"Something told me I'd find you here."
Jeremiah didn't move, didn't bother to raise his head from his arms. He wasn't surprised. Something had told him that Markus would be along. A rustling sound and a shift in the air currents indicated that Markus was right behind him.
"I've always found the greenhouses restful," Markus said, as though Jeremiah was not ignoring him. "There's just something about being surrounded by life, by hundreds of living entities, that makes troubles seem to fade away."
Yeah, right. Jeremiah sighed and shifted a little. The chair he was straddling was hard and uncomfortable. The table his arms rested on wasn't much better. The
Markus touched his shoulder and Jeremiah was on his feet, heart pounding, before he realized he was moving.
"Bit jumpy tonight, aren't you," Markus observed.
"Look, I came here to be alone, alright? Not to have you come sneaking up and bothering me." Jeremiah sat back down, glaring at Markus in the eerie red half-light of the infrared lamps.
"There's something wrong, Jeremiah." Markus pulled another chair out from under the table and sat. "I need to know what's bothering you. What happened out there last time? Why aren't you in bed sleeping?"
"Huh. You're a fine one to talk. You're up too. And who says there's something bothering me? Maybe I happen to like staying up all night."
Markus sighed. "You don't have to be so difficult, you know."
"Difficult?" Jeremiah laughed, a short sharp sound. "Who's being difficult? I just don't want to talk about it."
"But you admit there's something to talk about. You need to let whatever it is out, so you can deal with it and move on."
Jeremiah couldn't see it, but he knew it was therethat tiny smile that barely lifted the corners of Markus's mouth, the one that always looked so smug and superior. "Move on. Yeah, that sounds like a good idea." He stood up, the legs of the chair making a grating noise as they scraped across the cement floor. "Later, Markus."
Jeremiah started down the aisle, trailing a hand through the verdant foliage as he went.
Damn him, there it was again, that tone in his voice that said he cared. Jeremiah stopped. He didn't want to, but he did anyway. "What?"
Markus moved in swiftly, blocking the aisle. "Jeremiah. I know there's something wrong. You've been up just about all night every night since you've been back. This problem, whatever it is, is beginning to affect your judgment. How long before it affects your work? How long before"
"Is that all you care about?" Jeremiah snarled, interrupting. "The fucking work? I should have known." He turned violently away, but there was nowhere to go. The table he'd been sitting at earlier was pushed up against the concrete wall. The only way out of the narrow aisle was past Markus.
"If you'd let me finish," Markus continued, a hint of emotion coloring his voice. "I was about to say, how long before you get hurt? Or even killed? What you do for me is too dangerous, too demanding to let personal problems interfere."
"You're not going to let me leave, are you." Jeremiah grabbed the chair he'd vacated so precipitously and sat, folding his arms across his chest.
"No, I'm not," Markus agreed, moving slowly back towards the other chair. "So you might as well just say whatever it is that's on your mind."
"The leader of that group down in Cranston?" Markus sat down warily, ready to jump again if Jeremiah moved. "He thought he was God. If you'd seen..." Jeremiah stopped, took a deep breath. He rubbed his eyes with one hand, but couldn't wipe away the images from his mind. "If you'd seen what I've seen, you'd have trouble sleeping too."
"So share the horror, and we'll have insomnia together."
Jeremiah snorted. "Where's the advantage in that? And besides, you seem to have found enough cause for insomnia on your own."
Markus chuckled. "Touché. But my insomnia isn't the issue here."
"It never is." Jeremiah picked at the table, worrying free a flake of veneer. "Always pickin' on me, trying to get inside my head, acting like you never got any problems of your own. Acting like you never been forced to watch people gunned down right in front of you while they beg for their lives."
There was a sharp intake of breath beside him. Jeremiah pretended not to notice.
"Really pathetic, you know, how a person will grovel when there's automatic weapons pointed at them and a sick bastard playing a game with their life. You can see it in their eyes, how they'll do absolutely anything to survive. Bet if he'd given 'em the chance, they woulda licked his boots. You ever watched someone die?"
"Yes," Markus said quietly.
Jeremiah continued as though he hadn't heard. "I was so damn close I could see their eyes. Just a split second between begging, pleadingthen shock. Then nothing. Just a limp body, dead on the ground. And one sick bastard, gloating, playing his twisted little game. Fuckin' power trip, man, that's all it was. Just a power trip. Sickening. He wouldn't even let them know what he was after. That last boy... couldn't have been but sixteen, seventeen. 'Please, Michael, I pray to you, let me live, Michael, please...' And then he asked me again: where is the End of the World?" Jeremiah hit the table. "And do you know what I said?" He swung around and looked straight at Markus in the red light. "Do you know what I fucking said?"
"No, I don't."
"I said there is no such place. No such place. Just what Simon said. Same result, too, only this kid wasn't my friend, not like what happened to Simon and Matthew. The fuckers shot the kid. Just because I wouldn't give away the location of this place. Just because I wouldn't give you away."
"I appreciate that," Markus said. "I really do. I'm sorry for the deaths of those people"
"Ha!" Jeremiah interrupted again. "Sorry for their deaths? You don't know nothin' yet. Used to be a town out there, a town called... called... fuck!" Jeremiah hit the table again. "I should know. I should remember. Those people deserve at least that much. Two hundred people, wiped out on a whim, and Ican'tfuckingremember" Jeremiah sagged down onto the table, head on forearm, the other hand still clenched into a fist but no longer pounding. "Why can't I remember?"
Markus laid a tentative hand on Jeremiah's shoulder, then, when nothing happened, scooted his chair closer and started rubbing Jeremiah's back. "It's not your fault," he said quietly. "You can't save everyone."
Jeremiah's fingers opened and closed as he struggled with the demons of memory. He turned and reached for Markus, burying his face in the other man's shoulder blindly.
"Jeremiah," Markus said, pulling him closer. "Jeremiah. It's okay now, it's all over and it will never happen again. You did the best you could. And you helped end the madness. It's over now."
It'll never be over, Jeremiah thought, but didn't say anything. It wasn't okay, not as long as there was the potential for another maniac to rise from the ashes of the old world, and it wouldn't be okay, probably not ever. But there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing at all. At least here, right now, there was no death. There was only warmth and caring, no matter how vehemently Markus denied it. Just a shoulder, a strength outside his own to lean on for a brief moment...
"Jeremiah," Markus breathed, voice nearly a caress. One hand crept up, cradling the back of Jeremiah's head.
"You are so full of shit," Jeremiah said, voice somewhat muffled by Markus's shirt.
Markus drew back a little, surprised. "What?"
"I said," and Jeremiah pulled him closer again, "you are so full of shit."
"I thought that's what I heard. Why do you say that?"
Jeremiah chuckled faintly at the injured innocence of his tone. "Because it's true. You don't sound like you really don't give a damn about me."
Markus tightened his hold for a moment, then let go and pushed Jeremiah away. "I don't. I can't."
"Bullshit." Jeremiah sat back in his chair, rubbing at his shoulder and trying to make it look like he'd moved away on purpose. "If you don't care, then why are you here?"
"Your distraction is interfering with... oh, hell." Markus rubbed his forehead. "Yes. I care. But I can't afford to. Do you understand what I'm saying? I can't."
"Markus," Jeremiah shook his head. "I don't know where you get off thinking you're so different from everyone else. You come here and intrude on my private time, making me spill my guts, and then sit here and try to pull this 'can't afford to' shit. What, you think you're not human? That you're beyond such simple things as caring for another person? Maybe you think you're too good for a loser like me, that only someone as elegant and educated as yourself is worth bothering with. Maybe you think"
"Will you just be quiet?" Markus finally lost some of his calm. "It's not any of that, and you are not a loser. You wouldn't be here if you were. I just can't, don't you understand?"
"No, Markus, I don't understand. Now will you just damn well tell me what your problem is?" Jeremiah reached out and took hold of Markus's forearm. He could feel the tension in the other man, even through the layer of clothing.
"There are things which nobody needs to know," Markus said softly, back in control again.
"All right, I can respect that," Jeremiah nodded. "But this ain't one of 'em. Why is it you get so close, then push me away? Why won't you tell me what the problem is?"
"There are reasons, but I can't tell you all of them, okay?"
"I just said it was okay if you can't tell me everything, didn't I? I understand there's things inside your head I probably never want to hear. But why, Markus? Why do you always play games with me?"
"I'm sorry," Markus whispered. "I've allowed myself to become close to people before, and only trouble has resulted. I never intended to play any kind of game with you. I just... you're so strong, so different, so... words fail me. So did my better judgment. I realized too late that it was happening all over again. And I can't, I just can't allow you to get any closer, because it's too dangerous."
"Dangerous?" Jeremiah raised an eyebrow. "I've given over worrying about the danger, at least here in your safe little haven. You want danger, go outside. Did I ever tell you I almost got shot for giving a guy a hug? My friend, my best friend ever... he wasn't as lucky as I was. It isn't safe to swing that way out in the real world. What's the danger here?"
Markus yawned, covering his mouth quickly. "Sorry. I guess the hour is finally catching up to me." He looked around at the rows of red-lit plants. "Look, this is hardly the most comfortable location for a conversation. Would you care to continue this elsewhere?"
"As long as it's continued," Jeremiah said, warily.
"You win," Markus smiled tiredly. "You spilled your guts, now it's my turn."
"Lead on, then," and Jeremiah stood, gesturing for Markus to precede him.
Markus rose, slightly unsteady. "Long day," he said, but didn't pull away when Jeremiah slipped an arm around his waist. They left the greenhouse together.
"Where to?" Jeremiah asked, out in the corridor.
"This way," Markus responded, but ducked out from under Jeremiah's arm. Jeremiah sighed and followed, letting his arm drop.
Markus led the way silently through the halls, nodding to the few people they met along the way. Jeremiah followed, equally silent.
Finally they reached a door. Markus slipped his keycard into the reader and the door opened, revealing a modest apartment. "My place," Markus said, waiting for Jeremiah to enter before shutting the door and flipping a light on.
"Nice," Jeremiah said, around a lump of nervousness. He hadn't really expected, given how hard Markus had struggled to avoid any degree of intimacy, to wind up here in his apartment. He sat on the couch, sinking into its comfortable embrace with a sigh. "Man, this is dangerous."
"What is?" Markus joined him on the couch.
"Too comfortable. What if I fall asleep on you again? This beats the hell out of that damn turquoise thing."
"That's just a risk we'll have to take," Markus smiled. "After all, you're the one that insisted on talking."
"And I still want to know what your problem is, so don't think you're getting off easy by giving me something comfy to sit on."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Markus chuckled. "My problem is that I've got unresolved issues, you know? Leftover guilt from Allen, someone who's convinced I'm in love with her... more than one, come to think of it."
"Ease off on the bragging," Jeremiah said, around a stab of jealousy. "Is that all? Just guilt?"
"That, and other issues that stem from my being such a public figure. It doesn't take much to disrupt the fragile peace of this community. The least little hint of favoritismnot even favoritism, just any indication that I might prefer your company over someone else's... case in point: how does Erin like having you around?"
"If looks could kill, I'd have been dead a month ago," Jeremiah said thoughtfully. The nervousness had given way to surprised agreement. "You've got a good point there. So it's nothing against me? 'Cause I'd be pretty pissed if it turned out I went to all that trouble for nothing."
"All what trouble?"
"Working out my own issues, deciding that it's okay that you make me feel all squirmy inside, convincing Kurdy that if he made one more crack about me and you I'd rearrange his face..."
"No... he didn't, did he?"
Jeremiah nodded. "He teased me for far too long about that time right after the Great Skinhead Adventure. Not to mention catching me coming out of your office first thing in the morning, all rumpled and tired. Among other things, including events that only took place in his overactive imagination."
"Shame on him," Markus shook his head, smiling. "Honestly, Jeremiah, the problem was never with you. But you can see why I can't let myself care now, can't you?"
"No, I don't," Jeremiah said. "All I see is that you're under a lot of stress here and shouldn't have to bear it alone. I see no reason why you have to keep pushing me away... in private." Jeremiah held up a hand. "Granted, in public, nothing can change. You have a damn good point about the reactions of your people. But you're not some kind of superhuman being, and you're damn sure not a god. So why not allow yourself a little fun?"
"Jeremiah," Markus began, then stopped for a deep breath. "Look, I can't"
"Bullshit," Jeremiah said. "Come here. You going to tell me this isn't good?" He reached out and pulled Markus close to him, arranging himself so he could hold Markus comfortably.
Markus tensed and started to pull away, then relaxed and laid his head on Jeremiah's chest. "I won't lie to you."
"Good." Jeremiah rested his chin on Markus's head. "Funny, ain't it? You came to badger me about my problems, and I wind up doing the same to you."
"Irony at its finest." Markus snuggled closer.
"Irony, huh?" Jeremiah ran his fingers through Markus's short hair. "You want irony, I'll give you irony. I've been up all night for a couple weeks now, every night, unable to close my eyes without seeing someone die or that madman laughing in my face. But here, now, with you... it's better now."
"I'm glad. You're right, that is ironic. I'd have thought this would be the last place in the world you'd feel comfortable."
"And what makes you say that?"
"JustI've tried, so hard, to keep at a safe distance, to not care..."
"This is hardly a safe distance," Jeremiah said, and stifled a yawn. Damn, why was it he was getting tired now, of all times, when he finally had Markus right where he wanted him?
"And I can hardly claim to not care any more." Markus sighed. "I realized that when Kurdy told me how close you both came to getting killed."
Jeremiah's arms tightened around Markus. "Damn him, he wasn't supposed to tell you that part."
"But he did, and I'm glad he did." Markus sat up. Jeremiah let go reluctantly. "I need to know things like that."
"Where are you going?"
"Nowhere. Just turning the light down. It's bothering my eyes."
Jeremiah's heart jumped into his throat as Markus switched the light down to dim. He took advantage of Markus being up and about to lay back on the couch, losing the battle with another yawn.
"Comfortable?" Markus asked, amused. He smiled down at Jeremiah.
"Nope," Jeremiah said, then reached up and pulled Markus down onto the couch. "Getting more so, though."
"Well, if that's the way you want it," and Markus tried to find a comfortable position on the remaining free space. "Better?"
"Much," Jeremiah yawned. "Damn. Why do I have to get so tired now?"
"It's okay," Markus whispered, stroking Jeremiah's cheek. "You've been awake for how long now? Just relax."
Oh, hell... can't even think no more...
And then Jeremiah was out like a light.
He was floating, drifting through an icy blackness, shot through with vicious needles of pain, crying out with no sound. But then there was a light ahead, warm and beckoning, and he fought his way through the angry shards to reach the light and found...
Markus. He was there, and he was smiling, and he was holding out his arms and welcoming Jeremiah with warm kisses that quickly became much more than that, and they were both naked and hard and...
Markus backed away, still smiling. "But I don't love you, Jeremiah. I won't ever love you."
And then he was Michael, laughing maniacally. "Want to see something funny, Jeremiah? Watch this!"
Michael waved a large box around, a box that glowed red and pulsated with an angry light. "Watch this, Jeremiah! One touch of a button, and your precious Thunder Mountain goes boom!"
"No!" Jeremiah launched himself at Michael, desperate to prevent the destruction. But Michael pressed the button, still laughing, and the world dissolved into flame and chaos and he was burning, burning, and the pain, it wouldn't stop, the pain was ripping him to shreds, and it wouldn't go away and
A sharp voice penetrated the horror. "Jeremiah! Wake up! It's a dream. It's only a dream."
A hand touched his shoulder, giving him an anchor to reality. Jeremiah sat up, eyes wide and darting around the room. "Where the hell am I? What happened?"
"Jeremiah," and now the voice wasn't sharp, it was concerned. "You're in my apartment, remember? You fell asleep on the couch."
"Markus." Jeremiah finally fought free of the nightmare. "Hell. What happened?"
"You fell asleep on the couch," Markus repeated. "So I went to bed. I figured you probably needed the sleep, so I didn't wake you. But I'd barely gotten over there when you started having a nightmare."
"Shit. I told you, I can't sleep, not without seeing him... but I thought you'd chased him away." Jeremiah rubbed his eyes, willing his heart to slow its still-frantic pounding.
"Jeremiah," Markus sighed, then sat beside him and slipped an arm around his shoulders for a one-armed hug. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize being alone was what was giving you the nightmares."
"Maybe, maybe not." Jeremiah yawned. "Damn. Now I'm really tired, too. This sucks."
"Come here, then," Markus said, and stood up. He looked down at Jeremiah expectantly.
"With me. Come on. Lord alone knows why you felt safe enough to relax around me, but I'm not about to leave you to nightmares." He extended a hand. Jeremiah took it and rose slowly, uncertain where this was going.
Markus smiled briefly and drew Jeremiah towards an open doorway. Inside, Jeremiah could see a bed. His mouth and throat went dry with nervous anticipation as he followed Markus inside, with a stop along the way to switch off the light.
"Lie down," Markus breathed, guiding Jeremiah to the edge of the bed. "I'll see if I can't keep those nightmares from troubling you any further."
"That sounds like a plan to me," Jeremiah said, lifting the covers and sliding between them, pausing for a moment to take his shoes off. He wondered what Markus would say if the sweats and t-shirt followed the shoes onto the floor, then decided not to risk it.
Markus laid down beside him, a long, lean shape in the darkness that was obscurely comforting. He pressed up against Jeremiah, stroking his face lightly. "Better now?"
"Much." Jeremiah could feel the tension draining from his body, chased away by Markus's light touch and soothing presence. "Seems very strange that I should be able to relax around someone who spends so much time pissing me off, but there it is."
"Very strange, I agree." Markus shifted closer.
"Mmm," Jeremiah sighed. "Yes, definitely much better." His hand drifted down Markus's side, tracing the line from shoulder to hip. Markus shivered.
"What are you doing?"
"Just wondering," Jeremiah said, hand still drifting.
"And what are you wondering?"
"Just what, exactly, I can get away with..." Jeremiah chuckled a little, picturing the shocked look Markus had down so well. Then he found Markus's face in the darkness and kissed him.
"Well," Markus said, twitching backwards in surprise. Jeremiah felt disappointment rising like a tide. "Let me think about it... yes, I think you can get away with that."
Markus kissed him, long and sensuosly. "But," he said, coming up for air, "not right now, okay? You need your beauty rest."
"No fair," Jeremiah protested quietly. "Get me all worked up like that, then tell me to sleepjust plain not fair."
But he couldn't quite stifle a yawn. After all, it had been a bit over two weeks since he'd felt comfortablesafeenough to sleep, and he was rather worn out.
"Later," Markus whispered, "later. For now, you need to rest. And this time, I won't go away."
Damn good thing, Jeremiah thought, but didn't say it. Instead, he just enjoyed the feel of fingers stroking his face soothingly, the warmth of another body in the bed beside him... hell, he was even enjoying the bed itself. Rank hath its privileges, and Markus had one damn fine bed. No narrow double decker bunk for the leader of Thunder Mountain, oh no. Nothing but the best for Markus Alexander...
Somewhere in the middle of wondering if he really was good enough for Markus, Jeremiah fell asleep.
Jeremiah woke alone. He sat up abruptly, suddenly remembering why he was surprised to be alone. He groped around and found a light on an end table. Oh man... he'd remembered right. He was in Markus's bed.
"Well, this is nice," he muttered, and slid out of the bed. Somehow his shirt had gotten twisted up under his arms. He straightened it irritably, then located his shoes. What in hell was he supposed to do now? True, he'd imagined the possibility of waking up in Markus's bed before, but never quite like this. Being alone and still dressed hadn't figured in the picture.
There was no sign of Markus. Jeremiah walked through the apartment, feeling a sharp stab of envy when he discovered the private bathroom, but Markus was nowhere to be found. So he made use of the facilites and then left. Not much sense in hanging around all by himself.
Jeremiah made his way to the cafeteria and found something to eat. Where was everybody, anyway? He must have slept pretty late. Once he'd gotten to sleep, anyway. Talk about fucked up... why was it every time he talked to Markus in private, he fell asleep?
But that had been nice. That had been damn nice, in fact, Markus holding him and soothing away the bad dreams "Jeremiah! There you are!"
Jeremiah jumped, knocking into his water glass and sending some of it sloshing onto the table. Kurdy was bearing down on him, dressed to go out. "Hey, Kurdy. What's up?"
"Got a call in early this morning... hours ago, man."
Jeremiah ignored the look Kurdy was giving him.
"Came in on the shortwave, guess Carter's in a spot of trouble. You ready?"
"Yeah." Jeremiah gathered up the remains of his breakfast and stood up. "Lead on, man. What's the problem?"
"Other than nobody knowing where you were, and Markus refusing to let us go looking?" Kurdy grimaced. "His jeep went off the side of a mountain. Guess there was a hell of a storm last night, and he was trying to get back in, but didn't make it."
"So we're getting sent to haul him in?" Jeremiah dumped his trash and stowed his tray. "Let me go change. Sweats ain't no good for fishing people out of the mud."
"So what were you up to last night, man?"
"Not a damn bit of anything." Jeremiah hunched his shoulders defensively. Here we go again...
"If you say so. Me, I think you had a hot date."
"Think what you like, Kurdy. Don't matter to me." Jeremiah shrugged. Maybe if he quit reacting, Kurdy would quit teasing him.
By the time he was ready to go out, Lee was waiting by the Rover. "It's about time," he said, with a glare for Jeremiah. "We've been in touch with Carter again, got a more precise location for you to shoot for. If, that is, you can be bothered."
"Back off, Lee. I was busy." Jeremiah opened the door, swinging up into the truck. "You could have gone yourself, you know."
"Don't listen to him, Lee," Kurdy said quickly. "Just give us the location. Where we going, man?"
"He's on forest road 221, south and east of the main access road. Think you can handle that?"
Jeremiah started the engine with a roar. "We can handle anything, as long as you get out of the way. Coming, Kurdy?"
He put the truck in gear and let it move forward a couple inches. Lee gave him a look that must surely be peeling the paint off the outside of the truck and Kurdy climbed in the passenger side. The truck rolled a couple more inches. Lee finally moved out of the way, and Jeremiah let the tires squeal a bit as he headed for the tunnel, laughing.
"Why do you do it, man?"
"Do what, Kurdy?"
"Why do you try to piss people off all the time?"
Jeremiah slowed the truck, now that Lee wasn't around. "Because it's fun. I need some kind of entertainment, don't I?"
"Fun." Kurdy shook his head. "Man, I just don't get you. You're the one that was all gung-ho and determined to get to this place, so now we're here and you do your best to make sure nobody likes you."
"Not my fault if they want to be a bunch of assholes."
The door loomed ahead. Jeremiah stopped the truck and Kurdy hopped out to open it. Jeremiah waited, watching the door move slowly, and wondering why it was that Erin and Lee both had it in for him so badly, anyway.
No answers presented themselves, so he let the question drop from his mind.
Carter was unhurt, and his jeep looked okay, just waiting to be hauled out of the soft and clinging mud. Part of the road had washed out in the storm, sending the jeep sliding a good thirty feet down a steep incline. The only thing that had stopped it from going further was the mudthe jeep was buried up to the grill in deep, sucking mud.
"Glad you guys could make it out here," Carter said, helping hook up the tow chain. "I was beginning to worry."
"Yeah, well, we were kinda delayed getting started," Kurdy said, shooting a look at Jeremiah, who ignored him.
"Sorry 'bout that," Jeremiah said. He tugged on the chain, shaking it to make sure it was anchored firmly. "But we're here now. You want to check that end?"
"Yeah, I got it." Carter slid down the embankment and double-checked the set of the hook. "Looks good to me," he called, then got out of the way.
The jeep was easy enough to haul up the side of the mountain. Carter thanked them profusely, while Kurdy teased him about sliding down the mountain in the first place and Jeremiah waved off his thanks. All he wanted was to get back under the mountain.
But it wasn't that easy. The jeep had sustained some kind of damage in its fall and didn't start. So they rigged the chain to tow and proceeded back to the mountain at a snail's pace, while the jeep bucked and kicked in a way that suggested a damaged axle along with whatever was wrong with the engine. It took most of the day to get the disabled vehicle back.
Jeremiah just drove. He concentrated on the road, or what passed for the road. He'd gotten really good, over the years, at ignoring what he didn't want to think about, and he did it now with no effort. Part of him noticed that Kurdy made a few attempts at conversation, but most of him didn't care. All he wanted to do was get home and find Markus, figure out what was going on.
Finding Markus was harder than it sounded. He wasn't anywhere to be seen, at least not where Jeremiah knew to look. So he gave up and tried to pretend everything was normal, hanging out in the rec room with Kurdy and joining in a friendlysort ofgame of ping-pong with another scout team. But when Markus still hadn't materialized by the end of the day, Jeremiah retreated into moody silence. He went to the library and found a book for company. He was vaguely aware when Erin tried to chase him out, but ignored her and kept reading.
An indefinite time later, he heard someone enter the library. A bit of inner perversity kept him from calling out, though. If it was Markus wanting to talk, then he could damn well find Jeremiah on his own. It wasn't as if that would be hardthere was only one light on in the entire library, and Jeremiah was sitting under it.
There was a faint rustle of movement behind him, then a hand touched his shoulder lightly. Jeremiah shivered. He knew without looking who those fingers tracing along his shoulder and up the back of his neck belonged toMarkus, of course. The quiet voice confirmed his guess.
"Alone again, I see."
"Not many people up at this hour." Jeremiah slipped a scrap of paper between the pages of his book to mark his place.
"It takes a special kind of madness to appreciate the midnight hour."
"If you say so," Jeremiah said dubiously, but a corner of his mouth quirked upwards. Markus really had a way with words sometimes. "Something you wanted?"
"Yes, actually. There's something I'd like to show you. Join me?"
"I suppose." Jeremiah rose, stretching. "Does that mean you're not pissed at me?"
"Of course not. Is there a reason I should be?"
"Um. Well, not that I know of, but after... you know." Jeremiah followed Markus, wondering where they were going.
"I was busy this morning," Markus said quietly. "Otherwise I wouldn't have gone. But I kept them away from you."
"And then you were gone most of the day, and"
"Markus, it's all right," Jeremiah interrupted. "You've got a job to do. You don't need to explain yourself to me. I wasn't expecting anything from you."
"Not expecting, maybe, but still waiting. Or else why would you be here, where I could find you so easily? Why not somewhere I wouldn't think to look?"
"Like there is any such place. You know this mountain better than anyone."
Markus turned a corner, opening a door to a stairway Jeremiah had never seen before. "I should hope so. Between us, Allen and I knew every inch of this place. Couldn't afford not to, after all. The bad thing is that I also know the limitations."
"Why's that bad? If you know the limitations, that just means you can use your resources most effectively."
Markus shot him a startled glance. "That's what I like about you, Jeremiah," he said, then unlocked a door and opened it. "You always have a different way of looking at things that somehow puts them into perspective."
"Thanks, I guess," Jeremiah replied, then was caught completely by surprise when Markus flipped a light switch, revealing a half-empty storage room. The light, if you could call it thata long blacklight, with an eerie blue glowhung at the top of a cement wall, illuminating in vivid detail a mural. "What the hell..."
Jeremiah forgot about Markus, moving into the room to examine the painting. The style reminded him of some graffiti he'd seen in old cities, probably because it had been done with spray paint. Strangely distorted figures merged into each other randomly, creating a disturbing impression of violence mingled with creation. At the top of the wall, glowing yellow letters spelled out the words "Teenage Wasteland."
"Unbelievable," was all Jeremiah was able to say, staring at the wildly colored walls.
"Allen did this," Markus said quietly. He looked at the wall, pain shadowing his eyes in the eerie glow of the blacklight. "He found the paint in stores, and the greenhouses were supplied with plenty of blacklights, so it wasn't difficult to get the materials. He'd spend days in here, working out his demons..."
"Demons is right," Jeremiah muttered. Skull-faced beings ripped people to shreds in one section, while the Grim Reaper swung his scythe over the heads of a row of children that all blended together, from the waist down, into a muddy brown swirl. And that was only a small part of the whole... "And Allen was the one who started to get Thunder Mountain organized into what it is today?"
"You're probably thinking he was unbalanced," Markus said defensively. "Well, maybe he was, a little. But working on this mural helped him get his life back together faster than any of the rest of us." He moved closer to the wall, touching it like an old friend. "I'd help, sometimes, in my own way. See this?"
Jeremiah looked, but couldn't see anything. So he moved up beside Markus, and was able to see words written inside a white geometric shape: Laugh in the face of Death. Laugh, I say, go ahead and do it long and hard, because the world will go on. This crazy, mixed up, fucked up world of ours will go on, and nothing Death can do can stop it!
"You wrote that?" Jeremiah ran a finger over the words, feeling odd.
"Yes. That, and others, here and there throughout the mural. Allen used to try to get me to paint, but I'm hopeless at it. But I used to write. He found my journal, once, and insisted that I put some of the stuff in it into his mural."
"Do you still write?" Jeremiah looked for and found another bit of text, this one wrapped around the inside of a grimacing face. Life, which moves in mysterious ways, travels from Birth, through Growth, through Love, through Death, and then back to and then it had wrapped all the way around the face, creating a loop, with the next word being Life.
"Sometimes." Markus was quiet for a moment, tracing the lines of the painting with a finger. "I've never showed anyone this before."
"Why not?" Jeremiah looked at him, pale and ghostlike in the eerie blacklight. "Seems like something to show off and be proud of."
"Oh, Allen was proud of his work. And I'm tremendously proud of him for creating this. But it's just not... something we ever wanted people to see, you know?"
Jeremiah nodded. "Okay. So why am I here?"
"Because it's private," Markus said. He looked at Jeremiah, shadows haunting his gaze. "Because I couldn't think of any place better to find out what almost happened last night."
Jeremiah smiled. "What, you mean when I almost fell asleep on you again? Oh wait, scratch thatI did fall asleep on you again."
"You know what I mean." His voice, low and intense, sent shivers down Jeremiah's spine.
"Yeah," he said softly, "yeah, I guess I do know." Something squirmed and wiggled nervously inside, but he ignored it and reached for Markus. "Damn, you're tall," he muttered, right before their lips touched. A jolt traveled through his body at the contact. It was odd, having to stretch upwards for a kiss... almost as odd as kissing a guy. First time since Ben...
"What's wrong?" Markus asked, a mere whisper of sound.
"Nothing, just remembering the last time I... well, kissed a guy."
"Tell me." Markus took Jeremiah's hands and drew him away from the mural.
"What... where?" Jeremiah's mind didn't want to work.
"Over here." There was a makeshift bed, a heap of dusty cushions and blankets. "Sit down and tell me what's on your mind."
Jeremiah did, swallowing his nervousness. "The last time I... well. They saw us kissing. He wound up dead."
"My god," Markus said blankly. "Dead... what happened?"
"There was a fight. A big one. They didn't like people like us, they said, didn't want us around anymore. Someone had a gun. They said it was just an accident, but it was a damn accurate accident... Nearly got me, too. Still have a big-ass scar from it. I left. Couldn't stay with them no more, oh no..."
"And yet you still insist on risking this?" But Markus was smiling, his fingers tracing lightly along Jeremiah's arm. "I always knew you were braver than I."
"Bravery has nothing to do with it," Jeremiah said, before reaching for Markus again. "Nothing at all," he breathed, in between kisses.
"What is it, then?" Markus pulled him down into a more comfortable position.
"Not sure," Jeremiah managed. The feel of Markus underneath him was doing strange things to him, definitely unlike any time he'd been with a woman. "Lust, maybe?"
"When two bodies touch, language is born, be it anger, lust, or purest love." Markus slid his hands under Jeremiah's shirt, leaving trails of goosebumps behind.
"More of your writing?" Fuck it, Jerremiah thought, and pulled his shirt off. Markus smiled, barely visible in the odd light, and followed suit. Skin slid against skin, an intoxicating sensation.
"Yes," and Markus wiggled free of his pants, too, and Jeremiah's mind shut completely down, leaving him nothing but instinct and hormones.
"Never done this before," he muttered, mouth and hands engaged in exploring the slender body underneath him.
"Can't tell." Markus gasped when he hit a sensitive spot, arching his back.
"Wanted to... god, yes, wanted to, but never did... too dangerous."
"But you can now," Markus said, and that was the last time either of them spoke for quite some time.
Afterwards, they lay together atop the blankets, hearts slowly returning to a normal pace. Jeremiah couldn't quite look at Markus, more than a little shy. He wasn't sure what to do now... if there was a woman in bed with him, he would have known what to do: say something sweet, tell her how wonderful she was, how special... somehow, that just didn't feel right with Markus. What did guys do in the afterglow, anyways?
"I need to get dressed," Markus said abruptly, sitting up and moving away from Jeremiah. He pulled his clothes on rapidly.
Jeremiah shrugged and followed suit. That took care of wondering what to do, at any rate. He wandered over to the mural, looking at it closely and trying to pick out more words. It was hard, really, because they'd been written in odd places, like along the outlines of faces or in the middle of other shapes. There was something, up under the brilliant yellow "Teenage Wasteland" at the top of the mural: Generation X is forgotten, generation next is now gone, leaving a generation lost and alone. The past is crumbling, the present is devastation, the future is unknown...
"Allen used to love really old music," Markus said, coming up behind him.
Jeremiah turned. "What's that?"
Markus jerked back a little, eyes wide. "Teenage Wasteland. It was from a really old song. Can't remember the name, but... he loved it."
"What's wrong, Markus?" Jeremiah took a step closer. Markus looked like he'd seen a ghost.
"Nothing, you just..." Markus shook his head, eyes still wide and locked on Jeremiah's face. "A memory, that's all. Seeing you there, where no one but Allen has ever been... Allen." His face reflected a sudden inner pain. "Oh, god. What... I've got to go."
Markus left, shoulders hunched and walking rapidly. Jeremiah watched him go, utterly bewildered, then sighed and found the switch to turn off the blacklight. Not much sense staying here alone, with this eerie painting and Allen's ghost.
He slipped through the silent halls as quietly as one of Markus's ghosts and made his way to his own bed. Maybe he had no idea what was happening from one moment to the next, but at least he'd finally decided on a course of action: go after Markus. And enjoy the consequences...
The final words he'd seen on the wall haunted him all the way back to his room: No matter how hard we try, we are nothing but animals. Put us in a situation where it really matters and the veneer of civilization cracks, revealing the beast within.
And underlying the words was a nagging question, asking just what kind of beast lurked within Markus.
Markus jumped, then tried to hide it by running a hand over his hair like he'd meant to do that. "Hello, Jeremiah. Something I can help you with?"
Jeremiah looked at him steadily. Sometimes the man was just too much. "I was wondering if I could have a minute of your time?"
His eyes widened, startled as a deer caught in headlights. Then he looked away, reaching for a pile of papers on his desk. "Actually, I'm rather busy at the moment, but maybe later"
"Bullshit, Markus," Jeremiah interrupted. He closed the door behind him and moved the rest of the way into the office. "Not later. Now. I want to know what happened back there."
"I" Markus shifted nervously.
"You ran, Markus. Like a bat out of hell. And I want to know why."
"I" Markus started again, then sighed. "Look, I don't know why Idid what I did."
Jeremiah waited. "Well," he said, after the strained silence had stretched on for too long, "I would hope that it had something to do with mutual attraction. But what I really want to know is what's going on in that head of yours. Why you ran, what you're thinking.... what's going to happen next."
"Attraction... yes." Markus smiled. "There is that. But afterwards... I was upset."
"I gathered that." Jeremiah eyed Markus, trying to judge whether he was likely to bolt or not. Then he settled down on the edge of the desk. "Want to talk about it?"
"There's things I can't tell you." Markus glanced at his paperwork, then shoved it aside and leaned back in his chair, looking at Jeremiah.
"Like I didn't already know that. But I doubt that this is one of them."
"Would you let me get away with claiming a bad flashback, like you did before?" Markus raised an eyebrow.
"Huh." Jeremiah sat on the edge of the desk. "Okay, thenbad flashback. Gotcha. Now what happens next?"
"I'd say that depends on you," Markus said.
"Bullshit, bud," Jeremiah replied instantly. "I'm not the one that freaked and ran. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not exactly the most well-adjusted hombre in town" Markus snorted derisively "but I'm not going to go freaking out on you. So what guarantee do I have that you won't flip out again?"
"None, of course." Markus smiled. "What guarantee does anyone have, that another person will behave in any particular manner? But what I can tell you is this: I can try. I make no promises, because as I said before people must not know there is anything at all between us, but I can make every effort to lay my personal demons to rest and enjoy whatever this is we have together."
"Fair enough." Jeremiah smiled. "No commitment, no public bullshit, just a bit of fun now and again... I can handle that."
"You certainly can," Markus murmured, with a wicked sidelong glance.
Jeremiah laughed. Somehow, he had the feeling that his time at the Mountain in between trips outside was going to be a bit more interesting from now on.
The debriefing session was boring. Nothing of interest had happened over the last two weeks. Jeremiah and Kurdy had only been able to bring back the information that the countryside was quiet and peaceful, for once. And while it was true that made for a short and easy debriefing, it was also quite boring. He let Kurdy deliver most of the unexciting news and watched Markus instead.
The rumor mill, always incredibly active under Cheyenne Mountain, had put it about that he and Markus were constantly at each other's throats. He wondered what would happen if they were to learn the truth of that... it was, after all, literally true: the were licking and nibbling at each other's throats every chance they got these days... Never mind that now. The meeting was wrapping up, he wasn't wearing his bulky jacket, and his leather pants left little to the imagination. Best not to think about that sort of thing right now.
"So that's all you've got for us? The weather's nice, the crops are growing, and the people are quiet?"
Lee's hostile voice was more than enough to counteract thoughts of Markus. "You got it, Lee."
"Seems like you should be happy to hear that," Kurdy said, leaning back in his chair. "Happy, quiet people... isn't that the way things should be?"
"Quite right, Kurdy." Markus spoke up, raising his eyes from his notes for the first time since Kurdy had begun his report. "And now, if no one else has anything of importance to discuss...?"
Even Lee stayed quiet. "All right, then. You two, take two days free time, and then you're going back out again. There's no guarantee this next trip will be as boring as the last, though."
"Gotcha." Jeremiah stood up. "Coming, Kurdy?"
"No, man, you go on ahead, I'll catch up to you later. I promised to meet Elizabeth after the meeting."
"Later, then." Jeremiah left without a backwards glance. Either Markus would follow or not. Until that happened, he was heading for a shower.
He didn't make it. Before he reached the area set aside for scouts' living quarters, Jeremiah could feel eyes, staring at him from behind. He smiled. He'd wondered how long it would take for Markus to catch up to him. He wiped the smile from his face before turning around.
"Something I can help you with?" Yep, it was Markus, with a rather... intent look on his face.
"Just thinking, that's all," Markus said, catching up to him. "It's not often I see you without your jacket on."
Jeremiah chuckled. "Not much need for it in here." Take away the heavy green jacket and a certain portion of his anatomy was exposed to view...
"Good point." Markus tried to pry his eyes off the smooth black leather, with little success. "Going anyplace special?"
"Why don't you tell me?"
"I will, then." Markus licked his lips, eyes somewhat glazed. "Drop by my place for a few?"
"Sure thing, Markus," Jeremiah agreed amiably. "Got something on your mind?"
"Yes, actually, I do." His eyes followed the criss-cross path of the lacings up the side of the leather pants. "There's something I've been meaning to ask you, but you were out for a long time."
"Really, now." Jeremiah nodded to a crowd of techs, clustered outside one of the labs. Markus barely noticed them.
"Yes, really. Come on, this way's quicker." Markus ducked down a service corridor.
Jeremiah smothered a laugh. Funny how Markus could get sometimes. He wondered if the man even realized how little control he had over his body language when it came to Jeremiah. Or was it just that he had a secret thing for leather?
"Did you see something you like, Markus?" Jeremiah teased, smiling now that there were no observers.
"What gives you that impression?" Markus said innocently, reaching out and gliding his hand over Jeremiah's leather-clad ass.
"Ah-ah-ahh," Jeremiah admonished, wagging a finger. "No playing in public."
"You call this public?" But Markus shook himself, like a wet dog, and smoothed his expression. "Okay, point taken. I really must watch myself more carefully around you."
"Guess you do know, then."
"That you tend to lose control over your body language when you start thinking about... certain things." Jeremiah grinned, a fleeting expression.
"Can't have that," Markus said absently. "Four, five... here we go." He opened an access door back into the main corridor, directly across from the lift to his apartment.
Jeremiah stood beside Markus quietly in the lift, hands in his pockets. Markus closed his eyes and leaned against the wall, once again distant and remote. The lift hummed, then stopped with a little lurch and the door opened, revealing Sarah.
"Markus! I've been looking for you!" She smiled, stepping back to allow them to get off the lift. "Hello, Jeremiah. Now, about those newcomers..."
Markus sighed, then stepped off the lift and moved towards his apartment. "Come on, then," he said. "Jeremiah and I were just going back to my place, to discuss something he just brought to my attention."
Jeremiah smothered a laugh.
Sarah smiled brightly. "Okay, that works just fine, because I really need to know..."
Jeremiah tuned out most of what she was saying, concentrating instead on watching Markus and comparing him with Sarah. No comparison, really, especially not in the austere elegance of his apartment. Sarah was cheerful, full of life... perky. That was the word, perky. And what was worse, she still had a thing for Jeremiah. Markus she practically worshipped, an attitude that seemed fairly common around this place. She was cute, the way a happy little puppy was cute. She was attractive enough... lord, a man would have to be made out of stone to not see that whe was a very pretty girl. She was even safe and socially acceptable to have an interest in. But she just didn't have even one tenth of the attraction Markus held.
Markus, on the other hand... dark to her light. Where Sarah was vibrant and full of energy, Markus was quiet and controlled. Stillness incarnate, Jeremiah had called him before, and that impression hadn't changed much, despite knowing him a little better now. Not dark in an evil way, of coursenothing at all like Michael. But serious, very serious, and so responsible it was enough to make Jeremiah's teeth hurt. Not to mention the intelligence shining in his eyes, the elegance and sophistication he wore like a second skin, offset by rare humor and an odd vulnerability... It wasn't very often Jeremiah got a glimpse of what Markus kept locked inside, the real person beneath the public facade. And when he did open up a little, let something show through, it never failed to surprise Jeremiah... Then Markus moved, and Jeremiah's attention snapped to him, away from speculation.
"Well, it seems to me like you've got everything well in hand. Why don't you..."
Jeremiah lost the thread of conversation again. Good thing Markus wasn't counting on him for backup this time. That was an interesting concept, the one that had just presented itself to his mindhow well did he know Markus Alexander, anyway?
Not very. Jeremiah had to admit that. Even when they were alone together, Markus still kept to himself. How was it that he rarely seemed to open up any? Even when they were wrapped around each other in bed, a time when they should be close if there ever was one, he still held Jeremiah at a safe distance.
Jeremiah squirmed a little. There was another comparison between Sarah and Markus, one he didn't much like. Sarah was open and honest about how she felt about Jeremiahin fact, she'd cornered him on his third night under the mountain and flat-out told him she'd like to find him in her bed some morning. Quite a contrast to how much effort it'd taken to get hold of Markus... not to mention the social implications of the two situations. Were Jeremiah to give Sarah any encouragement at all, she'd be hanging all over him no matter where he went. Markus wouldn't be caught dead even holding his hand in public. Good reasons, true, but was this really what he wanted? Sneaking around, hiding out in dark corners and denying that anything was going on, with someone who hid behind a wall nearly as strong as the mountain itself...
"Huh? What?" He sat up, looking at Sarah and Markus, blinking.
"We were losing you," Sarah said, laughing at him. "Your eyes were getting all glazed. Are we that boring?"
"Nah, just have a lot of other things on my mind." Jeremiah made an effort to focus on reality.
"Like what?" Markus didn't quite smile, but he came close.
"Huh. Like I'd tell you."
"Honestly, you guys," Sarah laughed again, nervously. She looked at the two of them, sensing the tension in the air but completely misinterpreting its source. "I don't get it. You obviously work together well, but you're always sniping at each other. Can't you just give over and be friends?"
Jeremiah smiled. "Who needs friendship, as long as there's a decent working partnership?"
Markus humphed. "If that's what you want to call it, Jeremiah. Anyway, was that all you wanted, Sarah?"
She blinked, taken by surprise. "Yes, I suppose so. Why? Trying to get rid of me, or something?"
"Well, it is getting late," Markus nodded, waving a hand towards the door.
Sarah sighed. "Well, if you want to be that way about it..." She got up, tossing her hair back from her face. "You coming too, Jeremiah?"
"In a minute." They all moved towards the door, which Markus opened and held for Sarah. "There is still that problem to discuss, right, Markus?"
"That's right. So Sarah, I'll see you tomorrow, and I'll expect you to have everything drawn up for me, okay?"
"You've got it. First thing in the morning. Just don't kill each other, alright?" She smiled one last time, then left.
"Kill each other, eh?" Markus chuckled as he closed the door. "Not much chance of that."
"Well, Markus, I don't know about that." Jeremiah felt... alive. Everything in the room took on a sharp-edged clarity, especially Markus. This was the feeling that kept him coming back, no matter how hard Markus shoved him away... like there was something worth fighting for, no matter how fucked up the world was. Corny, maybe. Fucked up, definitely. But still there. "You sure you trust me to behave myself around you?"
"Correction, Jeremiah," Markus said. "I trust you not to behave yourself around me." Then he switched off the light.
"I think I can manage that," Jeremiah breathed, as Markus slid into his arms. "I missed you, these last two weeks."
"You don't have to go out, you know." Markus kissed him, warm and inviting. "Stay here, keep me company, forget about the lonely nights..."
"Yeah, I know that option is open, but then who'd keep an eye on Kurdy?"
"Who does indeed need an eye kept on him. Very well, I'll let you keep going out, but you just have to make up for the time away, got that?"
"Kind of thought that was what I was doing," Jeremiah murmured, sliding his hands under Markus's shirt and feeling a shiver travel through the other man's body as clothing dropped to the floor.
"This leather should come with a warning lable," Markus breathed, then steered Jeremiah towards the bed.
Thoughts dissolved, replaced by sensation, leaving no room for questions.
It wasn't until afterwards, when Jeremiah slid silently out of the bed and left, that he wondered what the future might hold. If there even was a future, with this strange, brilliant man, elusive and so distant...
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