The dream starts the same way every time.
Jensen’s trapped inside his childhood home, under a bed, choking on thick black smoke. He can see flickering light through the murky air, and he knows it’s fire. It’s coming for him, and he can’t hide from it forever. He needs to get out, try to make a run for it, but he’s frozen by terror, hoping against hope the fire will stop before it reaches him.
Then the dream changes, never playing out the same way twice. Sometimes he sees someone reaching for him, someone he doesn’t know, flat on his stomach like Jensen. Sometimes it’s a stranger, sometimes it’s someone familiar, someone Jensen thinks he’s seen before. A boy, not much younger than Jensen, with long dark hair and dark eyes.
“Come on!” the boy shouts, gesturing wildly.
The dream shifts again, and now Jensen’s running down the stairs and out of the house, into the dark night. He feels the smooth wood of the floor under his feet, then the rough planks of the front porch, leaving splinters. The boy is tugging on his hand.
Jensen feels the cold night air on his skin, takes deep breaths to pull it into his singed lungs. He can smell the smoke, hear the flames behind him. He feels rough soil beneath his feet. He stops to turn around, to look at the house, completely engulfed in flames. He doesn’t understand how it could be burning so fast, so furiously.
The boy grabs his arm, trying to pull Jensen away from the fire, and for the first time Jensen wonders where his family is. His mother, father, little sister, big brother.
“Jensen, we have to go now!” the boy shouts. “They’ll be back!”
Sometimes he runs, runs until he wakes up, heart racing, palms sweating, lungs bursting.
Sometimes, when he tries to turn away from the burning house, his feet are stuck. Something heavy is pulling him down. He struggles, panicking, but something has hold of him and he can’t move.
In that variation of the dream, just before he wakes, he hears the boy screaming
“All right, Ackles. You’re up!”
Jensen’s eyes slide open, then immediately slam shut again. He’s in his bunk in the barracks, finishing his rest period before his next shift, but it feels like he’s only just managed to fall asleep. He lay awake too long after the dream this time, and when he finally drifted off, rest period was over too soon.
It’s over now.
“Up and at ‘em!” The call comes again, this time accompanied by a rough swat at his partially blanketed legs.
Jensen rolls over, blinks up at his commanding officer. Captain Morgan.
“Come on, son,” Morgan says, his voice warm with affection. “You and Penikett are up next.”
“Okay, boss,” Jensen nods, wiping the sleep from his eyes with the backs of his hands. “I’m up.”
Patrolling the wall has been Jensen’s job since Morgan’s people came to this place, some twenty-two years before. Even as a teenager, Jensen was good with a bow. His father had given him a small bow and a quiver of rubber-tipped arrows for his fifth birthday, had promised him he’d be a master archer one day, like his dad.
After his family died and Jensen was taken in by Morgan’s community, Morgan gave him a new bow and quiver to replace the one he’d lost in the fire.
“You’ll have to make your own arrows, son,” Morgan had told him. Then he showed him how.
Jeff Morgan and his group of more than three hundred men, women, and children are all the home Jensen has known since the night of the fire that destroyed his family. Outliers like the Ackles didn’t survive long on their own, Jeff had explained more than once. Too many Raiders. In the early days after the Purge, individual families had holed up in bomb shelters and mountain cabins all over the country. But Raiders had found them, pillaged and raped and killed until there weren’t many left,. At least that’s the way Jeff Morgan saw it.
“There’s survival in numbers,” Jeff said. “We stick together, we’ve got a fighting chance against Raiders, Diggers, all the bad guys. Good defense is the best offense. We survive long enough, we can start up a whole new civilization.”
It wasn’t much of a plan, all things considered. But it beat the alternative.
During their long shift on the wall, Jensen and Penikett take turns watching different sections of the mostly-barren landscape that stretches at least a quarter-mile in every direction around the fort. When the moon is halfway across the sky they pause to share a small meal of dried meat and stale bread, sharing water from a plastic canteen. Plastic and glass have outlived tin and other metals from the time before the Purge, but glass breaks too easily for everyday use, and as such is preserved for special occasions only. The art of glass-blowing has been long forgotten.
“Do you think Morgan’ll call the meeting tonight?” Penikett bites off a piece of dried meat and chews.
“Nah,” Jensen shakes his head. “He’ll wait till Chris and Steve get back.”
The water situation at the fort has become dire. The river and several small wells had dried up during the past year, and no one can deny that the water table is sinking. The central well, usually fed by an underground spring, has been the only source of drinking-water for the community since late spring, and lately it’s been pumping dark, sludgy water that has to be filtered and boiled before drinking. Soon the community will need to move, to find fresh water.
Morgan has sent scouting expeditions, three so far, on month-long treks into the wilderness in every direction. Each time, the scouting party comes back empty-handed, or with tales of places that sound like scenes from Jensen’s worst nightmares. Wildfires blaze to the north and east, nothing but desert and dust to the south and west. More than twenty-six days have passed since the last expedition departed, and the entire community is on tenterhooks awaiting their return.
Whatever the scouts report, whether good news or not, they can’t stay here.
Just a little after dawn, the scouts return. Jensen sees them first. Three figures emerge from the western horizon, where the ground slopes down to the river, moving slowly but steadily toward the fort.
“There’s three of them,” Penikett notes as he moves up beside Jensen, shading his eyes against the morning glare.
Jensen raises his binoculars, one of only two pairs they’d found buried in an underground bunker beneath the fort when they first got here. Along with the canteens and a few rusty knives, they’re all that’s left of the military encampment that occupied this spot for almost three hundred years.
Chris Kane is flanked by their other scout, Steve Carlson, and a bare-chested man with long, flowing hair. Something is familiar about the man’s face, but from this distance his overall presentation - minimal clothing, long hair with decorative feathers and what looks like a swath of black paint under each eye - identifies him pretty clearly.
“Looks like Chris and Steve have found themselves a Native,” Jensen remarks as he lowers the glasses. Penikett takes his turn, nods.
“I’ll let the Captain know,” he says. As he leaves, Jensen raises the binoculars again, focuses them on the face of the Native walking towards him. The man looks up, squinting against the sun, and Jensen feels a tingle of familiarity again.
When they’re close, Kane raises his arm in greeting, and Jensen raises his in return. Chris and Steve carry packs on their backs, and they look ragged and dirty from weeks on the road. Thinner. The Native is huge, Jensen realizes now that he’s close. Taller than the other men and built like a rock wall. He wears breeches and leather boots, but no pack. Jensen imagines he’s got a knife or two tucked into the boots or the waistband of his breeches, but they’re not visible, which is interesting. It’s as if he’s trying to appear harmless, although Jensen has the distinct impression the man is capable of inflicting considerable harm when he needs to do so.
The thought sends a shiver up Jensen’s spine, not in an unpleasant way. There’s no denying the man is intensely attractive. It’s been a while since Jensen allowed himself to indulge in physical pleasure; there are too many daily chores to attend to, too many dangers to confront and guard against. Order must be kept above all in the small community. Although there are several women who have made it clear that he would be welcome in their beds, Jensen prefers to keep to himself, to keep the most intimate side of himself private.
Not to mention his preference for a hard-muscled body and stubbled chin.
Penikett has returned with Morgan and a small greeting party of five more men, and together they turn the crank that lifts the gate into the fort. Jensen and Penikett flank Morgan as the scout team and their visitor cross the threshold and Jensen’s eyes meet the Native’s for the first time.But not the first time, he thinks. Jensen feels the tingle of familiarity more profoundly now, and he can’t help but wonder if the Native feels it too. His eyes are light-colored, like Jensen’s, but with more gold and blue in them, and Jensen thinks sometimes they flash dark, like in his dreams, but Jensen’s not sure. He’s never told anyone about those dreams, how the boy’s eyes flashed dark, or maybe they were always dark.
There’s nothing about this grown man that resembles the boy in Jensen’s dream, except maybe his dark hair, but Jensen knows it’s him. He’s never been so sure of anything.
“This is Jared,” Chris is saying. “He knows the land.”
“Welcome, Jared,” Morgan says, his voice rumbling with authority. He makes the sweeping motion with his arm that is the universal gesture for hospitality. “You are our guest here.”
Jared nods, tall and solemn, giving Morgan the respect that custom warrants. As Morgan turns to lead the way into the longhouse Jared glances at Jensen again, that earlier flash of recognition confirmed by a little upturn at the edge of his mouth, a softening of his gaze that makes Jensen shiver.
“How’ve you been, Ackles?” Chris greets him with a firm hand on his shoulder, and Jensen smiles as they fall into step behind their Captain.
“Better without your sorry ass always ordering me around,” Jensen answers, and Chris chuckles.
“Yeah, I’ll bet you were hoping I wouldn’t make it back,” Chris says. “They’d have to promote you.”
“They already did,” Jensen assures him. “I’m commander of the guard now.”
“Not for long,” Chris mutters good-naturedly.
The men file into the ceremonial meeting room and take their seats on long benches along three walls around the central space. Morgan has alerted the community elders, who take their places of honor at the head of the area and glare as the rest of the group sits down. This is a closed meeting, but the room seats at least forty people, and every space is full. Jensen stands at the back, near the door, Penikett beside him, to turn spectators away so the elders can hear the first report.
“Welcome home, Commander,” Jim Beaver, Chief Councilor, starts the meeting. “You bring us news.”
“Yes, sir,” Chris nods, standing alone in the middle of the hall, flanked by Steve and the Native. Jared. “The West is mountainous, overgrown and plagued by wildfires. Carlson and I thought it was impassable at first, but then we found Jared.”
Chris steps aside, gestures for Jared to step forward.
Jensen watches intently as Jared turns his head, slowly taking in the room full of people. Jensen wonders what he thinks, how he’s feeling right now. Natives live alone, or in small, tight-knit units. They shun the company of others by choice, living a solitary, nomadic existence since their ancestors left the crumbling society that existed before the Purge. They live off the land, away from the now-destroyed cities and towns of civilization. The term Native had been given to folks who literally “went native” at the End Times, before the Purge, and the name had stuck. Natives are hermitic - some say mystic - and it is rumored that they can see the future.
Except for Jared, Jensen’s never met a Native. They don’t usually show themselves, according to the stories. They watch. They know about groups of survivors like Jensen’s, but they don’t participate. They’re not joiners.
Jensen can’t help hoping he’s the reason Jared is here. He doesn’t know why, but Jared’s presence fills him with anticipation. Something big is happening, and Jensen just might be part of it.
He wishes Jared would catch his eye again. He wants to feel that thrill that Jared’s gaze gave him when he was first introduced. He knows it was real, he’s sure he didn’t imagine it, but he needs to feel it again like he never knew he could need anything. Jared makes him feel alive. Inspired.
Jared’s gaze falls on Chief Beaver, then on each of the Councilors in turn, and Jensen can see Beaver’s eyes narrow suspiciously.
“Something you want to tell us, son?” Beaver asks, deliberately condescending, and Jensen winces. Maybe Jared won’t answer, he thinks. Maybe he’ll be insulted.
“I know the way,” Jared says. His voice is soft but clear, sounding younger than Jensen had expected, and Jensen lets out the breath he didn’t realize he was holding.
“Through the mountains?” Councilor Kim Rhodes asks, obviously impatient with Beaver’s skepticism. “You can get us to the other side?”
Jared nods silently, and Beaver rolls his eyes.
“Well, you’re a regular swimming hole of info, ain’t ya?” he scoffs.
“And is it true there’s an ocean?” Rhodes coaxes, ignoring Beaver, who gives her the stink eye but lets her speak. “Water as far as the eye can see?”
“Yes,” Jared nods. “But that water isn’t for drinking. It’s full of salt.”
“Oh, that’s not good,” Rhodes says. “All that water and nothing to drink?”
“You can’t drink the ocean,” Jared agrees. “But you can drink from all the lakes and streams and rivers flowing into it. Most of them, anyway.”
“How long will it take us all to travel there?” Councilor Whitfield speaks up for the first time.
“Six months, give or take a little,” Chris answers. “Jared’s sense of time is a little different from ours, but that’s about what we could figure out from what he told us when we found him. That’s why we came back instead of pushing on. The way we were going was getting us nowhere.”
“And you trust him?” Beaver snaps. “You believe him when he says he knows the way?”
Chris straightens his shoulders, glances at Steve before answering. “Yes, sir, I do.”
Beaver shifts in his seat. He glances at Morgan, then at Councilor Williams, his other top advisor. Jensen can see Williams is on board; he chews thoughtfully on the toothpick in the corner of his mouth and pulls it out before he speaks.
“You do understand we’re a little low on options here, Jimbo,” he says, his grumpy tone belying the fondness he feels for Beaver. Everyone knows how close these two are, and it’s not just because they’re the oldest members of the Council. “Well’s drying up. River’s already done for. We’ll be out of water by spring.”
“No need to remind me of that, Steven,” Beaver grumbles. “I know what our options are.”
“We could send another team,” Councilor Omundson suggests. “Let them follow him all the way to the ocean. When they get back, they can lead us. No need for all of us to follow the Native.”
“You’re talking about waiting a whole year before we go,” Councilor Steen speaks up. “That’s cutting it pretty close. There’s no telling if our water supplies will hold that long.”
“They’ll hold,” Rhodes nods. “Some of us may need to travel the river upstream to find its source, and we may need to do some digging…”
“And pray for rain,” Steen adds darkly. It hasn’t rained in longer than any of them wants to think about, and with summer approaching it’s unlikely they’ll get more than a passing thunder-shower every few days, if that.
There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the community has to move. Their once-lush prairie is quickly becoming a desert.
“It’s settled, then,” Morgan says. “We send a team out with Jared, confirming the trail to the ocean. While they’re gone, we do what we got to do to get ready to move. Come spring, we head west.”
Beaver clenches his jaw, narrows his eyes at Jared. “You’d better be right about this, boy,” he says. “There’s over three-hundred souls counting on you here.”
“I know the way,” Jared repeats, soft and sure, making Jensen’s spine tingle again.
They don’t waste time. Chris and Steve want to lead the new expedition, but Morgan won’t hear of it. Both men are exhausted after their month-long journey. Morgan insists he’ll assign a new scouting team in the morning.
“I’d go myself if I could,” he tells his men as they gather around him, awaiting orders. “I’d like to be the first to see that ocean of yours, Jared.”
Jensen can tell by his tone that Morgan has already welcomed Jared into the fold. He trusts the younger man instinctively, just as Jensen does, just as Chris and Steve obviously do.
Jared smiles for the first time, and it lights up his face, causes deep canyons in his cheeks that resemble the ones in Morgan’s face. Now he like the boy Jensen remembers, and Jensen realizes with a start that Jared is probably younger than Jensen.
Jensen’s suddenly dying to get him alone, to ask him about his dreams.
Morgan assigns sleeping quarters to Jared and takes him on a tour of the fort. Jensen wishes he could tag along, but of course he’s on duty for another four hours. He follows Penikett back to the wall reluctantly, and the other man elbows him in the ribs as they start their climb up the ladder to the wall.
“You like him,” Penikett accuses with a sly grin. “The Native. Jared.”
Jensen’s cheeks flush, but he knows Penikett is just being observant. You don’t work closely with a man for ten hours straight every night without learning everything there is to know about each other; he and Penikett have worked together for the past month, since Penikett replaced Chris on the night watch. Of course Penikett knows where Jensen’s sexual preferences fall.
“Who wouldn’t?” Jensen shrugs. “He’s gorgeous.”
“And exotic,” Penikett nods. “Outsiders are always sexy.”
Jensen glances sharply at him, but Penikett’s expression is open, neutral. He catches Jensen’s glance and grins.
“Nah, he’s not my type,” he assures Jensen. “Plus, I’ve got Osric.”
“You too are serious?” Jensen’s aware that Penikett had a thing for the man, but he hadn’t been sure it was returned.
“Oh yeah,” Penikett confirms, grinning shyly. “It’s a done deal.”
“Good for you.” Jensen means it. He’s grateful he doesn’t have to feel jealous where Jared is concerned, although he’s a tad embarrassed by how easily he’s fallen for the man. He hasn’t spoken a word to the Native yet, but Jared’s already taken over his mind and body, if not his heart. It’s stupid.
It gets stupider when Jensen’s shift ends and Jared’s at the bottom of the ladder, waiting for him.
“Hey!” Jensen squeaks. “Uh – hey!”
Smooth, Ackles. Real smooth.
Jared blinks at him, but says nothing. Jensen’s vaguely aware of Penikett descending the ladder behind him and shuffling off with a quick, “See you tonight, Jen.”
“Yeah,” Jensen answers distractedly over his shoulder. When he looks up at Jared again the man is smiling a little – wait, is that a smirk? Is Jared smirking at him? Who the hell does he think he is? Does he think Jensen’s that affected by Jared’s bare chest and fox-eyes and perfect little pointed nose? Not to mention those moles, all laid out in a distracting constellation at points around his face that draw attention to his soft pink mouth, his high cheekbones and strong brow, his sweat-slicked neck…
“You know me,” Jensen says to break the silence. He wonders if Jared can read his mind, another rumor he’s heard about Natives.
Jared nods, lowers his head with a wide grin that shows his dimples. “You know I do,” he says softly, almost shyly, then lifts his eyes to Jensen again expectantly.
“My dreams,” Jensen guesses wildly. “That’s really you in my dreams.”
Jared nods again.
“But we’ve never met,” Jensen states the obvious. “You weren’t really there, when the Raiders burned my house down when I was a kid.” He feels something like panic rising in his chest, and he rushes on before it can bubble forth. “That kid in my dreams isn’t real, but he was you.” He knows he’s not making any sense, but he can’t help himself.
“Do you always have the same dream?” Jared seems to change the subject, but Jensen follows, shaking his head.
“No,” he admits. “Sometimes you’re there, but not always.”
“You got out of that fire on your own that night, Jensen,” Jared says. “I wasn’t there.”
Jensen stares. “You know my name,” he says finally, desperately trying to ignore the shivers he’s getting up and down his spine. “How do you know my name?”
“You told me,” Jared says.
“No I didn’t,” Jensen protests. “I’ve never even met you before today. Wait, did Chris tell you?”
“No, Jensen,” Jared shakes his head. “You did. In my dreams. You’ve been in my dreams, too. That’s how it works.”
“How what works? What the hell are you talking about? How could I be in your dreams? Do you – “ Jensen glances around to be sure they’re alone, then lowers his voice. “Do you even know how crazy that sounds? Because two people who’ve never met having dreams about each other is pretty crazy.”
“Not among my people,” Jared shrugs.
“Your people?” Jensen stares. “You’re a Native. You live alone. You don’t have people.”
“Really? That’s what you think?” Jared scoffs, incredulous. “You think Natives are born loners? What, we’re just hatched out of an egg, is that what you think?”
“No! I don’t know! Maybe.” Jensen blinks, frowning in confusion. He’s never thought about it, in all honesty. He’s never given more than a passing thought to how Natives live. There wasn’t ever any reason to do so. He hadn’t known any, until now.
“We’re people, Jensen, just like you,” Jared says, understandably irritated. Jensen’s being a dick and he knows it. “We have mothers and fathers, sometimes even sisters and brothers and grandparents. We live in small family groups, not big communities like this one, and we move around a lot. Sometimes we meet up with other Native families and join them for a while. Do a little trading, share stories and skills, maybe fall in love and get married, start a new family.”
“And you all have this – dreaming thing you do,” Jensen suggests hesitantly.
“Not all of us,” Jared admits. “But most of us. Psychic abilities seem to run in families. It skipped my parents, but my grandfather had it. It’s part of what makes us outsiders. Communities like yours tend not to trust us or tolerate us for long. We scare them.”
“Because you can see the future,” Jensen accuses. “Because you know people you’ve never met and call them by name.”
Jared’s brown skin flushes a deep shade of pink. He lowers his head as another face-splitting grin brings out his dimples. Jensen’s sure he’s never seen anything lovelier.
“I began having visions of you when I was very small,” he says softly. “I thought you were my big brother. My parents died when I was a baby and I lived alone with my grandfather. You were with me all the time, even when I was awake, so I thought you were real. When I got old enough to realize you weren’t real, I stopped seeing you.”
“Until now,” Jensen suggests. “You began having visions of me again recently?” He’s creeped out just thinking about it, but excited at the same time. He feels a little thrill of anticipation running down his spine, making his stomach flutter.
Jared nods and meets Jensen’s gaze. “I knew about your community. Over the past year or so I’ve had dreams about it, and you’ve been in the dreams. When Chris and Steve set out looking for water, I found them.”
“So you came here looking for me,” Jensen says, and damn it if his voice doesn’t shake.
“I came here to see you,” Jared confirms. “I needed to know you were real.”
“But you said you stopped dreaming about me when you were young,” Jensen says. “How did you know it was me?”
Jared’s expression is irritated and fond at the same time, and Jensen feels like kicking himself. He already knows the answer to that question.
“Same way you knew it was me,” Jared says patiently, like he’s speaking to a child. “I just knew.”
“Wait, but I’m not… I’ve lived here all my life, in this community. I’m not one of you. I’m not psychic, for God’s sake!”
But Jensen knows it’s true. He knows it the same way he knew Jared when he’d only ever seen him in a dream. He knows it even though he’d only been a child in that dream.
Jared watches him, letting the truth sink in, and Jensen paces for a moment, scrubbing his chin almost unconsciously.
“I think I need a drink,” Jensen says finally.
“How did your parents die?” Jensen asks as they sit shoulder to shoulder in the fort’s only bar, deserted at this hour of the afternoon. Most people are working.
“Same way yours did,” Jared says. “Raiders.”
“But you escaped? Somebody got you out?” It’s suddenly more important to know the details, to compare Jared’s story with his own. It can’t be a coincidence. There’s more to it, Jensen’s sure.
“Yeah, somebody did,” Jared agrees. He turns the cup in his hands, thumb rubbing the rim absently. His hands are huge, with long, graceful fingers that make Jensen think about his legs, makes him wonder if they’re long and slender too, under those breeches.
“You never knew who rescued you from the fire that night,” Jensen suggests, and Jared glances up sharply, studying Jensen’s face for a moment before shaking his head. He smiles a little as he lowers his eyes to his cup, raises it to his lips before answering.
“No,” he says after he takes a sip. “I was a baby. Somehow I ended up on my grandfather’s front step. He says he was sleeping the whole time, so it wasn’t him.”
“He didn’t live with you?” Jensen asks. In his experience, old people needed the protection of the community almost as much as infants did. He’s never heard of an elderly person who lived alone.
“He’s a hermit,” Jared explains. “Always has been, even back when he lived with my grandmother. He would go off for weeks or months at a time. Once he was gone for six years, long enough for my dad to be born and grow big enough to start pulling his own weight. Grandfather always said it was too noisy at home. Living with other people was too much of a hassle.”
“But then he raised you,” Jensen says, and Jared’s face relaxes into the dimpled grin that Jensen already loves too much.
“Yeah,” he confirms with a short laugh. “He’d never been around a baby before, since he was gone while my dad was little. It was a real eye-opener for him, I think.”
They share a bowl of thick soup and a loaf of bread, hard as a rock without dipping it in the soup to soften it. The barkeep serves them another cup of the sweet wine that passes for alcohol, and the two men drink and eat in companionable silence.
“What now?” Jensen asks after they’ve finished their food. The barkeep gives them each a cup of water, precious and clean, even if it doesn’t taste as good as the wine.
“What do you usually do at this time each day?” Jared asks, and now it’s Jensen’s turn to grin broadly, cheeks growing flushed and hot.
“Well, it’s siesta time,” Jensen says. “I’m on the night watch, so I usually catch a little shut-eye before the evening gathering.”
Jared raises his eyebrows. “What are we waiting for?”
Jensen laughs out loud, delighted by Jared’s candid invitation. “Did anyone ever tell you you were easy?” he teases.
Jared shakes his head, clearly bewildered, and Jensen rolls his eyes.
“Come on,” he says, sliding off the barstool and heading toward the door. He can’t quite bring himself to tangle his fingers with Jared’s, but he wants to. Jared follows him silently, so that Jensen has to glance back to be sure he’s really there.
Everything about this feels magical. It’s hard to believe it’s actually happening. Jensen leads the man of his dreams to a shed at the back of the compound, where no one ever goes at this hour. When they step inside it’s cool and quiet and smells like oil and leather. In the dim light through the cracks in the shed walls, Jensen leads the way to a ladder in the floor that descends into a root cellar, even cooler and darker than the shed above. At the bottom of the ladder they take a moment to let their eyes adjust to the gloom, then Jensen gestures toward a thin pallet in a corner of the room, behind barrels of potatoes and turnips.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” Jensen explains. It’s where he dreams, he doesn’t add, but Jared seems to know. He brushes past Jensen and sits down on the blanket that covers the pallet, dwarfing the space. Jensen briefly worries they won’t both fit. The small room smells like the earth that it’s carved out of. Now that they’re both here, it smells like sweat and sun-drenched skin, too.
Jensen’s hard. Has been for a while.
“Cozy,” Jared comments, flashing his dimpled grin. When his eyes drop to Jensen’s bulging trousers they darken. “Come here.”
Jensen obeys without even realizing it. He’s been following orders all his life, and although he’s only just met this strange man, he feels like Jared owns him.
That thought makes him shiver as he falls to his knees, waits as Jared rises gracefully to his knees and reaches for the clasps on the front of Jensen’s vest. From this position their height difference isn’t so pronounced, but Jared is still bigger in every way. Jensen’s not a small man, and he’s never been smaller than a sexual partner before. It’s a little intimidating. It’s a lot exciting.
Jared undresses him carefully, long, slender fingers slipping the vest off his shoulders, easily working the clasps on his trousers. Jensen gasps as Jared’s hand slips around his erection, pulling it free with one hand as he cups the back of Jensen’s head with the other and leans in.
Jared strokes him expertly as they kiss, and Jensen can’t help the moan of pleasure and relief that thrums through him. It’s been way, way too long since anyone’s touched him like this, much longer since he’s had a man. Jared gathers him in, presses their bare chests together, kisses rough and sloppy like he wants to devour Jensen from the inside out. All Jensen can do is hold onto Jared’s biceps tipping his head down when Jared releases his mouth so he can watch Jared’s big hand jerking him with a twist at the top of each stroke. He slips his index finger over the head to mop up the precome that pearls in the slit, using it to ease his way, and, before he can stop himself, Jensen moans and shudders like a teenager, coming hard and hot all over Jared’s hand.
“Sorry,” Jensen huffs out a laugh when he can finally speak again. “It’s been a while.”
“It’s okay,” Jared murmurs. He’s gathered Jensen’s limp body against him like a child, and Jensen knows Jared watched him as he came, because Jensen wants to do the same thing. He wants to see this big, beautiful man fall apart because of Jensen.
He just needs to get a little rest first.
It feels like only a moment later that he wakes to Jared kissing his shoulder, running the tips of his fingers over Jensen’s cheek and jaw, feather light.
Jensen’s lying on his back on the pallet, Jared stretched out long and lean beside him. The only light comes from the square in the ceiling that leads up into the shed above them, and Jensen can tell it’s already past sunset. The light comes from a torch outside the shed, one of several that are lit at sundown to light residents’ way around the fort. It flickers on the walls, causing shadows to dance and move across the cellar below.
“Hey,” Jared murmurs softly.
“Hey,” Jensen smiles. “Sorry I fell asleep.”
“You needed it,” Jared answers, tracing Jensen’s lips with his fingertips before he leans down to kiss him thoroughly.
“Hmmm,” Jensen hums when Jared finally releases him to come up for air. “You want me to…” He reaches a hand down between them, groping for Jared’s dick. Which is when he realizes he’s completely naked, while Jared is still fully clothed.
“No, we don’t have time,” Jared says, his voice laced with sadness. “I have to go.”
“What?” Jensen shakes his head a little to clear it. “What are you talking about? You just got here.”
“Something bad is about to happen,” Jared says. “They’ll blame me, and if I don’t go soon, I’ll never make it out at all.”
Jensen feels ice water shoot through his veins. He props himself up on his elbows and stares at Jared, trying to gauge the man’s mood. Is he serious? Is he crazy? Some combination, maybe?
“Jared, I don’t understand,” Jensen says. “You’re here to help us. You’re here to guide us to water.”
Sighing, Jared runs a hand through his hair, pulling out a feather braided into the long strands. He slips the feather into Jensen’s hand and tangles their fingers together.
“Do you trust me?” he asks, and Jensen finds himself nodding without even thinking about it.
“Of course I do. You’re the dream boy who saved me from the fire.”
“You’re my dream savior too, Jensen.” Jared smiles a little. Jensen can see his teeth flash in the dim light. “I was too small to be sure, but I know it was you who pulled me from the fire. We saved each other.”
“Okay,” Jensen says dubiously. He’s not sure how much of this dream stuff he believes, but he knows there’s something to it. He knows Jared, feels a deep connection to him in his bones. Even if the things Jared says don’t make much sense, Jensen trusts in Jared’s basic goodness, his benevolent intentions towards Jensen and his people.
“I’ve had a vision,” Jared says, breathing hard, as if the memory of the vision pains him. “Raiders are coming. They’ll destroy much of your food and water supply, kill many of your people.”
Jensen is stunned. “What? When?”
“Soon. Tonight, I think. I have to go.”
As if on cue, Jensen hears the sound of running feet, shouts of alarm outside. Shouts of “Raiders! Raiders are coming!” ring out as the fort’s warning bell begins to chime, calling all to arms.
Jared rises quickly and Jensen scrambles up, grabbing onto Jared’s breeches to hold him fast. “How did you know?”
“I’m sorry, Jensen,” Jared shakes his head. “Sometimes the visions happen almost on top of the actual event. I can’t control it. They will try to climb the walls, go straight to the store houses and the pump house. That’s all I know.”
“Okay,” Jensen grabs his clothes, starts dressing quickly as Jared paces, agitated and miserable. The shouts outside grow louder, more urgent. “Can you handle a bow?”
“I’m better with a blade,” Jared admits, and Jensen nods. He’d known that. He’d known Jared had knives hidden in his boots. “Okay then. Stay with me. I’ve got to get back to the front wall.”
Jared nods, but the misery in his face pulls Jensen up short.
“What is it?” he demands. “What’s wrong?”
“Your people,” Jared says. “They will think I am responsible. They’ll blame me.”
“You saw that in your vision?”
But Jensen knows it’s true. It’s too much of a coincidence, Jared’s arrival and the first attack the fort has experienced in at least six years. And although Jensen knows Jared’s got nothing to do with it, he also knows how fearful and suspicious his people are about outsiders. It’s not hard to imagine that they’ll try to pin this on Jared.
But right now, he’s got bigger problems.
“Come on,” he coaxes Jared. He can see the young man’s instinct is to flee. It’s not so much personal fear as the Native’s natural inclination to stay outside the community, to avoid group struggles. Jared had already offered his assistance as a loner and an outsider, but contributing to the community’s defenses isn’t something he usually signs up for.
They emerge from the shed to a scene of utter chaos. Women with small children and old people are crowding toward the compound’s central long-house. Older boys and girls along with all the menfolk and women without children are rushing to the front wall. Jared and Jensen get swept up in the latter group, and Jensen uses his authority as commander of the night guard to assign positions and offer words of encouragement.
By the time they reach the front wall, the raid is in full swing. Arrows fly over the wall into the inner courtyard, many of them tipped in burning oil. Jensen leads Jared up the ladder to the wall, dodging arrows and the community’s own archers, who are busy sending arrow after arrow flying back over the wall at the invaders.
“They’re coming at us from all four sides,” Chris explains when Jensen joins him on the wall. “I need you to take charge of the back wall. They’ve got ladders.”
“I’m on it,” Jensen nods, glancing over his shoulder at Jared. “He’s with me.”
Chris glances at Jared, and Jensen can see the respect he feels for the tall Native. “Just watch your back, Jen.” Jensen understands. It’s not that Chris doesn’t trust Jared, but he knows that Natives aren’t participants. They don’t work well in teams. Jensen would be foolish to assume Jared would cover him in a fight.
Jensen nods because he understands, but he doesn’t doubt for a moment that Jared would stop anyone who tried to hurt him. He’s not sure how he can be so sure, other than the dreams and the strange feelings he’s been having, but somehow he just knows
Jared would walk through fire for him.
The next hours are a blur. Jensen leads a stalwart band of archers and defenders on the back wall, managing to stave off the invasion from the rear. Raiders swarm the ground below the wall, so for the first hour Jensen is busy firing arrows and reloading, with Jared handing him fresh arrows. A crew battles the fiery arrows that land inside the compound with piles of sand and shovels. When the Raiders raise a ladder and start climbing, Jared and a team of defenders meet them at the top, making quick work of each, so that not one of the Raiders manages to breach the wall.
Nevertheless, the platforms become slick with blood, and by the time the Raiders fall back several bodies lie motionless in the courtyard, dozens more on the ground outside the wall. One of the storage houses has burned to the ground, but the fire crews have contained the fire and kept it from spreading.
As the sun creeps up over the smoky horizon, the fort dwellers claim their muted victory without much cheer. Thirty-six lives have been lost, another fifty are wounded, and their supplies have been depleted by a third. Worst of all, they have used more than half their stored water to fight the storage house fire and the well is almost dry.
Beaver convenes an emergency meeting of the council soon after sun-up.
“We’ll never make it another year,” Steen reports, after surveying their remaining inventory. “Even without further raids, we can’t expect the river and natural rainwater to make up the deficit in our water supply now.”
Rhodes nods. “We’ve got another six months, tops. If we don’t get raided again.”
“We lost almost forty people today,” Williams says. “After another raid like that, there won’t be many of us left to feed.”
Morgan steps forward. “This fort can’t withstand another raid like that. We don’t have enough manpower left to defend it. Our enemies know that, and they’ll be back. With reinforcements.”
Morgan’s grim assessment is met with stunned silence. Then Beaver speaks up.
“Are you saying we need to abandon ship?”
“I’m saying, we need a new home,” Morgan says. “Soon. One with plenty of fresh water and food.”
“If we leave now, we’ll walk right into an ambush,” Williams says. “At least here we stand a fighting chance of survival.”
“If we don’t starve to death,” Rhodes mutters.
“What if we send out an attack party of our own?” Whitfield suggests. “We take the fight to them, clear a path for our people to get through.”
“And lose more of our people?” Williams scoffs. “We can’t afford that.”
“There is another way,” Chris says, and Jensen catches him sharing a look with Jared. “We can send for our own reinforcements.”
“What?” Williams frowns. “Speak up, boy. Share with the class, now.”
“Jared knows about other communities,” Chris says. “When we first met him, he thought we were from a community near Devil’s Lake, in the North Country.”
“Is this true?” Beaver glares at Jared. “There are other communities like ours?”
Jared clenches his jaw, looking uncomfortable. The Native hasn’t left his side since the battle began, and Jensen can feel his body tense, his muscles twitch where their arms touch.
“Yes,” Jared answers, and Jensen suppresses his own surprise.
“And you were going to share this information when?” Beaver glowers.
“I have sworn an oath,” Jared says, shifting his feet so that his arm brushes Jensen’s. “I have been sworn to secrecy.”
“I’ll bet you have,” a new voice snarls from the back of the room.
Jensen watches as Mark Pellegrino steps forward. Pellegrino led the first scouting party, four years ago, when their water first began to run low. He lost his brother on that mission, and did not return until a year later, bitter and slightly deranged. Rumor had it that he had spent part of his time away living with Raiders, helping them do their dirty work just to survive.
Pellegrino isn’t a man to be crossed. He’s a vicious killer who is barely tolerated by the community because of his fighting skills and his knowledge of the outside world. He rarely participates in community politics, preferring to do his job quietly, letting others call the shots.
Jensen doesn’t trust him. There’s an air of deceit and treachery about Pellegrino. He seems always to be scheming and plotting, and Jensen can’t shake the feeling that the man would destroy the community from the inside if he had the chance and it suited his purpose. It makes Jensen nervous to see him here, in the inner sanctum of power. But of course they’ve lost too many today to be picky about who participates in the council meeting. All bets are off now that the situation is dire.
“Do you have something to say, Captain?” Beaver growls. Jensen can see that he doesn’t like Pellegrino, either.
“I just wonder how much Jared knew about what the Raiders had planned,” Pellegrino insinuates. “It seems a little too coincidental that he arrived just hours before their attack. And if he knew they were coming, why didn’t he warn us? Seems to me Jared’s got some explaining to do, wouldn’t you say?”
Ice water shoots up Jensen’s veins, making him shiver. All eyes have turned toward Jared, curious and disinterested for the most part, but here and there Jensen can see fear and doubt, too. Everyone here has lost someone close to them tonight, and the urge to find somebody to blame is powerful.
Just as Jared had said.
“By his own admission, Jared’s keeping secrets,” Pellegrino continues as he saunters forward, his movements slow and graceful, like a cat. Or a snake. “Secrets about other communities, secrets about potential water sources, maybe secrets about what the Raiders are planning. Seems to me, it’s time he shares what he knows. Everything he knows.”
Or else. Pellegrino doesn’t have to say it for everyone in the room to hear his threat.
Jensen glances around, notes the angry nods and clenched jaws as people listen and agree with Pellegrino’s words. Even Morgan is frowning, although he seems more concerned with Chris, whose debriefing had obviously left out a few details.
“Make him tell us what he knows!” a voice cried out from the back of the room. Mark Sheppard, Jensen thinks. He’d know that weaselly accent anywhere.
“Yeah!” Another voice adds. “Make him talk!”
“Now hold on there,” Beaver’s voice booms out, silencing the grumbling crowd. “Let the boy speak. Jared? Is this true? Do you know folks in other communities who could help us out?”
Jared’s lips part, but before he can speak, Shepherd calls out, “How do we know anything he says is true? Maybe he lied to the commander. Maybe there are no other communities!”
“That’s true,” another voice calls out. “If there are, why haven’t our scouting teams found them? In all these years, we’ve been sending out scouting parties and never heard tell of another community. How do we know he’s telling the truth?”
“They don’t care about anybody but themselves!”
“Why should we believe him?”
“He probably wants to see us destroy ourselves!”
More voices chime in, and Jensen finds himself pushed up against Jared, so that they’re standing literally back to back as the crowd surrounds them, leaning in with raised fists and angry faces.
Later, Jensen’s not sure what made him do what he did. All he knows is, his anxiety levels are through the roof and he needs the crowd to back off. Next thing he knows, he’s throwing his arms up, yelling at the crowd to, “Back off!”
“I mean it!” he shouts as the crowd hesitates. “Get back! Just listen for a minute! Everything he says is true, okay? It’s true!”
The faces around him register confusion; Jensen is someone they generally trust, plus he’s taller than most of them, and they all know what a good fighter he is.
“Jensen?” Jared hisses, and Jensen can feel his confusion. He shoots Jared a warning look over his shoulder and shakes his head. Jared hasn’t told him squat, of course, but that’s neither here nor there. At the moment, Jensen just needs these people to settle down. He’ll deal with Jared’s lack of transparency later.
“He’s told me what he knows,” Jensen lies, meeting Morgan’s eyes briefly before locking eyes with Jim Beaver. “He’s promised to show me this other community, the one Chris mentioned. We can go there, be back with reinforcements within a month, six weeks at the most. You all just need have to hold out till then. Now, I know you can’t spare any people right now, so I’ll go. Alone. And I will return. You have my word.”
Beaver tries to stare him down, but Jensen can see the relief in the older man’s eyes, even as he narrows them to appear skeptical and distrusting.
“It sounds like a reasonable plan,” Morgan says, biting back his obvious displeasure with Jensen and Chris for apparently withholding information. “I had planned to send Ackles on the next mission. He’s well-trained and rested, and Kane speaks highly of him. That’s good enough for me.”
“It’s settled then.” Beaver glances at Jensen, then Jared. “You boys head out as soon as you’re ready.”
“Yes, sir.” Jensen nods, relief making his knees weak. Jared puts a hand out to steady him, but Jensen shakes his head. It won’t look good if they appear personally involved right now.
Unfortunately, the gesture isn’t lost on Pellegrino. “Really,” he smirks. “You’re going to send these two out into the world and expect them to come back? I never pegged you for a fool, old man, but that’s pretty idiotic, if you ask me.”
“No one’s asking you, Pellegrino,” Morgan growled, but Beaver put his hand up to silence him.
“This community operates on trust, Mark, and you know it,” Beaver says. “I trust Morgan, who trusts Kane, who trusts Ackles, who trusts the Native. That’s the way it has to be. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.”
The threat of exile, of permanent banishment, is always the harshest possible punishment, as Pellegrino well knows. No one but a Native can survive in the wilderness alone. Pellegrino’s found that out the hard way, according to the rumors. His jaw clenched, he glares hard at Jensen, hatred radiating off of his body in waves.
But he keeps his mouth shut, and Beaver gives a satisfied nod.
“All right then. Everybody back to work.”