Skin slid against skin with a soft whisper in the darkness. Fire trickled down nerves, following the eager explorations of hands, lips, tongues. Soft moans, punctuated by sharp gasps, increased in frequency and intensity, building to a great crescendo of passion and release.
Two bodies collapsed, limp and sated, cradling each other closely. But as always, one pulled away almost immediately.
"Come back," Jeremiah said, reaching across the wide bed. "You always try to get away. Don't you like me?"
"You know better than that," Markus chided, catching Jeremiah's outstretched hand. But he didn't say anything more, nor did he return to Jeremiah's arms.
"Can't tell. Sure, you like me fine when I'm making you sweat and howl, but after? Huh." Jeremiah sat up and reached for the light. One thing about the Thunder Mountain installation being undergroundwhen you turned a light off, it got dark and stayed dark. Even in the middle of the day.
"Jeremiah," Markus sighed. The light clicked on in time to show the sad smile on his face. He stretched, then reached for Jeremiah's hand again. "Look, I enjoy being with you, you know that. But sometimes..."
"Sometimes what?" Jeremiah tensed, ready for bad news.
"I just... I can't explain, okay?"
But a familiar expression was clear in his haunted eyes. Jeremiah ran a finger lightly down his cheek. "What are you feeling guilty about now, Markus?"
"What makes you say that?"
"Deny it all you want, but the look in your eyes gives you away." Jeremiah wanted to hold him, to make that look disappear from his eyes... to ensure that Markus was thinking about nothing other than him. But he didn't. "I can see it in there, the guilty little look you always get when you're thinking of someone else..."
Markus flinched. Just slightly, but Jeremiah was watching closely enough to catch it. "No I'm not," Markus said, looking away.
"Liar." But Jeremiah raised the hand that still held his own to his lips. "You may think you're inscrutable, but I know you."
"Listen to you," Markus smiled, freeing his hand. "You're starting to sound like me. Inscrutable, indeed."
"Shit, Markus," and Jeremiah rolled abruptly away, sitting on the edge of the bed with shoulders hunched. "I just don't know what to do anymore, you know what I mean?"
"What are you talking about?"
Markus sounded sincerely puzzled, but Jeremiah doubted he really cared. "All the mixed signals, Markus. What do you want from me?"
"Something tells me this would be a bad time to bring up the fact that you're the one that insisted we try this out."
"Very bad time," Jeremiah nodded, fingers clenched in his hair.
"Hey." Markus slid across the bed and leaned up against Jeremiah. "Look, I know I'm not the greatest person to be around sometimes. I have too many things inside, too many secrets in my heart, too many things that I wish I could tell you but I can't. And one of those secrets does indeed make me feel very guilty about being here with you, but it's nothing you can do anything about. Can you understand that?"
"What, are you secretly married or something?" Jeremiah laid a hand on Markus's thigh.
"Not... exactly," Markus replied. "However, I believe I've mentioned before that there's a woman that thinks I'm in love with her?"
"Yeah." Jeremiah tensed up again. Not Erin, he was reasonably sure of that. And not Sarah, because she'd flat-out denied any interest in the man, other than as someone she looked to for leadership. Not any of the dozen or so other women Markus was moderately close to. "What about her? Gonna tell me who she is?"
"Maybe someday," Markus said, so quietly that Jeremiah almost couldn't hear him, even as close as he was. "But sometimes I just... feel bad, like some kind of monster, for leading her on and letting her think I truly love her, when I've never so much as laid a hand on her. And then I'm with you, and the guilt gets to me, because I can't be as open and honest with you as you are with me. And then it just tears me up inside, that I could do this to both of you..."
"Markus." Jeremiah finally raised his head and looked at him, saw the conflict in his expressive eyes. "I know there's things you can't tell me, and I have ever since I met you. I don't want to know. What I do want to know is if you're bothered by what we're doing."
"Only in a good way," Markus replied.
But Jeremiah still wasn't convinced. He let it slide, for now, watching in silence as Markus got dressed. He had things to do, places to be... Never mind Markus and his problems.
The next day, Jeremiah was in the rec room, in the middle of a wild foosball game with Kurdy. Markus came in, looking around, then saw Jeremiah and crossed the room in a hurry.
"Jeremiah. You're coming with me. Now."
Jeremiah and Kurdy exchanged split-second puzzled glances, but didn't stop playing. "Okay, in a minute, Markus."
"No, not in a minute. Now."
Jeremiah barely had time to register that Markus was highly upset, just barely keeping control over himself, before he was being hauled away by the arm.
"What'd you do now, Jeremiah?" Kurdy called after him. Other people in the rec room stared. It wasn't often Markus lost his cool.
"Guess I'll find out," Jeremiah said, before they were out the door.
Out in the hallway, he pulled his arm free. "What the hell's your problem, Markus? What's so important that it couldn't wait?"
Markus wasn't paying him any attention at all. Rather, he was watching the few people moving through the corridor, as sharp and focused as a bird of prey. "Too many people. Gotta get away from them, can't have them see..."
"See what?" Jeremiah frowned. "What the hell is going on here, Markus? What's gotten into you?"
"Ha! Perfect." Still focused on his own mission, Markus ignored Jeremiah and opened a store room, yanking Jeremiah in after him in a brief moment when there were no observers. He locked the door, while Jeremiah groped about in the dark for the light chain he'd seen in the two seconds before the door shut. There it washe pulled it, then found himself with a double armful of Markus.
"What" was all he had to say before hot lips caught and held his own, burning into him with passionate frenzy. Jeremiah was startled, but not complaining. Oh no, definitely not complaining...
"Don't talk," Markus nearly growled, voice rough with desire. Another searing kiss, while his hands tore at Jeremiah's clothing.
What the hell is up with him? But beneath the surprise, beneath the shock at the transformation in the normally reserved Markus, was an eager response. The urgency in the other man's hands was lighting a fire in Jeremiah, who was able to retain enough sanity to help remove his clothing before he landed on a pile of unused floor mats. Good god, there really is an animal inside! Rough, urgent, demanding... and incredibly exciting.
And then rational thought dissolved into blind, unthinking lust.
It was over too soon. Jeremiah was shocked at himself for thinking thathe'd never suspected himself of any desire for rough and wild fucking. But no denying he'd enjoyed it, whatever had prompted the loss of control.
Markus lay on top of him, panting. He still hadn't said a word... not to Jeremiah, anyway. He'd said something, barely heard through the intense waves of pleasure, an unfamiliar name&3151;forgive me, Meaghan.
"What brought that on?" Jeremiah asked, voice trembling slightly, along with the rest of him. He summoned enough energy to trace his fingers up Markus's back.
"You really don't want to know," Markus said, then stood up and retrieved his pants from around his ankles.
"What the hell? Markus," and Jeremiah sat up, reaching out. Markus wouldn't look at him, and backed away from his hand. "Now what? You can't just go fucking my brains out like that and then pretend I don't exist."
Markus flinched, but still wouldn't look at him, instead picking up his shirt and turning it right side out.
"Markus..." Jeremiah felt something cold and sharp slither through his guts. "Who's Meaghan?"
"None of your concern," Markus snapped.
Shit. Jeremiah stood up and pulled his own clothing back on, flinching slightly as he encountered sore spots. Holy shit... did he bite me, or what? And if he did, what in hell's Kurdy gonna say if something's visible? He'd worry about that later. For now, this was more important.
"Spit it out, Markus. Something had to happen for you to cack like that. Now will you tell me what it is?"
"I'd really rather not," Markus said, almost in his normal tone. He ran a hand over his hair, then looked at Jeremiah. The only sign of the intense passion which had gripped him scant moments ago was in his eyesa look like a wild thing brought to bay. "It truly wasn't intentional."
"No fucking way, man," Jeremiah snapped. All the resentment over the way Markus treated him, along with confusion about what had just happenedholy shit, I can't believe I liked that... what the hell's wrong with me, anyway?combined to make his temper fray. "You are not getting away with that. What happened? And who the hell is Meaghan?"
Markus closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and obviously fighting for control. "No one you would know," he said carefully, each word edged with shards of glass.
"And why do you want her to forgive you?" Jeremiah couldn't let it go, had to push.
"What makes you say that?" His eyes flew open.
"Because that's what you said, right before you shot your load. Forgive me, Meaghan, you said. Now tell me who the fuck she is, and why you were thinking of her when you were with me." Jeremiah glared at Markus.
"She's the woman I love, all right?" Once again, his self-control was gone. Jeremiah backed away a step from the raw pain and anger in his eyes. "And I can't get fucking near her, and I've betrayed her trust. And worse than that, she knows about you now."
"Fuckin' A, Markus, you mean to tell me you've got a fucking girlfriend? And when the hell were you planning on telling me about this? You cheating bastard. That's a bit different than just claiming there's some chick in love with you, or hadn't you noticed?"
"I wasn't, of course," Markus replied, with icy disdain, ignoring the last question. "And she wasn't supposed to know about you. But she figured it out."
"Real good, Markus," Jeremiah said sarcastically. "What, did you drag her into a closet somewhere, then call her my name? Sounds about right."
"I've never so much as fucking touched her," Markus snarled, "so you can just keep your filthy accusations to yourself."
"Like I'm supposed to believe that. Jesus, Markus, what the hell kind of man are you?"
Markus jerked back as if he'd been hit. "Obviously not a very good one." Suddenly, all the fire went out of him, and he sighed, rubbing a hand across his forehead. "Look, this is getting us nowhere. Meaghan is trapped in a glass-walled prison and she will never be able to come out. I can't touch her, she can't touch me. If you've ever wanted to see a living example of platonic love, we're it. So lay off about Meaghan, okay? She's no threat to you."
"That's downright sick, Markus," Jeremiah said, equally quiet, but definitely not calm. "How can you claim to love someone, then go sneaking around behind her back? Even if you can't touch her, whatever the hell you mean by saying she's in a glass-walled prisondoesn't matter. If you've given your heart to someone, you should remain fucking loyal to that person."
Jeremiah didn't give Markus a chance to reply, just walked out of the storage room without another word.
"But you knew"
The door closed and cut off the rest of Markus's protest.
Anger, pain, and confusion swirled through Jeremiah, and he stumbled through the corridor, unseeing. Worst of all was the bitter taste of betrayal. How could he...
The sound of voices ahead broke into Jeremiah's awareness. He had barely enough time to straighten his shoulders and get his expression back under control, hiding his inner turmoil, before a chattering crowd of friends rounded a corner. They ignored him, other than a few curious glances, and continued on to the rec room.
"All right," Jeremiah told himself when they had moved on, "You're going to pull yourself together, right now. You're going to act like nothing fucking happened. You're going to go back in there and play fuckin' foosball with Kurdy until your mind turns to mush. Now do it."
He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths, trying to steady his nerves. Long practice at controlling his emotions allowed him to shove it all aside, all the anger and hurtjust don't think about it.
So when he returned to the rec room, and found Kurdy camped out in front of a television, watching a fifteen year old movie on a tired old vcr, he was able to smile at his friend in an almost normal way.
"Jeremiah! Hey, baby, you're backso what did he want?"
Anger flared and was ruthlessly shoved aside. "Not much. Nothing, really. And you're not getting anything more out of me than that, so don't even try."
"Hey!" Kurdy raised his hands, warding off imaginary blows. "Don't take it out on me, whatever it is!"
Jeremiah sighed and sat down. "Sorry, Kurdy. It's just... that man has a real talent for getting under my skin and pissing me off. What're you watching? Take my mind off being pissed."
"Nothing interesting, reallyjust a stupid kids' movie. Somehow, I remembered it as being more interesting when it came out."
"Yeah, well, that's 'cause you were a little kid then." Jeremiah found a chair and dragged it over. Just what he needed, a brainless movie to watch and a friend to talk to. Nothing to remind him here of what Markus had done.
Nothing other than the ache inside, anyway.
Morning found Jeremiah in the last place he wanted to be... in Markus's office. This time even Kurdy was aware of the tension, glancing uneasily from Jeremiah to Markus, and back again.
Jeremiah kept his eyes locked on the window, although he wasn't really seeing the gardeners going about their morning routine. Markus wouldn't look at him, instead busying himself with papers on his desk.
"I have a job for you," he said, with only a hint of strain in his voice. "It's actually something I've been pushing aside, because it's very dangerous. But... well." He coughed. "Never mind. It can't be put off any longer. I need you to go to this town here, in Oregon, and check out this lead on people called the Burners. You'll have to be exceptionally careful, though, because these Burners prefer to destroy all evidence of their existence, including people that ask questions about them. But I have reason to believe they're important."
"Sure you're not trying to get rid of us?" Jeremiah muttered, voice thick with resentment.
"What was that?"
"Nothing, Markus. Just give us the details, and we'll get the hell out of your hair."
"You're my best team," Markus said. Jeremiah steadfastly ignored the softening of his tone. "If anyone can pull this off, you two can. I really need to know what these people are up to."
Kurdy took it from there, quizzing Markus on all the pertinent details. Jeremiah left him to it and went over to the window, although he pointedly ignored the table where he'd gone to think that night. Funny, that couldn't have been more than a couple weeks ago, maybe a month at most, but it felt like such a long time...
So much had happened. So much had changed. What was it that weird guy had said, just before life descended into the pit of chaos? "The thunder will change you forever." Yeah, change that to "Thunder Mountain will change you forever," and the guy was right.
Jeremiah leaned against a brick wall. The festival was just getting started around him, but he hadn't felt any less like celebrating in a long time. True, the mission wasn't a complete ruin: they did have some important information to pass along to Markus. But he still felt like a failure. The contact person, Eddie, was deadstaked through the heart with one of his own pool cues. Really a gruesome way to go, like a re-enactment of a vampire story, only on a pool table instead of a more appropriate location like a graveyard or something. And all these people could think of was partying, for whatever reason they'd planned this thing... Not one of them gave a shit that he'd just gotten done burying Eddie.
And what was Markus going to have to say, when they brought back so little news? "Well gee, Markus, we found out that the Burners have got more technology and better organization than we do, and the contact guy is dead! Oh, and we stayed on to party with the townsfolk." Yeah, that report was going to go a long way towards making him look good to Markus, like someone worth keeping around.
Jeremiah sighed. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't avoid thinking about Markus. What a pisser. What was he going to do?
Hell, he wasn't even sure what he wanted to do. Markus really didn't give a shit, he'd made that rather plain. I care... yeah, right. Cared about getting laid, cared about having someone to talk to, but didn't care about Jeremiah as himself.
But what chance have you given him? a tiny voice whispered in his mind. Jeremiah ignored it. What was he thinking, anyway, wanting Markus to care about him at all... seemed a sure-fire way to get yourself killed these days. Everyone, friends, people he'd just met... you name it, if they were around him they died. So far only Kurdy had been safe. And how did he feel about that?
That was how Jeremiah felt inside, utterly and completely empty. Noise and music surrounded him, people laughing and dancing as they celebrated whatever holiday was at the core of this festival. Dancers in bizarre costumes jostled him. He wondered where the inspiration had come from for the party, then decided he didn't care. There was a table over there with alcohol. Looked like it was even free. And right now, that sounded like just what he needed, something to fill the void within and take his mind off death and the inescapable thoughts of Markus.
He threaded his way through the crowd. A woman in a feathered catsuit served him a glass and a smile, licking her lips below her mask. Jeremiah smiled back, but shook his head. No, definitely not what he needed, at least not yet.
He wandered around, occasionally catching glimpses of Kurdy. His friend was sure having a good time out there, laughing and dancing and getting just as crazy as any of the townsfolk.
The catwoman's beer was pretty good. Jeremiah visited her table several times, finally starting to feel a bit... well, not really better, but at least as if what had happened didn't matter anymore.
Shit. No, that wasn't right either, because it did matter. But at least it wasn't hurting as bad now.
"The world ended because God was thrown down." A quiet voice became audible for a brief moment, over the shrill music of pipes and throbbing bass beat of drums. "And God used to protect us, but now it's everything he can do just to look out for himself."
There he was, a street preacher in a bizarre outfit, covered in makeshift crosses and wearing an old white construction hat. "The devil is on the warpath. With one swipe he took out half the world. We'd better be real careful, because the next swipe could take everybody. And God wishes he could help us. But he can't. So it's up to us now. We can't be feeling sorry for ourselves, because there's too much at stake."
Jeremiah frowned. Something about that, something the man was saying, it almost made sense, almost sounded important... next swipe. Wasn't Markus worried about the Big Death returning?
"We have to save God from the end of the world," the preacher was declaiming vehemently. "If we survive, then God lives. So don't feel bad for where we are. Because we are fighting, fighting, for the soul of the world!"
He gestured expansively, caught up in religious fervor. Something caught Jeremiah's eyea badge. A photo badge. Like the kind some of the Thunder Mountain people wore. Thunder Mountain, also known as the End of the World. But Markus had nothing against God, why did the guy think...
Huh. Too weird. The effort of thinking was making his head ache. Jeremiah moved on, pausing in front of a derelict television set. Lights flickered and fuzzy images danced across the screen.
"There's nothing good on tv anymore," Jeremiah said, with a catch in his throat. One of the times he was able to just hang out with Markus, without worrying what people would think, was whenever a crowd gathered in the rec room for a movie... no good thinking about that now, though. He downed more of his drink and moved on.
When Claire showed up, hidden by a black costume he couldn't quite make sense of (bird? bat? caped crusader?), Jeremiah followed her willingly enough. Maybe she wasn't quite what he wanted, but at this point it hardly mattered. At least she wanted him, and wasn't even pretending to hide it. Never mind that the pain followed him even into her bed.
After all, it wasn't as if Markus cared.
"Have you seen Markus?"
Jeremiah paused in the act of climbing out of the Rover. "Erin, I just got in. How could I have seen Markus?"
"I know, I know," she said, twisting her hands anxiously. "But I can hope, can't I?"
Jeremiah sighed and closed the door, stretching tired muscles, cramped from hours of driving. Kurdy was already long gone. He'd gotten out in the main receiving area, leaving Jeremiah to check in the Rover, as usual. "All right, Erin, maybe you'd better tell me what's going on. Why can't you find Markus?"
"He's gone," she said quietly, looking around nervously.
"Shh!" Erin took his arm and pulled. Jeremiah followed her off to the side of the busy garage bay.
"Now suppose you tell me what you mean. How can Markus be gone?"
"It's like this," Erin replied. "He was really acting weird for a while after you left, really moody and unpredictable."
"Yeah, I know, that's very unlike him. Anyway, he came to me one day and said I'd have to take care of things for him for a while, and that's the last I saw of him."
"And when exactly was this?" Jeremiah ran a hand through his hair. Damn, but Markus must have been even more upset than he'd looked. Maybe that was a good sign.
"Four days ago."
"Four days?" Jeremiah's eyes widened in disbelief. "Holy shit. And no one's heard from him?"
"No contact at all." Erin chewed briefly at a fingernail, then snatched her hand away and put it in her pocket. "I was really hoping you'd have some idea where he is, because people are starting to wonder. Especially the rest of the Council."
"No wonder you look worried. All right," and Jeremiah thought regretfully of the hot shower he'd been promising himself. Oh well, this was more important. "I actually do have some idea where he is, assuming he ain't holed up somewhere in the mountain. You want me to have a look, see if I can haul him back?"
"Oh, would you?" Relief and hope washed over Erin in a visible wave. "It'd be such a load off my mind. I would, but I haven't got the faintest notion where he'd be, since he's not in any of his usual hideouts. I looked everywhere."
"That settles it, then. I'm heading back outside. Let Kurdy know I'll be back as soon as I can, okay?"
"Okay," Erin nodded, and then Jeremiah was off.
He was tired, yeah, but rest would have to wait. He went back to the Rover and pulled out his backpack, slinging it on with the ease of long practice. Then he started for the entrance portal, the "big fuckin' door," as Kurdy would say. At least, if he was right, Markus wasn't too far away.
So, he'd been upset, eh? Only fair, after what had happened. Jeremiah wasn't sure what to think now. Outside, he'd finally gotten things sorted out... for the most part. But now, this bit about Markus being upset changed everything. Again.
Waiting for the door to swing open enough to get through safely, Jeremiah wished he could bring the truck. Not that it would do much good, of courseif he was right, Markus was off somewhere the truck couldn't go. But it would make getting there a little quicker, anyway...
"Lazy-ass," he chided himself, then set off down the road. A bit of walking wasn't going to kill him. Probably do him good, as much as he'd been driving lately.
Being alone and on foot, with the gate securely locked behind him, felt very strange. Jeremiah shook off the oddness and continued down the road. His mind drifted back to one of the few times Markus had talked about the past with him.
"We used to sneak out sometimes," he'd said, a sad smile on his face. Jeremiah remembered that look, more open than was usual for Markus. He remembered wondering if Markus would ever care about him like that. "Not often, of course, or kids would get suspicious. And Allen had only just managed to win their trust. But we'd go out, down the road, and turn off to the rightremember where I showed you that time?"
Jeremiah remembered. He remembered all the turnings of the dirt roads out there.
"Go right there, then watch out on the side of the road. There's this little path, what used to be a jeep trail but hasn't been used in a long, long time. Hadn't been used even back then, until we found it. We'd go down that to what probably used to be someone's campsite, back when all the surrounding land here was a national forest. And then we'd just hang out, and enjoy the sun... it was harder, back then, to live under the mountain..."
End of driveway, turn right. Jeremiah wondered what Allen had been like. Must have been someone special, for Markus to still cling to his memory like that.
What was that? Jeremiah caught sight of something odd on the ground, then grinned. "Gotcha now, Markus," he said aloud, then laughed. Markus either hadn't realized he was leaving a clear trail of bootprints, or was just waiting for someone to come find him.
Jeremiah followed the footprints to a steep little path that branched off from the main road. It went down, then back up again, through trees and bushes.
Aspen, piñon, mountain maple, wild strawberry... Jeremiah found himself automatically identifying the plants as he walked, a habit he'd picked up from his dad. It had been a long time, far too long a time, since he'd been able to just enjoy a walk through the woods. Maybe this one was destined to end in disaster, but for now, he could listen to the leaves rustle and breathe the fresh air, rich with the smell of growth and life.
Jeremiah reached the crest of a small hill. There was a little clearing down below, grassy and open, with a good-sized pile of rocks providing a spectacular outlook over the mountains. Markus was there, on top of the rocks, sitting with his back to Jeremiah.
Well, hell. Suddenly this didn't seem like such a good idea. Jeremiah picked his way across the clearing quietly, dropped his backpack, and sat on a fallen log, near a well-used firepit. Markus didn't move, didn't give any indication that he knew Jeremiah was there. So he just sat there and watched, and tried not to think.
"I'm glad you came," Markus said, after a stretch of silence that might have lasted an hour or a lifetime. "I've been doing a lot of thinking."
"Yeah, me too." Jeremiah shifted. The log wasn't all that comfortable. His rump felt completely dead.
"And I was wanting to tell you something." Markus stood, stretching, and picked his way off the rocks. Jeremiah watched him impassively.
"Yeah? I could say the same, but something tells me that depends entirely on what you have to say."
"Always the cynic," Markus said, not quite smiling. He looked around for a place to sit, decided on leaning up against the log Jeremiah was sitting on. "It's funny, you know. I've been keeping a secret for fifteen years now, and suddenly circumstances are forcing me to share it."
Jeremiah looked at him, but he was focused on some faraway thing, perhaps a distant ridge, perhaps only a memory.
"She would have died, you know," he said, as though contributing to an ongoing conversation. "All alone, in that sealed-off room, with no one to know or care that she was there. But then I found her." Markus sighed. "It was an accident, really. All I was doing was looking for a safe place to hide. I was trying out my dad's code on all the locked doorssometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. This time it did, and I found Meaghan."
"She'd been alone in there for days. All the others were dead. But she wasn't, because she was different, special... for some unknown reason, she had the virus but was immune to it. So they took her away to Thunder Mountain, to keep her in a safe place until transportation could be found for her, to get her to the CDC, where they could find out what made her so different, why she was still alive. But they were dead, and she wasn't, and I found her."
Markus was quiet for a moment, picking at the ground. Jeremiah waited, numbed by the implications of what Markus had just said. She had the virus...
"At first, she was almost like a mother to me, even though she was utterly dependent on me for everything. She helped me grow up, gave me advice... you know, all the things adults do for kids. Things were pretty cool with her around. And I had Allen, back then, even though I never told her. But then I lost Allen. Things... changed. I think now what happened was that one day, Meaghan looked at me and realized I wasn't a little kid anymore, because she started getting more... friendly. I never told her why I was so upset, but she took it upon herself to cheer me up. Maybe I was stupid, maybe I should have told her about Allen, but I just didn't care. When she started to say she loved me, well... I let her. What did it matter? Meaghan was trapped inside a containment room. She would never be able to get out, not without killing off the remains of humanity. And she was getting really weird. I mean, yeah, I would probably get a little weird too after being locked up in a twelve by twelve room for several years. So what was the harm in letting her fall in love with me? She'd never need to know I didn't love her back, not the way I'd loved Allen, anyway. And it was nice. Someone actually cared about me. Someone needed me."
Now Markus actually looked at Jeremiah, and his eyes were filled with sadness in the dying sunlight. "So I let her think I loved her. I care, of course I care, it would be totally heartless not to after all she's done for me. And no matter what you may think, I'm not heartless. And you know what happened?"
"Not unless you tell me." Jeremiah could have smacked himself. That had come out sounding downright nasty. But Markus didn't seem to notice, just continued talking.
"I was talking to Erin. She was all over me, trying to find out what had been eating at you before you left, and what had been bothering me as well. Somehow we got on the subject of Michael. Anything to get her diverted... anyway, I was saying it was really sick, how he could dominate those people so completely, how he manipulated them like little puppets..."
"I remember," Jeremiah snapped. "What about it? Michael is hardly my favorite topic of conversation, you know that."
"Something clicked in my head, right then, and I thought: just like Meaghan. Do you have any idea what that did to me?"
"None at all, Markus. So tell me, or something, and get it over with, because I'm really not liking all this talk about Meaghan and Michael."
"You have a right to be angry, and I won't hold it against you," Markus said, glancing sideways at Jeremiah before standing up. "But would you please try to be more... civil, perhaps? Understanding?"
Jeremiah sighed. "Sorry. Where are you going?"
"It's getting dark. I'm going to light up the fire."
"Oh." Jeremiah blinked. For some reason, that struck him as odd. But then, what wasn't odd about this whole experience?
Markus tossed some branches from a pile a short distance away into the firepit. Jeremiah arranged them neatly, while Markus produced a lighter and lit a branch, using it to get the rest of the wood burning. "There, much better," he said, once he was sure the little fire wouldn't go out.
"If you say so." Jeremiah sat back on the log. "You know, Markus, this is a thoroughly bizarre situation here."
"Yes, I suppose it is." Markus returned to his former seat, watching the fire now. "But I've been out here for a long while now, thinking, and wondering what I'd do if you never came back. You see, a great deal of what's kept me out here for however long it's been"
"Four days? Strange, it doesn't seem that long. A great deal of what's been on my mind has involved you, and wishing I could turn back time to right before you left, so I could tell you..." Markus sighed. "You see, I fought off sending you and Kurdy out to look into the Burners for a long time, because I had this irrational fear you wouldn't return. But then... Well." Markus looked away, into the deepening shadows at the edge of the firelight. "You went. And I realized what's been happening. And I got sick inside, absolutely sick inside, because she's just like him, and I'm even worse. Meaghan is like Michael, I mean, playing me along like a master puppeteer, making me dance to her tunes. I didn't want to believe it, not at all, but I couldn't get around the fact that I recognized something of Meaghan in Michael. So I went off by myself, to sort it all out, and I can see it now, how she's been controlling me... and I've been letting her."
"Huh." Jeremiah added another piece of wood to the fire, carefully, not wanting it to go out. The temperature was dropping rapidly now that the sun was gone. "So what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that she knew just what to say to make me think I didn't want you around anymore."
Jeremiah looked at Markus sharply. Unless he was mistaken, that sentence had contained more emotion than anything he'd heard from Markus yet. "Well, I'd say she must have been onto something, or else you wouldn't have listened to her. But... you didn't, not really, because..." He stopped, feeling his face heat with the memory of exactly what Markus had done, instead of avoiding him.
"Jeremiah... I was confused. I still am confused. But now I know what was at the root of that confusion."
"You, of course. I didn't want to give you up, not then, and not now, even though I know I lost you for good. But Meaghan isn't going to control me anymore. I've realized, now, that that's exactly what she's been doing, and I'm disgusted with myself for not seeing it earlier. I still can't find it in my heart to be angry with her, because of the way she's spent the last fifteen years. Maybe playing mind games with me is the only amusement she has left in life. But I am determined that, no matter what, I'm not going to let her decide what I should do with my life anymore. I'm a grown man now, no longer the scared little kid needing to be told what to do, and I can make my own decisions about who to spend my time with. But I'm also not going to tell her that. Can you see what I'm saying?"
"Let me see if I've got this right." Jeremiah fiddled with a twig, stripping the bark off it and throwing the bits into the fire, where they went up in little flashes of flame. "Meaghan loves you, thinks you love her. She thinks you're hers, but you are just letting her believe that because you're too nice to break her heart. You'd rather be with me, but you aren't going to tell her that, just keep letting her believe she's got you."
"Essentially, yes." Markus nodded, then shivered.
"Hey..." Jeremiah looked at him, really looked at him, for the first time. Markus looked awful, pale and drawn. "Are you okay?"
"Yes. I'm just... a little cold, that's all."
"How long's it been since you ate anything?"
Markus gave him a blank look. "Ate anything? I have no idea. I mean, I think I ate something before I left, but..."
"Shit." Jeremiah dragged his pack from where he'd propped it against the log and opened it. "Got a bit of trail mix in here, better than nothing. It's been four days, Markus. I'm surprised you ain't dead on the ground somewhere."
"I'm not hungry," Markus said, turning away quickly from the container Jeremiah offered him.
"Come on, you've got to eat something." Jeremiah sat the trail mix down on the log.
"I can't, okay? I know myself well enough to know that if I eat now I'll get sick."
Jeremiah sighed. "And let me guess... you didn't bring a jacket, either. Right?"
"Why would I?"
Jeremiah cocked his head, giving Markus a considering look. "You know, you're doing it again. I can't tell if I want to smack you, or what."
"What are you talking about?" Markus frowned.
"Look, idiot, it's cold out here. You've been out here for four fucking days. Not eating, freezing your ass off... are you trying to kill yourself, or what? Come here."
Jeremiah ignored the blank look he was getting and fished his blanket out of his pack. He sat on the ground, leaning against the log, and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, holding an arm out. "I've got a blanket. Very thin, very ugly, very scratchy, but a hell of a lot better than nothing." Markus moved a little closer. "Now I'm still pretty pissed at you, no use pretending I'm not, but there's also no use pretending I don't give a shit, either. You're not going to sit here and torture yourself right in front of me."
"I'm not torturing myself," Markus protested, but didn't resist when Jeremiah wrapped him in the blanket and pulled him close.
"Bullshit." Jeremiah clamped down on his own renegade emotionsnow was not the time to go over the edge. "You're shivering. You expect me to believe there's nothing wrong with you, that you just enjoy freezing your ass off?"
"It really didn't bother me." Markus laid his head on Jeremiah's shoulder. "I've been too busy thinking."
"Idiot," Jeremiah said again. "You need to take better care of yourself." Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. Holding Markus like this was bringing up far too many painful associations. "Even if you're just going to go around pissing me off, you need to be in good shape to do it."
"I don't try to piss you off."
"Well, you do a damn fine job of it, whether you try to or not. Although I'm glad you explained about Meaghan. Somehow I feel better knowing the whole story. But, damn, Markus..." Jeremiah sighed. "Look, I was never looking for some kind of major emotional commitment from you. And I never wanted to know all your secrets, although I think if you'd been a bit more honest about Meaghan... well, that's beside the point."
"Good. That might even make a difference. But right now... hell, Markus, I don't know what to think. I'd gotten myself convinced that it didn't matter, that being around you was a bad idea anyway, that I ought to just go for Sarah or something because you couldn't possibly give a shit about me. But now.... shit."
Markus tensed in his arms. "I... don't know what to say."
"Relax, you." Jeremiah knew he shouldn't, but did it anywayraised his hand to cup the back of Markus's head, holding him closer. "So I'm confused. Big deal. It's not like it's anything unusual, after all."
"What's going to happen?"
"Well. Let's see," Jeremiah said. Damn his hands anyway, wanting to trace over familiar territory. He held them still with an effort. "I'm supposed to have come out and fetched you back home, just the obedient herd dog bringing in the strayed sheep. But for some reason, I seem to be out here instead."
"That does seem indicative of the future," and Markus chuckled faintly. "Just like the past... you'll only obey when you choose to do so."
"Does that surprise you?" Jeremiah caught his fingers stroking the short hair beneath them, enjoying the contrast in texture between the short soft hairs and the crisper texture of the longer waves... no. Not a good idea. He stilled the motion, feeling a pang of regret sharp as steel. Good thing Claire had never known he'd only been going through the motions. Would she have been as eager to offer him a place by her side had she known what he really wanted, whose face he'd seen instead of hers...?
"Of course not." Markus slipped down a bit and slid an arm around Jeremiah. "Mmmm..."
"Hey," Jeremiah said softly, "you falling asleep on me, or what?"
"Not really. Just enjoying. You smell good."
"What?" Jeremiah was torn between shock and laughter. "Markus, I haven't had a shower in days. What the hell's wrong with you, man?"
"Nothing. But you smell like you. And like outside. And like"
"Like I need a shower, you nutcase." Laughter won out. "The shower that I gave up to come find you, as a matter of fact."
"You didn't have to."
"Yes, I did." Jeremiah caught himself before he kissed the top of Markus's head. "Erin said you were upset. I had to find out what was up with you."
"You mean..." Markus raised his head, hope shining in his eyes in the flickering firelight.
"I don't know what I mean. But what I do know is that, even when you're pissing me off and being a complete pain in the ass, I still can't quit caring." Jeremiah sighed. There, he'd said it, admitted that he still cared. What was wrong with him, anyway? Did he actually enjoy opening himself up for Markus to rip him to shreds, or what?
"I'll take that as a good thing, then." Markus shifted, trying to get comfortable again. "And by the way, as long as I'm being honest with you, and with myself..."
"Yes?" Jeremiah prompted, after a silent interval punctuated by the soft crackling and popping of the fire.
"I'm not really sure how to say it." Markus sighed. "It just seems like, when I was with you, I was betraying Allen, and not Meaghan. But when I go to visit her, it's you I think of. God, I'm disgusting."
"No... no. Just confused." Jeremiah stared at the flames, fingers once again toying absently with Markus's hair. Markus wasn't the only one confused around here.
"And what's worse is, I was wrong. Very wrong." Markus took a deep breath, and Jeremiah could feel a shiver travel through him. "It's not Meaghan that I love."
He fell silent then, leaving Jeremiah to his thoughts. Yeah, fine, so he doesn't love Meaghan... but as long as he's still so obsessed with that Allen... Jeremiah tried to think objectively. Okay, so Markus had a relationship going with a woman, a relationship based on a lie. And not just any woman, eitherone with the capability of killing off most of the world's population all over again. How was it she had survived? And how, too, was she living inside the mountain without infecting anyone?
Jeremiah pushed those concerns aside. Markus was what was important here, not Meaghan. Specifically, what the hell was he going to do about Markus? He knew what his body wanted to do with Markussame thing it had wanted to do from the moment he'd first seen the man, smiling and indistinct in the shadows. But that wasn't a very good idea. He had to start thinking with something other than his hormones. "Shoulda been born a woman," he muttered, shaking his head with a wry, sad smile. Markus didn't seem to notice. How many times had his mother said that, to his father or any other man she thought was being stupid? Maybe she was right, at that... although Markus didn't seem too interested in women. Well, scratch thatMeaghan was a woman. But he wasn't sleeping with her.
It was best not to go there, not to wonder if he'd be hopping in bed with Meaghan if she wasn't contaigious. Better to concentrate on the issue that was important... should he be hopping into bed with Markus again, if the opportunity presented itself? No. Not at this point. No matter what his body cried out for, no matter how badly he wanted to, he couldn't give in. Not until there was some kind of foundation to build on, other than sheer lust, and not until he was damn sure Markus was seeing him, Jeremiah, and not some reflection of a long-dead lover.
What did he want, anyway? Before he'd gotten back, before Erin sent him back out to fetch the strayed sheep, Jeremiah had thought he knew exactly what he wanted: nothing. He didn't want a damn thing to do with Markus anymore, other than what he had to do. Obviously he couldn't avoid the man completely, but he could damn sure avoid any personal interaction. But then he'd found Markus, and had heard the pain and confusion in his voice... It changed everything. Maybe it shouldn't, but it did.
Jeremiah looked down at the man in his arms. Markus was sound asleep, limp and trusting Jeremiah to not drop him on the ground. Jeremiah smiled a little and sighed. Kinda flattering, really, that Markus had gotten so stressed out that he hadn't been eating or sleeping for four days. Maybe the guy really did care.
Damn, there he went again, avoiding the issue. What he needed to do was figure out what he wanted from Markus. His mind shied away from the word relationship, but what else could he call it? If there was no relationship, then he had absolutely no right to get upset over what Markus had said before. Might as well admit it and get it over with. He wanted a real relationship, with at least some degree of trust, and honesty, and caring... not just empty sex.
The fire let loose a loud pop and Jeremiah jumped, startled. Markus slid halfway down his chest with a sleepy murmur. "Shit, fire's almost dead," Jeremiah said quietly. Then, louder, "Markus, wake up a bit."
Jeremiah smiled and shook him gently. "Come on, babe, we've got to move. Fire's dead, it's gotten a lot colder, and if I have to sit on this hard ground much longer I won't have an ass left. So wake up." Shit, had he really just called Markus babe? He'd been hanging out around Kurdy too long.
"Hmm?" Markus raised his head, one eye cracking open. "Wasn't sleeping."
"Bullshit you weren't. Now come on, let me up." Jeremiah rose, slowly and painfully. Felt like it was too late, and he already didn't have an ass left. Markus leaned against the log, rubbing his eyes and yawning. Jeremiah pulled the blanket free and shook it out, laying it as near the fire as he dared. Then he laid down. He could think as easily laying flat as he could sitting up with his ass going numb.
"What are you doing?" Markus finally woke up enough to look at him.
"Get over here," he said, patting the blanket. "Or are you going to try and convince me again that you like freezing to death?"
"No," Markus said, moving somewhat unsteadily to the blanket. "No, I don't think I will. Seems to me you didn't believe me, anyway."
"You've got that right." Jeremiah got the blanket wrapped around both of them, making sure Markus was closest to the fire.
"Never thought I'd be here again," Markus said, a real smile lighting his eyes in the remains of the firelight.
"What, this place?"
"Here," Markus repeated, then kissed Jeremiah lightly. "In your arms."
"Markus..." Jeremiah tensed, closing his eyes.
"What is it, Jeremiah?" His hands drifted under Jeremiah's battered jacket, provoking shivers.
"I... Markus, don't." Jeremiah swallowed hard. "I can't. Not now. Too soon, still don't know..."
"Look at me, Jeremiah." Markus ran a finger down Jeremiah's cheek. Jeremiah opened his eyes reluctantly. "It's okay. I understand. But you know what?"
Jeremiah shook his head. The deep orange glow of the dying flames was enough to show the serious look on Markus's face.
"I'm willing to wait for you, to be patient if there's even a chance that you might forgive me..." Markus smiled a little. "But I'm not going to give up, okay? Not until it's obvious that any hope is dead beyond resurrection. You understand me?"
"Markus..." Jeremiah tightened his grip for a moment. "You've got to prove it to me, prove that you're not going to fuck me over. Because no matter how I try to deny it, I... shit. I still care about you. And... and I don't want to be hurt again."
"Understandable," Markus nodded, then tucked his head under Jeremiah's chin. "But just knowing there's hope makes me feel better... so much better..."
Jeremiah felt Markus relax again, back into much-needed sleep. Too bad he was still too worked up to follow. That had been hard, very, very hard, to resist Markus, and the man hadn't even been half trying. And it had been harder yet to admit to caring, and to not wanting to be hurt. But maybe things would work out.
The stars overhead shone with a brittle clarity. Jeremiah stared at them, but try as he might, he couldn't find any easy solutions to his problem.
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