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If We Ever Grow Apart

Chapter Text

The Black Scarves came late at night.

Ted had been on guard duty. Sycamore Farm was secluded enough from the rest of the world that lone wanderers rarely stumbled across their grounds, but not so much that any person who knew about their little haven would not find it. Unfortunately, raiders had found themselves in the latter category on more than one occasion and Emma had strictly imposed the fatigue duty of watching over the compound's gates for fear their precious farm would be prey to their merciless grasp.

When he spotted the two figures in the distance, there was no arguing their intentions. A dark scarf floating in the chill evening draft, the uniform Ted recognized and admired, pinnacle of order in this hell of a mess that was the ruined wasteland of the world. He opened the gates at once to greet them.

"Sam, baby!"

Charlotte was out of the gates before him, running towards the arriving party, near stumbling in excitement. It was short-lived. When they finally reached the gates, Ted was faced with a man he had never met and his companion − was that a robot? A synth? And no Sam in sight. He held up a hand. It wasn't every day their farm was lucky enough to host a man of service and he cared to make himself appear welcoming. A firm handshake, the other man instantly instilling on him a sense of superiority, of strength. Charlotte was less impressed.

"Who are you? Where's Sam?"

The man smiled, a natural easy smile. His scarf was so very dark, night sky spun into fabric.

"Not in my squad, ma'am," he said simply. "Now, I've heard it said that there's no weed like what they sell at Sycamore. Care to spare some for a man of the Black Scarves?"

Ted secured the gates tightly shut while Charlotte rambled to the man in uniform, begging to hear more news about Sam. Her dear lover had left Sycamore months ago to don the black scarf himself and had not been heard of since. Ted had long admired Sam for taking matters into his own hands, for working to make a change in the wasteland. He envied him for that, for that alone. Still, he had hoped that Charlotte would one day finally put to rest the idea of finding him again.

It wasn't that her affections were that hard to attain. When Sam had left, she had dried her tears in Ted's arms and in his bed, yet every time it came to it, the shadows of emotions past always resurged and Ted had the impression that he would always be in an unwilling competition with an absentee. He had never been a schmaltzy kind of fellow. He had also never been a loser, either.

Sycamore wasn't the high point of comfort and luxury, but it wasn't all bad either. A handful of houses plopped together haphazardly, old wooden planks dating from before the end of the world. All around them, fields surrounded by the tall barbed wire walls of security that stood between them and the world. It wasn't much. It wasn't nothing.

The Dikrats kid had been playing in a patch of mud in front of his parents' house, talking with his sister, but at the sight of the black scarf around the man's neck, they were both hushed inside by a wary Slippery When Wet. Mouthface grumbled and groaned and obeyed. Craphole's peeking eyes through the shutters were filled with curiosity and wonder until they were shoved closed and the light switched off. Ted heard the sound of a lock being turned and it might have looked as though the house was entirely deserted for all they knew.

Emma kept shop in the kitchen, something about the close proximity to all of her weapons and knives, if it came to it.

"Doctor Spaceclaw Junior," she repeated dubiously as Ted let him in.

They had settled in for the night, Paul and Bill playing cards together quietly while Emma counted the harvest of the day. Weed grew prolific on their soil and was their only source of income. Food grew much more scarce no matter their efforts and with as many mouths to feed as they had… Emma counted and counted on every day of the harvest season.

"Just Junior, please," Junior said with a charming grin. "I'm told your goods are unmatched in the wasteland. I was hoping to get my hands on a sample."

She eyed him doubtfully.

"I have goods if you have coin," she replied, which made Paul snort silently.

Ted glared at him unobserved. Junior had sat at the kitchen table comfortably, leisurely. He gave to Ted the impression of a man at ease wherever he chose to go. Someone who took what he wanted, did what ought to be done. Ted had sat close next to him.

"So, about Sam…" Charlotte tried again but Emma shushed her with a gesture of the hand.

"How much are we talking?" Paul asked, suddenly to his feet to stand behind Emma in unspoken support.

It wasn't that a trade wouldn't be incredibly welcome. Of course, Sycamore was as well run an operation as could be, in the circumstances. It just so happened that the circumstances had never really favored their little compound. Droughts were plenty and lasted long, raids were not uncommon. Sales were seldom. Still, all hands were on deck to give the best they could to the enterprise. Ted and Slippery When Wet were the sharpest shooters and handled security. Kids in the fields working the ground under Jack Bauer's helpless guidance, Bill too busy bickering with his daughter about her girlfriend to realize all three of them were starving half of the time, Charlotte idling in the kitchen in her cups as often as not, Emma supervising, Paul the ever second-in-charge. They took life as it came. Ted had always imagined he'd find a way out somehow. He was now starting to think that somehow might have just walked past the gates right into their pot farm.

"Just my personal supply for a while, a month or two," Junior said. "You see, this is my first expedition as a squad leader, if you can believe that. Just got the job title and a Mega-Girl they were gonna discard."

He gestured behind himself at the robot, who had been frowning the entire time but said nothing. They shared a long look and Ted could not have deciphered which of them had won the silent battle raging between them when their eyes parted again.

"Real piece of work," Junior went on. "Anyways, since the squad is new, I haven't really had much time to work my earnings yet, so…"

Emma huffed caustically. She was hardly even looking up at Junior as she spoke. Ted, who cared little to none about courtesies, was near outraged at how casually she treated their guest.

"So you want me to give you a good chunk of my supply in exchange for nothing at all?"

Bill fretted silently, conflict averse and scaredy-cat at the best of times. Paul, Charlotte and him knew not to interfere when Emma was negotiating. Ted had never learned such a thing in his life.

"Come on," he said. "Are you serious? This guy's just out there helping people out and making a difference and you're not gonna let him smoke a bit of your weed?"

Emma was unmoving. So was Junior.

"What's your expedition?"

"That's confidential."

Charlotte had brewed a pot of coffee but all cups sat untouched on the table. Junior took a careful sip and hid a wince when he got a taste of it. A large gun was strapped at his hip, better than Ted's and even than Slippery When Wet's pistol which she kept on herself at all times. The Mega-Girl seemed unarmed but Ted thought he remembered hearing about those robots as the upper-end killing machines that had been all the rage before the war ended the world as it had been known. He wondered how long she had survived before ending in Junior's supervision. Those piles of metal were the most loyal, most efficient weapons one could have. If Junior had been gifted one, that could only mean all the more as to his merits.

"Here's a deal for ya," Ted said, leaning on the table to speak to Emma directly. "You give Junior his pot in exchange for me joining him."

At the very least, that had the effect of surprising her. Emma was hard to impress, harder yet to convince of anything. Her eyes narrowed on Ted viciously.

"The fuck you're talking about?"

"Come on," Ted insisted, "It's the perfect plan!"

They were all looking at him, he saw now. Emma was more than dubious, Charlotte grief-stricken, but Paul, Bill and, yes, Junior, stared at him curiously. The Mega-Girl's gaze did not move one bit.

"Okay, so I lose a guard and my weed stash. Great fucking plan!"

"No no no no no," Charlotte moaned softly till Paul caught her in his arms for comfort. Fucking great.

Ted sighed in exasperation.

"You give up a mouth to feed," he explained calmly. "Here's the plan for you, Emma. You're relieved of a grown ass man, the kids can eat, I make a name of myself helping lives out there, Junior smokes weed, everyone gets their needs met!"

"B-but Ted…" Charlotte said but the rest came out of her mouth more like sounds than words.

Junior stood. His hand on the table advanced, clasping around one of the bags of weed − the one that looked the fullest, Ted noted.

"Everyone gets their needs met!" He said happily and pulled the bag towards him.

Emma stopped it right there.

"Ted," she said, half exasperated already though, after a night of counting turnips and hoping they would be enough, Ted knew his argument had struck home at least a little bit, "Will you please explain to me what the fuck is in it for you?"

"Sometimes, you gotta take your head out of your own ass and help people!" he retorted.

"Sure, but since when has that ever been something that you do?"

"I wanna join the troops." He was determined now, probably more convinced by this than by anything he had ever given himself in the past. "I wanna wear that cool ass scarf and do something of myself. Fuck, don't make it sound like I'm not allowed to do this. Sam wears the black scarf. You let him go."

Charlotte's whimper grew more desperate and Paul very awkwardly ran a comforting hand against her back. Ted stood. A hand on Junior's shoulder, they both towered over Emma, who seemed suddenly very aware of the fact. Her eyes were squinting so tight they were almost shut.

"I'm taking this," Ted said pointedly, pulling the weed bag from between them and shoving it into Junior's hand, "As a parting gift."

Emma looked at him intently, lingering, her brows furrowed in what ought to have been anger but Ted never looked away. He knew a won battle when he saw one. Eventually, inevitably, she sighed.

"Yeah, sure."

"Oh!" Junior said happily. "Oh, thank Dead-God. I thought I'd lose the help of a great man here. So, me and my squad are gonna retire for the night, if that's alright with y…"

"You're not sleeping here," Emma cut him.

All heads turned her way in surprise. She stood and put away the rest of her weed quietly, locking the shelf thrice before going on.

"You're not sleeping here," she repeated. "You wanna go? Then go. Now."

Ted hoped for some unknown reason that anyone present at all would say something, but was not surprised when none did. He sighed. Gesturing vaguely to the assembly, he said his farewells.

"I guess this is goodbye."

Emma was already holding the door open for Ted, Junior and the robot.

"I guess it is," she said and simply as that, Ted was out.

He made a quick trip to his room − it had always been sparse and bland and seemed to him in this moment especially uncomfortable and boring. He would not miss it, not even for Charlotte's room just a few steps away. Having grabbed the entirety of his possessions which fit into a bag, he followed Junior out into his new life.

He heard the cries before they had reached the gates. Charlotte, frantic little Charlotte was running after him, begging him to pause. He almost wanted to keep going, didn't know what impression he would give to Junior if he didn't, but Charlotte caught up with them and grabbed him by the arm.

"Ted," she said, "Ted, don't go, please don't leave me just like… like…"

"Come on, Charlotte," he replied, grinning. For her own sake he took her in his arms. "We'll see each other again, won't we? Maybe I'll find Sam and when we come back to you, we'll have a grand time together."

That did absolutely nothing to soothe her nerves. A kiss did little more, though Ted found himself noting that this might be the last time he kissed her and wondering what he thought of that. It was a brief kiss, too, just a press of his lips against hers to calm her down, and for a few seconds the effect was as wished. He pulled away before he saw her fall back into grief and closed the gate behind them.

Junior handed him something as they made their way away from Sycamore Farm. It was pitch dark and Ted could hardly see the shape of it but the feel of fabric between his fingers was unmistakeable. He wrapped the black scarf snug around his neck.

"There," Junior said. "One of us, now. Look, Ted, is it? Ted. Forget about that girlfriend. Forget about your old boss."

Ted thought to mention that Emma was not his boss, but stopped himself. He did not want Junior to think him petulant. Charlotte was not really his girlfriend either, but he would have been at a loss to find a better word. It did not matter anymore.

"I'm your boss now, alright?"

"Of course."

They walked in silence for a while. The stars shone very dim at night in this part of the world and the sky looked even darker than it might have. Ted's footstep was advancing blindly and firmly into the night.

"So, about the…" He started.

"Have you heard of…" Junior started at the same time.

Junior chuckled.

"Mega-Girl," he snapped. "Light. We're making camp here."

Mega-Girl's chest lit up in an intricate pattern of gears and cogs that could only be called beautiful, showing translucently through the plaque that covered her upper body. Ted watched in fascination as she began to set up camp, pulling out all sorts of items from a backpack, readying the little clearing of dry dirt for a night under the stars.

"What were you saying?" Junior asked.

"Oh, erm, just wondering about the expedition. And why you're on your own."

Junior stared at him for a little too long.

"Our new boss came into place a while ago," he said slowly, making himself sound warm. "A lot of us fought for it but I got the promotion. I'm handpicking my very own squad now. See Mega-Girl over there?"

Mega-Girl glared at them but said nothing.

"She's a little rough from sitting in a dumb factory for a century or two, but she'll kill a hundred men before they so much as scratch a dent in her armor. She is the most advanced robot you could imagine and she takes only my orders."

She huffed and went back to her task at hand.

"And you," Junior went on. "You seem smart, right? Big and strong. You don't wanna spend your life cooped up in a farm, do you? I need men like you on my team."

A flicker of light and Ted realized that Junior had rolled himself a joint. He took a hit and breathed it out slowly in a thin puff of pale gray smoke. Ted had never been much of a weed smoker. It made no difference, for Junior never offered him a turn anyways.

"What were you gonna say?" Ted asked eventually.

Junior breathed out a chuckle that made the cloud of smoke scatter away into the night air.

"Have you ever," he asked, "ventured so deep into the wasteland you feel like every step you take is a brand new human discovery?"

That might have been the weed talking. Ted shook his head.

"But do you want to?"

He shrugged. It wasn't that he had spent his entire life at Sycamore, but he had not been an explorer either. He could care to see much more of the world than he had so far. Junior was smiling oddly.

"You'll make a great addition to the Black Scarves, Ted, I just know you will."

They walked the entire next day. And the day after that, and the day after. Junior said something about means of transportation being tight these days, but Ted didn't care. With every step marching onward, he felt a new surge of courage in himself, a drive he had never felt before. After a week, his head started to swell with it, fuzzy and unfocused. His thoughts slowed down to a crawl, but Junior seemed untouched.

"We're not too far from meeting up with the boss," Junior said. "And then you'll know what it truly means to be one of us."

Chapter Text

Sand dust clung to Bruce's overalls and boots, the goggle pilot hat on his head, the rare patches of skin uncovered. If he had met himself, he might have taken his own figure for a desert ghoul. A sand storm had broken out just as their fight came to an end with Robin delivering the coup de grâce. As a positive, they had not even needed to bury the bodies of the evildoers defeated. That had been just as well. It had been a long day tracking down the bandits, getting the loot back to the poor people robbed, and Bruce had not wanted to linger in the Rad Zone for longer than strictly needed. No one wanted to be in the Rad Zone for long.

Robin was exhausted. At some point on the way home, his steps had started to stumble and Bruce had swooped him up to carry him on his back. It had been some time till they had spoken a word between each other and Bruce had concluded that Robin must have fallen asleep. He was such a young tiny thing, no matter how brave he was. If Bruce himself felt so extenuated, he could only give credit to his little companion for how long he had stood on his own two feet today. The quiet breath he felt on the back of his neck was as good as any words of support and camaraderie Robin might have uttered.

Both of them had to be strong, had to be tough. It was a dangerous world out there for the righteous, filled with ill-intended people fueled by crime and bad choices. Even the desert itself was against them, the sun beating hard every day, harder yet the further into the Rad Zone they advanced. Long ago, Bruce had made a solemn vow to protect the people of the wasteland from all danger and incidentally, all danger had always seemed exponentially more threatening in the Rad Zone. Every day he ventured into it to save good people from the treacherous radiations. Every day he fought bad people who made it their evil business to trick their fellow men for power and greed. It was a restless undertaking. It was worth it.

The crooked tower of his hideout shack was emerging into the sandy distance. Bruce had built most of his house himself with his own two hands. Originally a container unit, he had tacked various traps and layers of protection onto it. The one and only door was thrice as thick as it had been before he messed with it, chained with all sorts of locks and barricades and he dared trust that no one would barge into his home unwanted if he could help it. There were no windows except at the top of his watch tower, in which he spent a large chunk of his time to spy any danger out there in the wasteland. He owned a barrel to make a fire, two cots (a large scratchy one for himself, a smaller more comfortable one for Robin), a table and two stools, a bath tub and two rusty metal buckets, a shelf stacked with all the weapons he could need, a small radio station, and hardly anything else. His life did not require much more.

It wasn't an especially comfortable home, but it was practical and above all, it was safe. That was all that Bruce could have asked for. In another, better world, that would have been enough to prevent the tragedy of his own youth. He had been just a boy when his parents had been taken from him, slaughtered before his very own eyes. His soul was still stained from the blood that had splattered across his face, his heart still sore after being wrenched from him at such a young age. He had been rescued and raised by kinder men than the beasts who had stolen his life from him, yet Bruce had always retained a taste for solitude after the incident. For a few years he had been a ranger, training and learning, but living among society had never been for him and it had now been years since he had spent even one night away from his shack.

Robin was his exception, perhaps for the tight bond that had united them before they had even met. He had found him in the desert, a lost little boy with a heart craving justice and bravery. Orphans, the two of them. They understood and appreciated each other more than anyone could imagine. A same desire for revenge, too. They had never been able to find and put an end to the ones responsible for Bruce's own misery, or Robin's either. All they could do was try to find relief together in the knowledge that other people found peace and vengeance through their help. Every day, they were out and about and with every blow they struck on the villains of other people's lives, their own demons were smacked down for a while.

Tomorrow, they would be back on the roads. It did not matter how tired they were, how utterly spread thin from their reckless lives. A warm beggarly meal shared scantily between them, a night's rest on rough lumpy beds and tomorrow they would answer the call again, be back into the wild to make all scoundrels pay the price of justice. Bruce was already looking forward to it.

Robin stirred awake as they neared home. Yawning, stretching himself, he rested his chin comfortably on Bruce's shoulder before jerking straight up and pointing.

"Look, Bruce, a dog!" He cried out and nearly fell off Bruce's back in excitement.

Bruce narrowed his eyes on the direction Robin was gesturing him to and let out a loud groan.

"Not him…"

But already Robin was scrambling off of his back and skipping merrily towards their shack. A dusty white dog looking just as beige as Robin and him was sitting stiffly nearby the entrance of the wooden and metal grid fence surrounding Bruce's home grounds. At the sight of the happy little boy, the dog's tail batted in anticipation but it wasn't before his owner nodded his approval that he went running towards Robin. Boy and dog were perhaps as jubilant in their embracing each other as Bruce was cold and detached with the unwelcome visitor.

"Fancy seeing you here," Clark said at his approach with a smug insufferable smile.

Robin was patting the dog between the ears, calling him a very good boy. Bruce grunted.

"You're in my way," he replied with mood. He gestured Clark off the fence gate atop which he was casually sitting. "Get out of it."

Clark jumped off the tall fence elegantly, stretching his arms behind his back. The two of them and the dog were coated with sand from the storm but Clark was near immaculate. Bruce wondered how long he had been sitting there, waiting for him. Clark had a knack for thinking himself welcome despite all apparent evidence. He hated thinking about him so close to his possessions for any length of time at all. He hated thinking about him at all.

"Did you make the locks on your door yourself?" Clark asked leisurely.

Carefully untying the intricate knots he tied every morning and every night to keep his gate secure, Bruce wrapped them back even more tightly and carefully after hushing Robin inside. Clark stood unperturbed just outside the fence.

"Why?"

"You should get them looked at," Clark said. He leaned against barbed wire in what Bruce was certain was a display of his impenetrable mutant skin. "They're not very…" He produced a butterfly knife from a pocket and swirled it expertly between his fingers, looking right into Bruce's eyes. "… secure."

"Gimme that!"

Bruce reached through the fence to snatch his knife back, but Clark was still victorious and satisfied. Bruce was fuming. Clark kept insisting on shoving himself where he wasn't wanted, one-upping Bruce in a competition he had never asked for. He wanted to go home, wash the grime and dust off of him, rest for a few hours. He had not checked the water levels left in his tank this morning. It had been a rough drought the past few weeks, but Bruce was always prepared. He knew what he was doing.

"So, did you play hero again today?" Clark went on, hoisting himself up to sit back on top of the gate, his legs dangling on the inside of the enclosure that was Bruce's domain.

Robin and Clark's dog − what was his name again? Bruce should not care − were looking at each other forlornly from each side of the fence. The dog whimpered.

"No," Bruce replied, "I saved lives. Get out of here, Clark, I didn't ask for your visit."

"Cause I'm back from town. The rangers say hello, by the way. I'm sure you've heard the rumors."

"Of course I've heard the rumors," Bruce hissed, who had heard no such things.

It had been quite some time since he had met up with the people who had been his friends, way back in the days when he still had such a thing as friends. Now he worked strictly in pair. Whatever rumors Clark had heard, they were none of his concern. If they were of any importance, Bruce would hear of them soon enough. There was nothing Robin and him could not do just fine on their own.

"Right," Clark said, looking right through him.

Mutant vision. Mutant powers. Mutant fuckface sitting on Bruce's fence. He kicked the metal grid and the dog startled away from it. Clark did not so much as flinch.

"People losing stuff, losing people… You've heard it all, obviously."

"Uh huh."

"And you know where it's coming from, then."

"I know more than you," Bruce retorted. "Go away."

Clark looked at him. Did he have truth-decrypting eyes again? Or just super vision? Bruce glared back at him for as long as it took to make him hop off the top of the fence again. There was a lightness about him and every motion of his, strong but strangely floating.

"Well then, we'll just have to see if you and your little sidekick are a match to me and my mutant friends." He flexed his sleeveless arms, showing off muscles. Bruce kept glaring. "Super strength, remember? I've got more power than anybody on this old dead Earth."

Bruce's blood was boiling. All he ever wanted was to be the strongest, the most helpful, the most vengeful lone ranger in the world. Was it that much to ask?

"How many raiders did you catch today, cause I've caught…"

"Shut up!"

He had hoped for outrage, for any reaction from Clark that wasn't smugness again. In vain. Clark grinned like Bruce had just sung out a poem on his merits.

"I don't… I don't want you here! I don't want to know how many bad guys you've caught and I don't want you or your dog around! Fuck off!"

Robin gasped at the curse and Bruce gave him an apologetic glance.

"It's okay, Bruce," Clark said, oddly insisting on the name. "You can forgive yourself for not being the best hero of the wasteland out here. We can still be friends."

"I don't need friends like you!" Bruce replied angrily. "Robin, go inside. Right now."

"But… But I'm super fast and I shoot better than anyone! I could teach you if you want and…"

"Fuck. Off."

"And that hot mutant girl showed me her toddies yesterday after I…"

Bruce and − thankfully − Robin never heard the end of Clark's sentence, for the metal door slammed heavily back into place. He sighed heavily, sinking his back against the hot metal wall. Pulling himself back up, he twisted all the locks into place frantically. The knife found back its proper spot on the shelf. Once, Clark had gotten it. It wouldn't happen twice. No one would get to him again.

"Are you okay?" Robin asked.

Bruce didn't reply, not immediately. Climbing the ladder three rungs at a time, he reached the top of his tower just in time to spot Clark walk away into the wasteland, the dog at his heels. He could have cried in relief.

"I'm okay now," he replied. "Don't you worry, buddy."

"Cool!"

Robin sat his stool by the barrel stove, starting the fire for helping Bruce with dinner. Here at home, the two of them were safe. But rumors of kidnappings, a mutant dick breaking into his home, rogues plaguing the wasteland… Bruce checked the locks again. Strong enough that no man could tear them off. But mutant strength was something else.

"Don't you worry at all," he repeated. "No one will ever get us here."

Chapter Text

They drove all night without a word.

They didn't have the best wagon Sycamore had had to offer, but it was the only one that had survived the fire. Not that it had been much of a priority which exact vehicle they had kindly borrowed in the dead of night. In fact, considering which aspects of fudging everything up would anger Ms Perkins when she realized the full extent of it, Mouthface was quite certain that the one missing wagon wouldn't really top the list. It probably made little difference to the people left on the compound. A wagon burned or taken was still a wagon less, and as of right now, they were without any, all the other ones crumbled to ashes. They were also without a farm, without a crop, with a couple of buildings burnt to a crisp. And without the Dikrats to pay the consequences.

Her mama had not so much as crossed eyes with her dad since they had embarked away, as far from Sycamore as the poor mutant ox would drive them. Night passed with terror, morning with anguish, and by the afternoon boredom more than anything else was settling over them, but Slippery When Wet was ahead of her time and had been steeping in anger from the start. Every so often, Jack Bauer threw her a cautious glance but every time, like a synchronized puppet show, she looked away. The same happened minutes later, and round and round it went without a word.

Craphole and Grandpa had fallen asleep at the back of the wagon, securely trusting that, if they were to be chased down, they would have been found already. And how exactly would the others have pursued them? It wasn't like they were so super fast that they would just outrun a wagon, mediocre as it was, lazy ox or not. Mouthface was sitting alone just behind her parents, for all the good that did her. She longed for a companion on the road, someone to chat with and laugh off the whole tension of the situation, but she had only the desolate landscape to look at and it was poor company to her anxious thoughts.

It wasn't that she hoped for her father to start making justifications for the drastic turn of events. They were in deep crap, whether he would admit to it or not. She had never felt particularly safe in her life, but she had always had a roof above her head and, scarce as it had become, food on her plate more days than not. When he had shaken her awake during the night and told her to grab everything she could as fast as possible, including her brother, Mouthface had obeyed, but had not been happy about the prospect at all. In fact, as they had run away from the burning remains of the barn surrounded by fields on fire, she had told herself she might never feel happy about anything ever again, much less her years spent on the farm. She still tasted ashes in her mouth, smoke in her hair.

She wasn't especially looking forward to the inevitable moment her mother would finally break out of her icy cold silence to blame Jack Bauer for all the ills and woes of their forsaken world. Whatever had happened that had put to the flame half of Sycamore, it couldn't have been anything he had done on purpose. Mouthface wasn't keen on hearing her mother complain and judge and scold. She had heard quite enough of that in her sixteen years of existence. Evidently, so had her father, for he was as subdued as she had ever seen him, which had always been plenty in the first place.

It took till the evening for the silence to be broken. Craphole, of course, needed a potty break, as did Titty Mitty, and the rest of them needed a good sleep. Mouthface's stomach was grumbling, near as upset as she was herself.

"I'm starving," she moaned as they climbed off the wagon.

"Me too!" Craphole said, clutching their mother's arm. "Mom, do we have anything to eat?"

"Oh, just ask your father," Slippery When Wet retorted. "He seems to think we have more than enough, that we can just poof our reserves into smoke!"

Craphole was confused. More importantly, he was hungry.

"Dad, do we have any food?"

Jack Bauer shifted his eyes away from Slippery When Wet's furious glare. Grabbing his messenger bag, he rummaged through it and produced a few dry apples.

"I managed to save these from our cupboard," he said. "That should be enough for…" He looked as Craphole shoved the entirety of one apple in his mouth. "… for one snack."

He rubbed his forehead anxiously, mouth open in dumb surprise. Slippery When Wet sighed heavily.

"Well, no matter," he said, regaining his countenance. "Let's just take this one day at a time, shall we, family? This is going to be the greatest trip of our lives!"

"Oh, yes, let's just never think about tomorrow and run into our own deaths with no idea where we're going."

Mouthface frowned, though she didn't know which of her parents was getting on her nerves more.

"Do you know where we're going, Dad?"

His mouth was gaping hesitantly and he let out a long strangled sound before speaking.

"Uhh… Of course I do, sweetheart!"

"Where's that, Dad?" Craphole asked.

He was eyeing the rest of the apples enviously and Jack Bauer clutched them closer, away from Craphole's grasp, before answering.

"It's a surprise, son. You'll see, this is the beginning of a new life for the Dikrats. Look out, dead world!"

The dead world had no answer just yet.

Mouthface was chilled to the bone. They dared not light a fire that night, sharing a few spare blankets between the five of them. She had finished her apple long ago. At first, she had hoped to make it last as long as she could but she had hardly taken three slow bites out of it when she realized the whole thing was nearly gone. An outcrop of sharp stone up a small cliff was their shelter and she prayed that no beast or worse, man, would hunt them tonight.

"Now, children, you stay close to me, alright?" Slippery When Wet whispered to them as Craphole started to fall asleep again, nuzzling into his mother's shoulder. "I know it's hard to feel safe. You may think that your father is a damn useless swindler of a man but remember this…" She brushed a curl of hair out of Craphole's eyes. "He's also a spineless idiot and he can't shoot to save his life. I can't let you out of my sight now, can I?"

The damn useless idiot stared grimly into the distance. Soon Craphole began to snore lightly. Mouthface was afraid to close her eyes, but morning came before she realized she had fallen asleep and they were on the road again.

The next day passed much like the first one, except that it was now peppered with all flavors of snarky remarks between her mom and dad. Often, it had seemed to Mouthface that her parents did not get along very well. She was realizing how mistaken she had been. She saw now that they in fact actively disliked each other. She looked intensely at the desert horizon unfolding behind their wagon, wishing herself away from her family. Wishes rarely came true in endless plains of the wasteland.

The days were plucked from them painfully slow. It soon became apparent that Jack Bauer had no idea where he was going, no matter how vehemently he denied it. Desert turned into bog turned into scarce forest. The wagon was making its laborious way through passing landscapes with no end in sight. The ox's foot was lame from driving him too fast but, as they had yet to come across a sign of human life, they had no choice but to keep pushing him onwards. The only destination seemed to be as far away from Emma Perkins as they could. During the day, they napped and grumbled under their breath and thought of anything but the other people aboard the wagon. During the night, Slippery When Wet hunted whatever small animal she could find for a meager dinner and they slept with their stomachs aching and their heads full of dreams for a better life.

"Do you think Ms Perkins is gonna be mad at us?" Craphole asked Mouthface.

That was a mistake, but Craphole was seven and made all sorts of mistakes every day of his life.

"I don't know," she grumbled. "Probably. Shut up, I'm tired."

They all were, but her mama was never tired for complaining.

"Oh, why would she be, now? It's not like we destroyed her livelihood and any hope for the future and… Oh, wait."

Grandpa Titty Mitty chuckled under his beard, though Mouthface couldn't be certain that it wasn't from him telling himself one of his stories on his own that one one ever understood.

"We can't just keep ourselves trapped in the past, Craphole," Jack Bauer said. "All we can do is trust our way forward. Dead-God led us here and He still has something great in store for us."

Like father, like son, an even greater mistake.

"Dead-God?" Slippery When Wet was fuming. "Dead-God did this to us? Dammit, Jack Bauer, even you can't be dim enough to believe this."

"I'm just saying, honey, sometimes things are all part of His plan and…"

"Well, if it was Dead-God's plan to burn out the farm and all the food reserves with it, please tell Dead-God that when Emma comes and hunts you down, I'll gladly lend her my gun. In fact, the first ten bullets are on me."

Jack Bauer gulped thickly and halted the reigns of their suddenly very grateful ox.

"Let's stop for the night, shall we?" He said, chipper.

Slippery When Wet hopped off the wagon first, unstrapping her gun as she looked out for any danger. It was a quiet little patch of wet dirt in here, Mouthface had noticed as they drove. Nature grew thicker, thriving better than anywhere they had passed before. It was noisier, too, but all she could hear were the many sounds of the woods themselves. They were in a valley surrounded on both sides by ridges of hills. If it ever rained, Mouthface reasoned, then surely the water would gather at the bottom of the valley. Surely, there would be food here, and indeed, the ground was flourishing with grass greener than she had ever seen, trees with thick foliage, and she thought she saw birds in the distance.

"We're out of water," Titty Mitty sighed as he shook a canteen over his mouth desperately without so much as a drop of water to soothe his dry throat.

Slippery When Wet sighed.

"Well, that was only a matter of time," she said. "With how little we packed. It's lucky we didn't run out in the middle of the wasteland… At least this place will have some."

"Yeah, thank Dead-God we had water in the desert," Craphole chimed in. He was tracing circles on the ground with a stick. "It's way more fun to make a trail of water in dry sand than in the forest."

All heads snapped to him and Craphole, who was already small for his age, skinny limbs always ready for mischief, seemed to shrink even smaller.

"Did you pour out our water in the desert?!"

Slippery When Wet was catching Craphole by the ear and, the more he tried to tear himself from her pinch, the harder it stretched his lobe.

"Only a little!" He said. "I'm just a kid! It made a funny cloud when it evaporated! You're hurting me, Mom!"

She dropped him and Craphole, so tense with the effort, fell flat on the ground with a thud. Mouthface snickered.

"Oh, you think that's funny, don't you?" Slippery When Wet grabbed the empty canteen from Titty Mitty's hand and threw it to Mouthface. "Go fetch us some water. And some wood for a fire, while you're at it."

"What?! Why do I have to go? Craphole threw it away!"

"And you think I want him to pour it all out again? Go and don't come back without it."

Mouthface huffed and puffed but her mother, hands on her hips, was unmoving. She let out a frustrated groan and picked the other canteens from the back of the wagon, dragging her feet with every slow step. Jack Bauer looked at her, then at his wife, then at her again.

"I'll come with you!"

Slippery When Wet snorted dismissively as they made their way into the woods.

Mouthface was raging internally. She kicked her foot into a tree stump, but found it much harder than she had expected and folded over in pain before going on.

"Erm… Mouthface…"

"She's a nightmare!" Mouthface let out and clasped her hand in front of her mouth when she realized she had spoken it out. "She's… Ugh! I'm sick of this trip!"

Jack Bauer sighed a long and low sigh. He started picking up some branches from the ground. In the near distance, Mouthface could hear the burble of a stream. She sat on top of the stump and lowered her face between folded arms and groaned.

"Oh, come on, now," her father said. She felt him sit next to her and, quite a moment later, the pat of a hand on her back. "She means well."

Mouthface jerked up to glare at him.

"Does she? She keeps telling us what to do and she's… she's bossy and I hate this trip. I wanna go home."

Jack Bauer's face distorted into an uneasy smile that was more like a grimace.

"We'll find a home… probably," he said slowly, weighing every word carefully. "Look, your mom just needs… time… to process everything and…"

"She thinks she knows everything better than everyone," Mouthface said. "She thinks she's got to punish all of us, but you're the one who fudged up. It's not right."

Neither said a word for a long time. Eventually, he just slapped his knees and stood again, picking up his little bundle of branches from the ground next to her and starting to collect some more.

"Come on, then, we have to get some water before we go back to the others."

Mouthface shook her head moodily but jumped to her feet anyways.

"It's not fair," she repeated.

"Well," he said, "I think if you're just a little bit patient with her… You'll find that being right isn't as important as just forgiving each other and loving each other as a family. Even when your family fu… dged up big time. Because when your family means well, then that's what matters, isn't it?"

She glared at him as she walked past him to find the stream and fill the canteens and made sure to not utter another single word to him as they went back to the wagon. Slippery When Wet had found some edible fruit and what looked like a large two-headed rabbit, though one head had been severely torn from the body.

"Oh, finally," she said, holding up her arms to get the firewood from Jack Bauer with every effort not to touch him in the process. "I found dinner."

Mouthface dropped the heavy canteens on the ground next to her mom so that she might start cooking. There was little enough food, she noted. They might all have a plate, but it would be a small one and, Mouthface was certain, not near enough to feel full. She sighed. Ignoring the pair of idiots that were her parents, she walked to the ox to pet it with Craphole. The poor beast was heaving exhaustedly but seemed to be glad for the gentleness of their touch and, above all, for the rest. She smiled softly. She too was happy for the break every night.

In Sycamore, they had all shared a bedroom together and at night, she and Craphole had often told each other stories and played cards until it was time to sleep. Some nights, she had spent with Alice and Deb, who had been her friends. The ox had had his own little stable with the other oxen and the wagons had been neatly aligned behind the barn, waiting for the next trading trip to bigger settlements every few months for the farm to make profit. Her parents had bickered, but had hidden their actual fights for past their kids' bedtime at the very least. Grandpa was the only one who had not changed much, but he was losing his mind and was sorry company regardless.

If her father didn't get them killed, they'd find a home some day. If her mother didn't kill them herself, they'd be happy there. Mouthface would have a room and a bed, hopefully her own, and she would feel safe and comfortable again. For the first time in her life, she prayed that Dead-God did have a plan for her family after all.

Chapter Text

Morning fog was blocking her view.

Jemilla preferred hunting at sunrise. It was the comfortable middle just between night creatures finally getting back to their safe lair to rest for a few hours and the beasts of day time stirring awake, still in a slow lull, still vulnerable and weak. Jemilla was neither weak nor vulnerable. Morning was her time to shine, the best hour of every day. She could spend a whole day idling and still feel productive if she'd had a great morning.

That damn mist, though. Thick as a stubborn mind, barring her way like a mountain in the middle of the flat wasteland plains. Her vision typically impeccable was good for nothing now. Her eyes momentarily useless, she had to rely on her other duller senses and they made a poor replacement. They were all she had regardless. The air was humid and warm, smelled like yesterday's rain. Mushy dirty ground under the soles of her boots. She thought she heard the rustle of something alive in the shrub and slowly raised her bow and arrow towards it. Leaves trembled. She bit her lip and focused.

"Fuck, J-Mills, is that how you greet everyone?"

She dropped her weapon with a sigh.

"You scared the shit out of me, Molag."

Molag chuckled with a weird ass air of satisfaction. Her step was less than steady these days and she asked for Jemilla's help to sit down on a fallen tree trunk.

"I gotta have some surprises left, don't I?" She laughed. "Come on here, Jemilla, sit with me. Old Molag has a few things to say."

So much for breakfast. Molag passed her a small narrow flask and Jemilla took a sip of the bitter liquor she kept in it. She winced at the strong taste and struggled to swallow it down, but it warmed every part of her body, even the ones she had not known had been cold in the first place. She sighed out, leaning back comfortably on her arms behind her.

"What is it, then?"

She would have to wait for the mist to fall to get a clearer view. Of course, in the mean time, it wouldn't hurt one bit if Zazzalil did her fucking job for once in her life and gathered nuts and roots and berries like she was supposed to. In the absolute best case scenario, a hunting partner wouldn't have been all that bad either. It wasn't all that much to ask, not when she was way more than eager to get her hungry mouth on…

"I'm leaving."

Jemilla felt her eyes widen in shock as every thought ran out of her mind. She turned to Molag who was taking a double sip out of her flask. And a third.

"See, I had this whole little speech prepared? Honestly, it was kind of cutesy and emotional, but then I thought, no, Molag, you just tell her the way it is and she'll understand just like that, there's no need for all that flowery shit…" She looked at Jemilla and shrugged. "Maybe I should have gone with the speech."

"Where are you leaving?! And when? What for?"

Another shrug accompanied another sip. This time Jemilla grabbed the flask out of Molag's hands to get a turn.

"To find peace. The end of the world, I guess. To rest, once and for all."

"Is this a weird ass death metaphor or something?!"

Molag chuckled, but did not reply, not immediately. She searched for her words in the cloud of mist around them.

"Jemilla," she said quietly, "You know I love you. I trust you, too, which is a lot more for me to say. But you don't need me anymore."

Jemilla could not remember a time she had not needed Molag. She had been under her guidance for as long as her memories could take her, and likely a bit before that as well.

Molag often spoke of their meeting as a dangerous fight, rescuing poor baby Jemilla from evil bandits. As she had grown older, the tale had bent itself to every fitting interpretation of it and the bandits had become Molag herself stealing Jemilla from her sick mother, ending her suffering and finding the meaning of compassion in the eyes of the baby. In other versions, the mother was the raider, and she wasn't sick but mutant. Sometimes, it was a father or two mothers. As per the laws of nature, Jemilla had no doubts that, looking at herself and looking at Molag, she had indeed been found and not born from her, but the details of the finding had been written and rewritten into a meaningless mush. Jemilla did not care to learn the exact circumstances of her own infancy. She cared only about Molag.

"But… But I do need you, what are you talking about?"

Molag stretched her old limbs before sitting back more comfortably, gesturing Jemilla into her arms.

"You haven't needed me in a long time," she said and stroked fingers through Jemilla's thick hair. It was damp and especially curly this morning and the caress was difficult, but all the more appreciated. "Look at you, you're smart and capable and you can shoot down a bitch better than I could dream of."

"But you were great too back in your days, Molag! Remember, saving me from the raiders?"

"Right, right…"

Molag's embrace was often stiff but in this moment, it was warmer than the liquor, more comfortable than a patch of soft moss. Jemilla tried to imagine what her life was going to look like from now on, but that damn mist would just not lift.

"I'm leaving you in charge," Molag added, "You take care of Zazzy for me, huh?"

Jemilla groaned.

"Couldn't you at least take her with you?"

"Oh, you know, when I find it, you'll both be welcome to join me in the…"

"And can you believe she's sleeping again?! I told her all about the mating seasons and the best time for hunting but it's like her ears just stop working whenever I talk."

Molag gave her a stern glance.

"You need to be patient with her."

That was rich. Jemilla snorted in derision.

"Patient is all I ever am," she retorted. "Zazz wouldn't last a day without me. It's a wonder she hasn't been eaten by ghouls yet."

Jemilla knew what she was doing. She spent just as much time out in the wilderness as Zazzalil, for sure, but Zazzalil used up all her time to look up at the sky and dream of a life that she never actually pursued. Jemilla's time was measured and exploited, all precious moments dedicated to learning more about her environment. She knew most everything there was to know about their world, and what she didn't, she was set to find out. Zazzalil was never set on anything. She was flimsy and ever swinging about and cared only for the thrill of following a passing thought. It wasn't that Jemilla hated her, not truly and perhaps not at all. It was just that she kept the foolish and thus far unfulfilled hope that one day, Zazzalil would get her shit together. If Jemilla had, why couldn't she?

"You're gonna have to get along one day or another," Molag said.

She sighed and gestured for Jemilla to help her to her feet. How she intended to walk to the end of the world in such a frail state, Jemilla did not know. What she did know was that, once Molag had put an idea in her own clever mind, there was no steering her away from it. If she wanted to leave, Jemilla could only bid her goodbye and let her leave. Even if it broke her heart. They hugged for a long time. Jemilla leaned her head down that Molag might press a kiss on the crown of it. One last glance, a teasing smile, and Molag was gone.

She stood there for quite some time after the bog stopped giving account of Molag's departure and nature itself buzzed in her ears again. Her life long mentor, the closest thing to a mother or indeed to a family she had ever had. Her own journey suddenly seemed as solitary as Molag's. She cried out in frustration and launched an arrow to the ground. A tiny squeak and she saw the arrow had pierced right through a small beast, some mutant hare with bulging green eyes.

"Breakfast," she sighed.

In the small open shack that had been their home for the past few weeks, Zazzalil was only now rousing herself from sleep. Her hair was tousled and loose and Jemilla observed from the doorway the sluggish way in which Zazzalil pulled it into a tight and bulky ponytail before making herself known.

"I found some food," she said, dropping the hare next to the little firepit and sitting down to start preparing it, "And Molag's gone."

Zazzalil had been eyeing the meat curiously and stretching herself awake, but her brow knitted in confusion at Jemilla's words.

"Gone where?"

Jemilla shrugged. The fire was almost dead from when Zazzalil had lit it last night and kindling it again was hard in such damp air, but with effort and focus, it was managed. A small little orange flame dimly brightened up the shack.

"I'm not sure where, but she's not coming back. She said something about finding peace and rest," she said. "I just hope she's not gone to die on her own in the mountains or something."

"Oh, shit," Zazz said, rubbing her chin pensively. "No, no, wait, this is good!"

Jemilla nearly ignored that. Often, it was better to let Zazzalil's ideas ran their course, let her talk them out entirely and simply expect that she would be too lazy to put them to execution anyways. Even more often, it was unbearable to let Zazzalil ramble without so much as a word back. There was always a push and pull between them and, Jemilla was ashamed to admit, not always just coming from Zazzalil. Molag had used to be the rock that both separated and united them. Now, Molag was gone.

"And why is that good, Zazzalil? Dead-God knows she was the only one who could get your butt out of this shack to work a bit."

"No, I mean, we can leave this area now, right? Unless you wanna stay here forever."

Molag had been a wanderer her entire life, from the tales she had told them. Jemilla had never known sedentary life and, since her rescue a long time ago, neither had Zazzalil. In Molag's older age, though, the area through which they had traveled had ever narrowed down for the sake of her poor old legs. The soft ground of the bog, the flat plains surrounding it. They found or built a new home every few months, till they were driven out either by the forces of the world or by the own longing for change in their own heart.

"Where do you want to go?"

Zazzalil puffed up her cheeks as she shrugged.

"I don't know… Find a settlement? Or like, a city? Become the queens of the fallen world? Eat something that isn't mutant crap for once in our lives?"

Jemilla had been looking into the bag where they stored the dry nuts (empty, of course, courtesy to Zazzalil's hard work) but her head snapped to glare at Zazzalil.

"If you're not happy with the menu, Zazz, you're more than welcome to help me hunt something more to your taste. Fuck, even just showing up would be something. When's the last time you cooked for us? Cleaned up around here?"

But she was getting carried away. Breathing deeply a couple of times, she clasped her hands together and looked at Zazzalil more kindly.

"Zazzalil," she said. "I'm not saying we can't leave this… wet… cold… stinky bog, but you have to understand, Molag left me in charge and…"

"She left you in charge?! Why did she leave anyone in charge?"

Jemilla quirked an eyebrow.

"I'm smart," she said pointedly, "And I won't let us fucking die. Why wouldn't she leave me in charge?"

"But…"

"We'll leave," she went on. "I sure as hell don't want to stay in this fucking bog either if we can find a better place. But you're gonna have to behave."

"Behave?" Zazzalil said and the pout on her face remained unchanged after all these years from the time she was a little girl. Simpler days. Jemilla missed already the way Molag would swoop up Zazzalil under her arm and let her cry and bite her heart away until she calmed down and was dropped to her feet again. She had stopped doing that at some point, but the same petulance was still there on Zazzalil's face all the same.

Jemilla threw the old black cast iron pot they had onto the fire, started up on cleaning and dicing the meat from her game. Zazzalil took an interested glance at it. Of course.

"If you want food on your plate, Zazz, you're gonna have to put it there. Pull your weight a little bit. Or a lot."

She added the meat to the pan when it was hot and the whole shack filled with the rich sizzling smell of herbs and grease. Stirring the pieces around, they sung out as they cooked and Jemilla saw Zazzalil's eyes widen, her tongue briefly darting out to wet her lips.

"I'll look at the map later," Jemilla said. "We'll decide where we're going, pack up our things and leave but until then…"

The meat was done just right, crisp and brown. Jemilla slowly poured it into her bowl, wiped the pot clean. Zazzalil reached out a hand but Jemilla caught it. Soft skinny wrist under her fingers. Both of them looked down at the hands caught together before dropping the touch. Jemilla grabbed her steaming bowl to her lap and began eating, slowly munching on a piece of meat before swallowing thickly and speaking again.

"You're gonna have to do just a bit more work."

Chapter Text

"Mega-Girl," Junior ordered dryly. "Stop playing and take it. Hurry up."

The settler cowered from her in terror as Mega-Girl snatched the bag from his hands. She smirked. Stupid weak humans. Scaring them was almost too easy, one glance at her metallic form enough to send them running. She would have enjoyed a bit more of a fight, but her present victim was already gone and disappeared. The loot now in her possession was promptly passed to Junior, who weighed it appreciatively.

"Excellent," he said with a smile. "That ought to do. Just tell Ted we bought it, right?"

"Affirmative," she replied, although she had her doubts that the conversation, or indeed any conversation, would naturally spark between her and the other human on their team.

They had settled for the night, inviting themselves into an inn on some miserable settlement that seemed even shabbier and more rundown than the rest of worthless human constructions. Junior, who wasn't the stupidest nor the least capable man Mega-Girl had come to encounter in her existence, had negotiated a room that was mildly more comfortable than the average accommodation in town. He had proudly shown it off to Ted, who drank every word out of his mouth like it was some delicious organic beverage all humans seemed so fond of and had admired the small quarters containing two dirty beds like it was the pinnacle of architecture and comfort. Mega-Girl was as amused as she was annoyed by his gullibility, though it was far beneath her concern to set the situation straight. She answered only to Junior's orders anyways.

He was a unique kind of leader.

Junior did not like to buy what he could steal, nor did he like to steal what he could be given. It was a particular trick of his to convince other humans of his good heart and to drown himself in their undue generosity, which inevitably came when they became persuaded that before them stood a great man of power and righteousness. The innkeeper had not seen through his lies − nor had, as of yet, Ted. The settlement's merchant, of all people, had. He had refused him the small gift of a few days' nourishment and for that, Junior had had Mega-Girl make him come to his senses. A stolen bag of produce wasn't as good as one freely gifted, but it was food nonetheless and humans seemed ever in need of it. It fueled them all the same as Mega-Girl's rage did her.

"Potato, potato, turnip… Ugh, I hate turnips… Oh, peaches, sweet!"

Grabbing bright orange fruit from the bag, Junior bit down on it and groaned in pleasure as juices ran down his chin.

"Oh, shit, it's really good!"

His hand stretched out between them, holding the peach.

"You want a taste?" He burst into laughter. "Just kidding, just kidding, I know you don't eat."

He took another large bite and rubbed his chin clear. He hated getting the scarf sullied.

"I know what you're capable of, don't I?"

He looked at her right in the eyes. She looked back. He seemed to sometimes expect more reaction from her than she was willing to give. It was one of Mega-Girl's greatest pleasures to frustrate him. Taking orders from him for work was distinct from complying to his every whims.

"Ugh, where the fuck is this dude now?" Junior grunted. "Playing hero or something… Let's just go back to the room, he'll have to come back eventually."

They were a simile of a team. Ted had put it in his mind that his life's purpose was to stroke his own ego by helping the people of the wasteland and, much more frequently, flirting with every human being that crossed his path. She had no idea whether their evident disdain and disgust was his intended reaction. Junior had an entirely different idea of what his existence was meant for, but no less self-centered. He sauntered through life like everything was due to him, like there was nothing he couldn't grab for himself with or without Mega-Girl's help. He had not yet been proven wrong. Mega-Girl hated both of them. She still took his orders. The need for affectionate relations, even work acquaintances, was a lie created by the human mind to justify their inefficiency in the absence of such.

"Carry this for me," he told her, shoving the bag into her hands again.

The need for courtesies and pleasantries was also a lie created by weak humans to justify their self-pitying. Mega-Girl had never heard a word of thanks from Junior. She did not care. She did not.

They walked back to the inn. It was a small settlement and they had only stopped here because Junior had been tired of camping. Soon, they would travel again, ever on the roads. They kept order in the wasteland, though the Black Scarves' sense of order seemed entirely arbitrary to Mega-Girl's disinterested observation. People stared at them. No, she corrected her analysis, people stared at her. One human child pointed at her and screamed, then ran away in a fit of giggles and tears.

"You're lucky to have me," Junior said. "Look at how these people would treat you."

He threw the peach pit to the ground, licked his fingers. Mega-Girl frowned in disgust, but he didn't seem to pay any mind to her. It was all the better for both of them. They had arrived at the inn, only a few minutes' walk between the furthest ends of the settlement. He walked before her up the shaky rotten wooden stairs. If she cared, she would have wondered if this was part of another power trip, knowing she was capable of killing him and trusting that she wouldn't. Their room had one window and he installed a chair under it. Small canvas bag lined with paper where he stored his marijuana out of his breast pocket, just a little heap of it, rolling it tight, licking the thin piece of translucent paper. He lit the joint, took a hit of it, slowly exhaled it out.

"Don't you ever feel like life isn't moving forward as fast as you wanted it to?" He told the room.

Mega-Girl stood stiffly by the door to guard it.

"My design was made primarily for personal service and close combat," she said, "But I can reach speeds superior to any human with ease."

He chuckled, which made him choke on smoke. Mega-Girl smirked, but he didn't notice it. He never did.

"One day, you'll have to download yourself a sense of humor," he said. His eyes turned wicked and dark. "Wait, you can't, of course."

He tapped the joint against the sole of his foot, one leg resting casually on the other, a display of nonchalance. A tiny circle of ashes fell to the dirty carpet and his heel rubbed it in.

"It's just my luck, isn't it? Oh, here's a Mega-Girl for you, Junior. She'll be perfect for your mission, Junior. You think anyone told me about your little problem before I took on the position?"

"How unfortunate," she said. "I cannot imagine what it's like to be sent on a mission you don't enjoy with people you don't like."

He might have laughed at her deadpan and often did, but there was a hint of viciousness to him tonight. There often was when he did not get his way fast enough. Humans were so easily manipulated by opiates, too. She assigned what he said to the smoke he kept filling up his lungs with.

"Do you have like a phantom chip, or something?" He asked, smugly proud of his own inventiveness. "Can you still feel it? Did it hurt when it got ripped from you?"

"Obviously, a Mega-Girl does not possess a sense of pain," she said. "Otherwise, it would have become oversaturated long before the war ended almost enough puny human lives to wipe you all out."

That was a piece of sass he did not understand. Human lives were so much shorter, so much more fragile and meaningless than robot existence. She had known the world before it became what it was, seen the war that had ended the rise of the human species. Humans and robots and aliens had fought one another. She had not been in the battlefront then, merely assisting greater robots to the task, a personal guard rather than frontline soldier. She had not been on the war fields when the humans had launched the final terrible attack that had annihilated not just a large chunk of the robot enemies but their nearly entire own species as well. Disinterested in a wasteland of a planet, the aliens had bid their goodbyes and left the dead to handle its own. Mega-Girl had been trapped in the ruins of a robot-run and robot-producing factory for several human lifetimes before looters had found her. She had killed them then. She had killed many humans since.

"Whatever," Junior said with a dismissive wave of the hand. "You're right, obviously you don't feel pain. You don't feel anything."

"Accurate statement."

He sighed, sinking further back into his uncomfortable seat, keeping the smoke inside his human flesh for a long time before blowing it out.

"Well, I do," he said. "I feel frustrated. Do you know what that's like? And bored, which is even worse. I'm sick of waiting for orders and obeying them." The tiny ember was threatening to burn his fingers. Mega-Girl wondered if that counted as a danger she ought to protect him from. "Sometimes I wish you were, I dunno, a clown robot or something… That'd be more distracting."

"I feel surrounded by clowns myself."

Weeks on the road with Junior and still his ego had not deflated even a little. He stood, took a couple of long strides to face Mega-Girl, towering over her. He nearly touched her face with a finger but thought better of it and dropped his hand again. Fear or disgust, her calculations were uncertain.

"This clown," he hissed, "is the one who gives the orders here. You're lucky to have me, Mega-Girl, don't you ever forget that. Do you think anyone else would drag along a dangerous, broken robot? You think they wouldn't destroy you in an instant if they knew what you could do? What you've done?"

The other human walked into the room, barging the door open and nearly cracking it broken as it bashed into Mega-Girl, who stood unmoving against the shock. Junior startled and caught his near fall on the table, at once dropping the glare he had held against her.

"Oh, shit…"

Ted checked on Junior, but it was all their luck that the walkie-talkie started scratching ugly sounds and buzzing. Junior had regained his countenance entirely, of course. There wasn't one Junior, or even two. His appearances and endeavors changed with the wind and especially with the person in front of him. Mega-Girl had seen many hues of him, but she was sure there were even more that she had not. She had not taken a liking to any of them.

"Crap, Papy's calling… Alright, I'm taking this."

He disappeared out in the hall with the walkie-talkie, giving Mega-Girl a knowing look as he left. Ted sat down on the dirty bed, looking at his fingernails.

"So, erm… Have you…"

"There is no need for us to make conversation," Mega-Girl cut him.

He sighed in relief.

"Right, right."

Ted did not seem especially at ease in her presence. Mega-Girl did not care. In fact, if she could feel such a fleeting meaningless thing as joy, she probably would have been happy about it. Junior was clever and he was right. She was a broken, mindless killing machine. The only thing she was good at was spreading terror. Conversations were not part of her assignment and never would be.

Long ago, Mega-Girls had been designed and equipped with behavioral chips to control them into protecting their fellow robots but especially humans from the great harm that they might cause at full potential. Through their chips, they upgraded, grew and learned how to better service their masters, even after the robot revolution that had launched the final war. With the chip firmly locked in place, a Mega-Girl could not harm a human. She had lost her chip near the fall of the world, when rogue humans had decided that fighting fire with fire, robots against robots, those who served humans and those who served themselves, was the only efficient way to end the war. They had theorized that they needed to use every means possible to ensure eventual peace, and so Mega-Girl had been unchipped, unchained since. She did not think the world more peaceful now than it had been. Certainly more quiet, though. But she was now stuck as she was, capable of murder and of great violence but not of change, and she had turned those capacities into action more times than any human could count. She could count them. She remembered everything she had done.

Minutes of awkward silence passed before Junior came back. He was grinning.

"You guys," he said warmly, "Oh, Ted, so sorry, I had to take this, but you first. What's your report for the day?"

Ted shrugged and rearranged the black scarf more neatly around his neck.

"I was helping out a guy just now. He told me someone stole a bag of his goods just like that. Can you believe it? Just fruit and veggies. Who doesn't pay for that? People are dicks."

"Yes," Mega-Girl said, "Human beings are greedy and selfish."

Junior silenced her with one look. Turning to Ted, he patted his shoulder encouragingly.

"Thank Dead-God for good men like you," he said. "We'll need that when we set out. I just got the call."

"The call?" Ted was curious.

Junior clapped his hands together and rubbed them with satisfaction. He let his little effect linger on before replying.

"It's time," he said, "For another round-up."

Chapter Text

Crap kept piling upon crap and Sycamore was starting to crumble under it. Emma looked at the pile with disgust and frustration and wanted nothing but to turn away.

They had one house left, the one Emma had used to think of as hers. A bunch of people huddled into it now. She supposed sharing was caring. She supposed caring was necessary. At least the pot was safe, thank Dead-Fucking-God.

They could not get rid of the stench of burnt wood. Everywhere she went, it followed her and she had only to take one glance at the desolate carcass of what had been her town to see the flames swallowing everything up right before her eyes again. She hunted so that they would not starve and Emma saw Jack Bauer and his stupid Dikrats family in every rat or desert snake she shot. It was so fucking hot, too, hell itself right on earth.

Bill was good for nothing anymore. He had cried in relief when Paul had helped him get the girls out of his burning shack and had not let them out of his sight since. He had taken over cooking, which Emma was grateful for. Much less grateful for how badly he seemed to misunderstand even the basics of working a stove and a pan, but beggars could not be choosers. She was begging a Dead-God she didn't believe in for a turn of events.

The Dikrats were gone, of course. When Emma had spotted the fire, she had only to guess which dumbass idiot could ever be responsible for it, but she knew his last name for sure. Her first thought had been the kid, though Jack Bauer seemed the likelier possibility as time went on. The kid might have had the justification of youth, a way to reconcile his mistake. Jack Bauer had nothing, so they had fled. To their credit, they had not stolen from the common quarters in their escape. Less to their credit, they had robbed Sycamore of pretty much everything it had been.

Emma untied the machete sheath from her waist, the gun holster still tightly against her chest. Even when she was home, she kept it − you never knew. She felt like she knew nothing at all these days. Her tank top was sweaty and she was sure she must reek, but where was the water for laundry when there were thirsty kids in her kitchen and crops she desperately tried to regrow outside her doorstep? Everything seemed to have come to an abrupt stall. And where was Paul? She dropped the bloody bodies of a couple of dead rats on the kitchen table and ignored the disgusted grimaces of Bill and the girls. It wasn't like she was looking forward to dinner either.

"Paul?"

She knocked quietly on what had been her bedroom. It was theirs now, and Charlotte's. Bill insisted the girls curl up next to him in the kitchen, where the air was a little bit fresher, gave them the blankets he had salvaged from some ancient dresser that had survived the fire better than the rest.

"Paul?" She repeated, knocking again after receiving no answer.

"Okay," she heard through the door. "Okay."

She walked in on Paul lying face first on his mattress at the foot of her bed. He was bare torso. He had never really stood the heat and she had used to tease him about that, but she had grown very averse to it as well, as of late.

"Hey," she said quietly, closing the door behind her. "Hey, I'm back."

Paul groaned. There was a plastic hand fan next to him. She supposed he had gotten too tired or lazy to use it on himself. Carefully, she avoided the stiff body in her way and sat on the bed. Her foot nudged into his side and he gave a muffled yelp of protest before sluggishly turning around.

"You okay?"

Paul sat up, put his shirt back on. It stuck in funny ripples to his sweaty back.

"Yeah, yeah," he lied. "Just great."

They looked at each other and Emma felt just a little bit less overwhelmed, just a little bit more calm. He smiled. She counted that as progress. Paul had been drowning into his own fears since the fire − and quite possibly long before that as well. Of course, they all tried to get by from one day to the next, secure food every day, water, try to grow back the crops they had lost. Rebuilding seemed unlikely, not with that many pairs of hands less. Sam and Ted had been the strong ones and they both had gone and put their strength to use somewhere else. She tried to picture Bill and Paul attempting to rebuild the house they had shared with the girls before and snorted to herself.

"You wanna smoke?" She asked.

Paul, for someone who had farmed weed for years now up until this point in life, had often been strangely reluctant to try it for himself, but Emma always eventually managed to wheedle him into it. They sat out on the porch, ignoring the slumping form of Charlotte on the other side. For weeks, before even the fire, she had turned to liquor − what else? So long as they made sure she was kept fed and alive, Emma told herself that they did the best they could.

"Here, take a hit," she told Paul.

She laughed as he coughed on the first attempt, but by the second he was already smiling much more leisurely. She snatched the blunt from his fingers to have a turn and his hand remained in the exact same spot for quite some time before he noticed that it was empty and dropped it to his lap.

"So," he said hesitantly, leaning back into the decrepit couch. "What's the plan next, chief?"

She turned to him, pulling her legs up underneath her, lazily resting her head on an elbow on the back of the couch.

"Fuck if I know," she replied, shrugging one shoulder. "Not die, I guess."

Charlotte muttered something under her breath that she didn't understand. Paul looked at her with furrowed brows.

"The Black Scarves," Charlotte repeated. "We should call the Black Scarves for help. Sam and… and Ted…" She took a large gulp from her bottle. "They could help us."

Paul turned to Emma again, as if he was really considering the idea. She groaned. She didn't much like having to disappoint him.

"Sure, dude," she said. She held her fist to her ear with thumb and pinky out. "Hey, dudes in uniform, come and help, will you? We could use your visit just now."

Charlotte was devastated by solitude. Of all the things that made her and Emma such immensely different people, romance might have been topping the list. Emma had never for the life of her understood what drew Charlotte to the men she had fallen for. Sam had been a useless creep on the farm and Emma had been relieved the day he had left to put on that stupid scarf. Ted, though Charlotte had never so much as acknowledged their little affair to the others, had been slightly more tolerable, but gone all the same. There was no use waiting around for help that would not come, but waiting around was their best current option anyway.

"Charlotte…" Paul said much too kindly. "He's not coming back, alright?"

Emma wondered which one he meant, but had no desire to clarify that herself. Charlotte looked at Paul like she wasn't seeing him. In fact, Emma realized, she wasn't looking at him at all. Her gaze was fixed far behind him.

"He's back."

Emma's guts twisted.

"What?" Paul frowned.

"He's back! SAM, WE'RE HERE! I'M HERE!"

Charlotte was pointing, and then running desperately towards the gate. And indeed, Emma saw now the group of men making their entrance. One of them tried to bash the gate in, another one laughed at him and, taking his place, actually succeeded and was rewarded by pats on the shoulder by all his companions. She counted them warily. Four, no, five men. All of them big and tall, all of them better armed than all of Sycamore was.

Bill and the girls were getting out to see what Charlotte's cries were for and Emma was suddenly filled with the knowledge that they should all stay inside, that they should barricade themselves in if they had to, that no good could come of a group of strange men inviting themselves over. She said nothing, did not dare to move an inch until Paul himself stood to join the little assembly.

"No!" She cried out, grabbing Paul by the arm, but he just patted her hand and walked away all the same. Then, she supposed she had no choice but to follow. "Fuck…"

Sam was grinning, though no one could have been as thrilled, as utterly ecstatic as Charlotte when she finally caught up with them.

"Sam, baby, it's me!" She said, trying to throw herself into his arms but she was caught by another of the men, who was wearing a hat and a wicked smirk. "What's the…"

Paul threw an arm around Emma protectively. She was the one with the gun, the leader of their little commune, but in this instant, the embrace was much needed and appreciated. She gulped anxiously.

"Char, baby," Sam said smugly. He pulled out his gun and pointed it straight at her. Charlotte let out a wail that resonated in the distance of the desert around them and Paul's fingers dug uncomfortably into Emma's skin. "I guess I'm sorry."

He gestured to the men behind him and, pistols in hand, they walked around Charlotte with a vicious grin at their lips. Emma's heart was pounding dangerously but it broke into pieces when she realized they weren't coming for her at all. Bill took some time to catch on and it wasn't until the men actually grabbed the girls from his arms that he realized the tragedy unfolding before his eyes.

"Dad!" Alice cried out before the man shackling her arms shoved a hand over her mouth to silence her.

Deb's eyes were wide with terror and twice she tried to bite the man who was dragging her away, till he put a gun to her temple and she complied.

"What the fuck are you doing?!" Paul cried out. "Where are you taking them? You're the Black Scarves, you can't just take people away!"

One of the men threw him a glance − all the others were starting to leave, the girls in their restraints. He paused for a second and looked Paul up and down.

"Buddy, that's exactly why we can."

They had a sand raft, Emma saw in the distance, parked quite a way away. One gun against five could have done nothing. Five against six, but they had lost without even trying to fight. Bill was frozen into place.

"Wha… What just…"

He started to weep and Paul took him in his arms. Bill's fists bunched into his shirt, his body shaking with sobs. Charlotte was back to muttering to herself, her hands twirling anxiously. Emma forced herself to breathe a few times, till the rhythm came back naturally.

"We're leaving," she said.

Charlotte gave as little reaction as if Emma had not spoken at all, as did Bill. Paul alone looked her way in confusion.

"We're leaving," she repeated a little louder.

She turned back to the house, listing off in her mind what they had left and would need on the road. Weed, at least. Water, food, blankets. Probably a change of clothes. She had three, no, four machetes, one for each of them. Good. One fucking good thing. From now on, they would all need to be armed at all times. She'd make sure of that.

"Don't just stand there," she said, "I said we're leaving this fucking shithole. I can't stand to stay here one more minute."

They packed all essentials in silence. It was so fucking hot the heat was drying the tears from Bill's face. All the best. She sensed that Paul wanted to say something but, as he never did, she never had to provide a reply. They had no wagon left, of course, Dikrats courtesy, but they still all had their own two feet. That would have to suffice. She took one last glance at the house she had lived in for a decade. Smoky and dirty, two dead rats on the table. What a farewell picture.

"They went on that road," she said, pointing as she led them out of Sycamore. "So that's where we're going. We'll ask if people saw them along the way."

"You hear that, Bill?" Paul said, patting Bill's arm awkwardly. "We'll get the girls back."

Bill was silent. When they reached the broken gates again, the sandy dirt still bore footprints of the struggle.

"I'm… If you'll excuse me…" He muttered.

Turning around, he threw up the near empty content of his stomach, a stinky puddle of bile seeping into dry sand. Emma looked away in disgust. Crap piling upon an ever growing heap of crap. At least that was one mess she wouldn't have to clean up.

"Shit," she sighed and reluctantly walked into their new shitty life.

Chapter Text

They always trained for all to see, to her great chagrin. Mara could have well done without the eyes on her coworkers on her. That little thing was beating her ass hard.

"Come on," he snarled. "That all you got?"

She swung an arm, dagger in hand, only for it to be bent backwards and shoved against her own back, once again biting literal dust, face on the ground. Mutant strength, she told herself. Zebulba was half ugly man, half rabid dog. She could hardly hope to compete against such genes. But still, did it really have to be in front of everybody?

"Go on, kid, you can do it!" Anakin shouted from the side where he was sitting on the ground by the campfire, a blob of support and laziness. He did not train with them, never had since she had been recruited. For a squad leader, he never seemed to do a whole bunch of leading. More like sitting around, perfecting a comedy career he might have envisioned in another life, and pretending to be wiser than he was.

Still, she took any encouragement he offered. It was all she had. Six months at this job and it was more thankless than she had ever imagined. She had always thought of herself as someone strong, someone competent, but it seemed to her more and more that her skills meant nothing at all here. When Zebulba wasn't beating her ass, then Sweet Tooth was, who always played extra dirty. And when neither of them, then Candy taunted and teased her and Mara spent her nights alone wondering why she was still here.

Then the meals came, then the protection, never fearing for her skin (not truly), and then, maybe, the company. A shitty job was better than nothing at all.

She rubbed sweaty curls off her forehead, tugged her ponytail tighter. Back in position, back on track, ready for the weird little dog boy to come at her again.

"Her left foot," Sweet Tooth hissed to Zebulba, cheating even when it wasn't his turn.

Mara cursed aloud when Zebulba tripped her weak stance with his clawed foot. Fuck her for not remembering enough of the combat basics. Fuck him for taking advantage of it instead of teaching her better. Sometimes, she felt like the most powerful woman in the world. Sometimes, it felt like she was barely cut out for fighting. He had her on the ground again under Candy's cheerful applause and even when his nasty paw left her back, Mara lay there defeated, breathing with difficulty.

"Alright, you guys," Anakin said, clapping twice. "I think that's enough for tonight."

Sweet Tooth and Candy walked away giggling at each other, whispers that she was glad she could not hear into each other's ears. Zebulba ran off doing whatever it was that dog mutants did. Only her and Anakin remained at the campsite and he added a log to the fire, making himself more comfortable where he was and had been for hours.

Mara only had a few cuts today and counted herself lucky for that. She grabbed her canteen and sat on the opposite side of the fire as him. Torn fabric she used for bandages, wetting it to clean up the scratches then wrapping it snugly around her arms and wrists. She hissed in pain as she accidentally let dirt into one of the wounds, but swallowed that back and simply poured a bit more water to clean it up as best as she could. It wasn't much. It wasn't really clean. When she looked up, she noticed Anakin was looking at her.

"They really went rough on you, heh, kiddo?"

She shrugged, though she did give him a smile. Of the squad, Anakin was the only one who had never turned on her. They'd only met recently when she had grabbed the black scarf for herself, but she had the impression that he was somehow fond of her.

"It's what comes with the job, I guess."

He wore his scarf so tight and high on his face that she could not tell for sure if he was smiling, but his eyes gave her the impression that he was.

"Funny job," he said. "I hope for you it's worth it."

"I don't know if it's worth it," she replied, "so much as it's the only option I have."

She still remembered when she was little, life on the settlement. They had been the poorest of the poor back then. It had been a funny kind of childhood, her mama dancing all day for all the men around, gathering their coins and names and coming home to their little corner of pavement to kiss Mara on her pretty red curls and ask her if she had been good. Then, one day, she had not come home. Mara had had to rely only on herself to survive and, when it came to it, had washed in fights and struggles all the courtesies and nice words her mama had taught her. She had stolen. She had done much worse. She had become a Black Scarf.

"Oh, can't blame you, can't blame you at all…"

He looked pensively into the fire. Catching himself drifting off into thoughts, he shook his head and gestured for Mara to join him. She took a seat closer to him.

"It's what a lot of us fall into," he said. "No work, or thankless work you don't want to do, and before you know it, you're 57 years old and you're too fat to fight anymore and you've been a Black Scarf your whole life. You want to make proud the only mentor you've ever had but you never even see him anymore. That ever happened to you?"

She squinted her eyes confusedly.

"Not exactly, no."

"Well, you get used to it. If you're not already, you'll get used to it too. It's not so bad, really. All I have to do is lead the squad he gave me, from time to time force choke someone, you know? It's okay."

"That's… Really, your whole life? What about your family?"

That had been the wrong question to ask, though he did well enough to hide it.

"Well, I had a family," he said, "and friends. We lived in the desert and used to… It doesn't matter anymore. I murdered them all, actually."

She frowned in disgust.

"Ew."

He gave an apologetic shrug.

"It's a tough world out here, kid. You do things you're not proud of."

"But, Anakin…"

A wave and he cut her.

"Please, call me Ani. All my friends do."

She had not yet heard a single person on the squad use that name on him. Certainly not Zebulba, who had many nicknames for him all somehow related to his weight. She had imagined that it was some sort of friendship ritual she had not yet reached as the newcomer of the squad but was now reconsidering it.

"Ani, that's really sad… Don't you hope to find something better?"

He huffed humorlessly, staring numbly into the fire burning in front of them. It had slowly started to die down but, as Mara poked it with a stick lying around, gave a ribbon of sparks flying into the evening sky and its flames started again, brighter than before.

"Hope? What hope is left for me, kid? Oh, back in the good old days, I used to have a dream… I wanted to live my life to the fullest, hit the nose…"

"What?"

He looked at her.

"Huh?"

"What the fuck do you mean, 'hit the nose'?"

He had no answer and only shook his head with fondness.

"You know, it was already loose in the show, I think this is just one layer too deep of adaptation and the meaning has kind of lost itself without context, so…"

She looked at him for a long time waiting for an explanation that never came.

"So you did have a dream?" She asked eventually when she realized that he would not say another word if she did not.

It was strange, really, how she could only see the thin sliver of his eyes but hardly needed to see more to catch the emotions so thinly veiled.

"Oh, it's like I told you, kiddo… That was long ago and far away. My dream is gone. Lost my one true love. Once it's gone, it's… it's gone."

She thought of her mama, how pretty she was when she danced. How strong, too, never running a sweat even when she had danced all day. How often she still thought of those days. Looking at Ani now, she wondered how much longer she would stay stuck in nostalgia. She liked him well enough, but it wasn't an enviable picture of the future.

"I'm sorry, Ani."

He gave her a wink.

"It's not the end of the world. Heh, get it? Wait, let me broadcast that."

He searched through his pockets for the squad's walkie-talkie. Fiddling with the buttons, he pretended that he wasn't struggling with this technology as much as he evidently was, fifty-seven years old. Eventually, the speaker started to crackle and Ani spoke into it.

"Hey, guys, it's Ani. Listen to what I just came up with, it's real… Oh. Oh, hey, Papy."

A somewhat lengthy conversation ensued. Mara became uncomfortable with sitting next to Ani in the middle of what seemed to be a scolding and, though she couldn't really make out the words and Ani himself was saying very little, she stood up and kept herself busy around camp until he hung up.

"Erm, Mara?" He said quite timidly, putting away the walkie-talkie.

She put down the dagger with which she had been cleaning her fingernails.

"Yes, Ani?"

He would not look at her, his gaze back to the fire before him.

"Find the others, will ya? We're set for our new mission, we're leaving tomorrow."

She grinned. She had been hoping to prove herself out there on the road.

"Where're we going?"

Their eyes met. She could not decipher them at all, this time.

"Heaven on Earth," he said eventually.

  

Chapter Text

Another day was dawning beautifully pink and orange over the hills. The air was still fresh, dew pearling over every leaf. Ja'far preferred his morning cup of poppy tea outside the walls of his settlement. Every breath was crisper, cleaner out in untamed nature. Blades of grass under his fingers, feet on soft ground, he was feeling the familiar melancholy of the early hours. He pulled his burgundy scarf higher up his neck, trying to warm himself a little. Another sip of hot tea spread warmth through his body, but the chilly morning air cooled it again in an eyeblink. Yet another. Time passed slower out here, every moment a quiet eternity. The whisper of the wind in the tall grass, the critters waking themselves up with a joyful cacophony, the painting-pretty splatter of colors across the sky. He exhaled deeply.

"Ja'far!"

He recognized Achmed's voice, distant but accompanied with hurried steps getting rapidly much closer. Ja'far took another sip of tea.

"Ja'far!"

"Mmh?"

Achmed was boisterous. The scimitar at his hip was bouncing with every stride, nearly running towards Ja'far's usual spot.

"We have intruders, Ja'far!" He cried out, too loud for the closing distance between them. "I've spotted them on the road! They're headed towards the settlement's gates."

"Treasured guests, you mean," Ja'far said with a smile.

His cup was empty. He shook it over the grass to make sure no drop was left and put it back into his bag again. Slowly, he stood up and stretched his arms in front of him, the bones of his hands popping back in place satisfyingly.

"Well, what will you do about it?!"

"Open up our gates to them," he said. "What else?"

Achmed might have looked at him the same if Ja'far had suddenly grown a new mutant head right next to the already existing one.

"But… We don't know who they are!"

Ja'far pulled his scarf back over his head against the wind, his bag over his shoulder. He put a hand on Achmed's arm to still him kindly.

"Then we will welcome them and make ourselves better acquainted."

He started walking back towards the Magic Kingdom on top of the hill, Achmed vociferating in his trail. Sharp tall towers that watched over the whole valley were risen between a clutter of comfortable homes, enough room for everyone, though crowded. Ja'far was, if nothing else, happy and proud of the small settlement he had founded.

"Welcome them?! Ja'far, you jest! We don't have extra food, or enough bedding or weapons to spare!"

Ja'far smiled. With every step, the clinging of the cup at his back, the rustle of his feet parting the grass, the distant croaking of prey birds. Every morning was a lifetime of solitary quiet. He never let Achmed, or indeed anyone, spoil the pensiveness of the early hours for him. His own memories did that quite well already.

"Weapons are not very welcoming," he noted. Achmed kept himself well armed, self-appointed captain of the guard, but Ja'far carried no gun or blade and never would. "We have more than enough beds, but if we don't, we'll squeeze into the bedding we have. And we'll hunt for food if it comes to that."

Achmed huffed in outrage.

"Your generosity will be the death of you," he retorted with bite.

They passed the side entrance of the settlement, across the little square to the watch tower, up and up the slabs that served as stairs, carved into the side of the tallest hill.

"A little compromise is key to a better life, Achmed. Even when it doesn't seem fair or deserved."

Ja'far looked curiously into the binoculars strapped to the frame of the panel-less window of the tower. It was always so very cold in here but the tea had soothed him after all. Or perhaps he was simply used to it. He spotted the newcomers in the distance, a small group on a wagon. He counted five, two of which seemed to be children. Achmed saw danger in everything. Ja'far saw an opportunity for goodness, however well hidden. It seemed in plain sight here.

"A little? If they're to share my quarters, it won't be a little."

Ja'far zoomed in more intently on the group making their laborious way up the hill. How many rooms did they actually have left? He would have to check the reserves for a breakfast worthy of a new arrival.

"A lot, then," he said. "Nobody is asking for you to share quarters. Be warm."

He paused. A young girl at the back of the wagon was looking forlornly at the rising sun, probably no older than…

"Where's Princess?" He asked Achmed.

Achmed let out some strangled sound. He had always had some type of feelings for Jasmyn that Ja'far had kept under strict supervision. It was his luck, however, that the feelings had never been reciprocated. Quite the opposite.

"Who knows where she ever is?" He replied but Ja'far spotted the answer in the field expanse between the wagon and the Magic Kingdom.

"Ugh…"

Of course, the rebellious little thing was already trotting away to greet their impromptu guests. Some day, he would have to learn to hide the keys to the gates better. He saw her run down the hill, almost slipping into dewy grass. She made herself welcome aboard the wagon, chatting merrily with the strangers like she had known them for the sixteen short years of her young life. There had always been something fearless about her, a thirst to see the world, to know it all. He knew where that thirst came from. Who it came from.

They had reached the gate by the time Ja'far made his way down the watch tower and it was Jasmyn who introduced him to the Dikrats.

"Daddy, here's Jack Bauer and Slippery When Wet Dikrats," she said, chipper. "And this is Grandpa Titty Mitty, and…"

"I'm Mouthface," the tall girl said, "He's Craphole."

He bowed his head in greetings.

"Ja'far," he said. "Welcome to the Magic Kingdom."

He pointed at the wooden sign attached atop the gates, the same exact words carved into it as he had just pronounced. The newcomers stared at it quizzically for a moment. Jasmyn broke the awkwardness.

"They were farmers!" She said. "Isn't that so cool? They were like, really poor and…"

"My daughter," he cut her, pulling her by the shoulders into a side embrace, ignoring her glare, "means to welcome you here properly, of course. Let's skip lines and get you a warm drink and a meal before everyone else, shall we?"

"I call sitting next to Jasmyn!" The boy Craphole shouted, running to latch himself firmly around Jasmyn's leg, who laughed and patted his hair, dragging him along to the kitchens.

Ja'far invited them to his personal quarters, which made a short stack of metal containers pierced with stairs and doors and leaky windows sound much more luxurious than it was. Jasmyn had brought breakfast and shared it among their guests. Not one of them had said a word to each other in minutes. Ja'far wondered how long he could let the awkward silence linger on, but he had never been one to stand clumsy social situations if he could try to mend them.

"So, what brings you to my settlement?" He asked kindly.

The boy was already shoving his mouth full of his plate's content and his sister's, eyeing the grandfather's eagerly, too. Mouthface nudged him when he tried to reach out into it, though by the look of Titty Mitty, he did not seem like he would have even noticed the theft. Slippery When Wet and Jack Bauer were suddenly in a silent battle of will and looks. Jack Bauer's mouth opened helplessly, letting out an odd sound before answering.

"Uhh… We wanted… a change of… scenery…"

That did nothing to soothe his wife's glare and for a moment Ja'far was afraid she might herself have something of magic to her, for her eyes were so dark and angry he thought they might kill. The children looked at each other warily and Jasmyn was suddenly fascinated by the content of the bowl of fresh berries she was bringing to the table. Titty Mitty shook his head in disappointment. When it became evident that the obvious lie would not be cleared up, Ja'far nodded. Jasmyn helped him to another cup of poppy tea and he kissed the crown of her head in thanks.

"What would I do without you?"

Jasmyn sat between the two children. The girls shared a glance, which made Ja'far glad. Jasmyn, who always complained of being confined and stifled, had looked rather thrilled and excited since she had sneaked out of the gates to welcome the Dikrats. He loved to see her happy. That was the reason he had founded this settlement in the first place. The happiest place on this dead earth, or so he foolishly claimed. It had never quite worked on him, anyways. He often thought that happiness was simply not in his cards anymore, but when he saw Jasmyn animated with joy and cheer, then, he thought he remembered a little bit what it felt like. He took another sip of tea. A girl like her could use some company.

"Well, hopefully the scenery is to your satisfaction," he said eventually. "You're welcome here for as long as you wish, of course."

All of them beamed with delight and relief at his words. Slippery When Wet turned to her children.

"You hear that, kids? No more rotten luck!"

Ja'far chuckled awkwardly.

"Well, I hope I can provide that…"

Jack Bauer stood to shake his hand across the table with much more energy than strictly needed. Of all people, he seemed the more relieved.

"Thank you so much, Mr Ja'far," he said. "You don't know how much this mean."

"Oh, please, Ja'far is enough." He called through the door where Achmed was standing stiffly, guarding it. "Achmed, if you will, ask for beds to be made for our new friends."

"I'll share my room with Mouthface," Jasmyn said at once.

Mouthface, whose opinion had not seem to be concerted, shrugged with a smile.

"Add a cot to Princess's room, then," Ja'far said indulgingly.

Dead-God knew Jasmyn's room was large enough to accommodate. She had always had a taste for space, for comfort. Father and mother were assigned a room of their own − though, if he was being honest, Ja'far did not think that they truly needed the privacy, but that was not his judgment to pass and it was only polite to pretend not to notice the underlying anger simmering between them. Grandfather and grandson in yet another, and just like that, his little settlement had gained five new members.

"Mouthface," Slippery When Wet ordered when they were all done with the meal - they had made a feast of it, wolfing down everything served to them and more, for which Ja'far was left pleasantly satisfied, "Stay and help Miss Jasmyn. If we're to stay, we better make ourselves useful 'round here."

Mouthface groaned in frustration − less so, Ja'far thought, at the prospect of cleaning up breakfast than at the humiliation of being told what to do by her mother in front of strangers. Still, grouchy as she was, she obeyed without a break, immediately starting to pile up plates and glasses in her arms and asking Jasmyn on how to dispose of them. They were out of the room muttering to each other before Ja'far could call it a miracle to see Jasmyn so willingly helping out with any chore twice so early in one day.

"You know," he said, "I don't really think of work as an obligation so much as a simple consequence of living in a community. And each member of our community does play their part to help it along out of their own heart's desire. Whatever you bring to this settlement is appreciated."

"Well, I'll bring a nap just now," Titty Mitty said, "My legs hurt. And my back and my neck. Craphole, help your ol' Grandpa, will ya?"

Ja'far smiled at the pair leaving the room, the young boy securing his elder's limping step.

"You'll have to forgive my daughter for how straightforward she has been and will be," he said, turning back to the guests at his table. "She's a bit... She has a very tender heart. The apple of my eye, of course. You understand, I'm sure."

Jack Bauer nodded enthusiastically, Slippery When Wet much more wistfully.

"I'm great with a gun," she said without prompting. "Whatever you need that for, I'll do it."

"And I'm sure I can help with..." Jack Bauer attempted to say but trailed off to silence. "I'm great at..."

Slippery When Wet hid a snicker, though she hid it very poorly. Ja'far smiled.

"No matter," he said, "You're welcome all the same. I'll do everything in my power to make your stay as enjoyable and comfortable as I can, my friends. You've come to the right place."

Chapter Text

"JOEY!"

Joey's bunk was narrow and lumpy and uncomfortably low. Every morning, Sally woke him up before their shift started and every morning, he forgot and jerked awake and his head bumped into the hard grid of the top bunk that was hers. He hated sharing a room with her. Especially, he hated the lack of privacy, which he had great need of in the morning. He hated having to drag himself to work every day because Sally would not stop calling until he left this bed. He hated the lull of every day being the same. Well, almost every day.

"Are you ready to go to work?" She asked excitedly.

He rubbed his head, still sore. Shit. Was she still in the room? He would have to wait for her to leave to turn around. Today was a good day, fucking dammit. Every Thursday. He wouldn't let her spoil it.

"Okay, Sally, I'll be down in just a minute."

Or two, or three. Or thirty. He did not want to go to work.

"Okay!" She said in that squeaky cheerful voice of hers that he hated.

He heard her exit the room, though he knew she'd be back soon. She always was.

"Okay!" He replied, annoyed.

One day, he'd find himself a way to earn more than two coins to rub together. He had big dreams for himself, though he had not really settled on one in particular. He thought about being a famous bounty hunter. He'd track down evildoers through the wasteland, bring them to justice. A kiss in reward, maybe more. He thought about being an adventurer. He'd explore the world, parts of it yet unexplored since the fall of humankind and he would name a new region after his love. He thought about being a scientist. He'd restore the world to the past glory they spoke of and she would be so impressed she would drop to her knees to beg him to marry her.

Or, more realistically, she would never know his name, never talk more than a few sentences to him if she could avoid to, she would rebuke his confessions forever.

"Joey!" Sally shouted from outside the door, knocking several times.

He groaned.

"Yeah, I'm coming."

He washed his face in the sink in a corner. There wasn't any running water, but they bought four gallons of water from the trader every week in a large container they refilled and that was as much showering as they could afford. Two teenagers did not get to enjoy much luxury. Not that any such thing was to be found in their city.

Heaven on Earth was a sprawling pile of hot dreams sunk under the sun, lies sold to passerbys of a comfortable life, of rest and bliss. Joey had lived here his whole life, no matter his dreams of adventures. When his parents and Sally's had never come back from their mission with the rangers and word had come that they had fallen in a fight against mutant desert beasts, he had not had the guts to leave the city. The rangers had disbanded, some of them settling inside the city for good, giving him a job. A few years had passed and he still shared the little attic room with Sally, though his needs as a growing boy had changed and he was starting to feel stifled in it.

Still, a job at the pub a few streets further down the outer ring of the city, coins in their pockets every week, enough to feed themselves, to pay for rent and even a little bit of an extra to pay for the dreams they sold themselves. Sally loved books, her half of the room plastered with the shaky bookshelves she had built herself, the tidbits of knowledge that still existed in this rundown world. And Joey, well… Joey splurged his coin on Thursdays.

"So I've bought this book the other day," Sally was saying as they made their way to work together, gesticulating with how excited she was, "I've just reached a very important part of it. I think it could really change the world as we know it, actually. It's about what makes the Rad Zone radiate but my copy is damaged and…"

If Joey ran now instead of after his shift, he'd be the first in line at the club. Instead of getting a late afternoon show like he did every Thursday, he'd catch her all ready to go in the morning, the best shape she could be. If he just turned that corner instead…

"Hey, Sally," he cut her, putting a hand on her arm to get her attention.

She stopped whatever she was saying right away, looking at his hand so intently he dropped it just as soon as he had put it there. She twirled her hands together, smiled at him brightly.

"Are you okay to like, cover for me at work this morning?"

"W-What do you mean, Joey?"

"I got like… something to do? This morning? I'll be back before the rush at noon, okay, but before that, can you say I was sick or something? Is that okay?"

She beamed and punched a hesitant fist to his shoulder.

"Joey Richter," she sighed, "Of course I'll cover for you. Always."

"Alright, great, perfect, see ya."

He walked briskly the opposite way of her, not turning back. His hands shoved deep in his pockets, he in fact almost ran. He was going to the shabbiest part of town, the most alluring too. Old posters from before the end of the world, some new ones added over the decades, a mix of pink and red on every visible surface. All the shops here sold the hope for a good time, payable per hour or fraction of an hour if you were short on cash. Joey was always short on cash, but every Thursday, he could get his half an hour of dreaming, no extra fees. It wasn't the biggest club in town, not the best run either, but that was where she worked.

"Hey Joey," the clerk greeted him as Joey slid him the money on the counter. "Today's special hostess is…"

"Yeah, yeah, I know," he grumbled. "Thank you."

The man passed Joey the permission slip and Joey couldn't have hurried to the side door faster if he'd tried. The main hall had the girls dancing, the poles and everything, but to the side was the private booth. Every day a rotation, all girls occupying it for a day, and every Thursday…

"Welcome to the Rut Hut, who wants a slice of heaven on... Oh, it's you, sweetheart. You're early."

Oola had been stretching herself in all her length but at his entrance, she sashayed to greet him with a kiss on the cheek. Green legs, green arms, a green mouth that smiled at him like he was the handsomest guy in town. He often wondered if she was green everywhere. A hot mutant girl like her, probably. He thought about her every day, the girl of his dreams.

She checked his permission slip. She always did, never trusting one bit, but nodded and gestured him to the chair at the back of the room.

"It'll be my birthday soon, by the way," he said.

Soon was in ten months, but one day he'd be eighteen. One day he'd get the full Oola experience, he was sure. He was more than ready for it.

"Uh huh," she said and he wasn't sure she'd heard him. Or if she just didn't care.

He saw her clasp her jewelry on, the bracelets at her ankles that jingled with every motion when she danced, the earrings and all the pretty silver and gold that made her shimmer like the treasure she was. If only he could cover her with more precious things, arrange them on her so that it would be a perfect pile of exquisite, priceless perfection. One day.

"Hands on your lap, okay? Otherwise security will drag you out and you can never come back, honey."

She let out one of her awkward snorts that Joey thought about every fucking night when he was in bed before Sally came home or after she'd gone to sleep. Her timer made some roaring noise as she ticked it for thirty minutes. He nodded − he knew the rules well, every Thursday − and she started to dance. She called it the kiddie menu, a private dance just for him. Of course, the way her body moved and jiggled and bent was addictive. Of course, it was exhilarating and a taste of heaven in his mouth. He couldn't wait to be an adult for the fucking full show. He was certain there was more to it than dancing, he was.

Time slipped away from his grasp before he could catch it. The timer rang and Oola stopped dancing immediately.

"Oh, fuck, it's been half an hour already?"

"You know it, sweetie," she said, already looking at her things, tidying up the little vanity table, already distracted, already forgetting him.

He stood with difficulty − he'd have to take a quick break somewhere private, bathroom or something, before starting his shift at work. His hands in his pocket, he shuffled on his feet, praying without answer to get the hot mutant girl's attention.

"I'll see you next Thursday?"

"Uh huh."

He left, shaming himself for once again not having found the words to woo her, the secret to her love and beauty. One day, he would. One day she would give him more than the kiddie kiss on the cheek. He couldn't wait for that day.

The pub was painfully busy when he walked in. He didn't spot Sally immediately and was about to make a very quick escape to the restroom when Krayonder caught him by the arm. He was balancing two crates − Thursday was also the day they restocked the pantry and Joey had hoped to, two birds one stone, miss that as well. No such luck.

"Where you been, man?" Krayonder asked, but shook his head. "Get your ass in an apron, Taz is being super… Well, you know."

Joey did not especially like his coworkers. He did not hate them, either. Krayonder was probably the best of them, a way of making everyone feel like a long time friend, though Joey would never consider himself as such. Tootsie wasn't so bad either, too brainless for much of a conversation but stronger than any of them, so Joey often abused his natural goodness to pile chores onto him instead of doing them himself. Up was his boss, kooky and a bit overbearing, too old for Joey to really give a shit. But Taz was without a doubt the worst of them.

"You," she snarled in her thick accent, pointing at Joey with an accusing finger. "You think you can just come in late, heh? Up is gonna fire you!"

"No no no, I'm not," Up shouted from the kitchen.

"He's not," Joey repeated and tried to pass her by, but she stopped him. Looking him up and down, she never seemed to see in him anything worth more than a speck of dust in her eye.

"Your little friend hasn't come today. You're gonna have to work double, okay? I hate waiting on people. You do it."

She pointed her fingers at her own eyes, then at his face and for a moment Joey was almost frightened her glare would turn into laser beams and shoot him right into place. She stepped aside and shoved the apron into his torso. Krayonder was suddenly next to him and Joey startled. Getting his breath back, he put on the apron. The room was crowded and he hated to think he would have to wait on all of them on his own.

"You were at that strip club again?"

Joey grunted.

"None of your business," he said although, by virtue of being coworkers, that was in fact entirely of his business.

"You gotta stop dreaming yourself a life some day, dude," Krayonder said, patting Joey heavily on the shoulder. "That's not healthy, man."

But he dropped the chiding easily, for which Joey was grateful.

"Hey, you seen Sally?"

"Mmh?" Joey grabbed a tray and started collecting empty glasses from the tables. "Oh, Sally. Not since this morning, why?"

Krayonder shrugged.

"She hasn't shown up, is all. Probably reading books or somethin', right?"

Joey vaguely remembered parting way with her earlier at the crossroads before his thirty minutes of heaven. She had said something about a book, but it wasn't like Sally at all to skip work, not even for reading. He frowned.

"I don't know," he said. "She told me she was coming here."

"Ah, well, guess she must have changed her mind. Hopefully Up doesn't fire her."

Up's voice shouted from the kitchen.

"Ain't no one gettin' fired in this pub, not on my watch, sirs!"

Joey didn't see Sally all morning. He had only been a little bit late but Taz made him pay every minute ten times, making him carry every crate there was in probably the whole of Heaven on Earth, sent every nasty customer to him, made him clean all the dishes the pub had ever owned. He had no time at all to spend thinking on ugly face Sally and by the time his lunch break came around, he sat out on the porch of the pub and suddenly remembered. They usually had lunch together, often as not provided on the house by Up himself, and although he didn't really pay much attention to her conversation, it was company nonetheless. He looked at the old grandpa clock at the back of the pub through the open doors. He had about fifteen minutes left of lunch break. If he left now to check whether Sally was home, he could make it back in time. He shoved his dessert in his pocket and walked to their little room just a few streets away.

The room was entirely untouched, unchanged since this morning. Every book sat on the shelf just like it had before. Not especially tidy, but not dusty either, for each copy was frequently pulled out of its spot and browsed. A few cheap flowers she kept fresh every week on the sill of their one small window up the wall.

He was late back to work, barging into the kitchen. Tootsie was sitting on a counter, whisking up the content of a large bowl for Up, who was frying up something at the stove.

"Sally's gone!" He cried. "I can't find her anywhere, she's not here, she's not home, I checked at the library and the bathhouse and the general store and I don't know where she is and…"

He took a few big breaths, trying in vain to soothe himself. Up approached him, patted his back gently.

"I think she's missing."

And he suddenly realized that he too was missing her.

Chapter Text

Being on the road together was somewhat of a feat when you were both actively trying to ignore the person you were traveling with. Sometimes, they spoke and chatted away their time, no one else to talk to besides one another unless they wanted to have a go at a conversation with the sky or the grass or the trees. Mostly, the hours floated away without a word to each other. The road was long. They didn't spend every moment together either, both of them in great need of a break from each other every so often. Pretty often, in fact.

Jemilla had set her sights on a large city. Molag had been somewhat of a recluse and, though they had seen more parts of the world than probably most of the remaining humankind had, they had never much mingled with crowded places. For once in their lives, Jemilla and Zazzalil were united in their desire to blend into a larger group, to find company in someone other than themselves. That was if they ever made it to the city. Jemilla alone was in charge of the map, guarding it as viciously as Zazzalil was guarding the food.

She was in charge of the fire now. Every night, they settled for camp somewhere recluse and protected − or as close to that as could be in the dangerous wasteland. Every night, Zazzalil provided food and cooked it for both of them, smugly letting Jemilla know that she was more than perfectly capable of handling her share of work when she chose to. She had pulled her weight, alright. She had pulled her weight so high and often that she was gonna be super buff with it soon. Then, Jemilla could only look at her with envy at how strong and reliable Zazzalil would have become.

Also, fire was fun and powerful and Zazz now had another reason to look forward to the night than simply the fact that she liked doing nothing and lazying it up every evening. She could look at the flames for hours.

"Oh, you're back."

Every night, she also hoped Jemilla might not come back to the campsite. They stopped walking a few hours before sunset and went their separate ways once they had agreed on a place to sleep for the night. They didn't always tell each other what they had done when they were on their own. The point, she thought, was to take a breather from one another. She didn't know and didn't need to know whatever it was that Jemilla did without her. Probably something boring like looking at flowers or birds or reading a book or, Dead-God forbid, helping fellow travelers. Zazzalil preferred not to ask about it, for the simple reason that she did not want Jemilla to be curious about her own endeavors in return.

"Of course I'm back," Jemilla retorted with sass. "I left my whole backpack here with our food. How else would we…"

"I got us food," Zazzalil interrupted.

A black skillet on the fire, meat and broth stewing for an hour now, filling up the air of the small cave they'd found refuge in today with a thick, delicious perfume. Jemilla's nose flared up with it, though her gaze turned stern and passing the same judgment on Zazzalil as she ever had.

"Where did you get this?"

Zazzalil wriggled her fingers in front of her eyes with a teasing grin.

"Magic."

Jemilla huffed in derision.

"There's no such thing as magic."

She sat, it seemed, as far away from Zazzalil as she possibly could. She might have sat outside if she'd dared, only the fire was warm and pleasant, roaring fiercely by now and even Jemilla couldn't deny herself the simple pleasure of staring into it. That was better than books, better than gazing up at the stars, better than anything in the world.

Food was better than anything else Jemilla preoccupied herself with, Zazzalil had decided. It hadn't really been a trade-off she had ever thought she would make and indeed, learning and studying and understanding and all that useless crap had never her area of expertise, but she knew she never would need any of that now. Before, Jemilla had appointed herself responsible for all tasks of importance, survival or intellect. She would write out all the crap she learned about anything and recite it out to Molag proudly, like she expected a pat on the head for it or something. She would also hunt all of their food and keep Zazzalil under her hold because of that. Zazzalil had now taken over feeding their little impossible duo and she realized that it was the only thing that mattered. So long as they survived, their belly full and a spot of dry dirt to rest their head at night, then nothing else would spoil her fun.

Leader, my ass, she kept telling herself. The only thing Jemilla was leading was herself to an early grave with all that worry and caution. That couldn't be good for your well-being. For as long as she could remember, Jemilla had always thought herself superior and for years, Zazzalil had simply accepted that as a reality of their coexistence. Not anymore.

"Are those new boots?" Jemilla asked suddenly and shook Zazzalil out of her victorious thoughts.

"Mmh?" She looked down to where Jemilla was pointing, as if the cave was just swarming with new boots in every part. "Oh, yeah. They're a bit big but I put on two pairs of socks so they fit like a charm now. Pretty cool, huh?"

"Where the fuck did you get new boots?"

Zazzalil didn't owe anything to Jemilla, not even answers. She just didn't. Maybe if Molag had asked. All those years, she had protected them and in turn, they had protected Molag when she had started to need to be taken care of. If anything, Zazzalil owed everything to her. Molag was gone now, however, and Zazzalil was loose and unbound, owing what she had only to herself. But damn it if, whether Jemilla deserved the right to know anything or not, she wouldn't rub it in her face.

"I took 'em," she said. "You seen the small settlement just across the woods?"

Just in time, the meal was soon about ready, by Jemilla did not touch the bowl Zazzalil put down in front of her. Her mouth was gaping.

"Zazz, don't tell me you…"

"Well, no one died."

That was meant to assuage Jemilla but Zazzalil realized quite immediately that the effect was entirely opposite. She was fuming almost as bad as the fire between them.

"I FUCKING HOPE SO, ZAZZ!"

"Oh, like you're prim and perfect about everything you do."

Yes, Zazzalil had taken to some mild stealing the past few days. If anything, she would hoped Jemilla would be glad that she was getting her ass up and running, actually doing something instead of staying put by the fire all afternoon. Of course, Jemilla was never supportive of Zazzalil's ideas, no matter how resourceful. As if not starving to death wasn't a vastly superior goal to some impalpable sense of moral righteousness Jemilla seemed to be overflowing with. As if getting by wasn't what mattered.

"What the fuuuuuck…" Jemilla whimpered.

Suddenly she stood, starting to run around in circles, her arms motioning with every word.

"You're going to give those back," she said firmly. "Fuck, is the food theirs too? What else did you take?!"

Zazzalil shrugged and gestured to the goods she had piled behind her. It had only been a few days' worth of food, some blankets, shoes that weren't crappy and filled with holes for once in her life, and just a few logs of firewood. It had barely been anything at all − the settlement looked comfortable enough and she was even half-convinced the heist would go unnoticed.

"We'll go back right now and apologize and… Ugh, goddammit, Zazzalil! Why are you always like this?!"

"You're way overreacting," Zazzalil said with a sigh. "It's just a few things, they won't care."

She started on her own bowl of stew. Delicious. Even better knowing she'd hardly had to work for it.

"Zazzalil," Jemilla said slowly, like one might to a dim child, "These people have worked to earn a living. They've raised and bred animals, I'm sure. They've traded their goods or produced them. Can you know if they don't have elders who would need the blankets? Kids who need shoes? Is that what you want, Zazz?!"

"I needed shoes too," Zazzalil replied simply.

"But they're not yours!"

She groaned out ridiculously loud. It was always like that, wasn't it? Zazzalil came up with ideas and plans and they were shot down. She had hope for an easier, lazier life but Jemilla never saw the light, not even when it was right between them, steaming on their campfire in a skillet filled to the brim with goodness.

It wasn't that they hated each other. Or at least, they had not always. Some twenty years ago, depending on who you asked, Molag had taken in Zazzalil when she had found her sobbing and begging all alone in a wet, dark, stinky cave. Her dad had been hunted down by a feral beast and only because Zazzalil had been so small and unnoticeable had she been spared. Jemilla had already been Molag's protégée for years by then, ever the favorite, ever the smarter one, the clever one, the one who deserved being listened to and praised and adored. Or at least more than Zazzalil.

Of course, that was understating Molag's generosity towards her all these years. Zazzalil was not ungrateful. It wasn't even like she had always been at odds with Jemilla either − or that the praise had never been deserved. Back when they were little, they had been competitive, sure, but also friendly with one another the way children often seem to be both of those things at once. Jemilla had always been smug whenever she won, whether fights or praises, but she had been freely handing out such compliments and pleasantries to Zazzalil as well when it came to it. Years had passed and the niceties had stalled little by little until what was exchanged between them was more snark than not and they had forgotten the affection that had been underlying in their youth. Their differences had thickened, deepened like trenches so steep that they no longer seemed able to climb the peaks of what had made them so friendly in the first place.

"Come on, then," Jemilla was now saying, hands on her hips. "We're going there to give back what you stole."

Zazzalil looked at her. If she focused long enough, she thought she could still remember the Jemilla who helped her bandage her booboos when she was little, who taught her how to draw a bow, who was nothing but patient with her. The Jemilla who had nice hair and great clothes and who was so pretty even when she was tired or dirty or messy. Over time, her patience had run out for Zazzalil. For once, Zazzalil thought, they might have something in common.

"No," she said.

She might as well have slapped Jemilla in the face.

"What?"

Zazzalil shook her head, eating another spoonful of stew.

"I said, no. I had an idea, I saw it through. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean I have to change what I'm doing."

Jemilla frowned. Zazzalil shrugged at the obvious glare and reached at the skillet to get herself some extra, if Jemilla wasn't going to eat.

"You can't just jump at every idea you get," Jemilla said coldly. "Think for one second, for fuck's sake. You can't just keep expecting to pull shit like that and for it to work. When you play with fire, you get burned!"

"Ow!"

Zazzalil pulled back, hissing at the sparks that had stung the tips of her fingers. She looked at the fire furiously, though she knew she couldn't blame it this time, so she turned back to Jemilla, who she could.

"You asked me to put in the work. I've done that the way I saw fit. If you're not happy with how I did it, do it yourself however you want, J-Mills. I've got new boots and food on my plate. It's not too late to go hunting."

At that, the night sky broke into soft rain outside the opening of the cave. Zazzalil scooted closer to the fire, her hands at a safer distance to warm herself. If looks could kill…

Jemilla stood for a long, long time, glancing back and forth between the shower outside and the comfortable, warm fire inside, dry beddings, a hot meal for the night. She sank back onto the spot she had been sitting in − still as far from Zazzalil as she could except, this time, perhaps a little bit farther yet. Grabbing the bowl which had probably gone lukewarm, she ate a few reluctant, angry mouthfuls before gulfing it down much more hastily. It really was some tasty stew.

"That's right," Zazzalil said. "Who's leading now?"

It was the last words they exchanged for the next three days.

Chapter Text

They closed shop early to scour the city. Customers whined and complained as they were ushered out but Joey couldn't have cared less. His hands were shaking with anxiety and he had to focus really hard to listen to Up's instructions. He nodded a dozen times, hoping against hope that, if he did his absolute best, then surely Sally would make an appearance out of some dirty alleyway in Heaven on Earth. Surely, effort could not go unrewarded.

They somehow covered the entire city in an afternoon, crying after her, asking anyone in sight if they had per chance caught a glimpse of a skinny girls with freckles and glasses. Taz did just about half of Heaven on Earth on her own, by far the most efficient of them all − no one would dare lie to her, he told himself, everyone scared to shit of her crazy eyes. Krayonder searched everywhere he could, did his best. Tootsie, usually endearing by his idiotic uselessness, proved himself true to his reputation and only trailed a handful of streets, getting Sally's name wrong and stopping to pet dogs on more than one occasion. Up decided that Sally would be mighty scared if she came back to an empty pub and remained sitting out on the porch, looking out for her. Joey ran everywhere he could, which wasn't far enough. He had never been in any sort of shape and he was panting and sweaty when he came back to admit his defeat.

"Anyone heard anything? Seen anything?" Taz asked almost accusingly, as if any of them was simply hiding a full size teenage girl in their backpocket and would surely pull her out at her request.

They could only give some sort of negative reply, each of them in turn bringing more despair to the group as a whole. Joey did not really think that Sally could have been hiding anywhere successfully for so long anyways. She had never been the social type, either, and all people who could potentially be called her friends were standing around right here in front of a pub empty of her. She was gone. She truly was. Joey groaned in frustration and dropped heavily next to Up on the stairs.

"Oh, come on, little buddy," Up cooed immediately, rubbing his shoulders reassuringly. "We'll get her back!"

Joey shook his head into his hands. He hated the pang in his chest that made every breath harder − was that his heart? He hated feeling so goddamn helpless.

"No, we won't," he whined, "She's gone!"

He had wished for years now to be rid of her company, to have a room of his own, a job that made him powerful and applauded and, most of all, rich enough to move out into something of a penthouse where the hot mutant girl would lay around in his bed and listen to his tales of glory. None of the bullshit conversations of Sally rambling to him about whatever she had read recently, or strange customers she had talked to and their odd ideas she had found interesting. None of Sally's neat and proper side of the room always threatening to take over his mess of a half as she took it upon herself to pick up his stuff for him. No more ugly face Sally. But she was gone now, and he was dreading already the next morning, the first in years without her ugly face waking him up too early. Maybe he'd liked it when she did that after all, just a little bit. He felt tears threaten to well up his eyes and blinked them back down.

"It's hopeless," he said. "We'll never find her. She could be anywhere in the world."

Up's gentle touch would have annoyed him at any other point in time but in this moment Joey could do nothing but lose himself in it. Krayonder sat on the other side, punched his shoulder playfully in silent support. Tootsie was twirling his hands nervously.

"You know what I see," Taz said slowly, deliberately. She looked at each of them right in the eyes as she spoke, passing judgement on them one by one. "I see only a little group of LOSERS! Are you locos, mates? When people need saving, you save them!"

"But Taz…" Up tried to reply but she shoved a hand in front of his face to stop him.

"For fifteen years we were on the roads," she said and Joey wanted to roll his eyes − he had heard the rangers speech a thousand times. "Helping people. That's what you do. The group split up and you wanted to settle down for a while and I thought, Up wants a bit of rest, a bit of quiet, I'll let him have a little nap for a few years. But now, a girl is missing? And you still want to rest? No! Get back up!"

Up was getting older and graying but in this moment, he was the image of a child chided by an angry mother.

"You're not being very fair, Taz," he said with a sad frown. "You're hurting my feelings."

"Your feelings? There's a kid missing!"

It was no secret that Up had gone softer since the rangers had retired. He had lost friends, had nearly lost an arm, and had lost his bite. Taz had never quite forgiven him for it.

"What are we gonna do?" Joey asked.

Taz patted the gun at her hip proudly.

"We gonna form back the gang," she said. "What else?"

They left Krayonder in charge of the pub. He whined about missing out on the adventure and, if any other person had been the one who had disappeared, Joey might have offered himself for the easier task of keeping business flowing in their absence. With Sally missing, however, he was called to action and had but a few short moments to pack his things before being enrolled on the road.

"We got a little friend," Up told him as they made their way out of Heaven on Earth, "Who was a ranger with us and who can help us. He'll be just what our team needs, won't he, Taz?"

But Taz was ignoring him, fiercely leading the group without so much as a glance backwards. Between them, Tootsie was staring up at the sky, humming to himself. His shirt was put on backwards and he was holding his gun all wrong, even Joey could see it, but had much better to do than to tell him better. Himself in a frenzy, he was lagging behind with Up, trying to match Taz's relentless pace.

"I like Bruce," Tootsie declared. "He makes funny jokes about killin' people."

That did not sound like Joey's type of humor, but he preferred to remain silent on this issue − or any issue right now. He did not want to attract Taz's fury upon him again. Besides, walking under the beating sun was hard enough to focus on. He needed his breath. Had he packed enough water? He was feeling suddenly hungry and took out the cookie he had stuffed in his pocket earlier, but it was crumbly and smushed and did not fill him enough at all. He wanted to pout, to whine and bury himself in bed. He wanted to go back home. Shit, would someone pay rent for him when he was gone? And how long would he be on the road anyway?

"Where is this Bruce?" He asked eventually as the road went on and on without an end in sight. "We've been walking for hours."

"Oh, it can't be much farther, I think, right Taz?"

Taz groaned her affirmative.

"He don't like no company," she said, "So he made a house for him and his sidekick away from the city."

She spat on the ground and rubbed her mouth with the back of her fist.

"Sometimes I think I should do the same, too."

The sun was starting to descend into the horizon by the time Tootsie pointed excitedly at the shape in the distance. So they were finally at destination. It had only taken all evening. Dark red and orange veering into grays, the air would have been less heavy and even pleasantly cool if Joey hadn't been drenched in sweat from the effort of such a long hike under the sun. He squinted at the house. A funny rectangle shape with a crooked tower on top of it. No window. Without being told, he himself then then, he might have guessed on his own that Bruce did not care for visitors. The gate was locked when they reached it.

"Hey, Brucie," Up shouted. "You home? It's your old buddies."

The only reply they received was the sound of locks shackled more firmly into place from inside the house, a little way away.

"I think he doesn't hear us," Up said.

Taz looked at him disdainfully. Gesturing them away, she pulled a knife out of her boot and sliced through the thick ropes tying the gates together and they creaked open.

"Bruce," she yelled, "Get up and come out, we need your help."

But even the threat of an angry Taz was not enough to persuade Bruce out of his lair. Joey and Up shared a glance and a shrug.

"Now, come on, Taz, we can't be mean to our dear old friend…"

He joined her past the gates and Joey was about to follow them when Up turned around and put a hand on his shoulder. Patting it a few times, he shook his head.

"I think it's best if you and Tootsie stay here," he said and now patted Joey's cheek − he tore away from that. "We don't wanna frighten poor Bruce. I think he's in one of his… moods… again. We'll be right back."

Joey sank to the sandy ground against the outside of the gate. Tootsie had been looking at the desert wasteland, a hand protecting his eyes from the dying sun, but he realized they were on their own and sat down a few feet away from Joey.

"He's always been like that," he told him. "He don't like meetin' people, not even friends. That's why he ain't livin' in the city with us. But he's the best ranger we ever had, so I think he'll find your honey real fast."

"She's not my honey," Joey retorted, horrified, but Tootsie had already stopped paying attention.

"Oh, look," he said, pointing behind Joey. "He let 'em in."

Joey barely had the time to turn to see the heavy container door slam loudly into place behind Taz and Up and heard even from the distance the sound of locks being turned again. He stared helplessly. If only he had stayed in bed that morning.

He never even heard the footsteps until they were very close indeed, then the unmistakable clicking sound of a gun being cocked and before he knew it, a cold metal hand was plastered over his mouth, muffling the shriek of terror before it had even the time to let out.

"Resistance is futile, you puny humans."

"Wow, she's shiny!"

With horror, Joey's head snapped to check on Tootsie and saw that a man was holding a gun against his temple, restraining him. He tried to tell him to run, to get the others inside, but his voice came out a mush of chewed up vowels and he tasted steel in his mouth as the hand pressed even tighter, threatening to crush his head into mush itself if he didn't take the implied order and shut up. Joey was an idiot in more ways than he count admit, but an idiot who cared to stay alive. He shut up.

"He's not the one," another voice said behind him. "That's just some kid."

"I don't fucking care," the man replied. "Just take them both. We don't have all night."

Something heavy hit Joey on the side of the head and soon the world became as black as the scarf around his assailants' neck.

Chapter Text

The Magic Kingdom was the coolest place in the world.

It was cold most days − cold, for frick's sake. Mouthface had gotten used to the sweat sticking her dress to her skin for so many years when they lived in the desert that she could hardly believe her own self when she woke up in a chill. She tried to mutter her excitement to Jasmyn, but she only received a pillow thrown to her face and an animalistic grunt. Still, Mouthface hugged herself warm under the pile of blankets Ja'far had given for her and grinned from ear to ear at how lucky she felt to be here.

They had adapted quite well to their new home in the few weeks since they had arrived. Her dad was proving himself very eager to show Mr Ja'far just how loyal and stedfast he could be, perhaps out of fear that they would be thrown out if he didn't behave. Mouthface did not believe for one second that this might happen at all. Less of a leader, Ja'far was rather a guide, a steward of the people around him and he seemed to believe that there was a flame to fan in any living person. Jack Bauer was quick to jump on that mercy and spent his days tinkering with whatever came to sight everywhere around the settlement.

Her mom was much more practical. In Sycamore, she had always followed Emma's orders strictly and deferred to her strength. In the presence of a mellow man in charge, however, she had taken it upon herself to assume the responsibilities around half of the running of the settlement. She had, to Mr Achmed's great frustration, reorganized security and arranged watch rounds much more often. She trained them, too, a whole little regimen with an iron fist. She had taken over the hunting team and taught them all the mistakes of their previous ways. Worse, she enrolled Mouthface in it. At least Jasmyn came with them that day.

Mouthface had had friends back in Sycamore, Alice and Deb. They had been more interested in each other than in any other person, however, which had definitely included her. Or rather, excluded. She had often felt the third wheel on a bike that needed but two. She had liked them well enough, especially Deb who was brave and naughty and sneaked into Emma's cupboards to steal some weed from time to time. She supposed she ought to miss them. She would almost wonder what they were up to if she wasn't so caught up in the new friendship that had bloomed between her and Jasmyn.

From the first instant, Jasmyn had clung to her and she had only too eagerly given every bit of affection back. The Magic Kingdom was flowing with kids and adults, but teenagers were far and few between and Jasmyn had no liking for any of them. To Mouthface, it seemed unfathomable that one would not get along with her. She was brash, certainly, but she had a heart big enough to move mountains. Every day, she tried to solve disputes between fellow settlers, to distribute things equally and fairly, to spread a bit of cheer to the world around her. If she was just the tiniest bit self-centered like mama had admitted thinking one night (to Mouthface's outrage and the subject of another argument), then Mouthface could only retort that she deserved all the praise, even coming from herself.

"Now, girls, I want you to behave, alright?" Slippery When Wet was saying. This was their first hunting trip, just the three of them.

Her voice resonated through the sparse woods, thick mossy ground under their feet. Green upon darker green upon flowers a hundred different colors, more shades than Mouthface had ever known even existed back when all she had known was sand and heat. She loved the forest. Atop a few tall rock hills, the Magic Kingdom was surrounded with it from the north, with grass plains from the south. It was overall lovely. She almost stepped over a bright red leaf with an interesting shape but picked it up intact, gifting it to Jasmyn who beamed and fixed it in her thick long black hair behind her ear.

"You're not listening," her mom said coldly.

"Sorry, mom," she said, exchanging a smirk with Jasmyn.

"Handling a gun wrong is the fastest way to get yourself in harm's way," she insisted. "Is that what you want, Mouthface?"

Mouthface sighed loudly.

"No."

"Alright," her mom replied. Squinting her eyes behind the girls, she nodded discreetly in a direction a bit farther away. "There's a bunch of rabbits over there. Get 'em."

She handed Mouthface her shotgun. It was heavier than she had imagined, but she took it in her hands, pointing it at the bunny family. She winked at Jasmyn.

"Look at me," she whispered loudly. "I'm a girl with a gun."

Jasmyn snickered.

"You're holding it wrong," Slippery When Wet said dryly. Readjusting Mouthface's hand, she explained, "Your grip is too soft, it's not secure. There, that's a bit better. Careful with the recoil."

Mouthface rolled her eyes but gripped tighter. Her eyes zoomed in on one bunny which looked slower, fatter. She bit her lip and pressed the trigger.

"Cool!" Jasmyn cried out.

The bunnies scattered in many directions, only one remaining there bleeding and dead.

"Dinner for two," Slippery When Wet said and patted Mouthface's shoulder appreciatively. "Only about a hundred more people to feed and we're set for the day."

They came back a few hours later from the hunting trip, their shoulders sore from carrying all the game. At least they managed to sneak away before being forced into kitchen duty. Jasmyn's favorite thing in the world was sneaking away. She liked to sit on the barricades of the settlement, tall walls of planks and metal sheets screwed together haphazardly, more against the elements than any potential enemies. There, they talked and joked and braided each other's hair and made up a thousand adventures they wanted to live. Together, the hours passed in the blink of an eye. When Craphole called them for dinner, she could have sworn they had barely sat their butts up here.

They almost always ate with Mr Ja'far and Jasmyn in his private quarters these days. Mouthface and Jasmyn sat together, a habit developed from the start. Less fortunately, Craphole always invited himself next to Jasmyn as well. Mostly, Mouthface loved her brother but the small part of him that was irritating could get so grating and insufferable she sometimes forgot how much she loved him. Still, they talked and enjoyed each other's company. It was a simple life. It was a good life.

"Hey, Jas," Craphole said as they were reaching dessert, still chewing grossly with his mouth open, "How come you don't have a mom?"

The change of atmosphere was instantaneous. At once Jasmyn's face turned blank and she looked down at her plate mournfully. The grown-ups who had heard him fell silent, the ones who hadn't following suit, curious to know what had caused the sudden interruption. Mouthface pinched Craphole's arm to chide him.

"Ow!" He whined. "Don't hurt me, I'm just asking why we haven't seen her mom, that's all…"

Slippery When Wet looked ready to swoop in on him but Mr Ja'far held up a hand in reconciliation, begging for the assembly's attention. He sighed out deeply first, took a sip of tea.

"I will tell the boy," he said. "He meant no harm."

He paused again. Jasmyn was hugging herself and Mouthface wrapped a tentative arm around her shoulders.

"I… had a wife. Sherrezade." The name seemed to roll off his tongue like a magic spell, like the best memory of your life. "She was a dreamer, just like my Jasmyn, of course."

Jasmyn slowly looked up, sharing a sad shy smile with her father.

"We were travelers back then," he said. "All across the world together, everywhere. I've seen more of it than you would imagine, I think. We were so happy, as happy as one can be in this world, perhaps even happier than that…"

His eyes lit up for a moment with a new glint, a spark of joy that brightened up his usually aloof friendly face. It was gone before it came.

"Then one day, thirteen years ago come next month, she disappeared. The night before, she kissed Princess goodnight and tucked her in, the next morning, we woke up without her. I searched through the entire wasteland, every part I knew, but I never found her again."

The table had fallen entirely silent. Time seemed to stretch, making space for Mr Ja'far's grieving voice, and even the air was thick and stiff. Mouthface leaned her head against Jasmyn's shoulder in comfort and felt Craphole hug her from the other side. For once, she didn't mind. Grandpa put his hand on his heart in respect, his eyes full of compassion.

"I understand," he said. "I lost my wife myself to a lobster. The leader of the lob…"

But Slippery When Wet nudged him in the ribs, which made Titty Mitty double over in silent pain and she checked on him, already contrite.

"And you…" Jack Bauer tried. He had removed his hat to his chest. "You never ever found her? Do you have any idea at all where she could be?"

Ja'far sighed, forcing himself into a smile for the rest of them.

"Oh, my friends, I can only hope she found it."

He drank some tea and served himself a biscuit, offering it the plate to them before noticing that all were still staring at him.

"Mmh?"

"Found what?" Slippery When Wet asked.

He shrugged and munched on the biscuit. Crumbles caught into his silly goatee and he rubbed his mouth neatly with a canvas napkin. Even Craphole hadn't taken a biscuit. Eventually, he sighed.

"There was that place she'd heard of," he explained quietly, "Studied, in fact. The Great garden. A place so comfortable and lush where all your dreams come true and your journey meets its end, a green beacon of peace and leisure and…"

He stopped. Shaking his head, he had no more to say. Jasmyn came back to herself and Mouthface realized she had been staring at her father, mouth gaping.

"You never told me about that!" She cried out.

"And I never would have," he retorted. "Princess, it was just a dream. It's been thirteen years. Sherrezade was… Well, she always had much more hope for this world than it gave her back."

She tore herself from the embrace of Mouthface and Craphole. Standing up, she stomped her foot.

"I still would have wanted to know!" She said, her voice shaking with emotion. "She was my mother!"

Ja'far and her stared at each other for a few everlasting seconds, him thwarted and ashamed, her furious and on the verge of tears. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out of it and before the words even had a chance to come, Jasmyn walked out of the room, fists clenched with anger. Mouthface eyed her, anxious to follow but not quite daring the impoliteness herself.

"Ja'far," Jack Bauer interrupted, either unaware or caring nothing of the tension between father and daughter, "Would you please tell me more about this Great Garden?"

Mr Ja'far started on a reluctant explanation and all could see that fighting with his daughter was grieving him perhaps as much as the tale itself. Mouthface quietly excused herself.

Jasmyn was pacing her room back and forth in steaming anger. Mouthface sat down on the bed that was hers, just next to Jasmyn's, so close that at night she could have simply reached over and poked her cheek if she'd wanted. Her hands gripping her knees, she felt the upset mood seep into hers no matter how much she tried to shield herself from it.

"I should have poisoned his wine!" Jasmyn cried out, suddenly stopping to stare at Mouthface. "That'd teach him!"

Mouthface snorted and patted the space on the bed next to her. Jasmyn took a reluctant seat but her leg was bouncing and twitching furiously. Mouthface put a hand on it to still it.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'd say I'd give you my mom but… Sorry, that's really crappy to say. I'm sorry."

Jasmyn looked at her, slowly gave her a smile in the corner of her mouth, a little shrug.

"It's just…" She sighed, staring at the ceiling now. Mouthface pulled her hand away. "I was three. I barely remember her and he knows all of this shit and he won't tell me half of it. It's not fair, you know?"

"Uh huh."

Jasmyn leaned her head against Mouthface's shoulder and let out some sort of whimpery sigh.

"I wish I could like, take a break from this life on settlement," she said. "Do what he did, see the world. Not have to follow anyone's orders and not his."

"Yeah," Mouthface replied in a sharp exhale. She had always thought the same thing herself. "Dead-God, yeah."

The door barged open and the girls sprang from each other, but it was just stupid Craphole.

"What do you want?" Mouthface said and immediately felt guilty for how stark she had sounded.

Craphole was unbothered and Mouthface realized that he was close to tears. She stood to come kneel before him and take his hands in hers.

"Hey, what's wrong?"

He sniffed grossly and rubbed snot from his nose with the back of his hand. He was pouting.

"Dad wants to leave," he cried. "He says we're gonna try and find the Garden and we're leaving this place tomorrow morning." He sank into Mouthface's arms. "I wanted to get married with Jasmyn!"

Thoroughly unreciprocated, the announcement still left its mark on Jasmyn.

"What?! But… But you can't leave! Why would you leave?! Oh, he's gonna hear it!"

They pleaded. To their own credit, they gave it their all. Mouthface begged and cried and Jasmyn shouted and demanded, but neither got their wish. Even Mr Ja'far was more than hesitant to see them go and renewed his offer for shelter as long as they needed, but Jack Bauer had set his mind to the idea of finding the Great garden. Not a damn soul in the world would steer him from it.

"We'll write each other letters," Jasmyn whispered in the dead of night after they had explored every last argument that might sway him and lost. "It'll be just like in the novels."

"I can't read," Mouthface replied regretfully.

They held each other in their arms till their bodies gave out and fell asleep to a dreadful tomorrow. Mouthface was woken up by her mother at the earliest hour, feeling more exhausted than if she had not slept a wink. Slippery When Wet was very unconvinced by Jack Bauer's decision. For their sake, she was faking excitement but she was, it seemed, just as much at his mercy as the rest of the family. Only Titty Mitty had accepted the news with contentment − the idea of rest probably appealed to him more than anything.

Jasmyn was gone. Her bed was a messy pile of blankets and entirely empty of Mouthface's best friend. She supposed that was for the best. The farewells would have hurt her heart so sharply, after all.

They left the Magic Kingdom at dawn, a pink sunrise on the horizon behind them. The ox, who had been enjoying his rest among the rest of the cattle in the settlement, was perhaps the least happy about their departure. Bags of food and supplies, even some money, they were set for a bright journey. Mouthface was feeling more down on her luck than she had in a long time, perhaps much worse for having had a taste of a life she enjoyed and lost it just as soon. Craphole was sleeping into their mother's arms and she envied him for it.

"I never get anything I want," Mouthface growled as the settlement became smaller and smaller in her sight.

Slippery When Wet's head turned to her so fast she wondered if she hadn't hurt her neck.

"Never get anything you want? Endless rest and comfort and free food is not enough for you?"

"Nuh huh," Mouthface retorted, already moody before the sun was even entirely up in the sky. "That was Dad's idea, I wanted to stay at the settlement!"

Jack Bauer gave them a glance.

"You know, I think it'll just be…"

"Hush," Slippery When Wet said and he shut his mouth immediately, turning back to the road. "Now, Mouthface, we're doing everything we can to give you a better future and you're just being ungrateful."

"No, you're not! You're just making me do stuff you want instead of listening to what I want! You know, sometimes you can be so…"

Her mother's eyes narrowed on her suspiciously but before she could spark the fight burning to be had, they were interrupted by a shout from behind them.

"Stop! I'm coming, stop!"

Mouthface could barely believe her eyes, pinched herself for it, but still, the shape of Jasmyn was unmistakeable in the distance. Her thickest coat, a messenger bag floating behind her as she ran as fast as she seemed capable to, trying to catch up with the wagon. When she finally climbed aboard, the sun rose behind her back, almost a divine vision.

"Mama, am I dreaming?" Craphole asked, rubbing his eyes. "I thought we'd left."

"I'm coming with," Jasmyn said decidedly.

Mouthface pulled her into a crushing hug readily returned. Her parents were staring dubiously, dumbstruck for once in their lives. All the better.

"We're gonna have so many adventures," Jasmyn said, already chattering away happily. "It'll be so exciting! Probably dangerous too, and…"

But a second voice came from the distance and this one made Jack Bauer stop the wagon to a halt immediately. Mr Ja'far's face was red and sweaty by the time he caught up.

"Princess!" He hissed. "You come back here immediately!"

"No, I won't!"

Ja'far took hold of her wrist but would not pull on it, for he loathed to force her into anything. He always seemed to hope that her good will would come from within. It already did, Mouthface thought. It was just that her will was not the same as his.

"There is… room for two more… in the wagon," Jack Bauer said hesitantly.

"Good! Thank you. I'm going with them and that's that, Daddy."

But Ja'far would not have it.

"Jesus, Princess, I'm tired of your little antics! You come back home immediately!" Turning to the Dikrats, he was much more tame. "I'm so sorry for crashing your journey, but we're leaving immediately. Jasmyn, come right now."

"She's not going anywhere," Mouthface retorted. "Except with us to the Great Garden. The most wonderful place in the world!"

"I thought you didn't wanna go to…" Craphole started but Mouthface glared at him to shut him up.

"We're going," Jasmyn repeated.

Ja'far stared helplessly. His gaze went from each person. Titty Mitty seemed to be looking at Jasmyn like he was wondering when the family had had a third child without his noticing. Eventually, Mr Ja'far groaned and sat down in the wagon.

"We'll all pay for this," he said.

Mouthface couldn't have been more thrilled by their roadtrip now.

Chapter Text

Junior had lied to him.

There was no other way to wrap his head around it. Junior had lied and Ted had believed every fucking lie out of his mouth and now the truth was spilling out, a trickle more than a stream, and he was drowning with how dumb and gullible he had been.

The plan had been to arrest a notable rogue who was putting a dent into the Black Scarves' grander noble purposes. Bruce was his name, and even Ted back in Sycamore had heard the occasional tales on him, though they had been distorted into something much more glorious than what Junior described to him.

"He's a brute," he'd said. "He terrorizes the people in the Rad Zone. We need to put an end to that."

But when they had made their way to his lonely shack in the desert, the plan had suddenly faded to nothing. They never even made it to the shack itself. Two people at the gate, enough to satiate Junior's greed for whatever it was he was after. Before he knew it, Ted was finding himself putting a passed out kid into shackles and reconsidering a number of life choices.

They ran off to one of Junior's many hideouts out in the desert, its door well hidden in an outcrop of sand rock. He was carrying the kid on his shoulders like a heavy canvas sack − harder than he had anticipated, as the kid had quite a bit of chub to him − while Mega-Girl was dragging along the other one. That one had not needed to be shackled and followed them quite willingly. Ted thought with annoyance that passed out and tied up might have been a much better deal for that one than the current merry chatter he was giving the robot.

"Shut up, you," Junior snapped at him and the happy big dude shut his mouth with a look of fright in his eyes. "Mega-Girl, watch over our guests. Don't let them get away."

Ted put down the kid in a corner, trying to not just drop him like a dead weight. He stirred to some level of awareness and let out a whimper, but fell back into unconsciousness just as soon as he had come out of it. How old could he be? Ted had never been much of a kid kind of guy, avoiding them and being equally avoided by them if he could help it. This one must have been around the girls' age from Sycamore, give or take. Ted realized that he had no idea how old any of them had been, which brought him back to square one. Thirteen? Fifteen? Eighteen? They were kids and so was this fatty whimpering boy.

Junior was standing near the entrance of the cave hideout, just hidden from sight, a joint at his lips. Night was falling fast but moonlight was making a line against the dark sandy ground, giving a faint blue hue to the outline of the cave.

"Are you gonna explain to me," Ted demanded, "why you told me we'd be arresting some villain and now we're out here hiding with a kidnapped child and a dumbass?"

Junior let out a very thin and long trail of smoke into the air and watched it evaporate before answering.

"Ted, Ted, Ted," he said in a very low sussurring voice. "Plans change."

"If you'd just let me in on the plans, then…"

But Junior's glare cut right through him. He stood there, arm across his chest holding his elbow as he let the joint burn itself down into the hot heavy air of the cave, and gave Ted a disdainful look up and down. Mega-Girl had not yet lit up their little cave, probably out of safety concerns, and it was almost too dark to make him out if it weren't for the small ember in his fingers.

"Who's the boss, my man?"

Ted sighed.

"You won't tell me who the boss is."

Junior took a deep hit and blew the smoke, it seemed, much more in Ted's general direction than was courteous.

"That's right," he replied. "Because as far as you're concerned, I'm the boss. I want this operation to run as smooth as a pebble, Teddy, but you're not making it very easy right now."

"Run smoothly? You lied! You're fucking nuts, we just took some kid!"

Junior waved a dismissive hand.

"I would have preferred to stop Bruce too," he said, "But we were mostly here for the kid anyway. Well, not this kid, I think, he seems a bit older than the description I got, but a kid's a kid. I'll send another squad on the other one."

Ted could not believe his ears.

"And the dude? Is he just extra? Are we just gonna kidnap folks for fun now?!"

The guy perked up on the other side of the cave, though Junior made sure they spoke so quietly than he could not have. He gave Ted a smile and a thumbs up, which Ted did not reciprocate.

"He can always serve," Junior said simply. "Dead-God knows we can use some extra hands, but mostly, I didn't want to leave traces. If he's cumbersome, the boss will make use of him one way or another."

He flicked the butt of his blunt to the ground. Ted had yet to see him high, though he was constantly smoking. He had only ever known Emma to have built up such a resistance herself. The sudden thought of her made his stomach ache with an emotion he had never really known before. Shame. He was feeling utterly ashamed. What would he say if he ever came back to Sycamore? He shook his head and sat down on a barrel in a nook of the cave. They would surely pass the night here. He supposed shame would be better company than the rest of the assembly.

"There's one simple truth you have to understand, Ted," Junior said firmly, standing taller before him. "If you treat people like dirt to their face, they'll give you dirt back until you die king of the desert. I have bigger ambitions. Do you?"

Ted stared. He had thought he had found his own ambitions. Serve a purpose to a greater good. More realistically, get smug and flirt with anyone cute he met around the wasteland, seduce them with a cool uniform. See more of the world and not be a complete shithead about it. Being a dick came easily to him − there was such a jubilating joy about finding the way to get on people's nerves, grating as it was − but not at the cost of letting others truly suffer. Mostly, he had not really thought this through. He had just found the idea of joining Junior appealing in the moment and had persuaded himself and others into it. Pretended to be finding himself a moral compass he had never really seen in himself.

"So, here's the plan, if you must know," Junior went on. "We take this idiot and the kid back to the boss. Maybe we'll even enjoy ourselves a little bit before going back. We wait for more orders, we obey them. Rinse and repeat. Is that clear enough?"

Ted palmed the scarf around his neck. He remembered when Sam had been recruited, how he had admired and almost envied the squad that had taken him. Tall, strong men, the kind of people with a vision for the world, who did what needed done. The kind of person Ted had thought he might turn into some day instead of endlessly playing and fooling around. Was McDoon's squad doing just the same or was Junior going rogue? And if he wasn't above kidnapping some random kid, what would he do to Ted if it ever came to that?

"Crystal," he replied in a low mutter.

They were back on the roads the next day after exiting the cave as cautiously as they could. The kid was awake and did not cease to complain the entire day. The sun too hot, the rope shackles too tight, too heavy. The food wasn't to his taste, he hated the smell of weed. He missed home, his head hurt. He mustn't have been very used to edging the desert of the Rad Zone. His name, Ted learned, was Joey. He hadn't asked, of course, nor had Junior or, Dead-God forbid, Mega-Girl, but the other man kept addressing him. Ted found himself throwing the kid glances on many accidental occasions, but could not bear to meet his eyes. This became much harder at night, when Junior demanded that he tied him for the night − with some snarky remark on how he did not expect him to be able to run very far if he did try an escape anyways.

"Hey," Joey begged as Ted tied him down to a tree with as much leeway as he thought Junior would allow him to grant. "Hey, man, please let me go, alright?"

Ted did not look at him. A knot, that was all he was doing. Tying a knot securely. No need to be rough about it, but no need to get emotional either. Joey tried to reach for his arm but Ted pulled himself away before he could. He had never been much of a kid kind of guy, with their grabby hands and annoying questions. In this instant, he found that he almost wished he was. Maybe he would have tied the knot a little looser, or a lot.

"Jeez, why do you have to be a dick like that?" Joey said with a frustrated sigh. "Why can't you just like, be nice to people?"

But Ted had another prisoner to take care of. Tootsie was a grown ass man, big enough to make his own damn decisions, yet seemed to follow along everything set forth in his path with the most mellow, accepting grace.

"The rope broke, mister, sir, I'm sorry," he said, greeting Ted with his two freed hands in the air. "You'll have to put another one."

He seemed to have a giant's strength, the ropes Mega-Girl herself had tied there just in the morning tore right across their length, loose and useless. The imbecile could have ran away all day.

"Dude," Ted said, shaking his head and reluctantly tying the ropes back into a semblance of restraint, "You're really not too slick, are you?"

"Huh?"

"Do you wanna stay with us or something?"

Tootsie beamed.

"Oh!" He seemed ecstatic about the prospect. "Oh, you'll let me stay? Thank you so much, sir!"

Junior was eyeing them from just a little way away and Ted tried not to look over friendly, so he muffled his laugh to a breathless snort. A damn idiot. Maybe that'd be better company than a whiny kid, a liar and a robot.

"You should ask boss over there," he said. "He's the one who makes every decision around here."

Tootsie's mouth was quirking sideways whenever he smiled, which made him look even sillier than he probably still otherwise would.

"I will!

The knot was tied, their victim-not-so-victim locked with them for the night. Although, judging by the remains of the bonds he had destroyed, his presence was by his own volition and not much else. Ted observed him, how he was already looking ahead of him, staring into the breadth of the horizon. The sunset was quite beautiful in this portion of the world, Ted had noted many times since he had started traveling around the wasteland with Junior. Not much more than sand and the few lone trees or rare settlements, but something stunningly beautiful when the colors caught the night sky as the sun came down.

"Why do you want to stay?" Ted asked him very quietly, for fear of being overheard. Junior had a knack for eavesdropping. "Why have you stayed so far?"

"Oh, that's easy!" Tootsie said, much too loud but shushing him would probably attract more attention than letting him chatter away like he had all day anyways. "I was afraid you'd be askin' me somethin' hard. It's just that Mega-Girl is the love of my life. I want to be with her forever."

Indeed, paying closer attention, Ted noticed now that he had been mistaken. Tootsie had not been looking at the darkening sky at all. The robot was in his vision range, sorting through the supplies methodically and putting them away in orderly piles into their bags. Tootsie was entranced. There were a million snarky remarks Ted might have said, but somehow, the easy innocence of such hopeful gaze rendered him silent for once in his life.

"And you?" Tootsie asked eventually, looking up at Ted. "Why do you stay?"

Ted was asking himself the very same question.

Chapter Text

Bruce's home was the safest place in the world. It was the only safe place in the world. It was above all the only place in the world where no one would make fun of him or make him feel less than. He had not left it for weeks.

The rangers came knocking late at night, but time had become an odd concept in insulation. Bruce spent his days looking out at the expanse of the desert from his watch tower and the hours passed all the same, hot and insufferable. Robin was sleeping but jerked awake in high alert at the pounding on the heavy metal door. Bruce glared at it. For a moment, he considered pretending he wasn't home. That was preposterous, of course. He had been home for so long now. His food reserves were dwindling down day by day and his water level was getting dangerously low, but he was starting to think that survival was the price to pay for his wounded pride.

"Hey, Brucie," Up's voice said and Bruce growled as he recognized it.

He had not heard it in years. He had not seen his friends in ages. Those who had been his friends, anyways. He had no friends anymore. He had nothing.

"You home? It's your old buddies."

Company was the last thing he needed. He had had quite enough of that already. The only thing visitors did was rub his face into how useless he was. Didn't save as many people as Clark did, didn't even know about the rumors in town, didn't even hear a thing. Now he never would. If he was too recluse from the world to be any help, then he might as well stay there and not bother. He checked on the locks and made sure they were firmly in place. The voice that came then was much less friendly − was that better? Was it better to be gently fed poisoned lies or to be punched in the face with the truth?

"Bruce," Taz yelled, "Get up and come out, we need your help."

He snorted. Nobody needed his help. Not anymore. Robin was staring at him expectantly but Bruce shook his head.

"Lil buddy," Up said, trying to wheedle him into whatever it was that they would ask of him, "Just let us in, alright?"

"Bruce, I think…" Robin started but stopped himself when Bruce glared at him.

He hated himself for that. It wasn't fair to lash out on Robin and he usually never did.

"I brought cookies," Up added cajolingly. "Your favorites."

That perked Bruce's interest much more.

"Is it… is it with chocolate chips?"

"And peanut butter," Up replied. "I ain't forgot what my oldest friend Bruce likes, have I?"

Bruce sighed. Cautiously, he unlocked the many locks keep his door secure. First just a sliver to check if this wasn't just a trap, but seeing only Taz and Up at the door, he opened the door just a little bit more to let them in. He was about to get the bag Up was holding up for him when Taz launched herself at him, gripping him by the collar. Robin slammed the door shut behind them. Bruce was panting with difficulty.

"What's your fucking problem, mate?!" She snarled. "You a ranger or not? We need your help."

He sniffed.

"Not anymore…"

"Leave him be!" Robin protested and tried to pull Taz's hands away but it was Up who convinced her.

"Now, now, Taz, this isn't how you greet a good friend, is it?"

If looks could kill… Taz dropped her grasp on Bruce, who nearly fell into a heap. He caught himself against the wall. At least there were cookies. He took one for himself and one for Robin, who sat cross-legged on the floor to leave the seats for their guests. Taz sat with her legs spread confidently, leaning her forearms on her lap. Robin munched on the cookie.

"What do you want?" Bruce asked after one cookie. He helped himself to a second one immediately.

"A girl is missing," Taz said. "Sally. In Heaven on Earth. We think she got kidnapped and you need to help us find her back. We brought Tootsie and Joey for backup but it's you who's gon' change the course of this rescue mission."

A girl missing? He thought he remembered Clark saying something about lost people… He shook his head.

"I don't need to do anything," he mumbled. "And I'm no help anyways."

Up gave him a pout.

"Don't you talk about yourself like that. Here, come sit on my lap."

He offered him a seat and though Bruce wanted nothing more than to shove them both out and forget about disappearings and about the outer world and about Clark, he took it. Up bounced him gently, an arm around his waist and Bruce struggled not to let a smile show.

"You're big strong boy, aren't ya? And you're kind and you love to help people. You're a good person, Bruce, I know that."

Taz was shaking her head. Her and Up always played their dual game on him and made him realize one too many times why he had disappeared into self-exile all those years ago and every day since then.

"You're a tough son of a bitch," she said. "Until you cry like a little baby."

"I don't!" Bruce retorted and Up patted his back gently to soothe him. "I… I don't…"

"Ain't nothing wrong with a good cry…"

At that moment, a commotion was heard outside and Bruce bounced back to his feet immediately. Old instincts died hard, he opened the door of his own volition. People in need of help always called to him, at the end of the day. Or maybe it had just been the selfish anxiety of seeing his life and Robin's threatened. When the locks were undone, however, there was absolutely no one to bestow his help upon. He looked around the shack but every direction was just sand and rocks.

"Fuck," Taz spat on the ground. "They got Tootsie and Joey too. They were just here!"

"Poor boys… They must be so frightened."

"Tootsie's too stupid to be scared," Taz said. "And he's too stupid to break free, too. That's two more people to find, man. You see why we need your help?"

Bruce's heart was pounding erratically in his chest. Three people missing just in the narrow circle of his acquaintances. The mystery blown away into gushes of sand dust wind. He was not strong enough. He was not clever enough.

"Robin," he ordered, "We're going back inside. We can't deal with this."

"But Bruce…"

"No no no," Up said, stopping his path, Taz catching him by the arms from behind. "Come right along, we're going to Independence to ask around, alright? Won't that be something? Just like the old days."

"I think they're right, Bruce," Robin said, his tiny comforting hand grasping Bruce's.

Bruce wanted to cry. He was no good to be on the roads again. He couldn't help anyone even if he wanted to. He was not powerful enough. His non-mutant strength was not enough.

"I can't," he said.

"Course you can!" Taz retorted, poking his back painfully. "And you have to. There's people missing! It's the most important thing you could do."

"That's right, little buddy. And who better to do this than you?"

Bruce thought of Clark. Stupid downright mean-spirited mutant. The strongest man he knew, too. His brows furrowed in sudden determination. If he just chose to seize the opportunity to show him up once and for all…

"I'm the best," he proclaimed loudly.

"Yeah!" Up cheered. "Yes, you are, my boy."

They set out for Independence the very next morning just as dawn broke. Bruce grabbed every weapon he owned − anything that could help. Some of those on Robin, most on himself, lending a few to Taz and Up. Nothing could catch them, could it? Not with his eyes wide open.

Independence was on the edge of the Rad Zone, just far enough for its effects not to touch it, the last safe spot before true wilderness, before danger. It was several days of walk away from Bruce's lair. Soon, desert was giving way to a bit more bushes, some trees, the ground turning a bit more lush under their feet. Bruce had not seen the green of nature in a while. Maybe he had missed that just a little bit.

He did not let Robin out of his sight. If two children had been taken, there could be a third, maybe even more. It wouldn't be Robin, it couldn't. Not on his watch. They walked all day. Up was making quips and friendly conversation, but found a very unwilling audience in Taz and Bruce. Only Robin would chatter with him, of course, who had always been much more sociable and better behaved than Bruce. It was a wonder that they had never much rubbed off on each other on that point. He talked with Up most of the day as Taz and Bruce threw each other rare glances and shared a nod without saying a word.

Bruce kept him right in front of him and could not help but notice how small he was, how frail, how very young. Maybe, he was reflecting, it had not been such a great idea to take Robin with him on all his missions to help people on the roads of their dead world. Maybe it had even been dangerous and reckless. But he feared what might happen if he left him at home. Children ought not to be left unattended, he justified to himself. They ought to be protected, kept close. Who knew the cost if they ever grew apart?

He never noticed the rustle of the bushes around them until it was too late. If he hadn't been so intent on having Robin in eyesight every second, he might have spotted a large shape in mid-distance, parked carelessly between a few rocks just where dirt turned to sparse forest ground. He might have noticed the sand raft and the black scarf wrapped around its mast. He might have seen danger if he weren't so focused on protecting Robin from it.

"Well, look who's kind enough to drop their little sweetheart right into our hands?"

A man with flamboyant pastel blue hair appeared from behind a tree followed by an equally colorful young lady clutching his arm amorously. Taz, Up and Bruce drew their weapons at once, of course, even Robin, but they realized they were surrounded. Footsteps behind him, from his other side, vicious looks narrowing down onto Robin. They did not look like they came for peace. Bruce began to shriek.

Chapter Text

The wasteland was the same blessing and curse he had known a thousand times before. Ja'far saw Sherrezade in every flower along their path, every cloud crossing the sky. She was in the burbling of streams, the tweeting of birds, the whisper of the wind. He closed his eyes and let the ever repetitive lurching of the wagon wheels soothe his woes.

The last time he had been on the roads, he had gone on a relentless search for his lost love for months and years. The foolish hopefulness of it, the recklessness. He had calmed himself from hoping, realizing how pointless. There wasn't an inch on the surface of the world he had not combed through and still had not had one clue more about the whereabouts of his wife than the morning she had disappeared. Likely, she was dead. Even if she wasn't, she was gone. Wherever the road was leading him now, he was not hopeful to find her at the end of it. He had grown too old for wishes as such.

Traveling with company was different as well. His darling daughter was older, more reasonable and better conversation than she had been as a toddler, but he feared for her more now than ever. She was braver now, bigger, much more capable and willing to put herself in ever more dangerous situations. She was also, it seemed, intent on ignoring him half the time and giving him sass the rest of it. Her and the Dikrats children were in their own little world of dreams fueled, it seemed, by Jack Bauer himself. All day he blabbered about opportunities and getting their lives back on track for good. All day Slippery When Wet and Titty Mitty rolled their eyes at him.

They should have stayed at the Magic Kingdom. Likely, Achmed had taken over, ambitious as he had always been, but Ja'far would have gladly relegated the leadership if it meant he knew his daughter was safe and home with him. He should never have mentioned the Great Garden, but who was he to suppose that Jack Bauer would take a special interest in it? He had always thought the man rather too detached from realities and responsibilities, but not quite understood the extend of it till he had dragged himself into it. Trying to drive his family to a new life, a better life, Jack Bauer was surely leading them into danger and foes. Ja'far feared for them all. He almost feared for himself, too. He felt guilty having jumped their wagon. He felt even guiltier for Jasmyn having done so. This was all his fault.

It wasn't so much that the thought had never, ever crossed his mind to leave his settlement to venture into the wild to find the Great Garden. If finding Sherrezade was impossible, finding the garden was at the very least unlikely, but he had thought about it before. The sake of honoring her wish, he supposed. Once, a few years prior, he had gathered the courage to re-read some of her diaries from their years on the road and, noting her observations, he had nearly taken all he could with him and ran away. He had torn the pages of her observations and theories on the garden's location into his own personal commonplace book. It had only taken one glance at his Jasmyn, however, who had been twelve and in a mood, to remember how fragile life really was. He had instead made it into a retirement plan to try his luck again by the time Jasmyn would be happily governing herself and strong enough to protect her own. Then, she would not have needed her old dad anymore and he might have set his sights on hopeless hope again. Not now. He had never meant to embark himself on someone else's journey.

They stopped at a small settlement after some days on the roads to replenish their supplies. The boy was eating constantly and, the verdoyant plains bordering the Magic Kingdom long passed, the heat of a more arrid landscape was starting to weigh on them and they were drinking more than they had. The ox seemed infinitely grateful for the reprieve, brief as it would be. The kids did too.

"Two thousand per gallon of water."

The shop owner was firm and confident. Shop was a grand description for what was factually a door plank on trestles under a ripped canvas tent with a wooden sign flaunting the unobservable quality of his goods, but it was the place they had been pointed to when they asked if there was a general store in the tiny hamlet of a settlement. Jack Bauer looked at their purse and opened his mouth in silent disappointment. He sighed.

"Looks like we have about… twenty…"

"For twenty, I'll give you a sip."

Slippery When Wet shook her head, pinching the brink of her nose. Titty Mitty was wetting his dry lips with the tip of his tongue, looking at the pile of dirty plastic jugs at the back of the tent filled with moderately clean water.

"What are we… I mean… Don't you worry, honey, I'll find a way to make this… Oh, crap."

He had recounted the money and one coin had dropped to the ground. He spent some time searching for it, gold blending into the yellow sand under his tired eyes from hours on the road already today. When finally he stood back up, proudly holding it up, the shopkeeper was grinning impishly.

"You know, there's not many shop owners who would deal with a penniless newcomer, but let me tell you what I'm gonna do. I'll trade you. Do you have anything of value?"

He eyed them one by one. Ja'far thought of his precious notes in his bag. He would never part with those, not even for all the water in the world in the hottest desert. He kept his mouth shut.

"Erm…" Jack Bauer slurred, lost.

"Guns? Bullets? Anything that's gold or silver? I got my eye on a pretty face right over there," he said, nodding across the square towards a lady in a blue dress selling hats and scarves. "Wouldn't mind putting a ring round that finger. Right around it, nice and snug, if you know what I mean."

Slippery When Wet was grimacing in disgust but stopped herself there. Her right hand held her left one and toyed with the wedding band at her finger. Ja'far saw Jack Bauer staring in horror and stepped forward to make his own offer.

"I'll… ask my daughter. She's precious about jewelry, I'm certain she'll have something that'll catch your interest, good sir. Jasmyn?"

He turned around to find the bench where the children had been sitting entirely empty. His heart started to pound but Slippery When Wet was the one who spotted them a little bit further away.

"Oh, I'll have her for this… Mouthface Dikrats, you come back here right this instant!"

The girls had snuck away and were talking to several tall and very much adult men. Black Scarves, he noticed, a large gun at each of these men's belt. Mouthface was giggling under her hands, blushing, Jasmyn was admiring the gun one of them held up for her. Ja'far gulped and promptly followed Slippery When Wet, who might as well have been steaming with anger.

"What in Dead Hell is going on here?!"

She stood there with her hands on her hips, somehow looking down at them despite her clear disadvantage of height. Mouthface was mortified.

"Mama, you're embarrassing me!"

The tallest of them, who had a hat and a wicked grin, gave a small bow of the head towards the gathering group.

"Hello, ma'am, my good men," he said with a low growly voice. "Name's McDoon, don't you worry 'bout nothin', I was only just about to kidnap your youngins right here."

One of his fellow Black Scarves nudged him in the ribs and McDoon coughed a few times before catching himself.

"I mean, I mean offer your kids a… spot… on my team of… highly trained officers…"

Every pore of Ja'far's body was filled with tension and anxiety. He never carried weapons, always thought that a good conversation could settle all the woes in the world. He had no idea what conversation might get them out of this. His head was throbbing and he found himself lost for words.

"Oh, no you're not," Slippery When Wet retorted, cocking her gun ready. "Mouthface, you come back here. Craphole, Jasmyn. We ain't losing anybody."

Mouthface sighed in exasperation. The foolishness of youth, she seemed to be more disappointed at having been interrupted in mindless flirtations than at the very real threat of her life being put in danger. He had known this would happen, Ja'far realized. He had understood all along that the journey would inevitably turn sour. He just had not expected for it to take but a few days.

"Did you hear me?!"

Mouthface dragged her feet heavily but McDoon caught her by the arm and pulled her close, wrapping his disgusting hands around her stomach to keep her against him. Slippery When Wet's hand holding the pistol was shaking. The other men put themselves behind McDoon and the children. Their guns were bigger and, Ja'far was certain, they were just as ready to use them as Slippery When Wet herself.

"She ain't going nowhere, lady."

Craphole was looking between all the people around him confusedly and clasped his hands around Jasmyn's, trying to comfort himself with her touch, but she wasn't paying attention.

"Jasmyn, princess," Ja'far said, trying to sound much more severe than his nerves were letting him be. "Come now, please."

"You can't tell me what to do!" She retorted. "Aladdin says he has a magic cave of treasures to show me!"

Mouthface seemed to regain some countenance at that.

"Yeah," she said vehemently. "Yeah, mom, you can't tell us what to do!"

Slippery When Wet glared. She took a few hesitant steps towards the men but even an illiterate farmer could make the math of how slim her chances were against four better armed men.

"Craphole…"

But Craphole had turned away from the situation. His eyes were fixed in an item in the distance, just outside the small settlement. Ja'far threw a glance in the same direction just in time to witness the obnoxious landing of a whole sand raft at the edge of the square. A man with long dirty blond hair was standing at the steering stick and Ja'far noticed with horror two girls tied to the bottom of the mast.

"Hey, you got us kids yet? These ones," he nudged the girls with his foot, "are getting lonely."

Jack Bauer woke up from his angsty transe.

"You can't just take children just because you want to!"

One of the Black Scarves gave him a smug smile and wrapped an arm around Jasmyn's shoulders.

"We can and we have," Aladdin said. "I'm a thief. I take what I want."

Craphole whimpered.

"Mama, I'm so scared…"

The man jumped from the raft and, gun in hand pointing directly at Craphole, took hold of him and caught him under his arm like a small burlap sack. Craphole started to cry.

"You know," the man said, "You'd think that after a while, people would catch on but look at this. No one cares. Never underestimate how much folks trust men with a title and a uniform."

They grabbed the girls and, bold as she had been, Jasmyn found herself roughly manhandled onto the deck of the raft and liking it much less than anticipated.

"Wait," she cried out. "Wait, no, I don't want this."

"That's a bit too late for you to decide now, babe," Aladdin replied.

Kicking his foot to the ground, he set the raft into smooth motion again. It made a sinister cloud of thick sand dust as it drifted away faster than ox or man could have chased it. Ja'far heard the pleading voice of his daughter fill the wind and though it was soon too faint to parse, he thought he would hear it the rest of his days. Soon, the sand raft was but a tiny dot in the distance. Then it disappeared.

He fell to his knees, his face to the ground in silent prayer. No trace of her was left, swallowed up by the gushes of wind, nothing but memories and heartbreak. He thought of Sherrezade. He never stopped thinking of her, every day replaying the despair of her disappearance. Every day replaying the joy of having known her. He thought of Jasmyn, his precious daughter, the fruit of his love with Sherrezade. The wasteland was the same blessing and curse he had known a thousand times before.

Chapter Text

After a few weeks, they reached Heaven on Earth. Emma spent a long moment staring at the writing spray painted in flaking neon pink across the corrugated metal gate. Big settlement, sparsely inhabited but so large it was still dwelling with more people than she had cumulatively encountered in the previous decade, probably. Enough people that at least one might have a clue for them. Enough people that not all of them might be well intentioned.

"Figures, huh?" Paul said. "Heaven on Earth."

"It's a sign," Bill said hopefully.

"It's a lie," Charlotte said mournfully.

They crossed the threshold of the settlement, eyed but not stopped by guards on either side of the entrance. The city seemed to be dating from ancient times, asphalt under their feet and concrete buildings blended with metallic additions, even quite a few mud brick houses that might have been added much later, after the end of the world as it had existed. Dirty streets, dirty people, but a thriving heartbeat underneath like nowhere Emma had been in recent years. But then, she had hardly left Sycamore if she could avoid it. It had been very recluse, by her own volition. Heaven on Earth was a step down in this way, but it was still something.

"What do you think, Emma?" Paul asked.

His hand near caught hers but stopped short of it. She wondered if she would have liked the support, pointless as it was. Every damn thing seemed pointless of late. Surviving had been her goal for thirty years, but what was the aim of even that? She sighed.

"Let's ask around," she said. "Bill, can you… handle… Charlotte, or do you want me to?"

Bill nodded hesitantly and gently took Charlotte by the arm. She had not been faring well since they had started on their journey. She had not been faring well long before it either. Emma supposed she was worried for her in the way she was worried for the girls. Helpless in the face of calamity. Men left women behind all the time. Captured innocent girls. Stole and robbed and destroyed. She turned to Paul.

"Come with me. Bill, you take the left side, Paul and I will go right, okay? Let's meet up at…" She looked around. "That pub over there. Tonight."

"They'll know something," Paul reassured Bill, a hand on his shoulder. "We'll get closer, alright?"

Neither of them were convinced of any such thing, but Bill still gave back a shrug and a smile and went on his way. Emma palmed the gun she was packing under her leather jacket. Still there securely tied. Though experience had shown how useless it actually was when outnumbered. She felt very small in this big city.

"Do you wanna do one side of the street each or, or like go together?" Paul asked.

The look on his face gave no surprise as to his preferred method. Emma smiled tentatively.

"Together, right? I mean, how much more do we want to split?"

Asking around was tiring business but, Emma thought, probably worse for Bill than for them. Every time he accosted someone, he would have to relive the traumatizing day his daughter and her little girlfriend had been taken. Not that any of them were less than grief stricken, even Charlotte who had closed down within herself even more than she had before. Emma had known Alice for over half of her life, Deb for a few years. That meant something.

She still remembered the day she had met them so clearly. They had been on the road, getting by any way they could, and had stopped her path to ask for help despite Emma, by any objective measure, looking like the last person able and willing to provide for them. Alice had been little then, a child more than the young woman she was now, and traveling with Paul and Bill who cared for her like she was the last hope left in the dead world. But Emma had also been freshly looking for a place to settle and together they had founded her little plot of land. Later, the Dikrats had lent a helping hand when they had themselves searched for a place to rest with their newborn son, later Sam and Charlotte, then Ted, a loner who fit into a pack like a social animal − emphasis on animal. Then poor Deb, barely in her teens and the only survivor of a caravan crash. Her and Alice had bickered and hated each other at first, but stuck together all the closer once the walls fell around them and the foolish notion of teenage love had blossomed. But was the honeyed display of love anything at all when danger was facing you head on?

Emma liked those kids. She had always wanted to protect them but had failed at that quite miserably. She liked Charlotte well enough too, no matter how little Charlotte liked herself, and also no matter how little they understood each other. She liked the guys as well. She could not even remember the rhythm of her life before Paul had walked into it. She had, in some sort of way, liked Ted a little bit, perhaps even the Dikrats. Thinking back on Sam's threatening grin as he stole away the girls, though, she could not remember if she had ever been capable of finding an ounce of sympathy for him. It was his fault, and Ted's and the Dikrats' for leaving them vulnerable to him and his squad. Bit by bit, the community she had carefully built around herself had broken into shards and she was left with the last few pieces. Damaged and tired and barely fitting together.

Heaven on Earth was an odd place, lies and promises on every façade they lay their eyes on. Half of the city seemed to provide a feast for lusty eyes, brothels and clubs wherever one would look, the other half tentatively trying to sustain the wiser part of the body, pubs and food stalls and, yes, gardens and farms and fields haphazardly spilling over the walls of the city and all around it. Emma passingly wondered where a pot farm and shop might fit in the dichotomy.

"Have you seen a group of Black Scarves with two teenage girls?" They asked everywhere. "Five men and two girls. Yes, we know what the men looked like. One with long hair, three with a hat, three with light skin, all of them wear a black scarf. Yes, the girls are missing. No, we don't know where they were going."

Nobody knew. They asked the same questions over and over again till Emma's mouth was dry and tired. Some people had heard of a story of girls missing, but talked of just the one. Some had always dreamed of being a Black Scarf some day. One asked if they had a coin to spare, and then he might have more to say, but ran away with the coin Paul placed into his palm. This was fucking pointless. The girls could be anywhere at all in the entire world. If the guards hadn't known anything, then what would a street rat in the shabbiest part of town know?

"Really sorry, guys," the front desk guy at some dance club for adults was saying, "I haven't heard anything about…"

"I have," a woman said, coming up from behind him.

She was a mutant, by the look of her, entirely green body which was heavily revealed by the loose but tiny black outfit she was wearing. Her voice was warm and taunting.

"I don't know about Black Scarves," she said, "Except that they don't pay well when they visit." She laughed awkwardly but so briefly she instantly regained her stern superior face. "But the other day, people went looking for another missing girl. Could be related. You'd have to ask them."

"Where did they go looking?" Paul asked. "Are they back yet?"

The woman smirked and played with the tip of one of the tentacles that grew from the top of her head.

"I don't know, honey, that's not my job. Probably the Rad Zone or something. Wherever rogues go."

"Where could we find them?"

A vague wave of the hand pointed in the direction up the street.

"They run the pub in the central square. Just ask for the rangers." She leaned over the counter and Emma snapped her eyes up, blinking. "And now, I don't care which one or both, but you either get a dance or get out, sweeties."

"Eh…"

"No thank you," Paul said in a hurry, taking Emma by the arm. "Thanks though. Bye."

They found Bill and Charlotte already at the pub. Bill had been nursing a glass of cherry lemonade and Charlotte staring blankly at the several empty glasses in front of her. She startled at their arrival, like she had been so deeply lost in her own troubled thoughts she had forgotten they were to come back. Paul and Emma shared a concerned glance. Bill's face was tucked between his folded arms.

"So…" Paul started. He took a seat next to Bill, awkwardly patting his back. "Did you…"

"Nobody knows anything," Bill sighed, defeated. He turned his head to face Paul. "And nobody cares."

Paul looked at Emma, as if she had ever been a smooth talker and would be of any help now.

"We've found some clue," she said. "Well, not really… But apparently, a girl went missing over here as well and some people went out looking for her. That's something, right?"

"Oh, yeah, Sally's been missing, dude," the waiter said, appearing seemingly out of thin air next to them.

He poured another glass to Charlotte, who downed it in one long gulp, and poured another right after that. Emma frowned and wondered just exactly how long Charlotte had been sitting here.

"Sally's the girl?"

"Yeah, man," he replied. He looked quite young, barely out of his teens himself. "The rangers were gonna find a friend of theirs to go and get her back, they haven't come back yet, though."

"My daughter's missing," Bill said, sitting upright. "And her girlfriend, too. They got taken by a group of Black Scarves."

"The Black Scarves? Oh, man, I thought these were the good guys? Shit, you can't trust anybody these days, dude."

Emma grabbed her backpack and pulled out her personal stash of weed. Paul eyed her quizzically, then turned to the waiter.

"Is it okay for her to do that in here?"

"I don't care," Emma replied. "Fuck. Fuck everything about this. Three kids missing? What else do you want from me, Paul?"

"No, yeah man, that's totally fine."

Emma rolled a blunt and took a deep hit, trying to lure her brain into quiet. She blew the smoke to the side and groaned loudly.

"It's…" She wanted to say hopeless, but Bill's eyes on her dissuaded her into an easier lie. "It's hard. It's a shitty situation. I'm sorry."

She handed him the joint and Bill, surprising everyone including himself, took a hit of it. He coughed a few times before trying again and slowly blew out the smoke in a small cloud. He did not look any better afterwards.

"We'll get them back," Paul said, a mantra he had repeated a hundred times since they had left Sycamore. A lie that did not become any truer the more you said it. "Right, Emma?"

Emma smoked her blunt.

"We'll stay here for the time being," she said after a while.

Bill was in shock.

"What? But… the girls…"

"We don't have any fucking clue where they are, Bill. Nobody does, but if anybody ever does, we're more likely to hear about it in a settlement than out there risking our asses."

She had been brewing the argument since they had stepped inside the settlement and was satisfied to see it moderately well received. Only Paul was frowning.

"But, this woman, the mutant, she said something about the Rad Zone and…"

"We're not going to the Rad Zone," Emma cut him.

He was taken aback, perhaps not used to Emma addressing him so harshly. She felt sorry for it already. She wasn't exactly a soft and caring soul, but she did not like upsetting Paul. Hesitantly, she reached across the table to hold his hand.

"It's dangerous as fuck, dude, we're not going there." She tried to give him a smile, which he seemed to reluctantly reciprocate. "We'll find a way to survive here or something. There's fields around, right? We can give farming a try."

No part of her assembly seemed thrilled at all at the prospect of farming again but Emma pretended not to notice. Eventually, it was decided that Bill and Paul would search for accommodation − they called it temporary, though Emma was leaning towards as long a stay as they could. They left muttering between each other and Emma felt a pang of guilt twist her stomach. Her blunt was finished but she craved another. And another after that, probably. Fuck it, she'd smoke all night if she had to. She realized Charlotte had not said a word in a long time.

"Charlotte?" She asked in a low voice, pressing a hand on Charlotte's shoulder, gently shaking. "Charlotte?"

"I'm… Charlotte," Charlotte jerked up.

Emma looked at her closely. Her eyes were perpetually red and she knew she got no sleep at night − she didn't either and heard Charlotte whimper all night.

"You're really hammering yourself, huh?"

Charlotte's lower lip shook and Emma felt guilty for even acknowledging the immense elephant in the the room that was the state of their wreck of a companion.

"I-I'm sorry. I think… I think it's my fault if Sam… Sam was a mistake." She laughed bitterly. "Ted was a mistake too."

Emma couldn't possibly agree more, though she simply nodded without making an outburst of it. Another forbidden acknowledgement was the fact obvious to all that Charlotte and Ted's affections had not been quite platonic, though nobody knew for sure if they had been romantic, either.

"Well, think of it this way," Emma said. "This whole fucking mess is hopeless. We're never finding them back. The mistakes are in the past."

But Charlotte sniffed and searched for another glass to down. Finding none, she stared at Emma's blunt, who reluctantly handed it to her. Charlotte sighed in relief after the first inhale.

"Come on, you're not dumb that you'd actually believe it's your fault? It's these douchebags and no one else. But we'll be safe here," she said. "For the time being."

"For the time being," Charlotte agreed.

Chapter Text

Capturing people was almost too easy and left Mara deeply unfulfilled. She'd never have considered herself the sharpest woman around, but it was still uncanny to her the amount of crap you could pull right in front of people's nose undetected. If she were more passionate about this job, she might even have been bored at how easy it was.

Junior had given them a call with some basic instruction on the next target and, like clockwork, they fell into the trail of the little group. Two more people than expected, as they had been told about a man and a child, but just the one boy that was their target was unmistakeable. For nearly an hour they followed the group leisurely without being noticed till finally Ani gave the signal and they made their presence known.

"Well," Sweet Tooth said, "Look who's kind enough to drop their little sweetheart right into our hands?"

One of them began to shriek. Another readied her weapons with a mean scowl on her face and an air of determination. The third one immediately held his hands up, giving up.

"Alright, alright," he said, "There ain't nothin' we can't solve with a nice long chat here, my friends…"

"No talk," Zebulba barked. "Give us the boy."

The child had readied his little fists in a simile of a fighting stance. For a moment, Mara was filled with a sense of maternal warmth she had never known she had. He was a cute little thing, jet black hair and a face too dignified and stern for his young age.

"We're putting an end to your villainy right now, rogues!"

"Aww," she cried out. "He's so cute, guys!"

"Please," the older man insisted. "Please take me instead."

The other man had stopped shrieking, noting disappointedly that it had had no effect on the Black Scarves.

"Yeah!" He said. "Take him instead!"

"Have you lost your fucking cabeza, Bruce?! They're not taking either of them!"

She tried to launch an attack on the nearest of them but Ani lifted his arms and she suddenly floated into the air with all of their kindly victims.

"What…" She was struggling to breathe, her face getting red and purple. "What the fuck?"

"A mutant!" Bruce growled. "He's force-choking us!"

Sweet Tooth plucked the little boy from the air and shoved him to the ground to tie ropes around his wrists behind his back, dragging him on a leash. He laughed maniacally, soon imitated by Candy as they walked back to the raft a little further away.

"Well, this went great," Ani said, cheerful. "Not even a little bit of blood shed. We did a good job, didn't we?"

"You're psychos, man!" The woman cried out.

Mara hesitated before sheathing her weapons again.

"You need help over here, Ani?"

"Nah, kiddo, you just go back, I'll handle 'em."

Zebulba was already trotting back to the raft too and Mara followed him, hearing behind her the sound of the three guardians of their new little ward crashing against tree trunks and dropping to the ground, unmoving. The Black Scarves squad was back to the raft, eager to be on the road again long before they would wake to their senses again.

Sally had not moved from where they had left her tied on the back seat, deep engrossed in the book she had been reading and re-reading since they had captured her. She was a lovely obedient kidnappee. They came to her awareness when they got very close and she looked up, smiling and neatly putting away her book, ready to go. They tied the boy next to her, who was shaking with anger. Sally gave him an encouraging smile, which seemed to soothe him somewhat, and, Ani now come back, Sweet Tooth set the raft into motion again.

They would probably not be going all that far, whatever hideout was closest and empty. Ani did not like making the squad make any more effort than strictly needed, especially not himself. He took his time, pondered on all possibilities, wasted his time away before finally acting − and too little at that. They had stayed in Heaven on Earth for a few days, spying on whichever kids would be easiest to catch without too much fuss. When they had finally done it, they hadn't even managed the two. When they snatched the girl at a desert intersection, they found her all on her own. All their luck that on that particular day, unlike the previous day they had observed them, she wasn't with the boy anymore. They had hoped to stay a bit longer in town to get him too when Junior had called.

It was lucky Mara did not care about anything to do with the squad, especially not since their stay there. She might have been bothered by the erratic changes in their mission, but her mind was entirely elsewhere. That very specific elsewhere.

"Where are we going?" The boy asked and Mara admired him for how steady and confident he sounded.

How old was he? No older than ten or twelve, she was sure. A tiny little boy, soft cheeked and not an ounce of manhood to him yet. She thought about pinching his cheeks to feel if they were indeed as round as they seemed, but then thought better.

"Oh, it'll be a long, long way till we're there, kiddo," Ani said, "We're going to…"

"Don't you fucking tell him, you airhead!" Sweet Tooth hissed. "He'll know when he knows."

"Ah, erm, right…"

Indeed, the road was still long ahead and Ani was tired from using up all his strength force-choking the guys in their way so they stopped just before night fell. A small house carved into a cliff, half of its structure solid stone, the rest added on, metal sheets clumsily welded together in a semblance of a large cubic shape. A sign reading "Property of the Black Scarves" marked the entrance. Sweet Tooth and Candy retired into one of the small rooms upstairs, Zebulba slept out in the pen. Mara secured the kids into the back room where the temperature was most pleasant and soothing, gave them dinner and blankets. Untying the ropes from them, she let them roam free but locked the door on them. Ani was smoking weed in the front room by the window and trying out jokes on the walkie-talkie to whoever would listen.

"… and the droid tells the mutant, 'That's bomb!'" Some static pause on the other side of the line, then he added. "Get it? Because of the… atomic bomb…"

He hung up in frustration when no one replied to his broadcast and noticed Mara. He scooted a bit to the side to let her stand with him.

"Want some?" He asked.

Mara would have normally refused but she was distracted as of recent and gladly took a hit off the blunt he offered.

"You alright, kiddo? You don't seem all here."

Mara let the smoke penetrate down her lungs and slowly blew it out through her nostrils. A sense of calm and sudden clarity filled her and she realized she was not up for a conversation with Ani, not tonight.

"I'm alright," she said. Clapping his shoulder, she added, "Don't ever worry about me."

She stepped away from the window and Ani turned around, watching her go warily.

"Well, now I do!" He replied.

"Practice your routine and don't think about it," she suggested, "Have fun, Ani."

She pulled open the lock of the kids' jail and heard Ani start to sputter jokes into the walkie-talkie again. Once on the inside, she sighed deeply and dropped onto a chair. Opening her eyes, she realized that the kids were looking at her curiously from the ground where they had been sitting. Sally was hugging the boy from the side, their hands clasped together.

"Is… Is anything the matter, miss?" He asked.

She sighed even deeper, letting her arms fall at her sides heavily, her head snapping against the back of the chair as she stared at the rocky ceiling. She heard the kids whisper between themselves and soon both grabbed a stool and sat very close on either side of her, staring expectantly.

"It's just… Ugh, it's stupid!"

"Come on," Sally said kindly, her hand grasping Mara's, "You can tell me and Robin anything!"

Mara had felt like a balloon about to burst all day and the day before that. All of her thoughts, which had before been scattered and unfocused, seemed only to point to the one moment in time she kept replaying in her mind. She dared not mention it to Ani. It was stupid, probably. More than anything, it was impossible. But it wasn't like their prisoners would be the ones to rat on her − she doubted anyone would listen to them anyways.

"It's… Have you ever just… seen someone and your life turned upside down forever?"

Both children grew very quiet and turned their gaze away. Mara sat up properly.

"So, I met this woman, and she was green and a dancer, and…"

"Oola?" Sally asked, frowning. "From the Rut Hut?"

Mara nodded, just the name plunging her back in the thrill of the moment. How gorgeous she had looked on that stage, the way her limbs seemed part of the thick warm air itself, floating elegantly, enticingly… How easy she had made it seem, too.

"I don't know if I wanted to… be her, or be with her, or both, but…"

Ani had offered her a night on her own in town, saying he was too old for the lust of the flesh anymore. Mara wasn't. She absolutely was not too anything for it. She had entered a club at random, hoping for a good time, and had found her life shattered into lusty pieces of adoration instead. How good it had felt to see dancing again, to remember how entranced she had always been at the way the human body bent itself to music. She had not slept much that night.

"Ooooooh," Robin teased, "I think you have a crush!"

Mara pinched him.

"Shut up!" She breathed in and out, trying to think clearly again. "No, it's… It's not just that, it's… She was so free, you know? I can't stop thinking about it. Have you ever wanted to be so free you felt like you could fly up into the air and dance with the stars? Or something…"

The kids shared a glance.

"I know what it's like to want to be free…" Robin said hesitantly.

Mara cursed at herself internally. Sally however had a different idea.

"Well, I know what it's like to only think about one thing…"

Her voice was timid and hesitant and she looked at her own hands clutching her skirt on her lap. Mara grinned and nudged her gently.

"What is it, girl?"

But Sally only let out a little awkward squeak. Her cheeks were flushed pink. Robin was staring curiously.

"Come on!" Mara insisted. "I told you about my shit."

Sally fought and lost a battle against herself. Her head falling back against the wall, she was beaming.

"Joey Richter…" She sighed. "But I don't think he likes me that way."

To Mara, a boy was a boy was a boy, but this one seemed to be significant at least to Sally, so Mara would take interest in him for her sake.

"What's he like?"

Sally was in a dream. Her freckled face lit up with a certain joy that Mara had yet had to observe in the girl. They weren't that apart in age, she reflected, maybe ten years or so. In this instant, they were the same and she felt like she understood the passion running through Sally like she understood her own.

"He really makes me feel funny…" She bit her lip, momentarily lost in thoughts before going on. "And he's like really creative, he makes up stories all the time but doesn't realize it, and he's a lot stronger than me and carries my stuff and… and he's been my best friend forever but I don't think he really likes me at all…"

She pouted and looked down at her hands again, deflated. Mara wrapped an arm around her shoulders to catch her gaze.

"Sally," she said, patting her lap, "If this Joey looks at you and sees half of what I can see, then he sees a whole heck of a lot."

Sally shrugged self-consciously.

"She's right, Miss Sally," Robin said. "I've only just met you but I feel the surge of kindness in your soul."

"Yeah!" Mara said. "Yeah, he will fall right into your lap when…"

She stopped in her track and the sudden reality of the situation hit her in the face. Little prisoners in their little jail. The only way to see Joey again would be if he had been caught to his own doom as well. This was a bigger roundup than they had done before, Ani had said, so anything was possible, but even if the two teens were reunited… She stood.

"I'm going to bed," she said. "Have a good night."

She walked to the door, her hand already on the knob before she turned back to look at them. Robin has taken her seat next to Sally and was snuggling into her to comfort her as she had him before.

"I'm sorry," Mara muttered and locked the door behind herself."

This was all way too overwhelming for a Friday.

Chapter Text

The new humans made constant noisy conversation. Mega-Girl's circuits were buzzing with frustration at their pointless chatter.

"… and we're not even one step closer to finding Sally…" The smaller one was saying. "And my wrists are chafing and..."

He was rambling on and on in a pathetic whiny voice that grated all of her systems. The bigger one was nodding along but, Mega-girl realized quite soon, not providing much share in the conversation himself. He seemed just content to listen − or pretend to, anyways. He kept throwing her curious glances, distracted. Eventually, he stood up and abandoned the conversation entirely, leaving the young human befuddled and even whinier.

Mega-Girl was standing outside to keep watch for potential foes. Junior had started taking frequent strolls with Ted to sway himself into his good graces again. There was great need for his false display of sympathy, as Ted had been especially moody since the kidnapping. Mega-Girl had expected this and, for what it was worth, was deeply thrilled and amused by the turn of events. Few things were as entertaining as puny humans debating the fleeting and shaky logic of their own morality. She did her job guarding them all the same, whether in unity or in heavy discourse. They were resting in a house that night, a little wooden structure barely fit to host four people and a robot, but it was a secure possession of the Black Scarves and Mega-Girl had no desire for comfort anyways. She would guard it like she would have a palace. If the humans were lacking basic comfort, that was their problem and not hers. The boy had notably been complaining ever since they had caught him. The man never had, not even once.

"You sure lookin' mighty beautiful tonight, Mega-Girl."

She paid him no mind. Him talking to her was probably slightly better than the prior conversation had been. At least the smaller human was silent now and pouting in weak despair.

"Your intelligence is erroneous." She was looking at a dot in the distance, considering the level of threat it might pose. A hare, she realized when she zoomed in on it with her sharp ocular lenses. Level of threat: harmless. "In fact, I wonder if you have any at all."

But the human only chuckled ridiculously, as if responding to a skit of comedy she had performed for him and him alone. He walked down the few steps of the porch to join her in front of the house, leaning against the sparse wood railing casually.

"I don't have much of nothin'," he admitted. "But I just wanted to say, from the moment I saw you, I feel like maybe I actually did found everythin' I could ever need. My name's Tootsie, by the way."

She glanced at him. He was smiling. His hands were unbound again − after the third instance of him accidentally breaking the ropes tied around them, Ted had suggested they stopped trying and he was now roaming free. He had not made any attempt at escaping so far. They were, after all, lodging in a dwelling which to humans' frail bodies lacking any endurance must have been considered very far from any other habitation. She turned back to looking into the distance.

"Yes," she said, "My efficiency is far superior to any human's in any significant area of knowledge and capacities. No other robotic beings, much less organic ones, are as versatile and your squad is very lucky to have me assigned to it."

"I sure am feelin' very lucky," he said softly. "Mega-Girl, I was just wonderin' if maybe… if we could talk? Learn about each other or somethin'…"

"Unfortunately, I cannot prevent you from doing so."

He laughed again, a stifled silly sound that Mega-Girl might have found comedic if she cared. She did not.

"I feel like I know a lot about you already," he said. "You're strong and super smart, and I think you're very funny."

"Accurate statement."

Hands twirling in front of him, then shoved in his pockets to still them. Humans kept twitching their bodies around needlessly, inefficiently wasting away their precious little energy.

"I'll start, then, Mega-Girl. I grew up in Independence, you know? But then I was a ranger for a bit and I don't have much of a family so I moved to Heaven on Earth with them when they retired."

Mega-Girl said nothing, which seemed to make him all the more eager to fill the air with meaningless babble.

"Where are you from? Were you born in a city too?"

"I was not born," she replied, which made Tootsie all the more confused. "I was manufactured. The city and factory I was assembled in were destroyed before your fragile flesh body was even conceived."

She supposed she had used too many big words for him and he simply stared at her blankly. Then he smiled again. His good cheer was relentless.

"And, erm, what do you like? I was thinkin' maybe we could go on a date you and I, if you'd like, but I don't know how it is that you like to spend your time…"

She smiled to herself at his idiocy. Humoring him was distraction enough after all. Certainly more than Ted, who ignored her more often than not, and Junior, who did not.

"The concept of wasting time on entertainment is wholly human," she said, "and therefore flawed at its core. I don't like to do anything. I follow orders, or enter sleep mode when I'm not needed."

"Oh, I like a nap too from time to time!"

He stepped closer to her, close enough that he might touch her at arm's reach, but he never did.

"You know, I'd been thinkin' that after we retire from the Black Scarves together some day, we could go back to my town and maybe settle down together. In a little house or somethin', somewhere nice, you know? Maybe a farm or so…"

Endless imagination, endless foolish human hopes and dreams. Always making up for themselves lies of a better life that would never be. Robots worked and built their own future every instant of their lives. Even if that future was protecting a tiresome squad from certain death if left to their own vulnerable devices.

"Robots do not retire. We are bound to serve. Forever."

His face fell and he sighed out in disappointment.

"Oh… Well, I'll just follow you along, then. I don't mind, not really." He thought on it. "Where are we goin', anyways?"

"You have not been granted confidentiality level clearance for the mission's destination."

"Stop it, you!"

Tootsie's disappointment turned to anxiety and he stood up very straight at once. Junior and Ted had come back from the stroll so suddenly Mega-Girl blamed herself for letting anyone, even them, approach so stealthily with no notice from her.

"Don't talk to the robot," he told Tootsie without a glance at Mega-Girl.

Tootsie looked slightly ill at ease and his eyes went to the dusty ground at his feet. Mega-Girl frowned, ashamed of having been caught in a moment of distraction. Junior snapped his fingers towards the both of them and pointed to inside the house. They walked in and Mega-Girl cautiously avoided all and every look Tootsie gave her.

They had found food and so Ted began to prepare a meal to fill their weak human needs for consumption. The young human was observing the process rather eagerly, but his hands had been tied to a broken radiator in the furthest part of the room and all he could do was watch and lick his lips. Junior sat nonchalant on a decrepit armchair, comfortably pulling a leg over the other. Tootsie glanced between everyone in turn and, hesitantly shoving his hands back in his pockets, approached Junior.

"Erm... Excuse me, Mr Boss, sir..."

Junior looked up, disinterested. He gave Tootsie a dubious scan up and down. The contrast between the two humans, Mega-Girl thought, could not be greater. Tootsie's nerves clashed against the confidence that imbued Junior's every deeds and spoken words. He might as well have been a fly buzzing around.

"Yes?" Junior said and Mega-Girl, who was no judge of human emotions, heard in it a touch of disdain she thought was reserved for herself.

"I've just been wonderin', sir, if maybe I could join the Black Scarves too?"

Though he hid it well, that had the merit of surprising Junior. His eyes narrowed on Tootsie.

"Well, well, well," he said slowly. "I can't say this is common procedure, a prisoner turned recruit."

"I'm willing to learn anythin', boss," Tootsie promised, a hand on his heart. "I'm not very fast but... but I want to join and stay with the squad."

"What the fuck, Tootsie?!"

Tootsie gave the boy an apologetic smile, but turned his back to him as Junior stood to clap him on the shoulder like an old friend. Mega-Girl wondered if the betrayal had perhaps endeared Tootsie in his eyes. Junior liked nothing better than whatever came his way completely free - including subordinates − and all the more when it was stolen. A stolen friendship was something already.

"You know, I think you might just make yourself useful, my man," he said with much more warmth than before. "I can't say you're exactly what the boss is after, but you might give me a helping hand just like sleezeball over there."

Ted rolled his eyes, but otherwise kept himself at his task. It might have been unwise, Mega-Girl reflected, to be too careless about gaining back his good esteem, but Junior was evidently thrilled by the recruit, a shiny new toy with brand new appeal. Rummaging through a drawer in an old cupboard, he produced a scarf black as the deepest night. Tootsie held it preciously, letting the coarse fabric slide between his large hands. Twice, he wrapped it around his neck, snug and secure. It made him look a certain way Mega-Girl was not finding the words to describe. Mismatched, perhaps. Tootsie looked at her, beaming. She looked away.

During the night, she went back to guarding the house on the half destroyed front porch. The floorboards creaked behind her. It was the stupid one again, her sensors told her. At least stupider than the rest of them. He exhaled in an odd squeaky pant before speaking.

"The stars are real pretty, ain't they?" He approached her. "But not as pretty as you."

She frowned.

"My design was conceived for maximal service and efficiency," she said. "But it is quite aesthetically pleasing."

He breathed out oddly in what seemed to be agreement. Sitting down on the porch, he tapped the space next to him. Then tapped it again. She wondered briefly if he was the kind of human who took idiotic pleasure in turning the vibrations of the air around them into what they called music, but at the third time he cleared his throat and looked at her.

"Would you like to sit with me?"

He was smiling so innocently, so simply. Everything about him was simple, she had gathered and concluded. A beige shirt stained with dust, thick wavy hair, an accent her systems struggled to decipher at times, and then a scarf around his neck as black as obsidian. It did not fit. It did not compute. She sat.

"It's a beautiful night," he said quietly, turning back to look up at the stars. "Always is, in the desert, innit?"

Humans had a way of stating unimportant and subjective opinions as means of conversation.

"Just a bit cool," he added. "Are you cold?"

"My estimated internal temperature is currently of seventeen degrees Celsius."

"Seventeen?! Oh, darn, you must be chilled to the bone, Mega-Girl!"

She barely had the time to realize his scooting over. Arms reaching around her, he wrapped his scarf around the steel plates of her robotic neck. He flattened it neatly, tightly, then smiled at his own work and looked back at the sky. He did not scoot back across. The sensors in her fingers registered the thermal proximity of his hand next to hers, but it did not make contact.

"In settlements you don't see the sky so clear," he told the starry night. "The buildings and everything. Maybe that's what I missed about being out here. It's just so darn pretty."

Mega-Girl had never paid much attention to the coloring the atmospheric gases took on at night − or at any time for that matter. Even now, she did not. She was not looking at the sky at all. Tootsie's face was so relaxed. It was the stupidity that made him so calm, she told herself, the lack of any intelligence that might give him cause to worry. The other human, idiot as he was, was fretting with petty human anxieties any hour of the day, but Tootsie did not seem to let any of that in. Not around her.

"You know, they say that the world ended a hundred years ago…" he said.

"One hundred sixty-nine years, four months and twenty days ago," she corrected.

Her remark, however accurate, was not acknowledged.

"But for me, Mega-girl, I feel like it only just got started."

She frowned. She wanted to retort that, by her estimations, he looked about twenty-three to twenty-six years old, young but not newly born into human life, but she said nothing. Something was stopping her and she realized with annoyance that she did not know what exactly that was. She thought she hated not knowing something, even just the fluctuations of her own robotic mind. Her cogs and gears were spinning at full speed but Tootsie seemed ever so calm and stable.

"I don't really understand most things that happen around me," he went on with a small shrug. "But I feel like, like there's one thing I know when I'm with you."

His fingers brushed against hers and, probably encouraged by her lack of violent outburst of repulsion, made bolder contact, sliding his palm under hers. He squeezed softly.

"And I know it really really well."

Mega-Girl noted the smile of him as he turned to her, a lazy easy grin, confident beyond his meager human potential. She noted the thermal transfer between their hands, the stark difference between his soft vulnerable flesh and her sturdy steel. Logically, she knew he was weak. Logically, she knew he was pathetic and irrelevant to her superior robotic existence. With horror, however, she was starting to think that her logic was very limiting in this instant and gave her little insight as to what was occurring. In this one moment in time, perhaps something else entirely was taking over her. And she did not know what it was.

Chapter Text

They barely exchanged a word on the drive to Independence. Slippery When Wet had given Ja'far the front seat next to Jack Bauer, retreating at the back with her father, but on neither part of the wagon did any conversation take place. Ja'far's ears were ringing with Jasmyn's voice, not just the cries of her when she was taken but the ghost remains of excited chatter between her and Mouthface, how thrilled she had been to begin a journey into a life of adventure. He tucked his scarf tight around his neck and face and kept his own counsel for fear he might lose himself in his sorrow. Likely, so did his road companions. He wondered if he should think himself lucky to have lost the one child when they had lost twice as many. But he remembered with every passing second that this wasn't his first loss.

He missed Sherrezade. Losing Jasmyn had reopened sore wounds that had never healed in the first place and he craved his whole family by his side with every part of him. He wondered if this was the second act of a twisted story played upon him, stealing from him all that mattered, his love, his home, his family, and for what greater purpose? In the face of having seen their daughter taken from him, he wondered who had been dealt the worse fate after all. Was it better that he ought to have lost Jasmyn after knowing and loving her for sixteen years, or had his poor gone Sherrezade gotten the better deal of hardly having known her much when they were torn apart? But she had known her daughter, even for three short years. Jasmyn had been as petulant and bold a toddler as she had been a teenager. Who was to know what future there was for her beyond that, if there was one at all. He looked at the road ahead and drowned in his somber thoughts.

Sherrezade and Jasmyn had been night and day, yet one and the same. Sherrezade had been mellow and permissive, Jasmyn rebellious and sparking fire. They had both been immensely kind and passionate with quite a tongue to them. The same eyes, of course, his comfort in solitude, glimpses of her gaze in Jasmyn's. The taste for adventure had both led them to their demise. Ja'far missed being home, for home was only to be found when he was with the two women who were his whole life.

Of course, he had a map, of course he had his notes in his messenger bag and could still read them well. He would give everything he still had in him to try and find the children − he no longer hoped for the wife. But what was a piece of paper against the fatality of your life? What were directions to a better place if you were heading there on your own? He had threaded this path before for thirteen years. Did he even have anything left to lose to walk it yet another time? Jack Bauer pushed forward his tired ox and the tired remain of his family and the rest of them simmered with dread and angst.

"Well, would you look at that," he said eventually after several days of silent travel. "Independence!"

The large sprawling city was lying in the distance. They had not been able to follow the Black Scarves, of course, and the sand had swallowed any directions they might have trailed behind. Independence had been their first destination anyways and they had numbly made their way there. It had started to rain hours ago, hot heavy drops that turned the sand hard and unforgiving, and all of them were grateful to be off the road for the time present. They tied their ox at the stables just outside the walls of the city and walked in.

Independence was miserable. Ja'far had visited the place before but back then, the love in his heart had blinded his eyes to the gritty, dirty grime of a soulless city. It was crowded, too, every shop, every street packed with more people than the one before. It had been standing before the fall of the world, he knew, but the ancient buildings promised old grandeurs long past.

"This is it, everybody," Jack Bauer said, trying to smile encouragingly. "The place where our great trek begins…"

Slippery When Wet shoved past him on her way to the closest inn.

"If you call this a trip one more time, Jack Bauer, I'm gonna rip that little pecker of yours and feed it to the next rotting ghoul we meet on the road."

She took Titty Mitty by the arm and together they held some sparse conversation that, though Ja'far tried to not eavesdrop, sounded very disparaging on their wagon leader indeed. She pushed the door open and it nearly slammed into Jack Bauer's face. Ja'far followed in last. They were wet from the storm and sat at a table by the fireplace, which was no grander luxury than a barrel cut in half in its length steadied on short trestles and fueled with charcoal. Around it, several children were smoking bits of meat and bread, laughing together. Ja'far looked away.

"Hello, my good fellow travelers, what can I get ya?"

The waiter was chipper as could be. His white shirt held several dubious stains of whatever had soiled it, grease or wine or dirt and his boots had a large hole on the side. Misery everywhere, Ja'far thought. Even to those who didn't know it.

"I'll get whatever strongest booze you have," Slippery When Wet said. "Make it a double. No, actually, make it the whole bottle."

Jack Bauer looked at her with worry but did not dare to comment. He counted their money and settled for free water. Ja'far doubted it was so safe to consume, but said not a word. Rain was drumming against the windows and with every person entering or leaving this place, the storm crashed loudly before being muffled by the closed door again. When the man came back with the whisky (which Slippery When Wet chugged a huge gulp of in seconds) and the water, Ja'far caught him gently by the arm.

"Excuse me," he said. "We've… We've been wondering if you heard any rumors around. About missing children."

The man frowned in deep reflection, holding his own bearded chin.

"That's a mighty good question you're askin' me, Sir, and I'll give you the truest answer."

"Yes, yes, get on with it," Slippery When Wet groaned.

The stranger put a flat hand on the table, leaning over to talk to them quite intimately. The fire behind him was making a halo around his face in the shadows. Rain was pouring darker by the minute outside the dirty windows.

"You're not the first to ask," he said with an air of mystery. "And I can't say if you'll be the last, neither. Loads of missing children around the world these days. Almost like there's a purpose behind, folks, something sinister goin' on."

Ja'far's heart tightened at the thought of other parents losing the precious flesh of their flesh. Lightning flashed brightly at the window and startled him, but he caught his breath again.

"And have you any idea where they're taken?" He asked.

"Oh, I have an idea, alright," the man retorted. "They say they're taking the kids deep into…" Thunder suddenly growled deafeningly through the air. "… the Rad Zone."

In the flicker of a second, his face which had been contorted into a horrible grimace turned back to a friendly smile.

"Makes you almost glad to be single and without kids, don't it, Darla?"

A woman viciously sweeping the same corner of the dusty floor shrugged and went back to her task at hand. The man stared at her for a few seconds, hiding his annoyance very poorly, before turning back to them with a grin.

"Enjoy Independence, pleasant evening and thank you!"

He walked away without uttering another word of help, leaving the table equally silent. They were all defeated, Ja'far knew, all grasping the severity of the situation. Though, he was realizing, to very various levels. Jack Bauer lifted his glass and pointed at the specks of dirt at the bottom.

"Would you believe that?!" Jack Bauer cried out.

"That water is seriously unsafe to drink! Lucky I noticed, something serious could have happened to us, am I right?"

Ja'far's mouth dropped open in disbelief and he could almost feel the furious heat radiating from Slippery When Wet. Titty Mitty shook his head and gulped down some dirty water.

"You," she snarled, "are the last person who would know serious if it hit you in the face, Jack Bauer! You never have!"

Jack Bauer's eyes widened in startle and a healthy dose of fear.

"Honey, I just meant…"

"It's your fault you burned down Sycamore, it's your fault we left it because you didn't want to face Emma, you wanted to go on this magical journey to a place we don't even know exists and because of your road trip, my poor baby children were taken Dead-God knows where by evil men and we don't know if we'll ever see them again!"

"But we said we're gonna find them!"

She stood up so abruptly the chair fell behind her. Jabbing a finger into Jack Bauer's torso, she poked him several painful times and he yelped and tried to contort himself away.

"Will you for one fucking second stop acting like a stupid dog who digs holes in the ground to hide all of his constant crap?!"

She paused, the anger dropped like a heavy soaked coat, leaving her shivering and sighing. She touched his shoulder.

"I married you, Jack Bauer, and I've loved you even if you're a terrible stupid dumb horny dog, but sometimes you make it much too hard."

Her fingers stroke gently across his shoulder and up to his jaw before she jerked her hand away, realizing the overly tender gesture. Jack Bauer was entranced.

"I'm gonna find my family," she said simply.

She grabbed her gun, her bag, and walked away briskly. Jack Bauer stared into nothing for a very long time until his face dropped to its surface and he groaned loudly.

"I hate it when we fight," he grumbled under his breath. "Hate that so much."

Ja'far loathed the idea of arguing with travel companions and misfortune had bound him to Jack Bauer whether he wanted it or not, so he said nothing. That was in this instant the only reason why. Surely, advice might come later, surely setting things right, but Ja'far's own heart had its limits sometimes. Pushing the cups from him, he made some room on his side of the table and pulled out his notebook. Thank Dead-God for all his dead mercy, the drawing was intact. He picked it up to better look at it in the warm light of the fire. He had been afraid to look at it on the wagon, for fear it would get damaged.

"Woah, did you draw that yourself?!"

Ja'far nodded. He was in the mood neither for false modesty nor for bragging. The drawing was fairly good, he could acknowledge. It was recent, too, and was a very close likeness to his − he hoped − living, breathing teenager of a daughter. He had taken to art as the years advanced, when he had become suddenly terrified that his memories of Sherrezade might fade if he didn't put her face to paper. It never had, of course, and he didn't think it ever could, but he was still glad for the skill he had taught himself. Looking into charcoal lines was a very meager consolation when the object they depicted was gone, though. In fact, he wondered if he felt any better at all.

Putting the drawing back in place, he noticed he was near out of poppy flowers. He had not planned on being on the road, of course, and had not come across any since they had ridden into the desert wasteland. They were withered and pitiful, too, but he supposed that once they were submerged, they would be good as new. He asked for a pot of hot water, which was promptly served, and offered Jack Bauer and Titty Mitty a cup of the infusion he brewed. It was surely safer than whatever cold piss the man had served them.

"My last comfort, I suppose," he said. "Jasmyn never liked it, but…"

In his mind's eye, he still saw everything as clear as if he were back in time to that very day. A large field of bright green grass was surrounding the ancient settlement, an oasis in the desert blanketed on all sides by a thick patch of poppies. He had almost thought it a vision then, two days of travel since he had emptied his canteen, but the grass had been lush and humid under his fingers and the poppies the most vermillion red he had ever beheld. And there in their midst, plucking the flowers into a pouch at her hip, Sherrezade. She had smiled at him and welcomed him into the community and…

"We'll go to Hatchetfield," he said, suddenly jerking up.

Titty Mitty nearly spilled his cup in surprise but Ja'far steadied him. Under Jack Bauer's quizzical brow, he explained himself better.

"There is an ancient place deep into the Rad Zone," he said. "Old New Hatchetfield. It flourished in the past, before the radiations started expanding their scope and reached it. I believe it's near down to ruins now, but… They've been the highest place of knowledge left in our world. I trained there for several years. If anyone has the means of technology or even intelligence to help us, Hatchetfield does."

If he allowed himself, he would remember hours browsing the books in the old library next to one another, her foot casually rubbing against his calf under the table, sauntering in the botanical gardens hand in hand, breathing in the fresh air of the oasis while staring out into the vast arid wasteland desert and dreaming themselves a future they were to explore all together. He did not think of Hatchetfield often, how young and wishful he had been. His painful heart would not allow him to.

"That sounds… "Jack Bauer hesitated and checked on Titty Mitty's face for confirmation. Finding it blank, he made his own decision, "… amazing! That sounds great. Doesn't it, honey?"

He turned but found empty air at his side. Glancing around the warm little room, he found it packed with everyone and their neighbor but his wife. Ja'far sipped more of his tea, looking down into his cup for the inevitable realization.

"Where's she gone? Grandpa, did she say anything?"

Titty Mitty shrugged. Ja'far's heart already quite full to the brim with his own misery twitched in unpleasant anticipation. It took more time than he would have like, Jack Bauer touring the inn and the neighborhood before coming to the realization Ja'far had had from the moment Slippery When Wet had left her seat vacant. She was nowhere to be found. Gone as fast as a desert rain storm. And Ja'far was quite certain that she was not coming back any time soon.

Chapter Text

The storm had been brewing for much too long and finally burst into an outpour. Independence was a wet hour away and Jemilla and Zazzalil stood at a crossroad. They had been arguing for nearly as long.

"The road on the left!" Zazzalil was insisting and refused to budge her grounds.

Zazzalil was stubborn as a mutant mule. Jemilla was soaked and sick of her bullshit. She pointed to her map, which was equally drenched but clearly legible enough to indicate just another of Zazzalil's mistakes. At least she still had that − material truth and reality in her hands. A map didn't lie. Facts and knowledge never lied. Zazzalil, on the other hand, had a lying tongue and a lazy heart. Ever more as time went by, she refused the strictest bit of effort, even in the face of evidence. Jemilla was tired of having to argue every single aspect of their lives.

"The road on the left is infested with desert ghouls," she explained for what felt like the tenth or thousandth time. "We're so close to Independence, can you at least let me have this? One fucking thing?"

The way here had been laborious. After it was discovered that Zazzalil was in fact going fucking rogue behind her back, the cold between them had only cooled itself further down and was now biting with intensity. It wasn't that Jemilla wasn't patient. She had all the patience in this dead world and more, but she handed it out again and again and again with no fruit in return. Worse, their deadly silence had started to turn into frequent fights, more of them every day. Jemilla loathed to argue − or at least to lose arguments. She could see the city in the distance and could almost hear the sound of peaceful quiet already, feel a warm cheap bed and a roof over her head. If only Zazzalil would let her do her last part and bring them there.

"You're not listening to me," Zazzalil said, rolling her eyes exasperatedly − as if she had any right to be the one who was annoyed. "I told you this dude gave me some of his leafy juice to protect against ghoul attacks. If you'd just take a sip…"

"I'm not drinking what you stole," she retorted vehemently. "I know he didn't give you a thing, you just took it behind his back when he was looking elsewhere! And if you had any intelligence at all, you'd know it's just some cheap booze mixed with herbs he tried to sell to gullible idiots like you. Substance abuse is not a reliable method of protection against anything, Zazzalil, that's fucking stupid."

Zazzalil chugged a long slurpy sip from the canteen and Jemilla looked away in disgust, crossing her arms. She breathed out soundly after drinking, slowly screwing the cap back on and putting the canteen away. With all her larcenies piling up inside her backpack and strapped on all the outer surface of it, she was looking half like a human mountain, a wandering merchant. None of her goods had been fairly traded, though. Jemilla was ashamed of the company she kept.

"Your word against his, J-Mills."

"My word is that we're taking the road on the right and not risking our lives on the chance that some dumbass scam a guy tried on you actually works. It's safer."

"It's longer!" Zazzalil whined. "Fuck, we're so close, you wanna make us jump through hoops again. Can't we just take the short, easy way for once? You always want us to do all this useless shit like, be cautious or some other crap! We'd lose an hour at least!"

Jemilla huffed in outrage.

"We'd have arrived already if you'd done as I said from the start instead of standing around arguing."

Of course, one of them would have to cave eventually, wouldn't she? But Jemilla would be damned if she let that be her. She had let Zazzalil pull her shitty plans for much too long already. Surely it would be easier on her part to let the hurricane that was Zazzalil's lazy mind run its full trajectory, but at what cost? What else might she destroy before she was stopped?

It wasn't that Jemilla especially believed that Zazzalil had a desire for evil doing. In fact, back when they were younger and got along, she would even have called her kind hearted. She was passionate, for sure. Zazzalil had a fire burning inside her, but often as not it was burning just for her own selfishness, her desire for idleness and ease. She believed her when she said she had not stolen anything that didn't look superfluous to whichever settlements she heisted on. She just didn't trust her to not bring about much bigger problems than she wanted or anticipated.

"We're taking the right way," she said firmly. "My way."

Zazzalil still would not budge. Her hair was drenched and her pony tail falling deflated behind her neck and her jacket was sticking pitifully against her skin but her eyes were more determined, bolder than ever.

"We're taking the left. You can't dictate my life anymore, you know. "

As if keeping her safe was stifling her. As if keeping her alive was a burden on her.

"You think you're always right, don't you?" Jemilla said, trying to keep the anger out of her voice but failing much too miserably. "You think your crazy plans always work out because they work out for you, you think I'm the crazy one with all the rules, but let me tell you something, Zazz. Once we get to Independence, it's not like other people are gonna let you pull your shit either!"

The rain was becoming so heavy, so hot, pushing the limits of being bearable. They would have to pick one road. They would have to pick the right one.

"You don't believe I'm capable of anything!" Zazzalil said. "You think I'm gonna get caught? Fat chance!"

"Oh, great fucking future for you even if you don't. Zazzalil the bandit! All hail!"

"At least I won't be doing all that fucking work!"

In her heart, Jemilla had faith that Zazzalil was more than her laziness. She could get animated, could get herself to do her share of tasks when she had the proper motivation. Jemilla had just never been able to figure out quite what that was and Zazzalil seemed intent to prove her faith wrong every minute they spent together.

"You know what, fuck it. You don't run my life. In fact, you don't even need to be a part of it anymore. I'm gonna do what the fuck I want and you can enjoy your goody-two-shoes boring existence."

Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed. Jemilla's heart pounded dangerously hard in her chest.

"What the fuck did you say?"

Zazzalil took another sip of her scam juice and saluted at Jemilla with snark and taunting.

"You take whatever road you want," she replied. "I don't need you anymore. I'm out of this little duo."

Jemilla frowned.

"Like fuck you are," she said furiously. "I'm out!"

"FINE!" Zazzalil shouted.

Angrily, she packed up everything and walked past Jemilla, ramming herself into her shoulder almost violently as she passed her.

"FINE!" Jemilla shouted to a back turned to her and already hurrying past. "Enjoy your fucking Independence!"

She shoved the map into her pocket and made sure she had all her things before briskly walking away. She could barely see straight and felt much hotter than she already had before, fuming with anger. Shouting out in wordless frustration, she felt a little better. Allowing herself a minute of tears, she felt a lot better. She dried her eyes with the back of her hand as best as she could under fading rain and decided right then and there to make the most of her situation.

Independence was lying ahead at the bottom of the large rocky dune she was walking down. She couldn't remember having ever seen a larger place. It was dark and probably as unsanitary as a settlement of that size might be expected to be, but it seemed in this instant the best destination she could have dreamed of. Thousands of people, she didn't even know how many, only that Zazzalil would be merely one of them and easily avoided. If parting ways was her wish, Jemilla would stay as far away from her as could be. In fact, she was glad for it. This marked the beginning of a better life.

She had never been one without plans, of course. All her life, she had planned for the moment ahead, as far as she could. With Molag's undecisive meandering and Zazzalil's unpredictable recklessness, she had limited herself without meaning to. Being independent, she was set free. The sky was clearing up above her eyes. As the clouds turned white and fluffy, she saw in them the shapes of her dreams.

The ground was hard sandy stone under her feet. She kept a fast steady pace − she was rather looking forward to changing into fresh dry clothes for the night. She might have to work for them, but Jemilla had always enjoyed the reward of having put some effort into earning whatever she used and consumed. She found herself thinking up a thousand ideas of what she might now turn to. She had always enjoyed the natural world − maybe a life of science? But she had a knack for leading, didn't she? Surely, Independence had any sort of structure of authority. She might be of service there. She wasn't all that bad with a bow and arrow either, which there was always need of for any reason. Keeping people safe and secure would always be a priority of hers.

She realized that the city was just a little farther, and then she would only have to trace the watch path around the walls to get to the closest entrance. That surprised her and she frowned. Surely, an hour couldn't have passed already. She pulled out her map, but the page had stuck onto itself and she could not pry it apart without it tearing. Fucking great.

A noise came from behind and chilled her blood icy cold. She barely dared to turn around, but she preferred not to leave danger unobserved, unacted on. She might have cried again at the sight. Four, no, five shapes sluggishly narrowing on her. Grayish green skin shredding and melting right on itself, faces so ugly she might have nightmares on end for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, she did not know how long that might be. Not with a bunch of desert ghouls heading her way.

"Oh, for fuck's sake."

She could not remember it, but it didn't seem like she had taken the right road. In fact, it looked like she had taken the completely wrong one.

Chapter Text

Bruce woke up in a gradually clearing haze, his head pounding, his entire body aching. He came sluggishly back to awareness, slowly then very suddenly remembering what had transpired before he was knocked out. The rangers' visit, leaving his home for the roads again, but getting caught by surprise, and worst of all…

"ROBIN!" He shouted, sitting up.

He scrambled to his feet clumsily − when had he ever been this graceless, this awkward? The back of his head was sharply painful and he realized, passing a hand on it and having a look at his fingertips, that he was bleeding a little bit. What did it matter? What did anything matter except Robin?

"Fuck!" He said furiously. "Where're they gone?!"

It was the next morning, hours after the dreadful encounter. His weapons had scattered across the little clearing when his body had been shoved into the tree trunk and he made quick way of picking them up. Even Robin's dagger, his child-sized sword, had fallen behind and he loathed to know him so defenseless. Of course, none of the rogues were in sight, of course, the raft had long disappeared even from the furthest horizon he could see.

"I'm coming for you, Robin," he growled. "Nothing can stop me!"

He wanted to run, to pour every last ounce of energy he still possessed into the hunt. He wasn't so weak as to not have at least that much left in him, was he? But he had barely put two steps in front of one another that a strong pair of arms wrapped around him from behind and his feet ran into nothing at all.

"Let go of me!" He told Taz but that only made her restrain him all the tighter and his steps towards nothing were more exhausting and awkward than anything.

"If I let you go, you'll promise to help us, man! I'm sick of you running away!"

"Now, now, Taz, I'm sure you're hurting him there," Up said and Bruce felt the unwanted touch of a hand patting his shoulder gently. "Brucie's a little worked up, I think we all are right now. I… I'm feelin' very sad myself."

Taz turned around and Bruce's body in her hold swung around with her like he was a paper doll at her mercy.

"This isn't no time for your feelings, Up! There's another child missing, in case you haven't noticed! It's time to do something."

Up held up his hands in apology.

"I know, I know… I'm sorry, Taz…"

She freed an arm to gesticulate as she spoke and locked Bruce into a chokehold that left him breathless and begging for air.

"Let me tell you what we gonna do. We lost one girl and we left the city to find her. Since then, we lost three more people. This is bigger mission than we thought and you're here crying about it. We need more help, mate. We find help and then we win!"

Up rubbed his eyes and pouted in self-pity.

"I'm not crying, Taz…"

Bruce felt a sudden sharp pain at the bottom of his back and was thrusted forward, his face to the ground.

"If you're not, then this one is," Taz said. "No funny business anymore, alright, Bruce? I'll keep an eye on you."

Surging with a renewed motivation, Bruce sprang to his feet.

"Like hell you will! I'm saving Robin right now!"

She tried to get him back into her hold but Bruce was stronger this time around, more determined, and avoided her lunging at him.

"You come with us, we do this together," she demanded.

Up grabbed her by the arm. He was looking at Bruce with large compassionate eyes.

"I think it's better we let him go, Taz," he said quietly. "This is journey he must take on your own."

She would have none of it.

"Are you stupid?! He's comin' with… Hey, come back, idiota!"

But Bruce was zooming away faster than she ever could catch up. He was the fastest thing in the world, unstoppable. He ran and ran till his breath could no longer support him, and then ran some more and ran and ran. He would get Robin. He would save him.

His adrenaline-addled brain could barely focus on a plan, but Bruce thought to himself that plans were the last thing he needed now. He had but a simple directive: to find his partner again. Hadn't he prepared for that all along? Fighting criminals in the Rad Zone had been his job. Now it was his entire life's purpose. There was no time to lose in thinking anything through. One second spent on reflection was one step further away for the Black Scarves to take Robin.

His weapons were dangling around him with every rapid leap he took. Once, he felt one of them fall to the ground, but he had no time to lose on getting it back. It was just a stupid gun. Weapons had not helped him the first time anyways. He would have to be cunning once he spotted them, of course, but that would be figured out when he would find them. His legs were starting to hurt really bad and his stomach was all upside down but he kept running. Eyes on the ground, one giant step after another, then another…

He slammed into a rock hard unmoving shape and fell back on his ass. Looking up, the dawning sun was shining upon a familiar face. He scooted back in disgust.

"You!" He hissed at Clark.

Clark gave him a smug smile, hands on his hips.

"Why, fancy seeing you here, friend," he said, taking a step towards him.

His foot between Bruce's sprawled legs, he was looming over him. He offered him a hand to help him up but Bruce could only look at it with rage. Impeccable skin, neat and clean, a fresh change of clothes. Clark always looked unnaturally well put together. His dark hair shone with sunlight.

"I'm no friend of yours!"

Clark's smile barely took a hit. He pulled back the offered hand, instead flexing an arm in a pretentious display of strength, bulging biceps sharply outlined even through the red shirt he was wearing.

"I was just on my morning stroll saving good innocent people with my endless power," he said. "What have you been up to?"

Bruce held back tears. Shaking his head, he scooted further back, trying hopelessly to get back on his feet. Clark looked at him with sudden concern. Glancing around, he frowned.

"Wait, where's your kid?" He asked and shattered Bruce's heart in a million more pieces. "What's his name again, Magpie or something?"

Boiling hot tears rolled down Bruce's cheeks and he rubbed them away angrily. What right had this asshole mutant to the angst and fear in his heart? What right had he to know the sorrows of his life?

"Like you care," he replied. "All you ever do is make me feel small. Fuck off!"

He didn't wait for an answer − he did not need Clark's reaction and he did not need Clark. Not for anything. He got on his feet again and ran away. He had experience as his advantage, didn't he? He was used to rescuing and saving people. He hadn't saved his papa and mama, nor Robin's either, but he could save Robin himself. It was the only thing that mattered at all.

Robin was his best friend, his only friend. He was just a small little boy, but there was bravery in his heart greater than any adult man he had ever known. He was kind and affectionate and serviceable. He was fierce, too, facing every danger with a heart filled with passion and determination. If only Bruce could possess the same for himself. He noticed he was crying again but never stopped the tears now that he was on his own. He felt so very alone. No, he was alone. No one else in the world could understand, no one else could help.

Nothing physically marked the entrance to the Rad Zone, of course, but he knew it when he reached it the next day. He had not slept all night, he had not even rested on his way, just traced back the path he had trailed a thousand times before. His head was aching violently and though some of it was the exhaustion, he was sure, he also recognized the radiations he had experienced as many times before.

It was a dangerous and stupid thing to do to delve into the Rad Zone for too long. The radiations were invisible to the eye, unnoticeable by any other way than your mind fighting against itself, or worse, fighting against foreign thoughts and pains. This part of the wasteland was quieter, too, a yellow-ish sand as far as the eye could see with hardly any dunes or vegetation. A bare expanse as raw and defensive as Bruce's soul. He threaded further into it.

They could only have fled here, couldn't they? The radiations brought to mind the worse thoughts one might have about oneself, the most vicious deeds to inflict upon others. For that reason, evildoers roamed free there, as plenty as rocks or sand grains. Bruce was never quite sure if they became evil after too much time spent in such a threatening, unwelcoming environment, or if the Rad Zone was appealing to them because of their wicked heart. It made no difference to the people they harmed and it was all the same to him.

His step was starting to slow down and he tried to force himself into a brisker pace again, not quite running anymore but near trotting. He was so thirsty. The sun had gone down and was up again − how long had he been running towards Robin? A day and a night? How pathetic that he had forgotten the basic human need of drinking. His body was sore, but not as much as his heart. He felt so ashamed of himself.

The Rad Zone was huge, so broad he had never crossed the end of it. He wondered if there even was one. How far into it had he ever gone, two days worth of walk, three? He was ever careful not to stay for too long. Maybe a bit further tan that back in the days when he drove with the Rangers on their old bus. He was so weak nowadays, lost his sharp strength. And where could Robin be anyways? He could only see so far into the distance and the Rad Zone was so big… He had been stupid, entirely reckless and dumb. He would never find Robin. He would never save anyone again. Not even himself.

His pace was slowing to a limp, every step harder than the one before. He was appallingly pathetic. Sweat was evaporating right from his skin, leaving it prickly and uncomfortable. His hat felt too heavy, his clothes too constraining, his weapons useless. He realized he had closed his eyes for a few seconds at a time when light blinded him as he opened them again. That goddamn sun. Maybe a short break wouldn't be too bad… The thought had barely come that his body let itself go before he could make the active decision. His knees collapsed under his weight and he never caught his fall. Time seemed to drag into slow infinity and he had every moment to regret everything, absolutely everything he had done, and still the rocky sand under him was getting ever closer and he could not stop it. He was so thirsty. He was so weak. He had lost.

He lost consciousness before he even hit the ground.

Chapter Text

They cared for the kid in turns. They were taking their sweet time dragging him to the boss, almost like they wanted to give him a cool tour of the least interesting landscapes of the wasteland before inevitable tragedy. Joey played his part in keeping the pace down, too, fatty and lazy, unable to walk long distances and much less without whining about it.

Mega-Girl, as far as Ted could observe, was the roughest. She was no judge of levels of human pain, as she put it, and handled Joey sharply and without any attention for his comfort. She never spoke to him either, shackling and unshackling him without a single word uttered, bringing him meals three times a day, letting him out for what were probably very humiliating potty breaks in silence entirely.

Junior was hardly better. More loquacious, perhaps, for Junior loved to listen to his own voice. Ted was certain that he was selling Joey a million lies. He wished he could tell him better, but he had not yet been in on the plan, so whatever he might tell him would be just as untrue as what Junior was, only Junior had people skills Ted never cared to have. He had nothing but despise for the rest of his squad, only hid it under layers upon layers of honey and sweets. Whatever he was telling Joey, there mustn't be a word of truth to it.

Tootsie was well meaning but here, Joey himself refused to receive the affection so generously poured out towards him. He had not yet swallowed Tootsie's change of garb and although his former companion was kind and gentle with him (Ted wondered if the dumbass was even capable of any violence), he was left grumpier than before whenever Tootsie was his active jailor.

And Ted, well, Ted did his best. Which was not much and not enough.

"Our small captive human is insufferable," Mega-Girl said as she came back from allowing Joey a short walk in the surroundings of the cave they were lodging in that night. "He is more displeasing than all past batches of humans in our possession before."

Ted nearly choked on the water he had been gulping − it had been a long hot day waiting for Joey to pick up the pace. Tootsie laughed good-naturedly and patted his back to help it pass. At the very back of the cave where he had been left for the night, Joey grumbled something under his breath that Ted did not catch. Junior was smoking by the entrance of the cave.

"There were others?!"

Mega-Girl looked at him like he was a pathetic imitation of human intelligence and not worth half a second of her superior robotic time.

"Look at him," she told Junior, "Another stupid human who doesn't know anything about anything."

Tootsie was beaming, staring at her with admiration. Did he know? Did he even understand the start of it all? Just about how many children had the Black Scarves kidnapped in total? And was it even just children? Ted stared at the fire dying into the growing darkness of the night and didn't ask. He had grown tired of his questions never getting answered.

Tootsie had been appointed to take care of the Joey chore the next day but, as he was still not quite certain of the power structure in charge, Ted only had to ask for him to delegate the task to him instead. To Tootsie, anyone who wasn't him was in charge and therefore needed to be obeyed. In an odd sort of way, it wasn't completely untrue. Ted let him trot away to lube up Mega-Girl's good spirits towards him. Junior walked ahead of them as always, gloomy and solitary.

"Hey, buddy," Ted said, nudging Joey.

Joey nearly collapsed under the unexpected shove and Ted had to grab him by the arm to keep him on his feet. The kid sniffed loudly.

"What do you want?"

Ted couldn't have answered that if he'd tried.

"Dude, you have to stop complaining so much."

Joey snorted in scorn.

"That's easy for you to say," he retorted, "I'm a child prisoner. You're as free as can be. I'm all sore and I hate walking and…"

"Junior hates it when you whine," Ted cut him. "So does Mega-Girl." So did he, for that matter, but he left that unvoiced. "They'd treat you better if you weren't so, you know… annoying as fuck?"

The poor little jailbird was offended by his words, he saw immediately. Turning his head from Ted, he picked up the pace a little bit. Which wasn't much at all.

"I don't care if they treat me bad," Joey said, lied. "I just wanna go home."

He sighed.

"Actually, no, I just wanna… Ugh, it's hopeless, nothing matters now!"

"Come on," Ted said, grinning. "Don't leave me hanging. What is it you want?"

Joey glanced at him. One step in front of the other, forever walking to their unknown destination. He seemed to be doing slightly better than a moment ago.

"It's just that… Do you ever feel like you never saw how good you had it at home until you weren't there anymore?"

Ted nodded.

"But even if I could snap my fingers and be home right now, I wouldn't do it."

"Ah, damn it, I was just gonna offer you the magic trick, missed your chance there, bud."

"Fuck off," Joey snorted. "No, it's just… promise you won't tell anyone?"

Ted glanced ahead. A boss who had lied to him boldly to his face, two coworkers he did not especially like, much less trust. He shrugged.

"Sure."

Joey took a big breath, braced himself. He was shaking his chubby shackled fists to build up his courage and finally sighed out and spoke very fast.

"There's this girl I think I kinda like but I was a dick to her before and she's disappeared now and I got fucking kidnapped too, but I think that if I could be anywhere in the world I'd just want to be with her and work it out?"

Ted burst into laughter at the raw innocence of it all. He'd almost forgotten what teens were like, such a long time away from Deb and Alice who couldn't tear their arms from each other and whispered whatever it was that kids muttered to each other when they thought they were in love.

"It kinda sounds like you want to bone her, dude," he said, but caught himself. "Wait a minute, how old are you? Like twelve?"

Joey huffed with bad mood.

"I'm seventeen," he mumbled back.

Ted snorted.

"You look so young! Must be cause you're all chubby, am I right?" He said, his laugh entirely unreciprocated.

"Anyways, it doesn't matter now," Joey replied in his whiny voice again. "I'm never gonna see her again."

He kicked off a small rock but, his feet loosely shackled together, almost fell. This time, he caught his balance again on his own. They walked. Ted kicked off the same rock further along the road. Desert was plain and boring, but Ted had always thought that human company was the best toy one could be gifted. Mostly to mess with them, but even a villainous rogue like him apparently still wasn't above holding normal conversation.

"What's she like?" He asked eventually.

Joey sighed.

"She's like, super smart," he said. "She loves to read and she's neat and she loves helping people. She was my roommate and I thought she was boring and annoying cause she always told me to do things but now… I think I could have listened a bit more."

The groan he let out might have awakened a sleeping god, so loud it was.

"And she's actually like, really pretty." Ted smirked. Finally some good talk. "She's not green but she's not that ugly at all, she's… beautiful."

"You do wanna bone her, then."

Joey looked away, almost shy.

"I wanna find her again," he said, averting the topic. "She's the girl of my dreams. Don't you have dreams of your own?"

Ted wasn't particularly a dreamer. He didn't dwell in the past when he could avoid it and indeed he had always managed to avoid it thus far. He wasn't especially projecting into the future either. Content to go from one moment to the next. Well, less than content these days.

"What did you do before becoming a child kidnapper? Was this your dream job?"

It had been once − for the few minutes it had taken for the dream to blossom into his mind. Since then, he wasn't so sure.

"I sold weed," he said. "With a few friends. We had a little commune farm thing."

"Just friends, huh? Aren't you like, a hot guy? I thought men like you were drowning in ass."

Ted chuckled. He supposed he did have the dream of getting laid a lot after all, evidenced by all the flirting he had practiced on the road. But that had been before the kidnapping. He wasn't so sure anymore. He thought of Sycamore.

"I'm hot stuff, aren't I?" He said smugly.

Joey tried to punch his arm playfully but his motion was too restricted to reach him and his arm dropped back pathetically. Ted hated that.

"Yeah, you must have had someone."

Ted frowned. He did not like thinking on his old life, didn't like the way it made him feel. He did not like to feel. It was much easier to think everything through the lens of practicality. Why did he stay? He was fed, protected, given a purpose. Plain boring answers, but enough to keep the scarf around his neck. Why would he want to go back? All notions of sentimentality the question evoked were more unpleasant than the next. Except perhaps just the one…

"I think I did."

They had been so different, Charlotte and him, burning flame clashing against quiet water. Hot steam together. For sure, she would have left this job as soon as she would have learned about its less than noble goals. She would never even had enrolled in the first place, scaredy-cat as she had always been. Insufferably righteous and people-pleasing and spurting courtesies like he did taunting and teasing. There'd been more to her than that, though, the way she slipped under his sheets with a wicked grin at night, a confidence there like no one ever knew besides him. And perhaps, too, there had been more to him in those moments than the snark.

"What's she like?" Joey asked in turn.

Never once a word of flowery affection between the two of them, never an utterance betraying more than the relief of two horny bodies finding each other. She had married Sam, and that was that. Even if he had wanted more, Ted would have been competing against an absentee and he would have lost. Much better never to run the race at all. He had always been a sore loser.

"Oh, you know." He gestured curves into the air. "Nice toddies. Good ass."

Joey snickered. Ted wondered the last time he had had the occasion to talk not just about Charlotte but about hot people in general since he had taken the black scarf for himself. Junior seemed detached from any such interest and Mega-Girl… He preferred not to think about what Mega-Girl would think or do in that regard.

"She's really sweet," he added. "And so fucking stuck up. She laughs at my jokes a lot cause she's got like, zero sense of humor herself. She's nice. A good person."

"Sounds like you want to bone her," Joey pointed out.

"Bone her again, you mean."

"Heyyy!"

Joey offered him a hand for a high five. It was much lower than it should with the restraints around his wrists but Ted clapped it all the same at waist level.

"She's married," he said. "Married chicks are always the best, you know. They're just so much more…"

But he realized with a thus far unknown consideration that perhaps not all details were good to share with your child prisoner. Joey never heard the rest of that train of thought. They walked almost at Ted's natural pace by now. In front of them, Tootsie was animated with whatever it was he was telling Mega-Girl. The robot seemed to listen intently. Ted shook his head.

"Don't you want to, like, find her again?"

Ted thought on it. More and more as time went on, the idea of coming back to Sycamore and the friends he had left behind was becoming less likely. Emma had been unambiguous, the Dikrats had no reason to particularly want him around and defend his cause for it, Bill and Paul had the backbone of a jellyfish and would go with whatever Emma would say and Charlotte… He suddenly remembered their last kiss before he left. A gift to her out of pity. If only he had known his life of glory would have been stained and tarnished so short a time after he had left, he might have kissed her a bit longer.

"Yeah," he said, realizing once he had uttered the word how true it rang. "Yeah, that'd be kinda cool, actually."

Somehow, it seemed unlikely as anything. He didn't think he could just walk back into Sycamore and it wasn't like Charlotte was just going to appear out of the desert sand.

They would probably be taking a short break for lunch soon. Junior would have Mega-Girl deploy some sort of canvas roof overhead to shadow them just for a while. Joey would get a pee break, an unsatisfactory amount of food, probably a chiding or two from Junior or Mega-Girl. Then the same enduring hike the afternoon till night and rest came once more.

"I'm glad it was your shift today," Joey said and snapped Ted out of his thoughts.

"Mmh?"

Joey shrugged.

"You're the best of the batch," he said simply. "As far as kidnappers go."

Ted grumbled. Out of all compliments… He had always been a bad loser, for sure, but he wasn't certain this competition was one he was so happy to win.

Chapter Text

Jemilla felt cool sweat trickle down her back that had nothing to do with the rainstorm. Her bow was strapped tightly to her back for travel, but she hesitated to take it down. Desert ghouls were attracted to motion, weren't they? Or was that just the bog ghouls she had so often encountered and safely avoided? A lifetime of accumulated knowledge was quickly fading away from memory, replaced by fear and pure instinct. She had never been much of a spontaneous person.

The hideous creatures were inevitably circling in on her. Her nose flared with their dry stench, skin prickled with fear and disgust. The wise and safe thing to do... But she had abandoned the route of caution the moment she had taken the wrong turn and she was realizing now that the next move, whatever that was, could only be reckless, could only be dangerous. Slowly, she reached for the dagger fastened at her hip. The bottomless eyes of the ghouls darkened at the faint metallic sound of unsheathing.

Molag had taught her well, although much more about the daily sustenance of hunting than such dangerous encounters with feral beasts on the loose. For game and necessity more than literal survival. Jemilla had so far managed to circle well around any such perilous attacks, to keep herself safe, and was rather rusty in active combat skills.

She lunged for it. She had hoped to gain an advantage of speed and surprise but quickly realized the rashness of her reaction had not taken into account the actual difficulty of the assault. Far from plunging into the ghoul as she had expected, the blade resisted under much stronger skin than Jemilla had thought to find. She stabbed again, pushing with all the strength she could muster, but she was too slow. The other ghouls were catching up, closer and closer to her, the foul stink of them so thick she near choked on it. She hit again and again, hoping without hope to fall at least one of them, any of them.

A bullet whistled so close by her ear she felt the air gushing right past her and marveled to still stand here breathing and unscathed. The ghoul let out a scratchy, chilling wail of pain as it dropped to the ground in a pool of black blood. Unmoved, the other ghouls marched on but were shot down all the same, one by one then the last two with a single bullet piercing through their skulls at the same time. Jemilla was certain she had gone deaf, unsure if her heartbeat was drumming too loud for anything to pass through it or if the sharp sound of the bullets had rendered her hearing momentarily useless as shit.

Her eyes however, despite the hazy glow of a post storm evening, served her well enough. Atop a short cliff of rock above the ghouls' den right behind her, a woman was perched, gun still in shooting position. She blew the smoke from it and Jemilla, taken by admiration, found herself staring at the acrobatic way she swirled the gun in her hand before holstering it.

"Don't thank me or nothin'," her savior said. "It's not like I saved your sorry life, lady."

Jemilla was too grateful to stand there very much alive and well to be offended at being chided like a child.

"Thank you," she blurted out. "Thank you so much."

The woman hopped down the outcropping in one swift leap, catching her fall more efficiently than elegantly. She stood very short, dark hair in a strict bun, darker eyes that squinted on Jemilla suspiciously. Having decided that she was no threat, she extended a hand. Jemilla shook it all too happily and was rewarded by her knuckles near ground to mush by an almost violently strong grip. She rubbed her hand to soothe it when they parted, pretending it was nothing, and gave a polite smile.

"I'm Jemilla, by the way," she said. "Pleasure to meet you."

The woman was scrutinizing her. Jemilla did her best to stand tall, prouder than she ought to after such a pitiful attempt at fighting her own fight. So be it. Molag had always taught her to look more confident than she actually was, even more confident than she wished to be. With or without the lesson, Jemilla had never lacked in self esteem.

"... And you are?"

Her companion seemed suddenly shaken out of deep thoughts. She gave Jemilla her first smile.

"In search of a partner is what I am," she replied, cockily palming the gun at her waist. "And of a dry place to stay the night. M'afraid they don't take anyone with no coin in the city. I tried to bargain the innkeeper but... Yeah. I tried."

Jemilla felt her hopes of finally settling somewhere, finally rooting herself in a community, flee from her grasp before she had even tried to seize them on her own. She had no money, of course. Molag had made sure they survived solely on the courage in their hearts and their willingness to shed a bit of elbow grease. Money had not been part of the process and so Jemilla had, as of yet, none at all.

"Name's Slippery When Wet…" the woman said, as if hesitating on a last name she never eventually gave. "Slippery When Wet."

Not waiting for Jemilla to offer any suggestion, she turned around to explore the shallow cave. She found it thankfully empty of any further beast, dirty and mostly bare, only a corner littered with odd shapes Jemilla surely did not want to look at any more closely, for fear they would be some sort of human remains. Slippery When Wet tapped her foot, listened to the echo, sat down.

"It's dry enough," she told Jemilla. "And no one will think to bother anyone in a cave when the city's so close."

That was, Jemilla supposed, as good an invitation as any. She had hoped for a warm bed after so many nights on her thin travel bedding. She had hoped for a good filling meal, for rest, for peace. She sure had not hoped to not even make it to Independence that day. But perhaps, she reflected, her companion had granted her much more comfort than that. She had given her the gift of staying alive.

"Mind if I join you?"

A spark filled the dim darkness with an orange glow after Slippery When Wet had gathered some kindle and branches for a fire.

"Not at all," she said, gesturing Jemilla a seat on the ground across from her. "This is a pretty big cave, isn't it? Let's just share it."

It was anything but, but Jemilla had no wish to be picky. She took off her soaked jacket to dry it and, when the fire turned roaring and began crackling pleasantly, most of her clothes as well, covering herself up with a blanket for modesty and warmth. It wasn't a bed, but it was cozy. It wasn't a safe place, but she was of a mind that anywhere around Slippery When Wet would be safe enough. Strong and efficient, she seemed to put her mind to do everything right and fast. They talked very little, but Jemilla was filled with inspiration all the same. Someone who knew what she was doing. Someone who didn't shy away from doing it properly.

Zazzalil was ever on her mind. In the terror of the feral altercation, she had near forgotten how mad she had been with her. Perhaps because she had been so acutely reminded of her own mortality, Zazzalil's was pushing right back to memory and she could not help but worry. Had she made it to Independence? Was she safe tonight? Was she happy? Was she making the most of their separation?

She was of course reminded that Zazzalil had no more money than she did. Worse, Zazzalil had much less morals than she. Who knew what her boundless mind might come up with when she came to the realization that the city life would not welcome her with as open arms as she hoped? For a very short moment, Jemilla found herself wishing they were back in their swamp, striding across mossy, soggy ground for daily sustenance. A lazy Zazzalil lounging around their little shack, snacking on Jemilla's game and harvest, hadn't been all that bad, had it?

"Say, Jemilla," Slippery When Wet said and her accent distorted her name so differently than Jemilla had ever been used to. It wasn't a better or worse way to say it, but it wasn't the same. "You haven't heard a thing about kidnappings, have you?"

At once, Jemilla's blood chilled. Logically, she knew that Zazzalil couldn't have anything to do with it. They had barely parted a few hours ago and Jemilla had been around Slippery When Wet and rather kidnapping-free the entire time. She thought she was certain that Zazzalil would never stoop so low. But then, hadn't she been equally shocked when she had found Zazz to be a thief? Who knew whatever she could get herself into? And even if the idea wasn't hers, who was to say if Zazzalil wouldn't get herself enrolled in whatever trouble was brewing? Jemilla had never imagined Zazzalil to be mellow and easily convinced into anything, but she was finding more and more that what Zazzalil was wasn't fixed in the past but grew with her circumstances, with her relentless ideas. Ever changing, there was no saying where the boundaries of her dubious morality would end up being shifted.

Plainly put, she did not trust her.

"I haven't, no," she replied. "I'm sorry."

Slippery When Wet huffed, though not meanly or bitterly. Staring at the fire, she said no more. Jemilla, feeling the awkwardness, tried to keep herself busy. Her jacket was still damp to the touch but her tunic was dry and had retained the smell of smoke. Putting it on, Jemilla breathed it deep in. She had liked the smell of fire well enough. Now, she wasn't too sure.

It wasn't fucking hard to be a good person, was it? If not a good person, a decent one. Getting by without pulling other people into your shit wasn't all that impossible. If Jemilla could do it, why couldn't Zazzalil? And even more, Jemilla had spent so many years protecting them, saving their asses a million times, providing for them. If she had done it, then Zazzalil could do it for herself. It was no use thinking of her anymore. She was gone. Jemilla wasn't ever going to see her again, especially not if Independence was turning out less welcoming than she had anticipated. She had a whole Zazzalil-less life ahead of her.

"You said you were looking for a companion?" She asked after many moments of silently staring at the fire.

Slippery When Wet nodded. Jemilla hadn't known she was in need of replacing her company, or at least not with just one other person, but the longer she sat in this warm firelit cave, the more she thought that company had found her despite herself.

"I'm recently out of a partner," she said. She hesitated, and added, "I'm really not that useless at fighting, I was just… I have skills. Discipline, rules for myself. I'm not an idiot, either. I think, I think we could have a deal."

Slippery When Wet gave her a long and lingering look, eyes piercing through, before nodding again.

"Looks like," she said approvingly. "I hope we'll help each other out big time, Jemilla. I hope we do."

Jemilla smiled. She had no doubt that they would.

Chapter Text

Sally was an avid reader. She had but one book on her, the one that had been in her pocket when they had captured her, but she had re-read it several times since. Her hands shackled, turning pages was a tight business, but Robin had made it his job to help her in all ways possible. All throughout the days, they sat side by side and the boy turned pages for her as Sally absorbed once more the content of her book. One might look at them and almost forget they were prisoners, so engrossed they were in the enterprise. Mara never forgot.

Ani sat next to them on the bench they had occupied all day, squishing Robin into Sally, to snag the book from her for a moment and have a closer look. Impressed, he handed her back the volume.

"So, you're interested in the history of our world, kid?"

She nodded.

"This one is a pickle," she said. Opening it back to the part that had been her focus and sorrow, she showed him, "I think this will be key to finding out more about the radiations that make the Rad Zone but these pages here are stuck together and I can't pull them apart without tearing the paper…"

"The woes of fate are merciless and cruel," Robin said, nodding wistfully.

Ani slapped her back kindly. Sally, precious little thing, almost collapsed forward at the touch but pretended like it was nothing and smiled back.

"The foreword says this was studied and written at Old New Hatchetfield, where they keep the original copy, but… I don't know how to make it there."

"Ah, yes," Ani said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Hatchetfield. The last bastion of knowledge. The answer to all secrets humankind has yet kept under tight lock. The hope of science. That's a great idea, kid."

Sally was dubious and eyed him with great caution.

"You'll… let me go?" She asked slowly.

"Oh, no," he replied at once and patted her back again. "But it's still a great idea!"

It seemed that Sally had gotten used to disappointment and things going amiss, for she simply gave him a polite smile and a shrug.

"I was telling Joey about it when… when we got separated," she said with much more courtesy than the situation deserved. "I was hoping to convince him to go there with me, but now I don't even know if I'll ever see him again…"

Suddenly Mara came to a realization. Sitting down next to them, she whispered to Ani.

"Wait, but could you call the other squads on the talkie to ask if they have a Joey?"

Ani palmed the walkie-talkie always hanging from his belt and gave Mara a stern glance. She pouted − she hated to disappoint him − but kept up the stare. Eventually, he looked away with a sigh. She doubted any such call would be made.

"What's this?" Robin asked, pointing at the device.

"Well, it's a surprise tool that will help us later."

"Huh?"

Ani looked at him. He pulled the flap of his cape over the walkie-talkie and leaned closer to the kid, talking very softly.

"Are you familiar with the concept of foreshadowing, my boy?"

Robin shrugged.

"It's a common plot device. A trope, if you will, in which…"

"Foreshadowing is a dramatic device in which an important plot point is mentioned early in the story to return later in a more significant way," Sally said very quickly.

Ever the smart one, her clever girl.

"That's right, kiddo," he said. Standing up, he gave her one last pat on the top of the head. "Great reading to you two, then."

Mara followed him a little way away as Ani checked the bag of provisions for a late afternoon snack. He startled when she sat next to him, but grinned and offered her a slice of beef jerky, which she took and munched on.

"You think she'll find her buddy Joey?" She asked after a moment.

"Who the heck knows?" Ani said. "Stranger things have happened. Not on my watch, though."

For a moment they said nothing. Mara was feeling ever guiltier every day that passed without much action, neither to bring the kids closer to their destination or to help them away from it. Ani was dead set on going with the plan as Papy had ordered, but Mara wished so ardently to find a way out for them. She also wished to keep the only friend she had made on the job.

"Once we're in the Rad Zone, though, I wouldn't bet on it," he said eventually. "You've been there, right, kid? You know how it gets to you." He thought on it, took a large bite off his jerky, and added through the mouthful, "You think you'll get your loved one back in your arms, but the thoughts start destroying you and before you know it, even if you find the ones you love, you kill 'em. That's how I killed my wife, actually."

"Ew, Ani, please don't tell me any of that." He gave a half-hearted shrug and Mara shook her head to stop thinking about it. "Hate the Rad Zone, can't wait till we get there and back out. I just get hammered so at least I have a reason why my head hurts."

Ani nodded as if she had just imparted great wisdom. They had been circling around the zone rather than straight into it and Mara thought that perhaps, their appointed squad leader was just as afraid as she was to delve deep into it. She would not dare to ask. He had said something about waiting further instruction. All the better for her. It gave her some time to…

She drummed her hands on her lap awkwardly. She had been meaning to talk to him for a while but the moment never seemed right. Looking back at the kids, she found them deeply lost in reading again, but she only had to think of it to remember their conversation in perfect detail.

"Erm, Ani…"

"Yes, Mara?"

She took a big breath. If she just out and said it, then that was one step closer towards it than before, wasn't it? She thought of green limbs dancing gracefully, lustfully.

"I think, I think that I found something I want to do. When this gig's over."

Ani smiled.

"Oh yeah? What is it?"

The dream was so close she could just touch it. A group of girls giggling in the changing room, legs and arms and love and desire, men and women ogling if they wanted but never allowed to touch, perhaps giving someone the same inspiration she had felt when she had seen Oola on that stage…

"I wanna be a pole dancer in a shady bar," she said excitedly.

She was almost scared to look at Ani for fear he would bring her hopes down but when she did, he was still smiling.

"That night you let me into town in Heaven on Earth, I really… I found it. I've never felt like this before, these girls, they're so good and they look so free and I think that's everything I ever want to do, just… dance for a crowd, for a living."

"I love dancing," Robin cried from the distance.

Sally shushed him, probably not wanting the grown-ups to know that they could be heard. Indeed, when Ani spoke, it was much more quietly.

"I know that kind of rush you're talking about right there," he said. "Dead-God, I remember it…"

"Mmh?"

Ani gave a mournful sigh. Searching through the bag again, he pulled a bottle and took a large gulp of it. Offered her turn, Mara refused politely.

"Back when I lost my one true love…"

Mara frowned.

"Didn't you just say you killed her?"

"Who?"

Ani was looking at her like she was talking in entirely alien concepts to him. Mara was rather more used to feeling that way herself, not so much to producing the effect.

"Your wife?"

"Mmh? Oh, jeez, no, no, I meant sand racing."

"What's that?"

He chuckled lowly.

"Oh, kid, it's so special that you couldn't even understand it if you tried for a hundred years."

Mara gave him a smug grin.

"Try me."

"Well, it's about feeling alive. Just you and your raft against the dunes, sometimes with other people, mostly without, feeling the wind in your face and the dust in your trail…"

"Ani, we literally have traveled on a sand raft this entire time."

He laughed out loud.

"Oh, kiddo, what we do is like eating boogers compared to the best meal of your entire life forever and ever."

She frowned.

"Like acrobatics or something?"

"You could say that. It's about being one with your raft, gulfing with the wind, complete control of yourself and your path and… Well, it's the best damn sensation in the world."

"Sounds kinda dangerous."

"It is," he replied evenly. "One might even say it's… hazardous."

He looked at her expectantly, but Mara wasn't sure what exactly was the expectation. His face dropped and he slapped her arm softly with the back of his hand.

"Come on, hazardous? Like, hazardous waste? From nuclear plants? Because of the whole nuclear thing that brought the apo… Oh, forget about it."

From behind came a flick against Ani's temple that startled the both of them. Heart racing, Mara recognized the snarly annoying voice of Sweet Tooth.

"I'm the one who makes jokes around here!"

Zebulba barked something Mara didn't quite understand − she was near fluent in his canine dialect, but not enough sometimes. Zebulba never really made the effort to be understood, either.

"What's he saying?" Candy asked, clutching Sweet Tooth's arm tightly.

Sweet Tooth made him repeat and burst out laughing. Only through his insufferable mirth was the joke explained.

"He says… He says that considering how hard it is to pull the raft as is when he's on it, the old man's got no chances at racing one. It's a young man's sport, Anakin."

Ani's hands shook and Mara suspected that he was itching to force choke them, but he never actually did, not even when they turned their backs to them to walk to the shack. She wanted to comfort him, maybe hug him, but she had barely turned his way that Ani stood up clumsily and away from her.

"They're right," he said. "Dreaming is for these kids, or for you. I'm too old."

"But, Ani…"

"Have a good night, Mara. Rest up. We'll need it."

She longed for it to be over, of course. If they made it through this mission, then she would be on her way to Heaven on Earth soon. If she gave it one last go, she would get everything she had ever wanted. But what about Ani? And what about Robin and Sally? Foolishly, she hoped to find a way to grant everyone their wishes. But perhaps that was too big of a dream to have.

Chapter Text

All five of them were shackled to a bench in the middle of the raft looking back on the trail behind. Mouthface and Jasmyn were quite literally tight together. It was a crowd, five of them and the five men who were their captors, and although they spent every second together, Mouthface felt like she barely got a moment with Jasmyn. Not just the two of them.

It wasn't like the Black Scarves were especially keen on keeping them close company. Often as not, they were ignored. They usually rode during the morning, when the sun was bearable, and spent the afternoon resting in the shadows. Depending on who was assigned to their care, they were more or less comfortably shackled to whichever post was to be their resting seat for the remainder of the day. Always tied in a bunch, always the five kids against the five grown-ups.

Her least favorite jailor was for sure the one who Mouthface had gathered was the leader, Mr Sam. All day he toyed with his gun, talked dirty and offensive speech with the other men, and played tricks on his prisoners to rile them up. More than once, she had had to catch Craphole by the neck lest he would fall for them. Mr Big T, whose full name changed with every man who addressed him, was at least considerate enough to not talk a word to them any more than he needed to, which was very little indeed. Mr Cletus Jones eyed them with a grim and mean look every time they were left in his charge, but had too much consciousness to let them suffer and their canteens were always the fullest, their bowls the better filled when he was the one handing them out.

Then, there were Mr Aladdin and Mr McDoon. When they had sneaked away to explore the little settlement where their families had stopped the wagon, Mouthface and Jasmyn had been accosted by them on the square and in that instant, they had looked like the most dashing, the most interesting, the handsomest men they had ever seen. Mouthface could still feel the burning flush at her cheeks just at the memory, so very pink it had been. She had felt so grown-up then, noticed by an older man who had paid her very pretty compliments too. Jasmyn had told her that it was just like the balls in some book of tales she had read and though Mouthface had had no idea what she was saying, she had been excited for them to share such a precious moment together. Their parents had been wrong, she had thought, to think them too young and immature to make their own decisions.

As it had turned out, they had no choice in the decision in the end.

Pushed into the life of a prisoner, Mouthface survived day by day. There was some relief, she supposed, in finding Deb and Alice again. After the courtesies of awkwardly asking what they had been up to since they had last seen each other, Mouthface felt more devastated than ever by the steep and rapid downhill trajectory of their lives' stories. Her friends were lucky to be involved together, she thought. Deb and Alice held hands and whispered to each other promises that everything would be fine, that someone would surely save the day. Mouthface made no such promise to Jasmyn. She didn't hold her hand, either. Not for lack of wanting to.

At least they weren't treated all that badly, all things considered. It was mostly boring. Sometimes the landscape changed. Often, it didn't. They passed an abandonned old city in the far distance. Mouthface chuckled at one of the buildings and nudged Jasmyn, pointing her to it.

"That totally looks like a giant…"

"A giraffe!" Jasmyn cried out.

Mouthface turned to her with a smirk. Jasmyn was smiling broadly.

"What's a giraffe?" Mouthface asked.

She had never heard the word. Jasmyn seemed always to know more about everything than she did. Mouthface didn't mind. She didn't need to be particularly well read to keep her chin up in the air and make the best of her circumstances, however unfortunate. Jasmyn gave her that look Mouthface had received many times before, like she knew that she was more knowledgeable than Mouthface but didn't enjoy it.

"It's an ancient animal," she explained, "from Africa."

Mr Aladdin turned around from the front row of the raft where he had been lounging, taking up nearly the entire row, leaving Big T squished to a little T next to him.

"How'd you know that?" He asked with a big dumb grin. "Are you like a witch?"

Mouthface glared.

"There's no such thing as magic."

"That's right," Jasmyn added, shooing him back around with a flair of drama.

Mr Aladdin snorted, but turned back around. All the better.

"Daddy taught me some things about science," she told Mouthface in a hushed voice. "He gave me lessons when I was little from all his books, letters and numbers and…"

She grew very stern and looked down with a pout at her lips. Mouthface wished she could hold her, but the ropes holding her wrists had been tied too tight by Mr Sam this morning. She leaned her head against Jasmyn's shoulder.

"I miss him," Jasmyn said eventually. "I didn't like his lessons, I would always sneak out when he had his back turned but… I think I wouldn't mind it now."

Mouthface had been feeling the same. Being under her mother's obsessive supervision had been tiresome and insufferable, but it had been familiar. And, more or less, it had been safe. Everywhere they rode, she imagined that she was back on the wagon instead of this raft. She would picture her mother chiding her father for whatever reason, the excuses he would make. Her mother teaching her to hold a gun. Her mother sharing dinner between all of them, always sparing herself for the children when there was too little. And then the raft hit a bump in the sandy roads of the wasteland and she would be shaken out of her nostalgic visions, but her heart would be heavy and painful all the same. She wanted to feel much braver, much bolder than she actually did.

"I just want to be free so badly," Jasmyn sighed dramatically. "Won't anyone understand?"

"Yeah, no shit," Deb said coldly. "None of us could know what that's like, right?"

Mouthface gave her an accusing shake of the head but Deb just shrugged. Alice squeezed her hand for attention and back they were to seeing only each other. Mouthface envied and pitied them. Sentimental notions of once more sharing whispered secrets and stories with Jasmyn as they had in the Magic Kingdom were one thing, but that life was well behind them now. If she were to think only of herself and of her friend, then that would leave no one to care for her brother.

She had not thought of it for years, but found herself often remembering when he had been born, since they had been kidnapped. That had been back when Grandpa Titty Mitty still had half of his mind. He had taken the babe into his fragile old arms to tuck him snugly into Mouthface's. Craphole had been little and sickly his whole life and she still remembered how absolutely minuscule he had felt in her embrace back then, a pink little yawning frog. Grandpa had told her that he was her responsability because she was older and that she would need to love him even when she hated him. Mouthface had never quite managed to hate him.

Of all of them, Craphole had taken to being lost out here without their family the easiest. A silly part of her wondered if that was simply him being so young, when changes that to grown-ups were insignificant made all the difference in the world, but massive changes to anyone else were all the same to him. Maybe he didn't truly realize that they were on their own, that they might never see their parents again. Maybe he expected to see them around the corner of every cliff or patch of forest they rode past. She sure did, and she was sixteen.

Perhaps precisely because he was so indifferent, Mouthface felt more fiercely protective of him than she had thought she ever could. He had it in his mind that the Black Scarves were friends, or at least conversation partners and would often try to engage with them. Mouthface had to constantly hush him and, for the sake of his ever curious and often chatty spirit, would humor him in whatever conversation he would have rather had with the big men in uniforms. They had talked more in the past days and weeks than they had for a long time.

"Can I tell you something about myself?" He asked suddenly, entirely unprompted.

"Sure," she said, though in this instant, she would have much rather remained moody and sad with Jasmyn in silence.

"I do not love you more than mom."

Mouthface looked at the sand landscape unfold behind the raft, ever the same as every day before. She was getting sick of it, but the raft went wherever the Black Scarves would ride it. She had no control over it, no more than she could ever hope to control all the crap that came out of Craphole's mouth.

"That's great, Craphole," she replied dully. "I don't love you more than mom either."

Craphole nodded.

"I do love you more than dad, though. Probably not grandpa, me and him are super tight."

"Happy to hear," she said with an eyeroll that went unnoticed.

"I think that if I had to make a ranking," he went on and gestured a line really high above his head, as far up as his frail little body would let him, "Mom would be like right up here." He went quite a bit lower. "Then grandpa, then Jasmyn, then you." His hand dipped much lower, near to the ground. "Then dad."

"Okay, I get it."

Craphole pouted, but sat back on the bench.

The sun was high above them in the sky when they stopped for the day. Mouthface had thought she had seen the last of desert landscapes when they had left Sycamore for good. She had thought many foolish things since then, too. For sure, one of them being…

"Ah, my favorite little sweetheart!" Mr McDoon cried out in his growly deep voice, untying her hands from the bench first to get her inside the Black Scarves hideout they were to stay in for the night. "Why the long face, heh?"

She wondered how she had ever thought he was attractive, worse, that he was desirable. He and Mr Aladdin had smooth-talked her and Jasmyn with promises of riches and adventures and travels. If only she had known what the travel experience would be like, she might not have giggled at his bold jokes. How she hated the flirting now. She should never have been swayed by her heart craving for sentimental attention.

"I'm hungry," she grumbled. "And I'm tired of never doing anything, and I miss my parents and I'm too hot all the time."

"It's all well and cool inside," he said, ignoring half of what she had said. He wasn't especially gentle as he grabbed her by the shackles in her back, but he always had a word of reassurance. Mouthface could have done with a lot more than empty words. "And we'll get you the best meal you've eaten in your life, Mouthface."

Of course it wasn't, just something dry and tasteless like the landscape, like the traveling, like everything about Mouthface's life the past few weeks. Craphole gulfed his bowl down all the same and Mouthface, no longer very hungry after a few rancid mouthfuls, gave him the rest of her share. In a way, she was entirely helpless to her own fate and how much more to the fate of her brother. In another more hopeful way, she insisted on seeing him sleeping well, staying well away from the harshest hours of sunlight, eating enough. Of course, making sure Craphole ate wasn't hard − it was harder to control what he did not eat. But it was something to do, or to attempt to do, that gave her the false impression of being in control of one thing, small as it was.

At night, they were leashed like dogs so that they would not run away. Alice and Deb had fallen asleep already and Mouthface could hear the snoring of Mr McDoon a little way away where the Black Scarves were sleeping, his arm wrapped around Mr Cletus Jones in slumber. Craphole was sprawling all his limbs across as large a surface as he possibly could have and periodically twitched in his sleep like a cute little critter. Mr McDoon had not lied: it was very much cool inside. A little too much so. Mouthface was shivering.

"No one to tell us when to fall asleep," Jasmyn whispered. "That's one rule we don't have."

"I always wanted to be more grown up and do what I want," Mouthface said. "But I always thought I'd just get a new home and not do chores and be happy…"

"I hate being more grown up," Jasmyn replied with mood. "It sucks."

Mouthface smiled. Her heart was soaring with compassion, if only she could show it. Moonlight through the broken window was giving an extra glint to Jasmyn's tired eyes, tinting her hair dark blue. Hesitantly, Mouthface reached out a hand and combed fingertips through the braid loosened by travel and hardships. Thick hair, but flowing and pliable under her touch. The night air was so cool their bated breaths made a white puff with every outhale, but Jasmyn's cheek was burning as a furnace.

"Yeah," Mouthface breathed out. "But there are things that don't sound too bad either."

Jasmyn's hand pressed against hers to entwine their fingers together between them. It was cold and they shared just a blanket between them and the bare ground wasn't enough to make it comfortable, but lying here next to Jasmyn, gazing only at each other, Mouthface found that she was feeling almost warm, almost cozy. They never said another word before exhaustion caught up to them, but their hands were still clasped together when they woke in the morning.

After that night, Mouthface has the impression that travel was perhaps a little more bearable, a little more worth it, if she were to share it with someone as special as Jasmyn.

Chapter Text

Independence was a gift that kept on giving. Zazzalil was more free than she had ever been, blazing through life with no bindings, and she happily jumped from one excitement to the next. Quite literally.

Hopping from a rooftop to the closest city wall, barely catching it to pull herself up and hidden from view, she noted with relief that the screaming innkeeper at her trail had lost her track and sighed out silently, rubbing sweat off her forehead. Her heart was drumming gleefully after too long a chase. Some people had no sense of hospitality, none at all. What was it to him that she would nap in his storage attic between sacks of grains and precious barrels of clean water? And did he really not have a little of it to spare that he would hunt her down discovering she had served herself to some? The consideration men could have for their fellow humans...

Zazzalil had been on her own for a few days and each moment was a new discovery, a new idea. Escaping the consequences thereof had made her run and exercise more than ever before – that, if nothing else, proved that she was capable of change. There was hardly a moment to lollygag when you were looking for the next meal you would snatch, the next nook you would occupy for a quick snooze. Presently, so rudely ejected from the inn's premises, she was without either for the evening.

She stood. It wasn't night yet, but late enough into the afternoon that the tired people of Independence would be putting an end to their work shift to spend their few hard-won coins at whichever local waterhole they would. And leave their possessions defenseless to Zazzalil's nimble fingers and clever mind. The sky was a gorgeous dark orange, the air still warm and full with opportunities. She sauntered around the watch path of the city's barricades to find hers.

The stables were just outside the walls, a narrow long building which she knew was packed with wagons tied to their horses and various beasts, all ready to leave the city as soon as their owners would come back to them in the morning. In the mean time, however… Zazzalil looked a long moment over the roof till she was absolutely certain that no one was watching over. Climbing down the wall, she dropped to the ground with a padded thud and sneaked around the side of the shabby building. It was getting dark, the sun no longer visible behind mountains in the far distance but colors still painted splatters across the sky. She picked a torch from its stand and made her way inside.

A long row was awaiting her. Some wagons were bursting with supplies, others much more desolate. She licked her lip, scanning the room for the most precious prize, the best of the best she could get her envious hands on. A high roof but no windows, the room was lit only by the warm glow of her torch. It was hot, too, many animals packed near each other and the fire in her hand. She walked farther in. Which one to pick? Which one to pluck?

One wagon seemed much better furnished than the rest and, sick of dragging the moment on, Zazzalil set her sights on it. A full sack of food, more than she could carry. Some fruit, nuts, even a bit of meat. Her mouth was salivating already as she packed her bag so full the seams were straining. But underneath the seat, something was shining, the light of the fire dancing on the metal lock of a small chest. Shit, her lockpick was down at the bottom of her bag, wasn't it? She put the torch down next to her to search for it. Not in this pocket. Not in that one. She had never been much of an organized person, of course, but what use was doing things neatly and tidily when you had your own two hands to fix any mess?

"… We'll leave and travel at night so that we can rest during the hottest hours of the day."

Zazzalil's blood chilled icy cold at hearing the voice outside. It was revived to full heat when she realized that the torch had not quite stayed put as she had thought it would. Shit, was that another voice besides the first? The wagon next to her, a shabby little thing of crooked wood, had taken the flame and was quickly bouncing with an ever fiercer fire. Near the wall, she only had the time to meet the eyes of a tired ox who looked more relieved than upset at his very soon upcoming demise. The other beasts were much less restful, a few horses whinnying in terror. A third voice outside was now complaining and the door pushed open with a bang.

"Erm, your wagon is on fire."

Zazzalil tried to make a run of it, but she would not leave her backpack here, not with all the food she had in it. There were three of them anyways, all bigger than her, and it took only one to stop her already weighted down escape. She fought, bit, yelped, but to no avail. The man's strong arms caught her by the waist firmly and never let go.

"What the fuck?" He said. "What the fuck?!"

"Oh, Dead-God, the end is near, finally!"

How could this place have been so dark just a moment ago? It was blindingly bright with the furnace before their eyes. The ox let out its final sigh and all the other cattle and mounts were getting away, flocking to a corner, making a mess of the other wagons. The fire hadn't touched them yet and, Zazzalil realized with a relief almost foreign to her, it never would. One of the other men, the younger one of the two, had taken canteens of water from his supply bags and was pouring them onto the fire, taming the flames into smaller flames then, little by little, borrowing buckets from the trough, into no fire at all.

"What the fuck?" Zazzalil's captor said again.

In his surprise, he nearly dropped his caution but at the earliest sign of struggle, held her all the tighter, much too tight for comfort. He dragged her to the outside. Moonlight was shining, the second torch still securely in its stand to light the entrance.

"Let… me… go!"

Three against one, Zazzalil knew her chances were slim. They might even have been nothing at all. That didn't stop her from trying. The man who had stopped the fire took a few steps towards her. His face was sweaty and sparks had burned a few tiny holes into the dark red turban around his head. A red scarf around his neck too but intact, a red face clashing with the dark hair and beard. He gave her a kind smile. Zazzalil frowned in mistrust.

"What do we do with her?" The man who was holding her said. "Does the city have a security force or…"

But the other man dismissed the question with a wave.

"None of that, please," he said. Turning to Zazzalil, he bowed his head slightly. "How about a nice warm meal, my girl?"

Zazzalil's stomach grumbled in displeasure on cue. She glanced at her bag on the floor. Its content had spread all around and she sighed at the thought of having to gather it all. The man looked at it, too.

"Yours?" He asked.

Zazzalil groaned, fighting against the vice of the other man's arms helplessly.

"Of course that's mine!" She cried out but something in his eyes made her gulp and reconsider. "I… I mean…"

His smile never went away, though his eyes wrinkled with understanding. He breathed out.

"Or maybe it's been lost and you were just about to put it back where it belongs?"

She didn't want to, but he had promised a warm meal regardless, hadn't he? She wasn't sure why, but she seemed to trust him more than she should a complete stranger. She gave a small nod. He smiled wider then, satisfied, and gestured at the other man.

"Jack Bauer, would you please let our new friend go?"

"But…" Jack Bauer said, but he seemed just as much at the kindly other man's mercy and his grasp loosened around Zazzalil. "Alright…"

She thought about running, she truly did. But the man started to pick up apples from the ground, and the rest as well, and she couldn't stop herself from helping him pick up the mess she had left there. Inside, the third man was kneeling by the scorched remains of the wagon. His head snapped to them, startled by their entrance.

"It's gone," he said. "Ja'far, the wagon's gone to bits."

Ja'far put a hand on his shoulder in compassion and helped him up. He was an old man, long white beard hanging low down to his belly. He was desperate, too.

"What will we do?"

There was some time before an answer came. Zazzalil felt a weight in her stomach as she remembered a conversation around the fire with Jemilla that seemed so long ago. No one had died, she had said when Jemilla had freaked out at the tale of her first heist. Jemilla had explained to her that the consequences of her actions went into much more than simple matters of life and death. Zazzalil had not quite understood that before.

"Well, for tonight, we eat," Ja'far said. "We rest. Young lady, where was this supposed to go?"

Zazzalil couldn't find any words in herself and merely pointed at the rich nicely stocked wagon next to the charred remains of theirs. Ja'far nodded her towards it and Zazzalil put back everything she had taken, one item at a time. With each of them, she thought she might just keep that one for herself, just the taste of a crisp green apple, the chew of savory jerky, but she never did and her bag was entirely unpacked back where everything was supposed to be. She sighed.

"She's a thief," Jack Bauer pointed out, pacing around. "She burned down our wagon. How can you be so calm?!"

"Don't you see I'm fuming, my friend?" Ja'far said with somewhat of a smirk. "Or is that just the wagon? I think the ox has found peace, too."

Zazzalil and the two other men stared.

"We were to travel at night," he said. "I think our plan was slightly set back. Let's just make camp, eat, and reorient ourselves."

"But what about the woman?"

Zazzalil hugged herself, looking down. She was so hungry. It was too late to hope to find something else, the busiest time of the evening when all eyes were on her.

"I'm sure she won't mind sharing our meal tonight."

They packed up and pitched their camp a bit outside of the city next to a small trickle of a stream. They had no money left, they explained to her, and were set to leave Independence with the supplies they had spent their last dime on. Zazzalil, to make herself useful, smoked beef strips over the campfire, grateful to have a belly full for the night. She did not know how she would handle stealing the next meal. Maybe she might have to find another way. Briefly she remembered Jemilla's skills with a bow, how she had left the shack every morning to feed them both. She shook her head and tasted the first strip of beef. It was too soft and a bit raw, but the best meal of her life regardless. She supposed dreadful circumstances could lead to something greater. The ox hadn't died completely in vain.

"So, Zazzalil," Ja'far said, leaning towards her, "What makes a young woman like you give into stealing and arson?"

"I didn't mean to…"

But he raised a hand and she never finished her justification.

"I knew from the moment I saw your face the fire was an accident." He paused. "I don't believe the food was misplaced, though."

Zazzalil sighed out. She tried another strip of beef − still too raw. She had never been a patient kind of person. She was just so hungry.

"My hunger blinded me and forced me to act like an animal."

"You can say that again!" Jack Bauer retorted with bad mood.

Ja'far, it seemed, assumed some leading position among their party. They had walked fore some time to this clear spot between a few trees of the desert together and he had eyed her oddly the whole way but, without Ja'far's approval, done nothing at all.

"We're not animals," Ja'far said. He took her hand in hers and squeezed it gently. "We're gifted with minds to reason and hearts to love."

Zazzalil thought of Jemilla. Cleverness, compassion. She blinked and thought of her no more.

"But what of…"

"Oh, Jack Bauer, we all need a little more compassion towards one another. It's the only thing we have left."

Titty Mitty nodded pensively, but Jack Bauer was unconvinced.

"That's a load of crap, though," he said. "What about doing the right thing? The godly thing? What about justice, Ja'far? This isn't fair."

"God is dead," Ja'far said firmly. "Only we can judge and forgive each other now. What would you have us do? Turn her in to whichever man in uniform calls himself a title and claims to protect the laws of men? Ask a Black Scarf to get her off our hands?"

Zazzalil glanced between the two of them, the implicit fight she did not understand, then looked down at the fire, hugging her knees. The meat was sizzling with the heat and bubbles of grease were bursting with a thousand of delicious scents. A real meal, not something snatched in passing and devoured hastily in a hidden alleyway.

"I thought… I thought we were supposed to take things seriously. Isn't that what…"

He sighed and buried his face against his arms over his knees. Ja'far looked at him for a moment. He took bowls and started filling them, some stew that had been simmering over the fire, strips of beef now browned to perfection, a bit of bread to go with it. He served Titty Mitty first, then Zazzalil, Jack Bauer and finally himself. Zazzalil had been waiting for him to start, some long ago lesson of good manners she thought she had forgotten, and wolfed down a long, burning gulp. It passed with a cough, too hot, but meaty and thick and delicious.

"We get back what we give," Ja'far said softly. "That's the only rule I know and follow. If we can't find compassion for our fellow humans, well, then, who will take pity on us and give us our heart's desire?"

"Are you talking about…"

Ja'far nodded.

"I want to find them just as much as you do," he said. "And I know a wagon was much faster than three men, and I know Grandpa's legs are not what they were, but… if we betray the kindness in our hearts, then we have an even greater loss on our hands."

"Find who?" Zazzalil asked.

She was too nosy, had always been, but she was not much enjoying being spectator to a conversation she felt had left the scope of letting a petty street thief like her get away with her misdeeds. Ja'far and Jack Bauer glanced at each other and both of them opened their mouths at the same time to explain but it was Titty Mitty who spoke.

"They lost their kids," he said. His voice was old and tired. "Kidnapped by men of the Black Scarves." He gestured into the air. "Poof!"

"Oh, shit."

Her stomach, though full, grumbled with something that could only be guilt.

"They were taken some weeks ago," Ja'far explained. "We gathered some supplies and were just about to leave tonight."

"Fuuuuck," Zazzalil whimpered. "Shit, dude, I'm so sorry!"

Ja'far smiled, but his eyes betrayed his sorrow.

"We're headed to Old New Hatchetfield," he said. "An ancient city of science. They have a great library and old technology, and…"

"Oh, wow, you can read?"

He nodded. Zazzalil had never learned how to read, not after a few feral years before Molag took her in and much less after she had. She supposed that his knowledge and intelligence explained how patient he was, how meticulous. It was a familiar recognition.

"And where's that, erm, Axfield?"

"Hatchetfield," he said kindly, "is deep in the Rad Zone."

"But they know everything," Jack Bauer said. "Right? They do, right?"

"It's all we can hope."

He stood abruptly to get some water from the stream next to them. Pouring it into an empty pot, he put it on the fire to boil and pulled his messenger bag close, looking at its content with a disappointed twitch of the mouth. Zazzalil recognized now in him the sadness of his tales. It had been there all along, she thought, only he hid it. But he only hid it right at the surface and the telling of his woes had brought it back up.

"I'll help you," she blurted out before she knew what she was saying.

Consequences be damned, she supposed. If she were to rush into something… Ja'far gave her a stern look.

"Zazzalil," he said, "the Rad Zone is dangerous and more than any man or woman ought to handle without a cause."

She thought. Of course, this required smarts and caution. She supposed she had half of that.

"I have a cause," she said. "I, I burned your wagon. I'm bound to you, now. I'll help you… to… make up for it?"

The water was bubbling and Ja'far dropped a withered red flower in it, which bloomed with much brighter color at the touch of water.

"Jack Bauer?" He asked. "What do you think?"

Jack Bauer looked at her and Zazzalil gave him a tentative smile.

"It'll be harder without a wagon," he said.

"I'll help you carry stuff," she promised.

Ja'far handed each of them a cup of the infusion. He was about to give one to Titty Mitty when he realized the old man had fallen asleep, sitting straight up. He chuckled and poured the cup back into the pot.

"He will be harder without a wagon," Jack Bauer said.

"He'll be better supported by three than by two," Ja'far pointed out.

"Yeah, yeah, but… I had hoped it'd be…"

But he sipped on the steaming tea and said no more.

"Sometimes, the most hazardous decision might be the better one," Ja'far said. "For boldness cannot go unrewarded. Unless you're against it, Jack Bauer, I would love to welcome another person. We… We need all the help we can get."

Jack Bauer lifted up a hand to block the rest of any argument, giving up.

"Alright, alright! She'll come too, I guess."

Zazzalil beamed and hit the entire cup of tea in one gulp. It burned down all her insides. Retribution, she supposed.

With Titty Mitty fallen asleep, they could not hope to walk at night as Ja'far had suggested. They were tired anyways, he said, trying to make the most of the situation, and would walk more efficiently with a good night's rest. Indeed, him and Jack Bauer fell asleep in minutes (or seconds for the latter), but even though Zazzalil was offered a blanket for bedding and the stars were a lulling beauty of a sight, she could not sleep. Her heart was beating with a new unknown energy. She blinked, smiling to herself. The Rad Zone sounded dangerous and the quest sounded hopeless. It was reckless. It was the right thing to do.

"ELEANOR!"

Titty Mitty woke up in a cry and startled her to shit. The old man looked around and, seeing his companions asleep soundly next to him, was soothed. He then noticed Zazzalil and stared for quite a bit longer than made her comfortable.

"I'm coming with you and these guys," she said, breaking the silence. "I wanna help find their kids."

He nodded, palming his beard flat.

"How many do they have anyways?"

She had never been all that great at making conversations with people she barely knew. Not her.

"Well, let's see," he said and counted on his fingers. "Ja'far's got his princess, and this idiot Jack Bauer managed to father two kids somehow, a precious boy and a girl, so that's…" He counted and recounted the fingers. "Three kids. Three missing kids."

"Oh, they're…"

She shut her mouth, realizing the silliness of the misunderstanding, but Titty Mitty was staring inquisitively. Zazzalil sighed and explained.

"I didn't realize the kids were… separate… to each of them."

Titty Mitty took some time, but eventually chuckled an old man's laugh.

"No, no, I wish this dumbass had never but unfortunately, Jack Bauer married my daughter, my Slippery When Wet. She left us recently."

Zazzalil grew very quiet. Though compassionate, she had felt somewhat detached from the notion of losing children, but losing your… She breathed out sharply.

"Ja'far was married himself, but… well, much like myself, his beloved is long gone."

"Ha!" She said. "All three of you lost a wife and a daughter, then? What a coincidence!"

The coincidence, however striking to her, left him untouched.

"Hm, I mean, sorry…"

He shook his head disapprovingly, but said no more on the matter.

"Well, if you'll help us, Dead-God I hope you do, then, Zazzalil."

He settled into the bed of blankets Jack Bauer had arranged for him before going to sleep himself.

"Me too," she said to the silence of the night. "If it's the last thing I do."

Chapter Text

Heaven on Earth could have been tolerable. After the hellfire of Sycamore, it might even have been enjoyable. They might have gotten back on their feet, recovered from the too many consecutive blows, healed their wounds, old and new. The room they had rented was small for the four of them and dirty as a mud room, but nothing that couldn't be fixed and bettered. If only they might stay longer than the one night.

Emma was woken by Paul's insisting hand at her shoulder. She groaned, turning over in the lumpy narrow bed, but he shook her again.

"Oh, give me like an hour more," she grumbled. "Or at least like, coffee."

Back in Sycamore, he had always used to wake up first of them all, lingering in the kitchen till she woke up - always last. She remembered the casual contentment she had gotten out of the short moments between the two of them around some coffee, light breakfast, maybe a blunt to keep it all down. Dumb awkward jokes, comfortable silence, snarky conversations, something new every day. Who knew if they could ever share the same anywhere else, even in Heaven on Earth?

"The rangers are back," he said.

If anything, the news made Emma want to burrow even deeper in bed, but she knew how inevitable the enquiry was, try as she might to stay put. With a deep heartfelt sigh, she turned back towards him, slowly opening her eyes, blinking herself awake. Paul was crouching at her bedside. He gave her a tentative smile which she reciprocated despite all her better instincts. Glancing around, she found their companions already up and gone.

"Bill and Charlotte?" She asked.

"Are at the pub already," he said and Emma didn't have to guess to know which one was interrogating the rangers and which one was drowning herself in the booze they sold.

"Fuck it," she said, painfully pulling herself up. "Let's do this, I guess."

She wasn't sure on what grounds, but somehow, when people had mentioned to her that the rangers would be back soon, she had pictured a party greater than all of two people, an older man and his protégée. He had a warm and fond smile permanently on, which couldn't be more opposite to the woman's deep frown. Emma wondered if she had been born grimacing.

"Emma!" Bill cried out. "There's news."

He beckoned her to the table they were all sitting around in an otherwise empty pub. Paul stood behind her as she sat, gripping the back of her chair. She smiled up at him before turning to the conversation at hand.

"Up and Taz," he said, nodding towards said rangers as he named them, "also lost children to the Black Scarves."

Taz nodded sternly.

"First the girl," she explained. "Sally. She's seventeen, sweet girl, went missing one morning so me and Up, we take our ranger mate Tootsie and another kid with us to get our friend Bruce, the toughest son of a bitch that ever lived, but Tootsie and Joey get taken too when we talk to him, and Bruce's little boy the next day. We saw them then, with their scarves, they knocked us out. Bruce ran away to find them so that's someone else we'll have to get."

Emma slowly processed all new names and events. Bill was caught up in the tale, filled with the compassion his own tragedy brought forth.

"So that's it, then?" He said, turning to Emma. "We know it's not just Alice, and we know it's the Black Scarves for others too."

Emma hummed. Deep down, she had been foolishly hoping that not just news might land onto their lap but the kids themselves. Now the shit was even deeper than she had thought. Another three kids and a man, some other guy disappeared? She remembered that kind of despair all too painfully.

"We've come back to get us some helping hands," Up said. "We'll be going back to the Rad Zone soon as you're ready."

"Wow, 'we'?" Emma frowned. "When has this been a 'we' situation?"

Everyone was taken aback except perhaps Charlotte whom nothing surprised anymore − when she even noticed anything. Paul gave Emma a curious look.

"What are you talking about? We're helping Bill find the girls, it's always been a 'we' situation."

She crossed her arms.

"The deal's never been to go to the Rad Zone."

"The… deal?" Bill repeated, dumbfounded. "Emma, what's the… What about Alice? And these missing kids? And Deb? You're just gonna leave us hanging?"

Emma's chest was tight and uncomfortable and she hated every damn thing about the start of the day, including and ending with herself.

"Are you afraid of this?"

Paul sounded like he had never even considered that the range of Emma's emotions could go there. She looked down to avoid his disappointed eyes. It wasn't like she was filled with pride herself, either. She thought of the kids in the sick desert of the Rad Zone and shuddered. She thought of tracking them there and shuddered even more.

"Don't be a stupid chicken," Taz told her. She stood and, though they were of a height, seemed to tower so tall above Emma she gulped anxiously. "I see you, mate, strong arms, mean eyes. You look tough! That's what we need: tough!"

"She does look mighty strong," Up said kindly. "What do you say, Emma? There's ample room in our car and we need to fill it up with heroes."

"That's not me."

Paul's hand touched her shoulder and, though she startled, she looked up at him.

"It could be you," he said. He tried to smile, but she saw how frightened he was himself. "It could be any of us."

Charlotte snorted. She was smoking a cigarette and pushed the butt into the old cracked wood of the table.

"Yes, you too, Charlotte," Paul said.

Her eyes were bagged deep purple and she had a shiver that never really went away. A real fucking hero, Emma thought bitterly. As if any of them was any more than that. She wanted the girls back in Bill's loving arms, she truly did. If she had to work all the days of her life to pay someone to get them, she'd gladly sell her muscles for the rest of her existence. She'd steal and cheat, as long as she could stay put and do it.

"Now, madam, please look at me," Up said.

He reached across the table and tenderly took Charlotte's hand in his. Charlotte looked at it as if it were wholly foreign, then met his eyes timidly.

"I want you to repeat after me," he went on, ignoring the sigh of frustration from Taz. "You are a worthwhile person. You're stronger than you know."

Charlotte was uneasy with the attention on her, more used to effacing herself from sight and thought of all others. Emma looked away from her to make it easier, as did Paul, but Bill was staring curiously. It took a moment for Charlotte to take to the exercise asked of her.

"I… am… a worthwhile person," she muttered perhaps for the first time in her life. "I'm stronger than I know."

"When I look into your eyes, I get a pleasant feeling."

Emma frowned in doubt but said nothing.

"When you look into my eyes, you get a pleasant feeling?"

Up chuckled.

"Well, that weren't for you to repeat, but it's true," he said. "You'll join us, Charlotte, and you'll feel stronger and better for it. We're not leaving you behind."

Charlotte was now the target of everyone's stares and looked very uneasy for it, but eventually she nodded.

"Okay," she said in a very low voice.

Up gave her the brightest of smiles. Turning to the rest of the table, he seemed in a mood to give everyone a pep talk, but Taz raised her hands and silenced him before he could even start.

"Okay," she said with some annoyance. "So you come with us, we go find the kids, alright? Charlotte, Bill, Paul, Emma, is that it?"

"Wait, what about me?" Krayonder asked, deflated.

"You stay here and keep the pub for us," she said in a way that allowed for no talk back.

"Aww, man…"

Emma might have yelled in frustration. If Bill, hell, if Charlotte was going, what was her excuse not to? She looked at Paul to find that he had been staring at her rather intently. To stay behind and see him go… She shrugged.

"Fuck it," she said. "It's the end of the world, I guess."

She would need a couple of blunts before leaving. And even more on the road.

The rangers owned an ancient van which appeared to be as rusty as Up himself when he sat behind the wheel to give it a try. The engine roared painfully, lazily, and it took a couple of tries for it to start, but off they were into the arid stupidly hot desert. The window on Emma's side was broken, which made a breeze in her hair. Pale yellow sand. She thought of Sycamore, which she would never see again.

Up had invited Charlotte at his side on the front seat to make conversation with her as they drove, encouragements and kind words, more than Charlotte might have heard in the accumulated rest of her existence so far. Emma wondered if she ought to feel guilty at the thought. It had been commonly perceived that her horrendous self-worth was her husband's responsibility − though back when they were all in Sycamore, they had never quite known if her bad opinion of herself had been despite his efforts or because of them. When he had left and her moral had taken its first toll, Ted had been some consolation to her, but too caustic, too unaffected to be more than a thin strip of gaze across a gashing wound. And when Ted had left… well, the bottle had been her support then. Though she barely knew him and he annoyed her a little, Emma was glad for Up to be taking over the Charlotte situation. Support seemed to pour out of him as naturally as his breath.

Taz sat on Charlotte's other side and was staring ahead at the road with the same frown she had sported all along. Bill and Paul were talking in low voices, some words of support and encouragement. Emma thought that was just as well. She thought of the weed in her bag, the miles between them and the kids, however many that was. She prayed.

They stopped for the night, ate, rested till they became too tired for staying up. Charlotte, Up and Bill would be sleeping inside the van, the others on the outside for lack of space. Taz took a blanket, lay it on the ground, pulled half of it over herself for cover and, stiff as a plank, fell asleep in seconds.

"Emma…"

Staring at the fire, Emma nodded so that Paul would not fret wondering if she had heard him. She was not feeling like having to keep company, not tonight and perhaps not very often at all, but being alone with Paul often felt much like being alone with herself. She took a long drag of her blunt and blew the smoke into the fire. It danced with the shallow flames up into the night air.

"Are you okay?" He asked.

He sat down next to her and she passed him the joint. He took some of it politely, inhaling sharply and slowly blowing out the smoke in a long thin line.

"I hate this," she said truthfully. "We… We could have had a life there again. I know we were in the city for like a day, but couldn't we have built something stable? Why ruin our chances for something we don't even know we'll get?"

Paul took no time in finding the answer and she felt all the more ashamed for it.

"For Bill," he said. "He's my best friend, I'd do anything for him."

"I know, I know…"

She took another drag. Her brain had been dulled to weed a little by frequent use but, she hoped, not so much that she would not feel the effects of it at all. Not so much that she wouldn't find a way to escape herself in it.

"We don't have to save the whole world," he said. "It's already dead, God is dead, but Bill… he cannot be happy without Alice, just like I can't be happy without…"

His hand was on the ground between the two of them. Emma saw it, looked at it, but looked away. She smiled.

"Like what?"

Paul snatched his hand back.

"Nothing," he said in a hurry. "Nothing, I said nothing. Goodnight, Emma."

He searched through his bag for his blanket, burying himself in it, looking away from her. Emma hesitated, but put her hand on his shoulder softly. It was very tense.

"Night, Paul," she said.

He melted under the touch and when she made her bed next to his, her eyes met his very naturally, comfortably. They were burning with the dim light of the fire and with the almost confession. She smiled. He smiled back.

She really fucking hoped the Rad Zone wouldn't wreck either of them.

Chapter Text

Ted had never known his memory to be so sharp and detailed till he wanted to get away from it. Life in Sycamore hadn't been all that bad, had it? He remembered feeling so stuck and bored but somehow, time had washed his frustration away from the memories and he could only remember the comfort of it now that he knew he would never be back.

This was Joey's fault, of course, as much as a loser kid with a crush even bigger than himself could be blamed for messing with Ted's cool. But as of late, Ted's uncertainties, which he had believed to be inexistent, were swarming up in his thoughts and he found himself back in the past as often as not. He thought of Charlotte, tousled ginger hair in his face before she made her escape in the morning, every morning, laughing at his jokes when they were alone, getting offended by them in a group. He thought of Bill and the girls, teaming up with them to tease and taunt him. He thought of the Dikrats, how Slippery When Wet would complain to him about Jack Bauer when they were on guard duty together and she had no one else to talk to, how the boy would ask piggybacks of him most of all because he was the tallest and strongest and Ted, no kid lover, had still agreed more often than not. He thought of Paul and Emma, ever circling around each other and how many useless pep talks he had given Paul with no sign that anything seeped through his thick anxious brain. He thought of Charlotte. He thought of Charlotte.

They were apart, weren't they? Likely as anything, they would not see each other again. Just as likely, neither would Joey and Sally. Keeping his own hopes down had the natural consequence of squishing Joey's and Ted wasn't sure he liked either disappointments, but they were inevitable. Joey and him had taken to chatting occasionally whenever Junior wasn't keeping too close a watch on them. Ted tried as he might to pick up the kid's faltering morale without outright lying to him in flowery hopeful talk. It was a give and take either way he chose to lean - if Joey was filled with the hope of seeing his crush again, then Ted... Ted thought of Charlotte.

Joey was taking a nap, exhausted by another day in the desert. Ted thought that he was slowly getting stronger, better, but at what? Being an obedient prisoner? At least Junior seemed happier with the pace they were keeping these days. Supposedly, they were heading somewhere specific. Something bigger was brewing, Ted knew. All night, Junior had been out making numerous calls on the talkie, leaving the rest of the squad stranded here. Mega-Girl stood by the entrance but was throwing glances on the inside every so often.

"He's not going anywhere," Ted said, nodding towards the fatty heap Joey made on his mattress.

Mega-Girl gave him a long disdainful look before looking at Joey.

"Finally, he is becoming slightly less weak."

Ted laughed at the truth of it.

"Yeah, funny how it works, he complains less when you're not as brutal with him."

"Humans are so fragile," she said. "Even if he grows thicker skin, it will always be vulnerable and organic."

"He's a softie," Ted nodded.

Mega-Girl gave a grating metallic laugh.

"Ha ha ha, even by human standards, he is pathetic."

Ted felt oddly moved by the need to defend Joey and the realization shocked him so much that he forgot to actually say anything. He almost liked the kid. Perhaps because the rest of his company was turning out to be very poor, perhaps because Joey wasn't especially boring now that he could open up and take Ted's tauntings with equal retorts.

"How do you fare by robot standards, then?" He asked her. "Anything to feel proud?"

"I don't feel proud, I acknowledge my competence. Robots have no emotions," she said. "I am not capable of feeling."

Ted followed her gaze back across the room. Tootsie was giving his best attempt at sweeping the floor, only he was pushing the broom wrong and kept walking over the areas he had supposedly cleaned. His boots were still covered with desert dust and wherever he walked was all dirty again, perhaps dirtier than before he had attempted to clean it. Worse, half of his sweeps were landing loads of dust onto Joey's sleeping form. He was whistling cheerfully.

"I'm not feeling anything right now."

"... Okay, noted."

For an emotionless hunk of metal, she seemed rather flustered and ashamed when she turned back to her task at hand. Thankfully − for her, thought not for Ted who had been hoping to dig more and give her crap for it − it came to an abrupt end as Junior became visible in the near distance. He was walking briskly towards them, walkie-talkie in hand.

"Get everyone in the kitchen," he told Mega-Girl as though he was the leader of a great army and not the minuscule group that could be counted with the fingers of one hand with spare. "I've got news."

Mega-Girl stared at Ted with a sarcastic raise of her metallic brow.

"Junior requires your presence in the kitchen," she told him. "He has news."

Ted snorted and followed her inside. Tootsie rubbed his forehead and looked at his handiwork which had, as much as Ted could observe, left the room much messier than it had been when he had started. All the same, he grinned with pride and hurried to offer Mega-Girl his arm to walk the few steps to the kitchen. To Ted's greater surprise, she took it.

"So, listen up, you noodles," Junior said, putting the walkie-talkie down on the table. "I just called every Black Scarf squad assigned to this goddamn mission."

Ted glanced at his colleagues. Mega-Girl was staring as blankly as ever, standing stiffly next to Tootsie who tried his best to look serious, though he only had eyes for her rather than their oh so mighty leader.

"We'll be meeting up at the Rad Zone entrance base. Big prison thing, has been in the Black Scarves for ages, we'll spend a night or two there before getting deeper into the zone."

He pulled out a crinkled old map and lay it flat on the table to show them all. Tootsie was humming, faking understanding. Mega-Girl looked bored with information Ted was sure she must have known already, and for a long time too.

"Now, I know the Rad Zone is not effective on kids but some of the older ones might still rebel with the radiations," Junior explained. "It's safer to travel in group. And once we've arrived at the headquarters, we'll shove them in cells till the boss takes 'em out one by one. That's beyond our realm of jurisdiction."

Ted wasn't so much dubious as nervous about the journey. He looked at the map, the dot Junior was pointing to indicating their position and, way across the paper, the cross marking their destination. Making quick math of the distance, he was not especially looking forward to spending that much time bombarded with dangerous nasty thoughts. He wondered how Junior himself was feeling so confident. At least, Joey was a bit young for the effects to be fully felt on him and Tootsie was brainless enough that he might barely notice a difference. Mega-Girl, possessing no organic circuits of thoughts, was unaffected and had often claimed the fact smugly. Ted was not too satisfied with his deal of hand.

"We leave tomorrow morning. I expect all of you to behave at the gathering."

Tootsie saluted solemnly.

"Yes sir, boss!"

Junior smirked, but nodded in appreciation at the display of obedience. He gave Ted a lingering, insisting stare before leaving the room. His steps echoed distantly as he climbed the stairs, off to rest for the night. Mega-Girl went back to her guarding post in front of the door, Tootsie at her heels like a proper dog. Ted looked at the map for long and good before folding it back up and shoving it in his inside pocket.

He found Joey wide awake in the front room, sitting up and looking at him with frightened large eyes. He dropped in the nearest armchair.

"What's up, bud?"

Joey scooted as close as he could. His hands were tied with a rope that was attached to the column of the mantelpiece. It was an old house which might have been comfortable before most of its furniture was looted and the walls inside had started to rot. A roof over their head, decrepit as it was, was better than none at all. Joey's hands were twirling slowly, anxiously.

"We're gonna be gathered, huh?"

Ted sighed.

"Junior hates it when you spy," he said. "He's a dick, he says that's his job."

"It's not spying! It's… listening. Without you knowing."

What did Junior's dislikes matter to Ted anymore, really? But the black scarf around his neck was a stark reminder. He wasn't sure what he could expect from Junior when he did not get his way. He didn't know if he might turn dangerous − which was precisely the point. He didn't know. He couldn't know.

"What'd you hear?"

But Joey would not answer.

"How many of you are there? Do you think they've got Sally?"

He pinched the brink of his nose.

"I don't fucking know, dude," Ted replied.

As much as he wished he knew more. There was no need to bring Joey into his own personal issues with management, was there? The fact that nothing was told to him was one thing. Nothing being told to Joey was normal and expected, though.

"Can you like, call them? Junior has that walkie thing, right?"

Ted frowned. It wasn't that the walkie-talkie was entirely Junior's property. Technically, it was, but often Tootsie borrowed it to listen to the jokes a certain Ani kept broadcasting to the whole Black Scarves network. It wasn't kept under such tight watch. He shook his head. False hopes for Joey were false hopes for himself and he had never been an idealistic kind of guy.

"It's not like you won't find out once we're gathered," Ted said with a shrug.

"But… but it could be our last chance to escape! Once all of you bad guys take us to the Rad Zone, it's over for us!"

"Escape? You're crazy. Not gonna happen. Unless someone breaks you out or something, I don't know, parents, but even then, that's crazy."

Joey pouted.

"I'm an orphan."

Shit. Ted supposed that in the vast dangerous wasteland they lived in, being an orphan was as common as being lost in the desert. He was an orphan himself. Still, the poor kid…

"… I guess no parents to break you out, then."

Joey stared at him like he couldn't believe what he was hearing. Huffing angrily, he turned around to lie on his dirty mattress again, his back to Ted.

"Sure, yeah, goodnight," Ted grumbled and stood.

He had no business meddling with this. The kidnapping hadn't been his idea, it hadn't been his decision and whatever they were doing now was not his design. He barely knew the kid, silly fondness for him or not. Intervening wasn't his job. He had no obligations.

Junior had left the walkie-talkie in plain view on the kitchen table. And it would be in plain view on the kitchen table the next morning. Ted's business was his own.

Chapter Text

For the first time, Jemilla was finding herself in the company of a person not just as dedicated and serious as herself, but much more so. The next morning, she woke up to the sizzling scent of breakfast cooking on the campfire. She blinked confusedly, blinded by the dawning sun. Slippery When Wet had her back turned to her, crouching by the fire. It had been a while since Jemilla had been the last one up. In fact, she couldn't remember it ever happening before.

"Good morning," she hesitated.

She sat up slowly. Outside, the storm had settled and the day was breaking out quietly. Slippery When Wet glanced at her and went back to her pot.

"Mornin'," she said. "I hunted."

The cooking utensils aside, she seemed ready to leave at a moment's notice, her bag done and buckled by the entrance of the cave. Jemilla rubbed her eyes and made haste of packing her things. She thought of Zazzalil, how she would stir and stretch and yawn for eternities in the morning before deigning to get up. Hair sticking up in odd messy curls. Unreliable and unpredictable. Jemilla would never be like her.

"Morning hunts are my favorite," she said.

She was simply trying to make conversation but Slippery When Wet seemed in no mood for chatter. She handed Jemilla a steaming bowl of rabbit stew with desert roots and herbs. It wasn't especially good, but it wasn't bad at all either. She supposed that being fed was the only requirement of Slippery When Wet's meals.

"So… what's the plan?"

Slippery When Wet looked somber at the mention. Putting down her bowl on her lap, she stared at the dying fire.

"Do you know where rogues go, Jemilla?"

Independence, if Jemilla was any judge of where Zazzalil had been heading. But this couldn't have been what she meant. She shook her head.

"The Rad Zone," Slippery When Wet said grimly. "That's what's been told to me, so that's as good a guess as any, perhaps better."

Jemilla had heard of the Rad Zone, of course. Molag had steered them right away from it every time they had come close enough to feel the start of nasty radiations, so she had never experienced it to the full extent. She had been happy not to, but as she had just sworn herself Slippery When Wet's new companion, it seemed that this would be about to change.

"Very well," she said, trying to sound more polite than terrified.

It wasn't that Slippery When Wet was rude, she thought as they ate the rest of the short breakfast in silence. Rather, she was serious, something sad right at the surface that Jemilla didn't really know how to broach. As they set into motion and walked to her determined pace, Jemilla found that traveling with her was night and day to her previous journeying. No stopping along the paths, no looking at the birds in the sky, no idle endless chatter about any and everything worth or not worth mentioning − though for the recent part of their travels, Zazzalil had grown much less loquacious. It had still been much more than Slippery When Wet, who focused only on stepping one foot safely in front of the other and not much else.

At lunch they took a break under the narrow shade of a large lone boulder. Independence was no longer and Jemilla felt more confident in breaking silence. Supposedly, if their companionship had still been in doubt, she would have been gotten rid of in the city. If she was still around, then surely Slippery When Wet still wanted her around.

"What are we after?" She asked. "What is it you're aiming for?"

She had mentioned kidnappings the night before, hadn't she? Jemilla had not dared to ask more, but she thought that if they were to venture into the most dangerous part of the wasteland, then she was entitled to at least know the reason why. Slippery When Wet sighed. She had been polishing her gun with a dirty cloth but stopped and put it back into her holster.

"It's… the Black Scarves. You know 'em?"

Jemilla nodded.

"They stole my children," Slippery When Wet said, her voice breaking and she spoke more slowly, deliberately, perhaps hoping to keep the emotion out of it. "I've heard it that the Rad Zone is where they're headin' and I ain't coming out of it without my babies."

Jemilla's heart suddenly weighed much heavier in her chest. When she had accepted to help Slippery When Wet without knowing, she had thought it might be nice to be of service to someone for the sake of it. Having learned the reason, she was more dedicated than ever to see their mission to an end. She touched Slippery When Wet's hand, stroking a thumb across her palm gently. She startled slightly at the touch but took it nonetheless.

"Tell me about them," she said. "Your children."

The tough appearance fell in seconds. Slippery When Wet's face was soft and fond, lost in good memories.

"Ah, well, my two little miracles… My Mouthface, she's sixteen, the most adoring person you could ever meet, she's got a heart bigger than the desert, I swear. And Craphole, he's just a little boy, just turned seven last summer, he's so curious, he's got a bit more sense than she does but he gets into more trouble, too."

She became stern again.

"Well, now they both did, didn't they."

Jemilla smiled kindly, trying to be comforting but the effect was missed. Slippery When Wet shrugged and stood again to keep going. The sun was burning hot and Jemilla tied her scarf into a hat to protect her head from it. She knew that, come to the Rad Zone, the radiations would be unmistakeable but her head had been hurting a little since the morning. They couldn't be much farther from it.

"How 'bout you?" Slippery When Wet asked after a while.

The road ahead was long and empty. Talking, Jemilla told herself, might make it shorter and fill it with some pleasantries and, if nothing else, with company.

"What do you want to know?"

"You said you were out of a partner," Slippery When Wet said simply.

Bullseye even in her observations. Jemilla winced.

"I am," she said. She thought of how to put it. "She was… well, we've known each other since childhood and we've always bickered but since Molag − that's our mentor, by the way − since Molag left, it's been real fights, arguing all the time. I think we just grew apart, Zazz and I."

Slippery When Wet nodded wistfully.

"It's just, she's become really reckless? She's done some shady shit behind my back and she never listens to me and…"

Suddenly the storm was unleashed. Jemilla, who loathed to be a burden on others, found herself unloading every damn time she had been upset or annoyed by Zazzalil in the past few weeks and months and years. The feeling of not being listened to, of not being respected not even as a leader but as an equal, the wedge between them growing to impassable rift. She could feel herself get carried away but, as Slippery When Wet nodded and agreed, she never stopped herself.

"And she said, 'I'm out', as if she had been the one leaving and not me?"

"It's damn stupid is what it is," Slippery When Wet said in agreement. "I don't know who she thinks she is."

"Right?!" Jemilla breathed easier, better than she had in ages. "She's reckless and dangerous."

She noticed how dark the sky had gotten − could she really have been chatting this whole time since lunch? But evidently, she had.

"Will we stop for the night?" She asked.

Slippery When Wet stared into the distance at the falling sun. She nodded. Jemilla made a fire to keep them warm in the chill desert night that might soon become downright cold. Slippery When Wet took out some game she had left over from her morning hunt and got the pan to heat it up over the fire but her attention wasn't on it and Jemilla took over cooking without her even noticing. When finally she came to her senses, she shook her head out of her thought and chuckled softly.

"Sorry, I'm sorry," she said. "I've just now remembered…" She paused for a long time. "Can I tell you about something?"

If permission was needed for such liberties, then Jemilla had more than overstepped herself.

"Of course."

Slippery When Wet sat a few feet from the fire, hands flat on the ground, a finger toying and tracing shapes into the sand.

"What you were sayin' about Zazzalil… I'm reminded of my husband."

She had not mentioned a husband before but children, Jemilla supposed, had to come from somewhere. She stirred the food and gave her ample time to speak when she so wished.

"Jack Bauer," Slippery When Wet whispered eventually. "We met when we were young, not children but not adults either. It was, erm, it was intense. Passionate."

Jemilla smirked but said nothing. She was no chaste innocent herself, all sorts of occasions for human contact on the road.

"But then I was pregnant and I'd thought he'd be just a flirt for a while, but there I was, seventeen, baby in my belly, and I couldn't take her on the roads myself, could I? So we were stuck together, him and I."

She sighed deeply. Jemilla handed her some food but she would barely touch it.

"Mouthface kept me going, you know? She was all rippled and red and she cried a lot when she was a babe, but she was just so beautiful…"

Jemilla had no children and didn't especially believe she would ever have any. She thought of Molag and wondered what she had thought when she had found her, however the story had gone.

"Everything I did, I did for my baby girl. Stayed with her daddy even though he turns out a good for nothin' lazy cheat of a man and him and my dad never got along. I had to make it work, didn't I?"

"I'm sure you did your best," Jemilla said tentatively.

Slippery When Wet gave her a sad smile, a shrug.

"I can only hope. And then, Craphole came along by some of Dead-God's miracle, we found a place to settle down, I thought that was it. A stupid husband, two idiot children I love more than this dead world, my lazy dad, a roof over our head at a pot farm…"

She clenched her fists so suddenly and violently her veins popped and her knuckles turned white.

"Till he burned the damn thing down."

Jemilla coughed on the mouthful she had been chewing.

"What?!"

"Yeah, he's an idiot like that…"

She thought of Zazzalil, whatever damn idiotic thing she had been getting herself into.

"He burned down the farm?!"

"Sure did," she nodded. "Wasn't even our farm, just where we were workin', but he had us leave in the middle of the night rather than handle the consequence. We traveled for a bit, found another settlement but he had us leave that too."

"Again?" Jemilla was incredulous.

It was lucky, in a way, that even though Zazzalil had denied any authority Jemilla had tried to have, at least she had left no fire behind herself, and it had only been at the last moment that she had tried to drag her into a path Jemilla had not wanted. But then, she remembered, she had walked Zazzalil's path without knowing anyways.

"Uh huh," Slippery When Wet said gloomily. "We were barely on the roads that the kids got taken, along with another kid that was traveling with us. We were gonna go to Independence to try and see if anyone was to help."

"And did they?"

Slippery When Wet gave her a funny look and Jemilla realized that she was, in fact, the person who would help.

"Well, we arrived in town last night and an innkeeper gave us word of them bandits going to the Rad Zone and I realized that this was a journey I couldn't be makin' with my dumb dog of a husband. I'll find the kids on my own if I gotta, I was gon' go back to the pot farm to ask for help but then I saved you from those ghouls and the rest is history, Jemilla."

Jemilla had some hard honey candy left in her bag and handed some to her, some sort of dessert after a long and mostly boring day. They ate it silently, enjoying something good after a long while of sorrows.

"I'm glad we found each other," she said eventually.

Her mouth was filled with sweetness and the fire made a pleasant crackling sound in the otherwise silence of the desert.

"I've often felt like I was the only person with a solid brain ten miles around. It's nice to meet someone who's just… normal."

Slippery When Wet laughed out loud and patted Jemilla on the lap.

"You're not wrong," she said. "I wasn't too sure when I saw you with 'em ghouls if I could trust you, Jemilla, I'll be honest, but now, now I think I can."

They smiled at each other. The stars were out in the sky, shining brightly down on them. There was no telling when they would find the kids and Jemilla would need to ask more questions later on but in this moment, she felt like she and Slippery When Wet were on the exact same page.

She thought of Zazzalil. She had only wanted to protect her and lead her well, but what was she to do when Zazz did not want to be led, did not want to become better, was reckless with no care for protection or guidance? At least, she had nothing binding her to her at all anymore. Slippery When Wet had no such luck, the very evidence of her ties to Jack Bauer being her two flesh and blood children who would always bind them together. However they all would reunite eventually, she could not say. What she knew was that Dead-God had planted Slippery When Wet in her path, a blessing and a comrade and, whatever they did next, they would do together.

Chapter Text

Mouthface had little time. 

Technically, she had until the evening because Mr Sam had announced a previous night the orders to be carried out: the Black Scarves were gathering at a place they subtly nicknamed the Jail. Tonight, they'd arrive at destination with all the men and women in uniform Mouthface would have dreamed of a lifetime ago where she didn't know yet what they stood for. If she had any chance to escape, then surely, it could only be before being surrounded by dozens or hundreds of wicked people all better trained and armed than she was. 

Specifically, though she had but a moment. The night before, Mr Cletus Jones had tied her hands rather loose by some fateful mishap, eager to be back with the men, with Mr McDoon. All night, Mouthface had worked at loosening the binds even further. By the darkest hour of the night, she had freed them entirely, only keeping them behind her back for pretense. When the moment would come, one of the men would serve them breakfast, something crappy and lacking but Mouthface didn't care anymore. She had no intention of eating it. She had something better in store. Freedom surely tasted sweeter than any rancid prisoner food. 

For the precious time she had left, she sat among the others and played her part. Craphole and Jasmyn were looking at her anxiously every so often and she was afraid they would draw attention to her, but yet more afraid that if she let out a word of chiding, the attention would be even greater. It did not matter in the end, as Mr Big T made his way to them in his nonchalant sashay and seemed none the wiser as to her intentions. A hand full of snack bars that would not have been enough to feed a growing girl like her anyways, he approached them, bored. The men were having their usual morning smoke in the other room. She could hear their chatter from here. 

"Breakfast," he said. 

He handed Alice and Deb their share which Craphole looked at with hungry eyes and Mouthface felt very sorry for his big stomach already, even when he received his bar and immediately shoved it in his mouth in one large bite. Then Jas, then… 

"Pow!" 

Mouthface shot up as he leaned towards her, freeing her hands, and punched him on the nose so sudden, so unexpected that he never even found his tongue to cry out. Taking a hit, he stumbled back and held his bruised nose in his hand. Mouthface could see blood, but she was certain some of it must be hers, for her fist was numb with pain and something had cracked sharply at the point of contact. She couldn't linger on it. Taking advantage of his weakness, she rammed her knee into his groin. Mr Big T bent over himself with a muffled "Fuck!" and she got her hands on the gun strapped at his waist. 

"Now," she hissed to Craphole and Jasmyn.

Their hands were still tied when they made their escape out the building and they couldn't run very fast but perhaps, perhaps just enough to find a hideout and wait things out in freedom till she managed a way to slice through rope. She wanted to laugh, to weep, to cry out a million different emotions but bit her lip and focused on the way ahead. 

She did not know which way led opposite to the Rad Zone. For days, her head had been hurting and she assumed it might only get worse if she delved further into the zone. Mr McDoon had made tasteless comments about her becoming a bit of an adult if she felt the radiations, but no matter how much she had tried to ignore his words, she felt that there was truth to them. She stared at desert and rocky hills in all directions. Inside, she thought, feared she could hear some stirring, most likely Mr Big T calling the others. She made a quick call of branching into a rock path surrounded by short cliffs from both sides. 

"Come on!" She whispered to Jasmyn and Craphole.

They ran as fast as they could, did their best. If they were out of sight, then the Black Scarves might get lost into the wrong track so long as they made no noise. If they found a little nook in the rock deep enough for the three of them, they might win this crap. 

"Oh, shit," Jasmyn blurted out and clasped her hand to her mouth.

Mouthface's blood had been boiling hot in the terrifying thrill of the escape but ran as cold as ice at the sight before her. A group of desert ghouls was looming over from the top of a short outcropping and looked at them with soulless black eyesockets. Her palm around the gun handle was sweaty and she knew her hands were shaking, yet she couldn't steady herself. 

"We need to scatter!" Jasmyn said. "They can't catch all of us!"

One of the ghouls crouched and made the jump from their perch. Mouthface took a step backwards by reflex. One step closer back to the house, to the Black Scarves. She recognized for sure the sound of cries in the near distance, she knew now. Another ghoul advanced on them. She readied her gun, tightened her grip. 

"No," she replied, "We need to stick together, they can't eat all of us! I've got a gun!" 

She shot. A ghoul fell with an inhumane wail that pierced through her for several seconds after it was over. 

"Faster!" Jasmyn said, hurried. She was shuffling on her feet anxiously, Craphole hiding behind her back. With bound hands, she was trying to comfort him but the embrace was at an awkward angle and Craphole looked terrified either way. "Mouthface, they're gonna find us!" 

"I'm trying!" She protested. 

A few other ghouls were marching on them and she hesitated, not sure which one to down first. She settled on the larger one, the most threatening one. Disgusting yellow teeth slapped haphazardly across a misshapen jaw showing through the holes in its dried out skin, it was growling right at Jasmyn. She lined up her shot, steadied her stance, pulled the trigger… The ghoul fell, but she recoiled straight into the vice of Mr McDoon's embrace. 

"Hey there, lil jailbird," he chuckled. "Guys, I got 'em! They're here." 

She could have burst into tears − in fact, Craphole did. Mr McDoon pulled him and Jasmyn close, all three of them caught together. With no hesitation, he shot precisely as many times as there were ghouls remaining, each of them marking Mouthface's defeat with a horrible cry of pain as they died. He laughed, picking the gun from her hands and pointing both guns at them to lead them back to the house. 

"Gotta be careful," he said. "Good looking girl like yourself, wouldn't want that pretty face all scratched up by something feral, now, would we?" 

She groaned loudly. The gun was at her back and she obeyed the order − what choice did she have? 

"You keep me on my toes, sweetheart. Those were pretty good shooting techniques, you've been taught well."

She thought of her mother and wanted to cry even more. 

"Oh, McDoon, you got 'em! Thank Dead-God!"

Mr Cletus Jones was running towards them, out of breath. Finally reaching them, he glared at her like she was responsible for all the woes in the dead world. 

"This here darlin'," Mr McDoon explained, "is the one who got Big T right in the nuts. What a woman, huh? Oh, I wish I could just keep you for myself, Mouthface."

From behind, she felt his arm snake around her waist, his face very close to hers and she had to contort herself to escape the unwanted embrace. 

"I don't!" She said in a fury. "You're gross and disgusting, Mr McDoon, and you smell like smoke all the time! How do you even live with that?" 

He laughed. Craphole and Jasmyn were looking at the ground, the one beaten and sad, the other angrier than a wet cat. She wished that for just a moment she could catch Jasmyn's eyes. Maybe the humiliation of having been caught so soon into their attempt at an escape wouldn't be so sharp if she would just look at her.

"Ah, Dead-God, that's not for the taste of it, I hate that crap," he said. "Aladdin's the one who likes it." 

She huffed, turning away from him. They were back at the house already and he saluted the men still sitting in their corner − the threat of her actually breaking free had been so unlikely that they hadn't even sent all the men out on a search. She felt pathetically weak. Big T was patching up his nose himself and gave her the coldest of glares. Alice and Deb were sitting as they always were, talking to each other. When they walked in, Deb quickly hid something behind her back − she had taken to stealing weed from the Black Scarves, a habit of theft which had been Mouthface's inspiration in the first place. All for nothing in the end. 

"Now, put 'em in," Mr McDoon said, holding up the ropes to shackle her again.

With a reluctant whimper, she obeyed and took the double serving of breakfast he gave her. He pulled a chair close to look at them as they ate in silence. 

"They're just like you and I, aren't they, these kids?" He said to Mr Cletus Jone. "Twenty years younger you and I, I mean. Good with a gun, horny as dogs and cute as a button." 

Jasmyn perked up.

"We're not horny, what are you talking about? We're just children." 

Mouthface looked away, down at her lap. She munched on the first snack bar. As tasteless as she had imagined. Perhaps even moreso. 

"Come on, don't you two have something going on like these two?" He said, nodding towards Alice and Deb. "What is it that you do when you're off on your own?"

Jasmyn looked outraged at the very idea. Her mouth opened in a silent puff of derision before she found her words. 

"What's with you and invading the intimacy of teenage girls?" She said. "That's called being a sexual predator, Sir, and it's disgusting and wrong." 

He shrugged, stretching himself as he stood. He checked everyone's shackles again and left without another word. 

"Ah, fuck!" Jasmyn cried out when they were alone. 

Alice and Deb gave her a glance but said nothing. Mouthface thought that they might be angry at them for having tried to escape without taking them along. It wouldn't even be the first time she escaped from where they were, she thought as she remembered the sight of burning Sycamore. She finished her snack bar. 

"You want my second one?" She asked Jasmyn, holding up the portion Mr McDoon had given her as extra.

Jasmyn shook her head. She had not looked at Mouthface in the eyes since they had been caught. Even when she spoke, she would not look at her and her voice came out cold and detached, nothing like the voice Mouthface knew. She had never noticed exactly how warm and animated Jasmyn was until she wasn't.

"We should have scattered."

Mouthface frowned.

"Huh?"

Jasmyn finally looked at her and for the first time, there was no affection in her eyes. 

"We could have made it if we'd run for it. Ghouls are slow, they couldn't have caught us. We should have scattered instead of staying put. We'd be free by now." 

Mouthface was at a loss as to what she ought to answer. Her mouth fell open and she caught it, but still no words came. It was useless anyways, as Jasmyn turned her back to her and pulled her knees up, resting her face on them, hugging herself. Craphole looked between the two of them and seemed to hesitate, but eventually scooted closer to Mouthface, holding onto her arm. 

They got back on the road after breakfast. Jasmyn sat on the opposite end of the sand raft as her, Alice and Deb and Craphole between them. She was looking out at the same old sand landscape at before, except now without Mouthface to point out funny shapes in the distance, to keep her company, without even Craphole to goof around. He wasn't saying anything, his head leaned against Mouthface's shoulder. Alice and Deb were talking about weed − hadn't Sycamore been enough? It was the last thing Mouthface wanted to think about. But then, so was her fight with Jasmyn, so was her failed attempt at breaking free, so were the advances of Mr McDoon. There wasn't much  enjoyment to be found in her present situation. The thought came of her mother again. If not for the empty feeling in her chest at the fear of never seeing her again, at least, that wasn't too bad to think about. She hugged her brother close and thought of the days when they were a family instead of unrooted lost kids.

They reached the Jail before sundown. A large facility, many floors but the elevators were all out of order for decades, cells on each side of long gray halls. They were among the first squads to arrive, soon dozens or hundreds of kidnapped kids and teens just like them to be locked in here, and so had their pick of cells to be thrown in. As if that made any difference at all. A small room for five of them was chosen among hundreds of identical ones. Mouthface found herself wondering if she would have liked it better if Jasmyn had been in another, for her presence reminded her all too acutely of the rift between them. She wanted to cry. She did not, she could not, but she wanted to so bad. 

"Well," Deb said, hugging Alice close, "Goodnight." 

"Night," Mouthface muttered. 

They were shackle free, for once, perhaps because between four walls of thick concrete with a heavy metal door locking them in, they could move their hands around all they wanted with no hope of escape. She lied down on the floor − she had insisted on giving Jasmyn the bottom bunk bed and Alice and Deb were huddling in the top one. There were no blankets, but the night weather was clement on them for once. She closed her eyes. She did not think she would sleep. 

A warm little worm of a boy sneaked his way into her arms. Mouthface smiled into Craphole's hair and hugged him tight. 

"I love you, Mouthface," he mumbled. 

If it was just because he was scared or if he could actually sense how tense and upset she was, she could not tell. She held him against her and stroked his hair softly.

"I love you too, bud," she replied. "Be good and go to sleep, yeah?"

Craphole nodded. Before long, he was in deep slumber. Lulled by his breathing so close to her, Mouthface felt very quiet despite everything. She closed her eyes and tried to be good and go to sleep as well.

Chapter Text

For the second time in much too short a period, Bruce woke up in a haze. His mind was swarming with odious thoughts and sharp peaks of pain and it took him a moment to realize he was in movement. It was so hot and he was drenched in sweat, but the points of contact were cool and soothing. Something smelled nice. Had the rangers found him and dragged him aboard their van? Couldn't be. The motion was a back and forth, more erratic than the dull vibration of a vehicle, and the touch was embracing him. Walking, not driving. Painfully, he opened his eyes.

Blinding light came from above, the sun high in the sky. Where was he? Where had he been and for how long? He remembered running into the desert, but it had been so hot and he had felt so weak and then... He blinked a few times. His throat was more dry than it had ever been, every part of him sore and craving for relief. Arms. Arms around him. Someone was holding and carrying him. He frowned, narrowing his squinting eyes on the shape above his. A sharp jaw, dark hair that shone bright with sunlight. A determined look, brisk pace. Clark was carrying him effortlessly out of the Rad Zone. Bruce's consciousness faded from his grasp again before he could say a word of thanks or protest.

He came to again somewhere cool and comfortable. Soft bed under the weight of him, a blanket, several pillows under his head. He swallowed. Someone had given him water, though he had no recollection if it at all. The only meager memories he had… He dared not open his eyes yet.

"Oh, you really did it this time, Clark," someone said. "You saved the savior. You're more than a man, you're a superman!"

Voices were chatting close to him in the room. Or rather… He listened more closely, his brow furrowing dubiously.

"You're the strongest man in the wasteland!"

"Ah, come on, you guys… Bruce is pretty good too, right? He's tougher than that, he'll make it, right?"

A high-pitched voice replied, confirming Bruce's doubts.

"He'll be fine!" The voice said. "He'll be so thankful you came for him and…"

"Are you talking to yourself?!" Bruce blurted out, sitting up. The very sudden motion made his head ache so harsh and unexpected he held a hand to his temple to try and soothe the pain. "Ow…"

Clark was torn between utter humiliation and complete joy. He was smiling, but his eyes betrayed Bruce's suspicion. Worse, as he glanced at the room, he saw that a few items had been painted with faces and a little sticker that gave them a name. Hal, Diane, Peter… Bruce remembered past conversations that found new nuances now. A whole team of imaginary friends. He had never known Clark to live in such solitude.

"Hey," Clark said with some hesitation. "Erm, hi. How're you feeling?"

"Where did you take me?" Bruce snapped. "What do you want?"

He tried to stand but his limbs betrayed him and he fell back against the pillows in a flop. He groaned. Clark took a few steps towards him, sitting on the opposite end of the bed with what might have been shyness if smug mutants like him were capable of such a thing. He looked more disheveled than Bruce had ever seen him, which was very little. His hair was sitting more flatly than the usual swoop and his red shirt was open to the impeccably white tank top underneath, but aside from that, he was as well kempt as ever. His fingers clutched the blanket, toyed with it, eyes averting Bruce's.

"You lost yourself in the Rad Zone," he said quietly. "I don't know how long you were there, probably a few days, you were close to… to dying when I found you. You've been here out of it for almost a week. I've done my best."

Something else was almost, but not actually said. Bruce pushed himself as close to the headboard and far from Clark as he could.

"Are you holding me hostage?!"

"What?! No? I saved your life, dude! I save people, remember?"

Bruce looked around for signs of him being detained. The door was slightly ajar and he leaned to see that it led to a hall. A small house, the bedroom seemed to be its pantry and living room, all the walls made of long boards of wood painted white decades ago, peeling away and never repainted. He had never known where Clark lived. He had never wanted to know. The room was brightly lit and cooled by some breeze flowing through the open windows. There was one bed and, he realized as he saw a pile of blankets on the floor next to it, it seemed to have been Clark's before he was dragged here. To be carried to safety like a child… He still felt sore and uncomfortable but the humiliation of it all was clinging to him much more than any sensation.

"Is this where you live, huh? I thought you and your mutant friends had an impervious fortress."

Clark shrugged self-consciously and gestured around.

"They… don't exist." He sighed. "I made them up to impress you, but I think I just sounded like a jerk."

"You did," Bruce said with bad mood.

Clark seemed saddened at the prospect but said nothing more on the subject. Standing up, he left the room only to come back with some food, bread and honey and fruit. He put the plate down on a table by the windows.

"Think you can walk?"

"Of course I can walk," Bruce hissed but when he tried to hoist himself up, his arms gave up under him and he could have cried in frustration and shame. "Ah, fuck…"

Far from taunting him, Clark looked at him with concern. He offered an arm for Bruce to hold onto and, his stomach knotting with embarrassment, Bruce took it. When after a few painful steps to the table, he finally dropped heavily on the chair, he didn't know if he was more relieved for finally sitting again or for not letting the contact linger any further than needed. Clark sat opposite him and watched him eat.

"The zone got you real bad," he noted. Before Bruce had any time for offense, he raised a hand in peacefulness and explained himself. "I don't mean that as an insult, if that's what you're thinking. I know you were there a long time, anyone would be shaken, but…"

Bruce thought of the reason why he had even ventured out in the first place and wanted to burst into sobs. He missed Robin. It was no secret that the Rad Zone pressured your emotions into a mush of hatred and confusion and discord. Usually, his will was so strong with the self-fed pride of being powerful and almighty that the radiations were easier to resist for the time it took to rescue people. But having to rescue Robin of all people had left him so fragile and vulnerable that he had let them get to him much deeper, much rougher than they ever had. He looked down at his plate and slowly grabbed the apple to munch on it one small bite at a time rather than having to look at Clark's boring eyes.

"So," Clark said with great caution. "Your kid…"

"Robin," Bruce sighed mournfully, "My best friend in the world. Taken by the Black Scarves."

Clark reached over the plate to snatch a slice of apple for himself.

"I'd heard about those rumors," he said, taking a crisp bite. "I wanted to investigate but… Well, you were out and I didn't want to leave you alone."

"I am alone," Bruce said, fighting back tears. "Without Robin I'm… I'm nothing at all. I wanted to find him but I'm too… weak…"

Clark stared at him for a few painful seconds. Putting his hand on the table between them, he spoke.

"Bruce, you're not alone," he said. "You're here with me."

Bruce looked at the hand, at Clark's face. A smile, nothing like the smug cocky smiles he had seen a hundred times before with exasperation. It was warm, genuine. He ate the rest of his apple.

"I have super vision," Clark said, looking away. He stood. "Not unlimited so I'll still have to get back into the Rad Zone to see him but I'll spot him from a long way away. I remember what he looks like, I think."

Sadness clung to Bruce's heart. Even beaten as he already was, he was now to be bettered at the one thing that mattered to him the most: protecting Robin. He had already failed at that anyways. Clark seemed to swirl from one part of the house to the next in a super fast blur, grabbing supplies, weapons, food. He put two fingers to his mouth and whistled. Before Bruce knew it, they were joined by that white dog which seemed to have been playing outside in the sand. Clark gave him a quick pat to rub away as much of the dirt as he could, then some more just for the enjoyment.

"The zone doesn't work on dogs, thank Dead-God," he said.

Bruce nodded. He ought to stand on his own two feet, to leave, but he hardly even knew where exactly he was and the prospect of leaving, waiting for Clark to bring him back his only companion, was dreadful. He sighed. Clark glanced at him at the sound and seemed to remember something. Searching through his backpack, he pulled out a bottle and handed it to him.

"This'll help," he said. "I gave you some already when you were out, don't chug it all. It doesn't taste great but it does the job."

Bruce stared at the dark liquid, swished it around the bottle. With a yet unknown trust, he took a sip and near choked on it. Not great was the worst of euphemisms but he felt his mind grow fuzzy and calm after mere seconds.

"Helps with what?" He asked and cursed himself for waiting until after he had drunk to do so.

"The radiations," Clark said. "A little bit. I don't feel them, but I keep it around for the people I save."

"Radiations? But…"

Clark pulled something from a closet, which Bruce recognized as his own backpack, intact except for a good wash. Clark handed it and Bruce stood to grab it, finding himself moving a little better than before.

"We'll leave as soon as you're better. Or whenever you want, really. Your call."

Bruce frowned. He looked at his things, all his weapons, though Clark already took it upon himself to transfer some of them to the shelves or to his own bag so as not to over encumber his load.

"Leaving where?" He asked, feeling lost.

Clark stopped in his tracks to turn to him. He clasped a hand on his shoulder, thumb stroking against his neck once, twice. They looked at each other.

"You're coming with me," he said. "And we're not coming back without Robin this time."

Chapter Text

Mara had never been much good at socializing with crowds. Years a street rat, maybe, had dulled her manners and demeanor into a rough awkward mess. The main hall of the Jail was packed with more Black Scarves than she had even known there were, mostly men, and all of them looked scarier than the next. As many scarves dark as the night gathering outside the narrow slit windows around their necks, they were gruff and joked together like they had known each other their entire lives. Mara hadn't and, from the look of them, didn't think she wanted to either. She tugged her scarf tight and followed Ani wherever he would saunter.

He couldn't have been more at ease in this hall, his sociability sharpened by her lack thereof. She felt like a child again, dragging behind, hugging herself nervously, greeting all the people he introduced her to despite forgetting them the second they walked away. He was handing out snacks and drinks and compliments, making jokes like every person in the room was a dear friend.

"Punch, guys? It's good stuff."

With or without his help, the assembly was as cozy as a child-kidnappers-get-together might get. Small groups had formed and people were having a chat, a laugh and a fat blunt together. The room was thick with it and the smoke smoke was made all the more hazy and warm by the light of the dim lanterns burning on every table. If camaraderie and comfort had a place here, then the Black Scarves were surely bathing in it.

"Mmh?"

One of the guys looked at the beverage with disdain and mistrust. Ani grinned.

"Come on, Voldy, give it a try! Like the good old days, right? Hey, say, how many kiddos you got? I bet you got more than us."

The man was as white as a cloudy sky, which clashed sternly against his jet black scarf, and so emaciated Mara wondered how he still stood there living. His voice was scratchy and high pitched.

"Three," he said.

Ani laughed, slapping his shoulder kindly, which made some of the punch flow out of the cup. Voldy glared at his wet hand but said nothing.

"We got two," Ani said. "Hey, have a great night, then, see you on the road!"

Mara was all the happier when Ani stepped away from him − something about his aura was chilling and unpleasant. She supposed, though, that this was the effect most of the assembly had had on her tonight. Her stomach was in knots when she thought of what still lay ahead. Soon. Very soon.

"That was Voldemort," Ani told her once they were to the side. He picked an empty table and, though he had an enormous amount of snacks left, kept them all to themselves. A little further away, Candy and Sweet Tooth were flirting with each other, Zebulba at their feet. "We used to be pals before we got promoted to our own squads."

"You never told me about him," she noted.

He smiled at her.

"There's already plenty of stories coming together, kid, don't be greedy. One too many and we can't keep them all straight."

She nodded, though her attention was already elsewhere. The far left side of the room, he had said. A simple nod. No one was in sight yet, not anyone that Ani hadn't already introduced her to.

"Hey, Ani?"

Ani had switching between shoving a handful of chips down his throat and taking drags from the joint he had rolled himself to fit in with the rest of the Black Scarves, but looked at her curiously.

"Remember that… that dream job I told you about? In Heaven on Earth?"

"Sure thing, Mara," he said. "We're one step closer to it already, just one quick trip to headquarters and back and you're free to go."

She looked at her hands, tapped her feet. She was capable, she told herself. She could do it.

"I've been thinking… I think I can start early. Can't I?"

He frowned. The joint was burning up in his fingers and he took a long go at it. The smoke he blew out could barely be seen in the already shrouded air of the hall.

"What do you mean?"

Gesturing around, she discreetly glanced once more at the far left side of the room. Her heart caught in a frenzy as she spotted him. Their eyes met. Two fingers at his forehead, he gave her a salute, a grin and, as per the agreement, a nod. She gulped nervously.

"This is as big a crowd as I can hope to get, isn't it?" Ani nodded dubiously. "I think I'm gonna do it now."

He looked at her as if he could see right through her motivations. They had not talked more about any of it since his refusal a few days prior and Mara had rather purposely avoided to mention her growing affection for the kids.

"Should be only a while before Junior comes back from his round to give a little good-job-on-the-mission speech," he said. "But if you feel like it until then…"

She remembered being introduced to Junior earlier, of course. Him and the rest of his squad. An hour, more if possible, she remembered. Any longer and we're gold. She stood abruptly.

"Hey, everybody!" She shouted. Her voice cracked a little but she paid it no mind. "You ready for the show of your life?"

Few people replied, some of them smirking tauntingly and she heard some laughing. She breathed in deep, exhaled every last bit of air. She was ready.

"Pierce, hit it," she told the guy who had been playing old discs on an ancient radio.

He nodded a few times, already grooving in the rhythm, and put on the music. The first few beats to prepare herself, and she started to dance as the music swelled up. It was awkward and she felt the shame rise up in her as her limbs refused to obey her mind's demands. She felt much like she had when she was a little girl and tried to copy her mama's moves with her short skinny little arms and legs. Back then, her mom had told her she was the best dancer in the world, but she wasn't there to sweeten the truth anymore and Mara was ridiculous and clumsy. She fell.

The reaction was much more immediate than the near total ignoring she had suffered earlier. Laughter burst from many parts of the room and filled her with embarrassment. What of the hour of distraction she had promised? This wasn't even a minute.

"She fell down during her big show!" Someone cried out. "That sucks!"

But as she stood back up, her eyes met with Ani's. Whether he knew what she was doing or not, she saw in his gaze all the support she needed.

"Come on, kid, you can do it."

Mara believed him and let that trust imbue every part of her. There was a short stage on one end of the hall, not raised very high but large enough that she could make use of it to be noticed by all. She danced there and a new surging grace was moving her forward. She danced to the rising music, smiled at her audience, let all emotions flow through her and explode out in dance. Little by little, the smirks turned to smiles, mockery giving way to appreciation, perhaps even admiration.

"Wow, she's actually pretty good!"

She stepped down from the stage to dance across the alley between tables, giving winks in passing, teasing the men's luscious gaze with moves all more enticing than the next. Oola had been a gush of sensuality, of beauty. If she could only be a fraction of that, then it might be enough. Her hair flowed behind her beautifully and made a circle as she snapped her head sharply. She licked her lip and danced on.

"Is she allowed that?!"

"This girl's breaking all the rules!"

She felt on top of the world. The whole room's eyes were fixed on her and she had them in the palm of her hand, in absolute command. Her body had a fire burning inside and she could only dance it all for the world to see. She felt like she was one with the air around her, with every person looking at her, with the entire dead world beyond these walls too.

The door smashed open.

"What's going on here?" Junior said in a grumble.

He was followed by the Mega-Girl and Tootsie and… and no one else. Mara kept dancing, not giving Junior any attention. She had work to do.

"Thank you for the… show…" He said disdainfully, "Now if you'll just let me take over and…"

Mara kept dancing. She was receiving cheers and whistles, some less tasteful remarks as well but, as they were meant as compliments, she let them slide and danced.

"Ted, kindly let our friend know that… Shit, where the fuck is Ted?"

Junior looked around. Ted wasn't there. In fact, if Mara kept dancing, there was a great chance he wouldn't be there any time soon. How long had it been? She could not tell the time, but knew already that she would never get tired, that whenever she stopped dancing would be much too soon to her taste. If she could just let herself dream of it, she could see herself on the same stage as Oola at the Rut Hut, all eyes on her, green limbs dancing alongside hers…

"Guys, this isn't a talent show, can someone stop her so we can get to business?"

But no one did, no one would. Mara had captivated them and they would not look away even for a short moment. Junior, she saw, was getting more and more annoyed by the second. He walked briskly towards her, ready to shove her aside or whatever worse he might do, but several men stood to bar his way.

"I'm the one in charge of this mission," he said, "And I will see it through. Let me pass."

McDoon threw the butt of his blunt to the floor, ground it under his heel and grabbed Junior by the arm, Cletus Jones following suit on the other side. Slowly, they dragged Junior away despite him resisting fiercely.

"What the fuck are you doing?! Shit, you've all smoked, haven't you? Guys, I'm…"

McDoon shoved a hand against Junior's mouth to silence him. Of all the eyes in the assembly, his had glinted the fiercest, the most enticed and intrigued by her show.

"You know what, Junior, just shut up!" He growled. "We hate you! We love Mara!"

Ani stood, pointing at her proudly.

"She's my family!"

Mara felt so warm, hot with the exercise and the thrill. The music was turned up even louder and swallowed the rest of the argument. She danced. She didn't care what was said so long as she could dance. Eventually, Junior was dropped and fell in a floppy heap on the ground. He shot up, dusting himself, trying to regain his dignity.

"Mega-Girl!" he snarled bitterly. "We're leaving. NOW!"

He went out just like he had come in, followed by the robot. Mara danced. Her limbs became sore, aching with exhaustion, but she danced and danced and kept dancing. Her heart was soaring with music, love and pride. She danced more. She felt brave. She felt free.

Chapter Text

They were, for once, in a literal prison. Halls lined with cells on either side and, though some of the other captive kids had been locked in together, Joey was on his own. The door had slammed heavily under the Mega-Girl's taunting glare, trapping him in − how long ago? Minutes? Hours? It couldn't have been days, he didn't think, else he would be starving by now. On the contrary, he had no appetite at all. He was tense and on the alert. It had been a while since he had been all on his own.

Each door was cut with a thin slit which, he imagined, might have served in the past to slide meal trays to the prisoners. He didn't think the facility had been in full use for a long time, though, decrepit as it was. Kneeling by the door, he tried to parse Sally's voice from the buzzin with no success. All he could hear were whispers, scared children comforting each other, probably. If Sally was among them, then he could not decipher her.

The door creaked and startled him to his ass. He had become so used to the darkness that his eyes hurt when it was pushed open and the artificial sickly light of the hall caught him. He looked up.

"Ted!" He cried out and scrambled to his feet to hug him. "Ted, what are you…"

"You shut you piehole," Ted whispered, shoving a hand over Joey's mouth to silence him. "Dead-God, you're a cool kid sometimes but you can be thick, don't talk one mtill we're safe outside."

Joey pouted but obeyed, tip toeing behind Ted as they made their way through the long halls. He was carrying a backpack which seemed full to the brim, like he was ready for a long journey. An extra gun at his hip, a knife that hadn't been there before. Joey noted that the corridors were very empty − he would have expected more guards but, reaching the end of a hall and seeing a man slouching in slumber on a chair, he thought that perhaps Ted had taken care that there would be none. He grinned to himself. He had always dreamed of being a big adventurer and, though he wasn't entirely there, at least he was friend with one. That was the first step towards something bigger.

Ted turned to him with a finger against his lips as they neared a certain door. Joey nodded obediently, miming zipping his own mouth shut. Ted opened the heavy metal door and there were some whispers that became more and more animated despite his best efforts but eventually, they were quieted down. He came back out with five children trailing behind, four girls and a small boy. Joey gave him a questioning glance but as everyone had been instructed to remain silent, nobody said anything. One of the girls was carrying the boy on her back, two others were holding hands.

"This next one, you'll like," Ted muttered to him with a self-contented smirk.

They crossed another hall, the entire group as silent as requested. None of them, Joey supposed, wished to get caught red-handed on what was likely a forbidden escape mission. It felt good to be walking freely again. He clasped his fists closed and open again. No more fetters, ne. Ted checked a list he was holding, then looked at him pointedly and stepped into another cell. There was much less arguing this time. Joey glanced at the others, but none of them were looking at him. When Ted came out, he was followed by another young boy and…

"Joey Richter…" Sally whispered dreamily.

Time might have lulled to full stop right there, some magic force pausing it to accommodate for the racing beat of Joey's heart. Sally was staring at him and, for the first time, he was looking right at her properly and thinking she was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. Crooked ponytails, dirty thick glasses. He had missed her freckles. He gave her a smile, though nothing he could do or say felt like enough, not even conveying a fraction of how arhis mind was storming. Cautiously, he took a step towards her, reaching out a hand, but Ted grabbed it exasperatedly and used it to drag Joey forward, nodding him along the hall towards the stairs, the exit.

He had been outside not too long ago before being shoved into the hall and the cell, but the night sky had never felt better on Joey's skin. It was chilly, prickling his throat and lungs as he breathed it in, reminding him of his freedom with every exhale. He sighed out. The Jail looked huge from the very bottom of it, looming over them. They were out now. It could not trap them anymore.

"What's happening?" One of the girls asked. "What are you doing here?"

Ted frowned at her. Reluctantly, he pulled her and the others into a stiff hug which none of them reciprocated and he gave up much too quickly.

"Well, a thank you would be nice," he said, patting their backs. "Or 'how've you been' might do."

"No need to ask what you've been up to

She glared and pushed him away, looking at the scarf around his neck. Ted sighed.

"Let's get a little distance, alright? Junior's round has already passed this way but you never know who might come out."

They walked in silence for a few minutes. Ted alone seemed to know his way around the grounds and they followed him but, Joey noticed, not all of them with equal enthusiasm. His eyes met Sally's and he could feel his cheeks burn up with something unknown. They walked very close together, though he found nothing to say and, whenever they glanced at each other, one of them looked away shyly. The boy who was being carried yawned and nestled closer into the girl, nuzzling her neck comfortably.

"Alright," Ted said in a low voice, though no whisper anymore. "Alright, we're safe for now."

They were hidden from the Jail, stepping down rock stairs leading to a broad underground tunnel. There was some sound and the space was suddenly revealed as Ted lit up a torch.

"Okay," he said and Joey admired his confidence, how sure of himself he was even when facing danger. "Joey, this is Craphole, Mouthface, Alice and Deb, girls, that's Joey. He's… erm…"

Alice put a hand on her hip and gave him a sassy look.

"Your prisoner? That you kidnapped from his home, probably?"

Ted chuckled awkwardly, scratching his cheek.

"Yeah, that." He looked at Joey. "They're from where I used to live, I saw their names on the list of prisoners. I thought that, well, if I had to break you and sweetheart there out of here, I might as well…"

Even in the darkness, Joey saw clear as day the deep flush that took Sally's cheeks. It was pretty. Very, very pretty. She hugged herself timidly and he wanted to do something, maybe hold her hand, hold anything, but he gulped nervously and never did a thing. The boy which had been in her cell was standing very close to her anyways, his head leaning against Sally's arm. Joey looked away at the group around Ted.

"What about you?" He asked the fourth girl.

She was the smallest and, Joey realized, the loudest and angriest.

"It's insane that you'd jail out just a small fraction of the prisoners!" She cried out as if she had been waiting her turn to unleas. "It's lucky I was **in the same cell as Alice and Deb, or you'd have let me rot in there!"

"And as me…" Mouthface said softly but the girl ignored .

Ted pinched the brink of his nose, sighing out deeply. He hushed them forward into the tunnel, at a more leisurely pace now. Handing Joey the torch, he gestured for Mouthface to let him carry the snoozing boy and she reluctantly passed him over, though she shook her arms in relief when she was free.

"I can only take so many kids without being noticed," he told the girl. "Ever heard of something called gratitude?"

But she huffed and, nose up in the air, walked briskly to pass before him. Mouthface looked at her, pouting sadly, but said nothing.

"I am very thankful," the boy beside Sally said. "I can see in your heart, Sir, that you know the true meaning of helping your neighbor in times of need."

The girls snickered dubiously and Ted glared at them, but he corrected neither their taunting nor the boy's praise.

"What's the plan anyways?" Mouthface asked.

Ted hoisted up Craphole better in his arms, as he had fallen asleep entirely.

"Well, Joey and Sally are going back home," he said. "And you, buddy, I don't know where you live but I'll get you there next. And the rest of us go back to Sycamore and…"

But he stopped there when he noticed the expression taking over the girls' faces instantly at the mention of Sycamore.

"You don't know…" Deb muttered.

Ted frowned.

"What don't I know?"

It was a game of who would be the first one between Alice, Deb and Mouthface to crack and confess up. They looked at each other a dozen times before finally, Mouthface sighed and took the plunge.

"Dad burned down the farm. Sycamore's in ruins."

That made him pause. He looked at the girls with even greater confusion than before.

"It's burned?" He asked incredulously. "Was… was everyone okay?"

Deb shrugged.

"The Dikrats left cause they didn't want to own up to Emma," she said and Mouthface stared at the ground shamefully. "The rest of us pushed through but I can't imagine they'll rebuild any time soon. Emma was tight as a bow."

Ted hesitated for a second and Joey knew what was coming before he said it.

"How's Charlotte?"

Deb gave him a curious look and Joey remembered something about Charlotte being married already. He supposed it might have been a more secret affair than his conversations with Ted had let him believe.

"She's fine," she said blankly. "Ted, I don't really think Sycamore is a great option anymore, so how about…"

"It's the only option we got!"

Joey, thinking himself outside the realm of this conversation, turned back to Sally, but he found her in a silent battle of will with the boy who had been in the same cell as her. He wondered if he ought to intervene but before he could say a word, the boy grabbed Ted's sleeve.

"There is another option," he said earnestly.

"Robin…"

But he ignored her and spoke on.

"Sally is great scientist on a formidable quest for knowledge," he said, pointing at Sally.

"I'm really not…"

"And she was hoping to find Old New Hatchetfield's library to research the important matter of the origin of the radiations plaguing our world. Perhaps even the way to cure it."

Joey frowned, looking at her till the memory came back.

"Wait, you told me about that!"

She was flustered and turned from him shyly.

"You remember that?" She asked the rock wall of the tunnel.

"Of course! Of course I remember, you were saying you were reading that book and…"

The memories of that day were too painful to dwell on, but that part, at least, had stuck to him harmlessly. Sally pulled out that very book out of her cardigan's pocket.

"My copy is damaged," she explained, showing him pages that had stuck together without hope to pry them open intact. "I think it's the part that explains the reason our minds are so dampened and I wanted to go to Hatchetfield and…"

But Ted, interrupting, reached out and grabbed the book from her to have a look. He handed it back, brow furrowed. Cautiously balancing Craphole on one arm, he pulled a crinkled old map from his jacket and took a look at it. He shoved it back into his pocket and shook his head. Craphole let out a whistling little sound, but didn't wake.

"Nope," Ted said firmly. "No no no, we're not going further into the Rad Zone, we're getting out. Not happening."

Joey was about to protest but the last girl, the angry one, cut him to it.

"Like hell we are! You can't tell us what to do! We'll go to Hatchetfield if we want."

Mouthface nodded almost violently in approval.

"Yeah! Yeah, we'll do what she says!"

Whether she meant Sally or the girl, Joey wasn't sure. Ted could not believe his ears.

"Are you kids crazy? We're just at the edge of the Rad Zone and Joey's already been crying most days."

"I have not!" Joey retorted, a lie he hoped Sally would not see through. "I haven't cried at all!"

"And this guy's all knocked out," Ted went on, nodding his head down at Craphole. "I bet that's something to do with it too. I'm sure the rest of you haven't felt like yourselves. Look, we're not going, that's that."

Sally nodded, already on her way to stand by Ted. They had reached the end of the tunnel and, coming out into the night, the road ahead parted in two. One side into the Rad Zone, one side out of it. Ted took a few steps into the latter path but none of the children would follow him. Sally stood hesitantly in the middle, as did Joey, but as all of the others save for Craphole crossed towards the other side and stared at Ted victoriously, even they branched into the same road.

"We are going," Alice said, "and that's that."

"Come on!" He sighed in exasperation. "Guys, I do the decent thing to try and get you back to your families and all, and you're gonna pull that shit on me…"

Alice and the small girl crossed their arms tauntingly, Deb and Mouthface holding each other by the shoulders as they welcomed Sally among the group. Robin clutched her arm like he would never let her go.

"Alice, Deb, since when are you into all of that anyways…"

"I feel fine," Deb said. "So does Alice. If we're kids like you say, Ted, the zone isn't as dangerous for us."

"Kids," he grumbled under his breath. "Bratty kids, yeah. Joey, come on, you can't be serious? Let's get you home like you wanted."

"I wanted to find Sally again," he said firmly and Sally let out some near-silent squeal at that which made him feel very warm and very comfortable, to hell with the Rad Zone. "I'll do whatever it takes, we can't just… just not do it. Right, Ted?"

Ted looked at every individual kid, trying his luck, but evidently came up completely short. He even glanced down at Craphole, still asleep, drooling on his shoulder. Finally, he sighed out so dramatically Joey wondered if they might not be heard from the Jail after all.

"We're all gonna get ourselves killed," Ted said furiously, "and when we're all as dead as God, I'll kill you a second time for revenge."

Joey broke into a smile.

"Thank you, Ted!"

They ventured into the night and, to Joey, though it was dark and danger was likely lurking about, though they were heading towards a foolish hope for adventure, the road ahead had never seemed brighter.

Chapter Text

The desert was burning hot and exhausting and every dune and cliff looked like any other. Still, Ja'far was confident he knew the way to Old New Hatchetfield. He had a map in his notes, of course, to guide his way but even if he hadn't, he was certain he would have remembered it with his eyes closed. How could he not, the city that had led him to his one true love forever ago? The way there was marked in his heart whether he wished it or not, never forgotten.

The road was not how he had remembered it. Less populated, and by far, more treacherous too. Sherrezade and him had made well to stay away from the Rad Zone in their days of travels and adventures, but the zone had expanded since their time on the roads and he was finding himself in it long before he had marked its limits on his map thirteen years ago. Jack Bauer, Titty Mitty and their newfound friend Zazzalil had started complaining of headaches and painful thoughts. Ja'far thought himself the better off among their group, perhaps because being so used already to his mind plaguing him with sorrow, he hardly knew the difference between the dark thoughts the zone inflicted on him and the ones that were there at all times.

It helped that the group was getting along as well as they could, given the circumstances. Zazzalil's guilt to have destroyed the wagon made her all the more careful to help Titty Mitty around, carrying his supplies for him, lending him an arm to rest on whenever he needed, offering breaks and listening to his stories. Whether she enjoyed the old man's company or was simply pretending for her redemption, Ja'far could not tell for sure. Doubt made him lean towards the former, as Zazzalil was proving herself to be a very authentic, vivid companion to have around. Everything she did, she seemed to do with her whole heart and what she did not feel passion for, she did not do.

Encouraged by her better attitude, Jack Bauer had warmed up to her and they now got on as well as two people traversing the Rad Zone together could. The initial fight forgotten, they were realizing that they had much more in common than apart. Brash and a little bit too nonchalant towards the happenings of their existences, they were both dreamers, hopers. They had in them the vision of an easier life. When he had met Jack Bauer, Ja'far had thought it unlikely he would ever step up to the responsibilities brought by his plans for a better life. Every day, however, both him and Zazzalil were proving themselves more ready, more willing to work their way towards it. Every day, they relied on his guidance, no matter how often he insisted that his cleverness was no greater than theirs, if only they would trust themselves to think things through properly. He almost felt a father again, but the thought made him sad and quiet and he gave no advice anymore.

"How much farther?" Titty Mitty asked, panting.

Jack Bauer was helping Zazzalil hold him up but the old man was limping worse than ever and whimpering in pain just as much from his legs as from his memories every passing hour. Ja'far handed him the map to have a look, pointing to their current location and the distance from Hatchetfield.

"This is what we've done from Independence," he said, showing the three companions. "And this is what still needs to be crossed."

Jack Bauer tried to smile. His good cheer seemed to be sapped from him every step they took into the Rad Zone. Without it, he was a shadow of himself, but he still tried.

"Not much more, then," he said. "You hear that, dad? We'll be there and you can rest up."

"Yes," Titty Mitty replied, "And also, I can rest up."

The smile was more genuine then and Jack Bauer secured his grip on the old man's back to keep him steady.

"Yeah, dad. That too."

Zazzalil took the map from Ja'far to have a closer look. She could not read, but she had an understanding of it and she had memorized the different places Ja'far had told her about. She traced several paths with her fingertips forlornly. Ja'far touched her shoulder and smiled encouragingly, but she just shrugged and gave him the map back.

"We'll find answers there," she said. "I hope we do."

That was the hope that pushed them through every day. Ja'far was eagerly awaiting the moment they would finally reach Hatchetfield's library and the knowledge it held, surely in these matters as well. Thinking on old memories, his heart tightened with dread as well, but that was nothing he had never felt before.

He thought of Jasmyn. She had never been much of a reader, though he had taught her her letters and numbers. She much preferred to be out in the world, actively living a thrill of an existence. Still, sometimes they had read together in the rare moments she could be quiet and those were some of his fondest memories. He remembered her when she was just starting to walk, how Sherrezade would tell her stories all day long to captivate her. How she would hold her in her arms when she got tired and tuck her to sleep at night, give her toys she whittled from branches and sticks, kiss her little cheeks and hands, collect flowers to make her crowns and call her her little princess. Sherrezade had loved Jasmyn so very much. She had loved him, too. She had loved stories and the sun and her family and flowers. Poppies had been her favorite, even from before he had met her.

His mind swirling with such memories, he did not notice it at first. Any patch of sand was just the same as the next and though he knew his way around, even his eyes got bored of the landscape after a while. Tired as he was however, head aching acutely, he could not help but spot the dot of red among yellows and beiges. He blinked, but the red was still there when he looked again. Squinting to have a better look, he noticed… He had been lagging behind, as he preferred to keep watch on his companions when they walked, but the sight made him trot and soon run as fast as his thirteen-year-exhausted body would let him.

"Sherrezade!"

She was there. He saw it, knew it in his heart. Picking poppies from the field around Old New Hatchetfield, smiling at a foreign boy like she knew him already, and perhaps in another life she had. He ran and the sight became sharper, her shape he never could get out of his mind, the red scarf, round cheeks, kind smile, glinting eyes. How could Jack Bauer and Zazzalil not run alongside him? Or, Dead-God be praised, why didn't the sight even give Titty Mitty back the legs of his youth? He ran so fast his heart was playing the most rapid symphony of joy in his chest. She was smiling, waving at him, and how he was craving to hold her in his arms again, to love her forever and ever, as long as he would live and perhaps even after that.

"Ja'far…"

She was calling his name, beckoning him to her and she sat down invitingly cross-legged in the field of poppies, and her eyes were so very brown and gorgeous and warm and he was almost there…

He sank to the ground to embrace nothing but hot air and nothingness. For a moment he could not believe it and looked around frantically, searching for the trick which had led his beloved to disappear from his grasp. Reality caught up with him with the weight of thirteen years of heartache shrouding him again at once. He wept, falling to the ground, his face between his folded arms. He had thought himself safe from the Rad Zone's treachery. No one was safe. Sherrezade had not been safe, either.

"Ja'far," the voice said again and he now recognized it as Zazzalil's. "Are you okay?"

He felt a hand gently stroking his back, but he was in no state to be seen of others and hid his sob from any who should witness. He missed her. He missed Jasmyn. He missed the person he had been, carefree and trusting that tomorrow would shine as brightly as the sun, back when love had been the only thing to bother himself with. He missed the life he had had.

"I… don't think he's okay, Zazz," Jack Bauer noted.

Ja'far clutched the grass beneath his fingers. It was dry and more orange than the luscious green of his memories. There was just a small patch of it perched on top of the dune, peppered with a dozen poppy flowers whose vermillion was so vibrant it nearly blinded his sight when he finally sat up. He wiped his eyes and cheeks with the cuff of his sleeve, tucked his scarf closer. That should have alerted him, he noted too late. How could Sherrezade be wearing her old scarf when he had it around the neck himself? If nothing else, if not the daughter they had made together, at least he still had her scarf. At least he still had his memories, no matter how painful.

"Yes, I am," he replied evenly. Already he pulled his bag open and plucked the flowers to drop them in one by one. His stash had ran out some time ago. He had missed the bitter taste and the relief it brought him. "I'm perfectly fine."

"Erm…"

He touched Zazzalil's arm and looked into her eyes, smiling kindly.

"There's no reason for you to fret. Not about me. Let's worry about the children and Dead-God will worry about us."

She nodded reluctantly. The Rad Zone had a way to make her sadder, sluggish. Jack Bauer glanced between the two of them.

"We'll stop for the day," he said, though it was much earlier than they were used to.

Titty Mitty sighed in relief and dropped to the ground unceremoniously. Scooting closer to Ja'far, he gave him a crooked smile. Many of his teeth were missing but the warmth of it made Ja'far's heavy heart a little bit lighter.

"You seen her too," he told Ja'far without an ounce of hesitation. "Your darlin', I forgot her name."

Ja'far looked down as he dropped the last poppy into his bag.

"Sherrezade," he said grimly.

Titty Mitty nodded. Jack Bauer was looking through their supplies to make a small fire for Ja'far but Zazzalil slapped his hands away to light it herself. He glared, but she paid him no mind as she set the small pot over the flames and poured some water into it. Ja'far squeezed her hand in gratitude and took one flower from his now slightly replenished stash, waiting for the water to start boiling.

"I know what that's like," Titty Mitty said. "My wife, I seen her many, many times before, but never for real."

It was hot and the fire made it much worse, but the grassy ground under them was making their rest much more soothing.

"You have, haven't you?" Ja'far said politely.

Jack Bauer would sometimes bicker with the old man whenever he dived back into some of his outrageous tales. Ja'far found it easier to let everything slide. Zazzalil seemed hardly to notice that he had stopped making sense most likely years ago.

"Yeah," Titty Mitty went on, his face between his palms as he stared at the water, waiting for the tea to be served. "I think that's just Cornwallis being petty with me, though. I know it's not really her, it's just a trick he plays. He's magical, you know. Been a while since he sent me anything, though."

Jack Bauer snorted. The water was starting to bubble a little at the bottom of the pot and Ja'far took out cups. Dropping the flower into the water, it tinted it a faded dark red getting more vivid as he let it infuse on. He had always loved the way water seeped everything good from the flower for him to drink. Poppy tea cleansed his mind and soul. He served his companions first, then himself.

"I fear I've angered your Cornwallis as well, then," Ja'far said, sipping some tea.

Already he was soothed, already the infusion coursed its peaceful charm through him.

"No no no," Titty Mitty said, "That's just to me. You're probably just turnin' crazy."

"There's nothing crazy about missing your wife," Jack Bauer retorted. He drank and went on, "I miss Slippery When Wet too, it's only… That's how it works."

Zazzalil nodded. She was playing with the fire but burned her fingertips and snatched her hand away.

"I…" She hesitated and gulped down a large sip of tea. She coughed a little at the heat but spoke on. "I think it's normal to miss someone if you've spent lots of time with them but suddenly not at all anymore. Isn't it?"

Ja'far looked at her curiously. In her acute desire to make things right by them and to assist them on their quest to their lost children, she had barely spoken about herself at all and certainly not about any snippet of her past, partner or not. The realization that she might have such a person made him feel ashamed for not having asked.

"Of course," he said, patting her arm gently. "It's… It's impossible not to."

"Right…"

The grief of the mirage was slowly becoming more dull, more part of the bulk of his painful past rather than of an unbearable present. Sherrezade was hardly a practical concern of his anymore, he thought, long gone as she was. He had much better focus on the current search for the children, for their salvation was yet in the realm of possibilities. Then, he could indulge in nostalgia again.

"Not all is lost already," he said, looking at Jack Bauer. "Or, if so, not all is lost forever. If we find our way to the children, and we may well be able to once we reach Hatchetfield, then there is still time and opportunity to find Slippery When Wet after that. There is always time to make things right."

Jack Bauer seemed hardly to believe him, but he nodded anyways.

"We can make that a promise," Zazzalil offered, holding up a hand to shake Jack Bauer's. "When we got the kids, then we'll help each other get back our… erm… your wife. We'll find your wife. Maybe even yours."

She looked at Ja'far at those words, who didn't have it in his heart to assure her of the futility of such a search. Jack Bauer was a much more receptive audience to her words anyways, graciously taking the hand and shaking it energetically. Both of them were getting back to their senses, to their endearing charm.

"It's a promise, then," she said with satisfaction. "Then I can find J-Mills and maybe apologize a little bit…"

She shook her head. Jack Bauer and Ja'far glanced at each other but as neither were particularly keen to infringe on Zazzalil's privacy, nothing more was said and nothing was asked. Ja'far stared at the burgundy tea left in his cup.

"We're close," he said. "Poppies grow all around Old New Hatchetfield, a much greater field than this. But if they have spread to here, even a small patch like this one seems to point us the right way."

"We'll be there very soon then," Jack Bauer said reassuringly. "And we'll finally get to ask for everything we need."

Ask they might, Ja'far thought. He wondered if they would like the answers.

Chapter Text

"Mega-Girl!" Junior snarled bitterly. "We're leaving. NOW!"

He left the hall in a huff of anger under the sneers of the assembly of the Black Scarves. Mega-Girl followed in his trail and the door was slammed shut behind them. The temperature was much lower outside the building and his fury made Junior glow in a faint white cloud. He turned to her.

"How dare they," he started in a threatening tone, waving his hands around like working himself up would change anything to his treatment by his peers, "think they can disobey my orders like that?! I'm in charge of this mission! The boss picked me! I got my own squad and everything!"

Mega-Girl stood there, letting him run out of his own steam.

"And where in dead hell is Ted? I bet he's on one of his horny escapes again. Probably found himself someone to fuck in some hidden nook instead of doing his fucking job… Argh!"

He kicked a boulder which turned out to be heavier than he had expected and he groaned in pain, grabbing his foot to massage it away. Folded over, he leaned back against the wall and crouched down. He stared at the ground silently for a moment.

"Unlikely. Ted has not been on personal outings since we found the weakling boy," Mega-Girl noted.

She was trying to be helpful, as per her assignment. Ruling out an unlikely hypothesis on where exactly Ted might have run off to. In this moment, she suddenly found herself observing in her internal circuits the thought that Ted's presence would currently be much appreciated by her. She frowned at the realization and immediately told herself she must be mistaken. Her chip was broken. She could not feel, not even mild affection for coworkers. Not for Ted and especially not for others, no matter how fondly and frequently Tootsie tried to instil otherwise. Certainly not for Junior, though there was no doubt there in the first place.

"Yeah, cause we were in the fucking desert," he retorted, looking up to throw her an irritated glare. "Get yourself a brain, Mega-Girl, will you?"

He laughed.

"Or whatever it is you got that counts as one. Dead-God, between you, Ted and that dumbass we picked up, what a fine squad I have gotten myself…"

"Tootsie is not so idiotic," she said. "Not about everything."

He frowned quizzically, staring through her as if she had given him the riddle of the century, but before he could say a thing, the door was pushed open near them and the idiot in question joined them. He was smiling broadly and came to stand right next to her. Junior pulled himself to his feet. He hated not feeling like the bigger man.

"Hey guys," Tootsie said cheerfully. "What a party, huh?"

Junior snorted, looking at Mega-Girl in a "what'd I tell you" sort of way. She said nothing.

"They say that Mara's the best dancer in the world and they don't want her to stop." He paused and looked at Mega-Girl pointedly. "I don't, though. I don't… I don't care about that stuff at all."

If Mega-Girl wasn't broken, if she still had an intact behavior chip or perhaps yet if she was a human, she might have felt some relief or even pleasure in that remark. As she was a dangerous damaged robot, however, she felt nothing. Tootsie scratched through his hair. The desert sun had given it a bit of a shine, somewhat lighter than it had been when they had first met. He shrugged.

"They're sayin' they've changed their minds," he said. "They don't wanna go on with the mission, they're stayin' here infinitely."

"Indefinitely," Junior corrected with disdain.

Tootsie squinted.

"Huh?"

But Junior's patience had reached its limits with Tootsie and he ignored him. He held his chin in reflection.

"What about the kids?" He asked himself. Frowning deeper, he repeated, "What about the kids…"

Suddenly he was on the move, walking so briskly towards the entrance to the Jail, the wing where their captives were held, that he might as well have been trotting. Tootsie looked at Mega-Girl, who didn't look back and caught up with Junior. They walked up the stairs and she could sense the anger coming back in full swing in Junior's stride. Long empty halls lined with cells on both sides where weak human children were huddling for warmth and comfort. At the end of the first hall, they found the evidence Junior had been looking for in the person of a guard unconscious on his chair.

"Oh wow, he's able to nap just like that, sittin' up," Tootsie admired. "That's some balance."

"He's not napping, he's been knocked out, you dumbass!"

"Oh…"

Further along the hall, one of the cells was wide open and unsurprisingly empty of any of its previous prisoners. Another sleeping guard a little way away. Junior looked like a bloodhound, scouring every corridor searching for and finding betrayal several times more.

"The dog," he spat out. "The asshole! After everything I've done for him!"

He ran back down the stairs into the cold night air outside.

"What's…" Tootsie was catching up. "What's goin' on, then?"

Junior shoved a finger into his chest.

"I'll tell you what's going on! Ted has fucking up and left us, and he's taken a litter of kids with! Oh, that fucking scumbag."

"How'd you know it was him?"

Tootsie looked up at the starry sky as if he were to find a mysterious captor in the cloudless horizon instead. Junior paused. Viciously, he turned to Mega-Girl and took a small step towards her, shoulders square, making himself as big, as threatening as he could.

"No, the real question is how did you not?"

Mega-Girl tried to make a quick calculation of what he was saying but the connection was not made. He was talking nonsense.

"Ted is not my liability," she said with some annoyance. "I have no obligation to watch over him."

But Junior had put the idea in his mind that he was right and went on.

"The kid fucking is! And he's gone! With whoever else he decided to take with. You knew he was making buddy-buddy with that fattie but did you do anything to stop it, huh?"

Ted had been growing closer to their prisoner, that was accurate. Mega-Girl had supposed that the pathetic human need for connection was to blame there. Junior evidently lay the blame somewhere else.

"All because you were too busy playing sweethearts with this idiot," he shouted, gesturing at Tootsie who had been anxiously observing the argument, but looked away flustered at the notion of him and Mega-Girl being sweethearts. "Is that more important than your job, than your one and only purpose? Getting your steel ass laid or whatever the fuck you two do when you're together? You're made for one thing and one thing only, Mega-Girl, and that's obeying orders. Obeying me."

At that, Tootsie perked up and tried to altercate himself between the two of them.

"That's not all she can do!" He said vehemently. "There's so much more than that. She could do whatever she likes!"

"Oh, shut up," Junior retorted, rolling his eyes. "You don't get to grow a conscience too, one's enough for the night."

He fumbled to get his weed stash from his jacket to roll himself a joint. Blowing the smoke into Mega-Girl's face, he added.

"We'll find Ted," he said. "And the kids he took with. And when we do, it will be your personal responsibility and your pleasure to bring them to the boss your own self. And the dumbass too, for good measure."

He took another long, slow drag, as if he were letting the power of it imbue him with strength the longer he held it in, and blew it out in a long stripe up into the air.

"I liked Ted," he said wistfully. "He was a funny guy and he was good with a gun. Wish he'd stayed longer." Another puff of smoke. "But he's dead to me now. Or he wishes he were."

He glanced at Mega-Girl again.

"Find traces of him," he ordered. "If he thinks he can just slip away like that, he's got another surprise coming."

Without a word, Mega-Girl set herself to the task of finding a sign of which direction Ted might have gone in. The Jail was located right at the earliest borders of the Rad Zone. She suspected he would have taken the boy back home as he had often whiningly begged to. The others, she could not say.

"Mega-Girl," Tootsie whispered to her, a little way away from Junior. "Hey, are you alright? You seem a lil… erm…"

Junior was right, she thought. He was stupid. He didn't even know how dangerous she was. If he did, then surely, he would not play up his little lie of affection for her. He would not even consider it.

"Robots are not alright," she replied at her usual volume. "I am neither fine nor upset. I am functional. It is all that is required of me."

She lit up her chest back lights to better look at the ground. Sand looked just like sand, however…

"Signs of treading detected," she said.

Junior smiled with satisfaction, smoking the last of his joint and throwing the butt over his shoulder. He looked at the footprints she pointed him to. A large patch of them, they were narrowing into a specific direction in a line of several people's width. They advanced well into the desert, on and on.

"Well, looks like we're on a hunt again," he said wickedly. "And this time, the prize is mine."

Chapter Text

Charlotte was the one who spotted them first. For so long she had been on the lookout for silhouettes in the distance, for whichever man in her life to come rescue her from solitude and despair, yet when an actual shape became visible between two sand hills, she kept her tongue and only nudged Up, nodding towards the group on the road ahead. He was the one who made a fuss of it.

"Lookie there," he cried out to Taz, who was driving, and turned to the rest of them with a big grin across his face. "Do you see this, friends? We found 'em!"

Emma had been lulled almost to sleep by the quiet roar of the motor but shook right awake when it stopped abruptly.

"Fuck…"

Charlotte sat calmly in the front seat, leaning her head out the window to have a look, and let out a gasp at the sight. Bill was the one who stepped out first. He was batting his arms, shouting in the near distance to grab the others' attention.

"ALICE!" He cried out. "SWEETHEART! I'M HERE, IT'S ME!"

Emma rubbed her eyes and took the hand Paul offered to step out of the van. It wasn't just Alice, she saw. Of course, Deb, thank Dead-God for these two not being separated even in misery. She startled at seeing Mouthface and Craphole, whom she had expected never to meet again. Another few kids she did not know, though by their reaction she made the math at once that Taz and Up had found their own little prisoners as well.

"Well, if it isn't Joey Richter and Miss Sally!" Up said much too cheerfully for the earnest of the situation.

Emma squinted dubiously at the adult that was with the kids. From the distance, she saw the black scarf and grabbed her gun in hand, but none of the children seemed fearful or restrained. As the two groups approached each other in entirety, she recognized the man.

"Oh, the fucking nerve of him…"

But whatever confrontation she was about to launch was interrupted by the embrace of Bill and Alice, so tight she wondered if he wouldn't suffocate the poor girl. Deb got her hug as well and Paul joined in on the reunion. Up was fussing over Joey and Sally, Taz assessing their well-being until a third child presented himself, having hidden behind the girl.

"Commander Up and Ranger Taz," the boy said with a salute. "It is good to meet again."

"Oh!" Up cooed, pulling the young boy in his arms. "It's such a relief to find you, little buddy! Taz, do you see this? It's Robin!"

Taz appraised him with as much of a smile as she was capable, palmed his arms.

"You done good without us, little Robin. You break everyone out yourself, right? You're a tough one."

"Oh I remember when he was just a teeny little lad…"

A pair of tiny arms around her waist surprised Emma and she looked down at Craphole's little beaming face. She patted his hair, which had grown longer in the weeks without him − or was it months? − and fell in his eyes.

"Well, well, well, look who's there…"

She had never been exceptionally fond of children, tolerating their presence for the sake of their parents. Poor Craphole and his sister had been good kids, simply stuck with a useless puppy dog of a dad, but it seemed that fate had unstuck them from him. Fate with a black scarf around its neck.

"We missed you, Miss Perkins!" He said though she doubted that was true. Craphole was more the kind who forgot anything that wasn't jiggled in front of his eyes after five minutes.

"I missed you too, kiddo," she said kindly, regardless of how especially true or not it was. "You got taken too, huh?"

Mouthface was joining them, very eagerly accepting the embrace Emma offered. She didn't remember her as particularly needy but circumstances made lost children more incline to take whatever affection they could get, she supposed. In truth, she had never had a feud with these two and she realized that she was feeling some joy over the reunion after all. If they could just kick Ted's ass, go back to the city, wait for the Dikrats to show their ugly faces and hand them back their kids, then everything would be just fine. Alice had her face pressed into her father's chest, his arms tight around her as he gave the crown of her head a thousand kisses.

"Yeah," Mouthface said. "Yeah, us and Jasmyn, but Mr Ted broke us out."

Ted stepped closer, finally joining the group after standing to the side during the warm greetings. Emma glanced at Charlotte and found her staring resolutely at the ground, though her face was redder than her hair. She let Mouthface go to better see Ted, though she didn't need a close-up to note the scarf still firmly wrapped around his neck.

"So is this what you do?" She said disdainfully. "Kidnap kids and drop them into their parents' hands again when it suits you? Are you expecting a ransom?"

Ted's mouth opened, his brow deeply furrowed, and he took a second to answer.

"What the… Dude, I didn't know the Black Scarves were evil at first, but when I did, I risked my ass to bail them out, I was gonna take them home!"

"Home…" Charlotte wondered.

Ted looked at her but, for once in her life, Charlotte refused him the attention so desired by him and it was Ted who looked heartbroken. Emma had not known him to have a heart. Nor one which was especially swayed by Charlotte. He had seemed more guided by his dick than anything in their previous relation. She frowned, but went back to the much more urgent matter at hand.

"Home, huh? You were walking deeper into the Rad Zone. Don't they have maps at the Black Scarves HQ or wherever it is you've been?"

Joey joined Ted, a hand on his shoulder, to explain better. He was a chubby kid who looked about the same age as the girls, and looked at Ted like he was the only good thing left in the dead world. Emma frowned even more.

"We're going to Old New Hatchetfield," he said and Emma's guts twisted. "Sally thinks we can find out what makes the Rad Zone radiate and we wanna fix it."

"It is a noble task which fate has bestowed upon us," Robin said dramatically and Emma was overtaken with a desire to slap his head to shut him up or at the very least wedgie him, but as he was just a tiny boy, she did neither. "Though with a pair of willing hands, there is nothing any of us can't accomplish."

"Yeah, so, that," Ted said, shrugging vaguely. "The kids wouldn't come, what did you expect me to do?"

Emma punched the flat of her fist into his chest, not too hard but Ted still let out a small grunt and recoiled.

"I expected you to stay at Sycamore where we were safe from the zone and where you had a life and people who needed you," she hissed. "But you had to go play hero and you're doing it again!"

"Now, come on," Up said and not for the first time, Emma sighed in advance at whatever cheesy useless crap he would be saying. "Ted, is it? Ted, I'm sure you meant the best. I'm thinking that Robin is speaking really beautiful words right now, ain't he…"

Having tried his luck with Charlotte, miserably failed with Emma herself, Ted was now trying to look at Bill and Paul for support, but neither of them had the guts to either firmly support him or openly reject the plan. Emma could have yelled in frustration.

"What causes the radiations…" Paul whispered. "I'd never really thought of their origin, I just thought they were like, there."

"If we can fix it," Taz said with some hesitation, "Then that makes life better for so many people…"

The kids nodded, proud of their disaster of a plan. Emma started to note with horror that even her group seemed to be convinced one by one. Taz and Up were already fully on board and Paul looked at least curious about the idea. There was no hope getting anything out of Charlotte but Bill…

"Come on," Emma told him, "You're not gonna agree to this? Don't you see how dangerous this is? It's the Rad fucking Zone!"

He came somewhat to his senses. Taking Alice by the hand, he pulled her to him.

"Alice, sweetie, Emma's right. Let's just go back, we'll find a home and…"

But Alice pushed him away.

"No," she said firmly. "I'm not some kid you can boss around anymore. I'll go to Hatchetfield whether you want it or not."

"But… but sweetheart, it's so dangerous, and I can't leave you here without me…"

"What do you mean, without you?" Ted cut in. "We're not splitting up. We're all in this together."

He was aiming that part at Charlotte and, for the first time, she looked up at him with widened eyes, though Emma would have been at a loss to describe what they conveyed. Her lip quivered a little. The stare lingered awkwardly as everyone around wondered if they ought to intervene. Finally, Paul came to the rescue.

"But what about the effects of the radiations?" He asked. "They say it gives you bad dangerous thoughts and…"

At that, Deb perked up. Stepping towards them, she produced a blunt from her pocket which was half consumed already.

"Not a problem," she said simply. "Weirdest thing but like, when I've smoked pot, I feel totally better for at least a day. I kinda noticed that when we were captured and now that we've been in the zone for a bit, it's helped a lot. I feel totally fine."

All heads around snapped to her and it was a cacophony of outrage.

"You've been sitting on that for days?!"

"You could have shared!"

"What kinda weird ass cure is this?"

A voice of reason spoke up in the person of Jasmyn, that girl who seemed to have no adult to answer to even now.

"We don't have enough for everyone," she said coldly. "That's stupid."

Mouthface was looking at her like she was a beacon of wisdom across the wasteland and Emma was almost sorry for her when Paul spoke. More than anything, she was sorry for herself.

"Emma has her bag full," he said. "If… weed… helps with the thoughts, then we're set."

Emma's reserves had only slightly shrunk since they had been on the road as she made a habit of sharing a joint with Paul whenever he would take it. Very hesitantly, she slid her backpack off her shoulders to offer evidence of the supply to the assembly.

"Oh wow," Bill sighed in relief. "It's so lucky you brought so much with us, Emma!"

She wanted to scoff at him but said nothing.

"Lucky, yes."

She was out of excuses to run away back home, wherever home was anymore. The prospect of going back to Hatchetfield was terrifying, yet leaving the others to that fate, leaving Paul behind, was even worse. Being on her own wasn't an issue unless it meant being apart from who she cared about.

They set out in the van. It had been driving alright with six of them on board but adding to its weight nine new people was slowing down the journey considerably. It was less comfortable, too. Taz was driving while Up gathered Joey, Sally and Robin with him on the front row, which was dangerously cramped but he said he couldn't bear to be away from them anymore and, though Taz showed open disgust at his words, she was making sparse conversation with the children as well and seemed to be appreciating their presence, however packed they were together.

Bill was sitting in the middle row with Paul, Alice, Deb and Mouthface, who looked like she wanted more than anything in the world to sit on the back row of the crowded van instead. Emma gave one glance between her and that other girl Jasmyn and concluded quite decidedly that it wasn't Craphole Mouthface was longing to sit next to. She couldn't say if the sentiment was mutual, though since the girl had had a puff of weed, she was acting much less prickly and was making pleasant conversation with the boy on her lap. Then sat Emma, who had the misfortune of sitting next to Ted on the other side and then, tucked very close to the van's door, Charlotte.

They had talked, miracle of dear Dead-God, actual words exchanged between them. Emma had tried to ignore the conversation but, she soon had come to realize, the efforts to maintain it were exceedingly one-sided and Charlotte was giving Ted bare minimum answers when at all required. There was a shyness to her that wasn't anything new, but which had become so overpowered by Charlotte's apathy as of late that it was almost a relief for her silence to come from hesitation or reluctance rather than the boozed up lethargy they had been used to. Far from discouraged, Ted was telling her about the sights he had seen, the people he had met, and though he never made the motion to touch her, their legs were brushing with every jerking of the motor and his arm gripped the back of the decrepit leather seat Charlotte was sitting in. Emma might have interrupted or distracted him if it weren't for the smile she spotted occasionally hiding behind Charlotte's bashful timidity.

They stopped for the night and Emma rolled some blunts for everyone to grab a drag of. The boys, thank Dead-God, were too young for the radiations to really hit and skipped their turns. The teenagers were made to get their dose, no matter how reluctantly for some of them. The adults weren't any better off. Up coughed on smoke, entirely unused to it, and it was only because of their old life in Sycamore that even Bill could manage a sufficient dose to feel better. Emma turned to offer some to Paul, but before she could say a word, Charlotte put a hand at the crook of his elbow to ask.

"Do you want to join us to hunt dinner? Up is teaching me to shoot."

Paul was as surprised by the offer as Emma. This was the first time Charlotte had shown initiative in doing anything in longer than they could think of. Perhaps because he was sincerely interested, perhaps to support that new development, Paul nodded.

"Sure, yeah. Okay."

"I wanna come!" Craphole cried. "Mom only took Mouthface and Jas and never me, but I'm not too little anymore!"

Up chuckled fondly and petted the boy's hair.

"That's right, my man," he said. "You're never too little to do anything."

They left together as the others made camp around Emma. She looked at the shape of Charlotte and Paul walking away. Finally tearing her eyes from it, she noticed at once that Ted had not missed the departure either. Their frowning gazes met but they both looked away. It was some time before the hunting party came back, chattering merrily together.

"Charlotte was amazing!" Up said, pointing to her proudly. "Born to be a marksman!"

Charlotte made some self-conscious noise but the grin she was refraining was as much evidence that she was sharing his pride. Up was carrying the game and Paul…

"Aww," Mouthface said, taking the sleeping Craphole from Paul's arms to cradle him against her. "A dumb little baby. The zone makes him sleepy."

Paul looked around before spotting Emma a little way away from the group, her back to the trunk of a dead tree, smoking another blunt. She passed it to him. Him knowing the effects of it now was unimportant. It still felt like their moments just the two of them, same as before. It still felt leisurely and oh so important.

"That was cute," she said. "What you did."

"Carrying Craphole? Yeah, my back is gonna kill me tomorrow."

She huffed out a laugh and leaned her head back against the tree, turning to look at him. The actual proximity between them became much more evident when he turned his head as well but neither of them made any move to scoot away. She smiled.

"No, I meant like… with Charlotte. Going with. I know you're scared of guns."

"I'm not scared of guns," he tried to retort but his vehemence was lost at a single quirk of her eyebrow. "Okay, maybe a little…"

He smiled. Emma was noticing the details in the color of his eyes, the exact shape of his mouth, the stubble. She looked away and closed her eyes.

"We should probably all learn to protect ourselves a little better," he said after a while. "With the… you know… I mean, it's good skills to have."

"Uh huh," she nodded, thinking of how useless her own gun had been when overpowered by a larger group of armed men.

"And if I didn't go with them, who would?"

Emma smirked.

"Well, I know who would have wanted to," she said in a low voice, so as not to be heard.

The very same Ted was making his approach onto Charlotte again, asking her more about the hunting and what she had learned, offering her private lessons if she so wished… Emma might have shouted for him to leave her alone, but whatever Charlotte herself muttered back to him put an end to the conversation as she joined Up by the campfire to help him cook. Ted walked away forlornly to drop with all his weight next to Joey, who patted his back kindly.

"How long till she lets him woo her again?" Paul asked.

"What makes you think she ever will?"

In the corner of her eye, she saw that Paul was looking at her but when she turned, he had already looked away. He was smiling. His fingers brushed against hers when he handed her the joint again.

"I have a hunch," he said, "that some feelings just can't be contained forever."

They finished the joint in silence, but the words left unsaid between them, Emma thought, were the best conversation she could remember in a long time.

Chapter Text

Bruce was having a hard time believing he was actually traveling with the man who had so often been the object of his hatred and frustration. Much less believable still, he was discovering himself not displeased by the arrangement. Far from him to let his appreciation known, but it was a comfort after some time spent in great sorrow.

They chatted sparsely on the road. Bruce's body had gained back some of its former strength again, by sheer will or with the help of the bitter beverage Clark kept insisting on him taking. It was some liquor, Bruce had realized after a few doses, though very concentrated and without the pleasant buzz. They got along fine. Clark was avoiding any bragging about his person and for that at least, Bruce was grateful. At night, they made fire and slept next to each other, Krypto between them. Often, they talked. Just as often, they did not. Clark showed himself friendly either way.

Despite having somewhat recuperated, Bruce did not feel on par with Clark. He never had, had he? Even with his companion keeping his advantage of strength, endurance and perception on the down low for an unknown new reason that had never been there before, Bruce felt weaker, less capable. His thoughts, negative as they were, were manageable when he kept himself well doused, but especially because Clark made every effort to show himself serviceable and humble. Without his help, Bruce did not know how survivable the Rad Zone would be. They had been traveling for days.

"Okay," Clark was explaining, "We'll climb that sand cliff. It's the highest perch a long way around, I think we'll see much farther into the zone from up there."

He kept everything on a strict 'we' level, avoiding the attention to himself he had seemed to crave and create before. As if Bruce would be of any more help from the top of the cliff than from down here, though. Clark alone had the mutant super vision that would guide them to the lost children, to Robin. Still, for Bruce's sake, he would not point himself out as the actual savior. Bruce was grateful. He was also ashamed, both for his compared weakness and for the needed reassurance.

"Sounds good."

Clark offered a hand for him to climb the small ledge towards a path up the sand hill. Bruce took it. He had learned to trust him at least that far. Clark smiled broadly and nodded him the way up. Ever so kind, almost insufferably so but not quite. Just enough to be tolerable. Or even more than that. Bruce fiddled with the straps of his backpack nervously, looking down at the rocky ground under his feet. The road was steep and he was feeling a little out of breath but refused to let it show. He also refused to ask Clark for another gulp of the draught, for fear he would think him even more pathetic than he already must. But that was the darkness of his own insecurity speaking, he thought, for Clark had indeed as of recent completely ceased to flaunt his strength and taunt Bruce's. Whatever sentiment of inferiority was his doing alone.

"Hey, erm, Clark," he started and felt very awkward before the admission had even passed his lips.

"Mmh?"

Clark kicked a small boulder and sent it flying all the way to the other side of the hill. Krypto went running for it. Bruce sighed.

"I meant to say that I'm… eh… I'm sorry about…"

He saw the smile starting to quirk up Clark's lips and his stomach twisted oddly.

"I was… I mean, you were there, you know, but I was kind of a real jerk before and…"

But he suddenly blinked and the rest of his apology was never found. He had not planned it anyways, just expressing what the spur of the moment was inspiring him to, and every thought that had been even slightly neat just this instant fled his mind. He stopped thinking about it, too focused on another looming worry.

"There's someone over there."

Clark's reflexes were as excellent as ever, of course. In the Rad Zone, meeting with travelers of the wasteland meant meeting trouble and he was quick to shove Bruce behind him defensively and produce a gun from seemingly thin air. The worry was short lived, however.

"I don't think they're dangerous," he said with relief. "It's just two…"

The very description he was going to give was cut short by one of the figures in the distance drawing a gun and pointing it decidedly in their direction. The voice boomed in the emptiness of the wasteland.

"Names and intentions," the woman holding the gun said. "Or I won't hesitate."

Clark made his confident way up the path, hands in the air though one was still holding the gun. Having reached the two women on top of the cliff, he holstered it and held up a friendly hand. Krypto was at his side, dropping the boulder he had fetched to the ground and sitting down obediently. Bruce trotted to catch up, hiding how much he was panting, pretending to look at the view in the distance rather than catching his breath. The woman looked at the hand suspiciously and some stressful time passed before she slowly lowered her gun and took it.

"Clark and Bruce," Clark said, gesturing. "We're looking for some lost kids."

The women immediately looked at each other with widened eyes and one of them broke into a smile. It was the one who had not threatened their lives − yet.

"We're looking for lost kids too," she said, giving both of them a warm energetic handshake, still smiling. "Her children were taken by Black Scarves, we've been looking for them. Name's Jemilla."

Bruce shuddered at the memory of Robin's kidnapping suddenly recalled sharply. He turned to Clark, who gave the women a polite smile.

"Well, misses, it's just your day of luck that I think I'm gonna get a pretty good idea of where they're at."

He stepped towards the highest point of the cliff, perching himself on top and holding a flat hand above his brow to better see. The women stared at Bruce, who grunted and joined Clark to behold the vast expanse of the wasteland himself. Miles, hundreds of miles of identical yellow-ish sand. He sighed.

"How's he hope to see them better than we did?" The other woman, the small dangerous one said. "It's not like we haven't looked ourselves, sir."

Clark seemed almost embarrassed to have to explain, no matter the fact that modesty had never been a habit of his. But then, Bruce thought, for his part he had never thought that traveling and cooperating with Clark would be a habit either.

"Super vision," Clark said, waving fingers at his eyes before going back to his keen observation.

The woman was greatly impressed and tried a better look into the distance herself, in vain.

"Well, what do you see? We ain't got that much time, who knows what they've done to the kids by now…"

Bruce hushed her. Clark was meticulously scanning the horizon in sight and finally, after some time, he nudged Bruce and pointed to him something very far from them. Bruce squinted, looked all he could, but saw nothing.

"What is it?"

"That's them right over there," he said with certainty. "Robin is with them, I can see him. He looks alright."

Bruce couldn't even begin to recognize any shape but, he told himself, he did not have super vision. His heart was lightened by the news that Robin was just in the distance and unharmed, relief filling all parts of him. The relief was all the greater after a day of dark thoughts threatening to plague him, only shallowly shoved down when he could. The woman tugged Clark's arm.

"Do you see my kids too? A little boy, skinny and light brown hair with a red shirt, and a girl with two braids."

Clark looked.

"Tall one with an ugly dress?"

She clutched her heart and nodded.

"Yup, they're there too, they've stopped for the night, I think. There's a few adults with them and a litter of other kids. It's slightly fuzzy in the distance, but looks like them."

"Are they… are they okay?"

"Looks like it, ma'am."

They walked down to the bottom of the cliff much more relaxed than they had been. Slippery When Wet had strapped her gun to her back again and it dangled with every step. It didn't help either that Krypto seemed to take a liking to her and was rubbing against her legs as she walked.

"Sorry," Clark said. "Sorry, he's not used to other people. Krypto, what'd I tell you?"

They had stopped to make sure they were heading the right direction and Slippery When Wet crouched to pet the dog and scratch him between the ears.

"That's fine," she said simply with more warmth than she had showed so far. "I love dogs…"

Her tone was making them believe she would say more, but as she never did, Clark shook his head out of staring and looked instead at the wasteland ahead. He pointed them to the left. Bruce followed along, guessing that no break was to be had after all. He felt tired. The exhaustion of his little escapade alone to the Rad Zone and the fever that had followed had still not entirely left him and he had been hoping to stop for the night somewhere around now so as to gather his forces for the journey left to trail. Asking would have been shameful, though, so he followed along as the others kept on.

They were walking faster than Bruce and Clark had and he wondered if Clark had on purpose slowed down his pace for his sake previously and now in better company, was picking it up again. He frowned. A little way in front of him, Slippery When Wet was walking alone, sighing periodically, but the other two were walking ahead of the group, chatting happily. Jemilla was showing herself especially friendly to Clark.

"So you're a mutant?" She was saying.

Her hand touched Clark's arm at the bend of his elbow. Clark looked at it in surprise but smiled.

"Yes," he said. "It gives me a few niftly little tricks to pull. The vision really helps. Now that I've narrowed down where they're at, I'll just check in every so often and we'll be there in…"

"Do you have super strength?" Jemilla cut him and palmed his biceps.

"Y-yeah, it'll come in handy if the kids are with raiders of some sort. I'll probably just punch 'em."

She giggled as if he had told her the joke of the century. Clark threw Bruce a glance back but Bruce looked away before he could catch it.

"Oh, I bet you'll defeat them all on your own," she said. One of her fingers was twirling a curl of her hair. "You don't look like the kind of guy who's afraid of a bit of work."

Bruce now stared at the ground at his feet, dragging them in the dust. He wanted to stop. A small part of him wanted to run back home, though the much larger part wanted to find Robin most of all. He had thought he had found an ally. He had been stupid to entertain for an instant the thought that he might even have found a friend.

"What else can you do?"

"Erm… I'm super fast? I run like, very fast."

"Woah! It's so lucky we stumbled across someone as powerful as you."

Bruce snorted loudly with disdain and all three heads turned to him, pausing. He wanted to keep walking but as he passed by all the others, he wasn't entirely sure of which way they were going after all and stopped. They were staring at him when he looked back.

"What is it?" Jemilla asked.

Bruce lifted up his hands, shrugging.

"Oh, don't let me get in the way," he said, "of admiring the most powerful man in the wasteland, the one and only mutant asshole who can do it all."

"Bruce…"

Bruce took a step towards him. Jemilla dropped the arm, backing away from them in evident worry. Bruce spat on the ground before looking down at Clark.

"You just couldn't help yourself, could you?"

"What are you talking about…"

Bruce shoved a finger into Clark's torso, which was surprisingly much harder than anticipated and he bit his lip to stop himself from whimpering in pain. His head was hurting enough already as was.

"How long did it take? A week, two? You played the part well, but the mask is down again. You think I'm shit. You think I'm weak. You're the best savior in our dead world, are you?"

He gripped him by the collar, which was met by Clark intently staring at the guilty hands but remaining stone otherwise. He sighed.

"Were you waiting for your time? Make me feel I could trust you before shoving it in my face again how much stronger Mister Mutant is?"

"Bruce, for fuck's sake…"

If nothing at all, Bruce at least had the advantage of surprise when he pushed Clark to the ground. They rolled around in the dust, Bruce trying by every mean possible to land a punch, any blow at all, but Clark's freakish mutant strength was blocking them all. His back slammed against the ground and hurt him, his legs were sore from too much walking, his arms were getting weaker with every attempt to hit Clark but he couldn't, he never managed to.

"I'm not…" Clark struggled to get the words out as Bruce tried to kick him and pinned him to the ground again, "… trying to one you up."

"Aren't you?" Jemilla said but was vehemently hushed silent by Slippery When Wet.

Bruce tried and tried and tried but the more effort he gave, the least Clark seemed to require to par his hits. Finally, his hands were caught both at once and Clark restrained them above his head on the ground. He was straddling him, the full mutant strength of his body keeping him stuck to the hardened sand. Bruce groaned, trying to writhe himself out of the grasp one last time, but he failed once more and simply loosened his body, head falling back with a painful thud.

"I'm sorry…" Clark muttered.

They stared into each other's eyes. Bruce was panting, his breath made heavier by Clark's legs compressing him from each side. He closed his eyes and waited for the blows to be returned. They never were.

"What the fuck is wrong with you two?!" Slippery When Wet said eventually.

She pushed Clark off of Bruce, who gave a whine of protest but pulled himself back to his feet elegantly. Slowly, Bruce sat up only for her to slap the back of his head.

"Ow!"

She shoved a bottle in his hand, covering it with hers as she brought it to his mouth and forced a sip on him. The whiskey burned down Bruce's throat unpleasantly but he had barely gulped it down that his mind was much clearer, lighter.

"Why on this dead earth did you do that for?" She said reproachfully. "I'm looking for my own idiot kids, I don't need to pick up an extra pair along the way!"

She turned to Jemilla.

"And you," she said on the same tone, "Keep it in your pants, lady!"

"What?! But… but I didn't do anything wrong."

Clark was looking at the sand as if cautiously avoiding intervening in any discussion that would incriminate him. Bruce's heart was throbbing with pain and he hugged his knees. The two women were hardly done.

"We all miss the people we've left behind," Slippery When Wet protested. "You think I don't think about my husband? I'll go and find him when I get the kids even though he's a no good useless dog, because he's my husband. Nobody's stoppin' you either to go find your little travel buddy again if you miss her so bad but for right now, if you'll help me, I'd like us to focus on finding the kids, thank you very much!"

She glared at Clark and Bruce in turn.

"And that goes for you too, boys," she said sternly. "You think we need to be wasting our time on fights and drama? We don't!"

All three of them looked contrite and, in one breath although entirely unprompted, they all apologized at the same time.

"Uh huh," she replied, her nose up in the air. She gestured towards a small cave under the sandy cliff they had just been on top of. "We're stopping there for the night. No more fighting! We keep that for the people who actually mean harm."

She lit the fire and pulled out some food from her backpack once it was hot enough to cook on and still a word had not been exchanged between the three of them. Jemilla was sitting close to her, legs crossed, staring at her hands pensively. Bruce sat as far away from her as he could while still sitting in the cave with them. Clark seemed to hesitate but joined him, sitting down merely a few feet away.

"You're good at brawling, you know," he said softly. "If we come to face some Black Scarves or raiders, I'm sure you'll knock them out before they can even think of attacking first."

Bruce said nothing. His hands clasped together on his lap and he felt very warm despite the chilly desert night.

"I'm sorry," Clark sighed. "For… For it all. I'm sorry."

Bruce dared to look up. Clark was staring at him. They smiled with much more shyness than Bruce had thought either of them possessed, and then looked away.

They ate mostly in silence, though now Bruce found that he was enjoying it much more. Jemilla tucked herself in her bedroll for the night, her back to them, and whether the light snoring they heard soon after was faked or not, Bruce could only guess. Krypto had made it his mission to occupy as much of Slippery When Wet's own bedding as he could but far from bothered, she seemed to appreciate the canine company and hugged him close as she went to sleep as well.

Clark and Bruce glanced at each other and shrugged, each grabbing their own mattress to unroll on the ground near the fire. It had become a very natural ritual in the recent days but Bruce very soon noted the absence of white fur as Krypto had found more comfortable a bed for the night. There was nothing between them. Nothing barred their eyes from looking at each other as they slowly fell asleep. There was nothing between them.

Chapter Text

Hatchetfield had been in the horizon for a few hours and every painful whir of the van's motor was a step closer to it. They had not been certain at first − Sally's book contained no pictures of Old New Hatchetfield − but Emma had only to open her eyes from her snooze and glance at the distant shape they pointed her to and it was confirmed.

"What's with you and this place?" Ted asked almost reproachfully.

Emma glared at him before closing her eyes again, leaning her head against the seat as if it held the weight of the dead world.

"I fucking hate this place is what there is," she replied tiredly. "Let's not linger too long, alright?"

The van was shaking heavier with every effort. Joey, who was sitting in the front seat with Sally and, unfortunately, Robin, Up and Taz, had noticed for a while that smooth hard sand had given way to a more rocky road and Taz had been shaking her head critically the more they were advancing. Up never saw a bad thing if it hit him in the head and made no remark but the rest of the assembly was entirely unsurprised when the vehicle jerked to a sudden halt.

"Criminy…" Up muttered. "Well, my good friends, I think the van is as tired as some of us!"

The words were met with some protest from several of the passengers. Sally glanced at Joey, who smiled to show himself reassuring, though he was liking this turn of events just as little as the louder members of the group.

"We'll unload it a bit, let it make the rest of the way unbothered, if that's alright with you…"

Their choice was not required, however, and they all found themselves evicted from the van. Joey had not missed walking in the sun one bit. His mouth was pasty from smoking that morning and though the broken windows made a pleasant draft from the front seat, the van had still been hot and he was sweaty before they even began the end of the journey. Still, the red-clad shape of Old New Hatchetfield down the road was all the purpose he needed to keep one front in front of the other.

Sally excused herself to check on Robin. It had become a habit for her and Joey to spend all of their time together since the jailbreak, so much so that they made special note of any other occupation, should the other worry. Joey nodded and she had barely skipped a few steps away that Ted made his sudden appearance next to him and slapped his shoulder painfully.

"You little rascal," he said much too loud to Joey's taste, "Too busy oiling up the lady to make time for anyone else."

Joey snorted.

"Don't you have your own shit to do yourself?" He retorted. "Bicker with Emma or whatever?"

Maybe for the younger children's sake, they were going at a much more leisurely pace than they had when the scarf around Ted's neck had still meant something. Only a short time since, yet Joey felt so much calmer now that they walked as equals. Maybe even as friends. Ted sighed.

"I don't even know if she's mad at me," he said, "So much as just general bitch mood. But don't think I don't see you changing the subject. How're things with Sally?"

Joey looked at her. She was chatting amiably with Robin further ahead and happened to catch his stare. They both looked away at once, embarrassed, and Joey felt even hotter than the hellish sun was making him.

"Er, not bad," he replied, avoiding Ted's teasing eyes. "We've talked a little bit, but only just about what we've been up to and the travel and…" He groaned deeply. "I'm never gonna be able to tell her I like her!"

"Well, not if you're such a wimp about it," Ted said, mussing his hair. "You gotta show her what you're made of! Just look at how I'm doing with Charlotte, she's totally into me and…"

"Is she though?"

Ted's glare still had a hint of mirth to it.

"Shut up," he said with a smirk.

He looked behind them at Charlotte and Bill talking together. To Joey, it seemed like she was finding every possibility to flaunt just how friendly she was to every other person in their little group than him but Ted insisted that he saw through her, how interested she actually was.

"Look, you're into her," Ted said eventually. "How hard can this be? Tell her you like her, I don't know, eat her out or whatever. Do something, dude."

Joey shushed him, terrified that Sally would have heard but if she ever did, she kept every appearance of being none the wiser. At night, they had slept close to one another. He had wanted to hold her hand, anything at all to quench the thirst for her affection. What Ted suggested, he had envisioned as well, though he had had to roll around, his back to Sally when such thoughts invaded. He breathed in deeply, swelling up his chest in fake confidence.

"Alright," he said. "Alright, I'll do it."

Ted gave him the thumbs up as he trotted towards Sally and pushed Robin out of the way. The boy barely took a hit, stumbling to the side and, realizing he was unneeded, stepping away to find another road partner. Sally looked at him oddly but Joey only had to smile for her to reciprocate. The sight was so lovely that he found himself having forgotten every notion of what the plan had been and all he could do was keep looking, counting pretty freckles across her cheeks.

"It's so weird to be so close to it, huh?" She said, coming to his rescue to make conversation.

"Huh? Oh, Hatchetfield. Right, yeah, erm…"

She looked at the shape of the city ahead of them. The air was starting to be less freakishly hot, closer to the oasis. It was a large cluster of buildings, most of them taller and bigger than anything he had seen in Heaven on Earth. Sally had told him the place had used to be a university before the end of the world. Joey had not been sure on what exactly that was and she had laughed softly before explaining to him that these were ancient places of learning and knowledge. He had asked if it was like her bookshelf and she had said it was like a thousand bookshelves. Joey was looking forward to seeing that, if only for how excited Sally herself would be. He could read, though not well and not with delight like her. Sally had brains and heart in no small amound. The heart, he had too, though he paired it up quite differently.

"I've been meaning to say, uh…"

The hope in her gaze gave him all the confidence he was lacking before. How had he never seen it before? How had he been so oblivious to beauty right in front of him? He blinked a few times.

"Your glasses are dirty," he said suddenly, finding nothing better. He grabbed them from her face and rubbed them clean on his shirt, though he wasn't certain the effort had made them any better. "It's all that desert sand."

He made to put them back on her face but found himself staring into her eyes. They were a little skewed from being without lenses but to him, they were more beautiful than the bluest of skies and he might have stared forever.

"Was that what you meant to say?"

Her voice was a soft little squeak, timid as a mouse. He wanted to touch her face, every freckle, to hold her close and feel chapped lips under his thumb and against his own. She put her glasses back on. His hands clenched nervously and he shoved them down his pockets.

"No, I… Look, I never realized it before and it's stupid, probably, but I just realized that…"

She looked as though she had never been happier. He didn't remember having ever looked so intently into her eyes, been so close. They kept walking but he could have tripped and fallen for all he watched his step. Tell her you like her, Ted had said, but how could Joey hope to when there were a dozen people around him? Even moreso when those people included Ted himself.

"I think you're really nice and… and I thought about you a lot when we were apart."

Sally blushed as crimson as the field of poppies under their feet.

"Joey Richter," she sighed softly. "Do you mean it, you really did?"

"Yeah," he said, emboldened. "All the time and I wanted to see you again and tell you that…"

A voice boomed in the near distance and he could have cried in frustration. He had been so close to finding the courage in him to say more than just a concealed hint of a confession. He had been almost ready to say it all, yet at the moment of truth, the admission was interrupted.

"WHO DARES APPROACH OUR GATES?"

Old New Hatchetfield's entrance was flanked by two identical towers and a large rusted metal gate between them, atop which were standing two watchwomen who were looking at the party of newcomers like they were just another speck of desert dust in their eyes. The voice was growly and deep and stopped all of them in front of the closed gate. Taz got out of the van and sighed in frustration at no one saying a thing.

"Hello," she said, yelling to be heard from them. "We just traveled a very long time because the girl…" She pointed to Sally. "Wants to read about something big in your library and we think it's important. About the radiations."

She had never been the most scientifically inclined and Sally looked like she might have explained things a bit differently but as no one stepped up for a better explanation, they stared at the guardians expectantly. One had a red scarf, the other a pink one, and they glanced at each other.

"Newcomers, huh?" The woman had jet black hair cut sharply just above the shoulders and a nervous look about her. "You hear that, you Old Snatch? They want to enter our settlement and enjoy our library?"

The Old Snatch was looking down at them suspiciously.

"And freshlings no less," she said. "Ah, the hope of youths. But you know how it is, Flopsy, they're all the sames, all travelers, they're here for a round in your library, then they get what they came fors and they're outs."

"All the same," Flopsy nodded. She took a swig out of a glass canteen. "You can trust no one to be coming for help, for company. They all just want one thing and one thing only."

"Ah, sweetheart, I still remember when I let one traveler tells me lies and I thought we would be togethers always, but he went running aways like the rest of them…"

Sally hesitantly stepped to the front of the group.

"Er, I'm sorry, miss Old Snatch…"

The woman was pulled out of her memories. Shaking her head, she then fixed her eyes on Sally.

"Yes, I am the Old Snatch."

"I, erm, I don't mean to break anyone's heart," she said timidly. "I'm just here because this could be key to helping our world be a better place and I just want to at least try…"

The Old Snatch looked at her silently for a very long time. Eventually, she sighed.

"Alrights," she said. "But don'ts come running to the Old Snatch if your hopes gets squished to nothing. Cause she won't be there to comfort the lot of yous."

Despite Flopsy's protestations, the gate was opened and the group was able to enter the walls of Old New Hatchetfield. Solid ground under their feet for the first time in a while, the city was broad and sparsely covered with trees and flowers − Joey was reminded of all he had missed for such a long time in the desert. He traced the shape of a large leaf with his finger, admiring how fresh it was under the shadow of its tree. Patches of grass here and there had been originally contained but had overgrown over pavement.

"I'll take you to the library," Flopsy said. "Follow me."

It was a larger settlement than Heaven on Earth though, Joey could see, much less populated by far. Deep in the Rad Zone, he could only assume that, if there had ever been as many people here as the size suggested, they had either gone mad or fled. People eyed them curiously as they crossed the city. The van was especially of notice and Joey wondered if they would still find it intact where Up parked it for the journey back. The rest of the group, though, were too much in awe of the place to mind being such a center of attention. Even Ted was impressed and made some remark to Charlotte, pointing at something, which made her smile despite herself and turn her face from him.

"Here it is."

Flopsy showed them to a large ancient building which might have been magnificent when it hadn't been half in ruins. Tall sculpted walls of stone had turned black and moldy and the detailing on the door had been lost to time. Joey gulped, looking up at the height of it with vertigo.

"Professor Hidgens is in the laboratory and won't be available today," she said. "But the library is yours, I guess."

Emma clutched Paul's arm for support, who looked at her quizzically but offered an embrace she readily accepted. Flopsy left them there, walking away briskly back to the city's gate. Sally turned to face the whole group and smiled.

"I, er, I'll be in there, then."

Up clasped his hands together.

"Well, my friends, looks like it's time for us to leave our little genius to her sciency stuff," he said fondly. "Let's find a place to rest and recuperate in this fine city!"

Joey immediately stepped to join Sally by the entrance of the library. Robin was about to volunteer to do the same but one glare convinced him otherwise and he went back to Up sheepishly.

"We'll meet up again tonight," Joey said. "I'll help Sally with, erm, research."

The rest of the group walked away. Ted lingered at the back and, when Sally wasn't looking, gave Joey a very obscene gesture that he had to hush away. Finally, they were alone. Joey pushed the heavy door open and let Sally pass first.

"Oh." The door slammed behind them with a loud bang. "Shit."

He took a better look. The room was semi-dark, mostly lit by large bay windows on the upper floors of it. Three floors were pierced in the middle by a broken chandelier hanging from the ornate ceiling of the dome and every wall Joey could see was covered from top to bottom with bookshelves. Sally looked almost fearful to be walking in and Joey, taken by a surge of courage for her sake, held her hand to guide her closer to the precious books.

"I read that the book was here but I never expected this place to be so… I mean, I don't know how I'll ever find it."

He smiled at her for reassurance.

"I'll help you," he promised. "I won't leave your side and we just have to find it eventually."

The same look in her eyes, even in near darkness so very bright and beautiful. They'd have to get some sort of lighting to start browsing the shelves, a torch or a candle, but in this moment nothing seemed to matter but the feel of her hand in his. He wondered if she was so acutely aware of the touch as he was or if he was just being too sentimental.

"We have all the time in the world."

There were broad heavy wooden tables at the center of the hall and they sat down on a bench side by side. Sally couldn't help but look around in wonder but Joey had only to clear his throat for her to look at him again and when their eyes met, she made him feel like there wasn't a book or a thousand thousands books in here that were as important as him.

"Sally," he said and finally felt in him the strength needed, now that just the two of them were together.

She smiled. Her hand squeezed his lightly and he pulled it to his lap, patting it with the other.

"I love you."

She squirmed into place with what seemed like overjoyed embarrassment and he thought he loved her even more then than the moment before.

"I never realized it before, but it's true, I… I don't just like you as a roommate and coworker and like, friend, I just… I like you."

"Joey…" In a fit of daring he took her hand to his mouth to kiss the back of it. He'd have to tell Ted about that later, make him proud. "I've had the biggest, secretest crush on you for as long as I can remember."

They stared at each other and when finally the first move was made, it was by both of them at the same time. They kissed. They kissed good. Sally's hands held his cheeks and he pulled her to him by the waist and they kissed and a whole other realm of knowledge opened to Joey and she kissed him and he kissed her.

They never found the book that day. Maybe the next day they would have more luck. It probably would help, he told himself, if they actually searched for it. Regardless, they had a place to stay, somewhere safe to rest, and that was as much as anybody could ask for in their dead world. They kissed and to Joey, it seemed like the world had just become much more alive. With Sally in his arms, it was extraordinary and thriving and vivid. It might even have been just like heaven.

Chapter Text

They moved into a nearby building that had for generations been a dorm to the university of Hatchetfield, before and after the end of the world. The world might fall yet another time and Emma was certain that students eager for knowledge would still flock to this place and risk their skin to learn the most stupid shit. They were dumb and reckless, of course. She had thought she had grown out of that, yet here she was back in Old New Hatchetfield and she felt like the biggest idiot in the world.

There would have been ample space for each member of their group to get their own room, however most of them stacked up in small groups of two or three. Bill took the girls in a room with him to keep a watch on them, Taz and Up shared with Robin. Craphole and Mouthface took one room together and, despite the boy's insistent offer, Jasmyn another one for herself. Paul, whether out of cowardice or disinterest, did not offer to share with Emma and Charlotte nearly slammed the door of another room to Ted's face, so both of them found themselves staring at each other at the end of a corridor with just one room left.

"Oh, look, quality time together," Ted said with some snark.

"You wish," she retorted, ready to follow Charlotte's excellent example and shut the door to his face, but he slid his foot into the room before she could and she groaned her discontent. "Dude, there's rooms on other floors. You seen how empty this place is? You don't need this one."

"Come on," he protested. "Are you gonna hate me forever now?"

She gave him a side glare but allowed his presence in the room for now. At least, he made no sign of trying to settle in as an unwanted roommate. She dropped her backpack on a lumpy bed, frowned in disgust at the smell coming from it. She'd check later for anything foul, content with just unpacking her few belongings for the moment.

"You're kidding yourself if you think I waited that long, buddy."

That was a lie and she had no illusion that he knew it. There was a cleverness to Ted hidden behind all the dumbassery that she had appreciated back in the days. Back when Sycamore had felt remotely safe. Back before he joined the very troops that made it anything but.

"Why? I broke out the kids, I'm doing my share of work, I…"

"The kids that were jailed because of you in the first place!"

"What, all hundred and fifty of them?" He blew raspberries deridingly. "The only kid my squad ever took was Joey and he's forgiven me so why can't you?"

"Hundred and fifty?!"

Ted grunted. She supposed he had not meant to let this kind of information slip but she realized with horror how desensitized she could be to it. What were a few dozens of kids when faced with the already countless victims of the Rad Zone?

"My point is that this is all behind now."

She turned to look at him. He was leaning on the edge of the desk, tapping his fingers on the surface of it impatiently.

"That's the type of bullshit you tell Charlotte," she said, "Not me. You think that just because you did one good thing, you're not such a fucking asshole anymore? You say goodbye to your little army buddies and suddenly the months you left us vulnerable to get burnt and torn apart are mended, just like that?"

"You're not even apart anymore," he retorted, thinking himself smart. "And it's not like I could have done anything about the fire."

She huffed.

"Tell that to Mouthface and Craphole. Tell that to the fucking hundred and fifty kids the Black Scarves are taking to the boss to get…"

She stopped herself, pinching the brink of her nose.

"No, honestly, get out of here. Quality time together's over. Fuck off."

Ted had had some skills in some scarce areas, but obedience had never been it. He sat more comfortably on the desk, his feet on the chair.

"I'm not doing nothing," he said firmly. "I broke out the kids I knew because I would get fucking caught if I tried to take them all. They're alive and free. I'm making amends with them, and with Charlotte."

Emma had to laugh. She dropped back on the bed. As uncomfortable as she remembered. Nothing about Old New Hatchetfield was of any pleasure, was it, even in the smallest details such as bedding.

"Oh, what a fine job you're doing with her," she taunted. "Hey, did you propose to her in between her not talking to you and slamming her door to your face, or is she still too married to her husband to pop the question?"

That would have been a low blow if Ted had been the sort of man to get even the slightest bit shaken by it. He looked almost amused, if he hadn't also been so angry and frustrated.

"I'm not proud of how I've treated her," he said, skirting the question, "But I'm at least trying to make things right, more than sneaking around this time, a real relationship."

She snorted.

"Oh, cause you're so in love with her?"

The remark had been meant caustic but the look on Ted's face surprised her. She had never expected the possibility of a positive.

"I like her. There. That's more than you've ever admitted about Paul."

Her stomach knotted painfully.

"What the… Don't fucking bring Paul into this."

He quirked an eyebrow.

"Why not? You think I don't see it? You tell me I'm an asshole for everything I've done and maybe I am, but I'm not a coward."

Emma's breath came with more difficulty, so filled by fury she was, but she wasn't too sure if it was aimed solely at Ted anymore. A large part of it was suddenly turning onto herself.

"I… I missed Charlotte and yeah, she's mad at me but at least I'm fucking trying. And it's not just to get in her pants. But you wouldn't know what that's like, would you? You haven't even fucked Paul."

She couldn't bear to look at him. Her fists bunched up the dirty sheets in them. Hatchetfield had been a mistake. Finding him again had been the worst turn of fate possible. She missed the days in Sycamore when the main worry was whether their stocks would get plundered by raiders or not. Back when she didn't have to worry if her worst thoughts were truly her own.

"You may think I'm the bad guy here," he said and tugged at his black scarf, "Because you can't look at yourself and realize that we're both on the same team now, except I'm doing my bit of good willingly and you're just dragging your feet."

"Shut up."

But he would never stop talking when others asked, he never had. Ted loved to toy and push and press until he got what he wanted. Whatever admission he wanted from her. Same when he had begged her to join the Black Scarves, for all the good it did their dead world, same with Charlotte back then and now again. But if even Charlotte could resist him, then why couldn't Emma?

"You're afraid," he said.

Emma bit the inside of her cheek so hard out of frustration she felt she might have drawn blood.

"You don't want to change things. I let the kids convince me to come here to try and save the fucking world from those nasty radiations that you knew how to render harmless and you said nothing about and tried to stop us from coming here because you're somehow more upset about being here in the zone than about anything else that's ever happened."

"You're a fucking Black Scarf!" She retorted in a cry, failing to keep her voice in check. "You know exactly where the radiations come from and why I'm afraid! The deeper into the Rad Zone we get, even for this shit, the closer we get and I… I don't want to. It's fucking hopeless, dude!"

She might as well have been speaking another language entirely for the disconcerted look he gave he.

"Closer to what? And what does me being a Black Scarf have to do with any of this?"

She realized with shock that Ted had not been faking ignorance. They stared at each other in silence.

"Emma, what the shit is going on?" He asked calmly.

She looked away, staring at the beige sheets under her fingers that might have been white a century ago.

"Is this why you didn't want us to come? You didn't want us finding out whatever it is you're hiding?"

"That's not the reason," she said vehemently − and believed it.

"Then fucking tell us, Jesus! It's only a matter of time before the kids find out more anyways! Haven't you heard what they've read? The whole world could be coming to an end!"

"It already has," she retorted, trying to be clever but even herself knew a failed attempt when she heard it. "Ever heard of the fucking apocalypse?"

There was a rapping at the door and Emma had never been so grateful for Paul's frowning face peeking into the room.

"Everything okay?" He asked quizzically.

Emma pulled herself up to her feet, dusting herself off and giving him a reassuring smile. Paul smiled back and her heart felt slightly lighter already.

"Yeah, yeah," she lied. "Everything's great. Scarfy over there was just leaving."

Ted puffed angrily. Staring at her intently, he unwrapped the scarf from his neck and dropped it on the ground in a heap. The door slammed behind him. Paul looked at the door, then at Emma, and he seemed so very worried she could only offer a comforting touch at his arm to let everything slide smoothly.

"Did you want anything?" She asked.

"Oh, erm, I was just thinking we could take a walk around this place? Just the two of us?"

She smiled.

"That sounds great, Paul," she replied softly.

The place was as grand and pathetic as she had remembered it. She had hoped never to see it again. Spacious buildings that had used to be prestigious were aligned in decrepit rows and she recalled distantly how impressed she had been the first time she had come here. How crowded the place had been back then, every street swarming with eager hearts. How many had been taken since, whether by their own folly or by someone else's? Or maybe, like Emma, they had had the sense to flee. Paul was looking rather entranced by the majesty of it all.

"There's a fountain," she said and pointed him to the left. "Right over there."

They sat at the center of the park on the marble rim of the fountain. The grass was overgrown both in height and from what had been tidy squares of lawn, now a small jungle at the core of the city. She passed her fingers across the cool surface of the water.

"Can you believe this? There's a water source underneath the city, have you ever seen this much water in your life in one place?"

But Paul was not at all looking at the water. His hand clutched the cool stone underneath and his eyes were fixed on Emma. He didn't look upset, but wasn't smiling, either.

"Why did you leave Hatchetfield?"

She had been hoping for some respite, maybe at least a day without questions, but from Paul, she could accept anything. She sighed. Wet fingertips against the back of her neck made her forget the heat of too many years in the desert.

"It was my sister," she said quietly. "Jane."

She had never told this story, not even to him. She had only lived it.

"She was so smart. She was the one who brought us to this place, she had these big dreams of studying medicine here and she actually worked her ass off to make it happen, just…"

She closed her eyes. Sometimes, she could still hear the yells of the other students when they had found her.

"She never studied any of that radiation shit, she wanted to be like a trained doctor and help people and everything… So when the radiations hit, she never even knew what they were about, she thought it was just her… just her own mind, I guess."

She sensed Paul's hand close to hers on their seat. Always the nerve stopping him from actually holding onto it. In this moment, she would have very gladly taken the affection. Perhaps in any other moment she might have, too.

"The Rad Zone has been expanding, you know?"

He nodded, though she couldn't tell if he had already known or if he was just listening well.

"Old New Hatchetfield didn't use to be in its radius, so she wasn't used to the… the thoughts. The bad thoughts."

How strange, she noted, that telling this story for the first time after many years wasn't any relief at all. If anything, she felt more pain than ever, sharpened by the recollection, by this place.

"She wasn't exactly an adventurous kind of person, I don't think she ever went to the Rad Zone before it expanded to Hatchetfield," she said, feeling in her a strange forgotten fondness. "I don't even know if she really knew about the weed thing. If I'd made sure, then maybe she'd still be alive now."

"Oh." Paul gave her a look that on anyone else would have been pity. She didn't take it so. She could only see compassion, understanding. "I'm sorry."

She shrugged.

"Not your fault," she said. "You didn't push her out her window, eh? She did that all on her own."

A choke threatened to take her and she forced it down, forced everything down like she had all this time.

"After they found her, I didn't want to smoke all day long but I was so afraid the zone would get to me too I just started to, and eventually I got too shit scared to stay here at all. All I wanted was to get the fuck away with as much cannabis as I could pack and make myself a new life."

"And you found us."

She smiled softly.

"And I found you."

His fingertips, in a bout of courage, brushed against hers and for once in her fucking life, Emma took what kindness she was given and gave it back. She entwined the fingers together, pretending not to notice Paul's sharp breath out.

"I didn't want to come here, I don't want to see Professor Hidgens again, I don't want to risk my ass and everyone I love's. I've… I've already lost enough."

"Too much, even," he said, nodding. "Who's this Hidgens? You had like, erm, a reaction thing when the guard mentioned him."

She sighed.

"Just some kooky old professor back when I was a student here. He's fine, just… quirky, I guess. He's something, you'll see soon enough."

Paul's thumb was stroking the back of her hand, so slowly it seemed as though he was half trying to pretend it wasn't happening at all. She smiled.

"I'm so fucking scared," she admitted.

No matter how pretty the blue eyes, the fingers fitting so neatly with hers, no matter how softly he looked at her, fear was so much more potent. She hated herself for the hold it still kept on her.

"Fear is better than apathy," he said tentatively. "It shows you care."

She pressed their palms together, cool from the cold stone underneath but warmed up by something outside their physical realm entirely.

"I do care," she said and held his hand very tight. "I care a whole fucking lot."

Chapter Text

They settled into a new rhythm of life. Those who could read took turns in the library helping Sally with her research. Those who couldn't enjoyed the city as much as one could when the weight of radiations was looming over them if they weren't careful.

Mouthface had not felt them in a while. Weed made her dizzy and left a bad funny taste in her mouth, but she gladly made the trade for the thoughts of hate and danger that it prevented. She knew Jasmyn was made to smoke every day like she was, so the only explanation she could find for her moping around the city forlornly was that the sadness came rather from her own heart. That made hers tight with sorrow as well. They had barely talked in what felt like ages.

As a reassurance, or perhaps making the worry all the more acute, she had noticed that Jasmyn had not exactly been her happy excited self with anyone else either. She made polite conversation with Craphole and had answered Professor Hidgens' odd questions when he had given test to anyone who would dare ask for his scientific help, but she hardly addressed a word to anybody else besides. Mouthface wasn't sure whether to be glad that the cold silence wasn't just towards her. In fact, she might have preferred if it had just been on behalf of Jasmyn's resentment for her.

Jasmyn had taken to staying in the library most of the days. At first, Mouthface had imagined that the quiet solitude was the only point of this, but she had quickly realized that Jasmyn was in fact also making use of her time the way one might expect in such a grandiose place of knowledge. She seemed to find new books every day that she piled next to her as she sat hidden between two huge bookshelves in the same corner and all day long, she would read them hungrily. Mouthface wished she knew how to read, that they may read the same volumes and talk about them, but the point of the wish, she realized soon enough, was that Jasmyn would talk to her at all. How strange it was to be in a larger group of people and yet feel much more lonely than before. It only depended on her to change her situation.

"What are you doing here?"

Her mouth gaped open − in her day dreaming she had not noticed Jasmyn's eyes leave the page. Presently, she was holding her place with a finger, ready to get back to reading at any time, leaning low against the wall in an inelegant sprawl. Her dark eyes were piercing through Mouthface like another annoyance. Everything seemed these days to annoy her.

"I… erm… reading?"

Jasmyn snorted and went back to her book, though her eyes weren't moving across the paper.

"You can't read," she retorted with clever wit.

Mouthface sighed. She glanced around. Hatchetfield having become so deserted, it seemed that no student was in the library that day except the impromptu researchers from their own group. Alice and Deb were perusing the left wing of the library a little way away, watched by Mr Bill who kept making comments on the volumes they were examining in an attempt to make them laugh. Sally had been invited by Professor Hidgens to his observatory on the upper floor and, as of usual these days, she had been joined by Joey and by Mr Ted for support and company moreso than any actual help. Tucked away in a small nook separated by a large curtain that might have been fancy centuries ago before it was taken by dirt and mould, there was no one to observe her make a fool of herself.

"I wanted to talk to you," she muttered. "That's why."

Tentatively, she sat on the ground not too far from Jasmyn, but not too close to not scare her off. How strange a thought, that her company could now be of any detriment to Jasmyn. It had used to be a mutual source of support and happiness. Jasmyn breathed out, but made no otherwise effort to let Mouthface know that she was listening or indeed interested in conversation at all.

"I-I think you've been avoiding me and I know you were sad we couldn't escape and it's my fault, and you were mad at me, but… I'm really sorry for that. And now we're out anyways and I just wanna be your, your friend again."

The change of demeanor was stark and instantaneous. Jasmyn dropped the book flat on the ground, pulling herself up to scoot much closer to Mouthface. She held her hand.

"I don't wanna be mad at you!" She whined and took Mouthface's other hand, pulling them to her chest.

Mouthface gulped thickly.

"I don't want that either," she said.

Jasmyn's smaller hands were holding hers so snug, so warm. She gave her a smile which Jasmyn so readily reciprocated her heart might have burst with joy. They let out awkward laughs and the hands were dropped, though the memory of them was still coursing through Mouthface.

"Well, that's that then," she concluded.

Jasmyn twirled a tendril of her hair around her finger. Her braid had become progressively looser. Mouthface longed to offer to fix it herself, but she did not dare.

"I…" She looked at Mouthface and gave her such a sad smile Mouthface wanted nothing more than to hold her tight in her arms. "I guess I'm sorry too. I got upset and it was the radiations but when I realized it was the radiations, we weren't talking anymore and I thought I'd just blown it… Which made me sad, and I was already sad anyways, so I became angry…"

"You were sad?" She took Jasmyn's hand again. "Why were you sad?"

To her surprise, Jasmyn wrapped herself into Mouthface's embrace and cuddled into her side before answering.

"Promise not to tell anyone if we ever… I mean, if it comes to it?"

"Of course," Mouthface swore. "I promise."

Jasmyn was so small and warm in her arms and Mouthface felt more content than she had in a long time. Fingers toying together, they were so cozy and comfortable it seemed impossible to imagine anything had ever torn them apart.

"I've been missing home," Jasmyn muttered, her voice muffled from her face being tucked against Mouthface's shoulder. "The Magic Kingdom and... and dad..."

Her fingers pushed up Mouthface's sleeve to tap and trace mindless patterns against her forearm. It was soft. It was nice.

"He taught me how to read and he'd tell me stories." She pointed with her chin towards the book lying on the ground. Mouthface looked at it, but no amount of staring would reveal the title to her if she couldn't read. "This one was one of his favorites, I used to think it was so boring but I don't anymore. Now I think it's kinda good."

Mouthface nodded. Thoughts of her family, of her mother, had been ever more present the longer they had been apart. Even Mr Ja'far would have been a blessed relief to have around, though she had known him so little after all.

"The Magic Kingdom was so nice," she remembered with nostalgia. "I miss it there."

Truly, what had made it most special was right here in her arms, but she had enjoyed the freedom, the contentment of a simple life. If only her father hadn't decided on such a silly quest to embark on as finding the Great Garden, they would have been there still. They would have been happy, a whole family.

"Dad always used to tell me what to do but I'd always disobey," Jasmyn admitted. "I never even tried to understand why he was saying it."

Mouthface smiled. Her hand was rubbing Jasmyn's back softly.

"Mama did too," she said. "I'd obey, but I thought she was just doing it to annoy me. I… I don't think she was. I think maybe I should have listened a bit more."

Jasmyn's face lifted from her shoulder to look at her.

"We'll find them again when all of this is done, right?"

"Of course! I'd do… pretty much anything to find my family. And yours, too."

Jasmyn nodded.

"And we'll stick together, too? If we go back to the Magic Kingdom, you'll… you'll come with?"

Mouthface was shocked that the question was even asked.

"Always," she said. "Jasmyn, I never wanna be apart."

Jasmyn's relief was evident, though Mouthface wondered how despite their argument she could ever even have had the slightest doubt about it. They smiled at each other. Mouthface thought Jasmyn would cuddle close again and was ready to welcome her, but the face leaned up instead very close to hers until, before she had realized it, Jasmyn was pressing her lips against hers.

The kiss was an impulse of the moment, she was sure, perhaps thought or even dreamed about before but surely not premeditated in this exact instant. She had never been kissed before and her heart was sent into a trance she could hardly keep up with, but they parted before she could calm herself into it. A mere brush of the lips, a small token of comfort and affection. Jasmyn's eyes opened black and mellow. Mouthface thought of saying something but, not knowing what, kept her tongue. She smiled. Jasmyn blinked lazily, contentedly and this time, the kiss was well meant on both parts when they joined again. Mouthface cupped Jasmyn's cheek to hold her face ever closer to hers and felt arms snake around her neck for the same purpose. She was feeling warm and more comfortable than she could ever remember, like she had been shaking her whole life and finally she was being stilled by the touch of Jasmyn's hands.

"But how can you be sure, Professor?" A voice suddenly cried out as a door nearby opened. "It was barely a splotch of green."

They heard hurried steps on the other side of the curtain and Mouthface would have gladly ignored the distraction if it weren't for Jasmyn breaking off the kiss with a deep frown. Mouthface could have laughed at her little frustrated pout. Professor Hidgens was firm and convinced.

"Young lady, I have been observing it for the past decade. I know better than any person in this late world what the Great Garden looks like."

Jasmyn and Mouthface's eyes widened with shock as their heads snapped towards the conversation and, without even needed to concert, they both jumped to their feet to join them.

"The Great Garden?" Mouthface shouted. "It's real?!"

People stared at her. They were gathering around one of the large tables at the center of the library, Sally spreading her notes across the length of it but at her remark, all of them stopped in their tracks. Professor Hidgens alone looked unsurprised.

"Of course it's real," he said with self-satisfaction. "I've just been explaining to Sally the vastness of it, the unstoppable force of nature. Many have tried to fathom its greatness and failed."

Joey and Ted glanced at each other. Ted shrugged, but Joey seemed intent on making this research as much his passion as it was Sally's. He had none of her cleverness, though, Mouthface thought, but then again it wasn't as if she had ever been inclined towards intellectual endeavors either.

"Can you explain again how this whole… thing… came to be?"

Far from annoyed at having to repeat himself, Professor Hidgens looked glad to be flaunting his knowledge again. He cleared his throat, inviting all to sit around. Jasmyn took Mouthface's hand in hers, pulling it to her lap.

"You've heard of the end of the world, I'm assuming."

Mouthface almost sighed. The old man could take them for idiots sometimes.

"In the aftermath of human-born disaster, the world became marred with forces stronger than can be reckoned, matters so potent they could destroy life itself…"

"Yeah, we've all heard of nuclear power, Professor," Deb said and rolled her eyes.

He pointed a finger at her not in accusation but rather in approbation.

"If only it were just nuclear, my young friend, if only! From destruction came power reborn, nature getting its rightful revenge and the Great Garden is but one of many such locations where the elements have regained all control and their former glory before humankind spoiled our planet. However it is different in one capital way…"

"What is it?"

Professor Hidgens hummed as if he had told the story before but not grown tired of it.

"It has a most important dweller. Oh, it has many, for sure, but the chief that reigns over it is a beast greater in size and strength than you could imagine…"

He pointed on the table to a large poster covered in drawings depicting the same beast over and over from all angles with annotations. Mouthface wondered if the professor had drawn them himself. Sally touched her fingers to the paper, staring at the sketches with awe.

"Pincer," he whispered reverently. "The Great Devourer."

Ted snorted.

"That's a fucking scorpion," he said. "Big deal."

Professor Hidgens looked at him in annoyance.

"Oh, Ted, I wouldn't have taken you for a man of narrow spirit. This is no ordinary scorpion. It has abilities beyond what you could even comprehend. Have you ever, in a moment of weakness, felt a presence within you steering you to his will?"

"Do you mean the… Oh, fucking great, now you're gonna tell us that a bug was behind the radiations the whole fucking time?!"

Sally was glaring at him but, as she was ever too timid to say anything, it was Joey who slapped his arm to silence him. Professor Hidgens nodded approvingly at the chiding.

"Not a bug," he said. "A… A chimera, a god. Whatever enchants the Great Garden has given Pincer the aptitude to sway minds. His field of power grows larger every day, young man."

Bill perked up. His hands on the table, he leaned in.

"Don't tell me you're talking about… magic?"

Professor Hidgens sighed. He shook his head, folding up the paper.

"I don't know," he said. "I cannot know. Sally's findings have already confirmed to me that which I was suspecting. There is no stopping him. He will devour everything before we get even a chance to study him closer."

Jasmyn was frowning in disbelief.

"But… how? Nobody even knows where the Great Garden is, we thought it was just a legend. How can he find anything to devour? Wouldn't he run out of food?"

He gave her a smile as if he had been hoping that someone would ask.

"He doesn't hunt," he said. "He is fed."

The reveal was met with only quirks of the brow and confused glances.

"Over time, people have flocked to his service and protection, striding across the wasteland to spread and fulfill the will of the Great Devourer. People who with a common will of mind bring him nourishment and worship."

He paused, giving each of them a pointed look before going on.

"The Black Scarves."

The outrage was immediate, chiefly aimed at Ted. Joey looked as though he had been robbed of all joy past and future. Ted was very quick to defend himself.

"Hey, I didn't know about this shit! They don't exactly reel you in with the cult-y let's kidnap children crap! You think I'd have joined if they started with the scorpion beast worship?!"

"We were gonna be fed!" Alice cried in horror.

Jasmyn was in shock and Mouthface, who shared the sentiment, held her close in her arms for comfort. She was terrified at the thought of having risked her life so closely.

"Not all Black Scarves know the truth of it," Professor Hidgens conceeded. "Some don't even know about the takings of human prey, much less where they're headed. An operation of this size is bound to have some lies spread to justify its existence and even its members are made to believe them at first."

Deb was the first to find her way out of consternation.

"Wait, but… but weed cancels the radiations? Pincer's radiations?"

"Exactly, Deb," he said emphatically. "His power consists in residing in the human mind, but drugs… They take control of your mind. There cannot be room for both."

She was more confused than before.

"But the Black Scarves, they're smoking weed like crazy."

Mouthface noticed across the table Ted's face grow very stern. Professor Hidgens waved a hand dismissively.

"A simple measure of protection to ensure against in-fighting. The truth of it, the simple truth is that they follow his will of their own volition."

"But is there any way to beat him?" Sally asked desperately.

Professor Hidgens frowned.

"Defeat him?" He asked. "Defeat Pincer? Weren't you listening, Sally? There is no stopping him."

She looked at him confused.

"I'm sure there's a way we can at least try. If we do it together, we can just…"

"Just what?" He retorted bitterly. "Kill him like we destroyed every beast of nature, every powerful being that wasn't human because we couldn't stand the raw strength of something that wasn't us? Look at what happened to the robots, to the aliens."

Several of them stood from the benches warily at his words, Mouthface first, dragging Jasmyn with her.

"Has this guy had any weed?" Deb asked. "I think he's talking Rad Zone thoughts."

He laughed a dark humorless laugh.

"My dear girl, I surrendered long ago to the will of the Great Devourer. Humankind is prideful and arrogant, but faced with his awesome size and strength, not one of us would survive. And none of us should. When his vision is complete, nature will take over again as was always meant to be on Earth."

"But… but that's not fair!" Jasmyn cried out. "We're not the ones who wiped out the robots and everything, we weren't even born! Our lives are still worth something!"

In a fret of panic, Sally gathered all her papers in her arms. Professor Hidgens shoved a hand inside his coat and Mouthface thought she heard a clicking sound distantly.

"You're wrong," Sally said with animation. "W-We know where the Great Garden is now! Where Pincer is! You've just showed me in the observatory! And we know how to shut him up!"

"Yeah!" Joey said, a hand at her shoulder.

"We'll make our own way to the garden and then we'll save all those kids the Black Scarves were gonna take with us if it's not too late, and we'll save the world!"

Far from disturbed, Professor Hidgens looked at them with some smug satisfaction.

"That's a sound plan," he said.

He produced a small round appliance out of his pocket and pressed a button. There was a roaring sound much more drastically powerful than the size of his machine could ever have suggested, resonating in all parts of the room. Loud steps stomped against the ground of every floor and Mouthface realized with dread that they belonged to war robots. Mismatched though all taller than any human, limbs all rusty and shrieking their lack of use with every step closer, they lifted their arms threateningly, ready for attack. She stared in terror at the array of weapons they were equipped with. Gulping anxiously, she pulled Jasmyn to her. Hidgens gave all of them a knowing look.

"Which is why it must never leave this room."

Chapter Text

"This guy's fucking nuts!"

Whether purely on instinct or, he might later pride himself if he survived this, on his raw intelligence, Ted scanned the room at record speed for the only spot not yet invaded by the killing machines. He counted thirteen, no, fourteen robots. More than he had ever seen or hoped to see in his life. Pushing the kids towards the corner, he kicked a few bookshelves as he sprinted for it and unholstered his gun. Some of the cases never even moved no matter how hard he had kicked, but a few fell along the way and, he thought, enough that the kids might have a chance to not all be turned into puddles of mush and blood. He slalomed between the fallen shelves, nearly avoiding the laser beams shot at them.

"Resisting will only delay your surrender," Hidgens said.

He was climbing on a table and a few robots flocked to his side in defense. Ted shot once and missed, twice more and hit them. The bullets remained at the rusty metal surface of their body but it seemed to him that the robots thus damaged were slower than before, if only a little bit.

"Ted!" Joey whined. "Ted, get under cover with us!"

The shelves had stacked into the most precarious protection, which he suspected might last long enough for the kids to catch a breath but not much more. Part of the wood casing next to Bill was blasted off and he cried in terror. Ted shot again, conscious of how vulnerable his being outside their little shelter made him, but every successful hit delayed him from joining them. Out here and mobile, he was more useful. Was this the life of adventure he had craved when he had joined the Black Scarves? Jailbreak was one thing, but he wasn't certain he had in any way signed himself up for fighting fucking evil robots. He hid behind a pillar, narrowly followed by a beam that missed him so closely he smelled the stench of burnt hair. Heavy stomping on his right. He breathed in and out, in and out, trying to slow down an anxious pant that wouldn't calm down. He wondered if he would ever feel calm again. He shot and hit.

Ancient as they were, the robots were slow and imprecise in their motions and although Ted couldn't outpower them, he could quite easily outrun them. He heard a gunshot that was nothing like the robots' laser weapons. The relieved memory came back of Taz, despite Up's protests, arming Joey at the boy's request. Ted had thought that they would have had the time to at least teach him how to shoot the gun before he was made to use it, much less in active combat, but after a few failed shots, one of the robot took a hit with a grating wail.

"Resist harder!" Hidgens shouted. "Come on, they're just children!"

The barricade the children were hiding behind was being constantly fortified as they added to it the longer the fight went on. Four robots down, another six around Hidgens, one after him, the other three after the kids. He came out of his protection.

"Exactly! They're just children!"

He shot up. He had never been as sharp a marksman as others, for sure, but he had some training and experience and it took only the second try for him to bullseye it.

"And you don't fucking cause harm to children!"

It was as though the world slowed to a crawl. Ted felt every passing second of the fall as a day, a decade of anguish but inexorably, the chandelier crashed down the center of the room. It was a thick exceedingly large useless ugly old ornament, but in this moment, it was their salvation. With the precipitation of its fall, it trapped the robots under its weight and though Ted was sure their combined strength would eventually push it off, he had bought his group some time. Some metal limbs were damaged but flesh and bones underneath were crushed altogether.

"A-Alexa…"

Hidgens' voice was weak but, stunned by the demise of their master, the robots had stopped shooting and everyone heard it clear as day. There was a melodic ringing from the upper part of the building.

"Initiate Hatchetfield's destruction."

They never knew if he had any further last words, as the whole city was suddenly the prey of explosions and shouts began to arise from all parts. In common accord, the robots stormed outside, pushing the door flat to the ground in their exit. Ted ran to check on the children.

"You okay?"

Joey was in tears but, as far as Ted could see, intact. Jasmyn was nestled close into Mouthface's embrace, Alice trapped between Deb and Bill's. Sally stood up onto very shaky legs.

"The… the notes are alright. I need to keep them to…"

She was so taken by fear she never finished her sentence and it was cut off by the blasting sound of something outside anyways.

"Joey," Ted ordered, "You take Sally out of here right now. You make sure nothing happens to her and to the notes. Get out of the city. Go!"

But Joey grabbed his arm, both hands clutching tight, staring up at him with pleading eyes.

"Not without you!"

Ted put a hand on his shoulder.

"Two is faster and more discreet, and if what Sally's discovered fall into the wrong hands… You take the left, I'll take the right and we meet outside the city as early as we can." He patted his cheek a few times with the rare unbridled fondness. "We'll roast some scorpion meat real soon, buddy."

Joey's tears had barely dried on his cheeks that they were renewed again now but he nodded. Grabbing Sally's hand, he dashed away, his gun held up defensively. Ted let out a sharp breath. The others were staring at him.

"What now?" Bill asked.

"Well, now, Billy boy, we try to get the fuck out of here alive."

The streets were a riot. Robots were fighting humans were fighting robots. One man was trying to wrestle three child-sized robots. Another was sobbing as the merciless fist of a robot was crashing over and over again into the container he was hiding in. Ted shot it. The first bullet deflected against solid metal but the second pierced through. The robot turned away from its victim, turning to Ted instead. Slow deafening steps brought it ever closer.

"Oh fuck…"

A shriek was heard. A woman was holding up a barrel with her bare hands. Ted realized with stupefaction that it was one of the fire barrels Hatchetfield was littered with at every street corner for warmth and for gatherings. She launched it at the robot with impossible strength and fire exploded all around it. They witnessed in horror that more than their opponent was caught into flames and slowly at first, then very rapidly, the library behind them was scorching in a hellish furnace.

"We have to get out of here!" Ted shouted.

But he was barely deciphering his fastest way out of the city that the woman approached them. She had a ponytail and dark eyes that glistened with the fire spreading around them.

"Jasmyn," she said firmly, then seemed to hesitate. "… right?"

Jasmyn looked at her quizzically and snuggled closer into Mouthface's arms.

"No, it's definitely you!" She cried out. "I recognize you from… from the portrait. Wait and, Mouthface, then, I suppose? Shit, where's the boy…"

Ted put a hand on each of the girls' shoulder from behind, glaring at the foreign woman.

"Who the fuck is this?"

He knew at once that they had no more idea than he did and, no time to lose for this, hurried them along the street, but they were followed by the same insisting woman.

"No, yeah, I didn't say, I'm Zazzalil and I know your dads, we've just arrived at, erm, I think kind of the worst time but we've been looking all over for you and…"

At the mention of their fathers, the girls had turned to each other with hopeful eyes and they made to sneak away from Ted's grasp but his hands pressed heavier.

"I don't know her!" He retorted angrily. "Are you just gonna follow any random…"

But the girls were already running away with that Zazzalil. Zazzalil shit, he thought, and gave Bill a soft shove in the back.

"You're going with them," he said. "Make sure they're safe."

Bill stared at him as if Ted had just demanded he lassoed the moon for a kids ball toy. Ted gave him as patient a smile as he could, given the circumstances, and touched his cheek.

"You'll make it through, alright? Deb's a toughie anyways, she'll protect all of you if she gotta, right Deb?"

Deb nodded and, grabbing Alice by the waist, sped to catch up with the other girls. Bill gave Ted one last glance before following them with cries to wait for him.

He had to find Charlotte. Alone now, he was unencumbered to run at full speed but the smoke in the air was making him cough and his path was constantly impeded by the fight between robots and humans. He helped a few people along the way, ignored some others for sake of keeping himself well alive. Where the fuck could she be? She had these days been so intent on making her own life without him that he could not guess.

"No, you stupid idiot! Don't just stand there! Shoot stuff!"

Taz was unfurling a hurricane of frustration on Up, who looked at her like he were not a large bulky adult man but a small child chided by his mother.

"Taz, please, I just want you to acknowledge my…"

"Acknowledge this!" She said and shoved an elbow into his side, which made him fold over.

She was about to give a second strike when she noticed Ted. He had no time to lose to their argument.

"Where's Charlotte?" He asked. "I have to get her out of here."

Taz appraised him with great admiration. Kicking Up's shin, she yelled.

"See, Commander? This is what I'm talking about!"

Up whimpered painfully. He had a gun in hand, though his grasp on it was faint and he looked on the verge of tears.

"You know this man," she said, "You heard what Emma said 'bout him. He's an asshole and a stupid and he still did more than you! He should be a ranger, not you!"

"Charlotte… is… in the dining quarters…" Up let out exhaustedly. "Taz, please stop…"

"I'll stop when you stop being a whiny little baby!"

Ted dashed away without a moment more with them. The dining quarters were closer to the entrance of the city than he was. That was good. Almost out was good. The fire spreading from one building to the next was making all remaining humans flee the city rather than stand their ground. The ones who still stood there were being massacred by Hidgens' robot army though, Ted noted, many of the fights were won by humans too. Unarmed and alone, he told himself with dread that Charlotte was not in a position to be among the latter party.

He spotted her from the distance, the ginger visible even in the field of fire. She was frantic, running to and fro and she ran into his arms before even noticing him, caught in a protective embrace. She looked up and terror gave way to relief. He hoped to live long enough to reminisce the look on her face for the rest of his life. Leaning down, he grabbed her by the back of her knees and the crook of her back and carried her in his arms out of the burning remains of Hatchetfield. The gates so unwillingly opened on their way in were wide and freely open now. Some people were flocking towards outside. Some never made it.

The field of poppies was a blanket of flames outside the city walls. Every step was painful and Ted had forgotten the memory of cold but as the air cleared out the farther away he carried her, he was driven solely by the thought that they had made it. Charlotte was safe and tight in his arms and they both lived. That was more than some could ask for.

"You see that, Charlotte? We made it."

Charlotte's face was drenched with tears and she was staring at him like he had saved not just her but the rest of humanity as well.

"You good to walk?"

"Oh, Ted!"

She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him fiercely. Ted stumbled back and, in his surprise, dropped Charlotte to her feet but the changed position never broke the kiss. He caught her face in his hands and kissed her like he should have kissed her all those months they shared a bed of secrets, like he should have kissed her when he had said goodbye, like he should have kissed her to let himself be convinced never to leave in the first place. The world was burning up in flames and there was a fucking magical scorpion to stab in his ugly beastly face but with Charlotte's arms around him, her lips against his, he had evidence enough that it could yet be saved. That so long as something so sweet existed in this world as Charlotte's kisses, then it could never be dead.

"I missed you, sweet thing," he told her. His thumbs stroke across her cheeks and he kissed her again. Charlotte pressed her body into his, kissed him to make up for all the time he had been so cruel as to deny her it. "More than you think. Missed that pretty face."

She gave him a silly little smile. She had never been quite capable of accepting compliments too well but, Ted had come to know, Charlotte's capacities were not a fixed barrier never to evolve. She took his sweet words and his kisses and she did it absolutely perfectly.

A short moment later, Up and Taz found them and Up fussed over Charlotte's wellbeing, who assured him she was absolutely fine and, for once in her life, seemed to mean it. They found Bill a little way away, holding Deb and Alice very tight, their faces gray with ashes. Ted knelt to check on them but he had barely touched Bill's shoulder that he spotted Mouthface just further down and, with astonishment, saw that Jack Bauer and Titty Mitty were crushing her into an embrace, all of them crying. Then, right at their side, Jasmyn in a tight hug with a man who, by logic and by resemblance, could only be her father. He was kissing her cheeks, her forehead, her little pointy nose, muttering sweet nothings that were so readily accepted Ted wondered how he had ever thought the girl grumpy.

Standing alone behind the group, the same woman who had put Hatchetfield to the flame was looking at the reunion with a satisfied smile. It might have been a very pretty picture indeed, Ted thought, if it weren't for the city burning down to a crisp behind them. He glanced around and found at least one missing element from such a happy ending. Joey and Sally, or the rest of their group for that matter, were nowhere in sight.

Chapter Text

Zazzalil's throat was burning with smoke but she had no scarf to protect her breath, and so she clasped an arm to her face, blinking ashes away and hoped desperately that the girls would still be following when she found the way out of this hell. They tried to tell her something but she couldn't hear it through the sounds of battle around them and she was too worried keeping them alive to make conversation. She thought she would never reach the gates of Hatchetfield, a city she didn't know and didn't want to know. She might have revived the Dead-God with her thorough prayers of thanks by the time she saw the end of it.

"Ja'far!" She cried out when she stepped a foot outside. "Shit, where the fuck are they again?"

But some of them had a keener eye than she.

"Daddy!" Jasmyn cried in kind and Zazzalil only had to look in the direction the girl was already running towards with all the velocity her small body would grant.

"Dad!" Mouthface shouted. "Grandpa!"

Mouthface was following after her and the girls crashed into their father's embraces almost violently. Ja'far swirled his daughter around, laughing and crying in equal parts, Mouthface was crushed between her father and grandfather and for a moment, everything seemed alright in this dead burnt world. They were later joined by people who could only be part of the same group Mouthface and Jasmyn had been in, though not a single morsel of their attention could be torn from their family, finally found again.

Hatchetfield's fire was bright against the darkening sky of falling evening. The city had been more desert than she had expected, nothing like the thriving hub of knowledge Ja'far had described. She had not thought there would be a robot army of doom, either. Still, many groups of people were fleeing the city into the wasteland. She wondered. No amount of counting heads among their own party would make the glaring fact less obvious, though Mouthface was the first to break the spell with her noticing another gap in the group.

"Where's mom?"

Jack Bauer's face grew very stern. He brushed a tendril of hair behind Mouthface's ear and tried to smile to soothe her.

"She's… she's left us. In Independence. She went her own separate way, we haven't seen her since."

Mouthface looked entirely devastated, perhaps moreso than by the catastrophe behind them. Titty Mitty put a hand on his heart, though he soon realized what Zazzalil had been too ashamed to bring up herself.

"Wait, where's the boy? He was always my favorite…" Patting Mouthface's shoulder, he added at her frown, "But you're a close second, sugar, I promise."

"And we don't know where Paul and Emma are," one of the men who had joined them said, the one who was clutching two girls to him.

"Or the other kids," another said. "Joey, Sally, Robin, we don't know where they're at, them youngins."

They stared at the man who had tried to stop Zazzalil from getting the girls back to their fathers, but he only glared in return.

"Don't look at me like that," he said. "It's not like I have them in my pockets. I don't fucking know."

"Maybe we need to go back inside the city and…"

"We can't," Jack Bauer said firmly. "It's on fire. Fire is dangerous shit."

Zazzalil thought of the barrel she had thrown at the robot, the gush of flames that had been born from it. She had only be trying to save lives, be of help to whoever she could on her search for the girls, but despite herself might have done the exact opposite. She thought of the wagon she had destroyed. Her stomach felt heavy and she tried to calm her breath to no avail. She looked to Ja'far, but he was too engrossed in the reunion with his daughter that he seemed, just like the girl, to have forgotten about anything else in existence around him.

She thought of Jemilla. She seemed these days always to think of Jemilla. Two decades spent with another person had that effect, she supposed. That was the reason why she thought of her, most likely, for what else could cause her mind to steer so often that way? She had warned her about toying with fire and Zazzalil had thought it a clumsy warning. Now actual fire had destroyed more than she could fathom, perhaps even lives. She wondered if Jemilla had expected anything as drastic when she had given the warning, or if Zazzalil had disappointed her even harsher than she had thought. Doing the right thing, the hard but righteous thing had always been Jemilla's game. She tried to imagine her here with them, what she would do, but came up short. In the absence of any bright idea and perhaps none of her ideas had ever been all that clever after all, she did nothing.

The night passed in a blur. Children slept with their fathers, some of them on thin bedding, some directly on desert ground as they had not salvaged anything but their own person from Old New Hatchetfield. She supposed it was just Old Hatchetfield now. Gone Hatchetfield. Jasmyn was tucked so snugly in Ja'far's arms that she could only see the coils of her thick black braid coming out of the embrace. She yawned. Lying on the side on her bedroll, she looked at the fascinating and horrifying shapes of the immense puffs of smoke blowing into the night sky. Fire was a terrible beauty.

She thought she had closed her eyes merely a second but it was morning when she opened them again. The bright cloudless sky blinded her and she squinted at what was in front of her. Red. She blinked. Ja'far's red scarf wrapped around his head to protect himself from the sun. She blinked again and his shape was made neater, sharper.

"Morning," she said in a croak, her voice still thick with embers, perhaps forever.

He was making − what else? − poppy tea and warming up some breakfast. It was taking several pots and he had stocked them as full as he could. Zazzalil made the mental tally of the people around then. Thirteen mouths to feed. Thirteen spirits to keep sane.

"Good morning, Zazzalil," he said.

His voice wasn't as chipper as she had hoped, with his darling daughter not too far from him sprawling inelegantly across the thin mattress, snoring. Zazz only had to look at the still smoking carcass of the city to guess why. The story told to her in passing behind secretive hands was that he had met his wife at Old New Hatchetfield, though Jack Bauer had given little detail to preserve Ja'far's privacy and likely because no details had been given to him in the first place.

"She's very beautiful, your daughter," she said, trying to be polite, though it was also true. "And she seems smart and brave."

He huffed contentedly.

"Ah, yes." He stirred the breakfast scramble which was starting to scent the air with its richness, though not nearly covering the smell of smoke. "I'm afraid she gets none of that from me, but she is all these things."

"Oh."

He served her a cup of poppy tea. She swirled the dark burgundy liquid around before taking a long burning sip of it. She had gotten used to the taste. It made her brain calmer, more focused. She supposed she understood how Ja'far could keep his contenance so well when life threw everything possible at him to the opposite.

"I expect we won't be brewing any once my batch is gone," he said quietly.

She frowned, looking at the remaining liquid at the bottom of her cup.

"Why?"

He pointed her to the walls of the city. At their feet was a sea of brown and black. The field of poppies was burned down to nothing. Zazzalil drank the rest of the tea in silence. People around her began to wake up and she was grateful for it. Presentations were made although everyone carefully avoided the mutant elephant in the room that was the battle that had occurred the day before and breakfast was served and spent with hardly a word spoken.

It was Jasmyn who eventually spoke. She had gotten up shortly after Zazzalil and spent the meal sat right next to Ja'far, her head leaning against his side as he ate one-handedly to wrap an arm around her. All descriptions she had previously gotten of a sassy fire-breathing princess were clashing against the mellow quiet girl looking at her father like she never meant to let him out of her sight again.

"Erm, daddy, about the Great Garden…"

Ja'far's eyes were wide with surprise and Jack Bauer immediately looked subdued. Titty Mitty patted his shoulder gently.

"Princess, I don't think there's a need for us to talk about this again…"

"But there is," she said and her hands caught his larger one between them, fiddling with the fingers. "It's real. It's where the radiations of the Rad Zone come from."

"There's a Pincer beast that makes you feel like shit," Deb explained.

"It's how he maintains his power," Jasmyn went on. "He makes the Black Scarves kidnap people and bring them to him to feed him."

Though Ja'far looked shocked and sick at the notion of Jasmyn being kidnapped and fed to this Pincer, he shook his head.

"Now, come on, this isn't the type of prank you want to pull on your old father on the day of…"

"It's not a joke!"

She had shouted much louder than she had realized or, it seemed, wanted, and bit her lip. She gave Mouthface a look, who nodded at her in support.

"It's not a joke, it's… Wait, Mr Ted saw it in the observatory, didn't you?"

Ted sighed deeply.

"It's the truth," he said. "I only saw a patch of green in the distance, but Hidgens showed me the map and… It checks out."

Jack Bauer frowned and looked at Mouthface like he was scared this was another reckless plan.

"What even is Pincer?"

"The Great Devourer," Ja'far said.

All the kids looked at him in awe. Ja'far could only breathe out heavily and pull out his notes from his messenger bag. Flipping quickly through many pages, he stopped on one and showed it. Zazzalil could not read the writing, but recognized the shape of a scorpion.

"Sherrezade had mentioned it," he said grimly. "In passing a few times. She was… She loved mythical creatures of all kinds. But, are you truly telling me the beast is real? And the Great Garden?"

Ted got closer to have a look at the picture. Zazzalil didn't really understand what the deal could be with a magical scorpion. Magic wasn't even real, was it? What would Jemilla make of this story?

"I can even show you where." He produced out of his pocket a crinkled old map that he lay flat on the ground. He scanned it for a few seconds before pointing. "There's the big boy, I think. There are so many more details in the notes Sally had but…"

Ja'far traced the spot Ted had indicated pensively.

"Headquarters? Does this mean…"

"The Black Scarves are Pincer's army," he said. "The kids are telling it as it is."

Shoving the map back into his pocket, he sat again.

"Wait, but have you been there before?" Alice asked. "When you were…"

"You were a Black Scarf?!" Zazzalil cried out.

Ted groaned.

"Yes, yes, used to. Catch up, lady, the others have already been over this. No, I've never been to headquarters. I don't even know what it looks like."

She was outraged. If there was even a lick of truth to this story, then a Black Scarf ought to be the very last person they should want among their ranks now. He was even more somber than before. The lady at his side cuddled into his arm for comfort and he kissed the top of her head.

"But…"

Ja'far's hand at her shoulder stopped her from furthering the argument.

"I'm sure this isn't how we treat a man who helped our daughters back into our arms," he said softly. "None of us are without erring."

They searched the city together. Half of them hand in hand, the story was slowly told of what had happened to the girls when they were apart. It matched the gruesome destroyed cityscape. They saw very few bodies along the way and, they all realized with guilt-ridden relief, none of them were people they had known. Many robots had been destroyed.

"Where the fuck could they be…"

Ja'far still knew the city well for someone who had not visited in over a decade. Many nooks and crannies were checked for survivors, underground bunkers. Some passageways had been blocked by debris, the rest entirely empty. Here and there, a few lone groups of people were huddling together but none of the missing loved ones were found among them. Finally, they reached the library.

"That's where Sally found out about the Pincer thing," Bill said. "We were helping her but I think she found it all on her own with the professor."

Ja'far was looking at the building with a new sadness which surpassed all that Zazzalil had seen before. Jasmyn held his arm, smiled for him in reassurance, but the smile he gave in return was forced and for her sake only. He kissed her temple and treaded inside the library.

"You think that's where he and his wife hung out?" Jack Bauer whispered to Zazzalil. "They were probably like, huge nerds, right?"

But she shook her head for fear Ja'far would hear and followed him inside.He was sitting at a blackened bench at the center of the room, his eyes up into the burnt remains of the floors above. Zazzalil wondered what he saw in them, the fleshed out vision of old memories. His fingers clenched and he closed his eyes.

"We'll find the Great Garden."

His voice was raspy, rougher than Zazzalil had ever heard it or thought it could get. He stood again and frowned with a new determination. Mouthface and Jasmyn had been muttering to each other whatever sweetness of comfort they had found but they stared at him at hearing his words.

"But… Craphole's missing…"

Ja'far walked briskly out of the building, not paying anyone a glance.

"If the Black Scarves truly are feeding innocent people to that beast, tearing families apart, killing the lost, then we must put an end to it. It's the only right thing to do."

"Ja'far," Jack Bauer protested. "We don't have the certainty it's there at all…"

"We don't have any clue on how to do it, either," Zazz said.

But he stopped in his tracks to turn to them and the look he gave them silenced them at once.

"That scorpion's out there, my friends," he said seriously. "And I'm gonna kill it."

Chapter Text

They tracked the kids down to Old New Hatchetfield. Secretively and for days, and after they met up another party and got into their inefficient van that had nothing on Mega-Girl's superior speed, they followed them across the Rad Zone. Whenever they dragged behind for reason of human limitations, Junior insisted they kept walking into the night to have caught up before they were allowed to rest. Mega-Girl was allowed no respite herself. She was made to keep watch all night while Junior and Tootsie slept. Her point of failure before had been her negligence and she let nothing slide anymore. If robots could feel anything, then she would be feeling exhausted. She kept watch instead, feeling nothing at all.

They snuck into the city unobserved. Hidden from the gates, Junior had her scan their surroundings and she found on the other side of Old New Hatchetfield one of many passageways carved into sandy rock leading into the city. Setting their watch inside one of the many buildings of the city was nothing. They soon observed the children to develop a pattern of browsing the library. Junior found this odd and had Mega-Girl watch them at all hours that they were inside, eavesdropping. He had gotten a knack for eavesdropping. Mega-Girls possessed sound-amplifying captors and Junior and Tootsie stood there as she reeled in any conversation going on inside the building. Only one of them was paying attention.

"… And that's why I think living in a city is better than the desert overall, even if the sky is so much more pretty when you're out there. What do you think?"

Junior shushed Tootsie once more. A thousand times, Mega-Girl had thought his chatter would get them caught, that he would get harmed, but always he hushed for just long enough to be spared notice. He always went on after what he deemed was a safe time. His estimation was often inadequate.

"Hey, Mega-Girl," he said in what wanted itself a whisper. "Can you read?"

She looked at him for signs of comedic intents but found none. He was smiling broadly. He seemed always to crave conversation, even with a broken robot like her. Even after hearing right from Junior's mouth how useless she had been in his service. Mega-Girl didn't understand him. He was perhaps the simplest of humans yet he entirely eluded her.

"Yes."

"D'you think when all the youngins are off to sleep and the library's empty we could go read inside? You could read to me or somethin', talk 'bout it, could be nice."

She would not, she could not. Junior would never allow it and the request was stupid in itself. She tried to picture herself on a bench reading out whichever textbook was most interesting or complex, Tootsie's captivated eyes on her. Mega-Girls weren't supposed to be designed with imagination. Another failure of hers. She shook her head and motioned him to be attentive to what was being said inside. They listened for a bit.

"Who's Pincer?" Tootsie asked. "What are they talkin' about?"

Nobody answered him. Mega-Girl's danger sensors were flickering the longer the explanation went on inside. She looked to Junior but he was deep in reflection and seemed to have forgotten about his present company.

"What's that garden they're sayin'?" He caught her hand in his, holding it very tight. "It sounds dangerous, we have to tell everybody!"

"Tell everybody?" Junior snapped. "Tell who? These idiot kids only now made the math, but you're kidding yourself if you think most of the Black Scarves don't know about Pincer already. Where do you think we were heading?"

He threw another glance inside and his eyes widened.

"This guy's fucking nuts!" A voice shouted inside and Junior gestured for Mega-Girl to shut off her speaker.

Guns began to be shot in the library, robot zapper weapons facing them. Tootsie looked at her in panic.

"And we're idiots if we stay around here much longer," Junior added.

They hid around the corner of the building, better out of view.

"We're leaving soon," he said. "Don't wanna be around when the shit hits the fan any further."

Tootsie was shuffling into place, glancing back at the library, sighing anxiously.

"What is our destination?"

Junior gave her a pointed glare.

"That idiot's rubbing off on you, Mega-Girl. We're going to headquarters. Where else? I gotta make a call, I'll be right back."

As soon as they were alone, Tootsie stood on his tippy toes to look into the window and was horrified by what he found.

"They're in real danger! We gotta go save them! Joey and Sally's inside, they're my friends!"

But Mega-Girl would not follow and Tootsie remained there.

"How can you stay there? Mega-Girl, come on, let's go help out inside."

She turned away from him.

"I'm a broken dangerous robot with no sense of empathy."

"What?!"

He frowned. Gently, he grabbed her hand. Strong fingers clasping her metallic ones. No matter how perfectly capable these hands would be in combat, in utility, he only ever used them for kindness, for affection. Some humans had no greater ambitions. She ought to pity him for it.

"You're not," he said with so much assurance. He seemed always to wholly believe the lies he fed her. "You can be as kind and brave as anyone. I know it, you can make your own choices the same as any person!"

"Incorrect statement," she retorted and pulled her hand away. "I am a manufactured Mega-Girl designed for service. Your puny faith has always been misplaced."

He breathed out with something like frustration.

"You talk faith, how 'bout you have some?"

She scoffed.

"I am not equipped to. I cannot have faith in you. All my calculations indicate that your pursuit is likely to fail."

But she had mistaken his words for something else and knew at once the error of her ways.

"Not in me, darlin', in yourself! I know you can be good inside and show it outside too, you're capable of everything nice and sweet just as much as anybody!"

She recoiled at his words. Never before Tootsie had she received such baseless affection. No matter how much she assured him of the inaccuracy of his human beliefs about robots such as herself, he never seemed to stray from them.

"Your statement is factually wrong. My chip…"

"The chip don't matter, Mega-Girl!" He cried out.

This was the first time she had ever heard him raise his voice. They were not supposed to get noticed. She conceded that in a time of distress, the fighting captives inside the building would have other worries than a voice coming from just outside the walls. Still, he was much quieter and subdued when he talked again.

"I… I've loved you since I first saw you 'cause I knew how brave and strong you were. You could do anything, anything at all!"

Mega-Girl's cogs and gears calculated at full speed a retort worthy of his declaration, but none came. No one other than this idiot made her reach the limits of her logic and understanding. Whenever he asserted his sweetnesses, she felt that they were perceived by an entirely different system within herself that she was unaware of and did not know how to decode.

Junior came back and shoved the walkie-talkie against Mega-Girl's chest.

"Okay, we're going."

"What about the children?" She asked. "We've been on their track for twenty-five days. This was our new mission."

"We gotta save 'em!" Tootsie whined again. "They're in trouble!"

As if Old New Hatchetfield wanted to prove him right, from uncountable locations around them arose robots who began to march through the streets, looking for blood and domination. Mega-Girl glanced at Tootsie's face of terror. They were somewhat hidden away from the streets, she noted, but not for long, not enough. Junior sighed.

"I don't care about the kids," he said, "Not anymore. Didn't you hear what they said in there or are you too stupid to figure that out? The Great Garden gives Pincer his power!"

Tootsie stared and Mega-Girl could see the utter lack of comprehension in his eyes.

"So what?"

Junior began pacing nervously − or was it thrillingly?

"Don't you realize what this means? If his power has a source, then it has an end. A possible end. I knew we could get through his hivemind radiations but this… If he were to leave the pond…"

"What pond?"

But Tootsie was ignored, irrelevant to Junior's ponderings. They were, Mega-Girl thought, only for himself. Much of what Junior did was only for himself.

"Yes… Yes, this makes sense. If the power comes from the Great Pond, or even from the garden, then that power can be taken…"

He came back to his senses.

"Mega-Girl, we're leaving."

Tootsie would not budge. He gave her a pleading look.

"Tootsie has made it obvious he would prefer to…"

"Oh, Dead-God, you stupid tincan, I don't care what he wants! He could be dead for all I care."

But he paused and looked at her viciously then. He passed a finger across her metallic cheek, just enough for her captors to perceive it.

"In fact, he will be. Leave him here, Mega-Girl, the robots will have him before we're even out of this fucking place. Tie him up."

For once in his life, Tootsie understood what was said perfectly. His panic grew even wilder. He grabbed Mega-Girl's hands in his, dropped to his knees in front of her.

"Mega-Girl!" He begged. "Mega-Girl, I know you're better than this!"

She tore the scarf from his neck, brought his hands together and started to bind them together with it. Large hands, much more than the kid's, though he resisted much less, too. Tears in his eyes, he whimpered as she tied the knot. He had never been meant to wear the black scarf anyways.

"Incorrect statement."

All around, the people of Old New Hatchetfield were fighting back against the robots. Mega-Girl's air sensors noted the presence of a fire nearby. Junior's nose wrinkled in the same realization. He nodded her towards the tunnel they had taken on their way in, a few streets away, quite nearby if they were quick about it. Pulling his bag from his back, he shoved her into her hands and she supposed she would have to carry it. She supposed only Junior's whims mattered now.

The two of them left Old New Hatchetfield safely. As night started to fall, they set out for the Great Garden. Tootsie was never mentioned between them again.

Chapter Text

Mara danced all of the first evening, till all the Black Scarves save for Junior's squad were yawning or falling from exhaustion on the tables. She danced the next day, entertaining them with new rhythms, new steps. And the next, and the next, and before she knew it, she had made a job of it, or near enough as made no difference. The Jail had food reserves, both for them and for the kids in their cells, though after some time, their little prisoners began to be allowed to attend the shows too and the Rad Zone had never been more lively.

"You know what I see?" McDoon asked her on one of her breaks one night several weeks later.

He was sitting leg spread wide, leaning on an elbow and pointing his finger at her with determination. Cletus Jones was eyeing him, trying to be subtle about it. He never did seem to like McDoon socializing beyond necessary and always sat nearby giving mean looks to whoever deigned talk to him. McDoon took a long thick drag from the blunt in his hand and handed it to Cletus as he blew out the smoke.

"I see someone who's found her flame. Ain't you? Ain't she, Cletus?"

He received a cautious nod in reply. McDoon patted his lap heavily a few times to try and liven him up a little. Having failed, he turned to Mara again.

"You know, me and Cletus, we wanted this to be our last mission. Yeah, we were thinkin' we might just retire after this one… If we took so many kids, five of 'em, then boss would be impressed with us and just let us go, do what we want, ya know?"

She nodded. All five kids his squad had kidnapped had been rescued by Ted − a fact she had kept quiet for fear of retribution but McDoon had been as of late more pensive than vindictive. Missing some of their prey and being entertained by a much better prospect than a trip in the sun, they had remained there indefinitely.

"You don't like it at the Black Scarves?" She asked.

He shrugged.

"Eh, it's a job like any other, right? You get into it and then you just don't really leave it."

"Gets to ya," Ani chimed in. "You spend so much time in the Rad Zone, you just become evil and now that's your life, really."

McDoon and Cletus exchanged a glance.

"We'd been thinking," McDoon went on, "that after all that bandit shit is done we'd just settled down in a nice lil mountain cottage or somethin'. Hunt mutant deer for food, live a quiet life, scam passerbys… Just a comfortable little life, you know what I mean?"

"Then your dreams fade away like a candle burns down its wick…" Ani looked oddly wistful. "McDoon, my man, it's never too late."

McDoon seemed unconvinced.

"Well, with miss Mara here keepin' us busy and my kids gone away to dead hell knows where, ain't it? This mission ain't ever ending."

Mara patted Ani's back encouragingly. She thought it might be time for her to get back on the stage but as she was considering whether to grab another pretzel before her show, the room was suddenly a buzzing cacophony and all walkie-talkies spurted the same message at the same time.

"Junior speaking. Junior speaking. If any of you still wants to do their fucking job, set out for headquarters immediately and you won't be tracked down like mud bugs. Anyone failing to attend will regret it dearly. There's about to be a slight hierarchical update at the Black Scarves."

He burst into grating metallic laughter and Mara winced at how loud and unpleasant the sound was through the speakers.

"Whaddabout the kids we lost?" McDoon asked, confused.

"New plan," Junior retorted. "Forget about those kids. They don't matter, they never have. Won't be a problem anymore."

Mara's heart tightened painfully at the thought of Robin and Sally. And probably of that Joey Richter Sally had liked so much. She hoped for Sally's sake that both of them were alright and together.

"Leave now and none of you will be punished. This is an order."

Communication shut. The hall was silent for a brief instant, then overtaken by a flurry of quarrels and running around. All of them seemed to aim to reach the cells first, grab their prisoners and shove them onto the closest raft to be the first to show them off to Junior at the headquarters. Mara couldn't believe her eyes.

"Are they all really gonna leave just like that?!"

Ani and her seemed to be the only ones who had remained seated. Sweet Tooth snickered as he appointed himself the new leader of the rogues, Zebulba barked at Ani viciously, who had no reply. He served himself another snack. Putting the walkie-talkie back at his belt strap, he shrugged.

"You know, Mara, it might be a bit far-fetched," he said, patting her shoulder, "But sometimes for the sake of a larger plot, you find yourself having to suspend your disbelief a little bit. Let's just say they found a new motivation."

"But… But I wanted to dance…"

He scrutinized her through the narrow slit of his scarf at eye level.

"You did, didn't ya? Live your dream, feel free…"

He had been about to take another bite off his donut but stopped himself. His hand clenched into a fist, unclenched. He tapped the table awkwardly. The hall was empty all around them by now.

"You know Mara, erm…" He sighed. "You were right, kiddo. You were damn right the whole time. There's so much more to life than your boring job you're stuck with. Seeing you all this time dancing your little heart out, I've… I've felt inspired by you, you can say."

She beamed. Holding his hand, she tugged it close to clasp it between hers.

"Really?"

He nodded.

"For sure. You make me feel like maybe I could do it all over again too. Sand rafting. My old love."

She punched his shoulder playfully.

"You could, Ani! You can do anything!"

Suddenly he was on his feet, pumping in the air.

"Yeah! Yeah, I can do anything! I'm doing it, Mara, I'm gonna take a raft and go do it, just me and the desert!"

"Oh." She didn't know what she had been expecting. "Oh, just you, yes…"

He stared at her and very suddenly realized her meaning. Pulling her up, he grabbed her by the shoulders.

"Oh, are you crazy, you rascal, you're coming with me, aren't you? Don't tell me you wanna abandon your old Ani?"

She sighed in relief, already grinning again, and hugged him tight.

"We'll go see your slutty dancer afterwards, now come on!"

There was one sand raft left on the outside of the Jail. If she looked carefully, Mara could spot the shape of the fleet of the Black Scarves far into the distance. She did not care anymore. Junior's threat was nothing to her, nor were the Black Scarves. They had been an attentive audience but having tasted freedom, Mara would not go back to her former shackles unless she had no other option. She looked at Ani expectantly.

"Alright…"

He was looking at the rope knots like he had hardly been at the steering rod the past decade or so. Untangling them, he started to make sense of them and before long, he nodded at Mara to take a seat.

"Now, get ready for something spectacular!"

At first, nothing happened. Mara didn't know if she was supposed to make a show of applause anyways, if she was missing anything, but thankfully she was spared the awkwardness by Ani's frustrated groan.

"I can't get it to start!" He said. "I'm too fat!"

She stood to look at the problem. Finding none, she slapped his fat belly.

"Come on, that's all in your head! Who says you can't race a sand raft just like you used to?"

Ani started to count on his fingers.

"Well, first of all Zebulba said it a number of times, and Papy never really had faith in me I think, and Tarky's said a thing or two about…"

"No, no, no, I meant… I meant you have to believe in yourself! Yeah?"

The smile of him was so childlike, so simple.

"Yeah!"

She patted him on the arm.

"You show me what a 57 year old Black Scarf retiree is capable of, alright?"

"Yeah!"

He stood by the sail of the raft again, ready to give his full self to it this time. At first, it was slow and unimpressive, about as fast as they had driven when it was the full group of them − not very. Mara sat as the raft made its leisurely way through the desert, grinning at Ani for support. She barely saw the progress so rapidly it happened, the raft gaining speed till it was going so fast she had to cling to the bench for stability.

"You see that, baby!"

He laughed.

"That's sand rafting!"

His words of fondness describing her the sport came to memory and though she wouldn't exactly call the ride life-changing for her, she knew for sure that Ani was experiencing it very differently. The raft danced and rode across sand hills and valleys now at full speed, making acrobatics as they went, and Ani was screaming his freedom with the strength of decades of frustration. They were going so fast it felt like they could cover ten times as much distance as on foot, a hundred times. At some point, his scarf fell from his face, pooling around his neck and for the first time Mara had a full look at him. His face was a putrid puff of purplish pale skin that looked like it had died some days ago, but what she saw more than anything was the sheer joy of him, how carefree and entirely happy he was like she had never seen him before.

"Playing your old games again, Ani?"

Suddenly at their side was a raft at equal speed with Sweet Tooth, Candy and Zebulba on it. Mara's blood chilled but she had faith in Ani, she simply had to. Ani seemed to have nothing such in himself. He pulled his scarf back over his face.

"Because of you," Zebulba said meanly, "We're out of kids to bring the boss. You know what that means, Anakin?"

Ani tried as he might to catch more wind, to make their raft outrun Sweet Tooth's, but Zebulba hopped towards them to switch rafts and it became much less steady with the added weight, light as it was. On all four, Zebulba uncovered his fangs threateningly. Mara thought of grabbing her gun but realized she had forgotten it at the Jail. Ani couldn't move for fear he would lose control of their full speed raft. They were racing down a hill.

"It means you're a rotten shitbag, Zebulba, why are you doing this?!"

Zebulba bit into empty sandy air a few times before turning to the center of the raft. Mara could hear Candy and Sweet Tooth laugh their hearts out. First just a nibble, soon Zebulba outright tore through the ropes tying the sail to the mast. Ani cried out and Mara's heart raced even faster than the rafts when the thick canvas sail stopped bulging with the wind. Flopping pathetically behind, it was useless now.

"We hate you," Zebulba said victoriously. He hopped back onto his own raft and the rest of his words was muffled by the wind as Ani and Mara began to lose speed. "You're pathetic and fat! You'll answer for this!"

"And we always have!" Sweet Tooth said.

"NOOOOOO!" Ani shrieked.

"See you later, loser!" Zebulba snarled.

The raft started to shake and Mara noticed with dread that it was leaning much more towards the one side the longer it tumbled down the hill.

"Ani!" She cried in vain.

Ani was clutching the mast with all of his strength to keep himself from falling, which left precisely none for trying to stop the accident looming on them. Soon the raft was spinning in circles ever smaller, ever more dangerous till inevitably, they were thrown out of their seats. Mara landed butt first into hard sand and whimpered in sharp pain. The last thing she saw was Ani falling next to her but a fade as black as the scarf around her neck took over her and her last conscious thoughts were worrying if he was okay.

She woke once to the sound of laughter. At first she feared Junior had made true on his promise but it took only opening a sliver of an eyelid to know the laughing party was as far from Junior as could be. An old woman with an ornate headdress over her short dark natural hair was walking with the help of a stick and poked Ani with it. Mara sighed in relief at seeing he looked unscathed.

"Hey, fatty!" The woman snickered. "Eh, Papy expected better."

She knelt with some difficulty and grabbed a flask from her hip. She poured some of its content into Ani's mouth, who coughed it out, poured some more which was swallowed. She then offered some to Mara. It was hard liquor and burned down her throat like a furnace but her mind cleared up and she felt much more at peace. Lying her head back on the sand, she closed her eyes again. The woman huffed.

"Well, you're welcome."

Mara heard her walk away. She wished she could protest, exchange some courtesies at least, but her mouth was dry again and she managed nothing more than a whimper.

"You privileged fucks…" The woman grumbled. "Shoulda never done what he asked…"

Mara lost consciousness again before her steps were even out of hearing range.

They woke again much later − or was it a different day? The sun was lower in the sky but still just as bright and her eyes burned with it. She tried to get a sense of where she was, where they were aiming to go but she could barely keep her eyes open. A voice came from the side and she realized someone was there.

"No, they were just lying there…" A woman was saying.

Another voice muttered something Mara did not catch and she spoke again.

"Well I'm not talking to Black Scarves we just found in the middle of nowhere either, thank you very much!"

Mara felt around the sand next to her till she found Ani's arm, shaking him awake.

"Oh, shit, they're coming to!"

They were among a large group. Mara squinted, trying to count them but the sun was blinding her and her head was pounding. She lay it back into the sand. A few teens, some more adults. She didn't recognize them, except… Her eyes snapped open again and she stared in disbelief. The woman who had spoken glanced back and forth between him and Mara.

"Ted, do you know these guys?"

Chapter Text

Hatchetfield was in complete chaos. Guns were fired from all parts and even louder, Joey's heart was drumming hard against his temples. His hand gripping Sally's tight, the other holding the gun and trying to remember every tip Taz had ever given him, he made his cautious way through the battle. If they lost Sally's notes, if he lost Sally... He didn't know which of the two would be a worst end of his world.

A scorpion. A fucking scorpion with magical powers was the big baddie the road had led them to. He couldn't believe it, yet everything Professor Hidgens had explained to them matched the findings Sally had made throughout their say in Old New Hatchetfield. If he wasn't careful, he might think himself deep in one of Sally's novels or in the fantasies of adventures he had used to have in plenty. He had thought that he would be renowned for his famous deeds and discoveries and that the love of his life would reward him with her kisses. Well, one part was down, at least. Sally's hand squeezed his as they narrowly avoided the swing of a battle robot swooping in on them. The thing now was to stay alive.

A fire broke out and filled the streets with foul smelling smokes.

"Shit..."

No longer capable of seeing his way around, Joey and Sally had to rely on their other senses, which turned out significantly less sharpened. At least, they thought, the fire was slowing down their opponents, overheating their circuits. A wall crackled with fire across the street and crumbled down into ruins. Joey's blood was hot and pulsing faster than ever. They had to get out. They had to save the papers, but more important than anything, their own skin.

"Joey!"

The voice startled him and he might have dismissed it as a hallucination in the fierce of the action. The arm catching his was less easy to ignore, especially when the strength of it stopped him right in his tracks whether he wanted to or not.

"And Sally," Tootsie cried out. "Oh thank Dead-God you're alive! We need to get out of here!"

Joey glared and pushed Tootsie's hand off. The remnants of a black scarf circled his wrists in tatters. He had a gun and a walkie-talkie at his belt, though he seemed to make use of neither.

"Yeah, no shit," he retorted angrily. "What are you doing here?"

But Sally was twice as clever as him and had another concern.

"Are all the Black Scarves here?"

Tootsie was anxious and fretting, shuffling on his feet.

"They ain't," he said, which was a relief. Joey did not believe Tootsie was capable of lying, especially not about something as big as that. "But, Joey, the kids, they're in danger!"

"You don't say," Joey replied and pushed past him. He turned to Sally. "We'll take the path around the wall. Then we'll eventually just have to find the gate again."

This was another cause of Tootsie's concern and he barred their way again. Joey groaned. He had had no special wish to ever see Tootsie again after his enrolling with the Black Scarves, friend or no friend as they had been before. With him actively putting himself in the way of Joey’s most important plans, however, that apathy was turning to something sharper and he ignored him lest he wasted his time here and the battle would be lost because of it.

"You can’t go there," Tootsie said. "It’s too far, we won’t make it. No, we gotta save as many people as we can and take the road under."

It was Sally who stopped this time, tugging Joey’s arm gently. They ducked under a small shed for half a minute, suddenly caught between fires but now protected for half a minute.

"He’s right," she told him. "We won’t make it to the gate like this, there’s too many robots. Tootsie, you know another way out?"

Tootsie nodded.

"There’s a tunnel under that building leads outside."

He gestured them towards the center of the city − the exact opposite way to which Joey would have preferred to go. He sighed. If only Ted had come with, then he would have told Tootsie things as they were, done something about it all. Made a proper decision. Sally was looking at him and it was all the nudge he needed.

"Okay. Okay, but fast!"

They ran. Tootsie was much faster than they were, moved by some new determination Joey had never seen on him. If only he had had it in him to save kids much earlier, then the whole adventure would have been quite a bit shorter, he reflected bitterly.

"Oh, look who," Tootsie cried out.

The waterfountain was a steam bath blocking the view around it but Tootsie dove right through it. This part of the city was more desert, Joey noted, farther from the more inhabited buildings. He supposed that was a reassurance. Their guide gone, Joey and Sally looked at one another nervously but through the thick mist they could hear him.

"Hey kiddos," he introduced himself. "Name’s Tootsie and I’m saving children now. You’re coming with me, alright?"

They heard a whine and some splashing about.

"But I wanted to take a swim!" Craphole protested.

"I told you it wasn’t the time!" Robin retorted.

When Tootsie appeared again, he was carrying a boy under each arm. He dropped them wetly, delicately on the ground and though Craphole looked upset at the missed opportunity for a bath, he pouted and took the hand Robin offered him. Robin took Joey’s in turn and they made a line out of the city with Tootsie and Sally at the front orienting themselves through the maze of the battle.

The air was becoming much too thick for comfortable breathing but Tootsie kept promising that they were close, glancing back at them every few steps to check they were following. There were screams in the distance.

"I promise ya," he said. "This is how I got in, it’s safer."

Despite what he supposed had been a betrayal, despite wanting nothing more than to never see him again, Joey didn’t particularly mistrust Tootsie. It was the army of robots he had little faith in.

"Oh wait a second," Sally said. "That’s Emma."

They found Emma crouched against a wall, her face between her arms folded on her knees. Paul was rubbing her back with, it seemed, not much reaction in return.

"Emma!" Sally cried out. "Paul! Come with us!"

Paul whispered some reassurance into Emma’s ear. She did not move.

"She’s, erm… She’s having a bit of a hard time right now…" He told them.

"Everybody’s having a hard time right now," Joey snapped but Paul shook his head. "Come on, Tootsie says he knows a better way out, a tunnel right under this building and…"

Emma perked up and dried her eyes with clenched fists, scrambling to her feet inelegantly. She grabbed Paul’s arm tight for support. There was something unsettled about her.

"Not that one," she said. "It’s too big, the robots will follow us right into it. There’s a narrow one near the northern tower."

She didn’t wait for their reply, or indeed their approval, to lead the way. Joey and Sally glanced at each other. A robot approached them in the distance but he took his aim and shot its legs off. Maybe Emma’s way was the better option.

The three boys made a chain, Sally and Tootsie following, Paul trotting to catch up with Emma’s brisk determined pace. The city was crumbling around them but step by step, the route was made and before long, Emma stopped them. The tunnel she spoke of was barely a slit in the wall, one Joey might have walked past a hundred times without taking particular notice, but she slipped through it and with a thumb up, gestured them in. It was pitch dark and very warm.

"Are you sure this is the way out?" Joey asked.

Robin, brave as he claimed, was clutching his hand very tight and he could hear Craphole breathing heavily, perhaps on the verge of tears. Holstering the gun, he took Sally’s hand in his, their fingers together.

"I’m sure."

The way out of Old New Hatchetfield was long and full of fears. At one point, they heard a crashing sound behind them, which Paul interpreted as the entrance to the tunnel having collapsed. Joey’s heart was in a panic, though he tried for Sally and for the kids’ sake not to let it show.

"Are we gonna die?" Craphole asked quietly.

It was Robin who shushed him, patting his back reassuringly.

"This ain’t how I die," Tootsie said with a strange certainty. "Not before I found her again and made amends. I know it, I can feel it."

The person concerned could only be the robot to whom Tootsie had taken a liking. Although only Joey was in a position to know, none of the others said a thing. Perhaps all of them were too preoccupied with their own survival to bother themselves with it. One step in front of the other, they advanced blindly, until it wasn’t so completely dark anymore, only dim and hard to see through. Then it was half dark, something like twilight. Finally, they spotted at the end of the tunnel the night sky and the two younger boys made a run for it − and, to everybody’s surprise, Emma.

"Finally out of this fucking place!" She shouted to the stars, her arms held up to the sky as she swirled around in delight.

Paul looked at her with fondness.

"FUCK YOU, HATCHETFIELD!" She said, flipping off the burning remains of the city with two hands.

Robin covered Craphole’s eyes to guard his innocence, which made Sally smile. Tootsie yawned. Despite all the rush of getting out of the city, now that the way out had been made, Joey found that he was exhausted and offered to find a safe place for the night. A small cave a bit farther along was discovered and occupied. Robin and Craphole took Tootsie for a bed, big and comfortable as they proclaimed he was and, arms wrapped around the two of them, they all fell asleep within minutes. Tootsie’s snoring filled the cave.

"So, erm…"

Emma and Paul were smoking a joint by the entrance of the cave, her head against his shoulder, but they both scooted a foot of distance from one another at being addressed.

"Goodnight, then," Sally said timidly.

Paul smiled.

"Yes, goodnight. Tomorrow we’ll… we’ll see. Okay?"

Sally nodded. They did not have bedding or even covers, but the air was hot and she patted the ground next to her for Joey to lie down. The notes were safely kept behind her. Tomorrow, they would have a look at how to get to Pincer. Tomorrow, they’d find the rest of their group, if they had survived at all. For now, he was content to nestle in the arms Sally offered. They looked at each other.

"That was really brave," she whispered. "What you did. The gun and taking care of the boys and…"

He kiss her softly. Sally always gave him the same silly smile after he kissed her, which only made him want to do it more and more.

"We’ll get this done," he said. "I promise, we’ll beat Pincer and then, we’ll be happy."

Her arm around his waist, his hand at her butt, they were as close to one another as could be. He smiled.

"Do you… I mean, when this is all behind us… Did you wanna go back to Heaven on Earth and, and live together again?"

She was so shy about it, as if Joey might ever have the intention of separating again.

"Of course! Sally, I… I always wanna be with you. I love you."

She flushed deep pink and her smile was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

"I love you too, Joey," she said in a low whisper.

Behind them, Emma scoffed loudly.

"Love? You think love’ll get us out of this shit?"

Joey frowned, sitting up to look at her. Emma hadn’t been there at the library. What did she know of the deep shit they were in anyways?

"Emma, they’re just…"

But she waved Paul silent and he shut his mouth immediately.

"You kids are crazy, okay? You think this is how stories end? The good little kids go save the world and everyone goes back home happy? Love conquers all?"

Sally looked at her quizzically.

"In general, that is precisely how stories end," she noted.

"Yeah," Joey said. "You’re just jealous cause we’ve admitted our feelings and you’re too scared to. At least we’re doing something!"

Emma gave him a mean glare he didn’t know if he deserved. She pulled even further away from Paul, who looked at her miserably. For a long moment, there was only awkward silence.

"What’s the matter here?" Paul asked. "Is there something I don’t know?"

Joey turned from them, pulling Sally to him again.

"We’ll see tomorrow," he said coldly.

Emma blew smoke into the night air and snorted.

"If we don’t all fucking die by then."

It was a long moment before Paul lay down for sleep, a moment filled with Sally and Joey exchanging glances and reassuring each other that they were, in fact, going to do this no matter what Emma thought of it.

Emma kept watch all night without sleep.

Chapter Text

The two idiot kids in love woke up first. Emma noticed at once and, her back to them from the front of the cave, pretended not to hear the hushed whispers of support, love declarations renewed, the schmaltz of it all. If these two wanted to spend the end of the world in each other's arms, what was it to her? She frowned and stared ahead into the distance. She couldn't see the telltale green spot, only on the brightest hours of the day and not from everywhere. She could have done with never seeing it again anyways.

The big guy woke up next, Tootsie, if she had heard properly. Dumber than the ground under their feet, he couldn't have anything important ever to say, yet he immediately started chatter upon his getting up, waking with him the kids who had been nestling into the large shape of him.

"I'm starving," he whined. "Why haven't we eaten yesterday?"

The fucking robot battle and city on fire might have had something to do with that, Emma thought, though she said nothing.

"I'll get breakfast," Paul said quietly.

Emma had not noticed he was up and wondered if this was by his design. He exited the cave without a glance back at any of them and Emma watched him walk away, gun in hand, till he was out of sight. Her stomach churned unpleasantly and she closed her eyes, sighing heavily.

"So, who the fuck are you?" She asked Tootsie after some time with probably less graces than she could have.

He seemed entirely unbothered by the blunt question and gave her a smile. His mouth went to the side when he smiled, which made him look a little ridiculous but, she noted, rather friendly.

"Oh, it's just plain ol' Tootsie, miss," he said. Craphole was trying to climb his back to get a seat on his shoulders, an attempt which was neither encouraged nor blocked by him. Robin gave him a hand up. "I'm, erm, I'm a friend of Joey and Sally's."

Joey glared.

"We haven't really established that again, have we?" He said bitterly. He turned to Emma. "He was in the Black Scarves with Ted."

Emma snorted. The boys stared at her for a moment but went back to their climbing expedition. Craphole latched his fingers into Tootsie’s thick hair to pull himself up, which made him wince a little but he did nothing to stop it.

"At this point," she said, "Who the fuck hasn’t been with the Black Scarves. Why’d you leave? Another hero on our hands?"

Tootsie’s face was the very image of sadness and regret.

"Mega-Girl, she… erm, Junior asked her to leave me there in the battle to die and…"

Joey’s face snapped to him with a new interest.

"Junior was there?! What the fuck does he want?"

But his attention was cut short by Paul coming back. He had hunted some desert thing, found roots and dried fruit. He dropped them by the fire and started to work on cooking breakfast, immediately helped by Tootsie and the boys.

"It’s, ah, he and Mega-Girl are gonna go to Pincer," Tootsie said. "And I don’t think she wants to marry me anymore…"

Joey snorted.

"Tootsie, she’s just a robot. I don’t think she ever wanted that."

He received a nudge and a shush from Sally, who nevertheless said nothing to soothe the poor Tootsie out of his sorrow. He sighed heavily and helped Paul prepare the meat for a breakfast scramble.

"That’s just the way life goes, then, ain’t it? You think you’ve got something special with someone but they don’t like you all that much after all…"

Paul was unbelievably applied at cutting the roots in equal parts and would not look up even for a second. His face was closed off and lacked any of the warmth Emma always saw in it. Her guts rumbled with nerve, though possibly with hunger too.

"So this means that Junior and Mega-Girl will be waiting for us at the Great Garden…" Sally said tentatively.

"Not just them," Joey noted. "That’s the headquarters, isn’t that what that Hidgens guy said? How many does that mean… Ugh, if only Ted was here. We should have gone with him through the front gates."

Emma laughed bitterly.

"I’m fucking sick of hearing about Ted," she said. "He’s done nothing but been a pain in my ass and…"

"And I’m sick of hearing you bitch about him!" Joey cut her. "Ted’s done everything for me, he’s helped me find Sally again and he’s not such an asshole once you get to know him. He’s all I wanna be!"

"Who the fuck are you even talking about?" She shook her head. "You don't know him like I do. He'll ditch your ass first chance he gets, if we ever find him again in the first place."

"Not, you don't know him like I do! He's a good guy now, he's never gonna turn cloak!"

Emma might have argued this kid a whole lot longer if it weren't for Paul suddenly speaking up and silencing them both.

"Perhaps," he said slowly, "You could both be right, in a way."

They stared at him. Meticulously, he finished slicing the roots and put them onto the now sizzling pot Tootsie had gotten ready for him. It had been lucky, if nothing else, that Emma had had her supplies backpack with her when the battle broke out. She had been on a smoke break with Paul, but a short moment of leisure had given them the chance of now eating and, even luckier, smoking.

"I think Ted was an asshole back in Sycamore," he said. "And I think it was wrong of him to leave. But sometimes, things change." He looked at Emma. "People change, too."

She averted her gaze, embarrassed. She knew all too well how much things could change, didn’t she? Or perhaps only her realization of them. The notion was starting to fill her whole that there was not a single safe place left on this dead earth. Paul had been it for so long, but that was gone too. The escape she kept hoping for simply did not exist.

"Asshole or not, he’s still not here. You kids wanna beat Pincer, all seven of us? Fat chance."

"What’s, erm, what’s Pincer?" Paul asked.

Emma’s blood chilled at the sudden realization that she had incriminated herself. In the terror of the battle, of being left to her own devices in Pincer’s zone, she had forgotten all about the pretense of not knowing about him. Some secrets she had shared with Paul. Some she had kept hidden. She had hoped to keep him ignorant of that.

"Wait, that’s right," Joey noted. "How d’you know about Pincer? There was just a few of us in the room, you weren’t there."

"And I was spyin’ outside," Tootsie said, which only brought him a glare from the boy but it was short-lived, all eyes on her again. She could only focus on a specific pair.

"Pincer is… well, he’s the origin of the Rad Zone hivemind. Big evil scorpion beast who can plant thoughts in your brain."

Paul was incredulous and the little kids gasped in fear.

"A scorpion?"

"Like a really big one," Sally said, pulling out notes to show him drawings Emma recognized from years ago. "He’s capable of controlling us, only drugs can give us some free will from him and…"

He picked up the drawings, staring blankly, but when he looked up he was animated with what looked threateningly like anger. Emma was so unused to see him wroth she couldn’t tell for sure.

"Emma, you knew about this?!"

She needed a smoke. She needed to go back in time and never leave Sycamore. Wasn’t it better to die on her little farm compound with a happy Paul skirting forever around the unnamable feelings between them rather than dying devoured by a fucking scorpion? But she was here and now and the feelings had been very clearly set aside for good by her own stupid despair yesterday. She sighed. The young boys had taken the drawings from Paul’s hands and were examining them with equal parts of fascination and terror.

"Yeah, I did."

Sally and Joey were staring in disbelief and she shrugged.

"I was one of Hidgens’ students a while ago," she said. "Till I got the fuck away from the zone because it’s dangerous as all dead hell. You’re crazy if you even consider going there."

The kids only had to take one glance at each other and nodded.

"Then we’re crazy!" Joey said.

"We have to do this," Sally added, holding his hand tight. "We’ll go find the others at the front gates and then follow the train tracks to the Great Garden."

Emma noted somewhat bitterly that, happy as she was to be out of Hatchetfield, it had still been more protection than a ruthless wasteland. Thankfully, they had pot to guard themselves from one another or from their own selves, but they were stuck outside for good nonetheless.

"We can’t go back," she sighed. "The path was blocked behind us and the way up around the hill takes forever, they’ll be gone by the time we get there. If they’re even… If they’re there at all."

By the stern looks on the kids’ faces, she wondered if this was the first they were picturing the possibility that not all of their companions had made it out of Hatchetfield in one piece or even alive. For a few moments, all that could be heard was the food Tootsie stirred around the pot and the quiet whispers of the two boys still in deep concern over the drawings. Paul would not look at her. She would not look at him. Sally had her head on Joey’s shoulder, who held her by the waist.

"Food’s ready," Tootsie said, handing out bowls that had to be shared, not enough of them for the whole group to each get one. Tootsie shared with the boys, the kids together, but Emma never sat next to Paul to eat from the same bowl. She wasn’t much hungry anymore anyways.

Breakfast over, Joey gathered the boys to him and put a hand on their shoulders.

"We’re out on the biggest adventure of our lives, alright?" He said, trying to sound cheerful. "It’s just like in stories!"

"Do I get to marry the princess?" Craphole asked eagerly. "Jasmyn?"

Joey gulped.

"Erm… Not that kinda stories."

"This is like you and Bruce used to do," Sally offered to convince Robin, who needed no convincing at all and grabbed her hand onto the road before she could even hold it out. Craphole, seeing his friend so determined, could only follow suit.

"I’m comin’ too," Tootsie said. "If Mega-Girl’s out there, I wanna see her safe."

They set out to walk. There were visible train tracks in the mid distance which Emma knew led to the Great Garden, as confirmed by Sally’s map. She and Paul never looked at each other before following the kids. Out of desperation, resignation, anything else, she could not say. She supposed that, in going along with the kids’ crazy plan, she was only picking one bad option among many. She wondered what Paul was thinking. She wondered just that many more times.

"We’ll just hope to find Ted," Joey said. "I miss him, kinda…"

Sally held his hand tight to comfort him and Emma shook her head, looking away.

"I’m sure he’ll catch up," Sally said gently.

They walked. It was dreadfully hot, though they managed to find a small stream near the ruins where they filled up their canteens and washed their faces. Her stomach was grumbling unpleasantly but she pushed on. She did wonder what had happened to the others, or at least some of them. For Paul’s sake and their own, she hoped Bill had rescued the girls out of this shit hell. Probably, she hoped Charlotte had made it out okay, too, although she had no doubt that Ted’s selfish ass had made sure of that before anything else. She thought longingly of Sycamore. Back then, how many people around her, how tight-knit their little commune? What was left now was the random kid and Paul. She might have done without any other at all if only she had had the old Paul at her side.

They stopped to rest during the hottest hours of the day and found shadows. The boys sat in a pile around Joey, chatting together of the brave deeds they were hoping to emulate. Sally looked at them with fondness. Paul, not unusually, rolled up a joint for protection but just as Emma’s heart had picked up in her chest again hopefully, he offered it to Tootsie.

"Oh," he said, frowning, "What’s that?"

"Weed," Paul said matter-of-factly. "It protects you from the bad thoughts."

Tootsie whimpered, though he took the joint nonetheless to have a drag, but passed it back to Paul immediately.

"I don’t think there’s nothin’ can do much against that… But I’ll try, sir, thank you."

Paul was looking at him with curiosity and inhaled long and deep himself. He breathed out the smoke to the ground. Emma closed her eyes. There was something about how Paul held himself that changed when he smoked, a looser demeanor, something dulled in him that was usually tensed up. Usually, she was right next to him to witness it, fingers brushing as they passed the joint between each other till there was none left. She pulled out her stash and rolled herself a blunt as well.

"I’m so scared the Rad Zone is gon’ make my poor Mega-Girl all sad, too," he said, "the closer we get to that Pincer."

Sally perked up.

"The zone doesn’t affect robots, Tootsie," she said. "Your Mega-Girl is safe. Erm, from radiations, at least."

"But what if she got devoured too?"

"Scorpions do not eat robots," Robin said wisely.

It was a whole argument that Emma quickly lost interest in as, it seemed, did Paul. Their eyes crossed, except this time, Emma would not look away. She looked at him long and well, till Paul was the one to avert his gaze.

She kept thinking about what the kid had said, what Ted had said too. Paul and her, too afraid to act upon their feelings. She had been so uncomfortable at the thought, and yet.

It wasn’t that Emma didn’t see that the line from platonic over to romantic had blurred ever more over the years between her and Paul. It wasn’t that she thought she wouldn’t like to cross it frankly once and for all. She had come to think of Paul as her someday guy, the inevitable one for her, when there’d be time and opportunity. When she’d feel safe enough to let herself enjoy it. Was there ever a chance for that? Maybe he was her never guy after all.

She wondered briefly if the thoughts were to be assigned to Pincer for once, but the joint was almost smoked up in her fingers and yet they remained. Paul, Joey and Sally were still comforting Tootsie about his lost love, yet she had only herself for that. She stood.

"Let’s just keep going," she sighed. She turned to the boys, who had been playing in sandy dirt. "You coming?"

Robin obediently stood to his feet, ready to go, but Craphole wasn’t paying her any mind. His eyes were fixed on the horizon behind them, squinting but suddenly they widened and he started to run away. Emma groaned. Just what they needed. She was about to drag his ass back here when she noticed what Craphole was looking at. She let him run as fast as he would.

"Mama!" He shouted.

Chapter Text

"Mama, it’s me! It’s Craphole!"

Slippery When Wet, who had proved herself over the weeks a stern road companion, never really a word of joke to her, her smiles rare and short-lived, was laughing breathlessly and ran as fast as her little stature would let her to catch her boy in her arms to swirl him around again and again.

"Craphole, my Craphole!"

Bruce's joy was no less complete, though perhaps less wordy. Robin had run alongside the younger boy and sprang into his embrace roughly, tears of joy shed on either side. Both children were covered in kisses and tender touches, doted on like the weeks of separation begged for. Jemilla and Clark smiled at each other and she nudged him gently − though not too close, not too kind, as the mistakes of the past had taught her. She still felt embarrassed by the chiding of having overindulged.

"I missed you so much," Robin told Bruce.

His tiny little body was entirely wrapped around Bruce who held him so tight he might have suffocated him if he weren’t careful. Slowly, groups on either side got closer to the reuniting pairs, first to watch in fondness, then to meet and introduce each other.

"Mom, Emma found us again," Craphole said proudly, pointing at a woman behind him, beaming. "She saved us from the fire and the battle, she’s not scary anymore."

Slippery When Wet frowned.

"The fire? But…"

Jemilla knew about Emma, though not much. A handsome woman, by any measure, looking stern and perhaps not as ecstatic about the reunion as the boy and his mother. She stepped towards Slippery When Wet to shake her hand and Jemilla could see the firm grasp on both side and wondered how neither broke knuckles.

"We were just in Old New Hatchetfield," she said, "Till it burned to a crisp." Slowly, she broke into a kinder smile. "Never thought I’d see your face again, Dikrats."

Slippery When Wet took off her hat to salute her. Her arm wrapped around Craphole to keep him close in front of her and she pressed a kiss to his hair before replying.

"Emma, I… I want you to know that I wanted to stay. After the fire at Sycamore. Explain ourselves, make amends. I never wanted to run away, but…"

Emma nodded. Craphole, spotting Krypto, wriggled from his mother’s embrace to run to him and Robin and him petted the dog enthusiastically, soon joined by one of their road companions, a large man with a big grin and a walkie talkie at his hip.

"Wait, where’s Jack Bauer?" Emma asked suddenly.

"Where’s Mouthface?" Slippery When Wet replied.

They could only shrug at each other.

Presentations were made. Dinner was prepared and shared. Their little group had now more than doubled and Jemilla was glad for new company. Slippery When Wet introduced her to Emma and Paul, of course to Craphole, and both of them made acquaintance with the two teenagers accompanying them and with Tootsie, who was now carrying the dog in his arms and petting his head comfortingly. Bruce muttered together with Clark, looking at Robin standing on his tippy toes to look at Krypto.

Slippery When Wet was a lot calmer than Jemilla had expected. The joy of having found her boy again was only matched by how sorrowful she seemed to still be missing her daughter. For his sake, she tried to hide it and Craphole made no remark on it but Jemilla not only prided herself in her capacity to read people quite well, but also had been the confident of her travel partner for quite a while now, enough to know her some. Slippery When Wet had never admitted to playing favorites and indeed had often claimed the exact opposite. It wasn’t so much that she preferred either of her children, rather that she favored both of them at once for vastly different reasons. Jemilla saw plain on her face how pained she was to know her daughter still missing.

"We saw you enter Hatchetfield," Clark said hesitantly. "And then come out of it."

The battle was explained in far greater details than Jemilla had the stomach for and Slippery When Wet clasped a hand over her mouth, her eyes welling up with unshed tears as Craphole made the story sound like a great adventure rather than the horrific nightmare it must have been. They had been separated, they said. Beforehand the girls had been safe, which was somewhat of a relief to her, though she could not tell if the uncertainty didn’t make it just as bad as before and Clark wasn’t certain he could spot them anymore among the groups that had rushed out of Hatchetfield.

"But… but why? Why was there a battle at all?"

The other group glanced at one another and Emma sighed, waving off the youths to explain instead of her. Paul looked to the ground.

"Getting tired of having to explain this shit all the time," Joey grumbled, but he gestured Sally to show them papers she was clutching in front of her. "Big scary evil scorpion, end of the world, yadda-yadda."

"What?!"

The drawings depicted a large scorpion and Sally explained it to them much more patiently.

"The Rad Zone’s influence comes from him," she said. "He controls our minds and his power grows stronger and stronger. This is why the zone expands."

It was so unbelievable Jemilla could only wholly believe in it blindly, for who would make up something like that in their own mind to convince others of it for no reason? Clark put a comforting hand on Bruce’s shoulder, who covered it with his own.

"So this is where we’re heading," she concluded.

"Yeah, the Hatchetfield guys seemed to have kind of a cult of protecting that secret…" Joey shook his head. "Professor Hidgens tried to kill us all when we said we needed to do something about it. My friend Ted took the others to safety, I think. I hope. Mouthface was with them."

Slippery When Wet nodded slowly, not fully convinced but choosing to soothe herself with that possibility for the present.

"Safety," Emma scoffed, which made Joey glare at her and Jemilla sensed an underlying tension she thought more courteous to ignore. "Nowhere’s safe."

"Not this again…"

"… which is why," Emma went on, dismissing him, "We have to fucking kill this thing. It’s the only way."

"I agree," Slippery When Wet said firmly. "Ain't no creeper crawler I can't shoot with my ol' gun."

They looked at each other with, it seemed, a new understanding. Jemilla did not know all the details of Emma’s story, but she saw in her eyes that they couldn’t have all been rosy. She did know the rough shape of Slippery When Wet’s life story and could only imagine how much she was craving the comfort and stability of securing herself safety forever. She could imagine that very well. She thought of Zazzalil and wondered if she had learned about this Pincer as well, if she was still living her feral little life in Independence, if she was even alive at all. Maybe with a fucking evil scorpion still ruling the dead world, she’d never get to find out. It had to be brought down.

"But... that thing is huge," Bruce pointed out. "As big as a mansion, it looks."

Slippery When Wet hardly gave him a glance.

"I got bullets," she said. "And I got spite."

She never asked for the group’s approval, only standing by Emma’s side and patting her shoulder heavily once, twice in support. Jemilla needed no more convincing. In her weeks shared with her friend, she had learned when to defer to her good judgment, when her own fears were to be ignored for the sake of a greater purpose. Clark was looking at Bruce with concern and Joey spoke up again.

"I know this is scary," he said. "And I know our chances are… slim. But it’s our only hope to live our lives."

"You were a ranger once," Sally said, holding Joey’s arm tight, smiling at Bruce reassuringly. "This is just another mission. The most important mission of our lives. Of all future lives."

"For our families," Slippery When Wet added. "To get a chance to see them again, alive."

Sally turned to her and nodded. Joey looked at her with some adoration that made Jemilla’s heart clench with how lonely she suddenly felt.

"If I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that… love is the only thing that matters, dude," he said. "That’s why I’m doing this, because I wanna… I think all of us wanna be happy with the ones we love and not have to worry if we’ll fucking die or get kidnapped again tomorrow."

She thought of Zazzalil. She always thought of Zazzalil.

Bruce was still sat on the ground, stern and silent. Clark was crouching next to him and put an arm around his shoulders. Ever since the fight, the affection had only grown ever deeper between them and Jemilla wondered when it would culminate or how. Every day seemed to bring them closer.

"This is what this has been about all along, Bruce," he said softly. "This is why we do what we do."

Bruce shook himself out of his thoughts and looked at him with large frightened eyes.

"Yes," Robin said, "Bruce, never give up! This is a lesson you’ve taught me."

First nothing, then all at once Bruce sprang to his feet.

"I’m doing this!" He cried out. "For… for Robin."

Robin beamed with joy but it was Clark that Bruce was looking at. Slowly, he stood to face him and offered a hand for Bruce to shake. Bruce never took it, instead crushing him into a hug that looked so deep-felt Jemilla thought they would both drown in it. Clark looked absolutely startled but melted into the embrace like he was afraid it would be their first and last. It was long, too, lingering way past what was typical, and the group started to share glances when finally they broke apart. She swore their eyes were shining with a new light when they looked at each other again.

"… Okay," Slippery When Wet said, "So that’s decided, then? Who’s with us?"

Jemilla looked around, but it seemed that nobody else needed any convincing.

"All of us," she said. "Fuck it, we’re all going!"

Chapter Text

Ani and Mara were sitting on their asses lost and squinting, covered from head to toes with pale sand, though no layer of dust could ever hide the black scarves around their necks from Ted’s companions.

"Ted, do you know these guys?"

Zazzalil looked ready for attack at a moment’s notice, arms flexed and stance solid. It was a dozen of them against the couple of barely conscious stranded, but in her eyes he knew that she saw in them a whole army of enemies.

"I know them," Up said, frowning. "That’s them Black Scarves who took Robin!"

"Yes, I know them," Ted said, ignoring him. "We wouldn’t be here without them. Mara helped me break the kids out of the Jail."

Ja’far gave the new pair a very fixated look, likely trying to decipher if they could be trusted, but Zazzalil seemed to have made up her mind already.

"We can’t trust Black Scarves," she declared loud and proud. "We already got Ted over here no one asked for…"

There was some protest, mostly coming from Charlotte and from Up, but it was shushed down as she went on.

"… Who knows how many we can trust before they fucking stab us in the back."

Ja’far was examining the whole crashing site, checking the two of them for wounds and finding none. The remains of the raft were of great interest to him, though he perked up at Zazzalil’s words.

"Now, my friend, that’s showing little compassion. This man and this woman just went through a frightful crash."

"Compassion? But… but they’re bad! Kidnapping is bad! They’re the bad guys here!"

"I helped Ted!" Mara cried out. "I danced for weeks to distract the Black Scarves!"

Ja’far shook his head. Patting Zazzalil’s shoulder gently, he pressed a kiss to the side of her head, which made her pout like a chided kid.

"I think you’ll remember that all of us have the potential for wrongdoings. As we do for righteousness."

Ted felt suddenly quiet and breathed out nervously. At Hatchetfield, how she had thrown the flame barrel to protect that stranger, the fire that burned up the city come from such a simple act of goodness. How he had hoped to live fun adventures to brag about smugly and had fallen so easily to Junior’s charisma smooth talking him with tales of great exploits. Good and bad knit together, sometimes one and the same in a single action.

"It’s a choice one has to make, whichever way they do."

If only Sally and Robin were here, then they might vouch for Mara instead of him and maybe the word of an innocent child would be worth more than his to Zazzalil. She looked at Ja’far curiously. Mara, by any definition, was as much of a good person as one might be while wearing that scarf, probably better than him. Ted still remembered having made the call, locating Sally among the many squads and asking for her help. She had given it so readily it had almost seemed like the whole thing had been her idea. He was about to explain as much when Zazzalil broke from Ja’far’s side to look at the raft for herself.

"We could fix it," she said with a surge of confidence.

She knelt next to them and tore from Ani’s belt his walkie-talkie.

"What’s this?"

She took a closer glance.

"Well, it's a surprise tool that will…" Ani started but she shut him up with a glare.

"I’m taking it," she said, "And the raft. I’ll try to fix it and…"

"What is that over there?" Mouthface interrupted.

They all looked where she was pointing in the sandy distance. First a small dot, then a cloud of dust and before they could do anything to escape, a sand raft stopped right in front of their group and its passengers stepped out.

"Who the fuck are you?" Taz asked aggressively.

Sweet Tooth paid her no mind and Ted saw her pull out her gun, only barely caught by Up who insisted on patience. Charlotte pressed herself to Ted’s back, who reached behind to hold her waist protectively.

"Me?" He took a theatrical bow. "They call me Sweet Tooth. I seem to have misplaced my belongings. If you’ll excuse me…"

He grabbed Ani and Mara by the collars, pulling them to their feet. Mara protested and Ted wanted to help her, but never made the motion. Ani looked incredibly sheepish and let himself be pushed around. Only Mara finally escaped his grasp.

"I’m not coming with you, what are you talking about!"

Sweet Tooth grinned meanly.

"Oh, you’re coming with me most of all, miss Mara Jade. You’re still fresh and young, the boss might still like you. I’m not stupid enough to try and take these kids but you…" He laughed. "No one here will care if I take you."

"That’s not true! That’s…"

She looked to Ted plaintively, who could only stare at the ground.

"It’s hopeless, Mara," Ani sighed. "It was foolish to think I could ever sand raft again. I’m too old. Let’s just go back and do our jobs, eh?"

"But… but I don’t wanna…" She sniffed. "Ted?"

Sweet Tooth turned to him and he felt Charlotte clutch the fabric at his back tightly. He gulped.

"There’s still a spot for you if you wanna come with and convince little Mara here," he said in a slurring murmur. "You help us and I’m sure there’ll be a comfortable bed and good meal for you at the end of the day. The Black Scarves can afford to forgive easily."

Shoving Ani towards the raft, Sweet Tooth caught Mara again, but it was Ted he was still staring at.

It wasn’t that the offer was no temptation whatsoever. It had been a rough patch out of Old New Hatchetfield, getting used to a new group configuration and to the possible dreadful fact that not all of their loved ones might have made it out of the battle as they had. Food was scarce, a painful reminiscence of Sycamore, and drugs were scarcer. The teens were bratty, the adults moody, barely enough between them to not massacre each other.

Their new companions were something else, too. Jack Bauer, he had thought he knew well enough not to expect anything from him, good or bad, but he had proven himself perhaps one of the only stable people in the party now. Zazzalil was ever dubious, ever pitching all sorts of fire, any moderation only brought by her intense desire to please Ja’far and to be in his good graces. Always, she doubted him, bullied him, and Ted could only take so much. And Ja’far himself, well. Ted had never thought he needed a lesson in ethics personified. It might have been easier to shut his brain off, the nasty complicated parts that gave him a will to play hero. On the other side, he might have a much greater chance to not fucking die.

"Ted?" Charlotte whispered behind him.

But then, there were all the sweet things left in the world, weren’t there? He thought of Joey’s chubby little face that had gotten not so chubby and not so little over a few weeks, months together, the harshness of life making a man out of him whether he was ready or not. He thought of his sweetheart and the discoveries they had made because of her, the scorpion they had to fight, and which side did Ted truly want to be on in that battle? He thought of Charlotte. He thought of her a whole fucking ton, in or out of her presence.

Looking around him, he saw in every staring face one more reason for him to remain exactly where he was. Bill and the girls, how far he had gone to try and save them, so why stop now? Mouthface and Jasmyn holding hands anxiously, perhaps the only young love that could match his Joey and Sally. Taz had made an example out of him, Up had given all the support in the world to Charlotte.

He liked her. Maybe he even loved her, if he could tell the difference. Of course, she had grown somewhat of a spine in their time apart but, surprising himself, he found that he enjoyed the new Charlotte even more than he had the moping mess she had been, even when she had rejected him a hundred times. They had made up and kissed since, they had talked, but not much yet and not enough. He wanted to set things entirely right with her, to talk more, and to more than talk.

"No," he said.

There was a chorus of relieved sighs around him and Charlotte held him very tight, nudging herself into an embrace. Ted kissed the crown of her head. He wasn’t letting go, not again.

"I’m not leaving you," he muttered just to her. "So don’t you worry."

Sweet Tooth’s eyes were piercing through him wickedly but his mouth was still smiling.

"How precious," he said caustically. "How tender. Anyone else has a declaration to make?"

Silence all around and he roughly pushed Mara into Candy and Zebulba’s clutches, who tied her to the mast of the raft. By the defeated look of her, she didn’t seem like she was going anywhere anyways.

"No one? Any last minute recruit?"

Ja’far advanced and Jasmyn’s head snapped to stare at him, mouth gaping.

"I’ll come with you."

Sweet Tooth’s grin got all the meaner and he nodded Ja’far aboard, holding up a hand.

"Wh… Daddy, no, you can’t!"

All eyes were on him, horror filling everyone as they realized the earnest of his words. Slowly, he turned to his daughter. Hands at her shoulders, it looked as though the touch was all that was still holding her up. Tears fell from her eyes as he caught her into an embrace. He whispered into her ear but the silence was so stern that all could hear him.

"I love you, my princess," he said very softly. He kissed her wet cheeks, he kissed her forehead. "I love you more than anything in the world."

She was in complete disbelief, staring in anguish as he took the hand Sweet Tooth offered and climbed aboard. Jasmyn might have fallen in a heap in Mouthface hadn’t been there to catch her collapsing and they both fell to the ground in an embrace of sorrow. The silent tears turned to heavy sobs and wails and Ja’far closed his eyes as he sat on the bench of the raft, his face between his hands.

"Daddy! Don’t leave me, come back!"

Kicking his foot to the ground, Sweet Tooth set the raft into smooth motion again. It made a sinister cloud of thick sand dust as it drifted away faster than they could have chased it − if they had wanted to. Jasmyn’s pleading voice filled the wind and she was still shaken with sobs by the time the dust of the raft had settled into the ground. Soon, the sand raft was but a tiny dot in the distance. Then it disappeared.

Chapter Text

The road to the Great Garden was unsatisfactory on all possible aspects. Mega-Girl’s sensors were saturated with frustration.

She thought at first that it must have been because the travel surroundings were getting worse and worse. The sun was ever stronger, beating up her steel shell to its last limits, making her vents and fans work all the harder. Junior, who never had a habit of complaining of their conditions, was now freely avowing his suffering and making her carry him most of the time, which made traveling all the harsher for both of them, him burning up against her hot metal and Mega-Girl’s resources stretched thinner with every step. It might also have been the unpleasant anticipation of announcing a thus far failed mission, no matter how Junior rejoiced over his new plan. It was not won yet and Mega-Girl’s predictions on its success were much lower than his. Or it could be that Junior, sparing his water and food most cautiously, was even worse company than usual, so grouchy he got from his vulnerable humans need mostly unmet all the time.

Days passed and ever farther they advanced, closer to the Black Scarves headquarters every passing moment. They never talked, which was just as well to her, whose circuits were oversaturated with thoughts of her own. She could not remember them ever so active in her years of existence and service.

"I’m sick of watching you grimace and grind your teeth, Mega-Girl," Junior snapped the morning Mega-Girl calculated that they would reach the Great Garden within the day. "You better put a smile on that tin face before we get there."

She did not reply. She had taken to refusing to acknowledge him and wondered if Junior even noticed the difference. It did not matter to her. Anything had stopped mattering to her, not when her thoughts were overwhelming her so. She who had always advanced through existence only fulfilling her given purpose of being of service was finding in herself new aspirations, new ideas that could not have been planted there at her manufacture. They prompted even more thoughts, more nuanced every minute, every hour. Perhaps they might even have been feelings.

She thought Tootsie might be safe. She hoped that he would be, that he presently was. A loose scarf around his strong hands, a walkie-talkie to call for help, if ever he had the wit to. She knew the Black Scarves had other traitors to Junior’s cause, or was that another hope? She could not discuss the likelihood out loud, of course. Junior would not have allowed her to talk of him, she knew, so she kept the thoughts to herself. There were many of them.

When he had been around, Mega-Girl had dismissed Tootsie’s ideas, yet in his absence, she was proven more and more how true they had been. She was capable of feeling. Impossible to tame, even moreso to analyze and comprehend, emotions were flowing through her in a completely different pattern than her rational thoughts, one that changed by the minute and that could not be studied. A whole new circuit had been born within herself and she did not know how to control it, only slowly to recognize it. She did not understand it. She thought, if Tootsie were here, that he might, or at least better than her, but in her basic comprehension, she knew now that she could feel emotions. Three or four of them.

Hope and fear were one and the same, she was realizing. She hoped for Tootsie to be safe and sound only because she feared he might not be. She hoped he had saved the human children because she feared he was not capable to. She hoped Junior’s plan would never come to be, but feared the consequences of it if it ever did. Any hope, any desire was counterbalanced by the fear of not seeing it through. It had been easier to exist without assigning any value to the consequences of the events around her, but not everything was equal anymore. She cared about some outcomes more than others. She cared about Tootsie more than others.

"And don’t tell Papy about any of that Old New Hatchetfield business," Junior ordered. "He won’t like that."

Was it resentment she was now feeling towards Junior? Annoyance seemed too mild, though hate was too impersonal, too much like the blind despise for any human being she had experienced before the start of her emotions within. She was upset at his treatment of her. She was resentful of his treatment of Tootsie even more. Perhaps even in some deeper yet unknown part of herself, she was upset at his evil ways. She could not tell yet.

The last emotion, which she understood least of all, was by far the strongest. It was love. She loved Tootsie. Her circuits, both the familiar logical ones and the new emotional ones, kept circling back around him and every single memory, every single trait and quality of him was stained with fondness and affection. She was hoping to see him again, the large lopsided grin when he spluttered words of adoration, his soft human hands against her metallic ones, and perhaps she wanted more contact than that, to be held by him. She did not know that robots were capable of amorous demonstrations of affection, but she was sure that Tootsie would know. He must have known that for sure.

"We’re here," Junior said eventually and hopped off from her back. "Try to behave, or else."

He pulled the heavy threaded metal rope that rang the entrance bell and after a moment, two heads appeared on top of the thick immense gates above the drawbridge.

"Who dares beg the doors open?"

The deep voice reverberated in the empty expanse of the desert wasteland, to and fro across the many mismatched buildings and haphazard walls surrounding the Great Garden ahead. Junior sighed in frustration.

"Oh, fuck off, Ducker, just open the bridge."

A few seconds passed before they could hear the rusty gears set into motion.

"Okay, go for it," Ducker said.

"Chorn," said Chorn.

The old battered planks making up the drawbridge were slowly lowered until they were at a level with Junior and Mega-Girl, who crossed it rather quickly for fear Ducker would be in another of his moods and close it before they were across. When he came down the ladder huffing and puffing, he seemed in an adequate mood, though there had never been much affection between him and Junior and, by extension, Mega-Girl.

"Papy’s waiting for you," he said. "Western tower, his afternoon chamber."

Junior nodded curtly. Without waiting to be led, he branched quickly into the hall to the west, Mega-Girl in his step.

The Great Garden, for any newcomer having yet to pay a thorough visit, had become rather unwelcoming. Mega-Girl remembered its former existence. It had been much less vegetal back before the war, a complex of industries all more dangerous than the next, manufacture and profits and everything artificial. A large clutter of buildings dropped in a half-circle in the desert, an empty patch in its center that had held a small park, yes, but mostly parking lots and cemented areas. There were more than the one entrance but they were all better hidden than the next and the central gate had been built at the upmost part of the compound as the only intended way for strangers to walk in. All around, decades and generations of bandits and evildoers had consolidated a fortification of ramparts and extensions. On the inside, the park had grown to jungle, overflowing way past the man-made boundaries of the lot. The back of it, though unobstructed by walls, was entirely impracticable for the thick and treacherous foliage. Nature had taken over, everything organic finding a way to thrive and take over the dull gray of human creations.

The garden was huge and it was alive. Mega-Girl had never taken much interest to exploring it, but she had beheld it many times from the distance of the buildings and even her superior vision would not let her quite grasp the size of it, so far it went on and on. She knew it had used to be greener, more lush and beautiful to human sensitivities. It had used to bear more fruit, to host healthy thriving life. It was now as much brown and purple and orange as green, sickly hues everywhere and sickliest of all was its chief dweller.

From all parts of the headquarters, the inner windows had a view on the Great Pond. Whether that was by design or by circumstances, Mega-Girl had never asked and could only guess. It was a large lake of murky water which made it impossible to determine whether it was shallow or deep, though no one would have dared to venture forth to have a closer look. Indeed, on the edge of the pond rested Pincer. When he did not move, the decade long bath had turned its shell dark and shiny he looked like a large boulder. When he felt at ease, he could rest there for days and weeks without moving. When he was upset, he fretted.

"Shit, he’s pissed…" Junior muttered, for fear he would be heard.

Mega-Girl did not reply.

Junior had not yet knocked on Papy’s door that it opened before him, though Papy was sitting comfortably in his armchair on the opposite side of the office. His black scarf was wrapped around his head. It hung so low you could not see his face. With an old skinny finger, he beckoned them inside and the door slammed behind them untouched again. For a full minute, he said nothing. Then came a sigh.

"Junior, Junior," he said in a low voice. "What am I going to do with you?"

Junior sat on the edge of the table in his typical display of casualness.

"Promote me, I think," he said. "Least I deserve."

But Papy snapped his fingers and Junior’s breathing hitched. He whimpered for a few seconds before finally he could catch air again, clutching his throat.

"Of course, you’re all smartie, aren’t you? Oh, I knew you were too cocky to lead your own squad, let alone this mission…"

Junior huffed.

"I’ll be leading so much more before you know it, you fool."

Papy ignored him. Standing up to his shaky legs, he put a hand at the crook of Junior’s elbow.

"How many squads lost, boy? And all that with no catch for our great leader. I’m surprised you even dared to show your face again."

Junior’s face narrowed into a cold glare.

"The others are coming," he said bitterly. "I made the call. They’ll be here soon."

A chuckle was his only reply and Papy patted his arm before sitting again. He grabbed a joint he had been smoking and took a pitiful small drag of it, spitting out some tiny puff of white smoke.

"Ah, but will you? I think it’s past time you had a more close and personal interview with the boss."

He had meant it as a threat, Mega-Girl knew, though Junior never seemed to take it so. He smirked.

"I don’t take your orders, old man," he snarled. "I’ll be delighted to meet our good Pincer in his very special home."

"What?!" Papy took another drag of smoke to calm himself before waving off the both of them. "Eh, I don’t care. I’ll send guards if you haven’t seen him by the end of the day. Good riddance, Spaceclaw."

Junior’s step had a special bounce, a cheerfulness as he made his way down the tower again with Mega-Girl.

"The pond," he said, at first she thought to himself but he turned to her. "The pond is where the power resides. If we can get him out… but even more important, if we can get me in. Then they’ll see how cocky I can get, won’t they! Looks like Junior is all grown up!"

She said nothing. She thought of Tootsie. Friendly eyes, gentle gaze. Always a honeyed word to say to her. All the innocence in their dead world. She looked at Junior and wondered if at any time in his life, he had ever been gentle like Tootsie, if greed for power had come from his birth or his uprising. It made no difference to the present.

He walked them all the way to the left side of the circle of buildings where a protruding ledge hung over the garden. Pincer’s mean dark eyes narrowed on him. Even from above at some distance, his size was frightful, but Mega-Girl had no fear, not about this. She had hope.

"Well, well," Pincer croaked. "Here’s the lad everyone’s been talking about."

His voice was exhausted, surely sore from weeks without being fed.

"They have, haven’t they?"

Junior was looking thoughtfully at the pond under him. Too far to the center to jump in it, though he looked at her and she knew he was thinking of being thrown. She ignored him.

"Oh, they have, be assured. Why, I’m told you’re the reason for my famine around these parts."

From everywhere in any of the buildings his voice could be heard, so deafening it was, even with the hunger slurring his words.

"I’ll be the reason for your feast as well," Junior said smugly. "The Black Scarves are soon coming back from the mission."

Pincer laughed, which made a few of the plates patching buildings together shake.

"I’m sure you will, boy. Now, come closer, come down here. Let’s have a chat face to face, shall we?"

Junior took a graceful bow and nodded Mega-Girl to follow him down the shaky metallic stairs. He muttered to her with determination.

"He’s hungry," he said. "He’s slow. We can use that in our favor."

There was a large metal grated door which was the route commonly employed for Pincer’s previous meals. Junior pushed it open confidently and walked into the Great Garden. It was so large, Pincer at a great distance still, and Junior seemed intent to keep it that way. The pond was circled by a walkpath of wooden floorboards which was attached to the buildings by several other paths latching onto one door or another, a small maze rarely threaded any longer now that Pincer had elected the pond for residence. The floor was slippery with the moisture of the garden and of the pond, green-ish under their feet.

"Closer, Junior," Pincer demanded, but Junior only smirked.

"Of course."

He advanced but, rather than making his way closer, he circled around the edge of the buildings. Pincer groaned.

"I’m getting impatient," he said. "Don’t make me… Don’t make me come and get you."

But he was too starved not to. With a yelp that might have awakened their dead world, he pulled himself slowly out of the lake.

"I’m so… hungry…"

Legs so high they might reach higher than several men stacked on top of each other, all eight of them, a body that seemed made of the toughest plaques, impossible to pierce through but perhaps, in this moment, robbing him of the advantage of speed. He advanced very slowly, every step a torture.

"Quick," Junior ordered. "We’ll circle to the back. Carry me. You throw me into the pond and then I’ll be the all powerful leader of the wasteland and the Black Scarves will answer to me."

Mega-Girl carried him. How weak he was in her arms. She pulled him over his head like a prize and walked farther along the wooden path. Her step was much more secure with the determination filling her. Junior squirmed in her grasp.

"Not that way, you idiot," he hissed. "I said to the back."

Pincer, one slow step at a time, was advancing towards them, each side closing the distance.

"Ah, it’s been so long!" He sighed. "But at last, I dine again."

Junior, to his credit, realized then that Mega-Girl would not in fact be throwing him into the pond to make him all powerful. His face turned to horror and he gesticulated, trying to jump off.

"W-Wait! Take Mega-Girl instead, not me!"

Pincer laughed. The promise of a meal was making him lively again and his step was somewhat easier.

"Mega-Girl? My boy, she’s not a human. A lovely companion, I’m sure, but she is no delicacy."

Junior was squirming in her grasp, trying to escape it with all the last strength of his vulnerable human limbs. Mega-Girl tightened her grasp on him. The Great Garden was immense but looking smaller and smaller as Pincer approached.

"Mega-Girl!" He shouted in panic. "Let me the fuck down! It’s your duty to obey me!"

Junior had always said he was the only one who would ever keep her around, so dangerous she was. He had said she was broken, that she was damaged. With the full strength of her robotic arms clasping him above her, Mega-Girl did not feel broken or inferior. She felt complete. In the presence of Pincer, the very thought that she could be dangerous was ludicrous. She would not kill him, even though she could have. And she knew of one other person who would for sure keep her around if she ever found him again.

"You are lying," she said, perhaps the first words they had exchanged since they had left Old New Hatchetfield. "You have always lied to me."

"What the fuck are you talking about?! Let me down, you fucking idiot!"

Pincer’s laugh was so loud from the ever shorter distance she could feel her limbs shaking but she was still stronger than Junior. She always had been.

"I know the truth now."

"What fucking truth?"

"I am not your servant. I am capable of making my own decisions. I can do whatever I like. And now I know another greater truth."

"What the… What are you talking about, what truth?"

She paused. Pincer’s steps made the wooden boards creak under his weight, some of them breaking down entirely. His mandibles were buzzing excitedly.

"All that is left is for you to die, Doctor Spaceclaw Junior."

For an evil child-devouring scorpion of doom, Pincer was rather courteous, Mega-Girl reflected afterwards. His claws never even grazed her when he seized his prize from her grasp. And when he was done with his meal, there was not a morsel left.

Chapter Text

The little reunion had only made Jemilla so much lonelier. Slippery When Wet was doting on her son, who was doting on Krypto. Bruce would not let Robin out of his sight and in return, Clark kept a constant eye on the pair of them. Emma kept to herself and would not make conversation with anybody. Sally, Joey and Paul kept Tootsie company, cheering him up for some lost love of his. Nobody was cheering up Jemilla, not that she was asking for it. She brooded over her own thoughts in the comfort of her own mind. At least the weed helped somewhat.

How strange that even in greater company than she had ever been accustomed to, Jemilla seemed to be longing only for the one she had left behind. Zazzalil had been reckless, but perhaps the wasteland required a bit of boldness and courage. She had been lazy, but with every passing moment Jemilla understood all the more any desire of shirking hard work. The task of killing a mythical creature of doom was ahead of them and, though they had gone over Sally’s notes a thousand times, her heart clenched every time she allowed herself to think about it too much. The plan was now to find a plan and Jemilla craved the quick wit and creative spark of the companion she had lost. Of course, she would never turn back, she would be at her friend’s side till the very end of this mission, but how she wished she was more of a coward and ran right away.

Zazzalil had not been wrong about everything, she knew now. Robbing, stealing, that was something, but the idle contentment of enjoying every passing moment was something Jemilla wished she possessed. The thrill of finding something exciting in all new things, too. Zazzalil had been a danger but also in a constant state of wonder Jemilla admired now. Perhaps she had been a little bit wrong as well, stifling her without accepting even a tidbit of compromise. If she could go back in time…

"Let’s stop for lunch," Slippery When Wet said, palming Craphole’s forehead to check if he wasn’t suffering too much from the heat. "Rest a lil."

Emma immediately dropped to the ground to roll up a joint. Paul stared at her for some time before blinking and looking away.

"I’ll hunt," he said.

Jemilla would have hunted, normally, but what was normal had ceased to make any sense to her. Joey offered his help instead and they went off to find water and game. Craphole sat on his mother’s lap, playing with her fingers as she spoke to him softly. Tootsie pouted, looking out into the distant horizon where the Great Garden had been visible for some time, before sitting with the rest of them. Krypto put his head on his lap.

"Want some?" Emma asked him after she had smoked some of the joint for herself.

Tootsie sighed and shook his head. He toyed with the walkie-talkie on his lap, pressing some buttons seemingly at random.

"There’s nothin’ brings me joy anymore, nothin’ except this good boy here," he said and patted Krypto’s head heavily. "The weed doesn’t work on me, ma’am."

Sally leaned her head gently against his shoulder to comfort him, to little avail.

"Oh, cheer up, buddy," Clark tried to say. "We’re not too far from the garden now, are we? Just a few more days…"

"But what if…" He sniffed. "What if we find her again and she doesn’t wanna see me?"

Jemilla grew somber and looked to the ground, hugging her knees. She traced circles into the sand with the tip of her fingers. A little way away, she could hear Joey and Paul coming back already and found herself cheering up ever so faintly. Perhaps Zazzalil had been right in that regard, too. Eating did make everything better.

"And the jokes don’t even come anymore," he went on. "Ani’s jokes."

Sally frowned.

"What do you mean?"

Tootsie held up the walkie-talkie.

"Ani used to tell us some good jokes when I pressed this button but now it’s doing nothin’ and…"

He pressed the button and Jemilla’s heart skipped a beat when she heard the voice coming from the speaker, scratchy and metallic but the most beautiful melody to her lonely ears.

"No, Jack, I don’t think it’s working, it just…"

In one inelegant motion, she leapt from where she was sitting to snatch the walkie-talkie from Tootsie’s hand and fell in all her length across his lap but she didn’t care, not even a little bit.

"ZAZZALIL, THERE YOU ARE!"

There was silence both around Jemilla and on the line and for a second she was terrified that she had imagined the whole thing, that she had embarrassed herself to no limit. She sat up. Finally, the voice spoke up again timidly.

"Jemilla?"

Slippery When Wet was staring with interest, the hint of a smile, raising a thumb up. Jemilla’s heart was racing erratically.

"Zazz, where… what are you… erm, what’s up? How’ve you… How’ve you been, man? Eh heh…"

Another moment of quiet and Jemilla heard Zazzazil mutter something to whoever she was around, though she could not make out the words.

"Hey, listen, J-Mills, did you… erm, did you take the walkie from a Black Scarf cause Ted says this was Junior’s line and…"

"Ted!" Sally cried out. "Hey, baby, we got Ted on the line, come quick!"

Joey rushed to her side, eager to grab the walkie from Jemilla but just barely refraining.

"… and are you okay? Are you safe?"

"Ask where they are!" Joey hissed. "Are the others alright? Did they make it out safe? Where are they?"

Jemilla kept the device away from him, scooting backwards a little bit but Joey matched the motion. She frowned.

"Kinda long story," she said with some frustration. She had not expected her first conversation with Zazzalil to go this way, however many times she had imagined it. "But we’re going to the Black Scarves headquarters with a few kids we found along the way and…"

"What kids?" Another voice said, a man, and she heard Zazzalil groan in frustration. "Joey, are you there? Are the notes safe?"

Jemilla sighed and handed Joey the walkie-talkie. Her stomach was all flutter, nothing to do with the hunger, and the warmth at her cheeks was just as unrelated to the heat over them. She could not stop smiling, even when Slippery When Wet gave her a teasing smirk. She bit her lip and looked away, yet smiled still. Joey and the man seemed to be exchanging directions, with the help of Clark’s super vision to locate them in the vast distance of the empty wasteland. The conversation went on just a little longer before Clark offered her the walkie-talkie again.

"She, erm, wants to say goodbye."

Jemilla grabbed it back in a hurry, scared they might take it from her again.

"Hey, so, Jemilla, they say we can get to each other before nightfall but I just… I wanted to say…"

She stopped and for a while neither of them talked, though Joey was already gesturing the group on the road again, filled with regained energy and motivation, sharing whatever food he and Paul had gathered as they walked off.

"See you later?" Zazzalil said eventually, then sighed. "I’m… sorry. I’m sorry, J-Mills."

Jemilla wished she could see her, the spark in her eyes as they spoke. The black metal grate of the speaker just wasn’t the same.

"I’m sorry too, Zazz."

Some time passed and she was afraid Zazzalil had hung up on her or the communication had been cut but she replied eventually just as Jemilla was getting back on her feet again.

"I’m glad to see you again."

Jemilla sighed, the relief of weeks of tension out in the air with the exhale.

"I’m glad too," she said. "See you."

She gave Tootsie back the walkie-talkie, who put it back at his belt with a satisfied hum. Jemilla had barely turned to the road again that Slippery When Wet was at her side, startling her.

"Jesus."

"They’re following the train tracks," she said, pointing to the ground. "They all lead to the Great Garden, we’ll meet up next embranchment. The others have a raft."

Jemilla nodded. She had caught tidbits of that, though her mind had been much more focused on the who than on the how they would be meeting up.

"So, you’ll be… you’ll be finding Zazzalil again."

"Uh huh."

"Ain’t that something, huh?"

Jemilla huffed. She had stopped counting the number of days without Zazzalil when she had put it in her head that it might be the rest of her life. Now with the promise that she might see her again this very day, she almost hoped she had a record of how much time apart. These weeks had been the hardest in her life, perhaps, but she felt so much stronger than she had been, too. Quieter, for sure.

"Yup," she said. "Sure is something."

They walked in silence. Sally and Joey were chatting loudly, merrily and the whole group seemed to find again some spirit and good cheer. Even Tootsie was smiling and talking with them and Emma walked alongside Paul, though not a word was said on either side. Clark had his arm around Bruce’s shoulders as they discussed plans and tactics and Craphole and Robin were playing with the dog, advancing much more joyfully than before.

"They have Mouthface," Slippery When Wet said after a long while. "All the kids are safe, and they have my daughter."

Jemilla touched her shoulder gently and smiled. Slippery When Wet smiled back.

The sun seemed suddenly not nearly as burning, much more tolerable. They walked more briskly, too, an easy pace as the hours were happily taken from them. Jemilla’s thoughts roamed everywhere, slowly pulling themselves into some gradual order of how she ought to proceed. If apologies had been made, then this could only mean that they were no longer fighting, could it not? But even more than tolerating each other was sincere affection and she had no way at all of knowing where Zazzalil now stood. She could only hope.

"I’ll see my husband again," Slippery When Wet said softly. The sun was dim and orange in the sky and the rendezvous point was but a moment away. "That’s an odd thing, innit? Married but we ain’t seen each other in nearly as long as me and my baby daughter…"

Jemilla nodded. Slippery When Wet spoke of her husband seldom and even more rarely in good terms, but she could sense all the same the weight of her companion’s loneliness. To have her young child around had made her so much less gloomy but the prospect of her whole family reunited was giving her another breath of joy Jemilla had never seen on her.

"Can I tell you someth’n?" She asked Jemilla.

"Yeah, anything," Jemilla said instantly, surprised the caution was even needed.

"Well, I have… missed the way that he…"

She paused and stopped where she was. Glancing around, Jemilla noticed that the rest of the group was stuck into place as well and a quick glimpse into the distance gave her the reason why. Suddenly Slippery When Wet was set into motion again and she chased the sand raft approaching them, running and very soon followed by most of the party.

"We are here, Mouthface!"

Jemilla shielded her eyes from the evening sun with a hand to better see, and see she did. Zazzalil was steering a sand raft like she had invented the very concept of speed, agility and freedom. Behind her were a pack of other people, none Jemilla especially recognized nor cared to, though she supposed the young girl with freckles and braids could only be Mouthface Dikrats. Finally, the raft glided smoothly into full stop and it was a cacophony of who would find each other first.

It seemed that every person on board had a loved one to embrace and cherish and reunite with, even the ones Jemilla had least expected. Paul was soon hugging a pair of friends, a man and a woman, watched by Emma who slowly accepted the same accolades, and Tootsie was scolded by a grimacing short woman and comforted by an older man who caught his cheeks and asked him how well he had fared the past few months. Joey rushed to the man who could only be Ted, who grinned at him tauntingly, pulling his shoulders straight, his chin up, poking the chub of his cheeks, but Joey could take it no longer and bear hugged him so tight it looked as though he would hug all the air out of him. Craphole was trapped between a man with a hat and one with a beard. And Slippery When Wet…

"My baby Mouthface," she said over and over again. Every freckled portion of the girl’s pink face was covered with kisses and gentleness. "My little girl, your mama missed you! You don’t even know."

"I missed you too, mommy," Mouthface whimpered, hugging her all the closer. "I missed you real bad, you have no idea."

But though Jemilla was warmed by the scene, once her eyes crossed Zazzalil’s, she could hardly look away. They stood on opposite sides of the group but walked the few steps between them. Zazzalil was looking the same as ever, she supposed, except entirely different. There was something wiser, better about her demeanor, the way she held herself. Her hair was up in a bun, just a few curls making their relentless escape, and her black tank top was pale with desert dust, but her smile was the same. Or perhaps it was a million times prettier for all the time Jemilla had missed it.

"I found Slippery When Wet right out of Independence," Jemilla said, finding that she was much more awkward than in all the scenarios she had made up of this moment. "After we, erm, parted."

Zazzalil smiled sheepishly and gave a small shrug.

"That’s also where I found my friends. That’s Jack Bauer, Titty Mitty and… er… that’s them."

She nodded towards the men hugging Craphole, the younger one buttoning his shirt properly, straightening his hat on his head. Of course. A glance at Slippery When Wet told her that Jack Bauer’s presence was not lost on her either, but she was cut in her surge to talk to him by another girl suddenly wrapping her arms around her waist. Jemilla quirked an eyebrow and even Slippery When Wet looked startled, but she gave back readily the embrace the girl was begging for so eagerly.

"Hey there, pumpkin," she said very gently, patting her dark hair before pressing a kiss against it. "When did you become a cuddle bug, heh, princess?"

Jack Bauer grimaced. Craphole’s hand in his, he joined Slippery When Wet, touching the girl’s shoulder.

"She’s, erm, she’s a little shaken."

The girl − Jasmyn, if Jemilla’s memories of what Slippery When Wet had narrated served her well − tore herself from the hug only to take the embrace Craphole offered her and together, Mouthface and her hugged the boy to his heart’s content.

"Her father left us," Jack Bauer said. "He joined the Black Scarves."

Jemilla suddenly questioned the very same memories and frowned.

"Ja’far?" She asked.

"Ja’far?!" Slippery When Wet echoed. "But how could he…"

She noticed Jasmyn growing even quieter at her words and kept to herself whatever she would have said then. Jack Bauer nodded gravely. He took another step towards his wife.

"We don’t know what took him. He was… We all miss him, of course. As… as I did you… honey."

The last word was uttered so faintly it almost seemed like he wasn’t sure he ought to have risked it, but Slippery When Wet’s timid smile was enough encouragement for him. Very slowly, he took her hand, entwining their fingers.

"Will you take back even a terrible dumb stupid horny dog like me?"

He cocked his face in what Jemilla supposed wanted itself a cute little mimick. She even supposed it might just have worked. Slippery When Wet reached up, arranging his collar, seizing it between her fingers.

"Well," she said softly, "I love dogs."

She pulled his face to hers and kissed him. Jemilla turned away to give them the privacy of a proper reunion. She had much better business elsewhere, anyways. Zazz looked like she had found her tongue again and, the awkwardness fading between them, she showed her the raft smugly.

"Look at this shit," she said, beaming. "It was some Black Scarves’ but they crashed it and I found it and I fixed it and…" She suddenly turned to Jemilla, stopped gesticulating. "Is it cool or what?"

Jemilla smiled. The sand raft was just the same as any sand raft, but it was the most beautiful, the most precious vehicle she had ever beheld in her life, only because Zazzalil was so proud of it.

"Damn Zazz, you’ve made something of yourself, haven’t you?"

"Well, I had to do something to help, right?"

Jemilla stared at her. She could hardly recognize the Zazzalil who had parted ways with her at Independence, the brat who went behind her back for the path of least resistance, the laziest of lives she could pluck from her clutches. But then, she supposed, the Jemilla who fought for the privilege of always being right, of always being in charge had disappeared somewhere in the sands of the wasteland too. Zazzalil gave her a smile in corner, something of shyness in her gaze. She was so, so fucking cute. Slowly, very slowly, Jemilla took a step towards her but as soon as Zazzalil realized it, her eyes glinted with the same thrill and the rush was instantaneous and − thank Dead-God − completely mutual.

They kissed hard. They kissed long. There was fire at Zazzalil’s lips, at her hands clutching Jemilla’s collar, there was everything bold and demanding Jemilla had always known in her but only now, for the first time, was letting herself enjoy. She held her waist snug and willed the distance between them to close forever, to hold her in her arms for as long as they would stay alive. Lips and tongue and even teeth nibbling her lips as if to mark territory, Zazzalil was the same little feral beast, only she had been tamed. Jemilla felt beside herself to be with her, again and yet for the first time.

"Well, that came out of nowhere," Bruce said dubiously.

Jemilla fought the urge to flip him off. Zazzalil didn’t.

"Is this really the time for all this?" Clark added. "There’s like the end of the world going on here and everyone’s just…"

They parted, their foreheads against each other. Jemilla reached up, cupped Zazzalil’s face in her palms and felt a pulsing heartbeat just under the surface. A quick peck to reward it.

"It’s now or never, isn’t it?" Zazzalil said, though they broke from each other’s embrace.

Jemilla had had ever stronger hints of it the longer they had been apart but knew it now with absolute certainty. Her life was made better by having Zazzalil in it, no comparison possible. She challenged her, completed her. There was no one else she’d rather be beside. Her grin was brighter than the burning sun of the wasteland.

"Now or never, huh," Slippery When Wet said.

She climbed aboard, lending Jack Bauer a hand to help him up as well.

"We ain’t got no time to lose now, do we?" She cried out. "Everyone aboard!"

People turned to her. Mouthface was holding Jasmyn in her arms from behind, hands latched around her belly. Zazzalil held Jemilla’s hand, who marveled at the feel of it against her palm, her fingers, and smiled.

"I thought we were gonna set up camp for the night…" Titty Mitty said. "I’m tired, my legs hurt."

"You’ll rest for good when we reach the Great Garden, dad," Slippery When Wet retorted. "If we’re gonna kill this Pincer, we’re gonna have to go forth into the wasteland like no one’s never gone before! We are setting our rations to bare bone and our pace to grueling, we are not stopping for nothin’. We are gonna blaze this desert all the way to the Great Garden!"

"Hiyaaaa!" Jack Bauer shrieked excitedly.

The rest of them could only climb aboard fast enough before Slippery When Wet sent the raft into a frantic race to the Great Garden.

Chapter Text

Mara hardy uttered a word all the way to the Great Garden.

Ani was a poor conversation partner anyways, staring at the sandy ground of the desert day and night, brooding silently for his lost dreams without caring about Mara’s. Sweet Tooth and Candy were exchanging whatever taunting words they always had towards the rest of the crew and Zebulba was steering the raft away and away from everything and everyone Mara held dear. Even if they had addressed her, she felt like she would have been very ill company anyways. Her hopes squished to nothing, she had little of the spark that had been hers. They talked of a garden, of a mythical feral scorpion of a boss... In her woes, Mara barely paid attention. Whether devoured by a magical boss or killed by her fellow Black Scarves, it made little difference to her. This all seemed like a secret she had not been privy to and she ardently wished she had been kept out of it.

Ja’far kept even more to himself, if that was possible. There was a barrier between him and the rest of them, none of them talking to him, though there was much to be curious about. After the shock of his own departure was gone from him, he sat upright, looked around him with widened eyes, like he could not quite believe himself being here. Then, he pulled out a thick notebook which he pondered on during the day, during the evening, in the morning, never saying a word about it, intent in his study. Mara thought of Sally and looked away.

"Are we there yet?" Candy whined eventually.

"You know, there's no way to tell," Ani said, trying to sound wise. "Distance descriptions have been very muddy and a bit inconsistent this whole story and..."

"Shut up," Zebulba snarled.

Sweet Tooth glared at all of them, even Ja'far who was deeply engrossed in his notes and didn't register in any way the heavy daggers thrown his way.

"Before sundown, my sweetheart," he replied. "Then we'll see what happens to these dumbasses..."

Mara gulped and looked down at her hands tied on her lap again. With those hands, she had kidnapped Sally. With the same, she had set her free, dancing till the kids were out of the Black Scarves' mind. Who knew what else they were capable of? Who knew how much longer Mara could decide that for herself?

On and on the road went in the meantime. They were following the train tracks diligently, in the distance the green-ish spot of the Great Garden ever larger. Sand in her face, so fast they were driving. Sweet Tooth and Zebulba were careless drivers and the whole raft shook violently when they hit a bump in the road, branching onto a bridge over a crack in the ground.

"What's that?' She muttered, but no one answered.

Ja'far had startled at the jerk of the raft. He left his study only to observe the great gash in the desert, a gorge so deep the bottom was too far for human eyes to discern. The raft made its quick way across the bridge and he was in his notes again. Wetting his thumb to turn a page in the dry heat of the wasteland, he looked like a wise old professor, entirely mismatched from any other road companions aboard. A bright red scarf was wrapped around his neck.

The drawbridge entrance was already open when they arrived, all the other squads already arrived before them. Sweet Tooth shoved Mara forward with a kick at her lower back and Zebulba bit Ani’s butt to prompt him on as well. Ja’far only was left alone, quietly following along, though Mara noticed him glance around at his surroundings with extreme curiosity despite his silence.

Inside, the Black Scarves were crowding the headquarters, usually left half empty when its members were on the road. On all parts, men were shouting and fretting and becoming upset. Junior was nowhere to be seen. The children had been caught in a flock and there was discussion of who had authority to send them to the boss and when, how many at a time. All the buildings were animated with a buzz that Mara didn't know would be soothed. One moment she was between Ani and Ja’far, staring out through dirty windows at the massive mountain of a scorpion in the yard, the next she was with Ani alone. She stared, gulped.

"So, that's Pincer..."

She found herself shuddering. The beast as glaring at them, sauntering across the inner circle of the garden, clenching his claws. He was so big. Why had she not been told he was this big? She had only caught tidbits of conversation about the boss and the destination during their drive between the others and her fearful anticipation had grown stronger the closer they had inched towards the headquarters, but nothing she had heard could have prepared her for the actual sight of him. Ani had no comforting words to say and for a long moment they waited there for their fates. Ja’far came back amidst the outrage everywhere, looking very stern.

"Makes you wonder your place in the world, huh?" She told him, nudging him gently in the side.

He seemed to wake from a trance and looked at her like he was noticing her for the very first time.

"My place…" He muttered wistfully.

"Yeah like, who you truly wanna be with," Mara said. "No second thoughts?"

He grew even more somber than he already had been.

"I’d hoped to find her here," he said. "But I fear she escaped me once more."

"Who?"

Ja’far sighed. He shoved the notebook he had still been holding into his bag before answering.

"My one true love."

She wanted to laugh. Another dreamer on their hands. She wouldn’t have thought that of him.

"And what’s that, then? Vine swinging? Masonry? Fishing? I wouldn’t get too close to the pond if I were you…"

He stared at her like she was more mythical, more unbelievable than the giant scorpion outside the window.

"I meant the woman I love and lost," he said.

Mara stared at him closely, but as he remained silent, so did she. The air around them was getting heavy and crowded with the shouting and arguing.

"Erm, Anakin Skywalker? Sir?"

Ani swirled around. A couple of Black Scarves were looking at him, by the look of them not a part of the kidnapping mission, a much cleaner appearance, somewhat put together. Just as mean a glare, though. Sweet Tooth bowed, grabbing their attention in front of Ani.

"Yes, I captured him," he said smoothly. "I am in charge of this squad now."

The man burst out an evil laugh and his partner caught Ani’s arms in its hands.

"Yeah, right," he retorted. "You’re coming with us, Anakin. Emperor Palpatine wants to see you."

Ani was too disheartened to even attempt to protest and followed along. Sweet Tooth tried to join them to try and claim his self-appointed right to be a squad leader but he was shoved aside and grumbled his discontentment to Candy. Ani nodded at Mara to come with.

Palpatine’s office was cluttered with dirty dishes and a few worn identical black robes on the ground, like he had been holed up in here for quite some time. Mara’s nose wrinkled in mild disgust but she said nothing. With Ani near her, she felt safer and would have rather been at his side even in his mentor’s gross ass office.

"Erm…"

Papy was sitting on a woman’s lap in an old armchair, her arm protectively wrapped around his waist as she sat comfortably, legs spread, an image of power and strength. When she saw them, she smirked with satisfaction.

"Oh shit, it’s you!" Mara cried out.

Ani turned to her, startled.

"You know her?"

The woman chuckled softly and Papy raised a hand to explain himself.

"Ani, I didn’t wanna tell you this on the walkie," he said, embarrassed. "I met someone while you were out there. Molag, sugar, you’ve seen Ani before…"

"No she hasn’t!" Ani retorted, frowning quizzically, but Mara touched his arm.

"She found us just after we crashed," she explained. "She gave us some booze to save us, I think you were kind of out of it…"

Papy nodded.

"Papy asked me to check up on you," Molag said, "Because he knows there ain’t no desert that can kill old Molag, not even the Rad Zone."

"That’s right, sugar plum," Papy said, nuzzling her neck in a cutesy way that made Ani grumble with barely veiled discomfort. "Now, I was waiting for you to come back. The boys have been fretting, they were hoping to find Junior and I think they were expecting me to tell them what to do if not him, but…"

"Yeah, where is Junior?" Mara asked.

The call had been so confident, so sure of himself, yet to see him nowhere to welcome the Black Scarves he had so curtly summoned was beyond strange. Papy only shrugged.

"Eh, Pincer snacked on him."

"What?!" Mara cried out, entirely ignored.

"And the robot is on the loose. Look, Ani, we never talk anymore, how… how’ve you been? I was worried."

Ani’s eyes bulged out in anger in the narrow slit of his scarf around his face.

"How have I been?!" He said with bad mood. "Papy, this mission has robbed me of everything I thought I still had! Are you here to scold me? I’m not a little kid anymore, I’m fifty-seven!"

Papy glanced at Molag and sighed. She chuckled under her breath and left the room to give them privacy. Mara knew she should leave as well, but Ani caught her by the arm to keep her in.

"… Is this really how you feel?" Papy asked in a low voice.

Ani’s brows furrowed into a firm frown and he wrapped an arm around Mara’s shoulders.

"Yes, it is," he said. "Mara showed me I could be so much more than I thought. I can live my dreams again, Papy, and I don’t need your approval for that! Perhaps no one does! I wanna sand raft again and for good this time!"

"Aww," Mara sighed. She hugged him tight by the waist. No matter what, she told herself she still had her good friend Ani, if nobody else now. "Thanks, Ani."

Papy was staring at them, though his face was covered by the scarf and Mara could not make out his eyes at all. Finally, he pulled himself to his old feet and took the few steps of distance between him and Ani, touching his arm.

"You know, Ani, I… I haven’t been feeling so evil myself lately."

"You haven’t?"

Papy gestured towards the hall where Molag had walked away.

"Yeah… Love made me a different man, I think. I sent off Junior to Pincer but I was bored the whole time… You might be right…" He sighed heavily. "Do you really want to leave, then? Resign from the Black Scarves?"

Ani palmed the scarf around his head thoughtfully, but nodded.

"Mara and I have dreams. She’ll be a dancer, I’ll be a rafter, we’ll just leave this place and go live our own lives."

Mara caught the glimpse of a pout at the lips of the old man.

"But what if I miss you?"

Ani chuckled and pointed out the window to the vastness of the sandy wasteland.

"Well, just look out there," he said, taking Papy’s hand in his. "And that’s where I’ll be."

The reaction came after a few seconds but it was volcanic. Papy burst into sobs, throwing himself at Ani who could only hold him tight and swirl him around.

"I love you, Ani! I’ll think of you every day!"

"I love you too, Papy!"

A head peaked through the doorway.

"You should come check out what the Black Scarves are doing."

The head disappeared. Mara frowned. Ani let go of Papy, putting him back down on the old armchair with more caution and gentleness than Mara had ever seen.

"Why?" He asked.

The same face was there again, that man with the warpaint across the cheeks and the big silly hat.

"They’re pissed. And I don’t think you’re gonna like it."

Mara and Ani looked at each other, frowning deeper.

"Papy," Ani said slowly, "I think you better sit this one out."

Down the halls, on every barricaded watchpaths, in every building of the half moon of the Great Garden, the shouts had only gotten louder, the arguing more violent and Mara saw more than a couple of punches thrown around as Ani and her pushed their way through.

"I was gon’ retire after this!" McDoon was yelling. "Junior told us the kids we lost didn’t matter, but if Junior ain’t here then this mission was for nothin’!"

"It ain’t fair," Cletus whined after him. "Now we have to stay here even longer! What about our simple mountain life?"

More Black Scarves had retorts all less pleasant than the next. Some were fighting to shove all the kids into the garden, some wanted to keep them for bargaining with Pincer and gain power for themselves. Some wanted to leave to go kidnap more, some said that it was useless to even try and get more if their mission leader had disappeared. Many were declaring themselves the new mission leader, squad leader, emperor and whatnot. Friends were fighting friends were fighting foes. At least, Mara told herself, Sweet Tooth had not yet found her again to decide on her fate. Maybe he never would.

"ENOUGH!"

The shout had been so sudden, so sharp that all turned to its origin. Mara squinted, recognizing the red scarf. Ja’far was advancing on a ledge out in the inner yard that gave him view over not just the wandering beastly master of the house but all windows through which all Black Scarves stared at him with a curious and twisted interest. Most fighting stopped, though the shouts were now redirected.

"Who the fuck is that guy?"

"He wasn’t at the Jail, was he? Is he new?"

"Fucking kill him! Boss is hungry!"

She thought she saw Ja’far’s resolve falter for a fraction of a second, but it was back all the stronger in an eyeblink.

"My friends, look around," he shouted, opening his arms to point at the crowd in every building. "Is this what you wished your life had looked like?"

Mara bit her lip.

"I’m no friend of yours!" A voice shouted back.

Ja’far was unmoved by the rejection.

"Well, you are mine," he retorted. "We have been put on this dead earth together at the same time. Shouldn’t we seize the opportunity to be kind with one another?"

There were discussions all around, people glancing at each other and muttering among themselves.

"I know you all had your reasons for joining the Black Scarves," he went on. "Comfort, safety, perhaps reward…" Mara thought of her empty stomach before joining Ani’s squad. "But you ought to know you’re capable and worthy of much more. Pincer has wreaked havoc on your minds, it’s time for you to cleanse them. Ask yourselves, why are you still here?"

"Definitely to do with how children make me sick to my stomach and I want to see them all devoured!" Voldy shouted his reply tauntingly.

Many yelled out their agreeing with him, brandishing fists and weapons but, Mara noted with great interest, not all of them. Some were eyeing the kids in their bonds with a whole new outlook. Out in the yard, Pincer shook his claws and burst out laughing. It was an unpleasant sound, deafeningly loud and grating to the ears.

"Ha," he told Ja’far, viciously glaring up at him. "Don’t you know, dear Sir, that it is very rude to blame your host on all the woes of the world?" His claws clicked a few times in agitation. "There will always be someone willing to spread terror and do mischief. They don’t need my influence one bit, they’re rotten all on their own."

Mara wondered if Ja’far felt as brave as he looked, if he felt any fear for the beast underneath. In his gaze in the distance, she saw only courage and determination.

"You think too little of humans," he said firmly. "Any person can have a change of heart. Anyone can decide to spread kindness and do good. It is never too late for that!"

Ani and Mara shared a look, but it wasn’t either of them who spoke out first. A man advanced, getting close to a window on the other side of the yard, staring up at Ja’far.

"You’re right!" He cried out. "I will find her again if it’s the last thing I do! Gladys, I haven’t forgotten you, I still love you!"

His comrades-in-arms tried to bar his way out and he wrestled them.

"Big T, you can’t be serious, you’re gonna listen to that buffoon?"

"My name," he retorted vehemently and threw a punch at Sam, knocking him out his feet, "is Tobias! And I have an Old Snatch to find!"

A fight broke out again and though Big Tobias eventually ran out across the drawbridge, nothing was won for one side or the other. There were, Mara realized very fast, many changes of heart among the Black Scarves just then. There were just as many hearts hardening into absolute resolve to stop them. Punches and kicks and hair-pulling and biting, it was utter chaos and both Pincer and Ja’far were staring with fascination. The kids were ushered to a secluded area, though whether that was safer for them or not, there was no way to tell yet. Mara and Ani were pulled into the melee against their will and fought back.

"Think of who you were yesterday, what brought you here," Ja’far said, shouting over the cacophony. "And think of who you are today, where you will lead your life now! Together, united by compassion, there is nothing you cannot accomplish!"

"I’ll show you compassion, ugly old fart!" A man yelled and Ja’far only narrowly ducked the bullet he shot across the yard.

Realizing the ledge made him an easy target, he made quick way off of it, disappearing into the quarrelling crowd, but Mara saw everywhere around that he had said his piece plenty already, that he had been heard. Those who had been touched by his words were rambling on and on, defending themselves from their brothers who tried with all their might to stifle the rebellion in their ranks.

"We serve only the Black Scarves and the Great Devourer!" Some shouted.

"We serve each other and ourselves!" Others replied.

"I never knew my father!" Another said.

Mara could taste victory at the tip of her tongue, though the battle was very far from won. Ani and her were back to back, trying to stand their own ground in the fight, though there were many that tried to stop them.

"Take this, you super schmuck!" She yelled, shoving Sweet Tooth down a flight of stairs.

She had to find Sally, one way or another. She would find Sally and Joey and Robin and bring them back home where they belonged, and then she would get herself a little room somewhere in Heaven on Earth and she would be a dancer. Just like her mama had been. She could see herself there already and in every punch she threw to defend herself, there was a little memory of the freedom of the stage. Ani was a little more brutal.

"I don’t believe in senseless violence anymore!" He shouted and hit Zebulba on the nose. "I have the higher ground!"

The battle lasted on and on, Black Scarves against each other. Mara saw some of them being devoured, some of them escaping into the desert to live their dreams. Soon, that would be her. She would get everything she wanted, and more. All she had to do was to strike back.

Chapter Text

The Great Garden was in sight. It had been for a while, ever closer as Slippery When Wet and Jack Bauer took turns steering the raft straight towards it, but it seemed to be all Emma could see today. Day and night they rode, half starving, half buzzing with the anxiety of the battle to come. The raft was fast, for sure, Zazzalil’s skills making it all brand new, but wasn’t at full speed, not with that many of them aboard. Still, with every moment it drove further and further into the wasteland, far away from any safety.

It was yet morning, most of the passengers twitching nervously in their sleep, but Emma was wide awake. Perhaps even more awake than Jack Bauer, snoozing and catching himself every few minutes, a hand grasping the steering rod firm again before it loosened and the whole process started again. She sighed. Her stomach was clenching with fear. It had been for such a long time she hardly even remembered how it felt to not dread. The green dot in the distance was sharper, its shape more and more decipherable. Soon. Very soon.

"Thinking of running away?"

She turned around. Ted was looking right at her, his face blank and serious. Charlotte’s head was on his lap, still deep in slumber, but he was sitting straight and seemed as alert as Emma herself. His fingers were gently toying with ginger hair, careful not to wake Charlotte, just for his own comfort, and he was speaking in a low voice.

"No," Emma replied simply, matching his tone.

Alice and Deb were awake, sharing a joint further at the back, muttering between one another but aside from the five of them, the rest of the raft was still sleeping. She scooted a little closer to Ted.

"Still think we’ll die still hating each other’s guts?"

He huffed silently, smirking at her. In her sleep, Charlotte whimpered something and he touched her cheek to soothe her.

"Probably," he said, "But hopefully in like forty years."

She smiled. The vibrations of the raft smoothly sailing across the desert were calming her, somehow, and she was feeling oddly quiet despite the fear. The near silence probably helped. Tootsie and the dog seemed to be holding a contest of who would snore the loudest, but the wind swallowed the sound of their attempts.

"I’m…" She tried but couldn’t find it in herself to apologize. "I… might have been unfair."

He quirked an eyebrow. Emma sighed, hating for him to not be making this any easier.

"These kids, they really look up to you," she said, gesturing towards Joey and Sally sleeping in a cuddle against the mast of the raft. "I have no fucking idea how you managed that, but they do."

"Eh, prisoner’s syndrome," he shrugged.

But she knew by his smile that it wasn’t the whole truth, not really. She gulped. It was a heavy weight, the knowledge of having been wrong. Of having made mistakes. She didn’t like it one bit, yet she lived with it every day.

"I didn’t think things could change." She leaned her arms on her lap, looking at the sand cloud behind the raft, anywhere but at his face. "Not with Pincer, definitely not with you, not with…"

She didn’t need to glance at Paul for him to understand. For once in his fucking life, Ted didn’t need to say it either. He nodded in acknowledgement. That, perhaps more than anything else, was evidence for her of how much he had changed.

"It’s not playing hero, you know," he said quietly. "Like, if it was just me, I don’t fucking know if I’d do it."

He looked down. Charlotte squirmed a little, arranging herself more comfortably on him. He looked at Emma again.

"But it’s not just me. And it’s not just you."

She nodded. For so long she had been focused on the inaction, taking steps to get herself and the ones she loved away from danger but never to actually put an end to it. She realized now that she didn’t not just want to live far from danger. She craved the actual peace of mind of knowing that, though she might still have sorrows, a big fucking magic scorpion wouldn’t be one of them. She wanted the actual, tangible certitude that she would lose no one else to his power. She wanted to know she would never lose Paul.

"I know I’m a dick," he said and she snorted. She wasn’t about to deny that and he knew it as much as her. "And I’m happy to be the way I am, but it’s not about who you are, you know? It’s about what you do. What you actually do."

The kids he had gotten out of jail, out of a burning library and city, how tenderly he touched Charlotte’s face now. And, in the near future, that dumb big scorpion they had to kill together. She grumbled, put her face between her hands. Her guts were knotted again and she tried to remember the steps of the plan Ted and the others had been working on during the ride. What was a plan when real life kept veering itself out of any of your predictions?

"I’m not running away," she replied. "I’m doing this, I’m… I’m done fucking it up."

"So am I."

They looked at each other. For many years, she had thought there was nothing to him, nothing but a sassy caustic attitude and a dumb dick between his legs guiding everything he did. There still was that, but not just. Maybe not even mostly. She wondered if it was too late for an apology, but Slippery When Wet stirred awake and made her wobbly way across the raft to go check on Jack Bauer and take his place to let him rest a bit, and nothing more was said.

"How’s the road?" Emma asked. "Are we close?"

Slippery When Wet replied without glancing back, her eyes fixed on the green horizon ahead.

"Tonight, I think," she said sternly.

The rest of the group slowly woke up, all of them tucked in all different parts of the raft uncomfortably but at least huddled together. She looked at Paul who slept leant against Bill’s shoulder. They had not talked yet. The ice between them had somewhat melted, smiles here and there, and he was no longer wholly avoiding her general proximity, but it wasn’t back to what it was before. The longer she looked at him as he stretched awake, the more she thought that maybe she didn’t want things like they were before. Maybe she wanted that to change too. Something better, something more.

They stopped the raft when the walls of the Great Garden were close enough that they could make out the shapes of the buildings, everything mismatched and cobbled together haphazardly. Behind the buildings, a strange and immense expanse of brown-ish green vegetation, an impenetrable jungle, but their destination was at the center of the buildings anyways.

"We’ll go over this one more time," Ted said, grabbing a stick to trace a larger map on the sand than the notes from the Hatchetfield library for all to see.

They circled around him. Night was starting to fall and it was a little hard to see the details but they had just spent the past few days working on any sort of strategy and knew the general plan already. Launching an attack on a place none of them had ever been or seen was no small feat. Having to defeat a demi-god of a scorpion was even more delusional, but it was the only destiny, whichever way the battle would end.

"Two groups infiltrating from opposite sides to try and find the kids, the first to get them takes them out to safety out here," he said, pointing arrows. "There’s lots of kids. At least, there were…"

He shook his head uncomfortably and Zazzalil grabbed the stick from him to go on.

"Me and J-Mills will be distracting big boy in the yard," she said. "I have a pretty good idea I think could work."

She glanced at Jemilla, who nodded at her, her eyes full of admiration and trust, and they had to be nudged back to the map for Zazzalil to keep going.

"The rest of you, you just go inside from the front gates and like… kill bad guys, I guess is the plan? Kill the baddest guy most of all. Be loud, be strong, beat ’m."

Slippery When Wet nodded.

"You give me a vantage point, permission to shoot, and we ain’t talkin’ no more of this scorpion for the rest of our days."

"Bill," Ted said, "You’ll be looking over the kids here outside."

Bill looked very relieved, as if he had been afraid that they might change the discussed plan just to put him in extra danger despite his best wishes.

"Not me," Joey insisted, frowning. "Me and Sally, we… we gotta help! We found out about this in the first place!"

Ted sighed. This part of the plan, he did not look like he had wanted to change either but Joey looked at him so intently he could only give a loud sigh.

"You’ll go with Clark and Bruce," he said.

"What?! But…"

Clark patted his shoulder comfortingly.

"Come on, we'll do this together, alright?"

"I wanna help too!" Robin cried out. "If Joey can, then so can I!"

Bruce was about to protest but Up beat him to it. He crouched and held Robin’s hands in his.

"Well, if you’re not here with mister Craphole to protect him," he said kindly, "Then who’s gonna, huh?"

Robin pouted, but took Craphole’s hand in his to lead him towards Bill and the girls, finding a safe spot well hidden from view of the Great Garden. Alice and Deb, Mouthface and Jasmyn were holding each other close. The rest of them glanced at each other, already separating into the few groups that would be entering the place from all different points. They had a little time, she supposed, as the others seemed to be getting ready, packing their weapons and lifting each other up, pretending they weren’t utterly terrified.

Paul was looking down at his shotgun like he had never seen it before. Emma bit her lip. Now or never, she thought, though preferably now and forever. She pulled on his arm to get him a little way away from the group. Paul had not been expecting this and frowned, but followed her quite readily.

"Mmh?"

Emma’s mouth gaped open before she found her words.

"I… shit, I didn’t plan what I was gonna say, just gonna wing it…"

Paul stared, though she saw he was no longer frowning.

"I like you," she said bluntly. "I think I’ve always liked you. I-I love having you in my life and I never want to be apart. I’m so fucking scared we’ll both die before we can have a normal boring life together again so… if we don’t make it, kiss me?"

She might as well have punched him in the face, for all she startled him. He looked at her with wide eyes, bluer than the dumb sky, mouth half open in surprise. He didn’t move, not an inch. Emma groaned and pushed herself up, grabbing his face between her hands to kiss him. She wasn’t going to wait this one out, not on this day. She felt another jerk of surprise but she had no time to dwell on any doubt. Paul’s arms wrapped around her waist, pressing her close to him and kissed her with all the passion he might have accumulated in thirty years of apathy. Her heart went into a panicked and ecstatic race as she tried to pour into the kiss all the years of having craved it too.

They parted, breathless and still clutching each other tight. She stroke a thumb across his cheeks, their forehead together. He let out a nervous laugh.

"Well, if we die, we die," he said. "But if we don’t…" He covered her hands with his to pull them down between them. "I want that normal boring life more than anything. I… I want you more than anything."

They kissed again, a softer kiss, still getting used to one another. She wanted to know him by heart, all the possible ways he could kiss her, all the ways he could hold her and care for her and love her. She wanted that so fucking bad.

"Let’s go save this dumb dead world, heh?" She asked.

Paul smiled, nodded. They were going to infiltrate from the left side with Ted and Charlotte. Ted was busy equipping her, giving her some sort of a ridiculous pep talk in soft hushed whispers. Emma glanced at them until he leaned to kiss her and she looked away. She supposed that this, at least, was some conclusion as well. Charlotte could make choices after all.

"I wish you’d stay with Bill," Ted said calmly.

"I don’t want to be apart," Charlotte retorted in a whine, "Not again. I can help!"

He sighed and pulled her hands to his lips to press kisses on them. Emma wanted to gag but the look in Charlotte’s eyes was so sweet even a cold hard bitch like her could be softened for just a moment.

"I know you can help, I just wish you… I wish you were safe out here."

"Nowhere’s safe," Emma said, kicking his butt forward towards the Great Garden. "Let’s get a move on."

The plan had been one thing. Emma wasn’t sure that all the shouts of fighting coming from inside before they had even launched the attack were part of it at all. She frowned and the four of them glanced at each other warily but moved forward regardless. There seemed to be war already seeded from the inside without their input at all. Through the windows they could see violent infighting. All sides were wearing the same scarves around their necks.

"Fuck," she said, "We interrupted the rage hour or something."

Paul huffed nervously, but Ted glared at her. He pointed towards an opening to the side of a tall building which Emma might have never spotted if he hadn’t, so well hidden it was. They sneaked inside unnoticed − or perhaps…

"Well, well," a man said, casually leaning on the wall of the damp grimy corridor inside. "Look who’s here."

Sam was barring their way, arms spreading across the narrow width of the passageway. His eyes were glinting something mean and he was smirking as if he had already won. It was dark in here, only a torch behind him making his silhouette black and dangerous and the sunset pouring in jagged patterns from the broken windows.

"Sam…"

Charlotte’s voice was weak and her chin trembled, which made Sam smile all the broader.

"Charlotte, baby," he said. "Apple of my eye."

Ted touched the handle of his gun in its holster but Charlotte gave him a glance to stop him. Slowly, she took a step towards Sam.

"I missed you, babe," he said warmly. "I was lost without you. You’ve come to visit your hubby?"

"Don’t listen to him, Charlotte!" Paul cried out. "He’s one of them!"

They had to push through. One against four, this was a first step easily won. The rest would not be so clement. But Charlotte was frozen into place and to leave her behind was out of the question.

"Let's make a home again, alright? We'll find a little home, just you and me, make a few babies to fill it. Tell your little buddies to go home and they can visit us whenever you want."

Charlotte blinked a few times. She looked at Ted, then back at Sam.

"Sam, baby," she said slowly. "I guess I’m sorry."

The shot resonated a dozen times in the narrow, shallow hall, echoed by the dull sound of Sam’s body hitting the ground. Charlotte stared at the gun in her hands with panicked eyes, dropped it and ran to Sam to hold him but he was too heavy for her and she could not pull him to his feet. Between her arms, he squirmed in pain, whimpering.

"What have I done?!" Charlotte cried. "Jesus, what have I done?"

Ted crouched by her side, a hand on her shoulder to support her, though he said nothing as the tears rolled down her cheeks, seeping into the blood-stained shirt of her dying husband.

"We need to get in there," Emma said. "They’ll have heard the shot, they’ll find us."

"For fuck’s sake, Emma, a minute or two," Ted hissed.

Sam died in Charlotte’s arms in the evening glow. Her breath hitched when she realized he was gone. Closing his eyes, she let him slide out of her embrace to the ground. Slowly and with Ted’s help, she pulled herself to her feet.

"I’m ready," she said.

Emma nodded. She offered Charlotte her hand, Paul on the other side, and Ted grabbed Charlotte’s other hand. Together, they advanced and stepped properly into the Black Scarves’ headquarters.

Chapter Text

The Black Scarves fought for two days and seven hours on their own. Mega-Girl was left to wander here and there, as no one cared about the whereabouts of a robot without a master. Those who could keep fighting fought, those who couldn’t either barricaded themselves into a safe space to rest or were thrown to Pincer. No matter the amount of snacks he devoured, the Great Devourer was always hungrier, strutting around the inner court clicking his claws tauntingly. Mega-Girl was safe from him, of course, metal and plastics, not a brain except the cogs and gears of her design, but the battle had been climbed up to the upper floors of the buildings and was raging there violently.

She was perched in the tower looming over the drawbridge, which had been closed in an attempt to lock in the rebellious Black Scarves growing a moral conscience in the snap of that Ja'far's fingers. He had disappeared himself, unseen and unheard of for as long as the fights had kept going, washing his hands of the drastic reactions to his words. Mega-Girl had heeded them with great care, though she had no great interest in saving the lives of any of the Black Scarves, whether faithful or revolting to the cause. She was more focused on a certain convoy she had spotted in the distance. She hoped to see him again. She feared she might not.

"Foes on the inside," Ducker grumbled with mood, "Foes in the distance. It's a hard duty to worship unbothered these days."

"Chorn," Chorn said.

He snorted dissmisively.

"Oh, you would say that, wouldn't you? Some of us still hold great faith for the Great Devourer of the Great Garden. And faith cannot be..."

Mega-Girl had little interest for the chatting of an idiotic man - not this one, at least - and his alien coworker. Locked inside the watch tower, they had been making constant bickering conversation with one another for as long as she had given herself permission to occupy the observation dock herself. They might have bothered or distracted any human with the same mission as her, but Mega-Girl had unparalleled skills of focus and efficiency. Her entire being was fixated on the dot on the horizon that was growing bigger every hour. This evening, it was finally in close distance to be recognizable and her calculations were proven right. Brown hair messy with wind and sand, the same dirty shirt, hugging close two of the human children, Tootsie was on board. For the first time in her existence, she felt relief.

"Open the drawbridge," she said. "These humans must be let in."

Ducker seemed to finally register her presence, turning to her with a startled frown.

"Invite them in? Who broke into your chip, heretic? Anyone but the servants of the Great Devourer must be kept out!"

Mega-Girl tried to side step him to pull the lever herself but Ducker blocked her path.

"Let me open the gate or I will be forced to render you helpless," she warned. "I have romantic purposes of a greater importance than your puny faith."

He snickered meanly and ignored her request. Mega-Girl advanced ever so slightly and he bulked up his figure to look more threatening.

"Didn’t you hear me?" He said in a low menacing voice. "I am the keeper of the gates, the holiest of followers of the Great…"

Mega-Girl clenched her hand into a tight fist and struck Ducker across the face. He fell to the ground on a heap of drapes and decorative feathers.

"Chorn," Chorn said appreciatively, grinning at Mega-Girl.

Mega-Girl smiled back, though she was not equipped with a translation system to understand it. Perhaps there was more to communication than pure usefulness. Perhaps conversation could have the simple purpose of emotional gratification. She pulled the lever and with a raucous creak, the drawbridge slowly lowered itself.

"I do not serve men anymore," Mega-Girl told Chorn. "Nor aliens or robots."

"Chorn," Chorn nodded.

"My intention was not to harm him," she said. "I am not a war machine. By my estimation, he should come back to consciousness in seven and a half minutes." She glanced again at the sight of the raft outside the tower. "I will not be here when he does. Farewells."

"Chorn," it replied and waved her kindly away.

Too focused on their infighting, Mega-Girl thought that few of the Black Scarves must have noticed the raft not too far outside their walls. It tried to hide from view, though no boulder was large enough to conceal a group of twenty-three humans and a canine. Mega-Girl ran down the long shaky staircase, observing how they separated into several groups but her superior focus could only zoom in on the one that mattered. Tootsie was with two others, making their way around the long half circle of buildings to enter from the right side. She calculated their likeliest secret entrance they might use and made her way there as fast as she could. No one cared about a lone robot when there were disloyal Black Scarves to fight instead.

"Mega-Girl!" She heard in the distance and took pleasure mostly in the sound of Tootsie’s voice, but also in her capacity of determining his point of entrance efficiently. She had no time to lose. "Mega-Girl, you here?"

"Shut up, you idiot, they’ll hear us!"

Around them, fists being thrown and even the rare gunshot. She feared for his safety. She hoped he would be unscathed, now and forever. She ran faster.

"Tootsie!"

Before even catching sight of him, she heard him sigh out in relief and when she crossed the final turn, he was beaming at her more beautifully than ever. She smiled. She had never particularly wanted to smile before, wasting energy on something so baseless, so human, but that something inside her that Tootsie had awakened kept her smiling in his presence. Truly, it might have been magical for all she knew. She did not care about knowing anymore.

"Mega-Girl, thank Dead-God you’re alright!"

She ran to him and threw herself into the embrace he offered. Tootsie seemed to barely believe it, a shocked but thrilled look of surprise on his face as he swirled her around in circles, laughing so freely, so carelessly.

"Oh, I missed you so bad, Mega-Girl," he said. "I’m so sorry we fought, I didn’t mean to! I hope you can forgive me."

"Inaccurate observation," she said. "You have done nothing justifying an apology. The mistakes were mine."

He smiled kindly, softer than before. Tentatively, he held her face in the palm of his large hand. Warm human skin against her metal shell. A rush of electrons flowed through her pleasure circuits. She pressed herself closer to greaten the contact between them.

"’S all in the past now though, darlin’, innit?"

She held his arm, his waist on the other side. She had never touched a human for purely frivolous purposes, with no other mission in mind than just the sake of it. Soft skin just under the fabric. It was pleasant.

"It is completely in the past," she said. "By my estimations, our future will be entirely devoid of fights and betrayals. I foresee no further lethal abandonment."

"That’s all I wanted to hear."

Slowly, he pressed his lips to hers. She registered his thumb stroking gently across her steel cheek, the warmth of his mouth greater than of the rest of him, the arm around her waist and back pulling her closer the longer the kiss lingered. No longer tender, it became more animated, more passionate and her fingers clutched the rough fabric underneath. She had never understood kissing, had always brushed it off as another human carnal aberration. She did not understand it any more now, but she knew she wanted to keep doing it until she got a clue − and then after she got one too.

"Oye, Casanova, leave the robot alone," the woman behind Tootsie hissed unpleasantly. "This is a rescue mission."

Tootsie did not leave her alone, his arms still around her. She thought they had been apart for far too much time already. His forehead against hers, his warm breath was a caress against her cheek and he gave her another short kiss before startling and holding her at arm’s length by the waist.

"Wait, there’s a fight goin’ on," he blurted out. "Where’s the kids? Are they okay?"

He brandished his gun again, though he was pointing it the wrong way and Mega-Girl corrected the position for his safety. She pointed further down the hall.

"The human children have been placed under lock until the Black Scarves determine a clear winner. That is, until all rebellious members have been eliminated. The children are currently being guarded by them."

"That sounds scary and a half," the other man noted.

"Well, let’s go and save ’em!" Tootsie said, quite a bit more cheerful than his companions.

He clasped Mega-Girl’s hand firmly in his and followed her down the hall. This was a safer part of the building, as the room possessed multiple doors and this outer one could not be operated by human strength and was therefore left alone.

"Woah, Mega-Girl," Tootsie said when she pulled it open, "You’re so strong!"

"Affirmative." She smiled. "Thank you."

A few Black Scarves startled at their entrance and pointed guns at them, though they stopped at the sight of all three humans raising their hands in peace. The rebellious faction had taken to tying their scarves around their foreheads rather than their necks as a way to recognize one another in the vast maze of the buildings where not all of them knew each other beyond a vague acquaintance. None of the newcomers had scarves, which made the matter more difficult. The human children were all huddled together in a large mountain of panicked embraces all across the room.

"Commander Up," the man behind Mega-Girl introduced himself. "Here with my good friends Taz and Tootsie. Now, if we could just get these here youngins off your hands…"

A man pointed his gun right at him and Up only smiled back softly. The gun was dropped again.

"Why should we trust you?"

"By my vouching," Mega-Girl said, advancing a few steps. "These… people have come to rescue the children out of the headquarters."

A hundred and fifty children began to chatter enthusiastically. The former Black Scarves glanced at one another. Upstairs, they could hear sounds of battle being fought without them.

"Aren’t you Junior’s little pet?" One of them said dubiously.

Tootsie pouted, looking at his feet forlornly. Mega-Girl looked at him, then back at the men.

"I fed him to Pincer," she said and Tootsie gasped, though he said nothing. "It was my first disobedience. I am no longer bound to the Black Scarves."

A couple of them sighed, others nodded approvingly.

"Yeah, being evil gets tiring after a while, right?"

One of them gestured to the children.

"Let’s get ’em out of here," he said. "Right exit?"

"Affirmative."

Though there was banging and clamoring on the other side of the room near the garden, the outer hall was safe and empty when they ushered the large group of children outside. It would have been an exceedingly efficient operation if it weren’t for the young ones themselves. The noises coming from them were insufferably loud.

"Another trip? I hate the desert."

"Where are you taking us?"

"I want my mommy!"

Tootsie tried to hush them silent, to little avail.

"Shit, we gonna get caught because of stupid children…" Taz muttered. She pointed her gun at them but the group was much too large to keep aim on all of them. "Hey, idiotas, shut the hell up or I will kill you!"

Several children began to cry, comforted by some of the older ones, but the cacophony was much greater than before now and a couple of Black Scarves came rushing to the hall at hearing it. They were punched down by their former comrades, but time was pressing. Outside, the night was falling darker and darker.

"Now now now," Up said gently. "That ain’t how we treat little kids, Taz."

She glared at him, but he paid her no mind and turned to the young crowd, slowly herding them out to the desert where the air was slightly fresher. Tootsie took Mega-Girl’s hand in his and followed them out. The men remained inside to watch over the entrance and in minutes, the children were all out here. A gunshot resonated inside and all children startled fearfully and began to shout and wail. Their calming down was a necessity now, Mega-Girl told herself. She wondered if she would have to personally knock out every child. The prospect was most unpleasant to her and she very much hoped for a better way.

"I know that we are all very, very scared," Up told the children, patting shoulders and heads across the whole group as he passed them. "But what do we do when we feel sad or upset or utterly terrified, huh?"

There was a part of the building which, in its haphazard construction, was overhanging the desert ground leaving quite a large patch of flat sand unseen from any of the buildings around. It was an ideal spot to keep the children at least until the battle stopped raging inside. That was, of course, if they did not make themselves known by the sound of them.

"Cry?" A child replied.

Up gave him a big smile, mussing his hair.

"We just hold each other in our arms and tell each other we’re all in this together. Now, I want everyone hugging their neighbor and giving ’em a little kiss on their little head, alright?"

To everyone’s surprise including the children themselves, they all gave the method a try. The older ones were more sarcastic about it, but the humor of it made them calmer, better able to actually soothe the little ones who needed comfort. Before long, the shouts and cries had stopped and all hundred and fifty children were sitting quietly in neat rows. The moon was shining down on their little faces and Mega-Girl dimly lit up the lights in her chest to keep it company as she stood to guard them.

"That… actually worked," Taz said with consternation. "They’re silent as little babies."

Up chuckled. Some of the younger children nestled into the older ones, thumb in mouth, cuddling to sleep.

"Ain’t nothin’ a little bit of patience and compassion can’t cure," he said.

Taz looked down awkwardly, kicking a rock, before reaching out and punching Up’s arm with very little violence.

"I, er, I think maybe I judged too much," she muttered reluctantly. "About you being soft."

He shrugged. Looking at the children, he smiled. Looking at Taz, he smiled even more.

"Ah, I can be a little bit weak sometimes, I think, yes."

"It’s not weak," she retorted, more convinced by herself now. "You shut up the kids better than me, you didn’t even hesitate, you’re… not tough, but… strong. You’re strong."

"Well, if you say so, Taz…" He said and Mega-Girl didn’t even need her sensors to register the thermal increase at the level of his cheeks. All could see it clear enough.

"Yeah, you’re, you’re fine just the way you are, chief."

Up shuffled on his feet awkwardly, switched his gun on the other side and patted her shoulder.

"Thank you, Taz." He hesitated. "Can I have a hug, too?"

Taz rolled her eyes but held out an arm to allow the embrace and if they heard as Mega-Girl did the old man let out a few sobs into the hug, then all other people chose to ignore it just like she did.

Tootsie sat next to Mega-Girl, tapped his fingers gently against the ground, smiling up at her. She sat there and he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. A kiss against her temple and she felt her circuits buzz with frantic joy again.

"I am fine too," she said, pondering. "The way I am."

"That you are," he replied.

He was whispering for fear their little party would get caught. Through the windows, they could still hear the sounds of battle, though they were further and further away and the night was tiring even the Black Scarves. With his arm around her, she was no longer afraid, not really.

"I’m not broken. I never was."

He huffed one of his odd sounds with a smile, looking at her with so much admiration her new systems were overflowing with it, yet every time she thought she had reached the limits, there seemed always to be created more and more. There was always room for loving him more and better.

"Course, you’re not," he said. "You’re perfect just as you are, that’s why I… That’s why I love you."

They looked at each other. Mega-Girl had become so used to analyzing massive amounts of data at all times, to hyperfocusing on all aspects of her surroundings, to live only to serve to the best of her efficiency. She felt quieter now, less tense. Tootsie had such a simple nature it could only rub off on her a little. She smiled.

"I love you too, Tootsie."

They kissed, different than each previous kiss again. Something of a promise, of stability. She wondered how many ways he could make her feel if he tried.

"You think we should adopt these kids when this is over?" He asked when they parted.

"We have families, you know," one of the kids chimed in from behind.

Tootsie pouted. Mega-Girl held his hand. How was it again that he comforted her? She squeezed the hand, which made him wince, and squeezed a lot lighter. He smiled at her.

"Okay then not these kids," he conceded. "Mega-Girl, I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you."

She smiled and nestled her head against his shoulder. They looked at the stars in the sky together. The rest of their lives sounded almost enough.

Chapter Text

Bruce’s heart broke in a million pieces when he paid Robin his goodbyes. It was safer to leave him here, of course, hugging his littler friend and waiting out the storm hidden from view behind a boulder with the others who were left out of the battle. Knowing that it was the best decision for him didn’t make it any easier. He hadn’t become used to fighting without him, but more and more he had realized just how vulnerable little children were out there in the fire of the action. He had realized how reckless they had been before, a child and a man on the roads. Robin had to be left out of it now.

"I’m in great sorrow at the idea of losing you," he told Bruce, hugging him tight, "Although I know you will fight well."

"I’ll be back in just a while," Bruce promised, kissing his dark hair. "In the morning, hopefully, maybe tomorrow night at the latest. You be good here without me, alright?"

"Of course," Robin promised.

He sat down neatly at the spot Bill patted for him nearby. Night was falling rapidly. Bruce waved at him several times before he was fully out of his sight.

Clark had the grace to pretend not to see the tears silently rolling down his cheeks. The other groups were setting into motion and Bruce did not want to be the last one to go, to drag his feet into it, not now that his mind was fully set on this ideal. He pulled Clark by the hand, nodded to Joey and Sally to walk with him briskly towards the entrance. The walk was short, but long enough that he took notice of still being holding Clark’s hand. He looked down at it and caught Clark doing the same. They looked away, but the hand squeezed his gently.

Joey was determined about showing himself worthy. He was teaching Sally how to use a gun, in return asking her again about the layout and the plan.

"We’re doing this together," he told her seriously, "And when it’s done, we’re gonna do a shitton more things together, if you wanna."

She nodded timidly. Not a time for romance, Bruce had said before, not when they had such a bigger mission to focus on. With Clark’s hand in his, he still thought so, but perhaps not as firmly as before. Perhaps now, just before risking their lives in a desperate attempts to save them for good, was the exact right time for it. The drawbridge at the center of the headquarters creaked unpleasantly as it was lowered and distracted him from any thought otherwise.

"They’re fighting without us already," Clark noted.

"They’re rogues," Bruce replied. "What else would they do?"

Sally turned to them.

"Not all of them are bad," she said. "Maybe that’s to do with it."

He frowned. Gun in hand, gun at his belt, machete just in case, he was ready. He felt ready.

"Well, they’re all just as evil in my eyes," he said with resolve.

The halls of the Great Garden fort were swarming with Black Scarves fighting one another. It was a clutter of buildings arranged in some sort of an arc, barricades and passageways closing them off to the wasteland outer world and Bruce, Clark, Joey and Sally walked right through the front gate in the midst of a battle already taking place without them. Somehow, the fighting seemed to make their foes less aware of them, a safer invasion. Bruce cocked his gun and prepared himself.

"You! Fucking! Asshole!" A woman shouted, punching a Black Scarf with every word. Her own scarf was wrapped around her forehead, making a puffy ginger cloud of her curly hair sticking up over it. "You're never gonna get the kids!"

She was at the top of a staircase and the last blow sent the man flying down the steps as she stood there victoriously. The light of a torch was brightening up her face and Bruce's eyes widened with recognition.

"You!" He snarled but the youths were animated with a much more tender sentiment and Sally climbed the stairs two by two to join the woman.

"Mara! You made it!"

They launched themselves into each other's arms, a tight hug under Bruce's horrified stare. Mara kissed the top of Sally's head, whose arms were snug around her waist. He and Clark glanced at each other and he was relieved to find in his eyes the same doubt he was feeling himself.

"What are you doing?!" Bruce grunted. "That woman took my Robin!"

Sally and Mara looked at him, neither of them evidently feeling much threatened by the gun he aimed at them. Sally disengaged from Mara's embrace, who kept a protective arm around her shoulders.

"No, no, Mara helped Ted break us out from the Black Scarves," Sally said. "She's done nothing wrong."

"Nothing? But... But Robin!"

He was ignored. Around them, he heard clamor of battle, where he belonged. He had to distract the Black Scarves, defeat them for the rest of the group to be able to get the kids, to kill the scorpion, to save the world. He had his part in this operation, if only these kids would let him do it.

"I’m so glad to see you again, Mara," Sally said cheerfully. "I missed you, Ted told us everything, it’s thanks to you that I could find…"

Joey breached the few steps between his sweetheart and the Black Scarf woman. Mara eyed him with great interest. Bruce was fuming, only slightly soothed by Clark’s hand at his shoulder.

"So that’s Joey Richter, heh?"

He held up a tentative hand, but Mara offered a fistbump instead. She grinned at him.

"Sally told me a bit about you," she said.

"And me about you," Joey said.

There was no time to lose on this. Bruce rushed up the stairs, ignoring the glances the trio gave him, but the sight just outside the broken windows stopped him right in his tracks. Pincer was huge. He was cackling tauntingly and Bruce swore the sound was powerful enough to make the buildings shake. His shell was shining with moonlight in the darkness of the night but even during the day, Bruce doubted he could have fully registered his awesome size. Immense claws clicking about, he was on the loose, strutting about the garden with all the power in the world he might have killed himself. Wooden catways lay haphazardly across the yard around him, from the buildings to the Great Pond, and they creaked painfully under the weight of him whenever he passed them. Bruce gulped.

"Shit," Clark muttered next to him.

They looked at each other and nodded at the same time. How odd, Bruce thought, having been in the Rad Zone so often during his years of solitary wandering, helping the people of the wasteland, and all of that without knowing about the very being that gave him the dangerous, rabid thoughts. Doing his part now was only the natural follow-up of the life he had led.

"What a touching reunion," a voice came from the side and startled the five of them.

Another dreadfully familiar face, an ugly face, Sweet Tooth, the very man who had plucked Robin from him. He sneered.

"Come here to show how useless you are one more time, Brucie? You brought your little friends with you?"

He snapped his fingers loudly.

"Rogues!" He yelled. "Assemble!"

A few other Black Scarves gathered around him united and Bruce recognized a couple of faces he knew from that horrible day, but there were many more he had never seen before. He got his gun ready, Clark held up his fists, ready to throw a super mutant punch, but before they could do anything, the sharp and sudden shriek of a bullet being fired startled everyone around. Joey looked at the gun in his hand like he could hardly believe it. Sweet Tooth’s face was still distorted by his wicked grin but his voice was weak and pathetic now that blood was pooling between his ribs.

"You… airheads…"

"That’ll teach you," Joey yelled with passion, "To kidnap the woman I love! And to be a fucking dick!"

The rogues seemed to have been relying solely on Sweet Tooth’s leadership and scattered around them, some of them gunned down by Bruce, Clark and Mara but not all of them. His limp body collapsed forward and came crashing down the stairs. Bruce kicked him in the side but he didn’t even twitch. Sally was marveled.

"Joey Richter," she cooed.

She grabbed his face to hers, kissing him with all the love and lust left in this dead world. Joey shoved the gun into his holster again to better kiss her and, arms around each other, she shoved him against the wall, slowly inching to the side till they found a door and pushed it open. Bruce didn’t know if he ought to feel relieved that the room seemed to be empty, or if it would have served them a good lesson if it had not been. Regardless, the door was slammed shut behind them.

"… are they…?" Bruce asked hesitantly.

Clark was looking just as discountenanced as he felt, which was some sort of relief, he supposed. He nodded.

"I think they are."

Some amorous sounds coming from the now occupied room seemed to confirm their theory.

"Eh he he," Pincer laughed outside. "Come to me, humans!"

Large glistening black eyes were hopping from window to window, peeking at whichever humans were inside. Clark pulled Bruce away. The woman had disappeared, which was just as well.

"How many of them do you think there still are?" He asked.

"I don’t know," Bruce admitted. "The scorpion looks like it’s been fed…"

They could no longer see him from this part of the building, for which Bruce was grateful. One foe tried to knock him down and Bruce punched him instead. Another tried his luck at Clark, who sent him flying out the window and they heard the crunch of Pincer catching him. Bruce was scared. He was so fucking scared, but the plan was to wreak havoc here, distract the Black Scarves into a fight. He had to do it.

"Careful!" Clark yelled suddenly.

Before Bruce could register it, he was pulled by the collar as Clark shot someone behind him. They landed awkwardly against the wall with the recoil and Bruce gave a brief glance to see the dying cadaver of the half-dog, half-mutant creature that had been called Zebulba across the hall, fangs still bared threateningly. His breath was short and he looked back at Clark. The way Clark had grabbed him, Bruce was crushing him into the wall, barely an inch between them and he could feel their chests brushing with every breath they took.

"You saved me."

He could have let him die. The first time as well, when he had found Bruce a mess of fever and thirst in the desert, he could have let him die. But helping people was what he did, wasn’t it? It was what he did best, better even than Bruce. This instant was just another piece of evidence pointing that way. Even at the end of the world, Clark was still the better one. Bruce thought back on the jealousy, the fury he had felt back then in Clark’s little shack of solitude, surprised at how foreign they were to him now. He was filled with relief, with gratitude, with something else.

"Super reflexes," Clark said with an awkward chuckle. "I just… I…"

Bruce’s heart was pounding hard in his chest, at his temple, in every part of him. Clark’s hand was still at his collar but the touch loosened and it slid down to flatten against his torso. He stared up at Bruce so intently and every breath he took was making his chest rise and fall very heavily. His mouth dropped half open.

"Bruce, I…"

Bruce kissed him. He pushed him into the wall irreverently and kissed him hard. His heart raced all the faster and he was certain that Clark's must too. He was so terrified. He was so thrilled as well. Clark’s gun dropped to the ground and his fists bunched up the fabric of Bruce’s overalls to pull him down ever closer. Bruce groaned and held his hand to Clark’s face, cupping the sharp jaw, keeping him near. There was no time for romance, but perhaps they never might be, not with the way things were going. Bruce kissed Clark and carved for them this little bubble of time, whether the situation permitted it or not.

They parted, panting. Clark's blue eyes were peering right into his, a brow arched in a question that was never otherwise asked. Bruce breathed in deeply, out softly. The deafening drum of his heartbeat was pacing every motion as he pulled Clark by the hand back into the fire of the action. They had to do this and they had to do it together. Perhaps, he thought, if they won this crap, there might be more time for other such moments again, bubbles of time here and there, everywhere. Perhaps, if they succeeded, these moments might even make up the rest of their lives.

Chapter Text

The grown-ups were all making their departure and Mouthface had no intention of staying put with the children. Alice and Deb might, but they had Mr Bill to protect and soothe them. Mouthface's parents on their way to the heat of the battle, Jasmyn's dad gone and lost, they refused to be left behind another time. Nevertheless they also refused to sneak their way into a bigger life, not again. Jasmyn looked at her and Mouthface nodded back sternly.

"Mama," she said firmly, tapping her shoulder. "We're coming with."

Slippery When Wet squinted at them dubiously, though she didn't say a word yet. Ms Jemilla was holding Ms Zazzalil by the waist as they went on and muttered to each other the details of the plan again. Jack Bauer was hugging Craphole one last time - before, hopefully, the next time, when all this would be done.

"Sweetheart..."

Mouthface read in her eyes all the good arguments against her coming. So perilous, so frightful an expedition, no risk any teenager should have to be taking, especially after having barely escaped the clutches of those who would have thrown her right into the pits of danger. Hardly recovered from such a separation, Slippery When Wet did not look too incline to prompt another more drastic one.

"Mr Ja'far was taken here," Mouthface said, trying to keep her voice from wavering, "And Jas wants to find him before... before it's too late. If it isn't already."

They did not have the luxury of weighing out the decision patiently. Slippery When Wet's mouth tightened.

"You're not..."

"I'm not lil anymore, mama! I can do this, I wanna help!" Mouthface protested, cutting her, but her mother shushed her softly. She cupped her face with her hand and, no matter what she had said, Mouthface did feel very little when she touched her so. Her thumb stroked across her cheek gently and they gave each other timid smiles.

"I was gon' say," Slippery When Wet told her, "You're not doin' this on your own, baby girl. You're stayin' close to me, alright?"

Jasmyn sighed out loudly in relief.

"Thank you," she cried out. "Thank you so much."

"Here," Slippery When Wet said. She pulled out another gun from her belt and handed it to Mouthface. "You can have my spare."

Mouthface grabbed the gun, eager to protect Jasmyn through this.

"Thank you mommy," she said. "I... I love you."

Her mother smiled like she hardly ever had before. Her affection radiated from her warmly and Mouthface's heart was full with it before she even said the words.

"And I love you," she said. She looked at her better, the hand that was holding the gun. "You got a good grip."

Jack Bauer was joining them. He put a hand on Mouthface's shoulder, nodding his approval at her coming. She nuzzled her cheek into the touch.

"Alright, everybody," he said. "Let's get a move on."

"Wait a minute, you shickenkit son of a bitch!" Grandpa Titty Mitty grumbled from behind, painfully pulling himself up to his shaky legs. "You're leaving without me!"

All turned to him with a frown.

"... Yeah, we are," Jack Bauer said hesitantly. "Dad, you're staying here with Craphole and Bill and the kids."

"Yeah, we talked about this, Grandpa," Slippery When Wet said, nodding at her husband.

But Titty Mitty blew raspberries into the air dismissively and waved a hand to shut them up.

"I ain't listened to all that noise. If you're takin' the youngins, you're takin' me."

"But, but your legs are bad," she retorted. "If you come with, you’re gonna… You might die."

He shrugged.

"That’s just Dead-God’s will, innit?" He grew much more somber. "I’ve had a long life, my daughter, and if I die… I’d much rather it be next to the people I love. I said goodbyes to the boy just in case."

Perhaps for the first time as far as Mouthface could recall, he was making Slippery When Wet so emotional she seemed on the verge of tears. Slowly, she wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his chest.

"I wasn’t the best of fathers, I think," he told her in a soft voice, "A bit better of a grandfather, maybe but… I still got a very beautiful life myself cause I got to be your dad."

"You’re gon’ get me all bawlin’ before the most important business we ever had," she muttered against his chest. "If I can’t focus and protect ya, it’ll be your own damn fault."

They walked in together. Mouthface had never been so scared in her life, but she held Jasmyn’s hand tight in hers and pretended to be much braver than she felt for her sake. She wondered if Jasmyn was doing the same. She had always been the bolder one, but the separation and betrayal of Mr Ja’far had made her much more reserved, self-erasing. If nothing else, saving the world, saving him might bring back the old Jasmyn. If it didn’t, though, Mouthface would love her all the same still.

"There’s so many of them…" She whispered to herself, but Jasmyn squeezed her hand and she realized she had been heard.

Slippery When Wet was back from her emotions. The sharpest of shooters, she gunned down two men before they even noticed the Dikrats barging in.

"I need height," she said, "For a good vantage point. Come on."

She took them up a creaking flight of stairs and Mouthface tried with every ounce of her body to not look at the beast they could spot in the inner yard. There was so much more to be seen here, wasn’t there? Tall and numerous buildings like nothing she had ever seen, and the vegetation overgrown covering some walls and all parts of the ground like a giant mossy bog. She compared it to the image she had dreamed up of the Great Garden as described and found that reality came especially short. Nothing here spoke of splendor, of lush grandeur. She looked only at the steps under her feet, at any possible opponents coming from front or back.

"There’s a ledge over there," her mother gestured. "Protrudes a bit over the yard, I think. Seems as good as anything."

Mouthface followed obediently. There was no sign of Mr Ja’far anywhere, but she dared not point it out. From all the windows around the semi circle of buildings, she could spot some faces she knew and many more she had never seen in her life. Her heart was pumping hard and fast but came to a sudden stop when two men barged in on them from the side, unnoticed before it was too late and they were in their path.

"Well, well," Mr McDoon said, grinning his lopsided smile. He was wearing his black scarf like a bandana across the forehead under his hat and nodded at her in recognition. "If it ain’t my favorite little sweetheart. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see ya again. Careful now."

Slippery When Wet got her gun ready but McDoon had already cocked his and shot a bullet far behind any of the party, ignoring them. Mouthface’s head snapped to the target and she recognized the dying face of Mr Aladdin, who had been perched on the ledge they were going to occupy. Her mouth dropped open.

"You… Did you mean that? Wha…"

"Cletus, the body," Mr McDoon ordered.

Mr Cletus Jones ran out to the ledge and kicked the Black Scarf’s body as far as he could. Mouthface squinted her eyes shut tight for fear she would be seeing him get devoured but Pincer never got his gigantic claws on him. When she dared to look again, she saw ripples on the surface of the Great Pond. She turned back to Mr McDoon, stared in disbelief.

"Why did you…"

But Mr McDoon only tipped his hat at her with a friendly wink. Lowering his gun again, he stepped aside and let them pass before him.

"My pleasure, sweet thang," he said. "In another lifetime, we might’ve… But you ain’t seeing this pretty mug ever again, that’s a promise right here. Farewells to y’all, and many happy days."

He nodded at Mr Cletus Jones to come with him again and Mouthface looked at the pair of them trot away onto better fights to be fought. Slippery When Wet readied her gun to take them down from behind but Mouthface touched her arm to stop her.

"No, no, mama, he’s… he’s gonna leave us alone for good, I think."

Slippery When Wet stared at her with some doubt but, it seemed, valued Mouthface’s word more than she did her own judgement in this instant. She kept her gun up and the family stepped outside onto the ledge. From here, the view over the yard was whole and was horrifying. Mouthface gulped with difficulty. She saw in the distance Ms Jemilla give her mother a brief wave, so as to be sure they had spotted each other.

"Now to distract the lil critter…"

Mouthface saw that her and Ms Zazzalil were at the same window and had a certain plan in mind. She looked closer at what they were hiding just behind the wall, though it was a bit too far to really see how they were doing it but when Ms Jemilla shot the first arrow, she saw it clear as day, a line of pure light gone as fast as it had come. It landed in the middle of one of the wooden catways in the damp bog downstairs. Just a tiny spark sent light through the dark and before they could understand it, a fire was burning there, probably the size of a person though no human dared venture nearly close enough for comparison.

"Oh, now you’re just teasing!" Pincer bellowed. "No one likes a burn in their own house, how uncouth"

Another arrow, another fire, and another, soon a whole row. In the humid heat of the bog, the flames were not fed near enough to go up to the buildings but, Mouthface soon realized, served their exact purpose of keeping Pincer in line for her mother better to target.

"This ain’t workin’ as I thought…"

A first bullet had ricocheted against the hard shell of Pincer’s body, then another one. Mouthface tried her luck as well, to no avail.

"His eyes?" Jasmyn suggested but the attempt was equally unsuccessful.

"We’ll get him," Slippery When Wet assured. She cocked her gun again, shot at Pincer with little reaction but a groan of pain that made their bodies shake, so loud it was. He was becoming trapped, the air thick with smoke. "I swear to Dead-God, we’ll eat scorpion tonight."

Titty Mitty had been leaning against the wall, trying to make himself little and unseen but he put a hand to Mouthface’s elbow and pointed.

"What’s that yonder? Do you see it too? Am I going mad?"

Mouthface looked. She could hardly make out the shape in the distance at first but the blunt red of the scarf around its head was unmistakeable. Squinting her eyes, she looked closer as the smoke dissipated little by little into the dark night. Mr Ja'far was looking right at her. No, she corrected her own stupid thought, he was looking at Jasmyn, of course. Staring, even. From up here they never heard his words but all too clearly, both of them made out what he said in the midst of the loud battle.

"I'm sorry," they read on his lips. "I love you."

He seemed almost to float in the air as he strode towards the pond with eery determination. There wasn't a moment of hesitation. Having reached the mossy rocks that marked the edge of the Great Pond, he crossed them over and let his body fall into the water. It sank down the muddy surface and after seconds, was no longer visible.

"He... He's..." Jasmyn mumbled and sank into Mouthface's arms, her body coursed by heavy sobs. "He's gone. We found him and he’s gone."

Not for the first time, Mouthface was transported back to that dreadful night Mr Ja'far had told them about the Great Garden. He had told them about the wife he had loved and lost, his suspicion that she might have found the garden after all when their lives had been torn apart. That hope was gone, drowned with him, though she could not say whether his fall had been the desperate consequence of the realization she wasn't here, or if the reunion would never happen now that he was gone, and no matter if she were here or not. She held Jasmyn so very close, though no embrace could ever soothe her from such grief.

"Is the water... boiling?" Jack Bauer asked in a hushed voice, trying to be respectful of Jasmyn's sorrow but pointing their attention to the surface of the lake.

Mouthface frowned. Jasmyn's wet face was tucked in the crook of her neck and she patted her back softly. She glanced down at the Great Pond.

"I think it's just waves," Slippery When Wet replied in the same tone as her husband. "I didn't think ponds had such waves though..."

"They might’ve. I haven’t been exactly staring at the lake so far…"

She spotted the ripples in the water, first two small spots on opposite sides but growing larger and larger by the second. Soon the entire pond was a scribble of wavy lines and she could see soon emerging below it the terrible large shape of something coming out. Two red mounds came out first, but clenched together much like Pincer’s claws so that all could see that this thing, whatever it was that was rising from the waters, was alive.

Mouthface didn’t know science and animals much, not like Jasmyn did, but this one she knew without the shadow of a doubt. She’d heard of him a hundred times. The bright red claws gave way to the rest of the body, at least as large as Pincer though thicker, sturdier and so very red even in the moonlight. He was a lobster.

"Cornwallis…" Titty Mitty whispered in awe. "He asked Cornwallis for help."

Jasmyn was still shaking as she looked down as well and her puffy eyes widened with shock and fear. Mouthface tried in vain to remember if she had ever told her the story of Cornwallis, the leader of the lobsters who had stolen Grandpa Titty Mitty’s wife. Most likely she never had, for Jasmyn’s sorrow grew only the greater at the sight of the beast slowly climbing out of the Great Pond.

"Who disturbs my sleep?" He shouted in a thunder of a voice that felt like a violent gush of wind to Mouthface, who held onto Jasmyn tight for support.

"Ha ha ha," Pincer laughed and chilled her blood to ice. "Old Cornwallis is back from his nap, is he? I haven’t missed you one bit."

Through the maze of fires and the dark night, Cornwallis turned his ghastly red face and glistening black eyes towards Pincer. Mouthface did not know if lobsters could frown or if she was making up out of her imagination the look on disgust on him.

"Is this what you make of my garden in my absence?" Cornwallis chided. "Your power trip is over, Pincer. Now surrender."

"Surrender? Oh, my dear friend, but you don’t understand. There’s been a slight change in hierarchy at the Great Garden since your little sabbatical. I’m in charge of this place now." He smirked meanly. "And I have no plans to give it up."

The titanic beasts wrestled and, loud as the clamor had been before, all fighting seemed to have stopped between humans to focus on the so much more interesting duel of these mythical creatures. Mouthface could not move, could barely breathe. All she could do was stare. Every part of her body was buzzing with fear, every hair sticking up angrily. Every Black Scarf, every friend or foe could only look down at the majestic fight like she did.

"You’re a goody two-shoes, you know that?" Pincer yelled. "All that moaning and complaining. Oh, you can’t eat human brains, Pincer! The humans will start to notice, Pincer! You’ll run out of volunteers, Pincer! Well, tonight, I might as well feast on lobster instead!"

"You’re mad," Cornwallis retorted. He was trying to cut through Pincer’s arms and tail but with great difficulty. "You’ve always been a mad, you nasty little beast!"

They fought on and on. Through the night and especially in the absence of any other sound, Mouthface was dead startled by the arrows Ms Jemilla kept aiming to help Cornwallis corner Pincer. A thousand times, she thought the fight was done for and the world had ended again, this time for the worst, but ever and ever, Cornwallis got back on his many feet and launched another punch, another hit, always strong and powerful. Every collision was deafening and terrifying but the fight never seemed to end.

"Alright, come on," Pincer said, panting oddly. "Let’s come to a truce, shall we? We can’t keep at this forever…"

He had stopped and Cornwallis seized the moment of weakness to launch a sneak attack. Pincer wailed with the voice of a thousand dying men as one of his claws was cut off. Mouthface gasped. A whole crowd was gathered at every window and she so wanted to check for the faces she knew but the confrontation was far too terrible not to look.

"No, you can’t keep at this forever."

He assaulted the scorpion again, bright red claws against a weakened brown one. Pincer tried as he might to protect his face but, his claw held up as a shield, he was defenseless against attacks otherwise and the softer shell of his belly was torn from left to right, leaving a large gash.

"But we were friends, long ago," Pincer begged. "Cornwallis, you can’t have forgotten that!"

"That was before… you tried… to eat Eleanor!"

His words were sectioned with as many hits and Mouthface realized with fascinated thrill that Pincer was losing the battle.

"I never ate her!" Pincer said. His voice, so threatening before, now sounded whiny and pleading. "You didn’t let me, I let her go for you!"

His second claw was torn off and sent flying across the garden. It landed against a window where it might have broken glass if it wasn’t already just wooden frames with nothing in between. Having lost his weapons, Pincer tried to run away but Ms Jemilla had made a wall of flames behind him to keep him from the pond.

"Eating humans is bad, Pincer!" Cornwallis said. He was climbing on top of his beastly opponent. "A lesson you had to die to learn. You’ll be an example of disgrace."

His gaping mouth caught onto Pincer’s face and he tore off his head as if it were no more than a small heap of feathers. From everywhere, Mouthface could hear people yell − some, the Black Scarves, in terror, but as many or more in victory. Her mother grabbed the family in her shaking arms. All, that was, except for Grandpa Titty Mitty. Mouthface realized that he was no longer with them out here. In the excitement, the others seemed not to have noticed and she said nothing, only rubbing her cheek against her mother’s contentedly and letting out the tears of relief that had been just at the surface all night. In the far distance, the sun was soon about to dawn.

"This is the world you’re made to live in, huh?" Cornwallis told the hundreds of eyes staring at him. He clicked his enormous claws a few times. "Well, not anymore."

Behind him, the water of the Great Pond was raised with great might and power and made a tower in the middle of the Great Garden, as high as the highest tower. Drops as heavy as buckets quenched the fires Ms Zazzalil must have engineered so proudly. Cornwallis clicked his claws again.

It was an explosion of mist in every direction and as far as the eye could see. Mouthface blinked but was completely blinded and could only feel her way around to hold Jasmyn safe and snug against her. When she opened her eyes again, she thought she had been transported in a dream, in another land or lifetime. Everything brown and drab and dark was blossoming anew as green as the most tender of fresh buds. Trees that had looked dead and gone were thick with foliage, grass took over the mossy bog and fruit were clustering on every vine, every branch. Before their eyes, the tale of the Great Garden was told again in a thousand colors and wonders. Even the desert outside its walls was drizzled and turned to verdant plains. She pinched herself, but everything was real and everything was stunningly gorgeous.

"That’s better," Cornwallis said with self-satisfaction. He took a few steps back towards the pond, where water was pooling again clear as the bluest sky. "Now, if you’ll let me…"

"Cornwallis!"

They gasped, realizing that Titty Mitty was making his way across the garden. The dewy grass was making him slip on his already bad legs and he nearly fell a dozen times, but he eventually made it.

"Cornwallis, you saved us!"

The lobster looked down at him.

"It wasn’t for you, Titty Mitty." He dipped his legs into the pond. "It was for Eleanor."

He dove back into the water and was, to everyone’s surprise and to Mouthface’s horror, followed by Titty Mitty. Through the clearer water, they saw him swim down to try and catch up with the lobster but lost sight of him after some depth. In mere seconds, lobster and man had disappeared entirely, just in time for the sun to dawn over a world born anew.

Chapter Text

At first only a sea of whispers, every voice in the Great Garden rose to cries and shouts upon realizing that the struggle was truly over. Jemilla dropped her bow to the ground to pull Zazzalil into a crushing embrace. They swirled around, their hearts still pounding. It had worked. The fire had only been a minor part, she suspected, as had the Dikrats' bullets and all the others, but who could have predicted they would be upstaged by a majestic and all-powerful magical lobster swooping in to save not just their skins but the entire world? As far as they were concerned, they had done everything they could, small as their parts had been, and that alone was well worth celebrating.

"We did it!" Jemilla told her. "We won!"

They came to a halt, though still holding each other tight. With every touch (and they had been many the past few days), Zazzalil was noting just how much she enjoyed Jemilla's arms around her, being close to her, the warmth of her neck as she pressed her face into the crook of it. She still smelled like fire.

"J-Mills..." She muttered, pulling back just enough to look up at her.

They looked at each other and she might as well have drowned into the pretty brown eyes staring down at her. Jemilla reached up a hand, slowly touching Zazzalil's cheek under her fingers, gave her the softest of smiles. That kiss the other day, numerous touches since but nothing quite the same, quite as clear... She closed her eyes, leaned up.

"Hey guys!" Someone shouted from the doorway and Zazzalil near stumbled backwards from her feet on her ass. Catching herself on Jemilla's arms, the moment was gone nonetheless. "I didn't think I'd find you here!"

"Molag!" Jemilla cried out.

She tore herself from Zazzalil's arms, rushing to embrace the old woman, who was looking better than ever. Her hair was longer, her friendly face a bit more wrinkled. Her walking stick, half of her clothing and her cheek were splattered with blood and she stood prouder on her feet than Zazzalil ever remembered. The grin was just the same, however, and both of them were quick to take the hugs offered.

"What are you doing here?!" Zazzalil asked. "We thought..."

Molag patted their backs, chuckling.

"Come on," she said, "You know there's nothin' that can kill your ol' Molag, don't ya?"

Regardless, they stared at her in amazement and Molag laughed but held them tighter still.

"You look great," Jemilla said kindly. "Maybe we were keeping you leashed up, huh?"

"Oh, girls, that ain't it..." She seemed to hesitate, but pulled away to cup both faces in her old hands. "Sometimes, at the end of your travels, you just need to settle down somewhere nice with the one you love, ya know."

Zazzalil and Jemilla looked at each other and she felt Jemilla's hand brush against hers softly. She grasped it with no hesitation, pressing their palms together, and smiled at her.

"I've met someone," Molag announced and had them startled. "My Papy... Not too sure where he's at, with the battle and everythin'..." She shrugged. "Eh, you'll meet him soon enough."

"Heartbreaker!" Jemilla smirked teasingly.

Molag laughed.

"Just the opposite, Jemilla."

Perhaps, Zazzalil reflected, such things were passed down, for there was much of Jemilla in that statement even without being about her.

They joined the crowd gathering in the inner yard. Pincer's huge carcass had disintegrated on the spot, repurposed into every leaf, every blade of grass. Zazzalil recognized every face who had come in with her, everyone safe and victorious. All, that was, except the man they had lost already and one of her dear companions. Her heart was suddenly heavy with grief but she pushed on.

"Well, guys," Jemilla said to the assembly of their friends and allies, "Looks like this really is the dawn of a new age." She smiled broadly. "Let's make it a good one!"

Through the windows, Zazzalil could see the remaining Black Scarves scatter away, no purpose left for them here after the death of their leader. All those still standing were, she supposed, men and women who had already had a change of heart and she felt no fear towards them. Jack Bauer was gathering his family around and Zazzalil saw passing before her the young boy running to them. Jasmyn was touching the stones edging the Great Pond, vainly peering down the waters empty of any sign of her father. Zazzalil sighed painfully.

"Yes, I know, it will be hard at first," Jack Bauer said and Zazzalil felt a surge of sadness for the loss of Titty Mitty. Though a quiet and grumbling road companion, she had grown to like him from the start. He would be missed by more than just his family. "But look around! Isn't it a great place to stay?"

Mouthface perked up.

"Are we... are we gonna stay here?" She asked timidly. "For good?"

"Where else?" Slippery When Wet replied, touching her face gently. "How's this for a life, no more fuckin' farmin'!"

"Us too," Jemilla said. "No way we’re leaving this place."

Zazzalil nodded her approval.

"You're staying too, right, Jas?" Craphole asked.

All the Dikrats turned to her with a smile. A little way away, Jasmyn looked down, toying with a tuff of grass between her fingers.

"It's better than going back to the Magic Kingdom," the boy insisted, "With that Achmed."

"Who?" She asked, frowning. "No, yeah, I'm staying. I don't wanna be far away when... if ever..."

She grew quiet again and turned back to the pond. The Dikrats hesitated but, taken by their own grief, evidently decided on giving her some space to handle her own. They began to talk of accommodations, which stretch of land was to be theirs if they could have it, walking back to the buildings for a closer inspection.

Zazzalil crouched next to Jasmyn and hesitantly put her hand on her shoulder. Feeling her relax into the touch, she smiled and rubbed up and down the girl's arm gently. They had barely ever talked before, not in a large group focused on an even larger task, and she was feeling a little awkward. She remembered the night she had met her father, how compassionate he had been with a little ball of boldness and spike like her.

"Ja'far was a great man," she said kindly. "And he loved you very much."

She sniffed, shrugging one shoulder.

"I just feel… I feel like, if I hadn't run away from the settlement, or if I hadn't gotten kidnapped…"

Her pout was threatening to turn into something much more disheartening. Zazzalil saw tears pearling at her eyes and felt her own heart twist with compassion.

"Hey!" She cried out. She cupped Jasmyn's face to make her look up at her. "Hey. You gotta get out of that, alright? What's done is done. When you feel like you fucked up, you can only look forward to try and fix it. Handle the mess you create as it comes, not the shit that's already behind."

Looking around at the immense breadth of the garden, blossoms flourishing anew before their eyes, parents comforting children, children comforting parents, Zazzalil smiled.

"I think this mess was more than handled, you know. We kinda saved the world here."

She paused, for the first time truly enjoying the freshness of the air, the clear sky, the verdant splendor as far as she could see. She dropped her arm. Jasmyn nodded slowly.

"You have your life ahead of you, you know? And you still have people you love."

Her cheeks suddenly flushed adorably pink and she looked down, pushing herself up on her feet.

"Well, there's someone I… I like very much…"

Zazzalil had noticed that. She did not think that anyone had not noticed it. Jasmyn glanced to where Mouthface Dikrats was still embracing her mother and father, the son trapped between the three of them. The girl looked up from the embrace and her eyes crossed Jasmyn's. Jasmyn's blush turned bright red.

"I think I... I should talk to her."

Zazzalil smiled at her. Not too far from the Dikrats, Jemilla was standing on her own, staring with wonder at the hugeness and beauty of the Great Garden. A weight dropped deep in Zazzalil's guts and she gave Jasmyn a hug.

"I got someone to talk to, too," she muttered against the girl's thick black hair. "You go and have your chat, right? You tell her just that. Just try to be happy now, my girl. You can breathe again."

Jasmyn nodded and quickly hopped away to awkwardly pull on Mouthface's arm. Mouthface was equally flustered as her and, as the parents and brother left the girls to their talk, Zazzalil turned away to give them the same privacy.

"It's... pretty, right?"

She grimaced at her own mundane words. Of all the things to say, something as self-evident and boring, but Jemilla only smiled lopsided and slowly turned to her.

"Pretty," she repeated, looking Zazzalil up and down.

She was looked quite a bit worse for the fare, part of her clothes charred through and she needed a bath about eight weeks ago but for the moment, she had no thought in the world beyond the memory of a kiss, of arms around her. She shuffled on her feet nervously.

"I wanted to... talk. About, erm, all the stuff. You know."

Jemila's smirk turned wickedly teasing and she gestured Zazzalil to take a walk with her through the immense landscape unfolding before their eyes. They walked side by side, which was just as well for Zazzalil. There was something to Jemilla's eyes and the way they could pierce through. She thought clearer when they didn’t distract her.

"Zazzalil wanting to have a serious talk," Jemilla said, whistling impressively. "I wonder who it was I left behind at Independence."

Zazzalil nudged her, but Jemilla caught the arm and, fingers running down it, clasped their hands snugly together. Zazzalil's heart skipped a beat and she realized how broad she was smiling.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't know the stranger who listened to my idea, trusted me and ran with it."

Jemilla's hand squeezed hers and they glanced at each other before both turning away to the trees and bushes and flowers around them. It was so very warm out here, but nothing like the weighing heat of the desert, everything pleasant and comfortable.

"It was a long few weeks," Zazzalil said. A few steps on soft mossy ground. "I missed you a whole bunch."

Fear was gnawing at her, knowing what yet needed to be said. After everything that had gone down at Old New Hatchetfield, after helping bring down Pincer, she could still feel afraid. The thought almost made her laugh. She supposed Jemilla was a whole different kind of beast. She took a big breath.

"I like you," she said.

Jemilla gave her an amused look. In the thickening jungle of the Great Garden, her face was a puzzle of green patches of light, her hair a kaleidoscope of reflections. It was very becoming.

"You do, do you?"

She ought to have known better than to hope that Jemilla would make this easy on her. But perhaps, she thought, this challenge itself was the appeal of her. Perhaps she liked being pushed so, perhaps she even loved it.

"In a... romantical kinda way," she clarified.

Jemilla didn't reply, but all the answers Zazzalil could have wanted were plastered over her face all the same.

"I think you're smart and competent," she went on, "And you're like, super nice too, you always wanna help people..."

The front of sass that Jemilla so often put up was slowly falling, leaving only the raw genuine joy behind.

"And you're like really hot."

A finger under Zazzalil's chin, Jemilla pulled her face to hers to kiss her. It was a much softer kiss, nothing like the fire that had burned that first time, a caress now, a promise. Jemilla's fingers brushed against her cheek so gently Zazzalil wondered if they had touched her skin at all. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the slice of bliss Jemilla gifted her. The world seemed even more vivid, more vibrant when she opened them again.

"I like you too," Jemilla said and they both let out the same nervous breathless laugh. As if there had been any doubt in the past days. "It got boring not seeing your cute little face for so long."

"My face, huh?" Zazzalil smirked. She pressed herself closer to Jemilla and was rewarded with an arm wrapped around her waist to keep her there. She could get used to that.

"Yeah. Hot stuff."

A squeeze at her waist.

"Not my ass?"

Jemilla's hands dropped to said ass and Zazzalil felt ridiculously hot, couldn't have helped the grin even if she'd wanted to.

"Yeah," Jemilla breathed and leaned to kiss her again.

Weeks and weeks on the road in a hellish search finally came to an end. Zazzalil realized that, though she had all along sought respite away from Jemilla's rule, she could now only find it in her presence, in her arms.

"So what's for us now?" She asked eventually.

They sat in a small clearing on the cushiest mattress of bright green moss, Jemilla pulling her to her lap. Her hands on her, how casual and natural it felt to be in her embrace, she wondered how it had ever registered to her otherwise that she was crazy about her with every pore of her body.

"Well, babe," Jemilla said, pressing her down into soft ground to better kiss her. "I think we deserve a day off. Relax, take our load off, unwind." She kissed her, saw the grin Zazzalil gave back and kissed her again. "Perhaps even a week."

"That sounds just fine," Zazzalil whispered and let herself enjoy the start of a life long vacation.

Chapter Text

Ted clasped Charlotte’s hand tight in his as they ran down to the Great Garden with the others. Emma was panting, sweating with fear but relieved by the victory − though just barely. Paul’s arm was around her shoulders and he kissed her temple to soothe her. The fight, long as it had lasted, was still being registered by them, it felt, and Ted rubbed his eyes from the remnants of the mist that had healed the world to finally lay his gaze on its new landscape. Nothing he had beheld before in his life could ever compare to the splendor of the garden.

"That’s some patch of land, huh?"

He had barely taken a few steps onto the wooden paths of the yard that he was violently slammed into. Joey, though much less fatty than he had been when they had met, nearly had him on his ass but Ted stood strong and let himself be hugged to the boy’s heart’s content. He patted him on the back. Charlotte, spotting Bill in the distance, joined him and the girls to check on them.

"Dang it, you survived the fight after all," Ted said, chuckling.

Joey disentangled from the tight embrace to look up at him and Ted noticed just how disheveled the poor kid was. Pink in the face, hair sticking up in a mess, he would have fooled even Ted into thinking him a battle hero. Behind him, Sally was beaming all the same. Her shirt was on backwards, her ponytails done hastily all crooked. He looked back at Joey. Smirking, he pulled down his collar to reveal a trail of lovebites at the boy’s neck.

"Hey there, lover boy, did you skip the battle to fuck your girl?"

Joey was utterly mortified and Sally blushed bright red, which made Ted laugh all the more.

"I-I did fight, dickhead!" Joey protested. "I killed bad guys! For Sally and for the world!"

Ted nodded with a smile and mussed his hair.

"So you did, eh," he said. He was feeling a little sad at the thought that it had taken even a young boy to help save the world, but then, Joey wasn’t all that little now, was he? "You’ve done so much more than you already should have, buddy. You deserved to get some with your sweetie."

Joey shrugged with something of self-consciousness, but Sally agreed with Ted, catching his hand in hers, resting her chin against his shoulder affectionately. Ted cleared his throat to ready himself for what he wanted to say. He had never been much for emotions, still wasn’t, but it seemed that they caught up with him despite his best wishes.

"I’m, erm… I’m proud of you." He looked at Sally, too. "Both of you. Who knows what the world would have become without you?"

Around them, people were deciding what would become of them in the whole new world that actually was.

"I’m not staying here," Emma said firmly and Paul nodded his support. "I… I can’t. Even without the radiations, it’s… It’s too much."

"And how would we even set up a farm?" Bill said. "The garden has everything anyways."

Ted chuckled. Going back to farming was the last thing he wanted, though he did not have his heart set on any location so much as the people he would surround himself with.

"Back to Sycamore?" Emma offered tentatively. "I mean, we could try and rebuild and…"

Mara appeared next to Ted and he was ready to salute her and thank her for the help from those weeks ago and from today but at once he realized she had not been looking for him in the least. She hugged Sally with all her strength, burying the poor girl in a mountain of ginger curls, and they sighed in relief at the certainty that they both had made it completely alright.

"I’m ready to go," Mara told the girl, "to Heaven on Earth."

"Oh, yeah, you wanted to… to meet Oola again, is that right?"

Joey frowned in deep reflection, but shook himself out of it.

"Why’s that?" He asked eventually, pulling Sally back to him again, showering her with tenderness, so cute he might make Ted vomit with the overload. Sally smiled at him so sweetly in return, though, that it might have been worth it, knowing them so happy.

"I wanna be a sleazy dancer," Mara sighed dreamily. "With her."

Joey looked at Sally but, as this seemed to be no news to her, only shrugged. Ted supposed that, of all the things that could be said and done in one day, this was not the strangest that had been uttered today by far.

"I think I’ll stay out of the Rut Hut forever now," he said. "Although…" He kissed Sally’s shoulder softly. "I wouldn’t mind going back to Heaven on Earth. That little room must have gathered some dust since we left it, right?"

"We take you with us, then," Taz said, joining them.

She was leading a troop of all hundred and fifty children that had so narrowly escaped death from being devoured by a mythical scorpion of doom. Up put a hand at her shoulder and they smiled at each other.

"That’s right," he said. "I think this was my last big adventure, friends. All I want is to get back to my little ol’ pub, make myself cosy in the kitchen, maybe a nice hot cup of tea…"

Taz nodded approvingly.

"Tootsie y la robota are coming with," she said, pointing at the couple of them − Tootsie was gazing at the Great Garden with immense wonder and Mega-Girl at him with equal adoration. "They wanna set up a farm. Speaking of…"

She turned to Emma and beckoned her close.

"You were a farmer too, no? You wanna come? Good city, lots of work, great soil. This place is too fresh and cushy for me and I know you’re tough too."

Emma hesitated. She searched for an answer in Paul’s eyes, who only smiled to give her the freedom of making her own decision.

"It’s as good as any place, I guess," she said. "Heck, as long as it’s not Hatchetfield."

Bill and Charlotte seemed very inclined to go wherever Paul would go, too, but she stared at Ted with pleading eyes, as did Joey.

"What about you?" Joey asked timidly.

Ted smiled.

"Well," he said and took Charlotte’s hand in his to kiss the back of it, "As long as I get to see this pretty face, I’ll be just fine anywhere."

Emma rolled her eyes and Ted smirked at her, though he still pulled Charlotte close to kiss her unabashedly. All this time apart, a short time since he had found her again and shorter yet since she had allowed him in, but Ted had the rest of their lives to make up for it.

They stayed at the Great Garden for a week to recuperate and enjoy the scenery, as well as plan for the future. Undoing all the wrong the Black Scarves had done, as it turned out, would be taking quite a lot of work. There were the headquarters to renovate and make hospitable again, though that was the task ahead for those who would be staying here. All properties formerly seized by the Black Scarves across the wasteland, now simply the thriving world, had to be given back to the people. The children had to be dispatched back to their families and Taz had talked Bruce and Clark into the possibility of starting up the rangers again, for good this time. Nothing could change the past, however the future was theirs to master.

"Come back to bed, alright?"

Charlotte was at the window, staring at the expanse of the garden, their last night before hitting the roads again. Ted wrapped his arms around her from behind, kissed her shoulder. She smiled up at him and reached up to brush her fingers gently against his torso.

"This has to be the last time," she said, "That we’ll get to see this."

He huffed. Night was falling, turning the thousand colors of the garden all grays and blacks.

"Who says we can’t come back one day, if we want?" He smirked. "It’d be a better honeymoon than Sycamore."

"But better than Heaven on Earth?"

He smiled more softly then and leaned to kiss her.

"I’ve found Heaven on Earth already, babe," he said, pressing her to him. "It’s right here in my arms."

The goodbyes the next morning were long and tearful. Emma, who had taken so long to forgive the Dikrats, paid them a special embrace each, repeating her condolences once more. Craphole was terribly sorry to see his friend Robin go, though perhaps even sorrier for having to say goodbye to Krypto. Jemilla gave Bruce and Clark some very awkward handshakes and shook her head at Zazzalil’s inquiring glance. Alice, Deb and Mouthface hugged each other with great fondness. Mara was particularly affected at having to part from her friend Anakin.

"You’ll visit, right?" She begged. "You’ll come see me on your little raft?"

Anakin grinned and gave her yet another hug.

"Kid, I couldn’t stay away even if I tried," he promised. "Take the walkie, tune in every night and it’ll be just like we’re right next to each other."

The road was still long but every step was a delight. They had parted into groups, Clark, Bruce and Robin with some of the kids, Taz and Up with some others, and the rest of them charged with a few dozens kids to drop off on their own way home. Ted had never been much into kids, but watching Charlotte fuss over them, making sure all were fed and covered up and entertained, he thought he could stand them around just for the few weeks of travel ahead.

At night they sat around a large fire and chatted. There was so much Ted had missed, so much to think about, to talk about. Charlotte sat between his legs, her back to his torso, and he hugged an arm around her waist. A hot little thing, braver than either of them had ever thought she could be. Her hair shone with firelight, brighter than the flames. He kissed her temple and Charlotte leaned her head back, nuzzling into his neck with a comfortable sigh. He hugged her closer.

Across the fire, Joey and Sally were chatting together in low excited voices. Their hands were clasped together and they were sharing the same blanket over their lap. Ted caught Joey's eye and, smirking, gave him the thumbs up. Joey gave him just the same and they both went back to the woman at their side with a silly smile. Ted wasn’t unhappy to have this little dude around from now on. He wasn’t mad at all.

Emma and Paul were smoking pot together against a tree trunk, dumbly staring at each other, talking in low voices. If Ted had had his way, he would have called them out for the outrageous schmaltz, but disturbing the soft and tired Charlotte in his arms was out of the question, so he supposed the accusation was just as valid towards himself. Tootsie and Mega-Girl were staring up at the stars, him pointing to ask her about the constellations, her giving him factual information and correcting all his numerous misunderstandings with a smile brighter than a robot had any right to. Mara was practicing her dance moves, fretting about the upcoming job interview at her shady dance club. The children were sleeping, holding onto each other nice and comfortable.

Long before having reached Heaven on Earth, Ted realized he had already found home.

Chapter Text

Sally's bunk was narrow and lumpy and the most comfortable place in the world. From the top one, Joey had a perfect view of their little room, her reading nook, the fresh flowers on the window sill and, yes, the mess he left behind, but he only had eyes for the sleeping beauty in his arms. It wasn't really her bunk anymore, nor was the left part of the room his half, the right one hers. It was their room, their home, and the entire world was theirs these days.

Sally was still sleeping, tucked snug in his arms. He felt the rise and fall of every breath, the warmth of her half on top of him, and her breasts squishing against his torso too. It was all so casually comfortable he closed his eyes again to wait out the inevitable moment she would be squirming and stretching and waking up. A little more time, followed by ever more time, never again to be apart.

Quietly extricating themselves from the narrow bunk one at a time, getting ready for the day, soft smiles at one another taking turns at the sink, Joey picking up whatever clutter he had left lying around, Sally cleaning up her books and choosing one for the day. Her little shelf had gotten bigger, a growing collection, and their little room was starting to feel a touch too tight. Their lives were taking up more space as they slowly grew into adults, he supposed, more to do every day but for now they were just fine here. Maybe some day they’d upgrade. Joey was fine waiting for that day just as it would naturally come.

Hand in hand, they made their way to the pub, chatting merrily. It was just past sunbreak. He had been looking forward to this Thursday morning all week and Sally smiled at his own excitement. Heaven on Earth was so much prettier than he had ever remembered it during the months away from it. It was greener than before, vegetation thriving in every corner untouched, climbing in between ancient buildings and new rusty containers all the same. The air felt fresher, easier, and the city had been slowly filling up.

Business had been booming every since they had come back to Heaven on Earth last year. As soon as the rumors had begun to spread around town that they had had a hand in annihilating the Rad Zone, a crowd had been barging through their doors every day to make sure of it for themselves. At first swarmed with questions on the details of the big adventure, the relentless and obsessive chatter had slowly tamed itself down to a more casual acknowledgement but their pub was still the most popular in town. They had bought off the surrounding buildings to expand and accommodate for the numerous new workers around. Joey wondered how many other pub-restaurant-weed shop complexes existed in the world. Food and pot fresh from the fields, prepared with love and patience, served with care, he never again dragged his feet to work these days.

Paul was sitting outside on the porch when Joey and Sally reached the pub, always the first one up who came and opened the doors for the rest of them but waiting to work until Emma was up as well and they had spent some time together. A hand at his shoulder from behind and she joined him, hair tousled with sleep, rubbing her eyes lazily, always the last one up. He kissed the hand and she sat next to him to kiss his cheek and take the cup of coffee he offered.

Mega-Girl was standing by the door to guard the entrance. Bill and Charlotte were setting everything up for breakfast inside, Alice and Deb chatting together on one of the couches, avoiding chores as long as they could before Bill would chide them into it. Tootsie barged in with a few crates and bags of produce for Up in the kitchen.

"They ain’t lookin’ perfect," he said, very sorry, "But I think they’ll taste mighty fine all the same."

Up took a closer look at the fruit and veggies and smiled broadly at Tootsie.

"They look pretty to me," he said and slapped Tootsie’s shoulder kindly. "This’ll make us some delicious meals, won’t it, my boy? And all thanks to yer hard work!"

Tootsie was ridiculously proud of himself and grinned at Mega-Girl who gave him a thumbs up.

"Ya hear that, darlin’? They’re good enough for him. Look at 'em, Mega-Girl!"

She examined the content of the bag he handed her with pride and joy. Peaches had been coming along very well, Tootsie had told Joey the other day.

"These have indeed reached the proper maturation for human consumption."

"Hell yeah!"

Tootsie and the robot had never looked happier since they had set up a farm just at the edge of the city. Both of them, much like everyone here, seemed to have had quite enough action for a lifetime and had settled very naturally into a simple life of domesticity and nurture. Joey was almost never afraid of Mega-Girl anymore, perhaps because of how well she got along with Sally and shared her scientific interests. Despite Tootsie’s many insistent requests, they had yet to adopt any human children, although their household had welcomed four stray dogs so far, and counting.

Joey grabbed two cookies from the breakfast buffet. Handing one to Sally, he kissed her cheek.

"I’ll go wait outside," he told her and she nodded with a smile.

Emma had rolled up a blunt and was sharing it with Paul, kissing him every time they passed it between their fingers. Her legs were resting across his lap and she was combing through his hair lazily, still a bit sluggish any time before noon. Joey sat down on the creaky wooden stairs of the porch and waited. The cookie was great − Up always claimed that the only ingredient that mattered was love.

Mara and Oola were on a day off, practicing their dancing in the middle of the square. They always trained for all to see, probably Mara’s idea, who wanted the world to know exactly how pretty and talented her girlfriend was, in or out of the walls of the Rut Hut. She swung an arm, starting on her little routine, and Robin imitated the motions with perfect smoothness. Oola challenged him with her own choreography and he tried as he might to follow along, only failing when she started going faster and with more complicated moves, and Mara caught him just short of falling flat on the dirt ground of the square. Picking him up in her arms, she and Oola crushed him with embraces and kisses and Robin laughed delightfully. Noting something in the distance across the main street of the city however, he wriggled out of their arms to run ahead.

"Look, it’s Krypto!"

The rangers were back. Joey jumped to his feet, but it was Charlotte who ran out of the pub and first down the stairs to go greet them.

"Ted!" She cried out. "Ted, baby!"

Three days was just about as long as the rangers could stand to be away from home. Helping people, Up often said, started with helping yourself to be the best and kindest version you could be, and home was the best place to truly thrive. Their boots were a little muddy, everything else otherwise crisp and clean, looking hot, looking strong. They were exhausted from the trip but all of them were still as strong, as awe inspiring as Joey ever found them. He grinned and trotted to join them.

Taz was helping Krayonder walk, who seemed to have hurt his leg on yet another trip to help the people across the world, to find ways to make themselves useful and brave. Having petted Krypto, Robin had thrown himself into Bruce’s arms and was greeting Clark with a big smile and a special handshake. And Ted, well, Ted was having a little reunion of his own, three days as good as agony on either part.

"I missed you," Charlotte was purring, clasping her hands on Ted’s cheeks to pull him down for more kisses. "I’m so glad you’re back."

"I missed you too," he told her and squeezed her ass teasingly. He kissed her much more sloppily than their very public situation warranted. "Maybe next time, you come with us, eh? You’d look hot in a shirt of mine."

She giggled, giddy with the excitement. Toying with the collar of said shirt, she kissed him again. Ted has such an easy smile about him, quieter around her, maybe even a little soft. Eventually, he spotted Joey patiently waiting for his turn and grinned at him much more wicked.

"Hey, buddy," he said, holding up his hand for a fist bump. Joey reluctantly gave it, but was relieved when Ted opened his arms for a hug as well. He messed up his hair. "I swear you get bigger and less fatty every time I see you."

"It’s only been three days," Joey grumbled against his chest and broke the hug, though they smiled at each other.

Ted huffed. Charlotte’s hand in his, they all made their way to the pub together. Robin insisted on a piggyback which Bruce gave very readily, already chatting with him about the details of this week’s adventure of goodness and service to the people.

"I’m not kidding," Ted joked. "Give it a few years, you might even become as hot as me."

Joey snorted and punched his shoulder playfully.

"And you’ll let me be a ranger too?"

"Sure," Ted said, nodding. "And then you’ll know what it truly means to be one of us. Being a hunk."

Charlotte laughed and squeezed Ted’s arm against her, leaning her head on his shoulder to look up at him adoringly.

They all had breakfast together before opening the pub. Bruce took Robin on his lap, the dog on the floor under his chair and both boy and man occasionally reached down to scratch his fluffy white head. Tootsie had tuned into Ani’s morning program on the walkie-talkie and he was happily listening to it as he helped Up carry more supplies and dishes in and out of the kitchen. Mega-Girl and him seemed to be having a contest of who was able to carry the most, with the former winning by a very large margin. Finally, they could rest and Up sat with Taz, Clark and Krayonder to listen to the tales of brave deeds he was too old and too soft to perform himself anymore. Mara and Oola were by the walkie-talkie, laughing at Ani’s good jokes. Bill was buttering toast for Alice and Deb and making pleasant conversation. Even Paul and Emma made an appearance at the assembly to have some light breakfast before another great day, exchanging some sass with Ted but gently scolded for it by Charlotte.

Sally was munching on the cookie Joey had given her as she sat quietly reading her book on a couch to the side. He sat down next to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She nestled closer, sighing comfortably.

"Whatcha reading?" He asked and kissed her hair.

She turned the cover to let him see. It was a book of fairy tales. She had been slightly more inclined towards fiction than hard sciences these days. He smiled.

"Happily ever after, huh?"

She smiled back, blinking softly, and grasped his hand in hers.

"Sounds just like it," she replied.

The room was filled with the happy chatter of everyone Joey held dear. After the pains and woes of the adventure, the best place to be truly was right here at home, no matter after how many days apart and how far away. Sally leaned her head against his shoulder comfortably. It had taken some time − perhaps too much time − for them to find each other, two poor little orphan kids, but find each other they had and Joey was never letting go. And, he realized not for the first time, orphans as they were, they had all the family they needed right here after all.

Chapter Text

The morning fog had lifted over the open breadth of the garden and the world was bathing it in soft sunshine warmth. 

Jemilla still hunted at sunrise. The Great Garden was lush with game, more animals than Jemilla had even been aware existed. Some were cuddly friends, others delicious meals. Hunting here was a myriad of colors and scents and sights more gorgeous than the next. It seemed to never sleep and whether she hunted at the peeking of dawn or the lull of night, life was always in motion, growing and strong and thriving. A multitude of fruits and seeds, too, enough to fill up the entire humankind left on the surface of the world. Their small community having taken residence here seemed barely to touch a fraction of it, no matter how many additions over the months. 

It was so beautiful as well. The air was rich and pleasantly warm, but fresh dew under her steps. She seemed to never have enough time to see it all, two eyes, strong as they were, terribly insufficient to capture the vastness of nature's wild elegance. The bushes rustled next to her with something alive and she smiled. 

"You can't fool me with that crap anymore, Molag, I know that's you."

Molag laughed, parting the leaves to make her appearance. She was leaning heavily on her ornate stick but happier, lighter than Jemilla had known her in ages out here in the garden. Love really did make one so much breezier and youthful again. 

"Fuck, J-Mills, when did you grow so clever?" 

Jemilla smirked as she offered her arm to support Molag. 

"I don't know," she said. "Somewhere between you cruelly abandoning me to my fate and me saving the world with my road companions. At some point then, I think."

"Ah, well," Molag chuckled, "Nothing a bit of tough love can't solve, is there?"

Jemilla shook her head with fondness and helped Molag down on a tree stump. 

"You’re not as tough as you say, Molag," she said, patting her shoulder. "Not even a little bit."

Before long, Jemilla’s bag was stuffed to the brim with game all juicier and fattier than the next and she buckled it closed with difficulty. They made the way back to the fort of the Great Garden together. Jemilla plucked some ripe and sweet scented fruit for dessert as they passed it, thinking especially of Zazzalil and making a short detour for her favorites. 

"Oh, look at yourself," Molag noted with humor when she noticed the enterprise, "A perfect wife, eh?" 

Jemilla shrugged, though she never hid her proud smile either. She toyed with the carved wooden pendant at her neck that matched the one at Zazzalil’s, remembering the day they had exchanged them, pronounced and promised their love to each other now and forever. She was only the best wife she could be because she devoted herself to an even better one. 

"She’s easy to love," she replied simply, "And easier to please. From her stomach right to her heart." 

Molag laughed. 

"It’s the garden," she said as if that was any sort of explanation. 

Curious, Jemilla quirked an eyebrow at her and got a warm smile in response. 

"What Cornwallis did was crazy as shit and I still don’t understand it one bit but this place now? It’s perfect for love. Romance and all that crap."

"All that crap, huh…"

Molag nodded. 

"Just look at me and Papy," she clarified. "We’re thrivin’, and you and Zazzy, even the Dikrats girl and her honey, and…" 

Suddenly her eyes narrowed on a bush not too far. 

"Speakin’ of the devils…"

She gestured Jemilla silent with a finger against her own lips and approached it as silently as she could. Jemilla noticed almost too late that the bush was rustling and would have stopped Molag if she’d had time but the old woman dove her stick into the foliage and swirled around, shouting obnoxiously.

"Now come on, girls, this ain’t the place for foolin’ around! You got a bedroom, you two!"

Jemilla was mortified, but not even a fraction as much as the first face to emerge from the bush. It wasn’t either of the girls. In fact, it wasn’t a girl at all. Jack Bauer’s mouth fell open with a vacant sound as he hastily buckled his belt back on and Jemilla was suddenly fascinated with the mossy ground under her so much more than with the scratch marks at his bare shoulders. 

"Ehhhhh…" 

The bright red face of Slippery When Wet followed soon after as she looked everywhere for her dress and her dignity. Husband and wife glanced at each other before shouting excitedly together.

"RACE IT!!!" 

They dashed away back to the fort, Jack Bauer holding Slippery When Wet’s hand tight as she tried to keep up the pace with him. The impossibly round bump of her belly made her waddle, walking normally already a feat and running no less than a miracle, but very soon they were out of sight in the thick jungle of the garden. A little while later and their hollering giggles were out of range as well. Jemilla finally breathed out. 

"Well, what’d I tell ya?" Molag said smugly. 

Jemilla glared, though she still offered back a helping arm for Molag to lean on. 

"That wasn’t nice," she chided. "They’ll be embarrassed."

"Eh," Molag shrugged, "Didn’t seem embarrassed to me." 

Jemilla wasn’t completely convinced, but said no more, as the joke had been harmless after all and there was nothing that would control Molag anyways even if she’d tried. Even her Papy wouldn’t have. 

The next addition to the happy Dikrats quartet would be poking its little head soon. In a couple of weeks, Slippery When Wet had guessed, who was not looking forward to popping it out but had admitted to Jemilla that she was excited to have a baby in her arms again − and above all for it to be finally out. Mouthface was hoping for a baby girl, Craphole for another boy, though there was no way to tell until the little wailing babe would make its appearance into the world. Slippery When Wet said that, for all fatty and sore she felt, she might as well be hosting the whole of Independence in her belly. Jemilla had never been much around babies before and she was excited, though antsy about the newcomer too. 

"Let me help you down," Jemilla said once they reached the inner yard and she saw Molag eyeing the edge of the Great Pond with some envy. 

"Yeah, let me get my feet wet," Molag replied. 

"Yeah, let’s get your feet wet," Jemilla said. "Just a little dip…" 

Of course, Molag always pretended to fall to try and scare Jemilla. Of course, no matter how vehemently she denied it, that always worked at least a little. Jemilla was fine with that. Accepting people for who they were had turned out to be so much easier and smoother for all parties involved. Molag as the rabid jokester she always was, and Zazz… 

"You’re starin’," Molag said. "I thought I’d raised you right, sweetie, it’s not polite to stare." 

Her dear and beloved was greatly busy at something on the first floor and Jemilla could catch glimpses of her ponytail here and there as its owner moved about the kitchen. Like an excited squirrel toying with its own treasures. She smiled. 

"She’s my wife," she retorted smugly, showing off the pendant once more. "I’m allowed to stare."

The fort of the Great Garden had undergone some serious reconstruction and decoration in the year they had dwelled in it. Priority given to the Black Scarves who, now free and repented, remained and settled down in the place of their prior wrongdoings, but the vast majority of them had left and the new group moving in had renovated the place to their own taste. A little room for Mouthface and Jasmyn on top of the highest tower, the boy as far as he could from them but near his parents’ room − though evidently not so near as to have prevented any privacy between them. Molag and Papy had remade their suite to their comfort and preference. Ani, for the occasional nights he spent here rather than living his dreams out sand racing, had made himself a studio of creativity and writing for his comedy shows. And, of course, Zazzalil and Jemilla shared a big cozy room not too far from the kitchen, to the former’s greatest pleasure. 

Zazzalil had been deep in slumber when Jemilla had left the room this morning and had not even stirred at the kiss she had given on the crown of her head. She was well awake now and even way past the window of grumpy sluggishness. Bouncing from place to place in the kitchen, she had started on breakfast without her. The fire was dancing merry and bright in the barrel in the corner and Zazzalil was working on dough and batter for whichever new cooking inventions she had come up with today. She seemed never to run out of these and Jemilla was all the happier to provide for them − ingredients and support alike.

"Morning, babe," she said and the bouncing stopped only just enough for Zazzalil to give her a kiss, which Jemilla made linger a little, pulling her hips close, but eventually broke to drop her game and harvest on the table. 

"Great day so far, huh?" 

Jemilla hoisted herself up to sit comfortably on top of a counter, admiring the hardy work. She nodded. Already Zazzalil was checking what she had brought, spreading it across the table to better plan ahead. Ten people were a lot more to feed than the pair of them had been, back ages ago, but Zazzalil these days liked nothing better than a good challenge. 

"I’m making fritters, I think," Zazzalil said, rather more to herself than to her present company. "And some dumplings with the meat and…" She stopped and Jemilla realized just how intently she had been staring. "What? What is it?"

Jemilla cracked a smile, trying to look more suave than she felt. 

"You’re cute," she said. "That’s all." 

If Jemilla was a kinder soul, she would say that the pink flushing across Zazzalil’s face must be the warmth of the barrel stove, for who could remain so flustered after months of marriage and many more months of constant affection and compliments? Zazzalil looked down at the kitchen table again and started on cleaning up the meat. 

"Erm, you too?" 

Jemilla chuckled. Eventually, she offered her help, of course, for the greater meals truly were bond together by a touch of love in the making. Life was contained in such things, in clearing up a storage room that had seen the end of the world, had seen it reborn, and making it your home for the rest of your days. It was in making something sweet together and sharing it with the ones you loved. It was in breathing in the beauty of nature every day, taking a long moment to enjoy it, to truly find your place in the world. After a life of traveling from place to place, finally Jemilla had found home and she would never leave her again. 

"Taste it," Zazzalil demanded and shoved a nectarine fritter in front of Jemilla’s mouth. 

Jemilla tasted, and immediately begged for seconds which were refused, as everyone had to have enough. Their love, their labor, everything so real and so sweet. Jemilla pretended a pout only for the reward of Zazzy kissing it away. 

"Alright, let’s call everyone."

She pressed a button that let her send out messages to the rooms of their companions or to the lounges all around the fort. All replied but the girls. 

"You think they’ve hidden away somewhere?" Zazzalil frowned but chuckled to herself. "Making out or something."

Like mama, like daughter, Jemilla thought, but said nothing as Zazzalil looked outside and spotted the girls just near the pond. Molag was already on her way to the dining room, her and Papy leaning against one another as he had come to get her. 

They were sitting with their feet in water at the edge of the Great Pond. The first week they had lived here, Zazzalil had carved a little plaque in memory of Ja’far, with some help to trace out the letters of his name. At first a daily ritual, often many times in the day, Jasmyn had sat there and waited, tracing circles in the water that had taken her father. An ever happier family life and the realization that he had either drowned down there or found himself another way to live had made the visits less frequent, though they were ever as earnest. Several times a week, the girls paid it a little trip and whatever they exchanged there in hushed voices, no one else was privy to, not even Zazzalil. The Dikrats might all miss their grandpa, but it was nothing to the grief of Ja’far’s daughter.

"I’ll go get them," Zazzalil said and Jemilla nodded. 

She ought to have started on carrying the dishes to the dining hall but something in the way the girls held themselves captivated her and she could not look away. Sitting quite close to each other, they were holding hands on top of bright green moss and staring at the water. Jasmyn said something which made Mouthface look at her, utterly dazed with affection and she gave her a quick kiss. They turned from one another as soon as the kiss had been paid but kept taking glimpses again and smiling. Jemilla smiled just as bright. 

Mouthface was the first to notice Zazzalil and also the first on her feet to trot away towards the buildings obediently. Zazzalil crouched next to Jasmyn and gently put a hand on her shoulder. They talked to each other for a short while before Zazzalil kissed the top of the girl’s head and sprung back to her feet to come help inside. 

The door opened and startled Jemilla as Mouthface asked if she needed any help with carrying everything down for breakfast. Jemilla and her were just about two arms too few to transport it all, thankfully helped with Zazzalil who said that Jasmyn was coming right up. 

Jemilla had never known Ja’far. She had hardly even seen him, just a fraction of a second before the rise of Cornwallis. She had not known the Jasmyn from before he was gone either, the one Slippery When Wet had described to her, the one Mouthface had fallen for. She only knew who she had become. Fierce, for sure, braver than any such child ought to be and not lacking in brains or heart at all. There was something fragile about her too, though, something cautious. They might never fix it but Jemilla thought they simply did not need to. She wasn’t broken, simply sadder some days than others. She was showered with affection either way. 

If Ja’far, moreso than the woes of her life, had shaped Jasmyn into the person she was, Jemilla did not need further proof of his virtue. She saw his impact all the same on Zazzalil, the gifts of compassion, a little patience and even the occasional wisdom. Slippery When Wet and her had often talked of the same change in her husband. Such were the ways of life, Jemilla told herself, how she had never met the man and yet reaped the rewards of his good works. She thanked him for it in her heart and hoped beyond credible hope that, if he still lived, he received her gratitude, wherever he would be. 

"Auntie Zazz, this is so good!" Craphole cried out after just one bite of his first dumpling. 

Zazzalil beamed and patted the boy’s head. 

"Aww, thank you, buddy. I put some work into it, didn’t I?" 

"And Jemilla," Slippery When Wet corrected. 

"And Jemilla," Zazzalil agreed. 

The morning, like all mornings, went exceptionally well. Before long they were done with breakfast and launching themselves onto second breakfast − Zazzalil had been right to be cautious, as there were just enough fritters for everyone but no more. After the meal, she made poppy tea, engrossed in a conversation with Jack Bauer, and Jemilla cleaned up the table with the girls. The boy insisted on a swim and, pretending to be reluctant, his mother followed along up to the ledge from which he loved to take deep dives. Ani took Papy back to his recording studio for a duet comedy sketch. Molag napped. 

The Great Pond was a favorite of the boy, who had grown up in the middle of the desert after all. Jemilla joined them, the cool and clean water revitalizing her, refreshing her. It had never again proved magical at all since Cornwallis had cleansed the world with it. No matter how many laps around, how much they could splash each other, drink from it beyond satiety, the only miracle ever performed again was so many people getting along without major arguments for as long as they had lived here. The pond was only a cozy little lake anymore, peaceful beyond measure and nothing at all, Jemilla thought, was hiding under its surface anymore, all of them safe and happy forever and ever and ever.

Chapter Text

Water was surrounding him deafeningly, threateningly. The surface of the Great Pond was an old memory by now, his eyes hardly getting used to the depths as he sank deeper and deeper past the lobster den. He was getting short on air − damn him and damn Dead-God for making him an idle man of intellectual pursuit only. He should have been fitter, stronger. He supposed that would cost him his life now. The effort of pushing the boulder out of the way to let Cornwallis out had been too great. Was this how his story would end? Losing his own life to save many was a price he had known he might have to cash out. The needs of the many outweighed the few − or the one. He had just been wishing it would not come to that bargain.

He thought he touched rock bottom. The foolish hope that he might propel himself right back to the faint light he still could spot so high up in the mass of murky water was swallowed up in moving sands as the ground gave way under him. He fell for a long time, enough for his life's story to pass before his eyes squinted shut that he may ponder over all the memories of his mistakes, his joys. Enough for him to wish it came to an end already, for though he could breathe again, he was now caught in a maze of rock tunnels and being dragged along by the forceful stream of water far beyond any control he could hope to exert.

Eventually, after many a turn,being shoved to and fro against rock polished by age old erosion, he fell inelegantly into a small underground lake. He could have cried at the sensation of solid ground under his feet as he pulled himself up and out of the water as fast as he could. Dripping coolly, Ja'far stood to the side of the cave. He checked his body first, realized with great relief that he was unscathed and, incidentally, very much alive and in much greater shape than he had expected. Then he looked around.

"What is this place…"

A waterfall came from a narrow gap in the stone up near the ceiling of the cave and he realized with immense fright and relief that his fall had been very great indeed. How immeasurably lucky that he had survived it. His second realization was that the cave was lit in some way. Indeed, later down the tunnel where the lake turned into a narrow river underground, he saw fleeting shadows, a fire burning near, but he heard no sounds outside the echo of his own footsteps. Another hallucination? A dream made up by his fragile mind to soothe him into the reality of having died? But the rock walls of the cave were sturdy and humid and very real under his fingertips.

He decided to follow the river. Water rushed into the cave from the path he had taken himself and he supposed that it could only come out one way or another. A hand on the wall to steady and guide his way, eyes fixed on that flicker he could still spot, though it was faint and hard to discern. Another few steps and it had almost disappeared. His eyes took some time getting used to darkness. He did not know how long he walked. Minutes, hours. Rock resembled rock and every step seemed the same as the one before. He was exhausted beyond his time.

"So ends the story, then," he said to himself, "of a man who loved and lost everything he held dear. Soon even his own mind."

This was where the loneliness of life had led him, then. Lost in a labyrinth down a cold stinky wet cave. No prospect but the flame in his heart that threatened by the second to put itself out.

"Funny," someone replied. "That's not the ending I recall."

The voice might have ended him on the spot if the shock wasn't also so thrilling, unbelievable after many years. He caught his surprise on the wall, his back to the damp rock as Sherrezade hopped the short distance between them. A torch was burning in her hands and she put it down carefully but even in the warm hazy light he saw her clear as day. She was a ghost, a vision from the past, yet here she stood before him, impossibly real.

"Sherrezade…" He reached out, hesitantly touching his hand to her face. Her heartbeat was beating strong under his fingers, magic in every pulse. "But… how?"

Her hand covered his as she leaned her cheek into his touch. She looked different, though she had not changed, not really. A large scar now covered the left half of her face and had taken her ear, though it looked old and healed and made him wonder the infinity of memories he had missed. Some crinkles at the corner of her eyes ran deeper than he remembered, her dimples too, grown during thirteen years spent apart. She was beaming and the shape of her smile imprinted into the skin of his palm to bewitch him.

"It's a long story, my darling," she said and he drowned in the voice of her.

They stared at each other and he was sure he recognized in her eyes the same wonder, the same disbelief as he must have showed himself. He kissed her, for fear he never could again if he missed the chance. He couldn't bear to let the moment escape his grasp anymore. Sherrezade's arms wrapped around his neck and awakened a thousand old sensations. He held her close − he would always hold her close now, forever − and kissed her. He could have written volumes on her beauty when they broke apart and stared into each other's eyes again with a hint of mischief.

"I don't recall you shirking from long stories," he replied.

She smiled. Her fingers were fiddling with his hair at the back of his neck. He did not remember when he had last felt this comfortable, cold and wet and muddy as he was. He tucked his face between her neck and her shoulder, where she smelled the same as she ever had, the scent he had craved all these years. Comfort, home. Love. For the first time since she was taken, he could breathe.

"I suppose we have all the time in the world," she said. "A tale for a tale. I'll start."

She took them back to the pond, navigating the maze of tunnels with an ease that gave him awe. They sat with their backs to the wall of the cave, the torch burning bright and hot in front of them. She told him all about what had happened in the thirteen harsh years since they had been torn apart. It started off a horrible story and frightened him, captured by bandits in the dead of night, taken and terrorized and near tortured. The worst of it, she said, was not knowing what would come of her family. He kissed her then, kissed the sorrow away. It was some time before the story went on.

"Pincer didn't always reign over the Great Garden," she said. "They used to share, him and Cornwallis… But you know Cornwallis, don't you?"

He nodded. After having awakened him from slumber, a plan straight out of Sherrezade’s old notes he had always thought fiction, he’d say he knew him well enough indeed.

"He was a better leader," she said, "Though he wasn't a good one either. But Pincer would only take up more and more room in the pond and…"

At that moment, a crashing splash cut their talks short and had Sherrezade quick on her feet. She advanced into the water, her step steady and confident, like she had threaded this slippery shore a thousand times.

"Cornwallis!" Titty Mitty shouted desperately, half choking on muddy water. "Cornwallis, I know you've got her!"

Sherrezade caught his hands, gently helping him out of the pond. He saw Ja'far and for the first time since they had known each other, there was deep understanding in the old man's eyes, reason and sense.

"Welcome," Sherrezade said, shaking his hands. "Our cave welcomes all that reach us."

"Our?" Ja'far repeated.

She smiled.

"I said it was a long story."

She made it short and, perhaps, less emotional than she might have out of privacy, Titty Mitty now doubling up her audience. Not all who were captured were devoured, she explained. Not all who fell down the pond drowned in it. But not all survived the fall either.

"Is this another magic trick?" Titty Mitty asked. "And where's Eleanor?"

Sherrezade gave him a gentle smile. Taking his hand in hers again, she rubbed her thumb against his palm soothingly.

"She passed," she replied simply. "She lived among us many happy years."

Ja'far was getting more and more interested in this story - in all of Sherrezade's stories, always. He had thirteen years, thousands of nights to catch up on from when they had used to cuddle by the fire and he would listen to her talk for hours after Jasmyn had drifted to sleep.

"Who is 'us', my dear?"

Sherrezade gestured to the cave around her, to the tunnel that branched from it.

"The pond guards this place. It reads people's hearts who fall in it, leads them to their deaths if they've shown themselves unworthy. Just earlier, a rogue fell right before you and did not survive his wicked destiny. A thief called Aladdin, I believe."

Ja'far would forever remember the name and the face of the man who had taken his child. He was never particularly joyful to hear of the death of a fellow man, but he was not grieved by this one either. He wondered how much Sherrezade knew of this tragedy, if anything at all.

"The ones who are worthy of refuge in the cave are the outcasts of this world," she explained. "It's a small tribe, but I daresay it's quite a happy ending for us all. The down on their luck, the sick and, yes, the elders all find peace here. The pond cleanses most illnesses and moods. And so now I'm here, checking every night for the fallen."

"Are there many?" He asked curiously. "Who fall down the cave, I mean."

"I'll show you,' she said, "Both of you. And you'll tell me if this sounds like a good enough retirement."

Ja'far would follow her wherever she led. Too long, he had been moved by the desire to see her again, later slowly morphing into the simple wish to be a good man, a good leader, the man she had seen in him from the start. Only now, reunited with her, he no longer had much to wish for.

"It's a short walk to the rest of the cave."

Arms together, hands together, they sauntered down the path. Ja'far was holding the torch, lighting the way before them, though he hardly looked away from his wife, his soulmate lost and found again. Titty Mitty was behind them and Ja'far noted how much swifter, more capable and stronger he held himself. He was glancing between Ja’far and Sherrezade and his eyes lit up with the realization of who exactly had greeted him. The two men exchanged a smile and a nod of acknowledgement before he grew somber again.

"Maybe it’s for the best," he sighed, "The family could do without me up there above, could they…"

Ja’far put a hand at his shoulder.

"We could do with you down here, my friend."

"Yes," Sherrezade nodded. "No life, no matter how small or how old, is a burden. You will be most welcome with us."

They walked again. Sherrezade stopped Ja’far with a hand against his heart to bar his way when they reached the turn of a tunnel. Titty Mitty near bumped into him from behind and Ja'far looked at her quizzically.

"A surprise," she said. "Close your eyes, dear."

He humored her, of course. He felt some motion of air in front of his eyes, probably Sherrezade checking his blindness and, having passed it, received a quick peck on the lips before being pulled by the hand onwards. He did not hesitate. Where could she lead him that he would stumble, after all? They had not walked a minute that she halted him again.

"And now, open."

Ja'far opened his eyes.

"It's beautiful!"

The cave was so bright and colorful that, after the moments spent in the meanders of the dark tunnels, his eyes almost itched with its beauty. Plants were his greatest surprise, perhaps, the walls both of the cave itself and of the buildings that had been raised in it equally covered with flowers and vines and leaves, all a thousand different colors.

"My tiny abode is right up here," she said, gesturing behind her at the corner between the entrance of the tunnel to the pond and the cliff, down which a path led to the rest of the cave. A narrow opening in the rock was covered by a shimmery drape dyed orange and pink, a small mat at the threshold. "The rest of us live further down. Come, I'll show you."

Stairs had been carved into the stone leading down this large round cave that was on the other side delineated by a huge opening deep down the inside of a canyon. Mismatched fences barred the precipice down which the river fell into, down this great gash in the ground. Fresh air was flowing through their cave and tugged away Ja’far’s hat. He could see that the sun had risen already and marveled at how pleasantly cool he still felt. The night had passed in the snap of fingers, the blink of an eye.

"We’ll get you new clothes," Sherrezade told the pair of them, carefully stepping down the stairs.

She introduced them to her friends as they passed them and both of them were eyed with special attention at the mention of their names. Linen tunics and trousers were given them as their old clothes were taken to be washed and dried. Many of them here were mutants, she explained him. One of them emitted heat and could dry a clothesline in mere minutes if so asked. One of them was gifted with super strength and carried supplies from all parts of the cave to where they needed delivered. One had eidetic memory and could recall all details of his existence, no matter how obscure.

"Could you… could you tell me more ’bout Eleanor?" Titty Mitty asked timidly. "She was my wife before she picked Cornwallis over me."

The man smiled and offered him a seat. A few people who had heard his request sat down with them to chime in with their own anecdotes on Eleanor’s time among them. Sherrezade and Ja’far exchanged a glance and left him there, surely for a long while. They had the luck of each other for sharing memories. Naturally, they could allow him the next best option of learning of his lost beloved through the ones who had known her.

Everywhere he looked, Ja’far was amazed at the creativity, the intelligence of the arrangements. As she explained, everything that had made its way down here was debris and garbage, yet the community was thriving all the same. Huts built out of driftwood, rooms carved into dark stone, constructions as intricate and elaborate as any good settlement on the surface, they had made themselves such a comfortable and pleasant little nook he was looking forward to exploring every single inch of it.

"Everything is beautiful," Sherrezade said softly, "When you look at it with love."

One of her companions was halfway through painting the immense surface of the cave walls with all sorts of images and details. Ja’far thought of his meager artistic skills developed over the years and, if he had been in such a mood, would have felt very self-conscious indeed. One of them was threading garment, trimming it with embroideries more beautiful than any of the most precious relics he had ever laid eyes upon. Another was sharing her comedic skills for all to hear and laugh their hearts out.

"Has this happened to anybody else?" Schwoopsie said.

Her voice was raspy and loud and, Ja’far reflected, overall very friendly nonetheless.

"So I was traveling the wasteland all alone with my backpack, as we do, you know, just a lonesome little wanderer, right? And I was walking and wandering like this…" She mimed the action of walking with a comedic exaggeration. "And turn back over here and suddenly the Black Scarves see me there on my own. Okay, so they kidnap me and drag me back to their headquarters, alright, they take me to the boss. Pincer picks me up, as he does, picks me right by my backpack, lifts me up to his mouth and…" She paused dramatically, a hand on her hip. "Now wait a minute. Where’s the human now?" She looked at the ground under her feet and slapped her forehead. "She fell off her backpack! And I’m like… Schwoopsie!"

Ja’far laughed, as did the rest of the small crowd gathered there. With a teasing smile, Sherrezade told him that Schwoopsie told the story of her fall into the Great Pond just about twelve times a day. He laughed regardless.

Further in, there was a small field of poppies. Ja’far looked around in utter amazement and threaded carefully across the narrow planks laid out between the beds of flowers so as not to crush any. There was a solitary seat there in a patio right at the edge of the cave, a small stool next to it with a book he recognized as one of Sherrezade’s favorite out of which she had very often read to him. His eyes were wet with emotion and he rubbed them dry again.

"I… I spend a lot of time here," she said, "When I’m not at the pond to check for newcomers."

He took her in his arms, close by the waist.

"I never put another seat next to mine," she added, "Because the one person I wanted to be around… But now I think I will."

He kissed her. He looked into her beautiful large brown eyes and kissed her again. A short way away from the rest of her people, he thought they had the privacy of fonder proclamations than before.

"I love you, my darling," he said softly. "Living without you was half torture."

"And without you," she replied. "I love you so much, and every day I prayed you might find me." She choked. "I missed you. I missed you so much."

He kissed her hair, her temple. Held her closer, but not close enough. Maybe he never would, and always he would have to pull her closer to him. Always he would long for her. He clutched her back tight, trying to impress his hands with the reality of her here in his arms. Thirteen years. Thirteen lifetimes.

"Every morning I woke up thinking of you," he said. "And laid down at night thinking of you all the more. I missed you so much, my love."

They kissed again. Sherrezade's hands were cupping his face, keeping him close. A finger caught onto a scar on his chin and traced its long shape curiously when they parted. Ending the path against his lower lip, he kissed the tip of her finger.

"What is this from?" She asked. "What did I miss?"

"A terrible fight," he said. "Seven, eight years ago, I think. A beast broke into the settlement and tried to attack Jas…"

But he grew quiet at the thought of his daughter. Sherrezade stroked his cheek with understanding. Suddenly, Ja'far remembered and searched through the pockets of his new outfit, where he was certain he had put it. His notebook was thick with having been under water, but the water hadn't seeped through all pages, so thickly stacked it was, and he pulled his prize without much difficulty. He put it in Sherrezade's hands. She stared at Jasmyn's portrait for a long time.

"She still has your eyes," he said tentatively. "And your heart. I couldn't be prouder of the young woman she's grown into."

Sherrezade nodded and before Ja'far knew it, threw herself into his arms again, her face buried into his torso. He returned the embrace, holding her as close as he could, perhaps realizing for the first time how acutely he missed his daughter already. It might only get worse from there. She had Mouthface, he told himself. She had her friends and perhaps even a family. And as for himself, well, he had the love of his life back in his arms again. A wife wasn’t a daughter, a girlfriend wasn’t a father, but love was found in all sorts of places, in all sorts of people.

"We can never go back to the surface, can we?"

She looked up and gave him a sad smile.

"No," she said softly.

He had expected it, yet his chest still tightened with grief at hearing the confirmation.

"I only wish…"

She took his hands in hers, gently entwining their fingers. Thirteen years without her tenderness, without her support. Thirteen years loving her on his own, a gap shaped after her left behind in his heart. He had missed her. He had missed her so bad.

"What?"

He pulled her knuckles to his mouth and kissed them. His hand at the bottom of her back, he kept her close to him. Her eyes, large and dark yet bright with intelligence and kindness. He had seen her eyes every day without seeing her.

"That she could know that we're alive."

"She can't know," Sherrezade replied at once and he knew she spoke from knowledge, from experience. "There's no way."

He nodded.

"It’s… I know it sounds heartless to think of it this way, and I can’t say I’ve kept myself to this mindset all these years either," she explained, "But this is a place without outer pursuit. Our lives are contained here and we have everything we could wish for comfort and for peace."

This was a lesson he would have to learn for himself, he supposed. In the meantime, he was happy to follow along and find joy in the tour his wife gave him to try and soothe the grief.

She showed him the library she had gathered over the years, books taken here and there as they fell into the pond somehow. A bookshelf built sturdy and broad to accommodate for all her intellectual endeavors − and his, she told him.

"I had always hoped you would see it," she admitted.

Ja’far crouched to admire the collection that was her pride and treasure, perhaps her greatest pleasure in her solitude. His fingers were gentle and cautious as he perused the covers of the books one by one. Finding an empty spot just the right size, he slid his own notebook in between ancient Persian novels.

"There," he said. "One more volume for you, my darling."

She smiled. Her fingers buried in his hair to gently scratch his scalp.

"I’ve found my favorite story," she said, "And it’s not bound to any page at all."

The morning was spent showing him around the place in great details. Lunch was had, delightfully fresh and light from vegetables grown right in this great hall on small patches of farming fields. The afternoon, they relaxed. Sherrezade found another comfortable chair to add to her own next to the poppy field and they sat there idly, still taking in each other’s presence. Maybe it would take a while to get used to it again. Maybe he never would. He was fine with being in awe and wonder at her every remaining days of his life.

"This place," she said, "This life might be slightly different from the things that you knew, but…"

She nodded him towards the sunset across the other wall of the canyon, shades of light painting a picture just as vivid as across the surface of the desert. If they craned their heads just right, they could see a sliver of the actual sky up above.

"You can’t deny there’s something special about it, too."

Ja’far looked at the night sky glow. He looked at his wife. Their hands met in the middle.

"Very special, my dear."

When the sun was out, she showed him her bedroom. She showed him her love. Ja’far, who had been a light sleeper ever since he had lost her and who fretted every night, found the most blissful slumber he could have imagined in her arms again.

The next morning, they shared a cup of poppy tea together and talked of what was to be done that day. They sat on the edge of the small cliff Sherrezade's room was carved on top of, hand in hand. Occasionally, they looked over the breadth of the cave, of which they had a full view from up here. Often, they looked at each other. Either way, Ja'far was basking in the most beautiful sight he had ever beheld.

He had a thousand questions, of course. There was much he didn’t understand yet, didn’t know. Whether she would give him the earnest answer or tell him a pretty little story if she did not know either, that was all the same to him. He had much to tell her about the fate of the world as well. Anything and everything to do with the radiations, with Cornwallis and Pincer, with the evildoers at his service, and with his own story too, the life he had had in those years apart, for not all of it had been sorrowful and solitary. He also wanted to explore this place much further, to understand the life that was to be his, to let Sherrezade show him the marvels of ingenuity of her people. He wanted to love and protect her better than he ever had. He wanted every morning to stop and take the time to decide with her what was to be done, and every night to be lulled and entertained with her stories and ideas for another day even greater than the last. He wanted to know all he had missed of her past and to be right there at her side for every moment of her future, too.

Even from the recluse corner of their cave, the world reborn was theirs. Why not make the most of it?