” She points down at JD where his big body is neatly trussed like a stuffed turkey at Thanksgiving.

Jared leans over to check out her knots and laughs. “Can you tie up that one too?” he says, pointing at the guard on the other side.

She looks at Jensen, who nods. “Anything Jared tells you, Dani.”

“Okay,” she replies as she steps away to look for more cord.

Jared sidles back over to Jensen, now holding the wound on his chest with an irritated grimace. He points his chin at JD’s body. “What are we going to do with him?”

“I got an idea. Don’t think you’re gonna like it.”

****

When they emerge from the dark parking garage, the storm has blown through. Sand is piled up against roadblocks and buildings but the streets have been scoured clean for the most part.

Jensen rolls the driver’s side window down on JD’s big black Suburban and breathes in the cool morning air. The sky is unfolding pink and orange around him, reflecting on the mountains and hills to the West, and he feels a weight fall off his shoulders.

He sees Jared pull out behind him in the Challenger, and he waves him around and the kid punches it and zooms down the Strip. Jensen’s a little worried that the kid might take off without him after he heard the big idea but he agreed to help.

Jensen glances at Dani sitting in the passenger seat. They found a rack of other costumes so she’s out of the tweety bird feathers and into a more usable black halter dress. It’s still ridiculous and sparkly but at least she can move around in it. While Dani wears the same smile she always did, he can see some differences in this one. A patch job along her jawline, a shade of red hair that’s brighter, skin tone that’s a shade too light. It’s his Dani but not.

“Are you alright, Jensen?” she says, looking across the seat at him.

He should feel sad that this trip didn’t end up the way he thought but instead he turns his eyes back to the road and the red tail lights of the Challenger in front of them.

“Yeah, I’m good.” He hits the accelerator to catch up with Jared.

Together they walk into the big house on the hill. It’s dark inside as they move through the entryway, guns held in front of them. Jensen never saw more than the two guys with JD but knows that the Kingsnake must have a cadre of soldiers in the wing. As they step into the living room, they hear the cock of a gun behind them.

“Drop your weapons,” Sam says. They set the guns down carefully on the flagstone floor before turning around. She walks out of the shadows wearing her unhappiness right next to her shoulder holster.

“I let you go and this is how you repay me?”

“Wait, Sam, let me explain.” Jensen holds his empty hands out to her.

Her eyes narrow. “Where’s JD?”

“Here’s the thing,” he says as he walks forward but the gun is raised from his chest to his head and he stops. “We have a gift for you.”

Dani walks through the entry dragging JD behind her as if he weighed nothing more than a bag of groceries. His feet and hands are still tied; his head bobs up and down like a rag doll. Sam’s eyes shift down to him but her aim never moves from Jensen.

“A gift, huh?”

“He’s even wrapped up for you.” The joke falls flat as Sam stares back at him, and Jensen turns serious. “We don’t want to kill him.”

“Speak for yourself,” Jared mutters.

“I don’t want to kill him. So we brought him home.”

She considers him but doesn’t lower her weapon. “What do you want from me?”

“Safe passage out of the Wastelands,” he asks. “We could have left him out in the desert to die. But that’s not me. You know that, right?”

Samantha nods. When Jensen nods backs, she places the gun on the table and kneels by JD on the floor, checking the pulse in his neck and removing the gag from his mouth. “What have they done to you?”

“He’s okay,” Jensen says. “Which is more than I can say for what he had planned for Jared.”

She sits back on her heels with a sigh. “You’re free to go.” When Jensen doesn’t move, she looks up at him. “Tell me what else you want.”

“Were you serious about cleaning up the Wastelands? Putting things to right?” he asks and her eyes turn flinty, calculating what angle Jensen is taking, as she stands up.

Jared tugs on his arm, and leans in to whisper urgently. “I don’t know where this is going but we need to leave before he wakes up.” They talked at the Nugget about using JD to negotiate but not about the second half of Jensen’s plan. Jared’s eyes are wide and a little bit pissed, and Jensen pats him over the heart.

Samantha looks between the two of them at Jensen’s hand where it connects them and her eyes soften. “I am serious about it. JD was, too. Things just went a bit off the rails.”

“A bit?” Jared snorts and turns away.

“Then take Dani,” Jensen offers.

What?” Jared and Samantha ask at the same time. He grabs Jensen’s arm and shakes it. “You can’t turn her over to them.”

Jensen smiles and his eyes travel over the healing wound on Jared’s cheek, the bandages on his wrists and the silver of his palm. “Time to set things right, okay?” Samantha seems equally confused when he turns back to her.

“You want to explain how a sex bot is going to help me police this area?”

“Dani is much more than that.” Jensen squats down next to her and JD to look her in the eyes. “She’ll protect you and she’s a good fighter. Better than those assholes you had before.”

Samantha shrugs. “Well, that wouldn’t take much, now would it? And you would trust me and JD, after all of this?”

“Don’t get me wrong - I trust you. You helped us before. I won’t turn Dani over to him, but I’ll turn her over to you.”

She’s considering it when JD begins to moan on the floor.

“What’s your answer? Because we need to leave.” Jensen feels a thrill of uncertainty, wondering if this was such a good idea when Samantha extends her hand.

“Okay. Let’s do this.”

***

Jared is filling up the car with gas in JD’s garage while Jensen walks Samantha through how to handle the bot.

“Be a good girl and only obey Samantha while I’m gone, okay?”

“Will do,” she answers. She studies his face as she has a hundred times since he first got her. “You don’t look stressed anymore, Jensen.”

“Thank you, Dani.”

After a few hours of driving, the road heading north becomes more defined, the asphalt less broken. They don’t talk as they wind north along the same road that brought them south to Vegas. Jensen smiles when he sees an antique blue Nevada highway sign off to the side of the shoulder - Welcome to the Battle-Born Highway. Back before the warlords and the bombing of LA, back when he and Jared were young and still had their families, this was just a strip of quiet state highway connecting north to south. Maybe someday it will be again.

Jared is still fussing about turning Dani over as they drive, but it’s half hearted. Jensen feels relieved, lighter now that Dani has a purpose beyond his own needs. She helped him to heal; maybe she can help Samantha - another soldier in the fight.

When a windstorm kicks up, they pull over and sit quietly for a few minutes. The further north they get, the less furious the storms seem to be.

Jensen sighs and his head falls against the seat as he watches Jared watch the debris blow outside and play absently with the teddy bear keychain, causing it to jangle where it hangs from the steering column. He reaches out to touch Jared’s bandaged wrist and twined their fingers together.

“Probably take us another day, maybe two, to get back to the city,” Jared says quietly.

“No rush. Unless you got somewhere to be.”

Jared shakes his head no, and Jensen moves into his space, brushing his hair back and grabbing his jaw to tug it over and bring their lips together. For once, there’s nothing desperate about it. No one is dying or grateful not to be dead. He moves his hand inside Jared’s warm jacket to rest it on his heart and deepens the kiss. Jared is the one to pull back this time.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” he teases, mocking Jensen’s tone from that morning. “I don’t want you to feel obligated to me for any reason.”

“Shut up and kiss me.”

This time Jared grabs the back of Jensen’s neck to pull him back in. The kiss feels like he’s falling, but this time he’s hanging onto something - someone. When they pull apart, the winds are dying and the sun is breaking through.

Feeling Jared’s heartbeat and the warm skin beneath his hand, Jensen knows. There’s nothing waiting for him back in the city.

“Why don’t we find a place to look at some stars?”

THE END