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Words don't mean the same thing to Richard Sloat as they do to everyone else. Dixie Herndon -- stork legs and with a Hollywood kiss for Lily at the door -- says that her holiday in Aruba was, "Magical, simply magical," and Richard winces for her, a thread of horror and a thread of fear briefly tangling in his mind, or not even that, just rubbing for a moment past each other with a squeak like the first unstrained pass of catgut across violin string. The distaste he always feels for  that word  is faintly mysterious, which makes it all the more uncomfortable to Richard; it's all stupid, Thayer, Seabrook Island, never again, no thank you stuff. But he also knows that somehow it's all tangled up with Jack, and Richard sometimes vibrates within himself like a perfect Stradavarian chord of almost-memory, when Jack passes by, now carrying a tray of snacks and politely offering them to Dixie, now running to let the puppy out into the yard, now just plopping himself beside Richard.

Lily is talking about the house, becoming interested in it again mostly because Dixie is. Once the house was chosen, and she and Jack and Richard (and the puppy, eventually) were settled in, Lily considered that project done and went on to the next --activism against nuclear power. This was certain to come up later, and then Richard would have to muzzle himself to avoid having one of their usual arguments, because half of Lily's opinions are based on conflating modern applications with ugly military history, and the other half are based on misunderstood science and semantic sleight-of-hand and half-truths all veiled in a fog of emotional rhetoric. That she can't see past the fog frustrates Richard, but he has no wish to spend the afternoon being called callous, emotionless, careless, greedy, cruel, while Jack looks back and forth between them like a spectator at a tennis match where his own heart is being used as the ball.

Lily and Dixie laugh at something about women needing walk-in closets, and there's another word that means something different to Richard, partly because a long time ago, a once upon a time ago, Richie's daddy, Morgan, went into a closet and didn't come back out, and didn't come back out, and didn't come back out, and somehow (he can't really remember how) Richie nearly scared himself sick because his father didn't come out of that closet. Which is pretty damned funny, now.

"Richie's got enough clothes for a walk-in closet," Jack says, because Jack can take part in any conversation no matter how banal, and half the time when he's done with it, it isn't banal anymore. "Don'tcha chum?"

With a quick pro forma elbow for the 'chum,' Richard smiles, trying to think of something to say. "I just ended up with a lot of clothes, because I grew about three inches in the past year. I think maybe a regular closet makes it easier to design a house though."

"Only if you have no imagination," says Lily lightly, and Richard sees that she's taken his words as an attack. Lily is probably just about the best adoptive mother anybody could possibly be to the son of a man who murdered her husband. But she sees his father in him, whether Morgan is there or not, and it puts her on edge, no matter how careful he is about what he says.

"Mom's walk-in closet is like a magic box," says Jack, who has no qualms about that word. "She goes in as one person, and comes out as somebody else. Chairwoman --"

"Chairperson." Lily corrects.

"-- to night-on-the-town in thirty seconds flat. It's better than David Copperfield."

"When have you ever seen your old Mom night-on-the-towning it?" Lily asks, now twiddling a chip between her fingers.

"He could see it tonight, if you're in the mood for a girls' night out," suggests Dixie. "If the boys can stay by themselves."

"I think we can just about survive on our own," says Jack. "If you want to go, Mom."

Lily brings the chip to her mouth, just putting her lips against it, and for a moment it might have been one of those disgusting cigarettes she seems to have given up for good this time. "Twist my arm," she says.

After she has left, Richard and Jack make themselves dinner, watch  Charles in Charge  because one of Sawyer and Sloat's clients is guest starring, and play with the puppy, shoving each other as they play a kind of three-way tug of war with a filthy outgrown sneaker.

Richard gives an over-enthusiastic tug at the same time Jack lets go, and Richard sprawls on his back with the puppy on top of him. At once, the puppy starts licking him like it thinks he's fainted and needs reviving. Jack laughs his ass off, and Richard cheerfully calls him an asswipe before he starts laughing too. Jack's laughing, flushed, handsome face seems full of delight with Richard, and it hits Richard low and hot in the stomach how much he wants Jack to keep looking at him like that, how much he would like to be closer to that look, and he forces himself to keep laughing. Frequently when this feeling hits him in future, as it will all too often, Richard will resort to a stupid, animal sort of laugh to keep anything else from showing on his face.

Kids at school, Thayer then, and high school now, frequently think Richard is gay because he dresses carefully, is tidy, lives in his head and has little interest in sports. Richard is not gay for any of these reasons. He is gay, by the time he finally figures out that he is gay, because he wants to be held and kissed by other boys, because he wants to hear a male voice tell him "I love you, Richard," because he twinges at the low voices when he hears the glee club practicing  Earth Angel .

There was a dream, which should have made things clearer to him than it did, not long after they had moved into the new house. In the dream, Richard was in a bright field that had the clear air and vibrant grass Richard knows from other half-remembered dream places. There were lots of other people in the field, and dreaming-Richard knew they were all his classmates, though he recognized no faces. They began to separate into couples around him and he realized it was an outdoor dance. He looked around for the girls he is friends with, but couldn't find any of them. A friendly but unknown boy's face passes by him with a warm "Hey, Rich!" Then the dancing around him became making out, became lovemaking, and Richard, instead of being embarrassed, as he surely would have been awake, was exhilarated at the sight of all those bodies together. Again he looked for someone he knew, Grace or Amanda or Louise. Then the friendly, unknown boy was in front of him again and invited him with a look. And, very much in the same spirit as he used to dance with other boys in first grade music class because there were more boys in his class than girls, Richard went with the friendly boy, pressed to him, held him, and the almost feverish excitement at the thought that he was actually going to have sex rose up in him with only token disappointment that it was a boy instead of a girl, rose up and up, and slammed down on him like the wave you aren't expecting because you're waving to someone on the beach.

He cannot later recall any detail to the lovemaking in this early wet dream, and expects that his dreaming mind never got that far, was too excited to bother with detail.

It strikes Richard, ridiculously, as unfair that Lily has an adult's experience of sex and love, and is able to figure him out almost before he understands himself.

She is always wary and watching for him to stare at the pretty downtown boys. Anything he says about a male actor or a boy in his class, she is listening to, frankly waiting. And when he and Jack hug or wrestle, seldom as that becomes as high school moves along, she stares at them in echoing silence.

She comes to pick him up one day when he is talking to tall red-headed Tobey Rodgers, the two of them standing close to each other the way they can because they both, though it goes unspoken, know about each other. There isn't much attraction there, but it's nice to be close to male smell and male body without having to worry about offending.

As they drive away, and for ten minutes after, Lily is regular polite Lily. Then she gently asks, "Was that your boyfriend, Richie?"

And it isn't fair, because Richard has hardly allowed himself to think the word "boyfriend," and she has said it aloud first. "No. He's just a friend, Lily."

"I guess you've heard all the safe sex stuff enough times." This is true. Lily has been frank with both him and Jack specifically, and also frequently takes them along to AIDS awareness talks -- the much preferred successor to the nuclear power stuff -- where the subjects are covered and covered and re-covered.

"I'm not having any sex with anybody, Lily."

"Good. You're way too young. And you have to be careful, Richie. You have to be very careful. You know that, right?"

Richard mashes down a bitter little laugh. Here is Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer caught between the rock of her absolute stand on gay rights and the hard place of her worry for Jack. As the California edition of the old saw goes, she doesn't mind gays, but she wouldn't want one to marry her son.

Or maybe it's just Richard, who she has diagnosed with a kind of genetic rottenness. He'd like to tell her that he's not his father, couldn't be his father. But it wouldn't do any good.

And Lily doesn't even, he thinks, understand that he'd still be in love with Jack even if he weren't gay. He doesn't totally understand why, and probably doesn't want to, but Richard kind of thinks that the whole world is in love with Jack, somehow that's what Jack's  for .

In late 1987, Richard goes with Lily on one of her hospital visits. He and Jack used to do this often, helping Lily to distribute grapes and books and magazines and funny little stuffed animals to dying men. This must be the first time he has been alone with Lily after visiting an AIDS patient, though, because it is the first time she stands just outside the hospital room with an expression as severe as the bleachy air and says, "That can't ever be my son, Richard. That can't ever happen to my son."

Richard sighs, and it feels like he's deflating with it, his shoulders sinking, his chest skinnying down and his spine contracting. "What do you think I'm going to do Lily?"

"I only have one son. He's all I have, Richard." Her expression is vulnerable and proud, like a conquered queen begging for mercy.

"You could have had two," Richard does not say.

Richard sleeps with a woman for the first time at the beginning of his sophomore year in college, with Heather Cook-Bender, a slavic languages major he likes very much. It begins as a joke about allaying his new roomate's obvious suspicions, and is suggested seriously by Heather one night with no more urgency than she might suggest going out for ice cream. She is lonely, but not needy, and she has known he was gay since the day they met. He agrees, only a little nervously.

It is quite pleasant for both of them, easier than Richard had expected. Though he doesn't find her arousing, his body responds to her touch easily. She asks about the scar in his hair, when they are lying together afterwards, and he tells her he fell when he was little. He knows the fall was something to do with his father, but he can't remember what, and he is briefly irritated at her for bringing it up. Then she asks him to explain the chemistry of scarring, and the whole thing fades from his mind again.

For the next two semesters they average twice a month, with a rather intense weekend in the middle of the summer when they go at it five times the first day and four the second. Most of their pillow talk consists of stories about Hank Bender, a boozy neglectful father, but a brilliant war correspondent, on her part, and brief scientific lectures (by request) on his. By the end of it, Richard loves her very much, and is aroused by the sight of her nakedness in a pavlovian way. If he had lived in the 1950's, he would almost certainly have married her, he tells her once, and she laughs at him.

Heather spends a semester in Kiev, and while she is away Richard meets Marcus Brown, who takes him to bed only a week after they first talk. He realizes, panting and messy after the first time, that penetration with Heather was no more than mutual masturbation with a friend, and mutual masturbation with Marc is sex, explosive and complete. They check each other's homework, argue over what to watch on television, and fuck compulsively.

Richard wakes up one morning in his dorm bed to Marc, already dressed and with his backpack over his shoulder, kissing his chest. "Gotta go, Rich," he says in his careless slurry voice, "Diff. Equ. ( diffiequeue ). Corner table for lunch ( f'lunsh )?"

"See you there."

"Don't forget to print your paper ( princherpaper )." A playful smack of a kiss across Richard's mouth and he's gone.

Richard remembers to print his paper, but he learns nothing about the rise of communism in Poland that day, because he is wrapped up in the fact that he has effortlessly, painlessly, fallen in love with someone who isn't Jack Sawyer.

When the two of them arrive in California at the beginning of the summer, Jack and Lily treat Marc very much as they treat Richard, Lily with only slightly forced charm and affection, Jack with teasing, understated love. Richard is slightly disappointed, but unsurprised, to find that his love for Marc hasn't made a dent in the way Jack affects him. The dog hates Marc on sight, but the dog is never happy with any males other than Jack and Richard in the house.

Long after Marc has gone home, one night during the really hot part of the summer, Jack sits on the beach with Richard, the dog running in sand-flinging arcs around them. The beginning of the conversation is forever blanked from Richard's mind and he has no idea what came before the thudding shock of Jack saying, "...back when you used to look at every girl I dated like she was a giant tarantula who was trying to take me away from you."

Jack has no trouble reading the meaning of Richard's silence, of course. "Sorry, I thought you wouldn't mind talking about it now."

"I thought I was hiding things so well," Richard says, shaking his head and feeling like the king of the idiots.

"Probably. But I know you, chum. You have no secrets from Jackula the Psychic."


Jack hugs him tight, and they don't talk about it again for almost five years.

Things with Marc fall apart the last semester before graduation, not strong enough to stand up to plans for grad school on different sides of the country. The night before graduation Richard spends with Heather Cook-Bender, and he rather enjoys the look of perplexity on Lily's face when she and Jack arrive in the morning and find them still in their robes.

The last time Richard sees Heather is when she kisses Richard's cheek before going off in her own car. Promises to visit fail in the face of his research and Heather's job search. Her mother calls him one evening in June two years later while he is assembling notes for a quals review, and tells him Heather is in the hospital after a car accident. He promises to come, and asks one of the Sawyer and Sloat travel people to arrange for him to have a seat on a morning flight. Sometime after midnight she calls again to tell him that he will be coming for a funeral, not a visit.

Jack charms the stewardesses, taxi drivers, concierge, bellhop, and probably several others while Richard isn't paying attention. He is grateful for Jack's ability to move him along, insulating him from the world, but he makes the call to Dionne Cook himself once they are in the hotel room, agreeing to meet at her house in the morning and follow her to the church.

It is early evening and Jack gets them a pizza, which Richard is surprised to find himself eating nearly half of. Sometime after they have both brushed their teeth and changed, pyjamas for Richard, a tee shirt and boxers for Jack, Richard realizes they haven't spoken since he vetoed pineapple on the pizza, and starts to say something, just a nothing about the hotel room, and finds himself choking on the first clear spike of grief to emerge out of the haze of disbelief and shock that have smeared the last twenty hours together.

Jack hugs him at once, and does his best for Richard there, drawing him down onto one of the beds and lying chest to chest and breathing on Richard's mouth. Richard, grateful for the offer and loving Jack more than ever, shuts his eyes and sleeps as soon as he can.

More than once in the night he wakes, or thinks he does. Once he thinks Jack says something about a wolf, and later Jack says -- this part remains clear in Richard's memory, though it might as easily be a clear memory of a dream -- "I wish you remembered it, Richie boy. I wish I could take you back there right now. It would be the best thing for you. And you never got to see that it was a good place, really."

"Where's that, Jack?" he asks sleepily in this maybe-dream.

"The Territories."

"I guess that's where I fell in love with you, huh, Jack?"

"I guess it is, Richard, yeah."

When the dog dies, Lily calls Richard. "Us old ladies get pretty attached to our pets I guess," she says, "you'd think I was married to that dog, the way I keep overflowing." For the first time it really hits Richard that she has been living alone with the dog for years, since he and Jack moved out.

"That would have been some tabloid story," he says, trying to tease like Jack, "actress and philanthropist Lily Cavanaugh reveals fourteen year marriage to golden retriever."

And she laughs. For a miracle, she laughs. "Oh Richie boy," she says, "I wish you were here. I miss all my boys."

Richard's eyes sting a little bit, and after they hang up, he sits at the table in his sleek, tidy little kitchen for a long time, forgiving her.

On Richard Sloat's thirtieth birthday, Jack gets him drunk, and takes him out to a field. It isn't any place he recognizes, and the stars above are much clearer than he thought they could be in northern California, clearer even than he thought they were out in the sparse parts of the midwest. The air is so clear he can smell the sea miles and miles off, and the grass is thick as the fur of some arctic animal.

"If we're going cow tipping, Jack," he says, patting his pocket, slurry though he doesn't feel so drunk as he did only ten minutes ago, "I'm gonna need more change."

Jack laughs and his delighted face looms close and Jack kisses him, just kisses him, delighted mouth on his, sweet as ever he let himself imagine.

"What's this about?" he asks, shocked and a little hurt, "What are you doing?"

"I love you, dope. And I wanted to give this to you, but it took me a while to figure out how to do it."

"I don't need a favor, Jack." He'd always thought Jack understood that.

"It isn't like that. Where are we, Richie boy? You look around and tell me where we are."

"A field, Jack. Nowhere, comma, middle of."

And Jack looks sad, really sad. "Are you sure, Richard? You don't know where we are?"

Richard looks at the trees at the edge of the field, which are huge and look nearly edible. He looks at the thick, thick grass around their legs and sees a lightning bug the size of a bumble bee. He looks up at the stars again and remembers himself saying something about stars to Jack, something crazy, because he'd been crazy and none of it had ever . . .

His scalp burned and he stumbled a little. Jack caught him.

"Okay," Richard said, a little thickly. "Okay, you win, Jack, you win. It happened. It all happened. The Wolfs and the train and the homicidal trees and all that shit. It all happened. Is that what you want to hear?"

"I want to hear where we are, Richard."

"We're in the Territories, Jack."

And Jack kissed him again, deep and slickly, and steadied him as they went together to their knees on the grass. Jack's hands opened up Richard's shirt and then peeled off his undershirt and Jack kissed his shoulders and all over his chest while Richard's hands moved fitfully around under Jack's sweatshirt, feeling his ribs, shoulderblades, the hair on his chest.

With a groan, Jack pulled away and opened up his jeans, dropped onto his side to drag them and his underwear down and off, and then attacked Richard's fly. All Richard's hesitation fled and he rolled Jack over and kissed him, running his hand up and down Jack's inner thigh. Jack laughed, breathless, and awkwardly worked his hand into Richard's pants.

They were having fifteen-year-old sex, clumsy and too quick and Richard knew how to ease it off a little and make it last, even if Jack didn't, but he kept wrestling and laughing anyway, and yelped when Jack groped his balls and laughed at the way Jack howled when he pumped fast up and down Jack's cock, and all his experience helped with was arranging things when it got really hectic, so he ended up on top with Jack's cock pressed between his thighs and just enough room between them to work his hand in and jerk himself off.

Jack, after a few mindless moans, got with the program and added his hand to Richard's. A breeze of that clear cool night air made the whole field ripple and stroked Richard's bare back, and he came, and they both squirmed until Jack laughed and spurted warmly all over Richard's thighs.

In the middle of a surprisingly large area of smashed-down grass, they lay, kissing and laughing a little, and Richard told Jack he loved him, and Jack said, 'No shit, Sherlock," and pinched his ass.

"I had to wait until it was real to you," he said, much later, as the first of what seemed to be a thousand colors began to band the Eastern sky.

Richard wasn't sure he understood, but he was willing to accept that Jack knew more than he did about this kind of stuff. "How did you know I'd be ready now?"

Jack shrugged. "Just hoped. Knew you couldn't keep being an asshole forever."

Richard kicked him, and then Jack kissed him, and they missed most of that first sunrise.

Traveling Jack was Traveling Jack. Richard bought a house, and a dog, and casually dated a succession of nice Jewish doctors and flamboyant casting directors and wry fellow scientists, punctuated by visits that lasted a day or three months, depending on Jack's mood. Well after midnight one night a month into one of these visits, Richard sat on his deck petting the dog while Jack sat next to him, drinking a beer and telling a story about an unloved new Sawyer and Sloat client.

"So now Andie's convinced he's got a deep dark past. Mom told her flat out, 'Eyeliner and a leather bracelet do not constitute a past.' But she was still eating it up. Then one day his  mom  calls from Des Moines because he 'always calls her on Sunday,' and she's worried that she hasn't heard from him." Jack snickered. "That did it for Andie, she's back on that guy at Universal."

"Everybody's got a past," said Richard. "Even I have a past."

"Sure you do, Richie-boy."

The dog got up to watch a moth and Jack moved in for a long, long slow kiss. His fingers slipped just inside Richard's collar and teased there, and it woke long sparkling shivers down Richard's body that flared and died, flared and died, like magic.