Actions

Work Header

Character Bleed

Chapter Text

“I cannot work with Colby Kent,” Jason hissed into his phone. “I will seriously end up murdering someone. Probably Colby Kent.”

“I’ve only ever heard good things.” From the sound, Susan’d set down her tea; the old-fashioned porcelain clink echoed across the line from her office, clear and sharp as her reputation. Jason knew both he and his acting career had been lucky to have her as an agent; sometimes, like now, he wished she didn’t know him quite so well.

She threw in, on top of the previous statement, “Everyone adores him. Cast, crew, directors, producers. Audiences. Box offices. What did you do?”

“Nothing!”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes!”

“Did he say he doesn’t like you?”

“No!”

“Then what happened?”

“He apologized for running late! And gave me his coffee!” This was true. Jason had been precisely on time, knocking at the door of the twelfth-floor Raven Studios production offices where he’d been told to come in for a screen test and chemistry read with the man in question.

Colby Kent had opened the door, a flustered column of that everywhere-and-nowhere faded accent and stylishly disheveled shadow-brown hair, and had said, “Oh, no, I’m so sorry, we’re just finishing up some discussion about James—er, that is, the previous person we—would you mind waiting a minute or two? And would you like coffee? Oh, wait, are we out of coffee? Here, have mine, I’ve actually forgotten to drink out of it, so it’s perfectly untouched, I promise.”

Jason, standing bewildered in the wake of this blue-eyed hurricane of niceness, had attempted to process an offered coffee-cup. Had hunted for words.

That niceness couldn’t be real. That apology couldn’t be true.

Colby Kent was an international phenomenon, a superstar, someone who’d built the skyrocket of his career out of romantic comedies and period dramas and critical acclaim. Someone who’d gone from playing the heroine’s gay best friend, to playing the glamorous bisexual hero of that provocative aristocratic television miniseries—even Jason’d seen it, and had stared at that cool flippant elegance and that shower scene for far too long—to becoming a film-star romantic lead in his own right, and someone who’d somehow made everyone fall in love with him along the way. He was a producer on this particular film, which was a passion project of his, or so said the general industry commentary.

Colby Kent was, at this moment in time, someone who had all the power. Someone who did not need to apologize and give up his own coffee to an aging action hero whose last film had been kindly referred to as “good for a forgettable popcorn afternoon.”

For most people thirty-eight wasn’t even that old. Getting up there, though. Jason tried to imagine his future for a second or two. Jason Mirelli, starring in Revenge: Aftermath: Aftermath. Jason Mirelli in John Kill Part Ten: John Kills From A Wheelchair. In Heart Attack IV, only this time it’d be a documentary.

He knew that was exaggerating. But he also knew the industry. And he wasn’t that young, and he wasn’t that attractive. Not terrible, or he thought not, but nothing to rely on, either. Brown eyes, square jaw, lots of weight and height, dark ominous eyebrows, craggy nose. It’d be a matter of time before the parts dried up or became self-parody, unless he was unbelievably fortunate, and he’d never been that. And his back had begun to creak alarmingly some mornings.

And…

…he’d been getting bored.

He’d watched Colby Kent command the screen and everyone’s sympathies as the clumsily adorable single father stealing the heart of a cynical journalist in Local News, and as the quick-witted and tragic updated version of Mercutio in that modern-dress Romeo & Jules, and he’d thought: not this, not exactly, but something like this. Something that’s significant, that can also make people smile. Something that’s bigger, brighter, telling stories that scoop up hearts and souls.

He was more or less out and public, as far as sexuality and liking both women and men—these days it wasn’t a huge deal, or mostly not, and he’d not made any real public statement or any kind of a big reveal out of it, and that seemed to be that. Quiet. Under the radar. Unremarked.

Susan had advised him on that, too; you might see some reaction, she’d said, as far as outdated ideas of masculinity, if you’re massively indiscreet about it. But mostly people won’t care. And they hadn’t, though he hadn’t been dating anyone lately, and lately meant for the last three years. Occasional hookups, yeah. Fleeting connections at a bar, at a party. Nothing more. No time. No sense of connection. Nothing that seemed to click.

This project, though…that’d clicked.

It’d been a script he’d not been able to put down. Glorious, gorgeous period details. Taffeta and silk, satin sheets and brandy and the slow unbuttoning of waistcoats and the shapes of two men’s bodies entwined. Lavish sweeping scope. Intimacy and epic proportions. Traded gazes across a Regency ballroom, and the thunder of guns at sea, during the battle of Trafalgar.

He’d wanted to play Captain Stephen Lanyon so badly he could taste it: honey over bare skin, a stolen interlude, a dried rose pressed into a love-letter that lay signed, Always yours, Will.

He wouldn’t even mind the scenes involving a plunge into deep water. He’d figure out that abyss when he came to it.

He’d been in Vancouver finishing up a reshoot on the latest big-budget thriller. He’d sent a video, filmed with the help of friends. A hotel suite standing in for a nineteenth-century library. A short monologue from the script pages he’d seen. A parting vow, a hand held too long, a promise of devotion.

He’d sent it shaking with desperation. Guns and battle he could do. Emotion, desire, longing—

He hoped. Oh god he hoped.

And he’d gotten a call. And an in-person audition. And now, today, a screen test, along with three or four other actors, at least two of whom were far more famous than Jason’d ever hope to be.

He’d be on camera with Colby Kent, today. Looking for chemistry.

And Colby, who loved the novel that was the source material, was—as Jason’s brain helpfully pointed out yet again—a producer on this project.

A very active and interested one. And had a say, obviously, alongside his director—Jillian Poe, another critically acclaimed name, and another reason to be nervous—about whoever’d be playing Stephen, to his Will.

Colby Kent had the say, really. Money. Production. The role. The person he’d want to tumble naked into bed with.

Which therefore meant none of that apology to Jason, about everyday problems like running late and running out of coffee, had been real. Some sort of act. Or test of his patience. Or intimidation. Had to be. Right?

Susan said nothing, exquisitely loudly.

“You weren’t there for his coffee,” Jason explained, and heard how ludicrous this sounded, and gave up. “If I can’t work with him…”

“Try,” Susan advised unhelpfully. “This is his pet project, and if you love the role as much as you say you do, you’ll get along with him.”

“But—”

“You told me you didn’t want another John Kill sequel or another Saint Nick Steel project. Serious, you said. Emotional, you said. Epic.”

Jason paced a few feet down the hallway, and complained, “We don’t talk about Saint Nick Steel.”

“It made you a lot of money.”

“I punched a lot of tactically ill-prepared kidnappers while wearing a hat that made me the reincarnated spirit of Christmas. I’ve spent years punching people on camera. Or shooting them. I’ve got range.”

“Which is why you asked me for something else, and I delivered. And they liked your video audition enough to call you in, in person, and then again, and now you’re here. Doing a screen test for chemistry. With, let me remind you, Colby Kent.”

“Dammit.”

“Everyone likes Colby Kent, Jason. Do your job.”

“I am doing my job,” Jason grumbled, “I’m expressing professional concerns to my agent,” and wandered around the hallway some more. No motion from the closed doors yet.

Colby had waved the coffee at him with the insistence of someone who didn’t hear rejection much. He’d been taller than most media suggested, only an inch or two shorter than Jason’s own height, but slim and tidy as ever, in a cozy-looking royal blue sweater over casual grey slacks. That instantly recognizable voice held all those stories, the ones that were part of the public persona: thirty years old, that childhood in England, the American diplomat father and celebrated poetic mother, the years they’d spent following his father’s postings to Germany and to France, and the years after his parents’ divorce, when he’d moved to Southern California with his mother and gone to a casting call as support for a friend, and everything’d begun. Those poster-boy eyes had beamed Jason’s direction like the first-ever smile of summer oceans.

Jason had taken the coffee because it’d been practically shoved at him, and had tried not to glare. Of course Colby Kent could afford to beam affably at low-budget hopelessly hopeful action-hero stars. Of course Colby felt sorry for him. Offering kindness, offering pity.

He’d flung the cup into a trash bin once the door’d closed.

He muttered into the phone, “I can’t do this.”

“Yes you can,” Susan said, “and you know it, so you’re whining at me.”

“I am not.”

“You are. This is a role you love, you’ve said so yourself, everything you wanted when you were looking at possibilities. And it’ll open up all those possibilities. Film festivals. The awards circuit. Jillian Poe’s a big name, and Colby Kent’s—”

“Also a big name. I know.”

“A huge audience draw, I was going to say.”

“He annoys me.”

“You’ve barely met him.”

Jason scowled at a hapless nearby wall. The wall remained placidly beige and uninterested. “I told you. He gave me his coffee.”

“I’m not seeing the problem.”

“It was the way he did it! He looked at me like—and his hair is like—and he smiled and—” He flung arms around in exasperation. “Look, I don’t like him, okay? Nobody like him apologizes for keeping somebody like me waiting. Which means it’s fake. Which means he’s fake. And the stupid hair and the stupid smile are just parts of the act. And I have to go in there and pretend to want to flirt with him.”

“If you really don’t think you can do it,” Susan said, “then tell them now, and leave. And give up on this chance. Otherwise, get yourself together, get in there, and be a goddamn good actor. Because you are. You’re good enough for that. And Jason—”

Jason, defeated by praise and wanting this and cranky about it, swung around to face the door. And froze.

Susan kept talking. He heard nothing.

Colby Kent, leaning against the wall, gave him a little wave and a half-smile. The smile did not reach into those blue eyes, this time.

“Oh shit,” Jason said weakly.

Susan said, “What was that?”

He ignored her. He hung up. He swallowed hard and prepared to watch his career crash into a flaming heap of ignominious rubble. “I’m…I didn’t…I’m sorry if…”

“If what?” Colby said. “I only thought I’d come to get you in person, and apologize again for the running late. We’re ready now, if you’d like.” The tone sounded friendly. The smile looked friendly. Those eyes…

Colby did not look angry. Or upset. Or like a man plotting revenge. Different, yes; some emotion lurked that hadn’t been present before. Jason couldn’t pinpoint it, and found himself looking more closely, trying to figure out answers. Those eyes were just a shade darker around the outside of those famous irises, he noticed: a circle of even richer, more luxurious blue. That didn’t show up on most movie posters.

“Ah,” Colby said lightly, “getting into character? You don’t have to pretend to want to flirt with me yet, you know. You can put it off until we’re in front of the camera, but we should be heading in, they’re waiting for us,” and turned, obviously expecting Jason to follow.

Jason couldn’t follow. Jason could barely breathe.

He put a hand on his companionable wall for support. The hallway lights beat down on his head.

Obviously Colby’d heard him. That comment, that phrasing, couldn’t’ve been coincidental. But it hadn’t even been sarcastic. And he’d not kicked Jason out of the building or shouted back or even suggested politely that he was sorry but this role clearly wouldn’t work out.

Jason stared at that slim shape, that knit blue sweater, as it outdistanced him.

Resignation, he thought, a thought that arrived all at once, as if fully formed. Acceptance. That look. Taking the hurt and boxing it all up meticulously and sliding it onto a shelf alongside other hurts, because Colby Kent evidently had practice at that. Being professional, after insult or injury.

He opened his mouth. Closed it. What would he say? Another useless apology? A vow that he’d not meant it, he’d mostly been frustrated and aching with self-doubt, and he wished he could fish that coffee out of the trash bin?

Maybe he should. Maybe he should drink trash bin coffee. He was clearly a trash bin person.

Colby stopped, glancing back at him. The hallway lights framed all that fluffy brown hair in sympathy. Even the lights liked him. Who wouldn’t?

That answer to that was Jason himself, apparently.

“I’m sorry,” Jason tried, and then remembered that he was supposed to be walking, and tried to do that. He tripped over nothing at all. Stumbled. Caught balance. “I’m…I didn’t mean…”

Colby said, amused, “At least it’s not a ballroom dancing scene.” He might’ve not heard the apology; he might’ve been laughing, casual, playful, as if they were friends. “Come on, you’re the last for today and I’ll admit I’m absolutely starving, we’ve worked through lunch and I only had a banana this morning, and after this I am completely ordering pizza. With pineapple, I think. How do you feel about pineapple?”

“Um,” Jason said. “It’s a fruit.” Were they friends? Should he be worried that Colby Kent, box-office darling, apparently lived on air and various fruit-related foods and the ability to dismiss awful overheard insults without batting an eye? “But. Um. It’s your pizza. You should get whatever you want on it.”

“Of course it’s my pizza. But I was only wondering which side of the debate you landed on.” Colby dramatically widened those eyes at him, opening the door. “Some people have opinions about pineapple.”

“I sort of don’t.” Jason trailed him in. Gazed at the bare set-up: a wall, a chair or two, the cameras, the table, the people. Three people. Five, counting Colby and the cameraperson. Important people. Watching him. “I can take it or leave it. I mean, if you’re actually ordering the pizza. What you want is my mom’s homemade dough for the crust. And her recipe for the sauce.” Why were they talking about pizza? Why was he explaining his mother’s cooking?

What the hell, he thought, very clearly. What the hell am I even doing. This’ll never work. I won’t work. I’ve already hurt his feelings and I don’t know how to fix that and I don’t know how to be a serious actor and I don’t know how I’m feeling and I think I’m drowning. Help.

He said, “Colby—”

“Oh, sorry, I distracted you with pizza! Of course you should introduce yourself to everyone. Sorry, Jill. Sorry, everyone.” Colby offered up an abashed shrug and wave at the room. The room instantly forgave him. “I’ll just back off and wait until you need me, shall I?”

“There’s pizza?” said the cheerful round man next to Jillian Poe. In a woolly cardigan and glasses, he might’ve been an English professor or a literary teddy bear given human existence. Jason was pretty sure he had to be Benjamin Rogers, the writer, but wasn’t a hundred percent confident. “Colby, when was there pizza?”

Jillian Poe, critically acclaimed director, wagged a clipboard at him. Her hair, purple-striped today, crackled with energy even at the end of the session. “You don’t get to order any. You like anchovies.”

“Could we order historically accurate food?” suggested the person on Jill’s left, who was in fact a person Jason knew; Amanda Young had handled casting for several big-budget Hollywood productions, and she’d been in the room the first time he’d come in to read. She was grinning, the usual eruption of black curls leaping out joyfully, comfortable in this room with this group. “Think there’s a Napoleonic Wars version of pizza?”

Colby, promptly forgetting to avoid distractions, jumped in with, “Bread and cheese and mutton? Some sort of savory pie? Pineapples definitely existed, I know wealthy people used to rent them for display during dinner-parties and—”

“If you want pineapples,” said the cameraman, “I could totally get you some, my cousin knows someone who grows—”

Jillian put one hand over her face. “No pizza for any of you, pineapple or not. Jason, I apologize on behalf of the lunatics. It’s been a long day.” Mandy leaned around her to poke Ben with a pencil.

“No,” Jason said hastily. Ben grabbed and hid the pencil. Colby seemed to be smothering a laugh, in the background. “I mean, no problem. Right. Sorry.”

“You haven’t met Ben, have you? Ben Rogers, our writer. Ben, meet Jason Mirelli, you saw the audition tapes, he’s the one that Colby said the Star Wars thing about, you know.” She made a vague flitting gesture; Jason had no idea how to interpret that, but everyone else did, from the nods. Star Wars thing? What thing? A bad feeling about this? A disturbance in the Force? Something else?

“And that’s Brian Park behind the camera—”

Brian saluted.

“—and now you’ve met everyone. So,” Jill concluded, abruptly crisp and professional, “you know which scene we’re doing, Jason? That first balcony scene. Outside the ballroom. We’re looking for chemistry. That crackle in the air. Will and Stephen instantly tempted by each other. Whenever you’re ready.”

Jason wobbled a little in the face of this imminent intensity, hopefully not visibly. Here and now. Himself and a camera and this chance. A real role, a powerful heartwrenching role, and emotion that’d made him ache to read, spilling from the page.

He could do this. He had to do this.

He took a breath. Tried to wrap Captain Stephen Lanyon’s world around himself. At war with Napoleon. Responsible for hundreds of lives. Only recently promoted and new to command. Awaiting the launch of his new ship, in fact, which would be why he’d come ashore, to wade into political waters and call in favors from the Admiralty and request better supplies, ship’s carpenters, his own second lieutenant from his old command as support. Here amid this kaleidoscopic reckless whirl of revelry, at the heart of London society, and both playing the game and despising it.

Here, at the Stonewood ball, where the aging lion who carried the title of Earl kept trying with all his might to find a wife for his only heir. His beautiful, brilliant, frighteningly frail, secretly entirely uninterested in women, heir.

In the present, in a meeting room, under twenty-first century lights, Jason glanced at Colby Kent. Couldn’t help it.

Colby gave him that bright welcoming grin again, the one he’d worn when Jason first arrived. That expression shook the whole world out of complacency. Invited it to jump up and join in and pretend along.

Jason forgot to inhale, shaken.

Colby ran a hand through his own hair, rumpling forest-dark waves, and offered Jason an encouraging head-tip, and then did—

Something. No good word for it. Suddenly he was William Crawford, Viscount Easterly: brittle and breakable and lonely and longing, good with maps and ciphers, never having been allowed further than the family estate on his own. Even his shoulders carried that weight, thin and distressed. One hand on a chair’s back for support, he did not look back at anyone in the conjured-up ballroom, beyond imagined balcony doors.

Jason, like Stephen on the page, caught sight of him and couldn’t look away.

He took a step forward. Colby turned. The camera might have existed, or might not; and Jason thought, very fleetingly, of pain and an earlier wound and friendliness solidly in place to defy it.

He said, “My apologies, I wasn’t aware anyone was here.” A lie, and they both knew it.

Colby gave him Will’s smile this time, polished and patrician. “Don’t tell me a Captain of the Royal Navy can possibly be so inattentive to his surroundings. I’d be frightened on behalf of the war effort.”

“Very well, I saw you. Would you like me to leave?” He shifted weight closer, saying it. Colby’s eyes got a bit wider; Jason knew about the effect of his own muscles, that height and strength and breadth, and he knew it’d work on Will, who liked the thrill of danger and power and tantalizing adventure. That much was in the script. He did not know whether that visible lip-lick, that catch in Colby’s breath, was deliberate or unplanned.

“You may as well stay.” Colby waved a hand, purposefully elegant and slightly arrogant, reclaiming ground and not backing away. “You can’t precisely uninterrupt my solitude.”

“They’re your festivities.”

“They’re my father’s festivities.” Cool and collected, armor up. “Hardly my preference.”

Jason took one more step. Directly into Colby’s space. Catching luscious blue eyes with his; letting the moment extend, letting the words linger and then emerge. “What is your preference, in that case, Viscount Easterly?”

He’d meant it to be a challenge. It was. But it came out unexpectedly gentle, as something changed in Colby’s face: parted lips, a shiver, an unanticipated vulnerability. Those eyes were very large.

Jason said it again, softly, and put a hand out. Traced fingers through a loose wave of Colby’s hair. Tucked it back into place. “What would be your preference, if you could choose? What would you like, from me?”

That last bit wasn’t in the script. It’d just tumbled out. Unplanned.

In the background, far off, someone said, “Holy shit—”

Someone else demanded, “Don’t you dare stop recording, I want every second of this—”

They didn’t matter. Unimportant. Jason watched Colby’s face, the way the next inhale lingered over lips, the way his hair brushed his collar when he tipped his head up to meet Jason’s gaze more directly. “I prefer—”

He stopped. Jason had left the hand in place, stroking that whisper-soft hair, and now half-inadvertently slid it down to touch his cheek: a caress and a question and a request for forgiveness. Colby seemed to be wordless.

Forgiveness, Jason thought. For Stephen’s interrupting of Will’s retreat; for his own idiotic tantrum earlier; for whatever’d put that resigned small pain behind Colby Kent’s complicated pretty eyes. They all fell together and blurred into one. He couldn’t pull them apart. He no longer quite knew how.

He wanted to kiss Colby Kent on a balcony the way Stephen wanted to kiss Will. He wanted to grab Colby’s wrist and sweep him off into the library and crush him into books the way Stephen very shortly would. He wanted to explain that he hadn’t meant any of his own earlier words, he just couldn’t believe in all that niceness, not without some reason behind it.

He wanted, against all logic and rationality, to help.

This realization silenced him.

Colby, looking faintly shocked, managed to find safe harbor in a line. “I’d like to be able to choose. For once. For one night.” That was more or less the script, but Jason hadn’t imagined it quite so raw, so poignant. “Could you offer that, Captain Lanyon?”

“Perhaps I could.” They’d’ve had hands on a balcony’s old stone railing, under moonlight; he held his out instead, a suggestion. The scene, this scene, should end with the breath before a kiss, followed by that tumble into the library, a Regency-draped one-night-stand, loosened cravats and undone breeches and gasping breaths. He could have closed fingers around that slim wrist and yanked Colby forcefully to him; he only made the hand an invitation, and waited. “Would you accept it if I did?”

Colby’s eyes flicked to the open hand, then back up to Jason’s face. “If you politely offered to give me what I’d like?”

“As polite as you’d like me to be, my lord,” Jason promised. “Or—not. Whatever you’d choose.”

Colby lifted his own hand. Set it in Jason’s. His fingers were long and graceful, but slightly cold. Jason wanted to warm them. And those complicated eyes sparked with newfound fire. “Then I’d choose less polite. Captain.”

And the title was a beckoning, a flare, a call to action and the future: temptation to push that smile down and conquer it, never without care, never causing harm, but with a fierce and wild need to wind fingers into that hair and hear Colby’s voice murmur the word again, Captain or sir or even Jason’s name—

Stephen’s name. Christ. Colby Kent was a damn good actor. Jason couldn’t breathe.

Colby’s fingers tapped his, just once, then lifted. Jason was still struggling to remember where and when they were.

Colby fiddled with a shoved-up sweater-sleeve for a second. It didn’t seem in danger of sliding down, but maybe it was, or he thought it was; either way, his gaze dropped from Jason’s. Afterward he looked up, smile firmly in place, and displayed said smile at the camera, at Jill, at their audience. “How was that?”

Two-thirds of their audience applauded. Enthusiastically. With drumming on the desk. Ben even did a small silent whistle. “God, you make my words sound good.”

“Thank you, thank you.” Colby waved airily. “I do try.” As if he’d not been trembling and brave and determined, a moment ago. As if he, like Jason, wasn’t fighting back the urge to reach out again, to touch again, to find out what’d happen if they touched more

He probably wasn’t.

Acting, Jason reminded himself. Colby Kent had built a career out of being lovable. Being adorable. Performing.

Jillian cleared her throat. Set down her pen. “Thank you, Jason, that was…certainly memorable.”

“I’m going to remember it,” Ben murmured. “Later. For script revisions, of course.”

Colby avoided looking at Jason some more.

“Thank you for coming in,” Jillian said, “and we apologize again about running late. We’ll review today’s tapes and let you know within the week.”

“Thanks.” Handshakes all around. Nods. Pretending his career, his future, didn’t hang in the balance. He paused when he got to Colby, who’d come over to perch on the corner of the table. Those long legs stretched out against a backdrop of meeting-room blandness; Jason offered his hand there too, and then internally winced at recent tumultuous memories. “Sorry.”

“You do keep saying that,” Colby said, and took his hand very briefly, the limit of what would’ve counted as courtesy, and let go. “Never apologize for honest reactions. They’re rare enough in our line of work. In which some of us, like me, are very good at being fake. As you so honestly observed. Someone will be in touch very soon, since we’re moving fairly rapidly with this. I think that’s all, unless you’ve got any questions for us?”

And that question wasn’t really one. Rhetorical. Jason, trapped by the middle statement, couldn’t scrape together words. He muttered some collection of sounds, and fled.

In the elevator he slumped back against the wall. Shut his eyes. Exhaled.

This role. This fantastic waistcoats and ballrooms and love-letters role. And he wanted it. He wanted it so badly he nearly screamed.

He wouldn’t get it. He wouldn’t. Brainless action-hero reputation aside—and that’d be a pretty damn big aside—he’d insulted Colby Kent in a hallway, then done…whatever it was he’d done…during the screen test to make those blue eyes get even wider and off-balance, and left Colby not quite able to look at him.

He contemplated kicking the elevator. Settled for thumping his head against it as they traveled downward.

Colby Kent, being a producer as well as playing Will Crawford, would be non-negotiable. Jason Mirelli was likely no longer even on the same metaphorical planet as any negotiations. That comprehension hurt.

Like a Regency-era bullet to the gut. To his career.

He leaned against his friendly elevator a little harder, sagging.

He could play this role. He knew he could. He could handle battle scenes; he could make himself cope with the water scenes; he could love another man and stand up and wave the banners of that love, fighting to be seen throughout history. He knew how he’d play that first kiss, that quiet letter-writing stillness, the moments of stolen shore leave.

And someone else would get to do it. None of that would be his.

He’d held out Stephen’s hand more gently because it’d felt right. In the script, Stephen and Will would flirt and bicker and challenge each other, and they’d both be sure of what they wanted; but despite the dazzling sparks the element of choice lay at the core. Stephen would definitely haul Will off to the library and ravish him, but not without being certain that was what Will desired; Will would’ve spent too long not being allowed to choose for himself, a path not dictated by expectations of his rank or his ill-health, and he was clever and stubborn and competent in his own right. Anyone who’d simply assume he wanted mindless plundering would be reading their roles wrong. Jason gritted teeth.

He was picturing Colby’s slim fingers in his. Feeling the lightness of that touch. Seeing the way those lips’d parted, not expecting consideration in the scene.

Someone else might not see that, the way those expectations didn’t quite line up, the weight behind the response. Someone else might stampede directly over Colby without noticing the subtlety. Someone else might not play the moment right.

He heard that unforgettable multilayered voice saying goodbye again. Telling Jason not to apologize for being honest. Calling himself very good at being fake. Echoing the insult not as if upset about it but as if accepting it as correct.

Jason would’ve bet his entire income from the John Kill series on that flicker of vulnerability—his hand stroking Colby’s hair, his question about desire hovering a caress away—being real. Even now, picturing the moment in a slowing elevator, he would again.

He didn’t know what that meant.

And he’d never know. Big dumb action hero. Trampling all over feelings and a scene. Ruining whatever connection’d gotten him to this point.

He didn’t know how he’d call Susan. He didn’t know what he’d do next. If there’d ever be a next role, another opportunity. Even if so it wouldn’t be this.

The doors opened. Ground floor.

He left the elevator. He stepped out of the wide glass entryway into diamond-bright Los Angeles sun. He winced because he’d forgotten sunglasses, and blinked rapidly, and stepped to one side to not be in the way: a large-shouldered near-forty-year-old action star in jeans and a too-warm jacket, out on the pavement.

Even while he stuck a hand in his pocket to find his phone and call a cab, sunbeams leaden on his shoulders, he wasn’t thinking about breaking the news to Susan, or to his own heart, though he would have to do both soon.

He was thinking about Colby Kent, instead. And those slightly chilly fingers, and those wide blue eyes.

On the phone, later that night, he did not tell Susan that part. She commiserated anyway, an agent and a friend, and promised to send over some other projects that might be a better fit. Jason nodded even though she couldn’t see him, poured a second glass of scotch, and stared out into Los Angeles under thick smoky skies.

City of stars. City of dreams. And a future as an increasingly less relevant B-level punch-and-kick-and-explosions memory.

He didn’t mind being popcorn entertainment. He wasn’t lying to himself about that; he’d never be anything but grateful for his career. And everyone needed undemanding pure high-adrenaline spectacle once in a while.

He’d just wanted something else alongside that. Something that’d mean more for an audience. For history and the stories that got told. For himself.

Stupid, he thought. Stupid dreams. As if you could be right for that. As if you could be good enough for that. As if they’d take you and your muscles seriously.

As if you could help someone. Anyone. Someone with blue eyes, who uses too many words as friendly rambling armor, deflection over self-deprecation.

As if he’d want you to.

Jason tossed back the rest of the scotch, sighed, couldn’t face himself in the mirror, and went to bed.

He woke to the mild ache of dehydration—he hadn’t drunk enough water—and the slanting bars of optimistic sunshine on his face and two missed calls, both recent, both with voicemails. One from Susan, which he’d get to after. One from Jillian Poe, which had to be the incoming polite no-thank-you after yesterday’s debacle. It was nice that she’d called personally, he supposed.

He played that one first. And then he sat very still on his bed, surrounded by rumpled sheets and sunshine, unshaven and fuzzy with shock.

Congratulations, Jillian said, and could he come in for wardrobe fittings and make-up tests as soon as possible, and would he mind working with a historical-consultant ballroom dance specialist before filming? They had someone in mind. Someone Colby knew. And congratulations again, and please call her back.

He had the part. They’d offered him the role.

Chapter Text

Day one. Los Angeles, fifteen minutes before six in the morning. The Raven Studios lot, and a make-up chair. The first make-up chair, on the first official day, not a test or an exploration.

Jason patiently closed eyes for an airbrush, a sharpened eyeliner pencil, gentle blending. Opened them and regarded himself in the mirror.

Another person looked back, a strange hybrid self. Captain Stephen Lanyon’s slightly longer hair, courtesy of extensions, enough to pull into a gentlemanly queue. Lighter in places than Jason’s own dark brown: still brown, yeah, but kissed by the sun, by salt, by shipboard naval life. The airbrush had sun-kissed his skin as well; he was tempted to touch it, but knew better. Cherry Khan’s hands danced around him, working her spells; he’d liked her calmness ever since the first trial run. They got along; he was glad to’ve met her, part of Jillian Poe’s crew.

He met his own gaze, through mirror-gleam and make-up. Still his eyes. Still his clothes, at least for the moment: jeans and a casual red shirt, simple and uncomplicated.

He liked to think of himself as uncomplicated. He was: an action hero, big and justifiably proud of muscles, generally goodhearted, appreciative of his family and his grandmother’s marinara sauce.

He didn’t feel uncomplicated right now. This role, this chance, this future: he wanted to grab onto it with both hands and cling. To prove that he could be that other self. Someone who could do more than kick and punch and shout angrily at evildoers.

He wanted to tell stories. To tell this story, history-drenched and rich as velvet and deeply textured with the lives of two men loving each other, as men had throughout the past.

He wanted to do this story justice. He wanted to prove himself. He wanted to impress Colby Kent and apologize to Colby Kent. They’d not spent any real time together—a table read or two, a few emails from Colby wearing the producer hat and checking on a detail or two of Jason’s contract—and Jason’d been gnawed half to death by guilt.

He wasn’t really a dick. He hadn’t meant to hurt Colby. He’d been having a rough day, chased in circles by desperation and inadequacy, and he’d said stupid words in the hallway, and Colby’d heard him and then not been able to look at him, and—

And Colby and Jillian had cast him anyway. That was the part Jason couldn’t figure out.

He’d stopped by the studio early—the day before, in fact—and wandered, staying out of the way but drinking in preparations, set design, blocking, spaces and equipment. Hadn’t been purposeless. At least three purposes, instead. Showing willingness. Soaking up everything he could. He’d started out in the realm of stunt performances, after all. He liked being able to evaluate potential risks, set-ups, challenges.

All that meant even more these days. Jason thought about water again, about that improbable spy thriller and that broken breathing apparatus and that underwater tangled disaster.

Everyone in the business knew those risks. Sometimes things went wrong. Sometimes someone never made it to the surface.

Jason had dropped by from the next-door studio lot to say hi—not working on the same production, having made the leap into headlining an admittedly low-budget thriller of his own, and oh Charlie’d laughed at him for that ambition too, cheerfully scornful, the teasing of a contented friend—and had consequently been right there. That tank, that water. That merciless overhead lighting. That body, heavy and slack in the way of lifeless shapes.

He suppressed a shiver, in the present.

He knew he should’ve mentioned the whole water-related anxiety to someone on this production, especially given the amount of time Captain Lanyon spent on boats or diving in to save a shipmate, in the script.

He hadn’t said anything. He couldn’t. He wanted this role. He needed this role. And he could handle it, anyway. He was a trained professional. He knew how to put fears aside, and that wasn’t even a real fear anyway, right? Just a memory. Not a serious trauma. Not one involving his own life. Shouldn’t be an issue, two years and several films in the past.

He'd always previously been fine in water. He knew how to swim, and even liked to; he knew about water safety; nothing this historical period piece demanded would be more complicated than a dive and a grabbing of a fellow cast member.

He knew all that. He knew.

He pushed those thoughts aside. A problem for another day. Not today. No water in sight other than the drinkable kind.

He needed to be good at this. He needed to show Jillian Poe, his award-winning director, and Colby Kent, his co-star, that he could be good at this.

He’d already jumped in on the wrong metaphorical foot. Insulting Colby. Clumsy and frustrated. Stupid. Colby had seemed to brush it off, and obviously Jason was here, so it couldn’t’ve been that bad, could it? He clung to hope.

“A bit more brightness, I think,” Cherry murmured, and one thin finger dabbed a mystery potion under his eyes. “And don’t fret so much. Is it first-day jitters, then? Or something else? Maybe…a boy?” She lifted eyebrows at him; Jason laughed. “Tell me all about it if it is. All the details.”

“Sort of a boy,” Jason agreed obligingly. True, for a given interpretation. “It’s not like that, though. Just that I said something dumb and I haven’t been able to apologize. He’s probably not even thinking about it or me anymore—” Also likely true. Colby must have much more interesting thoughts to occupy his time. Fabulous parties in that luxurious apartment. New ways to spend that A-list income. Guys flinging themselves his direction. Everyone adoring him.

“—it’s just, y’know, it bothers me,” he finished. “But at least I look great, Cher, thanks.”

“You’re lovely, dear.” She patted his shoulder. “And I’m sure if you apologize he’ll forgive you. Especially with those big pretty eyes. I’d forgive you.”

“Thanks more?”

“I could think of a few more things to do with you, if I was at all interested in the eggplant crowd.” Cherry patted him again. Her partner Diana was a chef, Jason knew; they’d chatted about the proper layering of lasagna and Jason’s family’s recipe early on. “I’m sure your boy could, too.”

“He’s not my anything. It’s not…” He sighed. “It’s not like that.”

“Of course it’s not,” Cherry said, “you’re only obsessing over something dumb you said and whether or not he’s thinking of you,” and poked a pencil at his eyebrow.

It wasn’t like that. It’d never be. Colby might’ve agreed to work with him, the in-role chemistry might be fantastic, but Colby couldn’t look at him. Found other people to talk to after table reads. Sent proper businesslike emails that always sounded vaguely British in tone and phrasing, as if that childhood training remained inescapable.

But Jason remembered the way that hand felt in his. He’d seen those glorious eyes upturned and gazing into his. He’d seen Colby Kent flinch, an ephemeral specter of genuine vulnerability. He’d wanted to help then; he wanted to now.

He didn’t even know why. They weren’t friends. Colby couldn’t need him.

But some tiny wistful part of his heart hoped Colby had someone, among that sea of admirers. Someone who’d see him. Someone who’d be there for him.

Jason’s heart wished it could help. Not even because Colby Kent was gorgeous and talented and a daydream come to life. Simply because it did not like the idea of someone being unhappy, and particularly that someone being Colby, who would choose a co-star based on what’d be best for the film, regardless of personal discomfort.

Jason, eyeing himself and his newly shaped eyebrows, knew he should be thinking of his own role. Slipping into Stephen’s skin. Preparing for a soundstage and a ship’s deck, the movie-magic half-built version. Conversations with Leo Whyte, playing his loyal lieutenant. Later, that afternoon, one conversation with Colby. A moment in which William Crawford, Viscount Easterly, had dared ill health and parental anger to slip onto Stephen’s ship and say farewell. They would not touch, not even kiss, in a space filled with crew and pre-departure bustle; but they would take each other’s hands, briefly, and they would know.

Jason, who’d taken Colby’s hand once, understood. Intimacy stolen out of public view. A commitment made sweeter by the ache of restraint. By the brush of skin to skin, laid bare.

Colby’d chosen. Had put his hand into Jason’s, given the invitation.

And Jason needed to stop remembering, imagining, wondering. For one thing, he didn’t have the right. For another, those imaginings were starting to cause certain effects in his jeans, sensation simultaneously pleasurable and potentially embarrassing and startling. He knew what he liked, as far as sweetness and surrender actively forthrightly given; he could not remember a time when he’d gone achingly hard from the memory of a touch of a hand.

Dammit. He had to stop thinking about Colby Kent. About wide blue eyes with their unusual darker outer ring of color, about the sparkle in them when saying Captain like a dare, like a tease—

“Good morning!” Cherry chirped to someone behind his shoulder. “What’re you doing in this early, sugar, you’re not on set until this afternoon!”

“I can’t come by to say hello to my favorite artistic genius?” That voice. Oh god, that voice. Amusement in ancient castles. Sunlight over stones. Arthurian mythology by way of Southern California. Jason sat frozen, thanking various theater-related deities and also Cherry for concealer that’d hide flushed cheeks.

Colby went on, “I’ve also bought pastries for everyone. There’s more on the cart outside, but I thought I’d bring this box over. I know they’re nothing as good as Di’s, but perhaps still good enough to begin the first day with? And—oh, Jason! Good morning. Would you like some sort of apple tart? Or a cinnamon…well, I don’t know what that is, it’s a very mythological shape, but it’s definitely got cinnamon in.”

“Um,” Jason managed.

“I’ll just leave these and get out of your way.”

“No you won’t,” Cherry scolded, picking up something round and chocolate-dipped. “Colby, darling, tell us exactly everything from Maureen Hart’s engagement party last month. Did she really invite all her exes? And did Skylar Mason really get drunk and fall into the pool, because the tabloids are saying so, but I know someone who worked on all five seasons of Vampire High with him and said he was the shyest nicest boy—”

Colby, who of course had been invited—Mo Hart’s engagement party invite list had comprised most of A-list Hollywood, several billionaires, and a prince or two, and decidedly not Jason—perched on the edge of a second chair and said willingly, “No, as far as I know he only tripped over someone, there was hardly any room to breathe even up on that rooftop patio, and I’m very sorry but I didn’t properly count the number of exes, though I did see Brett Claremont gazing longingly at Lindsay Miller, and she seemed to be looking back?” and they disappeared into a discussion of glamorous film-star hook-ups and break-ups and whether Lindsay should take Brett back, for a good twenty minutes.

They seemed to forget that Jason existed. That was fine. Jason was busy regaining air. Forcing blood into other parts of his body.

Colby, he noticed, tended not to lead a conversation. Answering questions, smiling, responding to whatever gossip Cherry wanted to know and apologizing for not knowing some answers, but definitely reacting instead of directing. Being exactly what she wanted from him.

Jason did not know what to do with this information.

He watched Colby Kent some more. Colby, even dressed casually, came in layers. Comfortable-looking but stylish pants, not jeans. A blue cardigan over a button-down shirt, even at six in the morning. The cardigan was buttoned also. Jason thought about that for a minute, too.

Colby might just be one of those people who couldn’t stand to look unkempt. Considering the motion of those hands, the half-messy swoop of dark hair that fluffed outward more on one side than the other, Jason wasn’t sure. Something about the sleeves and the buttons suggested armor. Something about Colby’s smile suggested steps across ice: not shy, not afraid, but aware. Conscious of each reply, as if making sure it was what would be desired.

Colby’s hair, like Jason’s, was longer now. Will Crawford needed to have dramatic windswept Byronic locks, good for pensive longing beside a library window or winding a lover’s fingers through. Colby hadn’t done extensions, though; that was all his, soft and dark and rumpled from the early morning.

Jason’s fingers, without regard for Jason’s brain, wanted to go over there and rumple it more.

“I’m so sorry,” Colby said, turning his way. “We’re neglecting you. It wasn’t even that good a party; I only went because, well, they invited me, and I didn’t want to be rude and say no. I left early, in fact, and went home and found a book. Have you had any pastries? This one’s got blueberries and some sort of creamy center. How are you feeling about this morning? Have you been practicing all of Stephen’s nautical terminology?”

You went because they invited you and your popularity with the media, Jason thought. You probably bought the most expensive item on their gift list, too. And then went home early. With a book. He said, “What book?”

“What? Oh.” Colby’s smile flickered: more real for a second, then more hesitant, then something unidentifiable. “Er…you won’t’ve heard of it, I wouldn’t think? It’s, er, queer paranormal steampunk romance. It’s brilliant and inventive and surprisingly tender, and I’d recommend the whole series if you’re actually interested, but no need to say so if you’re not, of course. Am I interrupting your getting ready? What time do you need to be over in wardrobe?”

“You’re fine,” Cherry said, and glanced between them with open fascination. “He’s got five minutes.”

“I’m interested,” Jason said.

“Oh,” Colby said again, as if uncertain what to do with this response. “I could…send you the list of titles in the series? Or the link to the author’s website?”

“I’d like that,” Jason told him. “Did you have one? The blueberries and cream or whatever.”

“Did I…oh, no, not yet. I didn’t want to take something someone else might want. I expect the crew’s demolished the cart outside, so you’re down to what I’ve got in this box, as far as choices.”

“Sugar,” Cherry inquired, with exasperated affection, “did you even eat breakfast?”

“I had coffee,” Colby protested. “I like food, you know I do. I’ll eat later. Craft services. Playing producer and inspecting the quality. I’m sure I’m allowed to do that. Jason, support me on this.”

Jason gave this request the consideration it deserved. “You’re probably allowed to do that. Whatever producers get to do. Blueberry, or cinnamon?”

“Hmm?”

“Blueberry or cinnamon? Pick one.”

“They’re not for me,” Colby said.

“I didn’t say you were having one. Just in general. Tell me your preference.” He thought this might work. The tone, the word choice, that purposeful echo.

It did work. Colby bit a lip—toothmarks in pink plushness—and glanced at Jason’s face, then admitted, “Cinnamon.” His cheeks were faintly pink as well.

“Okay then,” Jason said. “Hand me the blueberry thing.”

Cherry, eyebrows arching upward, gave a soundless whistle and then hopped up and went in search of some sort of bronzing product, possibly one that did not in fact exist, from the way she tripped over the name.

Colby offered up a blue-and-cream snail-shell from the box. Jason, who honestly had no preference one way or the other regarding blueberries, took it out of his hand. Their fingers touched, under a make-up mirror and gleaming lights.

Colby’s fingers shook, very slightly, almost imperceptibly. Jason noticed the shiver.

He moved his own hand.

Colby, blushing more, stared down at the tips of his shoes, at grey fabric and the foot of a chair.

A voice rang in from outside. One of the personal assistants. Shouting Jason’s name. Due over in the getting-dressed department. Historically accurate naval uniform waiting.

“You should be going,” Colby told his own foot. “It’s the first day, and—and Jill respects professionalism, and—so you should be going.”

“I’m going.” Jason got up. “I’ll see you on set, though? After lunch.”

“Maybe even at lunch,” Colby said. “I do eat.”

“I’ve only ever seen you talk about food,” Jason said. “And drink coffee.”

Colby glared at him, or tried to—it was like watching a kitten scowl—and picked up the cinnamon pastry, which made a unicorn-horn of sugary spice and icing in those elegant fingers. “Happy?”

“Almost,” Jason said.

Colby glared at him more, and took a bite. A large one. Sugar on those lips.

“Okay, I’m going,” Jason said, inching toward the door. White icing. Colby Kent’s mouth. A delicate lip-lick, a swipe of tongue. Christ. “I’ll see you at lunch.”

He fled. Off to fit himself into a nineteenth-century officer’s coat and cravat. Away from Colby and that mouth.

He wasn’t entirely sure what he’d just done. He didn’t think Colby was actually annoyed with him; that hadn’t been that much of a glare. And Colby had taken the bite.

He was pretty sure Colby knew that Jason’d wanted him to eat. They definitely both knew Colby Kent would always want to make someone else happy. That’d been more of the source of the glare.

But it’d worked.

He caught himself grinning.

And then he thought that he’d managed to annoy Colby and make Colby eat food and lust over Colby’s mouth, and he’d not ever managed to actually apologize or say any of the things he’d meant to say, needed to say, wanted to say.

He swore out loud. The personal assistant, a skinny blond kid with rainbow piercings in his ears, appeared unfazed: having either heard worse or expected worse from a brute-force action star.

“Sorry,” Jason said. At least he could apologize to someone.

“No worries,” said the kid, “Jill says that word all the time. Come on, I’m not gonna let you be late—” and led him off to embrace his character and this story, this love story, the kind of story Jason’d secretly dreamed of being able to tell.

 

Colby, settled into his chair and half-heartedly half-hidden behind various monitors and camera displays, deliberately did not watch Jason on set. Not as such. Not much, at any rate.

Maybe a bit. He had to know, right? He had to see just how good Jason Mirelli was on camera, with a proper set, with someone who wasn’t Colby himself. He had to contemplate Jason’s wardrobe and the way those shoulders and biceps filled out the embroidered coat, the way the high collar drew attention to the ruggedness of Jason’s jaw, the determination in dark eyes.

Colby jerked his gaze away. Stared at his script page without seeing any words.

Leo Whyte, playing Jason’s trustworthy first lieutenant, stumbled over a tongue-twisting line involving nautical terminology. Everyone laughed. Jason clapped him on the shoulder, a big hand and a companion, getting along.

Of course he was. Jason Mirelli was utterly depressingly adorable. Leo was practically vibrating with camaraderie.

Colby flipped a script page, and flipped it back.

The half-ship sailed majestically through the soundstage. The green screen backdrop would turn into an ocean, a Napoleonic War battlefield of flags and currents and cannons, courtesy of special-effects wizardry. Right now it gave them just enough for intense conversations: Jason shouting orders, being obeyed, quietly and tensely consulting with his lieutenant. Jill came over to offer a suggestion about emphasis, tone, emotional nuance. A world at war, and also personal loyalty and devotion.

Jason nodded, looking earnest. Jason wanted so very profoundly to be good at this; Colby could see it in his face, in the set of those muscles. That’d been one reason he’d wanted Jason cast opposite himself: that passion, that desire. That whole heart was right here, thrown into this role.

One reason. The other…

That chemistry. The way Jason had touched him, all presence and control, but also a perceptiveness Colby hadn’t expected. Bulk and breadth that could pin a man against a wall or over a library desk, but the kind of consideration that’d ask first, holding out an open hand. It’d been so easy, too easy, to want to take that hand, to fall into that long-lashed brown gaze. Barely acting.

And Jason didn’t even like him. Which was fine, of course; not everyone had to, and Colby was certainly aware of his own shortcomings. Tended to be a nuisance. In the way. Best in character, being someone else, playing a role. He was good at that.

Jason was a better actor than most people realized. Colby had watched all the dreadful John Kill movies. The plots made no sense and the dialogue was groan-worthy, but Jason managed to throw complexities into lines such as “My name’s Kill. And that’s what I’m here to do.”

As much complexity as possible, at any rate. In those eyes, in his expression—a hint of weariness, of tired pride at his own skill set, regret at the necessity and resolution to do what would be necessary. And that body. Jason moved like a panther, and one that’d learned karate and boxing stances to boot.

Jason was talking to Jill now. They were both smiling; she stepped away and back behind the cameras, and the scene took off again. More energy.

Colby put a hand up, looped a bit of his hair around a finger, let it go. He was growing more used to the length.

His costume for the day was arguably less elaborate than Jason’s military trim, but still delicious. Bottle-green coat, clinging fawn-colored breeches, crisp white cravat, Regency style: the sort of clothing an earl’s son would fling on in a hurry to rush down to the docks and say farewell to the man he loved.

Love, he thought. It was a good thing Jason Mirelli was a good actor. Jason didn’t like him, and hadn’t since that first screen test, or even before. Fake, Jason’d called him. Unbelievable. Unreal, without substance. No wonder Jason was so good at their joint profession, seeing to the core of people that way.

His fingers caught in his hair. He tugged, hard. Welcomed the sensation.

After that first screen test he’d tried to avoid imposing himself on Jason. Careful distance at table reads. Polite all-business emails when required. Surely that much would be acceptable.

He knew Jason hadn’t meant it, about any interest in paranormal romance novels. Being polite in turn.

Those expressive dark eyes had looked so shocked, even dismayed, when Colby’d arrived that morning. Hadn’t even been able to talk at first. Had grown irritated when Colby’d tried to be nice about the pastries. That made sense, though: Jason didn’t believe in the niceness, so of course it’d be irritating.

He did not know why Jason had wanted him to eat. Some sort of display of power? Dominance? Colby wouldn’t fight that; it’d make everyone’s lives easier if Jason was happy, and Colby didn’t need to be in charge.

In fact, murmured an insidious small voice in his head, you like him being in charge. Telling you what to do. Asking you about preferences.

Will Crawford would like that: someone who did not treat him with the deference due to a lord’s son nor the pity given to an invalid, but who respected him and his desires as an equal. As someone who could, and would, take everything Captain Stephen Lanyon could offer.

Colby himself—

No. Dangerous thoughts. Because he would, oh yes he would, and he knew he shouldn’t. Even as he thought it, even as he admired Jason’s chest and shoulders and narrow waist in those period designs, a bolt of cold trickled down his spine. He couldn’t do that again.

“No,” he said aloud. “No.”

Jillian popped up at his side. She’d pulled her pink-and-blonde hair up into a ponytail today, and she was dressed for comfort, jeans and a hoodie; she looked too impossibly young to be an award-winning director, even though they’d been friends for over a decade and Colby knew she was nearly fifty-two. Nobody’d believe it. “No to what? The scene? The lighting? Do you think we need a closer shot of Jason’s reaction, just there?”

“Yes, in fact, but that wasn’t it.” He waved the script pages at her, a motion that covered up a tugging-down of one sleeve. “It’s not quite right. The ending. What were you all laughing about?”

“Leo can’t tell the difference between port and starboard. He thinks you can drink both. What do you think of Jason?”

“He’s very good. He wants this very badly. He occasionally tries too hard, and it’s visible.”

“Yeah, I thought so too. I’ll talk to him about it.” Jill flopped into her own chair, and eyed him. “We’ll run back the footage in a sec. What’s wrong with the ending?”

“Mmm…not sure yet. I’ll think about it. Is this lunch, then?”

“Yep, as soon as they’ve got a couple of heroic close-ups. They’ve got instructions. I’m watching. I’m also talking to you.” Jill stretched over to tap fingers on the nearest script page. “You know I trust you, but we’ll need to talk to Ben if there’s something you want to change.”

“I know.” Jillian was the only person who knew that about him. He’d told her years ago, lonely and heart-sore and slightly tipsy after a premiere-night afterparty, that if he’d not been discovered as an actor, if the world had been different, if his family had been different, if he had been different, he’d’ve been a writer. He’d always liked words. Stories. Memorable turns of phrase like glinting jewels, catching fire. Jill had promptly waved a script at him, watched Colby make a few edits while reading over his shoulder, and then demanded that he play script doctor on her very next project.

He never took credit. That was complicated as well. Not merely in terms of the industry. For the same reasons he liked to read but never read poetry. His mother would have loved it if he had.

He did call his mother on her birthday. Holidays. Special occasions. Six months ago his ex had thought it’d be hilarious to wave a copy of much-lauded poet Lydia Sable-Kent’s latest free-form experiment in his direction. Specifically, that’d been the poem in which she expressed her difficulties and disappointments with a child who’d grown famous in such a popular field of entertainment, and bemoaned how hard this state of existence was for her.

Liam had found that hysterically funny, Colby recalled. It even was, a bit. He supposed he could see the absurdity. He should be better at seeing it, he knew.

“It’s not Ben’s writing,” he added hastily. “Lovely as ever. It’s the structure. Or the sadness in the ending, as Will gets that letter, after the ship’s lost for good. How is Jason doing?” Damn. He’d meant to keep that curiosity held back. Trapped on his tongue.

“I like him.” Jill took the script to glance at his notes. “He’s a giant marshmallow. Wouldn’t’ve guessed, after Saint Nick Steel. But it works for Stephen, with that emotional center. What do you think of him?”

“He despises me,” Colby said. “And with some justification. The man could wrestle a tiger bare-handed. I’d be eaten in the first second.” He did not mention how very much he’d like to watch Jason Mirelli engaged in any sort of wrestling, particularly naked and well-oiled.

“You would not.” Jill swatted him with the script copy. She was one of the people who could. “Honestly, Colby.”

“Because you’d show up to rescue me, yes, understood.” He caught the script and nudged it open again. The ending proceeded to bother him more. “I know you would.”

“No,” Jill said. “Because you’d talk the tiger into being your friend. And then nobody’d be eaten. Well, only metaphorically. Did you not see the way he looked at you during that screen test?”

“Yes,” Colby said, “it’s called acting, he’s very good at it, we’ve been saying,” and hid behind words. “That’s why we wanted him. I really do feel as if the last act isn’t right. It needs to end on an upward trajectory, more hopeful, don’t you think? We’ve had enough sadness.”

“It’s the way the novel ends, the way Ben’s adapted it,” Jill observed, but not as a disagreement. “Are you okay, though? Will you be okay, working with him?” Her eyes said more. She’d been the person he’d called the night everything'd imploded with Liam; she’d talked him through the shakiness and the tears and the self-doubt: what could I have done, why wasn’t I enough, why would he laugh and tell me I wasn’t good enough when I’d just found him with another man in our bed, in our apartment…maybe he was right, maybe I wasn’t there enough, maybe I didn’t do enough for him, maybe I should’ve bought him that second car he said he wanted, it wasn’t THAT much of my last paycheck, maybe I should call him back and apologize…

Liam, like Jason, had been tall and towering and masculine, the kind of person who promised strength like an anchor, able to stand firm and encompass the world. The exact opposite had proven to be true.

Colby had rather frantically internally bandaged himself up in the wake of that first devastation. Haphazard slings and supports flung into place. Jury-rigged but holding. Jill shouldn’t have to deal with yet another of his personal disasters; she’d done enough for him already over the years, from that first-ever film role to taking his phone and hiding it when he’d mentioned calling Liam and possibly buying a car. He’d spent the night at her place; he’d got up and thrown together light and fluffy spinach-and-cheddar omelettes for breakfast. He’d smiled at Jill while holding out a plate. He’d done the dishes.

He did like to cook, or he thought he did; other people liked it when he did, though lately the effort didn’t seem worth it for only himself. He’d opted for delivery, a few times; he’d possibly forgotten to actually call and arrange that, a few times. He wasn’t certain when he’d last been shopping; of course it wouldn’t matter now. Jill had wanted everyone nearby; the studio’d put them all up in hotel accommodations, which would continue to be the case once production moved to England and historic locations. Colby hadn’t minded getting out of his apartment and the memories ensnared in those walls.

He wondered whether he should’ve bought ingredients and learned about his hotel suite’s kitchenette and stayed up baking first-morning pastries to bring to set, rather than buying them. Maybe people would’ve preferred that. Maybe Jason would’ve been happier, rather than going silent and then engaging in some sort of bizarre test of preferences and eating habits, about which Colby did not know the rules.

And he kept thinking about Jason’s strength. Those muscles, and the perplexing gentleness in those big hands.

He shouldn’t be thinking about that. He shouldn’t.

He said to Jill, “I’m always okay, you should know that by now,” and batted eyelashes at her: silly and frivolous and exaggerated, dispelling worry in playfulness. “It looks as if your minions are done. Have lunch with me?” Jason had mentioned something about that, but that’d been out of obligation, obviously, and Colby wouldn’t hold him to it.

“Someone’s got to make sure you eat,” Jill said meaningfully. “Coffee doesn’t count.”

“I do eat! I had a cinnamon narwhal horn this morning. I think that’s what it was. Unless land-unicorns come with cinnamon-sugar horns. I will absolutely eat something right this instant.” He offered up his best plaintive eyes. “Anyway Will’s meant to be slender. Sickly. Wasting away. Perhaps I should be dieting.”

“You basically are,” Jill muttered. “But not in a good way. Lunch, and then you can run onto a ship and stand next to Jason and show me how okay you are.”

“We’ll be splendid.” He got up when Jillian did. “You and me and Jason. And the ship. I’ll think more about the ending. Do you think there’ll be anything chocolate? I mean craft services, not the script. Though that certainly couldn’t hurt. Chocolate eclairs and happy endings, perhaps? I could entirely write that scene. More than one scene, even.”

Jill laughed, and forgot to fuss, distracted by the historical relevance of eclairs. Colby smiled at her, was happy that she was happy, and went in search of chocolate.

Chapter Text

Jason stood on the fake deck of a fake ship, under soundstage lights, and watched Colby Kent from a distance. Colby, in full Regency aristocrat costume—and oh that was doing things to Jason’s equilibrium, those long legs in tight breeches, the shape of that slimness defined by creamy brocade in waistcoat form—wasn’t facing him. Gazing away, the way he ought to be when the scene began. William Crawford, Viscount Easterly, caught and enchanted by this new unpredictable world of ropes and decks and sea-terms. For a moment entranced not by Stephen but by a far-off horizon.

God, Colby was good. Even standing in place he embodied Will’s depth of longing.

Jason admired him and ached for him and wanted him with a sort of angry inadvertent want. Colby, not turning, put a hand up to bat loose hair out of his eyes. The wind machine was being overly enthusiastic.

Anger was and wasn’t the right emotion. Jason’d thought they’d talk over lunch. He’d been mentally preparing.

Colby had arrived with Jillian, who’d kept him occupied with questions: everything from debates over the exact year chocolate’d arrived in England to wickedly funny commentary on a script Jill had just received, which apparently Colby had read; they’d found it well-intentioned but incomprehensible, and Colby’s playful suggestion of incorporating time travel spun dramatically off into a whole new subplot involving dinosaurs.

Colby had smiled at Jason, but had hidden behind Jill and conversation. Jason was very sure of that. Jillian knew it as well. Jason had noticed her physical positioning, that subtle arrangement of herself as Colby’s defender. He’d caught a look or two from her, thrown his way.

He didn’t know what to think. Colby wasn’t unfriendly, and they obviously had chemistry together. He’d guess that he’d done something wrong, offended those blue eyes somehow—which of course he had—but that wasn’t quite the sense either. Not with that strange protectiveness.

Colby, with an unfathomable flicker of a glance in Jason’s direction, had collected and then taken a large bite of a grilled chicken sandwich. He’d also picked up two chocolate-chip cookies, because Colby Kent lived on sugar. At least he was eating, though. Jason hadn’t said anything.

He didn’t know how to say anything. Too precarious. Here because they’d chosen him. Needing to be likable. Needing to be someone they could work with. Jillian had already taken him aside and kindly suggested he relax a bit. This suggestion had had the opposite effect.

He looked at Colby again. Flawless under lights. Pretty, if one liked long-legged wood-elf endless chatter. Jason was starting to think he personally might. That pert backside caught his attention.

Colby Kent, he thought—not just because of the backside—was far more complex than most people saw. Quick-witted enough to verbally rewrite a script on the spot and make it more ridiculous fun. Enough of a martyr to pretend not to want a pastry. Kind enough to bring pastries for everyone on the first morning. Multifaceted, a puzzle.

Colby’s hair fluttered again, courtesy of that artificial wind. He swiped at it, gave up, shook his head. Even his fingers were elegant.

“Jason,” Jill called over, “you good? Okay, good, great, we’re rolling!”

And they were. A clap. Action. Cameras on him, on Colby. Jason took a deep breath, straightened shoulders, let Stephen Lanyon emerge from the doorway that on a real ship would’ve led to his cabin. He had to duck his head a fraction to fit under the beam.

Because he was so focused on Colby, he walked right past his first mark: the spot where Stephen should pause and recognize exactly what visitor’d come aboard.

Jill yelled, “Cut!”

Jason stopped. Swore. “Sorry, sorry, shit!”

“No worries, we’re fine, just remember to stop this time! Let’s start again!”

The extras, the seamen and deckhands, got back to business with ropes and deck-swabbing. Jason went back to the doorway. His cheeks burned. Colby hadn’t turned.

He took a breath. Let it go. He could do this. He could feel this.

He stopped thinking about how much he had to do this. He thought about Stephen, instead. The snarled knot of war and worry and love and patriotism and protectiveness tangled itself in his chest. It felt poignant and difficult and true.

On cue, he stepped out of the doorway, a captain thinking about orders and preparations and departure in three hours; he’d been told he had an aristocratic visitor, and his mind was spinning, trying to balance under-rationed supplies, trying to think of a message to send to Will, trying to figure out who that visitor might be—one of the Lords of the Admiralty, or—

Jason, as Stephen, saw Will.

That unguarded shock of happiness stabbed through his ribs like a spear. The bewildering torrent of emotion left him speechless: thrilled that Will had come, afraid that Will had come, concerned for Will’s weak lungs and tempestuous relationship with a terrible father, delighted by the way Will gazed around this ship as if the H.M.S. Steadfast were the loveliest lady he’d ever seen, and of course she was, she was…

He strode over there. Colby—Will—turned. Aglow with conspiratorial pleasure. “I love your boat.”

“She’s a ship.” He put a hand on the rail, a caress. “Even you must know that.”

“I’ve never been on a ship before. Not even a yacht on the Thames. She feels as if she could fly.” Colby’s eyes danced. “Tell me everything about her.”

Jason raised eyebrows. “Everything might take some time. My lord.”

“Everything,” Colby repeated. “Captain.” Fearless, glorious, pale from exertion and the slow grind of consumption, he was artwork. Jason couldn’t look away, enthralled.

He leaned closer. “We have our orders. We sail this afternoon.”

“I know.” Colby rested a hand on the rail beside his. Jason did not have gloves, because Stephen would not bother on board his own ship; Colby did not have gloves, because Will had forgotten them in haste to reach the docks before departure. Their fingers did not quite touch; Jason’s skin prickled and sang like a thousand symphonies.

Colby went on softly, “If I could come with you…if I could run this far, far enough to stay here, like this, with you…”

“You can’t.” Too harsh, but Stephen would be harsh: choking on the image, smothered by possibilities. Will shattered by cannon fire, ruined by a musket-ball, ravaged by fever…coughing blood in the middle of an ocean, away from London and physicians… “You have your world. I have mine.”

“My world…” Colby, as Will, trailed a fingertip along the railing. Seasoned wood offered sympathy under the petting. “You know what my world is. My life. If I have a life.”

Ballrooms and supper-parties and a father’s strict disapproval and an endless parade of doctors and medicines. Ever-present, that specter with bone-white wings. Jason, as Stephen, breathed, “You’ll live. You must.”

“Stephen—”

“I’ll think of you,” Jason said. “I’ll think of you, wherever we are, and that will keep you alive. We sail for the West Indies to intercept the French. I’ll bring you a flower. For one of your scientific studies.”

“Then I’ll be here waiting for it.” Colby’s smile was magnificent: broken and hopeful, a kiss that Will could not give to Stephen in public, on a ship’s deck, under the sun. “And I’ll think of you. Sailing someplace full of tropical light, warm and bright.”

“And so you’ll keep me alive.” His hand slid over; his little finger brushed Colby’s. “It’s a bargain.”

“Accepted,” Colby whispered. “Agreed.” His eyes were very wide; he turned just enough to gaze up at Jason. His breaths were coming faster, though whether that was Will’s emotion or Colby’s, Jason couldn’t tell.

Hell, his own breaths were coming faster. Heart pounding. Confused about the need to bend Colby over the railing on the spot and also to wrap him up in protective fluff and never let go.

“So.” Colby’s smile—Will’s smile, the teasing joy of an earl’s son who’d never known joy until now—lit up the set. Raced down Jason’s spine. Painted the universe brighter. “Tell me everything. Starting now.”

Jason exhaled, tender and splintered apart with love. Pointed out a sail, a mast. “And that’s a—”

“Cut!”

Jason froze. “Sorry, what—”

Next to him, Colby actually slumped against the rail, somehow still graceful but closer to not being so than anything Jason’d yet seen, and scrubbed both hands over his face.

“Sorry,” Jill said. “Boom in the shot. Not your fault, guys. You can take it from Colby’s last line.”

“Colby,” Jason said.

“I’m fine.” Colby pushed himself up off the railing. “I’m here. Sorry, which line?”

“Yours,” Jill said.

“Right, yes.” Colby blinked, looked around as if reorienting himself, blinked again. “Yes. I’m good.”

“Are you?” Jason said.

“Oh…I’m fantastic, yes.” Those big blue eyes got even bigger and bluer. Utterly believable, except that Jason’d just seen him letting the set take some weight. “You’re so very good at this. I’ll have to keep up.”

“I am?” Jason said. “I mean…I hope so? I mean, I’m trying.” He stopped, added, “I’m sorry?”

“What on earth for,” Colby said vaguely, getting back into position. “You don’t control the equipment.”

“For being a dick to you the first time we met?”

“But you weren’t,” Colby protested, now looking perplexed. “You were lovely.”

What? No. Jason said, “What?”

“If you were anything else I don’t remember it. You were tired and we’d made you wait.” Colby flashed that smile at him: practiced, shining, no holes to be seen. “It worked out rather well, I’d say.”

“But,” Jason said helplessly.

“Ready!” Jillian shouted their way, not bothering with the megaphone. “Get into position, you two!”

What position were you picturing, again?” Colby shouted back—they were, after all, good friends, Jason remembered—and then did, seamlessly. “Shall we?”

“…yeah,” Jason said, giving up. He moved to stand next to Colby at the railing. “Ready.”

The implosion, this time, was his fault. Must’ve been. Though he couldn’t quite work out why.

They hadn’t started out touching, not quite the same. Colby said the line; Jason realized belatedly that they weren’t touching, no doubt terrible for continuity, and plopped his hand over, except Colby’s was a bit closer this time, or maybe Jason was; either way this led to some awkward movement, unpredictable. Jason’s hand landed heavily atop his slender wrist.

Jillian was already laughing, saying cut; someone who sounded like Leo made a joke about wanting to hold hands. Jason offered, “Hey, he’s got nice hands!” in order to make Leo laugh more, and then looked at Colby, really looked.

Colby had gone absolutely white. Hand not moving under Jason’s. Trapped in place, a fawn frozen in a hunter’s scope, where if nobody stirred he might get out alive.

“Colby,” Jason said, and then said it again. “Colby.” He lifted his hand; he wanted to reach out. He put both hands on the rail instead, visible. “Colby? Hey. Look at me.”

Colby breathed out, careful as a man with broken bones. “I’m all right.”

“You sure?”

“I’m…I just thought of someone. Something! Sorry. I wasn’t expecting—no, I’m fine, I’ll be better prepared. I’m so sorry.” He was starting to look better, and to talk more; that had to be a good sign, Jason figured. “It’s silly of me, I should know better—no, it’s fine, we’re fine. Sorry, Jill, we’re good!”

They weren’t. Not good enough.

Better, yes. Not as in sync, though. Jason was too aware of every motion, every bit of courage beside him. Colby still looked shaken, though after the third take he relaxed a bit, and a bit more with each moment after that.

“What were you thinking about,” Jason said finally, after the sixth time they didn’t have the right emotion, after Jill yelled up that they should take five minutes and give themselves a break. “That first take. When you smiled at me.”

“I’ve been smiling at you.” Colby put hands into his own hair, tugged briefly, let go hastily and smoothed strands in apology. “I don’t know what’s different.”

“Yes you do.” Jason set a hand on the railing. Watched Colby watch the motion. The guess, half-formed, nearly broke his heart; he did not want to give it shape and therefore reality. “You don’t have to tell me what’s wrong. But we aren’t getting this, and we did have it, and we need it to work.”

“I know.”

“So tell me what you were thinking about, before. I can try to make you think of it again. Or something.”

“I wasn’t.”

“What?”

“I wasn’t thinking,” Colby whispered. To the greenscreen backdrop, to the ship-set, to the universe: a secret made more intimate by revelation. “I only felt—I wanted—Will would want to be touched, of course, at that moment…”

Jason took the hand off the railing. Kept his voice even-keeled with some effort. “You don’t like being touched, do you?”

 

The question hung in the air. A portent. An omen. A curse.

“I don’t mind being touched,” Colby said lightly. Anything else would break him into pieces. “I especially don’t mind when I know what to expect. In advance. If I really did mind, I’d be entirely in the wrong profession, wouldn’t I?”

“You don’t mind.” Jason’s voice remained low. Deep. Soothing. “That’s not what I asked.”

“You said I didn’t have to talk about it,” Colby said.

“Shit. You’re right. I’m sorry.” Jason pressed fingers between eyebrows, over the bridge of that nose. “Sorry. I’ll stop talking.”

Colby hesitated. Considered Jason’s tone, Jason’s apology. Jason’s insight.

He put his own hand on the ship’s railing. Right where Jason’s had been. “Shall we do this again? You and me?”

Jason looked up, startled. Artificial lighting striped gold through his hair, tiger-lines against the brown; it was lighter than it’d been at that screen test, gilded by the modern equivalent of sailing and sun.

“We can do this,” Colby said.

Jason looked at his hand, at the symbol, at the meaning. “We can.”

“You and me,” Colby said again. “Stephen and Will. Or do you prefer Captain?”

Relief, and answering fire, lit up Jason’s eyes. Sparks kindling in autumn brown. “Only if you want me to pull rank on you.”

“Don’t I outrank you? As an earl’s son?”

“You’re on my ship.” Jason grinned down at him. “Means you’re subject to my authority, doesn’t it? Master and commander, all that.”

“Master and commander, indeed.” Colby arched an eyebrow at him. “I’d like to see you try.”

With a rush of astounded pleasure, he realized that in fact he might. He might like to see that dark gaze go hot and smoky, raking over his body; he’d shiver and then laugh, because he might be able to trust Jason. He might be able to trust Jason with himself.

Jason had seen him—had seen his moment of panicked inadequacy—and had apologized for pushing. Had understood. Had seemed to, at least.

“Right,” Jason said. “Let’s do this.” And practically bounced back over to his mark: an action hero given a goal, a task, a teasing challenge.

This time Colby turned his way already wanting to smile. Because Jason, arriving at his side, felt like a smile as well. Sunshine through those autumn-leaf eyes. Excitement in the forests now. A fairy-story waiting to unfold.

Colby, rather to his own shock, wanted to touch. To stand with that exuberance and let it wash over him.

Jason said the line. Keeping each other alive. A bargain.

Jason’s hand lay carefully motionless right there on the railing. Jason’s eyes were heartbreakingly sympathetic.

Colby, lost in confused desires—Will’s, his own, and was there a difference, when they both wanted and hungered and feared—did not so much decide as simply yield.

He let his fingers brush Jason’s; he let himself flow like water into the space of the scene, Will’s love and passion and promise. Being here. With Stephen; with Jason. Who would stop and apologize rather than harm him.

He murmured, “Show me everything. Starting now.”

Jason drew a breath, noiseless as if struck by awe, gazing down into Colby’s face. For a second no lines arrived. “Should we start with the rigging? Do you at least know what a mast is?”

“I’ve heard it used as a metaphor.” Will wanted to cock an eyebrow, teasing the man he loved; Colby did it. “A gentleman perhaps being…at half-mast, or more so…”

Jason made a low rumbling sound, hot and speculative; his glance stripped the coat from Colby’s shoulders, tangled hands in Colby’s hair, encompassed Colby’s body and took possession. “What gentleman was that?”

“No one you know. So that’s a sail, is it? You’ve got so many.”

This time Jason’s rumble was more entertained. “You really don’t know anything about ships, do you?”

“I would if you’d tell me.” They were standing, not scandalously close, but more so than the ordinary, perhaps. Jason’s presence filled up the world with height and heat. “How fast is she?”

“Fast.” The smile tugged at the corners of Jason’s mouth, fond and amused. “Like flying.”

“Someday perhaps we’ll be able to. The ancients had designs for it, you know. Autogyros, wings, propulsion…”

“And you’d leap right into the air.” Jason reached out. Kept the motion obvious, waiting for Colby’s infinitesimal nod. Then smoothed back Will’s windblown hair. “Because you’re not afraid. Not of anything.”

“Some things,” Colby said, because that was true for both the people he currently was, “yes. But not of you, Stephen. Never of you.”

Jason drew a breath, not for a line, because he did not have a line, because—

Leo, in character as Lieutenant Richard Harper, cleared his throat. “Sir?”

Jason’s gaze remained locked with Colby’s, that radiant leaf-brown so very intent.

“Sir,” Leo said again, more emphasis, which was not in the script. “The supply list? For the surgeon’s chest?”

Jason swung that way, and growled, “I don’t have the damned supply list, because he hasn’t sent it over—”

“Yes, that would be why I’m here,” Leo said dryly. “He has. And it won’t fit in that space allowance, either.”

Jason muttered a curse having to do with Admiralty-appointed surgeons, their arrogance, and an ancestry involving goats. “Will—Easterly—”

No first names. No nicknames. Too much private connection laid bare.

“I’ll go—disembark?—well before you need me to,” Colby promised. “But if you’d not mind, I’d like to stay for a bit. Out of the way, of course.”

He could see Jason—Stephen—weighing that decision. The bustle and scurry of last-minute preparations. The presence of a titled viscount among the crew. The comprehension of the need for flight, for breaking free, for a few stolen hours.

“I won’t have much time to spare for you,” Jason said.

“I understand that. Is there anything you could use? Anything you or the crew need, that the Stonebrook purse could supply?”

“I don’t like to ask you for that.”

“More rum would be nice,” Leo put in.

“You’re not asking,” Colby said. “I’m offering. I have the money. Use it. Use my name if you need any lines of credit. Any political influence I have. It’s yours.”

“I can’t let you do that. Your father—”

“I can’t come with you and I can’t fight beside you,” Colby said, and Will argued. “If this is the only way I can help, then let me help. Please.”

A muscle ticked in Jason’s jaw, but his eyes softened, holding Colby’s; no one else existed, no shouted orders or rattling crates mattered, for that instant. “Any chance of relatively fresh fruit? Or at least the juices of lemons or limes?”

“Give me something to write on and someone to deliver a note or two, and I’ll attempt to work a miracle on your behalf?”

“You already have,” Jason murmured, leaning closer, so close; and Leo-as-Richard noticed, as he was meant to, and cleared his throat. Jason straightened up. Shouted across the deck, “O’Brian!”

“Not a nautical term, I expect,” Colby said, leaning back against the railing, elbows on sleek wood.

“Midshipman. Reliable. Use him for whatever you need. O’Brian,” Jason added, as Timothy Hayes, in the character of sixteen-year-old Sean O’Brian, dashed up to his captain and threw a panting salute, “your job for the next two hours is to take care of Viscount Easterly. Get him whatever he needs. And find him someplace to sit that’s comfortable and out of the sun. He’s been ill.”

Colby glared at him for that. Jason smirked.

“Yes, sir?” Tim said, in a tone of teenage curiosity mingled with hero-worship. Sean had first served on a far uglier ship, under a vicious disciplinarian of a commander, and would walk on water if his new captain requested it.

“Hello,” Colby said. “I know utterly nothing about ships. Is it at all possible to climb up to that lookout point? It would be a splendid view.”

“Not for you,” Jason said. “Put one foot on my rigging and I’ll practice flogging techniques on you. I’ve seen you out of breath after climbing half a staircase.”

“Sir,” Tim hissed desperately in Leo’s direction, “the captain can’t flog an earl’s son.”

“Don’t worry about it, O’Brian,” Leo whispered back. “Just make sure Easterly doesn’t get so much as a splinter while you’re watching him, or…” He made a vaguely menacing gesture with both hands.

Tim, as Sean, gulped.

“Now look what you’ve done,” Colby said to all of them. “Honestly, I’m perfectly well. And—O’Brian, is it?—could you find me some paper and a pen? And then deliver some messages for me? I’ll pay you, of course. Whatever you think would be appropriate.”

Tim, with a midshipman’s horror at this lack of comprehension of nautical discipline and structure, managed, “Yes, sir…I think I’m not supposed to leave you alone, sir…”

“You’re not,” Jason said. “Will—oh, Easterly, dammit—” They were still in public. “I’ve got a gun drill to run. Use my cabin if you need a writing-desk. I’ve got paper.”

Tim made a small horrified sound regarding this lèse-majesté.

“Go on,” Colby said, and smiled at Jason, under studio lights, on a recreated ship’s deck, with simulated wind ruffling his hair. Jason was towering and authoritative, a captain with a command; Jason’s eyes were the eyes of a man gazing at the person he loved. “I’ll be in your cabin. I may need to borrow another midshipman or two for errands. I can just send them with this purse, and they may keep whatever’s left, if they’d like.”

“I don’t think he knows how money works,” Leo murmured to Tim, this time. “Or teenage sailors.”

“They absolutely may not,” Jason said firmly. “Or if you’re going to insist, which you are, make them bring it back first and we’ll sort it out with the rest of their pay. And go sit down. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’re leaning on my ship. And you could use something to drink. O’Brian, also find Viscount Easterly some lemonade.”

“Yes sir,” Tim got out valiantly.

“Go do whatever it is you’re doing with your guns,” Colby said, and he hoped that his expression was Will’s expression, worn by someone who knew nothing about naval warfare but many things about pride and love and fighting for every scrap of life. “I’ll be here when you’re done.”

Jason nodded at him, and went, taking Leo. Lieutenant Harper would be a friend and ally, cautiously entrusted with this secret, a shoulder for Stephen to lean on during the long tense months at sea.

Colby watched Jason’s shoulders for a moment, one longing moment; then drew a breath and turned to Tim. “Shall we get started, then? Since I’ve heard time’s of the essence. I hope you’ve got friends who run rather quickly, since I can’t, myself. Though I’m not as ill as Stephen thinks. Lemonade, indeed. I’m not his maiden aunt from Bath.”

“No sir,” Tim said weakly. “You’re not anyone’s aunt, sir.” Jason, off camera, smothered a laugh. Colby appreciated this, since that’d been one of his lines; he’d had Jill present it to Ben as her idea, as usual. In the scene, though, Will wouldn’t be able to watch Stephen anymore, so Colby couldn’t.

“Precisely. Show me where I’m supposed to be, and I’ll get started. The first note needs to go to the firm of Grimsby and Hall, if you know them, and Captain Lanyon may have access to any of the Stonewood accounts that he pleases, at any time. And then I need to write to Lord Cary directly, since he owes me a favor for that bit of translation work with those maps last month. And then I’ll need some of you to go shopping at the nearest market. If Stephen’s got any decent port on board, I would like some—you can join me—and I’ll send over more from our personal cellars to replace it. Have you got all that so far?”

“Are you certain you’re ill?” Tim said. “I mean, yes, sir.”

“ ‘We live not how we wish to, but as we can,’ ” Colby said softly, a translation: one of Will’s beloved ancient Greek authors. They’d paused outside the cabin door, which of course on this set led to just enough space to walk into. He let himself be serious, let the emotions ache for a moment: part of being here and alive, alive and in love, alive as he’d never known he could be. “And we do what we can for the people we love, for as long as we can, for whatever time we have…I would rather like to sit down, though if you tell him I said so I shall comprehensively deny it. And thank you for the assistance.”

“Yes, sir,” Tim said again, more firmly, on his side, “this way, sir,” and opened the door for him; Colby ducked inside, and that ended the scene.

He popped back out as soon as Jill began applauding. “How was that?”

“You’re the best not someone’s maiden aunt ever!” called over Andy, the first AD. He’d been one of Jill’s assistant directors since before Colby’s first film with her; everyone liked him, and everyone laughed.

“More seriously,” Jill said, coming up to them, “that was excellent, I love your comedic timing there, Tim. Colby, you know you’re always wonderful, though if you could maybe do the last bit just slightly slower, since you should be letting some of the façade down there, more like you’re actually really dying slowly of consumption and you’ve also just raced across London in a hired hack, that’d work better. And can you and Jason give us one more beat before talking about fruit? It’s an important moment. It’s basically a declaration. The two of you together against the world.”

“We can do that,” Jason said, appearing at Colby’s side. Colby, who’d been listening to Jill, caught the abrupt arrival in peripheral vision, and fought against the flinch of sudden closeness, not wholly successfully. Jason gave him a concerned look and shifted further away.

“Jason,” Jill said, “could you come watch this bit for us, where you walk away? You’ll need to walk a little more like someone used to walking on a ship. Here, I’ll get Andy to demonstrate—” and not-so-subtly steered Jason off that direction.

Colby leaned against the fake railing again. Leo came over to lounge next to him, all freckles and ginger hair and the same sense of mischief that Colby recalled from four years ago, from the epic First World War drama they’d both been small pieces of.

Leo also kept noticeable space between them, without commentary, Colby observed.

“So.” Leo turned guileless hazel eyes on him. This innocence was misleading; Leo Whyte had a reputation involving on-set pranks, including, in one memorable case, a live chicken in a co-star’s trailer. “You like John Kill’s action-hero shoulders. Don’t deny it.”

“I won’t,” Colby agreed. “Have you seen the shoulders in question? The man looks like a god in Regency-era naval uniform.”

“Yeah, and I am secure enough in my masculinity to say that I would totally let him swoop down and sweep me away from mortal peril in those arms, but you’re, like, way into it. I’m looking, but you’re looking.”

“I am not,” Colby muttered. “Will is.”

“You’re recently single.” Leo hopped up to sit on the railing, swinging one leg: casual, carefree, cheerfully heedless of potential scuffs on a boot.  “He’s single. He likes girls and guys. You should be over there getting to know those pecs firsthand. I’m just saying.”

“I’m not looking. And he barely tolerates me.”

“Not from where I’m standing,” Leo said.

“That’s acting. He’s in character. Shouldn’t you be rehearsing or something? I’m very sure you should.”

“I’m awesome and you know it. You’ve seen Adrenaline Spike, right? With that shirtless fight scene in the rain at the end? The one that goes on for like fifteen minutes and feels like someone really wanted to stare at Jason Mirelli all wet and glistening and made of muscles? If you haven’t seen it you so need to.”

“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.” Colby absolutely did not currently possess a copy of Adrenaline Spike on his laptop, either. And if he did it’d been for research purposes. Clearly. “By the way, I’d advise against smuggling any sort of barnyard fowl onto the set. Jill doesn’t like chickens.”

“Who doesn’t like chickens?” Leo regarded him, swinging that boot more. “Anyway, that’d be repetitive. Maybe something with marshmallows. You know I’m here if you need, like, pick-up line advice, right?”

“There is no possible universe in which I’d ever tell Jason Mirelli to appreciate my shirt because it’s made of boyfriend material. We’re resetting, Jill’s waving at us, and you have dust on that coat.”

“Don’t make fun of my lines until you’ve tried them.” Leo hopped down from the railing. “I know I don’t know you that well. Some, yeah; I was excited to do this film partly because I got to work with you more, and also, I mean, Jillian Poe. All those awards. Girls with Swords, I love that film, I love all her films. All of them. But, like, I can also tell when someone’s having all the emotions about someone else. And you’re the nicest person ever, and I respect that, so if you need someone to, like, take the big step and ask him out for you, on your behalf, I totally will.”

Colby, on the fake wooden deck of a fake wooden ship, took this offer in and tried hard to appreciate it. Leo didn’t mean it, he knew: only idle chatter, held out in the moment but as quickly forgotten. And no amount of assistance would solve the problem in any case.

Jason had come back to the cabin door and was waiting for them to get into place as well. More accurately, Jason was conquering the cabin door: that height and those muscles, that once-broken nose and those deep complex eyes, took and claimed and dwarfed all the space. Without even trying.

Colby wanted to go over there and find out what Jason felt like under golden braid and replica shirt-linen. He wanted to let Jason put an arm around him, large and strong and happily committed to being there in public, Colby tucked securely against that unshakeable bulwark. He wanted to discover Jason’s hands on his body, Jason’s weight atop his body, Jason’s length moving inside him.

He wanted the exact opposite of that. He wanted to scream and to run and to never feel that kind of implacable unstoppable weight bearing down on him again. He wanted to believe that someone could touch him without wanting something in return: money and gifts, whatever Colby could buy, influence with famous parents both political and poetical, or simply a gloating delight in taking power.

He wanted everything, and he wanted nothing; he’d never been so afraid to even imagine, and he genuinely did not know what he’d do if Jason somehow miraculously wanted him in turn, and he hated not knowing himself and his own reactions. Jason wouldn’t, that much was plain, but nevertheless.

If he couldn’t know, then he couldn’t control those reactions. He couldn’t be what, or who, everyone needed him to be, for this film, for press tours, for morning pastries and making lives hopefully brighter. He might slip up and panic at an accidental wrist-grab that’d been too much like everything he shouldn’t feel.

Leo said, “Colby? Everything okay?” His expression was concerned, but only mildly so: waiting for a co-star to catch up and stop slowing everyone down.

“Yes,” Colby told him; told everyone. “Yes, of course. Sorry. Ready when you are.”

He wrapped Will Crawford around him like a shield: that courage, the bravery that’d lead to defiance of a father and societal expectations, a love and desire that burned with the flame of certainty, when Will thought of Stephen. Will would spend the wealth and sacrifice his own well-being, throwing that brilliant mind and fragile body into the service of the Admiralty after all, maps and codes and ciphers, spycraft and strategy in late-night London planning sessions: fighting in his own way to keep Stephen alive.

Colby wished he himself could be half so certain. But that was a futile wish.

He could borrow the feeling for a while, at least. He could fall wholeheartedly into it and into Jason, because Will would; he could have that. He could have all of it. For now.

He turned on cue when Jason, as Stephen, came up to him. He leaned in toward Jason’s presence. He drank that closeness in like wine: honeyed, rich, intoxicating.

They gazed at each other for a moment, through studio lights; Jason had beautiful eyelashes, long and thick and dark, and oddly intimate in a sweep up and down, a smile for Colby—for Will—alone.

The take was good. The entire afternoon was good. Golden and brown as rolling ship timbers, as the laughter when Tim and Leo ran up to the railing to strike a Titanic-inspired pose. As the charged simmering instant when Jason reached out instead of merely nodding, before going off to that gun drill, and waited.

Colby put his own hand, Will’s hand, into Jason’s; Jason bowed over it, an old-fashioned courtly tribute, and let go.

Colby, breathless, did not remember lines immediately; he and Will watched Jason move away, and trembled with too many emotions.

Jillian, naturally, seemed pleased.

Colby got to leave first, a shorter day; Jason would stay to have intense conversations with some of his fellow shipmates in various lighting, daytime and nighttime and tropical-evening haze. They’d work with the interior cabin set in the morning. Will writing notes. Coughing. Blood on a handkerchief, hastily stuffed out of sight when Jason appeared.

Stephen would find that handkerchief later, after they’d set sail, long out of port. A heartbeat’s worth of shattering pain, of love that’d nearly tear him apart. A gulp of breath. A hand clenched around delicate fabric.

A love-note, written in anguished lamplight, in the knowledge that any letters might take months to arrive, or go astray, or be lost for good. Written regardless, because anything else would be unthinkable. Written because Will, like hope, like loyalty, would forever be at the center of Stephen’s thoughts.

Colby, dismissed and slipping without fanfare back to his trailer, to twenty-first century clothes and a pale blue tie for wind-messy hair, caught a strange small stab in his own chest. Emotions spiked through with the nub of a quill pen. A parchment heart, pierced. Not strong enough to hold up to sharpness.

He took a deep breath, and let the car take him back to the hotel.

He checked email. He did some producer-related housekeeping regarding their budget and the production timeline and that huge historic house they’d be moving to in England, very shortly. He got lost in reading about the Treatham grounds and family history for a while. Stories, past lives, real loves and losses and alliances. Anchors.

He texted back conscientiously when Jill sent a message to ask whether he was around and would like to meet for a drink. He knew this was an excuse to buy him dinner; he did not want her to have to buy him dinner. He promised that he was fine, handling the day perfectly well, only busy. He promised to order room service.

He opened up the latest script revisions on his laptop and stared at his own notes for a while, sitting cross-legged on his bed, all the lights flipped on against the dark.

He forgot, without precisely meaning to, to order room service.

He made coffee, after a bit.

Eventually he began typing, slowly at first, then faster: catching thoughts like shooting stars, like ideas not yet polished into gems. They could be, though. They could be.

He fell asleep still dressed, curled into pillows atop his hotel-room bed; he woke up precisely on time, and did not recall any dreams, so that was promising.

He flung himself into the shower, briefly, and then into different clothing because the morning had become chilly, mist-drenched and shimmering; he ran downstairs and waved at today’s driver.

When he got to his trailer he discovered that someone had thoughtfully left a large stack of DVDs just inside the door. Every single movie from Jason Mirelli’s filmography. Topped with a sparkly red bow. Adrenaline Spike sat on top.

Colby stared at the bow, pondered whether he could conceivably strangle Leo with sparkly ribbon, and decided regretfully that this might be frowned upon.

He wrote out a thank-you note instead, on a page artistically torn from his second-best nearby writing journal and in his absolute best penmanship, graceful as a physician’s stitches across a wound; and then went and found one of the personal assistants.

Some time after this, Leo, arriving in the make-up chair next to Colby’s own, picked up the massively expensive box of chocolates—Steve the PA had done his job well, with the aid of quite a lot of money and Colby Kent’s request—and then waved the note Colby’s way with a look of profound despair. “You’re either the best or the worst person ever to make fun of. Now I feel guilty. You sound so sincere. You said thank you. It’s terrible.”

“I am sincere. You got me something you thought I’d like. It was very kind of you.”

Stop,” Leo wailed around a mysterious powder-puff. Cherry, wielding the powder-puff, was trying unsuccessfully not to laugh. “This is awful. You’re awful.”

“I’m so sorry. Would you like more chocolates as an apology? Or something else? Some type of expensive alcohol, perhaps?”

“I’m giving up. I can’t do anything else to you ever. It’s like kicking a puppy. I’ve just kicked a puppy. And you thanked me for it. You bastard.”

“Oh, well,” Colby said. “We’ll just have to join forces. Jill likes doughnut holes, as I recall. And Tim’s a fan of some sort of rock band I’ve never heard of. Surprise gifts? Nice ones, naturally. But you can be as unpredictable about delivery as you’d like.”

“I hate you. I don’t, of course I don’t, but oh my god.”

“Consider it a challenge.”

Leo gave him a sideways glance. “You left Jason off your list of gifts.”

“I…wouldn’t know what to get.” Not store-bought baked goods. Not coffee. Not after Jason’d flung it into the bin the first time they’d met.

That was a good reminder. Jason did not in fact like him. Thought of him as frivolous, fake, superficial. Surface with nothing below.

He said, “Would you happen to know which band? We could deal with Tim first. Signed posters, do you think? Or even more rare, like, oh, a handwritten bit of lyrics or a set list, with a note?”

“I like that one,” Leo said. “And you do so know which band. The Stars, which is a stupidly pretentious name, but you were even at a party with their drummer. We both were. And I know you know that song, the one that’s all over the radio, come on, join me…”

Jason walked in mid-verse, visibly ran into Leo’s voice and nearly walked right back out, and glanced at Colby.

Colby, who’d not at all bothered attempting to sing in public, had given up and started laughing, catching chocolate when Leo threw one his direction. He could only imagine what Jason saw: one eye half-outlined in eyeliner, tongue licking champagne cream off a fingertip, shameless and not taking morning preparations seriously.

He stopped laughing. He sat up straighter, even though it was far too late. Jason would likely appreciate politeness, though, so: “Good morning. Sorry, we’re behind schedule, it’s my fault. Leo’s attempts at music are not my fault, though actually they likely are in some way, so never mind that. Er. How are you liking the hotel? It’s quite friendly, I thought, not the absolute newest but with, you know, personality. History. And modern updates, of course. So it’s not only history. If you like the updates.” He made himself stop through sheer force of will.

“I like the hotel.” Jason found an unoccupied chair and instantly occupied all of it. He’d arrived wearing jeans and a black jacket and a blue shirt that, with the jacket removed, appeared to be losing a battle with his biceps. The blue framed his dark hair and dark eyes and strong jaw. Colby tried not to whimper; tried to remember that they weren’t friends; tried to remind himself that, given every circumstance involved on both sides, approximately zero chance existed for more.

Jason might’ve been glancing at Colby’s just-licked finger. Disapproval, no doubt. “Were you eating chocolate for breakfast?”

“They’re mine,” Leo said, “and they’re expensive, but you can have one if you want,” and offered the box, too quickly to be a real offer.

“Different question,” Jason said, not exactly ignoring this. “Did you actually have breakfast? Or one piece of chocolate, singular?”

Colby might’ve flinched from this criticism, or might’ve attempted to take it as friendly teasing, or might’ve done any number of things. At various points in the past, more and less recent, he would’ve.

He said, “Yes, of course,” without clarifying to which question.

Jason crossed arms. “You’re thinner than you were.”

“I am dying slowly, you know.”

“You—oh. Will. Right.” Jason’s eyes did something complicated; those thighs had tightened as if about to move. “But you’re not. You—you’re fine. Right?”

Colby started to answer, heard the emotion in that voice—raw and injured, American casualness scarred by past loss, by a thread ripped right out of a woven banner—and said instead, gently, “I’m fine. I promise, Jason, I’m not suffering from a dreadful secret illness without telling anyone.” He did not mean it to be sarcastic; it did not land that way, or he hoped not.

Jason looked away: at a mirror, at a cluster of make-up related products, at someplace that avoided Colby’s face. “Yeah…of course you aren’t…yeah.”

“I’m not either,” Leo contributed helpfully, and was tackled into submission by Cherry’s hands and a small brush.

Colby almost put a hand out to pat Jason’s closest knee. Almost.

He couldn’t.

But his fingers quivered.

Jason sighed. Some of that tension went out of those shoulders. Resignation, perhaps. Or some other less identifiable emotion. “I, um. I didn’t eat much, this morning? So if I sort of. Grabbed one of the PAs and asked for, um, bagels, or something. With a cinnamon raisin one? Would…people…like that?”

“Oh,” Colby said. “Er…yes? Of course it’s up to you. Whether you want bagels.”

“It was just an idea,” Jason said. “I mean, if it’s not a thing people want, then never mind. But, um, I kind of want to.”

“Oh.” Colby discovered, glancing up, that Jason’s eyes had been on him, in the mirror. He wondered what they’d been seeing. “Well…if you went to the trouble of getting enough for everyone, then I’d have one. Appreciation. Of course I would. But you know that.”

Jason lifted eyebrows at him. “Do I?”

Colby was saved from having to answer by the descent of Cherry with lip color, designed for Will’s pale consumption-influenced complexion. Jason, wearing a peculiar sort of crooked smile, went outside to talk to, presumably, whichever personal assistant might be around; he came back in quietly, and the morning proceeded.

Bagels turned up twenty minutes later, accompanied by a fantastical variety of possible toppings. Four of them involved cinnamon in assorted ways: with and without raisins, with nuts, and so on. Colby only took one.

But he eyed the other three, along with memories involving flavors and preferences, and noticed an odd reluctant glow inside his chest, tucked up under his breastbone, someplace he hadn’t noticed had been cold; now it felt warm, rather like cinnamon.

Chapter Text

That odd cinnamon-warm glow was persistent, Colby concluded. Staying in place with great tenacity. Stubborn. The extremely strange part was how long it lasted: straight through the morning and his first scenes on the cabin interior set, surrounded by the oaken glow of wood and an old-fashioned inkwell.

Jason had watched Colby eat an entire bagel, had stayed for a quick run-through and rehearsal of their shared moment later, and then had disappeared for a little while. Colby had eventually asked one of the PAs. He’d had to know, after all. Being a good co-star and a good producer. Not losing track of his fellow actor. That was important, wasn’t it?

Jason had, apparently, been observing set-up for the next day’s water stunt, over where the tank had been constructed. They’d put the pieces together in editing, but Jill wanted Jason himself diving off the side, prior to pulling out the crewman who’d gone overboard. Jason, being a former stunt person and plainly capable of hauling another body up the side of a ship, should have no problems with that; he’d known about the scene in advance, and his agent had said he’d be happy to do it, which had made Jill happy in turn.

Colby, in costume on the cabin interior set and considering this absence of Jason, wasn’t so confident.

He’d seen Jason’s tension earlier. Had heard the emotion in that voice. The question hadn’t been so much about whether Colby himself was well; it’d been the pain of someone who hadn’t been able to rescue a friend.

He waited for lighting adjustments, post-blocking, after the first walkthrough of the scene. He wanted more coffee. He hadn’t slept long enough.

He hoped Jason would be well enough, too. For the sake of the film. For the sake of the story.

For the sake of those big compassionate brown eyes, offering up an excuse to buy breakfast foods.

He knew Jason wouldn’t say anything even if there were a problem. Colby understood that impulse. Jason wanted this role so very much; and Colby knew a thing or two about the need to not cause difficulties.

In any case perhaps no problem existed. Might be only in his head. Nevertheless he found himself rifling through options, ideas, possible assistance. If pertinent. If he could help.

He made himself focus on the current scene. Cherry had dashed in for some touch-up regarding Tim’s make-up, but they’d finished. Time to start rolling. Back in character. On board the Steadfast.

He and Tim began the day with the follow-up scene from the previous day’s shooting: himself writing out notes and directives, handing them over, letting Tim-as-Sean find ways to carry them out. Colby wrote shopping lists and messages to Will Crawford’s bankers; he arranged for a packet-boat to catch the Steadfast at Malta, since not all the supplies would arrive in time, and in any case they’d likely appreciate the infusion of fresh provisions more later on.

He, as Will, bit his lip and hesitated and wrote one more note: a reply to the missive that’d come back from Lord Cary on behalf of the Admiralty and the naval command. They would indeed be happy to meet with the young Viscount Easterly, scholar and natural philosopher and translator of those very interesting maps from several years back. They were quite intrigued by his proposal of services regarding languages and ciphers. They suggested, indeed, a small meeting that very evening, at Lord Cary’s club.

Colby let ungloved fingertips rest over ink. Over a commitment, a choice, a decision.

He wrote back. A simple answer. A conclusion that he’d do all he could, everything he could, to protect Stephen. A yes.

He sent that note on its way with the rest of them.

He leaned back in Stephen’s chair; he, as Will, memorized the shape and feel of it, where his lover would sit and write and think. The cameras captured his imagining.

He smiled to himself, caught one more sheet of paper between fingertips, scribbled one more note. Decidedly not for sending. Explicit. Erotic. Slipped into Stephen’s bunk.

Jillian had asked whether they needed a calligrapher for writing close-ups; there’d be so many, in this film. Colby had laughed, proceeded to write out a line of one of Will’s letters for her with the best pen he could borrow on the spot, and said, “Don’t tell me I can still surprise you!” when she’d applauded.

His mother’d always valued stylish handwriting. She hadn’t taught him, but she’d said in interviews and to her writing students that penmanship was an art, and the sign of an artist with words. Some of Lydia Sable-Kent’s students had found this pretentious. Some had nodded eagerly. Younger Colby, sitting on back staircases and eavesdropping on his mother’s gilded salons, had come away with the impression that graceful letters might make her smile.

When he’d finally showed her a version of her own name in onyx ink over creamy heavy paper, the one he’d thought had come out the best, she’d corrected the curve of the y in her first name and told him he could certainly do better if he kept trying.

He hadn’t shown her again. But he had kept trying.

He’d decided he liked the unexpected old-fashioned beauty of it, a skill not many people bothered with these days; entirely understandable, of course, and he wasn’t judging anyone, especially given how much he himself depended on his laptop and phone.

But he thought that perhaps the calligraphy itself liked that too: being appreciated.

He mostly tended to use it for thank-you notes and quick-but-interesting autographs for fans, these days. He did not practice enough to be truly skilled; he likely never would. But he’d been excited to play with Regency-era styles and pens and flowing lines.

Tim stayed quiet, watching his hands, and did so for the whole scene, for multiple takes. This included the one in which Colby accidentally left a visible ink-blot on the cover of a note and said “Oh, drat!” and Leo shouted from somewhere off-camera, “Oh my god, you are someone’s actual maiden aunt!”

Colby made a gesture that direction which would’ve been far more rude back where he’d grown up in London, and then set down the pen and did it with the other hand too for good measure.

“I don’t know what that means!”

“Good!”

“Colby,” Tim said, bashful and awestruck, “is that really your handwriting? I mean, like, it obviously is, but like…seriously?”

“Oh…yes, more or less. I’m making an effort. The everyday version’s much messier. I thought Will would be more formal, though, and I looked up some early nineteenth-century examples. Would you like me to write out anything for you? Your name, or a line from something? I’ve got extra paper. And I adore this pen. It’s so smooth, and it’s an actual antique, Lux from the props department found it someplace, they’re so good at finding pieces like that, it’s possible I should write them a thank-you note…oh, sorry, I was offering something for you, wasn’t I?”

“I have, like, literally never seen anyone so excited about a pen,” Tim judged, grinning. “Everyone said you were the nicest person ever. You totally are. Can I get you to write out song lyrics to give to my girlfriend? Like, you know that Stars song ‘Just Two Dead Ghost Babies in Love’? She’ll think it’s awesome.”

“Er…yes, certainly. Or, well, I don’t know the song, but I can look it up. Any particular color of ink? Or style?”

“Totally black. And maybe some really dark purple. And—”

“Guys!” Jill said. “Solve Tim’s love life later! Colby, I love you, but now’s not the time!”

Colby flinched at this disapproval. “Sorry!”

“Don’t worry,” Tim called over, “Colby’s a genius, so we’ll totally nail it with this next one!”

Colby tried not to flinch again. Lots of responsibility. Squarely on his shoulders. Because he was Colby Kent, award-nominated, critically-acclaimed, audience-adored actor. Older than Tim and therefore in charge of this scene going well. Right.

He could do that. He was good at doing that. At being someone else.

He picked up the pen. He poured Will’s devotion, Will’s passion, Will’s heart and soul into that commitment. Ink on paper, legible as the shape of a heart.

He, as Will, dropped the pen after that last note to Stephen; his hand shook. He had to cough, abruptly. Those pesky lungs. Not working well. Protesting air. Tim had stepped outside to find someone to deliver messages.

The handkerchief Colby fished out already had fake blood in the correct spot, as assembled by the props team; he had just enough in the tiny capsule in his mouth to make it fresh. As usual, it tasted like theatricality: cornstarch and dye, liquid and gelatin.

He let himself bend over Stephen’s desk. He pressed fingertips to his mouth, first; and then fumbled for fine linen. His hand came away red; he couldn’t breathe. Will would be swearing, if he could: uselessly, frantically, futilely. Not enough time. Not enough strength. Sickness clawing at both heels despite everything money could buy.

It’d always mattered—Will Crawford had always wanted more time, more scientific equipment, more days of pure abstract joy in the mathematics of a bird’s flight or the curvature of a flower-petal or the unfolding of language like a tree in spring—but now it mattered because of love.

Will had Stephen. Will did not want to leave Stephen.

Colby Kent, clinging to Stephen’s desk, felt tears prickling his own eyes, unplanned. He was thinking for no clear reason of Jason Mirelli’s hand beside his on a movie-set ship’s railing, and the way Jason had understood without an explanation, and the taste of cinnamon.

Ironically, the way the screenplay and the historical-fiction novel were both written, Will would be the one to outlive Stephen. That ship lost at sea. Will’s writing, a tale penned in the aftermath, surviving long enough to tell their story. A searing commentary on war and loss and pain and the presence of two men loving each other amid it all. Floods of anguished compassionate tears from so many readers, including Colby himself.

Right now he found himself angry at that story. Right now he wanted it to end differently. He wanted Will and Stephen to be happy.

He shoved himself upright on cue as Jason came in through the cabin door. Jason filled up the space and wore Regency-era military trim as if born to it, a man at home in his domain, and said, “Will?”

“Right here where you left me.” He tossed back the end of that glass of port—colored water, in reality—and crushed the handkerchief in one hand. Meant, as per the script, to shove it into a pocket. Missed, again as per the script, and fabric slid to the floor by the desk, where it’d go unnoticed until the H.M.S. Steadfast had already set sail. “I’m being perfectly obedient to your orders, Captain.”

“You?” Jason leaned down, took Colby’s hand—not without a brief meeting of eyes—and kissed it: slow and purposeful, an entertained and lazy seduction. Lips over bare skin. “Why do I find that difficult to believe?”

“Because you’re terribly suspicious and untrusting of gentlemen with inherited titles before their names?”

“True, but no, that’s not it.” Jason pulled Colby to both feet; they landed right up against each other, support and delight. Colby, being Will Crawford as hard as he could at the moment, put arms around Jason’s neck and inquired, “Because you enjoy me being not particularly obedient, then, perhaps?”

“Closer.” Jason leaned in, nudging their noses together. “Would you like me to demonstrate a punishment or two for insubordination? Right here, across my writing-desk?”

He wouldn’t—they wouldn’t, not here and now, not when Stephen had responsibilities and a knock on the door could happen at any second—but both Stephen and Will liked that idea. Will Crawford, who’d spent a life surrounded by Society’s demands—balls and dinners, Court presentations, the estates and his role as heir and only child, the knowledge that while a scholarly future earl might dabble in natural philosophy he’d never be truly free to plunge headlong into it—loved Stephen’s hands on him. Drank in every new sensation, every moment of wild daring, every naughty giddy exploration of astonishing debauchery, delicious and filthy as leather straps and honeyed cream.

“Closer, but not entirely correct?” Colby tipped his head back, nestled into Jason’s arms. Jason’s arms felt firm and safe, circles of iron that would protect rather than crush. At least, that was the idea; he told himself that. He wanted that; he wanted to be held, if he could believe in it. “And you know that I would. I do so appreciate learning…whatever you’d like to teach me.”

Jason let out a rumbling possessive noise. The arms got a bit tighter. Colby still didn’t precisely mind, but the not-minding inched more toward the tipping point.

Jason, as Stephen, murmured, “I adore you, Will. You must know that.”

“I know.”

“I worry about you and you leap into a borrowed hack and turn up on my ship without gloves or a hat, and you ask how you can help. You write to the Admiralty—I know you sealed it, I didn’t read it, I caught O’Brian outside—on my behalf. You offer me everything. Your money, your body, your heart. You terrify me sometimes. And I love you more than I ever thought possible.”

“I love you,” Colby said. “Stephen. My other half. From the moment I met you on a balcony I knew. Not to mention in my library.” The cameras were watching his face. Close-ups. Recording this admission. He did not want to think about the library scene; he did not want to think about strength and manhandling and being crushed into books as Stephen and Will came together in reckless release.

He was thinking about it now.

Jason’s arms hadn’t stirred from around him. Jason’s body was large and implacable, keeping him close.

The set got smaller. Claustrophobic. Nowhere to go. Too close to that bunk, that writing desk.

In another life he’d’ve loved that feeling: being held, being encircled by someone’s devotion. But it wasn’t real, it wasn’t ever real, no one ever put arms around him that way without a demand or an obligation or a character to perform, and the last time he’d thought it might be real he’d been so horribly wrong—

He couldn’t let everyone down, couldn’t stop this. But he couldn’t breathe.

He silently swore at himself. He was better than this. He was.

A small line had appeared between Jason’s eyebrows. Might be in character—Stephen did fret—or might not be. Jason went on with the scene, though. “That was the answer to your question, you understand. I would never expect you to be obedient. Not my Will.”

“And I wouldn’t promise to be. But I would—I would promise you that—” Oh damn, damn, what the hell was that line? Jill hadn’t yelled to cut, so the break must’ve come across as overflowing emotion; Colby couldn’t look anywhere except Jason’s eyes. He realized that his hands, behind Jason’s neck, were trembling.

Jason’s arms were abruptly gone. One hand came back to gently cup Colby’s cheek, the touch of a lover, but an encouraging one; the confining bars had lifted. “What would you promise, love?”

That wasn’t scripted. Improvising. On the spot.

Colby managed to inhale.

Jason’s thumb stroked over his cheekbone, soft, no pressure. It left warmth in its wake.

Colby found the line, or a version that’d work. “Everything.” He put the emotion into his voice: everything they could never have. “I’d stand beside you and say our vows before the Archbishop of Canterbury if we could.” If they were improvising, he could handle that; the next inhale felt better. More clear, more bracing.

He turned his head enough to kiss Jason’s hand, the tempting spot at the base of that broad thumb, and moved toward the constructed cabin window, restless. The digital wizards’d occupy it with ocean later. The space waited, patiently empty for now, knowing it’d eventually be full.

He put a hand out, touching an imagined far-off horizon. “I’d promise you myself. Love, honor, cherishing…to have and to hold…”

Jason moved to stand beside him, not behind him, and bent to nuzzle a kiss over one ear. “So would I. So I’d say that counts.”

“Does it,” Colby inquired, clinging to amusement because Will would be, over the faint pain of reality. “Are we married, then?”

“Yes,” Jason said simply, an arm—only one—going back around him; Colby let himself be pulled close, and leaned Will’s weight against Jason’s—Stephen’s—bulwark. Jason finished, playful and truthful and passionate, ending the scene, “we’re on my ship, and I give the orders, and I say we are.”

They did cut, then.

Jason lifted the arm immediately. Colby, who’d in fact given in and leaned on those muscles for real, wobbled. His legs weren’t convinced about weathering the aftermath.

Anxiety rampaged through Jason’s gaze. Apprehension on the forest paths. Deep brown getting richer and fiercer. “Colby—”

“Colby,” Jill interrupted, arriving. Her eyes ran over him, head to foot; he gathered up tattered streamers of self and nodded: he could be fine, they didn’t need to cause a fuss, he could even do it again if asked.  Her mouth made a resigned line, and he’d likely hear about it later, but she also understood; she said, “Interesting choices, guys, with the overpowering emotion there, and that extra exchange of lines. I kind of like it, getting the sense of just how much this means to them, but maybe we can do it again with the actual script, and we’ll see? And Colby, if you touch the fake glass, that’s going to make the water harder in post, working around your fingers, so maybe if you do that again, touch the wall next to it? You both good with resetting?”

“I’m good,” Jason said, “but, Colby…is there something else you want me to do, or not do, or—”

“No, you’re splendid, it’s perfect for the scene, it’s what we should be doing—” Too rapid-fire to be convincing. Damn. He straightened shoulders under Will’s coat. “It’s not anything you’re doing. Don’t worry.”

“I don’t think it works like that,” Jason said.

“Telling you not to worry? I’d think I’d be the person to listen to, wouldn’t I?” He glared at the muffled snort from Jill’s direction. “This scene is so central, and we need it to be right. Vows, and promises. We’ve got to get this one.”

“I know,” Jason said, tone indecipherable.

“Oh—that wasn’t an insult. I didn’t mean to imply you had anything to work on. You were wonderful.”

“Well, on that note,” Jill said, to Jason, “you’re being very tender and sweet, but you are a naval captain with a military command and a reputation for shouting loudly at people if you think your crew’s not being well taken care of, so maybe a bit less sweet? Will partly loves you for that larger-than-life personality, you know.”

Jason, for no instantly apparent reason, looked at Colby during this commentary. “…okay.”

“Good,” Jill said. “Colby, that work for you?”

“It’ll certainly work for Will.” Off her exasperated glance at this deflection, he tacked on hastily, “Yes, of course.”

He heard the words with some surprise. He had not thought they were entirely true, and in fact they weren’t, but they came out with unanticipated strength. A magic spell. An incantation. An enchantment found in those forest paths.

In Jason’s eyes, and in the way Jason’d seen the shakiness up close, and hadn’t judged him or commanded an explanation. In the way Jason had improvised, come up with a different touch and a different line, and trusted Colby to run with it, at his side.

If they did it again he’d be better prepared, and that would help. He thought that perhaps having someone who could not only adapt but do so with kindness would help more. He did not quite understand why Jason, who did not like him, had decided to help; but then again Jason was a kind person, a good person, the sort of person who loved this film and these characters too.

He thought, a comprehension arriving as fully formed as a meteor, that he could not imagine doing this scene with anyone else. He couldn’t picture doing any of this film, even if he tried, with anyone who wasn’t Jason.

“We’re going again, then!” Jill announced, and got out of the way.

Jason said his name one more time, not yet moving, big and cautious under lights and camera-eyes.

“I’m all right,” Colby said, closer to honest this time. “And thank you.”

“You don’t have to thank me.” Jason shifted weight as if uncomfortable. “Would you tell me, though, if something’s not feeling okay for you? Please?”

The please was beguiling. It snuck in around moats and portcullises. Colby did not know how to respond.

Time stretched out, as time did. The production was waiting, poised around them. Jill and Mike, her lighting director, were having a quick conversation about the next day’s water tank and wet actors and reflections.

“Yes?” Colby said finally. “Yes. I mean, I can try. But I really do think I’ll be better this time.” Something in Jason’s expression inspired him to add, “Because of you. I know you’ll notice if I’m not. So, you see, that’ll make it better, and I’ll be fine.”

“Tell me if you’re not,” Jason said, almost but not quite an order, as if halfway into character already. “Please.”

That please again. Unfair. Making everything more thorny and intricate, including tiny flutters in the vicinity of Colby’s chest. Which ought to know better. Which ought to know enough not to flutter at all.

He said, again, “Yes. I promise I will.”

 

Jason’s heart spent all day fluttering. More accurately, swooping. Lots of acrobats on trapezes, and the swooping ranged from bone-melting apprehension to thoroughgoing relief to prickly nervousness.

He and Colby fit, on set. He knew they did. Jill knew they did. She’d praised their connection, their instincts. Jason had plunged through the morning shots half petrified and half desperately waving Stephen’s love like a flag of allegiance. He’d been so aware of Colby at his side. Unable not to feel his own pulse speeding up every time he had to wrap Colby into large arms.

He'd seen Colby during that first take. He honestly hadn’t known after that one whether he could do another. He couldn’t hurt Colby again.

But those blue eyes had said it was fine. It obviously wasn’t, but Jill seemed to believe it and time equaled money and they needed to get the scene, and Jason, being the most dispensable person present, couldn’t argue.

Colby did seem better, given a second take, given more. More comfortable. More prepared. He’d said as much, Jason remembered: knowing what to expect. Perceptibly sliding more into Will’s skin, out of his own.

Somehow, somewhere in the middle of those complex and awesome layers of emotion, they got along. That fitting-together happened. That click like the sound of rightness, snapping into place. In the way Colby smiled, and the clack of a slate, and the leap into storytelling side by side.

Jason picked up one of Colby’s practice notes after Jill’d called for a lighting adjustment, and asked, “Is that seriously your handwriting?” Colby sighed, but in the way that was next-door to amusement, and complained, “Tim said that as well, why does no one believe me?” and then found a scrap of paper and wrote out Hello, my name is John Kill, and that’s what I’m here to do! And also I have very pretty handwriting! in flowing black script and tossed it accurately at him.

Jason read it, cracked up, and read it again, careful not to smudge old-fashioned ink. “Hell yeah. Part of deadly assassin training. Flawless penmanship.”

“I imagine you’d learn multiple styles in assassin school. Disguises. One for each identity.”

“Okay, but what if your villain was, like, a handwriting expert? And figured out the connections?” This was him talking to Colby about assassins and handwriting. This was them having a conversation. This was Colby writing out a gentle bit of teasing and tossing it at him. Those were good things, right? “He’d come after you.”

“If you were a well-trained assassin I expect you could take someone out with a good pen nib. Or a quill, depending on how historical we’re being. If you sharpened the—”

Andy’s loudest assistant director voice interrupted with, “Quiet on the set, I mean it this time, or I’ll murder all of you!”

Colby looked at Jason; Jason looked at Colby. They both, in unison, looked at the pen on Stephen’s writing-desk.

The corners of Colby’s mouth quirked up.

Jason gave up and laughed.  

Jill sighed, but fondly; it was still early in the day, and Jason had the impression that she liked seeing Colby smile.

They did the scene. They did the scene again. Colby stepped into Jason’s arms without trepidation, by then, as far as Jason could tell.

He didn’t have proper pockets. Nowhere to scoop up and store Colby’s note.

He folded it and tucked it into a corner of the desk. He hoped it’d still be there later.

They paused for a few close-ups, different angles, extended shots. One with Colby’s head resting on Jason’s shoulder.

Jason put arms around him. Colby leaned into him. The set, and the world, grew softer. Closer. More personal.

Jason, upon letting go, had the probably unfounded impression that Colby didn’t want him to step away. That Colby in fact urgently wanted to be held, and couldn’t let himself be, all at once.

He watched Colby smile and sprawl across a writing-desk, for the cameras. He ducked out and came in through the door again.

They got it. Jill seemed pleased.

Colby had a phone call to make after they finished, something producer-official involving England and that historic estate and what they could and couldn’t film. The house’d been used for productions before, and in general this process should run smoothly, but someone’d had a question about something; Colby disappeared to handle it.

This disappearance meant he missed lunch. Jason wandered over to craft services with Leo; they’d just finished what would be a later scene, out at sea, with Stephen and Lieutenant Harper, that conversation that danced around an unspeakable topic with British formality and loyalty. Stephen’s first and most trusted officer affirmed calmly that Viscount Easterly was a good man, and watched the giveaway reaction; Jason said the yes and met his eyes without flinching, and Leo nodded. As long as you’re happy, had been the line. It’s good seeing you that way.

Leo, around a mouthful of chicken burrito—the theme today was Mexican, evidently—announced, “Hey, you’re really good. The way you looked at me, all those layers. Like you were either going to trust me or get ready to take me out if I decided to be a dick about it, and you’d hate doing it but you would anyway. Good thing I’m not a dick. A sort of historical dick. Speaking of, have you seen Colby?”

Jason sorted through verbiage. “One, thanks, two, speaking of what, Colby’s not a dick, and three, not since earlier?” The food was fantastic on this production. Jillian Poe had money. He happily aimed for the hottest salsa. He had felt good about that scene. That emotion. The whole morning.

He could do this. Hell yes he could.

He clung to that optimism like a life-preserver. It could keep him safe from looming water and stunt dives on tomorrow’s horizon.

“That’s not actually why I said dick,” Leo said. “Which is a hilarious word if you say it enough. Dick dick dick. But if you can’t figure it out I’m not going to tell you. That mole sauce on the end has cinnamon in it.”

Jason eyed the mole, which looked back innocently. He narrowed eyes at Leo. He tried not to think about Colby Kent’s dick, or interesting places from which chocolate sauce could be licked.

“Yes,” Leo said, “you’re very threatening, consider me threatened, what with the muscles and the karate and the weightlifting and the whatever. I’ll sign something to that effect if you want. You know he can totally cook? Colby. I mean he seriously knows how. He made like twelve different types of scones for the wrap party for The Far Cry of Guns. It’s funny, though, I haven’t seen him do anything like that lately. I don’t think he’s eating much, except for when someone brings him something and makes him feel guilty. Interesting, isn’t it?”

Interesting was not the word Jason would choose. “Has he talked to anyone about…anything?” He winced at this fumbling, tried to fix it with, “Because you said something changed. So, um. Did something happen?”

“He wouldn’t tell me if it did. I mean, as wonderful as I am, it’s not like I know him that well. Maybe he’d tell Jill, but that’s still a big maybe and she’s not saying anything.” Leo fit the rest of the burrito in his mouth. Through chicken, suggested, “You should ask.”

“I don’t think he’d talk to me,” Jason said, uncomfortable. Memories darted up: Colby wounded by stupid words, Colby flinching at nearness. “He wouldn’t…I don’t think he likes me that much.”

“Wow,” Leo said, apparently to a tortilla chip, “I never knew someone could be so wrong.”

“What? What does that mean?”

“I think you should bring him lunch and find out. He’s probably in his trailer, or else Jill’s.”

“Not mine,” Jill said from behind them. Jason nearly spilled three tacos on his director, spinning around.

Leo tossed a chip into his mouth. “Good taste in food, Jill, I approve.”

“That is, as always, my only goal. Jason, if you see Colby, tell him I do want to meet with all of you before you leave today. Just checking in about tomorrow and the schedule. How are you feeling about that, by the way? Getting ready to dive off a boat?”

“Um,” Jason said. The discomfort was back. “Yeah.”

“Great,” Jill agreed, “I’ll see you back on set in a few,” and took half of Leo’s chips and went off to talk to some of the lighting crew and the director of photography.

Jason swallowed. Clutched his plate. Suddenly carnitas seemed less appetizing. Clouds whipped in overhead, thick and weighty as boulders. The sun ran and hid. The day gloomed.

He took a breath, let it out. Mole caught his eye.

He made himself eat enough so that he wouldn’t be hungry, and then found a new plate, and collected multiple forms of Mexican food because he wasn’t sure what Colby would like, and put another plate over it for ease of carrying, and went off in search of Colby Kent’s trailer. Leo had sat down and pulled out a phone and was playing some sort of busy game involving animated farm animals, and Jason didn’t ask him to come along.

He couldn’t solve his own problem on the spot. But he could maybe do something for someone else. Someone who needed to eat.

Colby’s trailer might’ve been a proud monument to star status and fabulous net worth. Instead it sat right next to Jill’s in the cluster and blended in, part of the team. Jason’s own was fairly utilitarian—a small kitchen, bathroom, bed for naps, tiny weight room—and he knew which one was Colby’s but had no clue about the inside.

He knocked, balancing food.

He waited.

He debated whether to knock again.

Footsteps approached. The door opened. Colby, still in period clothing, phone in one hand, had already begun saying, “Jill, if that’s you, I really don’t need—” and then crashed to a halt mid-sentence. His eyes went wide.

“Hey.” Jason held up the offering. “I brought you lunch.”

“Oh,” Colby said.

“I wasn’t sure what you wanted, so there’s sort of some of everything?”

“Oh,” Colby said again. “You…that’s…thank you?” and didn’t move to take the plate. Behind him, Jason caught glimpses of dark wood, a cream-colored sofa-arm, nothing particularly distinctive in sight.

He hoisted up the plate a bit more.

A bit of pink snuck into Colby’s cheeks, and the hand not holding the phone hastily accepted the gift. “Thank you. Sorry. I’ve been on the phone with various historical preservation directors. I think I’ve got them to agree to let us film parts of the house that aren’t normally on display, but I’m waiting for someone to call me back about the private library and the book collection.”

“We need the private library?”

“I like it better,” Colby said, “the windows, the lighting, the shelves—I think it’d feel more intimate for the—er, that scene. With us. Did you eat? Are we sharing? Oh, of course we are, this is far too much food. I’ve got spare utensils somewhere.”

“It’s for you,” Jason corrected. “I had lunch.” That scene. That sex scene. A stolen moment out of time at that opulent ball. Stephen and Will, hearts pounding, pressed up against rows of books, Will moaning the yes as Stephen shoved a hand into his breeches, crushing their bodies together in shuddering swift ecstasy.

He thought suddenly that he did not know how they would film that sex scene. He himself would have no problem with it—particularly not as he looked across at Colby’s lovely lean thighs and huge mountain-pool eyes and tempting lips, thinking about the way Colby would feel under him, against him—but the flush of want dwindled, complex and fretful.

Colby did not like being touched. And that was putting it mildly.

Would they end up using a double? Would that work if the shot was one long take? Would Colby, who’d so resolutely made himself confront that morning’s scene, admit to needing help?

In a trailer doorway, accompanied by a plate of Mexican food, Jason tripped over his own emotions, and ended up stunned into silence by the collision.

“Are you sure?” Colby evaluated mountains of beans and rice. “Only it feels as if you believe I’ve got an army camped out in my trailer. Which I haven’t, I assure you.”

“I just—”

“I keep all my armies in my hotel room. More space.”

Jason, astounded into a laugh, caught the handrail for support. Colby’s eyes were very blue against the overcast shimmery world. That was even a small grin, as he stood there taking in Jason’s reaction.

So incongruous, that world. Clouds and wind and nineteenth-century cravats and polished boots. A twenty-first century trailer and that cellphone in Colby’s other hand. The fact that Colby, when Jason’d half expected him to close the door or make excuses, had instead offered to share lunch and made a joke.

“Thank you,” Colby said again. “This was so kind. Jason, I did want to ask if—”

His phone rang. The tune, without lyrics, bounced out upbeat and nostalgic; some sort of oldies pop hit, fifties or sixties, Jason thought, though he couldn’t place it.

“Such perfect timing,” Colby muttered, closer to outright annoyance than Jason’d previously seen him. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to answer this, but thank you again? I’ll certainly talk to you later; Jill will want to meet with us at the end of the day, I assume.”

“She does,” Jason said. “At least eat something? Before you share it with your imaginary army.”

Colby’s phone rang more.

“I should…” Colby hesitated, in the way of someone convinced it’d be bad manners to pick up a phone with a generous guest standing on his trailer steps.

Jason solved this dilemma by saying, “Go on,” and backing down. He gave a little wave at the bottom of the steps; Colby, both hands occupied, did not wave, but gave him a small head-tip in turn.

Jason went away feeling unusually buoyant. A bubble of pride floated somewhere inside his chest. He’d brought Colby food. They’d had a conversation. He’d succeeded at something.

He wondered what Colby’d wanted to ask. He guessed he’d find out later; he wanted to know.

He realized, walking through thickets of trailers and back to work, that he hadn’t thought about the next day’s stunt for several long minutes. Dodging confrontation with a nemesis, he knew. Avoidance.

But he’d been able to relax for a moment. He thought that maybe Colby had too.

He let the wind coax him over to set and Stephen’s giant patriotic heart. He waved at Jill. He ran through blocking and a quick rehearsal with Leo and Tim, who should be coming in to talk to Stephen about disgruntlement and troublemakers among the crew—after they’d been at sea for months—and that mutiny that ultimately wouldn’t happen because the majority were solidly on his side.

Leo said, “So did you sit on him and force-feed him tacos?”

“No,” Jason said. “I brought him food. He got a phone call.”

Leo gave him a disappointed headshake. Jason let this go. Leo didn’t need to know that Colby’s eyes got more blue with emotion, with astonishment or gratitude or the kind of amusement that invited someone else to play along.

He spotted the folded note from earlier. Colby’s writing, quick and slanted and extraordinary. Jason’s own name, or one of his characters, at least.

Despite the low-level gnawing fangs of worry about Colby and food and Jillian and a meeting and the next day’s schedule, the glimpse of ink made him smile. On his way off the set, once they’d finished, he picked it up and took it back to his own trailer; he set it on the table, a scrap of paper against golden wood.

Colby’s swirling elaborate letters settled in there and found a home. Artwork on display. Casually scribbled on the spot, of course, but still. Colby’d written it for him. His character.

Jason got up, stretched, and went to change. He’d have to go talk to Jill. He’d have to, at some point, think about the next day.

He’d see Colby again when they all met up.

He couldn’t find his shirt from that morning. Of course he couldn’t; he knew exactly where it was, which was over in wardrobe, where he’d been trying on alterations for Stephen’s fancy-dress ball costume before getting into today’s outfit.

He only had one other shirt in the closet. Plaid and flannel, in reds and blacks; at least he’d be warm in the face of oncoming weather. This one was actually a little big, since he’d lost some weightlifter’s bulk to play a historical ship’s captain. Maybe nobody’d notice. Maybe Colby, who came in to work dressed in neat and tidy unobtrusively fashionable layers, wouldn’t notice.

Good luck with that, he thought; and shoved feet into boots.

Someone had, however, found and brought over his jacket. At least that’d help. And he liked his jacket.

He ended up being the first person to run into Jill and Andy; no one else was in sight. Jill sighed, and asked whether he’d mind checking on Colby, who might still be dealing with overseas contacts and preparations. Jason, who did not mind, went back to the trailers as requested.

He spotted Leo first and pointed back toward Jill. Leo raised eyebrows and pointed the direction Jason’d been walking. “Finding someone? No food this time?”

Jason, who had in fact considered grabbing trail mix out of his own trailer—he wasn’t convinced Colby’d eaten, having not personally witnessed it—put on a decent scowl. “Am I intimidating yet?”

“You’re adorable,” Leo said, and headed over toward Jill. Jason, floored by this description of himself, needed a second. Adorable? No.

That was just Leo. He resolved with great resolve to ignore any more comments from that direction. He jogged over toward Colby’s trailer.

He heard Colby talking before he came around the corner. He knew it was Colby: accent evocative as a symphony, light and chattering in the way that’d become recognizable. Jason recalled initially cataloguing that never-ending flow of words as a distraction; the familiarity of it tugged at his bones now, listening.

He’d seen Colby speechless. He’d seen Colby forget a line, white-faced under make-up and intense lighting. He couldn’t like that. Wrong in some uncategorizable way. Not how the world ought to be.

Colby at the moment was saying to the world, or at least one piece of it, “…well, the fact that you’ve got this far is itself good, isn’t it? You were at least memorable.”

Jason paused. Someone’d been memorable? Having gotten far at something?

The second voice, which turned out to be Tim’s, complained, “But I didn’t get it. It’s just, y’know, I wanted that role. I totally could’ve done it.”

Oh. Jason did know that Tim had been waiting to hear back about a different audition. Which plainly hadn’t gone well. And therefore Tim had come to Colby for advice.

That made sense. That made more sense than…whatever Jason’s brain hadn’t quite managed to shape into a suspicion.

“Of course you could have.” In that storybook voice the assertion became incontrovertible. The edict of a fairytale prince, not to be debated. “I know you could. You know you could. I know it’s difficult not to take it personally, but one rejection isn’t the sum total of who you are, I promise.”

Jason inched forward. Peeked around the corner of the trailer. Wasn’t sure why he was eavesdropping, except that…well, he was.

“I know I shouldn’t take it personally,” Tim muttered. “It just sucks, is all.”

Tim, still in midshipman’s clothing, had perched on the bottom step of the short flight up to Colby’s door; Colby himself was sitting in the open door, outlined by it, long legs stretched out. He was not close enough to Tim for even accidental touching, though he did look more relaxed than he had at lunch. Unlike Tim, he’d changed; today’s layers consisted of slim dark grey pants, a lighter grey near-transparent stretchy sweater over a blue shirt, and a fitted black leather jacket. Some people would’ve pushed too-long sleeves up; Colby’d let them cover part of his hands. He’d pulled Will’s Romantic-poet hair into a disheveled bun that was slowly and visibly coming undone.

Jason couldn’t not watch. Captivated by the motion of one single leather-framed slender hand, the slide of a loop of hair.

He’d never previously thought about someone’s bare fingertips, the contrast of skin and covered-up arms, as a turn-on. He did now.

Colby only barely tolerated him. They might’ve shared a joke or two, but they weren’t friends. He shouldn’t be staring.

But he couldn’t make himself walk over there into view and interrupt.

“Of course it stings,” Colby went on. “It always does. But it’s only one project. One audition. There’ll be more.”

You never have to audition,” Tim mourned. “People call you.”

“Where on earth did you hear that? It isn’t true, or mostly not.” Colby raised eyebrows at him. “Sometimes, yes, I’ve been lucky enough for that, if someone’s had me in mind. But it’s taken years, lots of projects, little by little. And I still audition like anyone else. I do screen tests. I went in and read for Anthony Gwynn for the lead in The Parliamentarian last year, you know, and I wanted it very badly, and I didn’t get it.”

“But you’re so awesome!” Tim became a sculpture of upright baffled indignation, head to toes, on Colby’s behalf. “How could anyone not want you?”

“Thank you for that.” One of Colby’s feet tipped that way; from anyone else that would’ve been a quietly pleased nudge, a shoulder-pat, appreciation. “But it does happen. You aren’t quite envisioning the character the same way they’d like, or someone else does something more genuinely original, or you simply don’t click. In that case Owen Heath got it, and of course he was splendid, he deserved those award nominations, and the film was better for having him. So it’s generally not you, the rejection, or it is, but it isn’t personal, you see.”

Jason couldn’t take a step. Glued to the spot by the sight of Colby Kent playing competent older brother and dispensing fondly professional advice.

“But,” Tim said. “But…I mean, it still sucks, right?”

“Oh, it entirely sucks.” Colby tossed him a sympathetic grin. That lapidary accent turned the word into melody for good measure.

Jason discovered that Colby Kent being sympathetic and wise and commiserative did things to equilibrium. Gravity. The steadiness of the pit of his stomach. Lots of swooping going on in there. Too many tipsy butterflies.

“And it will for a day or two.” Colby ran a hand through hair, dislodged the collapsing bun entirely, let it tumble. “Let yourself feel it, don’t deny it, but give it a time limit. And then get up and get on with finding the next project, the next role, the next character, that you can fall in love with. There’ll be one; that’s the brilliant part of what we do. There’s always a new story to love.”

Love. In that voice. With that boundless generosity.

Jason must’ve made a sound. They both turned.

“Hey,” Tim said. “What’s up?”

“Jason,” Colby said, and tucked legs in, sitting forward more on the top step. “Sorry, am I late? Tim came by and wanted to chat, and I thought we had time. I’m very sorry, I’ll be right there.”

“You’re fine,” Jason said. And cleared his throat. “Don’t worry.”

“Tim—” Colby got up in a ripple of economical grace, somehow self-contained and eye-catching at once. “I’m so sorry, but Jill wanted to talk to us, so I’ve got to go. Are you feeling better about it? I know you’re needed for a few more shots today, the ship’s crew and daily life and all, but if you want me to—”

“I’m good.” Tim hopped to both feet. He caught Jason’s glance as he did; they traded the same expression regarding Colby and apologies and reassurance about assistance. “Thanks, though. I’m not just saying that.”

“I’m not certain I’ve helped much—”

“You have.” Tim almost reached out for a friendly shoulder-poke, and perceptibly redirected the motion into a spreading of hands. “Thanks for listening. And telling me it’ll be okay. And writing out those song lyrics for me to give to Beth. You’re totally the coolest person ever.”

Colby appeared to want to argue with this, but innate politeness won out. “You’re welcome, of course. Any time.”

Tim saluted and ran back toward set. Colby shook his head, watching. “I hope he’ll be all right. I’m sure he will be.”

“He’ll be fine. He’s young. He’s got a lot of other auditions in his future. And you gave him good advice.”

“Did I?” Colby secured the trailer door, considered steps, then actually did a little jump down to the ground without bothering to use the steps. The same part of Jason’s brain that currently found too-long sleeves attractive also lit up at this. “I don’t know that I’m any good at advice, but I’ll try if someone asks. Though if he thinks I’m the coolest person ever, he must not know many people.”

“I think you’re pretty cool,” Jason said.

He was being honest. He did not expect Colby to, mid-step, trip over nothing on the ground.

Jason flung out a hand instinctively. Colby, no doubt equally instinctively, grabbed it.

They recovered mutual balance. They stared at each other.

A few scattered raindrops leapt in to commemorate the moment. One landed on the back of Colby’s hand.

Colby let go. “I…we should…Jill wants us. And. Er. Thank you. Even if it’s not true.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

“How do you feel about renovated Georgian guest rooms? That seems to be the best option as far as housing everyone on location next week. I like places with stories, but I know a certain amount of luxury’s expected, but then again there’s not precisely a four-star resort out in the English countryside, either.”

Jason, remaining tangled in the impression of thin strong fingers against his hand, was saved from having to reply; Colby kept talking, and kept not answering Jason’s question. “Of course we’ll be in Bath, and hopefully the weather holds, but after all it is England, so really the best we can hope for is that we only get light apocalyptic floods. I’ve always liked English weather, though. I grew up with it. I like the sound of rain. That’s something I miss out here in Los Angeles. Though you do get some rain, don’t you?”

“Sometimes,” Jason said. Colby had successfully occupied all the walking time back into view of Jill and Leo and everyone. “I like rain, but you can’t take the bike out in it. Not fast, anyway.”

“The—oh, you mean motorcycle. I’ve never been on one.” Colby put that head on one side. “I can see you with one. Going fast. Under California sun. Hi, Jill. Schedule for tomorrow?”

“Schedules,” Jill said, “and some checking in. Did you get the library sorted out?”

“Oh…yes.” Colby made a face, halfway between apologetic and resigned. “They’ve said yes, though I think it had less to do with my persuasion than with my parentage. I’m not sure which one counted more, the poetical or the political, and no one said it outright, but they’ve hinted very heavily that they’d like us to be on good terms.”

Colby’s parents were both impressively influential. Jason knew that much. This suggested they were more so than he’d known.

“Well, as long as they said yes,” Jill said. “You’re leaving for England tomorrow, right?”

Jason’s stomach, hearing this for the first time, experienced a startling lurch of vertigo. He’d known Colby would be heading out before the rest of them, that’d been on the initial schedule, he’d just…

What? Not thought about it? Assumed those blue eyes would be at his side throughout tomorrow’s stunt? Throughout the entire process of filming? That wasn’t how moviemaking worked.

“I’m not,” Colby corrected calmly. “Day after tomorrow. I have that morning show interview to do, the one I had to reschedule a couple of months back, and then I’ll come over and be on set with you after that. I should be here most of the day.”

Jason’s stomach did another flip, but this time back into place.

“Right, that’ll be good, actually, we can talk one more time before you leave.” Jill looked over at Jason. “You were going over the set-up with the team for tomorrow, right? We’ll need you ready by ten, though I’m guessing you’ll want to check everything over first.”

“Sounds good,” Jason said, privately vowing to be there several hours sooner. He didn’t think he’d sleep much.

He saw, for a moment, that memory. That other water, and the body beside it, and all the other living bodies that clustered futilely around.

He was fine. He could do this. If Colby could handle filming, then so could he.

“Here’s tomorrow’s sides, last-minute notes, all that.” Andy handed over pages. “Leo, we mostly just need you for the morning, though we’ll want you to stick around for some reaction shots of Jason diving in. Jason, someone said this was your shirt.”

Jason, cheeks burning even though it was just a shirt, took it.

“Works for me,” Leo said. “Why were you missing a shirt, again?”

“It was in the wardrobe trailer,” Colby said.

“We’re right on schedule,” Jill said over this byplay, “and you guys are doing great. Everything I’ve seen has been fantastic, and we’re going to keep that energy up, okay? Awesome. Colby, Jason, Leo, go home. Andy, come with me.”

The sky rumbled. A few leaves skittered across the backlot. Someone’s car started loudly, somewhere.

“I did notice you’d changed,” Leo said, to Jason. “I was wondering. I mean, how did you find a shirt too big on you?

“It isn’t,” Jason said, with menace, “if I get a chance to hit things more.”

“It’s not that big,” Colby said. “And Jason looks good in red.”

Does he,” Leo said, with great interest.

“I’m only making an observation,” Colby protested. “Should we be finding a car? Heading back to the hotel?”

“You’ve got one on the way!” called over the closest PA, whose name was Serenity, which Leo had promptly teased her about; she had the most fluttery hummingbird energy of anyone on set. She flipped back a black braid and smiled at Colby. “Five minutes, I promise!”

“Thank you!” Colby called back. Jason had continued thinking about the looking good comment, and belatedly waved in acknowledgement.

“You look like a hearty lumberjack mountaineer,” Leo said to Jason, and then held up his phone, which had nothing on the screen. “Oh, look, I have to take this call, you two go ahead, I’ll get a ride back when Jill’s done.”

He ambled away. Jason finally had to ask, watching, “…he didn’t get a call, right?”

“I’ve given up attempting to sort out what goes on in Leo’s head.” Colby smiled at Serenity; she chirped, “Three minutes, Mr Kent, I swear!” and waved her own phone, presumably meant to indicate that the car was, yes, on the way.

Colby added, musingly, “Sometimes it involves chickens. Or possibly marshmallows.”

“What?—oh. Leo. Right.” Jason shuffled feet. Was unsure how to talk about something that was not Leo Whyte. Colby was gazing at the road, pensive. “Um…you two worked together, right? On that war epic?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes. Not terribly closely, though. We were in different units, different scenes, mostly, until the last big battle sequence. He was great fun during the press circus, though. Always ready to make a joke and keep us laughing.”

Jason, hit by an abrupt and envious wave of desire regarding the ability to make Colby Kent laugh, couldn’t answer.

“He’s a good person,” Colby concluded. “Once you’ve got past the sense of humor that involves constructing a duct-tape wall right outside the door to Tom Bradshaw’s trailer. To be fair, Tom retaliated with something involving wasabi and the guacamole for Leo’s burrito. Can I ask you a question?”

Yes, Jason thought. No. Please don’t ask me what I was just thinking. I don’t know why I was thinking about how blue your eyes would be if you laughed, if I’d done something to make you that happy, if you could ever be happy because of me.

“…sure. Yeah. Whatever you want.”

“I only thought I should ask because it’s a bit personal. You don’t need to answer, of course.”

They regarded each other in the pause. The wind crackled in, sharp and autumn-tipped and prescient as a prophecy. Clouds gathered up steely knives overhead, getting ready to fling them down.

Jason said, “I’ll probably answer. Go ahead.”

“If you’re certain. I suppose I can ask it first, and then if you’d rather not answer, you don’t have to, once you know—”

“Just ask.”

“Oh. Er…are you at all anxious about tomorrow? About the stunt dive?”

The wind faded. The world faded: shocked and pale, for an instant uncomprehending, struck by a bullet seen but not quite yet felt.

Jason, motionless, stumbled through, “Why would you ask that?” Everything lurched and swung, hanging on gossamer precarity. His own emotions. His need for this role. The knowledge that he’d said he’d be fine. The knowledge that he wasn’t.

And Colby had guessed, or had known all along. And had chosen now to call him out on it.

He whispered again, “Why?”

“Because I think I can help. It is about the friend you lost, isn’t it? Of course you might be fine, you likely are, but I thought you looked…not entirely happy about it, and I know you know how to swim, so it can’t be that, and I did think you seemed…somewhat concerned with other people being well enough, earlier, and…anyway so I’ve got an idea.”

“You…what?”

“I did hear what happened to Charles Richards.” Colby’s eyes were very large, very blue, and sincere as sunlight: clear and transparent and vibrant and alive. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know him, but I know he was your friend, and he’d doubled for a few people I do know on various productions, and they all said he was lovely to work with. And even if I didn’t know him, I’m sorry that it happened. And for how you must be feeling. I wish I could make it easier. I was trying to think whether there was any way I could, and I can’t really, I know, but perhaps I can help with tomorrow.”

All that blue was so soft and so bright; Jason believed, gazing at Colby Kent’s face, in the unshakeable truth of every word. That odd quirk of darker sapphire around those famous irises said so; Colby’s storied layers of accents and other countries said so.

He forced out, too gruff because he didn’t know how to unknot the tangle in his chest, “What do you think you can do?”

Colby said, “What if I come over to your room a bit later tonight?”

“If you what?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not propositioning you. I can safely say, in fact, that I’ve never propositioned a hearty lumberjack mountaineer. Not precisely something I’d do. I do have an idea. Do you trust me?”

“No!” Jason crossed arms, forgot he had a shirt in one hand, and pretended this hadn’t ruined the effect. Fumbled for mental and emotional balance and tried to look like an irritated lumberjack mountaineer. “You have ideas about murdering people with quill pens.” And therefore it was a good thing Colby wasn’t suggesting any sort of other proposition. And Jason wouldn’t say yes if he were. And that wasn’t something Colby would do, apparently.

Why wasn’t he something Colby would do, again?

The question was a distraction. He clung to it with both hands, and found out that he very much wanted to know the answer.

He glanced at his own biceps under the plaid and the jacket. He’d always been rather proud of them. Impressive. Good for handling partners who liked some handling. And he wasn’t unattractive, right? Decent hair. Nice smile. Usually kind to children and small animals. Those were likable qualities, weren’t they?

Colby sighed. The wind came over just to ruffle his hair. A few strands blew into his face; he brushed them back, unselfconscious and gorgeous as a fairy-tale. Jason half-expected birds to turn up and perch on his shoulder and burst into song, though all that happened was one more sigh and a halfhearted grumble of, “Once this is all over I swear I’m going to cut every bit of you off…” at the hair in question.

Jason’s mouth, without input from Jason’s brain, said, “It suits you.”

Colby had opened that expressive mouth to say something. Nothing came out.

Jason cleared his throat. “The character. I mean it suits the character. Will. It’s in character. Long hair. Romantic. What was your idea?”

“I thought you didn’t trust me.” They both glanced over as Serenity bounced up, phone in hand, to announce that their car’d arrived; Colby smiled and thanked her, and she beamed as if he’d given her the keys to the universe, and bounced away again, back on the phone.

Jason shuffled feet. Took a step toward the road and the waiting transportation. “I didn’t mean that. Not the way it came out.”

“Oh, I know.” Colby turned the smile on him. Jason fought the urge to smile back. He didn’t feel like smiling, except that he sort of did. That expression. Frighteningly sunny. Even scoured by wind and shadowed by rainclouds. “You’re not wrong, though. We’ve only barely met, and half of that’s been in character. So it’s really common sense, on your part, isn’t it? But I do think I might be able to help.”

Jason started walking. Colby fell into step with him. Somehow their footfalls matched. Perfect rhythm.

“How exactly do you think you can help with me diving off a boat into water that I don’t like thinking about?”

“I have an idea. I told you.”

“Not an answer.”

“What would life be without surprises?” Colby actually opened the car door for him. “After you.”

“I can open my own damn car door,” Jason snapped, and then got in anyway, because standing around just to prove a point would’ve been ridiculous. “And I don’t like surprises.”

“You don’t, do you?” Colby slid in on the other side, considering him thoughtfully. “I’ve noticed the way you listen. Your walks around the set. Is that from starting out as a stunt person? I imagine you would’ve learned the importance of set-up and preparation.”

Rain danced in, flirting with the wind. Drops dusted the car window behind him, a backdrop of diamonds for those night-blue eyes. Their driver paused at a stop sign; Colby paused as well, not pushing, not rushing to fill the silence. Not assuming that a former action hero’d be a brainless pile of muscles. Believing that those muscles came with thorough groundwork, instead.

On the other side of the car, Jason gazed at him. Ended up reevaluating Colby Kent, yet again. How many times was that?

He remembered to say, eventually, “Yeah. The moment’s always unpredictable, at least to some degree, because you never know how it’ll play out on the day, whether something’ll come loose or someone’ll slip or equipment’ll break. But you can minimize the risk.”

“With proper attention to detail beforehand. Knowing what everyone’s doing, and how, and where.”

“Yeah.”

“So you should be even more in favor of letting me help.”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re too damn persistent?”

“Yes, but I persist in not listening.” Colby’s eyes sparkled. He had a hair tie around one wrist, twenty-first century elastic in an astounding shade of sunset pink. The pink played hide-and-seek with the sleeve of his jacket; it looked tight enough that there’d be a mark when he took it off. A circle. An indent.

A place for someone to touch, to rub, to caress. To find out whether he’d sigh with relief, or make some other soft pleased sound at the sensation, at a hand or a handcuff encircling already sensitive skin—

Jason adjusted legs. Cleared his throat. Pretended that’d been a cough. Colby didn’t even like to be touched. What the hell had that thought been?

Rain flicked itself at his window in voiceless smirking commentary.

Colby Kent wasn’t someone he could want. Too famous, adored by the world. Too pretty. Too complicated. Definitely too complicated. And currently continuing, a steamroller in innocent fluffy bunny form, “So was that a yes? I can drop by after you’ve had a chance to eat and freshen up?” His voice, with that luminous wanderer’s accent, played sonatas with the words.

This time Jason’s brain helpfully provided images of what freshening up might entail. Those long legs and that smooth skin in a shower. Droplets on those eyelashes, highlighting deep sweet blue. Glittering splashes over bare shoulders, flat stomach, and lower.

Dammit. He shifted position again. Tried to guess how many minutes to the hotel. Two? Three?

“I’m deciding it’s a yes unless you say otherwise, and I’m telling you now so it won’t be a surprise,” Colby said cheerfully, probably just to be annoying. “By the way, I’ve ordered cupcakes for the crew tomorrow. Multiple people’s birthdays, evidently. And this bakery, as recommended by our hotel concierge, claims to have the world’s most sinful chocolate cupcake recipe. Assuming you like chocolate. Which you might not. If not I’ve also requested vanilla bean and red velvet and pineapple-carrot and peanut-butter espresso.”

“Did you literally order every single thing on their menu?”

“Not quite. I resisted the ominously named Banana Split Extravaganza Cupcake. Besides, it says it’s designed to serve two to three people per cupcake. Because bananas can be enjoyed by more than one person at once, clearly.”

Jason choked on air.

Colby either didn’t hear the innuendo or did and hurried right past it. “I know I said I wasn’t terribly good at advice, but I would like to try, and I do think it might be helpful, and I should’ve asked sooner, I know, but I didn’t feel as if…I wasn’t certain you’d want me to.”

“But you are now.”

“Not as such, but more hopeful than I was?” Colby gave him big plaintive eyes. Jason recognized that expression from romantic-comedy reconciliation scenes. He wondered whether Colby was consciously acting, persuading, seeing what’d work; he grouchily resigned himself to the knowledge that it was working.

“You,” Colby said, low under the purr and howl of the wind and fellow cars, “brought me lunch. You noticed when I—you didn’t mind me talking about pens and imaginary scenarios. I thought—but if you’d rather I didn’t then of course I won’t come by.”

And you noticed me, Jason thought. As scared as you are, with as much responsibility as you have. Phone calls, advice for Tim, cupcake delivery. You saw me.

You said this wasn’t a proposition, and it’s not, of course it’s not, why would it ever be. Someone like you and someone like me. But you want to help. You’ll always offer. Even if the answer’s no. You keep trying.

He was starting to figure that out, about Colby Kent. About all the trying hard, behind blue eyes.

“Yeah,” he said. “You can, um, come over. Whenever you want. Just knock. I’ll be there.”

Chapter Text

Colby stared at his door. The door would lead out of his hotel room and down the hall. The hall would eventually lead to Jason’s room. They were on the same floor, though not near each other.

He wanted to go and see Jason. He’d said he’d come over. He’d offered assistance.

He couldn’t make himself move.

The door, heavy and solid, did nothing.

He said to it, “This is preposterous, I’m only going to try to help with this scene, it’s for our film, it’s work.”

The door smirked meaningfully at him.

“I don’t want him,” Colby said, though this was a weak protest and untrue besides. “I don’t…I can’t. I can’t, not now, not yet.”

That one was true. He hated the hint of fault-line that ran through that fractured confession, a quake waiting under the surface. He did not know how, or if, he could want someone. He did not even know how to be friends with someone, not outside movie scripts and sets.

He sank down on the end of his bed. He pulled up one knee and hugged it. He gazed around his room—coffee-mugs, scattered jackets and boots, his closed laptop, script pages with colorful feathery sticky-note wings—without seeing it.

The rain had gone, though a few clouds remained, pensive and drifting. The moon poured serene silver-dust light over the city, beyond his window. Los Angeles in autumn. Home of dreams, stories, and scars. Promises and stars. The night’d be cool but inviting as beach sand between toes.

Colby glanced down at his own toes, currently bare. Wiggled them.

He’d changed. A particular outfit. Grey track pants, a favorite soft creamy shirt with flowing fabric and too-long sleeves that he could pull over hands, and something else, related to the issue at hand, underneath. He did have a plan.

Or he’d had a plan. But that would require him to walk over to Jason’s room and knock on Jason’s door and come face to face with bewildering power and kindness.

He wasn’t wearing enough layers for that. Literal and otherwise.

Jason had taken him apart inside with one touch. With compassion, with care. With considerate hands and a plate of Mexican food and an acceptance of offered aid. Jason, who could snap him into pieces like a fragile bone-dry twig, also trusted him enough to say yes to that aid.

Colby felt exactly like those bits of autumn-scoured dry bone. Stripped bare and knocked about by wind and weather and grey skies.

He wanted Jason to touch him. To hold him. To become someplace safe and sheltered, because he was so exhausted, and Jason felt so kind, and maybe it could be real, for a moment, just for a moment.

That kind of thinking was dangerous. That kind of thinking led to acquaintances who used his name for favors and publicity. To ex-boyfriends who would push him down too hard in bed and laugh as if it were a game when Colby tried to say that something didn’t feel right, and who would then bring another man home and laugh more when caught.

As if you could be enough, Liam’d said. As if you were ever any good in bed, everything I tried with you, everything that was just a bit of fun. And if you’re not good for shagging and you’re not even going to treat me right, not buying me what I want when you know you can afford it, then what the hell good are you?

The other man in question, who’d been sitting up amid their pillows, was someone Colby’d vaguely known. A producer, an executive. Fabulously wealthy. Not young, and with a reputation for cynicism and scandal; but Colby guessed that part hadn’t mattered to Liam.

He’d managed to not cry, not while straightening shoulders and summoning his mother’s best icy how dare you interrupt my genius tone. He’d ordered them both to leave. He’d called Jill while he’d still been functional, and then he’d tried to make coffee but had started shaking too badly to finish.

He hated confrontations. He hated doing something wrong. He hated not being good enough. If he’d tried harder, if he’d worked at fixing it—

Jillian had said then, and continued to say, that this was stupid. Not his fault. None of it.

But there’d been a kernel of truth in it. He’d never been very good at other people. At friends. At connecting. Always awkward, shy about interfering but overeager about the wrong things, stories and learning and calligraphy and romance and intricate historical steampunk artwork. A new boy in a new school in a new country, over and over again. He’d known early on that money and a nice house and shiny toys might get kids to ask if they could play with the latest game system. None of that had anything to do with wanting to spend time with Colby himself.

He knew he didn’t know how to be good enough for someone. He knew he could do it in a role, as someone else, telling stories; he thought he was decent at that. He knew he hadn’t deserved to be cheated on or—or hurt, a word that avoided specifics, as far as sex. He knew that those were Liam’s choices, cruel ones, not good ones, and rationally he understood as much.

But everything did hurt, deep down inside hollow bones. And he felt so tired.

And Jason would be waiting. The thought of getting up sank like lead into his feet. Except that wasn’t quite right either, because the lead was at war with the strange fizzy sensation in his chest that turned up when he pictured Jason’s eyes across a plate of food.

He’d liked touching people, before. Hugging, being hugged, cuddling with Jill on oversized sofas and commiserating about auditions. He still liked the idea, in theory. Loneliness felt cold and weary. Bruises shaped like winter, blossoming into invisible snowdrifts under his skin.

But the cold was more honest. If every touch, every hug, every hand on his arm, meant a lie, then he’d rather not. And if it meant worse—

He’d rather not that, either.

Sitting on an anonymous hotel bed in the heart of Los Angeles, Colby breathed in and out and thought about stars. About lights, shining, instead of storm-black fingerprints over a wrist, a hip, his thighs.

He made himself think about stories. About love, and vows, and hope. About Stephen and Will, who deserved a happy ending. The world deserved happy endings. The universe needed to believe in that possibility.

He said aloud, to the stars and the clouds and his bare toes, “If I wrote it differently…”

He didn’t do that. Not the way his mother did. She was an author. Colby mended other people’s scripts, threading words together, coaxing gaping holes into closing, smoothing out, becoming funnier or warmer or quieter. Sometimes he simply peeled away words, leaving the unvarnished core of emotion: in a glance, a hand-touch, a yearning.

He only did that sometimes. On occasion. When asked. He did not want to shove in ideas when not wanted. But Jill had told him he was good; a few of Jill’s friends had sent over projects, and they’d been thrilled when Jill’s nameless secret script-doctor weapon had polished them into something that glowed. He believed that praise because it was genuine: they did not know it’d been him.

He got up, abruptly restless, and went over to the window. Put a hand on thick glass, a mirror of Will’s gesture on the cabin set. The lights of the city became a sea, a horizon. The edge of the world spread out and blurred with night, California ocean, historical fiction.

If I wrote it differently, he thought. That ending. Happiness and hope. Two men who could love each other, who could face war and pain and parental censure and find quiet private peace. A small estate in the country, perhaps. A home full of scientific instruments and a library of adventure tales. Rooms for friends to come and stay, and nights spent with firelight and brandy and each other.

The novel was old, but not Regency-old; it’d been historical fiction even when published in 1949. Based on a few surviving letters, the author’s note’d said. It’d been scandalous at the time, a story of men daring to love and make vows to each other, even if Stephen did die in battle and Will finished the story alone in a race against time and failing health. It’d been a testament, a waving flag, without regret and with fierce passion.

Colby, who’d read it as a teenager, had shamelessly wept over their fate. So much emotion. So much love and heartbreak and reality in those words. He’d wanted this film to happen for a very long time; the rights to the story had in fact been floating around various studios for many years, in limbo. It’d come up while Jill had been working on Girls with Swords; Colby, not in Girls but chatting with Jill over a fleeting caught-while-passing-through lunch at a pub near the British Museum, had nearly knocked over his coffee-cup when she’d mentioned the title. He’d vowed money, backing, publicity, his own involvement, anything, if she’d do it, if they could do it.

And now they were doing it. Himself and Jason. And he wanted to change the ending.

He laughed at himself and his own hubris, briefly. He petted the window again, thanking it for being there. He looked over at the door.

Why not, he thought. Why not, if you’re already thinking about things you can change; likely he’ll have changed his mind and it won’t matter anyway, but what the hell.

He located his room key, ran a hand through his hair—annoyingly, not long enough for a decent full bun, but long enough to be full of mischief—and picked up a towel, and went out.

 

 

Jason, alone in his room, panicked.

He hadn’t expected Colby right away. That liquid luminous voice’d said later. Okay. That was fine. That gave him a chance to prepare.

As if he could prepare. There was no universe in which Jason Mirelli knew what to do when beautiful wounded movie-star Colby Kent invited himself over and offered to help. Jason gazed at a suitcase, a shoe, a comb, and despaired.

He threw everything into some semblance of tidiness. He actually was mostly neat, a byproduct of organized parents and organized profession. But would Colby disapprove of a stray jacket? A half-drunk bottle of water?

His stomach made a noise. Food. Dinner. Right. Time had passed, and he was hungry.

Would Colby have eaten? A sensible person would, given the hour, but then again Jason did not trust Colby when it came to food.

His room had the general amenities: a tiny kitchenette, snacks, complimentary water and coffee and tea. He had trail mix and bread and sandwich-related paraphernalia.

He ate a banana, rather helplessly, and wondered whether Colby would want trail mix. Maybe if it had cinnamon. Was cinnamon trail mix a thing?

He ended up on the internet, looking this up. The answer seemed to be yes. Maybe he should order some.

He did not know what Colby had in mind.

It wouldn’t be about sex. That much had been clear. No propositions. And Colby wouldn’t want him, anyway; how could an aging action-hero stunt guy ever be good enough for all that elegant aristocratic charm?

He paced around his room. He thought about more food, but his stomach wasn’t too sure.

Not just Colby. The plan. Assistance. With the stunt. With a dive, and water, and a memory—

He thought he could do it. He wanted to be able to do it. But he kept getting stuck on the picture of himself physically doing it. Jumping into water. Feeling it around him. Grabbing a body, someone he was supposed to save—

He swore out loud.

Too many emotions collided and bounced around inside his chest. Apprehension and need to get this right. Brilliant crackling anticipation of Colby’s nearness, and concern about Colby, who’d been so strong and so determined, on set. The memory of Colby being affectionate and competent for Tim, and ridiculously excited about pens and handwriting and possible assassins, and happy when scribbling a note for Jason.

Colby was adorable. And good at everything. Jason wanted to smile, wanted to sigh, wanted to scream. How could this work, how could he do this, how could he do any of this—

He scrubbed a hand over his face. He glanced at the open curtains. City lights and stars twinkled back: encouragement nestled in blue satin.

He took a deep breath. And then he did what any reasonable person would do when panicking, and called his little sister.

Alessandra answered right away. “Jay? What’s going on? Aren’t you busy filming?” Her voice echoed out from that shared law-student apartment near UCLA, clever and quick; Allie’d always been the brighter one, compared to Jason’s own muscles and clumsy passions. The straight-A student, and the kind who’d volunteer to tutor other students and who’d learned Italian just to converse more fluidly with their grandmother.

Her tone shifted to concern; he hadn’t answered. “Jason, if you’re still in LA, I’m not that far, I can come over if—”

“I’m fine!” Automatic older-brother response. He wasn’t. “Anyway, don’t you have midterms?”

You called me, and law school’s way easier than undergrad. More fun. So what did you want to talk about? Talk to me.”

“Are you trying to get out of studying?”

“Yes, and quit being evasive. You need advice, you just wanted to talk, you want to tell me juicy gossip about Colby Kent, what?”

Allie had been—continued to be, though with less all-encompassing devotion—an massive Colby Kent fan. She’d even run a blog. Lots of pictures. Fan art. Latest news. She’d handed off the blog to someone else when she’d started law school, though she still checked in with the fandom and kept up to date; she’d been the first person Jason had called upon being cast, even before their parents. She’d screamed so loudly her roommates’d run in armed with pencils and a book and a frying pan. Then she’d demanded to be his date to the premiere.

She got quieter, over the phone: no doubt sitting on her old blue couch with a pile of textbooks and a mug of coffee and their grandmother’s handknitted blanket, more upright now and worried. Jason could picture her there, all tumbled black curls and the deep brown eyes he recognized in his own mirror every morning; he smiled, even as she asked again what was wrong.

Wrong? Right? He didn’t know anymore. His own secrets, his own fear, and Colby coming over in…sometime soon, he didn’t know how soon…and tomorrow’s scene, and Colby’s own secrets, that vulnerability lacing a core of steel, and Colby was going to try to help him but Jason couldn’t ask that of someone already trying so hard…

His pulse thumped in his ears. Allie’d said something that’d he’d missed.

He did need help.

He took a deep breath. “You were right. I’m not…it’s not okay. Allie, can I ask you something? As a lawyer?”

“Um, yeah, but you know I’m not a lawyer yet, Jay. I can try, but if it’s serious you’ll want a professional opinion.” Her tone said more. Concern, holding back questions, anxious over him. “Nobody’s hurt, right? Nothing that—”

“No! No, nothing like that.” He flopped down across his bed. Let it take some weight. “Allie…if there was something I should’ve told someone, let’s say a director or a producer or someone…or, like, something I didn’t tell them, and they think I can do something but I’m not sure I can…does that count as some sort of breach of contract if I can’t do it after all? Did I lie?”

“Oh. Oh, Jay.” Allie now sounded like she wanted to hug him. “This is about Charlie, isn’t it? I know you’re filming on a boat or whatever, and there’s probably like a drowning scene or something, isn’t there. I’m so sorry.”

“Close. Almost drowning. Well, kind of. I’m supposed to dive in and save him. Fake, y’know, it’s all fake, and I should be able to do it but what if I can’t.”

“Do you want me to come over?” Allie had been there for him, and for the memorial services, two years ago; she, like Jason, had liked and respected Charles Richards. A good friend. A good mentor for Jason. Someone who’d been brand-new in the stunt-man profession when Luca Mirelli had already made a name as one of the most reliable and friendliest stunt drivers in the industry, and who’d come over and grinned cheerfully at Luca’s pretty award-winning chef wife and their two wide-eyed children. Sometimes he’d played video games with them.

Charlie—along with most of the industry’s stunt family—had come by to help out after Luca’s accident. That accident could’ve been worse—Jason’s father had made it out alive if not unscathed, and in true indomitable fashion now taught crash courses for younger stunt drivers and movie stars needing a quick lesson, even on bad days when his legs ached—and the family hadn’t been hurting for money; they’d been well taken care of. But the assistance around the house, the checking in, the company while his father healed—

That’d meant something. And Charlie hadn’t been the only one there, but he’d been there.

“No.” Jason rolled onto his back, lay staring at the ceiling. The ceiling offered no answers, blank as granite. As a stone. “You’re studying. Tell me if you need any more money for books or anything. And I should be okay. I’m supposed to be okay. It’s not like I don’t fucking live with water. I, y’know, shower and everything.”

“We’re all glad you do,” Allie said wryly, aiming for little-sister sarcastic normality. “ ’Cause you’re all gross and sweaty otherwise. Look, Jay, have you talked to someone about this?”

“I did. You know I did.” True.

“Yeah, like twice, right after. But this is affecting your job.”

“It shouldn’t. I mean, it won’t. I won’t let it.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Is there anything I should worry about with my contract?”

“You know I’m specializing in copyright law, right? Fair use, fandom, transformative works, parody and adaptation rights? Not Hollywood contracts. And I don’t have the details of yours.”

“I know. I just wanted to know what you thought.”

He heard her sigh. “It’ll depend on the wording, I’d guess? What you’ve promised, in writing, to do for them, and whether you fulfil it or not? But that can be stretched a lot of different ways. Why’d you tell them you could film a movie on a boat?”

“I needed to,” Jason said. The ceiling remained plain and white and cool, a slate of a future, hovering above. “I love it, Allie. This role, this part, this film…I have to.”

“You don’t make life easy for yourself, do you,” Allie muttered, but with love. “I remember when you came out to Mom and Dad and Nonna, you know? And you were all nervous, you’d made it this big giant thing in your head, and Dad just said yeah, we figured, and Mom asked if she could make you that rainbow pasta primavera because she’d been wanting to try out that recipe—”

“And Nonna asked whether I had a boyfriend and if he was a good Italian boy and if I didn’t did I want to know about her friend Maria’s grandson who’s a doctor and such a nice young man.” Jason couldn’t push down a tiny grin. His family. God, he loved them.

“My point is, if you’d thought about it for a second, you’d’ve remembered that Mom’s pastry chef and her wife celebrated their anniversary at the restaurant, and Dad’s track friends are, like, every kind of sleeping with everything, and of course we love you even when you’re an idiot. But no, you ended up practically hyperventilating after I overheard you saying I miss your sexy little ass to whatever his name was on the phone. And then you weren’t even going to say anything, except that Mom came in. And it was fine. You’re gonna be fine. Things aren’t ever as bad as you think.”

“His name was Luis,” Jason said. “He was…fun.” Luis had indeed been fun. Not serious, not on either side, but fun. And athletic. “But this…I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be okay. It’s just a dive. It’s just water.” Nothing to get tangled in, nothing to get trapped by, people present to assist. Maybe Allie was right. Maybe he was catastrophizing and overthinking. “Also Colby said he might come over tonight and—”

And now those words were out in the universe. Damn.

“Colby Kent?” A crash indicated flying books on the other end. “Jason Lorenzo Mirelli, do you have Colby Kent coming over to your room?”

“Um,” Jason said, and then had to hold the phone away from his ear for a while. “Yeah?”

“Oh my god. How did you not start with that? How long has this been a thing? Is it a thing? Tell me all the things! Does he always have coffee? Because one of my friends met him at a press event last year and she said he practically lived on coffee. And he gives really nice hugs if you ask him for a hug. Does he give really nice hugs?”

“What the hell,” Jason said. “Allie, he’s a friend, okay? I mean…yeah, I mean friend. Co-star. We’re not a thing. And…yeah, he drinks coffee, but, like, a normal amount? And I haven’t hugged him. He said he’d stop by because he might be able to help. That’s it.”

Last year, he thought. Had Colby been fine giving hugs, then? Or only doing so because someone’d asked?

“That is not an it! That is like…the anti-it! You have Colby Kent coming over to your room and offering to help you out!”

“Allie—”

“I swear I’ve read a fanfic like that once. Not with you in it, obviously. Though I have seen some John Kill fan art that’s—”

“I don’t want to know!”

“Okay, I'll tell you later.” His sister sobered up and settled down. A soon-to-be lawyer. The clever compassionate kid he remembered, all grown up and being a rock for him. When had that happened, Jason thought; and ended up grinning at his ceiling.

“Okay,” Allie said again. “If he thinks he can help, let him try. It can’t hurt. And, Jay, I think you’ll be fine. Honestly I do. People like you—you’ve always been weirdly likeable—and yeah, you should probably tell them the truth, but I know why you didn’t, and they’ll understand.”

“Thanks.”

“And I think you can do this. Like I said, don’t make it bigger than it is. Do what Dad tells us to do, and go over all the pieces rationally, what might happen, what could happen, what you want to happen, and know what you’re going to do in each scenario, and have a plan. Works for law school, works for acting.”

“I hope the world’s ready for you,” Jason said. “Most kick-ass lawyer on the planet.”

“That’s the Mirelli family,” Allie said. “We make magic happen. When do you leave for England? Got time to meet up for lunch before you go?”

“About a week, and yeah, probably. I’ll text you when I know our schedule.”

“Awesome. When’s he coming over? Can you take a picture and send it to me? Can you at least say hi for me?”

“I have to work with him. No.”

“Jay, please!”

“I’ll have to think about it,” Jason said. “Maybe, if I’m in a really good mood, and you do the dishes for, like, the next ten years at every family dinner, I can ask him for an autograph. I’ll tell him to make it out to Allie the Brat.”

“You’re the worst and I hate you.”

“Hate and loathe you. No, seriously, Allie, he’s…I don’t know. I don’t want to ask him for a lot. Not now.”

“Oh,” Allie said. “Is everything okay? Is he okay? Is it this film? I know he’s talked in interviews about how much he loves the book and how much this means, the historicizing and recognition of gay narratives and sexualities in the past. I bet it’s a lot of pressure.”

“Yeah, it is, but…” He waved a hand in the direction of his companionable ceiling. Once again, it stoically put up with him. “I think there’s something else. I think something’s…not okay. But, no, forget I said that, I shouldn’t be saying things. Speculation. Inadmissible. Hearsay or whatever. Don’t share that, seriously, please.”

“I promise.” She did, too; her voice took this promise and made it fact. “But, for the record…”

“Oh no.”

“I’m going to tell you even more that this should be a thing. Not like a hookup type of thing. But if you need help, and he maybe needs help, then maybe, y’know. You two can at least lean on each other.”

“Allie—” A knock whispered at the door. Not tentative but somehow bashful, it tapped at Jason’s room and interrupted with apologies.

“Oh fuck,” Jason said, “that’s him—sorry, I have to go—”

“At least call me back after!” Allie wailed. Jason hung up without remorse and shoved his phone into a pocket.

He hurried over. He flung open the door. He stared.

Colby, half turned away and wearing the fewest layers Jason’d yet seen, blushed.

Jason shook himself out of the staring, internally swore, and waved a hand. “Right! Sorry. Um. Come in?”

Colby had on clinging grey track pants. The pants had a pink side stripe. The shirt was creamy off-white and incredibly soft-looking, still with oversized sleeves, but with a wider loose neck. That collarbone was visible. A single tiny freckle sat near it on the left side. Jason wanted to touch it. With his tongue.

Colby came in and glanced around. “It’s so very clean.”

“Um,” Jason said. Colby also had on flip-flops. Colby had adorable toes. Jason had not previously found toes adorable. But Colby Kent baring even a hint of skin was doing strange things to Jason’s sense of balance. “I…cleaned?”

“For me?” Those wide blue eyes got dismayed. “Oh, no, you didn’t have to! It’s not as if my room’s terribly tidy. Well, it’s not dreadful, I do put things away—mostly—but it’s not this clean.”

“I like clean,” Jason said. Part of his brain had managed to register the fact that Colby was carrying a towel. The rest had become sidetracked by track pants and slim hips and related areas. “Did you eat anything?”

Colby gave him a look of complete bafflement. “I made coffee. Is this a thing for you? Feeding people?”

“Big Italian family,” Jason explained. “If you ever meet my grandmother you’ll need to already be holding food or she’ll force-feed you risotto. Actually, never mind, she’ll do that even if you are holding food. That wasn’t a yes.”

“I’m imagining a very emphatic dragon, in an apron, armed with a spoon.” Colby wandered over to the window, peeked out. “I think you have the better view. The ocean, even, in the distance, there…”

Jason came over to join him. “You like the ocean? Also, here, this bag isn’t resealable and I’m going to have to eat these almonds anyway, have some.”

This time Colby’s look hovered someplace between complete ironic awareness of this unsubtle maneuver and an equally complete inability not to please someone. But he ate an almond. Jason wanted to cheer.

Instead he said, “I always sort of took the ocean for granted. Growing up in LA, y’know. But usually we were out at Dad’s track, or messing with cars, or running around studio lots if we were allowed to visit. The whole family profession.” He was both proud and anxious about the fact that he’d managed to spark irony into Colby sweet-to-everyone Kent’s expression. He was not sure this boded well.

“Yes,” Colby said. “Your whole family. Your father, your uncles and aunts…your grandfather worked on a lot of those early Westerns, didn’t he? And did stunt work for the whole sword-and-sandal epic craze?”

“Yeah. Throw a rock at a low-budget action movie, and you’ll hit my family.”

“It’s nice, though.” Colby’s smile came and went as if uncertain of its own welcome, fleeting and unexpectedly sincere. “Tradition, legacy, a shared love for the industry. A connection. That’s rather lovely, I think.”

“Is it? Seriously eat more of these, I’ve been eating them, you should have more. My little sister’s the family rebel. Law school. She’s smarter than all of us put together. She’ll take over the world someday.”

“And you love her.” Colby’s smile came back, tucked into one corner of that expressive mouth. “I can tell.”

“I’d do anything for her,” Jason said. “Um…speaking of, at some point I should probably ask you for an autograph on her behalf. Not that I’m asking. Not if you don’t want to.”

“Oh, of course I can. I’ll find a good pen and do it properly. With whatever message you’d like.”

“But will it be a secret assassin calligrapher’s pen?” Jason tried, and watched with satisfaction as Colby laughed. The blue of those eyes lit up and danced through the night.

Jason’s fingers ached to reach out. To run a hand through that hair, and draw all the laughter in close, and find out whether Colby would shiver in pleasure at a kiss or a bite to that tempting collarbone, that freckle.

The towel snagged his attention again. A reminder, it punched him back into the present.

Colby noticed him noticing. “Ah. Yes. I did tell you I had an idea. Do you have a swimsuit?”

“I’m not getting in a pool tonight,” Jason said.

“I didn’t say you had to. I was thinking, though, that I might, and you could sit on the edge and watch me.”

“You want me to watch you go swimming?” The argument in favor of this involved Colby in a swimsuit of some type, and trying to picture that splintered Jason’s brain. Colby didn’t even like baring those arms.

The arguments against, however, stampeded forward. “It’s not even going to work. And it’s not like I mind water. I can be around water. It’s fine.”

“Then you should have no problem keeping me company. You did say I could try to help.”

“And you came up with going swimming.”

“Ideally I’d get you to join me, but we can start with you being present?”

“I’m changing my mind about this.”

“Isn’t the point to change your mind about water? Why not at least try?”

“It’s after ten. The pool’s closed. I’m already jumping into water tomorrow. Do you need more reasons?”

“You haven’t said no, exactly.”

“This is stupid.”

“If you want me to leave,” Colby said, “tell me now, and I’ll listen. I promise I will.”

Jason stared at him. Colby’s eyes were big and sincere and blue, that complicated multifaceted blue, like old bruises and morning snapdragons; Jason had absolutely no doubt that Colby would turn around and walk away if asked, and equally had no doubt that Colby wanted to help, meant the offer, and would be hurt by but accept the rejection.

He glanced at the script again. Tomorrow loomed in watery menace. He did need to try something. And Allie’d been right about overthinking.

He grumbled something inarticulate and hunted for his swim trunks. Colby promptly and politely turned around.

Maybe that wasn’t only politeness. Maybe Colby had zero interest in seeing him change. Maybe that’d be a problem, if they had to shoot sex scenes later, or maybe it wouldn’t because Colby was an incredible actor, or—

Or maybe the reaction had nothing to do with any of those, and a whole hell of a lot more to do with whatever’d made Colby Kent panic and forget a line mid-sentence while trapped in Jason’s arms.

That’d been genuine fear. Not distracting character-bleed desire, not random forgetfulness. Maybe the cameras hadn’t quite seen it, but Jason’d been close enough. Had witnessed both the cracking of thin ice and the heroic attempt to stay afloat.

Jason’d had to try to help. Couldn’t not.

He found that he wanted, with a low simmering fiery sort of want, to help more. To figure out who or what’d hurt Colby so badly, and to try to make the hurt better, easier, a shared weight, if he could.

If it had been a who, Jason would like to meet that who. In a back alley. With a good solid action-hero fist.

Colby, from all available evidence, genuinely was the nicest human being alive. Jason was still sorting out how this remained possible in Hollywood and in general, and his instincts occasionally argued that all that niceness shouldn’t be real, but he was more and more convinced that it was.

Colby deserved niceness in turn. Fluffy blankets. Cinnamon pastries. A blanket over those slim shoulders to fend off lowering rain.

This thought led back to water.

He yanked a shirt on over swim trunks. Colby hadn’t turned. Jason cleared his throat. “You, um, okay.”

Colby spun around and threw him a coruscating grin. “So you do trust me!”

“Maybe,” Jason said. “Why didn’t you say anything? To Jill, I mean, or even to me, or anyone. When production started. Or back during casting. If you thought I might not be good with this.”

“Because, first, I wasn’t sure and I wanted to ask you.” Colby ran a hand through all that hair. “And also it’s not as if I’ve got room to talk regarding moments of difficulty. As you know.”

“So we’re trading professional favors, is that it?”

“No.” Colby gave him a small one-shouldered shrug, over a towel and across a distance. “It’s not an obligation. And it’s not even professional. Or, yes, it is, of course it is, but I’d want to try to help anyway. I know about having to face scenes that might be hard, and I’d like to make them a bit less hard, if I can.”

Jason couldn’t find a response. Eventually he got out, “…I do trust you.”

Their eyes met. The hotel room got quieter, more earnest, more intimate: flavored with almonds, soft as the blue of Colby’s gaze.

Colby said, “You know I do as well. Trust you, I mean.” His accent brushed the night like a kiss. “I’m not…there are things I’m having to sort out, at the moment. Which you saw, on set. And you did see it, and you were kind about it, and I do trust you.”

Jason swallowed hard around the golf-ball lump of emotion. Humbled, honored, amazed by the spontaneous assertion of faith in him. Him. How?

He said, tripping over words, “You can trust me. I swear. I mean, I’ll probably fuck up and do something wrong, but it’ll never be on purpose, I promise. I won’t hurt you. Um. You can take me to the pool and do whatever you want? I’ll even get in with you?”

The smile settled into Colby’s eyes, finding a home. “Only if you want to.”

“Come on,” Jason said, hoisting a towel. “We’re going to find your pool.”

The pool was, it turned out, relatively easy to find. It hung out among California-daydream palm trees and rippled unoccupied water at them. The gate, however, was locked.

“Oh, well,” Jason said. “Guess not?” He was relieved, and not relieved, by this. No jumping into water. No Colby in a swimsuit and gleaming with water, either.

The lights were still on, wreathing palm trees and shimmering from posts and glowing in the pool itself, glinting like wayward fairies in autumn dark. Colby grinned and started fishing around in a pocket. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Colby,” Jason attempted patiently, “the pool’s closed.”

“Only technically.” Colby was fiddling with the lock. “We’re entirely safe. I did mention to the concierge earlier that I might like a late-night swim, and he said no one would interfere, though he did say they’d put the lock on, but I assured him that wouldn’t be a problem. Oh, come on, you’re only being fussy, you do want to open up for me…”

This last was directed at the lock. Not at Jason. Who did not want to open up for Colby Kent. Or any other suggestively phrased terminology.

And of course nobody’d tell Colby no about a late-night swim. Jason folded arms. Gazed at his co-star, who was scowling merrily at the lock and doing something naughty with a safety-pin. Colby Kent was everybody’s friend. The concierge likely’d done cartwheels at the chance to do him a favor. The universe, like always, would’ve realigned itself around Colby’s smile.

That must make everything so easy, Jason thought, watching him. Emotions turned up and sat in his own stomach like lurking stones. Wistfulness, envy, amazement at what it’d be like to have such a charmed life. That career. That family wealth and name. That charisma. The way everybody fell head over heels and wanted to be nice right back, faced with all the unstoppable niceness.

Except not everything had been easy. Or nice.

Except something had cut deep enough for scars.

He wondered suddenly when and where Colby Kent had learned to pick locks.

“Ah, got it.” Colby opened the gate with a flourish, and patted the lock in question for good measure. “Thank you. Jason, after you.”

Jason glanced at that waving hand, glanced at the gate, decided that if this was a dare he’d damn well go along with it, and went.

The hotel pool sprawled out before them. Moonlight and curving trees. Empty chairs, lounging in midnight solitude. Unruffled water, deep and still and blue. The night arched soundlessly overhead, an invitation of velvet and stars. The clouds had long since peacefully ambled away.

“Mmm, perfect.” Colby set down his towel on the nearest convenient deck chair, and began pulling his shirt off. “It’s a lovely night for a swim, isn’t it? I was afraid it’d be too cold. But this is just right.”

As if everything were normal. As if this could be simple.

As if that weren’t heavy silent water, a lurking laughing malicious expanse. Treacherous. Deceptive. No lifeguard on duty. No one around if trouble emerged.

Jason discovered both his hands wrapped around the back of a chair. When had that happened?

“Of course,” Colby said brightly, “you know I’m a lifeguard, right? Or I was. All the certifications’ve expired by now. But I meant to tell you earlier, I spent summers working at the beach, in high school. Part of trying to fit in, you know, trying to be likeable, and that was what one did in Southern California, or at least at my school it was. Not that it ever worked, I was far too shy around people, so I spent a lot of time being thoroughly quiet and not at all making friends with my colleagues, but that’s not the relevant point here, is it…”

That mellifluous rambling voice tumbled over Jason like rain. Like the first cheery rattling eruption of springtime: light and dancing, coaxing flowers out of cold winter ground.

He scraped out, words dug up from the earth, “You were a lifeguard?”

“Oh!” Colby paused to beam at him, as if not having expected Jason to contribute. “Yes, I was. Passed all the tests and everything. It’s been years, so don’t think that I’m any kind of up to date, but I do remember all the techniques and the training. And some of those instincts never do go away. No lifeguard on duty—well, every time I’m at a pool I end up automatically watching the water. Wanting to shout at people. Bit paranoid, really, I’m no fun at all at pool parties. I think we should hop in, don’t you? They’ve gone to all the trouble of looking the other way while I asked about after-hours exploration.”

“I…” Jason said. “You…but…you’re fun.” That wasn’t what he’d meant to say. “Everyone says you’re fun.” And under the rambling, Colby’d managed to gently offer reassurance about watching the water, about training, about swimming-related paranoia of various types being utterly natural and not fucking stupid at all. “I mean. Um. Are you…getting in?”

“And I’d love it if you joined me. You did say you might.” Those loose track bottoms plunged downward. Pink and grey stripes puddled. Jason lost words entirely at this visual.

Colby scooped up and neatly folded his clothing. Apparently blithely unaware of exactly how tiny his swimsuit was. How little it covered. How royal blue hugged his hips and framed those long legs and drew attention to his pale English-lord leanness and his slim waist and that extremely impressive bulge under clinging material—

Jason wanted to shove him flat on the pool deck and taste him everywhere.

That delicious skin. Those tiny pert nipples. That complete tease of girth and length under the fucking preposterous barely-even-a-swimsuit. Colby had to know how he looked, right? No one bought a swimsuit like that if the point wasn’t to show off.

Colby Kent probably did. Colby Kent probably had looked at himself while shopping, thought something along the lines of, oh, I do like blue! and then gone about his day, unconscious of the future havoc left in his wake.

Unless that obliviousness was an act. It might’ve been. But Jason, having spent several days gazing at those big blue eyes, didn’t think so.

Colby knew about characters and motivations. Colby seemed genuinely unaware of motivations with regard to himself, as if all the hordes of admirers and fans and pop-journalism articles with titles like Colby Kent’s Best Hair, Ranked were only a massive prank and everybody’d wake up eventually.

Colby’s ass, wrapped in snug decadent blue, made Jason’s mouth go dry. Colby Kent, under moonlight, walking to the edge of a swimming pool. Barefoot on concrete. Fairylike and ephemeral, a glimpse out of a dream, another world.

Colby turned, looking back at him. Moonbeams slid and swirled through that hair, light and dark, a playful caress. “Of course you can just watch if you’d rather stay dry. But I really would like it if you came in with me. Half the fun of a moderately illicit midnight swim is the company.”

Jason tried to nod. His shirt felt too hot. Itchy.

Colby smiled at him, took one more step, and dove: a fluid quicksilver shape.

Jason shivered, watching, waiting. Colby did not surface immediately, or not as soon as Jason’s heart thought he should; no, Jason’s heart was shaking and screaming and bewildered and yearning, caught between anxiety and need.

He saw Charlie’s body, a flash of memory that seared across his sight: a limp white form, those open eyes, the knowledge that nothing could be done. The tastes of chlorine and rage and grief. The sunlight on his shoulders, at the tank that day, at the funeral later. The way he’d have to dive in tomorrow, on camera, and save someone, rescue someone, pull someone back up—

When he’d not been able to do that for Charlie—

When he didn’t know if he could breathe, himself, with water closing over his head, smothering him—

And Colby hadn’t come up yet—

His hands hurt. Too tight around the chair’s frame.

The palm trees murmured concern to a fleeting gust of wind.

And Colby popped up, laughing, futilely attempting to shake wet hair out of those dazzling eyes. “At least someone’s left the heat more or less, well, really it’s less, turned on. It’s a bit brisk, but nothing we can’t handle.”

We. He’d said we. Jason gulped in air. Tried to steady his lurching emotions.

He could do this. He knew how to swim. He was a trained actor and stuntman. He could handle water.

And Colby was a lifeguard, or a retired lifeguard, or something like that. He wasn’t sure why that felt so reassuring, but it did, and he held onto it. Maybe they were friends, maybe they weren’t, but Colby wouldn’t let him drown.

He tugged off his shirt. Too-large fingers. Not listening well to directions. Blocks of wood, and blocks of wood that’d taken lessons in awkwardness. Colby wasn’t watching, having become distracted by a flip and a kick off against the wall.

Jason watched him because that was easier than watching the water, and sat down on the pool’s edge. The concrete was hard and slightly chilly. Ripples lapped at his calves.

“Hi there,” Colby said, reemerging next to him. “Fancy meeting you here. Oh, wait, you’re working on the same production, and you’ve agreed to after-hours aquatic mischief with me, so of course you’re here.” With that drenched hair and those wide eyes, treading water, he looked like mischief himself, a naiad or a selkie come out to play.

“You’re ridiculous,” Jason said. “Has anyone ever told you that?” He wanted to pull Colby out of the water. He wanted to find out how Colby’s lips tasted, wet and pink in starlight.

“Yes,” Colby said. “You’re hardly the first. I was curious, do you really think Stephen would dive in himself to rescue a shipmate? Not that he wouldn’t want to, of course he would, but as a captain and commander surely his life is worth more, and he has a responsibility to—”

“He has a responsibility to everyone under his command!” Jason slid down into the water, which splashed. But he couldn’t easily shout at Colby while bending over the edge. Face to face. One hand on the edge. Much better. “That’s why he’s such a fucking good captain! Because he’d die for any one of them, and they know it—”

“Well, of course, but they’ve signed on for this fight too, and they’d be the first to tell him not to sacrifice himself—”

“Half the seamen on those historical ships couldn’t swim!” He waved an arm. Water leapt. “On purpose! To keep them from deserting or whatever! And practically all the men on Stephen’s ship are there because of him, out of loyalty, so of course he’ll dive in and save one of them—”

“Isn’t the one you’re saving in fact a person who doesn’t like you? Who doesn’t like Stephen. Sorry. But this one’s the ringleader of the possible mutiny, complaining about the conscriptions and the poor rations and the relentless missions—”

“Yes! That’s the point! Stephen’ll save him anyway!” They were floating next to each other now, having drifted to the center of the pool. Muscle memory’d kicked in; Jason was mostly treading water, though the bottom was close enough that he could reach it with toes if he stretched. Colby, two or three inches shorter, almost certainly couldn’t, but looked utterly at home regardless. “Look, this is the tipping point about the mutiny—about it not happening—you know that, you’ve read the script—”

“Which does seem odd, because it doesn’t address any of those practical concerns, about the rations and the lack of leave—”

“It at least makes things better! Stephen’s in there with them. Fighting for them. Not just for some far-off ideal.” This mattered. Character and compassion and an understanding of why men would die for Captain Stephen Lanyon, why Jason himself had loved and needed and been swept away by this role—

He argued, “That’s one reason Will falls in love with him. For that heart.” The palm trees rustled again in solidarity. “You don’t see that? In the story?”

Colby flicked water at him. “Stephen’s everything Will’s always wanted. Bold, daring, an adventure—”

“That’s not all!” He sent a wave right back. Colby ducked, laughed, swam a bit further into the deep end. Jason lunged after him. “You really don’t see how—it’s about loyalty, commitment, someone who’s not just a warrior—”

“Yes.” Colby stretched a leg upward, impossibly flexible in the night, and tucked it back underwater. The pool’s lights, down below, glimmered clear. Colby’s eyes were deeper blue in the glow: not mysterious or secretive but vibrant and vivid, a glint of color in the moonbeam world, the two of them and silvery palm trees and serene lounge chairs and flat concrete and a swimming pool. “That’s precisely it. Both halves. The passion and bravery and the life Will’s never had, being trapped by the title and the illness. And also someone who sees him, not the title or the illness. Someone who values people for who they are, and will dive into an ocean to save just one man. Or hold out a hand to them on a balcony.”

“You—” Jason started, and stopped, floating there, looking at him.

“You know why it was you, of course.” Colby did a small kick, a glide, not within arm’s reach. Not quite meeting Jason’s eyes, either. “Not because you wanted it so much, though you clearly did. Not because of—of whatever chemistry we had, during that screen test, though that’s important too, obviously. But you saw that part of the character. The way Stephen loves people.”

“You did that on purpose,” Jason said. He did not see Charlie’s face; he’d forgotten to stare at every one of Colby’s movements as if one of them might drown. He let the water hold him up, let it surround him, and regarded Colby Kent’s slim shoulders under starlight and moonlight and pool-light. “You made me talk. Distractions. You know Stephen as well as I do.”

“Oh, I’d rather hope not. After all, you’re playing him.” Colby shrugged. “But the rest, yes, a bit. Sorry.”

“What? Why?” He swam that direction. Colby lay back, carried by water, gazing up at the sky. Jason, bigger and less graceful but remembering how to be friends with gentle buoyancy and undemanding weightlessness, hovered next to him. Demanded, “Sorry for what? You got me into a pool.”

“I did tell you I thought I could help,” Colby said. “And…and if you’d like, I’ll be there tomorrow. For the food, because I do eat, and you can stop worrying. I’ve heard craft services is planning Thai. And I adore Thai. Do you think there might be something with coconut? I’m actually not bad at coconut curry, myself, not that I’ve made it lately. I haven’t felt like cooking much, but I promise you I’m not terrible, so if there’s something you want I can try to make it. How do you feel about coconut?”

“Colby,” Jason said.

“I’m also quite good at pancakes,” Colby said. “And eggs. Breakfast food in general. If you’d ever like breakfast, just let me know. Oh—that wasn’t a proposition, I know it came out badly, I’m not suggesting there’d be a reason you’d ever be staying with me, I only meant I could certainly figure out a way to make pancakes in my trailer if you’d like some.”

You’re talking,” Jason said.

“I do that,” Colby said. “I’m ridiculous.” He said it lightly, without heat; he grinned, did one more quick flip underwater, resurfaced. “We ought to go, I expect. It’s getting late and you have an early call time and I’ve got a morning talk show interview.” A flash of legs, a movement of hips, brought him to the pool’s edge. He did not move to get out, though. “How’re you feeling about tomorrow? Any better?”

“Yeah,” Jason said automatically, and only then realized that the answer was true. Here, following Colby Kent to the side of the pool, under moonlight, anything could be possible. A dive into deep water. A plunge ahead. A triumph.

This comprehension stole his words for a crucial second or two. The automatic answer sat uneasily on the air. The moment vanished.

“Then I’m glad.” Colby hopped out of the pool. Water cascaded through his hair, down the planes and lines of his back. Framed by silent deck chairs and California night, he became artwork, gold and ink. “Whenever you’re ready. I’ll lock up.”

“When’d you learn to pick locks?”

“A terribly lonely and tragic childhood.” Colby gave him a glorious smile from under a towel. All that hair tumbled into fabulous loops and coils, drying. “Or I’m a well-disguised secret agent. A spy. Here to steal hidden plans or lists of code names. Ruthless and lethal.”

“You?” Jason scrubbed his own towel over his head, shook water-drops away, let them fly into the night. “Nobody’d ever believe it.”

“Which is why it’s such an excellent disguise. Got everything?”

Shirts on, damp and chlorine-scented, they wandered toward the gate. Colby flicked the lock shut and gave it another little pat. His fingers were long and slender, too.

Jason gazed at those fingers. Thought about deflection. About disguises. About answers nobody’d believe.

He did not think Colby Kent was a secret agent. That part’d been a joke.

But that first reply echoed, as they went back into the deserted hallway, as they found a familiar elevator, as Colby waved a room key at the sensor, as the elevator launched itself upward.

But Colby Kent had led a sparkling life, a fascinating life. Part of the story. Exotic places, multiple countries, impressive wealth, that diplomat father, that celebrated literary mother. Always upbeat and enthusiastic in interviews, in articles, in behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Always. Without fail.

Colby’s shirt was too large, fashionably so. That open neckline bared his collarbone, most of one shoulder, the smoothness of his skin. The creamy fabric had grown transparent in spots from the wet.

Jason wanted to ask. He did not know how to say: did you just tell me the truth, and what exactly is that truth, and are you lonely, and can I help? Would you let me help, when you said it in exactly the right way to guarantee that I wouldn’t take it seriously?

Colby, standing beside him in the elevator, yawned, stretched, and ran a hand through that hair, rumpling it up more, fingers tugging at post-swim tangles. He did not look like someone suffering from hidden sorrow and isolation. Jason wasn’t sure what to do.

He shuffled feet. Shifted weight. Tried to be less aware of his own breadth and height, versus that water-nymph messy elegance.

Floor twenty-two. Twenty-four.

Twenty-six; and there they both were. Colby waved a hand at him, evidently suggesting that Jason exit first, and managed to drop his room key while doing so. Jason lunged. Caught it. “Here.”

“Oh—thank you. It’ll be a miracle if I manage not to lose at least one, during this production…”

“You do that a lot?”

“Infamously, I’m afraid.” Those fingers nearly skimmed Jason’s, reclaiming the key-card. “Jill says I shouldn’t be allowed out on my own. Which is unfair. I’m perfectly capable of going out to fetch ice, no matter what stories she tells you.”

“And anyway you’re a secret agent who can break in anywhere.” It was an opening, or he’d aimed it to be.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Colby said, “or I’ll have to kill you.” The gravity of that tone gave way before the smile, which turned the hallway into summer. “Well, this one seems to be my room, so, good night, then? And I’ll see you on set.”

“You don’t have to.” Oh god, oh god, that’d come out all wrong; Colby’s fingers paused, arrested over sleek hotel plastic, then recovered. Jason flailed, “I don’t mean you don’t—I mean I know you said you would—I think I’ll be okay, I mean, because you, um—tonight was—”

Colby shrugged. Told Jason’s left shoulder, “I know I don’t have to. But I’ve got the afternoon free, and I like being on set in any case, seeing how it’s all working out, exploring everything, so I’ll be there regardless. I know you won’t need me, of course, and I won’t interfere. You won’t even know I’m there, unless someone has a question that requires me to wear the producer hat for a moment.” A drop of water lingered near one dark eyebrow, a delicate wild bit of crystal.

“But,” Jason said. But what, he thought. But I want to know you’re there? I want you to smile more? I want you to annoy me and argue with me about character motivations and get me to think about you instead of everything going wrong?

He was pretty sure he couldn’t say any of that without sounding pathetically dependent on his co-star. Who was also a producer. Who’d helped decide to cast him. Couldn’t forget that.

“But,” he finished desperately. “We should…we should talk about some of the next scenes. Ours. Before you leave. We should, um, rehearse. Maybe over lunch? Since you, y’know, eat food.” Oh god. He wanted to bang his head against the nearest wall.

Colby only gave him a reassuring little nod, opening the room’s door. “Of course, if you’d like. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

The door shut in his wake, leaving only the tang of water and chlorine, one or two wayward drops back by the elevator doors, and Jason’s useless mouth, which had not said any part of what it needed to say.

He could’ve sworn at the hallway or himself. He could’ve knocked at Colby’s door. He couldn’t, though. Might make it worse. More worse.

He trudged off to his room. Other end of the hall. Felt like longer. Miles. With leaden weights attached.

He opened the door and stared at the shower, because he ought to get all the chlorine off of himself. He peeled off his shirt, flipped on water, stared into it.

Water. Yeah. Still processing that one.

Colby might be also busy with water. Showering. Right down the hall. Naked and right down the hall.

Jason had absolutely no right to picture that, and did anyway. Couldn’t not.

Steam drifted up to kiss his hair, suggesting more. Colby might be stepping into water too, flushed from heat, pink and bright and pretty, smooth skin slick and gleaming. Colby liked water. Colby might like hands stroking him, lavishing him with soap, cleaning every inch of him. Hands in all that silky dark hair, kneading shampoo through soft strands, letting someone care for him and cherish him and keep him warm, when that someone had just heard a flippant remark about loneliness and wanted Colby to feel not alone—

Someone. Some person. Jason himself. Those were his hands he was picturing in Colby’s hair.

This time he did swear out loud. His sister would’ve snickered. The hotel shower took no notice.

Which was good. Their secret, him and his shower. No one had to know. Not Colby himself. Not anyone on set. Not anyone who’d be there tomorrow, when Jason would be diving into the tank and grabbing a fellow actor, because he could make that dive. He’d gotten back into the water.

He could do it again. Biggest hurdle: overcome.

He ended up grinning.

Yeah. He could do this. He might not ever enjoy it as much as he once had, but he could work around it, now: things could go wrong, and he’d never forget, but things could also go right. Water might mean danger, but might also mean Colby Kent splashing him and laughing in moonlight.

He’d be okay.

Because Colby’d given him that.

A minute later, scrubbing shampoo through his own hair, he stopped in place. The shampoo slid down over his eyebrow.

He’d never thanked Colby for that.

He must have. Surely he would’ve. Hadn’t he?

He reviewed all his failed sentences, while shampoo ran along the back of his neck.

He had said thank you, right? He’d thought it. He’d—

He hadn’t.

He said, “Oh fuck,” aloud to the shower and the shampoo, and then yelped and said it again and rinsed lather out of his eyes.

He hadn’t said it. What he had done was suggest that Colby didn’t even need to come in tomorrow, entirely unnecessary, as if that hadn’t been one of the greatest and most monumental and most generous acts anyone’d ever done for Jason, who’d promptly acted like it hadn’t mattered at all—

He contemplated leaping out of the shower and calling Colby. Just right down that hall. Room to room.

Colby was likely asleep by now, no doubt having actually finished showering and getting clean while Jason floundered like a madman. An inconsiderate madman.

Colby had a morning talk-show interview, which of course was part of their shared profession, promotion and publicity, nothing out of the ordinary. But Jason’s head went back and found an earlier comment and circled it in red: rescheduled, Colby’d said. From a couple of months ago. Something Colby hadn’t been able to do, back then?

An interview would require at least shaking of hands, general proximity, being next to people.

Colby would be professional about it. Jason absolutely knew as much. And was absolutely convinced that it’d cost more than those blue eyes would ever admit.

He wanted to call Colby even more. He wanted to apologize for being dense. He wanted to say that he understood, he’d heard at least some of the words Colby’d carefully left unsaid, and he’d do whatever would make things easier.

He wanted to run down the hall and offer to be there, the way Colby had for him. He wanted to throw himself between Colby and the world like a shield. He had a lot of muscles. He could be a good shield.

Colby must be asleep by now, though. And would need the rest.

Jason couldn’t disturb him.

But he could see Colby tomorrow. Lunch. They’d promised that.

He could express undying gratitude then. He could say thank you then. He could apologize for every single damn time he’d said or thought anything cruel or thoughtless. Colby could talk through an apocalypse and apparently lost hotel room keys on a regular basis, but was also the kindest person Jason had ever met; Colby could pick locks and wore tiny swimsuits with every evidence of enjoyment, and was unselfconsciously generous and willing to jump into a pool at midnight and pretend to be confused about character motivations just to make a co-star feel better.

And that thought got Jason to smile. Because apparently he had a lot of feelings about Colby. And that made everything complicated and bizarre and weirdly good, a kind of challenging elaborate high-flying trapeze act. Peril lurking, yeah, but the beauty of it lay in the pulse-pounding heart-rattling thrill of being alive and dancing together and maybe even catching each other.

He couldn’t recall the last time he’d felt that way.

He wanted more. He wanted to try. Even if Colby didn’t think of him the same way, even if Colby never would, Jason could be a friend, because he thought that maybe Colby needed a friend too, someone who’d bring him food and notice when he was scared.

He thought that maybe they’d taken a step, or a plunge, in that direction, tonight.

And therefore tomorrow he’d do more. Jason shut off water, stepped out into the bathroom, made a resolution. His swim trunks dripped at him, hanging to dry. Tomorrow. Yes. A plan. Something nice. Something Colby would like, after a difficult morning. He could think of something Colby would like. He could do that.

He could do a lot of things, it seemed, with Colby on his mind.

He hopped into expensive sheets. Stretched out, appreciating space and firmness. The bed creaked once, but it was an agreeable sort of creak, approving of his plan. Jason shut his eyes feeling determined, optimistic, even hopeful.

Tomorrow. It’d be good. He thought it would be.

 

Chapter Text

Colby ran onto set later than he’d planned, interview eyeliner and make-up not completely removed, and hot under layers: his jacket, his cardigan, his shirt, his scarf, his own hair, which slid impertinently out of its knot and fell all over his eyes. He searched the preparations for Jason’s height and shoulders; he hid post-interview wobbliness under a refusal to dwell, and hopped over cords and stands, and dodged rigging.

Over near the big tank was most likely, right? Near the constructed ship’s railing, where Jason’d dive in? Nobody’d disturbed the water yet, so he wasn’t that late, which was good—

He thought he caught a glimpse of brown hair, of height. He ran that way.

He nearly collided with Serenity the PA, who had an armful of the next day’s schedules. He caught breath and balance after the shock; she laughed, flipped black braids back, put a hand out to steady him, and stopped. Her eyes changed, softened: compassionate recognition.

She started, “Sorry, Colby, I—”

“No, no, I’m sorry, entirely my fault, not looking—I’m running late, you see, I said I’d be here to help—to watch this stunt—” Better words. More care. No giving away Jason’s secret. “It’s the first big sequence, even if it’s not a terribly large one, and I should be here—oh, I’m sorry, can I help you with those? Were you bringing them over for Jill? Can I take some of them?—I’m sorry again, I didn’t mean to trip over you—”

“No.” She held the armful away from him. Both dimples appeared in her dark cheeks and winked at him. “This’s my job, your job is to be awesome on camera, and I’m gonna bet you’ve never color-coded and distributed a film crew’s worth of timetables in your entire adorable life. If you’re looking for Jason, he’s over by the tank talking to Jill.”

Colby, who had indeed been looking for Jason, couldn’t sort out responses quickly enough. Serenity had continued grinning at him, in the way of someone who thought she knew something; but there was nothing to know, and surely everyone knew that? Jason was genuinely friendly, trustworthy, and kind at heart, and they’d managed to forge some sort of connection amid chlorine and starlight; but Jason also thought he was ridiculous and irritatingly persistent, and if they were friends it was because Colby’d made himself useful enough for that. Jason’d said as much: you don’t have to be on set today, or if you insist, then we can rehearse. Talk about upcoming scenes. Professional.

And Colby himself couldn’t be interested. Shouldn’t be interested. Too much like standing at the edge of a cliff, knowing that rocks lay beneath—and rocks that wanted a purely professional relationship, at that—and somehow not able to take a step back.

Wanting instead to believe, against all rationality and knowledge of physics, that this time he might be able to fly.

Ridiculous, again. In Jason’s word of the night before.

He said, “Thank you,” to Serenity, and then, “Oh! By the way, there should be cupcakes arriving this afternoon. I’d meant it to be a surprise but I’ve just now thought that perhaps you’d rather know beforehand, in case people need to schedule breaks or errands or anything. I didn’t bake them, only ordered, I’m sorry, I didn’t have the time, but this bakery comes highly recommended, so—”

“Colby,” Serenity interjected patiently, which was good, because at this rate he’d’ve kept talking all day. He tried not to wince; she said, “Cupcakes’re great and you’re great and you gotta stop apologizing, okay? You didn’t even have to do this in the first place.”

“Sorry!—oh. Yes. I did hear it as I said it. Sorry. Er.”

Serenity laughed, but in a way that felt a bit bad for him, too: sympathetic amusement, if that were possible. Colby decided it probably was. It was fair.

She added, “Hey, you want some advice? Personal assistant bonus assistance. Totally free. Just go over and smile at him. Watch how he reacts. He likes it when you smile.”

“Er,” Colby said again. A piece of hair got into his mouth. He batted it away and nearly lost his scarf in the process. “Does he? I mean, most people like being smiled at, don’t they?”

“Okay, wow,” Serenity said, “that has to be some sort of record for not getting it. Just do it for me. And then you can thank me over cupcakes. I’m gonna go distribute these now. Have fun.”

Colby wrestled the scarf into submission, waved, and proceeded to not move for a second, staring at Jason’s shape across movie-magic distance. He knew what Serenity meant, of course—he wasn’t that oblivious—but she was also wrong. Jason might smile back, but that was only being nice, coupled with appreciation of Colby being helpful.

He hoped he had been helpful.

A bit of that wobbliness came back to punch him in the gut. Maybe he hadn’t been—maybe Jason wasn’t feeling up to this after all—maybe Colby’s silly late-night idea hadn’t been good enough to make any sort of difference, and perhaps he shouldn’t try, perhaps he should go back to his hotel room and not impose himself on anyone—

Perhaps he should not be near anyone in any case, after a morning swamped by handshakes and interview questions and polite teasing jokes about why he’d had to cancel last time, which he couldn’t answer, but he’d tried, he’d acted like someone who could get through an interview and unfamiliar hands doing make-up and prep work without his skin crawling—

He’d acted like the old Colby Kent. As much as he could. Performing.

Fake. As Jason’d also accurately said, once before.

He’d stopped walking. Standing in place under overhead beams and rigging. Boots immobile on the floor.

He’d been warm, despite looming twinkly opalescent skies, when he’d finally made it to the studio backlot. When he’d jumped off the golf cart—a security guard’d been generous enough to give him a ride from the front gate—and run to find Jason. He was cold now.

He was, in fact, shaking, under the layers. His hands were. He had not told them to, but they were: thin and pale and trembling, framed by too-long black leather.

No, he thought. No. You’re better than this. You have to be. You’re Colby Kent, the world inexplicably thinks you’re precious and fluffy, so you’ve got an image to uphold that sells movie tickets, and you are making this movie based on this story that you absolutely love. And you will bloody well hold yourself together in bloody public and go and be there for Jason in case he needs you.

He took a breath, let it out. Right. Okay. Doing something. Doing something for someone. He could do that.

He found Jason to look at. Jason, big and broad-shouldered in his Regency naval officer’s coat, had hands hooked idly into his breeches, modern and relaxed, and was nodding as Bob the stunt coordinator talked. They would’ve already run through set-up and tested equipment, of course; that had certainly happened well before now. Jill had half-turned, answering a question about lighting; John Leigh, playing Frederick Thorpe, the sailor who’d go overboard and be rescued, was standing next to and being dwarfed by Jason’s shoulders. John said something, mimed throwing himself into Jason’s arms, made Jason laugh, and got a spontaneous companionable elbowing-in-the-ribs.

That was nice. They’d be comfortable together. Which was good. Obviously.

Colby could not picture himself jumping into someone’s arms, laughing up at Jason, being casually nudged by a comfortable elbow.

He could not imagine how he’d react; he honestly did not know. Possibly the old him could’ve done it, but the question was pointless in any case; Jason was careful with him, the way the crew was, the way Serenity had been.

He still did not know what Jill had told them. He was grateful that she had, almost unbearably so; he knew his own responses—to interviews, to random unexpected hands landing on his body, to closeness—and he knew he’d’ve fallen apart long ago if he’d had to spend day after day skewered by tiny invasive spears.

At the same time he was finding that he wanted to scream and be reckless and dare fate by stripping down to a swimsuit next to Jason Mirelli. He was finding that he wanted to be looked at not like a breakable porcelain kitten but like a person. Someone that someone else might want to throw arms around.

“Hey,” Andy said, appearing from behind a lighting rig, jabbing a pencil Colby’s direction, making him jump. “You all done with your interview, then? How’d it go?”

“Oh—yes, fine. I never really know, it’s hard to tell when I’m talking, but the hosts seemed quite nice. Are they—I mean here, on set, not my morning hosts—about to start?”

“Yeah, in a couple minutes. Come on, I’ll walk over with you.” Andy did not take his arm or anything along those lines, but seemed to’ve decided to play guide and emotional support AD. “Jason said you were coming in to watch, and we weren’t, like, waiting for you specifically or anything, they’re right on schedule with the getting ready, but I think he wants you here. Said something about you being his good luck charm.”

“He did?”

“He didn’t say it quite like that. I’m misquoting.” Andy scrunched up that nose, freckles and all. For a short person he walked astonishingly fast; even Colby’s long legs had to keep up. They’d known each other almost as long as Colby had known Jill; Andy’d worked with her on nearly every project. Colby knew that someday he’d likely step into the director’s seat in his own right, on his own films, but for now he was happy at Jill’s side. Colby’d always liked that idea, somewhat wistfully: contentment, and a place.

Andy went on, “More like…things go better with you around, or something else disgustingly sappy. Which is true, things do go better with you around, like, on every set. But I told him he’s never seen you before coffee. I have. I’ve seen you fall asleep on top of a fake news desk and wake up with ink on your face.”

“No one told me they’d literally just had those prop pages printed out,” Colby said. Jason had said what? About him? “And you said you wouldn’t need me for at least twenty minutes, so—”

“So you took a nap,” Andy finished, smirking, “and then needed desperate make-up help.”

“Thank you for remembering that. How’s Adrian? If he or you’d like anything else, meals delivered or homemade banana bread or assistance with anything, just let me know. I’m thoroughly willing to throw money or my name or my father’s diplomatic credentials at any irritants.” Andy’s computer-engineer partner—who Colby’d first met at Jill’s annual Halloween party years ago, back when Adrian had very shyly first started asking for male pronouns—had just gone through top surgery, and was at home in their LA-suburb house, recuperating. Everything’d proceeded without difficulty; Colby had quietly ensured the absolute best doctors and care, and then intercepted and paid for various medical bills, not really trying to keep it a secret but not announcing it either. Andy, who did not as a rule get emotional, had blinked a lot and then cautiously asked to hug him, and at the yes had squeezed so hard Colby’d half-seriously worried about ribs cracking.

“He’s great. He’s even back at work, well, working from home, but still. I’m in a three-way with his laptop, at this point.” Andy offered a smile that would’ve been a shoulder-bump or an arm over a shoulder, in the past. They’d almost reached the little knot of conversation. “And you don’t have to do anything else. More than enough. Seriously, man. We owe you whatever you want, whenever you ask.”

“You don’t,” Colby protested. “It was only helping out. Anyone would’ve. If you’d rather not come over to London—”

“Ade told me to go,” Andy said. “To work on this project. And no, not everyone would’ve. Colby…” But he stopped, and sighed, and gave up. “Just remember you’ve got us if you need us, okay?”

“Of course,” Colby said. Andy very probably even meant the offer, at least while making it; but there was certainly no way Colby’d make any demands on them. They had enough to deal with, and did not need him imposing. “Though not if that includes you telling the world about me taking naps. Good morning, everyone; should I put on the invisible producer hat and ask how it’s all going?”

“Hey, kid.” Bob gave him an avuncular nod. “Nice producer hat. Matches your scarf.”

“Morning,” John said, Texas-ranch friendly and laid-back in historical sailor garb; they’d not met before this film, but Colby liked his calm unflappable acceptance, so unlike the boisterous mutineer he was portraying.

“Colby,” Jason said, and met his eyes. “Taking naps?”

Jason was tall and large and all-encompassing; the gold embroidery on his coat caught heroic light, and his chest was very solid under white fabric, and the loosely tied cravat at his throat moved when he swallowed. The brown of his eyes became the world, for a moment: also large and generous and concerned. Colby wanted to settle into that brown, to tuck it around himself like rich deep loamy earth, and to let himself be cradled and comforted and soothed into quiet.

He gulped. Jason was asking. No doubt wondering whether his co-star was getting enough sleep. “Only once on set. No matter what lies Andy tells you. I promise I won’t fall asleep on you. Oh, no, that came out entirely wrong, I only meant if we’re filming—or rehearsing—never mind, just assume I never sleep, and let’s pretend I never started any sentences at all. How’s the morning been?”

“Going fine.” Jason hesitated. He hadn’t looked away; he’d shifted away from John to face Colby more fully. “We’re ready to get started. I’m glad you made it. I thought…I thought maybe you…”

“Of course I want to be here, I said I would be, I’m sorry, the interview ran long this morning and then traffic was terrible, I should’ve called, I know—”

“You had to be there longer than they told you?” One of Jason’s hands moved, lifted, dropped. “Was that…are you…I mean, um, it was just like standard filming delays, right? Everything…good?”

Jason was not terribly good at subtle. Colby wanted to smile, even while his chest hurt. Jason shouldn’t need to check on him. Jason should not have to worry about a co-star being unable to function, not when Colby’s job was to be here for Jason himself.

He did put on his best smile. It was a smile, in any case. “Yes. They were lovely, and they had coffee for me, and it was all easy enough as far as questions. It’s even a good thing, in a way, that we delayed this interview; I got to talk about this film and about you, a bit. I told them you were utterly splendid in this role.” All true, both what he’d said and what he thought. He fiddled with a jacket-sleeve. Back to being warm. How strange.

Jason ducked that head. Muttered, “Don’t oversell it,” and then, still not quite looking up, “Good. I mean, that’s good, that it was…good. And that you’re here.”

Jill at this point rejoined the conversation with, “Colby, excellent, perfect timing! You can come over here with me and Andy. And I’ll talk to you about interviews and saying things later, nothing wrong, don’t worry, we should just be on the same page if you’re going to start promoting us. Everybody else, ready?”

“Sorry,” Colby said. “I mean, yes. We should.”

John drawled, “Yep.”

Bob said, “Whenever you say go, we’ll turn on the storm and toss John overboard.”

Jason said, “Yeah,” and glanced up: at Colby first, then over at Jill. His shoulders straightened even more. “Yeah, let’s go.”

 

Colby had come in late, but not that late. Jason tried not to worry. Mostly succeeded.

He followed John and a few extras in nautical garb up to the fake ship’s deck. He’d been on set extra-early, as he’d planned: walking around, asking questions of Bob and the team. He’d touched the tank, studied the set-up. Let the imminence become tangible.

He’d be doing this. He was doing this now.

It wasn’t even that complex. No major harnesses or submersion. Nothing life-threatening. Nothing worse than a hotel pool, and splashes, and holding another person.

Maybe slightly worse. Rain and rocking sets and agitated waves. Simulated peril. But only a simulation. And water was only water, and it’d held him up, the night before.

With Colby. Who had run in late, right at the edge of this first take, and who looked too pale, wrapped up in at least four layers, not having taken the time to remove the last traces of on-camera media-appearance eyeliner. His eyes were even bigger and more blue, decorated with this evidence of courage. They stood out against his face, against his scarf.

Colby’d worn all grey and black today, colorless against a morning that’d started off gloomy and iron-clad and full of mist. Jason’s worry spiked again.

But Colby had also arrived teasing Andy. Had met Jason’s gaze without apprehension, with some emotion almost like pleasure. Like searching, and finding.

Being found by Colby Kent. Jason’s chest got oddly happy and interested at this thought. Sounded right. Like something he could do. Like the night before, like now.

Water shimmered below: the splashing ripples of the tank, which had begun slowly rocking, gathering force. Storms at sea. Choppy threatening waves. More to be added in post, of course, but the close-ups needed reality as an anchor.

Anchors, he thought. He glanced down at Colby, who’d curled up in Jill’s director’s chair behind a camera screen, one long leg tucked under himself. Colby looked up at that exact second, as if drawn by an invisible cord between them, and gave a tiny wave.

Colby Kent, Jason thought. Former lifeguard and current protector of anxious co-stars. Colby Kent, pretty and thin in that black jacket and cloud-like grey scarf and stylish short grey boots. Colby, who would talk kindly to all fellow cast and crew and his own hair and a prop writing-desk and the entire universe, and who turned the tiny wave into a half-embarrassed brushing of Will Crawford’s hair behind an ear but kept looking at Jason, as if to promise: yes, I’m here, I said I would be, I won’t let anything happen to you.

Jason had not ever met anyone so complicated, so tantalizing, so confusing. So many pieces. Brilliance and love of everyone and boundless generosity. Pain and fear and anguish like broken flower-petals, interleaved with fierce steel-shield protectiveness and passion.

Jason wanted to protect him. And to be protected by him. To wrap blankets around those shoulders after they returned from a harrowing interview, and then feed Colby several pieces of his grandmother’s cinnamon apple cake; and then, on the other side, to lean into the unwavering blue strength of Colby’s eyes and know that they’d catch him if he fell.

This collision of desires left him shocked and wanting. Wanting more. Wanting everything.

Amazed, he realized he’d not thought about the water for several moments.

He looked down at it. It lapped upward at him, getting more violent, lurching; he saw a face, for a split second. A body. A memory.

But the memory was only that. And Charlie would’ve laughed and told him to get on with it, it was only a dive; John—who could swim, and well—was grabbing a ship’s rope and joking about being a damsel in distress; Bob and the whole stunt crew were present and ready, and the tank wasn’t even that deep.

And Colby was here. With him.

Jason’s whole body somehow got warmer. Even though he was up on the set and Colby was settled in behind the cameras. Just more present. More, yeah, anchored.

He waved back. Colby looked surprised, but then smiled: sudden and gorgeous as a sunrise, light peeking around old castles and cathedrals, illuminating layers, strength and stones and stories.

“Jason!” Andy shouted. “Get your giant sexy shoulders out of frame, we’re watching John right now!”

“Sorry my shoulders are so distracting for you!” Jason yelled back, and promptly moved.

Rain happened, courtesy of mechanical devices. Waves leapt and reared. The deck lurched. Got slippery. Rolled underfoot. Guns and crates and ropes and various cast-member stuntpersons and extras slid and swung. The green backdrop’d turn into a visual-effects tempest later, but even this was dramatic enough. Jason’s historical costuming got soaked through in a matter of moments, and the chilled hands clutching at ropes were real.

They stumbled and staggered and held the H.M.S. Steadfast together. She held them together too: a stout ship with a stout heart, and Stephen Lanyon loved her, and they took care of each other. Jason let that love fill up every action, every battle against elements. He could hold on; they could hold on. They’d survive.

He thought of Will, and a scrapbook of pressed multihued flowers, petals from exotic lands; he thought of bringing gifts back and placing them into those beloved naturalist’s hands. He would do that. He and the Steadfast and her crew would do that. No other outcome permitted. They’d weather every storm.

John, as Freddie, finished securing a rope—even the loudest grumblers among the nascent pro-mutiny division would prefer to survive and keep their floating home intact—and darted to the next.

But the ship swayed and tilted. A wave rose up. Knocked him into a railing. Overboard. Into the tank.

He thrashed, splashed, pretended not to be able to swim. Choked and called for aid.

Stephen, who could swim, and who would never not save a man, one of his crew, one of his, spun around. Ran. Which mean Jason ran. Through wind and rain and punishing blows.

He did not stop to think. He couldn’t; he was both Stephen and himself in that moment, and Stephen would not hesitate before leaping, and Jason would throw himself off a ship’s deck because everything he wanted—this role, this proclamation, this knowledge that Colby was here at his side—was right there waiting for this dive.

He did know how to dive. How to swim. Stunt training. Practice. His body remembered.

He hit turbulent water cleanly, kicked, surfaced, got smacked in the face by a wave. His clothing got heavier, pulling him down.

But that was manageable. He wasn’t sinking. He could stay afloat. He could even see the bottom of their tank; if he really had to, he could kick off of it, courtesy of height and the fact that the ocean wasn’t real.

He was real. And he was okay.

John flailed water at him. Jason shook himself back to the present, lunged through artificial drenching rain and storm-tossed peaks and valleys, got an arm around him. Pulled him back toward ropes as they cascaded desperately out from the ship, stretching to aid in the rescue.

Grabbing on was easy. Holding John, who was not that heavy—and supported by water—was easy.

He could do this. He could save someone.

They got hauled up over the side and collapsed into sodden heaps. John coughed up water; their eyes met. John, as Freddie, finally offered an exhausted head-jerk of acknowledgment. Jason nodded back, panting; and they both got up, captain and crew, and ran to keep their ship afloat.

The scene ended. The deck stopped rocking. The rain shut off.

John grinned, flung arms theatrically wide, and announced, “Guys, I’ve just fucking been rescued by John Kill!”

The entire set dissolved into laughter. Jill, Andy, Cherry and her touch-up make-up kit, the technicians and camera people, the extras and the lighting rigs. Even the water danced. And Colby smiled.

Jason contributed, “Yeah, so where’s my thanks for saving my life kiss?” and leaned in, which was kind of goofy and stupidly funny, the same sort of adrenaline-relief joke he’d’ve made on a John Kill set, except maybe he wouldn’t, at least not after coming out as bisexual and watching everyone for a flinch or averted eyes; but here on Jillian Poe’s set everyone laughed again and John instantly leaned in too and said, “Dude, I’m in, let’s do it!” 

This was a challenge. Jason threw arms around him and tackled him back against the railing, but did not follow through on the kissing. Both laughing too hard. Soaked through. Exhilarated, lightened, newly energized.

“Feel free to keep going,” Jill called up, “no one said cut, so this’s gonna look great on the gag reel, guys!” and the laughter kicked off again.

Jason, shaking water out of his hair, waiting for Cherry to come up and fix his appearance for a second take, gazed at Colby. Colby was still smiling, but the smile was softer, smaller, back to being complicated. Those blue eyes met Jason’s, though. And they said, without words: of course you did it, I knew you could, you’re marvelous, congratulations.

That same shiver rocketed down his spine. Triumph. Elation. Reclamation. Together.

He might’ve been able to do it without Colby’s help. But he hadn’t had to.

Dripping, Jason mouthed, thank you. Colby’s cheeks went a little pink, and he shook his head, and then glanced away and found a stretchy purple elastic tie and became very occupied with gathering Will’s tumbled hair into a messy bun.

They reset. They did it again. Even better the second time. Smoother, clearer, easier. Flowing.

And it got easier again, each time. He knew how to do this. It worked. Stephen saved his crewman again and again, and they splashed around in a tank and got colder and jumped up and down on the deck to warm up and then did it from the top, and did a few more close-up shots, and Jill and Andy were happy.

And that was that. Afternoon. Lunch. He’d done it. They’d done it.

Under studio lights, given a giant towel and laughing at John’s Texas-slow wry complaint about the coldness of water and repurposing the tank into a hot tub with just a little simple old-fashioned construction work, Jason dripped his way down toward Colby. Someone’d brought coffee; Colby was guarding five cups in a portable carrier, and got up from Jill’s chair as they arrived. “I thought you’d want something warm. Two of them are plain, one’s got sugar, one’s got both cream and sugar, and one’s got blueberry and hazelnut.”

“Man, I love you,” John said, and dove for one of the plain black offerings. “Everybody said you were awesome. Totally true.”

“Not cinnamon?” Jason said.

“I did ask,” Colby said. “None to be found, apparently. But they’re not for me. And I don’t always need any particular flavor.”

Jason hesitated. “Which one do you want?”

“Can I claim another one?” John said. “If you don’t want it.”

“By all means.” Colby held out the carrier. John took the one with sugar this time, and saluted him with it. Jason sighed, said, “Hand me both the blueberry thing and one of the normal ones,” and did some pouring. Colby watched, curious and intrigued.

“You like flavor,” Jason explained, handing one of them back. “And so do I.”

“I do.” Colby took one of the now two diluted-but-flavorful blueberry-hazelnut cups. “Thank you, I—”

“No,” Jason interrupted. “Thank you.”

“It’s only coffee.”

“No,” Jason said. “It’s not.” He meant: I don’t know how to say thank you for what you’ve done. For what you helped give back to me. For everything too huge to put into sounds and syllables. Thank you.

He did not know whether Colby heard those silent words. But Colby did take a sip of coffee, and the heat brushed his face, flirting with those long eyelashes and that smudge of eyeliner; the heat gave his skin more color.

Jason said, softly, “How is it?” He was still huddling under a towel, and incredibly wet; Colby was fully dressed and had missed a strand or two of hair, which tried to tiptoe into his mouth with the sip. John was standing beside them and also incredibly wet.

None of that mattered. Not then. Not when Colby emerged from the coffee-cup and said, “Delicious, thank you,” and smiled, quiet and shy and truthful.

Jason could’ve levitated. Could’ve walked on water. Run right across that diving tank. Vibrating with accomplishment.

Accomplishments plural. Himself. Colby. Everything. Everything they’d done and found.

John looked from Jason to Colby and back, downed half the second coffee, and murmured, “Well, I’m gonna go shower and head to craft services, I hear we’re doing Thai today, see y’all there,” and ambled off, a serene caffeine-fueled man in Napoleonic War sailor’s trousers and an incongruous modern-day towel.

“Oh,” Colby said. “You should…er…also shower? Go and be warm and dry? Don’t let me keep you. Not that I could if you wanted to leave. I’m not saying I want you to leave. But I’d like you to be warm? And I can meet you at craft services? If you’d, um. Lunch. I mean of course you eat lunch. But you might want company? We did say so yesterday. But don’t think you have to. Please tell me to stop talking at any point.”

“No,” Jason said.

“No? Oh, all right, that’s fine, I have some things to take care of anyway, I haven’t even packed for tomorrow, I’ll just go and—”

“Colby,” Jason sighed. With someone else, standing so close to someone else, he’d’ve reached out. A hand, a nudge, a well-meant shaking. All he had were words. And he obviously wasn’t doing those right. “No, I’m not gonna tell you to stop talking. Yes, I want to have lunch with you. Coconut curry and whatever else you like, that you were talking about last night. Okay?”

“You remember what I said last night?”

“I don’t mind you talking,” Jason said. “I want you to. If you feel like, y’know…talking. To me.”

“Oh.” Colby regarded coffee as if it might leap in and decipher this sentence for him. “But…I know I do it rather a lot. The talking.”

“It’s okay.” Jason’s arms screamed to go around him. The echo of that night, and those other words, lingered: his own you got me to talk as a distraction, and all of Colby’s chatter about locks and spies and hotel room keys. “I wouldn’t say so if it wasn’t. Besides, someone’s got to make sure you eat.”

“I do so eat!”

“Yeah? What’d you have for breakfast?”

Colby opened that mouth.

“Don’t say coffee.”

Colby closed his mouth. After a second, meekly: “Half a lemon-ginger scone? Or what someone thought was a scone? A very sweet and persistent intern kept offering while we waited to go on, this morning, and I felt as if I should appreciate it, since she was so sort of proud of having found something English, but it was far too big, so I asked her to share it with me.”

Jason had not expected any sort of food, so this was unusually promising. “Is it a spice thing? Cinnamon, ginger, curry…”

“Do you know, I hadn’t noticed.” Colby actually laughed, brief and self-directed and entertained. “Maybe? Maybe I like heat. But, no, that’s not fair, I make excellent peanut-butter oatmeal biscuits. Though now I’m wondering if I could add cinnamon. And I’ll have to go through all my favorite recipes and look for a trend. But speaking of heat, please go, I hate that I’m keeping you from your shower.”

“I’m going.” Jason inched that direction. “But I’ll meet you at lunch.” Confirmation. Important.

“Yes, yes,” Colby said. “I promise. Go on. I’ll check in with Jill and see you there.”

“Okay,” Jason agreed, and went. He was getting cold, despite the towel. The shower in his trailer beckoned.

He did try for a balance between basking in hot water and hurrying up, though. Colby would be waiting.

That tired exuberance swung in amid water-drops and scampered with them down his back. They’d done this, Colby was waiting for him, they were going to have lunch, the film was fantastic, Stephen and Will were fantastic, and the whole world was fantastic. Optimistic and glowing. Yes.

He rinsed chlorine out of his hair. He refrained from doing a celebratory awkward fist-pumping dance under the water. Mostly, anyway. Maybe a step or two. His shower wouldn’t tell anyone. They were friends.

He threw on jeans and a blue Henley that he had absolutely not grabbed that morning because Colby liked blue, and scooped his own leather jacket off a chair. He’d end up back in wardrobe for the afternoon, for conversations in his cabin with Leo, but that was a whole other set of clothing. Dry clothing, fortunately.

He stomped cheerfully into boots, bounced down trailer steps and out into silvery Los Angeles approximations of seasonal chill, and headed off to find Thai food and Colby. He did not run, either. Walking extra-fast did not count.

Colby saw him approaching; Jason knew as much, because he saw Colby too. Funny how that happened. Everybody else was there, Jill’s colorful hair and Leo half in costume and Andy and John and Kate Fisher, who’d be Leo’s on-screen wife; but Jason saw Colby first. And Colby saw him and waved.

Curry happened, along with lots of other Thai-spiced dishes Jason did and didn’t recognize. Leo kept going back for more. Colby made approving noises about black pepper papadums. Jason noted this for future reference, and put more on his plate, which was not full enough. Colby noticed, gave him an exquisitely dry look, and then ate one anyway.

They’d ended up sitting next to each other. Natural drifting that way. Unremarked, as if it’d always happened, always been going to happen. Not touching, because Colby did not like that, but close enough that Jason could see a stray thread in the grey fluff of his scarf, could breathe in the flavors of coconut and spice.

“I love you and your catering,” Leo said to Jill. “I want to marry your catering.”

“Speaking as your pretend wife,” Kate put in, Irish lilt making every word mischievously fairylike, “I think I should object.”

“I can share,” Leo said. “There’s enough of me to go around.”

“There will be,” Andy said, “if you eat all of that.”

“This one really is good,” Colby said. “Do you think they’d be willing to share their recipe? I don’t think it’s quite the same as mine, and I’d love to know.”

“If that means you’ll cook for us I’m in favor,” Leo put in, around a mouthful of chicken and peanut sauce.

“I’ll ask, if you want,” Jill said. “I’m sure they’d tell you. Probably not me, but, unlike me, you know things about cooking.”

“Hey, Jason,” John said. “Can I ask you a question? Since we were talkin’ about awesome co-stars, earlier.”

“Um,” Jason said. “Sure?”

“Was it just rumor, which, sure, I’d believe that too, or were you and Cindy Kay a thing? I mean after John Kill 2, not, y’know, lately. But, like. First, if that’s a yes, you dated an actual super-model. And also, I’ve heard she’s real nice, real down to earth, in person. So did you?”

Jason did not dare to discover Colby’s expression. “Um. Yeah. Kind of. Not for long. She’s great, though.”

Cindy had been nice, and unpretentious, and everything John’d said. She’d already been huge, one of those household names, but she’d been trying to break into acting without much success; the John Kill action-formula sequel had been her big chance. He’d liked her honesty about her lack of experience, and her self-deprecating humor, and her fantastic work ethic; the killer top model looks had been attractive too, a gorgeous flawless package with long legs and long black hair and smoky eyes.

It’d lasted about six months beyond the end of filming. Both busy. Careers. Commitments. Would’ve been shorter if they’d seen each other more; they’d figured that much out. They’d had a lot of sparks but no real depth, and a lot of fun and wildly improbable athletic sex but never a lot of conversation. They’d given it up on good terms, and about a month later she’d tried to set him up with her friend and male model colleague Timothy.

Jason did not, in fact, mind talking about Cindy. He did, for a split second, panic over where John might be headed: was bisexuality a problem? Did this require clarification? And what would Colby be thinking?

“You don’t,” John went on, “still have her number, do you? Not that I’m asking you to hand out her number, I just mean, yeah, y’know, maybe you could see if she’d be at all interested in a fellow Texas native?”

“Maybe,” Jason said, still wanting and not wanting to look at Colby. “I talk to her sometimes. I could mention it. No guarantees.”

“She sounds nice,” Colby said. “I know the reviews were a bit cruel, but I’ve seen John Kill 2, and honestly they were unfair. The dialogue isn’t her fault, and she’s really genuinely sincere in the scene when she thinks you’ve been shot, I could feel the emotion.” He also sounded genuinely earnest. Equally sincere.

Of course he did. Jason wasn’t sure why that’d even been a worry. Colby’d known about Jason’s entire filmography and reputation before casting; the sexuality question wasn’t one.

Maybe the odd churning feeling had nothing to do with that, and more to do with the fact that Colby seemed entirely unbothered by a discussion of Jason’s super-model ex. Even complimentary. Defending her.

Not that he thought Colby’d ever be jealous. Not that Colby Kent, who could have anyone, would ever look at Jason—at Jason’s hang-ups and aging muscles and need for assistance and awful action-movie franchises—and want more than an honest-but-temporary working friendship.

A few other words circled back and landed. “You’ve seen it? When?”

“Oh…” Colby hid behind another papadum. “You know. Sometime. I can’t recall.”

“Sometime recently,” Leo said. “Right? I’m right, right?”

“You’re asking,” Colby said, “for the most expensive bottle of scotch I can possibly acquire on short notice. The most expensive.”

“Do I want to know?” Jill said. “I don’t, do I.”

“Colby’s figured out how to weaponize being nice,” Leo said. “It’s unfair. Just look at him, eating curry like he’s all innocent.”

“What does curry have to do with it?” Andy asked.

“It’s a secret doomsday weapon,” Leo said. “With coconut.”

Everyone looked at Leo, and then at their food, and then at Colby.

Colby looked as if he regretted taking a bite out of his edible shield, but widened those eyes at the assembled gazes and offered, pure virtue radiating from every elegant accented syllable, “I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about, can you imagine me weaponizing anything, honestly.”

“Yeah,” Andy said. “Seriously, Leo. Nice try.”

“I don’t even know y’all that well and I’d trust Colby not to hurt a fly,” John agreed.

“Oh, come on!” Leo wailed, and threw a balled-up shred of napkin Colby’s direction. “You can’t do that!”

Colby picked the napkin-ball up, smoothed it out, and gave him the most betrayed and tragic eyes Jason’d ever witnessed. At least five other napkins—Jill, Andy, John, Kate, and one from another table—pelted Leo.

“I hate every single one of you,” Leo said, to no one in particular and without heat. “Jill, when am I leaving for London, again?”

Under the ensuing discussion of timetables and production travel arrangements, Jason leaned in. “Impressive.”

Colby leaned closer too. Their shoulders brushed, just barely, but Jason felt it. “Secret spy assassin training at work. Looking harmless.”

“Right up until you conquer the whole world.”

“What on earth—oh, pun not intended, but pretend it was, I like it—would I do with the whole world? I’d rather not. Though I would like mango ice cream. I saw it among the dessert options.”

“Would you?”

“I told you I eat. I like food. I—” Colby paused, grinned: that same astonishing sunrise grin, the one that snuck out and wore hope like a lifted banner. “I don’t want you to worry about me.”

Jason snorted. “Too late.”

“What does that mean?”

“Um.” I want you to feel safe. I want you to be warm. I want you to eat more actual protein. I want you to believe me when I say I don’t mind you talking all the time. I think I sort of might miss it a lot if you stopped. “It means half a scone isn’t breakfast. Want me to get you ice cream?”

“You’re offering to get it for me?”

“If you’re conquering the world, you need energy, right?”

“I said I wasn’t, but if I must, I expect I’ll need loyal and powerful allies.” Colby’s eyes brightened. Jason had the impression, the way he had a few times before, that this was Colby relaxing and being free, forgetting to duck back behind walls and scars. Not necessarily back to whoever he’d been before those scars, who’d been a person Jason hadn’t known anyway. But—every so often, once or twice—letting go enough to find some sort of balance. Some hint of new-grown hard-earned joy. “Would you like to demonstrate your allegiance with a quest for ice cream? It may be perilous. You’ll have to walk past the Perfidious Duke Leo and his Napkin Missile Arsenal.”

“I’d shield you with my life,” Jason vowed, breathless. “And if you want I can poke him with a fork on the way. That works on Perfidious Dukes, doesn’t it?”

“I’m a what?” Leo said. “What are you two even talking about?”

“Perilous quests,” Jason said. “For mango ice cream. I’m a knight.”

“Okay, so you’re as big a dork as Colby is.” Leo waved a hand at them. “Go play Fantasy Monster Dungeon Rescue or whatever you kids do. Bring me one of those fried banana rice ball things first.”

“I actually am rather, er, a dork,” Colby said. “Sorry.”

“For what?” Jason said. “Stay put. I’m getting you ice cream.” He came back with that plus coconut cake and what he’d been told were fennel-seed cookies, too, and threw a banana rice ball in Leo’s direction. “You didn’t ever play any of those fantasy world-building RPG—”

“I didn’t—I didn’t know anyone who did that sort of role-playing fantasy gaming, and I wouldn’t’ve known how to join in if I had—but I would have loved to.” Colby picked up a cookie and broke it in half, with professional interest. “You know about the calligraphy. I like collecting different variations of interesting recipes. I also make decent elderberry wine. And I did tell you I was reading that steampunk queer romance series…”

“And you can pick locks. Yeah, you did, and you said you’d tell me the author, and you didn’t.”

“I didn’t think you—”

“Would be interested? I am.” He waited until Colby had taken a decently large bite of ice cream, then added, “I know I’m not great at the whole saying words thing, but I did mean it. I like fantasy. Never read a lot of romance, but I could get into it. I like stories about characters, and happy endings.”

Colby started to say something, put a hand over his mouth, swallowed, resurfaced. “You did that on purpose so I couldn’t interrupt.”

“You were going to apologize,” Jason said, accurately.

“But I am s—”

“Nope.”

“But—but—”

“You’re not allowed to say sorry to me for at least two hours. Minimum. If you’re good.”

“But,” Colby said again. “I…oh, drat.”

Jason held up a finger.

Colby narrowed eyes at him. “I…didn’t intend to make assumptions about what you did or didn’t mean when you said it. I shouldn’t’ve done. I believe that you like fantasy and you might in fact want my book recommendations. I’ll send you links.”

“Not bad,” Jason said. “Kind of cutting it close with the second sentence, but you can work on it.”

“I’m not convinced my loyal knights are allowed to scold me.”

“Pretty sure it’s one of my duties. Taking care of you. Protecting you from everything.”

“Guys,” Andy called over, “I hate to interrupt the fantasy tabletop gaming quest or whatever’s happening, but you’ve got about five minutes before we need Jason in wardrobe. Colby, you sticking around to watch Jason and Leo have dramatic conversations about the mission and the crew and their respective love lives?”

“Yes, I think?” Colby considered time. “I do need to pack for tomorrow. But I can stay for a while. At least…two hours.”

Jason choked on a stray cookie-crumb.

“We’re all gonna meet up in the hotel bar after we get done tonight,” Leo said, turning around. “You both in?”

“We’re what?” Jason managed. He hadn’t gotten over Colby’s flawlessly delivered final line.

“Yeah, you too, Saint Nick Steel. Bonding via alcohol. Or other beverage of your choice. First round on Jill.”

“I didn’t say that,” Jill said, “but sure, why not. Colby, if you’d rather have an early night, we all know you have to fly out in the morning.”

Jason assumed Colby’d take the excuse, would avoid a potentially noisy and crowded tipsy venue, and other bodies in proximity. They all visibly assumed that; they all knew as much, getting up, throwing away finished plates, collecting more coffee, stretching, ready to leap back in.

“…I could,” Colby said. “Join you, I mean. Not for too long, but…yes, I think.”

Jillian, mid-step, put her foot down slowly and stared hard at him.

Leo said, smugly satisfied but with a hint of surprised approving warmth, “Knew you couldn’t resist me, babe.”

“Oh yes,” Colby said. “That’s why. You’ve won me over with your irresistible animal magnetism.”

“Are you joking about that? It’s hard to tell when you’re being extra-English at me. And I am completely irresistible.”

Jason said, “I’m not asking if you’re sure. You don’t need me to ask you that. I’m just…asking. I don’t know what.” They’d both stood up; Colby, that inch or so shorter, tipped that head ever so slightly up to look at him, and didn’t move.

“Oh, well.” That story-laden voice collected emotions, shrugged at introspection, and told him, “Don’t expect too much. But I’d like to try. If you’re—I want to be there. With, er, everyone.”

If I’m what, Jason thought. If I’m there? If I can be your knight? I can. If that’s what you want. I can, and I will, and please ask me for that.

He said, “I’ll be there. Want me to come knock when I’m heading down?”

“So that you can ensure I don’t change my mind?”

“No.” He held out the last cookie. “Because you’ll be busy packing, and the time’s just sort of whenever we all get back and wander downstairs, so it’s just easier if I come get you. I can text you first if you want.” He technically had Colby’s phone number. It’d been on a few of those producer-related emails. The Jason of months ago had put it in his phone as Will Crawford Hates Me. “Um. Do you want my number?”

Colby accepted the cookie. “Thank you, and I already have it.”

And those surprises kept happening. Sending more waves through Jason’s stomach. Excited ones.

He knew Colby could’ve gotten his number from Jill, or at the very least had it on some contact information or emails somewhere. Even that fact didn’t quell the waves, because Colby remembered having it. Had said so with confidence. Not needing to go hunt it down.

“Please do let me know, if you wouldn’t mind,” Colby finished. “Only when you’re on the way over. I don’t need excessive advance warning, only enough time to find shoes and look decent.”

This choice of phrasing sent Jason’s brain plunging headlong towards indecent. Colby in that barely-a-swimsuit again. Colby all long swimmer’s legs and lean muscle. Colby possibly…not in that swimsuit. Hair loose. Tumbled over a pillow. Over a man’s large hand. Jason’s hand.

He swore at himself silently. Thought about anything else. Fennel-seed cookies and fantasy monsters and the fact that Colby did not want to be touched. This last, more than the rest, sobered away the swell of want.

He said, “Sure. I can do that. I, um, have to go put on a captain’s outfit.” He hadn’t moved, either.

“Go on.” Colby waved the cookie at, presumably, the waiting costume change and upcoming cabin scenes and Stephen Lanyon’s life. The sleeves of that jacket were still too long, and made a black leather portrait-frame for pale thin fingertips and the edge of a grey sweater-sleeve underneath; but Colby’s eyes shone summer-blue against the cloudy afternoon. “I’ll be behind the cameras with Jill. Staying out of the way. But here if you need me, or if you want to talk about character motivations, or anything.”

Character motivations, Jason thought. Devotion. Dedication. Love. Captain Lanyon’s love for his crew, his ship, his country. For the great love of his life, who waited back home in England and plunged fragile health headlong into translations, ciphers, code-work for the war effort, all the while feeling time bleed away in scarlet drops. The core of Stephen’s life had been and would be love.

He did not quite form the follow-up thought. Only let the shape of it hover around the periphery, unformed, a whisper. In cookie-crumbs, in the fold of Colby’s scarf and the promise of a text. “Let me know if there’s anything you want me to pay attention to. When I’m talking about you—about Will—to Leo.”

Colby nodded, taking this responsibility seriously. “I will.”

“I’m gonna go change before Andy yells at me,” Jason said, because that was better than the words at the tip of his tongue. “I’ll—I’ll see you on set. In a few.” He got two steps away, and paused. “Also eat that! Don’t just dissect it to figure out the recipe!”

And Colby laughed, called back, “As your benevolent overlord I can’t let the treasures of your quest go unappreciated!” and took a bite of cookie that was clearly aimed Jason’s direction, followed by hasty catching of crumbs in one hand; Jason left to get ready on the sound of that laughter, like anticipation, like a beginning.

Chapter Text

He couldn’t. He couldn’t.

Could he?

Colby stared at the clock. Stared at his silent phone. At his half-packed suitcase and the walls of his hotel room, which possessed no helpful information about his state of mind.

Evening. Well into. Past the end time of the day on set, according to the schedule. Jason should be back at the hotel—everyone should be back at the hotel—and heading up to his own room to change and maybe shower properly and a few minutes after that send a text and a few minutes after that come over and knock on Colby’s door and—

“Oh,” he said aloud, to the suitcase and the walls, very small. “Oh, no, I can’t. I can’t.” When he took a step back he ended up colliding with the bed. He sat down mostly because that seemed like a good idea.

He was breathing faster than he thought he ought to be. He tried to make himself stop that.

Why had he thought saying yes to a bar would be a good idea? Why had he thought that’d be something he could do?

He ran a hand over his face. Across eyes and faded eyeliner—which he hadn’t got round to removing, and he really should—and memories of the morning. It hadn’t been awful or even extraordinary. Merely disconcerting.

He tried to recall the last time he’d been around large noisy groups of people. Liam had liked dance clubs and parties and underground raves and anyplace exclusive that Colby’s name might get them in. Colby had been willing to give him that, of course, but generally ended up with a headache and exhausted bruises. Liam when drunk or taking advantage of various offered other substances had tended to only get more excited by a no or a not here, please at least wait until we’re home before you grab that or once or twice a wait, please, I really don’t want your new friend to squeeze my backside, I know you told him you were fucking Colby Kent and he could come find out how nice my ass feels for himself, no I’m not trying to make a big deal out of anything, I know it’s only you having a bit of fun and you wouldn’t REALLY suggest I let him fuck me, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say I thought you would, just please don’t…

The last last time he’d been around a large group of people he did not already know or expect to work with had been that ill-fated party. When everything’d ended with Liam, and then everything’d changed. When Colby himself had become someone else, someone worn out and sore and cold and scared.

He thought maybe he’d been someone else before that, too. Someone who hadn’t been himself for quite a long time. Or maybe he hadn’t ever had a self to be. Façades, characters, playing roles.

He thought about Jason laughingly agreeing to be his knight.

He thought again about the morning and the interview, which had gone well, and about the hosts, who’d wanted handshakes, and about the make-up and prep team of people he hadn’t known, though of course that was part of the job, being made camera-ready and enthusiastic. He was so tired.

He thought about going down to a bar and squeezing into a booth and ordering a drink, just one, the way someone might if someone wanted to spend time with friends, carefree and untroubled.

He thought about Jason diving into water. About the moment right before the dive, when Colby’d looked up and their eyes had met and Jason had grinned at him like fireworks: poised, electric, suddenly able to do or overcome anything. He thought about the moment after, when Jason had come over glowing with satisfaction and drenched in a tank’s worth of water, and Colby had shoved coffee that way because all at once his hands had inexplicably yearned to reach out and pull Jason closer in celebration, running all over him, clinging to him under the blanket, keeping him warm and holding on and laughing with shared exhilaration.

He could remember the last time he’d touched someone because he’d outright wanted to: leaning close enough to brush a shoulder against Jason’s, at lunch. Before that, a startled tripping over invisible rocks, and Jason’s hand catching him: not intentional, but not bad, either. No demands, only support, and letting go swiftly. A sense of something that might’ve felt like safety, if he’d been able to give it a name.

He wanted to be there tonight. He did. He did not know whether he could.

But Jason hadn’t known, either. Jason had trusted him about the water. And that had worked. Colby wasn’t arrogant enough to think he himself had made the difference—Jason had done that—but at least it hadn’t made anything worse.

He got up from the bed, needing to be in motion. His feet, only wearing socks, made no sound.

He wandered over to the big wide window, drawn by city lights.

He put out a hand and touched the glass, the way he had on set as Will Crawford. A horizon, a future, a glittering world. For Will that meant a sea-captain’s powerful arms, a whole new life in which maps and codes and cleverness bent to the service of love and a beloved’s safety, and flowers from the tropics, pressed between treasured pages.

Will would leap on board the Steadfast and pick up a pistol and defend his lover, if he could. Since he couldn’t, he’d find another way. And if even that failed, he’d write their love into history, and keep Stephen alive for the world to know. Determination, and a refusal to give up, a choice to not give in, to never let the war and the silence and the untold story win.

Colby, hand resting over window-glass and distant sparks of light, shivered a little.

I’m not, he thought. I’m not him, I’m not that strong, I’m not—

But he would have to be. Because he’d ended up here. Picking up that story, a story he’d loved for so long.

And he wanted this, he would throw his heart and soul into this, because Will and Stephen deserved no less, and maybe Colby Kent wasn’t strong enough but he’d give them everything anyway, everything he could, all that he could, the same way Jason would, because Jason loved them too—

Maybe, he thought. Maybe that is enough. It’s what they did. What they never stopped doing. Just trying. Trying the best I can.

He let that thought float around for a while, hanging in the night, among the glittery lights, in the sensation of cold at his fingertips, in the plush carpet under his toes. He let himself attempt to get used to the shape of it.

He rather wanted to find Jason and ask: did you know about this? The way it feels to think about what they were like, and how they kept fighting, together, for love, and the way that feels like fizzy little lights under your skin, like a funny sort of hope or want or waking up all pins and needles and life rushing back in? What if I wanted to sit next to you again, at lunch, or maybe at a hotel bar?

His phone let out a tiny apologetic buzz. Colby said, “Sorry!” at it, a reflex, and then dove back to the bed and grabbed it. Jason. On the way over. A simple text, saying simply that: heading your way, if you’re still in?

He blinked at it, caught a glimpse of his hair in the mirror, cringed, ran a hand through too-long exuberance, remembered to type back yes of course come over, and lunged for a comb and tried to figure out what he’d done with his matching left grey boot upon removing it.

The knock arrived far too quickly, firm but not loudly intrusive, which summed up Jason rather nicely, Colby decided. He discovered that he’d accidentally packed the boot, did not shriek at his suitcase in exasperation—not its fault—and yanked said boot back out, along with two jumpers and a scarf. “Coming, sorry!”

“What did I tell you,” Jason inquired, grinning, “about apologizing to me?” He’d changed back into jeans and that dark blue Henley, with pushed-up sleeves, and he looked like every last one of Colby’s long-ago daydreams about darkly handsome powerful rugged strangers swooping in to pick up a dropped book on a train.

Jason could doubtless carry a whole bookshop’s worth of steampunk romance novels in those arms. Plus the bookshop’s shy but enthusiastic owner. Who liked calligraphy and cooking and mango ice cream.

“I think that’s an entirely different movie plot,” Colby’s brain said, out loud.

“You apologizing to me?” Jason said. “Not sure I’ve seen that one. Does it end with me bribing you to stop with more dessert foods?”

“I meant what I was thinking about,” Colby said. “Which has nothing to do with biceps. I mean bribery. Dessert. Ice cream. Um. I’m allowed to apologize for being slow about answering the door. Oh, and I did email you—you did get it, right? And also I’ve got something else for you, or for your sister, more accurately, hang on—” and ran for his desk, and hopefully some semblance of composure.

 

Jason had expected…well, if asked, he’d truthfully admit he hadn’t known what to expect. He’d run through scenarios in his head while heading up to his room, while dropping off his jacket, while texting, while walking over.

Colby backing out, politely but unshakably, and understandably. Colby lifting that determined chin and stubbornly agreeing to come, even while visibly regretting it and white as a frightened ghost. Colby saying yes but then shaking that head, shaking like a half-broken autumn leaf, on the razor’s edge of panic the way he’d been when held too closely on set. Colby exhausted from the morning after all, having fallen asleep, in which case Jason would tell him to rest and leave him alone.

Colby bright-eyed and wearing one boot and saying bewildering words about movie plots and someone’s biceps, and then running over to the desk to collect something—a present?—had been nowhere on Jason’s list of possibilities.

He eased a step further inside. Not too far. No pressure. “I got your email. Bought the first book in that series, so thanks. Also your cupcake delivery happened about half an hour after you left. I saved you one.” He held it out. Cinnamon dulce de leche. In a disposable coffee-cup for ease of transportation. Slightly squashed. Not too badly so. “You didn’t have to do anything else.”

“Oh, yes, I did, I promised.” Colby bounced back his direction, waved an envelope at him, paused to pull on the other boot. “It’s for your sister really, not for you. I meant to ask you what she’d want, but then I thought, well, you’d be busy all afternoon, but I’m leaving tomorrow, but you’ll be here another week and you’ll likely see her, I would, if my sister were in town, if I had a sister—” He finally stopped to breathe. Jason traded cupcake for envelope, bemusedly.

“—but then I remembered that Bob in fact knows your whole family, of course he does, most of them have worked together, so I called and asked about spelling of names and things she might like, and he was extremely helpful, so here you are! And thank you for the cupcake.”

Jason looked at the envelope. It had Allie’s name written on the front, in curling intricate dark blue ink. It wasn’t sealed.

“You can look at any of it, if you want.” Colby licked cinnamon frosting off a finger, regarded his desk, poked at annotated script pages. “Room key…”

“It’s on the floor by your bed.” Jason peeked inside, discovered multiple sheets of paper, pulled one out to investigate. Colby’d said he could. “Did you…write a novel?”

“Well, first I wrote a proper letter, saying hello, asking about law school, chatting about historical works of fiction and copyright and the subjects she’s working on—that’s right, right?—and I told her you were marvelous, naturally. And then I said hi to her roommates, and then I played with some versions of her name in different writing styles. That one’s a bit more Gothic, sort of heavier, and then that second one’s essentially what I’m using for Will on this film, so it’s sort of including her in what we’re doing right now, and I wrote esquire after, you know, for her, and then that last one’s just me having fun.” Colby popped back up, room key in hand. “And then I imagined she’d be up late studying so I also wrote out my old favorite chocolate biscuit recipe and put it in. Is that enough, do you think? I could do more, but I’ve only got the pens and ink I brought to play with.”

Jason touched paper, heavy and creamy; drank in textures and lush dark ink and the lines of Alessandra’s name. The third one, after the thick Gothic solidity and the graceful nineteenth-century cursive, was something else again: delicate and enchanting, full of vines and loops, tantalizing as the lettering on a map in a fantasy story. “If she didn’t already love you she will now. You didn’t have to do all this.”

“I don’t mind, and I did promise, and it’s fun.” Colby, motion coming to rest, tucked hands into pockets and put eyebrows up. “I didn’t say anything embarrassing about you, if you were wondering.” Framed by the open window, by the open suitcase, by the spill of topaz lamplight, he might’ve been a fantasy story himself: a wayward fairytale prince who’d stumbled into the twenty-first century and charmed the universe. He was still wearing various shades of white and grey, no real color—white shirt, lighter grey buttoned-up sweater, darker grey pants, those soft boots—but he’d pushed up both sleeves and had a royal purple elastic tie attempting to collect rumpled hair. “I’ve also just realized I’ve handed you that right as we’re about to go down and meet people—do you want me to hold onto it? Or stop by your room? Am I overdressed for going to a hotel bar? I didn’t bother to change.”

“You’re fine.” More than. Beautiful. Daydreams and desires come to life, standing there concerned about inconvenience and attire, and more real and more amazing for that. “Colby…”

“I know.” Colby glanced down at a boot-tip, then up at Jason’s face. “It’s the talking thing again, isn’t it. But it’s not that I’m scared…no, that’s not true, I am. Terrified. But I know what I’m doing. If I start to feel overwhelmed I’ll leave. I promise.”

This sounded rational, responsible, even healthy. Jason’s heart got a little less anxious. Not not anxious—Colby had said terrified—but less so. “I trust you. And, hey, I’m your knight, right? Seriously, though, is there anything I can do? Anything you want me to do, or not do, or watch out for?”

“No, don’t worry about me.” Colby gave him the same sort of smile, Jason thought, that that fairytale prince would wear: the kind of prince who’d protect every subject, throw himself in front of a spear for his people, inspire armies to lay down arms and swear peace forever. “You should be celebrating. We are celebrating. Everything you did, today.”

“Everything we did,” Jason said. “If we order appetizers will you eat something?” His phone vibrated. Leo. Inquiring.

“Are we late?” Colby did that little self-annoyed nose-wrinkle. Jason’s heart did a matching little somersault, because Jason’s heart apparently found everything Colby did adorable. “Shall we go?”

“Yeah.” He held the door as they did. “You didn’t answer me about the food.” They’d ended up wandering down the hall and around the corner; Jason opened his door just enough to toss the envelope inside, and they headed back toward the elevators. “I could rephrase it. Tell me what you want, I’ll make sure we get it, and you can eat some.”

“I can?” Colby’s voice made the emphasis complex and musical, incredulous and intrigued, shimmering from elevator brass and wood. “You sound like my father’s first chef. He came with the official residence, he bullied everyone into submission, and anyone other than my parents had to ask permission for even a cup of hot cocoa. And you’d have to justify wanting it. That was partly why I learned to cook, you know, in self-defense, after hours. That and it seemed like something worth knowing. How flavors combine, what I could create, and so on.”

Jason almost answered, stopped, regarded this admission across the inches between them. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“You don’t talk about it much. Your family. Your…” He wasn’t sure where this sentence was going. “Life. So, yeah, thanks.”

“Don’t I?” One corner of Colby’s mouth tipped up; he leaned back against the elevator wall. “I suppose I don’t. Most of it’s common enough knowledge, and what isn’t…that doesn’t make for the most interesting stories. My parents did the glamorous entertaining social whirl, but I doubt anyone wants to hear about me sitting up in my room practicing penmanship.”

“I don’t know,” Jason said. “I might.”

Colby gave him an expression that spoke volumes about doubt, both external and, Jason thought, internal.

He said, “Okay, so I don’t know anything about pens and writing styles and fancy ink or whatever, but you do. And I like hearing you talk. And also you use it to make people happy. So it’s a good story.”

Colby opened that mouth, closed it again, and just stared at him.

The elevator slowed, and landed. The ding! of arrival bounced off the walls with punctual satisfaction.

“Come on,” Jason said. Colby had continued staring at him. “Food? Drinks? Torturing Leo? Why were you buying him scotch, anyway?”

“I just said the first expensive option that popped into my head.” Colby ran a step or two out of the elevator to catch up to his side. “It’s a tactical decision. If he feels guilty about me buying him things, he won’t attempt to fill my boots with popcorn. Oh…”

The oh had to be because of the number of bodies in the bar. That number wasn’t much more than average, about what Jason would’ve guessed for a hotel evening when most of the rooms were occupied by their own production crew, but for someone skittish around crowds it’d be tremendous.

He nearly asked whether Colby wanted to leave. But those blue eyes were looking out at the tables, and that chin was resolute. Colby even found Jillian and Leo before Jason spotted them, and waved.

The hotel bar unfolded itself around them in welcome. Low lighting, muted red seating, calm chairs and booths, and that crackling fire all tried hard to be friendly. Bottles on display shimmered and flirted with reflected firegleam, turning the glow into stray bits of rainbow: green, blue, amber, fuchsia. Older, Colby’d said about the hotel, with history, but renovated as well; this space regarded Hollywood stars with an amused serene complacency that’d seen generations come and go.

It must like Colby, Jason thought. Everyone did, of course, but Colby liked this place, had picked it, had talked about it; the hotel and its bar would consequently try to keep him safe.

As Jason himself would. He touched a chair-back in passing, in agreement.

Their group had laid claim to a cozy semicircular booth over by one wall; Jillian had a beer, something dark and promising, and Leo was already drinking from an orange fishbowl that held a margarita or three. Kate and Andy were having a genial argument over whether naming an appetizer Irish Nachos should count in favor of ordering it, or not.

“—I’m only saying I’m pleased about bacon in any form, no matter what it’s on top of,” Kate said to Andy, and then, to Colby, “I realize you’re half English and that half’s not to be trusted, but how does the rest of you feel about guacamole?”

“Generally excellent.” Colby considered seating arrangements. Leo scooted in closer to Jill. Jason sat down first and scooted in too, even though the table wasn’t a great fit for his size. Colby gave him I know what you’re doing, helping me not feel trapped eyebrows and perched on the end, close enough for Jason to slip an arm around him if that’d been an option. “But do keep in mind that I’m not unbiased, as I spent formative high school years in Southern California. I’ve resorted to making my own sometimes, when I’m back in London and feeling deprived.”

“That counts,” Kate announced. “The correct half of you’s on my side.”

“I’m just saying it’s not even technically nachos at this point,” Andy protested. “It’s like…a casserole. Of potatoes and things you put on them.”

“You keep talking about food,” Leo said to Colby, “and you have yet to make anything specifically for me on this production.” The pointing of a cherry stem added emphasis. “And I’ve known you longer than at least Katie and Jason and Jason’s biceps have.” Despite this, Jason observed, Leo was watching Colby very closely. Those frivolous hazel eyes were picking up every nuance of posture, tension, sweater-clad tucked-in arms.

“You haven’t asked,” Colby said. “I won’t have time tonight, but you’ll all be on location with me next week. I’m certain I could manage something by then. What would you like?”

“We have caterers for a reason,” Jill said. “And he’s already said he wants to marry them. Don’t let him talk you into anything.”

“You’re no fun,” Leo complained. “I was going to ask for pizza. On Jason’s behalf. All Italian and whatever.”

“ ‘And whatever’ ?” Jason said.

“Oh, I can do that,” Colby said. “I thought you’d pick something difficult. Classic Margherita, or more interesting, like pumpkin and prosciutto?”

“You put what on what?” Leo said. “Jason, that can’t be right.”

“Not any stranger than my grandmother’s anchovies and burrata version,” Jason said. “Speaking of, can I have that menu?”

“Ooh,” Colby said. “I do love burrata. That cream, that texture…I’d try it.”

“God, you’re weird.” Leo handed over the menu. “I mean that in a nice way, don’t think I don’t. You know I don’t actually expect you to have pizza waiting when we show up, right?”

“Well, I think I could.” Colby folded hands very neatly, a kitten who’d learned long ago not to take up any more space than absolutely necessary. “It might depend on where we’re staying, and available ingredients, and the kitchen arrangements. It may not be my best crust ever.”

Jill shook a finger at him. “No going out of your way to give Leo pizza orgasms. Also, you and Jason need drinks. Celebration drinks. First stunt work of the film. Whatever you want. Go tell the bartender.”

“I’ll go.” Andy was getting up anyway. “And we’re getting the thing that isn’t nachos. What do you want?”

“Whatever stout’s on tap?” Jason nudged the menu closer to Colby’s hands. “Flatbread? If you’re thinking about pizza…”

“They actually do a flammkuchen,” Colby said, somewhat wistfully, even nostalgically. “Could I…”

“A what?” Jason looked. Basically pizza. German in origin. Crème fraiche. Onions. Bacon. Black pepper. “Huh.”

“I always forget you were a kid in Germany for a while.” Andy stole the other menu from Kate. “Looks good to me.”

“You can have whatever you want,” Jason said to Colby, “as long as you eat some of it. Like I said.” He heard his own phrasing, wondered whether he should take it back, and wasn’t sure how.

But Colby glanced up at him and smiled. “I will. I promise.” And just like that it all felt natural. Right. The way the world ought to be.

“Also Colby’s getting the most electric pink drink on the menu,” Andy said. “Maybe only one, but still. Tradition.”

“Oh, god,” Colby said. “We’re not doing that, are we? I thought you’d forgotten.”

“Absolutely never forgetting that,” Andy said firmly, and went off toward the bar.

“Tell me,” Leo demanded, quivering with glee. “Tell me everything.”

Jason said, to Leo, “He doesn’t have to.” He let some of those muscles creep into his tone. Leo stopped making sounds.

“No, it’s fine.” Colby cleared his throat. “It’s what happens when you’ve known Jillian and Andy for far too long and once upon a time went to your first-ever film festival with them and then three associated afterparties and then on some sort of expedition in search of the best local gay nightclub.”

Leo’s eyes and mouth slowly formed matching gleeful circles.

“I hadn’t even done the club scene ever, much less in a city I’d never been to,” Colby said. “I am, as we’ve established, a dork. And weird. I like cheese and books. And you two…you’re dreadful influences. I woke up wearing Jill’s high heels and went to make coffee and tripped over Andy on my hotel room floor. Shirtless. Cuddling someone’s feather boa.”

“My shoes were pink,” Jill observed, and sipped her beer. “Which is why you had to drink all the pink drinks while you were wearing them. It made sense at the time. No, we’re all too old to do that now, and I’m definitely too ancient to fall asleep on your couch.”

This was convincingly delivered, self-deprecatingly candid, and also a skillful deflection away from anyone trying to push Colby into any similar escapades these days. Jason found himself impressed.

“Please tell me there are pictures of Colby in bright pink high heels,” Leo tried.

“No one knew who I was, back then,” Colby said.

“And now you’re you.” Kate tipped her beer that direction. “And we’re here because of you and Jill. And this script. I cried reading it, I don’t mind telling you.”

“We couldn’t not do this project.” Jill clinked glasses with her. “Even when we weren’t sure how we’d even start. But that story, and Ben’s script, and these characters…we had to bring them to life. You know the author’s still alive? George Forrest? We tried to contact him—he lives a couple hours north of London, in this tiny village I’d never heard of—but he’s basically a recluse. He’d sold the film rights years ago, though, so we had them. And he did say go ahead. Well, mostly he said to leave him alone, but sure, go ahead.”

An eruption of film crew exploded over that last sentence: arriving at the bar, coming over to say hi to Jill, chattering about sound quality and historic upcoming locations and options for ballroom scenes. They radiated good cheer and enthusiasm and optimism about the film; one of the props team took Leo’s fishbowl margarita and took a sip and gave it back. Several of them applauded at Jason, and someone said, “Nice rescuing, but just wait until we blow up your ship!” with a truly alarming degree of enthusiasm.

“No one touch my ship,” Jason said. “She’s mine.” He was trying not to throw out an arm and defend Colby against rambunctious arrivals. Colby, for his part, had gone more pale and bitten into a lip when the bodies descended, but had stayed put. This might have been either determined courage or sheer panicked paralysis. “Don’t make me arm-wrestle you.”

“He scares me,” said one of the set design people to his orange-haired friend. The friend looked at Jason and said, “If I give you twenty bucks will you put him in a headlock?”

Jason sighed, “How cheap do you think I am?” which made them laugh and—he hoped—not push any more. Colby was looking at him with huge eyes; that extra-dark stripe of blue caught firelight like a shadow trying to hide.

“Sorry, Jason,” Jillian put in, “we have to blow up your ship, it’s in the script, didn’t you read it?”

More laughter. Friendly. Teasing, the way she’d been teasing Colby about the shoes. Not insulting. Not assuming he was only muscles in a military uniform.

They knew he’d read the script, loved the characters. They knew. He knew they knew.

Colby, accent shaping an enchanted gossamer bridge over chasms, breathed, “No one’s read all those early script versions, Jill, there’re at least ten, and didn’t Ben give up and kill everyone off from an attack of pirates in the sixth? So in some alternate universe the Steadfast’s floating around as a ghost pirate vessel.”

“I like it,” Leo declared. “Why aren’t we doing that one? You could be ghost pirate gay lovers.”

“I, um,” Jason said. “I kind of like it too. Together in the afterlife. Both of us on my ship.” How many times had Colby saved him, in the last twenty-four hours? How many more times could he possibly deserve? “No titles, no families, no war to fight…we could retire to an island, or sail around the world…”

“As ghosts?” Colby’s voice remained lace-light but fascinated, picking up this idea. “We could go anywhere. See everything. With each other.”

Andy at this point returned to the table, balancing drinks. “All of you move before I spill beer on you. When were ghost pirates happening? Are we doing Ben’s joke script? Move, I said. Stop drinking Leo’s drink. Yes, even though it’s that big. No, don’t you dare make that joke. Scavengers, all of you. Go.”

The crew scattered to other tables, goodnaturedly. Colby, no longer next to anyone but Jason, exhaled. He did not stir otherwise, as if afraid the wrong motion might shatter him into crystal shards for good.

“Food in a minute.” Andy distributed beverages. “Colby, this is whatever the bartender came up with when I said pink. If you hate it I’ll drink it and get you something else.”

Colby regarded pink effervescence topped with a fruit salad. Picked it up and took a sip. Then another. Decently large.

“Cool, all good, then,” Andy said, and found his own beer and sat down.

“Hey,” Jason said, low enough to be only for those blue eyes, or he hoped so. “Can I try it?”

Colby actually jumped, but kept the reaction contained, only a tiny start at being spoken to. “I…yes. Of course. Are—are you trying to make certain I don’t finish it all in one go? I wasn’t planning to.”

“Nah, I trust you. Just curious.” He waited a beat, then added, “But if you want I’ll drink more of it and you can have it back once you have food.”

“I’m doing all right.” Colby slid the glass his way, despite this protestation. “Thank you, though. Taking care of me…”

“You don’t need it.” Jason took a sip, tasted tropical juices and rum and sparkles. The sparkles might’ve been in the cocktail, or in the rim of the glass where Colby’s lips’d rested. “You rescue me. With script versions nobody’s read, and ghost pirates.”

“You do like fantasy. I thought…I thought it might be something you’d like to know.”

“I did,” Jason said, “I needed that,” and Colby smiled at him: ephemeral but present, reflected in all that blue.

Food arrived, brought by helpful but unassuming waitstaff. Food got devoured. Potato-eating contests happened. Guacamole received votes of approval. Colby’s Germanic pizza-stepsibling emerged delicious and decadent and devoured by everyone. Of course it was; Colby liked food and flavors. Jason put two slices in front of him and took four more before anyone else could and guarded them with great purpose.

Colby nibbled on crust and crème fraiche, head on one side, telepathically discussing this state of affairs with Jason’s plate. “I can’t possibly eat that much.”

“Who said it was all for you? I’m having some.” He did. It was wonderful. Taste-buds happy. “But you are eating at least those two pieces. And maybe one more. They’re small.”

“I—”

“It makes you smile.” It did. He could see it.

“It’s comfort food.” That smile remained: tucked into the corners of Colby’s mouth, into the oceans of that gaze. “Terrible for fitting into wardrobe changes, but you did say order anything I wanted, and I admit I felt I deserved something indulgent. What do you think?”

Jason gave him a thumbs-up, around a bite. After swallowing, added, “You do. Deserve it.” Also true.

“I was only joking—”

“I’m not. You do.” He made sure Colby was looking at him. This mattered. “I’m saying you do deserve it, okay? Whatever comfort food you want. And you’re listening.”

“Am I?” Colby looked at the second piece, already in one hand. “It seems I am.”

“Colby,” Leo said from down the table, “help me out here. You’ve heard me sing. I can totally sing.”

“I’ve…heard you, yes.” Colby pulled attention away from Jason’s face, gulped down more tropical pinkness, and did not continue this answer.

“Why?” Jason said, suspicious.

“I want us to do a musical,” Leo explained. “Something classic. Or else something super-cool and new and weird. I’ve never done a musical, and Jill hasn’t directed one, and it’d be a challenge. And then we could all get together again, and not say good-bye after this. And also Colby can sing. And also we should do karaoke.”

“You can?” Jason inquired.

“No…” Colby said, but without conviction.

“You can sing, though,” Jill joined in. “I know you can. I know Leo’s an idiot—” Leo shrugged, unbothered, and finished his margarita lake. “—but I’m sort of half-serious about the musical idea. I’ve never directed anything like that, and I like trying new genres.”

Colby waved the end of his fruit-decorated pink frothiness at her: acceptance and dismissal simultaneously. “I’d not be very good; don’t expect much. But you know I’d try, for you. If you needed me to.”

“No, but you can sing,” Leo argued owlishly. “And don’t say you don’t do karaoke. I’ve seen that video. You and the whole Romeo and Jules cast, at whatever bar that was, singing ‘London Calling’ and laughing…not that we could hear you in, like, particular, but you were right there next to Matt Grant, he had an arm around you, all cuddly, you can see it in the video! And you went home with Matt! There were pictures!” Tequila wafted across those words, making them land as ungainly as a puppy on ice, meaning no harm.

“I’d just turned twenty-three and was absolutely smashed on blueberry vodka,” Colby said. “And I went home with Matt and put him to bed and ensured he had water and ibuprofen when he woke up, yes…it’s entirely possible I need more alcohol right now.”

Leo pleaded, “If I get you more alcohol will you do karaoke with me?” and waved at a waiter.

Jason said, “You grew up in London, right?” He knew Colby had. Until the age of eight, and his father’s first diplomatic transfer.

Colby’s eyes found his over an unlikely festooning of pineapple. “Yes. Until I was eight. And then Paris, and Berlin, and London again. And then America. California.”

“Do you have a favorite city?”

Those eyes got even warmer. Memories, and appreciation of the diversion. “Oh, you know it’s London. Not that I don’t love them all, but it’s like coming home. The first place I remember calling home. The weight of history, the dreams of the theaters, the energy and the optimism, even the tourists, being excited at everything in sight and loving it all. I’ve still got my old flat, the one that’s round the corner from the British Museum. I’m not there enough, but I can’t give it up.”

“I like museums that are interactive,” Leo proclaimed. “Where they let you touch all the things. I tried on a replica sixteenth-century codpiece once.”

“Did you?” Jill said. “How much too big was it?”

“I can see it,” Jason said. Colby was looking at him. “Not Leo’s disturbing codpiece. You, walking through a museum, appreciating stories.”

Colby fiddled with the pineapple slice, set it down, and did not seem to know what to do with his hands after. “The last time we were in Venice—different film festival, and no, I did not find myself wearing anyone else’s footwear—I went out for a walk and got a bit lost and ended up in a lovely little museum of music. They also let visitors peek into the workshop—they make violins by hand—and I’d’ve loved to stay and watch but I had to get back for a panel.”

New drinks arrived. Colby’s was violet this time; Jason gave Leo a look. Leo shrugged.

Colby regarded the violet shimmer with fascination. “What’s in it?”

“Why would I know?” Leo said. “Purple. Purple is in it. You haven’t ever worn purple high heels, have you?”

Jason made a noise, more or less inadvertent, that might’ve been in the vicinity of a growl.

Colby took a sip, raised eyebrows, took another. Glanced at Jason—inched a fraction closer to Jason, in fact, who did not know what to do with this reaction—and then assumed the most exaggeratedly flirtatious expression Jason’d ever seen, including batted eyes across a martini glass. Even the accent got more British and more over-the-top. “Darling, even if I have, you’d have to work much harder to find out the answer.”

“Oh my god.” Leo slumped back against the booth, evidently physically stunned into submission.

“Okay,” Jason said, “you need to eat more,” and nudged more nostalgic pizza onto Colby’s plate. “No drinking whatever that is until you finish that piece.” He wanted to imitate Leo’s dramatic shock; he worried about Colby not having eaten much and drinking drinks with decent alcohol content; he was unsure whether to be delighted at Colby feeling secure enough for playfulness, or to be genuinely concerned about consequences.

His entire body liked the way Colby’d moved closer to him. The way Colby’d looked up at him, as if finding security there: a protected harbor that allowed the teasing to emerge. 

“Oh, I’m fine.” That seemed to be true; Colby’d dropped the outrageous flirtation in the next second, and set down his new drink, and settled back into himself. Jason’s whole side missed the closeness. “I only wanted to find out whether I could horrify Leo.”

“Not the word,” Leo said. “Not at all. Though…Jason’s right, much as I hate admitting that, and you should eat something.”

“Not you, too.” Colby’s next bite of pizza somehow came with irony, albeit the affectionate kind. “I’m not…that’s not really me, anyway. Or mostly not. That’s gin, isn’t it, and crème de violette, with maraschino liqueur? A twist on a classic aviation, with lime along with the lemon? I might’ve done slightly less of that, but it’s clearly there on purpose, so in fact never mind.”

“How,” Leo said.

“You like flavors,” Jason said.

“That, and classic cocktails were always requirements at official diplomatic or literary receptions.” Colby contemplated the cocktail in question; Jason raised eyebrows at him, and Colby finished the piece of pizza first, without protest. “But, mainly, yes. I like flavors.”

Their eyes met; Jason ended up speechless in a wholly new way, some sort of astonished recognition that tingled both electric and soft, crackling and calm at once, like an exhale, like a catch of breath.

“Colby,” Jillian said, “you’ve got all the schedules and notes for what you and the second unit need to get done, right? And you’re all set for tomorrow?” Her eyes watched Colby and the pizza; her tone was protective. Jason couldn’t blame her. Colby deserved every possible knight. Every drop of loyalty.

“Yes.” Colby sent her a smile that managed to acknowledge the loyalty and gently offer reassurance right back. “We can handle all the establishing shots of townhomes and rain and Bath streets and parks. And a lot of me writing messages and bent over maps and coughing. And being overcome by dizziness and falling down the stairs. Which I’m rather looking forward to. Jason gets to do most of the physical work on this one; I know it’s not anywhere near the same, but at least it’s something.”

Jason, who’d managed to forget about that specific scene—not one he was involved with—until that specific second, said, “You don’t have a double?”

“Why would I?” Colby licked a bit of violet crème from a lip. “I know how to fall. And it’s a continuous shot after the courier leaves, so there’s no good spot to hide a cut. Our editors are marvelous, and they’d try, but I can do it, so they don’t have to worry about it.”

Biting back words physically ached. They were stupid words anyway. Unnecessary. Overstepping bounds. Jason gritted teeth and downed half his second beer.

Of course Colby could do a carefully managed tumble down winding townhouse stairs. Of course Colby was in excellent physical shape and, like Jason, would gladly take on a few bruises in service of this film.

Their choice. Their job. Which Colby Kent was very good at. Those award nominations and that audience adoration argued in favor of blue-eyed commitment and passion and competence. Colby’s ability to talk Jason himself through stunt work put that competence on display, highlighted.

Colby was also thinner than he’d been at auditions and read-throughs, and flinched from hands that might reach out to help him up from a hard landing. Jason’s heart tore a few corners off itself, shredded pieces of distress.

“Jason.” Those movie-poster eyes were serious, blue as conviction across the rim of a martini glass. “I can do this one.”

“I know,” Jason got out, “I know you can,” and drank more.

Colby looked at him, looked at the beer, and reached over and neatly extricated a piece of cheese-coated potato from the decimated appetizer plate, without touching anyone else or being in anyone’s way, and ate it.

The fire crackled in the bar’s fireplace. Low snug lights, scarlet and topaz, caught in Colby’s hair, along the line of an arm, in the shapes of glasses and forks and table-edges.

And Colby Kent, perched next to Jason at the edge of a leather-clad booth, smiled and set Jason’s pulse pounding.

He wanted Colby. He wanted Colby so badly he could barely breathe. He wanted bright tentative slender happiness and graceful calligrapher’s fingers and those long legs tangled with his. He wanted excitement about recipes and romance, and compassion for the world, for characters and for co-stars, and the way both of those elements met and mingled in that universe-rich gaze. He wanted Colby to be safe, and to never be bruised again; he knew that that wasn’t possible and also not his job.

Colby hesitated, glanced away, picked up his own drink. Jason thought abruptly, hopelessly, despairingly, that his sudden wave of desire must’ve been palpable, resonating between their bodies, where they sat too close for Colby’s comfort.

“Hey,” Leo said. “Colby, come with me to talk to the bartender? We need more things. Drinks. Maybe food. You can help make decisions. Since you’re good at flavors.”

Most of them did not need more drinks. The waitstaff was doing an outstanding job of checking in. Jason stared into his beer. It stared back darkly. Leo thought Colby needed protecting from him.

“I’m…yes, if you want my help.” Colby hovered: on the verge of getting up, one hand near Jason’s on the table. “What would everyone like? I can pay for this round.”

A cascade of demands and drink requests landed. Leo rolled eyes and said, “You think we’re going to remember that? You get what we pick out for you.” Colby listened with the air of someone taking detailed mental notes, nodded, and got up to follow.

Silence fell in their wake, idle and natural, a lull. Andy checked a text message and replied; Kate picked a bit of bacon off an Irish Nacho and ate it. Jason shifted weight and considered booth dimensions versus action-hero size, because that was better than thinking about Leo, of all people, deciding to rescue Colby from Jason’s own clumsiness.

Andy finished with the message and looked up, and suddenly both he and Jill were looking at Jason. Jason tried not to squirm. The confines of the booth did not help.

The looking went on. Kate leaned back and watched them, observing.

Jason finally said, “What?”

“Nothing,” Andy said. “You kind of look good with the hair extensions.”

“Nothing,” Jillian said. “Colby can do just about anything on camera, you know. Physical and not. He did all of those adorable clumsy falls and tripping over things himself, as Mark, for Local News.”

“I know,” Jason said. He had known. Not for a fact, not having looked it up or asked, but he knew. Colby would never ask anyone else to do anything he could do himself.

He thought about Jill’s light emphasis on the on camera phrase, belatedly.

“He’s better at physical comedy than he thinks he is,” Andy said to Jill, an interested aside. “Sort of confused and precious and with awesome timing. We should do more.”

“Colby’s good at everything,” Jason said. He did not back down from Jill’s gaze. “He can handle anything you ask him to. He solves problems for other people.”

“Yes,” Jill said. “He does.”

Interrupting this portent, timing either flawless or abysmal, Colby and Leo reappeared, mid-conversation. “—I’m just saying you can,” Leo finished, and handed over Jill’s new beer. “Also, hi, everyone, there’re pretzel bites and a pear and cheese flatbread thing on the way.”

You could,” Colby said to Leo. “I can’t. Jason, they’ve only got one proper stout, so we’ve just done that again, but I could go back if you want something else?”

Jason took the beer without really caring. “You can’t what?”

“Oh…” Colby found a martini glass for Kate and handed it over, playing waiter, hiding behind the action. “It’s not important. Leo thinks I should do something. But he’s very good at imagination.”

“I think you can do anything.” Leo plopped down into the booth. “But I respect you enough to let it go. For now. No promises about later. Back to the musical idea. Jill, can there be dance numbers?”

Under cover of this chatter, while sitting back down, Colby’s fingers skimmed Jason’s arm, evanescent; that touch could not have been accidental. Jason, shocked, forgot to breathe.

Colby’d ended up even closer than before, consciously or subconsciously. Surrounded by discussions of tap shoes and Broadway production, he was lovely and layered as a pencil-sketch, an artwork in grey lines and blue eyes; after a second he started humming under his breath, a brief curlicue of melody. A line or two or more, half-sung, only audible because he’d fit himself into the spot at Jason’s side.

Jason needed a moment to place the song. Eighties rock. English. New wave, post-punk, vaguely romantic. Lots of radio play, at one point. The Psychedelic Furs, he recalled, once he dredged the band name up from depths. Those lyrics. We've got the radio on, and it feels like love, but it don’t mean a lot…there’s a heartbreak beat playin' all night long, down on my street…I’m a heartbreak beat, yeah, all night long…

He looked at Colby. Colby, who did after all have a good singing voice, flawlessly on-key and plush as velvet, offered up a head-tilt that might’ve been a shrug, one wry and weary warrior to another; and took a sip of his new drink. This one was electric blue and sprouted an orange slice in Jason’s direction. Rum floated on the top.

Jillian, watching Jason, said, “How do you feel about moving your travel up a day or so? So you can get settled on location.”

“Yes—” Too fast? Too immediate? He cleared his throat. “I mean, yeah, sure. Whatever’s easiest.”

“Good. We’ll have to move some scenes around, but I think it’ll work better anyway. We can get you all done and out of the way, and you can go keep Colby company. You’ve been to England before, right?”

“Um,” Jason said. “Yeah.” London, specifically. Action scenes. Running down streets, shouting, waving weapons, disarming movie-set bombs. “I like it.”

Colby’s eyes found his, pleased at this approval. Jason’s heart performed a tap-dance of its own.

More food appeared. Colby did not take any, apparently content to settle in and stay in the background and watch everyone else laughing and chatting and being friends. Jason wanted even more to put that arm around him, to draw him close, encircled. Colby did not have to talk or sing karaoke or tell stories with grand gestures the way Leo currently was; that didn’t matter. Colby could be bright-eyed and observing and quiet, as long as he felt secure and welcome and comfortable, and Jason wanted him to feel that way, wanted that so much the emotion threatened to burst out of his own chest.

So he wasn’t a writer. Gruesome metaphors. Scary images. He drank more beer.

Colby glanced at him, glanced at the new flatbread, moved a hand slightly, stopped.

Jason’s heart recovered from attempted bursting, sat up, and paid attention. “You want food? Completely yeah, go ahead, here—” He tugged the plate more that direction. “Eat.”

“I only wanted to try it.” Colby found the smallest slice. It had pear and some sort of cheese. “I don’t believe I can finish this.”

“I will,” Jason said, all at once stupidly ludicrously happy, “if you can’t. Have as much as you want.”

Colby’s smile this time was also happy, matching Jason’s heartbeat, and a bit startled. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“I…you know, I don’t know. I felt I should say it.” Pink brushed the edge of Colby’s cheeks. Conversation kept happening around them; Andy glanced over and deliberately turned back to Kate. “I wanted…no, I still don’t know. I’m—”

Jason leveled a finger. “Still no.”

Colby sighed, laughed, ate more. “I’m not sorry, then. It won’t affect your plans too much, will it? Coming over early?”

“Nah. I need to text Allie anyway. We hadn’t figured anything out yet.” True, and he did want to talk to his sister; he wanted to tell her everything. The day. The dive. The triumph. Himself bringing Colby a cupcake. Maybe not that last part.

He watched Colby take a sip of blue effervescence. Colby’s eyes were more interesting. Deeper. Richer. Definitely a better version of the color. “You don’t mind, do you? Me being around early?”

“No.” Colby gave up on the last third of the flatbread slice and nudged it Jason’s way. “I—I would like it. If you do get that worked out. Not that you have to. Whatever’s easiest for you.”

“I’ll talk to Jill about scheduling tomorrow.” He would. He’d do anything, everything, whatever he had to. Because that tentative I would like it spilled out into the world and hung banners and streamers and ribbons of gold. “And you can show me all your favorite weird random history museums.”

“In Bath? The whole city’s built of history. Layers and layers.”

“And you like it.”

“I do.”

The moment extended, bathed in bar light and fireglow.

Jason picked up the end of Colby’s abandoned flatbread and ate it in one bite, mostly because that felt like something to do.

Colby’s eyes got more round.

“Hey,” Jason explained, “you picked it, and you have good taste.” And then he heard those words the way innuendo’d make them sound, Colby tasting good, and felt himself blush, this time: like the teenager he hadn’t been in years.

He might’ve been one again. Awkward, oversized, stumbling over desires and his thumping pulse. Sitting next to a boy he wanted to get closer to, to take that hand. Not knowing how or if he could ever do that, if that feeling would ever, could ever, be returned.

But Colby had touched him. Had sung for him, fleetingly, and had let fingertips trail against his arm.

He could’ve burst into song himself, loud and jubilant and astonished.

The bar filled up with more people, not all of them cast and crew. Several noisy someones colonized the booth next to theirs. The space got busier, less secure, less welcoming.

Colby eased closer to Jason. Andy, looking their way, said, “Hey, both of you, I could use some help. Adrian’s Nana’s birthday’s in two months, and what do we get for a ninety-five-year-old woman who once told me that the secret to long life is having a good time in bed? That was the first time I ever met her, too.”

“Good heavens,” Colby said. “At least you’re inarguably part of the family. Er…perhaps new and very nice sheets?”

“Those are mental images I did not want,” Leo announced, from across the booth; the conversation took off running from there, swerving through grandmothers and childhood birthday presents and embarrassing relatives and, disturbingly, sex toy recommendations.

The night grew later. The bar’s occupants grew more tipsy. Louder. Laughing. Some sort of party meeting up.

Colby tugged sweater-sleeves down further over his hands, and smiled, but got even quieter and more wide-eyed, and not in a martini-relaxed and uninhibited way, either. Jason wanted to help, needed to help, and could not come up with a way to help that did not draw attention.

Inadequate. Not a hero. Not good enough after all. When Colby kept on saving him.

But Colby stayed at his side. And seemed to want to be nearer to him than to the rest of the world. That had to mean something. Didn’t it?

“So,” Leo said. “Another round?”

Jill held up a hand, wobbled it: yes, no, maybe.

One more,” Andy said. “I’m already going to hate myself and all of you at five am.”

“I’m in,” Kate said. “Keeping up with my pretend husband, and all.”

Leo looked at Colby and Jason.

Jason looked at Colby. He had a pretty good idea of the response, and he was right.

“Thank you, but no…” Colby set down his empty glass, tossed them all a smile: practiced and light. “I should be going. Early flight out and all. Well, not too early. But still.”

Jill threw the clamorous rest of the bar a half-glance—Jason wouldn’t’ve noticed if he hadn’t been paying attention—and then asked, “Want company for a few minutes? We could talk about post-production. Scheduling. Promotion. All that.”

“Oh…no, I’ll be fine.” Colby got up, mostly graceful, one hand unobtrusively catching some weight on the table’s corner; he nearly touched Jason’s arm a second time, doing so. “But thank you.”

“Maybe I’ll go up too,” Jason said. “Today was awesome, but, y’know, kinda big. A lot. I could use some rest. Mind if I come with you?”

“Oh,” Colby said, and evidently forgot to take another step, so that when Jason got up they were practically sharing space. “Yes. Ah. Whatever you’d like?”

“Ooh,” Leo murmured into the end of a glass. Jason wanted to shake him. Colby ducked that head—a stray bit of hair swung forward—and did take the step back.

Jason did not strangle Leo, and instead angled shoulders so that Colby did not have to worry about anyone else in the bar. Nobody getting past him. No challenging that bulwark. “Yeah, let’s go. Leo can pay for whatever we owe anyone.”

Jill, wearing a very small smile, took a sip of coffee. Jason hadn’t even seen her acquire it.

“Unfair,” Leo protested. “Actually, no, never mind. Fine by me. You two go ahead. Do…whatever it is you’d both like.”

“Jason’s only tired.” Colby’s voice was low and clear but also just a little extra-musical, alcohol-kissed: not untidy but suddenly readily protective. “It’s not…whatever you’re thinking. It isn’t. He absolutely deserves to relax. It was an important day. More than you—no, that’s none of your business. But it’s hardly fair to tease him about it.”

“That’s not what I’m doing,” Leo said. “Do you know where your room key is? Jason, you know he loses them, like, all the time, right?”

“I know,” Jason said. He was looking at Colby’s enormous eyes, under the bar lights: limned in gold, and terribly earnest. He had not needed defense, but Colby had defended him anyway. “Colby, come on, if we stay here any longer Leo might try to sing again.”

Oh. Damn. He might’ve been more tipsy, himself, than he’d meant to be; he did not know whether Colby minded a return to the subject.

Colby, however, only gazed back at him; one corner of that expressive mouth quirked up, wordless and more amused than anything. This might’ve been three drinks and an attendant loss of one layer of inhibitions; or it might’ve been a decision, the way that leaning very fractionally into Jason’s side had been earlier; or it might have been something else altogether.

Jason was not an expert in reading Colby Kent. But he wanted to be. He wanted that with a newfound all-encompassing need. The bar faded away; the world faded away. Lost in blue.

He cleared his throat, roughly. He made a gesture, undirected and flailing: the room, the exit, the elevators.

Colby gave him a nod, and then proceeded to stay at his side as they navigated the hotel bar, the lobby, the elevator buttons. They did not talk—too much echoing noise, and no need in any case; they both knew where they were headed—but they stayed together. Next to each other. Not getting lost.

Colby matched steps to Jason’s, after they escaped from the bar entrance. Jason’s feet got inexplicably lighter.

Another body, no one they knew, lurched through closing elevator doors last-minute; the body wore a suit and kept talking on a phone, no attention thrown toward them at all. Jason put himself between Colby and the invasion anyway.

He could do that. He could be a bodyguard, a shield-wall, a portcullis. He could keep Colby safe. He dove into this fantasy, briefly: if Colby were still famous but Jason himself was in fact Colby’s bodyguard, if this were some romantic-fantasy movie, if Colby relied on him for strength and security. He’d stand guard outside that door all night. He’d fling his body between his charge and danger. He’d sweep Colby up in his arms and not let go. He could—

He should never read any of Allie’s fanfiction links ever again. He shifted weight, and tried not to let thoughts show on his face.

The elevator interloper got off four floors below theirs, and let his coat swing wildly while exiting, encroaching on space that was vaguely in Colby’s vicinity. Jason glared. The man departed extra-hastily.

Colby waited until the doors shut, then attempted to hide a momentary laugh behind one hand. Jason cringed and prepared to apologize for overbearing bearishness, but caught sight of those eyes: Colby was entertained, maybe even pleased with him.

He felt about ten feet tall. He could Keep Colby Safe. Yes. Good.

They still didn’t talk. They didn’t need to. The light in Colby’s eyes, the camaraderie of elevator walls in brass and brown encouragement, the way Jason found himself grinning back: those elements collectively took the night and wrote a whole conversation out of silence and closeness and the sound of Colby’s laugh.

Twenty-six, their shared floor; Jason stepped out first—felt absurdly right doing so, a soldier with a liege lord, checking for peril, jumping out there in advance—and waited while Colby caught up and settled in at his side again. Their footfalls made no noise on thick green-and-gold carpeting; patterned vines trailed steps like familiar well-worn mythologies.

At Colby’s door Jason said, “Got your room key?” and the question didn’t break the enchantment at all, though he’d been afraid it might. The words settled like gilt-edged dust over the hallway, though.

Colby blinked—Jason had the impression he’d been thinking about something else—and said, “Oh, yes, certainly,” and started checking various pockets. Because of the layers, this took some time.

Jason added, “If not, I bet you can break in here too,” and Colby stopped searching to laugh. “I could. Perhaps not at the moment. Or perhaps even more so. I once managed to open an antique jewelry box that belonged to Jill’s grandmother, at a party. She’d only just been given it, and the mechanism was stuck, and I’d had a decent amount of vodka, and I said I could manage it if someone had a safety pin, and someone did, so I did.”

“Of course you did.” Very mildly intoxicated Colby—not drunk, or Jason thought not—was easily distractible, and beautiful, and oddly younger: all big eyes and ready stories and flushed cheeks.

“I’ve no clue how I did it, mind you. Someone accidentally closed it later, and in the morning I couldn’t work out how I’d done it then. Though that may have been the fault of the hangover. Or the first pin was magical and I’d nothing to do with it working at all. I swear I haven’t lost this key, I had it earlier…”

“You already checked that pocket. Try the other side. Why do you know how to pick locks?”

“Found it! You’re marvelous.” Colby, plastic in hand, regarded Jason in the pause. “I like knowing odd little things. I went through a phase of reading mystery novels and wanted to learn. And I thought it’d be useful. After the second time my parents forgot I’d be coming home from school, and locked up the house and went out…I had a house key, but not one for the front gate, and I decided I’d rather know how to get in and not call and bother anyone about it, if the staff had a night off. Oh—that sounds terribly pretentious, I’m so sorry, it was only because of my father’s position, having the staff and everything. I taught myself how to do laundry and cook and tidy up, so if there’s ever anything you need, I promise I’m not completely useless.”

“I don’t think you’re useless at all,” Jason said. Those last sentences had twisted and slid hard and sharp into his chest, a needlepoint stiletto stab. He knew he wasn’t the one bleeding. He did not know how to stop it. “Give me that.”

Colby handed over the room key instantly, no hesitation. The stab-wound intensified.

Jason, standing in the hallway, Colby’s room key in one hand, said, “Colby…” and then did not quite know what came next.

“Jason,” Colby said back. He was now leaning one shoulder against the wall, looking on as Jason failed to use the key to open the door. Under nondescript hotel lights he was soft and tousled and pretty, an elf-flare of woodsmoke and sapphire that’d put on long legs and a button-up cardigan to go out and get mildly tipsy in a hotel bar. Those lips were slightly parted.

And those gorgeous eyes were huge. Watching Jason’s hands; watching Jason.

One movement, any movement, might ring the world like a bell. Might reverberate through this hallway, this universe. Changing everything, in the taste of Colby’s parted lips and the tumble of a cardigan onto a floor.

But Colby’d had drinks at the bar, and had smiled when Jason’d played bodyguard. And as much as Jason wanted that moment—as much as Jason’s entire being screamed to make that movement, take that step—he wasn’t sure Colby wanted it. Not when sober, not when not recovering from the costs of a public interview morning and dealing with the effects of gin and rum and tropical flavors and exhaustion.

He could, he thought, lean in and down and claim those lips the way he’d taken Colby’s room key. Colby would even say yes, would melt under him and let him do the taking. Jason knew that without asking, knew it as if he’d always known, deep-rooted instinct that tugged him both toward and away: Colby would let him have whatever he wanted, if Jason pushed for it, if Jason demanded it, and would not tell him no.

But that wouldn’t be right.

It wouldn’t be right in the morning, and it wouldn’t be right now. He knew better; he knew Colby, or he was starting to. Words as distractions, friendliness as armor, and an inexplicable love of pastries. Shy but transparent delight at someone setting aside the last of the coconut curry or being a shield-wall in an elevator. And the clear heart-true core of kindness that’d do anything for someone in need, whether that meant opening an antique jewelry box or chattering away in a hotel swimming pool after hours.

Colby bit that lower lip, a moment of uncertainty, a question that left indents in tempting pink.

“Um,” Jason said. “Door. I mean. I got it. Your door.”

Colby blinked. Twice, this time.

“Your room,” Jason explained. The door was open. He stuck a foot in it to keep it that way.

“My room,” Colby said, as if this were a foreign concept, and pushed himself up from the wall. A bit of his hair caught on his collar, dark over grey. “Oh. Yes?”

“Yes,” Jason echoed for no reason. “You should sleep. You have a flight in the morning.” And then he followed Colby inside, because his feet hadn’t figured out the difference between good and terrible ideas.

Chapter Text

Colby’s hotel room, as it had been earlier, was messier than Jason’s own, though not hugely so. That half-full suitcase smirked at them from the luggage rack; a scarf or two decorated a chair in stripes of grey and green, a pair of black boots nudged each other in the entryway, and an open notebook—with expensively textured paper, but turned to a blank sheet—lounged across the desk, along with script pages and sticky notes in a shower of rainbow colors. One note had come loose and drifted unheeded to the floor.

The curtains still hung open; city lights twinkled clear and multihued as jewels. A laptop sat on the bed, closed; it did not have stickers or any decoration on the sleek black shape.

Colby’s bed, Jason noticed, was made but wrinkled, as if someone’d lain down atop everything for a nap without bothering to get under the covers. The heat was turned up higher than Jason’s own room, but not that warm.

“Jason,” Colby said again, either because of the drinks or because Jason hadn’t given back the room key. “Would you…er…well, yes, this is my room. I realize I’ve just told you I do know how to tidy up, I know it’s not precisely evidence of that, but if you give me a moment—if you’d like coffee I could make some, it won’t take long—” When he took a step toward the small bar area he tripped over the other pair of boots.

Jason moved, but too late; Colby’d already caught himself, one hand on the bar. His cheeks had gone pink. “Sorry, sorry, that’s not the fault of the alcohol—well, maybe a bit—I’m only clumsy today. I don’t know why. Sorry.” The end of this apology was directed toward the boots, one of which tipped over more, shamefaced.

“I don’t need coffee.” Jason unobtrusively nudged footwear out of the way. “I do think you need sleep. What time’s your flight?”

“Ah…nine? Nine…something?”

“Is someone coming to get you?” If he wandered toward the bed, Colby followed; so he did that, and then circled around and used proximity to get Colby next to the mattress. “You’re going to the airport?”

That hadn’t been what he’d meant to ask.

He’d meant: will you be okay, at an airport? Will you feel safe, surrounded by bodies, in a small space with no easy escape? Will you have someone at your side, looking out for you, if I can’t be there?

I would be there, he thought. The thought shaped itself in his heart like a diamond; like blue topaz, like Colby’s eyes. I’d be there if you said you wanted me. Fuck filming tomorrow. Jill will understand. She wants you to be safe too.

He dropped Colby’s room key on the bedside table, standing there.

Colby sat down on the side of the bed. Pressed fingertips to the spot beside his left eye, as if anticipating a headache, then took them away and smiled: a performance, adept and soothing. “I’ll be fine. Jill’s got a security person keeping an eye on me. And I tend to be well taken care of, as far as travel. Comes with the family. Not that I ask for it—I don’t, and in fact there’s far less fuss than there used to be, before my father retired—but I admit I don’t mind some of the privileges. Honestly I plan to mostly sleep on the flight over. But if you need anything, absolutely send me a message. I’ll answer.”

“We can handle things on this end.” Jason opened the fridge. Found water, and not much else. Coffee creamer, in flavors of chocolate toffee and also cinnamon caramel. The cinnamon made him smile. The lack of visible food did not.

He brought the water over and set it on the table. “At least drink this. Do you have anything to eat around here?”

“If you’re hungry I can call and have something sent up—”

“Not for me! You—” He ran a hand through his own hair, gave up. “I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

“I told you I’m fine.” Colby, sitting on the bed, moved as if wanting to tuck legs up, to curl into himself and into pillows; he was still wearing absurdly stylish boots and that grey sweater with too-long sleeves, and he gave up on moving after all and just stayed put, arms going around one knee.

Jason sighed, came over, and knelt down. “You said you trust me, right?”

“Yes, of course.”

That wasn’t an of course; Jason’s chest hurt. That was Colby saying what would make someone happy.

He said, “You said you did. Enough to come over and help me out, last night. Enough to sing for me. Thanks for that.”

Colby’s eyes got softer, more contemplative, more sure: looking down into Jason’s, remembering that moment. This time when he answered the answer felt real. “I wanted to. And I do mean it. I trust you.”

“Enough to let me maybe help with your shoes?”

“My shoes?”

“If you’re going to fall asleep you should at least be comfortable.”

“I can,” Colby said, “take off my own shoes.” But he said it a bit too quietly, and the edge of sadness sliced along Jason’s ribs and pierced someplace low and full of anguish.

“I know you can,” he forced out. “I know. You take care of everyone. This film. Tim. Me. It’s not that I think you can’t.”

“Then—”

“Because I want to help.” Kneeling at Colby’s slim boot-clad feet, feeling too big and too awkward, shoulders too broad, he offered hands. “I won’t touch you. Um, only your boots. I promise. Only enough to help.” He repeated the word on purpose; he let it fill up the space. He understood that Colby might not say yes, might say no for any one of too many reasons; nevertheless a small flower of hope unfurled under his ribs.

Colby muttered, “I’m very tired and this is a very strange offer, you know,” but that tiny crooked smile came back into view. It matched the lights beyond the window. “It has been a strange day, though, hasn’t it? For me, for you…”

“A good day,” Jason said. “A good day.”

Colby pointed toes at him: a thin and elegant wading-bird, a heron, a swan prince in a fairy-story. The gesture came with a small shrug, and even more of a smile, around a sudden surprised yawn.

Jason laughed, set a hand carefully on grey leather, and tugged.

The motion wasn’t even large. Not dramatic. Not world-changing. The removal of one boot, cupped in Jason’s hands; the revelation of one blue-and-white striped sock, and the thick weave of hotel carpet under Jason’s knees.

The world did change, though. With a hand and an ankle and a tug. Reordered to become someplace in which Colby would wiggle sock-clad toes and Jason would kneel and cradle a boot as if it were made of glass.

Silver, he thought. Or gold. That moonlit fairy-story, or the reverse of it—slipping fitted footwear off, not on—but that was part of the shimmer and gleam of it: the way none of this had been anything he’d expected, tangled up in acting and history and the creak of ship’s wood and the scent of chlorine and the ripple of Colby’s voice. Familiar and not. Simple, and extraordinary.

He set Colby’s first boot down with great attention to placement—out of the way, nothing to trip over— and turned to the other one. Colby watched his hands, and stayed precisely still other than offering the other foot, and said nothing. This might have been trust, or nerves, or hope, or some combination of everything, keeping that eloquent voice silenced.

“There.” Jason cleared his throat. His voice scratched, raw in his own ears. He got up, stumbling over words and emotions. “You should…I wanted to say…thank you. Again.”

“You said it already.” Colby swung a foot against the bed, at once graceful and as awkward as Jason felt, as if uncertain of footing but trying to find the right step. The stripes on his socks matched the blue in his eyes. “I didn’t do much. You did it, today.”

“With you. Because of you.”

“I only talked to you.”

“No,” Jason said. “You did more. I, um. Was thinking. What Jill said. About moving up my travel? I don’t know if you want. Um. I would. I was serious.”

“You were?”

Jason ran through a few possible responses, and settled on, plainly, “Yes.” It was all he wanted to say.

“Oh.” Colby glanced at his boots—neatly lined up near the bed—and the bottle of water on the nightstand, and finally Jason’s face. “Then…if it’s not inconvenient…”

“It’s not.”

“I would…” Colby stopped; Jason wondered whether the next word would’ve had to do with wanting. Colby swallowed, and finished, “If you did, we could—we could rehearse. Talk about the—about some scenes? If you wanted to?”

“Yeah,” Jason said. “Yeah, I want to. When’s your alarm set for?”

Colby had to find his phone and check to discover this. “Six?”

“Hmm.” He had a five am call time. “If someone happened to show up with, um, room service around six-thirty, would you eat something?”

“Won’t you need to be on set firing mock cannons?”

“Yeah, but that’s what room service’s for.”

“Are you offering to buy me breakfast?”

“It’s my turn, isn’t it?”

“Are we taking turns?” Colby toyed with the phone, turning it over, then set it down. He looked more sober, less flushed: taking this seriously. “I don’t expect—”

“I know you don’t. I’m gonna do it anyway, if you say that’s a good time.”

“Nothing big,” Colby said, giving in. “I don’t…you know I haven’t been eating much. And if I have to walk through an airport—I’m not going to feel up to…oh, this is silly, you shouldn’t have to.”

“Nothing big,” Jason said. “Got it. You only want twelve pieces of cinnamon toast, then, not fifty.”

Colby stared at him, made a sort of desperate half-laugh half-spluttered protesting noise, and finally gave up and let the laughter win, enough to fall over into pillows. He emerged hugging one, quivering with amusement. “Don’t you dare. I shall…I’ll…oh, I don’t know. Inform wardrobe that Stephen’s trousers need to be two sizes smaller. Find a life-size promotional cutout of you in that Santa Claus outfit from Saint Nick Steel and have it delivered to set. Someone must have one someplace. There were so many.”

“My sister took a picture with one. She made it her phone lock screen for, like, a year. Which was why I disowned her. Seriously, six-thirty okay?”

“You did not disown her. And…yes, it is. If you’re sure.”

“Good. How do you know I didn’t?” Jason had moved toward the door—felt like the thing to do, giving Colby space, time to sleep, all that—but couldn’t resist.

“You?” Colby, now nestled into the pillows, lifted eyebrows at him. Colby surrounded by feathery fluff, being unguardedly tiredly playful, sent an unanticipated flutter through Jason’s heart, as if it’d been lifted too. “You never would. You love your family. You care about people.”

So do you, Jason thought. You care so much that you’re breaking apart with it, needing to see everyone happy, and you smile at me and tell me you believe I can do anything. When you need cinnamon toast and coffee and someone to take off your boots and catch you when you’re worn too thin to stand.

His hands shivered with the memory. With the desire to do more for this man. Anything, everything.

He said, “Right, and I’ll care if you don’t eat breakfast, so I want to know you did.”

Colby’s mouth shaped an astonished soundless oh, amid pillow-companions. He’d rested a cheek on one, somewhere between sitting up and settled down; his hair was in one eye again, and he’d moved to brush it back, but paused.

Jason reviewed this sentence. Too forceful? An order? Too much of an order?

But Colby didn’t look upset about it. Startled, but unoffended, finally tucking the hair back behind an ear, and not objecting.

Still, Jason said, “I didn’t mean—”

“I could text you,” Colby said, cautious but not as if afraid or angry, more as if testing those uncharted paths. “If—if you were asking for that.”

Oh. Jason said, “Oh.”

“I don’t deliberately not eat,” Colby said. “I only…but with you…you make me remember that I like food. Is that odd to say? It’s true, though.”

“My family would approve,” Jason said. “And you’re right. I love them. So that’s, um, not odd. That’s…good.”

This felt like an exit line, or it would be in a script; he reached out, found the door behind him. “So. Okay. I’ll talk to you in the morning?”

“Yes,” Colby said. “Jason—yes.”

On that yes, Jason went out; he discovered, opening his own door and catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, that he’d been grinning all the way down the hall.

Colby’s song choice remained in his head, an echo. On impulse he searched the internet, found it, put it on his phone while kicking off shoes and changing out of jeans and into pajama pants. Not his usual—not fast enough or classic-rock enough—but not bad.

And it feels like love, he thought. A heartbreak beat, and it’s all that we got. The radio on, at the edge of the dark.

Colby had the right voice for that sound: lyrical, haunting, inviting. Colby definitely could sing; Jason did not know much about the technicalities of music, but he could tell that Colby’s gift back in the bar, quiet and almost-disguised as it’d been, had been a good version of this song.

He wasn’t sure about the lyrics. He wanted happier ones. He wanted happier ones for that voice.

He’d sign on for a musical, if Colby got to sing something happy. Jason wasn’t too confident about his own vocal abilities—he didn’t think he was outright hideous, and Cindy’d once told him she liked hearing him sing in the shower, but he’d never done it on camera—but he’d do it if Colby wanted to.

He let the song finish.

He picked up the room phone. He called down and arranged for delivery of toast, fresh fruit, juice, and oatmeal with cinnamon and cream, sent over to Colby’s room at precisely six-thirty in the morning. The hotel staff did not bat an eye at this, but then this was Los Angeles and a star-frequented property; they’d no doubt heard weirder requests than room service for someone else’s room.

He’d been in Colby’s room.

He’d been a breath away from kissing Colby’s soft curving lips.

He’d knelt and put hands on Colby’s boots, fingers over the shape of those ankles, the line of a foot. Wrapped in footwear and a sock, of course. But still, but still.

His stomach did a flip, acrobatic and enamored. His hands felt different. Changed. Holding a precious memory. Impressed into his skin.

He hoped that Colby wouldn’t regret any of it. A smile, a half-sung glimpse into that heart, and sleepy trusting welcome: the complicated mansion that lived behind Colby’s eyes had swung open doors, or at least a window, and had let Jason peek in. That couldn’t be a mistake. He wanted Colby to believe that it hadn’t been.

Colby’d said yes to him. To his hands.

Jason laughed out loud, amazed; he ran a hand through his hair, laughed more, and threw himself across his bed and hugged a pillow just because. The pillow seemed to approve.

Giddy, alive with it, he couldn’t go to sleep yet.

He texted Allie. It was late, but she’d be awake; he didn’t want to distract her from studying, but he knew she’d be worrying about how the day had gone. He told her it’d been good, better than good, fantastic even. He did not tell her about his hands and Colby’s boots.

His sister sent back multiple happy faces, applauding hands, and various other excited reactions, and asked whether he wanted to talk. Processing, thrilled, relieved, thinking of Colby, not really very drunk on a couple of beers, he wasn’t sure he could explain it all right now.

Call you tomorrow so we can make plans? he suggested, and she agreed. He forgot to mention having a present for her, but that was okay; he’d make it a surprise.

He found a bottle of water. He thought about himself leaving water for Colby. At that bedside.

He thought about the next day and shipboard scenes and conversations with Stephen’s crew. He thought about the mindset of a commander, a leader, a strategist. A man in love.

He’d talk to Jill in the morning. Shuffling that schedule around. Joining Colby sooner. Not immediately, there’d be no way, but sooner rather than later.

Colby wanted him there. Had said so, as much as Colby ever asked for anything. Jason eyed his pillow and kind of wanted to hug it again.

The entire incredible day settled and sank into his bones: aftermath, wonder, pieces of self. A self who could jump into water, maybe not without a memory, but without holding back. A self who could tell Colby Kent to eat, and Colby would, and that came with a lot of other thoughts Jason wasn’t prepared to plunge into just yet. Colby definitely wasn’t. So he didn’t think them.

Good thoughts, though. No arguing about that.

He opened his laptop. He hadn’t watched Colby’s interview from that morning; no time, on set all day, the demands of the job. He could do it now, if it was easy to find.

It was.

Jason, sitting crosslegged on his bed, laptop propped up on pillows, watched the venerable morning-show logo spin in blue and white; watched the hosts trade jovial witty opening banter. Carrie and Max had been doing this show a long time; they knew how the routine should go.

They got to the introduction. Someone you all know, romantic comedies, historical dramas, theater, awards nominations, a joking reference to those times Colby’d made internet journalism’s lists of Best Hair or Cutest Accent. Please welcome him. Colby Kent.

Colby, embarrassed and awkwardly elegant and a veteran of public appearances all in one, came out from the side. Waved. Turned up the smile for the studio audience—not a large group, but enough for reactions: laughter, sighs, cheers.

He looked like himself, or rather not like himself. Jason’d seen the version of Colby Kent who got excited over steampunk fantasy and quests and provisions, almost certainly with interesting cheese; Jason’d seen the version of Colby Kent who went motionless and white-faced and desperately brave at an unanticipated touch. Those were both real.

This was Colby stitching torn edges together and wrapping a role around those shoulders like the heavy grey of his sweater. He was good at it—he was brilliant, which Jason knew intimately—but it was acting: Jason had seen him physically put on a character, confidence, resolve. Colby was doing that here.

No one else could tell. Colby knew how to shake hands and grin and give everyone the full attention of those long-lashed big blue eyes, and if it was costing him everything, nobody on that set would have any cause to notice or feel bad about it. Jason knew that, too.

Colby took the guest chair at the desk. Beamed at Max and Carrie. “Thank you, that was lovely, and thank you for having me here—oh, and for the scone choices, I do appreciate that.”

Jason’s heart went back and found Colby’s comment about pastries being far too large and insistently offered, and drew a line under it. Colby Kent was an adept liar, or at least folder of truth into origami shapes. Colby no doubt did appreciate the thought and the offerings, though.

“We do try to make our guests feel at home,” Carrie said cheerfully. “But it’s not anything like what you can do. We’ve got to share this with everyone, because it’s such a good story.”

“Oh, no,” Colby tried, “that wasn’t anything, you don’t have to tell them—”

“Colby was originally scheduled to come on a while ago,” Max said over him, “and he had to cancel, which is why he’s here today, but not only did he call us personally to apologize…”

“…he also, and I’m not even kidding, baked—like, with his own hands, personally baked—and sent over a basket of shortbread with a handwritten note,” Carrie jumped in. “Who even does that? People, this is the kind of man you want.”

“Shortbread’s easy,” Colby protested, but meekly, partly for effect and partly not. He had a hair-tie on one wrist, but his hair—Will’s curling aristocratic mop of hair—had been left loose; it did suit him, Jason thought, as he’d thought before. Tempting, intriguing, graceful and mischievous. “And I did feel dreadful about canceling.”

“We framed the note,” Carrie said. “It’s a work of art. Here’s a picture.”

The audience, being a good audience, laughed and applauded. Colby’s handwriting was unmistakable, immaculate, flowing. Jason’s heart recognized it immediately.

“We can never be annoyed with you,” Max promised. “Definitely not if you keep bribing us with baked goods. What was the reason, though? No one said. Just a scheduling conflict, or some secret project you can’t talk about, or what?”

“Really only that.” Colby’s expression did not crack. Pure approachable friendliness. “The former, I mean. Something came up, and I couldn’t—it was only terrible timing, I’m afraid. But I’m here now. Ask me all your questions. Though no questions about my shortbread recipe, top secret, sorry.”

More laughter. Jason’s chest ached with pride, with concern.

“We were going to ask you,” Carrie said, “about the Children’s Literacy Foundation play you were doing then, the charity night, because you’d just come back from London, being in that…”

“I did, yes.” Colby’s eyes got brighter: more enthusiasm. “I’ve worked with them for years. Financially, certainly, but I do always try to be a part of the yearly showcase performances. Even if it’s only a walk-on role. I don’t know who I’d be without books—they were my friends, growing up—and of course this year they were doing adaptations and revisions of Shakespeare, and I’d done exactly that with Romeo and Jules a few years back—I don’t know if you’ve seen it—oh, you have, thank you, that’s very kind—so we were all very excited.”

Jason had cheered a little along with the audience. He also said aloud, “Colby, come on, of course they’ve seen it, stop that,” because just about everyone had seen it—it’d helped make Colby Kent a break-out star—and because he and the multiple beers thought Colby needed a good talking-to about self-esteem, and also a lot of soft blankets and cuddling and fortress-walls to keep out harm. The desires were myriad and confusing.

The children and books discussion led to jokes about Colby being a model student, both grades and behavior—true, apparently, and not a surprise—and then to teasing about how this studiousness had turned into an acting career. Colby took a sip of coffee from the studio-logo mug. “But you know that story, it’s hardly an interesting one, you can’t possibly want me to tell it again.”

Carrie laughed. “We do, but not everyone does, and it’s an excuse to show them all a picture of this…”

This popped up on the screen. It had blond-streaked floppy hair and an intense expression and sunnily tanned skin, and was wearing what’d likely been the height of high-school fashion, back then. Teenage Colby had sharper edges—so he’d always been thin, Jason registered vaguely—and more dramatic eyebrows, and gazed at the camera as if it were more a challenge than a friend.

The eyes were and weren’t the same. Younger, with fewer leaden weights behind the blue, but that exact arresting color. And that wariness: even a much younger Colby had learned about walls and distance. The spear of blue hit Jason’s chest and stayed there, lodged and quivering.

“All right,” Colby contributed, being humbly entertained by his own past, “I can justify the hair, I promise…”

“Can you, though?” Carrie lifted joking eyebrows at a camera.

Colby waited a beat, romantic-comedy expert timing on full display. “…no, no, actually I can’t. Go on, then. Mock me.”

Everyone laughed more.

“Can you tell us the story anyway?” Max asked. “One more time. I mean, it’s pretty impressive. Your background—you’ve got a dad in politics, a mom who’s, like, hosting international literary parties and winning awards for her poetry, you grew up in all those exotic places…you were already basically a celebrity, right?”

“Oh, no, not at all.” Colby hid behind the coffee again. “I was…to be honest, I was rather painfully shy. And we moved around so much that I was always the new kid in school, and I’ve never been good at, well, people. So I spent a lot of time on my own. And it’s not precisely the same kind of fame, not like Hollywood.”

“Bet it’s nice, though.”

“Well…I won’t say I didn’t appreciate being able to buy all the books I wanted.” That was a joke, and delivered as one; but Jason caught the way those blue eyes ducked away from the answer, for a second. “I know I grew up with quite a lot of privilege. I’ve tried to do something with it, as much as I can, getting back to the Foundation question…”

“Right, of course.” Max waved this aside. “And you bake shortbread for morning show hosts. But tell us your actual first audition story. We’re talking about South Coast, for any of you audience members who were living under a rock and deprived of your classic teenage melodrama.”

Jason knew about South Coast in general terms—again, most people did; it’d ridden the pop-culture waves for years, way back when—and he knew that Colby’d been on it for a while, not main cast but recurring. But he hadn’t heard this story.

He found himself leaning forward. He also found himself irritated on Colby’s behalf: of course Colby Kent did come from a certain amount of privilege, undeniably so, but Colby did try to help people—Colby did help people, over and over, people who needed encouragement about auditions or carefully chosen words about character at just the right time, in a pool, at a bar—Colby, even when obviously hurting, apologized for not doing enough

His hands had dug canyons into a pillow. He unclenched them.

“It wasn’t even my audition.” Colby glanced out at the audience, at the cameras. “I had a friend, in high school—not a terribly close friend, but we were both on the swim team—oh, sorry, this was after we’d moved to California, and the school I ended up in had quite a lot of…let’s say children of celebrities, aspiring actors, and so on. So he’d booked the audition, and he didn’t have a car—actually he did, but I think he’d got into a accident or something, the previous night…I’m telling this horribly, aren’t I?”

“No, not at all, go on—so you offered to drive—”

“I did, just as a favor.” Colby did a little abashed nose-scrunch and smile. Jason was ninety-nine percent sure this was borrowed from his role as Mark in Local News: charmingly flustered by attention. “And then we got there, and he got so nervous he wasn’t certain he could go in, and I offered to help practice lines out in the hallway, and…”

“And the casting director had—”

“Had just walked out there looking for someone else, yes.”

“So you got it.”

“I felt awful about it.”

“Yeah, except for how you actually got the part. I bet that felt good.”

“In fact I nearly didn’t do it. I felt as if I’d done something wrong, you know, taken it away from someone who really wanted it. But they told me how much they wanted me for it, they even rewrote the role to be a bit bigger so they could use me speaking French and German and having a mysterious European background, and I couldn’t say no and let everyone down.”

The audience made adoring noises. Jason couldn’t blame them.

“I think we actually have one more picture.” Carrie turned to the screen. “This is you as Stefan, picking up Casey for the dance…”

The screen displayed teenage Colby in a fitted tuxedo, hair darkened and slicked back, young and wealthy and spoiled and anxious but hiding it under style and money and exchange-student sophistication.

“Oh, dear.” Colby peeked up at himself. “That hair’s not any better, is it…”

“Lots of people loved it. Speaking of hair, I can’t help noticing yours, right now. That’s for the film you’re shooting with Jillian Poe, right?”

Colby lit up at the mention of Jill, of the Steadfast. “Yes! I can’t wait for you all to see it. Obviously we’ve only just started filming, but it’s going marvelously, I love the book, I always have, it’s such an important historical love story, and we’ve got such a wonderful group of people—”

“Right, yeah,” Carrie put in, leaning his way. “People. Jason Action Hero Mirelli. Let’s talk about that.”

“Oh—yes, let’s!” Colby, enthusiasm interrupted and redirected but not dimmed, sparkled at her and either did not notice or ignored the mild skepticism regarding the name-drop. “Jason’s fantastic. I’ve always thought so—no, honestly I have, I’ve seen all the John Kill movies. And when he came in for the audition he just…he was Stephen. He got everything we were looking for and more—he’d fallen in love with the story the same way we had, only he also had his own take on it, he was his version of Stephen, and I couldn’t picture anyone else in the role. He’s going to amaze everyone. Just wait.”

Jason stabbed a finger at the pause button. Couldn’t move. Listened to the wild drumming of his own heart. Frozen in place on a pillow-strewn luxurious bed.

It was so much. Too much. He couldn’t take it in.

Colby thought he was amazing. Had said it out loud. On camera. For everyone to hear.

Colby understood. Had seen the way Jason’d fallen head over heels for this script and these men and this story, and said that aloud too: praise not for Jason’s muscles or kicking or punching, but for understanding of character. Of…

…love.

He stared at his hand on the laptop keys. He stared at Colby’s face, poised in sincere exuberant reply.

Colby’d set up expectations, now—so many of them, so high—

But Colby Kent knew about acting. About roles. About their craft, and about honesty. That opinion mattered.

And Colby was sincere. That had been the most genuine part of the interview so far: blue eyes forgetting to fake confidence and finding instead utter delight. Colby believed every word.

And if Colby did believe it…and said it to the world…

He’d thought about Colby rescuing him, before. He hadn’t known. He hadn’t thought it enough. Not for this.

The words lingered. Grew bigger. Became mountains, momentous, bedrock.

World reshaped, Jason hit play. Listened more.

“That sounds pretty impressive,” Carrie agreed. “We’ll look forward to seeing what he can do opposite you. Can you tell us more about the film? It’s a project you feel strongly about, isn’t it?”

“It is.” Colby curled hands around the coffee-mug, a kitten with a caffeine shield. “It’s important. I’ve loved the novel for ages, and the film version will reach a lot of people, or I hope so. That representation—the idea that, yes, there’s a real queer history, in this case particularly gay history…there’re these love stories, this kind of passion that goes back centuries—seeing that love presented as worthwhile and beautiful and natural and part of the fabric of who we are and who we’ve been…that matters. Will and Stephen and their love mattered for me when I first read the book, when I was a lot younger and—and figuring out who I was. I’m hoping we can tell their story for other people now. Which sounds awfully grandiose, I’m sorry, it’s also just a brilliant story. It’s got historical drama and sex and battles and ballrooms and fabulous costumes, so go and see it for all of that.”

Jason hit pause again. Too many emotions. Coiled into a ball in his gut, burning behind his eyes.

Everything Colby’d said, all those words, reached down and found Jason’s own inarticulate yearnings and tugged them upward. Back before the audition he’d thought almost exactly that: this matters, I want to do this, I want to be a part of this. This is something good.

And it mattered for you, he thought. When you were younger. When you were figuring things out.

He guessed, from previous lightly skimmed-past admissions, that a lot of that figuring out of things had happened very much alone, or with only books for company. Oh, he thought. Oh, Colby.

Jason himself had always wanted to do this story justice. Somehow he wanted that even more now. For those blue eyes, which’d entrusted him with the heart of it.

The follow-up question involved the real-life truth of the plot. Colby explained that the novel was of course historical fiction, extrapolation, some narrative license with the timeline and invented conversations and side characters; but yes, the core was true, based on surviving letters and Will Crawford’s notes. This prompted some discussion of accuracy and responsibility, and Colby gave thoughtful and historically knowledgeable replies, cradling coffee. Jason felt every earnest melodic syllable resonate through laptop speakers, soaking into his bones, part of him now.

The interview was wrapping up, nearly out of time; Carrie and Max thanked Colby for coming in and for sharing details about the film and for being a good sport about the teenage hair. Colby smiled, and thanked them for having him; he even meant it, or at least no other emotion was detectable.

As the video ended, music came in; the camera zoomed out as Colby got up. So did Carrie, who jumped up and ran around the desk to hug him.

Colby did not seem to have been expecting this, and flinched—enough to collide with his chair—but spun the reaction into an exaggerated comedic moment, an accusatory pointing at the chair, a joke, a laugh. Jason couldn’t hear what he said, but it made Carrie laugh too, everybody on the same page, untroubled and breezy. And that was that. No more footage.

Jason discovered his hands clutching the pillowcase again.

Colby had run onto their film set after that ending note, after the entire morning, and had smiled at him. Had cheered him on, and had come to a bar with him, sitting with him, at his side.

There weren’t words for that kind of courage. No script pages or grand speeches or monologues. Nothing that’d ever be big enough.

He swallowed around the knot in his throat.

He closed his laptop. He needed to sleep; he needed to be on set in the morning, ready to work, trading lines with Leo and the Steadfast’s crew.

He needed to do something. Anything. Action. Fighting evildoers.

He understood that he couldn’t; he couldn’t magically go back and drop-kick the past into being better, and he didn’t even know any real details. Besides, Colby didn’t need someone blundering in and trampling all over him. If anything, Colby was the one doing the rescuing, when Jason couldn’t cope.

He thought of pizza, and bodyguards, and shoes. Of striped socks and the shape of Colby’s ankle. His hands tingled, remembering.

He thought that maybe, maybe, he was doing something.

He wanted to keep doing it. As long as he was allowed.

He glanced at Allie’s envelope, where he’d scooped it up and tossed it onto the desk. Colby’s enchanted handwriting shimmered darkly on the front. He caught himself smiling: bittersweet, hurting on behalf of those blue eyes but oddly hopeful too, bewildered and wanting and tangled up in perilous quests.

Worthwhile, those quests. No question.

He got up from the bed and went to find his toothbrush; wandering back out, he moved the laptop off the bed, and thought about texting Colby in the morning. Despite the toothbrush, he ended up smiling more.

 

Colby, after Jason left, lay without moving for a moment, hugged by and hugging pillows. The door really had shut; he could see it. No one coming in or out. His room, his space.

His boots sat in their parade line beside the bed. They kept silent, but they looked contented.

He closed both eyes, opened them.

He was perhaps closer to drunk than he’d meant to be, but not as far gone as Jason so plainly thought. He’d always had a fairly high alcohol tolerance, though of course he was so tired lately and he hadn’t been eating.

He’d eaten more tonight than he had for…some time. Quite a while. He felt full and comfortable and slightly drowsy.

He wiggled toes. Those were also comfortable. Because Jason had knelt, and had kindly, with firm hands, removed his shoes. Jason had brought over water and ensured he got into bed, and had touched him—

And then had left. No demands. No assumptions. No pushing for more.

Colby nestled further into pillows, and tried to sort out what he was feeling. The rum and gin and pineapple and lime juices did not help with this.

He hadn’t wanted Jason to stay. Or had he?

He wasn’t intoxicated enough to not have noticed the look in Jason’s eyes. Out in the hall, and earlier, in the bar. Deep brown and hot and smoky. Drinking him in.

Jason wanted him. Jason had thought about pulling him close, tasting his lips, using those muscles to claim him. It’d been visible.

But Jason hadn’t gone through with it. That was the part he didn’t understand.

Jason wanted him, wanted something from him, and hadn’t asked for it or demanded it. Colby closed his eyes again. The bedside light throbbed with brightness.

He would’ve even gone along. He knew himself, and he would have; it would’ve been easier, simple, nothing he’d not done before. He would have tried his best to make Jason happy; he was fairly certain that Jason would not take pleasure in hurting him or intimidating him, despite the muscles, so that would’ve been all right. He might be wrong about that—some people hid darker desires well—but he didn’t think so.

But Jason hadn’t asked. Possibly did not want him enough to ask. Not worth more than the passing thought.

And, to make everything more confusing, Colby himself might—maybe, potentially, perhaps—even want Jason.

He didn’t understand that either. He hadn’t thought he could—too exhausted, too many memories, too cold—but he’d ended up helplessly half-hard at the weight of those big hands on his feet, sliding his boots tenderly off, resting over an ankle. He wanted to feel the rest of that weight atop him, around him, holding him. Sinking inside him, filling him up, so large he could feel it for days…so powerful and solid and present, thrusting inside him, keeping him secure and opened up and cherished…on his back, Jason over him, moving deep in him, wanting him, while Colby could only moan and gasp and give himself over to those big kind hands and that strength…

God. He was hard, now: his cock pressed against his briefs, rigid. Somewhere between thorough shock and a shuddering yes, he slid a hand down, touched himself—just once, through clothing—and then lifted the hand.

Too much. The touching hadn’t felt right. Too real.

He couldn’t want Jason. Not like that. His stomach lurched. Not the fault of the alcohol.

Jason probably wouldn’t hurt him, probably would even care if it was good for him, but if Jason didn’t think that way—

Phantom scars swam up, both physical and not. Ghosts haunting his body.

Other touches he hadn’t wanted. Those jokes about sharing him. Those comments, delivered with a laugh up until the last time, when they hadn’t been, about him not being good enough, not willing to have some extra fun, to make things more interesting. The very first time, interesting’d meant handcuffs and a vicious slap across the face; Colby’d agreed beforehand to the cuffs and to Liam’s suggestion of more roughness, figuring that, well, he did tend to like more dominant partners, he did at least some of his own stunt work on film sets, and if that was something that’d please his boyfriend, he shouldn’t have a problem with it. So he had said yes.

He’d said yes every time. Some of it hadn’t been that bad.

Afterward Liam was always in a good mood, happy with him; might even offer the indulgence of a walk to Colby’s favorite secondhand bookshop, especially if they could be photographed along the way. Liam had also had large biceps and gym-honed muscles and could hold a lot of books, and sometimes would drape an arm over Colby’s shoulders and smirk at a paparazzi flash, a well-timed moment of public affection captured on film.

Colby had observed the suspiciously performative timing. He’d thought, though, that maybe that didn’t matter: he’d known from the beginning that Liam liked drawing attention, which was fine because Colby himself wasn’t the best at social interactions and perhaps they could balance out; at least Liam wanted to visibly put arms around him in public, which had to mean something, and most affection was a performance in any case, wasn’t it? So he couldn’t expect more. It’d be silly to even ask. To have those thoughts.

The book-carrying had been nice. Umbrella-holding in London rain had been nice. The first night they’d met, at some industry party at yet another extravagant hotel, had been not so much nice as shockingly physical and shortly thereafter extremely indecent in a men’s room. Colby had been hiding in a corner, trying to behave and come up with appropriate small talk instead of prattling about clockwork men and fantasy novels, and wondering how soon might be acceptable as far as departing early. Liam had come right up and put a hand on his arm and looked him up and down, and the excuse of an offer to share a drink had turned into Colby pinned against an artistically-tiled wall in the back stall with his suit shoved out of the way and Liam’s hand over his mouth to muffle gasps and moans and near-screams at the thorough pounding.

He had always liked more dominant men. He’d rather wistfully liked the idea that someone could want him, Colby, enough for that: incontrovertible, irresistible, immediate, a whirlwind. It hadn’t all been terrible.

Unless maybe it had been. He didn’t know. He didn’t know how to think about it all. Too amorphous, too slippery.

He wasn’t hard anymore.

He knew, or he thought he knew, he deserved at least a bit better than that. He might not be good enough, he wouldn’t even argue that one, but he did try. Surely the more appropriate response would’ve been to explain what he could do better, or fix, or learn. And he did not think he’d deserved to be hurt, when he’d said that it did hurt and please stop; and he did not think that he’d subsequently deserved to be cheated on.

He stopped to have those last thoughts again, surprised by how sharp and defined they were. Yes, he meant them. Every word. Jillian would be proud, if he told her.

He wanted to cry and he wasn’t sure why. He wanted to be angry and he wasn’t sure why—no, that was wrong, he knew why. He wasn’t sure why now.

He wanted Jason to come back and hold him, or maybe to please have sex with him, and he wasn’t certain he could do that without panicking, and he most of all wanted to be able to ask Jason to hold him.

His heart had done that annoying too-quick speeding-up again. His hands were cold despite the pillow-companions. He breathed in and out, counted to five and then did it again, and tried not to think about anything at all for several seconds.

He opened both eyes. Let the familiar hotel light dazzle his vision.

When he looked that way he saw the water bottle, and his room key. Where Jason’d left them. On the table.

Jason wanted him and had taken care of him and had left without touching him, because Jason was a kind man and understood about pain and trauma and wounds that kept on breaking open. Jason did not, could not, care about him—Colby knew that too, no need to ask the question. Jason was a good person and perhaps coming to be a friend; Jason might desire him, might or might not ever ask for that, but wouldn’t fall in love with him.

Colby was not the sort of person that anyone loved, at least not that deeply. He knew that. He’d known it for so long he couldn’t remember it not being true.

Jason deserved better. Someone not a walking disaster of ghosts and hauntings, ridiculous rambling words and silly little interests, pens and museums and recipes. Someone who’d be a more fitting match for all that giant considerate gentleness.

He bit his lip, felt the sting.

He needed to finish packing; he couldn’t fall asleep here on the spot. He sat more upright.

He saw his boots again.

They hadn’t moved; they gaped up at him as he looked down. They reminded him without words that Jason had chosen to care for him, tonight. That he himself had trusted Jason with that: with a touch, a shy gift of music at the bar, a wanting.

Because he did. He wanted. He did not know whether he could ever do anything about it, or whether Jason would even care to know; but the strange shape of it had turned up and refused to go away, lodging itself like gold behind his breastbone, in his stomach, lower.

Some sort of triumph, he thought. Like a dive into water. Like Jason coming out of the tank on set, dripping wet and herculean in stature, glowing with success. Like shared small pieces of his childhood, and Jason deciding to order him breakfast and offering to fly over early for rehearsals and time together.

Jason, with that honest heart, wouldn’t’ve made the offer without meaning it. The hidden seam of gold got a bit less hidden, closer to the surface.

Maybe, if Jason wanted that much, then—

He was afraid to even think that one, but he let the unformed susurration of it drift and whisper and remain.

He’d thought about Will and Stephen, in this room, getting ready to go out. He’d thought about love and being part of the world. Everything he’d said in the morning’s interview had been true. Everything he’d felt, agreeing to come to the bar, sitting next to Jason, had been true.

He was happy that he had ventured out, tonight. He did not regret it.

He was certain about that.

And that certainty made a few other building-blocks rattle around and settle into place. He’d thought the word love. He did not know whether that would apply to his present emotions, and he wasn’t sure that he even wanted it to, at least not yet. But when he thought about Jason he thought about trust and hope and safe earth-warm places and very nice shoulders and, all right, yes, even desire; those were good thoughts, small bright colorful thoughts, and he liked them.

Color, he thought. The grey of his sleeve caught his attention. He for some reason wanted to wear blue. Or red. Or maybe even pink. Jason might be entertained if he did, after the borrowed high heels story.

He picked up the water, took off the cap, took a sip. He liked water, he decided. It was also very nice. Like Jason’s shoulders, and chest, and indeed entire body.

He was quite possibly still somewhat less than perfectly sober.

This fact would also help explain the dramatically swinging carnival ride his emotions’d just taken. But he’d needed to, he thought, not that that made sense. He’d needed this. And he wasn’t even properly drunk, not much; he’d finish this water—which Jason’d brought him, which made him smile involuntarily—and be more or less back to normal.

He said out loud, to his boots, “Thank you.”

The boots said nothing, loudly.

“Oh, yes, fine,” Colby agreed, “I should finish packing, we have to get up early, I know,” and tapped toes against the bed, idly. Striped socks and the impression of Jason’s hands. Water and warmth.

I don’t know what I’m doing, he thought. I don’t know, and I’m an utterly pathetic mess, but I’m also somehow someone Jason wants to feed and fuss over. And he said I did help. He said I did something to help him. I can do that. I can help people.

He thought about England. About gauzy rain and history-paved roads. About spending time with Jason. Who wanted to arrive early. To be there with him.

Maybe, he thought, sometimes some things are real. If I believe them.

He regarded his open suitcase and stray scarves. He drank more water. He’d have to get up in the morning and get on a plane, and it’d be a depressingly specific form of hell; he was not looking forward to that.

But Jill had arranged security, and he could message Jason if he wanted a distraction—he would in any case, once breakfast arrived, whatever Jason’d ended up ordering for him—and he’d be uncomfortable but he’d be okay.

He believed that.

He looked at the water bottle. He said to it, after a second, “Would you like to know a secret? It’s not really much of one. It’s just that I’ve not said it out loud yet. But you like Jason too, don’t you? So I can say it. I do like him. He makes me smile. He makes me want to try—I don’t know, lots of things. Singing for him. Cooking for him. Talking about ice cream and world domination. Letting him take off my boots. I like his hands. I could try that. Touching one of his hands. He might not mind that. What do you think?”

The bottle, being plastic, did not have words. But the water reflected bedside light, here in the room where Jason had stood and knelt and left and been kind; Colby thought about Jason and about water and about trying things. He concluded that this was a yes.

Chapter Text

“Jason!”

That voice. Storied and unmistakable. Unlike anything else in the world. It echoed through the Georgian townhouse and down the polished staircase. It swept away long flights and the creak in Jason’s back just by existing.

Colby himself popped out of a gilded door and plunged down the stairs, enthusiasm transforming Will Crawford’s pale sickly make-up into a lie. “You’re even earlier than you said you’d be! How was the flight? Did your sister like her present? Did you have lunch? What do you think of the hotel? I know the beds are a bit small but it’s such a lovely place and I can’t resist somewhere with shelves of books for guests to borrow and that beautiful eighteenth-century brickwork and—oh, sorry, sorry, you’ve only just got here and I’m talking at you!”

“I told you I like it.” Jason gazed at him, drank him in, adored every talkative inch. Colby looked good: energetic and happy, dressed up in leg-hugging breeches and a fitted blue-and-silver waistcoat, hair tied back and cravat coming loose. This was Colby Kent as English aristocracy, having spent the last four days writing letters and deciphering codes and meeting with spymasters and commanders; Jason could see it all, looking at him. Modern edges and historic heroism. Ink on a thumb and love of books and bricks. Camera crews and shiny viscount’s boots. “The flight was good, Allie shrieked out loud in a coffee shop and thinks you’re the best human being ever to exist—”

In fact, Allie had also suggested that Jason not let Colby out of his life ever, post-filming, on the basis that both Colby and Jason apparently deserved someone equally wonderful. Jason had sighed and pointed out that Colby wasn’t interested in anyone right now and even if so could do way better than an aging action star, and being a future lawyer did not make his sister automatically right about relationships, and also Allie did not deserve the last cake pop, in retaliation for her expression when he’d said that. He did not tell Colby any of this. 

“—and no I haven’t had lunch, I like the hotel but haven’t been there much—just tossed everything in the room and came over here—and I like that they have books. How’s filming?”

“Marvelous.” Colby waved up the stairs at Laura, their Director of Photography, who’d come over even before he had, to help sort out camera work and angles and lighting for historic sets. “I’ll be back in half a minute, I promise!—really we’re getting a lot done. They’d been covering the exteriors and establishing footage even before I got here, and it’s looking wonderful, absolutely spot-on recreated Regency London. The upper-class bits, at least. Will’s London house. So we’ve been doing a lot of the politics and messengers and meetings, and close-ups of me, and me being ill, of course. We did the whole stair fall and stunt work yesterday, and I’ve got bruises in fascinating places, but it looks excellent on film. I’ve got to go and sit at a desk and do some translation work, but I do have a break after this, if you don’t have plans?”

“I had plans to be here.” He wanted to ask about the bruises; he wanted to reach out and pull Colby close; he wanted to stand there and keep enjoying every word. Only four days apart, and he’d never known he could miss someone’s voice so much. Someone’s hair. Someone’s passion. “Should I just stay out of your way?”

“You can come up and watch if you’d like.” Colby bounced back toward the staircase; they fell into rhythm, going up. “It won’t take long. They’ll need me back for some of the evening close-ups—we’ll need you for that, eventually—but I’ve got the afternoon free. I apologize on behalf of my country’s weather, by the way. Today’s in fact less wet than the previous two.”

“I don’t mind rain.” He didn’t. It was a welcoming kind of rain: twinkly, mist-hung, bathing the world in diamonds. It fit this townhouse. This history, intimate and valuable. “Helpful, kind of. Good for…growing things.” Talking. Words. What were they, again?

Colby’s smile lightened their next steps. “If I could control the weather I’d make certain we had rain. Not all the time, but for those afternoons when you just want to have a book and a cup of coffee and a giant armchair, all settled in.”

“You’d be a good weather wizard,” Jason agreed. “Benevolent. Plus you could fly. Controlling air currents.”

“It would be fun to be able to fly.” Colby considered fantasy implications. “I’ve always rather thought I’d like to be a dragon. Not a vicious one, but something nice and friendly, and of course I’d hoard books. And people could come and ask me for book recommendations, and I’d let them borrow anything they wanted. But I also like your weather magic idea. Can I be two things? A sort of draconic elemental wizard?”

“A draconic elemental wizard librarian,” Jason said. “I’d read that story.” Conversations with Colby were so much damn fun. When they weren’t concerning. Full of bruises. “Would you miss cooking? Or can dragons make pizza?”

“Hmm. I may have to be able to become human, then, when I want to. What are you, in this alternate universe? Also a wizard?”

“I like being your knight.” He had not quite meant to say your; it had slipped out. They’d reached the top of the staircase; Colby looked at him, and did not interrupt. “I’d be…okay, I totally came to ask for your dragon librarian advice, and ended up staying. Because books and magic—” And you, he yanked out of the sentence. “—were a lot more interesting than the traditional seeking my fortune quest. And I’ve always wanted an enchanted sword, so I have one of those, but the enchantment heals things. So if you ever drop a book on your foot or something, I can, um, fix any bruises.”

Colby started to say something, stopped, put that head on one side. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For…wanting to help with hypothetical injuries. I am glad you’re here, you know.”

“You are?”

“I am.” Colby’s eyes rested on his, blue and clear as the answer to a quest, the color of fairytale skies. “Who else would talk about dragons and book-hoards with me? And order breakfast for me? I have been eating, by the way.”

“Yeah,” Jason said. “I know. You sent me a picture of a spinach omelet yesterday.” Colby had started doing this after that first morning: a photo of that cinnamon and cream oatmeal and toast and strawberries and melon had arrived along with, you did say you wanted to know, and thank you again. Jason, waiting for the set dressers to finish with shipboard ropes, had answered that doesn’t mean you ate it, just that it got there. Colby, several minutes later, had sent him a follow-up photo of a mostly empty bowl and nibbled toast and strawberry tops: better? Jason had sent a thumbs-up before running onto a ship’s deck.

He added, “Thanks.”

“For texting you pictures of my food?” Colby did a little eyebrow-shrug at him, but did not move, lingering with Jason rather than returning to Will’s study. “You said you wanted me to. And I…well, I wanted to…”

“I did want you to,” Jason said, very softly. “I did, and you did, and I like that you did, okay?” He’d had a few days to think, in between Stephen’s troubles with storms and wartime rations and French cannons. He had noticed what they’d been doing; he wasn’t sure Colby had, but it’d been instinctive. Colby responded readily, even naturally, to words that sounded like orders or directions or dominance: you can order whatever you want as long as you eat something, tell me you’ve had breakfast, give me your room key so I can open your door…

He knew that he did not mind sliding into this role; he did like taking care of people, and that wasn’t always a component of all of his relationships, but he enjoyed the times when it was. He knew how easily he could hurt someone, too much size and strength and power, and he did not want to—but he liked arranging a scene, an encounter, props and roles and making sure it all went just right. He liked that the same way he liked walking around film sets, checking equipment, making sure. He liked being in charge, in that sense: the way that meant he could give someone else exactly what they needed or wanted.

And Colby needed someone caring for him. And listened to Jason’s suggestions without any real significant protest. And smiled when Jason told him to do something.

But that launched a whole host of bonus mines into the minefield. Colby might genuinely want to listen, but had also been recently—and badly—hurt. Colby might be scared and trying to keep someone with a lot of muscles happy. Colby might not have even realized that anything was happening at all; how much did Colby Kent know about kink and sex and control and surrender? He’d had a few past boyfriends, Jason knew, and from Jillian’s stories had at one years-ago point not been opposed to borrowing bright pink high heels and going out dancing at a gay nightclub, but that wasn’t the same thing, either.

He looked at Colby. Colby, in full Regency costume, eyes wide and sweet as the rain, looked back.

Colby Kent wore fuzzy sweaters with lots of buttons and liked books and by his own admission hadn’t ever been good at people. Jason couldn’t picture him in the same room as some of that leather-clad vocabulary.

This might be wrong, and it was definitely an assumption, but the pieces felt incongruous. Nobody’d dare. Corrupting a kitten. Scandalizing those pretty blue horizons.

But that was wrong too. Because Colby wasn’t innocent, wasn’t naïve. Someone had hurt him.

And even before that, even with the money and the staff and the houses, he’d known about loneliness and isolation. Jason had put that much together. Colby came with layers, with history like this townhouse and that brickwork he’d mentioned; Jason kept finding new stories and questions and complications. He thought he’d never get tired of that: learning Colby.

“Colby,” Laura called, and they both jumped. “You coming, or what?”

“Sorry!” Colby said that direction. “Jason…”

“Go on,” Jason said. “I’ll hang out and watch. If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all. It’ll be helpful in any case, having you—Stephen—to look at, when I’m thinking of you.”

Jason spread hands. “Look at me all you want?”

Colby laughed. The townhouse rang with it: delight, and the patter of rain. Jason’s heart took and folded up and kept the sound, letting it heat him from the inside.

 

Jason was here. Jason was here—early, even, flight having got in quicker than the scheduled time—and on set. Jason was big and airport-tired and indisputably present, filling up space, shoulders broad in that black jacket, thighs impressively attractive in faded jeans, caressed by denim.

Colby couldn’t even recall his own words of a minute ago. Something about history. Dragons. Magic. Even if he wasn’t sure precisely what he’d babbled at Jason, he’d never forget Jason’s answer: I like being your knight, I’d stay with you, I can heal your bruises.

Present non-fantasy bruises twinged. On his hip, on a knee. An elbow. He didn’t feel them, much. Jason’s grin wrapped every aching spot up in heat and light like forest paths in summer. Like roads opening up.

He forgot to move, standing outside Will’s study, basking in that big glowing sun.

Jason raised eyebrows. “Weren’t you—”

“Oh! Oh, yes, right, s—I mean, yes, going!” Not apologizing. Jason had told him not to. Right.

Back inside. Dashing over to Will’s desk. Artistically bent over notations and timetables. He couldn’t not feel Jason’s presence at his back, behind the camera lens, exchanging friendly greetings with Laura and the crew.

Ready. Starting again. He contemplated messages, interceptions, secret languages. He scratched pen across paper.

He let Will’s need fill him up, saturate each thought, stretch through every crystalline moment of focused genius. That gifted naturalist’s mind would turn itself to spycraft and encryptions and the fates of nations, because among their fates lay the future of the man Will Crawford loved. Stephen and the Steadfast moved around the seas in the grip of tides oceanic and political, and Will had a way to change those tides, to shift them for the better. He could not run away to serve on a ship’s deck and he was a terrible shot with a pistol, but this: this he could do.

He did not lose himself in the cool and logical crackling challenge of numbers and letters and puzzles; he felt the clean-edged satisfaction of solutions, but he held onto Stephen’s image. The scorching press of Stephen’s kiss. The leap of Will’s own heart upon seeing that familiar silhouette, every time.

That part was easy. Colby’s heart had done the same when Jason’d walked in the door.

And Jason was here. Had come. Had wanted to come. That’d happened.

He nearly laughed aloud mid-scene, and he did not know where that’d come from: buoyant and airy.

He bent back to a smudged half-torn message instead.

He finished working out a time and a place and a plan. He glanced at the clock.

On cue, the fictional Lord Cary’s courier came in. “My lord Easterly—”

“Yes,” Colby interrupted. “Here. It’s finished. The blue-sealed version is the accurate transcription. The red one is the flawed replacement for that messenger’s pouch. Tell Richard I’ll have the next batch of dispatches from the Continent done by midnight. If he leaves me alone.”

Young Eric, playing the courier, did not react to this informality; not only had he been briefed as to the eccentricities of the aristocracy and this representative in particular, but given his profession had likely seen and heard worse. Colby had been impressed by Eric; the role might be small and nameless, but he disappeared into it with skill and also gave it an interesting secret-agent edge, as if capable of much more behind implacable blandness. “Thank you, my lord.”

Colby waved him away. Went back to writing, the way Will would through weeks and months of war. Paused to cough; leaned on a hand for an instant, struggling. Only an instant, though: no room for weakness. Not when he could save lives; not when he could save Stephen’s life.

They’d already done the aftermath. The consequences. Will crumpling into unconsciousness at the top of those stairs. Falling. Incandescent but burnt up from the inside. Nothing left to give.

His knee throbbed, reminding him. He’d hit it hard against a step on the third take. Nothing some ice and rest wouldn’t cure.

He read a translation, exhaled, thought of lives held in his hand: in the numbers and words and information recorded in his handwriting, his responsibility. He ran a hand over his face, let the responsibility sit on his shoulders and make them sag, just for an eyeblink, with no one else around.

He straightened up, and got back to work.

And that was that scene, at least that take. Laura approved, but they did it again anyway, different close-ups, wide shots, more lingering on his face. Jason asked a question or two about techniques and camera work, different from his more usual rapid-cut action-movie experience; Colby didn’t quite catch all the words.

He liked that Jason cared. He liked that Jason wanted to know more. He liked Jason watching: he knew he could do this, he knew several of those takes had been good, evocative and poignant and taut with emotion. He did not think that was being arrogant, but something bashful in the vicinity of his heart hoped that Jason had seen that those were good takes, that Colby was good at this, and this might be something Jason liked.

One last take, and Laura gave him a thumbs-up. “Okay, we need you ready again by six, so you’ve got about three hours! Everybody else, time for the downstairs staff to worry a lot about Will! Jason, go take him away and make sure he eats something.”

Colby hopped to both feet. Spread hands at her and the rest of the universe, entertained more than arguing. “I’m dying of consumption! Why does everyone suddenly care whether I eat?”

He realized belatedly that he’d done this half in character and half not: not truly dying, and in his own voice, but with Will’s complete lack of fear of eyes landing on him. At least he thought that was Will.

One set of those eyes belonged to Jason. They were earth-brown and amused and approving.

“Because you’re too thin!” at least three people chorused back at him: Laura, Jason, and a passing key grip he’d met once whose name was almost certainly Peter. Colby sighed.

“Come on.” Jason emerged from behind cameras. “Craft services?”

“Fine, yes…oh, I’ve got something I need to give you! Two things, in fact.” They fell into step again, heading down. “One’s the new version of our first scene here. The, er…”

“After we’ve…” Jason hesitated. “When we’re in bed, I mean after we…I thought we were just holding each other? Maybe just a few words? Dissolving into the next day?”

“It was that, but it didn’t feel right.” He caught back the revelation: no escaping. He wasn’t ready to admit that secret yet. It wasn’t even entirely his own to decide to share. He and Jillian had had this arrangement in place for years; he did that occasional polishing and tidying-up and coaxing lustrous color out of scripts that perhaps needed one more pass of a jeweler’s touch-up hands, and she did not tell anyone the name of her jeweler.

He didn’t even do much. Not worthwhile writing. Not like his mother. Only solving problems if they happened to arise. Nothing deserving of attention.

Jason, who played along with ramblings about dragons and quests, who got excessively protective over drinks and footwear, might be at least a tiny bit interested if given a hint. And Colby had almost given it away, just now. Too easy to talk.

Funny how that happened. Things becoming easier, around Jason.

He edited cautiously, “I mean, er, Jill thought it needed more. More of them being together, so that we can see how well they fit when they’re happy, if that makes sense? Not all war-torn angst and peril. So I’ve just got that to look over, you’ll have the email as well with the digital copy, but I’ve got the printed version.”

“Sounds good.” They’d reached the base of the stairs, and Jason paused, so Colby paused.

After several perplexed seconds he figured out that Jason did not in fact know where they were headed, and flushed in embarrassment. “Right, sorry—I mean, yes, this way. Old carriage yard. I’ve also got something else, but that one’s a surprise—oh, no, hang on, I know how you feel about surprises. Ah, it’s edible? I’ve sort of made it. Them. This morning.”

“You made something?” Jason paused again. Colby was going to have to reach out and push him to make him keep walking, at this point. “You didn’t have to.”

“I felt like baking.” He had. “I’ll sort out pizza when everyone else arrives, so it isn’t that. More just for you. Though I did share the test attempts with the crew, so possibly they ended up being for other people too, though at least one batch came out far too well done, but I was still getting to be friends with the hotel kitchen, after the staff very nicely let me in to practice. We’ve reached an understanding, I think.”

Jason was laughing, but kindly, and not exactly at him, or Colby thought not. “Of course you did. You would. And I want to know what you made, but sandwiches first, okay?”

“Definitely.” The rain had lifted; a shimmery veil of diamonds wreathed the carriage yard but hung unfallen. Crew and equipment snaked across old stones and new chairs, part of the story. Colby, arms slightly chilly under rolled-up sleeves, liked the tap of his own boots, the warmth being broadcast by Jason beside him, the crisp vibrant bite of air in his lungs.

That air tried to sneak under his feet and lift them up. Inexplicable lightness. Clarity in the swing of Jason’s jacket, the merriment in brown eyes, the matching of their steps.

He scooped up a sandwich—cheese and chutney, which tasted like home, and he was fabulously happy about this fact—and also a banana, because fruit was good and because he’d noticed Jason checking the amount of food being collected. “Stop that.”

“I was told to make sure.”

“Not by me.”

“You’re not impartial. One more sandwich.”

“We’re having dessert. In my trailer.”

Jason froze, hand halfway to a third sandwich for his own plate.

“I don’t even want to know what you’re thinking,” Colby said. “Good heavens. What on earth would make you think that dessert involved an innuendo? Wait, never mind, I can imagine certain scenes with trifle and whipped cream, and if you’ve started reading that series you know about the seductive nature of sugar when it’s so hard to come by on an airship—”

“Sugar,” Jason eked out. He’d begun blushing, which was impressive on so large a man. “Yeah…um, Colby…that’s…you didn’t mean…”

“I don’t know what you think I mean, but I literally mean I made dessert food.” Playing with fire, or at least sugar; he knew it. He didn’t care. Reckless, ridiculous, saying whatever came to mind: right now, with that diamond lightness under his feet and the knowledge that Jason’d fulfilled a promise, he could do anything.

“Oh fuck,” Jason said, a bit weakly.

“Darling.” Colby gave him the same eyes that’d stunned Leo over a martini glass. “Not until a week from now. When we film that scene. Remember?”

Jason made a noise. It was a very tiny yipe! kind of noise, not generally associated with kick-evildoers-in-the-face muscles.

Colby could not figure out how to interpret this—Jason being scared of the scene? of him? of loving men and being sexual, recorded for posterity? of having to want Colby Kent, someone nervous and unappealing, on camera?—and settled for, “Oh, bring your plate, come this way—” and got Jason to follow him. “We haven’t got room for big trailers—they’ve said if we want them we’ve got a car-park space down the street—but we’ve arranged tiny pop-ups, at least, so this is mine, come on in?”

Jason ducked that head, avoided collision with the doorframe, straightened up. He conquered ninety percent of the space just by being in it. Colby’s microwave and portable coffee machine and mini-fridge and two-person almost-sofa took up the rest.

Jason, juggling muscles and sandwiches, visibly searched for somewhere to put himself. Colby dropped his own plate atop the fridge, pointed at the furniture, dove into the microwave—it’d been playing storage—and stuck his head back out to say, “Sit down!”

“It’s your couch…”

“And you’re my guest. Sit.” He reemerged with the small box, ran the single step back to Jason’s side, forgot to pick up his own plate, mentally shrugged, and perched on the nearest sofa-arm. “Here. They’re better warm, but I haven’t exactly got an oven in here, and I don’t think the texture holds up in the microwave, and also I was happy with the way they looked, and I didn’t want to disturb them, and—oh, just take it.”

Jason tried to balance a plate in one hand and open a neatly tied white pastry box with the other. Colby said hastily, “Sorry, I can help—” and took the plate. Their fingers almost touched. Not quite. But almost.

Jason opened the box. Looked in. Looked up. “You made these?”

The nest of zeppole bobbled merrily at them both from red and white checkered paper: round and fluffy fried Italian doughnut shapes. He’d left half plain and dusted half with cinnamon sugar. “They’re made with ricotta. Because—”

“You like cheese. And flavors.” Jason took one out with more gentleness than a small doughnut really deserved. “And cinnamon.”

“I wasn’t sure if you’d prefer plain, so half of them are?”

“You did this…this morning?”

Colby adjusted hands around Jason’s plate. His pulse had sped up. “Of course they’re probably not up to any kind of standard, I’d never tried this recipe before two days ago, and the frying part takes some practice, I managed to attack myself with hot oil twice, and—”

“Colby,” Jason said, and Colby stopped talking. “You literally learned how to make Italian doughnuts…two days ago…and asked someone if you could borrow the hotel kitchen…and stuck your hands into boiling oil…for me?”

“I did borrow kitchen implements. Not bare hands. If you don’t want them it’s fine, I know I didn’t ask, I only thought you might like—”

Jason put a whole doughnut into his mouth. One of the cinnamon ones.

“Oh,” Colby said. “Well, then…”

He did not have a plan for that sentence, but it didn’t matter; Jason swallowed, stared at him, and announced, completely serious, “At least as good as Nonna’s.”

“That can’t possibly—”

“She’d kill me if I said better. I don’t dare compare. And you’re like a kitchen god.” Jason was eating while talking. “Or a wizard. A fucking genius wizard. Did you have any?”

“Um. One? Only to see if they tasted all right?”

Jason shoved the box at him. “Eat more before I eat them all. Why are you still holding my plate? What happened to yours?”

Colby traded plate for doughnut. Approved of his own efforts regarding texture. “Not bad, I think? Far better than the first attempt. Sadly overdone. Not at all godlike.”

“What the hell,” Jason said, “not bad, what even—” and lowered eyebrows at him over the box. Sandwiches wobbled precariously on the other sofa-arm. “You know these’re incredible. Did you say you got hurt?”

“No—”

“Hot oil?”

“Oh, well…only a bit. I’ve done far worse in other kitchens on previous occasions.” He tilted an arm, attempted to find fading pink under a rolled-up sleeve. “You can’t even see it. Make-up, this shirt…it’s mostly gone by now in any case. I’m glad you like them.”

“You made them,” Jason said, “for me,” and studied him across a box, through the scent of sugary fried dough.

Colby, caught in between confessions and desires and caution-to-the-wind daring, did not back down. “Isn’t it my turn to do something for you?”

The question met doughnuts and rain-scent in the afternoon, and mingled, making friends, exploring possibilities.

Jason’s grin arrived sudden and exuberant and conspiratorial. “Is that what we’re doing? Okay. That means it’s my turn. So eat lunch.”

Colby opened his mouth to protest, did not in fact have a good protest, and gave in and got up to reclaim his plate.

“Colby?”

He spun that way. Automatic.

Jason held up the box. “Thanks.”

“No, you don’t have to say it, it’s not as if you asked for them—”

“Come back here,” Jason said. “With your sandwich.”

This phrasing went straight to his feet; he’d already moved before conscious thought caught up, and then he wasn’t all that bothered by it. He did want food; he did want to be near Jason.

He found his spot on the sofa-arm again. Pondered removing the large boots, at least. Bit into his sandwich, liking flavors on his tongue.

“So this’s like your ancestral food?” Jason finished off a sandwich and looked up at him; this was disconcerting, because he’d grown used to their respective heights when standing. “Not bad.”

“I’d say thank you, but I had nothing to do with it. Jill picks the best in the business.”

“And then you made something for me anyway. Which I am fucking amazed about. Thank you.”

Colby, who’d been halfway through a bite, couldn’t interject. Jason, who’d no doubt planned that—and how did that keep working?—went on, “I’m trying to be better about that. Saying it to you. I haven’t said it enough. I keep fucking it up. So, one more time. Thanks.”

Colby did not at all know what to say to that, and said as much. “You’ve said it. I don’t need—I don’t want you to feel obligated to appreciate anything. Please.”

Jason’s expression changed: not quite pity, but closer to sadness, or compassion, or an outstretched hand. “Starting to think you could use some appreciation. Nobody knows everything you do, do they?”

Colby’s pulse jumped; but there was no way Jason could know about the script-doctoring. The question was more general. “I like being nice. I think I’m going to take off the boots; they’re not terribly comfortable. Do you mind?”

“Nope. Want help?”

Colby, to his everlasting annoyance, blushed. “No. But thank you. And thank you for—for that.” He couldn’t look up. “You know why. For what.”

“Any time.” Jason’s voice stayed unruffled, calm, sincere. “Thanks for letting me be there.”

“This is getting ridiculous as far as expressing gratitude, you understand.” The second tall stiff boot hit the floor; he wiggled toes inside thick period stockings, straightening up. “Mmm. Freedom. For the next couple of hours, at least.”

Jason regarded the couch and his own shoulders with more than a hint of apology. “I can move. You should sit down. Softer cushions.”

“No, stay put. I have to get your script pages anyway.” He found them in his bag, along with his own version. “If you’ve got time now we could run through it?”

“I’ve got time.” Jason tried to squish himself into a corner of the sofa, and failed comprehensively. “I can…make space…”

“This is fine.” Colby reclaimed the arm. Let one leg swing. Observed that the other foot was quite close to Jason’s thigh. His toes approved. “It’s definitely longer.”

“Longer?” Jason skimmed through new dialogue. “Longer.”

“As of yesterday.” He’d done it the night before that. He hadn’t been able to sleep. He’d sent it on to Jillian; she’d loved it. “What do you think?”

“Give me a sec…reading…oh, I was gonna say earlier, I totally started that steampunk romance series, on the plane. Bought the rest.”

“Oh! So you like them—what do you think about Ambrose, he’s my favorite, trying so hard to do his duty as an aeronautical officer but just head over heels for his sky pirate, of course—”

“And of course there’s no way he’d ever turn Tourmaline in, even after the floating city raids—but that ending, with the court-martial, and not knowing if—”

“—if Tor made it out before the attack, I know, I barely survived the wait for book two, at least you’ve got them all published already—what did you think about the airships, and the exploration, it’s so glorious, that world, like a whole new frontier but with such attention to detail, the moving clocks and the navigational aether—” He hauled back the eruption of enthusiasm, with effort. “I mean, I’m so glad you like them. I thought you might. If you like fantasy.”

“I have so many feelings about airships and sky pirates and upright military captains right now.” Jason had forgotten about script pages. “I’ve been missing out. Not reading romance. I’m also loving the magical technology aspect, but holy shit the emotions. Please tell me Tor is alive. Please.”

“There are five books,” Colby pointed out, vastly entertained and secretly—deep down inside—warmed by the knowledge: Jason liked books he’d recommended. “No spoilers, but honestly, would you really expect someone with those skills to be dead? But you’ll have to read the next one to find out.”

“You said you liked being nice. That’s being evil. You know the answer.”

“Of course I do, but watching you discover it will be such fun.”

Jason stabbed pages his direction. “Evil!”

“Guilty.” He inched toes closer. “However. Read this, at the moment?”

“I could keep asking and get you to tell me,” Jason grumbled, but his eyes were happy as they got back to work. “Okay, okay…oh, I like this. I think you’re right about needing the dialogue. It feels good here. Like we’re getting to see how much they actually like each other, not just the big epic passion. Though some of what I’m saying…that’s gonna be interesting.”

“Shall we try it and see how it goes?”

“Sure.” Jason turned more fully his way. Sat up. “Ready?”

“Mmm-hmm. And…I’m waking up next to you…good morning to you.” Colby peeked over the top of the script. Saw Jason; saw Stephen; imagined, fleetingly, precisely that. Awakening together. Naked. Entwined. Having just made love, not for the first time, and holding onto each other in Will’s townhouse bed, in this space, their space, the space they’d claimed for their love. “Were you watching me sleep?”

“I like watching you.” Jason’s voice held Stephen’s lazy sex-sated rumble, a contented lion lounging with his mate. “You know what I thought, when I first saw you on that balcony?”

“That I was a particularly arrogant and overly indulged example of the titled class?” Colby pretended—Will pretended—to scowl at this, unbothered. “I know. You have said.”

“Not that. And you are not.” Jason grinned at him. “You want to know what I truly thought?”

“Hmm.” In the scene he’d walk fingertips over Stephen’s bare chest, shameless and flirtatious. “Do I?”

“I thought you were beautiful.”

“I do like that one. You may go on thinking it.”

“And I thought you looked like someone who could use a good hard buggering in his library.”

Both Colby and Will burst out laughing. He’d written the line and knew it was coming, but nevertheless. Jason’s delivery had been perfection.

Jason was laughing too, and fell out of character enough to snicker. “Can I say that on camera? Also, that’s amazing. When did Ben come up with this? And what was he reading, and where can I find it?”

“You can certainly talk about library sex.” Colby slid down off the sofa-arm, landing next to Jason on cushions, back against the arm. He did not let himself think before moving; his stocking-clad toes nudged Jason’s thigh.

Jason gave the toes an unsubtle stare of astonishment, then looked up and visibly pretended to be taking this in stride. Colby wiggled them just a tad more under that firm warm leg, enough to be clear about this being on purpose, and added, “Also I know for a fact that there’s nineteenth-century erotica. Some fantastically queer and impressively graphic.”

“Um,” Jason said. “You—I mean right, yes, research. Um.”

“Shall we get back to it? Say it again.”

“Um,” Jason said again, and went back to the line, lips twitching.

Colby laughed, rolled eyes, threw Stephen his best dryly amused expression. “Thank you for that. I shall cherish the memory.”

“You like it when I talk to you that way,” Jason said. “Uncultured, uncivilized, rough and filthy. You like it when I tell you I want to fuck you over your writing-desk, or that your arse looks even better with my prick up it. You—” He stopped. Became Jason once more, and adorably wide-eyed. “Are you sure I can say this?”

“We’re already getting the higher rating just because of the subject matter.” Colby wanted to poke him with a foot. Didn’t. But nearly so. “We may as well embrace it. As it were. And both Stephen and Will know all the words. Stephen’s been to those certain gentlemen’s clubs. Will’s read about them.” He was also thinking about Jason’s voice. About Jason murmuring the words in question: about bending him over the writing-desk, taking him, fucking him.

He squirmed a little against the arm-rest. Something interested and smoldery and shivery unfolded deep inside; it fought with habitual retreat, but he had a considerate sofa at his back and Jason was a splendid foot-warmer and Jason was saying dialogue he’d written.

He said, “Anyway it’s really only just here. And they’re having fun. Will does love it. That sense of adventure.”

“He would.” Jason glanced over new lines. “Jumping right in. Knowing what he wants, even if he’s new to having it.”

“Some irony in my playing him, I suspect.” Colby rested arms on both drawn-up knees. “Though I could never have not been involved. Somehow, some way, even if only behind the scenes. You can say it, I promise, go on.”

Jason cleared his throat. “You like it when—Colby?”

“Hmm?”

“It’s not irony.” Jason’s eyes were earnest. “It’s love. You love them. Stephen and Will. You know them better than anyone. Except maybe the author. But I can’t imagine doing this without you involved.”

Colby stared at script pages. The words did not hold a good reply to this. “I’m hardly a necessity. You’d be brilliant with or without me. You know you would.”

“I don’t,” Jason said. “I don’t know. I’d want to, but—you see how everything fits. You make it all work better. Locations and filming permissions. Stunts. Me. You don’t know that? You’re the heart of this film.”

“But,” Colby said. “I’m not…no. That’s not—they could do it all without me, I—you’re only being kind because you’re worried I might be offended by you saying lines about your prick up my arse—well, Will’s, but mine on camera—”

Jason had apparently choked on nothing, or a syllable, or an inhale; he started coughing, and ducked behind script pages.

“Sorry,” Colby offered. Maybe that’d been too familiar. Too much for Jason, even with all that kindness, to want to deal with. “I do know the words.”

“No, um, no—that’s—” Jason waved a hand somewhat desperately, resurfacing. “Um. Okay. Never mind. No, wait, no apologizing.”

“Not ever? Even if I’m in the wrong?”

“Ask me and we’ll see. Want me to do it again?”

Colby opened his mouth without thinking, shut it firmly on the what, shove your prick up my arse and fuck me on a writing desk, we haven’t even done that ONCE yet that leapt onto his tongue, and opted for, “Yes, go on…”

He didn’t want that. He couldn’t.

Except for how he did. At least in theory. Which was still more than he’d grown used to wanting at all.

Jason did some more throat-clearing. Did the line again, looking fixedly at the page. “…you do want it all. Everything I can give you. A ship’s captain, a soldier, not one of your earls or dukes. You want to know.”

“I want everything.” Colby waited until Jason looked up, and met his eyes; Will would mean this, for his Stephen. “I do want to know. But I want to know it with you.” He waited a beat, threw in, “And, if you were wondering, I was having precisely the same thoughts about needing a good buggering in my library.”

Jason dissolved into laughter.

“Stop that.” Colby, out of character, wiggled toes at him again in lieu of poking, but let the pleasure bloom inside: Jason liked his words. “Will’s serious about the first part, at least. Perhaps also the second.”

“Everything.” Jason got control of the laughter, put on Stephen’s devotion like armor. This was a vow. “Forever, Will. My Will. Whatever happens, wherever we go. Everywhere. Especially in your library.”

“And in my bed.” He’d touch Jason, in the moment. Tumbling over each other in that bed, tangled together, catching hold of this glorious stolen morning of sunshine and rumpled sheets and Stephen’s hat on a chair and Will’s cravat on the floor. “Speaking of…”

Jason grinned. “End scene. I mean, obviously not, I’d kiss you—” He ended that sentence fast.

“You can,” Colby said. “When we do it for real. I mean, er. In the scene. Not—not now.” He did not add that he’d pictured it: Jason leaning in, large and gentle, cautious with desire. The picture set off conflicting heartpounding signals. In the hypothetical daydream he liked it—

But all at once it swelled up too achievable. Too immanent. And imminent.

He had bruises, filming-related and not from anything else, but undeniably there, which snarled themselves into confusing memories. Jason was too close to him on the couch. That weight, that pressure. Those hands, so heavy and broad, backed by those muscles—

“Hey,” Jason said, extremely casual. “You got water in that fridge? I’m kinda thirsty, I’ll just get up and grab one, if you do.”

“Yes,” Colby said faintly. “Yes, I—of course.”

Jason came back with two bottles. Held one out: making sure no one’s hands collided. Colby’s emotions went for another loop on the roller-coaster.

“So.” Jason snuck another zeppola out of the box, tossed it into his own mouth. “Want to run through it again? I’ll try not to laugh.”

“Just do the laughing now and get it out of the way.” Colby caught a doughnut as it flew at his face. The roller-coaster hadn’t stopped, but the ride had somehow become less unnerving. Braced by pastries and the lack of judgment in deep brown eyes. “And yes. We’ve got time, and—and it’s new. The scene. We should practice. More.”  

Chapter Text

Day sixteen. Or day one. Depending on how Jason counted.

He stared at the bed. He stared at Colby, who was already in the bed. Every word in the world, scripted or otherwise, ran and hid. Rain streamed along old glass windowpanes and clamored over cobbled streets, carrying rumor, discussion, commentary.

Colby was at the moment being smothered by sheets and blankets, no real skin showing: on his stomach but up on elbows and checking email on his incongruously twenty-first-century phone. He’d been ready first; Jason’s hair had been uncooperative. They’d both been fully dressed, then.

This one wasn’t even a full-on sex scene. The aftermath of sex, and the implied tumble into a second round; but not more than that. Not yet.

But they’d both be near-naked. Not completely, but enough for hips, legs, Jason’s ass when rolling over atop his laughing viscount. Colby, who got to be less visible, would be wearing essentially a skin-colored thong; Jason had sighed and resigned himself to his own modesty covering, which was more or less a large sock. He didn’t mind that part—he’d done sex scenes enough times, and it was part of the job, and he didn’t have anything to be embarrassed about—but the implications skittered along his skin with prickly crawling legs.

Lots of skin. Lots of touching. Exposed in more than one way. Himself in bed with Colby.

He shoved hands deeper into robe pockets. Colby hadn’t noticed him yet. The rain hummed, noncommittal.

Colby right now was covered up and taken care of. Colby over the last week had been eager to explore, to take him on a chattering enchanted discovery of the city, to show him out-of-the-way bookshops and street-corners with historical-trivia personalities.

Colby Kent, thin and gorgeous, wrapped up in layers and scarves, gesturing at an overly-columned building and explaining a random fact involving eighteenth-century bathing-room etiquette, embodied everything Jason could’ve ever dreamed of in a person. Impassioned. Intelligent. Delighted by the workings of the world. Plus other pieces that were even better than anything in dreams. More heartbreaking, yeah, sometimes; but more worthwhile for that: every fleeting touch, every smile, came hard-won as treasure. As a reward, earned with loyalty and care. Part of a quest.

Because Jason had come over early, he did not have much scheduled until his big scenes with Colby, the moments of joy, of connection, of arguments. The London idyll, caught and shimmering between distance and war, the short weeks during which Stephen prepared to sail and Will fled the family estate for the city townhouse and Stephen’s arms. They threw themselves into each moment, together and apart: overseeing shipboard modifications or collecting secret messages from an unremarkable courier during the day, and falling into bed, falling into each other, loving each other, at night.

There’d be a few key moments at this townhouse. The centerpiece extended and opulent sex scene, for one. The fight when Stephen caught that courier leaving and demanded to know what Will—his Will, his clever and fragile Will—had been up to. Will would tell him, though not after shouting back words about not being breakable, refusing to be smothered in cotton wool, trying to save Stephen’s life.

Stephen would swear like the sailor he was and explode with outraged protectiveness and finally let shoulders slump and give in: Will wouldn’t be the man he loved without that core of self-sacrificial daring, and if Will had to summon all that courage to watch Stephen throw himself into the war effort, well—

Stephen could do no less.

Jason had been anticipating that scene. He could feel the emotion. The love and the anguish. The shouting and the yielding. He wanted to see what he could do, where he could go, with that kind of passion. He wanted to know what Colby would do. He thought it’d be incredible.

Before that, though: their big sex scene loomed like an iceberg, blank-faced and perilous.

And there was this scene, first of all. Getting naked. And a bed.

“Jason, good, you’re here.” Jill beckoned him over. “I just wanted to check in with you and Colby, before we get started.”

Colby handed the phone off to Serenity the PA and sat up, collecting blankets like imperial robes. That voice spilled out into the bedroom like rubies, like a diversion, like usual. “Jason! Good morning, I’m sorry, I was just dealing with some logistics about transportation up to Treatham, for the country house party and our first meeting. Your hair looks splendid. Very good-morning sort of hair, also.”

“Um.” Jason clung to the robe. “Why’re you handling transportation issues? Don’t we have—”

“A crew for that? Yes, of course, they only needed approval, and I’m happy to be a more hands-on sort of producer, and sometimes the name helps when dealing with historic trusts.” Colby did what was probably a hand-wave, hampered by blankets. “Anyway. We’ve gone over and over this, I think we’re ready, so shall we jump right in? As it were?”

They had gone over it. Rehearsing. Reading together. That new dialogue. Those familiar script beats. Part of the wonder that’d been this whole week.

The weather’d been awful, and continued to be, but the hotel—a renovated Georgian fantasia—was quirky and cozy and discreetly expensive. Bath contained histories and museums and temptations ranging from the touristy to the academic. And Colby Kent, deceptively talkative over bruised bronze-clockwork depths, played tour guide and restaurant guide and historical enthusiast with unbridled eagerness, once asked and convinced that this would be welcome.

Colby’d had a few more scenes to shoot—more of those clandestine meetings, a walk in a park, a dangerous message and the wryly delivered suggestion from Lord Cary that he practice with a gun. The situation would never arise, but the recognition of it hit home, as it was meant to. Will Crawford was not a spy in the sense of travel to France and assumed identities, but he knew more about troop movements and ciphers than a simple frail hedonistic young viscount should. The peril was less rough-and-ready than Stephen’s sea-cannons, but it was no less grave.

Jason had watched most of those scenes. Had been floored all over again by Colby’s subtlety: no dialogue needed, as Will gazed at a gift of a sleek deadly pistol. As Colby touched gleaming metal, and his jaw tensed, and his eyes changed, though he did not outwardly move. As he visibly thought of Stephen, and of staying alive.

In and around those scenes they’d tumbled into each other’s presence. Every day. Every morning. Every afternoon. Craft services. Tea breaks—Colby generally had coffee, about which the English crew teased him mercilessly—and dinner. Days off spent asking Colby about local museums—Roman history, Regency history, literary history—and keeping up with those blue eyes on rambles through bath-house ruins or centuries-old fashion exhibits or a museum of astronomy with eighteenth-century brass instruments. Colby forgot to be shy and engaged a curator in extensive discussion of telescopic mirrors and the molding process. Jason, fascinated, learned about historical astronomic metals and the desire for the stars and also about the way Colby glowed from fluffy hair to energetic boot-toes when someone else got equally excited about pocket globes and practical demonstrations. He’d made a mental note to go back and buy one of those miniature replica telescopes as a present. He could surprise Colby with it later.

He’d thought they might be recognized while out and about, and they were, on occasion: two girls at the Roman baths who cooed over Colby; a couple on the street who noticed Jason first and did a double-take and hesitantly asked if he was John Kill and then recognized Colby Kent and looked ready to faint; a small group of teens with rainbow hair and accessories who spotted them having lunch, did a lot of furious whispering, and bashfully pushed a spokesperson forward to tell Colby how much they appreciated his visibility and his roles: openly gay, kind to fans and colleagues, a romantic lead, desirable.

Jason’d been ready to step in and transform himself into Colby’s security if anyone got too close. Colby had agreed to take pictures with the group, turning on that veteran performer’s charm, masking any tension behind genuine joy at the idea of having helped someone. He even let himself be hugged, after they very politely asked.

Jason wanted to hug him too. To cheer.

He felt like cheering a lot. Because Colby touched him more.

Not dramatically, and not demonstrative in the way Leo was or Jason’s own family would be. But small gestures, more and more of them. Those toes nudging Jason’s thigh the day he’d arrived. A hand catching Jason’s for balance on uneven history-worn steps. The closeness of bodies under a single shared umbrella after Colby forgot his own.

Jason ended up in awe all over again. Every time. Magic.

Magic in the form of Colby Kent, movie star and honest-to-god nicest person. Colby Kent, who’d smiled at Jason and offered his own coffee, the first day they’d ever met. Colby, who could talk about anything and nothing with airy lightness, but whose eyes sparkled when Jason showed interest, asked questions, had coffee waiting after Colby had wrapped for the day.

Sometimes he still thought it couldn’t be real. He’d thought so that first day: no one could be this generous, this lovely, without it being an act. He’d been wrong, or rather he’d been right, but for the wrong reasons.

Colby was that generous. That lovely. The act covered up not selfishness but scars.

Colby trusted him, or was starting to. Jason balanced on a tightrope of desire and nerves, of the needs to be professional and to embody Stephen’s epic passion and to make everything he could easier for those tired beautiful eyes and to try to make those eyes smile, because Colby smiling made him want to smile, every time.

And that, in that complicated nutshell, was the entire reason he couldn’t make himself take a step closer to the bed.

Colby did trust him. Smiled at him. Might not continue to do any of those things, after they had to—after Jason had to—

“So, guys,” Jill said. “This one should be pretty straightforward, we’ll try to get it in as few takes as possible, and we’ve got a seriously closed set and privacy screens up, okay?” They did, tall and stoic. Her gaze flicked to Colby, then away. “If either of you has a comment or a suggestion, feel free to stop us and we’ll listen. You’re both good with the dialogue, right?”

They both nodded. In unison. Jason couldn’t find anything in Colby’s expression beyond sincere commitment and loyalty to Jill and the film.

“Then I think we’re ready to go, if you are?”

“Entirely.” Colby let himself fall back into the bed, mostly under sheets but apparently willing to get on with things. “Will approves of Stephen being naked, you know.”

Naked. Yeah. Because that was happening. Now.

“Jason?”

He should answer Colby. He should drop the robe and jump into that bed.

Jill had moved away, consulting with Laura, confirming visions for this scene. Most of the crew had tactfully taken themselves off someplace. The lighting hit Colby’s bare shoulder and caressed skin like private honey. Colby wriggled, and the sheet slid down more. That stray freckle on his collarbone winked in invitation.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Jill called over.

Colby pushed himself up on elbows. The sheet dropped to his waist.

Colby’d been shirtless before. For other films. With Jason in a swimming pool. This shouldn’t be anything new.

That freckle and that enticing lean swimmer’s body and those pert pink nipples shouldn’t draw Jason’s gaze, shouldn’t leave him mesmerized, entranced, lost in whole-body want and equally all-over dread at what he was about to do, when he knew that Colby was—that Colby wasn’t comfortable being—

“Jason?” That voice held curiosity like fairytale threads. “Everything all right?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, then.” Colby tilted that head his direction. “Come and join me.”

This invitation broke Jason’s heart. Unparalleled bravery. Every bit as courageous as men on a battlefield, facing down Napoleon’s army. Stronger than memories. Facing down fear and squaring slim shoulders in front of it. Did everyone else not see that? Didn’t they know how much this was costing those banner-waving blue eyes?

He said, “Colby…I…you…”

Colby, with a flick of a glance at cameras and today’s skeleton crew and Jill, shook that head, barely perceptible. Right. They didn’t know. The world didn’t know. Colby Kent, always upbeat and positive and winsome, smiled at Jason for them all to see.

Jason couldn’t move. Stuck right there on both feet, standing next to Colby, who lay propped up on elbows in a bed.

He couldn’t. God, he couldn’t. What if he did something wrong? What if he pushed too far? What if his clumsiness crushed all that fragile determined courage? What if his hands were too big, or his weight was too much?

Jillian came over. Hand on his shoulder. “Hey. We know you haven’t exactly done the sex with a guy thing in a film before, it’s fine, it’s why we’re doing this scene first, right? Starting off slow, with the aftermath?”

Oh, shit. She thought he couldn’t—but he could, that wasn’t the problem, that wasn’t the problem at all—but he couldn’t say anything, he didn’t know how much Jill knew—she knew something, obvious from the protectiveness, but he didn’t know how much Colby’d told anyone—

And Jason himself didn’t even know, not for sure, only a guess, a horrible guess based on flinching from touch and a gaze that held harrowed sapphires—but he couldn’t let Jillian Poe think he couldn’t handle this—

“No…it’s not…that’s not…”

“It’s cool if you need a minute,” Jill said kindly, “but only a minute, yeah? We’re on a schedule here.” Colby, now sitting up with arms wrapped around long legs and a quilted blanket tucked around himself, rested that pointed chin on one knee: small and pensive.

“I’m…” Jason bit a lip. “I’m fine, really, I swear.”

“Jill,” Colby said. They both spun that way. “Can I talk to Jason for a moment? Please?”

Jill hesitated, all but confirming Jason’s anguished theory. “Are you sure?”

“I wouldn’t ask if I weren’t. Just a minute or so, it won’t take long.”

Jill sighed but capitulated, faced with those big blue eyes. “I’ll be right over there. Still in the room.”

Jason sat down heavily on the end of the bed, beside a tumble of embroidered hangings. Looked at Colby. “I’m—”

“I know it’s not what she thinks,” Colby said. “It’s me, isn’t it?”

“You would ask,” Jason said, “even if you weren’t sure. Wouldn’t you?”

“To make this film work? Yes, I would.” That blue held steady as oceans. Not unwounded, not tranquil, but not retreating, either. “I do understand if you don’t want to do this with me. That’s absolutely your right, you don’t need to like doing it, but we do need to try, so if there’s anything I can do to make it easier, please tell me. Anything you want me to do, or not do. We have to do this. For Stephen and Will. That love story. So please.”

Jason stared at him. Tried to unearth words, failed entirely, fought for syllables around the sudden globe-sized knot in his throat. “You…think I don’t want…with you…how…what…why would you…”

“It’s fine,” Colby said. He’d kept on hugging both knees; Jason noticed how tight that grip was, how that chin did not tremble, because Colby Kent would not allow it. Armor in place. “Just—just tell me what would help. For now.”

Jason did find words, then. “The fuck—it’s not about that!”

Jill made a motion, over near the cameras; Colby lifted a hand, and she stepped back.

“All right,” Colby said, directed more or less to the bedsheets near Jason’s hip, “then what is it? Because I’m at a loss otherwise, since I know you’re not afraid of this role—”

“Oh, fuck.” Jason started to wave hands around in exasperation, realized halfway through that this might be a terrible idea, and tried to stop mid-movement, which meant he ended up performing some sort of bizarre interpretive dance. “You don’t like being touched! And I’m about to touch you!” At the last second he managed to drag his voice down to a reasonable level of horrified hiss. No announcing Colby’s pain to the universe. Christ. What sort of person was he?

Whatever Colby’d been expecting, that clearly hadn’t been it. Surprise popped up like bluebells in those eyes. “You’re worried about me?”

“Absolutely fucking yes!”

“Oh. But…I…oh.” The bluebells got unsure. Bewilderment in the valleys. “I’m…I…I don’t know what to say.”

“Bet that never happens,” Jason muttered, now burning with embarrassment.

Colby, after a single beat, made a sound that was almost a laugh, caught behind one hand but shaken into existence like a chain coming loose.

Jason winced. “Don’t take that like—I don’t not want to do this with you. I do. And I’m about to touch you a lot, and I know you aren’t—you don’t—now I don’t know what I’m saying. Shit. Never mind.”

“Jason.” Colby flowed forward, settled onto knees, within a breath. So close. “Thank you. I mean that. I’m fine, but thank you.”

“Are you?”

“I’m…” This time Colby actually shrugged, more with eyebrows and expression than anything else; he had such eloquent eyes, Jason thought dazedly. Whole symphonies in blue. Rhapsodies. “I told you I’m better if I know what to expect. I knew this was happening today. I’m being Will, not me. So, yes, I’m fine.”

Jason said, unhappily, “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Then you won’t.” Colby breathed out, measured and precise, and leaned closer; one shoulder bumped Jason’s arm, companionable and blanket-clad. “You won’t.”

“Yeah?” Jason leaned in too; let himself hold that gaze; let himself remember everything else he’d been trying not to feel. That was Colby, beautiful as low-lit daydreams, made of long legs and sapphires and charm, looking up at him. Quilt sliding off one shoulder. Soft curving lips, and a core of shining unbreakable steel. “You trust me with that. With that much.”

“Will trusts Stephen,” Colby said. “And I—I like you reminding me to eat. So yes. Only…no, never mind…”

“Only what?”

“Nothing that holds me down?” Colby’s chin did quiver; Jason only caught this because he was busy drinking in every bit of that expression, so close, so honest. “Please?”

Jason’s first, second, and even third immediate reactions involved a large amount of profanity and the need to enact some action-hero style vengeance on whoever’d dared. He shoved all those reactions down. Stacked mental bricks atop them. Did not punch a hole through the mattress.

Colby didn’t need that. Violence was the last thing Colby needed.

He cleared his throat. His voice came out rough. “Yeah. I mean no. I mean…fuck. I won’t. I won’t do anything you don’t want. I swear, Colby, I swear, okay? Just tell me what you want me to do. Where you want me. Anything.”

“Jason…” Colby freed a hand from blanket-tendrils, held it out. “I know you. You won’t hurt me. And I’m okay with this.”

“Are you?” His own hand felt cold. He did not want it to be cold. What if that made Colby’s hand cold?

But Colby wanted to touch him. Was offering. Was even smiling, wry and suddenly radiant. “I am. Truly. Can I…”

“Fuck,” Jason said, hopelessly surrendered to that certainty, hopelessly in love; and put his huge clumsy hand into Colby’s.

The world didn’t spin faster, then. But it should’ve. Stars might’ve laughed. Wishes, dancing and granted.

Colby’s fingers were also chilly, but long and firm, and they wrapped around Jason’s like an anchor. Jason thought of kings, abruptly: of swords and stones and stories that sunk into souls and became bedrock iron. Of certainty like a crown, not so much the object but the symbol: someone who’d step into a battle-line at the side of any man or woman of his realm, and count himself honored to fight that fight as one of them. The universe would throw itself into king’s-guard formations around Colby, not because he asked for that but because he’d give just as much right back. It was that kind of iron. Heart-sure.

Colby grinned. Swept the other hand back toward pillows. “Come to bed with me.”

Jason gulped. Nodded.

Colby let go of his hand, which was good for robe-removal and awful in every other way; Jason wanted to reach out, to catch those fingers again. To find that solid ground. He couldn’t—Colby had to be the one to initiate that—but the sparkle in those eyes worked too. That light caught him up and made flopping into quilts and sheets and pillows easier. Colby did not look anywhere else, only his face; Jason slid down into bedding and sprawled on his back and did not move.

He should be careful. He was being careful. But Colby’s grin carried a hint of shared mischief, an awareness of this moment and a conversation only they’d heard, and that somehow spun around and flipped tragedy into partnership.

He made certain to be mostly under the sheet. Bare chest, for the shot. Partly leaning on helpful pillows. Outside, beyond blurry glass, the storm wove streamers of water and light across the world.

Colby smiled more, and then came over and fit himself right along Jason’s side, up against him and under an arm, hand settling on Jason’s chest—

Jason couldn’t locate air. He let his arm curve lightly around Colby, so lightly, holding amber and pearls and delicate gossamer clouds, in the dark soft fall of Colby’s hair, in the fairness of that skin and the unexpected decoration of those wandering freckles.

Colby put his head on Jason’s shoulder. Shut both eyes. Murmured, “Will’s never slept beside someone else. Not like this. He loves it, you know.”

Jason made a series of sounds that must’ve approximated he does? well enough. Colby let out a little hum of amused agreement. “He loves all of this. But you know that; we’ve talked about it. Every new sensation, every new experience…”

“Will’s a scientist,” Jason breathed. “Wanting to learn, wanting to know…everything…you know it’s new for Stephen too. Not being with men, he’s totally done that, but being here. Like this.”

Colby moved a leg; his knee now rested against Jason’s. Jason was uncertain about whether this had been deliberate. It might’ve been, or it might not; either way Colby went back to talking. “In love, you mean. With someone so far from anything he thought he’d want. Reckless, titled, privileged, physically infirm…”

“Brilliant.” Jason trailed fingertips over the nearest shoulder; Colby’s skin was smooth and classical as sculpture, and he wanted to touch it with only reverence. “A genius. As brave as anyone Stephen’s ever known. More.”

“And an abysmal shot with a pistol. But willing to learn.” Colby’s exhale carried warm across Jason’s chest. Jason’s whole body tingled. “Ready when you are, then.”

Ready. For a scene. Acting. Roles. Jason drew a breath, released it. Because Colby was doing that as well: leaning on the role, on Will’s pleasure, Will’s determined reach for happiness.

He let Stephen’s sex-drowsy comfortable languor rise through his bones: that low pooling flush of satisfied desire, and the knowledge of being loved. The edge of danger lay not far off, as ever—sailing orders and Will’s thinness and cannon-gleam lurked—but the sharpness’d been blunted by nimble hands and fierce kisses and the shuddering gasping fall into each other, into completion.

Jillian’s voice suggested in the background that not only were they now filming, but perhaps a few moments prior’d been captured too. Jason’s present-day brain listened. The rest of him tipped his head to rest against Will’s, thumb idly rubbing over that much-adored shoulder as Will slept. A luscious genius viscount. In his arms. In love with him. How’d that happened?

Colby yawned. Stirred. Opened eyes. Did the line: waking up, that sleepy teasing good morning even though it was decidedly not morning, the day a shimmering silvery hidden-away interlude. Inquiring about Stephen staying awake to watch him sleep.

Stephen liked that. Jason liked that. Jason wanted that more.

He said the lines. Teased Will right back, about being beautiful and also needing someone to haul him off to the library for a thorough buggering, using that pretty arse exactly the way it liked to be used. Several people muffled laughter and also impressed noises, off camera.

Colby, as Will, got even closer, skimming fingers over Jason’s chest and sun-seared sailor’s skin. Colby did not hesitate; but then Colby was a spectacular actor, and loved these characters. Colby did stay careful about not touching more places than necessary, and did not look much beyond Jason’s face; but his eyes and his fingers flirted along with the line delivery.

“Everything,” Stephen said, and Jason promised, under that shy thrilled and thrilling touch. “Everywhere. In your library.”

“And in my bed,” Colby answered, laughing: eyes laughing too, heart there in all that blue. “Speaking of…”

Jason growled, plunged in, toppled his precocious other half over into the pillows, rolled atop him—

And froze. He’d remembered, last-minute, and stopped himself; he hadn’t put any real weight into the move or the playful pinning. Colby’s eyes were newly huge, out of character, not quite shaken into ugly memories but wavering on the brink.

Neither of them stirred. Jason couldn’t. Colby had started trembling, half under Jason’s bulk, even as Jason held up his own weight.

Jill’s voice swept in and carried everything away: calling a halt, a pause, a return to normality. The lights were hot on Jason’s bare back. Colby was shaking more.

Jason lurched up. Hands up. Shaking too.

Colby sat up more slowly, as if gathering bits of self from a long way away. “I’m all right.”

“You—”

“Colby,” Jill inquired, arriving. Her grip was tight around the pencil she’d been using to jot down notes. The fading pink in her hair stood up with apprehension, mute and electric.

“I really am.” Colby exhaled, looked at Jason, looked down, and glanced back up: now wearing a tiny smile. “I can do this.”

“That last second or so,” Jill said, not quite pulling it into the open.

Jason couldn’t talk.

“Yes,” Colby said. “But…that was the first take. It’s over. It’s…” The fairytales found their footing anew, in that voice. Spellwork and generosity: enchantment in woodsy European forests. “I know what I’m doing.”

“Colby,” Jason pleaded, and Colby’s grin flashed like a wood-nymph’s, ephemeral and full of stray light; Colby said, this time, “I know what we’re doing,” and inched closer to him on the bed. “We did talk about preparation, didn't we? Before stunts?”

“Stunts,” Jill said. Her tone remained level, curious but determinedly not prying.

“Jason believes in thorough groundwork,” Colby said. “Being ready for whatever might occur.”

“Yeah,” Jason said. “With your help. Do you want me to talk about characters? Or historical telescopes? Or romance novels?”

Jillian glanced from him to Colby, said, “I’ll just go back over there, and you two can go again whenever you’re ready, and we’ll just keep rolling and I won’t say anything,” and went.

“I don’t need a distraction.” Colby ran a hand through his hair, let it fluff up and drift down in hushed dark ripples. “I want…oh, no, I can’t say that. Or I can, if I’m Will, but—no, never mind.”

Jason set his own hand on the bed: a gesture away from Colby’s hip, not making contact. His stomach was doing flips; all of him wanted to do flips, stunned and hopeful and afraid to embrace the hope. “You can say anything. What do you want?”

“I want…well, Will would want…but I do, too…or I want to want this…so maybe if you tell me what we’re doing…except we’ve already done it, more or less, so I should know, so you don’t have to…”

“Colby,” Jason attempted patiently, “actual nouns. You want what?” He’d be as patient as Colby needed; he’d be anything Colby needed. He vowed that.

“Er,” Colby said, and brushed fingertips against his. “You…the way you feel…when you leaned down over me…not the weight, but…looking up at you, like that, with your arms around me…I—I mean Will would. Like that. Er.”

Jason took this in. “And you want me to tell you what I’m going to do? As far as moving around.” He wanted to explode into confetti. He wanted to jump up and down and wave pom-poms. He wanted to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Colby liked something about the way he felt, in a bed, bending down for a kiss.

“I think so?” Colby had started blushing. “I’m—it’s only that I—it’s being prepared!”

“Right,” Jason said. “I got it. It helps.” For at least two reasons, he thought; and some of those earlier thoughts spun back in like leather and lace. Obviously Colby felt better knowing in advance; that was understandable, and Jason himself should’ve thought of that before flipping him over into bedding. But then that second intimation hovered unspoken along skin, under breaths: Colby did respond so easily, so willingly, when given directions about food or checking in via text, and if that helped too…

His entire body made a note of that, and jumped to attention. He swore at himself. Tried to shove reactions down. Being professional. Being a good actor. Even if Colby liked one position they’d ended up in, that did not mean Colby would be ready for, or at all interested in, Jason’s dick trying to announce its willingness for more.

He cleared his throat. “Okay. So…you want to do it again?”

Colby, suspiciously quiet now, nodded. Hair cascaded into his face; he batted it away.

“Okay,” Jason said. “Come here.” He lay back down, talking; Colby came and curled up against him, long-legged and warm and unhesitating. Jason put the arm back around him, sensation pooling all through his body, and tipped his head that way; his lips brushed Colby’s hair.

He murmured, “At the end, after your line, I’m going to roll you over and lean down on top of you and kiss you, okay? I won’t put much weight on you, and you can kick me or something if it doesn’t feel right, I want you to do that if you need to, got it?”

“Got it, yes.” Colby didn’t move—staying in position for that first line—but the words feathered along Jason’s bare chest like a kiss. “You’d like me to kick you if I feel I need to. Very martyr-like of you. Heroic.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I.” Colby was smiling; he could feel it. “You rather are, you know. A hero. And thank you, everything you said sounds…well, very nice, to be honest.”

“Nice?”

“Should I use a different word? You’re that as well. Nice.” Colby’s hand lay atop Jason’s chest; that thumb stirred slightly, as if taking in the reality of this. “Shall we try it again, then?”

“Yeah,” Jason got out. “Yeah. Go ahead.”

Colby did. Starting from that waking-up moment. Yawning, thin and elated in Will’s afterglow, glorious as ever. Jason gazed at him and thought about courage and trust and promises, and accidentally said, “Colby—oh shit sorry I mean Will—fuck!”

“That’s rather the plan, isn’t it, that we will indeed fuck?” Colby retorted, flawlessly in-character, and then began laughing. “Oh, sorry, sorry, dreadful joke, I know.”

“I thought I got to have the filthy mouth. And no apologizing.” Entranced, he touched the sheet, felt expensive linen smooth against his hand, tucked it more closely around Colby’s hip. “Shouldn’t you not know those words?”

Colby threw a mock put-upon scowl at him. “I know all the words. Which you don’t, evidently. Who am I, again?”

“You’re Colby Kent, dragon librarian weather wizard,” Jason informed him promptly. “Easy question.” This made Colby laugh more, and Jason ended up laughing too: ridiculous, relieved, together.

They reset. They started again. Colby was still silently shaking with amusement, and this time Jason barely managed to glance at him before joining in. Emotions. Too massive. Too profound.

He could practically hear Jillian rolling eyes, but in fact he thought she didn’t mind. He didn’t: he’d made Colby laugh, here and almost-naked in a bed.

They paused for thirty seconds to recover—Colby studiously regarded a pillow and not Jason’s face, but stayed put with long legs and a hip touching Jason’s, casual and unremarked—and started all over.

And the world changed again, in a historic townhouse, on a pale grey afternoon, suffused by the sound and scent of rain. Not a seismic shift, not a drastic lurch. An unfolding. An easing open, as if this had always been inevitable, a fall into rightness that wasn’t a plummet but a cushioned landing. Lights framed Colby’s face, traced Jason’s spine; the artificiality of it only made their shared bed more real. This was them doing their job, being Stephen and Will: this was Jason’s hand cradling Colby’s head, and Colby’s hair fanning out across a pillow like a halo, if halos came in mischievous dark and tempting silk.

Jason kept most of his own bulk balanced on arms, elbows, knees, anything that’d not pin Colby down. Colby smiled up at him and even reached up to pull him closer, once or twice.

During the fourth take they kissed, on camera, for the first time. Jill wanted to see it, if they did not mind, rather than light flirtatious nuzzling or Jason’s lips against Colby’s ear. Colby said this would be fine. Jason took a deep breath, and said sure.

He hovered over Colby, in that bed. Everything grew clear: sharp and defined, the pillows and the rain and various artificial lights and cameras holding collective breath. Colby had one hand on Jason’s arm, the left one, not trying to get away but simply being Will, touching Stephen. Colby’s eyes were huge and blue as horizons and certain of Will’s desire.

Jason leaned down, and kissed him.

Colby did not move for a single second, and then made a soft yielding tiny sound and kissed him back.

Colby kissed like someone who’d done a lot of kissing on screen, and simultaneously also someone wholly artless and astonished at being kissed. He tasted like mint and a whisper of coffee and sugar, Jason registered fuzzily—being considerate, no doubt, mingled with the need for caffeine—and he knew how to tip that head, how to find the right angles, how to arch up into a co-star. All of that was true.

But it was more. Kissing Colby was more.

Jason drank him in, discovered those lips, explored that eloquent mouth. Colby could talk to the world, and Jason wanted to taste every story; Colby opened up without holding back and let him in, let Jason’s tongue lick and tease and coax, and Jason needed that like air, like the pulse in his veins. Learning Colby, sinking into Colby, kissing Colby: that was all that mattered in his universe.

Colby let out lovely little noises, moans and gasps and shivers that rocketed down Jason’s spine and demanded more; he left kisses at the corner of Colby’s mouth, under that enticing sharp jawline, down the slender column of that throat. Colby moaned again and seemed to melt under him, softening, pliant. Jason groaned and did it again, harder, leaving pinkness.

And his body thrummed with want, coiled and hot; the matching tender ferocious desire resonated and redoubled in his chest. He wanted Colby. He wanted Colby to feel safe, forever.

Colby’s eyelashes fluttered, half-open; when they did lift, that unusual multifaceted blue needed a second to focus, as if coming back from someplace dreamy and distant. Jason became abruptly aware that he was lying more or less atop Colby’s mostly naked body, breathing hard; he had hands on the mattress to help take the weight off Colby, but he wasn’t light, and his arousal had to be tangible, rock-hard and stabbing into Colby’s hip.

Colby’s breathing changed. Faster. More present, and with that the realization of respective positions. He didn’t say anything.

Jillian’s voice did say something, probably “Cut,” off to the side. Jason wasn’t listening.

He scrambled up. Held out hands, took them back. “I’m sorry—I’m so sorry, fuck, Colby, I—I didn’t mean—”

Colby didn’t move. Just shut those eyes, remaining in place. His hands stayed put too, open and flung across the mattress.

“Colby,” Jason begged. “Please talk to me. Please say something.”

Colby opened those eyes again but kept looking up, at the bed’s luxurious canopy.

“Please. I’m so fucking sorry.” He didn’t know what to say. What might help. What might be wanted. If Colby wanted anything from him, if Jason’s horrible loss of control hadn’t damaged any trust beyond repair. Jill had taken a step their direction but stopped, waiting for Colby to respond.

Colby didn’t. The apocalypse hung poised in the silence.

Jason attempted, “What can I do? What do you need?” and didn’t move a muscle even though his back protested about the odd position he’d bolted up into.

Colby blinked, shook himself all over, and sat up, more fluidly than Jason’s apprehension’d been expecting. The sheets tangled around his waist. “I’m all right.”

“You…are you sure?” That couldn’t be true.

Colby communed with the bed-canopy again, maybe finding solace in heavy green and gold embroidered velvet. Then turned that oceanic gaze right at Jason. “Well. No. I’m not. But that was…it wasn’t bad.”

“It was,” Jason mourned, caught in blue. “Wasn’t it? I mean…” How could it not have been? “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Colby’s smile—the one that seemed to be only for Jason, magnificent and broken and true—swung back into view. “I didn’t even have to kick you.”

“But,” Jason said. The rain launched itself at antique window-glass, flooding the world. “But…”

“I would have.” Colby shrugged one shoulder at him without moving from the spot. “If I’d needed to. And I…I’d rather not be touched too much more right now. For a minute or so, at least. I know we’ll need to do it again. I’m sorting it out. But everything was…it was good. I promise. By the way, did you know that persimmon seeds can supposedly predict the weather? I read that someplace once.”

“No…tell me? If you want to?”

“It has to do with the pattern inside. Whether it looks like a fork, or a knife, or even a spoon. In theory forks are promising, assuming that you think mild winters are desirable, which you might not. I suspect our current weather is definitely not forks. Not that forks aren’t also useful. For eating. Didn’t we talk about pineapples the first time we ever met? At your audition.”

“Yeah,” Jason fumbled out. “On pizza. And you said people used to rent them. Like, nineteenth-century rich people. Will’s father totally would. Showing off the money.”

“I wonder if Stephen’s seen one. Out traveling the world, and all.” Colby glanced at Jillian, who was practically vibrating with the need to check on him. “We’re good, Jill, I promise. I can go again.”

“Can you,” Jill said, in exactly the same tone with which Jason’s brain echoed the words.

“Yes.” Colby toyed with a sheet-fold, let it go. Fabric bunched up beside him, refusing to leave him by himself. “I’m not…I said it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t. That’s…you can trust me when I say that, perhaps? I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, because I don’t, but I do know that much.”

Jill looked at him, head on one side, and said nothing for a moment.

“Really,” Colby said, with a hint of Will’s dramatic sarcastic sense of humor.

Jason finally shifted position. His back complained, reminders of age and use. But Colby didn’t retreat from the motion, and even stretched out one long leg under blankets: closer to Jason’s astounded mattress-perch.

Colby was smiling. Finding distractions, yeah; ducking back behind shields of folklore and fruit, yeah. But smiling. Being honest—and that was honest; Jason’d seen Colby Kent acting, on camera and in that interview. This wasn’t that. This was open, exposed, with coping strategies but without walls. Colby was sorting things out while talking, and likely would need space to keep on doing that after, but wasn’t hiding.

And Colby’d said, definitively: not bad. No simple answers, no easy categorization, but not bad. Even good.

Jason didn’t know what that meant. But if it did mean something—

If it could mean something—

Those sneaky fireworks clamored down his back again. Crackling and colorful.

“Okay,” Jill decided. “We’ll do it again. One more time—only one, I think, assuming you can kiss each other and keep it quick and light, not whatever the hell just happened—” This came with a glance at Jason; Jason winced. His fault. He knew. Even if Colby didn’t seem too upset.

“—and then you two can go home. Jason, because of that schedule change, we just need you to do some walking around the streets in the morning, going out for pastries before Will wakes up, all of that, we’ll send you out with Andy—”

“Sounds good.”

“—and Colby…” Jill hesitated. “You…I don’t need you on set during the day. Not until tomorrow night. I want you to take the day off, okay? Do something fun.”

“But,” Colby said.

“We’ve got your actual big sex scene tomorrow night,” Jill reminded him, reminded them: quiet and aching with everything that’d just happened, but also a director with a film to finish, and with the knowledge that Colby’d told everyone he’d be able to do it all. “Go find a bookstore or a museum or something and enjoy it.”

“But,” Colby said again. “Jill, I really—”

Fun,” Jill said meaningfully.

“Listen to her,” Jason suggested. “You deserve it.”

Colby sighed. “Can I at least do something about the pizza? I did say I would. Leo’ll be here tomorrow. And I told you I’m friends with our hotel kitchen now.”

“Maybe,” Jason said. “Only if it’s also something that makes you happy.”

Colby’s eyebrows went up; his expression said very plainly, oh, we’ve got a new rule? What he said out loud was, “Yes, Jason,” in a tone that managed to convey exquisite dry humor and awareness of Jill’s presence and clear calm acceptance all at once. Jason wasn’t sure how two words could do all that, but of course Colby had a special relationship with words; they loved each other.

“Right,” Jillian said, watching Colby, eyeing Jason. “One more time, then?”

Colby gave her an approximation of a salute, ironic and affectionate. Jason exhaled, said “Yeah,” and found that most of the tension had become anticipation through some hidden sorcerous alchemy.

Colby was fine. More than fine, even: letting that honesty and that sense of humor out to play. The bed felt sturdy beneath them.

And the scene was good; he knew it was, knew the chemistry sizzled in every beat. He knew that with every actor’s instinct. Colby must know it too.

The rain played waltzes with building-eaves and old glass, setting the tune. Colby curled back into pillows, waiting.

Jason came back to join him. Affirmed, not for anyone else to hear, “I trust you. And your weird fruit-related weather magic.”

“It’s only folklore!” Colby protested, laughter matching rainsong in that accent. “I’m not magical—”

“Shapeshifting dragon librarians are magical,” Jason pointed out. Colby had draped the arm back across him but promptly hid merriment in Jason’s chest, quivering with it. Jason’s whole body glowed.

Their whole oasis glowed. Velvet curtains and exposed skin and a storm. Cameras and characters. Familiar and loved.

They moved to do it again, to do it all again; and Colby met him in the center of it without flinching, lines and lips and laughter, catching happiness and celebrating it, on display for audiences to love too.

 

They’d done it. He’d done it. He’d kissed Jason.

Colby shut his hotel room door and slumped back against it. After a second, put one hand up to touch his mouth; laughed again, astounded and weightless.

He’d lain in bed with Jason. He’d been naked with Jason, or nearly so. He’d been Will Crawford as deeply as he could, brave and daring and young and in love, and Will had kissed Stephen, tumbling joyfully around the bed, and Colby had…

…had kissed Jason. Oh god yes he’d kissed Jason, he’d wanted to kiss Jason, he’d let himself forget everything for a handful of rainbow moments and simply feel

“Oh,” he said aloud, shaky and delighted, nerves shot through with lightning and rain, “oh, yes. Or yes but slowly. Or I don’t know. Something. Please—” and then he had to laugh more, and finally slid down the door until he ended up on the floor, leaning back against it. “What the hell. Yes.”

The door took his weight, sympathetic as history could be. The floorboards were historic as well, smoothed by time. A few feet away a fluffy cream rug wreathed the bed; all the rooms had been updated, and his room’s walls evaluated him with stylish blue-and-black-striped compassion. He’d been here long enough that scarves’d made themselves at home on the chair, and scripts and notes had overrun the modern but tiny desk. He’d stuck a couple of ideas to the mirror.

He tapped boot-toes against the floorboards. They were the same grey pair Jason’d touched and handled and eased off his feet.

He’d changed out of Will’s wardrobe before coming back, and presently had on slim black pants and an oversized blue-and-white striped shirt and the black jacket and blue scarf he’d not yet got round to removing. He and Jason hadn’t been in the same car; Jill had wanted to chat in confidence about the afternoon and Colby’s equilibrium and upcoming scenes. Jason had left first, but not without a murmured suggestion about dinner and waiting for him and Colby texting when he’d made it back, please.

And that was a yes too, or he thought it was. He hugged both knees. Trepidation and wonder. Kaleidoscopes exploding. Dark and radiant.

He’d kissed Jason. Or at least let himself be kissed by Jason. Either. Both. In a bed.

Jillian had sat with him on his tiny sofa and asked how he’d felt, if he wanted to talk, if anything would make these scenes easier. He knew she’d seen the invisible tightropes, though she didn’t know half of them. The apprehension, yes. But the sudden wild shock-wave of desire—

She couldn’t possibly have seen how deep that went. She knew his general taste in men, and of course she’d seen the chemistry—that’d been electric, unmissable—but she did tend to think of him as wounded, these days. He wouldn’t disagree, but he also had wanted to wrap legs around Jason’s waist and beg for Jason’s mouth along his throat, his chest, his hip—for Jason to leave marks, vivid and irrefutable evidence of wanting, showering his body with sparks—

“Oh, hell,” he said again: bewildered and giddy with the arousal that hit like the thunderclap outside.

He wanted to and he didn’t want to. He couldn’t picture himself going through with more—but he could, maybe, if Jason—

He couldn’t even name it. No words for this fragile spun-sugar white-hot bubble of emotion.

Jason had wanted him. He knew that. He couldn’t be wrong about that. He’d felt it: the unmistakable rigid shape of Jason’s desire, the scorching heat in that kiss, the way Jason’d groaned and leaned in for more and moved atop him. Colby knew about acting and about pretense. That’d been real.

And Jason had been so kind. Before the scene. During. After. Checking in, stroking his bare shoulder with heartrending tenderness, pulling back to offer space. Strong, considerate, protective, and all at once everything Colby wanted, because he did: he wanted.

He knew that both Jill and Jason thought he’d panicked and not been able to talk because of vicious biting memories. That hadn’t in fact been the case, or only secondarily so.

He’d been stunned by his own response. By the depth of need. The way he hadn’t felt the impulse to pull away.

That’d snuck in eventually, once his brain’d caught up and demanded to know what he thought he was doing and reminded him about bruises and big hands and pain. But even then it’d been more of a baffled confusion at himself than outright fear. He did trust Jason. And he liked Jason. He wanted to smile, around Jason.

He did not know how that’d happened, but somewhere between Will’s love and Stephen’s heart and careful boot-removal and gifts of food and Jason’s fond earth-brown gaze when Colby rambled about sky pirates or weather magic, he thought he’d become someone else yet again, or maybe he was still in the middle of becoming that person. Someone who could lie in a bed with someone else and laugh. Who could talk about words and stories and a love of the stray persimmon-seeds of folklore. Who might want kisses as deep and resonant as the thunder.

From the floor, he watched the rain; and then he got up and ran over there and peeked out at the leap and riot of carnival drops. He wondered whether Jason would want to know, if Colby came over and knocked and said, you know, I quite like watching rain, I’ve always loved looking out windows when the world’s drenched and dripping, please don’t mind if we’re ever out somewhere and there happen to be windows and I keep getting distracted by a glimmering world with flares of color, city lights and umbrella-twirls and the mysterious missions of people and their destinations?

Liam had minded. So had Tony, even before that, though less cruel about saying so. Not paying attention. Distractible. Fanciful and silly.

He found the windowpane with an index finger, and chased a ribbon of water from the inside.

He thought that Jason, who liked fantasy, might understand. Jason might even understand if Colby dared to add one last bit on: I think rain might make me think of you. Color, and stories.

He realized that he’d just thought about coming over and knocking on Jason’s door.

He stood perfectly still while the idea shaped itself. While it expanded and grew into other imaginings.

He hadn’t let himself envision that, hadn’t expected to, and all at once couldn’t not. Coming to Jason’s room. Alight with today’s fire, today’s certainty. Leaning in to touch Jason’s arm, sliding a hand up to feel those biceps, asking Jason as best he could to kiss him more.

He did not think he was particularly good at sex—Liam’d told him as much more than once, and Colby had no real reason to think that was a lie, especially given his track record with boyfriends wanting more or looking elsewhere or simply leaving; he knew he’d never been satisfactory or interesting enough—but he didn’t think he was outright hopeless, though he might be wrong. He tried to do his best at whatever a partner asked of him, at least. And he thought that Jason would be sympathetic about it, and not mock him if he couldn’t do something, or help show him how to do it better, with kindness.

Jason did want him. Colby wanted Jason. That was a truth, a dazzling newborn truth. He wanted to embrace it.

And this would even be a practical decision, wouldn’t it? They’d managed, today; tomorrow night would be more intense. Facing it early, getting treacherous and buoyant unpredictable emotions out of the way, would be logical. Clearly.

Jason also understood about preparedness and facing one’s fears. Surely Jason would say yes. After all, that had been arousal; Jason could satisfy those desires, and they’d be more familiar with each other’s reactions, and Colby would—would quite like that too—and so all the reasons were eminently rational and therefore Colby should absolutely go over and knock at Jason’s door.

Besides, Will Crawford would do it.

He caught breath, grinned at the rain, let the decision flood fingertips and toes with rightness. He was going to do this.

He caught sight of his sleeve. He contemplated his current clothing. Layers and layers and too-large stripes and tidy slacks; thoroughly acceptable, but not precisely the right tone for seducing one’s impressive and experienced co-star.

He remembered that Jason had dated a literal super-model, briefly quailed in the face of this reminder, and dove into his closet.

He evaluated the first outfit in the mirror. This included the only pair of jeans he’d brought, black and more skinny than the ones he’d in fact meant to pack, but perhaps Jason liked that effect. They certainly clung to his legs. He was less confident about the shirt, which was the only pink shirt he had at the moment—he’d thought the reference might be intriguing—but seemed a bit too formal for jeans and seduction purposes.

He darted back to clothing options, now strewn across the bed.

That grey cardigan? Too colorless. Violet, in the form of a plain long-sleeved shirt that he’d brought for sheer comfort? Not dressy enough, even if he changed back to nicer slacks and threw a jacket atop it. A scarf? More layers? Might that be the entirely opposite message? No, then.

He bounced the scarf in one hand, not quite discarding it. Too many implications. Not that he wanted Jason to tie him to the bed with a scarf. Not that Jason would ever think of that.

Jason might. Jason had given some of those orders about food with a glint in those eyes: dominance in the forests. It wasn’t as if Colby hadn’t noticed. He’d not minded. The opposite, honestly.

He’d been tied up before, not only by Liam. Scarves, yes; rope, yes. Those handcuffs, which had hurt when he’d struggled—

He tightened his grip on fabric, breathed out, focused on texture and color. Not thinking about anything else.

Having sidestepped metaphorical cracking ice, he flipped through more shirts. They came to hand with encouraging swiftness.

Jason did like blue. Where was that shirt, the one Jill said made the color in his eyes stand out…?

Back to jeans, tight and hopefully flirtatious. Royal blue for the shirt, neatly buttoned but with sleeves rolled up. Not bad, or he thought not. The storm noisily concurred.

He ran a hand through his hair. Left it loose: a glimpse of their afternoon. He did shove the purple elastic tie into a pocket, in case Jason liked it better that way.

His phone buzzed. He jumped, tripped over a scarf that’d slithered to the floor, landed sprawled over the bed, excavated electronics from mischievous shirt-sleeves.

Jason. A text. Naturally. Because Jason was wonderful and perfect and knew Colby’d been thinking about him.

This text said Are you around? I just heard from Jillian and she wanted to know if I’d talked to you yet, and you were getting a ride back here with her, right?

One more line showed up as he was processing this. I totally get it if you need space, I’ll leave you alone, I just want to know if you’re OK.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Colby said, and typed back yes I’m here sorry I’m fine I should’ve said straightaway but in my defense it’s only been about fifteen minutes and I’ve just survived an assassination attempt from one of my scarves, please be lenient?

He wavered over the last bit. Will’s voice in his head suggested he send it, so he did. A thrill scampered down his back after, wicked and hot.

Jason started typing, stopped, started again. No apologizing for needing a minute or fifteen. Seriously, though. You sure you’re fine? Scarves can be tricky. Sneaking up on you, knocking you off balance, all that.

“It wasn’t even a metaphor,” Colby despaired at the screen. The next cloudburst snickered, not believing him. “Oh, never mind. How about I just—” Can I come over? To talk in person? The words shone up at him, legible as a heart in words, as a stepping-stone landing-point in a rushing stream.

He hit send. Held his breath.

Jason did not answer immediately. Colby didn’t blame him, and had a momentary bout of thoroughgoing second-guessing consternation. What if Jason said no? What if Jason didn’t want to talk to him? What if Jason had somehow figured out that Colby was about to offer to have sex with him, and was trying to think of a considerate way to say no, because any on-set arousal’d only been circumstantial and Jason wouldn’t really want him in any off-screen capacity—

Of course. Jason’s reply landed solid and affirmative, right there on the screen. Whatever you need. You mean right now, right? You want me to do anything or get you anything? Food or coffee? Anything at all.

No no no you don’t need to I’ll be right there! One minute! He grabbed his room key from the table while texting, ran for the door, hoped Jason wouldn’t go to any unnecessary trouble, accomplished three steps down the hall, and figured out that he’d forgotten shoes.

He looked down at his feet. At least his socks were also blue, dark and light striped, and more or less matched the shirt. He’d no idea how attractive showing up shoeless might or might not be, but he’d promised he’d only be a minute and he did not want Jason to grow anxious or to start ordering everything on the room service menu. He resigned himself to sock-clad toes and hoped for the best.

Jason’s door was only one down from his—the interruption of the ice machine did not count—though the hall was long and gilt-wreathed. Georgian opulence, or an excellent updated facsimile, gazed down with grand munificence and let him pass. The door itself was thick white-painted wood. Colby knocked before he could think twice about this whole idea, while his heart sped up and his toes got a bit chilly.

Jason opened the door fast enough to’ve been standing right on the other side. Jason was wearing plaid pajama pants and a plain white t-shirt, and he filled up the doorway with heroic large coziness; Colby stared at that chest and those arms and that giant gentleness and fought the impulse to step closer and bury himself in Jason’s strength.

Jason’s eyes were dark and wide and worried. “Colby—”

“Can I come in?”

“Yeah, of course…” Jason stepped back, giving him space. Jason’s eyes had gone right to the clinging jeans, Colby noticed, but no comment seemed to be forthcoming. “I, ah. I hope—I hope it’s not—I mean I’m really fucking sorry about earlier. About—I know it was too much—I get why you’re here, I swear I do, so just go ahead and tell me to leave you alone. Or whatever’s easiest for you.”

“What? No.” He blinked at Jason, wandered a few more steps into the room, glanced around. “Interesting. Your room’s a forest, isn’t it? All dark green and brown and gold. I wonder what all the other rooms are like; they’ve all got unique décor. Yours is so clean, though. As usual.”

“It’s not that clean.” Jason shifted weight, swallowed. The neatly closed wardrobe and shut suitcase and uncluttered table turned that statement into a lie; Colby internally winced. One more reason Jason could do better than his own messiness, emotional and literal.

Jason went on, “If that’s not why you’re here…you’re not…Jillian didn’t say anything about…I thought we were maybe okay but if you had time to think, and you and Jill needed to talk, and if it’s not working, with me…”

Colby skidded to a halt halfway toward indulging curiosity in the direction of Jason’s window, as those sad small words skewered his chest. “You think I’m here to fire you?”

“Aren’t you? If you can’t do this with me…if you don’t feel safe with me…and of course you’d do it in person, I get it…” Jason hadn’t moved, barefoot and big and anguished. “I don’t want to go but I will. If you’d feel better working with someone else. I’d hate leaving, you know I would, but I—I’d rather know that you’re okay.”

“What,” Colby attempted. No sentences conveniently formed themselves. “What…no, no, that’s entirely not it, no…why would you…no!”

“Then I think I’m missing something.” Jason was obviously trying not to hope too much. “I did think it went…you said not bad…but I know sometimes it’s worse later on, after the adrenaline wears off, and—and you said you were surviving assassination attempts from your scarf, except you weren’t even wearing one, so it was some sort of weird metaphor about Will’s cravat, right—”

“It was an actual scarf! I was trying on outfits! For coming over here!”

“Oh.” Jason took a step closer. Both eyebrows quizzical. “Why?”

“I was trying to dress nicely for you?” Already going wrong; well, that was more or less his life, as far as men, and at least Jason hadn’t shouted at him yet. “Because…because I thought you might like it if I did.”

“I do,” Jason said immediately—immediately enough to be honest, Colby concluded. “I’ve never even seen you in jeans before. And those look so—I didn’t know if you wanted me to notice, or if you were just tired and grabbed clothes.”

“I almost wore pink,” Colby said. “I—I had a question for you. Or a suggestion. In the spirit of everything we’ve attempted on this film so far. And tomorrow night.”

“That sex scene.” Jason’s voice held not a question but a comprehension, or something that was afraid to be one; Jason had guessed from the phrasing, then. “Colby…”

“I think,” Colby said, standing in sock-clad feet in the middle of Jason’s enchanted-forest hotel room, backed by the singing of the storm, “that we should perhaps have sex now, don’t you?”

Chapter Text

Sex. Him and Colby. Now. Now?

Those words didn’t go together. They orbited around Jason’s room and flew without settling, fantasy airships adrift and rudderless. They couldn’t contain what he thought he’d heard.

His toes dug into the rug. Gold and brown plushness didn’t help. Neither did his old pajama pants and worn white shirt. Everything incongruous: a forest-spirit room, Colby in the world’s tightest pair of jeans, Jason’s lurching unpreparedness.

Jason’s body announced that it could damn well be prepared. Every inch of him stood up and paid attention. Rock-hard. Ignoring all common sense about whatever Colby’d actually said, which Jason’s dick hadn’t comprehended correctly, hearing exactly what it wanted.

He scraped out, “You—you mean rehearse?” He might combust on the spot—Colby’s outfit, Stephen’s purring seductive lines about craving and release, his own newly scoured emotions right at the surface—but if Colby needed that, he’d square his shoulders and try. “Okay…um, we can do that…”

“No.” Colby licked those lips, that familiar nervous swipe of tongue that Jason, like every time and even more so right now, completely failed not to watch. “No, I meant—what I said. If you would. I would.”

“But. You.” Continuing to not make sense. Must be a misunderstanding. His own fault. “You don’t want…you don’t like…today was…I scared you!”

“You didn’t.” Colby took another small step forward. Right in front of him now. “If I was scared it wasn’t of you. And I’m sorry, obviously I’ve not been good at talking to you, if you thought I’d come here to fire you—absolutely the opposite, I think I couldn’t do this with anyone but you, so I’m terribly sorry for whatever I’ve done to make you think—”

“No, god, you didn’t—” He raked a hand through his own hair rather than reach for Colby. “No. I just—it still doesn’t feel real, y’know? It’s me, not you! You’re fucking amazing!” He hadn’t seriously thought Colby’d let him go from the film. Not for more than a second. A handful of seconds. A handful of petrified seconds in which Colby’s past and Jason’s clumsiness and Jillian and Colby discussing and Colby wanting to talk all hung fire in the air.

But he knew their scenes had been good. He knew Colby wanted him here, on this film. He did know, dammit.

And Colby…wanted…

…him.

Those complicated eyes held a tropical ocean’s worth of apologies. Colby thought this new confusion was his fault. Had gone quiet after Jason’s interruption.

“No,” Jason said again. “No, you didn’t do anything. It’s me being stupid. Don’t think about it. You said you weren’t scared of me. But you were scared?”

The corner of Colby’s mouth tipped up. “Of myself. Can I tell you something?”

“Anything.”

“I like rain.” Colby didn’t reach for him either, but continued wandering over to Jason’s window and coaxed back green rustling curtains for a peek at the night. Storm-light framed his eyelashes, his waves of hair, his jawline. “I get distracted by it sometimes. I’ll start listening to the sound, or looking out the window, and then I’ll realize it’s half an hour later and I’ve got nothing at all done except making up stories about water elementals and magical umbrellas in my head. Ridiculous, I know.”

“No.” Jason eased into the spot beside him: gradual, perceptible, not touching, nothing sudden. “You make the world into a fantasy. And everybody’d want a pet water elemental. Pocket-sized. Leo’s is some kind of tequila-drinking otter.”

He did not expect Colby to spin his way, eyes sparkling, more radiant than Jason’s answer called for. “You do always know what to say, don’t you?”

“Me?” Jason nearly checked over a shoulder, in case anyone else’d entered the room. Nope, just him and Colby. “Hell no. I know you know I don’t.”

“I don’t mean you don’t ever trip over a word or a line.” Colby waved a hand, dismissing this. “But you know what I need to hear. Even before I do. You know what I need. You know me.”

“I want to,” Jason said, complete heart in the words. Everything he felt, everything he was, here and now. “Do you—do you want food, or something? You didn’t have dinner, right?”

“I’m too nervous to eat,” Colby said. “But that’s why. Why I want this, I mean. I trust you and I think I can do this with you and I want to do this with you. Er. By this I mean sex. In case that wasn’t clear.”

“Starting to be.” Believable was another hurdle to jump, but he’d work on that in a minute. “Why, though? I mean why now. I mean, after today…after that, you…thought we should?”

“I thought…” Colby started to slide hands into pockets, plainly realized his jeans were purposefully made too tight for this, and settled for thumbs. The casualness betrayed the anxiety. “After today, yes, and then we’ll have to do more tomorrow, and we should be ready. And we can get some of those messy emotions out of the way and, er, relieve some tension, and…”

“And?”

“And I feel like trying,” Colby whispered. “For the first time in a long time.”

This confession floated in the air between raindrops and curtains and wooden furniture-legs. It carried hope, written in that voice, artistic as calligraphy.

Jason stood there and looked at Colby, framed by rain. Colby, who’d dressed up for him and then somehow forgotten or chosen not to wear shoes, which shouldn’t’ve tugged at Jason’s chest but did: those sock-toes, striped in matching color, showed vulnerable and sweet but tough as diamonds under generous blue skies. And Colby had come over here and smiled and talked about liking the weather. Had made a choice.

That choice reached out and reshaped Jason’s heart. It framed each beat in gold like the strokes of a brush.

No. A pen.

He whispered back, “You’re serious,” not because he doubted the conviction but because he wanted to hear it one more time.

“I am.” Colby did that swift lip-lick again. “I understand if you don’t want to, but I do think it’d be good, for all those reasons I mentioned, and—”

“Okay,” Jason said.

“Oh. Really?”

“You’re right. I want you. And you came over here and said you want me. I trust you. So, okay.”

“Oh.”

“So…” He spread hands. “How do you want to do this?”

“I…well, to be honest I hadn’t quite thought much beyond this point.” Colby glanced around, laughed, shook his head. “I don’t know. What do you, er, normally do?”

“Not sure normal applies. Never had someone seduce me with water elementals before.” Success; Colby was back to smiling. “You know it’s been a while for me, too.” He lifted a hand, borrowed Stephen’s on-set gesture from that early shipboard scene: reaching out to tuck Colby’s hair behind an ear. Colby did not step back; Jason’s hand lingered. “Not like it has for you, I’m not comparing, never mind, that was dumb. Just trying to say, um, I don’t do this a lot. Not lately, anyway.”

“So…” Colby faltered over the reply. “But you…do want to?”

“You were right.” He shifted weight, let his hand move: cupping Colby’s cheek. “I want you. Because you like rain. Because you got me to like water. Can I kiss you?”

“Yes,” Colby said. “Please.”

The kiss on set had been delicious and vertiginous, shot through with heady discovery and the knowledge that Colby had to be Will Crawford to contemplate letting it happen. This time—

This time Colby had on jeans, not only a sheet and naked skin. Jason’s feet were bare and ecstatic, one on the rug and one on the floorboards, uneven and not caring. Colby tasted even more like mint and a bit like lip balm, as if he’d worried about softness and welcome. Jason made a noise that didn’t emerge in any known language and drew him in, hand cradling Colby’s head, not keeping him in place but wanting him as close as possible.

Colby’s eyes slipped shut, and he leaned into Jason’s caress. He kissed more bashfully than he had as Will, but not precisely as if afraid: as if he wasn’t certain what Jason liked and was trying to wait for cues. Jason murmured something else—it came out a small soothing sound, not words—and remained as gentle as possible while encouraging more, exploring Colby’s lips, coaxing that tongue to meet his. Colby relaxed bit by bit, and Jason’s heart raced.

Colby did want him. He was fairly certain about that. When he slid the other arm around that slim waist, their bodies aligned; that was the shape and firmness of male desire under those skinny jeans, and Jason groaned Colby’s name inadvertently. His own dick got even harder, if that was even possible; everything about that slender muscular body against his, the awareness that Colby liked this feeling too, and Colby’s little exhale of, “Jason…” combined to throb with astounded urgent pleasure.

He had a hand in Colby’s hair, a hand on Colby’s back; he memorized the lines and planes of that body, under his touch. He flattened fingers and palm over smooth skin, under that shirt; he permitted his hand to drift lower. Colby shivered against him but didn’t retreat, so Jason got a hand on that adorable ass, so temptingly hugged by denim, and explored more. He learned that Colby liked throat-kisses, under-the-jaw kisses, nuzzles and nibbles and Jason taking the lead; that was fine, that was better than fine, that was him making Colby feel good.

Himself, making Colby feel good. Hell yes.

He settled a hand on Colby’s waist. He nudged them a step toward the bed. Colby had very shyly rested hands on Jason’s shoulders, somewhere between holding on and—Jason was guessing—maybe not quite ready to actively touch anywhere else. That was fine too; Jason wouldn’t ask for that.

He invited, “You want to take this to bed? My bed, right here where you came and found me?” and Colby nodded, blushing, so Jason had to kiss him more.

Harder. Not on purpose. Not thinking. Hand sliding over Colby’s thigh, and up: cupping that rigid length, while Jason rocked hips against him, letting him feel the evidence of need, the size and girth.

Colby made a sound. This was a slightly different sound. “Jason—that—I—”

“Hmm?” He’d backed Colby up against the bed; he trailed fingers down over that pale throat and sensitive pink evidence of kisses. He pressed the hand more firmly over Colby’s cock, and Colby gasped and arched against him as if the response was innate—

But his hand moved more, and all at once Colby made that sharp scared sound again—and pulled back, eyes big, face pale—

Jason froze. Hands yanked up and away.

Thunder rattled windows and bones and bedposts. Inside, the world lurched at the sound. At that sound.

 

Colby had flinched. Instinctive. Couldn’t help it. Too much, too soon—the bed behind his legs, Jason’s hands, Jason’s control—even as he wanted it, craved more of it—

But it was too overpowering. Too disorienting. He’d tried to hide the flare of reaction. Maybe Jason hadn’t noticed.

Jason had. And hadn’t stirred since, hands held up, visibly not touching anywhere anymore.

“Oh, no,” Colby said, and tried to get closer to those dismayed muscles, “no, no, it’s fine, I’m fine, I was only startled and you’re quite large and I—I mean I appreciate that, obviously I do, I quite like—I mean my ex was also very—and he liked to use that strength to—but you’re much nicer and anyway he’s an ex for good reason—”

Jason sank down on the end of the bed. Held up a hand, then put it down, deliberately and clearly telegraphed: a gesture to soothe a skittish creature.

Colby stopped talking.

“Colby,” Jason said. “Your ex. Did he—was he—did he hit you? Did he hurt you?”

“No! No, nothing like that—well, of course he liked to spank me, and he slapped me once or twice, but that was always just during sex—all right, yes, I didn’t enjoy that part of it, but he always liked being rather aggressive, and I don’t mind, I can handle being a bit uncomfortable—”

Jason’s hand clenched around a knot of green-striped duvet. “He did things to you. That you didn’t enjoy. In bed.”

“I don’t mind, I said?”

“Colby,” Jason said again. “When was the last time you had actual, mutually enjoyable, consensual sex?”

“I know about consent!” He crossed arms over his chest in defense. Glared. “I always did. Consent. Why are we having this discussion?”

“Did you like any of it?” Jason drew a breath, let it out. Muscles tense and quivering, poised for some sort of action, but remaining determinedly in place. Voice serious, eyes serious: somber and brown as deep safe earth. “What do you like?”

“What? Why does that matter?”

Jason was now regarding him with an expression akin to horror. Colby did not enjoy this; Jason kept on looking at him that way, and he was starting to feel as if he’d done something wrong, got the answer incorrect somehow, and he hated that feeling. “What on earth do you think sex is? It’s about the other person. What they want. Not about me asking for things and being selfish. And I like making someone else happy.”

“Do you even like sex?”

“I don’t even like this conversation,” Colby snapped. What right did Jason have to ask that? When Colby’d been the one to offer? Wasn’t the answer obvious? “And I’m changing my mind about wanting to have sex with you.”

“At least you know that,” Jason muttered. “Colby—”

“Oh, for god’s sake. Yes, I like sex. Not everything, of course not, but that’s normal, isn’t it, you do some things you don’t like because your partner wants that, and that’s easier—” He ran out of words. Into a wall of sheer mortification. Ears burning. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d been so confused and frustrated and embarrassed—and, irritatingly, aroused; it was the command in Jason’s voice, the command and the concern combined, firmness and care that echoed down his spine—by mere words. “Look, I do know what it means to enjoy myself, isn’t that enough?”

“Maybe. What is it that you like?”

“Are you seriously asking what I do to get myself off?”

“If that’s what you want to tell me.” Jason’s gaze remained steady. “Do you only enjoy it when you’re alone?”

“No, of course not, I’ve—it’s been—I’m sure I can think of—” Unbidden memories sidled up, nagging as a hungry cat. Being pinned down without escape. Being laughed at when he’d tried. The thought, drifting through his brain as he’d given up and lain without protest under Liam’s heaving grunting bulk, that it’d be finishing up soon in any case. Not precisely pain, but resignation, and a sort of strange unfulfilled sad soreness after.

He kicked those thoughts away. Forcefully.

They must’ve shown on his face, though. Jason swore, not loud but vehement. “If I ever meet your ex I’m gonna castrate him.”

Colby blinked.

“Slowly,” Jason added. With menace.

“But,” Colby said, perplexed. “But…look, there are bits I like, I…I honestly do like making someone else feel good? I like being told what to do, what they want, so that I can know that I am making them feel good? That part’s nice. One time Liam put me on my knees and told me to stay and fucked my mouth and didn’t let me come, and that felt interesting, I would’ve liked to get off but I didn’t need to, if that was what he wanted, and he told me I’d been very good, after, and I did quite enjoy that.”

“Christ.” Jason dragged a hand over his face. “Colby…”

“I can be good at sex,” Colby explained. “At least I can try. If you let me know what you’d like. I can do whatever you like. It’s like acting, isn’t it?”

Jason’s lips said a word, possibly Colby’s name or another curse, inaudibly. Jason’s face said more, without words.

Jason’s cock had gone hard, an impressive rise of girth and length through green and blue plaid, when Colby’d first come in and said I think we should have sex.

Jason had wanted him. He knew that reaction had been real. Visible. Perceptible.

Even now Jason was sort of half-hard, reaction diminishing but present. Jason’s eyes were shaken, ancient earthworks struck by a seismic quake. “Colby…I don’t know what to do, here. I want—I don’t want to do the wrong thing. I want to tell you to talk to someone about this. Someone who’s more fucking qualified than me. I don’t know how to argue with you when you say you’re okay.”

“I do know the difference between good and bad sex,” Colby offered, a little hesitantly, unsure if this was in fact the question or the right answer. “And I know some of it wasn’t…well, precisely good? I know that.”

“The way you looked at me,” Jason said, “just now. The way you looked before, on set, when I—when you weren’t ready to be touched. He’d hold you down, right? Your ex. And do the—the things you said you didn’t enjoy. That’s why. That’s why no one touches you. Except Jillian. Well, and in hair and make-up and everything. But that’s different, isn’t it?”

“Jill knows.” Colby came back over to the bed. He wasn’t entirely certain why. He wanted to be near Jason: near large shield-wall muscles and eyes that could ache on his behalf. I don’t want to do the wrong thing, Jason had said. “After Liam…I did kick him out, by the way, that was my decision, in the end…after he’d finally gone, I called her. I don’t even recall what I said, but she came over straight away. I think she’s said…I don’t know what, precisely, to the crew, but they’ve been impressively meticulous about not touching me much. She’s always taken rather protective care of me, though. Ever since Afterparty, you know, that high school rom-com, you won’t’ve seen it, when I was so young and she hadn’t even won half those awards. She had blue hair back then.”

“I’ve seen it. She’s a good friend.”

“Like the American older sister I never had. Truthfully, she’s being a bit overprotective. If I know it’s for a role, if it’s the job, if I know what to expect, it’s fine. It’s even normally fine if it’s completely random, a PA bumping into me on the way to set, anything like that. I know what that is.”

“It’s worse when someone wants you,” Jason said, cautious as a man venturing out across thin ice, afraid that too much pressure might shatter crystals underfoot. “When you know that someone wants you. Especially someone big enough, strong enough, to—to hurt you.”

Of course Jason understood. Jason knew about hurt. Jason Mirelli knew about loss, and pain, and the kind of shocked gap in the soul that pain could bring. In Jason’s case it’d been a person and a memory and a fear, a wound stitched back together and a scar shaped like water.

And Jason had thrown himself into the deep end anyway, on set and before that, at midnight in a hotel pool. Because Colby’d asked. Because Colby’d rather naively pushed in and assumed assistance would be helpful. And Jason’d put up with that.

Because Jason was brave, and kind, and determined. True of heart, in the best possible ways.

Colby’s own heart hurt a bit. He slid down onto the floor next to Jason’s legs at the side of the bed; he pulled up both knees and wrapped arms around them, sitting on a thick hotel rug. He remained fully dressed, shirt and skinny jeans and sock-feet. Jason, in pajama pants and simple white shirt, peeked down at him.

“Don’t say anything,” Colby said. “I don’t know why. Felt like the thing to do.”

“I like your voice,” Jason said. “You sound…not exactly less English, because you are, that’s always there, but sort of more…other things too. When you’re yourself, I mean, not on camera.”

“The accent’s terrible.” Colby detached one hand enough for a wave; put it back, after. “It’s all over the place. It’ll be more historically posh and proper for a while after this role; that always happens. I spent one or two years unsuccessfully trying to lose it after my parents divorced and my mother decided she wanted us to stay in California, in the sun, by the sea. Surfboards and sand. Fitting in. Dude.”

Jason laughed out loud, which was gratifying; he’d been aiming for that.

The night unwound a fraction around them: forest-papered walls and dark furniture, lamplight throwing out beacons of gold.

“What do you want to do?” Jason’s voice did not disturb the hush. Only fell into it, and became part of the moment. “Do you want to stay here tonight? If you don’t want to be alone. You can have the bed. I’ll sleep on the loveseat.”

Colby looked across the room at the loveseat in question. It displayed newly panicked cushions at him. “As if you’d fit on that poor piece of furniture. Don’t torment it with the idea.”

“The furniture and I would make it work,” Jason said. “If you wanted us to.”

“I’m doing okay,” Colby said. “I want you to know that. I’m…not great about some things, but I’m working on it. I do make choices. I threw Liam out. After I caught him in bed with someone else, in our actual bed I mean, and I do know he was only trying to hurt me when he said—some of what he said about me. Not being good enough. I want you to know that I know that. How to make choices. If I have to.”

“Thank you.” Jason scooted forward to look at him more closely, more intently; one leg almost bumped Colby’s shoulder, but Jason—who after all had a stunt-man’s awareness of his own body—caught the impending motion first. “This’s going to come out really fucking condescending, and I’m sorry, but I’m glad. Relieved. All of that. I don’t know how else to say it. Thank you, for telling me.”

Colby leaned back. Let his shoulder nudge Jason’s leg, barely there, the kind of touch that might’ve gone unnoticed. “Thank you for…oh, I don’t know, everything. The compliments about my voice.”

“I told you I like it,” Jason agreed. “I do.”

“We’re still going to have to do it,” Colby said. “The other sex scenes. The longer one, in bed, tomorrow night. The—the rougher one. In the library.”

“And you don’t want to.” Jason let out a breath. “Yeah. I get why. You shouldn’t have to. Maybe we can use a double, or Jill can think of some camera set-up that hides—”

“No,” Colby said. “I want to.”

Jason stopped searching for solutions, saucer-eyed.

“I came over tonight because of today,” Colby said. “Because you…and I…we…you felt that too. All of it. And it’s been so long since it felt like—I wanted you, today. I think you won’t hurt me. You felt good. I’m really dreadful at this, I’m so sorry, I’m scared and I’m not scared and I—look, I don’t generally run around asking my co-stars to sleep with me, I don’t know how this is supposed to go, I haven’t got a script, and at this point you’re going to say no in any case, I expect.”

“Colby.” In Jason’s deep voice his name sounded like wonder, like a mystery, like a gift to be cradled. “You’re asking. You’re still asking. After everything you’ve just told me.”

“Er. Yes?”

“You want me, you said.”

“Yes?”

“And you trust me not to hurt you.”

“I’ve just said—”

“Colby Kent,” Jason said again, half a laugh, half an amazed and reverent breath. “Christ. I never imagined. Okay, no, I did imagine, once or twice, I’m only human, but not like this. Not ever like this.”

“Yes,” Colby said, giving up, drowning in red-hot embarrassment. “Of course. I’ll just go, then.” He gathered up legs, fumbled, found his feet. One step toward the door. Two.

“No!” Jason bolted up from the bed, then forced himself to a halt: almost comically pleading, hands stretched outward but immobile. “I don’t mean, like, no, you can’t go if you want. I won’t stop you. I didn’t mean to move. I won’t move at all, I swear, just don’t go. Please. I’m asking. Not ordering. Oh fuck, this’s coming out all wrong, just—I don’t even know how to talk. Please don’t leave until I at least figure out how to talk.” All the muscles quivered, big-hearted and anxious. Jason’s arousal had returned, Colby noticed: a stiff stirring weight outlined by bedroom light.

He took a small step back that direction, away from the door. Looked up at Jason. Their height difference wasn’t that pronounced—some, yes, enough to be noticed, but only an inch or two—but the width, the breadth, the solidity: that was.

“Please,” Jason said. “Oh god. I want—you said you want me, and I—yes, yes, fucking yes, okay. I want you. I don’t want to hurt you. Don’t take this as a no, because it isn’t, but I’m really fucking honored and also fucking terrified right now.”

Colby, inexplicably, found his mouth tilting into a smile. His heart did that odd leap and twirl again, as if shaking dust off an old acrobatic routine. “Sounds about right.”

Jason lowered the hands. Raised eyebrows instead. “Both?”

“You see people,” Colby said. “You see me. So, yes. Honored.”

Those thick expressive eyebrows quirked. “And terrified.”

“And I want you.” At the edge of the precipice, he did. “Don’t make this harder than it is, would you?”

“I’ll try. God, I’ll fucking try.” Jason ran a hand through his own hair. “I have an idea. But you’ll tell me if it’s stupid, okay?”

“Whatever you want, I said.” He could do that. He was good at doing that. He could carry out any of Jason’s ideas and make Jason feel good, and he thought that Jason would maybe even make him feel good too, because Jason was lovely and generous and would probably offer. Another small dusty piece of Colby’s heart, or maybe someplace else, someplace lower down and coiling with slow heat, sat up and shook itself into life. He thought it felt like anticipation. Like wanting.

He came back toward the bed. Jason immediately sat down, both big hands flat against green and cream blankets, erection blatant as iron. Colby paused. “You’re not…we’re not…you’re not doing anything.”

“You don’t want me to.”

“What? Of course I do.”

“I want you,” Jason said. “I want you to feel safe. What you said earlier…about showing me what you do to get off…”

Colby literally felt his own mouth drop open, wordless. After a second he found sounds. “I was being sarcastic at you!”

“I know. I wasn’t.” Jason didn’t move. “Whatever I want, you said. And I said I had an idea. So that’s it. My idea.”

“What?”

“I won’t touch you.” Jason gazed at him, kept hands still, kept entire self still: seated on the bed. “Not unless you ask me to. Because you want that, I mean, not because you think I want to.”

“You don’t?”

“I do. I was about two seconds from fucking showing you how much, on a pool deck—”

“Oh, you liked my swimsuit, but that’s an old one, I’ve had it for years but people do seem to appreciate that style, I should really thank the designer—”

“That’s not a swimsuit, it’s a pocket square, and like isn’t the fucking word.” Jason took a breath, let it out. Kept looking at Colby’s eyes. “And don’t do that.”

“Thank people? Wear an older swimsuit? Talk?”

“Don’t not believe me. And then keep talking so I won’t notice. I like hearing you talk. But not like that.”

“Oh,” Colby said, mostly because he couldn’t think of anything else to say. In all the years, of all the people he’d met, only a few had ever figured that out. And Jason had done so in a handful of days. “I don’t…not…believe you. I only…I’m not sure what we’re doing. If you want to touch me, why wouldn’t you just do that?”

“That’s why,” Jason said. “Because I do want you, and I think you wouldn’t stop me if I did something you didn’t like, and I also think you don’t believe me when I say I want to know what you do like. Right?”

“That was far too many verbs to follow.” He knew exactly what Jason had meant, and the honest answer was yes, but he wasn’t going to say it and prove that annoyingly insightful gaze right. “Can’t you just tell me what you want me to do?”

Jason sighed. But then looked him up and down, and the mild exasperation turned into a crooked smile. “Yeah. Let’s try that.”

“Sorry, what?”

“You said you like being told what to do. That knowing exactly what someone wants from you, and doing that, following orders, feels good. I believe you.”

“Oh, thank you so much, I’m glad my confessions about my sex life are believable—”

“You aren’t usually this sarcastic.”

“I don’t usually have elaborate and detailed discussions about whether or not someone wants me on my knees!”

“Maybe you should. And, for the record, one more time, I do. Want that.”

“Well, then—”

“But not now.”

“What,” Colby attempted helplessly, “the fuck.” The fact that he’d felt his body jerk to further attention at the order in Jason’s voice did not solve matters. “Are we doing this, or not?”

“We are. You are. I’m not going to touch you, I am going to talk to you, and you’re going to show me what you do when you’re alone, whatever actually feels good.” Jason cocked that head at him. Thoroughly in control. Big and broad and powerful, biceps rippling under that straining shirt, confident and certain. Patient and sympathetic, too. He would no doubt be kind but firm in bed, thoroughly ruthless and delectably relentless.

Colby’s heart, and other parts, decided that sweet relentless pleasure, wrung out of his shaking body over and over by those large hands and that eloquent mouth, sounded like an experience he’d quite appreciate.

Jason added, at this point, “Take off your clothes.”

“So we are doing this now.” Terribly confusing signals, and in all likelihood an equally terrible idea, but his fingers’d already moved to shirt-buttons. Traitorous fingers. His cock twitched.

“I told you. You are. Clothes.”

“Ah. You like watching me strip? Is that it? Because if we’re recreating that scene from Local News, you remember that half the point was that I was dreadful at it, I was meant to be, tripping over my own pants, but it was supposedly adorable, so he would come kiss me anyway—” He was undoing the buttons while talking. Trying to make it slow. Flirtatious. A show, if Jason liked that.

“We’re not recreating anything,” Jason said. “I don’t want you to be an adorably clumsy single dad or a nineteenth-century English lord. And I’m not a cynical reporter or a naval commander. I’m me. Jason. And you’re you, Colby Kent, and you talk when you’re nervous, and I want you.”

“Oh,” Colby said again, fingers arrested, tangled up in emotion and a buttonhole.

Jason swallowed. Those hands hadn’t left the bed. Pressed into place over the duvet: no demands, no reaching out. “If you are, though…nervous…you can say no. You can leave. You don’t have to do this. Remember that you don’t have to. Please.”

“I know I don’t have to,” Colby said. “I mean, I do know. I know you mean that.” The please had disarmed him. Fences knocked sideways. Words scattered. Castle walls overrun.

He finished with the button. Then the next one, which was also the last; and he took the shirt off, a bit awkwardly, not looking up, and glanced around for someplace to put it, which was difficult because Jason’s room was extremely tidy and he did not want to disturb the order.

Jason cleared his throat. His voice sounded slightly strained. “Just leave it anywhere. The chair. Is fine.”

The chair did not seem to mind, so that was a consensus, then. He left his shirt draped over the back, and turned, barefoot now as well as shirtless, to find Jason looking at him more.

His toes, naked against expensive new hotel rugs, felt every bit of plushness, every sensation. His skin shivered with awareness; Jason kept this room colder than Colby’s own, and the slight chill made every exposed inch quiver and crackle, awake and alive.

He liked the way Jason was looking at him now, intent and intense. If any pity or well-meaning concern existed, it was faint and overcome by Jason’s apparent need to appreciate Colby’s shirtless form.

He ventured a step closer than he’d been before. Put a hand on his jeans, on the top button.

“Yes,” Jason said. “Yes. Everything. Naked, I said. Go on.”

So he unfastened the jeans, and slid them down, baring legs; he knew he had attractive legs, or so he’d been told, and by enough people that he guessed it was probably true, though he’d always personally thought they were disproportionately long. They made casual clothes-shopping difficult.

The room’s lamplight wrapped around his left calf, amber and cozy, when he went to hang the jeans on the chair.

He caught Jason’s fleeting motion in the mirror. Not really a motion. Anticipation. Tongue darting out, a lip-lick, quick and breathless.

Colby smiled a little, to himself, and took the two steps back to his spot in front of Jason’s determined immobility, and hooked thumbs into his briefs, playing with the waistband.

He did like blue. This pair was simple and soft, comfortable for the end of a long day, but nicely clinging and made in a rich jewel color, like sapphires, because deep saturated ocean colors made him happy, greens and ceruleans and the souls of waves.

He looked up at Jason, through eyelashes, mostly because he knew about that effect and how it seemed to work on other people, himself all shy and soft and hopeful, demurely waiting for instruction.

Jason made a sound that was not any recognizable word. His pajama pants were visibly tented, arousal arching up; his hands were coiled into the duvet.

For no reason at all Colby caught himself wanting to laugh. Not because Jason’s determination was amusing. Because that determination was so clear and so fierce and so bright.

Jason had promised that Colby could say no, had promised to not touch him, and would keep that promise no matter what.

The laughter transmuted itself into a different kind of emotion: quieter, more lucent, more profound. A smile, instead.

Colby, who did know how to put on a show, and who now knew that Jason did indeed appreciate him stripping, coaxed soft blue fabric down, gradually. He let the touch of it tantalize: thighs, smooth calves, ankles, the shape of his body as he moved.

He set the scrap of blue on the chair, where it could keep company with the rest, and padded back over. Right in front of Jason, who remained fully clothed and in charge of the next step. Colby’s cock shamelessly twitched at this arrangement, hot and stiff and needy and as yet untouched. He wondered whether Jason also liked this arrangement; he thought the answer, from the available evidence, might be yes.

He put both hands behind his back. Neat and tidy as the room. “What else?”

Jason shifted position. Did it again. Flattened a hand against the bed. “Christ.”

“Sorry, but if you’re expecting miracles, you’ll be rather disappointed, I’m afraid.”

Jason laughed, a quick burst of delight in the night, then stopped laughing, head on one side, thoughtful. “I know that was you being sarcastic. I like that, I said. But…I know you’re joking but I don’t like the way that sounds. You afraid.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Colby said, and to his own surprise found that this was true.

“You can always tell me to stop,” Jason said. “Always, always, Colby, I swear. Um. I told you I want to know what you like. So. One hand. Touch yourself. Your chest. Your nipples. I mean, if you, um, like that. But not your dick yet. Okay?”

“Okay.” Very American, emphasized for an instant, an echo; this made Jason grin. Colby batted away one or two stray tendrils of insidious encroaching anxiety about not performing well enough, deliberately did not think much, and moved one hand.

He did not begin with his nipples, though he did like having them played with, and they were inarguably interested. He pressed his one allowed hand over his hip, instead, and then let it drift upward: his stomach, his chest. He could feel himself breathing.

He could feel everything, and for a wildfire terrified instant he wondered what he was doing: standing here naked caressing himself while Jason watched, standing here naked and foolish and exposed, standing here and getting on with all this laughably slowly, no doubt making odd expressions, whatever his face might be doing—

Jason would certainly end up disappointed, because whatever the daydream expectation of movie star Colby Kent might be, real-life Colby wasn’t it; and this couldn’t be what Jason wanted, someone off-balance and not good at this—

He wasn’t even being allowed to do anything for Jason, none of his best practiced skills at pleasing a lover, and that wasn’t right, that couldn’t be enough, and at any moment Jason would surely figure that out and the determined patience would go away and Colby himself would likely be told to go away too—

He said, half at random, “Do you know, I actually own nipple clamps, my ex—not Liam, the one before that, Tony, that’d be—had a friend who worked in an absolutely fabulous sex shop—I don’t mean they actually sold sex, I mean toys, I mean really properly high-end ones, expensive custom leather and whips and, er, outfits and all that, I don’t know the terms for most of those things, not that I couldn’t look them up if you’d like, I did look one or two things up, when Tony wanted them, and, er, this story was going someplace when I started, I promise, I’m very sorry.”

“Nipple clamps,” Jason said. His expression was complicated: not unreadable, the opposite of blank, but not any combination of emotions Colby recognized.

“Oh! Right, yes.” He inched the hand upward. Reminded himself to inhale. Registered the smoothness of his chest, the heat of his own body. Solid. Real. And he was doing what Jason had asked him to. He could do that. He was good at doing that. “I, ah, I didn’t dislike them. I wasn’t terribly fond of the blindfolds and earplugs and hood-over-my-head arrangement he kept wanting to put me in, but there were a few things…my nipples are, er, quite sensitive. And as it turns out there’s a very interesting intense feeling when you take the clamps off.”

“Oh my god,” Jason said, eyes wide. He appeared to be quivering in place; the outline of his cock, which if Colby was any judge was truly impressive, shifted as he moved, and a small damp spot grew across pajama fabric. “Jesus fucking Christ. Colby everything fucking adorable Kent is into kinky sex.”

Colby blinked at him again. “That’s not…is that kinky? I suppose in the strictest sense…I like the clamps and I like not being allowed to get off and I like being told what to do. Oh, and being stuffed full of toys.”

“Oh my god,” Jason said once more.

“I didn’t like the actual metal handcuffs. They hurt. And I told you I didn’t like not being able to see or hear. I mean, I went along with it, and I said yes, he did ask first, don’t scowl at me, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it, any of those times.”

“You wouldn’t.” Jason’s voice shook, only a fraction. “Not you. Somebody else, sure, I’m not gonna judge however people get off, but you…you need to know someone’s there with you, don’t you? Someone you can trust. Someone you can listen to. So you know they want to be there, to take care of you.”

“I don’t know,” Colby said. “I don’t…I don’t think I’m very good at this.”

“Oh, god.” Jason lifted a hand—gradually, catching Colby’s eye first—and ran it through his own hair. “Jesus. Okay. New rule. You said you looked things up. You know about safewords and signals and all that, right? You fucking use them. Clear?”

“What…right now?”

“Now. Any time. With me, god, I fucking hope you’d tell me. But—but even if it’s not with me. If you—some other film, some other night, someone else, someone you want—I want you to promise me you’ll say red or yellow, stop or slow down, or whatever terms you decide on. I’ll make it an order. You can follow it. That’s something I want. Tell me you will.”

Even if it’s not you, Colby thought. Even if I say stop now and walk away, if we never do anything more. If I decide I want someone else. You want me to be safe.

And—though he wasn’t sure Jason had thought through those implications—he’d always be following Jason’s orders, if he said yes. Irrevocable. A piece of himself, from this moment on: the self that secretly bashfully rather wanted to say yes and make Jason proud.

Even deeper, under that, he did not think it would matter, because he did not think he’d want anyone else; he’d been scared and tired and lonely before Jason, and Jason was kind, and that kindness would ruin him for anyone less so.

He knew that, and he knew Jason would move on—Jason was clearly thinking along those lines already—and he knew also that he’d say the yes.

He’d have this moment, this glimpse, whatever stolen time he’d be allowed. He’d keep it folded like a love-letter down in the cracks of his heart, where he could pull it out and smile at the handwriting of memory from time to time, alone in his bed.

Alone except for the nipple clamps. Which would make him smile as well, thinking of this. Thinking of Jason, of Jason wanting him to be safe.

He said, “Yes. I will, I promise.”

Jason narrowed eyes. “That seemed too easy.”

“You wanted me to say yes. I did.”

“You didn’t mean it?”

“I meant it! I didn’t want to argue over it. Yes, I’ll use safewords and stoplights and anything else you suggest, if the kinky sex situation ever comes up in the future. If there’s something that doesn’t feel right. Happy?”

“I don’t know.” Jason hesitated. “Do you mind if I stand up? I won’t touch you. I said I wouldn’t, and I won’t.”

“I don’t mind if you do want to touch me,” Colby said.

“That’s not the same as wanting it.”

“You can stand up.”

Jason, given this permission, surged to both feet. This put his height and bulk and power a heartbeat away from Colby’s body: a lean in, an exhale, a shiver, might’ve brought them together.

Jason put out a hand. Not touching, but the promise and prophecy of a touch: a gesture that might’ve cupped Colby’s cheek, cradled his face, held him securely in one large palm and fingers.

Colby trembled, his own hand half-forgotten over his heart, which had begun pounding like thunder.

“I’m not touching you.” The low rumble of Jason’s voice wrapped around Colby’s senses like velvet rope, and raced along his spine, and coiled at the base of his cock, sparking a new throb of desire. “I won’t. This is about you. Nothing you’re not comfortable with. I’m just letting you know I’m right here, okay?”

“You’re very much here,” Colby managed. Everything felt bewildering, a snarled luminous knotwork of need and nerves and yearning and doubt. He wanted Jason’s hands on him so badly he thought he might explode into flames; he also wanted to cry, because Jason understood, because Jason had seen him flinch from rough handling, because Jason had realized that there were ways he did not want to be touched, and instead of mocking Colby’s inadequacy in this particular area had talked to him and not touched him. “I…I’m still not afraid of you.”

“You’re shaking.”

“Your room is the preferred temperature of North Pole elves. I’m not scared of sex.”

“Yeah? Show me.” Jason lowered the hand, but kept it out just enough to carry significance: a gesture that in another life would’ve been a caress, a grip finding Colby’s hip, an assurance of fingers. “Want me to make it warmer in here?”

“No. It’s your room. What—what do you want me to do?”

Jason’s gaze, dark and hot, traveled across his chest. Colby discovered that he could still blush.

Jason grinned, and somehow that wasn’t mocking, but private and affectionate, turning the embarrassment into something shared, a moment for just the two of them. “You said your nipples’re sensitive. Show me that.”

Colby shivered, and moved fingers, as commanded.

His whole body sparkled and sang at the touch. At the skim of a fingertip, the press and the pressure as he caught that taut right nipple between thumb and finger, and teased himself with possibilities.

Jason groaned.

Colby, encouraged—too shy to look up at Jason’s face, but that was fine, Jason seemed to like him watching his own ministrations—did it a bit harder. Then more. Sharper, a bit of a roll, a bit of a twist, a bit of bright twinkling almost-pain that danced along nerve-endings.

He made himself gasp.

“You do like that,” Jason whispered. “You like feeling it. Do that again. Harder.”

He did. And it felt good.

It felt more than good, honestly. It felt incredible. The radiance blossomed across his chest, at his nipple, and bloomed throughout his body. Jason’s command sank into him and became an anchor, one written in gold and etched along his bones.

His cock was wet-tipped, he realized: so erect and ready that it pushed up against his stomach, leaving gleaming evidence of desperate need. That need pooled and gathered between his legs, in his balls, in the ache to be taken and wanted and filled.

“God.” Jason’s voice was ragged. “Colby…”

“Yes?”

“Colby. If you could see this, the way you look, if you’d believe me when I said you’re the most gorgeous fucking thing I’ve ever seen…you, like this, trusting me with this…you can, um. Use the other hand. Touch your cock. Don’t make yourself come. Just—just show me what feels good.”

“You’re still not touching me,” Colby said dreamily, and rediscovered his other hand, given permission. He trailed fingers along his shaft, feather-light, no real plan, only sensation. “You said you wouldn’t, and you’re not…”

“I’m not. I promised. I want you to know I mean it.” Jason glanced down at himself; that wry smile returned, faced with the growing damp spot across pajama pants, where his cock must be leaking with desire, eager and ready, but remaining hidden under clothes. “Might have to touch myself, later. After. I’m not asking you for that.”

“Why aren’t you—

“Because I’m not. Is that what you like? Being gentle?”

“Oh…no. Yes. I don’t—”

“You’re not allowed to say you don’t know unless you actually don’t know.”

“I don’t always want the same thing, I was going to say.” He wrapped his hand around his cock. Couldn’t hold back the tiny moan: too good, too tantalizing, when his body’d been craving some notice, some attention, some answer to the need. “Sometimes I like slow. Gentle. Sometimes I like hard and fast. Sort of…forcing myself to come, if that makes sense. Sometimes I want something that’s not either…if it’s just me…sometimes I like to make myself wait. Get close, and stop. And then do it again. And again. For quite a long time. That’s not…I can’t ask someone else for that, making it all about me, but you asked…”

He permitted himself a stroke, a lazy thrust into his own hand, watching the movement, the slickness of the head, the way it dripped to his fingers.

“Colby.” Jason’s voice snagged on want: audible and pure and in this moment unquestionable. “You can have that. You can do that. I would—I’d do that for you, if I could, just keep you in bed all fucking day and play with you, keep you right on that edge, until you were ready, until you were begging me to finally let you come, because you needed it too badly, and maybe I’d say yes, and maybe I wouldn’t…”

Oh.” He caught himself in a firmer grip, enough to stop the shuddering swell. Jason had told him not to come. He wanted to be good. And he was dissolving into Jason’s words. A fantasy, of course—Jason had talked about other people once already, and this was an exercise in resolving sexual tension, not a daydream of everything Colby could’ve ever wanted. But, god, yes, for now, for this moment: yes.

He felt a bit lightheaded. Molten and liquid, transparent and translucent, made of, yes, light. Jason felt very large and warm in front of him. Very solid. Colby wanted to touch him. To curl into all those muscles and feel that weight against him, atop him, undeniable and suffusing all his senses. He wanted to taste Jason; he wanted to nuzzle into Jason’s heat like a kitten in summer sun.

He was vaguely aware that this was not a normal train of thought.

His hand had kept moving along his cock, without any real conscious decision. That felt nice. Everything between his legs felt nice. He thought fuzzily that he ought to’ve been embarrassed about something, about not doing enough or being enough, or admitting to what was a dreadfully selfish fantasy about his own pleasure, but he couldn’t find the embarrassment. It slipped away like shining silver fish in the sunlit stream his thoughts’d become.

“Colby,” Jason said, in a tone that suggested he’d said it more than once. “Still okay? You look like you went away, sort of. In your head.”

“It’s a lovely kind of going away,” Colby told him. “Like honey. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like honey before. I think I’d recall that. Or maybe I wouldn’t, right now. It’s like the fish.”

“Like the what?

“Thoughts. Slippery. I’m not certain my legs are working. Does this happen for everyone? Have I been missing something completely wonderful, only it’s not really because it’s like this all the time and I’ve just not been doing it properly, sort of like tea, if that makes any sense…you’re looking at me oddly.”

“I’m honestly not sure,” Jason said, “whether I want to toss you into my bed and make you come so many times you finally forget how to talk, or whether I want to put you into my bed and worry a lot. You’d probably still talk, anyway. And no, it’s not always like—like honey. Are you feeling okay? Also, what about the tea?”

“Hmm? Oh. For years I thought I didn’t like it. I’m a disgrace to the English half of my heritage. But evidently there are other kinds of tea. You know. Flavors with fruit and vanilla and hibiscus and that sort of thing. I think perhaps sex is tea.”

“Oh my god,” Jason said. For a third time, Colby thought, though counting was imprecise at the moment.

“Or maybe you are,” he said to Jason. “Sort of…very muscular commanding tea. Tell me to do something else. I like that.”

“Colby,” Jason said once again, and shook his head, and laughed a little, but soft and fond. Colby liked that too; Jason sounded happy. “Okay. First, though, you said you weren’t sure you could stand up much longer.”

“Did I?” He was playing with his cock, rocking hips into his hand, getting lost and then found amid the sensations, over and over; he could not seem to stop, but that was fine. Jason liked him like this. He would like to stay this way, soft and floaty and shimmery inside, for as long as Jason said.

“More or less. Get on your knees.”

Colby actually didn’t recall moving, though he must’ve done; he blinked and was kneeling dizzily on the rug, gazing up at Jason, who loomed above him, limned in light.

“I want you,” Jason said, careful and clear and precise, as if making certain they both understood, “to make yourself come. I know you like making other people happy. You told me. But I think—I think you’ve been not letting yourself ask for things that feel good, and I think you’re feeling good right now, with me, and I want to see you feel everything you can. So I want you to get yourself off, right here, on your knees. I’m not touching you, this is all you, however you want to do that. That’s what I want.”

“Mmm…yes. I can do that.”

Jason laughed. “Good.”

“But what about you?” Colby decided, through the gilded honeyed clouds, that he could be coordinated enough for one hand on his cock, the other back on his nipple, squeezing, pinching. He whimpered aloud; his back arched, and more wetness slicked his hand, spilling from his tip. “You aren’t…you’re not…you’re still dressed!”

“Oh, Colby,” Jason said, someplace between sad and affectionate and gentle. “I told you. Don’t think about me.”

“But you want me. You said you did.”

“Yeah, but I’m not gonna take advantage of you. Or push you into something you don’t honestly want. Or make you think you owe me. That’s not how this works. Do that again. What you just did. You liked that one.”

Colby did it again, and moaned, and quivered: kneeling naked and shameless and decadent at Jason’s feet, the proof of how much he liked this painted on his skin, in the slide of his hand over his cock, in the scent of want in the air. Jason muttered something, low as a gut-punch, and dropped a hand to his own cock, squeezing through fabric, obviously holding back.

Jason was so good, Colby decided. So genuine. Everyone saw the muscles and the willingness, but missed the other pieces, the gentle compassion, the way those thoughtful dark eyes noticed people, the way Jason cared.

Jason had cared so much for his lost friend that water became frightening. Jason had cared so much for the characters of this film that he’d been Captain Stephen Lanyon. Jason could be large and firm and dominant, a man who’d give orders and be obeyed, but Jason would never ever hurt someone small and scared and inadequate but trying hard.

“Faster,” Jason said. “Harder, too. Make yourself come for me.”

Jason was doing this for him.

Colby, quivering on the brink, close to flying apart with it, moved both hands faster, harder, more forcefully. Obediently harsh, and oh he needed this, he needed—he was going to—

He gasped, “Please touch me.”

Jason did the opposite: abruptly entirely motionless. “You…want…”

“Not—not much…just please…what you nearly did, earlier, when you…and I couldn’t, not then, but I wanted…”

“You wanted me to.” Jason bent down, bent over him; that hand returned, hovered, settled next to Colby’s face. “Not much. Just a little…and you’ll stop me if you have to, nothing that you don’t want…nothing you can’t see…”

“Please,” Colby begged. “Please.”

Jason put out a finger, two fingers. Lifted his chin. Made him look up more; made him keep looking up, into Jason’s eyes.

The whole universe dwindled and then expanded, a paradox of single brilliant sparks. Jason’s fingertips were warm. Jason’s nearness filled the world, and Colby’s body flooded with rightness like a wave of diamonds, like a sea, like water; he fell into the curl and crash and break of it, opening up and spilling out, collapsing into peace.

He could not seem to focus, after, through the lazy ebb and flow of tides, a push-pull of sweet languor in his veins. He noticed when Jason knelt down on the floor with him, when Jason steadied him, when Jason asked in a worried voice about touching him more.

Colby, fuzzy, nodded, or tried to. Jason sighed. “Please say it out loud.”

“Mmm…words…”

You can’t remember words.”

“Quiet, tea. Yes, fine…green, if you want stoplights and signals…I’m lovely. This feels lovely. You’re lovely.”

“You and I need to talk about some things,” Jason muttered, “once you’re back with me,” and then very gently literally picked Colby up, scooping him right into both strong arms, which was also lovely. “Here. Bed. Stay put. I’m getting you water and cleaning you up.”

“You’re very strong.”

“Thanks?” Jason came back with a warm washcloth and a bottle of water, and paid assiduous attention to Colby’s stickiness, and then got a hand behind his head for support. “Drink more. No, more. I’ll see what I’ve got as far as food in a minute. You’re gonna need energy.”

“I like you being strong,” Colby told him drowsily. A sort of thick heavy languidness had set in, not precisely sleepiness but a splendid contented compliance, as if this were exactly what he’d always never known he’d needed. “I thought I wouldn’t. No, that’s not true, I thought I would, when I first saw you. You looked like entirely the sort of person I’d want to use that strength on me, but then that was the part that scared me, you see.”

“So you are talking.” Jason gave him more water, sitting beside him. Their bodies did not quite touch, likely Jason being careful about that too, but that supportive hand had stayed at Colby’s head. “Knew it wouldn’t take long. And I knew I was right. I did scare you.”

“Not you specifically. And I don’t mind being touched. Or not exactly. It was never…it wasn’t about that, except for how it was. That didn’t make any sense, I know, I’m awake enough to hear it.”

“About as much sense as the tea. So, yeah, actually. I think I got it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It’s not about the actual touching you part, right? Or it is, of course it is, but not just that. It’s about you liking people who’re…” Jason gestured at himself, illustrative, plainly working it out while talking. “More dominant. Strong. Physically, yeah, you like that—or you did like that, before—but in general too. People who want to tell you what to do, because you like giving yourself to people. Making them happy. But then your ex—both exes, sounds like—”

“Er. Probably more.”

“…huh. Still. Fuck ’em all. They sound like fucking dicks who took advantage of you. Because you like being nice. And at least the last one hurt you, and I hate that.” Not a question. Simmering anger, not directed at Colby but at the cause of hurt. Colby rather liked that: that genuine compassionate fire. Summoned up on his behalf. A knight who might lift a shield in his defense, maybe, even if only here and now in a daydream night.

He curled a bit closer to Jason. “He never outright hurt me. Not…I mean, I told you he’d get rough with me in bed. But that was mostly all. Though sometimes outside of bed he would…sort of…loom. And I knew we were both thinking about what he could do, if he ever did, but he didn’t.”

Jason said a very colorful few words.

“I’m okay.”

“That offer about castrating him’s still on the table.”

“Thank you for the image. I don’t mean I’m okay exactly…I don’t know, I don’t think I’m not okay, it’s just…it’s odd. Inside my head. I’ve always thought about everything too much.”

“I don’t think,” Jason said after a second, “that that’s a problem. I mean, the world could use that. People thinking about things more.”

“Maybe. You know, as a boy I never liked being touched. Or rather, I did like it, but that was the problem, you see.” He waved an uncoordinated hand, hit Jason’s thigh, meant to apologize and somehow ended up leaving the hand there. “My father’s political visitors, my mother’s genius literary friends, the journalists with their stories…they’d come over and pat me on the head or hug me, all smiles, but they always wanted something. And once the cameras were off, once they’d put on the show of interest, they’d turn around and ask my father for an appointment, or beg my mother to critique a new poem, and my parents would smile at them, and they’d all go out, off to whatever the night’s event was, and I’d stay awake as long as I could and then put all my toys and books away and put myself to bed, as if being tidy would bring someone back and make them smile at me…oh, don’t look at me like that, I don’t mean it as self-pity, I’m only trying to explain. I think I’m talking far too much. Does that happen after sex?”

“Sometimes.” Jason scooted down into the bed, enough to make their eyes level. “I like hearing you talk.”

“Yes, but I feel I’m doing dramatic monologues at you.”

“You’re fine. Can I…would you want…can I hold you? You can say no.”

“Oh…yes, please.”

He’d barely got the word out before one big arm swooped in around him and cuddled him close. Jason felt large and firm and hot, male and muscular and responsible, all dressed and put together while Colby remained naked and hazy and unraveled. But that felt okay as well.

He could be unraveled, here with Jason. He could talk too much. He could ask for something he wanted. He could come apart and be caught.

Jason breathed out, exhale tickling Colby’s hair. His voice shaped a deep cozy rumble, earth not quaking but settling into a new home, in the night. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“Trusting me. Because that’s it, for you, isn’t it? About being touched. But you said yes.”

“With you,” Colby said, “yes.”

Chapter Text

Jason woke up holding Colby Kent in the smoky grey and indigo satin light of near-morning, and for a moment believed the world was a dream.

Not real. Couldn’t be. That wasn’t Colby’s wayward dark hair tickling Jason’s chin, or Colby’s toes stuck under Jason’s ankle. Would real-life Colby Kent step out of movie-star fame and out from behind hard-won castle walls, and lie here naked and trusting and warm in Jason’s arms?

Jason tried not to stir even an atom. No disturbing the dream, the dawn, the enchantment. The sheet draped lazily across both their hips, and didn’t stir either.

He pictured the night again; he’d never not picture that night for the rest of his life. Colby, brittle and brave as a crystal soldier, sliding shirt-buttons through graceful fingers. Coming to Jason’s door and announcing, all determination and sheer willpower and hope, I think we should have sex. Kneeling naked and poised on the brink and begging to be touched. To be touched by Jason, just once.

Jason’s body, very aware of Colby’s body nestled close, got pointedly in favor of more touching. Jason’s chest hurt all through with a kind of baffled protective astonished need, clear as heartbreak or reverence or awe. He did not know what he’d done to earn Colby’s faith in him; he wanted to find out whatever it’d been and do it again, over and over, without stopping.

He wanted to hold Colby in the moth-wing velvet of this space, in this glimmer of time before his alarm went off and they both had to wake up and be real.

He breathed out, careful not to jostle the impossibilities. Colby. With him. In his bed. Present and tangible and sleeping quietly.

In the next eyeblink that stopped being true. Colby woke without a sound but with tension slamming into that slim shape like the scream of a memory, and jerked back, not far because he stopped himself.

Jason had lifted the blanketing arm away the second Colby’d gone rigid, and said only, while the kick to his chest intensified, “Hey. Good morning.”

“Oh,” Colby said, a bit uncertainly. Those eyes were enormous. So much blue, framed by long lashes. “I…yes. Good morning? I’m in your bed.”

“I like having you in my bed,” Jason promised truthfully. “You sleep okay? I’ve sort of been told I sometimes kind of smother people. Not literally! I mean, um, being heavy. And warm.” Oh god. Words. Words were happening. “Um. Was that okay?”

Colby bit that pretty plush lower lip, and then smiled: unexpected and heartstoppingly sweet, unguarded and utterly happy. “You cuddle. I like it.”

“You do?”

“I wouldn’t’ve thought so, but yes. I do.” Toes—Colby’s toes, and oh that changed the whole universe—tapped Jason’s ankle. The tap turned into an idle rub, slow as if Colby wasn’t thinking about it; Jason’s entire body became more aware of the sensitivity of an ankle than it’d ever been. He’d never known that spot had a direct line to his libido. He did now.

Colby went on, slow not as if doubting but as if processing, “I like being warm. And you feel very…stalwart.”

“Stalwart?”

“Would you prefer steadfast? It is the name of your ship, after all.” This line landed with a wider smile; Colby’s eyes found Jason’s. Colby Kent in the morning, walls gingerly taken down and gates flung open, had an impish sense of humor. Jason wanted to hug him. Or else toss him into pillows and order him to get a hand on himself again and make himself come until he couldn’t anymore, lost to pleasure.

Colby added lightly, “It’s a good word, I think. For the ship, for Stephen, for you. All of the above.” His toes had kept discovering Jason’s calf.

“And you,” Jason said. His leg tingled with want; his cock was rock-hard under pajama pants. He could not remember ever wanting someone so much; he didn’t move, though he wondered whether Colby could hear his heart pounding. “None of us would be here without you. This story, this film. Me. And this. Last night was—you know it’s not just a one-time—I mean, I don’t know why you trusted me but I’m glad you did. And if you want we could do that more?”

“You honestly don’t know?” Colby tipped that head to one side; hair launched itself into an eye, fluffy sable against sapphire. “You remember that I like cinnamon. You notice when I’m having a—a less good moment. You got me to sing for you, a bit.”

“You actually can sing,” Jason said.

“I can.” Colby scrunched up that nose, unfairly attractive even when making faces at his own talents. “Perfect pitch, I’m afraid. It’s not as if I’ve ever properly worked at it, and it feels a bit unjust. There are people who’re genuinely very good, who’ve worked very hard to be that good, and I’d rather appreciate them. Did you say more, about doing things? Er…did you mean now? As in right now? I’m not opposed.”

Only you, Jason thought, stretched out beside him in the dim cool light of an English morning. Only you would be good at everything, of course you’re good at everything, and you don’t want to be. Because you’d rather cheer someone else on instead. Someone you think deserves it more.

He said, “We’ve got maybe twenty minutes before my alarm goes off, and that’s not a no, it’s a hell yes, but, Colby—”

“If you ask me whether I’m sure about this I shall hit you with this very friendly pillow. I am sure. And I have excellent aim.”

“You are good at everything.” Too many options stampeded through his head, bursting with possibilities. Colby’s cheeks were pink but those eyes were dancing, transparently excited. Jason knew the feeling. Shared it. “I just wanted to ask what you wanted. You want me to do what we did last night? Talk to you, not touch you, get you to come all over yourself while I’m watching?” He thought he might explode from pent-up need if so, but he could wait.

His dick disagreed about this very strongly, but Colby feeling safe and unthreatened came first. Figuratively, and literally.

He murmured, “You want that, baby? Right here in my bed?”

“Baby,” Colby echoed, expression a tangle of confusion and amusement and interest. “Really? And…and I like the way you talk to me. That idea, me here in your bed…”

Truthfully, Jason hadn’t been quite sure about the term; it’d just slipped out. “I can not say it if that’s weird. I just…I don’t know. I just said it. Babe. Mine. Sort of. Not really. Never mind.”

“No, you can.” Colby, ears now pink as well—he’d tucked the hair back behind one—glanced down at Jason’s elbow and admitted, “I rather like that too. I’ve had other people say it, and other things as well, but…I like being yours. Is that all right? What we’re doing?”

“Yeah.” Jason cleared his throat, tried to push down the sudden roughness that’d scraped into his voice. So many emotions. Billowing and ecstatic and scared as hell about maybe fucking this up and exhilarated as holiday mornings about getting to have this. Colby Kent, being his. Colby, not just the screen presence or the performance, but the real complicated wounded generous gorgeous person, being, yeah, his.

Christ. He might have to find ice to shove down his pajama pants, because he wasn’t certain he’d survive talking Colby through another beautifully abandoned orgasm. In his bed. Fuck yes.

“Yeah,” he got out again. “That’s…that’s more than all right. That’s great. If you want that. I do. Um, okay…baby…you want to move that sheet? Show me, um, show me how much you like it. When I talk to you.”

Colby, who’d been lying on one side, obligingly tossed the sheet down and rolled to his back. In the opal gleam of the morning he was a treasure too, long and slender and light and dark, aristocratic fair skin and tumbled stormy hair. His nipples were pink and pretty, taut little buds; his cock was gratifyingly rigid, flushed and straining upward amid dark curls.

Jason raised eyebrows. “You like me telling you what to do, don’t you? That works for you.”

“Oh god,” Colby said, and slid down a bit in the bed and put an arm over his face, but then lifted it to peer out. “Would you like to know that I’ve been this bloody turned on ever since—well, not when I very first woke up—but about two seconds after that? When you said good morning? Because I have.”

Jason had to laugh. “So you totally do like it when I talk. And, um, if you want to know—tell me if you don’t want to know this—” It’s worse when you know that someone wants you, he’d summarized the night before, and Colby’d agreed. More frightening, because more physical, visceral, imminent. “But, um, me too. Waking up with you.”

Colby moved the arm. Eyes wide, but not from trepidation. Jason hoped not, anyway. “Oh! Really? You didn’t say anything!”

“I didn’t—”

“You should’ve said!” Colby pushed himself up on both elbows. “I could have taken care of you—it’s only fair, after everything you did for me, and I didn’t even reciprocate, and of course I should’ve, this morning—”

“Colby!” A little too loud, but he needed to interrupt, to cut that off right then. “No. No. I said you didn’t have to, and I meant it, okay? You don’t owe me anything.”

“But—”

“I’m doing this for you because I want to.” He wobbled over asking, and did: “Can I touch you? Nowhere you don’t want me to. Just—I kind of want to hold your hand or something.” He could use that. They could use that.

Colby hesitated, watched Jason’s face, then reached over. Took Jason’s hand. Squeezed, and set it on his own hip, and tugged so that Jason’s fingers slid down one swimmer’s thigh and then back up, a caress.

“Holy fuck,” Jason said, in shock.

 Colby didn’t exactly laugh, but the blue of those eyes got more star-infused. Comets and twinkles. Gladness among the constellations. “No promises about divinity, but you can touch me if you’d like? Not—not anywhere I can’t see you doing it, and try not to hold me down or—but you can.”

“Nowhere you don’t want,” Jason scraped out, a repetition, a vow. His hand, over Colby’s thigh. His fingers, heavy and tanned and stunt-callused, over creamy skin and lean muscle. He was not touching Colby’s cock, not even very close; somehow this felt even more private, more powerful, a heart-truth. “Only whatever you say’ll be okay. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t,” Colby said. “I know you, Jason. Speaking of seeing you, may I? I know I have, on camera, but this is different. And I—I think I might like that.”

“You would?” Jason promptly moved his other hand to tug at his shirt, because the shirt was all at once too hot, because Colby was asking. “You sure about—”

The pillow bounced off his shoulder, not hard. Colby was laughing, embarrassed but unafraid about it, and relieved under that. The tension broke; grey sunrise light hit the edges of curtains, pale and merry. “Told you I would!”

Jason gave up on the shirt and put a theatrical hand on his own shoulder. “The agony. I’m dying. Murdered by your pillow.”

Colby was laughing more.

“Oh, I get it,” Jason told him mournfully, “my demise is funny to you,” and fell over onto the bed, with appropriate dramatic groans. “You’ll just have to tell Jill I can’t come in today. Because, y’know, dead. Killed by your excellent aim.”

“Oh dear,” Colby said. “I hadn’t realized your shoulders were the source of your power. Jill will subsequently murder me, and then, well, we’ll be ghosts together. Jason?”

“Wouldn’t mind keeping you company in the afterlife,” Jason said, and opened both eyes. Colby was closer than he’d expected. Leaning down over him, all big eyes and rumpled hair. “Ask me anything, go on.”

“May I,” Colby started, and paused, and then finished in a rush, “May I touch you? I know I’m not terribly good at asking but you did say I should ask you if I wanted something and—and I do want to learn how you feel. When we’re not on camera.”

“When we’re us.” Jason sat up gradually, giving him time to get out of the way. “And of course yeah. You want me shirtless? Naked? Being an undead ghost?”

“Being an undead ghost would be redundant, wouldn’t it?” Colby, also still naked, curled one leg under himself, hugged the other knee, watched Jason: feline and flexible. “And, er, yes. The middle one. Naked. Please.”

“Okay,” Jason said happily. Shirt off. Over the head. Tossed at the loveseat, where it hit the arm and clung, sticking around to watch. Pajama pants—

Hmm. He hadn’t ever put on any sort of underwear, the night before. Then again, Colby had asked, and was now regarding Jason’s bare chest with an expression that suggested the unwrapping of presents.

He decided not to overthink this one. The pants flew over to join his shirt.

Colby’s eyes went even wider. Jason hadn’t thought that’d be possible.

He sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. He wanted to laugh; he wanted to reach out and cup Colby’s face in one hand, cradling all that courage; he wanted Colby to want him. He wanted that so badly, and the straining forward must be visible.

“Jason,” Colby said. “I—oh, wow.”

This time Jason did laugh. Couldn’t not. “So you approve?”

“Yes,” Colby said. “Thoroughly yes.”

“What do you want me to do?” Jason put both hands on the bed again. “Hold still, give you orders, what?”

“Don’t move for a moment.” Colby, Jason noticed, was still hard, or hard again, cock visibly upright and interested. Good; Jason himself was stiff as granite, and knowing that Colby was right there too sent another wave of arousal through him.

Colby put a hand out. Fingertips over Jason’s chest. Tentative but not scared.

Jason held his breath.

Colby walked fingers across him, exploring. Eyes intent. Learning shapes, muscles, planes, pecs. Down to Jason’s ribs, skimming a hip, back up and across the ridges of his stomach.

Jason cooperatively lay back down. Let Colby lean in more and keep on discovering, mapping him out in sweetly courageous caresses. Every touch flared like fireworks along his bones; Colby Kent fascinatedly tracing the trail of scattered dark hair down from Jason’s navel became the most erotic sight in the universe. Those blue eyes drank in everything as if seeing it all for the first time.

Colby brought fingertips all the way over to the top of Jason’s thigh, and stopped. Jason’s cock, inches away, physically ached with nearness.

“You’re quite…large.” Colby looked up. “I mean, all over. But that…you…”

“It’s just me,” Jason said. “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. Just, um, pretend it’s not there. If you want.”

Colby stared at him, then burst out laughing, and flopped down into the bed and arranged himself against Jason’s side, every inch of him bright and amused; he dropped that head against Jason’s chest, and Jason felt a quick press of lips: Colby had kissed him.

And, mouth still warm against Jason’s skin, added, “I’m not going to pretend it isn’t there! I like it being there!”

“Well,” Jason said, “good?” which made Colby laugh even more, settled securely into him. “Glad you like it?”

“I absolutely—”

Jason’s alarm went off. Helpfully shouting its nostalgia-tinged morning-cartoon theme into the air. Shirtless adventure heroes and magic swords, fighting to protect the universe. Distant planets and evil skeleton armies. Battles to defend the innocent and the cause of justice.

“Is that honestly Zak Starfighter, Space Commander? The theme song?”

“He saves the universe from evil!” Jason protested. He had a lot of good memories. Lazy weekend mornings. Comfortable pajamas. Sugary cereal and animated acts of valor. His little sister’d preferred Rocket Girl, but they’d both watched both shows, together. “Don’t tell me you don’t like Zak Starfighter!”

“No, I’m not disagreeing with your admirable taste! Though to be fair I never saw it when it first aired, we always had to wait for American cartoons to make it over—no, I was only thinking that it makes complete sense.” Colby had somehow ended up tangling legs with Jason’s. “You liking stories about heroes. Saving people. The universe. Plus all those improbable muscles.”

“Hmm,” Jason said. He’d swung a hand that way and silenced brassy pulp-fiction theme music. “You like the muscles.”

“I do. I may have once or twice imagined myself as Princess Astara. Being rescued from planet-devouring peril by a destined hero, swept off my feet, choosing to follow him and fight by his side rather than wait around to inherit my galactic throne…”

“Because you would,” Jason said. “You would.” He was inadvertently picturing Colby in that sparkly pink princess jumpsuit and gold crown; he was having confused feelings about this. He also wholeheartedly believed that Colby would both enjoy being swept up in a space commander’s strong arms and in the next instant pick up a Comet Sword and skillfully guard a beloved’s back. “You know I always set my alarm early on purpose, right?”

“I didn’t, but I do now. Is that so you’re sure you’ve got enough time to get ready? Or do you fit in a proper morning workout? Or—”

“Both,” Jason said, and reached over very very carefully, and lifted Colby’s chin, the way he had the night before. “This morning neither. Still okay?”

Colby whispered, “Yes.”

“You said I could touch you,” Jason said. “You said you wanted to try. Would you—would you want me to do sort of what you did, last night, only the other way around? If I get myself off, and you can watch, and you can—I like seeing you. If you want to do what feels good for you, again. Only if you want. And you can put my hand wherever you want.”

“Can I?” Colby looked at Jason’s other hand. “I mean…yes. But won’t that make things a bit difficult for you? If I’m occupying your hand?”

“I do have two.”

Colby gave him a flawlessly sarcastic look. Jason wanted to kiss him.

Instead he touched a finger to Colby’s mouth. “I want you to tell me what you want. Or don’t want. Talk to me.”

“You do like it when I talk.”

“I do.”

“And I like your ideas,” Colby said. “Can I stay here next to you and watch? While you, er…”

“Jerk off,” Jason filled in obligingly. He sat up a little, leaned back against pillows, spread legs. His dick liked this idea as well, jutting upward, putting on a show; he wrapped a hand around the shaft, feeling the heat, the weight.

Colby got even nearer, fitting himself around Jason’s side and hip, leaning down to observe. Jason had not anticipated this, and had to grip himself and squeeze to avoid finishing in one second flat. Colby was touching him lots of places, skin to skin, and licked those lips, and Jason groaned aloud.

Colby looked up. “Did I do something wrong, or—”

“Not unless you count making me just about end this on the spot. No,” he added, because Colby had continued looking confused, “that’s good, you’re perfect, I can’t remember ever getting that close just because somebody looked at me, and with you it’s like…”

Colby’s smile popped up. “Like tea?”

Jason started laughing, moved his hand—up and down, finding rhythm through the laughter, knowing those blue eyes were tracking every stroke—and said, “I—”

I love you, he thought. I fucking love you.

He did. He knew it as if he’d always known, etched on his bones. Clear as day, hot as sunbeams, clean as rain. He wanted this, wanted this exact moment, Colby here beside him and teasing him and laughing with him, for the rest of his life.

He didn’t dare say it. Colby had only barely come to him, slept naked with him, trusted him. Colby had to be the one setting this pace. Jason couldn’t push for more.

But he felt it. 

The rightness danced along his veins like raindrops. Like pride and joy: he’d been able to give Colby this.

He said Colby’s name because he’d already started talking, and stroked himself faster, harder, caught up in all the joy. He felt the gathering drips at the tip, swiped his hand over them, made his grip more slick and more rough, pumping into his hand, making the head appear and disappear, flushed and shiny. Colby’s breath caught: liking the show, apparently.

Jason grinned. Made some noise, just for him: moans, pants, the wetness of his hand.

Colby answered, “Jason…” and one hand found its way back onto Jason’s thigh, and up, resting over Jason’s hip. Jason moaned a bit more and said, “Yeah, yes, please, I like that,” and Colby laughed and trailed fingers over him, into dark curly hair, into the crease of a thigh and hip, and back up. “Jason?”

“Yeah,” Jason got out, hoarse.

“Would you touch me? The other hand, you said…I could have that…”

“Fuck yeah.” He could reach Colby’s shoulder, hair, face, easily; he asked.

Colby thought about this for a second. “I like you playing with my hair. Or that bit when you sort of lifted my chin, and got me to look at you.”

Jason’s cock pulsed, an overeager spurt of want.

“Oh, hello,” Colby said. “You like that one too.”

“Are you talking to my—”

“It seemed very excited. So am I.”

“Are you,” Jason said, and ran his free hand over Colby’s hair, which beckoned in sleep-styled touchable shadows; and then he touched Colby’s cheek, the corner of those lips, that magician’s smile. “You want me to tell you to look at me? Go on. Keep looking.” He nudged Colby’s head just a bit closer. Colby moved willingly, eyes all lit up and glowing like new galaxies.

“You still have to say yes,” Jason informed him. “If you want more.”

“I like you taking charge,” Colby said. “Yes. Put me where you want me, and tell me to watch you.”

“You’re good right here.” He stroked Colby’s hair again, and found his hand ending up at the back of that graceful neck, a caress and an assertion. “So good. I like you watching me, and I like you telling me what you like, so that’s good, that’s awesome, you’re awesome, okay? You just stay here and keep looking at me.” Christ. So good. So close: speeding up those thrusts, inadvertent and breathless. His balls drew tight, ready, poised.

“Oh,” Colby said, soft and astonished. “Oh, that—Jason, I feel so—”

“Good,” Jason panted. “Good, yeah, you are, baby, and fuck I love you watching me—” He couldn’t talk anymore, right on the brink, tipping over—

Colby moved the hand that’d been on Jason’s hip, and lightly touched fingers to Jason’s, where they were tight around his straining shaft.

Jason’s mouth made a low shuddering sound, and his whole world bloomed into shocked ecstatic white gold; he came spilling over his hand, his stomach, even up to his chest, in burst after burst of starlight sensation. Colby did not take the hand away, but kept it there, feathering over Jason’s.

He sagged back into pillows. Shut eyes. Opened them. Mumbled, “Holy fucking god, Colby…”

Colby moved the hand, but only in order to put out an interested fingertip and swipe it at one of the streaks across Jason’s stomach.

“Oh my god you’re going to kill me,” Jason said. His dick, despite just-finished supernovas, expressed feeble but valiant enthusiasm.

Colby gave him a grin that would not have been out of place on a young and reckless Regency viscount, and licked the fingertip.

Jason whimpered.

“What,” Colby said, innocently, “it has been a while, and I wanted to. I like the taste of…er…should I say milk? For the tea metaphor?”

Jason began dying of laughter, and managed, “Come here, Jesus, you’re fucking perfect, I lo—I love you talking, oh my god, please say I can kiss you.”

“You can kiss me,” Colby agreed, and stretched up along Jason’s side to make this easier. He was laughing too, and also decidedly aroused, noticeable between their bodies. He tasted a bit like Jason, which was fine and also miraculous, and like mornings, and like satisfaction.

Jason kissed him attentively but firmly, because Colby liked that: affirmations and control, and surrender when care was assured. Colby did not flinch when Jason put a hand behind his head, kept him in place, kissed him more; Colby in fact moaned a little and moved against him.

Jason paused. “You want us to take care of you? I can talk. You can do the touching.”

“I don’t know.” Colby kissed Jason’s shoulder this time. “I told you I don’t mind waiting. And I know we’ve probably not got much time left now. But I also feel like…”

“Like you want to get off?”

“Well…yes. But I don’t know what I want. I feel…” This pause came with a wiggle; Colby’s desire pressed more insistently against Jason’s hip. “I liked you telling me that—that I was being good, doing what you wanted…oh, goodness, even me saying it to you, that feels…”

“So sometime we’ll do the thing where you don’t get to come until I tell you to,” Jason said. “Not right now. Right now I want you to keep feeling good. You want to show me some more things you like? Make yourself come for me?”

Colby gasped out loud and shivered against him: rubbing himself against Jason, newly shameless with want. “I…I…”

“You have to say yes, at least,” Jason reinforced, and petted his hair some more, and noticed the way Colby went calmer and malleable and dreamy at the attention. “Here, can I help? Lie down more…yeah, like that, stay next to me, just move your hand…you can touch yourself…”

“Yes.” That accent had gone dreamy too, frayed with pleasure. Colby, now more on his back—Jason had wanted to be able to see him, and the sight was divine, Colby’s long elegant stiff cock and pink pebbled nipples contrasted with the pliancy of submission—gazed at him, hand loose around the base of his arousal, uncoordinated. “Jason…”

“Just like that,” Jason told him, “you’re so gorgeous, so good, doing what I say, because you want to, not because you have to, right, baby? Because you like being good for me.”

“Yes,” Colby murmured.

“Yeah. I know you do. I like that. I like you.” He played with Colby’s hair, touched Colby’s cheek, liked the way Colby tilted that head trustingly into the touch. “You know that, right? I like you.”

“You do?” Colby sounded abruptly younger: the person who’d once wistfully hoped that being neat and quiet and well-behaved would get someone to smile at him. “But I’m not very good at this…at sex, I mean…you know what I mean. You always do…”

“I don’t know who told you that, but they’re fucking wrong.” He had a pretty damn good idea who’d told Colby that. He let the anger smolder in his gut, left it alone, and petted Colby more. “You’re exactly what I want.”

Colby hesitated, but didn’t argue. Jason, looking at him—looking at the slow movement of fingers over his cock, the beading-up of pearlescent desire—had an idea.

It was a decadent and tempting idea. And he wanted to. He thought Colby would like it.

He brushed fingers over Colby’s lips. “You said you like tasting me, right?”

“I do.” Colby smiled against the fingers. “You taste good…like what you say about me…this is nice. Your hands…”

“Yeah, so, about that.” He hadn’t bothered cleaning up; he was fairly sticky with his own release, but he had plans. A fingertip. A swipe of some of that release. Mirroring Colby’s gesture from earlier.

He touched that index finger to Colby’s mouth again. Colby’s eyes flew extra-wide, but he licked every bit of stickiness from Jason’s skin, eagerly. And then opened his mouth more and took Jason’s finger in, tasting, sucking.

Jason hadn’t imagined that part, and groaned Colby’s name; Colby made a quiet happy sound and moved his other hand, stroking himself, rubbing a thumb over the dripping slit.

“So good,” Jason praised, throat tight with emotions. “So fucking incredible. Can you make yourself come for me? I want to see you.”

Colby attempted to say something, mouth still occupied with Jason’s finger.

Jason laughed, felt the laugh catch his heart like a sigh, moved the hand. “What was that?”

Colby blinked at him, eyes big and blue and drowsy as summer twilight. “Can you do it for me? I feel so…it’s like floating…I can’t think enough, and I want you to.”

“You…” He cleared his throat. “You want me to. To touch you. To…make you….”

“You won’t hurt me.” That accent burnished the words. Made them true as bronze and brass and telescopes and history and love-letters long preserved. “I trust you. And I want—I want to be yours, I want you to make me come for you, you said you wanted to see me and I want to and I’m so close and it’s so close and please help…”

Jason forced himself to inhale. To exhale. Air. Lungs. Propositions. Clouds snuck in to hide the sun, outside; the light grew dimmer, though not necessarily in a bad way: sealed tight and held close. “I don’t want to do anything you don’t feel up to…if you’re not thinking…you won’t regret it, after…”

“I won’t.” Colby, despite the floating, focused right on him. All that infinite color. Sincere. “I know I’m a bit less than coherent at the moment—and I feel wonderful—but I know what I’m asking. So yes.”

Jason couldn’t not be steadied by those oceans. “Okay.”

He put his hand back on Colby’s thigh. Watched his own fingers: tanned and large.

He looked at Colby’s hand, wrapped around that enticing length. He slid his up to join it.

The clouds rang with music: a quick pattering burst of droplets, a liberated chorus, a crescendo.

When he touched Colby the caress felt like a knighthood. Like Colby’d smiled at him and anointed him and accepted his oath. Like Colby’d given him a charge: to protect those blue eyes, to make them feel only pleasure, to love them.

His hand was broad and heavy. Colby’s body, this rigid satin piece of it, was vulnerable and brave in Jason’s grip. Colby himself made a small quivering sound and turned his head away; Jason started to lift the hand, but Colby looked back at him, then down at the spot where Jason held him.

“We don’t have to,” Jason said. “You don’t have to.”

“I want to,” Colby whispered. “I need you to, I think…please, Jason. Please.”

Jason fit his hand more tightly around that tempting cock, learning the weight, the curve, the heat. The way Colby moaned and yielded for him, being stroked and fondled and coaxed further by Jason’s handling. The way Colby trembled and kept watching, lips parted.

“You want me to,” Jason repeated softly, and did it a bit faster, a bit firmer: not rough but undeniable. His hand grew wetter; Colby’s desire leaked and spilled across sensitive flesh. “You want this, don’t you? Giving me this, trusting me with this…you want that, and you know I’ll take care of you, and I will. I will.” He increased speed, pressure, the press of a thumb against that spot under the head that he’d noticed made Colby shiver. “You’re so fucking amazing, you know that? So good. I don’t mean just being good, the way you are right now, I mean you are good. You’re like the best person I know. And you told me you need my help with this, so I’m gonna help, okay? Taking care of you.”

Colby this time made a noise that was somewhere between a sob and a plea, and flung his other hand over his mouth as if concerned about loudness. His eyelashes were wet, but he shifted hips upward, pushing his cock into Jason’s hand.

“Don’t hide,” Jason told him, “or, no, it’s fine, do whatever you need to, however you feel right, but I want you to come for me, you said you wanted to, and I want you to, like this, with my hand on you—”

Colby let out that almost-sob again, and abruptly was coming: body tense and then surrendering in a slow drawn-out release, climax pouring out across his stomach and Jason’s hand in ripples of white heat. He went silent as it happened, mouth open, eyes on Jason’s face: those blue seas reflected waves of horizonless pleasure.

Jason held him, talked to him, gazed at him. Felt that sword-tap honor on shoulders all over again. Entrusted with this man.

Colby seemed to be lost in the waves, after: murmuring Jason’s name, but unfocused and wanting to cling to an anchoring body. Jason, who knew that Colby when more awake did not like extensive touching, cuddled him tenderly, cleaned him up as much as possible, told him how brilliant he was, and felt the morning like the edge of that sword in his heart: solemn and steel-sharp, able to slice and to defend.

Colby cried a little, which Jason had been half-anticipating, though it didn’t last long, which he might not’ve anticipated. That release. That giving over of self. Emotions, adrenaline, endorphins. Even on top of Colby’s past, that’d be the case. Colby woke up more at this point, though, and found a shaky smile. “I…oh, Jason. Oh, my. I haven’t got words.”

“You? Nah. Never. Give it ten seconds.” He felt more than a little shaky himself. Those tears. Sneaking over his way. “How’re you…are you…was that…good?”

“That was…” Colby drew a breath, let it out. “I don’t know why I’m crying. I feel fantastic. Tired but fantastic. You’re so very good at this. At—at me. And I feel as if I’ve just had sex for the first time ever, and I’ve no idea how you managed that, because it certainly isn’t true—”

“Kinda think it might be.”

“What? But I’ve told you about—oh, no, that can’t be the actual time. You’re going to be hideously late. I’m so sorry, I didn’t—”

“No,” Jason said. “I’m not. Not sorry, I mean.” He had an arm around Colby, who’d rested that head on his shoulder. They were both sticky, and sated, and wrung out, and—in Colby’s word—fantastic.

“I’ll text Jill on your behalf,” Colby offered. “With my apologies.”

“I’m not technically late yet. How’re you…y’know…feeling?”

“Like I never want to move again, and also like—if you give me fifteen minutes—I can do anything. Bake biscuits for the entire crew. Write a new happy ending for—for a romance novel. Swim the English Channel. Learn magic. Is it like that for you? Do you need to shower? Do you want me to see about food while you do?”

I love you, Jason thought. I love that you talk after sex. I love you and all your words.

Not deflection, this time. Pure bubbling-over happiness. He could see it. Could hear it.

“Yeah.” He rubbed Colby’s back. “Yeah. It’s like that for me. With you.”

“Oh,” Colby said, shy and pleased.

“I should probably shower…” He didn’t really have time, given the scheduled pick-up, but he couldn’t go to set covered in the evidence of everything they’d just done. “You could join me, but it’s gonna have to be quick. Or you can stay here in bed and rest, if you don’t want to move.”

“In your bed?”

“Why not?”

“I…suppose I don’t have a reason. I am a bit tired.” Colby considered this. “I might fall asleep, though.”

“I don’t care if you fall asleep in my bed,” Jason said. “Stay here. Stay as long as you want. Leave whenever you want.”

“It’s tempting. Aren’t you showering? Go.”

“Stay,” Jason countered, getting up, pointing at the bed; and went.

He had under ten minutes; he threw himself into spray and soap, lunged back out, grabbed a towel. Caught himself wanting to whistle, to sing, beneath wet hair. Colby in his bed. Warm and snug and sleepy. Happy, because Jason had made him that way.

He understood Colby not opting to join him in the shower. Not much of a shower, anyway; no time for gentle cleansing caresses. And Colby might need a minute of breathing room; those big blue eyes appeared to be handling the morning fine, but that didn’t mean space wouldn’t be appreciated.

But Colby had wanted to stay, not leave.

He muffled his astonished laugh in the towel. The towel collected the sound for him, a friend sharing the emotion.

He bounced out of the bathroom to discover Colby mostly back under sheets and blankets, eyes closed; those aristocratic waves of dark hair fanned romantically across a pillow, and that talented mouth curved in a hint of a smile. The cool misty morning met lamplight and mingled over his bare shoulder and the one visible arm.

He had, in the five minutes Jason’d been gone, gotten up and found and set out cinnamon trail mix, a banana, and two peanut-butter-and-almond granola bars. He’d also made coffee. The instant single-serving brewer beamed at Jason cheerily, holding the steaming roast-scented cup.

The coffee and the banana and the food caused breakfast-shaped impressions on Jason’s heart. Indelible.

Colby wasn’t entirely asleep, he discovered, after he threw on jeans and came back over to check. Drowsy and yawning, but present. Jason sat down beside him, holding the coffee. “Hey.”

“Oh, splendid, you found it…”

“All of it. Thanks.”

“It’s not as if I did anything. It’s all food you had already.”

“Did you have any?”

“I will, in a bit…something…definitely coffee…”

“Tell me when you do.” He smoothed hair out of Colby’s face. “Stay warm. What’re you up to, today? Before I see you.”

“Mmm…I’ve been banished from set this morning, haven’t I…well, pizza. Obviously. Seeing what the kitchen'll let me pay them to use, out of their pantry. Going over the last act again…I had a thought…”

“You did?” He’d thought the screenplay was remarkable as it was. Of course no script ever got filmed exactly draft-to-screen; changes happened, and flexibility mattered. And they’d already done some revisions, like yesterday’s dialogue between Stephen and Will. Jason had liked that one, and didn’t want to question Ben’s choices as the writer. And Colby liked stories, of course, but that was different from writing, wasn’t it?

Maybe Colby had a character note to run by Jill or Ben. That would be something they all did, as actors, sometimes. That’d make sense. “You don’t have a script approval clause, do you?”

Colby might have that kind of final say, as both producer and glittering-star name. Jason didn’t. He’d been lucky to be here.

He was lucky to be here. In this room. With this man.

“No.” Colby yawned again. “Or not exactly…never mind, I’m not awake enough to talk. Go. Your car must’ve arrived by now.”

“I’m going.” He touched Colby’s cheek, a kiss in a gesture. “Let me know how you’re doing.”

“I promise,” Colby said. “Go on.”

Jason went. He took along the half-finished cup of coffee and the image of Colby in his bed, surrounded by contented pillows, naked under blankets and smiling.

 

Colby almost went back to sleep, lying cradled in Jason’s bed, wrapped up in new memories. He didn’t drift off completely, in the end, but lay in place letting himself be cozy and indulgent for a while.

Jason’s bed. Jason’s room. Where they’d just…he’d just…with Jason’s hands on him…

“Oh, wow,” he murmured aloud, to pillows and tidiness and his own jeans, over on the chair. “Far better than tea. Possibly even better than coffee.”

He got up eventually. He peeked at himself in the mirror while getting dressed. He thought he might look different, or maybe he wouldn’t; he wasn’t sure.

He didn’t. Unless he did. He leaned closer to the mirror, met the other version of himself. Same unruly hair, same height, same chin. Something different around the eyes, perhaps. Lighter, a burden grown less. More free.

“Jason,” he said experimentally, to himself and to the room. “I never thought…no, I did, a bit, I did think I could want him…if I could want him…but this, oh no, I’d never have imagined this. He’s so…”

What words could sum up Jason Mirelli? Could gather together the impossibility of everything Jason’d done for him, given him, helped him find?

“Kind,” Colby said at last. “He’s so very kind. And he likes Zak Starfighter and reads fantasy. He makes me want to write more for him. Speaking of, I think I’ve got an idea. Because Jason makes me have ideas. All sorts of them.”

Jason’s bedroom seemed to approve. Colby patted the chair, ensured the bed was made, found his other sock, and went out, making sure the door closed behind him.

So many ideas. The script. A bed. Jason in a bed. Jason’s hands in Colby’s hair. Colby discovering firsthand more of Jason’s taste. God, yes. He wanted that.

Despite the morning’s recent activities, his body took an interest. Apparently it would like more.

So would Colby himself.

More, he thought, letting himself back into his room. Will Crawford’s courage. Stephen’s fate…but that shouldn’t happen, should it, because they did deserve more…their love deserved more…

He thought about this while hopping into the shower, dealing with frothy shampoo and the dramatic hair, rinsing away traces of release, letting hot water soothe unaccustomed exertion, less physical than mental. He paused with foam sliding onto his eyebrow.

If the ship were lost, but the crew survived…but how would they, out in the ocean, in a war…prisoners, perhaps? The officers might be worth something. But then Will would know, wouldn’t he? Deciphering coded communications?

But if Will were too ill to work, at that point, and missed that crucial letter…

But surely someone would tell him. Unless they wouldn’t. Because Will and Stephen weren’t publicly married, bonded, joined together.

Colby scowled at the shower-wall, felt guilty about this, and patted tile absentmindedly, an apology.

Drat. He’d have to think about it. And he’d have to do it without telling Jason, unless he did tell Jason, but then that opened up at least three new hazardous cans of dragons, and he wasn’t prepared.

If he ran this by Jill, and she did not mind him telling Jason, then he could. But then that secret’d be out. If Jason told anyone, everyone would know; Colby’s silly little efforts at polishing would be dragged into the light and open for scrutiny. He knew he was nowhere near the writer his mother was; he knew people seemed to appreciate the work of Jill’s nameless script doctor, but if they learned his name, would any of the appreciation be real? Would any of the comments or requests, praise or tearing-down, be real?

And if he told Jason, and Jason turned around and said, oh, all the lines I don’t like, you wrote those, no wonder—or, worse, if Jason looked at Colby’s belief that maybe in some small way the lines were better for his contribution, and laughed about the idea…

He sighed. Overthinking. Too much in his head. Again. Jason wouldn’t be that cruel. He knew that; he believed that. The man who’d kissed him and held him and respected every last one of Colby’s yeses and nos would never deliberately make him feel small and worthless.

He’d made a choice, coming to Jason’s room. He did make choices. He chose to believe in Jason.

He wanted to give Jason all of himself. Body, heart, words.

Obviously he needed to save Stephen after all.

He rinsed away soap, got out of the shower, dealt with the hair as much as possible—it might actually need trimming soon; Will was meant to be dashing and romantic, not a sheepdog—and found crimson briefs and snug dark blue trousers and a white button-down shirt and a knitted light grey jumper to go over that, with a rainbow on it.

He did not necessarily want to go out among strangers by himself, but he was, he discovered, hungry.

He ordered room service, a bit bashfully, not wanting to put anyone to much trouble but craving actual food. He ended up with both eggs and pancakes because the pancakes came with cinnamon and walnuts and he couldn’t resist.

He sent Jason a picture. Jason answered swiftly, So you’re happy, then. What time did you get up? You could’ve stayed longer.

Colby sent him the stack-of-pancakes emoji plus heart-eyes. I can’t lounge around in your bed all day. Work to do.

Jason responded with But I liked thinking about you in my bed. Nice and warm. You’re lucky you’re not here freezing with the rest of us.

It’s hardly that cold! Though I suppose I’m not out walking the streets and gazing pensively into the distance. Do stay warm. I’ll bring pizza when I come over. Any requests?

Whatever you feel like making. Gotta go, need to gaze pensively at your house from outside. Tell me when you’re headed our way and I’ll come meet you.

Will do, Colby agreed, and held his phone for a moment after, fingers not ready to let go.

He curled up by his room’s window with his laptop, bringing coffee over to the chair. He watched the street below for a while: mystical shifting colors, coats and cars and flowers in a foggy watercolor scene.

He did not know how to fix the larger problem of what Will would or wouldn’t know, but he skipped ahead mentally regardless. He considered happy endings.

He imagined Will at the end of the story, enervated and exhausted but recovering, recuperating. Having retreated to the family country estate, which he’d now inherited. Pained and pale from grief and illness. Believing that he’d never see Stephen again, believing that the best he could do for their great love now would be to tell their story…

Will would be in the garden. Not yet able to walk far, but further every day, turning his face up to the sun.

Colby began to type, catching phrases like shooting stars. Sunlight and weariness. Heat on Will’s skin. Closed eyes.

And Stephen, one sleeve of that coat pinned up, a new scar across his eyebrow, coming up around the side of the house. Bathed in that same sunlight, surrounded by green grass and growing things.

Will wouldn’t see him right away, not looking. Stephen would pause for an instant, heart too full for another step, and would then keep walking. Straight to his side.

Will, as Colby’s fingers flew, heard the step. Assumed it’d be a servant. Opened both eyes.

Stephen said softly, “Will.”

Colby stopped typing. Drew a breath, let it out. Slowly.

Yes, he thought. Yes.

He wrote a few notes—ending text, what he wanted to happen, words filling in the future. Will would still write the book. Will and Stephen would go away somewhere, someplace warmer and better for Will’s health, maybe Italy, maybe their own personal private villa on an island, and they’d turn Will’s family estate back in England into a hospital for the wounded.

Will and Stephen would live unremarkably, or only remarkable in their happiness: having everything they needed, for the rest of their lives.

He gazed at his laptop, at this future.

He could picture it. He could give it a shape. It might not be historically accurate, but Steadfast the novel was historical fiction, extrapolation, in any case. There were a few surviving letters and Will’s papers and drafts, but not many of those; most had been lost in a turn-of-the-century house fire. Stephen’s ship historically had been destroyed, but nothing existed to outright contradict the thought that Stephen could have survived. That Stephen and Will had left England together, to live.

Colby could choose to believe in them. In this version.

He touched the keyboard again, gently, saying thank you.

He couldn’t write anything else right away. He had this ending filling up his heart. And he didn’t know how to solve the logistical problem, anyway.

He got up and made more coffee, as the rain started. He smiled at the silken rustle of it.

He found boots along with restless energy, and went downstairs to stick his head into hotel kitchens. Head chef Marilyn spun toward the intruder in a cloud of irritable blonde curls and knives, recognized him from discussions of ricotta and zeppole, and beckoned him over to taste roast squab with cocoa nibs. This turned into a debate about blackberry versus raspberry sauces, over coffee and fresh-baked lemon tarts. Marilyn had decided to approve of Colby’s kitchen knowledge after earlier conversations; she hadn’t been quite sure about the celebrity entering her domain, but he’d asked questions she’d liked, and she’d let him stay.

She agreed to let him play with the wood-burning oven and some ingredients. Colby pondered flavor combinations, and got to work.

Some satisfying time later, he decided that’d do. Leo would’ve arrived by now, on set with Jason; everyone should be here, more or less, other than post-production crew. He went to ask what Marilyn could do about pizza transportation; he left with insulated bags and a small sack of broken gingersnaps, because she thought he looked too thin. Colby protested that he was working on this, given the pizza; she laughed and told him to come back for more. 

He juggled pizzas and his phone. He’d asked for slightly early pick-up; he wanted to run lines a few times with Jason first.

He wanted to see Jason. He couldn’t wait.

He hopped into the car, said, “Hello!” to Terry the driver—Terry, bemused at this unusual enthusiasm about seeing people, said, “Had a good day, then?”—and spent the ride beaming at the rain through windows, drinking in the magic of streams and puddles and splashes, patterns and gleams.

He texted Jason, too. On the way! Ten minutes! With pizza!

We’re down the street filming me at a pub, Jason texted back. Should be there right after you are. See you soon.

Soon, Colby thought happily, and fiddled with a pizza-carrying strap. The pizza carrier encouraged this, happy too.

He’d forgotten an umbrella, and also a coat of any sort. Terry said rather despairingly, “Wait, Mr Kent, hold on!” and fished a pocket-sized black umbrella out of the glove box. “Take it. Please.”

“Thank you—I’m so sorry, I’ll get it back to you as soon as I can—oh, drat, that’s a puddle—”

“Don’t drop your pies!”

“I’ve got it, thank you—if there’s anything you’d like, just let me know, of course—”

“Go on with you.” Terry waved at him. “Get someplace nice and dry.”

“I will, thank you,” Colby said, and ran for the townhouse’s door. The umbrella helped.

He did not see anyone immediately—likely all down at that pub—and consequently ventured out into the carriage yard, under the big tent. He set pizzas down on a craft services table, said hello to the caterers, apologized for bringing food and explained that he’d promised but of course their pasta offerings would be better, and caught the looks they exchanged when they thought he was checking his phone.

He heard voices. Jillian. Andy. Leo. Laura. Camera operators. And Jason.

Jason was saying, “—he said he’d meet us here, but—Colby? Are you here? Hang on, let me text him—” Footsteps went through the townhouse and toward the door. Colby waited, fighting not to tap a foot with anticipation. His feet itched to move.

Jason stepped out under the tent under the chatter of rain-heralds, in Stephen’s coat and uniform. He became the brightest and biggest piece of the universe; his eyes went right to Colby. “You’re here.”

“I am.”

“You said so. I just thought—I didn’t see you right away, and I thought maybe—”

“I’m here,” Colby said again. He wanted to take Jason’s hands; he wanted to throw himself into Jason’s arms. That’d be unprofessional and also a shock to everyone, and he wasn’t sure he was ready to be public—for that matter, he wasn’t sure Jason wanted to be public. So he didn’t.

But he thought about it.

He thought Jason saw it, from the answering light in those wood-path eyes. He tucked hands into pockets to stop them from diving that way.

Leo, emerging from behind Jason’s shoulders, looked at him, at Jason, and back at him. “So…are we going to talk about the way John Kill just made us all leave a pub—where they wanted to give us perfectly good free beer—because, and I quote, Colby’s waiting for us, guys!”

“Only you’re talking about it,” Andy said. “The rest of us aren’t annoying. Colby, I like the sweater.”

“Oh! Thanks. I can’t recall where I got it, unfortunately, but I’m sure I could find out if you—”

“Did you not bring a jacket?” Jason said.

“Ah…”

“But you did bring pizza,” Jill observed. “Even though you didn’t have to. And you’re here early.”

“I thought Jason and I could rehearse? If there’s a bit of a break for set-up?”

“What’d you make?” Leo made a beeline for carriers. “Pepperoni…okay, that’s normal…does this one have caramelized onion? What’s this third one?”

“Which one? Oh…roasted potato, sea salt, and rosemary. And mozzarella. Which is optional, but I like cheese. The middle one has caramelized onion, yes, and fennel, and sausage on half, but I left half vegetarian. The first one’s soppressata, not pepperoni.”

“Very Italian,” Jill noted.

“Er…” Colby said. “Yes…”

Jason’s hand brushed his, investigating pizza. Colby flushed head to toes.

“We can totally rehearse.” Jason collected a piece of each, stacked them on a plate, grinned at him. “I’m just gonna change, okay? I’m taking these.”

Can I come and watch? hovered on the tip of Colby’s tongue. He bit it back. “Yes, of course. I’ll be here.”

Jason’s hand brushed his again, going. Colby didn’t know whether that was on purpose. He hoped it might be.

From the way she looked at him, Jill had noticed that touch too. “Colby? Can I talk to you? Bring pizza with you.”

“Oh, yes, all right…” He followed her back inside, trailed behind directions and checking-in for that bedroom sequence, followed her into a spare unused bedroom. “I know what you’re going to say, you know.”

“Do you?” Jill took one of the pieces of pizza from his plate and bit into caramelized onion and fennel. “Bet you don’t.”

“You want to know that I’m okay.” He sat down on the bed. Nibbled on a potato-and-sea-salt bite. “And you have a question about me and Jason.”

“That’s most of it.” Jill sat down with him. With the ponytail and the hoodie and jeans, she might’ve been twenty years younger; her eyes had seen decades, though, plus a lot of Colby’s mistakes. “I wouldn’t’ve thought I’d ask you this, not now, the way things are…but did you sleep with him?”

Colby choked on potato, coughed, resurfaced. “I…ah…”

“So you did.”

“Er…” The rain pounded harder.

Jill sighed, and held out a hand. Colby put his into it. She squeezed. “I want to be thrilled for you. I like Jason and I love you. But I know you, and you weren’t…looking for anything, let’s say. And…look, I do know you. And—”

“And you’ve seen my taste in men, you mean?” He couldn’t not smile at her; it was genuine, if a bit wry, and she smiled back. He said, “I know. I know you’re asking if I—if I wanted to, or if I only didn’t say no, or how it even happened. It’s all very new. It’s only just happened, in fact. But…I think it’s good, Jill. I think it’s very—very good.”

“Then I am thrilled.” Jill’s eyes sparkled. “I trust you to be professional on set, and I won’t ask you for details, but just one thing. I have to. Jason Mirelli. He is that impressive everywhere, right?”

“Jill!”

“As if you’re shocked. You read kinky historical erotica for fun.”

“Maybe you should try it. Oh, I love you, you know I do.” He leaned over to bump shoulders with her. “We’ve not…not done much, yet, I suppose, by most standards…mostly a lot of hands…but, all right, yes. It’s decidedly impressive.”

“Ha. Thought so. And he’s good with you, right? Listening to you, respecting boundaries, all that? Did you tell him about—”

“Most of it. The important parts. He understands.” He felt his cheeks pinken, but added, “He’s very careful. Not so much that it’s a problem—he’s definitely excited to do, er, things—but he always asks. I don’t know if he wants anything more, I don’t know if it’ll go anywhere after filming, but he’s kind and sweet and big and warm and he feels lovely and—and I’m happy, Jill, I really am.”

“Good,” Jill approved, sisterly and wise. “Good.”

They emerged from the spare room to find Jason eating one more slice of pizza, back in jeans and a cream-colored henley, chatting with Andy. Both of them were pretending not to be watching the door.

“Oh, good,” Jill said, “Andy, come check on lighting and blocking with me—” and steered him that way. Jason, hovering, became a giant apprehensive puppy: hopeful, anxious, forlorn.

“It’s all fine.” Colby tried to make the words into metaphorical petting. Soothing scratches for puppy-ears. “Jill only wanted to check on me. No need to worry. Should we find someplace to run lines? I want to stay nearby, whenever they’re ready for us, but we can’t use this room; it shares the wall, and sound carries, and if they’re testing set-ups I don’t want to interfere.”

“You never interfere,” put in Brian the camera operator, arriving with spiked hair and arms full of equipment and script notes. “You’re like the opposite of an interferer. A…ferer.”

“I don’t think that’s how that prefix works,” Colby said. “By the way, how’re your daughter’s troop’s cookie sales going? Kayla’s close to being the top seller, isn’t she? Would you like me to buy anything else?”

Brian expanded with fatherly pride. “You’ve already bought ten boxes. And she’s doing great. She’ll beat that Sylvia Henderson, no problem.”

“Oh, of course she will. I’m sure Sylvia’s very nice, but obviously I’m required to be Team Kayla. Let me know if I can help in any way, would you?”

“Remember you’ve said that when she wants to earn a community helpfulness badge by doing you a favor,” Brian said, “my child’s impressively persistent,” and went on into the bedroom, beaming.

“How do you even do that?” Jason murmured. “Magic.”

“How do I do what?” Colby inquired, genuinely confused.

“Never mind,” Jason said, though this was delivered with a small headshake and a grin, some sort of odd fondness lingering in the upturn of that mouth. “Nothing.”

Colby narrowed eyes at him. Jason held up a hand. “Nothing. I swear. Where’re we going?”

“Hmm. All right, let’s see…old servants’ staircase? Should be safe enough.”

“Lead on.” Jason gestured with the end of the pizza slice. “I’ll go where you go.”

“Such a promise,” Colby said lightly, while his heart beat like butterfly wings. “Let’s practice.”

In the rain-light and the narrow back stairs, they did.

They were both fully dressed, street clothes and not period wear; they’d be movie-naked in bed, soon. The night meandered in like ruffled velvet, misty with emotion, aglow with lamplight; Colby smiled at Jason and shut the door to the stairwell and stepped in closer, right into Jason’s open arms.

Those arms closed around him. They felt like coming home.

“God.” Jason’s exhale was tangible and heartfelt. “Never knew I could miss someone like that. Like I could feel it, every second, even though I knew I’d left you in bed and safe. And it’s funny, ’cause I said I liked picturing you there, and I did, I do, I want that. I just also missed your voice. Is that weird? I’m being weird.”

“No,” Colby disagreed, arms around him in turn, “you did tell me you liked to cuddle. Affectionate. I like it.”

“I thought maybe you’d had second thoughts about—”

Colby silenced this with a kiss. Jason took the hint and kissed back, without force but with returning confidence. Colby liked that as well.

After a while he remembered to murmur through the distractions, “Lines…we should…the updated version…”

“Right, yeah…” Jason sounded as longing as Colby felt. “Can I kiss you again?”

“Yes, please…” When Jason leaned back in, thunder shouted outside; they both jumped, and Colby dissolved into laughter. “Oh, well. Sign from the universe?”

Jason clenched a fist at the window. “Thanks, universe.”

“Very intimidating of you. So…bedroom montage, pleasure, these few lavish nights and days…introducing Will to everything he’s only read about…”

“Everything he wants to know. All those decadent forbidden pleasures. Spread out before him.”

“And he can taste them all. With Stephen.” With you, he thought. So many firsts. So much new.

“Stephen loves it,” Jason said. “Stephen loves him. Are we starting from mine, then? About seeing you this way?”

“Tell me.” Colby backed up a step to better watch Jason’s expressions, and lounged under the window and the rain. “Go on.”

Jason straightened shoulders—military bearing—then dropped them: this was Stephen in Will’s bed, in the townhouse they’d made a private retreat, open and uninhibited. “I love seeing you this way. Fierce as a pirate, demanding what you want…”

“You make me sound dreadful.”

“You smile too much to be a pirate.” Jason would be touching him, trailing fingers across his stomach, sneaking lower. “But you’d be lovely in leathers and silks and a golden earring. Or in nothing at all.”

“You’ve already got that. Don’t pirates smile?”

“Perhaps before they walk you off the plank. Or when they’re busy buggering each other on a tropical island.”

“Perhaps I should be a pirate. The idea has some appeal.” Colby offered up flirtation from under eyelashes. “May I…board your vessel, captain?”

Jason snorted with amusement. Stephen and Will were up for trying everything all ways, of course; the first time’d been Stephen taking Will, because they’d both wanted that and because Stephen had the experience to make it good, but Stephen liked having it the other way round too. “You certainly may. How would you like me?”

“However you’d like. I’m certain there are positions we’ve not yet tried. How many do you think we can manage tonight? More than last night? Should I be keeping a tally?”

“You and mathematics and ciphers. By all means, keep track. I’d like to see your figures.”

“Oh, the mathematics…I’m not keeping up as much as I ought. There’s a new paper on Fourier’s work on heat equations and periodic variances that I’ve been attempting to read. I keep finding myself distracted.”

“Distracted, are you? Whatever could have you so diverted from periodic variances?”

“All I can think of is your hands on me,” both Colby and Will admitted. “I’ve never felt this way. I never knew I could feel this way. It’s as if I’m feverish half the time, and dreaming half the time, and when I close my eyes I picture you. When I wake I see you. When you’re gone I count moments until you return.” In the moment in question he’d lie entwined with Jason in the expanse of bed, tangled limbs and giddy happiness laid bare.

Jason was grinning as if unable to not. Stephen’d be teasing, joyous, tender: a man who’d discovered those sides of himself. “The feverish part hardly sounds appealing. Should I worry about you?” He put out a hand, touched Will’s cheek, and Colby let him.

And the caress made every atom of Colby’s body sing. Jason, touching him. Who knew that’d be so miraculous? So exactly everything he needed?

He said, “You needn’t worry about anything. You’ve got me.” He pushed up sweater-sleeves, one at a time. Tipped his head up: wearing Will’s smile, cheeky and fearless and just a bit arrogant and in love. “You took my hand on a balcony and undid me completely. I believe now it’s my turn.”

Jason laughed. “To undo me?” He caught Colby’s hand, but did not move it; on set he’d tug it down below the sheets, and Will would laugh as well and dive in to bring his captain every drop of possible pleasure. Jason only rubbed a thumb over the back of that hand: warm and gradual, heat across knuckles and dips and a healed nick from that stair-fall and Colby’s skin.

Colby, abruptly rock-hard and breathless under too-hot clothing, looked up at Jason. Fell into happy coffee-rich brown eyes. Couldn’t recall the next line.

Jason raised eyebrows. “You good?”

“I,” Colby said. “I…er…I believe I know how Will feels. About the hand.”

“Really?” Jason looked at their hands. And then at Colby’s pants, where the arousal must be unmissable. “Huh. Good to know.” He turned Colby’s hand in his, drew a tiny line down the inside of Colby’s wrist, turned the line into a heart, light and tantalizing.

Colby made a sound he’d not known he could make, representing some sort of desperate expression of I think I’m about to come on the spot in my pants, just from you touching me, thank you very much.

Jason trailed fingers up along Colby’s arm, setting every centimeter alight on the way, and back down.

Colby’s knees nearly gave way.

“Hmm,” Jason said, delighted. “Gonna have to remember that one for later.”

“Jason,” Colby said. “I…oh, goodness…oh yes please…later? You would want—oh god I’m seriously about to—if you keep doing that—”

“I want you.” Jason drummed fingers against the inside of Colby’s wrist, over delicate tingling skin and that hammering pulse. “I want you later. And now. But definitely later. My room? Yours?”

Colby, who couldn’t think, stared at Jason and quivered with yearning. He wanted to fling his body against Jason’s, heedless and reckless; he wanted Jason to push him up against the wall and get a hand between his legs and make him come, the way Jason had that morning, dominant and gentle and taking charge, helping him when he needed that, as he begged for it…

“Mine,” Jason decided.

“…what?”

“My room.” Oh. That made more sense. More logical than the possessive protective track Colby’s brain and heart and body had collectively barreled down.

Jason went on, “I don’t trust you to have food.”

“I made pizza,” Colby defended feebly. “I’m eating more. Jason, please. Either make me come for you or stop doing that…that…with your fingers…”

“What, touching you?” Jason lifted Colby’s hand and kissed it. “I’m not gonna make you do that in public. On set. I know you wouldn’t want that.”

Colby at this exact moment would absolutely want that. The Colby of five minutes afterward would panic about surrendering too much too soon and doing this in public and being unprofessional. He knew that, and he knew Jason was right.

Nevertheless, his whole body physically hurt with desire, as if now that it’d woken up it’d done so with a vengeance. His cock was rigid and flushed, and his cheeks were flushed, and he felt like a teenager, shuddering at the brink from the slightest attention from the boy he’d tumbled head over heels for.

He got out, “Certain parts of me would disagree, but yes, you’re probably right…”

Jason laughed, folding an arm around him, keeping him close. “This okay?—Good. God, you’re perfect. And I’ll take care of you more later, don’t worry, I know you’re needing it right now, but just lean on me for a sec and relax. I’ve got you.”

“Just relax, indeed. I’m terribly frustrated and I disagree thoroughly with that statement.” He let himself be held and soothed. “But I like you taking care of me. Speaking of…are we…is this…should we talk about this? What we’re doing.”

“Yeah, we should. Tonight.” Jason’s voice was a deep reassuring rumble. Colby felt it all through his body, and settled more. His body hummed with want, but the hum was less urgent, more diffuse, a promise rather than an incipient eruption.

Jason’s muscles were solid and reassuring too. Tucked into them, standing in a historic servants’ stairwell, breathing in Jason’s woodsy male heat, he found himself growing slightly drowsy, not quite the splendid honeyed languor of the previous night but some close cousin of it. Treacle, he decided. Molasses. Sweet and dark.

“Hey.” Jason ran a hand over Colby’s head, not asking him to move. “Still okay? What’re you thinking about?”

“Molasses,” Colby said vaguely. “Treacle tarts. Which means sweethearts, you know, in old-fashioned Cockney rhyming slang. I could make tarts. Which now sounds as if I’m suggesting something far more filthy, but really I was thinking about food…though are we?”

“Are we what?”

“Sweethearts,” Colby explained. “I would like that. Are you mine? Am I yours?”

Jason made an indecipherable sound, half-muffled, lips brushing Colby’s hair. “Am I—yeah. Um, yeah. I am. You are. All of that. Also I’ve got some questions about you and sex and kitchens being a turn-on.”

“I’ve had sex in a kitchen. Well, in my apartment. In the kitchen. Though I’m not certain that counts as good sex. I was half-awake and trying to make coffee, and he came up behind me and bent me over the counter. Rather too hard. Not a lot of preparation, either.”

“So,” Jason said, tone carefully measured. “No sex in kitchens. Got it.”

“Oh, no, you can! We can.” He leaned back to look at Jason properly. “I do like kitchens. I’d probably quite like it, if you wanted to, if you didn’t startle me with it. Er. Do you think you could hold me up, perhaps against the wall or the cabinets? As long as you wait until after I’ve had coffee and I’m more human.”

“I can remember that,” Jason agreed gravely. “No coming between you and coffee.”

“Possibly coming other places, though?”

“You’re fucking amazing. You’re my favorite person. Can I try something?”

“In general,” Colby said, “you’ve been a wellspring of excellent ideas, so yes?”

 “I’m a wellspring? Never mind. You said holding you up. How do you feel about—”

“Good heavens. Right now? Yes, by all means—oh, thank you for asking first, I appreciate that—”

Jason adjusted positions, and employed muscles. Colby yelped, found himself in the air, and wound legs around Jason’s waist and arms around Jason’s neck, back pressed against the wall for leverage.

He wanted to laugh. He wanted to strip off all their clothing and slide down onto Jason’s cock, which was thick and hard and pushing up against him. He wanted everything.

He inquired, interested, “How long can you hold me up?”

“As long as you want.” Jason gave him proud and eager look what I can do! action-hero eyebrows. Colby found this tremendously endearing; Jason finished, “You’re not even heavy.”

This was decidedly untrue: Colby might’ve lost some weight, but possessed decent silver-screen height and muscles and full-grown-person stature. But Jason’s excitement about uses for his own strength was utterly adorable. Colby adored him.

He said, “Point made—very well made, too, I like feeling it—but I suspect you ought to put me down, unless we’re back to the public orgasms question…”

Jason burst out laughing, and lowered him down, gentle as spring rain. The cool dim twilight filtered in through antique windowpanes, and the air tasted of wood-polish and history and promises.

Around Jason he could say the words that leapt off his tongue. Around Jason he could be, if not precisely fearless, at least undaunted in the face of those fears. Because Jason could pick him up if he stumbled.

Jason, arms still around Colby’s shoulders, stood framed by simple white walls and wooden steps and happiness, grinning. He was large and gentle and loyal, a sculpture of a modern-day knight painted in jeans and impressive biceps. Colby’s heart turned itself over, inside-out, reborn.

Clear as stars, that emotions. Overflowing like light, transparent as glass. He’d thought the word love already once. He’d been afraid of seeing it properly, then.

He saw it now. Simple and simply defined as Jason’s shoulders, Jason’s grin, standing there with him in a broom-polished stairwell.

The keen jewel-hued truth of it stole all his words away, and left him silent.

“So,” Jason said, “if you want a distraction, should we run through the second bit? If we’ve got time?”

“Oh…yes…we can do that.” He straightened shoulders. Fished Will’s lines out of the reflective river. Couldn’t repress a little bounce on tiptoes, just because, glancing over at Jason. “Here, I’ll start…. So it is true, what they say about sailors, isn’t it?”

“Is it?” Jason smirked down at him. “And what do they say? That a gentleman like you could possibly have encountered?”

“I’ve encountered quite a lot. That joke about the ranks of various admirals, how many rears and vices one can have in a single room…the amorous engravings of the life of Captain Biggerstaff…that rather eye-opening account of a different brothel in every port, by that anonymous author, last year…”

“Come here and I’ll show you some vices with your rear. Truly, though, Will…” Stephen—Jason—hesitated. “You’ve done the reading. More so than I have. You came to Town for me. You give me yourself, in the ways the world would never approve…”

You approve,” Colby pointed out impishly. Stephen did; as a captain and commander he’d always been tolerant, and would’ve been even if not among that persuasion himself. Colby’d made a few script changes with this in mind: Stephen would never give a damn about who a man took to bed, as long as the man in question knew and did his job aboard the Steadfast. “I should think you’re the one who matters.”

“My father is a gentleman,” Jason said, “but only just. A farmer. I’ve swabbed decks and hauled sails and called the whole lot of the Admiralty a pack of damned hedge-whores. The night we met I had your prick in my hand and my hand on your arse in your library. You’re a duke’s son. You could have been dancing with the finest and richest flowers of the Season.”

“I don’t need flowers.” Colby propped a shoulder against the wall, and felt the incongruous bubble of laughter rising. Stephen meant every word, and the insecurity under them; he knew because he’d written them. But Jason was smiling too much, too happy, and Colby himself was happy, and the wall was happy, and the whole world felt like dessert. Like treacle tarts.

He said, “I need you and your hands,” trying not to giggle.

“I love you,” Jason—Stephen—said. “Damn me, damn you, damn everything, I love you and you know it. I can’t give you anything. I can only offer you myself. Whatever that’s worth. Colby, are you laughing? I’m declaring love, and you’re laughing.”

“Sorry, sorry, I, ah…I just had a thought…something I was thinking earlier, and a song popped into my head, that’s all…”

“What song?”

“No, no, never mind…go on…or should I do mine again? I need you and your hands…on me…I was thinking earlier that this rather felt like being a teenager…a teenage dream, perhaps…”

“Are you quoting Katy Perry?”

 “Let you put your hands on me, in my skin-tight jeans, I’ll be your teenage dream tonight,” Colby sang at him, still giggling. “We rather did, didn’t we…you liked those jeans…”

“And you let me put my hands on you.”

“You make me feel like I'm livin’ a teenage dream, the way you turn me on…” Colby jumped back in. Jason’s eyebrows shot up. “Let's run away and don't ever look back, don't ever look back…”

Jason at this point chimed in with, “My heart stops when you look at me…just one touch…now, baby, I believe…” and suddenly they were both giggling, weightless catchy pop music floating up the stairwell, Jason’s muscles and Colby’s rainbow knit jumper and mingling accents skipping along.

Jason held out a hand; Colby took it, did a stage twirl under Jason’s arm, landed up against Jason’s bulk, and could’ve danced on sunlight or clouds.

The stairwell door opened. Andy and Leo appeared, or rather their heads and astonished expressions emerged around the wall.

“See,” Leo announced, with vast vindication, “told you all Colby could sing. Katy Perry, huh?”

Andy, gazing at Colby’s location in Jason’s arms, said nothing, but said it loudly and approvingly.

Colby gulped, squared shoulders, thought, oh well, why not? and leaned into Jason more and opted for “Baby, you’re a firework…” and pointed squarely at Andy, beckoning. “Come on, show them what you’re worth…”

Andy’s face went through approximately twenty emotions—joy, relief, the love of a friend, cheerfully reluctant willingness—but he accepted the finger-pointing challenge gamely. “Make ’em go, oh, oh, oh…as you shoot across the sky…”

Leo plunged in for the last bit, not to be left out, and the four of them finished the chorus together, tripping over each other, failing at harmony but not caring. The song soared upward, and scattered, and became part of the history of the house.

Andy eyed Jason—who hadn’t moved, being a dependable fortress—and observed, “So technically Jill sent us to find you, and also we’re totally doing that musical now.”

“Dammit,” Leo said, “I should’ve recorded that. Colby Kent. Jason Mirelli. Katy Perry.”

“I can murder you with my thighs,” Jason said, not seriously.

“I’m certain you could,” Colby said to him. “But we need Leo alive, as distressing a sentence as that is. Andy, we’re coming.”

“I’m certain you’re doing that too,” Leo said, under his breath.

Jason rumbled in his direction. Leo backed up a step. But those whimsical hazel eyes met Colby’s, serious under flippancy for a single second, with a miniscule nod.

They went. Andy, last back into the hallway, said, “Colby.”

“Yes,” Colby said. “I know. I’m afraid I haven’t really got a good explanation for the musical selection. Just what turned up in my head.”

“Who says you need a reason?” Andy said. “I was going to ask if you were okay with this scene, but do I need to?”

“I think,” Colby said, “I’m all right.” Ahead, Jason had half-turned, waiting for him.

“If he hurts you I’ll disembowel him. I don’t care what kind of training he’s got. Just so we’re clear.” Andy waved at Jason, added, “If you want my opinion, though…honestly, I kind of like him. He seems like an actual good guy.”

“He is,” Colby said. His feet wanted to fall into step with Jason’s. “I like him too.”

Chapter Text

The night bathed them in shades of gilt. Creamy bed-linens, amber lighting, solid wooden posts, swooping draperies. Even the privacy screens framed the scene with tall composed bones and billows. Colby, out of clothing and into the least amount possible for preserving modesty, dove into sheets. Jill had commanded heaters to be brought, but the air was cold.

Jason peeled off his own robe and came over. Colby watched the motion of those muscles, aware that he wasn’t being terrifically subtle but unable to stop. Jason got into the bed beside him, no real hesitation now, only a brief meeting of eyes for the avoidance of surprise. The crew had thinned out again, mostly just Jill and Andy and Brian behind the camera and Hamid the boom mike operator in what must be a dreadfully uncomfortable position behind the screens and unable to fully see. Jill had wanted to make this as easy as possible for Colby. For Colby and Jason.

Jason, of course, hadn’t done sex scenes with men before, on camera. Though he seemed at ease with the idea; more so, Colby’s head reminded him, than Colby himself, at least at the moment.

Though that wasn’t true either. Because this was Jason, and this was him, and he had the memory of that morning. Very much so. Very detailed. Very distracting. Very unprofessional to be remembering and growing more and more interested in doing it again, right this instant if possible. Drat. No helping that now.

Perhaps if he thought about the scene as a series of sequences. A checklist of positions. Ways Jason would fit their bodies together. No, not helping either. Possibly food? Cornish pasties, late-night mysterious take-away pies, very American cheeseburgers, sausage rolls?

The sausage rolls did not solve the problem.

The bed creaked a bit, not complaining but accepting their weight. Jason leaned on an elbow, not coincidentally between Colby and other bodies in the room. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Tell me if I touch you anywhere you don’t want. I’ll start off with your stomach. And I won’t hold you down. I remember.”

“I’m doing all right,” Colby said, which was more than true. “I know you have to be on top of me, a bit, after I touch you…we can handle this.”

“I know you can.” Jason’s eyes held happiness like a supplicant at an altar: finding a revelation. Encountering the divine. “I know. Just letting you know in advance.”

“Mmm…thank you.”

“Ready,” Jill called their way. “And…action!”

She hadn’t given them point-by-point directions, though they had gone over the general rhythm of this extended scene: shots they needed to get, close-ups and caresses and bodies moving. Editing would handle the cuts and the stitching together, later. They just had to get enough.

Colby at the moment wasn’t worried. He could take on the world. No: they could. Himself and Jason.

Jason said the first line. Skimmed fingers over Colby’s stomach, sketching ships and sails and seashells. Colby’s whole body responded to the touch, to the call back to the morning, to the music of the afternoon.

He managed to remember to make jokes about piracy and boarding vessels. He let Jason gather up his hand and coax it lower, out of frame. He laughed and rolled over atop his lover, as Will, as a man given entry into a magnificent universe he’d never previously known.

This position bled into the next. Lying naked, Colby’s leg thrown over Jason’s hips. Jason’s hand stroking his back. A kiss, and another.

Will’s love and need wove themselves into Colby’s, inextricable. Will knew about numbered days and possible doom. Was choosing instead to throw himself into joy, without reservation, for as long as they had.

Colby clung to Jason. To his own joy. To that marvelous body, all of Jason, which made him tingle with desire. At least Jason was also hard; no one said anything about it, either because Jill was feeling tactful or because everyone was aware that, well, physical reactions did happen.

Besides, they’d look impressively convincing on camera.

The motions flowed together; the desires flowed together. They moved naturally, easily, as if anticipating each other’s movements. The dialogue worked.

More rolling over, shifting, Jason atop him. Jason settling between his legs, using that stunt-man’s knowledge of bodies to take most of his own weight in ways the camera wouldn’t notice. Colby smiled, rubbing a foot along Jason’s calf.

They had to do more. Simulated thrusts, new angles, more intimate and more passionate. Jason took a deep breath and got up on both knees; Colby said softly, “We’re still fine,” as much for himself as for Jason, and moved to hands and knees. Jason got behind him, brought their hips together, simulated fucking him: hard and deep, plunging into Will’s no-longer-virgin body. Colby moaned for the camera and clutched at sheets and let his mouth fall open in ecstasy.

Acting, and not. It wasn’t real, but it was. He had to think about visibility and close-ups and how they’d look for an audience, and the sex wasn’t happening as such, and the climax was pure showmanship. But the quivering, the heat, the gasps he couldn’t hold back at the feeling of Jason’s body and hands: those were true.

They rolled around some more. Lots of flashes of skin. A few pauses for adjustments, sound and lighting and camera. Jill only had Brian filming, which Colby appreciated—fewer eyes, and friendly ones—but that meant some delays for discussion and multiple angles.

The night got warmer. Possibly because of the heaters. Colby rather thought it had more to do with Jason. With those big cautious hands and that low voice, telling him before any drastic movements or spontaneous ideas about touching.

So much touching. Hips, thighs, chest, face. Skin to skin. Kisses, scattered across them both. Jason asked before bending to kiss Colby’s hip. Colby nodded.

More footage. Dream-washed and richly colored. Topaz light caught in Jason’s hair, and ran along Jason’s back like water. The rain rippled and ribboned down old glass windowpanes around them.

They moved again. Colby ended up on his back; Jason murmured, “I’m going to get on top of you, stop me if it doesn’t feel good,” and did exactly that: settling between Colby’s spread thighs, letting the camera capture legs and hips, Jason’s backside, thrusting.

Colby’s head spun. Real, and not—and those motions, Jason rocking against him, atop him—

And they were both here together, both wanting this, and that was want, that was undeniable—

But abruptly something wasn’t right. He didn’t even know why. The tipping-point arrived without warning: the near-naked weight on him became too much, or Jason moved at the wrong angle, or the pressure of Jason’s arousal against Colby’s own was too shocking, too intense—

If Jason stripped away the last bit of modesty cloth and pushed harder, the way he already was, with Colby’s legs spread and Colby’s body up against that massive shaft—it’d be too easy, and the awful part was that Colby wanted it, would eagerly invite the invasion, because it was Jason; but that was frightening, because it was too new and too soon and if Jason did anything like that it’d hurt so badly—

But they were filming, and Jason wouldn’t—

In any case Jason wouldn’t do that without asking, he knew that, he knew

“Wait,” he whispered. Or he tried to; no sound came out. Jason was kissing his throat, head bowed, Stephen theoretically enjoying Will’s response.

Colby found himself shaking. “Jason—wait, wait, I—words—” Oh god, what were the words for— “Yellow. Red. Something. I can’t.”

Jason had frozen at the first audible wait, and now threw himself up and away, across the mattress.

Colby fought down a sob, grabbed a pillow, and hid in it, trembling.

“Colby,” Jason whispered, horrified. Not touching him. “What—what did I—no, I know, I know what I did. What can I do? To help? Please.”

“Colby?” A different voice. Jillian. A dip on the side of the bed as she sat. “Oh, god, Colby, I’m sorry. Just don’t move for a minute, just breathe, you’re okay, okay?” To someone else—probably Andy—she added, “Someone get some water, and an extra blanket, please?”

“God.” Jason’s voice cracked. “Colby, I—Jill, what can I do? Please tell me what he needs.”

“He mostly needs us to not do much.” Jill touched the pillow. “Colby, I’m going to cover you up, okay? Keep you warm? Can I touch you enough for that?” The blanket folded around him.

“He’s still here,” Colby muttered into pillow-fluff. He wasn’t outright crying, though he couldn’t quite breathe evenly, but it was getting better. The panic had faded almost instantly; he mostly felt indistinctly embarrassed and grateful for the understanding. The miniature cloudburst of weather outside had trailed off. “I’m…I only need a moment.”

“We can be done,” Jill said. “I think maybe you should be.”

“…don’t…we…need that shot? More?”

“We can make it work. We’ve got enough from other angles.”

Something else made the bed quiver. Not Colby himself. A broken sound.

He peeked up from the pillow. Jason. Another blanket over those broad shoulders. Jill’s hand on one of those shoulders too. Jason had his face buried in both hands. Muscles full of anguish.

Well. That wasn’t good. He breathed out, breathed in, considered himself under heavy eiderdown. Gathered up shards of self: splintered, recovering, needing to help Jason: his knight, who right now required comforting.

He sat up.

Both Jason and Jillian stared at him. Jason swiped a hand across his face, awkward and afraid.

“Well,” Colby said. “That ended…unexpectedly dramatically. Like being boarded by pirates. The metaphorical kind. Big swords. Lots of pistols. Hand-to-hand combat. I believe I’ve won, though, so that’s all right.”

Jason’s lips shaped Colby’s name. Jason’s eyelashes were damp. Rain over hewn wood.

“I’m okay,” Colby told him, told them all. “Slightly cold. A bit tired, but then again it is a night shoot.”

“Yeah…and, besides…you’ve been fighting off metaphorical pirates…” Jason’s voice stumbled, found dry land amid the shipwreck. “Is there anything I can do? Swords, shields, cannons?”

“I was thinking more assistance with invisible bandages.” He made his way across the expanse of bed to Jason’s side, did not allow himself to think about the gesture beforehand, and put an arm around those shoulders. “Yours. And mine. But I’m more concerned about you, at the moment.”

Jason shut those eyes. “Colby…that’s not…you shouldn’t have to be…”

“No, listen.” He rearranged blankets. Tried to coax those unhappy muscles to lean more against him. “I’m all right. I said stop, and you heard me, and you did. We’re all right, Jason, I promise.”

Jason swallowed hard. “Are we?”

Plaintive, wistful, frightened: that voice hit Colby’s heart like a metaphorical pirate’s cutlass-point. “We’re testing safety-nets,” he offered. “They held.”

“Colby,” Jill said, “you shouldn’t’ve needed to. I could’ve found you a double. Made a different call. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, Jill, no.” He kept the arm around Jason; he stretched the other hand out to catch Jill’s, and held them both. “I told you I could do it. I can; it was fine until it wasn’t. We’re in this together, aren’t we? Storms and pirates and Leo’s tequila hangovers and that time Andy grew the moustache. We can weather anything.”

A hint of a smile tiptoed in; Jill shook her head at him, but with appreciation of the effort. “It was a pretty terrible moustache.”

“Hey,” said Andy, from somewhere very close behind the privacy screens. His hand had delivered the extra blankets, and now held out a bottle of water. “Adrian liked it.”

“He’s hardly unbiased.” Colby did not have a spare hand to take the water; Andy ventured over enough to set it on the bed, and hovered, shifting weight, plainly not wanting to intrude. “He loves you. Look, everyone, if we really want that shot…me on my back, looking up…Stephen and Will caught up in each other, at that moment…I can do it. We can do it. Let’s just do it slowly. And I’d like to be able to see Jason’s face. I think that was part of it. All right?”

“I don’t know,” Jill said. “You don’t have to. I said we could work on it in edits, and we can.”

“I know. But I really am sure about this.”

“Safety-nets,” Jason said softly. “They held, you said…”

“They did. I said something when it didn’t feel good, and you heard me, and you listened.” He held Jason a bit tighter. Those shoulders didn’t entirely fit under his arm, but he wasn’t about to give up. “You did absolutely nothing wrong. You didn’t hurt me. I trust you.” He waited a beat, threw in, “And I trust Zak Starfighter. Saving the universe and all.”

An astounded laugh spluttered out of Jason’s mouth.

Jill glanced from him to Colby, said, “I don’t need to know, as long as you two’re all right,” and squeezed Colby’s hand more. “If we do this it’ll be the last shot of the night. I’m not asking you for more.”

“Agreed.” He wasn’t certain he wanted to do more, in any case; but this felt important. Right this instant, it felt like something he could do.

Jason nodded, looking at Colby.

“Okay.” Jill got up. “Okay. Brian, you can come back. Colby, you tell us when you’re ready.”

“Colby…” Jason said.

“I’ve got a lot of historically accurate pillows at hand to hit you with if you ask me whether I’m sure.”

“You said once that you weren’t good at people,” Jason said. “But you are.”

“And you’re being nice. I talk far too much and at the wrong times. It’s just that for some reason some people put up with me. Jillian. Andy. You. If I lie back down, you can come over and be, er, on top of me, and I think it’ll work if you carry on looking at me and I can see you and you don’t move too fast?”

“I don’t put up with you.” Some other emotion flared in those forest-pool eyes, and vanished too soon for a name; Jason sighed. “You don’t believe me.”

“I might. You let me stay and sleep in your bed, this morning. You—you held me as if you wanted to.”

“I did,” Jason said. “I do.”

“Well, then…” He wasn’t sure where that sentence was headed. He knew where he wanted it to go. But he couldn’t confess his own love to Jason out of the blue, on a film set, in a bed. “Shall we? We can do this.”

Jason cleared his throat. “Okay.”

“Right, then.” Colby offered him a bracing nod, a bit more cuddling, and a smile. “I’m just getting back into bed…all right, come here.”

He even held out arms in welcome. He felt the tiny frisson of skittishness scamper down his spine, but it was tiny, and ignorable.

Jason came to him, moving cautiously. Large muscles and that broad back and those powerful thighs covered Colby’s body; he lifted legs, wrapped them around Jason’s waist.

Neither of them felt terribly aroused, in the wake of torrential emotions; but something else odd happened, then. Jason kept looking at him, as requested: steady and true and strong, gaze an anchor and a reminder of who they both were; Colby became clearly aware of each defined encounter of skin against skin, Jason’s weight and Jason’s hand on the mattress, next to but not pinning down his wrist.

He did not think it felt like arousal as much as relief: a communion, a serenity, a comprehension. He forgot to inhale, remembered, gazed up at Jason in awe.

Jason bent that head, paused a breath away, whispered, “Can I kiss you?” Colby whispered back, “Yes, please,” and Jason did, lightly but resonant as a reprieve, as if the kiss stood between him and drowning; Jason’s hips rocked into his as if unable to help it, though only briefly because Jason instantly got control over himself and his reactions. That felt like a rescue as well. In more ways than one.

Colby pulled back enough to see Jason’s face, and then threw both arms around his sea-captain, his space commander, his hero, and yanked Jason down atop him: out of character, but certain and exhilarated and clinging tightly.

Jason let out a startled huff of air at the unexpected participation, eyes going wide. Colby discovered a whole fleet of giggles at this, and gave up and just held onto him, needing all the weight and the shape of him, learning it all and loving it.

Someone applauded loudly from behind the camera. Colby didn’t bother looking round to see who.

“You’re laughing.” Jason was laughing too, not from amusement but from amazement, and obligingly leaned on him a bit more and dropped a kiss on the corner of Colby’s mouth. “You’re happy.”

“I’m…” He didn’t have a good word. He lay comfortably under Jason and liked it. His mouth liked being kissed. “Yes. I am.”

 

Jason thought he must be dreaming. He’d thought that once before, waking up with Colby in his arms; he thought it again now. Colby smiled at him. Jason’s heart spun and wobbled in its spot inside his chest.

They’d gotten out of bed, on set. They’d gotten dressed—separate dressing spaces—and met up again outside the bedroom doorway, bashful and wordless under the weight of what they’d just done.

Jillian had hugged Colby briefly, given the nod. They’d talked about schedules and the next afternoon’s in-character argument, which Jason was looking forward to: Colby’s passion and talent opposite him. After that, Jason had more to do: delivery of information, the out-of-sequence discovery that Will had fallen gravely ill, a decision to make. Colby wasn’t in that scene, but would be around, since they’d all be heading out to that historic estate together the day after. Time for ballroom dances and first meetings. For Colby’s shouting matches with his on-screen father, played by a very specific living legend name who’d agreed to join the production for a few days. For Colby to lie in bed and pretend to be deathly ill as Jason came crashing in, defying orders. For simulated sex in a library, thunderous and tumultuous as instant electricity.

All of that mattered. Right now it felt far off. Real, but less so than other immediate conversations.

He was speechless, bewildered, ecstatic. He lingered at the historic staircase and waited for blue eyes; he felt like a schoolboy with a crush, like a fantasy hero finding the doorway to a new land, like a man seeing color for the first time.

Colby had laughed, and held onto him, and wanted him. Jason. Incredible. Unbelievable.

He’d said before that Colby was the heart of this film. That was true, and more than true. That castles-and-kitchens voice swept them all up in commitment and courage, and carried everybody along. And maybe Colby could talk for overly enthusiastic hours about pens or pizza, but that only made him even more himself: a person who loved the stray small pieces of the world so deeply that everyone else ended up in love with them too.

They held hands in the elevator, back at the hotel. Jason hadn’t been sure whether Colby wanted to in the car, not certain how open they were being, aside from with friends like Jill and Andy. Colby had been quiet, looking out at the night. No rain at the moment, though the presence of it tantalized skies and city lights.

Jason had mentally urged the storm to hurry up and get going again. Colby liked rain.

Colby now, back in Jason’s room, shut the door and ran a hand through night-rumpled hair. “Jason?”

Even with the hurt, even with the pain, Colby was here. Those movie-poster eyes knew exactly how vicious the world could be, and still came over to put an arm around Jason’s shoulders every time: in a bedroom, in a swimming pool.

Jason pleaded, kicking off shoes, looking at him, “Do you need anything? Coffee, water, late-night—early morning—food?” Something he could do for this man. Anything.

“I want you.” Colby stepped out of his own boots, came closer, collected both of Jason’s hands in his. In tranquil hotel light, he was a paradox: slender and tidy, neat blue pants and that rainbow-decorated grey sweater, with Will’s mop of hair and that sneaky secret stripe of darker blue in those famous irises, the color that required looking closely to see. “You said we should talk about what we’re doing, and we should. I also would like to keep doing it? If you would. I’m trying not to assume, but you did say.”

“I meant what I said.” Jason played with those hands in his, a little: swinging, tugging, wiggling fingers. “Not just a one-time thing. Not for me.”

“Not for me either,” Colby agreed, eyes alight. “Can we be naked? I’ve concluded that I quite like you naked, and—”

“Totally yes. Get naked for me.” He lost his own clothing as rapidly as he could. Flung it at the loveseat. He’d clean up later.

Colby, with more consideration for Jason’s tidiness, took off and folded sweater, shirt, pants. Jason’s eyebrows shot up. “Red underwear?”

“I like color.” Colby peeled those off too, already trustingly unselfconscious. “I suppose I could’ve not worn any. Isn’t that how seductions normally go? Whispering that I’m not wearing any underthings, inviting you to check and see for yourself?”

“I like you in layers. I like you in colors. Um. Want me to tell you to get into bed?”

“Is that an order?”

“I want you to be warm. So…yeah. I mean. Or not. It is if you want it to be.”

Colby laughed, hid the laughter behind a hand because Colby Kent was kind to others, and ran over and threw himself into Jason’s sheets. That single collarbone freckle twinkled, before he pulled up enough blankets to turn himself into a fluffy mountain, and then peeked out at Jason through a crack in fabric, smiling.

“Well,” Jason mused, “you’re definitely warm, but that might not work real well for seduction…” and sat down beside him. “I mean…I could pet this very nice sheet…” He was pretty sure that was a shoulder; Colby was laughing. “Or this blanket, over here…it’s a very attractive blanket, look at those shiny stripes…maybe the blanket and I should just spend some time together.”

“But,” Colby said, “I’m under the blanket.”

“Well, yeah, but you’re all covered up, and if you want to stay that way…”

“Jason…” Colby attempted to disentangle sheet-folds. “Please!”

“Oh, you want me to touch you?” The question carried at least two layers. “Is that what you want me to do? You might have to tell me.”

“Jason!” Colby was begging through amusement. “Yes, all right, yes—I love your hands on me, please touch me, I want you.” The end of the blanket-mountain went flying. “Did you only want to make me say it? Yes, yes, very emphatically yes.”

“Just making sure.” He wrapped arms around Colby, both of them naked. “So you want me.”

“I want you.”

“You want me to…” He sorted out words. He’d tried to think, on the ride back to the hotel, in the elevator, with Colby’s hand in his. Rationality’d been difficult, but one of them had to, and Colby shouldn’t have to always solve the problems.

He wriggled down so they were nose to nose. “I want you. But we should talk about this. Just now you asked me if something was an order.”

Colby bit that lower lip, apprehension not quite surfacing in blue tides.

“No, look, I like that. I like that you want to.” He stroked back an adventurous strand of Colby’s hair. He was half-hard and growing more so with each second, each meeting of bodies; they both were. But this mattered, before they did anything again. “You said that your ex…at least one of your exes…was into some kink…”

“Tony, yes. And Liam, a bit, toward the end. When he wanted to make things more interesting. But Tony knew more.”

“But you didn’t like a lot of it?”

“I…” Colby thought this over, lying in Jason’s arms: taking the question seriously. “I don’t like being hurt. I don’t like being humiliated. I didn’t like hoods and earplugs and things that meant I felt alone in the room. I do like interesting sensations and I like being told I’m being good. I actually rather like some denial—making someone else happy, while I have to wait, letting them decide what I can have. I’m being honest about this, by the way, not saying what I think you might want to hear. If you were wondering.”

“I believe you.” Punctuated with a kiss. “And thanks for telling me. It’s about the emotions for you, isn’t it? Not as much physical?”

“Probably?” Colby didn’t seem quite done with this answer; Jason waited for more. “I know I’ve never felt the way I did with you. I don’t think I’ve in fact got a good point of comparison. Is that a problem?”

“Nah. Or yeah, but only because I want to kick all your exes in the face. You said you’d looked some things up when he asked you to. You know what I mean when I ask if you’re submissive, right?”

“I…think so. I haven’t thought about it that way exactly. But I suspect the answer’s yes. Especially given last night and this morning. Are you…er…more of a Dominant? That’s right, isn’t it?”

“I can switch, sometimes, once in a while.” Jason tried to work out words, explanations, how best to make no demands while figuring out how much Colby knew and also liked, which might be two different answers. “But yeah, if you want to use the word. I’m not like super-experienced or big into the scene or anything formal. I do like being in charge, and I like knowing everything’s set up how I want, and I like taking care of people. And that plus the muscles, and the reputation…”

“People assume you are,” Colby agreed, understanding, because of course Colby understood; Colby would. “But it’s not about the size and strength for you, is it? It’s about making certain it all goes right and no one gets hurt and everyone gets what they need. The way you are when you’re walking round a film set before shooting.” Those eyes held memories of water and hope. “It’s the way you care for the world.”

Jason drew a breath, let it out. “You…could put it that way, yeah. So we should talk about what we both want. Limits. All of that. You don’t want me to give you orders outside the bedroom, do you?”

“Mmm…aren’t we? Remembering to eat, texting you, all of that?”

“…guess we are. Is that fine?”

“That much, yes.” Colby offered a self-reflective eyebrow-shrug, even lying down. “I like it. You can. I think…not much more than that, though. We both have jobs to do, and also I would never remember to ask you first about clothing choices or permission to run out for coffee.”

“Wouldn’t want you to. No getting between you and cinnamon mocha cream, right?”

“Precisely.” Colby slid a leg between his, casual and astonishing. “What else?”

“I guess…what do you want? I mean…how far do you want to…” He gave up. “About sex. Do you want to just…keep doing what we’re doing, as far as hands and where I can touch you? I mean, tonight, filming…that was…”

“Oh.” Colby’s tone was more interested than upset, or so Jason hoped. “Are you asking if you can actually…have your way with me? Oh, no, that’s a terrible euphemism, you already are. Do you, ah…want to…oh, drat…do you want to fuck me?”

“Well,” Jason said, “I do, yeah, especially if you’re gonna say it out loud,” and ran a proprietary hand over Colby’s bare arm and hip, and cautiously down to that ass; Colby did not object. “But I get it if that’s not on the table.”

“You’d want to do that on a—”

“Metaphorical table!”

“Yes, I gathered that. Any of the options in here would never survive. Though perhaps if I went shopping…”

“Be serious.”

“I am. I admit I was rather hoping that one night with you would magically cure everything.” Colby did that little nose-scrunch at him: joking, or ninety-five percent so. “Unfortunately we don’t live in a fantasy.”

“I don’t know.” Jason kneaded a hand over that delectable round ass. “Feels pretty fantastic to me.”

“You always do know what to say,” Colby said. “You know there might not be—there might be some things I just can’t do. Or not often.”

“So we won’t do them. Or you can tell me when it’s not a good day to try.” More kisses. Colby’d sounded too lonely. “Anyway, we’re already having the best sex ever.”

“I suppose so, yes…certainly for me…but you might want something more?”

“I don’t care. I swear.” He tugged Colby closer, needing to feel that warmth. “This is good. And I’m good with whatever you want.”

“Hmm…”

“What?”

“The problem is, having said that, I rather do want to try.”

Jason lay there being stunned by this, and forgot to say anything.

“Not if you don’t want to.” Colby was blushing now, and ducked that head to hide against Jason’s chest. “I don’t know. I only thought…I think I could. With you. And the more I think about it the more I do want to. Like learning to bake bread.”

“Might have to explain that one.”

“Not easy, and a lot depends on your equipment and the weather, but certainly possible? I initially had to attempt it quite a few times, but each time made me want to try again. And eventually I ended up with a really lovely simple crusty loaf, and then I got to experiment with more flavors, and shapes, and sourdough, and braided knots with cinnamon and raisins in…I’ve either lost track of this metaphor or it’s become amazing.”

“Knots I get. Not sure what the raisins are, unless I’m feeding them to you—”

“You do have fascinating ideas.”

“—but okay, yeah, that makes sense.” He did not ask Colby to look up, only kissed the top of that head. Some part of him enjoyed this: being a shelter, a comfort. “You told me once you could be pretty damn persistent. If you think something’s important. When you’re trying to help someone. Like me.” He wavered over adding the last thought, and finally did: “Or us. Yourself.”

“Or if I’m trying to talk ciabatta into behaving, and the amount of air in the dough is—no, sorry, deflecting. That one was on purpose.” Colby peeked up at him, and did not otherwise move, being cuddled. “Once again, I’m not very good at this. I was attempting to convince you to have sex with me.”

“I know it was on purpose,” Jason said. “It’s not as random when you’re thinking about it. More going back to something you’ve already mentioned. I’m keeping up with you okay. Depends on the equipment and the weather, you said. How’s the weather right now?”

“Quite lovely, in fact,” Colby decided. “Nice and warm. Helping me feel safe. I’m surprised you didn’t aim for the obvious joke about equipment.”

“I thought about it. Figured you already knew how much I appreciated the equipment.”

“And you didn’t want to make me nervous.”

“Kinda, yeah.”

“Well, I am nervous, but I’m also not.” Colby set a hand on Jason’s chest. Over Jason’s heart. Where it beat under his fingers. “I trust you. Make all the jokes you’d like.”

“It wasn’t really,” Jason said, honest. “Just that I like your equipment.”

“I like yours. Especially the size.” Colby paused, grinned, admitted, “I am a bit nervous but I’ve also told you I used to like sensation and being filled up with it…”

Jason’s dick liked that idea. Jason’s whole body liked that idea. Jason’s entire personal universe sizzled with the need to put that idea into practice.

He forced himself to say, “You know that doesn’t have to mean me, um, bending you over the closest metaphorical table. You like my hands. I can do a lot with that.”

“I do like your hands,” Colby said. “But I think I’m in the mood for…exploring. Testing the equipment in question. Unless you’re not, and you’d rather do something else. Which is perfectly—”

“Colby?”

“Oh. Yes?”

“Do you, um, ever top?”

“…me?”

“It’s fine if you don’t, I don’t care, I’m just asking—”

“No, I only didn’t expect the question. Most people simply assume. But you’re not most people, of course. Er…I’ve done it twice. No, three times. Two and a half. Both of us were fairly tipsy that middle time and it didn’t work out well. Ah, it’s not precisely my usual preference, but I can attempt it if you’d like?”

“But it’s not what you like?” He ran a hand over Colby’s thigh, marveling at the fact that he could. “Just thought it might be easier for you.”

“Oh.” Colby visibly thought about the idea and the caress, watching Jason touch him. “I see. But…no, I think not. I’m not opposed to trying if it’s something you want, but when I’m thinking about, er…when I picture myself wanting someone—if I do—or if I’m reading a very interesting romance, getting lost in that sort of fantasy, imagining…I, ah. Definitely don’t top. Rather distinctly the opposite. As it were. Is that a problem?”

“Nope. Told you I like being in charge.” He squeezed Colby’s leg: not hard, but enough for affirmation. “And I like you having preferences about things. And telling me about them. Interesting fantasies?”

“Not—” Colby cut himself off, eyes startled.

“Not what?”

“Not lately, I’d been going to say, because I hadn’t been, but that isn’t true.” All that blue twinkled at Jason. Abruptly conspiratorially tempting. “You and the muscles. You and the niceness. You with a hand between my legs in that stairwell, not pinning me down—I could get away if I wanted—but you’d kiss me and you’d have that hand, er, doing what I said, and you’d simply make me come for you, right there, because you wanted to see me…”

Would I.” He coaxed Colby into adjusting positions, deliberate and unhurried; they ended up with Colby on his back, Jason leaning just a little over him, hand venturing higher. “You want me to do what I want with you? Get you to come for me? Tell you you’re so good, listening to me, letting me play with you?” He paused, breathed, “Say stop and I’ll stop. Say yes if you want more.”

“Yes.” Beckoning as horizons. As unfurled sails, catching a breeze. History and sailing-ships, in that voyager’s accent. “Yes, please. You’d stop if I asked, but you know I want you to, I’ve told you, so you don’t…”

“You wanted that? Being mine, like this…” Colby’s cock, long and nicely curved and full, fit delightfully into his grip. Colby’s breath skipped; Jason waited without doing more, only holding him.

“Yes,” Colby murmured. “Yes, yes…this…ah, perhaps not in public…that was the fantasy of it…but in my trailer, maybe, only the two of us, after you’d made me wait, after you’d teased me with it…”

“I can do that.” One stroke, another, assertive but not enough to hurt; they were both paying attention. Colby’s arousal slid through the circle of Jason’s hand, up and down; the tip, flushed and dark, grew wet with want. Jason leaned in more, kissed his shoulder, vowed against that ear, “I’d love to do that. You said you like denial…waiting…being good…so I’d touch you, play with you, get you all on edge and ready, and then stop, because we wouldn’t do that, not in public, not when you’re all well-behaved and proper and professional…”

“Oh god,” Colby said, though this was less a sentence and more of a gasp. “Yes, Jason, please…”

“And you and I both know you’d be thinking about me taking you back to your trailer and getting a hand on you and making you come on the spot, in your pants.” Faster, not rough but clearly in charge, claiming Colby’s desire with the caresses. “Because you want it so badly. Because you can’t wait. Because you know I want you to. Just letting go, letting me tell you when and where, letting me make you feel good.”

“Jason,” Colby begged. “I—I—this feels—”

“You want me to do that now? Get you off like that?”

Colby bit that lower lip again.

“Or not,” Jason said. “Anything you want. Or don’t want.”

“It’s more that I want you,” Colby explained. “I want to—to feel what it’s like with you inside me. And if you continue doing this I am going to, ah…”

“Come for me,” Jason filled in helpfully. “In my hand.”

Colby shivered a little, head to toes: a shimmer of want, painted in stray freckles and honeyed lamplight and shining beaded-up drips of need. “Yes.”

“And you want me to fuck you.” He rubbed a thumb across the tip of that nice stiff cock, liking the eager wetness; Colby whimpered. “You like being mine.”

“I am,” Colby whispered. “I already am.”

Jason had to close his eyes at that. To breathe in, and breathe out: letting the thrill and the weight and the awe land square and solid in his chest. A part of his heart, now.

He opened both eyes. Looked at Colby. “I want to make this amazing for you.”

“Please,” Colby said. “Please take care of me.”

Colby’d said more than once that Jason knew what to say. Jason, one hand playing with Colby’s hair and the other fondling Colby’s cock, thought that the opposite was true: Colby Kent, made of blue eyes and bravery and bruises, had all the right words. Exactly what Jason’d always wanted: someone to cherish and care for and be good to.

His body craved closeness. Covering Colby, plunging into him, accepting that charge and that sweetness: yes. God, yes.

He kissed Colby again because he didn’t have a better way to express all the feelings. Colby promptly kissed him back: welcoming, shyly flirtatious, accepting Jason’s claiming of the initiative and also pleased about it.

Jason could’ve kissed him for hours. Days. Decades. Whole historical eras. Drinking in that fabulously complicated combination of surrender and anticipation and surprises and stories.

He stopped long enough to swear out loud. “You, um. We. Fuck. I don’t have any, um—”

“I do.”

“You what?”

Colby blushed everywhere. Pink right down to that freckle on that collarbone. “Left trouser pocket. I, er. I did think perhaps I’d ask you to—to do this with me. I wanted to. So when we went off to get dressed after shooting, I asked Andy. Who said, and I quote, hell yeah, climb that mountain, and also that I should ask him if we ever need to borrow a feather boa.”

Jason couldn’t bottle up the laughter, mostly because Colby was so goddamn fantastic. Preparation and forethought and flawless comedic delivery. While naked in bed. And smiling.

“The even more entertaining part was,” Colby finished, “he didn’t in fact have anything on hand—Adrian’s still at home in Los Angeles—and he told me to wait right there and then he ran away and ran back and quite literally threw things at me and then cheered. I’m not certain I want to know how he acquired them. In any case, the point of this story was that I’ve got…well, supplies.”

“You’re perfect and we owe Andy a drink. Stay put. Left pocket, you said.”

“I did.” Colby propped himself up on elbows, shamelessly observing Jason’s sprint across the room. “I would rather…er…that is, about using condoms. If you would. I haven’t been with anyone since—well, since. And given that he’d been cheating on me, I did go and get properly checked out. And I’d trust you if you said everything was fine; it’s only that…”

“It is and I’m glad you trust me, but I get why you’d worry. I don’t mind.” He came back over to the bed, sat down next to Colby. He had a handful of condom packets and lube in one hand; he was still naked and impossibly turned on. Somehow a discussion about supplies and prevention’d become the best thing ever. Something about the honesty. The care. Doing something to make Colby more comfortable. Flinging a lure right from his heart to his dick. “Got a question for you, though.”

“Oh, yes, of course—”

“How do you feel about my mouth?”

“As in…in general?” Colby’s eyebrows went up, evocative dark wings over oceans. “I quite like your mouth?”

“I mean on you,” Jason clarified. “Like, if I wanted to taste you. Here, I mean.” He skimmed a fingertip of the unoccupied hand along the line of Colby’s cock.

Colby’s eyes got even wider. He opened that mouth, closed it, tried again. “You do?”

“Hell yes. You know how hot you are?” He tapped the finger against Colby’s shaft. Colby appeared to be speechless. “I like doing that, and I want to do that for you, but not if it’s on your not a good day list.”

This resulted in a noise that was more a squeak than anything else. Jason waited.

“Ah,” Colby said. “I…ah…you…it’s…yes? I mean yes you can, not that it’s a no. I mean thank you for thinking of that. I mean…I don’t know what I’m saying. I normally…I…I can’t recall the last time someone, er. Offered. I generally do. You don’t want me to?”

Of course you do, Jason thought. Making people happy. “Totally into that too, whenever you want. But right now I kind of want to get my mouth on you. Find out how you taste. Maybe get you right up to that edge, and stop, the way you like.”

“Oh. Then …yes?” Colby glanced around the bed and the bedroom, maybe for assistance. Friendly light limned his eyelashes. “What do you want me to do? Should I move, or—”

“Nope,” Jason said happily. “Stay put.” He considered this phrasing, and added, “That’s an order. If you want.”

“Jason…you do keep surprising me.” Colby’s smile could’ve illuminated the world. “I think that I would like that. The order. Listening to you.”

“Good. Stay just like that. I want you to watch, if you feel up to it. And tell me if you’re getting too close. You’re not going to come yet.”

Colby nodded meekly. His cock got a bit more wet at the tip.

“So fucking gorgeous,” Jason told him, and bent down. He left a kiss on the nearest hip first, over one of those unexpected random freckles. He made certain to move gradually; he pressed lips to the base of Colby’s cock, one more kiss. Breathing in the heat and scent of him.

He glanced up, found Colby watching, and dove in.

He’d always loved this. Guys and girls and anyone sharing this with him: the taste of pleasure, the fun of finding the places that made a partner gasp or groan or grow wetter with desire. The knowledge that he could make someone feel this good. The control, the way he liked it, in this: more and more, over and over, licking and sucking and learning the way the person felt in his mouth, on his tongue, as they shook apart in release, because of what he was doing to them.

Colby felt spectacular. Wonderfully male, long and thick and already leaking; Jason lapped that up assiduously, and took him in deeper, swirling tongue around, testing more pressure.

Colby gasped, and his cock jumped in Jason’s mouth. More drops of that ready need. Delicious.

Jason slid all the way down, taking the whole length, and sucked at him. Colby made the world’s best sound, frantic and quavering, and his hips jerked.

Jason pulled back enough to say, “No coming yet. I want you to feel good, but I want you to be good, too, for me. You can wait.” Colby’s shaft bumped his mouth; he nuzzled words into silken skin. “You are, you know. So good. So sweet, just staying put like I told you, while I do this to you.”

Colby was still blushing everyplace, and shut those beautiful eyes for a second, as if looking at Jason along with those words might be too much.

“I like that you don’t do this a lot,” Jason informed him. “All mine. And if I want to spend a whole day using my mouth on you, making you come over and over, then I will.”

“An entire day?” Colby said weakly. “Good heavens.”

“Yep. I’d tell you to stay put in bed, and you’d do it, because you’re so good when you’re listening to me. Nothing holding you down, nothing tying you up, just me telling you and you wanting that. And I’d suck you until you came for me the first time, and then play with you more, every part of you that you say is okay with that…you did say you like toys and being full…”

He paused to pay some more attention to Colby’s cock. So nice. Fat and flushed and shiny from ministrations and want. Fantastically lickable.

Colby opened one eye—hair had tumbled into the other one—and then squeezed it shut again, but his body arched upward. Jason would’ve grinned, but his mouth was occupied.

He wrapped a hand around the base of Colby’s shaft. He found the twin weights below with the other hand, and explored those too. Colby shivered; Jason paused. “Still okay?”

“Yes…”

“You sure?”

“I’m thinking about you and using toys on me,” Colby confessed breathlessly. “I—I want—I don’t know. Everything you’ve just said. But wouldn’t you be rather bored? If I’m not doing anything for you?”

“You think you’re not doing anything for me?” He wriggled around. Waved vaguely at himself. Let Colby get a good look: lots of desire. Proudly jutting out, on display. “You’re doing exactly what I want. What I told you to do. So obedient. And you like that, don’t you? Doing what I say.”

“Oh god,” Colby said. “Yes, I—yes, all right, yes, Jason, yes, please. I—I like doing what you say. When you tell me I’m doing what you want—that you think I’m being good for you—”

“So good.” He reaffirmed this with lips and tongue and a few slow thorough strokes and sucking. “Just lying there where I want you, taking everything I want to do with you, everything I want you to feel…”

Colby shivered more; his body tensed and then softened, that same sort of physical melting into surrender that Jason’d seen when he’d knelt and touched himself at Jason’s command.

More, then. A fraction more demanding, more assertive. Unquestionable.

Colby, after a particularly drawn-out deep sinking to the hilt, held there and surrounded by Jason’s mouth, whispered, “Jason…” His voice shook, uneven.

Jason stopped, and sat up.

“I’m not sure,” Colby whispered this time. “I—I feel—it’s almost too much. I can’t think, and I don’t want to think, I want to be yours, but then I—I’ll end up lost in it, floating in it, only it’s like the molasses and it’s all dark and rich and there’s so much and I want to feel you and I’m sorry but I think I’ve forgotten how to breathe—”

“Shh. I’ve got you. I’m stopping, we’re stopping, you’re okay.” He was feeling kind of shaky too. He put a hand on Colby’s bare chest. Lightly so. “You can breathe with me. In. Out. One more time. I’m right here.”

Colby did as asked, eyes midway between anxious and molten. Not afraid, or Jason thought not, but that’d hit the point of too much. He wasn’t sure whether that was only that Colby wasn’t used to receiving in this sense, or whether some specific shark’s-fin memory’d resurfaced, or whether those blue eyes simply deep down felt off-balance at the whole concept of accepting pleasure without having had to earn it.

He said again, “You’re safe. You’re all right. You’re breathing. Listening to my voice.”

“I am.” Colby blinked, sounded suddenly drowsier, reached for him. “Jason?”

“Yeah?” He tucked that hand into both of his, rubbing it. “What do you need?”

“I don’t know exactly. You. I need you. I feel…it’s like before. Floating. With sparkles. Are there sparkles in molasses? Possibly glitter. Edible. I might be made of edible glitter.” Colby rolled that head to look at him. “I feel quite a bit better. I only couldn’t seem to find air for a moment.”

“I know. And you’re perfect, baby, don’t worry about it. Glitter and all.” He wasn’t certain how the tipping-over into that space had happened. More accurately, he knew when it had; he’d heard it in that voice. But he wasn’t quite sure why that’d been what worked. Something about the orders, maybe. The consideration and comfort, talking Colby into anchors and security and consequent letting go. He kissed Colby’s fingers. “Not too much?”

“No,” Colby said. “I like being made of sparkly molasses. Are you going to have sex with me?”

“Probably, yeah,” Jason agreed, grave and fond and so in love he thought his heart would break, except it already had, and reshaped itself twenty times over: every damn day since meeting Colby Kent.  “I would like to.”

Colby gave him an adorable subspace-fuzzy frown. “Then why wouldn’t you? I brought supplies!”

“Just making sure you’re still here enough to say yes.” He rubbed a hand along Colby’s upper thigh; both long legs spread obligingly for him. “I lo—I like it when you talk during sex, you know.”

“You do?” Colby appeared to be thinking a lot about this. “But I’m not certain I’m making much sense. And I think I talk about food quite often.”

“You do. Still perfect.” He nibbled lightly at said talkative mouth. “And edible.”

“Oh,” Colby said. “Is that why you like putting your mouth on me? Tasting me? Though you didn’t want me to finish like that. But does that count as edible?”

“Your word, not mine. But I do like tasting you.” To underscore the point, he bent and licked at the closest nipple. Colby gasped, moaned, and spread those legs more. Right, Jason remembered. Sensitive. How fun.

He employed more suction this time. Teeth, the absolute faintest hint, but promising as far as sensation.

Colby made a noise that absolutely did not contain any words, a sort of plea and cry and sob made up of stimulation and need. Jason exhaled, warm over that pretty pinkened nipple, then got fingers on it and played. Colby just about shrieked, ecstasy rippling through those lean swimmer’s muscles.

“Oh, very nice,” Jason told him. “So gorgeous, aren’t you? Feeling so good.”

Colby sighed softly, eyes open but hazy, dreamy and dark. He looked the way he had before: submerged in bliss, experiencing pure instinctive pleasure for the first time. Jason internally discounted every single other time Colby’d ever had sex: if nobody else’d made Colby feel this way even once—Colby, who was so sweet and so damn responsive, reacting to every word of praise and every considerate caress—then nobody could’ve ever deserved him.

Jason wouldn’t claim to deserve him either. But Jason was here, and Colby somehow had said yes, kept on saying yes, to him. So he’d do everything he could. His best. For Colby. Because Colby made him want to be the best he could.

In bed. On a film set. Rehearsing in a stairwell. Jumping off a ship’s deck into unknown waters. Kissing Colby Kent.

“I do want to have sex with you,” Jason told him, still playing with that nipple. Colby squirmed against the bed, eyelashes fluttering, lips parted. “Colby? Still with me, baby?”

“Yes,” Colby breathed, entire body a portrait of rapture: framed by Jason’s bed, dark wood and forest-floor sheets. “Yes, please, please…Jason…”

Jason rapidly sorted through the random collection of supplies. Andy had evidently wanted to give them options, and also evidently had a favorable opinion of Jason’s dick size. But Colby hadn’t done this for a while. Relatively simple, then. For now.

He found a label that he recognized among the lube sample packets. That’d work: smooth and slippery and reliable. It pooled over his fingers like stars in water: gleaming and serene. His fingers against Colby’s skin left light like comets over those creamy thighs, reflecting lamplight.

He traced fingers back to that delicate furl of muscle, the place where he might fit into Colby. Colby’s breathing quickened, but he was watching. Watching Jason’s hand explore his body.

Jason rubbed one index finger over that hole, slowly: a suggestion, spreading slickness, getting them both used to it. The room grew hotter, unless that was Jason’s own skin. He’d never felt like this before, either.

He slipped a finger into Colby, as those blue eyes watched. He let them both see it: the push in, disappearing, taken inside.

Colby’s breath came in a shuddering exhale. “Jason…”

“Still good?” He did it again. Colby’s body was tight, no longer used to this, but softer and more willing to stretch open than he’d expected. Subspace would do that, though. Relaxation. Pliancy. Like molasses.

He wanted to laugh, to cry, to make Colby shriek with pleasure again.

“So good,” Colby murmured, hands clutching Jason’s sheets. “But almost…it’s…it’s not…”

“Not what, baby?” He stopped everything. “Talk to me. Please.”

Colby blinked at him. “You like me talking. I can do that.”

“Yeah, I do. Answer the question.”

“The—oh. Not enough, I meant. I want…you feel so wonderful, and please don’t stop, but I want more. I need—it feels so close to something, as if I’m right there and I just need—I don’t know! More of you, opening me up, being inside me, please…” Colby’s body clenched around Jason’s finger; those eyes were plaintive. “Jason, please do something. You said you’d take care of me, and I need you, I want to feel all of you, more, please.”

Those words, in that accent. Colby’s tumbled melody of England and France and Germany and southern California, storied and fantastic, unlike anyone else ever. Jason’d had partners with more explicit or more practiced mouths, partners who begged or who didn’t, moaning and wordless; but Colby trembling and coming apart, unguarded and unashamed and talking, pleading for Jason’s care—

He’d never had this. He’d never felt this.

He repositioned the hand. Two fingers. More lube, easing the way. His voice came out rough. “How’s that?”

Colby moaned, legs falling more apart, taking Jason’s large stunt-callused invasion into himself. “Sparkly…”

“Like glitter,” Jason agreed, entertained; his cock throbbed with arousal, though his vision blurred a little, as if some raindrops had turned up in his room for a fleeting second. “I am taking care of you. And you’re being so good. You just let me do this, and tell me how you feel, okay?” He crooked fingers. Searching. Stroking.

And finding: Colby gave a kind of airless tiny scream and those hips snapped upward and all those muscles tensed. “Jason, Jason, that—” Both eloquent hands were buried in Jason’s sheets now, clinging. “Oh god…”

Jason grinned down at him. “Good.”

Colby relaxed a fraction after, given a respite. He was panting; that extravagant dark hair was sticking to his face, and he licked his lips, leaving them shiny too. “I—I—please do more to me. Touch me more. Or—or—you said you’d let me feel you in me, and I want that, it’s so big, so thick, I want you to fill me up with it, make me feel like this always, make me come for you, like you said…”

“Jesus Christ,” Jason said, amazed; Colby in subspace absolutely did talk, and holy fuck Jason never wanted him to stop. “Yeah. Yes. You can have that. You’re gonna feel it, though, baby, even all soft and sweet like this. Still good?”

“Yes.” This was utterly certain. The word became a rock for them both amid waves of bliss.

“I—” Jason cut himself off. I love you, he didn’t say. I love you so much I don’t know how to tell you. “I need you to keep talking. Tell me how you want me to do this. What position you want me in.”

Colby seemed perplexed by this. Jason tried to narrow down the question, hand poised with a condom. “You want some options? The angle might be easier if you turn over, but you said you feel better if you can see me, so I’m thinking not that. You could stay like this, but I know you don’t like feeling pinned down.” He took in every flicker in the horizons of those eyes. “I could lie down and you could get on top of me and ride me, baby, how does that sound?”

Colby gave this the consideration of someone lost in sparkles, and informed Jason seriously, “I may not be coordinated enough for that. Glittery molasses isn’t.”

“Keep comparing yourself to food and I’m gonna have to taste you more.” He did. A swift lick over that tempting tip, the flavor of Colby’s cock and Colby’s want. “Okay, something else?”

“I want to feel you. Not—not too much weight…but can I look up and see you?”

“Got it. Holding your legs is fine, right? Holding them up, I mean.”

Colby figured this out right as Jason began wondering about clarifying, and said, “Yes please.”

“So good.” Fingers teasing Colby some more, slipping out at last; condom on, hasty but secure. Himself kneeling between Colby’s thighs. Himself reaching down, stroking fair smooth skin, soothing. Pulling Colby’s hips closer.

Colby moved with him fluidly, no hesitations now. Wanting him.

Jason lifted those endless legs, got them up and into position—good for thrusting, too, this would be so deep—and waited, cock nudging at that entrance, where Colby’d been opened up and made ready for him.

“Please,” Colby whispered. “Please…”

Jason moved. Sinking into him.

He knew he was large, and Colby hadn’t done this in some time; despite preparation, that space was so tight around him, and Colby’s next breath landed more like a sob, or a gasp, or a cry. Jason froze, though every inch of him screamed for more: Colby felt so damn good, gripping him as if made for him, fitted around him…

“I’m…I…” Colby panted more, found words. “You’re so…huge, and I…I like it, Jason, my god…"

“I like that you like it.” He could stay in this position if Colby needed that, not stirring; his arousal argued but he clung to rationality with heroic determination. “Tell me how you’re doing.”

“May I have more?”

And Jason choked on a laugh, then: because Colby was perfect, not fearless but willing to hold onto him and reach for happiness despite the fears. Because Colby always had the right words.

“Hell yes you can have more,” he whispered back, meeting those shining eyes; and moved.

Each thrust glided a fraction deeper, a little harder, more of him inside Colby’s heat. He drew back and felt the drag and clutch of muscle; he pushed in further and felt Colby open and yield beneath him, surrounding him, squeezing him. He did it once more, reverent and wild, and sank to the hilt: bodies joined completely, him and Colby.

Like this he was mostly holding his own weight, those long legs thrown over his shoulders; Colby, folded under him, could gaze up at him, and did, lips soft and parted. Colby’s cock was rigid and hot between them, leaking need all over that flat stomach, tangible uncontrollable evidence of want.

Jason, still gazing down at him, thrust. Hard.

Colby cried his name, clenching around him. The gold of the light streaked his face; Jason felt the mirror of it along his spine, in a prickle of heat and sweat and fierce radiant desire.

He whispered, “So good, so good for me, the way you feel, Colby, fuck—” and did that again, and again, finding that same spot and pounding into it, earning more tiny screams and moans and babbled words, Jason’s name and yes and more and, deliciously, a string of pleases, because Colby was the sweetest person ever, ever, even or especially while delirious with ecstasy in Jason’s bed—

He groaned. Shuddered. Fought down the rising climax. Too soon, so fast, but Colby’s eyes were so blue and Colby’s sounds were so luscious and Colby’s surrender to pleasure was so profound—

Jason, at the brink, got out, “I want to see you come for me, baby, the way you said you wanted to, with me inside you, fucking you, filling you up—so good, you’re so good, you can do this, one more thing for me, come for me—” and got a hand back on Colby’s cock and stroked, clumsy with imminence but gentle, so gentle, despite the lack of rhythm.

Colby gasped, “Yes, Jason, yes—” and tensed everyplace, back arching, muscles taut, drawn to the peak. His cock began to spill itself, thick white streamers over Jason’s hand and over himself; the release swept through him in pulses, over and over, extended. His eyes never left Jason’s: enormous enchanted blue.

Jason’s mouth made a noise, and his hips snapped forward, and his cock—buried in Colby’s quaking euphoric body—thrust once more, deep-seated and final; and he came open-mouthed and silent and stunned with glory, the flood drawn out of him in response to Colby’s eyes, Colby’s trust, Colby around him and with him.

He didn’t know how long it lasted. It shook him to the core with light.

He slumped forward, exhaling in the ebb. He caught himself on both hands. He trembled as the motion reverberated through them both; his cock twitched and found another drop to spill inside the condom, oversensitive. Colby’s eyelashes drifted down, and up: gaze not quite focused, out in that billowing all-encompassing submissive ocean.

Jason whispered, “You’re wonderful, you’re so wonderful, thank you—god, Colby, you’re everything I want, everything,” and eased out of him as tenderly as possible. The condom was dangerously full.

Colby whimpered, despite the caution, as he did. “I’m sorry,” Jason said desperately, “I’m sorry,” and disposed of the condom and grabbed a towel and warm water, and thoroughly checked him over: gently cleaning lube from that newly-used hole, ensuring no injuries, stroking a leg or a hip for contact and affirmation when Colby tried fumblingly to get closer to him. Acts of devotion. Acts of loyalty. His oath, written in hands and cloth and care. Written in his soul now too. Across his bones.

Words mattered also, low and reassuring. Colby, coming out of that headspace, would need anchors. More than most submissives, even, Jason guessed. He knew how much this meant. Reclaiming this.

He promised, “You’re fine, you’re all right, you’re safe, I’ve got you,” and tucked Colby into his arms in bed. Not holding tightly. An echo of the way they’d woken up together, though. The way they fit. “I’m here. You’re here. You’re mine. And that was fantastic. You’re fantastic.”

Colby, after a moment, answered, “I rather think you’re fantastic, you know.” His voice wasn’t loud, but surprisingly coherent.

Jason, not expecting a response this soon, smoothed a hand over Colby’s exertion-damp explosion of hair. “You don’t have to talk yet.”

“You like it when I do. And I feel like it. I feel as if I’m made of champagne-bubbles. I could make a champagne trifle. With strawberries. And vanilla cream. Would you like that? Speaking of cream and things you like, you do seem to like tasting me. I wouldn’t mind trying that with you. The other way round. I’ve also just had terribly filthy thoughts about cream and porridge. Did you say thank you, just now?”

“So you’re feeling all right.”

“Oh god yes.” Colby wiggled back enough to look at him, and then laughed a little, and shook his head, laughed more, pounced in to land a kiss on the side of Jason’s jaw, and blinked a few times. “Possibly slightly tipsy. Is that the aftermath? Should I always expect this? Don’t think I haven’t noticed you didn’t answer me.”

“Not every time.” He rubbed Colby’s back: grounding. For them both. “You remember you cried some, last time? It’ll hit you differently sometimes. But…you in particular, so far, yeah. You do seem to get the whole being energized, kind of elated, after. I like you like this. It’s cute.” More than cute. The same feeling he’d had when rescuing Colby’s scribbled calligraphy gift for him, lingering in the private cracks and corners of his heart. The places where he held onto every one of Colby’s smiles, the moments when blue eyes danced because of Jason. “And I didn’t think you heard that.”

“Yes, but I did hear it.” Colby grinned at him: tired and triumphant. “So tell me. Er. Please. Only if you’d like. I mean if anyone should be thanking anyone—”

“You gave this to me.” Jason tapped fingers over his back. Movement, because the distraction helped. Kept threatening prickling confessional raindrops at bay. “You trusted me with this. You let me be here. So, yeah. Thank you.”

“Oh. But…I wouldn’t’ve done it with anyone but you.” Those wide eyes were sure about this; the accent echoed surety like stone walls under sunlight. “I didn’t think I’d ever want to again. And then you bought bagels, and you wanted me to eat, and you kept on noticing everything I was feeling. And I—well, the weather got quite a bit better. Less grey. More alive. So thank you.”

Jason, in the overwhelming grip of emotion, said, “Good—good weather for, um, porridge, then? With cream?”

Colby’s mouth actually dropped open. “You don’t know precisely how filthy those thoughts were.”

“Want to bet?”

“No. I’ll never be able to look at a breakfast table again.”

“You thought of it, not me. And it’s too late for the tables.” He had to ask. “I know you’re still kind of busy being champagne—”

“I appreciate you appreciating my metaphor.”

“Told you you were delicious. Seriously, though, under that, as much as you can, can you think about how you’re feeling for a sec? Nothing hurting, nothing sore, nothing I didn’t notice?”

Colby went quiet, looking at him. That gaze held a wealth of understanding: their roles, Colby’s own past, Jason’s recent past and loss and showing up early to inspect a set and safety precautions. One of Colby’s legs snuck itself between Jason’s. “Nothing. Well—only the general sense that it’s been a while and you’re very impressively sized. I’m certainly glad to not be sitting in a period-accurate wooden chair all day tomorrow. But in the sense you mean it, no, I’m not hurt. I think I’d notice. You’d notice; you’ve been checking on me.”

“Part of taking care of you.” Part of loving you. Wanting to cheer for you. For us. “You’re going to need to rest, even if you’re sort of fizzy right now. It’ll catch up to you. Want food? I’ll order room service. You don’t have to get out of bed.”

“I…could be hungry, yes. And you’re not wrong about needing to rest. We both will, given the hour, which I’m noticing is later than I would’ve guessed. Though I clearly wasn’t paying any attention to the time, just now, so it’s not as if I’d be able to make a reliable guess in any case. At least we’re not on set until the afternoon. About that…”

“What about that?” Jason had lunged for the room service menu. Just about dropped it on Colby’s shoulder. Pitfalls he hadn’t anticipated. Opening up underfoot. “You—is it something about the arguing with me? On camera?”

He’d been wanting to see what they could do together, colliding and crackling, but if Colby didn’t feel good about even fake arguments—if that was finally some fallout from the submission and the headspace, wanting to please, or else from the past, wanting to please for a different reason—

“I’m rather looking forward to it.” Colby sparkled at him more. The room service menu, and Jason’s heartbeat, calmed down again. “It’s just there’re some lines I’m not sure about. Unwieldly. We’ll see. I know you’re fine with some improvisation; we’ve done it before. Would you mind terribly if I went off script a bit? Or played with some phrasing?”

“I’ll try to keep up with you.” And now he was vaguely worried, not so much about Colby but about himself. Not with regard to dialogue content as such—he knew Stephen Lanyon, knew Will Crawford, knew or was starting to know how Colby thought—but with regard to spontaneous phrasing. Colby might be some sort of enthusiastic nineteenth-century steampunk magical librarian at heart, but Jason himself had the vocabulary of a Hollywood backlot third-generation spaghetti-western stunt team. “Um. Food. What do you feel like?”

“Nothing too large—” Colby’s expression got more mischievous. “Though I’ve already had that, haven’t I?”

Jason tried not to feel extra-proud of this. “You can have it again whenever you want. But food first. Still an order. Pick something or I will.”

They ended up with lemon grilled chicken, which would be both relatively light and something Jason could cut up and feed Colby bites of from a fork, and onion-garlic scones because Colby’d been reading down the menu and got professionally fascinated and concerned about the entire concept, and also a slice of ginger-pumpkin tart because it was the closest to cinnamon Jason could find. Colby gave him an amused glance, but then yawned and settled deeper into bed. “Evidently now I’m getting the needing to rest part. Will you wake me when food exists?”

“I need to feed you, don’t I? Go ahead and sleep.” He tucked a sheet around slim naked shoulders, keeping them protected; he’d stay next to Colby until he had to get up and answer the door. He’d stay next to Colby, guarding that courage, forever. “I’ll be right here.”

“Mmm…I know you will. Jason?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m very happy.” One big blue eye opened and caught his; the other was shut, nestled into pillow-fluff. Colby put a sleepy hand out, set it on Jason’s thigh. “I wanted to tell you that.”

Jason’s heart threw itself into his throat and stuck there: trapped by the words it wanted to say, the words he wasn’t sure Colby would be ready to hear. The lump hurt like broken rainbows, magical and treasured.

A waltz of sound found rhythm on the glass windowpane. Colby’s rainstorm. Arriving right on time to wrap them up in an oasis of silver and gold, water and lamplight.

He set his hand next to Colby’s. Laced their fingers together. “I’m happy too. Being with you.”

Chapter Text

On set, Jason stepped into Will’s study. He shut the door with a measured tug, with Stephen’s emotions quivering on a string; his naval-coated shoulders occupied all available space, and a camera ducked out of the way. Rain pattered and scurried on the windowpane, sharing happy announcement of the arrival of steps. Colby couldn’t not look at those big hands, at those brown ruffled-velvet eyes, at Jason’s mouth.

Those hands had been on him. That mouth had been on him. Tasting him. Jason had been everywhere—around him, inside him, atop him, filling him up, letting him fly—

They’d had very belated dinner. They’d slept, himself secure in Jason’s arms. They’d awakened together. In fact, Jason had gently awakened him; Colby couldn’t recall having slept so soundly in…far too long.

Jason had kissed him carefully but thoroughly, eyes searching his. Colby had shivered with pleasure and had spread legs, willing; Jason had hesitated, asking whether he felt sore. He had, a bit, but nothing that’d he’d allow to get in the way. He wanted to feel good again; he wanted to feel Jason again.

Jason had sighed and said, “I’m not going to hurt you, I won’t, okay?” and played with Colby’s nipples more: pinching, rolling, tugging, until Colby was moaning and squirming and nearly out of his head with intensity and pleasure, writhing shamelessly in Jason’s bed, under Jason’s hands. Jason had proceeded to kneel above him and lift Colby’s legs and thrust between them: cocks rubbing together, slick and dripping desire mingling, Jason’s voice saying words about wanting to come all over him, to cover him with it. Jason had got a hand round both their shafts, stroking them together, and Colby had dissolved into light, being Jason’s, being claimed.

He'd heard Jason tell him to come, to let go, and he had, in tingling dazzling waves that left his mind blank and his body buzzing. He’d said something about honey, Jason informed him later, and also bees; Jason had laughed and told him he was beautiful and so sweet, like, yeah, the honey, and had found release on the words and a groan.

The heat had splashed across Colby’s body, and he’d lain there and moaned and gloried in it.

Jason had carried him to the tub, after. Had cleaned him—both of them—up with authoritative attentive hands, while Colby’s head spun, and then had ensured he got dressed and ate a leftover scone and had coffee. Taking charge; taking care. Making everything turn out right, the way Jason liked.

They’d come to set this afternoon together. Colby had wanted to nestle into Jason in the car. To fit himself right up against Jason, maybe in that lap, and shut his eyes and breathe in that woodsy male heat, hearing that heartbeat, so steady and unwavering.

He hadn’t, because he was trying to behave himself and because he didn’t know the etiquette for this. He did not know what Jason wanted, after they were done filming, if an after might be possible; he knew that Jason wanted him now. And he knew that he would never be the same.

He wanted to laugh all the time. He wanted to hold onto Jason and sing terribly catchy pop songs about love. He wanted all the words for joy.

Currently he was feeling rather joyful at the sight of Jason’s arms under that coat, so large and powerful. He stared at Jason’s thighs, and Jason’s waist, and lower, because he knew what was there. Intimately. And he liked it.

He got diverted by Jason’s large tanned hand as it moved on the doorknob. Gripping that knob. Turning it. With those fingers.

He forgot to be Will Crawford. He forgot to respond to his cue. He forgot everything except the wonderful pink and gold wave of feeling that rose up from his toes, seeing Jason.

“Um,” Jason said, dropping Stephen’s tension like a superfluous cue card. “Colby?”

Colby clapped both hands over his face, hid from boulder-sized burning mortification, and implored through fingers, “Oh, no, I’m sorry, I was distracted…Jason, Jill, everyone, apologies…”

“No apologizing to us,” Andy announced. His expression would not have been out of place on a delighted jack-o’-lantern.

Brian popped out from behind the camera rig. “Totally got that on film, you staring at Jason like a stack of pancakes, just so you know.”

“Pancakes?” inquired Peter the key grip. “More like nice juicy steak. Lots of meat.”

Jason swung around that direction and shouted, grinning, “I feel objectified! I’m not your meat!” Peter blew him a kiss.

“I don’t know,” Jill suggested, smirking at Colby, “I never thought I’d see you being unprofessional, Colby, are we going to need to talk?”

“I’m so sorry!”

“Oh, relax.” She even came over and patted him on the arm, where he could see the motion. “You’re adorable. And it’s just teasing. You hardly ever screw up a take, and it’s kind of hilarious. Especially with that…yeah, let’s go with juicy…reason why.”

“Now I sound like an orange,” Jason said. “Colby, help.”

“It isn’t hilarious,” Colby protested, horrified. “You said you’d trust me to be professional, and I—”

“You are. You always are. It’s one take. Don’t worry about it.” She patted him again. “Tell your orange you’re okay so he stops hovering.”

“Why,” Jason said to the ceiling. “Why.”

“He’s not an orange.” Colby squared shoulders. Squashed embarrassment. Everybody here cared. He did know that. “He’s my bread. Knots and raisins optional.”

Jason started laughing so hard he had to grab the desk for support.

“Your sex life is much weirder than I thought it was,” Andy observed. “Should I have thrown a baguette at you along with everything else, yesterday?”

“Why were you thinking about my sex life at all before yesterday?”

“I think about your sex life a reasonable amount,” Andy said. “Adrian has a spreadsheet. We’re very invested in your well-being.”

“You do not have a spreadsheet!”

“Let’s go with probably not, no…”

“All of you behave,” Jill said. “No, Andy doesn’t have a spreadsheet—” Andy mimed zipping lips shut. “And yes, Colby, you’re fine, it’s precious, just get your head back in the Napoleonic War for this next take. You can still stare at Jason, just do it as Will.”

“I’m so very sorry—”

“No apologizing,” Jason corrected, having got the laughter under control. The amusement lingered in eye-crinkles and those heavy dark brows and the curve of that mouth, but the tone was an order. Also dark and hot and smoky, if a voice could be smoky.

Jason’s could, Colby concluded, because it definitely was, and it was working.

He thought about molasses. He blushed. Intensely. “Yes, sorry—drat! I mean yes, Jason.”

“Good try,” Jason said, “you can work on it more later. I’ll help you with that.”

Colby blushed more.

“Bread loaf,” Jill said, “stop making Colby forget words, and go get back in the doorway. Everybody, take two.”

Bread loaf,” Jason said, expression midway between despair and resigned acceptance, and went, not without a parting, “Colby doesn’t ever forget words.”

Colby tried not to whimper. At least the desk hid the rest of the physical reaction.

“Okay!” Jill glanced around. “Are we ready? Great, we’re rolling!”

And they were.

Jason, back in character, came in and shut the door. Meaningfully.

The rain sped up, taking its cue and playing along. Hammering harder.

Colby saw Jason, and felt the ice of Jason’s disapproval prickle as it hit. He fought down the instinct to flinch and apologize—Jason was angry with him—but that wasn’t them, it wasn’t real. It was Stephen coming in after seeing the courier depart, knowing Will must have done something without telling him.

Will’s mind took in Stephen’s demeanor and the timing and put them together—Stephen had seen Lord Cary’s man leaving, then—and Colby set down his pen slowly and stood, hand on the desk for assistance physical and mental. “I would have told you.”

“When?” Jason crossed to the desk and crossed arms. Tall and craggy, dressed for going out to see about rations of salt beef and the welfare of his crew, he loomed. “Before I sailed? Or would you have put it in a letter? Would you have kept your secrets from me until I couldn’t tell you no?”

“You,” Colby said, incensed at the final words and sharp as Will Crawford could be, arrogant with the weight of his title and his own reckless grasping at love, “are not in a position to tell me yes or no. I make my own choices. As do you.”

“Your choices involve clandestine meetings and a note in your hand tucked into that man’s jacket—”

“That man works for the Home Office, and I am doing this for you.” Not loud, but precise and truthful and cruel as love. “I’ve said yes. To whatever they need. Whatever I can offer.”

“I won’t be here to protect you—”

“I may not be in need of your protection!” Cutting Jason off, but that was fine, that felt right, crackling with frustration. And that was good; it was so good, the way Jason’s jaw tightened and those emotions raced around the room, all of it right there and catching fire—

“You are!” Stephen—Jason—shouted. “You damned well are, Will, you are, whether you like it or not—you’re unwell and—”

“And what? I’m an invalid? I can’t fight for my country—for you—the same way any man would?” He let Will’s anger carry him right up to Jason, toe to toe. “Your men would die for you!”

“That’s different!”

“How?”

“You’re not—” Jason snapped his mouth shut, eyes jerking guiltily away.

“I’m not what?” Colby demanded. “Go on. Tell me. Tell me what I am not, Captain.” The lightning sizzled. Explosive.

“I never meant—”

“Tell me what you think of me. While you’re in my bed, while you’re staying here at my expense, when you came to my father’s house to try to curry favor, to make political connections for advancement in the ranks—I do know why you were there, you see—when you had me on my back this morning, did you think of me as less than a man?”

“I don’t know!” Jason roared back. “No, I don’t! And yes, I do, because you’re a damned genius with mathematics but you can’t shoot a pistol and you don’t care about consequences and you’ve never known what it’s like to not have servants cleaning up every mess and you can’t climb a damned flight of stairs without my hand under your arm—”

“I apologize for being such a burden to you!” Jason’s line had been one of the awkward ones. It sounded better in person, but Colby wasn’t entirely sure about it even now. Too long, he thought, in between fierce incandescent arguing. He could shorten it.

“I don’t care if you are!” Jason delivered it well, love and anger and commitment burning bright, but that line felt wrong too. Stephen had a decently sized chip on his shoulder regarding the aristocracy, and valued bluff physical health, but he’d fallen in love with Will knowing all those pieces. The fragility, the wealth, the society influence. Will wasn’t a burden.

Jason finished, “I love you, damn it all, Will—” and his voice cracked a fraction, and oh, goodness, Jason was talented, that heartbreak and fear and thunder all rolled up into the despair of knowing that none of Stephen’s strength or sailor’s skill could make this right…

Colby was supposed to bend a bit here, with the love. To relent. Still angry, but softening. He didn’t think so, though. Not with the previous line hanging in the afternoon. He said what came to mind. “You love the version of me that you can rescue. The version in need of your hand on a stairstep. The version who needs you.”

Jason went completely white, and Colby hoped that was Stephen’s reaction, not those shocked dark eyes taking words to heart. Improvisation, he urged silently. We can go there. You’ve got this. We have. Together.

“You think,” Jason breathed, “that I love you because you need me. Because I…need to be needed.”

“You do.” Colby promptly held out a hand to him, though. That mattered. Necessary.

Jason needed to know that Colby wanted to touch him. Anchors. With all the meaning they’d established, layers and layers, underneath. It’d also work in character, of course.

He went on, conjuring words on the spot, “And it’s a part of who you are. Your heart, rescuing the world. And I love you, Stephen, but you have to understand that I am my own person. I’ve fought for that. You know I have. My father. Physicians. My own body. I won’t be your burden and I won’t be your story of an enchanted princess in a child’s pantomime. I have a life, and I will choose what to do with it.”

Jason, having recovered somewhat—the gesture’d helped, then; good—reached out and took his hand: dwindling, forlorn, wounded and finding solace. “Have I done that to you? Made you feel that way? Not a person?”

“Not deliberately.” Colby came closer, leaned into Jason’s strength. Felt Jason’s arms go around him. “Not with intent. I believe that. But yes, you have.”

“I am,” Jason said after a moment, Stephen struggling with hurt and pride and his heart, “sorry for that.”

“And I’m sorry for not speaking to you sooner. I should have told you as soon as I’d made the decision to act. I am…” He hesitated. Looked up into Jason’s eyes, so deep and expressive. “Unused to anyone loving me so well.”

“As you deserve.” Jason bent that head, asked the question with only his gaze: can I kiss you? Colby nodded fractionally; Jason muttered, “I love you without end, Will, and I’ll stand silent while you sell yourself to the world of spies and ciphers if you ask me to, damn you,” and kissed him, soft as anguish and flower-petals and the stitching-together of souls.

Colby fell into the kiss. Into the promise, and the devotion. They’d fight for each other and love each other and fight to save each other. Nothing less, on both sides.

Jason’s hand tangled briefly in his hair, cupping his head. Jason tasted like peppermint because Jason had been eating a mint before the scene, and a little like strong tea because Jason had obligingly been drinking the cup the English crew had offered him. Colby decided that this might be an acceptable flavor of tea, and nibbled at Jason’s lower lip, lightly, before easing back.

Jason gazed at him, wide-eyed, silent.

Colby turned, still in the comfort of those arms. “How was that? Can someone say cut, please, or should I?”

“Yes,” Jill said, sounding a bit dazed. “That.”

“Holy shit,” said Andy, who was holding a script copy in lax fingers. “Colby…holy shit.”

“And Jason.” Jill had recovered. “Both of you. That was…”

“Magic,” Andy said. “You two’re magic.”

“Agreed.” That was Laura, who’d reappeared to wear the Director of Photography hat and chat with Brian about camera placement for upcoming scenes. “Just…marvelous. Really, truly, marvelous.”

“Colby,” Jason said. “That was…how was that?”

“You don’t know? That was brilliant. You’re brilliant.” He turned back to face Jason, discovered his hand lingering on that broad chest, mapping linen and muscles. He didn’t bother moving the hand; their eyes met. “That felt incredible.”

“It did,” Jason said. “It—it did. Working with you—that was—”

“I’ve had chemistry with people,” Colby told him. “That was more. That was us.”

“Magic,” Andy reiterated.

“You’re that good,” Colby said to Jason. “We are. Together.”

“Colby…” In that California-history voice, Hollywood backlots and rumbling engines and safe places, his name transformed into something rare and special. “I don’t know what to say. That felt so…”

“So good?” He dared to get even closer, pressed right up against Jason, soaking up and sharing warmth and that rush of accomplishment. “Yes. And you know it was in-character, what I said to you? I didn’t mean you you. I meant Stephen-you. I—I rather like you taking care of me, you understand.” This last part came out in a bit of a rush, pink-hued but exultant.

“Yeah.” Jason set a finger under Colby’s chin, tipped it up more. “Wasn’t sure at first—and, god, you can hit as fucking hard as anyone I’ve fought—but then you wanted to touch me. I got it.”

“Keeping up with me.”

“I’ll keep trying.”

“Better than anyone ever, so far. Speaking of what to say, though…would you mind awfully if I did a bit of editing? From right before we went off-script. It wasn’t sounding right to me.”

“It wasn’t? Did I—”

“No, no, not you. The line wasn’t working. Two lines. Perhaps three if I have to poke at mine.”

“Um…” Jason’s eyebrows drew together, thoughtful. “The part about you being a burden? Yeah, I thought something felt off too, but…what can you do about it?”

“Oh…I…only had an idea.” He tried glancing round at Jill—it was her secret as well; he did it for her, and for her friends, and he wanted to ask for approval before admitting this—but she was talking to Andy. “If it doesn’t work, feel free to ignore me. Can someone hand me a copy of—oh, Serenity, thank you, and have you got a—” She held out three pens—blue, black, red—along with the script copy; Colby thanked her again and took the blue one.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you.” Jason shuffled a boot. “It’s just…have you ever done anything like this before? Writing dialogue? I mean, I know you know good writing…like, romance novels and stuff, but…”

“I like words,” Colby said absently. Mostly cutting, trimming down, distilling…changing that implication…oh, there, that’d work better…

“I know you do. But this is…” Jason collided with a rocky shoal of emotion, and floundered. “Important, I guess? I mean it’s Jill’s movie, it’s—it’s this story, it’s so big and—shouldn’t you ask Ben?”

Colby paused. Pen not moving. That hurt more than Jason had meant it to; he knew Jason didn’t know. Old echoes punched swift and hard: of course you’re not good at anything important, of course someone else is better than you, of course no one wants you to try, those silly little imperfect efforts won’t ever be enough…

Ben Rogers, as one of Jill’s favorite screenwriters, knew about Jill’s mystery script doctor—not the identity, but that she had someone she trusted—and took no offense. Ben was fantastic at adaptations of prose into screenplay, overall structure, finding the heart of a story. Colby only did the minute tiny adjustments after everything, just enough to bring that heart into clearer focus.

He knew it wasn’t much. He did think, or he had thought, that he could be good at this, at least. But perhaps he wasn’t.

Or perhaps Jason didn’t believe he could be. Jason was kind, and would try to say so in precisely the way he’d just done: not outright or blatant rejection, but gently suggesting that this, like good sex or normal everyday human interaction, might be beyond Colby’s present ability to perform well.

He answered, around the point of dull aching impact, “Ben doesn’t mind edits or improvisation. I’ve worked on projects with him and Jillian before now, so I—I know how he’ll react to someone suggesting that. I’ll ask Jill if you’d like, though.”

“Um,” Jason said again. “I mean…I don’t know? Should you?”

“Should I…yes, probably. I’ll be right back.”

He left Jason standing by the desk in the center of the study. He saw Jason lift one big hand and drop it: giving up on the gesture, not moving otherwise.

He felt emotions catch at the corners of his eyes; he battled them back. Perfectly fine. Being absurd. Letting words scrape at scars, when he knew better; he knew he wasn’t good enough, of course he wasn’t, and so Jason thinking less of him shouldn’t bother him.

He looked down at his notes. Blue ink gleamed like blood on a script. If he held it out an open window, the rain would wash it all away over cobblestones in that carriage yard.

“Colby?” Jill had come closer without him noticing. Andy was on his other side. They exchanged glances; Andy said, “Hey, Colby, you know things about wine, you can help with this. We were trying to pick out something for my parents’ anniversary, and they like good wine but they like to, y’know, drink it, they’re not really collectors, but I still want it to be good, and Adrian and I are so not wine people and Jill’s no help, so can I ask you?”

“Yes, of course…what do they like?” A distraction, and he knew it, but he appreciated the effort. And years of growing up amid diplomatic receptions and dinner etiquette could be useful on occasion. “Any guidelines?”

“Um…red? With interesting, y’know, flavors? And decent but not so expensive that they’ll feel bad opening it? My dad likes to play around with meat and spices in the kitchen, if that helps.”

“It does, thank you. Certainly Italian, probably Sangiovese, so I’d say…oh…the Altesino Brunello di Montalcino Montosoli, the 2008 if we can find one, the 2011 if not? Black cherry, raspberry, black pepper, lovely long finish?”

“The what and the what?” Andy said. “Please write that down for me.”

“I swear you keep libraries in your head.” Jill had calmly taken the script out of his hand. “I don’t know how you do it.”

“It’s automatic,” Colby explained. “Some sort of inescapable unfortunate muscle memory. Sorry. Andy, I’m sure I can acquire a bottle of the ’08, if you’d like me to—”

You are not buying the anniversary gift Adrian and I are getting for my parents,” Andy said. “Just send me a link or tell me where to go.”

“Oh…yes, all right…”

“Andy,” Jill put in, “can you go and ask someone how set-up for the afternoon’s going? They were having trouble with the sound, with the rain and the weird acoustics in that room, and I haven’t had time to check in.”

“Sure.” Andy disappeared.

Jill looked at Colby, looked at the open script page, and looked back at Colby. No one was nearby; they’d ended up in a tactfully open space behind cameras, everybody else abruptly busy. “You know you don’t need to ask me if you want to fix anything.”

“I know you don’t mind. It’s only…” He glanced back. Jason had balanced bulk gingerly on the edge of the desk, studying them. “He…I…I don’t know.”

“Are you okay?”

“Oh yes. Excellent.” He gave her a smile; he wanted to smile for her. She was a friend, his best friend, if anyone was that; she shouldn’t need to fret over him. “It’s just Jason doesn’t know I do a bit of helping out, and he thought if I wanted to I should ask you, so I’m here, er, looking as if I’m asking you. Though you may as well share your thoughts about it. I’m not certain it’s decent.”

“It is.” Jill had barely looked, enough to skim. “I trust you. You normally trust yourself enough to do this. Why didn’t you tell him?”

“I…don’t know whether I should. I thought I shouldn’t because it’s your secret as well, and now it just seems…counterproductive, I suppose. He wouldn’t think it was worth making a fuss over, it’s not as if I do much, and then he’d feel terrible for not liking lines I’d written, and he’d try to be nice about it, and then that reaction wouldn’t be honest, nothing from then on would be, and I’d…rather not.”

Jill stared at him.

“Don’t say I’m wrong.”

“You’re wrong.”

“I’m not.”

“You pick the weirdest times to be stubborn,” Jill muttered. “You are wrong, okay? I just can’t figure out how to explain it to you. You’re too damn good at making what has to be the most bizarre reasoning possible actually sound like it makes sense.”

“Er…thank you?”

“I’m going to think about how to tell you you’re wrong. Go show this to Jason and tell him I said to do it and I trust you. I do, and I love you, okay?”

“I know. I know you do.” Back to trying not to cry. In some ways he’d liked having emotional bandages in place, nothing stirred up. This hurt: caring what Jason thought, scared and wanting and wanting someone to put arms around him and feeling as if he’d fall apart if they did so out of obligation, not meaning it… “I’ll just. Be going. Back to Will’s desk.”

“Colby…” Jill held out arms. “Want a hug? Only if you say it’s cool.”

He found himself nodding, and then he said, “Yes,” and Jill was hugging him, strong and full of empathy and good at not squeezing too tight. Her usual casual hoodie—pink today, matching the faded hair—felt cozy and familiar, and he held on for a moment longer than he meant to.

“Better?” She watched him; she had, after all, known him for a long time. “Not too much?”

“I do love you,” Colby told her, equilibrium not flawless but more so than before, given support. “Better. I’m all right.”

“You know you can talk to me,” Jill said. “And if you want permission to tell him, or however you want me to say it so it makes sense in your head, then yeah, absolutely, go ahead. I wouldn’t mind telling the world. I think you should get writing credit. But you know that, I’ve been saying that for years, except you don’t want to. But I mean it.”

“I know you do,” Colby said, because he did know, and he threw her one more smile, heading back over to his mark. His shirt—Will’s loose white shirt, at home and informal—billowed. The air, laced through by rain, was chilly.

He did like the rain. He always had. He eyed the windowpane instead of Jason; he wanted to go over and touch mysterious runes and hieroglyphs on glass.

“Colby?” Jason had got up, but didn’t reach out. “Is everything…are you…”

“We’re fine.” He offered notes, scribbled words on pages, new lines. “Jill says to try it.”

Jason took the pages, curling them into one broad hand.

Colby did not know how to react to this. The storm, possibly trying to help, intensified.

“Um,” Jason said. “Come over here?”

“Next to you?”

“Over here, I mean.”

Mystified, Colby trailed him to the window. Thick antique glass glimmered, a fantastic dim smudge of color and pale light and grey stone; through this lens of water and air, the world could be anything, undefined and shimmery as a not-yet-cast spell. “What am I looking at?”

“Um…nothing really? It’s just…” Jason tried to bore a hole through one of Stephen’s boot-tips with his own eyes. “You like rain, you said…”

Colby’s heart melted and pooled like the rivulets and rivers on the glass. “I do. Thank you.” He brushed fingers to the back of Jason’s hand, the two of them standing side by side before kaleidoscopic possible worlds. “I don’t know what to say.”

Jason gave him a sad sort of smile. “Yeah, about that. I’m sorry.”

“Whatever for?”

“Doubting you. I shouldn’t.” Earnest apology polished every word. Made them over into a shield, a sword, laid at Colby’s feet while his knight bent that head. “I trust you. And your words. I’m pretty sure you can do anything. I should just expect that, shouldn’t I? That you can do anything.”

“I can’t.” He touched Jason’s hand again. “Don’t believe that.”

Jason looked down at their hands. “How’s the weather?”

“The—oh. The weather’s favorable about hand-holding, I’d say.” He discovered a smile of his own. “And it’s becoming even better. I do like rain.”

Jason’s fingers laced themselves into his. “What’d Jill say?”

“She thinks I’m wrong about something. Not about the dialogue edits—she said to try them—but, er, something else. But I’m not wrong. Or…I don’t know. I haven’t got a road-map. Not even any quest-related directions. I’m trying to sort it out. We should probably get back to filming; they’re waiting for us.”

“She hugged you…” That was a question, though not a demand for an answer.

“I felt like it, for a moment.” He tightened his grip on the fingers in his, in turn. “It’s interesting, I think…I feel a bit better about that too. In general. Which has quite a lot to do with you. Will you look at that? The words. Tell me what you think.”

“That—thank you. For that.” Jason cleared his throat. “But that’s not me. It’s you. And…um, yeah. Okay. I’ll try to be quick. I know time’s an issue.”

“We can spare you a few seconds, I think? Though not much more. Andy might launch paper airplanes at us. He’s done it before.”

Jason promptly flipped script pages open, one-handed, not letting Colby go. Read.

Colby waited.

Jason said a line, or rather mouthed it, not out loud. Went back to reading, intent.

Colby tried not to fidget. Rain. Holding Jason’s hand. Water elementals. Distractions.

“Colby…” Jason looked up. “This is good.”

“Oh—I’m glad you think so, maybe we can try—”

“No, I mean really fucking good. You fixed it and it sounds good.”

“Then…er…really thank you?”

Someone in the background said something, indistinct. Jill answered, also indistinct, but with a hint of frazzle regarding time and schedules.

Colby winced at this. “We should—”

“Get back to it, yeah.” But Jason lingered, hand in his. “I think I’ve got it, but do you need to read it over? Also, you are a writer. On top of everything else. A chef, a lifeguard, a genius…”

“I’m far too many people, aren’t I?”

“No.” Jason rubbed a thumb over the back of Colby’s hand. “No. You’re you. And maybe—maybe you’re mine? If you still want to be.”

“I’m yours,” Colby said, and found that the words came with lightness. Skipping and splashing, like the rain. Perhaps not everything had to be repaired or discussed on the spot; perhaps he could save the complicated explanations about his writing and why he did not share it, and they could talk about it later, some time when they had more time, when Jason wasn’t trying hard to make him smile.

He liked Jason holding his hand. He liked Jason asking that question: are you mine?

He said, “I’d like to be very much yours again, later? After you’re done and I’m done, this afternoon, working with the Lord Cary scenes? Perhaps in your bed? You can, er, feed me by hand again. If you’d like. I, ah. Rather enjoyed that.”

“Hell yeah we can,” Jason agreed, much happier now, and headed off to his mark, practically bounding there in the wake of the words.

They did it again. They did it all again, crashing and colliding in crackling rhythm.

They worked together. They worked.

Colby said his own line, asking whether Stephen found him less than a man. Jason shouted back, “I don’t know!” and followed it up with both the no and the yes—Colby’d kept that part; it hurt just right—and finished with, “You can’t aim a pistol and you’ve never not had servants and you might be a scientific genius but you can’t climb a flight of stairs without my hand under your arm—”

Shorter, that version, and less cumbersome to shout; better, Colby thought with the small self-aware bit of his head that wasn’t busy being Will. “I apologize for being such a burden to you!”

“You’re not a burden!” Jason flung an arm out, slicing the air. “You never could be—but you frighten me sometimes, Will, and that’s the damned truth of it—that you could throw yourself into this war for me, when you’d be safe and happy with your mathematics and your sciences if not for me, and you could die because of me, I could lose you because of—because—” His voice broke.

Colby answered, “And I could lose you.” His fingers touched Will’s papers, on the desk. Their eyes met; the truth of that, the echo of every word Jason-as-Stephen had uttered—now flipped to the other side, and equally weighted there—hung in the air, needing nothing more.

Jason’s shoulders sagged. Resignation, waving a tattered flag. “I love you, damn it all, Will…”

“You love the version of me that you can rescue,” Colby said, and went on with the lines they’d already improvised from there: they’d been terrifyingly effective.

He delivered them with more kindness, though. Easing back together, mending rips and tears in a sail. Finding a tender tropical zephyr for guidance.

Jason did the same. And smiled at him more, after the call to cut: soft and bright as the sun, sweet and all-encompassing as the rain.

Colby smiled back, and let himself be happy.

 

Later that afternoon, verging on evening, the skies gloomed more darkly. Jason got ready to storm into the study, on cue. Brought along Stephen’s hurricane of emotion, black and scared and fuming because he was scared.

Lord Cary knew he was coming, of course. Would have expected it, given the message and the lack of Will in the townhouse where Stephen’d last made love to him. Did expect it: the expressionless blank-faced man at the outer door had stepped aside rather than intervene, and anyone who worked for this particular division had the skills to do the latter. So there’d been orders given.

They’d borrowed the drawing room of this old townhouse for the interior. Transformed and staged, it became the unremarkable hub of a certain division of Napoleonic War spycraft. It took in ciphers and messages and code words from mysterious couriers, and sent out advice, instructions, sealed packets that altered events in other countries. It held the footsteps of the agents who came and went, unobtrusive as London sparrows.

Will had been one of those agents. Was one. Still alive. Had to be. Jason let that demand fill up the room. He’d shake the universe if he had to.

They’d run through blocking, lighting, all of that, earlier. Colby, out of the loose billowing shirt and into more formal period clothing—ivory and blue today, which suited him, complimenting unruly dark hair and big blue eyes—was sitting behind the cameras and watching while Cherry performed touch-up work on his lips. He’d drop in for one more scene using this office, a meeting with Jim, after Jason and Jim finished.

Jim Whitwell was another big name on this production, and not even the biggest; that was yet to come. But he’d been around for decades, greying brown hair atop that round expressive face, solid and hardworking and a guarantee of quality, usually very British and very historical or otherwise epic. He’d worked with Colby on The Far Cry of Guns, because apparently every single British actor on the planet, given a certain age range and level of then or future fame, had turned up in some larger or smaller role. They all knew each other. Jason tried not to be envious about this.

That’d gotten easier when Colby had tucked himself under Jason’s arm during breaks and avoided crowds. Colby wanted Jason. Not other people.

Jim and Colby had already done a scene or two together: casual strolls through a park, down a street, at a gentleman’s club for a glass of port and unspoken words and an address offhandedly mentioned, where Will might stop by for some euphemistically-named scientific assistance. That’d been before Jason had arrived in England; Jim’d had to leave for a three-night prior stage commitment in London, and had returned to set a few hours ago. Serenity the PA, who’d been there, said Jim had upon first arrival run over to hug Colby, beaming and avuncular. Colby, not expecting this—just about everyone on this production knew not to, by now—had lost the day’s coffee-cup to the ground and then nearly fallen over while regaining footing, but held himself together and even tentatively patted Jim’s shoulder while being hugged. Jim had dropped those arms and scrutinized him, and afterward had been spotted talking intensely one on one with Jillian.

Colby had said this was fine. Jason, who’d noticed Colby smiling at Jim but staying politely out of range of boundary-defying gestures and shoulder-grips, did not think it was fine. On the other hand, he’d also observed Jim trying hard—reining in natural jolly exuberance, pulling back on purpose—and he knew being cranky about it was irrational.

He liked Jim. That was even worse.

Respect for the talent. Respect for the man, and for the work ethic. Jim had shaken his hand and asked about his father, which Jason hadn’t expected and had appreciated. Luca Mirelli’d been a stunt driver on one of Jim’s early films, and Jason hadn’t been sure he’d remembered. They ended up talking about classic cars and motorcycles for a while, waiting for the scene to get underway. Jason, who’d found himself missing his well-worn Kawasaki—a few years old now, and he’d left it with his dad while heading to England—jumped headlong into discussions of and comparisons with Jim’s classic Triumph Bonneville. He’d kind of missed talking cars and bikes, too.

He’d wondered idly how Colby felt about bikes. Those blue eyes’d never been on one; Colby’d said as much. But that didn’t mean never in the future. And Colby, who wasn’t scared around him—and who had interesting fantasies about power and hands and toys between those legs—might like the feeling of it.

Jim had said offhandedly, as Colby appeared on set, “Pretty sure he’d get on a bike, if you asked.” Jason, startled at this uncanny echo, had said, “Sorry, what?”

Jim had laughed, clapped him on the naval-coated shoulder, and headed to his desk for the scene. “He’s one of the good ones. So’re you. Be good to each other, you two.”

Jason, speechless, flailed. Colby, too far away to hear this, had put up a hand and waved. Jason’s heart glowed helplessly.

He’d gone over and found his own mark. At the door. Where he was now.

Being flustered even helped. Stephen wasn’t so much flustered as ferocious, but the love was the same, and strong.

He leaned on that now. That, and the earlier afternoon. The exhilaration of knowing it’d been good, and more than good. The fireworks they’d created. Colby’s smile—and Will’s smile. Getting into character. Stephen’s shattering sense of dread. The message that he’d crumpled into one hand, receiving it at Gibraltar.

The slate-clack came. Starting now. Time to go. Time to be good enough to keep up.

Being Stephen, he slammed through the doors. He took in the slender dark-skinned young man in plain secretary’s clothing beside the desk—Lord Cary trusted merit, not skin color, and Jill had wanted to ensure some other aspects of the diversity of Regency England—and ignored everything and everybody other than his anger and his target.

“Where’s Will?”

Jim, in an equally plain but devastatingly expensive black coat and also in character, set down his pen. Neat and precise. “I respect your service on behalf of England, Captain Lanyon, but if you ever speak to me again that way I shall have you forcibly removed from my presence and your entire crew arrested for committing acts of public indecency with a herd of goats.”

Jason—Stephen—gritted teeth. “My apologies. Sir. Do you know the whereabouts of Viscount Easterly, sir?”

“You do have a terribly low opinion of us, don’t you, Captain?” Jim got up, self-possessed as someone thoroughly used to changing the fate of nations at a pen-stroke. “You resent authority. And those who believe that birthright makes them your betters.”

“In my experience,” Jason said, level as an aimed rifle, “that belief hasn’t made it true. About—”

“And yet your…affection…for the heir to one of the oldest estates in England indicates that you’ve found something worthwhile among them.”

Jason, as Stephen, couldn’t answer for a moment: incandescent with rage, cold with fear. A threat? To him? To Will?

God, he loved this script. The dialogue. The intricacies. The fencing, back and forth. And Stephen’s love and passion at the heart of it all. “If you’re implying that—”

“Oh, do come here.” Jim beckoned him over to the window. Stiff with anger, Jason went. Jim waved a hand at the Bath street below; in the finished film, London would teem with life under grey cloudy skies. Finely dressed lords and ladies, rain-splashed chestnut-sellers and printers, market-women and fishmongers, men crying the news of war and fashion and business. The rumble of carriages and the clop of hooves. Cobblestones and politics and the work of an age.

Jim went on, “Do you suppose I especially love them, Captain? Each butcher, each housemaid, each mother, each small boy like that one there, chasing a hoop…would you believe that I care for every one of them as a father?”

“I believe you’ve not told me what happened to Will.”

“Ah, so young.” Jim sighed. “I do love my home, Captain Lanyon. And I grieve at every wound left in her by war. I will not apologize for Easterly’s condition. He chose to join us of his own volition. Like you, he knew the cost. But nevertheless, I am sorry.”

Jason—Stephen—couldn’t talk. That cost. Will’s fragile health. The past tense. The blood on the handkerchief he’d found after sailing. The knowledge that he’d only received the message a month after Will’s collapse, because it’d taken too long to reach him, and too long for the Steadfast to fly home, too much time lost…

All of that punched a cannonball through his chest. He fought for breath. “He’s not dead.”

“He is not.”

Jason staggered a step, put a hand out blindly, caught the stone support of the wall.

Jim, as mercilessly kind as fate could be, said, “He is gravely ill. His father ordered him removed from London, to Stonebrook.”

“That’s out in the country. The best physicians—”

“I am aware. But his father…saw an opportunity to reclaim his heir from the vices and shadows of the city.” Jim’s eyes found Jason’s, this meaning diamond-clear and as sharp. “And who’s to say that good fresh air and country quiet may not be medically advised, after all.”

“He can’t do that. He can’t simply—”

“You don’t understand. Will Crawford does not work for us, publicly. We do not work publicly. And Stonebrook has powerful political allies, as well as those who merely consider interference in another man’s family to be distasteful.” Jim let this sink in, and threw one final leaden weight after: “It would have been difficult for young William to argue the point, given that he remained unconscious and feverish. I believe he occasionally woke and asked for you.”

“You have to do something,” Jason said. “You must.”

“Must I?” The choice of word, the power, scrawled danger across the air.

Jason stayed silent. Stephen was furious, not an idiot.

Jim calmly returned to his desk and sat, picking up a paper. “I did you the courtesy of informing you. And I am at this moment reviewing sailing orders and timetables for the Steadfast.”

Jason took long loud strides back over to the desk. Hands clenched. Stephen’s physicality, Stephen’s futile howling anguish.

Alex Fontaine, the young man playing the secretary—half Jason’s age and only on his second acting job ever, but Jason knew Colby liked his dedication and subtlety—stirred behind the oaken barricade. The secretary hadn't had a name in the original script draft Jason'd seen; an updated version'd named him Alec, probably because someone, probably Colby, did indeed like Alex.

Without looking around, Jim raised a hand; Alex subsided. His stance relaxed from trained and loyal operative back to unremarkable clerk.

“Sir.” Heart and soul in the words. Stephen, who despised the rich and entitled, who shouted at the stupidity of certain command-level decisions, would beg if he had to. Would kneel if he had to. “He’s one of yours. Your—your agents.” And oh that hurt to say, it hurt Stephen to say: he and Will had fought over it. Jason and Colby had mock-fought over it only hours ago, recent and raw and bleeding. “You can’t simply abandon him.”

Jim regarded him with some exasperation over the top of the paper. “Easterly is one of mine. You are correct. He is brilliant, and he is a useful asset. He remains relatively innocent, as much as any of us can, doing what we do in war. And he is not my only agent, nor even at this moment the most important. I am in the business of preserving England, Captain Lanyon, not one sickly viscount you personally care for.”

“You—”

As it happens—” The words landed like a whip-crack. Jim knew how to wield them. Jason subsided, stunned. Both as Stephen and himself.

“As it happens,” Jim said again, “I am doing what I can. We are not without resources, Easterly has made himself both well-liked and well-regarded as far as the work he’s done, and his father was and is an ambitious man. We have strings to pull, Captain. I suggest you let me do so. Without blundering in, fists at the ready.”

Jason flushed: embarrassed, admonished, outmaneuvered. And yet he felt all of that only distantly: Lord Cary would after all help Will. “Sir.”

“I’ll accept that as your gratitude,” Jim observed dryly. “I see that you’re in need of repairs. A new mast, canvas for sails, and so on. I can give you a fortnight, Captain. I suggest you take advantage of the time. Perhaps a visit to the country.”

“Fresh air.”

“Clearing your head.”

“My head,” Jason said, “is extremely clear on this subject, sir. My men will appreciate the leave. Thank you.”

“Stonebrook’s presence will be required in Town for a discussion of certain parliamentary appointments and vacancies, beginning in two days. He will be too occupied to return to his son and the estate for, oh, twelve days, I should think. Such a pity he’ll be away from the house so long; it’s quite lovely. Elizabethan construction originally, I believe, though with extensive modifications. Architecturally significant.”

“Worth seeing,” Jason said. “On a visit. To the country.”

“Precisely. Do get out of my office, Captain Lanyon. We have a war to win.”

They let the moment linger, waited a beat, looked over.

“Cut!” Jill said, and the room burst out in applause. “Awesome!” Andy shouted, and Jill threw them a thumbs-up, beaming. “That was great, you two!”

Colby was applauding too, and called over, “Utterly splendid, I’ve got chills, you’re both marvelous!” as his eyes found Jason’s. Despite Will’s invalid make-up, he looked like he wanted to jump up and run over and throw himself into Jason’s arms; he didn’t, but it was that kind of look. Absolute delight and pride rocketed down Jason’s spine.

“We’ll do it again to make sure,” Jill said, “and to get a couple more close-up reaction shots, but that felt like it. If there’s anything different you want to bring to it, go ahead and experiment. It’s all yours.”

Jim grinned, right out of character and into cheerfulness. “Shall we go again? You want to threaten me a bit more? Slam hands on the desk and shout?”

“Totally,” Jason agreed. “More dramatic. Stephen would get physical if he had to.”

“I’ll be more condescending to you, too. Not because of who you are or who you love, but because you’ve interrupted me and I’m cross about it.”

“Works for me.”

They reset. The rain hummed, ever-present and contented.

Tomorrow they’d switch locations and do it all again, with different scenes and different dialogue. They’d light up the world, him and Colby and everyone else. This cast, this production, all the love. Jason let himself feel it. Let himself have it.

And tonight he’d have Colby in his bed, bright and curious and submissive and radiantly happy. They might have sex, or not have sex, or whatever Colby felt up to; Jason thought it’d ultimately been a good day, getting past a minor speed-bump or two, but he’d also be happy just to wrap arms around Colby and feel the way they fit together. That hadn’t stopped being amazing.

He didn’t know how long it would last, whether Colby wanted anything beyond this project and this recapturing of self. But Colby had said it was more than a one-time thing. Had said words about wanting Jason, trusting Jason.

Whatever happened, Jason could only be grateful. He’d been allowed to be here. He’d fallen head over heels in love.

He knew how that felt, now. He knew about the way his heart wanted to soar and to fight anyone who’d ever hurt Colby and to settle down in some quiet London flat near a historic museum if that could ever be something Colby wanted.

He stopped to think that last part again.

He would. He really would.

He liked being close to family—he loved his family, and he’d miss the hell out of them. Allie’s law-school adventures. His mother and grandmother bickering affectionately over updated versions of classic dishes for the restaurant. His father, long recovered from that accident and training other drivers, but that didn’t mean other practice-track collisions didn’t happen, and Jason had always wanted to be nearby, not just for that but for shared film-set stories and smudges of engine-grease and the rumble of powerful machines and the Mirelli family legacy, stunts and cars and bikes and explosions, making movie magic happen behind the scenes, decade after decade.

But he loved Colby Kent. And Colby liked—needed—the quiet, when possible, in between the demands of their profession. No crowds. Out-of-the-way quirky museums and leather-scented bookshops and testing recipes at home. Colby’s favorite city was London. Which was pretty damn far from Hollywood, as far as miles.

The vision of it kicked him in the gut anyway.

He also liked bookshops and fantasy and quests. He was getting to appreciate history and romance novels. He could ship his bike over. He could call his family every week and visit every time he or Colby had to come out to California. He could find a local gym and let Colby teach him to like swimming and wake up with those blue eyes beside him, Colby tucked into the circle of his body and kept warm.

His sister’d explode with glee. His family would understand. Wouldn’t they?

If Colby wanted more—more than the next few weeks—

He was speculating. Getting too far ahead. Impractical. Not grounded. Everything he’d learned the hard way not to do.

But he couldn’t not.

He wondered what Colby and Jillian had disagreed about. Not an argument, but something Jill thought he was wrong about, Colby’d said. That seemed unusual; they tended to think alike. And Colby himself had said he wasn’t sure, needed a road-map, space to sort something out.

But it couldn’t be that important; it couldn’t be about Jason himself, or about them together. Colby would tell him if so, right? They’d laid themselves bare enough for that. He trusted that.

So he wouldn’t ask. No pressure. Giving those blue eyes that space.

He waved at Colby. Colby waved back, and then picked up his coffee-cup from the arm of the chair. Plus something else. This turned out to be coffee creamer. Poured deliberately, slow and white, into the cup. Looking right at Jason.

Oh, Jason thought, so we’re having fun tonight, you know I’d never hurt you and you’re asking for me to see how many times I can make you scream my name; and he flexed muscles on purpose, noticeable beneath Stephen’s coat, making cloth ripple and bulge.

Colby just about dropped the coffee.

Jason grinned, and went back to his opening mark. He knew Colby’d be watching. All the anticipation danced like the rain.

Good weather, he thought. The best.

Chapter Text

Sunshine bathed tall reeds and rustling leaves. Painted gilt across rocks and river water and the blue of the pond. Limned the peace of the afternoon in light.

A few birds twittered. Jill seemed pleased about this, Jason noticed: nature doing its part for their production.

Behind them the historic estate rose like a monolith from manicured slopes: rosy stone and imposing walls. Production had settled in here at Treatham for the next week or so: soaking up the English past, the countryside, the weight of vast landowning wealth that these days turned itself toward the future in tourism and scholarly research and film location resources. They were all staying in an equally historic but renovated guest house in the village; the beds were decently sized, which Jason hadn’t quite expected. Historic England wasn’t made for someone his breadth.

They’d been tired from travel and needing to be up early; he hadn’t been sure whether Colby wanted to come over. Colby, for his part, had been hidden away with Jillian reviewing dailies; he’d knocked at Jason’s door after, though, shy but smiling, dressed in tidy blue pants and a long-sleeved violet shirt and one of Jill’s trademark hoodies, because, he’d said, she thought he looked cold.

Jason had kissed him and put arms around him. They’d slept curled under blankets together, not attempting anything more, falling asleep to the purring of the rain.

That rain had dwindled slowly overnight, and the sun was out this morning, but only just. At least they could get this scene. Which they needed.

Jason regarded the river as it flowed into the estate’s pond. It rippled blue back at him. It was water, and he was feeling better about it. Besides, he didn’t have to interact with it, and nobody had to mock-drown. They could stay on good terms.

Further up the river sliced through a valley, gaining speed and rocks; here, though, the pond lay calm and only ruffled by wind. Somewhere far away a war was happening, guns and ships and cannon-thunder; Jason hovered behind the cameras and watched this small piece of England remain untouched by it. The Earl of Stonebrook had weathered wars and politics and ruthless estate consolidation; today that aging lion resented having only one sickly and difficult son and heir. The upcoming ball would put all that wealth on extravagant display and simultaneously attempt to force Will into a predestined mold.

Jason, along with Jill and Andy and Laura, watched the grass. Colby hadn’t looked up, busy scribbling in a journal with a stub of pencil. Dressed casually, in old but expensive trousers and boots and soft shirt, he lay sprawled near the water’s edge and poked at mathematical equations and the residents of this particular pond, making notes about population increase. The wind tugged at his hair.

Jason loved him. Jason admired him: every inch of that pose, from long legs to thoughtful eyebrows, was being Will Crawford, so natural about it that this might not’ve been acting at all. Might’ve been just the way the world was: Colby a part of the afternoon, absorbed in study.

This would be almost the opening moment of the film: not quite the first, but the first with real dialogue. The first few shots would track Jason and Leo, in fancy-dress naval uniform, leaving London and a boarding-house to travel to this ball. They’d gotten ready and grumbled about it in quick glimpses: preparations, playing politics, needing to be where the connections were, attempting preferences and advancement and better treatment for the crew of the Steadfast. The camera’d filmed himself and Leo getting into a carriage, Leo clapping him on the shoulder, the camaraderie of soldiers heading into a different kind of firefight in a ballroom arena.

From there the camera’d swoop up and over and drift back down to the lush green fields of this estate. Will’s home. At once drowning in privilege and in pain, opulent and laced through with stories like unhealed wounds. Will had never wanted for anything, and had had the best tutors and early recognition of his scientific cleverness. But Elizabeth Crawford had died at his birth; Percival Crawford, who had loved his wife, could barely stand to look at his son. His heir. Who’d come out ill and frail and quixotically fascinated by books and numbers and the equation to describe the lift of a butterfly’s wing. Who, his father correctly suspected, would rather be kissed by a footman than a pretty girl.

Percival Crawford did not approve. And was determined that his son marry and father a son in turn, preferably as soon as possible, to keep the estate secure and the family reputation intact. He was equally determined to avoid a scandal, and would tolerate Will’s failures as an heir and a man if they could never speak of it and if Will married appropriately and efficiently. Doing his duty. One useful thing, in a waste of a life, a mere unworthy placeholder in the Stonebrook line.

All of that was in Colby’s posture too. Jason didn’t know how, but it was: in the set of shoulders, the scribbling of penciled lines in that graceful handwriting. Will stole moments when and as he could, and threw himself headlong into the rush of discovery, naturalist’s investigations, attempts to understand the world and to speak of wonder in the language of science and equations, describing phenomena for future generations. Building-blocks of joy, set up against racing time and ill-health and the burning coals in his father’s gaze.

They were already rolling; Jason eyed digital screens instead of Colby, briefly, wondering how it all looked together. Jill was looking at the hillside; a tall bewigged young man in footman’s garb came down toward the pond, glanced around and spotted Viscount Easterly’s boots, and grinned. “My lord?”

Ryan Miller, playing Thomas the footman here—and later, in scenes with Jason and Colby, when Will lay recuperating in bed—was in fact the younger brother of Jenna Miller, who’d been part of that teen melodrama of South Coast with Colby over a decade ago. Ryan had regarded Colby with some awe, arriving on set that morning. The awe hadn’t gone away after Colby had brought over coffee and asked whether Ryan was missing any particularly American food and if so would he like an attempt at making or acquiring it. Ryan had taken the coffee wordlessly, hero-worship intensifying.

Jason considered this an appropriate reaction. Everybody worshiping Colby. Sounded about right.

On cue, Colby popped up amid grass, a companionable green blade sticking to his hair. Dappled by sun, shirt loose and open, he might’ve been a forest-sprite or a youthful dryad, summoned by a word.

Jason wanted to kiss him. Not that that was new.

He crossed arms instead. Kept them from reaching out and scooping up that grass-scented bit of sunniness. Besides, Colby liked his arms.

“Thomas!” Colby welcomed the interruption with a layered smile: exuberant and fond, but dry as the unfolding of an invitation he couldn’t avoid. “I’ve been attempting to correlate our frog population with rainfall measurements for this Royal Society report. If I can come up with a mathematical equation to predict the impact, we might know more about the long-term trends, and that in turn might be valuable for the proposed new crop rotation methods, and I’m sorry, that’s terribly dull, isn’t it? But the mathematical models are fascinating.”

“It’s England,” Ryan observed, Thomas unable not to appreciate his master’s familiar enthusiasm, “there’ll always be more rain falling, m’lord. Your father sent me to—”

“To fetch me, to prepare myself for the ball ostensibly being given on my behalf. At which I am expected to select a suitable match from the horde of innocent young ladies all dressed in white and pretending heroically to never have given a single thought to the desirability of the extremely wealthy, extremely likely to die young and leave a well-off widow, only heir of the Earl of Stonebrook.” Colby’s tone went even drier, drought in place of rain. “I shall of course get to my feet—if you give me a moment—and come quietly.”

“I could say I hadn’t found you, but he’d only send the rest of the troops after you.” Their eyes met for a moment, brown and blue; Thomas knew, or at least had guessed, about Will Crawford’s preferences regarding partners, and had decided long ago to befriend a fragile and scholarly and lonely young man anyway, as much as respective positions allowed.

“I won’t ask you to lie to my father for me, despite how very badly I would like precisely that.” Colby waved a hand: thin and grandiose and amused. “Shall we face my paternal dragon, then—oh, I’ve lost my pencil, could you—” The coughing fit doubled him over, hand pressed to his chest; the other hand leaned on the ground for support.

Ryan, as Thomas, steadied him; a muscle in that jaw jumped. Thomas hated being of no use in this: a servant and a friend, he couldn’t provide the service that’d save Will’s life.

Jason sympathized. His arms yearned some more, too.

Ryan found the pencil. Asked whether Will was feeling worse, in need of a doctor, anything a faithful retainer might be able to do.

“No, no…I’m fine, I’m fine…you haven’t got a spare set of lungs I might borrow, or perhaps a sturdier constitution…wouldn’t you like to attend my father’s ball in my place and let me avoid it? A wardrobe change, a bit of practice waltzing, a lemon ice or a chocolate éclair…”

“I don’t think I can be you, m’lord,” Ryan sighed, and got an arm under Colby for support. “No one else could be. Tell me about frogs while we get you up to the house.”

Colby laughed, straightened up, got feet under himself. Found balance. Gripped Ryan’s shoulder in appreciation. Ryan took the journal and notes away from him along with the pencil. Carrying as much as possible, even if the weight was insignificant.

They went up the hill slowly, bathed in sun. The cameras followed.

They did it again, a time or two. Colby being slightly less ill, slightly more ironic. Shots lingering on Ryan’s reaction: letting the audience feel the emotion, getting them to care about Will Crawford, who thought about frog populations in mathematical terms and would never ask a servant and a friend to lie for him.

The clouds thundered in, as English clouds did. Jason considered the sky and Colby’s thin shirt. He himself, not having to be ready until the evening’s sex-in-the-library scene, still wore jeans and a blue-green plaid shirt and his familiar leather jacket. He wanted to gather Colby into his own layers.

One more run-through, for close-ups; but the first drops pattered like omens and sent warnings across the pond and glittered in Colby’s hair. Jill gave up—they’d got it, she said, anyway—and they packed up the crew and equipment and moved on to the great house’s entryway and hall.

Jason waited for Colby. Held out an arm, and was absurdly gratified when those blue eyes promptly tucked themselves into his shelter. “Want my jacket?”

“Don’t you need it?”

“Not as much as you. I’m, y’know, dense. Waterproof.”

“I don’t think that’s how raisin bread works.” Colby took the umbrella Steve the other PA pressed into his hand. His eyes sparkled: blue-striped as seas against rain-damp hair and pale skin made paler by Cherry’s make-up magic. “But I’m not objecting to you keeping that arm where it is. Share my umbrella?”

“Of course.” He wanted to lean down and claim that smiling mouth, in defiance of Will’s fragility and the weather; he wanted to lick and nibble and taste and make Colby melt with sensation, soft and surprised by how good his body could feel, learning it all at Jason’s touch. “You’re amazing, but you know that. Everyone’ll love you from the second you sit up and talk about frogs. Also, raisin bread? Is that what we’re going with?”

“I hope they will.” They fell into step, going up the hill. “And it doesn’t have to be raisin, though you may be doomed as regards food in general; I’m certain I’ve heard Jill call you a marshmallow at least once already. Would you prefer something Italian? Focaccia, perhaps? Or a bread with olives in? I’ve never tried an olive loaf. Do you like black or green? Unless you don’t like either. In which case I could think about walnuts.”

Jason stopped walking—nobody right next to them; good—and tugged Colby even closer. “Can I kiss you?”

Colby blinked at him, perplexed. “Because of the walnuts?”

“Because you’re fucking adorable, and I like olives, and I like you.”

“You can’t possibly find me talking about olives adorable—”

Jason raised a finger.

Colby sighed. “That’s a rule, is it? No disagreeing with you?”

“You can disagree with me. I want you to, if you have something to say. But not if it means insulting yourself.” He tapped the finger once over Colby’s lips. “Like the apologizing to me. Don’t tell me I don’t think you’re cute. I do. I should know.”

“Oh. Jason?”

“That still okay? As far as…” He considered phrasing. “Me being in charge? Not too much?” He wanted this one—he wanted Colby to believe in his compliments without deflecting them—but he didn’t want to ask too much. Ask slowly, he admonished himself. With care.

“It’s fine,” Colby said. “Though I may need some reminding. Er…you wouldn’t…”

“Punish you?” He glanced around—nope, nobody overhearing—and lowered his voice more. “No. Not with you, not for that. I know you’re working on it. I’ll remind you if you want, but I won’t do anything to you.”

Colby nodded, but didn’t say anything.

“Not what you were thinking?”

“Now it is. And thank you. I hadn’t thought about that part. In fact I was thinking…oh, dear, how do I say this out loud…you asked whether you could kiss me—you can, thank you for thinking to ask—and then you were very in charge and we talked about rules and reminders and I couldn’t not picture you coming up with ways to ensure I’d remember…touching me, leaving me on the edge and wanting, your hand over my mouth to hide the noise, us behind that very convenient tree in the rain…”

Jason’s whole body perked up with arousal. Instant desire. Delicious as rainwater and Colby’s lips.

“I like being touched by you,” Colby added helpfully. “Would you like to kiss me? I don’t mind if you do it in public, most of the crew’s already guessed and I like being yours, it’s only whether you have a preference about people knowing—”

Jason growled something inarticulate, and swooped.

Colby was laughing into the kiss, and managed, “So that’s a yes, then, you want this—” before Jason devoured the rest of his words, tasting lip color and water and Colby’s happiness. The umbrella wobbled as Colby got distracted; rain splashed them both. The path muddied itself under boots. None of that mattered.

“Behind that tree,” he suggested into Colby’s ear, under curling silky brown hair, “in the rain, because you like rain. You’d let me just push you up against that trunk and get my hands on you, and you’d spread those legs for me, because you want to. And I’d play with you and tease you and get you right on that edge, begging me for it, except I’d do this, too, keeping you quiet and filling you up…” Fingers in Colby’s mouth. Slipping inside. Colby shivered against him, quieted by the invasion, sucking and licking obediently. Those pretty bluebell-ocean eyes were wide and dark with want.

“That part was your idea, you know.” He had the other hand on Colby’s back, not venturing lower. Nothing that might be tricky, not without explicit permission. “You have some awesome fantasies, babe. Maybe later. But this is enough, right? The reminder. You’ll remember this.”

Colby attempted to say the yes, around muffling fingers. He was rock-hard under Will’s period-accurate trousers; they both were. Jason could feel it.

He said, “You’ll remember that I always think you’re adorable and I want to kiss you,” and took the hand away, and left one more kiss on those parted lips.

Colby kept gazing at him, speechless and quivering and surrendered. Jason took the umbrella out of his hand, and kissed his eyebrow. “You awake?”

“Oh my,” Colby said.

So fucking adorable.”

“I—oh, my.”

“Good, then.”

“I can’t possibly film like this.”

“Sure you can. Look at all those award nominations. You can do anything.”

“I’m either going to have a sort of spontaneous orgasm next time you touch me, or else shout at someone out of sheer frustration.”

“You? Nah. Too nice for that. Though you’re gonna go have an argument with your pretend father, so maybe it’ll help.”

“Oh god,” Colby said, stopping again. They’d have to get moving; the rain was picking up, and most of the crew had beaten them up the hill. “I do have to do that. I have to film with Sir Laurence Taylor. After what we’ve just done. Oh good heavens. Please distract me from my own pants and your hands.”

Jason bellowed with laughter.

“Hmm.” Colby took Jason’s hand, heading up toward the house. “I’m glad my situation’s entertaining for you, at least.”

“You’ll be wonderful. You always are.”

“He’s a legend. And I—”

“You’re you. You’re good at this. You’ll be great.”

“I hope so.”

“And I’ll be here.” He would be. He knew the upcoming scene would lie in direct contrast to this scene’s sunshine. So many emotions. That elderly mythical name, looming like an iceberg over everybody. They’d been unbelievably lucky—or else Colby Kent and Jillian Poe had the world’s best connections—to get Sir Laurence, even for the four days they’d have him. And he’d have to fight with Colby.

Not just a fight. Emotional evisceration. Jason’d read that scene. He wasn’t sure he’d’ve been able to do it. To stand there and face those words. He didn’t know how Colby could, except Colby Kent was good at this, award-winningly so. But even with that…

He thought it might hurt. He knew it might hurt. Those words, that lack of self-worth, the chasms under blue eyes. Plus the myth standing right there to do the eviscerating. Sir Laurence had a voice like a sonata with a knife beneath it: upper-class and precise and expertly wielded.

And there was something else. Whatever Colby hadn’t told him, lurking behind that disagreement with Jill. Everything seemed to be fine—they got along the same as ever, still obvious friends—and Jason hadn’t asked, figuring Colby’d tell him when ready, not pushing. Again: no demands. Colby’s pace, not Jason’s own. But whatever it was, it’d been something, when those blue eyes didn’t need more somethings to carry.

He squeezed Colby’s hand. Repeated, “I’m here.”

“Yes,” Colby said. “I’m glad you are.”

 

Colby, standing in the manor’s entryway, wanted to hold Jason’s hand again. Outside the rain leapt and jumped and rattled the earth. Inside the air tasted cool and dry as manuscript pages; paintings hung like jewels over stone.

Sir Laurence Taylor smiled at him, pausing on the way to the earl’s study. “Lovely weather we’re having for an argument, isn’t it?”

Colby nodded, mute. That voice. Decades of stage and screen. Stories and characters and lifetime achievement awards. The sort of silver-haired presence that commanded a room, merely walking over to a desk and taking a seat.

He’d been amazed that Sir Laurence had come on board. They’d thought they might as well ask, even if it’d be a no. Sir Laurence at this point did not travel much, and was selective about projects, and did not need to do anyone any favors. But Colby and Jill and Ben and Amanda their casting director, looking at the script, had all had him in mind. So they’d called and left a message, and tried to think about possible other names.

Sir Laurence had called in person the following day. He’d read the relevant pieces of the script. He’d read the novel years ago and liked it. He’d be delighted to join them.

Colby, who’d been sitting on Jill’s desk—they’d been listening to period-appropriate musical ideas for the ballroom dance scene—had nearly fallen off the solid oak. Sir Laurence had read their script. His words. Words he’d had something to do with. And wanted in.

They’d met one or two times since—table reads, some in-person test footage to ponder camera angles and body language—and Colby’d tried hard not to let the adulation take over his mouth. Polite. Unassuming. Fetching tea. Sir Laurence liked tea. Sir Laurence would certainly not like Colby’s mouth babbling about undying love for the subtleties in his portrayal of King Lear or the passion in every restrained taut soldier’s movement in The Heart of a Nation.

He looked over at Jason. Jason, big and solid in twenty-first-century jeans and leather jacket, winked at him. One of those broad hands was holding Colby’s umbrella.

Jason was wonderful. Everything he’d never known enough to imagine. Large and kind and fearless—no, not fearless. Jason worried: water and friends and loss and apprehension about doing the wrong thing. But ready to step in and help someone despite those fears. Always reliably present. Giving orders and teasing and understanding exactly what Colby needed, when he needed it.

“We’re good!” Jill called over from the study. “And three, two, one…action!”

Colby, Ryan at his back, stepped forward as if he’d just come through the manor’s door. Will knew where his father would be, and knew to obey the summons; he turned and went to the study, while the cameras followed. Old books and old wood and polished furniture spread out before him, mercilessly organized. The house itself was elated to have them here bringing life; the study at the moment belonged to a man who believed in total control.

He took steps across the expensive woven carpet. He found himself—as Will, as Colby—conscious of his own muddied boots, his lack of waistcoat or cravat, the pencil-dust on a finger. “You wanted to see me, sir.”

Sir Laurence steepled fingers. Percival Crawford, Earl of Stonewood, gazed at Colby without compassion and with formality: in dress, in manner, in rigid tone. “Your presence is a necessity.”

“Not until half past—”

“You will require at least this long to make yourself presentable.” Those light blue eyes flicked up and down Colby’s person, evaluating. “Insofar as that’s possible. You may begin preparations now.”

“I have a report to finish for the Royal Scientific—”

“Amphibians and mathematics. I am aware.” In that tone, everything Will’d ever taken joy in became dust. “You have an obligation to me. To Stonebrook. I expect you to honor that.”

“And if I have other obligations,” Colby said, hurting as Will, for Will, “to science, to my work, work that might benefit the estate and our tenant farmers—”

“I have allowed you this much indulgence for precisely that reason.” Sir Laurence’s eyes held his like shackles of sky-blue. “Because you are, on occasion, of service. Tonight you will serve the estate by selecting a suitable bride. I am not unreasonable; you may choose among the young ladies present. Any one of them will be acceptable.”

“Father,” Colby said, desperate, knowing it would never work. “Please. Not now, at least—another year, more time, I—”

“You will not have the time.” Delivered chillingly, flat and unemotional. “You are unlikely to ever hold the title. Your son must.”

“But I can’t—”

Sir Laurence raised a hand, silencing any protest. “You will not ever be what Stonebrook needs, William. As I’ve told you. As you, it seems, refuse to comprehend. You are, quite simply, not good enough.”

Colby had a line. He couldn’t think. Those words, in that voice. He started to speak, stopped, put a hand over his mouth. The tears hit fast and treacherous as stones in whitewater rapids. He fought them back, losing.

Sir Laurence flicked fingers through the air: dismissive, not even deliberately cruel, simply stating the facts as he saw them. “Go. Dress yourself appropriately. Do not speak of amphibians or the calculus to the Duchess of Castledown. Her daughter Anne would be an advantageous match.”

“Sir,” Colby said, shaking.

“I believe I’ve told you to go, William.”

Colby took a step back, and another. Fumbled for the door handle. Wrenched it open.

Ryan, as Thomas, stood on the other side; he melted out of footman’s poise and into concern. “Will—my lord—”

“Don’t,” Colby said, standing very still in the wide stone hallway with the eyes of oil portraits upon him, “don’t say anything, Thomas. Please. Only help me upstairs and help me find something decent to wear. And don’t ask me about duchesses and their daughters.”

“Wouldn’t know what to ask,” Ryan agreed, and put a hand under Colby’s arm. “I’m thinking you could use a warm bath and some brandy, first, sir. And something to eat. Keeping up your strength.”

“For the ball.” Colby shut his eyes; everything ached, his head down to his toes.

“For writing your scientific report,” Ryan said, “I’d say you’ve got some time, it’s early yet,” and steered him kindly toward the grand staircase.

They cut there. Colby sat down hard on the steps. Tried to breathe. Difficult with word-skewers in his gut.

Several bodies ran over, realized they’d all run over at once, and shuffled around to try to give him space. He looked up, found Jill and Jason and Andy and Ryan and even Leo, and couldn’t face anyone just that second; he scrubbed both hands over his face. “I’m all right.”

Jason sat down beside him, incongruously huge next to a delicate carved-wood stair-post, but equally concerned. “Of course you are. Hey, by the way, I started book two of that steampunk series while you were getting ready. I knew Tor was alive. Thanks for making me wait to find out.” One knee tipped Colby’s way, not quite touching.

“Oh…you did…well, of course he is. It’s a romance. They’ll have a happily ever after. But he is penniless and the ship’s stranded at an abandoned cloud station with a hole in her side and Ambrose thinks he’s dead, so there’s that…book two is really rather painful with the pining and the grief, beautifully done, of course, but I’m not certain it’s my favorite…can I ask you to touch me? Not a lot, I only want…for a moment…”

“Yeah.” Jason put an arm around him, drew him in. “You can always ask. And I’ll say yes. I’ve got you.”

Colby started to say something, sniffled instead, and ignored hair and makeup in favor of hiding in Jason’s muscles for a few damp seconds. His face liked being tucked into this security.

Jill said softly, “Colby, I hate to ask, but we’ve got to get this, and we need you for another take…”

Jason rubbed his back. Colby gulped, sat up, nodded. Cherry and her artist’s hands ran over to wield touch-up brushes at his face.

He got up. He went back to the front door. Sir Laurence had got up as well and was standing near the study door, no doubt concerned that his partner in the scene couldn’t handle it. Colby gave him a tiny reassuring wave, instantly panicked because that would’ve come across too frivolous, and regretted everything about his own existence. 

“You’re so good at this,” Ryan said, at his side. Those doe-brown eyes—lighter and less tempered by time than Jason’s—watched Colby with admiration. “Jen said you were great, but, like, you really are. All that emotion. You really get into it.”

“Yes,” Colby said shakily. “Well…” He could not give the real answer, which was that the words themselves had been too real; he opted for, “I’ve loved Will Crawford for a long time, you know. And it’s about putting yourself in those shoes. Or historic and rather stiff boots. I mean it’s about trying to understand someone else, the heart of this, what we do. And you’re quite good at it as well, being Will’s friend.”

“Learning from the best.” Ryan smirked at him from under the footman’s wig. “Totally studying you.”

“Oh…but I shouldn’t think I’d be anyone’s role model, really…watch Sir Laurence if you’re watching anyone. I am.”

“That too. But also you.”

Colby was saved from the search for a reply by Jill’s throat-clearing. The embarrassment remained.

They went again. And again. The words hurt just as much. They weren’t true, they were Will’s father’s, and even then they were wrong, Will was worthwhile—not useless—

Colby himself wasn’t useless—no, he was being Will, and that wasn’t right—

But he was hearing it over and over out loud. He was hearing it in memory. He was being told to stay out of the way and to stay quiet, and he heard his mother saying I don’t know, can’t we just send him off to school and not be bothered with it, and he heard Liam’s voice alongside the crack of a hand against skin: you can’t even do this for me, can’t handle a bit of fun in bed, and you don’t like the clubs you can get us into or the people I want to meet, and what the hell good are you, Colby fucking Kent, anyway…thought you’d be a better time, after the way we met, when you wanted it so bad I had to give it to you in the fucking men’s room toilets, didn’t I, and haven’t I done everything for you, moved in with you, bought you your stupid books and smiled on your red carpets, and what do I get back, nothing, not a leading role or a good shag or even the damn car I asked for, and you’re lucky I’m still here, nobody else would put up with this, you know that, don’t you…

Sir Laurence’s voice, dry as a whip-crack, said, “You are not good enough.”

Someone began crying. He was crying. Quietly, not making a fuss, but unstoppably. He couldn’t see.

Someone else put a hand on his shoulder. He jerked away. Narrowly missed colliding with the desk. Ryan’s voice, American and petrified, flailed, “Shit, Colby, sorry, I didn’t think—”

Jillian said something. And then Jason was there. Not touching him, but standing between Colby and the world. A shield. A castle gate. A whole army made of wide shoulders and a battered leather jacket and deep brown eyes. “Colby. Hey. You’re here. I’m here. It’s okay.”

 

Jason wanted to hold Colby so badly his bones creaked with it. Anguish skittered down his spine. Yearning laced barbed-wire into his muscles. All those muscles couldn’t do anything. Maybe even making things worse. Too much power. A threat.

The study spread sympathetic book-wings around them. Jill had shooed most people away. Ryan had backed up and shoved hands behind his back in penance. Sir Laurence had gotten up and come around the desk, but kept a distance. The storm rumbled and flung itself down old thick glass windows, framed by heavy burgundy drapes.

And Colby stood there and kept crying, obviously trying not to be loud or disruptive, hands brushing tears away, and Jason’s heart broke. “Colby. It’s okay, you’re okay, it’s over, we know it was rough, and you were great, okay? So great. I couldn’t’ve done it.”

“I’d be a mess too,” Ryan contributed bashfully.

“We all would. Hell, we are.” Jason tried to get a look at Colby’s expression, behind that bent head and Will’s windblown hair. “Just watching you. That was so good. You’re gonna rip everyone’s hearts out, in the theater.”

Colby caught breath, didn’t quite start crying again, but gulped down tears.

“I’m here if you want me to hold you,” Jason said. “If not that’s okay.”

Colby looked up. Even the sight of those eyes was a shot to the chest: red and blue, eyelashes leaving a mascara-smudge on the left side. “I…I don’t know. I’m sorry. Did you say…I’d rip people’s hearts out?”

“Like a villain in a classic monster movie,” Jason agreed. “Being good at what you do.”

“I’m…confused about what you think I’d do with the hearts. I’m not a very scary villain, am I…”

“You’d collect them or something. Keep us all in your power.” He tried for a smile. “Under your spell. ’Cause you’re magical.”

“I don’t really want to be evil,” Colby said, unsteady but regaining balance. That accent, that woven tapestry of fairytales and worlds old and new, found some more clarity in fantasy. “Possibly I’m doing it by accident…or under someone else’s compulsion…and you’d show up as a knight sent to fight the evil, of course…”

“And I’d end up kissing you, and we’d take out whatever was doing the compulsion thing to you, and save you and the whole village or whatever. Sounds good to me.”

“I’d want to do the film version,” Jill said from somewhere on Jason’s right, though he didn’t look around. “Keep me in mind.”

“Not without me,” Andy said. “I’m so here for every embarrassing picture of Colby dressed up as a wizard in wardrobe fittings. What wine would a wizard drink?”

“Some sort of mead with honey and spices, I’d imagine.” Colby even uncovered a faint smile from someplace. “Thank you. All of you.” He held out a hand, tentative; Jason took it as lightly as possible, and guarded it with all his heart.

“You’re done for now,” Jill said, “if you’re feeling up to craft services, or if you just want to go back to your trailer. We don’t need you for a couple hours, though you’re both going to have to change and get ready for your library sex.”

Jason tried to hold that hand even more like a treasure. He’d known that scene was happening later—they both knew—and he’d thought they might be okay, since Colby was doing better and the sex was fantastic and the trust was equally fantastic. But this had been a disemboweling.

“I don’t know,” Colby murmured, uncertain, glancing his way. Jason’s heart expanded with emotion. Did Colby want an anchor? Orders? A decision?

“Colby?”

That voice. That epic high-king-in-winter voice. Everybody including the books spun that way.

Sir Laurence gave them all a magisterial smile. “I didn’t want to interrupt, but I would quite like to say something, if you’d not mind humoring an old man.”

Old? Maybe. But Jason would’ve bet money that those pale eyes had taken in everything and come to conclusions, calm and shrewd and experienced.

He also had the wild impulse to say yes to a quest, to kiss Sir Laurence’s ring, to get on both knees and let that hand rest on his head. Hell, they all probably would.

“Please,” Colby got out, sounding fairly stunned. “I mean, yes, sir. I mean we’re not humoring you. Oh god. Sorry, sir.”

“Oh, do stop that. Are you feeling a bit better, then?”

This time Colby just nodded. Jason squeezed his fingers a fraction.

“Good. That was quite courageous of you, if you don’t mind me saying so. It was magnificent to watch; I hope you felt how good it was, in so many of those takes?”

“Yes, I think—it’s—that was—” Colby’s chin trembled; that voice trembled, castle portcullis not secured. He was trying to tie those defenses together with fraying ropes; Jason could see it. The ropes weren’t holding. “And you were—you’re incredible, sir—”

“Oh, darling boy.” Sir Laurence held out both hands, and waited for Colby to come to him. Those faded blue eyes twinkled with compassion. “And it’s Laurie, please. Certainly after that.”

Colby hesitated, eyes wet—Jason got ready to lunge that way, but respect and Andy shifting weight next to him argued otherwise—and put his own hands into that courtly grip.

“Listen, my dear.” This was delivered with a light squeeze, and the sort of kindly scolding an old magician might offer a self-doubting apprentice. “It’s quite all right to feel those emotions. It’s awfully intense, and there’s no shame in that; rather the opposite, I believe. And of course I don’t at all think any of those dreadful things our script forced me to say to you. I think you’re quite gifted, and an absolute joy to play opposite in a scene. You remind me a bit of the great Burton Douglas, you know, back in the early years.”

Colby’s eyes went saucer-sized. Hell, so did Jason’s. Colby was a genius; he’d swear that and believe it. But that was a pretty damn legendary name to drop. Especially coming from another legendary name. That reputation. Those reputations. Holy shit.

He couldn’t even imagine how Colby must be feeling. That post-scene crash of emotions, flayed to the bone, now with that kind of praise on top.

“Oh, yes, you do,” Laurie went on. “That passion, and that vulnerability…he told me once, back when I was young and starting out, that all his roles were about love. Swashbuckler, soldier, outlaw, king, or even the villain of the piece, he’d say, they all loved something, their country or their lady or power or themselves. So he looked for that, at the core.” One more small hand-squeeze, and some more twinkling. “I see quite a lot of that in you. That capacity for love.”

Colby actually appeared to be speechless. Jason half-expected the universe to split in two, because Colby Kent speechless had to be a sign of the apocalypse.

Laurie patted Colby’s hand. “Now, then. I think you should come back to my trailer and have a pot of tea, or in your case perhaps chocolate—I really can’t condone coffee, dear boy—and chat some more about the past and the future and what you’d like from me as far as reactions, when your Will storms off to London? There shall be custard creams. And I’d like to hear your thoughts on desire and identity in Shakespeare’s tragedies, given your approach to modern-dress adaptations.”

This voice did not take no for an answer. Colby threw Jason a helpless—but also sort of hopeful, as if wanting to believe the words—look.

Jason spread hands—you want me to intervene? I can’t! Should I? But HOLY SHIT LAURENCE TAYLOR—and Colby found a tiny smile for him. And went along. Out of the study. Off to Laurie’s trailer, one aged but firm hand propelling Colby’s arm.

Custard creams and hot chocolate absolutely awaited. Jason had no doubt about this. If they somehow didn’t, the universe would spontaneously provide them.

He couldn’t even be envious: Colby both deserved and needed all the praise and care. He could be, and was, wobbly with the collision of instincts: he wanted to be there to help, to protect his person the way Colby trusted him to. But if Colby was in good hands with anybody, those hands would belong to the elder-statesman embodiment of Hollywood history currently providing tea and Shakespeare discussion.

“Well,” Jill said, propping a hip on a centuries-old desk corner.

“Every day’s an adventure, working with you and Colby,” Andy said. “And Sir Laurence Taylor. Wow.”

“And custard creams,” Jason said. “What are custard creams, anyway?” If Colby liked them he could try to acquire some.

“English cookie thing,” Andy said. “With, y’know, custard.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m here to help.”

Ryan rejoined them. So did Leo, who because of last-minute reshuffling of schedules hadn’t bothered to get into wardrobe, though he and Katie had been practicing waltzes for the ball; he said, “Poor Colby. No coffee for you, dear boy…” in a passable and friendly version of Laurie’s upper-class charm. “Jason’ll just have to find some for after.”

“I was planning on it,” Jason said. He was. “You could be useful and find cinnamon coffee creamer.”

“Ah, a challenge. Accepted.” They collectively headed out, a knot of storytellers facing the weather, thinking about food and about their missing piece, who would be sipping hot chocolate very politely about now.

Lunch happened. Discussion of Leo’s devious mind—he had been the person responsible for the plate of bacon in Kate’s make-up chair, then—also happened. Leo observed that at the moment they were making use of his talents, and texted someone mysterious who promised to arrive with cinnamon-and-cream coffee within the next ten minutes. Kate asked, emerald accent turning the question lyrical and wry, “D’you just keep your minions on standby at all times, then?”

“Yes,” Leo retorted instantly. “And they all owe me favors. Not of the sexual kind. Well, other than the one about the giant purple vibrator. Colby made me promise to be nice to you all, though.”

“Ah,” Jill said. “I was wondering why someone, Leo, not naming names, Leo, left a giant poster of Danielle Brooks as the mermaid from Love and the Ocean hanging on my chair yesterday.”

“You actually like Love and the Ocean,” Leo said. “Nothing wrong with that, if you’re into sappy eighties romance and ladies with enormous hair and fish tails, not judging, no judgment at all over here. Colby said doughnuts would also work, but this was more fun.”

“I’m keeping the poster,” Jill told him. “And now you owe me doughnuts. Old-fashioned, either glazed or chocolate. At least a dozen.”

Jason finished a chicken skewer—the theme today was some sort of Mediterranean medley, kebabs and stuffed pita breads and gyros, and he was enjoying it—and tried not to wonder how Colby was doing. Fine, right? Safe and sound? Staying warm and taken care of?

Cinnamon coffee arrived right on time. Colby and Laurie did not.

Time ticked by, as time did. Half an hour. More.

He collected food for Colby. He listened for footsteps. He also listened with half an ear to Leo asking whether he’d ever seen the photo shoot with Colby shirtless and barefoot and covered in glitter, which had been promo for his early supporting role in Jacob’s Daydream, when he’d been one of the title character’s many fantasy boyfriends. Jason remembered the film, but not the photos, and said, “There’s glitter where?”

“Everywhere,” Leo said obligingly. “Plus his trousers are undone. Though you can’t really see anything, they’re only undone, not open. Still rather impressive. Maybe I should buy you two a tub of glitter.”

“No.”

“Are you certain? Because I could purchase—”

“Very, very no.”

“Purple sparkly sex toys?”

“Don’t make me practice John Kill’s best choke hold on you.”

“Would you?”

“Would you what?” Colby said from behind Jason.

Jason levitated out of his chair and thrust coffee that way. He’d had it warmed up a few minutes ago. “Here—coffee—cinnamon—”

“Oh, you’re lovely, thank you.” Colby took the cup. “Laurie’s very kind but I do feel as if I’ve been scolded about my caffeine habits. So I’m going to drown myself in it, naturally.” He looked tired, but better: still in Will Crawford’s loose shirt and clinging trousers and boots, but smiling. He’d washed off some of the make-up smudges, and a few raindrops were keeping his hair company. Despite the tiredness, his expression was bright, as if he’d picked his way through ravines and thorns to find optimism on the other side.

If Jason kissed him he’d taste of cinnamon and cream and darkly roasted beans. Jason’s mouth wanted that. Jason’s whole self wanted that.

Leo—who had not, Jason noticed, taken credit for the coffee—asked, “What’s he like? What’s his trailer like? Was there a magical lake of hot chocolate?”

“Not that I noticed, though I did observe a fairly extravagant amount of custard creams. And he was very complimentary about, er, me. He said he had a book that used to belong to Burton Douglas—a copy of Memoirs of a Legionnaire that they’d used for reference while filming, and it’ll even have notes in—and he’d give it to me.” Colby blushed a little, and inched closer to Jason. “I’d never ask for anything like that, but he’s awfully difficult to say no to, and in fact I couldn’t say no. Jason?”

“Yeah?” Anything, he thought. Ask me for something. Whatever you need.

“I’d quite like to…er…could I talk to you? In my trailer?” Colby was blushing more. “Oh, and Laurie says you’re very sweet and devoted, and we’re lovely together. I told him you were so very good at making me smile, and he said love is grand and we should enjoy it. And then he said I should go and find you and, er, very much enjoy it, right now. Which are not words I ever expected to hear under those circumstances. And I’m not really very good at this but it seemed like an order and also one that I’d quite like to follow, so, ah, I’m asking…you may or may not have figured out what I’m asking, I’m doing it terribly.”

Jason, navigating this, barely rescued kebabs from landing on Colby’s boots. Colby. Asking about sex. In a trailer. On set. Utterly precious about it.

“Oooh,” Leo said. “Yes. Definitely yes. I’m saying yes on Jason’s behalf. Go enjoy yourselves. Make all the tender heartfelt sappy love. I’ll live vicariously through you.”

“Please never say the words sappy love about us having sex ever again,” Jason said, and then, to Colby, “Absolutely yes. So much yes. Hell yes. I mean, um, if you’re sure you want to. And if you do then totally yes. Also I get to feed you.”

“Colby,” Jill said, having been quiet for most of this.

“Totally yes,” Colby echoed, and sent the smile her way before turning back to Jason. “I want to. Yes.”

 

They ran through raindrops to shelter. Colby held Jason’s hand; the other hand, he observed, had brought along food.

He thought about Jason feeding him. His face felt warm, but then again so did other parts, in a sunrise and springtime way, like roses that’d fallen in love.

Love, he thought. Laurie’d said the word. Had looked at him and known. And maybe Jason wasn’t thinking it, maybe that was presuming, but Jason had been there for him. Jason wanted to be with him. Jason had seen Colby break apart and fall to pieces mid-scene, and hadn’t left, instead standing at his side and patiently catching and talking to some of those shards.

Colby, sipping decadent molten chocolate and nibbling biscuits, had ended up smiling, a bit stunned. His life now included Shakespeare conversations with Sir Laurence Taylor and wondrous sex and equally wondrous kindness in the person of Jason. And that was real, and he was allowed to have it, and he was happy.

The happiness clamored like the rain. Enamored and electric, it danced along his bones and sped up his pulse and made Will’s tight trousers even tighter.

He ran up trailer steps and flung open the door and pulled Jason inside. Jason came readily and said, “Can I kiss you—” and Colby said “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, please,” and tried to put arms around Jason’s neck while holding coffee and being kissed.

Jason began laughing, and moved both coffee and Mediterranean food to the small table, and tugged Colby down onto the sofa. “So you’re in a good mood.”

“If that’s the right phrase for how I’m feeling, then yes. Have I told you how much I like your shoulders? I do.”

“I like that you like them.” They’d ended up entangled, Colby’s legs across Jason’s lap, Jason’s arm around him. Jason’s eyes glinted in appreciative brown, but those large hands remained careful: only playing with Colby’s hair, resting over the small of his back, nothing more. “I have to ask, though. You had a—a kind of rough day already. And now you’re saying you want this. I trust you, it’s just, um…how’s the weather? Like…good, not great, maybe better in, um, some places than others?”

“Oh! Thank you for thinking of that. I think we’re fine as regards the weather. I’ll tell you if not, but right now it’s very promising on all fronts.” He meant it. He wanted to give Jason everything; he wanted to feel everything.

He wanted to tell Jason everything—his love, his writing, his silly daydreams about a future and waking up in those muscular arms. He knew it’d only been a few short weeks of them knowing each other; he knew about chemistry.

But he did have those dreams. Because of Jason. And he wanted this.

He hadn’t quite figured out how to tell Jason everything. He would—that was no longer in question, decided someplace between a question about the weather and a kiss—but he’d have to think about how to phrase it all. He needed Jason to know why he’d kept the writing a secret; he needed Jason to not feel any sort of obligation about the love and returning it. There’d be a right time, a right place.

Cuddled under Jason’s leather-clad arm, he inquired, “Did you say you wanted to feed me?”

“Hmm,” Jason said. “I do. You want that first, or you want me to get you off?”

“Can’t we do both? And also you?”

“Yep. You need to change anyway, right? Get naked for me.”

Colby did, hastily. The chill of the air sent prickles along his skin: anticipatory, crisp, alive.

Jason peeled off the jacket and kicked off shoes but stayed mostly dressed. The jeans and plaid shirt hugged his body, emphasizing strength. Colby had the oddest impulse to go and press himself, naked, all along that sculpted form.

“You look cold. Come here.” Jason sat back down.

Colby hesitated. “Should I—if we’re—do you want me on my knees, or—”

“No, not now. Right here.” Jason reached for him—not too quickly, but firmly, with assertion—and Colby ended up in Jason’s lap, being proprietarily held in place. He wriggled a bit just to feel the textures and the contrast: his bare skin and long legs against denim and cozy plaid and muscle. Jason’s arousal was evident; he could feel that as well.

Jason’s next breath came out as a laugh, and one hand settled Colby’s head against a solid shoulder. “You like this? I’m gonna keep you right here, if you do.”

“Mmm…yes. You don’t want me to move? But what about the getting you off part? If—”

“I’d say no talking, but it’d never work.” Jason kissed the top of his head: entertained and affectionate, not remonstrating. “I want you to stay put and let me take care of you. Us. I’ll take care of us. Just trust me. Okay?”

“Yes, please.” In truth that sounded perfect; he already felt somewhat fuzzy, as if the command in that touch had gone straight to his head and turned it into intoxicated starlight. He wanted to stay where Jason wanted him, to let Jason take care of him and them.

His own cock was hard, he noticed. His body felt both hyper-aware of every sensation and strangely drowsy, relaxing into a sea of pleasure.

Jason moved, picked up something, held it to Colby’s mouth. “I do want you to eat.”

Colby did. A tiny—and nicely seasoned, noted some still-awake piece of his head, before that became starlight too—bite of chicken. And Jason’s fingers, broad and calloused.

He stayed put, leaning his head on Jason’s shoulder. He obediently nibbled at whatever Jason wanted to feed him. Falafel. Pita bread. Grape leaves stuffed with rice. More chicken. Sips of coffee, cinnamon sugar flooding over his tongue.

Jason started talking to him, after the first few bites. Telling him he was being good, exactly what Jason wanted, so sweet, and so strong, too, doing this, wanting this. Colby might’ve argued—wasn’t Jason doing all the work, while he himself lounged here floating among the light of the universe?—but couldn’t, because Jason kept feeding him.

He let his eyes close. He breathed in Jason’s woodsy heat and the drift of coffee and the scents of rain and food. His body wanted Jason, in a kind of far-off refracted way: arousal present but diffuse, washing over him without an end point or a clear focus.

Jason murmured, “You said it was okay, so I’m gonna touch you more, but stop me if anything doesn’t feel good, baby? That one’s an order.” Colby mumbled something indistinct that definitely contained a yes; Jason got it, and did that exhale-laugh again, and ran a hand along his hip, his thigh.

And then up to his chest. A nipple. A brighter flash of sensation, a shooting star, a flare. He moaned helplessly and shifted in Jason’s lap. His cock, between his legs, pushed upward and pulsed and nudged against his stomach.

Jason said, low and pleased and happy with him, “So good for me, aren’t you? And so gorgeous…god, you do like this, don’t you? You want me to touch you and take care of you and tell you what I want, and you just go right there in your head, all soft and sweet and wanting me…how could nobody else ever see that, ever do that, with you, so fucking wrong, all of them…you deserve somebody taking care of you, baby, you know that? Someone making you feel nice.”

“You,” Colby said hazily. “Not someone. You.”

Jason laughed out loud, kissed him, and adjusted positions slightly. A hand touched Colby’s straining cock; fingers closed around Colby’s shaft, and he gasped.

Jason paused. “Still good?”

“Yes…oh, god, yes…good sound…” It had been. A slight surprise, but exactly everything that hot stiff piece of him had been wanting; he’d not known how badly, but suddenly the tension coiled and grew, centered in that part of himself in Jason’s grip, between his thighs. “I…I want…”

“You want what, baby? Talk to me.” Jason’s hand started moving: rubbing, stroking, encircling his length and gliding up and down.

Colby whimpered, dissolving into pure feeling. His head felt too heavy and too light, resting on Jason’s shoulder, threatening to fall forward. His body remembered how Jason felt inside him; all at once he wanted that with a deep yearning want, needing that girth and that hardness plunging into him, filling him, in the space where he was empty right now.

He wriggled again, shifting hips in Jason’s lap. He said, “You,” which was not the entire thought he’d meant to express, not that it was any sort of coherent. “You…please…like the stars, like—like rain, but inside me, the way it all opens up and I feel so good and everything lets go and turns into paintings, watercolor, sort of…blurry, but in a good way, like rainbows…I want you inside me.”

“Art, not food, this time?”

“Hmm?”

“Never mind.” Jason rubbed a thumb over the head of Colby’s cock; wetness followed, drawn out and ready. Colby made a sound he’d be mildly embarrassed about if he could think, high and whining and full of need, and Jason did it again. “You want me to fuck you, baby? Like this, in your trailer, you in my lap?”

“Please,” Colby begged. “Please.”

“That was kinda the plan.” Jason’s hand delved further back. Finding other places, an opening, an invitation. “Didn’t think you’d get this far under, though…”

“You were feeding me. I like that.”

“So it’s still about the food.” Jason rubbed a fingertip over the entrance to Colby’s body, not pressing in. “Got it. Ways to get you desperate. Pita bread and cinnamon coffee. Um…babe…you got supplies in here? I know you want me to use condoms and I’m not gonna fuck you without lube.”

“Ah…I…oh, I do! Andy said…he’d left things for us…”

“I think I love your friends. Where’d he put them?”

Colby in fact didn’t know the answer to this, and couldn’t focus enough to come up with one. Jason petted his hair, and his cock, for a minute, soothing while trying to look around. “Oh. On the counter. Next to your coffee-maker. Makes sense.”

“It does?”

“As a present for you? Yeah. I’m gonna get up for a sec. I’ll be right back. You stay here and…keep touching that. Like I was.”

Colby, lying back on his sofa while Jason dove for the trailer’s tiny kitchen, watched all those muscles in action. Stroked his cock, playing with himself, because Jason’d told him to.

He thought, vaguely: I have Jason. I have friends. That Jason likes. Who want us to be happy.

That was a nice thought, and maybe significant, though he’d have to revisit it when not made of watercolor and stardust. He moved his hand a bit faster over himself, liking the feeling.

Jason, returning, muttered something awed and profane. “If you could see the way you look …”

“Like something you want?” Colby asked hopefully.

“You have no idea. Seriously. Jesus. I want to just—”

“Then why don’t you?”

Jason swore out loud again, shoved jeans and clinging grey boxer-briefs down, took himself in a tight grip as his length jutted out. The head was flushed and dark and fat against his tanned hand. “You want that? You want me to—not be rough with you, I won’t, I would never—but you want me to just take you, how I want—”

“I think…I might want that.” Legs falling wider, he gazed up at Jason. He wanted to lick that cock, that tip, as Jason stood over him. “I know you won’t hurt me. I want—I want to be yours. So yes. However you want me.”

Jason’s next breath landed on a groan.

“I want you,” Colby informed him, just to be clear.

Colby,” Jason said, and pounced. The muscles became a whirlwind of action. Those hands were swift and decisive. Jason remained mostly dressed, just enough clothing shoved down and out of the way, back on the sofa and rearranging Colby in his lap. They were face to face; Jason’s fingers, slippery, slid between the curves of Colby’s backside. The fingers pushed in, and thrust, and left slickness and stretched space. Colby whimpered Jason’s name, and put arms around Jason’s neck again, and clung.

Jason yanked the fingers out, breathed, “Ready?’ and at Colby’s gasped affirmative lined them up and guided himself in.

They both moaned, in unison. The rain hammered on the trailer walls, a mounting wild rhythm.

Jason felt perfect. Everything felt perfect. Exactly what Colby’d been needing, craving, missing, every time he’d ever been lonely. He moved as Jason pushed up, and they fit together, they rocked together, and Jason sank into him, so big and hot and hard, pounding into all the right starlit places.

He felt his hair sticking to his face, damp. He wanted to kiss Jason’s throat, so he did. Jason made a very encouraging noise and those hips sped up, colliding with his more forcefully. Jason’s hands, on Colby’s waist, tightened.

Colby discovered he’d slid one hand to the buttons of Jason’s shirt. He opened them. He wanted to touch that chest, so he did.

Jason groaned. “Babe—Colby—you know you—you don’t have to—”

“I want to,” Colby said dreamily, and flatted fingers over Jason’s pecs, over the heartbeat beneath. “You feel so good…in me, holding onto me, filling me with you…more, please, if you want…let me feel you come, I want to be good for you, I want to be so good and make you feel good, please, Jason…”

“God—” Jason tensed everyplace. Muscles shuddering. And then the motion became even faster, fiercer, frantic: slamming up into Colby’s body, where everything felt so dark and silken and radiant, where he welcomed each plunge and each conquering. “Colby—I—oh Christ I’m—”

And he was, stiffening and arching up and coming, buried inside Colby, hands on Colby’s waist yanking him down.

Colby gazed at Jason’s face, swept up in bliss; at his own hand over Jason’s skin, touching. The wave of ecstasy rolled through him; he felt his body clench around the cock deep inside. Jason groaned again and scraped out, an order and a plea, “Want you to come for me…to see you feeling good too…taking care of you, baby, always, need you to feel good…” and got a hand on Colby’s cock, not really stroking, only taking charge of him with that commanding dominant grip.

The wave crested, and broke. Colby fell into white-hot light, and could not resurface for a moment; he felt his body spilling itself in release over Jason’s hand, over both their bodies, and it seemed to go on and on forever, timeless and spun out of his soul.

He lost a bit of time, higher than stars and swimming in their glow. He might’ve sobbed a little as the waves kept coming, longer than he’d known he could feel this; Jason held him close and talked to him, though the words didn’t register, only the low rumble of the sound. Colby trembled, naked and laid bare but unafraid, only overcome by infinite iridescence.

Jason handled condom-disposal and clean-up, after a sprint into Colby’s trailer’s snug box-shaped bathroom. Colby, in a display of clinginess he probably ought to apologize for, actually whimpered and tried to hold Jason in place and then fastened himself to Jason everywhere upon the return. Jason did not seem to mind, only held him, rubbed his back, kissed him. Told him he was okay, he was better than okay, he was so good, so perfect, and Jason had him, would take care of him, always and always…

He might’ve fallen asleep, or at least drifted, then. Held fast and secure, knowing that even if he ended up a rambling delirious mess, Jason wanted to keep those arms around him.

He woke with the sense that it’d been some time. He blinked, resurfacing. He was still naked, but wrapped up in Jason’s leather jacket and also all of Jason, who’d stretched out across the sofa—his feet didn’t fit, despite the way he’d half-sat up against an arm-rest—and gathered Colby against himself. Colby’s body thrummed, pleasantly sated.

“Hey.” Jason rubbed his arm under the jacket. “You back with me?”

“My toes feel like coffee. Warm and toasty and as if they know what spiciness means.” He wiggled them. “Was I asleep?”

“Ah…kinda.” Jason shrugged the shoulder that wasn’t Colby’s pillow. “Sort of. I think you’d’ve come back up if I’d pushed, you did answer when I said your name, but you were pretty out of it. I don’t mind holding you. How’re you feeling?”

“Mmm.” He stuck his nose into Jason’s neck for a second, inhaling. “Twinkly. Starlit. You know what I’d love, at the moment? Some sort of cream cheese tart. I like cheese. And dessert. Would you like tarts?”

Jason raised eyebrows. “Can I make a joke about you being my tart?”

“Only for you. Actually I’m serious about that. I’ve never…I didn’t know I could want someone like this. Like explosions and firecrackers and all that, but also like coming home. Like baked goods. I haven't got time to bake anything, have I…”

Jason craned his neck at an improbable angle. “Not if that clock is right. Hold still.”

“Why—”

Jason made a one-armed lunge for the abandoned food. Came back with sticky honeyed pastry. Slipped the bite into Colby’s mouth. “Not cream cheese, but at least dessert?”

Colby swallowed baklava, licked lips, licked Jason’s fingers for good measure. “You do know exactly what I need, don’t you?”

“I’m trying,” Jason said. “I want to.”

“You—”

A thump ricocheted off the door. Andy’s voice shouted, “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourselves and my gifts to you, but get some clothes on and get over to hair and makeup in the next two minutes!”

Colby looked at Jason. Jason’s lips twitched, and Colby couldn’t not giggle, and Jason shouted back, “Thanks for the shopping!” and then they were both laughing, holding onto each other while the rain bounced off trailer walls and steps, listening to Andy yell back, “It’s going on the spreadsheet, and I’m leaving now!” and then run away.

“I never want to know about the spreadsheet,” Jason said.

“I rather do. I want input.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised.” Jason put out a finger, touched Colby’s cheek. “You look good like this.”

“Naked and wearing your jacket?”

“Naked, wearing my jacket, laughing,” Jason agreed. “Two minutes. This scene.”

“I can do it.”

“You—”

“I know you won’t hurt me,” Colby said. “As we’ve just proven. It’s you and me and Stephen and Will. We can do it.”

“Yeah,” Jason said, meeting his eyes. “I think you’re right. We can.”

 

They could. And they did.

Jason had been wavering between anticipation—passionate uninhibited sex with Colby in a library! knocking books into dramatic heaps! breeches pulled down and hands pinning Will’s wrists against shelves!—and unease—passionate uninhibited sex with Colby, in a library, hands pinning wrists, books flying—ever since realizing what this scene would require. At the moment he felt pretty good about it. Not a hundred percent confident, but when Colby glanced his way and smiled, the confidence increased.

They’d do the actual balcony meeting during the ball, the one that’d gotten him this role, the following evening. Jillian was praying to the weather gods for clear or at least only mildly damp skies. Colby had offered to ask the English autumn nicely. Jason figured this would work. The clouds would straighten right up and fall into line.

Tonight, in a theoretically candlelit private library—the lighting had to be enhanced, of course, and Laura and the crew had worked their usual sorcery—Will and Stephen would tumble into each other for the first time. Tempestuous. Sparking. A beginning and a collision of hearts.

He looked at Colby again. Colby, in full ballroom attire—dark green and silver waistcoat fitted neatly to the shape of him, legs longer than ever in skin-tight black—belonged here in this room. Books and history. Eyes gazing entranced at an eighteenth-century natural history on the middle shelf, as if hoping for permission to take it down and read it.

Colby had asked for the use of this private library, Jason knew. The Treatham estate had played host to numerous historic and fantasy productions over the years, but Colby’d wanted pieces of the house not generally seen and displayed.

He’d been right. The main library, the ballroom, the other rooms—

They were immense and grand and noteworthy, and perfect for shooting. But this room, where Will would grab Stephen’s hand and bring them both, away from the demands of the ball and expectations and limits—

This felt like someone’s home. Like Will, or the family who’d lived here, had collected books and knowledge and centuries of stories, tucked away here in the more intimate wing. Polished wood and jewel-toned furnishings and book covers glowed at the presence of new people, reds and blues and tan hues mirrored in thick muffling carpet and intricate designs. Will’s journals and notes for this specific production, handwritten in Colby’s unmistakable flowing script, lay across the desk and belonged there too.

Jason wondered, looking at Colby looking at books, just what Colby’d requested or promised. Colby Kent was a name with a lot of influence, not only his own. His parents. National-treasure literary prestige. International political connections. People would want to keep Colby happy.

He did believe that Colby’d never deliberately use it, not like that. Colby would call someone and ask for a favor, and that someone would say yes, and it might even be because those blue eyes and that niceness were just irresistible. That happened; Jason himself was proof of that. But…

The name mattered. He wasn’t naïve enough to think it didn’t, and he didn’t think Colby was, either.

Jason knew about fame, for a certain level of fame. He had money, for a certain level of high-octane popcorn-fare money. His family had been in the industry for a long time, and had been well paid for it.

Colby, he understood, came from completely different levels of all those things. And they didn’t have that in common. They never would.

But his heart did an action-hero jump-and-punch-the-air move anyway, when Colby turned and smiled at him.

“So.” Those eyes were brighter blue than the books behind him. Jason pictured them the way they’d looked earlier: huge and dark and swept away in submissive pleasure. Because he’d done that. He’d given Colby that.

He cleared his throat. “So…you ready for this?” In full naval uniform, he was unaccountably hot. Gold braid prickled at his throat and sleeves.

“Very,” Colby agreed. “Seduce me, Captain.”

“Other way around, isn’t it?”

“Mutual seduction, I’d say.” Colby tucked a strand of Will’s hair back into place. “Will wants to be ravished. Actively so. And Stephen likes a challenge, and a chance to show a spoiled arrogant viscount just what ravishing can mean.”

“I don’t think you’re that spoiled,” Jason said. “I mean, not after the first minute of talking to you. Maybe a little arrogant, but that’s Will.”

“Not me?”

“You? As if.” He held out a hand; Colby set his into it. Jason kissed those fingers: courtly, old-fashioned. Colby laughed; Jason told him, “I do like ravishing you, though,” and Colby laughed more.

Jill came over. “Whenever you’re ready. Colby, if you say the word, I’ll call Everett over, he’s in wardrobe already and you know he’s a good double for you physically. Tell me if you want to tap out.”

“I did say you didn’t need to call him,” Colby protested. “Besides, he’s got enough to do with the ballroom dance coordinating and training the extras. And I’m comfortable with Jason.”

Jason knew Everett Sanders from the aforementioned dance training; Ev had come on to teach them all how to do the steps they’d need. Stephen was a decent enough dancer, being a gentleman’s son and knowing he’d need the entrance into polite society, but tended toward impatience and galloping steps; Jason had managed okay—years of learning to move and control and aim his body helped—but there wasn’t much he could do about the height and breadth versus restrained form and gliding figures. Fortunately he didn’t have to do much of that; he’d spend part of the ball attempting to talk to various lords and politicians, and then he’d duck out for fresh air, literal and metaphorical, and find Will there, a slim shape of destiny in the night.

He hadn’t known Jill had called Ev in for possible body-double duty, though it made sense. Jason himself would’ve, if he’d been making that decision, after the previous scenes. Taking pressure off Colby. Just in case. And they even sort of looked alike, long legs and lean build, a dancer’s body and Colby’s swimmer’s lines. Everett would need a wig, though, and colored contacts, and Jason liked him but had no real desire to crush him into bookshelves and claim his lips with kisses.

“I told you we’re fine,” Colby finished. He looked like it: comfortable as he’d said he would be, standing next to Jason. “Shall we? Hopefully not too many takes?”

“Are you—”

“Ask again and I’ll hide your mermaid poster, Jillian.”

“No touching Danielle. By the way, how many times have you watched that shirtless fight scene from—”

“We’re absolutely ready and I’m fine and Jason is also fine!”

“I am,” Jason tacked on.

“You can ask him that shirtless fight scene question again later,” Jill said, and got behind the camera.

Rolling. Cues. Time to make this work.

He and Colby tumbled through the doorway hand in hand, chasing freedom. Jason kicked the door shut and shoved Colby up against it, one hand flat on wood beside Colby’s head, the other going to the waist of Viscount Easterly’s newly fashionable slim black trousers. Colby, as Will, said, “Yes—” and got hands under Jason’s coat, down to his ass, exploring; Jason, as Stephen, found Will’s throat with lips and friction and a scrape of teeth.

Colby moaned and tilted that head for better access. Will wouldn’t be scared. Will wanted this. Stephen wanted this.

Here at the private heart of Will’s world—his own library, his space in his father’s house—they’d recognized each other. Swept up in pulse-pounding heart-rattling attraction, they needed this. Will’s yearning for the world and Stephen’s frustration with Society collided and burst into conflagration.

Someone stirred in the hallway outside—a footman, a maid, a random noise; it didn’t matter—and Will grabbed Stephen and pulled them further into the room, deeper into books as Will’s cravat came undone and Stephen lost the embroidered officer’s coat. Jason, being Stephen, being himself, took Will’s assertive move and matched it, wordless and breathless: slamming Will back against bookshelves.

He hesitated, looking into Colby’s eyes. The impact’d been loud. Colby’d likely have bruises.

Colby’s lips curved in a smile: a welcome, a challenge, Will’s daring.

“Will Crawford,” Jason said, a dare right back, an acknowledgement of identity, a promise of imminent ravishing on his tongue; and Colby answered, “Captain Lanyon,” eyes blazing blue.

Jason shoved a hand into Will’s trousers, jerked them down and open. “Not unless you want to be my lord when you’re on your knees, Viscount Easterly.”

“Am I—” Colby moaned again as Jason moved the hand. In reality Jason wasn’t touching his dick; their bodies shielded this from the cameras. Jason did have a hand in his pants, but only pressed against his thigh; Colby wasn’t hard. Jason wasn’t certain what this meant, other than that Colby was damn convincing and also entirely professional.

He himself was half-hard and trying not to be. He knew this was the opposite of what Colby liked, or if not the opposite at least fraught with the past. The certainty of that weighed down any arousal. But his body couldn’t help reacting at the feel of Colby against him, the gleam in blue eyes, the challenge.

“Am I,” Colby finished, regaining breath, “likely to be the one on my knees? Stephen.”

“Right where you want to be. William.” The name was a flare of danger and of passion: they were equals here and now, regardless of social class or wealth or profession; they recognized that in each other, and neither of them would accept less. “You want this, don’t you? You want to spend yourself here, in my hand—in a man’s hand—a sailor’s hand—at your own damned ball, because you’d rather have that, you’d rather I do this—”

He mimed a stroke, a tug: ruthless and quick. His other hand gripped Colby’s wrists, holding them against book-spines. Colby gasped and arched against him; those blue eyes were huge. Jason couldn’t tell if that was Will’s desire or Colby’s anxiety, but he trusted Colby to fling out safety-nets and stop him, so he went on.

“You’d rather I take you here in your library than dance one more measure or smile at one more prim and proper lady, because this is what you want—”

“Stephen—” Colby shuddered all over, head falling back against books: coming undone. “Yes—god, yes—you know we’re not at the ball, by the way, that’s—rather the point—do that again—”

Jason did that again, hard and fast and demanding; he watched Colby’s face.

Colby trembled, and his mouth fell open, and his eyes grew ecstatically distant: a false peak, but a beautiful one, glorious in simulated rapture.

Jason dropped the hand that’d been pinning Colby’s wrists, yanked one of those wrists nearer, got Colby’s hand between their bodies. “Feel that, William? A man’s prick in your hand?”

Colby, recovering and reckless, retorted, “Yes, I’ve felt mine—” and pressed his hand against Jason’s inner thigh, which would look like a different sort of touch on camera. “And I learn quite quickly—like this, was it?”

Jason got his other hand on Colby’s ass. Not gentle, either. “Like that—ah, that, William—” and thrust against him, and buried his face in Colby’s neck, and pretended to come too, stiffening and sagging as if spent.

He sort of thought he was. Too much to process.

But they were still rolling. Colby, panting, tipped his head to rest atop Jason’s. “Told you…I…learn quickly…”

“Christ.”

“I—” Colby was having trouble breathing now. No. Will was. Right? “I’m—one moment—”

A hand shoved Stephen back, needing space; Colby threw an arm over his mouth, coughed, and coughed again. Couldn’t seem to find air. Slumping back against bookshelves. Sliding to the rug. Too pale against burgundy flowers, green and silver satin, his black coat.

Jason forgot the line. Forgot everything. “Colby—”

Those eyes—Colby’s, not Will’s—opened and found his in surprise. “Jason?”

“Cut!”

“Oh fuck,” Jason said, catching up to his mouth. “Sorry—”

“Oh, Jason, no.” Colby gathered up both his hands. “I’m not hurt. I’m okay.”

Jill arrived. “Colby, I knew you shouldn’t try this one—I’ll call Ev—”

“No,” Colby and Jason said simultaneously. They exchanged glances; Jason subsided, and Colby went on, “That wasn’t it. We both just felt a bit too much, for a moment. We’re doing fine, Jill.”

Jason appreciated the effort at sharing blame—and the way Colby’s hands remained in his, fingers running over his, soothing and alive—but said, “It was all me, Jill, sorry. Colby’s great.”

Colby squeezed his hands for that.

“Hmm,” Jill said. “If you’re sure.”

“Shall we do it again?”

They went back and found their marks. Jason, under cover of motion, bent to ask, “I didn’t hurt you, right?”

“I’d tell you if I didn’t feel—”

“Not like that. Or yeah, that too, but more literal.” He touched Colby’s shoulder. “Bookshelves’re kinda hard, you know.”

“Ah. Yes.” Colby did Will’s handwave at him, languorous and purposefully exaggeratedly lofty. “I can handle bookshelves. And your hands on me along with bookshelves. I might have one or two bruises. You can cover me in ice or lotion or whatever you’ve got, after.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“Okay. Let’s do it again.”

They did it again, or started to.

This time Jason and Colby tripped over themselves in the doorway—Jason’s boot got caught on the edge of the imported rug—and caught balance and each other, clung tightly, met each other’s eyes, and dissolved into giggles.

“Oh, come on, you two,” Jill said, but fondly. “You even screw up adorably. Disgusting.”

“Ah, the blooper reel,” Brian sighed happily from behind the camera.

“Sorry!” Colby called over, through amusement. “Jason hasn’t learned how to walk in boots yet…”

“Mine are even stiffer than yours!”

“Your what is—”

“Okay, you’re making those jokes now—”

“I, er, often do, I’m afraid.” Colby collected Will’s flyaway hair, tried to smooth it back, gave up and awaited assistance. The quirk of darker blue in those oceanic eyes caught the mock candlelight and Jason’s heart. “Only not aloud. In my head. That reputation…being the nice one…”

“You are.” Jason waited until the hair’d been navigated—this required extra pairs of hands—and added, low, “You just also like all the jokes about nice stiff things. Mine, yours…”

Colby started laughing again.

Jason watched him laugh, and felt the swell of it like gold, like happy endings, in his own chest. Colby Kent had so many layers, he’d always thought that; here was one more, somehow both innocent and filthy, full of wordplay and pure pleasure, and they’d unfolded that one together.

Also, he’d never trust Colby’s innocent expression around interviewers again.

They got together some semblance of composure. They restarted the scene.

This one felt even better. Like flying. Like spinning together across trapeze-bars, leaps and holds and twirls through the air, knowing the other person’d be right there and matching the steps.

This time when Colby began coughing, leaning back against the bookshelf but not wholly sinking to the floor—Colby’d said that seemed too severe, and Stephen’d never have sex with him again, after a first encounter’s ending like that; Jill had concurred—Jason said, “Will,” and got a hand on his shoulder. “Are you—unwell, or—”

Everyone knew Will Crawford was unwell. Society gossip ran rampant. The most unkind had betting pools at various clubs. Even Captain Lanyon, having wrangled an invitation to this party, hadn’t escaped hearing of it. “What can I do? A physician, or—”

“No need, it’s only the usual betrayal of my lungs…it’ll pass…” It already was. Colby-as-Will managed an inhale, then another. Smothered a single tiny cough this time. “No need to feel guilty. It was hardly the result of your edifying presence.”

“Edifying?” His hand remained on Colby’s shoulder.

Colby grinned at him: weary, impudent, an adventure awaiting. “I did tell you I learn quickly. Though, you’ll note, I’m not yet on my knees.”

“Not yet, you’ve said.” He touched Will’s cheek: Stephen incredulous at how much he cared, how quickly. He shouldn’t—he’d come for one reason, and that reason did not include a romp with a sickly viscount. Having had that romp, he shouldn’t give a damn what Will did next. He should be returning to the ballroom, finding men who had the influence to alter his mission and his fate.

But Will Crawford had intrigued him and tempted him and made him grin. Will had stood toe to toe with him, inexperienced but unafraid; that same ache to break free of constraint had echoed in those blue eyes, as he’d taken Stephen’s hand, as he’d spilled himself in release in Stephen’s grip. And Will might need assistance now.

Stephen, Jason knew, did not want to return to the ballroom and leave Will alone. A gentleman wouldn’t; but a man in love wouldn’t either. And Stephen was already halfway in love, and more so by the second.

“Yes,” Colby said, answering his comment. “Perhaps that’s the next lesson. Did you know where we were, by the way? This library?”

“I assume you’ve got too many damned libraries. Consequently, no.” They’d eased to the floor, sitting shoulder to shoulder: rumpled and exhilarated and finding excuses to touch more.

“There’s no such thing as too many libraries, I assure you. But this one’s mine.”

“Yours.”

“The collections I’m using for my work.” Colby, being Will, gazed at Jason. “Mathematics. Natural sciences. Calculations and predictions. I’m a member of the Royal Society—”

“Congratulations.”

“No, you see…I never thought I’d bring anyone here. Even my father doesn’t care to—this is me. Here. And now you.”

“Here.” He’d laced fingers with Colby’s. Himself, and Stephen. Wanting that. “With you.”

“When do you leave for London?”

“Tomorrow. My lieutenant and I are staying down in the village tonight.”

“At the Four Cups? The inn?”

“You know it?” Stephen’d be astounded if an earl’s son did.

“Not firsthand, no…I may have to be in London soon. Society meetings. The paper I’ve been writing. Perhaps quite soon.”

“Ah. And tonight…”

“And tonight—” Colby glanced at their hands, returned his gaze to Jason’s face. “I won’t choose a bride. Not only because of this. Because I won’t marry someone my father’s selected for me—someone I could never make happy—or someone who, as I’ve overheard from at least three different conversations tonight, would be overjoyed to be left a wealthy young widow. People do assume that if I’m ill I must also be deaf.”

“Ah,” Jason said again.

“And I plan to do a few more rounds of the social whirl and nod politely and smile, and then be overcome by a dizzy spell and retire to my room.” Colby’s smile was shot through with mischief. “Thomas—the tall young footman with the crooked wig—can give you the direction. If you might wish to ascertain my state of health for yourself.”

“Might I.” So bold. Stephen was entertained and in love. Jason, in character, looked at their hands as well. Their clothing remained askew; their other hands remained sticky. He’d never felt so absurdly well understood by another man. “You know how dangerous—”

“Yes.” Chin up. Stubborn. Eyes open, diving in. “I do.”

“Viscount Easterly,” Jason said. “Will Crawford. William.”

“Stephen,” Colby said, “I want to learn everything,” and the last word ended on a kiss beneath the bookshelves, as Jason’s head bent to his, and Jason’s mouth took his.

They cut there. No one said anything for a moment. And then applause landed like the storm.

Jason grabbed Colby’s hand. They both hopped up. Took a bow.

The fizzing toe-twirling sense of accomplishment stayed with them as they wrapped for the day. As they changed into street clothes, trading glances, touches, smiles. As they got in the car and Terry the driver beamed at them both, and Colby tipped his head to lean against Jason’s shoulder.

In Jason’s room, under sloping wood-beam ceiling approval, Colby kicked off his own boots and put both arms around Jason’s neck. He’d worn the grey pants today, but fewer layers, only three: black jacket, stretchy semi-transparent blue shirt, pink t-shirt with sequins on the edges of the sleeves. “So. We’ve done that.”

“We have.” He coaxed the hair tie out of brown waves; they fell over his hand at the nape of Colby’s neck. He wanted to touch the sequins, and the colors, and Colby’s skin. “Feeling up to celebrating?”

“Indeed. What did you have in mind?”

“You in my bed? And room service after.”

“I like those things.”

“You like stiff things, as I recall.”

Colby widened eyes at him. Set a hand over the bulge in Jason’s jeans. “Whatever would give you that impression?”

“So you don’t have fantasies about me fucking you in your trailer when you’re wearing Will Crawford’s boots? Only the boots.”

“Oh…now I do. Will’s very important to me, you know.”

“Just Will?” He’d peeled off Colby’s jacket, a slow sensuous process, and started on the first layer of shirt; Colby lifted arms to help.

Those fantastical eyes emerged from fabric to dance at him. “I expect you’d be fairly involved as well. Are the boots of particular interest? Me in leather?”

Jason forgot how to talk, and instead gathered Colby up against him for a kiss. Scorching. Unquestionable. A yes.

His hands rubbed across Colby’s back. A shoulder. A hip. Colby made a sound, suddenly; Jason stopped. “What was that?”

“I…nothing.”

“Show me.”

Colby bit that lip.

“Please,” Jason said, and then, realizing, “you said—shit, you did say, earlier—bruises, ice, something—how bad?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t see.” Colby sighed again. “Should I take off the shirt?”

“Yeah. Go on.”

Colby did, and then pants and underwear too, presumably for ease of seeing his hips. Jason sucked in breath. “That’s…not great. Could be worse—”

True. He’d personally seen, and felt, far worse. Stunt days. Fights. Training. Wrenches and tears and sprains and deep purples and blues across his body.

But this was Colby. Wearing the marks of Jason shoving him into shelves.

“—but you’ll be sore. I’ve got some stuff, I think—”

He threw himself at his suitcase. Colby turned, trying to examine himself in the mirror at the foot of the bed. Jason’d had thoughts about that mirror and what it might encourage, but Colby seemed to be currently interested in it for self-inspection. “The right hip’s the worst of them, isn’t it…”

“And your right shoulder. Was that the first take?”

“I think so. Or the third. It hit the same spot but harder, or at least it felt that way.” Colby watched himself more in the mirror. “Odd…”

“What?”

“Nothing, I…” Thin fingers brushed the edges of a bruise. “I only thought of…but it’s not as if…it’s only strange. Seeing myself like this now. What’s that?”

“One of Dad’s friends makes this stuff. Swears by it. Stunt guys go through a ton. Great for bruises, muscle strain, soreness, all that.” He swiped up fingers full of salve, felt the mint and arnica and aloe like cool green winter over skin. “Here, I’ll—”

His hand touched Colby’s hip, big and tanned against fairness.

Colby jumped, tripped over nothing, collided with Jason’s bed, and caught himself. His face was pale.

Jason froze. Couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. Anything might be the wrong thing.

He didn’t know exactly what he’d done. He had an idea. He didn’t know what could help, if anything could.

“Jason…” Colby’s voice cracked, stumbled back into tune, hauled anchors under itself like the Steadfast riding out a storm. “It—it’s not you—you didn’t do anything. I only thought—for a second I thought—or, no, that’s not right, I couldn’t think—”

It’d been his hand. Jason knew it had, knew it all at once. Comprehension like a bullet. His hand. Powerful and forceful over bruises. On the heels of memory.

He whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Colby, still pale and still naked but straightening shoulders, took a step back toward him as if picking the only safe path across treacherous ice. “It’s me. Reacting. I—I’m sorry.”

“No.” Jason wanted to scream. To cry. “No. It’s not your fault.”

“Then it isn’t yours.” Colby exhaled. “Is it normal that I’m suddenly quite tired? And cold.”

“Shit—here—” He stretched an arm. Yanked the top blanket from the bed. “Here.”

“Thank you, I…” Colby folded blue-and-brown blanket-armor around himself. It squared up instantly to the task. “Actually, could I…could you…taking care of me, you said…is that too much to ask?”

“I’m not sure you’re up for—I’m not sure I’m up for sex—”

“No, I…the weather’s…complicated.” Colby came over. Right up to him. Jason ended up lost in sapphire-striped conviction. “I thought it was better. And then it wasn’t. But I don’t want to lose this. You and me. Because of—of something that’s not our fault. So I thought perhaps…if I lie down in your bed…and you sit where I can see you, and you put that on me…”

“The weather,” Jason said, unevenly, “feels…okay with that?”

“Potentially some rain.” Colby took Jason’s limp hand, regarded salve: interested and brave. “But I like rain. So we can try.”

“We can…”

Colby nodded. Towed him over to the bed. Took a breath, and dropped the blanket, and tugged down sheets, and lay down. On his stomach. Trusting, bruises and all.

Jason sank down gradually beside him. “You want this.”

“Please,” Colby said. “Please take care of me. You said you would. And you can, and—and I think we both need that? And you could be naked. If you, er, wanted to.”

“You…you just want to see me naked…knew you liked my shirtless fight scenes…”

“I do.” Colby, head turned his way and pillowed on arms, smiled. “I like you, Jason. Please touch me.”

 

He’d meant the words. He’d meant more than the words. He’d nearly said I love you.

Lying in Jason’s bed, literally and metaphorically naked, he wasn’t afraid. Perhaps he should’ve been, but with Jason’s concerned largeness occupying space beside him, occupying his heart, he couldn’t be.

He was awfully tired, and his hips and shoulders ached as bruises made themselves known. He hadn’t been lying about the weather; the thought of sex didn’t sound appealing, though he’d been in the mood earlier. He loved Jason and he loved sex with Jason and he knew he’d want it again in the future, now that he—they—had found that joy.

At this moment, however, with the ebbing tides of panic and embarrassment over the panic…

He focused on Jason instead, not dwelling on thoughts.

Jason removed clothing deliberately and neatly, not lingering or trying to be seductive. One large hand scooped up that jar of salve on the way back over; the bed dipped with the weight on that side. Jason’s thigh was muscular and hot; that leg had a light dusting of dark hair. “Right here okay?”

“Yes. I like you here.”

“Yeah, I get it. Wasn’t sure why you’d want that, at first, but you do like me being here with you, in this with you, kinda. Both naked.” Jason smirked, put-on levity belying seriousness in the forests. “Plus you can look.”

“You’ve caught me. Ulterior motives. Appreciating the view.” He lay comfortably amid sheets while Jason dipped fingers into the jar. Every movement stayed visible and telegraphed beforehand, not abrupt.

He hadn’t flinched from Jason as such. The visuals had only crashed together bewilderingly in his head: someone’s heavy hand, and bruises on his own skin—

But that faded, as Jason asked softly, “Shoulder first?” and waited without moving for Colby’s yes.

The bruises would fade as well. And they’d been joyous in the making: part of this role, this life, himself sharing passion with Jason. Memories he wanted.

The entire day sank into his bones, which grew settled and saturated with worn-out contentment. Sir Laurence. Sword-sharp in-character clashes. Custard creams and praise. Jason feeding him, bite by bite. Himself naked in Jason’s lap, taking that lovely heft and length deep inside. Himself and Jason catching fire from each other on set, instinctive and coruscating. Here and now, knowing that Jason would care for him, body and emotions.

He did know that. Drained, triumphant, he knew it throughout his entire being. Even down to his toes. He wiggled them just to test that theory. His toes confirmed it: they believed in Jason wholeheartedly.

“Ticklish?”

“Hmm? No. I never have been. Or I think not, at least.” His shoulder tingled: wonderfully cool, far less sore. “That feels splendid. Please pass on my compliments to someone.”

“Will do, next time we see Bruce. Other shoulder? Not as bad, but I can see it.”

“Oh, yes, definitely.” He became a puddle of lazy winter-scented indulgence under Jason’s ministrations, liquified by bliss. “Your hands are profoundly magical. My sorcerer. Healing greenwitch. Knight with enchanted fingertips. I may never leave your bed.”

“Works for me, but Jill might object.”

“Oh…Jill…production…they’ll understand, your bed is far too tempting and I’ve been ensorcelled…oh, that’s nice.”

“Good. Hip?”

“Yes, go on.” He watched Jason through drowsy eyelashes. The hand stroked over his hip, smoothed salve over him, stayed within the relevant area and did not sneak elsewhere. Colby’s hip enjoyed blessed relief, as well as Jason’s touch.

He’d talk to Jason about the writing. Tomorrow, perhaps. Or the day after. Tomorrow’d be busy and emotional, on set. Ballroom scenes and fifty extras filling up dance patterns. A first meeting. Later, the last scheduled scene of the day. Will lying so ill in bed and Stephen charging in to be at his side, in defiance of orders and society’s demands. So full already, tomorrow.

So the day after, then. He made himself that promise. He would do it. He would choose to put all of himself in Jason’s hands.

“There.” Jason left the hand resting on his hip, though. “How’s that?”

“A billion times better, thank you.” He tried to blow hair out of his right eye; Jason laughed and leaned over and stroked it away for him. “Two billion. Infinite.”

“Want me to order pizza? Won’t be as good as yours, but you won’t have to move.”

“Mmm…yes, please. And also hold me.”

Jason brought over the menu and sat back down. “Weather check, about me holding you.”

“I’m asking.” Colby pushed himself up on elbows. “So I'd say forecasts are positive. Possibly don’t…don’t touch me anywhere that feels like…too much like something that’d lead to sex…but I want to feel you all around me.”

Jason appeared to be making a mental note. Colby waited for a second, then had to ask. “Remembering something?”

“Adding it to the list.”

“List?”

“If it’s not a good day. Things not to do. Or to do. I want to remember.”

“Oh,” Colby said, “oh, Jason—” and sat up and reached for him, heart too full to say more. “Kiss me. Now.”

“Always,” Jason said between kisses, while rolling down into the bed and scooping Colby up into rippling massive arms, mindful of salve and bruises and safe places, holding on and holding him, “always, whenever you ask.”

Chapter Text

Ballgowns rustled. Music cavorted. Jason, back in Stephen’s officer’s regalia, regarded the sea of extras. The extras, for their part, spun and practiced dance steps and compared Regency-era fancy dress costumes, trading compliments and excitement. Everett, as choreographer and participant, moved among them: checking poses, offering advice, providing encouragement. He caught Jason watching and nodded; Jason nodded back. He knew Ev had been prepared to step in, the day before, if Colby’d felt too off-balance for the library. He appreciated the solidarity. Everyone on Colby’s side.

Colby at the moment was talking to Sir Laurence over by the grand ballroom’s gold-leaf door. Jason couldn’t not appreciate the view of him. That artistically tumbled hair, those long legs, the sweep of a hand. All the gorgeous clever love of the world that made up Colby Kent. And they’d woken together in Jason’s bed that morning, snug and safe in dawnlight under the drumming of rain over English countryside roof-beams.

Colby wanted him. Jason sometimes still couldn’t quite believe it.

More accurately, he could believe it—it was happening—but he couldn’t explain it. Back at that very first meeting he’d insulted Colby and thought terrible things about Colby and refused to believe in the kind of kindness that’d offer up the world if somebody wanted it.

He wanted to spend a lifetime apologizing to Colby for that. He wanted to spend his lifetime guarding the tip of that head, the animated gestures that’d have something to do with Shakespeare or baked goods, the bashful ducking-away at a compliment from a living legend.

He’d checked messages and email, earlier. A text from Allie, asking how things were going and informing him that she had plans to try Colby’s cookie recipe that night, plus a picture of ingredients spread out on the counter. A couple of messages from Susan, because his agent wanted him to start thinking about the next project. They only had around two weeks of principal photography left, she’d reminded him, and he didn’t have anything else immediately lined up, and she knew he wanted more challenges but complex and meaty roles for moderately aging and openly bisexual action stars weren’t exactly pouring in, either.

He hadn’t opened any attachments, any summaries, any scripts. A next project? After this? No. Not yet.

Sex hadn’t happened that morning, either. Jason hadn’t wanted to bring it up in the wake of the previous night, and Colby hadn’t mentioned it. Anyway, no chance to try again, even if the subject’d been less tricky. Early call times. Full day. Lots to do.

The bruises remained visible but also visibly healing. Stormcloud smudges over that hip, those shoulders. Colby’d said everything felt better, and had paused while getting dressed, shirtless and with pants undone, to kiss him. Jason had kissed him back, hands in that loose wavy hair, taking charge the way Colby liked, but cautiously. No force.

They were doing okay, he thought now, as he’d thought then. Navigating rocks and rapids. In each other’s arms. Waking up that way. Naked.

Colby had been awake first. Jason hadn’t expected that; he’d opened eyes to find that blue gaze resting on him. He did not know whether Colby had woken and flinched from the large body in the shared bed; if so, that’d been all banished by the time Jason found consciousness. There’d been only a smile, reflective, and a hand resting lightly over Jason’s heart.

Leo, arriving at his side in elaborate lieutenant’s garb, said, “Ah, you’ve lost him to walking history, too bad for you,” and evaluated Sir Laurence. “Think he’s got Colby to give up coffee yet?”

“Not happening.” Certainly not after the caffeine infusion of that morning. Jason shifted weight, wiggled toes inside Stephen’s tall polished boots. He’d made coffee in the room’s tiny single-serving instant machine. Colby had inhaled it. Colby was happy. “And I haven’t lost him. He’s enjoying himself.”

Colby chose this moment to turn around and wave.

“Please don’t tell me you’ve developed telepathy,” Leo said. “Or actually do tell me. I can think of so many uses for you.”

“Nothing you can come up with would ever be something we’d—”

“Okay, kids!” Andy yelled across the room. “Dance party time!”

Leo snatched up Jason’s hand and did a dramatic pirouette under it. “Ta-da!”

“My arm’s not your toy,” Jason observed, finding his own mark, stepping on Leo just because. Colby, standing with his cinematic parent, was smiling more at them and not trying to hide it.

“It self-evidently is. Speaking of, do you and Colby have bedroom toys? Would you like me to buy you some?”

“What would you do if I said yes?”

“Buy you some!”

Jill made exasperated noises over the megaphone. They all hastily got into position. Rain tapped along the eaves and windowpanes, joining in.

Jason and Leo pretended to’ve just entered the ballroom; they gazed around at the spectacle, England’s wealth and indulgence on display. Officers and gentlemen, ladies and dowagers, young women on the marriage market and ambitious mothers. And the Earl of Stonebrook’s only son, a prize to be won.

They’d need to dance. Jason and Leo, as Stephen and Richard, would circulate across the room: finding men with influence, men who might affect the Admiralty lists or the distribution of monies from ships taken in war. Stephen was in fact owed a decent amount, and resented bureaucratic slowness.

The music should be starting up: a quadrille, and then a country-dance, and a waltz, all carefully chosen. The final soundtrack would be handled later, of course; Jill’s usual composer-collaborator Serafina Tran would put her gifts to work. They needed the timing for the steps, though.

The music did indeed start. Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” blared out across the ballroom: incongruous, upbeat, absurd and glorious.

That had to be either Leo or Andy. Nobody else would’ve been in on the joke, the stairwell, that song choice.

Nobody moved for a second, either. Jason wasn’t sure how to react, how Colby might react.

And Colby didn’t move. At all.

But only for a pair of seconds. And then he promptly bowed to the young woman Will’d been about to be introduced to, held out a hand and waited, and took her immediately offered hand in turn; they jumped into dance steps, somewhere between the quadrille they’d learned and a modern-day swing movement.

His partner began laughing, picking up her skirt, dancing along; they ran down the line of ball attendees, and enthusiasm spilled out in their wake.

Other people joined hands. Joined in. Hopping around, spinning, singing lyrics off-key and with passion. Everybody on the dance floor, swept up in the tides. Historic walls and ancestral paintings resonated with unbridled fun.

Leo ran off to perform an unfortunate version of a tango with a majestic older woman in a headdress of ostrich plumes. Jason felt a tap at his own arm, discovered Serenity the PA, and accepted cheerfully. He caught Colby’s eye; Colby threw him a dazzling smile.

The song spun rainbows around them, impromptu and perfect.

Colby, Jason noticed—in between accepting partners and keeping up and obligingly using muscles to swing partners around—made a point of dancing with lots of people. Extras, main cast, crew. Not up close or intimate with anyone, only hands touching and barely that, but making sure everybody got included, particularly if they were eyeing the dance party wistfully from the side.

Colby could dance, he also noticed. Like someone who’d learned real steps and footwork. Good rhythm. Flexible. Adaptable.

He grabbed the next hand, which turned out to be Andy. Friendly freckles and shortness smirked up at Jason’s face. “Saw you watching him.”

“I was, yeah.”

“You’re not bad at this, yourself.”

“I’m not, no.” He wasn’t usually that smug about it, but this was Andy, so why not. And he wasn’t bad on a dance floor. Not like Colby’s studied grace, but darkened seductive thumping clubs, bodies aligned, yeah. Toe-tapping to classic rock in his dad’s garage: also yeah. Workout music and stunt choreography set to a beat: definitely.

He adjusted feet so Andy wouldn’t step on them. “Enjoying your musical selection?”

“Totally, and the expression on your face was the best, but this wasn’t me.” Andy paused, though, so Jason did too. They let people-eddies carry them to the side and watched Colby for a second.

They couldn’t not watch Colby. That joy. That generosity. Thin and pretty and attentive to everybody, willing to be pulled into more dancing with the youngest and the oldest of the extras, the interns and personal assistants, Jill and Leo, and some of the craft services catering staff, who cheered wildly.

Colby was a movie star. The old-fashioned open-hearted kind. The center of a production, the beating heart. Spontaneous and Regency-costumed and pink-cheeked under lights and tumbling hair. Jason gazed at him, enraptured.

Andy nudged him with an elbow. “You’re making hungry noises.”

“Food after this. I like food.”        

“So does he, bread loaf. But also…thanks.”

“For what?”

“Making him happy.”

“I hope so,” Jason said, voice more ragged than he expected. “I hope so.” Colby was listening attentively to a young extra in purple breeches, who was attempting to teach him a dance move that involved hips and arms thrusting; he was nodding patiently and letting himself be taught. “Was he…is this more…more like…” Words. What were they.

Andy, thank god, spoke incomplete flailing. “Is this more like Colby before…y’know. Before.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, and also no.”

“What—”

“He always had that…what’s the word I want. Presence. Charisma, kinda. But the quiet kind. He’s not the dancing on tables type—not unless you get him very drunk, which I have done, by the way, and keep him out of kitchens after you get home, unless you want him to decide to bake scones at three am and then forget any sort of heat protection and try to pull them out of an oven with his bare hands—don’t worry, I caught him—”

“Thank you.” Also good to know. More mental notes. Adorable and terrifying images of Colby being tipsy around baked goods and heat. Lots of oven mitts to buy.

“—but anyway. He’s the person everybody looks at just to see what he thinks, right? And he usually is right, and he’s always nice about it. And there might be elephants and explosions on screen and whatever, but you end up watching him, even if he’s just in the background. Because he’s worth watching. Audiences know it.”

“But you said—”

“Yeah, I did. Even before the…everything, and we’re not gonna bring that up now…it wasn’t this. He was younger. Holding back more. Not that he’s not, sometimes it’s like pulling teeth getting him to admit to wanting something for himself, but this’s different.” They watched Colby some more. “More ready to start the dancing, when everybody wants to. More reaching out. He seriously has always been just that nice, ever since I’ve known him, but this…” Andy shrugged. “I’d say it’s you. Being with you.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Jason said. “I’m just here.”

“Yeah,” Andy said. “You are.”

The song was almost but not quite over; Colby said something to his youthful purple-clad partner, waved, and ran over to Jason and Andy. “I’ve just been told I’m such a dork that I’m in fact cool, which I don’t understand in the slightest. I suspect I should never attempt to learn moves based on a video game. I feel positively ancient.”

“You’re not ancient,” Andy said, “you’re not even thirty-one yet,” and gave them both a salute and backed away. “You’ve got about a minute before we make you all behave again. Have fun.”

“Dance with me,” Colby requested, breathless and beautiful, a strand of Will’s hair getting in his eyes.

“Anytime you want.” Jason folded arms around him. Colby leaned against him, and the song wasn’t really a slow dance, but that didn’t matter; they fit together, and moved together. Jason remembered again, surprised, that Colby was eight years younger than himself; he’d forgotten that. Younger, and also older: having rocketed to movie-star fame, having been through hell, having rediscovered delight.

The love lanced his heart like a sun-flare, complicated and searing.

He stroked the hair out of Colby’s eyes. He let his hand linger: touching that cheek, cradling Colby’s face. Colby smiled; Jason leaned closer, breaths mingling, bodies pressed tight and swaying. They both knew how to move, hips meeting, music washing through them.

If everyone on this production didn’t already know, they would now. Jason didn’t care; Colby didn’t either, and had said so.

He touched Colby’s mouth with a fingertip. Colby’s exhale came hot and eager over his skin, lips parting.

The song ended. They stood wrapped up in each other beneath movie-magic lights and cameras, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of extras, Regency-costumed dancers applauding and chattering and skidding to a halt, lightness in the air and under toes.

“Okay, okay,” Jill’s older-sister voice echoed over merriment—she’d been dancing with Laura and Brian—and shooed them all back to their marks. “For real this time. Thanks for that, Leo.”

“Who says it was me?”

“It was!” said at least ten people, cast and crew, in chorus.

If it was me, then you’re welcome!”

“Places,” Jill said, and they scattered to respective starting-points, while the thunder rumbled in approval.

Colby leaned in and up and kissed Jason before going: a moth-wing weightless brush of a kiss, light and swift, but real and public and unafraid. Jason touched his own mouth after, involuntarily. He’d never known a single gesture could wrap sunlight around his bones.

They filmed. They filmed all morning, working steadily. Dances and conversations, weaving of bodies and crowds. Colby, as Will, was introduced to many young ladies, and to their companions; being Will, he grew more and more miserable, though Colby glanced over at Jason once or twice, and those blue eyes suggested whole fantasies of shared dragon-librarian and loyal-knight mischief. Sir Laurence got more and more stiff-backed and imperious, and Leo pretended to drink a lot of port, and Jason gave up and shoved his way out of the ballroom toward the balcony over and over, while the cameras followed.

Just before lunch they did the balcony scene itself. The weather’d let up: more of a silvery mist at the moment, which was probably the best they’d get. Behind them the dancing continued, raucous and reveling, surrounded by the finest hors d’oeuvres and wines and punch in crystal bowls; the Earl had no qualms about impressing his wealth upon potential daughters-in-law or political rivals in Parliament. Colby had slipped out earlier; Jason, wearing Stephen’s impatience like an extra-scratchy coat, took a step out into blessedly cool air, and loosened his cravat, and saw Will there.

His heart leapt all the way back to that first meeting, and Colby’s hand in his. Just themselves, no extras or background clamor. Twenty-first century clothing, and a scene, and a touch.

He said the line. Apologized for the interruption.

Colby turned, framed by balcony stone and mist, and gave him the smile.

They flirted, over festivities and preferences and politeness. Jason held out his hand again, and Colby set his in it. Jason offered to be impolite, if Viscount Easterly might prefer that. Colby’s eyes danced, and Will chose, and they ran off together hand in hand.

Everybody applauded that one too.

They did it another time or two—getting the close-ups, different angles, clearer sound. Jason could’ve done this forever, standing with Colby, working alongside Colby, in the mist and the history and the story. Only two more weeks, he thought; that thought nearly shattered him.

Two weeks. Unless—

Unless. Those fantasies. London. Himself. Moving. He’d offer. If Colby wanted—

If. He didn’t know. Maybe.

They broke for lunch. Colby stayed at Jason’s side, more quiet now but radiating satisfaction. Jason kept an arm around him, with Colby’s nod of permission: wanting him close.

They found food—Peruvian today, and Colby got very interested in the spices in use, and ended up in conversation with the caterers about recipes, and forgot to eat more—and Jason without thinking fed Colby a bite of sweet potato from his own fork. Colby accepted this, also apparently without thinking, and then looked startled.

“Sorry,” Jason said.

“I don’t really mind,” Colby said. “Only…that might be difficult to do all the time.”

“Sorry again. I won’t.” He hadn’t meant to. Being dominant in bed was one thing—especially if they both liked that dynamic—but assuming Colby needed hand-feeding in public was something else.

Colby gave him a little head-tilt and a curious sweep of eyelashes, down and up. “I said I don’t mind. Sometimes.”

“You’re depressingly cute,” Leo said through a mouthful of steak, “and also, I personally don’t mind watching you two getting kinky with food, but other people might.”

“I assumed you were making a point about me eating,” Colby said to Jason. “Leo, on the other hand, is often pointless—”

“Frequently,” Leo agreed, unbothered, and went back to the steak.

“—but also may in this case have a point,” Colby finished. “I expect we should behave. Though, once in a while…yes. We can do that.”

“Sometimes,” Jason said. “If you need reminders.”

Colby smiled more, and leaned into him more, and took a sip of the day’s most recent coffee. Raspberry mocha steam kissed his eyelashes, his cheeks, Will’s artistic hair. Jason wanted to take a picture of him: wanted to keep that moment and that sight forever.

He ate another sweet potato instead. Because this moment, this set, being here with Colby and food, was pretty damn awesome.

 

Colby, after a decidedly fulfilling lunch and a swift change into Will’s morning clothes, stepped into his father’s study as the rain pounded. Jason, having also changed—into a more battered and mud-speckled version of Stephen’s uniform, which he’d be wearing in the next scene—was present but held captive in his chair while Cherry and her team worked makeup magic to harrow him. He did wave in Colby’s direction, through the study door; Colby smiled and waved back.

Jason. Here with him. Dancing with him, kissing him, in public.

Colby’s toes wanted to smile as well. Dancing with Jason. Up close and pressed together, bodies in unison, Jason’s fingers hot against his mouth. He could’ve stayed that way forever; he could’ve knelt and begged for Jason to take him again, to sink inside him, to claim him.

He yanked thoughts away from that direction of daydreaming and hauled them back into line.

Time for that later. Absolutely time for that later. He felt more ready for that, now; he thought Jason was also, from the heat between them. The bruises of yesterday remained, but they were physically and emotionally mending; the memory of Jason’s hands caressing him, large and gentle and offering only assistance, drew shimmering silver over the visual. The silver flavored thoughts with wonderful healing salve, like coolness and wintergreen; like gifts, like sugar, like being fed from Jason’s fork.

He did want to be professional. He also had rather wanted to throw himself into Jason’s lap and magically remove all their clothing. He might never be able to consume a sweet potato again.

He had to redirect recalcitrant thoughts some more, and try to surreptitiously adjust Will’s trousers.

This next scene would be quick but harsh; it was half the scene really, as he’d end up running out into the rain in the aftermath. As Will, stabbed through by his father’s words, Colby would stumble through anguish and the storm and his own gasping for air: not going far, only needing to be no longer in that room under those dispassionate chilly eyes.

Out of his father’s house. Away from the heaviness of everything he couldn’t be. Staggering under water and emotion, and finally coming to a halt at the edge of a low hill, above the estate’s namesake stony brook, gurgling and treacherous with the flood.

Will, shaking and trying to breathe, staring at rain and rocks and the Stonebrook world, would turn to find the ancestral house hulking behind him.

Staring into the eyes of windows and gables, he’d choose. He’d straighten shoulders under the rain. He’d find strength in his own desire. And he’d leave for London within the hour, without speaking to his father again.

That half of the scene would take place tomorrow, stitched together in editing in post-production, since today they’d be losing the light too soon for what ought to be a daytime scene. Tonight he’d be lying in bed, bathed in candlelight, inching back from death’s threshold while Jason ran in to love him. Before that, right now, he had another scene with Sir Laurence—Laurie, he corrected mentally. He’d been playfully scolded for that as well, along with his taste in caffeinated beverages.

This scene followed the ball. The morning after. Will summoned to his father’s domain, where a choice would be expected. A bride. A rigidly outlined future, no deviations.

But Will wanted those deviations. Will wanted the prismatic lure of science and the music of mathematics; Will wanted the blunt straightforward roughness of a man’s hand, the vivid shock of passion like color flooding into his world: yes, this, this is what’s been missing, this is what feels right—

Will wanted Stephen, who saw him. Colby wanted all that for Will. That moment of choice had been one of his favorites in the novel; he could recall with clarity the first time he’d read it, heart racing, pleading for Will to choose London and Stephen. He’d held his breath the way Will had in the rain.

He smiled at Laurie, who gave him an avuncular nod and offered, “You seem well this afternoon.”

“I am, I think.” He plucked up courage. “And…thank you. About the, er, advice. About, er, love, yesterday.”

And Laurie’s expression, for an instant, became far younger and far more mischievous. “Pleased to hear it. He does rather look at you as if wanting to carry you off to his trailer and feed you his—”

“Laurie!”

“Gingersnaps, dear boy. I assume he’s a fan of them. Somehow he seems the type. I haven’t the faintest idea what you were thinking.” Sir Laurence waited just long enough for Colby to believe that this was honest innocence, and then finished, “Gingersnaps can be quite…spicy, you know. And thank you for the first-name basis.”

Well. All right, then; Colby tried on a cloak of self-confidence and the sense of humor that Jason seemed to approve. “I suspect we’re well past first names, aren’t we, given the sharing of your custard creams?” He even threw in a variation on the flirtation-through-eyelashes that’d successfully stunned Leo.

Sir Laurence beamed.

Colby added sweetly, “And, for the record, not gingersnaps. Baklava. Honey. That delicious filling of…as one would expect, of course…nuts.” At this point he couldn’t not blush—pushing it too far, probably—and babbled apologetically, “Sorry, sorry, I couldn’t resist. Oh, sorry again, Jason tells me not to apologize, which seems like far too all-encompassing a statement, but I did ask him what I should do if I was in fact wrong, and he said we’ll see, which I don’t understand, because I do get things wrong a lot, oh god, I’m so sorry, I do tend to talk.”

“You’ve the loveliest heart, darling, and he seems a very intelligent boy.” Laurie looked as if he wanted to pat Colby’s shoulder, and refrained. Colby wouldn’t’ve minded. Not coming from that source. “And do indulge an old romantic and a desire for happy endings. We should all have an evening out, next time you and he are in London. Just let me know when.”

The camera operators were hovering. Jill and Andy wore the expressions of two directors very aware of time passing, but also respectfully not interrupting a minor deity on their movie set.

“Oh, yes, my apologies.” Laurie got behind the desk. The rain chattered, carrying tales to the river outside. “I can never resist a good love story. Which is why I wanted to join you on this project so badly, of course. Ready when you all are.”

They were. Colby went back to the door, waiting for his cue. The words tingled and tantalized: a future in which he and Jason would be together, would accept dinner invitations together, would naturally be a pair, the way Laurie assumed they would be…

He wanted that. He wanted that so much he couldn’t breathe for an instant: pierced through by the vision.

Happy endings. Yes. Yes, please.

He wanted to smile, to laugh; Will shouldn’t, right this instant, and Colby summoned clear-eyed passionate resolution and scientific exuberance to help.

The love remained. Will wasn’t in a bubbling-over laughing mood, but the core was equally luminous. Will loved Stephen: perhaps only having barely begun to, one encounter and a hope of more, but the rightness of it shone true. Colby Kent loved Jason Mirelli.

He permitted himself one tiny smile, and then put on Will’s determined face.

On cue, he took steps into the study. Halted before the desk. As usual, his boots made next to no sound on the priceless thick rug. “Father.”

Sir Laurence raised a finger. Did not look up. Finished writing a line; began a new one.

“Father,” Colby said again. “I have to tell you—”

No response.

Will, knowing this was purposeful, thrown off balance by it in any case, hating the way it worked, bit a lip. Stared down at a boot-tip, at the rug: twining patterns of burgundy and cream like ensnaring vines.

Laurie set down the pen. Percival Crawford looked up at his son: chillingly impassive. “I expect you’ve come to inform me of your decision in the matter of your bride.”

“Yes. No. I’ve made a decision. I can’t wed any of—”

“You’re thinking of the Duke of Lyndon’s eldest daughter, then? They remain in mourning, hence their regrets regarding attendance. It is not the most advantageous match—she is said to be homely, and their finances are not what one would wish—but the title confers distinction, and the family is infamously fertile. Perhaps you have good instincts after all.”

“I’m not marrying Maria Byerly. I’m not marrying anyone.”

“William—”

“I’m leaving,” Colby said. “For London. For the Royal Society meeting. At which I’ve been invited to speak. As you know, since you read my correspondence.”

“Since I read your correspondence, and know of your invitation, why do you assume I would grant you leave to go?”

“Do you hate me,” Colby breathed, “so much?”

“You,” Laurie said, deadly and precise as a stiletto, “have advantages that others will never possess. Opportunities that I have afforded you. The best physicians’ care. The wages of your Oxford tutors. Your allowance. Your naturalist’s frivolities. Even a choice of bride from the most suitable families. Many young men would appreciate such consideration.”

Colby, as Will, drew a breath at this blow. It wasn’t untrue. That was the worst part.

“I do,” he said. “I appreciate everything you’ve given me. But I can’t—I couldn’t—Father, I could never—it would be a lie, and more than that, it would never be a true—”

Laurie flattened both hands against the desk. Half-rose; sat back down. Regained control. “I have no desire to discuss your failures as a man, William.”

“You know that if I can’t—if that marriage remains unconsummated—”

“Many men live a lie. Why should you be any different?” That light blue gaze held ice and steel and sleet. “You are not special. You are at the moment not even adequate. You will do what each of us must, and uphold the family honor. You will, at least once, do your duty as regards producing an heir. You will present yourself as beyond reproach in public. In private you may engage in whatever sordid vices you prefer, and we will never speak of this again.”

“It isn’t fair—”

“To whom? To your wife? She will most certainly expect very little from you. The extent of your general weakness and your scientific eccentricity is widely known, though not the…other particulars. Any families in attendance have already chosen to overlook your faults. And if you mean that life is unfair to you, William, I am only surprised you remain so naïve.”

“As,” Colby-as-Will said, bitter at himself, at his father, at this life, “am I. I am leaving for London, Father. Will you stop me? Will you disown me?”

“You are the heir to Stonebrook.”

“Yes. Why am I?”

Laurie, as Percival, regarded him in silence, but with curiosity newly provoked: a question his son had never before asked.

“You could disinherit me. Why haven’t you?”

“You are not a theatre actor, and this is not a melodramatic opera, William.”

“But you could. Legally. It’d be a scandal, but would you care?”

“This family’s reputation—”

“Would survive. Money and a title can do a great many things.”

His father said nothing, again.

“You could. I’d be gone. I’d…I’ll move to London. For good. I’ll support myself by writing. Illustrating. Taking a job in a bookshop if I have to. You could remarry. Have a more suitable son. You could—why did you never remarry?”

Laurie did not move. His hands lay dry and papery as spider’s legs on the desk. “I love your mother.”

The present tense, the gleam of the wedding ring on his father’s finger, silenced Will.

“I,” Laurie said, “once wished her son, our son, to inherit this estate. To have everything we could build for him. I have been disappointed in the granting of that wish. I have been left with you.”

Colby rasped out, uneven, “Do you—do you wish I had been the one to die, in place of her?”

“Yes.” Simple and cataclysmic. Nothing more.

Colby had a line to deliver. They didn’t need it. No other words.

He nodded. He took a step back, then another, and then he fled.

Behind him the shot lingered on Laurie, on Percival Crawford. Who continued not to move, still as marble carved by grief, looking after his son’s retreating form.

Jason came immediately over after the call to cut, glancing anxiously at Colby’s face. Those expressive brown eyes were pleated with understanding. Compassion in tree-bark and deep earth.

“I’m all right,” Colby said. He was, to his own faint surprise. This had been easier: more about Will, less about himself. His mother hadn’t died; his father did not hate him. They might not be close, and Howard Kent had never known how to talk to a son with no interest in either political ambitions or golf courses, but at least did not despise the very sight of him. “Perhaps a bit drained—it’s an emotional wringer, isn’t it—but fine. How was that?”

“I heard at least three people gasp and start crying on your behalf, so I’d say perfect.”

“Awesome!” Jill called over. She’d been scrutinizing him; she was grinning, the response of a pleased director and a friend gladdened on his behalf. “But we’ll do it a couple more times, okay? Sir Laurence, fantastic and devastating, of course. If you want any note at all, feel free to react a little more to Will saying he might lower himself to working for a living, how awful, such an insult to the family, y’know?”

“Oh, yes, certainly, Jillian.”

“Colby, I want some close-up shots of your reaction there, and I think you’re right about not saying anything, but then I want another second or two before you run out, for the emotion!”

“Got it!”

“Yeah.” Jason touched his cheek briefly: not quite a kiss, but possibly even more. They both knew about Colby and touching. And Jason felt like home. “You do.”

 

Jason, after a long afternoon of basically standing—or sitting—around and waiting and watching Colby, found himself glad to have something to do. He didn’t mind watching Colby—he’d never mind that—but he liked action, too. And this one’d be a powerful scene. Running footsteps. Tearful emotion. An onslaught.

He bounced from foot to foot outside the bedroom, energy ready to erupt.

The evening unspooled cool and silky, getting ready right along with him: historic walls and the liquid veils of the storm, the weight of solid old furniture and nineteenth-century clothing, the sound of boots on antique floors and the starch of wigs and gowns and servants’ disciplined posture.

Most of them were disciplined. Ryan, back in wardrobe as Thomas the footman, caught Jason’s eye from next to the door, as they waited for the word to go. “I don’t know, man, should I let you in? I’m in charge of his health and well-being, and you just want to run in here all wet and muddy.”

“Can I sack you without a reference?”

“Nope. I work for him. Well, technically his dad.”

“Can Stephen pay you to quit and just look after Will full-time?”

“I don’t know, you kinda look untrustworthy, all piratical—”

“I like pirates!” Colby called from the bed. “Let him in or you’re fired!”

“See,” Jason said, vindicated. “He likes pirates.”

Ryan looked Jason up and down. “And giant stacked cinnamon rolls.”

“What even is a—”

“Leave the giant cinnamon roll alone,” Jill interrupted. “He has to get into the mindset for this. Jason, two minutes. Colby, lie back down and look like you’re dying.”

“Oh dear, I’m dying,” Colby agreed cooperatively, and flung himself back into pillows. In Will’s loose nightshirt, with that artificial pallor and tangled hair, his smile was incongruous and extraordinary.

“No you’re not, not while I’m here,” Jason announced, and went out into the hall, finding his mark near the top of the stairs. The cameras would track him flying in from there.

You’re not dying, he thought again. Not while I’m here.

Not in this scene, obviously. This wasn’t the end. And that was the bittersweet broken-candy irony of it: a fortnight, twelve days, and Stephen would be ordered back to sea. Will would live, recovering slowly, clinging to this spun-sugar fleeting idyll. They’d have this; they’d love each other and privately vow themselves to each other, and when Stephen left it’d be with the knowledge that at least this time the illness hadn’t won.

They’d had this time. They had the certainty of their love.

They’d never see each other again. Guns at sea. A battle. Lord Cary arriving to speak to Will privately, and a hand on Will’s shoulder as Will sank to the sofa.

Jason had cried. He wasn’t ashamed of it. It hurt, and it was real, and he loved Stephen and loved Will, and it wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair even if it was true—

He’d known it’d be powerful. This film, this story. Emotions that’d reach in and scoop out audience hearts and leave them sobbing, feeling, caring.

All at once he discovered an irrational hate for that ending. He, as Stephen but also as Jason, did not want either of them to die.

Right now he could stay at Will’s side. Soup, blankets, medicines, tender care, reading aloud under candlelight. And Will wouldn’t die.

And Colby—

What about Colby?

Colby wasn’t dying. Colby was fine. Maybe not eating enough, but doing better; maybe bruised inside and out, but doing better with that too—and Jason loved him and would care for him—

If, again. If Colby wanted that. If, after this production—

If they had an after. Not a one-time thing, he’d said; Colby’d agreed. But they hadn’t defined what it was. And what if Colby instead wanted—if Colby, opening back up and dancing with extras to Katy Perry on film sets, wanted to explore something besides an aging set of muscles with a tendency to catastrophize—

No. No, Colby liked being with him. He believed that. Colby was a genius actor, but that shy and genuine pleasure wasn’t acting. That was real. This was real.

They had this.

Except he needed to be afraid he’d lose it.

And that was…

Too easy. Because he was afraid.

He knew about loss. He knew about absence. He didn’t want to lose Colby. He thought of that and the thought raked claws through him, visceral and jagged; he shut both eyes.

One minute. He took a deep breath. Colby wasn’t dying. Will wasn’t but might be, as far as Stephen knew. Stephen could think of nothing else: consumed by love and grief and the need to be nowhere else but here at his beloved’s side. Mud-and-rain-drenched, having ridden non-stop, he’d arrived seconds ago and bolted up the stairs, as the staff—who liked the young Viscount Easterly, and felt pity for them both—stood aside and out of his way.

“Ready,” Jill said. “Lights, camera, Colby at death’s door, okay, action!”

Jason charged down the hall. Slammed through the door, Ryan at his back. Burst into the bedroom set. Calling for Will, frantic.

He stumbled over the edge of yet another ostentatiously expensive rug—those ludicrous displays of wealth, plus Stephen’s damn inflexible boots—while turning toward the bed. He caught himself on the doorframe: unplanned, unscripted. No one called to cut, so the clumsiness must’ve worked.

The next breath vanished out of his lungs.

Colby lay on that bed. Colby lay on that bed, limp and unresponsive, asleep or—

Jason’s brain shouted rationality at him. Acting. The scene. Will. Will was sick. Not Colby.

He knew it wasn’t real. He did know.

His heart didn’t know.

Colby seemed smaller in the lavish four-poster bulk. His face was drawn and pale, and he didn’t stir.

The lighting and the stark white bedsheets and the cloth lying beside the bed—the cloth with blood on it, because Will had been coughing—bit into Jason’s chest and tore out his insides. That was makeup and staging—of course it was, Colby wasn’t sick—

But it was so good, so convincing—

His own memories screamed in uninvited. Charlie. A body. A friend he hadn’t been there in time to maybe save, to dive in and rescue, only able to stumble over to look at that white slack face and to collapse to both knees—

That couldn’t happen again, that wouldn’t happen, not with Colby—

Jason lurched over to the bed. Colby didn’t move. He wouldn’t, though. Not in the script. He wouldn’t wake until his cue—until Jason said the right words—

He put a hand out. Let it hover above Colby’s shoulder, too afraid to land.

His fingers shook. Was Colby even breathing? Was his chest moving?

Colby’s face was too white. Calligrapher’s fingers too immobile. Not talking. Not right.

But Will wasn’t dead. Not now, not like this. Their story didn’t end that way. That wasn’t—Colby couldn’t be—

Colby’d been fine half an hour ago, laughing and bright-eyed and reassuring him, Jason, about being fine—

But. But Colby’d been under emotional strain. Those scenes with Sir Laurence. Dancing with people, and people he didn’t know well, at that. Badly bruised—from Jason’s handling of him the day before, god, how could Jason have—and not feeling up to sex. And too thin. Way too thin.

And Colby had talked about feeling a little drained, and what if that hadn’t been just tiredness—

Colby’s face was turned toward him, but those eyes were shut. Long dark eyelashes over colorless skin. No welcoming stripe of fanciful extra-blue.

The rational part of Jason’s brain tried shouting again: he’s waiting for a cue, say your fucking line, ask him to wake up, tell him you love him, tell him you’re here now—

That rational part of Jason’s brain got trampled by stampeding fear. By a flash flood. A deluge. Water. No.

“Please,” he whispered. Not acting. He couldn’t.

That’d been almost the line, but not quite. If he said the line right then Colby might wake up. He had to say it right. Colby had to wake up.

“Will,” he scraped out. “I’m here, I’m here with you, love, please wake up.” Ryan stirred a fraction: surprise at the depth of emotion, maybe, or the urge to come to Will’s side. Jason couldn’t spare him any attention.

“I’ve come back,” he tried, “like we promised, I told you I’d come back, I told you I’d bring you a flower from the West Indies,” and he fumbled the tiny scrap of bullet-nicked red out of Stephen’s coat and set it on the table, and then did finally take Colby’s hand, clumsily cradling it in both of his.

Colby’s hand felt cold. Jason found himself crying. Tears slid down his face and splashed like blood on their joined fingers, on the sheets.

“I love you,” he whispered this time. “I wrote that to you a thousand times. I wrote poetry for you. Because you once told me I should try. They’re not very good. I’ll read you one if you’ll wake up, love.” His voice broke. He broke: shattered right down the middle, along fault lines he hadn’t known he had.

He couldn’t think of the next line. Colby didn’t move, but wasn’t supposed to yet; but Colby wasn’t moving and what if Jason never remembered the line and the magic spell never worked and Colby never woke up again, because Colby was—was—

What if it was real

“Please,” he got out again, and then he was crying more, undeniable scorching sobs that clawed their way up and out of his throat. He’d ended up on his knees beside the bed. He didn’t know when he’d done that.

The floorboards felt hard and the air tasted dry and Colby’s fingers were so cold. Colby must be dying, because that’d be how it felt if Colby was dying, as Jason loved him and clutched his hand and begged him to stay.

The stories blurred together. His vision blurred. Unreal and real. Collisions and devastations. He couldn’t breathe. He loved Colby. Please.

He couldn’t look up. But he heard a dim rustle. He sensed motion and the shift of the mattress.

He heard Colby’s unmistakable accent. But that couldn’t be true, if Colby was—

That was Colby’s voice, though. Saying something low but inarguable to the crew, iron under flowers, such that bodies melted away into the distance.

He felt the presence get closer. Felt a hand on his skin: cupping his cheek, brushing away tears.

He opened both eyes.

Colby was leaning over the side of the bed, angle completely awkward, clearly having opened eyes and lunged that way immediately. Colby’s fingers gathered up and stroked teardrops from Jason’s cheekbones, cradling his face; Colby’s eyes found his and held on, holding them together.

And Colby, indisputably alive, was now saying worriedly, “Jason. Jason, it’s all right, I’m here, I’m all right, I promise. I’m completely fine. We’re both here. You and me. I’m right here with you.”

“I—” I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I love you, I know I’ve just fucked this scene up completely. I love you. I love you and I can’t—

He couldn’t say the words. The tears snarled in his throat, blocking air with pain. He knew it wasn’t real, knew it was acting, he knew.

He looked at Colby, at the concern and care and, yeah, tiredness under makeup, lines around blue eyes; the sight became too much, his love became too much, and he didn’t know how to inhale.

Colby immediately got up. Right out of bed. Right down on the floor with him. “I’m here. I know it’s so much. Overwhelming. I know. Believe me. But it isn’t happening. Only let it out, that’s fine, it’s okay, you can let it all out, but please do look at me.” His thumbs rubbed over Jason’s hands, gradual, repetitive, affirming.

“Colby,” Jason said, or tried to. That blue was steady as a castle foundation, carved in fairy-tale sapphire and standing strong. Colby, he thought dazedly and not for the first time, would be such a good king. Getting down on both knees and holding someone’s hands on a wood-plank floor when someone needed him. Inspiring a room full of people to dance or laugh or cry for his pain.

“That’s me. I’m here with you.” Colby sounded a bit more worried. “Breathe for me? In. Out. In. One more. Here.” He took Jason’s shaking hand, set it over his own chest, let it stay there. “Heartbeat—oh, that may not be enough, hang on—”

This time he set Jason’s hand higher. Right where fingers could rest over his throat: searching, finding, sensing his pulse. It beat decisively under Jason’s hand. “Feel that?”

Jason nodded slowly, holding on. Colby didn’t like being touched. Colby didn’t like being touched without clear verbal discussion and consent. Colby didn’t like large hands gripping him in vulnerable places. But Colby kept his own hand over Jason’s, kept his eyes on Jason’s, not backing away.

“Okay.” Colby, still holding his hand in place, exhaled. “Okay. Jason—we’re okay. We’re all right.”

And Jason heard the relief, the tremor, in that magician’s voice. Colby, he understood suddenly, had been scared as well. Scared and hurting for him.

“I’m me,” Colby said, “not Will. And you’re you. Jason Mirelli. I’m not dying of consumption and you’re not being sent off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, either, not that I’m aware. We’re us. And we’re here.”

Jason gulped down a ship-sized snarl of emotions. “How…how do you know I’ve never…been sent off to fight Napoleon…”

Not even a good joke. But Colby’s smile lit up the whole frightened bedroom set, curtains to cameras.

“Unless you’ve been keeping time-traveler secrets from me, I’m fairly certain I’m right. But if you have please tell me. I’d love to go and visit the Great Exhibition of 1851 sometime.”

“Any time you want.” Jason closed his eyes, let his head fall back against the bedframe. The thunk of it ached dully. He deserved that. He should know better. Being professional. Hell. “You and me. We’re here, you said.”

Colby looked at him thoughtfully—Jason, peeking through hot swollen eyes and the pause, could see thoughts moving behind all that blue—and then scooted over, fit himself more or less into Jason’s lap, and arranged Jason’s arms around himself. On the floor, in the shadow of the towering lordly bed. Jason blinked, and tightened arms around that slim body automatically.

“Well,” Colby observed, tone light as feathers over ravines, resolute as fingers defusing a bomb, “this seemed easiest. For you to hold me. To know I’m real.”

“Um,” Jason managed. Yes. Yes, forever, I love you, please.

He couldn’t say that. Not when he didn’t know what Colby wanted; not when he’d just fallen apart mid-take. He wanted to cling to Colby until he could breathe.

“…yeah,” he finished, just for something to say, hopeless and in love and exhausted from emotional trauma and character bleed that he knew was really the opposite: his heart bleeding everywhere on its own, right into Stephen, not the other way around.

He kept his arms around Colby, because for some unfathomable reason Colby’d voluntarily chosen that.

Colby felt solid and alive and reassuringly awkward with regard to a sliding-up nightshirt and long legs. Dark hair tickled Jason’s mouth; Colby put his head on Jason’s shoulder. “I do like you holding me. I’d like that again tonight. I was thinking about wine. I’ve made elderflower wine before, have I told you that? It’s not that difficult and it tastes the way I imagine fairy wine might. Of course there’s a bit of effort, boiling water and sugar, adding yeast, straining flowers, time for fermenting, all that…I think next time I’d try the cordial version, possibly mixed with gin, but then again I was also thinking about blackberry wine, which I’ve not tried yet, but I do like blackberries…”

The words, like the rain, flooded over them both. Rolled around them like waves, melodic and buoyant. Kept them afloat.

I know you’re not dying, Jason thought. I mean, now. Logically. I know.

He thought, I want to hold you. I need to hold you. I think I need to take care of you right now, or later, I don’t know, after this, back in bed. I have to know that you’re safe and still here and still mine.

How did you know, he thought, that I needed to hear you talk about making wine out of flowers and fruit; and he rested his face in Colby’s fluffy hair and kept arms around strong Regency-nightgown-clad shoulders and shut his eyes.

 

Colby rambled about wine and flowers and blackberries. About sorbets and cocktails. Flavors and summery citrus. Anything he could think of. Not even thinking, not as such. Words rattling out. Whatever came to mind. With an arm around Jason’s waist, an intermittent kiss or two to Jason’s collarbone, the gust of Jason’s exhales in his hair.

His bare legs were growing chilly. He did not want to move. The storm crooned, a loyal companion; thank you, he answered silently. The sound and camera equipment waited silently too, dark and sleek and compassionate. The bed provided sturdy leaning support.

He murmured, “Of course, you like blueberries and cream, don’t you, I recall which pastry you ate, early on…or was it only that you’d rather I eat the cinnamon one, if I like it…I wonder whether I can make a sort of blueberry-cinnamon fruit crumble? Both at once, as it were. With elderflower sorbet? Or is that too much, do you think?”

He wasn’t expecting a reply; Jason breathed out, though, nearly a laugh. “You? Too much?”

“Oh…well, I can be a bit much, yes…”

“No.” Jason held on more fiercely. “Not what I meant. I meant that you—you deserve everything you want. Everything sweet. If I could—I’m not a bad cook, but I’m not you…but I could try to make you something sometime…” The struggle in that voice set a talon in Colby’s heart and twisted. Forests trying to recover after a soul-deep fire. Forcing courageous shoots of green back up. “Maybe…I could ask Mom about her pizza dough, or Nonna—my grandmother—if you like, um, recipes with some history…”

“I’d love that, but only if they don’t mind sharing, of course. And I’d love anything you made. I’m certain it’d be splendid. You’re very good at knowing how to do things. Acting. Loving characters. Caring for me.”

“Am I?” Jason sighed. “I feel fucking awful about this. Making you do this…stopping production…”

“We’re ahead of schedule—only a bit, but we are—and I can say as a producer that I’m not bothered. Jill understands. Everyone understands about loving someone—your character—so much that you get caught up in it. And what does that mean, about making me do this?”

“You…I…you need me to take care of you, and I—I’m—”

“Who on earth said taking care of each other is mutually exclusive?” He sat up, narrowly missing a collision with Jason’s chin, and scolded that tragic forest grove with his eyebrows. “You are taking care of me. This feels lovely. And I’m here for you. It’s not one or the other.”

An infinitesimal smile tempted the corner of Jason’s mouth. “You said you like me holding you.”

“I may not ever be thrilled about unexpected touching,” Colby informed him, “but I climbed into your lap on purpose, you know. Though now my legs are a bit cold. Would you like to touch them? You could warm them up for me?”

The smile grew a bit more. “You want me to—to help you? Keeping you warm?”

“Yes, I’d like that.” He gave Jason the big soft submissive eyes, this time: mildly exaggerated for effect, because he didn’t want that rare and generous heart to fret in truth. “You said you would always take care of me. And I need you to do that now, please.”

This time Jason’s eyebrows went up. He rubbed a hand across his face, scrubbing aside the remains of the tempest; his grin was steadier. “You’re asking for that. Um. You are, right?”

“Entirely, thoroughly, sincerely asking?”

“You’re perfect.”

“I’m not.” He cuddled up to Jason more. “I am cold.”

Jason started laughing, enough to shake them both. The reprieve tumbled the world back into alignment, not flawless but put together just right anyway, here in a historic estate’s bedroom with cameras for company.

“So sweet,” Jason told him, and one hand found Colby’s calf, closing over chilly skin: firm and hot. “Asking so nicely, too. So good, all for me. You want me to help you with that? Can’t have those sexy legs getting cold.”

“They’re what?” Distracted, he peeked at his own limbs. “Are you certain you’re well enough for this?”

“Your legs are sexy, you should know that, and I’m pretty sure I should be reminding you about arguing over compliments—”

“I was only asking!”

“—but right now, you need taking care of.” Jason had begun rubbing his right leg; the heat did feel nice, and the niceness spread upward. “Hey. Got an idea. You still okay with me picking you up?”

“I believe I had a dream that started that way, this morning—”

Jason kissed him—swift and excited, but tender enough that Colby thought they weren’t quite done healing yet—and adjusted positions, gathered legs, scooped Colby into arms. Got up.

Colby, despite anticipating this, couldn’t not gasp. He also couldn’t help the pulse of instinctive desire that bloomed low and deep inside.

“Good sound?” Jason set him gently in bed. Sat down with him, tucking blankets around him but not quite covering him up, leaving legs accessible for more petting.

“Quite,” Colby said, still sorting out the sudden dizzying swell of pure lust. Jason’s hands made this difficult. They kept moving over his calves, thighs—not much higher than halfway up—and, apparently just because, down to his feet for a bit of a foot-rub. The bed took their weight with the support of interior-design camaraderie.

“You do totally have a thing for being picked up,” Jason said. “And the muscles. And being put right where I want you.”

“If you’re expecting me to argue, I’m not going to.”

“I like that you like it.” Jason kneaded his calf, having clearly decided that Colby needed to be transformed into a glowing pool of arousal. Fairy wine, magical elderflower wine, and Jason’s hands: a secret alchemical formula for transfiguration, Colby thought, and tried not to giggle.

“You said you weren’t ticklish.”

“I’m not. I thought about wine. And I like being a bit drunk on you touching me. And I like your very large—”

“Thanks for that.”

“Hands, I was going to say! But that too. I love how large you are. Er…Jason? It’s not just that you’re essentially everything I’ve ever, er, been left weak at the knees over. It’s you.” He propped himself on elbows, watching Jason’s eyes; this was important. “Who you are. I’m happy when I’m with you. I couldn’t resist the leg metaphor.”

Jason snorted, bent down, and kissed the closest knee in question. Colby couldn’t see his face for a second; when Jason sat back up, though, those plush eyes were endearingly serious. “Thanks. Again. For…the leg metaphor, obviously.”

“Any time.”

“Not as cold?”

“No.” He took Jason’s hand when it reached for his. “Not anymore.”

“So…” Jason’s grin became rueful. “Not sure if you noticed, but Jill and like ten other people have been peeking around the door at us for, like, the last five minutes.”

“Have they?” He had in fact noticed. He hadn’t wanted Jason to feel guilty.

“Yeah. We should probably…” Jason waved the hand not holding Colby’s. “Get back to it.”

“Only if you’re feeling up to that.”

“You know,” Jason said, “I actually think…yeah. We can do this.”

“Of course you can.”

“No, I mean we.” Jason lifted Colby’s hand and kissed it. “I always feel like I can do anything, around you.”

 

He could do anything, with Colby. This scene. A dive, and swimming. Finding the right words or gestures to give those blue eyes what they needed.

He wasn’t embarrassed about the falling apart. Maybe he should apologize for delaying the scene, and he would, but Colby’d said that this was understandable, part of love. Had climbed into Jason’s lap and asked Jason to care for him, even after witnessing the collapse. Colby trusted that Jason could.

Jason thought maybe he could, too.

So did the rain, or at least he guessed that was what the shout of thunder meant. Colby smiled at him; Jason said again, “Yeah, we can do this,” and turned, still holding that hand in his. “Jill? We’re good.”

Everybody emerged from eavesdropping and pretended they hadn’t been. Brian the camera operator lightly punched Jason’s shoulder on his way back to work. Jill said, “We won’t do this one too many more times, it’s getting late anyway,” and met Jason’s eyes. The pink in her hair flickered in candlelight.

Jason squeezed Colby’s hand one more time. Stood up.

Colby said, “Jason?”

“Yeah?”

“I quite like your sexy legs as well.”

Jason, at this, went off to Cherry’s repair-artist hands for make-up assistance on the wings of laughter: supported by Colby’s grin.

They went again. He ran in. He caught Colby’s hand in his. He pleaded for Will to awaken. He heard his voice crack, and let it.

He sank down on the bed, and breathed, “I’m here, Will, I’ve made it, I’ve come home to you, you can’t leave me now, damn it—”

Colby’s eyelashes fluttered, lifting. Colby’s battered-harp voice breathed back, “I must be alive, you’re swearing at me—” and Jason bent down on a sob and kissed him.

Water purred through the air, and candlelight painted the bedposts in chiaroscuro: light and dark entwined as two hearts, as Jason’s hand coming up to stroke Colby’s hair.

Jill’s “Cut” landed quietly, without disturbing the peace.

They did it twice more, to have options. They did the version with Ryan interrupting to offer Colby laudanum, to ease the pain when Will began coughing. They filmed a montage of brief clips for the next few days and nights, after Jason did a quick-change into less muddy clothing: shots of Stephen at Will’s bedside, lavishing his beloved with care. Jason sat with Colby and read to Colby from a scientific treatise and offered sips of weak tea; Stephen did not know all the specialized vocabulary, but would bend all his hearty strength to pronouncing Latin terms for pond-dwelling wildlife if that was what Will wanted.

He steadied Colby through mock coughing fits, and through gradual sitting-up more, and nibbling toast and blancmange. Servants came and went and nodded at them; Leo and Kate arrived, the loyal Lieutenant Harper and his pretty Irish wife on a visit, bringing news of the Steadfast’s new mast and resupply progress. Kate, as Colleen, knew her husband’s captain well; she held out a hand to Will with no hesitation at all, fearless in the face of an earl’s son and accepting of a man who loved other men. Colleen, being Irish, knew about prejudice; being fond of Stephen, she trusted that he’d choose a good man.

Colby, as Will, took her hand. His expression melted from astonishment to happiness; he asked how she liked Stonebrook, whether she’d seen the art galleries, whether he could offer tea or sandwiches or anything she’d like. Jason met Leo’s glance across this welcome of equals; they both knew how much this meant.

They filmed into the night, and went late; but it was good. Jason knew it was good. They all knew.

When they wrapped for the day, Colby sat up and moved to get out of bed, nightshirt sliding up along those damn enticing legs; Jason said, “You like me picking you up, you said?” and got arms into place. Colby’s eyes sparkled, and the nod was permission, so Jason swept him up out of bed and carried him off: supported decisively in both arms, taken away through the door and down the hallway with triumphant rescuing-hero flair.

Because they had triumphed. Together.

By the time they reached the stairs, someone had pulled out a phone and added a soundtrack, and everyone including Jason himself was laughing; he set Colby down. “Like that?”

“Honestly? Yes.” Colby was blushing, but happily so. “Take me back to your room and toss me into bed, please.”

“Sounds like another good plan.”

It was, and they followed it: throwing on twenty-first-century clothing, running through raindrops out to Terry and the waiting car, jumping in, holding hands like teenagers on a date. Up the elevator, down the wood-beamed hallway, into Jason’s room. Trading kisses on the way.

Jason nibbled at Colby’s ear, left kisses along the slender column of that neck. Confessed to Colby’s hair, as it flirted with his face, “I want to make you come until you’re screaming my name. All mine.”

“Yes.” Colby’s hands tugged Jason’s jeans open. “Yes please. Make me feel everything. Everywhere. Yours.”

“You asked for it.” He peeled Colby out of today’s sweater—green, a chunky emerald knit—and clinging pants and equally clinging blue briefs. “You want orders, baby?”

Colby’s smile went right to Jason’s dick, but also other places: pulling every piece of him more upright with anticipation. “Tell me what you’d like me to do.”

“You asked before about getting on your knees for me.” He kicked off jeans and boxers, not caring where anything landed. “Come here.”

Sitting on the end of the bed, he got Colby between his spread legs; he touched Colby’s hip. “Not sore?”

“Not much.” Colby knelt while talking, and even put hands behind his back in something like an echo of old requirements, which Jason hadn’t requested. Their reflections shimmered in the mirror. “Like this?”

“You can touch me. Actually…I want you to touch yourself. Like you did the first time. While you get that mouth on my cock. Um. If you want that.”

Colby’s lips twitched; the smile threatened to escape.

“You can laugh at me,” Jason said. “But I’m still gonna ask whether you’re okay with things.”

“I want to. I…er…I don’t know whether I’m any good at that. My, er, mouth. I thought—I like doing it, I’ve always liked it, but then again I’ve also been told I’m not very good in bed, but then you do seem to—”

“Trust me when I say you just have to be you. I want you to almost make yourself come while you do it. The way you like.”

Colby blushed more, but began obediently caressing himself with one hand: deliberate and light, drawing it out. The head was already wet, need beading up messily at the tip; that long rigid cock would be even more messy soon.

“Go on.” Jason took himself in one hand, gave his dick a quick stroke too, pointing himself at Colby’s mouth. “Let me see you.”

Colby bent his head, and took Jason into his mouth. He looked up after the first couple of inches, and watched Jason watching him: that length and girth, sliding between those luscious lips, with those wide blue eyes and that tumultuous hair.

Jason groaned and shoved forward, not too hard. Colby took this first invasion without flinching, and Jason’d been kind of apprehensive about any memories, but they seemed to be doing fine.

Good, then. More.

Colby’s mouth felt incredible. Colby felt incredible: out of practice, struggling a little with size and heft, but eager and trying hard. Jason almost put a hand on his head; stopped the gesture—Colby didn’t like being held down—but lightly touched Colby’s throat instead, over that pulse-point, that affirmation.

Colby moaned around the invasion in his mouth. Jason murmured, “You like that? Me touching you, me filling you up? You said you like being full.”

Unanticipated, the tears snagged the edge of his gaze, his voice. He tightened fingers a fraction on Colby’s neck.

This was real. This was Colby alive and wanting him and kneeling for him. They were both here and breathing.

Colby’s eyelashes drifted down and up; the blue got more hazy, clouded with desire. His hand moved faster, between his legs; he trembled, tensing, and sucked harder on Jason’s cock.

“So good,” Jason whispered. “You’re so gorgeous like this, baby, being mine…”

Colby wasn’t as coordinated as some of Jason’s previous partners, but that might’ve partly been the distractions of self-pleasure, as ordered; he obviously wanted to be good, but the size was a lot to handle. He found a rhythm, stopped, started again; Jason thrust, obligingly, and Colby choked, coughed, and tried obediently to take more. His eyes were a bit wet.

“Shh,” Jason told him, “just relax, stay still, where I want you…you don’t need to move, just let me…just take this for me…”

He watched as Colby visibly settled and softened, words and pleasure rushing through that elegant body; he offered praise, more words, the brush of his fingers to Colby’s cheek. Colby gazed up at him; Jason drew back and pushed in again, cock fat and shiny against parted lips. He kept everything measured, gradual, not rough; he wanted Colby to feel it, though. One more inexorable glide. Pressing the whole length down into that submissive throat.

Colby’s eyes slid shut, then opened: Jason kept him like that, lips all the way at the base and buried in dark curls, knowing air might be a struggle and also knowing that Colby could move away at any time.

Colby shivered again, and his back arched. Jason looked down: Colby’s hand was tight around his own cock, which was dripping and desperate.

“You like this, don’t you?” Jason set the hand back on his neck. “You like feeling it. Me inside you. Stop for a sec.”

Colby did, mouth sliding off Jason’s dick, slick and pink. His cheeks were pink too.

“I said,” Jason told him, “that I wanted to make you come until you were screaming my name. I think you should come like this. The first time. Tonight.”

Colby’s lips echoed, the FIRST time? But he didn’t say anything, only licked shyly at the tip of Jason’s dick, which liked this initiative.

“At least twice,” Jason said. “Maybe three. Right now…” He moved a leg closer. Pressed his knee against Colby’s unbruised hip. “I want to feel you. And to see you come. The way you like, what you know feels good.”

“I…” Colby stopped, coughed again—shades of Will, and Jason’s heart stumbled over itself, but then that voice recovered—and finished, “I want…I want to do that…I could, ah. I think I could even without…even if I didn’t touch…er, me…”

“You want to get off just from sucking my cock?” He stroked Colby’s hair. This earned a tiny delicious sound, nearly a whimper. “Hell yes. I mean, if you want to touch yourself, whatever you want, go ahead. But if you can, then yeah. Do that.”

“I think…I like this.” Still small, not loud, but certain about the words. “I like having your—your cock in my mouth. And being good for you.”

“Someday we’ll do that, too. Just keep you on your knees, keeping my dick warm for me, all day.”

Colby made a sound this time that was definitely excitement, and licked the anatomy in question again, tongue swiping neatly over the slit.

“So I’m taking that as a yes. Unless you say otherwise.”

Colby paused to shoot him a smile: like a flying star.

“Okay, then. Just stay right here—yeah, like that—and let me fuck that pretty mouth.” He traced a finger across those lips for good measure. “This’s me taking care of you. Making you feel good. Because you are, aren’t you? Already there.”

Colby opened that mouth willingly. Jason took him a little harder this time—only a little—and Colby melted into his hands, his fucking, his command. Jason thrust all the way down again, hand somehow sneaking to the nape of Colby’s neck.

And Colby shuddered head to toe, Jason’s cock keeping his mouth stuffed full and Jason’s hand oh-so-lightly resting on him; he evidently liked that a hell of a lot, from the abrupt tautness and then telltale languor in his body. He clung to Jason, after: hands finding Jason’s legs, hips, places to hold on.

“You did, didn’t you? Just from that, just like that, my cock down your throat…so good, baby. You’re so good. Everything I want. Show me, come on, let me see you…”

Colby whimpered again but sat back on his heels, lips parted and sticky from Jason’s desire. His cock lay upright but softening between his thighs, and his stomach and even chest were splashed with white; he trembled as Jason looked at him.

The storm, outside, lashed the old hotel and the skies and the world: more rain, more intense. Inside, the large old wooden ceiling-beams gazed down, benevolent.

Colby bit a lip, under Jason’s eyes on him; the next sound was almost a sob.

“Shh,” Jason said again, “you’re fine, you’re gorgeous, you’re so fucking perfect, baby, come here—” and got up and picked him up and got into bed with him, running hands over him, shoulders to hips. “I’m here. I’m taking care of you. You can cry if you need to, but I am asking if you’re okay, you said you know about colors and safewords, so how’re we doing?”

Colby tried to say something, lost the word to another sob, and managed, “Jason…”

“Yeah? Still here.”

“Please…I don’t know what I need, I feel…everything feels…so much…that was so…like the wine, I said…did I say that? In my head I did…flowers and honey and summer berries…everything’s green…oh, it’s like the safety-nets, isn’t it, they’re holding wonderfully and I feel wonderful…”

“Good.”

“But also a bit empty.” Colby frowned a little, adorably. “I want…I can’t focus. I want you…inside me more. In—in me. May I have that?”

“Anything you want.” He kissed Colby’s stomach first, licking up traces of climax. Colby stopped talking; Jason looked up. “Everything still flowery?”

“You like doing that. Tasting me.”

“Yep. Kinda want to taste you everywhere.” He ran a hand up one lean nicely-muscled thigh. Then between Colby’s legs, playing with that spent and vulnerable cock, which had begun attempts at recovering already. “Thinking maybe I want you to come with my fingers inside you, this time. Getting you off like that, on my hand…how does that sound?”

“Please…” Colby’s breath skipped. “Please, Jason, god, yes. Make me do that.”

“One more order. Play with your nipples for me.” He leaned over and found lube, while Colby did as instructed. His own dick bobbed and bounced, wanting back in Colby’s mouth, or other parts; they’d get to that, he informed himself sternly. This was about Colby finding out how good sex, and submission, could feel.

Fingers slick, shining with it, he found that enticing furl of muscle. Rubbed at the rim, a tease. Colby sighed, “Jason, please…” and squirmed against him. That luscious cock had stiffened again, nicely, Jason observed.

“Tell me what you want,” he said, fingers still teasing. Colby was dutifully also teasing his own nipples, in fact even rougher than Jason would’ve: pinching, tugging, rolling.

“I—I—oh god—ah, please—please do—what you said you would—your, ah, fingers inside me—making me come on your hand, what you’re doing to me, my body—god, Jason, this does feel like wine, all the elderflowers—”

Jason had to laugh, and in the wake of that reaction pushed fingers into Colby’s body, a steady purposeful invasion.

Colby’s breath came low and shuddering; those legs spread even more, and his hole stretched and yielded and opened for the penetration, given over to surrender.

Jason moved the fingers inside him, found that spot inside him, made Colby gasp. Did it again: hitting that place over and over, getting Colby to cry out in bliss and push back against his hand, hips rocking up and down.

“You do want this,” Jason said, “you want to be mine, like this, and you are, you always are, as long as you want me, I want you, I’m here, I’m always going to be here for you—” and worked the fingers inside him, and this time Colby did scream, and Jason told him to come, and Colby did that too, sobbing with relief and reprieve, cock spurting less this time but joining the streaks of white already there.

Jason kept the fingers busy, drawing out sensation until Colby was practically incoherent, fantastical voice babbling Jason’s name and strings of yes and please and so much, too much, I can’t, I can’t, but he didn’t say stop or red, and his whole body quivered and spasmed with ecstasy. Eventually he grew quiet, voice trailing off; his eyes were open but unfocused, and his hands dropped to the bed and lay quiescent. Jason drew fingers out of him, and kissed him. “Colby? Babe? Still with me?”

Colby let out a noise that wasn’t a word, languid and almost innocent, eyes big and lips parted.

“Nonverbal?” Jason said, “you?” and petted his hip. “Hey, come on, say something, should I be worried?”

Colby shook his head at that. A few strands of hair stuck to his face; Jason brushed them back and kissed his temple. “Not too much?”

“Flowing everywhere,” Colby said. “Like—like rain. Lights in rain. I can talk if you want.” His voice sounded like his, but younger and drowsy as sleepy tapestries in rainswept towers. “I think I’m floating. Am I?”

“You are a wizard,” Jason pointed out. “But no. Or yes. Maybe metaphorically. Weather check. You okay with me fucking you, like this? When you’re feeling like this?”

“I’m feeling so much. Have I told you that? I think I have. Yes, please, yes, I love you inside me. I don’t know whether I can come for you again. I think perhaps I am already, though, sort of continuously…it’s everyplace, that feeling…is it like that for you?”

“With you?” He found the condom. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.” Colby’d said I love you inside me. Almost the words.

And Jason’s heart took that confession—Colby’s, along with his own unspoken answer, traced in incontrovertible ink like something from one of Colby’s calligraphy pens—and cradled it close. Those tears from earlier turned up to prickle at his eyes: even if Colby never said it for real, at least he’d have that much, unguarded and truthful.

“Jason?”

“Yeah? Sorry.”

“No, I…you look sad. I don’t want you to be sad.”

“I’m not.” He stretched out next to Colby on the bed. “Don’t worry about me, baby.”

“But you should feel good.” One of Colby’s hands, clumsy but generous even in that submissive headspace, came up and skimmed Jason’s face, the corner of his left eye. “I want you to feel good. Always.”

Jason closed his eyes, pressed a kiss to that palm. “I do. Trust me. I—” He bit back the I love you. “You make me happy.”

“Jason?”

“What do you need, baby? Tell me.”

“You could…” Colby hesitated. “You could fuck me without the condom. If you want.”

Jason couldn’t answer for a second or two, and then said, very carefully, “Do you want that?”

“I think I do. I do trust you. And I want to feel you inside me.”

“Are you sure?” He bent down, nudged Colby’s nose with his own. “I know why you want me to use them. I don’t mind. And I don’t want you to say yes to something you’re gonna regret later.”

“I was thinking about it,” Colby said, still quiet and still blissful—Jason heard it in his voice—but serious too. “While we were dancing. I wanted…I want to feel it when you come in me. I want to feel you in me after.”

“Oh god,” Jason said involuntarily.

“May I have that? Please?”

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat. “Yes. Yeah. Okay.”

This time when he bent to kiss Colby—his beautiful brave submissive Colby, his other half, the answer to the yearnings he hadn’t even known he had—he discovered that he was smiling. They both were.

He moved between those thighs. Looked down: Colby spread out before him, in his sheets, covered in come and kiss-marks, cock half-hard and flushed and wet-tipped. Colby gazing up at him, lips curved up too, exultation in those oceanic horizons.

Jason found more lube, and stroked it over himself, kneeling above Colby; he bent to lift those legs, to rearrange them, and he let his head push at that entrance, made ready by his fingers. He nudged forward, and in, and Colby moaned, “Yes,” and opened up easily for him, taking him, hot tightness gripping Jason’s whole length; Jason thought he might come on the spot, or explode, or start crying more.

Colby reached for him, trying to pull him closer; Jason hesitated, and through sheer willpower stayed right where he was, holding his own weight up, even as his dick demanded he move, thrust, claim the absolute depths of Colby’s body.

But Colby didn’t like weight—didn’t like being pinned down—

“You want—”

“I want to feel you,” Colby explained dreamily. “On top of me, in me, all of you…I don’t know whether I can come for you, again, but maybe, like this…I feel so good, and you feel so good, and I love it all, with you…”

Jason groaned, jerked hips forward—plunging himself deeper into Colby—and sank down atop him, letting Colby cling to him and run hands all over him, his back, his arms, while those long legs wrapped around Jason’s waist.

“Please,” Colby whispered. “Oh, Jason, please…I’m yours, I’m all yours, let me feel it, let me feel you, I need it, I need you, take care of me, please…”

Jason’s breath caught, and his body moved without conscious thought, and he buried hands in Colby’s hair and lost himself in wide blue eyes and the feeling of Colby all around him, everywhere. The wave rushed through him like the storm: glorious and elemental, and he spilled himself inside Colby in a flood, giving it all, giving Colby his heart, giving Colby everything.

Colby gasped suddenly and held him tighter, body shaking; Jason kissed him frantically, everywhere reachable, and held him in turn.

The bed, smugly, creaked at them.

Colby, still holding onto Jason, started laughing, and then looked a bit surprised and blinked rapidly, eyelashes damp, and then looked even more surprised and laughed through tears. “Jason…”

“Colby,” Jason said, “Colby,” and buried his face in Colby’s neck for a second, breathing him in. And then pushed himself up, taking back some of his weight. He could feel himself softening, slipping, inside Colby’s wonderful incredible fantastic body. “Are you…was that…that was…good weather?”

“The absolute best,” Colby answered promptly. He looked like it had been: freshly loved, tired and thoroughly ravished, disheveled and radiant. “I didn’t know I could feel that. I didn’t know I could do that. Did you know I could do that? Because if you did I should congratulate you, or possibly even more so if you didn’t, because then you’ve just managed to astound us both, that last bit, my god, you did say you’d make me come for you, and if you’ve got any further plans for me I may literally expire of orgasms, and is that a possible thing, and has that ever happened to you with anyone before? Because it’s a terribly impressive superpower you’ve got, and I feel splendid and I can feel you in me and I love that feeling and I would like to feel it more and I’m talking far too much but you like it.”

“Hell yeah I do.” He kissed Colby’s nose this time. “I am gonna clean you up, though. More taking care of you. My good boy. My Colby.”

“Oh…I like that. Yours.”

“Yes,” Jason said. “Yes.”

He withdrew gingerly. He knew about his own size, and they’d been having sex a decent amount but he’d also just wrung multiple orgasms out of Colby’s body, when before this Colby hadn’t been having sex with anyone for several months at least and good sex basically never. He felt ludicrously proud of himself.

He was also aware that Colby, currently high as a kite on endorphins and submission, would likely not be feeling any pain, if any existed, yet. Along these lines, Colby let out a dismayed yelp as Jason slipped out of him; Jason froze.

“No, no, I’m fine, it’s only, ah…a bit…messy? And oddly empty. I like being full. I like you in me. I think I miss you. Can I have your fingers back? Not for demise via orgasms, just to keep feeling this way, all filled up, for a moment or two more.”

“Um,” Jason said. Colby was possibly going to kill him via orgasms.

He looked at his hand. At Colby’s hole, pink and well-used and displaying decadent traces of Jason’s own release.

He trailed an index finger, just one, around the rim: collecting evidence of what they’d just done. Colby sighed, relaxing into the caress. Jason said, “Tell me if anything hurts, okay, and just for a sec, and just because you asked,” and eased the finger back inside, watching that muscle flutter around renewed sensation.

Jason’s dick, despite having just had the best moment of his entire life, stirred feebly. He wasn’t going to do anything about that—they needed clean-up and sleep, he wasn’t a teenager anymore, and he needed to care for Colby—but he managed to impress himself with the degree of interest.

He enjoyed Colby’s body for a few minutes, as requested: keeping his submissive satisfied, pumping fingers in and out of that drenched opening. Colby squirmed amid sheets, entirely debauched—covered in his own climaxes, Jason’s fingers inside him, utterly uninhibited—and offered up inarticulate abandoned noises along with occasional words about yes or more or Jason’s name or, once, what might’ve been something about sugary clouds. Jason leaned down and bit lightly at that single collarbone freckle, which needed attention.

Colby finally made a different sound, not quite pain but not quite as purely euphoric, and one hand lifted and then flopped back to the bed. “Oh…that’s…I think that’s a bit tired…Jason, please…”

He sounded more aware, if fuzzy. Jason eased the fingers out, tenderly. His heart ached, also tender.

“I’m still splendid,” Colby said vaguely, “only it is starting to feel like rather a lot, and I might cry…will you hold me, though? I want…I feel as if I want to just stay in your arms.”

“Always,” Jason said, “you know I want that too, right? Come here,” and he picked Colby up again, carefully, so carefully, and got them both into the tub, which was old-fashioned and claw-footed in design but new as far as age and size. It was meant to hold at least three or potentially more people, which meant that Jason actually mostly fit, even holding Colby.

He cleaned them both up, with that lingering poignant ache in his chest. He washed Colby’s bare skin, under liquid topaz lamplight; he was as gentle as he could be with muscles and places that’d been so thoroughly surrendered, and also with the dwindling bruises, yellow and green over fairness. He cuddled Colby, who leaned sleepily and trustingly against him, and washed that sweat-damp tangle of hair, and kissed the top of Colby’s head.

He kept Colby warm, and safe, and loved.

He carried Colby back to bed after, naked, and tucked them both under blankets. He ran a hand over Colby’s body, and marveled at that for a minute: Colby here, pliant and sated and miraculous, in his bed. In his arms. And he, Jason, had just taken such good care of this man.

He’d do it again. He’d do it forever. And Colby would do that for him, because Colby knew what Jason needed, and rescued him time after time.

Colby had settled languid and long-limbed into place, head on Jason’s shoulder; that many-petaled voice mused, “I was thinking more about wine, at least the last few moments, once I could think. Mulled wine. With cinnamon and cloves and allspice. The weather’s good for that. Oh, sorry, that wasn’t terribly clear. I don’t mean the metaphor. The proper weather. I do like rain. It makes me smile. You make me smile.”

Jason said, “I love you.”

Colby said back, “And I love you,” and then they both got very, very motionless, tangled together under the susurration of rain.

“Oh god,” Jason said, and then, “no, yeah, I mean, um, I mean it, I mean I do mean it, I—I love you. I’m in love with you. Oh my god.”

Colby had put a shocked hand over his own mouth, eyes huge above the gesture. He took it away in the wake of this, and answered, hesitant and hopeful and rambling all at once, “I—I mean it as well. I do. I love you, Jason. I have since—I don’t know when. Pastries. Bagels. That first screen test. The way you looked at me and knew me. I love you.”

“You make me smile too,” Jason breathed. “You make me want to—to be your knight. To read romance novels. To kiss you. I always fucking want to kiss you. And you say I can, and you want me, you trust me, you believe in me—you save me. Every fucking day. I want to learn how to make cinnamon wine with you. I love you.”

“You say I’m saving you.” That smile was a banner, a flag lifted, a call to home and to beginnings. “But you keep on saving me. Everything I want—everything I’m not scared of wanting—that’s all to do with you. You’re in everything, every daydream, every story. All my happy endings. You’re always here. You’re always here for me. And you don’t mind a few thunderstorms, as far as the weather—”

“I’m right there with you. Holding your hand. More. Whatever you say you want. Whenever.”

“And I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” The blue of Colby’s eyes was clear and bright and sure. That single quirk of darker color, that unusual sneaky mischievous stripe, painted Jason’s universe in sapphires. “At your side. In every meteorological condition. We can…er…weather it all.”

“Did you just make a fucking weather pun—”

“Sorry!”

“I love you,” Jason told him, “no apologizing, and also I love you,” and threw arms around him and rolled him over into pillows and kissed him more, everyplace, resoundingly and in between proclamations of love.

He could say it. He could say it. Aloud. In front of bed-posts and pillow-hills. To Colby.

Colby had said it. Also aloud. Surety in every storied syllable.

He wanted to hear it again; he wanted to say it again, so many times, an acknowledgement and a vow. He could. They could.

The storm erupted in glee, and the bed creaked again in celebratory witness, and Jason held Colby close as the whole world joined in the laughing along.

 

They’d said it. He’d said it. Jason had said it.

Lying in Jason’s arms, head pillowed on Jason’s shoulder, listening to Jason’s steady sleeping inhales and exhales, Colby wanted to laugh. To cry. Overcome by wonder.

He tucked his face into Jason’s muscles for a second, breathing, trembling a little.

The rain sang like heartbeats on the roof and eaves: a dance with the earth and the clouds, joined together.

Jason had said it as if the I love you was instinctive. Straightforward. Right there on his tongue.

Colby both understood and didn’t. He believed that Jason meant the words—Jason had never lied to him, Jason cared for him, Jason had gently washed his hair in the tub and administered more stunt-person magical salve to his bruises before sleep. He just didn’t know how they’d arrived at Jason feeling this way.

He hadn’t even done anything to warrant it. He hadn’t figured out proper gifts or day-off whirlwind vacations or any exclusive experiences Jason might like, for which Colby could barter his own name or money or connections. He’d managed to come up with pizza and zeppole, but that was barely anything; that couldn’t be enough. He loved the feeling of giving himself over to Jason in bed; he knew he’d never been so excited about sex and sensation and also comfort after, and he hoped that he was doing enough for Jason in that regard. He suspected he wasn’t. Surely sex couldn’t be all about him. But Jason seemed to be enjoying what they did.

Jason loved him. Colby did not know how he, Colby Kent, could’ve possibly earned this.

Jason let out a half-awake rumble and tightened arms around him, and then drowsily remembered and loosened the hold. “S’ry. Okay?”

“I like you being cuddly.”

“Not too tight. I know.” Jason stuck his face more into Colby’s hair while talking. “Don’t want to hurt you. Scare you. Anything. Not ever.”

“You won’t,” Colby told him. “You don’t. I’m safe with you.” Thunder boomed, because the universe appreciated good dramatic timing. Colby rested against Jason’s bulwark, and snuck toes under Jason’s ankle for warmth.

Jason mumbled something that sounded like, “Love you so much,” and went back to sleep, evidently comforted. Colby’s mouth found itself smiling; he nearly laughed again.

“I love you,” he whispered, testing the words, knowing Jason wasn’t awake, knowing Jason was here. The sound felt right. He liked it.

Perhaps he could say it, and hear it. Perhaps he didn’t need to earn it. Perhaps he only needed this: being here with Jason, the way Jason was here with him. Holding each other through storms, and happy endings.

…happy endings. Drat. He’d not managed to tell Jason about the writing and script-polishing. Well, it wasn’t urgent; he’d do it tomorrow. He’d find the time, probably after the morning’s running-out-into-the-rain sequence. They’d have a bit of a break, before one last afternoon with Sir Laurence, his last day on set, as Percival Crawford stood at his son’s bedside after Will’s collapse and subsequent forced removal from London. Later there’d be some more gentle kisses with Jason in bed, filming more of Will’s recovery, out of sequence.

They were nearly done, he realized abruptly. Not immediately soon, just about another two weeks of principal photography, but sooner than he’d thought. One more soft implied sex scene: Will showing Stephen the extent of his recovery, though they’d cut it at the tumble down into sheets, letting the moment remain intimate and private. Himself and Jason in a carriage returning to London: Stephen would fret and bluster, and Will would remain unshakably determined, and they would settle back into the London house. Stephen would say his farewells: those orders. Departure. Out to sea, and the defense of a nation. Will would return to work, hand finding a pen and strength, wrapped in blankets. Doing what he could. Making his choice.

And there’d be that scene with Jim coming in: Lord Cary entering Will’s study, resting a hand on Will’s shoulder, delivering the news in person. Stephen and the Steadfast. Lost.

Colby did not want to film that scene.

In Jason’s arms, he considered his half-done alternate ending and the notes he’d made. He’d not quite solved the how of it, but he needed Stephen to survive. He could keep that delivery of the news—it’d be so effectively full of anguish—but it’d have to be softened, not a definite loss, only missing. So that Stephen could turn up later, grievously wounded but alive. Coming to find his Will.

He could write it. He knew he could. He could give Stephen and Will their happiness; he could, perhaps, make Jason happy as well.

Jason wanted to kiss him. Jason said he, Colby, could be someone who saved another person. Who could make Jason smile in the aftermath of an eviscerating scene. Jason wanted to learn to make mulled wine with him.

Colby wanted everything too. He wanted to share it all, writing and wine and maybe a future beyond the next few weeks; he did not want to keep any secrets, and some bashful hopeful piece of his heart wanted Jason to be excited and proud of him and there at his side encouraging him. He thought perhaps Jason would be.

Tomorrow, then. He promised himself that.

He yawned, abruptly tired, but in a glowing pleasant way: worn out with ecstasy, thoroughly spent and suffused by weary liquid light. He genuinely hadn’t known his body could do that. He hadn’t known he could want that. He felt his cheeks warm at the thought.

He’d writhed and begged and pleaded for more. He’d demanded Jason’s hand back inside him. He’d reveled in the feel of it: Jason’s climax wet and messy in him, Jason’s fingers buried deep, making him feel absolutely filthy and stuffed to the brim and abandoned to rapture. And all that after he’d come three times, because he was fairly sure that’d been three; the last one’d been astonishing and unstoppable as a cloudburst, less about his cock—gloriously drained in the first two inexorable orgasms, drawn out of him by Jason’s skill—and more centered deep within, as Jason’s cock pounded him and Colby’s body dissolved into each thrust, each striking against that spot at his core, where he throbbed and melted and came apart in showers of sparks.

He shivered again now, at the memory. The arousal made his cock stiffen a bit, made certain muscles flutter and clench: wanting to have all that again.

He might be a bit sore—Jason was impressively huge, and the fingers and continued playing-around after likely hadn’t helped—but, oh, it’d been lovely. He felt lovely. Jason felt lovely.

Happy endings, he thought again. He did understand the way Jason’d said the I love you, instant and spontaneous; he understood, because his answer’d been the same. Natural. Easy. Simple, as if they’d been saying it all along, and only just now hearing it in this particular form. True and right.

I love you, he thought; he touched his lips to Jason’s broad chest, a kiss under the symphony of rain and the creak of the walls of this old strong hotel. In every meteorological condition. Yes.