Sean never tells anyone about the dreams. There's no point. There aren't many who would even know what he's talking about if he did. The birds – like so many other animals and species – have long since vanished, one of the first victims of the Wars. Sean had been just a boy at the time. These days, the sky is a barren, silent wasteland of hazy smoke the color of molted ash. There are no exotic lands with blue skies and lush greenery. The clouds haven't been white in a long time.
Sometimes Sean wonders if it's a blessing or a curse that he remembers what life used to be like before.
Sean pulled his helmet and oxygen mask off the second the heavy iron doors clanged shut behind him, breathing in a deep lungful of stale, recycled air. He ran a hand through sweat-soaked, baby-fine blond hair, then over an angular face that was still handsome in spite of the worry lines bracketing his mouth. His eyes – a pale green – were filled with exhaustion. His body, still firm and fit, if a little on the slender side (they were all on the slender side these days, ever since the drought), sagged once he slid the heavy Kevlar vest off his chest. Already he felt fifty pounds lighter.
"Anything?" Karl, his second-in-command, asked after he finished bolting the door, cutting off the howling of the winds outside.
"Nothing," Sean answered in disgust. He'd been so sure that this time would have been different. He should have known better. The lead had been too impossible to be true. Still, the disappointment was hard to shake.
Karl's hand rested briefly on Sean's shoulder. He was a few years younger than Sean, dark where Sean was fair, taller and more muscular, an imposing presence and a fearsome soldier, but under it all beat a heart as wide and generous as the plains of old. In some ways, Karl was still so pure, had never lost the innocence that Sean had seen when they'd been boys, growing up together, thick as thieves from day one, in the orphan camps. No, innocent wasn't the right word – none of them were truly that and hadn't been for a long time – but optimistic. Karl still, down in his soul, believed. Believed in Sean, believed in the mission, believed in a future filled with possibility instead of mere survival.
Sean managed to nod and laid his hand briefly over Karl's, the touch an affirmation. A reconnection of what truly mattered. They shared a warm glance, then Karl stepped to Sean's side. "Orlando's been asking for you," Karl said finally, laugh lines crinkling the corners of his eyes when he smiled. It was that smile, so artless and free, that had first captured Sean's attention those many years ago. The idea that someone could smile easily was still a miracle that Sean was thankful for every day.
"An hour ago. He's in the mess."
"Of course he is," Sean chuckled. Orlando's high energy level, and the fuel he needed to sustain it, was a long-running joke in their squadron.
Sean ran his hand through his hair again, grimaced at the sticky sweat still clinging to his fingers. He desperately needed to clean the grime and ash from his body and uniform, but it could wait. Now that he'd spoken with Karl, he needed to make sure Orlando was safe and whole with his own eyes.
He and Karl had found Orlando fifteen years ago on a routine patrol of the Barren Lands. He'd been a skinny, starving, half-wild kid – nine, maybe ten, none of them had been sure, not even Orlando – living on his own in one of the abandoned bomb shelters, eking out a meager existence by foraging for scraps for one of the local Iron Junkies. When Sean and Karl had cornered him, he'd bitten Karl on the hand (Karl still proudly bore the scar, and used its existence judiciously to win arguments, much to Orlando's embarrassment), and had fought like an animal until they'd gotten him back to base camp. It had been a week before he'd told them his name, and another week before he'd started to trust that Sean and Karl weren't out to exploit him or sell him to one of the Nannies. (Not that Sean blamed Orlando – the Nannies were almost worse than the Iron Junkies. At least the Iron Junkies only used kids for scavenging and as scouts, unlike the Nannies, who treated the children in their so-called care like slaves and often used the prettier ones as bargaining chips for food or water or precious supplies.) Sean and Karl had taken full responsibility for Orlando since that day, and they'd all been inseparable ever since. Their own version of a nuclear family.
Sean was the only one old enough to appreciate the irony in that statement.
He walked down the narrow hallway, Karl a step behind him, nodding to the other soldiers in his squad as he passed, gratified to see that all of them had returned safely from their scouting missions, until he stood in the cavernous room that doubled as both the mess hall and a strategic planning room when needed. Sean picked Orlando easily out of the crowd of weary men and women listlessly intaking their MREs. For one, Orlando was the only one eating with anything resembling gusto. For another, Orlando was easily the most beautiful person in the room. Tall and willowy, but deceptively strong of limb and mind, with a heartbreaking face that was somehow even more striking with his closely shorn hair, Orlando was like the sort of mythical creature that Sean had read about in his long ago youth. Someone half-mortal, half-God, like Perseus or Heracles or Achilles. Even Karl, as handsome and strong as he was, didn't have the same radiance.
But then, Sean and Karl had long ago decided that they were both biased where Orlando was concerned. And that his good looks were the least attractive thing about him.
The second Orlando looked up and spied them across the room, he broke into a wide, open grin. "Sean! You made it back!"
"So did you," Sean answered, returning the smile, and dropped to the bench across from Orlando. Karl sat beside him, close enough that their thighs and hips brushed, the touch heated and welcome, another affirmation of safety and home. Sean raked a critical gaze over every part of Orlando he could see, searching for any signs of injury, and exhaled when he saw nothing. They'd gotten lucky for one more day.
Orlando focused his eyes – a deep, rich brown – on Sean's for a long heartbeat, then he sighed, low and heartfelt. "You didn't find anything." It wasn't a question.
"No, I didn't. I'm sorry." He hated that he'd put that look of disappointment on Orlando's face, even though he logically knew it wasn't his fault. May as well blame the old governments – it would do the same amount of good.
"Maybe we're looking in the wrong places," Karl suggested, and Sean loved him for trying. For believing, even in the face of the considerable odds that grew even longer with each passing day.
"We could do an overnight, follow Billy's lead," Orlando said, and resumed digging into his meal. It might have been meatloaf or possibly Salisbury Steak (whatever Salisbury was) – Sean wasn't sure, wasn't sure he wanted to be, either. He mostly had a hate-hate relationship with the military food they were forced to endure day in and day out. He lived for the thrice yearly home-cooked meals they were all allowed.
"Overnight's too dangerous," Sean countered, shaking his head. Too many things could go wrong.
"Not if we go together," Karl argued, nudging Sean's side in a not-so subtle hint. But then, Karl and Orlando loved nothing more than to team up on him until he caved in to whatever scheme they were planning.
"I'm not risking either of you in my wild goose chase and that's final."
"What're you gonna do, tie us up and throw us in the brig?" Orlando asked, with an imperious raise of his eyebrow that belied his rank. "I'm with Karl on this."
"You're always with him if it means disobeying me."
"What can we say, we're bad at taking orders. Not that you actually gave us one," Karl added, even though Sean knew that there were not two more loyal soldiers under his command or in all of the Urban Armies.
"I should tie you up," he grumbled, instead.
"Kinky as that sounds, you won't," Orlando stated, and pushed his now empty tray to the center of the table.
"I'll gather what we need," Karl said, and stood. He exchanged a conspiratorial smile with Orlando. "Get cleaned up, both of you, and I'll see you at the hut."
Orlando and Sean watched him stride away, Orlando in admiration, Sean with another shake of his head. "Why're you both willing to risk so much for this?" he finally asked. He couldn't look at Orlando, couldn't bear to see the pity he was sure he'd find.
"Because you believe that we'll find it, and we believe in you," Orlando replied, quietly, and stood. "C'mon. Let's hit the showers. Last thing I want is Karl's wrath if we go back to the hut reeking of smoke."
That simple. And maybe, for Karl and Orlando, it really was. But Sean had stopped trusting in easy or simple when he'd been eleven and his entire world had exploded in a fiery chasm. Just another casualty, another orphan, of the Wars. His story was by no means unique, or even particularly heart-breaking.
He walked with Orlando to the sonic showers, and he felt a pang, as he frequently did, that he couldn't introduce Karl and Orlando to the almost-forgotten feel of washing with water. One day, he told himself. It wouldn't always be like this. There were still scientists working around the clock to come up with solutions to the shortage, to find a way around the never-ending drought.
They both quickly stripped out of their clothing, leaving it on the benches for the maid droids to gather and clean, and stepped into the tiny room, closing the door behind them. A fluorescent light switched on, turned Orlando's skin a sickly sort of green, and Sean's an odd jaundiced yellow. "I always feel like I'm in an oven when I'm in here," Orlando remarked, wrinkling his nose.
"Well, the principle is the same, isn't it?" Sean asked, then tapped at the walled-in keyboard, programming the shower to its highest setting. He and Orlando needed it.
After the dirt and grime were sufficiently blasted off, they both changed into more comfortable BDUs and made their way back to the hut they shared with Karl. Karl was already there, three knapsacks strewn on the king-sized bed (a real bed, rescued from a mostly intact house that Sean had found a few years ago, and claimed by him as his right as commanding officer of the squad) the three of them shared.
"Don't forget my soy nuts," Orlando remarked, brushing a soft kiss to Karl's nape as he moved past, the touch second nature, as necessary, Sean knew, to the both of them as oxygen.
"Who says I managed to score you any?" Karl replied with a wink, but Sean knew there would be extra packets in Orlando's kit. Sean had no idea how Karl managed to secure the things he did, but he was grateful all the same.
"Figured we'd get a good night's sleep, head out just before first light," Karl said to them, shoving a handful of solar flares into one of the pouches. "You said that Billy'd had a lead about the Southwest Corridor, right?"
"Yeah," Sean replied. He sat on the bed, busied his hands with checking over the weapons, just to have something to do. They each had a standard issue Army blaster and plasma rifle, but Orlando also carried an old-fashioned pump action shotgun that used actual bullets, and was a challenge to keep clean, especially if they were out in the open on patrol. Orlando'd gotten it off an Iron Junkie in a raid a few years back, along with a case of real ammo, and he guarded it like it was something precious. Sean supposed it was, in a way – a fragile link connecting this world to the old one, to what life had been like before the Wars. Sean considered himself lucky that he and Karl were allowed anywhere near it.
"I thought the Southwest Corridor was a blast zone since last week. Didn't General Jackson order a strike?" Orlando asked. He was sitting at the small desk tucked in the corner of the room, poring over a map, no doubt plotting their trajectory once they left the compound.
"Up in the mountains, yeah, but the brush areas are still a go," Karl said. "Although Vig was saying earlier that he'd heard the Nightstalkers have pretty much taken over and are demanding the usual bribes for safe passage."
"Typical," Sean shrugged, not surprised. The Nightstalkers were a bloodthirsty and avaricious bunch – a law unto themselves, who'd broken off from the Coalition decades before. "Let's bring the goggles and a few extra rations. That should appease them."
"Already packed," Karl told him with another one of his easy grins.
"Of course," Sean replied, returning the smile. He honestly had no idea what he'd do without Karl.
Orlando handed Sean the map and sat on the other end of the bed. "Safest way south is through the lowlands," he said, tracing the route with his finger. "It's circuitous, but we'll avoid the hot zones if General Jackson decides to expand the strike radius."
Sean studied the map through blurry eyes that stung with the weight of tears he refused to shed. That both of them would be willing to go through all this effort, to throw themselves in the line of fire, for him, all because he had a slender lead... It was humbling. He wouldn't let them down.
"Thank you," he managed, when he thought he could speak. His voice was scratchy with too many emotions to name.
"Thank us later," Karl said, rolling a spare pair of pants up and placing them in his knapsack. "I'm sure you come up with something," he added, with a leer that managed to be sexy and ridiculous at the same time.
"Preferably something inventive that involves the use of the whole bed and an entire night with nothing to concentrate on except giving each other pleasure," Orlando said, and nudged Sean's shoulder with his own.
"I'll give it some thought," Sean replied, and sent up a prayer to whoever was still listening in these forsaken times that he'd been blessed with this small measure of happiness. That he had these two men, and they had each other. Just their presence in the world gave him the strength to continue.
They might be on a wild goose chase, but if they weren't...
The future possibilities were endless, should they succeed.