KYLE had had a life, once.
Now he had a hiding place in some city he’d never been in and really didn’t want to stay in. It was cold, wet, and windy here. The sounds of a partially iced over lake, one of the Great Lakes, he thought, surrounded him. The past few days were a blur at the best. He’d always thought the fact he was one of the youngest people alive on the entire planet made him, if not special, then at least worthy of keeping alive. Why the pandemic that had wiped out half the human race left every female survivor sterile, he had no clue. He’d been born weeks before it’d struck.
Two days ago he’d been a student, almost ready to graduate and working hard at his first job in his chosen profession. All that had changed when he saw satellite photographs of something he should never have seen. Instead of doing the smart thing and keeping his mouth shut, he’d asked his supervisor about the photographs.
That led to him being arrested.
When the van transferring him to where he’d likely spend the rest of his life—or suffer his execution—slid off the ice-covered road into a ditch, Kyle had escaped. They hadn’t chained or cuffed him, simply locked him in a wire cage in the back of the van. The sides had split open when the van overturned, forcing heavy branches and steel rails from the roadside straight through the vehicle’s side. He’d run, putting his long legs to good use, and he’d almost gotten away unscathed. One of the government agents had fired at him, and the bullet had grazed the round part of his shoulder and ripped his jacket, the only thing he owned right now that provided a bit of warmth.
Stumbling, eyes stinging from the pain, lungs burning from exertion, Kyle kept on running. He’d never been hurt like that. It was the beginning of a line of firsts for him. Now, days later, he was hungry and the only thing he’d had to drink was semi-frozen puddle water. His black T-shirt and denim jacket were no protection against the cold.
Finding a spot near the outskirts of the city, Kyle wedged himself in a narrow alley between two buildings. Crouching low to the ground, he peered out from behind the wall. He’d been separated from his parents for so long he hardly remembered what they looked like. Even their whereabouts were unknown to him. None of his friends, if he could even call them that, would help for fear of being implicated. Those people were more like coworkers anyway, not real friends. He was sure they didn’t really care what had happened to him. He didn’t know anyone his age, though he knew some existed somewhere in the world.
Kyle wasn’t even sure what his crime was.
No food, no money, and no way of getting help or supplies, Kyle was cut off from everything he’d ever known. He had no one, not even marginally, and was so afraid he was numb.
He tried to shove farther back along the wall of his hideout, but there was barely enough room for a six-foot-four guy as it was. When he heard footsteps, Kyle brushed his bangs away from his face, held his breath, and tried to be still and blend into the shadows.
The guy walking down the street took Kyle’s breath away. In another time he’d have hoped this man was into other guys. Now he simply wanted to stay out of his line of sight. He wore drab green and gray clothing meant to blend in. Even his jeans were dark gray. He had short-cropped, dark blond hair, a bit of a five o’clock shadow, and intense green eyes.
Kyle took in every detail from the broad, muscled shoulders to legs almost as long as Kyle’s. He was probably a few inches shorter than Kyle. Only part of the pounding of his heart was from fear of discovery.
He couldn’t get caught, he couldn’t.
The man looked around. He squinted up into the twilight sky and twisted on his heels, first left, then right. Even though the man’s movements were casual, Kyle couldn’t shake the feeling it was him this man was looking for, even though he didn’t wear the uniform of government agents. He carried himself like one. Kyle had seen enough of those people at the university and in the research facility where he’d worked.
A cramp shot through his leg and he hissed in a breath, shifting, then wincing. The man turned and looked right at Kyle’s hiding place. Taking a few steps closer, the man leaned down, cocked his head to one side, and stood straight again. The backpack he carried was dropped from his shoulder and gripped loosely in one hand.
Putting hands on hips, backpack dangling from his crooked fingers, he said, “Out, now.”
Not knowing what to do, Kyle stood on shaky legs, but didn’t move away from his hiding spot.
The man moved closer, reaching out, and brushed his fingers against the blood stain on Kyle’s jacket. “You’re hurt.” He reached for Kyle’s good arm. “Come with me.”
Skirting carefully around him, Kyle saw a pistol sticking out of the man’s waistband. Using his good arm, he darted in and made a grab for it. When the guy twisted away, Kyle kicked at his legs, grabbed the backpack, and took off.
“Crap. Kid, don’t run!” the man yelled. “Why do they always run?” The man had shouted loud enough that Kyle heard him despite running away.
Kyle didn’t look back. He gripped the stolen pack—there had to be something useful or sellable in it—and ran. Pulling air into his nose and blowing it out his mouth in huge puffs that turned frosty in front of him, Kyle used the panic from the sound of footsteps closing in behind him to create more speed. Swinging wide around a corner, he splashed through semi-frozen puddles, soaking his boots and socks, and headed in a direction he hoped would take him to somewhere deserted and with hiding places.
Cutting down an alley, Kyle swore under his breath. Fencing loomed up at the end of the narrow street. With his wounded shoulder, he doubted he could climb very well unless he got good height from a jump. Judging the distance, he stretched out his stride and leapt at the fence.
Fingers reaching for the chain link, they never connected. Something hit him across the back, hard. Kyle dropped to the ground, forced flat on his chest.
“Christ, you run like a freaking jack rabbit,” the man growled out, grabbing Kyle’s arms and yanking them behind his back, making him gasp out a groan. “Well, if you hadn’t grabbed my stuff and run, you wouldn’t be even more hurt right now.”
Once his hands were tied, the weight lifted off his back and Kyle was hauled to his feet. Turned around he looked into the face of his captor, then dropped his gaze to the ground and away from the anger in those mesmerizing eyes. “I- I’m sorry,” Kyle whispered. “I’m… I thought you might have food or water in your bag.”
The man eyed him up and down. “Are you lost?”
“How long have you been out here?”
Shrugging, Kyle licked his lips and tried to think. “Couple of days.”
“How old are you?”
The guy drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Not really old enough to know better.” He rubbed one hand over his face, then across the back of his neck. “You got a name?”
“Kyle.” When the man waved at him with a what else motion, Kyle gave him a small smile. “Anderson.”
“I’m Daniel.” He turned Kyle far enough to see his bound wrists. Taking out a knife, he sliced through the bindings. “And if you run from me again, I will shoot you. Got it?”
“Yes, sir.” Kyle rubbed his wrists.
“Call me sir again and I’ll shoot you twice.”
“Did you get the part where I’m armed?” Daniel reclaimed his pack and stepped away from him.
Despite being pretty much scared out of his mind, Kyle grinned. Daniel looked him over again, face softening. Some of the fear and tension bled out of Kyle and he relaxed a small amount.
“Now let’s try this again. Come with me, I’ll get your wound cared for and get you something to eat. It’s almost completely dark, and we shouldn’t be out here. Especially you!”
Kyle stood there, not knowing what to do. “I thought….” His voice trailed off.
“No, you didn’t think.” Daniel took his arm, grip gentle but very firm. It sparked a feeling of safety through Kyle. He was led to a Jeep parked a few blocks away. Daniel opened the passenger door and gave him a gentle shove. “In, sit, don’t touch anything, and behave.”
DANIEL SHANKS wasn’t in the habit of picking up strays, human or any other kind. He should stick to stray dogs, though with Kyle’s soft brown, almond-shaped eyes and incredibly expressive features, he wasn’t exactly sure the kid wasn’t half hound.
A sudden image of the black and brown puppy he’d plucked off the street when he was sixteen invaded Daniel’s thoughts. It, too, had soft brown almond eyes along with floppy long ears and an ever-wagging tail, even as it drew its last breath. Daniel’s heart wanted to crack, he hadn’t thought of the little dog in so long. The little pooch had been sick and needed to be put down, all for want of a simple vaccine that could have prevented the disease he carried from taking hold. Daniel had learned that lesson early: don’t get involved, stay at a distance.
He’d always made a point to keep all his relationships, professional or personal, casual. Fewer problems that way. Fewer heartaches.
Yet he’d known this boy all of three minutes and he was already making Daniel’s skin itch deep down. Kyle oozed uncertainty and outright fear, and for some reason Daniel couldn’t quite get a handle on, he wanted to remove those feelings from him. It didn’t matter, in twenty minutes they’d be at the Freedom Militia barracks in this area and he could hand the kid off to someone better able to deal with him.
He glanced sideways at the kid next to him as he guided his Jeep through the mostly empty streets. It would be pitch dark soon, he didn’t want to be out in it if he didn’t need to be. “What do you do? Your job?”
“Physicist.” The kid paused, bit his lower lip, and ducked his head, turning it enough Daniel got a look at large, dark eyes and a hint of those dimples he’d seen earlier. Not that Daniel had paid attention to the dimples or to the fact Kyle’s smile was what he could only describe as sweet. “Student actually, physics student.”
Kyle spent most of the ride telling him how he’d been arrested, the van had crashed, and he’d escaped. Daniel decided he was one lucky kid. He’d lived because of sheer dumb luck, nothing else. He’d worked in one of the larger research facilities, probably the one closer to Saint Louis judging by the time he’d spent being transported between arrest and arriving along the southern shore of Lake Erie.
When they pulled to the main gate of the barracks, Daniel heard a soft gasp from the seat beside him. “This where you’re taking me? Don’t they kill people?”
Not looking at Kyle, Daniel chuckled and swung around to the back seat, pulling his pack from where he’d dumped it earlier. “Only ones who call me Danny.” He turned and sat straight again, looking at Kyle.
The kid was white, a thin sheen of sweat covered his upper lip, and he was trembling. Daniel sighed. Apparently this poor guy believed all the hype about the Militia their government spread so liberally. Then, again, if he never had anyone to tell him otherwise, why wouldn’t he?
Daniel realized if he didn’t say something, he’d be chasing this kid down again. He was tired, it was getting late, and running down lost kids once a day was plenty.
“Have people died on missions? I won’t lie to you, yes they have. Are we a feral pack of assassins? No. What we do do is try to prevent more damage than has already been done and get supplies to people who can work on a cure without interference from the government.” Daniel gave Kyle a smirk. “Sometimes we steal those things, and occasionally someone gets beat up.” He was glad some of the color returned to Kyle’s face. Reaching out, he put his hand on the side of the kid’s neck. “No one here is going to hurt you. You have my word on that.”
He only had about a hundred questions to ask Kyle, like exactly what had he seen that was important enough someone wanted him dead or locked away. But from what Kyle had told him on their drive here, Daniel figured the boy was being taken to his death, body to be dumped in the lake. As soon as they were out of the Jeep, he took hold of Kyle’s arm again and felt the solid muscle under his fingers relax. He likely wouldn’t learn more until Kyle trusted him or someone else here. Getting information wasn’t really Daniel’s thing; he’d leave that to others better equipped.
There were several hundred people milling around the various parts of the barracks. Amid a few cat calls and remarks about him going out and coming back with a new boy toy, which he ignored, Daniel led his newfound stray through to the small medical facility they had set up. He’d lost count of the number of men and women here he’d gotten in bed with, literally. No strings, pure entertainment, and blowing off steam, that was his style.
While Kyle had babbled at him the entire ride, now he was silent, lips pressed to a tight line. Daniel steered him to a table with chairs and pushed him at one. “Wait here.”
Kyle sat but looked panic stricken all of a sudden. “Alone? Where are you going?”
Daniel stopped and reminded himself not to get attached to this kid. “I’ll grab you something to eat and drink and have one of the medics come look at your arm.” He held up two fingers and smiled, feeling desperate to reassure the boy. “Two minutes, I promise. Wait there for me.”
He ducked into one of the offices and found two medics, aiming one of the female ones at Kyle. Heading for the commissary, he collected a few bottles of water and some sandwiches.
“Whatcha find?” a deep voice asked from behind him.
Turning, Daniel shrugged at the man: Henri Lefevre. He was not quite as tall as Daniel, but broader—maybe rounder was a better term—with salt and pepper black hair and a thick beard. “Some kid who got loose from a government goon squad.” He rifled through some baskets on a lower shelf. “Don’t we have any ketchup that isn’t forty years old?”
“Saving him and condiments? Wow, must be special. Looks like you found a keeper.”
Daniel turned and glared at Henri when the other man poked at his arm with a thick, stubby finger. “Fuck you. He’s just a lost, hurt kid.”
Henri threw his head back and laughed. “Been there, done that, and you never once brought me condiments.”
Snatching up a few packets, Daniel grumbled, “It’s just ketchup.” He turned on his heels, blocking out Henri’s obnoxious remarks and laughter, and headed back to Kyle.
He didn’t do strays. Really, he didn’t. He had to keep reminding himself of that fact and remembering what happened to a little lost puppy, then later a smart-mouthed, cocky kid who’d joined the Freedom Militia not so long after Daniel had.
Kyle was still sitting where Daniel had put him, palms flat against the table, eyes downcast and focused on some spot between them, but now there was a woman beside him, cleaning the wound. She put a bandage over it and patted it, brushing her fingers over the bulge of Kyle’s shoulder and down his arm. Daniel wanted to slap her hand away and tell her to keep her hands off. That unexpected thought made him stop short and simply dump the food and water on the table.
“Here, eat.” Daniel cracked open one of the bottles of water and shoved one of the wrapped sandwiches closer to Kyle. This stray was not getting under his skin; he wasn’t. “Okay, well, they’ll take good care of you.”
He started to back away, but bumped into Henri instead.
Kyle looked up, dark eyes too bright. His face fell and he bit on his lower lip again. “You’re leaving?” The voice that came out sounded small.
“I… look, they’ll take good care of you here, I promise, and I’ll see you soon.”
It seemed impossible but the large, dark eyes got bigger; the face he looked at seemed even younger, more lost. Daniel nodded, sidestepped Henri, and started to walk away.
“Thank you,” Kyle’s soft voice had a slight wobble, “for not killing me and all.”
Daniel stopped in his tracks, dropped his chin to his chest, and heaved a sigh. He did not do strays. Turning around he grabbed the unopened bottles of water and the two remaining sandwiches off the table and stuffed them into his pack. Holding out his hand at the woman medic, he waggled his fingers. “Give me some extra antiseptic and bandages for a few days.”
“Huh?” She looked up at him, surprise all over her face.
“Just… please?” When she laid the requested items in his hand, he stuffed those into his pack too. Moving around the table, he slipped his fingers under Kyle’s good shoulder and tugged. “C’mon.”
Daniel jerked harder on Kyle’s arm. “Are you coming or not? You’d better be housebroken. It’s already dark and I want to be home before it gets any later.”
“I—ye-yes.” Kyle was out of the chair, moving so fast he got tangled in it and would have hit the floor had Daniel not already been holding his arm.
Marching toward the barracks entrance, Kyle in tow and scrambling to keep up, Daniel ignored the snickers and looks of his fellow militia members. He hit the door with one hand and didn’t look back to see if it was shut properly or not before heading for his Jeep.
Daniel Shanks didn’t do strays. He didn’t!
Except apparently he did.