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Jack really should have worn a hat. And a scarf. Gloves wouldn’t have been amiss. The trench coat was adequate for his usual city dashes between taxi door and destination, but for the task at hand, not so much. In his defense, he’d expected a more reliable rental car, as much as they were charging him. He hadn’t planned on the trip turning into a winter hike. Honestly, he would have expected his grandmother to have given him a little more information to go on, as well.

He squeezed the coat closed over his heart. There was some lack of justice in a world that took her from him when he wasn’t even there to say goodbye. He was away from their shared apartment so rarely. If only he hadn’t gone on this business trip. He left the conference early but it didn’t really matter. She was gone before his plane took off.

Nobody had even realized she was ill. There’d been a phone call and then a funeral and lawyers - and nine days after her death, the dream. She’d told him how to prepare, when to depart, where to go, and what to do. She said nothing about why, or who else would be there.

A normal person might have shrugged it off and gone to work, attributed the vision to grief, loneliness, maybe a little too much alcohol. But his grandmother had raised him to listen when dreams spoke. She taught him to notice things said as well as unsaid, hidden twists and loopholes. It made him good with bureaucrats and legal matters. She also told him stories from all over the world, taught him to respect rules based on unspoken concepts of kindness, honesty, and justice. He learned from her that magic was to be found everywhere, in every aspect of life. You just had to look for it. It made him observant, but vulnerable.

Other children teased him for believing in fairies and elves. By the time he was a teenager, he learned to keep his mouth shut. As an adult, he still glanced through half-hidden doorways and down dim alleys, wondering if one of them led somewhere other than here. Wondering if that place would feel like home.

He knew he was naïve when it came to what people called the real world. A lot of them liked to take advantage of that. He’d learned early on that his pretty face wasn’t a shield against betrayal or heartbreak. In fact it had usually been the opposite. Jack was always well-liked, his casual advances usually happily received, but after two disastrous relationships, he kept almost everything casual. The few people he called friends were mostly older, and oddities themselves in some way or another. He suspected that they all to a one searched for some form of Elsewhere on a daily basis. None of them judged him when he brought his grandmother to gatherings and introduced her as his best friend.

And now she was gone.

Nine days after her death, she’d given him instructions with the command to “Go as you are,” so he’d not purchased anything special for the trip. Now he was halfway up a mountain in nothing but an oversized sweater, a single layer of denim, boots that were more for show than purpose, and a loose raincoat. He was regretting a possible misunderstanding of her intent—he should have known better than to be so literal, she would laugh with him, were she here—when he looked up from where he plodded over the snow-covered ground.

He blinked and turned around to get his bearings. Hadn’t he been on the shoulder of the highway a minute ago? The car should have been just a little ways behind him, but now he didn’t even see the road. He stood in the center of a snow-covered field, the peaks of mountains through which he’d been driving circled around him. Disoriented, he laughed nervously and looked up as snowflakes started to fall. He took a few more steps before noticing the cottage.

A jolt of adrenaline ran from his belly up his spine, the initial moment of panic tempered by a growing sense of elation. He’d done it. Through no intent of his own, by merely following the teachings of a wise old woman and acting in love and good faith, he’d done it.

He’d found Elsewhere.

The sign hanging by the door was welcoming, but he paused before letting himself in. These places had rules. She’d told him to enter, though, and if Jack didn’t trust anyone else in this world, he trusted his grandmother. Unsurprisingly, the cottage was larger on the inside, and warm. Delightfully warm. Warm all the way to his heart. It felt more like home than any place had since he and Grandmother moved to the city for his job. Selling the old family property had helped him afford the apartment, but the apartment never felt like home. This did.

He shed his coat as the vines and hanging plants invited him further inside. Reaching for one, he let the tactile and olfactory sensations promise reality. He’d spent so much of his life failing to convince himself of the impossibility of Elsewhere. Now that he’d found it, he couldn’t quite believe it was real. He’d wanted this more than he ever admitted. He couldn’t stop smiling.

When he turned the corner, the sound of birds and a distant waterfall gave additional proof of reality. A small fountain, loaded with flowers instead of water, bore a single vase. Jack smiled. Perhaps he’d been correct in taking his grandmother’s words literally. Whoever was in charge here certainly wrote a traditional script. At least Jack knew what was expected of him. Feeling awkward but grateful for a lifetime of instruction, he reached for the vase. The gentle chimes and dancing lights appeared right on cue and Jack gave in to his delight, laughing easily for the first time in ten days. Turning his face to the light shining down, he smiled into a visceral memory of looking up at his grandmother’s face, outlined by the halo of sun behind her.

Pay attention, Jack.” The whispering memory made him turn around in time to see the love of his life walk through a curtain of vines.

Overwhelming want nearly drove the air from his lungs. He had as much appreciation for a fine figure and face as anyone else, but he’d never been so struck with such immediate desire combined with fierce affection. Breathing rapid and shallow he blinked rapidly in an attempt to focus his eyes on the man.

He was tall, maybe even a little taller than Jack, similar in age, and dressed in a decadent velvet suit that looked straight out of a children’s book illustration. What Jack most noticed, though, was the overwhelming joy and fondness spreading over the man’s face.

Jack couldn’t recall ever seeing him before in his life, but he looked achingly familiar. Jack knew that face intimately, like he knew his own. The dancing eyes, the soft beard and mustache, the outrageously beautiful mouth—everything about him was familiar, even the way he moved, slow and graceful. Jack knew how that face had looked as a child, an adolescent, a teen, and now as the man who stood before him, beautiful and mysteriously known.

If the cottage felt like home, this man made it so. Love at first sight had been a part of Jack’s understanding of the world for his entire life but experiencing it was a different thing altogether. His heart tried to beat out of his body and he blushed to his ears, eyes wide and incapable of dissembling. He could barely breathe. He was so immediately, desperately in love.

The man smiled like he had a secret that he very much wanted to tell. His eyes shone with warmth and welcome.

“Hello, Jack,” he said, his light voice sinking deep into Jack’s heart. He knew that voice, too.

Jack wasn’t surprised the man knew his name. He worried about his own rudeness not knowing the man’s in return. He frowned and bit his lips nervously. Surely he knew… Hadn’t he seen… He caught himself staring and realized he was leaning forward, his body yearning to be closer. Snapping himself upward, he tore his gaze away.

“Hello, ah, sir,” Jack answered, blushing even harder, belatedly remembering his manners. He willed his body to stop responding so inappropriately.

A lifetime of lessons and he was already forgetting himself. Grandmother would have laughed through a reprimand. He bowed his head, in case he’d already offended. When he looked back up, the man was leaning against the fountain, close enough that Jack could smell him. Mouth watering at the mix of ginger and vetiver, he barely kept himself from taking a step back—or forward. Oh, god, he was getting hard. Certain the man could sense his arousal, he swallowed his misery and wondered if this was a story that allowed the earth to literally swallow him. When he steeled himself to risk meeting the man’s eyes, his found his own need and surprise mirrored in them.

They gaped at each other for a moment before the man gave a shaky laugh but didn’t break their eye contact.

“Is it hitting you?” he asked, sounding shy.

Jack’s face and hands went numb with horror. Was what hitting him? Was this how it felt to fall under a glamour? Were his feelings false? Had he already failed and fallen into a trap? What warning had he missed, and when? How? Oh, Grandmother, I’m sorry

The man’s face fell and he grabbed Jack’s arm.

“Oh, no! No, no, I didn’t mean…” He grabbed Jack’s elbow and guided him over to a bench near one of the once-cottage, now-castle turret’s windows to sit.

The man’s hands on him felt like electricity, sparking all the way to his bones. Jack collapsed, his already weakened legs grateful they no longer had to support him. Was he in love with an illusion? Grandmother would have warned him of this, surely. His heart, too full of new love to break, held to hope even as his hands started to tremble in distress.

The man patted him frantically.

“This is real. It’s not a trick,” he said, suddenly awkward. “I’m not—shit! I’m fucking this all up. I’m so sorry.” He groaned and hit his forehead with the heel of his hand several times. “This is what I get for trying to be smooth. Gods, I’m a fucking—” He broke off and shook his head. “Let’s start over, okay? Can I try this again? Because you did great back there. You were perfect and I…I wasn’t. Take two, all right?”

Maybe the man was an actor, after all. He certainly was beautiful and charismatic enough. Perhaps that’s why he was so familiar. But that was ridiculous. No humans could have staged this set. Could a human have made him feel like this? His heart pounded impossibly harder.

The love of his life waited for an answer, so Jack managed a nod.

“All right,” he said, uncertain what he was agreeing to but desperately hoping it was the correct response.

“Great!” The man practically bounced to his feet. Tugging the velvet jacket to smooth out the front, he gathered himself into a shallow but respectful bow. “Hello, Jack. It’s…it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. My name’s, uh…” He grimaced and ruined the grace of his bow by pulling a hand down his face. “I’m terrible. I really should’ve planned this better.” He sighed and sat down again, quite close. Jack’s knee tingled at the nearness and he closed his hands into tight fists. He couldn’t reach out. He shouldn’t touch...

For a moment the man looked conflicted. He ran his palms down the tops of his thighs before shaking his head, seeming to come to a decision. With a shrug and a huff of laughter, the man stuck out his hand.

“Hi, Jack. We’ve known each other a long time. My name’s Auberon.”

Jack clenched his hands harder in his lap and blinked. Humor? At least it was something he could respond to.

“You’re kidding.”

The man grinned and clapped delightedly before extending his hand again.

“No, actually, I am not. That’s, uh, that’s my name.” He reached for Jack’s hand as his face smoothed into seriousness. Holding Jack’s still-closed fist in both hands, he brought the knuckles to his lips. “It’s my true name, Jack.” He looked up, vulnerable and full of hope.

Jack opened his hand and grasped Auberon’s wrist in surprise. He could wrap his hand all the way around it. Beneath the velvet, and despite his height, Auberon was tiny. But his flesh was soft and warm, and a pulse beat strong and fast under Jack’s thumb. The rush he felt at the contact was mitigated by the shock of Auberon’s gift. He wanted to say something momentous and beautiful, something that would somehow honor what he’d just been told. His mind was spinning and he felt barely in control of his body.

“What?” he asked instead.

Auberon closed his eyes, turned his hand, and brought Jack’s palm to his lips. Their touch on the sensitized skin sent a shock of lust and longing straight to Jack’s groin and they both inhaled sharply. He pulled Jack’s hand to his cheek, his eyes wide with trust. His skin was warm and soft. Nodding, he met and held Jack’s gaze.

“My true name. You have…” He took a breath. “I give you my true name and all power over me.”

Jack couldn’t stop himself. He was lost. It didn’t matter if this was a glamour. He didn’t care if it meant his doom. Sliding his hand past Auberon’s cheek into his hair, he pulled them into a kiss. Auberon’s lips immediately fell open in a groan that Jack felt down to his belly. Eager, shaking fingers buried themselves in the thick cables of his sweater, encouraging him closer. Reckless of the jacket’s fine fabric, he grasped Auberon low around the waist and pulled him over to straddle his lap.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered against Auberon’s lips. “I don’t—I’m usually not—” He crushed Auberon down onto him, horrified to find himself rutting up against the velvet. This wasn’t good. This wasn’t right. He couldn’t just take him like this, abuse the precious power so recently and shockingly given. He let go, gripping the jacket hem instead, holding onto the fabric as hard as he could to keep from bruising Auberon’s hips with his fingers. Panting, he managed to minimize the thrusts of his hips.

“I’ll stop,” he whimpered into Auberon’s neck, mortified by the overwhelming desire. “I don’t know what’s… or why… but I’ll… let go. I’ll let you go and you can get away. Please. I can’t, I want, I…” He started to babble and tears threatened.

Auberon threw his arms around him and pulled him tight, whispering reassurance and kissing the top of his head.

“It’s okay, it’s good. You’re good, Jack. Trust me.” The bright sound of his laughter eased most of Jack’s concern. “You’re so good and I love you so much.”

This time Auberon pulled their mouths together, one arm still clutching Jack’s shoulders, the other traveling down his chest and belly. Grinding his ass down on Jack’s lap, he panted hot into his ear.

“I want you, too. Want this. Believe me.”

His fingers made quick work of Jack’s trousers and before Jack could protest, he was deftly and sweetly brought to orgasm.

Once, before he’d learned to stay away from group sports, Jack had been knocked to the ground by an aggressive opponent intent on recovering the ball at all costs. The sensations were alarmingly similar. Shock, followed by a brief and rapid tumble, the breath knocked out of him, and ending with him staring at the sky in the immediate aftermath, wondering what in the world just happened. He blinked, trying to recover while Auberon kissed a trail along his neck.

Marginally in control of himself, finally, he raised his head from where it had fallen on the windowsill. Auberon’s eyes sparkled, like they had when he first walked through the vines. Bringing his sticky hand up to his mouth, he licked along one finger, then winked and snapped. The mess on his hand and the wetness on Jack’s belly conveniently disappeared.

“Nice trick, huh?” he asked with a grin.

Still catching his breath, Jack could only nod while he tucked himself back into his blessedly dry pants. Auberon licked his lips before pulling them into another kiss, still intense, but absent the overwhelming desperation of earlier. He was so beautiful, so perfect and Jack still wanted him so much. The kiss lasted only a few seconds before he had to pull away, overwhelmed with the desire to give everything he had.

“I, you…” He bit his lips closed.

Words had never been his strong suit. Lifting Auberon off his lap as easily as he’d pulled him into it, he took no small amount of pleasure at the surprised widening of his eyes. Lack of an extensive social life allowed for a lot of time to lift a lot of weights. Smoothly depositing Auberon on the bench, he slid to the floor between Auberon’s knees. He grasped the velvet-covered thighs. Taking a deep breath, he resolved to follow his heart.

Auberon had given himself so easily and readily. He should be shocked at his own willingness to give up everything he had, but he wasn’t. He was in love. He could give up that empty world for this one, for Auberon, happily. He cleared his throat and blinked, unable to quite meet Auberon’s gaze.

“I’d like to suck you. Please.”

Glancing up at the sharp inhale, he was reassured by the look of shock on Auberon’s face.

“Jack,” Auberon whispered, eyes wide. He cupped Jack’s face, sliding his thumb over Jack’s lower lip. Jack let his mouth fall open and dipped his head to catch Auberon’s thumb behind his bottom teeth. Auberon hissed again and crooked his thumb and fingers to hold Jack firmly by the jaw. “Jack, that’s…that’ll count. You know that, right? If I—” His other hand pressed once, hard, against his erection and he groaned. “If you…” He blushed, unable to finish.

Jack smiled and pulled his mouth away, giving the pad of Auberon’s thumb a lick and a promise. He had the words for this, at least.

“If I ingest anything here, I have to stay,” he said quietly, his hands sliding up, pushing the jacket aside to figure out the old-fashioned trouser fastenings. He met Auberon’s eyes with confident humor and shrugged a shoulder. “I figured.”

Fingers tightened in his hair as he slipped his hand through the open fly. They held firm when he leaned forward to take Auberon’s cock. He wasn’t especially into hair-pulling, nor did he want this if Auberon didn’t. He held still and waited.

“You don’t have to decide already,” Auberon whispered. “I won’t ask you to do this.”

Amused and puzzled, Jack tipped his face back up. “I didn’t ask for your true name. How is this different?”

Auberon looked at him in wonder before breaking into a laugh and leaning down to pull them into another kiss. Jack ran his tongue across Auberon’s lower lip and gently squeezed the cock he still held, half-hidden behind the jacket. Auberon broke the kiss, gasping.

“Oh! Okay, yeah, you’re right. I’ll shut up.” He started to sound breathless. “If you’re sure, I’m sure. Are you sure?”

Jack nodded. “Would you ask me, though?”

“Ask you?”

Jack smiled, heart pounding, kneeling in the oddest proposal he could have imagined. “Ask me to stay.”

“Oh, Jack. Oh, my darling.” Auberon’s fingers loosened in his hair, finally, and smoothed over the back of his head. “Yes. Stay with me. Finally. Please.”

Jack leaned forward and didn’t reply with words. Any composure Auberon might have boasted over him was soon lost under Jack’s mouth and hands. Jack smiled around Auberon’s cock at a particularly low groan accompanied by tightening fingers. Maybe it was okay when some people pulled his hair. He nodded his head, encouraging Auberon’s hand and moaned when the fingers obligingly tightened further. Jack’s hands, which easily spanned across most of Auberon’s hip bones, held him as he jerked under the vibrations. Filthy pleas and cries fell from his gorgeous lips in a panting crescendo.

Lost, Jack abandoned himself to their motions, the smell of Auberon’s body, how his cock fit perfectly in his mouth, the feel of it sliding along his soft palate, stuttering in an arrested movement. Jack hummed again, sucking harder, and took a deep breath through his nose in preparation. Auberon’s slight frame still had some strength to it and he thrust up, deep, even as he whispered apologies.

That wasn’t what Jack wanted in his ears when this happened. He pulled off just long enough to gasp out, “Tell me you want this.”

He was already headed back down, but Auberon’s fists pulled him faster and there was a near miss of teeth when he couldn’t hold back his smile at being assured of Auberon’s desire for everything he offered.

“I want this,” he murmured, broken and panting. “I want this. I want you. I—oh fuck! Fuck, that’s—I love you. I always have. I always—I always—ah!”

He had a brief moment of panicked uncertainty a moment before it was too late. But if he didn’t belong here, with Auberon, in this Elsewhere he’d been told to discover and taught to understand, where could he possibly call home? Auberon whispered his name in warning, and tugged at his hair, just in case. Giving him a chance to change his mind. He hummed again and tried to sink down even further. Auberon gave a last, long, desperate groan and came, trembling, and jerking, down Jack’s throat. Swallowing against the pressure, he held as still as possible, tugging Auberon’s hips toward him, strong and encouraging, accepting as much of it as he could.

Still twitching, Auberon slid off the bench to join him on the moss and flower-strewn ground. He pushed Jack to the ground and slid up his body to rest their foreheads together before kissing him slowly, licking away any remains of himself around Jack’s mouth. Jack slipped his fingers through the hair at his nape.

Auberon shivered in his arms and pulled away from the kiss.

“Hey,” he murmured. “I know you didn’t want to hear apologies, but I want you to know I would’ve done things different if I’d realized. I didn’t understand what it would be like for you. It must’ve been scary.”

Now that he was in more control of himself, he realized yes, he probably should have been at least concerned by the intensity of what he’d experienced. He cleared his throat, still a bit hoarse.

“I think it happened too fast for me to be frightened,” he said, then frowned. “What did happen?”

Auberon looked at him, eyes wide in unfeigned shock. “You don’t—you didn’t know?”

Jack shook his head, suddenly nervous. He’d obviously missed something very important. That was not a good thing in this world. But Auberon looked more amused than horrified.

“Oh, my darling Jack. Now I really feel terrible. Well, stupid, anyway. Here, come on, let’s…” He stood and helped Jack to the bench before walking back to the fountain. He picked up the vase, which Jack realized now was a sort of ewer. Fishing around in the flowers, he pulled out two small goblets.

“Want some?” He grinned and returned to where Jack sat. “This is what you were supposed to drink, eventually, instead of, uh…” He snorted and the liquid sloshed over the cup edge to splash his cuff. “Whoops! Well, anyway. You know.”

He handed Jack the cup. Jack grinned, taking it, but couldn’t hid the fact that he was blushing.

“Was that inappropriate?”

Auberon shook his head, smiling, as he poured his own glass.

“Not at all. Unorthodox, perhaps, but certainly not inappropriate. Not as far as I’m concerned. In fact, as far as I’m concerned,” he continued, leaning close with his lips a breath away from Jack’s, “You are perfect. Cheers!” He pulled away with a teasing smile and clinked their goblets together, holding Jack’s gaze.

Jack sipped the sweet liquid, picturing them doing the awkward, traditional arm-linked wedding ritual. He preferred this—the peaceful solitude of each other, sitting on the bench, still a little lost in post-orgasmic bliss. Auberon downed his glass in three large gulps and sat back against the bench, spreading his knees wide.

“Sit in front of me,” he said. “Let me rub your shoulders while I tell you a story.”

Marveling at Auberon’s mercurial charm, Jack peeled off his sweater and folded it into something of a cushion before settling as directed. Auberon made an appreciative noise as he rubbed his hands together to warm them. Briefly, he squeezed Jack’s sides with his thighs, muttering something about fitness and exercise, before starting to knead the always-considerable knots clustered in his neck and shoulders.

“Once upon a time,” he began, and Jack snorted. “Shhh. That’s how all good stories begin. You know this. Once upon a time, there was a boy named Jack. Jack was very good and very beautiful and very much loved by his grandmother.”

Jack stiffened under Auberon’s hands but they didn’t pause in their gentle attentions.

“Jack’s grandmother taught him all the most important things in life, but she couldn’t tell him why he never really fit in. It was a secret—a magic secret!”

Auberon squeezed his shoulders for emphasis and Jack’s discomforting surprise evaporated in an amused huff.

“You know you can just tell me what happened,” he said, laughing, hoping Auberon would ignore the suggestion.

“Nonsense! Where’s the fun in that?” Auberon asked before proceeding with the story and the really quite lovely massage. “Ahem. As I was saying. She couldn’t tell him why, but she made sure he was never too lonely. Anywhere he went, there was always someone there, a friendly stranger, a sympathetic ear. A helpful soul in the vast sea of humanity, bringing anonymous joy and comfort to this most wonderful and perfect man.”

Auberon’s voice was suddenly close and warm at his ear. Jack gasped at the lick and nibble, realization rising hot and shocking up his spine. He snapped his face to the side, bringing them nose to nose.

“I know you,” he breathed. “I’ve always known you. Haven’t I? You were…” His ears were hot again. He really should be past embarrassment at some point, but some social missteps left scars. “You were my invisible friend. You were the kids who kept bullies from beating me up…as often. You sat next to me on the bus when I was lonely. You were the shopkeepers and office workers and every person who helped me when things were extra hard when I moved to the city. I recognize you, now. How? Why?”

Beaming, Auberon kissed his nose and sat back up, resuming the massage.

“I love how quick you are to pick things up. The how is obvious. Magic. A lot of us interacted with you in some way or another. You and I just liked each other best.”

Auberon paused and rested his chin on the top of Jack’s head. “I think your grandmother liked me best, too. Who wouldn’t? I’m pretty great.”

Jack couldn’t help laughing at Auberon’s flippant self-confidence but Auberon continued, undeterred.

“As for why, why do you think? Because you deserve to be loved, that’s why.”

Jack thought the explanation oversimplified things by quite a bit. He sifted through his concerns, but before he could form a question, Auberon continued his narration.

“So I grew up with you. I’ve seen you happy and sad, angry, proud. I watched you always try to be good and kind, even when people didn’t deserve it. And I won’t lie, I’ve given a few assholes some inconvenient flat tires and tragic computer malfunctions.” His fingers dug in extra hard. Jack moaned in quiet appreciation. He chuckled and cleared his throat before continuing in a quiet voice. “You’re the best person I’ve ever known and I’ve been falling in love with you almost my entire life.”

Jack turned to look at him, grasping his hands where they lay, briefly loose against his neck.

“That’s what you meant by it hitting me. Not a glamour. Falling in love. You had years to do it. I…” He trailed off, struck silent by the realization.

Auberon nodded.

“You experienced every sensation of falling in love over the course of, uh, about five or ten minutes.”

Jack breathed out a sharp exhale and turned back around. Auberon cautiously resumed kneading. The silence was a heavy comfort between them, Auberon letting him have his space without abandoning their physical connection. There was another, equally important angle to all of this. Jack had only to figure it out. He let his mind drift, shoulders softening under the exceptionally strong and talented fingers of his love.

“What do you know about my grandmother?”

Auberon laughed and rubbed his forehead into Jack’s hair.

“Your brain! You’re so clever. I love it.”

Clever was not a word people usually attached to Jack. Sweet and pretty, yes, but also a bit slow. A bloom of pride flushed in his chest at Auberon’s compliment and he pressed into the v of his legs, loved and appreciated. Auberon vigorously resumed rubbing his shoulders with his narration.

“What do I know about your grandmother. Well. She introduced us. Back when we were kids. You were dreaming, but I remember it. We were six years old. It was after—”

“Right after my parents died,” Jack interrupted, turning around again. “I remember. I thought I dreamed you into life.” He smiled crookedly up at Auberon before turning back around with a sigh. “I guess that’s why she wasn’t surprised when I told her about you. I wish I could thank her.”

“Well, you know how we feel about thanks, so I’d advise against that. But she’ll be at the ceremony. It’d be a nice thing to mention in your speech, actually. ‘And I would like to offer respect to my beloved Nana for giving me everything I could have asked for in life, including my future husband,’ that sort of thing. Especially since your asshole parents won’t be there. Not that you’d have anything to respect them for, the fucking—” Auberon’s voice stopped short on the words spilling out of his mouth. He gently squeezed Jack’s shoulders, now rock-hard from tense shock.

“Of course you don’t know anything about that either, do you? Gods, she really threw us both in the deep end, didn’t she? Crafty old thing. Wonder what her angle was. Here, come back up on the seat with me. This isn’t the sort of thing I should say to the back of your head. Okay, I’m going to lay a lot on you here. Uh, have some more of this. You might need it.”

Another generous pour sloshed into Jack’s goblet and he downed it like Auberon had his earlier. Auberon nodded approval and poured another.

Jack gestured toward the ewer with his goblet. “It never goes empty, does it?”

“Nope!” said Auberon cheerily. “Won’t give you a hangover, either. Unless you piss someone off and they hex you. Which they sometimes do. Because they’re assholes. I mean…” He trailed off and refilled his own goblet, taking a gulp before continuing. “I mean we’re assholes. Our people are assholes, Jack. Careless, irresponsible, and really, often quite rude.” He set the goblet aside to touch Jack’s face, then his hand, interlacing their fingers.

“For example, your parents played at being human for a while, but they got bored and left. It happens a lot. But your grandmother is different. She raised you away from here, hoping you’d turn out better than the rest of us.”

Jack listened carefully for the words unsaid. “Us?”

“You’re one of us, Jack.” Auberon sighed dramatically, pressed his lips together, and patted Jack’s leg. “Condolences.”

“Then why… why were you worried about the eating thing?”

Smirking, Auberon traced Jack’s lower lip with his index finger. Jack couldn’t resist opening his mouth, sucking its tip when it slid past his teeth. Auberon inhaled sharply and Jack’s heart leapt at how much they both still felt. He could put off knowing the answer if it meant more lovemaking and he leaned in with a smile.

Several minutes later, Auberon laughed and pushed him gently away.

“Eating or drinking something here ties you to this place. You can leave for a while, but you always have to come back. Since you’d never even been here, much less ingested anything, you were still free to go. Permanently.”

Jack had never felt free in his old world. More like trapped. Trapped in a place he didn’t understand and had never felt welcoming. But a lot had happened to Jack today. He’d found Elsewhere, fallen in love faster than he’d believed possible, exchanged some form of vows with a man he’d just met but known all his life, discovered his parents hadn’t died, neither had his grandmother for that matter, and, finally, been informed that he wasn’t actually human. He was at a loss, even though he no longer felt lost.

He had so many questions.

“What?” he managed.

Auberon’s expression fought a losing battle between sympathy and amusement. When Jack cocked an eyebrow at his facial antics, he surrendered to his nature, laughing and slapping his leg.

“I have no doubt you’ll come to grips with your past sooner or later, my darling. I will lovingly help you tease out any details. What we need to really focus on, though, is the future. The very immediate future.” His entire body posture changed, and he leaned close, suddenly serious and intense.

His rapid shifts thrilled Jack’s naturally placid soul. Auberon was like a kite, soaring on an updraft before diving, energetic and intense, nearly touching the ground before again fighting for the heights. Holding his string was a dizzying, exhilarating experience. Jack took in Auberon’s darkened eyes, the inward-curved shoulders, the tongue that flicked, nervous and brief, between his lips.

Leaning forward to meet him halfway, he asked, “Does the very immediate future include more kissing?”

It was difficult to kiss someone who was laughing that hard, but Jack did his best, licking and nipping at Auberon’s plush lips.

“I love you so much,” Auberon said, finally turning his face from Jack’s insistent kisses. “So much. Which is why I really need to tell you this.”

Hearing the seriousness in his voice, Jack pulled away, nosing his check gently before sitting back. “Okay.” He nodded, waiting attentively and only slightly distracted by Auberon’s now extra-flushed lips.

“So, after the wedding—shit. You knew that was coming, right?”

Jack laughed and nodded. “Yeah, I figured.”

Auberon grinned back, unable even now to stay serious for long.

“On our wedding night—” He waggled his eyebrows. “I tell you that I’ll come to you every evening. Which I will, I promise. Every single night and we are not going to be doing a lot of sleeping for a while, either, so just be prepared for that, okay?”

Jack nodded enthusiastically, but he frowned when Auberon continued the traditional narrative of disappearing in the morning and Jack spending his days alone. He definitely did not like the way this was going. Nor did he like the darkening mood obscuring Auberon’s earlier exuberance.

“But eventually you’ll get curious and you won’t take the sleeping potion, and you’ll spill the candle wax and—”

“No, I won’t.”

Undeterred, Auberon kept talking, becoming sadder and more agitated. Arms crossed over his chest, his palms rubbed opposite arms like he was cold. “And then you’ll have to go through three trials to find me. So we need to talk about those, before we’re married and I’m bound to keep silent about these things. We gotta—”

“No, we don’t. What? Why. Why in the world why I do something that stupid?”

For the first time, Auberon looked confused. His hands slowed to a stop and he cocked his head.

“Because that’s how it happens? That’s how the magic works. We suffer to earn our happiness.”

His grandmother had never taught him anything like that, and if he didn’t trust anyone else, he trusted his grandmother. Grabbing Auberon’s hands, he knelt in front of him and made another vow.

“I won’t ever betray you or attempt to trick you. I won’t ever do anything you specifically tell me not to do. Nobody has to suffer in order to be happy. That’s bullshit. I don’t believe it for a minute.”

The atmosphere around them snapped and trembled, stirring the vines and sending leaves to the floor. Eyes wide, Auberon stared silently at him as a faint chorus of inarticulate shouts wafted through the windows.

Jack lifted his head to look out, but Auberon yanked him below the sill, now laughing so hard he blinked back tears.

“Don’t! Shhh! Don’t let them see us! We’re not supposed to be here, yet,” he said, giggling, holding a finger over Jack’s lips.

“What?” Jack had a feeling he’d be asking that question a lot in the coming days, possibly years.

“Oh, Jack, I see where you get your smarts! Your grandmother is brilliant. She made sure you found the cottage, she snuck me in, she knew I’d tell you everything. Ugh, I hope she didn’t know about the, well, the sex. Let’s not think about that, okay?”

Jack was very much in favor of not thinking about that. He nodded as Auberon continued his rambling attempt at explaining.

“Most important, she raised you to disbelieve things had to be true just because they always had been. She took your beautiful, gorgeous heart and helped you become someone who could change a rule simply because you didn’t believe it could be true! Do you know how amazing you are?”

“No,” answered Jack. “What?”

“You changed one of the laws of the land, Jack. Just now. You removed the requirement of penance before reward. You basically changed our reality. Well done! I’m so proud to be yours!” He grabbed Jack’s face for a quick hard kiss. “Gods, you’re so perfect! Okay, but really we gotta get out of here. People are going to suspect and come looking.”

The voices below were getting louder and there was a quick knock at the cottage door, a precise rhythm that Jack would have recognized in his sleep. Grandmother? Eyes wide, he looked a question that Auberon answered with a nod.

“She’ll get us both to the main part of the castle unseen. I’m honestly not sure what’s going to happen after that. Which is very new and unusual for me. How fascinating! We aren’t used to not knowing what to expect, here. Oh, Jack, you’re going to be so good for us! Especially for me.” He planted a quick kiss on Jack’s cheek. “I’m glad you’re finally here, darling. Are you ready?”

“No!” Jack laughed, overwhelmed and joyous. He was also a little confused. Not much new about that. “I don’t think it matters, though.”

They stood, arranging their clothes and Auberon snapped away any remaining evidence of their dalliance. They walked to the door and Jack reached for his coat. As he picked it up, the fabric shimmered and shifted into a suit jacket, modern and dark red, but velvet like Auberon’s. The rest of him matched, velvet trousers soft and warm, paired with a matching cashmere turtleneck.

“I thought you might like to look a little nicer, just in case someone sees us by accident,” Auberon said, winking.

Jack knew better than offer his thanks, so he offered his hand and a smile. “Let’s go.”

He’d walked in the door of the cottage one person, became someone else inside it, and he wasn’t sure who he’d be walking out, but he wasn’t going to be lonely, or sad. He was himself, he was home, and he was loved. He was Elsewhere.