Robin, after the apocalypse

by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/233521.html)

Robin heard the cart as it rattled down the lane, horses’ hooves striking hollowly against the hard-baked August ground. From his sideline gaze out the window, he recognized the cart, and the horses, and the broad man holding the reins. He didn’t stir from his place until Negi dismounted, stepped in front of the horses, and gave the signal to what, for all he must have known, might have been an empty house.

Negi didn’t move until Robin unbolted the door, stepped clear of the threshold, and gave the return signal.

Negi’s shoulders eased. Robin raised his hand in greeting to Jacquelyn, who had twisted around in her backwards-facing seat to watch him. She nodded and turned her attention back to the laneway.

There was movement in the slatted back of the cart. A young man stood, put one leg then the other over the low side, and hopped down to the ground. He pulled off a dark knit cap that looked too hot for the sunny late-summer afternoon, and raked a hand across his head to unmat a thicket of blond hair.

Robin briefly rolled his eyes. One of Jay’s golden boys. Naturally.

He took the envelope that Negi was holding out to him, and ripped a thumb through the flap to tear it open.

This one could be weeks. Would not ask if not serious. Sending along some things you might need and/or enjoy. Best, J.

P.S. Hope is not a bad time.

Robin sent a baleful look west, towards Jay’s presumed general direction, but Jay’s timing was, as per usual, unassailable. Earlier in the month would have been a bad time, what with the anniversary of a very bad thing and the resulting week of nightmares leaving him ragged, but that had been a few weeks ago and he was back to as normal as he got.

“How are you?” he asked Negi.

“Well enough. No shortage of work,” Negi said, which was what he always said.

Robin didn’t ask how Jay was. He operated on the principle that the less he knew, the safer they all were.

The blond man hovered a few steps back of Negi’s elbow, waiting. Negi motioned him forward. “This is Dale. Dale, Robin.”

Dale nodded. “Thank you for putting me up,” he said. “I’ll try not to be too much trouble.”

Robin extended his hand. Dale’s was uncallused, but his handshake was firm, the look he gave Robin level. His clothes were clean, if creased by travel, and it was a good sign that the work boots and jeans didn’t look like they’d had the tags cut off them the day before he got into the cart.

“Let’s get unloaded,” Negi said. “I want to be back to DeHavilland’s well before it gets dark.”

“Haven’t seen a walker for a couple of weeks,” Robin offered, by way of reassurance rather than dissuasion.

“Still,” Negi said.

He unhooked the tailgate of the cart so they could reach the contents in the back. Dale grabbed a duffle bag. Negi and Robin each took a cardboard box. It took them two trips, but Jacquelyn stayed with the cart, watching the road, because someone always stayed with the cart, watching the road.

There were three boxes and– “Is that flour?” Robin demanded as Negi swung a paper sack from his shoulder to the kitchen table.

Negi grunted. “Enjoy.”

Robin shot a glance at Dale, who was setting the last box down on a chair. What was he, beyond pretty and blond? Jay had never sent flour before.

“Got to get going,” Negi said. “Be safe.”

“And you.”

“Thanks,” Dale said, and Negi gave him a rare smile before leaving and pulling the door shut behind him.

Robin picked up the two-by-four that leaned against the wall, and fit it into the brackets on either side of the door.

The atmosphere abruptly tensed.

“It’s not for you. You can leave any time you like,” Robin said. “But while we are both in here, that bar is there.” He pointed across the room, past the loft ladder and the kitchen sink, to the similarly barred back door. “So is that one. If there is someone else in the house, you do not leave without telling them and making sure they heard you . You do not leave the house without a blade.” He pointed to the umbrella stand by the front door, incongruously stocked with a hatchet and his favorite machete. “When you are out, you never put a blade down where you can’t put your hand on it instantaneously . Got that?”

Dale nodded. He didn’t take his eyes from Robin. “You said you hadn’t seen a zombie in weeks.”

“Plague victim,” said Robin.

Dale opened his mouth.

“Or walker,” Robin said, overriding him. “We do not call them zombies because this is not a fucking video game.”

Dale wet his lips. He swallowed. “Understood.”

Aaaand that went swimmingly . Apparently his social skills, polished up to more or less adequate years ago under Jay’s relentless hectoring, were as use-it-or-lose-it as any other’s. Robin cleared his throat. “Okay. Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s see what we’ve got.”

He opened the heaviest box first, because he knew what it was, and he was not disappointed. Books, bless Jay. A handful of the kind of cozy mysteries he used to go through like bowls of popcorn during exam week–Jesus, Rob, how can you read anything, my brain is totally fried–a few paperbacks with spaceships on the covers, a doorstop history of London and another of Tokyo, a varied assortment of trade paperback fiction. Also, Men on Men 22, for which, thanks, asshole. He could practically feel Jay smirking at him.

The other two boxes were a miraculous cornucopia of mass-produced consumer goods generally unavailable for going on four years now, on account of the unscheduled collapse of civilization.

Two Moleskine notebooks. A box of pencils. An unopened package of Jockey boxer briefs in his size. A bundle of the kind of white candles Ikea used to practically give away. An enormous box of matches.

A dark green one-litre bottle of olive oil, probably barely rancid at all. A canister of salt, the girl on the label plump and healthy and perpetually cheerful under her umbrella.

A vacuum-packed bag of coffee.

“He sent coffee?” Dale asked, brightening.

Robin examined the bag. “It’s whole beans, for crying out loud.”

“I will grind each bean individually between two rocks if I have to,” Dale promised reverently.

Robin didn’t drink coffee, never had. Jesus, who or what was this kid, that Jay had sent something like this for him?

A box of Twinings Earl Grey tea, its cellophane wrap still sealed. Cinnamon. Peppercorns. Sugar.

A bar of Camino bittersweet 71% cacao dark chocolate.

Robin brought it up to his nose and immersed himself in the dark scent. His mouth filled with water. His mind swelled with Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day. Celebrations all, the high holy days of chocolate, one of the many, many things he’d never hoped to have his hands on again.

“God, who’s Jay sleeping with, to get this stuff?” he demanded.

Dale shot him an odd look, which Robin chose to ignore, because whatever that was about, Robin didn’t feel like getting into it.

In the second box, wedged between sugar and salt, was a box of fifty .44 rifle cartridges.

Robin’s eyes went to the Henry in its brackets along the side of the loft ladder. His ammo bag hung beside it, not even showing the weight of the fourteen cartridges he had left.

Stupid movies of his youth aside, unless you were out hunting walkers and could draw a bead on skull or spine from a distance, rifles did you no good. Plague victims felt no pain, kept going until their spinal columns were severed or their bodies blown into compost. Especially around here, with all the trees, by the time you saw them they’d be on you so fast you didn’t have time to aim, and no one had had ammo to waste for years now. Rifles were not for defense against walkers. Rifles were for human beings.

Robin carried the box over to the ammo bag and dropped it in. The bag swayed like a pendulum under the new weight.

“So. Dinner,” he said. “Let me show you where the garden is. You can take the hatchet.”

The olive oil wasn’t at all rancid, and Robin made two chapatis each with the precious flour, cooking them hot in a dry frying pan on the stove until they grew small black blisters. There was chard with garlic and ohmygod salt and pepper, and the last of the yellow beans, and some edamame, and carrot sticks, and purple plums for dessert. Dale offered to help, setting the table–which took ninety seconds even allowing for two questions about where things were in the drawers on the sideboard–and he ate like a man who appreciated that his next meal might be a while coming, which raised him in Robin’s estimation. Not all survival skills involved weapons.

When they’d finished eating, Robin put a pan of water on to heat for dishwashing, and opened the stove to fit the evening’s last log in.

“Did you find this place like this?” asked Dale.

“Like what?”

“Well, with the wood-burning stove, and that–” He nodded towards the hand pump beside the kitchen sink. “And the garden and everything. This is more comfortable than most places I’ve been.”

Robin pushed himself up from a squat. “Found it? I bought it. For real cash dollars. Well, me and the bank. Long before the plague.”

Dale looked around him again, as if that were more impressive than happening upon an unoccupied cabin in a world with seventy-five to eighty percent of its population changed or gone.

“But yeah, it was pretty much like this when I bought it. I had a laundry list of things I wanted to do to it eventually. Solar panels. Solar water heating. Composting toilet. Figured I’d eventually retire here, a nice simple off-the-grid life, away from the craziness of the city. Funny, right?”

Dale’s mouth quirked. “Yeah, well, I wanted to be a biochem major, so…” He looked down into his lap. “Never mind. Anyway. Like they say, God is an iron.”

Robin slammed the stove door shut. “Got that right.”

When it began to get dark, he showed Dale how to work the wind-up lantern. Dale nodded and reached down towards his shoe–shit, he’s going for a knife–and in the few seconds it took Robin’s brain to ricochet back to the cabin and common sense, put what looked like a bike light on the table.

“I got it for camping, before. It charges with movement. Shaking it works, but you can keep it half charged just walking around all day. It came with this leg holster thing.” He picked it up and frowned at the side. “I thought that wagon ride would have fully charged it, god…”

Okay, flashback or random panic attack, he wasn’t even sure and it didn’t matter. Robin took a steadying breath and a cool mouthful of water. Having other people around was apparently one of those use-it-or-lose-it things, too.

He put some dried beans to soak on the warm back of the stove for tomorrow’s dinner, and banked the fire, and closed the wooden shutters over the windows. They took a last trip to the outhouse, each keeping watch outside with his back to the door while the other was inside. Plague victims weren’t actually more active at night, at least in Robin’s experience, but at night the sounds that tended to attract them carried further, and you couldn’t see them until they were on you.

“You can bring your bag,” Robin said once they were inside again, and let Dale proceed him up the ladder. Once they were in the loft, he showed him how to pull the ladder up, the attached rifle coming too, the ammo bag bumping against the rungs. He pushed the hinged loft door down and shot the bolts.

“Plague victims don’t climb much,” he said, “but better to be safe.”

Dale turned towards him in the dimness. “I do actually know that I’m not hiding out solely from plague victims.”

Actually, that wasn’t a surprise. Robin didn’t call them golden boys just because of a minor statistical inclination towards blonds.

He’d hung two old sheets from nails in the sloping ceiling, partitioning one end of the loft into a guest bedroom to give them both some privacy. He held one sheet aside for Dale and gestured him towards the mattress on the floor. “That’s all the blankets I’ve got, so if you get cold, you’ll have to put on a sweater. No one leaves the loft until I’ve decided it’s all clear in the morning, so if you have to use the toilet during the night, use that pot in the corner. Be sure to put the lid on after or it’ll stink up the place. If you use it, cleaning it out’s your responsibility. Sleep well.”

“Uh,” Dale said as he turned to go.

“Hmm?”

Dale hadn’t looked this uncertain even standing behind Negi as a stranger. “Um, I…in my sleep, sometimes…I, uh…make some noise.”

Robin knew that territory well. “Nightmares?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Understood. Thanks for letting me know. If it gets bad, I’ll come wake you up.”

Dale’s shoulders sagged. “Thanks.”

“Post-apocalyptic services our specialty,” Robin said dryly, and let the sheet fall.

~*~

The next morning was crisp as a new apple, the sky the very embodiment of sky blue. After a breakfast of sweet potatoes and plums, Robin took Dale and his favorite machete outside and showed him the small wooden latch, at hip-height, that fastened the door closed when they were both outside.

“Is that going to stop anyone?” Dale asked doubtfully.

“Plague victims won’t look down far enough to see it, and most wouldn’t have the brains or the motor skills left to open it if they did. It’s mostly to keep them from walking into the cabin when I’m on the other side of the property, and yes, that did happen once. As for humans, well, you can see the lock, but I don’t want to be messing with keys if I’m trying to get back in in a rush.”

“God, no.”

Robin combed his shaggy hair back with his fingers and squinted up into the bright sky. This was the time of year he loved most; call him twisted, but autumn’s underlying threat of death and storm to come invigorated him far more than spring’s softness ever did. “I’m going to do some warmups while the weather’s good. If you can keep your blade on hand while you exercise, you’re welcome to join me.”

He took his position in the centre of the gravel rectangle where, in another life, he’d been used to parking his car, and began to do what he still referred to internally as kata. None of his sensei would have agreed, but you couldn’t keep down a walker with a kick, no matter how good your form was, so fuck it.

From long practice he scanned the clearing as he worked–lane, garden, one end of the cabin, the other end of the cabin–and watched Dale fumble through sun salutations while trying to keep track of two and a half pounds of hatchet. Granted, yoga was not his thing, but he’d tried it in his day as he’d tried just about everything that had promised peace and serenity, and he had a certain amount of respect for a man who could get into a full a downward dog.

After about forty-five minutes, Dale flopped down into a sitting position, breathing hard–still not more than a foot away from his hatchet, good kid–and said, “Is that karate?”

Lane, garden… “After a fashion.”

“Does it count if you do it with a machete?”

One side of the cabin… “Not in the tradition I trained in, but plague victims are generally pass/fail.”

Dale snorted a laugh. He watched Robin for a few more minutes and said, “So were you a black belt?”

Other side of the cabin… “Black belt doesn’t mean ultimate super special fighting master. It just means you’ve achieved competence over a certain set of skills. And yes.”

Dale exhaled and looked away, out over the garden. “You sure were more prepared for this than I was.”

Robin didn’t answer. He didn’t feel like explaining that there had been plenty of monsters before the plague, and that Robin had his own reasons for never wanting to be physically vulnerable ever again.

After lunch, he took Dale on a walk, across the creek and down through the woodlot. Chickadees called to each other. Ever-moving sunlight dappled the undergrowth. He kept his eye on the middle distance before and behind and on either side, alert for movement of a certain size and shape.

He stopped at a certain point in the path. “What’s specific about where we’re standing?”

Dale did not say What? or I don’t know. He looked around him, and up and down too, and said, “The birches start here.”

“Good. See that rock?”

Dale looked where he pointed, fifty feet away across knee-high brush and a switchback of the creek. He took longer this time. “You mean the cliff?”

Robin rolled his eyes internally. City people, honestly. It was a tiny spur of the Canadian shield, twelve, fifteen feet high, tops. “Okay, yes, the cliff. Go straight towards it. When you get near the creek, stick to the stones. You want to avoid leaving footprints.”

He followed Dale on a parallel route ten feet away to avoid reinforcing his trail. When they both got to the stone face, he turned Dale north and steered him around the rock to where the new path began. The followed it for a few minutes, until it branched into three.

“Left doubles back to the road, about a kilometre before my laneway. Straight goes through more woods and peters out into nothing. Right leads you to the lake. There’s a canoe up on the shore, paddles and life preservers in it, a water bottle and a day pack with an emergency blanket and some supplies. There’s a compass too. You said you camped; you ever canoe?” Dale nodded. “Okay. I am serious now.” He bored his eyes into Dale’s. “If I ever tell you to take the rock path, you do it. I’ll tell you left or right, and it’ll probably be right. You head out from the cabin and you run like fuck. I hope to be right behind you, but if I’m not, you canoe to the farthest point on the other shore and you go north as far and as fast as you can manage. Got that?”

Dale nodded. He swallowed. “How much food is in the pack?”

Smart kid. “About four days’ worth. If it’s one person.”

“And then what?”

Robin looked away, into the centre path, through the greenery. “If you’re travelling true north, after the second day you’ll hit a paved road. Go left on it, and you get to a little village. Nobody left there now. There are houses and food, at least if it hasn’t been looted yet. It’s your best bet for survival.”

“Do you have another canoe stashed somewhere else?” Dale asked softly.

“Like I said, I hope to be right behind you.” Robin grimaced. “No, I do not.”

“…Got it,” Dale said, and they walked back to the cabin in silence.

~*~

When the screaming started, Robin was upright and panting with his second-favorite machete in hand before he realized, one, that he was no longer dreaming, and two, that the screams hadn’t been coming from his own dream. Because they were still going on, top-of-the-lungs no-inhibition howls, the screams of someone who had gone beyond hope and dignity and self-consciousness, sounds made by someone who was being tortured to death or eaten alive.

He was across the loft without no memory of having touched the floor, flinging the hanging sheet aside, thumbing the lantern on and sweeping the light across the room–no walker there, of course not, the loft door was still bolted flat and the two end windows were too tiny for anything human or formerly human to fit through. Dale was thrashing, kicking at the blankets, arms swinging in panic, his screams filling the space wall-to-wall as though they had weight and substance.

Robin put down the lantern and skidded the machete backwards along the floor, safely out of the way. He got on the far side of the mattress where it neared the wall, crouched, gripped, and then lifted the whole side, spilling Dale off onto the hard floor and into the cold air.

Dale inhaled roughly, and coughed on a last scream. Breathing hard, he pushed himself up onto his knees and shook his head like a dog emerging from water.

“Dale. You were having a nightmare,” Robin said. “You’re in the loft with me, Robin. We’re safe. It was a nightmare. It wasn’t really happening.”

Dale made a wordless sound and sat back on his heels.

Robin gathered up the two rumpled blankets and shook them out to spread them back on the bed. “Better get back in before you get chilled,” he said.

Dale nodded and stumbled to the bed. His T-shirt was blotched with sweat around the neckline and under the arms.

“Might want to change that,” Robin said, gesturing. “It’ll just make you colder.”

Dale nodded, not moving.

“You know where I am if you need me,” Robin said, picking up the lantern.

“Wait.” Dale swallowed. “I need to…let me get my light.”

It was on the floor by the mattress, and Robin waited until he’d managed to turn it on. Shadows shuddered across the walls as the light trembled in Dale’s hands.

“Thanks,” Dale said, turning his head aside, not looking at Robin.

Then he broke, not for long but abruptly. He covered his face with his forearms and fisted his hands in his hair and sobbed hard for maybe half a minute, his breath like something being ripped out of him, almost worse than the screams.

Then he stopped as suddenly as he’d begun. He reeled his panic back in as Robin watched, and wiped his face on the back of his hand.

“You can go back to bed now,” he said, and so Robin did.

Neither of them turned their lanterns off until the sun came up.

~*~

There was plenty to be done around the place, more with two people than with one, and it was handy to have someone to hold the other end of what he was doing, or stand guard so he could concentrate while he was doing it. And it wouldn’t be long before the short winter days came and barricaded them inside, and they’d hit a span of the glorious orange-and-gold days that only came in autumn, and if physical labour didn’t keep Dale out of his own head it at least forced him to use energy for something other than stewing. For the next few weeks Robin worked them both hard and fell asleep at night the moment he was horizontal. He routinely surfaced briefly from sleep to hear the soft rhythm of Dale’s shaking a charge into his light, and once or twice the grunt of his waking up suddenly, but for the time being, there was no more screaming.

~*~

He didn’t know why he hadn’t seen it before. Maybe because Dale usually only turned his shirt sleeves up twice past the cuff, or because the few times he’d seen him with just a T-shirt on it had been dark or he’d been in motion, or only because this morning Dale was wearing a sweatshirt with stretched-out cuffs and was standing in that one place just so, holding his coffee mug up to his lips just so, so that the light could fall on his forearm in a way Robin had never seen before. But there it was, just below the bend of his elbow, a large and ragged oval of scar tissue, dimpled around the edges, sunken where flesh had been torn away.

Robin was moving even as part of his brain was telling him It’s healed, it’s old, years old, but the point of reflexes was that they went deeper than thought. It occurred to him later that the only thing that saved Dale was that he moved back rather than forward, that if he had taken one step closer to placate or question, Robin would have slashed his throat with the ash trowel from the stove or crushed his skull with the poker, the two weapons that came closest to hand, and only recognized his error when what was seeping into the floor was living blood rather than rot.

White showing around his pupils, Dale stumbled backwards until the bolted door halted his escape. He opened both hands, holding them up as though pinned against the door. His mouth formed Wh–? but only a hitched breath came out.

Robin pointed with the poker, making Dale flinch. “What,” he said. “The fuck.” And then words evaporated, and they stared at each other over the blast radius of a coffee mug and its priceless contents, a starburst of ruin on the floor.

Dale swallowed. “Yeah,” he said. “I got bitten.”

Robin let his weapons clatter to the floor.

Dale exhaled noisily through his teeth and said, “Okay, I really have to sit down.”

Robin nodded. Dale stepped unsteadily to the table and dropped onto the chair.

“It was just before things got really bad,” he said quietly. “I had gone to lab class, but the TA and half the class didn’t show up so I went back to the apartment. My–friend was on the couch staring at the TV, but it wasn’t on. My boyfriend, actually.” He shot a look up at Robin through his eyelashes, judging his reaction. Robin nodded again. “He got up and–you know how they look the first few days, the way their eyes get. We’d sworn to each other that if we got infected, we’d let the other know, but actually they think now that one of the first things the virus does is it makes people paranoid, it’s how it survives long enough to get to a new host. That, or it went to his brain first. He just came at me. I…” Dale brought up his arm to demonstrate, the scar a circle of wreckage on the surrounding pale skin. “That’s when he got me.

“I don’t even remember how I got away. Jess was in this pick-up baseball club, he’d left his bat by the door…”

Robin made a gesture that said skip it, meaning the part that went And then I had to murder someone I loved who was trying to dismember and eat me, because it was a bullshit plot and everyone had heard it too many times already anyway.

Robin wrapped his arms around his body and took a shuddering breath.

“So then I went into the bathroom,” he said, “and I got into the shower and I scrubbed the bite with soap and a nail brush, and yes, it hurt like fuck, and then I soaked it in this whiskey that I got for my birthday, because that was the only alcohol I had, and that hurt like holy living fuck, and I did that three times a day until I ran out of whiskey. I think I had a bit of a fever the second night. Who knows, maybe it was the flu. Maybe none of that helped. Maybe I’m one of the immune. You hear stories, right? But I wasn’t going to let it just…happen.

“After three days, I figured if I hadn’t become infected I wasn’t going to be. The phone networks were all overloaded by that point, and no one was answering 911 even if you could get through. And I couldn’t…stay there.” Three days in the apartment with the body, Robin realized, Jesus.

“So, yeah, lots of stuff happened after that but I never got sick.”

He put his forehead against his hands, his elbows propped up on the table, and let out a long breath.

So that’s why Jay had sent this kid here, Robin realized. The only person Robin had ever heard of who had been bitten and not become infected. Someone must want him badly.

“When I dream about it, it’s not about getting bitten. It’s…about what I…did to him.” Dale pushed his hair back. “I get that I didn’t have a choice. It’s not that I wish I hadn’t survived. But…”

“Survivor’s guilt.”

“Yeah.”

“Everyone left alive has it,” said Robin.

~*~

It was a good year for the carrots, and the onions were bigger than he’d ever seen them.

“I couldn’t even tell this was here,” Dale said, following Robin down the ladder into the root cellar beneath the cabin.

“Keeping the trap door under a rug is traditional.” Robin put his basket of carrots on the floor and hung the lantern from a nail in a crossbeam.

Dale turned a full circle, scanning the shelves and bins. “And stuff doesn’t go bad?”

“It goes bad, just not as fast. It doesn’t have to last years, just until next June when I can start eating out of the garden again.”

“Hey, strawberry jam! Could we…ecch.”

“Some of this stuff came with the place.” He’d never bothered to clear it all out; the cellar was large, and he’d never needed all the space.

“Oh, my god.” Dale had stopped in front of a shelf of bottles. “That’s unopened.”

Robin began to stack carrots into one of the bins. “Yeah. If you’re a guy past a certain age, all anyone wants to give you for your birthday is booze. It’s not really my thing, so I figured I might as well let it age. Why, do you need a drink?”

Dale’s hand hovered reverently above a bottle of Glenmorangie single malt. “Do you know how much this is worth?”

“Huh.” Robin dusted his hands on his jeans. “Maybe when you go I’ll send a couple of bottles back for Jay. I’d rather have flour and toilet paper, frankly.”

Dale turned around and leaned against a shelf. “When you say Jay…you mean Jason Weinstone, right?”

“Yeah, of course.” He picked up the grimy pillowcase full of onions Dale had carried down, and upended it into a bin. “Who else would I mean?”

“It’s just kind of funny to hear someone call him Jay.”

Robin folded the pillowcase. “Why? Is he insisting on Jason again? Because that never sticks.”

“No, mostly people call him Chief.”

Robin snorted. “Seriously? What people?”

“Everyone.”

“Everyone who?”

“Just everyone.”

“Who’s everyone?” Robin asked, frowning.

“Everyone! People! I don’t know what you’re asking,” Dale said.

Rubbing at his forehead with a knuckle, Robin repeated, “Everyone calls Jay Chief?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Well, because he kind of is. I thought you knew him,” Dale said suspiciously.

Robin rested his head back against a shelf and closed his eyes. It was surprising only because he hadn’t really thought it through. Of course Jay was the chief.

“I do know him,” he said. “I’ve just been…out of touch for a while.”

“Things aren’t the same,” Dale said cautiously, “as they were when the plague first started.”

“I can imagine,” Robin said.

~*~

Soft frosts came, then hard frosts. Greenery wilted, blackened, and shrank. Robin moved as much of last year’s woodpile indoors as he could, stacking it in the corner alcove that had been the bedroom before the idea of sleeping underneath a window had given him virulent insomnia.

Not knowing how much longer he’d have a second set of hands, he got a start on next year’s woodpile. With Dale’s strength added to his own, they could drag or carry a stripped trunk back to the cabin, rather than Robin having to saw it into liftable lengths on the path. Knowing that he would be able to do more work that winter in the clearing with an open line of sight, rather than in the woods, was immensely comforting.

A squirrel chattered from a bare maple, swishing its tail at them in warning.

“Them’s good eatin’,” Dale said.

Robin, ahead on the path, turned to look at him. “I beg your pardon?”

He looked sheepish. “Squirrels. You can eat them. In stew and things.”

“Okay, one, you know what loud noises do to plague victims. I haven’t seen any for two months now and I’d like to continue the streak. Two, I don’t have ammo to waste. Three, if I shot that at this range, there wouldn’t be enough of it left for one meatball. Four, squirrels are basically cute rats with furry tails, so no thanks. Five, I’m vegan, and as long as you’re here, you are too.”

Dale laughed. Robin waited.

“Oh. Uh….” He watched Dale think back over all the meals he’d served. “I didn’t know that was on purpose.”

“Afraid so.”

Dale’s eyes fell on the rifle strap that crossed Robin’s chest. “So you’re a vegan, but–”

“Yeah, I believe we already had the conversation about irony.”

By the time they had felled and limbed another tree, clouds had moved in and the wind was rising. Last one of the day, Robin thought.

They dragged it to the clearing and dropped it beside the others. Dale stretched, axe propped between his feet. “I’m going to sleep well toni–”

Robin had time to see the shapes on the lane, time for adrenaline to rocket into his system, before the walkers were on them.

Time didn’t slow down for Robin in a fight. His mind didn’t become clear. Panic churned on and on in his gut while his arms swung and his legs placed him where he needed to be. The older one was in the lead, and he took it out by stepping back and meeting its charge with a swing of his machete. His blade caught, and the walker essentially finished its own beheading itself, struggling forward with furious momentum until its spinal cord severed and its body collapsed into black ichor and bones.

Dale had sunk his hatchet into the younger one’s chest and was now holding it at bay the length of the handle. His teeth were clenched, his breath frantic.

Robin sliced the walker’s neck from the side. The blow wasn’t clean, and it took Dale wrenching the hatchet free and hacking from the opposite side to take the walker down.

Robin braced himself for another rush, turning around and around, eyes on the lane the garden the house, the lane the garden the house, until he realized that the two had been all that were coming. He was trembling so badly that by the time he came fully back to his body, he was staggering. Dale had lurched a few steps away from the carnage and was being comprehensively sick.

“Dale,” Robin said, “you bit?” No answer. “Dale. Answer me. Did you get bitten?”

“No.” Dale straightened up, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his sweater.

“Show me.”

Dale pushed up his sleeves, bared his untouched neck. His clothes were spattered with rot and blood, one leg of his jeans sopping with gore from the knee down.

Robin wiped his blade clean with grass, again with leaves, and a third time with more leaves. Dale imitated him, stopping to be sick one more time. There was nothing left in his stomach but bile.

“Right. Let’s get inside.”

He always left his biggest pot full of water on the back of the stove to warm. He had rigged up a private bathing space by forming an alcove between one wall and the row of his bookshelves, and hanging a large towel over the opening for privacy. There was a plastic basin on the floor large enough to squat down into, not as good as a bathtub or shower but better than just a damp washcloth. He made Dale strip and scrub, top to bottom. Then he filled the basin a second time and told him to do it again. After Dale had shivered his way upstairs wrapped in a towel, his pale skin flushed with friction, Robin heated more water and scoured himself down the same way. His shoulder joints were aching, and something in his back complained when he turned his head. He dreaded what he’d feel like tomorrow.

While he was washing, a blizzard of thumps came from above him. Someone repeatedly punching a mattress laid on the floor, maybe.

He built as big a fire as the stove could hold, and warmed up yesterday’s soup for dinner. Dale came back downstairs, dressed in possibly every remaining piece of clothing he owned, and practically wrapped himself around the stove. He declined the offer of soup.

“It’ll warm you up,” Robin said.

Dale shook his head. “Coffee?”

“Bad idea. Mint tea? It’ll settle your stomach.” The mint was from the garden, dried in bouquets from the rafters last winter. Dale made a face, but Robin brewed up a pot of the tea and put a mug of it in front of him. He curled his hands around it and eventually drank a little.

Robin ate a bowl of the soup and some crackers he’d made that morning. He was used to fueling his body even when he didn’t much care to. He felt sore and clumsy and exhausted, and, now that they were barricaded safe and warm in the tiny haven he’d built for himself, oddly detached from everything. He watched his hand on the soup spoon as though it were entirely unrelated to him.

Dale didn’t sit still for long. He got up, wandered over to peruse the bookcase, carried some kindling from the corner pile to the woodbox, fiddled with the teapot on the counter, brought a book back to the table and flipped through it, only to get up again five minutes later.

So he’s a pacer. Let him work through it.

Robin opened the mystery novel he’d been reading in the evenings. The words dissolved as soon as he read them. After attempting to get through the same page three times, he gave up. He got out his ragged deck of cards and laid out a game of solitaire, which he immediately lost. Halfway through shuffling the cards for a second round, he realized that what he really wanted to do was to go upstairs, pull the covers over his head, and cease to even try to think.

He glanced at the only clock he had that still worked, a dented Big Ben wind-up that had come with the cabin. Seven-thirty.

Dale landed back, with a bit of force, in the chair opposite him.

“Okay, I’m just going to say something,” Dale said, “and if you don’t like it, we can pretend I never said it, you can just say no and we’ll talk about something else, all right?”

Distantly grateful for the distraction, Robin propped up his chin in his hand. “Go ahead.”

Dale took in a breath. “I think both of us would really, really benefit from getting laid right now.”

Robin dropped his hand. He opened his mouth. Closed it again.

“Okay, so, never mind. Uh, um, I’m going to get some more tea, and uh, we could play, uh, not poker I guess–”

“Wait–”

“No, it’s okay, I–” Dale jumped up, banging his knee on the table leg. “Ow. Shit. Goddammit.”

“You’re probably right,” Robin said, a little light-headed.

Bent over to rub his knee, Dale flicked a glance at him.

“You just took me by surprise. Uh…” Robin looked down at the deck of cards, suddenly embarrassed by how little he needed to think about this. This wasn’t the sort of thing he did, and he couldn’t blame that on the plague. He’d been a slow starter anyway, and then there’d been the very bad thing, and the side effects of citalopram, and the really unattractive never leaving the apartment or showering, and even after the worst was over he’d never really found his stride again. And boys who looked like Dale had never made passes at boys who looked like Robin, and god, it had been a long time–

“Yeah. Yes. Sure.”

Dale straightened and breathed out. “Okay, good.”

Robin insisted on doing the evening lockup first, fastening the shutters, banking the fire in the stove. Dale helped, by now so used to the routine that he didn’t need instruction. When they happened to come close to one another, Robin’s skin tingled, as if an electrical charge had been set up between them.

Upstairs, with the loft door bolted down, Robin set the wind-up lantern on the floor near his mattress, and swallowed.

Dale put his arms around him and kissed him.

It was a polite kiss, and he followed it up with another that got warmer as it went on, though not pushy, not insistent, more exploratory than anything else. Robin tilted his head and tried to remember how this went. He was so used to thinking of Dale as much younger that he was surprised to find that he was only barely taller than Dale was. Which was ridiculous: Dale was a young man, but he was years past any adolescent growth spurt.

Dale moved his hands to Robin’s arms, and lowered his mouth. “You okay with this?”

Robin nodded. “I should probably let you know that it’s been a long time since I’ve done this.”

“Yeah, me too. I’ve been here, what, over two months…?”

Robin’s mouth quirked. “I mean, as in, long enough that I might have forgotten how.”

“Oh. How–never mind. So, take it slow?”

“Please.”

Dale stepped closer and kissed Robin again. As good as his word, this time he was slower, letting Robin get used to the texture of his lips before he gently opened them, the taste of his mouth before he touched Robin’s tongue with his own. Robin finally sighed, relaxing.

“That okay?” Dale murmured when he pulled back.

“Yeah, good, really nice.”

“Okay, I’m going to be raising the bar from nice…”

Dale’s hand slid up under Robin’s sweater, rubbing the small of his back. They kissed again, and it was just as slow but somehow more intimate this time. Their hips pressed together. Dale made a soft sound. Robin worked his hand under Dale’s sweater, his hooded sweatshirt, his flannel shirt. He found the hem of his T-shirt tucked into his jeans, tugged it up, and set his fingers against the knobs of Dale’s spine.

Dale yelped and jerked back.

Robin let go of him immediately. “What? Are you hurt? You didn’t tell me. Dammit, Dale, let me see!”

Dale was laughing. “Shit, I’m sorry, no, it’s okay, I’m sorry–”

Robin felt a surge of confusion. “What happened?”

“Sorry,” Dale said, “I’m sorry, it’s just that your hands are freezing.”

“…Oh.”

Dale pulled him close again, still grinning. “It’s okay.” He kissed Robin’s lips, the line of his jaw. “We’re both on edge,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing this, right?”

On edge, and a bit overwhelmed. Robin cleared his throat. “Might be more comfortable if we lie down.”

“Sure.”

They lay down side by side on Robin’s duvet, facing one another. It was still good, but at first more awkward than standing, harder to shift closer to one another, inconvenient to lie on one arm. Dale must have thought so too, because after about a minute he gently pushed Robin onto his back. Robin reached up to clasp his arms around Dale’s shoulders and felt something deep in himself loosen. It came as an astonishing relief to trust someone else to take the lead, to take care of him, even just for this small pocket of time. He felt grounded, held secure between the mattress and Dale’s body.

Dale raised his hips and nudged a knee between Robin’s thighs. A white-hot jolt went through Robin. His hips jerked up. He grunted, sounding coarse to his own ears, but Dale inhaled sharply and rolled his hips against Robin’s leg.

His kisses got abruptly less polite. He held himself up on one elbow, his free hand stroking over Robin’s back, his side, his hip, his thigh. He still hadn’t touched skin. Robin could feel his arousal in the pressure of his mouth, the tension in his shoulders, his hardness as he pressed against Robin’s body.

After a while Dale swallowed. “If it’s not going too fast,” he said, “can we get undressed and under the covers?”

Robin was still a little behind him, his own arousal there but not quite so urgent, but he nodded. “Sure. But let’s do it quickly. It’s a little chilly for a striptease.”

Dale laughed breathily and sat up. Robin pulled off his own clothes, down to his almost-new Jockey boxer briefs, which he wasn’t quite ready to discard yet. When Dale stood up to get out of his pants, Robin plumped the duvet with a few quick shakes and crawled underneath it.

Dale followed, swearing as his naked body hit the cold sheets.

“I’ve got the solution to that,” Robin said.

It was both bizarre and exciting to feel another person’s skin against his. He’d forgotten how warm it was to have someone else in bed with him. He was strangely aware of his own body, not just his sex but his elbows and collarbone, ankles and thighs, this machine that he lived in unexpectedly transformed into sensitive flesh.

Dale rolled on top of him again, but this time he pressed both knees between Robin’s and edged Robin’s legs apart. He wasn’t quick about it. A hot shiver licked through Robin’s body. Dale settled against him, their groins together, his rigid arms holding up most of his weight. He looked down between them and slowly, slowly rocked his hips forward.

A flare of pleasure stabbed through Robin. He jerked his head back into the pillow and heard himself moan.

God,” Dale breathed above him. His hand fumbled down Robin’s side and met the elastic of his underwear. “Please can I take these off, I want to feel all of you.”

“Yeah,” Robin said. He’d have to sometime and it wasn’t worth caring any more. Let Dale see him, let Dale ask.

Dale slid his fingers and then his whole hand under the edge of Robin’s briefs, palmed the bony protuberance of his hip, smoothed his hand down the outside of his thigh, taking the briefs with it. He lifted himself to let Robin kick them off, and immediately came back to where he’d been. Robin arched against him.

Dale rotated his hips. Their erections, pressed between their bodies, rubbed together. Dale panted. “God, I want–is this okay?” He shoved against Robin, grinding down. “Fuck, I want to do it to you just like this–”

“Go on, do it,” Robin said.

Dale found his rhythm quickly. He thrust hard and rough, and for Robin, the sensation soon went from pleasure to overstimulation to discomfort. He knew that Dale wasn’t going to last long, though, so he gritted his teeth and dug his fingers into Dale’s shoulders.

Dale groaned and went over the edge. He kept moving for several more seconds, the friction between them slick now, before he bent his trembling arms and let his weight settle onto Robin.

“Mmmph–give me a sec–”

“Take your time,” Robin said. He stroked the ragged fringe of hair at the back of Dale’s neck. “I can wait.”

Dale’s breathing and heartbeat gradually slowed. Then he took a deep breath and pushed himself up. He stuck a hand out the side of the blankets, letting in a puff of chill, and grabbed his T-shirt, which he used to clean them both up.

Having tossed the T-shirt on the floor again, he pressed a kiss to Robin’s shoulder. “What do you like?” he asked. “Mouth? Hands? More of what we were doing?”

Robin’s arousal had faded; it was going to take him some time to warm up again. “How about more of this,” he said, wrapping a hand around the back of Dale’s neck and leaning over for a kiss.

Dale smiled. He pulled Robin hard against him, and his wiry strength and his firm hand on the small of Robin’s back made a thrill go through Robin. Maybe it wouldn’t take as long as he feared.

Dale kissed him, soft and then deep. He rolled Robin onto his back, but instead of lying on top of him again he braced his arm on Robin’s other side and leaned over him to reach his mouth. After a few minutes of that, he moved to the underside of Robin’s jaw, kissed down his throat, licked the hollow between his collarbones. Robin let out a breathy sigh. Dale trailed his tongue up the side of Robin’s neck, sucked at the sensitive soft spot just below his earlobe. Robin made a sound in the back of his throat.

Dale set his mouth against Robin’s ear. “I’m just going to keep going,” he whispered. His words buzzed against the curve of Robin’s ear, sending a shiver through him. “Tell me if there’s anything you want.”

Robin swallowed. “All right.”

Dale ducked under the covers and took his time, mouth and hands gradually moving down Robin’s body. Robin twitched and gasped under him, ticklish and sensitive and increasingly aroused.

Then, before he was ready for it, Dale put his hand on the puckered starfish of scar tissue emblazoned on the right side of Robin’s belly and hip. He must have been able to feel it, because his hand stopped moving. Robin tensed.

“Scar?” Dale asked.

“Old scar,” Robin said. He tried to make his voice matter-of-fact, but it came out flat. “A bad thing happened. Long time ago.”

“You don’t have to tell me. Moving on,” Dale said, his arm warm against the inside of Robin’s thigh.

Then his hand wrapped around Robin’s sex. His lips touched Robin, and his tongue. Robin clenched his hands into the sheets. Wet heat enveloped him. His hips tried to thrust up of their own accord, but Dale’s arms held him down. Robin made a broken noise.

Time stretched, Dale’s knowing mouth taking him from too much to need more and back again, pinning him down in wordless need. And then it reached the point of honestly too much, and he was coming fast and hard, the physical release so intense that for a few moments it paradoxically obliterated his sense of having a body at all.

When he was able to focus his eyes again it was like waking from a long and complicated dream. He was vaguely surprised to see the familiar lantern-lit roof beams above him.

A draft of cold air hit his skin as Dale retrieved his T-shirt and cleaned him up–cleaned them both up, because it appeared that Dale had found that as satisfying as Robin had. Then Dale flopped down on his back beside Robin and let out a long sigh. “This was a good idea,” he said smugly.

“No argument here.” Robin pulled the duvet up to his chin. He could feel sleep sucking him down already. “How did you know?”

“Know?”

“That I might say yes. And not punch you or throw you out the door.”

He felt the sheet move as Dale shrugged. “I didn’t, really. But when you found out I had a boyfriend, you didn’t look like you cared one way or the other. And you have a couple of volumes of Men on Men on your bookshelf, so you must be at least curious. Also, we’ve been shut up together for weeks, we get along okay, and neither of us has seen a woman since, like, August, so I figured even if you weren’t all that into men, I had a good shot at some situational homosexuality, if nothing else.”

Laughter bubbled up in Robin. Well, he is one of Jay’s golden boys, he thought with affection, and fell asleep smiling.

~*~

Robin heard the cart as it rattled down the lane, horses’ hooves striking hollowly against the frozen November ground. From where he was standing, he could see straight through the window to where the unfamiliar carriage stopped, illuminated by a slant of western sunlight that had not yet fallen below the treetops.

“Get your coat,” he said.

Dale, grating potatoes in the kitchen alcove, said something, but Robin’s attention was fixed on the carriage. A door was opening. Two figures jumped to the ground. Armed, not even concealing it. They looked towards the house.

No signal.

Get it,” Robin said harshly. “Hat? Gloves? What did I tell you? You may not be coming back anytime soon.”

Dale quickly shrugged into the old woolen coat that Robin had told him was his. He’d come in the summer; he’d brought no winter clothes. Robin slammed the dampers on the stove shut. He put an arm through one sleeve of his own coat and grabbed the rifle from its brackets on the ladder with the other hand.

Dale fumbled with buttons, wide eyes on the front window.

Robin smacked him on the shoulder to get his attention. “Lift the bolt.” He nodded towards the back door. As Dale did so, Robin got into the rest of his coat and got the strap of his ammo pouch over his neck.

“Quietly. And don’t forget your blade,” he reminded Dale, and opened the door.

When they were out he closed it noiselessly and latched it behind him, more out of habit than anything. Dale had stopped where the path veered past the outhouse, waiting for him.

Go,” Robin whispered fiercely.

He heard knocking behind him on the front door, echoing in the late afternoon still. Maybe that was enough to mask the sounds of their feet breaking the ice crust on yesterday’s snow. It didn’t matter; where they’d gone would be clear enough. Speed was the only hope Dale had.

Here in the woods it was already twilight, partly why Robin had chosen the white birches as the turning point. Dale veered right where he was supposed to, and kept going. He avoided the ice-slicked stones over the creek by long-jumping over the water and scrambling up the bank on all fours. Robin, not quite so limber, got a bootful of icy water that shot him forward like a booster of adrenaline.

Dale, the idiot, was waiting for him just past the rockface.

“Take the right path,” Robin panted at him. “Get the canoe in the water. Count three minutes from the time you start running. If I’m not there by the end of it, go.”

Dale’s breath silvered the air in front of him. “But–”

“If you hear me shout, forget the counting and get as far out on the water as you can.”

“But you–”

“It’s not a fucking game, this is what Jay pays me for, just go.”

He couldn’t see Dale’s expression in the gloom, but he turned from it anyway, turned back to the path, took the safety off the rifle as he settled his shoulder against the weather-softened face of the granite.

“See you soon,” Dale breathed, and pelted towards the lake.

He could hear them now, the snap of branches and the crunch of snow. His shirt stuck to the small of his back and he was damp under the arms, but his stomach was an icy knot that no exertion could thaw. He raised the rifle.

Ghost movement tickled the corner of his vision. Maybe it was just spots before his eyes; he was breathing hard. Maybe he’d be lucky and whoever it was had watched too much TV in the before time. And oh yes, there was the first one, picking his way down to the creek, flashlight in a photogenic overhand grip, handy as a target graphic on a video game. Three in all. Twigs snapped under their city-clumsy shoes like firecrackers going off.

“Stop where you are,” he said, pitching his voice to carry. “Come any closer and I will shoot.”

To his utter astonishment, they obeyed him.

Robin’s brain groped for his next line. “Turn around and go back,” he said.

“That’s the plan,” said a heart-stoppingly familiar voice up on the path. “But I was kind of hoping you’d come too.”

~*~

“Huh. Since when is there a signal?” asked Jay.

“Since Sarah Gutterson got bit on her rounds last year and tried to eat me.” Robin folded his arms and hoped it wasn’t too obvious that his hands were still shaking.

Jay shook his head. “Rob, I am so sorry. If I’d known–”

“Negi didn’t tell you?”

“We didn’t talk to him. We left the rest of the convoy behind at DeHavilland’s depot and kept going.” One of Jay’s fearsomely armed entourage, who all stood around the suddenly too-small room looking out the windows, made a soft sound, not quite clearing her throat. “Demonstrating that we do indeed need a procedure. Margaret is right, as usual.”

“Could have been worse,” Margaret said mildly.

“Aways true.” It had the rhythm of a well-worn exchange. Jay took a sip of his coffee. “Dale, how have you been?”

“Good,” Dale said. “I mean…I’ve never lived in the country before, and Robin’s taught me a lot.” His voice was a little self-conscious. Like a TA trying to be casual chatting with the university president at a Christmas party, Robin thought. “But I’m looking forward to getting back to work.”

Work? wondered Robin.

“That’s why I’m here. We finally heard back from Ottawa. Dr. Véron sent about a twenty-page letter which of course none of us understood a word of, but apparently she thinks it’s doable. And is extremely impressed, I might add.”

Dale had lit up as though someone had plugged him in. “Do you have it with you?”

“It’s with the luggage in one of the other carriages. If you come back to the depot with us tonight we can dig it out.”

“Yeah, absolutely!”

Robin said, “I thought you were a student.”

“I was. I am.”

“If by ‘student’ you mean the most brilliant biotech Ph.D. candidate in a few decades,” Jay said. Dale turned a pleased pink, and shifted in his chair.

“…That’s why someone’s looking for you,” Robin said. “Not because you might be immune.”

“Thanks to Dale,” Jay said, “someday we might all be immune.”

“You have a vaccine?”

Dale shook his head quickly. “Not a vaccine. Not yet. Probably more like a nutritional therapy that renders potential hosts inhospitable to the virus. The way the virus was originally construc–”

Robin would have taken that for a metaphor and thought nothing more about it, if Dale had not broken off abruptly and shot a panicked look at Jay.

Jay said softly into the silence. “That’s not common knowledge, by the way.”

“Oh, god, I’m really sorry–”

Jay shook his head in Dale’s direction. “It’s all right. I was going to tell Rob anyway. Just don’t let your professional enthusiasm get the better of you from now on, all right?”

Dale nodded soberly.

“Rob, please don’t mention it to anyone not currently in this room.”

The wall he’d been leaning against was no longer support enough. Robin slid slowly down onto one of the four chairs that surrounded the table. “Right. I see other human beings once every three months. Who am I going to tell?”

“That’s another thing I wanted to talk to you about.” Jay drained his mug. “Dale, why don’t you get your things?”

While Dale was upstairs, Jay went to have a quiet word with Margaret at the door. Robin sat with his cold hands around his cooling tea mug, and his mind veering between overload and blankness.

Dale came back down with his duffle bag. He reached for Robin’s old coat, and then put it back on its hook.

“No, take it,” Robin said. “It’s a spare. You’ll need it.”

“Are you sure?”

“And the hat, and the rest of it. What have I been telling you? Dress for the weather.”

Dale obediently looped the plaid scarf around his neck, and pulled on the coat. He came over to Robin, and held out his hand. “Thanks,” he said. “Not just for the coat.”

“No problem. Sounds like you have a lot of good ideas,” Robin said.

Dale snickered. Robin stood and shook his hand. He hated this part–the leaving, the change, even with guests he’d liked a lot less than Dale. “Take care of yourself,” he said.

“You, too.”

Jay came back over to them. “I’m going to have to ask you to wait in the carriage. I need to have a word with Robin.”

Dale nodded, and went. As he neared the door, he veered towards the umbrella stand; his hand twitched. He stopped and looked back at Robin.

Robin grinned and shook his head. “Can’t give you that,” he said. “Get Jay to find you a good sturdy hatchet of your very own. Also, good job.”

Dale laughed a little, and went.

Jay’s people all filed out with Dale. Jay closed the door behind them and lifted the two-by-four into its place. It was the sort of detail he never forgot.

He turned back to Robin.

“How are–”

“Are you–”

They stopped at the same time, and looked at each other.

“You look tired,” Robin said.

Jay came back to the table. Robin looked down on a head that had more grey in it than it should have had. He always forgot, between times, how short Jay was.

“Forty,” Jay said, “is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Also, the end of the world has proven to be less entertaining than advertised.”

Jay sat. He revolved his empty mug between his hands. Robin sat down too.

“I’m sorry, Rob,” Jay said, “but you can’t keep doing this. It’s gotten too dangerous.”

“Yeah, I know,” Robin said.

He’d known from the moment he’d seen the weapons Jay’s people were carrying. Walking back up the path in their midst in the gloom, listening to the soft commands they exchanged and the silence with which they walked, he’d realized that their flashlights and their noise had been staged. They’d made themselves look clumsy, civilian, less threatening, to give Jay a chance to talk to him. If they’d wanted him and Dale dead, they’d be dead.

If they had the kind of firepower they’d been carrying, the people he was hiding Dale from had it too.

Jay rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Rob. The plague didn’t just happen. Someone did this.”

“I gathered.”

“God, Rob. You have no idea. These people, they’re just–they didn’t even think of themselves as human.” He let his hands fall to the table, and blew out breath. “You don’t want to know the details. But you might have to. I need an interpreter. Will you come with me?”

Robin had guessed this was coming too, but it was still abrupt enough to shake him. “I, uh…Now? Where?”

“To Ottawa first, to drop Dale off and meet some people I’ve been corresponding with there. Then east. A lot of the surviving Québecois communities don’t or won’t speak English. I need their help, and I need to show them I can respect them by speaking their language.”

Robin shook his head. “Half of Ottawa could interpret for you. Or half of what’s left, anyway.”

“I need someone I can trust.” Jay looked pained. “Because apparently I can only talk in clichés.”

Robin wrapped his arms around himself. He was close enough to the stove that he could feel the radiant heat on the side of his neck, but he still felt chilled. “You’re going to war.”

“What?” Jay looked startled. “No. It’s not that kind of fight.”

“Your people are carrying some pretty serious weapons.”

“I’m not saying there haven’t been shots fired.” Jay’s lips thinned. “Some people look at cooperation and see a power vacuum. But no. If anything…I’m going to peace.

“The people who did this, Rob–they wanted us all dead. Even themselves. All of humanity gone. And if their Plan A didn’t work, they wanted exactly what’s happening now. Gangs, turf wars–god, as if there isn’t enough space for us all now–battles over resources, everyone’s fears turning them against each other. So that the survivors would kill each other or die out alone.

“I’m not going to let that happen.”

It wasn’t a ringing call to arms. Just a level pronouncement. I’m going to save the world.

“By…talking to people in Québec?”

“Yes,” Jay said. “Québec and as far as I have to go. Letting everyone know about everyone else who survived. Letting them know about how this happened, and that we’re working on a treatment. Helping people share knowledge–farming, setting up water-powered mills, purifying water. Supplies, too, like seeds and breeding stock. We don’t have to finish the job a handful of genocidal maniacs started. We don’t have to lose more than we have already.”

Rob untangled his arms. He was getting warmed up again, somehow. “When Dale said they called you the Chief…”

Jay shrugged. “The only real power I have is trust. I make connections between people, just like I always have. Only now I can’t do it from in front of a computer.”

“Well,” Robin said, “if there’s one person left on the planet who can talk human beings into not being dumbasses, it’s probably you.”

Jay laughed ruefully. “My life’s work in twenty-five words or less.” He pushed his empty mug away. “They’re probably getting chilly out there.” He stood up. Robin followed suit.

“I meant it when I asked you to come with me,” Jay said. “I think you’d be safer. And I do need an interpreter. And I’d like having you there. And it doesn’t mean you have to be gone from this place forever. But it’s your choice. Will you think about it?”

Robin nodded.

“I have some business at the depot. We’ll be passing this way again on our way out the day after tomorrow.”

“Okay, I’ll see you then.”

Jay reached out and squeezed Robin’s arm. “It’s good to see you.”

“You too.”

He let Jay out, and watched through the window until the carriage and all its passengers were safely onto the road. Then he did his evening lockup, washed the dirty mugs, banked the fire. The silence pressed against his ears.

He thought briefly about making another pot of tea, maybe fortifying it with a slug of something numbing from a bottle in the root cellar, staying up late staring into the embers of the fire. It seemed traditional. But why bother, when the outcome was foregone? He went to bed instead.

He and Jay had been assigned as roommates in their first year of university. There was Robin, older than everyone because he’d worked for a year and a half after aging out of foster care, still wearing the cheap clothes he’d had bought for him in high school. And there was Jay, smart and sharp and dripping with privilege, a double poli sci/economics major who took his electives in languages and philosophy. Maybe odds were in favour of Robin’s hating him–some people did, because it was impossible not to feel something for Jay, one way or the other–but that wasn’t the way it had worked out. Robin, majoring in French with Mandarin on the side, had helped Jay with his French assignments, and Jay had basically taught Robin how to interact with other human beings for purposes other than translating–not that all the lessons had stuck–and in some odd-couple way, Jay the only child and Robin, who had no family at all, had gotten so used to each other that they’d stuck together until graduation.

And then, a few years later, after the very bad thing had happened, after Robin had gotten hurt and Samuel had gotten killed, when Robin was drowning in the morass of pain and grief and guilt and fear, Jay was the one person who had Robin’s spare key, who had folded him into a taxi twice a week to take him to therapy, made sure there was food in the apartment, and shepherded him, with delicacy and expert care, through the mazes of police and press. And as Robin slowly emerged again, he’d sent work Robin’s way, and Robin had tracked his brilliant path as he blazed through the world like a comet with a tail of NGO press releases and black tie fundraisers and book launches and rumours, never fulfilled, of runs for office.

Therapy had a way of laying you bare to your foundations, and Robin had come out of it with a bedrock of self-knowledge that had healed wounds he’d gotten long before an over-excited, half-ripped seventeen-year-old had waved a sawed-off shotgun in his direction and stroked too hard on the trigger. He was stronger and more independent for it, and afterwards he’d managed to hammer a life together for himself with his own two hands. But no amount of therapy would ever change the fact that he was Jay’s.

~*~

Two mornings later, Robin locked the front door of his cabin with a key for the first time in more than two years. He put the cord around his neck and let the key fall under his shirt, cold against his heart, slowly warming.

Jay gave him a minute to himself. Robin filed the picture of the cabin in his mind, and turned to step up into the traveling time warp of the horse-drawn carriage.

“Hey,” said Dale, slouched into one of the double seats, his golden hair an uncombed halo.

“Hey.” Robin held the hatchet out to him. “Present for you.”

Dale’s face brightened. “Really? Awesome. I was kind of missing it.”

Robin slid into the seat opposite the aisle from him. He put his small bag of clothing on the floor, and propped his favorite machete between it and the wall.

Jay, in the front seat, turned sideways so he could see the rest of the carriage. “All set?”

One of his people tested the bolted door. “Good to go.”

Jay knocked on the front window of the carriage, where the driver could hear him. The carriage lurched as the horses took their first steps.

Robin had a bad moment as the carriage rounded the corner of the laneway and entered the road. Dale leaned across the aisle and nudged his elbow. “Okay?” he asked softly.

“Yeah.” Robin nodded. “Just … kind of like ripping a band-aid off.”

“Worst is over,” Dale said.

Robin took a deep breath and let it out. “I hope so.”

He put the edge of his hand against the window beside him and slid it open. Chill air swirled in, cooling his flushed face. Robin watched the field they were passing. Saplings rose above the husks of self-sown mustard and milkweed. He took another breath, and smelled the earth under the snow.

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