They drove for a long time in silence. Somewhere in there Marcus started talking.
Steve didn't know why. Best guess was that the other man found the silence too oppressive, but wasn't ready to talk about anything substantial yet. So instead he talked about the Warehouse, all the things they'd done and all the crimes they'd committed against people who were only looking to make their lives a little easier. A little better. He talked about the woman who took down rapists and abusers (by killing them or forcing them to kill themselves), the man who gave those kids a better life than they would ever have had in the system (by trapping them in a painting), the federal agents whose lives would be changed by not being able to explain the strange circumstances they found themselves in and who would then be subject to a battery of psych tests, if they got out with their reputations and clearance levels intact.
Steve wondered if Marcus knew how much he was giving away by all those examples, but he didn't say anything. Kept on making non-committal noises while his ersatz partner talked. Talked and talked, but didn't say anything about himself in direct terms. Steve filled in the blanks by the way he talked about the system, procedure, bureaucracy. Put away the bad guys, protect the good. So how the hell did he end up killing for Sykes?
It was dusk before Marcus fell silent again. "You want something to eat?" Steve hadn't known Marcus to really eat or drink anything, not much, but he might be asking out of politeness. Or force of habit.
They had to be in Nebraska by now. Steve hadn't been paying attention to road signs. The watch burned hot against his palm at first, making him sweat, then he ran out of sweat and it just felt cool and clammy in his pocket.
Marcus pulled up outside of a diner and they went in, sat down, and Steve asked him point blank. "Why haven't you killed me yet?" Low-voiced, waiting for the waitress to move away before he did, he didn't need to cause a scene with letting people know there was a murderer in their midst. But he wanted to know.
"Who said I was going to kill you?" Marcus didn't deny it, didn't confirm it either. The dead-eye stare that unnerved Steve the first time he'd met him had either changed or Steve had gotten better at reading him. It wasn't dead, it was guarded. Everything that made Marcus able to connect to other people shut down, locked away. Nothing but sullen hostility for the outside world. Dear God, Steve realized. It was like working with a teenager.
He thought about telling Marcus what had happened. Maybe only part of it. "Because you did. Sykes told me none of this would have been possible without my help, and then he looked at you, and you jabbed me with the needle and... I died."
Marcus didn't react. No one who'd been around as much Warehouse business as they both had would react, though. Well, he did raise his eyebrows a little. "You look pretty alive to me." There was a half-strained quality to his voice that Steve couldn't place.
"Something... happened. I didn't think there was an artifact that could do that, there wasn't supposed to be. But someone rewound time, just a little bit, less than 24 hours. So I kept reliving ...." Steve shut up. Laced his fingers together in front of himself and clenched his hands together and shut up. Across from him, Marcus leaned back against the booth and when he didn't say anything Steve did finally look up and over at him.
He looked tired. Sad. He looked down at the table and through it and into some past event Steve had no knowledge of but that, he felt pretty sure, had to do with an artifact. Something to do with bringing the dead back to life. Or reliving deaths.
After a long silence broken only be Steve ordering a coffee and a slice of pie, getting it, and eating half of it, Marcus came back to the present. "Heart attack?"
"Ahhh..." He'd been caught with his fork halfway to his mouth and now he wasn't hungry anymore. "Syringe. So, probably, yeah."
"Mmm." Marcus nodded. "Figured. For me it was a bullet."
Steve figured he had to look pretty comical with a piece of crust and half a cherry perched on the fork in front of his mouth like that. No one was laughing. "Bullet?"
Marcus fiddled with the still-wrapped silverware on his side of the table. "Tell you in a bit."
In a bit stretched out to three hours, as they drove a little more and then Steve pulled over into a motel that hopefully called itself Whispering Pines and was little more than a series of trailer-sized stone bunkers lined up against a shabby forest. Marcus got them a room, Steve pulled their stuff out of the car and waited by the door.
Marcus had to duck to get into the hotel room, which was just incongruous enough to make Steve hide the giggle in the duffel bag. The carpet muffled the sound of their feet in cheap shag you could cut up and smoke in a pinch; the surfaces were clean but he wouldn't want to take a black light to anything. Two beds, neither of which looked big enough or comfortable. Marcus sat down on one. Steve had a mental picture of his feet dangling off the end when he laid down.
"So," he cleared his throat, before the silence could get any more stifling. Or anticlimactic. "Bullet?"
He turned towards him, one knee coming up sideways onto the bed. "Sykes probably told you, but I was a cop before I joined up with him." One hand rested casually on his knee, still half-turned to face Steve. As though they weren't talking about a psychotic multi-billionaire with access to secret and powerful items he shouldn't have known existed. Someone who had paid Marcus (or had he paid Marcus at all, Steve wondered suddenly) to kill several people. Maybe not innocent people, but still he'd killed them cold-blooded and swiftly.
"Baltimore PD. Gang task force. There were pretty good odds I was getting transferred to homicide soon, which would have been good for us..."
Marcus ignored him. "... with the pay bump, at least. Things were getting to where we could use the extra money coming in. One of the last cases I worked was a, mm. A Latin Kings turf war with MS-13, they were getting desperate because all the gangs were trying to legitimize, and these groups didn't want to let go of their drug money."
Steve frowned. "I think I even heard about that." Vaguely. On the periphery of things, what seemed like a lifetime ago. Several lifetimes ago, if you went by the number of times he'd died.
The other man nodded, his gaze dropping to the opposite corner of the bed. "I was meeting a CI to get some information on an ambush that was going down. He was half right, anyway, there was an ambush, only it was on us. They'd figured out he'd flipped on them, and they killed us both."
All Steve could think of to say was: "You look pretty healthy for a dead man."
Another shrug. "Three bullets. Dead center." He tapped his chest over his heart, as though indicating surgery, a pacemaker. Not death. "When I woke up, Sykes was there."
And that was it. Or at least, that was all Marcus intended on telling him, he thought. Which meant it brought up more questions than it answered, what pay bump? No, not what pay bump, but what us? Why did he need the extra money, and who was the us? Steve gave his erstwhile partner another look, but there weren't any distinguishing marks that gave him away. Marcus stared back, bland and unnervingly calm. He didn't think he could be that calm if he was talking about his own death.
Especially if it wasn't that long ago. Steve got up out of his chair and turned to pace on his side of the room to cover what he was thinking. Marcus was, what, resurrected? By what kind of artifact? Nothing he'd read about in the Warehouse archives had given him any kind of impression of having that much power. Or that type of power. "You..." He turned to face Marcus, who hadn't moved. "You were dead."
"Am. Dead." He corrected, then expanded the statement by one whole other word.
All Steve could think of was "Pretty spry for a dead guy." Which didn't sound like the thing to say when it was out loud and in the air between them. Marcus only shrugged.
Steve's skin prickled. Back across the room, slowly, hands shoved into his pockets, turn around, go back. After all Marcus had told him, after everything Steve had said, there should have been some reaction, right? He couldn't just feel nothing, could he? He glanced down at Marcus's hands again but no, there was no band of paler skin around either ring finger, so if he had been married he'd taken the ring off long enough ago that the tan had long since evened up. Did dead people even tan?
Did he want to ask Marcus about that or just assume? "Who's the us?"
It got the first reaction he'd seen out of Marcus since this whole bizarre conversation started. A miniscule reaction; he looked away. Then he looked back a second later, not in the way of covering for his slip but because whatever spark of emotion had taken hold of him there, it didn't stay for long.
Steve sucked in a breath, straightened up as a bunch of things became clear with that interpretation of Marcus's movements. Why he never seemed to sleep. Or eat. Or any of those other inconvenient things human beings did. Why Marcus had no reaction to any of the assignments Sykes handed out. The lack of emotion on a face clearly lined with deep emotions in his past. Marcus was older than Steve by somewhere between five and ten years, and Steve knew how to read people. There were laugh lines there, a few frown lines, marks of tension and anger, but now that he looked closer none of the creases made an appearance. He stared, and Marcus stared back with that calm inquiry, waiting for Steve to say something.
A long time ago, one of Steve's schoolmates had told him of a story his grandmother had told him, a scary story for camping. There was a monster that was made out of mud and clay, and you made a spell with words in its mouth or something like that. And it would do whatever you wanted, until you erased those words and made it go back to clay again. He fell back into the chair again.
And then there was Marcus. Sykes had somehow used an artifact to bring a dead man, a man who had been buried in the earth, back to life to do whatever he wanted. Until he erased the words, or broke the artifact, or whatever it was he'd planned on doing and Marcus went back to the earth again. Dust to dust.
Whoever the other part of the 'us' had been, he or she must have been important to get that kind of response out of Marcus. "Who was she?" The greater odds were with a woman, Steve figured. Though he was also one of the last people who could make assumptions.
Marcus looked down this time, not away, but the effect was the same. "Adriana. Taught third grade." A muscle in his jaw twitched, and he didn't say anything else. Strangely, and it was even more unnerving to see, the rest of his face didn't move at all. A slow blink and then raising his head and looking back at Steve, and what should have been reactive anger or grief or any strong emotion at all was, well. Nothing.
"We could go s--" Which was as far as he got before Marcus stood. Walked around the bed, then turned and came back towards him again.
"If your husband or wife had been killed in the line of duty, and you buried them, and then they showed up at your front door six months later, what would you think?"
Steve swallowed. Even knowing about the Warehouse that wouldn't be the easiest thing in the world, and without knowing that sometimes things happened that couldn't be explained by science and how things were supposed to be? "Oh."
He was out of ideas. Not that he'd had many to begin with, but that shut down all things relating to going back to Marcus's former life. Which left his life with Sykes. Steve didn't plan on going back to Sykes, and he didn't think Marcus was planning on it either, or he would have done it by now.
"Can I ask..." Steve paused for a second when Marcus's focus landed on him again, but if the other man hadn't killed him yet, he didn't think death was in his future. Right now. That made one of them, he thought, and then swallowed down the hysterical giggling. "Uh. Can I ask what this artifact is?"
Dead-eye stare, and then a shrug, and Marcus turned and opened up a side pocket on his duffel bag and turned around again with a ticking box. A metronome, Steve realized. From high school music class.
He set it on the bed between them, and Steve felt even heavier in the limbs, weighed down by the implication of what Marcus was doing. "This is Johann Maelzel's metronome. It keeps me between... moments." Of life and death. "Sykes had it in his possession for a couple of years before he found me."
"Before he found someone he could use," Steve said, then wished he'd kept his mouth shut. It was worse because Marcus didn't react. Couldn't react, he suspected. Between moments, if he was really frozen between moments in time that didn't leave much room for emotions, even leaving aside the whole walking undead thing. "So why do you have it?"
Marcus glanced at the ticking time box, shrugged as though he didn't care. Which he might not. "Sykes had a few last jobs for me." He didn't elaborate. Steve changed his mind and decided he didn't want to know.
The box ticked. Crickets struck up a concert outside, or maybe they'd always been creaking and he hadn't noticed because what was in the room was more important. Now the silence was deafening with all the background noises that made it not perfect silence, with a lack of conversation or thoughts to focus on. Steve felt each breath he took, in and out again, and kept his eyes down and to the side so he couldn't look at Marcus's chest and see whether or not he was breathing, too.
Marcus sat on the edge of the bed. The box jounced a little with the displaced weight, then settled. "Do one thing for me." Not a question, but it wasn't a demand, either. More of a tired request.
"What?" Steve felt as though a bomb would go off any second now, sucking all the air out of the room.
He stared down at his shoes, then swung his legs up on the bed, too, somehow tucking in his massive length to avoid knocking over the metronome. He stretched out on the bed as though laying down in his coffin. Steve wished he hadn't done that. "Mrs. Frederic should be able to find her in Baltimore, if the Warehouse is still standing when you get back. Check up on her for me, would you? Make sure she's okay." Bland and even, as though he weren't a walking dead man asking his would-be murderee to look in on his widow.
He couldn't say no to a request like that, either. He'd had a couple friends go down in the line of duty, not many, but enough to get an idea of what that would be like. "I'll... yeah. I'll try."
Marcus nodded, lay back on the bed and closed his eyes, folding his hands over his chest. The metronome kept ticking.
It felt as though he sat there for an hour or so, waiting for Marcus to do something. To explain what he meant for Steve to do, or give some kind of a sign. Or he was lurking and waiting for Steve to reach for the metronome, at which gesture he'd reach out and grab him and good-bye Steve. He sat, dithered and scratched along his chin, jittered his leg and finally levered himself out of the chair and went and opened the box, stopping the damn thing from ticking.
It happened quicker than he expected. One minute there was a man on the bed who looked like he could be sleeping, the next there was a very definite corpse in the room and his partner was gone. More than gone, he'd been gone for months. He'd been walking around sharing meals and hotel rooms with a corpse. A gray-faced corpse with the flesh sloughing off and the eyeballs sinking back into his skull. That dinner they'd shared came back up to his mouth.
Steve came out of the bathroom and zipped his bag up again; he wasn't spending the night here. They hadn't even unpacked. He'd have to see if Mrs. Frederic would send someone for the body, otherwise the motel manager would have an interesting time explaining to the cops why two guys had rented a room from him and one of them was months dead the next morning. He'd have to make sure they knew the whole story, see if they'd managed to stop Sykes without him and Marcus. If Sykes had even gone through with his plan, with him and Marcus not showing up when they were supposed to. It was distant but coming back to him, all the things that had been laid out and should have gone a certain way, but didn't. Because someone put a watch in his pocket, and he had talked a dead man out of killing him.
He couldn't decide if he never wanted to work for the Warehouse again when this was all over, or if this made him more convinced than ever that this was the only place left for him. Marcus had been right about one thing, though. About a couple of things. The Warehouse had made some very deep, very grave mistakes. And someone needed to keep an eye on them.
Back on the road, driving into the small hours of the morning and trying not to fall asleep. He didn't want to miss Marcus. The man had killed a lot of innocent people, had killed Steve himself a few times. But the car felt both smaller and more empty without the huge man sitting next to him. And every time he thought over what he would say to Marcus's widow it put a thundering ache in his heart.