Her breath is heavy as he kisses down her stomach, stopping where her underwear begins and pulling back up, reaching for her lips, crushing against them so hard it's almost painful for a moment.
"I love you so much," he whispers, and his voice is strained but he doesn't know why, he only knows that something is very, very wrong, and if he lets her go now he'll never get her back.
"I love you, too," she says, and her eyes are closed and he kisses along her neck and everything is perfect as long as he can keep holding onto her, as long as her grip doesn't waver. This is all he needs. Just her.
But then she begins to pull away and he looks up and he can feel it in his bones, a crushing kind of realization dawning, and it's coming but he can't quite grasp onto it, and then she opens her eyes and he knows.
There is a silver ring around her pupils.
Jared Howe wakes up screaming.
It's been four days since they lost her. Four days since they lost everything.
Jared doesn't sleep, not nearly enough. He stays up all night holding on to Jamie, brushing the kid's hair off his forehead as the sobs wrack his small, fragile body, waiting for him to nod off. Then he's free to take his turn.
He lets the tears fall without restriction or interference, allowing the hollow pit inside him to overtake his entire body, mind, soul. It is at night that he admits his weakness, his utter devastation, the simple fact that he failed in protecting the one thing that mattered.
He destroyed his family.
He's always been too weak.
And his grip will tighten on Jamie and a cloud will appear to pass over his eyes as he swears to himself that nothing, nothing will happen to the kid. He owes this to Melanie. He owes this to Jamie.
And that's when the tears will stop, because Jared Howe still has someone in the world who needs him, and as long as he needs him, Jared will be there. Jared's loyalty is not easily won, but it will never waver.
There are some bonds you can't break.
They keep moving towards the desert, and it's along the way that Jared has his breakthrough, understands the true meaning of the lines Melanie's uncle had shown her. Jared obtains a gun in one of the shacks they pass, an area clearly untouched by the Souls. Late that night, camped out in a small ditch, he rolls the weapon over on his fingers as Jamie sleeps beside him.
The gun feels strange in his hand, heavier than he thought it would be. It feels as though he holds the power of life and death between his fingertips, weighing him down but also lifting him up, a battle between heaven and hell for his soul.
His soul. The irony of it is not lost on him, the fact that their souls are what they're all fighting for but his is what's dragging him down, making him weaker. His soul is Melanie, her laugh, her smile. The only light left. And now she's gone.
"Take my soul," he whispers bitterly, staring up at the starry night sky, imagining he's talking to whatever higher power there might be but knowing in his heart that there isn't anything there to hear him. Jared has never been a believer. He can't afford to swear loyalty to anyone else. "Take it, it's yours."
But the stars give no response and he breaks down, curling into a ball in the dirt, sobs harrowing his body, because it's clear to him now that even the heavens don't want his soul, not his, not one plagued by loss and grief, tears shed and unshed.
The gun lies on the ground next to him. He doesn't want to touch it again.
The next day, they reach an open stretch of desert. Jared begins to grow concerned about his directions. Could he have been wrong about the map? He considers simply giving up, dropping to the ground and letting death claim him. It would be easier, certainly.
He doesn't want to feel anymore.
Jamie, he reminds himself, and that is all it takes for him to strengthen his resolve to keep moving. Jamie is what matters now. Jamie is the only thing left that he will allow himself to care about.
Suddenly, they hear a noise in the distance.
"A helicopter," the younger boy whispers, and Jared realizes he's right. He looks around frantically for something to duck under, someplace to hide, but his effort is futile. They came for them. They won't leave without them.
As the helicopter lands and the flier climbs down, Jared realizes that the "they" he had anticipated is, in fact, just one Seeker, a tall man with jet-black hair and a kind face, but twisted now, a lopsided grin marring his features.
"Surrender your weapons," the Seeker commands, and Jared notes that he has no gun or spray in his hand. His instincts are telling him that the Seeker is putting up a false pretense, and he's always trusted his instincts. He realizes that this was not a mission at all but rather a chance encounter, and the Seeker is untrained and utterly unprepared.
His hands clench around the gun that has found its way into a holster on his belt. The weapon still feels unnatural, but he will use it, of course he will use it.
He can't afford to be weak.
"No," he says, and his voice is strong and spiteful. These are the people that took his Melanie from him, his brothers, his father, everyone that has ever mattered. He pulls out his gun and aims it at the Seeker. Jamie inhales sharply.
The Seeker's eyes dart back and forth, his demeanor panicked now that Jared has called his bluff. "Please," he says softly, gently, his hands making what Jared assumes are supposed to be calming motions. "Let's talk about this, sir."
Jared looks at him for several moments. He wonders what the human who had once inhabited the body had been like, if he'd had a family, children, people who were counting on him. He even considers, for a moment, what the Soul's life is like now, if he has friends, a partner, a life he's carved out for himself.
Jared doesn't have to shoot him.
But then he thinks of Melanie, and everyone he's lost, and the brief moment of sympathy has passed. He has someone to protect. He has a job to do. Nothing else can matter.
"Look away, Jamie," he says, and his voice is flat, lacking any semblance of the joyful man he had once been. That man is dead. He died when they took Melanie. He died the day his world collapsed.
The Seeker's mouth moves, and Jared pieces together what he's saying. "Please. Don't kill me. Please."
Something snaps inside of Jared Howe in that moment. There is a coldness that overwhelms his body, and it is as though his heart's chambers are locking their doors in preparation for the coming storm.
He shoots. Bang.
After a moment, he walks slowly over to the body and watches as the blood seeps through the Seeker's chest. He doesn't let himself look away.
This is who he is now. This is who he has to be.
I'll never love again.