Despite the reassurances he’d been given that it was rare for traders to run into danger while traveling to other settlements, Luke found himself continuously scanning the environment while they traveled.  Every field of tall grass, every car piled on the roadside, every sloping hill could be hiding something that wanted to kill them. Just a month in Crater was all it had taken to forget the uncertainty of traveling in this world.  Luke never quite managed to convince himself that they were safe.

He did have to admit though, that it was much better with the caravan than it had been when he was alone with Carver.  The people were friendlier for one, and more willing to indulge his inquiries. His friends seemed bemused by his paranoia, but humored him nevertheless.  At least Abby and Felicity did; Tony was still acting distant for no reason Luke could discern. After the first couple of days on the road he gave up on trying to talk to the other boy—every time he did, Tony seemed to look for an excuse to end the conversation as fast as possible.  His demeanor hurt Luke, and after the first couple of days he sought out other people to ask their advice.

“Honestly, he can be a tool sometimes,” Felicity said with a shrug when he asked her.  “He’ll get in these moods where he’s just pissed at the world. I don’t talk to him much, but  it probably doesn’t have anything to do with you.” She hadn’t spent very much time talking to anyone, as far as Luke could tell.  Since leaving Crater, Felicity had been sitting in the back of one of the wagons for hours each day, doing nothing but watching the terrain go by.

“Why don’t you two get along?” he asked.

She sighed.  “I don’t know if I’d say we don’t get along, but I guess that’s one way to put it.  We’ve been arguing for so long it’s the only way we interact, really. I don’t think either of us has a real problem with the other, or at least I don’t.  Tony hates my job, but he manages to be civil to Felix, so maybe it’s just our personalities.”

“He doesn’t like unmaking?”

“No, he’s pretty passionate about taking the world back to what it used to be, and what I do isn’t part of that.  Plus he feels like we never do any real work. I think he picked it up from his dad, he always argues with the other Committee members when they want Felix and I to unmake something.”

Despite the fact that he brought it up, Luke felt uncomfortable talking behind Tony’s back as much as they were.  He changed the subject. “How often do they actually ask you to do it?”

“Not very often.  They’d rather salvage what needs to be gone than have it disappear.  Most days Felix and I spend our time training.”

“Training?  How do you do that?”

She gave him an amused glance.  “By staying quiet and not talking to anyone.”  Luke started to apologize, but she waved him off.  “Watch.”

She took a small rock from a pile next to her on the wagon and held it in her palm.  Luke stared for a few moments while she focused closely. He was on the verge of asking if he was missing something when the rock vanished with a small pop.  A smokelike haze wafted around Felicity’s hand where it had been, but it quickly dispersed and there was nothing to suggest the rock had ever existed.

“Wow,” Luke said, impressed. 

Felicity blinked hard and stretched her arms.  “Yep. The great art of unmaking.” An undercurrent of sarcasm colored her words.  “Pretty goddamn useless most of the time, but it’s a skill. It fucking wrecks me to do it this much, but it’s not like there’s anything else to do out here.”

“What do you mean?” Luke asked.  He remembered Felix telling him about a ‘cost’, but Felicity didn’t have any visible scars like what her brother had shown him..

“There’s always a price.  For me, it’s my blood. Any time I unmake something, some of my cells disappear right along with whatever I’m vanishing.  Felix pays with his skin.”

Luke’s eyebrows rose.  She’d looked pale and tired with dark rings around her eyes since he met her, but he’d thought she was just chronically sick.  To hear that she was doing it to herself made him feel a little ill.

“Does it hurt?”

Felicity shook her head.  “It does for Felix since the skin has so many nerves in it.  Plus he gets all those gross scars. I just have chronic anemia from losing red blood cells.”

Luke worried that he was annoying her with all of his questions, but what she was saying was fascinating.  “Why does it work differently for you? You can’t do it the other way?”

She shrugged.  “I don’t know. Maybe it has to do with how we look at things.  You have to focus on what you’re unmaking in a weird way…it’s hard to explain.  But neither of us can do it the same way the other can. I can’t start from the outside, and Fel can’t do it from the inside.” 

“What do you mean?” Luke asked, frowning.

She sighed.  “Like I said, it’s tough to explain.  When we unmake something it happens in…layers, basically.  When I do it, I have to start from the center. Felix has to start at the outside.  If he’d unmade that rock, you would have seen it get smaller and smaller until it disappeared.” 

“That seems so…arbitrary.”

 “Yeah, well, we can’t do it any other way.  Trust me, we’ve tried.” She sounded annoyed now.  “It’d be nice to be able to choose, but apparently that’s not how it works.  It’s not like we have instructions for how to do it. I’ve only met a handful of people who could unmake, and all of them are stumbling through it the same way as my brother and I.

“Sorry,” Luke said.  “I didn’t know it was poorly understood.”

“Well, if I practice enough I might learn something new,” she said pointedly.  “Which, again, I have to do without distractions.” Luke took the hint and hastily left her to her work

The caravan followed well-established paths that the traders used every time they left Crater.  For the most part, they stayed on roads that were maintained as carefully as possible, kept intact by all the settlements who used them for trading.  There were stretches where old cars had been hauled to the side of the road to allow room for the wagons, pulled by horses years ago when the trade routes were first getting established.  It looked like a mind-boggling amount of work, but it certainly made their lives easier for this trip.

Even so, there were a fair number of detours and switchback paths they had to take.  By keeping an eye out for the old rusted signs that marked which roads they were on, Luke realized that the caravan turned off of a major road more than once to take a convoluted trail, only to return to the original road hours or days later.  He guessed that the first settlement they were supposed to reach, Hobble, wasn’t all that far from Crater in a straight line, but the roundabout route they took made the journey a week long.

“It’s because of the Empty,” Ella told him one night around the fire.  Luke mostly stayed with his friends, but the trader woman was friendly and knew a lot about the caravan trails.  “We charted these routes a long time ago to avoid places where there’s a lot of them, or where we don’t know for sure.  It’s not worth it to explore any more than absolutely necessary, even if it would shave a day or two off of a trip.”

From close behind them, Luke heard a snort.  He turned to see Carver passing by with Angela.

“It’s not that hard to figure out where they are if you have an ounce of common sense.  Just get a map and draw an arrow from the biggest city to the smallest towns. They stopped when they ran out of population centers to destroy.”

Ella frowned at him.  “And what if you miscalculate?  What if they moved later and they’re somewhere you don’t expect?”

Carver shrugged.  “I’m still alive.”  That appeared to be the only rebuttal he thought necessary.

“So are we,” Ella retorted.  “We have wagons, Dad. We can’t just run away if we stumble into a nest of Empty.  Traders have responsibilities.  Do you have any idea how much it would set Crater back to lose the goods we have here?”

Luke was taken aback to hear that Ella was also Carver’s daughter.  She was a completely different race than either Angela or Carver. Somewhere in the Middle East, he guessed.

“You don’t think I have responsibilities?” Carver shot back hotly.  “Because I don’t sit on my ass until those idiots want me to do something?”

“I think that I can’t fuck off whenever I want for months at a time without telling anyone.  You know, like my family!  So yeah, you’re right.  You do have responsibilities, you just ignore them.”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Angela said, cutting off Carver before he could respond.  “El, he’s been like this for more than a decade. You really think yelling at him will change anything now?”

“So you’re taking his side?” Ella asked, still glaring towards Carver.

“‘Course not,” Angela snorted.  “I just know who I can trust to be the adult here.”

“Fine,” Ella said after a moment, tossing her hair.  She turned around, no longer acknowledging the man behind her.  Carver glared around at everyone present, including Luke, and stomped away, fuming.

Angela sighed.  “Sorry about that, Luke.  You spent a few days with him, you know what he’s like.  Imagine growing up with him.”

“That’s ok,” Luke said.  He admired Ella for standing up to Carver the way she did.  He wasn’t sure he would have the guts to do it with the old roamer staring him down like that.  “He seems pretty stubborn.”

“Oh, he is,” she agreed.  “It’s always been his way or the highway.  That was fine growing up, it kept all of us alive, but it’s hard to have a relationship with someone who refuses to compromise.”

All of us?” Luke asked.  “How many of you are there?”

“Maybe…ten or fifteen?” Angela said, glancing at Ella.  The other woman shrugged. “I don’t think I even know everyone he picked up.  El and I were with him for…I don’t even know how long. More than ten years, anyway.  He found both of us pretty soon after everything went to shit.”

“So he runs around saving kids?”

“Well yeah,” Ella said.  “Why do you think we still put up with him?  I mean, he saves everyone, but there were a lot of kids whose parents were gone in those days.  Most of them died, but Carver took in anyone he found.”

“Huh.” It was hard reconciling their words with the picture of Carver in Luke’s head.  He wouldn’t have guessed he had a soft spot for children.

“The man’s got issues, but he’s a decent parent,” Angela said.  “If you’re growing up after the apocalypse, anyway. Most of us didn’t end up too fucked in the head.”

“Remember how much he hated it when we started calling him Dad?” Ella said, a reminiscent smile on her face.  

“I’m pretty sure that’s the first argument we ever won.  We wouldn’t have even gotten that if you weren’t as stubborn as he is.”

“I don’t know about that.  Remember when he refused to let anyone else carry Alex?”

“Oh yeah,” Angela laughed.  “He looked ridiculous going on supply runs with that baby carrier.”

Luke spent the rest of the day listening to stories about growing up with Carver.  He was certain the old man looked over at them a few times, but he never approached.  That night, while sitting around a campfire with his friends, he looked speculatively at the old man, alone by his own fire.  Maybe he wasn’t an asshole as Luke had thought. Or at least not just an asshole.

Time passed, the drudgery of repetition making it difficult to separate the days.  The wagons rolled on, and Luke followed. His paranoia didn’t lessen, but it did grow dull after so many miles without any sign of a threat.  There were only so many times he could look over at a patch of high-growing grass and wonder what was hiding within before a part of him hoped that it would appear, if only to break up the monotony.  

There was little to do but walk and talk, and while Tony eventually got over whatever issue he’d had with Luke, it still felt a little awkward with him.  Felicity practiced her unmaking for hours each day, and Abby spent a similar amount of time up by the horses that pulled the wagons. Apparently she was the resident vet as well as doctor.  Luke spent some time around Ella and Angela, the only other members of the caravan he felt comfortable with, but he worried about annoying them by hanging around too much. 

As far as he could tell, he was the only one suffering so badly from boredom.  The others found ways to fill the days, or were so used to it that they were unaffected by the tedium.  A common pastime was to hunt wildlife to supplement their stores; the wagons moved so slowly that it was easy to catch back up as long as a trader who knew where they were going went along.  Luke wanted to try it too, but he was virtually the only person with the caravan who lacked some training in how to handle a gun. Without that, he could do little with a hunting team but slow them down.

Bored and useless as he felt, Luke was relieved when he heard that they would likely reach Hobble the next day.  It would be a change in his routine, and give him a chance to rest from the constant walking.

“Thank God,” he told Ella.  “I hope that we—” he cut off as a curious keening sound appeared at the edge of his hearing.  It grew steadily louder until most of the caravan was looking around in confusion. Carver was the first to react.

“Chromutes!  Get under cover, now!”

In an instant, the caravan turned to chaos.  The fastest to react bolted off of the road, where a number of cars had been pulled off into a haphazard line.  Everyone else took longer, including Luke, who only ran when he realized how panicked everyone else was. He was slow in moving and as he hesitated, looking for an open spot to hide, the keening sound grew louder.  A black cloud appeared on the horizon, moving fast.

Tony popped up from behind a station wagon, frantically beckoning towards him.  Luke darted in his direction, but the cloud was growing larger. Just before he slid under the car, he glanced over one more time.  The cloud was close enough now that he could make out the individual creatures that made it up. Each one looked like some kind of bird, but much larger and with a swirl of color that didn’t look like any creature Luke had ever seen.  They were still far off, but he saw greens and purples and blues mixed in the coat of each bird like oil reflected in water. He almost hesitated longer to get a better look, but good sense won out and he rolled under the station wagon next to Tony before they got any closer, pushing down the grass that covered his face as he entered. 

The two of them laid there, tense, as the keening grew to a crescendo above them.  Once the creatures were close enough, the uniform sound made by the flock could be distinguished as a cacophony of individual calls, high-pitched and piercing.  Luke was terrified that they caught sight of him before he got under cover, that any moment they would look beneath the car and start tearing into both of them. He didn’t dare move a muscle, even when dirt got into his mouth and made him gag.

It was probably no more than a minute before the noise started to diminish, but it felt far longer to Luke, every instinct screaming for him to run, to move.  He didn’t relax until the clamor was far off in the distance, almost beyond his hearing.

He let out a hard breath and turned to Tony, who looked similarly relieved.  They looked at each other for a long moment without speaking. Then Tony leaned over to kiss Luke, who reciprocated after an instant of surprise.  The other boy broke it off as quickly as it started, looking at Luke with wide eyes. Before he could say anything, Tony scrambled out from under the car and returned to the caravan.  Luke laid there a while longer, his thoughts a chaotic jumble. Eventually, he got out from under the car, brushing the dirt and grass off of his clothes before rejoining the others. Felicity, Ella, Tony, and Abby were speaking quietly to each other.  Tony glanced at Luke when he walked up, but looked away quickly and said nothing.

“I nearly shat myself,” Felicity was saying, shaking her head.  “I’ve never actually seen one in person.”

Luke listened, but stayed quiet other than muttered agreement.  His thoughts were quite occupied at the moment.

“Why are they so dangerous?” Abby asked.  I’ve heard the name, but I admit I know little about them.”

“Chromutes are voracious little fuckers,” Ella said.   Several others in the caravan turned to listen to her. “They don’t get along with people on general principle, and they’re not afraid of fighting.  It’s not smart to scrap with one if you can avoid it, even if you start getting the better of them they’ll just change shape into something else.”

That was enough to get Luke’s attention.  “What?” he asked sharply.

“Oh yeah,” Ella nodded.  “We stumbled across a group of them fighting a bear a few years back.  They like to stay as those birds from hell like we just saw, but that time…let’s just say they’re capable of doing some freaky shit and leave it at that.”  The memory seemed to unsettle her, which unnerved Luke on its own. She’d been fearless whenever he spoke to her so far.

“Why didn’t they take the horses?” Abby asked as she calmed the animals.  They’d been spooked by the noise of the flock, but were well-trained and hadn’t tried to run.  “I would have thought they’d eat such easy prey before leaving.”

“There were too many of them.” Ella said, sounding grim.  “If they were hunting it wouldn’t have been more than four or five.  With that many? That was a warband.” 

“They’re that smart?”  Luke asked, drawn into the conversation despite himself.  The glimpse he’d gotten of the creatures had suggested a flock of animals.  A warband suggested a higher intellect.

“Absolutely.  It’s hard to say for sure, but I’d guess they’re on the level of something like a dolphin.  Maybe even sapient. They’re definitely smart enough to investigate a few wagons out in the middle of nowhere.  We’re lucky they were focused on something else or we’d have had a much bigger problem.”

Abby cocked her head.  “What do you think they were after?”

“Chances are some idiot shot one down and let the others escape.  Chromutes go absolutely batshit if they lose one of their own. That’s another reason it’s a bad idea to fight them.  You kill one, the other five—because they never go anywhere on their own—run back to the nest or wherever they come from and bring back a group like the one you just saw.  Unless they’re already far, far away, someone’s day is about to get real fucked up. ”

“Jesus.”  As if Luke didn’t have enough to worry about.  Now he’d be keeping an eye on the sky everywhere they went, too.  Plus…he looked over at Tony, but the other boy wouldn’t meet his eyes, turning away.

After a short discussion amongst themselves, the traders decided that since the chromutes had not been traveling in the direction of either Hobble or Crater, they would press on as normal.  The march resumed with Luke cursing himself for wishing for more excitement. At least he had plenty to think on now.

Tony…in retrospect, Luke felt like an idiot for not figuring it out.  But he’d hardly been looking for romance, and Tony had never seemed gay.

He regretted the thought as soon as he had it.  People in past had told him that he didn’t act gay, and he always found it offensive, as if his orientation had to determine the way he behaved.  But the thought hadn’t crossed his mind that Tony was interested in men, probably because he wasn’t out. That was the only reason Luke could think of for his reaction, at any rate.  Having figured that much out, Luke had absolutely no idea what to do next. He was far out of his depth, with no one he could ask for advice. His own coming out had been…less than ideal, and the absolute last thing he wanted was to be the cause of that for anyone else.

Hell, he didn’t even know if Crater tolerated homosexuality, conservative as the general consensus was in the community.  There certainly hadn’t been any gay couples walking around that Luke had seen. And that wasn’t even taking his own feelings into consideration!  His only goal at the moment was to get away from this batshit world, and nothing to do with Tony was likely to help him in that regard. 

The more he thought about it, the more it seemed like a bad idea to get involved.  He’d probably only end up making Tony—and maybe everyone in Crater—hate him. Better to just let the whole thing go.

Which would mean he would basically never talk to Tony again.  Luke didn’t have so many friends that he was ok with the idea of losing one.  Not to mention that all of his other friends were also friends with Tony, which would make it hard to avoid him.  The whole thing was starting to take the shape of the kind of teenage drama Luke was fervently thankful he’d never had experience with.

On the other side of the coin, he’d already resigned himself to the fact that finding a way out might be a long-term undertaking.  And, if he admitted it to himself, Tony was fun to be around.  And easy to talk to.  And definitely good-looking.  And probably gay and confused about it.  Luke remembered well the feeling of hiding a part of himself from every single person in his life.  Even with the way it had all turned out, he couldn’t imagine having to go back to that. If nothing else, maybe he could help Tony with that confusion.  But then there was the possibility again that his help would only worsen everything. Luke’s thoughts twisted around over and over through the rest of the day and evening, with no firm decision to show for it by the time he went to bed.  Tony still wouldn’t look him in the eye, and the whole situation triggered his anxiety almost as badly as all the monsters.

He tossed and turned in his bag that night, sleep a long time in coming.  For once, it wasn’t because he was worried about the nightmares.

With the morning came resolve for Luke.  And a plan. He would let Tony make the first move.  The other boy had taken the initiative to kiss him, he knew where to find him if he wanted to talk about it.  That way he wouldn’t be intervening where his help wasn’t wanted, and his friendship might have a chance to survive.  His decision did little to unclench the pit in his stomach when he caught sight of his friend, but it was the best solution he could think of.

The atmosphere of the caravan was still subdued when travel resumed.  Caught in his own troubles, Luke hadn’t realized how much the close encounter with the chromutes had shaken the traders.  Even the security team didn’t completely alleviate their fears, and there were a lot more people glancing around the scenery the way Luke did.

Fortunately, according to the traders most familiar with their route, they were on track to reach Hobble by midday.  The region they were traveling through was getting hilly, and their destination was set right in the center of a valley according to Ella.  Which didn’t make the hills they traversed any easier for Luke to handle. He was gaining strength and stamina, but still had a long way to go to match most of the traders and security team.  He fell well behind the wagons on each incline, exhausted by the time he reached the top. The fact that he couldn’t even keep up with the horses harnessed to a loaded wagon was embarrassing, but there was nothing for it but to keep pressing on.  He looked up while climbing a particularly steep slope to see that everyone else had paused at the top. Worried that the whole caravan was waiting for him, he pushed himself to move faster. A minute or two later he crested the top apologizing to everyone nearby.  The words stuck in his throat when he caught sight of the valley below, realizing the real reason the caravan had stopped.

Hobble was on fire.

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