Chapter 1: A Letter Arrives
Cupid, draw back your bow
And let your arrow go
Straight to my lover's heart for me, for me
Cupid, please hear my cry
And let your arrow fly
Straight to my lover's heart for me
Lyrics to "Cupid" by Sam Cooke
The envelope was bright gold, in a way that mortal paper never could even pretend to be, and the postal delivery man had wings on his shoes.
"Eric Bittle?" the messenger said, approaching the counter at the A Bit of Heaven bakery.
Bitty had to swallow twice before he could manage to croak out, "I'm - that's me."
"Sign here," the messenger said, holding out a clipboard and a quill pen.
Bitty scratched his name next to the large X and the messenger handed over the envelope. "Have a Blessed day!" he said and then simply disappeared. Bitty was left holding a golden envelope in an empty pastry shop.
"If that's a customer, you tell 'em we're fixin' to close," his grandmother said, coming out of the kitchen looking frazzled. "My stars, you'd think we were the only bakery in town, the way they carry on!"
"Maybe not the only one but certainly the best!" Suzanne, Bitty's mother, bragged as she followed her mother, broom and mop in hand.
"Wasn't a customer," Bitty managed to say, and something about the way he said it must have sounded odd, turning their attention away from the usual closing routines.
Suzanne's eyes fell on the envelope in her son's hand and her hand flew to her mouth. "Dicky, where did that come from?"
"A messenger just brought it," Bitty said. "It's got my name on it."
"Well it's not gonna open itself," MooMaw said practically. "Best see what it's all about before we start frettin'."
With shaking hands, Bitty pressed his thumb against the flap so it would register that he was the authorized recipient. The envelope unfolded in his hand revealing a gold-colored card stamped with the official seal from the North-Eastern Temple Headquarters for the Americas.
"Go on, read it," MooMaw encouraged him.
Bitty cleared his throat. "To Eric R. Bittle of Madison, Georgia. You are hereby notified that you have been selected to serve at the Northeastern regional temple in Boston, Massachusetts for your mandatory year of Temple Service. Please report to your local temple on the first day of Hekatombaion, being the day after Midsummer, for transport to the Temple. Failure to do so will cause a curse to be inflicted upon you and your family unto the fourth generation. Have a Blessed day."
Suzanne collapsed into a chair. "Massachusetts! That's so far away! Oh Dickie! I thought you'd serve at the Athens temple, or maybe Atlanta, where you could come home on market day, but up North!"
"Huh," Moomaw said, and Bitty could feel her sharp eyes piercing him, as if she could see that he had checked the "not in local area" box when filling out his draft registration form. "Now Suzanne, there's no call to be carryin' on like this," she said briskly, turning to her daughter who had begun weeping into her hands. "It's not like Eric's goin' to the far side of the world, and it's only for a year."
"What will your father say?" Suzanne lamented, ignoring her mother. "You know that he's been hoping that you'd get Athletic duty."
"Mama, that wasn't gonna happen," Bitty pointed out. "I'm too small for most of the games, 'cept maybe track." A fact that had been pointed out to him - many many times - by the other boys at school, usually with their fists. Because of that, Bitty had learned to run fast, but having only one field sport was a handicap in Athletic selection. Maybe if he'd continued figure skating he could have had a chance but he'd had to quit when they moved back to Madison.
"Best head on home and tell him," MooMaw said. "We'll finish cleaning up in the morning."
Coach was already at home when they arrived, as usual, as the summer training sessions were shorter than the ones during the rest of the year. Richard Bittle was the Head Coach at the local Stadium in Madison, where he trained those local athletes hoping to make the Olympic teams in track and field. Coach had been a star athlete when he was a young man, competing at the Southern Regional games for eight seasons, as well as four National games and twice at the International Games in Greece. Even in middle age he was the perfect specimen of an athlete and Bitty often wondered if Coach was bewildered to have produced such a runt of a son. Not that Coach ever said anything like that, and he'd been the one to suggest the move back to Madison after he'd found out how the boys at the high school had treated Bitty. But each time that one of Coach's young men were selected for Athletic service, Bitty couldn't help wondering if Coach wished that they were his son instead.
Suzanne led the way into Coach's home office as soon as they entered the house, crying out, "Richard, it's all so awful! Dickie's received his Selection letter! What are we going to do?"
Coach got up from his desk, aware that no more work would get done until Suzanne had had her say. He wrapped an arm around her and gave her a kiss on the cheek saying, "Don't think there's much we can do, honey, but let's sit down in the den and talk - you'll be more comfortable there."
Mollified, Suzanne led the way towards the back of the house, veering into the kitchen to get refreshments to tide them over till dinner.
Coach paused a minute beside his son who was hovering in the doorway and gave him a searching look. "All right there, son?"
Bitty nodded and smiled wanly. "Yessir, Coach. It's just Mama...." His voice trailed off and he gave a helpless shrug.
Coach chuckled. "Well, you know your mother! She's got her dander up right now but let her talk it out and she'll come 'round. Can't argue with Selection, after all."
Bitty nodded and followed his parents into the den, curling up in the big armchair and wrapping his arms around his knees. It was a defensive posture, he knew that, but at the moment he needed all the help he could get.
"So what's it to be?" Coach asked once he'd settled into his easy chair. "The Temple, I expect - don't see you asking for shuffling papers in Civil service."
Bitty nodded. "Yessir, a year at the temple in Boston."
Coach frowned in thought. "That's somewhere Up North, isn't it?"
"Massachusetts!" Suzanne lamented, entering the room with a tray laden with glasses of lemonade and a plate of cookies from the bakery. Bitty jumped up to help her, setting the tray on the coffee table and handing out glasses to his parents. "It's practically in Canada!"
Coach bit back a smile. "Last time I checked a map, Massachusetts was still in the Good Ol' US of A."
"Richard, you know what I mean!" Suzanne said sharply. "It's thousands of miles away, and they have snow and cold in the winter, and what if Dickie gets sick? You know how susceptible he is to colds! And with his family too far away to take care of him - "
"Mama!" Bitty turned pink with embarrassment; he'd been sickly as a child but there'd been nothing like that for years and years.
"I think the Temple will be able to take care of its acolytes, Suzanne," Coach said soothingly. "And it's not as if he couldn't pick up the phone and call us if he needed anything."
"But I was counting on Dickie being close enough to come home on market days and festivals!" Suzanne lamented. "My best friend, Marcia, was going to set up a Dickie with a date with her niece who's apprenticed as a cook with the Stadium in Athens - wouldn't that be nice? Maybe we can request an exemption, say that Dickie's engaged to be married? Surely they wouldn't send him so far away then."
"That would be dishonest, honey, and you know the gods punish dishonesty," Coach said gravely. "And hubris, too, to think that we know better than they do. We should be proud that Junior was selected to serve in the temple, no matter how far away."
Suzanne sighed. "I suppose so," she said forlornly.
"Mama," Bitty said, thinking to give her something new to focus on. "It's only a month till I have to go and I'm not sure if I have the right things to wear."
Suzanne immediately brightened up. Shopping was her second-favorite thing after baking, and she began composing a lists of essentials that Bitty would need to take with him. "Oh! And we need to have a gathering for all the family! Not like that little party your Aunt Judy had when her eldest was called up, but a real big family get-together on Midsummer!"
Bitty nodded eagerly - there was nothing that he liked better than feeding a whole crowd of folks - and soon he and his mother had their heads bent together over guest lists and food ideas. Coach, knowing that his job was done, slipped back to his office to finish working on his team roster for the fall season.
And if he spent a good portion of the next hour staring at the desk photos of his son over the years, there was no one else there to take note of the moisture in his eyes and on his cheeks.
Chapter 2: Marching Orders
"But Papa!" Jack protested as he followed his father into their private salon, following the bombshell that Bob had just delivered. "You know I'm not good at this sort of thing!"
The bombshell had been the news that Bob and Alicia, King and Queen of the North American branch of the Greco-Roman pantheon, would not be attending the annual festival in Boston to welcome the new acolytes and celebrate the new year. They would be attending the West Coast celebrations, in an effort to promote more unity between the First Nations and Old World pantheons. In their place, their only son, Jack, would perform the host duties and welcome all the gods, demi-gods, ancestral spirits, and mortals attending the gathering in Boston.
"Don't worry, darling," his mother said soothingly as she handed him a glass of ambrosia.
Alicia, in addition to being Queen, was descending from Aphrodite and, like her ancestress, was intoxicatingly beautiful even at several hundred years old. Unlike her ancestress, however, she preferred to encourage harmony and peace instead of discord, and had often smoothed the waters between Jack and his father as he grew up.
It wasn't that Bob was a difficult or harsh father, far from it. Bob was - like his forefather - jovial in nature and kindly in manner. That was part of the problem. Bob had always been a good friend to Bacchus and his kind, and in his youth had been notorious for his flirts and flings, earning the nickname of "Bad Bob" among his fellow gods. When he'd met and married Alicia that had all changed, and Bob was one of the few pantheon kings who had been faithful without a doubt after marriage. But he'd still maintained his "hail fellow well met!" attitude and was much beloved among gods and mortals alike. His secondary attribute was as one of the Gods of Sport and, of course, he was exceptionally good at any sport that he tried and, in particular, those done on the icy playing fields of the north.
Jack was anything but jovial, preferring the company of a few close friends and his books to large crowds. He'd been compared to his father since he was a small godling, especially his skills in Sport, and much had been expected of him when he came to maturity. Jack had also inherited his mother's attributes as a minor God of Love, and his handsome visage was often likened to Eros. Neither of these things helped to quell his underlying anxiety, though, and his self-doubts had often overwhelmed him. Not that he'd let anyone know, too ashamed of his self-perceived weakness to share the fact that he sometimes sat in the dark, sharing with dread and anxiety.
And then, on the eve of Saturnalia, where he was supposed to have taken his place at his father's side, he'd lost control and succumbed to a baccanalia. He'd come to his senses the next day, horrified at his disheveled state and humiliated by the thoughts of what he might have done in drunken excess. Both of his parents had been by his side, though, apologetic for the pressures they'd placed on him. He'd been allowed to take a step back from rulership, to begin dealing with his anxiety and self-doubts. He'd found solace in the company of the Muse of History, Camilla, and though they had parted company after a short time, he still retained his interest in History and allowed it to become one of his minor attributes.
"You'll be fine," Alicia added. "And you won't be alone. One of Dionysus's great-great-grandsons is helping with the libations, and he's one of your friends at Samwell."
"I'm certain that all your Hall-mates will be there to help you," Bob said, putting an arm around his son. "And speaking of helpmates..."
"Papa," Jack said helplessly, knowing what his father was referring to. His parents had been gently encouraging him to take a Consort, to help make his duties easier. And it would probably help, to have someone who understood his anxiety and could take on the more social aspects of his position. But it needed to be someone that he knew, someone that he trusted, and the only god who fit that criteria was B. Knight, better known to those in the Haus as Shitty. Shitty was one of the junior gods of Justice, in particular the patron of those mortals who'd been wronged by the wealthy and powerful, and he was a good friend and support. But he was also consorting with one of the Art Muses and not really Jack's "type" as far as consorts went.
In fact, he'd yet to meet anyone who fit that role, not even Parse...
He quickly squashed that thought before it could take hold.
"I'm just saying that you should think about it," Bob said, giving him a fatherly squeeze. "Look how great your mother's been for me!"
"Oh Bob," Alicia said, smiling at him mistily and taking his other hand. She leaned in to give him a kiss and Jack hastily moved away from his parents. Experience told him that once this started his parents would become increasingly more amorous, and it was better to leave before that happened.
"I'll go speak to Shitty and the others now," he said, gathering his overnight bag and backing towards the doorway. "There should be a few zephyrs available at this time of day."
With the echoes of their loving farewells in his ears, he made his way into the main part of the Hall and stepped onto the balcony that overlooked the mountains of the mortal world. A zephyr responded to his call and in a short time he was set down in front of the Haus. Jack had recently moved out of his parents' home on Mont D'Iberville to Mount Samwell, a smaller Hall founded by the younger gods of the east coast and simply nicknamed "the Haus" by them. It was one of the few Homes of the Gods that didn't cater to a specific pantheon but instead welcomed all faiths and deities.
Shitty was reclined on the ancient and somewhat decrepit couch that sat square in the center of the Haus' main hall, a wreath of fragrant smoke circling his head. His eyes were closed and he was humming something,
"Shitty!" Jack said with a sigh, setting his bag down on the floor. "I thought you promised to smoke that outside. You know that some of the demigods are sensitive to those herbs. Do you want Ransom on the reefs again?"
Shitty sprang up into a sitting position. "Bro!" He vaulted over the back of the couch with remarkable dexterity, considering the amount of weed he'd obviously smoked. "How were the Rents? Fabulous as usual, I expect?"
Jack saw that Shitty was dressed in just a loincloth, a concession over his preferred nudity to frequently voiced complaints about his naked butt on their shared couch. He accepted Shitty's enthusiastic hug and smacking kiss to his cheek, and already he was beginning to feel better about the impending festival. "They're good, and they sent their love - or would have if they weren't already kissing as I left."
"Your parents are the most awesome in all the pantheons. You think it's too late for them to adopt me?" Shitty settled back down on the couch but, in deference to company, stubbed out the end of his reefer. "Is that why you're back so early? I'd freak if I saw my parents making out - though I think I'm safe. I don't think they even had sex to conceive me."
"They're leaving for the West Coast in the morning," Jack told him. "They've committed to a joint celebration with the First Nations and Asian-American pantheons."
"Awesome! It's about time some of the Big Twelve made nice with the deities who were here before us, and the Asian influx is just gonna get more important," Shitty said, reaching for his can of ambrosia.
"Mmm," Jack said. He'd been part of the initial cultural exchanges between the pantheons, him and Parse, and look how that had turned out? "Papa's asked me to act as host for the Festival in Boston this year."
"Bro, we are so gonna rock the Temple!" Shitty said, grinning at him. "Ransom and Holster are handling food and drink so you know it'll be off the chart."
"The drink will be, at least," Jack said drily. "Last time they were responsible for food they served Twinkies and Doritos."
Shitty laughed and shook his head. "Fun times. Not to worry, though. Caitlin Farmer is helping with food, and you know she's one of Demeter's great-grand-kids." He cocked his head, studying Jack's face. "That's not the only thing that's bothering you, though. Share, bro."
Jack sighed. "Papa mentioned a Consort again. Said that having one might be helpful."
"Ah." Shitty leaned back and smoothed his mustache in thought. "He's right; it could help."
"Shitty, I'm no good at meeting other people," Jack said helplessly. "I never know what to say, or I say the wrong thing."
" 'S tough," Shitty nodded. "You gotta put yourself out there, though. Sitting in here with your books and your hockey sticks, it just isn't gonna happen. You should at least take a look around at the Festival. Might find a girl or a boy that catches your eye. But first you need to get some new clothes for the occasion."
"What's wrong with my clothes?"
"Hockey jerseys and Dad jeans aren't gonna get you a second look," Shitty said baldly. "Or a first one, for that matter. You gotta get something that shows off that Ass!"
"If I had the Best Ass West of Olympus, I'd sure be showing it off."
Jack covered his face with his hand and shook his head. "I'm too tired for this. I'm going to bed."
As he headed up the stairs, the last thing he heard was, "Get some good sleep, bro, because in the morning we're going shopping!"
Jack groaned and wondered whether he could smother himself with his pillow in his sleep.
Chapter 3: Celebrations and Farewells
On Midsummer's Day, the entirety of the Bittle-Phelps family turned up at the Bittle house to celebrate the coming new year. This wasn't entirely unusual; the Phelps family loved to celebrate any holiday on the Calendar and the Bittle family was only too glad to share in the fun and festivities. Aunts were clustered together around the pool, talking about who was stepping out with whom and who was likely to produce the next family member while keeping an eye on the children as they swam. Uncles were gathered around the barbecue where steaks made from this year's sacrificed cow were being grilled while they discussed the most recent game (any game, it didn't particularly matter the sport) and the prospects for the next Olympic games. Children splashed in the pool or raced around the yard, in everyone's way and adding to the cacophony of voices.Of course, not everyone was on speaking terms with everyone else at the gathering, so there were little clusters within groups who refused to exchange so much as a glance. But it wasn't nearly as bad as the Great Jam War of 2011 when Mama and Aunt Judy had fallen out over the proper way to preserve and fully half the crowd had their backs to the other half.
It was as familiar to Bitty as his own bedroom, and he felt a pang at the thought that it would be at least a year before he saw his home or family again.
His assignment to the Northeast Temple was the hot topic of the event, and Bitty was pulled aside by nearly every adult in the family at some point for a word of advice or to receive a good-luck amulet. He tried to avoid these tête-à-têtes by ferrying food from the kitchen to the groaning tables but it wasn't any use; the Phelpses were noted for their persistence and the Bittles for their stubbornness, and everyone was determined to have a say. But it wasn't until after the last pie had been eaten that MooMaw found her opportunity and took it.
"Now what's got you lookin' wetter than a month a' rain?" MooMaw asked, once she'd settled on the porch swing with her favorite grandson at her side.
Bitty stared down at his lap, pleating and repleating the folds of his apron with his fingers. "MooMaw...it wasn't a fluke that I was assigned to that temple. I asked for one far away from home." He peeked up at her anxiously. "I just - I want to get away from all this." He gestured out at the yard where Bittles and Phelpes were ferreting out each others' business. "And I know that Mama and Coach and everybody just loves me, but they're in my life every blessed second! I just want to get away long enough to catch my breath. Does that make me a horrible person?"
MooMaw chuckled. "Lord, no! Makes you nearly the most sensible person in this family - next to me! Bless me, I love every one of my kids and grandkids, but every now and agin I wish a gorgon would turn them to stone so I'd have a moment's peace."
They both laughed at that and then MooMaw patted his knee. "Bitty, I knew this was comin'."
Bitty frowned. "How could you? I didn't talk to anyone about it, not even Mama."
"I know you've heard your Mama fuss about how sickly you were as a baby," MooMaw said, "but you don't know how bad it was. There was a time, when you were still in the hospital and no bigger than a sneeze... Well, I went to see a soothsayer."
"MooMaw!" Bitty gasped, as shocked as if she'd admitted to walking naked down Main Street. Soothsayers were High Greek Temple seers and everyone Bitty knew was strictly Reformed Celtic. He didn't even think there was a soothsayer within 50 miles of Madison.
She nodded. "Your Granpaw was dead-set against soothsayin' and such but my Mama's people were Old Roman and she once took me to a seer at the Greco-Roman temple in Atlanta, and I remembered that. So when you seemed near to perishin', I took a lock of your hair and rode the bus into Atlanta, and I went to the temple there without telling a soul. The Seer burnt your hair and breathed the smoke in, and she said that you'd live. You'd live, and when you was grown you'd travel far to meet your fate. So when I saw that letter, I knew the time had come."
" 'Meet my fate'," Bitty repeated. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I 'spect you'll figure that out once you get to where you're goin'," Moo-Maw said. "Just don't be worryin' about us and what you're leavin' behind, child."
"I'll try," Bitty said, but it was a promise easier given than kept.
That night, after the party was over and he was in bed, he couldn't help going over and over in his head what little he knew about the larger temples up north, and wondering about the sort of people he'd meet there. There'd be devotees of all sorts of Pantheons, and maybe they'd look down on him and the way he'd been brought up. He tried praying to his patron god, Maponos, for courage, and to Brighid that he'd find a new home and hearth to tend, but he wasn't sure if they were listening. Sleep came only in fits and starts, and at dawn he finally gave up.
Bitty dressed quietly and picked up the single pack he was allowed to take with him and made his way downstairs. He took care to be quiet as there were out-of-town guests sleeping on mats in every available space and the last thing he wanted was a big scene on his leaving. But, as he expected, his mother was already awake and in the kitchen, pulling a batch of breakfast rolls out of the oven. She set two on a plate and quietly slid them over to him as he sat at the counter.
"Mama - " he began.
She shook her head as she grabbed the coffee pot to pour him a cup. "Don't. Let's just pretend that you're goin' in early to open the store."
"Okay, Mama." He added milk and sugar to his coffee and then pulled apart the sweet-roll to cool before nibbling at it. His appetite had deserted him but it could be hours before he ate again so he managed to eat the rolls and wash them down with coffee. Then, after washing his dishes and setting them in the drain, he shouldered his pack and turned to face his mother.
"Bye, Mama," he said, summoning a smile as if he was just setting out for the store.
Suzanne let out a little sob and hugged him close, and Bitty hugged her back while he breathed in the scent of coffee and flour that always clung to her. "I love you, Dickie," she said, her voice a little thick with tears. "So you take care of yourself up there, you hear? And write or call me whenever you can."
"I will, Mama," he said and she let go of him.
Suzanne smoothed his hair where she'd ruffled it and then kissed his cheek. "All right, off with you before you're late. A fine impression that would set on your first day!"
Bitty knew that the Festival wouldn't start until dark that evening but he said, "Yes, Mama". He stopped at the family shrine by the door to make a small offering of the best part of his breakfast roll to Rhiannon and murmured a prayer for a safe journey, then let himself out of the front door without looking back.
The priest at the Madison Reformed Temple looked at the golden summons that Bitty produced and raised an eyebrow. "Boston, is it? Far distance for you to travel."
Bitty felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach. He hadn't thought to check with the temple ahead of time - what if they didn't have transportation for him to Boston's temple today? What if he didn't show up on time, as expected? His family would be cursed for generations and it would be all his fault and -
"Breathe, son," the priest said and, as instructed, Bitty drew in a shaky breath. "It's all right; the portents told us we'd have a long-distance transfer today. Would make a mess of the narrative of your story if we didn't, now wouldn't it?"
Bitty didn't quite understand that part but he nodded.
"We have a local Zephyr lined up to take you to the Hartsfield Temple in Atlanta, and then an interstate chariot will take you from there to Boston." He handed Bitty two boarding passes, printed with his originating temple and the destination. "Just show this to the Priestess at the end of the hall," he added, pointing out the direction.
"Thank you - " Bitty paused, not certain how to address the priest properly.
"It's Father Johnson," the priest said. "Not that you need to remember that. My part in the narrative is largely over. Your story, however, is just beginning." He beamed at Bitty as if this was some great gift that was being bestowed on him.
"Okay," Bitty said, and then, "Thanks." He took the two boarding passes and walked down the hall in the direction that Father Johnson had pointed.
There were only a few people milling about the temple at this time of day, most of them heading for the alcoves where the shrines to the various gods were located to make special offerings. Ahead of him in the transportation line was a small family group, apparently headed south to visit one of the Florida temples, and then the Priestess took his passes and looked them over.
"Zephyr to Hartsfield and then Sky-Chariot to Boston Temple airport," she read and highlighted a section, then handed him back the boarding cards. "Down to the door marked 'Z' and give the first card to the acolyte there." She dismissed him, looking to the next person in line, and Bitty hurried down the hallway to the door at the end emblazoned with a large Z. There was a young man standing there, about Bitty's same age, and he grinned cheerfully at him.
"Ever travel by zephyr?" he asked and Bitty shook his head. "Nothing to it, really - safe as houses and fast as Hermes himself! Just close your eyes and don't look down!"
He waved Bitty over onto a small platform and Bitty stepped onto it, swallowing hard as he felt himself enveloped by something like a warm breeze.
"Please keep all appendages inside the cloud at all times," murmured a voice into his ear. "And don't scream! I hate it when they scream," the voice muttered, as if to itself.
Bitty just managed not to scream as he was suddenly lifted up into the air. He shut his eyes tight and tried to breathe normally, aware that just beyond the cloudy mass enveloping him was nothing but air and a long, long drop to the ground. But, just as promised, the journey was over barely after it had begun and he was gently set down on the ground. The platform seemed to be shaking, but maybe that was him.
"Thank you for flying Air Zephyr," the unseen voice droned in his ear. "We are aware that you have many choices for travel and are happy that you chose us today."
"Thank you," Bitty said in response, always keeping in mind that it was safer to be polite when dealing with spirits and gods, or whatever this thing was. And then he hurried off the platform and towards a priestess who seemed to be directing travelers.
She sent him towards an escalator that descended into a hub of noise and confusion. The pace of the temple here was much faster than anything he'd seen in Madison and he was rushed along towards a platform labeled Departures and a flashing sign that said "Boston". An acolyte scanned his second pass and directed him towards a more ordinary sky-chariot, rather like a bus except for the wings sticking out of its sides. Well, that and the demi-god pilot who was standing beside the chariot, drinking coffee and chatting with two of the acolytes. Bitty deposited the small bag containing his offering onto the altar and then stepped into the chariot. He was relieved to find that he had a seat for this part of the trip, one of two dozen in the craft. Nearly half the seats were already filled but there was one by the window that he was glad to get; he stowed his bag under his seat after pulling out his lunch bag. He was still too keyed up to eat but it would be a two hour flight and he'd probably be glad to have something in his stomach before they arrived in Boston. Several of the other passengers were chatting among themselves, but although Bitty was a sociable person, he really wasn't up for talking so he put in his ear-buds to listen to music on his 'phone.
Once the final passengers were loaded, the chariot roof was lowered and sealed and the pilot took his place at the bow. Bitty felt an unfamiliar lurch as they left the ground behind them and peeked out of the windows, amazed at the sight of the earth below and the clouds around them. He was suddenly excited by the thought of what lay ahead of him. Here was an opportunity to meet new people, not see the same ones he'd known since a child, the ones who had the same preconceived notions of him as Coach's Poor Lad or MooMaw's grandson-the-baker. There would be acolytes from other religions, too, and other beings like centaurs and satyrs, something that he'd never see in Madison. And it was hard to be worried about traveling like this when an actual demi-god was flying the chariot.
When they landed in Boston, an acolyte pointed him to a sign labeled "Incoming Acolytes - Gardens Temple". Bitty was relieved to see two other young men waiting there, and they introduced themselves as Ollie and Wicks. Two others eventually joined them but before they could introduce themselves, a tall man wearing Priest robes walked up.
"Welcome to the New Gardens Temple," he said, checking each of their names off his list. "I'm Murray, assistant High Priest and Training Coach at the Gardens, and I'll be going over the ropes for you new boys. Follow me; the temple is connected to the airhub for the convenience of both travelers and the flight staff stationed at the temple."
Bitty and the rest of their little cluster followed Murray across the terminal and through a tunnel, into the temple proper. It appeared to be enormous to Bitty's eyes, although it was probably smaller than Greater Hartsfield Temple in reality, and he wondered how he was ever going to make his way around the place without getting lost. He hoped that they had buddies for at least the first few weeks or, at the very least, good signage.
They were led to a dorm room with a picture of a frog on the door and three bunk beds.
"You are the Frog cluster and this dorm will be your new home for the next few days," Murray told them. "You'll get your permanent assignment to one of the smaller area temples or halls after the Festival."
They were interrupted as a young man burst into the room, looked flushed and embarrassed. "Sorry, sorry!" he gasped, obviously trying to catch his breath. "Didn't mean to - be late - chariot got stuck - O'Hare Temple - "
Murray smiled and shook his head. "That's all right, son, you made it and that's what's important. O'Hare is always a bitch to fly through - too many conflicting deities claiming air space. You Chris Chow?" The young man nodded and Murray checked him off the list. "That's everyone present and accounted for - no family curses this year!"
There was nervous laughter from the boys at that.
"Right. Pick your bed and locker and make yourselves comfortable. One of the senior acolytes will be by shortly to take you to get your robes and other supplies, and then you'll be ritually bathed before the Festival. As far as that goes, the Festival to Athena is one of the biggest here at the Gardens so there'll be a lot of beings here tonight. Not just mortals; there'll be gods and demi-gods, mostly from the Greco-Roman and the Celtic pantheons but we'll have guests representing other deities as well. And there'll be a number of Muses, of course, and a bunch of other beings. Most important thing to remember: don't stare. Rudest thing you can do to an Immortal Being. Another thing to remember: just because you don't recognize someone doesn't mean that they're not a god. All the ones here tonight will be in their human semblances."
Bitty nodded at that; one of the first things they'd learned at Sunday School was that gods could not be viewed as their true selves by mortals. A human seeing a god's real Semblance could die or go mad.
"So be polite but enjoy yourselves - your training begins tomorrow and it'll be Hades."
With those parting words, Murray left and the boys began scrambling to choose beds, with the two called Dex and Nursey arguing over who was going to get the top bed in their bunk. Chris Chow and Bitty were left standing by the bunk nearest the door and the other young man gave Bitty a shy look.
"Do you mind if I take the bottom bunk? Heights make me a little dizzy."
"Oh lord, no! Go right ahead - I don't mind bein' on top." Bitty tossed his backpack up on the top bed and stuck out his hand. "Eric Bittle, but most everyone calls me 'Bitty' on account of - well - " He gestured to himself.
The other young man grinned and Bitty caught sight of gleaming braces. "Chris Chow," he replied, "and Chowder to my friends and teammates."
There wasn't time for more talk as an acolyte came to fetch them, but Bitty had the feeling that he'd just made his first friend in Boston.
The theory is that with gods around, man wouldn't need to invent flight. Just make the proper offerings and leave the flying to the deities!
For the purposes of this story, the younger frogs like Chowder, Dex, and Nursey have been aged up while Wicks and Ollie have been aged down so that they are roughly the same age as Bitty.
Chapter 5: Festival ...
The vestibule was awash with Beings of all sorts. Gods and demi-gods, centaurs and satyrs, muses and spirits, acolytes and priests. The noise alone was enough to set off Jack's nerves. He skirted around a cluster of giggling nymphs, dodged a centaur who was demonstrating some sort of dance move to a vestal virgin, and contemplated making a break for the exit.
"Jackabelle!" Shitty crowed, crossing the room and slinging an arm around Jack's shoulder. He was wearing his favorite Semblance for mixing with mortals with what he called a "sweet flow" and an awe-inspiring mustache. "You finished with the ceremonial gig?" Jack nodded and Shitty pressed a golden cup into his hand. "Have some ambrosia!"
Jack hesitated and then took the glass. At least if he was holding a glass he could avoid having other, more potent, drinks foisted onto him, and he could pretend to sip it for something to do instead of talking.
"It's a righteous party, my man," Shitty said. "Everyone on the east coast seems to be here. And there's a few visitors from other pantheons."
"Did Lardo make it?" Jack asked, looking around the room to see if any of his close friends were there.
Shitty sighed and shook his head. "She's still in Africa, won't be back till next week. That sculptor she's been inspiring was suddenly taken by a frenzy of work."
"But she's coming back to the Haus, isn't she?"
" 'Course! Says she misses all our drama and messes." Shitty caught sight of movement at the entry portico and looked over. "Ah, the Frogs have arrived! I'm supposed to shepherd them for awhile so I'd better go introduce myself. You gonna be all right?"
Jack nodded and managed a slight smile. "As long as I don't have to give another speech."
"Nah, I think they learned their lesson with the first one," Shitty teased. "I've never met an erotes before who had such a bad way with words." He clapped Jack on the back and then made his way over to the young acolytes standing in the doorway.
Bitty stared with wide-eyes around at the collection of Beings in the room they'd just entered. There were all sorts of creatures and demi-gods, as well as human-looking beings who glowed with Presence, a sign that they were full gods wearing a Semblance to protect mortals from madness. One such god was making his way toward them, a well-built man with longish hair and a mustache.
"Welcome!" the divine being said, throwing his arms wide as if he'd like the embrace the bunch of them. "Don't just stand there - we don't need any more caryatids! Come on in and be welcome!"
The other five boys slid behind Bitty, pushing him forward to greet this god. "Um, hello your, um, godness."
"None of that nonsense," the god said. "You can call me Shitty."
Bitty blinked at the god, not quite believing what he'd heard, then thrust out his hands full of pies. "Eric Bittle. I made these for the party."
Shitty looked at the two pies, then back at the young man holding them. "You've only been here a few hours."
Bitty shrugged. "Pie just sorta happens when I'm near a kitchen."
Not one to look any kind of gift horse in the mouth, Shitty accepted the pies and lifted one up closer to his face. It smelled amazing. He looked around and then let out a piercing whistle. A moment later, a tall blond faun appeared. "Holster, this young Frog brought these. Think you can do something with them?"
Holster took one of the pies, sniffed, then his eyes lit up and he bit into the pie. A few minutes later there was nothing left but the pie tin. Chowder, who was holding a platter of hand-pies, retreated behind the other four boys for safety.
"That was seriously the most 'swasome pie I've ever eaten," the faun said, wiping his face with his sleeve. He eyed the six Frogs with interest. "Which of you made this?"
The other five Frogs pushed Bitty forward a little; he couldn't move because he was in shock at what had just happened to his pie.
The faun reached out to grab Bitty's hand, shaking it with enthusiasm. "I'm called Holster, and anyone who can bake like that is automatically my best friend."
A dark-skinned satyr seemed to appear out of nowhere, giving Holster an offended look. "Hey! I thought I was your best friend!"
"You are my brother from another mother," Holster said solemnly, "a tie that can't be broken or bested."
The satyr looked appeased by that, then paused and sniffed the air. "What is that heavenly smell? It's like my aunt's house, but with more love and innocence."
"Bro, I've been to your aunt's house and, no offense, but compared to this - "
The satyr interrupted him, zeroing in on the remaining pie in Bitty's hands. A moment later it, too, had met an unspeakable fate.
"Seriously 'swasome," he agreed, and smiled at Bitty who tried not to shudder at the remnants of pecans smeared on the satyr's lips. "I'm Ransom. Welcome to Boston, and are there more pies where those came from?"
"Dude, you're scaring the kid," Shitty admonished. He turned to Bitty. "Their manners are atrocious but Holster and Ransom throw the best kegsters in the universe."
"We should," Holster said with a snort. "I'm from Pan's bloodline."
"What is smelling so delicious?" came a new voice and a massively-built man joined them, frost clinging to his dark hair.
"Hey, Tater," Shitty said, putting an arm around the new arrival. "Everyone, this is Alexei Mashkov, a Frost bog from the Slavic pantheon here to visit us."
"Call me 'Tater'," the large man said genially. "Is American nick-name."
"And this is Eric Bittle," Shitty said reaching out to pull Bitty forward. "Maker of those gorgeous pies that you two assholes devoured," he added, glaring at Holster and Ransom.
They looked a bit ashamed and Bitty quickly said, "I brought more." He turned to Chowder and took one of the hand-pies off the platter, handing it to Tater. The Slavic god sniffed at it and then cautiously bit through the crust. His eyes lit up.
"Udivitel'nyy!" Tater said. "Is amazing," he repeated in English. "So you are Bittle and a Baker? Ah! Itty Bitty Baker, yes?" He laughed at that and the laugh was so infectious that all of the rest of them joined in.
"Well, you boys wander around and make yourselves at home," Shitty said. "But go easy on the ambrosia! It gives mortals a bit of a kick in the head. Stick to Tub Juice."
He gestured towards a nearby tub that was filled with some kind of liquid that glowed green to Bitty's eyes. And it seemed that no matter how many Beings filled their cups with the concoction, the tub remained full. Bitty wasn't sure what the stuff was but he was willing to try anything once.
Jack wandered around the fringes of the crowd, exchanging a few words with deities who were friends of his parents, but not stopping to talk with any of them in particular. He'd checked with two of the Temple's senior guards, Thirdy and Marty, who reported that nothing of significance had happened. Before the night was over, they expected that a couple of Dionysus's priests would have overindulged but that was only to be expected, and they had guest rooms set up for those too drunk to return to their Halls or temples.
From across the room he heard loud laughter and he looked over to see that Shitty had found a lively group to chat with. He knew Holster and Ransom, of course, and the visiting Slavic Frost god had been introduced to him earlier. The others appeared to be mortal, no doubt the new acolytes that Shitty was shepherding tonight. He knew that Shitty would welcome him if he walked over, but then he'd introduce Jack and he'd have to endure the look of awe on mortal faces. Something that he rarely felt that he deserved. He was just wondering if he could get away with slipping away to the Haus where there was a parting of the crowd and he saw a familiar face. One he'd hoped not to see for at least a millenia.
Kent Parson. Trickster demi-god from the First Nations pantheon.
Jack should have done the sensible thing, turn away and find someone safe to talk to, but he was frozen in place. Kent strolled over in that insolent way of his and stopped in front of him.
"Well, If it isn't the Crown Prince of the Eastern Pantheon. Hey, Zimms."
"Kent," Jack said, his voice coming out like a croak. He cleared his throat. "Surprised to see you this side of the country."
Parse shrugged. He was dressed in the Semblance of a young blond mortal although Jack would have known him anywhere as it had been a favorite when they'd gone out partying. Parse slouched and gave him a boyish smile, the one that used to make Jack's heart flutter. Now it just filled him with dread. "Cultural exchange," Parse said. "Your parents are visiting my lot, and some of us were sent East. I volunteered. I wanted to see you."
"Kenny...." Jack drew in a deep breath. "You shouldn't have come."
"Why not?" Parse demanded, catching the attention of some of the Beings near them. He stepped closer to Jack. "Ten years, Jack. You haven't spoken to me or even tried."
Jack looked away, at the wall and then the floor, anywhere but at Parse.
Parse grabbed his arm. "We were like brothers, Zimms. More than brothers."
"Kenny, I can't do this," Jack said hoarsely. He could feel the waves of Parse's expectations beating against the walls he'd carefully constructed since that horrible night. He could feel the room closing in on him, could feel the stares and hear the titters of laughter from the crowd. Bad Bob's pathetic excuse for a son and heir, he knew they were whispering.
"Stop thinking for once and listen to me," Parse said, his voice low and urgent, pleading. "Come West with me. Your pantheon wants more representation among the First Nations. I can square it with the Council. We'd be a great team."
"Kenny - " Guilt warred with the need to protect himself.
"You can be done with that shitty temple you've holed up in. And you and me - "
"Stop it," Jack said sharply. "I can't be what you want. Not anymore."
Parse's face contorted, loss and anger making his emotions visible to anyone nearby. "Too busy trying to make your dad proud of you while coasting along as a minor godling at - what is that shithole of a place called? Samwell Temple? Give me a fucking break!"
Jack ground his teeth together. Kent had always known how to get past his defenses, just where to thrust the needle to sting him, to make him lose control. "Get out."
Parse growled, and for a moment a hint of his true Visage shone through, fox-like and predatory. "Jack Zimmerman, you're not shutting me out again."
Before Jack quite knew what was happening, Parse had pulled a handful of something from the pouch on his belt and had blown it into Jack's face.
The world went black.
Chapter 6: ...and Folly
Jack was blind.
He could hear a lot of commotion around him, first Shitty yelling "What the hell?" at Parse and then an unfamiliar voice asking if he was all right. A cool, wet cloth passed over his eyes bringing some relief and that unfamiliar voice told him to blink. Jack did, rapidly, and he could see faint shapes and shadows. He wanted to rub his eyes to clear them but knew that was a bad idea.
"I - it's helping a little," he said.
The cloth passed over his eyes again and he could feel the last of the grit being swept away from them. He blinked again and something began to come into focus. It was a face, the most beautiful face he'd ever seen, and Jack could feel his pulse suddenly start racing. He stared at the man, scarcely hearing anything that he was saying, too absorbed in memorizing everything about that face.
Bitty was sipping at the Tub juice and chatting with one of the priestess of Hebe about historical baking techniques when a commotion on the far side of the room caught his attention. One of the guests wearing the markings of the Ace tribe from the First Nations pantheon had thrown something into the face of the stunningly handsome man who'd been talking to him. The victim was obviously blinded, clawing at his face to try to see again. Without even excusing himself, Bitty rushed forward, grabbing a napkin and a pitcher of water from one of the servers.
"Don't do that - you'll just make it worse!" he told the man as he dunked the napkin into the pitcher. "Keep your eyes closed."
Bitty carefully began wiping away the dust that covered the man's eyes and clung to his eyelashes. He was barely aware that Shitty had joined them and was yelling at the man who'd thrown the dust, and that one of the temple guards was removing him from the area. Bitty was too absorbed in making sure that the blinded man's eyes were cleaned to pay attention to anything else.
"Y'all okay, honey?" he asked anxiously. "Try blinkin' your eyes a bit, see if that helps."
The man blinked his eyes rapidly, started to rub at them and then stopped. "I - it's helping a little."
Bitty dipped the other end of the napkin into the water and made another pass over the man's eyes, clearing the rest of the gritty substance away. The man blinked again and then it seemed as if he could see, only he was just staring at Bitty in a frozen sort of way. Had the stuff somehow affected him mentally?
"Can you talk?" he asked anxiously. "Maybe we should go someplace more quiet and fetch a healer." There was no response and Bitty began looking around in a panic for someone to help. He was relieved to see the pie-devouring satyr appear and said, anxiously, "Something's wrong - can you fetch a doctor?"
"I'm a healer." The satyr immediately began checking the injured man over, holding his face between his hands and looking deeply into his eyes. He frowned. "This isn't good. We need to get Jack somewhere quiet."
"No," the man or deity he'd called Jack said hoarsely. "I need - "
"We'll talk about what you need when we get you someplace safe," Ransom said firmly. "It's for your own good."
The injured man slumped a little and nodded, letting Ransom turn him towards one of the archways. "Wait!" he said, and looked back at Bitty. "What's your name?"
"Eric Bittle," Bitty said, and tried to smile reassuringly at him.
"Thank you, Eric Bittle," the man - Jack - said, returning his smile.
It was a lovely smile, making the man's somewhat stern features soften. Bitty felt his heart catch and his pulse sped up a bit. He watched as Shitty and Ransom led the man away, then turned to find Chowder and one of the other Frogs watching him with something like awe.
"What?" he asked, confused.
"He thanked you!" Chowder said. "He asked for your name and thanked you!"
Bitty frowned. "Yeah? His mama must a' raised him to be polite."
The other Frog, Wicks, clutched at his own throat. "His mama - Bitty, do you know who that was?"
"No, should I?"
"That's Jack Zimmerman," Chowder said. "Only son of Bob and Alicia Zimmerman?" Bitty blinked and shook his head slightly. "King and Queen of the North American branch of the Greco-Roman pantheon?"
Bitty's jaw dropped open and he glanced over at the archway through which Jack had gone. "You're pulling my leg."
Wicks shook his head frantically and Chowder said, solemnly, "You've just done a service for a Prince of the Gods. He's in your debt."
Which could be good, or very very bad, depending on the god.
"Oh shit," Bitty said faintly. "I think I need a drink. Or maybe a dozen."
Jack was hardly aware of where he was or where Shitty and Ransom were taking him. All he could see was that beautiful young man with the sweet face, his large brown eyes looking at Jack with such concern, his soft lips asking how Jack felt. And all he felt was a warmth in his chest and joy that somewhere in this world such a perfect being existed. Then he felt an ache, a pain worse than the broken arm he'd briefly had as a boy, and his grip on Shitty tightened.
"Where is he?" he asked, demanded, as the intensity of being separated from the one he loved tore at him. "Please! I need to see him!"
"What the hell is wrong with him?" Shitty asked Ransom as they sat Jack down on the sofa in his parents' suite.
Ransom reached out and brushed a bit of dust off of Jack's cheek, then sniffed it carefully. He pulled out his phone and opened an app, then put the bit of dust on a diagnostic square and pressed transmit.
"Well?" Shitty asked.
"I think it's love dust," Ransom replied. "And it made him fall madly in love with the first person he saw."
Jack nodded. That felt right. He had seen Eric Bittle and had known that he was in love. It was the best feeling he'd ever felt in his entire life. It was an even better feeling than when he'd scored the winning goal in the Inter-pantheon Ice Hockey Championships last winter. He frowned a little at that - nothing had ever felt better to him than playing hockey with other godlings, but then he thought about Eric Bittle's smile and he knew he was right.
"I'm confirming it with the Olympus database and a cross-check to Valhalla," Ransom said, typing something on his phone.
"Then make him un-fall," Shitty said.
Jack winced and shook his head at that. To lose this wonderfully warm feeling inside, the place where Bittle had already made a shrine and where Jack was only too glad to worship? For the first time he felt genuinely happy and he didn't really care why. And he certainly didn't want to give it up.
"I can't. There's no antidote or cure."
"Okay, so he loves this mortal - that's not so bad, right?"
"It gets worse. If Jack is separated from the person he fell in love with, he will pine to death."
Shitty growled at that and pulled at his hair. "I'm not much for violence - live and let live, y'know. But some Beings need smiting and Kent Parson just landed at the top of my list."
Ransom's phone beeped and he read the lab report. "The lab agrees with me. It's love dust. There are only two options: Jack can pine to death, or he can take this mortal as his consort."
"Oh, hell no!" Shitty said. "We gods have a bad record historically as regards our treatment of mortals and I'm against coercion of any kind! Especially sexual coercion! Bittle seems like a nice kid and he doesn't deserve this!"
"Sex isn't required," Ransom said. "Just that the two of them must be bonded and then be in close proximity for several hours a day. Sleeping platonically in the same bed should be good enough."
Jack had been following the discussion as best he could, although it was like trying to think through maple syrup in his brain. "Good enough for what?" he asked.
"To keep you from losing your godhood," Ransom said frankly. "And if you haven't bonded with him within 24 hours, you could die."
"This sucks balls!" Shitty groaned. "Who the hell invented this love dust? Another tool of the patriarchy to subvert freedom of choice for mortals? They're creatures with feelings and thoughts, not some kind of dolls for us to play with!"
Jack buried his face in his hands. He could feel the ache of his love for Bittle, the need to be close to him even if it was just to look at him. But he couldn't compel anyone to become his consort; it just wasn't right. "I'd rather die than put Bittle through that kind of ordeal."
"Don't you think you should give the mortal the choice?" another voice said, and they all looked over at the doorway to see Holster standing there. "It's his life, too, and he seems like a nice kid. You can explain the situation - "
Jack shook his head. He was terrible with words, like some kind of robotic oracle that could only spit out pre-recorded messages. There was no way that he could explain the situation to Bittle and ask for his help.
"Or you could ask me to conduct the negotiations," Holster continued, gesturing to the winged sandals on his hind hooves, part of his insignia as a Messenger for the gods.
Shitty sighed and placed a hand on Jack's shoulder. "Don't see that we have much choice, Jackabelle. It sucks big hairy ones, but so would losing you. And you know your Dad would lose his shit if you died. I'm not saying that Kent Parson doesn't deserve to be tied to a boulder and pecked at by eagles, but things are just getting better with the First Nations so I'd rather not have the Thunderbird coming after our asses."
Jack nodded and rubbed the center of his chest. It hurt to think of living without Bittle, and it hurt to think of forcing him into marriage. He'd just have to put his trust in Holster's hand and hope that the young man he'd fallen in love with would make the right decision.
From a corner of the main hall where the Temple guard had hauled him, Kent Parson watched the activity around Jack with dissatisfaction. That hadn't worked at all like he'd hoped it would. The idea was that he would be the first one that Jack saw, that Jack would fall in love with him. It didn't matter that it was a trick, or that the magic of the dust would wear off in a few months. If he could just get Jack into his own territory, away from his parents and all the "should-be" that Jack was pinned down by, Parse was sure that he could get Jack to fall in love with him for real. They could go back to the way they were when they were godlings, in each others' back pockets and beds, sharing everything including their hopes and dreams. The way they'd been Before.
Before Parse had dropped his focus on Jack for just a few minutes to toy with a pretty mortal and then had found Jack hours later, unconscious, at the tail end of a bacchanalia.
Once Jack had been removed from the room, Parse turned his attention to the impudent little mortal who'd dared to step between Jack and him. The human child was chugging down another glass of the vile concoction from the Tub. Parse smiled at that; if the human got enough of alcohol in his system, he would be open to whatever Parse suggested. Like returning to wherever it was that he'd come from and forgetting all about Jack Zimmerman. He took a step towards the human.
And was held back by a large, firm hand. "I think you have been making enough trouble, da?"
Parse turned around with a glare for the god who had dared to touch him, a Trickster from the First Nations! Looking down at him was a tall, dark-haired being with Slavic features and frost-tipped hair, and the scowl on his face was impressive. He was taller than Parse but Kent wasn't one to let other deities intimidate him. "Who do you think you are? Let me go."
"I do not think so," the other deity said. "I am Alexei, from the Slavic pantheon. And you are trouble-making rat."
"I think you mean 'brat', Tater," said another of the temple guards, joining them.
Tater shook his head. "No, Thirdy, I am meaning rat. Is not nice to put magic curse on Zimmboni. He is nice guy, welcomes Alexei." He glowered at Parse. "And if you make trouble for Itty Bitty Baker, I am throwing you across room."
It had been a long time since anyone had dared to face-off against him and Parse was intrigued despite himself. "Why are you so interested in him? He's just a mortal, his life a mere second of time compared to us," Parse said with an insolent shrug.
"Are they not children to Mokosh, the Great Mother, as well?" Tater asked.
"I think you've caused enough trouble tonight," the guard that Tater had called Thirdy said to Parse. "You'd best head back home now."
Parse sighed and rolled his eyes. He would leave the temple but not the area - in fact, he'd pop over to Samwell to see Jack again, see if he could adjust the parameters of the spell.
Tater was watching him with narrowed eyes, as if he could read Parse's thoughts. "Not good enough," he pronounced. "Little rat is planning more trouble. Best I see him to his Hall."
Parse ground his teeth at that but before he could voice a protest, the first guard had produced a set of manacles and attached them to Parse and the Slavic god. Parse pulled at the cuff and swore when he couldn't magic them off, then sighed and cast a rueful look at Tater.
"Careful what you volunteer for, Frosty; it looks like you're stuck with me, for now."
Tater smiled at him in a way that bared his teeth and made him look even more formidable. And attractive. "Da. And reverse is true, so no more trouble from you!"
Parse tilted his head and just smiled. We'll see about that, he thought smugly.
Bitty woke up with the distinct feeling that Wayland the Smith was using his skull as his anvil.
He'd never before been hungover, never had even drunk wine much less stronger spirits. Coach had the occasional beer, especially when watching sports on TV, but even the local festivals served grape juice instead of wine. The closest Bitty had ever been to alcohol was his MooMaw's Peanut Butter Cup Boozy Brownies, made with chocolate liqueur. His head hurt, his body hurt, his stomach hurt, and his mouth felt like something had died in it.
He vowed that he'd never ever drink again.
Bitty opened his eyes just a fraction and was relieved when he recognized his room at the temple; at least he'd made it back there before passing out. Although he seemed to be closer to the floor than an upper bunk would be, which was explained when he realized his mattress was on the floor. As were all the other mattresses, so that their room resembled a kids' sleepover party. His roommates were sprawled over the beds and, judging by the moans and groans, were having exactly the same start to the morning that Bitty was.
Driven by twin needs, Bitty dragged himself up from his mattress and staggered next door to the bathroom to relieve himself and splash cold water on his face. There were several bottles of hangover potion on the sink basin and he thankfully chugged one of them down. The relief was nearly instantaneous - and thank the gods for that! Returning to his room, he contemplated throwing himself down on the mattress again with the covers over his head but there was a sharp knock on the door. It opened and an older acolyte stuck their head in.
"Frog cluster?" they asked and Bitty nodded. "Assignments are in!" They handed several envelopes to Bitty and then disappeared back out into the hallway.
"Assignments, y'all," Bitty said, nudging Dex and Nursey (who appeared to be sharing one mattress) with his foot. "Chowder, assignments are in."
"Can you please whisper?" Ollie begged as he sat up and winced. "Ow, my head. What hit me?"
"Tub juice, for a start." Bitty tossed the envelopes into Ollie's lap and went next door to collect the hangover bottles. He passed them out as Ollie looked through the envelopes and handed them over to the addressee. Then he frowned.
"There's only five," Ollie said. "Bitty, you don't have one."
A sinking feeling of dread filled Bitty. This was it, then. One day at the temple in Boston and he'd already messed up so badly that they were gonna send him home. And he'd have to explain to Coach and to Mama - oh gods, what if they cursed his family?
"Maybe they're still figuring out where to send you," Chowder said, trying to be reassuring but sounding as crushed by Bitty's failure as he was.
Bitty tried to smile and he nodded. "Prob'ly."
"Or it got mixed up with one of the other initiate rooms," Dex ventured.
"It'll turn up!" Bitty said, trying to be cheerful. "What did y'all get for assignments?"
The change in subject was gratefully received by everyone and they tore open their envelopes. Ollie and Wicks were remaining at New Gardens, for training at the transportation hub (they fist-bumped at that). Dex, Nursey and Chowder were all assigned to the Samwell Temple outside of Boston. Dex was to work with the smiths and ironworkers, Nursey with the Muses, and Chowder with Demeter's shrine there. Chowder was especially pleased with his assignment as he'd met a nymph, Caitlin, who served at Demeter's shrine.
Bitty smiled and congratulated each of them but his heart was filled with dread. So when another acolyte came to tell Bitty that the initiate coaches, Hall and Murray, wanted to see him in their office, he was almost expecting it.
Silently he followed the acolyte down the corridors to the area where the coaching and training staff worked. Bitty looked around wistfully as they passed through the splendid vestibules with their statues and artwork depicting the various gods, wishing that he could have had just a little time to get to know the temple better. The others would have a month of general training here at New Gardens before they were sent to their posts, but Bitty expected that he'd be gone before the end of the day.
Coach Hall looked up when the acolyte knocked on his open door and he smiled. "Eric Bittle?" he asked and Bitty nodded. "Come in, son, and have a seat. You've already met Coach Murray, right?"
"Yessir," Bitty said, nodding to the other coach who was seated in the other chair in the office and then taking the seat Hall had indicated. He twisted his hands nervously in his lap. "What - what did y'all want to see me about?"
Coach Murray leaned forward slightly, a reassuring look on his face. "You've probably noticed that you're the only one in your cluster who didn't get an assignment letter this morning, right?"
"Not to worry, son," Hall said. "It's just that a rather...unusual request has come from Above for you."
"From Above, sir?" Bitty asked, glancing up at the ceiling in puzzlement.
"Not literally 'above'," Murray said. "That's how we refer to direct messages from the gods."
Bitty's jaw dropped. "There's a message from the gods - about me?"
Hall nodded and smiled. "That was fast thinking last night, at the Festival. Quick moves, soft hands - very impressive. People noticed. And They noticed as well."
"They - they did?" Bitty said faintly.
"We just want to let you know that you are absolutely not compelled to accept this proposal," Murray said. "It is a great honor - the highest! - but things are a lot more relaxed than they were in the old days." He smiled, reassuringly. "If you refuse, you're not going to be turned into a tree or anything like that."
"Absolutely no smiting - that was quite clear," Hall said.
"That's good," Bitty said. "Um, what kind of proposal...?"
"Of marriage, Bittle," Hall said. There was a slight cough from the shadows at the back of the room and Hall looked over, then nodded. "But we should let the Messenger tell you about that. It's his job, after all!" Hall stood up. "Murray and I will wait outside while you listen to the Message, and then we'll go through all your options with you."
Bitty watched with confusion as the two priest-coaches left the room, closing the door behind them, then he turned his attention to the back of the room. From out of the shadows stepped the faun that he'd met the previous evening, the one called Holster. Bitty sagged in his chair in relief.
"Oh, it's you," he said. "I wasn't sure what to expect."
"Eric Bittle," Holster said, and his voice seemed amplified - or maybe it was just that the room was small and echoed. "Greetings, o mortal who is favored by the gods! You have been blessed this day with good fortune and a great gift. Out of all mortals, you have been selected to be the beloved husband to the god known as Jack, son of Bob and Alicia of the Zimmerman line, descended from Zeus himself. Should you assent to this Blessing, you and your Immortal Spouse shall be conjoined before sundown tomorrow, from whence you shall journey to his godly abode. Please RSVP before the end of today. Sincerely, Hermes, Senior Messenger of the Gods."
Bitty's mouth dropped open and he stared in stunned silence at Holster. After a moment, the faun seemed to sag and shake himself, then he dropped into the chair where Murray had been sitting.
"Whew! Never quite get used to that, bro." Holster pulled out a flask and took a long drink, then closed it and turned to Bitty. "Questions?"
Bitty snapped out of the shocked daze he'd been in. "What - of course I have questions! What in the deep-fried Hades - ? Are you - Y'all can't be serious!"
"I know it's a bit of a shock - "
"Shock!" Bitty leapt out of his chair, spinning around and grabbing at his head. "Shock would be hearin' that I'd won tickets to see the Beyonce, the great Goddess of Music, in concert, in person! This is - I don't even know what this is!"
"Bittle - "
"I don't even know this god! We met for, what, a minute? And suddenly he wants to marry me? I didn't even know who he was!"
Holster looked shocked by that. "You don't know who Jack is? Jack, the son of 'Bad Bob'?"
"Never heard of him, either." Bitty threw up his hands at the look on Holster's face. "Look, the big temples in Atlanta prob'ly know him, but we mostly worship the Celts where I'm from, and maybe some of the Norse."
"O-kay," Holster said slowly. "This could maybe be a good thing?"
"How is this possibly a good thing?" Bitty demanded. "We're complete strangers! What, he just saw me and decided he wanted to marry me?"
"Well, sort of," Holster hedged, rubbing his hand over his head. "Look, the truth of the matter is that he didn't pick you insofar as that goes. That stuff you wiped out of his eyes? It was a form of love dust."
"Oh." Bitty had heard rumors about that sort of thing. One of the girls at his school had been suspended after she'd gotten a love elixir from Aphrodite's Lair on line and tried to drug one of the other students with it.
"You were the first being he saw after he was exposed to the potion."
Bitty swallowed, feeling oddly disappointed. It had been crazy to think that a god would have selected him, an ordinary mortal, out of the blue to marry, but kind of flattering, too. The reality, that the god's infatuation with him was an accident, a wrong-time-wrong-place thing, was strangely crushing. "Oh. Well, then, he'll get over it, right? If - if I don't marry him he'll just - get better. Right?"
Holster was shaking his head before Bitty even stopped speaking. "No. According to the healer - that's Ransom, you met him - if he doesn't marry the being he fell in love with in a few days, he'll die."
"Oh." Bitty swallowed hard and sank back down into the chair. "Oh, lord! Oh what am I gonna do?"
Holster sighed and leaned back in his chair, crossing his hooves. "Look, if it helps, I can tell you more about Jack - we've shared the Haus for a few years now."
"That's what we call our Hall - it's on Mt. Samwell, above Samwell Temple." Holster paused. "Jack's a good guy. He can be bitchy when he gets stressed out, and he'd not the most eloquent of talkers, but his heart's in the right place. He's not one of those gods who is always demanding worship and libations and shit - in fact, just the opposite. He hates it when people get all starry-eyed about him being a god and about his dad. He really loves hockey and history, and just pretty much wants to be left alone."
"Okay," Bitty said slowly. "He doesn't sound completely awful but - marriage? Couldn't we just, y'know, date or somethin'? Get to know each other?"
"Well that would be a great idea, bro, only Jack's gonna croak if you two don't tie the knot. Is he not your type?" Holster added hastily, "Not that I'm judging or anything! Shitty would kill me for that. No, I affirm whatever sexual orientation you choose."
Bitty sighed. "No, it's not... I'm gay, okay? So it's not that Jack's Jack and not Jane, it's...he's a god. And a stranger. And," in a very low voice he added, "I've never...been with anyone."
"Oh!" Holster's face brightened and he leaned forward. "Not a problem, bro! Jack's a decent sort, not like Zeus with the chasing and unwelcome seductions and shit."
Bitty gave him a you-did-not-just-say-that look. "They actually call that rape nowadays."
"Right. Jack's not into anything uncool like that. Besides, you don't have to sleep with him! You just have to sleep next to him!"
"You know, sharing a bed while you're asleep?" Holster said. "It's something about the parameters of the magic."
Bitty dropped his face into his hands, blocking out everything for a few minutes so that he could think. On the good side, he wasn't being sent home. And the god he was supposed to marry wasn't a monster, and Holster said that he was nice. And if he married a god, then he couldn't be expected to return to Madison and marry Mama's best friend's niece. And he wouldn't have to come out to his parents because marrying a god was different than marrying that cute boy who worked at the movie theater...
On the bad side, marriage.
He could say no. He could tell Holster that he appreciated the honor and all, but that he'd just pass if it's all the same to everyone. He could get a regular assignment, just like the others, and put in his year of service.
And Jack would die.
He thought about the man he'd seen at the festival, attractive and aloof, and how blue his eyes had been once they'd been cleaned, and about the smile he'd given Bitty when he asked his name. And Bitty knew that he just couldn't let him die, no matter the cost.
"All right," he said to Holster. "I'll marry him."
Holster called in the coaches and the date and time for the ceremony was set. Bitty was congratulated again and then sent back to his dorm room, and he walked slowly through the temple, not noticing its beauty.
The other Frogs looked up as he entered the room.
"Well?" asked Chowder. "What happened?"
"I'm gettin' married," Bitty said. And then he collapsed against the wall and curled up into a little ball.
EDIT: Sorry for the delay in posting the next chapter - RL and other fannish deadlines! Next chapter up by the end of New Year's Day!
Chapter 8: Going to the Chapel...
Bitty was vaguely aware that there was a conversation going on around him, that the door opened closed a couple of times. A blanket settled over him and then someone sat near him, just quiet and waiting for him to be ready to talk. He didn't want to talk but he expected that his roommates were probably freaked out by his behavior. With a sigh he opened his eyes and then shifted into an upright position, propped against the wall. Chowder was sitting across from him, his head bent over a textbook. Next to Bitty was a cup of coffee, a charm on it keeping it steaming. He picked it up and dislodged the charm, then sipped at the hot drink.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare y'all like that."
Chowder looked up from his book, then carefully placed a bookmark and closed it, setting it aside. "It's one of the gods, isn't it?" At Bitty's questioning look he added, "That you're marrying."
Bitty nodded, keeping his eyes on the contents of his mug.
"Thought it had to be - you didn't say you were engaged and you can't get married to a mortal during your service year." Chowder paused. "I'd be nervous, too, if I was marrying a god. Is it Jack Zimmerman?"
Bitty snorted. "How many gods do you think I've met?"
"Well, there were lots at the festival last night," Chowder pointed out. "It could have been any of them."
"It's Jack," Bitty confirmed.
"That's romantic, then," Chowder said with a hesitant smile. "Among my ancestors there's a song about a poet, Sima Xiangru, who was playing a song that touched the heart of the widowed daughter of his host, sitting behind the curtain. A sudden gust of wind lifted the curtain and their eyes met, and it was love at first sight. That's like you; you touched his heart with your kindness and then your eyes met and you both fell in love. Is that what happened?"
Chowder's expression was so hopeful that Bitty couldn't bear to disappoint him with the truth. "Yes, that's what happened," he managed to say, and it was true from Jack's side, at least.
Chowder's smile widened. "And you're getting married! Will your parents be able to get here for it? You should call them and tell them!"
Bitty's heart sank at that; there was no way that he could tell his parents that he was getting married, to a god, and not entirely of his own free will. And who knew if it would really happen? Maybe the potion would wear off before the wedding took place - it would be better to wait till afterwards to tell his parents. "I can't," he improvised quickly. "It's tomorrow - they wouldn't be able to get here in time."
"Oh," Chowder said, looking crestfallen at the news and Bitty felt guilty for crushing his romantic notions.
"Look, Chowder," Bitty said quickly. "I need to have someone to stand with me at the ceremony, and I don't really know anybody here, and we're friends and roommates. Would you stand up with me?"
The smile returned to Chowder's face, making it nearly glow with delight. "Of course I will! Oh! We need to go see the temple's quartermaster - what do you think they'll give you to wear? Or will we need to go into town? Will they let us?" Chowder stood up and impatiently tugged at Bitty. "Come on! We don't have much time! When my sister got married it took nearly a year to prepare and you only have a day!"
Bitty let Chowder drag him out of the room and down the hall, listening to him chatter the entire way. At least this gave him something else to think about.
Jack was pacing a hole in the floor of his parents' suite and he looked up quickly at the knock on the door. "Come in!" he called. As he'd hoped, Holster entered the room.
"He's agreed," Holster said. "He's freaked out and a little worried about the particulars, but he's a decent mortal."
Jack blew out a sigh of relief. "I'll need to tell Papa and Maman," he said and then sighed again. "At least they'll be happy that I'm getting married."
"I'll ask for one of the Messengers to be dispatched to them," Holster said, pulling out his phone and opening the Instant Messanger app. He walked out onto the balcony so that he could give the details to the closest Messenger to Bob and Alicia without background noise to confuse the message.
Jack collapsed onto the sofa next to Shitty. "He agreed," he told Shitty, as if he hadn't heard Holster give them the news. "What do I do now?"
Shitty straightened up from his sprawl. "Well, as your Best Mate - you are gonna choose me to stand up with you, right?"
"Of course," Jack said with a half-smile. "Who else would I choose?"
"Your words warm my heart."
"Shitty - "
"Nah, it's all good," Shitty said with a grin. "I knew you what you meant. We'll need to check with the Priests about a time for the ceremony. The caterers will need info for the reception afterwards - how many and the types of Beings invited so they can arrange for special diet needs. You'll need to get a new dress toga - and no, your old one at the Haus won't work. You're getting married; you need new threads. And you need to buy a Bride-Gift for Bittle."
"A Bride-Gift?" Jack asked, his face blank. "I don't even know him! How can I choose the right gift!"
"You could contact his family, get their opinion?"
Jack shook his head. "Bittle should be allowed to break the news to his family."
"And how do you think he's gonna get them up here in less than 24 hours? There is a time and place for godly intervention and this is one of those times."
Jack bit his lip. "I'd feel better if I could ask Bittle's permission first." And it would feel better to ask him; it would feel better to see him again and to hear his voice and to touch his hand -
Shitty sighed. "Should'a seen this coming. It's been nearly eighteen hours since you saw him last and you need a 'fix'."
Holster had just returned to the room and Shitty asked him to get a messenger down to Bittle, to arrange a lunch meeting between the bridegrooms. Holster IM'd one of the local staff who sent a runner to track down Bittle. Then Shitty dragged Jack off for a fitting.
For the second time that morning, Bitty was approached by an official Messenger, although this time it was to extend an invitation to lunch. With Jack. As he was with Chowder, getting fitted up for his wedding, Bitty was able to talk him into coming along. Which turned out was fine because Jack had someone with him as well, Shitty.
"Heeey, Bitty!" Shitty said genially, sweeping him into a one-armed hug. "Ya lil fucker, how're ya doing?"
"Um, hello, um...Shitty," Bitty managed to say, blushing. It still felt uncomfortable calling a god by a profanity. "This is Chris Chow - Chowder. He's - he's gonna stand up with me?"
"Righteous!" Shitty said, smacking Chowder on the back. "Sit, sit! We've got a coupla things to talk over but first let's get some food!"
Almost as he said those words, one of the servers appeared to take their orders. Bitty took a quick look at the menu before ordering a sandwich and a slice of pie, and after the server left, he looked up to see that Jack was staring at him.
"What?" he asked - a little defensively but Jack's stare was unnerving.
"Bittle," Jack said, his voice a bit of a croak, his cheeks slightly flushed. "You - you need to eat more protein."
"Jack," Shitty groaned, covering his face with his hand.
Bitty was raised to be polite, taught to respect the gods, but he'd had a hell of a morning already. He'd been pushed around when he was younger, and he'd been bullied, and he was damned if he was going to spend his married life like that. "You did not," he said, his voice low and trembling with ire. "You did not just tell me what I should eat."
Jack's face went even more pink. "I - um - "
"Because I am not gonna be ordered around by my future husband, no sir!" Bitty was aware that his raised voice was causing looks to be turned their way but at the moment he didn't care. "If that's your plan, you can just go ahead and smite me right here 'n now!"
"Bitty!" Chowder said, horrified. "You can't - " He cast an imploring look at the two gods. "Please don't hurt him!"
To his - and Bitty's - surprise, Jack didn't seem in the least bit angry. In fact, there was a little bit of a smile on his lips. "I apologize, Bittle," he said. "I was rude."
"Boys, Jack here suffers from what I call terminal foot-in-mouth disease," Shitty said, slinging an arm around Jack's shoulder and ruffling his hair. "The fucker can't open his mouth without either insulting someone or sounding like a robot."
It was now Bitty's turn to blush, embarrassed by how quickly he'd flown off the handle. " 'S'all right," he said. "I shouldn't have lit into y'all like that. And, um, my friends call me Bitty. Except my Mama and Coach, of course."
Jack gave him a puzzled look. "Coach? You're an athlete?"
"Don't give me that sassy look, Mr. Zimmerman!" Bitty retorted. "I had the fastest sprint time in the whole county, and I figure skated when I was younger! But Coach is my daddy; he's head coach at our local stadium."
"You skate?" Jack asked, looking very pleased by that. "Have you ever played hockey?"
Their drinks arrived and Bitty took a sip of his cola, then nodded. "On a club team, no checking allowed. Do you play?"
Jack blinked rapidly for a few seconds while Shitty shouted with laughter. "Does Jack play hockey? More like he lives, eats, and breathes it - at least during the tournament season. Rest of the time he has his nose in a history book."
Jack's face and even the tip of his nose reddened. "Shitty...." he muttered.
Bitty set his elbow on the table, his chin on his palm, and he grinned at Jack. "Is that true, Mr. Zimmerman?" he asked teasingly.
Jack's blush deepened but the friendly chirping was so familiar that it loosened his tongue. "What about you, Bittle? What are your hobbies?"
"Oh, lord! I have a couple - I did a vlog back home, for one, but I guess my favorite thing is baking."
"Bitty here showed up to the festival with a mess of pies," Shitty confirmed. "No idea where he found a kitchen to use or the ingredients, but there he was! And they were 'sawesome, too."
It was Bitty's turn to blush now. "My MooMaw would have torn a strip offa me if I'd turned up to a party without somethin' to share."
"My grandmother - my Mama's mother," Bitty explained. "Owns the family bakery in Madison, where I'm from."
That was the trigger for Jack to ask more questions about Bitty's family and his home, which he readily answered. It wasn't until the piece of pie was set down in front of him that he realized that he'd talked through his entire meal.
"Oh lord, here I've gone and talked your ears off," he said, turning pink with embarrassment.
"No, no!" Jack reassured him earnestly. "I enjoyed listening."
"Well my Mama always says I can talk the hind legs off a donkey, so just tell me to shut up if it gets on your nerves," he said with a sigh.
Jack looked at him, his expression serious but his eyes twinkling. "I wouldn't dare," he said gravely.
Bitty balled up his napkin and threw it at him.
"I'd like to meet your parents," Jack said. "Would you like them to come to the wedding?"
Bitty had started shaking his head almost the second that Jack had asked, his earlier panic about telling his parents returning. If his parents came there would be questions, and how could he ever explain to them why he was marrying a god he'd just met, and one that he didn't even love? Sure, Jack was turning out to be okay but Mama was sure to put her foot down and demand that they fix this right now, gods or not! And he'd wanted to leave Madison so he could find his own way in the world, not hide behind his folks.
"It's football season - Coach can't leave right now, and Mama wouldn't want to come without him. And there's the bakery -- without me they're already short handed," he said, looking down at the napkin he was shredding. "I'll - I'll ask them to come visit later, when things are more settled."
"If you're sure," Shitty said, " 'cause we can arrange transportation."
"Thanks but no." Bitty glanced over at the sundial and realized they'd spent two hours on lunch. "Oh hades, I didn't think it was so late! And there's so much to do!" He looked anxiously at the two gods. "Was there anything else we need to talk about?"
They shook their heads and Jack reached out to briefly lay his hand on Bitty's. "Just promise me that you're not going to spend your time baking pies for the wedding guests," he said.
Bitty tilted his head and put his other fist on his hip. "Are you chirping me, Mr. Zimmerman?" And then he and Chowder were rushing off and Jack realized that Bitty hadn't given him an answer to that question.
Shitty was laughing at him, to his face, the bastard. "Jack, never thought I'd see the day when a mortal got the best of you!"
Jack laughed along with him as he signed off on the check. "Shitty, check with the temple about the rest of the arrangements - I have to pop over to the Haus."
"Why? Jack Zimmerman, you are not getting that horrible old toga of yours - "
"No. I have to see if the Haus has a kitchen and what shape it's in," he said, standing up from the table.
"A kitchen?" Shitty asked, following him out of the diner. "What the hell for?"
"Because I know exactly what I'm giving Bittle for a Bride-gift."
Chapter 9: ...And We're Gonna Get Married
FYI - This part is pretty heavy with rituals.
For the second morning in a row, Bitty woke up with a hangover.
At first he wondered if it had all been a dream, the betrothal to Jack and the wedding to come. But when he sat up and looked around at the discarded beer bottles and snack wrappers, he realized that it was all true. Last night had been in light of a bachelor party, as Wicks and Ollie had smuggled in a case of beer to celebrate. They'd all toasted to Bitty's future and had gotten wasted, and now Bitty was paying for it with a headache and a tacky-feeling mouth.
He didn't have much time to dwell on his misery, though, as a firm knock on the door announced the arrival of a Roman priest and two acolytes. All three inclined their heads to Bitty, seeming to take no notice of the state of the room.
"The omens have been read and they are favorable," the priest announced. "Are you ready to be escorted to the baths for purification?"
Bitty nodded, wishing his head would stop aching.
"Your future husband has expressed his wishes that your family traditions be incorporated with the Roman ones of his family line. You worship the Celtic pantheon, is that right?"
Bitty nodded again.
"April here is an acolyte in those rites," the priest said. "And March is with the Roman mysteries. They will ensure that both traditions are honored so that all gods and spirits are appeased."
Privately, Bitty thought that the fact that he was marrying a god should be appeasement enough for anyone, but he nodded his agreement.
By now the other boys had awakened and, after making sure that they knew where and when the ceremony would take place, Bitty went off to the baths.
There weren't any Roman style baths in Madison, although Bitty had heard of them in Atlanta and Athens, so the whole bathing ritual was foreign to him. Back home, he'd have just had a shower before dressing in his wedding clothes, but here he was scrubbed with a light pumice stone to scour away any evil influences. Then he was rinsed and dried before being set in a fragrant warm bath to soak while his hair was trimmed, his face shaved, and his nails trimmed. After being rinsed a final time, he was wrapped in a thick towel and then his hair was styled and his nails tinted lightly. Once all this was done, he was escorted to an antechamber where Chowder and the tailor were waiting with his new blue tunic and trousers, both embroidered with symbols of good fortune including his lucky number, fifteen. After he was dressed, the tailor made the final stitches to the hem of the tunic where a small iron horseshoe was hidden, to discourage any of the Fae folk from causing mischief by abducting him before the wedding. A wreathe of flowers was set on his head but his feet were bare, in keeping with the Celtic rites, to ensure that he was connected to the earth. As a final step, March wrapped a scarlet woolen sash around his waist, tying it with the knot of Hercules, only to be untied by his husband on their wedding night.
Another priest, this one Celtic, appeared to lead them to the open terrace where the ceremony would take place. Despite the short notice, there were a good number of Beings present, including a stunningly attractive couple who were clearly Jack's parents. For a minute, Bitty regretted that he hadn't asked for his parents to be brought here - familiar faces would have eased his nerves. Then he caught sight of his fellow Frogs who waved at him, and Holster and Ransom who both gave him thumbs-up gestures, and his heart lifted.
A large circle of flowers and greenery had been laid on the ground with unlit candles at each cardinal point, one end open to allow Bitty access. Jack, Shitty, and the Roman priest were already standing inside the north end of the circle. Bitty caught his breath at the sight of his future husband, dressed in a gold tunic and sandals with a toga trabea draped over him to indicate his divine nature. There was no denying that Jack, even in his mortal Semblance, was a vision worth looking at and Bitty's younger self would have been tickled to death by the thought that this was to be his husband.
If only the reason for them marrying was real.
Bitty and Chowder entered the circle at the south end, behind the priest, and waited while the acolytes closed the circle. His priest then lit the candles and consecrated the circle with water and salt, then turned to the Roman priest for the next part of the ceremony. Chowder, as Bitty's man of honor, took Bitty's right hand and placed it in Jack's, then stepped back to allow Shitty to bind their hands with a white cloth. Each of the priests took their turn inviting various good spirits and gods to bless the union, then the Roman priest turned to Jack.
"Do you, Jack, of the line of Zimmerman, take this mortal, Eric Richard Bittle, to husband, for as long as he lives?"
Jack moistened his lips and nodded, saying, "I do."
"Will you protect him and keep him safe under the mantle of your divinity?"
"I will." Jack removed his toga, with Shitty's help, and Shitty draped it around Bitty.
"Will you provide him with food and drink, with roof and walls, that he may never know cold or hunger?"
"I shall." Jack produced a new gold coin from somewhere, possibly thin air, and placed it in Bitty's left hand.
The priest then turned to Bitty. "Eric Richard Bittle, do you accept Jack's hand and his protection, until the end of your days?"
Bitty swallowed hard, praying silently that he didn't mess up the unfamiliar words he was required to say in reply, and turned to Jack. "Wherever you go, there also go I, as your husband."
The priests each placed a hand over their bound ones and said, together, "May the gods bless you both and may your union be long and happy." Then they turned to Jack and the the Roman priest said, "Kiss your husband and so seal your bond."
Bitty lifted his head, feeling his pulse increase. Jack leaned forward and pressed his lips against Bitty's, a brief kiss for propriety. At that instant, the cloth binding their hands disappeared in a flash of light and in its place were two white bands on their right ring fingers. Jack looked startled at the occurrence; looking around, Bitty saw that Jack's father was looking smug and guessed that a little Divine gesture had been performed. At least it meant that Jack's father approved - he hoped. The crowd of onlookers cheered and there were a couple of whistles from the rowdier attendees (Bitty suspected Holster and Ransom included).
Jack retrieved his toga and then knelt to slip a gold sandal onto each of Bitty's feet as Chowder helped steady Bitty, then stood upright again. Hands clasped, they walked to the edge of the circle which the acolytes opened, then Jack led his new husband to the wedding feast.
By now Bitty was starving as he'd only been allowed a cup of coffee and a headache brew before bathing. He had been given some candied flowers to sweeten his breath although they did little to appease his stomach, and he was just glad that he hadn't fainted during the ceremony. His stomach growled as they walked through the corridor and he could tell that Jack had given him an amused side-glance.
"Don't you start, Mr. Zimmerman," Bitty warned him, but his own lips twitched. "They didn't let me eat a bite so there had better be a mess of food."
"There will be," Jack promised.
What he hadn't said was that first they had to run the gamut of well-wishers as they were escorted to their table. Primary among them were, of course, Jack's parents and as he was introduced to Jack's father, Bitty could feel his nerves kick in. Everything Chowder had told him about the ruling couple flashed through his flustered mind.
"Nice to meet you, Bad B- uh - Mister Bad - oh - Mister Jack's Dad," he stammered. Then he wished some passing god would smite him and spare him the embarrassment.
Jack's father chuckled and shook his hand, saying, "Just call me Bob, son."
"R-right, Bob, sir."
Bob chuckled again. "And this is my wife and Jack's mother, Alicia."
Alicia was even more stunning in person than she'd looked in his Google search. She reached out to hug him, saying, "Welcome to the family, Eric! We are so pleased that Jack met you."
Bitty gave Jack a questioning side-glance, wondering if he'd told his parents the circumstances behind their marriage, but Jack's expression didn't tell him a thing. "Thank you, ma'am," he replied.
When they were finally at the head table, the Celtic priest brought the Quaich, a two-handled goblet of sweet wine and a plate with an oat cake to Bitty. He broke it into four parts, putting the first into an earthenware bowl and pouring wine on it, as an offering to the gods. The second part of the cake was placed in a silver bowl with wine, in honor of the relatives who couldn't be there or who had passed on. The last two pieces they fed to each other and then they drank from the Quaich.
Once the ceremonial part had been completed, servers brought out food and drink for the guests. There were quite a lot of guests and many of them wanted to give their personal congratulations to the newly wedded couple. Jack distracted their attention away from Bitty so that he was finally able to eat more than a morsel of cake. The food was good and plentiful, the wine was sweet and yet left Bitty's head clear and unmuddled. There was music and laughter, and it was clear that everyone was enjoying themselves.
And in the midst of all of the celebration, Bitty realized that he felt nothing. Not joy, not sadness - just emptiness.
Jack seemed to have sensed something because he leaned over and murmured, "Are you all right, Bittle?"
"Can we go?" Bitty asked quietly. "Would it be rude?"
Jack shook his head and leaned over to say something to Shitty sitting on his other side, then he rose and held out his hand to Bitty. With only a few pairs of eyes taking note, Jack and Bitty quietly stepped out onto the balcony and disappeared into the cloud of a waiting zephyr.
Chapter 10: Wedding Night
For the purposes of this story, Shitty and Bitty have exchanged rooms so that Jack and Bitty have the connected rooms. And no, I haven't forgotten about Jack's bridal gift - those are given on the morning after.
The zephyr landed them on a hillside overlooking a large number of buildings and temples and then zoomed off.
"That's Samwell," Jack said gesturing down the hill. "It's mostly a campus for training at the various temples; all the mortals live there. A lot of different religions are represented here - Samwell prides itself on being polytheistic. I think there's a Celtic temple if you want to attend festivals or make offerings."
"A few of my roommates were assigned to Samwell," Bitty said. It was a pretty collection of buildings with the lights just beginning to come on against the twilight. He was relieved to see that it was close enough that he'd be able to visit Chowder when he wasn't in classes.
"And this is the Haus," Jack said, turning around and pointing towards the only building on the hill itself. "I think the Council gave it a more formal name but we just call it that. Only a few Beings live here: me, Shitty, Ransom and Holster, Lardo - she's a Muse and she's in Africa right now but you'll meet her soon. And now you."
Bitty found himself looking at a modest appearing dwelling, not what he would have imagined a Hall for a group of divine Beings would look like. He gave Jack a questioning look and his husband shrugged.
"We prefer to keep a discreet and low profile," Jack said, which Bitty assumed meant that it had been Jack's decision. Shitty hadn't looked like he knew the meaning of the word "discreet" and both Holster and Ransom seemed the type to prefer high profile in everything. "And it's bigger than it seems inside."
Jack led him up onto the porch and started to walk through the front door before recalling the situation. A little awkwardly, Jack scooped Bitty up and stepped across the threshold, then carefully set him down on the other side.
Bitty looked around, getting his first glimpse inside the Haus. There was a staircase on the right with a small dining room next to it while on the left there appeared to be nothing but wall till you reached a large living room. The place was erratically furnished with a few armchairs, a television, and an atrocious looking green couch.
Tucked under the staircase was another door that Jack opened to show stairs leading down into the dark. "That goes to the basement - not much down there but Lardo's studio. We used to have house-sprites to do the general upkeep and they lived down there, but they left after Ransom and Holster's first kegster."
Bitty thought that explained the general untidiness of the place; he'd never been so disheartened with male hygiene in his entire 18 years of life. Fortunately, he wasn't afraid of hard work and he'd have to do something to keep himself occupied, especially since the Haus didn't appear to have a kitchen. He wondered if maybe he could find one somewhere on the Samwell campus.
"Upstairs on the second floor are our rooms and Shitty's, and in the attic are Ransom and Holster."
"Rooms?" Bitty asked, following Jack up the stairs.
Jack opened the door directly across from the stairs. "This is yours," he said, stepping into the room. "No one's used this room since our priest-in-training moved on. Our rooms share the bathroom between them," he added, opening a door to the left to reveal a bathroom.
"Separate rooms?" Bitty asked. "I thought part of the requirements were that we share the same bed."
"They are," Jack replied. "I thought you might like your own space though." He gestured towards the dresser. "We bought you some clothes to start off - got the sizes from the quartermaster at New Garden."
Bitty protested, "You didn't have to do that. Coach Hall said I'll have an allowance; I can buy my own clothes."
"Of course you can. I thought you might not want to sleep naked tonight, though," Jack said dryly.
"Oh." Bitty flushed bright red. "Um, thanks?"
Jack gestured towards the bathroom. "I'll get changed in my room if you want to use the bathroom first?"
Bitty nodded and Jack started to leave, then turned around and came back to Bitty. He grasped Bitty's shoulders and looked solemnly down into his face. "Bittle, I know you didn't ask for this, and neither did I. But I'm going to do my best to make sure that you come out of this all right."
Bitty could feel tears forming and his throat was tight. "Thanks," he managed to say.
Jack squeezed his shoulders and dropped his hands, turning towards the hall door. Bitty turned away to start removing his ceremonial clothes and realized that he was still wearing the garter sash around his waist. The one knotted by the priestesses and only to be unknotted by his husband on their wedding night. It was a tradition going back to days when virginity was a commodity, didn't have any modern use and certainly didn't apply to Bitty's situation. He hesitated again, wondered if he should call to Jack to untie it but then it wasn't like it was unlucky if he untied it himself. Before he could change his mind, he untied it and tossed it onto a chair, then finished undressing.
Inside the dresser he found shirts and shorts, suitable for sleeping in, and underwear (and it was mortifying to think that Jack had bought them). He pulled out a Samwell shirt and a pair of shorts, pulled them on, then went into the bathroom to get ready for the night. When he came back out he saw the ceremonial clothes lying on the chair and decided to hang them up. Inside the closet, sitting on the floor, he found his travel bag. He'd forgotten all about it with the rush of the day but now he caught it up and unzipped it, then pulled out Senor Bun and hugged him
"I don't know exactly what I've gotten myself into," he told his oldest friend solemnly, "but at least we're in this together."
There was a knock on the door and Bitty dropped the bag back into the closet and scurried over to the bed, scrambling under the covers. This might be a platonic marriage but he had no intention of letting Jack see him in those small shorts.
"Come in," he called, his voice a little high with anxiety, then remembered he was still holding Senor Bun and stuffed him under his pillow.
Jack opened the door and entered, then shut it behind himself. "Bittle," he said, sounding awkward in a way that was completely ungodlike and endearing, and Bitty felt his own nervousness ease.
"Don't just stand there holding up the wall," he said and jerked his head towards the other pillow. "And you could call me 'Bitty'."
Jack hesitantly sat on the bed and cleared his throat. "Bittle. Bitty. We both know the circumstances behind our marriage. I - have feelings for you that I didn't ask for and that you don't return. I promise you on my honor that I won't force my attentions on you in any way."
"Holster told me," Bitty said, nodding. "We need to sleep together - I mean in the same bed - so you don't pine to death."
Jack nodded then offered, "I could lay a sword between us?"
"Hades, no!" Bitty said. "Way things are goin' I'd likely cut myself in my sleep!" They both laughed and Bitty added, "I trust you, Jack. And if you step outta line I'll tell Shitty and he'll give you a good tongue-lashing."
"He would," Jack said ruefully and they both laughed again. "There's one more thing, Bitty. When I'm deeply asleep I won't be able to hold onto my Semblance. You know what that means."
Bitty nodded again. "If I see you as you truly are I could go mad or die."
"Yes. So when we are going to sleep, I will need to pull down Night on our rooms: yours, mine, the bath," Jack said somberly. "No lights in here will work, your cell phone will be dark, and nothing outside this room will be able to penetrate the utter darkness until I lift it again."
Bitty swallowed at that; there was a natural human fear of absolute darkness that centuries of civilization hadn't been able to alter. "O - okay."
"And it's important that you don't try to find a way around that. No matter what anyone else tells you, even if they hint that I turn into a monster while I sleep and tell you to check. No asking for a magical light from another Being, no lighting a candle while I sleep, nothing."
Bitty nodded, recalling tales he'd read in Classics class about similar situations.
"Swear it to me, Bitty. It's for your safety."
Bitty wet his lips. "I swear."
"Good." Jack slid under the covers, turning so that his back was to Bitty.
Bitty lay down, turning to face the other way. "Good night, Jack."
Instantly the room became dark, and dark in a way that Bitty had never known before. He blinked his eyes, waiting for them to adjust to the darkness but there was no change. It was as pitch dark as the deepest cave might be. As dark as that storage closet. His heart began to race and he thought about running, just leaping out of the bed and running out the door and not stopping until he was home --
There was a rustling of the covers and a soft, sleepy murmur of "Night, Bits."
And suddenly the darkness was less scary because there was someone to share it with. His hand under the pillow brushed against Senor Bun and he pulled the stuffed toy closer. Two someones.
Bitty closed his eyes and went to sleep.
Chapter 11: The Morning After
Jack lay in bed watching his husband's sleeping face in the pale light of morning.
He'd awakened at dawn, as was his habit, disoriented by the strange darkness surrounding him. Then he remembered, re-donned his mortal Semblance before banishing the Dark, and anxiously looked over to make sure that his bedmate was unharmed. Bittle was still sleeping, lying curled up on his side with his fist under his cheek, a slight smile on his lips. He was the most beautiful thing that Jack had ever seen and he longed to reach out and caress a soft cheek to revel in its warmth. Those lips that he had briefly touched with his own during the ceremony called to him enticingly, drawing him closer to the sleeping mortal. Bittle stirred and sighed, and Jack nearly fell out of the bed in his flight to avoid temptation.
He drew the curtains to allow Bittle to sleep longer and slipped noiselessly through to his own room. Running clothes put on, he made his way out of the silent Haus and onto the running path around Mt. Samwell. It was a familiar routine and as he ran he gave into the jumbled thoughts that circled his brain.
This was going to be harder than he had thought it would be.
Jack was well-versed in self-discipline. He'd spent his youth training his mind and body so that he'd be worthy of the godhood he'd been born into, and the expectations of him as the latest in the Zimmerman line. Not for him, the frolics with the followers of Pan or the pursuit of willing nymphs! His single lapse and subsequent fall from grace had only reinforced his efforts to Be his Best, and everything that might distract him had been pushed aside. It wasn't easy and there were often dark nights when anxiety and self-doubt overwhelmed him, but he'd kept pushing on.
That wasn't going to work this time, he knew.
Oh, he could continue down that path, ignore Bittle and the temptations being around him offered, keep strictly to himself - he knew he could do it. But there would be a cost, and not just to him. Bittle would be hurt, and he had promised that he would never do anything that would give the young mortal additional grief. Holding him at arms' length in bed was one thing, but actively avoiding him was another and he instinctively knew that it would damage the fragile little connection they currently had. However, exposing himself to the warmth of Bittle's friendship would be like rubbing at the raw wound of Jack's unrequited love for him.
Unless he could get Bittle to return those feelings, to fall in love with Jack.
He could easily seduce the young mortal - he was a god, after all, from Zeus's bloodline. His own father had a reputation as a young godling for being able to attract any Being he cast his eye upon. All Jack had to do was use his godly influence and he'd have Bitty in his bed, eager for his touch and his kiss. And it would be a lie and a cheat. And if (when!) Bitty found out that he'd been tricked, he would be even more hurt and probably angry. He might even leave Jack, consign him to a slow and lonely death, and it would serve him right.
Jack sighed and discarded that idea completely. He would have to make Bittle fall in love with him the mortal way, no matter how long it might take. At least he knew that Bittle preferred the male form so he wasn't fighting against the mortal's preferences. He had little-to-no idea how to achieve his goal but he did have friends and family who dealt more closely with mortals and might be able to give him advice. And his had a feeling that his Bride-gift was going to be a good first step in getting Bittle to look at him in a favorable light.
Eager to put that first step into action, he increased his speed and returned to the Haus.
After a shower and change, Jack knocked on Bitty's door and, hearing a bleary "come in", opened the door.
"Morning, Bittle," he said cheerfully. "Are you going to sleep all day?"
Bitty pulled the covers over his head. "Yes," came his muffled voice from under the covers.
"Okay." Jack leaned against the door frame. "Only then you won't get your Morning-After present."
There was a pause. "Can't you give it to me here?"
"Hmm," Jack said. "Well, I could, only I'd have to take it apart and some pieces might not fit up the stairs."
Bitty sat up, the covers falling away from his head, his eyes suspicious but bright with anticipation. "Are you chirping me?"
Jack raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Bitty growled and threw a pillow at him.
"Get out and let me dress."
Jack shut the door and went to knock on Shitty's door, then called up the stairs to the attic. "Boys! It's time!"
Twin pairs of hooves thundered down the stairs, Ransom and Holster appearing at the landing. Jack jerked his thumb towards the stairs and they went down to the 1st floor. Shitty appeared, thankfully dressed, and went downstairs as well.
A few minutes later Bitty's door opened and he stepped out, looking like he'd only taken time to dress and run a wet cloth over his face. He was bright-eyed and beautiful and Jack had to restrain himself from kissing him.
Instead, he led the way downstairs and stopped in front of the wall across from the stairs. Once Bitty had joined him, Jack reached out to touch the wall, removing the glamour from it, then stepped back.
The doorway now led into a kitchen, with brand new counters and cabinets, a large refrigerator, and a shiny new range. A small table with a couple of chairs sat to one side, laid out with several kinds of baking pans. There was more cooking equipment in the cabinets, Jack having asked some of Demeter's maidens to stock the kitchen with everything it needed. It had taken a number of divine acts to get the room fitted out on such short notice, and Jack owed favors to the smiths as well, but it was worth it to see the look on Bitty's face.
Bitty moved through the kitchen in a daze, running his hands over the counters and cabinets, across the fridge, before coming to a halt before the range. "Oh, you beautiful darlin'!" he cooed at it, then turned to look at all of them. "This is mine?" he asked, his voice cracking slightly.
"All yours, Bittle," Jack said softly.
Bitty threw himself at Jack, hugging him hard, then whirled away to investigate the cabinets, talking the whole time. "What should I bake first?" he said, taking stock of the contents of the refrigerator. "By rights, the first thing I make in Betsy should be a pie, but I think we gotta get to know each other a little bit first. Ovens can be temperamental," he said and then patted the range reassuringly. "Not that you'll be, honey, but best break ya in slowly!"
Jack felt as if he was frozen to the floor, unable to move, although he could still feel the phantom memory of that hug. "Betsy?"
Bitty flashed one of his dazzling smiles over at Jack. "That's what I'm callin' her - a jewel like this deserves a name!" Then he looked back at the bakeware, frowning a bit in thoughts. "Muffins should do the trick," he muttered to himself, pulling a bowl out of a cabinet and then some ingredients from the fridge.
Shitty steered Jack over to one of the kitchen chairs and pushed on his shoulder enough to make him sit. "We'll be out front on the porch," he said, just loud enough for Jack to hear. "Don't forget to call us in when the muffins are done."
Jack nodded absently. Maybe this would be easy after all, he thought hopefully, then propped his chin on his hand and watched as the most amazing mortal in the world danced around his new kitchen and created his own special magic.
Chapter 12: Getting to Know You
The kitchen changed everything.
Bitty had been planning on spending the bare-minimum of time at the Haus, only sleeping there at night while he spent most of his days among the temples of Samwell. He'd thought about getting special permission to participate in some of the temple trainings, thinking that surely as a spouse of a god they would give him that. Chowder was already a friend, and Dex and Nursey had seemed nice enough. Demeter and Hebe's temples would have been perfect places to hide out during his days. Then he'd only need to spend the nights with Jack, and since they'd be sleeping, it would be fine.
But after a god gives you an entire kitchen stocked with anything he could ask for (and a number of things he'd never seen before!), it seemed churlish to just run off and hide. It wasn't like Jack had meant to fall in love with him after all. So instead Bitty set about making the Haus into a Home.
The morning after the kitchen-gifting, Bitty wrapped up a plate of shortbread and headed down the hill to the Wee Folk Registry. The pooka sitting at the main desk looked up when Bitty came in and sniffed the air, his gaze on Bitty sharpening.
"Morning, sir or madam," the pooka said. "How may we be of service?"
"I'm asking for the favor of some domestic assistance," Bitty said, casually setting the plate on the counter, tearing a corner of the foil covering the plate just a little. A couple of brownies sitting at a nearby table stood up and craned their heads.
"No domestics allowed in the dorms," the pooka said regretfully, looking at the plate and away.
"Oh, I don't live in the dorms," Bitty said. "Eric Bittle-Zimmerman," he said, "I share a house on the hill. The Haus, as a matter of fact."
"Puck," the pooka said and his eyes narrowed. "The Haus has been struck off the visiting list."
Bitty smiled his most charming smile and lifted another corner of the foil. "Is there some way that we can be put back on?" he asked, hopefully.
"We were insulted!" Puck replied indignantly.
"So I heard, after one of the big parties that the faun and satyr threw? I understand it was a huge mess to clean up."
The pooka drew himself up. "We are not afraid of mess or hard work!" he snapped.
"Of course not," Bitty said, nodding his head. "The brownies that tend my MooMaw's store never seem to care what state we leave it in, and the place is shinier than a new penny in the morning."
"They thanked us!" Puck said indignantly. "They were awake and watching us, and then they said thank you! As if we were employees!"
Bitty affected shock and shook his head. "Shameful," he said. "Just shows that some Beings - even if they are gods - weren't brought up right." He removed the foil and nudged the plate closer to the pooka. "Everyone knows that the wee folk do as they wish and can't be hired. And if a bowl of milk and a plate of something sweet is left on the back step, well, that's just being friendly."
Puck eyed the cookies avidly. "Of course."
"I like to bake," Bitty confided. "Nearly every day. And Jack complains that it's too much sugar for all them to eat. Be a shame to waste it."
"Nearly every day?" Puck said weakly and the other two brownies edged closer to the front desk.
"And the Haus isn't in a fit state to be seen," Bitty said with a sigh. "Dust and cobwebs everywhere, and you can hardly see out the windows. The couch in the living room looks like trolls have been sleeping on it. And I saw the boys' washin' last night - all the socks and underwear are gray!"
Puck gasped and a cookie disappeared from the plate.
"Only reason Jack's clothes are decent-looking is he sends them home to his Mama for washing," Bitty said, crossing his fingers under the plate and shaking his head regretfully. "Shame that Bad Bob's son lives in a Hall that looks like that."
Another cookie disappeared.
Bitty looked down at his watch and gasped. "Oh lord, is that the time? I'm gonna be late to meet Jack!" He gave the pooka a hopeful look. "I don't have time to go back up the hill to drop this off - is it all right if I leave it here for y'all?"
The brownies nodded vigorously and Puck said, "Well, if it's out of your way..."
Bitty nodded and carefully didn't say "thank you", just waving as he hurried out the door and on towards the grocery store. He'd have to get more butter if he was going to make another batch of cookies before tonight.
And the next morning, as Bitty surveyed the gleaming counters and the sparkling windows with satisfaction, he wondered how the wee folk would like some treacle tarts. Maybe they could manage to do something about that horrible green couch. It was either that, or he was going to drag it into the back yard and set it on fire.
The next day he could no longer put off the task he'd been dreading the most.
He called his Mama.
"Dicky!" she said, sounding pleased and surprised. (His corresponding guilt level doubled.) "I'm so happy you called! How are you settling in? How's Boston?"
"Fine, Mama," he said. "I didn't get to tell you in my last call - I'm out at Mt. Samwell now."
"Oh! Why, Dickie, that's wonderful! And so much healthier than being in a big city like Boston."
"Yeah, Mama, it's really pretty, and I've already made a couple of friends." And gotten married, he wanted to say but the words wouldn't come out.
"How wonderful! Is there one of our temples out there? Your daddy would want you to be sure to make the usual offerings, even if you're not at home."
He sighed. "Yes, Mama. Samwell actually has nearly all the pantheons."
"Good. I know there's the big Celtic temple in Boston but it just seems that there are so many more Greeks and Romans up north," she said. "Are there any deities out in Samwell?"
"Um, a couple. Mostly its demi-gods and nymphs and such but, um, Jack Zimmerman lives here." Bitty's mouth was dry. "Um, Mama..."
"Jack Zimmerman! Oh! His daddy's Bad Bob Zimmerman, isn't he?" his mother said, sounding excited and his pulse leaped. "Your Aunt Judy and I had such a crush on him when we were teenagers! She had a poster of him on her wall for a while before your PawPaw made her take it down." She laughed. "Your daddy would have such a fit if he knew about that! A High Roman god!"
"Right," Bitty said faintly.
"Is there anything you need, now that you're settled? Some furniture? Do you have your own room or are you sharing?"
"My own room. And, um, a big kitchen downstairs. And no, I don't need any furniture, it's already furnished."
"Well, if you're sure..." She sounded disappointed and he felt horrible.
"Actually, Mama, I could use some curtains for the kitchen."
"Oh! Your Aunt just redid her kitchen - I don't know why, it wasn't redecorated more than two years ago! - and her curtains are practically new! I'll send them to you!"
"Thanks, Mama." Bitty gave her his address and said good-bye, then face-planted on the bed. He knew that putting off telling his parents wasn't going to help but how could he say "I'm gay" and "I'm married to a Roman god" to them? And when (if?) he did, would they ever speak to him again?
Two days later he received a box from his Mama, sent by ExMess, and when he opened it he saw that there weren't only curtains inside. She'd also sent him a bunch of pot holders and kitchen towels, the ones he'd carefully set aside in his hope chest for the day he had his own place.
He'd cried for nearly an hour.
Three months after his arrival at Samwell, he finally met the other inhabitant of the house. He had just finished mixing the shortbread for the wee folk when he heard an unfamiliar voice in the hallway.
Bitty looked up to see a woman standing in the doorway. She was small, shorter than he was which was a nice change, with short dark hair. "Um, hello? Are you here to see someone?"
"Yeah, Shits. He knows I'm coming over. I'm Lardo." She shoved her hands in her pocket. "Okay if I come in?"
"Oh! Sure!" He looked around at the cluttered counters. "Sorry, it's a bit of a mess." He dove towards the fridge. "I made apple pie yesterday and there's a slice left - would you like some?"
Lardo smiled as she accepted the pie tin. "You're Bittle, then. Shitty's totally skyped me about your pies. Ambrosia, he says." She sat down at the table and accepted a fork from him, then dug into the pie. A few minutes later she said, "Shitty's wrong - this is better than ambrosia. No wonder Jack married you."
Bitty flushed and turned away to finish pressing in the shortbread mixture. "Thanks."
"Making another pie?"
"No, I'm making shortbread for the fairies. They'll be here tonight so I need to put out the bread and milk."
Lardo put down her fork, her eyes widening. "How the fuck did you get the fairies to come back? They literally wiped the dust off their feet when they left!"
"My MooMaw's recipe for shortbread - the pixies down our way line up for the privilege of sweepin' her floor." He put the pan into the oven and set the timer, then poured a cup of coffee and sat down at the table with Lardo. "Shitty says that you're a Muse?"
Lardo nodded and was about to say something else when Shitty burst into the house.
"Lards!" he shouted, grabbing her and ruffling his short hair. "You got the fucking chop! Thought you'd chicken out on me!"
Lardo laughed and tried to push him off. "Dude, it's just hair - and speaking of hair, that flow is rank!"
"Your face is rank!" Shitty crowed.
Jack had come in behind Shitty. "Welcome back, Lardo! How was Kenya?"
"Pretty kickass," Lardo said, giving him a hug. "And you - a married man! 'Swasome, dude!"
Bitty could feel the side-look Jack gave him and doubled his attention on cleaning up the kitchen.
"Yeah," Jack responded after a moment. "I'm a lucky man."
Shitty arm-wrestled Lardo into the hall and they went racing down to the basement where Lardo had her studio, shouting good-natured insults at each other.
"I am," Jack said quietly after they had left. "A lucky man." Then he went up the stairs.
The thing was, it wasn't just Jack saying that. He acted like it too, as if he thought that he was lucky to be married to Bitty. And Bitty supposed that was true, that Jack being married to Bitty meant that he was alive, not pining to death. But Jack was also amazing: kind and attentive, almost as if he really cared about Bitty, not just love-stung. He made sure that Bitty was invited when the group went out,even if Jack himself didn't go along. And when the Haus team started gearing up for the winter hockey games, Jack invited Bitty to be on the team and even to skate on his line. Bitty wasn't sure about the whole thing - he'd never played in a league where checking was allowed - but Jack and the boys made sure that he was guarded when he played with them. Jack was even teaching him how to take a check, but there was no chance that Bitty would be allowed to play during the real games. Mortal flesh and bones just couldn't hold up against immortal strength and healing.
And it wasn't only Jack who was kind to him, it was also his parents. They had already dropped in to visit a month after the wedding, to see how he was settling in, and now they'd come over to spend the Harvest dinner at the Haus. Bitty had been nervous about cooking his first Harvest dinner with someone other than his family but they'd put him at ease immediately, and Bob had a slice from each type of pie.
"Jack will have to bring you up to Mont D'Iberville for a visit," Alicia said as they were leaving the day after the Harvest feast. "What about Saturnalia? I expect that would be Yule for you and your folks - are you planning to go home to visit your family?"
"Not this year," Bitty said. He still hadn't figured out how to tell them about his marriage and Yule would be six months, and Jack would have to come along because of the dust, and - no. Just, no.
"I've recently taken up cooking - " Bob said as he set the two pies Bitty was sending them home with carefully inside their chariot.
"And he's excellent at it," Alicia interjected.
" - but I can't seem to get the knack of baking. My crusts are too tough. Maybe you can give me some tips?"
"I'd be glad to, sir," Bitty said earnestly.
"Excellent, looking forward to it."
Bob helped Alicia into the chariot and gave the pegasi pulling it their heads. Bitty waved until they were out of sight, then sighed and made his way into the kitchen. Despite the fact that he'd spent nearly the past three days cooking, he felt an itch to be doing something and baking always soothed him.
He didn't realize that Jack had followed him into the kitchen until he had started to pull ingredients for an apple pie out of the fridge and, turning to set them on the counter, saw Jack leaning against the door frame. Jack looked a little sad and wistful, probably because he'd just had to say good-bye to his parents. And there was a break from the hockey right now, so he was probably at loose ends.
"Jack Zimmerman," Bitty said. "Get over here and wash your hands. I'm gonna teach you how to make an apple pie."
Jack looked startled and then grateful, and he quickly washed his hands and meekly donned the apron that Bitty tossed at him. Determined to take both of their minds off their respective families, Bitty took Jack through the whole process of making the pie crust from scratch, then cutting up the apples while the crust was chilling. Jack was not exactly an apt student but he paid close attention and followed directions at least (a similar experiment with Shitty had not gone well). Bitty showed him how to roll out the crust, how to be careful that the dough didn't get overworked, and watched as Jack carefully put in the filling. He showed Jack how to make the lattice pieces for the top and then, after demonstrating with his own pie, he left Jack to it while he pre-heated the oven and washed up.
"Bittle, I'm messing this up," Jack said with a sigh. "Look at this; it's awful. I have no idea why you're trusting me with this."
Bitty turned off the water and went over to Jack's side, looking down at the pie. The lattice was, frankly, a mess but Bitty hadn't done much better with his first pies when he was learning. Jack picked up the pie as if to study it, bumping into Bitty as if he hadn't realized he was there.
"Oh, sorry!" Jack said, flushing as he caught the pie before it could fall to the ground.
Bitty grinned up at him. "Excuse me, Mr. Zimmerman, but my kitchen is no place for checking!"
Jack laughed. "Your kitchen?"
"You gave it to me so my kitchen," Bitty chirped back. "Now move your big - "
He was going to say "butt" - and they'd all teased Jack about the size and shape of his butt so it wasn't anything new. But they were standing chest to chest, and Jack was looking down at him and grinning, and Bitty had never realized before just how blue Jack's eyes were. There were little laugh lines next to them, and a lock of Jack's hair had fallen onto his forehead. Bitty wanted to reach up and brush it back, and then to run his fingers over Jack's face and his lips and then lean up and kiss him -
With a gasp, Bitty turned and fled from the kitchen. He ran up the stairs and into his room, slamming the door closed and then sank down on the bed and covered his face with his hands.
Somehow, over the past five months, he'd fallen in love with his husband.
Chapter 13: Draw Back Your Bow
Warning - this chapter earns the Mature rating, although it's not explicit.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jack stared, bewildered, as Bitty dashed out of the kitchen. It was not like Bitty to leave in the middle of a bake, not unless he was sick. Was he ill? Bitty had seemed fine all day - a little tired but then he'd been cooking for the feast for days and fretting about Jack's parents. But then again, Jack knew very little about mortal illness. He decided that he'd go check on Bitty, but first he turned off the oven and put away the pies.
Bitty's door was closed and he tapped softly on it. "Bitty?" he said. "Are you all right?" There was no reply and his anxiety increased. "Bitty, can I come in?" Still no reply and now he was really worried. He tried the handle and found that the door wasn't locked. He opened the door and stuck his head in. "Bits?"
Bitty was sitting on the bed, knees up and his arms wrapped around them, and his forehead was resting against his knees. "Jack, go away," he said, his voice muffled. "I'm ugly-cryin' and y'all don't want to see that."
Jack ignored him, coming into the room and shutting the door behind him. "Did I do something to make you cry?"
Bitty gave a little choked-off laugh. "Lord, no! I'm just an idiot - ignore me."
Jack sat down next to him on the bed. "I don't think you're an idiot."
"You're also love-bit. There's - " Bitty gave a little sob. "There's no way you'd look at me twice otherwise."
"Bitty - "
"This was only supposed to be to help you and now I'm ruinin' everything. I'm sorry..."
"For what?" Jack asked softly. "What are you ruining?"
Bitty raised his head and, despite what he'd said he didn't seem to be crying although his eyes were red. "This," he said. "Us. It's meant to be platonic. Y'all can't help what you feel and I'm not meant to take advantage."
A little niggle of hope flared inside of Jack's heart. "You haven't, Bitty."
"I realized in the kitchen..." Bitty stopped and shook his head. "It doesn't matter. I promise I won't bother you - "
Jack leaned over and kissed him.
Bitty responded after a moment, then pushed him back. "Jack, you can't! The love-dust - "
Jack kissed him again and then he pulled back, cradling Bitty's face between his hands. "Bits, the dust has been wearing off for months. I've fallen in love with you, for real this time."
Bitty gaped at him. "Why didn't you say anythin'?"
Jack dropped his hands and shrugged, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment. "I was worried about how you'd react. I was afraid you might leave. I hoped you'd fall in love with me."
"Jack." Bitty pulled Jack to him and kissed him like he never wanted to stop.
Jack wrapped his arms around his husband, kissing and kissing him until his head was reeling. He pulled back again. "I could have Ransom check my blood if you're worried -"
"What I want, Mr. Zimmerman," Bitty said, leaning close again, "is for you to take me to bed."
All the blood in Jack's head now rushed south. "Bits," he groaned. "Isn't this too fast?"
"We've been married five months," Bitty pointed out, lowering his eyes as he blushed at the thought of what he was saying. "Do you think it's too soon?"
"No." Jack pulled off his shirt and tossed it aside, then helped Bitty remove his as well. They kissed again and again, their hands running over bare skin in exploration, until Bitty pushed Jack away again.
"Lord, Jack, if I don't take off these shorts I'm gonna damage something," Bitty panted.
Jack smirked at him although, to tell the truth, he was feeling the same uncomfortable tightness. "We wouldn't want that."
Jack let Bitty go and the mortal immediately sprung to his feet, kicking off his shoes and wriggling out of his shorts and underwear. Jack decided to take the easy way and, with a snap, he was naked and reclining back against the pillows of their bed. There was a lump under the pillows and, thinking it was Bitty's pajamas, he reached under the pillow and pulled the lump out. Then he smiled and held it up for Bitty to see.
"Eric Bittle, are you sleeping with someone else?" he said in mock outrage.
Bitty lunged forward and snatched Senor Bun from Jack's grasp. "Don't you dare! This is my oldest friend, Senor Bun." He set Senor Bun down on his dresser with its back carefully turned away from the bed, then launched himself at Jack.
Jack collapsed under the assault, laughing and then tickling Bitty in retaliation. Tickles turned into something more intense, generating gasps and moans from both of them in turn. Jack took great delight in wringing every sound of pleasure from Bitty that he could, more than once, and was taken apart in return. Bitty might have been inexperienced but there was no doubt about his passion or his love, and he appeared eager to prove how he felt with every kiss and touch. As they collapsed onto the bed after the final round, Jack couldn't recall ever feeling more complete - or exhausted.
Bitty lay on his chest, still trying to catch his breath, and Jack lazily ran his hands over the sweaty skin of his lover, marveling at the joy he felt in touching him in such a simple way. Bitty chuckled and pressed a kiss against his skin. "Don't you start anything up, Jack Zimmerman! A body needs some rest first!"
"I don't think I could," Jack said sleepily, feeling exhaustion creep over him. "We should clean up first or we'll be stuck like this."
"Oh what a horrible fate," Bitty chirped, then groaned as he pushed himself up from the bed. "I'll get a damp cloth."
Jack tried to catch at Bitty's hand, reluctant to part for even a moment, but Bitty evaded him and Jack was too sleepy to pursue him. He let his eyes drift closed, half-asleep already as he listened while Bitty went into their bathroom and ran the tap, then the sound of his footsteps as Bitty came back into the room.
"You really did enjoy yourself," Bitty's voice teased. "I don't think I've ever seen you glow before, not even when playin' hockey."
Jack's eyes flew open in alarm but it was too late.
The sound of Bitty's body hitting the floor echoed through the house, followed by Jack's cry of despair.
Sorry 'bout that, guys - but you knew something was coming, right?
Chapter 14: In Distress
< > Indicates Quebecois spoken words - I don't know enough to translate, and the words I know are mostly curses.
A thump followed by a loud cry of anguish caught Shitty's attention from where he was lounging on the deck above the porch, better known as the "reading room" (with very little reading and a lot of smoking). The noise sounded like it had come from Bitty's room, and Shitty wondered if the mortal had somehow hurt himself. He quickly pinched out his reefer and went into the hall, opening the door without bothering to knock.
Jack was sitting on the floor, bent over his cradled husband, and their naked state plus Jack's unearthly glow told the story without words. Grief filled him for he liked the little mortal, but he didn't have time for that now. He heard thumping on the stairs, warning him that they were about to be interrupted by their less-deified housemates.
"Jack, cloak yourself," Shitty said as he went down on his knees beside the pair, checking to see if Bitty was breathing.
"That's hypocritical," Jack snapped, "considering how you go around naked - "
"Not clothes, your mortal guise," Shitty interrupted. "We're about to have company."
Jack cut off what he'd been about to say, quickly donning his Semblance just before Ransom and Holster burst in, followed by Lardo. Shitty moved out of the way so that Ransom could take his place.
"What happened?" Holster asked.
"Bitty saw me in my true form," Jack said, his voice thick with emotion.
"He's alive," Ransom said. "He's in a coma, though, and I don't have the skill to help him." He pulled out his phone and called the emergency hotline, relaying what had happened. He spoke with them for a few minutes before hanging up. "They're sending healers - should be here in a few minutes."
Shitty tugged on Jack's shoulder. "You might want to move him to the bed," he said, then looked at Ransom. "Is that all right? Can he be moved?"
Ransom nodded. "It won't make a difference."
Jack scooped Bitty into his arms and carried him over to the bed, laying him down and then pulling the sheets gently over the unconscious mortal. Aware that Jack's thoughts were elsewhere, Shitty cast clothes onto his friend, then ushered Lardo and Holster out of the room.
"Can you get a messenger sent to Jack's parents?" he asked Holster. "They just left for home this morning - see if they can return. Jack's going to need their support."
Holster nodded and went out onto the deck so that he could send the IMs.
"I'll go down and wait for the healers," Lardo said. "You shouldn't leave Jack alone right now. Shits - Bittle's gonna be all right, isn't he?"
Shitty didn't reply which was probably an answer in itself, and she squeezed his arm before heading down the stairs. Shitty went back into Bitty's room; Jack was sitting on the end of the bed, out of Ransom's way as he recorded Bitty's vitals, and Shitty stood behind Jack and put a hand on his shoulder in comfort.
A few minutes later, two healers entered the room; one went to talk to Ransom while the other approached Jack. "Are you the immortal?" she asked.
Jack nodded and stood up. "Jack Zimmerman," he said, knowing the name would be enough to relay his status. "Bittle - Eric Bittle - is my husband. He saw Me."
"How long ago?"
Jack shook his head and looked over at Shitty. "Fifteen minutes or less," Shitty said.
The healer nodded and went to join her companion. They both examined Bitty's eyes and hands, then his aura, then conferred with Ransom. After a moment's discussion, they returned to Jack.
"Mr. Zimmerman, were you in full Appearance when your husband saw you?" the male healer asked.
He shook his head. "I don't think so. I was just falling asleep after - " He paused and a blush colored his cheeks. "Bitty - my husband - said I was Glowing a little."
The female healer nodded. "We have some good news, then. It doesn't seem that your husband was fully exposed to your immortal state, just caught a side-glance as you were losing Semblance. He's alive, his body functions are good, and we don't see any permanent damage to his aura."
"Then he'll wake up," Jack said, and Shitty could see that he was trying not to be too hopeful without succeeding.
The male healer hesitated. "We think so," he said cautiously. "However, there's no way to tell when. He's in a coma right now. He could wake up in an hour or years from now. Or - "
"Never," Jack said hollowly.
"The mortal brain is fragile but resilient," the female healer said reassuringly. "They suffer head injuries - concussions - easily, but with time and care, they do recover. The important thing is to make sure his body stays healthy until he does wake up. Our staff will be in daily to take care of his medical needs so that he doesn't suffer from secondary issues such as dehydration and bed sores. Ransom here will serve as on-site coordinator."
"What can we do to help?" Shitty asked.
"Quite a lot," she said. "Someone should sit with him at all times so that when he does wake, he won't be disoriented and overexert himself. Only one person at a time - too much noise can confuse his recovering brain - and we suggest shifts of about 4 hours. The person with him should provide some minimal stimulation, such as holding his hand or reading aloud or just talking. Let him know he's not alone, that's important."
Jack didn't seem to be taking it all in so Shitty nodded his understanding of their instructions.
"Mr. Zimmerman," the other healer said sharply and his tone of voice made Jack focus on him. "What is important is that you stay positive when you are here with him. No weeping or blaming yourself or other negative emotions. They can adversely affect his aura while he is recovering. And no additional exposure to your Self, so don't be tempted to sleep here with him. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Jack managed to say.
"We would like to make Eric comfortable now," he added, in a gentler voice. "If you could leave the room, please." To Shitty he said, "Your friend seems to be in shock; get him to rest if you can, and don't let him take the first shift."
Shitty nodded and steered Jack out of the room and downstairs to where the others were waiting in the kitchen. He could feel Jack balking at the thought of going into Bitty's domain and led him to the couch instead. Then he delivered a little divine Push that knocked Jack out; it wouldn't last more than an hour and it only worked because Jack wasn't expecting it. He covered Jack with one of Bitty's new throws and then joined the others in the kitchen.
"Coffee, extra sweet," he said to Lardo.
"How's Bitty?" Holster asked.
"Healers think he'll recover, only question is when," Shitty said. He needed something stronger than coffee at the moment but Bitty had banished their beer and ambrosia stash to the basement fridge. "They want us to set up four hour shifts to sit with Bitty, one person at a time. We'll need to recruit some other people so we don't burn out in the first week."
"He's got friends down at Demeter's and at the smithy," Lardo said, setting the coffee cup by his hand. "Hades, the boy's made friends everywhere."
"Jack's parents are on the way back," Holster told him.
"What about Bitty's folks?" Lardo asked and Shitty nodded.
"Contact them, too. Arrange transport if they can come," he told Holster. "That boy's gonna need all the help he can get."
"Bitty will have lots - "
"Not Bitty," Shitty said. "Jack." And his expression was troubled as he contemplated what they'd do if Bitty didn't wake up soon.
Bob and Alicia arrived within the hour, just as Jack was waking back up but was still groggy from his impromptu nap. Alicia took Jack off to feed him and make him nap at their suite at the local inn while Shitty filled Bob in on the situation. The temple in Madison had sent a priest over to the Bittles and they were awaiting transport, something that Bob took charge of so that Bitty's parents could get there as fast as mortally possible.
Word had spread through Samwell that Eric Bittle was in a coma and there was no shortage of volunteers lined up for the next week. Even the Wee Folk sent a representative, letting them know that they would ensure that Bitty's rooms were immaculate, even if other Beings were present.
Jack returned from his nap subdued but resolved and he insisted on taking the next shift, sitting next to his husband and holding his hand. That's where Shitty found him to let him know that the Bittles had arrived. Jack left Shitty sitting beside Bitty and went downstairs to make them welcome.
He found them sitting in the lounge, with Ransom filling them in on Bitty's medical status, and Jack would have known them anywhere. Suzanne Bittle looked very much like her son, with the same large eyes and golden hair, but there was also something in Coach Bittle's way of holding himself that reminded him of Bitty.
"Jack Zimmerman," he said, shaking their hands. "Thank you for coming so quickly."
"My stars!" Suzanne said, her eyes wide with shock. "You look just like your daddy!"
Jack tried to smile. "I'm sorry that we had to meet under these circumstances - Bitty talks about you all the time."
"It's good of you to look after our boy," Coach said, shaking Jack's hand firmly. "Can we see him?"
"Yes, of course," Jack said. "I'll take you up to his room. Ransom has told you that the healers want only one person with him at a time?"
Coach nodded and touched his wife's arm. "Suze will go first."
"We have a room for you and Mrs. Bittle, next to Bitty's," Jack said, deciding to give them his room. He could bunk in with Shitty or stay with his parents. "Would you like to take your bags up?"
"I don't think we'll need that," Suzanne said. "We'll want to move Dicky as soon as we can."
Jack's heart nearly stopped. "Move him - why?" Had they already decided that he was unfit to be Bitty's mate?
"According to your healer, Dicky's gonna need lots of care until he comes to," she said, "and we got a boatload of family back home."
"Bitty has lots of friends here," Jack managed to say. "And I'm here as well."
"You must have more important things to do with your time, son," Coach Bittle said.
Jack frowned, surprised that he wouldn't think that Bitty was his first priority. "Not as important as my husband's health, I assure you."
Both of their jaws dropped. "Your - husband?" Suzanne said faintly.
Jack's frown deepened. "Yes. We were married at Midsummer. Didn't Bitty tell you who he was marrying?"
"He didn't tell us he had married at all!" Suzanne said, wringing her hands as she turned to her husband. "Oh, Rich!"
"There, there, Suzie," he said, patting her shoulder awkwardly. "I'm sure there's a good reason for this."
Jack felt just as stunned as Bitty's parents and sat down in the armchair, feeling as if his body had gone numb. Ransom offered to show Suzanne up to her son's room and the two of them quickly left the room while Coach sat back down on the couch. He cleared his throat awkwardly, staring across at his son-in-law, who also happened to be a god and heir to a Roman dynasty.
Jack looked around the room for a moment, equally awkward with the man who was Bitty's father. "It's been a long day for you. Would you like to get something to eat?"
Coach thought for a moment, then nodded. Jack led the way to Jerry's, a local place that Bitty enjoyed so he thought his parents would as well. Once they'd placed their order and had their coffee, they both sat silently for a long time.
"I don't know why Bitty didn't tell you," Jack said finally. "When you didn't come to the wedding - he said you were too busy, it was too short notice."
"It's not your fault," Coach said gruffly. "Junior doesn't like to upset his mother, or disappoint me."
"He thought you'd be upset?" Jack said, looking even more miserable than he had earlier.
"We're not," Coach said, "Upset." He cleared his throat. "Surprised."
"It was...surprising for us, too."
Coach thought for a moment. "Suzie's probably upset - didn't get to plan a wedding."
"And I doubt that I'm the In-law she was expecting," Jack said.
"Mmm." Coach took a sip of his coffee. "Junior was bullied when younger, locked in a closet overnight and we moved back to Madison. To family. Maybe a mistake - Junior blamed himself, tried to be the perfect son. Didn't need to be; we loved him as he was." He gave Jack a sharp look. "Still do. Always has a home, no matter what."
"I understand, sir."
When they finished eating, Coach carried back food for his wife and went upstairs to take his turn at his son's bedside.
Suzanne Bittle seemed to be in reasonably good spirits, settling at the table with the food her husband had brought. "I scolded Dicky a little bit," she told Jack. "For not telling us he was getting married. But only a little because he gave us such a handsome son-in-law."
Jack blushed at that.
"My sister and I had such crushes on your father when we were younger," Suzanne confided.
"He and Maman are here," Jack said. "I'll introduce you."
"Oh! I should make something for dessert!" Suzanne said, getting up and going to the fridge. "And don't think that you two are getting out of a Bittle-Phelps reception once Dicky's on his feet - " She broke off and stared into the fridge, then covered her mouth as a sob escaped.
Jack jumped to his feet and went to her. "Mrs. Bittle?"
She was staring at the two pies sitting on the shelf.
"Oh," he said blankly. "We were making those and...got distracted. Then Bitty..."
Suzanne burst into tears and Jack tried to comfort her, a little awkwardly. He was relieved to see his mother and passed Suzanne on to her. Then he escaped upstairs to clear his room for the Bittles and to wait for Bitty to wake up.
Three days later, he was still waiting.
Each morning Jack woke to the smell of breakfast, eggs and muffins and coffee, and for a moment he forgot that his husband was lying in a coma instead of dancing around his kitchen. He would dress and look in on Bitty, exchange greetings with whoever had the early morning watch, and go down to see Bitty's mother in his kitchen and try to smile. After breakfast he would sit with Bitty, quietly holding his hand or talking about whatever came into his head. After lunch Suzanne and then Coach would take his place and Jack would run around Samwell until he was exhausted enough to sleep that night. And the next morning it would start over again.
And as each day passed, he knew that the odds for Bitty waking up soon were dwindling.
This morning it was his father sitting with Bitty, and Jack silently passed him a cup of coffee. Bob stood up so that Jack could sit beside the bed, shaking his head slightly at his son's questioning look.
<I really love him, Papa,> Jack said, relapsing into Quebecois, the language of his childhood. <What am I going to do if he never wakes up?>
<Maybe you should tell your young man that - give him something to wake up for.>
Jack shook his head, dashing away the tears in his eyes.
"Son," Bob said, laying his hand on Jack's shoulder and squeezing it. "All of your life you have doubted yourself, and you've tried to run from both your gifts and your doubts. It's time to stop running. Trust yourself; the answers are inside of you." With a last pat, Bob left Jack to his vigil.
His father's words rattled inside of Jack, unsettling him. He tried to sit by the bed but ended up pacing the room, beset by his churning thoughts. His eyes caught sight of a dilapidated stuffed rabbit sitting on Bitty's dresser and he picked it up, smiling a little at the memory of Bitty's indignation when Jack had teased him about it. He carefully tucked the rabbit in with his sleeping husband, then made himself sit down by the bed.
Jack took Bitty's hand, lovingly rubbing his thumb over the back of it. "Bits," he began, then cleared his throat. "I'm terrible at this sort of, uh, thing. Talking about feelings. But Papa is right - you should know."
He cleared his throat again. "I've never felt comfortable being a god, never felt that I could measure up to my dad's legacy. I shut everything down; Shitty said I was like a robot. Then - you came along. And I know it was the dust to start, but for the first time I wanted to be my best self. Not for my dad or to keep from disappointing people, but because that's what you deserved: a partner who lived up to his gifts. I was glad to be a god because that brought you to me.
"But being a god doesn't mean anything, not without you beside me. Even an immortal life isn't really life if you're not sharing it with me. So please, Bits. Please come back to me."
Jack lifted Bitty's hand and kissed the back of it, and as he did, tears fell from his eyes and landed on the skin. Before Jack's surprised eyes, they turned into glowing snowflakes, then melted into Bitty's skin which also glowed for a moment. Then the fingers of that hand twitched, just a little, before going still again.
Hope flared inside of Jack - which also dried up his tears. But he refused to despair and instead concentrated on Bitty and how much he loved and needed him. As he focused his thoughts, ice crystals rose out of Jack's skin and hovered in the air for a few seconds before turning into snowflakes. The snowflakes fell onto Bitty's body, sinking into his skin and melting away. Bitty began to glow, just a little bit, like the moon reflecting the sun's light, and then his eyes fluttered open. He blinked for a moment as if bringing Jack's face into focus, then he smiled.
"Jack," Bitty murmured, sounding as if he'd just awakened from a normal and untroubled sleep. "You're glowin' a little."
Tears came to Jack's eyes again and he bent over to kiss Bitty's lips. "So are you, Bud. So are you."
Chapter 15: Love Until Eternity
On Midsummer's Day, the entirety of the Bittle-Phelps family turned up at the Bittle house to celebrate the coming new year. It was a familiar ritual and Bitty smiled as he moved through the crowd with a tray of desserts. It seemed as if every Bittle and Phelps in Georgia had turned up to this year's celebration. And no wonder as among the mortals were a goodly number of gods and demi-gods, and all present were there to mark another celebration, that of the anniversary of Bitty's marriage to Jack.
The past six months had not been easy as Bitty recovered from his psychic concussion and learned how to handle being a demi-god. Saturnalia at Mont D'Iberville had been changed to Yule at Samwell as Bitty had been on travel restrictions but they were able to visit the Zimmermans for Spring Equinox. Jack had shown Bitty all over the city of Quebec, and Bob had taught Bitty how to make perfect crepes while Bitty helped him improve his pie crusts.
There had been changes for Jack, too, now that he had come into his full status as a deity. Providence had just built a new temple and the High Priestess, Georgia Martin, had personally recruited Jack to represent the Greco-Roman pantheon along with Sebastien St. Martin. Bitty had already met the other two veteran gods, Thirdy and Guy, who were at the Falcon Temple for their first Midsummer Festival. Jack and Bitty would be moving to their new apartment at Falcon Temple when they returned from Madison, and although Bitty was sad to be leaving Samwell, he was excited for his new opportunity with Acolyte training.
Bitty saw Shitty and Lardo talking with his Mama and detoured over to them. "Shitty, glad you could make it!" he said, handing each of them a pie. "Lardo, you have enough tickets for that artist's opening for me to bring the new frogs?"
She nodded. "Chyeah, bro. They gonna clean up decent?"
"If I have to scrub them myself," he promised.
"Dicky, Mr. Crappy wants us to open a franchise of 'Bit of Heaven' in Boston!" Mama said excitedly. "Isn't that wonderful!"
"Now that Bitty's got demi-god-work lined up, we need someone to keep us in pies," Shitty said. "Give you an excuse to come up and see us Yankees, too!"
Mama smacked Shitty's chest lightly. "As if I need any excuse beyond visiting my boys!"
"Did you see Chowder and Farmer?" Bitty asked the pair. "I'm pretty sure they're wearing hand-fasting bracelets."
"Word is he's taken a priest post on the West Coast and Farmer plans to go with him," Shitty said, nodding.
Bitty sighed, thinking of all the people who were leaving Samwell - but then again, there would be new faces and new acolytes to train. He left them talking and circulated again, passing Bob and Coach who were seriously discussing the best steak cooking techniques with a half-dozen younger Bittles and Phelps hanging on their every word. Alicia was sitting with several of the new and expectant moms in the family, quietly spreading out blessings. The younger kids weren't paying any attention to the strangers among them, too busy racing around the yard and jumping in the pool.
"Itty Bitty!" said a familiar voice and Bitty swung around just in time to be engulfed by the large Frost god.
"Tater! What are y'all doing here?" Bitty asked as he tried to breathe.
"Am arriving at Falcon Temple and told you are here, so I come to see you!" Tater said, releasing him.
"Come to see my pies, I bet!" Bitty teased him. "You're at Falcon Temple now?"
"Da!" Tater said proudly. "My people are wishing me here to be liaison to North America and First Nations."
"First - So does that mean...?"
"Yep," said another familiar voice, this one less welcome. Bitty looked over to see Kent Parson standing behind the Frost god, wearing a backwards ball cap and with his hands stuffed in his pockets, and he tensed automatically in the trickster's presence. "Alexei will be splitting his time between Vegas and Providence."
Bitty sensed his husband's approach and relaxed a fraction as Jack slid his arm around Bitty's waist. "Tater, great to see you. Kenny, I didn't know you were coming."
"Zimboni! Is my guest!" Tater said, slinging an arm around Parse. "We come from seeing my people for ice breaking festival."
"I've never been so cold in my life," Parse said, then nodded at Jack. "Looking good, Zimms. And happy."
"I am, Kenny," Jack said, smiling down at Bitty.
"Good." Parse looked over at Bitty. "Congrats, Bittle. Long life and all that."
"Thanks," Bitty managed to say, leaning against Jack for support and to keep from punching the smug bastard.
"Come, we need to eat many pies before they are gone," Tater said, dragging Parse off.
Jack steered Bitty towards the porch. "I was afraid you were going to smite him," he murmured just loud enough for Bitty to hear.
"I'm working on forgiveness," Bitty said and then admitted, "Also, I've been told that smiting is beyond my abilities. Although I've thought about getting some sorta love potion and spiking his drink. See how he likes being crazy in love with someone for a change."
Jack looked back to see Tate feeding Parse a small hand-pie and heard the laughing threats if he smashed it into his face. He thought that he'd never seen Kenny so relaxed. "I don't think any magic is needed for that."
Bitty looked over and saw Parse wipe pie off his face and then give chase to Tater. He pushed Tater into the pool generating shrieks from the kids as the water began to freeze. Bitty sighed and shook his head; he might not like Kent Parson very much but he was already fond of the big Frost god so he'd give Parse a pass.
They stepped up onto the porch and MooMaw patted the seat on the porch swing next to her. "Plenty of room for both of you with Eric on your lap," she said. "You boys need more meat on your bones!"
"I keep telling Bittle to eat more protein," Jack said, giving Bitty a teasing grin.
He elbowed his husband. "You hush," he said and MooMaw cackled with delight.
"Better hold onto him - he's quite a catch!" she said.
"Oh, I intend to," Bitty said, smiling at Jack as his husband sat down next to MooMaw.
"Who said I was talking to you?" MooMaw said, her eyes twinkling as she met Jack's eyes. "I always knew that Eric was special, from the day he was born, so don't you be letting him get away from you," she told Jack.
"I won't," Jack said solemnly, drawing Bitty down onto his lap and giving him a look that said beyond words just how much Jack loved him.
Bitty leaned in for a brief kiss and then leaned his head against his husband's shoulder as they looked out over the happy crowd. He sighed with contentment to be sitting between his two favorite people in the world, and he recalled last year's celebration, how he'd been both excited for the future and apprehensive as well. Strange to think how much had changed and what the future would bring, and that he'd be sharing eternity with the god sitting with him, his husband.
His husband. He loved saying those two words and said them as often as possible - and especially in their bed at night. Where he could shut out the world and gaze upon Jack - his husband - in his true form, and offer him the best kind of worship. His wholehearted, and true, love.