There are no stars within the museum.
There should be stars, and sometimes, Octavius feels cruelly denied them. He knows they are outside the museum's heavy walls, shimmering just out of reach. In his mind, he can see them and trace the shapes they outline in the sky; he knows, logically that most of the memories he has are not real, but the odd images that aren't truly memories linger. Sometimes, he clings to them as his only link to the outside world—images of a black sky strewn with pinpicks of light high above a city surrounded by high walls that are reinforced by the few times he has been outside the museums' bounds, with Larry and Ahkmanrah and the others.
He wishes there were stars tonight in the diorama room, as he walks through the streets of Rome—his Rome, if only just a sliver of what the real city would have been in its glory. He tries to memorize all of it that he can. When Tilly returns to London with the tablet and Ahkmanrah, their world will once again fall asleep. It is those times that are the worst, when Octavius can see without actually seeing, and dream without really dreaming.
The patrol he has assigned tonight is completely unnecessary and soley to give the men a distraction and something to focus on. They haven't had an incident since the last time the Mayans attempted to take their borders, and at times, the soldiers can barely find ways to use their energy. Formation and routine helps to keep the issues at bay - he needs only hold them off until the tablet is gone once again.
In truth, he'd rather deal with the problems than go back to sleep.
There is the familiar click and whirl of metal grinding against plastic, and a motorized car—the third in the line-up, after the first two met rather disastrous ends—rolls up to the wall beside the diorama end. Octavius walks to the edge and looks down, even though he knows who he will see.
"Let's go, amigo!" Jedediah calls up, with a hand curled around his mouth like a trumpet; he is half out of the vehicle window, weight balanced precariously on the thin door.
"Go where?" Octavius replies.
Jedediah throws his arms to either side. "To the great big yonder out there! Or maybe just the Hall of African mammals."
"I haven't heard reports of anything out of place within the Hall," Octavius tells him.
"This ain't about patrols, buddy!" Jedediah tries. "It's about adventure."
With the impending removal of the tablet, adventure does seem like something worth having. Octavius does a quick check behind him to the streets, to see that the ranks are still in order and walking their duty, before climbing down to the floor via the rope positioned on the furthest end of the ledge. He slides into the passenger seat of the car and the door has barely had time to click shut before Jedediah has stepped on the accelerator again.
"I do hope you aren't still on about fighting one of the lions," Octavius tells him, "because, as I've mentioned before, that idea is mindless madness."
"We ain't gonna fight a lion," Jedediah scoffs, but it's worrisome how he seems to be contemplating the idea once more. Octavius regrets bringing it back up.
He hangs on for dear life as Jedediah takes the corners with alarming speed. "Try to get us there in one piece!" he shouts, and gets nothing but a wild laugh in response.
The Hall of African Mammals is cleared out—the lions are probably down near the atrium, roaming by themselves, and the rest of the animals in packs, milling somewhere on the second floor by the windows they tend to favor. The only thing that is left is the trees and the dim lighting, which Octavius finds relaxing. It reminds him more of the night sky, anyway, and he appreciates it.
Jedediah stops the vehicle and gets out, hands on the backs of his hips in what Octavius' men have somewhat lewdly referred to as a strut. Octavius extracts himself slower, savoring the fresh smell of the leaves; the trees, too, come alive with the tablet, and he relishes the closeness he feels with the world here. He takes a deep breath, filling his lungs with the almost sickly sweet scent of leaves, and waits for his shoulders to slowly uncoil.
"There is no problem here at all," he says.
"Nah," Jedediah agrees. "Ain't nothing here but some quiet time with nature."
For someone who has spent most of his waking life in the harsh desert sands outside mining tunnels, Octavius wonders if Jedediah is the one who appreciates most of all what the empty Hall offers.
He walks slowly to where the other man is standing, hands on his hips, just above the leather of his twin holsters.
"Perhaps this will be one of our last nights for some time," Octavius starts, and Jedediah jerks.
"Ah, why do you gotta bring that up?" the other man cries. "I don't wanna think about that, I just wanna enjoy the time I actually got left, you know?"
"Perhaps so, but it does not change the truth of it."
Jedediah makes a frustrated, exasperated noise in the back of his throat. He turns, face obscured by the wide brim of his hat, and laces his fingers together at the back of his neck. He stays like this for several seconds, taking short, almost absent-minded steps in no particular direction.
"I keep thinking that it ain't fair to lose all this," Jedediah says, "and then I feel like a heel for wantin' Ahkmanrah to stay here away from his folks, just for me."
He whirls around and rubs his face vigorously with his palms. "Ah, what a dang selfish feelin'! Wallowing in self-pity, just like Larry always said."
"It's not self-pity to wish to continue existing," Octavius tells him.
This seems to halt the self-flaggellation somewhat, and Jedediah drags his hands down his cheeks until his hands fall back down to his sides. He looks flushed, embarrassed, even, and stares down at the ground while kicking at it with the toe of his boot.
It seems as good a time as any to address the one thing Octavius does not want hanging over his head if he is to revert back to his inanimate form for extended periods of time again.
"Listen, about what happened in London," he starts, and finds himself suddenly at a loss of where to go next with it. He has Jedediah's attention, though, and the other man is looking up at him expectantly.
When he fails to continue, Jedediah asks, "'Bout what that happened in London?"
"When I..." Octavius falters; he waits a long moment, and tries again, "I do not wish to..."
The trees, so alive, suddenly feel oppressive. Octavius tugs at his collar even though the fitted breast plate barely moves.
"This 'bout that Lancelot thing?" Jedediah prompts.
"'Lancelot thing'?" Octavius parrots, surprised.
Jedediah shrugs, looking off to the side again. "Just that you thought he was a handsome fellah, and ah, I dunno. Thought maybe somethin' was up there."
Yes, but not nearly in the way you expect, Octavius thinks. He lets his fingers clench and unclench briefly, focusing on the way his muscles react just to get himself back on track.
"It is not about Sir Lancelot," Octavius says. "It is about... us."
Jedediah's eyes are narrowed, but not in anger—he seems genuinely confused. Octavius takes a few steps towards him, and when the other man does not immediately step back or move out of the way, he finishes the movement until he is standing directly in front of Jedediah.
"Give me your hand," he says.
Jedediah sticks his hand out in an obvious expectation of a handshake. Octavius stares down at it for a second, and then, with his left hand rather than his right, grabs a hold of Jedediah's gloved fingers. It takes the other man a second to register the action, and then Octavius feels the jerk-back of Jedediah's hand.
"Wait, what?" Jedediah asks, voice unusually high.
"These past years, your friendship and companionship has meant the world to me," Octavius tells him. "I would not trade it for anything. And if tonight or tomorrow night is to be our last, then it would be wrong of me not to be honest with such a loyal friend."
There are a million things that he could say—and he should say them, for he might not get another chance—but they all seem to catch in his throat and choke him. He tightens his fingers around Jedediah's hand, which causes the other man to suck in a hissing breath, and knows that this is undoubtedly it: the precipice from which he cannot return. The only way to go is down, and down he goes, by leaning forward to bridge the last bit of distance between them and press his mouth to Jedediah's. It is brief and chaste, because the truth of the matter is that Octavius is terrified, but it is enough so that neither of them can deny the action.
He expects the other man to bolt or to shove him. Honestly, he is half-expecting Jedediah to take a swing at his face. But Jedediah doesn't move at all, still as he is during the day, and when Octavius pulls away, the other man's eyes are very wide and his expression is very open.
"I..." Octavius runs his tongue over his bottom lip, a nervous tic.
There is nothing on the other man's face that gives away an emotion, and it's such a rare thing that it rattles Octavius' resolve. Jedediah lives life with his emotions carried in plain sight.
"What are you thinking?" Octavius finally asks, desperate, the words torn out of him in a rush.
"I ain't sure," Jedediah says, slowly, deliberately, with the same wide-eyed expression, "what you just did."
But he isn't pulling away, and Octavius is unsure how to take that. If a rejection was forthcoming, it should have happened by now, and here they are, posed motionless with Jedediah's hand still wrapped up between Octavius' fingers. So he leans in again and repeats his action with more purpose. He presses his mouth to Jedediah's and feels the sharp intake of breath beneath his lips, the trembling of the other man's muscles as he is frozen in place. He kisses him for a long moment, so long he isn't quite sure when to draw back, and just as he decides to end the agony, Jedediah moves.
Or, at least, his mouth moves. He kisses back, presses into it; one foot slides forward and it startles Octavius backwards, their mouths still fused together. There is heat now, and intent, and while Jedediah seemed to have missed the first bits of the routine, he is now clawing his way back up to speed. Octavius feels dizzy and overloaded, the sensation overtaking his ability to think rationally.
Jedediah pushes him a bit and parts his mouth at the same time. There's a fumbling of hands as Jedediah pulls his fingers free and brings both hands up to untie the knot beneath Octavius' chin. His helm falls free and it's loud when it clatters to the ground, and he can't bring himself to care, because he is alive. One of them sort of groans, the sound swallowed up between their mouths, and their teeth click together as Octavius' back hits the roots of one of the sweet-smelling trees.
He is running out of air, and has to pull away, nearly wheezing to right himself again. Jedediah's forehead presses against his own, fingers grabbing tight and needy at Octavius' arms.
"You best mean this," Jedediah hisses, sounding almost angry. "Or else—"
"I do," Octavius promises; he's never meant anything more. "I do, I swear I do."
Jedediah kisses him again, hard. There's so much strength behind it that their noses crack against each other and Octavius feels dizzy. Without really thinking about it, he reaches for Jedediah's chest, hands sliding up the front of his shirt buttons. He pushes at the leather vest, wishing it gone. The other starts to shrug the garment off and it pulls them apart once more, leaving Octavius veering forward to try and re-establish the joining of their mouths.
"Cause you're my partner," Jedediah growls.
Octavius catches his bottom lip and bites at it, not hard enough to draw blood, but enough to wrench out a groan that reverberates through his entire skull.
"And you are mine," he says, too breathy for his own liking and punctuated with sloppy kisses. Jedediah's hands go to his shoulders and fumble with untying Octavius' cloak. He gets it free and it catches on Octavius' gauntlet on the way down, sliding and pooling at his feet. And Jedediah is undeterred, moving to the breast plate. Without being able to see, he can't find the clasps that keep the metal together, but rather than separate, he just grabs at it, frustrated, gasping into Octavius' mouth.
Finally, he pulls his mouth away, dragging his lips down across Octavius' chin as he struggles to make sense of the armored piece.
"Jedediah," Octavius chokes out.
"Hell," Jedediah laughs, breathless and jittery. "Need your help with this."
Octavius knows the way to undress without having to consciously think of it. As he reaches to undo the clasps, fingers trembling in anticipation, Jedediah throws his gloves on the dirt and unbuttons his shirt, shrugging it off.
They are under the leaves, at least, at the base of the trees; they are small enough that likely anyone passing by will miss seeing them entirely. Still, Octavius can't stop the small shiver that runs down his spine at the thought of being here, in a place so open, with Jedediah's hands sliding across his chest. Jedediah's fingers are warm and searching, dipping into the ridges of Octavius' form that Octavius himself has never really thought of before - they are simply figures, made to be examined from afar, and this intimate contact is a shock to his entire system.
It isn't as if he doesn't want it. On the contrary, he is aching for it. When he lets his tongue drag across Jedediah's lip, he wants to drink in the sound the other makes. There's a coiling inside his abdomen that threatens to rip him apart. He tangles his hands in Jedediah's hair and pulls him closer still, so they are flush against each other.
"If I had known," he begins.
"But I didn't even," Jedediah interrupts. "Not 'til-"
"The hourglass," Octavius supplies.
This seems to finally surprise Jedediah into stillness. "That was some time ago, compadre."
Octavius can't agree more. "An eternity," he sighs, and drags Jedediah to him once more. He wants to memorize the curves of the other man's arms and the sinews in his neck. When the tablet is gone, he knows he will cling to these thoughts like dying breaths, but for now, he needs everything.
Everything, it seems, is found within Jedediah, and the other kisses with ferver until both of them are breathless.
“This don't change nothin',” Jedediah whispers, as if the words carve fear into his heart.
“On the contrary,” Octavius replies, wrapping his hands 'round Jedediah's face, “this changes everything.”
Another kiss, fierce and searing, and Jedediah huffs a laugh against Octavius' mouth. “I still get to drive the car.”
“I expected nothing less,” Octavius agrees, but that's when the reality seems to catch up with them both. Jedediah's muscles go stiff and unmoving beneath Octavius' palms, and they both know: this may be the last night they have together.
This may be their very last night alive.
“What happens when it's gone?” Jedediah asks, voice quiet. “What'll we do when the tablet's left?”
Oh, Octavius longs to tell him that he'll slip into the darkness with the ghosted memories of Jedediah's kiss on his lips, of how thoughts of their time spent together will guide him through the days and weeks and, Gods preserve them, months spent immobile and unaware, but he knows the truth. He will think of nothing, not even this, not even them. His hands tangle further into the loose curls of Jedediah's golden hair, and he says nothing.
“Octy,” Jedediah starts, and then, with his mouth turning sharply down at the corners, amends, “Octavius.”
“If I get nothing else,” Octavius says, “if this is well and truly the end of us, then I want only tonight. With you.”
Jedediah's eyes are bright with something Octavius can't name. “That enough for you, amigo?”
“Never. But it seems it will have to be, no matter my wishes.”
“We coulda had years, Octy.”
There's a flash of something hot in Octavius' chest, blossoming warmth that swells against his skin, and he honestly can't tell if the sensation is pain or pleasure. “Please, don't.”
“But we coulda—“
“Please allow me to have this,” Octavius says. “Without thinking on what might have been. We haven't the time for that any longer.”
Jedediah's jaw clenches. “Yeah. I know.”
“Tonight,” Jedediah repeats, a promise, and pulls Octavius closer once more until their breaths are mingling in the narrow space between their faces. “Dagnabit, Octy, if I weren't so yellow, I'd have gotten here sooner.”
Octavius closes the space between them, more desperation than desire, shaking even as Jedediah melts into the kiss. There is only this, only them, and if one night is all Octavius is allowed, he will claim every moment that he can.
“It's in the past,” he says, once they've broken apart.
“I woulda given you everythin',” Jedediah tells him.
Octavius presses a kiss to his forehead, mouth sliding across tendrils of hair salt-slicked to his forehead. “You already have.”
Jedediah's mouth splits into a wide grin. “I ain't given you everything yet, Octy.”
His hands are back tracing Octavius' shoulders, his biceps, slipping along the curves of Octavius' chest. It's half exploration and half wonderment, the type of amazement that comes in waves, and truly, Octavius is adrift in it. Perhaps in his most secret dreams he's played this out in his head as the response to his confession, but he's never thought to fully believe in the possibility. There had been too much at stake, too much fear, and he feels like a fool now looking back on it.
Jedediah traces the shell of Octavius' ear with the warm stripe of his tongue. “You know what you're doin' here?”
“Yes,” Octavius groans, and the memories come back in quick bursts: things that might have happened, or invented realities from a life he never actually led. It doesn't matter, for the end result is the same, and none of them could ever mean as much as this does. “Yes, I know what to do.”
Jedediah's breath is hot against Octavius' jaw when he leans closer, smiling like a man who knows exactly the effect he's having, and whispers, “Show me.”
When Octavius next wakes, it's with an odd lurch, a jolt that chases away the darkness and the nothing as the world roars back into being. The return of awareness is always a jarring experience, but with so much lost time, the result is amplified. He stumbles, suddenly unable to move his traitorous legs, and nearly falls onto the sand of the Roman diorama. It takes far too long for his mind to catch up with his body, still tingling with the aftereffects of the tablet's magic.
The tablet. There can be no other explanation for the fact that Octavius is moving again, hurredly blinking to take in the groans and yelps of his men around him. The tablet has to have returned, and with it, their lives.
Octavius sucks in a pained lungful of air, seeing stars.
The tablet has returned.
“Sir!” his second exclaims, wishing for direction and orders, and Octavius ignores him in favor of racing to the farside of the diorama, where the Roman architecture gives way to the wild mountains of the west. It has been years, years he can see flashing by outside the plastic separating his legion from the curious eyes of the museum guests, and oh, how much time they've lost standing motionless and disengaged!
Octavius' hands are trembling when he reaches the side, hoisting himself up across the graduated surface of the plastic peaks. Perhaps too much time has passed and too much has changed, and the memories—those vivid, blush-inducing memories that coil in his gut—are all he will retain.
The thought trips his feet together and he hits the ground with an ungraceful stumble, teetering wildly until a hand wraps solidly around his forearm.
“Careful there, amigo, lest you fall flat on your face!”
Jedediah, with that knowing grin and eyes sparkling in mischief, and Octavius' chest threatens to burst.
“Carrisime,” he whispers, unable to hold the syllables back.
He regrets it immediately. Years have passed, and Jedediah is a man of sweat and dirt, not one to swoon over another. Octavius braces himself for something: a pushback of their night before it had all gone dark, or the narrowed eyes of a man ill-used to being anyone's beloved, and instead, Jedediah's smile widens, stretching to impossible lengths. His fingers don't move from their grip around Octavius' arm.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, in jest, perhaps, though the joy on his face renders the tone moot. “You and your honey-tongue. Good to see ya, Octy.”
“It has been a long while,” Octavius replies.
Octavius' heart pounds against his ribs. “I could not agree more.”
They stand motionless, almost as if the tablet has disappeared again, while all the things Octavius can't find words for shimmer in the air around them. Then Jedediah huffs out a laugh and drags Octavius in for a needy, off-kilter kiss.
“So you do not regret our night?” Octavius asks when they break apart.
“Not one damn bit,” Jedediah answers, and presses in to kiss him again amidst the cheers and shouts of the celebrating minatures around them, overjoyed to be alive and aware once again. “In fact, I'm aimin' to repeat it.”
“A proposition I heartily approve of.”
“Later, tho,” Jedediah says, taking a step back but keeping his hand on Octavius' wrist, gloved fingers lightly twisting around the joint. “Let's go find Gigantor, yeah? Together.”
Happiness pools in Octavius' stomach. “Together,” he agrees.