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Every Old Town's Just Your Past Burning Down

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When the world ends, Jensen is at work, carefully going over a proposal that needs to be ready for the next day with a fine-tooth comb.

When the world ends, he's fixing somebody else's mistakes, pissed off and wondering how it's even possible that half the department hasn't been fired yet and thinking about how he deserves to get paid at least double his current salary.

When the world ends, he's too busy to even notice at first.

It's not until the voices in the hallway outside his office get louder, take on a desperate edge, and someone starts crying, that Jensen realizes something is wrong.

The sky outside has turned a dark, sickly shade of green, clouds piling up, spreading out over the city like a blanket. The first flash of lightning is expected, but it's not bright yellow. It's red – deep, dark red, and it reminds Jensen of blood. The storm is still a few miles away, but he can hear the distant sound of rumbling thunder now, getting closer at a speed that seems unnatural.

At first, Jensen watches through the window, unable to tear himself away. He's not sure what he's seeing, just knows he's never seen the sky like that, that this is not right.

"Jensen," someone says from the door of his office, and Jensen startles, looking up at the woman standing there. Her eyes are wide, cheeks flushed with panic. Absently, Jensen thinks he doesn't even know her name, even though he knows she's worked at the office for probably longer than he has.

"What's going on?" he asks. "What's happening?"

Her face crumples, eyes wet with tears, and she brings her hand to her lips, smearing red lipstick as she rubs her fingers over her mouth. "It's all over the news, Jensen. It's...it's all ending. The world," she says, her voice shaking, a bit awed.

For a split second, Jensen thinks she's joking, because it can't be. An apocalypse is fodder for movies and novels; it's not real. But his colleague doesn't look like she's kidding, or exaggerating. She turns around, swaying for a second before she walks away, hand still pressed against her lips. Jensen gets up, follows her, wants to call out to her and ask her what exactly she means, what she's heard.

The hallway is a mess, people rushing up and down, cells clutched to their ears. It's all a jumble – he hears I love yous, and I'll hurry, mixed with teary goodbyes and confessions of love. Some words he hears over and over again: fire, brimstone, apocalypse. Death.

The world is ending.

+

Jensen tries calling his parents first, then his brother, his sister, his best friends. The lines are busy. Absently Jensen thinks it's like on New Year's, too many people trying to make calls at once making the telephone network collapse. He hurries outside, hoping maybe it will make a difference, but it doesn't.

He writes texts instead, a hurried 'I love you. Be safe.' that he sends out to everyone he cares about. Standing on the sidewalk with people all around him going crazy, he prays his family will get his texts before it's too late. They know he loves them, but it suddenly becomes impossibly important that he gets to tell them one last time. Regret starts bubbling up inside him, because he's spent the last few years burying himself in work, neglected to spend time with his family because he stupidly assumed they'd always be there. That work was what mattered the most.

Outside, the air is thick, suffocating, and smelling of something Jensen has never smelled before. Fire, and sulfur, and something else, something even darker, more dangerous.

The first lightning hits one of the big office buildings a few blocks away, and Jensen can see the moment the lightning cracks right in, the earth all around them shaking and glass shattering. People scream, ducking down to avoid the glass that's falling, but Jensen watches. Watches the way the building catches fire, flames licking high and fast, like it's made out of paper. It's nothing like a normal thunderstorm.

There's another bolt of lightning, and again the ground under Jensen's feet shakes, harder now than before, and there's more glass and stones and it finally spurs Jensen into action. He's not sure where to go at first, can't think of a place that could possibly be safe, and he's not sure what makes him choose his car, but he ends up pushing against a throng of people, rounding the corner and jogging to the big corporate parking lot behind the office buildings. His truck is still there. A big, sturdy monster that Jensen has been meaning to sell to get some flashy sports car instead. He's glad now he didn't.

Inside the truck, Jensen sits still for a moment, not sure what to do now. Something big crashes down outside, and Jensen watches in horror as the first building collapses at the end of the street. It's the first of many, and Jensen just sits and watches it – the fire, the lightning, the ground shaking and rumbling like it's mad. Like earth's finally taking revenge after years and years of abuse.

Jensen waits for something to hit his truck, something to kill him, but nothing comes. He curls up in his seat, feels like he can't breathe, and just waits. He knows there's nothing he can do, no place he can go that's safe – all he can do is watch, hoping he'll make it out of this alive.

+

When it finally ends, the world around him falls almost deafeningly quiet. Quiet and empty, so empty that Jensen thinks it can't be right as he staggers out of his truck.

If he survived, there must be others. Carefully he picks his way through debris and glass, looking around. Everything is covered in a sooty layer of ash, some buildings still burning bright.

There are a few people he finds, but they're shockingly few, and they're all stumbling around, dazed and aimless, just like Jensen. Confused, not sure what to do.

There's a woman lying under rubble, wailing, and Jensen goes to free her, hands clawing desperately at stones. It takes what feels like forever, and there's so much blood, but Jensen keeps going. He tries to help her stand up, but she can't and Jensen knows she's not going to make it. The thought makes bile rise up in his throat. He stumbles away and falls to his knees, heaving, a few feet away.

"Oh, god," he mumbles when he finally gets up again, legs shaking. He glances back at the woman, but she's lying still now, and Jensen's heart thuds painfully.

He looks around, and it finally registers that among the rubble of collapsed buildings, there are corpses, too.

"Sir," someone says, and Jensen turns to find a teenager standing at his side, touching his arm. She looks scared, face streaked with tears, and it really hits him then. The world has ended, and however many people have survived, Jensen is not sure if they're really the lucky ones.

+

There's a huge, deep crater, a crack splitting the ground open, and the world around Jensen is so changed that it takes him a while to figure out they're right downtown, in a place where he's been countless times. But there's nothing much left of the city he used to know.

There are a good twenty people that gather together there, setting up camp for the night.

"I heard it on the news before it hit Dallas," an older man says. "The cities that were hit before us, there's nothing much left. Someone told me everything south of us is basically gone. Every place that was hit after Dallas, too, probably. And not just here. It happened everywhere. I heard it hit other continents, too. The whole damn world."

"So what do we do now?" a woman around Jensen's age says. "What do we do now?"

"Find as many people as we can," another guy pipes up. "There must be more survivors than it looks like right now, people who are hiding out. There must be groups like this all over the city."

There's nodding all around. Jensen stays quiet, looks down at his suit – ruined, like everything else around him – and hopes they're right.

+

The first night is the worst. An earthquake hits the city, destroying what little is left. In the darkness of the night the shaking of the ground feels even worse than it had by day, now that they're not able to see, don't know what's happening around them.

They huddle together, for warmth, but mostly for comfort.

By morning, the sky cracks open and it rains. It rains in a way that Jensen has never seen it rain before and doesn't stop. Jensen knows they need to get out of the city – there are dead people everywhere, and diseases will spread faster than they can blink.

"But we don't know what's out there. It might be worse," David, one of the men in their group, says.

"Worse than what?" Jensen asks. "This? You stay here, and you're dying, man. We need shelter, water, food."

"There's shelter and water here. We'll find food, too," Miranda, a woman his mother's age, chimes in.

Jensen laughs humorlessly. "Any of the buildings that are still standing could collapse any second, and the water isn't safe, not with all the dead people littering the streets."

"He's right," Trudy, the teenager Jensen met the day before, says, but David shakes his head. They're at standstill, and in the end they split up.

Twelve people decide to stay, eight of them leave. They gather things they might need the next day, raiding a few empty houses, and Jensen goes back to his car and gets what few things he has in there. It's not much, just a bag with gym clothes and a few knickknacks, but it feels comforting to have something that's actually his.

+

They don't have a destination in mind once they leave the city, and the next few weeks are spent walking aimlessly. A couple of times, Jensen ponders trying to find his family, but seeing the destruction all around him, he knows it's hopeless. They're more than likely all dead, and even if they aren't, Jensen has no idea where they might have ended up and no way of finding them. So he keeps going.

Every place they come to is just as bad as the ones they've seen before. Some cities are even worse than what Jensen saw in Dallas those first couple of days.

Their little group of people changes daily. They meet other survivors, split up into new groups wanting to head in different directions. Every time they come across someone new, stories are rehashed, news exchanged, and Jensen realizes that things are even worse than he feared. There's nothing much left of the world they once knew.

Meeting new people also gives everyone the chance to bargain, swap items for things they might need. When they come across towns, Jensen starts spending as much time looking for things he might need as he does looking for stuff he knows others might need and he can trade in. Some people still cling to things that have lost their value, their use, in this world, and Jensen tries not to feel guilty for taking advantage of those people. He trades his watch for a pair of heavy boots, a razor he picked up in a town for a pocket knife, the hundred bucks he had in his wallet for food.

He knows that most likely he'll be out here for a while, that there is no place that magically spared, where things are just like they were before.

Jensen doesn't have a plan, but he follows his gut and goes wherever feels right. Unlike him, most of the people he meets don't want to stray too far from civilization, but the more days pass, the more people become weary of cities.

"It's chaos there," says Lydia, a woman Jensen meets on the twenty-seventh day. "People are ganging up, fighting each other. Doesn't help that people are getting sick, dropping like flies – it's making everyone panic."

"Yeah, I figured less populated areas might be safer," Jensen says, then snorts. "Though I guess everything is sparsely populated now, huh?"

Lydia's smile lacks any humor and she nods. "Guess so," she agrees. "Anyway, if I were you, I'd stick to small towns. I've seen some pretty bad stuff."

"I will," Jensen says. "Who knows, maybe I'll find a place somewhere where I can settle down."

"Good luck," Lydia says, sounding sincere, and Jensen wishes her the same when they part ways, knowing he'll probably never see her again.

+

The next day, they try one more city and run into a small group of people who are all heavily armed, and they back away as fast as they can when they find themselves eye to eye with guns and knives.

"No more cities," Jensen says, and a few people around him agree.

Four days later, the first person in their group gets sick. Serena is twenty, tall and skinny, and it happens fast – she's fine one day, and the next day she's coughing, wet and painful, and running a fever. She lasts two days before she dies, and shortly after, Nick, a tall, burly guy in his late thirties, starts complaining he's feeling unwell.

The fighting starts not long after that, panic setting everyone on edge. Panic about what to do, and who might be next, and about what new disaster lurks around the corner.

There's no one in the group left from the seven other people Jensen left Dallas with, and he decides it's the right time to cut his losses. The thought of being on his own scares him, but he's beginning to think it might be safer.

So he gathers his things, and leaves quietly.

Jensen heads further north, makes sure to stay on back roads, and avoids cities. That day, he stops counting the days that have passed.

+

Sometimes Jensen wonders if there had been signs – something they all missed, or didn't interpret correctly because they couldn't have known just what was ahead of them.

It had stormed the night before that first storm of fire and thunder; Jensen remembers lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, while the wind kept howling around his house and rain splashed against his window.

By morning the storm had passed, though – the sky was still a deep blue, threatening more rain, but it had been silent and calm, just a barely-there breeze. Jensen hadn't thought anything of it then, but now he wonders.

But even if there had been signs, Jensen's pretty sure nobody would have guessed what they meant, what was coming. Nor would it have really mattered or changed anything – this is something nobody could have stopped, and eventually Jensen stops wondering.

This is his life now, and he doesn't want it, but he has to deal with it anyway.

+

Jensen is on his own for almost three weeks.

He lives off whatever he can find – wild berries, a couple of times mushrooms he finds and is absolutely sure aren't poisonous, and he manages to catch a rabbit twice. A couple of times he ventures into smaller towns, scrounges together whatever he can find.

It's like he's the only human being left in the world, and it feels surreal. Away from the cities, he can almost forget what happened. The destruction is everywhere, but it seems less startling when he's surrounded by nature. There are patches where whole forests have been burned down, but it doesn't look as bad as the cities that have just been wiped away, and there are areas of wilderness that look almost untouched. Fields that are just starting to turn green again in the last days of winter, trees that are still standing, rivers that are still flowing.

The weather is Jensen's biggest concern, apart from food – it's going haywire these days. Some days are almost cheerful, sunny and warm, and the next it's raining and hailing, and sometimes the changes happen so quickly Jensen doesn't see them coming. Still, gray skies are better than the green he remembers, rain more pleasant than the red lightning.

He trudges on, day by day, and sometimes he's not sure how he makes it, but he does. He doesn't know where he's going, what he's looking for, but there must be something out there, a place for him.

+

Jensen hasn't eaten more than a few handful of berries and a stale pack of peanuts – all that was left from his last quest into a town – in three days when he comes across people.

The first thing he notices is the smell of burning wood and roasting meat. It makes Jensen's stomach grumble instantly, after too many days without an actual meal. And then he hears voices, muffled and too far away for him to really make out what they're saying, but it makes his heart skip a beat.

Jensen contemplates turning around for a moment. But he's hungry, exhausted, and he's pretty sure he's not going to travel much farther if he doesn't get some food soon. He decides to take the risk. If whoever is in this forest shoots him, at least Jensen will be put out of his misery.

He keeps walking, following the murmur of voices. They quieten down suddenly, and Jensen knows they must have heard him, the heavy boots snapping twigs and rustling the leaves on the ground.

There is a clearing ahead of him, and there are only two people – a woman and a man. The guy is tall, in good shape, and he's standing in front of the woman, looking ready to fight.

Jensen quickly lifts his hands, hoping he looks non-threatening. "Sorry, sorry," he rushes out. "I'm not dangerous, I promise."

"What do you want?" the man asks, voice gruff.

Jensen halts, and glances at the fire. There's something roasting over it, and it smells so damn amazing his stomach gurgles. "I haven't really eaten in days," he says, and gives them a pleading look. "I can trade. I don't have much, but...please."

The woman steps out from behind the guy, looking him up and down. She doesn't look unkind, more pitying than anything else, and gives him a small smile, resting her hand on the guy's arm. They share a look, and finally Jensen sees the guy nod, a small, barely-there movement.

"It's okay," she says. "We've got enough for three."

"Really?" Jensen asks, hesitating. He's not about to turn down free food, especially not now. But despite everything, Jensen hasn't lost his manners completely and he feels like he should at least ask, make sure they're really both willing to share.

"I don't wanna be responsible for someone else starving to death," the woman says. "What's your name?"

"Jensen," Jensen replies. He takes off his backpack, his shoulders aching, and moves closer to the fire. "Mind if I sit?"

"No, go ahead," the woman says, beckoning him closer. "I'm Danneel; this is Jeff."

"Good to meet you," Jensen says sincerely, and sits down gratefully. "Thank you."

"No problem," Danneel says, and smiles at him again. She's pretty, Jensen notes, long auburn hair and a nice smile, and the guy – Jeff – is equally good-looking, in a ruggedly handsome kind of way that Jensen knows would have piqued his interest if he'd seen the guy just a few months before, in a bar or club maybe.

Now, Jensen just feels tired and exhausted, and doesn't care if these people are gorgeous enough that they could have worked in Hollywood or if they're completely unattractive. All he wants is some food, and a place to sleep, and a freaking break from all of this.

He rolls his shoulders, and sighs.

"Where are you from?" Danneel asks, obviously trying to make conversation and Jensen is kind of glad. It feels normal.

"Texas. Dallas," Jensen says. "You guys?"

"Lafayette. Jeff's from Seattle, but he was in Louisiana for, you know, the apocalypse," Danneel says, stressing the word and giving a humorless smile.

"What would you call it?" Jensen asks. "Since you obviously don't like apocalypse."

"I don't know. The day the world went to shit?" Danneel says, and Jeff cracks a smile.

"Kinda long," he says, and reaches for the meat over the fire, turning it around.

"At least it sounds less fateful," Danneel says with an eye-roll.

"You two been traveling together for a while?" Jensen asks, glancing at the food.

"Hmm, since day one. I saved his ass," Danneel says with a grin.

"It's true. I would have hid out god knows where, but Danneel here came running past me and pulled me into one of the houses that thankfully didn't collapse on top of us," Jeff says. "Figured I should stick with her after that."

"Smart idea, too," Danneel says, nudging Jeff. "Now, how much longer till the food is ready? Jensen over there looks ready to collapse."

Jensen doesn't argue with that, and he feels a wave of relief when Jeff decides the meat is ready and they can eat.

+

Jensen stays with them that night, sleeping curled up by the fire in the sleeping bag he nicked from an abandoned store early on. The ground is uncomfortable, but Jensen has gotten used to that. He's warm and there are other people nearby, and Jensen feels at ease in a way he hasn't in weeks. The clearing is quiet, no sounds but wind rustling through the trees and the occasional hooting of an owl.

When Jensen was a kid, his grandpa told him a story about how hearing the hoots of an owl was a death omen in some African cultures, and Jensen remembers being terrified of owls after that. He'd gone camping with his dad once, and Jensen had spent half of the night with his hands covering his ears, until his dad had noticed and talked some sense into him.

Now the shrill 'who, who, who' is oddly comforting, reminding Jensen that the world is not completely deserted yet.

He falls asleep thinking about that, and he sleeps soundly, not waking up until after the sun has risen.

When Danneel asks him where he's headed over breakfast, he shrugs and just says, "North," vaguely. He watches Danneel and Jeff exchange looks, a silent conversation passing between them that Jensen can't even begin to understand.

"Sounds good," Danneel finally says and gives him a smile. "Mind if we join you?"

+

In a weird way, Jensen feels like he's been adopted by Danneel and Jeff after that first day. They discuss destinations at first, deciding that their plans align and they might as well keep traveling together, but after a couple of days it becomes a given that the three of them are going to stick together. Jensen finds himself not minding that he's with other people again, because he meshes with Danneel and Jeff in a way he didn't with everyone else he met.

"Our own little fellowship," Danneel says one morning, while they're walking down a dirty, narrow path. "Kinda neat."

"Would be nice if we had lembas," Jensen replies, and Danneel gives him a fond look.

"Or if we could destroy a ring and it would solve all of our problems," she adds.

"You forget that not everyone survived the whole thing," Jeff chimes in. "And I'd rather we stay alive."

"Point," Jensen says, and looks ahead. It's an uncharacteristically hot day, the air shimmering on the horizon, and there's not even a hint of wind. "We should find a place to rest. It's probably not a wise idea to walk during the midday heat today."

"Fine by me," Danneel says, and then adds wryly, "Not like we got a place we need to get to any time soon."

"Would be nice if we had a map," Jeff says with a sigh. "At least we'd kinda know where we're going then."

Danneel falls into step beside him, and Jensen watches from a few steps behind them as Danneel brushes their arms together, nudging Jeff a little. "We'll get to wherever we're going. Might take a few detours, but we'll get there, Jeff. Give it time, okay?"

Jeff turns his head, and smiles down at Danneel in a way that makes Jensen feel like he's observing a private moment. He looks away and keeps walking silently.

+

Traveling doesn't become easier, but with Danneel and Jeff it's still better. Unlike the people Jensen traveled with before, they seem to be on the same page about avoiding cities and they fit together easily.

"Did you ever have a destination in mind, when you first left Lafayette?" he asks, sitting at yet another fire after a day of walking.

"Nothing specific," Danneel says. "We went north originally because we thought maybe it wouldn't be quite as bad there as it was in Louisiana. We had floods there, pretty bad, so we had no choice but to leave and our only plan was to keep walking and avoid the coasts if possible."

Jensen grimaces. "Yeah, Dallas wasn't pleasant either."

"Yeah, well, no city we've come across has been. We kept checking them out at first, hoping to find something different, but we never did. It's all the same everywhere," Danneel says with a shrug. "Someone said there are camps further north, but I don't know."

Jensen stretches his legs. He distantly remembers one of the people he met in the earlier weeks saying something about camps too, but he doubts they could have known at that point. It's a possibility, though, if they don't find anything else.

"What about you?" Jeff asks.

Jensen smiles wryly. "I'm just looking for somewhere to stay. I don't know where or what," he says. "I just don't think I can keep up this nomadic lifestyle for the rest of my life."

"Would be nice, right? Settling down somewhere, not walking all day long," Danneel muses. "Know what I really want more than anything? A shower. A hot, long shower. God, I miss feeling clean."

Jensen laughs, runs his hand over the beard he's been growing. The razor is the one thing he sometimes regrets trading, but by now the thing would have been too dull to be of any use anyway. Still, he misses the feeling of smooth skin.

"A shower sounds amazing," he agrees. "Though I think what I want the most is a bed."

"Hmm, nice," Danneel hums. "What about you, Jeff?"

Jeff shrugs. "Would kill for a smoke," he finally says, and Danneel huffs.

"You're a moron," she says, and tries to punch him in the arm. Jeff tries to dodge her and bats her hand away, but Danneel doubles her efforts. Jensen watches them, amused. They seem comfortable around each other, fitting together, and it makes Jensen a little wistful. He's not really sure what exactly has been going on between Jeff and Danneel, but there's definitely something there. Jensen doesn't mind being alone, certainly doesn't need the complications of a relationship, but it's been lonely sometimes.

He lies awake that night, listening to Danneel and Jeff on the other side of the fire whispering to each other. They're obviously trying to keep it down, voices hushed, but Jensen finds himself not minding the steady murmur of voices in the background, lulling him to sleep.

+

It should be warmer, Jensen thinks, as he pulls at the sleeve of his jacket. The heat wave had lasted a few days, and then it had been replaced by its opposite.

It was winter when the world ended, and it's spring now, but the sky is gray and it's windy, chilly. He trudges behind Jeff, Danneel at his side, her hair tied back to avoid getting it blown around by the wind.

"I hate this weather," Danneel mutters, echoing his thoughts. "It was freaking hot just a few days ago."

"I don't think old rules apply," Jeff says, glancing back at them. "Everything's been crazy since the storm."

"Crazy is one word for it," Jensen mutters in reply, running a hand down his face. They're walking over an open field, waist high in grass, and Jensen really hopes they find a street soon, or even a dirt path.

"There's something there, do you see that?" Danneel says, pointing, but she doesn't sound happy, and Jensen follows her line of sight.

There's an old crumbled hut made out of wooden boards that look like they're about to collapse, nothing more than a few walls without a roof. What's surprising are the crows, huge and black, circling over it.

"They're scavengers. Looks like they found something," Jensen says. "Might be a dead animal, might be something else."

He doesn't have to say what he means by 'something else,' the idea hanging in the air between them.

"I haven't seen a dead person in weeks, since the last city we were in," Danneel says and shudders. "Let's steer clear of those crows."

"Yeah," Jeff agrees, and makes a slight turn right so they can give the hut a wide berth. "I don't think any of us wanna see that."

"Let's talk about something less depressing," Jensen says, hoisting his backpack a little higher, trying to shift the weight to get more comfortable.

"Like what?" Danneel asks.

Jensen shrugs, trying to think of something to say that might lift up their spirits a little. He hasn't really had anything but depressing thoughts in weeks, he realizes, and that doesn't do much to make him feel lighter.

"I had an imaginary friend until I was almost out of elementary school," Jeff suddenly says and snorts. "My parents were close to despairing, didn't know what to do with me. I think eventually I just kept insisting I still believed my friend existed to annoy them."

Danneel laughs. "What?"

Jeff shrugs. "It's true. He was called Ernesto, and was Irish – which, I admit, didn't make sense, but I was a kid."

"Oh, god," Danneel says, still laughing, and Jensen smiles, meeting Jeff's eyes.

"When I was seven I told my mom I was gonna be a princess when I grew up," he says, because it's the most ridiculous story about himself that he can think of. "I thought the idea of someone slaying a dragon to win my heart was really cool. Somehow, becoming a princess seemed the only viable option to get that."

Jeff laughs too, and Danneel nudges him. "Are you sure you didn't want a dress and a tiara?"

"Eh, maybe," Jensen replies with a shrug. "What about you, Danneel? Any embarrassing childhood stories?"

"I wrote a love letter to my teacher when I was ten or something. He always told us the coolest stories and he had a beard, and my dad had one too, so I figured that made him really awesome," she says, grinning.

"Well, I guess you're in luck now then, cause it's gonna be hard finding a guy without a beard out here," Jensen says, and Danneel lets out an exaggerated, dreamy sigh.

"Oh, lucky me," she says, and hooks her arm through Jensen's. "So, Princess Jensen, tell me more about your childhood of waiting for a prince to sweep you off your feet."

Jensen grins to himself, and for the first time he finds himself thinking about his past without feeling a horrible stab of loss. Swapping stories from their childhood, they forget about the crows, about the world around them, and Jensen finds himself walking a little easier.

+

For almost two months their days pass without change. They get up early, walk as long as they can, always on the lookout for food and water, until they set camp in the afternoon. Jensen stops counting the times his skin is itchy from sunburn or they get caught in rain; it becomes a normal part of their lives and they become good at watching the sky, spotting storms long before they hit them. Shelter isn't always easy to find, but they make do as best as they can, and somehow they manage things.

With nothing much to do but talk to each other or watch the world around them as they walk, Jensen finds himself sharing more about himself with Danneel and Jeff than with most other people who'd ever been part of his life, and it's nice. Jeff and Danneel become more than people he travels with – they become what little normalcy, what little constant this life still has to offer.

And then, one day, their routine is broken.

They get caught in a downpour that's sudden and heavy, drenching them to the bone within what feels like seconds.

"We should find some shelter," Jeff says, voice raised to be heard over the sound of rain pelting onto the cracked, old street.

No shit, Jensen thinks, but glances dismally around. Dusk is coming fast and with the dark clouds overhead, everything looks gloomy and uninviting. There are mountains rising to their left, covered in forests, but they're at least another thirty minutes by foot in this weather, and Jensen doubts the trees are really going to give them that much more shelter. The rain's been coming down from all sides due to the wind and the forest doesn't look dense enough. Apart from that, all there is around them are fields, growing wild now with nobody there to take care of them. It's moments like this that he curses their decision to stay away from civilization – or what used to be civilization anyway. What's left of former cities might pose more dangers, but at least they could offer some shelter from the ever-changing weather.

"Let's walk a little further, see if we can find anything," Jensen suggests with a sigh. "Maybe we get lucky and find some old shack or something that's still standing."

"Good luck with that," Danneel mutters darkly next to them and ducks her head, wet hair plastered to her head. Jensen does the same, so the rain doesn't pelt right into his face. They continue their track, but it's slow and tedious. Most of the road is covered in grime and earth, and it's sludgy and slippery now, and more than once one of them almost loses their balance.

This isn't what summer is supposed to be like, Jensen thinks bitterly, but the weather hasn't been the same since the apocalypse happened. It's warmer and sunnier than it was a few months ago, but there's more rain than before and some nights are so freezing cold that Jensen, if he didn't know better, would guess it was late fall already.

Jensen is ready to admit defeat for the night and just curl up right there, hoping for the rain to stop, when he sees it – a light. It's dim, barely recognizable in the weather, and he blinks a few times until he can make something out in the distance.

"Is that a house?" he asks, pointing ahead, and realizes he's come to a halt.

Danneel and Jeff both look ahead before Jeff whistles.

"Well, fuck me," he says, voice low. "Looks like a farm."

Jensen raises a fist into the air and whoops, and Jeff grins at him, looking more relieved than anything else.

"Guys," Danneel says, tone somber. "A light means there are people there – we don't know if that's actually a good thing."

"Worth a shot," Jeff argues. "What's the worst that could happen? They'll tell us to fuck off."

"Or shoot us," Danneel replies.

Jensen rolls his lower lip between his teeth, biting down on the chapped flesh, and shrugs. "At this point, I think I'd rather take the risk than stay out here," he admits.

Danneel sighs and looks first at him and then at Jeff. "Guess I'm outnumbered," she says, and straightens, hoisting her backpack higher. "Well, let's hope those people will take pity on us then."

Jensen claps her on the shoulder. "That's the spirit," he says, and starts walking again. With the prospect of shelter, maybe even some food, it suddenly seems easier, the rain and cold less bothersome.

By the time they reach the farm it's almost completely dark. There's a fence surrounding the property, and over the gate there's a sign, the right side drooping down. Jeff is the first to reach it and the gate opens easily with a push, squeaking loudly.

"You guys go first. If some crazy old guy with a shotgun comes out, he can shoot you first and I can try to escape," Danneel says, crossing her arms over her chest. Jensen gives her a small, reassuring smile and reaches out to squeeze her arm.

"Try being optimistic," he says.

Danneel snorts. "Because the last few months have been going so great for us."

"For everyone," Jensen reminds her, and finally follows Jeff. Part of him understands Danneel's wariness – the last few months have taught people to be selfish, to put themselves first if they want to survive in the new world – but Jensen can't help but believe that there must still be some good people left in this world. Jensen can't give up on that hope; it's what keeps him going most days.

They trek up the driveway to the farmhouse; it looks large and sprawling in the darkness, and from two side-by-side windows a flickering light is shining out, and Jensen assumes they must have a fireplace. The thought of sitting by a warm fire, getting warm and drying off, makes his heart ache longingly.

The porch creaks a little as he steps onto it, and he holds his breath as Jeff lifts a fist and knocks on the door.

There's nothing at first, and Jensen holds his breath. Jeff knocks again, and Jensen hears the muffled sounds of movement and then muted voices.

"Who's there?" a voice finally asks through the door, a bit harsh. Behind Jensen, Danneel exhales loudly, her hand curling around Jensen's elbow, as if to tug him back.

Jensen clears his throat. "Hi," he starts, voice loud enough to make sure he's being heard on the other side of the door. "We're passing through and we were wondering if we could maybe get shelter here for the night. The weather's crazy."

There's a pause, and Jensen adds, "We're not gonna cause any problems or anything, really."

They wait, and then Jensen can hear the sound of chains being undone before the door creaks open. There's a blond guy standing there, holding a shot-gun half raised. Jeff, standing closest to the door, takes a couple of steps back.

The guy is glaring at them, and behind him Jensen can see a girl, looking at them with the same distrust.

"Look," Jensen starts and takes a step forward. The guy raises the shotgun higher, and behind Jensen, Danneel hisses, "Be careful."

"We really don't want anything but shelter for the night. There's nothing around here and we could really use a place to stay – we won't be a hassle, I promise," Jensen says, trying to sound calm and reassuring.

"Why should I trust you?" the guy asks. "You'll probably kill us in our sleep and steal our stuff."

Jensen sighs when the girl suddenly turns her head, and the guy looks back over his shoulder. There are heavy footsteps coming down stairs, and then another guy appears. He's tall, really tall, and his floppy brown hair is mussed up like he's been sleeping. Even cold, wet, and feeling miserable, Jensen takes a moment to appreciate the sight.

"What's going on?" the new guy asks, and there's a drawl in his sleepy voice that Jensen recognizes immediately. For a moment, the familiarity makes his heart ache, but Jensen pushes those thoughts away – thoughts of home, and family, and before – and keeps his mind purposefully blank.

"These guys are looking for shelter," the blond guy mutters darkly, waving at them with his shotgun.

"Jesus, Chad, be careful with that," tall guy says, and pushes the shotgun down by the muzzle. "Let them inside."

"Are you sure?" the girl asks, shifting a little closer to the guy as if looking for protection.

"It's raining like crazy outside," the guy says and reaches out with one long arm, pushing the door further open and waving Jensen, Jeff, and Danneel inside. "Come on in."

Jensen lets out a sigh of relief and gives the guy a grateful smile as they all shuffle inside and the door falls shut behind them heavily.

Jensen never thought stepping into a house could feel this amazing, but it does. They've been traveling down back roads, setting camp outside every night, for so long now that Jensen almost forgot what it's like to be somewhere with a roof over his head, somewhere warm and dry and relatively safe.

"God, this feels good," he mutters.

"Been a while?" the tall guy guesses.

Jensen grins humorlessly. "Yeah. Too long," he says.

Tall guy nods, and looks at his friends. "I'm sure we'll have some dry clothes that might fit you, and some towels to get dry," he says. Chad finally puts the shotgun down, though he's still watching them warily and Jensen can almost feel Danneel relax.

"Thanks for letting us inside," she says. "We really appreciate the hospitality."

"No problem. You guys look like you really need it," tall guy says. "I'm Jared, by the way."

"Danneel," Danneel replies. "This is Jensen. And Jeff."

"Good to meet you guys," Jared says with a nod. "Come on, put your stuff down and we can go into the living room. We have a fire going there; bet y'all need to warm up."

"Oh, god, please," Jensen mutters, and Jared ducks his head, smiling at him before reaching out to help Danneel get her backpack off her shoulders, with a, "Here, let me help you."

It strikes Jensen how gentlemanlike the gesture is, and in this world, that rarely exists anymore. It's sweet and charming. Jensen flushes a little at the thought, turning his gaze away from Jared, and busies himself with getting his own backpack and sodden jacket off.

It's not the time to have thoughts like that – not anymore.

+

If Jensen thought stepping into the house felt amazing, it's nothing compared to sitting in front of the fireplace, on an actual couch, in a pair of dry sweats and a hoodie, a hot mug of tea held between his hands. Next to him, Danneel has her head tipped back, eyes closed, while Jeff is leaning forward, watching the fire, relaxed and calm.

Chad is still watching them warily, but Genevieve – as the girl had introduced herself when she came back with towels and clothes for them – seems to have relaxed, and there are four more people gathered around the fireplace. Two more girls – Katie and Adrianne – and two more guys – Matt and Misha. Misha looks around Jensen's age, maybe a bit older, but everyone else looks young, early twenties at the most. Jensen feels a pang of loss for them, thinking about why they're all here now, what all of them have lost.

"So, you're traveling?" Jared asks, catching Jensen's gaze. "Going anywhere specific?"

"Away," Jensen answers wryly and then shrugs.

"We were gonna head west, maybe," Jeff adds. "Wherever we can find some place to stay, really. We heard talk about a few camps being set up."

Jensen snorts.

"You don't think it's true?" Misha asks, perking up. He's sitting on the floor, legs crossed, watching them with an intent look, if not unfriendly.

"Oh, I'm sure there are camps and stuff," Jensen says. "I just don't think I wanna go there."

"Jensen is a bit of a pessimist," Danneel says, shifting to sit up straight, bringing her legs up onto the couch. She grins at Jensen. "Grumpy and moody, too."

Jensen rolls his eyes. "Yet, you were the one who thought we would get shot if we came here."

"We almost did," Danneel points out.

Jared chuckles. "Sorry about that again. That was just Chad being Chad."

"Hey," Chad says indignantly. "I was just being cautious!"

"Yeah, well, you don't have to almost shoot people in the process," Jared replies, and Chad huffs and mutters something.

Jensen clears his throat. "Nothing happened," he says. "So, how long have you guys been here?"

"Chad, Matt, Gen and I have been at the farm almost since the beginning," Jared says. "After the fire and stuff, there were some pretty bad storms, but I think the mountains must have offered some shelter for the farm. A lot of the surrounding areas weren't quite as lucky; there were a few earthquakes around here and they hit some parts pretty hard – mostly everything's destroyed. I'm not sure there are many people left anywhere here. We haven't really seen anyone around in the towns and stuff, anyway."

"We were road-tripping when it happened," Genevieve chimes in. "Semester break, so we thought we'd take a few weeks and just drive around, relax. We were a few hours away from here, up in the mountains when the fire started coming down. We got lucky though – we found shelter in a cave and hid there, and a couple of weeks later we found this place, pretty unscathed."

She sounds a bit sad, but she tells the story with a sort of detachment, like it was something that happened long ago, some anecdote about their lives that hasn't been completely horrifying. He gets it – has seen it in almost everyone he's met in the past few months; everyone is repressing what happened, how horrible it was. It's the only way most people can keep going, keep functioning and not let what happened eat them alive. He can see it in these people too – the way Chad is looking pointedly at the fire while Genevieve talks, Matt is watching Genevieve with a blank expression, and Jared is looking at the floor, rubbing his hand up and down his thigh nervously. They're college kids, for fuck's sake, and the thought pains Jensen.

"Adrianne, Katie, and Misha kinda came one after the other and stayed," Jared says, clearing his throat.

"I was on my way back to college from visiting friends in Canada," Katie says. "Would have graduated a few months later. Instead I ended up stranded in Montana, just outside of Billings. I stayed there at first, but people were going crazy so I left with a couple of people. We split up when they wanted to head back after a few weeks and I found this place eventually."

"I was in Denver. I'm a nurse and I was working at a hospital there, but Denver got it pretty bad. Leaving was really the only thing you could do if you wanted to survive. I just picked going further north completely randomly," Adrianne says when Katie quiets down. Jensen feels oddly comforted hearing everyone's stories, bad as they are – they've all been through the same, more or less, and it makes his own fate seem less tragic, knowing all of them share this.

"Misha found us, what, a month ago?" Genevieve adds, looking at Misha for confirmation.

"Yeah, give or take. I'd given up my job working for a TV station a couple of weeks before everything went down, and was just backpacking through the country. Kinda just kept going after," Misha says with a shrug. "What about you guys? You knew each other before?"

Jensen shakes his head. "I met them few weeks after the fires," he says. "I was in Dallas when it happened and decided to head north, find some place safe. I heard things weren't quite as bad here as in the south."

"Jeff and I met during," Danneel adds. "We hid out in a basement together with a few other people, down in Louisiana."

"And you've been traveling ever since?" Matt asks softly, finally turning his head to look at them instead of Genevieve.

"Pretty much," Jeff says with a nod. "Stayed here and there for a couple of days, sometimes, but we've mostly been walking cross-country. Trying to avoid cities."

"Yeah, Misha told us most cities were pretty bad," Jared says, sounding curious, and Jensen realizes that if they have been here from the start they never saw all the destruction everywhere for themselves, have only been hearing stories from the others about whole cities disappearing.

"They are. Especially those where there are more than a couple handful of survivors. I've seen some pretty gruesome stuff, I can tell you. People are going crazy," he says, and he watches everyone's grim, upset expressions.

"You'd think when something like this happens, people would try to stick together, help each other out," Adrianne says. She sounds and looks resigned, and Katie places a hand on her arm. These people, Jensen realizes, they're doing it right – they've found each other in this craziness and they're supporting each other, helping each other.

"It's not that easy," Misha says with a sigh. "I mean, resources are getting fewer and fewer, and people are scared. Of starving, of diseases, mostly of other people. And they're resorting to violence."

"Well, not everyone," Jared says lightly, but resolutely, and Misha meets his eyes and nods.

"Not everyone," he agrees. He stretches a little, back popping, and yawns. "We should probably head to bed soon."

"Gotta get up bright and early and feed the animals," Jared adds cheerfully, and everyone else around him groans.

"Animals?" Jeff asks.

Jared shrugs. "Whoever owned this farm, they just up and left and didn't take much with them. There were a few chickens, a few cows, two horses, when we got here," he says. "We're trying to keep the farm running as best as we can. Supplies will only last for so long."

"You guys stumbled upon paradise," Jeff says with a smile that turns a bit sarcastic after the words have left his mouth. "At least in this world."

Jared snorts. "Guess so," he says. "Well, come on, bed time. Chad is falling asleep over there."

"Am not," Chad mumbles drowsily, and everyone laughs softly.

"You guys wouldn't happen to have a couple of spare blankets or anything?" Jensen asks. "I think all of our stuff is soaked through."

"We've got enough," Genevieve says, getting up and holding a hand out to Katie and Adrianne each. "What about beds, Jay?"

She turns to look at Jared, who looks a bit helpless. "Well, Misha has a bed to himself, so there's room there for at least one of you."

"Danneel can bunk with me and Katie. Right, Katie?" Adrianne asks. "We got the biggest bed – it'll fit the three of us easily."

Katie nods, and Chad wolf-whistles, suddenly a lot more awake. Katie reaches out and slaps him over the head, making him yelp, and Jensen chuckles.

"Okay. That's two of you," Jared says and glances at them before he looks at Genevieve. "Maybe if we squish together in our bed..."

Genevieve winces a little, but nods. "Yeah, that'll work," she says, but Jensen can tell she's lying. He suddenly wonders if maybe Jared and Genevieve are a couple, and feels a small pang of disappointment before he brushes the thought off. Jared's attractive, sure, but there are more important things than a quick romp between the sheets with some hot guy now. And they're leaving again tomorrow anyway. They will be back on the road, back to sleeping outside and worrying about where their next meal will come from, on the search for something. A place to belong.

"It's fine," Jensen says, shaking his head, because the last thing he wants is to intrude on Jared and Genevieve, whether they're a couple or not. "Jeff, you take the bed with Misha. Just give me a blanket and I can sleep somewhere on the floor. No problem."

Genevieve looks a bit relieved, and then brightens. "You can take the couch down here, right? It should be about big enough, plus you get the added bonus of the room being warm from the fire."

Jensen nods. "Works fine for me."

"Okay, great," Jared says. "We'll find you some blankets and pillows."

"Thanks, man," Jensen says with a small nod, and he suddenly can't wait. He hasn't slept on something more comfortable than the bottom layer of his sleeping bag in way too long, and he's looking forward to sleeping on an actual couch, with actual bedding again. The warmth of the fire and the tea made him feel a bit drowsy, and Jensen thinks all the exhaustion of the last months are finally catching up to him.