Taking Care of Business
a Tomorrow Series fanfiction
(Author's note: This version of Homer Yannos is considerably more ruthless than in canon.)
At first, when we got to Stratton and managed to go to ground, I was content to just lie around and wallow in the sense of being alive. Sleeping under a roof at Ellie's grandmother's house, instead of a leaky tent in Hell, or out under the stars, seemed like a five-star hotel to me.
The rest of us seemed to share my relief. Honestly, when we were shooting up that airbase, I hadn't really expected to get away free. I thought, for sure, that we'd finally used up our allotment of luck. Getting onto the base was a thousands-to-one gamble, all by itself. I'd never have believed we could pull it off. Then, when we had to shoot our way out, I was sure that this was it…that this time, we wouldn't make it out alive.
Granted, we'd come through some pretty tight spots before, notably Stratton Prison, but this was worse, in some ways, than the prison. However, I didn't let that bother me consciously; I was just too busy shooting and doing everything I could to tear that airfield to pieces and get us all out and away again.
Floating down the river, after we got away, I gave way to a nice, relaxing attack of the shakes at one point. Luckily none of the others were close, and I could pass it off as shivering from the cold water. Can't have the others, especially Fi or Ellie…especially Ellie!…thinking that Homer Yannos gets scared like the lesser beings do! Ellie'd never let me hear the end of it, and Fi would never want anything to do with me again. Once we were on land, I was past that and back to my usual self, and I don't think anybody else noticed.
I was very glad to get to Stratton, as I've said, and I spent several days just relaxing. I thought the others would be glad of a break, too, but after a bit, I noticed that Lee was going out at night, by himself. We did have to go out on occasion, to scrounge food and the like, but Lee would go on his own, where the rest of us would go in a group. That struck me as odd, but I didn't think anything much of it. We were all reacting in various ways to the airbase raid, and the long strain we'd been under. Privately, I thought that a bit of R+R in New Zealand sounded a real treat.
Ellie was fussing about some feral kids that had attacked us at one point; she was worried that they were hungry or needing things. My private thought was that those kids needed our help the way Australia needed the invasion. They had struck me on brief acquaintance as well able to look after themselves, and if we never met again, I'd be absolutely delighted. But Ellie wasn't to be dissuaded. After a while, I came around to her point of view, and started pitying them. If my little brother had lived, he could be running with a group like that if he'd avoided being swept up, and I hated to think of that. Ellie was surprised when I told her that, which amused me.
Lee and Ellie's relationship, always on-again, off-again, seemed to be going through an off period. Fi and I were not sure of where our own relationship was going, so I left Lee and Ellie be. I was too busy trying to figure out whether Fi still liked me or not. Sometimes she acted like she did, other times like she didn't. I wish I could figure women out.
Ellie came to me one evening. "Homer?" she asked. "I've got a favour I'd like to ask of you."
"I'd do anything for you, Ellie," I answered, waggling my eyebrows so that she knew what I meant by "anything." She gave me a scowl. We're mates, but we do love teasing one another…okay, it's mostly me teasing her, but she's such an irresistible target that it's hard to resist. And she does get in her share of shots. It's never been one-sided.
"I don't want that," she grumbled. "All I'm asking is, next time Lee goes out all on his own, could you shadow him and find out where he goes and what he's up to? I'm kind of worried about him."
That struck me as an excellent idea. That evening, when Lee went out, I tailed him at a discreet distance.
Lee's good at sneaking, like all of us. If he weren't, he'd be dead. However, I grew up rural, and know more about it than he does. Not his fault, really, just the way things are. He led me on a long trek through the outskirts of Stratton, keeping well out of sight of the invaders, until we were in open country.
Finally, he came to where he seemed to be going: a place called "Karen Downs." The name tickled my memory, until I remembered: That was the name of a girl back in school, before the invasion. She'd always considered me and my mates to be a bunch of worthless larrikins. As I got closer, I hoped that the name wouldn't be a bad omen for me. I wanted to see just what in the world Lee was doing out there, so far from Stratton.
When I found out, I could feel my hair trying to stand up straight on my head. He was met there by a dark-haired girl, who apparently had been expecting him. They embraced, and kissed, and then sank to the ground. I couldn't see what they were doing, but I didn't need to.
I had never in my life felt such overwhelming rage, not even on the day when we first learned of the invasion. The fool! The purblind, stupid, brains-in-his-balls idiot! Didn't he realise what he was doing? Had he gone mad?
We were some of the most hunted outlaws in Australia's history. Ellie and I both had death sentences out against us, and as far as I knew, those sentences were still in effect. I didn't fancy being stood against a wall or hung by my neck because bloody Lee couldn't keep his willie in his trousers!
Not to mention what this would do to Ellie. Ellie's like the sister I never had, in a lot of ways, and while I tease her middling-mercilessly, I'd throw myself in front of a bullet aimed at her without a second thought. It's a bloke thing; women do things differently, I know.
As I slipped away, back to where we were holed up, my mind was spinning. How long had this been going on? How had Lee even met an invader girl? Did she know he was Australian, or did she think he was one of her own people? I dismissed that latter possibility quickly; the invaders had their own language, and to my best knowledge none of us spoke any of it. All she'd have to do is talk to him in her native tongue, and his incomprehension would give the game away.
On the way home, as I reflexively avoided bright light and anywhere there were invaders, I wrestled with the question of what to do. I finally came back to the conclusion I had come to at first. No matter what, the others had to know.
Fi was the first to see me when I gave the "friendly" signal and slipped on in. "Homer! My God, what's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost!" She came up and hugged me, and it felt good, but I couldn't let myself be distracted.
"Get everybody in here. Something's come up that we all need to know about, as fast as possible!"
When all of us…Fi, Ellie, Kevin and I…were gathered together in the living room, I told them: "I was following Lee, and saw him go up to a house a couple of kilometers out of Stratton. He hasn't been going on lone-hand raids, like we all assumed!" When everybody's attention was fixed on me, I lowered the boom: "He's involved with an enemy girl! He's been sneaking off to see her!"
Ellie went white, and looked for a second or two like she was about to sick up. If we'd been better-fed, she might have. She looked very bad indeed. Beside her, Fi gave a little cry, holding Ellie close to try to comfort her. Kevin looked grim. Right then, if Lee had rolled on in, I wouldn't have given much for his chances of surviving.
"Now, before we all go panicking, we'd better wait for Lee to come back here. If nothing else, I want to know how long this has been going on, and what, if anything, this girl knows! Once I figure out what we're dealing with, we can decide whether we have to leave here, or whatever else we need to do." This struck the others as good common sense. Inside, I was slightly amused. Before the invasion, the words "common sense" were not, to put it mildly, ones anybody would have applied to anything I did. It wasn't that I wanted to harm people; I would never have harmed anybody in those days, beyond the usual boy-style fistfighting. It took the invasion to show me sides of myself that I hadn't even been conscious existed.
When Lee came home, he was surprised, to say the least, at the reception he got. The minute he walked in the door, I tackled him and took him to the floor, jamming a pistol into his head.
"Homer! What's gone wrong with you? Are you mad? It's me! Lee! You know me!" He hadn't realised that I'd followed him, apparently. I snarled, dragging him to his knees.
"Get up! Get into the living room! We need to talk!" When I hauled him in, throwing him down on the carpet, he looked around and clearly didn't like what he saw. All of us were armed, and we were all giving him very dirty looks.
"We know where you went, Lee," Kevin said, his voice cold as the grave.
"We know what you've been doing, Lee," said Fiona, in tones that dripped icicles. "What we want to know is how long this has been going on, and what you've told that…that whore!" She gave Lee a look that should have had him pissing himself. I pray she never, ever looks at me that way. For such a beautiful, ethereal creature, she could look remarkably like an avenging angel when she chose to.
Ellie didn't say anything. She just looked at Lee, and the look on her face would have had anybody feeling like the lowest crawling piece of filth on the earth. I'd have given anything I owned in the world, and my hope of salvation in the next, to make that look go away.
"Start at the beginning, traitor," I said. "How long has this little affair been going on?"
Lee looked at me in horror. It might have been the stern, no-nonsense tone I was using. He expects me to always be joking around. It might have been the question itself. However, a lot of it was probably the pistol I held leveled at his head, my finger on the trigger. One wrong answer and Ellie's grandmum would have an awful mess to clean out of the carpets here, should she ever return.
"You know about me and Reni?" It came out in a shocked whisper.
"Yes, betrayer. He followed you tonight. All the way out to Karen Downs. He saw you together, and knows what you've been doing. What we want to know is how long this has been going on, and what this…person…knows." To hear Kevin, you'd think he was speaking to a total stranger, a stranger for whom he felt no connection or affection, instead of one of us.
Lee slumped in despair. "It started a few weeks ago. I was out near Karen Downs, looking for mushrooms, and I heard her cry out. It was the sort of cry you make when you're in real trouble. I acted on sheer instinct, and ran to see who needed help. She'd been in swimming, in the dam, and got a cramp."
"Okay, so you pulled her out of there." Fi said. "And you couldn't leave it at that?"
Lee gave her a slightly haggard grin. "Did I mention, she was naked?"
Against my will, I could understand Lee's behavior. Like it or not, that's the sort of scenario all blokes dream of. Finding a beautiful, naked girl in distress, and saving her…and getting a hero's reward. However, I hardened my heart. Fi and I hadn't done the deed yet, for a bunch of reasons, and Lee had been doing it with Ellie to my certain knowledge. How dare he cheat on her?
"Okay, doing it once, I can sort of see," Kevin drawled, fingering a knife he'd produced from somewhere on his person. "But…again and again?"
"I don't know why I did it!" Lee looked like he was about to cry. "It was like I couldn't stop myself!"
"Do you love her?" Ellie spoke up for the first time. Her voice was like the machine voice you get on the phone system sometimes.
"I don't know! I don't think so!"
"Now for the important part," I hissed, jamming the muzzle of my pistol into Lee's head, making him go sickly pale under the tan we all bore from our months in the bush. "What does she know about us? How did you explain who you were and what you were doing out and about? She has to know you're not one of her people!"
"I didn't tell her anything about us!" Lee all but grovelled, on his knees. "She thinks I'm just a local guy who managed not to get swept up by the invaders, who's been living rough! Please! You've got to believe me! I'm not that stupid!"
"Could have fooled me," Kevin remarked. "What you did, Lee, was so far beyond stupid that to see it from stupid, you'd need an astronomical telescope."
"What's her name?" Ellie asked. She seemed calm…until you looked into her eyes. One look, and I looked away.
"Her name's Reni. She does speak English, you know. They teach it at schools where she comes from." Lee gave us all a haunted look. To my eye, he looked like a cornered animal, in a trap, looking hopelessly at the people who'd come to kill him. For the first time, a flicker of pity for him went through me.
I came to a conclusion. "Right, you lot. If Lee's telling us the truth, then the situation's not unsalvagable. Let's break this on up. Lee, until further notice you're in disgrace. Keep an eye on him, everybody, and if he even twitches like he's going to slip on out of here, shoot him first and ask questions later. Tomorrow night, I'll make sure everything's all right and tight."
The next evening was clear and dark; perfect for what I had in mind. With nothing on me more lethal than a kitchen knife, I slipped out of the house and headed out of Stratton.
The others had been warned: "You may not see me for a few days. If I'm gone longer than that, get on out of here and head back to Hell. Keep a sharp eye out for enemy patrols! If they seem to be more frequent than usual, then bail out of here and head to Hell!" They didn't know what I had in mind; I had deliberately kept that to myself. That way, if the worst came to the worst, they couldn't tell their interrogators what I was doing, even under torture.
Lee had been locked up down in the basement of Ellie's grandmum's house, with a supply of food and water, and a bucket for sanitary purposes. They knew not to let him out until I returned, unless the soldiers came a-knocking. I didn't trust him an inch, and wouldn't until I did what I had set out to do.
The trip out of Stratton went smoothly enough. Once or twice, I had to hide from enemy patrols, or groups of enemies, but that was nothing out of the way. I evaded them very easily. The lazy scum stuck to the paved sidewalks and streets, and never looked twice at the alleys and back yards. Of course, the power being mostly out helped; I might have been seen if more street lights had been on.
Once out of Stratton, I was able to make very good time. I'm a rural, and by then, well used to operating at night without artificial lights; the stars above shone enough that I could see what I was doing. If others had been out in the night, searching for me, they'd have betrayed themselves in a hundred different ways, even if they'd had the wit not to show lights. Coughing, talking among themselves, the sudden silence of animals…there'd be all sorts of clues to their presence. By now, I had become a feral creature, more at home in the night than by day.
Karen Downs looked placid enough, but I scouted around carefully. It had occurred to me that this "Reni" person might not be above using her fair young body to bait our Lee into a trap. We were, at that time, hotter than Ned Kelly had ever been, and I wouldn't have been surprised to find that our names and faces were on "Wanted! Dead Or Dead!" posters, with fat rewards for whoever brought us or our corpses in.
I didn't see any signs of an ambush or a trap. The place looked to be wrapped in slumber. The only light was one in the main farmyard. Before leaving, I had questioned Lee at length, backing my questions with the odd slap if he didn't answer up quickly enough, and I knew roughly where to go. Standing in the shadows near a certain window, I whistled the five-note "Close Encounters" tune. That was the same one we used as a recognition signal, and learning that he used it to signal this Reni woman that he was nearby had enraged me.
The window came open. A voice whispered: "Lee?" In the shadows, I smiled to myself. Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly…
"I'm out here! Come on out!" I whispered back, hopefully loud enough that she could hear me but not so loud as to disturb anybody else. One person whispering sounds much like another, and Lee and I have rather similar voices in any case. A few minutes later, a door opened, and I could see a female form, dark against the white side of the house.
"Lee? Where are you?"
"Over here! In the bushes! Come on over!" I hissed. Trustingly, suspecting nothing, she came on into the bushes, out of sight of the house. She apparently hadn't been planning anything other than an evening with Lee. Instead, she got me.
She never had a chance to scream. I was on her before she could do more than gasp, and I had my hand over her nose and mouth, keeping her from breathing; from the way she convulsed, I could tell I'd knocked the wind out of her. At first, she struggled and thrashed, and I hoped that nobody would hear. Eventually, she went quiet, but I didn't let go for five minutes…I counted every second. When I let go at last, panting and gasping for air myself, she lay there, very still. I knelt and felt her neck for a pulse, the way I'd been taught to do in Health class in school, long ago. I couldn't find one. In the dim light from the farmyard, her eyes stared up at me, wide, glassy and sightless. I could smell that she'd lost control of herself; her bowels and bladder had both cut loose. As far as I could tell, she was dead. Up the close and down the stair, but and ben with Burke and Hare…rattled through my mind. Despite what Ellie thinks, I do read, and I'd read about those two and how they operated.
I had planned to cut some rope from a clothesline I had found, to make it look as though she had hanged herself for some reason, but right then, terror shot through me, and all I could think of was making a clean getaway. If I were caught there, over the body of a dead girl I'd killed, the previous death sentence I'd been given would be of no consequence; I'd be lucky to just be shot on the spot! I slipped off through the bushes, and didn't stop until I was well out of sight and sound of Karen Downs. I had had some half-formed plans to set some fires to distract people, but right then I just wanted to get out of there.
I didn't take the direct route back to our base. If I were caught, I didn't want to provide any clues to where we were hiding out. I circled around Stratton, and came in from the opposite side to where I had left. I knew the city fairly well, but patrols were thicker there, and I couldn't make as good time as I could out in the country. By the time dawn was beginning to break, I was still several miles from home.
To make things worse, I'd apparently managed to blunder into an area the enemy had settled. The street lights were mostly on, more than in our home area, and people were beginning to stir about. After about the third time I had to dodge out of the way lest I be caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, I decided that I had to find somewhere or other to hole up for the day. Unfortunately, there weren't a lot of choices.
I finally settled on a house that had apparently been hit by a bomb during the invasion. The upper levels were a wreck, and with better houses around, it had been left pretty much alone, other than yellow hazard tapes being strung around it to keep people out. Never having been much concerned about such rules, I managed to sneak on in and found, to my pleasure, that the basement was still almost completely intact. At least I had shelter where I wouldn't instantly be spotted as Australian.
That was a long, long day. During it, I gave way to a long attack of the shuddering horrors at what I had done. I'd killed before; all of us had. But that had always been in combat, or self-defense. During that day, I had to face up to the fact that I had killed a young girl not too different from one of my own classmates, a girl whose only crime might have been to fall in love with a guy who'd saved her life. I heard a siren off in the distance, and I had a sick feeling that I knew just what that meant. Reni had been found. I imagined the reaction to this awful discovery. Her mother, collapsing in tears over her little girl, her baby whom she'd carried and loved and raised. Her father, sobbing despairingly that his daughter, his jewel, the most important person in his life, was dead. And it was all down to me. I felt sick. I hated myself. For the first time in my life, I felt like a real murderer.
That long day in that cellar was, for me, what I'd heard referred to as "a dark night of the soul." During those long, lonely hours, I went through agonies of remorse and recrimination like nobody should have to ever face. The only thing that kept me from either taking my knife to my wrists, or coming out with my hands up to face enemy justice, was the mantra "I had to do it; she was too much of a danger to live!" And, believe me, that justification seemed terribly flimsy. I asked myself, again and again, if there'd been any other option available to me, given the circumstances. And, again and again, I came up with the same conclusion I had come to before. She had to die, so that we could live. Not that that made it any easier to deal with.
After that years-long day was finally over, and darkness had claimed the land again, I came out, feeling like a vampire rising from the grave. It was overcast and rainy, which suited my mood. It also meant that people were less likely to be about, so getting back home would be less of a problem.
A couple of hours before the dawn was due, I came up cautiously on Ellie's grandmum's house, and whistled that damned five-note "Close Encounters" theme. It was returned from inside, our signal that all was well and the coast was clear, and I slipped on in. Fi was waiting for me, in a fine old state.
"Homer Yannos! Where in the world have you been? We've been worried sick about you! Have you even eaten anything? Let me get some tucker down you!" She hauled me, unresisting, into the kitchen and gave me some tinned sardines and vegetables that we'd found a while ago. Washed down with salvaged rainwater, it wasn't too appetizing, but I was hungry enough, and war-wise enough, not to care. I shovelled the food down, and did start feeling a little better.
"Is Lee still down the cellar?" I asked. She looked away, and nodded.
"Yes. Ellie's upstairs. She hasn't been talking to us much." That was Kevin, who had come in while I was eating. "Good to have you back, Homer." He patted me on the back awkwardly; like me and most blokes I know, Kevin had a hard time showing affection, but I knew he cared about me. For some reason, that touched me deeply just then. I still felt, down inside, like the lowest sub-reptilian life form on the planet.
"Go let Lee out, Kevin. The danger's probably past." Kevin gave me a long look, then his eyes widened and he went to do as I told him. A few minutes later, Lee came stumbling into the kitchen, looking worse than I felt, which was quite an accomplishment. Kevin brought him some food, and he tucked in like he was starving. Not that any of us were exactly well-fed, at that time.
Ellie came down to see what was going on. She stared at me like I was a ghost. "Where have you been, Homer Yannos?" She sounded so much like my mum, confronted with my latest pranks, that I had to smile, and a few minutes previously, I'd have bet anything that I'd never be able to smile again.
I looked around. "I've been making sure we're still safe here," I said. "We can rest easy, at least for a while. We're in no more danger than usual."
They all looked at me. Lee put it together first. He stared at me like I'd suddenly grown a second head, his eyes going wider and wider, and then he collapsed, sobbing his heart out. Kevin twigged next, and went very pale, and Fi put her hand to her lips with a soft cry.
Ellie could have been carved from stone. "So you took her out, did you?" she asked. Hearing it put so bluntly comforted me in an odd way. If she'd acted all horrified, I don't know what I would have done.
"Yeah," I said, as though I was discussing the crops' chances that year. "Didn't have much choice in the matter."
"It's all my fault she's dead!" Lee blubbered. "It's all my fault!"
"Yes, Lee, it's your fault she's dead," I said, refusing to give him any sympathy. "You should have left her be, no matter how tempting she was. In peacetime, I'd have said otherwise, but this is war." I looked around at the others. "And it's all of our fault that Chris Lang is dead. Remember him? Our friend? The one we neglected and left all alone in camp, for days, when we knew he was depressed and down?"
Everybody looked shamefaced, as I had intended. I knew it was a very low blow, but I had intended it to be one. I'd never really forgiven myself, or the rest of us, for the way we'd turned away from Chris.
After a minute, Fi came up to me. "Homer. Don't feel bad about what you did. You didn't have any choice in it. You're exactly right about that. That poor girl wasn't any guiltier than the conscripts we've shot, or run down, or blown up, was she?"
"If she wanted to be safe, she should have stayed where she belonged," Kevin offered. "If she had stayed in her home country, she'd be alive and well right this minute. You did the right thing, Homer." He patted me awkwardly on the shoulder.
Lee looked up, his face ravaged. "I suppose they're right," he husked. "I'll be haunted by this for the rest of my life, but I don't deserve any better. Are you going to just kick me out of the group?"
I was shocked at the suggestion. "NO! Lee, you're one of us. You're our mate! Okay, you made an awful mistake. But you've also saved our bacon several times over! Until the end, you're one of us. Just let us know the next time something like this comes up, OK?" He looked at us. Even Ellie nodded. At that, he began to cry again.