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Some Friends for a Change

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As dawn broke over the horizon, pale light slipped through the gossamer fabric that covered the bedroom windows. Early morning thrushes and robins welcomed the day with their song, calling for a mate, claiming their territory, and proving to all that the small hours of the morning belonged to them. Spring meant new flowers, fresh crops of food; the promise of warm days, and fewer nights huddled around fires. From the rumors, it meant easier days defending the Republic. The last presented a new responsibility for him, something the ever-present low thrum of pain in his inner wrist reminded him of. A smile lit his features as he remembered Uncle Bass pulling Uncle Miles from the doctor’s side. While he had been glad for the show of support, he was even more relieved for the space. The doctor had been nervous enough about branding the Commanding General’s nephew, and Danny wasn’t immune to the pressure of living up to his Uncle’s expectations, even though none had been spoken.

In the weeks since the graduation ceremony, Danny had been left mostly to his own devices. He took his shifts on the bridge, learned some of the challenges of leadership as he adopted increased levels of responsibility. The men looked at him differently now, and he wasn’t sure yet if it was due to his own performance or the specter of Uncle Miles looming ever present over his right shoulder. Still, Miles took care to keep himself separate from Danny’s direct chain of command, at least at the lower levels. He still reported up to Captain Neville, but mostly through other officers, or his unit’s gunnery sergeant. Evenings found him eating dinner with Miles and Bass; watching them together made Danny feel a sense of peace and homecoming that he didn’t realize he hadn’t felt back in Wisconsin. Since graduation, Danny hadn’t seen or heard from his sister or Rachel. But, he found himself surrounded with new people with close ties to Miles, and Bass had told him family did end with blood. During one memorable dinner he’d been told “you can drop the Uncle, kid,” but Danny didn’t because he saw the way Miles’ eyes lit up a bit, the way his his lips twitched into a not-quite smile.  

Some nights Jeremy joined them for dinner. At first, Danny didn’t quite understand how he fit into the group. The first night, Danny would have sworn Miles was going to shoot Jeremy there at the dinner table, but instead, they fell into a wrestling match that ended with Miles owing Jeremy a bottle of scotch: the good stuff, you whiskey hoarding son of a bitch. Danny enjoyed those nights the most because the dynamic between the three provided endless entertainment for him to think back on during the long, boring bridge patrols. Things near the capitol had been calm since the return of the Commanding General, but Danny could feel the pressure building. It reminded him of the storm he and Captain Neville’s unit had encountered on the way to Indiana - the tension mounting as the skies clouded over, the static he could feel in the air. Philly felt pregnant with the same, as though the whole city was simply holding its breath.

A knock on the door pulled Danny from his musings. A frown took over his face; today was his day off, and he had zero desire to cover someone’s shift. He opened the door to an officer he didn’t recognize.

“Lieutenant Danny Matheson.”

Danny raised an eyebrow, and waited for him to continue.

“Geeze, kid,” the officer smiled. “You give nothing away, do you.”

“Who are you?”

The officer just stood there, same stupid smile on his face. Danny sighed and raked a hand through his hair. “Look, it’s my day off, so if you’re just going to stand here, I’m going to close the door and go back to bed.”

“I see you inherited Miles’ patience.”

Danny narrowed his gaze.

“Glad to see I’ve got your attention now.”

The urge to snap at the stranger surged through him, but he fought it down. He would wait it out, make the silence stretch awkwardly until one of them gave into the overwhelming urge to break it. Danny lost track of how long they stood there in his doorway, but the deep, vibrating laughter that came from the yet to be named officer caught him off guard.

“What the hell?”

“Oh man, this is - this is going to be the best. Miles was right about you.”

Danny crossed his arms.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” the officer said, voice once more serious, but the humor lurked in his brown eyes. “Miles wants you to learn counter-intelligence.”

He tried to keep the surprise off of his face, but the re-emerging smile on other man’s face indicated he’d failed.

“Name’s Captain Alec Penner. You’re now officially tasked to my unit, mainly me.”

Danny nodded as the information processed. Most officers fresh out of training took rotations leading a platoon assigned to bridge rotation, like he’d been doing. Then they moved onto working with a captain in charge of a company that patrolled further out from the capital. He’d heard whispers about some of the other opportunities, Intelligence and Investigations, Research and Development, and whatever it was that Sergeant Strausser did.

“Sir, would you like to come in? I have coffee.”

Alec nodded and followed Danny as he moved into the room. Danny tried to shake the feeling of Alec’s eyes on him, recognizing the pattern from how Uncle Miles and even Jeremy would track him without even realizing they were doing it. It took him months to shake the feeling of ants crawling up his spine each time he was around them. Pouring coffee allowed his brain a chance to process, to take in Alec Penner. For as new to the militia as Danny was, after traveling with Captain Neville and spending increasing amounts of time around Jeremy he could recognize someone trained directly by Uncle Miles.  

“I know it’s your day off, but I wanted to give you a heads up. You won’t be on bridge duty anymore, but don’t get too excited because you won’t have any days off either,” Alec paused, eyes losing the teasing gleam they’d held since Danny’d first opened the door. “This won’t be easy. Being a Matheson won’t help you with what we do because the more you know the more you know that can hurt you. I won’t lie to you, kid. Miles already gave us an assignment. You get on the job training, and it’s going to be personal.”

“My mom.”

Alec tilted his head. “Aaron Pittman.”

He hadn’t expected that. “Aaron? Are you sure?”

Alec laughed. “Yeah, I’m sure. Miles is sure.”

Danny nodded. “Okay.”

“You sure you’re up for this? You’re reacting well, calm. I’m always nervous around a Matheson who’s calm.”

Danny laughed. “I’m quiet. People fill the void, and I listen. Uncle Bass thinks my family knows about the power, and getting power first is important to Uncle Miles. Which makes it important to everyone - I pay attention. If Aaron knows something, then Uncle Miles needs to know. Just because it’s personal doesn’t make it unimportant. Charlie doesn’t see the bigger picture, she doesn’t understand there’s nothing to go back to. She’s caught up in memories of a family I don’t remember.” Danny looked down at the brand on his wrist. He’d need to wrap it soon. “This is bigger than my family, no matter who my uncle is. I’ll rail against the universe later.”

Alec just nodded. “Okay then. Jeremy will be assisting while you learn interrogation techniques, and we’ll both work with you on the more physical aspects of gaining information. We don’t go the same route as Strausser - his is a specialized type of interrogation, but you’ll still get your hands dirty.”

Danny didn’t respond. He got the idea, and he’d heard rumors about Strausser. Sure he’d killed a man back in Wisconsin, the day that started everything, but that felt different. He’d been different. Could he torture someone for information? He didn’t have an answer. Before Neville had shown up in his little village he would have said he couldn’t kill someone, but clearly he could. Miles and Bass discussed the notion of what counted as necessary action. Perhaps that made the difference. For a moment, he thought about interrogating Aaron, a man he’d known since forever - someone he knew better than he knew his own mother. He didn’t know much about interrotation, but they’d all seen interrogations during training. It’d seemed unreal at the time. The maneuvering, the questioning, the evasion. Part of him rebelled against doing any of that to Aaron. A larger part of him couldn’t help but imagine how it would feel to bring valuable information to Miles. He’d be a useful member of the militia then. Valuable for more than just his name. In that light, Aaron became a means to an end.

“You play chess?”

Danny blinked. “No.”

“We’ll get a board set up in here. I’ll teach you the rules, but you should play against different people. Jeremy, Miles, Monroe - Tom, if you can handle it. We’ll play too, but since I’ll be teaching you, you’ll have a better understanding of my strategy, and you’ll need someone to test your skills with.”

“Chess?”

“Yeah, trust me.”

Danny leveled him a look. “I don’t.”

Instead of being upset like Danny expected, Alec smiled. “Good. You will. In time.”

 

“This is about Danny.”

The young man in question paused outside his Uncle’s room. Peering in through the gap in the door, he saw Miles, hands braced on the desk in front of him, squaring off against Bass who stood, hands on his hips, near one of the wingback chairs.

“This was your idea, Miles. And, since you apparently need to hear this, I think it was a good idea. I know he’s your nephew, and I know how much it hurt you when Ben wouldn’t bring is family to Philly. Having Alec and Jeremy train him is a good thing. There’s no one better for it, you said so yourself.”

“Yeah, well - ”

“Well what?”

“What if he doesn’t see it that way?”

“Now you’ve lost me.”

“I trained Tom, and Jeremy, and Alec personally . Now my nephew, my blood, gets handed off?”

“You didn’t hand him off, what are you even - ”

Danny watched Bass brace himself on the back of the chair, breathing deeply. He knew he shouldn’t eavesdrop, but he also knew private conversations should be saved for closed doors. In the last few days, he’d enjoyed working with Captain Penner (“one day you’ll call me Alec, kid”) learning how to read people’s faces, body language, and find the lies. They hadn’t been to see Aaron yet, and part of Danny couldn’t help but be grateful for that. Growing up with Aaron, with Maggie - he’d finally forced himself to remember her, knowing he owed her that much - he understood how difficult it might be for him to walk into a room and demand answers. Knowing the answers could mean the difference between surviving and being annihilated didn’t erase the long standing connection he had with those who held the answers.

“Miles,” Bass began again, voice slow and even. “You’re not going to lose him.”

For a moment, Danny forgot to breathe. It was as though the floor dropped out from beneath his feet. His eyes glanced over to where Miles stood, and he felt his heart give a painful clench. Now he understood Bass’ desire to both hug Miles until the world ended and strangle him until he stopped saying stupid, ridiculous things. He couldn’t fathom leaving the Republic, leaving Uncle Miles, the only family who didn’t turn their back on him. Apparently, the only person who didn’t hide things from him, even when those truths were painful.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Danny said as he walked into the room.

He smiled as both faces snapped to him in perfect sync. They were a matched set. He remembered the way Maggie fit herself into their family, the gentle smile, the spine of steel tempered against Charlie’s acid tongue and reminders that she wasn’t our mother . It had never been an easy fit, and Danny knew she missed her own kids - another case if ill-timed eavesdropping. Part of him always knew they were stand-ins for her own children, a way to fill the void of children she would never see again. He admired her strength as he grew older, wondering how or if he would cope with a similar situation. All these years later, he still wasn’t sure.

“Danny - ”

“I know why you’re not the one training me. I’ve always known. And, it’s not like you’re exactly not training me either. I mean, how many other graduates have one-on-one training with men way too qualified to spend their time on training that could be easily handled by someone else? Men you trained yourself? You chose them because they’re the best, and I know you want me to have the best.”

“Seems the intelligent Matheson gene skips a generation.”

Danny covered his mouth to hide his laugh as Miles glowered at Bass, who had a similar sparkle of amusement in his eyes.

“It’s not just the training, Danny. I’m using you to get information from your own family.”

Danny locked his jaw as a cold fury surged through him. “They are not my family.”

Miles’ eyes shot up to his eyebrows, probably taken back by his tone, or the look in his eye.

“Maybe I’m naive by not focusing on how hard it will actually be to use everything Captain Penner’s teaching me to pull information from people I grew up with, but if what we all suspect is true, then they lied to me for years. They caused everything, and I don’t want it to be true - ” Danny shuddered a breath. “Because they’re still my family, your family. A-and if they are responsible what does that m-mean for me? What kind of person am I?”

Uncle Miles, a man not known to show emotion or physical affection for anyone except Uncle Bass, and even then only behind closed doors or when one of them was on the verge of death, wrapped Danny in his arms and clung to him. Once he recovered from the initial shock, Danny fisted his hands in Miles’ shirt, and felt tears escape his closed eyes. If asked, he might not be able to say why his tears now stained the shirt beneath his cheek. Maybe it was for Maggie, maybe it was for the innocent little boy he used to be, for the parents he knew and never knew. Perhaps it was for later. Maybe he knew things would be irreparable after he learned the truth, and he cried in advance for the pain he’d feel in the future; pain he’d feel, but be unable to express. He felt Miles’ hand card through his hair, heard him whisper words meant to soothe against his ear. Those small actions made him feel at home; this was his family.

“You’re a Matheson,” Miles whispered fiercely. “Lieutenant Danny Matheson of the Monroe Republic.”

Danny pulled back enough to blink the lingering tears from his eyes. In all the years he’d lived with his jigsaw puzzle of a family - with pieces that never quite fit together, but since they were all blue they must go together and that had been close enough - he’d never felt as accepted, as wanted, as empowered as he did now. Charlie always looked after him, and always took care of him, but she also made him feel weak, in constant need of a smothering level of protection. Here he had value, here he learned how to take care of himself. Yet, as Miles had shown all those weeks ago, he knew others would take care of him, too.

A knock on the door drew their attention, and, for the sake of propriety, Danny pulled from the embrace. Yet, Miles kept his hand on Danny’s shoulder, clearly uncaring about such things. It made him smile.

“Miles, have you seen - ” Alec paused. “Danny.”

“Coffee, Alec?” Bass asked, allowing everyone a moment to collect themselves.

He watched the way Alec glanced at Miles, noted the way his eyes narrowed before settling into something knowing and soft around the edges.

“Sure, coffee sounds good. I can get y’all up to speed at the same time.”

They settled in the room, Danny seated next to Miles on the couch while Alec and Bass took the wingback chairs. He didn’t question the closeness Miles sought because he understood the need for it; they had both experienced a family built out of mismatched pieces, and savored the newfound feeling of a natural fit.

“I’ll get right to it. I know we’re on a timeline, and I’ve seen the reports from the border. Georgia ain’t gonna wait much longer. News of Miles being back bought us some time, but Jeremy figures we’ve got days before they start a full scale attack along the length of our southern border. I figure the power rumors have Foster acting rashly, but she has the numbers to make things difficult for us.”

“How difficult?”

“Trenton.”

Danny watched the shadow that passed across Miles’ face; he didn’t like it.

“So what do we do?” he asked.

“You’re ready.”

Danny blinked. “Ready?”

“We go to Aaron and start getting some answers.”

“This soon?” Danny asked.

Alec smiled. “Yeah, kid, this soon. Tom told me you were a quick study, said I’d underestimate how fast you’d pick up on things. Lost me a bit of money on that wager.”

“You bet against my nephew?”

Alec met the glare on Miles’ face. “I bet against Tom.”

Miles smirked.

“Once we know what Aaron knows, we move on to Rachel.”

Danny sucked in a breath. Knowing it was coming didn’t change the reality of hearing it.

Miles squeezed Danny’s shoulder. “Rachel won’t be easy. We’ve been working for years and gotten nothing.”

Alec nodded. “I know. Once we know what Aaron knows we can come up with something.”

“Something? That’s your great plan?”

“Come on, Miles, we’re making this up as we go. You got a better idea?”

Danny watched the muscle in his uncle’s jaw twitch.

“Yeah, I didn’t think so.”

“I don’t know about Rachel,” Danny began, “But, I have an idea for Aaron.”

 

Danny sat in the cold cell, felt icy fingers trail up his spine and settle in his bones. No wonder Bass had hated this idea. Of course, Miles hadn’t been too big a fan of it either, but he understood, because as he’d been told by Jeremy, “it’s the kind of idea you’d come up with, of course you like it.” Even under pain of death, Danny couldn’t have kept the proud smile off of his face if he’d tried. They’d given him back the clothes he’d been wearing the day Captain Neville had come to their little village, and he fought the pressing need to pull at the cloth, uncomfortable with how it felt against his skin. He licked at the cut on his lip, a gift from his sparring match with Private Richards, yet another part of his plan Bass hadn’t liked. Striking a superior officer was a punishable offence; striking the nephew of the Commanding General was just asking for a slow death. The trick had been underhanded, but the man was stupid enough to take the bait, so Danny figured he deserved the lesson. When Private Richards recovered from his numerous wounds including a broken nose, at least two ribs, and a right hand he may or may not regain full use of, he’d be sent to the work camp at Fort Chatsworth to serve out a five year sentence. After everything the bastard had put him through, Danny felt a certain vindication in the results.

When he heard the lock move, Danny huddled himself in the corner, wrapped his arms around his knees, and remembered what it had felt like sitting in the back of the wagon, shackled, alone, afraid one night Richards would get lucky and kill him. He flinched at the light that broke through when the door opened, and saw the look of relieved surprise on Aaron’s face as he was shoved into the cell.

“Danny?”

“Why didn’t you just tell them?” Danny put as much hurt and betrayal into his voice as possible. It wasn’t as hard as he’d thought it might be. Now, even seeing the man covered in dirt and filth with skin sagging around his face, he felt nothing but a burning desire to know the truth.

“Danny, what are you talking about?”

“Don’t - don’t do that. They know you know. Dad must have told yo - ”

Aaron’s face tightened, “Danny, what did they do to you?”

His laugh was hollow, and ended on a cough that had Aaron moving forward to offer comfort. “They take me to this room and strap me to a chair. He comes in, and asks me the same questions over, and over again. I don’t get to eat or sleep unless I answer, but I don’t know the answers.”

“What do they ask you?”

“About my dad, and about getting the power back - Aaron, what are they talking about?”

“Why do you think I know?”

Danny heard the anxious quality to Aaron’s voice, watched how his eyes darted away. He pressed his advantage, grabbed the front of Aaron’s filthy shirt. “They told me you know something. It’s why they haven’t killed you yet, but they’re losing patience.”

“Danny - ”

“The last time they put me in the room, Captain Neville came in and he told me Monroe was growing impatient. Aaron, if you don’t tell them they’re going to kill you, then they’re going to kill me.”

“What?”

“I told Captain Neville you’d tell me. I can save us, Aaron. Just tell me whatever it they want to know. What did dad tell you?”

“Danny, I can’t - ”

“You’re going to kill us both then,” Danny breathed out, he slumped back in the corner.

“I don’t even know what it is.”

“Then the militia might not know either. Aaron, if you don’t tell them something, we’re both dead.” He paused. “I don’t want to die, Aaron.”

Aaron sighed deeply, eyes darting around the room. Slowly, he pulled a necklace out of his pocket. A tear shaped pendant hung at the bottom. The shock on his face was genuine as he looked at it. His eyes met Aaron’s.

“What is it?”

“I’m not sure. Your dad, he gave it to me before he died. Told me to keep it safe, hidden. But, it does something. It lit up. Once.”

Danny’s eyes widened. “It lit up?”

“You probably don’t remember lights, but this - ” Aaron pointed at the pendant. “It lit up. Maggie - ” Aaron paused. Danny placed his hand on Aaron’s arm.

“I miss her, too.”

Aaron nodded. “We got separated from Charlie and that boyband wanna be with the too tight shirt. I told Maggie about the pendant, and how Ben told me to find Grace Beaumont, that she’d know what to do with it. We found Grace’s house, but she wasn’t there. But, the pendant, the pendant lit up and - Danny, power came back. Maggie’s phone turned on, and the iPod on the hutch worked. You don’t know what any of that is, but Grace had a computer. There’s absolutely no reason for anyone to have a computer unless they have electricity.”

“What made it,” Danny paused, looking for words to describe something he didn’t understand. “work?”

“I don’t know, Danny. It only lasted a few minutes before it all went off again.”

“Why’d he give it to you? I mean, I’m his son, why didn’t he give it to me?”

“Danny.”

Danny allowed tears to well in his eyes, a burning distaste for his father’s lies building within him.

“Can I see it?”

Aaron nodded, and carefully handed the pendant to Danny who thought it would weigh more than it did. Such a tiny thing. He examined it closely, noted the strange symbol in the middle, the decorative design etched into the perimeter.

“Do you think my dad knew what made the lights go out?”

Aaron gave him a startled look. “I don’t know, but I think he might have known how to make them turn back on, at least temporarily.”

“Why wouldn’t he say anything?”

Danny didn’t expect an answer, so when Aaron hung his head he nodded and pulled the necklace over his head.

“What are you doing?”

“We’re going to figure out what this does?”

“We?”

“Did you know my mom’s here?” Danny stood, walked to the door.

“Rachel’s alive?”

Danny smirked. “I was surprised, too. She also said she didn’t know anything about the power.” Danny tapped the pendant. “I think she might be lying about that.”

“Lying, wait, Danny, what’s going on?”

He knocked on the door three times before turning back to Aaron. “I’ll see about getting you a warmer room.”

Aaron stood, wide-eyes blinking slowly as the door opened.

“Lieutenant Matheson,” Captain Penner greeted, face a mask of deference.

Danny inclined his head. “I think we’re done here.” He turned back to a stunned Aaron, who still hadn’t closed his mouth. “Thanks for your help. You really did save our lives.”