The raucous squawk of a blue jay woke Jeremiah with a start, and his eyes popped open.
The sun was filtering through the branches, slanted with the early morning. The sap smell tickled his nose but he held back a sneeze by wrinkling his nose.
Then he realized that he wasn't leaning against the tree anymore. At some point before dawn Markus had curled up on the ground on his side, and Jeremiah had spooned up behind him tightly, one arm tucked around his waist. Markus was holding onto that hand with both of his against his chest, like he was clutching a teddy bear.
A warmth rushed through Jeremiah, realizing where he was. He didn't remember moving, though obviously he had. While he'd cuddled for warmth in the past, this was... it felt different. It was comfortable. And it shouldn't be comfortable.
This was Markus, after all. He was annoying, know-it-all, moody, talked too much, and was way too smart. He was also hung up on a woman he'd only ever talked to, because he was just that strange.
Gingerly he pulled his hand free. Movement sent shooting pains and tingles from fingers to shoulder, and his body informed him very clearly that moving anything else without slow care was not going to be appreciated either.
He moved back and rolled over, right onto the gun. "Ow. Fuck."
Markus didn't stir at the exclamation, so Jeremiah sat up beneath the sheltering pine tree, stretching his arms and curling his toes to try to get feeling back in them.
His mouth was all cottony; swallowing helped, but not enough. They had to find some water this morning.
He grasped Markus' shoulder and shook it. "Markus? Wake up. We've gotta get going."
Markus murmured incoherently, and he curled up into a ball like a pill bug.
"C'mon, man, get up. The sun's up, and I'm sure that asshole Carl's sent guys after us."
"Go 'way," Markus muttered, and the petulance in it made Jeremiah grin and poke him.
"What are you? Five?"
"I feel horrible." Markus combed his fingers through his hair, holding his head.
"Well, you're gonna feel a lot worse when Carl's whipping the skin off your bones, so ... wake up!" He leaned down and shouted the words, and Markus flinched and covered his ears with his hands, sucking in a breath of pure pain.
Feeling instantly contrite, Jeremiah squeezed his shoulder. "Sorry. I forgot. I'll give you a few minutes."
He crawled out from under the branches and out into the sun. Stretching out the worst of the kinks from his back, he waited.
It really was only a few minutes before Markus came out of the shelter. In the sun's glare, he squinted and shaded his eyes with a hand. His eyes were creased at the corners and between his brows, in a pained expression deep enough it might be permanent.
Pushing down a twinge of guilt that he felt fine, Jeremiah asked, "How're you doing?"
Markus shot him a glance, weighing giving him the truth. Jeremiah glared back, warning him not to lie.
"Been better," Markus answered finally. He rolled his head on his neck slowly, eyes shut, and stretched as though his muscles were as stiff as Jeremiah's. "But I don't think anything's too bad. Carl's minions were careful. My head still hurts the worst of anything, like someone's drilling a big hole in the side of my head. With a butter knife."
Jeremiah winced in sympathy. "A hangover without the drinking, huh?"
"Pretty much." He looked up into Jeremiah's face, face somber. "I'm pretty fuzzy on most of yesterday, but I remember enough to know I wouldn't be alive without you. So, thank you."
Jeremiah couldn't return the look, dropping his eyes to the ground. "No problem. Couldn't let you die." He cleared his throat. "I figure Carl's sending men to look for us. And we need to find water. So we better get going. We're not that far from them."
Taking a moment to respond, Markus nodded a little. "Yes. And one more thing, I think. Do you have a knife? Something like that?"
Jeremiah pulled the .22 from his back and held it up. "I grabbed this off Terry. It's got six bullets left."
Markus frowned at it and seemed disappointed. "It's not very shiny."
He was dismissing the gun for not being "shiny" enough? What the hell was he talking about? He did have a bump on his head, and that could explain it. Maybe.
Continuing, Markus said, "No knife? What about a mirror?"
Jeremiah gave him a look and didn't bother to answer that one. A mirror? Of course he didn't have a mirror.
Markus was thinking out loud. "Then our best bet is my belt buckle, probably, if we can polish it."
Jeremiah frowned at him. "For what? To make it prettier?"
Markus rubbed at his head with his fingers and pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead for several seconds, before answering with excess patience, "To flash sunlight at the helicopter. Reflections can be seen from the air from miles away, especially high ground. That's why fighter pilots used to carry mirrors, in case they crashed behind enemy lines and they had to signal their retrieval squadron."
"How the hell do you know that?"
Markus' smile was small but genuine, amused at himself. "I read it in a book."
Jeremiah snorted and shook his head. He could certainly believe that, though it didn't sound like the book was one from Markus' usual collection. "Okay, so we'll try to flash a passing helicopter. Anything else from that book we could try? Smoke signals?"
Markus didn't like that idea, of course. "Smoke's too visible. Daniel's people will see it too. We'll have to be pretty desperate. But we could try something else: if we find a big meadow, we can drag logs and branches to make the biggest sign we can, visible from the air."
"Saying what? "We're here"?" Jeremiah asked. It was more a reflexive response, though, and he didn't really mean the sarcasm. Because it was a good idea and he should've thought of it. He would've, he thought, with a little more time. Markus had obviously been thinking about this for awhile, cracked skull or not.
"A symbol. Lee will know what it means and it's from me," Markus answered. "He read the same book."
"Somehow I'm not surprised," Jeremiah muttered. He shook his head, amazed again, in spite of himself. "We're not doing any of that standing around, are we? Let's go."
They continued up the old track, and the sun was warm on their backs.
The first thing they found was water. The track, it soon became clear, was an old road to a river for fishing.
It was late summer, so the river was slow and lazy, here widening to a fairly deep pool between the reeds that choked the banks. Tall cottonwoods shaded the water, and he suspected there were fish in there when his eyes caught a ripple in the almost still water.
Jeremiah led the way upstream to where the river narrowed and moved faster. He knelt, drank, and scooped water over his head and face and rubbed briskly, glad to wash at least that much. "Your turn," he said to Markus and gestured him to come up to the edge.
Markus nearly fell in when he knelt down, losing his balance and having to clutch at a stand of wild irises. But he drank, pausing after each swallow to let it settle in his stomach.
"I'm going to see if I can catch breakfast," Jeremiah said. He put the gun down next to Markus. "Keep an ear out."
Markus nodded. "I don't think we should stay too long."
Jeremiah agreed with that, and took off his jacket and shirt to lie down on the bank with his hand dangling into the water. Hopefully his fingers looked enticing.
Already bored, he turned his head to watch Markus upstream, as he removed the plain brass buckle on the front of his pants and dipped it in the river. Even wet, it gave off a dull gleam. Using some river mud and the hem of his t-shirt he started to try to polish the back, not glancing downstream at all.
Something cold nosed at his fingers, and Jeremiah stilled, waiting. Come on, little fishy, come explore...
Somewhere to the east a flock of birds rose up in startled flight, circling over the river.
It could be a bear or other animal scaring the birds, but if it was people, they were in trouble. Not that a bear couldn't be trouble too. He grabbed for the fish, but it wriggled free of his hand as he pulled out of the water. His stomach grumbled at the food getting away.
He grabbed his clothes, and Markus saw him coming in a hurry. "What?"
"We gotta go," Jeremiah told him curtly, yanking his shirt over his head.
Markus didn't ask why either; he rinsed his buckle, stood up and handed the gun back to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah tried to keep the river on the left, as they headed west and deeper into the mountains. He set as fast a pace as he could, though it was slower than they'd been able to go on the old road.
"You think that was Carl's men?" Markus asked along the way.
"Maybe. Didn't think it was a good idea to stick around and find out."
"Probably not," Markus agreed and fell quiet. He turned his buckle over in his hands, again and again, as they walked. It seemed a little less dull, but nowhere near as shiny as a knife blade or a mirror. It was going to need work.
A low cold feeling settled in the bottom of Jeremiah's gut. If they didn't get rescued by a helicopter in the next few days, they were going to be in deep trouble -- lost in the mountains, with no gear. Markus was hurting more than he would admit out loud as well, that much was obvious. Hopefully there was nothing more seriously wrong with him though, or they were screwed.
They needed to get rescued. That meant Markus' crazy-ass plan of polishing his belt buckle and laying signs in a meadow might be their only hope. And if they were depending on Mister "I spent the last fifteen years of my life in a hole in the ground" Alexander to save them in the forest, they were probably screwed anyway.
Jeremiah sighed and kept walking.
They followed the river as long as they could. Jeremiah stopped frequently to let Markus catch his breath and spend a few minutes polishing his belt buckle with river sand. Markus never asked to stop, but Jeremiah developed an awareness of his breathing and rhythm of his step, and whenever either began to falter, he called a halt to their hike, even when Markus objected he was fine.
Jeremiah scouted up the river, leaving Markus in a deeply shaded spot to polish the buckle some more. As he had suspected, the water was heading into a narrow box canyon and he didn't think Markus was up to climbing the rock faces. They'd have to turn away from the water and go up the tree-covered slope instead.
But he did find a whole patch of tiny wild strawberries and picked all of them that looked even slightly ripe. He made Markus eat half, and he gobbled his share in a flash. They were delicious.
Markus refused to move for a time afterward, but kept the strawberries down. He displayed the buckle and the back now had a small place that glinted sharply. It wasn't as bright as a mirror would be, but it was something. For the first time Jeremiah began to believe this hare-brained plan might actually work.
They took a long last drink of water and started the steeper hike.
The sun was starting its slide to the west when Jeremiah stopped, lifting his head as a distant, mechanical sound caught his ears. It wasn't natural and it didn't take more than two seconds for him to identify it. "Helicopter!"
"Take it, climb," Markus shoved the buckle at him. "Point it at the sun and tilt it toward the chopper. GO!"
Jeremiah grabbed the buckle and ran up the nearest slope.
He was practically leaping, and very shortly his thighs were burning and his heart was pounding. But he could still hear the sound of the helicopter approaching despite his hard breathing.
At the crown of the slope he stopped and looked around frantically for some sort of clearing. He needed open space for the sun to reach the ground.
There, to his left, he could see an opening in the trees and brighter light beyond them. Sprinting, he vaulted a fallen branch praying there was nothing on the other side, and ran into a clearing caused by the collapse of an old pine.
Pushing through the bracken -- and oh God, please let that not be poison oak -- he scrambled on top of the log and thrust his hand up in the air, thumb and finger framing the belt buckle.
He turned toward the sun, nearly sliding right off as the rotten bark gave way under his foot, and looked for the helicopter.
No, no, not that way. He could see it, the black dot growing bigger and into a more identifiable shape, but it was not between him and the sun where he needed it.
He swung his hand around in big arcs, hoping he could throw the light enough to catch a spark the pilot could see as it passed to the north.
For a full minute, he continued to hold the buckle up and try to throw a reflection, in case the pilot was looking behind him or circling around.
But the sound diminished and did not return.
They hadn't seen. Fuck.
Depressed by the failure, he wandered back toward where he'd left Markus. He paused on the hill, glancing downward through the narrow trunks of the pine trees. This part of the forest was like walking through columns, with the occasional young tree or shrub with branches down to the ground. So he had decent visibility downhill.
But he couldn't see Markus' brown jacket or his grey pants anywhere.
Frowning, he went forward a little ways, thinking he'd stopped too early. Nothing. Where was he?
He opened his mouth to call out and then closed it again, as a little prickle of unease feathered the nape of his neck and slipped down his spine. Markus might be sitting down, but he wouldn't be hiding, knowing that Jeremiah was coming back. He might have tried to follow, instead of staying put, but he couldn't be far.
He listened. But the wood seemed ominously quiet. No birds, no squirrels, nothing was moving, except the breeze in the tops of the trees. There was certainly no one walking around.
Putting a hand to the back of his waistband, he pulled out the gun and gripped the comforting solidity of it. Keeping near the trees as much as possible, he started down the hill to try to circle around where Markus was supposed to be.
What if the enemy had come up on him unawares? He was still sure that Carl had sent people after them, even if there'd been little sign of them. Bringing him and Markus back east was the only thing to salvage the army's defeat, and he couldn't believe a young prick like Carl was going to give up so easily.
A low sound caught his attention and he froze, listening. It came again, a muffled cough. Markus, it had to be.
He stalked that way, trying not to make a noise in case Markus wasn't alone.
But he was. He was sitting against the big trunk of a tall pine, knees bent, and coughing into his hands.
The sound of Jeremiah clicking the safety on snapped his head up and alarm flickered through his face, before a relieved smile broke a cross it. "It's you."
"Damn it, did you have to hide? I thought Carl's men might have grabbed you."
Markus frowned. "I wasn't hiding. I just sat down. I heard the helicopter go north, did you try to signal?"
Jeremiah plopped down next to him with a sigh. "Of course I did. But they passed to the east of us. They didn't see."
"Then we need more altitude and a big open space to make our message." Markus moved as if to stand up, but Jeremiah caught his sleeve.
"We've gotta start thinking about surviving out here. We need shelter and food. Especially if we go up much more, it's gonna get really cold. And we're not exactly dressed for it." He gestured to his own clothes, thankful that yesterday morning had been chilly so both of them had worn jackets, and Markus had worn a sweater under it, but he didn't care to take the risk two nights in a row.
"No. But we're not that far from the highway," Markus added, "I have no idea how far we are, but it can't be that much. Our pace's been too slow. If they are looking for us, this is too close to set up a camp." He paused and Jeremiah expected him to offer to stay behind and let Jeremiah continue on his own. Although he couldn't possibly expect Jeremiah to let him do that.
But instead of saying that, he let out a sigh. "Not that I wouldn't rather stay here. I ache down to my bones, my head is still killing me, and I haven't eaten anything substantial since Erin's dinner, which is probably not helping how crappy I feel. But I think I'd feel better if I weren't out here, in the boonies."
He rested his head against the tree, face sinking into weary lines as he looked up at the sky. "This isn't my thing, you're right. Being out here, in all this open space, makes me nervous," he admitted softly. "But it didn't always. I used to do two things for fun: hack computers and ski. They both felt the same -- I loved going so fast that you had to keep going, right on the edge of disaster."
Jeremiah regarded him with some surprise. Not the part that that Markus thought anything to do with computers was fun. But the skiing? He could barely picture Markus in the woods, looking right at him under a tree. Skiing fast had to be dangerous. "I'd never have pegged you as a thrill junkie."
Markus shrugged and smiled a little ruefully. "Not anymore, no. I got a little too sedentary. Too bored keeping things running, I guess. Now the most exciting thing I do is paperwork and meetings."
"And get shot at," Jeremiah added, waving an arm in the general direction of the Carl's men to the east. Markus had gotten complacent in the mountain, yeah, but there was a lot more than paperwork these days.
Markus chuckled once. "That too. But that's the price for doing what I want to do. So..." he shrugged and pushed himself to his feet, holding onto the tree to keep his balance. "C'mon, we need more altitude and find some sort of shelter for tonight."
They started up the hillside, past where Jeremiah had found the clearing, and higher, until the pines started to thin and the aspens started to take their place, with their slender white trunks and bright green leaves that rustled in the breeze.
Along the way, Jeremiah glanced at his friend, trying to fit what Markus had revealed so casually into who he was now. It explained the recklessness that popped up occasionally, but still...
The image of Markus speeding down a mountain, his face that familiar mask of concentration, and then stopping at the bottom with a flurry of snow and a big grin, was strangely appealing. It wasn't an expression he'd seen on Markus' face often. Or, actually, ever.
If they survived this, he was going to find a way to take Markus skiing again.
Jeremiah was thinking about stopping to catch his breath, when he hiked around a large boulder and saw that the trees thinned to nothing straight ahead.
They'd found a meadow, between the higher peaks to either side. The southern facing slope had some stands of aspens, and more ground cover. In the meadow, the grass and other plants were high, and some still had tiny purple flowers all over them. He had high hopes of another stream running through the middle of it someplace.
At first he thought it was a natural meadow, until Markus brushed his hand against a stump and his fingers came away black. "Forest fire. Some years ago, judging by the growth." He wiped his hand on some leaves and regarded the meadow with a smile. "Look," he pointed to the north-facing slope and Jeremiah followed his fingers. There were fewer trees on that side, more rocks, and a lot more blackened skeletons of trees sticking up through the ground cover. "If we could move the blackened branches into the meadow, that's our message."
Jeremiah nodded thoughtfully. "All right. I can do that."
"I can help," Markus objected, but wilted under Jeremiah's look.
"Sit by the stream and be useful polishing your belt buckle some more," Jeremiah told him. "If we get a chopper fly-by in the morning, we'll need to be ready."
Markus, surprisingly meekly, did as he was told. The two of them found a trickling stream in the meadow and drank some water.
He pointed out the many deer tracks in the mud near the stream, and Markus seemed pleased by the notion that they might see some wildlife other than the incessant squirrels. Jeremiah didn't mention the perfectly-preserved paw print on the other bank -- hopefully the bear had moved someplace else in its territory.
It was hard work moving the charred branches and tree trunks down to the bottom valley. His breath was short and he was panting well before he would've down in the plains. As he worked, dumping the branches not far from Markus, it was the sort of exertion that was good for not-thinking.
He gathered the close branches first, and widened out gradually, now keeping an eye out for a possible place to camp. One pine tree - half burned but still alive, was a good source for long sticks to make a lean-to against one of those big boulders up on the other side.
As the sun sank down and touched the western peaks, though the light would remain for a good while yet, he went back to the stream. He was not entirely surprised to find that Markus had curled up on the spongy flowers near the stream and fallen asleep.
He stripped off his shirt to wash the soot off. Damn that water was cold. He shivered and hurried, deciding against getting his hair wet. Rinsing his hands, he shivered again, feeling eyes on him. He realized that the meadow was very open and if any of the enemy soldiers came close, he would be hard to miss.
Slowly turning, looking for the watcher, his gaze collided with Markus', who was watching him sleepily. He didn't look away either, and Jeremiah felt a warm rock drop through him and settle in the pit of his stomach.
He cleared his throat and teased, "You wanna come clean up, too? Cuz you're no better smelling than me."
Markus smiled a little, blinked, and pushed himself upright. "Better not. I'm cold enough already," he called back. He ran his fingers through his hair and gingerly touched the knot on the side of his head. His whole body flinched, and he gagged. It turned into a hacking fit, and he shook in its grip uncontrollably. He bent over, hands curling like claws into the dirt.
When he stopped, he scooped a little water in his hand to rinse his mouth and then sat there, with his head hanging wearily. He muttered to himself, "God, I wish that would just go the fuck away."
Jeremiah had moved closer during the spasm and put a hand on his shoulder. "You're getting better. But we need a shelter or we're gonna freeze our asses off out here. So come on, I could use your help."
He kept a hand on Markus' shoulder, steadying him when he got to his feet and couldn't catch his balance, until he clutched Jeremiah's forearm. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea...
But after a few deep breaths, Markus got himself back under control and stepped out from under his hand. "I'm okay. Let's go."
As expected Jeremiah did most of the work, putting down the support sticks. He had to laugh when Markus glared at two sticks which were supposed to be holding each other up - he said something about the angles and force being in balance, but Jeremiah pushed them deeper in the dirt and solved the problem.
But Markus took over laying the flexible aspen branches that Jeremiah pulled off the trees and brought over. With each load, their shelter acquired more of a roof, somehow managing to suspend itself on the few big sticks and against the rock. The damn thing looked like it was practically tiled in green leaves.
"You gonna build a porch?" he asked. I'd like a swimming pool too, while you're at it."
Markus shot him a friendly glare and continued fussing with the green branches, weaving them in among each other. "Wasn't this what you were going to do?" he asked.
"Well, yeah, but I was just gonna throw them on there. Not build a cabin. Is this more from your mystery book?"
Markus frowned at the shelter, which was about waist high, with a roof sloping down from the top of the rock. He was now working on the walls. "No. It seemed logical."
"Well, keep going. While you do that, I'll go make the symbol in the meadow. What should it be?"
"A triangle. As near to equilateral as you can manage."
"I'll assume you mean the sides should be the same."
"Each angle is sixty degrees," Markus added absently as he sat back on his heels and examined the frame of the shelter, branch in hand.
"Which would help if I knew what a sixty degree angle looked like."
Jeremiah meant the comment to be snide, but Markus stripped the leaves off some twigs he was working with and laid them on the ground as a triangle. "Like that. But as long as it's big and a triangle it'll be fine. It's the symbol for a landing zone."
"'Kay. Got it." Halfway down to the pile of charred wood, he glanced back at Markus carefully weaving another branch through the others he'd already put in. Figured that Markus couldn't let the job be done half-assed, he'd want it perfect. But if it kept them from getting cold tonight, it was all good.
The triangle ended up about twenty feet across, and he had no idea whether it was even close to equilateral or not, but at least it was done. After he laid all the logs, several side by side with their blackest sides up, he stomped on the grass for good measure in the middle.
By then the light was fading and getting chilly already. He went up to the shelter where Markus was adding still more branches to the front, leaving hardly any room to get into it
"Quitting time, man. Go grab a drink. I'm going to admire your handiwork."
Markus didn't move for a moment and tossed down the branch he was working with, climbing to his feet, "And here I was going to say that your triangle was a work of art."
There was a sarcastic edge to his voice that made Jeremiah take a figurative step back. "What? I was serious. I'm going to admire what you've done here. Really, for a guy who has barely stepped outside for fifteen years, this is... amazing." And he meant it too. The whole structure seemed to glow green in the fading light, and it looked surprisingly warm and sturdy.
Markus shrugged, but the angry tightness went away from his face. "I've always known how to put things together."
He walked away, toward the stream, and Jeremiah's gaze followed him. He snorted a laugh. "Put things together." Oh yeah, things like an underground military bunker, not to mention an entire country. A little thing like a branch-covered shelter was easy as pie for him.
But Jeremiah was sure that talent of putting things together didn't extend to Markus himself. Because the more he was around Markus, the more he realized that Markus was quite possibly even more fucked up than Jeremiah was, he just hid it better.
It was dark out now and cold. There was some faint starlight drifting in through the branches and the entrance, enough that Jeremiah could see a dim outline of Markus sitting beside him.
The silence weighed like something Jeremiah could practically touch. He didn't mind the quiet, although his fingers itched out of a habit to write his dad.
But Markus lasted only ten minutes or so after they'd both crawled in. He shifted restlessly, not finding a comfortable way to sit, finally settling with his knees up and his chin on his hands. "Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if the Big Death hadn't happened?"
"Sure," Jeremiah shrugged. "Sometimes. But it's just playing around, because who can know for sure. Why? Do you?"
"I know where I'd be," Markus answered with quiet certainty. "I was already on that road, to college and grad school and some faculty research position someplace. Government work maybe. All of it pretty normal. Not politics. Not... nation-state building." He laughed a little, mocking himself.
Jeremiah stayed quiet to listen. He had the feeling Markus was working his way to something important.
His voice dropped to a low murmur, speaking more to himself than Jeremiah. "The only thing I thought I'd leave behind was my research. Maybe kids. That sort of thing. But now..." he shook his head slowly. "I'm not going to be around forever; nobody is. So what legacy am I going to leave behind? I never wanted to kill anyone at all, and now there's this war. I wanted things to be better, to fix the things that went wrong before. But all I'm doing is leaving a trail of bodies behind me." He opened his hands, spreading his fingers wide as if looking for blood-stains. "I don't know... I feel like I'm on the same path Daniel is, only a few steps behind..."
Jeremiah wondered at Markus killing anyone, but decided asking about it wasn't the point. Markus was worrying about something bigger than that, and it horrified the shit out of Jeremiah that Markus would put himself in the same category as Daniel. He took a deep breath, trying to figure out what he could say. "You're not a monster, Markus. You're not ever going to be a monster like Daniel is."
"You can't know that," Markus murmured. "Power corrupts everyone, Jeremiah. Even me. Didn't I stay snug in my little cave and let the rest of the world fuck itself because I was too busy playing king of the mountain? That's what you said, and you were right. And what's worse, I knew better. Hell I know better now and I'm still doing it."
Jeremiah hated it when people remembered what he said and tossed his own words back in his face. "That's not what I said. But say you're right, what are you going to do? Build a cabin in the woods and be a hermit? Bullshit. You're the one in charge because you've got the plan, Markus. You're the only one who has a hope in hell of succeeding, and me and Erin and Kurdy and Theo and everybody else who's got your back, knows that. And that's because we know you're not in it for yourself."
Markus mulled that over, and finally answered, sounding weary, "Thanks, but maybe, you shouldn't be so sure. The road to hell being paved with good intentions and all that."
Jeremiah shook his head, then realized that Markus couldn't probably see it. "Anybody ever tell you, you think too damn much? Then, here, if it makes you feel better, I'll make you a promise -- you turn evil, then me and my trusty friend Mister Beretta will take you out ourselves."
He expected Markus to chuckle at least, which he did, but when he answered he was serious, "I appreciate that." He let another long silence linger, before his voice came out of the dark again. "Some days, Jeremiah, I remember the boy I used to be and I really don't like who I've become at all."
Jeremiah wondered what he could possibly say that might help. He'd heard a few of Markus' doubts before, but nothing like this. Finally he nudged Markus' shoulder with his own. "The fact that you worry about this shit is proof you don't belong in this dog-eat-dog world. Would I follow you if I thought you were a bad guy?"
"Do you? Follow me, I mean?" Markus asked, his tone light, but the intent behind the words clearly was not. "Because sometimes I'm not so sure of that."
Jeremiah felt a little pang of hurt at the doubt, and grumped at him, "Well, you should be. Even if I don't kiss your ass all the time."
Markus relaxed a little, allowing himself to lean more against Jeremiah's shoulder. He chuckled once. "A good thing too." Markus yawned. "It gets boring."
Jeremiah nudged him again. "Lie down. Get some sleep, and try not to be so depressing in the morning."
The shelter was small and since they were both more aware, Markus tried to leave space between them, pressing back against the rock.
"Markus," Jeremiah finally snapped in exasperation after Markus pulled back his hand from brushing Jeremiah's shoulder. "I'm not going to jump you. But it's going to be really fucking cold, and huddling together will keep us warm. Relax, okay?"
"Sorry," Markus muttered. He inhaled a deep breath and let it out slowly. He let Jeremiah move back against him. He was tense at first, but eventually his breathing evened out and he slept. Jeremiah followed soon after.
His breathing was labored and weak. When Jeremiah touched his face, his skin was cold. His eyes were only half-open and the effort to focus on Jeremiah seemed to take all of his strength. His lips parted, and Jeremiah leaned close to listen, but no words emerged.
"Markus, please," Jeremiah whispered. "Don't do this." He gathered Markus' hand in his, and Markus tried to grip back, but his hand trembled. "Don't let go. Don't - " he was begging, he could hear it, but he couldn't help it.
But it was too late. Letting Carl drag Markus away to beat him had been too late. Coaxing him to run for two days had made it inevitable.
God couldn't do this. Couldn't take him away, not now. Not when the world needed him so much. Not when Jeremiah --
Markus coughed, drops of scarlet suddenly on his colorless lips, and there was a horrible gargling sound in his throat.
His eyes glazed and his grip grew slack.
"No!" Jeremiah cried out ...
... and pain woke him, as his flailing hand smacked the rock of the back wall of the shelter.
Jeremiah's heart was thumping from the nightmare, and he opened his eyes to try to chase away the image of Markus staring sightlessly through him.
Sunlight was glowing in the leaves, and staring at the pattern let him slowly calm himself. It had been a nightmare brought on by Markus being hurt, that was all.
He rubbed his nose and blew on his fingers. The air was chill in the shelter, so he didn't think it was much past sunrise.
His stomach felt knotted from hunger. Damn, they needed to find food today. Hopefully Markus could keep it down, too.
Markus who should be sleeping next to him but who wasn't there anymore.
Alarm went through him like a shot, chasing away anything else. He shoved his way out of the shelter, heart beat quickening.
Markus was huddling on a rock not far away, gaze fixed toward the rising sun and the treeline. His right hand gestured low and down to stay still, and Jeremiah froze, imagining Daniel's soldiers had found them.
Jeremiah edged out to see what was holding Markus' attention.
The bull elk was old -- his antlers spread out like a banner above his head. His head was up, big eyes watching these interlopers in his territory. His ears pricked forward alertly, but without fear.
Jeremiah found himself switching his gaze from the elk back to Markus, who was half-smiling with wonder as he watched. There was something reverential and surprisingly open about it, not the more controlled or ironic expression he had most of the time.
The elk turned and left, soon disappearing from view.
"That was... beautiful," Markus murmured.
Looking at Markus and how the early morning light gave his hair a coppery shine and put color in his pale face, Jeremiah almost voiced his agreement. Instead, he cleared his throat and joked, "Well, there went our breakfast." He sauntered closer, hands in his pockets. "You're up early."
Markus shrugged. "I didn't sleep very well," he answered.
"Are you feeling better?"
He nodded. "Some."
His nightmare flashing in his mind again, Jeremiah snapped, "And if you were dying on me, would you actually say so?"
Markus' gaze flicked up to his. Jeremiah had no idea what he saw, but a smile played at his lips. "Everybody needs to keep a secret or two."
Jeremiah groaned. Markus had to be feeling better, if he was back to being cryptic and annoying. But it was something of a relief to fall back into old patterns in dealing with him. "'A secret or two'? You have so fucking many I can't count that high."
Markus was still smiling as he stood up. "Then first grade was a waste of your time. I don't have all that many." He started toward the water and tossed back over his shoulder, "The answer is no."
"Figures," Jeremiah grumbled.
He went looking for breakfast and soon had to give up. It was frustrating to have a gun and not be able to use it for game, and doubly frustrating not to be able to cook anything that he might be able to catch. He decided that they were going to make a fire later and hell with the risks: Carl was obviously not looking for them very hard, if at all, and was probably on his way to Boston by now.
He turned over some rocks and found some grubs for himself, but he knew there was no way Markus would eat them. They weren't bad, actually, and food was food.
Returning to the meadow, he waved to Markus who was fussing with the shelter again.
Halfway across he heard the sound.
Whirp whirp whirp
The helicopter was back. His hands were shaking so hard, he could barely fit it in his jacket pocket to get the buckle. Where was it? Oh God, he didn't drop it.
No. There it was.
He seized the buckle and pulled it out as the sound continued. It didn't seem to be drawing much closer, and he squinted in that direction trying to find it.
It was east. Far to the east.
Holding the belt buckle up, he pointed it at the sun and then tilted it toward the helicopter, back at the sun.
He focused on the distant helicopter, mentally urging with all of his attention,
Come on, Chen, see the flashing thing. Come investigate. Shiny metal can't be natural. I promise I won't hate you if you get your ass over here and rescue us. I don't know how long I can keep Markus alive out here.
"Jeremiah," Markus put a hand on his shoulder. "It's gone."
He jumped, startled by Markus' sudden appearance, and lowered his hand.
"Damn it. They didn't see it."
"Maybe they did," Markus said. "And they'll be back. We'll have to wait."
"For how long? How long are they gonna look for us?" he demanded, frustrated. "I know you made rules to preserve fuel. They're gonna have to stop flying and depend on the recon teams, and you know they're never gonna look way the hell up here."
Markus hadn't taken his hand away from Jeremiah's shoulder, and squeezed it. "One more day, all right? Then you're right, we should go. But it's very possible that Kurdy already found Carl's squad, so the mountain could know we're out here." He let go and his mouth twitched into a wry grin. "And if so, Erin and Lee are never going to pay the least attention to the preservation rule."
Jeremiah let out a long breath, nodding. "All right. And later, I want to start a fire and --"
A gunshot split the air and Jeremiah reacted, shoving Markus to the ground and falling after him.
He landed on top, making Markus grunt. His right hand went to the back of his pants to grab the gun. "Shit, they found us. Are you okay?" he asked anxiously. "Did it hit you?"
Markus shook his head in denial.
"Where the fuck are they?" Jeremiah rolled off him, staying in the dirt, and hopefully partially hidden by the tall weeds and grass. But he was all too aware that they were in the middle of the meadow, with hardly any cover.
"East," Markus answered unexpectedly. "In the trees."
"They tracked us. Or maybe they got lucky. Fuck." And he and Markus had so helpfully been standing in the middle of the meadow, too. God, how stupid.
So far, no one had fired again, but then, Carl didn't want them dead, did he? So maybe it had been a warning shot. "We need cover."
"The rock by the shelter," Markus suggested.
It was about as good as they were going to get. "All right. You go first. And keep your head down."
Markus started crawling on his belly slowly, trying to stay under the level of the grass, toward the shelter up the slope.
Another gun fired, and this time hit the ground not far from Markus' head, kicking dirt over them both.
Markus froze. "They've got a rifle," he said. "Probably a scope."
Jeremiah's heart pounded, as he thought frantically for what to do. He had six bullets, but the enemy had the drop on them and longer range.
If he could take out the rifle, that would even things up. Cautiously he turned and eased up on his elbows, peering toward the treeline. Where was the shooter? And how many were there?
At first he saw nothing but the trees and the shadows beneath them. But he waited, holding onto his patience with a firm grip.
Movement. There was a shadow passing in front of the white trunks of the aspens, slipping closer.
He was going to shoot, but a warm hand settled on his back, distracting him. He glanced at Markus, who had crawled next to him. "No," Markus said. "If you shoot one of them, they'll kill you. We have to surrender."
Everything in Jeremiah resisted the idea of surrendering. Not after everything they'd been through. But Markus' eyes were on his, and Jeremiah remembered his nightmare, how those eyes had gone blank and the spirit inside had flown away. If there was a firefight, odds were good that someone was going to get killed, and he didn't want to see his nightmare come true.
He jerked his head in an unwilling nod and lowered the gun to the ground.
But before either of them could raise their arms, Jeremiah heard the noise of a helicopter again and this time, when his gaze met Markus' there was a new hope shining there.
Markus plucked his belt buckle from Jeremiah's hand and rolled on his back, to point the shiny side at the sky.
The noise of the chopper came closer. It was still high and in the east, but it then shifted direction toward them.
Jeremiah smiled. The pilot had seen them.
Markus was frowning intently, flexing his hands and moving the buckle in deliberate flashes.
The big black helicopter thundered across the meadow, directly overhead.
As it came, Jeremiah went up on one knee, and smiled in grim satisfaction. Two of them had stepped out of their cover to take shots at the Blackhawk. He took a second to steady his aim, and fired toward the troops among the trees. His first shot took someone down, and he dove back to the dirt before he saw what happened to the second.
The helicopter swung around at the far western end of the valley and started back, more slowly this time, and lower to the ground.
The rotors were deafening as it slowed more on approach, pointed straight at the enemy. The small guns beneath the pilots' window fired, and Jeremiah clasped his hands over his ears as the rapid shots shredded the trees.
Then, the helicopter started to lower itself for a landing between them and the enemy.
Jeremiah sprang to his feet, following Markus. The wind from the rotors whipped at him, and he had to shield his face with his hand heading for the door.
Markus tripped and fell to one knee. Jeremiah grabbed his forearm and pulled him up, toward the open side of the helicopter.
The front guns were firing again, adding their roar to the blades.
Finally they were there and Jeremiah shoved Markus on board, following after. He grabbed one of the straps on the side and yelled to the two men up front, "We're on. GO!"
The helicopter lifted off and the big gun stopped, leaving his ears ringing.
He glanced down to make sure Markus was strapping himself in. Markus was tucked against the jump seat on the floor, safe enough, but his left hand was holding his right arm just below his shoulder. Beneath his hand there was a dark wetness that spread across the fabric while Jeremiah watched.
He glanced up at Jeremiah, and his pale face was that now-familiar mask, clenching his jaw around the pain.
Jeremiah hung onto the different straps on his way to the cockpit. The pilot was Lee, not surprisingly, and he looked around as Jeremiah came up between him and Nathan in the co-pilot's chair.
"Lee! Markus got hit!"
Jeremiah was glad to see Lee's face tighten with concern. "How bad?"
Pointing to his own arm to indicate the place, Jeremiah added, "He's bleeding a lot."
Lee nodded his understanding, and spoke briefly over the helmet comm to Nathan. The helicopter started to descend and when they were down, in a different area of what had been a large forest fire, the rotors started to slow.
By the time they stopped Lee already had out the medical kit and he and Jeremiah were kneeling beside Markus.
"Thanks for the pick-up, Lee," Markus said.
"I'm glad you're in more or less one piece," Lee said. He took the morphine hypodermic out of the kit. Markus winced when it went in his leg, but didn't complain about getting it as he normally would have.
"You can see that Markus still hasn't learned to duck," Jeremiah said.
"Yeah, this is getting to be a bad habit," Lee agreed, serious-faced as he wound the gauze around Markus' upper arm.
Markus' eyes went from one to the other and he frowned. "You two are supposed to fight," he said, with a distinct tired whine in his voice. "Ganging up on me isn't fair..."
Lee ignored him as he tied off the gauze. "There. That should hold you 'til we're back home."
Markus had looked as if he were drifting off, but snapped his eyes open again at Lee's words. "No. I need to go to Four Roads."
"We won," Lee told him. "Don't worry about it. You need to get stitched up."
Jeremiah almost smiled, surprised that Lee thought this would work.
"No, I need to go," Markus repeated. "I want to see what happened."
Lee hesitated. "It was an ugly battle, Markus. You don't want to look."
Markus straightened, his expression fierce. "And that's exactly why I have to see. I know you mean well, but you can't protect me from the cost of my decisions. Go to Four Roads."
Lee flattened his lips but nodded. "All right."
Between them, Jeremiah and Lee helped Markus into the jump seat and got him strapped in securely. He rested his head against one of the straps and his eyes closed as he gave into exhaustion and the morphine.
They moved to the front and Lee sat back in his seat.
"Where are we going?" Nathan asked. "Back to Thunder Mountain?"
"He needs to get that seen to --" Lee started, as though he was trying to talk himself into disobeying Markus.
"No," Jeremiah interrupted. "Four Roads."
"But he's hurt --"
"He's been hurt since that asshole Derek gave him a concussion. And trust me, it didn't slow him down much." He laughed once, ruefully. "He's stronger than you think. He's sure as hell stronger than I ever thought. Go to Four Roads. He's right, he needs to go."
Jeremiah knew Markus was going to feel guilty about the deaths, but better guilt than being isolated in the mountain. People really would become faceless numbers to him if he never saw them. And that way led to Markus becoming what he feared the most.
"We can't protect him from who he is," Jeremiah said quietly, more to himself than to Lee. "We shouldn't. Let everyone see he's okay, and that he cares about the battle. There'll be time enough to return to Thunder Mountain later."
Lee searched his face. "You sure?"
Jeremiah nodded. "I'm sure."
To Jeremiah's surprise, Lee listened to him. "All right. To the army then." He started up the helicopter and Jeremiah returned to the back to strap in.
Markus stirred as the helicopter started to land. His eyelids flickered open and his gaze met Jeremiah's across the aisle. For just a moment, their eyes held.
All those hours of watching over him rushed through Jeremiah's mind, as well as feeling that warmth tucked against him. He remembered quiet confessions and sleepy eyes watching him. He remembered how bereft he had felt in his nightmare, watching Markus slip away.
And for an instant, he wondered what would have happened if he'd dared ... more.
In that moment, it seemed Markus might be wondering it too.
But the skids bumped the ground, and the moment was broken. Markus opened his harness one-handed and stood.
He took a deep breath, and his usual calm face slipped over the openness, as if it had never been. Jeremiah felt a pang of regret that it was gone.
"Come on, Jeremiah," Markus said, gesturing him up with his good hand. "Let's go find out what happened while we were on our fun hike in the woods."
Jeremiah smiled at the sarcasm, but the smile slipped away as he watched Markus hop out of the helicopter before the rotors had finished powering down.
Markus walked to meet Kurdy and a whole bunch of others. He didn't look back, confident that Jeremiah would follow him.
And Jeremiah did.
If you enjoyed this, please (a) review (It was hard work to write and it's lovely to know it was appreciated!), and (b) keep an eye on my profile. I have a Jeremiah/Stargate SG-1 adventure novel in editing right now with more Markus, Jeremiah, Kurdy, Elizabeth, Erin, Valhalla Sector, etc on its way!