“None of us expect you to do this, Danny.”
He watched the boy straighten his shoulders and bit back a smile; he might be Ben’s son, but he had Miles’ bearing.
“He carried her back. He didn’t even know her, but he carried her back and buried her.”
Bass nodded. He didn’t mention that Miles had Mia brought back, too. It wasn’t the same and they both knew it. Maggie, Danny’d finally told them her name, she’d been family to Danny and that was enough to make her family to Miles. Charlie hadn’t cried during the funeral, her eyes hard stones that stared at Miles as though it was all his fault. She didn’t know, she still didn’t understand, but Danny still tried to tell her, tried to explain. She’d quit listening, but Danny wouldn’t give up on her. Miles gave up on trying to reason with her, not that he blamed her. After they’d come back, she slapped Miles, blamed him for everything. Even though he’d brought Danny back alive, it wasn’t enough.
“You know he’s not going to like this.”
Danny gave a half smile, his eyes full of mischief. “He doesn’t really like a lot of things, Uncle Bass.”
Bass saluted the boy with his glass of whiskey; he wasn’t wrong. “I won’t go against him if he says no.”
“We’ll just have to make sure he says yes. Have Captain Baker around, he is good at talking Uncle Miles into things he doesn’t want to do.”
The kid wasn’t wrong. Jeremy always had this thing with words, something about his reasoning always got through to Miles, or got him a black eye, but he figured the odds were good enough for Jeremy to keep doing it.
“If you’re sure you want to do this…” He knew the answer, but this way he could say he tried.
Danny smiled the thousand watt smile that had made him even more popular around the Capital than his last name. He dashed out the door and Bass sighed; things were never easy.
“What?” Miles asked, voice amused as Danny drug him into the room.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Jeremy said as he walked in after them, a handful of papers in his hand.
Bass raised an eyebrow, but Jeremy shook his head. At least it wasn’t anything important. Hopefully just supply lists, standard troop rotations. He knew Miles wouldn’t be in the mood to deal with any paperwork tonight. In anticipation, he’d emptied a good amount of their stashed liquor from the rooms Miles was most likely to crash in for the night.
“I need to do something and I need you to say yes.”
Bass bit back a laugh. That’s about what he’d expected.
“You haven’t even – ”
“Whatever it is, it’s not going to happen.”
“I’m going to get the militia brand.”
Miles’ eyes narrowed in a way that had even Jeremy backing up a bit. “The hell you are.”
“I need to, Uncle Miles. I need to be a part of it.”
“Were you not there a few days ago when we all nearly died? I seem to remember you being a part of that.”
“Everyone else has a brand. I need to have one, I need to show I’m a part of it, too.”
“You’re a Matheson. You’re a part of it.”
“That’s not good enough. I don’t want to be a part of it just because of my name! Don’t you get it? I need to be a part of something – a part of this. The militia, you, it’s a part of me and I want to be able to show it to everyone. I won’t have them thinking I get treated special because I’m your nephew.”
“You do get treated special because you’re my nephew.”
“Yeah, well – stop.”
Miles smirked. “That’s why he’s here, isn’t it.”
Jeremy looked up from where he’d been studying invisible dirt under his immaculate fingernails. “You know he’s right.”
“He’s not – why are you always on his side?”
“Because you’re a stubborn bastard.”
“Why do we keep him?”
Bass shrugged. “He does like doing the paperwork.”
“Is that what this is from?” Miles asked, pointing to a new bruise high on Danny’s cheek.
Danny shrugged as though it wasn’t a big deal. That worried Bass more than the rest. He shouldn’t be that nonchalant about someone deciding to take a swing at him. That was going to end with Miles killing a whole bunch of new troops.
“It’s not fine, Danny. I won’t have guys taking pot shots at you.”
“Then let me take the brand. I’m tired of fighting them all the time. I’m winning, but I shouldn’t have to knock their teeth out to make them believe I’m really here, really a part of it, the same way they are.”
“His recruit class is almost done, Miles,” Jeremy said in that same disinterested tone that everyone knew Miles hated.
“And, he can’t be the only one in a whole class to not take the oath.”
“He can take the damn oath.”
“Not without the brand, and you know that, Miles. You’re the one who wrote it, remember?”
Miles raked a hand through his hair. “What about Charlie?”
Bass frowned, now Miles was getting desperate.
“She won’t speak to me,” Danny said, his voice hard. “She will barely even look at me.”
“This isn’t going to help that,” Miles reminded him, voice as gentle as Bass had ever heard it.
“It’s not going to make it worse. She already hates me. They both do.”
“Yeah, she and mom. Mom still won’t see me, but she’ll see Charlie.” Danny paused, his eyes determined as he moved closer to Miles. “I’ve lost them. I won’t lose this, too.”
Something broke in Miles; Bass watched it happen, heard Jeremy let himself out, knowing when to bow out of a situation that wasn’t any of his business. He watched Miles pull Danny into an embrace, his hand cradling the back of the boy’s head. Bass didn’t know Rachel had been seeing Charlie without them knowing about it. She was allowed to see the kids anytime she wanted, but it bothered him though because no one had told him that she’d broken her self-imposed solitude. He didn’t trust her, never had.
“This what you want?”
Danny nodded against Miles’ chest.
“Okay. When your class graduates, you can take the brand; I’ll give it to you myself.”
“But – ”
“I’ll give it to the whole damn class myself, but there’s no way in hell someone else lays a hand on you.”
Miles nodded. “Aren’t you on watch tonight?”
Danny nodded and with another quick hug, for them both, he scurried back out the door.
Bass handed Miles a new glass of whiskey, knowing it was going to be a long night.
“She’s only seeing Charlie.”
Bass settled himself on the couch, his own glass of whiskey held loosely between his fingers.
“I don’t like it. She’s planning something, or she knows something.”
“Or, she wants to see her daughter,” Bass said, because it had to be said.
“Come on, Bass, you don’t believe that.”
Exactly, but at least now someone had said it.
“Danny’s clinging to the family he has because Rachel is pushing him away; she’s forcing our hand. I knew she and Ben were involved, but I hoped with her family all being here, with her kids that she’d – I don’t know, not be crazy?”
Bass took a long swallow. He didn’t need to voice his feelings on Rachel. They both held each other in mutual contempt.
“We need to know what she’s planning.”
“She not just going to tell us, Miles.”
Miles kept pacing in front of the fire, pausing occasionally to sip his drink. Bass took small comfort in the way Miles nursed it, but he realized Miles probably knew Bass had removed most the liquor from their suite of rooms. Waste not, want not. Danny’s choice, his desire to take the brand didn’t surprise him. He’d felt the same way back at the beginning, and of course Miles has completely lost his mind at the thought of someone burning anything into his skin. Honestly, Miles hadn’t wanted Jeremy to take it either, not that Bass had, but he understood the compulsion to do so, to make a permanent statement of their devotion to Miles. So, they’d compromised. Jeremy took the mark – Bass took the name. The Monroe Republic was his only in name and those who needed to know knew that. He could’ve shot Miles for that little manipulation. They’d discussed it being just the Republic, a name to describe the idealistic view of what they strove to create all those years ago. They both knew better now. They ran a military dictatorship.
“I want Charlie and Rachel at the swearing in. Front row seats. If Rachel wants to play a power game with me, we’ll go that route because she’s not leaving me another option. Have the Neville boy be their escort .” Miles paused. Looked up at him with a hint of regret in his eyes. “This is a dirty game, Bass.”
“We can find another way, Miles. You know we don’t have to do this.”
Miles’ withering look was no more than Bass expected, but he felt it was his duty to be the voice of reason, to remind Miles that he always had an out that didn’t involve him leaving the Republic again. He knew Rachel was their only option, and he also knew that if the other areas got power first, they’d be dead. Quickly.
“I want full brass there, too. Anyone not out on assignment. I know they don’t always go, but we’re going to put on a bit of a show. Make it a big event like we used to. Invite people to come in from the city. It’ll be a great morale boost, and hey, Danny’s a Matheson, so there’s that.”
“We need someone to coordinate everything. I can’t be you.”
Miles smirked. “We’ll ask Julia, of course.”
Bass poured another drink. “Of course.”
“Look, I know I’ve made things difficult with Neville, and if was just him, I wouldn’t be worried. He’s a soldier first. He’s good at it, but that she-viper he’s married to? She could put dangerous ideas in his head. Everyone’s got a blindspot. She’s his.”
He swirled the amber liquid around, a habit he’d picked up from Miles over the years. Like buttoning his shirt from bottom to top, like unlacing his shoes before taking them off instead of just toeing them off. He still remembered Miles looking at him, head tilted slightly in disappointment, a muttered “don’t be lazy, Bass”.
“Having her son escort in our ‘esteemed guests’, and having all of the arrangements left in her more than capable hands - you know she’ll see through it.”
The smile on Miles’ face made Bass swallow thickly. “It limits her options. If I thought it would work, I’d just slit her throat, but - and I thought you’d be proud of this, Bass - sometimes a bit of diplomacy goes a long way.”
Miles ignored him as he walked to the door and gave the guard orders to bring the Neville’s, yes all of them, to the office. He then moved around the room, carefully selecting chairs before moving them in a semi-circle in front of the desk. For a moment, Bass considered offering to help, but he chose instead to watch, a small smile on his face. Jeremy often believed they could read each other’s minds. It wasn’t true, obviously. Half the time Bass had no idea what Miles was doing, or thinking. But, the other half - in those moments, the thoughts were his just as they were Miles’. Knowing what was coming next, Bass gathered three extra tumblers and added them to the tray.
At the knock on the door, Miles answered it himself with a polite smile pasted on his face. Bass bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing; he wouldn’t ruin Miles’ plan.
“Julia, Tom, please come in,” Miles greeted, ushering them in with a wave of his hand.
“Jason is on his way,” Julia explained, a sharp glance between Tom and Miles her only tell.
“Please take a seat, we can have a drink while we wait,” Miles continued.
“What’s this about, Miles?” Julia asked.
“It’s okay, Tom. I’m sure things have been tense since I’ve returned.”
Another knock on the door interrupted the conversation, and Bass answered it before Miles could increase Julia's suspicions.
“Ah, Jason, right on time. Please come join us. Can I pour you a drink?”
“No, thank you, sir,” Jason answered, voice a bit nervous, eyes wide as he noticed both his parents.
Once everyone was seated, Miles looked around at each, extending the moment.
“Well, as you know, the current class of recruits is graduating soon. Julia, we’d like you to coordinate a celebration, a big party, as part of the ceremony.”
She blinked. “A party.”
“A big one.”
“Of course, Miles. Anything I can do to help the Republic .”
Miles’ smile dimmed; Julia cleared her throat.
“Tom, you’ve been overseeing this class, and they’ve done well. I’d like you to help me with the official stuff.”
“I’d be honored, General Matheson.”
“Please, Tom, it’s just us. Miles.”
“Now, that leaves you,” Miles turned his gaze to Jason. “I know things are hard between you and Charlie, and that’s my fault. That’s why I’d like you to be the official escort for her and her mother. Afterall, Danny is part of this class. His family should be in the front row.”
Bass saw the glance Jason sent to Tom, the small inclination of his head Tom returned. Maybe things weren’t quite as bad between them as he’d assumed. Maybe Tom knew they were in Miles’ office, and he could kill them all just because he felt like it, and no one would do a damn thing about it.
“I’d like that, sir. She refuses to talk to me, and the few times I brought her dinner, she refused to eat anything scum like me brought.”
Miles placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “She’s stubborn, like her mother. Give it time.”
Miles clapped his hands together once before taking his glass. “A toast. To the Monroe Republic, and strength of its militia.”
Bass didn’t miss the pointed look Miles cast at Julia, or the way her eyes narrowed ever so slightly. Between her and Rachel, they had more than they could deal with, and given how Charlie seemed to be taking after her mother...Bass shook himself from that thought and smiled as he returned the toast.
“You’ll let me know if you need anything,” Bass addressed Julia.
“I will. And, if you’ll excuse us, I should get started on this, and I could use Tom’s help.”
“Yes, and Tom, outside of your duties with the current class, you’re free to assist your wife in any way she needs,” Bass added.
“Sir,” Tom inclined his head as he stood and escorted his wife out of the room, Jason trailing behind them.
“Do we have anyone in interrogation?”
Bass eyed Miles. “Between Jeremy and Tom, that department has been, well, efficient.”
Miles chuckled ruefully. “Damn.”
“There might be someone in the brig.”
Miles met his eyes. He’d seen that look so many times over the years. Actually, the first time he’d seen it, they’d been maybe ten years old. No ten year old should wear a look that detached, but Miles did. They’d been at the park kicking a ball around, and Miles kicked it too hard. Bass went after it, but before he could turn back around, one of the other neighborhood boys tried to snatch it out of his hands. In the struggle, the kid landed a haphazard right hook, and Bass cried out more from shock than pain. He remembered the look on Miles face as he came racing up the hill. That was also the first time he bandaged up Miles’ hands after a fight. Most of the requirements for earning his First Aid Merit Badge came from patching up Miles after some fight or another. Someone had to look out for him.
“What if Rachel won’t leave her room?”
“I’ve been having extra doors made. I can afford to break one or two.”
Bass sighed. “You know that’s not what I meant. She could ruin this for us. For Danny.”
“She’s just another piece on the board now, Bass. I have control of it, for now. I’ve gotta push the advantage.”
“She has Charlie.”
Miles turned to the window. He didn’t know what Miles saw in the flickering torchlight. The silence remained, but he knew this Miles. Bass moved in behind him, slid his arms around Miles’ waist, and pressed his nose to his shoulder. He felt Miles relax a bit against him, and he hid a smile against Miles’ back, covering it with a firm kiss.
“Since we’re winning, or not losing, we should celebrate,” Bass hinted, a strategic thrust of his hips added for emphasis.
“We need to be winning to have sex?” Miles asked without turning around.
Bass laughed, “No, but we usually have time when we’re night fighting for our lives when we’re winning. I’m suggesting we use it for sex, but if you have a better idea…”
Miles turned just as a banshee scream echoed through the hallway.
Bass looked at Miles.
They dashed into the hallway just in time to see her leap over the unmoving body of a sergeant. Blood dripped from the knife she held in her clenched fist. She spared a brief glare in their direction before she tore down the hallway and out of sight.
Jeremy came around the corner. “Apparently, she heard about your plan to ‘mutilate her son’s body’ and is a bit upset.”
“That’s great.” Miles pulled his sword. “Where’s Danny’s unit; that’s where she’s headed.”
“Follow me. They’re bivouacked on the edge of the city for the last bit of their training.”
When they reached the camp, Danny and Rachel were at a stalemate, a few bodies scattered around. Danny’s sword was clean, but Rachel had more blood splattered on her. Bass watched Miles move around to the bodies, checking the wounds before moving back to stand next to Danny.
“Mom, stop. Just stop.”
“Danny, sweetie, you don’t understand how Miles works. He’s poison.”
Bass looked on as the Matheson’s had another family staredown. Danny raised his sword, pointed at his mother’s hand, the one gripping the knife, blood seeping from between her fingers.
“You’re the one with blood on her hands, mom. You left. You left us. Then, you refuse to see me? But, when you find out I’m going to be part of the militia, part of a real family, then you come out and start attacking people I care about?”
“They’re going to brand you - like fucking cattle!”
“Only because I asked them to. Uncle Miles refused. He doesn’t want to do it, but I begged.”
“Danny,” Miles interrupted. “Help Jeremy clean this up, tend to the men. I’m going to take your mother back inside; we’ll have a chat.”
Eyes wide with unshed tears Danny looked up at Miles. They exchanged another silent conversation before Danny nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Miles pulled Danny into a hug. “Good man. We’ll talk later.”
“Come on, kid. I’ll teach you basic field first aid,” Jeremy said as he pulled Danny to his side, away from Rachel.
“You can drop the knife,” Miles said. “Show’s over.”
They walked in silence back to the office. Bass brought a wet rag to Rachel; he didn’t want her blood messing up their rug than out of concern for her hand. Big area rugs were hard to come by, and having blood stains made them harder to trade. She took the rag with a glare before sitting in one of the chairs leftover from the meeting with the Neville’s. Bass sighed as he glanced at the window; he’d been so close to getting laid. Rachel had hideous timing.
“It almost worked, Rachel,” Miles started. He turned to face her. “Next time you want my attention, kill them, don’t just wound them.”
“Next time, I will. I won’t let you turn my son into you, Miles. He’ll see you for the monster you are.”
“That was your goal tonight, right? Make me so angry I lose my temper, hit you, maybe even kill you - right there in front of your boy. In death, you’d have the win, right?”
“You’d do it.”
“Without a doubt. Given proper motivation, but wounded men isn’t good enough. Your little show backfired, sweetheart.”
“Fuck you, Miles.”
“He hates you now. He pulled a sword on you, held you back from my men. And he’s right about the brand. I don’t want to do it, but he wants it. We’re throwing a party. Making a big production of it. You and Charlie have front row seats.”
“I’m busy that day.”
“You’ll be there, Rachel. After tonight you don’t have a choice.”
Rachel glared, her hands curled into fists at her side. “Charlie doesn’t trust you. You betrayed her. You’ll betray Danny too, then he’ll come to me. I’ll have both of my children back.”
Miles moved in on Rachel, trapping her between his arms and the chair back. “Do they know you and your husband made the power go out? Do they know their sainted parents ended the world? If I’m a monster, you created me.”
As though he’d been discussing the weather, Miles moved back. He walked over to the sideboard and poured himself a drink. Bass watched him move, hardly breathing, afraid to break the staggering tension built in the room. Knowing a single ember would blast them all to hell.
“How many people did you kill that night, Rachel? Do you even know?” Miles once more looked out the large window.
Bass wondered what he saw now. Was he imagining that night? Thinking back to the madness that followed. He remembered that moment, the one in which Miles chose to take charge, to do something because someone had to, and Miles had a nasty habit of doing what needed to be done. It’d been what brought them both home from Iraq, twice.
“Men, women, children? Terrified screams as planes fell from the sky, babies crying as cars crashed into each other.” Miles moved over to the chess board they kept in the corner. He caught Rachel's stunned, horrified gaze. With a flick of his finger, he knocked the queen on her side.
“Your move, Rachel.”