A/N: This chapter is intermingled with flashbacks from Jared's past that relate to his present. I don't think the backstory is too confusing, but just for your future reference: Jared's brother's name was Evan.
They've made it.
Jared knows that he is near whatever shelter Melanie's uncle has set up. He sees the shapes of the hills and mountains around him, watches the dust billow around their feet, and he can feel it. This isn't going to be added to his ever-growing list of failures, scrawled by the hand of a world that clearly wants to punish him.
For what crime?, he wonders suddenly. For what sin?
His subconscious answers in a cruel voice, a taunting voice, but laced with the pain of the screaming young boy who'd watched his brother die and the unfeeling man who'd killed a Seeker without remorse. Weakness, of course.
No, he's going to get Jamie to safety. His heart, a heart that has grown stone-cold in a matter of hours, trembles at the thought of failing Melanie in this.
But he can't think of Melanie, not now, not ever. Jamie is his responsibility now. Jamie is the only one who's left.
They pace back and forth, Jamie shuffling behind Jared as the older boy furiously wracks his brain, trying to figure out where the entrance to the shelter might be found. He doesn't stop to consider that it might not even be here, that they could be alone in the desert without a backup plan. He clings to the only hope he has left – the shining beacon, the ray of light – that the idea of safety provides – not for him, but for the kid.
He doesn't need to be safe anymore. He doesn't deserve to be safe. Not after what he's seen. Not after what he's done.
Suddenly, there is a rustle behind them. Jared whips around, his hand automatically reaching for his gun, aiming it at whatever is behind them. Jamie whimpers, and Jared realizes for the first time what seeing the Seeker's death must have been like for the kid.
There is a flash of light. Souls descend upon the family, take the father, pull at the younger brother's shirt.
"Come on, boy," they whisper, a chant in unison, their voices melding together, soft and reassuring, cold and harsh. "Come with us."
"No!" the boy screeches, pulling a knife from his back pocket. His hands plunge the metal into his chest and his eyes glass over. The Souls gasp and back away, dragging the father, leaving the body. The older brother, bronze-haired, tan-skinned and shaking, screams and lunges outward, realizing too late that his brother didn't stay where he told him to. That he put himself in harm's way.
"NO! Evan, no!"
Jared flinches and clears his mind. He can't think about that. He can't think about anything.
He will never admit that his heart pounds at the thought of firing the gun again, watching blood drain from a human body, knowing that he and he alone inflicted the pain that caused a man to scream for the end to claim him.
He will never acknowledge it. He is not weak. He cannot be weak.
A shadow steps out from behind an opening in the rocks. His hands clench around the gun. There is sweat on his palms. Jamie is whimpering. The world is spinning and Jared's vision is blurring and nothing exists but the metal in his hand and the clunk of bullets.
The older boy sobs over the corpse of his brother, crying hysterically, choked breaths escaping his lungs.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I'm so sorry." He isn't sure what he's apologizing for, but he knows without a doubt that this is his fault, entirely his fault, and he can't fix it and he can't change it. He screams suddenly, the sound like the crack of a whip in the silence.
He blinks as the shadow comes into the light. It's a man, wearing a large sunhat and carrying a rifle, his cheeks suntanned and his expression amused.
"You can go ahead and put that gun down, boy," the man chuckles, and Jamie's face breaks out into a grin.
"Uncle Jeb!" he screams, and rushes towards the man. Jared watches them for a moment, then stares at his shaking hand, still holding onto the gun as if it's a lifeline. Jeb's voice startles him back to reality.
"So who's this?" he asks Jamie, pointing at Jared with his rifle. Jared flinches and Jeb laughs, a booming sound that seems to echo across the flat land.
"That's Jared," Jamie says, smiling at him encouragingly. "Melanie's…"
Jared inhales, watching Jamie's smile falter and Jeb's happy aura dim as they all remember collectively that there is someone missing from this circle of humanity, someone important, and it is as though the life has been sucked out of all of them.
"Where…where's Melanie?" Jeb asks softly. He's speaking to Jared so Jamie doesn't have to answer, but the older boy simply looks down, his eyes closing as the realization that he's failed in every way that matters is forced upon him yet again.
He buries the body in a pile of dirt near the shelter, his lower lip trembling all the while, but he refuses to break down again.
He's on his own now. He has to be stronger than that.
Before he covers his brother in dirt, he gently moves his hand across the boy's eyelids, closing them to eternal sleep. He blinks the moisture from his eyes as he gathers up a handful of earth around him and sprinkles it over the face he'd grown up with, the boy he'd help raise as a child.
"Goodbye," he whispers, and the word signifies a new beginning. By the time he stands up, he's resigned himself to a life of loneliness. He has to protect himself now. He has to keep his grief in check.
But there is something like hope still stirring in his chest, like an ember of fire that refuses to be put out. He has a feeling – a premonition, maybe – that he isn't the last one, the last human. That there are others. That he won't be alone forever.
He can't lose that. If he loses that, he loses everything. And what is a man who's lost everything? What is he but an empty shell going through the motions, a dead man walking?
He won't cry. Jared Howe doesn't cry.
"She's…she's gone," Jamie whispers, and Jared notes that there are tears pooling in the boy's eyes. It's almost as though he can feel the tears on his own cheek…but no, they are his tears, the symbol of his grief. He tries to brush them off quickly, but they keep flowing, and he looks at Jamie and the young boy is staring at him with wide eyes.
It's the first time he's seen Jared cry.
Jeb stands silently, his eyes darting back and forth between them. Suddenly, Jamie runs towards Jared and wraps his small arms around the bronze-haired boy's waist, and Jared freezes, his arms staying at his side at first.
He's never been the one to need comfort before. He doesn't want to be in that position. He can't be in that position.
But despite every fiber in his being screaming at him to stop, slowly, slowly, he reaches around Jamie and pulls him tight against his chest.
Jeb's careful eyes watch as the older boy runs circles with his hand across the kid's back, a gesture he'd only ever conveyed to one person before, a boy startlingly similar to Jamie in every way, and past and present collide in that moment as Jared lets a sob escape through his chest.
"I'm sorry," he whispers, and this time he knows exactly what he's apologizing for. He swears to himself that this is the last person he'll allow himself to care about. He doesn't want this pain anymore.
And he'll never admit that Jamie's touch is the only thing keeping him upright. He'll never admit how much he needs him. He will never acknowledge it.
His greatest sin is weakness.
He cannot afford to be weak anymore.