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by Brighid

Author's disclaimer: This is an act of love, an act of penance, and just as I do not own the earth or stars, I do not own these characters. Pet Fly and Paramount apparently do, though. = )


by Brighid

We grow up with the words "happily ever after", and few, if any of us, put any credence in them. We know they are empty words, meaningless words, lies told to children and fools. And yet, always, deep within, there is part in each of us that wants to believe, wants it to be true despite the odds against. It's our greatest downfall, and perhaps our only saving grace.

Once, in the long ago, there was a boy of eight who believed in happily ever after. Nothing in his life had yet taught him otherwise. He lived in a small town by the sea, oldest son to a prosperous merchant. There was no want imaginable that went unfulfilled. What his father's purse could not buy, his mother's bright smile and loving arms provided. He was even blessed with a younger brother, small and dark haired with eyes that followed his every move in near hero-worship. He lacked for nothing, and yet for all that he was a good boy, a gracious boy, with a big and open heart.

And then one day his mother died.

Between one breath and the next, happily ever after disappeared.

Jimmy sat on the basement stairs, and listened to his mother and father arguing half a house away. He considered going down into the depths, knowing that it wasn't that dark, that it could never truly be that dark to him, but his father hated when he did things like that, and so instead he just sat on the stairs and let their bitter, angry words scald him.

They were fighting about him. About what a freak he was, and he wasn't sure, not entirely, what it was that made him a freak, but he had vague ideas, feelings. He knew he saw and heard and felt things he shouldn't, that it frightened his mother and embarrassed his father, but he couldn't really help it, it was just who he was. If he could have been something other than what he was, if he could have just made it all go away, he would have. But he couldn't, and so they fought about him and he hid in a dark that was never really dark enough and even if he couldn't tell anyone else what it meant, he knew deep inside what a freak was.

He was.

The father's grief was a terrible thing, a cold hard knot in his belly. It froze out his sons, burnt them about the edges, set them against one another in hopes of any scrap of affection or even acknowledgement. But there was neither affection nor acknowledgment, and so he, too, was as good as dead to them.

One night, almost two years after his wife's death, the merchant came home late to find his household in a panic, looking for the eldest boy who had been missing for hours. The father's anger was as his grief: chill and brittle. He helped the searchers nonetheless, and his face gave away little when they eventually found the boy in the attics, curled up asleep in a cedar box of his mother's things.

The father shook his son awake, pulled him from the box and ordered the boy to follow two of the menservants as they carried this last remnant of his mother down to the great hall. At a single, clipped command they tossed the box and its contents into the great stone fireplace. Within seconds it was ablaze; the two men had to grab the boy to keep him from plunging headlong into the flames.

The merchant crouched down before the distraught boy, made as if to touch the straining, tear-stained face, but let his hand fall away instead. "Your mother is dead, boy. There is nothing left of her here. You must accept that, bear it like a man, not like a child." His words were not unkind, just cold and heavy as stones, and they weighted down the struggling limbs of the boy until he hung limp and lifeless in the menservants' grips. He watched dully as his father stood and walked away, and he made no sound at all save for the hitch and sigh of his almost silent weeping.

Somewhere just before dawn he crept down to the great hall, swept up the still-warm ashes and carried them out to his mother's grave in the family churchyard. He scattered them with quiet ceremony, then stretched out on the cool green grass and wept his long-denied grief to the only one who would listen to him. Eventually he drifted into sleep.

He dreamed that strong arms lifted him up, cradled him, held him against a sleek, warm body. He awoke to find himself in the branches of a tall tree, his head pillowed on the body of a large, black cat, a cat as big as a man. A warm, pink tongue sandpapered his sleep-stained face, and a rumbling purr resonated through his body. /Awake, then?/ There was no voice, no sound at all, and yet the words were there all the same. /Time to go, little one. But when you have need of me, I will be here./ The big cat nudged him gently down the tree, a tall ash, sprung up over the his mother's grave. He touched it wonderingly, awed, for it was a very old tree where just hours ago there had been none. He felt a prickle of something magick, wonderous, stir through him. Then he saw the pinking sky beyond it, the threat of dawn, and so turned and ran towards the house before his absence was noticed.

He stopped once, to glance back. The tree was still there, but the branches were empty.

He liked the beach at night best, better even than by daylight. In the daylight he was Jimmy Ellison, jock and surfer and smart-ass. He was all surface, no depth, and he hated being like that, hated the emptiness it left behind.

Night was different, though. There were no expectations in the darkness, and he didn't have to be just Jimmy Ellison; in the shadows, he was allowed to be something deeper, less defined. It wasn't any easier that living shallowly in the daylight, but it was truer, and he found he could accept that.

He took a swig from the brown paper-wrapped bottle, felt the bite and burn of vodka, then passed it to Greg Fex, sitting silently beside him on the driftwood log. The other sixteen-year old accepted it, took a long gulping swallow, then set it into the sand at their feet. For a long time they sat immersed in quiet, the still marred only by the waves, and watched as the crescent moon limned the black water with silvered light. Slow minutes ticked by, and then Fex shifted slightly, turned his body towards Jim.

"No," Jim said softly, almost pleadingly. Even in the darkness he was not ready for this possibility. There wasn't enough darkness, enough vodka to make this possible.

Fex was smaller than he, short and wiry with dark auburn hair that curled over the back of his collar. He had big hands, though, big and strong and he used them to turn Jim around so that they were facing one another on the driftwood log. "James," Fex said, hazel eyes focused unflinchingly on him, and Jim shuddered under his touch, under his scrutiny. "I love you, man. Always have," Fex continued gently, relentlessly. He leaned in, straining upwards ever-so-slightly to capture Jim's mouth in a clumsy, heartfelt kiss.

He tasted like vodka and fries and something more, something vital. Slow, unfocused heat suffused Jim's body and he groaned in despair, in longing, twining his fingers into the other boy's hair, returning the kiss so hard he tasted blood. Fex made a soft, mewling cry against his savagery, enough to jolt Jim out of the moment, enough to throw him back off the log and leave his sprawled and panting in the cold, damp sand.

Fex stared down at him, his eyes wide and vague in his pale face, a smear of blood staining his mouth. Jim felt something roil up out of him, a trembling so fierce he couldn't breathe or speak, just shake convulsively. A moment later he was choking and gagging, vomiting noisily and helplessly onto the beach.

Fex was there beside him, holding him up out of his own foul-smelling mess, and he could hear the other boy muttering apologies. Jim wished that he could explain that it wasn't Fex, or the kiss, or the spiraling hunger or anything like that ... it was only the insufficient darkness, the inability to hide himself and everything he was afraid to want from the cold, condemning eyes of his father.

There was, at least, a place for the sunlit, smart-ass Jimmy Ellison. For him, however, there was nothing at all, and that left an ache in his belly he couldn't purge no matter how hard his body tried.

He had grown into a man's height quickly enough, though he was still spare and gangling about the edges. The open-faced child had long since been subsumed in the quiet, serious stripling who suffered the lash of his father's tongue, the hatefulness of his brother's treachery. Already some called him hard, unfeeling, but those that knew him knew to look into his eyes, which he never quite learned how to shutter. The old housekeeper would see the flash of hurt, the fresh wounding upon old scars, and knew that later she would look out across the court to see him in the churchyard, high in the tree that stood sentinel over his mother's grave. He alone, however, knew why he came there, and since no one ever dared (or cared) to follow him, the tree and its guardian spirit remained his secret. It was harder and harder, though, to fit his long limbs into the branches, and so often as not the cat would come down, curl about him against the trunk, and groom him like a wayward cub. Her voice was always gentle, and soft, and beneath the rasp and growl he thought, sometimes, he heard the intonations of his mother.

Today, though, he needed the branches, their shelter and safety, and so he climbed into them and found his cat, and somehow managed to curl up as small as the child he'd been until her body surrounded him utterly. "I have to leave this place," he said softly into the glossy dark coat that pillowed his shoulder. "I can't stay here any longer. I will not be pitted against my brother, I will not work in my father's counting house, I will not unlearn her name and her voice and pretend she never was." His voice was harsh with tears left unshed since the night he'd scattered the ashes.

/It is wise,/ the cat agreed, nuzzling him. /Your place is not here. Your path is not here./

"Then where?" he asked, and there was a wistfulness in his voice that none but his cat ever heard. He felt her strong, triangle head butt against his jaw.

/That is for you to learn, little one,/ she said, chuffing a laugh. /But I do have gifts for you, your inheritance from your mother./

"I certainly don't expect any from my father," he said, and beneath the bitterness there was a rich vein of hurt.

/He has nothing to give you,/ the cat said softly. /He has nothing, even for himself. In time, you will pity him that. For now, put out your hand./ He did as she bid, stuck out the flat of his hand, and from her mouth received three nutshells. He stared at them in wide-eyed disbelief until the cat laughed again. /You were expecting me to carry gold, young one? All I have to offer is magick, boy, and only half-magick at that. You must supply the rest, from your heart and your belly and your spirit./

The boy took the three nuts from the big cat and pushed them into the pouch at his waist. "Thank-you," he said at last.

/Open them when you have need, manchild, but remember, there are only three, no more. And when you are gone, remember this as well: I am here, with you, always./ His cat laid a giant, heavy paw against his chest, and for a moment he felt a sharp, flaring bite of pain, like claws and flame and loss. And then he was alone in the tree, with a pouch full of nuts and scar on his chest in the shape of a cat's-paw.

A month later, when he slipped away in the night, he opened the first shell to find a soldier's uniform and commission papers, paid for and stamped with the seal of the Warrior King. He cast off his old clothes and burned them, donned the uniform, and left his childhood behind.

Jimmy Ellison, when he drank, generally drank alone. It wasn't that he didn't have any friends, but there was just something to the lieutenant that kept people from getting too close, an almost palpable warning of this far and no further. People believed it, because very few thought to look in his eyes and see that whatever his body language said, his eyes spoke something different.

He wasn't always alone. Sometimes he had a beer with his men, when it was the right thing to do. Sometimes there was a woman, usually a red-head. Most of the time, however, it was just Jimmy Ellison, and he seemed to like it that way. He'd stretch a beer or two out over the evening, listen to the music, and then head home alone.

Until The Kid transferred in. He was a lieutenant, too, and older than Ellison, but he had one of those fresh-scrubbed faces and honest-to-god freckles and always seemed to be bouncing, and somehow he just sort of bounced into Ellison and stuck there. And suddenly Ellison wasn't drinking alone, or going home alone, and they watched movies and shot pool and bullshitted together and nobody even thought twice about them. Some people started asking Ellison where his sidekick was on the rare times they saw him off-duty alone. And Ellison would just smile and shrug and make a sort of wavy hand gesture that might have been a woman's silhouette or some sort of navigational direction, but either way left it up to the asker's imagination.

And very few thought to look in his eyes and see the real happiness there, the quiet contentment, and so none noticed its disappearance when The Kid broke his neck in a training exercise. But they did notice that Jimmy was drinking alone again, and this time there were no beers with his men and no red-heads either and sometimes he didn't stop at one or two beers, but he always kept himself firmly in control, so nobody said anything at all. Which was pretty much exactly what Jimmy thought he wanted.

Time and warfare turned the stripling into a man, gave him breadth and depth and a quiet assurance that many envied. He was a good fighter, a good leader, and perhaps most importantly, a good man. And that, perhaps, was his undoing. It seemed to him that he heard every soldier's death-cry, saw the grimace and the twitch and the rictus of friend and foe alike. The stench of the battlefield permeated his hair and his clothes; he tasted blood and mud in his ale and his bread. Neither wine nor women could take it from him, and he found that while this path had helped to shape him, had honed him to a greatness of strength and spirit, it was not one he could follow to the end of his days. It would be the end of his days, the end of his soul.

He had to find another way.

And so he cracked the second shell open, and found in it a second uniform, one for the House Guard of the Scholar Prince, and transfer papers sealed by the crest of the Scholar Prince himself. Within a day he was riding into the heart of the kingdom, his mail traded in for supple leather, his orders in a pouch at his waist, and a strange commingling of apprehension and joy in his breast. It was still important work he was riding to, for the Scholar Prince was twin to the Warrior King, and in years of peace he ruled the land. It salved his conscience, just a little, in leaving his soldiers behind.

A week's hard riding saw him at the palace of the Scholar Prince, and caught up in the whirl of new duties, new quarters and new squadmates. The men and women were, for the most part, kind and friendly, most of them having served as he had, and remembering the sort of weight it left on the soul. It helped that one of the men had served with him, years before, and offered up testimony of his good reputation. Although still quiet and reserved, he at least managed to carve out a niche for himself in his new environs; the others treated him with respect, if not fondness. He somehow managed to find a stillness and a quiet that he had not known since the days in the tree over his mother's grave.

Which is perhaps why, in his off-duty hours, he wandered out into the groves and climbed up amongst the stout branches and read the books that were always readily available within the palace walls. Sometimes, when the sun and wind were just right, he could feel the weight of his cat's paw against his chest, the low rumble of her purring. It was in these moments that he relaxed utterly, let go of the control that had been the hallmark of his life, and just drifted, through stories and half-dreams and might-have-beens into an almost nothingness.

And it was there, on just such a day, in just such a moment, that he met the Scholar Prince for the first time. He wasn't sure at first what roused him, for he was truly wide and wandering, but suddenly there was a heartbeat near his ear and a shadow over him. He started abruptly and almost lost his purchase in the tree, and would have fallen if not for well-honed reflexes. He found himself staring into dark blue eyes, which were at the moment crinkling in laughter.

"And what if I had been an assassin, guard?" the man asked, but his tone was gentle and teasing. Nevertheless, it pricked the guard on his conscience; he had been bred to feel failure keenly.

"That was inexcusable, Your Majesty," he said harshly, stiffly, moving to rise up and somehow execute a bow in the confines of the branches. He was surprised when the younger man laid a strong hand on his shoulder and pushed him firmly back into place.

"Hold your peace, guard. I spoke in jest, not condemnation!" the prince chided. "More fool I if I expected you never to rest, never to drift and dream. You'd be no good to anyone if you didn't rest sometimes!" He climbed further into the branches, so that he straddled a branch across from the guard. "And I apologize for disturbing you now, but I was searching for a book of philosophy and one of the librarians said you had it with you and I'd seen you here before and I just thought ... I just thought..." he trailed off hesitantly. "I thought perhaps we could read it together, you and I," he finished, and an odd-half smile curved his full mouth. It made the guard's palms grow slick and his mouth grow dry, and once again he thought he just might tumble from the branches.

"It is your book, Your Majesty. You have only to take what is yours," and for the life of him, he wasn't sure if he was talking about a book or not. But the prince's eyes gleamed and he laughed and motioned for the guard to move over, against the trunk, so that they might sit closer together on the same branch.

"I think I'd rather share, just now," he told the guard. "Sometimes such matters are only understood when you have someone to talk them through with. I would like to know what you think."

The guard swallowed twice, hard, and wondered at the other man's words. "What I think?" he repeated, and the prince shot him an odd look, at first hard and then gentling as though some sort of understanding passed through him.

"What you think," the prince repeated. He plucked the book from the guard's yielding hands, and began reading it aloud, and after a time his voice was everywhere inside the guard, the way his cat's voice had been. And when the guard answered and questioned, the prince listened, just as the cat had. Something long-sleeping began to stir within the guard, but he had no name for it, no strategy, and so instead he just sat in a bough laden with apple blossoms and talked philosophy with his prince.

"I am not doing a jesus-fucking test, Sandburg, so give it a rest already!" Ellison yelled as he headed through the front door of the apartment, continuing an argument that had been on tight-lipped hold since the station. "I've had a bitch of a week and I just am not in the mood, all right?" He hung up his jacket and strode across the open space to the loft stairs, as if putting enough physical distance between him and his Guide could somehow end the discussion.

Blair was right behind him, shutting and locking the door, pitching his jacket haphazardly onto the waiting hooks. "Well, you're in luck, man, because I'm not interested in anything involving fucking famous rabbis. I am, however, pretty damned certain we've got to investigate how your emotions and your senses connect, because that could just as easily have been you out there, and I am not having that, man." Blair was resolute, unstoppable, and about two steps behind the bigger man, following him up into the loft bedroom, utterly disregarding personal space and the near-lethal glare the other man was directing at him.

"Sandburg, Lila died in my arms. I've been handling paperwork and funeral arrangements and other shit for about 24 hours now and I just haven't got the fucking patience to help you get another chapter for your goddamned book!" He reached out, plucked the younger man up from the top step by his shoulders, and he could feel his Guide shudder, the hot spike of scent that signaled sorrow and rage and something alien, something he didn't have a name for. "But maybe you're in luck, maybe forensics got some nice snaps for you!" He shook the younger man like a terrier shakes a rat, and then stumbled backwards as Blair got a strong fist between them and shoved him, hard. Another shove and he was flat on his back on the bed, and Blair was straddling him, doing the shaking.

"You are such a freaking asshole, man!" Blair shouted. "What sort of monster do you think I am? Two and a half freaking years living with you, and you still don't have a freaking clue about what I'm about, what we're about, do you?" Jim stared up into the younger man's face, and there was sorrow and anger and something both silvered and shadowed in his gaze, but no fear, never fear. A small part inside the wounded animal was glad of that, was glad that Blair could weather the beast in him and not back down. His Guide reached down, touched his temple lightly. "I know you loved her. I know this hurts. But it could have been you in that body bag and that is something I am just not willing to risk, you have that? Can you get that through your thick skull, you throwback? Because I am going to feed you and tuck you up and get you through the next few days and then we are so going to do those tests because I am the goddamned freaking Guide here, and I am not going to let you play Cleopatra over this, got it?" His hand drifted down and across, and Jim closed his eyes under the hesitant caress. "I talk about a book, the dissertation, and yeah, it's important, but not like you are, man. Never like you."

His words were soft and they pushed past the beast, wound their way into the wounded core. Jim felt a harsh shudder rock his body, felt the angry convulsion of grief pushed past endurance, and he made a noise that echoed strangely in the space between them. Blair pulled him up, pressed his face squarely into his chest and just rocked him, rocked him like Sally had when he woke up to find his mother gone. Blair muttered things that made no sense at all, yet somehow were a key to the floodgates Jim had spent over thirty years locking down. It hurt to weep, burned in his gut and throat and it never seemed to end, and Blair straddled him and rocked him and held him until there was nothing but the quiet emptiness that follows strong emotion. He realized, distantly, that the younger man was pulling him out of his sweater, shoes and pants, pushing him under the covers and turning off the lights, and a part of him thought he should resist this, recover the distance and dignity he'd lost, but mostly he just wanted sleep. And somehow, somewhere deep, he sensed this weakness was safe in Blair's hands. Big square hands, that anchored him, held him fast even when he fought against him. A stray thought seized him. "Cleopatra, Chief?" he asked sleepily as he heard his partner's foot hit the top step. Blair's voice, warm and lulling, floated back to him through the growing darkness. "Queen of Denial, Jim. Get some sleep, okay, man?" and he was down the stairs, puttering around, and between that and his steady heartbeat Jim found a safe place that he could rest.

As the days and weeks passed, the guard found the prince seeking him out, reading fragments of poetry and philosophy and history to him, talking to him and questioning him and following him around whenever time and circumstance allowed their paths to cross. The Captain of the Guard noticed the prince's apparent fondness for his newest man, and so arranged duty details so that the guard became one of the personal guards, one who ate and slept and lived in the prince's apartments. The prince seemed glad of it, glad of having almost unlimited access to the guard's company. Under the younger man's interest and tutelage, something began to blossom within, something that he had lost years before when the priest scattered the ashes and earth of his mother's body, when his father scattered the ashes and earth of his mother's memory.

It both exhilarated and terrified him. The cat's-paw scar burned him, and his dreams burned him and the smile of the prince burned along the edges of his skin and he had no name, no strategy, just fear and longing for something unknown, unknowable. And then, one day, in the middle of a heated discussion about the necessity of war for the maintaining of order, the prince leaned forward and kissed him hard and hungrily and oh-so-sweetly, too. The guard returned the kiss, reaching out to the warmth and joy the younger man kindled within him. It was then that the fear came, the terror, the harsh remembering that there was no such thing as happily ever after at all. He stumbled back, called for his relief, ran from his room even as the other guards entered.

Somehow he found his way out to the trees, found himself in the branches without even thinking about it. He fumbled into his belt pouch, scrabbled frantically for the third and final nutshell, and cracked it open. A surge of light glittered fiercely about him, and then there was a woman hovering in the branches beside him.

"Mama?" he asked, his voice breaking on the word, cracking clean in two. "Oh, Mama!"

Pale, cool fingers reached out and stroked his fevered brow. "Boy of mine," she said softly, and her voice had the velvet of the cat in it. "This is the third and final gift I have for you: let yourself be loved. Let him love you. Learn to believe in love again, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how great the risk."

He shook his head at her, denying her words. "You left me," he said, accusingly, childishly. "You left me and everything was gone and I had nothing, and you want me to let it happen again?" She took his face between her hands, held his face up so that he could not avoid her gaze, her eyes that were so very like his. "And I am so sorry that I died, that I had to leave you. I'm sorry, too, that I took all the best in your father away, that his grief left him dead to you as well. But if you let this happen, if you let this pass you by without seizing it, then I've killed you, too, and how will my soul ever find rest, knowing that?" She kissed his eyes, his forehead, the corner of his mouth, the way she had each night when she pulled the covers tight about him. "Unless you risk this, unless you open yourself to him, then you aren't living at all, boy of mine, and you might just as well fall on your own sword!" She kissed him once again, then twisted down and darkened, and she was the cat, his cat, and her paw was hard and biting over the scar on his chest. /Choose, manchild!/ she growled. /Choose wisely!/

A growl and slink and the cat was high up in the branches and he was looking into the impossible blue of his prince's eyes. "I thought I might find you here," he said softly. "I'm sorry if I frightened you. I've been so careful, you know, not to frighten you. I can see you've been hurt, can see the fear in you." His fist tightened in the green leaves overhead, crushed them until their fragrant green scent threatened to overwhelm the guard. "It's the strangest thing, really. I am the Prince of Peace, and yet I would gladly do war against whoever did this to you, whoever taught you to fear love." The prince swallowed heavily, convulsively, and the guard found himself fixated on the way the younger man's throat worked, the twist of his lips, the soft pant of his breath as he struggled with strong emotion. "I do love you, you know. Fell the day I saw you, and I'm still falling. I would do anything for you. I'll even reassign you, give you lands, set you free from me if that would make you happy."

The guard reached up, took the prince's free hand, pressed it over the scar on his chest. Something bright and hot flared between them, bound them. "I don't think that would make me happy," the guard said at last, his voice low and raspy.

"No, I don't think that it would at all," the prince agreed. "But I had to offer, didn't I?" He leaned closer. "I'm going to kiss you again. Are you ready for that?" His voice was unsteady, breathless, and it made the guard ache deep inside.

"I don't know," the guard admitted. "But I think I have to try." The prince leaned the last bit down, and his mouth was soft, gentle, like the touch of a mother's hand and the velvet of a cat's fur and something deeper, sweeter, more real entirely. The ache spiraled and curled inside of him, wound itself into longing and desire and joy. He pressed up against the younger man, returning the kiss with real hunger. When at last they parted, he pulled the younger man into his arms, pulled his hair free from the tight queue he kept it clubbed back in, petted him unashamedly.

"I love you," the prince said at last, quietly, his breath soft against the guard's shoulder.

"You don't even know me," the guard protested, compelled by honesty.

The prince turned in his arms, held his face so that their gazes were locked. "I know you," the prince said. "I know that you have a kind heart, that you're an honourable man, that you tell the truth regardless of what it costs you, that you fight fair, that you like fruit and ham for breakfast. I know that you smell like leather and soap, that you have a strong mind even if you won't see reason about the place of warfare in a civilized world, that you say your prayers even though you're not sure anyone is listening. And I know that you are the bravest man I've ever met because somebody all but cut the heart out of you and yet here you are, willing to risk it all for me. I love you, I know you, and I'm going to do my damnedest to be worthy of you, Ellis Williamson." He kissed the guard firmly, reverently.

"My father named me Ellis," the guard said at last. "But my mother named me James."

"Worthy of you, James," the prince amended. "Now let's go find someplace more comfortable than this tree." He glanced up into the branches. "And tell your cat it can sleep outside our door, but it will not share a bed with us. James glanced up to see the cat shaking its great, sleek head, and heard the soft chuff of the cat's laughter. The prince laughed softly. "I said that I knew you," he chided as he slipped out of the tree, and waited for the other man to follow. The cat landed softly on the branch beside him, nudged him down out of the tree into the arms of his prince, who stood waiting to re-teach him the meaning of happily ever after.

Jim Ellison found himself sitting on the couch next to Blair Sandburg, reading Steel Beach and wondering how the hell the other man had talked him into it. It was so not his style, to quote his Guide. "This is some pretty weird shit, Chief. They change sex at random, fuck like minks at the drop of a hat and eat bronto burgers, all while living on the moon."

"Great, isn't it?" Blair grinned up at him, sticking a thumb in the anthro text he was perusing to decide whether or not it was going to make it onto the syllabus he was putting together. "It's like a really warped tribute to classic SF, especially Heinlein, and a really cool examination of modern society as well, the sort of overwhelming nihilism and narcissism that pervades us. And I always wanted to be able to change sex at random, you know? Just to see what it was like, long as I could get the boys back again." He waggled his eyebrows at the older man, then returned his attention to the book he held.

Jim just shook his head at him. "You are a weird, weird man, Chief," he said at last. "And if you expect me to continue reading this guy, I'm gonna need another beer or twelve." He set the book down on the seat between them, and went to the fridge. "Do you want anything?" "Iced tea still in there, or did you drink it all?" Blair asked after a moment's consideration.

Jim leaned in and hauled out the glass pitcher, grumbling as he did so. "Your iced tea is safe from me, Chief. I like the stuff in the can, not this sun-brewed rosehip crap!" Nevertheless he poured two tall glasses, added some ice and carried both over to the table. Not even looking up from his textbook, Blair scooted two coasters over and nodded at Jim's grunted thanks.

The sun crept across the loft, until it was just the end of day glow slanting in at an oblique angle. Jim yawned and stretched and put the book down, then swung around on the couch so that his feet were in Sandburg's lap and covering the textbook. "You may rub my feet," Jim said grandly, swallowing back a smile as his partner looked up at him with a single raised eyebrow.

"Oh, I may, may I?" Blair returned. "You're making a hell of an assumption there, aren't you, big guy?"

Jim sank down into the blue couch, pushing his feet more insistently against Blair's lap. "Not really, Chief. Because you know what I trade for footrubs, right?" He closed his eyes, allowed himself to smile as the younger man's scent shifted, respiration and pulse sped up slightly. A moment later he felt his socks being pulled off, and cracked open an eye to see Blair throwing white cotton about the living room with wild abandon. A moment after that, strong hands gripped and pulled and pushed at the tender places on his feet, never pushing too hard, always hitting just right, and Jim relaxed into his Guide's practiced hands. It occurred to him, suddenly, that he'd spent his whole life looking for this, for this place where he just was what he was without judgement, where there were safe hands to hold him and carry him. A sudden rush of emotion flooded through him, left him weak and dizzy. He opened his eyes and looked around the loft, at the way his books merged into Blair's, the way their CD's were sorted together, the carvings that mixed with the game balls, the furniture they'd bought together, the deep bronze Blair had talked him into painting the metal railings. Everywhere around him he saw two lives merged into one, and he glanced down at the way Blair's broad hands cradled his long feet, the way they just fit into one another.

He surged up and grabbed the younger man's face, kissed him deeply, wetly, pulled him down on top of him, suddenly, fiercely glad at how well they fit together.

How together they made everything fit.

Blair made a squawking noise and pulled back a bit. "Hey, hey, ho! Hey! What's this all about?" he demanded. "Not that I'm complaining, but I've gotta admit I'm curious." He stared down at Jim, his eyes somehow both laughing and serious.

Jim reached up, loosed his hair from his ponytail, petted him unashamedly. "I just ... love you. So much. So goddamned much." Blair's face grew soft and unfocused over him, and the younger man leaned in, kissed him gently.

"I know that, James," he said softly. "I know you." He moved over him, through him, into him, and Jim sighed and let it happen, finding at last a place for everything, putting everything in its place.

"Want you now, Blair," he growled, pushing clothes aside in a flurry of need and longing and unreasoning desire. "An hour later you'll be sponging up the sofa, griping at me about the mess," Blair murmured into the soft curve of his throat. "And yet here you are, wanting to fuck like minks at the drop of a sock. And you say I'm weird!"

Jim just kissed him hard, and thought, hell, if the Guide fits...

An End.