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Busy Making Other Plans

Guest wildforce

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Story Title: Busy Making Other Plans
Type of Story: Short/Medium Fic
Characters: Casey, April, Jett
BTTB rating: T
Genre: Drama
Spoilers: No. I started this when Casey moved out of the share home into Natalie's to get away from Kyle, and I haven't adjusted it since.
Warnings: Various offscreen deaths, not graphic.

Summary: Casey survives the end of his world. Now he has to learn how to live again. Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.

This is my very first post; I read all the rules, but please point out if I've done anything wrong.

No one knew where the Virus came from. By the time they started worrying about it, it was too late. If you were an adult, you caught it. If you caught it, you died.

All over the world children were left to do the best they could, to draw together or push apart, to find their way or to flounder and become lost. Some tried to survive on their own; some formed groups, replacing the families they'd lost. Some battled through alone, some learned to rely on those around them.

And some took a while to learn anything at all.

Chapter One

Kyle turns out to be a good guy, in the end.

Even one day before the end, Casey would have said otherwise. Kyle, stronger than Brax and Heath as they sicken faster, drags him into the bush surrounding Summer Bay, in a strange reenactment of their first meeting; he spends two days forcing Casey to learn as much as he can, edible plants, non edible plants, which animals to hunt, which animals to leave alone, which to avoid on pain of death. Two days during which he gets weaker and weaker, coughs more and more often, and refuses to let Casey return to town.

He gives in on the third day, when he can't actually prevent Casey from putting him into the car.

"You'll want to avoid cities," he says breathlessly as they draw closer to Summer Bay.

"Dead bodies aren't actually a vector for disease, you know, that's a myth."

"Not that. I mean, that, but - this isn't affecting kids. It's killing all the adults, but not the kids. Summer Bay's probably safe, but - you're only one, and you can be overpowered. And you can't afford that now."

Casey glances at the back seat. Darcy is silent and watchful, just as she has been ever since Casey dragged her from her home. Mangrove River is not known for its children; it's not somewhere people live, it's somewhere they wait to leave. But there are children, and young teens, and they've passed several, some crying, some staring into space, some staring at them. One boy threw a rock at the car, but he'd run when Casey made a move in his direction.

To his shame, it was Kyle who thought of Darcy, Kyle who's laying plans for them. Casey wants to hate him; he stole Casey's chance to be with his brothers. He wants to thank him; he made sure Casey wouldn't have to be with his brothers.

It's complicated. But then, complicated and Kyle are old friends.

Kyle coughs, long and hard. Casey pushes a bottle of water in his direction and pretends not to notice the blood splattered on his hand.

He burns the house, that first day back.

He takes only a couple of things. Kyle's guitar; one of Rocco's baby suits, folded neatly into a back corner of Heath's drawers. He can't find anything that says *Brax*, so in the end he takes a picture of the three of them, laughing together on the beach, sun drenched and happy. He vaguely remembers it being taken in their early days in the Bay.

He leaves his brothers, all three, together inside.

Darcy sits on the path outside the Palmers - Jett isn't around, and Casey doesn't have the energy to worry about him - and watches while Casey carefully drenches the garden, the fences, the driveway, getting everything as wet as possible to prevent the fire spreading. He's backed all three cars down the road, out of harms' way.

Once he's satisfied, he douses the house, inside and out, and sets it alight.

April's sitting next to Darcy the next time he looks up. She looks tired, and even thinner than usual, although that shouldn't be possible; as little as two weeks ago, things were more or less normal. She can't have lost much weight since then.

Then he remembers, *OCD*.

He doesn't join them, not until the house is ashes. Darcy's asleep on the Palmer's lawn, head resting on Casey's jacket. April's sitting with her back against John's car, watching both of them.

Casey sits beside her, and for a long time they're quiet.

"I wouldn't let her in the house," he says finally. "Not when Heath -" He runs out of words, but April just nods. "Have you seen anyone else?"

"I was at the Walker's," she says vaguely, and Casey remembers that Dex is a year older than her.

Tamara, his desert angel, is two years older than him, closer to Kyle's age. Casey still can't believe he's alive, standing as he is on the older side of the danger zone; there's no chance she survived.

Sasha, though, Sasha's younger, younger than April.

"What about Sasha?" he asks.

"She wasn't there."

"Jett? Um, those two kids up at the Park; Maddy, and what's his name? April, haven't you seen *anyone*?"

"Can..." She swallows, glancing at the smoldering remains of his home. "Can you do that again? At the Beach House?"

They end up at Summer Bay House. There's no sign of Maddy or Spencer, and Casey refuses to let Darcy upstairs, not until he's done some work. Most of the vans are empty, and they move in there until they can think of something better.

Casey leaves April with Darcy and spends most of a day carrying as many supplies as he can from around the town to the park. He starts in shops, cafes, restaurants, and moves on to houses. In every home his first job is to place the bodies in one room, murmur a prayer or an apology or *something*, and shut them in.

He doesn't believe in God. Never has, really. But maybe someone's listening, and it feels wrong not to acknowledge that these were people not so long ago, people he knew and talked to.

Funerals are for the living, after all.

He visits the library, too, painstakingly sorting through books, taking anything he thinks might help. Cooking books, DIY guides. Kyle had suggested several things they'd need to pay attention to; hygiene, basic first aid. He takes novels, too, for April and the kids, anything to help pass the time.

April doesn't question him, just stacks supplies in the pantry, the shed, the attic. She takes Darcy down to the beach to fish, and Casey sets about clearing the house and the two occupied vans. He's dug two graves, out in the bush just behind the property - one for the Stewarts, one for the guests - and he whispers apologies as he carries the bodies.

Jett's sitting by the grave when he returns with the last one. "Your house burned," he observes. He's filthy, must have been living wild, but Casey can't quite figure out why.

"Yeah." He scrubs an arm across his forehead. "I burned it."

Jett nods, peering incuriously into the grave. "Want some help?"


They fill the grave in together, Jett with the shovel, Casey with his hands. Jett trails Casey back to the house, helps him strip the beds of what remains of the sheets, half heartedly scrubs in the bucket out on the back porch. Casey grills the last of the meat while Jett wanders around, peering idly in windows.

Casey's exhausted, but he adds *take care of the Palmers* to tomorrow's to do list.

April, god bless her, doesn't react when she sees Jett, just smiles vaguely at him and sends Darcy to clean up. They've caught a couple of fish and a handful of crabs; tomorrow's dinner is sorted.

There's no power. Casey spends a while fiddling with switches and fuses before he accepts it. It seems sudden, to him; the power was still on when Kyle took him out of the Bay.

Luckily, the Stewarts were prepared. There are torches, and candles that he won't let the kids near, the barbecue can run on wood or charcoal and there's a gas hob and bottle. It's not like there's any TV to watch anyway.

He finds a little battery radio and turns it on, scanning idly up and down the bands. There's nothing there, static on every station. He makes a note to check it every day, drops it in a corner and more or less forgets about it.

Oddly, the big difficulty is washing clothes. Crockery can be done in a basin or bucket; he misses music, but they get used to it. They figure out how to cook on the hob, and for now at least, it's warm enough that they don't need extra heat.

But clothes are complicated and hard to wash by hand. They all get into the habit of wearing only a couple of outfits, the lighter, easier to wash stuff. It's going to be difficult in winter, but they can deal with this for now.

Casey's glad of Jett.

The boy seems to have blocked out everything that's happened. Casey offers to fetch anything from his house, if he wants, but he just stares blankly. Casey rescues a couple of pictures, in the end, before repeating his arson act. There's nothing in there they particularly need, and it's the easiest way.

Having Jett around means Casey can roam further, bringing him along and leaving April and Darcy at home. They risk Yabbie Creek one day, but it's mostly ransacked and their car is attacked twice; Casey thinks he might have broken the leg of one particularly tenacious boy.

He doesn't even consider Mangrove River.

He goes back to Angelo's, finds Brax's supplier list. Most of them are farmers, that's no good to him, but there's a couple of wholesalers. He chooses the nearest one, siphons the gas from Heath and Kyle's cars and loads it into Brax's. He makes April promise to stay close to the House, promises Darcy to bring her back something nice, and he and Jett set out early one morning, just before dawn.

The roads are empty, apart from the stalled or crashed cars. Casey knows there have to be other kids in the town; most of Summer Bay's school kids came from the surrounds, not the town, but there should still be others. But they haven't seen anyone, the two fires didn't flush anyone out, and he can't see any evidence of scavenging apart from his own.

The warehouse they're heading for is in a suburb a couple of hours away. Casey lets Jett choose the CDs - there's no radio, of course - and they sing along, mostly off key. The only low note comes when Jett abruptly turns off the music and asks "Did you put them together?"


"When you burned them. Did you put them together first?"

"Yeah." It's the first time Jett has acknowledged what's happened, but Casey doesn't push it, just nods. "Yeah, I put them together."

"Good. They'd like that."

He turns the CD back on.

Brax's supplier is a warehouse in a corner of an industrial park, all anonymous entrances and metal shutters and huge gates. Casey has to boost Jett over the gate to find the manual release; they open it just enough to get the car through and lock it again behind them. There's no sign that anyone's been here, but Casey's not taking any chances.

The warehouse, it turns out, stocks just about everything. Shelves three times Casey's height are stacked five layers deep; Jett jogs around the inside of the walls and takes just over ten minutes to make it back to him. Casey manages to find a layout plan, pinned up inside the office, and they start going.

There's three trucks in the loading bay, all empty. Casey checks the fuel; they'll all at least get to Summer Bay and back. With less worry about space he relaxes, lets Jett pick some luxury items as well as necessary stuff.

He wonders about moving their little group here. There's no water supply, but in all other ways it's great; there's plenty of bottled water, and he could probably fix up a tank or something on the roof.

April would hate it. She's trying her best, but the OCD she managed in more civilized surroundings is flaring under the pressures of this new life. She's trying to control it with meditation, since they can't get her medication anymore, but Casey often wakes at night to find her cleaning or tidying or counting and recounting the supplies. Sometimes he can talk her out of it; more often he can't, just sits with her until the kids wake up. This place, dusty and echoey and dirty, impossible to clean, impossible to count...

No. It would kill her. They'll just have to hope no one else finds it before they can come back.

He and Jett cram the first truck as full as they possibly can, celebrating with Coke and chocolate. Jett locks the gates again as they leave, scrambling up a pallet and kicking it away once he's on the wall. The truck's much harder to manage than Casey anticipated, but the warehouse roads give him some practise and it's not like there's other traffic to worry about. He doesn't try to get it up Summer Bay House's steeply inclined drive, though. There's no point anyway; they can't store all these goods in the House, not if they want to keep living there. He'll have to think of something else.

He's brought a handful of pretty ribbons for Darcy - and of course Jett stuffed as much chocolate as he could into the truck - and a bottle of perfume for April, one he vaguely recalls her mentioning before. She smiles and thanks him, dabbing it on neatly.

He's also brought some cleaning supplies, and she's far more grateful for those. He doesn't take it personally.

Darcy solves the storage problem, in the end. She and Casey have been spending time on the beach, fishing and crab hunting, and she usually wanders a little while he's cleaning and gutting their catch. Casey's stopped worrying about her. She's careful around the cliffs and he's fairly sure no one else is in town.

He straightens, catch neatly gutted in a bucket at his feet, and eyes the waves longingly for a moment before turning away. He hasn't gone surfing since this all happened. His board's still at Natalie's, but it seems unimportant now.

"Darcy?" He can't see her, but the sun's in his eyes. Holding up a hand to block it, he peers down the beach. "Darce!"

She appears from nowhere, scrambling over rocks at the base of the cliff, catching his hand and tugging urgently. Casey wedges the bucket of fish into the sand at the base of a rock, following her back the way she came. She scrambles for a crack in the cliff face, vanishing when he blinks.

Frowning, he moves closer, discovering that the crack bends sharply and widens into a tunnel. Darcy pulls a light stick from a crack in the wall - he feels vaguely proud that the emergency kits he's made everyone carry are proving themselves - and forges ahead down the tunnel, Casey on her heels.

It leads into caves, a whole series of them opening from each other, some bigger than others. They're surprisingly dry, and Casey nods in satisfaction. "This is perfect. Well done, Darce."

She nods. "I thought it would."

Casey stares for a minute before sweeping her into his arms, hanging on tightly.

(Forgive my ignorance; when I post the next chapter, it goes on this thread? Or a new one? Thanks!)

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chapter Two

A dog turns up, some kind of Alsatian crossbreed mutt. Casey sees it around town, hiding behind buildings, watching them. He's wary, because any dog that's survived this long has to be partly feral, but it doesn't try to come near them so he doesn't try to chase it away.

The kids catch on after a while, throwing it scraps, trying to coax it out. Casey extracts promises from everyone not to go near it, not to try and touch it, not to chase it down. Everyone promises, and as far as he can tell they're obeying.

It takes a while, but they coax the dog into leaving the shelter of the buildings. It's still skittish, and they don't try to approach, but it takes food from them. Casey gives in and brings back a case of dog food and bags of treats the next time he goes out of town.

The kids gradually draw the dog up to Summer Bay House by leaving treats along the road. By the time it's in the garden it's accepting pats and strokes. The day it licks Casey's hand, he gives in and calls a vote to name it.

For whatever reason, the kids settle on Polly. Casey doesn't ask where they got the name from, just praises it and takes the next chance to slip the tag off Polly's collar. He tosses it into the ocean next time he's down there.

It's a new world, after all.

Casey reconsiders on the farms, takes Darcy and Jett to the nearest one. The kids chase chickens around the yard while he investigates the house. The basement and pantry have preserved food, and there's fuel for a generator. He packs the food into boxes and bags, stacks them by the back door, and makes a mental note to check out the generator. He's not much of an electrician, but modern models are pretty much plug and play.

Jett's cornered a couple of piglets in the barn. Darcy's found some chicken seed somewhere and is patiently coaxing the chickens out of hiding. Casey watches for a moment, smiling at her delight.

She looks up and sees him, grinning. "There's ducks, too!" she calls.

"I think we'll have to leave the ducks behind," he says regretfully. "We have enough trouble with water, and they need to swim all the time. But the chickens, and the pigs, we can manage." He's killed chickens before; never a pig, but he'll figure it out. They're doing okay for protein, with the fish, but meat would be nice.

Jett finishes blocking the barn door, shading his eyes to look across the fields. "What about the cows?"

"They'll be out of milk, and I'm not risking a bull right now. We'll come back in spring, maybe we can catch one then."

"There's sheep..."

"Dunno how to raise them, mate. Sheep take a lot of work."

Jett grins suddenly. "Goats! I saw goats in one of the fields!"

Goats could work, Casey admits. Easier to keep than cows, anyway. "We'll look, okay? Help me find the generator now, I want to check it out."

They return to Summer Bay House with seven hens and a rooster, three piglets, two goats and a kid, and the boxes and bags of preserved food. The generator, it turns out, was too well wired into the house; Casey's pretty sure he can't dismantle it without destroying it completely. They'll find another way.

The kids burst into the House, chattering loudly, and immediately fall silent. Casey glances up, alert, and slowly relatches the truck, heading around the outside of the house to come in through the kitchen door. He wonders briefly about finding Polly, but if she's not in the House she's locked into one of the vans, and he doesn't have time to look for her.

Jett's voice rises, sharp and accusing, and Darcy screams. Casey forces himself to count to three - he can't bear to wait any longer - before slipping in, leaning against the wall to study what's going on.

Jett's on the floor, a red mark rising on his cheek and blood on his lip. Darcy's standing behind him, hands pressed tightly over her mouth. April's sitting at the table, hands neatly folded on its' surface; Casey recognizes the signs of an OCD attack, knows she's barely restraining herself from scrubbing at the drops of blood on the floor.

There's a boy standing over her, a boy about her own age, snarling something. Another stands over the kids. Neither is armed, as far as Casey can see, but they're bigger than anyone else in the room and clearly not afraid to hit kids.

Jett sees him. His eyes widen and he looks away hurriedly, trying not to draw attention.

"There's only us!" he says loudly, drawing their gaze. "She's already told you!"

"So you drove that truck, I suppose?" the boy standing over them sneers. Casey recognizes his voice with a shock; the younger brother of one of the River Boys, already a criminal before he'd hit his teens. He'd been sent to juvie some years back, Casey thought, assaulting his girlfriend of the time. Doug, that was his name.

He swallows, hard. April is following Jett's lead, insisting that there's only three of them here. Darcy has retreated back into silence and distance, watching them without reaction.

Doug raises a hand to strike April and Casey bolts out of hiding, tackling him around the waist and driving him to the floor. Jett lunges at the second boy; he can't take him down, but he distracts him until Darcy smacks him on the head with a saucepan. He sinks to the floor, dazed.

Casey has Doug under control, a knee planted firmly in his back and one arm twisted up almost to his shoulder. "I see you haven't changed," he hisses. "Still picking on women and kids. Too chicken to take on someone your own size?"

"Braxton," Doug snarls.

"You're lucky it was me and not one of the others," he says firmly. "They're not as forgiving as I am. Jett, get the duct tape."

With the two secured he leaves Jett to watch them and takes the girls to unload the truck. April's shaking, but she brushes off his concern and there's not much he can do. Darcy's still silent, but she smiles tremulously when he asks if she's okay.

The goats are shoved unceremoniously into a shed, the chickens into a dog run, and the pigs in a fenced off section of yard. Casey piles the extra supplies into an untidy heap in a corner, knowing that won't help April and unable to think of anything else to do. He needs to get those two out of here before any of their friends come looking.

Once the truck is empty he and Jett force Doug and his friend into the back. He leaves Jett behind, over his objections, and drives off, making no effort to soften the trip for his unwilling passengers.

Halfway between Summer Bay and Mangrove River he stops, letting them sit for a while before opening the back. Doug glares at him. The friend, only coming around now, just looks confused.

"My group and I have discussed it," he announced. "We can forget this ever happened, if you stay out of Summer Bay."

"Group," Doug spits at him. "Kids and a girl. We'll be back, Braxton."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Casey says quietly.

And he really is. Because he can't tolerate threats to his group. No matter what it costs him personally.

For weeks he's been wishing for Brax. Taking care of others always seemed to come so naturally to him. He's wished for Natalie, calm and confident; he could have unloaded all his worries on her without fear of judgment. He's spent nights wishing Tamara was with him, for the simple comfort of touching another person. He's even found himself wishing for Kyle; nothing ever rattled him, and he knew a surprising amount.

Right now, though, the brother he needs is Heath.

He abandons the truck when he's finished, walking back to Summer Bay. It takes most of the night; he fugues out at some point, and when he comes back to himself he's on the beach, mostly naked and soaked to the skin. Blood streaks across his skin; it's even dried into his hair, sticky and uncomfortable.

Jett comes down a while after sunrise; he's carrying fishing equipment, but he abandons it, helping Casey to clean up without comment. Casey's knuckles are bruised and swollen, painful to touch, but they do their best to make him semi-presentable again.

Casey hunts crabs while his clothes dry; they're filthy, but the blood's faded enough to not be noticeable, and he needs to wear something when they head back to the house. Jett abruptly starts talking, mostly nonsense, random thoughts about fishing and growing things and raising their animals. Casey listens, but most of it washes over him, simple noise.

Eventually Jett reels his lines in, says something about no bites, suggests heading back to the House. And Casey freezes. His whole body locks; he simply can't make himself move, can't conceive of going back to them now. How can he? He's no better than Doug and his cronies.

Jett seems to understand. He doesn't try and make Casey move, just takes the equipment and heads back up to the House. Casey finds a dune, sits in the lee, and watches the waves. For the first time in a long time, he thinks about going to get his board.

Maybe he could just keep swimming out.

April sits down beside him, watches the waves, says nothing. She has a jacket draped over her arm - Harvey's, from the look of it - but she doesn't try and give it to him, and he doesn't try to take it. They just watch the waves together.

When Casey breaks, curling around the sobs forcing their way out, April tugs him down until his head rests in her lap and lets him cry.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Chapter Three

Casey's drowning.

Jett's surprisingly helpful, but he's still repressing any actual memories, treating this like a bizzare holiday camp. Darcy's good with the animals, feeding the chicks and piglets, taking care of collecting the eggs, and she's the only one with the knack for milking the goat. On her good days, April does fine, cooking, cleaning, keeping them together. On her bad days, it's a different story.

Casey yells at her a couple of times. He doesn't mean to(,) and he's sorry afterwards, and so far he's retained enough control to leave once he gets to that point. He's not built to be a house mother, and he can't understand why it's so important that she count every pea before she eats one, or takes a particular path through the park, or only wears clothes of a certain color.

He's never hit a girl; he's never hit a child. April is both, really. But he's getting closer and closer all the time, and he can sense Brax watching and shaking his head in disappointment.

Mostly, he deals by going down to the Surf Club and abusing the punching bags there. April never comments when he returns, accepts his apologies with a faint smile, and they never discuss it. He knows it's unhealthy, but he can't see any other way around it; he can't talk to the kids about this, and it's unfair to burden April, will just make her worse and more self-conscious. The single saving grace so far is that Jett and Darcy take April's idiosyncrasies in stride, since neither knew her very well before.

Darcy follows Casey one day, finds him sitting on the floor in a corner of the club. Frowning, she searches through the debris behind the counter until she finds a cold pack, pressing it against his knuckles.

"Why do you do that?"

He's too tired to think of a lie. "Because I'm angry."

"What are you angry about?"

"Everything." He shifts, repositioning the pack. "Darce, you know how sometimes you get in a bad mood, and it feels like everyone is deliberately trying to annoy you? Me and my brothers, we get angry, and when we get angry everything makes us more angry, even little things like a plate getting broken, or a chicken running in front and nearly tripping us up. But I don't want to be angry at you guys; I know it's not your fault. So I come down here and beat up on the punching bag instead."

She nods thoughtfully. "Does it help?"

"It makes me tired, and when I'm tired I can't be angry any more."

"You're always tired. You should let us help more." She pulls his arm out of the way, settling beside him, and he wraps both arms around her. "You could curse," she offers after a minute, and he chokes on a laugh.


"My dad used to curse when he was angry."

"Around you?" he says in surprise. Heath was very, very conscious of his shortcomings as a father, and it made him even more determined to do right by Darcy.

"He tried not to, but sometimes he forgot," she says placidly.

"Did it help him?"

"No, he was usually too busy apologising to me."

Casey smiles, leaning his head on hers. "This is really helping."

"I'm good at hugs," she agrees. "You can have a hug any time you like, you know."

"I might take you up on that," he murmurs.

It occurs to him that maybe this is why Kyle saved Darcy. He didn't know her, after all, never actually met her. But he knew Casey a lot better than Casey was comfortable with; he might have figured out that on his own, Casey wouldn't have fought so hard to survive, to stay alive. But Casey can't betray Darcy, even if he could leave the others; he can't abandon her when she's already lost so much.

He wants to resent Kyle, but he can't do it. Deliberate or not, Kyle gave him what he needed.

He closes his eyes, tightens his grip on Darcy, and lets old hatred drain away.

They've been to the warehouse a few times now, and maybe they weren't as careful or something, Casey doesn't know. What he does know is that he's looking down the wrong end of a baseball bat, and the kid holding it is very, very nervous, which is a bad combination.

Jett is very, very still beside him.

The kid can't be more than fourteen. There's another one, some way behind him, but Casey can't get a clear look and isn't willing to aggravate Baseball Bat Kid.

"This is our place," the kid insists. "We found it first."

"Actually, we found it first," Casey tells him. As he hoped, the boy takes a step closer. Casey catches the bat, yanking it out of his hands and pulling him closer, pinning his arms to his sides and holding on grimly while he flails.

When he finally tires Casey tells him, "I'm going to let go now. No one has to get hurt here, ok?" The other child has vanished and Casey hopes they aren't about to get ambushed.

He lets go, carefully. The kid skitters away, pausing when there's a safe distance between them.

"We didn't know you'd moved in here," Jett tells him. "We've been coming here for a while."

The boy wavers. "We're here now."

Casey starts to speak, cuts himself off when a sound reaches them. It's been a while, but Casey hasn't forgotten. Frowning, he pushes past Baseball Bat Kid and traces the sound through the aisles to the staff room at the back.

Four or five other kids, none of them older than twelve, are gathered inside. Casey ignores them, focusing on the girl at the back, desperately trying to quiet a screaming baby. Only a few months old, the girl holding it is ten at the most, and they're staring at Casey.

Baseball Bat Kid skids into the door frame; Casey glances back at him. "We're going. We won't come back here."

"Casey," Jett protests. "We can help..."

"We won't be back here," Casey says again, catching the scruff of Jett's shirt and dragging him out. Baseball Bat Kid shifts to one side, watching them.

Jett drags against Casey all the way, protesting, complaining, trying to shout loud enough to tell the group where the Park is, that they can help. Casey jerks him along, shaking him, trying to make him shut up. Baseball Bat Kid and another one are trailing them, watching as they reach the entrance and pause.

"*Casey*," Jett says one last time, and he sounds betrayed now.

Casey flinches, turning back to look at the kids. "We've been attacked, once. You should be careful."

"You should come with us," Jett says before Casey can stop him.


"We have space." He's ignoring Casey, watching the kids. "We can help you."


He looks back at Casey, finally. "We can't leave them," he insists. "We can't, or it's pointless."

"What's pointless?"

"All of it. Everything. We have to - be *better*."

Casey sighs, turning to look at the Kid. "We have a place. There's room. But we have been attacked once."

The Kid agrees. Casey never thought he wouldn't; the responsibility of keeping his group, keeping a *baby*, alive, is clearly wearing him out. He tells the Kid to pack up whatever they want to bring and then help him and Jett load the truck.

April doesn't blink at their newly expanded group, just starts finding towels and sheets.

The baby changes everything.

No one seems to know her name. As far as Casey can tell, the kids just picked her up somewhere along the way; if she belongs to one of them, they're not saying. He christens her Natalie for the woman who tried so hard to help him, calls her Nat, and no one protests.

A hundred times Casey wishes he'd turned away in the warehouse, refused to let the kids join them. He knows, though, if he was doing it again, he'd do the same. Jett's right. They have to be worthy of surviving, or else it's all pointless.

April tries, she really does, but it's too much for her to handle all the time. Casey organizes the younger kids to take care of Nat, changing and feeding and walking. She seems to be a fairly placid baby, luckily, and the kids are mostly able to deal. Jett makes it his business to make sure April doesn't get disturbed on her bad days; the kids pick up on it after a while, though no one ever actually tells them. On her good days April's well able to hold the child, clean up after her, wash endless rompers and towels and diapers.

Casey gets everyone settled into vans. Nat wanders from van to van; mostly she sleeps with Louise, the ten year old who'd been holding her in the warehouse, but sometimes one of the others take her, occasionally even April. Casey doesn't question it; communal raising's as valid as anything else. He makes sure all the vans are supplied with diapers and formula and bottles, and lets her sleep with whoever's willing to take her.

He's not looking forward to when she starts teething, but for now, it works.

Water is always a problem.

There's thousands of gallons at the warehouse, and Casey makes several trips just to fill up. But they seem to run through it as fast as they get it. There's a well, in a corner of the property, but it's half fallen in and he doesn't trust his engineering skills to dig it out again.

Mark - Baseball Bat Kid - turns out to be a gift. He designs a way of distilling seawater using tarps, buckets and sunlight. It takes a while to get any usable water from it, but once he has it working he sets up several, and two of his kids are set the task of keeping the stills full of sea water. They swim in the sea to clean off, saving the clean water for cooking and drinking. They all get used to being salty all the time.

Two of the kids badger Casey into finding a garden centre. It's relatively untouched and they collect seeds and small plants. Casey takes the opportunity to load up on chicken seed and barbed wire. Back at the House, he and Mark and Jett lay wire through the boundaries of the park and the surrounding bush, securing it as best they can, while the kids plant a garden.

It means more water, but it's worth it when they're eating fresh vegies for the first time in months.

One of the kids cultivates two bee hives she finds in the trees near the rear of the park. She won't let them take the honey - the bees aren't producing enough, apparently, though how she can tell is beyond Casey - but she takes the wax. Her first attempt at candles comes out lopsided and oddly shaped, but they burn well enough, and her next attempt is much better.

They're still ransacking the warehouse, laying in stores, but they're producing enough to keep going on now. Clothes are going to be an issue at some point, but everyone's learning to sew and the girls are tackling knitting. The results aren't pretty, but they're usually warm, which is the important thing.

Casey's starting to think they might actually manage this.

He should have known better.

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  • 1 month later...

Sorry it's been so long, everyone, computer issues. I really appreciate the feedback you guys are giving me, and I'm so pleased everyone's enjoying.

Warning; this chapter includes the death of an infant.

Chapter Four

They lose one of the kids a few months in.

Ricky, all of five years old, bright and cheerful every morning. He helped with the chickens, gathering eggs and feeding the chicks, and in the garden, weeding and watering.

And now he's dead.

Casey never quite puts the whole thing together, but close enough. Ricky was wandering in the bush near the back of the House, looking for the edible plants they often added to their meals. Casey thinks maybe he saw the two graves and got spooked. For some reason, anyway, he ran deeper into the bush, away from the House. By the time Mark and Jett find him, he's delirious from an animal bite, snake or spider, something venomous. His leg's swollen and he's calling for his parents. They can't move him; Jett runs for Casey.

Casey sends them away, draws his knife, and helps Ricky the only way he can. He tells himself he doesn't feel guilty about it afterwards.

Darcy arrives after a while, carrying a sheet and a bucket of water. Casey tries to block her before she can see anything, but she ducks him, setting the sheet down beside Ricky.

They clean him in silence, and Casey uses the last of the water to rinse off. Darcy carefully drapes the sheet over the boy, tucking it in neatly. "The boys are making a raft," she tells Casey. "Mark said, Viking Funeral." Something must show on his face, because she adds, "You'd have brought him home if you could save him."

He can't read her tone, and she doesn't give him time to think, just starts back. They circle the House and head for the beach. The others are staggered along the path; each waits for Casey to pass before falling in behind him.

April hands Casey a burning branch, and he and Mark push the little raft out past the breakers. It won't float for long, but they don't need long.

He offers the branch to Mark, but he shakes his head, backing away. Casey breathes an apology and lights the raft.

Darcy moves out of the van she's been sharing with Casey and April and Jett, settling with Louise and Sarah, the girl who's farming the bees. Casey allows it, telling her he'll be checking on the van during the night and if he hears them messing around, there'll be trouble.

Darcy just rolls her eyes at him. Casey's never been any good at disciplining her.

Jett follows Darcy's lead, moving in with Mark. They don't take Casey's warning seriously either.

Casey goes to do the rounds one evening, making sure everyone's in and settled. Nat's tucked in in Mark's van, sleeping peacefully. The boys are already half asleep.

Darcy's the only one awake in her van, idly twirling one of the glow sticks all the kids use at night. Casey studies her for a moment before settling on the floor by her bed. There's enough of Heath in her that he knows she has something on her mind.

"Did you know my mum?" she asks abruptly.

"A little bit. We weren't really friends, I only saw her with Brax or Heath."

Darcy all but buries her head in her pillow. "I don't remember what she looks like," she whispers.

Casey considers. Cheryl and Danny have long since faded from memory. Kyle's nothing but an old guitar none of them can play and an occasional voice in the back of Casey's mind. Even Brax and Heath, when he thinks of them now, are frozen in that one single photo.

"Your mom had blonde hair," he murmurs. "She wore it long. She was kind of short..."

Darcy reaches out to smack him. "That doesn't count, you think everyone is short."

"Everyone *is* short beside me," he points out. She pouts and he gives in, standing and gesturing to his chest, measuring Teagen's height as well as he remembers. "About this tall." Sitting back down, he adds, "She loved you."

"My dad loved me," she said quietly.

"More than anything."

"More than Rocco?"

"Different to Rocco," Casey says carefully. "You were already a big girl when Heath found out about you. But Rocco was a baby. He needed Heath differently. But Heath was so proud of you. He was always telling people how smart you were, how beautiful."

She plays with the glow stick for a minute. "Do you think he's watching me?"

Casey thinks of how fiercely Heath loved his family, how he fought for them, and how he enjoyed every moment of life. Surely that's enough to send him up, not down. "Yes. He's definitely watching you."

"Is he with Rocco, and my mum?"

"And Brax, and Bianca, and your grandma Connie, and everyone else. They're all watching. And I know he's proud of you, Darce."

He pushes to his feet, bending back over to kiss her forehead. Darcy catches his wrist as he straightens, eyes very serious. "They're proud of you, too, Casey."

He makes it back to his caravan before breaking down. Once again April comes to him, and he curls around her and cries. It's different this time, though; these aren't the harsh, self-loathing tears he cried last time. This is grief, and relief, and release of guilt, and when it's over he falls asleep feeling lighter than he has in a long time.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Chapter Five

There's two boys surfing on the beach when Casey goes down one morning.

He eyes them for a moment before going about his business, baiting and casting the lines. Mark and a couple of others start hauling sea water up towards the park; Jett comes back down with them, picking up one of the rods and fussing with it. He doesn't stay for long, but one of the others is always around, and he can see a couple of the others up on the cliff, keeping an eye out.

It's all unnecessary. The boys surf, run around on the sand, fall asleep for a while, and surf again. They don't make any effort to come near Casey and the others, and they don't leave the beach. Not that there's much point. Casey and his kids have stripped the town of anything useful by now.

As evening draws in Casey cleans the catch, splitting it neatly between two buckets. April's come down to join him - she's getting good at cleaning fish, though she's never going to enjoy it - and she waits with the equipment while he walks down the beach. The two boys seem to be debating taking one last surf, but they're losing light fast.

"I wouldn't," Casey says to get their attention. When they turn he frowns, studying them. "Are you out of Mangrove River?"

"Mangrove River?" one repeats. "Where've you been, man? That place tore itself apart ages ago. It's all crazies and loners now."

He grimaces, thinking briefly of Darcy's friends, before nodding. "Where're you from, then?"

"Here, there and everywhere," the other says with a laugh. "Where's anyone from any more? We're going to surf all the way around Australia."

"You're not planning on sticking around, then?"

"Doesn't look like we'd be too welcome," the first says, looking past Casey. He doesn't turn, knowing that his group is arrayed behind him.

They're only ten. Eight of them are twelve or under. One's a baby. The only advantage he has here is his mind.

He puts down the bucket, taking a couple steps away from it. "Tough to sail around Australia on an empty stomach." Turning to leave, he adds, "Leave the bucket down at the rocks there when you leave." His tone leaves no room for argument, and the two boys nod.

He pitches a box with a handful of matches in it to one of the boys before heading back to his group. They surround him as he picks up their catch, gathering the equipment and following him up to the House.

They keep a watch that evening. The two boys light a bonfire and stay by it all night, and the next morning they're gone.

They've never actually discussed whether they want other people in the group or not. Casey calls one of their rare meetings; they use the dining room of the House, which has evolved into their group room.

No one wants to go looking for people, and they all agree that they need to be very careful about inviting others in. They're quite happy as they are; there's enough of them to keep the group going, tend the animals and garden and do the chores that need doing. But they don't close the door on the idea completely, and Casey's happy with that.

Jett's been going missing.

It takes Casey a while to figure it out, because Jett's smart; he's doing things like vanishing into the bush for a while, but coming back with foraged plants, or taking three hours to check the traps at the far end of the beach, a job that should take thirty minutes max. He isn't vanishing without reason, and he's not doing it often enough to cause suspicion. It's only happenstance that Casey notices at all.

Casey's not quite sure what to do about it. Jett's never been a problem for him, not the way April or some of the other kids have; Casey's spent a lot of time soothing homesickness and talking kids through the realisation that their families are gone, but Jett's never needed that kind of support. He *knows* Gina and John are gone, it's just never seemed important.

Eventually, and mostly for his own peace of mind, he follows Jett one day. They end up at Natalie's, and Casey is quietly glad he buried her early on; the house is empty, but at least there's nothing for Jett to find there.

Casey waits until he's sure Jett is in the sitting room before slipping around and entering through what was briefly his room. He crouches in the doorway, out of Jett's line of sight, and listens carefully. Jett's talking, but he can't quite make out the words, only the tone, rising and falling. He risks a look; Jett's talking to a photo of VJ.

When the words trail off and the tears start, Casey ducks out and heads home.

Jett comes back some time later, hauling buckets of seawater for the stills. Now that Casey's looking, there's a faint redness around Jett's eyes, but not enough to be noticed. He wonders how long Jett's been doing this, and if he ever goes to the remains of the Palmers'.

Casey quietly juggles a few jobs and gets himself and Jett on washing up duty two nights later. They mostly still wash in the sink, for the sake of something familiar, but tonight he suggests using the buckets out on the patio. If Jett suspects anything, he doesn't let on, just fetches the water and cloths.

They work in silence for a while, cleaning and drying the plates and cutlery. Casey isn't sure how to broach this, and the longer they work the more unsure he is. This probably isn't something Jett wants anyone to know.

"Never thought I'd miss eating at the Diner," he says finally.

"I liked eating at the Diner," Jett says mildly.

"It was all right, I suppose. I liked Leah. She was always nice to me, even when Heath was scaring her."

"Yeah, Leah was nice," he agrees distantly.

"Hey, VJ's your age, isn't he?"

"Six months older."

"Still well safe."

Jett puts down his cloth and eyes Casey. "What are you doing?"

"I'm washing up, mate."

"No. All this stuff about Leah and VJ. What's that about?"

Casey puts down the plate he's been scrubbing. "I just wanted - if you want to talk, Jett."

"Why would I want to talk?"

Casey goes back to work, concentrating on the movements. "I talk to April, when I need to. She talks to me. Darcy talks to me. It's not a weakness."

"I don't need to talk to anyone. Either VJ's dead, or he's alive and hasn't come home. Either way, I can't do anything about it."

Casey considers for a moment before pushing to his feet, throwing a quick 'wait here' at Jett. He roots around in the pantry for a minute before emerging with his prize; an old fashioned bottle with a cork, a sheet of paper, and a pen.

Coming back onto the patio, he offers both to Jett. "Write him," he suggests. "Tell him you miss him, and you want him home, and you hope he's safe."

Jett eyes the paper without moving. "What if I'm angry at him?"

"Tell him that, too." Casey smiles at his look. "It helps, mate. Trust me. I've yelled at Brax a lot since this all started. Tell VJ what you're feeling, or Mrs Palmer, or whoever you want to talk to. We'll get some wax from Sarah, and we'll throw it in the sea. It'll help, I promise."

"I'll think about it," Jett says finally, settling the bottle and paper to one side and continuing to dry the crockery.

Casey doesn't push him. The bottle and paper stand there for two days before vanishing; he waits another couple of days before checking with Sarah, who tells him yes, Jett took a bit of wax.

Jett doesn't stop vanishing, but he looks more at peace when he comes back, and Casey counts that as a win.

Mark takes the scooter from Angelo's and vanishes.

Casey's not sure how he even knew it was there. Maybe Jett's been talking. However he found out, there's nothing to do about it. No one saw him go; no one knows which way he went. Jett and Louise are the closest to him, but either he didn't tell them or they're protecting him, and Casey can't figure out which.

He talks quietly with Louise to make sure no one is planning on following Mark; even several months since they came together, in his head they're still *Mark's people* and *my people*, and he makes a note to make more of an effort. Louise promises that no one has any intention of following Mark, and Casey leaves it at that, turning his attention to the day's work.

Mark comes home two mornings later, ridiculously drunk and with paint smeared over his face. Casey's not sure how he even kept the scooter pointing in a straight line; Mark is very, very happy, hanging on the girls, grinning. When they pull away he collapses on the grass, giggling inanely; Polly comes to investigate, licking his face, and he laughs, trying and failing to push her away.

Casey sighs and picks Mark up, carrying him - with some difficulty - down the cliff path. Mark doesn't seem to figure out what's going on until they're already in the water, wading steadily through waist-deep waves. He twists, then, but it's too late, and Casey dumps him in.

It's not a nice way to cut through the hang over, but it works, mostly. Mark emerges shivering and more or less sober, and Casey takes him back up to the House and makes him eat. They even use some of their store of painkillers.

He sleeps most of the day and wakes up again at dinner time. He's full of stories of the city, of the tribes that have formed there, how each part of the city is owned by someone. "They have markets," he tells them, drinking thirstily. "Everyone trades for stuff they need. We should think about going."

"Why?" Jett protests. "We're fine here."

"What would we trade?" April asks curiously.

"Eggs, veg, candles." He grins at Sarah. Casey has to admit, the newest batch of candles are very nearly professional standard. "It doesn't matter what we bring. The point is to get to know some of the tribes. We're very isolated out here."

"When's the next market?" Casey asks.

"Ten days."

"We'll think about it," he promises.

"We need a tribe name," Mark announces a few days later.

He hasn't mentioned the market again, though Casey's thought of little else, but this is something new. "Excuse me?"

"They all have names. And most of them have paint, face markings, so you know who you're talking to."

"Is that why you had paint on?" Jett asks curiously.

"Yeah, the Sharks thought I was cute."

"We could be the River Boys," Darcy suggests.

"No, we couldn't," Casey says firmly. The River Boys are gone, and he doesn't want to attach that name to what they have here. "Mark, did your school have a mascot?"

"Don't remember."

"Mudskippers," Darcy says abruptly.

"Really?" April protests. "They're kind of gross."

"They live in or out of water, they adapt, they eat whatever's around." She shrugs. "We used to play with them after school."

Casey smiles faintly. "All in favor?" It's unanimous, and he grins. "Mudskippers it is, then. Mark, figure out something about paint. Don't go overboard."

"Don't worry. I'll keep it real simple," he promises. And grins.

Casey goes to the first few markets. After that, he leaves it to April, who turns out to be a surprisingly shrewd haggler, and Mark. They take Polly, who manages to look convincingly ferocious, and the kids rotate going with them. Casey has to admit it's nice to get out of town, and while the market is sometimes rough there's rarely any real danger.

Eggs and vegies are in demand, they discover. The candles are kind of hit or miss, but they never bring any eggs or veg home. They expand the garden and breed more chickens; Sarah adds herbs around the borders of the garden, some for food, some for health, some just to look or smell nice. April cultivates flowers in the hedges and open areas and they add bunches to their stall, which go surprisingly well.

Occasionally Mark brings someone home, mostly the strays who haven't attached to any tribe. They don't always stay, but Mark has good instincts about people and none of them ever steal, threaten or hurt any of the Mudskippers, and Casey's happy with that. After a few months they're up by three people.

He does make a point of speaking to each person and asking them not to talk about the Mudskippers once they've left. Everyone agrees. Casey's not stupid enough to think they can stay hidden forever; they're already a fixture in the markets. But the longer they can stay under the radar, the happier he'll be.

Casey's emptying the water stills when Mark comes home one evening. Dusk is falling and the shadows are lengthening across the garden.

"Casey?" Mark calls. "Brought someone to meet you."

"Yeah?" He finishes filling the bottle in his hand, closing the lid before looking up.

The girl next to Mark bursts into tears, and he drops the bottle, crossing the garden in three strides and pulling her into his arms. Mark fades away, and a moment later April appears, eyes wide and one hand pressed to her mouth.


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  • 1 month later...

Chapter Six

For two days, Sasha does nothing but eat and sleep. Casey makes sure he or April are always with her, subbing in Jett once when it's unavoidable. She talks a little when she's awake, but nothing important, nothing of substance; mostly surprise at how they're doing, comments on how different the park and the Bay look. She doesn't mention her family, and they don't bring it up.

Casey does make time to slip out to the farm and take care of it, just in case; as usual, he takes a couple of family photos, but he doesn't try to give them to Sasha yet. He still has Jett's stored away, waiting until he's ready for them.

On the third day Sasha joins them for lunch. Casey doesn't think he's ever seen her without color in her hair before. It's kind of odd, since he's seen people in the city with all kinds of weird colors.

She tells them she's been traveling around, spending time with different tribes. Lately, though, she's been on her own, wandering through the city. She doesn't give details, and they don't ask. She tells them about some of the tribes, filling in background and territories, telling them about some they haven't met yet.

Casey finds her later on the cliff edge, watching the waves below. "I thought about coming back," she says, apropos of nothing. "I didn't leave the farm until - until after, you know."

"I know."

"I thought for a while that Dex - I can't believe you survived."

"Me neither."

"I went to your house, after - after. Brax was - Heath was sick, and he said Kyle took you away."

"Out into the bush," Casey agrees. "Taught me bush craft. Or, what he could, anyway."

"He grew up in Melbourne."

"I know. I guess maybe he was a scout, or something. He hasn't steered me wrong yet, anyway."

"I tried to stay, but Heath made me leave."

"Thank you." He quietly thanks Heath, too. "Sash, the tribes you were with, did - have you been hurt?"

She laughs softly, shaking her head. "Don't ask what you won't like to hear, Casey."

Casey glances around. A bush of rosemary is blooming nearby; he picks a couple of sprigs, pressing them into Sasha's hand. "You're here now."

"I can't believe what you've done here," she says after a minute, looking back over the park. Casey follows her gaze; Mark and Louise are refilling the stills, Sarah and a couple of the others are moving through the rows of vegetables. April's playing with Nat on the porch. He finds he can't remember how the park used to look, they've moved and changed so much.

"I certainly never pictured myself as a farmer."

"It's fantastic. They talk about you in the city, you know. The Mudskippers, saving the tribes from scurvy."

He laughs softly. "Darcy came up with the name."

"I like it." She steps into him, wrapping her arms around him.

Casey returns the hug, murmuring her name after a minute. "Sash. You and me, we don't work together, you know that."

"I know," she agrees, but it's a moment before her grip loosens.

"Stay with us?" Casey asks.


They haven't been keeping track of time, except in a very general way. Summer is passing and they're starting to head into autumn.

Casey and Jett take one of the dinghies from the wharf and start deep water fishing. Sasha's been applying herself to reading the books Casey brought from the library, and she thinks she's figured out how to smoke the fish, in theory. It'll give them something extra to trade, if necessary, and it never hurts to have extra put away.

It takes a while to get the hang of it. Smoking, it turns out, is a relatively exact science. Luckily, they have plenty of salt left over in the stills, and Sasha experiments and tests until she has it just about right.

Once she's happy with it, she starts bringing both smoked and fresh fish to the markets, along with a small grill. Kids start buying the fish and having it cooked right there; some even bring other meat along and Sasha cooks it all up. It's another step towards making themselves indispensable.

Sadly, it's one step too far.

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  • 2 months later...

(One more chapter after this one!)

Chapter Seven

Casey doesn't often come to the market anymore, but both April and Mark have approached him about a group who've been hanging around the market, throwing remarks. One had approached April and kept her pinned down for nearly ten minutes, though he hadn't hurt her, just made her very uncomfortable. Another had handled a bunch of the produce before sauntering away without buying anything; they'd had to dump a lot of bruised food, passing it out to the strays.

Casey goes with them the next time, helps them set up and then blends into the crowds around. He strolls around, checking out some of the nearby stalls, keeping an eye on April. She looks nervous, but she hides it, chatting with the customers and serving them efficiently.

Four boys appear, shouldering the crowds aside, snatching goods and throwing them down. Casey edges through the crowd to get to the side of April's stall; she's seen them coming, but she's focusing on her customers, trying to look calm.

Two of the boys hone in. The others hang back, keeping an eye out. Casey wraps his fingers around Polly's leash, murmuring quietly. She's growling, low in her throat, but she doesn't try to pull away.

"No freebies, boys," April says loudly. "I told you last time."

"The food looks off. We have to make sure it's good, don't we?" one of the boys says innocently. "Tell you what. Give us a kiss and we'll consider it good."

"In your dreams," Mark says hotly.

"Oh, she wishes." The other boys hoot; this is clearly high wit.

Casey smiles; he knows how to handle this. The boy was in Yabbie Creek High, was there the day Casey was expelled. Taking a breath, he cloaks himself in Heath's arrogance and stands, coming around the side of the stall. Polly's at his side, pressed against his leg. "I know you," he says pleasantly.

"Don't think so, mate. Keep going, we're discussing business here."

"No, I know you," he repeats. "Bruce."

The boy's eyes flicker. "Excuse me?"

"Bruce the Moose, they called you. Because you were slow and thick. You were three years behind me, and even I'd heard how dumb you were."

"Who are you?" the boy hisses.

"I'm Casey Braxton." He reaches into a pot of color Mark has ready, draws the lines of his tribe on his cheek. "These are my people you're hassling, my food you're trying to steal, my woman you're perving on."

Bruce has paled; he clearly recognises Casey, or at least his name, but he holds his ground. "It can't matter too much if you send kids and women to trade."

Casey smiles lazily. "You remember me, don't you, Brucie?" It's rhetorical. Everyone remembers the Braxtons.

"I remember you getting expelled," he spat.

"Yeah, that was for beating some guy who hit on my girl. I *think* he was able to walk again, eventually." He drops Heath's arrogance, summons Kyle's cold anger instead. "Stay away from my people, Brucie."

"Or what?"

"Or you'll find out what I've been doing since the Virus."

Bruce glances at the stall. "Raising chickens, it looks like."

"Yeah," Casey agrees, rolling his eyes. "That's exactly what I've been doing. Polly, on guard."

Polly's growling ramps up and she plants herself in front of the stall, head down and hackles up. Bruce backs up hurriedly, almost falling over his crony.

Casey spreads his arms expansively. "You're welcome to trade, Bruce. But no one steals from the Braxtons, and no one steals from my people. Not now, not ever. Remember that."

Bruce sneers, getting himself back under control. "Worm ridden rubbish, anyway."

"Polly," Casey says lazily, "chase him out of the market."

Polly lunges. Bruce shrieks, making a run for it; everyone clears out of his path, laughing as he goes. His cronies stumble after him.

Casey glances at Mark. "You okay to handle this?" At his nod he pushes through the crowd, heading randomly *away*.

April comes after him a little later, finding him in a burnt out cafe; she's carrying a cloth, and he sits patiently while she wipes away his marks and repaints them. "I've never seen you do that," she murmurs.

"It's hard to get them on right without a mirror."

"Not that," she says, grinning. "I meant - it was like Kyle was back."

"Yeah," Casey murmurs. "I've never done it before, really."

"Why did you now?"

"I needed them. Heath, and Kyle - they'd have kept you safe."

April catches his face in her hands, looking directly into his eyes. "Casey, you kept me safe."

April comes to Casey's van one evening, flopping onto his bed.

It's not unusual. April shares a van with Sasha now, and Casey's alone, but for a long time they were sharing, and it's perfectly normal for her to come and hang out with him, or vice versa. They chat a little, nothing earth shattering; sometimes they reminisce, sometimes it's all about what's happened recently. Sometimes they play cards or a board game or sit in silence. It's usually a good sign, when April comes to Casey; it means her OCD is under control.

Sometimes she comes to him when she's in trouble, too, but nights in the van are about relaxing, not worrying, and so he doesn't.

Tonight Casey, as he occasionally does, is picking at Kyle's guitar. There's a beginner's book propped up on the bedside table, but he's mostly ignoring it to pluck at the strings. April curls onto her side, stuffing a pillow under her head and watching him.

"Don't know why I thought this would be fun," Casey says eventually, laying the guitar carefully aside. "I can't even tell if the bloody thing's in tune."

"It sounded all right to me." April touches his arm and he flops backwards, laying beside her.

They lay in silence for a while before she speaks. "I know why you keep trying."

"Oh? Why?"

"It makes you feel closer to him."

Casey goes still for a moment before pushing up on one elbow, studying her. "I never even saw Kyle touch that thing."

"No, but it's his, isn't it? You've never put Nat into Rocco's suit, either, but you still take it out sometimes."

"So? Something wrong with that?"

"No, not at all." She tugs at the necklace she's wearing. "Bianca's, remember? I carry her around with me."

Casey lets her tug him back down; she's rubbing his arm gently, and for a while it's soothing. Gradually, though, it becomes something else.

Casey's always been physically open; it's hard to grow up in the Riverboys and not be casual about a slap on the shoulder or a hand on the arm. Or, sometimes, a blow to the head, depending. But there's a difference between those casual touches, the way he touches April or Sasha now, and the way he touched Ruby or Tamara.



"No." He catches her hand gently. "April, no."

"Why not?" she demands. "Is it Sasha? She doesn't care!"

"It's not Sasha."

She stares at him for a moment, jerking her hand away. "It's me, then."

"No. Not you either."

"Case, I swear to God, if you pull out 'it's not you, it's me'..."

"It *is* me." He laughs softly, sobering when she tries to scramble off the bed. "April, no, wait, I'm sorry. I'm not laughing at you."

"Then what *is* it, Casey? We are two consenting ad...we're not hurting anyone, and..."

"And you're lonely, not in love."

"As if that matters!"

"It matters to me, April."

She goes very still, staring at him. "Since when?" she asks finally.

"Since - I don't know. It's just - it matters now, April. I love you, but I'm not going to do this just because we're lonely." She's still staring at him, and he adds quietly, "You're still in love with Dex."

"Dex is dead."

"I'm still in love with Tamara," he says over her. "There's a lot of things I'm willing to do for this group, and for you, April, but not this. Please."

He hopes, desperately, that she won't push. This isn't right, he feels it with every fibre of his being, but he's still a teenage boy and if she's insistent...

April sighs, seeming to collapse in on herself. "What I must look like to you."

He wraps his fingers around her wrist; no pressure, just warmth. "You look like my best friend."

She laughs, teary eyed. "I'm sorry, Case."

"Don't be sorry. Just tell me you understand."

"Yeah. I understand."

She moves to go; Casey tightens his grip for just a moment before letting go. "Don't leave."


"Don't," he says again. "You don't have to. I'm not embarrassed."

"*You* might not be."

He stands and wraps his arms around her; she's tense for a moment before relaxing into the hug. "We can still be this," he says into her hair. "Please don't go."

April turns in his arms, tugging him back to the bed. "You're so weird," she tells him.

"I know," he agrees, curling onto his side at her push.

April curls around him. "Lucky for you, I have experience in weird."

Casey buries his face in her shoulder and relaxes.

He sleeps better that night than he has since the Virus started.

Sasha starts it, sort of.

She's working over her fish smoker, but she keeps having to stop and push her hair back. All the girls are using string to tie their hair back, but it never works very well, pulling loose and falling in their eyes.

"I swear, it'd be easier to just hack it all off," she says exasperatedly. April, working nearby, only smiles sympathetically, but later that evening she brings it back up.

They're gathered in the House, the kids playing board games or reading, winding down for bed. Casey, Sasha and April are playing cards on the kitchen table. April sets down her hand and announces "Gin. I could do it for you, Sasha."

"Do what? Is that my deal?"

"Cut your hair. I mean, it wouldn't be fancy, but I could shorten it for you."

"What's this?" Casey asks.

"Oh, I was complaining earlier about my hair always getting in the way. You could do with a trim, too, you're getting shaggy."

Casey runs a hand through his hair, shrugging. "Hair care's not really at the top of my to do list lately."

"Yet you still have time to shave," Sasha says lightly.

"That's different. Beards are weird."

"Here I thought short hair was written into the Braxton DNA." Casey flinches - he can't stop himself, though he tries - and she adds quickly, "Not that it doesn't suit you, it does."

"Bit of a pain when I've been swimming, though," he admits.

"You know, we should be careful," Sasha says absently, dealing out the cards.

"Careful?" April repeats.

"When we're in the city. There was a lice infestation starting when I was leaving." Casey catches her eye a moment too late and she winces. "Sorry, April."

April swallows; they watch her breathe for a moment. "You could cut my hair," she offers when she's calmed.

"Great idea," Casey declares. "One of you can do mine, too. We'll do it tomorrow. Now whose turn is it?"

He tells the kids over breakfast the next morning. They're enthused; it's hot enough and they work hard enough that long hair is an annoyance, especially with their limited water supplies. Casey goes first, endures the expected sheep jokes, and comes out feeling lighter, if a little lopsided. The kids line up and April and Sasha get to work.

He doesn't realise until that evening that Darcy hasn't had hers cut. She's the only one, ignoring the looks from the others, defiantly pinning her hair up. Casey doesn't push, expecting that she'll have told April or Sasha, but both claim ignorance when he asks them.

He still doesn't push. It's Darcy's hair, after all, she can choose what she wants to do with it, and if she wants to spend the time taking care of it, that's up to her.

The third time he has to step in to break up teasing, he takes her down to the beach, pretending he needs help with some of the supplies down there. Darcy goes with him, but she doesn't speak and he doesn't push, letting her poke angrily at various boxes until she's calmed down.

"Want to tell me what's going on?" he asks finally.

"Nothing," Darcy says, almost overlapping him. Casey raises an eyebrow, lets the silence hold, and finally she scowls. "It's nothing."

"Why are they teasing you?"

"Because I didn't cut my hair."

"Okay," Casey agrees, finding a sturdy box to sit on. "Why didn't you?"

"I didn't want to, okay?" she yells. "I don't have to! It's my hair!"

"You don't have to," he agrees, holding onto his temper with an effort. Running a hand over his head, he adds, "It's easier, though."

"I don't care," she says stubbornly. "I'm not cutting my hair."

"All right," Casey says, giving in. He crouches in front of her, waiting patiently until she reluctantly meets his eyes. "You know you can talk to me, don't you?"

"I'm fine," she says impatiently. "Are we done here?"

"We're done."

She storms out of the cave. Casey takes a moment to breathe before following her.

He stops the teasing with a few words in the right ears, but he can't stop them noticing her. Darcy starts tying her hair in a bun, but it's still longer than anyone else's, visibly so. Casey slips her extra water to wash it, when he can, and he catches Sasha doing the same thing a couple of times.

He wouldn't worry so much, but it's clear it's bothering her. The bun helps, but she has to reset it over and over during the day, and sometimes she's clearly near to tears trying to handle it. April helps, brushing and braiding, but Casey can't figure out why she won't let them cut it when it's so obviously in her way.

He comes into his van one day and finds Darcy curled around Rocco's suit. "Hey," he says softly, crouching beside her. "What's up?"

She mumbles something into the armload of material, but he can't hear it. He sits down, close enough that she can sense him, not quite touching. "I can't hear you, Darce."

She lifts her head long enough to say "He likes it long" before putting it back down.

Casey sits for a while, thinking, while she sniffs into the suit. There's only one 'he' in Darcy's life, or, at least, only one she'd talk to Casey about. But it's been so long. He was starting to think she'd...

Not forgotten, but maybe that the memory had faded a little. Just enough to blunt the grief.

"Are you talking about Heath?" he asks finally.

Darcy drags herself up, nestling into his side. "He likes it long," she repeats softly. "He told me once. It suits me."

"It does suit you," Casey agrees, tugging lightly on a strand. "We could just make it a bit shorter without cutting it all. I know it bothers you, I've seen you trying to tie it back."

"He likes it!"

"It's a lot longer now than it was then," he points out gently. "We could cut some of it off and still have it just as long as he likes." She sniffles, burrowing into him, and he adds, "We don't have to. But just think about it, ok, Darce?" She nods, and he says softly, "Heath loved you. Not your hair. It doesn't matter how long it grows. He wouldn't care."

"Loves me."


"My dad loves me," she says clearly.

"Yeah," Casey agrees softly. "He does. You want to stay here tonight?"

She nods, and she's asleep a few minutes later, still curled against him. Casey stays where he is on the floor until April comes by to say goodnight; between them, they shift Darcy to the bed without waking her. Casey quietly explains to April, who sighs. "Poor kid."

"I think it's kind of my fault?" he confesses. "I told her Heath was watching her."

April glances up automatically, but she's shaking her head. "Casey, that's just what you tell a kid. This isn't your fault. Don't worry about it."

He smiles weakly. "Yeah. Thanks, April."

She smiles, pulling a slightly longer lock of his hair. "We missed one."

"Yeah, that one and all the others," he agrees, grinning.

Darcy doesn't mention it the next day, or the day after, but a few days later she takes April aside, and the next time Casey sees her her hair is brushing her shoulders.

Casey doesn't comment, but he slips her the photo of Heath and Brax. It's worth losing it to see her smile.

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And we've reached the end! Thanks for hanging in there with me.

I have some ideas for another fic. Anyone up for discussing it with me? Drop a PM or email at jendomlver (at) gmail (dot) com, I would really love to talk about it.

Thanks for the great reviews, everyone!

Chapter Eight

Mark brings a 'flu back from the city, sometime late in autumn.

Sasha either doesn't get it or gets over it very quickly. Casey goes down almost straight away; he has her quarantine Nat, and they put April in a van on her own to try and keep her OCD from flaring. The rest of them crowd into three vans; they're all exposed anyway, and it's easier to take care of each other if they're close.

Most of them recover within a few days. Nat never catches it, and once she's better April takes care of her. As they recover, the others move back into their own vans. They lose one member of the tribe, Sarah, who catches it early, goes down hard, and never really recovers.

Casey can't throw it off. His temperature keeps fluctuating, making him uncomfortable; he has no energy, can't keep anything down, keeps sneezing and coughing. It's frighteningly similar to the onset of the adults' Virus, even though Mark and Sasha assure him that it's just a 'flu, half the city is down with it. At his worst the fever makes him hallucinate. The others take turns sitting with him; he keeps trying to leave, but it doesn't take much for them to stop him.

Recovery is frustratingly slow. Even when the fever finally breaks, he can't sit up for more than a few minutes before wearing out. Eating is enough to send him back to sleep for most of a day. It's a long time before he can stay awake long enough to leave his van.

He's vaguely surprised to find that everything is going fine. Jett hasn't been out to fish, but they're still beach fishing and crab hunting. The garden looks fine; they're taking in the last of the vegetables for the year. They burned Sarah while he was still sick, but her memorial stands next to Ricky's.

The market's been closed, Mark tells him, while the city recovers from the 'flu. A lot of the kids didn't make it; the strays had no one to look out for them, and even the tribes ran into trouble when they couldn't find medicine or food. It'll be another month or so before the market reopens.

Casey can't actually do any work without needing to sit down for a while. They put him on Nat watching duty; it isn't really much easier, because she's walking around now, but at least they can keep her in the House. Casey dutifully points out colors and shapes and encourages her to sleep as much as possible; she likes being read to, and he can manage kids' books, mostly. He gets good at cooking, too, since he can mostly do it from one spot.

The day he walks down to the beach and back without needing to rest he laughs out loud.

"It's been a year."

He's not sure whose idea it is. He's not actually sure they're right about the time. It's certainly roughly a year, but he can't get any closer than that. He's not even sure exactly what it's been a year since; the first Virus death? The last Virus death? April finding him? Him finding Jett? It's probably not them finding Mark and the others, that was later...

He asks April, eventually, and she smiles and tells him it's a year since the day she knew they'd survive. She doesn't elaborate, and he doesn't push. It doesn't really matter, in the end.

Still, there's no reason to refuse, and one night they head down to the beach and light a bonfire. There's chocolate from their diminishing stores, barbecued meat, fizzy drinks. There's singing, dancing, attempts at speeches that are mostly drowned out by good natured heckling.

As the evening draws in they gather around the fire, telling stories, chatting. Nat's asleep, curled on a blanket with Polly beside her. The kid's talking now; just words so far, but from all indications she's going to be a chatterbox.

Casey finds himself a little way apart from the others, by accident rather than design. There's a log here to lean against, he's warm and comfortable, and he finds himself drifting as he listens to them laugh and play.

In his minds' eye Kyle's leaning against a log, plucking at his guitar, eyes thrown into shadow by the shifting firelight. He sees Heath dancing with Darcy, laughing for the sheer joy of movement. He sees Bianca sitting with Rocco, smiling as she watches Heath with his daughter. He sees Tamara, nestled beside him, firelight glinting in her hair.

Brax sits beside him, watching the group, smiling as Mark chases Jett into the surf and back out. "You're doing good, Casey."

"I don't know what I'm doing."

"You're keeping them alive."

"Yeah, except for the ones I'm not keeping alive."

"Even the mighty Casey Braxton can't do much against poison and illness."

He looks down the beach again. Sasha is laughing with April as Louise joins in on Jett's side; he shrieks, calling to Darcy for help, and in a matter of moments everyone's joined in on one side or the other.

"Keep them alive," Brax says again.

He's gone when Casey looks over, but that's okay. Casey doesn't need him any more. He'll always miss him, always want him, but he's spent this year keeping these kids, his tribe, alive, and he can keep doing it. He's strong enough for this.

He pushes to his feet, murmurs a goodbye to his brother, and heads down the beach to join his family.

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