|Second Hand Unwinding
Author: Lizardbeth J PM
Markus and Jeremiah have to work together to survive after negotiations go terribly wrong.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Suspense - Chapters: 3 - Words: 22,570 - Reviews: 10 - Favs: 9 - Follows: 2 - Published: 05-29-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3564359
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Second Hand Unwinding
Spoilers: This begins immediately after the finale, Interregnum 2, and contains spoilers for the whole series.
Summary: Jeremiah and Markus have to work together to survive their enemies.
Pairing: none. Gen Buddy!Adventure fic, though you can certainly read it as slashy if you want
Comments always welcome!
"So the guy, Captain John Brady, he was Sims' second in command. And he realized that Daniel was fake and he's ordered all his men to stand down."
The answer came back over the radio in his hand, "That is very good news, Jeremiah. Well done. And Sims?"
Jeremiah clenched his jaw and managed not to speak with too much satisfaction. "Dead."
There was a short pause over the radio while Markus couldn't quite bring himself to say that it was good news too, but they both knew it was. "Well, I'm not gonna cry over it," he said finally. "Hopefully we'll soon start seeing a withdrawal from here."
"Kurdy and I told him that he'd better lift the siege right away, or his surrender didn't mean shit," Jeremiah confirmed. "He's calling it in now."
"We'll wait. It's not like I have an urgent appointment anywhere," Markus said dryly, and Jeremiah chuckled.
"No. Guess not. But John would like to meet you before he negotiates the terms. I think he wants to make sure you actually exist."
"I can't blame him for that. I'll come as soon as his men pull back."
Jeremiah exchanged a glance of alarm with Kurdy and clicked the radio, "No, I don't think that's such a good idea. I'll vouch for John himself, but all his people are something else again. It's not secure yet."
Markus' voice on the radio took on a tone of impatience or irritation. "You just told me John himself is reluctant to negotiate without knowing I exist. You've got over five thousand men there, I think that's plenty secure enough. But you have at least a day; I've got some cleaning up in here to do first. Lee will contact you later when we've made arrangements. Thunder Mountain out."
There was a click, shutting off the communication. Markus was clearly not interested in discussion. Jeremiah put away the radio, and grimaced at Kurdy. "To think I once told him that he shouldn't be hiding in the mountain."
Kurdy snorted. "Be careful what you wish for, man."
Jeremiah shook his head and looked over the wide field to some Eastern soldiers barely visible on the opposite ridge. "They're breaking up. I don't think John can hold them."
Kurdy moved to his side and looked the same way. "Sims is dead, John just ordered their surrender, and now they find out that Daniel's a lie. Of course they're confused. But I think Markus sees the opportunity in it."
"Opportunity to get his ass shot off," Jeremiah added sourly. He gestured toward the enemy. "Any of them can be pissed off at this surrender and have a rifle."
Kurdy clouted him on the shoulder with his fist. "You worry too much. Besides, you're the one Daniel tried to kill, not Markus. I'd worry about that rifle finding you first."
He chuckled as he turned away to go back toward the main encampment. "C'mon, I see Gina waving. Dinner's ready," he called over his shoulder.
Jeremiah glared a little more at the opposing camp. Everything was going so well - there'd been no battle, nobody had died, and John had been smart ... That had to mean it was all going to hell soon.
Gina approached and smiled brightly. "There's coffee and breakfast in the command tent."
He was going to refuse, since there was no shortage of crap to do, but it was always so hard to tell her no. She was just so damn... earnest.
"Okay." He let everyone know where he was planning to be and trudged in Gina's wake back toward the middle of camp. Anxiety was still a nausea-inducing lump in his belly -- Markus was scheduled to arrive in two hours and Jeremiah still had the bad feeling that there might be a battle here. John's control over his men was tenuous at best for those he was keeping in camp, and non-existent over some who had slipped off into the woods.
He ducked under the flap, expecting the tent to be empty except for the promised breakfast. What he didn't expect was to find Markus standing beside the main table, examining a map spread on its surface. There were two full bowls of oatmeal sitting nearby, and the smell of coffee drifted from the pair of cups on the table top.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Jeremiah demanded.
Markus turned his head and lifted an eyebrow at him. "Good morning to you, too."
"You're not supposed to be here yet." Jeremiah put both fists on the table top and leaned on it, glaring across at Markus. Then he realized he hadn't asked the important question, given that Markus obviously wasn't coming in the heavily armed convoy in two hours. "How did you get here?"
"In a truck." Markus returned to his examination of the map of the surrounding area with John's men marked on it, but not before Jeremiah caught the faint smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
"Smart ass. You know what I meant."
"Lee made the good point that if we were going to make all this noise about my visit, it might be smarter to get here ahead of it more, uh," he hesitated, and the smile widened to a smirk, "covertly. So Brian drove me as part of the supply convoy, and we peeled away about thirty minutes ago and came here."
Jeremiah was sure that somewhere God was laughing His ass off at his expense. "The supply convoy that got set on by the stragglers?"
The smile vanished from Markus' face, and he inhaled a sharp breath and nodded. "That one. Yes."
Jeremiah shut his eyes, thinking how close they'd come. He was going to have to hit something. Did Markus not even realize what had very nearly happened? "So what you're saying is that if those Daniel fanatics had picked a place closer to Thunder Mountain to hit the supply convoy, they'd have taken out your car, probably you with it, and nobody but Lee would've even known you were there?" He glared at Markus, who didn't answer, and then snorted. "Yeah, I'd say that was a fucking brilliant plan."
Markus gave a small shrug. "It worked. I'm here and only a few people know."
Jeremiah wanted to grab his shoulders and shake some sense into him. How was it that someone so smart was so completely lacking in common sense? "Markus--"
Markus faced him, his face more serious, as he shed the flippant pose. "Look, I appreciate it was risky. But there's a risk in everything Outside. And I'm not going to stay home wrapped in cotton balls, afraid to leave, because it's dangerous out here."
Jeremiah grit his teeth. Markus said there was danger, but then he went and did stupid things like this that made it clear he didn't get it at all. "But there's risk and then there's risk. And you didn't even tell me, so I could've helped if you'd gotten in trouble," Jeremiah complained.
"Knowing I was there, wouldn't have let you get there any faster. But if you'd known, you would've tried to send more guards. And that would've tipped off the fanatics that the convoy was different, causing them to use more force. We could've lost a lot more than five people," Markus pointed out, with that infuriating logic of his. God, did Jeremiah hate it when Markus did that.
Worst of all, he had a point. Jeremiah knew he would've sent some more people to guard the convoy and escort Markus to camp. He let out an aggravated grunt. "Fine. You're here and I know damn well you're not going to listen to me anyway --"
"I do listen," Markus interrupted, quietly. "I always listen, Jeremiah. Even if I don't agree with you."
Jeremiah glanced at him, and his gaze met Markus'. The memory of numerous disagreements went through his mind, and Jeremiah couldn't help quirking his lips upward. "Like, never?"
"Oh, I don't know about that," Markus protested. He wasn't smiling, but there was a hint of amusement crinkling his eyes. "I think we managed to agree that Smith is an odd duck."
Thoughts of Smith reminded Jeremiah of Libby, and since thoughts of Libby stirred the simmering pot of rage that had lodged beneath his ribcage, Jeremiah took a verbal step left around them. "Glass houses, Markus."
Markus was raising his coffee, then lowered it again, untasted, to retort, "I never claimed I talk to God. And I could've, you know. Prophets get a hell of a lot more leeway. Not to mention obedience." At first Jeremiah thought "obedience" was a stab in his direction, but Markus wasn't looking at him. His gaze lowered to the maps in front of him and the amusement slipped from his face. "That's half our problem with Daniel. He's been so carefully constructed to be so damn perfect, people want to believe. When their faith gets challenged, some people grow disillusioned like your new friend John, but some will cling harder and more fiercely to what they want to believe is true." He frowned, and one finger idly traced a spiral pattern on the map, widening to the outermost edge of the paper.
"And not just here. You tipped over a domino yesterday that's going to be felt all the way to Boston. News is already spreading back east -- we caught a radio transmission last night with a brief report of Sims' death and John's surrender. Who knows what the report will become by the time it reaches people's ears? What kind of chaos it might breed? Or what kind of resolve it might harden in ordinary people, becoming some kind of holy war against us?"
Jeremiah looked at Markus, at his calm face, as he delivered the words that made ice crystals form inside Jeremiah's gut. Because, God, he was right. He'd been thinking only about John and his men, not the fact that an entire country was eventually going to find out that their leader was a lie. Some of them would be like Rachel -- those who never believed in the first place, or lost their belief in the face of atrocity -- but some had to believe.
"So even if we get John and his men on our side, we haven't really won," Jeremiah said.
Markus snorted a chuckle, dry and humorless. "We haven't even fought the battle, yet."
But before Jeremiah could find something to say, Markus shook himself once. "That's not to say it wasn't a good thing you did. Because it was. And I suppose we'd better deal with what's on our plate before I get carried away with worst-case scenarios. So, come here and explain this map to me, while we eat." He picked up one of the bowls, stirred its congealing contents with a grimace, and spooned some in his mouth. He ate only half of it before he abandoned it for coffee and adding up estimates of Daniel's numbers and weapons on the back of a report.
Jeremiah ate all of his, savoring the hint of cinnamon that someone had put in, and didn't let his briefing get much in the way of eating.
Jeremiah's eyes traveled restlessly from John and his three companions approaching, to the line of distant enemy soldiers behind them. This field was too open. Sure it let his side watch for mischief, but it also let the other side have a great shot at them. He kept catching himself from looking down at his chest or Markus', wondering if there was a laser targeting dot. He wished Kurdy had made it back, because he had only Gina and Warren with him as protection. And nobody was carrying anything more than a knife.
Jeremiah had thought that was stupid, but Markus had declared that he wasn't starting negotiations with a lie. Both sides were supposed to leave their guns in camp, and so he would. Jeremiah had held his tongue, despite his misgivings. He might call Markus an idiot and question his decisions in private, but not where everyone could hear. He'd learned enough in Millhaven this past year to have a bit more appreciation for Markus' position.
He glanced aside at Markus, walking next to him without any sign of anxiety, even though Jeremiah thought he might have to puke to get rid of the knotting in his own stomach. He couldn't really be that cool about this, could he?
But all Jeremiah saw was determination, and it let him inhale a deep breath and release it a little at a time as he walked. Maybe everything was going to be okay after all.
From ten feet away, Jeremiah could see John zero in on Markus, with a focus that never wavered. They all stopped. Gina and Warren spread out a bit to cover the flanks, and their counterparts did the same. The fourth guy, next to John, was tall, topping Jeremiah by a hand.
"Captain John Brady," Jeremiah introduced them, "This is Gina, Warren, and Markus Alexander."
John ignored Gina and Warren, lifting his chin and staring at Markus in challenge. "How do I know that's who you really are?"
Markus frowned and lifted his brows in a sort of a shrug. "I suppose you don't. It's not like I have photo i.d. But I am Markus Alexander. But not that it matters too much, since someone claiming to be me is more than you'll ever get with Daniel, I can promise you that."
The tall guy flinched and tightened his jaw at Markus' words. He stared over Jeremiah's shoulder at the alliance's camp. Apparently the news wasn't sitting well with even John's lieutenants. Jeremiah had some sympathy, since he'd believed in a lie too.
John nodded once, and his stance loosened up a little. "All right, I guess that's all I can ask for," he said. "This is Derek," he indicated the tall guy, "one of our unit commanders, And Terry, and Greg." He gestured to the two flankers: Terry was skinny, pale, and had buzzed his hair down uncomfortably close to Skinhead level, while Greg was short but so muscular his shoulders pulled at his uniform.
Markus nodded to Derek, who didn't respond, at least not to him. Derek flicked a glance at Greg and nodded. Then he pulled a gun from under his shirt.
Oh shit. Jeremiah stumbled back a step, his mind very unhelpfully pointing out that he'd been right. This was all going to hell. Right now.
Greg and Terry also had weapons. It had all been a ploy.
Jeremiah was suddenly furious at John and he didn't care that the other side had guns, taking a step toward him. "You fucking liar -- "
But he didn't finish, as Derek calmly shot John in the head. Jeremiah jerked, expecting the shot to hit him, and flinched again as blood sprayed all over him. John fell with a wet thump.
There were two more shots, and Jeremiah looked from one side to another, wildly, as Gina and Warren collapsed into the trampled weeds. Warren moaned for a moment, until the sound ended in a burbling and then nothing.
Jeremiah stared at Gina's body. Everything else seemed far away and silent. Her chirpy voice seemed to echo in his ears, calling him "sir" no matter how often he told her to knock it off.
He took a breath, trying to focus. Turning his head, he saw Derek holding his gun straight at him, even though he was looking at Markus. "You try to escape and I'll shoot him dead, too. Let's go."
Fuck. It had been a ploy, but not by John.
They had to get away, but -- another glance showed Greg and Terry now pointing their pistols at him and Markus as well, looking far too ready to fire again.
When neither he nor Markus moved fast enough, Derek jerked his gun a little. "Daniel wants you alive, Markus. But I'm sure he'd be all right with your death, so don't push me."
Markus lifted his chin to look straight at Derek, unflinching. For a moment, Jeremiah was sure that Markus was going to say that Daniel didn't exist, but he said something much worse instead, "You don't need Jeremiah. I'll go with you. Just let him go."
"Fuck that," Jeremiah snapped, but neither Markus nor Derek glanced his way.
Derek jerked the gun again. "I'll take you both. Move."
Slowly, they moved. Jeremiah thought to his people on the ridge behind them, imagining Kurdy had come back and was even now giving the order for a high-powered rifle to take out these bastards. But Derek and his men were careful, gathering in tightly next to Jeremiah and Markus, gun barrels digging into both of them.
If he'd been alone Jeremiah thought he might have taken his chances, but not with Markus next to him. They needed an opening and so far they weren't getting any.
His feet beat a harsh tempo of blame: Markus for not letting them carry weapons, himself for not having a gun anyway, these fanatics who believed in a lie, and John for not being more careful with his choices. Plus, Kurdy for being gone, and Smith for not warning anyone about this. But mostly God, because if God existed, then all of this was God's fault ultimately, wasn't it?
They started up the rise that led to Daniel's troops. There was a small group waiting there, strung out in a line, watching. Not one of them seemed surprised, so Jeremiah presumed they had been in on it.
"You realize this isn't going to get you anything?" Markus said in a remarkably conversational tone. "Every single one of the Western Alliance troops will come get us."
Derek chuckled once, smugly. "Not if they're in the middle of a war."
Jeremiah turned his head, and Markus shared his glance of alarm. He'd thought this was about only the two of them getting taken hostage. But no, this was getting infinitely worse.
"Camp is secure, sir," said one of the men on the ridge to Derek.
"Good. Then spread the word to move out. Daniel wants us to take these bastards out," he announced, "So let's show him what we can do."
"Yes, sir!" Three of the waiting men trotted away to start the battle, heading for the distant columns.
They started down the other side of the ridge, to where the command tents were set up. Troops gathered in formation, several hundred, maybe a thousand strong. They all had rifles in their hands and tidy uniforms with Daniel flags wrapped around their arms. Their officers saluted to Derek as he passed, and more than one person smirked at the sight of the prisoners parading through their midst.
He started seeing bodies as well. Those who had resisted Derek's coup, Jeremiah guessed. There weren't many, but he supposed it didn't take many to intimidate even ten thousand men into following orders they were predisposed to follow anyway.
"God, I hope Kurdy's back," Jeremiah muttered, getting a nudge in the ribs with the gun. Because it wasn't looking good if he hadn't; Kurdy had taken a thousand Alliance troops with him, reducing their troop strength here. And these guys outnumbered them anyway.
The group stopped in front of an open tent, little more than a canopy with its flaps tied up.
"Tie their hands," Derek ordered curtly.
The guy with the gun backed off as others approached, with a length of nylon cord. Now Jeremiah struggled, knowing that getting his hands tied was going to make escape all-but-impossible, but when one of them got hold of his arm and pulled it up behind his back, a shooting pain went through his shoulder and he gasped, holding still.
He heard Markus resisting too, but Markus' main weapon was his mouth and he used it a lot. "You should know that your fifth column in the mountain was completely wiped out. We shot them. And so we're still going to have helicopters, and your army is going to be totally fucked."
Jeremiah raised his brows a trifle, surprised more by the cold relish in Markus' tone than his words.
"Shut up," Derek ordered him.
"Or what?" Markus challenged, glaring at him. He raised his voice, "John can't be the only one here who doesn't want to get killed for A LIE!"
"Shut up!" Derek swung his gun and the butt of it hit Markus on the side of his head, with a shockingly loud crack. He jerked to one side, stumbling, and his mouth opened but nothing came out. For an instant, he was frozen, staring at nothing, and Jeremiah dared hope the hit wasn't so bad. Then his eyes rolled back and he fell to the dirt in a heap.
Jeremiah's breath caught in his chest, as he stared at Markus' still body. God, what if he was -- ? He didn't look like he was breathing. Was he -- no, he couldn't be dead.
"Check him," Derek ordered, and one of the guards knelt to look for a pulse. But Markus let out a gasping breath, and Jeremiah's chest unlocked enough for him to breathe too.
"He's alive, sir." The guard lifted Markus' head up from the ground, and Jeremiah could see the blood dripping off his hair into the dirt. "He's bleeding badly. Should I get a medic?"
"Let him be. He won't die. At least not here." Derek's gaze was full of hate as he looked down at Markus. "I want four of our vehicles ready to go. We're going to send them to Daniel, but we'll have to be clever about it, so they can't stop us." He glanced at Jeremiah, sneering, "In the meantime, enjoy hearing the sound of your army getting ground into hamburger."
Jeremiah said nothing but threw him the finger, though it wasn't very satisfying with his wrists tied behind his back. Derek stalked away to consult with his commanders, leaving only four guards immediately around Jeremiah and Markus.
"I want to make sure he's all right, okay?" he told the guards, nodding toward Markus. One of them gave a brief nod of assent. Careful of his balance with his hands tied, Jeremiah kneeled down at Markus' side. The injured side was against the dirt, so he couldn't get a good look, but he didn't think it was a good sign that nudging Markus with his knee didn't rouse him. "Markus? C'mon, this is a bad time to be sleepin'. Wake up, man."
Markus softly groaned and one of his knees bent, drawing his leg up. He moved his head a little and hissed, as his hands flexed once against the ground and then stopped moving again.
The sound of marching feet interrupted the silence, and Jeremiah turned his head to see Daniel's men start up the ridge line. The hollow thumps of some sort of rocket nearby, heading toward the Alliance line, announced that the battle had been joined.
Jeremiah glanced down at Markus and moved a little closer, as though he had any hope of protecting him now.
Jeremiah glimpsed the side of his head, where his hair was matted with dirt and blood, and there was a wetter crimson stain on his shirt collar and the side of his neck.
The tailgate slammed shut and the canvas fell across the back, so it was dim. Their only light was the sunlight easing through the dark green canvas and what little managed to seep through the break between the two flaps.
The truck's engine sprang to rumbly life and lurched into gear.
He tugged on his bonds, but the cord was tight on his wrists. There was a separate cord tying him to the rail, and when he pulled side-to-side, there was a bit of give in it. Maybe he could work it loose or saw it through eventually, if he kept at it.
"This sucks," Jeremiah announced to no one and let out a heavy sigh, wishing Markus was awake so they could talk.
But Markus was quiet. Jeremiah couldn't even hear him breathing any more, with the truck's noise covering it. But as his eyes adjusted to the light, he could see that Markus had barely moved from where he'd landed.
Jeremiah talked to him anyway, "And I want to say I fucking told you so, about the guns." It gave him some satisfaction to say it, but then he sighed again. "You want everybody to be like you, and they're not. People are petty and mean and selfish. They look out for number one, and you -- well, you don't. And that's why you got your head bashed in, and I'm stuck here with you."
He stretched out his leg, able to touch Markus' knee with his boot and nudge him. "Don't die on me, man," he urged more softly. "Or Erin's gonna kill me. You know she will." He laughed once, without much humor. "I'm under orders, you know. Erin and Chen both told me to watch out for you."
He was thinking about starting a big rant about how Lee had managed to worm himself back into Markus' good graces, back in charge of security at Thunder Mountain, but Markus stirred.
He shifted, pulling at the bonds that kept his hands behind his back, and made a distressed sound in his throat, like the soft mew of a kitten.
"Markus, are you awake? Can you talk to me?" Jeremiah asked anxiously.
He took a moment to answer in a hoarse whisper, "Jeremiah?"
"Yeah. It's me."
Markus straightened his body and turned his head toward Jeremiah, the movement slow and stiff. He blinked his eyes several times and squinted toward Jeremiah, despite the dimness of the interior of the truck. "What happened?" he asked. Even that little talking seemed to hurt him, and he shut his eyes tightly, face lined with pain. "God, my head hurts... " he whispered.
"Derek hit you with the butt of his gun after you provoked him. Don't you remember?"
Instead of shaking his head, Markus whispered, "No." His frown deepened. "We were... walking... in the field... and then... nothing. I can't --"
"It's okay," Jeremiah butted in, hating the edge of fear that had crept into Markus' voice at the loss of his memory. "You got hit on the head; it's no wonder you don't remember. The gist of it is that some of Daniel's people would rather believe in the lie, and they killed John and everyone with him. They shot Gina and Warren, too." He paused and added, when Markus didn't respond, "Then they took us prisoner and fifteen minutes ago, launched an attack on the Alliance."
If he'd thought about it he would've known better than to say anything, but Markus struggled upright at Jeremiah's words, looking wide-eyed and pale. "What? They attacked --"
But that was all the farther he got. He staggered forward on one knee and managed to drape himself over the wheel-well hump before he threw up. He retched long after there was nothing in his stomach left, and didn't move for several minutes after he'd finished, breathing heavily.
Jeremiah let him recover in peace, figuring that Markus was in no condition to appreciate teasing.
Eventually he rolled himself upright and slumped against the wall of the truck, looking sweaty and pallid.
"You okay?" Jeremiah asked.
Markus didn't answer right away and when he did, the admission was not encouraging. "Not really, no." His eyes stayed shut, and his lips were pressed together, tightening with each bump and sway of the truck.
"At least you're not tied to the truck," Jeremiah said. "You can get away."
"Only if I can leave my head here," Markus answered faintly, with a shadow of his usual sarcasm in his voice.
"You'll feel better soon," Jeremiah said, hoping that his words were true. "Maybe if you got some sleep?" he suggested. "Just lay down and rest?"
"Not as many vibrations this way," Markus answered. After another long pause, he asked, "Where are we going?"
"Short term, I have no idea. Long term, we're getting taken to Daniel."
"Great," Markus muttered. He let his head tilt back against the side, only a moment, before lifting it away again.
Jeremiah added, hoping it might serve as a distraction, "The good news is our side was certainly watching it go down, so they know who has us. And since we've got helicopters they should be able to come after us. But probably not 'til after the battle's over."
"And if we're really lucky," Markus murmured, "one of our Apaches will put a rocket into this truck."
Jeremiah hoped he was joking, though he had the feeling he wasn't, at least not entirely. "C'mon, cheer up, man. We'll escape. Or we'll get rescued. Nobody -- not Kurdy, not Erin, not Lee, for damn sure -- is gonna let us get dragged off."
"Yeah," Markus said.
There was nothing in his face to indicate whether he believed it or not, and he didn't say anything else. Jeremiah found his silence unsettling, since Markus usually had a lot to say about things.
Not long after, Markus twitched one shoulder repeatedly, as though trying to dislodge a bug.
"What's wrong?" Jeremiah asked.
"There's this tickle down my back," he muttered. "It's annoying."
"Turn your head a little to the right," Jeremiah ordered, and Markus did slowly, revealing that, as Jeremiah had thought, Markus' head wound was trickling bright blood down the side of his neck and beneath his shirt. "You're still bleeding."
"Yeah. Scalp wounds bleed a lot," Markus said. "It's not as bad as it probably looks."
"Since it looks pretty fucking awful, I'm glad to hear that."
The truck jolted to a stop, bonds pulling at Jeremiah's wrists sharply but keeping him in place. Markus wasn't as lucky, getting thrown forward and then losing his balance so he fell into the truck bed.
He gasped once, then compressed his lips tightly. He curled up on his side as much as he could, the bloody mess on the side of his head dull and black in the dim light. Jeremiah wished he had a hand free so he could at least push the damp strands of hair off Markus' face.
He'd never seen Markus suffering like this. Even when he'd been shot in Danbury, he'd passed out pretty quickly. Jeremiah hadn't worried that Markus would die then either, but now he watched Markus in his huddle of misery and wondered what he was going to do if Markus' injury was much worse than he thought.
What if he died? What would the Alliance do without its center? It would go on, Jeremiah was sure; they'd gone too far now for it all to fall apart. And Markus had been careful not to center the Alliance around himself, in some sort of megalomaniacal Daniel-like way, so its existence didn't depend on him. But at the same time, no one in the upper levels of the Alliance doubted Markus was the spider in the middle of the web, weaving the big picture. If he was gone...
A cold lump of dread formed in Jeremiah's gut. There was absolutely nothing he could do to help Markus, either.
He heard the sound of some soldiers approaching right before the flap was thrown back. A kid, not more than eighteen, one of the few infants who survived the Big Death, opened the tailgate and looked inside. "Get out."
Jeremiah shrugged as much as he could, and showed teeth. "Love to, but I'm a little tied up right now."
The kid sneered back. "Not you. Him." He leaned in and grabbed Markus' boots, pulling him backward out of the truck. Markus didn't resist, though Jeremiah thought he was too tense to be truly unconscious.
"What are you going to do?" Jeremiah demanded.
"Ask him a few questions about Thunder Mountain," the kid answered.
The dread burst into cold fear. Interrogation? For himself, he didn't worry -- he'd already faced the worst that Valhalla Sector could dish out, and he wasn't going to squeal on the Alliance now any more than he had then -- but for Markus, already hurt, this was trouble.
"Leave him the fuck alone!" Jeremiah insisted. "That idiot Derek practically cracked his head open. He's in no shape to answer anything."
The kid yanked Markus closer, his friend reaching in to help him. "He can handle a few questions. And if he refuses to answer, well, that's his fault isn't it?"
Jeremiah's eyes fell on the Daniel armband the kid was wearing and his chest went tight with furious hate for these people -- not only had they made Libby into a liar, but they thought nothing of casual torture as a means to an end.
But Markus wasn't as out of it as he seemed. He pulled his foot free and then kicked out, smashing his boot into the kid's nose. The kid staggered back, holding his nose and swearing.
The older guard reached for Markus, who was on his back, feet up in threat. Jeremiah watched, amazed, as he managed to keep the older guard back with two more kicks.
But another guard joined in so there were two of them, and only one of Markus, and despite his sudden burst of strength, they were able to subdue him, pulling him out of the truck. Jeremiah heard him land with a thump on the ground and winced.
The kid was holding his nose to stop the bleeding, but the look in his eyes was vengeful as he looked down. "You're gonna be so sorry you did that, you son of a bitch."
Despite his age, he seemed to have some kind of authority and ordered the other two, "I want him in the back of my truck. I'll ask the questions as we go."
Jeremiah's last sight of Markus was as they picked him up and hauled him away.
Not long after, the engine turned over and the truck started forward again.
Figuring he had nothing better to do, Jeremiah set to work on the cord tying him to the truck.
He tugged on the cord. It hadn't started to loosen, but he'd managed to wear a tiny groove, and from that it was easier to keep working at the groove to deepen it. With any luck the soldiers would stay away long enough for him to get free of the truck, even if his hands were still behind his back. There were bolts all around the side, holding the canvas down, and they looked sharp enough to make short work of the rope around his wrists.
The truck stopped again. Jeremiah glanced at the opening in the back, hoping that they were going to feed him or at least bring something to drink. His heart beat a little harder, as he realized he might find out how Markus was doing.
The truck flap lifted and Jeremiah saw a familiar face. He tensed up at the sight of Terry, the guy who'd shot Warren at the meeting. "You," he snarled. "Bastard."
"I was told to let you out to have some food and stuff," Terry returned, staring back unrepentant, "but if you're gonna be an asshole about it, maybe I'll just skip it."
Jeremiah glanced away, clenching his jaw. "All right." He couldn't bring himself to look at Terry, knowing his anger would make him shoot off his mouth again, but he stayed quiet as Terry climbed into the truck and cut the rope that was tying him to the side of the truck.
Thinking wistfully of the hours of work he'd just put in to wearing it down, he followed Terry out of the truck, noting the two armed guards with a sour resignation.
The sky was mostly overcast, with a storm building up on the mountains. He caught a glimpse of brightness from the west that put the time in mid afternoon. No wonder his stomach grumbled - the oatmeal had been a long time ago.
They kept guns on him while Terry untied his hands and let him stretch out the cramping in his shoulders and back. They stayed close, but not too close, while he relieved himself and then made him sit down at the crumbled edge of the road. Terry handed him a cup of water and a bar of pressed nuts, oats, and dried berries that was pretty tasty, even though Jeremiah would rather be boiled in oil than admit it.
As he was eating, there was no sign of Markus, so he swallowed his distaste and asked, "Hey. Terry. What about Markus?"
"Lieutenant Carl has him still," Terry answered with the expected smirk on his lips. But Jeremiah noticed that the expression was gone in an instant and Terry glanced toward the lead truck with a more troubled face.
It seemed Terry didn't particularly care for Carl's enthusiasm. Maybe cold-blooded murder was hitting his conscience, assuming he had one. Or, maybe, he just had an upset stomach. It was impossible to know, but Jeremiah tucked that tidbit of knowledge away, hoping it would come in handy.
Only a few minutes later, Markus appeared, walking between two more soldiers. Jeremiah watched him, leaning forward anxiously. He was walking on his own, which was good. He was squinting his eyes against the sunlight, frowning deeply, and holding his neck still, which was no surprise considering his head. His clothes, including his brown jacket, seemed intact and not bloodied, which had to be a good sign. But he was also moving more stiffly, as though every step took conscious effort, so Jeremiah guessed they'd hit him.
He sat down next to Jeremiah, drawing a sharp breath at some twinge.
"Hey," Jeremiah greeted with relief. "How you doin'?"
"Okay," Markus answered, which had to be a total lie.
Jeremiah was going to demand the truth, but then noticed that Markus' hands were tied in front of him, and his wrists were red and swollen around the cords as though he'd struggled against his bonds. If he was hurt, probably it wouldn't be too smart to let the enemy know how much. "You want some of my lunch?" he held up the bar invitingly. "Honey, raisins, good stuff--"
Markus looked away, clenching a jaw and looking greenish. "No. Thanks. No point wasting it."
"Thought so. Here, drink this, you need water." He pressed the cup into Markus' hands, who folded his fingers around it reluctantly. "Even if you puke it up, better than having nothing in your stomach." He looked up. "Hey, Terry. Can I get a little more water? I want to clean his head."
"Jeremiah -- " Markus protested, half-heartedly.
Jeremiah glared at him. "You're covered in blood and the wound's got dirt in it. Since they're obviously not going to clean it, I should."
Terry wandered away and came back with a wet rag. "Here," he handed it to Jeremiah. "Best I can do."
Jeremiah allowed him a small nod of thanks and turned on his knees to dab gently at the side of Markus' head, trying to loosen the debris and dried blood. Markus winced, and once sucked in a breath as a big chunk came off, but mostly held still, gripping the cup with white-knuckles and keeping his eyes closed.
Under his fingers, Jeremiah could feel how much the wound was swollen, and joked, "Lucky thing you have a hard head."
"That's what my mom used to say."
Jeremiah snorted, not surprised, and continued, rubbing the dried blood out of his hair and the side of his neck. The skin was soft under his fingers, yet the muscles and tendons were sharp and hard, and Jeremiah caught himself lingering on the contrast.
He pulled back and threw the bloodied cloth back to Terry. "Thanks." He surveyed his work. "Much better. I don't think even Valhalla Sector medic Mister Chen could do better."
Markus ignored the slur on Lee. "Thank you. It feels better."
"I doubt that."
"Well, okay, it's worse; I think my head's going to explode," Markus admitted. "But thank you anyway."
"You're welcome," Jeremiah returned, shaking his head at Markus. "So what did Lieutenant Carl want?"
"The usual," Markus answered after a moment. "I told him things he didn't want to know, instead." His lips lifted in a definite satisfied smirk. "Like how Daniel is a figment of someone's imagination, and his regime is corrupt and evil. And how fear is no way to build a lasting society. And then I mentioned something about the Alliance wiping it from the face of the Earth."
Jeremiah could imagine. Markus was stubborn as hell and didn't like bending to anyone. He'd mouthed off to Derek, and no doubt done it some more with Carl. "Being a smartass can get you killed," Jeremiah warned.
"That's funny coming from you," Markus retorted, but he didn't sound amused. His voice was hoarse, and Jeremiah doubted it was because of his head. He slumped into Jeremiah, who braced himself just in time, as Markus' weight settled against his shoulder.
"God, do I feel like shit," he muttered into Jeremiah's ear.
Word came down from mighty Lieutenant Carl to move out, prompting a flurry of movement as the soldiers finished up whatever they were doing and got the trucks started. Terry came up. "Both of you, up. Back in the truck."
Jeremiah stood. Markus followed, but when he was on his feet, he swayed, stumbling to catch his balance, and shut his eyes tightly. Jeremiah put his arm around Markus' waist, trying to support him as they made their way back to the truck.
Jeremiah helped him climb inside with a few shoves.
"Hands," Terry ordered.
With a sigh, Jeremiah turned and held out his hands. He half expected Terry to make him put them behind his back, but Terry obligingly tied them in front of him.
Jeremiah scrambled inside before Terry changed his mind, and the tailgate slammed shut.
Markus was on his stomach, head pillowed on his bound hands. Jeremiah put his back against the wall to brace himself.
The truck jerked forward again and bounced and jerked across the uneven paving, heading more northward. Jeremiah guessed that they were hugging the mountains, because Carl feared getting caught in the plains when Thunder Mountain had helicopters. But he liked the idea that Carl was lost.
Jeremiah glanced down at his wrists, and then at Markus. He leaned forward and murmured, so no one in the front could hear, "Do you think we can untie each other? We can crawl over the tailgate and be out in the woods before they can stop."
Markus turned onto his side and regarded Jeremiah. "I might be able to untie you. You could escape."
"I'm not leaving without you."
"I'd be more hindrance than anything," Markus dismissed that with infuriating calm. "But if you could get back to Alliance lines, then -- "
"And tell them I left you here? No fucking way. We go together or not at all."
Markus pulled himself upright, as angry as Jeremiah. In the dim light his skin was pale, but his eyes seemed overly large and dark. "Don't be stupid. If you can escape then you should."
"You could too."
"As you delight in rubbing my nose in it, I'm terrible out of doors on a good day. And this is most definitely not a good day. So, if you get the chance, you escape."
"I'm not the one they're intent on beating up," Jeremiah said. Markus flinched at the words and Jeremiah knew he was right. "And I'm not leaving you here alone."
"Would you do what I want, just once, without bitching?" Markus flared, sounding frustrated and tired. "I don't want anyone else dying for me!"
Panting, he glanced away, as though he'd said too much.
Jeremiah was at first struck by the unjust comment -- didn't he do a lot of what Markus wanted? -- but then he frowned, wondering what Markus was talking about. "Anyone else?" he asked. "Who?"
Markus scooted back to sit against the opposite wall, gaze fixed on his bound hands. "Never mind."
"No, really, what do you mean?"
"You were there, what do you think I mean?" His voice softened until Jeremiah could barely hear it. "Meaghan killed all those people for me. I try to tell myself it was for other things -- for freedom, for the survival of humanity -- but it was for me."
Jeremiah answered without thinking, bitterness and anger acidic in his gut, "Well, at least you know she really loved you. She wasn't lying to you with every kiss, every touch of her hands, thinking of someone else."
Markus didn't look surprised and Jeremiah wondered how and when he'd found out. But when Markus spoke, it didn't seem like he was listening. He murmured to himself, "I never kissed her. I never touched her at all."
And of course he hadn't, Jeremiah knew that. Because Meaghan's touch killed. He'd also spoken with Erin after that kerfluffle when Theo'd come inside, and as far as she knew, Markus had never been with anyone in the mountain. Which had stunned Jeremiah for days, but he'd never got up the courage to ask Markus directly.
Figuring there was no time like the present, he asked, before he lost his nerve, "So does that mean you've never... y'know?" he stopped, realizing that he was asking something that was none of his business. Markus didn't react, and Jeremiah clarified, clearing his throat. "Never had sex?"
Markus hesitated, looking at his hands, before he lifted his head, eyebrows up and tone sarcastic, "What? You think I've been a monk for the last fifteen years?"
Jeremiah shrugged. It did sound ridiculous when Markus put it like that. "Well, you're the one who had the girlfriend in a plastic box, man. How was I supposed to think anything else?"
He had hoped he was lightening things up, but the reference back to Meaghan made Markus close his eyes. "I still dream about her," he murmured. "Touching her, being with her. And every single time she jumps anyway."
Jeremiah said, wishing he could help ease the pain written there so clearly in Markus' face, "Sorry."
Markus didn't answer, and after a little while of silence, Jeremiah was sure he had dozed off.
Jeremiah watched him, wondering. This was the first time in a long while that Jeremiah had heard him mention Meaghan's name or anything about how much he still missed her.
How much of that grief, and the guilt for the deaths at Valhalla Sector, was weighing on his unwillingness to try to escape? Hell, how was he feeling guilty for that at all? Jeremiah was glad he'd gotten out of there, and after what Waverly had done to him, they deserved it.
Except... his mind treacherously flashed images of some young adults, as trapped as he'd been, all dead on the floor.
He wanted to believe that no one who had survived the Big Death could be innocent. But he glanced at Markus, and for the first time wondered if those people had been guilty. It was an uneasy thought, and he tried to push it away.