365

Rating: PG-13/T

Genre: General/Drama/Angst/Romance

Summary: One year after the beginning of the distribution of the vaccine, all survivors are vaccinated. Celebrations abound.

Author's Note: I really… REALLY wanted to do a story for this movie. My heart kind of broke when I saw that there was, like, no Fanfiction for it. The potential was just lovely. AND SO I DID IT.

Disclaimer: I don't own Contagion. It belongs to Warner Brother's.

()()

Mitch Emhoff looked down at the letter and envelope in his hand with nothing short of confusion.

Jory was perplexed too. She was sixteen now, and next month in May she would attend a real prom with a real dance floor and a DJ and friends and a date. Andrew was still in the picture, but Mitch hadn't seen him around so much. Given that his daughter was less than eager to relate her love-life to him, especially after last year (The winter/spring/summer from hell), he had no idea what to make of that, of whether she would be bringing Andrew as a date or not.

At the moment, though, he wasn't really concerned with that.

"Why are they inviting us?" Jory asked, brow furrowed.

Mitch didn't know. Why would they, of the billions of people on the planet, be invited to a big government muck-a-muck ceremony commemorating the last of the vaccinations that was rumored to be bigger than the Inaugural Ball?

"Do you want to go?" Mitch asked. Jory gently plucked the letter from his hand and read it over, baby-blue eyes scanning the official type.

"I don't know. When-?" She stopped as she likely re-read the letter and saw the date of the ceremony. So long as it didn't interfere with prom, with her friends and her normalcy, Jory was probably fine with it. "It's formal. I'd need a dress." Right. Formal meant long dresses, informal meant shorter ones. He'd learned that much from her.

"That's not a problem."

"You're sure?" He knew she'd give up this event if it meant having the perfect prom dress. Normalcy was everything now. She'd lost her spring and the first half of summer, and she was determined not to lose anymore of her carefree time with friends. She knew how precious it was now.

"Yeah. No problem." Mitch had a job. Being immune, he was able to jump back into work sooner than most people and a lot of jobs were left open due to deaths. He'd spent some time as a volunteer helping to administer vaccines, and then had been working as a temporary teacher at the elementary school until the real ones could be returned (He was paid, but could not be kept on due to the fact that he had not be trained and educated as a teacher). After that, Mitch had found steady work in both a convenience store and at a local restaurant. They paid well enough, and he was able to pick up extra shifts once Jory was back in school.

No, his concern wasn't money: It was the angle of whoever had invited them.

Do they know who we are?

Of course they did. A lot of people knew who the Emhoffs were now.

Everyone knew that Beth was the one that brought the virus home. She had brought it to the states. She had inadvertently spread it to Chicago through John-Motherfucking-Neal (Stop it, stop it, he's dead, don't be bitter) and then home to Minneapolis and into school through Clark. The world knew that the virus had come to America through her. Had the government forgotten that?

Mitch had yet to encounter somebody who directly mentioned Beth and her role in the epidemic to him other than doctors. The people he did see who knew who he was seemed to be smart enough (or not giving a damn enough) to know that it wasn't Beth's fault. He had a sneaking suspicion that some of Jory's classmates might be heckling her- some days she came home unusually solemn- but she never said a word about it, and denied it when he asked.

In late June it had been globally published that WHO officials had established a firm grasp on where the virus began and how it had gotten into the population. Apparently there was such a thing as bat flu, and then an infected bat had somehow come into contact with a pig that had swine flu. The two diseases combined, thus creating MEV-1 which, to the best of Mitch's knowledge, had been simply dubbed 'The Virus'. No animal names for this one, folks: Given that it ended up killing somewhere around 30 million people (The exact number was still debated), it would have been somewhat insulting.

Point being, the pig had been bought by the kitchens at the Golden Dragon Casino, where Beth had contracted the virus.

After reading the article, Mitch had wordlessly gone upstairs and picked up the camera again. He numbly flipped through the pictures until he found the one of Beth, ever-friendly Beth, posing with a chef whose apron was stained with animal blood or some other food. Mitch sat there for- hell, maybe an hour, just staring at that picture and knowing that at that precise moment in time, the virus was crawling from his hands to Beth's, and that not a week later she would be dead.

He wanted to scream. He had a dream not long after that, one where he dove into the picture on the camera screen and tugged Beth away, dragging her to the bathroom and forcing her to wash her hands like he'd made Jory do so many times. She was confused, surprised, How'd you get to China, baby? And he just said Trust me, trust me Beth, you don't know what that guy's been touching, and by the way, why the fuck were you in Chicago with John Neal-?

Mitch woke up alone in bed. For the first few hazy minutes of waking, he still thought his hands were wet and sudsy from the sink.

It wasn't Beth's fault. Really. Chefs were supposed to be clean. They were supposed to be careful when handling animals, because with salmonella and every other nasty animal-borne disease out there you could never really know.

But Beth- Beth- why hadn't she washed her hands? His hands were obviously dirty in the picture from the ham and whatever other animal meats he'd been touching. Beth had to have seen that. Had there not been a bathroom nearby? Was she having too much fun to think about it? Was she tipsy and couldn't follow the train of thought "wash my hands" far enough?

Mitch knew he could drive himself crazy with the 'what if's' if he let them. That's why he had two jobs and otherwise spent so much time with Jory that she began to call him suffocating: The more he was distracted, the less he had to think about last year and the wife and stepson he'd lost because his wife had made a silly, stupid, innocuous mistake that ended up killing her and millions of other people.

This ceremony was going to dredge that all up again, because it was all centered on the vaccinations and the virus. It was going to be a few hours of 'why am I here' followed by 'oh right my wife started this', a constant reminder of what a living nightmare the last year and a half had been. A reminder of what he and Jory and millions of other people had lost.

But, Mitch considered, it wasn't just that. It was the celebration of the ending: Everyone's vaccinated. Everyone's clean. The virus is beaten, hoorah hoorah, let's get drunk and laugh because it can't touch us anymore. Man has once against triumphed over a destructive accident of nature. From this point on, it can only get better.

Until the next virus comes along and wipes us out.

()()

Dr. Ally Hextal felt out of place.

She wasn't stupid enough to deny how important her role had been in bringing the epidemic to a halt, but a simple 'thank you for your work' was enough. Being honored and received with cheers wasn't her thing. At the end of the day, the biggest honor was her father being able to live the rest of his life because of the vaccine.

The last year had been spent managing production of the vaccine, monitoring distribution and, of course, keeping an eye on the virus to make sure it didn't mutate again. The concept of it changing again had been enough to fill her mind with dread, because they had the vaccine and it worked, and a new mutation might mean an entirely new vaccine. You couldn't simply add something to the current one: It had to be changed all together. The knowledge that it had changed once and could potentially do so again had been the dark cloud at the back of her otherwise optimistic mind frame.

In all honesty, that was what she would rather be doing now: Working. She didn't quite see the purpose of calling everyone together just so they could say "Yay! Everyone's got their vaccine!" Of course, drinking was always fun, and this was a thing to be celebrated; But Ally could have just as easily done it at home with her parents and her sisters.

"Go," Her father had insisted, his voice adopting the stern kind of tone she hadn't heard since she was fifteen. "Go, Ally, and celebrate. Take a bow."

Just what Dr. Cheever had said: "Take a bow." But even though she knew she was entitled, it still felt wrong: Dr. Mears was dead, Dr. Cheever had resigned from his CDC position and everything was still crappy. Plus, thanks to Alan Krumwiede calling the vaccine's effectiveness and safety into question, there was still a minority of people that were calling the government, CDC and WHO a bunch of liars and conspirators. She knew it was a load of crap, but a few of Krumwiede's points had raised small whispers of doubt in her mind.

What if there was a side effect (or effects) of the vaccine? What if it did give you cancer or make you more susceptible to some other illness? In her more wild hypotheses, Ally wondered if the virus ever mutated again if maybe the vaccine might make people even more likely to die of it than before, and the epidemic would be twice as devastating as the first.

"Well, they can always opt not to take it," Dr. Cheever had said dryly when she'd privately raised her concerns to him. "And then they won't have to worry about cancer ten years from now: They'll die of the virus tomorrow night."

When he put it like that, Krumwiede sounded a lot more full of it.

Ally was (unknowingly true to Ellis Cheever's earlier assessment of her) trying to avoid as many pats on the back as possible. If anyone wanted to come up and talk science with her, she could do that; but no praise please. She had not ingested half as much alcohol as she was going to need for that.

They were in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, which might have been why everyone had the inaugural balls in mind when they thought of the prestige of this particular ceremony. The ballroom had a high ceiling with white crisscrossing architecture; to her right was a massive window that was cut horizontally down the middle by a mezzanine that disappeared into two hallways. The wall to her left was large and dark and blank, and the floor was all but filled with tables.

It didn't escape Ally's notice that this was, quite possibly, the first major gathering of a significant number of people since before the outbreak. She also immediately noticed that even though everyone here had been vaccinated (you were insane to go anywhere without your bracelet), every single table had, in the center, a small basket with two or three Purell bottles in it. Paranoia had spread twice as fast as the virus itself had, and the fear inspired by the disease left many people obsessively cleaning their hands.

Dirt is good, Ally thought with a sigh. If we don't get dirty, contaminated, sick, our immune systems don't learn to fight illness off. It's natural, normal to get sick.

But that wasn't so compelling an argument for people who'd seen the ravages of the disease. Ally had a nasty feeling that if her vaccine wasn't hitting people with some time-bomb side-effect, then at least there would be a new generation coming up that had surprisingly inefficient immune systems.

And they had better not scratch their heads and wonder why.

To the best of her knowledge, most of the people here were other government officials, American and otherwise, that had played a role (however minor) in the virus being contained, studied and vaccinated. Earlier she'd seen… The woman's name escaped her, but Ally knew that she was the French epidemiologist with WHO that had been kidnapped and held for ransom in China whilst trying to trace the origins of MEV-1. Her research had been invaluable in eventually determining its origins.

Then there was Dr. Cheever, because he had friends in the CDC and other health departments who had absolutely refused to attend if he couldn't. They sympathized, or at least thought that he deserved to be present given all the good work he'd done, unfortunate choices or not. His wife was with him; Ally had attended their wedding, small but beautiful. Aubrey made a lovely bride.

With everyone in formal wear, it was difficult to tell who was associated with the government or its facilities and who was a civilian. She knew there were non-government or health officials here, because she'd heard at least one person chit-chatting with another and saying "Yeah, I work at a supermarket in-" (Ally hadn't heard the end). Another had been a journalist, and she'd even heard that Alan Krumwiede (heaven knows why) was there.

Ally idly looked around, observing, wondering if she'd spot Krumwiede in the sizeable crowd when someone jumped out at her. It was a young woman who was maybe a head shorter than most of the people in the room. When Ally focused on her, she looked quite young, too young to be employed by the government.

The nametag on her dress said 'JORY EMHOFF'.

Something inside her went both cold and hot all at once.

Emhoff.

She knew that name.

That name was seared into her memory, because it was Elizabeth Emhoff, who'd traveled to China and come back to the States and brought with her the virus, the virus that had killed her child and then millions of other people. Her name had been on the chart and the sample of the virus.

Ally stared at the pair silently. The man, likely Emhoff's husband, was tall, solid and solemn. The anxiety and terror and hardships he'd endured a year previously had settled in his face. He could have been more than forty, but he wore the expression and demeanor of a man much older, jaded. The teenager beside him was fair haired, no older than sixteen, eyes darting back and forth in search of someone her own age and failing, realizing that she was more or less alone in a room full of strange adults. She had to be Emhoff's daughter.

Air escaped Ally in a way that was too fast and hard to be a sigh. These people- They were Elizabeth Emhoff's family. They'd lost her. Previously she'd been Patient Zero, the first, the carrier to the U.S., the sample that had started everything. It was only now, looking at these two people that Ally saw that Emhoff had been more; she had been a mother, a wife, and she had been the one that had started it.

It was a wonder they were still alive, living in such close quarters with two infected people. Though, the statistic had usually been 1 out of 4 people dying; What Ally assumed had been 2 out of 4 in their household dying actually tipped the odds in their favor. Though she wasn't certain if those statistics were accurate for someone who was living and breathing and eating in the same house as two people who eventually ended up dead.

What a burden. Though her name had, as far as Ally knew, never been officially published, she'd seen it pop up more than a few times on the internet. That was one of the drawbacks of social media websites like Facebook and MySpace and what have you; the idea of a rumor going 'viral' was insulting to the internet, because rumors spread way faster than any physical virus ever could.

Neither of them seemed to be talking to anyone. You know what it's like, to spot that one or two people in a room that seem totally disconnected from the atmosphere around them, a bit lost; that was Mr. Emhoff and his daughter. Emhoff looked around for a moment, stopped by a table, checked the seats (likely to see if they were reserved) and then pulled one out, motioning for his daughter to sit.

Ally wasn't sure what she was thinking she'd say or do, but before she knew it she was standing beside their table with a smile.

"Is this seat taken?"

()()

Dr. Ellis Cheever had been standing in the same spot for ten minutes.

Aubrey was off talking with someone. He didn't know who, specifically; he thought she might be Haggerty's wife. They had both attended his and Aubrey's wedding in September. Most of their loved ones had been vaccinated by then, and those that hadn't were extra careful. The ceremony had been small, inexpensive due to the fact that many catering and wedding-related businesses were either still down or trying to work their ways back up.

The virus had completely screwed the economy, which was no small statement given the state it had been it when the virus had hit. A lot of supplies had been bought, but pretty much nothing new had been produced and in winter you couldn't exactly rely on the family garden to get at least a tomato or two. And with so many workers and employers dead and so many afraid of going back to work for fear of catching the virus, many businesses were slow to return to normalcy.

Amidst the ruined economy, the generally pervasive fear and chaos, Ellis had gone through his hearings lickety-split. They wanted it done and over with. They didn't want to waste time on bureaucratic bullshit when there were much bigger fish to fry. He hadn't lied, had concealed anything: He admitted he'd told Aubrey to come down to Atlanta while she still could, and Aubrey in turn had admitted that she had told her friend Elizabeth Nygaard even though Ellis had told her not to.

He'd offered to resign. They recommended that he do that.

They called it "conduct unbefitting a man of Dr. Cheever's position", ordered him to pay a fine and let it be. All things considered, Ellis was surprised how easily he'd actually gotten off.

He was still a doctor, still studying infectious diseases and doing what he could to help with the remaining vaccinations and medical processes concerning the viruses. Given the sheer number of people that remained sick and the equally strong number of doctors and nurses that were hesitant to get too close unless they were vaccinated, it wasn't too surprising that they didn't give a damn who he was or what he'd done. As the saying goes, beggars cannot be choosers.

Really, it had been like cheating at a game, peeking at your opponent's hand via the mirror over their shoulder during a game of Go Fish: He'd given Aubrey the advantage of knowing, who'd in turn given it to Elizabeth, who'd in turn given it to her sister who'd told her cousin, etcetera, etcetera. Some people had gotten to the stores sooner. Some had gotten to their families in another state before the roadblocks went up.

Some people went completely nuts and decided to riot, robbing stores and generally going insane with fear.

As it so happened, Alan Krumwiede's (otherwise known as Satan) hearings had begun around the time Ellis' had. He couldn't help but wonder if perhaps his judges and his jury had heard about him, about what he'd been accused of, and maybe had been tempered slightly: "Well, at least Cheever wasn't deliberately being an asshole." All things considered, Ellis was slightly relieved that Krumwiede had been the man that everybody loved to hate: Dennis French had been far more satisfied with dogging scum like Krumwiede than reprehensible-but-not-evil Dr. Cheever.

What he'd done wasn't fair, but even though he saw disapproval in the eyes of the people who knew, Ellis had yet to have anyone come up to him and say "You're an asshole for doing that", probably because they knew deep down that if it had been them they would have done the same thing a thousand times over for their lovers and children and families and friends. People were selfish: Sometimes that was bad, sometimes it was good, sometimes it was that murky area in between.

To Ellis, it was all a matter of taking care of the others in the lifeboat.

And right now, he was remembering the one he hadn't been able to take care of.

He was standing before a table, upon which was a row of pictures of CDC, WHO and other crucial government officials that had been lost during the epidemic in the process of trying to bring the spread of the disease back under control. Agents that had been sent into the field and hadn't come home. Dr. Erin Mears was number 19 on the long, long line.

Ellis had gone up to Minneapolis as soon as he was able to. Dave Swanson had taken him to the mass grave where Erin had been buried, her body wrapped tightly in plastic. Dave said he'd thrown some plastic flowers into the grave with her. He had liked her, Erin; Erin was determined, Erin was brave, Erin did everything she could, and dammit he thought she might have been able to pull through.

But one out four died, and unfortunately, those chances were still really bad.

The picture he was looking at wasn't an official one, wasn't the one on her badge or her driver's license. Her family must have supplied it for the event; many of the pictures were candid shots of the people at home, happy and content. It must have been symbolic, a deeper reminder that it wasn't just soldiers they'd lost on the battlefield: It was human beings, friends and neighbors, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and sons and daughters.

Erin was smiling in her picture, a far cry from the serious expression Ellis had seen on her in life. She was wearing a thin blue sweater and holding a fluffy white cat to her chest. She was sitting on an old couch with a green slipcover with gold lines through it, and behind her there was a window. The scene outside was just barely visible, but it looked like late fall, maybe November. He remembered hearing, from her or someone else, that she'd lived in upstate New York before coming to Atlanta.

Ellis had trouble looking at that photo and realizing that the person in it was cold and dead, wrapped in plastic with fake flowers on her chest because it was winter and there were no flowers, and how cold the ground must have been, and hard, and had she been cold when they'd thrown her in-?

Ellis shook his head.

Of course she hadn't been cold. She'd been dead. If anything she'd been overheated when she'd finally passed.

I'm sorry I sent you. He thought. And I'm sorry I couldn't bring you home.

He could live with causing a general upset by warning his girlfriend to get out of town and come to Atlanta, could live with the domino effect that had with people panicking and rushing to either leave the state or stock up on supplies. But Ellis could not reconcile with the fact that he had sent Erin Mears up to Minneapolis where she had died alone in the makeshift emergency medical center in the arena with no one to stand at her side and comfort her.

Erin had never managed to use that cell-phone he'd sent her via Dave. Their conversation from her hotel room after she informed him that she was sick had been their last, and Ellis remembered every word of it with a sick sort of perfect recall. Snatches of it replayed in his head against his will at random on his less-than-good days.

A light tap on his arm snapped him out of it.

"You okay?" Aubrey looked up at him. He knew that she knew that he wasn't okay, because he'd vented his feelings of guilt to her about Erin's death on more than a few occasions. He heaved a soft sigh before tearing his gaze from the picture to look at his wife.

"As good as I'm going to get, I think."

()()

Dr. Leonora Orantes was quiet.

She wasn't feeling all that well. After the past year, after all the terror and the hype and the paranoia, it was easy to forget that things like the normal cold and influenza viruses were still circulating. Getting a cough or a headache didn't necessarily mean you were minutes from death. People still looked at you like you were the grim reaper swinging a scythe, though, so she kept quiet and out of the way and hoped no one noticed her. She didn't feel like getting stared at tonight.

She'd gotten her vaccination after returning from China. She didn't have the virus, not unless it had mutated to such a point that the vaccine no longer covered it, and wouldn't that just be a kick if she was Patient Zero this time? An epidemiologist being the first in another epidemic? Leonora wasn't certain she could handle that kind of irony.

And there was her mind wandering into fantastical territory. Leonora had a glass of red wine that she'd barely touched in her hand; evidently, it wasn't bad to drink red wine when you had the flu, possibly even beneficial, but she was a touch skeptical about that and didn't want to upset her stomach. It was already acting strangely.

"Hello."

She turned around quickly. Leonora had grown her hair out a bit, and offered a reflexive apology when it slightly whipped the man who was standing behind her. The apology trailed off swiftly and softly, her eyes widening when she saw Sun Feng standing behind her, unreadable.

"Sun Feng- Hello. It's been a while."

"It has."

Leonora had seen him once after she'd been relinquished as a hostage. She had returned to the village, warned them of the placebo vaccines and to destroy them and wait for the real ones to be passed out, because the Chinese government was refusing to treat with kidnappers.

There had been a surprisingly short argument amongst the conspirators, Sun Feng having remained largely out of the conflict in favor of quietly translating the gist of things to Leonora. Were they pissed? Yes. But could they do anything about it? No. If the government wasn't going to negotiate with kidnappers, then retaking her as a hostage, or someone else, would be pointless: And this time they might get caught, which would potentially mean no vaccine at all.

They opted to destroy any and all evidence of the placebos. Leonora was free to go- In fact, they insisted. Sun Feng had driven her back to the airport, and she had given Leopold a bogus story she was certain he didn't entirely believe about having to check in with Sun Feng and her other hosts to assure them she was all right. To date, she was under the impression no one knew about Sun Feng's complicity in her kidnapping, and she intended to keep it that way.

"Did your village receive its vaccinations?" She asked softly, and her eyes were focused on the pattern of the carpet a few feet away and not him. She sensed rather than him shift slightly.

"We did."

"No further casualties?"

"None. The children are all fine."

A smile lit Leonora's face unexpectedly. The people had all been wonderful, but the children had been absolute darlings. She was relieved that they were safe, that they were all safe. "I'm glad to hear that."

"I thought you might be." They stood in silence for a few minutes. It was a bit awkward, really: They'd gotten friendly during her time in his village, but they hadn't spoken for almost a year. Leonora didn't know if she had Stockholm Syndrome, as she'd never been under the impression that her life was in imminent danger, and they had treated her quite kindly, and it wasn't like it was difficult to sympathize with them given the circumstances; they were hardly the only ones who'd gone a little crazy during the epidemic.

They were taking care of their own.

"You were right. It did start in Macau."

The statement surprised Leonora solely because if there was anything she remembered from her investigation prior to the kidnapping, it was that the Chinese officials she'd spoken with were not at all eager to accept that the virus had originated in their country. Sun Feng had adopted a similar strain of thought. It had been frustrating to have to tread so carefully, to tell the truth whilst trying not to make them angry.

The findings had been based in large part on her findings and also by a few other epidemiologists sent to China a few months back (With armed guards). They'd found the kitchen, and even the chef that witnesses said Emhoff had posed with. He had died two days later, but he happened to live alone in a fairly remote part of a town, and so no one had initially made the connection.

Leonora knew about the report, of course. She knew that it had been published globally. Sun Feng probably knew very well that she knew. So why was he telling her?

The key, she thought, might be in his choice of words/sentiment: You were right. It did start in Macau. He had, after a year previously been quietly steering her away from the idea that it had started in China, admitted that he had been wrong and she was right. In a way, Leonora felt like he had just apologized to her.

"I heard. They sent other epidemiologists."

"But much of what they did was based off of what you learned." She smiled slightly at him, but he squinted slightly, studying her. "Are you feeling all right?" Leonora hesitated, eyes flickering back to her glass.

"A little off, actually." She glanced around to see if anyone had heard her.

"A cold?"

"I don't know. Perhaps the flu." Sun Feng opened his mouth, and she had a strong sense like he was about to ask if she'd been vaccinated, but then his eyes jumped to the bracelet on her wrist and he shut his mouth. "I'm just a bit off. Nothing serious." Famous last words.

All the same, though, Sun Feng turned to the nearest table and pulled out a chair for her. Leonora thought about refusing (sitting down when you weren't feeling well meant that it would be a real pain to try and get up again later), but then simply accepted the courtesy. "Thank you, Sun Feng." He pulled out a chair next to her. He started to say something again, hesitated, and then looked away almost nervously.

"You can call me Sun, if you like."

They'd never gotten to a first-name basis. He had always called her Ms. or Dr. Orantes, and she had called him Sun Feng (Dr. Feng when speaking to his colleagues). It seemed that given the circumstances, he had been set in treating her as politely as he could: He must have deemed it inappropriate (or insulting) to treat a woman he was holding hostage as a friend.

Leonora smiled gratefully.

"Thank you, Sun."

()()

"Fuck me, who invited him?"

Alan Krumwiede rolled his eyes and strolled right along.

He'd been getting a lot of comments like that, particularly amongst the government circles. His trial was still in the works, and his lawyer was confident that the prosecution couldn't prove any of the charges definitively. He would most certainly walk; if they convicted him of anything, it would probably end with him paying some comparatively meager fine.

And then they'd initiate a suit against the American government for harassment, because God knows that was all he'd gotten for the past year.

That was why he was there. It meant almost nothing that he'd been invited to this celebratory event. It was a ploy, a gesture of good faith on the government's part. Alan had 10 million unique visitors, after all: A little less than during the epidemic, but a sizeable amount nevertheless. You can't be accused of harassing someone if you invite them in good faith to a function celebrating the end to a nasty chapter in the history of the world.

There were the idealists that would say they were killing Alan with kindness, inviting him even when he'd caused such a panic and openly opposed vaccination on his website. It was a sort of 'we're the bigger people here' statement. But Alan knew better, knew that this was nothing more than a ploy to make sure there wasn't an overwhelming public backlash against them on his behalf.

Alan had kept right on blogging even after he was indicted. He had a right: The First Amendment, to be precise, and God knew that was going to be the breadth of his defense. He could admit that some of the things he'd said on his website could be the sort of thing that might sway someone's opinion in an undesirable direction, but so what? They had free will. They could choose to listen or not.

As far as San Francisco went, Alan was generally regarded as a pariah by most of the survivors. At first he'd actually been surprised, but the reason became evident quickly: Some writers at the Chronicle were making extra-special sure that there was at least one article a week covering the hearings and in general what a louse he was. He'd never been overly popular there anyway.

Alan hadn't been back to the office- he didn't even know if it was fully up and running again- but judging from the poking around he'd done on the internet, it had somehow gotten out and around that he hadn't given Lorraine any forsythia. He honestly hadn't had any to give to her: He hadn't been lying about his house being broken into. But naturally, that was yet another smear campaign against him.

Alan sincerely regretted what had happened to Lorraine. He had genuinely wanted to help her. Their relationship had never been what you would call buddy-buddy, but she was one of the people that had been able to handle a heated discussion with Alan and still be able to speak to him the next day, and that had been something he had admired that about her, among other things. What he hadn't liked was her servitude to the big bosses in the world of journalism.

"Jesus Christ, what the hell is he doing here?"
Having heard similar sentiments all night, Alan finally turned to face the man who'd spoken. Ironically enough, he found himself face to face with Dr. Ellis Cheever, the CDC worker who'd sparked a riot in Chicago after alerting his girlfriend- now his wife, if the ring on the finger of the woman beside him was any indication- about the impending quarantines.

"I was invited, Dr. Cheever. Legitimately. As in, I got an invitation when everyone else did. I knew the same time everyone else did." He smiled mockingly when Cheever's expression darkened considerably. His wife opened her mouth, eyes narrowed, and he welcomed the chance for her to throw a piece of her mind at him so that he could, as usual, shove it right back down her throat, but Cheever touched her arm.

"Aubrey. Don't."

"You don't seriously think I'm going to stand here and-"

"Aubrey." His voice was almost pleading. She looked highly dissatisfied with leaving it at that, but from the way her shoulders dipped slightly Alan could tell that she was throwing in the towel.

"Yes, lovely to see you as well: I hear your trial went very well doctor: Good to know the government big-wigs look after their own-"

A hand clamped solidly down on Alan's shoulder. It was tight enough to be a warning, but not so tight that he could argue it being hostile. Yet. Dennis French of Homeland Security had come out of nowhere as easily as he had the day Alan had been arrested in the park.

"There a problem here?"

"Not at all." Dr. Cheever said. "We were just having a chat with Mr. Krumwiede here." It was obvious from everyone's expressions that that sentence had not been misinterpreted. French gave Cheever and his wife a tight smile.

"I've been meaning to catch up with you. You guys go on- I'd just like to have a little chat with Mr. Krumwiede on my own." Something like a grim smile flickered on Cheever's lips before he led his wife away into the crowd to find a table with some considerable distance between themselves and Alan.

Alan rolled his eyes to the ceiling, but did not look at French. "Long time no see, Mr. French. Going to arrest me on some bogus charges again?"

"Let's cut to the chase, Krumwiede: You're here as a guest," French said with the kind of smile Alan was well-acquainted with: The one that said 'I hate your damn guts but if I hit you first it's assault'. "So act like a guest. If you would like to resume your role as a parasitic blogger, you can stand outside with the others journalists looking for a hot tip."

"Freedom of speech," Alan reminded him sleekly. "I can ask questions without being thrown to the dogs."

"As appealing as throwing you to a pack of large, vicious dogs sounds," French's tone went slightly colder, "If you make a nuisance of yourself, I will see to it that you're escorted out."

"And then you can get sued for denying me my right to freedom of speech."

"You do so enjoy lawsuits, don't you Mr. Krumwiede?"

"I enjoy reminding people that the First Amendment isn't up for interpretation at your convenience." Alan snapped. "The government likes to jump out of their seats and say that something isn't covered by the First Amendment when it's something you don't want to hear."

Over the course of the trial and preparations for it, Alan had met up with French a number of times during depositions and hearings and whatnot. As the man who once claimed that he would like very much to throw Alan's computer in jail along with him, you'd better believe the man had been tearing into Alan like a wild bear rips into a rainbow trout.

"This man repeatedly, for his own gain, promoted forsythia as a cure for the MEV-1 virus. He claimed to have had the virus and never did."

"According to your doctors."

"Ssh." His lawyer had hissed.

"He never had the virus. He was just trying to boost the sales for forsythia for his own monetary benefit, and in the process of doing so incited stampedes and riots at pharmacies across the country."

But that wasn't Alan's fault. There were thousands of people who'd seen his blog and thought he was full of crap. Just because one kid who likes playing violent videogames shoots up a school doesn't mean that violent videogames are going to turn an entire generation into sociopathic gunmen. People can believe or disbelieve him, choose to accept forsythia as a cure or leave it.

All he did was talk: No one had to listen.

"You know what I hate? What really makes me grit my teeth and squeeze a stress-ball until it pops?" French asked softly though his eyes were raging with concealed fury. "What I despise, above all else, is maggots like you who hide behind the Constitution and use it as your excuse to do and say whatever the hell you please without giving a damn what happens to anyone else as a result. In particular the First Amendment. There's a reason shouting 'fire' in a crowded building isn't covered."

"But I didn't shout 'fire': I just told everyone where I thought the water was." Alan was satisfied to see something like understanding in French's eyes. They could drag him over the coals all they liked, but at the end of the day that was his best defense: He hadn't been actively trying to incite a riot; he'd been giving people information on a potential cure or treatment for the virus.

Alan gave French a serene smile and clapped his shoulder amiably, pretending not to notice when French leaned away like he thought being a 'maggot' was a disease that you could catch.

"Pleasure speaking with you, Mr. French: But I haven't even begun to get drunk yet, so I'll leave you to that foot in your mouth."

()()

Jory Emhoff sympathized with Dr. Hextal.

If a doctor felt out of place here, then how was she supposed to feel? Most of the people attending the ceremony, save for a comparatively small group of civilians, had been doctors and government officials during the epidemic. That meant that the vast majority of people here had had a significant role in containing the virus or developing the vaccine. And none of either of the groups were her own age.

Not that she'd been doing so well with her own age group lately. Jory had deliberately avoided mentioning this to her father, but school had not been going very well lately. As far as national and global media were concerned, a "woman from Minneapolis who had traveled to China" had brought the disease to America, had been Patient Zero who'd accidentally spread it to a Japanese businessman, a Chinese waiter and a Ukrainian model.

In Minneapolis, at AIMM, everyone knew it was Beth Emhoff. The panic set in: Had anyone touched her? Gotten near her? They went, no pun intended, viral and spread the word around that yes, yes it was Beth, it was her, did you see her? Go near her? Touch her? Stand within a hundred feet of her? If so, go to a hospital and get checked because you might be dying.

The global media had kept Beth's name (and by association her family's) quiet, but the social media passed it around quickly. Soon everyone knew. It hadn't been bad during the epidemic since there hadn't been school (and hey, her dad still had that shotgun), but upon returning Jory found that many people, excluding her old true-blue hard-and-fair-weather friends, were not so cool with the idea.

"Isn't that Jory Emhoff?"

"I think so."

"Was she sick?"

"Don't know."

"But wasn't her stepmom the one that-?"

"Yeah."

Sometimes the tones ranged from gentle, pitying, to cold and ugly. She got stares. She got nasty comments thrown at her. Her vaccination bracelet was clearly visible on her wrist and yet many people backed away from her when she passed them in class and in the halls. How they managed to rationalize that Jory deserved to be punished for her stepmother unintentionally bringing a deadly disease to the country was beyond her. It wasn't her fault, and Beth certainly hadn't wanted to die or put her family (or anyone else for that matter) in danger.

That had been a large part of Jory's hesitation to come to this ceremony. Were they going to get stared at here? Were the adults going to murmur amongst themselves "Oh yes, that's Elizabeth Emhoff's family, she's the one that started all this bullshit-"

It hadn't even been Beth. It had started, to the best of Jory's understanding, with a chef in China who hadn't washed his hands.

Dr. Hextal had to know that. Was she sitting with them out of pity, maybe? Because everyone else was talking about them? God, Jory hoped not. You could always tell when someone sat down next to you in the school cafeteria when you were sitting alone that they were doing it because they pitied you and not because they were genuinely interested in conversation with you.

"So what grade are you in, Jory?" Jory's head jerked up when she was addressed. Dr. Hextal had been making small-talk with her dad for the last ten minutes, general introductions and whatnot.

"Tenth. Sophomore." She was supposed to be a junior by now, but every school kid in America had been bumped back a year due to the virus causing the schools to be shut down most of the year. They'd started almost a full month earlier this year, August 5th, to make up for lost time. Jory had thought that the elementary schools would be crowded with kids just getting out of kindergarten, but that had brought up the grim number of how many children between the ages of five and ten had died during the epidemic.

"Do you enjoy school?"

"Yeah. It's pretty good." Jory enjoyed the actual work and social interaction a lot, and would a lot more if not for her more difficult classmates.

"Any special activities?"

"I play the flute in my school band, but I play the piano too." Dr. Hextal smiled brightly.

"That's fantastic! I tried the clarinet in high school, but keeping up with band practices ended up being too difficult. Where do you find the time?"

Jory's face remained neutral, but her mood dipped alarmingly fast. "I had a lot last year."

She saw Dr. Hextal twitch slightly. "Right." Jory wondered if maybe the remark had been misplaced; had she just become that person at the party that said something really awkward that ruined the mood for everyone else?

"I'm going to go run and get another drink," Her dad said suddenly, glancing quickly at Jory and then Dr. Hextal. "I'll be right back." Jory saw him glance back just once even as he walked away.

"Jory, are you all right?" Dr. Hextal asked with that ever-infuriating curious-concern that Jory had heard from a lot of her teachers/other adults for the past semester. "Are you uncomfortable here?"

Had it really been that obvious? She thought about waving the concern off, but something in the doctor's face made Jory hesitate.

Jory played with a stray thread on her bag, a small beaded thing that she'd used to hold their tickets and some lip-gloss, not looking at Dr. Hextal. "I don't like thinking about it; the virus, the epidemic." She murmured. "You probably already know about my stepmom."

Dr. Hextal nodded very slowly. "Beth Emhoff, the first person to contract the virus." Jory nodded, her head down, only her eyes flipping up occasionally.

"Beth was like a mom to me. My stepbrother, Clark- he was the sweetest little kid. Losing them was bad enough, but then having other people I knew dropping dead and being stuck in the house all winter, spring and most of summer?" She heaved a shaky sigh. "It was a nightmare."

Dr. Hextal nodded. "I don't think I can quite sympathize with being stuck in one place for so long, but I can certainly sympathize with losing friends and family."

"You lost someone?"

"My brother-in-law, a nephew… And a friend from the CDC, Dr. Mears."

"Mears?" The name struck a chord with Jory. Where had she heard it before? "Did she come to Minneapolis?"

"She did. She was sent up there to implement the CDC's epidemic protocols." Dr. Hextal looked at her. "She was blonde, blue eyed, in her thirties?" Suddenly the image clicked in Jory's head: The doctor that had interviewed her father and eventually her about Beth and Clark's deaths, who'd checked in to see if they'd been infected or not, and then was there when they'd finally let her dad out of the hospital. She'd been nice.

"She was at the hospital. She was asking dad and I questions about Beth." Jory shifted slightly in her seat. "I didn't know she'd died. It was the virus?" It was fairly obvious, but always good to double-check.

"It was. Erin was infected sometime in Minneapolis and was in the emergency-medical center in the stadium. She never pulled out of it." Dr. Hextal's expression went a little distant. "We were kind of surprised: She was always pretty stubborn. We thought she'd fight it off."

Jory didn't know it, but at that moment she had the same epiphany that Dr. Hextal had had earlier when she'd recognized the Emhoffs: The person she knew next to nothing about, someone who'd only briefly registered as a blip on her radar, there and gone, had had a full life somewhere else with friends and family. She was gone, and now she was missed. She must have been a good friend to Dr. Hextal.

"I'm sorry."

"And I'm sorry for your loss." Dr. Hextal smiled wryly. "I feel bad: We're being downers at a party. There's a lab technician, a friend of mine in here somewhere I know will be a kick to talk to. Interested?"

The burden on her heart lifted for now, Jory grinned and nodded.

()()

Sun Feng was uncomfortable.

He had always been a bit shy, but there was something to be said for the ability to be comfortable around a woman you kidnapped a year previously.

Leonora was a curious woman. She was intelligent, fairly blunt, terse, hard to read and very, very concerned with doing her job and doing it right. And though it wasn't immediately apparent, she was considerably strong willed. He had thought that there would be more conflict when the actual kidnapping went down, that she would fight back and that things would get ugly, or that maybe she would try to escape once they got her back to the village.

Imagine Sun's surprise when, after the initial shock had died down, Leonora had been surprisingly complacent. She had adapted well to the village, in particular with the children who weren't old enough to understand what the word 'hostage' meant and what it might mean for them all if everything went south. She had never once tried to escape, never complained, never argued. He had been a bit dumbfounded, and it was only maybe a week before the vaccines were ready to be traded for her that he'd realized that this was Leonora off-duty, Leonora not-doing-her-job.

For the first week of her captivity, he had been absent; it would have looked suspicious if they'd both disappeared at the same time, and so Sun reported back to Hong Kong, to his job and had made mention that she was missing; that she'd taken a cab to the airport and he'd stayed behind to alert his superiors as to the summons to Geneva, and that apparently she'd never made it to Hong Kong International. As the world had been going into a panic at the time, a formal investigation hadn't immediately been started. When things started closing down, Sun had asked for leave to go back to his village and help out there. He'd barely been noticed.

From there on, it was mainly a matter of monitoring the news networks for anything relating to a cure and keeping the village isolated from the outside. Isolation was the key: If almost no one came in or out, they couldn't carry the virus with them. They tried much of the popular remedies for treating or curing the virus, primarily forsythia, to keep everyone healthy. Once the isolation process started, no one in the village contracted the illness.

Sun had heard about Alan Krumwiede and the case against him, and the fact that he'd been peddling forsythia for a drug company or something to that effect. Once again, Leonora had been right: One day, when they'd been handing out forsythia to the children for them to (hopefully) inoculate themselves with, Leonora had spoken up.

"You really think it will help?" Sun had shrugged.

"It's the best chance they have." Leonora had nodded, because other than isolation what else could they do, but Sun had learned that with this woman what she didn't say was twice as important as what she did. There had been a sliver of doubt in her eyes, the kind that said 'If it were this simple than over a million people wouldn't be dead'.

He had kept her up to date about what they were hearing. America had started quarantines, isolating each state. Britain followed soon after. Martial law was in effect in many countries. Rations were distributed since no food stores were open and food couldn't be shipped over state lines. It was winter, and nothing could be grown. Doctors and nurses were striking because they were getting sick and they were at the most risk for being so. Rioting was everywhere, and there wasn't much anyone could do about it.

"The whole world has gone insane." Leonora had mumbled. "Except here. You would never guess if you only looked here." Sun was proud of that, proud that they had maintained a modicum of peace and stability. The government in Hong Kong was only just managing to keep things under control as all other things seemed to fall down everywhere else.

He spent a lot of time with Leonora. She couldn't speak any dialects of Chinese, and more often than not it was Chinese and not English that was spoken around the village. She relied on him to translate what people were saying, particularly in relation to her continued position as a hostage or the progression of the virus and the impact it was having on the world at large.

Naturally, certain members of his village took notice of the time he spent with her.

"Maybe we should double-cross them," Sun's friend since childhood, Jian, had said grinning mischievously. "Maybe we should take the vaccines and keep her here anyway. Would you like that, Sun, if she stayed forever?"

"Shut up."

"You're blushing!"

"Shut up."

Jian was his oldest friend, and thankfully he was the only one to really deduce that Sun had been maybe a little more attached to Leonora than was wise. He hadn't been wrong: When Leonora had had to leave, both times, Sun had been surprised at how much he missed having her there.

Sitting across from her again was slightly surreal. He hadn't been sure if she would be here or not; again, they hadn't communicated in the past year or so. He didn't know her reasoning, but he had been concerned that if someone found out that they might become interested at how they knew each other apparently well enough to keep up personal correspondence if they'd only seen each other a week or so for their work.

"How have things been in China?" Leonora asked.

"Stable. Once the vaccines were distributed to the majority of the country everything calmed down significantly."

"That's good." She wasn't as engaging as was typical for her, and it didn't escape him that her voice sounded slightly hoarse. Maybe she was sick.

"Are you feeling all right?"

"I'm fine. Well enough."

"I can drive you back to your hotel if you're not feeling well."

"Oh no, please don't trouble yourself- I'm fine, really." Leonora glanced down at her glass and saw that it was almost empty, maybe an eighth of the glass still full. She'd been sipping at it for the breadth of their conversation, but she must not have noticed. "Would you like a drink? I'm going to go-" She stood up, and her coordination must have been more affected than either of them thought, because Leonora stumbled slightly and as her hands jerked in an effort to regain her balance (Sun quickly grabbed her free one to steady her), the hand holding the wine accidentally twitched the glass in the direction of the man sitting at the table behind him. The remaining wine in the glass- the red wine- sloshed over his shirt.

"Oh! Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry." Leonora was bright red.

"It's fine, it's fine," The man said easily, blotting at the stain with his napkin. "Accidents happen."

"I'm sorry. Please send me the bill."

"No, no, no problem. A little bleach and it'll come out just fine." He smiled up at Leonora, and she nodded and moved on past him with more mumbled apologies that he waved off. She looked up at Sun with a weak grimace.

"I think I need to take you up on that offer."

Sun smiled.

"Let's go, then."

()()

Mitch honestly didn't give a damn about the shirt. He had others. And it's not like he really needed to dress up for anything. The poor woman looked embarrassed anyway, so no need to bother her further. Initially he wondered if she might have been a little tipsy, but her eyes had been clear and her voice steady. Maybe she just wasn't feeling well (and no, the irony of someone being sick tonight had not escaped him.

A few people nearby had glanced over when the woman had exclaimed, but most of them had turned back around when they saw it was nothing. Jory and Dr. Hextal had gone to the ladies' room. A blonde man was leaning on the table, casually tipping back a glass of what might have been vodka. "She seemed a bit off, didn't she?" He cocked his head to the side so that he was looking Mitch in the eye. "Alan Krumwiede, Truth Serum blog online. I'm a journalist-"

"Yeah, I know who you are." Mitch said dryly, not bothering to keep the note of bitterness out of his voice. Everyone with TV or internet access knew who Alan-Freaking-Krumwiede was. The guy that had been the driving force behind forsythia as a cure during the epidemic and, allegedly, had been doing it to make money by helping wealthy investors boost forsythia sales. Screw celebrities; this guy was the new target for hate-gossip.

"Seen the blog?"

"Seen the blog, the news, the newspapers, the internet- You're pretty well covered in the media." Mitch remarked. Like most of America (Actually, was it 'most'? Krumwiede had a lot of followers, somewhere in the millions), Mitch hated Krumwiede's guts. But he wasn't interested in getting into a debate with him. Krumwiede was one of those guys that had an explanation, no matter how far-fetched or stupid, for every argument you could possibly make.

He was also the kind that itched for fights because he thought they were funny.

"And what was your opinion?" Mitch sucked in a quiet, deep breath.

"I was inclined to believe certain parts," He said slowly. "And others not so much."

"And what do you mean by that?"

"I mean that the government's not perfect, but it's not out to destroy us."

"Never said it was."

"Maybe not explicitly." Mitch was starting to lose his patience. On one of the days when he'd had to wander from the house in search of supplies in the early days of the quarantine, he'd seen the effects of a rush on the pharmacies for forsythia. It had been feeding time at the zoo. Whether Krumwiede realized it (or cared) or not, it was he that had been the cause of that particular bit of chaos, in Minnesota and everywhere else. If he was really as smart, as in tune with human behavior as he subtly claimed to be, he had to know what would happen. And he still did it.

"I hope you're not implying that you think I'm an anarchist."

Mitch felt himself lose his grip on his temper a bit. "No, I just think you're one of a million conspiracy nuts that are all hung up on the freedoms we're given and don't think that there should be any reasonable limits on them."

"Limiting freedoms? Who are you, Hitler?"

"Oh Jesus Christ, if I have to hear one more Hitler or Nazi comparison-"

"That's it." A stout, dark-haired man had appeared behind Krumwiede. "Out. Get out. I don't care if you were invited; you're sure as all hell not starting another riot. Leave."

"Do you have the authority to make me leave, Mr. French?"

"I warned you I'd remove you if you became a nuisance, Krumwiede, and I wasn't joking. Don't worry: None of us will miss you." He gave Krumwiede a very firm jab in the back, motioning him towards the door. French looked at Mitch apologetically, grimly. "My apologies Mr.-" He glanced at the nametag. "-Emhoff."

"Emhoff? Really?" Krumwiede seemed almost surprised and disgustingly pleased with that idea. Mitch had an ugly feeling that this encounter would be on the internet before sun-up tomorrow. If the blogger said anything else, though, he didn't hear it; French hurried him away at a brisk pace.
"I don't want to alarm you," A tall, African-American man standing to the side noted dryly, "But I think that's going to be the story 'ten million unique visitors' see tomorrow morning when they log into that mockery of a journalist's website." Mitch snorted.

"I was just thinking the same thing. He's a journalist?"

"He thinks so." He held out his hand. "Ellis Cheever." Mitch clasped the hand firmly.

"Mitch Emhoff."

"Nice to meet you." He looked around. "Are you here alone?"

Mitch chuckled, ducked his head. "No. My, uh- My daughter's with me. She's getting a little sick of me, though. She was trapped in a house with me for eight months during the outbreak, and she just turned sixteen in November." Cheever chuckled.

"Ouch. And that's at the age where they're trying to get the hell away from you, right?" Mitch found himself laughing too.

"Oh yeah." He sighed. "I think- I know I went a bit overboard at times, but I was just…" Even though 'Protect Jory' had been at the forefront of his mind, Mitch was still having trouble justifying pretty much threatening Andrew with a shotgun.

"Taking care of your own."

"Right."

Cheever was quiet for a moment, but then a small smile made his lips twitch up. "Maybe I'm biased… But I don't think that's always such a bad thing."

"Mm. But there's always going too far." Cheever blinked.

"In what way?" Mitch looked up at him as though it were obvious.

"Father of a teenager daughter: It's pretty much a given that I own a shotgun."

For a moment there was silence. And then, simultaneously, both men broke out into the kind of laughter you only laugh when you haven't done it in a really, really long time.

()()

OVER 10,000 WORDS.

…UFF. (Collapse)

Seriously, though: I've been neglecting my (cough)sixty-plus(cough) Supernatural stories in favor of finishing this while the information and my interest remained. But dear LORD, I exorcized SO many plot-bunnies gnawing on my brain.