Summary: It was just a hunting trip. Something Jake and Eric had done dozens of times before.
Spoilers: Takes place at some non-specific time between “Rogue River” and “Black Jack.”
He swam to consciousness as something bumped against his foot.
“Jake.” It was Eric. “Jake, you okay?”
“Come on, stay with me, brother.”
“I’m okay,” Jake managed. He was lying on the cold ground and his feet were bound tightly with tape now as well as his hands. Eric was lying somewhere near Jake’s feet. “What about you? You all right?”
“Yeah, you got the worst of it.”
A few yards away he could make out the shapes of Virgil and a couple of his men talking over by the fire. Jake shivered. They’d taken his coat and gloves away when they brought him to the camp and since the sun had set the temperature must have dropped at least ten degrees.
“Well, this sucks,” he said.
“Yep,” Eric agreed.
There was a rustling sound behind them. Jake tried to turn his head but a sudden wave of nausea forced him to squeeze his eyes shut.
“Don’t move,” whispered a familiar voice.
Jake’s eyes shot open. “Heather?”
He felt a hand touch his arm. “Right here.”
“Oh, man am I glad to see you,” whispered Eric.
“I’m not,” Jake hissed. “What are you doing here?”
“Cutting you loose, dummy.” She was crouched against Jake’s back, using his body to shield her from the view of Virgil and his men. But if any of them happened to walk over here...
“Why didn’t you go back to the truck?” Jake demanded.
“Like I was gonna leave you. Anyway, they took the truck. My truck. The bastards.”
Jake felt something cold press against his wrists and then start sawing through the tape binding him.
“I”m cutting you free, but don’t try to move yet. Are you hurt?”
“No.” He felt Heather wriggle around so she could cut the tape on his ankles.
“He hit his head pretty good,” Eric said quietly. “Was out cold for a few minutes.”
“I’m fine,” Jake said.
Heather crawled over to cut Eric loose. “Can you both run?” she asked.
“Okay, stay here. I’m going to cause a distraction. When you’re sure they’re looking away, run for it. Make for the low ground, the creek’s directly behind you about a half a mile. I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes.”
“What are you going to do?”
“You’ll see.” He could practically hear the smile in her voice. “It’s gonna be big.”
He felt Heather squeeze his hand once, briefly, and then she was gone.
“How’s your head?” Eric whispered.
“Hurts like hell, but I’ll be okay. I can’t really feel my feet, though.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
Jake rubbed his ankles together, trying to get some circulation back into them. “This is gonna be interesting.”
They waited tensely for Heather’s diversion. If any of Virgil’s men came to check on them before she managed to draw their attention away, they’d probably notice that Jake and Eric’s bonds had been cut. No one came, though. A few minutes later there was a load roar on the far side of the camp, followed by a fireball that lit up the night sky.
“Damn,” Eric said appreciatively.
Virgil and his men took off running towards the explosion.
“Go!” Jake said. But as soon as he pushed himself to his feet he was hit by another wave of nausea and his vision started to tunnel in on itself. He stumbled to his knees.
“I’ve got you.” He felt Eric’s arm snake around his waist, pulling him up and onward. “Come on.”
Jake leaned heavily on Eric and concentrated on putting one numb foot in front of the other. After a few minutes he felt steady enough to move on his own, but it was still hard, slow going for both of them. They were almost completely blind in the dark, moving over unknown terrain, and hadn’t put much distance between themselves and the camp before they heard a sound off to their right.
“Hey,” Heather said, appearing at Jake’s side. “This way.”
Heather threw a worried glance at Jake. He was was moving under his own power now, but his movements were stiff and careful and she could tell he was still feeling woozy even though he tried to hide it. She was afraid he might have a concussion and knew there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it if he did.
When they finally reached the cover of the thicker growth near the creek she called for a rest.
“What’d you do back there, anyway?” Eric asked, leaning against a tree to catch his breath.
“Set one of their trucks on fire. I think I may have killed Charlotte in the process.” She knelt and plunged her hands in the icy water to wash off the traces of gasoline.
“I’m sorry,” Jake said.
“Better that than let them have her, right?” She shivered violently as she tried to dry her freezing hands on her coat.
“Here, let me.” Jake took her hands and rubbed them vigorously between his.
Heather winced. “Your hands are almost as cold as mine.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.”
“We need to find shelter,” she said. “It’s too cold for you guys to be running around out here without coats or gloves.”
“Not yet,” Eric said, taking the pack from Heather and swinging it over his own shoulder. “We need to keep moving. They’ll be looking for us.”
Heather squinted up at Jake appraisingly. “How’s your head? Still feeling dizzy?”
“No, I’m okay.”
“Nauseous? Vision blurry?”
“No and no. I told you, I’m fine. Also, I already have a mother.” He said it with a smile, so she knew he was teasing.
Heather smiled back. “Okay, then, let’s go.”
They walked for another hour, keeping to the low ground for a while and then eventually veering northwest, away from the creek and back toward town. When they came upon a deserted old house Jake decided it was as good a place as any to stop until morning. Heather was relieved; she was worried both he and Eric were in danger of frostbite and hypothermia if they stayed out in the cold much longer.
The house looked as if it’d been abandoned for years, not just since the bombs. There wasn’t much inside but a few pieces of broken furniture, a pile of moldy linens, and a lot of dust, but at least it kept them out of the wind. They didn’t dare light a fire but Heather felt around in the cabinets until she managed to come up with a couple of old candles and a forgotten bottle of Wild Turkey.
“Heather, you are my hero,” Eric said, eagerly reaching for the bottle.
“There may be some gunky stuff floating in it,” she said, lighting the candles and setting them on an old stool.
“I don’t care.” Eric took a long swig and grimaced. “God, that’s good.”
He passed the bottle to Jake, who took a drink and then offered it back to Heather.
She made a face. “I’ll pass.” Whatever had settled into the bottom of that bourbon wasn’t something she wanted to drink.
While Eric and Jake shared the Wild Turkey she rationed out a couple of the protein bars, giving the bigger pieces to the guys. Then she spread the cleanest-looking of the old linens out on the floor for them to sleep on. If they huddled close the three of them could use the sleeping bag as a blanket. It wasn’t exactly the Best Western, but it would do.
“Ah, nice and cozy,” Eric said after they’d blown out the candles and settled into the makeshift bed.
“Yeah, I’ve always dreamed of sleeping with a man on either side of me,” Heather said.
Eric snorted with amusement. “You know what I could use right about now?”
“An electric blanket?” Jake suggested with a shiver.
“A clean bed with a down comforter that doesn’t smell like mildew and deer lure?” Heather ventured.
“An extra large, deep dish pepperoni pizza with peppers and onions,” Eric said wistfully.
“What, two-thirds of a protein bar didn’t do it for you?” Jake teased.
Eric grunted. “Not exactly.”
“You know,” Heather said, “I think the thing I miss most since the EMP is hot showers.”
“I miss cold beer,” Jake said. “And ice cream.”
“Ooooh, hot fudge sundaes,” Heather added, sighing at the memory.
“With nuts and a cherry on top.”
“And three flavors of ice cream.”
“Nah, just three scoops of chocolate,” Jake said. “Why waste your time with strawberry and vanilla?”
“I happen to like vanilla,” Heather said, elbowing him in the ribs. It was nice, being with Jake like this and just getting along again. She felt comfortable around him for the first time in weeks. If only it could always be this easy.
There was a snore from Eric’s side of the makeshift bed.
“Don’t tell me he’s already asleep,” she whispered.
“The guy can fall asleep faster than anyone I’ve ever known. Got his hand dunked in a lot of bowls of warm water when we were kids.”
Heather pulled the edge of the sleeping bag up under her chin, trying to block out cold air seeping in from the top. “I’m sure you had nothing to do with that.”
“I remain innocent until proven guilty.” Jake looked over at her. “You cold?”
“A little. And all this talk of ice cream doesn’t help.”
“Here,” he said, rolling over and holding out his arms.
She looked at him warily. The last thing she wanted was for things to get weird between them again. “I’m not really sure—”
He gave her an exasperated look. “Just get over here, would you? I’m freezing, too.”
Heather relented and moved over so that her head was resting against his chest. Jake wrapped his arms around her.
“Better?” he asked.
“Yeah, a lot,” she admitted.
She closed her eyes, feeling safe and content for the first time since she’d seen the mushroom cloud rising up into the sky over Denver.
Jake listened to the sound of Heather’s breathing, his fingers lightly stroking her hair as the warmth from her body slowly seeped into his chilled limbs. “I’m sorry,” he said after a while.
She didn’t say anything. He supposed she must have fallen asleep. Eventually he closed his eyes and did the same.
He was awakened, just after sunrise, by the toe of Eric’s boot digging into his back. “Cut it out,” he mumbled, rubbing his eyes.
Eric stood over him, grinning like a fool, and raised his eyebrows suggestively.
Heather was still curled up in Jake’s arms, fast asleep. Jake rolled his eyes at Eric and waved him away. “Hey,” he whispered in Heather’s ear. “Time to get up.”
“Mmmm mmm,” she muttered.
“Wake up, sleepyhead.”
Heather’s eyes flew open. She blushed a deep shade of crimson when she realized where she was and quickly sat up.
“Sleep well?” Eric asked, still grinning.
Jake attempted to punch his brother in the leg but Eric stepped easily out of range.
“Fine,” Heather said, turning her back and pulling on her shoes. “Guess we should get going, huh? It’s a long walk back to Jericho.”
“Mom’s gotta be going crazy by now,” Eric said.
“It’s only a few more hours,” Jake said, sitting up. “Might even get there by lunchtime.”
Heather opened the back door and stepped out on the stoop. “Looks like the sun might—”
A large shape suddenly materialized outside the door and grabbed her. Before the scream had even escaped her lips, Jake’s hands had already found Heather’s rifle, laid carefully within easy reach the night before.
“Let her go,” he said, sighting down the barrel as he came to his feet.
“I don’t think so,” said the man, pressing the muzzle of a .40 caliber pistol against the pale skin of Heather’s neck.
Jake recognized him from the night before—he was one of the ones who’d taken them back to Virgil’s camp. Dan, or maybe Gerry. Didn’t matter.
“I think you’re gonna lower that gun of yours or I’m gonna put a bullet through this little lady’s head,” Dan-or-Gerry said.
Heather’s eyes went wide with fear, but she didn’t make a sound, didn’t try to move. Eric, standing quietly off to the side, began edging carefully towards the gunman. He didn’t get very far.
“You better stop right there,” the man warned. “Back off, over by your friend.”
Eric threw a desperate look at Jake but complied, backing away from the door.
“Virgil’s been looking for you boys. You owe us a couple of new trucks. And I told you to lower that weapon.”
Jake ignored him. “You alone?” he asked, keeping the rifle trained carefully on the center of the man’s head . “Or did you bring your friends with you?”
“They’re right behind me,” the man said jerking his head back over his shoulder, but Jake could read the lie in his eyes.
“Oh yeah? Why don’t you call them, then? Ask ’em to join us.”
The gunman gestured menacingly at Heather. “I don’t need ’em.”
“I don’t think they’re out there,” Jake said. “I think you’re here all by yourself and there’s no way you’re taking all three of us down.”
“You forget, I’ve got this pretty thing here. You want to watch her die?” He tightened his grip on Heather, causing her to wince in pain.
Jake girded himself in the steely concentration that had saved his ass more times than he liked to remember. “What makes you think I care what happens to her?” His voice sounded dangerously cold, even to his own ears.
“I’ll kill her. You think I won’t?”
“Go ahead,” Jake said, hands perfectly steady, index finger light on the trigger. Nothing matters but the target. Nothing but the shot. “I care about my own skin a lot more than I care about hers.”
“Fine. Watch me kill her, then.” The guy was playing chicken, banking on the fact that Jake was only bluffing. He grabbed Heather roughly by the hair and held her out at arm’s length, pressing the pistol against the back of her head, primed to shoot. “This what you want?”
Jake wasn’t playing chicken, though. He was simply waiting for his shot. As soon as Heather’s body was clear he squeezed the trigger. There was a deafening report and the man dropped to the floor, a bloody hole where his left eye had been. Heather screamed and scrambled away
“Shit,” Eric said, lunging for the gun that had fallen from the man’s lifeless hand.
“Stay with her,” Jake barked, chambering another round in the rifle and moving out the door. He was almost certain the guy’d been alone, but he had to check the perimeter around the house to be sure. Only when he was positive there was no one else around did he dare to lower the gun, close his eyes, and take a long, deep breath.
When he got back inside the house, Heather was sitting in a corner of the floor with her knees pulled up to her chest. Eric hovered warily nearby.
“All clear.” He saw Eric breath a sigh of relief and thumb the safety back on the recovered pistol in his hand. “She okay?” Jake asked, throwing a glance at Heather.
Eric nodded. “Pretty shaken up, though.”
Jake knelt beside her. “How you doing?”
“I’m okay,” Heather said. Her eyes, wide and haunted, reminded him of the first time he’d ever seen her, on the school bus after the bombs. She’d looked so fragile, but looks could be deceiving. “I’m okay,” she repeated, as though trying to convince herself.
He pushed a lock of hair back from her face. “Yeah, you are.”
“I thought he was gonna—”
“I know, I’m sorry.” He wrapped her up in his arms and held her as tightly as he dared. “It’s okay. You’re safe. I wasn’t gonna let anything happen to you. You know that, right?” The things he’d said to the guy—Jake couldn’t bear the thought that she might have believed them.
He felt her nod against his chest. “I know.”
“Here, Heather,” Eric said, kneeling beside them with the last of the Wild Turkey. “Drink some of this.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want any, it’s gross.”
“Drink it anyway,” Jake said, smiling. “It’ll help calm you down.”
“I’m calm,” she said, pulling away from him and standing up. “Really, I’m fine. We should get going, shouldn’t we? If that guy—” She glanced over at the body outside the door and then quickly away again “—can find us, then so can the others.”
“We can take a minute if you need—”
“I don’t need a minute, I just want to go home.” Her hands were still shaking a little, but her eyes were clear and determined.
“Then we’ll go home,” Jake said, standing up.
With the sun shining down on them it was a little less miserable out in the cold than it had been the night before, but the wind still went right through the fabric of Jake’s shirt. As they walked, Jake’s eyes kept flicking over to Heather, looking for what, he wasn’t sure. Reassurance, maybe, that she was still okay.
She didn’t say much the rest of the morning and neither did he. Eric took it upon himself to keep the conversation going, telling funny stories from their childhood. Most of the funny in Eric’s stories was at Jake’s expense, but since they managed to elicit a couple of smiles from Heather, Jake didn’t mind so much for once.
A few of miles outside of town Stanley found them and drove them the rest of the way back in his truck. Turns out their parents had half the town out looking for them, and there was a crowd waiting to greet them when they finally got back to Jericho. Gail grabbed both her sons in a strangling embrace and Jake caught a glimpse of Emily doing the same to Heather. Mary and April were there, too, both looking anxious, but hanging back and eying each other warily.
Jake’s mom fussed over the lump on his head and hustled them into the relative warmth of town hall, insisting they tell her the whole story. When their dad showed up a little while later they went through it all again, with more emphasis on the kind of threat Virgil and his men might pose to Jericho. Somewhere along the way he lost track of Heather.
At the first opportunity he slipped outside to look for her. Instead, he found Emily.
“My god, Jake,” she said, embracing him. “I heard what happened, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he reassured her before gently untangling himself. “Where’s Heather?”
She stepped back and studied him with upturned, appraising eyes that had always been able to see more than he intended. A flicker of understanding passed across her face. “She went home.”
“Was she okay?”
“I think so. She said she was tired.”
Jake saw his mom come outside and gesture to him impatiently. She’d been insisting that he let April look at the cuts on his head and after that his dad would want them to go over the details of Virgil’s outfit again with Gray. “Would you do me a favor and go check on her?”
Emily’s eyes narrowed in concern. “Is something wrong?”
“Everything’s fine, it’s just... she got a pretty bad scare this morning and she shouldn’t be alone. I’d go but...” He jerked a thumb over to where his mom was waiting for him.
“No, of course. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her.”
“Thanks.” Jake looked at Emily, searching for the right words, feeling somehow that he should apologize to her, even though he wasn’t sure what for.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Really.”
“Jake!” His mom’s voice, honed to perfect sonority from years of calling her sons home for dinner, carried clearly across the square.
Emily smiled. “You better go.”
“Yeah.” Jake leaned forward and brushed his lips briefly against her cheek before walking over to where his mom waited.
Heather snuggled deep into the cushions of her couch, listening to the jingling of the wind chimes hanging on the porch outside. It was funny, she thought, how, even though the whole world had changed since the bombs, some things were still exactly the same. Like wind chimes. And books. And the fuzzy blanket she kept on her couch for winter nights in front of the fireplace.
Once again, she’d found herself unable to sleep. Hardly surprising under the circumstances, but that didn’t make it any less annoying.
Emily had stubbornly stuck around until dusk, heating water for Heather’s bath, making mugs of tea and chicken soup, and letting her win at Gin Rummy. After she’d finally left, Heather had crawled into bed to get some much needed rest. Foolishly wishful thinking on her part. She’d merely tossed and turned, staring listlessly into the dark corners of the room. When she wasn’t haunted by the face of the man who’d tried to kill her, she was thinking about Jake Green and what it’d felt like to fall asleep in his arms. Neither memory was especially conducive to sleep.
Eventually she’d given up, padded out into the living room, lit some candles and curled up on the couch with a biography of Richard Feynman. She wasn’t really reading it, though. The images that dogged her weren’t going to be held at bay by a few candles or even a warm fuzzy blanket.
A soft knock on the front door startled her out of her reverie and sent an icy prickle of fear down her spine. She stood up, smoothed the front of her pajamas, and reminded herself that she was home now, in the middle of town, and safe. Even so, she didn’t relax until she peered through the peephole and saw that it was only Jake. She felt another prickle down her spine that had nothing to do with fear.
Shaking it off, she pulled open the door and smiled. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he echoed, matching her smile. Something about the way he was standing there with his hands stuffed in the pockets of a bright red parka—borrowed from Eric or his dad, she guessed—with the wind ruffling his hair made him look like he’d stepped off the pages of a Land’s End catalog. Except that there probably wasn’t a Land’s End company anymore. She wondered absurdly how many of the people who used to model in the catalogs were dead now.
“I just wanted to check on you,” he said. “I hope it’s not too late—I saw the light through the windows...” He trailed off uncertainly.
“No, it’s fine,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
She stepped back. “Wanna come in? We can not sleep together.” And then, realizing how that had sounded, she flushed and stared down at her slippered feet. “Um, that didn’t come out right. I wasn’t trying saying we couldn’t... not that I’m saying we should, that is, I mean I’m not expect—”
“Heather,” he said, cutting her off. “You can stop talking now.”
“You sure? Because I can keep going. There’s apparently no limit to the lengths I’m willing to go to embarrass myself.”
He laughed, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. “It’s one of your more endearing qualities.”
“Thanks,” she said dryly. “That’s very... flattering.”
“You have other good qualities, too.”
“Yeah, like what?”
He adopted an expression of faux-seriousness. “Well, for one thing, you’re stubborn.”
“And sometimes you can be kind of bossy,” he said as his mouth curled into a grin.
She crossed her arms, feigning indignation. “Uh huh.”
“Oh, and when you’re angry, you get this crease in your forehead right here.” He illustrated by pointing to a spot in the middle of his own forehead.
“Nice,” she said. “Good to know.” She nodded with pretended sincerity and then broke into a smile.
All of a sudden he was looking at her with an unsettling intensity that made her feel nervous all over again. He didn’t smile, or say anything, or look away to break the tension. He just kind of stared at her, in a way that made it hard for her breathe.
“Um,” she said, nervously trying to fill the silence. “So.”
He crossed the space between them in one long stride. One of his hands snaked around her hip to find the small of her back while the other reached into her hair, pulling her closer until their lips met. She was so surprised she didn’t kiss him back, didn’t even realize what was happening until it was over. It was a lot like their last kiss, actually, but in reverse this time.
“Okay,” she said, because she couldn’t think of anything else.
He backed away from her and stuffed his hands back in his pockets, a gesture that seemed oddly shy and boyish and totally un-Jake. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“For that?” she asked, sounding more incredulous than she’d intended. “Don’t be.”
“No,” he said, almost smiling a little, “not for that.”
His smile faded. “Because I didn’t do that sooner. Because I let you think I didn’t like you.”
“Oh, well.” She started to shrug it off and then stopped herself. “Yeah, why did you do that?”
He hunched his shoulders defensively. “I wanted to protect you.”
“From what? From you?”
“Yeah,” he said, staring at the floor, his voice strangely flat.
He looked back up at her for a long second and shook his head a little. “You haven’t known me very long, I’m... I’m not who you think I am.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I’m not a good guy. I’ve done some things—bad things—in my life and hurt a lot of people that I cared about. This—” He gestured helplessly at himself. “—this person you’ve known for the last two months isn’t really who I am and I just... I didn’t want you to be yet another person I end up hurting.”
“Hey,” she said, stepping towards him. He tried not to meet her gaze but she reached up and laid her hand against his cheek, turning his head slightly so that his eyes finally found hers. “Have you ever considered that maybe this is you? And that guy before, the one who did all those things, that wasn’t the real you.”
He pressed his lips together and shook his head. “Not really, no.”
She let her hand fall back down to her side. “I’m not naïve. I’ve heard stories around town, I’ve talked to Emily. I’ve seen the things you can do, Jake, and I can guess some of what you probably had to do to learn them.”
“You don’t know—”
“I know enough,” she said, cutting him off. “Enough to know that I like who you are. And I trust you. I mean, how many times have you saved my ass now?”
His lips twisted with the hint of a smile. “Almost as many as you’ve saved mine, I think.”
“Yeah, so if it’s okay with you, I think I’ll take my chances. That is... I mean, assuming you want...” She stuttered to a stop and bit her lip uncertainly.
His eyes were on her face with that same dark intensity, stealing her breath away. He leaned in until their lips were only a finger’s breadth apart and waited, as though he were giving her a chance to push him away.
She didn’t push him away. Instead, her arms wound around his neck and she didn’t know if he moved first or she did, but this time they were definitely kissing each other, his hands pulling insistently at her hips and her fingers curled into his hair.
“Jake?” she said breathlessly when they finally parted.
“Hmmm?” He bent down so his forehead was resting against hers and his breath felt warm against her face.
“You wanna maybe take off your jacket and hang around for a while?”
“Yeah,” he said, reaching up to touch her cheek. “I do.”