Long Way Home (Part 3/3)

Dec 26, 2012 09:17

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Masterpost



This is it. This is the day. Gen wakes up to murmurs passing over her head and rumbling through her from both sides. She’d lie there for a while, appreciating, except she remembers: today they find Jared’s family. So she wriggles a little to loosen the grip of arms laying over her and opens her eyes, and there are Jensen and Jared looking down at her. “Hey,” she says. The word clogs her dry throat.

Jensen bends to kiss her hair, and she feels Jared do the same. “Right,” Jensen says, and pushes away and up.

This time, Jared keeps his mouth as Jensen reviews the plan: gas up, find a map, go to Jared’s house. Gen doesn’t ask why they might need a map to find the house Jared’s family has lived in for ten years, and Jensen doesn’t volunteer the information.

They pack quickly. Gen’s on the ground putting the last of the tent pegs in their canvas bag when Jensen crouches to her level and kisses her, quick but soft. When he pulls back, his eyes are full of a longing way more complex than lust, but before she can say anything, he’s up and off again. Gen looks to Jared for confirmation - did that just happen? - and he shrugs. “He caught me earlier,” Jared says.

Gen thinks maybe she and Jared - and even Jensen, imagine that - should have talked about whatever this is they’ve been doing. Today feels like too late.

Tomorrow, maybe, depending on how things turn out.

Once they’re on the highway, Jensen’s immediately looking for an abandoned car to siphon from. In the next little town they reach, they find one. Then they drive for a couple of hours, windows still down while the temperature’s bearable. Jensen is quiet. Uncharacteristically, Jared is, too.

Gen’s only been down to Austin with Jared a couple of things since they got together. She remembers it as huge and sprawling, green and muggy, a vast organic structure of concrete and steel sprouted from the hills She remembers smog and the chill of indoor climate control, everywhere, and the blaze of verdant, alien heat during those few rare scurries out of doors from building to car and back again.

Those things are all still here. The asphalt arterials are here, sure; it’s the blood flow of traffic that’s missing. The stacks of apartment buildings, one behind another, on and on like frames in a beehive, are here; all that’s lacking is the bees.

It’s deserted.

This is a bigger city than Lubbock or Salt Lake, and Gen knows it marginally better. The chill she’s feeling now has nothing to do with air conditioning.

Jensen’s originally from near Dallas, she knows, but he’s been through Austin a few times to see Jared, and he seems to know where he’s going. They pull off the freeway onto a deserted frontage road, and Jensen stops at a gas station and makes his raid, coming back with a road map.

Gen wishes she could see any triumph in his face of a caper well-executed. It’d make this feel less like the nightmare she’s just woken up into.

Too soon, they drive down Jared’s street through Jared’s peaceful, tree-lined neighborhood. The towering pecan tree still stands on the corner lot. Jared took her there once to collect nuts and meet the neighbor, a frail-looking, white-haired lady with a smirk and a filthy mouth.

They get within view of the ranch-style house Jared’s parents live in. “My dad’s car,” Jared whispers. He’s sheet-white.

Jensen drives slowly closer. The house windows are dark, just like the windows of every other house on the street. They’re closed, too, which is worse; darkness means no power, but closed means no one inside cares about temperature anymore. When Jensen pulls up to the curb, Jared’s half out the door before Jensen grips his arm and hauls him back in.

“What the hell?” Jared says.

Wordless, Jensen digs under his seat, pulls out a revolver, and holds it out to Jared.

“Are you fucking insane?” Jared cries, scrambling backwards. “What do you think I’m going to fucking do with that?”

Jensen’s words are low and certain. “You’re going to carry it, and you’re going to point it at anyone that doesn’t stop when you tell them to, and if they keep coming, you’re going to shoot them.”

Jared huffs, low and disbelieving, and then he’s out of the car and running up the sidewalk, empty-handed.

“Damn it.” Jensen pushes out of the other door and strides after him.

And Gen, well, everything she has left to care about is barreling towards the Padaleckis’ front door. She doesn’t see any point in not following. By the time she gets up the sidewalk to the front door, Jared’s already banging on it and yelling.

“Do you have a key?” Jensen asks.

Jared pauses. “Shit.” He fumbles in his pocket for his keys, picks shakily through them, fits one in the lock, and turns. He pushes the door open.

It’s silent inside. The air is hot and stale. Rancid.

Jared bursts past Gen into the gloom. “Mom? Dad?” Gen suddenly hopes desperately that no one is here, because if someone is, and they’re sick, and Jared catches it now-

Gen lets Jensen get ahead of her, his revolver firmly gripped in his hands, and she follows him inside - through the darkened hall, into bedrooms and bathrooms and the rec room. By the light of the windows she can see no one’s here, even if the stillness of the air, the unmoving silence weren’t enough to tell her.

Jared comes in from the back door. “Butch isn’t here,” he says. “They had to be okay if they took Butch, right? Nobody else...”

Nobody else would have taken the time to worry about the dog.

Jensen pushes past him into the yard, and comes back a moment later. “No graves.”

“Maybe they left a note,” Gen offers. “I’ll get the flashlights.”

--

The chances of Jared’s parents leaving a note in his room seem low, but once Gen’s in there with a flashlight, she can’t make herself leave. Here’s Jared’s poster of Casino Royale. Here’s his Xbox, left behind for his brother last Christmas and sorely missed. Here is his shelf of personally customized Marvel action figures, the fruit of more hours of labor than Gen can imagine. Here’s his suit jacket that appears in the pictures of his cousin’s wedding out in the hall, though the suit’s too small in the shoulders now.

It seems longer than four days - or even two weeks, possibly a closer estimate - since she and Jared left behind their old life in Seattle. Now that old life stares out at her from walls and shelves and closet. It’s a foreign country, an alien planet.

“Here!” Jared yells from down the hall.

In the kitchen she finds him and Jensen squinting at a bright green flyer. Words are written across the back in Sharpie. “The elementary school,” Jared says. “There’s a shelter set up there.”

“Let’s go,” she says.

But when they get to the elementary school a couple of miles away, there are black quarantine ribbons around the outside and no one in sight.

“Do we yell?” Gen asks.

“I’ve been exposed more than you guys,” Jensen says. “I’ll go.”

Gen catches at his arm, and he gives her a smile that makes her want to cry. He leans down and kisses the top of her head.

“Screw this,” Jared says, and jogs around the car. When he comes back, he has the rejected revolver in hand - because obviously the thing to worry about after the pandemic is whether you might need to shoot someone. “Let’s do this,” he says.

“Okay,” Gen says, taking a deep breath. When both guys turn to stare at her, she says, “What, you thought I was going to wait in the car?”

So together all three of them march past the black tape. Inside, their footsteps echo down the hall. Lemony disinfectant floats like an oil slick over the pooling sweet-sick odor of death. There are lights on in the gym - generator power, maybe - and people, too, a few lying on cots, a few standing near the collapsed bleaches on one side.

They’re spotted. A middle-aged woman with curly hair bushing from her head turns to them and starts to approach. Suddenly her pace picks up, and when she gets close enough, she says in a harsh whisper, “Put those away.”

“Don’t get too close,” Jensen says. He doesn’t relax, but he doesn’t aim at anyone, either.

The woman snorts. “It’s over,” she says. “If you were going to catch it, you’d already be dead.”

“How long?” asks Jensen. “How long since the last case?”

“Six days,” the woman says, immediate and unhesitating.

“It could be a different strain,” Jensen says. “Right now, we could-”

“Six days, Jensen,” Gen says. “At some point we have to just take our chances.”

“And you think that point is now?” By his tone and his expression, Gen thinks he might actually need her answer. He needs someone to take the decision out of his hands.

“Yes,” she says firmly.

He swallows, and then he flicks the safety on and lowers the gun. On his other side, Jared does the same, and Gen’s breath starts to come a little easier.

“My parents,” Jared says. “My brother and sister - they said they were coming here.”

The look the woman gives him isn’t sympathy - Gen suspects she doesn’t have any left - but it softens a fraction. “We have a list of the dead, if you’ll come with me.”

They follow her to an office, naturally lit by a window. She pulls out a battered stenographer’s notebook and holds it out to Jared. After a moment’s hesitation, he takes it and begins to leaf through the pages. Gen peeks around his arm. All she sees are names - page after page of them.

“Some were unidentified,” the woman said. “They died before we could ask.”

“And the living?” Jensen asks. “What about the survivors?”

“They’re mostly gone now. We’ve got a few left suffering from other things - untreated pneumonia, that kind of thing. But everyone who caught the bug is dead, and most everyone else who didn’t has left.”

“Left for where?” Gen asks.

The woman shrugs. “Wherever there is to go. St. Luke’s has been serving lunch every day. You might check there.”

Jared looks up, and tears sit unshed in his eyes. “They’re not here.”

“Don’t you have some record?” Gen asks. “A... a guestbook? Something?”

“The bulletin board,” the woman says.

It takes Gen and Jared and Jensen together half an hour to comb the layers and layers of messages thumb-tacked to the school’s bulletin board. There’s nothing that Jared can identify as being from his family.

“They’re not here,” he says quietly. “Maybe they never came here at all.”

Jensen bumps shoulders with him. “We’ll try St. Luke’s next.”

“We can get lunch,” Gen says, slipping her arm around Jared’s.

--

It’s a quiet crowd huddled out on the lawn of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. No one gives the three a second glance as they approach: Jensen taking point in front, Jared in the rear rubbernecking the crowd seated at folding tables under portable canopies. Gen looks, too. She’s only met Jared’s folks a few times, though, and she’s not sure she’d even recognize them in this sea of grayed faces.

Eventually they come to a halt, halfway down the long row of tables, and Jensen glances back. “Anything?” Jared shakes his head. “Might as well eat, then.”

The church is serving chili today, cooked on row of camping cook tops running on propane. “This is the last of the frozen ground beef,” says the man with the ladle. “It’s all thawed, now.”

“Who are all these people?” Jensen asks, nodding towards the tables.

“Survivors,” the man says, like that answers the question.

But apparently it does, because Jensen leads the way to the end of a table, a couple of seats down from anyone else. Gen sits across from him. Suddenly, the soft murmur of the crowd washes over her, nearly drowning her in sheer proximity. So many people, so close, all at once.

Jensen catches her eye. “Okay?” he asks.

This means it’s over, right? If Jensen’s okay sitting in this crowd of people, eating their food, then the danger must be past. It was easy enough telling him it was, a few hours ago; now, among so many strange faces, Gen can’t grasp it. But Jensen’s still watching her, sober, clear-eyed. That’s enough. That has to be enough. “Okay,” she says.

She hasn’t eaten a hot meal in over a week. She takes her first bite and closes her eyes to savor the flavors of onions and chili powder and red meat, which two weeks ago she’d have said she could pretty happily do without. The taste of it and the texture between her teeth feels like some piece of her world’s come right again.

Jared is less enthused. He’s not even looking at his bowl; every time someone stands up, his eye is instantly on them, and once it’s clear they’re no one he knows, he goes back to watching the street. “Eat,” Gen says, nudging him. “You need the calories.”

After a while, Jensen turns to woman nearest him and strikes up a quiet conversation. There are no personal questions, nothing about how many each of them has lost. Jensen only asks about other shelters, other people still in Austin, and whether the woman might know the Padalecki family. She doesn’t, but she names a couple of places and gives him rough directions. He nods and thanks her, and then he lets her retreat to her chili.

Before they leave, they stop at the church’s bulletin board, now hung just inside the church doors where it’s visible by the light of the windows. They scan through the notes. Jared insists on seeing every one himself before he finally agrees to leave. When he walks back out the door, his shoulders are slumped just a little bit more.

--

They check several more emergency shelters, some of them permanent places for the homeless, others temporary, set up in churches and schools. Jensen does the talking. At every place they visit, he asks about other shelters, about any news of someone with Jared’s last name. He’s tireless, it looks to Gen, and she envies him for it. Somehow this running back and forth across Austin is more draining than those endless hours on the road. Gen squints at more illegible handwritten notes than she can count and scans hundreds of shell-shocked faces.

They stop at a few houses, too, places belonging to Padalecki aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends. Most of the houses are empty. Gen quits going in, which she’s soon grateful for. At one house, Jared comes out and pukes his lunch onto the lawn. Jensen doesn’t, but he’s very pale.

“What happened?” Gen asks, before she can think better of it.

“They’re still here,” Jensen says.

--

By the time they’ve checked half a dozen shelters and crossed Jared’s last possible family member off the list, it’s late evening. They sit in the parking lot of an apartment complex that reminds Jensen a lot of Gen and Jared’s place back in Seattle: same landscaping scheme of concrete and asphalt, same style of economy walk-up, painted beige. It’s uncanny. It feels like they’ve never gone anywhere at all.

There was no one here, either. By the smell of the apartment, someone was sick here, maybe they even died, but there are no bodies and no evidence of where any survivors might have gone.

“What now?” Gen asks. She’s slumped against the seat, eyes half closed.

Jensen breathes deep. There are still shelters they haven’t visited, other gathering places they’ve heard of but haven’t yet had a chance to check. There’s still a hope of finding some member of Jared’s family alive.

But Jared won’t push to keep looking; he hasn’t said a word in over an hour, and right now he’s staring sightlessly down at nothing at all. Gen’s clearly exhausted, and Jensen is, too, and it makes no sense to press on tonight. If Jared’s family is out there, then they still will be tomorrow.

If. Jensen hasn’t let himself consider that word too hard yet.

Instead, he says, “We gotta find some place to bed down for the night. We could head back to Jared’s place, it looked clean-”

“No,” Jared says. His gaze is fixed on his knees. “I can’t go back there.”

“Okay,” Jensen says. “It’s okay.”

Logistically, it makes more sense to find someplace close - it’s not like this city doesn’t have a few thousand dwellings with no one dwelling in them anymore. Jensen finds he doesn’t care. He wants fresh air a hell of a lot more than he wants a bed in a stale, empty house.

“We’ll get out of town,” he promises. “Gimme the map.”

They’re not far from a wildlife refuge, it turns out. Jensen gets them there in twenty minutes. Jared doesn’t say a word the entire drive. They race the darkness getting the tent up and collecting firewood, and Jared works as hard as Jared or Gen, but when they finish and settle on their sleeping bags and Gen and Jensen open their cans of edibles, Jared just stares into the fire. The flickering light puts more life in his eyes than Jensen’s seen all day.

“Hey,” he says, nudging Jared with his shoulder.

“Hey.”

“We’ll keep looking,” Jensen says.

Jared doesn’t say anything for a while. Jensen focuses on the press of Jared’s shoulder against his, the heat transferred across the layers of two cotton.

“We aren’t going to find them,” Jared says. He turns to meet Jensen’s eyes for the first time in hours. “We knew that, right? Before we even left Seattle, we knew they were dead.”

“Jared,” Gen says. She’s curled up against Jared’s other side. She reaches over to rub his arm.

“I knew,” he says. “I mean, what are the chances? Survival’s like two percent, wasn’t that what they said on the news?”

“We’ll keep looking,” Jensen repeats.

Jared’s eyeing him, gently puzzled. “They’re not out there, man.” He shrugs, like this is an inconvenience, something on par with failing a test and getting a flat tire in the same day.

“Jared,” Jensen begins, but his feeble promises catch in his throat. There’s only one thing left Jensen can think of to do. He closes the six inches between them and kisses Jared. A shudder runs through Jared, and he gives a moan that might be lust and might be grief, and then he’s clutching Jensen’s shoulders with both massive hands and searching Jensen’s mouth with his tongue like a starving man searching for a crumb.

After ten seconds or so Jensen pulls away. “Hey,” he whispers. “Hey.” He gasps a little, catching his breath as he takes in the fact that he might get to have this one more time. The next moment, he nearly chokes; he can’t be grateful that Jared’s family might really be gone. He can’t. Jared has to be wrong.

Tears well in Jared’s eyes, and when he speaks, hitching little pauses punctuate his words. “I don’t know what to do now.”

“You’ve got us,” Jensen promises. That, at least, is a promise he and Gen can hold to.

“Yeah,” Gen says. She pushes up onto her knees and kisses Jared, and Jared kisses back, reaching up to tangle his fingers in her hair.

It’s contact Jared seems hungriest for, and Jensen and Gen give it to him. They’re not always graceful about it, because sometimes three sets of elbows is two sets too many, and sometimes three mouths is one mouth too few, but Jared doesn’t seem to mind. Eventually Jensen’s timing his strokes on Jared’s dick by the sounds Jared’s making, and when Jared finishes, Jensen feels something clenched tight in his chest release.

“You should,” Jared begins. He’s swaying where he sits, coasting on the combined endorphins of sex and touch and grief. “You have to take care of Gen.”

“I’m fine,” Gen says, shaking her head. There are tears in her eyes again.

“Please?” Jared looks between them, muzzy and pleading. “You can’t... it’s just us. We have to take care of each other. And...” He sniffles, and then he smirks at Jensen. “And you already used me up, man.”

“Okay, if...” Jensen glances at Gen. The smile she gives him is watery but raunchy all the same. “Okay.”

“I can warm her up for you, though, if you want.”

That’s how it is that Jensen learns by the light of a campfire the faces Gen makes while Jared’s fingers work their were way into her. He learns the giggle, high and out of breath and a little bit desperate, that she makes just before she demands that someone get in her and finish her off. Apparently, that’s going to be him this time.

“You good?” Jared asks, palming over Jensen’s erection, which has been building on each of Gen’s tiny gasps.

Jensen swats him away, because he’s not going to hold out much longer if Jared touches him like that again. Gen’s waiting, gazing up at him with eyes fathomless and black. She gets her hands on his hips and guides him on top of her.

There’s something missing here. “Do I need...?” His hand flails for the word he can’t find. “Condom. We need a condom.” He doubts he even packed any.

“The pill,” Gen gasps, sharp and impatient. “I’m on the pill. You’re clean, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So come on, then.” She squirms invitingly beneath him, her eyes fathomless and black. And this moment here, Gen gazing up at him with eyes fathomless and black, Jared looking on with keen interest - this moment belongs to Jensen.

And he takes it. He settles into Gen, and he was right about not lasting long, because the friction of just a few thrusts is enough to send them both over, one after the other.

They end up all rolled together in a single drowsy heap. The night’s too warm to be lying tangled together like this, but neither Gen nor Jared seems inclined to move, and if they wanted to, Jensen’s not sure he would let them. They’re sweat-sour, all three of them, and ripe with the grime of travel and the salt flavor of sex, and Jensen doesn’t give a damn. He holds onto Jared, and Gen lies in the angle between them, and no one tries to let go.

As sleep overtakes him, Jensen finds himself nursing a bitter, black hope that Jared’s right.

--

Jensen wakes up to someone pushing at him.

“Jensen!”

It’s Jared, but Jared never wakes up before him. There is not a camping trip Jensen’s ever been on with him when Jared didn’t sleep until long after sunrise. When Jensen’s stayed with the Padaleckis on vacation, Jared’s likely to turn up, squinty and grumbling, around noon. So it makes no sense that Jared’s trying to shove him awake right now.

“Jensen.”

“God, what?” Jensen screws his eyes open, and there’s Jared, hanging over him like an enormous hound who might lick Jensen into action if he lies there much longer.

“It’s almost eight.” Jared pushes up into a crouch and rocks back on his heels. “Can’t believe you’re still asleep.”

Eight? “Me either,” Jensen says, struggling upright. It occurs to him that Gen’s not around. He is seriously the last one awake, what the hell. “What’s up? Gen get eaten by a bear?” As soon as the words are out, he wants to kick himself in the ass; once upon a time, that would have been a funny camping joke. Not anymore.

Jared doesn’t seem to notice. He licks his lips. Staring hard at the sleeping bag that’s barely keeping Jensen decent, Jared says softly, “I had an idea.”

“Yeah?” Jensen wonders if he’s supposed to guess what it is. If so, tough shit, because his brain is not functioning on that level yet.

“Yeah. Um. You know how my grandparents had that ranch, out where the old homestead was?”

“Vaguely.”

“It’s shut up now - someone was leasing the land for cattle but they let it go a few years ago. It’s just some farm buildings and a bunch of nothing.”

“Okay,” Jensen says. He thinks he knows where this is going.

“So maybe my folks went there? To get out of the city, away from everything. Maybe even some of my other family. Uncle Michel and Aunt Arlene? They live the closest. Does that... Do you think?” Jared asks like Jensen would know, like the world runs on the authority of Jensen’s instincts.

“It’s a good idea,” Jensen agrees cautiously.

“So we can go?”

“Dude, Jared, of course we can go. Let me just...” Jensen looks around, like something other than yesterday’s sweat-crusted t-shirt and shorts might appear if he just wishes for it. And something does, because Jared twists around and comes back with a pile of clothes. He proffers them with the flourish of a maitre d’ with a wine list. It’s the most Jared’s looked like himself since before they rolled into Austin.

“We’ll go check it out,” Jensen promises.

--

They’re not on the road until nine-thirty. “I can’t believe I slept that long,” Jensen repeats as he slides into the driver’s seat.

“You just looked so peaceful,” Gen says.

--

Jared hasn’t been to the family homestead in years and can’t remember how long it takes to get there, so Jensen gets on the highway Jared directs him to, and he waits for Jared to spot the landmarks that will guide them. They climb up and down rolling hills spotted with shrubs and the occasional oak tree. As they leave Austin behind, the openness of the country opens something in Jensen. He thought they’d been okay in the city, that he’d believed the danger was over, but still it’s a relief to see no sign of humanity beyond the road he’s driving down and the occasional ranch house or barn.

Jared’s watchful, tense, but there’s a light in his eyes that Jensen didn’t even realize was missing until now that it’s back. It comes to Jensen that Jared was telling the truth last night - he’d never believed his family was alive, but now, paradoxically, he does.

Jensen wants to caution him; if Jared’s wrong, Jensen doesn’t trust that hope not break him. But it goes straight against the encouragement Jensen was trying to give yesterday, and anyway a cool, bloodless voice inside asks Jensen if he just doesn’t want to find Jared’s family. So he keeps quiet.

An hour out, there are twenty minutes of confusion where Jared tries to sort out whether they’ve missed their turnoff. Finally he spots a huge lone boulder that he’s convinced he remembers, and they turn onto the road next to it and keep going.

They’ve been driving gravel roads for half an hour, kicking up a cloud of dust behind them, when Jared points to another, narrower lane. “That’s the driveway,” he says.

The gate hangs open, and Jensen drives through. He thinks the rusted chain hanging from it looks rustier in some places than others, like it’s recently been moved. He doesn’t mention it to Jared. Caution.

But they come up on a cluster of buildings, and as they approach someone comes out toting a shotgun, and Jared laughs. “It’s Uncle Michel,” he says, high and disbelieving and breathy.

“Oh, God, Jared,” Gen says. She grips Jared’s shoulder, and in the rear-view mirror Jensen can see the beginnings of tears.

Jensen brakes and turns off the engine. Jared tumbles out of the car and yells to the man, who lowers the aim of the shotgun and just stares. When Jared starts to approach, though, the shotgun muzzle lifts again. From the words Jensen can catch, it sounds like an interrogation is beginning.

He climbs cautiously out of the car. On the other side, he can hear Gen’s door swinging open. Slowly they come alongside Jared.

“Heard you were in Seattle,” Michel says.

“We were,” Jared says. “We drove.”

Michel considers that. “What is that, two thousand miles?”

Jared turns to Jensen, expectant. Jensen shrugs. “Something like that.”

“So, you...” Michel’s grip on his gun shifts. “You all been exposed.”

Jensen lifts his chin. “I was with my dad and sister to the end.”

Michel nods in sober acknowledgment.

Jared says, “Gen and I, a bunch of our classmates died. And at our apartment, the family next door...”

“I get you,” Michel says. “All of us, too. We’re exposed. And no symptoms?”

It’s Jensen who answers. “Guess we got the touch of God. Not even a cough.”

And that’s all it takes. Michel Padalecki sets the butt of the shotgun on the ground. His head swings side-to-side in sheer disbelief, and he breaks into a grin. “My God,” he says. “Jared, my God.”

--

There are tears of grief as well as joy, once they finally get inside the house. Jared’s mom is there, and after she leaps up and hugs him as though she’ll never let go, she sits them all down and serves them water fresh from the spring. It’s no cooler than the bottled water Jensen’s been guzzling, and there’s a mineral tang to it he’s not used to, but still it’s the best thing he’s tasted in weeks.

It’s then that she tells them the news. Jared’s younger brother and sister are fine; they’re off with Aunt Carla doing something to what’s going to become the garden. Jared’s father, his older sister, and his sister’s family are not fine.

“It’s more than I have any right to,” Melanie Padalecki says, eyes welling up again. “Whole families gone, and I’ve still got Emily and Wallace. And you.” She grips Jared’s hands in hers, smiling feebly through her tears. “And you, too, Genevieve. Of course you’re welcome, I know it’s just you, isn’t it?” Gen nods. “And Jensen. Do you have anyone left?”

It’s a blunt, graceless question, but there’s kindness in her face as she asks it. “No.”

“Then you’ll stay with us, too, if you want. There’s plenty of land out here. Plenty of work to be done.”

“Thanks.”

It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the offer, but he sees how Jared and Gen cling to each other, her half in his lap, joined by more than just the contact of skin on skin. Scenes like it used to be good teasing fodder, before; now it makes Jensen’s stomach churn.

He did what he promised. He brought Jared and Gen safely home. That’ll have to be enough.

Wallace, Emily, and Aunt Carla stumble in eventually, filthy and sunburnt, and there’s another round of hugs and explanations. Jensen even comes into a hug from Wallace, presumably on the basis of a six-hour stretch they spent together last year playing Katamari Darcy. The hug startles Jensen a little.

Everyone filters outside, where dinner is potatoes blackened in the depths of the fire pit and salted for flavor. The mood is orders of magnitude less somber than the chili feed at the church yesterday. This is a house whose missing son has returned home.

Jared has to tell the whole epic tale of their cross-country expedition. He sings Jensen’s praises, talking about how Jensen searched the city harder yesterday than Jared had the heart to, how Jensen packed the car and warded off potential disease vectors with a gun. Jensen sounds like some kind of hero, a tour guide through the arid landscapes of hell.

Jensen finds it all pretty embarrassing. This isn’t what he did it for. Jared keeps asking for clarification, and Jensen keeps having to say, “It’s your story, dude. Tell it how you want.”

Finally the topic shifts to Austin, and the spotlight on Jensen switches off. He finds he doesn’t need the specifics of how the plague spread through the city, not tonight. He gives himself over to the beguiling flicker of the fire.

Gen comes and sits next to him on the log that he’d claimed as his. “Hey.”

“Hey,” he says.

“It’s weird, being with all these people at once.” Gen scoots up close, until they’re touching hip to hip. Putting his arm around her is less awkward than not, so he does. The motion feels stiff, though. Unnatural, which is bizarre given how much he’d like to lean down kiss away the tension pursing her lips.

Instead he says, “We saw a lot of people yesterday.”

“It was weird then, too.”

“You’ll be all right,” he says, and he knows it’s true. “The worst is over. You’re with family now.”

“Yeah.”

The conversation has moved to the story of Melanie, Wallace, and Emily’s flight from the city, and suddenly Jensen can’t bear to hear how it happens that so much of Jared’s family is sitting here around this fire. He starts to extricate himself from Gen.

“Jensen?”

“It’s okay. I just.” Gen’s eyes are huge and liquid in the firelit glow, and Jensen finds he can’t deny her at least a little of the truth, however selfish a truth it is. For Gen’s ears alone, he whispers, “I wish it was my dad talking right now.” She reaches out and grips his hand, and he can’t help himself; he leans over and kisses her hair. “I’m going to bed,” he says.

“ ‘Kay,” she says.

Jensen goes out front and sets up the tent by the last gleams of sunset. A tent feels a little weird now that the trip is theoretically over, but the house is dusty and grimy and stale with years of disuse, and the tent’ll keep the mosquitoes out. He lays out his sleeping bag and crawls in it, thinking that if the Padaleckis have a spring, maybe there’s a chance at a sponge-bath tomorrow.

It takes him a long time to fall sleep. He hasn’t slept alone since Seattle.

--

Gen wakes up at some point way earlier in the morning than she’d like. She scowls at the light and the motion - but not the noise, because there isn’t any sound at all but that of three people breathing - and says, “What are you doing?”

“Nothing.” Jensen sounds guilty. Gen opens her eyes, and from the smear of color that she can see, he looks guilty. Before she can say anything, he whispers, “What are you doing here?”

It takes Gen a moment to remember where here is. The tent. She and Jared left the fire and searched the house with a flashlight, looking for Jensen. He wasn’t on either of the musty mattresses in the house, so they came out to the car, and there was the tent, pitched in the driveway. They didn’t even talk about it; they just stripped to their underwear, out there under the indigo Texas sky, and crawled into the tent to collapse.

But now Jensen’s staring at her like she’s something foreign, if not altogether bad, a Ferrari in a lot of Ford Escorts.

He asked her a question, though. “Sleeping,” she says.

His mouth snaps shut on whatever comment he was going to make.

“Where are you going?” she asks.

He glances towards the tent door, involuntary. Definitely shifty. “Thought I’d see about a bath.”

“Whatever,” Gen says. Later in the day she’ll be following that up. Not yet. “You can be gross another hour or so. Come snuggle.”

He’s not so far away that she can’t grab his arm, and when she tugs, he follows and settles down next to her. She kind of wants to do something fun, but she’s still too bonelessly exhausted to be frisky, so she just pulls his arm over her how she likes it and closes her eyes.

--

Jensen’s gone the next time Gen wakes up, but she’s not really surprised. She wonders what he had in mind when he said bath. If asked right this moment, she couldn’t swear she remembers ever being clean.

She crawls up and out, taking care not to stumble over Jared’s ridiculous sprawling limbs. Outside, the air is already warm, a still-gentle promise of the midday heat. It occurs to her that maybe clothes are in order, so she shimmies back into the dirty ones from yesterday. Maybe just after the holy rite of bath there can be the almost equally sacred ritual of laundry.

There’s no one at the fire pit, so Gen wanders inside the house. She finds the entire crowd in the kitchen, which has more light, via the eastern-facing glass door, than any other room in the house. “Genevieve,” says Melanie. “Jerky?” She holds out a king-size pack. “Jensen says you’re about sick of tuna.”

“Just about,” Gen agrees, taking a slice of jerky and biting into it. “Oh my God.”

Jensen looks up from his shadowy corner and flashes her a smile that dims almost as soon as it appears. Something’s definitely up with him. She’ll have to get him alone later and figure out what it is.

“We were just talking about sleeping arrangements,” Melanie says. “When it gets cooler, you know, you don’t want to be sleeping out in that tent. You and Jared can have the back room, if you want, sweetie.” Melanie gives her a fond smile. Gen realizes she and Jared have won their own room, just like that, although last Christmas his mother had located Gen quite firmly in the Austin house’s guest bedroom. For some reason, Gen blushes.

Melanie continues. “There aren’t a lot of rooms in the house, although I suppose there’s the barn, but for now we were thinking that Jensen could bunk with Wallace and Michel? Jensen, what do you think? Or you could just take the living room if you wanted. It sounds like you’ll be up before everyone, anyway.”

Gen didn’t even think of Jensen. She didn’t even think of Jensen. She looks anxiously at him, searching for eye contact, some shared understanding, but he stares at the floor and shrugs. “Either way.”

Gen feels like Wile E. Coyote, ten feet past the edge of the cliff and just now noticing. It’s not like anybody’s said anything about breaking up this all-three-of-them thing they have going, but nobody’s said anything about keeping it, either. Gen hasn’t even given it any thought.

She didn’t believe they’d ever get here, is the thing. Two thousand miles of empty highways convinced her that they were all there was. And now she’s here, she and Jared and Jensen, and she hasn’t got half a clue what happens now.

She doesn’t like the look of Jensen, though. She doesn’t like the conclusions that she’s beginning to think he’s drawn.

She needs to talk to Jared. And Jensen, God, definitely Jensen, but first Jared.

--

Jared wakes up eventually and wanders into the kitchen. Gen immediately corners him, and Jensen figures that’s his cue.

He’s thought it out, and he talked it over with Michel, too. The Padaleckis and company have a pretty decent start out here, but what they don’t have is tools, gasoline for the generator, food, and a thousand and one short-term and long-term comforts. It’s going to take quite a few raids to Austin to get the place going.

Jensen figures that’s where he comes in. He doesn’t know Austin all that well, but he’s decent with a map, and he’ll do okay hunting supplies. Likely Michel and Carla will make runs, too, but either way it’ll keep Jensen out on the road. And when he’s satisfied Jared and Gen and all them have their fresh start, well, he’ll say adiós. Maybe there’s a fresh start out there for him, too, but if not there’s the road. There’s a lot of it he hasn’t driven yet.

So he packs up the tent - he doesn’t think Jared will begrudge it to him - and cleans out the 4Runner. A lot of trash has accumulated in five days, but he tries to sort it out into burn and compost and reuse, because conservation is more important than ever in this world he lives in now.

About the time he finishes and starts thinking about going to say his farewells, Jared and Gen come to him.

“Where are you going?” Gen asks, like she did this morning in the tent, only sharper, more urgent.

“Thought I’d make a run into the city. You know you guys have barely a week’s worth of provisions?” There’s no time like the present to start addressing that, he figures.

“‘Us guys’?” Jared repeats.

“Jensen,” Gen says. She walks up to him and lays her hand on his arm. “You... are you leaving us?”

“Just for supplies,” Jensen says. He supposes that’s what’d be called a literal truth.

“It feels like you’re leaving us,” she says. She always was too wise by half. Uncanny. He couldn’t live with a woman like that, he’s sure of it.

“You’ll be fine. You’re here, aren’t you? I got you here.” He nods to Jared. “We found your family.”

“Jensen,” Jared says, sober. He takes a step forward, into Jensen’s air, and he does something he’s never done before, not even when he groped at Jensen’s dick or had his tongue halfway down Jensen’s throat. He folds his hand around Jensen’s, and there’s nothing best-friendly about it. “Do you not want us?”

Jensen laughs, soft and low. Gently he says, “We’re not on vacation anymore, Jared. Nobody wants to hear about the time you slept three to a bed. You’ve got your family and your girl. It’s time to live in the real world.”

Jared laughs, too, sharp and bitter. “Haven’t you noticed? There is no real world anymore.”

“And you?” Gen sidles in by Jensen, close enough to touch. She peers up at him, and he can feel those dark curious eyes stripping him bare with just one glance. “What do you have?”

Damnit, he can feel tears scorching his eyes. He sucks in a breath, but no words come with it.

Gen’s looking a little damp around the eyes, too. “Jared and I, we’ve never done this three-people thing before. We don’t really know how it goes. But, Jensen.” She takes Jensen’s other hand and twines her fingers through his. “If you want to keep us, just, just say.” She musters a thin smile. “Because we kind of want to be kept.”

Jensen swallows around the ache in his throat. “No, you don’t. Not really.”

“Really,” Jared says. Gen squeezes Jensen’s hand.

He can’t believe it. He’s sure it can’t be true. But he can’t not take the chance, either. He nods.

“Thank God,” Gen says, and plasters herself against him. Jared steps in and wraps his arms around them both. Jensen maybe gets Jared’s shoulder a little damp, but he can’t even feel bad about it, not given the way Jared’s eyes are watering, too.

When they all finally untangle, somehow Jared and Gen are still holding his hands. “So you should come meet the family,” Gen says, tugging gently. “You know, a real introduction. They might as well find out now, because there’s no way we’re sleeping in some musty room without you.”

And maybe Jensen’s fresh start isn’t out there somewhere. Maybe it’s right here. “Okay,” he says. “Okay.”

So he lets them lead him by the hand, one on each side, and together they walk back to the house.

[THE END]

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longfic: long way home, entry: fic

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