Title: Waiting for the Dawn
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The world belongs to Steven Spielberg et. al.; the words are mine.
Summary: "Such was the defeat of the rulers of Xibalba: accomplished only through wonders, only through self-transformation."
Warnings: Violence; post-apocalyptic setting; canon-typical h/c, angst, and interpersonal conflict; semi-canonical death of a minor character; family feels; and a warm-fuzzy ending.
Notes: A Falling Skies canon divergent AU, beginning during 3.05 "Search and Rescue" and continuing through the end of the season. Contains low-key slash. Summary and chapter titles borrowed from the Popul Vuh.
Acknowledgements: To sulien, pronker, edenfalling and xlade for being a huge encouragement when I needed it, and everyone else who reads and comments on my more obscure work.
At first, Tom Mason didn't know what had woken him. Or even that he was truly awake, not just experiencing a particularly realistic dream. The scents of damp earth and decaying leaves, the chirps and calls of distant crickets and forest-dwelling birds, the feel of branches and the sleeve of a weather-roughened jacket against his cheek: these had become all too familiar during the long months since the alien invasion.
Sheets were a luxury in the post-apocalyptic world; a roof over his head never quite a guarantee. It could have been any of hundreds of mornings since the skies had fallen. The long haul from Boston to Acton, when the Second Massachusetts Militia Regiment had still been three hundred strong; the weeks he'd spent hiking cross-country after his unpleasant sojourn with the Espheni; the slog south to Charleston after he'd rejoined the Second Mass; he'd grown used to bunking rough since humans had become an endangered species. Add in a scent of diesel and the background chatter of voices, and he might have drifted right back to sleep, content to soak up every precious second of rack time he'd carved out of his exhausting schedule.
But instead of diesel fuel, there was only the faint aroma of wood char; and in place of his sons' cheerful bickering, the only out-of-place noise he could hear was the faint crack of damp twigs snapping underfoot. Tom frowned vaguely as he drifted further up through the layers of consciousness, some indefinable note of alarm tickling at his awareness ... only to snap fully awake all in a rush as something unexpectedly dropped onto his face. Whatever it was, it stank: a writhing slick-skinned thing that made his heart trip over in his chest with instinctive panic. He flailed, picturing Skitter limbs and myriad other unsettling forms of Espheni biotech, frantically trying to get whatever it was away from him.
Every cell in his body was sending up a protest by the time he succeeded, and he cracked his eyes open, wondering what the hell was going on. He was stiff, exhausted, and sore as much in mind as muscle and bone. Had the Skitters found him? Karen, again? Had he fallen asleep on patrol? Had there been another battle?
He was still trying to gather his thoughts when a sharp bark of laughter hit his ears, and reality crashed back in with a vengeance.
Charleston. Anne. The secret mission to find President Hathaway. The plane crash. General Bressler's death. Hiking southward. And – of all the men to be stranded in the wilderness with – John Pope.
Tom glared up at the looming figure of the Second Mass's resident rabble-rouser, perched on the fallen log Tom had put his back to when he'd laid down after his watch, and briefly, bitterly resented every time he'd spoken up to Dan Weaver on Pope's behalf.
"I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little tired of frog legs," Pope grinned down at him, insufferably bright-eyed and hale for a man who'd rattled around in a crashing plane less than forty-eight hours before. "I thought we'd go epicurean this morning."
Tom glanced reflexively at the thing Pope had thrown at him – nothing alien after all; just a common snake half a yard long – and didn't bother trying to rein in his frustration. He braced himself against the log, climbing to his aching feet as Pope jumped down, unwilling to take whatever else the man had to say from a position of weakness. "You think that's funny?"
"Ain't nothin' funny about eating snake, man," Pope drawled, still laughing, apparently blind to Tom's rising temper.
Tom's head was pounding; he'd been tense and on edge for days between his job and whatever was going on with Anne; and he had the unsettling feeling he'd shared a lot more than he should have about his childhood the night before out of some mistaken attempt to finally convince Pope he wasn't the ivory tower idealist the ex-con had scorned from the moment they'd met. On any other day, he might have had the perfect response to the juvenile trick, but he was finding it a little hard to remember why he always gave the man an easy out when Pope kept throwing it back in Tom's face.
He scooped up the snake and flung it back the moment the other man set the shotgun down. "Asshole."
Pope's jovial expression faded into a frown as he caught the thing, finally realizing Tom wasn't following his lead. "It's a joke, you puss," he snarled back, a smear of dried blood at his temple making him look even more the hardened ex-biker king than usual.
Some joke. From a kid Matt's or Ben's age, Tom might have forgiven that. Or even Hal, at his most pigtail-pulling stage of flirting with a girl. But from a man his own age, who'd fought off every attempt Tom had ever made to extend a hand to him with fists and accusations, it seemed a bit of a reach.
"Oh, you think we're friends now? Share a few campfire stories and now we're blood brothers?" The adrenaline of the sudden wakeup was still coursing through him; he squinted through the throbbing ache in his temples, wondering why it couldn't have been Cochise or even Bressler he was stuck with, and for once didn't bother trying to find the most constructive way out of the confrontation.
So what if he'd dragged Pope out of a burning plane the day before, and Pope had kept him from stumbling into an enemy scan beam? So what if Pope had, by his own admission, accidentally killed at least one man with his bare hands, and Tom had spent most of his life trying to avoid acting out of anger? The most Tom's stubborn patience had ever earned him was a series of increasingly intimidating responsibilities ... and of late, equally staggering failures that Pope just couldn't seem to resist rubbing in his face.
Charleston has a mole. Everybody knows it. And instead of delaying your trip to Keystone to find out who the damned spy was, you – you wanted to go play with the big boys, didn't you?
He had one nerve left, and Pope was standing on it.
Pope's jaw worked, fury snapping in his eyes, and for a long moment Tom thought he was going to throw the snake right back, probably following it up with a fist. He felt his own hands clench, dirty fingernails digging into the half-gloves covering his palms; he was ready for it, more than ready for it, tired of always trying to find the best in things and working toward the good of the community and squashing down the furious temper he'd inherited from his father.
And why not? Pope could take it. And for once, the only one around to get hurt if he lost it was himself.
But the moment continued to stretch on, dragging on uncomfortably until Pope's eyebrows rose and he broke into another derisive laugh. "Yeah, yeah I do. And you can't take it, can you?"
"Excuse me?" Tom frowned back, thrown by the unexpected charge.
"You've been fixated on me since the day we met; I saw the look on your face when you realized I wasn't just another dumb thug. Like if you just tried hard enough to get me to see things your way, I'd end up as what, the philosophy professor across the hall from your history classroom or something?"
Tom's face heated, but Pope snorted and went on, a malignantly amused glint in his eye. "Like I'd ever bend the fucking knee for a chance to be normal. Been there, got the fucking scars. But I think I get it now. You looked at me and thought there but for the grace go I, didn't you? You thought if you just gave me a hand up, a chance to be civilized, the monster underneath would magically go away? Hah. Life's no fairytale, Professor. I'm not the Beast. And you're no Frog King."
Tom's frown deepened at that. He vividly remembered reading the Grimm version of the Frog Prince story, with its subtly different name, to Ben when his book-loving son had been small. Tom had been expecting a typical Disney ending, given the well-known saying about kissing many frogs to find a prince ... and been entirely dismayed to find that the original tale's transformation happened when the selfish princess threw the frog into a wall. He'd glossed that for Ben's hearing, but Pope obviously knew the Grimm tale, and was using it to once again rub Tom's nose in a newly exposed vulnerability. What a surprise.
"Don't flatter yourself, Pope," he snarled. "I've never asked you to do much more than look outside yourself once in a while. And I've never claimed to be a prince. No surprise you do, though."
Pope laughed again, more heartily this time, the skitter claws hanging around his neck clattering in accompaniment. "That's the part of my little rant that gets your goat? Man, I've had you all wrong this whole time, haven't I? You're not the condescending nose-in-the-clouds do-gooder jerk I took you for; you're just so far up your own ass trying to hold it all together that your first response to anything that doesn't fit your idea of how things should be is to try and nudge it back in line.
"Well fuck you very much, but I'm not going to let you manipulate me back into hating your guts just 'cause I caught you off guard. You are my friend now, Mason, like it or not. So let's try this again." He tossed the snake up and down in one hand, almost daring Tom to go ahead and punch him anyway as he continued in an insufferably cheerful tone. "Good morning, Mr. President! How's snake for breakfast sound?"
Tom was tempted; he was sorely tempted. He wasn't in the mood to be teased, or managed, or treated like a child having a tantrum. But no matter how much Pope's verbal jabs made him clench his jaw ... there was still that little check in his gut about striking without cause.
But how else was he supposed to respond? All of his reasons for keeping Pope around were still valid; just as valid as the fury burning through his system like acid. And ... it didn't help that Pope wasn't exactly wrong.
There was no telling what might have happened next, if it had been up to him; but the world they lived in was seldom that kind, and he was interrupted by a faint chittering noise carrying from deeper in the woods. In the years before the invasion, when he and Rebecca had taken the boys camping, Tom would have thought that sound meant squirrels; but he knew better now.
"Better than Skitter," he replied, instead. "But it looks like we'll have to hold off on that pleasure."
Pope let out an aggrieved sigh, amusement fading as he stuffed the dead reptile in a pocket and turned to scan the upper tier of the forest canopy. "Add it to the list," he muttered, attention drawn away from Tom as completely as if a switch had been flipped. "Told you the fire would draw 'em, didn't I?"
"Yeah, you did. Add that to the list," Tom replied, making sure the medpack was secure and setting one hand on the grip of his gun. "Ambush them?"
More Skitter vocalizations soon proved that a bad idea, though. There had to be more than just a couple of the aliens out there; branches snapped, and several trees shifted without the touch of a breeze within Tom's line of sight over at least a hundred and twenty degree arc of forest.
"Screw that," Pope decided, then turned to run, taking up the shotgun again as he leaped over a cluster of fallen branches. "Keep up, Professor!"
"Damn it," Tom cursed, running after him.
He really did have the devil's own luck, sometimes. They'd had enough on their plate already without another round of Skitter tag before breakfast.
They did at least manage to fell two of their pursuers; none of the six-legged aliens bore any face paint, and they showed no hesitation at the sight of the men's weapons, marking them as neither rebels nor experienced at fighting humans. Between Pope's shotgun, Tom's handgun, and their knives, that might have given them a chance in a close quarters engagement with plenty of cover and no mechs to back the Skitters up ... but unfortunately neither of them knew the terrain, and it didn't favor human footing.
Pope proved that the hard way a few minutes into the chase, stumbling to a sudden stop at the lip of a rocky cliff a few paces ahead of Tom. His arms flailed as he struggled to regain his balance, nearly bent over at the waist; then he threw himself back a step, arm outstretched to halt Tom's charge as well. They'd managed to find water at last, but not in any kind of friendly form. A waterfall-fed stream rushed by several man-heights beneath them, white with froth where it coursed between steep, rocky banks, its voice a dull roar.
"Nice knowin' you, Mason," Pope commented dryly, staring down into the rushing water.
Frustration curdled in Tom's gut, then hardened into determination. If his first response to anything that didn't fit his plans was to try to manipulate it to everyone's advantage – then Pope's was to always assume the worst and act accordingly. It wasn't the first time he'd wondered how much of Pope's berserker reputation was rooted in fatalism, and how much just pure contrary hatred of the Espheni and their servant Skitters. From his perspective, the two often looked much the same.
"Giving up on that idea of friendship already? Might have known you'd be a quitter in that, too," he taunted.
Pope didn't so much as look at him, lifting the shotgun toward the leading wave of Skitters approaching through the trees. "I'll show you quit," he growled.
Tom shook his head, backing toward the line of taller trees a few paces from the cliff in such a way as to keep himself between Pope and the Skitters – and Pope between him and the cliff. The stream had seemed fairly deep at first glance, and the cliff itself had no overly sizeable rocky projections; that meant they had a chance. A slim one perhaps, but better than nothing.
"Be my guest," he shrugged, as he gauged his distance from the edge.
Pope's eyes widened as the penny dropped, and he met Tom's gaze again, indignant. "No. I saw this movie. No way."
"Got a better idea?" Tom grunted, crouching to ready himself. It wasn't as though he was looking forward to it himself, either; but he liked the idea of passively awaiting his death even less.
...Maybe he and Pope really did have more common ground than he'd like to think. They just sought very different ways of implementing it. He shook his head at that thought, blew out a breath, and charged.
The last things he carried with him as he barreled Pope over the cliff were the sight of the man's eyes, wide with surprise, and the sound of his first name ringing in his ears.
Tom came to himself the second time that day feeling even colder, wearier, and in more pain than the first, but in an inexplicably better mood: as if some thorny problem that had been bothering him had settled in his subconscious while he was otherwise occupied. He coughed dirty water out of his lungs, then crawled up the slick bank of the stream – God only knew how far down from where they'd went in – and collapsed onto elbows and knees in the chilly mud. He turned his head slowly to make sure Pope was still with him, and sighed in relief to see the other man struggling his way on shore only a few paces downstream. They'd lost the medpack and the shotgun, but they were both in one piece.
Pope staggered to his feet, then glanced Tom's way, and an unreadable expression passed over his face. For the second time that day, Tom wondered if he might be about to take a swing at him ... but for the second time, his suspicions fell short. Pope's fingers balled up into fists, then unclenched as he staggered over in Tom's direction, and finally dug into the earth as he collapsed back to his knees at Tom's side.
"So. This is how you make friends when you're really trying, huh? No wonder the wind went out of Weaver's sails so fast. All that insubordination and mutiny were just your way of showing you cared."
Tom flopped over onto his back, too exhausted to do anything else at the moment, and gave the other man a wan smile. "You have figured me out," he said dryly, then wiped a hand free of mud on his thigh and held it up in surrender.
"Thought sharing campfire stories didn't make us blood brothers," Pope raised an eyebrow at him, his tone faintly mocking, letting Tom's hand hang unsupported in the air.
Tom stared at Pope for a moment, then sighed. He wasn't the only one that had exposed a truth the night before that they'd told few others, was he? He'd forgotten that, earlier. Truthfully, Pope's past did give him pause; but in the end, it was just one factor among many. Now that his mind had cleared a little, he was reminded of the day Pope had taken a bullet defending his sons from Clayton's group of collaborators, more than a year before; of his oddly mentoring relationship with Matt; of the loyalty the Berserkers showed him; and of all the other little marks of humanity hidden under a loud and relentlessly abrasive exterior.
"Your judgment was off, but you thought you were defending your son. You didn't intend to kill that man. So I doubt, after Clayton and everything else the last few years, that I have any business throwing it in your face."
"You do have a point," Pope replied, then laughed abruptly and took Tom's hand. "Ah, what the hell."
They shook, a damp, exhausted handshake without much warmth; though Tom was struck by the unbidden thought that Pope's eyes made up for the lack, for once in their long, troubled acquaintance lit with something other than suspicion or disdain. Then Pope shifted his grip and stood, leveraging his weight to pull Tom to his feet after him. "C'mon. Let's go get dry."
That was where the moment of uncomplicated camaraderie ended, though; as soon as his weight was squarely on his feet, Tom shouted and would have collapsed if Pope hadn't grabbed his elbows. Somewhere between hitting the water and crawling back out, he'd done his right ankle some kind of serious damage; compared to the blinding agony shooting up from the joint, all his other aches and pains were mere background noise.
"It's my ankle," he hissed, trying to avoid shouting in pain as he shifted his stance. He'd hoped he was just standing exactly wrong, but it was clear there was no way he was going to put much weight on that foot without continuing to use Pope as a prop. And for all that they seemed to have finally called a truce, Tom still wasn't keen to show that much weakness in front of him.
"I can see that," Pope replied, voice thick with sarcasm as he tightened his grip on Tom's arms. "You know, if it was anybody but you, I'd have said we were doomed already. But it's you. If I walked off at this point you'd probably stagger out of the woods on a home-made crutch eight days from now, and I'd end up falling into a Skitter trap and dying in some ironically pointless fashion. So stop cringing like I'm going to abandon you now. I know which side my bread's buttered on, believe you me."
Tom tried not to show it, but he couldn't help but feel relieved; strange how Pope's words seemed to take the sting out of leaning on the man, without ever being anything Tom might have called kind. But then, that was Pope all over. No wonder Matt was so inexplicably fond of him.
After a little more do-si-do'ing in the heavy mud, they managed to turn themselves so Tom's arm was slung over Pope's shoulders, his weak ankle on the side nearest the other man, and they began their slow staggering way up the slope of the stream and back into the woods. There had to be somewhere they could find a little shelter and start another fire; it might attract Skitters again – but it might not, and getting warm wasn't really optional at the moment. Exposure would kill them if they didn't dry out fast, and he'd choose potential, later death over guaranteed doom every time, given the choice.
Tom tried to let those worries go as his focus narrowed down to putting one foot in front of the other. He was much more aware of Pope than usual, the way their arms and torsos were braced together; of the wiry strength the man hid under the worn jeans and leather jacket. He wasn't really a big guy, a couple of inches shorter than Tom, but there was a lot of presence to him, both physically and ... otherwise.
Larger than life: that was the word for John Pope, deliberately provocative, where Tom had always sought to blend in. Long hair, leather bracelet, eye-catching rings, curling lines of tattoos; you couldn't help but notice Pope, whereas even after scissors had become scarce Tom still neatly trimmed his hair and wore sober, respectable-looking clothes. But underneath the protective coloration, Tom was beginning to get the impression that they both did it for the same reason: to be heard. Before college, no one would have ever called Tom a trust fund kid; they'd have laughed in his face if he'd told them his dreams. But later, no one had ever questioned that he'd always been destined for the life he chose. It was no wonder Pope had bought the camouflage; even Tom's kids did. The only question was, why he hadn't seen through Pope's sooner.
After a few minutes, Pope cleared his throat, either guessing his line of thought with his usual brutal aim or just trying to distract him from his worsening condition. "You know, Professor, I did use to wonder what might've happened if we hadn't got off on the wrong foot. Ah, as it were."
"You mean if you hadn't seen the Second Mass pull into Acton and decided to set up an ambush for us with your gang?" Tom managed a reply. That discovery had been his first clue that he was dealing with more than the ordinary sort of human locust, bent on stripping the bones of the old world.
"Nah, like that would've happened," Pope scoffed, shuffling another step. He glanced up through the trees, frowning, then turned to steer them a little further upslope. "I hadn't run into your particular brand of contagiously aggressive optimism yet, remember? And you saw what I had to work with. I mean, if Billy hadn't decided it would be fun to shoot your friend before I had the chance to negotiate. What then? It wasn't my intention to kill anyone that night."
"Nah, wasn't really your style back then, was it?" Tom grunted. He'd almost forgotten about Click's death; it hadn't been more than eighteen months since that night at the Acton armory, but every month he'd lived since the invasion weighed on him like a year. "You let your guys get their hands dirty for you. Maggie wasn't exactly quiet about what life in your camp was like, back when she was on probation with us."
"Like she didn't do her share," Pope frowned. "I know she's like your daughter-in-law these days, and you've got this bad habit of wishful-thinking everyone into being the best they can be and all, but don't let that give you the wrong impression. Not saying we were saints or anything, far from it, but she was trying to make sure your sympathies were with her. Seriously, though. If we'd brought you in all quiet-like from the start, had ourselves an honest conversation, without your guy down and my brother bleeding out on the stage ..."
Tom's thoughts caught briefly on the word daughter-in-law; it threw him a little, bringing up old knee-jerk reflexes of Hal's just a kid, juxtaposed with memories of how supportive Maggie had been while Hal slowly recovered from whatever Karen had done to him. Whatever her past might have been, she'd been more than a helpmate to Tom's eldest son; they were both more than old enough to make their own choices.
Like the one that had led Maggie to shoot Billy and free Tom, Hal, and the others from Pope, back at the beginning. A lot of men had died that day that shouldn't have had to, true. But weighing all the factors together ... she'd had cause, not to mention that given the way the ethnic slurs had all but fallen out of Pope's vocabulary with lightning speed after his brother's death, Tom had a rather dim view of how things would've gone with Pope's gang still intact. As it was, it had taken them how long to even have a civil conversation, even after saving each other's lives several times?
"I think it would've turned out pretty much the same," he replied thoughtfully, staggering again as his leading foot caught on a rock. "Like you said, I saw what you had to work with. And you were pretty bitter then; seemed to think our cause was doomed from the start."
"Like I don't have anything to be bitter about now?" Pope asked, incredulously. "Pull the other one, Professor. I do have to admit, though ... the improvement in the ride's been worth it. Even if we do die out here."
"It's not over 'til it's over," Tom reminded him, glancing up again and catching sight of what looked like a rocky overhang over to the left. There: where the slope grew steeper again and stone slabs poked out of the hillside. He jerked his chin in that direction. "There are always options, if you look hard enough."
"Well, would you look at that. Cave might even shield us from the Beamers' infrared."
"That's the idea," Tom chuckled, then groaned and said nothing more as Pope ushered him into the dry space beneath the overhang and helped him ease off his coat. His shoulders were nearly as stiff as his ankle, though not so swollen; Anne was going to be furious with him when he got back to Charleston.
Anne. It struck him, as Pope hung the coat up and scrounged up a meager pile of dried sticks and other debris from the back corners of the overhang, that it was the first time he'd thought of her in hours. He shivered again, rubbing at his arms, and tried to steer his thoughts back in more productive directions; guilt could kill, if he let it affect his decision-making. This wasn't the time to berate himself for the way their relationship had fallen apart over the last half-year, strained by everything else they put in front of their love for each other.
The most frustrating part was, he didn't see how he could have made any different decisions ... and he didn't think Anne did, either.
"If you had, though," he doggedly dredged up the conversation again, letting the problem of the tinder consume the rest of his attention. A flat piece of wood, peeled to show dry surface; a twig to scrape against it; mossy splinters to catch any sparks. "Talked first, I mean. I guess ... I might've cut you a little more slack when we took you prisoner."
"Ah, probably better you didn't," Pope mused, magnanimous in victory, shrugging out of his own jacket. "Give me an inch, I'm gonna take a mile."
"I've noticed that about you," Tom agreed, wryly.
"Too bad I can't give 'em all back now, huh? How many more you figure we're gonna need to make it out of here?"
"However many it takes. One step at a time."
It was how he'd done everything, since he'd lost Rebecca.
"Ain't that the truth." Pope took a deep breath, then let it out in a sigh, running a hand through his long, damp mane, which was taking on a distinct wave as it dried. "All right, then; I'll get some more wood. You'll need those boots dry before we try and strap your foot up. Don't go anywhere."
"Don't think that's going to be a problem," Tom muttered, then bent over to blow a coaxing breath on the first ember of the nascent fire.
They scraped along almost amiably for the next couple of hours, drying off, turning out their pockets to see what they had left, and speculating about what the existence of President Hathaway's administration meant for the residents of the New United States. All twelve blocks or so of it. Charleston had lasted nearly two years, two-thirds of that before the arrival of the Second Massachusetts, without word one from Hathaway's people; if Tom hadn't made the alliance with the second group of aliens, the Volm, and made the city a little more visible, they still might not know there were scattered pockets of the old United States still clinging to its bones.
Did it count as secession if they had no way to keep up consistent lines of communication, or was it more like the relationship between America and Great Britain back in colonial times? And either way, how would it affect the revolution mentality the survivors clung to? John was all for adopting a one-star republic's flag the way Louisiana and Texas had done in ages past, regardless of what Hathaway's people thought; no surprise there. Tom could see good and bad points to that approach, mostly in how it would affect fostering a sense of unity among all human survivors against the Espheni; that didn't seem to surprise John, either. They spent a while at it in energetic debate, until enough time had passed to try to splint his ankle.
Tom grimaced as John stripped off his belt and knelt to strap a sturdy branch against his leg. Resting a couple of hours might have been the only thing they could do given how wet they'd been and how cold the air was, but without blood moving and adrenaline flowing, all he'd been doing since he'd sat down was stiffening up further. He doubted he'd be able to walk very far, no matter how tightly they splinted the injury.
He cast around for something else to distract himself with, musing about how stupid it would be to survive being shot down by an Espheni ship and throwing himself off a cliff only to die of thirst and exposure, possibly even in company if he couldn't convince John to leave him behind ... and frowned as something suddenly occurred to him.
"There had to have been a tracking device on the airplane. That's the only explanation."
John grunted, tightening the belt. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Tom grimaced at the spike of pain. "You know. Earlier. You said they must've followed us to Keystone. Or spotted us in the air – which would have taken a wild stroke of luck on their part; Bressler was the one who taught Avery Churchill how to get a plane up and down the seaboard without attracting the Espheni's attention. But the timing doesn't work for either theory. If they were following us, either from the beginning or from crossing flight paths, they should have hit us the moment we landed."
"So your answer is – a tracking device? The hell you say." John growled. "Not even most of my Berserkers were ever on that plane. Just me and Lyle and Crazy Lee, and we went over the whole damn thing, every inch, to make sure she was in shape to fly if we needed her."
"It's the only explanation," he insisted.
"Look, Tom, you gotta let that go. It doesn't matter right now; the only thing that matters is getting our asses back to civilization. Now brace yourself. This is gonna get tight."
Pain whited his vision out again; Tom threw back his head, groaning as pressure bore down on the swollen joint. He tried to remind himself that it was nothing against Espheni torture, or the worm probe being dragged out of his eye still squirming, but that didn't help much; the memory of pain never seemed to stack up to the tooth-grinding immediacy of fresh agony.
"But it does matter," he panted, as John let go of his foot again. He didn't think John was trying to protect either of his Berserker buddies from suspicion; or himself for that matter. Too many things had gone wrong at the mole's hands that his unit had been excluded from. Not to mention, Lee Tedeschi had died before anyone from the government even found out Pope had a plane. "If we know how the tracker got aboard ... might be able to figure out who the mole is before we get back."
"I don't suppose we can hope it was Bressler? Or the bubblehead?" John snorted. "C'mon, if you've gotta keep talking, at least do it while you walk; we gotta get moving."
"Yeah, no; I think we can probably cross them off the list," Tom chuckled weakly as he reached for John's hand again. Funny how it was getting easier each time to take it without flinching. Except maybe this time: he cautiously shifted his weight to his bad foot as John levered him upward ... then went down again, shouting, the way he'd suspected he would.
He heard John pace back and forth across the small sheltered space as he caught his breath, curled around the pain. "Damn it, Tom. We don't have a choice here."
"You think I don't know that?" He sighed, leaning back against the rocks. "All I have is the stick of gum I was saving for a peace offering, and you have a pocketful of dead snake, and that's it. The spool of line I keep in my pocket washed away in the river with the shotgun, your pocket canteen, and the medkit ..."
Something caught at his mind about that thought, and he paused, frowning as he tried to pin it down.
"Which means we're gonna die out here, if we don't go, and go now," John reminded him.
The nagging thought wouldn't come; Tom left it to drift to the back of his mind as he studied John's stubborn expression. The man's jacket was still off, his arms bare to the shoulder in a black muscle shirt, toned and strong under the wings and curling swirls of his tattoos ... but as tough as he was, there was no way he'd be able to carry Tom all the way to Charleston if he couldn't be persuaded to go it solo.
He shook his head at that thought and gave John a wry look. "You know. I'm very tempted right now to try to piss you off, make you storm out of these woods alone. King of chaos or no, we both know you probably have better odds of making it out of here without me and sending someone back when you hit civilization. But if you wouldn't punch me earlier today when I was taking my best shot at it ..."
"Like hell I'm going to leave you behind now," John concluded, folding his arms over his chest and looking insulted at the very thought. "So don't even try it, Mr. President. Remember, you owe me a damn plane, and you can't pay me back if you're out here rotting in the woods."
"I see how this friendship is going to work. Quid pro quo, huh?"
"You bet your ass. So are you going to try again, or are you going to carry on crying 'woe is me' and doom us both? We can't just wait a couple of days for you to heal; we'll be hungry enough by that time to be stupid and weak with it, even if we keep hydrated and catch a couple more frogs, and I don't know about you but I've never tried hunting with just a pistol and knife before."
"Can I at least talk you into a scout? Climb up over that point of rock above us, see if you spot any breaks in the trees where there might be a town nearby, or maybe a cabin? If I knew I only had to make it far enough to get to a vehicle ..." Tom let the thought trail off suggestively.
Was it only a couple of hours ago that he'd been determined not to show weakness in front of the man? Necessity, they said, made strange bedfellows; and didn't he know it.
John studied him a minute more, drumming his fingers thoughtfully against his biceps, then gave a sharp nod. "All right. Have it your way. But if you're not here when I get back, I will make you pay."
"Like I said earlier ... don't think that's gonna be a problem," Tom said ruefully, gesturing to his wrecked ankle.
John's expression telegraphed, Right, and you expect me to believe that, you wily son of a bitch? But he kept his mouth shut as he shrugged his jacket back on with tight, economical movements, then stormed out of the shelter, to all appearances as furious as if Tom had called him a coward.
Go figure, Tom thought, bemused, then propped himself up a little better against the rock wall, making another attempt at flexing his wounded foot. How he'd ever be able to explain any of the day's adventure to Dan, or his sons, or Anne, or Maggie...
The earlier thought about the medpack drifted back into his thoughts, then; the last time he'd seen the mother of his daughter, she'd been handing it to him. He'd almost forgotten that, under the looming dread about her insistence that they needed to talk when he got back. Lourdes had told him Anne was suffering from some sort of post-partum psychosis, and he had found it difficult to credit that Anne could claim such crazy things about Alexis without proof if she wasn't going through something more than ordinary motherhood woes, so the idea of a heart-to-heart with her had sounded much more ominous than it normally would have. She'd been so off, she hadn't even packed his medpack herself, just passed it on from Lourdes...
The thought finally crystallized, and Tom swallowed as an ugly picture began to form. He refused to let himself panic, though, immediately shunting the fear aside to put the idea through the sniff test. Had Lourdes been present, or otherwise had access to, every piece of information or technology that had been leaked? Well, yes; she was Dr. Delgado, Anne's apprentice, Hal's friend, the healer the Second Mass and most of the younger inhabitants of Charleston wanted when Anne wasn't available, even over the experienced surgeon the city had already had. Her position and her connections would have given her unquestioned passage even to areas she couldn't access alone ... and with Anne on a reduced schedule since the baby's birth, even moreso since she'd started claiming Alexis was unnatural, Lourdes' position had become even more central to the city's well-being.
She'd been the one looking after Anne and Alexis, and telling everyone that Anne was imagining things. What if she was the one lying? What if Anne wasn't crazy? And he'd told her to stay with Anne. Pope was right; they had to get back immediately.
He gritted his teeth again, bracing himself against the wall, then began very gingerly pushing himself upward, determined to at least appear ready when John came back, good news or no.
Several long minutes later, he made it: only just. He was sweating, pale under the grime of the day's misfortunes, and propped nonchalantly against the rock next to the cave's entrance when John stalked back in, a little less nettled. John's expression cleared even more as he caught sight of Tom, approval flashing across his face ... and Tom felt the warmth of his own reaction to that look with more than a little surprise.
It really was like finally making friends with Dan had been, he reflected, only more volatile; as if the respect meant more for how hard it was to earn. These days, Dan Weaver, former tyrannical leader of the Second Mass, was like a brother to Tom, and vice versa. But what that meant for the future of his friendship with Pope...
"There's that indomitable spirit," John said wryly, holding out a long, stripped branch half as big around as his wrist and tall enough for Tom to lean on. "How long've you been standing there?"
"Not long," Tom shook his head, accepting the staff with relief. "Gotta get moving. You find a place?"
"Spotted a cabin, just a little ways from here. Hoping there might be a vehicle; it's hard to tell for sure between the distance and the trees, but there's a couple of outbuildings, so I doubt it was just a summer place. With any luck the folk who owned it were some of the ones who got rounded up for the camps. Well, not lucky for them; but there'll be a chance of decent pickings if they had to leave their shit behind."
Tom nodded, remembering Sonya Rankin with a pang. So many people had never had the chance to fight back. "Even if there isn't a vehicle, there'll be shelter. Better than here, anyway."
"That was my thought. Though you seemed pretty pessimistic before I went up the hill ... mind telling me what changed your mind?" John slid an arm around Tom's back, easily adjusting his grip this time.
"It's pretty simple, actually," Tom shrugged, testing a slightly longer stride with the help of the walking stick. Quick thinking there on John's part; Tom should have made one himself while he was waiting, but he'd been just a little distracted. "I just realized I have to get back before Lourdes does something to Anne and Alexis."
John stopped in his tracks, nearly sending them tumbling down the slope. "Lourdes? Jamil's girl, the Second's junior doc, one of the few people who can go anywhere in Charleston without question, that Lourdes?" he demanded, a rising note of anger in his voice.
"One and the same."
"Fuck me," John spat. "I would never have picked her for the mole, not in a million years. How the hell do you figure?"
Clutching awkwardly at John's jacket, staring at his bearded jaw line from a closer perspective than he'd ever expected to have, the profanity struck Tom a little differently than usual. "Flattered, but taken," he snorted in wry amusement. "So maybe we should try out that walking and talking thing you were griping about earlier?"
John's eyebrows shot up, but he did step back to let Tom regain his balance. "Yeah. Yeah, whatever, but you talk. If it's her ... damn it. Tell me everything."
Tom didn't quite tell John everything – there were a few things about the alliance with the Volm that he still hadn't told anyone, not even Dan, so they weren't relevant to the discussion – but he did cover a lot more than he might have before their little jaunt north. No reason to keep things quiet anymore, either out of fear that the mole might overhear or that Pope would abuse the information out of spite; and regardless, Tom had often depended on Pope to point out the bluntly obvious even when things were at their worst between them. Why else had he caved so easily to his demand to come along on the trip, regardless of his ownership of the plane?
They'd reached the cabin by the time he finished running through all he knew and guessed, and John was steadily swearing under his breath as he eased Tom down on the steps and elbowed out a window to get in through the locked front door.
"You realize there has to be at least one more, right?" John said, reemerging from the cabin with a ring of keys to try out on the corrugated metal shed next to the cabin. There was a garage sized door in the outbuilding, padlocked shut; they hadn't seen any vehicles in the open, but Tom was hoping that was because the owner had parked out of the wet. "If not an active mole, at least a sleeper agent. She hasn't been near any fishhead forces since the hospital, unless you count the rebel Skitters. And we didn't see any sign of the mole until we got to Charleston. So where'd she pick up an eyeworm?"
"I haven't quite worked that part out yet," Tom grimaced. "It's an ugly thought."
"Yeah," John nodded as he tested a few of the keys, one after the other, clicking against each other like Skitter claws. "Someone else who was in contact with the Espheni had to've brought it to her. And if I was Karen, I'd have sent more than one, so she'd still have a sleeper agent even if the main mole got exposed."
"You know, you have a habit of delivering uncomfortable truths when people least want to hear them," Tom sighed. The longer the mole situation stretched on, the weaker Charleston's position became, particularly when dealing with other leaders in a position of power; he didn't even want to think about what Hathaway's administration must be thinking of Tom's people at the moment.
"Just call 'em like I see 'em," John grunted, then finally got the padlock loose, throwing it carelessly to the ground. The door ran on a track rather than a hinge or any kind of rolling assembly; it creaked with rust as he shoved it to one side, but still moved easily enough, a good sign since Tom didn't think he was up to lending any elbow grease at the moment.
"Yeah, I've noticed that, too," he replied, then narrowed his eyes and decided it was time to air something else he'd wanted to call Pope on for a while. "Why'd you think I supported your bar scheme."
"Scheme? What exactly are you accusing me of now?" John threw him a disbelieving look, then disappeared into the shed, raising his voice as he continued. "People need a place to burn off steam, get a little downtime. Figured I'd rather run the place myself than drink whatever someone else scrounged up for swill."
"Yeah, and if a bar run by a very vocal critic of the regime just so happens to attract the majority of the dissidents, and if they just so happen to talk up their plans in your presence, and you just so happen to mention them around Anthony, or tell Tector to put a word in Weaver's ear ..." Tom called after him.
He'd doubted his own conclusions on that subject a time or two, but never enough to send someone in to take over The Nest, and he was pretty sure now that he'd been right all along.
"Hah!" John called back. "I'd wondered if you'd worked that out. Just 'cause I don't particularly care for your idea of order, don't mean I like the idea of anyone else running the place any better."
More creaking sounds followed, followed by more fumbling with keys, and finally the strained noise of an engine that had been sitting in silence far too long trying valiantly to turn over. It caught after a few long minutes, putting out the roar of a sturdily made old truck, and Tom grinned in relief as its headlights came on.
John drove the thing out in low gear, jouncing on obviously ancient shocks, and left it running in park as he got out again. "Not much gas in her, but enough to get us most of the way, I think; and there's plenty of twelve gauge shells in the glove box to go with the gun in the rack. Let me just check inside for hors d'oeuvres, and we'll haul ass back to Charleston before the Skitters catch up with us. Even with your supposed tracker gone we left a pretty clear trail up from the stream, and it's gonna get dark before long."
"I hear you." Tom let John help him into the truck, then smiled tiredly as the man strode back over to the cabin, disappearing inside its rustic walls.
How the hell Pope still had any energy left, Tom had no idea. He had to be running on adrenaline and willpower. But wherever it came from, Tom was grateful. He'd never have made it so far on his own, and he knew it.
John emerged again after a moment, looking smug, with a sack full of tuna-sized cans, a couple of bottles of alcohol, and a few other odds and ends. "Here, for the pain; and get some protein in you, we've still got a ways to go," he said, handing the sack over as he slid back in behind the wheel.
Tom eyed a bottle dubiously; as tired as he already was, the liquor was going to go straight to his head, and he wasn't sure it would be wise to let himself pass out before they were even sure they were headed the right way. "Think I'd have preferred aspirin. But I guess I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth."
He wearily unscrewed the lid, then tossed back a solid slug, hissing as it went down. "Don't suppose you picked up a can opener with those?" he added after a moment, still eyeing the sack.
"What, you need me to hold your hand and look both ways while you cross the road, too?" John snorted, then reached for the bottle. "Here, hand it over while you open a couple of those up; it's startin' to feel like I surfed those rapids on my spine. And don't even give me any crap about DUI or open bottle laws – I'm declaring this an amnesty zone. No getting all official on me now."
"Wasn't going to say anything," Tom snorted, handing it over. Then he rearranged the bag of supplies to prop his ankle up somewhat – the shocks might be bad, but the rough, unmaintained road was an even worse hazard – and took a couple of cans out, prying away at them with his knife.
John's latest poor joke rubbed shoulders with his touchy sense of humor as he worked at them, taking his time to avoid nicking anything else he couldn't spare. He did feel like a clumsy child at the moment; hardly dignified at all, and it brought a familiar old rhyme to mind. One from the many kid's books Ben had loved that Alexis might never see.
"I do not like fish in a can; I'm sick and tired of it, Sam I am."
It didn't occur to him until after he'd said it that John might take it as a criticism of his scrounging abilities. But it didn't even seem to strike the other man that way. John snorted, throwing him a wry look, and took another pull at the whiskey.
"You're tellin' me. Cans and cans and cans of it we ate on the road; you'd think if we were going to find stashes of overlooked food like that there'd at least be some Spam or green beans mixed in for a change. Best thing about Charleston by far's the fact I don't have to find new ways to cook that shit for three hundred anymore – well, that and the running water."
Tom traded the bottle for a can, then tossed back his own few ounces' worth of fish, washing it down with a little more alcohol. "Well, at least my administration's getting one thing right, huh?"
"Hey. What'd I just say about keeping politics out of my truck?"
Tom chuckled, then laid his head back on the seat, feeling false warmth start to spread through his veins as the drink kicked in. "Sure about that? Thought we could, I dunno. Continue the debate from earlier? Don't think it's a good idea for me to nod off just yet."
"Hey, if you can fall asleep through all this bouncing, more power to you. We've about talked that subject out, anyway – or else I'm too tired to come up with a fresh angle, take your pick. Anything else you been burning to talk about, but no one's sat still long enough to chew it over with you yet?"
"You mock, but you're more right than you know," Tom sighed. "'Bout four people outside the military in the whole of Charleston know enough about running the government to have an intelligent conversation about my job, and my entire life practically is the job at the moment. Thank God I made 'em write in a loophole that I still get to join the occasional mission, or I'd never get out of the office."
"And let me guess; one of the four's your new Vee-Pee, so that really only leaves three prospects. And none of 'em's Manchester, who was your real go-to guy even after that self-important jackass did his best to run you out of Charleston on a rail."
There was something in John's tone at that remark that caught Tom's attention; he turned his cheek against the back of the seat to take in the other man's expression, defiant and yet somehow self-satisfied under the day's marks of wear and tear. "I didn't hold it against him, you know. Arthur. No more'n I did you, when I came back that time with the eyebug. I was disappointed, sure; thought he was being short-sighted. Didn't have near the excuse you did, either. But I knew he was a good man at heart. You seem to have taken it personal, though."
"Huh," John said, eyeing him sidelong. Then he cleared his throat, easing the gas pedal down a little more.
"Yeah, that's right, I never told you, did I? Not like I had reason to. You remember when me and a few of the Berserkers got ourselves locked up trying to reclaim our weapons? Seemed like all my worst fears were coming true: you bein' a naïve sack of shit getting the rest of us led to slaughter like a bunch of lambs, worse off than if I was still king of that school up in Acton. That old mentor of yours, he had his bully-boys free me, bring me up to his office; waved a nice fat steak and a glass of wine under my nose. Promised me the moon, if only I'd spill all the dirt on you I had."
"He never said a thing to me about that," Tom objected. Seven months of working with Charleston's first leader to ensure a smooth transfer of power, and that hadn't come up? "What did you tell him?"
"Not a damn thing," John said, baring his teeth at the memory.
Somehow, Tom didn't think that was all there was to it. But ... he didn't doubt him, either.
"Good man," he repeated tiredly, his eyes drifting shut against the movement of the truck.
But this time ... he wasn't referring to Manchester.