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[ Master Post ]


“You wanna remind me again why we’re out here, freezing our asses off at ass o’clock?” Jensen asked, wrapping his coat around himself tighter as he glanced into one of the side alleys. He side-stepped a broken—was that a shopping cart?—and hurried to catch up with Steve.

“Reports said it looked like someone was hanging around here,” Steve repeated. “Looked like a runaway. Descriptions matched the ones Alona managed to hack into on U-Net’s server.” Descriptions was probably too generous a word for the vague stories that had filtered through to them.

It was frightening, one girl had said, voice dropped, low and conspiring as she told her ghost story in the library two nights ago. Covered in dirt and grime, totally deformed, all limping and bleeding everywhere, panting and snarling, and its eyes almost pierced us through when it looked right at us. So we screamed and ran. God, it was scary.

If they hadn’t been looking or listening out for something like this since the beginning of the week, when they’d finally traced some sort of coded message about an escaped “pet,” they would have ignored it altogether. Most people would still have ignored it, but then, they weren’t most people.

As it was, their little organisation had spent years figuring out how to decipher exactly these kinds of private codes. Even though the whole tone of this one was different, with a whole lot of stuff they either hadn’t seen or hadn’t worked out before thrown in, it still translated to roughly the same thing. Someone had lost a slave and was willing to pay a hell of a lot of money for its return.

The reason they’d all doubled their efforts at tracking this one down was those extra things that had piqued their curiosity even more. Everything had been more mangled than usual—weird, confusing words, terms that didn’t make any sense. Even Lauren and Jensen hadn’t been able to make heads or tails of it, and most of the time, they knew as much of the lingo as there was to know.

“And Lauren’s been saying there’s a lot of hushed whispering about some sort of disappearing act going around at the country club,” Steve went on. “She says it’s even freakier than usual because no one’s saying anything outright—no one’s even speculating loudly. It’s definitely an escaped slave, but there’s none of the usual descriptions or loud gossip about their training or the state they’re in or anything. Even the girly gossip’s not touching the details. It’s just… there’s something about this case.”

Jensen bit back a sigh. To Steve, there was always something about every case. Not that Jensen would ever say that to him—fuck, he loved and respected Steve too much for that—but he really wished Steve would tell him a little more about why he joined up in the first place. Why he traced down every slave, worked on every case, tried to save everyone like it was his own personal crusade.

Was it guilt? From having been one of the lucky kids from the war? But he’d seen people driven by that before. Allison was a survivor, Tom was, Katie was; Jared’s family had reclaimed him a few days after the end of the war, when they’d climbed out of their bunker and realised the world was changing again. A lot of the ones they’d been able to recruit were. But Steve… there was something more to it than that. Steve still wouldn’t tell him a hell of a lot even though they’d been together for two years and friends for longer.

“And Katie thinks they’re hiding out here?”

Steve nodded. “It’s the only place in this city you could really hide, isn’t it? If you’re as beat up as that girl was saying.”

“Steve, nothing can survive here that long,” Jensen tried. “Maybe—”

“Just keep looking, okay? I want to get back to bed as soon as I can, too.” Steve picked up his pace.

Jensen didn’t even bother biting back a sigh this time. He looked into another alley. Just dirt and dust and—god, he didn’t even want to know what that was. Rats were lucky if they could survive in this part of town, let alone—

“Jensen!”

He turned around and ran to Steve’s side, pulling out the gun he had tucked there as he went, and froze. What the…? There, pressed into a corner between a wall and what used to be a car, was what looked like nothing more than a pile of rags and blood. It couldn’t possibly still be alive.

Steve swallowed and crouched down, letting out a shuddering breath and reaching out to—then a hand shot up, faster than either of them could react, fingers wrapping in a vice grip around Steve’s wrist. Steve bit back a cry of surprise and horror and hurt, trying to pull away, but the grip seemed to just get tighter.

Jensen fumbled with the gun a little, raising it and lifting his eyes to look. The man’s gaze was absolutely piercing, his eyes more alive than they had a right to be, considering he’d almost thought this man was a corpse. And if Jensen had thought Steve’s eyes were bright, the blue staring back at him actually froze him in place for a second before his brain kicked back on. His finger started to squeeze on the trigger as he tried to calm himself and wipe person from his mind, replace it with thing because he wasn’t killing anyone. This was a… god, he didn’t know, but it had Steve’s hand, and—

Steve stopped struggling and seemed to stop breathing before he let out a quiet, almost completely silent, “…Chris?”

The man’s eyes cut to Steve as he snatched his hand away from Steve’s wrist like it suddenly burned, cradling it back against his body. His eyes widened, and he stared back at Steve, fear and weariness and pain clear where, moments before, there had only been a calm, calculating, cold look.

“It is, isn’t it?” Steve said, breaking the silence that had fallen over them. He shifted closer, and Jensen’s hand tensed on the gun. But the man on the ground almost shrunk away from them and made absolutely no move to grab Steve again or to defend himself. “It’s really you, isn’t it?” Steve put a hand on the guy’s shoulder, and, while he looked like he wanted to go further away but was stuck, he still didn’t make a move to hurt Steve.

The rag fell off his shoulder almost too easily, but there, clear as day under the grime and dried blood, the letters C.K. stood out, burnt into his skin. Anyone would recognise that brand anywhere: the orphan’s brand. Jensen had spent hours tracing Steve’s initials on his shoulder when Steve had tried to use that as a reason for staying away from him.

“Fuck,” Steve breathed, voice shaking and choked with tears. “Fuck, Chris, it’s me. It’s Steve, Chris. It’s me.”

Then he realised why the name sounded familiar to him, coming off Steve’s lips like that. It was the word that left Steve’s lips more nights than Jensen cared to remember as Steve tossed and turned, locked in nightmares. And now Jensen knew why the man’s—Chris’—features were almost too familiar to him; sitting on a table in their apartment, there was a small, worn photograph of two little boys, hanging off each other and grinning so wide, it almost made him want to believe in humanity’s inherent goodness.

‘That’s Chris,’ Steve says the first time Jensen comes over to his house and sees the picture sitting there. ‘I was an only child, but Chris was my brother in every way that counted. He was… he was more than that. My best friend. My protector.’

‘What happened to him?’ Jensen asks , resting his hand on the small of Steve’s back as Steve stares at the frame. He watches Steve brush careful, reverent fingers over the face of the boy who’s holding his childhood self close.

‘The war happened,’ Steve says before he turns and walks away.


“Please,” Steve was saying – here and now, and not in Jensen’s memory offering Chris a hand. “Chris, please, come back with us. Let us take care of you.”

Chris shook his head. “You should go,” he said, voice scratchy and rough with disuse. The drawl caught Jensen by surprise. “You shouldn’t be here. Shouldn’t be anywhere near me. If they find me….”

“They won’t find you,” Steve insisted, looking up at Jensen for support. “Jensen, tell him. We can hide him. We can look after him. At least until you’re better.” He directed the last part back at Chris. “I’m a nurse. We know a doctor. We’ve done this before—helped escaped people, and—”

“That’s not the same,” Chris whispered. “I’m not like them. This isn’t—”

“You can’t stay out here,” Jensen said finally. “You’re injured, and you’re a mess. If they’re looking for you, chances are it won’t be long before they look here, and you’re in no shape to do anything.”

Steve wasn’t wrong; they’d helped hide runaways until they’d healed and been able to get away before.

“Come home with us. Please, Chris. It’s me. Trust me. Please.”

Wait, what?

“Steve,” Jensen said, warning in his voice. Yes, they’d helped slaves before. No, they’d never brought one to their own apartment and compromised their own safety.

“Please,” Steve said, looking back over to Jensen. The plea could have been directed at Chris, but Jensen knew Steve well enough to know it was to him. “Please.” He was as close to begging as Jensen had ever seen him.

God, everyone was right; Steve had Jensen wrapped around his little finger.

“You’ll be safe with us,” Jensen added, more for Steve’s sake than the—than Chris’. Chris looked like he’d make his decision one way or the other regardless of what Jensen added to this conversation.

“You don’t understand,” Chris argued weakly. “It’s not about me. It’s because it’s you, Steve, and… fuck, you don’t understand what I am, do you? You’ve got no idea. None of you do.” He let out a soft, bitter laugh; the sound made Jensen’s skin crawl. What did you have to go through to sound like that?

“Just… for once, Chris,” Steve begged. Begged. “Please. Let me take care of you.”

Chris shifted, moving a little, mouth open to answer before he cried out as something jarred. His eyes rolled into the back of his head, the pain from that tiny movement knocking him out cold.

~

It was probably a good thing that Chris had been unconscious when they’d moved him. Steve didn’t look like he could stand hearing another whimper leave Chris’ lips, and they realised when they finally managed to look him over that there would have been a lot more than just whimpering. Steve was shaking enough that he wasn’t much help getting Chris to the car and back to their apartment; if they’d had to do it any quicker because of Chris’ screaming, they wouldn’t have had a chance.

Chris’ right side was almost completely wrecked: cracked ribs, some sort of cut—a knife wound—deep in his side, and definitely something wrong with his hip. The rest of him wasn’t much better off. There was bruising everywhere, scratches and cuts in just as many places, and, from the looks of things, this was nothing new, either. Chris’ body was littered with scars: thin, neat lines where a practiced hand stitched a wound together, less professional-looking ones, right down to the ones that looked like they might never have seen stitches at all.

Allison had been horrified when she’d finally made it over, and Steve… well, Jensen couldn’t even find a way to describe what Steve was doing or how he was acting.

The gentle way he’d bathed Chris and cleaned off the sweat and grime, the way he’d treated the wounds he could deal with himself, the determination he’d showed as he’d helped Allison with the rest of them, and just the way he watched Chris—if Jensen was a lesser man, he’d be more than just a little jealous.

Okay, he was giving himself a little too much credit there. Chris was so beaten to shit that there was absolutely no way any sane person could be jealous of him for getting a little kindness from anyone, and Steve was the most giving soul Jensen knew.

It didn’t mean he wasn’t going to demand explanations, though, because fuck, he wanted to know what the hell was going on. He knew that Steve and Chris had been close as children, but there was more to it than that—far more, and if Chris was going to stay with them like Steve was insisting, Jensen needed to know exactly how much more.

And not just on Steve’s side of things. There was something different about Chris. It wasn’t just the state they’d found him in and the whispers flying around everywhere, though Jensen was sure they were all related, especially now he’d seen the escaped “goods.” The thing was that Chris was just too well-built to be a household slave and definitely not treated well enough to be an entertainment slave—even for the dodgier kinds of “entertainment” —and it was all too hushed up and weird to be either of those.

No, Chris was something entirely different. Chris’ own words more than confirmed that.

But Jensen wasn’t getting any answers by standing there brooding. He sighed and looked back over to Steve, who was settled on the floor beside Chris, checking one of his bandages for the thousandth time. They’d got Chris settled on their sofa-bed, and Allison had managed to smuggle out enough equipment to have the drip, blood transfusion, and morphine all set up.

“Steve,” he said, sitting down on the armchair close by. “We need to talk.”

“Yeah, I just…” Steve brushed a lock of hair from Chris’ forehead before his hand hovered over the bandage again.

Jensen sighed and shifted onto the floor beside him, taking Steve’s hands in his own, stopping him from fussing anymore. “He’s okay. Allie says he’ll be fine. You know he’ll be fine. And he’s as comfortable as he can be right now.” He tugged gently, drawing Steve’s attention to him. “Steve. Tell me what’s going on.”

“It’s Chris, Jensen,” Steve choked out, looking over to the table where that picture still stood. “It’s Chris.”

“I remember,” Jensen said, pushing Steve’s hair back behind his ears. “He was like a brother to you. Closer, even. But that’s all I know. You… you’ve never said much about him, Steve, but I can tell you’re not going to let me tell you he can’t be here, and if he’s going to be here… tell me why I should let him stay without fighting with you about it.”

“This should have been me,” Steve whispered.

Jensen rolled his eyes a little. “Steve, we… we talked about this, remember? You’ve been doing this since the war ended—you all went to classes to deal with this and still go into therapy once in a while, but it’s not your fault that you were the luc—”

“No,” Steve interrupted, voice even more choked. When he looked up and met Jensen’s eyes, Jensen realised they were filled with tears. Fuck. “No. You don’t understand, Jensen, this should have been me.”

“Steve…” Jensen started.

Steve just shook his head violently. “You don’t understand! I wasn’t the lucky one. I wasn’t supposed to be. I didn’t pick the lucky ballot—Chris did! I was supposed to have been sold, but Chris took my place..” His voice dropped as he raised a hand, fingers brushing over Chris’ cheek, tears falling. “He took this—all this—every bruise, every broken bone, every cut that’s scarred and that hasn’t—in my place.”

Jensen was stunned. He couldn’t understand—just couldn’t wrap his head around that at all. He didn’t know what he could possibly say to that. “Steve….” When Steve looked up at him, Jensen just shook his head, unable to find his voice.

“We were together when our parents died,” Steve started softly, his eyes getting that faraway look that Jensen had never been able to touch. “We were out playing at this base we had behind my house. Our parents worked together and were best friends, and we’d practically lived in each other’s pockets all our lives. I was… I was a small kid. Frail, awkward, all blond hair and freckles, and… I was sick a lot. To make it all worse, I was… I liked music and cooking, and I wasn’t good at football and not interested in wrestling, and the boys were always picking on me. And Chris… Chris was everything everyone wanted to be.” Steve let out a soft laugh, so lost in his own world that Jensen hardly dared touch him. “But he never hung around with the cool kids or tried to show off, and he never… he was always with me. Always had my back. Always protecting me, and he’d get into fuck loads of trouble for beating up the other boys when they’d hurt me.”

Steve’s eyes had dropped to Chris again, but Jensen couldn’t bring himself to call Steve’s attention back to him. Steve never talked about it, not really, and the glimpses of before the war he’d got were usually happy memories of his family or something of that sort. Not Chris. Steve never talked about Chris even when he woke up half-screaming Chris’ name.

“That didn’t stop when the war came,” Steve carried on, voice dropping even more. “He was the one that clung to me, kicking and shouting and biting—fighting tooth and nail—when they tried to separate us. All through the war, he stayed by my side. It didn’t matter if I was healthy or sick or if anyone else tried to help one of us, tried to get him somewhere else faster because he was healthy—Chris never left my side.”

Steve let out a soft, bitter laugh, finally looking up at Jensen. “That last day, when they told us the war was over but everything had to be different, I was… I’d been sick for weeks. By then, they’d almost run out of medicine, and Chris had had a harder and harder time trying to steal any, so I was… I could hardly stay awake for a few hours at a time, found it hard to focus, couldn’t walk without Chris there supporting me.” Steve pushed himself up to walk to a drawer on the other side of the room where he kept so much of the stuff from before—the old stuff, the memories he’d once told Jensen he never wanted to revisit.

Steve came back carrying a small box, one Jensen had seen once before. Just once. Steve opened it slowly now and ran light fingers over the glass-encased piece of paper, the Carlson written in an elegant hand across the page. His ticket to freedom, Steve had once said. The thing that had given him—and people like him—the chance at an actual life. Not all the orphans from the war were able to be re-homed, and drawing lots had been the fairest way they could think of to reallocate everyone.

“This… this isn’t the one I drew,” Steve said softly after a few long moments. “Sandy didn’t show this to me until I was twenty-one, but the moment I saw it… God, Jensen. That day, they came around with this huge box of bits of paper. I was so tired, so dizzy, and I just picked one out, opened it up, and… the look on that man’s face. I guess I should have known. But it didn’t really register. I just remember Chris carefully taking it from my hand and pulling my head back into his lap, his fingers soft and reassuring as he ran them through my hair. Sleep, he told me. It was going to be a long day, and I should rest. He’d take care of it for me. He told me he’d take care of me.” Steve’s voice choked up again, eyes filling with tears once more.

He looked back at Chris before he had to look away, eyes coming back to Jensen. Then he just shook his head. “When I woke up again, it was because Chris was getting up, pulling me with him, waving my piece of paper around. There was a family standing at the end of the corridor waiting, and Chris handed me over to this lady—to Sandy—with a half smile. He gave me a hug, and… and he said not to forget him, and then he waved—and I was being ushered into this car.”

“I—I didn’t draw this, Jensen,” Steve finally said, gesturing at the paper again. “I drew this.” His fingers went to the blanket covering Chris, and he tugged one corner back. MADDER was branded in block capitals—probably with hot iron—stark and unforgiving across Chris’ arm. Slave-owners. Chris’ owners. Steve’s thumb ran over the word gently. “I was twenty-one by the time I realised what Chris had done, and I’ve spent the last eleven years trying to figure out what happened to him. Trying to do something. It was why I joined the Org.” Steve took a shuddering breath. “We were… what? Fourteen? Fifteen? When the war ended. It was bad enough when I didn’t know, and now I know he’s spent, what? Eighteen years in some sort of hell in my place?” Steve looked at Jensen again, voice soft and weak. so young it was almost painful to hear. “How can I live with that? How am I supposed to turn him away? How can we—”

“We’re not going to,” Jensen reassured, finally giving into the urge to pull Steve into his arms and hold him tight. “We’re not gonna throw him out or turn him away or anything like that. Jesus, Steve….”

Jensen knew he couldn’t hate the man on their couch now, no matter what problems he was going to bring with him or how Steve looked at him because it was Chris that had given Steve everything, and so he’d given Jensen everything, too. Jensen wasn’t stupid; from those few words Steve had used to describe all those godawful years, he knew what it all came down to.

He knew what Chris probably knew that day he switched their lots and gave up his own future; Steve could never have survived.

Jensen just tightened his arms around Steve as Steve’s body started shaking, finally losing his fight with the tears. “Shh,” he whispered, trying to reassure as much as he could. “We’ve got him now, Steve. He's going to be okay. We're going to keep him safe. We’ve got him now.”

Whatever happened now, there was no way any of them could let anything happen to Chris without putting up a fight. No way in hell; Steve would die before he let anyone hurt Chris again, and Jensen would rather kill himself than let Steve get hurt.

~

Chris woke up slowly, feeling a little like the world was submerged in water. He struggled to get some sort of bearing on where he was, what had happened, but he felt sluggish. Drugged. Panic threatened to seep into him at the thought, and he forced his eyes open. He didn’t recognise anything about this place and only knew the names of half the things in the room—he hadn’t seen, let alone used, half of this stuff since the war. His eyes finally found the armchair a short distance away, and he froze.

The night before came rushing back to him as he took in the sight of the two men curled up together in it. Steve—older, healthier, but definitely his Steve—wrapped up in another man’s arms, practically in his lap, head tucked against the guy’s neck. The guy—Jensen, if Chris remembered rightly—had Steve cradled close and tight, arms wrapped protectively around him. He felt a sudden and immediate burn of resentment towards Jensen for that, for the obvious familiarity Steve used to have only with him, for getting to hold Steve like that. Jensen had everything Chris hadn’t had the chance to get, and, in that moment, Chris hated him for it.

He looked up to study Jensen, only to find bright green eyes looking right back at him.

There was nothing Chris expected to see in those eyes—no hatred, no suspicion, no resentment. Jensen didn’t even demand answers like he’d expected him to, like Chris imagined he would have done if their positions had been reversed. Instead, Jensen offered him a small smile before he nudged Steve awake.

This time, the familiarity made Chris ache. The hatred from before had almost been better.

Steve still woke as slowly as he had as a kid: soft flutter of eyelashes and the small noise of discontent before blue peeked out from under his eyelids. Something unspoken passed between them, and Chris felt like he was intruding on something not meant for his eyes at all before Jensen nodded in his direction and Steve’s attention snapped to him. Steve was scrambling away from Jensen to reach Chris’ side within moments.

“Chris,” Steve said, lips tugging up into a soft smile. Chris had to stop himself from moving away from the soft fingers Steve slipped into his hair. “Hey.”

“Hi,” Chris answered, not quite sure what he was supposed to do with all this gentleness. He swallowed hard before he offered a tiny smile back. “…God, you look good, Steve. You look… you look good.”

Steve’s face fell a little as his fingers drifted over Chris’ cheek. “Chris….”

Jensen had slipped off the couch so as not to disturb them, but Chris had been forced to learn to keep track of everyone moving in the room, and his instincts hadn’t faded, even though he was dosed with painkillers. His head turned before he’d even realised.

“I’m going to make some food,” Jensen offered softly. “You must be hungry.” Even without knowing Jensen, Chris could read the and you need the time alone in his eyes. It was confusing and disorienting; it should have been impossible to read someone so easily.

At least, it had been impossible for people like him.

He turned back to Steve, looked into those all-too-open eyes, and knew without a doubt that he’d made the right choice all those years ago.

“Chris,” Steve whispered again.

Chris brushed his fingers over Steve’s cheek before he pulled Steve down gently to rest their foreheads together the way he used to when they were little.

“Chris.” Steve’s voice broke a little. “God. I’ve spent so many years… I always wondered….” His breathing hitched. “Why? You son of a bitch, why did you leave me? Why did you…?”

Chris shook his head, tipping it a little to the side before he settled them again, soft and comforting. “I had to,” he whispered back. He opened his eyes and offered Steve another soft smile that said all he couldn’t put into words. “You’re looking so… you look good,” he repeated. “Happy.”

Alive.

He’d never forgotten the last time he’d seen Steve: so sick he could barely keep his eyes open, leaning so heavily against him, breathing ragged and clogged, small and frail in his arms.

And now here he was—tall and gorgeous, eyes bluer than the sky, and, Chris would bet, a smile that could light up the world. There was a time when it used to light up Chris’ world.

He just offered Steve another soft smile, hands running through his hair. “I did the right thing, Steve.”

“But what you—the things you—the….” Steve swallowed hard, fingers hesitantly touching one of his scars. “What happened to you?”

“Better me than you,” Chris breathed. “You never could have survived.”

“What happened in there, Chris?” Steve whispered. He pulled back to look into Chris’ eyes. “Please, Chris. You said… what you said before, that we didn’t know what was going on or anything about you—that we had no idea—and you’re right. We don’t know. Chris… what… what is it that we don’t know?”

Chris swallowed hard and dropped his eyes, resting his forehead back against Steve’s again. He shook his head. He couldn’t do that to them; couldn’t walk into their house and tear their organised little lives apart.

“I can’t stay here.”

The sound Steve made in response reminded Chris of a wounded animal, soft and helpless, as his fingers tightened in Chris’ hair, hands sliding down to Chris’ neck to hold him close. “You can’t leave.”

“I can’t stay here, Steve. They’ll find me.” They’ll find you. Chris swallowed hard, eyes dropping closed. His fingers brushed over Steve’s cheek again. “Steve…”

“You can’t leave,” Steve whispered. “You can’t go. You… you can’t… you’re too injured. You can’t—”

“I can’t stay,” Chris murmured again, pulling back to cup Steve’s face in his hands. “They’ll come for me.”

“They won’t find you here,” came a quiet voice from what Chris assumed was the kitchen door. Jensen carried a tray through into the room and set it on the coffee table. “It’s a little simple,” Jensen said when he saw Chris staring at the bowls. “But it’s not too bad, I promise.”

To Chris, though, the soup was the best thing he’d smelled in… he couldn’t remember how long. Fresh and hot, with pieces of vegetables and meat that actually looked recognisable.

“It looks… looks good,” Chris said softly. “It looks fuckin’ fantastic.” He glanced up at Jensen a little uncertainly before looking back down at the bowls and up again, biting at his lower lip.

“Here,” Jensen said gently, handing him one bowl and a spoon carefully. “Eat slowly; it’s hot.”

Chris nodded and dropped his eyes to the bowl, taking his time, trying not to rush—trying to eat as slowly as he saw Steve and Jensen eating, like he remembered everyone used to back before the war had started to starve them. His hands shook a little, and he almost didn’t notice until Steve’s were there, cradling his, supporting gently.

“There’s more if you want it,” Steve said, voice trembling.

Chris looked up almost guiltily, obviously torn between what he wanted and what was polite. Steve bit his lip to muffle a soft sound before he was handing the bowl to Jensen and Jensen was disappearing back into the kitchen.

“It’s okay,” Steve soothed, swallowing hard. “It’s—we have plenty.” He took another shaking breath, fingers easing through Chris’ hair again. “We have plenty.” His hand slid to Chris’ chin, tipped up his head until Chris reluctantly met his eyes. “Stay,” he whispered. “Let us take care of you, Chris.”

“Even if it’s just until you’re better,” Jensen said. Chris almost jumped. He hadn’t noticed him moving, hadn’t noticed him coming back. Either Chris was that tired, or… well, he didn’t really know, but whatever the reason, it wasn’t good to get too comfortable. He couldn’t stay.

He opened his mouth to answer but found himself distracted by the bowl of soup settled back in his hands—this time, Jensen had dropped a piece of bread into it as well. Chris swallowed hard and felt his stomach twist, eyes going up to meet Jensen’s, and there was nothing there but kindness.

No ulterior motive—nothing. God. Chris couldn’t even hate him, didn’t have any reason to, and the tug and pull of some unnamable emotion brought a lump to his throat. He hated that feeling because he was helpless to do anything about it; at least he’d known what to do with hatred.

He dropped his eyes back down to the food, almost hesitant to take another bite in case it disappeared or he woke up or something, but no, it was still there moments later. He unconsciously made a small, appreciative sound, which earned him a strained chuckle from Jensen.

“Wait until you taste Steve’s cooking,” Jensen said with a smile. “He’s the real cook in this house.”

Chris stopped, swallowing the mouthful before looking guiltily up again. He glanced back down and then shook his head, offering the bowl back. “I can’t stay.”

Steve just pushed it back at him. “Eat it. Please. That’s—that’s nothing to do with the conversation.”

Chris nodded, carefully taking another few spoonfuls.

“Stay,” Jensen said softly. “At least until you’re stronger— ‘til you can actually get by out there. You’re hurt, and Steve’s a nurse. And a damn good cook. Just… you can’t go out there.”

“They’ll come here,” Chris said, looking up. “When they find me, there’s gonna be hell for you to pay. They’ll—”

“Stop worrying about us,” Steve said quietly, shaking his head. “We don’t need you to—we don’t want you to. Please. We can help. We’ve helped people before.”

“Not like me,” Chris whispered, staring into the now empty bowl.

“So be the first like you,” Steve finally snapped. His eyes, when Chris finally looked up into them, were over-bright, slightly shining with tears. He bit his lip before he just looked pleadingly at Chris. “Chris, please. For everything you’ve ever done… just, help us. Let us help you—and help us by telling us what’s so different, why you’re so different.” His voice dropped, and he sounded young, lost. So much like the little boy Chris had spent hours curled around. “You’re right; we don’t know what’s going on. How can we help you and everyone else like you if we have no idea where to start?”

“Steve….”

“I’ve spent so many years looking for you, Chris,” Steve whispered. “I’ve spent so many years trying to find a way to… to do something—to give something back for everything you’ve ever done for me—and then we find you just like that? It’s not… it’s not just… I can’t let that go, Chris. It’s a fucking godsend; you are a fucking godsend, and I can’t—I won’t—let you go.”

“Steve,” Chris started again, swallowing hard. His shaking fingers lifted to slide over Steve’s cheek. He looked up to Jensen, who was still watching them with that soft look in his eyes, then turned his gaze back to Steve’s wide, pleading eyes.

“Chris, please,” he whispered. “We want to help you. And we need your help. Just…” He shook his head before he leaned against Chris again, knocking their foreheads softly together before settling. “And… I just… I need you. I need you here. Like I’ve always needed you here.”

Chris’ heart and his resolve waved a little white flag. It had taken almost everything to convince himself that he’d rather leave than stay, and he wasn’t a good enough liar to be able to make himself believe he’d rather be out in the cold, scared and hurt and hungry, than in here with a person—two people, if he’d let himself acknowledge Jensen’s kindness—who looked at him like they actually cared.

Besides, he’d never been able to deny those big blue eyes much since he’d first set his eyes on Steve. Apparently, eighteen years in hell hadn’t changed that at all.

~

Steve had to remind himself that he didn’t need to hurry. Actually, screw don’t need to hurry, he had to remind himself to walk rather than locking, loading, and zooming home like a late FedEx delivery. Chris was fine now, healing well. He was off the drips and could handle changing his own bandages; he wasn’t in danger of falling over and killing himself in the bathroom or stabbing himself when trying to butter bread.

Chris was fine—as fine as he could be, all things considered. According to Allie, he was steadier on his feet than anyone had a right to be after the injuries they’d found him with, and, logically, Steve’s professional brain told him that was true.

Steve was still worried.

He forced himself to slow down again, offering the old lady he’d almost run into a small, apologetic smile.

He’d been like this for days now, ever since they’d found Chris—anxious and distracted, and everyone was right when they kept telling him to snap out of it. Being this skittish would only lead to people being suspicious, but Steve couldn’t help it.

It hadn’t helped that, apparently, Chris’ appearance had brought more questions with it than it had answers. They hadn’t even been able to track down who owned him—didn’t know anything at all about this “Madders” person, and yet, through the underground channels, everyone still seemed to be desperately and furiously looking for Chris.

And it wasn’t just the non-existence of Chris’ owners, despite the name branded onto Chris’ skin; it was Chris himself, too. Steve still hadn’t figured out what he’d meant by his “you don’t understand what I am,” and he didn’t have it in him to push. It all had to be linked: the muscular build, the scars and wounds, the death grip he’d had on Steve, that look in his eyes—and, except for the wounds, Chris had been healthy and not malnourished like some of the others that they’d helped.

There was a logical link there somewhere, Steve knew, but his mind shied away whenever he seemed to come close to thinking up anything, like it still didn’t believe people to be cruel enough, despite all that he’d seen.

For now, though, he contented himself with watching Chris rather than getting answers, although “contented” was probably the wrong term to use. It didn’t make him happy, not in the conventional sense. Instead, Chris wandering around the house, looking around in awe, savouring the simplest food like gourmet—all those things made his stomach turn, his throat hurt, and his eyes burn.

There was almost a soft innocence about it—the gentle wonder Steve was sure he hadn’t seen since before the war—and it was hidden under a layer of fear and a wall built to withstand things Steve couldn’t even imagine.

And when he remembered that, Steve wanted to scream. He wanted to know what had happened, wanted to shake Chris until Chris told him everything. Jensen had told him it was stupid, had asked him if he’d just wanted to torture himself some more, which, really, hadn’t been fair. Jensen wasn’t supposed to side with Chris so early on, even if it was something that made sense.

A car honked as it rushed past, swerving a little to keep from hitting Steve. He’d almost walked into the road when the light was red. Great. Perfect. Steve had to stop and mentally shake himself; he needed to get a damn grip. He wasn’t any good to anyone—least of all Chris—dead.

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, glancing around and taking in the people on the streets as he waited. A moment later, his eyes came to the fruit stand a little way down. He hesitated for a second before he walked over, offering the lady behind the stand a smile. His fingers brushed over the strawberries before he nodded.

“I’ll take some,” he told the girl. “Just… fill the bag, please.” He counted out the money and handed it over without the usual guilt that sometimes came with buying a whole lot of stuff he didn’t need, even when Jensen insisted it was fine and they could afford it. He was never going to get used to spending money on anything that wasn’t necessary, but he had a feeling his definition of necessary was about to change.

He was almost humming by the time he unlocked the door to their apartment, tossing the keys onto the table by the door and pulling off his coat.

“Chris?” He called out. Steve found him sitting on the floor, resting back against the couch. Chris looked up from the newspaper he was reading.

“Hey,” he offered with a smile. “Jensen’s sleeping.”

Steve’s lips tugged up. At least Chris was actually leaning against the couch now; the first day, he’d settled in the corner of the living room and hadn’t been able to make himself comfortable anywhere else. They’d ended up making a small nest for him in the corner, and the less Steve thought about the reasons why, the better.

He lifted the bag in his hand. “I bought something for you.”

Chris frowned, looking confused. “For me?”

Steve nodded. “Uh huh. C’mon through to the kitchen.” His gaze lingered on Chris as Chris stood gingerly up, but he’d figured out a couple of days ago that the only way Chris was going to stay around with them for any length of time was if he didn’t feel like they were coddling him. The drive Chris had to be back on his feet and independent again was so insanely strong it scared him, and, even if Jensen hadn’t said a word, Steve knew it rattled him, too.

“What is it?” Chris asked, slipping through almost silently a minute later.

By then, Steve had started washing the strawberries in the sink, putting the clean ones into a bowl and sliding it over to Chris with a small grin.

“I’m not sure if all these years have changed your tastes,” he said with a small smile. “But damn, when we were kids….”

Chris’ eyes widened almost comically. “For me?” He asked, looking at Steve with wonder. The blue of his gaze lit up at Steve’s nod. Chris turned his attention to the strawberries, picking one up carefully. Steve’s lips curled up into a helpless grin as Chris licked his lips, eyeing the fruit like it was going to disappear at any given moment, before bringing it up to his mouth and taking a bite.

The noise he made was—Steve could only think up one word to describe it. And he was pretty damn sure it was indecent and wrong of him to be thinking that way when Chris’ reaction was so damn innocent, but that sound Chris made as he finished up the strawberry was nothing less than pornographic.

Chris reached for another one before he looked up at Steve, offering him a half-guilty, half-sheepish smile.

Steve laughed a little even as his stomach twisted. “They’re for you,” he said again. “Just don’t eat so many that you get sick, okay?”

“Like that one time we actually got to go strawberry picking?” Chris asked innocently, and Steve had to grin. This time, without feeling so damn winded. “Although, as I remember it, you were the one that got sick.”

Steve laughed. “Yeah, and you had my head in your lap all the way home.” He ruffled Chris’ hair playfully. “So I’m going to assume you know when to stop eating, then.”

“When I get full?” Chris said, giving him a small, cheeky grin.

Steve just chuckled and shook his head. “I guess it’s a good thing we have a complete set of medical supplies here,” he teased. “I’m sure, somewhere in there, I can find a cure for gluttony.”

Chris laughed, bright and happy, and Steve felt it like a punch to the gut. His breath caught, and, a moment later, he felt his eyes burn. It was the first time he’d heard Chris laughing like that—the first time he’d cracked more than a half-smile—and it was so beautiful, all Steve could do was stare.

“I think I’m missing something big here.” Jensen’s voice came from the doorway. Steve turned to look at him and didn’t miss the brightness in Jensen’s eyes. He vaguely wondered how long Jensen had been standing there, but it was pushed to the back of his mind when Chris answered Jensen, still grinning.

“Steve was predicting the future,” Chris shared, making another small noise as he started on another strawberry. “He says I’m going to get sick from overeating.”

Jensen laughed a little and nodded before he crossed the room and pulled the sugar pot out from the cupboard. He pulled out a few stray strawberries onto the side, then sprinkled a liberal amount over them.

“Try that,” he said, pushing them back to Chris. “Trust me. They taste really damn good this way, too.”

Chris eyed him dubiously before he took a bite, then quickly finished up that strawberry, too, eyeing the sugar with a new respect. Jensen just laughed a little and patted Chris’ shoulder gently before coming back to Steve’s side, hand brushing over the back of Steve’s.

Steve turned his and caught Jensen’s fingers, bringing them to his lips. He met Jensen’s eyes.

“Thank you,” he mouthed while Chris was distracted. “So much.”

Jensen’s eyes softened, and he just shook his head, his gaze going back to Chris before coming back to Steve. He brushed his thumb over Steve’s lips before he leaned down and followed that up with a brush of his lips. “Don’t mention it.”

Steve just gave him another soft smile that conveyed more than he could possibly put into words. He’d never expected Jensen to just give everything over to Chris—that Jensen would just open up his house and home and heart to a stranger he’d never known. To an escaped slave at that.

But he had. Jensen had gone beyond the call of duty, and he’d done everything Steve would never have dared to ask him to without a single word from Steve and without a single complaint.

Steve brushed his hand over Jensen’s cheek again before he pulled him into another kiss. He couldn’t have asked for a better man to share his life with. He pulled back when he felt eyes on him, but when he turned to look at Chris, he found Chris with his attention still completely focused on pouring a little sugar over a few more strawberries.

“Everything okay?” Jensen asked softly.

“Yeah,” Steve said, looking back with a smile. “Everything’s… everything’s great, Jensen.” He looked back at Chris before shaking his head fondly. “I think we’re going to have to keep dinner small and simple, or he’s going to give himself a stomachache to add to the rest of it.”

Jensen just laughed as Chris glanced over and gave them another sheepish smile. Steve couldn’t help feeling lighter and happier than he had in a long time.

~

For the first few days, Chris really enjoyed the time he spent on his own. Solitude was a rare thing when you lived like he had, packed into barracks with minimal space between you and the next person, constantly in each other’s space no matter what you were doing. Having time to himself—having a whole house to himself—was not something Chris knew what to do with.

He’d sat in his little corner for pretty much all of the first day, back against the wall, fighting at the urge to tear the drip from his arm and run the fuck away at every small noise. His sleep the night before had been fitful and uncomfortable, the couch of Steve and Jensen’s apartment too soft—so soft his body couldn’t adjust. He’d ended up on the floor, and, in the morning, Steve had arranged a nice little nest in the corner of the living room for him.

Even that was almost a luxury. Steve wasn’t having him sleeping on the hard floor, though, so, apparently, he was going to be adjusting to ever-softening bedding over the next little while he was spending with them. If Chris had anything to do with it, he wasn’t going to be getting used to anything too soft before he was out of there.

He’d spent the second day looking out of the window. The space and the almost-silence was too creepy, too eerie, and Chris felt almost trapped. But he couldn’t move much without feeling light-headed, and, when the medication had run out the day before, the pain had been excruciating. Chris was sensible enough to know that Jensen had been right; he couldn’t survive out there like this. He needed to get stronger again, fitter, and then he could get away from everything and not worry about bringing the wrath of those… people onto Steve and his friends.

On the third day, Chris started getting restless. Steve added another layer to his bedding, and suddenly, for some reason that was completely alien to Chris, he seemed to realise Chris hadn’t been doing much while he was out. He’d settled some books beside him, then had shown him how to work the TV. Chris didn’t touch them.

He finally gave in on day four and started reading one of the books. Staring at the walls and out of the windows had started to get old, and he was getting more than restless, almost to a point of vibrating in place even with the drip still attached to his arm.

Once he was capable of moving around without being in too much pain, Steve took him off the drips and showed him around the house, telling Chris to make himself at home.

It wasn’t until a few days later that Chris was comfortable enough with it all to actually walk around freely in the house. By then, he’d grown bored of the silence and solitude. He hadn’t been able to wait until Steve or even Jensen got home. Somehow—and Chris didn’t want to think too deeply about it—they seemed to make the place a lot more familiar. He was sure it was just the fact that he was used to having company all the time; that was all.

The strawberries Steve had brought home that day had been just the start of… Chris didn’t even know what to call it. Steve would bring little things home, things he’d liked when they were younger, back before the war: strawberries and chocolates, ice cream and donuts and… he hardly ever came home empty handed. After a while, Jensen started doing the same, bringing back things Chris had never seen or tasted in his life.

Jensen would tell him it was for all of them, that it was something Steve loved or some other excuse, but Chris wasn’t stupid enough to not notice the way Steve and Jensen rarely ever ate more than a little of whatever they’d brought home. For him. The biggest share was always for him.

If Chris had been good with words, he’d probably thank them more than the soft murmurs he offered every day. Mostly, he was still stunned by it every time, and he couldn’t quite process the kindness he was being shown.

Most of all, he couldn’t quite figure out Jensen’s kindness.

Chris sighed softly as his fingers ran over the edges of the book, and he glanced up at the clock on the wall. Steve was supposed to be home in a few minutes; he’d headed out for an early shift this morning. Chris shifted impatiently. Occasionally, he felt kind of stupid. He was acting like that old family dog he’d once had, back before the world burned, who’d wait just inside the gate for them to come home, tail wagging at the attention that inevitably came with it.

Then again, being a well-loved pet was so much better than any other kind of dog.

The door opened with a click, followed almost immediately by Steve’s soft call of, “Chris?” They’d learned on the first day that startling him was never a good idea. Chris’ lips immediately curled up into a grin as he got to his feet.

“Hey.”

“Hey right back,” Steve answered, offering Chris a bar of chocolate. “I didn’t want to spoil your appetite. We’ve got enough time to actually get a good meal going before Jensen gets home.” He glanced over with a knowing grin. Bastard. It wasn’t fair that Steve already knew him that well. “You wanna help me?”

Chris just rolled his eyes and walked into the kitchen. Steve really already did know the answer to that one. It hadn’t taken them long to discover Chris’ fascination with watching them cook, and “helping” mostly consisted of them doing most of the work and him occasionally helping stir things. Sometimes. He was also pretty good with a knife, but, understandably, he supposed, they were still keeping those away from him.

He obligingly washed his hands before he hopped up onto the counter, settling easily. “How was the day?”

“So so,” Steve said as he pulled out the chopping board and grabbed a knife. He glanced up and handed Chris a small bag of potatoes and the peeler. Chris made a face but reached for it nonetheless. “Same as always, really. Saved some people… didn’t manage to get to a couple more on time.” Steve’s eyes dropped, and Chris bit back a sigh. Jensen was right; Steve’s compassion was going to get him killed one day.

“You’re not superman,” Chris reminded him, as he did in one way or another every day. As he knew Jensen did, too. “You can’t save everyone.”

“I know that,” Steve answered, rolling his eyes at Chris. He started cutting up the vegetables. “There was just this kid today that had one of those allergies to the dust still left over from the war.” Steve paused for a moment, and Chris knew Steve’s mind wasn’t in the kitchen anymore. It was somewhere else, back in the past, when Steve had had the same problems. “We couldn’t save him. He just didn’t respond to the meds we gave him and… he just… stopped breathing.”

“Sometimes, that’s just the way things are,” Chris muttered. He remembered how horrible it was to watch people die like that. He remembered the helplessness he’d felt when sometimes it had felt like Steve would slip away from him like that.

“Anyway,” Steve said after a moment. By the time Chris looked back at him, Steve was smiling again. “We managed to safely deliver a baby, though. Didn’t think the mother or the baby was going to make it, but they both did.”

Chris just grinned at him and carried on with the manual labour as Steve talked on about his day. Chris never got much of the detail, but he could listen to the passion that bled through in Steve’s voice and never get bored.

Even if it made his heart ache sometimes.

It was just like the way he’d begun, somehow, to start taking comfort in Steve and Jensen’s closeness. Even when it brought a lump to his throat and made his gut twist, which was yet another thing he wasn’t ever going to analyse too deeply.

Seeing that kind of love, though, gave him faith in humanity again. Because that’s what the war—the death, the despair, the devastation and destruction—that’s what it had all been for. Humanity. He’d almost forgotten it over the years, doubted its existence, but here it was.

It was in the way Jensen would wrap his arms around Steve’s waist from behind him, tugging him in close, and Steve would go with it, settling and fit back against Jensen like he belonged there. Love was etched so deep in the way Steve leaned up for a kiss just as Jensen moved, the way they talked to each other without needing to actually use words.

And god, Chris wanted to hate Jensen—hate them both—for it. But when they’d look up at him and smile, his resolve found itself a new home somewhere in the pit of his stomach in the form of a knot of something that seemed scarily like envy. Chris really, really hated that.

Mostly because, well, it hadn’t taken him more than a couple of days to realise he didn’t regret making that switch—Steve’s future (his life) for his own—in the least. Not even now that he had something to compare it with. Especially not now that he’d had a chance to know the kind of person Steve had become. It didn’t take him long to realise that he was and had always been completely in love with Steve. He’d been in love with the boy Steve had been, and he’d fallen right back into love with the man Steve was now.

And, for fuck’s sake, he really wanted to hate Jensen for the way Steve looked at him, for the way Steve loved him, for the fact that Jensen had what Chris wanted.

But he couldn’t. He just… he’d tried. He wanted to. He wanted to hate him so he could just do something, and maybe he could have Steve back. Maybe Steve would be his again.

But when Jensen came home with some strange thing for Chris to try, when he looked over at Steve, love clear in his gaze, and smiled, Chris could hardly remember what hatred really meant. All he could see and all he could remember was what love looked like.

In his world, this kind of love didn’t—and couldn’t—exist. If you loved, you lost; if you made the mistake of feeling, you got hurt. And even if you had someone—not like this because nothing in there was ever this pure—but if you had somebody that meant something to you, you didn’t make it so obvious. Couldn’t let it show. Chris wasn’t sure any of his kind of people knew how to be like Steve and Jensen were anymore.

He sometimes watched them and wondered what David would have said. Not that David would have said much, but it was the principle of the thing that mattered.

He really wondered what David would have thought, and then he figured that Dave was probably somewhere out there laughing his ass off at him.

Compassion had never been a strong point of theirs.


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