Cairo coughed himself awake—deep coughs that wracked his whole body—and rolled over. Or tried to. His wrists were bound to either side of him, keeping him flat on his back. He tugged at the restraints, but they didn’t budge.
His head was pounding. He shut his eyes tighter, trying to block out any trace of light. It worked, but he couldn’t block the memories that were starting to flood back.
The old supermarket. That’s where it all happened. There was nothing left there. He had tried to tell his brother that. That place had been looted, and then claimed, and then raided and reclaimed—but it didn’t matter. Any food there was long since gone. A new raid made no sense.
But his brother wouldn’t listen. If someone was defending the place, he figured, there had to be a reason. He refused to wrap his mind around the fact that it could be a trap, designed to snap shut on scavengers like them. And now he was dead. Shot in the chest more times than Cairo could count. The whole fucking shoot-out was frozen in his mind, like some grisly after-image he couldn’t rub off: the exchange of fire, Jack falling backward, the supermarket floor slick with blood . . .
The blood. That’s why Cairo didn’t get away. He remembered slipping on it, his head crashing into something—a shelf?—as he fell. What a stupid way to go down.
But he didn’t want to think about that, so he decided to brave the light. He opened his eyes, taking a deep breath as he let them adjust. There was enough light to see the ceiling, but judging by the flickering shadows it was from candles. If this place had electricity, the generators weren’t running right now.
He turned his head back and forth, ignoring the pounding, as he tried to get a sense of where he was. A small room with a mattress over in the corner, no bed frame, a desk and some shelves with clothes and books. As for himself—well, he was strapped to a gurney.
The room had an institutional feel, but not quite like a hospital. A school, maybe? He wished he could get a look out the window, but he wasn’t at the right angle.
His stomach rumbled. God, he was so hungry. Were they going to leave him here to starve?
The door opened just then, and a man stepped inside. He was older—forty, at least—but tough and muscular. And there was a fresh, ugly scar across his face, like someone had broken a bottle against it. Cairo swallowed, remembering how brutal the fight had gotten.
The guy paused to shut the door behind him, and then turned back to Cairo again, folding his arms across his chest. “How you feeling?”
He had a light accent. Spanish, probably—maybe Portuguese—but his English was fine. And he wasn’t looking at Cairo with the contempt some tough guys have for pretty boys. So Cairo swallowed again and managed a shrug in response.
The guy nodded. “Good. First thing’s first. I’m Adam Santos. What’s your name?”
He opened his mouth, but he couldn’t get the word out. Fuck. It was like he was in grammar school again, too crushed by idiotic anxieties to speak to anyone but his family. He’d spent six years of his life in total silence in class, day in and day out.
Adam narrowed his eyes at him. “Can you talk?”
Cairo looked away and shook his head.
“But you can hear me and understand me?”
Adam kept staring at him. Cairo could feel his eyes prodding him. “Okay. Can you write your answers?”
Another nod, but this time he forced himself to look at the guy again.
Adam turned toward the shelf and rustled up a pen and notepad. He walked back over to Cairo, but didn’t undo the restraints. Instead, he just put the pen in his right hand and held the notepad up to it. “Name?”
Cairo wrote it, and then watched Adam furrow his brow.
“Cairo Murphy?” he asked. “Cairo, like the city in Egypt?”
He nodded again.
He could get away with nineteen. He had always looked young for his age, and it might not be a bad thing to have this guy think of him as just a kid. But somehow lying to him did not seem like a good idea. So he opted for honesty and wrote down “23.”
“Did you survive the sweats? Or did you never catch it?”
He winced, remembering his experience with the killer disease and scribbled, “Survived.”
“Good. We don’t have to worry about you catching it again, then. All right, Cairo.” He took the pen back and tossed it to the side, along with the notebook. “You don’t need to answer any more questions right now. You just need to listen.”
Cairo didn’t nod. He didn’t move at all. He just stared up at the man, unblinking.
“You’ve been out of it for almost a day. Most of your gang are dead. You, a kid named David and a girl named Tania are the only ones who survived.” He paused. “I’m not going to bother with sympathy. We’re fucking trying to rebuild, while you scum attack anyone you think might be weak—and you pick over any bones you can find.”
Cairo kept staring at him, trying not to visibly shrink back from the guy.
Adam took a deep breath. “But that play is over. You lived, you’re here, so now you’re my responsibility. Prove to me that you can grow the fuck up and be useful to this community, and your life will be okay.”
Cairo finally managed another nod.
“All right. Let’s get you off this gurney. The Doc wants it back. I’m going to undo these restraints. Don’t get any stupid ideas about revenge. You try anything, and you won’t live to regret it. And it won’t be pretty. I can’t waste a fucking bullet on you.”
A very slow nod—he didn’t think that was an empty threat.
“Come on,” Adam said, once the restraints were off. “If you’re okay to stand up, we’ll get the Doc to check over you, and then get you some food. Stick close to me. You’re not going to have many fans here.”
Adam stayed in the room as the doc checked Cairo out—no way he was going to trust the kid alone with her. But he seemed subdued enough as she examined him.
She pursed her lips when Adam explained that Cairo couldn’t talk. Then she kept speaking to the kid like she expected a verbal response and not just a nod or a shrug. She didn’t get angry at his continued silence, though.
Eventually Adam relaxed and leaned back against the wall, giving himself a chance to really study the young man. Cairo was pretty, with those dark eyes contrasting with that dirty blond hair. He was too thin, but weren’t they all? Well, maybe not to that extent. Cairo’s ribs were ready to bust out of his skin.
But yeah, he was pretty. But pretty boys had never been Adam’s thing. Juan had been hefty and muscular like himself, just squat instead of tall. He’d had this ‘don’t-fuck-with-me’ vibe—until he smiled. Adam felt his throat tighten. He still hadn’t gotten past the loss of that smile. Hell, he still couldn’t believe that a big, healthy guy like Juan could succumb to that damn sweating virus.
He shook himself. Juan was dead, and Cairo was just a prisoner who would hopefully become a useful member of the community. Adam had no interest in him in any other capacity.
Once the doc was finished, Adam brought Cairo to the supply room and together they dragged an extra mattress back to his quarters—a thin one, but it would do. Adam set it on the opposite side of the room, near a convenient pipe.
“It’s going to take some time for me to trust you,” he explained. “I’m going to cuff your wrist to this pipe at night.”
Cairo answered with a shrug.
They were low on blankets, so he took two from his own stash. “It’s warm. These should do for now. I don’t have an extra pillow, though.”
“Let’s get some food. Follow me to the cafeteria.”
Cairo obeyed him—maybe a little too literally. Adam found himself with a silent shadow as they made their way across the school and into the old lunchroom. Various members of the community were there, sitting at the long tables like chatty eighth graders. Most of them glanced at Adam, nodded their greetings and steadfastly ignored the boy. That was probably for the best. Tempers were hot, memories of the raid were still fresh, and people weren’t in a forgiving mood.
They ate quickly; Cairo didn’t seem to want to linger any more than Adam did. Hell, Adam would have just brought their food back to their room if not for the constant threat of roaches.
Cairo shadowed him again as they walked back. The kid seemed to relax a bit once Adam shut the door behind them.
Adam glanced at the window. “It’s getting dark, and I don’t want to waste batteries or candles for light. We may as well get some sleep.”
He took out the cuffs as he spoke. Cairo watched him without expression and then, after yet another shrug, walked over to his mattress, stripped down to his boxers, sat down and held his wrist out next to the pipe.
Adam cuffed him, pausing only to stare down at him for a moment. “Night, Cairo.”
Cairo answered with a blank expression and a minuscule wave of his free hand. And that, Adam supposed, was about as friendly a reaction as he could hope for.
Cairo stretched out on the mattress, facing the wall, and listened as his captor got ready for bed. He didn’t blame the guy for cuffing him. His brother would have taken the first opportunity to bash Adam’s brains in and make his escape, taking as much stuff with him as possible.
Is that what Jack would want him to do? Was he rolling over in his grave—Jesus, did he have a grave? Probably not, but Adam and his buddies wouldn’t have left the bodies to rot. You couldn’t, not with the virus still out there. So burning corpses was the common practice now. And not in a nice, fancy crematorium. Makeshift funeral pyres had to do.
Cairo closed his eyes and pictured Jack’s body burning up. The image didn’t summon any grief or outrage from inside him. He was too numb. Too numb to mourn, to numb to feel anything but a detached gratitude toward his captor. The guy could have killed him outright. There were probably people here who thought he should have—but Adam seemed to have enough authority to keep him alive.
And however numb he was, staying alive still felt like a good idea.
Cairo proved to be a hard worker. Adam soon found out that he was especially good at space management and organizing stuff. He could figure out how to fit supplies where they needed to go, how to label them and how to find them again—surprisingly valuable skills.
But his presence continued to raise some eyebrows. Some people were openly hostile. Well, no kidding. The boy had been part of the gang that caused so many casualties. But since he didn’t do much except shrink behind Adam, they eventually shrugged and gave up noticing him.
A few, like the Doc, were kind to him. She was the only one, though, who went out of her way to talk to him. Not that the kid ever responded. He still refused to talk. And ‘refused’ was the right word. He could talk. Adam had heard his voice twice now.
Once he had been outright spying on him. It was the first time he’d set Cairo to work on his own, and he wasn’t taking any chances. The kid had dropped a box on his foot, and yelled out, “Fuck!”
The second time—the second time it must have been memories of the fight at the old supermarket. The kid woke up screaming. Adam crouched down and shook him awake, but Cairo pushed him away with his free hand and then mumbled a sorry.
Adam quirked an eyebrow at him. “You okay?”
Cairo just shrugged—a movement Adam could barely make out, even as his eyes adjusted to the dark.
“You just told me you were sorry. Back to not talking already?”
He felt Cairo tense up at that, but the kid still didn’t say anything.
“All right,” Adam said. “That’s fine. Guess you’ll talk when you’re ready.”
He stood up, but Cairo grabbed his hand, urging him back down. Adam didn’t crouch this time. He sat next to Cairo instead, waiting. But the kid still didn’t open his mouth.
Finally Adam sighed and leaned back, so that he could rest against the pipe. The same pipe he had cuffed Cairo’s wrist too. He shook his head a little and unhooked the key from the chain that hung around his neck. He fiddled with the cuffs for a moment—they were hard to unlock in the dark—and then Cairo was free.
“There,” Adam said. “I’m going to trust you from now on. Don’t screw that up.”
Cairo’s only response was to sit a little closer to him. Adam grunted and put what he hoped was a brotherly arm around him. “Well, if you’re not going to talk, I guess you can listen to me for a while.”
The kid didn’t raise any objections, so Adam started telling him about how the Lincolnite community came together a few months after the sweating plague hit, made up of survivors from around the area. He talked about how they re-purposed the old Lincoln School as their base of operations, even while enduring grim months without enough food and scarcely any fuel for the generators. Hell, even now, after some settled trade with other communities, their fuel was still strictly rationed.
But he found himself reminiscing about the time before the plague too. He even talked about Juan. Cairo turned toward him in surprise, nudging him.
“What? You upset that I’m gay?”
The kid shook his head fast and hard.
“Okay, okay. Just surprised, huh? What about you? You straight?” Adam had never had a reliable gaydar, especially when it came to the pretty boys.
He shook his head again, slower this time.
Fuck. That complicated things. But why? Cairo still wasn’t his type. Besides, he’d want someone closer to his own age. And Adam—Adam didn’t want anyone after Juan. He didn’t have the time for anyone either. His own hand had to be enough to satisfy him now.
Cairo nudged him again.
“What? Oh, yeah. Juan. Well, like I was saying, he had a way with anything mechanical. This one time . . .” he kept talking and Cairo, as far as he could tell, kept listening. For a while, anyway, until he nodded off.
Adam withdrew his arm and managed to get up without waking him. He pushed Cairo down on the mattress and pulled the blankets back over him. Then he walked across the room and collapsed on his own mattress. But he was wide awake now, and it was a long time before he finally snatched some sleep.
Cairo spent the next few days adjusting his image of Adam. His only emotion was relief—relief that Adam was gay. The guy had just become that much safer. He would never disown Cairo or throw him to the wolves for being gay too.
Not that Cairo had really thought that would happen. Adam seemed too decent for that. But the relief was present and almost tangible just the same.
Meanwhile, he fell into a comfortable enough routine. He buried himself in work during the day. Adam trusted him enough to let him work on his own now. That suited him fine, as long as Adam didn’t go too far away. When he had to leave the area, Cairo stopped what he was working on and followed him. He justified that to himself easily: there were people here who hated him. If they caught him on his own, they might get some ideas.
Adam must have thought the same, because he never complained about Cairo trailing after him.
But for the most part, Adam stayed in the vicinity. That made Cairo’s work easier. His first major job was to redo the inventory all the supplies. There was a basic inventory to work from, but it was half-assed and disorganized.
He took his meals with Adam in the cafeteria. Adam started sitting at the same table with the couple who were—what was the word? Guarding? Rehabilitating?—Tania and David. So he ended up right next to the other survivors from his old gang. Maybe Adam hoped he’d open his mouth around them. But it didn’t work. He listened to them, and took a certain comfort in their nearness, but he had no words for himself.
They weren’t numb like he was. Their grief was raw and palpable—and their whispered talk centered on what went wrong at the old supermarket. If he could have spoken, he would have told them to get past it. That play was over, just like Adam said.
At night he and Adam would shut themselves away in their room. Adam was done with human company by then—people brought him problems all day—so he always shut and locked his door with a look of satisfaction.
Sometimes Adam would talk to him and tell him more about the community, or his past, or what had happened that day. But mostly he seemed to like the companionable silence that fell between them.
He didn’t accept the not-talking thing, though.
“I spoke with the doc today,” Adam said one night. “About you not speaking, even though you can.”
Cairo had been sitting on his mattress, relaxing with one of Adam’s books, but he stiffened at that and looked up at the guy.
“She said you might be selectively mute,” Adam explained, digging his hands into his pockets and looking toward the window. “She said—she said not to push you, but that I should give you opportunities to talk. You know. Ask you questions and stuff.”
Cairo just watched him.
Adam sighed, taking his hands back out of his pockets. Then he crossed the room and took a seat beside him. “She also said that sometimes selective mutes talk and talk and talk to a couple of choice people. They talk so much that you can’t shut them up.”
Cairo snorted. That’s exactly how he was when he was a kid. Totally silent at school, but he talked his family’s ear off at home. Especially Jack’s—he always got the worst of it.
“So, um, listen,” Adam continued. “I’m okay with the silence. But, you know, I’m okay with chatter too. You don’t have to feel like you need to spare me or anything.”
His stomach sank. He didn’t want Adam to be like Jack to him. Adam wasn’t Jack. Things weren’t complicated with him like they had been with Jack. And he was safe with Adam. Jack had almost gotten him killed. So he shook his head.
Adam’s eyes were boring into him. “You don’t want to talk to me at all, huh?”
He shook his head again.
Adam shrugged. “All right. That’s all I wanted to say.”
And with that, Adam stood up, walked over to his own mattress, and stretched out on it. He didn’t say anything as the last of the daylight faded away.
Cairo couldn’t fall asleep. He’d been staring at the wall so long that the lack of light didn’t matter. He could pick out all the nicks and scratches.
Had he offended Adam? Probably not, right? He seemed a hard guy to offend. And maybe he was just as happy with Cairo’s silence. Cairo was the one guy in the whole fucking community who didn’t hound him for anything.
He rolled over and stared at Adam. He was lying on his back with his hands propping up his head. He looked like he was awake too.
Sometimes Adam masturbated himself to sleep on nights like this—nights when Cairo was quiet enough that Adam probably thought he was asleep. Cairo envied him. He was so numb that even his dick seemed disinterested in life. But he had thought about giving Adam a warm, helping hand. Partly in gratitude, partly to be closer to the one human being he trusted right now. And partly to be close to any human being again. But he didn’t know how Adam would react.
Adam wasn’t masturbating tonight. He was just lying there, probably staring at the ceiling. Damn it. Was there any point to them both being restless and dissatisfied all night?
Cairo got up and walked over to him. Adam stared up at him with a questioning look. Cairo answered by seating himself on the edge of his mattress.
“What’s the matter?” Adam asked. “You okay?”
“Don’t suppose you came over here to talk?”
He shook his head.
That drew a grin from Adam as he pushed himself up to sit. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. So what’s up?”
There was some light from the window. It wasn’t like the old days, when there would be light from all the street lamps and even all the way from Manhattan, which was two rivers from here. This was just starlight mixed with a sliver of moonlight. But it was enough to make out Adam’s face.
Cairo raised a hand up and put his fingers on Adam’s scar. It ran from his forehead down his nose. It had healed up some, but it was still ugly. Was that the doc’s fault or just the way things were? Maybe there was nothing she could do to pretty up a scar from jagged glass.
Adam caught his breath as Cairo traced it, letting his fingers trail gently up and down the length of it. “Not my best feature,” he managed.
Cairo smiled. It wasn’t, but it wasn’t awful either. It gave him a wary, battle-hardened look. Like if he was on your side, you knew he could protect you.
He moved his fingers down Adam’s cheek, and then down his neck. He felt Adam’s pulse—felt it throb and speed up, and that was all the encouragement he needed. He moved his hand to the back of Adam’s neck and leaned in.
Adam’s lips were dry and papery when he first brushed against them, but surprisingly soft as he pushed harder, urging Adam to open his mouth to him. He didn’t, though. It was like Adam was suddenly paralyzed. But that was fine—Cairo could work with that. He was good at this, he remembered with a smug satisfaction. Maybe he couldn’t feel anything himself, but he could make Adam feel.
But he was feeling the wrong thing. There was something close to panic in Adam’s eyes. “Listen, Cairo, you don’t owe me anything—”
Cairo kissed him quiet. Adam still didn’t let him invade his mouth, but at least he shut up. For a minute, anyway. Then he pushed Cairo off of him and sat up again. “No. No, I need you to listen. You’re—you’re about as pretty as they come, but you’re not my type. And I’m not—I wouldn’t make for the best of partners right now. I’m stuck in the past . . .”
He kept blabbing on—something or other about Juan—but Cairo stopped listening. He got up instead and scrounged around until he found a paper and pencil. He scribbled the only words worth saying on it and handed it to Adam, tossing the pencil aside.
Adam held the paper up to the window and read it out loud. “Harsh reality: Juan is dead and I’m here. And are you seriously kicking me out of bed?”
There was a moment of stunned silence. Cairo’s stomach clenched. Those sparse words had seemed like a good idea just a minute ago. Seducing Adam had seemed like a good idea—a way to get closer to him, a way to guarantee continued protection, a way to start feeling human again. But now he wasn’t so sure. What if Adam threw him out of the room? What if he put him in someone else’s unofficial custody?
But then Adam laughed—a deep throaty laugh. He crumpled up the paper and threw it on the floor. Then he snaked an arm around Cairo and pulled him closer, planting a kiss that wasn’t quite brotherly on his forehead. “You have a point.”
Cairo smiled and pushed him down against the mattress.
There wasn’t much to talk about in the morning. Adam knew he should be questioning Cairo. And he should be thinking up questions that required more than a yes or no answer. But as he lay in bed, his new lover curled up against him, all he could come up with was, “Are we going to make this a habit?”
“Okay. Then we may as well bring your mattress back to the supply room. We’ll keep the blankets, though. They were mine to start with anyway.”
Cairo yawned and then nodded again.
Adam ran his fingers through that dark blonde hair. Cairo smiled and almost purred—funny how he could make these noises but still wouldn’t talk. But that was okay. In truth, he didn’t mind the quiet.
He didn’t mind being used either. He wasn’t an idiot: he could guess the kid had no real feelings for him beyond seeing him as a safe and convenient warm body. Hell, he wasn’t sure Cairo had any real feelings at all right now. He was probably just going through the motions of life.
But that was okay too. It might be the best Cairo could do right now. And as for being used—well Adam was using Cairo to dampen the memories of Juan. And that was the best he could do right now. So it was mutual.
He didn’t put any of that into words. There was no need. They might not have much else, but they did have a silent understanding.
© 2013, Jennifer R. Moss, All Rights Reserved
Special Note: I originally posted this story under my pen name, Miri Thompson, on LiveJournal and Ao3.