American Museum of Natural History, NYC, NY. April 2014 —7:24 AM
“So, I suppose this is our ‘ last roundup ’ after all.”
Jed was still watching as Larry left the Hall of Miniatures for what would most likely be the last time.
“Supposin’ it is,” he agreed, a hand going to the brim of his cowboy hat to tug it further down, as he always did.
Octavius noted his sad tone and crossed his arms, trying not to give away too much. Larry had told them they’d have about ten minutes before the sun rose to say their goodbyes. In his own opinion, Octavius had said much too many goodbyes in the past twenty-four hours. First, to his men before they departed for London. Then, to Jedediah on the rooftop, and Ahkmenrah and his family, and finally, to Teddy, Sacajawea, and the rest before they each departed for their exhibits for the last time.
He looked to his men, the sight of them frozen at attention in the dark being one of the most strange things he’d ever seen. He’d never thought about what the dioramas looked like in the daytime, and decided then and there that it wasn’t nearly as favorable. It was dead. There wasn’t any lively music echoing from the West, no sounds of drilling and working soldiers from Rome. How did the visitors tolerate it?
Octavius watched as Jed kicked his legs over the edge of the bench, leaning back on his palms and looking at the West with a melancholy gaze. He joined him, idly kicking his legs in the silence.
“I don’t like it, ‘Tavi. ‘S too quiet.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
Jed shrugged, wringing gloved hands. “We’ll be joinin’ them in a few minutes anyway. Ain’t no complaining ‘bout the quiet then, eh, kemosabe?”
“I’m afraid so,” Octavius mused. He looked over at Jed, to his still-moving hands, and remembered the rooftop a few hours before.
When he’d asked for Jed to hold his hand in the vent, he’d barely felt the words escape his lips, much less registered what they meant. Jed had responded with fair and just confusion, and it took Octavius a moment to realize the situation he’d put them in before mumbling a bashful “never mind” and hitting the cold steel floor.
What he hadn’t expected, however, was Jedediah to tease him. Nor had he expected Jed to reach out for him in their dying moments.
Up until recently, Octavius had managed to keep his desires to himself. It was true, yes: his feelings for his compatriot had risen further than just friendly in the past few years. He’d found himself thinking of Jedediah more fondly than friendship would allow, at least in Jedediah’s time. In his admiration he realized how lucky he was that they’d even been able to set aside their differences and become friends, and in that he realized that he couldn’t risk all of these years of trust for something so one-sided and personal. So, he kept his thoughts of further intimacy to himself.
Now he was realizing it was foolish of him to do such a thing. This was their last night together, ten minutes before they turned to plastic forever, and he found he still had so much left to say to the cowboy.
“Octavius?” Jed asked, interrupting his train of thought. He only used his full name when he was serious, so the Roman sat up at full attention.
Jed’s mouth opened for a second, then closed, then remained open. His jaw worked as he figured out what he wanted to say.
“You know, we’re best friends ‘n all,” he started, looking off in the opposite direction, “and yer actually probably one of the closest friends I’ve had. We’ve come a long way, you an’ I.”
Octavius smiled, enjoying how he dragged out the word long, and nodded. “We certainly have.”
“And, well—dangnabbit. You know how bad—”
“You are with words? Yes,” Octavius teased. “Utterly horrendous.”
Jed made a soft swiping motion at him, embarrassed. “Shuddit. We ain’t all fancy-pants royalty in these parts. Minus the pants.”
Octavius laughed at this, and Jed chuckled along with him, gaze growing soft when he made eye contact. His lips parted and his expression went thoughtful for a moment as the two men smiled at each other. It was the longest Jed had ever maintained eye contact with him.
Of course, this meant that it couldn’t last too soon. Jed cleared his throat and looked forward again, tugging on his cowboy hat. There was a faint, red flush in his cheeks that Octavius knew he was trying to ignore.
“Anyway. As I was sayin’. We’ve come a long way, an’ I just wanna let you know that I’m glad. I’m glad ‘ta call ya my friend, kemosabe .”
Octavius nodded, crossing his ankles. “I am also glad to call you my friend, Jedediah,” he said, pressing a hand to his breastplate. “Should we have met in earlier times, I would have commissioned an artist to make a statue in your honor, dedicated to our friendship. It would have decorated my courtyard and remained there for thousands of years.”
“D’aww, shucks Octy,” Jed mused, the blush in his cheeks now becoming overly obvious. His blue eyes twinkled as he smiled, hunching over and crossing his arms. Glorious.
“Enough with the theatrics already! Ya’d make Shakespeare keel over with yer Roman drama if he were here to hear it.”
“I don’t know who that is.”
Jed waved a hand dismissively, appearing to find the marble flooring very interesting. “He’s a poet. Wrote a lot of tragedies ‘n plays ‘n such.”
Octavius nodded, realizing this man probably came after his time. “Well, if I were to stun such a talented, famous man with just my words, then I’m sure your looks would inspire many more works from him.”
Jed practically screamed, bouncing in his seat and throwing a weak punch in Octavius’ direction, which the latter easily dodged.
“ Octy! ” he squeaked, drawing laughs from the Roman. “ Doggone it! ‘Nuff with the teasin’, I said!”
“Very well! Very well,” Octavius agreed, smiling and rubbing his shoulder in mock pain. “I will not speak of your good looks again.”
Jed’s face screwed up like he was going to yell, but after a blink and a shake of his head his expression softened. He looked down at the marble floor again, bouncing a heel off of the bench they were sitting on, and smiled.
“Good,” he grunted. He remained silent for a moment, then turned around and began to clamber off the bench. Octavius rose, noting the growing light in the hall, and followed suit, meeting Jed on the floor between their exhibits where he stood waiting for him. He looked somber, a rare expression on the cowboy’s face, as he scuffed a boot on the floor.
“It’s the way it has to be,” Octavius suggested, when Jed continued to say nothing. “We’re just plastic. Ahkmenrah...he’s real. And the tablet was made for him and his parents. He deserves to spend eternity with them.”
“I know that.”
“I know you know that,” Octavius said, placing a hand on Jed’s shoulder. Jed looked up at him for a split second, then immediately leaned in for a hug.
He and Octavius rarely hugged. Jed had expressed his distaste for physical closeness (or manhandling , as he referred to it) since before Octavius could remember. But of all of their hugs, this one was much more personal and less hurried.
Jed had wrapped his arms around his shoulders and pulled him in tightly, resting his chin on his shoulder. Octavius, having adjusted, returned the embrace, winding his arms around Jed’s midsection. He felt the cowboy tense at the touch, then relax, melting into his arms and letting Octavius properly hug him. It was a joy-inspiring feeling, one that Octavius wished he could have experienced sooner. There were so many things he wanted to say to Jedediah, and he could even venture to take a guess that the Westerner had something he wanted to say, too. He’d accepted long ago that Jed would never admit it-- couldn’t, actually. At least, not to himself. So, he remained content with their embrace, running his hands down Jed’s back and curling the thin leather fabric of his vest in his fingers.
“‘Tavi. Sun’s about ta rise.” Jed’s voice was lower than usual, and surprisingly quiet. But still, he wasn’t attempting to break their hug.
“I’m going to miss you, Jedediah,” Octavius sighed, pulling away. “I wish we could have spent our fifty-eight years together on better terms.”
Jed forced himself to turn away, and Octavius did the same. “You’ve been countin’?” he called behind his shoulder, with a forced smile.
Octavius didn’t answer the question but smiled back instead, shaking his head. “Good morning, Jedediah,” he called, as he pulled himself over the ledge of the diorama.
“Mornin’!” came a yell from the other side of the room.
Octavius passed his men, noting each of their faces and bidding each one a silent farewell before climbing to the top of his podium. Each of them had served their Empire well, he only wished he’d had time to tell all of them that. As his life drained out of him, fingers and toes turning to plastic for the last time, he shut his eyes, focusing less on those men and more on preventing the tears that were threatening to run down his face.
American Museum of Natural History, NYC, NY. May 2017 —7:56 PM
Time passed differently without the tablet.
Octavius hadn’t been without it for a single night since Ahkmenrah had arrived, but during the escapades outside of New York, his men had described it as a few hazy, dragging minutes of silence before the daytime started again. Becoming unfrozen at nighttime always brought with it groggy memories of visiting hours, being ogled at by faceless viewers. He’d accustomed himself to such a state for so long that he hadn’t been prepared to experience nothing at all when he’d frozen for the last time.
Nor had he expected to feel his limbs turn to flesh again.
He’d barely gained consciousness of his surroundings when he heard yelling echoing from the West, followed by ropes being tossed over the edge of their diorama. His men were following suit, yelling greetings back and climbing over the ledge as fast as they could. He watched as the groups clashed, Romans greeting Westerners with hugs and cries of joy. Music started echoing from the hall as swarms of exhibits ran to the lobby to join in the festivities.
Octavius looked around the group of miniatures, finally locating a familiar black hat and blue shirt. Jed was peering around the crowd, turning in circles and pushing past clinging figures, before he tilted his head up and made eye contact. Octavius could hear his joyful yell from inside the diorama as he pushed his way through the crowd, apologizing along the way.
They met in the middle of the courtyard, Jed scrambling over the edge and pulling Octavius into his arms before either of them could say a word. Octavius, who’d tossed his helmet to the ground, returned the hug, winding his arms around the cowboy’s shoulders. Without thinking, he pulled back and brought his hands to Jedediah’s cheeks, fondly sliding his fingers over the blonde waves that curled around his face.
“Octy, I...I-I thought…” Jed mumbled, cheeks flushed but otherwise looking unbothered. He didn’t pull away, and he didn’t struggle against Octavius’ nearness. “I thought it was over for us! And…”
Jed looked around in disbelief, gazing at the Colosseum before finally looking at Octavius again, who was watching him fondly.
“And yer huggin’ me again.”
“Yes, I am,” Octavius acknowledged. He felt Jed tense a little as he started, shifting his weight back and forth.
“Well, this is gonna sound a little strange to you, but I thought we were both goners an’ all, and now we’re not. And I--” he stopped talking for a moment, trying not to rush himself as he absorbed everything that was happening. Octavius let him think, absentmindedly stroking his hair and letting him adjust.
“Well. I suppose I’m tryin’ to say that I got somethin’ I wanted to tell ya. Somethin’ big, but I didn’t wanna the other night because I thought we’d never see each other again-- an’ I really wanted ta say this, okay, but I didn’t wanna ruin the moment or anythin’-- and I felt like I didn’t have time and-- dagnabbit! ” he finished. He hung his head.
“Jedediah,” Octavius started, pausing for a moment. “Do you love me?”
Jed’s gaze went soft, and Octavius felt his hug tighten, just a little.
“Do...do you love me ?” he asked in return. “Like, more than a buddy would?”
Octavius nodded. “I do.”
“ I do ,” he confirmed. Jed looked like he was about to bounce through the roof. A grin spread across his face.
“I love you, too.” Jed admitted, glancing down bashfully.
Octavius tilted his head up again, pushing the brim of his hat back so that he couldn’t hide behind it anymore. The red in his cheeks and shine in his eyes were a beautiful pair.
“‘Tavi,” Jed breathed, leaning forward. “Are ya gonna kiss me? Or are ya just gonna stand there and make me wait—”
His sentence was cut off when Octavius pressed their lips together, wrapping his arms around his neck and pulling him close. Jed kissed him back joyfully, the grip he had on the general’s cape tightening.
Octavius didn’t know if this was to be their last night together, or the first of many more, but either way he was determined to use this time to let Jedediah know how much he cared for him. He was so preoccupied that he didn’t notice a change in the noises coming from below.
Jed did, however, and pulled away first, just far enough so that he could look over the edge of the diorama. The Westerners and Romans had directed their attention from each other to the spectacle above, cheering and yelling and clapping their hands.
Jed grumbled, and Octavius just rolled his eyes.
“Okay, boys!” Jed yelled, pulling his hat back down on his head. “That’s enough with the hollerin’!”
Despite his efforts, he was met with more cheering from down below.
Octavius cupped the side of his face and turned his head. “Just ignore them, and they’ll go away soon enough.”
“Do ya think they’ll miss us at that hootenanny goin’ on in the lobby?
“I’m sure they can wait for us, love,” Octavius suggested, tensing when a body collided into his back.
Floods of cowboys and Romans were climbing into the diorama, crowding around the two in a giant group hug. Jed, who was now pressed up against him, let out a loud laugh as hands started patting him on the back and hats were tossed in the air, and Octavius laughed with him. Amid all of the congratulations and clapping, he still couldn’t take his eyes off Jed, who was giggling and laughing with everyone. They still hadn’t let go of each other, either-- but Octavius didn’t plan to let go of his cowboy for a long, long time.