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He could do this.

He could do this.

It was going to be fine.

He could do this.

He was married, for the love of Meg—Had been for two years now, too. This wasn’t their first anniversary. Two solid years of working together, sleeping together, living together…how much more pressure could there be after someone had seen you naked?

Lots, apparently.

Jasper paced the lab, absently straightening and rearranging things as he passed. It looked neater if the bottle with the longer pliers was at the back, but then he remembered Micah was working inside the new alembics and using those pliers a lot, so he returned it to its original position. Then he reversed the order, putting the short pot with the oil stubs on the end, but that just looked awkward. He shoved his hands in his pockets and paced some more, reminding himself that Micah wouldn’t even notice, he wouldn’t think about it, he’d glance and grab, and if it needed moving, he’d move it. It wasn’t that he didn’t care that Jasper tidied—Micah appreciated it on an almost obscene level and had said so, and he’d pointed out how much faster he worked after Jasper reorganised things. But there was a functional, helpful level of tidying, and then there was nervous fidgeting while he waited for his lover to return to their rooms after the last meeting of the morning on the second anniversary of having declared in public that they intended to be together for the rest of their days. 

Jasper was a positively tragic excuse for a human being.

He’d changed clothes, then changed back. After all, that morning he’d dressed a little better than usual for a morning of overseeing chores, cleaning the bakery pantry, and going over the kitchen accounts. Nothing fussy, but he’d taken his jacket off in the pantry. Then he’d come back upstairs, paced a bit, changed, realised he was dithering like an idiot, and still didn’t know what Micah himself might have in mind for the day. So he’d changed back. That was less pressure, wasn’t it? Micah had seen him this morning, he knew what Jasper was wearing. What if he came back up and saw Jasper in his fanciest formal gear, and felt awkward proposing they go to Micah’s favourite beach? Or what if Jasper greeted him wearing nothing but a rose, and Micah had hoped to whisk him away to a night at the theatre and the performance started in half an hour? Granted, it never took him as long to get dressed as it took Micah, but the way he was dithering, it’d take two hours just to decide what to wear.

He shook out his hands, jumped in place for a bit, and groaned. The hard part was over already—his gifts were perfect. Just thinking about them made him grin even now, while his heart was trying to squirm out of his chest. Stupid lump of meat. He banged at his chest with his fist, wondering if it responded to threats from other body parts, like if the hands and brain ganged up on it.

“Swallow wrong?”

Of course. Jasper gasped, stomping one foot hard before turning to see his bastard of a husband crossing to meet him, smiling. “You think you’re so clever,” Jasper muttered, taking two hurried steps to catch Micah up, setting his hands on Micah’s hips and hoisting him into the air, catching him in a tight hug.

“Well I actually am,” Micah said, feigning offence for only a moment before bending for a kiss, letting himself be held. “You think you’re so strong,” he added when they broke apart.

Jasper set him down on his feet. “Yeah, that’s all a lie. Mirrors. Lots of mirrors. So many mirrors.”

“I knew you weren’t null.”

He couldn’t have held back his grin if he’d tried. His heart was still a bit wriggly, but now he had Micah to look at, so everything would be all right. “Lies. All of it. I’m telling you.”

Micah just snorted and turned away. “Oh. Er, you’ve…” He waved a hand at the worktable.

“Yeah, yeah,” Jasper sighed, shoving his hands in his pockets again.

“I know you always say—”

“It’s all right, darlin’. How many times?”

“But—”

“But, but, but…” Jasper wrapped him into a hug again. “I’ve stopped apologising for tidying. And what was your end of the bargain, again? Remind me.”

“I’ll stop apologising for actually using my work space,” Micah sighed, not meeting Jasper’s eyes. 

“Yes, you will. And it won’t cost you a drop of blood.”

“It does hurt, though,” Micah said quickly.

“Yeah, same pain I get not apologising, though.”

“You’re right, I know, I know…”

“Okay, best way out of this is leaving the room,” Jasper said, releasing Micah and stepping back. “I’m dying to know. What’d you pick?”

“Ah.” Micah shifted a bit, drawing his arms back and stepping away. “We have a few choices—”

“I’m up for anything,” Jasper said quickly, flapping his arms uselessly at his sides. “Seriously. You name it, I’m happy. So long as I get to do it with you, I’m…delirious.” He couldn’t stop grinning. Why was he even trying? And that bright little hint of colour on Micah’s cheeks made it impossible anyway.

“Well, I’d thought of a few options,” Micah said, pausing, scratching his lip with his middle finger.

“Honestly, Micah, whatever you’d like.”

“I—yes. Well. I’m not really sure, now.” The same finger was now rubbing one eyebrow as he looked up, head tilted.

“Micah.” He waited until he was sure he had Micah’s full attention, and set his palms gently against Micah’s cheeks. “Darlin’. I love you. We can do whatever you’d like.”

Micah’s face twisted, his lips pressed together, brows scrunching down but then lifting over the bridge of his nose. “But…but you should like it, too.”

“I will. I’ll love it. Just don’t make me stay there alone. If there’s room for two, I don’t care. We could…curl up on a shelf in the wine cellar. Honestly.”

Jasper realised his heart had stopped squirming back around the time Micah had entered the room, and it suddenly made sense. He’d been so anxious a few moments ago, and since then, the only thing that had changed was Micah’s presence. Jasper hadn’t changed clothes (again), he hadn’t given Micah a single one of the gifts, he didn’t know where they were going or what they were doing. He’d received nothing that had alleviated any of his nameless worries, whatever they were, but then Micah had come in, and Micah was worried. Whatever it was that Jasper was so worried about was nothing next to seeing his husband in distress, no matter how ridiculous the reason. Micah was upset, therefore his job was comforting him. He had no time for his own body’s ridiculous predicament. All that mattered was calm—finding some, and giving it to Micah.

And, for that matter, what had he been worried about? He knew to his bones that Micah would love his actual gifts, and wasn’t too shy to ask Jasper to wear any particular thing in their wardrobes—or stop wearing it, either. He wouldn’t give a toss about any rearranging of accessories on the worktop. He simply wanted to make Jasper happy.

He slid his hands down Micah’s arms and grabbed his hips, pulling him close. “Hey. We spend all our days rushin’ around, taking care of everybody, then snatching our own minutes and moments around schedules. We only take a few days in a year to focus on us. The only thing we have to do right now is enjoy each other, right? And we both want that. So whatever you had in mind, whatever you’ve chosen, whatever decision you can’t make, it’s fine. All of it. If I’m somehow—and I cannot stress enough how stunningly unlikely this is—not in the mood for it, I will say so. But really, right now I’m just…so excited to see you. There was a time when both of us thought this was never gonna happen, remember?” He waved a hand between them, his wrist flopping loosely. “But we did it. We got it. Two years, Micah—two whole years. A couple of months of sheer lunacy, but we’ve made it. We’ve made it this far. And I still love you—” He paused, savouring the words, the chance to actually say them, remembering the time back when he’d somehow believed this glorious man wouldn’t be interested in him. His throat tightened, but even that just spread his grin wider for a moment. “I still love you, Micah. We’re always gonna love each other. And today is just…that. Nothin’ else. Doesn’t change, not gonna change, no matter where we go.” A happy thought occurred—no, an even happier one, to be honest. “It’s not like this is gonna be our only one, yeah? We’ve got loads more anniversaries ahead of us. Just…gobs of them. So if we get halfway to dinner and think, ‘oh, bollocks, wish we’d thought of that this morning,’ well, we’ll try that next year. Or the one after. Or the one after that.” He bit his lip and ducked his chin a little, coaxing Micah to meet his eyes steadily.

And Micah did, his skin now flushed an even, rosy pink, his eyes bright and wide, flicking back and forth between Jasper’s own. “You are, without a doubt, the sweetest human being I have ever slept with.”

Jasper snapped his teeth an inch away from Micah’s nose. “Ahh, bollocks to that. Come on, if you’re still undecided, how about we start with presents?” Jasper took a step back toward the door of his cupboard. He knew exactly what was about to happen.

“No!” Micah said, fervent, reaching out. “No, you know those come at the end!”

As Micah had insisted on every formal gift-giving occasion. Presents to be unwrapped came at the end of the day, sitting together, after they’d already done the active part of the day. Usually in bed. Jasper was fairly sure that that last part of the tradition had started with him, at least—he couldn’t imagine Micah somehow gathering all his closest friends around his own bed on the evening of his naming day.

“Y’know,” Jasper said trying to sound thoughtful, “Considering how these nights usually end, some might say you’re making the kissing bit at the end seem a little anti-climactic.”

“Oh, no,” Micah said, solemn, puzzled, baffled to the edge of hurt. “You have it backwards. We have a day of making memories, then gifts that are tangible souvenirs of the day and tied to those pleasant memories, anchoring them, and then the last is sharing the gift we always share, the one that’s always with us no matter where we are or what we’re doing. It isn’t less special for being constant, but it puts the day in perspective—memories are intangible, gifts might not last, but what we have, what we feel…” He waved his hand between their chests, unconsciously imitating the same gesture Jasper had made earlier. “This is with us forever.”

Jasper stood for a moment, just looking at this beautiful, clever, wise man who’d found him and fit into his life like the second beat of his heart. “We’d better get started, then,” Jasper finally said, his voice just as soft as Micah’s had been. “We’ve got ourselves a climax to build towards.”

 

He did change clothes: the gorgeous black suede coat that was becoming Jasper’s favourite thing—and people weren’t things, so that was fair—in the world, the tall black boots with ornate silver work matching the coat, a shirt so white it almost seemed to glow with a harsh light of its own, and a black brocade waistcoat that was worthy of being the centrepiece of any other outfit. Micah swirled a length of thin, dull grey silk around his collar that actually made Jasper frown, until he’d finished tucking and looping it into a strangely simple masterpiece under his chin, and settling Jasper’s locator crystal into the folds. He’d been a little in awe when he’d caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. Maybe all the praise Micah flung at him wasn’t completely unwarranted. He looked like the sort of person he would have imagined at Micah’s side, a few years ago. 

Micah had worn a new suit of his own, the coat far more structured than his usual robes. Light blue silk shimmered with periwinkle when the light struck it right, trimmed in gold and darker blue. The colour swept down from a substantial collar to tails reaching low on his calves, and framed the white shirt with lace that made Jasper want to bite, and soft grey trousers above low grey boots. 

They’d strolled through some of the Dimnoson gardens, Jasper having to be stopped from stroking some of the flowers along the way. It wasn’t his fault that he’d never noticed the furry petals before, but after Micah showed him what happened to a pebble he threw into the soft burgundy folds, he was happy to stay away. 

Lunch at a hanging-pod restaurant had followed. Jasper watched as their cozy nest was dragged close enough to the boardwalk that they could step straight into the cushioned interior, and then it was carefully lowered back into place, swinging only gently. Tray after tray of small, simple dishes floated in with no intrusion from staff, gliding into place between them on the table that was barely a handspan higher than their “floor,” which was a lot more like an extremely generous mattress than it was any surface Jasper had walked on before. They scooped together piles of the other pillows and built their own supports, lounging next to each other, not lying and not sitting, legs stretched out but food in easy reach, able to trade bites and feed each other as the mood struck. Round glass walls gave them a spectacular view of the gardens they’d walked through. They’d spent a lazy few hours, nibbling and just talking with no interruptions in a way they never seemed to get to do at home.

After lunch was another stroll, this one along a rocky shoreline through a portal using settings Jasper had never seen before. It seemed to be morning, wherever they were, with the sun low on the horizon but inching higher. A rough, fresh breeze helped wake them up, and Micah watched for a while as Jasper flung pebbles into the waves from a low cliff, teasing the kelpies in the waves below into biting at the splashes. When Micah joined in, it grew competitive. They soon had the lithe, sinuous animals spinning in circles and almost knotting themselves in excitement, and then things devolved to Jasper and Micah bickering like children over who had more horse-heads circling below them. 

A gust caught Micah’s coat, flaring it around him and nudging him a step back from the cliff. Jasper fell silent, staring in awe at a creature more graceful than all the kelpies combined, and he wondered how he’d been so lucky. The white lace of Micah’s jabot fluttered up against his lips, the curl on his forehead falling loose as he tipped his head aside. When Micah looked over at the sudden silence, all Jasper could do was smile.

The ground was too sharply rocky for lying down on, so Jasper held him up against a wind-shaped tree, watching Micah’s back arch against the curves of the trunk, one arm draped along a branch as Jasper kissed and kissed and kissed some more. There was nothing urgent; it was gentle and patient, sweet and steady. It was enough of a pleasure for him to lead Micah along, bringing soft sounds from his smooth, pale throat until the light washed through Micah’s pores. He caught his breath against Jasper’s shoulder and Jasper simply held him, stroking his back for long moments as his breathing slowed. 

When they returned to Lunule, Micah took them through a short chain of portals that had them back at the castle before the smell of the sea air was gone from their clothes. 

“I had intended—a concert,” Micah admitted, toying with Jasper’s fingers as they strolled arm-in-arm through what was now known as “Jasper’s portal,” the one in the East Hall that led to the lab. 

“What time is the concert?” Jasper asked, all of his attention focused on the foot-and-a-half area that contained Micah’s face and fingers.

“Oh, nine o’clock. If I’ve regrown any bones in my body by then, that is. We’ve plenty of time,” he added, glancing at the late afternoon sunlight coming in the tall windows of the lab.

“Ohh, bones. Pff. Those are optional,” Jasper declared, flopping down on the bed and then crawling backwards to make room for Micah, who folded himself neatly at the edge. “It’s all the squidgy bits in the middle that do the work.”

Micah snorted, a grudging smile of amusement breaking through his flush of tenderness. “You know, for someone who grew up on a goat farm, your understanding of basic biological mechanics is astoundingly lacking.”

“No, because bones aren’t what keeps you alive. That’s all the squishy stuff. We’ve got animals without bones, right? Underwater things. All the squiggly ones. They’ve got no bones, but they do just fine.”

Micah laughed, tipping his head back, his eyes crinkling with it. “And to think you write up notes for a Vedouci. ‘Squidgy bits.’ ‘Squishy stuff.’ ‘Squiggly ones.’ Very erudite. Very learned.”

“You love my notes,” Jasper said, pulling him down onto his chest and holding him there. “You love everything about me, you pretty thing. Try to deny it.”

“No. I shan’t. I can’t.”

Jasper sucked a breath in through his teeth, staring at Micah in pure adoration as he felt his heart split apart, overwhelmed by the force of his love. “Darlin’, we are the two luckiest people alive, you know that?”

“The things you say…”

“That’s nothing to the things I wanna do.”

In spite of his words, they spent another hour simply lying in bed, chatting, kissing, and laughing, enjoying the luxury of time. Micah summoned tea from the kitchen, which arrived with unexpected extras.

“Is this a joke?” Jasper asked, seeing the tray floating toward them. He’d heard Micah specify tea, but all he could see were bowls as the tray was too far above their eye level, where they were reclining on a mattress on the floor.

“I’m not sure,” Micah admitted, flicking his finger at the tray. It lowered as it neared, and as the green appeared over the edge of a bowl like the sun over the horizon, Jasper began to grin.

“Playing at derbies again, eh?” 

Micah sat up, shaking his head as he caught the tray in his hands. He lowered it, giving Jasper a significant look. “No, I think this is all Sally’s own idea,” he said.

The broccoli florets were arranged as the greenery of a small tree. The trunk was a miniature loaf of bread, the crust scored and carefully painted with butter and egg to darken in the oven so that it looked like bark. The branches were smaller shards of bread fitted into slots in the trunk, and a tiny fringe of the smallest florets ringed the base, surrounded by a pâté of chicken tinted blue with Micah’s favourite blue apples. The small ducks sitting on the surface of the imitation pond intrigued Jasper.

“She holds back when she does the formal banquets, doesn’t she?” Micah murmured, touching the tips of the branches lightly with a fingertip.

“’Course,” Jasper said, plucking off one of the florets and dipping it into the pond, scooping up one of the ducks. He chewed carefully for a moment, considering the texture and taste before identifying it. “Rice. Toasted rice. That’s kind of lovely, actually.”

“But why?” Micah asked, carefully removing the branch Jasper had left behind and nipping off the end.

“They’re too big,” Jasper said, then wrinkling his nose at the inaccuracy. “No, it’s more…there’s all those people, and the food is either a detail, in which case stuff like this is overlooked in favour of dancing and politics and whatnot, or the food is a huge centrepiece, and something like this is too small to be noticed—like if she’s doing Pandora’s bedspread, or something. Or each plate is presented individually and there’s no way to do something this perfect on every single one.”

“She could do it on a few,” Micah said, a hint of sadness in his tone. 

“What do you mean?”

“She never really gets credit,” Micah said, settling back against Jasper’s upraised knee. “So many fine chefs in the city, and she is easily in the top tier, but she goes unrecognised.”

“Why does she need recognition?” Jasper asked, seeing where this was going and realising Micah still didn’t.

“Her reputation. She deserves more.”

“I see she’s paid pretty well, you know—”

“Oh, yes, I know that,” Micah said, waving his words aside. “But—”

“No, Micah, listen—she is paid well. And you’d better believe I make sure she gets the best from the markets, and we provide a lot of things from our own gardens and farms. If she wants the kitchens altered, I see that it happens. What use is a reputation, really? It’s to make sure you get what you want, really. And she does. Plus she’s not really a one for the crowd, remember? Happy to cook for one, but she’s not gonna get up in front of one to do it. She’s got a home she loves and the best staff I can get her. And she knows she’s appreciated.”

Micah hummed, thoughtful for a moment, digging up one of the ducks on a finger and admiring it for a moment. “I suppose.”

“Honestly, darlin’. She did this for us,” he said, pointing at the tree where it was listing across the pond now. “Just because she wanted to. That says a lot.”

Micah smiled finally and turned to the pot and cups they’d been ignoring. “I suppose. Let me know if there’s ever anything I can do for her myself, though, will you, Druhy?”

“I will, Vedouci.” 

 

The concert Micah had passed off so lightly turned out to be a performance by some of Jasper’s favourite singers. He knew it must have involved some conspiracy on Micah’s part, as not a single one of the pieces involved any kind of acoustic magic that Jasper couldn’t hear, yet it was a full house in the large auditorium at Grossman Hall. No one else seemed to notice the theme of the repertoire, and Jasper clutched Micah’s hand tightly right through to the end. 

Afterwards, Micah seemed in no rush to leave, tugging Jasper aside from the crowd washing toward the exits. He assumed they were simply avoiding the crush until Micah pulled him through a side door that lead not to the foyer, but into a quiet corridor. A woman in the formal staff uniform smiled as they appeared, and opened another door ahead of them which led, to Jasper’s surprise, up a short flight of stairs and into a loud, crowded press of a different kind.

The backstage area erupted into a louder buzz and people surged toward them. Micah let go of his hand and moved forward to take someone else’s, laughing.

“Thank you for coming, Vedouci,” a deep, rich female voice said, and Jasper blinked over his lover’s shoulder for a moment before believing that the star alto of the Lunule Opera was shaking his husband’s hand.

“That was amazing,” Micah told her. “Truly amazing. You should perform the whole of Vexité sometime soon.”

“I’ll see what I can do to encourage that,” she said. “After tonight, you may have some surprising luck, there.”

“I know the storyline is a bit complex, but it’s simply the most beautiful opera written. I don’t think I’ve ever loved it more.” He stepped aside, reaching back to take Jasper’s arm and lead him forward.

Jasper knew he was staring, but couldn’t have stopped if he’d wanted to, which he didn’t. The woman’s long, blue hair spilled over her broad shoulders in a mass of curls that reached her ample waist, and her smile widened amazingly as she reached for his hand.

“Śi Jasper, this is Śe Kinni fe Takka. Kinni, my Druhy of Foldings.”

Her hand was soft and warm, and Jasper had the urge to kiss it. He resisted only because he couldn’t stop grinning enough to manage it. “It is the greatest pleasure of my life to meet you,” Jasper said fervently, bringing his other hand on top of hers.

“I beg your pardon,” Micah said, drawing a laugh from her.

“I’m flattered and honoured, Druhy,” Kinni said, her eyes creasing happily. “Let me introduce you to everyone, please—or would you rather have that pleasure, Micah?”

Jasper glanced away from the greenest eyes he’d ever seen, too dazed to speak as he met Micah’s smiling gaze. “No, please, go ahead.”

Their dinner was a candlelit, cheerful party on the stage, where Śe Kinni fe Takka sat on his right and Micah sat on his left. The food was plentiful and so was the wine, and Jasper had to keep touching Micah’s knee as they ate, trying to convince himself that this was really happening. He was beyond delight when a discussion of possible future repertoire turned into an argument over favourites complete with demonstrations. Hearing Kinni arguing about popular music with Śe Dolpho, singer of “She Knows I’m in Love with You,” complete with imitations of each other, almost had him choking on his chocolate cake. 

Jasper was still grinning and babbling with excitement when they got home well after midnight. “I never even thought about Kinni fe Takka and Dolpho singing together before, and now… feck it, Micah—do you really think they’re going to do it?”

“The Opera isn’t above a little publicity,” Micah said mildly, already wearing his pyjamas as he gathered their clothes and tossed them into the laundry basket. “Casting Dolpho as the comic friend is absolutely possible. It might be ambitious to hope they give him the role of Numkha, but there’s no denying he has the range.”

Jasper wrapped his arms around Micah’s waist and dragged him onto his lap, kissing away his protests until Micah had stopped laughing and was kissing him back.

“Thank you for today,” Jasper said, staring into his lover’s smoky blue eyes. “Really.”

“I promise you, it was my pleasure. Entirely my pleasure,” Micah said softly, stroking Jasper’s cheek.

“Remember this morning?” Jasper ran his finger along Micah’s hairline at his temple, down the edge of his cheek and around his jawline. “We were both all nervous about today?”

Micah tipped his head and kissed Jasper’s finger. “I certainly was. You were all calm reassurance, as I recall.”

“Nah, I was a complete mess a minute before you walked in,” Jasper assured him. “I don’t even remem—oh!” He’d forgotten all about the gifts he had for Micah. “Wait here!”

“Where are you going?” Micah called plaintively after him.

“Just wait!”

Jasper came back with a large basket in his arms, letting Micah see the colourful bows topping the wrapped boxes jumbled inside. The blue eyes widened and Micah blinked for a moment before finding his voice. “Oh! I—Jasper, you needn’t…”

“Agreed.” Jasper set the basket beside him and crawled past him to the far side of the mattress. “I wanted to, though.”

It didn’t take much to coax Micah into opening them, and he was surprisingly vicious when shredding the paper around his gifts. He examined the clamps, callipers, and crucibles closely before making the connection and staring up at Jasper. “Where did you get these? They’re utterly amazing. Perfect. I’ve never seen work like this.”

“I knew what you needed better than anyone, I figured, so I…made them. With a bit of help from Nisko, of course.”

Micah’s eyes narrowed and his lips pressed together. “You… you made them?”

“Yeah.” Jasper knew he was blushing now, but it was worth it. “It just took so long trying to explain all the details, you know? And I knew what you liked, and what you were trying to do, so…” He shrugged and gestured at the small pile of tools. “There you go.”.

“When did you even have time?” Micah picked up the nearest square steel bowl, running his fingers along the surface and turning it over in his hands. “Jasper, the smoothness of this, the regularity… how?”

“A bit of patience, plus I have access to the best, remember?” 

Micah shook his head, his mouth opening and closing silently for a moment as he waved the crucible toward the lab, then gave up and set it inside the basket. “You are amazing,” he said weakly. “You’ve…amazing. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Jasper scooped the equipment up and dumped all of it into the basket on top of the crumpled paper, then pulled Micah back into his arms for the last time that day. “You’re the only daft twirl-artist in the whole of the worlds who’ll get teary-eyed over a couple of tools, you know that?”

“Fine. I am. I—thank you, my love. Thank you so much.”

“Happy anniversary, darlin’. Lots more to come.”