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Disclaimer: this is fiction. We made it up.

Then Is a Warm Happiness and Now Just Is

by Kary, special bonus story

It's been years, so many that Justin's lost count. He remembers Then with a warm feeling in the pit of his stomach but he's lost the words to describe it. Then was just so long ago.

He's been here with the rest of the guys since the Outlaws murdered his mama and stepdad. He isn't certain if any of the rest of his family is alive. But with the time that has passed he's come to terms with the realization that they are all probably dead now. The Outlaws are merciless. He's certain that he'd be dead now too if it hadn't been for Chris and the others, they're his family now.

They sleep in shifts, patrol in pairs and live life in calculated segments. Chris goes out of his way to plan their days so that they stay under the radar of the Outlaws and the Justice. They don't want any trouble and they don't want any problems. They're just fine on their own. Everyone agrees.

They never stay in any one place too long, preferring the nomadic lifestyle because it gives them just one more edge over the Outlaws and the Justice. Great way to keep hidden is to change to new scenery. At least that's what Chris always says. It made sense to Justin.

He sometimes tries to remember Then but it seems almost like a very vague dream of a fairytale. Things have changed so much since Then, now is a time of anarchy and corruption. They've got to live in the now or they'll trip up. Joey is sure of it. It's just better to focus on the now and sometimes even on tomorrow. Justin only thinks about Then right before he sleeps.

"Justin!"

He's trapped in dreams of Then, floating through memories of when his mama baked pies and he smiled all the time. Chris' frantic voice is persistent in ripping the dreams away and he groans because the feeling of warm happiness always leaves when he awakens.

"Justin I need you to go scouting. JC is missing."

Chris doesn't have to shake him any more; he's very much awake now.

"What?"

"Lance and JC got separated last night, I'm still trying to piece together what happened but I need you and Joey to go out and scout for JC and any other info you can dig up. I think they had a run in with the Justice."

He's already stumbling out of his makeshift bed and tugging on a pair of pants. Pants that used to be Joey's from before he had lost his boyish form and filled out with lean muscle.

"Where's Joey?"

"He's eating some breakfast downstairs."

"How's Lance?"

Chris' face darkens before he frowns and shrugs, "I hope he'll be ok."

Justin worries about JC and Lance, the knots already forming in his stomach to the point where he can barely finish his bland toast.

"Is that all you're having?"

"Yea. I'm not very hungry."

Joey nods because he understands that food isn't really a priority right now but more of a meager attempt to keep their bodies fueled for the day.

"Ready to go?"

Justin grabs his hat, binoculars and the pistol that has been assigned to him. His heart races with the possibility of having to use it. He really hopes it doesn't come to that.

They follow last night's patrol itinerary as dictated by Chris. Any tracks from last night have been well concealed, probably Lance's doing. The sun is high in the sky by the time they reach the outskirts of town. They pull their hats down low and saunter into the commotion of the marketplace, avoiding contact with anyone but listening in on conversations for any hint of what has happened to their friend, their brother.

"-he whipped her for trying to run -"

"-contaminants out of the water -"

"Did you hear about Bob's nephew?"

"The Outlaws are threatening a raid."

Justin makes note of the news of a possible raid as he continues behind Joey towards the Justice's offices.

"-she made the mess bigger than-"

"-picked up a boy last night but he's not talking."

Justin reaches out to touch Joey but Joey has already stopped and is pretending to read the front page of a newspaper that he's picked up from somewhere along the way. Justin moves farther down the street to pretend to examine the pottery at a street vendor's stall. He listens intently to the conversation between the chief of the Justice and an officer.

"Give him water but no food and keep him in his cell until I come back."

Justin growls low in his throat and the vendor looks at him oddly. He ignores the man and walks back over to Joey as the chief walks off and the officer walks back into the station. Joey stops him from storming into the Justice headquarters, "Wait!"

The word is whispered with so much insistence that Justin stops dead in his tracks and looks at Joey. Joey watches the chief walk down the dirt street towards one of the other buildings. Justin worries his lip and waits for Joey to give him the go ahead. When the chief stops dead and turns around Joey pushes Justin around the headquarters building making his head hit the corner of the windowsill.

"Ow Joey jeez!"

The wind is kicking up the dust around them and he has to squint to keep the gritty sand out of his eyes.

"We gotta get back to the house and let Chris know what's going on. We should also make sure that they were talking about JC."

"They were!"

Justin keeps his voice low but urgent because he's sure of it, he's fucking certain that it's JC, he'd bet his life on it.

"It's easy enough to check, just go around the corner and look into the cell windows. The sun is bright enough we'll be able to see in."

Justin nods and starts walking around the next corner of the Justice headquarters looking for the tell tale bars of the tiny rectangle windows at the base of the building. He assumes they put the cells in the basement because it makes it harder to escape but that is just his guess. Right before he turns the corner he spots the first barred window and looks around for anyone who might be watching but the only people in range are Joey and the pottery vendor who appears to be concentrating on cleaning the recently blown dust off of his fine works. Justin crouches down and pretends to be adjusting the buckles on his left boot; he sneaks a glance into the cell and feels his heart sink when he sees a shock of blonde hair. He leans to the side, just a bit closer to get a better look, and sees that the bright hair belongs to a boy about his age or maybe a little older but not past 20. He has to wonder how the boy ended up in the hands of the Justice but before his mind can begin to wander and before he questions why it's that boy down there and not himself he stands. They round the corner and Joey stops at the second window to peer in. He shakes his head in disappointment and bites his lip before looking to Justin and motioning to the next window. Justin rushes over, not even bothering to look around this time because he's too eager to find JC. JC is sitting in the corner of his cell, his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms draped over them, his head resting on his arms. Justin can see what looks like a pretty bad gash on JC's right shoulder but he can't be sure if what he sees is dried blood or caked mud. He swallows hard and stares because the way the afternoon sun is filtering through the dusty air makes JC look like he's got a giant halo around his body or perhaps neatly folded golden wings. It's beautiful. He is beautiful. Joey tugs on Justin then but he doesn't want to go, he doesn't want to leave JC here alone. He makes a sharp birdcall and JC looks up at the window. Justin manages to catch a glimpse of JC's sad smile before Joey pulls him away. He wants so badly to run back there and rescue JC but he knows they need a plan.

"What is with you man? We almost got caught."

"I'm sorry." he mumbles, "I just wanted him to know we found him."

Justin hadn't noticed the couple walking down the street until Joey had pulled him up from his crouch and by then they had noticed them and the man had given them a curious look. They walk off as calmly as they can, trying not to draw attention to themselves. The town definitely isn't big enough for people not to ask questions when two unfamiliar boys turn up and a third has been taken into custody.

Joey and Justin make their way back to the house, covering their trail as best they can. Justin finds himself being lulled into a false sense of security when he sees the clapboard house appear on the horizon but he knows that this place isn't secure, it's not like home and not at all like Then, it's just a house-where they stay-for now.

It is well into the afternoon when they arrive back to share their discoveries with Chris. Lance is still passed out, moaning lightly in his sleep and Justin can see Joey's macho fa├žade crumble when he sees Lance lying there bruised and bloodied. He hopes that Lance will be alright.

"What are we going to do?"
Chris and Justin are standing in the kitchen trying to figure out a way to get to JC. Justin drags his hand over his face feeling anxious and spent. He would give anything to have JC right now but instead they're standing around chatting.

"We need a diversion of some sort."

"What about the raid?"

"We're not sure it's going to happen. It might but it might not. It's also pretty risky. We'd be going out into the midst of a full blown fight between the Justice and the Outlaws. There's bound to be blood and I'd really rather it not be any of ours."

"Chris! It's the perfect opportunity to do it. We just waltz in while they're fighting and we're home free. Think about it!"

"I am thinking about it and there's more to it than that kid."

"It's JC! We have to do something anything."

"I know."

It's only then that Justin sees the pained sadness on Chris' face and he knows that they'll go tonight because it's JC.

They leave Joey caring for Lance, who is still unconscious and looking a scary paper white. Justin hopes that Lance is just resting up and recuperating, he wishes that the paleness isn't a sign of something much worse.

Chris and Justin use the cover of night and the sparse foliage to hide in wait. It feels like hours pass as they crouch and wait for any signs of a raid. Justin is willing to wait as long as it takes for the Outlaws to create their diversion. Chris watches the border of the town with well trained eyes. Even in the half light of the quarter moon they notice the small movements of the rodents scurrying along buildings. They both notice the lights speeding down the way before they hear the roar of the motorcycles approaching. This is perfect. The Outlaws are coming to raid the town and it is perfect. It's an odd thought in Justin's head because usually a raid means that it is time for them all to pack up and move but tonight it means there's hope. Justin starts to straighten up but Chris stops him with a heavy hand on his shoulder. That's when he sees it, a form hidden in the shadows of the bar, creeping towards town as the Outlaws close in. They wait and watch the action unfold in front of them. Justin sees the chief of the Justin approaching the Outlaws with a shotgun and he's waiting for a shot to ring. An argument erupts and the chief knocks the outlaw with the butt of his gun.

"We gotta go."

Chris is watching intently but Justin is ready to do this now.

"Seriously Chris, we gotta go now."

"Wait." Chris hisses. "There's a few more Justice hiding out. Just be patient please."

Justin looks out again, searching for the mysterious form but it's nowhere to be found. By the time his eyes are drawn back to the action there is a full fledged brawl and then Chris is standing and leading the way past a few more trees. They slink past the commotion as a shot rings out through the air and now Justin is certain that hell is about to break loose. The yelling grows as more people join in on the fight. Justin fingers his pistol sitting in his holster and feels his heart thump wildly, adrenaline coursing through his blood. He would give anything to be back at the old clapboard house with JC right now but now is not the time to think about that, now is when he tries not to get himself killed. They stay flat against the walls of the buildings they're walking past, sneaking past. The headquarters are at the end of the block and they're just so close that Justin's heart is pounding in his ear, almost blocking out the strangled yells of the townsfolk and the Justice as they try to fight off the Outlaws. As they pass JC's cell window Justin has to fight the urge to kneel down and look in. There's no time now. They have to hurry. They turn the corner and see the yellow light of fire flickering on the buildings. Justin knows they're running out of time. They rush down the alley, keeping an eye out for officers or Outlaws but they all seem to be preoccupied with the fight going on down Main St.

It's easy to slip into the Justice headquarters because the door is wide open and the fire is casting just the right shadows that they can barely be seen from the street. Justin pushes forward searching for the stairs and any key rings he can find as he goes. Chris follows close on his heels mumbling something that sounds like a prayer. Justin wonders how Chris can believe in god when the world has gone to shit like this and still god has done nothing. He stumbles down the stairs in the dark, trying not to trip and fall because that would just make this rescue that much harder. He stops in his tracks when he hears hushed whispers and the sound of a heavy metal door swinging open. That can't be good. If it's Outlaws then they're as good as dead. He's about to turn around and try to hide but in the dark Chris isn't aware he's stopped moving and they collide, sending Justin tumbling down the last 2 steps and into the wall.

"Shit."

"Fuck sorry!"

"Sssshhhh!"

But it's too late because whoever is down here has heard them and fallen silent. The moonlight streaming through the small cell windows let's him make out vague shapes, none of them appear to be weapon shaped but he can't be certain. He debates drawing his gun, scared of the possibility of an accident but more afraid to die without a fight. He turns to Chris and whispers to him, "There's someone else down here."
With his gun drawn he steps forward cautiously. In the darkness it's hard to detect movement but the moonlight is just enough to see the glint of yellow hair stepping out of a cell.

Justin's breath catches because this is the moment where he's going to die. There's a scraping noise that startles him and he's surprised to be completely unharmed and more surprised to see that the blonde boy has struck a match. Justin lets out the breath he didn't know he was holding.

"Whoa don't shoot man. I swear I -"

Justin quickly holsters his gun and holds his hands up, "Sorry."

The boy stops speaking and nods before he drops the match.

"What are you doing here?"

It's another voice and Justin can feel the panic growing again because he can barely see and doesn't know what is going on.

"We're just here for a friend." Chris says shakily.

"Chris? Justin?" JC's hoarse voice travels from his cell on the left and Justin can't help but smile when he hears it.

"Yea. C but we're not alone."

The boy lights another match and smiles, "They're cool Kevin. They're like us."

"How do you know Nick?"

"JC told me about them when they left us alone this afternoon. They're like us, just trying to get by and keep out of trouble."

Justin and Chris still haven't moved from their spot by the stairs even though Justin is itching to rush to JC's cell. Nick drops another match and lights a third.

"Just give them the keys Kevin and let's get out of here."

The figure steps past Nick and unlocks JC's cell.

"We were going to free him, anyone in here probably doesn't deserve to be here anyway."

His long black hair hides his face when he turns to look at Justin and Chris, "Good luck."
Nick drops the match but doesn't light another as they both shuffle past Chris and Justin and up the stairs. Justin jumps when JC grabs a hold of him, "We gotta go."

"Right."

Chris starts up the stairs and JC slips his hand into Justin's as they follow. They make it to the door just in time to see an Outlaw rush past. They watch in horror as he pulls out a shotgun and fires at some figures hidden in half darkness.

"Fuck."

They see the Outlaw aim again but Chris fires with precise aim and the man falls to his knees. They rush out to find the town in mayhem. At the end of Main street three building are on fire and the Outlaws are shooting almost indiscriminately. They rush up to the figures hiding in the shadow, away from the fire and Justin's heart sinks when he sees that Nick is kneeling over the crumpled body of Kevin.

"Shit."

Nick is crying.

"Kid we gotta go. You gotta come with us or you're as good as dead too."

Justin knows that Chris isn't trying to be an insensitive bastard, he's just trying to shock the kid into action but he can't help but feel sorry. It takes all three of them to haul the kid up and drag him away.

"But Kevin-we can't just-he's-I can't. . ."

"We're sorry kid but we've got to if we want to make it out of here."

Chris drags the kid behind him as they make a break for it, staying in the shadows until they see the trees and finally break into a run. Everyone is too busy with the fires and the screaming to even notice. Justin wants to stop and just hug JC, check him over, make sure he's ok but he can't so he just follows behind Chris and grips JC's hand tighter.

They cover their tracks as they go. Every time they turn they can see the town on fire. They'll have to move out of here first thing in the morning.

When they finally reach the house it's well into the early morning hours and he's exhausted. Chris is still gripping Nick's hand and Nick is trembling. Chris hugs the boy, "I'm so sorry kid. That shouldn't have happened."

Chris gets choked up when Nick sobs.

"How's Lance?"
Justin looks up at JC and that's when he realizes that he can finally hug him and so he does.

"I don't know."

He breathes the words into JC's neck and pulls the man in tight.

Joey comes down to meet them when he hears them talking.

"JC!"

Joey rushes over and sweeps JC into a hug. "Are you alright?"

"Yea I'm fine just some cuts and bruises. Nothing that won't heal. How's Lance?"

"He's awake."

Joey is grinning wide until he sees Chris crumpled on the floor with a boy sobbing in his lap.

"Who's-?"

JC shakes his head, "Later."

Joey nods in understanding.

"We need to leave tomorrow." Justin whispers to Joey and JC, "The Outlaws really did a number on the town. We should move on to somewhere else."

"Right. I'll go tell Lance."

Joey disappears upstairs again.

JC brings Nick and Chris cups of water.

Nick sits up to drink, "I need to get back to my group."

"You can't, not tonight. Not with the way things are. Stay here tonight and we'll find your friends in the morning."

Justin watches Chris pat the kid reassuringly, "I promise."

They manage to get Nick onto the couch but he won't let go of Chris so Chris just settles in.

Justin pulls JC upstairs, "We should sleep. We have a long day tomorrow."
"Yea. Good night."

As JC turns to leave the room Justin grabs his hand, "Stay."

JC looks at him confused.

"Here. With me."

JC smiles and Justin can feel his heart thumping out of his chest. They crawl into Justin's makeshift bed and JC snuggles back against him.

"Thanks."

"For what?"

"For coming for me."

Justin pulls JC tight to his chest, "Of course. We couldn't have left you there. We love you."

JC turns in his arms to face him and kisses him lightly.

Before he sleeps Justin thinks about JC and the warm happiness grows from the pit of his stomach and takes him over. When he awakens the feeling is still there and he smiles, really smiles like he used to do Then, like he does now.

 

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