Notes:

1. Waffle World is a joint creation of Cincoflex and myself. One of these years we really have to get t-shirts made up.

2. I'm fudging drive times a lot in this story. But given traffic, construction, weather, etc., when is the estimated time between points A and B accurate? Also, our characters aren't always taking the most straightforward route.


Rey couldn't say she slept well, but despite the cramped position she dozed peacefully on and off as the car rumbled around them. Every time she opened her eyes, the view was the same, bare glimpses of highway and the disconnected frames of the vehicle interior, stars overhead and a gleam of silver from the ring on West's hand. Sometimes she wasn't sure if she was awake or dreaming of journeying, but it didn't matter. They were safe, they were moving, Plutt couldn't get to her. It was good.

The cessation of movement woke her, at least part way, and Rey raised her head, blinking and rubbing at her stiff neck. "Where are we?"

"Rest stop," West said, and so it was, looking eerie and abandoned in the yellow glow of its lights. There were no other cars in the graveled parking lot.

"Mm. 'Nks." She unfolded herself from the seat and staggered into the women's side, still half-asleep and barely noticing West going into the men's. It was a bare-bones sort of place, just facilities for those who couldn't wait until the next town - more or less clean, but shabby and graffiti'd.

Rey used the toilet and washed her hands, squinting at her face in the splotchy mirror. Her scalp was still sore when she prodded it, but she'd come out ahead on that encounter, thanks to West.

I will treasure the image of Unkar on the ground again for as long as I live. Not to mention the sound he'd made when West had done whatever he'd done to Plutt's hand.

Rey splashed her face, ran wet hands through her hair, opened the door - and jumped, because West was leaning against the wall just outside. "Fuck!"

He jerked and stepped back, face going a little pink. "Sorry! Sorry. I just - you hear stories, about places like this, an' I wanted to make sure you was okay."

Rey pinched her eyes shut and exhaled, trying to calm the surge of adrenaline. "Shit. Okay. That makes sense." She opened them again; West had moved about two yards back and was still pink, with an expression that reminded her of a begging puppy's. "Thank you. I think."

He ducked his head awkwardly. Rey shook hers and stepped out, heading for the car.

She leaned into the back to pull out her two spare shirts from her pack, wadding them up to serve as a pillow as West eased into the driver's seat, and grabbed one of the bottles she'd filled at the truck stop water fountain. On impulse she got one of West's as well, and after a moment's thought removed the cap before wedging it into the space next to the gearshift. He gave her a nod of thanks, and Rey sat back to drink her water and grow drowsy again.

Her gaze kept finding his profile, almost invisible in the darkness, but he didn't seem to notice her staring. Her sleepy brain pored over the angles of his face, wondering what he'd look like if he smiled. He was so solemn that it was impossible to tell.

When sleep took her, she dreamed of a deep cold lake set in rocky hills, and the trickle and plash of water.


West didn't stop until midmorning, when they reached Gallup. He took them through a drive-through for breakfast - I got it, no sense confusin' the clerk with two orders - and looked around dubiously as he pulled out.

"I gotta sleep," he said again. "But this place is too small for you to stop in."

Rey had to agree with him. "I can pay for half the room," she started, but West frowned so sharply that she stopped.

"I'd get one anyway." He turned back onto the street. "An' it's because of me that you're - just lemme do this, all right?"

If she'd had more saved up, Rey would have argued. But her hoard of cash was so pitifully small that she couldn't bring herself to protest. She closed her mouth, and West nodded.

It was a Motel 6, this time, and as West pulled up in front of the office Rey looked over at him. "You can get a single," she pointed out. "I won't be sleeping."

He pursed his lips but didn't reply, sliding out of the car with only a hint of stiffness. He left the keys in the ignition, but took his satchel with him, which was puzzling. I guess he trusts me not to run off with his car, at least.

West came back within five minutes and drove them around the side of the building. He'd gotten a double room after all, and repeated his routine of the day before, vanishing into the bathroom for a shower and reemerging in his shorts and t-shirt, hair damp. This time Rey saw the shadow of a tattoo on his uninjured arm, though she didn't want to stare long enough to make it out.

"They have a laundry room," she told him, waving the worn amenities brochure she'd found in the desk. "I'm going to wash some stuff - want me to do yours too?"

West's mustache twitched, and for a moment she thought he'd refuse, but then he nodded again. "Just about everything in my bag could use it," he said.

"Right." Rey slung her pack over her shoulder and scooped up one of the keycards, picking up his duffle as well. "Back in a couple of hours."

She wanted to get out before he could offer to pay for that too, and succeeded, or maybe he was smart enough not to. Rey couldn't help looking around warily for Plutt, though how he'd have followed them she didn't know, but the parking lot was almost empty of cars and she couldn't see another human being anywhere.

The laundry room was at the end of the row of rooms, a small dank space that echoed and smelled of soap and mildew. Fortunately for Rey's patience both the bill changer and the machine vending detergent worked, and she sorted the contents of both bags into a washer with a wrinkled nose. West was demonstrably a clean man, but dirty laundry was never improved by a hot car.

I wish I could wash what I'm wearing too. But she hadn't anything clean to change into; she'd come away with about three changes of clothes, which was just about as much as she'd ever had.

The little room was at least cool, fed by the same air conditioning as the rest of the building, and Rey hopped up onto an empty dryer and swung her legs as she waited for the machine to cycle through. It felt strange to be idle; Unkar had filled her days with work, and she'd usually been too tired in the evenings to do more than spend a half-hour poaching Plutt's wi-fi on the battered old laptop she'd coaxed to work.

I wonder what he'll do now that I'm gone.

Rey had been under Plutt's thumb since she was small. She couldn't remember anything before Eunice, though old Maz had said her parents had come from somewhere else. Maz had done most of the raising of her, but she'd died when Rey was ten, and Plutt had claimed her for his garage and started teaching her to fix things. And since Plutt basically ran the town, no one had said a word about him using a child for free labor - or the bruises she sported as she got older.

The way she figured it, Rey had had three things that had kept her from crumbling in Plutt's grip - Maz's kindness, a tiny hoard of books she'd hidden, and sheer stubbornness. She'd lost the first two, but the third had kept her going for years, squirreling away whatever coins and dollar bills she could find and planning for the day when she could leave Eunice behind.

Rey sighed, pulling up her legs to sit tailor-fashion. She hadn't planned to leave quite so abruptly, but things had changed.

I could deal with the bruises. Him getting all touchy-feely, not so much.

He'd made lewd comments for years, she was used to that; but the groping was new, and far more terrifying than his smacking Rey around. The first time he'd done it, she'd been frozen with shock and horror.

The second time, she'd had her pipe within reach, and the sound he'd made when she'd slammed it up between his legs had been extremely satisfying.

Great way to burn all your bridges, though. Rey hadn't lingered; she'd grabbed the most precious of her few belongings, stuffed them in her pack, and bolted before Plutt had stopped spasming on the garage floor. She didn't regret it, by any means, but she'd hoped to leave under slightly more controlled circumstances.

Now she was all the way across the state with a semi-stranger, along for the ride until they got someplace large enough for her to try her luck at finding work. It would have to be under the table, since she had no ID of any kind. Hell, I don't even know if I have a Social Security number.

But Rey knew she was good at what she did. Plutt's garage didn't have the most up to date tech, but she knew her way around just about every make of car short of a Tesla, and most big trucks as well. Pretty sure I can survive.

The washer finally gurgled to a stop, and Rey hopped down to transfer its contents to a dryer. I wonder if I can talk West into going all the way to Phoenix. Assuming he can find it.

She wasn't sure how West was navigating, or even if he was navigating at all. He didn't seem to have a phone, and she hadn't seen him look at a map either. Maybe he just drives at random.

I wonder what Maz would have made of him.

For a little bittersweet while Rey amused herself imagining the two of them meeting, the enigmatic stranger and the tiny woman whose iron-firm compassion had kept Rey's spirit alive. Maz would have liked him, she thought; but it was hard to tell, now. Her memories faded more every year, and it had been over a decade.

Doesn't matter, she told herself resolutely, scraping her hair back and securing it with an elastic. She'd be glad I got away, and that's all that counts.

When the clothes were dry Rey folded them, more out of boredom than because she was usually that careful, and put them back in the bags. There was still no one around when she made her way back to the room; it was almost eerie, except that she could hear the hum of cars on the highway just out of sight.

West didn't stir when she let herself back into the room. He somehow managed to look bigger while lying down; Rey supposed it was because the bed was barely long enough for him. I wonder how often things are too small for him?

This time she took her turn in the shower, though she used her pipe to jam the door shut as best as she could. It wouldn't keep West out if he was determined to break in, but it would give her time to get out of the tub and defend herself. Not that she really thought he would do anything, but - Still.

But he hadn't moved when she came back out. Rey sat on the other bed, since it was more comfortable than the chair, and turned the TV on, muted again. Wish I had a book.

She missed her little stack of treasures. They'd just been kid's books, mostly gifts from Maz, but aside from school they'd been all the entertainment she'd had. The Silver Chair, This Time of Darkness, Broom-Adelaide, So You Want to Be a Wizard - Rey had escaped into their pages over and over again.

It hadn't even been Plutt who'd taken them from her; just a leaky roof unnoticed until the worn paperbacks were handfuls of pulp. And she'd never had a way to replace them.

Not that I would have spent the money anyway, Rey admitted ruefully. Not when every cent she could scrape up had to go towards her escape.

She shifted restlessly. Rey was used to long days spent working hard; she was full of a nervous energy that had nowhere to go. Even if it hadn't been so hot outside, Rey wasn't going to go wander around; the odds were low that Plutt had traced them, but she wasn't willing to risk it. I could probably get away from him if I saw him coming, but what if he brought help?

But there was nothing to do indoors but watch the silent TV. Rey pressed her back against the headboard, and resigned herself to fidgeting.


It was only the second day - why did it feel like a routine?

West couldn't explain it. But rising just before sunset and finding Rey sitting crosslegged on the carpet reassembling the clock-radio felt - comfortable, somehow, which was ridiculous. West didn't know what to do with comfort.

But he didn't know what to do with anything, really - trying to probe at his past only brought that nibbling blankness closer.

"You did the laundry," was all he said. "I'm buyin' dinner."

Rey narrowed her eyes at him, but then looked back down at the device in her lap and snapped its case into place. "Okay."

They were out the door in thirty seconds, and West found a diner just down the road, because while he had no objections to fast food, some part of him was prompting that it was past time for vegetables.

And it was very satisfying to watch Rey eat another huge meal, even if she eyed him uncertainly while placing her order.

A few weeks of this and she'll stop looking so skinny, he thought approvingly, then blinked.

Just as he had no past, he had not considered the future. There was only the road, and the need to keep going.

And Rey had no future with him. He was just taking her to a nice big city where she could get work, that was all. Doing the right thing, because it was the right thing.

Which didn't explain why, on leaving Gallup, he went straight west instead of veering north when he hit 93. Las Vegas was a big city with plenty of places to work; it was practically ideal for Rey's purposes.

But he didn't take the exit.

Rey was sound asleep lying across the back seat - even belted in, she'd said, it was more comfortable than sleeping in the front - and she never noticed.

He had no excuse. No explanation. Just - he didn't want to leave her behind.

This can't go on, he told himself. She's runnin' towards. You're runnin' away.

...How did he know that?

His hand started to shake on the wheel. He hadn't thought about it, couldn't think about it, but now -

West clamped his jaw shut, nostrils flaring as he struggled to take in air. Looking around, he almost steered for the shoulder, but there were lights about a mile ahead, and the road was straight and empty.

He dropped his speed and concentrated very hard on the painted lines until they reached the lights - another truck stop. Mostly shut down at that time of night, though the fast food place was open; but all he needed was a place to halt.

West parked across a couple of spaces, turned off the engine, and tore off his seatbelt, springing out of the car to pace up and down and try to calm his racing heart.

He didn't know who he was. He didn't know where he'd come from, or why he was running, or why he had a tattoo, or how he knew how to fight.

Hell, I don't even know how I lost my hand.

He wore the silver horseshoe ring on his right hand because that was where it felt right, but he didn't know where it came from or why he wore it. Or why he drove a car that was older than he was. Or why he had -

"West?"

He flinched, spinning to face the voice, braced to defend himself. Rey blinked sleepily at him from a few yards away, leaning on the car and rubbing her eyes. "You okay?"

He swallowed, opened his mouth...and the truth fell out. "No."

She straightened and gave him a long look. "Let's go get coffee."

There were no customers in the restaurant, just two bored employees playing with their phones. Rey ordered two cups of coffee and a pile of French fries, and they sat in the corner booth furthest from the counter. She pushed sugar packets across the table at him with firm assurance, folded a handful of fries into her mouth, and spoke around them. "Wass madder?"

It should have been comical, but his heart was still pounding. West wrapped his hand around the cup, ignoring the heat stinging his palm, and stared at the tabletop. "I can't remember anything."

In his peripheral vision Rey froze mid-chew, then resumed, swallowing her bite. "You mean anything? Or do you still remember the last few days?"

"No. No, I ain't lost them." The cup creaked in his grip, and he loosened his fingers so he wouldn't pop the lid and splash it everywhere. "But I don't know who I am."

"Mm." She ate another few fries. "Yeah, that's scary."

The simple acknowledgment seemed to loosen his constricted breathing, just a touch. He flexed the gripper of his prosthesis, a nervous movement; at least he remembered how to use it, like he remembered how to drive a car. "Don't know why I'm running, neither."

"Probably because you had to." When he looked up, Rey shrugged. "Nobody drives across the Southwest, in the summer, with no air conditioning, for fun."

The startled cough that escaped him was almost a laugh.

"How far back do you remember?" Rey asked.

West didn't want to think about that too hard, but there was a big blue sign that wasn't too close to the blankness. "Crossing into Mississippi. Maybe a week ago."

"Did you hit your head?" Rey continued. "Get sick?"

"No...no. Don't think so." At least, he didn't remember feeling like he'd been sick, and he hadn't noticed any lumps on his head.

"Well, there has to be a reason." Rey considered another fry, then bit it in half, shoving the basket towards West. He shook his head, and she pulled it back.

"I can't...I can't think about it." He squeezed his eyes shut and wrapped his hand around the back of his neck; his head didn't hurt, exactly, but it felt like it was going to come apart, his skull bones opening like some gruesome flower, and where had that image come from -

"Then don't."

The warm clasp on his left arm was startling. West opened his eyes to see Rey leaning across the table, holding his forearm right above the prosthesis. She caught his gaze, her stare serious but - still not frightened. How could she not be frightened?

"Don't think about it." One corner of her mouth tucked in, a thoughtful look. "Maybe you just aren't ready to."

"Don't I scare you?" It was half a plea; he should, he should scare her. He was a fucking void.

She cocked her head. "No."

It was too much. West pulled back, putting his head down on the table, pressing his face into the cold plastic and trying to control his breathing. "I'm scared," he mumbled.

This time she took his hand, fingers lacing through his. "'M not surprised."

The words were slightly muffled, as if spoken through another mouthful of fries, and for some reason the image loosened his frantic tension a little.

West rolled his head to the side, looking blankly at the dark square of the window; part of him wanted to slide under the table and disappear, but Rey's hand anchored him in place.

"I don't know why I'm running. I could have done somethin' horrible." There was, after all, the contents of his bag.

"Maybe." Rey sounded doubtful. "But you know what?"

That made him lift his head to see her. "What?"

She was indeed holding more fries. "All I know is the guy I met two days ago, and he's been nice to me. Like, really nice. Horrible doesn't really fit."

She bit the end off one, and squeezed his hand. "If you can't remember your name, I bet it's more like something horrible happened to you."

He contemplated that for a moment. It didn't ring any bells; but then, neither did the notion that he'd sinned somehow. It was all blank.

"Maybe," he echoed at last. The pressure in his skull was dropping; Rey's casual lack of alarm made no sense to him, but it was still somehow easing.

"Mmm." She took a sip from her cup. "Have some fries, food'll help."

West's stomach roiled at the thought, but the smell of the coffee he'd pushed aside was making his mouth water all the same. He pried up the lid and ripped open a sugar packet with his teeth, pouring it into the hot liquid.

It was cheap and not exactly fresh, but the first swallow did help, steadying him down. He finally thought to glance over at the counter, but one employee was again staring at their phone, and the other seemed to be asleep, slumped on the counter.

He hesitated, thinking long enough that most of the coffee was gone before he decided. Ducking out of the strap of his satchel, he set the bag on the table and opened the top.

As he expected, Rey took the lift of his brows as an invitation, and leaned over to look. Her eyes sprang wide. "Fuck."

West frowned, but the employees didn't seem to have noticed the exclamation. He closed the bag just in case. "Still not scared?"

Rey snorted, sitting back. "Maybe you robbed a bank or something."

It was a fairly logical conclusion, since the bag was nearly full of wads of cash, but - "Don't think so."

Rey ate another fry. "Why not?"

"It's all random." West didn't know why he hadn't thought it before; or maybe he had, and it had vanished like his name. "All mixed together. Bank would have it in stacks."

"I guess." She ran a finger around the rim of her cup. "Look - if you wanted - you said you had a licence. I could look at it - see where you're from, at least."

He could tell it was kindly meant, but the idea sent a chill up his spine. "No."

She nodded, face blank, and West wondered drearily if he was so lacking in words when he was in his right mind. "'S okay," he managed to add, and Rey's shoulders relaxed a little.

He finished his coffee slowly, while Rey ate every crumb out of the fry basket. West found himself also wondering how much money she had, but he wasn't going to ask. Better find her a good place soon.

"Guess you don't want to stay here, wait for another lift?" he asked eventually, and she made that funny huffing sound again.

"You can't get rid of me that easily." Her mouth was quirking, and - he couldn't remember ever being teased before. The jibe made things just a little bit lighter.

"S'pose not." He set down his cup with a snap, and Rey swept the litter of cups and basket onto the tray, rising to deposit it in the trash can.

"Give me a sec," she said, jerking a thumb towards the restrooms, and West nodded.

It felt dreamlike, waiting for her in the artificial light of the restaurant, as if there was nothing outside but a night that would never end. But he knew that was just the effect of being awake at oh-dark-hundred, and it would pass when the sun crept over the horizon.

Rey didn't climb into the back when they got back to the car; instead she resumed her slump in the passenger seat, makeshift pillow wedged under her cheek. West knew she meant it for comfort; and, strangely, it was.

He pointed them towards California, and drove.


Bakersfield was huge.

Rey watched the hills appear on the horizon and the city coalesce out of the early morning light. It was larger than anything she'd seen before, bigger by far than Carlsbad and greener; nothing like the heavy woods of cooler places that she'd seen in books or on the Internet, but still a far cry from Eunice's dusty flatness. She goggled at the busyness of it all, but the hills kept snagging her attention, a promise of something indefinable but alluring.

"I bet I could find a job here," she said absently, all but sticking her head out the window as West navigated the mid-morning traffic. She'd already spotted three garages and they'd only just entered the city.

West didn't answer, but she hadn't really been talking to him anyway. Rey was torn between awe, elation, and a stomach-churning anxiety; to plunge into the vast sprawl that was Bakersfield was to bet everything on one throw of the dice.

But it was always going to be that way. You know that. She had only ever had one chance. And If it felt too sudden, well, too bad.

This is what you've got. Deal.

West stopped for a red light and cleared his throat, and Rey swung around to look at him. "Let's get breakfast," he muttered, hardly loud enough for her to hear. "There's somethin' I want to ask you."

"Sure." Rey was hardly going to object to one more meal, especially since she had a strong suspicion he was going to insist on paying again. Having seen the small fortune he was carrying around - no wonder he sleeps with that bag - she felt less guilty about it.

She'd wondered, between dozes last night, just what was going on with him. His mild freakout in the middle of the night had been worrying, but it seemed reasonable to her. Whatever had driven West into his brain-fog had to have been serious. Maybe his mind's trying to protect him.

He seemed to think she should be afraid of him, but that was stupid. All he's done is help me. Sure, he'd beaten Plutt's ass, but he hadn't done a thing to her.

I wish I could help him.

But Rey couldn't see how. She knew nothing about amnesia or psychology or any of it, and she wasn't even going to be around him for much longer. Whatever was driving him was going to take him out of her life as abruptly as he'd entered it, and she'd never see him again.

She wasn't sure why the notion put a lump in her throat. I've only known him three days.

Maybe it was just because simple kindness had been so rare in her life, particularly since Maz's death; and yet, some part of her still really wanted to see what he looked like when he smiled.

Rey wrenched her mind back on track, taking in the city as much as she could. She couldn't afford a motel room, but it was warm, she could sleep rough for a night or two. Maybe find a shelter. If I can find a library, get on the Internet...

West found another Waffle World, this one busier than the last, but they didn't have to wait for a table. His mouth was firmly shut, so Rey didn't press him, figuring he'd speak when he was ready. Not that he speaks much to begin with.

The server brought coffee and took their order, and still West said nothing, staring out the window. His prosthesis kept opening and closing, and Rey wondered if it was the equivalent of a nervous fidget; it made an almost hydraulic noise, and idly she tried to figure out how the thing worked.

"Got a proposal for you," West said abruptly, and Rey turned her attention to his face, which was maybe a little more blank than usual.

"What is it?" Rey peeled open a little pot of half and half and dumped it in her coffee.

"Don't stay here."

Rey blinked. "What?"

West met her eyes. "Keep goin' with me. There's bigger places up north. Better for you."

"...What?" she asked again, not because she didn't understand, but because she hadn't expected it. I thought...I thought he'd be relieved to drop me off.

"Reno. Portland, Seattle maybe. Bigger than here." He snapped his mouth shut again.

Rey gaped at him. Her plan had always been "get far enough away from Plutt to a big enough city to find work". She'd planned on Albuquerque, maybe, or Dallas; she'd never thought to get as far as Las Vegas, let alone Bakersfield.

San Jose. San Francisco. Oregon, Washington - They were myths to Rey, images she'd seen in passing, places as far out of her reach as Mars. The idea of just seeing any one of them was dizzying; the idea of settling in one, of living there, seemed as impossible as having Maz back, of finding her parents.

"I - I can't afford that," she stammered at last. She could keep feeding herself for a while, but it would bite too deeply into her savings. She needed a cushion to survive on while she looked for work and a place to stay.

West didn't look away. "I c'n cover you." His mustache twitched. "You know it won't hurt me any."

"But - why?" Rey pressed her palms to the slick surface of the table, wood varnished so thickly it might as well be plastic. "What do you get out of it?"

Because kindness was one thing, but this was another thing entirely. Taking on a hitchhiker, even buying her a few meals, could be put down to gratitude for fixing his car, topped with a little generosity. This - this was way more than that.

A worm of doubt coiled in her belly. Had she been wrong about him all along?

"I - " He scrubbed his palm over his mouth. "If I take you up there, I'm not running."

Rey had to parse that out. It would give him a goal?

It made a certain sense. But - "What would you want from me?"

West straightened, indignant. "Nothin'! I wouldn't ask - no." His brows jumped, expression changing too quickly for her to make out what he was feeling. "You'd be doing something for me."

Before she had to figure out what to say, the server arrived with their meals, and dealing with that gave Rey a chance to think.

West was shoving his bacon aside - why did he order the stuff when he never ate it? - and not looking at her. Rey cut into her waffle. "Let me think about it a minute."

She wasn't expecting a reply. Rey ate steadily - she'd ordered a lot, even for her, figuring it was going to be her last guaranteed meal for a while - and turned West's request over in her mind.

On the surface, it wasn't smart; however West behaved, he clearly wasn't mentally stable, and she really had no business staying with him, particularly for long stretches when she would probably be asleep. True, he'd offered her no harm whatsoever, but if he lost his grip entirely while driving he could kill them both in a blink merely by driving into a guardrail.

But - she'd wanted to help him. She did owe him, though Rey was pretty sure it was a debt he would never call in. And he was offering to take her farther than she'd ever dreamed she could go.

So far I've won all my bets. Might as well place one more.

"Okay," she said abruptly, and West's gaze snapped up to meet hers. "Let's do this."

And that, Rey thought, was what he looked like when he smiled. Just a little curl of his lips, half-hidden by his mustache, but the light in his eyes was startling.

She couldn't help smiling back.


All the books in this chapter exist, and they're all terrific (though none are new).

The Silver Chair - C.S. Lewis (Book 4 of the Chronicles of Narnia) (Yes, I use the old numbering system.)

This Time of Darkness - H.M. Hoover; one of her better-known works.

Broom-Adelaide - Barbara C. Freeman; decades out of print but her works are delightful.

So You Want to Be a Wizard - Diane Duane, first of the Young Wizards series, which is amazing. Look 'em up.