It was a quiet scene, a peaceful scene. Jeremiah leaned back against a tree and watched the people all around him. It wasn't often there were quiet moments in this world... maybe it was something about this place. He vaguely remembered how it used to be, like the university was a separate world, all of its own. He'd been there on field trips with his class at school, gone to the quiet place where the only thing that mattered was learning, back before the end of civilization. Maybe this place was the same, a world with its own rules, because it had once been an institute of higher learning, a place apart from mundane reality.
"Don't I know you?" A familiar voice broke into his thoughts, and a woman dropped to the ground beside him. "From the bar, right?"
Jeremiah looked at her. "Yeah... I remember. What are you doing here?"
"I cleared out of town after your friend set that mob against Theo." She smiled at him. "You know, I never did catch your name...?"
"Jeremiah. And you?" He tried to find a smile, but had a feeling it wasn't too convincing.
"Raven." She grinned at him, daring him to say something. Jeremiah obliged.
"Raven? What kind of name is that?"
"My last name. My parents called me Carol, but my friends all called me Raven, and it just stuck."
"Hey, whatever works." Jeremiah fished another smile out of somewhere. "So what are you doing out here? Thought you had such a nice little setup."
"Hell, not my setup." She shrugged. "I'm just a gypsy at heart, never stay anywhere long. Besides, things woulda gotten mighty uncomfortable when all those pissed off people came looking for me."
"Then why'd you bother helping?"
"All right, who pissed in your Post Toasties?"
"Huh?" Jeremiah blinked.
"You picked up an attitude somewhere along the way, man." She shook her head. "And here I thought you were such a nice guy."
"Ain't no nice guys left in the world," Jeremiah shrugged. "And I've always had an attitude. Sorry to disappoint you."
She laughed. "No disappointment. Really. Now tell me what's eating you."
"And why should I do that? My troubles are my own."
"Hon, I ain't seen no one yet that can go through life on their own," Raven said with a sigh. She leaned back and ran her hands through her long hair. "Uck. Need a shower. So if you won't spill your troubles, at least tell me what you're doing here. Obviously you made it free of Theo's place."
"Yeah, Kurdy got me out... but the other guys didn't make it."
Flashback: I can take care of that. And then a shot. Theo's idea of helping didn't quite match up with anyone else's. Matthew fell dead in the murky, disgusting water. Simon lunged for his body. Jeremiah caught and held him... only to lose him in the escape...
"Theo plays hardball," Raven said quietly. "Sorry to hear that."
"Yeah, well, they're gone now. Nothing I can do about it. Except..."
Jeremiah looked around. No one was paying them any attention. "Except take over where they left off."
"What?" Raven cocked her head, a puzzled wrinkle between her eyes.
"Information gathering, keeping an eye on the state of the world... that kind of thing. You hear anything worth repeating?"
"Depends on who you're repeating to," she said, then her eyes focused on him sharply. "Oho, that touched a nerve. There's your problem. Who's got you all screwed up?"
"No one." Jeremiah hunched his shoulders. "Nothing to get screwed up over."
"Bullshit. I know that look." She smiled. "But if you want to deny it, that's your right. I just hope it doesn't blow up in your face."
"Huh. If there's nothing there, what's it matter if nothing blows up?"
"Doesn't, I guess." She sighed. "What I've heard... well, word is there's groups everywhere getting organized. And I'm not talking about armies of dead parents in Chicago, either. Heard there's people in Montana you don't want to mess with"
"Skinheads. Yeah." Jeremiah nodded. He'd heard about them, too. "Hear anything about specific people?"
"Got a few names here... Max, Farallon, anything with connection to Valhalla Sector..."
"There you go again, off on that Valhalla Sector kick. What's up with that?"
"Place my father mentioned," Jeremiah said shortly. "And I think it's important. So did Simon."
"Yeah. One of the guys that died."
"Was he a friend of yours?"
"Not really," Jeremiah admitted. "But he might have been."
"Hey, whatever happened, I'm sure it wasn't your fault." Raven laid a sympathetic hand on his knee.
Guilt flared. "What do you know about it?" Jeremiah snapped. He could have prevented Simon's death, he was sure of it. He wasn't sure exactly how, but he could have done it... been faster, or watched out more carefully, or... or something. There must have been a way.
"Absolutely nothing," Raven snapped back. "But I can damn sure see that you're carrying around a load of guilt for something you couldn't have prevented. Most people that tangle with Theo are pushing up daisies now, not running around feeling guilty 'cause they didn't do better."
"Everyone around me dies."
"Yeah, so? People die all the time."
"You don't understand," Jeremiah said quietly. "Everyone I give a damn about winds up dead. Except Kurdyhe's lasted longer than usual for my friends."
"And you feel responsible, and guilty, and that makes you a grouchy asshole in self-defense," Raven nodded. "I understand now. But you know what? You can't go and shut yourself away from friendship because you're afraid of getting hurt."
She stood up, looking down at Jeremiah for a long, uncomfortable moment. "Maybe I'll see you around, while you're out doing your information gathering. Later."
She left. Jeremiah stared after her. Maybe she was right.
But then, maybe she wasn't. What did she know, anyway? She hadn't been around to see all the people he knew die. Sometimes they just died before he even got the chance to know them. And sometimes they got close before they died, very close, leaving him with an ache inside that nearly drowned out the sense of responsibility...
"Shut up," Jeremiah told himself, and stood, stretching before he shouldered his travel pack. Nothing was happening here. Time to go find Kurdy, see what he'd turned up.
"Hey, Jeremiah," Kurdy greeted him. "What's up, baby?"
"Not much." Jeremiah dropped into a chair beside his friend. "You?"
"Actually," Kurdy lowered his voice, and leaned forward, "heard about something I think we should check out."
"Oh really? And what's that?"
"Sounds pretty good, man. You know this used to be a university?"
"Yeah, I'd noticed." Jeremiah shifted a little closer. "What of it?"
"There's this group, like," Kurdy continued. "They've holed up in the library, claim to know everything. Sounds promising, don't it?"
"Huh. Bunch of know-it-alls with attitudes, no doubt." Jeremiah sighed. "But yeah. Sounds promising."
"What about you?"
"Ran into that girl again, the one from Clarefield."
"Huh?" Kurdy frowned. "What girl? You mean Theo?"
"No, man. I mean that bartender chick. Name's Carol Raven. She didn't have anything new, though."
"Oh, hey," Kurdy grinned. "I remember her. Glad she got out of there okay."
"You never did tell me the entire story behind that. Just that she backed you up when you were looking for support."
"You got it. There wasn't really much of a story to tell. Any more than there was a story for you to tell behind what happened with you and Simon." Kurdy shot him a sideways glance.
Jeremiah winced. "Point taken. No story there at all." Simon was a topic that was completely off limits, right up there with comments about Markus. Confusion stirred within him, only to be supressed viciously. No time now for personal problems. Jeremiah stood up. "So let's go to this library of yours."
"Hey, man, don't you ever slow down?" Kurdy grumbled and complained, but followed Jeremiah out of the cafeteria. "Too bad you ain't as intent on finding food as you are finding information. Markus got a damn fine hunting hound when he picked you up. Just hope he appreciates your level of dedication."
"Well, you know he doesn't, so leave it be." Jeremiah looked around. The buildings of the former university spread out around them, a deceptive vision of old world normality. "Where are we going, anyway?"
"Over here," Kurdy waved towards the setting sun with a sigh. "I shoulda figured you'd want to go right now. Didn't anyone ever tell you patience is a virtue?"
"Yeah, but aren't you always telling me I have no virtues?"
"Now, that's not true," Kurdy protested. "You got virtues in there somewhereI just ain't seen any of them lately."
"Remember that next time you start expecting me to save your sorry ass," Jeremiah said, with a smile.
"Yeah, right, let you tell it," Kurdy grumbled good-naturedly. "Way you tell things no one would ever believe it's me that has to haul you out of trouble more often than not."
"Whatever, man. Which one's your library?"
"Not my library," Kurdy replied automatically, shading his eyes against the orange glare of the sun. "That big one, over there. You sure you want to do this right now? I mean, the place ain't going nowhere. We could just as easily go in there tomorrow."
"What's wrong with you, man?" Jeremiah asked. "I'd have thought you'd want to get this over and done with as soon as possible, so we can get back to the mountain."
"Yeah, well, maybe it's weird in there."
"Just weird weird. The guy that told me about the people in there said they're really messed up."
"Whatever you say, man." Jeremiah shrugged. "We going in anyways?"
"Yeah, I guess." Kurdy heaved a resigned sigh. "You know, I seen more weird shit since I met you than I ever woulda believed was real."
"Sorry, man. What can I say?" Jeremiah crossed the rest of the plaza quickly, although Kurdy hung back a bit. The possibility of weirdness was fine, as far as Jeremiah was concerned. Anything to get his mind off the confusion simmering just under the surface of his thoughts.
The building was tall, made of brick, but what Jeremiah noticed were the windows. They stretched upwards to the roof, clear and shining like so few things were these days. Someone had made a serious investment in time to keep the glass clean. Walls of books were visible, although there was something odd about the way the shelves were arranged that Jeremiah couldn't quite put his finger on.
They were met at the entrance by a large group of people. Jeremiah and Kurdy looked at each other: Still want to go in?, and then Kurdy pushed open the glass door. They entered the lobby of the library. Most of the crowd edged backwards, but one man stood his ground.
"Hello," he said, smiling shyly. "You must be the people from Thunder Mountain."
"What?" Jeremiah fell back a step in surprise.
"Whoa, man, what you talking 'bout, Thunder Mountain?" Kurdy shook his head, thinking fast. "We ain't never heard of no"
"It's no use, mister. We already know who you are and where you're from. You can't fool us."
"What?" Kurdy lost what he was saying and just stared at the slender man.
"If you're so smart, then why don't you tell us what you know and spare us the trouble of introductions?" Baffled though he was, Jeremiah was on the offensive.
"You're the scouts from Thunder Mountain," the man said, with the air of explaining to a slow child. "We've been expecting you for some days now."
"And who are you? Why were you expecting us?" Kurdy gave up on the pretense of ignorance.
"And how'd you hear that name?" Jeremiah added.
"We have our sources," the man smiled. "My name is Ramon. Will you share your names as well?"
Odd way of putting it. "Jeremiah. And he's Kurdy. Now how did you know about us? I'd appreciate an answer."
"Ahh, Jeremiah," Ramon said, shaking his head, although he was smiling. "It's not that easy. To know the information we know, you must be one of us. And I think you are finally the right one, who will join with us and be one of us."
"Excuse me?" Jeremiah shifted his pack into a more comfortable position.
"Maybe he's the one," a female voice whispered in a delayed echo. Jeremiah glanced at the other people and was vaguely disturbed by the avid way they were staring at him.
"Not the big guy," another quiet voice said. "The other one. He might do it."
Ramon ignored the other voices and moved closer to Jeremiah, who was suddenly overly conscious of the warm and welcoming look in Ramon's eyes. What's wrong with me? First Simon, then Markus, now this guy... shit. I need to get laid. And not with one of them, either.
"Come and drink with us, Jeremiah," Ramon said, laying a hand on his arm.
"Drink with you? Is that what it takes to find out what you know?"
"Yes," Ramon said, with a secretive smile. "Drink of our tea, and you will become one of us, and we will be able to trust you with our information."
"What kind of information?" Kurdy put in.
Ramon waved at the thousands of books behind them. "Any information you want and can find," he replied.
"Huh. So what's the deal with the tea? Why do we have to"
"Oh, no, no," Ramon interrupted. "Not we, Jeremiah. You."
"Me?" Jeremiah glanced at Kurdy, who gave him one of those "something's fishy" looks.
"Yes, you. Because you are the one who will be one of us."
"Why him?" Kurdy asked.
"Because he's different," a voice said from the crowd.
"No shit," Kurdy said. "Now would you mind telling us what that's got to do with anything? You people don't make much sense at all."
"That's because you're not one of us."
"Fuckin' circular-ass bullshit arguments," Kurdy grumbled. "Look, just give me a straight answer already."
"If you really want us to go along with what you want, you might consider answering his question," Jeremiah put in. He wasn't too thrilled with the comments drifting out of the crowd.
"We were told you'd be coming," Ramon repeated. "And we think you're the one that will finally join us, Jeremiah. Do you want our resources? Do you want to share our knowledge? Then join with us."
"All the knowledge of the old world, yours for a price," Kurdy muttered.
Jeremiah ignored him, keeping his gaze focused on Ramon instead. The leader of the group looked at him, eyes clear and shining, but somehow disturbingly empty. "All you want is for me to drink tea with you? That's it?"
"Share with us, Jeremiah," Ramon urged. "Be one of us. Then you will understand."
"Understand what?" Kurdy asked belligerently. "All I understand is that you people are weird."
"That is why you were not offered welcome," someone muttered in the background.
"If I do this, if I accept your welcome, then you will cooperate with us in the future?" Jeremiah had made his decision, but wasn't quite ready to implement it yet.
"Yes, for all people who come in your name," Ramon nodded. "Even this one here, who looks on us with such suspicion."
"What do you think, Kurdy?" Jeremiah looked at his friend, barely visible in the dim candlelight. "Is all this knowledge worth a little weirdness?"
"I don't know, man," Kurdy said, shaking his head. "I mean, what I'm sayin' is any group that sees you as some kind of special messenger has got to be more than a little fucked up."
"Yeah, you can say that again," Jeremiah said under his breath. Then he shrugged and looked back at Ramon. "Okay, thenI'm in. Lead on, my friend."
"We knew you would join us," the man said, with another of those luminous but vacant smiles. He led the way into the library, through crowds of people murmuring amongst themselves and occasionally reaching out to touch Jeremiah. It was all very odd, and almost spooky. People follwed behind, joining the original group that had met Jeremiah and Kurdy at the door.
"Hope you know what you're doing, man," Kurdy said.
"So do I." Jeremiah looked around, trying to make out details in the dim light. He finally figured out what seemed odd about the bookshelves: he'd never seen a library with its shelves grouped into rooms. Looked like the people had hung curtains and moved the shelves, dividing the library into living spaces. There were candles everywhere, but very little light, leaving the upper reaches of the building in growing darkness. But even in the dim, uncertain light, Jeremiah was still aware of the thousands of books all around. So much knowledge, in a world where knowledge was power...
"In here, Jeremiah," Ramon said. His eyes, no longer empty, burned with the peculiar fire of a fanatic. "Come and drink with us, be one of us..."
Jeremiah followed him into a room, of sorts, set off from the rest by hangings and with only a single candle for light.
"They don't like much light," Ramon whispered confidingly. "And they don't like unhappy people."
Ramon lifted a bowl reverently. "I've brought someone to meet you, my friend," he crooned.
Jeremiah exchanged worried glances with Kurdy. This was getting really weird. "Um..."
The others began a soft, sing-song chant, voices merging together into an undercurrent of sound: chukka chukka pada-wah, chukka chukka rom... Jeremiah shivered. It was the same chant he'd heard springing up in various places across the continent over the last year or so. Eerie, the way it never changed, yet each group considered it to be their own new discovery...
"He's going to drink of you, take in your wisdom..." Ramon raised the bowl to his lips and drank, eyes closed. "Ahhh, it's been so long, so long since I felt you inside me..."
Jeremiah backed up rapidly, eyes wide, and ran into hands, pushing him forward again. Ramon smiled, eyes glittering again as he offered the bowl to Jeremiah.
"Drink, and be one of us, Jeremiah."
Fighting off the urge to flee, Jeremiah reached out and took the bowl. He looked inside and saw... something. It was a brownish, flat, thing, and it drifted in a dark liquid. He imagined he could feel awareness oozing from it, an intelligence alien to humans and not necessarily friendly. Drink, huh? Well, he did it...
Wishing he didn't feel like he was doing something supremely stupid, Jeremiah raised the bowl and took a cautious sip. A collective sigh travelled through the group around him and he returned the bowl to Ramon. The liquid, what Ramon had called tea, tasted unlike anything he'd ever had before. Musty, earthy, like drinking the dirt straight from a forest floor... he could feel it sliding through him, tracing a wet and slick path down to his belly. That wasn't so bad.
"Now you are one of us," Ramon said. He took the bowl and replaced it carefully on its table. "Thank you, my friend, and I'll be back to sing you to sleep..."
Jeremiah shook his head. "Whatever. Now that that's taken care of, are you going to show us what you've learned?"
"Yes," Ramon said, eyes kindling again with eagerness. "Come, let us show you..."
Ramon lead the way deeper into the library. Kurdy and Jeremiah followed, surrounded by the others. Jeremiah found himself in the center of a chattering knot of people, each trying to tell him what special contribution he or she had made to the community.
They all reached an area that had once been an atrium. Plants still grew in the large central planter, but now the floor space was taken by blankets and cushions. The roof overhead was clear glass, allowing a view of the glittering stars in the black velvet sky. The people sat on the floor, pulling Kurdy and Jeremiah down with them. Everyone kept watching Jeremiah expectantly.
Trying to get meaningful information out of Ramon was like pulling teeth. Jeremiah was nearly ready to give up when Ramon finally said something that made sense.
"You need us," Ramon said, voice falling into one of those odd silences when everyone in a group runs out of things to say. "And we need you. We knew you were coming, because the mushrooms told us you would solve our problem."
"What problem?" Jeremiah asked. He noticed that Ramon was beginning to get shimmery around the edges, a brilliant rainbow glimmer that vanished when Jeremiah tried to look at it closely.
"The world outside is moving on without us," Ramon replied, shimmering through several shades of red and pink. "We need contact. We need to know what is happening. But no one has become one of us until you."
"Jeremiah? What are you doing?"
Jeremiah looked down at Kurdy. How had he gotten up without realizing it, and why in the world was he stretching up, and up, trying to grasp something just out of reach... "No idea," he said, and returned to the ground beside his friend. But it was there, the undefinable and unattainable something that flickered in and out of his awareness...
"Jeremiah," voices whispered, tickling at him. "Come and play with us... dance with us... you belong here, you are one of us..."
"Man, this is too weird," Kurdy's voice came to him faintly, from a long way away. Jeremiah follwed the colors, followed the voices, dipped and whirled through the air currents stroking his skin... "Somehow I don't think this is what Markus had in mind when he told us to scout out new resources and make connections."
Markus... Jeremiah could almost see him there, smiling that little half-smile of his. He stretched out a hand, and there Markus was, part of the whirling reality, solid and warm and joining in the exalted dance of spirits, and then coming closer and closer and Jeremiah felt skin under his hands and it was so good...
But then Markus was gone, no matter how Jeremiah tried to follow. He was left with the others, the people with whom he had joined by drinking of the mushroom, his brothers and sisters dancing with him in the tremendous blaze of color and sound.
"You will be with him," whispered a voice, Ramon's voice, an incalculable stretch of time later. Reality slowed. Time became a gummy sticky mire that held him closely and didn't allow movement, but was still strangely comforting. "And he will be with you. It is useless to run, because it was foretold in the stars above. You are his, and he yours. Give in and enjoy. Look, and see for yourself."
Jeremiah pried his eyes open and looked upwards. Overhead, the stars danced and glimmered, forming shapes and words he almost understood. He felt a distant sense of frustration, that he couldn't understand what was so obviously before him, and then suddenly he could. It was a story, written in starshine and moonflicker, and it told of his meeting with Markus and how they were made to be together. But he didn't want to read that, because... because... why? Why didn't he want to read that? He couldn't remember. So he read, and he smiled, and he drifted through time wrapped in Markus's warm embrace and he smiled some more...
The mushroom spoke to him. It told him of life here with the mushroom people, how all bowed down before the wisdom of the ancient being housed within the fungus. It told him of the prophecy, that said he would come and be one of them, another mushroom person moving about in the world for the benefit of the community as a whole. And the mushroom told him other things, secrets about himself that he didn't want to hear, so he tried to flee, but the voice of the mushroom was everywhere and there was no escape as it told him the secrets kept hidden in the depths of his soul...
"Hey man, you awake yet?"
"Huh?" Jeremiah sat up abruptly, blinking. It wasn't night anymore. Bright light streamed through the glass overhead. And Kurdy stood over him, with a wary expression.
"It's almost noon, and you're still asleep. You ever planning on getting up?"
"How can I be asleep if I'm sitting up and talking to you?" Jeremiah rubbed at his eyes, trying to dislodge the dagger that must surely be protruding from them.
"Wouldn't be any weirder than what happened last night, believe me," Kurdy shook his head. "Man, that was fucked up."
"What was? I don't remember." Jeremiah gave up on the dagger and stood up instead. "Anything to eat around here?"
"Some of your friends had a pot of stew going, over that way." Kurdy waved towards the far wall of the library.
"Good enough." Jeremiah found the cooking fire, outside the back door of the library, and helped himself to some of the stew.
Kurdy emerged from the building as Jeremiah was finishing his meal, out in the bright sunlight. "Hey, man."
"What's shakin', Kurdy?"
"Not much. Just wanted to see, you know."
Jeremiah looked at him as he sat down, completely puzzled. "See what?"
"See how you're doing. After last night, an' all... wanted to see if you're all right."
"What the hell happened last night?" It was a blur in his memory, just a multi-colored blur with vague hints of sound and motion laced through with a vast satisfaction.
"Thought you were going to nail Ramon there, for a while," Kurdy said, with elaborate casualness.
Jeremiah choked on the last swallow of stew. "What?"
"Yeah, you went off on this weird trip, and you and Ramon were getting real... friendly."
Ice slid through Jeremiah's veins. "Bullshit."
"I shit you not! You was getting all weird, dancing with those weirdos, and then Ramon started saying all sorts of weird shit about how the future was calling him, and then you damn near climbed in his pants with him."
"You are so full of shit, man." Jeremiah tried to hide his reaction to this startling bit of news. Kurdy looked at him steadily for a long and tense moment, then laughed.
"You should see your face, Jeremiah!"
"You're just pulling my leg, aren't you, man." Jeremiah relaxed. "That's not funny."
"Not for you, maybe, but you shoulda seen the look on your face. Classic 'oh shit!' look, all the way. I really had you going there."
"Yeah, well, fun's over, Kurdy." Jeremiah stood up and stretched. "Seems to me like there's a job we should be doing. You coming with?"
"Aw, lighten up, man." Kurdy stood as well. "What's on the agenda for today? Or should I say, what's left of today."
"Don't you ever let up?"
Jeremiah did his best to forget what Kurdy had said, but the whole scene refused to go away. It haunted him through the rest of the daynot that Kurdy had been teasing him, which was nothing new, but that he'd believed what Kurdy had said. As if he'd really go after a man he didn't know... seemed it was a forlorn hope to think he wouldn't go after a man at all. Evidently Ben hadn't been a one-time attraction. And there was something tickling at his memory, something about Markus...
You will be with him...
Ramon caught up to them later in the afternoon, while Jeremiah and Kurdy were poking through what used to be the chemistry building, seeking anything still usable.
"Kurdy, would you mind if I borrow Jeremiah for a while?" Ramon asked with a smile.
Kurdy looked at him, looked at Jeremiah, and tried to restrain a laugh. He wasn't terribly successful. He waved them away, snickering.
Ramon, baffled, turned to Jeremiah. "What?"
"Never mind him, he thinks he's funny. What's on your mind?"
Ramon lead Jeremiah out of the chemistry building and started across the plaza towards the library. "There's something we need to talk about, now that you're one of us."
"About last night?" Jeremiah asked apprehensively.
Ramon shook his head. "No, not about last night."
"Oh. Okay, then. I was just... I don't remember what all happened, and Kurdy was, well..."
"I understand," Ramon smiled. The library loomed ahead of them, sunlight reflecting off the windows. "But that's not"
The sound of a gunshot shattered the afternoon peace. Jeremiah hit the deck before his mind fully registered that a bullet had hit the cement planter directly in front of them. "Shit! Ramon, get down!"
Jeremiah grabbed Ramon and hauled him to the dubious safety of the other side of the planter. More shots were fired, but none hit either man.
"What the hell, man?" Jeremiah snuck a look towards the source of the shots, but no one was visible.
"I told you there was something we needed to talk about," Ramon panted, face pale. "We've got a problem..."
"Is this why you were so anxious to get me to join you?"
Ramon looked uncomfortable. "We knew you were coming. We hoped you might help"
"Enough with the bullshit." Jeremiah raised his head over the planter again. No shots were fired, so he took that as an encouraging sign and gestured for Ramon to follow him. The library door was only thirty yards away. "They aren't lookingrun like hell."
They were spotted within a few strides. Jeremiah heard Ramon make a panicked sound and reached back to catch hold of his arm, knowing without knowing how he knew that Ramon was going to freeze in place. "Come on," he shouted, dragging Ramon after him. They reached the library safely. Ramon tried to stop just inside the doors, but Jeremiah yanked him into the curtained-off living area. Too many windows out frontthere was no sense standing in plain view when someone was shooting at you.
"Now suppose you tell me what the hell that was all about." Jeremiah released Ramon, who sagged against the nearest bookshelf.
"There's this group of people, you see," he started, voice unsteady.
"Actually, I didn't see them, but I kind of figured they were there." Jeremiah folded his arms across his chest and waited. Ramon took a few deep breaths, then continued.
"It's a group that's been giving us trouble the last few months or so. They haven't done any real damage yet, but they've been getting progressively worse."
"I kind of gathered that. So what are they after? Something tells me they're not out for your charming company."
Ramon flushed. "Leave that part out of it, okay? All you need to know is that they're after our resources. They think they can take the library for themselves."
"And let me guess, you want me to help." Jeremiah made note of Ramon's reaction to his sarcastic comment. There must be some kind of personal conflict in this mess somewhere.
"The mushroom told us you would come and save us," Ramon said, hope written plainly on his face.
"And did it tell you how I'm supposed to do this?" Jeremiah sighed. Sometimes he got really tired of the way people kept expecting him to save the world for them.
"Well, shit." Jeremiah gave himself a mental kick in the rear, but said it anyway: "Okay, what's the full situation here? You'd better fill me in, if I'm going to help."
Jeremiah was plotting out defensive strategies, poring over schematics of the library and neighboring buildings, when Kurdy burst into the curtained off segment of library.
"Jeremiah! Do you know what you're doing, man?"
"Huh?" Jeremiah looked up, surprised by the naked anger on Kurdy's face. "What exactly do you mean by that? And where have you been all afternoon?"
"I made some new friends," Kurdy said. "And I found out some interesting information. Bet these guys asked you to help defend them against a crowd of marauding assholes, didn't they."
It wasn't really a question, but Jeremiah nodded anyway. He noticed Ramon starting to edge away from the table.
"And they didn't give a good reason why these assholes are attacking, did they."
"Something personal, I know that much," Jeremiah said. "Although I don't know exactly what. But I do know that the attackers are after the library itself."
"That they are. Because somebody here is denying them access to medical information, as well as educational materials for their children." Kurdy glared indiscriminately around.
"Wait a minute, here." Jeremiah turned on Ramon, suddenly blindingly angry. "Wait just a fucking minute, here. You're telling me this whole fight is because you won't help these people take care of children?"
"Well..." Ramon looked to his people for support. No one said or did anything. "They attacked us first."
"After you refused to allow them any access to your resources to help the kids out. Sick, man. Just plain sick." Kurdy shook his head. "What say we boogie, Jeremiah?"
"Fuckin' A right, Kurdy. We're so outta here these assholes are gonna choke on our exhaust." Jeremiah pushed violently away from the table, overturning his chair in the process and not caring in the least. He took the time to find his pack, and then he and Kurdy left without a backwards glance.
"Man, Markus is gonna love this," Jeremiah observed, when they reached the Rover. Instantly, images sprang to vivid life inside his mind, most likely leftovers from the mushroom dream. They boiled in his mind, adding confusion to his anger. "What are we going to tell him about this one?"
"Don't know, man." Kurdy looked at him more carefully. "Jeremiah, you alright, man? You look a little pissed."
"I am a little pissed. That okay with you, man?"
"I guess so. Gonna tell me what it is? 'Cause I've got a feeling it's more than just the assholes back there."
"You ever know me not to be pissed 'bout something, Kurdy?" Jeremiah dodged the question. "Just leave me be. I'll work it out while I drive, okay?"
"Well fine then. You gonna be in a piss-poor mood, then I'm gonna have a nap. Drive safe."
Kurdy leaned against the door of the truck and closed his eyes, and Jeremiah took advantage of the quiet to try and organize his thoughts.
His emotions were at it again, letting him down. More and more of the mushroom experience was returning to him now, and he was really upset by what had been going on in his head. True, he hadn't been trying to nail Ramon like Kurdy had joked about, but he'd certainly been imagining having his way with Markus...
Somehow, he'd never really stopped and thought about it. What he'd had with Ben, that had been sweet and all too short, a memory to be treasured... until suddenly he finally realized exactly what the memory was about. And then the memory of what he'd done with Markus, not in the flesh but still vivid and nearly more tangible than a real memory...
How could that happen, anyway? Shouldn't he know what was going on inside himself? Shouldn't he have noticed at some point or another that he wasn't straight?
Thoughts of Ramon and his craven behavior would be infinitely preferable, but his mind kept going back over and over the realization that he found men attractive. Hell, downright sexy, more so than women... and it wasn't a pleasant thought. How could he go so long, knowing damn good and well that he'd loved Ben, without ever really realizing exactly what that meant?
Until, of course, he'd remembered what the mushroom had told him. And couldn't he have picked a better time to remember that part of last night, anyway? There were other things he could be thinking about right now, like driving or doing something to get Ramon and his crowd to help those kids... or better yet, finding a way to boot the shroom-heads out of the library and let the other group in. But no, his rebellious mind refused to cooperate.
He tried to think about it rationally. Okay, he'd first been attracted to Ben when he was what, fifteen? Sixteen? And he'd thought that was a one-time thing. That was okay. He could deal with that. Because he'd found a girlfriend a bit later, a really sweet one, and he'd stayed with her for months without even a thought for Ben's memory. But then he'd met Simon. And Markus. And Ramon.
What the hell was wrong with him, that he'd never fucking noticed such an important part of himself? Kurdy knew. He had to know. He'd noticed right off, with all his teasing about Markus, which had only served to piss off Jeremiah. Why had it never really registered in his conscious mind? How could he go through his life, finding some guys attractivereally hot, evenand not stop to think what that meant?
Denial, whispered a faint voice in his mind. Then the anger came back double strength, and he embraced it eagerly.
Anger. It was a nearly tangible force, throbbing through him, a constant companion. He clung to it, reveling in the fire of the only sure thing in his life as it burned through the confusion. The anger was a well-known part of him, something that had become integrated into his very being. And he was fine with that.
Because it never let him down.
Unlike himself. But he wouldn't think about that anymore. Unlike people. His mind also flinched away from further thoughts of people, Kurdy and Markus and all the weird mushroom people... especially Markus. The anger was infinitely preferable.
...the artificial light was not very flattering, highlighting as it did the indoor pallor of Markus's skin and the dark circles under his eyes. But it also showed the gleam of interest in his eyes, the definite spark that no amount of cynical denial could hide...
Damn. Jeremiah pushed the real memory away. Markus didn't want anything from him. There was just one more reason to be angry. Why Markus kept denying it, he wasn't sure, but... damn. There he went again. Markus kept denying it because there was nothing there, and Jeremiah didn't want there to be anything there.
The anger boiled up in him, burning fiercely, infinitely preferable to the stray feeling of longing. Markus was dangerous. Markus was also not worth bothering with.
No matter what the mushroom had said back there.
You will be with him, and he will be with you. It is useless to run, because it was foretold in the stars above. You are his, and he yours. Give in and enjoy...
Jeremiah stopped the Rover and got out. He spared a glance for Kurdy, still leaning against the door and dozing, then shook his head and plunged into the darkened trees alongside the road. He had to get away, had to find some distraction from his thoughts and even the anger... He ran for a while, but not far. At least he was still thinking clearly enough to realize it wasn't smart to get lost in an unfamiliar forest at night.
Suddenly, the anger drained away. Jeremiah stopped and shook his head, suddenly feeling empty of everything.
And then a voice insinuated itself into his consciousness: I feel you.
The mushroom was there. It was reaching out to him, calling to him through the forest loam. Jeremiah could hear it, could feel it, swayed to his knees with the strength of the call.
I need you.
It pulled him down, down, flat as could be.
Jeremiah could feel the mushroom. No, he was the mushroom. He sprawled on the forest floor, feeling his roots... no, mycelieum. The unfamiliar word swam through his brain. Yes, that was it, his primary mycelium sank into the ground, spreading and branching out into secondary mycelium and then making the connection with the vast tertiary network... His body was but the visible portion, the fruiting body of the vast and hidden being that was the mushroom, the eternal wisdom of the mushroom linked with all others through the land... His body was a mobile representative of the ancient being, chosen to spread the wisdom of the mushroom to the ignorant fools who knew not the glory...
Let me go!
Jeremiah tried to break free. He didn't want to be a mushroom. He didn't want to be a messenger, and most of all he didn't want to listen to what the mushroom had to say.
You are my messenger. You can not break away. You are mine.
The mushroom sucked him down into a whirling maelstrom of chaos and ancient wisdom. The mushroom had seen it all... and it didn't give a damn that Jeremiah wanted Markus.
But the mushroom wanted him, wanted Jeremiah to spread the word, to bring more people into the mushroom dream. Spread the word, spread the dream, bring more people into the mushroom cult before the ancient wisdom died out...
No! Jeremiah wrenched himself away. He felt his mycelium tearing, felt the connection shattering beyond repair, heard the despairing wail of the mushroom as he broke free of it slowly and painfully.
Jeremiah staggered to his feet. His head swirled with muddy brown mushroom rage, but he fought his way free of it and shook it off.
"I will not be used by a fucking shroom!"
Jeremiah wasn't sure how, but he pushed just a little bit harder, and the connection broke. The silence in his head echoed, but it was with the sound of his own thoughts and not those of the fungus.
"What the hell?"
Jeremiah shook his head. What was he doing out here, anyway? And where the hell was Kurdy?
"With the truck. Oh, yeah. I remember now. But what the hell am I doing out here?"
Then it came back to him: hearing the call of the mushroom, and then remembering what exactly had driven him out into mushroom country.
Now that his head was clear, free of the clouding influence of the shroom, Jeremiah sighed and gave in. Not much he could do about it now, he was stuck with the knowledge that guys did it for him even better than girls. Damn.
Feeling much better, clear headed (for once) and willing to accept what he couldn't change about himself, Jeremiah went back to the Rover.
"Kurdy. Wake up." Jeremiah got in the driver's seat and slammed the door. Kurdy startled awake.
"What the fuck? Oh, Jeremiah. It's you. What's wrong now?"
"Ain't nothing wrong, Kurdy," Jeremiah replied, hoping the fragile peace within him now wouldn't shatter and make that a lie. "Just... next time someone offers me mushroom tea, kick me in the head if I accept it, okay?"
"No problem!" Kurdy grinned, then sobered. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Jeremiah said thoughtfully. "I think so."
"So what are we going to do now? Go back to the Mountain, or go back and do something about those idiots in the library?"
Kurdy looked at him in the dim moonlight. "Something tells me it wouldn't be a good idea to let you near those people again."
"Might be right. I don't really want that shroom to get ahold of me again."
"That was fucked up, man." Kurdy shook his head. "So back to the Mountain, then?"
"I guess." Jeremiah started the truck and got it started down the road again.
Markus was waiting for him, back at Thunder Mountain. And this time he was actually ready to face the man. Like he'd known all along, there was nothing wrong with caring about another person, no matter what sex the person was. Maybe it was kind of hard to deal with after so long of running into other people's prejudices, but it wasn't anything wrong.
Predictably, the news of the team's failure to establish a real working relationship with the mushroom people didn't go over well. Markus was disappointed, Lee was overjoyed, and Erin blamed it all on Jeremiah. However, the Council as a whole was willing to give them another chance... after all, no one else had ever even gotten close enough to discover that the library folk were a mushroom cult.
And so a pattern was set: go out for two weeks, come home, report to Markus or the entire Council if the findings were important enough. And in between... oh yes, in between.
Jeremiah had hit on an important discovery: back off, and Markus would come right to him. As long as he kept things casual, Markus would come find him for late-night chats, or mid-afternoon chats, or whatever. Frustrating, but rewarding after a fashion, because he could at least get to know the guy.
The hot shower was the nicest thing he'd felt in a long time. Jeremiah scrubbed the grime of the last two weeks off with a vengeance, then even went so far as to shave after the shower. He ran a hand across his jaw, looking at his reflection in the steamy bathroom mirror.
"Told you it makes my face raw," he muttered, then smiled anyway. He wondered how long it would take Markus to notice.
Not very. Markus noticed as soon as he walked into the debriefing room. Jeremiah saw his eyes widen, then jerk away quickly. But all through the meeting, Markus's eyes kept straying to Jeremiah, for all that he tried to hide it.
Finally it was over. Jeremiah rose to leave with the other scouts, who'd come in at the same time as he and Kurdy, but was stopped by Markus.
"Jeremiah? If you'd stay a moment, please?"
Kurdy shot him a puzzled look. Jeremiah shrugged and made a "How should I know?" face. "Yeah, whatever, Markus."
He turned back into the room. Kurdy shook his head and left. "Something you wanted?"
"Close the door, would you? As long as you're over there anyway."
"Sure thing." Jeremiah shut the door. He heard Markus moving around. "What did you want, anyway?"
"Nothing, really. Just..."
Jeremiah turned, to find Markus right behind him. "Just what?"
"You should have warned me."
"Warned you about what?" A smile teased at the corners of Jeremiah's mouth.
"This," Markus said, almost, but not quite, touching Jeremiah's face. "You shaved."
"And that requires a warning?" Jeremiah was enjoying this. Come on, you pain in the ass, come on and tell me again how much you don't give a shit about me...
"Yes, it does," Markus nodded. "Because I could scarcely attend to business, with you sitting there looking"
"Looking what, Markus?" Jeremiah grinned. This was even more fun than he'd anticipated.
"Bullshit, never mind," Jeremiah said. "I ain't taking no never mind for an answer. Looking what? Like a rat chewed my face off?"
"No," Markus protested. "No, not at all! Looking good."
"You like this, huh?" Jeremiah ran his fingers along his jaw, watching the look in Markus's eyes. This was definitely worth the discomfort and irritation of shaving after so long of not doing it. "But I'm not sure I like it. Makes my face raw, just like I told you before. This'll probably be the last time I shave for quite a while."
Jeremiah laughed. "What do you care, anyway, Markus? Not like it's your face."
Markus sighed. "Oh, would you just get out of here? Lee's going to think you've run out on us already, or something."
"You got it," Jeremiah grinned, then walked out the door.
Much better. He made an effort to lose the grin, since people would be sure to get curious and want to know why Jeremiah was so happy. But he couldn't get rid of the feeling inside, the happy bubbly certainty that Markus wouldn't be able to hold out forever. Sooner or later he'd crack and admit that the entire "not caring" thing was just a defense, a protective line of defense against what was really lurking within.
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