Jake knew that it was a part of his responsibility as a little brother to allow Jess to fuss over him and therefore waited obediently for her to straighten his collar and tuck in the edges of his jarringly bright green scarf inside it. Never mind that he had already done it to near perfection. He just figured that she had earned it for being such an awesome big sister.
Well, that and the fact that she was a far better shot than he was and he wasn't entirely sure if she would let their family ties keep her from 'accidentally' shooting him in the foot if he didn't do as she pleased. Come to think of it, she would probably be more inclined to shoot him in the foot on accounts of them being related. It was strangers and people she didn't like that she shot in less painful and yet considerably more permanently lethal places.
Like their heads.
"I don't like this, Jake. You should wait until George can come with you," Jess muttered under her breath, dislike coloring every syllable. The dull, grey light of dawn seemed to smooth out the shadows angling across her face as they stood just outside their door, their breaths soft clouds of pearly white against the pale morning sky.
"I'll be fine, Jess," Jake assured her, placing his hands over hers when it became obvious that she was continuing to tug on his clothes simply because she didn't want to finish the task and let him leave. He caught her gaze, holding it firmly while smiling effortlessly. "It's a routine check, you know that. You've done it yourself several times."
"Never without backup," she replied sharply, not releasing her grip on his collar. It could have been threatening if it hadn't been because it was Jess and Jake knew how fiercely protective she could be.
A part of him wanted to mention that he was soon thirty – she didn't have to dote on him like that – but he was still her little brother. Nothing would ever change that. He knew that she would never not feel responsible for him and that included being cautious and paranoid.
Everyone was, truth be told, since they knew all too well what could happen if you went outside the gates on your own. But it really was nothing but a simple routine check to make sure that the generators and transmitters in the Gallagher district were in working order. It was one of the conditions that constituted the shaky but vital truce they had with that particular settlement and they couldn't postpone it much longer, not even until George was back on his feet after that nasty case of the flu of his.
"I'll be fine," Jake repeated, squeezing Jess' fingers even if he couldn't feel the softness of her skin through his thick mittens. "And I have all my toys. I'm not defenseless."
Jess gave his collar a sharp tug.
"That's the thing, Jake," she replied anxiously, "they're just toys. Gadgets. You don't know if they work."
"Well, I know that some of them do. I mean, I tried that thing the other day and-"
"Yes," she interrupted with her infamous big sister sigh that soon warped into a soft smile, "I know, Jake. I know."
She still sounded terribly worried. Jake leaned forward, bumping his forehead against hers, the impact softened by the knitted cap he was wearing. It managed to lure a slight smile onto Jess' lips.
"I'll be back before sundown," he promised.
Perhaps a bit after depending on the density of the newest layer of snow, but even when he was forced to walk – you never risked taking a vehicle unless you had someone with you to help defend it against Raiders – he could easily cover the distance in a day.
Jess pursed her lips, still looking reluctant, but eventually pulled her hands from his grip and patted his chest.
"The sooner you get going the sooner you'll be back," she said sagely and Jake couldn't help grinning, pushing his glasses higher on his nose.
"Say good morning to Beth when she gets up." He leaned in, kissing Jess' cheek before backing away, snow crunching under his feet. "And save me some dinner, okay?"
Jess rolled her eyes, her arms already wrapping around herself, no doubt to stave off the chill she was feeling standing out there in the cold without her coat. She had only stepped outside to see him off but as always lingered longer than strictly necessary.
"You come back in one piece, Jacob, or I'll shoot you myself."
Jake's grin widened.
"Rather counterproductive to shoot me if you want to see me safe from harm, my dear sister," he teased, not at all surprised when she answered first and foremost with a rude gesture she'd rather be caught dead than allow Beth to see.
It still made Jake smile to see her stand there, blonde hair dancing in the wind with his big, warm – and admittedly ugly – sweater pulled over her sleep mussed clothes, because even if she was tired and almost huddling for warmth she still managed to keep her back straight. There was an air of confidence and security about her that Jake knew wasn't just him being an idolizing baby brother.
The only reason she wasn't coming with him was because she was needed elsewhere, conferring with the other families in the settlement on what could be done to strengthen their defenses, what repairs to prioritize and how to ensure that everyone would have food the coming year. The long winter months were over and even if the pale, tired summer sun never managed to melt the snow and ice around them it was still the best time for those kinds of plans and improvements.
For about four months the temperature would be slightly more tolerable and less snow would fall. Everyone was eager to utilize it to the fullest since they had learned that it was one of the few ways to get an advantage over the Raiders sometimes skirting the borders of their homes.
Jake took comfort in the fact that there hadn't been any sightings of Raiders in the past seven months, which was probably one of the reasons that Jess had eventually relented and allowed him to go off on his own. She would have insisted they send more people otherwise. Jake and Jess were the only ones who knew how to inspect and repair possible damage to the generators – as far as Jake knew they were the only Engineers within a ten mile radius – so any addition would essentially be bodyguards.
And while Jake was very fond of being alive and not beaten to death for his boots or eaten by bears it wasn't a long trip to the Gallagher district, nor a particularly dangerous one. Mostly just a wide, seemingly endless expanse of solid, snow covered ice with the remnants of what had once been a sprawling city up ahead. Which wasn't exactly ideal for ambushes of any kind, be they bears or Raiders.
So Jake would be fine. Unless the uninteresting scenery bored him to death which, considering Jake's personality, was definitely not something you could rule out as a possibility.
Jake offered Jess a jaunty little salute before turning to walk towards the gates. The rest of the settlement was still snoozing around him, save for the people posted along the battered steel wall surrounding it. Despite the lack of Raiders the past couple of months they knew better than to let their guard down and ease up on security.
He could hear distant sounds coming from the cattle they kept at the other end of the settlement – lows, bleats and the occasional clucking from chickens – and he met one of their hunting dogs as he walked towards the gates. Most of them doubled as guard dogs and were left to trot through the settlement as they pleased, quiet sentinels until the moment a threat approached.
Jake's settlement was quite famous for their massive, well-trained dogs, the biggest standing tall enough to be at level with Jake's waist. As frightening – and lethal – as they could be to strangers Jake adored them and play-wrestled with them in the snow as often as he could. Taking on what essentially looked like gigantic, domesticated wolves was probably not considered wise by anyone's standards but that had never stopped Jake before.
He couldn't help reaching out a hand, letting it sink into Reaper's thick, grey fur during the brief seconds they passed each other on the snowy path. Reaper responded by walking in a half circle behind Jake's legs until he ended up on Jake's other side, now heading in the same direction, clearly intent on escorting Jake to where ever he was heading. Jake couldn't help smiling, rubbing the dog's ear with a cooing little noise that Reaper was clearly too badass to acknowledge.
It was on mornings such as these that Jake could actually fool himself that things weren't as bad as they seemed. Everything was calm and quiet, the darkness giving away slowly, revealing the houses of the settlement that looked more like white hills than buildings, hidden under patches of snow as they were. It looked rather idyllic – almost sweet – until people started milling about, their eyes tired, shoulders slumped and bodies angled against the cold.
It had been a rough winter. They had lost two people during it – George could have become the third – and Jake hoped that summer would offer some relief. He was still young, strong and incurably optimistic but it was obvious that for some each new winter just wore them down more and more until there wasn't much left besides a haggard, cold shell.
Jake had actually performed a study of sorts, just because he could, and had found that the average life expectancy for people in their settlement was just above fifty. It was unsettling, in a way, to know that according to the statistics both Jess and Jake had lived half of their lives already and were expected to die fairly soon.
That could put a damper on anyone's good mood, so he was smart enough not to share his findings with anyone, not even Jess.
Carol and Hazel were watching the gate when Jake approached and he offered them both a beaming smile. Carol replied with a derisive snort, like always since Jake might or might not have set her husband's coat on fire by mistake two years prior – she could hold a grudge, that was for sure –, while Hazel smiled right back. If he had had the time Jake would have stopped for a friendly chat but he'd rather get going and was also fairly certain that both Carol and Hazel were counting down the minutes to when the morning shift started and they would be relieved from their duties.
So all he offered was some nonsensical babble while Carol and Hazel worked the hatch wheel that unlocked the big gate, metal shrieking and groaning in protest as it was forced open for the first time in about a week, by Jake's calculations. Jake would have helped if they would have let him but he knew better than to ask, restlessly weighting back and forth on his heels instead and occasionally rubbing a hand over Reaper's head, who had sat down on his haunches next to him.
They opened the gate just enough for Jake and his backpack to slip past and he offered the huge dog a grateful parting pat before walking through the gap. Jake had to hold back a groan when he found himself in almost knee deep snow. It was always a priority to keep the snow at a relatively manageable level inside the settlement but they rarely ventured outside the wall except to clear off the piles that sometimes gathered against it, somewhat defeating the purpose of having a wall in the first place if the snow made it climbable.
"Cheer up, Jake. It looks like the sun from yesterday left a bit of a crust. If you're lucky it will hold your weight," Hazel said behind his shoulder.
Jake sighed and offered her a quick smile before testing that theory. Climbing up on top of a crusted layer of snow without breaking through was a lot harder than it sounded in theory. Pushing too hard would send you right through but pushing too little meant that you tumbled back down again. Luckily enough for Jake he had no dignity whatsoever and didn't really care if Carol and Hazel thought he was hilarious when it took him three tries before he managed.
He turned to grin proudly at them once he stood tall on the firm layer of snow and not even Carol seemed able to hinder an amused snort at that, before she slipped out of view, back inside the relative safety of the gate. Hazel was still peering out at him though, some of her black curls slipping out from under her cap, twisting around her face as the wind caught them.
"I'll let the evening shift know to expect you back by sunset," Hazel called out, further proving just how much of a routine check this was. They all knew where he was going and how long it would take for him to get back.
"Thanks!" Jake replied with a grin and a wave before starting his long, dull walk.
The first couple of steps were taken rather gingerly as Jake was careful not to break through the crust, but as soon as he found that it would hold his weight even if he speed up he did just that.
Jake didn't have the constitution and peace of mind to actually appreciate the vast, empty stillness before him – mostly covered in white or light blue except where branches, stems and stones peeked out, offering splashes of muted colors – and occupied himself by letting his mind wander. He would have loved to bring some music but it was a luxury he hadn't been able to prioritize with a clear conscience. There were a lot of other things he should repair long before he tried to resurrect the old portable music player he had found, even if it was for the benefit of his own sanity.
He could make do with running various equations inside his head and planning just how to reroute the power lines within the settlement to better serve their needs. He knew that Jess would stress that as a priority during the meeting since some of the circuits had fried over the winter and needed to be replaced anyway – that and to strengthen the wall. It wasn't nearly as durable as it looked on a distance, which was part of the point really, to make it seem more imposing, but if anyone were to attack it needed to be able to withstand more force.
Jake knew that she wouldn't bring up their private little project, despite the fact that they had been working on it for over two years. They had argued about it just the other week but Jess had decided, rather dictatorially, that it was better not to get anyone's hopes up before they had actual results. Jake wanted to point out that hope might actually help them accomplish their goal but he knew better than to try. There were more important things to focus on.
Walking in itself was pretty easy despite the distance he had to travel. Just putting one foot in front of the other. It was mechanically repetitive in a way that Jake took a certain amount of comfort in. He liked mechanics, as if his chosen field didn't prove that well enough.
That's not to say that he enjoyed the excursion.
The view was, as previously established, flat, barren and boring and without anyone to keep him company he was left to his own inner musings which normally turned rather peculiar without anything there to ground him. The sight of towering buildings up ahead wasn't as reassuring as one would believe, mainly because Jake knew that it would still take him hours to actually reach his destination.
Just because it looked close didn't mean that it was.
So Jake could admit that he felt pretty tired when he finally climbed over the low wall marking the start of the city limit. It wasn't in any way meant for protection what with the city being pretty much abandoned and served only as a reminder of times since long past.
The Gallagher settlement was southwest of where Jake entered; carved into one of the old city districts. Much like Jake's own settlement a strong wall had been erected to protect the citizens within while the rest of the big city slept in eerie silence, deserted and slowly crumbling without anyone to maintain it.
The skyscrapers were like jagged teeth against the pale white sky, gaping open where windows had been smashed or scavenged, metal and other useful materials stripped from the frames leaving aching, glaring holes behind. Snow and ice clung to the cracks like an insistent, ruthless sickness, crawling into the open spaces to spread its chill.
Jake didn't like the city. It set his teeth on edge with its bare metal skeletons and fractured walls. It felt like anything could be hiding in those dark crevices. Jake's shoulders were tense – his spine rigid – as his gaze swept over his surroundings time and time again, just to be sure.
He much preferred his own settlement where the houses were robust and primitive in comparison to the fancy apartment complexes in the Gallagher district but all the more cozy for it. The Gallagher settlement was much bigger but in no ways better. Without Jess and Jake they wouldn't even be able to maintain the buildings that they occupied, much less survive amongst all the steel and concrete.
But Jake didn't mind. The truce they had with the Gallagher settlement included trading of wares and other necessities and Jake was happy to offer his services as a mean to keep his family alive. The people in the Gallagher district – though Jake had never met more than two of them in person – were all dependent on them in a way that meant that they would be willing to offer protection and shelter should the need ever arise.
Jake took a small break in a relatively shielded nook, hiding from the biting wind while he ate and drank from the provisions he had brought. He spent an extra couple of minutes waggling his toes inside his boots and rubbing some warmth into his hands and limbs, just to make sure that he kept his circulation going.
He slipped his scarf over his nose before cautiously heading out onto the city streets again, knowing better than to show his face if he could help it. A solitary man, who clearly was no scout, walking through the city was practically unheard of and even if Jake didn't expect to run into anyone he'd rather not take any chances. The people in the Gallagher district could probably guess who he was if they saw him, which had to be avoided at all cost. Not even when the deal was struck between the two settlements had the leaders from the Gallagher district been allowed to see the Engineer that would be helping them.
They didn't even know that there were two of them.
Jake would have thought that the precautions were unnecessary if he didn't know firsthand that they weren't. Engineers were invaluable to the settlements they belonged to and while some were wise enough to barter for their services – like those in the Gallagher district – there were others who wouldn't hesitate to forcibly kidnap one if they had to.
But at least that meant that any hostiles would rather take Jake alive because he wasn't of much use to anyone dead.
He continued his journey to the outskirts of the Gallagher district, his pace brisk and eyes attentive. He and Jess both knew which paths to take to avoid being seen from the high wall surrounding the settlement, slipping in through the basement door to a nearby building rather than the front. It was risky to have the generators supplying the big settlement with electricity outside of the actual walls since it made them weak to attack should anyone ever find them, but it also offered a small amount of safety should they malfunction and explode. Not to mention that there was more than one, which meant that Jake had about three hours of solitary work ahead of him, checking up and readjusting the generators.
All the necessary tools were in his backpack, along with the keys to the inner rooms of the buildings he needed to visit to perform the maintenance checks. At least it was indoors, which protected him from the worst of the wind and snow. He patiently waited a couple of seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dim light before heading towards the first heavy steel door blocking his path, keys jingling in his hands. It was all routine by then, even if he usually had company. The silence was beginning to grate on his nerves and that was never a good thing. It made him paranoid.
He had to tell himself not to react to every single creak he heard as if it was a threat, but it was very difficult not to. Jake had very wild imagination.
So he hummed to himself as he worked, glad to finally have something to do with his hands. Granted that his fingers became stiff with cold within minutes after he had folded back the flap that turned his mittens into fingerless gloves, leaving his skin exposed to the nippy air, but he'd rather endure that than the boredom itching along his spine.
The scarf kept his nose and mouth warm, the trapped moisture from his breaths making the air stuffy and thick to breathe – the complete opposite of the sharp sting he would have experienced without it. He could feel the bite of the cold against his cheekbones while intricate patterns of white frost splayed over the green of his scarf and clung to his eyelashes, born from the vapor he exhaled.
It wasn't very difficult work but it kept him occupied, especially since he couldn't afford mistakes. He took his time, knowing that Jess would berate him otherwise, and didn't pack up until he was absolutely certain that he had checked every bolt and wire, just to be on the safe side. The next checkup wouldn't be for another month and Jake didn't want anything to happen during that time. While they shared a peaceful truce with the Gallagher district for now Jake wasn't keen on finding out what would happen if either of the parties ended up breaking their part of the deal – and he had no intention whatsoever of being the cause for it.
He stopped only long enough to eat the last of his packed food – some rather bland sandwiches, a couple strips of dried meat and half a canteen of water – before heading out again. The sun would be up for another couple of hours but he'd rather get home before dark if he could. The crust made it easier and if he hurried he might actually make it back before Jess had time to clear the dinner off the table.
That thought was enough to put a slight spring into his steps as he carefully slipped out from the building he was in, readjusting his backpack and checking that his clothes left as little bare skin on display as possible. He quite disliked the sensation of wet, recycled air but pulled his scarf up over his nose all the same, more for the sake of anonymity than warmth.
The return trip through the city was spent in the same kind of desolate silence and Jake barely held back his urge to start humming again, listening instead to the howl of the wind and crunch of snow under his feet.
That was probably the only reason that he heard them coming in the first place; not that it did him much good in the long run.
Jake didn't have time to do more than freeze in sudden alarm, a chill running down his spine, before he caught sight of a movement up ahead. It was subtle – barely visible – but he knew it shouldn't have been there in the first place. He was supposed to be alone.
It was gone as quickly as he had spotted it and even if he whirled around, gaze flickering across the seemingly empty street, nothing else seemed to be out of place. No footprints had disturbed the snow and no one was peeking out from behind the cracked, gaping holes in the surrounding buildings.
But that didn't mean that there wasn't someone out there.
His pulse quickened and instinctual fear grabbed hold, making his heart race inside his ribcage. It might be scouts from the Gallagher district but even they could be dangerous depending on the circumstances. Sometimes settlements decided to kill anyone encroaching on their territory long before they even considered asking questions and Jake really didn't want to be put in a situation where he would have to defend himself. There had been no spare guns for him to bring, for one.
Jake swallowed before quickly flicking back the flap on his gloves, his fingers fumbling along his left forearm. It was difficult to feel underneath all the layers he was wearing but there was a satisfying click once he managed to find the small button along the bulky pieces of metal wrapped around his arm, a soft, whirring hum filling the air. The vibration of the awakening machinery seemed to thrum through his bones. He knew that they were just toys in Jess' eyes but it was better than nothing. Better than being left defenseless.
He was reaching up to his ear, pushing in one of the earbuds from his pocket, when he saw a movement in the corner of his eye. He didn't wait to confirm what it was and just dove forward, fighting to keep his balance when he slipped on the snow. There was a colorful curse behind him – which was all Jake needed to know that someone was definitely out to get him – but he didn't bother to look back, focusing instead on getting his feet under him.
The second earbud fell from his hand but he didn't have time to worry about that when he heard more than one set of footsteps crunching through the snow behind him. He berated himself for letting anyone sneak up on him but the truth was that there were too many places where people could hide amongst the cracked city ruins.
These must have been lying in wait for him.
He saw movement in his peripheral vision – more people – but Jake didn't stop running until a man stepped out on the street several feet ahead, blocking his path. Jake came to a skidding halt, his arms flailing and heart caught in his throat. The barrel of a mean-looking rifle was aimed at Jake's chest and it didn't take long for the others to close in, surrounding him with their guns raised.
"Wow. This escalated quickly," Jake breathed, not able to hinder the reflex to throw his hands in the air, as if that would actually save his life.
To Jake's immense surprise no one took the shot.
He was left panting, gaze flickering between the three men he could see, guessing on four more behind him. That was too big of a group to be scouts from the Gallagher settlement, which only left Raiders.
Jake barely held back a curse. He should have listened to Jess. He should totally have listened to his older sister's wisdom. But he hadn't and now he was going to die. Perfect. Then again, he wasn't sure if having another person with him would have evened out the odds all that much.
"We would like to ask you some questions," said a voice from behind Jake's back. The man sounded amused, obviously certain of their advantage in the situation and, yeah, Jake could admit that it wasn't likely to change anytime soon.
From what he saw of the three in front of him it was the middle one he had to be wary of – the one that had stopped him in his tracks. The other two were grinning at each other, looking triumphant and certain of their catch, but the middle one kept his focus on the target. On Jake. There wasn't even the slightest tremble to his rifle while the other two were letting their guard down and had almost started lowering their weapons already. Those two Jake could probably have gotten past but not the third one.
"Oh yeah? Questions that involve holding me at gunpoint?" Jake replied, keeping his tone lofty and at ease, as if he wasn't in fact standing with several guns aimed at him. "You could just have asked nicely."
Jake dared a glance over his shoulder, slightly relieved to notice that there were only three other men present. That still meant six against one. Tricky odds, even with the warm hum of his toy against his arm. But he couldn't discharge it yet. He shouldn't do it at all – not when he had lost one of the earbuds – but he might very well have to if he wanted to get out of this alive.
"Call it a precaution," one of the men replied – the same man – and obviously the one in charge. Possibly the biggest threat judging on the sheer compact size of him and the way he handled the gun in his hands. It might be lowering that very moment but something told Jake that it would whip up again at the smallest sign of trouble.
Jake turned slightly, so that he would be able to keep an eye on the two men he deemed most dangerous. It was only distantly that he registered that they seemed to be wearing pretty much the same outfit – which was surprisingly organized for Raiders – and wielding the same type of weapon, save that guy who carried what looked more like a long range rifle instead of an assault rifle.
"Ask away," Jake replied with a careless shrug.
That's not to say that he would give informative answers but he had to cooperate for now. If he could just make them relax a little more he might be able to get the upper hand.
The leader smiled, an action that should have felt comforting but definitely didn't considering their situation. Or it might just have been something with the angular, weathered face that didn't sit well with Jake.
"We've heard rumors."
"Oh? I'm not much for gossip myself," Jake blurted out, mostly without thinking. It earned him a small twitch of annoyance but no major reaction besides that.
"They say there's an Engineer nearby."
Jake felt his breath stutter in his throat but he forced himself not to flinch. Panic started curling in his gut but he didn't have time to reply before the man picked up again, expression rather pleased.
"You don't happen to know anything about that, do you? We'd love to have one of our own, you see."
Kidnap and forcibly recruit one, in other words.
Jake swallowed as subtly as he could before forcing a smile, never mind that no one could see it with his scarf blocking their sight. His eyes flickered between the men, three of them having relaxed to the point where they would be a fraction of a second too late if Jake were to try anything. But that still left a vaguely alert one, the leader and that insanely focused guy. He barely seemed to have moved since the whole conversation started, still aiming at Jake with frankly alarming precision.
And was the guy actually wearing a cowboy hat? Who the hell did that in this weather?
It made Jake uneasy since that, in combination with the grey scarf pulled up much like Jake's was, meant that he couldn't see the man's face at all. Not even a glimpse of it. It was creepy.
"Yeah, I've heard those too," Jake replied, congratulating himself on how his voice didn't tremble as he said the words. He had to try and bluff his way out of this somehow. "There's one that fixes our generators."
"So you're from the Gallagher district?" the lead Raider asked.
Jake nodded, knowing that he couldn't let them know which settlement he was from. That could lead them straight to Jess.
For a second Jake didn't quite understand what the leader was asking for, until one of the Raiders walked up and grabbed Jake's right hand. As much as he tried to wrench free his sleeve was eventually pulled back and the man caught a glimpse of the tattoo on the inside of his wrist.
"Not the Gallagher mark. This one is from someplace else," the Raider reported back with a particularly smug expression that Jake was dying to wipe off his grinning face. But he knew better than to do that unless he wanted to have all those guns trained at him again.
So he couldn't do much when the Raider reached out and pulled down his scarf either, giving them all a clear look at his face.
"Hey!" Jake barked indignantly, partly because of the rudeness and partly because the cold suddenly biting into his skin with renewed vigor, only strengthened by the slight dampness from his trapped breaths. He could practically feel the frost settling in.
He snatched his hand back when it was released and backed up a couple of steps. The guy with the hat seemed to be the only one who actively followed Jake with his gun, making him the trickiest one to get past. Even the leading Raider seemed to be getting overly confident about the outcome of this particular standoff.
"We questioned and killed one of the Gallagher scouts," the leader offered in a lazily drawled explanation, "but not without taking a peek at her tattoo. We know what it looks like. So which settlement are you really from?"
They obviously weren't familiar with the area but even if they had been they probably wouldn't have recognized Jake's tattoo. His home was so small that barely anyone besides them and some in the closest settlements had ever seen their mark. And Raiders usually didn't care about whom they killed. They made their members burn or carve off any settlement crests as soon as they joined to literally cut all former ties with their families and home settlements, to better show their loyalty to their fellow Raiders. The tattoos were meant to help you recognize friends and allies and gain access to your settlement and Jake honestly hadn't expected it to turn around and bite him.
These Raiders were clearly more organized and strategic in their search for an Engineer to kidnap than Jake had predicted.
Jake wondered how long it would take before they figured out they had just caught one.
Not long at all, he guessed, considering that he would be searched eventually and had very suspicious tech on his person. Quite a lot of it, actually. He would have to act soon. Real soon.
His moment came when the leader looked to one of the other Raiders, probably to ask him to help with the strip search, and most of the others seemed relaxed and unsuspecting. Jake knew that he still had that one very determined rifle trained at him but he had to take the chance.
He made sure to act fast.
One slight step to the side and he had cut off the line of sight as well as he could, partly shielded by one of the hat wearing Raider's fellow compatriots, which was obviously enough to cause a moment's delay. Jake didn't waste time before reaching out to flip the last switch on the device strapped to his left arm. He really shouldn't set it off with just one earbud but he didn't have much choice with the other lost somewhere in the snow. He would have to settle for pressing his hand against his unprotected ear.
It was difficult to explain exactly what it felt like when the sonic burst went off but Jake was stumbling backwards even before the first Raider hit the snow covered ground. They weren't dead, he knew that much, but he heard whimpering groans of pain, even through the ringing in his own ears.
Yeah, he was definitely not going to set that off without a full set of earbuds ever again.
Jake was everything but graceful as he ran towards an opening between the towering buildings, vaguely disoriented and not quite steady on his feet, but he was in much better shape than the Raiders he left behind.
The thought had barely crossed his mind before he felt a shiver down his back and he chanced a glance over his shoulder.
That one bastard – whose hat seemed to have fallen off as he slumped forward – was pushing himself up on his knees and raising his rifle again. Sure, he had been standing the furthest away according to Jake's calculations and therefore least affected by the sonic blast but that was one stubborn fuck.
Whatever they were paying him he definitely deserved a raise.
That errant thought screeched to a halt when Jake realized that the Raider was trying to shoot him.
Jake's response was to instinctively reach for his right arm, for another one of his toys that was hidden under his thick layers, and it hummed to life without a hitch. It all happened in the brief span of a couple of breathless seconds but felt so much longer, Jake turning, even as he didn't stop stumbling backwards, while the Raider yanked down his scarf to ease the aiming.
Jake could literally count the three rapid breaths the other man took before squeezing the trigger, Jake's heart slamming against his ribcage in pretty much the same pace as those breaths.
To say that it was over in the blink of an eye wouldn't even be an exaggeration.
One second Jake was raising his right hand, boots sliding through the snow as he was pushed back – just one brief second – before the magnetic field and the slight twist of Jake's wrist sent the bullet off course, burying into the wall behind him with a dull thunk.
Jake flailed as he lost his balance, his body not knowing quite which way to go with all the pushing and pulling and he ended up on all fours in the snow, breaths wheezing in and out of his chest. The cold air seemed to burn down his throat.
Had he just done that?
He had only ever tried deflecting tiny metal pieces Beth launched at him with her slingshot before and that was nothing like dodging a real bullet. Not that he had any intention of getting boastful. It had probably been more luck than skill – and an absurd sense of timing – that had saved him and given the numbers he would never be able to do it that successfully again.
"Well fuck me," he mumbled a little dazedly, trying to regain his bearings.
He could feel the snow melt against his uncovered fingers but for once the cold felt reassuring rather than invasive. Real. Grounding.
He might possibly be in shock because of the adrenaline and near death experience.
He looked up, almost surprised to meet the eyes of the Raider that had fired the shot. Their gazes held and Jake wasn't quite sure what he was seeing on the other's face except for startled disbelief.
The aim had been true despite the shape of the shooter, angled to hit Jake's shoulder rather than dead in the chest – probably because they wanted him alive after the stunt he just pulled – but Jake had deflected the bullet. Not just dodged it but changed its course entirely.
It was obvious that the man before him wasn't quite sure what to make of that.
For a couple of seconds Jake couldn't get his brain to work. It was like he was just waiting to get shot at a second time but instead of raising the rifle again the Raider did something else – a gesture Jake had to search his memory for before he could identify. A cross. He was signing a cross.
A religious Raider?
Religion was rare enough as it was and to see it in a Raider was practically unheard of.
Jake snapped back from his musings at the sound of one of the other men groaning, quickly realizing that he was losing his slight advantage. His limbs shook when he struggled to his feet and for some reason – he honestly couldn't say why – he found himself locking gazes with that Raider again.
The guy was just staring at Jake, making no move whatsoever to raise his rifle even if he probably could have. Jake didn't know if it was a conscious decision the man made or just lingering shock but Jake decided to be grateful for it none the less.
After swallowing hard he turned on his heel and ran, without looking back this time.
He could still felt that gaze follow him until he disappeared out of sight and he honestly had no idea what to make of that. But what really lingered with him was the spark of almost innocent wonder and curiosity he had seen in the other man's dark eyes just before Jake turned and ran, transforming the Raider's face into something softer. Something relatable.
Jake couldn't say why but that feel pretty much as scary as almost getting shot.