The red headed man had been casting him suspicious glances ever since he'd arrived. Usually, this would be cause for Marcus to start a fight, but today he was still sober enough to keep his head down.
The tavern on the out-of-the-way bloc of Torquay had been Marcus' haunt for the last couple of years. It was secluded, there were not many outsiders that visited, and those that did tended to keep to their own business. He realised now how careless he had grown.
He had recognised the man as he entered, but was not yet sure if he himself had been recognised in return. The man had sat down at the tavern's bar and ordered a whiskey, with none of the usual apprehensiveness outsiders showed when they arrived in this dark, gloomy place. It was only moments later that he had glanced Marcus' way. Marcus hadn't been sure if it was recognition that crossed the man's face for the briefest of moments, because he had quickly turned his attention to his drink. But the furtive glances the other man continued giving him suggested that he may be close to guessing the truth.
Marcus knew he could not give him the opportunity to do so. He drew the cloak he wore around his shoulders close and pulled up his hood, shielding his face from view, and then pushed his barstool back. It made a scraping noise across the concrete floor, all too loud. Marcus winced, unsure if the sound had simply been magnified in his nervous state. But the red headed man did not glance his way, and Marcus slipped from the tavern as silently as the alcohol in his system would allow.
He turned quickly to his left, finding the alleyway that cut through behind the tavern and would exit on the maze of streets where he could quickly and easily lose himself. Despite the wash of relief he felt on arriving at the alley, Marcus cast a quick, furtive glance to the tavern door. Just in time to see the red headed man exit, look to his right and then his left, and make direct eye contact with him.
"Shit." Marcus forced himself to maintain his pace until his view of the other man was lost behind the alley wall, and then he broke into a run.
He careened through a puddle with a splash, seconds later he heard the stomp of boots through the water behind him.
There was no doubt he had been identified. Marcus gritted his teeth, and pushed himself harder. Already he could feel himself flagging. Bar fights were one thing, but years of hanging out in taverns and flooding his system with alcohol had dulled his fitness. He doubted he could outrun the man, not on even ground. Trashcans and discarded junk littered one corner of the alleyway, and Marcus flung these down behind him as he passed. The clatter of metal was followed by the sound of cursing, and Marcus felt a smile tug at the corner of his lips.
He dodged out into the street, across it and into another alleyway. Around two more bends and over a low wall he dashed, and finally slid to rest behind a large metal dumpster. Marcus pressed himself to the wall and drew in deep breaths. As his heart rate steadied he listened, but there was no sound to indicate he still had a pursuer.
"Never could teach that man the value of a well-timed retreat," Marcus said to himself as a smirk twisted his lips.
"There's a big difference between retreat and running away, Marcus Farrell."
Marcus jerked upright at the sound of the familiar voice, but was slammed back against the wall almost as suddenly as two hands gripped into his thick jacket at the shoulders.
Marcus coughed as the wind was knocked out of him, but as he again caught his breath he found it was a hacking, wheezy laugh that was the first sound to escape his lips, almost of its own accord. He had moved well into apathy in recent years, but it seemed somewhere deep down his sense of humour was intact.
"Aran Cortes, you haven't changed a bit!"
This wasn't entirely true. Cortes had aged since Marcus had last seen him. Frown lines creased his face and his eyes were less sharp, as if their intensity had been dulled by things seen. But there was still a spark in those brown eyes, windows as they were to emotions that at times the man seemed barely able to contain. This was one of those times it seemed, because as soon as the words were out of Marcus' mouth Cortes yanked him forward and then slammed him back into the wall again. Marcus' head spun.
"Why are you running from me?" Cortes barked.
"Your reputation precedes you."
Cortes stared at him.
"No, wait - that was someone else. Someone with more charisma. Someone who when he was in charge actually made something of the resistance - instead of the weak, ineffective nuisance you pretend to lead."
The punch caught him across the jaw and sent him sprawling into the damp alley floor.
"At least I'm not hiding in the gutter."
Marcus pushed himself back up and leaned against the wall. He wiped a hand across his dirty, stubbled face, and glanced at the saliva and blood that came away on his fingers. "Haven't been missing your little gladiator fights, have you Cortes? You seem to be enjoying yourself."
Cortes was staring down at him, with hands balled into fists and chest heaving. But his clenched fists he kept at his sides; this time he didn't respond to the barb. So, perhaps not quite the man Marcus remembered. He was seething, but he now seemed to have himself in check. There was nothing to be gained from riling in further.
Somehow, this made Marcus' own anger flare. "What do you want with me, then?" he snapped out.
Cortes dropped into a crouch, so that he faced Marcus at eye-level. For a moment he studied the other man. "I've known you were here for almost a year now, Marcus."
He'd known he'd been careless! "Shit. So what makes you come for me now? You want to discuss our past victories - for old time sakes?"
This time, it was as if the insult barely registered. "You wanted to remain hidden, that much was obvious. I almost told your family - almost. Right now, I'm glad I never did."
"A dead man has no family."
"You're not dead, Marcus!" Cortes snapped.
"Dead to you, apparently, from at least a year ago. But I'd guess you need me now, isn't that right?"
Cortes looked away for the briefest of moments.
"Figured as much." Marcus felt the wheezing laugh make its way up from his throat again.
"It's got to be nearly twenty years, Aran. And you still need my face to get a little recognition?"
"What were you so scared of?"
Marcus blinked, a breath catching in his throat. He had no answer. Not a short one, anyway. When had Cortes stopped being so predictable? He had always been easy to bait, but after getting in a few punches he'd calmed, and now seemed almost unfazed by Marcus' insults. Well, it had been twenty years. "So why now?" Marcus growled, ignoring Cortes' question.
Cortes drew in a breath. "Say what you will about my leadership skills, Marcus, but we're closer now than we ever were to defeating the Sphere. At least, since Ronston. We can't afford to be defeated now. What I need is something to tip the scales."
Marcus had heard rumours. He didn't find it that hard to believe that Cortes had managed to pull the resistance up by its boot straps. Still, he drew in a short laugh. "Surely, you don't mean me."
"Don't flatter yourself. No. Something else. Something you buried right before you turned tail and ran..."
"The Hyperion?" Marcus began, but suddenly he realised Cortes did not mean that. He felt bile rise in his throat. "No..." He pushed himself to unsteady feet. The thumping Cortes had given him had rattled his brain more than he thought. "No..." he repeated, putting a hand out to the wall to steady himself.
Cortes stood to his feet as well, but made no move to halt Marcus. "No, what?"
Marcus couldn't look at Cortes, instead he stared at the alley floor. He swallowed. "You want to know where I hid that machine."
"I understand why you didn't want anyone to know about it," said Cortes. "You and Mila had created such a stir with the whole Prophecy thing, it was bound to do more harm than good. But it's not like it was back then, Marcus..."
"I hid it for a reason, Cortes!"
"Aye, because you were scared!" Cortes shouted.
Marcus paused, for a moment fearing this were true.
"I know what happened; I was there, remember? The defeat we suffered at Ronston, the fall of Azul, it would have shaken anyone's faith - for all the show you and Mila put on, you knew she wasn't strong enough to use that machine."
"She would have destroyed herself and half of Skyland!" Mila. He hadn't allowed himself to think of her in years.
"So instead you hid it," Cortes growled. "And then you ran away. You know I had to deal with the mess you left behind, right? I... I can't go through that again."
Marcus pushed off the wall and turned back to face Cortes. "No one was more cynical of that Prophecy than you, Cortes. What's changed now?"
"Nothing. It's still a load of garbage, but I'm smart enough to see the strategic value of something that can alter gravitational fields. That on the battlefield? The Sphere armada won't know what hit them."
Marcus gave a wry smile. "You need a powerful Seijin to operate it. Someone more powerful than Mila ever was. You think you've found your 'lady of light' Cortes? I've been there - done that - and I was wrong."
Cortes took a step towards Marcus. They stood nearly nose to nose. "I don't believe in any lady of light, Marcus," he growled.
"Well then more fool you, Cortes. Believe me, she exists. But she won't help you one bit, because I'm not going to tell you where that machine is."
Cortes drew half a step back. "You'll come around."
Too late, Marcus realised Cortes' fist was flying towards him. He found himself face first on the alley floor as his world faded to black.