backstreet boys

Fiction by Pen . . . . . not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

for this world to be unbroken

for MTYG 2009

"Not rat again!"

Howie looked up from the pot over the fire, his face a picture of misery.

"I hate rat! It tastes like shit! And there are all these tiny bones, it's disgusting."

"Nick," AJ objected. "It's not Howie's fault if there's nothing else to eat." Howie shot AJ a grateful glance, and went on stirring.

Nick huffed angrily and sat down on the hard linoleum floor. "I hate rat," he repeated sullenly.

"It's not fair to take it out on the rest of us," Brian said. "We all have to eat it. Howie's doing his best. And it's not like we haven't tried to find something else to eat, but until we find some more ammo it's going to have to be stuff we can trap, and that means rats or dogs."

"I am not eating dog," AJ stated with finality.

"It's supposed to taste—" Howie began.

"I don't care." AJ was not, absolutely not, going to eat dog. Besides, these days the dogs roamed in packs and were even meaner than the rats, and a lot more trouble to catch.

"Look," said Howie, "why don't you go fetch some more water, we should boil some more before we use it all up. This won't smell so bad once it's finished cooking."

Which wasn't true, but Howie was probably fed up with having Nick whine about the meal he was trying so hard to make palatable. AJ heaved himself up. "Come on, then, Nicky. I'll come with you for company, and Brian can cover us." He didn't think there was any risk at the moment, since there had been no sign of Them for several days, but Brian had not let go of the rifle for days—weeks, now, and the other three had established a habit of giving him justification for carrying it.

It didn't stop Nick's whining, but at least it got them away from the smell of stewing rat. They brought the full can back but loitered on the sidewalk outside their building—not really a house, AJ thought it must have been an office, before. It had good doors, which weren't so necessary now but had made them feel more secure in the first few days. The street was quiet, no marauding dogs around, and nothing worse.

"We'll go out in the morning, see if we can find something better to eat," Brian said. "Might be a warehouse somewhere, or an old supermarket that hasn't been looted clean."

"Or a food stash," Nick said excitedly, "like the one we found back in the Spring."

That had been so, so good. Flour, and dried fruit, maple syrup, canned tomatoes, beans, a block of toffee, all kinds of marvelous things, even some little jars of herbs, the remnants of which were attempting to make tonight's rat stew palatable. They'd taken what they could carry and hidden the rest underground, but then They had moved in and there'd been no chance to go back for the buried treasure. AJ's stomach growled at the memory of canned raspberries mixed with oatmeal and condensed milk.

He doubted they'd find any more preserved food from before. It had been too long. Others would have eaten the food, or They'd have taken it to use as lures for their own dinners. "We can go back to the place with the apple trees," he suggested. After what felt like a hundred meals of rat, a wrinkled apple would be a real treat, and besides, they were nearly out of the vitamin supplies they'd looted from a pharmacy months ago.

"We should try for more ammo first," said Brian. Which was true. They had a few precious rounds for defense, but one serious altercation and they'd be cleaned out. More ammo, and they could go beyond the confines of town and see if there might be something better than rats to eat. "We'll do a thorough check tomorrow, every building. There'll be something here, somewhere."

"And meanwhile," AJ said, as cheerfully as he could, "we eat rat."

"Unless you'd like to share my turkey?"

Dead silence. They stared, transfixed, at the tall figure silhouetted in the flickering light from Howie's cooking fire shining through the doorway. Dark and almost demonic in a long black coat, tangled hair streaked across his face. The only sound was AJ's heart, thumping suddenly, loud as a bass drum.

"Kevin?" Nick was the first to speak.

"Don't move. Do not move." Brian had the rifle up and aimed.

"Brian..." Kevin's voice was almost a sigh.

The rifle did not waver.

"Brian," AJ echoed, once he managed to get enough breath to speak. "Come on, man. It's Kevin."

"Yeah," Brian said, grimly, "Kevin who went off on his own months ago." His lips were almost white, but his jaw flexed with determination. "He could have been turned. And right now, he's standing between us and safety."

Howie appeared in the doorway. "What's going—Kevin!" He stared, but made no move of welcome.

AJ couldn't believe this. Was he the only one of them who cared that Kevin was back, after all these months Kevin was back and they were complete again? "This is crazy," he said. "Come on inside, it ain't much but it's home."

"No!" Brian shouted. "AJ, you moron, how could you do that? You just invited him in."

"Of course I invited him—he's Kevin, for fuck's sake, you want to leave him outside on the sidewalk?"

Howie spoke up. "Doesn't matter what we want, AJ. The point is, we don't know if this is still Kevin or if he's a vampire now. And you just made it impossible to figure it out."

AJ's stomach lurched horribly. Howie was right. How could he have been so stupid? They could have tested Kevin, but now he'd been invited he could walk right across the threshold and there was no way of knowing if he was human or not.

"I'm not—" Kevin stopped. Because really, AJ thought, what could he possibly say to convince us? "All right. I won't come in."

"Damn right," Brian muttered.

"But I found a barbecue, and I have a turkey in it, and I pulled some potatoes from a yard back on the edge of town. You'd rather eat rat stew, fine with me."

"Where did, I mean, a turkey?" Nick spoke up, sounding incredulous. And very, very hungry. AJ knew exactly how he felt. AJ was so eager for the taste of something that hadn't been living in the sewers, he was ready to risk just about anything. And—it was Kevin! Kevin had found them. AJ's head understood the possibility that he'd been turned, but his heart refused to believe it.

"I think there was a small farm, most of the birds are gone, into the forest, probably, but there's a few left, comfortable in the barn, I guess, and they're easy enough to catch." Kevin pulled an object out of his pocket, and tossed it gently towards AJ, who caught it and gasped.

An egg.

"Consider it a free gift," said Kevin, and smiled wryly. "So. Turkey?"

The four of them looked at each other. Except for Nick, who was staring at Kevin with an expression of worship on his too-thin face.

"Move aside," said Brian, and Kevin stepped obediently away from the door and down onto the street. "Come on, Nick, AJ, we're going inside. We have to talk about this."

"I can't believe you just did that," Brian said, rounding on AJ. "All this time taking precautions, and you just broke our defenses without a second thought."

"I'm sorry, guys," AJ began. "You're right, I wasn't thinking. I mean, it's Kevin, you know?" The sinking feeling in AJ's stomach was getting worse all the time. He was so stupid. If he'd kept his mouth shut, if he hadn't given that stupid invitation, this could all have been so simple.

"We can't let him inside. We don't know for sure," said Howie. "If he tries to get in, Brian will have to shoot him."

"No! No, that's crazy talk, you can't do that!"

"Better hope he doesn't try to cross the threshold, then," said Brian. "Because I will shoot. AJ, I don't want to kill him any more than you do. He's my cousin. But he went off on his own, and you know anything could have happened. We have no way to tell."

"Actually, we do," said Howie. "It just means we have to wait. Seven more days. We have to establish against him again."

Nick frowned. "I don't understand. I thought, once you invited a vampire inside, the protection is broken and he gets to come in anytime."

"If he doesn't come in when he's invited, if he doesn't come inside for seven days, the protection is back up," Howie stated. "Most people don't know about it, because it doesn't exactly happen often, but it's true."

"So... if he's willing to wait, then he's really Kevin and he'll be outside where he doesn't have anywhere safe to live, and if he tries to get in before the invitation expires, he's really a vampire and Brian has to kill him," said Nick, sounding exhausted.

"Works for me," said Brian. "And, Nick, don't worry too much. If he is still human, he's managed to survive for months on his own already."

"So," said Nick, "does that mean we can eat with him? He said he has a turkey. Real food."

Brian and Howie exchanged uneasy glances. Real food. All they had to do was... share it with someone who might be a vampire.

Except AJ wasn't willing to believe that. He couldn't believe it. That was Kevin, out there, and his heart was singing with the joy of seeing him again. Nothing had changed—Kevin didn't know, didn't feel the same way, but it didn't matter. AJ had lived with this for years already, and it hurt, but it was nothing like the hurt he'd felt when Kevin walked away from them. Now he was back, and that was what really mattered.

He scooted closer to Howie, who was stirring the pot as though it mattered. "What are we going to do?" AJ murmured. "I swear, if we say no to this, we may lose Nick anyway. And I can't be sure 'bout me." He didn't mention that it wasn't really the food that would lure him away.

"Two of us go," Brian said eventually. "Someone has to stay here anyway, and it's safe for whoever's inside, so two of us go, we bring the food back. I want to trust him, but..."

"You and AJ, then," Howie said. "Nick's too easily distracted." And, AJ thought, Brian wouldn't let anyone else have the responsibility of carrying the rifle. If it had to be done, Brian would do it.

"Here." AJ passed the egg across to Howie. "Maybe you could fry it, or something. Until we get back."

It took a few minutes to overcome Nick's indignation, but eventually he succumbed to the promise of a fresh egg, sunny side up, and Brian's assurance that they would bring proper food back as soon as they could. Brian and AJ pulled on their coats, Brian pocketed a handful of bullets and they went cautiously to the door.

Kevin was across the street, sinister in the shadows cast by the grinning yellow moon, and for a moment AJ panicked. But there was that familiar nod, and the tiny twitch of a smile, and it was Kevin again, and the two of them fell in beside him as he started walking out of town.

The smell... oh, the smell, like home and family and holidays gone, and how AJ managed not to rip the domed lid from the barbecue and gorge himself he never quite knew. Maybe it was the knowledge that Nick and Howie were depending on them, that Brian would be angry; maybe it was Kevin's presence, reminding him of the gap in their lives that he'd left, the gap they'd tried to merge over. They were like a hand with a missing finger.

Kevin poked around under the lid and declared it safe to transport. The barbecue was one of those domed things atop a tripod with two wheels, but it had handles, so rather than risk its precious contents spilling onto the ground, AJ tugged his leather glove more firmly into place—it was too big for his hand and had a tendency to slip—and gripped one handle, Kevin took hold of the other, and they bore it back along the dark, quiet road with Brian and the rifle following.

Meanwhile Nick and Howie had been busy. They'd found a table, probably from the derelict hardware store down the street, and set up a motley collection of chairs on the sidewalk in front of their place. There were knives and forks, proper china plates, glasses for their carefully boiled water. It was risky, but the town seemed quiet enough, and hell, this was an occasion worth celebrating. Real food, and Kevin was back.

Kevin had somehow contrived to stuff the turkey with a herby mixture, and it had been in the barbecue long enough to be tender and golden, and there were potatoes, baked potatoes, and they stirred the collected turkey juices into the fluffy white centers and it was like tasting heaven. Kevin sliced the bird and doled it out in small portions that had Nick protesting.

"Don't bolt it. Eat it slow," Kevin said calmly, "make it last, or you'll throw up and get no benefit."

"Chew everything ten times," Howie suggested. "Enjoy it."

AJ wasn't sure Nick could manage that kind of self-control, but he decided it was good advice and forced himself to chew slowly, to savor every glorious mouthful before he let it slip down his throat. Kevin carved more meat, and then more, and more, and they ate until they were satisfied, and what a feeling it was.

"Wow," Nick said, replete at last after two helpings more than everyone else, and leaning back in his chair looking beatific and ten years younger. "I vote we keep him."

Kevin did that thing he always did, managing to look pleased without actually smiling, but said nothing. It was left to Brian to tell the truth.

"We can't, Nick. We can't until we're sure. And..."

"But he fed us! He didn't need to do that."

"Everything he's done could be because he's still Kevin, still one of us. Or, could be because he's turned. You know They feed the people They want. If we let him inside and he's—we can't."

Kevin looked grave, and AJ stared at him, studying his face for any sign... but he couldn't tell. "I've been in a place of my own on the edge of town for a couple of days now, it's best I stay there."

Still taking care of us, AJ thought, and he wanted to much to say, Stay, come back where you belong, but Brian was right. They were cunning, and none of this was proof of anything. "There's one thing," he began, and hesitated.

"Go ahead." Kevin's eyes, surely his eyes were just the same as always?

"Why are you here? I mean, you left us, you said you'd be faster alone, and now you show up here?" AJ tried to keep the hurt out of his voice, tried to sound as if he was only asking because he—all of them—needed the information.

"I heard about your... quest," Kevin said, softly. "I want to help."

After Kevin had left, trundling the barbecue and a share of leftover turkey meat back to the house he'd claimed at the edge of town, they discussed it.

Nick was firmly in favor of letting Kevin join their search. He'd missed his biggest brother very badly, AJ knew, and though the four of them had reached a new equilibrium, there was something very comforting about having Kevin back.

But AJ couldn't vote yes outright. He was too aware of the crucial mistake he'd already made, and he had to think, he had to make himself think instead of acting on his feelings. "No. We wait. We have to wait."

"We can take him along with us, I think," Howie said, and his eyes met AJ's. "If he's really Kevin, we don't want to risk losing him again, and we'll keep watching him in case he isn't. If we do have to kill him, it'll be easier if he's somewhere we can see him."

That wasn't the end of the discussion, of course. Brian and Nick argued for what felt like hours. However, AJ knew that the matter was settled: Howie didn't assert himself like Kevin used to, but once he'd made the call, that was it. AJ settled himself into his nest of blankets, and tried to sleep.

Kevin was back.


"He's still sitting there," AJ said. Kevin was across the street again, sitting on the sidewalk with his hat shading his eyes, to all appearances cool, calm and collected. AJ felt bad. They should have figured this stuff out before he came back this morning. It was—it was rude.

"I still don't think we should trust him," Brian said, stubbornly.

"We don't have to trust him," Howie said. "We just get him to help us search for stuff. Brian, even if he's turned, even if he wants us for food, he's not going to do it just yet. He'll make sure we get more to eat, first, and I say we go with that. And with Kevin along, one of us can stay here so we don't get ousted. It's the perfect answer."

"I agree," AJ said, doing his best to sound cool and thoughtful.

"I'll stay here and fix dinner," Howie declared. It made sense. They needed to keep the place occupied all the time or they could lose their establishment without even realizing, and besides, Howie was the best cook, not that that meant much when you mostly had rat to deal with. "You—and Kevin—go. Find some more ammo, and food if you can. We need to move into the city center, and we can't do that until we have the essentials. It'll go twice as quick with two pairs doing the searching."

Brian still didn't look happy, but he was clearly outvoted. "Then I'll—" he began.

AJ interrupted. "I'll take Kevin. I'll take the big knife, you and Nick take the rifle. Come on, Brian. If you go with Kevin you'll spend more time watching him than you'll spend searching, and you don't want that. Out of all of us, you really don't want that." It was, possibly, a low blow, but Brian was so determined not to trust Kevin, it was obvious he wouldn't be paying attention to figuring out where the useful stuff might be. AJ couldn't decide if it was because Brian was still angry at Kevin for leaving in the first place, or because he was so pleased to see him again he was overcompensating. Both, maybe. "Anyway," he added, "Howie's right, if he is a vampire he won't make any moves yet, will he? He'll be playing for all of us, not just me."

"Bone," said Brian, very soberly, "don't trust him."

"I—I won't." He must not trust. For all their sakes. Anyhow, the decision was made, so AJ grabbed the knife, shouldered a backpack, and headed out the door.

It did help, having an extra pair of hands and eyes in the search. And Kevin's odd, methodical imagination was a real asset. He had an amazing ability to think up places where there might be something useful. These days the pickings were slim, but at least the streets were mostly clean. No bodies.

AJ watched Kevin carefully as they checked their assigned street. Kevin readily went first through every door ("Don't turn your back on him!" Brian had said), and appeared not to mind what kind of state the place was in. It was a far cry from the fastidious man who used to bark at them all to keep the place from looking like a dumpster, back in the day. Kevin's elegant hands poked through filthy closets and decayed blankets and rat droppings and never flinched.

They didn't say much. Kevin had never been uncomfortable with silence, and AJ had nothing to say. Nothing that he could say, at any rate. He wanted to ask, of course, wanted to ask Why, why did you go, why did you leave us, what made you come back? But AJ was used to the silence. He'd never said anything about how he felt, not to Kevin, not to any of the others, and he couldn't start now.

"I missed you," Kevin said, abruptly, and AJ's heart leaped. "I mean, I missed y'all." Oh. "I wanted to come back before, but. Wasn't sure if y'all would be happy to see me. And the longer I waited..." He shrugged.

"What were you doing?"

"Killing vampires, mostly. Running, sometimes, you know how it goes. With Kristin gone, it felt like I had to put the world to rights, and the only way I could think of was to kill as many of them as I could."

AJ understood that. At least, it didn't exactly make sense, because it hadn't been vampires who killed Kristin, she'd died in the catastrophe like so many, many others. But Kevin's anger made sense. "So... what made you change your mind? You did come to find us, right? It wasn't just chance." AJ thought he had a right to ask that much.

"I heard Brian's family were in the hospital when They went in like an army. AJ, was that true? What happened?"

"Baylee got sick, and Leighanne took him to the hospital because there were still doctors there. Brian thought it was safe. We all did. There were guards all around the hospital." The guards had not stopped Them. "A few people managed to get out, but...The only thing that stopped Them was when someone inside set the hospital on fire." Brian hadn't been there, he'd been out with Nick, scavenging for supplies. He hadn't been able to help, he hadn't even been able to say goodbye. Brian was never going to be the same. AJ couldn't remember the last time Brian had smiled, or let go the rifle. Probably the mission they were working on now, the one Kevin had described as a quest, was the only reason Brian was still holding together at all.

"Then I heard about the children's home, and when I heard there were people looking to take care of them, I heard about the mission, I knew it was my boys. So I came to help." Kevin looked at him. "I shouldn't have left in the first place. It was selfish, trying to go out like a big hero. If I'd been around, I could have paired up with Nick, and Brian might have had a chance to protect his family."


"I have a suggestion," Kevin said next morning when AJ and Brian (and the rifle) went outside to speak to him. "There were more turkeys in the barn, how about we go catch them? We can bring them back here, have a fresh supply of meat for a while."

This was an idea of such brilliance that it did not take long for them to agree that it must be done. Nick and AJ went along to the hardware store for some supplies, and they drew lots. AJ, to his chagrin, ended up staying in the building all day, doing his best to build cages, while the others went on a turkey hunt.

They strolled back that afternoon with several indignant birds running noisily in front, Kevin trundling the barbecue, and Nick carrying a sack on his back that proved to be full of potatoes and squashes. The turkeys were promptly carried upstairs, where they were unlikely to be tormented by rats, or stolen by dogs or other hungry humans. After a while the gobbling noises died down, and that night, there were baked potatoes and roasted squash and turkey gravy for dinner.


To AJ's secret dismay, Nick claimed Kevin as his search partner on the following morning, and Brian, who was staying inside, handed him the rifle with a stern command to treat it with respect. AJ partnered with Howie, who shrugged at him with sympathy and a disturbingly knowing look in his eyes.

It was, they decided, a bad idea to team the short people together. If there was useful stuff on high shelves, it was going to stay there. Tomorrow, AJ declared, he was going with Kevin again.


The following morning, Kevin was already waiting when AJ got outside, and they set off at once, side by side, without even speaking until they were back to the place they'd finished up the search on the previous day.

"Were you lonely?" AJ asked.

Kevin looked up from the kitchen closet he was checking for usable stuff. So far all they had was a big bottle of bleach—the dishwasher powder and rinse-aid were just sad reminders of a world where things were easy. "Yeah," he said, simply.

But did you miss me? AJ wanted to ask. Why was it so hard now to hide how he felt? He'd managed for years not to give himself away, and now he was on the brink of it all the time. Was it because he'd thought he might never see Kevin again? Was it—and it made him feel guilty even to consider it—because with Kristin gone, it didn't feel quite so wrong anymore? "I'm glad I had the others," he said, gruffly. "I mean, they drive me crazy sometimes, but, you know. I don't think I could have made it on my own."

"I'm glad y'all had each other," said Kevin, and turned back to his search.

In the next house, they added a couple of cookbooks to the small collection of useful stuff. The kitchen knives Kevin handed over to AJ without comment. AJ wrapped them in a tattered dishcloth and stashed them in the deep thigh pocket of his pants.

If Kevin was a vampire, he was going above and beyond to make sure AJ felt safe with him. AJ did feel safe. AJ was increasingly certain in his mind as well as his heart that Kevin was genuine.

"You can't really tell the difference," Kevin said unexpectedly.


"Between a person and a vampire. It's not like being turned takes out the whole personality. It's like, there's a ruthlessness underneath, but I've talked with vampires who made me laugh. All the time I knew they were just waiting for the right moment, like I was, but they were... good company." He paused. "Brian's right, you know. You have to wait until I can prove what I am."

"It's all my fault that you can't just, if I hadn't, I just didn't think."

"It's okay, Bone. I actually appreciated it a lot, being trusted right off. It's been a long time."

"Brian really wants to trust you," AJ said. "He really does. He just—he can't. I think he wouldn't be so scared if he didn't really want you to be, uh, you."

"I know."

There was a grubby pack of cards at the back of a bedside drawer in the next house. Kevin tossed them into the bag. "Maybe we can play poker after dinner, if it's not too cold."

"Hmm," said AJ. "Nick and me always seem to get cleaned out."

"He does have the world's worst poker face."

"Yeah, he does. He goes all earnest when he's trying to pretend he's got nothing," AJ wrinkled his forehead in imitation, "and he can't bluff for shit."

"And you have the world's second worst poker face," said Kevin.

"I do not! I just have lousy luck at cards!"

Kevin laughed. "You can't hide a thing, not with those eyes." He smiled down at AJ, and ran his finger along AJ's jaw. AJ's breath caught and he tensed all over at the slight, electric contact. Kevin's face sobered, and he turned away and bent back to his search.

What was that?

"Now why the hell would someone store canned goods in their bedroom?" Kevin demanded in quite a different tone. There were—AJ counted them—seventeen entirely anonymous cans in the nightstand, not a label between them.

"Industrial strength lube?" he suggested.

Kevin smirked. "Best to take it with us, then," he said. "You never know."

When they got home, AJ walked in to find the other three watching him with narrowed eyes. "What?" he said, surprised.

"Nothing," Brian said, and turned away to unload and clean the rifle.

Howie winked at him. "Just wanted to be sure you could still get through the door," he said.

"Oh, for fuck's sake." AJ hadn't even thought about that. Annoyed, he emptied their haul onto the floor, wanting to demonstrate that he and Kevin had done a good job. But Howie and Brian were the heroes of the hour, for they had found ammo, and a spare gun. Brian had it next to him as he worked.

Nick, today's resident, had not been able to bring himself to dispatch a turkey, so it was vegetables for dinner again, outside on the sidewalk like before. They opened one of the mysterious cans, just to see, and it turned out to be apricots, so they opened more. One yielded something unidentifiable and covered with mould, but there was meat stew in one, and canned tomatoes, and more apricots. So they shared the apricots, and if anything had ever tasted so perfect, sweet and soft on his tongue, AJ couldn't remember it. He closed his eyes to savor every luscious mouthful, and when he opened his eyes, Kevin was watching him.


Next day, they struck gold.

The morning brought nothing worth keeping, not so much as a pack of cards, the only satisfaction AJ had from the day was watching Kevin's long, elegant fingers as they searched. The veiled yellow sun was already heading towards the rooftops before they found what must have been a convenience store, and gleaned matches, batteries and soap from its neatly organized cellar. It was supposed to be the last one before heading back, but AJ discovered a door through into the next building along, and it opened so readily it seemed absurd not to take a look around, so they made their way through and found a building that seemed indefinably to be not as neglected as the usual run of the deserted street.

A hand grabbed AJ's shoulder. "Listen!" Kevin whispered.

Voices. Women.

"Upstairs?" AJ hissed.


AJ hefted the big knife. He felt a little ashamed, this was Kevin and still he'd been carrying a huge knife around with him all this time, hidden inside his thick jacket, but when he raised his eyes to meet Kevin's, he saw understanding there. Of course Kevin understood.

Carefully, they mounted the stairs, but half-way up there was a loud crack! as something broke beneath AJ's foot. An alarm, maybe. For an instant, they both froze, then AJ ran up the rest of the flight with Kevin hard on his heels. They'd been heard, no sense pretending it hadn't happened, best get up there fast.

"Inside, quick. I got this, it's okay," came an oddly familiar voice.

Before they reached the top there was a gun pointing at them from the nearest doorway. And then,

"Oh, my God, guys! This is incredible! Come up, come on in, man, it's good to see you."

"Chris?" AJ said, astonished. "Chris Kirkpatrick?"

"It's all right," Chris was saying, "these guys are friends. I know them."

They followed him inside. The place was home-like, comfortable, with a couch and chairs and an old-fashioned stove burning, and by the far wall, two women stared at them, wide-eyed. The younger, red-haired and pale as milk, was brandishing a golf club, but at Chris's words she put it down, trembling; the elder, brown and capable, set down her chosen weapon (a businesslike kitchen knife) and announced that in that case, they would be wanting tea. She still had the lingering roundness of what must have been comfortable middle age, and AJ felt a sudden longing to cuddle against her and be babied.

Janine soon had tea brewed from the kettle on the stove, and the five of them sat in comfort and sipped the steaming liquid. It might actually have been tea, AJ wasn't sure, it had been so long since he drank any. It felt so normal, it felt surreal, and when Rhiannon, the redhead, offered them something not at all unlike oatmeal cookies, AJ almost cried.

"It is so good to see you guys," Chris said enthusiastically. "I can't believe it! But you're okay, you're doing okay?"

"A few too many rat stews," AJ said, "but yeah, we're doing good. The guys—we have a place established just a few streets away."

"Your guys? You're all together? That, that's amazing." Chris looked at his hands. "I... lost touch with mine. But hey, we're doing good here, aren't we, ladies?"

"Place looks great," said Kevin.

"We didn't like to leave because of—" Rhiannon hesitated and looked to Chris and Janine, "because of the stores here."

"Stores?" Kevin said, gently encouraging.

Janine took over. "We used to work here, Rhiannon and me, and Doctor Johannes. Pediatrics. I've been a children's nurse for twenty years. We came back because the place had good locks, and it's a good location, we got a lot from the stores for a while. And the stock was here already, and good storage for it. Some of the vaccines are out of date, now, but better than nothing, only we don't know where to go. We hoped maybe some of the patients would come back, but I guess the area's been cleared out."

"Vaccines?" AJ could hardly breathe for hoping. "You have vaccines?"

"Doctor Johannes had a lot stored here, and we went to the hospitals and collected more, everything we could get. Hospitals were mostly empty, no sense leaving the stuff to rot, I thought, but we're no use here. Chris goes out every day, tries to find out if there are any kids hereabouts, but seems they've moved on."

Or died, was the unspoken thought at the end of that sentence. Of all the devastations, that was the one AJ had never thought of, kids dying, not from the menace that threatened them all, but from measles. Whooping cough. Chicken pox. All those little kids, the ones that were too young to have had their shots before...

"Janine, Rhiannon. You may be the answer to our very heartfelt prayers. And I think maybe we're the answer to yours," AJ said, and, as they nibbled at oatmeal almost-cookies, and Janine refilled the mugs of probably-tea, he explained about Brian's plan, and the children's home being established to the south. "We were going to check out the hospitals ourselves, take everything we could use and head south as soon as we have enough supplies to make the trip, but if you come with us..."

Janine's face creased, and tears spilled onto her cheeks. "I've been praying for you, for someone like you. Of course we'll come."

"Awesome," said Chris.


Brian's face, when they told him, almost made AJ cry. He and Kevin showed the others Janine's inventory, and explained about the freezer and the cold storage and the portable generator, and what kind of transportation they were going to need to get back to the children's home, and it all seemed possible in a way it really hadn't seemed before.

Howie had opened more of the mystery tins and turned the canned tomatoes and meat and corn, and more potatoes, into either thick soup or thin stew, and the five of them sat at the table on the sidewalk and enjoyed their food and made plans for the trip. They'd need a big truck to hold the storage units and get them all there safely, and yes, some kind of depot looked like a good bet. It was Kevin who suggested looking for old phone directories, and within a few minutes Nick's triumphant yell signaled that he'd found one, and they clustered around him to read it by the light of Howie's flashlight, now handily replenished with new batteries.

It seemed almost like torture to wait until tomorrow before going to investigate the possible sources of trucks, but it would be insane to go looking while it was dark.

"Kevin?" AJ said, worried, as the others carried the table and chairs into their building for the night. "You can't go back out to the edge of town, not at this time of night. It's too dangerous."

"Haven't seen any vampires around," Kevin said, stoic as ever.

"Just because we haven't seen them so far, doesn't mean they aren't there," said AJ. "You should—damn."

"No!" said Kevin, sharply. "Don't say it."

"But surely he can see—I mean. I can see."

"Are you saying you trust me?"

AJ stilled. He looked up at Kevin's face, Kevin's beautiful green eyes that he'd always found so hard to read, and there was something there he didn't remember seeing before. Maybe it was relief, maybe it was hope, maybe it was something else, something AJ didn't dare to believe in. "I trust you," he said.

Kevin opened his arms, and AJ went into them without a second's hesitation. "You know," Kevin said, muffled against AJ's temple, "you probably shouldn't. I haven't done anything that couldn't be, that one of Them wouldn't do. Feeding you, helping you, it's none of it proof."

"I know," AJ said with increasing certainty. "But you're Kevin." One of Kevin's hands stroked the back of his head. "Don't, don't go away again."

"Not planning to. And I, matter of fact I've been sleeping over yonder the past three nights." Kevin's head inclined towards the building opposite. Which explained how he'd always been there when AJ was ready to go. "Didn't say anything in case Brian started to worry about y'all being asleep with me so close by."

Yeah, Brian would probably have wanted them to stand guard, or something. Whereas AJ felt safer, thinking of Kevin so close. "Is it comfortable? Do you have blankets?" They'd stripped the surrounding buildings when they first arrived.

"Pretty damn cold, actually."

"I'll get you a couple blankets from our stash. Wait here a sec." AJ hurried inside and grabbed an armful of blankets from their stash. "I'll be a while, guys. I promise I won't bring him inside."

Brian and Nick were looking over a streetmap by the light of the low fire, but Howie met AJ's eyes and winked at him. "Have fun," he said, and AJ thought maybe he did have the world's second worst poker face after all, because what?

Though it did seem like they all—even Brian—were pretty sure Kevin was okay, if they didn't object. Even Brian.

"I sleep upstairs," was all Kevin said when AJ crossed the street.

Turned out the stairs were creaky, so that was useful, Kevin would get a warning if anyone approached. They found a big couch, it was a bit rat-chewed but not actually filthy. Someone else must have used the place quite recently. There were blackened ashes on a metal tray, which seemed sensible, so they gathered up some more trash and started a fire.

AJ stared into the flickering flames. He didn't want to leave Kevin alone, when they'd not been troubled now for ages and They must surely, surely be getting closer every night. He didn't want to leave Kevin alone, cold, with only the creaking of the stairs to protect him. He didn't want to leave Kevin alone.

He shivered.

"Here." Kevin hung one of the blankets over AJ's shoulders. Did his hands linger as he smoothed it down over AJ's arms, or was that just wishful thinking?

"You know, I, I, body heat is good. Shared, I mean," AJ managed.


AJ raised his eyes. There was no mistaking the expression on Kevin's face now, want and need and... "Let me stay," he whispered.

"AJ, it's not safe."

"Just—just long enough to get you warm, then?"

Kevin's lips twitched. "I guess it would be nice to get warm." He wrapped his arms around AJ's waist. "If that's what you want." They pressed together, and Kevin breathed a deep sigh. "Can I—?"

"Hell, yes," said AJ, and kissed him hard. Kevin kissed back without a second's hesitation, he kissed like he'd been wanting this too, and AJ stopped thinking about why the hell had they never done this before, he stopped thinking about anything except Kevin, and wanting more.

"Sharing body heat works better if we're both under the blankets."

"Mmm," Kevin said. "I'm told it works better if nobody has clothes on." One icy hand insinuated itself through the gap between AJ's leather jacket and his belted jeans. "The only problem is, a person gets awful cold taking his clothes off on a night like this."

"If you help me," AJ suggested, "it won't take long."

"You know what," said Kevin, "you hold onto that blanket and I'll see what I can do."

So AJ clutched at the blanket and Kevin's deft fingers undid his belt and his boots and peeled off his jeans and his briefs. Trailed a chilly line up his belly and slid his jacket off his arms and rolled up his thick sweater and his T-shirt. AJ dropped the blanket and his clothes were up over his head, off his arms, and Kevin rolled him up in the blanket again and nudged him onto the couch, then stripped off his own clothes with perfect efficiency and lay down beside him and pulled the blankets over them both.

"See," said AJ. "Body heat."

"You're still shivering."

"You'll warm me up, though, right?"

"I," Kevin promised, "will get you hot." His hand made a cool patch over AJ's ass, and they tangled themselves together, and Kevin's mouth was cold on his neck, kissing a trail like ice. AJ arched against him, offering more, and felt a thrill of terror, what if he was wrong after all, what if Kevin was turned, what if he was about to be fed on? And he felt Kevin's lips part, and a sharp nip, and Kevin's tongue soothing it, and then Kevin was kissing him again, and his mouth was hot and demanding and it was everything he'd wanted for so long.


They lay there, sweaty and sticky and entirely satisfied, kissing because neither of them could quite bring himself to stop. Until Kevin, inevitably, said, "You have to go. Back to your own home, you'll be safer there. I've only been here three nights, four, now."

AJ did not want to get dressed again. But he knew that tone, and there was no sense arguing with Kevin. He pulled on his clothes with all possible speed. "It's taking so long," he complained, "I want this fixed, we're supposed to be together, all of us. It feels wrong. It sucks!"

"Not quite as bad as a chest wound, though."

"Brian's changed too much. I mean, pointing a rifle at you, his own cousin, hell, Chris just welcomed us right away, soon as he saw who we were. Why couldn't Brian have done that?"

"Yeah," said Kevin, sitting up, and something about the way he spoke sent chills down AJ's spine.


"I think..." Kevin said, "that we missed something. When exactly did Chris say to come in?"

AJ thought back. "We were going up the stairs," he said.

"So were we already inside," Kevin wondered, "or did the home not start until the doorway of the upstairs apartment? And why would anybody invite us inside right away instead of at least asking questions?"

"If—if they didn't care if we were vampires?" AJ was getting a very bad feeling about this. Kevin was out of the blankets and hauling on his clothes at top speed.

"Or if they didn't want the question of vampires to come up at all," Kevin said, grimly. "I think we should get over there."

"I'll get the others."


"Janine? Rhiannon?" Kevin called as the four of them mounted the stairs. "Anybody home? Chris?" The door was of course firmly barriered, and he hammered on it. AJ joined in.

"Hush!" Brian commanded after a few minutes of this, and they heard shuffling footsteps, the click and slide of bolts, and the door opened.

"What in the name of God are you boys doing here in the middle of the night?" Janine demanded. She was wrapped in several shapeless layers, the topmost of which was a brocade dressing gown.

"Where's Rhiannon? And where is Chris?"

"Chris sleeps upstairs, and I hope you all didn't wake that poor boy with your shouting, he works so hard for us. Rhiannon's probably put her head under the pillow. Child needs her sleep."

"Ma'am," said Kevin, "we—I was concerned for y'all. I think you may have a vampire problem."

She peered at his face, seemed satisfied, and stepped back, inclining her head. They trooped inside. AJ noticed how Nick and Brian looked around the room, probably trying to figure out exactly why it seemed so comfortable, just as he had done. Janine apparently slept on the couch, for there were piled blankets and a pillow in a pink pillowcase.

"Could you wake Rhiannon?" Kevin asked.

Muttering, Janine crossed to one of the doors on the far side of the room. She opened it very quietly and glided inside, emerging a moment later looking unimpressed. "Fast asleep," she said.

"Isn't that a little strange?" Kevin suggested. "We made an awful lot of noise. Janine, may I—?"

She stood aside, looking puzzled but not yet concerned, and he went through into Rhiannon's room, leaving the door wide behind him. AJ hurried over and stood in the doorway, with Brian and Nick crowding him. They watched.

The girl's red hair was spread over the pillow, her face turned away from them, towards the open window. The open window? Who in their right mind—

Kevin tilted the sleeping girl's face, and went rigid. He pressed fingers to the side of her neck, and his face softened with relief. "There's a pulse. He didn't drain her."

"My God!" Janine surged past them and into the room. AJ and Nick followed, and Brian went to the window. There were marks on Rhiannon's neck, and a trickle of blood still flowing from one of them. "But how? How is it possible?" Janine asked. "This is our place, we've been here weeks, how could one of Them get in?"

"How long has Chris been living here?"

She stared up at Kevin. "Since the beginning, since two days after we got here. We found some canned goods in the 7-11 along the street and there were some boys trying to take it, Chris took control, he shared out the food, made sure we got what we needed, and moved in. He's been taking care of us ever since, bringing home food, protecting us... Oh, dear Lord. She's always so pale, and I never thought to guess."

"There's a fire escape out here," Brian reported. "Doesn't go all the way down, though." Nick, intrigued, went to stick his head out the window, and confirmed that the metal staircase, bolted to the brickwork above, had been broken off below the level of Rhiannon's window.

"Chris destroyed it, he said it wasn't safe having access from the street." Janine was shaking now, and AJ took her gently over to the nearest chair.

"But he sleeps on the floor above," Kevin said. AJ felt sick. Chris had been feeding off this fragile girl, maybe Janine too, and caring for them, treating them as pets, almost, as livestock. "Brian, you want to bring that rifle?"

"Don't bother," came a voice from above. Brian brought the rifle up, but was thwarted by the darkness and the metal staircase.

"Chris, man," Nick said, all misery. "You've been turned. You've been feeding on these people."

"You think you're so superior, don't you! You think eating rats is better? I didn't kill them, I kept them alive, I kept them fed. If not for me they'd be carrion on the streets now, and rats would be eating them."

"Come back inside," said Kevin, sounding sick. "Close the window."

"You should be thanking me!" Chris called, as Nick pulled the window shut.

"I can't believe it," Janine said, sounding close to tears. "We were so careful, all the way back from the hospital, all this time, and he was—he was—" Brian put his arms around her and comforted her, and she sobbed quietly for a few moments. But she was a tough one, she pulled herself back together and began issuing orders for taking care of Rhiannon, and they all bustled about building up the fire and brewing some tea.

It took a while to figure out what to do next, but eventually it was agreed that Kevin and Brian (and the rifle) would stay with the two nurses, and Nick and AJ would go back to their place and bring Howie up to date on what had happened. In the morning they would all go hunting for transportation, and they'd head south back to the orphanage as soon as they were set for the trip.

"I can't believe it, I just can't believe it! Chris! I mean, man. And they never noticed anything wrong." Nick was really upset. He and Chris had been good friends a while back, AJ knew, and it had all been quite a shock. "Now I get why Brian's being so careful with Kevin. I mean, shit, what if he—"

"He isn't," AJ said, curtly. "He's Kevin."

"Yeah, but how can we—"

"I know, I know, I gave him an invitation, and it was stupid, but seriously, Nick, he's Kevin. If Brian would only stop pointing the damn rifle at him, he could just walk right into our place like any other human," AJ said. "Trouble is, human beings get killed just as dead as vampires, if some crazy guy puts a bullet into them, and Kevin doesn't want to risk it."

"Oh," said Nick. "Yeah, that's kind of a problem."

They hurried home.


It seemed their luck had taken a turn for the better, because by noon the next day they had found a serviceable truck big enough to take the portable generator and the cold storage of all the vaccines, and every box of medication besides, plus the turkey cages and all the food that was stored in Janine and Rhiannon's place. With room for three in the cab and the rest of them riding with the cargo.

The four of them—Howie was cooking, and had promised a turkey dinner—took turns learning how to drive the huge machine for a couple of hours. After that they maneuvered three large drums into the truck and filled them painstakingly with diesel fuel drained from the other vehicles, filled up the truck's fuel tank, and drove to Janine and Rhiannon's location.

It was a hell of a struggle to get the freezer, the cold store and the portable generator out of the building and onto the truck, and only Brian's determination kept everybody going until the women's stashes of food, hardware and other useful items had also been loaded. They let Brian drive back, with Janine and Rhiannon sitting up front and the rest of them reasonably comfortable on the pile of blankets in back.

"You know, it's almost weird, don't you think? That we've been here weeks and the only vampire we met was Chris," AJ observed.

"I still can't believe he was turned," Nick mourned. "I wish Brian had been able to shoot him, though."

"Seems like he was a very effective vampire," said Kevin. "I thought for sure I'd be dead meat before I even found you guys, but it's very quiet around here. That was probably Chris's doing, protecting his investment. We'll have to keep our eyes open in case he shows up tomorrow."

"It's so weird," Nick muttered.

"It is weird. Y'all have done well, taking all the precautions, not letting up. You see now, AJ, how Brian was right. Better to stay suspicious. We just saw that made real clear. No, he's kept y'all safe, and he'll trust me, in time."

It was dark by the time they got back to their place, but Howie had been busy, the turkeys were caged and the meal was ready. The scent of roast turkey emanating from the barbecue had already attracted a small pack of dogs, which scattered at the sight of the big truck.

"We kept them away with fireworks," Rhiannon said, and she and Janine hunted through the stuff in the truck until they found firecrackers. It was grotesquely festive, setting off firecrackers every time the dogs got uncomfortably close, but the seven of them were in a celebratory mood, ready to head south at first light and leave this drab and lonely town behind them.

So they all wrapped themselves in blankets and had a merry time talking and drinking Janine's tea, which AJ was really beginning to appreciate. The meal, the last they'd eat here—well, breakfast would be leftover slices, so it would still be the same meal—was almost as good as that first turkey Kevin had brought. Better, in theory, because Janine had brought canned corn and green beans, but nothing, AJ thought, could ever taste quite so good as that first meal with them all together again, with Kevin back.

Eventually it was time to pack up the remains (leaving not so much as a bone for the hopeful dogs) and head inside for bed. Nick's head was drooping, and Rhiannon, still weak from the feeding, was pretty much asleep against Kevin's shoulder. AJ was all set to be jealous, but Kevin dropped a quick wink at him before the last flames were extinguished, and somehow, everything was fine.

The perfect end to this amazingly good day, AJ thought, would be if he could have Kevin share his pile of blankets. Was Brian seriously going to make him stay across the street again? Yes, probably. Although, wait, surely the seven days must be up by now? He tried to count, but Brian ordered him, Nick and Howie inside and he lost his reckoning.

Kevin picked up the sleeping redhead and walked purposefully towards the door, with Janine right behind him.

"We aren't inviting you in," Brian said. But he'd put the rifle down, and was staring right at Kevin. Kevin gave that infinitesimal smile, the one that meant he understood, the one he only ever shared with Brian—AJ was okay with that, because Kevin had a smile for him, too, that was all his own—and stepped forward.

And stopped at the threshold.

"Kevin?" AJ said. "What—?"

"I can't get through," Kevin said.

The rifle's click echoed in the stillness of the room.

Rhiannon curled in Kevin's arms, her face a sudden snarl, and in the darkness beyond him where Janine was, AJ caught a glimpse of fangs. He scrabbled desperately for the handgun, but Howie was already holding it, ready to fire.

"Drop," said Brian, and pulled the trigger.

With the pale redhead still in his arms, Kevin hit the ground, and AJ's heart stopped for a dreadful instant. Then there was a scream of rage, and terrible sounds as Brian fired again and again at the vampire hidden in the night. On the threshold, Kevin and Rhiannon grappled and rolled, and Howie had no target he could shoot, they were too tangled in their frantic struggle.

"Kevin!" AJ yelled. "You can't come in!"

And Kevin escaped for a moment the greedy hands that grasped at him, and dived forwards through the doorway, and Nick grabbed his arm and hauled him in, and the handgun spat its bullets until Rhiannon's body ceased to move.

They sat in a huddle, all five of them, enveloped in blankets and all connected, shoulders leaning together or hands clasped. It was comforting after the terror of that insanity, being able to hold on to one another, being somehow complete again. AJ thought he might have stopped trembling, at last, with his arm around Kevin's waist and Kevin's arm on his shoulders under the blanket, but Brian was still shivering with the horror of it.

"I think they were hunting for y'all," Kevin said, his voice commendably calm. "I heard about your quest, that's why I came up here. They could have heard too and worked out a plan. Chris must have tracked y'all, he had an edge, since we used to be friends."

"We'd have taken them right there," Brian whispered. "Nurses, with medicines. Right into the home." No wonder he was shaking. After losing Leighanne and Baylee, if Brian's mission to save other people's children had come to such a terrible end it would have destroyed him. It might have destroyed them all.

"Food for years," Nick muttered. "Sorry," he said, as Brian moaned, and pulled him in for a hug.

"Well," said Howie, briskly, "it didn't work out for them. We have the medicine and the food they collected, and they're dead."

"Except Chris," Nick pointed out.

"But we know him, and we know what he is," Howie said. "He knows we'll kill him if we see him again. He's probably long gone."

"Howie's right," Kevin agreed. "We win, Brian. Tomorrow we'll get in that truck and we'll drive south and take the vaccines and the supplies to those children, and maybe it's a small thing but it's making a start on mending this world."


Two days later they rolled to a stop in front of the home, and sounded the horn.

The women running the home had worked out a very careful procedure in the weeks since they'd last been here. The five of them sat patiently through the questions, explained in detail where they had been and what company they'd kept and what exactly they had brought. Eventually Howie was chosen, taken past the fence and right up to the house itself, and here, the women with the rifles stayed outside the building, their weapons trained on him until he demonstrated that he was safe by stepping easily inside while the kids within were chanting loudly, You can't come in.

AJ poked Brian in the ribs. "You know, it would have saved a whole heap of time if we'd thought of that."

Brian looked mortified. They hadn't, quite, gotten to the point of being able to tease him about being paranoid yet, and AJ thought it was maybe time they did.

"Except, we'd most probably be dead," said Nick. "I mean, if Brian hadn't been so paranoid about Kevin, we'd have told those nice ladies to come right in, wouldn't we?"

"It wasn't that I didn't want to believe you," Brian said. "I just, I just—"

"It's okay." Kevin grinned. "I got that. Like I keep telling my boy AJ here, you were right. Also, when did Nicky get so smart?"

Kevin drove the truck carefully through the gates, and the guys, together with half a dozen of the resident women, unloaded the precious cargo and took it indoors.

"It's like a miracle," one of the women said, wiping the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. "They're so vulnerable here, and more keep arriving all the time. Let's get you guys something to drink."

They followed her towards the house, eager for their promised refreshment, and a gaggle of laughing children spilled out from an open doorway, with three or four adults keeping them more or less in check. AJ stared at a strangely familiar blonde head, so like, so like—but she was—Leighanne?

And there was a curly-headed kid breaking from the group and running to Brian with his arms out wide. "Daddy!"

AJ thought there were tears running down Kevin's face. He wasn't certain. His own vision was too blurred to be sure. Howie was no better, and Nick was flat out bawling. And through the tears, there was Brian with his wife and their little boy, holding so tight they were like one being, complete again. He held tighter to Kevin's hand. It would take a long time to mend this world, but they'd begun.


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