Disclaimer: I don't own anything, but thank you to the folks and entities who do.
"Holy--I thought the weather was fucked up near the Mountain." Kurdy stared morosely through the truck's windshield, his grip tight on the steering wheel as the Rover rolled through the potholed streets of Millhaven. Arcs of water splashed up where tires met pavement, parting the rain-soaked way towards Jeremiah's house. The storm, raging into its fifth day, chased most of the townspeople indoors to wait it out. Without its people the town appeared deserted, yet another abandoned burg cleared out by the Big Death. "Smith, you sure God didn't tell you to go and build a fucking ark or something?"
Smith shrugged, his eyes squinting slightly at the raindrops spattering against the glass. "Not today."
"But if you get a message to start collecting two of every animal and shit..."
"I'll let you know."
They hiked up the stairs in that brisk little run-walk one falls into while trying to avoid rain. The front porch, like everything else in Millhaven, was drenched. Water spilled steadily from the overhang, seeping into the canvas of Smith's knapsack and soaking the bandanna wrapped around Kurdy's long dreads.
"The roof's leaking," Smith said matter-of-factly.
Kurdy grunted in amusement. "God say that?"
"No." Smith nodded towards the front door. "Seems kinda obvious."
Kurdy expected to see Gina inform them that the Wizard wouldn't be seeing anybody today but that the Emerald City is free for them to explore. The open door framed Jeremiah's slim figure. His shirt clung to his damp form, outlining every single tensed muscle in dark gray, and if the wet had done anything to his leather pants, he didn't let it show. Maybe there was a reason he didn't walk up and embrace Kurdy outright. "Please tell me Markus sent you. I'm not feeling the Mr. Fix-It vibe today."
Kurdy laughed, a low-pitched rumble more felt than heard. He reached his hand out to grip Jeremiah's but at the last second drew him into an intense hug instead. Hell, they were both sopping wet anyway. It didn't matter. "You know, when people shower, they usually take their clothes off first."
"Yeah, thanks for the fucking tip. I'll keep that in mind for next time." The sarcasm in Jeremiah's voice was a play-bite to test Kurdy's grit. "So let's go." He sidled free of the hug, reaching for his jacket and tugging it over his soaked shirt.
Kurdy's head shook, flinging drops of water off from the tips of his dreads. "Shit, man. You got no idea where we're going."
"Anywhere's better than here."
"We're headed for Yarborough," Smith said.
Jeremiah raised his eyebrows expectantly. Smith had the frustrating habit of stopping his explanations a sentence or two before he began to make sense. Then again, the guy also had the frustrating habit of sometimes explaining way too much. "And?"
"And," Kurdy drew the word out. "They got a levee system keeping the river in check. All this rain's weakened it. It's gonna burst any day if this weather doesn't let up. Markus figured you needed a change of pace. Get back to recruiting cuz if Thunder Mountain can offer some help..."
"Then maybe they'd be willing to join the Alliance. I gotcha." Jeremiah said, sliding an arm behind Kurdy's back and squeezing. "Get me outta here, man. Gina's been riding my back about getting the roof fixed."
"Wait, wait. She been riding you, man?" Kurdy's mouth quirked into a slight grin.
"You know what I mean."
By the time the Rover reached Yarborough, the townspeople were so anxious for help they banged their fists against the truck's doors until the threesome exited the cab. The rain continued to pour from the skies as a tall, bespectacled man with dark, curly hair stretched his hand out to Jeremiah. He introduced himself as Joseph. "We've heard you have the resources to help fortify the levee. Excavators. Earthmovers. Dump trucks. Cranes."
"Woah," Jeremiah held up a hand, calling for silence. "First thing's first. I don't know who the hell promised all that. Frankly, I don't give a shit. Thunder Mountain's supplies are limited. We need to get an eyeful of that levee. Make sure it's worth the time to fix." The negotiation game began, and Jeremiah had to admit to himself that he missed it. Running a town and dealing with the every day problems of community-building didn't compare with trundling across what was left of the great American highway system and helping people along the way. At least on the road, he got to sleep under stars.
Joseph tried desperately to reign in his frustration. After all, he spoke to the one group of people who may be able to save his town from drowning. The coughs of protests were thankfully kept to a minimum. "Your people promised us assistance. Equivalent trade, Jeremiah. That's how the world works."
A chuff of disbelief escaped from Kurdy's lungs. Great, he thought as he crossed his arms along his chest. The stance made him appear larger, more intimidating. Anything to show that the Alliance meant business. "An eye for an eye, huh?"
Joseph nodded reverently. "The weak levee is located five miles from here. Not too far in that truck of yours."
"Convenient," said Jeremiah with a shrug, easing the truck's passenger door open. "Hop in, Joseph. Smith? Get in the back."
Smith eyed the bed with a good amount of worry. "Uh, yeah. About that. I can't ride in the back of that."
This immediately triggered Kurdy's "weird shit's gonna happen" radar. "Something wrong?" he asked in a low voice.
"I'm not sure."
"Hey, man. We're only riding a few miles out. If you're thinking about that...chafing..."
The corner of Smith's mouth twitched downwards. "It's not that. It's just...I got stuff I gotta do in town." He sounded like an actor being fed lines from someone hiding in the wings.
"We all got our promises to keep, right?"
Jeremiah caught the conversation out of the corner of his eye and told Joseph that he needed to speak with his companions for a moment. "What's the matter, Smith? Little Timmy's trapped in a well down in Dead Rock Canyon?"
Smith chuckled and shook his head. "I got my duties." He slung his knapsack high on his shoulder. "And you got yours. Don't wait for me, alright?"
"Nice to know we got our own fucking Lassie around," Kurdy muttered, watching Smith hurry along the streets and disappear behind a run-down house.
"Nah, Lassie was furrier. Bark was less annoying."
Kurdy grinned. "Cuter, too."
"Hey, you know all those Lassies?" Jeremiah slapped the back of his hand against Kurdy's shoulder. "Male."
"How 'bout that? Fucking transvestite dogs on TV."
The shrill noise of the Rover's horn cut into their discussion. Jeremiah and Kurdy turned towards the truck just in time to see an impatient Joseph beckoning to them.
"Damn, the levee," Jeremiah said.
"Yeah, knew we forgot some shit or other."
The river boiled and raged, constantly lapping over the crest of the levee and threatening to breach clear over it. Weak points sat along the wall at irregular intervals, places where dirt was piled on haphazardly in an attempt to patch up the gaps. The group scrambled out of the Rover, careful not to stand too close to the bank.
"This is ugly," Jeremiah said.
"Hideous," agreed Kurdy. "We gotta radio the Mountain and tell them what to bring right away."
"You'll help?" Joseph beamed and lifted Jeremiah's hand into both of his own, pumping it with Jeremiah-quaking vigor. "Thank you! Thank you! You'll tell Markus tha--" A deafening crack echoed across the valley, and Joseph's words stuck in his throat, stoppered by shock. He resembled a desperate fish free of the river, body flailing and mouth gulping helplessly for air. His grip on Jeremiah's hand tensed fiercely before slacking, his bulk slumping to the craggy bank.
"Shit." Kurdy drew his knife. "We got company."
Jeremiah placed two fingers on Joseph's neck. "Pulse is gone. He's dead."
Jeremiah began rummaging through Joseph's pockets. "Remember that Town Steward thing in Millhaven I got going?"
"Gina thought it was a good idea for me to stop carrying a gun. Y'know, instill more fucking confidence in the townspeople."
"You gotta be shitting me."
"I shit you not." With a magician's flourish, Jeremiah tugged out a revolver from Joseph's belt. "Ta-dah."
Kurdy crouched into a defensive stance, knife at the ready as three masked figures darted from the trees. One of them seemed weaker than the others, less confident, and Kurdy went for him first. The other two shot towards Jeremiah, raising their guns up to his head. With a resigned sigh, Jeremiah flung his revolver to the ground.
"You just killed your leader, man. Don't think the rest of your town's gonna think too kindly on that," Jeremiah said, raising his hands up.
"The keys," one of the men said, spittle darkening the edges of his mask's mouth. "Your truck's keys!" The other man butted the barrel of his gun against Jeremiah's temple.
"Hey, point that thing somewhere else, okay?" Jeremiah said. "Somebody's gonna lose a fucking eye."
Jeremiah scowled and slowly fished the rusted key ring out of his jacket pocket. He made a big show of jangling it in front of the assailants' eyes before tossing it carelessly to the side. Both men leapt for the ring, and the one who snatched it up into his gloved fingers turned around and shot Jeremiah in the shin.
"Son of a--fuck!" He crumpled, his leg on fire and no longer able to bear his standing weight. The two men hurried into the Rover and sped off. Deep muddy troughs were left in their wake.
Kurdy jogged after the truck for a few yards before something more urgent caught his attention.
"Little help, man." Jeremiah muttered through clenched teeth, trying to sit up in the mud.
"Don't move." Kurdy bent down to examine the leg. The wound was a bright red blossom peeking through black leather. "Think it went through the bone."
"Fuck. Why'm I always the guy getting shot at?"
"Must be your magnetic personality."
"Hurts like hell. Thought...I'd get...used to it by now..." Jeremiah hooked his hands onto Kurdy's broad shoulders and started to hang heavily onto him.
"Hey, now. What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
"Get up. Get back to town. Get our truck back. Find Smith. Beat the living shit out of him for...not warning us."
"Hold on, man. Didn't you hear me? You got shot in the leg."
"Hard to ignore that."
"And the bone's probably broken. You try and walk on that, you'll end up with one less leg holding you up."
"You don't do anything. I gotta clear all this mud off."
Jeremiah watched Kurdy straddle the levee carefully, his boots digging down into the packed-on dirt. He undid his bandanna and dunked it into the rapids. With the fabric still dripping wet, Kurdy waddled across the levee and crouched near Jeremiah, letting the cloth dribble onto the wound. The water chilled as much as the gunshot burned, catalyst for a pleasant kind of numbness.
"Hey man, stay with me. Stay with me, Jeremiah. Jeremiah?"
Kurdy's voice bounced around and around Jeremiah's brain until the words, even the sound of his own name, were stripped of all meaning. He knew he couldn't stay because his dad promised that they'd go on a fishing trip.
"Do you like fishing, Jeremiah?" Devon beams at his older son and instructs the boy on how to properly bait a lure.
"Does it hurt?" Jeremiah stares with morbid fascination at the writhing worm impaled on the hook. It curls into a vague S-shape as if trying to recoil from some indefinite danger. The worm suddenly expands, filling out like a dark brown balloon being blown full of air. It breaks free of the S and hangs limply on the hook, huge and inviting and smelling of fried meat. Tiny fingers reach for it, fondle it, snatch it.
"Michael, no!" Jeremiah stretches his arms towards his brother, but he's too late to cushion Michael's fall. He hits the ground with a thud, red seeping through his shirt, his jacket. Michael soaks the floor of the open market with blood. Jeremiah rushes to him, cradling him to his chest like he's seen his mother do countless of times before. Rocking him and singing Raffi songs to him because Michael gets nightmares if he watches scary movies. But he always watches because Jeremiah loves them too and Michael has to be just like Jeremiah.
"Does it hurt?" Simms snarls, looming threateningly above them like the killer from a slasher flick. Jeremiah needs to protect his brother. He promised, but Michael is gone. Jeremiah stares down at his empty arms, still stained from his brother's blood. Too shocked to react when Simms drives the heel of his hard-soled boot against his jaw. Jeremiah topples, splurting backwards into the mud. He tries to stand, but his legs give out. Tries to throw a punch, but Simms slips easily out of the way. He's a ghost. A force of evil. Daniel's prophet, spreading the word of hopelessness and suffering. And Jeremiah needs to make him stop because he's a prophet too. A prophet for Markus and he promised a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people. If he dies now, who'll take care of them?
"Does it hurt?" Libby's fingers graze along Jeremiah's stomach, stopping just short of the ragged edges of his wound. She probes gingerly along its perimeter, studying the gaping hole with a clinical eye. A scientist's eye. Devon taught her to be like that. Always exploring the meaning behind things, the whys of everything. Jeremiah tenses, his wound still bloody and raw. And when Libby grinds her thumb and forefinger into the gash, Jeremiah howls. When she fishes the slug out from the hole, the agony flashes bright-hot up his spine, and Jeremiah flees.
Kurdy kept close watch on Jeremiah as the sun began to set, wondering if anybody would come back for them. He could have made the five-mile hike back to town alone, but abandoning Jeremiah wasn't in the equation. The man looked like hell, and the beginnings of an infection probably throbbed through his leg. Kurdy managed to slow down the bleeding and wrap the leg into a splint, but Jeremiah passed out from the pain of dressing it. Rain still sprinkled from the sky, making everything sopping wet and leaving Kurdy with little dry wood to start a fire. Not that he had anything to chop a tree down with considering some assholes carjacked their truck scant hours ago.
Granted, he'd seen Jeremiah in much worse shape after countless scrapes before, but there was something about the way the man's breath raggedly passed in and out of his lungs that made Kurdy worry. It was like some invisible thing kept forcing air into him because his body gave up trying to breathe. Jeremiah started to shiver, faintly at first, but then it grew to a full-blown thrashing. "Woah!" Kurdy tried to still Jeremiah's leg first, before the guy managed to shake himself free of his splint. The trembling refused to cease, and Kurdy soon realized that the shivering would get worse as the evening slipped into night.
He shrugged his overcoat off his shoulders and spread it over Jeremiah, the crude blanket still damp from the rain. But at least the inside of it was warm, imbued with Kurdy's own body heat. He stared at Jeremiah, at how difficult it seemed for the guy to breathe, at how the warmth of his own coat seemed to soak up all that tension like a sponge. Silently, Kurdy lifted the coat and pushed his body up against Jeremiah's. He sensed the heat radiating from Jeremiah's skin, the fever caused by the infection ravaging his wounded leg. The trembling grew worse, and Kurdy wrapped his arms around Jeremiah's chest.
"Hunh?" Jeremiah muttered, barely conscious.
"Don't worry, man." Kurdy's voice was soft and throaty and deep, the sound of a far-away thunderclap. He squeezed firmly, assuring Jeremiah he was there. "I gotcha."
Kurdy woke to find himself a few feet away from Jeremiah's prone form. With his watery eyes blinking near-painfully at the brightening sky, he was a little surprised to see Smith's concerned face staring back at him. In months past, Kurdy may have had a more extreme reaction, but he was starting to get used to Smith's weird sense of timing. "It stopped raining," Kurdy murmured half to himself.
"Yeah, and I got the truck back," Smith said, grinning.
"I can see that." Kurdy sat upright. "Took your own sweet time getting your ass back here."
Smith blinked innocently, offering a hand up to Kurdy. "I knew you two would be alright."
"How'd you figure--?"
"You said we all have our promises to keep, right?" Smith dropped his gaze to the prone body buried underneath Kurdy's coat. "Jeremiah's yours."
Smith's words hit Kurdy like a punch to the gut. The bond between he and Jeremiah sat unspoken and undefined for all this time until Smith tore it open, set it down in his Scribe's book, gave it meaning and focus and clarity. Kurdy swayed on his feet, palms pressed against his weary eyes. He shot a glance over at Jeremiah, swallowing past the dry lump of truth forming in his throat. "We need to..."
"Get him back to the Mountain," Smith finished. "I know." He approached Jeremiah and started to take a keen interest in the splinted leg.
Jeremiah stirred, eyes flickering open and mouth pulling into an amused smile. "Good girl, Lassie. Good girl."
Smith tilted his head up to Kurdy, his eyes narrowing in confusion. "Is he gonna be...okay?"
Smith's expression of doubt and bewilderment made Kurdy chuckle. "Jeremiah is gonna be just fine."