The mid-afternoon sun was high in the sky, glittering off the water and gilding the branches of the opposite bank in pale golden-green.
Lucy wasn’t fooled. Even at this time of day, the swift-flowing mountain stream would be frigid. She tipped her head back to the sky, letting the sun warm her face a moment or so, and listening to the slow churn and splash of the big water wheel that powered the mill.
It was quiet here, a change from the cheerful noise and bustle that was market day in the commune. Lucy had nothing to trade today, so she wasn’t missing much. Even so, she sighed, reached down to tuck the long folds of her skirt up into her belt, and got down to work anyway. There were three barrels to fill, then the hike back to camp to make before dark. And downhill or not, Lucy knew from experience that once she had her wagon loaded up, the trek back would be a lot slower going than it had been coming up.
Lucy toed off her sandals, grabbed the first barrel and waded in. The swift water flowed around and past her, numbing her feet and ankles right up to mid-calf, until she couldn’t even feel the cold. She tipped her barrel into the stream. The lip had barely touched the water’s surface when she heard it.
She froze. Her blood ran suddenly icy in her veins with a chill that was not from the water. It had been a while but there was no mistaking the wheezing, choked-sounding scream of a Howler.
There was a rustle and crash in the underbrush from the opposite bank, and sure enough, the culprit came shambling out into the open, bent over with the characteristic hunch to its back, dragging one leg a little but still moving ably down the bank.
It was a male. Its hair had been conventionally short, back when it had still been a person. Somebody with a job to go to, a family to come home to, maybe. Tatters of clothing dangled from the crooked limbs, too filthy and torn with years of scavenging in the sparse mountain brush to identify what colours they might once have been. Khaki trousers perhaps; the shirt looked like it had had a collar once. And – at least for now, anyway – it was alone.
But it was still a threat.
It had been so long. Long enough she had all but stopped bringing weapons along on short trips from camp. And today was no exception. There was nothing in Lucy’s wagon but two empty barrels, a couple of Magda’s corn tortillas and some dried fruit she had brought as provisions for the hike home. She stood there, bent immobile over her half-full barrel with the rough-pebbled riverbed under her tingling feet and the cold, relentless flow of the stream drawing at her legs, watching.
Then she saw it, the moment when the warped, broken spine went tense and the pale bestial eyes lit up with fire and sudden purpose. The exact moment it saw her.
Lucy gripped her barrel. The grotesque jaw unhinged, and the thin, cracked lips pulled back in a jagged snarl, but before it could make another sound there was a whistling in the air and a slick, fleshy crack. The Howler fell, pierced through the skull with the long shaft of an arrow.
Red bloomed out over the surface of the water; swift spreading flowers of scarlet, reaching for the lip of Lucy’s water-barrel. She pulled it away, drew back a few steps on instinct.
The water was contaminated. She would have to go upstream. But when Lucy raised her head, there, in the middle of the brook, water nearly up to her knees, stood a woman she had definitely never seen at camp.
Or a girl, really, Lucy thought belatedly. She couldn’t be much older than seventeen. She was dressed in what seemed to be army fatigues, and gripped a hunting bow in her left hand. There was various survival gear strapped to her waist, and on her back was a slim quiver of sleek black arrows, and what looked like it might be a samurai sword.
Lucy gave a quick, involuntary glance back over her shoulder at her still-weaponless wagon. But the spectacle in front of her was unstringing her bow now, and stowing it on her back with the rest of her arsenal while Lucy just stood there and stared.
The stranger was like something out of those old video games somebody she once knew had liked to play, back in New York. Like something from another life…
“Lucy McClane?” And now the strange hunter was staring right back at her, looking like she was almost just as surprised.
Lucy’s fingers slipped on the wet plastic edge of the barrel at the sound of her name. “What the—”
“You look just like your picture,” the stranger breathed. Both hands came up to clasp in front of her, in a gesture of childlike delight at incongruous odds with the rugged survivalist clothing and bristling weaponry. “Couple grey hairs now, maybe, but…” The girl broke off with an unexpected laugh, and took a few excited, sloshing steps forward through the river. She stopped when Lucy put up an uncertain hand.
“What—I’m sorry—” Lucy stammered. “But. Who…”
“Rett MacFarlane,” the girl introduced herself. “And I’m…” she gave that unsettling, overexcited little laugh again, paired with a leather creaking, weapon-clinking shrug. “Your sister.”
The high afternoon sun off the water dazzled their eyes, and the stream of red swept between them and away downstream. Lucy’s feet were aching with cold.
“So…” the stranger put up two leather-gauntleted hands and adjusted the weight of the armory on her back. “Know where I might find a radio?”
Matt pushed his hands into his hair and stared at the map a little more in disbelief. Or maybe it wasn’t so much ‘disbelief’ as it was sort of a ‘wishing-he-could-disbelieve’, what was a clearly, disturbingly, emerging pattern.
Matt had checked and checked again. He had double checked and triple checked and fact checked and background checked each and every news report, every source that came out of the woodwork after the news stopped reporting the attacks.
The little red pins that marched across the map of the Continental US plastered to the wall above his desk told the story loud and clear. Matt could practically remember placing every one, each marking some nightmarish tale of new street drugs so potent they could make the average human face look like an all-you-can eat buffet to a user on a bad trip. Or an unexplained upswing in the heretofore-unheard-of coyote population being the real reason for all the recent discoveries of small dogs, large dogs, and sadly at least one small child, with their throats ripped out.
Whatever stories the government might be feeding the media, the pins didn’t lie. And coyotes didn’t leave leftovers. Whatever was happening, whatever these ghoulish freaks of nature were, they were forming packs.
And the packs were moving toward New York.
Matt sighed. He gave up pulling at his hair and settled for pressing his fingertips into his eyes, hard. But when he let up and waited for the under-eyelid firecracker show to fuzz into white, tingling sparks and subside, the pins were still there. Spelling out their silent warning and keeping him awake.
Matt pulled his hand back. He had reached out on instinct for his phone. It was way too late for a call, and besides, he had promised himself he wouldn’t.
When was he going to get over it? The impulse to go running to McClane every time he felt threatened? He was like some sort of weak, nerdy turtle retreating into its hardened jock shell when some asshole pokes it with a stick.
He was sure McClane was sick of it too. The man had been nothing but patient with him after all, that whole time a couple years back when Matt was convinced the Illuminati were operating out of the deli on 53rd street. And then there was that whole incident with those escaped capybaras from the zoo. But hey, he had been on prescription morphine.
And in his defense, those two creeps hanging out in the parking lot of his building had been both officially loitering and totally suspicious. Of course Matt understood there was nothing actually illegal about being a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses out spreading the word. But what if their shifty black briefcase had turned out to be full of something a little more incendiary than copies of The Watchtower?
Matt let out another sigh. He should have been in bed hours ago, anyway. Even if no sleep was going to come of it.
Matt sat on the bed and sloughed off his jeans. He kind of got it, he supposed, how a guy like John could become some sort of a post-traumatic comfort zone to a guy like him. Because, come on, consider the circumstances, Matt thought as he sat there, looking down at the scars running down his calf and across the kneecap.
Yeah, the fire sale sure was some shit. At some point though, he was sure, a grownup was supposed get over it, move the fuck on. Sure, maybe it was totally understandable, but that didn’t make it normal. Or healthy.
He shook himself out of it, stripped off his t-shirt and slid in between the sheets. It never helped him get to sleep, thinking about that day.
Thinking about John helped sometimes though, Matt reflected, as his hand travelled a familiar night-time path over the warm plane of his stomach. But he should probably get over that too.
Matt rolled over and shut his eyes, and hoped like hell his dreams wouldn’t show him red pins. Pins in the hundreds, forming lines and merging into groups that multiplied and swelled and moved closer, and closer...
It was a Tuesday, the day Matt finally heard it. The sound he had been waiting for; the sound that until that day he had only heard on a recording, buried deep in some heavily encrypted government files that he never would have been able to crack without some help from a very reliable, very questionably-legal source.
Inhuman, and yet not like any animal Matt had ever heard. Part wail and part screech, grating and wheezing and one hundred percent fucking gut-chilling.
Then, the screaming. Definitely human and just as terrifying, and absolutely inside the building.
Matt grabbed his go-bag from the corner, never so grateful to have been a crazy conspiracy theorist before in his life. He snagged the last three Red Bulls that were more or less the only remaining contents of his refrigerator and hit the fire escape in under two minutes.
The buses had stopped running about a month ago, and taxi drivers had quit picking up strange fares weeks before that. Matt would have to hoof it, but hell, if Frodo could do it…
Matt put the thought that Frodo got nine big, tough immortal walking companions and had never been shot in the knee out of his head. He dumped out any last worry whether what he was about to do was normal or sane, or if it would do any good at all.
What the hell else was he going to do, anyway?
Matt checked the angle of the sun and set out -- due North, and straight for John McClane.
Marlene blinked hard in the sunlight, put the binoculars up again. She wasn’t sure exactly what she was looking at, and a second look didn’t make it any clearer.
Word about the barricade was getting out somehow, or maybe people everywhere just eventually cottoned on to the same idea everyone else here had had – about the infected not being smart enough to cross the water. Because people were starting to arrive. Sometimes in big groups, sometimes small, like families.
Never alone, though. Nobody had ever made it this far alone. And this thing, whatever it was, wasn’t moving like a person.
It wasn’t moving like one of the infected either. No meandering or shuffling to its path, and it was coming much too fast. But it moved too smooth or something to be human, the speed too constant and the turns too sharp – almost robotic, or like it was on wheels.
The way it traveled reminded her of the year they bought the boys that remote controlled monster truck for Christmas…they drove it out into traffic, and right under an actual speeding 4x4, the very first day in spring that the weather got good enough to open the darned, way-too-expensive, thing up outside.
But whatever this thing was, it was weaving carefully in between the abandoned trucks and cars, and making the straight-shot down Atlantic toward them with definite and unmistakable purpose.
Marlene put the binocs down and readied her weapon. She was about to radio for backup, but then along came Kosloski, right on schedule, walking his patrol route and whistling a jaunty, idiotic tune to boot. Not that it was enough noise to attract anything they shouldn’t, but Kosloski never could seem to spend more than a second being quiet.
“What’s up?” he asked when he had gotten close enough to see her gun was out.
“Come check this out,” she said, giving a nod over her shoulder in the direction in question, and getting ready to hand him the binocs.
Kosloski climbed up to meet her at her post, which at this point in the barricade was a plywood subfloor platform atop a line of old dumpsters – that were thankfully emptied out days ago by some of the volunteers.
“The hell is that?” Kosloski muttered, once he got hold of the glasses.
“I’m hoping you’re gonna be able to tell me,” Marlene replied, training her weapon at the thing in the distance, just as it gave a momentary gleam of reflected sunlight, like at least some part of it was made out of metal.
Marlene held her rifle and breathed slow, kept her heart rate steady. She tried not to think about how in all those disaster movies and Planet of the Apes-style horror flicks, the government always sent out drones, or the air force, to napalm the whole geographical area and contain the outbreak.
They stood there, waiting in silence in the bright sun and the perfect afternoon breeze, until Kosloski started to laugh. “No way,” he chortled. “No fucking way.”
Marlene cleared her throat pointedly, reminding him she was still there and waiting for intel.
“Segway,” he said, still sounding way too damn amused.
“Not a great one,” Marlene told him, still not taking her eyes off the strangely moving target.
“No, I mean a Seg-way,” he said, taking the binoculars away from his face for a minute so he could over-enunciate it – much too close to her ear for her liking, while she was trying to aim. “I can’t believe it, but I swear, it’s some kid on a Segway.”
“You mean one of those motorized scooter-deals?” Her kids had wanted one of those too, but not only did they have a ridiculous price tag, her little monsters would probably drive the darn thing straight out into traffic on the first go.
This was weird. It didn’t figure. Marlene kept her weapon raised and waited, half expecting to see more coming around the corner, maybe in military formation.
But it was only ever just the one. And the closer it got, it only got weirder.
The guy riding it wasn’t a kid, not exactly. But he was…well weird was only the start of it really.
He rode up to about thirty feet out from the barricade – the point where most people needed the reminder to keep calm and quiet, either calling out to the guard on duty, or whooping and celebrating about making the safety of the barricade. But this guy seemed to have learned better, already.
He abandoned his ride and threw it down (a little gasp of concern for the expensive toy escaped Kosloski, beside her) and put his hands in the air.
He was wearing some kind of fingerless gloves, that you might use for dirt-biking, or maybe archery, and he was absolutely covered in blood. There were smears on his arms and spatters on his face, and his t-shirt looked like it had gotten so drenched in gore at some point in the last day or so that Marlene could tell it had some kind of picture on it, but she’d be surprised if anybody would ever be able to make it out again.
Marlene pointed her gun away, but didn’t put it down while she waited out the slow approach. There was something weird and almost feral about this stranger, who walked with a limp and kept his hands up the whole way, coming silently and inexorably at them from out of the wastelands like a scene from the Old West.
“You all right?” She asked him, when she thought he was close enough to hear.
He put his hands down but he seemed too focused on the structure of the barricade itself to reply. He was shaking his head, and seemed to be laughing a little. He muttered something that sounded like “I should have known.”
“I’m looking for John McClane?” the stranger asked, when he finally looked up at them.
“Holy shit,” Kosloski muttered. Marlene ignored him. She knew what he was thinking, but there were more important things than camp gossip to deal with at the moment. “I think this is the guy.”
“You alright?” she asked again, a little louder, but not too much. Just about the volume you use on hard-of-hearing great aunts and people who might be a little traumatized. Or just plain nutty. “Have you been bitten?”
“Oh this,” the young guy said, looking down at his coating of blood and gunk like he was used to it or something. “No, this isn’t mine. I met a family back there who ran into some trouble with—”
“Is that a samurai sword!?” Kosloski broke in, excitedly, pointing out a weapon dangling from the stranger’s belt.
“Katana,” he corrected, settling a hand absently on the hilt. Marlene recognized the comforted way the wild look in his eye quieted a little, when he felt the weapon at his side. She felt the exact same way with a rifle in her hand. This kid had seen some action.
“This is totally the guy,” Kosloski insisted.
He certainly fit the description they’d been given. Caucasian with brown hair, that was ‘kinda stupid and floppy’ and he definitely fit the ‘skinny and nerdy’ part.
“Better radio the Captain,” Marlene agreed.
She ended up doing it herself though, because Kosloski had already launched into an excitable line of questioning about the Segway.
“There’s a booth in Bridge Park,” he was saying, when Marlene got done telling Cap that there was a new arrival here, and he had better come see this one himself. “Does rentals.”
“You rented it?” Kosloski asked, sounding genuinely confused. Marlene joined the new guy in looking at Kosloski like he was the exact kind of idiot she knew him to be.
“Oh yeah,” Kosloski said, sheepishly, like he had forgotten all about the whole collapse of society thing they were dealing with.
“I… see, I lost a kneecap in a— and just, yeah, really low blood sugar? So I’m trying to conserve…” the new guy was suddenly babbling, as if he felt the need to justify stealing his ride, like he had forgotten too. “I’m sorry,” he stopped himself abruptly and shook his head so that his shaggy haircut flew around and got in his eyes, “but I’m looking for John McClane?” he said again, squinting quizzically up at her. “Did you say this is the right place? He used to live around here…”
“Oh yeah,” Kosloski repeated, “totally the guy.”
Marlene was about to respond, but as if on cue, the Captain had arrived. He swung himself up the step ladder to their vantage point, and stood looking down at the new-comer with his arms crossed and his legs apart.
“Took you long enough, kid,” Cap growled in his trademark gruff tone.
The boyish grin that broke out on the stranger’s face spoke volumes about why Cap called him that. It made a stark contrast, standing out white against the grime and blood streaking his skin.
“Guess you’re the Captain,” came the reply. “…And the Captain is you.” He didn’t actually sound all that surprised.
When they took their impromptu vote, and named McClane acting Captain, he had put everybody on watch for two people. One, was his daughter, Lucy. She was a long shot, as nobody was even sure she had been in town when the crap hit the fan, and they didn’t have a lot to go on, but they knew she was ‘kinda pretty, with long brown hair’ and ‘an attitude as bad as mine’.
The other, was the only person in the world who might be able to help McClane find her.
A person who had his own stock of weaponry laid aside and a ready-made Sergeant’s position awaiting him the minute he walked up to the barriers, which McClane had been one hundred percent certain he eventually would.
His name was Matt Farrell. They had been in the news together a few years back, but nobody could quite remember the story, and now all they had were a lot of rumours. Some said he was a criminal mastermind, some a national hero – if not both. Some said he had been Lucy’s boyfriend.
Some even said he had been McClane’s.
The scene, Marlene had to admit it, was priceless. The relief in their faces was something she hadn’t seen in weeks, and under the layer of grime, Matt’s might have even been just a little pink.
Stress and worry, they’ve seen their share of lately. Terror and grief and some rage, for good measure. Even Kosloski grinning like an idiot at the reunion playing out in front of him was kind of nice to see.
Joy. They got so little of it lately, and who knew when it would be easy to come by again?
“Nice sword,” Cap noted with a nod at Matt’s sidearm, but his tone came out sounding only a little bit teasing and mostly sort of impressed.
“Katana,” Kosloski corrected him, knowledgeably. Cap threw him a look that was a lot less impressed.
Matt just nodded sagely. “This guy gets it,” he said, pointing an appreciative finger at Kosloski. “Oh, the football jocks all had a good laugh at the nerds learning Kendo, but who’s laughing now?” he spouted, patting his trusty blade, lovingly. “They’re probably all roaming around West 16th ripping the spines out of dumpster rats by now. Ah well,” he signed dramatically. “You know what they say, the Geeks shall inherit.”
“Nice barricade,” Matt went on, countering Cap’s teasing with a volley of his own. “Very Mad Max. I would have gone with more human skulls, myself, but to each his own.”
They grinned at each other another another second or so, before the mutual relief and elation in their faces drained away and turned to business.
“You bit?” Cap asked, indicating the kid’s tattered, blood soaked clothes.
“No,” he answered, which was what anybody would probably say, who wanted to get behind a nice safe barrier and was surrounded by ex-cops with firearms. But Cap seemed to accept it as gospel.
“But there’s this family, back by the park,” Matt said, gesturing animatedly back over his shoulder as if he could turn around and see them there. “They have a new-born.”
“Uh,” Matt answered sheepishly, and this time Marlene was sure he looked a little flushed. “Let’s just say I can now add ‘Midwife’ to the old resume.”
“You delivered a baby!?” Kosloski cut in, unable to contain himself any further.
One of the many rumours about Cap’s boy Matt – and there was a truckload – was that he had a photographic memory, and had memorized the Internet. Anything that had once been up there, was allegedly now rattling around somewhere inside of this guy’s brain. And Marlene could be sure How to Deliver a Baby had likely been posted on Wiki-How, WebMD and Buzzfeed, in a variety of easy-to-view formats.
Cap didn’t seem to be the least bit surprised, at any rate.
“To be honest, the mom did most of the work,” Matt said, dismissively, but Kosloski wasn’t done with him.
“See any infected?” he quizzed.
“Oh yeah,” Matt answered soberly, and looked like he was suppressing a little shiver.
“Were they gnarly?” Kosloski asked, morbidly engrossed.
“Extra.” Matt confirmed, before turning pleading eyes back on Cap. “McClane…they could really use some help out there.”
Cap nodded. “You can tell us how to get to ‘em? If we get you a map?”
“Them and more,” Matt said, nodding fervently.
“Sir,” Marlene interrupted uncertainly. They both looked at her, not sure which of them she had been addressing, but nobody seemed to think it was weird that it might have been Matt. Maybe it wasn’t. “There’s protocols. He’ll have to quarantine, we don’t know for sure…”
“Yep,” Cap agreed, unfazed. “He can spend it with me. Debriefing.”
Kosloski let out a juvenile snort, and Marlene threw him a quelling look. Matt grinned again and his gaze went down into the dirt.
This time even Cap looked like maybe his ears were a little bit pink, but he was watching Matt scuffling at the pavement with the toe of his filthy sneaker like it was the cutest thing since Kewpie Dolls.
“Head up to the RV parked up there, up on the grass,” Cap said with a gruff gesture north-east along the barricade, when Matt looked up at him again. “That’s our gate house. We’ll get you a map and send out a rescue team. You’ll need to decontaminate. We got fresh clothes, some rations for your blood sugar,” Cap said, with a sly twinkly thing happening in his eye that Marlene would swear she had never seen before. “Then in the morning, if you’re not a raving psychotic animal, we show you around camp, get you some weapons and duties.”
“You mean not anymore of a raving animal than usual, right?” Matt replied, tritely.
Cap winked at him. Then he turned to head back down the stepladder, but he twisted back over his shoulder and called out one last time.
“Oh hey kid?” he waited until Matt turned back to look at him before delivering his last words and dropping neatly down the ladder. “Welcome home.”
They watched as Cap strode away down the barricade, whistling a jaunty, idiotic tune of his own.
“That was so totally the guy,” Kosloski asserted, bouncing uncontainedly on the balls of his feet. “…That was the guy…right?”
“Totally,” Maureen agreed, with a smile.
John lifted his hand and let the dark, satiny strands sift through his fingers again. And then again.
These were his mornings, for some months now, and still he felt like he could do this forever. Just this, lying here, feeling the silken flow of Matt’s hair between his fingers and listening, always listening for the uneven shuffle of broken, twist-ankled feet, or the huffing breath of a scenting Howler scout outside the bare plank walls.
They were pretty safe here. They had made camp for the night at this barn on many a raid before this one. They liked it for the added security of the hay loft, which was only accessible by ladder – or something very, very good at climbing walls.
And the opportunity for a literal roll in the hay never hurt either.
John smiled to himself as he cast an eye over at their weapons, nestled carefully atop said hay at a calculated distance to each side of their makeshift bedroll, loaded and ready. Sure, this was a good spot tactically, but he still had a plan for every kind of attack.
A lone scout, John could handle himself. Without a lot of noise, and probably without even having to bother putting on his pants.
If they had to use the guns for a bigger group, the racket would bring every pack in a thirty mile radius down on them, which was the reason they were always careful to bring enough ammo to cover their asses long enough to make it back to the truck. Getting all the way back to camp after that however, was no guarantee.
Which was why John would still probably try and tackle things the quiet way, even if there was more than just the one. Even if it was stupid. It turned out he was capable of doing a lot of stupid things, when it came to Matt.
But it looked like he didn’t have to, today. Today, he just lay there, carding his fingers through the soft, grown-out mop of Matt’s hair. Watching the motes that danced in the idyllic shafts of dappled sunshine slanting through the slatted walls, and admiring the places it landed in diamond-bright patches of harmless white fire against the canvas of Matt’s pale, smooth skin.
Yeah, his life was pretty good these days.
It figured it would take the apocalypse for John McClane to catch a break.
Matt stirred under his hand. He had tugged a little too hard in his reverie, maybe, rubbing the softness of one of the dark chestnut locks between his calloused thumb and fingertip.
“Hey…” Matt murmured, a smile already starting on his lips although he hadn’t even opened his eyes. “You woke me up.”
“Sorry,” John murmured back, giving another little tug.
“Nope,” Matt replied, calling bullshit on the apology and snuggling closer, still without opening his eyes.
“Nope,” John agreed. He let his hand leave Matt’s hair and trail softly down the warm length of his spine.
“Mmm. Stop corrupting me,” Matt hummed, nuzzling into him in a way that meant he didn’t want him to stop at all. “Let’s not forget, I’m the ne’er-do-well menace to society and you’re the upstanding hero. I’m supposed to be corrupting you.” Matt’s hand moved under the blanket and landed somewhere in the vicinity of his hip, the thumb rubbing a little circle into his skin.
John let his own hand move lower. “But it’s the end of the world, remember?” John argued. “No more society. Just a bunch of old pervs running around, free to take advantage of all the orphaned young things, too naive to know any better…”
Matt huffed a breath out against his chest that felt more like a wry little half-laugh than a reaction to the path John’s hand was making under the blanket.
Shit. He should have known better than to use the word ‘orphan’.
“I just meant—“
“No,” Matt interrupted him, gently, “I know. I know what you meant.” But from the way he was pulling away and propping himself up on one elbow, it looked like the mood was no less effectively killed.
“It’s just…” Matt reached out and retrieved a stray piece of straw that had been stuck in John’s chest hair, and started examining it like it was the most fascinating blade of straw in the whole damn barn. “Is that what you think?”
“What?” John asked, when Matt quit fiddling and finally looked at him.
Those eyes, they killed him. Always so big and honest. Always expecting the same level of – sometimes brutal – honesty in return.
“That you’re some dumb kid?” John said, giving him the blunt response he apparently needed to hear. “You’re gonna, what, move on to the next fling when the summer’s over?” Matt didn’t flinch at the words, didn’t smile. John kept talking. “Do you think I would bring you out here if I didn’t think you could handle yourself? If I didn’t think you were gonna be the kind of guy who would have my back?”
Now that he was sort of sitting up like that, John could see there was straw in Matt’s hair too, where he it had been laid down against the bedroll, out of reach of his zealously grooming fingers. He left it alone for now. Matt was still watching him with those eyes of his, waiting for him to say something real.
John figured it wasn’t the best time to mention that just moments ago he had been considering not giving Matt that chance at covering his back at all, if shit happened.
Yeah, he could do some stupid things – say some stupid things – when it came to this thing between them. Up to and including, it seemed, laying down his life if there was a chance it was going to save Matt’s.
The light was still hitting him in little blazing patches, bouncing of his hair and turning warm and orange-y, making one dark eye light up like amber. There was no question.
“Come on.” John gave in to temptation, raised his fingers to Matt’s soft, shaggy mop and watched the bits of straw he brushed loose tumble and somersault down through the air. “You know what this is, Matthew. We’re partners.”
Matt smiled, finally, and pushed his cheek into John’s palm for an appreciative second before he went right back to checking out his very interesting shaft of chest-hair straw.
John left him to it for a minute. Matt fidgeted like this sometimes, and it usually meant there were thoughts rattling around in that big brain he had, that needed a little time to work their way out to his mouth.
What came out was usually pretty unexpected, too.
“…It wasn’t that bad, you know? Growing up living with my aunt.”
John drew on experience and waited a little more, for more words, before he responded.
“The older I got – hell, the older I get – the more I could see… we had amazing lives back then, didn’t we? All of us?”
“Mmmm,” John agreed. A direct question usually meant Matt was ready for some kind of response. He nodded a little against his pillow of hay.
“We had everything,” Matt said, dropping his straw all the better to use his hands to emote with. “Sure, maybe I didn’t know it at the time, but she gave me everything, I never wanted for anything. And she never complained! Y’know? She never asked for this,” he said, making a half-gesture at his bare-chested self. “She never had kids, much less some messed up criminal kid with a lot of questions and a lot of attitude, and, let’s be honest, probably some undiagnosed paranoia issues…”
Matt stopped talking abruptly, like he had gotten off the point he seemed to be having trouble making. John cocked an eyebrow and waited again.
“She was so awesome. I…have a lot to be grateful for,” Matt said finally, looking down at the blankets like he was questing for his lost straw shard to fiddle with. “I always figured one day, when the time came… I’d pay it forward, you know?”
“Forward?” John heard himself ask, his strategy of silently waiting for Matt to finish pushed out of his head by the way something in his gut felt suddenly like stone.
“Yeah. It’s like when somebody does you a favour, but instead of returning it, you—“
“Yeah,” John cut in, keeping his voice low, “I know what it means.”
The shafts of light angling in on them seemed cold all of a sudden, the dust that filtered through them dank and grey.
“Well,” Matt went on, sitting all the way up now and not meeting his eye, “it’s just that you said now there’s all these orphans…I mean aren’t we all, now? And—“
John sat up too. Far enough forward that Matt wouldn’t see it if his face did something bad.
“McClane?” It wasn’t until he heard Matt say it that he realized he’d gotten used to the kid calling him John.
“…John?” Matt amended, and now that sounded weird too.
“It’s good your aunt was so awesome,” John said, once he was sure it would come out softly enough. “I’m glad for that.”
Matt didn’t say anything. His turn to use the ol’ waiting game strategy, it seemed.
Apparently it was a day for realizations. It was just his shitty luck that the same day he realized there was a guy he would do literally anything in his power for – anything his sorry worthless old life could offer – would be the same day he realized that guy might need things John just couldn’t do.
Matt had every right to be thinking ahead to his future, planning out how the rest of his life might, and should, be. Every right in the world, and John would be the last guy around to ever suggest that Matt shouldn’t get every damn thing he wanted out of this life, such as it might be in the world they were living in now. In fact, John hoped like hell every day lately that he would be able to give it to him.
But sometimes what a man wanted, didn’t change the facts.
“…I wasn’t a good parent, Matt.”
Matt still didn’t speak. When John chanced a look back over his shoulder at him, he could see that this time it was out of shock.
“I didn’t –“ Matt started, but John waved him off. He turned away again, mostly because he just didn’t think he could keep looking at him.
Those eyes, oh God. John didn’t ever think he’d seen them quite that big.
“Hey—“ Matt tried again, but John cut him off.
“I wasn’t,” he said heavily. He pinched at the bridge of his nose, tried to keep the stinging feeling out of his eyes. “I was never there. For my kids. Never gave ‘em anything they needed,” he admitted, huskily. “Their mother did every last thing. And then, when this –“ John moved his hand away from his face long enough to wave it around in a way that he hoped Matt would get meant everything – the virus, the collapse of everything that had been life as they all had known it – “when all this happened, hell. I lost one, Matt.”
John put out a hand, making a move to get up, but Matt was already there. Already he was moving, throwing a bare leg over him and straddling his lap to keep him in place. His hands were already sliding warmly over the back of his neck and cupping the sides of his face. His thumbs were already slipping up to the crinkles in the corners of John’s eyes, to smooth at his temples and smear away any tears that were threatening to break rank and slide down his cheeks.
And when John’s face crumpled in his hands, Matt didn’t try to stop it. When John’s voice broke on the words “How could I let her go – I just let her go“ Matt didn’t argue. He didn’t say that Lucy was a grownup and John couldn’t have stopped her. He didn’t say that wanting to find her mother in the chaos was not only natural, it was what made her a McClane. He didn’t say that John couldn’t have known that that flight out to California would be one of the last.
He didn’t say anything except “Hey.” Just that little word, the one syllable that said he was there. “Hey,” he said gently, when he pushed their foreheads together, and made John look at him, “hey.” And that was all.
He didn’t do anything except climb naked into John’s lap, and let him hold on tight and kiss him hard. Kiss him harder and harder until John was sure that it hurt him a little. Matt let him make tight fists in his soft hair, and lay them both down again in the hay, kissing him hard and gripping him tight until John’s ragged breath evened out and he came back to himself.
And then Matt still did nothing, just let John look at him, let him put a much softer kiss where his mouth looked crushed red, and swollen.
“I would never ask you to do anything that you can’t,” Matt said finally, when things had gotten too quiet.
John put another super-gentle kiss down on his mouth. “Doesn’t count,” he said, shrewdly. “You think I can do anything.”
As usual, Matt didn’t smile at the words, and those honest, no-bullshit eyes didn’t flinch. “Yeah,” he agreed. “That’s what I think.”
John was just considering shutting him up with a little more hard kissing when they heard it.
The harsh, wailing cry was far enough in the distance, but the time to haul ass back to the truck was definitely now.
“We can finish this later,” Matt said hastily, squirming out from under him so they could get dressed and load their packs.
John didn’t ask whether he was referring to what they were doing naked in a hay loft, or to the conversation. He just watched the way Matt bent over to retrieve his clothing, the way he put up a hand to tousle the lingering bits of straw out of the shaggy brown mop they both knew Matt let get that long because John liked it that way.
Yeah, his life was pretty good right now. He didn’t know what happened next, but he knew he would take all of the time with Matt this worthless, worn out life of his was going to give him.
“I know it’s dark in the closet, but we’ll just have to be brave,” she whispered, pulling the door nearly shut. It was too dangerous to leave it open any more than one skinny little crack.
She pulled her feet in until her knees came up to her chin, so that her sneakers wouldn’t show in the crack under the door, and hugged her knees tight.
They were getting pretty good at being brave. The last time they came to hide in here, Robbie didn’t even cry. But then that was two days ago, and the men that came in the house that time took all the food.
Robbie cried more when he was hungry, and he was pretty fussy today. But he had his binky, and his stuffed monkey to cuddle with, and she squeezed her eyes shut and wished, for whatever was making bumping and smashing noises downstairs to see that they didn’t have any food here and just go away.
They could hear it searching. Doors were slamming, one by one. First the cupboards in the kitchen, and then the bathroom in the hall, and soon, it would reach the stairs.
“Clear!” a voice called out suddenly.
Robbie tried to crawl for the closet door when he heard it, but his sister pulled him back and held him in her lap.
“No Robbie,” she whispered, scooting back in the closet until her back was touching the wall and their mother’s long dresses brushed the top of her head.
They could hear more voices now. More heavy-booted footsteps tromping around downstairs. Her brother whimpered a little but she pushed his binky a little further into his mouth and said “shhhhh.”
Just because they were humans, didn’t mean they were safe. They had learned all about strangers in school, and the men downstairs sounded harsh-voiced and big.
They were still searching for something, and still coming closer.
Robbie whimpered again, but she couldn’t even shush him this time. They were on the stairs now. Heavy boots stomping louder and closer and she could feel the tears leak out of her eyes and onto her cheeks.
She was so scared it hurt to breathe. Her chest felt like it had tight, tight straps wrapped around it and her throat was burning. Robbie squirmed in her arms – she was holding onto him too tight.
She wanted to loosen her hold on him a little but they were there, in the room. She could hear the creaky bedroom door opening. Then blinding light hit them as the closet door was thrown open, and she screamed.
Robbie started to cry. The man standing outside the closet said a bad word.
Her eyes got used to the light and she could see him. He was big, his head was shaved bald, and he was holding a gun. She wanted to scream again but it was like her throat was too scared.
The big man wasn’t pointing his gun at them though. He was getting down on one knee so he could look at them. He put his gun down and slid it away across the floor.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey, I’m not gonna hurtcha.” His voice was rough and kind of scary, but it made her stop crying anyway. She nodded. Brave.
“I’m a police officer. Okay?” He put his hands up in the air like he thought she might have a gun too.
He didn’t look like a policeman, he didn’t have a uniform.
Robbie seemed to like him though. He had stopped crying and was starting to reach for him. She pulled her brother back.
“That’s not a policeman’s gun,” she sniffed, looking over at it lying on the floor in the corner. She had seen those. This one was too long, and all pointy.
“Ah,” he said, “they’re special. For keeping the bad things away. We’re good guys, alright?”
The people coming into the room behind him didn’t look like police either. They looked a lot more like army men, and all of them had guns like that, the big pointy kind that hung from a strap.
Robbie squirmed out of her arms and crawled forward. He pulled himself up on the big officer’s shoulder, probably hoping he would give him something to eat.
The man turned around to somebody behind him and said, “little help?”
“You’re doing fine,” a very different sounding voice replied, and somebody new came and got down on a knee beside the officer.
He had warm-looking brown eyes and a scruffy little almost-beard like her big cousin Jesse. And when he talked, his voice wasn’t rough at all.
“Hi,” he said, I’m Matt.”
He didn’t look like the other people in the room. He had sneakers on, instead of big black boots. And he didn’t have a gun either, he had a bow and arrow on his back. Like Princess Merida, from her favorite movie.
She gave another little sniffle. “Loretta.”
“That’s such a cool name,” said Matt. “You know what, it sounds a little bit like mine. …’Rett’. Sounds kind of like ‘Matt’, huh? …Can I call you Rett?”
Loretta nodded. She liked Matt.
“Okay Rett,” Matt smiled. “That lady back there, she’s a nurse.” Matt leaned back on his heels so she could see somebody standing by her parents’ bedroom door, who didn’t look anything like a nurse either, but maybe she was a special kind too. “We’re going to take you and your brother somewhere safe, so she can look at you, make sure you’re not sick, okay?”
Loretta nodded again.
“I want my Mommy,” she sniffed, and she tried hard not to, but she was crying again.
“We’re gonna try to find her, sweetheart,” the big man next to Matt said. “It’s what we do.”
His voice was still rough, and it still made her stop crying somehow. But now it sounded nice.
Maybe she liked the big bald policeman a little bit too.
He was holding Robbie properly now. Her brother’s little arms were wrapped around his neck, and he looked like he might go to sleep.
“Stay close, so they can keep each other in sight,” Matt said, and the policeman nodded. “Come on,” he said, standing up and holding out his hand. “Can you show me how to get outside?”
Loretta held Matt’s hand all the way down the stairs and out into the yard. The sky seemed so bright after the dark of the closet, and her mother’s roses seemed to blaze red in the sun. She could smell them in the warm air, as they walked past, and hear the bees buzzing around them.
There was another sound, far away, like howling.
Matt squeezed her hand. “You’ll be safe with us,” he promised.
Loretta looked up at Robbie, sleeping now in the policeman’s strong arms.
“I know I will,” she said.
And she led them down the path and out to the long gravel driveway that led to the road.
The screwdriver slipped again, knocking the capacitor right off the board and taking out a nice little chunk of Matt’s finger to boot.
He whispered a curse, and shook his hand until the adrenaline worked its way through his system and the burning gouge subsided to a throb. Then he put everything down, pushed his hands into his hair and pulled.
It did nothing to make him more alert. His hands were failing him. What he needed, Matt knew, was sleep. But that just wasn’t happening.
Across the room where John lay, un-snoring, on their bed, Matt could tell it wasn’t happening for him either.
He had lost track of how many nights it made that he had been working at this. And he wasn’t even sure it was going to work. But the thing was, when one of your kids was missing, doing nothing just wasn’t an option. And they had done everything else.
Of course, ‘missing’ might not be the accurate term for somebody who didn’t want to be found.
It had been weeks now, since Rett had disappeared, along with one of the best Jeeps in the settlement and with no other trace than a hastily scrawled note left in the kitchen.
There’s something I have to do. I love you.
PS. Don’t worry
Matt promptly had a breakdown. John had mobilized, immediately.
Week One was all about organizing. John had the whole town on alert, and every team that could be spared was tasked with a search area. They cast a net wide enough they should have been able to catch anybody under normal circumstances. But this wasn’t normal circumstances, this was Rett. And when Rett wanted to give somebody the slip…well, Matt had trained her himself.
Week Two, had been Wait and See. Not John’s strong suit, and his turn for a breakdown, or at least that’s how Matt saw it. Week One had given Matt, and everybody John came into contact with, the distinct the impression that as long as he felt like he was doing something, Rett wasn’t actually gone yet. So doing nothing on Week Two? Well, John responded by throwing himself into extra chores around the property, and volunteering all over the settlement until he came home at night barely able to do anything other than collapse into bed. Whether or not he slept after said collapse, Matt couldn’t say. He had given up lying awake nights a while back.
See, the thing about John freaking out, was that John was Matt’s safe-haven. His rock. So you’d think that on the rare occasion that John freaked out, Matt would freak out too. But, as it turned out, it was weird and it didn’t work that way. As Matt would never seem to learn about relationships, that was logic, and apparently logic didn’t apply.
It turned out John being Matt’s rock, meant that Matt needed him so much, so desperately and imperatively, that if John lost it, Matt’s psyche just some how rejected it, found it unacceptable. And his brain set about immediately trying to fix it. Get that safe-haven back online.
When John freaked out, Matt started analyzing. And what he had this whole family shitstorm boiled down to at the moment was this:
John blamed himself. Shit-fact number one.
He had lost not one, but two daughters now, to this fucked up post-apocalyptic wasteland they were trying to repopulate. Shit-facts numero dos, tres, and at least quatro, if not mas.
But John hadn’t wanted any more kids. At least, not initially. Sure, he had come around at some point, and when it came down to it he loved them with a fierceness that Matt wasn’t sure he’d ever seen the likes of before, and frankly made him damn proud of the man he picked. But still.
The idea had never been John’s. That one was on Matt. So whose fault was it all really?
So, as hard as it was on both of them, Wait and See was a valid strategy, one that had been John’s own idea, if not his favourite one. Rett was a hell of a Ranger, everyone knew it, and from the looks of the stores she had taken enough provisions and gasoline to last two weeks or more.
But now it was Week Three. And getting on for Four. And at some point Matt had realized that depending on where she had been trying to go, Rett could be getting out of range of the radio, and all hope of reaching them now. If she was even trying.
So Matt was here, night after night, building a homemade signal-booster and trying not to basically blame himself for everything. Or blaming himself for everything and trying to build a homemade signal-booster. It all got a little too metaphysical if he thought about it too much.
A signal booster that was now going to need a whole new capacitor.
Matt sighed. He had more in his work room downstairs, but he was going to have to make quiet work of it. John might not be asleep, but the last thing he wanted was the whole house getting up.
None of them had been sleeping all that great lately, and pity parties were best when they were parties of one, anyhow.
By the time he had tiptoed through the house and back, reassembled the board and got it fitted back in, his eyelids were starting to feel heavy, and he thought he might actually be able to fall asleep after this. He would just turn it on, see if the power was working, and then hit the hay.
When Matt heard it, he was certain for a minute maybe he had nodded off in his chair. It had happened before. But this was no dream. The voice he would know anywhere, the one he had been hearing in his head for days, was unmistakably coming to him through the speakers.
Matt nearly injured himself again fumbling to get at the microphone.
“Rett!” he shouted, “Baby, can you hear me? Rett!”
There was nothing but static in reply.
“No!” Matt reached for the dial, afraid to change the frequency and lose her, but desperate to try and get her back.
There was a loud crackle, and then Rett’s voice again.
“Dad? …Dad, are you there?”
Tears were fogging his vision, but he could hear the bedsprings creak as John struggled up off the mattress to come to the radio.
“I’m here,” Matt choked. Although he wasn’t sure she heard it.
Matt waved a hand around in the air, even though she couldn’t see him. “Off duty,” he said, still having trouble choking out words, and definitely not bothered to explain that Dinah had forced him to take the radio from headquarters home, because they were sick of him being there 24/7, tinkering and cursing and falling asleep on the desk.
“Dad?” Rett’s voice crackled again. “Is Pop around?”
“I’m here, sweetie.” John put a hand down on Matt’s shoulder as he bent toward the mic. It felt warm, and Matt realized belatedly it had been days since they touched. Matt put his hand down on top of John’s. John squeezed.
“Good,” Rett was saying, “Because…I’ve got somebody here you might want to talk to.”
There was a pause from the radio, and then the grip on Matt’s shoulder went suddenly way too tight, and Matt abandoned the mic button to grapple at John with both hands, because the next voice they heard brought his knees to the floor.
“Hi Dad,” Lucy said. “Sorry I never called.”
“Lu—“ John stammered, and the rest of the name never made it out, but it didn’t matter because Lucy couldn’t hear them as long as Matt was gripping John tightly instead of manning the mic. She was still talking, and they listened, drinking in the voice they had both long given up on ever hearing again.
“Nobody here is that great with fixing radios,” Lucy was saying. “Luckily it turns out I have this sister. …Apparently.” There was some more static and they could hear a chuckle out of Lucy along with the rustle of clothing that might have been the sound of a one-armed hug. “…Who tells me one of her dads is some kind of programming geek?”
By now they had both recovered enough to give a shaky little laugh. Lucy. She hadn’t changed a bit.
“Yeah…about that,” Matt said, when he could get a finger on the button again. There were still tears swimming in his eyes and he laughed a little, if only to break up the way relief kept on cracking his voice. “Lucy…I think we should break up.”
Another pause. Then, “my husband will be so relieved!” Lucy laughed, sounding maybe like she was just as tearful.
“That’s not the best part,” It was Rett’s voice again, excited and manic. “You guys are GRANDPAS!” You have—”
“Hey,” Lucy cut across her, “Hey there kiddo, save something for the sequel!” She sounded like like she might have confiscated the mic. “They’ll meet everybody when we get there.”
“Luce,” John said, “Wait.” And Matt moved over, so he could take over the mic. “‘Get here’?”
“That’s what I said,” Lucy crackled through the speaker again.
Matt looked at John’s profile, he didn’t think it was just the nighttime gloom that made it so unreadable.
“Lucy,” he said after a pause. “Honey, are you sure? You got family. I’m not sure it’s safe….”
There was a pause from the other end again. Longer this time, and Matt started to worry he might have lost them.
“I’m sure, Dad,” she said finally, although there was more crackling now, and her voice did seem to be coming through to them a little misty and weak. “I’m coming home,” they heard her say. “I mean, unless you guys wanna trek out here. You, and Matt. And Robbie. And the twins. I hear you’re really good Rangers.”
“Matt trained ‘em,” John responded, gruffly. “They’re the very best.”
There was another pause, and what sounded like it might be another hug. It was getting harder to hear.
“Then it’s a plan,” Lucy said at last, “I mean yeah, the weather’s good here, but I heard you have electricity three nights a week out there. …And I really miss running water.”
“Okay then,” John said, “Rett honey, you bring her home. …We’re trusting you, baby.” And from the choked way it came out, Matt was fairly convinced his voice wasn’t going to let him say much more.
“Thanks Pop,” she said after the usual pause and crackle. Rett was raising her voice now, almost to a shout. “Dad? The signal is starting to suck. We’ll try you again tomorrow okay? Five o’clock your time. We’re planning everything. We leave in a week!”
“Okay!” Matt replied, probably a little too loudly himself, if he didn’t want to wake the twins, sleeping in the next room. “And Rett?”
There was no response, but he said it anyway. “We love you,” even though he wasn’t sure she would hear. “…We love you.”
When Matt turned, blinking tears out of his eyes as he did, John was still on his knees.
“You’re a grandpa!” Matt teased, but John’s expression was ashen, it barely registered the jibe.
“…And a really. Really great father,” Matt said truthfully, sliding out of the chair to join him kneeling on the floor.
“It’s all thanks to you,” John’s voice finally broke, and he pulled Matt roughly to him. He sat back on his haunches, so Matt could wrap himself around him and hang on.
“You mean it’s all my fault?” Matt said into John’s shoulder, as John wrapped him up too, putting both arms warmly around his back.
“The hell you talking about, now?” John asked, his voice equally muffled in Matt’s neck. He put a little kiss there and sat back a little further to let him talk.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened, and you never wanted this.”
“What, to lose a kid? Twice?”
“No,” Matt said, irritably, but then, “Yes!” Hey, he was really tired.
“You never wanted any kids to lose. This family, all the drama. It was all my idea.”
“It was the best idea you’ve ever had,” John said, smiling so even in the gloomy dark room Matt could see his eyes twinkle. “And that’s saying a lot.”
Matt kissed him then. It had been days. It felt like… well it felt like he needed to be doing it a lot more. So he did. But then he felt like they had to talk more too. So he stopped.
“I never said I didn’t want this family, Matthew. Never,” John pledged, heartily. “I guess I just…”
“Didn’t know you wanted it?” Matt laughed.
“…Didn’t think I could have it,” John finished, solemnly.
Matt kissed him again. And some more.
“Maybe it’s nobody’s fault?” Matt mused, when they had broken off kissing, just so John could wrap him up in his arms and squeeze him close again.
Safe-haven back online. Rock officially reinstated.
“Maybe it was just time?” he went on. “You know, for them to grow up. Go their own way? Maybe this is just how becoming an adult goes now. You know, with the whole living in anarchy thing the kids are doing these days.
“Oh hell,” John swore, his voice still muffled against Matt’s shoulder. “Does that mean we’re going to have to go through it three more times?”
Matt pulled away again for another kiss.
“They say boys are easier?” he suggested, not sounding all that hopeful.
Instead of an answer, John wrapped his arms around him one last time, and stood up. All the better for carrying him across the room and back to bed.
Only time would tell.
For now, Matt hung on tight.