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2032, Colorado Springs

"I'm sorry, sir, you'll have to wait here--"

"Forget that shit."

Markus recognized the voice immediately, and looked up from his book to see Jeremiah coming around the corner of the house, plowing right through the guard that was trying to stop him.

"Sir! You're not allowed--"

"Look, shoot me or get out of my way," Jeremiah said. The guard looked tempted, but looked over at Markus.

"It's okay, Sawyer, you can let him go. We probably still need him." Markus marked his place in his book and put it down before getting out of his chair. "For now."

"So much for being a war hero -- kids these days, no respect for their elders. So, I'm here to see George Washington, have you seen him?"

"Nobody that legendary around here, I'm afraid."

Jeremiah dropped his pack on the porch and stood there, hands in his jean pockets. "Don't sell yourself short, man. I hear you took down an aspen tree with your little missile, marched your armies through the Rockies barefoot in the dead of winter, and started a new nation. Sounds pretty legendary to me. All hail the father of our country, and all that shit."

"Barefoot?" Markus raised an eyebrow.

"Yeah, I may have started that one myself. It sounded kind of poetic, or something." He held out a hand. Markus took it, but instead of shaking it, he pulled Jeremiah into a tight hug.

"Hey, now, don't go getting all sentimental on me." He awkwardly patted Markus on the back. "It's unmanly."

Markus clasped his hand around the back of Jeremiah's neck; his hair was shaggy, brushing against Markus's fingertips, and Markus felt the scratch of Jeremiah's unshaven cheeks against his own. Where Markus had filled out a bit, put on some weight since the end of the war, Jeremiah had, if anything, gotten rangier and lankier, and he felt almost insubstantial. He held on until Jeremiah made a faint sound of protest, and only then did he step back, shoving his own hands into his pockets. "You don't call, you don't write..."

Jeremiah reached up to rub the back of his neck. "I file my reports as required, y'old nag."

"You mean you get your aides to file them." Markus sat back down as Jeremiah took a seat across from him. Jeremiah looked thin, and tired, but more relaxed than Markus had seen him in a long time.

"Same difference, as long as they get done."

Markus smile. "You look good."

Jeremiah shrugged. "I guess it's been a while, hasn't it?"

Markus nodded. "We started to think you didn't love us anymore."

"You get busy, one thing leads to another, then you're on to the next place -- still a lot of work to be done out there." He leaned his head back, closing his eyes.

"Are you going to keep doing it? Or are you thinking about maybe finally trying to settle down?"

Another shrug. "I'm not too good at that."

"And what brings you to my door today?"

"I hear they're going to elect a new president, thought I might check him out. That is, if you're really stepping down?" Jeremiah asked, a watchful look on his face.

Markus looked out over his garden, without really seeing it. "It's time."

"They'd elect you again, you know."

Markus smiled slightly. "It's time," he repeated. "They'll be okay. It's time for the country, and it's time for me."

They'd elected him officially during the constitutional ratification meetings in 2023, nearly double the number of representatives they'd had at the original meeting at Thunder Mountain, and since then he'd worked to bring as much of the country into the Alliance as they could manage. Borders remained more permeable than they'd been prior to the Big Death; people spoke as if state borders had real meaning, but actual territories were decided more by the strong personalities that controlled them than by any arbitrary line on a map. There were still wild areas which had no safe passage, but slowly those were being whittled away, aided in part by the recent push to get some of the train systems back in service, and expanded.

Even after the Four Corners treaty, it had taken the Western Alliance nearly two years to finally see the cult of Daniel fall. With Sims's death, his army had lost cohesion, lacking the initiative to persist without their charismatic leader, particularly with the rumor that Daniel himself didn't exist -- had never existed. Most of Sims's lieutenants had been willing to withdraw, at least until they knew whether they had anything real to fight for, but that hadn't guaranteed a willingness to give up the power they held. The remaining Core members fought back, using both force and psychology, but without a real Daniel to show, they fought a losing battle, and their own people turned on them after the Alliance got the proof they needed to prove the rumors fact. After that, the East degenerated into a chaos it hadn't seen since right after the Big Death, various individuals grabbing for their own territory, warring with those around them -- and as always, it was the people who just wanted to survive who suffered. The Alliance had funneled troops and support, under the direction of Rachel's underground, trying to provide some stability in the region, but even now the East was a powder keg.

But that would be someone else's problem, now. Markus shook his head. "Kurdy will do a fine job."

Jeremiah grinned. "I still can't believe you talked him into it."

"What makes you think I had to?"

Jeremiah just looked at him.

"Okay, yes, maybe I had something to do with it, but he'll be fine. He just needed to be convinced that he looked like a president."

"That's all, huh." Jeremiah looked skeptical.

"Yeah, I told him it was something right around the eyes. Works every time."

"From king to kingmaker in two easy steps," Jeremiah said casually.

Markus shook his head. "We have the basic structures in place, where we can -- you know that better than most. But there's still a lot to do, and we really need someone who can pull the people together, make them want to work together. Kurdy proved he could do that during the war, and he's well-known, well-liked."

"He's a likeable kind of guy. Are you sure he's going to win?"

"Sure, as in nothing could go wrong? Something could always go wrong, and they are free elections, but he has the support of enough of the members to make it virtually certain." Jeremiah just nodded, and Markus backtracked. "You never answered my question."

Jeremiah blinked at him. "Which question was that?"

"Are you going to stay on, keep doing what you've been doing?"

One of Markus's first pushes as president had been to start up a corps, not quite military, not entirely civilian, but devoted to carrying on the work they'd started before the war, rebuilding the infrastructure in as many places as possible. He'd asked Jeremiah to run it, originally, but Jeremiah had argued, convincingly, that he'd be nothing but a headache in charge of something on that scale. Instead, he'd suggested that Gina be promoted to an appropriate level, and that he be her arm in the field. She'd spent long enough organizing him in Millhaven -- one of the most efficient and definitely the scariest assistant he'd ever had -- and after, it seemed like a natural change to all concerned.

It meant that he'd spent the last nine years spending no more than six months to a year in any one place, getting things organized and going in one town before moving on to the next, still on the road as much as possible. Lately his visits back had been fewer and further between.

Jeremiah shrugged. "It suits me, I guess." He looked around the garden. "Nice place you've got here."

"You haven't been here before, have you?"

Jeremiah shook his head. "Don't you feel kind of exposed out here, on the surface with the rest of us?"

"I have a storm cellar I can go into, if all the room and fresh air start to get to me." Once they had a fairly secure area, and regular patrols, they'd established a capital city in Colorado Springs, close enough to the mountain if necessary, but more accessible to the greater numbers of people who were coming in for training and direction. "I'll give you a tour."

"Still under guard, I see."

Markus nodded. "I'm hoping that will ease up a bit once Kurdy takes office, but Lee still thinks I'm an attractive target for various groups wanting to make a statement, so..."

"Must be a pain in the ass," Jeremiah said.

"You get used to it," Markus lied.

"Don't you ever just want to, I dunno. Get away? Be by yourself, travel around a bit?"

Markus shifted in his chair uncomfortably. He'd done more traveling in the last few years than before, but like everything else, it had been in service to the Alliance. He wasn't sure he knew how to live without people around. "I've been busy."

"Time for you to think about finding a life, Markus."

Markus raised an eyebrow. "I take it I shouldn't consider the source?"

"I, unlike you, at least know a life when I see one."

"As you pass it by on the road?"

"Exactly. I have seen many, many people with lives, and it has made me wise in the ways of... lives."

Markus smiled. "How about a drink?"

"I would love a drink. Probably several. I'm not so sure you should drink, though."

Markus stood up to lead the way into the house. "I have it on good authority that I am an adorable drunk. Besides, I couldn't let a guest drink alone." He pulled the door open, and motioned for Jeremiah to go through.

"Maybe I shouldn't drink, either." Jeremiah picked up his pack, then dropped it just inside the door before moving on through into the main part of the house.

"I could make it an order," Markus said, following him into the living room and moving to the liquor cabinet. "You do still work for me."

"Already with the adorableness!" Jeremiah shrugged out of his jacket, dropping it over a chair. He looked around the room, and Markus tried to see it with his eyes. It didn't seem to have a lot of personality, now that he thought about it -- except for the books scattered here and there, on tables, on the floor, piled in bookcases. It still felt strange to be living in a house at all.

"It's not much, but it's home," he said, handing Jeremiah a glass. "Are you hungry?"

Jeremiah turned and looked at him. "I could eat, but I didn't know you could cook."

Markus shrugged. "Away from the mountain, it's either learn to cook, or find someone to do it for me. I kind of enjoy it."

"Dinner it is, then." He looked down at his clothes. "Is it okay if I clean up?"

"Oh, sure, down the hall on the right." He looked at Jeremiah's clothes. "If you need a clean shirt, or anything, my room is the one just past, feel free to find whatever you need. Do you have someplace to stay?"

"Nah, I figured I'd try out one of these bed and breakfast places Dad was telling me about." He walked over hefted his pack back over his shoulder, and started down the hall.

"There's room here, if you want," Markus said, feeling a bit odd, but hoping he'd say yes.

Jeremiah turned back, and just looked at him for a minute. "You sure?"

"Yeah," Markus said. "I'd-- I'd enjoy the company."

Jeremiah smiled. "Okay. I'd like that."

Dinner was simple enough to pull together, leftover stew, a fresh salad, rolls. He could hear the shower running as he set the table and poured out the wine. He didn't have company often, at least of the unofficial sort, and official guests didn't come here to eat his stew. For some reason, he thought of Erin, putting together a romantic dinner for two in the Mountain. He tried not to think of her often, because it just hurt too much. He didn't know if there ever would have been a time for them, but time was the one thing they'd run out of.

He picked up Jeremiah's jacket, intending to hang it up in the closet. Instead he brought it up to his face, inhaling the scents of the road, pine trees and gasoline, sweat and leather. It brought back more memories, of meeting Jeremiah, fighting beside him, arguing with him, the early days of the Alliance. He wondered again, as he had so often in the last few months, if he was making the right decision -- and why he was so afraid.

"Everything okay?" Markus looked up, flushing; he hadn't heard the shower stop, or the door open. Jeremiah had on a clean white shirt, unbuttoned halfway down his chest, sleeves rolled up. He looked down at himself, following Markus's gaze. "Don't you own a T-shirt, dude?"

Markus laughed, and walked over to the closet, hanging up the jacket. "It suits you."

When he turned around, Jeremiah was looking at him thoughtfully. "Thanks."

Markus just blinked, then turned and picked up a wine glass and shoved it at Jeremiah before heading for the kitchen, babbling a bit. "If you want to have a seat, I'll bring out the food, although the salad is already out, you can start with that, if you want. Did you say you'd seen your Dad? How is he? Were you there long?"

"I didn't, but I did, and he's fine, and Candace is fine, and I just stopped in overnight on my way here."

Markus came back out with the plates, setting them down and seating himself. "And Emily?"

"She's good, we had a tea party. I got to wear the pink hat."

Markus grinned. "Is it still strange?"

"I just try not to think about the fact that my stepmother is a couple years younger than I am, and it's fine. He's happy, and it's not like I'm likely to give him any grandkids, so... Emily's a good kid. I think she's smarter than I am."

"I think they're all smarter than we are, and it's a good thing, too." Markus shook his head. "The world has a strange way of trying to make things right."

"You can say that again."

"Did you go by the school?" Jeremiah's wine glass was empty, so Markus refilled it, and topped off his own. The small school that they'd protected during the war had grown and moved to the capital, and Jeremiah's father taught there with his wife, one of his former students.

"Yeah, I had a message to drop off for Sister Hannah, from Rose, talking about scary smart kids." He took a drink of his wine. "They're doing good work. A bunch of the towns I've been in have had Academy-trained teachers, and it really makes a difference. It's like, once you have a stable food supply, some trade, if you have a school, you have a real community starting."

The children born after the Big Death had started to reach adulthood in the last few years, and already they were having an impact, working in local governments, bringing in new ideas, new energy, and new hope. Many became teachers, passing on what they themselves had learned.

"Children help make a community."

Jeremiah nodded. "You ever thought about having any?"

Markus shook his head. "Not really." He grinned. "Kurdy may have enough for the both of us."

"How many is it now, three?"

"Anna, Darien, and Elizabeth. Rachel says that's it, there's not gonna be any more, but Kurdy just gets this great big grin on his face."

Jeremiah smiled. "He sure loves those kids."

"He'll be glad to see you." Markus watched as Jeremiah ducked his head, focusing on his stew again. "How come you haven't come back in so long?"

Jeremiah was silent for a long time, and Markus ate while he waited. It was a companionable silence, more comfortable than he might have expected. Their bottle of wine was getting low, so he got up to get another, and then he sat back down and waited a while longer, pushing his plate aside, refilling his glass.

Finally, Jeremiah looked up at him. "This isn't my thing -- government, taking care of business on such a big scale. I... don't really know where I fit, around here." He waved his fork around in the general direction of the rest of the world. "Out there, on the road, I can make a difference. Here..." He shoved his fork in his salad and took a big bite.

"You've been missed," Markus said lightly. He didn't say, I've missed you, I've missed talking to you, arguing with you, missed your stubbornness, missed the way you make me see what's right when I'm too blinded by what might be wrong. Sitting with Jeremiah, even in silence, made him feel less alone than he'd felt in a very long time.

Jeremiah pushed back from the table a bit, finished off his wine, and held his glass out for Markus to refill it. "You never really answered my question, either."

"Which one?"

"Do you ever think about just getting out of here, hitting the road, seeing a bit of what the world's like now?"

"I don't think I've had time." Markus stared into his glass.

"You're about to, and if you don't make some plans for yourself, you know that somebody's gonna make 'em for you. Even if you're not president, you're too valuable a resource for them to let sit idle, unless you're already busy."

Markus looked at him. "I thought the idea was to take some time for myself, not stay busy."

Jeremiah laughed. "Markus, would you even know how to not stay busy? I don't think so. But you've got a chance to decide what you're going to busy yourself with."

Markus stood up and started picking up the dirty dishes. "Why do I think this isn't just academic?"

Jeremiah picked up their glasses and the unopened bottle of wine, and followed him into the kitchen. "You know me, am I anything like academic?"

"You know what I mean. What makes you think that it's okay for you to make plans for me, if it's not okay for those other people to make plans for me?"

"Because unlike them, I have your best interests at heart." He had the wine open, and indicated Markus's glass, but Markus shook his head, so Jeremiah just set it aside.

Markus put the dishes in the sink and started filling it with soapy water. "Now you're scaring me."

Jeremiah grabbed a dish towel, and leaned back against the counter. "I seem to remember you saying that you liked putting things together."

"...yes?" Markus washed the dishes, and Jeremiah started picking them up and drying them.

"Well, that's a lot of what I do for the corps: I go out, I listen to what people need, and I help them put it together." He opened a couple cupboards, and started putting the dishes away as he dried them. "I could use a little help."

Markus stopped with his hands in the hot, soapy water, and blinked. "What are you saying?"

Jeremiah stopped, one hip against the counter, and crossed his arms, looking at Markus. "I'm saying I could use a partner. I'd go for my old one, but he's a little tied up. I hear he's running for president."

"Not to mention he's got a wife and three children now. That'd make traveling light kind of hard." Markus's throat was a little tight, and his head was spinning slightly.

"There's that, too. So, what do you think?"

Markus looked up at him. "I... think I don't know what I think. I hadn't even considered it."

Jeremiah smiled. "That's what I'm here for, to make you consider it."

"Why me?" Markus asked. "We fight-- or we fought, I guess, as much as we did anything."

"I could say that you're the one who's fixing to be out of a job."

Markus nodded. "You could say that."

"Or I could say that I think it would be good for you, show you some of the reality of all the theory you've been working on, let you do some hands-on helping, get you out of your head a little. That'd be true, too."

"But?"

"Or I could say that I think it would be good for me to have a partner again, someone to help me pull my head out of my ass on a regular basis. Some people might say that was true, too -- Gina does, fairly often. I wouldn't be one of 'em, of course, but then maybe I just like the view."

Markus laughed. "You have a way of making the job sound so appealing."

"Or I could say that when I saw Rose, I saw her father, too, and the two of them seemed to think that coming to talk to you was a good idea."

Markus felt an odd pang. "You saw Smith? How's he doing?"

"He and Rose are just fine. And can I just say that what seemed like all out craziness in him, well, it's harder to say that about Rose, for some reason?"

Markus finished the last of the dishes, and drained the sink. "So, they said you should take me on as a partner." Somehow the possibility didn't seem as appealing as it had just moments ago.

Jeremiah poured the last of the second bottle into their glasses, and handed one to Markus.

"No, they did not."

Markus looked up. "But you just said--"

"I said they said that coming to talk to you was a good idea. More or less."

"More or less?"

Jeremiah looked down at his glass, and Markus had the feeling that Jeremiah was avoiding his eyes. "Rose said, 'He's going to need you, Jeremiah. And you need him.' And Smith said, 'He'll be waiting for you. It's time. It's time for you both to find the unexpected places.'"

Markus's hands tightened on the sink. Unexpected places. The words sounded familiar, but he couldn't place them immediately. Maybe it was because he'd been thinking of Erin earlier, of that dinner, the words he'd said that he'd never told anyone else, that he finally remembered.

"You okay?" Jeremiah asked quietly.

"No," he said wryly. "But I will be." He stared blindly ahead, awash in memories again, of people he'd known and lost, and those that were still here. "I didn't think you paid too much attention to Smith and his crazy talk."

Jeremiah rubbed his mouth. "Yeah, well, like I said, Rose has a way of making you listen when you wouldn't, ordinarily."

"Do you ever think about the miracles?"

"What?" Jeremiah sounded completely lost.

"Back in the Mountain, right before-- before Sims, and Four Corners, all of that. When Smith told us that we could have any one miracle we asked for."

"Oh. That. No, not really."

Markus was pretty sure Jeremiah was lying. "Do you remember what you asked for?"

"I think I wanted to drag God out back and have a fist fight."

"I wanted Meaghan, alive, healthy, uninfected. There we were, facing a fight for our lives, for the fate of the world, and all I wanted was to have the woman I loved back, to be able to touch her for once. How selfish is that?"

"Markus, that's--"

"Do you ever wonder if it was true?" Markus looked up into Jeremiah's eyes. "Do you ever wonder, if you'd gone with us, if we'd stayed, if we'd have gotten our miracles?" Jeremiah started shaking his head, and opened his mouth, but Markus didn't let him say anything. "I do. I wonder that, remembering Mister Smith the next day, snatching a roll out of the air with his paralyzed arm. I wonder if I could have had Meaghan back, at my side, with me now. If I'd be less alone, if I'd stayed."

"Markus, Smith's arm... Something like that, the body is able to do amazing things, and the mind, well... It's not the same as bringing somebody back from the dead--"

"The nerves were severed, Jeremiah."

"What?"

"In Smith's arm. They told him that it was possible he might get some use of it back, but what they told me was a little less hopeful. They didn't expect him to ever be able to move it again. And then it was like he'd never been injured at all."

"It's not like they were trained medical professionals, or anything."

Markus smiled sharply, and looked back down. "No, it's true, and I'm not saying I believe that anything would have been different. Or even that were it possible, things aren't better as they turned out. I did need to let go of her, to move on. I'd been in love with Meaghan my entire adult life, Jeremiah. And I couldn't touch her, I could never touch her. I wonder sometimes if I loved her more because she was safe for me to love, someone for whom all my passion stayed theoretical, someone I could be responsible for, take care of, without having to give too much of myself away-- I couldn't save my mother, but maybe I could save her, even though I knew it was impossible... And then Erin told me she loved me -- of course, she thought I was asleep, but then I told her I wasn't, but I said the time wasn't right-- I'm talking too much again, aren't I?"

"It's okay. I kind of like it." He smiled at Markus's skeptical look. "I started to figure it out, figure you out, a while back. I think you have to spend so much time listening, so much time thinking, that sometimes, when you get a chance, the words just come pouring out. And when you've been drinking, it loosens your tongue even more."

"That, and you make me nervous."

Jeremiah gave him an odd look, and another lop-sided smile. "Is that so?"

"Yeah, a little bit." Markus wiped his hands on his pants, and started to walk past Jeremiah, but Jeremiah put a hand out to stop him, leaving it resting on his shoulder.

"Who do you touch now, Markus?"

The smile felt sharp and bitter on Markus's mouth. "I've... been busy."

Jeremiah squeezed his shoulder, and raised his thumb to stroke lightly against the bare skin of Markus's throat. "That's about to change."

"I told Erin that the time wasn't right, but there was always hope. And that hope had a way of turning up in the most unexpected places." His voice was husky, and he shivered as Jeremiah kept stroking his thumb lightly against his neck, making his skin feel tight and hot. "I never thought that hope might look like you. Then again, looking back, I'm not sure that's actually true. Maybe you always looked like hope to me."

Jeremiah slid his hand up to cup the nape of Markus's neck, and he tugged a little, until Markus looked at him again, and couldn't look away. "C'mere."

It had been a long time since Markus had been held, or kissed, and it was a little strange, at first, trying to figure out where to put his hands, what to do with his tongue. He was almost too aware of Jeremiah's hands on his sides, resting on his hips.

Jeremiah pulled back and looked at him. "I swear, you think harder and louder than anybody I've ever met. Does that big brain of yours ever shut off?"

Markus smiled and leaned his forehead against Jeremiah's. "Not often, no."

Jeremiah made a sound halfway between a chuckle and a snort. "I always did love a challenge."

Markus pulled back warily, and the look on Jeremiah's face made his heart pound a little faster. "Now you're scaring me again."

Jeremiah turned him until he had Markus backed up against the counter. "Good."

This kiss was a harder, a little fiercer, and Markus let it wash over him and tried to just stop thinking, but instead he found himself thinking a bit about how Jeremiah tasted, about the rasp of Jeremiah's unshaven cheek against his own, the stroke of his tongue against the corner of Markus's mouth, until he felt the nip of Jeremiah's teeth on his throat, the palm of Jeremiah's hand sliding along the length of his cock, and all thinking stopped, and there was only feeling. There was Jeremiah's skin as Markus slid his hands under the clean white shirt, of the angles and curves of a body he'd barely admitted thinking about, over the years. The heat of lips and tongue and teeth, the amazing feeling of touching, of being touched, wanting and being wanted and being allowed to have, and if he'd never admit it to Jeremiah, there was a passing moment of wondering if maybe God had finally let him have his miracle, in a way he'd never have thought to ask for.

"Markus," Jeremiah murmured against his ear, grinding his hips in tightly against Markus's.

"Yes?" Markus gasped, widening his stance.

"We're going back to your bedroom now, and we're going to take all of our clothes off, and I'm going to touch you all over."

"Okay, yeah, I can do that. I can definitely do that." And he was off, out of the kitchen and down the hall, fingers snagged in the waist of Jeremiah's jeans, tugging him along behind, laughing.

But Markus felt shy again once they were in the room, with the bed, and he busied himself pulling back the sheets, shutting the curtains, then opening them again, then shutting them.

"Markus, come here." Jeremiah took Markus's head in his hands, palms warm against his cheeks, and his kiss this time was slow, and sweet, and Markus just held on and followed his lead. Between the two of them they got their clothes off in no more than twice the usual time, and Markus only stepped on Jeremiah's toes once, and narrowly missed kneeing him in a way that would not have been conducive to cordial relations. Jeremiah just winced, and laughed, and pushed him down on the bed, nudging his legs apart so that he could lie between them, and started kissing him again.

Markus couldn't help himself, it was all too intense, and hooking one leg over Jeremiah's hips, he pressed up against Jeremiah's hip, turning his head to bare his throat and ear to Jeremiah's lips and tongue, and he came, shivering, in an almost embarrassingly short amount of time. "Um. Sorry?"

Jeremiah just laughed softly, fondly, and bit his ear. "Nothing to apologize for, that's part of the point of all this, isn't it? To get a little messy together?" Then he settled his cock in the hollow of Markus's hip, and bracing himself, he rocked and thrust while Markus arched up against him, running his hands over Jeremiah's arms and chest, until Jeremiah stilled, a look of near-pain on his face, and came, shuddering against him.

Jeremiah sagged limply on top of him, and Markus tentatively put his arms around him, holding him close. He stared up at the ceiling, but he wasn't thinking, not really.

"How's the brain?" Jeremiah asked, his voice muffled against Markus's shoulder.

"Pretty damn quiet," Markus said, smiling.

Jeremiah pulled his head back to look at him. "Am I good, or am I good?"

"Modest, too. It's one of your more admirable qualities."

"I took lessons from this guy I know." Jeremiah put his head back down, seeming content to just lie there a while longer.

"Partners, huh?" Markus said. "Is this what you had in mind?"

"Well, I can't say I've ever had these particular perks with my previous partners, but it does have its appeal, don't you think?"

"Sorry, not much thinking happening over here." Markus felt the shape of Jeremiah's smile against his skin. He was sorry when Jeremiah rolled off to lie on his side, facing him.

"It's still dangerous out there, you know."

Markus nodded. "I've read the reports. Your reports."

"It feels sometimes like nobody is. Like they're getting more cautious, but not in ways that help anybody."

"Some of them are getting complacent already; they have a little power, a little comfort, their people are happier, and they don't want to risk it for a lot of people they've never met. They're starting to play politics again." It felt strangely comfortable, lying, naked, in bed with Jeremiah, talking this way. "You know why I'm leaving? I no longer feel like I'm the best one to get around these kinds of games. I think they need somebody like Kurdy, someone who's going to call their bluff, who's not going to let them get away with it."

"You never let them get away with it." Jeremiah sleepily stroked his hand over Markus's chest.

Markus shook his head, frustrated. "Some of them just aren't hearing me anymore. I've become 'Oh, that's just Markus,' and they think it's all just going to keep falling into place. They don't want to hear the rumors of unhappiness because these towns have lights and power, and those others don't yet, or to put the people and resources at risk cleaning out the wild places that are getting more and more concentrated, the further we expand. Mind, Theo does what she can to beat some sense into them, but I think she's lost a bit of her edge." He grinned.

"Are you saying Theo's gotten soft?"

"Not soft, just maybe a little mellow. It's really kind of alarming."

"I can't even imagine."

"She's going to be magnificent, someday. I mean, she is magnificent, but she has a confidence she never had before."

"Theo never struck me as lacking in confidence," Jeremiah said dryly, his hand resting on Markus's belly.

"Yeah, but... That was more... brashness, and bluster, and... not bluffing, but there was this core of her that was hollow, a little scared. It's like she's not scared anymore, she's confident in herself." He looked down and took Jeremiah's hand in his own, thoughtlessly, then let them both fall together back to his stomach. "Anyway, I think that Kurdy will be able to get through to them in a way I can't, anymore."

"You still have things to do, you know."

Markus squeezed his hand. "I hope so. I can't imagine being idle."

Jeremiah rolled onto his back; Markus missed the warmth of his hand as it pulled away, but Jeremiah's hip was still close up against his own. "A little idleness might suit you. Might suit both of us, if it comes to that. You ever been fishing?"

"I can't say that I have."

"We should go fishing. Real fishing, with worms, none of that flipping the electric light business of Smith's."

"What?"

"Never mind. But yeah, fishing, and some carnivals, stuff like that." Jeremiah idly picked up Markus's hand by the wrist, and stroked his thumb over the soft inner skin. "In between putting some things back together."

Markus blinked sleepily. He felt more relaxed than he remembered feeling in a very long time. "That sounds good. Partners. I like the sound of that." He yawned. "I should go make sure the lights are locked and the doors are turned off."

"There's more of that adorableness -- I think your guards can manage to keep people out even if the doors are turned on." Jeremiah sat up to grab the sheet and blanket, and pull them up over them. Then he kissed Markus on the forehead. "Go to sleep, Brainiac."

"You, too."

"Trust me, I fully intend to." Jeremiah shifted on to his stomach, facing away, but with his hip pressed close to Markus's side.

It was quiet for a long while, and Markus thought maybe Jeremiah was already asleep. "Jeremiah?"

"Yeah?"

"They were right. I've been waiting, I just didn't know I was waiting. I didn't know what to expect." He felt Jeremiah's hand squeeze his shoulder. "I'm glad you came back. I'm glad you came back here."


finis