Author's note:

This is the fourth part of an 80,000 word novel, which I've divided into seven chapters. All seven have been completed and will be posted in sequence. The story takes place about one hundred years into the future. Chapters can be enjoyed individually, but the dramatic tension is strongest if you start with chapter one.

I do apologize for the long delay in getting chapters posted. I care about these characters a great deal, and it's very important to me that the final story represent the one I imagined as accurately as possible. I've done a lot of editing and re-writing, which has been very difficult to focus on during these tumultuous times.

"After the End" is a genre romance: It is a fantasy about the progression of a relationship, with an interplay of both sexual and emotional elements. I personally find the sex to be very hot, and the romance to be very satisfying. I hope you will as well, but feel free to focus on just one or the other, based on your mood or interest.

A couple of notes on the story as a whole:

- I am new to writing, so I'd love to hear what you responded to or didn't. I have very much appreciated all the feedback I've received on my previous postings.

- I am genderqueer but biologically female, so I don't always have first-hand experience with the m/m sex depicted. However, I have combined personal knowledge with research to tell the most realistic story I can.

I hope you enjoy!

Tags for this chapter include: #bisexual male, #romance, #gay romance, #future, #dystopian, #novel, #denial, #edging, #tickling, #submission

_______________

Julian:

December brought shorter days, rainstorms that chilled to the marrow, and more trouble with Red River Crew. Though we had settled well outside the territory they claimed, raiding parties ranged further and further from their bases, plundering our supplies and carrying off anyone they caught unprotected. I tightened the watch around Fort Laurel and allowed no one outside the walls after dark except the guards. Those who didn't make it back by sundown usually weren't seen again.

I spent hours with the civilian overseers, poring over storage inventories, maps of hunting grounds, and spring crop projections. No matter how we rationed it out, the numbers were grim. We hadn't expected to be feeding the entire community here all winter, and even if we had, two months wouldn't have been nearly enough time to build the fort as well as stock it for several thousand people. I could keep everyone securely barred behind our walls, but they'd only starve to death.

The endless logic puzzle of survival demanded my energy from early until late. However, the thorniest problems fell away from my mind once Avery and I were alone at the end of each day. He still technically had his own living quarters, but lately, he spent most nights in my bed. Nothing seemed quite as bleak, with his lean limbs sprawled warm and well beside me.

Convincing him that I preferred having him near hadn't been easy. It was always a delicate dance with him - trying to learn what he wanted from me without overstepping the complicated boundaries he set; trying to express my affection in ways that didn't trigger a retreat behind protective silence and distance. Despite working with me daily and falling asleep with me after sex almost every night, Avery remained wary of acknowledging or seeking intimacy in any other form. I often couldn't determine if he actually wanted space, or if he simply couldn't admit to needing closeness.

Given my advantage in age, rank, and experience, I was cautious about pressuring Avery in any way. I never wanted him to feel coerced, and I feared that if I expected too much from the relationship, he would simply leave me for the safer pastures of casual hookups. On the other hand, if I didn't intervene when he shut down, we'd never even have gotten to that first kiss. Through blind trial and error, I was gradually discovering how to balance patience with pursuit, and how to avoid setting off the landmines littering the approach to Avery's emotional depths. I failed often enough. But those rare moments of unguarded connection - when he relaxed into my embrace after we'd satisfied our lust, or when he whispered my name in the dark - were more than worth the struggle.

We were nearing the winter solstice, and the day had been dreary - low clouds, gusty winds, and bad news from the scouts. Late in the evening, I was called out to check a disturbance, so when Avery told me he'd be staying in his own tent, I didn't think much of it. I kissed him briefly, then spent half the night chasing down Red River Crew thieves.

The next morning, Avery followed all our normal routines, but he seemed distant. When I asked if something was wrong, he denied it, but then he found an excuse to leave the fort for the rest of the day, joining a supply run that was already well protected. That happened, sometimes, if I offended him in some way he didn't want to inform me about. Once I finally made it back to my tent around midnight, I was a little relieved to find Avery there, already in bed.

I stripped down to my trunks in the frigid darkness and got in beside him. Without a word, he shifted to nestle his back against my chest, pulling my arm around him.

I held him, scanning quickly through our recent interactions for any source of distress. Was he seeking my comfort in place of addressing a conflict with me? Or was it something else from the long list of perceived weaknesses he kept guarded? No way of telling, and very little chance he'd explain.

"You ok?" I tried anyway.

"Fine. Just want to sleep."

I myself was too tired to argue about it. I was unconscious in two minutes.

I woke with the sharp sense that something was out of place. I lay completely motionless, alert for any sound of danger. Instead of the distant shouts of an attack or the stealthy tread of an intruder, I heard muffled gasps coming from beside me. There was just enough ambient firelight filtering in for me to make out Avery's shape, curled up at the far edge of the bed, facing away.

With concern and alarm, I realized he was crying. I'd never seen him cry, not even the day he'd thought Rowan had been killed.

"Avery, what's wrong?" I asked, moving closer to him. He'd put space between us deliberately, so I was hesitant as I lay a hand on his shoulder.

He didn't seem able to answer, but he didn't push me away.

"Are you upset with me?"

"No," he choked out.

"Will you come here?"

He was still for a moment, trying to slow his sobs, then he turned to bury his face against my chest. I pulled him close, soothing as well as I knew how.

"It's ok," I said gently. "I'm here. Whatever's wrong, you can tell me."

I stroked his head, and gradually, he regained control. He turned his face up slightly, cheek still pressed to my chest, over my heart.

"Today was my sister's birthday," he whispered. "She would have been twenty."

I brushed a hand through his hair again. "I'm sorry, Avery," I murmured, wishing for something more adequate to say. It was common knowledge in the community that he had lost his sister and mother in his early teens, but he rarely mentioned his mother to me, and never his sister. I didn't even know her name.

"I miss her so much." It was still a whisper, so raw that I ached to hear it. "I always think, this year it'll be better, it won't hurt this badly..." Another quick intake of breath. "But it still feels like it just happened."

Despite my many losses, I was sure I'd never loved anyone the way Avery must have loved his sister. All I could offer was my presence, my touch, and reassurance that his grief mattered.

"Would you tell me about her?" I asked after a minute.

He took a couple of steadying breaths. "I was three when Ariana was born, back when our dad still lived with us," he began finally, his voice soft and husky. "She was smart, and beautiful, like my mother."

Like you, I thought. I caressed his arm briefly and waited for him to continue.

"She liked to read...I used to read to her all the time." He paused again, for longer. "She was sick. She had a heart defect, and she had to stay in bed a lot. Dr. Atherton said that it could have been fixed with surgery and medication. But we would have had to go to a specialist at one of the big hospitals. Even if we could have gotten Ariana there, they don't waste time on people like us. There was no chance we could afford it. Especially not years of medicine."

I knew about those hospitals. He was right - the closest one to here was about four hundred miles away, and their services were generally reserved for the very rich and military veterans. I wished bitterly that I could have given my access to this child who had done nothing to deserve her death sentence.

"We all knew she wouldn't live long. That she had ten years was more than the doctor expected." Avery swallowed hard. "Ariana knew it too. I did my schoolwork at home so I could be with her, and I helped her with hers. She loved to learn, especially about science. It kept her distracted." His voice dropped back into a whisper. "At night, she would get scared. We slept in the same bed for years, because she didn't like to be alone." Another pause. "Watching her die..." he started, but tears cut him off.

There was nothing I could possibly say or do to help with this kind of pain. I just cradled him, as if he were thirteen years old again. I couldn't tell him it was ok. It would never be ok.

"What happened to your mother?" I asked quietly when Avery's breathing levelled out again. Based on what I knew, her death must have been within a year of his sister's.

"Julian, you don't have to hear about all this. You have enough of your own stuff."

"I'd like to know. I don't want you to go through this on your own."

Avery took a few more breaths, then haltingly told me about his mother. How she'd suffered from severe depression but had been too proud to admit she needed help, paranoid about outsiders breaking up the family. How, with his father gone, Avery had stepped up to care for the three of them, filling his mother's role from far too young an age. How her mental state had deteriorated with Ariana's heart. How she had died by suicide seven months after burying her daughter.

"I just wish - she could have loved me like she did Ariana." Tears were tightening Avery's throat again. "I wish I could have been better. Then my mother would have wanted to stay with me. She wouldn't have left me with no family."

"Oh, Avery." Imagining his sorrow and loneliness all these years was breaking my heart. "I'm sure it had nothing to do with you. Your mother's issues were her own. You were just a child; you couldn't have prevented her death."

"How do you know that?" He sounded like he wanted to believe me, but he wasn't sure he could.

"It's something I had to come to terms with, with my own parents. I wouldn't presume to compare our situations. But my father...he didn't love me. The only reason he had a child was so he could take credit for my achievements as well as his own. He believed it his duty to provide for my physical needs, which, because of his status, he did abundantly. Other than that, he didn't think of me."

I paused, remembering the large, echoing house, lavishly furnished for entertaining other high-ranking officers and politicians. And me, a solitary boy cared for by paid staff. In my father's home, children were neither seen nor heard.

"It might have been different if my mother had been there," I continued. "For a long time, I thought there must have been something wrong with me, to make my father care so little for me, and my mother abandon me. But as an adult, I realized they were simply selfish people who weren't fit to raise a child. They would have behaved the same, no matter who I was. Their treatment of me was their fault, not mine."

Avery untangled himself slightly so he was still close, but not against me. He didn't say anything, but he seemed calmer.

"Why didn't you tell me what was going on, when I asked you earlier?" I asked.

"Because I don't like being upset, and I didn't want you to know. I just wanted to get through the day. Obviously failed."

"It's ok to be upset when you've lost someone."

"Not when it was ten years ago."

I rubbed his upper arm for a moment. "I only had rudimentary training in counseling, but I do know that no one can control what they feel. You've experienced some intense trauma, and there isn't a right time for it to get easier. Avoiding it probably won't help you heal, though."

He sighed.

"I'm sorry, you don't have to worry about that tonight."

"No, I'm sure you're right," Avery said, his tone resigned. "You're always right."

"I'm glad you told me, anyway."

He took another slow breath in the dark.

"I wish I could have known Ariana," I told him gently. I could see it now, the black hole where her star had collapsed, the vacuum she'd fill if she hadn't been stolen by a perfectly treatable genetic defect. She'd be slender like Avery, with the same wavy black hair and smooth caramel skin, the same deep eyes that flashed every mood in the spectrum. And I could imagine the way he'd smile when she talked about her work in medicine or botany or engineering: beaming with pride, joy unblighted by shadow. An expression he'd probably never worn in living memory.

Avery's hand worked its way into mine. His voice was low, but less pained. "Me too. I wish that more than anything."

The words rose in my heart, more piercing than ever, and I almost spoke them. Didn't he deserve to know what he meant to me? But I worried it was too soon. He didn't seem ready, when he'd only just tonight shared how he lost his family.

Instead, I kissed his head and waited for him settle under the covers, for his breathing to edge toward drowsy.

"Go to sleep, Avery," I whispered. "I'll still be here."

"You promise?" he asked, following the ritual.

"I promise."

As winter darkened, hostilities with our enemies increased. No matter how few people were left on the continent, someone was always trying to steal more than their share. Avery and I were often out of camp, reinforcing our borders, covering resupply missions, or rushing to defend against raiding parties.

We tried negotiation, then threats, but the attacks kept coming. It became evident that we needed to take the offensive, to hit Red River Crew hard enough that they'd leave us alone. I was to lead the main strike team, while Avery went with a separate party that would draw some of their forces into an ambush. We offered protection to a few independent settlements in the region and convinced them to join the invasion.

Inevitably, the plan fell apart almost the moment it went into effect. Drenching rain and unforeseeable changes in Red River Crew's tactics forced us to improvise, and my squad was trapped behind the main enemy force without any way to contact the rest of our army. A less experienced commander might have lost composure, but it wasn't my first time staring down long odds and my own mortality. Or my fifteenth. Through disciplined focus and quick maneuvers, we were able to avoid disaster and eventually hit the key Red River Crew outpost that was our responsibility in the attack.

Late in the afternoon, the battle turned in Fort Laurel's favor. We won back to our companions as our enemies abandoned their position, and we chased them through the woods, cutting them down until the last light faded behind the horizon.

It was nearly midnight by the time we all staggered back to camp, beat up but mostly intact. I'd been thrown by an explosion into a rock outcropping and taken a gash across my lower back, which I hadn't been able to bandage well and I suspected was still oozing blood periodically. I was layered in mud, sweat, and clothing that had never fully dried after the downpours that morning, but otherwise unharmed.

My squad was still well outside the walls when I heard Avery calling my name.

"Here!" I called back, and soon I saw him sprinting through the pools of lantern light interspersed among our troops. I was too exhausted to run, but very glad to see him safe.

He didn't slow down until he'd just about collided with me. He grabbed my shoulders, stopping me in the middle of the march.

"Are you alright?" he questioned fervently. The rest of the fighters, streaming around us, might as well have been invisible to him. "No one could find you for hours - we thought - we thought -"

"I'm alright," I broke in. "Just some scrapes and bruises. You?"

"Yeah, fine." The words were barely out of his mouth before he grabbed my face and kissed me fiercely. For a moment, I was surprised at the public display, but Avery wrapped his other arm around my shoulders and molded himself against me, kissing me like we would never have another chance. I lost track of everything else in the urgency of his passion.

He pulled back finally, his hand sliding to the nape of my neck, heedlessly staring into my face as if still half expecting me to be killed right in front of him. I met his eyes, and in the flickering yellow light, alongside the fear and relief, there was something new. Before I could figure out what it was, he came back to himself and moved away, turning his head to the side.

"The council is waiting for your report," he said, as if that was the reason he'd run all the way out here. I schooled my features to hide my amusement, nodded, and rejoined the march toward our fort.

It took another hour to wrap up the loose ends of our battle and to get my wound properly cleaned and dressed. Avery didn't leave my side the whole time, and he walked with me to my tent afterward. It felt like I'd been gone for days by the time I reached it.

I sat on the side of the bed to pull off my sodden boots, but Avery sat next to me and took my hand. When I looked up, he was staring at me again like he had outside the walls, his mahogany eyes bright and unguarded.

"What is it?" I asked with a fond smile, brushing his cheek with my other hand. He was doing it again, the arresting vulnerability that had captivated me long before he knew I was watching, but for once, he wasn't trying to hide.

"I want to...tell you something," he said, face heating only slightly.

"Ok."

"I - I love you, Julian." Despite his best efforts, Avery got shy and lowered his gaze. "If anything happened to you, or me...I just want you to know."

It was like when he first told me he had feelings for me, except the rush of joy was far more powerful, and this time, I recognized it. I no longer cared about my exhausting day or narrow brush with death. At that moment, I wouldn't have changed anything that had ever happened to me, because it all added up to me being here, in this remote southern wilderness, with this beautiful boy who'd entrusted me with his strength, his pain, and now his heart.

Like I had that night four months ago, I took his face in my hand and captured his gaze. Then I confessed what had already become the central fact of my life.

"I love you too, Avery Chase."

He let out a breath, then he was kissing me again, more tender than urgent this time. There was mud on the bed before he finally bothered to get me out of my storm-streaked jacket and pants. But I didn't care.

* * * * *

"So, you know how you love me?" I began a few weeks later, studying Avery in the early morning light seeping into our tent. It used to be my tent, but he'd moved in full-time not long after our battle with Red River Crew. To everyone's relief, things had been quieter around Fort Laurel since then, so although we were both awake, we didn't need to report for another half hour or so. I could just make out the strong line of Avery's jaw, the taut muscles of his arm thrown over his head.

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