Awakening Hearts

 

Chapter One

A young man, about twenty, wearing a blue hooded top and jeans, ran through the ruins of a ravaged city. The militiamen, his pursuers, were slowly gaining on him, but he forced down the fear by imagining it was a race, a marathon like people would run in the Old Times, for fun or for prizes. Except this time, he had to win. Win or die.

He jumped as a bridge of the Junkyard, fashioned from broken metal that was supposed to have been melted down for the war effort, collapsed beneath him and he landed safely on the other side. The militiamen still followed, shooting at him when he came within range and he ducked into a tunnel, what was once an old concrete tube, possibly once used for sewage. There were holes in it where it had been damaged, and the young man hoped that a stray bullet wouldn’t catch him when he had to pass through those areas of the tube. His feet, clad in trainers he had found somewhere, clacked on the metal work beneath him and he caught himself as he stumbled on a loose metal plate. He darted forward, the illusion fading as adrenaline and fear took over. It wasn’t a marathon, wasn’t a race. It was an escape.

He had foolishly been caught while trying to steal some of the canned food the militiamen kept. They didn’t care if the people ate or not, and so the only way for the people to stay alive was to steal anything they could. Society had collapsed and all methods of producing food gone, unless one could get small vegetables to grow in the fetid soil. Now it was just fighting between two sides the young man was not sure he could identify any more. Neither side seemed to be fighting for the freedom of the city or country; they were just fighting, shedding as much blood from the other as they could. Sometimes they would take the children to fight for them, and the young man had been lucky, he had managed to escape every time they came for him.

A stitch in his side burned and despair set in, there would be no way he would escape this time. He would die here, or be taken away to fight and die for this unknown cause. Worse, he might be taken to one of the labour camps where people went in and never came out. The young man didn’t need his imagination to tell him what was going on in there. He had a good idea, and the terrible thoughts kept him up at night until he found some gentle daydream to ease his thoughts into sleep.

He emerged from the tube and jumped down; the Junkyard seemed to be coming to and end. There were rolls of carpet lined up against a wall which was the mockery of a shopping street, devoid of all people, the wares and windows dusty and broken, junk piled all along the brick road which was pitted and damaged from missiles. The stitch burned in his side but he kept running, fighting the pain best he could, imagining himself going through the pain, to that place on the other side, to warmth, love and kindness. Such things felt long distant to him, and he longed to stop running and embrace them, embrace death like so many other members of the city had done. He slowed as the pain seared, and the militiamen hurried forward, emerging from being tiny dots to being larger ones. The young man gasped in air, but he was exhausted and found he couldn’t start running again, because every muscle in his body ached and seared in agony. Shots began to rain on the pavement and the young man darted into shelter in one of the doorways.

The door opened, and hands grabbed him from behind, covering his mouth. “Shhh,” a voice said, and let go, hoping he wouldn’t scream. The young man’s rescuer, a dark shadow in the fading light, picked him up with strong arms. The young man thought they would leave through the back door, which was wide open, but he was instead taken up a flight of broken wooden stairs that looked impassable to most. His rescuer darted up the broken steps, landing on the ones that were firm and taking them up to the next level of the building. Once up they went to a room and his rescuer let him down, putting a finger across his mouth. The young man could see his rescuer was a middle-aged man, about forty, reasonably well dressed in a long sleeved t-shirt with a high neck and dark trousers. He had shoulder-length ginger hair that was slightly greying, and also sported a mustache, but no beard.

The middle-aged man went to a fireplace and reached up into the chimney, pulling some kind of lever and the fireplace swung back to reveal another set of stairs leading upwards. He gestured for the young man to come and they piled into the stairwell, the middle-aged man pulling another lever that made the fireplace swing back. They hurried up the stairs into a tiny room with no windows, but small cracks in the wall that let in the fading sunlight.

“Who are–“ the young man began, but was silenced by another quiet “Shhh!” and decided to heed the warning. The soldiers would both leave by the back door and come looking upstairs, the young man was sure of it. He was both grateful to and scared of his rescuer; while the man looked kindly, nobody could be trusted and he could just as easily have been a rival militiaman recruiter or simply a man who wanted ‘favors’ as payment for rescue. The young man brought his knees up against him and shivered, the adrenaline still burning in his system, making him feel cold and hot at the same time.

A while later, he heard the militiamen scuttling down by the fireplace, searching for them and fear rose in his stomach. He let his mind drift away to a far place and leave the world behind for a while. He was a flower, swaying in the wind, a butterfly fluttering on the breeze. He could run through the fields and laugh and fall in the long grass, and nobody would find or hurt him.

He didn’t know how long he was there, only that some time had passed before the middle-aged man sitting with him shook him gently.

“You sleep with your eyes open?” he asked kindly, and the young man shook his head.

“Just thinking,” he replied in a whisper, “What now?”

“The militiamen have gone. I already went down to check. We have to be careful in case they’ve posted a guard, but I think it’s unlikely unless you’ve killed one of them. They looked like they were out for sport. What did you do to antagonize them?” the man asked.

“I stole food…” he said, “I was desperate. Some kids said they knew a place to stay, but they would only tell me if I brought food. It was my last hope. If I keep sleeping on the streets the militiamen will pick me up for their army, and all the buildings are either destroyed, controlled by the gangs or being used by the militiamen.”

“I know a place you can stay,” the middle-aged man said, “It’s an small, old apartment block, very grim. The apartment next door to me is empty; its occupant was taken away to the camp. You can stay there if you want, we generally get left alone as long as we bring in food now and then to feed the others.”

“At what price?” the young man said, although he couldn’t help but feel his spirits lifting, despite the fact he knew it had to be too good to be true. Nobody gave shelter for nothing.

“No price,” the man said, “Just bring in some food now and then, steal a few cans or find a few boxes. We’re a little low on supplies.”

“Nothing else… no, favors… right?” the young man asked nervously.

The man looked at him quizzically for a moment, and then understanding dawned in his eyes and he let go of the young man’s shoulders, “No way, I’ve been through enough of that treatment myself. You can trust me to never do that.”

Relief swept through the young man, and he took the hand the older man offered to him to help him up. His legs had set from the long stillness after all the running, and they felt like jelly to stand on. He got his bearings, “Lead on then,” he said, and the older man noticed his eyes were swimming with tears.

~

“…and this is Maria,” the older man said, introducing a motherly-looking middle aged woman. She was perhaps 35 or so. The rest of the apartment’s occupants were children, orphaned by the war, who seemed to look on Maria as a mother figure.

“Did you bring any food?” she asked.

“I lost my bag… but I think I may still have something in my pockets…” he rifled through his pockets, pulling free bags of sweets he gave to Maria, who smiled at the excited looks on the children’s faces.

“I lost all the canned food… this is all I have for now,” he said, “I’ll go looking in the morning, but I’m really tired now.”

“This is fine,” she said, “We’re grateful for anything we can get. Young mouths are so hungry.” She turned to the children and started handing out sweets as the children cheered excitedly.

He turned to look at the older man, who was looking at him, “Right this way,” he said, and led the way out into a dusty area. They climbed some metal steps that led up to an open balcony, and the young man stopped and looked. They were right on the edge of the city, and he could see trees and grass, pockmarked in places but still surviving. Looking further out, he saw a looming shadow in the distance, a large building that spread as far across as the eye can see.

“That’s the camp, isn’t it?” he asked, and the man nodded, “So I guess that’s why nobody wants to live here.”

“That’s about right,” the older man said, “The troops come by here a lot, out there on the main track. Sometimes they take trucks of people out there. I try not to look. I’ve never seen anybody return.” He fell silent, and the young man turned to look at him.

“My room is the one on the end, directly ahead,” the middle-aged man said, “Yours is the one next to mine.” He tossed the young man a key as they walked along the metal balcony.

“I like the view from here,” the young man said, looking out the other way from the last time, across the city instead. The fading light illuminated the ruined city, the broken skyscrapers, and the piles of scrap. “People used to work in those towers, day and night, they say. I wonder what they did in all that time?”

“Paperwork,” the middle-aged man said, “And they only worked in the day, for the most part.”

“Paperwork?” the young man asked.

“Forms with all kinds of data, people’s names, ages, addresses, that kind of thing. They used to store the data in computers. But times have changed. There’s little need to compile all that data any more. The people who you live with will know if you’re dead or alive, and that’s all that anyone needs to know.”

“Is it true they had money before the war? They didn’t trade items in the Old Times?”

“Before the war… The Old Times… You make it sound like it was so long ago, when I can remember it. Twenty years ago we had money, yes. But these are unsafe things to be talking about now. Militiamen dislike deep thinking; they fear what they don’t understand. I don’t want you getting taken away to the camp, like the last person who lived here. At least she was old. You’re still young; you’ve got your life ahead of you. It’s not worth throwing your life away thinking about the past, because we can’t go back.” The man sighed, “You should rest. It’s late.”

The young man nodded, “Before you go… what’s your name?”

“Vincent,” the middle-aged man said, “Vincent Farrell. What about you?”

“Alex,” he said, “Just Alex. Thanks for saving my life, Vincent.”

 

Chapter Two

He woke up, and in the first few seconds when his mind was still hazy from sleep, Alex thought that it had all been a dream, that he had not been rescued by a good man and that he was probably sleeping on the scrap and the cold wind would bite into him soon.

The cold wind didn’t bite and he felt warm blankets around him, and it was then that Alex realized he was safe, that it had not been a dream, that he finally had somewhere to live. He opened his eyes to see gentle white light pouring in through the dusty blind at the window. The room was sparse, just a bed, a table and a cold concrete floor, but it seemed like a palace to him.

He got up and dressed, remembering that he had promised to go out and find food. He wanted to stay on good terms with Vincent and Maria and stay in the apartment for as long as possible. He opened the metal door to his room and headed out to the balcony. Seeing that it was still early and that most people would probably still be asleep (gang members partied late and slept in late), Alex decided to go and steal some food while he could. He quietly descended the metal steps and reached the ground without seeing a single soul. He walked across the grassy area and along the road that led into the city. He couldn’t steal anything this close to home without the trail leading back, and he wouldn’t endanger the people who had taken him in.

An hour later, he was in the city again. Small fires burned where gang revelers had caused chaos in the night, and he passed these carefully, wary of ambushes or still-drunk revelers. Food was reasonably sparse, yet they still seemed to find enough alcohol to become inebriated on a regular basis.

He passed down the street where the soldiers had shot at him the previous day, and wondered what Vincent would think of him coming back here to find food. Would he be angry, or would he accept it as a necessary risk? Alex wasn’t sure which one he’d prefer. One part of him wanted somebody to care what became of him, for it had been such a long time since anybody had cared whether he lived or died, but on the other hand he wanted to be useful to Maria and the children and earn his stay at the apartments. He pressed on, into the scrap yard, hoping against hope that he might find the bag with the food he had thrown into a hole as he escaped. It was risky, coming back to such places, but all obvious ways of finding food such as looting had already been exhausted. Either you stole it from the militiamen, stole it from the gangs or prayed that some dead man on the street would have a can of beans on his person.

Alex wondered if they had a can opener at the apartments. Many a time had he come across cans with no ring pull – impossible for him to open, for only gangs and militiamen had can openers. He had gone hungry cursing the people of the old world, and usually traded the can for something else, if he couldn’t bash it open on rocks.

He saw the hole where he had stashed the bag and reached inside, feeling to his delight that it was still there. He pulled it out and looked at the cans inside – beans, tomatoes, sausages, and his mouth watered. The bag was heavy, but it would keep them going for a while, a week, maybe two if they rationed it well. He slung the bag over his shoulders by the straps and stood to leave when a shot rang out in the street. It ricoched and grazed his hand, causing him to cry out in pain and start running again. He looked over his shoulders and saw that these were gang members who had obviously gotten wind of his little hoard and had been waiting for him. They would want the food, but most of all they wanted the sport.

Alex thought he could perhaps hide the bag again, or make it to the place where he and Vincent had hidden the day before and hide out until they left. It was heavy on his shoulders and he knew he would have to find a place to hide if he wanted to survive – outrunning them was not a possibility this time.

He darted into a gap in the scrap and the still quite drunk gang men ran by. Alex wondered how they could be so stupid when he heard gunshots ring out – the militiamen had come bearing down on the gang men. Alex thanked his lucky stars, for both sides would take great losses, and the rest would go to lick their wounds, leaving him free to go.

He ducked down as a stray bullet hit a piece of metal above him and dug in, watching the fight from a small vantage point where a piece of metal didn’t quite meet another. He hoped he wouldn’t lose an eye accidentally, for the battle was wild and brutal with the drunk gang men firing automatic weapons in great wide arcs, spraying militiamen with bullets but missing as many as they hit, and forgetting to defend themselves. His hand throbbed in agony and was pouring blood, and seeing the red scared him further.

He let himself drift away, into his safe little world. He wanted it to be over, didn’t want to see the carnage laid out before him, fresh guts splattering on the scrap heap. He was the wind, blowing free. He could tousle Vincent’s hair if he was the wind – he wondered if that would annoy the man or soothe him.

Eventually the gunshots faded, and Alex came back to himself trembling slightly. The fear always gripped him when he returned from his dreams, as if to make up for his suppression of it. He waited a few minutes and watched to see the remainders of the fighters going their separate ways, leaving their dead comrades to be eaten by birds or any humans who had simply gotten that hungry, and then steadied the pack on his back and set out on the long and dangerous road home.

Home. He had a place to belong.

~

The roads were quieter than Alex had expected, and he assumed the gang fight had made everybody stay inside. The militiamen would double their patrols soon though he knew, and so pressed ahead as fast as he could go. His injured hand throbbed deeply and he knew he had lost a lot of blood, but it only encouraged him to go faster. Vincent would know a way to help him, or someone who could, he was sure of it. Perhaps Maria had medical knowledge from taking care of the little ones.

He was almost there when he heard the sound of a vehicle and darted behind a rock at the side of the road. A truck sped along with people chained in the back of it, driving at breakneck speed toward the camp. The people were jolted around like cattle; some wept as they sped past and Alex’s heart went out to them, but he knew there was nothing he could do. He had to get home, had to take the food to the only people he could help, but he felt dejected as he continued along the road. Perhaps someday, he and Vincent and Maria and maybe all the little children would be in one of those trucks, and somebody would be by the side of the road and think the same as he had just done “there’s nothing I can do.”

He sped up the last few meters and saw a figure standing on the balcony, waiting, watching. He rushed down the metal steps and took the bag from Alex.

“I thought you were on that truck,” Vincent said matter-of-factly, and said no more as Maria rushed out gaping at his injured hand in horror even as she smiled gratefully at the large bag of food.

Alex was still looking at Vincent, and the two of them said nothing.

~

“This food will last a week or two!” Maria said cheerfully as she bandaged Alex’s hand, “The bullet didn’t go in, either, you’re very lucky. Make sure to keep this clean, there’s nothing I can do for you if you get an infection.”

Eventually she let him go, but not before she had forced him to eat some of the food he had brought back with him. He ate and found he was grateful that Maria had forced him to, as he didn’t realise how hungry he was until the aroma of baked beans met his nose and his mouth salivated. They did indeed have a can opener and Alex looked at it with delight. Maria told him she would teach him how to use it when his hand was better. He ate and left the hall as the sun was setting, saying good night to all the children still dining and looking at him like a hero. He smiled wanly and climbed the steps to the balcony. He leaned over the railing outside his apartment and looked at the setting sun, a brilliant red fireball on the western horizon.

“It was a brave thing you did today,” Vincent’s voice came from behind him.

“Stupid as well. I nearly got killed,” Alex replied half-heartedly, expecting a rebuke for his actions.

“Do you really think that?” Vincent asked, “The children were happy.”

“No, no, I don’t regret going,” Alex replied, “I made a promise, and I kept it. I’ll go out again, too, when the need arises.”

“It should have been my job. That’s what I was doing yesterday, when I found you. Instead I went to my old shop and reminisced over dusty memories.” Vincent sighed.

Alex was interested, “You owned a shop?” he asked.

“I grew up there. It was my parents business; they sold household wares, buckets, mops, cleaning tools and the like. It was an old fashioned business, the kind that was being snuffed out by big corporations. The war was on, even then, but it was a distant thing, being fought elsewhere. It didn’t affect me a lot growing up. Then the war got worse. My parents were killed, and I took over the shop. That secret passage we hid in – I ran resistance meetings in there for people who wanted to stop the war. The militia found out about the place, and destroyed the whole street.” Vincent sighed.

“I thought the war went back way further than that!” Alex exclaimed, “They destroyed a whole street, just to snuff out a meeting?”

“That’s right. They put out a warrant for my arrest, but I evaded them. My friends were dead, and I found a way to evade arrest…” he trailed off.

“What did you do?” Alex asked, fascinated by the tale.

“…I joined the militia,” Vincent said, his voice breaking, “Then I… no, enough of this. Why am I here, talking about the past to you? The war’s been on your whole life, you’ve suffered more than me, you’ve…”

“No,” Alex replied, “No, I don’t think I have. My parents were killed when I was young, and somehow I got used to the constant state of war. I’ve dreamed my way through the worst. I don’t know what peace feels like. What does peace feel like, Vincent?”

“I don’t know…” he said, “I don’t think there was peace, even in my parents time. We were under the shadow of the threat of war, even if it had not yet come to our shores.” He sighed.

“Someday, I’d like to know what peace is like,” Alex mused, “I’d like to have time to sit and think about the wind, or play in the flowers, or fall in love. Not steal food from drunken gang men or get my hand shot up.”

“I don’t know if any of us know what love is, any more,” Vincent said, “There’s too many other things to think about. Falling in love might draw the attention of the militiamen – I don’t know if it’s against their law but I know they don’t want anybody to be happier than they are. Same with the gang men. No, love’s best left in the old world, and I’m not even sure if they truly had it.”

“Then, why are we here at all?” Alex wondered, but when he turned around, Vincent was gone.

 

Chapter Three

Alex was cold, even with the blankets around him. Winter was setting in, and there was no electricity, not any more, and therefore no heating or warm water. Still, even this was better than many of the places he had stayed in. Many of the squats had smelt of urine or blood. The air in the room Alex was in was fresh, probably due to the small crack under the door that let in the breeze.

Dawn finally came, and he got out of bed. Maria had left a bucket of water in the corner for him to wash in, along with a bar of soap. “Wash your injured hand first,” she had said when outlining the routine, “before you dirty up the water!” He shivered at the thought of the cold water but braced himself as he took the bandage off his hand and plunged it in. The cold numbed the pain and he was grateful for that much – the low throb had not helped him sleep either. He dried the wound well and redressed it in the bandage that was still reasonably clean before washing the rest of his body. The water made him cringe, but he felt refreshed. Washing had been a luxury in the squats. Sometimes they had collected rainwater in buckets, but a few dry days and they would smell like urine and sweat again. He went for his clothes, sniffed them and tossed them aside. Putting them back on would just defeat the object of washing in the first place. He looked over at the table and saw with gratitude that Maria had left some clothes out for him. They were too big, but Alex had always liked his clothes big and baggy, and so he didn’t mind that the cargo pants dragged the floor and the jumper was long. He picked up his old clothes and went outside.

The day was bright, but the sun’s warmth was waning as winter came upon them. He took a moment to appreciate its brightness before walking down the metal steps and going into the hall below. The aroma of food met him, and Maria smiled as she exchanged the dirty clothes for a bowl of chicken soup.

Alex looked around, “Where’s Vincent?” he asked.

“He’s gone to trade with the gang men. We’re running short on supplies like matches and candles, and there were a few cans of beer in the bag you brought back. Gang men will trade just about anything for alcohol.” Maria explained.

“Will he be safe?” Alex asked, his appetite waning as he thought of Vincent getting caught in a gun battle, “What sector did he go to?”

“Vincent can handle himself, Alex. You should eat. How are the clothes? They used to belong to Vincent, but he outgrew them. They’re a little big, but you’ll grow into them. I’ll wash the others and you can have them back. It’s useful to have extra clothes.” Maria chattered on.

“He didn’t go to Smash City, did he? Please tell me he didn’t…” Smash City was the worst area of the city, the home of the gangs, who spent their days in anarchy and chaos. They raced around old cars when they could find the fuel and smashed them, hence the name of the area. It was a dangerous place, and it was wise to stay away, but it was said the best trading was done with the gang leaders themselves, for they were a little more concerned with the basic needs of life than their members, and would offer a favorable deal not only to secure the goods they needed, but to prevent them being traded to another gang.

“Eat your breakfast, Alex. Afterwards, we have chores to do. Vincent will be back by nightfall. Try not to think about him until then.” She avoided the question but that gave Alex a good enough idea, and he ate his soup with a heavy heart. He had enjoyed talking to Vincent in the time he had spent with him, and wondered if he would be alone again soon.

The time spent doing chores went slowly. He was physically fit, one had to be in order to survive in the city, but the work was monotonous and his mind kept wandering to Vincent. How would such a well-dressed, good mannered man survive in the worst area of the city? He couldn’t pretend to be a gang-member, and some of the gangs would shoot people on sight for sport. Every time the door opened Alex would look up, only to see one of the children coming in. Morning turned to afternoon, and it started to rain. Maria finally saw Alex staring into the bucket of water as he scrubbed the same spot on the floor over and over again and announced that they’d done enough for one day.

Alex stepped out into the rain. He climbed the stairs and knocked on the door to Vincent’s room, just in case he was there, but there was no answer. He tried the door, and it opened. He tentatively stepped into the doorway, and then stepped out again when he saw Vincent wasn’t there. A part of him wanted to stay, but he knew it wasn’t his room and he had no right to be in there. He waited out on the balcony, watching the rain and the road, wishing he could know where Vincent was and what he was doing and if he was still alive.

He thought of flying, and of things far away but found for once he couldn’t quite grasp the dreams. The rain on his face was cold and the day was growing old but he still stood there, leaning on the railing, looking out at the road. Eventually night fell, and Maria climbed the steps.

“You should go to bed, Alex,” she sighed, “Vincent probably just took shelter because of the bad weather. He’ll come back tomorrow.”

“How do you know? He could be dead, and we won’t know, we might never know.” Alex leaned on the railing and reached his hands outside the partial shelter of the roof, gathering rain and splashing it on his face.

“You shouldn’t get so attached, Alex. Life in the city is dangerous, and people do die from time to time. I’m amazed you’ve survived for so long the way you are.” Maria sighed.

“I had friends to protect me after my parents died. They got what I needed, food and shelter and I dreamt a lot, dreamt that I wasn’t in the hard place the world had become. One day, the militia came and shot my friends. I hid and I daydreamed to escape the fear, while they screamed and died. I was around fifteen years old then, and I might have been able to protect them or at least die with them, but I didn’t. When it was all over I crawled out of my hiding place and ran out of the house we shared. I went to various squats for five years and slept amongst drug users who didn’t notice that my spaced-out attitude wasn’t drug-induced. They barely ate most of the time so I stole their food… I was moving on and stole some food to get into a gang, to get a place to live, and that’s when the militiamen chased me and Vincent rescued me.” Alex explained.

“We all have stories. We all meet people who do us good turns, also. You shouldn’t get too attached, though. Like your friends, you may have to give up any of us if the militia come. Throwing your life away when it will do no good helps nobody.” Maria said.

“You’re telling me you wouldn’t protect the children if the militia came?” Alex asked.

“They’re… they’re just children. They haven’t even started life yet. Vincent knows the risks of what he does and accepts that. I’m just saying you shouldn’t get too attached. He’s not your father.” Maria replied.

“I know he’s not my father!” Alex exclaimed, “He saved my life. Aren’t I allowed to care whether he lives or dies?”

“Do as you will,” Maria said, “Just don’t keep the children awake, and don’t neglect your duties. Whatever Vincent told you about this place, it’s not free. You have to earn your keep.”

“I know,” Alex said, “I’m sorry my mind wasn’t on the job, Maria. I did find food yesterday though.”

“I’m sorry,” she sighed, “I know you’ve done your best. Sometimes, it’s hard living here. I’ve seen lots of people come and go, and when they go it’s usually in the back of one of those trucks. The old lady that lived in your apartment went out for a walk one day and ended up going by in the truck. The same could happen to any of us. We only have to cross somebody’s path, or get our priorities wrong and we’ll be gone. When it happens to me, I don’t want anybody to cry about it. It’s just a part of this life.”

“That’s a miserable way of looking at it,” Alex replied, “I’d want somebody to care whether I lived or died.”

“Even if it put them in danger? A grieving person is far more likely to make mistakes when they go hunting for food or supplies. Would you let someone die, just to feel cared about?” Maria asked.

“That’s not what I meant…” Alex trailed off. He wanted someone to care, of course he did. It was natural to want to be loved, wasn’t it? Yet Vincent had said similar things, that he didn’t know what love felt like. Was Alex himself wrong in his thinking? Was love an emotion that had no purpose in the new world?

“Well, I’m going to put the kids to bed and sleep myself,” Maria said, and walked down the steps before Alex could say anything.

Soon enough, the candles below went out, and Alex was left with only the sound of the rain for company. He tried to look through the gloom but could see nothing, and he was wet, cold and miserable. Finally, he decided to go to bed, so Maria couldn’t accuse him of staying up all night to avoid his chores.

He went into his room and stripped off his wet clothes, hanging them out over an old radiator that no longer worked to dry. He curled up under his blankets but he couldn’t sleep. Every sound made him start, until he realised it was just the rain or the movement of the building. Eventually he got up and paced the room, trying to tire himself out so he would sleep. He pulled on the trousers that weren’t too wet, and went back out onto the balcony. The rain had stopped, but the water was trickling off the rooftops as though the rain was still falling. Alex shivered as he opened the door to Vincent’s room and stepped in.

There was carpet on the floor, and old, moth-eaten curtains hung at the window. The double bed was unmade but clothes were arranged neatly on a chair that sat at a desk with a single book lying open on it. The room smelled like Vincent, not an unpleasant smell, but one that made him feel sad. Vincent’s presence was in the room, but not the man himself.

Alex walked over to the desk and saw the book that lay open was a journal. A ballpoint pen lay next to it, and Alex could see pages of spidery handwriting. He could read, his parents had taught him before they died, but it had been a long time since he had done so and he was rusty, but he eventually made out the words.

I met Alex yesterday. He’s interesting, because most people I meet these days are jaded, like Maria, or have lost sight of what people used to be, like I perhaps have. He’s such a dreamer… I’m amazed he’s survived in this world for so long. He was talking about love… I’m not even sure such a thing exists any more.

Tomorrow I go to Smash City. I hope I return. It would be a shame if I never got to hear what Alex has to say. I think he could perhaps reawaken those parts of me destroyed by this world… but is that wise? I don’t know.

I guess I will just have to wait and see.

Alex smiled sadly. He had not expected to be the subject of this journal entry and he felt a little embarrassed to have read it. He was glad that Vincent liked him, wanted to listen to him, felt that he could even learn from him. A pang rose within him as he remembered where he was now, probably lying cold in the ditch somewhere between the apartments and Smash City.

He looked at the bed and suddenly felt very tired. He knew he should return to his own room, but he felt alone there, and he didn’t want to be alone. He climbed into the bed and hoped that when he woke, Vincent would be there telling him off for sleeping in his bed.

~

He felt himself being shaken, and awoke with a start to see a bemused face looking down at him.

“Vincent!” he cried, relieved, then crawled out of the bed, half naked and embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest, “I didn’t mean to sleep in your bed. I just thought… I thought you might be dead.”

The older man smiled wanly, “You shouldn’t worry like that, Alex. There are risks in this life; you should know that by now. If something happens to me or Maria or even the little ones, you have to go on living, almost as if nothing had happened. The people who remain alive depend on someone being able to get them food and supplies. If I die, that’s your job.”

“Everyone survived before I came here,” Alex pointed out.

“Maria took great risks to gather food before I came here,” Vincent said, “It’s dangerous for us in the city, but it’s extra dangerous for a woman out on her own. She tells me nothing happened to her, but how do we know? She’s just getting on with life, the way we all have to. Now… I need to rest, Alex. Drop by later if you want to chat. It was hard out there, and I’m exhausted.”

“Are you hurt?” Alex asked, but Vincent shook his head.

“You never listen, do you?” he said, but he was smiling, “Thanks for caring, Alex. I just hope it doesn’t make you suffer in the future.”

Alex smiled back and left, to dress and help with the chores. He didn’t see Vincent remove his shirt, tear off a dirty makeshift bandage, touch a deep wound in his side and come away with a bloody hand.

 

Chapter Four

Even Maria smiled at Alex’s change of attitude. He played games with the children merrily, and cleaned with a dance in his step. He felt joy at Vincent’s return, but mostly he was immensely relieved that he was not injured or dead somewhere. He cooked the dinners, and after eating his, he carried a plate up to Vincent, who was glad to see him.

“How are you feeling?” Alex asked, as he set the plate down on Vincent’s lap. Vincent winced a little and Alex shot him a concerned glance, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, just a bruised rib,” he said, pulling the blanket up a bit further, “Gangs like a little fun as part of their negotiations. It’s nothing to worry about. I got the supplies we needed, so I won’t be needing to make that trip for a while.”

“How bad was it?” Alex asked.

“It’s been worse. The one time I was in bed for a whole week. Another time…” he trailed off. Alex looked at him but he shook his head.

“Just a reason why we wouldn’t send you or Maria, that’s all. Hell, you’re twenty, you’re old enough to know what people are after.” Vincent sighed.

“Did they… this time?” Alex asked, feeling sorrow inside. He hadn’t really thought about it, was amazed now that he hadn’t put rape on his list of risks to consider in the city. How had he survived so long with his naïveté?

“No, they probably consider me a little too old for their tastes now,” he said with a smile, but the joke fell flat with the gravity of the subject.

“I must be stupid… I never really thought about it, you know,” Alex admitted, “I thought about dying or being tempted into drug use or gang life or alcoholism but I never thought about being raped.”

“You’re lucky, if you managed to avoid being touched by the subject for all this time. You’re a nice young man, too naïve for your own good, but that’s all the more reason for somebody to want to break you. Have you ever…?”

“No,” Alex replied, embarrassed, “I’ve thought about it, even been offered it by young women who wanted children. Children, in this crazy world… I guess the mothering instinct continues the human race, but still… I wasn’t really interested. My daydreams provided everything I wanted, without the risk of disease.”

Vincent laughed at this, and Alex blushed harder, “What, I’m twenty, you expect me to never have even thought about it?”

“No, I’m just surprised you’re so open about it, despite your embarrassment,” Vincent replied, “Well, that’s a good thing. Too many people have closed themselves up completely in this era.” He stopped and ate the food, and Alex sat and watched in comfortable silence.

“You said the other day… that you weren’t sure what love was. Have you ever been in love?” Alex asked.

“Not afraid to ask questions, either,” Vincent smiled, “Not really. There was someone interested once. I liked them too, but my heart belonged to my cause – ending the war. Was killed when the shop was raided… and I… I didn’t do anything to help. So I guess it wasn’t love after all, or I would have done something.”

“Your story is similar to mine, by the sound of it,” Alex said sadly, “I let my friends die. I hid when the militia came to clean out the people stealing food from them, hid in a cupboard while the room was sprayed with bullets, and I dreamed of far-off places, pyramids, hot countries, things I saw in a travel book once…” he broke off.

“It’s not the same,” Vincent said firmly, “You’re not the same as me. You were afraid and followed your instincts to survive. I made a conscious decision not to help.”

“We all have our reasons for what we did,” Alex said, “Most of all, though, we have to remember not to live in the past. The things that we do today are what matter, because we can’t go back.”

“Wise words…” Vincent sighed, and handed Alex the plate, “I’m sorry, I can’t finish this. I’m not feeling so well. I must still be tired from the beating. I’m going to rest now. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

Alex nodded, and walked to the door, “You’re okay, aren’t you?” he asked.

“I’ll be fine,” he lied, “I just need a little rest.”

~

Alex couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong when he climbed into bed that night. He had enjoyed talking to Vincent, but everything had seemed like an effort to him, and he wondered how badly he had been injured. Was he hiding it to spare Alex the pain of knowing the extent of the beating he took for their supplies, or to spare himself embarrassment?

He finally drifted into sleep from pure exhaustion, but it brought with it nightmares and he woke in a cold sweat a few hours later. He got up from his bed, not wanting to sleep again, and wrapped the blanket around him before opening the door and stepping out onto the balcony.

It was deep night, and the moon illuminated the balcony in its eerie light. Even though it was cold, Alex found the air refreshing after the nightmare. He jumped as the other door opened, and Vincent stepped out onto the balcony dressed in his t-shirt and boxer shorts. The moon went behind a cloud and Alex could not see him after that, but he heard his raspy breath behind him.

“I’m sorry,” Vincent gasped, “I didn’t… know anyone was out here.”

“Are you all right?” Alex asked, “You sound unwell.”

“I just feel hot,” he said, “Nothing a bit of air won’t fix.” He grasped the railing with his hands and Alex touched his hand, then moved up his body to his forehead, which was as he expected – fever hot.

“You’ve got a fever!” Alex said, “Get to bed, I’ll go get Maria. You must have picked something up from the ganglands.”

“No, I’ll be okay…” he said, but then the moon came out from behind the cloud and illuminated the pool of blood on his t-shirt.

“You’re injured? Why didn’t you tell anyone? Vincent, if it’s infected, you’ll die!” Alex said, shocked and terrified by the bloodstain.

“I tried to keep it clean… but I think the infection got in before I even got here. I didn’t want to cause a fuss,” he said, but Alex was already running down the steps, calling for Maria. Maria came out from her bedroom, clad in her nightdress, looking pale, and followed Alex up the steps. Alex reached Vincent and supported him as Maria struck a match to an oil lamp inside the door to Vincent’s room.

“Lie him down on the bed,” Maria said, and helped Alex ease him down.

“Really,” Vincent protested, “It’s nothing. It’ll be fine.”

“You’re not fooling anybody,” Maria said angrily, “Not even yourself. Let’s have a look at that.” She pulled back the t-shirt and cursed something in a language Alex didn’t understand.

“You’re an idiot,” she said, “I could have cleaned this wound and stitched it up; I don’t think it got any vital organs. There’s nothing I can do for the infection, though. It’s too late. Damn it!”

“Aren’t there any medicines left from the Old Times?” Alex asked, “My mother had an infection once, they have her these pills… anti-something…”

“Antibiotics. They kill infections. They’re also virtually impossible to get now, since the hospital was taken over by a gang. They might sell you some… for a year’s food, or a higher price.” Maria sighed, “There’s nothing we can do, Alex, I’m sorry.”

“I have to help him!” Alex said, “I have to go to the hospital. I’ll make them give me the drugs if I have to, but I won’t let him just die if I can help.”

“I forbid you to go,” Maria said firmly, “We’re going to lose Vincent, his fate is sealed. We need you to get food and supplies now, not get killed with him. If you care for him, let him go. I’ll try and make him as comfortable as I can.”

“Listen to her,” Vincent groaned, “She speaks the truth… you must not go. Promise me you won’t go.”

“Only if you promise me you won’t die,” Alex said firmly.

“I can’t lie to you…” Vincent said, and pulled the blankets to his shivering, burning body. Alex looked away with anger and sorrow.

“Alex,” Maria said, “I need you to help me now. I need water from the pump, cleaning cloths, and I think there’s still some antibacterial cleaning stuff I use for the kids when they skin their knees. It won’t kill the infection already in his blood, but it will clean the wound. Maybe, if we clean him up, he will recover by himself.”

The thought that he might recover made Alex bite back his bitter tears and carry out his duties. He found a clean cloth, the antibacterial cleaner and pumped out a bucket of water, which he carried up the steps with difficulty. He put the supplies by Maria’s feet, and she sent him to find a needle and thread. When he returned, she was cleaning the wound and cursing Vincent for not being honest, which was responded to with things that sounded more and more like delirious nonsense, interrupted now and then with “Promise me… don’t go!”

Alex looked away from the wound, away from Vincent and stepped outside. He was bitter then, and kicked the railings as angry tears fell. He was annoyed at the way everybody sacrificed themselves so willingly, how they almost jumped to their deaths if they felt the situation required it. He was annoyed that Vincent might die before he could learn from him and teach him whatever it was he had wanted to learn. He was angry at being left alone in the world, over and over again. Whenever he got close to someone, it seemed, they died and he had to face the enormity of living alone, of facing the harsh, loveless world by himself all over again. It terrified him, and he hated it. He understood then why so many shut themselves off, but could find no way to cut himself off from the delirious pain-filled cries that were Vincent’s as Maria crudely stitched up the wound.

I must go to the hospital, he thought, no matter what it costs me. I must save him.

Maria emerged from the room, her work done, “Alex!” she cried, and opened his bedroom door, but he wasn’t to be seen. She hurried to the end of the balcony and down the steps, “Alex!” she repeated, but there was no reply.

One of the children, disturbed by the noise, came outside, “Maria,” she said, “What’s going on?”

“Did you see Alex?” Maria asked her.

“He went that way,” the little girl said, and pointed out to the road that led into the city.

 

Chapter Five

Alex ran and ran until he knew he was out of sight of the apartments, and then slowed slightly. He looked around him in the dark and felt nervous and afraid. He was unarmed, and had no light to guide him, but he went on because he knew he was Vincent’s only chance to live. The infection had gotten worse even in the short time Alex and Maria had been there, and he knew Vincent would not fight it off himself. If he’d delayed to find out, he knew he would have been too late to help.

He heard Maria’s distant cry but did not turn back. He was terrified and alone, and he knew he would be lucky to return from the hospital alive, but he was determined to try.

Bonfires lit the way when he reached the main street, the place where he had first met Vincent. Gangs were gathered around the fires and in the street, but most were either too drunk to notice him or already passed out. He passed around them carefully, but his eye went to a handgun lying close to a passed out man’s hands. He dared to get closer and scoop it up, and then burst into a run before anybody noticed and pulled a gun on him.

He ducked into an alleyway and checked out the gun. He’d never used one, but his friends had shown him once how to use the gun they had, just in case they were attacked. He remembered how useless their handgun had been against the machine guns the militia used, and wondered if it had been worth his time to steal the gun. Still, it made him feel safer, and it had enough ammo for a few shots, enough to hopefully get him out of danger. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use it, but he was glad to have it anyway.

He made his way to the scrap yard, where more bonfires were burning. Corpses lie in the night, torn at by birds and he turned away before the sight could make him sick. He held the gun ready and took steady steps through the piles of junk, the quietness of the place filling him with a sense of unease. Were they all drunk or asleep, or were they just waiting for some hapless person to come walking through before they attacked? Every sense in his body was on full alert as he turned each corner, ducking down behind old television sets or fridges. His foot accidentally kicked a can and a rat went scurrying in fright. He expected them to jump out then, but there was nobody, and he hurried on to Smash City. Once he got through the parking garage that was just inside the area, he would be at the hospital and salvation – or destruction.

He went onwards, leaving the scrap – and several pairs of watching eyes – behind him.

~

The Junkyard had more life, if you could call it that, Alex mused. The concrete areas that were once a city centre were now host to several bonfires, all with their late-night revelers. The occasional bloodstains decorated the ground, and smashed up cars burned, letting off the acrid smell of burning rubber tires.

He garnered a few odd looks as he entered the car park, and saw that inside there was more partying going on. Graffiti artists were spraying their gang logos on the wall and Alex realized that these people were not drunk, and that he was in a lion’s den. There was no way he could pass for a gang member – all the members of the gang that seemed to be here wore black leather garments and spiky chokers and bracelets.

Alex ducked down behind a pillar and waited to see what would happen. As he did, the sound of a screeching car came into earshot and a gun was fired. A smashed up car pulled into the car park, and several gang members – from another gang, it seemed from their dress – piled out of the car, guns ready.

“You’re a real fucking joke!” one guy from the crowd now gathering around shouted.

“These are real fucking guns,” the ringleader of the new arrivals replied, “An’ you,” he smiled, “are real fucking dead.” He pointed, and one of his henchmen shot the speaker in the head. His gang member friends backed off a little, but otherwise seemed to give little attention to the fact that one of their number, somebody they knew, had just been murdered. Alex realized that this behavior was probably normal in the gangs, and was glad he had never joined one.

“Anybody wanna join him?” the ringleader asked, “Well, tough. Goths stink, so I think we’ll be cleaning you outta here.” He raised his arm and thrust it down, and his henchmen started to fire with handguns and machine guns and rifles. Alex ducked down further behind the pillar as a bullet sparked off it.

Some of the Goth gang pulled out guns, but they were too late and were mowed down. Alex trembled as he hid, knowing he could do nothing to help the people out there, but feeling sick in his stomach all the same.

Eventually the firing ceased, and the leader walked over to the wall where the graffiti artists had sprayed their tag.

“Get rid of this crap,” he ordered his men, “It disgusts me.”

Two men stepped forward with spray cans and started to spray over the Goth symbol, a pentagram, with their own symbol, a dollar sign.

“Shouldn’t we get out of here, before the militia comes?” a girl with him asked.

“Shut up!” The leader ordered, “I’m not scared of them. Stupid army thought they could take over this place, make everyone conform or die. It’s bullshit, all of it, an’ if you don’t agree, I’ll leave you here an’ let them take you to their little holiday camp, where you can do hard labour and starve, and be re-educated into their perfect little system. Is that what you want?” They all shook their heads quickly.

“Good. They thought they could take us over, like they did the rest of the world, but we proved them wrong. We proved we could live without their rules, and their re-education. So we’re not going to be scared now, like little pussies. Let them come, and I’ll shoot them just like this lot.” He pointed disdainfully at the dead Goths, “So, I’ve heard there’s this cute little gang saying some God is gonna come back and save them. Fancy delivering some salvation?” He grinned, showing missing teeth.

They cheered, and piled back into the car, which sped up, driving over some of the bodies as it turned around. They revved the engine, and sped out of the car park at breakneck speed, tearing off down the road until Alex could hear them no more, leaving tyre tracks of blood on the ground.

He trembled for a good long time, there behind the pillar, before the smell of blood and innards threatened to make him violently sick and he got himself to his feet. He didn’t want to look at the dead, but he had to cross them to reach the stairwell to the hospital. He braced himself, then darted out from behind the pillar, running across the car park, making himself look forward and not glance at the carnage either side of him. He ran as though running for his life, and was glad to reach the door to the stairwell, which he flung open and darted into.

He stopped then, and gasped for air, but the stairwell smelled of urine and he felt sick. The walls were plastered with graffiti and he made his way up the concrete stairs slowly. Blood and needles littered the floor, and he was careful where he trod.

He opened the door into a stark corridor. Signs on the wall directed people to different areas of the hospital, although many had been defaced. He felt the presence of the Old Times, realized how it must have been, people flitting two and fro, nurses talking to patients, relatives pacing the hallways, wondering how their loved ones were. Had it been only twenty years ago, as Vincent had said?

There was a large window that went from floor to ceiling, and Alex went to it. He was quite high up, and could see across some of the city, could see the bonfires glowing in the dark. He wondered what it must have looked like when the tower blocks glowed with electric light and every home had lights of their own. It must have been a sight to compete with the stars, he thought, stars he could see unimpeded in the night sky.

He remembered his purpose for being in the hospital and turned away from the window. The hallways were dark, but he could see he was in some kind of reception area. Many of the chairs had either been stolen or were broken, and magazines lay scattered on the floor (he contemplated for a second taking a closer look at these, then realized he didn’t have time).

Alex entered the little reception office. The moonlight shone in from a small window, and he was able to see. Most of the office had been ransacked, but he opened drawers now and looked around for any candles, matches or torches that would provide light for him to explore the hospital with. The quiet was discomforting, but he poured his attention into searching for a light source and was happy when he found a small battery torch that glowed brightly when he turned it on.

He wondered where the medicine store would be, but didn’t know where to begin. Eventually he just chose a corridor and walked down it. It came out in a large ward, with lots of empty beds, and lots of beds with curtains around them. Alex smelled death and did not draw back any of the curtains. He knew that in the last days of the bombing, there had been more dead bodies than any mortuary could take. Many staff had left by then, gone back to their families if they were still alive. The ones left behind did the best they could for the dead and the dying while society fell apart around them, gangs forming out of the youths that were too young to go to war. Even when the militia came, the government did not cede, and eventually it just disappeared, presumably killed. From there, the city had descended into chaos. The oil power plant was bombed, resulting in a huge explosion and the end of electricity. Production of everything ceased, for what skilled workers were left looted the places and took the goods home to their families, for without electricity there was nothing they could make. A lack of police meant that chaos erupted on the streets, and anarchy reigned.

Then the militia came on foot, hoping to take the city with few casualties. The people fought but lost, their ragged bands and gangs no match for trained fighters. They seemed to have no desire to govern, just seemed to take the land and hold it, sending people off to fight in their wars elsewhere, and forcing many others into the labour camps to farm crops and make munitions for the other fronts of the war.

There was much argument about where the militia came from, for facts had been distorted even when television had been available. The popular belief was that it was actually an army of a dictatorship country with big ideas to take over the world, but other beliefs were whispered around that it was their own national army that had seized control of the government at the end of the bombing, or merely that the militia had risen up from the people as an alternative to gang life, and that they wanted to form a military dictatorship. Alex had no idea where they had come from, for the bombing had stopped when he was only a child, and society had collapsed before he could say his first word. He had heard snippets from his mother when he was very young about how his father was on this or that front; talk that abruptly ceased one day when he had presumably died. His friends in the shared house had told him snippets of gossip, but it had all come from the gangs and was more likely made up then any real news. In the absence of facts, people drew their own conclusions, and maybe it didn’t really matter, because either way they were trapped in a spiral of chaos and death, cut off from the wider world and anybody who could possibly help them. All hope of rescue and liberation had died long ago.

Alex pulled himself from his thoughts as he realized he had crossed the ward and entered another corridor. His instincts were telling him to go down, down further than the car park, for the medicine stores would be out of the public’s reach, somewhere underground, near the mortuary. Alex shuddered at the thought of going into the dark sub-levels of this lonely place, but when he thought of Vincent’s flushed, feverish face his resolve hardened. The man had saved his life; he wanted to return the favor.

Was that all, though? The question had been haunting him for a while. He had left in the dark, on a journey to find medicine he had little chance of finding, would probably die trying to obtain, and he wondered why he had been so willing to go. He remembered the talks he’d had with Vincent, about life and love (“I’m not sure I know what love is, any more…” he recalled him saying) and many other things.

Had he grown to like him? Certainly, yes, the man had a calming, intelligent presence that Alex felt he could learn a lot from. Had he grown to need him around, to rely on him? He thought that quite probable, too. The man had saved his life, and taken him to a place to safety, had risked his life to get supplies, had spent time reassuring Alex the best he could. Alex knew he would feel a hole in his life if he died and was gone from his life forever.

Did Alex love Vincent? It was a thought that had not occurred to him until now. He would miss him if he was dead, he would grieve for him, and he had grieved for few people in his life. Even his friends, who had most certainly saved him from death out in the world. But that love had been like the love one might feel for a brother or sister, this was deeper, different, somehow. A father, then? Maria had told him that Vincent wasn’t his father. Had she sensed this in him before he himself had picked up on it? He didn’t know. He’d never known his father and he didn’t know what such a love would feel like. But he figured it would be similar to what he felt for his mother, his fussing mother who had cared for his every need, and that had not felt like the complicated stirring in his heart that accompanied thoughts of Vincent.

Seeing a stairwell leading downwards marked in clear, bold letters “STAFF ONLY”, he pushed the thoughts away for another time, clutched the torch in one hand and the gun in the other, and descended the stairs to the lower levels.

~

It was completely dark in the lower levels, and Alex had to use his torch to see anything. He saw a sign that pointed one way to the drug storeroom and the other way to the mortuary. He shuddered as he thought of all the dead bodies that must remain there, unburied.

He felt afraid, alone in the dark, and he gripped the gun tightly. He stiffened as he heard moaning coming from the room ahead and his imagination thought of the dead walking, despite the fact it was impossible. He hurried to the room, hoping to dispel this terrifying thought.

Gentle, but dim lamplight came from the room, and as he stepped in he saw that the drug-filled shelves had been pushed against the wall and beds installed to create a makeshift ward. Gang members tended each other here, and Alex heard a life-support machine, being powered by a car battery on the floor.

Hands grabbed him from either side, and a figure emerged from in front of him, “Drop the gun!” the figure ordered, and Alex did so, lowering it gently to the ground. He kept the torch, and now shone it up at the figure before him.

He screamed as he saw the man before him. Half his face was missing, one eye totally gone, and parts of the skull beneath showed. His thoughts returned to the living dead and he screamed again hysterically, struggling with the people holding him, who gripped him more tightly.

“Shut up, kid,” the man with half a face said, and at that rational human voice, Alex stopped.

“I know I’m not a pretty sight; none of us are. That’s why we’re down here and not up there,” he said, “We’re near the drugs that will keep us alive, but the world doesn’t want to see us, those who survived the bombings and the shootings with these heinous injuries.”

“I’ve seen people injured…” Alex said, and he was telling the truth. Many gang members had lost eyes, limbs, carried large scars on their bodies or had gunshot holes in them. But he had never seen anyone quite this scarred; that these people survived at all was surprising to him.

“Not like this,” he said, “Losing half my face like this, I’m prone to infection. I have to stay down here, near the medicines. If I went up there, they’d most likely shoot me to put me out of my misery. They come down here sometimes, just like you have, looking for a fix or medicines for a “friend”. Usually it amounts to the same thing. We sell it sometimes, trade it for other things we need, since few of us are well enough to go hunting for it. But anyway, why are you here?”

“I did come for medicines for a friend. He got a deep wound, and it got infected. He had a raging fever when I left; he’ll die if I can’t get something. The lady we live with, she said we need anti… anti…”

“Antibiotics,” the man finished for him, “They’re valuable, you know. Everybody gets the same – infection here, and infection there. But they’re not addictive and don’t supply a high, so at least the junkies aren’t after them, too.”

“Can I have some?” Alex asked.

The man laughed at this, and others came to his side, one carrying a lamp and Alex could see how disfigured they were in the lamplight. He knew he shouldn’t stare, but the sight was sinister in the low light, for the people were missing faces, limbs, eyes, and sometimes a combination of all of them.

“You don’t ‘have’ anything, I’m afraid,” the man said, “You pay for what you need.”

“I don’t have any food, or anything to trade,” Alex admitted, and cursed himself for not thinking about it before he left. His trip was futile, all because he’d forgotten to bring a few cans of baked beans.

The man grinned, and Alex could see he was missing half his jaw and mouth as well. He could see muscles pulling in the face and he wanted to run, to escape this place, to get free of the arms holding him, whose touch probably belonged to more of these people from his nightmares.

“Your reaction says it all, “ the man observed, “The people up there would be afraid of us, just like you are. Here we live in the dark, and we don’t have to look at each other, let alone the world above. I bet you all rot the same, if not on the outside, then on the inside. You still suffer the same problems as we do, only you can walk and talk and take care of yourselves more easily, turn on your charm as payment.” He seemed to consider the last point, and a feeling of mingled guilt and dread rose up in Alex. These were only people, same as any other. It wasn’t their fault that they’d been caught in the bombings of long ago, torn apart by a cruel war that had probably claimed most of the people they loved.

“There is a payment you can give me,” he said, “Something I’ve not had in a long time. In return I’ll give you antibiotics, cleansing fluid and bandages for your friend’s wound, and that one on your hand. You’re a pretty young man, I would find it most… enjoyable.” He chuckled to himself, “Suck me, and you can have your medicine, boy. I’ll even offer you a guide out of here, a fit young man unafflicted by wounds or illness who chose to stay with us. If not, well, you’ll leave empty handed. What’s it to be?”

Nausea rose in Alex and he thought for a moment he might be sick where he stood. Vincent had told him, warned him of the dangers of city life, and yet he had walked right into this trap. Yet if he didn’t do as the man asked, Vincent would surely die, die crying out deliriously in the night and the thought made Alex hurt deep inside. He could turn away, go now, steal some food and come back, but Alex knew he could not afford to waste the time, nor did he know if a few cans of anything would please these people. They had lost most of their will to live, he could tell, and they lived now for whatever they could get.

He nodded finally, not trusting his mouth to speak the words. The people holding him pushed him down to his knees and he went, hearing the unzipping of the man’s pants in front of him. Nausea rose in him again but he fought it down, for he knew if he was sick all over the man there would be no payment. He let his mind carry him away from the terrible scene as the man thrust his foul-tasting cock into his mouth, and he dreamed.

He dreamt it was Vincent in front of him, in his mouth, and he finally understood the true nature of his feelings.

 

Chapter Six

He finally emerged from the room, medication in hand, a young man about his age by his side to guide him out of the hospital.

“Hey, you okay?” the boy asked, and quickly grabbed a bucket that was lying nearby. Alex vomited into it until he dry heaved, the horror of the fact of the matter coming back to him, the foul taste filling his mouth.

“Easy now, man. Drink some of this.” The young man handed him a bottle of water and he drank some, swilling the first mouthful around and spitting it out in the bucket before drinking some more.

“Thanks,” he groaned, and handed the water bottle back to the young man, who pocketed it.

“You must really care for your friend, to do that,” the young man said, with awe in his voice.

“I think I love him,” Alex replied, “but if I don’t get back to him soon, he’ll die and all this will be for nothing.” He started to climb the dark stairs, both torch and gun back in his hands again. Shivers filled him when he thought of what he had just done, but he pushed it from his mind and forced himself to think about getting back to Vincent. There was much to tell him, if they both survived this ordeal.

They hurried through the hospital, the young man seeming to know his way well. They said little, and eventually reached the door that led to the stairwell down to the car park.

“Wait,” Alex said, and the young man stopped, “A gang swept through the car park earlier. There are a lot of dead people down there.”

“Geez, the Monies and the Goths have been fighting for a long time, but I didn’t think there would be a massacre like that. I was hoping the Goths would win, actually… the Monies scare me,” the young man said, “Well, I guess it can’t be helped, it’s a part of living in the city.”

Alex nodded, “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Daniel, but everybody just calls me Danny. A Mute saved my life – you know, the gang we just came from in the basement. I’m sorry about what happened to you. Lash gets way too carried away sometimes, but he’s one of the few of us who can walk, so he’s our leader, and we need him.” Danny sighed, “Maybe I should get away from the gang. They’ve been going downhill for a long time.”

Alex sighed, “Don’t apologize,” he said, “It wasn’t your fault, and right now, we really need to get moving.”

Danny nodded, and they hurried down the stairwell, bursting out into the car park below. They stopped suddenly, as they saw five figures standing side by side, watching, waiting for something. For him, he realized, as they turned to look at him.

“Get down!” Danny said, and they dived for the floor as gunshots rang out. Alex rolled over and got to his feet, his body moving of its own accord. He got to his feet, and saw one of the men point a gun at Danny. It was all happening as if it were slow motion, and Alex raised his gun instinctively. He hesitated then, knowing that when he pulled the trigger, a man would die. He’d never killed, and the thought chilled him, but he knew he couldn’t hesitate, or Danny would die.

He fired, and blood and brain splattered on Alex, but he barely noticed. He raised the gun again and shot another bullet, taking the next one in the chest. His next shot missed, and he realized he was trembling.

Danny threw himself at the third man, and Alex knew he had saved his life, for he’d had a gun pointed at him when he’d missed. When Danny got out of the way, Alex shot again, and didn’t miss a second time. The bullet hit the man in the stomach, a slow painful death, Alex knew, but his aim was poor and the shot made the man drop his gun and fall to the floor in agony. Alex put him out of his misery.

The other two looked at him for a second and then fled. Alex let them go, and when they had left the car park, he dropped his gun and fell to his knees, shaking.

“Are you hurt?” Danny asked, rushing to his side.

“N…no,” Alex said, trembling, “But I… I…”

“You’ve never killed before, have you?” Danny asked. It was a rhetorical question, but Alex shook his head anyway.

“Geez, how did you survive out here without ever sucking dick or killing someone?” Danny wondered aloud, “’Cause I know you never did that before, not with the reaction you had. You must have really good – or bad – friends, to shield you from the worst like that.”

“I did,” Alex said, “They’re all dead now… and somewhere, someone will grieve for these people, too.” He gestured to the bodies lying before him.

“You ‘aint gotta start thinking like that,” Danny said, “Or you’ll never survive. Geez, didn’t anybody teach you anything?”

Alex shook his head, “They probably did…” he said, “But I never listened. I’ve always dreamed my way through bad times, let my mind go to better places.”

“That’s a dangerous habit,” Danny remarked, “You need to remember this is the real world, and things won’t get better, they’ll only get worse. What do you plan to do then, when they do? When there’s nobody to take care of you?”

Alex shook his head, recovering himself, “We need to get out of here,” he said, “before those others bring back friends.” He got to his feet and they ran towards the exit to the car park, leaving the carnage behind them.

~

Alex and Danny walked along the street with their guard up, waiting for the gunmen who had attacked them before to ambush them, but they didn’t. Looking at the horizon, Alex saw the first shards of red dawn appearing and fear began to rise in him. What if he was too late, if everything he had been through was nothing but futile sacrifice?

“We need to move along faster,” Alex said, “Are there any cars, bikes, anything we could use around here? If there are, do you know how to drive?”

“I can drive,” Danny replied, “but none of this junk is going anywhere.” He gestured to the burning and smashed up cars at the side of the road, “Even if we found something serviceable, there’s not much chance it’ll have any fuel in it.”

They hurried on, into the Junkyard and over the piles of trash. As they hurried through, a loud siren bellowed out and Danny froze.

“What is it?” Alex asked over the shrill sound, “What’s going on?”

“Air raid!” Danny yelled, “We have to find shelter!”

“What?” Alex cried, “The bombings stopped years ago!”

“We don’t have time to chat about it, get in here!” Danny pulled him into one of the heaps of trash and they squatted there. As they did, tanks and missile launchers drove into the Junkyard and aimed up at the sky. Militiamen rushed around and barked orders to each other.

“We need to get back to the apartments!” Alex said, “We don’t have time for this!”

“If we go out there, we’ll be killed! The bombing could start any minute!” Danny exclaimed. As he said it, planes swooped down from the sky. Gang members swarmed out of their holes to see what the fuss was, and two arrived on a motorbike. An altercation broke out between the gang members and the militia, with the militia telling them to get out of the way, and Alex grabbed Danny’s arm.

“Grab the bike!” he cried, and before Danny could protest, pulled him out into the crowd. They reached the bike and picked it up as gunfire broke out between the groups, and Danny started it while Alex jumped on the back.

“Hold on!” he said, and they sped off. Gang members turned around to see the bike going, and started to chase them, but they faded from view as the motorbike raced ahead.

Just then one of the planes swooped over, shooting at the mob on the ground. One of the tanks exploded behind them, causing chaos and carnage. Alex turned and saw bombs falling on the Junkyard behind them, including the heap of trash they’d been hiding in.

“Close call,” he yelled to Danny, “They blew the hole we were hiding in!”

They rushed forward, down the main shopping street where Vincent had saved Alex. Gang members saw the motorbike and dived out of the way, and they sped through without incident, bombs falling behind them.

They raced down the long road that led to the edge of the city and the apartments, seeing fires and bombs falling all around them. Alex wondered who was attacking, and what they wanted. Was it a friendly force, come to save them from the militia? Or was it just another dictator looking for land to conquer?

Danny cried out, and Alex pulled himself from his reverie long enough to see there was an unexploded bomb in the middle of the road, dug into the concrete.

“I CAN’T STOP IT!” Danny screamed, and Alex dived from the motorbike at high speed, landing on some grass at the side of the road and hitting his head. He looked up to see Danny and the motorbike breaking sharply, but not enough – not nearly enough. They crashed into the bomb, which exploded with massive force, showering Alex with fragments of nearby houses and dead people.

“DANNY!” he yelled, but Danny was gone, killed instantly by the explosion. Alex lay there and sobbed, fighting his body’s urge to slip into unconsciousness.

“Vincent…” he moaned to himself, “Must… save him. It’s too late for Danny now.”

He pulled himself up, shaking off the brick and dust the covered him. There was shrapnel in his leg, and he felt blood trickle down his face from the wound in his forehead, mingling with the tears. Danny had been younger than him, had only just started out in life. He was going to leave the Mute gang and start a life, and now it was all gone.

The world blurred around him as he took a dazed step forward, but he was determined to get home, to get to Vincent, especially after all that had been sacrificed for the tablets he had in his pocket. He staggered dazedly forward, feeling his head clear a little, and then broke into a run, desperate to return before it was too late.

The red sun dawned on a bloody day, as the planes flew off into the distance.

 

Chapter Seven

He soon reached the apartments, and dived up the stairs, forcing down the pain from the wound in his leg as he did so. He rushed along the balcony to Vincent’s room, where the door was open and Maria was standing there, putting a wet cloth across Vincent’s forehead.

“Is he still alive?” Alex cried, “I got the medicine!”

“Alex!” Maria cried, “You’re alive! Give me the medicine. He’s bad, but it may not be too late to save him.”

Alex produced the tablets, bandages and cleaning fluid and Maria took a careful look at the tablets before giving two to Vincent, who groaned groggily as she made him swallow two with water. Alex flopped down in the chair, nausea sweeping over him again from the pain in his body. Maria hurried over to him.

“You’re an idiot!” she said, “I thought you were dead for sure, running off like that on your own into the city. Then she hugged him, “Are you hurt badly?”

“Injury in my head and my leg, but I think I’ll be okay…” Alex said.

Maria cleaned his wounds, and Alex cried out as she pulled the shrapnel from his leg, “We’re being bombed again after all this time,” Alex said, “Why did they come back?”

“I don’t know…” Maria sighed, “Maybe it means things will improve, in the long term. Maybe a foreign force is coming to get rid of the militia. Or it could be worse, could be some foreign force that sees this war-torn land as easy pickings. Either way, there’s not a lot we can do about it. There’s a shelter out back if you need to hide when the sirens go off, but apart from that… It’ll make things harder. Getting food will be extra dangerous from now on. I managed to talk to some of our neighbors while you were away – I managed to trade some of the stuff Vincent brought back for food. We don’t have a whole lot of candles now, but we have to eat.”

“I’m sorry,” Alex said, “I guess I shouldn’t have gone off like that.”

“You’re not sorry,” Maria replied, “so don’t even say it. You’re crazy, though, going out there. Vincent is twice your age. If he dies, he’s lived a good life. You’re still a kid.”

“I’m not a kid,” Alex sighed angrily, “I went because I chose to. I knew the risks. I went because I love Vincent and don’t want him to die!”

The room was quiet then, and Maria picked up her bucket of water and walked out. Alex put his newly bandaged head in his hands. Everything hurt, and his mind was so confused. He pulled his chair closer to the bed, and took Vincent’s pale hand in his.

“Live,” he whispered, “Please, live.”

Then he lie his head down on the bed close to Vincent and closed his eyes, falling into a deep sleep.

~

He was vaguely aware of being carried, and knew he must have been moved to his own bed when he woke in it, naked and cold. He was a little embarrassed that Maria had stripped him, but was still too tired to really care. He thought of Vincent, and wanted to get up to see him, but everything hurt more for sleeping and he found he could barely move. The bandage was gone from his hand and he could see it was healed enough to not need it any more.

Alex drifted in and out of sleep all day, and finally woke feeling refreshed, He washed himself in the corner, and put on the clothes he’d worn when he’d first arrived, the jeans and navy hooded sweatshirt. He saw a brush on the side, and teased out the knots in his shoulder-length hair that he’d just washed without touching the wound on his head. He shook his head to shake out the water, then regretted it as pain stabbed through his head. He readjusted the bandage on his head, tied around like a bandanna, and stepped outside.

The stars were out, it seemed to be fairly late. He thought about slipping into Vincent’s room, but a growl from his stomach told him he had other needs to attend to first. He went downstairs and Maria cooked him a plate of food, which he ate gratefully.

“How’s Vincent?” Alex asked, as he sat at the table with Maria.

“He’s improving,” Maria said, “I think he’s going to live.”

“You could sound a little happier about it,” Alex remarked.

“I’m concerned about you,” Maria admitted, “He’s twice your age, and a man. You need to get out, get some friends, stop living in this dream world of yours. It’s not healthy, Alex.”

“I can make my own decisions,” Alex said angrily, “If I’m old enough to shoot people, old enough to give head to Mutes in hospital basements, old enough to see a friend blown to pieces, then I think I’m old enough to decide who I fall in love with.”

Maria fell silent for a moment, and then spoke, “You did all that… for him?”

Alex nodded, “I didn’t know what it was at first, just didn’t want to be without him. When I was in the hospital, down there… I…” his voice broke, “I don’t want to talk about it, Maria. Just don’t interfere with my life, that’s all I’m asking. I’ll talk to Vincent; I’ll spend time with him. If something happens, it does. If not, then that’s fine too.”

“You seem older,” Maria observed.

“I saw a lot of things I never wanted to see,” Alex said, “Perhaps they were things I should have seen a long time ago. Everybody protected me, nobody let me see what the real world was like…”

“Perhaps they did,” Maria said, “Perhaps you just wouldn’t let yourself see it. You hid away in your dreams. I’ve seen that far-distant look in your eyes when something happened that you didn’t like.”

“Reality is hard,” Alex admitted.

“It is, but it is also only as hard as you make it. If you insist on keeping all your lofty ideals of love, romance and saving people, you will suffer, because you can’t save everyone. You were lucky this time. Next time, you’ll be dead for sure.” Maria said.

“I can’t be anybody other than myself,” Alex said, “If that brings me pain, then so be it.” He stood and left, leaving some dry beans on the plate.

~

“Vincent,” Alex said, almost in a whisper, “Are you awake?”

“Yes…” a dry, sickly voice came from the bed, “Come here, Alex…”

Alex sat down in the chair by the bed and took Vincent’s hand. Vincent’s grip was strong, and Alex found it encouraging. He had strength, he would live now, Alex was sure of it.

“You went to the hospital, didn’t you…?” Vincent asked, “Even though I told you not to.”

“If I hadn’t, you would have died!” Alex sighed. Another lecture was the last thing he wanted.

As if reading his mind, Vincent smiled wanly, “No, I’m not going to give you a lecture. I can guess Maria already did that. I just wanted to say… Thank you, Alex. You saved my life.”

“We’re even, then,” Alex smiled, and stroked the hand he held gently.

“I guess so,” replied Vincent, “Can I have some water?”

Alex jumped to his feet and poured water from the jug beside the bed, handing the cup to Vincent. He took the cup and sipped from it, then Alex took it away again and put it on the bedside table. Vincent took his hand, and Alex smiled, but Vincent was not smiling.

“Tell me what you went through,” Vincent asked, “I know it couldn’t have been easy, for those wounds didn’t appear on their own. Your eyes, too, look older and wearier than they did before.”

“It’s…” Alex began.

“It’s hard, I know,” Vincent finished for him, “but once you get it off your chest, it gets easier.”

So Alex spent the night telling Vincent his story. He left nothing out, only what he’d been thinking of when he sucked the Mute man. There would be a time for that, and that time was not now.

Vincent stopped him at that part, “I’m sorry, Alex,” he said, “You shouldn’t have done that for me.”

“You’re alive, so it was worth it,” Alex said, almost in a whisper. He held Vincent’s hand with both of his and went on to tell him about the shooting, the first time he’d ever killed anyone.

“No wonder you look older,” Vincent sighed, “You’ve been through so much.”

Alex finished his story, told Vincent about how Danny had died in the collision with the unexploded bomb. There were tears in his eyes when he finished the story, but he bit them back, not wanting to feel stupid in front of Vincent. Vincent noticed, and he wiggled his hand free of Alex’s, bringing it up to his face instead and stroking the stubbly skin of his cheek and chin. A tear fell from Alex’s eyes then, and another as he let it all out, sobbing at Vincent’s bedside. Vincent shifted over, and tapped the bed on top of the sheets. Alex lie down next to Vincent and Vincent held him, stroking his hair as Alex wept himself to sleep.

“I’m sorry,” Vincent whispered, “I never would have hurt you for all the world. You shouldn’t have gone through that for me.”

~

Alex woke to Maria’s disapproving gaze, “I have some chores for you to do, if you’re not busy,” she said, and Alex pulled himself up and out of bed. Vincent was awake, and smiled at him, as if in sympathy, before resting back on the pillows. He left and went downstairs, and Maria closed the door.

“You’re giving that boy all the wrong ideas,” Maria said, “He’s in love with you, did you know that? He did it all for you. Don’t encourage him by inviting him to share your bed!”

“If you’d heard his story, Maria, you would have done the same. He’s not a boy, either. He’s seen things I doubt you ever have. If he loves me, let it be so. Everybody needs a reason to live.” Vincent said.

“Do you feel anything for him? Or are you just leading him on?” Maria sniped.

“That’s really none of your business, Maria,” Vincent said, “None of this concerns you. We’ll do our chores, we’ll find food, regardless of what happens between us.”

~

Alex washed the floor with strange cheeriness, oblivious to the conversation going on upstairs. Vincent had been right, telling his story had made it easier, and he was grateful to the man for holding him as he wept, for thinking no less of him for his weakness. Love swelled in his heart and he wrapped his arms about himself as if he were being hugged.

“What are you doing?” one of the children said, “Are you hurt?”

Alex smiled, “No, not hurt, I was just dreaming of something nice.”

“Maria said that Vincent was crying your name when you were gone. She didn’t seem very happy about it.” The little girl said, “Is he going to be okay?”

“He’s going to be fine,” Alex said, “I just had to get some medicine, that was all.”

The little girl went back outside to continue playing with the others, and Alex scrubbed the floor. Had Vincent truly been calling out for him as he lay on what was almost his deathbed? Why was Maria so angry about it? He wondered if she liked Vincent, if there was a hint of jealousy there, but he pushed it aside. It didn’t really matter what Maria thought, as long as she minded her own business, and he hoped Vincent had told her that after he left.

The day went slowly, as he anticipated seeing Vincent again, and rain started to fall outside. The children came inside, and Alex abandoned his attempts to clean the floor, instead helping the children to color their coloring books.

Day’s end came finally, and after Alex cooked dinner and they all ate, Maria took the children to tuck them in for bed. Alex took a plate of food up for Vincent, only to find he was out of bed and dressed.

“You’re recovering quickly,” Alex smiled, as Vincent tucked into the food at his desk.

“Still got a fair way to go,” Vincent said, finishing up the dinner quickly, “At least I’ve got my appetite back now, though.”

Alex touched Vincent’s forehead and felt his temperature was still up, “You should be in bed.”

“It’s boring,” Vincent complained, “I want to go out onto the balcony.”

“It’s raining,” Alex said.

“All the better,” Vincent smiled, “I love the rain, and the roofing will protect us from the worst of it.”

Us… Alex realized, happiness building up inside him.

Alex helped Vincent to his feet and they went out onto the balcony and both leaned on the railing, watching the rainfall in the darkness. The lights from downstairs were snuffed out, and Alex knew Maria must have gone to bed.

They stood in companionable silence for a while, both waiting for the other one to say the first word. Eventually, it was Vincent that broke the silence.

“I’m a lot older than you, you know. Twice your age, plus a year.” Vincent said.

“I know. Old enough to be my father, Maria would say.” Alex replied.

“Do you think of me as a father?” Vincent asked.

“No… not like a father,” Alex sighed. He wondered if Vincent had misread his feeling all the time, had thought Alex saw him as a father figure. He didn’t want Vincent to think that.

“Good,” Vincent said.

“Good?”

Drops of rain fell from the roof and filled Alex’s hair with sudden coldness, touched his skin with an icy cold touch, and then Vincent’s hands were on his face, caressing him.

“Maria told me not to take advantage of you. She said that you’re in love with me.”

Alex blushed then, and Vincent felt the hotness under his hands, felt a longing deep inside of him, a yearning to love and protect and touch that had been denied to him for so many years, and it overwhelmed him. He seized the younger man’s mouth in a kiss, and saw Alex’s eyes widen as his arms wrapped around him. Alex recovered from the shock, and returned the kiss, his hands roaming over Vincent’s back, longing, longing to touch him, to hold him, to be loved by him.

The air raid siren went off. They parted quickly as Maria came rushing out with the children downstairs, taking them to the shelter. She saw Alex and Vincent on the balcony and called to them to hurry.

“We’ll be down if they get too close,” Vincent yelled to her, and she went on, not stopping to argue.

The first bombs fell in the city, buildings exploding in yellow-white fireballs, and Alex stiffened in fear. Vincent stood behind him and wrapped his arms around Alex.

“When you want to go to the shelter, just say,” he whispered, and Alex nodded.

“Maybe later,” he replied. For now he wanted to watch, to see the terrible destruction with his own eyes. He felt Vincent, warm and alive against him, and trembled in his arms even as the terrible sight of the bombed city captivated him.

“I never told you how my friends truly died.” Vincent said.

“You said that they were killed when they raided the shop,” Alex reminded him, and Vincent nodded.

“They bombed it first. Then the militia stormed in, looking to take any survivors to the labour camp. Some of my friends had already been killed in the blast and some were wounded. The wounded ones couldn’t get up the stairs quickly enough, nor the healthy ones carrying them. The militia were right behind us, shooting. I… I dived upstairs and got into the secret passage, but I knew by the time they caught up, with the militia hot on their heels, the passage would be useless, because the soldiers would know it was there. So I…” he paused, “I dived into the passage and closed the door on them, all of them. The militia shot them all and never knew about the passage.” He let go of Alex and turned away, “I should have told you this sooner, before you fell in love with me. I’m a killer, Alex. I let my friends die, no, I made them die.”

“But if the militia had seen the passage, you all would have died!” Alex argued.

“Then I should have died!” Vincent said, “I betrayed my friends… I’ll never forget it. Then I joined the militia and I kept on killing, gang members, food thieves, anybody who interfered. There’s so much blood on my hands. I served next to people who raped for fun, people who killed children – although I did neither of those things, they still happened, I did nothing to stop them.”

“I dreamt away in a cupboard while my friends died, knowing they were going to be killed and I ignored their cries for help. I shot men when I went to get your medicine. We all have blood on our hands. It’s not right, and we need to remember that, always, but we have to go on living,” Alex said, “Don’t let the past destroy you. You’re not incapable of love, as you first said you were, you’re just afraid of it because you feel you don’t deserve it.”

“I don’t deserve it,” Vincent agreed, “I’m a criminal, a murderer.”

“I love you anyway. I don’t love the things you did, or the things I did, but I still love you. Nothing’s changed,” Alex said, looking out at the city.

Vincent threw his arms around him then, and for a second Alex thought he might sob into his shoulder, but he just held him tightly until the sound of planes grew closer.

“We should go down to the shelter,” Alex said, “They’re getting nearer.”

Vincent nodded and let go, and they rushed down the metal steps and through the dining hall. When they reached the back door, a bomb fell in the back garden, shattering all the windows. Vincent dived at Alex and shielded him as they fell to the floor.

“Maria!” Vincent yelled, “The children! Say it isn’t true!”

Alex got up and rushed out into the yard, where a crater rested in the ground a fair way from the shelter, “It wasn’t a direct hit,” he said to Vincent, “They might still be alive in there.” They rushed down into the shelter and saw blood and belongings everywhere. Alex turned his gaze away, and Vincent rushed over to the children, who were screaming and crying.

“Everyone who can walk, walk up to the dining hall, and be careful of the broken glass!” Vincent yelled. Most of the children rushed upstairs, to Alex and Vincent’s relief. Maria lay in a corner, knocked out by the blast, one child had a broken leg, caused by impact, and another, the little girl that had talked to Alex that day, lie still and cold in the corner. Alex rushed to her and checked her pulse, but it confirmed what the wide, staring eyes and the pool of blood told him; she was dead.

He wanted to weep, but the pain filled him with rage. Vincent picked Maria up.

“Alex!” he cried, “Bring the other one. Leave the dead girl. We’ll bury her, when we can.”

Alex picked up the child with the broken leg, and went upstairs, knowing he would be haunted by those cold, dead, staring eyes for the rest of his life.

~

To their relief, most had suffered nothing more than minor cuts and bruises. Maria had slight concussion when she woke, but was otherwise fine, and the child with the broken leg was sent to rest in bed. Maria said she could make a splint, and so they left the job to her. She refused to weep when she heard of the dead girl, but Alex could tell she wanted to wail, she just refused to let herself be seen doing it.

Vincent dug the grave the next morning, despite his lingering fever. Alex wondered if he was trying to make up for his past now, as he dug the grave with grim determination.

Eventually it was done, and they gathered around in the rain for a few short prayers. Alex didn’t believe in a god, and thought Vincent probably didn’t either, but it seemed to comfort Maria and the children, so he followed along.

Vincent grasped Alex’s hand tightly as Maria took the little girl to her final resting place and kissed her as if putting her to bed like any other night, then lowered her to the ground, for they had nothing to serve as a coffin. Vincent filled the grave to the sound of crying children, and Maria took them away to have dinner in the child’s memory.

Vincent and Alex stood there for a while after, looking at the grave and holding each other tightly, finding solace in the warmth of each other’s arms.

“I love you,” Vincent said, and Alex’s tears joined the rain, then, overwhelmed by the sorrow and the pain and the love he felt for the man holding him closely, and knowing that any day could be their last.

“I love you too,” he whispered, and they let go then, and walked hand in hand to dinner.

 

Chapter Eight

Something had died in Maria, and Alex felt sorry. She no longer nagged Alex and Vincent about their relationship, no longer took joy in any of the things she did. She never cried or showed any emotion, even to the children, and the children were sensitive to this and cried more frequently.

“What can we do about it?” Alex asked Vincent, as they stood on the balcony one evening, a few nights after the bombing. The sirens had gone off twice since then, but Maria had refused to visit the shelter, and Alex and Vincent had to guide all the terrified children to it.

“Nothing. When she’s done grieving, perhaps she will return to herself, but for now we have to let her be. My parents used to say that “time is the greatest healer.” Vincent explained.

They stood in silence until the sun went down, and then Vincent went to leave.

“Vincent?”

“Yes?”

“Can I sleep with you tonight. By your side, I meant,” Alex blushed, as the heat of desire rose in him. He hoped they would make love, when the time came, but he wasn’t going to rush things.

Vincent smiled, “I was beginning to think you’d never ask.”

They went into his room and closed the door. Alex was trembling, and Vincent kissed him, “It’ll be just like before, don’t be nervous,” he said.

“Except I usually sleep naked,” Alex admitted, smiling, and he noticed the look of sweet hunger in Vincent’s eyes. Alex took off his hooded sweatshirt and pulled himself out of his jeans, leaving only his boxers on, although there was a noticeable bulge in the front. He blushed as he saw Vincent’s appraising look, and lie down on the bed, watching Vincent undress with great interest. Vincent also left his boxers on, and Alex smiled at the older man. He wasn’t unattractive, far from it, and Alex gasped when Vincent got into bed and held him, naked skin touching naked skin. A good shiver ran down his spine.

“Keep that up and I won’t be able to resist you,” Vincent whispered in his ear, before kissing it, “Are you sure you don’t want to go back to your own room? I can’t guarantee nothing will happen tonight.”

“No way,” Alex said, “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

Vincent kissed his neck, and Alex moaned softly as Vincent rolled on top of him. Alex could see through his boxers that he was very hard, and it frightened him a little.

Vincent must have seen the fear in his eyes, because he backed off then, “You’re completely sure?” he asked, “I won’t think any less of you if you want to go back to your own room. If you want to back out, at any time, just tell me.”

Alex nodded, “I want to, I just… I’ve never done this before.”

“We’ll just do what you’re comfortable with. If I do anything you don’t like, just tell me to stop, and I will.” Vincent said.

“Shut up and kiss me already,” Alex smiled, and Vincent kissed him deeply, his tongue searching out every inch of Alex’s mouth. They parted for air and kissed again and again, taking their time, despite their need for each other.

Alex gained a little more courage as they kissed again, and reached his hand up to fondle Vincent, who moaned deeply.

“Keep that up and we won’t get very far,” he gasped, “I’m not as young as I used to be.”

Alex sat up then, and kissed Vincent’s neck, while tugging at the waistband of his boxers. Vincent stood up and let them fall to the floor, and Alex pulled his off and threw them aside.

“That’s much better,” Alex said. They were both fully hard. Vincent was larger than Alex, but Alex wasn’t complaining. Vincent sat back on the bed and took Alex’s cock in his hand, stroking it with the hard, calloused hand. The friction only increased the pleasure and Alex moaned. Vincent stopped then, a wicked smile on his face.

“Please… More,” Alex groaned, and then he gasped as Vincent lay atop him and both their cocks were touching. Vincent thrust his hips and Alex bit his lip to suppress a loud cry. Vincent kissed him again as he continued to thrust and they both groaned, moving together, rocking the bed as they did so.

Eventually it was too much and Vincent came on Alex, covering him in his sticky seed. Alex came just after, and Vincent watched in delight as he came all over himself.

“Shit… wow,” Alex said, gasping for breath, “That was amazing.”

Vincent put his finger in the pool of mingled come on Alex’s chest and licked it from his finger, smiling. Alex did the same and chuckled, happy, so very happy, and warm, and pleasured, and safe.

Vincent kissed him passionately, “That’s just one of my tricks,” he whispered into Alex’s ear, and Alex knew he wouldn’t be satisfied until he’d sampled every single one of them.

Vincent threw Alex a towel, and Alex wiped the remainder of their seed off his chest with reluctance. Vincent rolled off to lie next to him, and wrapped his arms around Alex.

“I love you,” he whispered into Alex’s ear, and Alex whispered, “I love you, too,” contentedly before drifting into sleep.

 

Chapter Nine

Alex and Vincent woke the next morning, with lots of noise coming from downstairs. They hurried to dress and ran downstairs, looking disheveled.

All the children were in the food hall together, but there was no sign of Maria and the children all looked scared and confused. Vincent rushed to Maria’s room and opened the door.

“ALEX!” he yelled, and Alex rushed to his side. He saw the pale figure lying in the bed, wrists poorly cut, a noose tied gently around her neck, neither well done, from the looks of it. She stirred, and her eyes were blank, lifeless, hopeless as she looked up at them.

Vincent untied the noose from around her neck, and saw that the cotton had torn when she’d tried to hang herself with it.

“Just kill me quickly,” she pleaded, breathing heavily, “I can’t take it anymore… the pain is just too much…”

Alex examined her wrists, “She didn’t have the nerve to cut the veins. She won’t bleed to death from this.”

Vincent left to go and get the bandages, and Alex stayed by Maria’s side, “Why did you do it?” he asked, “We would have helped, if you’d only let us in.”

“You two have each other… I have nobody. The children only take, and then they die too, taking even more… There’s nothing left of me… I hate this world…” she murmured.

“You’re an idiot,” Alex said, “You made such a front about not needing anybody, yet all the time you’re just the same as we are. Is it really so bad to admit you’re human?”

“Everybody needs me to be strong…” she said.

“Not all the time!” Alex said, “Everybody expected you to grieve over the little girl, but you shut it away unnaturally.”

“At least I didn’t fuck the same night we buried her,” she replied bitterly, “Or do you think I couldn’t hear!”

Alex turned away, a hot blush of shame filling his cheeks Vincent was standing at the door.

“That’s enough of that, Maria,” he said, “What comfort we take in each other is none of your business.”

“Just leave me alone to do all the work while you’re up there, doing whatever it is perverted men do with each other!” she cried, and Vincent put a hand on Alex’s shoulder.

“You can go if you want,” he said, “You don’t need to listen to this crap.”

Alex shook his head. Vincent bound Maria’s wounds, “The pity party’s over. I’ll admit we need to do a bit more to help, and we’re going to make that up to you, but cut the drama, okay? If only for the children’s sake.”

Her tone changed, then, “The children… are they okay?”

“They’re confused, and scared, and they’re wondering where you are, but they’ll be fine,” Vincent said. He finished cleaning and binding her wounds, “Promise me you won’t do this again.”

“I didn’t have the guts to pull it off,” she said, “so what’s the point.”

“Good. Now, you have children to look after, and Alex and I need to find food. I’d leave Alex with you, but I trust you to not need a guard. If you need anything, see the neighbors.”

Vincent took Alex’s hand on the way out, “Let’s go,” he said irritably, and they started down the road, in search of food.

~

“Was it really a good idea to leave her on her own?” Alex asked.

“She’s done this before, Alex. Not once, but three or four times. She does it when she can’t cope, but she’s not out to die.”

“A cry for help?” Alex asked.

“Perhaps,” Vincent said, “but there’s really nothing I can do for her. She needs to learn to handle grief by herself. I guess I was unsympathetic, back there, hell, I know I was, but we just don’t have time for this.”

“Vincent, what’s wrong?” Alex asked.

“It’s nothing. I just have a bad feeling, Alex. It’ll pass.” Vincent admitted.

“Do you want to go back? We can find food tomorrow.” Alex suggested.

“No, it needs to be done,” Vincent said, “We have very little left, and if the bombings get worse, we may be unable to get food for quite some time.”

Alex went to hold Vincent’s hand, but Vincent shook his head. “Not out here,” he said, “There are way too many people who wouldn’t approve of our relationship, and I don’t want to get killed just because we couldn’t keep our hands to ourselves.”

Alex nodded, and they passed the hole in the road where the bomb had exploded and killed Danny. Alex stopped for a second, and Vincent waited while he looked, then he finally turned away from the crater and carried on walking without a word.

They reached the shopping district, and Vincent looked at his old shop as they walked by. Alex was looking at it too, but with a gleam in his eye, and Vincent leaned in and whispered, “Maybe later” to him. The secret room would offer them privacy, but they had to get the food first.

The Junkyard was even more of a mess than it usually was. The bombings of the first night had reduced the organized mess of the area of absolute chaos, and gang members were scavenging the mess for anything remotely useful. They walked through the mess, and Alex looked at Vincent with wild, terrified eyes.

“We’re going to Smash City?” he asked.

“We have no choice. There’s nothing around here. You went up to the hospital last time, but we’re going to go straight under the car park and come out on the other side. It’s a lot safer by daylight, so don’t worry.” Vincent said.

They walked along the long road to the car park, ignoring the dead (or sleeping?) gang men and the still smoking cars at the sides of the road. Alex cringed as they entered the car park, but the dead were gone.

“What happened to all the dead people?” Alex asked.

“Incinerated. They spread disease if left alone, so the militia cleans up really big messes.” He shrugged, “Try not to think about it, Alex. We may yet see worse.”

They came out the other side of the car park onto a street that might once have been part of a city centre. Traffic lights that no longer worked lay bent and broken, and tower blocks rose above the city. Bonfires of trash that had burned out still sent smoke spiraling upwards and old newspapers from a bygone era blew around in the dust and dirt.

“Where is everybody?” Alex asked.

“Most of them squat in the tower blocks during the day, so we must away from them. If we want food, that’s not the way to go. We’ll just get killed.” Vincent explained.

“Where will we find food?”

“There’s… an old place I know. We’ll go there and buy some food if we don’t find any. We can’t afford to be here after dark, and I don’t plan to go home empty handed.”

“Buy… food…” Alex felt cold inside, “The payment is…”

“Yes… I’m sorry Alex. But I must. It’s not out of lack of love for you, we just have to survive.” Vincent sighed.

“We’ll find some other stock of food,” Alex was determined, “I don’t want you to have to suffer…”

“I’ve done it enough times, Alex,” Vincent said, “Other things too, sometimes, although I always take precautions. Never know what you’ll pick up out here.”

“Why did you bring me?” Alex asked.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “If I’d thought about it, I would have left you behind. I guess I’m just worried… worried you wouldn’t survive if anything happened to me.”

“Don’t say that,” Alex said.

“I’m only telling the truth,” Vincent said, “I want you to be safe if I can’t protect you any more.”

They fell silent then, and Alex felt dread building in him as the afternoon went on. They searched in bins and in warehouses, but still found only a can or two, and Vincent’s eyes kept straying to an old supermarket.

“That’s the place, isn’t it, where you buy food?” Alex asked. Vincent nodded grimly, and they continued to search until the light started to fade. Vincent started towards the supermarket, but Alex grabbed his arm.

“No, there has to be another way!” Alex cried, “Let them take me, instead! Anything… anything…”

“Stop it, Alex,” Vincent said sadly, “It only makes it harder. I’ll never give you up to them so don’t even suggest it.

“That ass is mine,” he whispered to Alex, slapping him on the ass, “Now stay out here, and don’t come in, no matter what. If I’m not out by the time the sun goes down, get out of here.”

“Let me come a bit further with you,” Alex begged.

“If they see you, they’ll want you, and I won’t let that happen. Stay here,” he said, and he took a shopping cart and went in.

A supermarket where the price for everything was sex, and goodness knows what else. Alex cringed at the thoughts of his own mind, and watched the dust and trash drift by on the afternoon breeze as he waited.

~

Time passed, and it was getting close to sundown. How much did they want from him? Alex wondered, and shivered. The day was growing cool, and it was getting close to sundown. He wanted to go inside, but Vincent had forbidden it, and he was scared of what he might see, what he might find there.

Sundown came and went, and Alex found he could wait no more. He pushed the door of the supermarket open, and slipped inside.

He saw many shelves, stacked high with foods, many out of date. It was only the canned foods that they could be sure were safe to eat, and even then they had to look out for rusty tins or ones dented so badly the air got in. It was the first rule of the city, and Alex knew that much well.

He heard crying out, and knew it was Vincent. The shelves were too high to see anything, but he could see that there were little holes in the backs of the empty ones. One unit had no shelves installed, and so he got close and looked through the holes. What he saw horrified him and made his heart cry out for Vincent.

They took turns with his mouth, while one, presumably the gang leader, took Vincent again and again in the ass. Vincent cried out with pain but they didn’t listen to him. His face was covered in come and Alex even saw blood on his back. He reeled back, feeling sick at what he had seen. He had expected it to be bad, but not this bad.

“I think we’re about done,” a voice said, and Alex looked again, saw Vincent fall to the floor, in pain and exhausted. He retched, and one of them kicked him. Alex winced. Vincent put his clothes on and wheeled the trolley forward, and Alex darted away from the shelf and opened the door, slipping out again. He didn’t know how he would keep a straight face after all he had seen, how he wouldn’t break down and cry, but he knew they had to get home, and it was already late.

Vincent, looking pale and disheveled, pushed the shopping trolley out. Alex dived forward and held Vincent for a long moment.

“I told you to go home if it got late,” Vincent said tiredly.

“I couldn’t leave you alone with them,” Alex said. He took the shopping trolley from Vincent and pushed it along the road, “We’re going to be sitting ducks with this in the dark.”

“If we get out of Smash City quickly, we’ll be okay,” Vincent said, “Unless you want to try hiding out for the night, but it’s risky.”

“I’d rather we got home,” Alex said, “You need to rest.”

“Is it really that obvious?” Vincent asked, “I was going to tell you it wasn’t so bad.”

“Please don’t lie to me, Vincent,” Alex pleaded, “They didn’t keep you in there for hours doing nothing.”

They fell quiet again, and hurried on, Vincent hiding his injuries well as they rushed through the car park and down the street. They finally made it into the Junkyard, and Alex was immensely relieved.

Then the sirens went off, and the planes darted overhead. Vincent grabbed the trolley and started to run with it, “Hurry, to the shop!” he said, and Alex ran on ahead of him as the bombs fell around them, blowing up piles of scrap and gang hidey-holes.

Alex reached the shop and darted inside, rushing up the stairs and operating the secret door. He heard Vincent cry from downstairs and hurried down, to have four bags of shopping put in his hands.

“I’ve got the rest. Get to the passage!” Vincent yelled, and they hurried up the stairs, darting into the passage and closing it behind them.

They left the shopping behind the door and climbed the stairs to the top. Vincent slumped down in a corner, “If a bomb hits, we’re dead, but I just can’t run any more. If you want to go on, you can.”

“I’m not leaving you,” Alex said, “Not after what’s happened.” He took Vincent in his arms and held him, kissing his hair, his mouth, not caring if he tasted and smelt of other men, just wanting to love and comfort him.

“I’m sorry I went in there,” Vincent said, “There was no other choice. It wasn’t that bad, anyway. I’ll be okay.”

“I saw what happened!” Alex cried, “So don’t tell me it wasn’t that bad, because it was terrible!”

“I told you not to go inside! What if you’d been caught?” Vincent said angrily.

“It was late, I was scared they’d hurt you. I slipped in the main door and looked through the holes in the shelf and… and…” He squeezed Vincent more tightly, “Makes what I went though seem like nothing. How do you cope with it?”

“I do what I have to do to survive,” Vincent said, “It’s especially brutal in the supermarket, that’s why there’s still so much food there. Usually only the people who like that sort of thing can brave it, or those with especially good items to trade, or the desperate, like me. I didn’t want you to see that, Alex. I didn’t want you to get hurt. I should have left you at home.”

“So that you never had to tell me, yeah…” Alex said, “If you’re going to go through this, I want to know about it. I want to help you through it.”

“Then let me suck you so I can get this vile alien taste out of my mouth,” Vincent said, with a weak smile on his face. “It can be fun, too, and very pleasurable. Don’t see it as just a tool of abuse.”

Alex thought he would never get hard after all that had happened, but Vincent touched him and the fire ran through him again. He unzipped his jeans and pulled them off, tossing them into a corner. Vincent kissed him gently and dropped to his knees, “Do I have the pleasure of being the first to do this to you, too?” he said, and he was honestly smiling now.

“You do,” Alex smiled, and he gasped and shivered in a good way as Vincent slowly licked along the underside of his cock, “More,” he moaned, “Yesss… more…”

Vincent continued to tease lovingly with his tongue until a drop of pre-come formed at the head, and he licked it off with the tip of his tongue, “Tastes good,” he said, in a husky voice, and then he took Alex’s entire cock in his hot mouth, deep throating it. Alex wanted to scream in pure pleasure, and he thought he might come just from that, but he buried his hands in Vincent’s feathery ginger hair as Vincent worked him with his mouth, licking it even as he was taking it in and out of his mouth. Vincent brought a hand up to fondle his balls and Alex cried out, unable to take it any more.”

“I’m gonna…!” and he came flooding into Vincent’s mouth, torrents and torrents of come, which Vincent swallowed greedily. Alex pulled out of Vincent’s mouth and reached for the fly of Vincent’s trousers, undoing them and pulling them down.

“Please,” Vincent said, “You don’t have to do that if it reminds you of what you went through, but do something, anything.”

“It was amazing,” Alex said, “I want you to feel it too.”

“Don’t try to swallow it all, then. You’ll choke. I’ll teach you more someday, but for now, just do what’s comfortable for you. It’ll feel good, because it’s you doing it.”

“The time I was down in the basement of the hospital… I… I dreamt it was you. I never thought I would actually get to do this to you for real. It feels like a dream.”

Alex dropped to his knees and took as much of Vincent’s cock as he could, which was the head and a little more. He licked, and enjoyed the flavor of Vincent – yes, the real Vincent – in his mouth as he gently sucked him. Vincent moaned, and tried to hold back from thrusting in his mouth, but Alex relaxed and allowed him a little further in. Vincent near-screamed as he came, filling Alex’s mouth with seed which he swallowed. Alex let Vincent’s cock slip out of his mouth, then stood up and kissed him passionately. Their mingled seed flavored the kiss, and Alex caressed Vincent’s ass as they kissed.

They were at ease, then, and Alex held Vincent as he slept a little, the sound of bombs going off in the distance. Alex was too full of adrenaline to sleep and so he merely held Vincent close, drinking in the sight of his peaceful face. He loved him more than anything in the world, and knew he would die for him, if he had to.

He held on, wanting the moment to last forever, for good moments were precious in the world they were living in. Vincent stirred in his arms, and he took the opportunity to stroke his hair and face.

“You know,” Alex said, smiling, “You look really cute with come on your mustache.”

They laughed then, and Vincent pulled himself up to sit close to Alex.

“I’m so glad I met you,” he said, “Someday, if this war ever ends, I want to take you to see the world.”

“Have you ever been anywhere outside of this place?” Alex asked, awestruck. He’d seen travel guides and pictures of far-off places, but the city had seemed like all there was to the world in the past few years, as he’d given up hope of rescue from the outside world.

“My family went to New York twenty years ago, but I had business here, and returned.” Vincent explained.

“You returned from New York to this dump?” Alex asked, “You must be crazy!”

“Maybe I am,” Vincent said, “Maybe I am.”

 

Chapter Ten

Alex would have stayed in the secret passage all night, but Vincent expressed his fears for Maria’s safety and they decided to return to the apartments. They dressed, and shared a deep kiss before gathering up the shopping and leaving the secret passage. They put the food back in the trolley downstairs, which they were both surprised was still there, and headed back outside, maneuvering carefully amongst the drunk gang members and hoping they were all too inebriated to see that Alex and Vincent were pushing enough food to feed the lot of them for a week past their very eyes.

They hurried on down the road that led to the outskirts, but Vincent stopped Alex when he saw shadows standing outside the apartment. Vincent dragged Alex and the trolley into the side of the road and behind a house, before going forward again to get a better look.

“Come back tomorrow, then, I assure you he’ll be here,” Maria said to the figures, and as they walked away he could see the pattern of their uniforms and the guns they carried – militia. His heart sank. He half considered going back to the hiding place, but there was Alex and the children to think about. Everyone relied on the food, and the hiding place was no place to live long-term. People would see them come and go, and undoubtedly know there was somebody living there. The hidden door wasn’t that well disguised, if somebody knew what he or she was looking for. Vincent went back and reported to Alex what he’d seen.

“What do we do?” Alex asked.

“We wait here for a little while, then go back like nothing’s happened,” Vincent said, “There could be an honest reason for them being there. They might have been looking for me, after all I am a deserter, or they could have been asking Maria if she’d seen somebody else they were looking for.”

“Is it really safe to go back?” Alex asked.

“Not really, but we have no choice. We can’t live in the hiding place, people will see us come and go and discover the secret passage. If I’m wanted, the gang men are far more likely to sell me out than Maria. We have no choice, Alex. We have to trust her.” Vincent replied.

They waited a few minutes, then wheeled the trolley back out into the road and towards the apartments. They pushed it into the main hall and the children cheered as they saw the food. Maria rushed out to meet them.

“I thought you weren’t coming back tonight,” she said, surprised.

“Easy run,” Vincent explained, “Didn’t come up against any angry gangs.”

“That’s good,” Maria said, “I’ll get something cooked up.”

Something didn’t feel right, Vincent and Alex knew, but they kept the fears tucked away inside them and ate their late dinner. Maria rushed around, leading the children off to bed.

“Isn’t it a little late for the children to be up?” Vincent asked, giving Maria a chance to mention the militiamen.

“I’ve been busy,” she said, and led the children away.

Alex and Vincent looked at each other, fear rising in their hearts. Had Maria sold them out, told the militia they were in an “inappropriate relationship”, and that Vincent was a deserter? Vincent took Alex’s trembling hands in his own and squeezed them.

“Let’s go to bed,” he said, “I’ll ask Maria directly about what we saw tomorrow, when we have clear heads.”

Alex nodded, not trusting his voice wouldn’t tremble, and they made their way upstairs to Vincent’s room. They stripped naked and washed, then curled up in bed together, Vincent’s reassuring arms holding Alex tightly. They dozed, but it was light sleep for both of them, filled with troubling dreams, and they woke in the middle of the night with the sound of thunder, which startled them and set Alex shaking. Vincent rubbed his back and arms until he stopped.

“I’m so scared,” Alex whispered, “I don’t want you to be taken away.”

“I don’t want to get taken away myself,” Vincent said, kissing Alex’s face and ear gently, “Don’t think about it. It was probably just something innocent, like one of the kids got in the way of the road or something. Something Maria didn’t need to tell us about.” Lightning flashed and illuminated the room, followed by roaring thunder. Vincent felt Alex wince and he kissed his shoulders and back tenderly. Alex rolled over to face Vincent and kissed his mouth. They parted, and looked intently into each other’s eyes as the lightning illuminated the room once again and rain began to pour.

“Vincent…” It was barely more than a whisper.

“What is it, Alex?” Vincent asked.

“Take me,” he whispered, “I want to feel you inside me, part of me, one with me.”

Vincent took a deep breath and kissed Alex, “Don’t do it because you’re afraid,” he whispered, “Do it because you want to.”

“I want to,” Alex said, “I want to give myself to you. Please.”

“In case we never have another chance,” Vincent added for him, and he didn’t need Alex’s affirming nod to know it was true. He reached for a drawer in the nightstand and pulled out a bottle of lubricant, “I got this when I went for the supplies that time. Usually I use it on myself, though,” and they smiled, Alex growing fully hard at the thought of Vincent touching himself.

“If I hurt you,” Vincent said, “tell me to stop, and I will. I’ll try to be as gentle as I can.” He spread some of the lubricant on his finger and slid it gently into Alex’s asshole, feeling a little resistance, “Relax,” he eased, and felt the resistance slip away. He moved his finger around, then lubricated another one and pushed that in too. Alex moaned beneath him, and Vincent longed to thrust himself inside the young man he loved so much. He didn’t doubt his ability to love now; for Alex had taught him everything he’d ever needed to know about it. He remembered the words in his diary that he knew Alex would have much to teach him, such true words they had been. He slid in a third finger, and kissed Alex, who moaned, “please… I want you…”

Vincent covered his cock with copious amounts of lubricant before positioning himself at Alex’s entrance. He pushed gently, and slid inside. Alex stiffened with pain, but Vincent couldn’t help it, and so he just waited until Alex relaxed before moving again. He finally slid inside, and moved in and out as Alex relaxed and began to feel pleasure. Vincent kissed him as he thrust deep inside and Alex’s face was as serene as heaven. He took Alex’s cock in his hand and stroked it as he thrust into his lover, making Alex cry out in pure pleasure. Alex’s asshole was tight around Vincent’s cock and he came before long, spilling his seed inside his love. Alex came then, crying out as he came on Vincent’s hand. Vincent held up his come-covered hand and licked it greedily, then kissed Alex. He went to pull away, to slip out of Alex, but Alex pulled him back down.

“I don’t want this to end,” he whispered, and so Vincent lay atop him, holding onto him, staying inside him until his cock shrunk back and he slipped out. He rolled onto his side and took Alex in his arms.

“It will never end,” Vincent whispered, “I will always love you, wherever I am, whatever happens.”

“Even if they take you away to the camp and destroy everything that you are?” Alex said.

“They can’t stop me loving you,” he said, and he kissed Alex’s face all over, “Don’t worry. It was probably nothing, Alex. We might be worrying for nothing.”

“I hope so,” Alex said, “I want us to have lots more of that incredible sex before we die.”

Vincent chuckled then, and the sound reassured Alex into sleep, but Vincent lie awake for the rest of the night, watching Alex sleep and thinking that he would give anything in the world for this young man’s happiness and well-being.

~

When Alex woke the next morning, he saw Vincent was at his writing desk, writing in his journal.

“What are you writing?” he asked.

“A record of our love, every beautiful moment that has passed between us,” he whispered. “I want to write it down, just so that someone knows it happened, should anything happen to us.”

“We’re going to make it,” Alex said, “Finish that, and we’ll go talk to Maria and get this mess sorted out.”

Vincent finished, and they dressed and went downstairs, hand in hand. Maria hurried out from the kitchen, militiamen behind her. Vincent and Alex froze, and Vincent stepped in front of Alex protectively.

“Vincent Alexander Farrell, you are hereby arrested for desertion, spying, an illegal homosexual relationship, treason against the state and twenty charges of petty theft. Failure to come with us quietly will result in your immediate execution.” The leader of the militia barked.

“No!” Alex cried, “I love him! You can’t take him away! He hasn’t done anything wrong!”

“Be quiet, Alex,” Vincent said. He turned to the militiaman. “I’ll come quietly as long as you let Alex go in peace. I’ll take responsibility for everything.”

“Fine, we’ll drop the charges against him. I hope you’re looking forward to cooperating with us, though. We can come back any time for him, you know.” The militiaman put a gun to Vincent and shoved him towards the truck. “Get moving. We don’t have all day, filthy spy.”

Vincent was loaded in the truck and it drove off. Alex followed it a little way, but couldn’t keep up. He fell to his knees on the dirty road.

“Vincent Farrell,” he cried, “I will see you again! I love you!”

~

“Why did you do it?” Alex’s voice broke as he questioned Maria, “Why did you sell Vincent out? Why!”

“They knew he was a spy… If I hadn’t complied, they would have taken all of us, the children too! I did what I had to do to survive! Do you really think I enjoyed selling out my own brother?” Maria explained.

“Vincent is your brother?” Alex gasped, “A spy for who, anyway?”

“Yes. Our parents worked for the United Nations. That’s why they owned the shop; it was a front. In reality they were keeping tabs on the militia’s activity. When things got bad, they fled to America. I stayed because this is my home, and Vincent stayed to carry on our father’s work. Shortly after, this city fell, and he couldn’t communicate with the U.N. any longer. He told me not to protect him if the militia ever suspected him, and they have for a while. I told them it wasn’t true, but they knew it was. They came and threatened to take the children… what could I do, Alex? I had to tell them everything!”

“If he hasn’t been able to do his job for 15 years, why are they interested in him?” Alex asked.

“The bombings have started again. America is back on its feet and fighting for this country. The militia will want as much information as possible about their enemy. As long as Vincent doesn’t talk, they’ll keep him alive.” Maria said.

“If he talks?” Alex asked, head lowered, but Maria shook her head.

“I’m sorry, Alex,” she said, “There is nothing I can do.”

“They’ll torture him!” Alex cried, “I have to do something!”

“If you go to that camp you’ll die! We may be liberated soon, Alex. We have to hold on until then. Please, Alex. Vincent wouldn’t want you to throw your life away.”

“Yet you threw his away.” Alex said.

“I did what I had to do. I don’t know what Vincent did to arouse suspicion, perhaps you two used the secret passage in the old shop too much and were seen coming and going, or perhaps you just bumped into the wrong people. They knew already, Alex. If I hadn’t admitted it, they would have taken him anyway, along with all of us.”

“Pray we get liberated, Maria, and soon,” Alex said, “If anything happens to Vincent, I’m holding you responsible.”

 

Chapter Eleven

Days turned to weeks and the bombings continued, but there was no sign of a ground force to back it up. Alex began to wonder if they were coming at all, or whether the bombings were just a plot to weaken the country so it was less of a threat to them.

Alex learned a lot about Vincent in this time by reading his journal. It had started out almost like a report, with the status of the militia, conditions under military rule, fears and suspicions about the labour camp outside the city. Most of it was information that Alex already knew from living in the city, but he read it anyway, looking for any shred of information that might help Vincent somehow.

Later on, the journal turned to more personal matters and Alex sadly poured over descriptions of Vincent selling himself for food and supplies, even being captured and tortured by a gang at one point, and Alex was not shocked to discover the gang behind that had been the Monies, the gang with the dollar sign as its symbol who had massacred the Goths when Alex had gone to the hospital. He had escaped then, using a clever ruse that he did not entirely go into detail about in the journal, but Alex took heart and clung to a small hope that perhaps Vincent would find a way to escape the camp and come back for him, and they could leave the city, live in the wilderness somewhere, but his logical side told him not to hold his breath. The camp was well guarded, and Alex supposed an important prisoner like Vincent would be even more so.

Eventually he came to the descriptions of their growing love and eventual coming together, and it pained him to read Vincent’s description of the beautiful moments they had shared together. Alex had pushed it to the back of his mind so that his sorrow at losing Vincent would not overwhelm him, but now it came back to him, the pathways to the memories in his mind glowing hot as he recalled their friendship and lovemaking.

If he had been able to write he would have added to the story, kept a record as Vincent had wanted to, but skills such as writing had been cast aside soon after the year of his birth in favour of survival skills. There had been no schools when society collapsed – they had been one of the first things to go, with rebellious children rushing to join gangs. He’d been protected by his small group of outcast friends who had taken him in because they felt sorry for the dreamer. It was that dreaming that had allowed him to hide in the cupboard while they had been peppered with bullets, but he had decided to torment himself with it no longer. Since telling Vincent of it, and hearing Vincent’s stories, it had seemed lighter somehow, insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Sometimes at night Alex would wonder what Vincent was doing at that moment, was he sleeping, or being forced to work, or being tortured for information? The last thought always led Alex into terrible nightmares, where he could hear Vincent screaming but could do nothing for the older man. Sometimes he would dream of torture and wake to find the bed sheets soaked with sweat, and he would sleep no more then, would go out on the balcony instead and look at the stars for the rest of the night.

A month and a half had passed, and the city was so pockmarked and damaged by the constant bombings that it was barely habitable. One of the tower blocks had been brought down by a bomb, killing most members of one of the biggest gangs of the city, and most of the other regions that people lived in closely resembled the Junkyard, with piles of rubble and huge craters in the ground. Refugees were beginning to pour out of the city, mostly women and children who went to the north, the opposite direction to the camp. Alex didn’t blame them, and thought he might have gone too if Vincent wasn’t in the camp, but he had made a promise to himself and the stars that he would wait for Vincent, regardless of the risk.

Young men were being kidnapped and forced to join the militia, and this was something that Alex both feared and almost hoped for. He’d had a plan that if he became a part of the militia, he might be able to gain access to the camp and free Vincent. He’d run this idea by Maria, who had shot him down quickly by explaining that most of the recruits now were being sent away from the city to fight elsewhere, and Alex wondered if that meant a land army was coming to free them.

One early morning, Maria announced she was leaving and going north with the children. Alex understood, but respectfully declined, and had earned Maria’s ire for it.

“You would give your life for nothing?” she had said, “He’s probably already dead! You have to get on with your own life, Vincent wouldn’t want you to throw it away staying in this dead city.”

“I promised myself I would wait for him,” Alex said, “Go on without me. Should Vincent be freed, we’ll join the road north and catch up with you.” He wondered if he really meant it after all Maria had done, and realized he didn’t. When Maria left, he knew he would never see her again, whether she was Vincent’s sister or not.

She had tried to push him into going, packing his things one day while he did his chores, but he’d taken his bags back and refused to go. Eventually she relented, and left him food and supplies.

“You’re throwing everything away,” she’d said on the morning of her leaving, and there had been no goodbye or motherly advice, as she might once have given. She had changed somehow, a vital part of her had died somewhere along the way, and Alex was somewhat sad when she left, turning her back on her brother and the life they’d all had.

So it was that Alex sat silently alone on the balcony, where he had brought out a chair to sit and while away the evenings watching the stars and the bombs, and it was from there that he saw the army when it came.

~

The explosions woke Alex with a start, and he rushed outside. His first thought was that a bomb had struck close to the now empty apartments, and he feared he might not get out in time. He thought of Maria’s warnings, and hoped he wouldn’t live to regret not going with her.

He looked over the balcony, and saw no bomb in the first shards of early morning light, but then another explosion came and he realized he could hear gunfire in the distance. A plane flew over and fired, and a tank exploded on the ground. He wondered if the gunfire might be gangs fighting desperately for supplies, but he could not push down the hope that perhaps finally an army had come to save them, would be coming through soon. The bombings had gone on for so long that he’d wondered if an army was ever coming, or whether they planned to subdue the city with bombs and leave it at that. There was certainly little left to liberate.

Alex sat in the chair on the balcony all that day, save for making himself a very small meal with some of the last of the food. Going out to find more would be certain death, he knew for sure, and so all he could do was ration what he had for as long as he could, and then trade away anything he could find to anyone who could take it. If liberation did not come by then, he supposed he would have to starve, go into the city, or go north with the refugees and pray he could beg a meal from them on the road. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

He fell asleep in the chair and woke in the middle of the night, as the sound of fighting grew closer. A dark shape loomed below, but he could not make out if it was a militia tank or a foreign tank. The whole city was lit up with small weapons fire, and Alex wondered how he’d managed to sleep for as long as he had.

A shell was fired below him, and he could see a firefight going on with tanks from the camp and foreign tanks. Militia troops were firing from the camp and Alex could hear orders being yelled in European languages below him.

It finally sank into Alex’s mind: they had come, at last, and the final battle for the camp was beginning. He knew he should be frightened for stray gunfire or shells could kill him or set the apartments alight, but he was both exalted and transfixed by what he saw. A voice yelled out in the darkness, and Alex realized it was yelling to him.

“Citizen, identify yourself!” the voice said in strongly accented English, “and put your hands up!”

Alex raised his hands to show he was unarmed, and stuttered, “I…I’m Alex! Please don’t shoot me!” Panic filled him now as he realized what a dangerous position he was in.

“Go inside, citizen. When the firefight moves closer to the camp, go down to the shelter. Do you understand?” the soldier yelled.

“Yes!” cried Alex, and he darted into Vincent’s room.

He was shaking when he closed the door, and moved away from it quickly. He didn’t dare light a candle or draw any attention, and so he curled up in Vincent’s bed like he had done every night since Vincent had gone, and it smelled of their mingled scents. He held a pillow tightly in his arms.

“Soon it will all be over, Vincent… hang on just a little longer my love…” Alex whispered into the pillow, and lay there hardly daring to hope that the morning might bring the end of the long, long wait, and either the greatest happiness or the most terrible sorrow Alex had ever felt. Of the sorrow, he refused to think, for such thoughts only made him weep into the pillows.

Eventually he fell asleep, and dreamt he and Vincent were in another world, another life, far away from the war.

~

When he woke all was eerily silent, and Alex wanted to rush outside and see what was going on, but also knew it would be a bad idea to make any sudden movements. He opened the door very slowly and carefully and went out onto the balcony, his hands raised in the air, palms spread to show he carried no weapon, and looked down to see crowds of civilians running towards the camp behind foreign tanks that were already rolling down the road. There were gang members and ordinary civilians and militia members who had thrown down their guns and they swarmed ahead, ignoring all attempts to keep them back. They were going to liberate the camp, and nothing could stop them from running to see their loved ones, no matter who they had been or what they had done. Alex found he could not resist the thought of seeing Vincent again either and rushed down the steps, eager to join the throngs of people running to the camp. He ran with his heart soaring, unable to tether himself down even though he knew inside that if Vincent was alive, he was likely to be in a very poor state. He ran over the tarmac of the road and the trampled grass, not caring if he tripped over stones. He caught up to the crowd and started to run faster than many of them, buoyed along by love and hope.

Ahead of him, the tanks fired at guards in watchtowers, who were thrown from their posts as the posts exploded. Still the crowd ran on, not caring about the risk. One of the people at the front fell from a stray bullet wound, and Alex expected people to leave him, but they hauled him up and carried him. The wound to his leg wouldn’t be fatal, and they were all bound together by their shared reason for being there.

Many lagged behind as they got closer, stitch and other physical conditions preventing them from keeping up speed. Alex’s body burned in every limb but he pushed ahead, his hair whipping out behind him in the wind. Sweat covered him and he pulled off his jumper and tied it around his waist, not missing a step.

Militiamen inside the camp threw down their weapons in surrender and opened the gate. Alex reached the camp, one of the first to make it, but the soldiers waved the crowd back and Alex waited, knowing it was for the soldiers to go in first.

Slowly, people emerged from huts inside the camp, skeletal and sickly, and clutched the inside of the wire fence. The soldiers rushed in and secured the camp, trying not to look horrified at the condition of the inmates but failing. Alex searched hurriedly among the people standing inside the fence and didn’t see Vincent, and his heart sank.

He stepped forward as others reached the camp and started to enter, the soldiers no longer telling them to go back. He stepped inside the gates and sorrow overwhelmed him as he saw a pile of dead bodies. He turned his face away as nausea filled him, but the stench of death filled the air and Alex wondered why he hadn’t smelt it before. Was Vincent in that pile, a corpse who would never open his eyes again? He pushed it from his mind, but others behind him saw people they recognized and fell to their knees, sobbing. He turned around and saw people reunited, people from the crowd hugging inmates who looked like they might snap from the force. To his surprise, Alex saw one of the Money gang hold a girl close and weep, the dollar signs on his face smearing with his tears.

They were all human, in the end, he realized. No matter what they had done, they still cared, still loved, and still had the capacity in their hearts to rebuild what they had lost, given time.

He looked frantically around then, realizing he hadn’t seen Vincent. He felt someone behind him and he turned quickly, although it felt like slow motion as his eyes caught sight of Vincent – thin, oh so very thin – and focused on him.

The world was frozen as Alex laid eyes on Vincent again, the young man’s eyes looking into the gaunt, dead eyes of a man who has lost the will to live. Vincent’s hair had been shaved and he was like a skeleton. Scars criss-crossed his body, scars that hadn’t been there, and the old familiar wound that had been infected before was open and weeping. He looked like he was walking dead, a reanimated corpse.

“Vincent?” Alex whispered uncertainly, “Vincent?!”

Vincent stepped forward slowly, no trace of a smile, even in his eyes. Alex rushed forward and held him tightly, “Vincent!”

“Alex…” the word was distant, vacant, like he was seeing something in a dream.

“I’m here Vincent, I’m here and I’ll never leave you, oh god Vincent I’m sorry I never should have let you go it was Maria she sold you out and god Vincent, Vincent!” Alex gushed out, and then felt Vincent go slack in his arms.

“No…” he said, “No…” and then he let go of Vincent, catching him as he fell, fingers reaching for the pulse. A faint but steady heartbeat pulsed below him, and he cried then, cried in sorrow and gratitude and love, gathering Vincent’s collapsed form in his arms. He was so light that Alex could lift him, and he did, carrying him out of the camp as people cried and wailed behind him. Hundreds more rushed towards the camp as Alex walked away, turning his back on the misery of the war and the best and worst of humanity and carrying Vincent’s naked and frail body away with him into the early morning, homeward bound.

 

Chapter Twelve

Alex took care of Vincent and it was days before he was well enough to attempt more than a half-hearted stab at food. Alex had rushed next door, trading candles and matches and anything he could for food, and now had a few more cans to keep them going.

Vincent slowly recovered, but he was silent on what he had been through, and while some of the dead look faded from his eyes with love and attention, Alex knew Vincent would never be the same man again.

“Maria went north with the children,” Alex explained to Vincent as he ate, and Vincent nodded.

“Perhaps she’ll return when she hears the city is liberated, but I don’t think she will,” Vincent said, “I don’t think she wants to find out what happened to me.”

Alex took his frail hand and stroked it gently, “Vincent, I…”

“Don’t say it,” Vincent said, “Don’t say that you wish you could have rescued me or that you’re sorry or that you love me. I can’t open my heart again like that, not yet, maybe not ever. I’m not the same man, Alex. They tortured me until I could barely think of my own name. I didn’t think of you at all, I couldn’t, it only made the pain worse…” he trailed off.

“Don’t speak of it,” Alex said, “You’re not ready for that yet, maybe you never will be. I do love you, and I will tell you that, so that you know I won’t leave your side. When you’re ready, I’ll be here. Until then, I’ll do anything I can to help.”

“Thank you,” Vincent said, and squeezed Alex’s hand gently. It was a start, and that was all Alex could hope for, but the dead look in his eyes made Alex worry.

~

A week later, a soldier knocked on the door to the bedroom, and Alex answered the door.

“We need to speak to Vincent Farrell,” the soldier said, “Is he here?”

Alex nodded wearily, but let the soldier enter. The soldier saw Vincent’s poor state of health and nodded wearily, having seen many similar cases.

“You know what this is about?” The soldier asked.

“You want me to explain what happened here,” Vincent said with no emotion.

“Your orders are to take the military helicopter that will be outside tomorrow morning. You will be taken to the main airstrip, and will take the plane to America with other officials we have discovered. In New York, your orders are to go to the U.N. and explain the situation to the Security Council.” The soldier said.

Alex spoke up then, “He’s not well enough to be going anywhere, and he’s not leaving without…”

“Silence, Alex,” Vincent said tiredly, “I have a job to do, the job I’ve been doing for the last twenty years. I am a spy, and my job now is to report to the United Nations on the situation here. My well-being comes second to that.” He turned to the soldier then, and saluted, “I will be there, sir. Thank you.”

The soldier left, then, and Alex slumped in his chair.

“That’s it? You’re just going to go and leave me here?” Alex asked.

“Food aid should arrive soon, and the soldiers will quell any gangs who seek trouble. Things should get better around here now. It’s safe for you to remain, build a life. When order is restored, schools will open. Perhaps even at twenty they will teach you something,” Vincent explained.

“You’re not coming back, are you?” Alex said with despair.

“I have my orders,” Vincent said, “and you are not included in them. The world out there is dangerous, for the world has been at war for a long time. The world could be like this city, shelled out and ruined, and simply flying to New York could cost me my life.”

“You don’t even give me a choice, Vincent,” Alex said, “I’m not a child. I can decide if I want to take a risk.”

“You’re not a child, and I didn’t say you were, nor have I ever felt that you were, or nothing would ever have happened between us. But society will return here, whereas in the wider world the war goes on. Our relationship was forged in a world of despair, and it is a thing that society will never accept. You need to move forward, meet people your own age, start rebuilding this place. The new city will need people like you, dreamers who can envision what the future will look like, not just the bleakness of the immediate future. This is your country and your home. You belong here, and I won’t take any arguments. My decision is final.” Vincent said with an even tone.

“That’s it, is it? After everything we shared… you’re just going to walk away and leave me in this wasteland? I know you’ve been through terrible things, and I know you have a job to do, but I want to be with you. I don’t give a damn what society thinks, we haven’t lived in society for twenty years. We have our own rules.” Alex said.

“Alex, I don’t know if I can ever offer you anything,” Vincent admitted, “Even if I took you with me, life in New York might not be any better, and you’d be away from your home, relying on me. Is that what you really want? I think you’re strong enough to carve out your own future here, not come tagging along to another broken city, a strange one this time.”

“You don’t want me to come,” Alex said, “It’s okay, I understand,” and he left the room before his voice betrayed him and cried downstairs in the kitchen, scared and alone.

~

Alex spent a sleepless night in his bedroom. He hadn’t gone to see Vincent again, couldn’t face the look in those lifeless eyes, couldn’t bear to argue with him. Was the man he loved dead, or just hidden behind those eyes, his emotions suppressed to survive the horrors of the camp? He didn’t know, and that was what frightened him. Would Vincent just get on that plane and leave without even saying goodbye?

He tormented himself so much with these thoughts that he eventually went out into the rain and stood on the balcony, hoping for some fresh air. He saw Vincent’s door was ajar and tentatively stepped closer. He heard sobbing and his heart sank. Vincent was suffering, alone. Had Vincent tried to protect him from sharing his pain by pushing him away? Alex had to know, and he pushed open the door gently.

Vincent stood by the window naked, the moonlight illuminating his form. Alex saw him sobbing, and longed to go over to Vincent and hold him, but he was paralyzed in the doorway. What demons did Vincent face, and could he do anything to help, or would his caring just make it harder?

Alex couldn’t bring himself to leave, nor stand in the doorway. He longed to comfort Vincent, and so he stepped over to him. Vincent didn’t seem to notice until Alex slipped his arms around the taller man, holding him from behind.

“I didn’t want you to see me like this…” Vincent said.

“I know,” Alex responded, “You want to protect me, that’s why you want to go alone, isn’t it?”

Vincent trembled slightly in his grip, “Yes,” he admitted, “You can’t imagine… what I see in my dreams every night… what they did to me… if you stay with me, I’ll tell you, and then you’ll be burdened with my pain too. I was supposed to protect you…”

“Things have changed,” Alex said tenderly, “You don’t need to protect me any more. And… if I can help to get you through this, any pain is worth it. I want to share it, if it makes you feel any better. I want to help. I love you, Vincent. Please don’t go without me.”

“I’m sorry… for what I said,” Vincent cried, and Alex held him more tightly, kissing the back of his neck.

“It doesn’t matter,” Alex said, “I know you were only doing what you thought was right.”

“It does matter,” Vincent explained, “It matters because I didn’t take into account what you wanted. Do you want to come? It will be dangerous, and difficult, and I’m not the man I used to be – I might not be able to help you at all if you get into trouble. I can’t say for sure how much protection the government will give us.”

“I still want to go with you,” Alex said, “Those months without you, not knowing if you were alive or dead… they were the worst of my life. Please, take me with you. Let me be by your side, and when you’re ready to talk about what happened to you, I’ll be there. Until then… I just want to love you.”

Vincent turned then, tears glistening in the moonlight, and took Alex into a tight embrace. They kissed passionately, rediscovering their love in the dark. Alex felt his way around Vincent’s body, rediscovering the old scars and marking the new ones in his memory. Vincent’s hair was slowly growing back and Alex felt where the feathery ginger hair had once been to find a velvety carpet of new hair growing there.

They lay together in the darkness, two as one again, reunited after the long months of loneliness and torment. Tomorrow they would leave the city far behind, to hopefully find a new home in New York, but for now they took pleasure in each other, rediscovering what they had missed for so long.

Someday, Alex knew, Vincent would speak of what he’d been through, but it would take long years of love and healing before he would be able to tell of what he’d been through. Perhaps they’d both tell the world about their experiences, educate children as to why war devastates and work hard to ensure it never happened again, that there would never be another city like theirs or another camp like Vincent had been in.

Despite all the pain, Alex was glad he’d encountered Vincent in that abandoned store so long ago, not just because he’d saved his life but because he’d give his life meaning. That, he knew, was something he would always be grateful for.

And so they slept, arms wrapped around each other, deep in careless dreams. They were not out of danger, but they were together, and together they could face whatever the world threw at them.

Subscribe to Infinite Love Letter

* indicates required
Email Format