The explosion was close enough to his room that Josh could feel the building shake – even down here in the basement, or whatever else you could call this place. Jerked out of his doze, Josh stood up stiffly and went to look out of the tiny window that provided his cell's only light. Unsurprisingly, the view hadn't really changed since the last four or five times he'd looked out of it: just a little square of sky, with some unfamiliar, nondescript building silhouetted against the fading light of the day. Josh supposed he should be glad that whatever had just blown up outside hadn't collapsed the walls in on him. On the other hand, at least then he wouldn't still be stuck in here, with no way out and no idea what his captors even wanted with him, after three weeks.
“Twenty days,” he corrected himself out loud. Tomorrow would be the twenty-first. Early on, he'd decided it was important to keep track, and so he had been diligently making one tear in the flyer stuck on the wall every night before he went to sleep. It was something to do, besides rereading the two books and three magazines with which he'd been supplied at the beginning of his captivity.
With a guilty start, Josh realized he hadn't even been listening to hear if anyone had cried out in pain or fear after this latest explosion. He quickly moved to the wall closest to the blast and listened. Nothing was audible.
Josh sighed, partly in relief and partly – it wasn't disappointment, exactly, but something like it. It had been more than two weeks since he'd spoken with anyone (other than whoever it was who brought him his food and water every day, who had stopped replying to anything he said to them). If someone had cried out after the blast, maybe he would have been able to call out to them and have them answer. Of course, it was equally likely that the walls of this building were too thick, and even if he'd called out, no one would have heard.
And of course, he thought wryly, as he sat back down on his cot in the opposite corner, there's no telling who or what else might have heard me and come to investigate. Even though he still had no idea who was behind his kidnapping and imprisonment here, he was pretty sure he'd rather be in their custody than at the mercy of the other side.
There was a rattling sound, and Josh looked up to see the hatch in the door open for his evening delivery of water. As usual, it was pushed through the hatch quickly and silently. Still, as he stood up to get it, Josh couldn't resist saying loudly, “Hey, thanks. Everything all right out there? I heard that explosion just a minute ago. It'd be terrible if one of you guys got hurt or anything.”
As usual, there was no response, except the sound of footsteps receding as his delivery man (or woman, he supposed) departed. Josh shrugged and picked up the tub of water, carrying it carefully into the tiny, dingy bathroom that was adjacent to his cell. There was a sink and a toilet inside, but the water only worked sporadically. When it did, more often than not it was a color that was unappealing, to say the least – which made sense, since this place was very obviously located in one of the areas of the country hardest-hit by the recent upheaval. Josh thought he might be grateful to his captors for giving him clean water so that he could both stay hydrated and keep himself clean, except for the whole keeping him locked up in a room with no human contact thing.
After he finished his evening rituals, Josh took a look at himself in the cracked, dirty mirror on the wall. He was pretty sure any of his friends or colleagues (as ever, when his thoughts turned to them, he spared a quick wish/prayer that they were all okay) would have some trouble recognizing him at this point. His eyes looked sunken and haunted, from what he could see in the low light. He hadn't shaved in … probably more than a month, since even before the choice to do so was taken away from him by his kidnappers, it hadn't exactly been a high priority during the initial chaos. Whoever was holding him here also didn't seem to think it was necessary for their prisoner to get a meal more than twice a day, so he'd lost weight, as well.
Josh almost smiled, wondering what horrified thing Donna might say to his appearance now. But the smile faded quickly. He felt his stomach twist. Wherever Donna was, she had to be okay. She had to be.
With that thought, he crossed the room to lie down on his cot. Maybe he'd actually be able to sleep tonight.
He must have fallen asleep at some point, because he jerked awake some hours later to another explosion. This one had to be a lot closer than the last one, Josh thought in dismay, blinking in the darkness and trying to gather his wits. It seemed like the building was actually damaged this time, and the din of the blast had been so loud that he now couldn't hear anything but the ringing in his ears. He could, however, feel the building continue to shake. Heart pounding, Josh pushed the bed aside and scrambled into the nearest corner, hoping blindly that he hadn't just put himself closer to the danger.
After his ears stopped ringing, Josh started to hear the shouts and the screams from somewhere beyond the door to his cell – and he thought there might have been some coming from outside the building, as well. Then he froze. There was gunfire mixed in now, automatic weapons fire. Oh, God. It was getting closer. He couldn't afford to have a flashback right now; he needed to stay alert. He needed to...
Josh gasped. He was back there, again, out in front of the hall in Rosslyn, as shots were fired, people screamed and ran for cover, and sirens wailed. He felt the impact of the bullet striking him, and then seconds later the pain hit, overwhelming every other sensation and bringing him down.
The images and memories continued to flood through his mind. There was nothing he could do to stop it, nothing. It was worse than anything he'd ever tried to face in his therapy sessions.
It was only when the flashback had finally started to abate that Josh became aware that someone was calling his name – someone who was right in front of him. There was some light spilling in from the open door to his cell, but it wasn't enough to make out the figure who was bending over him, putting a hand on his arm.
“Josh! Are you with me? Josh, come on, we've gotta get out of here.”
Josh blinked and tried to take a slow, deep breath. The voice was familiar, but surely it couldn't be... “Sam?”
His eyes finally adjusted enough to see Sam, incongruously dressed in his usual white collared shirt even as he was carrying what appeared to be a shotgun slung over his shoulder. Sam was smiling. “Yeah, Josh. It's me. Come on, let's get out of here before the building falls down.”
Josh accepted Sam's hand to stand up, but his eyes were still drawn to the shotgun now in his friend's other hand. “You're holding a shotgun, Sam.”
“Yes, I'm holding a shotgun,” Sam replied. He turned toward the doorway, obviously on alert.
Even as Josh noticed vaguely that the gunfire seemed to have stopped, as well as most of the yelling, he couldn't stop staring at the weapon. “I didn't know you even knew how to fire a shotgun, much less that you had a shotgun.”
Sam shrugged. “Well, it's not technically mine, but I've been learning a lot of things in these past few weeks.” There was something odd about his tone of voice in that last phrase, but Josh couldn't focus on that at the moment. “So, yes, I do actually know how to use it. Just not all that well.”
As they moved out of the room and into the flickering light of the hall, Josh shook his head. “Well, I have to admit I wasn't really expecting this. But thanks for finding me.” He stepped around a discarded machine gun – it looked like an AK-47 – and a bunch of spent shell casings, trying not to think about who might have been firing it, and at whom. They were about to push through some double doors to get to the stairs when another thought occurred to Josh. “How did you find me, anyway?”
“Oh,” Sam said, and then hesitated. “Well.”
“Sam?” Josh raised an eyebrow and looked at him.
The two of them turned to see a woman running toward them. It took Josh several seconds to recognize her as Laurie, Sam's … controversial lawyer friend. Her hair was much shorter, and she was also armed. “Did you find out who they--” Laurie's gaze traveled to Josh, and after a few moments her eyes widened. “Oh my God. Josh.”
“Hi, Laurie,” Josh said, managing a wry smile. “Yeah, I know, I'm not exactly at my best at the moment.” At least he was upright and able to move. That was something.
She returned the smile, although it was more than slightly tinged with worry and confusion. “Why were they holding you prisoner, Josh?”
“I have no idea,” he answered. “They wouldn't talk to me. I don't even know who 'they' are … or were.” He shivered, wondering if he, Sam, and Laurie would be passing any dead bodies on their way out of the building.
Sam frowned. “That's weird. I mean, there are a lot of weird things going on right now, but--” Then he shook his head. “We'll figure it out once we get out of here. I don't know if the building is secure, and it sure as hell isn't very stable after what we just hit it with.”
With that, he and Laurie started forward through the doors. Josh hurried to catch up. “Wait, wait. 'We'? Who is 'we', Sam?”
Sam looked at him, then at Laurie. “The group I'm with right now.”
A suspicion began to dawn on Josh. He really, really hoped he was wrong. “And this group,” he said, keeping his tone free of accusation and fear as much as possible, “it wouldn't happen to be a group of shifters, would it?”
The way Sam immediately stopped moving was answer enough. It wasn't until Laurie put a hand on his shoulder that he straightened up and started forward again. “We can talk about it when we get out of here, Josh,” he said.
Josh wasn't sure how many more shocks he could take today, but he did somehow manage to keep moving. It had to mean something that Sam had gotten him out of his cell, even if he was-- even if he … and hell, Laurie, too … His brain was having some trouble completing thoughts, apparently. Josh ran a shaking hand through his hair as they continued up the stairs.
It started to get loud again, the further up they went. Josh didn't hear any gunfire – or any sirens, for that matter, for which he was grateful even if it meant there weren't any police or National Guard on the way. But there was plenty of shouting and running, as well as the occasional sound of what had to be pieces of the building falling down. Josh wanted to ask where this building was, where they were located, but he decided to wait until they all had a little more breathing room. Assuming that was going to be in the cards at all in the near future.
They were finally within sight of an exit. The lighting inside was getting worse; the electricity must be out again, Josh thought, and of course it really was the middle of the night. It was only faintly brighter outside, and that seemed to be because people were holding flashlights. A group of people shoved past them at a run. This caused Josh to stumble and then almost trip over something he couldn't see, that Sam and Laurie had apparently had no trouble avoiding. He didn't want to dwell on what that might mean. Or what he might have just tripped over.
Just then, a flashlight beam shone out of the dark ahead of them at their group. “Hey, Sam,” an unfamiliar male voice said. “Laurie. You two all right?”
“Yeah,” Sam said. Laurie added her agreement. They continued out of the building, slowly. Sam sounded – Josh wasn't sure whether he was nervous, or something else. Regardless, Josh's own anxiety levels started increasing again. If this was the leader of a shifter gang, and the few reports they'd heard before everything went completely to hell were true...
“Who's that with you?” the voice asked. The flashlight beam moved to shine directly in Josh's eyes. Josh squinted and shaded his face with his hand.
“This is who they were holding captive,” Sam replied. “He's-- he's a friend of mine.”
The beam of the flashlight was moved away from Josh's face slightly. As his eyes adjusted again to the light, Josh tried not to show his fear. The guy they were talking to was huge – he had to be at least six foot seven, and with a build to match. And he was frowning, although as far as Josh could tell it was not in anger so much as confusion. “He's not a shifter,” the guy commented.
Sam shook his head. “No.”
There was a low murmur among the others gathered out in front of the building. The leader didn't speak for a moment, and then he said, “Well, what were they holding him for, then?”
A bargaining chip, Josh realized suddenly. Of course. Whoever had taken him, they must have recognized him as a member of the President's staff and figured that, as such, he was valuable. He could be traded to the shifters, or whoever, for whatever his captors might want. Josh wasn't about to share this epiphany, though, until or unless it became clear to him that there was some reason – other than Sam being with them – to trust any of his current companions.
“I really don't know, Phil,” Sam answered. He glanced at Josh for a second.
“So, Sam's friend. You have any idea why those bastards were keeping you locked up?” Phil asked Josh, fixing him with a gaze that was hard to read.
Josh fought down an insane urge to laugh at the fact that the leader of this gang of shifters was named Phil. At least he wasn't wearing a headband or a beret, like some South American revolutionary. “Uh, no, I don't,” Josh said, clearing his throat. “They didn't really talk to me.” He paused for a moment, and then decided he might as well go for it. “I'm Josh, by the way.” No need to give a last name just yet.
“Nice to meet you, Josh,” Phil said, with just a touch of irony. “You know what we are, right?”
There was what appeared to be a huge mountain lion circling the edges of the group, Josh noticed suddenly – as if he needed the added confirmation. He swallowed, and looked back at Phil. “Yeah, I think I do.”
“And you don't have a problem with that?” The man's tone was definitely edging toward menacing. At least a few of the other shifters around him were also now staring at Josh with obvious hostility.
Josh took a deep breath. “I don't see any reason why it needs to be a problem, no,” he said carefully. Then he cracked a small smile. “Plus, Sam is with you guys, and Sam got me out of there, so it would be pretty ungrateful of me to make an issue of much of anything right now.”
Phil nodded, looking amused. “Good point. Also, you're a little bit outnumbered.”
“I noticed that,” Josh said, again doing his best not to seem utterly terrified by this fact. He wondered how many of them saw through this attempt.
“Well,” Phil said, breaking the silence that had fallen after this last exchange, “how about we continue this conversation somewhere a little less exposed, in case any normals, or anything else, comes along to see what all that fuss was about.”
With that, the group started to move. Josh made sure he stayed next to Laurie and Sam, and tried not to notice the way certain other members of the group were glaring at him and muttering to each other. At least for the moment he was not a prisoner, as far as he knew. That was probably an improvement.
Josh wasn't entirely sure how he made it to the shifters' hideout (or base, or den, or whatever) without collapsing from a combination of exhaustion and the aftereffects of sheer terror. Part of it was probably that the terror wasn't really all gone yet – something to do with being in the middle of a group of dangerous, angry people who had very good reason to be angry, he guessed. Several times, as the shifters made their way down the streets and through back alleys, Josh stumbled. Each time, either Sam or Laurie was there to make sure he didn't fall.
The hideout, when they finally arrived, was inside what seemed to be an old middle school. This particular school had a number of large rooms below ground level, which, Josh thought wearily, made it a decent choice for a defensible base of operations.
The whole group filed in. A few of them settled on chairs, mats, and pillows that were spread around the gym and the stage, while others quickly disappeared down hallways. Josh figured it was safest to continue to be in the same room as Sam and Laurie, so he followed them into the gym. Then he sat down in an extremely uncomfortable plastic chair next to Sam and waited. Sam didn't say anything to him, and Josh couldn't bring himself to try to start a conversation. At the moment, he was honestly too drained to even worry too much about what was going on around him.
A few seconds later, Phil came over from where he had been talking to a couple of other guys and took a seat facing Josh. “So, Josh,” he said, “are you really going to tell me that you, the man who was until recently the President's deputy chief of staff, have no ideas as to why you were kidnapped and being held prisoner by a bunch of crazy, gun-toting normals whose stated purpose was war against every disgusting, unholy freak wearing the mask of a human being? I was pretty sure your job required enough intelligence that you'd have come up with a theory.”
Josh sat up hastily, his exhaustion forgotten as he fought back a renewed surge of fear. He couldn't restrain himself from taking a hurried glance around the room. It was with a tiny shred of relief that he observed that Phil must have ordered most of his people to keep out of this interrogation. There were several other shifters in the room, but they were all far enough away that it was at least possible that they might not be hearing this. Except that shifters were supposed to have extra keen hearing, even while they were in human form.
“Well?” Phil was still looking at him, again with an expression that was hard to read. Sam shifted in his seat but stayed silent.
In retrospect, Josh wasn't sure whether his response was strategic on his part, or whether his fatigued mind just hadn't been able to stop himself from blurting out what was on the tip of his tongue. Of course, there was also the fact that it had been so long since he'd had any kind of conversation with anyone. He was bound to be a little out of practice in diplomatic negotiation. “No, you're right, Phil,” he admitted, at least managing to keep his voice down. “It's not that I have no ideas. It's just that I wasn't sure whether it would be a good idea to share them with you all, since I'm not entirely sure you're not a bunch of crazy, gun-toting shifters who are at war with every normal.”
Dead silence fell in the room. Josh narrowly avoided wincing. I guess those stories about extra keen hearing are true, he thought distractedly. Next to him, he was pretty sure Sam was staring at him in a mixture of horror and anger, but Josh kept his gaze on Phil.
The shifter leader blinked, and then smiled briefly. “All right. I can appreciate your position. But since I know who you are, and since you're, hmm, our guest right now – and since none of us have done anything to harm you – maybe you can decide we're not crazy and bloodthirsty.” He smiled again, and it was not a nice smile. “Let's leave that last quality for the vampires.”
“Phil,” Sam said, “I think what Josh--”
“And Sam,” Phil interrupted, turning to regard him with raised eyebrows, “you know, I find it hard to believe that a man who was, until recently, the President's deputy communications director did not have any theories either, once you found your friend locked up in that cell.”
Sam glanced at Josh, but didn't reply.
“Well, then, let me set you both a little bit more at ease,” Phil continued. “I'm not going to kill you, Josh, or let any of my friends kill you. I'm also not going to let them tell anyone else that we have the deputy chief of staff in our custody, although some of us think that might not be a bad idea – since, as you both no doubt guessed, having such a hostage might give us good leverage.”
Josh had no idea what to say. He was honestly reassured by this to some extent, but at the same time... “And, uh, am I being held hostage?”
Phil paused and then shrugged. “I wouldn't say that, no. But I would say I'd prefer if you stayed with us for the time being, for your safety. And if that ends up keeping my friends and me safer, well, so much the better.”
“So, protective custody, then,” Josh said wryly. “I see. Great. Thanks.”
“Sure thing,” Phil answered. “Now, Sam and Laurie can set you up with a place to sleep and whatever else you might need. We can talk more later.” He stood up. “I have to go see what useful information and material we managed to get out of our little raid tonight.”
Phil left the room, taking the majority of the remaining shifters with him. Josh watched them leave, and then he turned to Sam. “Well. Phil seems like a great guy.”
“Josh--” Sam started.
“No, really. He's got real leadership ability. I can see why you decided to join up with him, Sam.” Josh tried to stand up, but found that this latest adrenaline crash was hitting him harder than the rest he'd experienced tonight. The room spun, and the next thing Josh knew, Sam was supporting him with one arm around his shoulders while Josh tried to keep himself from falling to the floor.
“You know, Josh,” Sam said, “you're an idiot.”
Josh almost nodded, but stopped himself in time. “Yeah.” Things were still spinning, but not as much.
“Come on,” Laurie said, breaking her silence. “Let's find you somewhere to lie down.”
“That might be good,” Josh agreed.
When Josh woke up, it took him quite a few seconds to remember where he was. It wasn't until he saw the poster on the wall next to him advertizing a band concert from several months ago that it all started to come back. He sat up quickly, only vaguely noticing the blanket that someone must have put over him after his head had hit the pillow last night. To his relief, there was no shifter standing guard over him. He was still by himself in his relatively private corner of the cafeteria, still on the stack of gym mats that had seemed like bliss to lie down on last night. Now it felt like it was about an inch thick. Groaning, Josh stood and stretched, feeling stiff in just about every muscle he could think of, and a few he couldn't.
He walked over to the door in the opposite wall, which had one of the only windows to the outside in the whole room. From what he could see, he figured he must have been sleeping for quite some time – it looked like it had to be close to noon, by the lack of shadows visible on the field outside, although it was also pretty cloudy.
Josh jumped and then turned around to see Sam, standing just inside the cafeteria entrance. “Hey.”
“Sorry. Didn't mean to sneak up on you,” Sam said, with a self-deprecating smile. He looked like he was about to say something else for a moment, but then he just asked, “How are you feeling?”
Josh shrugged. “I feel like I slept on the floor, but at least I slept. What time is it, anyway?”
“A little before noon,” Sam replied. “You hungry?”
“Yeah, I am, but is there somewhere I could take a shower first?” Josh almost laughed. “I honestly can't remember how long it's been since I've actually showered. I'm surprised anyone can stand to be anywhere near me right now.”
“The showers in the locker room work pretty well,” Sam answered. “I'll point you to it. Of course, I don't have an extra towel or anything, so...”
Josh cut him off. “That's all right. I know you're not exactly running a hotel here.” As they left the cafeteria, he looked around at the empty halls. “Speaking of which, where is everyone?”
“Mostly asleep,” Sam said. He paused. “They-- we mostly sleep during the day, although we take it in turns to stand guard duty. It's my lucky day, along with three others.”
“Ah.” Josh had to take a second to think of something to say. “And Laurie? Are you two...?”
Sam shook his head, and Josh was suddenly aware of how tired he looked. “No. We just happened to run into each other again after … well, after.” He cleared his throat.
Silence fell again, and this time Josh couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't make things even more strained. But then Sam's eyes brightened and he said, “Oh, I just remembered: I can at least direct you to our stash of extra clothes. And if you happen to want to shave...”
“God, do I,” Josh sighed, rubbing a hand across his face. “It's like I'm trying for the caveman look, or something. I don't think it does anything for me.”
Smiling, Sam gestured for him to follow. “Maybe you can bring yourself most of the way back to the modern age, then."
By the time Josh had showered, changed into a shirt and some jeans he'd found that fit him reasonably well, and shaved, he did in fact look and feel better, except that he was now starving. He stepped out of the locker room only to be met with the rather hostile gaze of a kid with a gun at his hip. The kid was actually wearing a headband. Josh tried not to laugh, since he was obviously trying to look intimidating and since he was actually dangerous, what with the gun and the being a shifter.
“Um, hi,” he said. “Is there somewhere where I could have some breakfast – or lunch, I guess?”
The kid just kept glaring at him. Josh was about to try again when he heard approaching footsteps and saw Sam coming their way.
“I'll take it from here, Mike,” Sam said, nodding at the kid. “You can go back to your post.”
Mike regarded the two of them skeptically, but then he nodded and left, still without having spoken.
“He seems, uh, dedicated,” Josh commented, after Mike was gone.
Sam had already started walking, presumably in the direction of food. It seemed to be in the same general direction as the cafeteria, which made sense. “Yeah, well, having your entire family murdered tends to do that to you, or so I gather.”
“His entire family--?!”
“Was murdered,” Sam repeated grimly. “Because he had the misfortune of being turned, and then his family had the gall to try to protect him from the local 'anti-supernatural' torch and pitchfork crew.”
Josh took a breath, feeling much less hungry all of a sudden. “My God. That's terrible. I-- I'm sorry to hear that.”
Sam nodded. “Yeah. Well, anyway, here's the kitchen. We've got a generator, so the fridge and freezer work. You can help yourself to whatever's here. I have to go check some things, but I'll be back.”
“Okay.” On autopilot, Josh moved toward the fridge. He might not have been as hungry, but he did really need some water or something else to drink. Then he stopped just as Sam was almost out of sight. “Hey, Sam?”
“Thanks.” Josh pulled a pitcher of what looked like iced tea out of the fridge, and then turned to look at Sam. “You know, for getting me out of there, and for making sure I didn't get myself killed last night.”
“You're welcome,” Sam said with a small smile.