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Thunderdome

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“You know,” Alec said, heaving the bag over his shoulder with a grunt of effort and kicking the cabinet shut in a shower of dust, “Mad Max really didn’t prepare me for this.”

“What, did you think there were gonna be chainsaw death matches?” Eliot retorted. He was facing the entrance, where the door hung loose on broken hinges and a blinding white desert light spilled across the first few feet of floor, his face so swathed in lightweight linen wraps that only his eyes were visible, startlingly blue in their nest of weathered skin. The knife in his hand made a soft, rhythmic shk-shk-shk noise as he ran it against the whetstone.

“No--well, yeah, okay, maybe.”

Eliot snorted expressively. His posture shifted slightly as he leaned into the light, lifting his free hand to shade his eyes like that would do any good. By Alec’s calculations, which were of course impeccable, they still had the better part of an hour before the sun sank far enough that it would safe to go outside without risking blindness. Parker had their one good pair of goggles. “She ought to be back by now.”

“She’s fine,” Alex said, as firmly as he knew how. He wasn’t exactly great at that whole calm reassurance deal, but only one of them could afford to get nervy at a time. Once upon a time, he would have said that Eliot was constitutionally incapable of nervousness, but he knew better now. He know Eliot better, and he knew what that flat tension meant.

“I know.”

“Course you do,” Alec said, folding himself to sit on the gritty tile floor next to Eliot, settling the bag carefully at his feet. After all the trouble they went to to salvage them, he was not going to risk breaking a single, solitary component. Everything was wrapped in t-shirts, tarp, every spare bit of cloth he could find. It made it bulkier and heavier and way more of a pain in the ass to transport, but this was their first real chance at setting up some kind of communication with the other settlements that didn’t entail risking scouts to the burning sands and mutated wildlife. He’d deal with the inconvenience, especially since any minute now Parker would be back with their ride. He bumped Eliot’s shoulder and got a half-hearted glare for his trouble. “It’s Parker, man. She’s fine. She’s always fine. She’ll be here.”

“I know that, Hardison,” Eliot snapped, but he was leaning back against Alex’s shoulder, a warm solid shape, the smell of sweat and the oil they used to keep their skin from peeling off in strips. It had a faintly pleasant, citrusy odor that was almost enough to cover up the B.O. that he barely even noticed anymore. There’d be something like a real bath when they made it back to the settlement. In the meantime, he didn’t really mind Eliot’s stink. Wasn’t like any of them was smelling fresh as a daisy at the moment.

“Uh huh,” Alec said, letting his head fall back against the concrete wall. It wasn’t cool--nothing was cool this time of day, not even inside the old radio outpost with two feet of concrete between them and the killing sun--but it wasn’t scorchingly hot like everything outside. “So, when the hell did you watch Beyond Thunderdome, anyway?”

“What?”

“Chainsaw death matches,” Alec said. “Which, no, I do not want, thank you very much, although I’m sure that would be your mileu.” He was rewarded by a sharp smile. “But you said you didn’t have a T.V. Back in the day.”

“It came out when I was nine.” Eliot finally tucked the whetstone away into one of the many pockets hidden in the folds of his desert-man gear. The knife he left out, glinting and sharp where it rested on his knee. His calloused thumb flicked the blade absently, like he was testing the sharpness of it. “I saw it with my dad in the theater.”

“Ain’t none of that anymore,” Alec said. It was weird, somehow, to think that Eliot might once have been a kid, a towheaded blue-eyed little boy who went to see dumb apocalyptic movies in the theater with his dad. He seemed much more suited to their current shitty live-action remake.

Another sharp grin. “Nope.”

“Shit,” Alec said softly. And then, “Man, I really miss movies, you know?”

“I woulda guessed Warcraft.”

“Don’t even start on that.”

“Are you having an identity crisis now?” Eliot asked, sounding bored. His free hand curled around Alec’s knee, though, his grip solid through the layers of cloth. “Don’t. We don’t have time for it.”

“We got nothing but time, at least until Parker gets back with our ride,” Alec pointed out. “Unless another one of those bear-tigers shows up and tries to eat us.”

“They won’t.”

“You sound awfully confident.”

“They’re night hunters,” Eliot said, and he did sound confident. He also sounded calmer, ironically, his shoulders relaxing against Alec’s. Eliot was like that. He was a lot better with the kind of danger he could predict and control. “They’re not going to come out in the daytime like this. Not unless they’re really hungry.”

“You suck at this whole reassurance thing,” Alec told him, and Eliot laughed softly. “Seriously, man. Didn’t they teach you anything in survival school? Don’t terrorize the civilians, all that nonsense?”

“It wasn’t a major focus, no,” Eliot said, rubbing his thumb absently over Alec’s kneecap. Through all the cloth, he couldn’t feel much of anything except for pressure, but it still made his skin prickle. They hadn’t been doing this all that long, the three of them, and he still wasn’t used to Eliot touching him like this. “Besides, you’re not exactly a civilian, are you?”

“I guess not,” Alec allowed. “But—”

Before he could finish that sentence, there was a low growling noise from outside. Alec tensed up all at once, even though he’d been mostly joking about the bear-tigers, felt as much as saw Eliot begin to rise at his side--and then he realized what he was hearing. It had been so damn long since he’d heard the sound of an engine that he almost didn’t recognize it. The noise got louder and louder as it approached, and then a gleaming metallic thing on wheels, swathed in layers of ragged tarps like some kind of demented desert beetle, came to a stop outside the outpost in a spray of sand. The sound of the engine cut off, and a small form hopped lightly down from the driver’s side. She was covered head-to-toe in scraps of fabric just like Eliot was, but a thick blonde braid, gleaming bright in the sun, snaked down her back. She waved with both hands, then jogged up to the door.

“Hey,” Parker said once she was inside, peeling off the sun goggles to reveal a grimy, gleeful expression. “I heard you boys needed a ride.”