In the year 2184, the US is divided. Half the country has moved on with the rest of the world, while in middle America, the survivors of the terrorist biological attack that split the country struggle just to stay alive. Though a century has passed, few people brave going behind the borders meant to contain the danger. Even the privatized military is reluctant to do so.
But that doesn’t stop recently discharged Sullivan Eberle. Only one thing drives him anymore -- the need to find Raphael Hamada. He doesn’t know why. He only knows he must. If that means a lifetime behind the borders, then so be it.
Rafe Hamada ran away from the real world when he was still a kid. The last thing he wants is to be found, especially by a soldier who can’t even tell him why it was so important to locate him in the first place. He’d like nothing more than for Sullivan to leave, but turning his back on a man alone and friendless is against everything Rafe stands for ...
His voice was softer than it had been inside, a distant rumble before a summer storm. "I'm sorry they're so dirty."
"That happens when you're sleeping in ditches." When Sullivan made no move to reach for his other shirt, Rafe bent and scooped it up for him. "We'll find something for you. Don't worry."
No contact this time when Sullivan took the garment. He dropped into negative space again as he backed away to have room to finish what he'd started. "I don't like taking advantage of your hospitality. Can I do something to pay you back?"
Rafe wished Mama had come out to hear the unsolicited offer. "We can work something out, if it'll make you feel better. How long are you staying?"
"I don't know. I know I'm not welcome."
"Luther's that way with everybody."
"It's not just him." For several seconds, the only sounds were the rustle of his shirt over his skin and the buttons occasionally knocking against each other in tiny clicks. "People don't like Strike. I know that."
"You said you weren't enlisted anymore."
"So you're not Strike."
"That's not what people see." The shadows stopped dancing, and then there he was, the shirt dangling from his hand. "That's not what you saw."
It was dark enough for him to lie without worrying it would read in his face, but he couldn't defend Sullivan to his mother and then refuse to trust him himself. Rafe was a lot of things, but a hypocrite was not one of them.
"But then you told me the truth," he said. "It's just a matter of making sure everyone else knows the truth, too."
Sullivan traded him shirts without a word. His unwavering gaze only broke from Rafe's when his head passed through the neck opening.
"Your uniform's going to be a problem if you stick around for any time." Rafe tried to assess him without making it clear he had more than a passing interest in Sullivan's physical presence. It was a lot harder than he would've thought. Nobody behind the borders cared about sexuality anymore, not when history had given them more lethal things to worry about, but he knew the border cities were a lot more conservative. The last thing Chadwick needed was a Strike-trained soldier, furious that someone had the balls to be attracted to him. And it was a good thing his mother wasn't around to witness his appraisal, or she'd be hauling Sullivan off to the sheriff's, Rafe's requests be damned. "I'll have to wait until morning to fix that, though."
Though Sullivan nodded, it seemed he did so by rote. Rafe expected him to make noises about going inside, or about the food, or even to push past him to go for the promised meal himself, but he stayed in place. Waiting for permission? That's what he'd done inside. But Rafe didn't want to order him around like he was some kind of a superior officer. He didn't want to treat Sullivan like a soldier. He'd left it behind for a reason, and Rafe would not be the one to impose that role back upon him, even if he asked for it.
"How did you get here?" he asked.
Rafe blinked. "You ... walked?" At Sullivan's nod, his eyes widened even farther. "But there's trains now."
One broad shoulder lifted in a reluctant shrug. "They need to know where you're going. I didn't."
"You said you were looking for me."
"So let me get this straight. You just ... walked away from Strike --"
"The hospital. I got my discharge while I was still in recovery."
The clarification didn't actually matter. "Okay, the hospital, then. And you didn't know where you were going, or why you needed to find me, but you did it anyway?"
"That's insane. Do you have any idea how big it is behind the borders? And how small Chadwick is? How did you ever think you were going to find me?"
His barrage of questions flustered Sullivan, his gaze shifting to stare off into the darkness, focusing on nothing, or everything, or maybe just anything that wasn't Rafe. "I followed my feet. They've never let me down before." He paused, utterly still. Not even his chest moved in time with his breath. "They didn't let me down this time, either."