They found Van Zan at the foot of the chimney. Quinn thought he was dead until he snarled like a wounded dog and swore at them when they tried to move him. "I think his leg is broken," Alex said, checking him over as best she could without getting bitten. "He may have internal injuries; I can't tell here."
Quinn tried to picture the trip through the potentially dragon-infested tunnel system with two wounded Americans. "We'd better bring the chopper over," he decided. "Is it easy to fly, then?"
Alex glared at him and levered herself to her feet using a stray metal railing as a cane. "Don't let him die," she ordered and limped off towards the shaft.
Which left Quinn alone with Van Zan. "We got it," he said, trying to be encouraging.
"No shit. Good work," Van Zan growled, then coughed raggedly, shudders running through his body.
Quinn put his hand on Van Zan's shoulder and took his uninjured hand in his own, trying not to wince under the returned pressure. At least Van Zan didn't seem to be hacking up any blood. Even before it burned, they hadn't had supplies at the castle for much beyond scrapes and minor breaks. Anyone with serious injuries lived or died as fate would have it. Quinn murmured something meaningless and comforting, which got him another snarl, so he started talking. "Why'd you jump?" he asked. "It's not like you could have killed it, even with that great bloody axe of yours. I've seen you do some stupid, crazy shit, but that one takes it above and beyond. We thought it'd eaten you for sure."
The grip on his hand tightened and tugged him down. Quinn had to lean in so that their cheeks touched, and he could feel Van Zan's sweat and spit warm against his skin, his tongue brushing his ear as he moistened his lips. "Nowhere to hide," he said, voice weak but clear. "Wouldn't let him burn me for the ash: if he wanted to take me, he'd have to have my blood and guts. Wouldn't let him take the sky without a fight: that's our territory; it'll always be ours, yours and mine."
"I wouldn't tell Alex that," Quinn whispered back, smiling. He braced his free hand against the rubble, keeping his weight off the wounded man, but letting their bodies touch.
They breathed together in silence for a few minutes, then Van Zan asked, "What will we do now?"
"We'll build," Quinn said, but he didn't know if Van Zan heard him. The rise and fall of his chest had grown shallower and more even, and Quinn thought he might have passed out. "We'll build," he repeated, and pressed his lips to Van Zan's forehead tasting sweat, blood and ash.
A few minutes later, he heard the steady thud of Alex's rotors.
"On three," Quinn said, resettling his grip. As he leaned back, his shoulders brushed against Alex's, and he could hear her steady, determined breaths. In front of him, Jared kicked his heels into the paving stones and braced his weight.
As he got to three, the dozen or so adults and older children in the line threw themselves backwards and hauled on the rope. The twisted interior wall shuddered but held. "And again!" Quinn yelled, and this time it gave way, breaking apart as it fell and sending loose rocks scattering across the ruined hall. He sighed in relief and dropped the rope, flexing his hands open and closed to work the cramps out. "Good work," he said, and bumped shoulders with Alex again, deliberately this time, grinning at everyone.
Jared wiped his sleeve across his forehead, saying, "I still think it's strange to be pulling walls down."
Quinn clapped him on the shoulder. "Just be glad you weren't under it. Anything that comes down just by tugging on it like that wouldn't last the first storm come Autumn, let alone a dragon attack. You know how draughty it gets in here."
"Sometimes you have to tear things apart before you can build again," a rough voice said from behind them. Quinn turned to see Van Zan leaning heavily against the entrance to the stairwell, good hand resting on a six-year-old girl's shoulder for balance. Little Katie carried his cane, that same steel rod Alex had pulled from the ruins of London, like she'd been entrusted with Excalibur.
Quinn tried not to feel bitter about how quickly this American interloper had replaced Creedy as the one the kids loved best. He also tried not to feel impressed that he was standing at all, let alone climbing stairs.
"Denton," Alex said waspishly, "If you keep on that leg, it'll heal wrong, and I'll have to listen to you bitch about your limp for the rest of our lives."
Van Zan just grinned at her and said, "I sure as hell wasn't going to miss this. Most exciting thing that's happened all week."
Alex shook her head and gave up. Quinn smiled at her sympathetically, then gestured behind him, wanting to get back to work. "We've got to get the rest of this shored up," he said. "It'll rain soon, and I don't know if wet rock will hold up."
Van Zan leaned even more heavily on the wall, and patted Katie's hair. "I think the little ones could help with the clean up," he said. "They're going a bit crazy, cooped up down below like they are. It would do them good to get some air."
Quinn sighed. He knew that they hadn't had an attack all week, not since he'd scattered the remains of the bull around the castle, but he still couldn't bear to risk what family he had left. "They're used to it," he said.
Van Zan growled. "They won't thank you for coddling them. They want to help, and you should let them." Oddly, the comment didn't have the usual "or I'll make you" implication behind it. Quinn figured that Van Zan was staying low and building his strength before he seriously challenged Quinn's we'll-rule-communally-but-I-get-to-be-King proclamation.
Quinn sighed, pushing his sweaty hair out of his face. He did know that everyone could use some more space, him most of all some days. He already had the older ones mending and sorting under Van Zan's supervision, and that could go faster in better light. Still... "Not today," he said, and he walked away into the rubble, knowing that Van Zan couldn't follow him.
That didn't stop Van Zan from shouting, "It took a thousand men a hundred years to build this place. Do you think you can do it again by yourself?"
He thought about the smouldering wreck his rooms and everything he'd worked on had become and hunched his shoulders without answering. Jared was staring at him, wide-eyed. He ignored the boy as well.
It was the children's past that had gone up in flames, and maybe their future too. Sometimes, tearing things apart just made them impossible to ever build again.
They didn't have benches any more, so the kids had to strain to see Alex in her ragged costume, and anyone who stuck their head up too high got batted back down.
Quinn leaned back against the rock, exhausted. Van Zan wasn't the only one who hated this dank hole in the ground. He missed the old stage, and the frescos, and the glass windows. He missed the vaulted ceilings and feeling like he had space to stand. Sometimes, he figured that if he concentrated hard enough on all the material things he'd lost, he wouldn't have time to think about the people; well over half his family burned to ash. It hadn't worked too well so far, though.
Van Zan and Alex had brought food and new stories at least, which seemed to be keeping the kids well and truly distracted.
"And it was then that the young pirate realised that if he wanted to wed the woman he loved, he would have to marry her as the King of the Pirates, not as the well-bred lady he'd longed for when he was a boy."
"She's good at this," Quinn said, not for the first time. "Creedy and I used to do story time as a team, and even then I'm not sure the kids always got what was going on."
Lin, who was sitting next to him and watching with rapt attention, shushed him viciously.
Van Zan slid closer so that their arms touched, and whispered into his ear, "Why do you think I chose her as our Memory?"
Quinn turned his head to reply, breathing in the scent of the military-issue soap - which Alex rationed out like single malt scotch - overlaid with sweat and ash. "I thought it was because she was the only one sane enough to survive you lot." He rested his lips against Van Zan's cheek and tilted his head a little, touching his brow to the other man's stubbled scalp.
Van Zan settled against him, turning so that they could both speak easily but not create a distraction, and said, "Nah, never thought she'd last this long. She comes up with some of our craziest plans, and I figure that bird of hers stays in the air just because she tells it to. A teller of tales, and a dreamer of dreams, that's my baby. Memory like an elephant, too." Quinn felt Van Zan's face pull into a frown. "Sometimes I think it'd be better to make a book of it all, in case none of us make it, but paper doesn't mix well with fire does it?"
Quinn squeezed his eyes closed, thinking about what he could have done differently, how he could have saved his own story. "I wish it did," he agreed, and they lapsed into silence.
In the centre of the circle, Alex had again paused to explain one of the finer points of how the ocean worked, in this case what a whirlpool was, and all the kids were staring at her in wonder. Quinn knew that most of them had never seen so much as a lake. "If we get out of this," he said, "I'm finding a beach and taking everyone camping."
Van Zan nodded, rubbing their heads together. "I hadn't seen it either," he said, "Not until we flew over the whole damn thing. It never ends, or it seems that way. It just goes on, wave after wave, no matter how high up you are." He sighed, the puff of breath tickling the hair around Quinn's neck. "I looked down, and I knew that I'd never get back across all that again. When we left, I think most of my men knew that we wouldn't see home again, but I didn't believe it until we started to cross that water."
London had been Quinn's home, and he would have been happier never to have gone there again. "Are you from Coffeyville?" he asked.
"No, Rocky Hill, Kentucky," Van Zan said, "More or less. I grew up in the woods with my dad." He stopped, and Quinn got the feeling that it wasn't his favourite topic.
"I miss it," he said.
"What?" Van Zan asked.
"I don't know, everything."
"I don't," Van Zan said.
"...every ten years, the immortal King of the Pirates stands on the shore, waiting for a green flash and the return of her love."
Quinn couldn't tell if the castle looked better or worse from the edge of the roof. He could see deep scores in the rock where the dragon had perched, some big enough to spread his hand across. The scorch marks started out in small patches along the roof line, and widened into vast expanses of charred rock where they reached more combustible material. He thought that some of the stones might still feel a bit warm, even a week later. Fortunately, the rock itself didn't seem too badly damaged, and most of the outer walls looked okay.
The heat had reduced the antennae and windpump to a small heap of grotesquely twisted metal, but it seemed like the spot was still sound enough to hold new equipment. Now that he had most of the structure stabilised, he wanted to rebuild the windpump as soon as he could, which would be a bitch without Jerry's engineering skills. However, the bull's attack hadn't touched a lot of the curtain wall or the outbuildings, and he knew that he had enough materials to do it. It would just take time, a hell of a lot of work and probably a few mistrials.
Looking down, he could see the sun glinting off Alex's hair as she hauled a bucket of debris outside. Half a dozen tiny blue and grey forms dogged her steps, and he could hear the high chatter of voices asking the usual unending questions that followed a new story. He'd let the kids out that morning, and they'd immediately swarmed all through the ruins, despite dire warnings to the contrary. If Jared hadn't set the older youths to mind the little ones, he'd have spent the entire day fishing them out of crevasses.
"Tommy!" a hoarse voice bellowed from bellow. "Get off there before you break your damn fool neck!"
Gripping the rock tightly, Quinn leaned over the edge and peered into the castle. He could just spot the top of a shaved head two thirds of the way down. Somehow knowing he was being watched, Van Zan twisted on his window sill perch and looked up. Their eyes met for a moment, and Van Zan tossed him a salute before turning back to the activity below him.
On his way back to the ground, Quinn stopped at that ruined window. Van Zan had propped himself against one side, stretching his bad leg out along the sill. He tucked the other against his chest, protecting his cracked ribs. "What's it look like?" he asked.
Quinn shrugged, sitting in the window next to Van Zan's foot. "The place wasn't in much worse shape before we moved in. We'll all miss the glass though."
"How many people did you have, back then?" Van Zan asked.
"Creedy and I found about sixty when we got here eight years ago; they'd done a bit of patching up, but nothing major. Maybe forty more came up from Manchester the next spring, a lot of old-timers in that group, men who knew their way around the trades."
"Have you ever thought about packing up and finding somewhere new?"
He shook his head.
"I don't have much jet fuel left, but Alex could do a bit of scouting."
Quinn looked down. The glass had coloured the floor where it fused into the stone, but he saw through it, imagining the castle as they'd first found it, an absolute bloody miracle it had been, too. They'd trekked for months to get here: him, Creedy and a few others. It hasn't just been dragons back then; the marauders would kill, and possibly eat, travellers if they caught them in the open. They'd scuttled from one cave or makeshift shelter to another, always hungry, always looking for something more defensible or a community to join up with. He didn't think the original occupants of the castle would have let them in if he hadn't had little Jared with him. "This is our home," he said at last, "There aren't many of us left, but we'll make do."
Van Zan silently chewed one of his cigars for a moment, watching the children below continue to pester Alex, then asked, "Most of them were born here, weren't they?"
"We had lot of people crammed in the one building with not much in the way of rubbers. It settled out after a few years, but..." Quinn shrugged.
"Any of them yours?"
Quinn grinned. "No such luck," he said, and didn't add that that was only due to some very good luck indeed on both his and Lin's parts.
"Were you and Creedy bedding down together?"
Remembering how well perfectly sound carried through the ruins, Quinn kept his voice low and reasonable. "Why do you ask?"
Van Zan shrugged. "You seemed awful friendly, and well..."
"From the way you've been sniffing around me all week, I was wondering if you were interested."
Quinn slid off the sill and onto his feet. "That's a hell of a thing to ask a man in the middle of his own castle, before noon even," he commented. He hadn't quite got far enough past stunned to really hit indignant, but he was working on it.
Van Zan shrugged again, looking up at him and not seeming the least self-conscious. "I figured you'd take it better, me asking now, than just trying to jump you in your bunk in the middle of the night." Quinn stared at him blankly, so Van Zan added, "You still haven't said if you're interested or not."
Quinn shook his head and picked his way back down to even ground. When he cast a glance up at Van Zan's window, he could see that the other man was grinning behind his cigar.
"Hey," he said at lunch time, dropping to sit next to Alex. The pilot smiled up at him, and he passed her an MRE. "I think it's supposed to be beef stew, but the label's charred off, so I can't tell."
"I'm sure it'll be terrible, whatever it is," she said good-naturedly. "Nothing makes me miss my dad's cooking like military food."
"The kids don't seem to mind it, anyway," he said. "But they'll eat anything that doesn't run away too fast."
"Right," she said. "So what did you want to know? Don't try to look innocent. I know when a man's after something."
"Got me," he said, offering a smile. "I kind of wanted to ask you about Van Zan."
Alex narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. "None of your business," she said firmly.
"I know what you were going to ask, and it's none of your business, now eat your stew."
"All right then," he agreed, and did as she told him.
Quinn stared into the darkness for a good hour after going to bed that night, listening to the kids breathe and trying not to mentally justify going to sleep. "Ah, what the hell," he finally grumbled, and rolled off his mat, picking his way over to the far side of the cave. At the rate they were going, this would happen eventually, and he'd rather be the one to move first. As much as he could claim that by this point, considering Van Zan had already propositioned him.
Van Zan was already awake and waiting for him. He levered himself up with his cane, grunting slightly as he jarred his leg, and followed the flame of Quinn's lighter back across the room.
Quinn knew from the sounds of their steps and Van Zan's cane that pretty much everyone in the vault knew who was going, and the older ones wouldn't be far off guessing why, but this would be vaguely discrete at least. Very, very vaguely, but still better than having sex with a near stranger in a cave full of kids.
They ended up in the ruins of the first floor, away from the entrance, but still close enough to hear if an alarm sounded.
"You know what you're doing?" Van Zan asked.
"Sure," Quinn said. They stood there for a moment, gauging each other, then Quinn's lighter ran out of fuel, plunging them into total darkness. "Fuck," he said.
"Well, that's the idea, isn't it?"
Quinn shrugged, realised Van Zan couldn't see him, and said, "I guess so." He reached out, meaning to touch Van Zan's neck, and ended up cuffing him on the chin.
Van Zan grabbed his wrist and yanked him forward. Quinn lost his balance and fell against him, causing Van Zan to yelp and lose his cane as he caught an elbow in the ribs. They both went down in a heap.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Van Zan snarled.
Quinn tried to scramble clear without touching him, and ended up in a half-crouch above him, one knee between his legs, a foot next to his hip and hands braced on his shoulders. "Christ, you okay?" he asked, which was a stupid question.
"Yeah, fuck," Van Zan said, still breathing heavily through the pain, "Yeah. I'm good," he added after a moment. "I'll let you be on top this time."
Quinn snorted and leaned into kiss him. He found Van Zan's mouth on the second try, and pressed their lips together. Van Zan opened his mouth and snaked a hand around the back of Quinn's neck, dragging him closer. Their teeth bumped, then they got the angle right, and Quinn found himself trying to find a way to taste and touch everything at once. He pressed his tongue into Van Zan's then jerked back as he felt teeth worrying at it, then sinking into his bottom lip.
Van Zan's free hand ran up under his shirt, and he shivered as the callouses dragged along the soft skin above his hip. Then he felt fingers dipping under the band of his trousers and starting to work towards his ass. He forced himself up, tearing free of the grip on his neck, wishing that he could see Van Zan's expression. Though if he had on that damned superior grin of his right now, Quinn would just have to kill him, so maybe darkness worked better after all.
He shifted, settling so that he had one knee on either side of Van Zan's and tilting his weight to free his hands. Now he could get both of their trousers and pants open and pushed clear, not that Van Zan wore pants as it turned out. They were both already hard, and Quinn didn't know how long he would last. "Damn," he sighed, and flopped forward again to rest on his elbows.
Van Zan had spit on his palms, and the saliva slicked the movement as he grabbed their pricks with both hands and started working them together.
Quinn gasped, then muffled the sound by taking Van Zan's face between his hands and kissing him fiercely. Van Zan had a kind of inscrutable counter rhythm going with each hand, which made it difficult for Quinn to thrust into, but he jerked his hips down sporadically anyway. Now he could feel Van Zan grinning, but decided not to kill him just yet.
He ran his hands over Van Zan's head, rough skin catching in his stubble, and buried his face against his neck, moaning profanities into the damp skin.
Van Zan came fist with a deep grunt but kept stroking until Quinn followed him, biting his shoulder to keep from screaming.
Quinn rolled off. He lay on his back, staring into the darkness again. A rock jammed into his shoulder, but he couldn't bring himself to care, especially not with Van Zan's hand still on his prick.
"That was good," Van Zan said.
"Yeah," Quinn agreed. "I want to do it again." He tried to shift off the rock and groaned. "When I can move."
Van Zan rummaged through Quinn's trouser pockets until he found an oil rag, and started to wipe them off. "When my leg gets better, we're coming up here, and I'm taking you against the wall."
"By the time your leg gets better, I'm planning on living up here anyway."
"If your lighter's dead, how are we going to get back?"
"That's about what I figured."
It turned out to be their indiscretion that saved them, as Alex wandered up with a candle about half an hour later. She'd heard them go out but not come in again, and worried that Van Zan had injured himself in his exertions. Fortunately, they'd managed to get their trousers done up by then, and she only laughed at them a little bit.
Back in the shelter, she helped Van Zan to his mat then curled up next to him, resting her head on his chest. In the dim light of the candle, Quinn saw Van Zan softly stroking her hair as the tension eased from his body.
As he lay alone in his own corner, Quinn felt surprised at how little anything that had just happened bothered him, and how easily he fell asleep.
"Quinn," Jared shouted, pounding down the stairs into the shelter. "Look what I found!" Quinn glanced up from his inspection of the sprinkler system to see the young man carrying a steel foot locker and smiling to light up the world. "It was under some rubble up by your old room."
"Christ Almighty," Quinn said. He'd known that box instantly, despite the layer of soot and added dents and scratches. "Have you opened it?"
Jared shook his head, still grinning.
Taking the locker, he set it on the ground and knelt next to it. He had to tell himself not to hope. What, after all, were the chances that mere paper and ink had survived twelve-hundred degrees of heat? Still, he found his fingers trembling so badly that it took him three tries to undo worn clasps and jiggle open the lid. When he saw what lay inside, he let it fall all the way open and scrubbed his hands across his face, choking back a sob. "Christ Almighty," he said again, "It's all here."
Reverently, he sorted though the piles of notes and magazine clippings that he'd spent more than half his life compiling. He knew them all word for word by now, but the idea of having to redo all that work, on paper he didn't have, had been staggering. He heard Van Zan's uneven tread coming down into the vault but ignored it. "I wrote this for you, you know," he said to the boy who wasn't his son.
Jared nodded. "Yeah, you told me."
Quinn looked up at him sharply. "Well then, you'd bloody well better keep it up then, hadn't you?" he said. "I didn't learn you your letters for nothing."
"Aren't you going to write it any more?" Jared asked.
Quinn shook his head. "It's all caught up to before the Irregulars came, everything else is your story." He glanced up at Van Zan who had come up behind him, knee brushing his back, the tip of his metal cane resting next to his boot. "You should talk to Alex too. I don't have much on what happened to America after about 2010."
"Is that your Memory?" Van Zan asked, looking over his shoulder.
Quinn nodded. "Yeah, I suppose it is."
"You'd better make all the young ones learn it then," he said, "In case some of them, or their kids, or their grand kids, don't learn to read."
"We'll make it a story, like the ones you and Alex make up," Jared said, "Then they'll remember,"
Van Zan reached down with his free hand and rubbed the back of Quinn's neck. "Sounds like a plan," he said. "I get to play the dragon slayer."
Quinn gently closed the lid, and rose to his feet, turning to Van Zan. "Like that's going to happen," he growled, their faces inches apart.
Van Zan grinned. "I guess we'll see, won't we."