Once upon a magical Christmas Eve, Tempus made the mistake of letting Horus fetch his third drink. You'd have thought Tempus would know better by now, but that's one of the problems with gods: they're not infallible the way they're supposed to be. Most of the time, this failing is just damn irritating; occasionally, however, it's undeniably a bit more than annoying. Earth-shattering, one might say. Ramshackle behaviour at the least, considering the weight of responsibility resting on those creaky old shoulders, the old coot. Well, that was part of the problem, really, wasn't it? Not easy being an ancient, rickety, hobbling old man every single Christmas just when everyone else was cheerfully boogieing down to it. Even Tempus found it a bit much to take sometimes, this blighting of every Christmas throughout eternity.
Though the worst thing wasn't the being arthritic and gimpy, really. No, it was the dread of what awaited him just an itsy-bitsy week later. It was too much for immortal man to take. Year after year, year in and year out, year by year by year...well, like that. Too damn much. Mostly he put up with it as the big joke it was to everyone else--hah hah, good "old Tempus", hah hah--but he was known to seek a bit of comfort and solace--and, okay, just a titch of Dutch courage--at this time of the year in drink. Moderately, of course. Except when he trusted Horus to tot up his glass on the third refill and ended up completely banjoed.
A good fellow, Horus, most of the time. A bit dour, but what can you expect of these vengeful reincarnate types? We all have to make allowances, and it has to be admitted that Horus can carry that sort of vengeance quest thing off the way ordinary gods just can't. Unjust, but there it is. The Horus at the Feast was a joke of its own, sly and witty--well, it seemed pretty damn clever after a few strong nectars, anyroad. Tempus hadn't had that much, but, preoccupied with the gloomy thoughts of the sickening Transformation that awaited him in a seven-day, he didn't notice until too late the gleam in the feral eyes as Horus--the "Child" they called him! What a joke!--solicitously handed him a brimming glass and told him unctuously to "Drink up, old man." Insolent pup.
Which he, Tempus, would be soon. Enough to make any man gloomy, that was. Bad enough to be the old man at the happiest time of the year, but then to turn into a bouncing baby boy with monotonous regularity at the stroke of midnight of the New Year...well. He downed his third drink with bracing unconcern without noticing that it had a much richer mix of flavours than his previous ones. Mixing his drinks was a Very Bad Idea. Tempus knew that. Wasn't irresponsible, was he? Not after that nasty business some centuries back. Very nasty. The spectre of the bouncing baby boy wearing nothing but a blue ribbon had been especially haunting and loathsome that year for some reason, so Tempus--less experienced then, to be sure--had unwarily allowed himself to mix a bit of this with a bit of that instead of sticking to the nice safe nectar. Very disorienting it had been to awaken sometime in mid-afternoon on New Year's Day to discover that Time had behaved quite badly while he'd been, well, under the weather. An outright shock, it was, actually, waking up to discover that Time had shifted matters from BCE to CE without a by-your-leave (even though it kept whining that it had got a by-your-leave, it didn't count if Tempus couldn't remember it, did it?). A complete reversal. Instead of going decently down, Time was going up. Tempus had had to use his bouncing baby's round little face and pudgy little (naked!) body to its maximum effect to appease the ire of the rest of the gods. Not to mention the humans, who didn't take kindly to this shifting about of the natural course of things. The favours and miracles he'd had to dispense....
So he'd been careful since. Well, one or two small slips, perhaps, just a little bubble escaped here, or there. Nothing he hadn't been able to mend with quick-thinking damage control (of the miracle variety), he thought confidently during the glow imparted by his fifth drink, also Horus-procured. A very decent chap, Horus; no idea why so many people avoided him. Couldn't help being the reincarnation of Osiris, could he? Not a fate anyone would choose, even an Egyptian, odd as that lot was. Gods should be less suspicious just because of appearances and the odd vengeful murder or two. Mind you, he (Tempus) got it every year, didn't he? Ignorant turds never let The Transformation happen without a lot of rude commentary. He and Horus, they knew what it was to be the outcasts at the feast. He and his good friend Horus knew all about it, they did.
It was somewhere between the seventh and the ninth drink when Tempus realised that a bubble was threatening to break off from him and flit away on a merry little destructive course of its own. With the confidence of the supremely inebriated, he lazily reached out and made a grab for the shimmering, pretty thing. These little pockets of Time were undeniably attractive little bubbles of trouble; he felt an avuncular pleasure in the rainbow-coloured pretty as he closed his hand around its middle. Avuncular pleasure fled into perplexed crossness as the bubble proved recalcitrant. A difficult one, eh? Well, he was Tempus the Mighty, he was in charge, and no shiny, bobbing bubble was going to get the better of him.
He closed his hand firmly around the middle of the bubble. Alas, in his alcoholic fuddle, he didn't know his own strength. Instead of getting a firm grip on the errant Time-pocket, he closed his hand so hard across its middle that it split into two bubbles, each of which immediately drifted off in opposite directions. Blinking in confusion at the faint rainbow smear glimmering on his hand, Tempus forgot to react until the bubbles were out of reach. Watching in a haze of horror, he saw one bubble lithely twist its way through a keyhole while the other one chose the osmosis route, flattening itself into a mist and pressing straight through the skylight. Comatose with shock in his chair, aware as from a far distance a growing hubbub of agitation coming distressingly closer at a rapid pace all about him--and even more aware, above the burgeoning noise, of a chortle of pure malignancy close to his right ear--Tempus cravenly succumbed to his lowest impulse. He fainted.
The smart tap on the door sounded at precisely 1.01. Jim Ellison smiled as he crossed the room and turned the knob, reflecting with pleasure that, whatever other changes the years might have wrought in his old friend, the military habit of punctuality had apparently not been lost. It would be good to be able to recognise something in his old mentor. This Christmas get-together in London after so many years was fraught with enough potential awkwardnesses as it was.
He swung the door open and stopped, stunned into immobility. He stared at the broad-shouldered, black-haired man with disbelief. Eyes the unmistakable colour of damp navy velvet stared back at him, quirky brows drawing down in apparent perplexity of his own. Jim Ellison gathered his composure and, in a disorienting moment, wondered why he'd been so astonished to see Bodie looking so much the same. Hadn't been all that long since they'd last met, had it? Or, just when was it....
"Jim, good to see you, mate."
Jim started at the deep, rich voice, the odd familiarity of the accent even after all these--well, er, these few years.
"Everything all right, is it?"
"Uh, of course. Sorry. It's great to see you, Bodie! Come in." He held the door wider open and smiled at the slim figure who slipped in after Bodie, but his eyes returned inexorably to the ex-SAS sergeant. "You look--great. You've hardly changed at all."
The smile was as suave and charming as he remembered, the deep voice lazily amused. "Well, it has only been two years or--"
"Seems more like twenty!" he blurted, then laughed nervously as though it were a joke.
Bodie laughed, too, but he was eyeing him with a cool, puzzled appraisal that set off danger signals. Not a man ever to take for granted, Bodie wasn't, despite his smooth friendly sociability. And Jim suddenly felt like a fool, because of course it wasn't twenty years. What a stupid thing to say. Twenty years! Bodie would have been nearly fifty, for heaven's sakes, nothing like the fit thirty-year-old he obviously was. As he should be, of course. Good heavens. He covered his gaffe by sticking out his hand and clasping the Englishman's heartily.
"Wonderful to see you," Jim said, sincerely, scanning the familiar face one last time, now comfortable with its mostly unchanged contours. "Thanks for coming. It's odd being away from home at Christmastime."
"A pleasure to see an old friend," was the smiling reply, and both men relaxed.
Jim turned his gaze then to the stranger standing straight shouldered and quiet just behind Bodie's left shoulder. He smiled gently into the watchful green eyes. What a pretty fellow, and the hair....
Bodie put an arm around the wide shoulders and drew him forward. "Jim, I'd like you to meet Ray, my partner. This is my old friend, Jim, that I told you about, pet."
"Hello, Ray, nice to meet you." He held out his hand and was enchanted at the solemn, courteous way in which Ray shook his hand. Ray had long, slim fingers that gripped Jim's hand without hesitation, though Ray pulled back almost at once and never said a word, just watched with huge, wary eyes.
"Blair." Jim turned around and held out a hand. "Come and say hello, honey."
Blair came forward, shyly smiling, shaking his hair back. He'd been playing leap-frog over the three big hassocks in the hotel room until Jim had stopped him and told him to get cleaned up for their guests. He was still a little flushed from the exertion. At least it had got rid of some of his never-ending energy.
Introductions one more time. Blair shook hands with Bodie, then stared at Ray with frank curiosity; Ray stared back with a faint frown between his well-shaped brows. The other two men simply stood, lending the security of their presences as their respective partners took the time they wanted to sum-up each other.
Blair, predictably, was the first to make a move. He stuck his hand out to Ray, and said, cheerfully, "Hi! Jim said you got changed, too. How'd it happen to you?"
After a frozen moment, Jim said, hastily, with a glance at Bodie's suddenly expressionless face, "Blair, that's not polite. I told you not to ask questions like that--"
"I was in a car smash. A really really bad one." Ray spoke with relish, tucking his hands into the back pockets of his tight trousers with the obvious purpose of not shaking hands. He smiled an astonishingly sweet smile as Blair, looking crestfallen, let his hand drop. "The car was smashed to bits. Much worse'n me. They couldn't fix it at all, so it had to go to the car knackers and get crunched up into a tiny ball of metal. I changed it lots more'n it changed me. I killed it."
"Ray--" Bodie began, but his partner continued, "So how'd you get changed then? Bet it wasn't that good."
Blair's lush lower lip jutted ominously. "Was so." Obviously in a struggle with envy, he fell silent.
"Ray." Bodie ushered his partner gently inside as Jim drew the tense Blair into the middle of the room, "I told you that Blair had a fall--"
"Oh, yeah." Losing interest, the wide tilted eyes scanned the room. Blair sputtered beside Jim, who raised his eyes briefly heavenward in resignation.
"It was like, a real bad fall! Really high, really really bad! I fell really hard a real long way!"
Ray's eyes settled again on Blair. "What'd you fall on, then?"
"A car!" Blair announced, happily. "I crashed right onto the roof of this car and bounced right off."
"Did you kill it?" A warming of interest in Ray's voice.
"Well, there was this humongous dent in the roof where my head hit--" Blair raised a hand unconsciously and fingered the livid scar under the hair at his temple "--and I bet I wrecked the paint work good...." His voice trailed off as he realised he wasn't anywhere near competing with Ray's accomplishment, and he pouted again, which always worked wonders with his thinking processes so he was soon able to make a dramatic further announcement: "But it was a stretch Rolls Royce limo! It belonged to this real bad guy. And it was black, too."
Ray was looking at him with more respect, and the pout disappeared like magic. Blair beamed at him. "What kind was your car?"
As guileless and cunning as a hippopotamus, Jim thought, affectionately, and exchanged an amused smile with Bodie, who was thankfully looking less dangerously protective now that the first awkwardness was over. Jim ushered them inside, listening as Ray explained that the car he'd "killed" was only a Capri, but it was a souped-up special one and it was gold. Jim got Bodie seated on the couch, and offered drinks while an enthusiastic Blair took a reluctant Ray on a whirlwind tour of the suite.
Ray was not noticeably impressed. "We've got a proper house, with a river. And a dog. His name's Uzi. We had to leave him at home, though, with the nanny."
"Your dog's got a nanny?"
"Can't just leave him alone. Can we? Bodie said they don't let dogs into places like this." A sniff communicated Ray's attitude towards living in such a derelict place.
"Yeah, but the Jacuzzi's cool. And the bed's round! And it's got satin sheets. Round ones! And, anyway, we don't live here all the time. We're on holiday. Don't you know about holidays?"
A hasty offer of a bowl of mixed nuts and a fortuitous need for a new bag of crisps got Blair into the kitchenette momentarily and Ray seated beside Bodie before the lowering glare on Ray's face could erupt into another confrontation. The nuts and crisps kept them polite for a good five minutes. The day was looking up.
"You know, it just seems like years since we met on that joint exercise in Durban," Jim said, still confused by tugs of memory that said that the handsome young man sitting on the sofa should be a middle-aged, salt-and-pepper veteran by now. Why couldn't he shake the conviction that time had done some kind of a weird manipulation?
"We've both been through our share of hard times," Bodie offered, amused by the American's obvious confusion without understanding in the least what was going on. Though Ellison was looking rather more aged than he'd have expected for so few years.
The last he'd heard, Ellison had been lost in the jungle in South America, so it had been quite a surprise to get the invitation with a note about being a detective and about his Blair. Coincidence, that, the two of them being through the same dreadful experience with their partners. And yet, Bodie thought with the odd complacency that often accompanied him now that Ray had recovered from the accident that had permanently brain-damaged him, while dreadful, they were also quite wonderful experiences. The results were, anyhow, he reflected, watching with a pleasure he didn't try to hide as Ray followed a motor-mouth Blair over to inspect the half-decorated tree in the corner. The slim, broad-shouldered figure was, quite simply, the joy of his days and his nights, and he wouldn't exchange having Ray physically alive and healthy for anything in the world, even with the price he had had to pay in giving up the Doyle he'd loved. Doyle was gone; but Ray was his forever. His own darling pet to keep and cherish.
"He's a lovely looking man, Bodie," the American's accented voice murmured, and he tore his eyes away with an effort and smiled at his old friend.
He looked back at the pair by the tree again and focused on Blair this time. Charming little fellow. Nice hair, if a bit dull; no red highlights. Still, he seemed a friendly if rather over-energised young man, and Jim obviously doted on him. Bodie felt a surge of affection for the youngster he'd taken under his wing in a brief co-operation op, UK and US; Ellison had always seemed damnably lonely, and that was a state Bodie had recognised then all too easily. He was genuinely pleased Ellison was so obviously in love that it shone from him.
"Blair's a charmer--" he began, but stopped as a sharp noise brought their eyes back to the tree.
"Ack! What'd you do that for?"
Bodie got up hastily and pulled a nonchalant Ray to one side out of the eye of the fuss as Blair hopped furiously on one foot and poured out his tale of woe to a sympathetic Jim.
"Ray, my pet, why did you step on his foot? That wasn't a nice thing to do," Bodie murmured under cover of the full velocity of the young American's complaints.
"Didn't step on his foot," Ray announced, in a loud voice.
"Did so! You're a liar--you--pants on fire--"
"He put his foot underneath where mine was going. That's all. He's a big baby." Bored whistling for a moment, which stopped so that he could add, with supreme scorn, "He couldn't kill a teabag."
"You shouldn't wear big boots on your stupid big feet in the house, anyway!" Blair told him from the shelter of Jim's comforting--and restraining--arm. "It's not polite!"
"Not a house, though, is it--"
Bodie hid his smile by turning away from the tree and the other occupants of the room, and said, in as firm a voice as he could muster, "Jim and Blair are our hosts, pet, and that's no way to behave in someone else's...place. Right? You know better than that. Mum would be ashamed of you."
A lush lower lip--a British one this time--stuck out ominously, but Ray eventually said, though with obvious reluctance, "I'm sorry you stuck your foot under my boot." Catching Bodie's frown, he added, quickly if a mite grudgingly, "I hope it doesn't hurt too much."
Looking up at Bodie and still not seeing the wholehearted approbation he was expecting, Ray heaved a sigh, sat on one of the hassocks, and pulled off his heeled leather boots with ostentatious effort. As he returned from dropping them next to the front door, Bodie snagged him into a one-armed hug so he could bury his mouth in the curls over an ear and whisper, "Just why did you do that, Ray?"
Ray whispered back, moulding himself against Bodie momentarily, though remaining wary of their audience, "He says the angel's a she. He's a prat. And it's crooked."
"He tried to fix our angel! That's 'specially for you and me, Jimbo, you said so."
"It wouldn't hurt to let Ray fix it--"
"Didn't need fixing until he bumped into the tree," came a rebellious mutter.
Bodie pulled Ray back over to the tree and made a show of admiring the decorations. He even, to Ray's patent disgust, said what a pretty angel "she" was, and only Ray caught the smile tugging at Bodie's mouth as he turned away again.
Appeased, Ray prettily allowed a sulky Blair to introduce him to the peculiar American tradition of stringing popcorn into garlands to go on the tree. They sat on the floor with the big bowl between them and their curly heads bent together over string and bodkins. Bodie and Jim sat together on the sofa and watched with sentimental satisfaction the homely little scene. A fire crackled in the large fireplace, glinting off a quite impressive array of shiny tumbling curls, and, outside the mullioned windows, a grey sky seemed to grow each hour heavier with promise of snow. The room was warm and peaceful, and this strange sense of time being out of joint that had been nagging at the backs of Jim's and Bodie's minds flowed away in rivulets of golden Talisker's.
"Finished!" Only a doubting soul would attribute a good bit of the satisfaction at this task well-completed to the fact that Blair had beaten Ray in finishing his string of popcorn. Ray, of course, being quite naturally of the doubting sort himself, looked up with a fierce glare that reminded Blair of murdered cars. He gulped and meekly offered to help by pawing through the bowl to find the biggest pieces, presenting each in turn like an acolyte at the altar serving the priest.
"Look like a pair of angels, they do," Bodie said, then scowled at the glass in his hand as the obvious cause of this maudlin slip.
"Mmm. Sweet fellows, both of them." Jim was so far gone in sentiment that he didn't suspect for even a moment the possible working of outside influences. "Blair always was, though. You know, before the, er, change."
"Ray, too, I expect?" Jim looked at good old Bodie, who was really oddly young considering the twenty years...well, no, of course it hadn't been! Didn't know where these thoughts kept coming from. He looked at his own glass with consideration for the first time.
"Oh yeah, 'course. Sweetest little fellow you'd ever hope to meet. I used to call him 'angelfish', even then. Hasn't changed at all in that regard," Bodie lied blithely, thinking privately that if that whiny Blair were Jim's idea of angelic, then Ray very definitely had a place amongst the higher angels, not just the central place he'd always occupied amongst the sensual, erotic, earth-angels....
Jim, in the meantime, was trying valiantly to suppress the unkind thought that Bodie's Ray was a bit more his idea of a piranha than an angelfish, but to each his own, after all, and a sentimental Bodie was a turnaround, so if that's what had done it for him, then--
"You gotta tie it on, twit. It's never gonna stay like that and it'll drag everything down."
"You do not tie it! You just lay it over the branches, like this--get away, it's my string!"
"Fine. You decorate that side and I'll do this side, and then we'll see."
The light of incipient battle in the Englishman's odd, wide-set eyes made Jim a little uneasy, but as the two of them fell into a fuming competitive silence, he let the worry go and returned to reminiscing with Bodie. After all, Bodie had always been a tough man, plenty tough enough to deal with one skinny little runt of a fellow with a head of messy curls--though those long, slim legs of his weren't bad, actually very nice, Jim thought, admiring the view as Ray went up on tiptoes to tie his string of popcorn to a top branch on his side of the tree (and simultaneously took the chance to nudge the angel more firmly on his branch in an upright position). Filled a pair of pants very nicely, Jim thought, continuing to wallow in sentimentality. Not as well as Blair, of course, but no wonder Bodie looked so besotted each time his midnight eyes moved to his partner's slim figure, which seemed really to be all the time. Well, you worried, couldn't help it, when your lover was, er, changed. Changed everything then. All the parameters of life altered, the world tilted sickeningly askew, and you came home from the hospital with a different person in the same body. Of course, at least the body was the same....
"Still, lucky we've both still got them," he continued his thoughts aloud, turning his head in time to catch Bodie's touchingly brooding eyes resting yet again on his sweet little Ray (presently occupied in reaching around the back of his side of the tree to knock the loose end of Blair's string of popcorn off its precarious perch on an upper branch). "I mean, better to have them even, er, changed than not have them at all, isn't it?"
"Very true, mate." Bodie turned to smile at him suavely, looking as though amusement were bubbling under the surface just waiting to erupt. Good old Bodie. Good to see the man happy at last. "Wouldn't want to be without Ray as he is now, not for all the tea in China."
"Exactly. Miss them the way they were, of course, but the way they are now--"
The tinkle of breakage followed the screech of denial that followed the wildly flailing grab for an unruly string of popcorn that had somehow or other slithered free of its firm perch on an upper branch and was sliding like a toboggan down a ski run from branch to branch, gathering speed and destruction on its way.
"Oh, tough luck," Ray commiserated, standing with (dare we say, smug?) satisfaction beside his side of the tree, where a perfectly-anchored popcorn garland gracefully twined between artistically placed glass balls.
"How'd it come off? It shouldn't have come off. It never comes off!"
"That the way you do it in America, is it?" Ray asked, all weighty concern.
"It's the way everyone's supposed to do it, it's the way it's always done!"
"Not in England, mate."
Blair, in whom one of the, er, changes rendered by his cranium's denting the roof of a Rolls Royce stretch limo, black, was the attention span of a flea, was immediately diverted. "You know, I so don't like being called 'mate'. You know? It like makes me think of those people who work down on the docks and wear those plaid shirts."
Ray, who was quite fond of his plaid shirts, sniffed, then smiled sunnily. "Sorry. You're right. 'Prat' suits you much better. Or 'twit'. 'Twat'. 'Git'. 'Gobslutch'--"
"Ray, my pet," Bodie admonished.
Ray sniffed again, smiled even more sunnily and set to work considerately helping Blair to re-decorate his side of the tree. Jim sighed in puzzled relief. Odd little fellow, that Ray. Of course, none of the Brits knew how to speak properly, but few of them managed to make words sound like bits of regurgitated matter he was spitting up. Insulting little beggar, too. Good thing sweet little Blair was too innocent to understand, even if he could catch more than one in two of Ray's accented words.
"I can call you names, too, you know," Blair was, in the meantime, whispering, using the cover of a spindly, moulting branch to hide his mouth sneakily. "We got lots of bad names in America." He dropped his voice even further, just in case, and his head went with it, and he ended up only a couple of names in before he got a mouthful of curls--yuck!--and reared back just as a malevolently gleaming pair of green eyes rose and fixed on him.
A vague anthropological memory popped into the forefront of Blair's mashed brain and he said, with a sigh of heartfelt admiration, "Wow, you know, you would make like such a cool demon thing."
Appeased and flattered, Ray generously stepped back and said what a beautifully decorated side of the tree Blair's was, while thinking happily that, yes, he had managed to place every coloured ball that clashed in close proximity to each other. Blair, appeased and flattered in turn, generously conceded that the British way of decorating was way cool, while privately crowing about the complete lack of excitement in the few balls and garlands Ray had chosen to use.
"It's tinsel time!"
Tinsel time, alas, turned out to be as much a minefield of cultural difference as the placing of popcorn strings. Once Ray got over his xenophobic disdain for the spaghetti-like silvery icicles that Blair produced with a flourish and proceeded to drape over the branches, he became a devoted convert. With a definite flourish of his own. When one of Ray's enthusiastically-flung handsful of tinsel encroached for the third time on Blair's side of the tree, totally screwing up his carefully placed individual strands, detente had to be re-established through an appeal to the gullet.
"Now, Ray, how much cinnamon would you like in your eggnog?" Jim smiled benevolently at the fellow who was shyly hiding half-behind Bodie in the kitchenette doorway. Looked quite the picture he did, Jim thought, in that Arran sweater with the sleeves pushed up over wiry forearms, not to mention (again) those long, black-encased legs that seemed to go on forever before meeting in that delectable behind...well, that is, he looked just the very picture of demure elegance. Could take him anywhere and no one would ever know that he was, er, changed.
"What is that slop?" Ray said, in a piercing whisper to Bodie.
"It's eggnog, you toadhead." Blair was happily wielding a grater in one hand and a fragrant cinnamon stick in the other. "It's better with lots of cinnamon."
He applied to with a will, garnishing the counter, the stove-top, the floor, his own Dalton Brothers fine linen shirt (Mom's going-away gift to her darling Blair), and, quite incidentally, the glass of creamy liquid. In only a few moments, thus, he was able to present Bodie with a glass well-filled and well-accoutremented. Bodie smiled his thanks and cautiously lifted it to his lips, aware of Blair's unblinking stare and trying to be unaware of Ray's whispered, "Looks like the cat's dinner."
"You got a cat, too?" Blair asked, diverted, and envious all over again.
"Delicious," Bodie managed, after a brave sip. Against his better judgement, he turned to offer the glass to Ray, fixing his oh-so-charming other half with a steely eye.
Ray sighed dramatically, took the glass, and made a show of sipping. He sipped a bit more, then took a big swallow. He emerged with a creamy moustache and smiled at his audience of three.
"Not bad," he said; and added, sweet as pie, "For the cat's dinner."
"Told you!" Blair crowed, energetically setting to with the grater once more. "You gotta have eggnog at Christmas, man. You know, it's just...Christmas...you know? We had it every Christmas when I was growing up. Mom and I drank it while we opened our presents. I remember that. Or maybe Mom told me about it? Well, whatever, it's just...."
"Quiet little fellow, your Ray," Jim commented, watching with unconscious pleasure as the long-legged Brit wandered back into the living room, Bodie's glass in hand.
"Can be," Bodie fervently agreed.
A relatively peaceful game of Snakes and Ladders and a heated argument over the relative merits of Satsumas versus Mandarins kept the two, er, changed members of the party occupied for a good half-hour while the other two talked about anything that occurred to them, gravitating not unexpectedly to quiet-voiced exchanges about the difficulties inherent in acting in loco parentis to one's lover.
"It's the oddity of it," Jim mused, fingering an unpeeled Satsuma. "You know, tell him to brush his teeth and wash behind his ears and then fuck him. Very strange, when you think about it."
Bodie was beginning to think it was a strange, to say the least, conversation, but he gallantly put in his own contribution, nodding his head sagely. "Even stranger when you have to tell him to brush his teeth and then he fucks you."
They looked at each other, startled by the intimate turn the conversation had taken, and hid uneasy commiseration by turning instinctively to check on their sweetly, er, changed companions. It was a relief when Ray underhandedly filched the little pile of Blair's carefully hoarded pistachios with his left hand and used the distraction to cheat his way to a flourishingly victorious finish with his right. One would be excused in thinking that sweet little Ray was regrettably prone to exploiting his ambidexterity.
"I can't believe you won! I was about to win. I was just going to climb this ladder. You woulda had to go up that snake in the corner to win."
"Forgot this fellow here, ma...prat," Ray said, pushing a playing piece into a legal position to win and claiming it'd been there all the time. "Anyway, 'twas a nice game. Thanks. Here you go," and he poured a pitiful pile of broken pistachios, stuck together with sweat from his hand, into Blair's palm, under Blair's disbelieving round blue stare.
"Oh, look, it's starting to snow!" Jim said, with ardent relief. He jumped to his feet, entranced and not at all sorry that his previous hope for a snowless visit had been denied. "Will you look at that sight."
They all looked. At a darkening afternoon sky releasing a flutter of delicate flakes, framed by the windows in transitory collages, fairy-sized white doilies against a dark background, ever-changing, ever-moving. Already a dampening peacefulness seemed to be coming with the snow, the traffic noise outside this Bayswater hotel, already wending down as shops and offices closed for Christmas Eve and people hurried home, further quietened. Jim moved to the window and stood behind Blair, sliding his arms around his Guide's waist and resting his chin against the soft curly head. He looked out at a world already transformed by a layer of clinging white, and felt serenity re-invest himself. The love of his life in his arms and an old friend rediscovered and a magical Christmas in London: all rolled into this moment. Blair leaned back against him, appreciating the beauty building outside as the snow fell with increasing speed and thickness, silent in the profound way that the chatterbox Blair had when he wanted. When he was held secure in his Sentinel's love.
From the corner of his eye, Jim was aware of Bodie and Ray standing at the other window. Bodie's hand was hidden under Ray's curls, seemingly cupping the nape of Ray's neck. Ray, Jim noticed, touched, had one long-fingered hand tucked into Bodie's back pocket. Ray leaned over and murmured something indistinguishable to the dark head cocked close to his own as Jim turned back to the vista before him and a renewed awareness of the warm precious presence along his front.
"What does anyone say to a walk?" Bodie said. "We could go into Kensington Gardens."
"We were there this morning," Blair said.
"Looks different in the snow, though," Jim said; it would be good to get Blair out for a bit; a regular snow bunny, when he got going. And the glow they'd get would carry over....
"Doesn't snow often here. What d'you say, sunshine?"
"Yeah," Ray breathed, looking out into the wonderland entranced.
"Snows all the time in Cascade, where we live," Blair scoffed, but his eyes were alight with the eagerness to experience the beauty firsthand.
In moments, Ray was tugging on his boots, Blair was shrugging into his leather jacket--and looking askance at Ray's sexy little fur-collared bum-freezer when it appeared--and they walked out and down the front door to slippery pavements and the soft crunch of tyres. They walked two-by-two through the quiet streets to Bayswater Road and across.
"Bet Peter looks a right prat with snow dripping down his face. And the horseman, too," Ray said, breaking into a slipping, sliding trot-and-jog as soon as they'd passed through Marlborough Gate. "Let's go see!"
Blair broke away from Jim's side to join him in a harum-scarum run down the curving path beside The Long Water, but the two more sedate figures behind heard his plaintive voice drift back: "Hey, just what is a prat, anyway?"
The Gardens were already a half-enchanted land of snow-festooned trees glistening in the muted light of the street lamps. The snow was falling furiously now, a drift of countless tiny flakes illuminated in the beams of light. Trees, whitened against the dark sky, looked spiky and startlingly tall, a natural cathedral, hushed and awesome. Bodie and Jim walked in tranquil appreciation, feeling the wellness of the night and the company and the beauty settling into their bones and their hearts. The ring of masculine laughter that grew louder as they approached the statue didn't break the peace, but settled it more firmly into each man's soul.
By the time they caught up, Peter Pan was the centrepoint in an energetic snowball fight, into which the latecomers were immediately snagged as helpmates and defenders. A glorious snow-drenched half-hour later, the four of them collapsed against each other, called a draw, and walked in step together further into the parkland. They crossed the Water at the Ring Road, then sheered off across the whitened expanse of Hyde Park. They moved in synch, the pairs arm-in-arm but four abreast, a rapid enchanting communal experiencing of the joy of love and well-being on this lovely night.
It remained for Blair, the chattermouth, to speak for them all the profundity of the moment: "It's, like, magical," he breathed, in awe, and smiles wreathed four faces simultaneously.
Such bliss as this anointing peace comes so rare in life that, when it does, you grab at it with two fierce hands and you don't let it go. Well, not, that is, until Ray breaks the spell by telling Blair about a bird that he and Bodie saw in the Gardens the previous summer.
"It had orange and green striped legs, and these really big feet, with toes, and they were striped black and white. It was really funny, just like a cartoon bird. It had real toes, and there wasn't even any webbing."
"You made that up," Blair said, after a moment's deep consideration. "I bet it was so just a cartoon you saw!"
"Was not. There's a picture of it, too, over near Peter. It's called a coot, and it lives here. Where do you think it is, Bodie?"
"Probably safe asleep in its warm bed." Bodie smiled, fondly, giving him a hug.
Ray smiled happily, and said (ever so sweetly), "Don't you have any interesting birds like that in America, then?"
An American lush lower lip jutted ominously once more. The usual inspiration eventually hit, however, and Blair announced, gaily, "We don't have cartoon birds--except Big Bird--but we've got Canada geese in Cascade! Real ones!" The appended "so there" was politely (if theoretically) silent.
"I thought Cascade was in America, not Canada," Ray said, doubtfully, worrying at a lush lower lip (British) that was threatening to jut.
"It is!" Blair said, gleefully.
He settled into the preoccupation of matching his strides to Jim's longer ones in perfect synchronicity. It was a very difficult task, considering the disparity in their heights, and it took most of his available concentration (little, alas, in practical terms since the infamous meeting of the brain and the Rolls Royce stretch limo roof, black). He thus missed Bodie's soothing murmured reassurance that Canada geese were ever so numerous in various English spots in the summer, and the promise of a visit to Kew next year just to prove that point. Armed with a camera and Blair's address....
The threatened jutting of the British lush lower lip thus diverted, the visitors finished their journey through the magical wonderland in harmonious concord. Relations between nations, interrelations between, er, changed denizens of nations, and the duel of jutting lush lower lips all melted into a melting pot of feel-good amity. It was a magically splendiferous sort of night, in short, or so thought all of them.
"It's just all perfectly nauseating," Tempus thought, forcing open his bleary eyes, which had winced shut. Having finally located his two errant Time-bubbles, and surveyed with all the will left to him after a ruddy great thumping by various incensed gods--who ought to mind their own business since they weren't facing The Transformation in just one little week and couldn't know a thing about the pressures of the job--the predations made on the time-line, Tempus had now to try to figure out (with what low brain-wattage was left alive around the hangover) how to fix this mess. Oh, Hades, it was enough to give him a headache if he didn't already have a cluster of 'em and wouldn't notice one more, anyway.
They kitty-cornered across Hyde Park to Speakers' Corner, which was surprisingly vacated on this provocative night of the year. "Londoners and snow," Bodie thought, shaking his head, affectionately rueful. Ray and Blair took turns jumping up on the soapbox, and then the foursome exited at Marble Arch and wandered contentedly through the increasingly chill early-evening air along rapidly quietening and emptying streets. Ray spotted a red-beaked man with a tray of roasted chestnuts and surged forward eagerly. The by now predictable conversation ensued, along the lines of:
"You don't mean you don't have roast chestnuts at Christmas in America?" A truly lovely balance of scorn and outrage.
"We probably do so, too!" A goodly dollop of outrage, with the scorn tacked on the end: "They're probably just too stupid to bother with. They're just for horses! They're horse chestnuts!"
"So's corn! But lots of people eat it. I bet you eat it. I bet you love it." Glee rearing its sunny head now, with magnanimity for afters: "Here, try one. Go on, it won't bite you!"
Blair's curiosity getting the better of his innate mistrustfulness--and his competitive spirit unable to ignore the challenge in the Brit's odd-set eyes--he thrust a hand into the cone and picked up the top brown pellety-looking thing with disdain that didn't save him from the shock of burnt fingers.
"Oh, sorry, prat," Ray purred, having whipped the cone out from under Blair's fingers immediately, "forgot to warn you they were hot." The pretty green eyes were angelically wide and guileless.
Blair glared, or tried to, his own pretty blue orbs watering as he juggled the stupid thing from hand to hand.
"You are such a toadhead," he moaned, as, with Bodie's gallant (if lip-biting) help, he ate the cooled-down thing and discovered that it wasn't bad, not bad at all, actually, and maybe a cone of his own would be okay.
And so the foursome wandered on together in perfect amity through the fairy wonderland, not even disturbed by such mundane matters as damp trickles down the neck and feet that were slowly becoming numb blocks. The evening was just too uniquely perfect for them to let it come to an end--
"Come on, come on, already," Tempus hissed, long sufferingly, as he removed the icepack (fetched by a sullen Child Horus, who had had his own thumping that day and was now on discipline) from his brow just long enough to check on the progress of his targets before slapping it back into place with a sickening squelch. "Let's do try to get this job over with. Horus, make us a bit of coddled ambrosia, oh, and some more freshly-squeezed nectar--and watch the pits this time!"
--until Blair proceeded to dance in place every once in a while and looking about in a suspiciously urgent way and asking pointed questions (in ever such a subtle way) about how far they were from the hotel.
"Wants the bog." Ray spoke in the bored voice of one not afflicted with the same need.
"You are like just the rudest--"
"Here we go, mate," Bodie said, ushering them down a side street, "won't be long now."
And so they reached home still in the thrall of perfect amity, three of them laughing at the door as they removed their wet things and the fourth rushing off to the nether corners of the suite with a cute little twitch of his fetching little derriere.
"Yeah, a sweet fellow," Bodie mused, forgetting himself as he turned back from the empty doorway to face two scowling faces. "That is, um, nice lad. You should be proud of him. Well, I expect you are. Erm."
Dinner was a leisurely affair, served in the living room before the crackling fire. The two, er, changed members of the party were sufficiently tired by the walk, and sated by the food, and infected by the mood of the evening to behave like actual approximations of the sweet little things they were reputed to be. It was an amazing end to the day. Really. Almost magic.
And afterwards, there was a sofa for Bodie and Ray to curl up on together and a big easy chair in which Jim could cuddle his Blair, while they all enjoyed the last of the Talisker's that Bodie and Ray had brought. They turned all the lights out except those on the tree and the fire itself. The tree shone in the corner, a visual feast of colour and glitter, and the hermaphroditic angel presided over all with widespread wings. In the flickering firelight, the wings seemed possessed of an odd rainbow sheen, a translucent smorgasbord of subtle, shifting colour.
"Like a prism ironed out and shaped into wings," Ray thought, dreamily holding Bodie's broad warmth against himself with unconscious possessiveness.
He drifted off into happy thoughts about going home soon to their nice big bed, which didn't have satin sheets and wasn't round, but was the nicest bed in the world to be in. Especially when Uzi was allowed to come in and join them. And he had a bulging stocking hidden in the bottom of his wardrobe ready for Bodie to find in the morning, too--before they went to Mum's for dinner--filled with special things from that shop over in Soho that he and Bodie had found one day....
Blair snuffled up the lovely scent of Jim-in-the-evening, that mix of fading aftershave and a tinge of sweat and the acidity of cold air clinging to his damp hair and clothes. He smelt just perfect, as always. This holiday was pretty good, after all, and Mom was going to save Christmas for them when they got home, so they'd have two Christmases this year. And they'd already had Hanukkah! And there was that bed, with the mirror overhead, and the satin sheets--round ones--and Jim would read out loud another chapter out of that special book, with the neato pictures, and then they'd try out whatever it talked about....
Bodie looked down at his tousle-headed, almost-asleep angelfish, and smiled with a deep contentment. Life had truly never been more perfect than on this special night when he held his lovely lad safe in his arms and felt a bone-deep peacefulness. Ray roused when a log on the fire cracked and split in a rain of sparks. He lifted his head and looked into Bodie's eyes with the disconcerting depths of love and understanding that were so visceral that, at times like this, he seemed almost to be the old, whole Ray Doyle. Bodie felt a tiny surge of sadness, but smothered it ruthlessly as Ray lifted a long-fingered hand and delicately stroked Bodie's cheek. Ray loved him, and Ray was quite quite perfect just as he was. Bodie wouldn't ever want him to be any other way. No. Absolutely not. The very thought was appalling.
Jim, meanwhile, was reflecting that this impulsive trip overseas had been more than worthwhile. Watching Blair explore new situations and meet odd--well, different, of course he meant--people was like entering another kind of wonderland in itself. Blair was fresh and new and innocent; he'd always had that amazing and attractive element of freshness in his curiosity and eagerness to explore the world and find out things. Jim had been drawn willy-nilly to that energetic pursuit of life in its multitudinous facets, and once caught in the ecstatic snare that participating with Blair in the exploration of life comprised, he'd been lost. And now he never wanted to find himself again without Blair Sandburg. The intellectual capacity that had astounded and impressed him was gone, but the abounding love for and embracing of life was undamaged, unchanged. That huge capacity of love that was now all given to Jim himself. How could anyone ever wish that Blair were different? Only an idiot would wish that things were otherwise.
The perfect Christmas Eve ended at last as Bodie and Ray got back into their damp jackets and boots and exchanged goodbyes, with plans to meet again before Jim and Blair returned Stateside. (Jim made a mental note to remember to tell an excited Blair firmly that, no, despite what Ray had said--with such an earnest look, poor innocent dear, that it was obvious he believed it himself, though that was Bodie's problem, thank heavens--you could not get out of the car and go right up to the free-range lions at the Longleat Animal Park in Wiltshire. Bodie made a mental note to tell Ray that he was a deliciously evil little pet and that Bodie loved him to death, but, still, they couldn't let Blair be eaten alive. Even if he did talk a mile a minute.) They all smiled sunnily at each other and parted ways.
No one in their preoccupation noticed that as soon as the door closed behind Bodie and Ray, one of the angel's wings lost its rainbow sheen.
"Finally," Tempus groused, flinging the limp icepack over his shoulder in the direction of the fuming Horus. "Maybe we'll get somewhere at last."
In the quiet peacefulness of the hotel room, Blair sank down onto the floor with his back against one of the hassocks and yawned happily as he waited for Jim to join him. Jim put some more logs on the fire, fetched their glasses, and sat beside his lover, who melted against his side. Contentment thrummed between them as they sank into each other's presences. Blair was in an unusually thoughtful mood, and Jim let him ponder whatever was on his mind. When he was ready, Blair would share with him. When he did eventually speak, however, Jim was taken a little by surprise.
"Ray's not a bad guy, I guess, even if he is a prat," Blair said, trying out with relish the new word that Jim, smiling resignedly, knew that he would be hearing a lot of from now on. "I wonder what he was like before he got changed."
"I don't know," Jim murmured, nuzzling amongst the luxuriant curls. "I expect he was something like Bodie. They did the same work together."
"Partners," Blair said. "Like you and me, huh, Jimbo? That's sad. Bodie must miss him lots."
Jim pulled his Guide's face around and kissed the soft, accommodating mouth. He couldn't bear it when Blair was melancholy; he really couldn't bear it at all. Not with all else that Blair had suffered, not with the truncating of his life as it should have been. That was enough pain for one person to have shouldered in his life. Jim had sworn that Blair would never be left alone to feel sadness if there was anything that Jim could do to distract or please or fulfill him instead.
Blair responded wholeheartedly to the long, close embrace, moving his thigh over Jim's to feel the burgeoning hardness at Jim's crotch. He and Jim were perfect together; they were magic together. He couldn't shake the sadness of how Ray and Bodie didn't have that, anymore. They couldn't, not since Ray was changed. No one could have what he and Jim had except themselves. So, when Jim released his mouth, and they were both flushed and at the beginnings of arousal, Blair lay his cheek against his lover's, and spoke from his heart.
"I wish, like, Ray could be like what he used to be. You know? I wish Santa could give him that for Christmas. And that would be for Bodie, too. And then they'd have each other the way we do and that would be just so great. Don't you think so, Jim?"
Choked, Jim could barely speak for a moment, but finally said, his arms tightening around his precious love, "Yeah, I think that would be perfect, honey. Just about the most perfect Christmas miracle ever. And I wish it could happen, too."
"One down!" Tempus crowed, then clapped a hand to his splitting head with a groan, and reached blindly for two more of the big blue tablets Aesculapius had sent along via Horus.
In the silver Capri travelling slowly through slippery streets home from Bayswater, Ray leaned his head back against the seat and lay a hand proprietarily on Bodie's firm thigh. The radio was on low, with King's Choir singing familiar favourites as a background to the wonder of the quiet, snow-festooned city. Most people on this special night were indoors now, with their families, their loved ones--as he and Bodie would soon be safe inside their own house, with Uzi, and their own whole special night to spend together. He was glad that he and Bodie weren't on holiday in a strange place tonight.
"D'you think Blair and Jim're homesick?" he asked, idly thrumming his fingers against Bodie's thigh in accompaniment to The Little Drummer Boy.
"I dunno, pet. Shouldn't think so. They didn't look homesick. They wouldn't have come if they didn't want to. It's not a job or anything; they wanted to come here."
"I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to be away from home. 'Specially at Christmas," Ray said, with a fierceness that made Bodie's heart leap in joy.
With all the horror that had happened to Ray, it was a source of never-ending delight to Bodie that he was able to compensate for much of it. To give Ray these things that meant the world to him: the secure inviolability of the house, the dog to love and play with, his mother nearby, and Bodie, always Bodie, to adore him and care for him and keep him safe forevermore. In every way there was.
"They'll get to go home afterwards and be together."
"Yeah. Not the same as us, though. Nobody's got what we've got," and his little finger tapped its way closer to the rapidly expanding bulk at the top of the powerful(ly clenched) thighs.
"Reckon Blair was such a prat before he got changed?"
Bodie choked off a laugh, and managed to answer, mock-severely, "He's not really a prat. Just a bit--different. And I expect he was much the same before or Jim wouldn't adore him as much as he does."
"Jim's got nice eyes," Ray offered. "Kind eyes. They remind me of Uzi's, except blue. It's too bad Blair got changed; reckon Jim was happier with him the way he was before."
He fell silent for a long while, and Bodie concentrated on driving and on easing the tapping, gripping fingers a bit further down his leg, away from the danger zone, so to speak.
After a long time, when they were almost home, Ray turned on the seat and looked at him intently.
"Bodie, do you believe Christmas wishes ever come true? Mum says that some do, every year, except we might just not hear of the people they happen to. That doesn't mean they don't happen. D'you think if I made a wish, it might come true?"
Bodie turned to glance at him, and was caught momentarily by the sheer loveliness of the wide, soft eyes. "I don't know, pet. But I reckon if any wish is ever going to come true, it would be one made by someone like you. Because of how special you are."
"Can we make a Christmas wish together, Bodie? Be even more special that way."
"'Course we can. Go on, then. What shall we wish for?"
"Well, Mum's okay; and you and me's okay; and everyone we know's okay. I reckon we should wish that Blair gets changed back to the way he was before. That would be a wish for Jim, too. That would make it extra-special. Anyway, Blair might not be such a twit if he hadn't got changed."
Bodie smiled, and reached out a hand to rumple the damp curls. "Right. That's settled then, my lovely lad. One wish for a Christmas miracle to make Blair the way he used to be."
The crackling chortle from the old man woke Horus with a start, and he stared crossly as Tempus closed his scummy old eyes and waved his wrinkly old hands all over while mumbling arcane nonsense, the only recognisable bit being a fervent mutter something to the effect of, "Thank Olympus they all had the good taste to wish for something for someone else. Always so much harder to get these miracles through Accounting and IS when they're selfish ones; they just can't see that they're necessary to put things right with these humans, who really don't take kindly to having Time muck about with them...."
And thus and so it was, on a certain magical Christmas morning, two couples awoke in their respective big beds (neither of which was round nor had satin sheets) in their respective homes (neither of which was a house, with a river, a nanny and a dog) in Cascade and Chelsea, wrapped in undeniably erotic repose in the limbs of their partners. Pretty much a couple of those not-sure-where-one-person-leaves-off-and-the-other-starts situations, in fact. Oh, and about twenty years apart in time, give or take a year or two.
Just as matters were supposed to be. Well, what else could be expected? Ludicrous even to think that ridiculous dreams about mashed brains, murdered cars, and a meeting with a man once briefly met in the past (and several years older than oneself yet looking several years younger; or, um, several years younger than oneself yet looking several years older...my, these perspective things are tricky to keep track of) could be at all true.
Which didn't stop two shaking hands from reaching out, more or less surreptitiously, to push curls back from two foreheads and check to be sure that scars and indentations in skulls did not exist. Had never, of course, existed because the mashing of brains and the, er, changing of their partners, their precious partners, had never happened. Of course it hadn't! Sheesh.
The lovemaking on these twenty-year-apart magical Christmas mornings was, nonetheless, extra specially scrumptiously tender. And cherishing. And sweet. Oh yes.
Mind you, it did take a good few thumps over the following weeks before Bodie learnt not to call his partner "pet" within Doyle's hearing. Unless, of course, Bodie had a good headstart on Doyle. Or wanted to be, ahem, caught. In fact, on reflection, it might be fair to say that Doyle was called pet even more often than poor sweet little Ray had been. Yes, I think that's a fair statement. The more things, er, change, the more they stay the same. Hmm....