Summary: Nearly a century after an engineered virus wipes out most of Earth's population, Tesla is a drifter, moving from town to town, staying alive as best he knows how, and leaving when residents begin to suspect his secret. He's heard stories of the heathen traders, of their societies and their sinful ways, and when two arrive at his latest village, he decides to follow them. He expected many things, but not that they'd make him prisoner for his genes.
Warning: This is a homoerotic romance and features explicit sexual acts between men. Some non-con (in flashback) and dubcon (depends on how PC you are), semi-explicit violence and references to torture (not much worse than first chapter). Themes of religion, racism, sexism and extreme homophobia. Also drug use, illegal today, but anarchy in story time means legal everything. ^^ I wrote this with an eye towards realism, but honestly, there are some 'yeah right, in your dreams' moments. Sue me. I'm an amateur.
Disclaimer: Story and characters creation of and property of Ocotillo / Ocotillo Dawn
Many chapters beta'd by Bean Montag. Find a link to her in my faves.
Thank you for reading! I welcome all feedback. -Oco
Breathing hard, struggling for oxygen in desperate gasps, Tesla clutched at a bloodied club of gnarled juniper as he leaned hard into a knee. The night was cool and dry, but sweat slicked his skin, chilling him where it soaked his shirt and stinging a fine network of scratches from his headlong run through spiny brush.
He shut his eyes to the empty stare at his feet, stilling his gut, willing the image away—a gash of torn flesh, red and pulpy, where an ear had been. The man lay on his back, the last twitch gone, one leg twisted harshly beneath the other. Past the roar of fight and terror, seeping through the cold rush of adrenaline, a sound of incongruous calm reached Tesla's ear. Trickling. Water.
"Bastard." The word scraped past his larynx.
"Fucking bastard. I told you…you could've come…we would've been fine…you…Saul!" This last, a wail, but then he was coughing, the silt in his throat chewing at him as though reproving him for the lie.
Idiot. No time for this. The others can't be far behind.
Still panting from fear and exertion, Tesla scanned the area wildly, looking for some likely place to hide the body, to slow the bastards down once the dogs caught wind. Brush, a rock, something besides right in the fucking middle of nothing at all but a clear path to it.
The arroyo. Cut deeper from the afternoon thunderstorm. Tesla had nearly fallen into it in his heedless run…a damn good thing he hadn't, too, or he'd be in Saul's position right now. Except Tesla would be missing his balls, not an ear.
Enthralled again, horrified, Tesla found himself staring again at the slack face. Saul had been crazy, was all. He would've done it—it wasn't just threat. And only last night he'd been…
Dead. Saul was dead. Wasn't him laying there. Hadn't been him at all, tonight. Not the man Tesla had known, but a soul shredded by a society that ran on harsh and unforgiving morals. Fear did things to men, Tesla knew that. He'd been stupid to forget, stupid to believe that anyone was beyond it. Anyone. Even Tesla, and God, he'd learned that lesson well.
"You could have run. You could have. Fucking bast—! Coward!" Crying, and God, but he couldn't afford this…this indulgence in self-pity. Just…are you crazy?—Move! Run!
An impatient swipe of his sleeve, smearing sweat and tears and dust from his eyes, Tesla heaved once at Saul's bulk, and then stopped.
No. Slow down. Think, Tesla. Use your brain. Get the water. You need that water.
Moving fast, finding his focus again, that state of mind where his mind ticked slow and deliberate, where fear and despair got tucked away. Tesla slipped the water skin from around Saul's shoulder and then rifled through his clothes. Jerky. Pocketing that, taking the knife that had fallen from dead fingers—not as good as his, but worth a trade, maybe—and then stripping Saul's shirt and stuffing it inside the band of his belt.
Lifting Saul was a struggle. There hadn't been the time at this village to build his strength back up, and Saul was a big-boned giant. Finally hefted, he carried the body over one shoulder to the arroyo. Yeah, it was a corpse now, no pulse—and more—a fecal stench rose as Tesla lifted the body.
Earth from the arroyo sides collapsed as the body tumbled into the trench. Dropping to his knees, exhaustion sapping him, Tesla dumbly watched the small avalanche of dry clay he'd jarred loose. Clods of dirt, crumbling down the sides of the gash to join the body and partially cover it from view. He stomped his heel down on an undercut ledge and sent more down with that.
That would have to be good enough. Full night, nearly a new moon; it would at least keep the dogs whining for a while. Tesla had to get his skinny ass moving. This drama would be decided one way or the other before dawn, and by god, it would be in his favor.
An early morning breeze brought the desert to Tesla's nose. The scent had become a recognizable friend in the last year, dusty somehow, but clear, too—so different from the heavy air of home.
Tesla shifted, scooting backwards a bit, deeper into the brush, until he found the comfort of the wall behind him. Drawing up legs that trembled with the burn of exhaustion, he tucked his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms tightly about them…warding off chill.
There was no home, anymore. There was only this, concealing himself in the crumbling remains of Before, against what was…what? He gave the cement blocks an idle glance. An old well house, maybe. A cistern. He didn't have the energy to sustain any curiosity about it. But his hideout was on a ledge, and tucked well into a copse, and if he strained against the pink of the eastern sun, he had a good view of the flats that he'd climbed from. That was all that mattered. That, and that the shade would be welcome later. It was enough to call the place home for the day.
Assuming no one…but no, they had to have given in by now. Be more fanatical than any town he'd ever known if they tracked him this far. Probably Saul had provided what they wanted. Evidence of their prowess—their faith. Something to bring home.
You deserved it. Fucking coward.
Tesla blinked, forcing his gaze back to the horizon. He'd been here a couple hours now, quiet as the air itself, not moving—barely daring to breathe as he listened—straining to hear every sound out there, for dogs, for movement, for desert creatures upset by a disturbance. And watching. For torches, and as the sun rose, dust—anything that might warn him. He'd seen nothing.
Once the sky was fully light, Tesla slipped a hand into a pocket, he had deep ones, good pants for a drifter, especially one stealing his supper. Obsessively quiet, extracting two carrots—limp already in the dry air. Meager pickings, but he'd thought he'd have more than the morning to stock up—hadn't thought he'd be running quite so soon, in quite such a terror.
He ate them, close-mouthed, wilted greens first, then the roots, wincing at the sound of each bite, knowing damn well he was overreacting, but it was impossible not to be a little jumpy. The carrots were small, it only being summer still, but they were sweet and wet, and he might as well get them down now before the desert stole their water.
The sun was higher now, and Tesla unrolled the sleeves of his tunic to shield his skin. His mother's complexion, a curse out here, red hair that curled every which way, and freckles, and it didn't matter how many summers he spent in the fields; he'd still burn on one of these hot July days. He fingered the shoulder of his shirt—he'd ripped it while running through brush last night—then pulled Saul's from his waistband and held it up in front of him. A fancy one—with buttons, so much richer than his own. It'd do him alright; Saul was a big man, but shirts forgave. And it was in much better shape than his—even not counting the rip. Smelled off. Of Saul. Damn.
The village wasn't yet far enough away to give Tesla total peace of mind, but his legs ached and his eyes stung. The heat of the day was rising, and if he could stay here until the sun began to set, he should. Trying to think straight, not react, but reason things out. Plan.
Tesla uncapped Saul's water flask and took several deep swallows. Nearly full. Out for half a day in the sun, then half the night, and the moron hadn't drunk hardly any of his water.
The traveler—crooked teeth gone yellow, but dark eyes so serious and smart and tired—he'd told Tesla stories about that, before he'd been killed. Before Tesla himself had become a drifter, following in his footsteps, probably destined to die the same way. Karma, his mother would've called it. The traveler had told tales of carcasses found in the desert, people who had died of dehydration with a half-full flask of water at their belt. Saving it for when they needed it.
The jerky. There'd been jerky. Sliding hips forward and digging into the other pocket, Tesla pulled that out. Three strips, venison—tough, but protein, and salt. A godsend. Thank you, Saul. He tore a piece off one strip, and chewed at it while working the tie on his pack, then slipped the rest next to a couple other strips already in there.
And Christ, as if Tesla had needed one, this had been a stark reminder of why Tesla didn't go anywhere—not even to take a shit—without the belt and a quart skin of water tied close around his waist. Such a slim pack, almost invisible, but it carried the barest of his possessions, mostly equipment to keep him alive…a knife, suitable for skinning a squirrel or scraping off whiskers, a whetstone, an old nylon fishing line and hooks. Irreplaceable, all of it.
Before tying the belt back on, Tesla ran a thumb over a small lump in it, slow and thoughtful, seeing what he touched in his minds eye. The silver locket, secured with fine stitches into a closed off pocket—a few years now since he'd looked at it. Heart-shaped, with fine scrollwork that had almost been rubbed off through three generations. It used to hold tiny photographs—his great grandparents—but water and sweat had destroyed those in the years he'd been on the move. Now it was empty, and he kept it safe and tucked away.
The locket itself didn't mean so much to him. But his mother had treasured it, and that meant a lot. She had known the people in the photographs. She had touched it with her fingers, held it in her hands, and it was the only thing Tesla owned anymore that tied him to her. So he kept it next to him, always, to remind him that he had a cord that bound him to this world, that told him he did have a birthright to the land—a tie to it that was as strong as anyone's.
That was something he could doubt sometimes.
By late morning, when he was satisfied that there was no imminent danger; Tesla began to look around the area for food. What little he'd eaten yesterday had come back up last night—when the shock of having killed a man interrupted his adrenaline fueled flight with waves of nausea. Unfortunate, losing the fluid, especially, but there wasn't much to be done for it now.
Prickly pear, those were good…and wet—and there you go, he'd learned that from this village, so it wasn't all a loss. A couple were near ripe, so he scraped off the spiny hairs with his knife and took the fruits and a couple of pads back to his shade.
Sucking at a pear, he considered the events of the past day. He'd had tight escapes before, but never one that terrified him as much as this one had. Close. Far too close.
He'd been stupid, getting drawn in as though the past—what? Seven, eight years now? As if those years had taught him nothing. Christ. He thought he'd gotten knocked around enough to strip the last of the romantic ideas from his skin.
But Saul's eyes had been gentle, a flickering intensity of gold green and brown that a word as short as 'hazel' only muddied. And they hadn't let Tesla go. Tesla hadn't been but a few days at the village when he'd felt them following him, the yearning in them palpable, no malice in them at all.
The village itself had started out as well as any of them did; they'd had a new field wanted plowing, had business on their minds and needed a strong back. So they'd put off the demands for a while, those expectations that drifters brought, especially clear skinned ones. Of fresh blood—a new infusion of health into inbred communities. But all rent comes due, and the women began to flirt and crowd and the elders began to watch closely, ready to decide who'd receive his seed, narrowing eyes at a young man who showed little interest… If Tesla hadn't been so addle-witted he'd have seen how precarious the situation had already become.
He'd been only a little over two weeks arrived, in the fields, harvesting thumbs of gee-em supercorn, when Saul had kissed him. Saul. A father thrice over, with a woman pregnant besides, so he was safe, they were protected for a little while, and Tesla lost all sense in the promise that was Saul with the broad shoulders, easy smile and warm eyes, only a faint tell-tale flush of pockmarks across his forehead.
Hands. Touching him among the tall cornstalks. Rough calluses over his skin, grasping his waist, fingers climbing the knobs of his spine.
Tesla hadn't been completely stupid…he'd known he would have to leave eventually. Just didn't know they'd already become suspicious of him. He'd believed in Saul's immunity, maybe.
'I can't do what you do.'
'Yes, you can. With your looks, your skin, you could choose any…'
'No, Saul. I've tried…and it…I…'
'Find a way, Tesla. Stay. I'll protect you. I swear, we'll find a girl who—'
Tesla spat to one side, picking at his tongue where he'd caught a stray spiny hair. Damn it. Three weeks. Only three weeks, not even enough time to put flesh back on his bones, but Saul's eyes had glistened as he spoke, so moved, so relieved. So naïve. So…desperate. Tesla should have seen that, he should have understood. He should have been more careful.
Two nights ago, now. Seemed like last night for the rush of time since. Like a month ago for how much had happened. The moon had been high, the village quiet, and Tesla sleeping when Saul had crept to the village perimeter and into Tesla's shelter.
Summer heat, the smell of dust and sweat, the light fur from Saul's chest tickling Tesla's back. Eager fingers groping, tearing away clothing, humidity growing in the closed air. Opening to Saul, letting him in, some pain yes, but fair payment for a climax made so much more powerful for the silence they kept.
The comedown, interrupted by stark clarity, a bolt of panic for what had just happened. "I have to go." Tesla had struggled from beneath him then, frantically tugging on his pants.
"…Now? Why?" Harsh whispers, and a dread in Saul's voice.
"Why?" Tesla wrenched away from his grip and gaped at him. "Because they'll kill me, Saul, that's why."
"No, they wouldn't."
Refastening the belt he should never have let Saul remove. "Yes, Saul. They will. They'll kill you, too, if they find out."
"No. You're overreacting."
Tesla ignored that, reached for his shirt, and begun to tug it over his shoulders.
"Tesla. Wait. Just. Until tomorrow. Maybe…maybe I'll go. With you. I don't want to lose…I can't…" Deep furrows in his brow, and Tesla saw the agony there. Trying to decide what he could live with.
"No. Saul. Stay. You can. You're safe. If someone noticed, you tell them it was me. That—I don't know…that I tried to seduce you." At Saul's wide eyes, Tesla said, "I'll be long gone by then, it won't matter. Tell them you resisted, that you had no idea. But you'd better get out of here. Go home. Now."
"Just wait. Please. I love you. Tomorrow. You can stock up then, right? It's dangerous out there. And maybe…"
One more day. And Tesla thought, what could it hurt? Because Saul was right, Tesla could stock up, fill his pockets with bread and his belly with water, and chances were, nobody had seen a thing, and if Saul came, he would need to be ready, get water and food. And had he said he loved Tesla…?
So in the aftermath, his pulse not yet fully recovered, Tesla had sealed the trap. He should have said, 'Now. I am leaving now. Join me or stay, but now.' God, he should have. But he'd agreed so quickly, and then Saul had been gone.
Even then, it'd seemed okay, the next day calm and quiet, and if Tesla was nervous, he at least had the day to prepare—eating plenty, stealing from the fields and forcing water through his system. There'd been no indication of anything wrong. Until lunch.
The men. A troop of them, pushing Saul in front of them, Saul stumbling, a crack swelling his lip. One of the men looking in the devil's grip, rage etched on his face, Saul's face…Saul's father.
"It was him." Saul's voice teetered on the edge of panic. "I swear, I didn't…it was him—I ain't a faggot, I got kids!"
That was all Tesla heard. The bag of corn at his back…in a short swing, Tesla spun and cast it away like shot, towards the men approaching him.
They'd almost had him. A young guy, built like a scrawny mutt and swift as one too, had snuck behind him and clawed at Tesla's arm as he bolted. But Tesla had barely broken stride, the adrenaline already carrying him, and he'd twisted, grabbed the man by the ears, and heard the crack of a nose against his knee.
Tesla had been gone before the man hit the ground.
Startled by a movement in front of him, Tesla jerked out of his trance. A chipmunk, was all, skittering just beyond his foot, interested in what bits of wet cactus pulp Tesla had discarded for him. Tesla exhaled in a deep sigh, and ran his fingers through the hair at his neck, pressing down, trying to relax the coils of tension that still held him.
I ain't a faggot!
Saul had been part of the posse. Hadn't come as a surprise, really, staying back would've bought him dead. Good tracker, too. Because when Tesla heard a voice calling out, it was his. Tesla had waited, letting Saul catch up, arming himself, yes, but it was foolish nevertheless. Wanting to give Saul another chance…knowing that he'd already shown what he was capable of, but making excuses for him…remembering the traveler again…remembering when Tesla himself had been the coward…
Tesla's stomach rebelled, visions assaulting him, memories old and fresh, and he choked back a gag, intent on keeping his water in him this time. But God, remembering Saul, the bile that had spit from his mouth.
"There you are."
His expression had turned, snarling like a rabid dog. Still, Tesla had tried.
"Come with me, Saul. I know how to survive out here. It's easier with two…"
Saul had been panting from the pace he'd set. Not used to running. "…your fault…you…of Satan…infecting me…"
Tesla had begun backing up then. Seeing finally that there was no helping him. 'You came to me, Saul.'
'No.' A sneer. A blade in his hand, he advanced on Tesla, and Tesla saw in his stance and in his eyes what he hadn't said aloud. I'm going to kill you and cut you, and my trophy will prove that I'm not one of you.
So Tesla had swung. Closed his eyes and mind to what he was about to do, heard the crunch of contact, the branch bouncing back, sending an electric jolt through Tesla's arm.
Saul had wanted his trophy. But Tesla would bet that by nightfall, it would be the evidence of Saul's own hanging in a righteous man's home. Maybe his own father's—an example for the next boy who looked the wrong way. Desiccating next to the wooden Jesus, if the stories were accurate. And they probably were. God.
Think about something else.
Tesla stood and stretched his legs, easing the ache in his knees and calves. It was late in the afternoon; the sun was getting low enough to make travel more water efficient. Tesla had neither seen nor heard any sign of pursuit since before dawn. It was time to move. He began to walk, following the ridge for a while as it ran generally west, limping a little on bare feet bruised and scratched from the heedless run.
As the sky grew red, Tesla began to head downhill. He couldn't expect to last forever on high ground—he would need water soon, and that meant down. A stream would provide water, yes, but also—with luck—a meal or two. And following its path would be his best chance for finding the next village.
So with teeth clenched against making any sound, Tesla walked, muttering silent prayers to whatever presence might not want him dead that he'd find a clear course heading generally south—always towards warmer winters. It was nearly certain that his pursuers had given up by now, but he was cautious anyway, moving with care, hyper vigilant to any movement around him.