Back to: The Economics Of Fear
Chris didn't know what had awoken him. His dream, what he could remember of it, was confusing but uneventful and the motel room he opened his eyes to was quiet and sleepy. For the first time in years, he could watch the sun's muted morning light rise through the drapes without thinking on promises he had to keep. The situation was both calming and a little daunting.
With a rueful sigh, he leaned up on one elbow and looked behind him at the sleeping men with whom he shared the huge bed. Josiah was the closest to him, in the middle of the mattress, breathing deeply in peaceful sleep. At the opposite edge of the bed, about eight feet away, JD lay on his side, motionless in slumber the way he never was while awake.
Chris wasn't surprised they were sleeping so well; snatching a few hours' rest in the backseat of a car between driving stints was a hard way to travel. However, they had made good time and they could be driving into Las Vegas tonight if they pushed on.
Rolling carefully out of bed so not to disturb the others, Chris got up to get washed and dressed. He'd been too tired to check last night but was pleased to see that the bathroom was clean and well stocked. There were enough toiletries to start a small store and there were extra towels stacked high in the corner shelf.
Smirking, he wondered if the adjoining room was similarly stocked and, if so, had Vin used the surplus of towels to gag his sleeping companions. It was just their luck to end up at a motel with only two vacant rooms and just Vin's luck to draw the short straw and get the four in the bed scenario. Needless to say, no one wanted to trade rooms with any of the unlucky four. There would probably be some royal bitching later even though it seemed peaceful now.
An image of Ezra sleeping peacefully slipped into Chris' mind's eye at that moment and he saw no reason to turn it away. He washed then dressed, letting his thoughts meander along to their own conclusions.
While he did want Ezra, he did not know what he expected to get from the man in return. Ezra was as slippery as he was charming, as deep as he appeared shallow. There were no easy answers there but Chris was willing to bet that asking the questions would be worth his while -- and Vegas was the perfect place to take that gamble.
Ezra sat on the bench across the street from the motel watching the sunrise creeping over the buildings to his right. Apart from the occasional car growling past, the morning was so quiet he could almost hear the untouched coffee cooling in the paper cup in his hand.
He looked regretfully down at the weak wisp of steam struggling out of the plastic lid. He didn't know if the coffee was good or bad but it seemed a waste just to trash it. He considered going back to the motel and giving it to one of the other men before it got too cold, but they were probably all still sleeping and he'd left them because he needed some time alone.
Travelling across the country with six companions had been a decidedly odd experience. For the last few days, he'd probably only ever been alone for a minute or two at a time. It sounded horribly claustrophobic in retrospect, but, at the time, he hadn't really minded. Apart from the occasional flare of annoyance, the others got on tolerably well.
Considering this last thought, he shook his head. It was more than just a matter of putting up with each other; these men actively enjoyed each other's company but weren't afraid to show their displeasure when they weren't in the mood to play along. None of them pretended to be anything they weren't and they didn't mind each other's foibles. What they had was unconditional friendship and Ezra wondered if they knew how lucky they were. Then he remembered how they'd all swapped cars in mainly good humour when they got sick of someone's company, and guessed that they did. Then, out of nowhere, guilt stung him hard: he'd been the only one who hadn't driven and hadn't swapped cars. He'd stayed with Chris in the Mazda the whole time even though he knew it was a coveted position.
It was a silly thing to feel guilty about but he suddenly felt like he had spent the past few days greedily hoarding Chris to himself. It was not as if they'd spoken much, and it seemed like everyone else in their party had taken turns lolling about on the backseat, but Ezra couldn't shake the feeling that he'd somehow cheated the others out of their fair share of Chris' time.
Letting out a tired sigh, he turned the coffee cup around in his hand and decided he was being stupid. Just because he coveted something, it didn't mean the rest of the world did as well. After riding in Vin's aged pick-up truck or Buck's air conditionally challenged Honda all day, it was no surprise that the others wanted their turn in the comfort of the Mazda. Chris probably had nothing to do with it. Probably.
At the sound of footsteps, Ezra looked up and was surprised to find the object of his desire walking towards him.
With his sure stride, well-fitting dark clothes and the morning sun drenching him in a soft reddish light, Chris was nothing short of stunning -- and Ezra was suitably stunned. It took him a moment to wrestle his tongue back into gear even if it didn't exactly fall out his mouth.
"Good morning," he finally returned Chris' greeting a few beats too late and looked away to nod at the sunrise while Chris sat down on the bench beside him. "Looks like another fine day on the way."
"Looks like," Chris admitted.
"I trust you slept well?" Ezra met Chris' gaze with a smile
"All right. You?"
"Fine. We've made impressive progress. We could reach Las Vegas tonight if we drive straight through."
"Or perhaps we could take our time, make a few leisurely stops and find a motel that has more than two rooms?" Ezra asked with a grin.
Chris shrugged. "Maybe."
Ezra nodded again, wondering if having a conversation with Chris qualified someone for drawing teeth.
On impulse, he offered Chris the cooling coffee. "I don't know if it's any good but it's still warm."
With a nod of thanks, Chris took the cup and sipped a little.
"When we stop for lunch, perhaps we could avail ourselves of the democratic process you gentlemen enjoy so much," Ezra continued. "Take a vote on stopping again or driving through."
This time Chris grinned as if he'd just made his mind up about something and settled back on the bench. "Maybe we will at that."
Thinking the conversation over, Ezra turned his attention back to the sunrise. Although he felt Chris' arm slip along the back of the bench behind him, he nothing of it and almost startled when warm fingers brushed his neck experimentally.
For a long moment, he kept his attention on the sunrise, wondering if Chris was going to say anything. No words came but the fingers touched his neck again, a little bolder this time.
Unsure what was expected of him, Ezra leaned into the touch but didn't dare look around. Still no words were spoken but, as the touch of Chris' fingers began a rhythmic caress, Ezra lost the need to hear them.
Vin woke up with an ache in his neck. Hell, he woke up with an ache everywhere. He stumbled out of the backseat of Chris' Mazda into the motel parking lot and squinted at the gloating sunrise. Cars, like motel rooms full of snoring strangers, were no place for him to catch some shuteye but at least Chris' car had more soundproofing... and the locks weren't much of a challenge.
His stomach growled at him bad-temperedly as he tried to work the cricks out of his back. Damn, he needed some coffee but his throbbing head rebelled at the idea of walking any distance or speaking to anyone. Even the sound of his own eyelids blinking was irritating beyond belief. Mornings like this made him think the whole world was trying to cause him pain.
On the subject of pains, Vin scowled over at the room he was supposed to be sharing with Buck, Nathan and Ezra. He could hear them shuffling around, sighing and breathing from here. Well, two of them. Narrowing his gaze he cocked his head a little as he isolated the sounds of Buck from the sounds of Nathan then turned his attention to pick out Josiah's and JD's rhythms from the rest of the sleeping people.
"Where'd they get to?" Vin murmured to himself, turning his senses further a field in an effort to locate his missing companions. It didn't take long before he picked up Chris' familiar scent on the light breeze even as it mingled contentedly with Ezra's.
Frowning, he walked further out into the parking lot, past the line of the motel's reception building to see across the street. There he was surprised to see Chris and Ezra sitting on a bench together. The odd thing was they weren't saying a word, weren't even looking at each other. It took a moment for Vin to realise that Chris was touching the back of Ezra's neck. With every stroke of Chris' fingers, they seemed to relax further into each other's silent company.
It made for a strange tableau but it wasn't as if he hadn't seen it coming; he was just surprised at how fast it had taken their mutual attraction to manifest. But then again, Chris was never one to hang around procrastinating when he saw something he wanted and now was the perfect time to relax and see where the breeze took them.
"And where's the breeze taking you, Tanner?" Vin asked himself as he turned to walk back over to the Mazda. It was a good question; one that made him sigh as he climbed into the front passenger seat to raid the snacks stashed under the dashboard. After finding himself a breakfast of coke and beef jerky, he sat back to eat and contemplate the bug-splattered windshield.
The noise, lights, stink and bustle of Las Vegas didn't appeal to him at all. While Chris' suggestion of taking some time out in the desert was an attractive proposition, he knew there were other matters he should deal with first, matters he'd left too long as it was.
It had been two years since he'd escaped from the Meta Containment Camp and Eli Joe's murder still hung over him. If it wasn't for the fact that MCC officers hated the Meta Cops and vice versa, he would be running for his life right now. As things stood, the Cops didn't really exert much effort in trying to capture him, but that could change at any moment.
Everything boiled down to the fact that evading the law didn't help prove his innocence. He hadn't taken any part in the riot that had ended in the break out; he had just planned on going through the month long evaluation and registration process without causing a fuss in order to get back to the search and rescue work he'd been offered. Eli Joe's death was an accident, pure and simple. But no one would believe that. Not then and not now. He needed to find Jock Steele, the low level empath who had witnessed Eli Joe's death. Getting a witness to testify and clear his name would ease his mind better than a few weeks in the desert ever would. And he knew that Steele's mother lived in San Francisco. He could probably be--
"Hey, you get up early just to steal first dibs?" Buck called cheerily as he opened the driver's side door.
Nathan stood by the motel window buttoning his shirt, grinning at Buck and Vin arguing. Vin was in no mood to be teased but Buck somehow managed to annoy and amuse him at the same time so they ended up having a reasonably companionable breakfast together in the front seats of Chris' car. Chris was not going to be amused when he discovered his snacks gone, Nathan decided -- only to be suddenly bombarded by a flood of Chris' emotions.
Losing his breath under the intense empathic flow, Nathan had to steady himself against the window frame as he regained control of his thoughts. It had been a long time since he'd been blindsided like that, and never by Chris. Even standing in the same room with Chris, Nathan found it difficult to get an accurate reading on his friend and now he would never try it again.
Where most people's emotions were a slow or fast moving stream he could float on for a few moments, guiding carefully around any deep wells or rocky straights, Chris' were like getting dunked straight into white rapids. There was nothing to hold onto, nothing to slow the descent, he was just suddenly drowning in feelings, unable to tell them apart from his own.
For the longest moment, he lost himself in Chris' intensity. He felt the pain, the roiling anger and the overpowering determination. It was only when he experienced the confused bundle of hope and affection connected with Ezra that he was able to separate himself completely from Chris and take a mental step back. He took another few seconds to centre himself before determining that Chris was a short distance away from the motel and probably having some kind of intimate moment with Ezra.
Feeling like he'd been spying, Nathan immediately withdrew and went about tidying away his things into his travel bag. What Chris and Ezra got up to was none of his business yet he couldn't help but be surprised at the wealth of feeling Chris had developed for the illusionary telepath. In fact, coming from a withdrawn man like Chris, it was downright suspicious.
Nathan closed his eyes as his own words came back to him from years ago:
"You can never trust a telepath," he'd told his father angrily. "If they want help, they can get it from their own kind."
"Nathan," his father had sighed and squeezed his shoulder. "You can't judge a man by his abilities, it's how he uses them that matters. I can't turn people away from this clinic when I know I can help them. We have a gift, the gift to feel the hurt of others and ease it. We can't choose our patients."
"But we don't even know if they're real patients!" Nathan had returned angrily, wanting to shake sense into his father as much as he loved him. "They could be faking it all and we'd never know. The clinic's getting too well known. It could be a trap to close us down."
"Have faith, Nathan," was all his father had said in reply.
Nathan wondered if his father's faith had held when the Meta Cops had arrested them both for 'mind subversion'. But that thought was soon washed away as the anger and grief at his father's 'mysterious' death in custody gripped him once more.
Letting the feelings take him then ebb away, he opened his eyes to the barren motel furniture.
He wanted his father's faith.
He wanted to believe Chris was right about Ezra.
He wanted hope.
"Damn, Vin, you ate all Chris' jerky," Buck said sorrowfully as he met Vin's narrowed gaze across the Mazda's comfy interior. "You know he only likes the hickory one."
"Too late, Bucklin," Vin returned with a smirk. "Here's Chris now and I ain't the one holding the empty packet."
"Shit." Buck stuffed the evidence into the back pocket of his jeans while climbing out the car to greet Chris and Ezra with a cheery grin as they walked towards him. "Mornin', boys."
"Mornin', Buck," Ezra replied before ducking down a little to nod at Vin. "Mr Tanner."
"You two left anything?" Chris asked, his voice unusually easy.
Buck couldn't help but notice how close and comfortable Ezra and Chris stood together. They probably weren't even aware of it themselves but they may as well have had a neon light declaring their affection flashing over their heads as far as Buck was concerned. It made him grin wider -- giving Chris the entirely wrong idea.
"Something funny, Buck?" he asked, bristling.
"Nope, not a thing." Buck continued to grin even while Ezra walked away to get a drink from the soda machine by the reception building. "Just a lovely morning is all, Chris."
"We left plenty, cowboy. Ain't no one going to starve," Vin said as he climbed out the car. "Want me to go wake the others?"
Chris shook his head. "I'll go," he said with one last look at Buck before walking off.
"You'd think a man could be happy in the morning," Buck called out while meeting Vin's gaze.
Vin just shook his head and got back in the car.
Still grinning, Buck turned his attention to where Ezra stood having words with the soda machine.
"I can't abide Root Beer," he said with a growl, putting in more money then hitting the selection buttons with a vengeance. "I would appreciate it if you would be so kind as to furnish me with the drink I actually requested this time."
Buck shook his head. It was hard to believe that Ezra and Chris could have hit it off so well. It had been a long time since he'd seen Chris happy and Buck couldn't help but feel hopeful for the two of them even if they were like chalk and cheese. Hell, he and Chris had been friends for over twelve years and they weren't exactly two peas in a pod either.
The man who would become his best friend was just an infrequent patron to a bar Buck worked in when they first met. Even when that bastard Poplar had started murdering the working girls of the neighbourhood, Buck had never given Chris much thought except to discard him as a suspect in his own investigations into the murders. He would have never guessed that when he finally tracked Poplar down, cornered him in an old warehouse with a terrified young girl under his knife, that he would need to be saved himself.
But Poplar had turned out to be a fearsome telekinetic.
Even though Buck had fought for control and had managed to stop Poplar's hold over his own body movements, he could do nothing to dodge the debris Poplar had pummelled him with. As strong as he was, there were only so many blows to the head Buck could get up from; so many crushing attacks he could shrug off.
Nevertheless, he had created enough of a distraction for the girl to get away before his battered body had stopped responding. Blinking blood out of his eyes, he'd lain there helpless while Poplar had walked towards him, his insane grin promising death.
With every step Poplar had taken, Buck prayed he'd find the strength to break the bastard's neck.
He never got to find out if he could have done it.
When Poplar's clothes started smouldering, he'd thought he was imagining things.
When Poplar burst into flames, he'd thought it was the Hellfire of divine retribution.
But then Chris was there, checking his wounds and helping him to his feet even as Poplar screamed and died. Even though Chris had simply explained that he had been walking home when he'd heard the commotion, Buck, in his hazy state, had thought Chris was some kind of fire wielding angel of vengeance.
He hadn't been far wrong, at least about the fire: Chris had been his saviour that night.
As Buck walked across the parking lot to where Ezra had taken to kicking the soda machine, he hoped he was going to the aid of the man who could return that favour for Chris.
Josiah was feeling grouchy and he must have looked it too because when he commandeered the backseat of the Mazda, no one argued even though both JD and Nathan looked like they wanted to.
"All right there, Josiah?" Chris asked, watching Josiah lie down via the rear view mirror as he reversed out of the parking space to follow Buck and Vin.
"We ain't going to crash if that's what you're asking," Josiah replied, pushing a seatbelt buckle away from the small of his back.
Ezra looked around from the passenger seat with an infectious grin. "Well, I'm gratified to hear that."
"How about casting an illusion or two, Ezra?" Josiah asked as he closed his eyes. "Make me think I'm on a deserted beach with a beautiful friend or two."
"Why I wouldn't presume," Ezra returned teasingly as they hit the highway. "You can do perfectly well on your own, my friend. I believe they're called dreams."
"Ah, those," Josiah murmured.
The truth was, as Ezra probably knew, deserted beaches were no dream to Josiah. He'd seen more than he could count all over the world. The same went for beautiful 'friends', people who would do anything, pay any price to have a glimpse of the future. It was a hedonist's tale, a life he'd left behind a long time ago. But to what end?
In theory he knew when he'd die, seen the last image his eyes would take. Now that Chris and Ezra had found each other, the details of his final vision had slipped into place.
It both comforted and frightened him.
JD was starving. It seemed to take forever for them to find a restaurant, pile out the cars, put a couple of tables together and finally order lunch. And now the cooks were moving slower than molasses. The waitresses too. He could have probably ran out, found a cow and milked it for a drink by now.
"JD, staring at her ain't gonna move her along any faster," Buck said amusedly from across the table. "A smile'll get you further than that scowl."
"I tried that already," JD returned, still watching the waitress move in slow motion.
"Well, maybe you don't smile pretty enough, now pay attention or we won't count your vote."
"Vote?" JD turned his attention back to the table. He had heard them talking but hadn't been listening. "What vote?"
"We got two choices," Chris addressed everyone. "We can either drive straight through and get into Vegas tonight or take our time, stop to eat again and find another motel. Drive in tomorrow morning."
As much as he wanted to see Las Vegas, JD's immediate impulse was to vote to take their time but he held his tongue. His mother had always told him never to shop or make plans when he was hungry and he wanted to hear how the others voted first.
"Hell, there's no point in hitting Vegas during the day!" Buck announced as if it was obvious to everyone. "If we do take our time, I say we really take it and breeze in tomorrow night."
"Casinos are open all day, Buck," Josiah pointed out.
"I know that. But Vegas is like a beautiful woman, Josiah, she wants to see you first time with her hair down and her make up on."
As the others grinned, Nathan nodded. "If we are going to do Vegas, we should do it right. See it first time in all its glory."
"If it's worth doing," Josiah agreed.
"I too favour Mr Wilmington's well conceived third option," Ezra said. "No offence, Chris."
Chris shook his head. "None taken. I like the sound of it myself. Vin?"
As everyone turned to look at him, Vin shifted a little uneasily in his seat.
"Hell, I wasn't going to say nothing till later but I may as well say it now," he began with a pained expression. "You all know Vegas ain't my thing so I'm just going to drive straight on through up to 'Frisco. Got some business there that might take a while."
"Need any help?" Chris said with a frown.
"I can handle it," Vin replied, nodding his thanks at the offer.
His hunger momentarily forgotten, JD tried to keep his voice neutral as he asked, "How long do you think it might take you, Vin?"
"A few days, maybe weeks. A month." Vin shrugged. "Can't rightly say."
"I always wanted to see San Francisco," JD said with a look around the table. "Maybe we could go up after Vegas?"
When Vin narrowed his gaze but didn't object, Chris nodded. "Maybe."
"Good. That's great." JD grinned, taking Chris' 'maybe' as an ironclad promise that they'd go get Vin if he was gone for too long.
No one disputed the assumption and JD hadn't expected them too. He hadn't had much experience of family, there was only his mother until she'd died last year, but he knew that looking out for each other was what friends and family did.
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