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if this was a cowboy movie (i'd give you my boots)

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FOURTH KING OF THE FOURTH KING: EGYPTOLOGY EXHIBITION ARRIVES IN NEW YORK
OCTOBER 6TH WORLD PREMIERE AT THE NEW YORK MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

The magnificently preserved mummy of King Akhmenrah, discovered during Professor O'Connell's famous Nile expedition, will make its grand arrival in New York under heavy security detail on September 5, 1952. The mummy will be the star attraction of the Museum of Natural History's upcoming blockbuster exhibition of ancient Egyptian art and culture. For the first time in over sixty years, King Akhmenrah will be reunited with several artifacts relating to his reign, many of which were originally entombed with him. The mummy and artifacts will be placed in a reconstruction of the inner chamber of his tomb.

*

“You’re going to start that far back?” Octavius said dubiously. "How long is this story going to be?"

“Hey, you said ‘tell me a story,’” Jedediah said, shivering. “I gotta start at the beginning, don’t I?”

“That is not what I said. I only observed that sharing tales of valor might make this trek pass more quickly, and keep our minds off--”

“Our imminent deaths? When the sun comes up,and we're not inside the museum, so we crumble up and blow away like little tumbleweeds in a dry gulch?” Jedediah said, staring darkly into the night. "Oh, thanks. Thanks for reminding me. Again."

“Well… I wasn’t going to say imminent death.” Octavius said, kicking aside a pile of slush. “Maybe Larry will realize we were not consumed in the fire when our vehicle exploded. Maybe he’ll come back for us...”

“Oh, and maybe pigs will fly,” Jedediah said, exasperated. “Look, just hush up, all right? I’m telling this story! Shush!”

*

So that was how it all started. Before the guards worked out how to lock everything down at night, it was a pure hog-wallow ruckus, with everybody free to roam, free to make trouble, free to explore. Course nobody explored too far right away. Walk out of the Hall of Civilizations one way and your ears were assaulted with gunshots, like two mighty armies of giants facin' each other on the battlefield. Out the other way lived a whole herd of giant monsters a-howling and prowling, rhinoceroses and elephants, spotted cats and wild dogs, all big enough to swallow a little fella in one gulp.

Even the deer were as big as giants! That very first day, a spotted deer walked right over, stuck its head into the world and started to nibble on the tops of the trees. Hollering and throwing stones wouldn't scare it off; the tunnel men had to bring out the black powder. They used up most of it, nearly blew up the trading post, and all it did was make the critter give 'em a dirty look and wander off.

A lot of people hid, then, concealing themselves deep in the trees or as far back in the tunnels as they could go. But one little cowboy walked right up to the very edge of the world and looked down. "Well, Jedediah," he said to himself-- Jedediah. Was that his name? As good as any, he supposed. "Yes sir, Jedediah. Time to ride."

But he couldn't figure out how to get a horse down out of the world, so he ended up just shinnying down a rope and proceeding on shank's mare. Jedediah stuck to the walls and froze whenever he saw motion, and though it took a while, eventually he made it all the way into the room where all the shooting noise had come from. There was a huge stagecoach made for giants off to Jedediah's left, and over to his right there was a world-in-a-wall, but behind a solid wall of glass. And the people in it were giants, too!

Squinting through the haze of gunpowder, Jedediah started creeping over towards the glass wall. There were plenty of great giants' bodies lying about, stuffing falling out of their uniforms instead of innards. Jedediah gave them a wide berth. The two live giants caught behind the glass wall looked familiar-- old-fashioned, but explorers or surveyors for sure.

"Ahoy there!" Jedediah shouted, waving his hat in the air to get their attention, but they never even glanced down. He frowned. (It made him feel little-- insignificant-- and he didn't like it.)

He was about to turn away, and then a tap on the glass caught his attention. There was a lady behind the glass too, a pretty Shoshone maiden in braids and a buckskin dress decorated in porcupine quills. She must've had keen eyes to spot Jedediah, and she'd crouched down to get a better look at him, curious-like.

"Howdy! Hello there!" Jedediah shouted. She looked at him, puzzled. "Pehnaho!" he called, hoping it was the right lingo. But she shook her head and touched her ear; she couldn't hear him. Cruel, to lock up a pretty lady like that, Jedediah thought. He shrugged back, tipped his hat and made her a gallant bow. She gave him a little wave, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, and he felt a little better. "Well... goodbye, then, miss!" he said, and turned to make his way back to his own world.

On the second day, Jedediah took Maverick and Beau and Lassiter over to the war room and showed them all the sights. If you just waited an hour or two, the stuffed men killed themselves off and lay still, giving them the run of the place. Jedediah and the bunch of them mapped out almost the whole room, then headed back.

But on their way back, a couple of snooty picture-book Romans heaved into sight, claiming Jed and the others were on their territory, and well, they were just asking to get knocked back where they came from, weren't they? Their boss was a hoity-toity mournful-looking type called Octavius, a silly appellation if Jedediah had ever heard one. And if he thought Jedediah was going to stand for sass from a fella in sandals and a fancy-dress skirt--

*

"--It's not a skirt," Octavius interrupted irritably, rubbing his hands over his bare arms.

Jedediah eyed him as they stomped onward through the slush, back towards the museum. He sighed, his breath clouding out in front of him in the cold air. "Excuse me, who's telling this story, me or you?"

"Well, get it right!" Octavius muttered.

"I'm tellin' it how I remember it," Jedediah said. "How can that not be right?"

"They're a part of my armor, and they're called pteruges," Octavius said, but he sounded tired, without his usual spark.

Jedediah frowned. "I can't pronounce that! It's Roman talk for the skirt bit, anyway. You ain't foolin' me, Miss Nancy."

Octavius growled under his breath, a wordless sound of frustration, and for a moment Jedediah thought he'd gone too far with his pushing and prodding. He was only trying to keep Octavius' blood up, he didn't really mean anything by it-- but then Octavius laughed (well, more like harrumphed) and reached out to grip Jedediah's shoulder. He squeezed once, hard enough for Jedediah to feel it, and let go.

"I see what you're trying to do, but there's no need," Octavius said. "Believe me, I have not lost heart. We'll make it back to the museum by daylight."

"Will we? You sure?" Jedediah said, unable to stop a shudder of dread and cold. They'd been walking for what seemed like hours already, and he couldn't even see the museum through the trees-- all he had was Octavius' word that they were even heading in the right direction. The path they'd been walking so far was mostly flat, but ahead of them a slick muddy slope curved upward, towards the street, and Jedediah couldn't help but swallow, a lump growing thick in his throat. It wasn't getting any faster from here on out. If the museum wasn't at the top of that hill--

"Go on with your tale," Octavius said.

"Oh yeah," Jedediah said, "I was just getting to the good part, wasn't I?"

*

Eyes narrow, Jedediah slapped leather like a boss and drew his pistol, pointing it straight between the Roman general's eyes. "No, you listen, mister. Maybe you're wearing the fanciest Easter bonnet this side of Boston but it ain't gonna stop a bullet."

(It was more than half a bluff-- you didn't shoot a man who wasn't even carryin' a gun. But even as he bluffed, Jedediah could tell something wasn't right. The gun didn't feel right in his hand, and he couldn't figure why.)

"And what sort of a weapon is that?" the Roman said, peering curiously from under his dark brows. "No matter. You will relinquish it at once and surrender to the might of the Roman Empire."

Jedediah twitched like a fly-stung horse. (First he was pushed around by giant beasts, terrified by giant ghosts, and now given orders by this walking rooster of a man? Even if he did have nice legs--)

"I ordered you to surrender!" bellowed the Roman general, and Jedediah pulled the trigger. His gun clicked, refusing to fire, and a few of Jedediah's men gasped and pulled their own guns. Those didn't work any better. The Romans grinned and advanced, and Jedediah shoved his gun into its holster with a curse.

"All righty then," he said, "looks like we're gonna do this the hard way!" His heart was in his throat, but pretty soon he realized it was gonna be a fair fight after all. The Romans could swing around their daggers and short-swords all they wanted, but the blades just kinda slid off; nobody got cut and nobody got stabbed. And in a fist-fight, Jedediah's men could hold their own. (Just about.)

'Course when no one got really hurt it was hard to figure out when the fight was over. They probably woulda gone on all night if Maverick hadn't yelled. "Fellas! Jedediah!"

There was a note of sheer panic in his voice, and everyone looked. There was a snake creeping up behind them, swift and silent, with eerie black eyes as big as cannonballs. It was a cobra, Jedediah thought; he'd only seen 'em in storybooks, but it looked like one. Anyway it was big and it looked mean, and it was rearing up, taller and taller, looming and swaying.

"Make some noise, men!" the Roman general snapped, and his men started yelling and banging their shields on the ground.

"You heard 'im!" Jedediah snapped, and the fellas started hollerin' and whooping. Despite himself, Jedediah found himself inching closer to the Romans... or maybe the Romans were scooting in closer to them. Yeah, that made more sense... and anyway soon they were all clumped into one little crowd, yelling and clanging their little hearts out.

But it wasn't gonna last. When they'd first started making noise, the cobra had looked startled and stopped advancing. But now it was creeping forward again, flickering its tongue in and out.

"Don't let it spit at you," one of the Romans said grimly and Jedediah laughed.

"Spit? We’ll be lucky if all it does is spit at us--" Jedediah began, just as the cobra whipped back, then struck-- and was knocked off course by a tawny gray blur just before it made contact. The thing looked like a stubby little pine weasel, but with more of a tail. It was trying to bite at the cobra's head and the cobra was trying to shake it off, hissing and twisting. Jedediah stared for a second, shook himself, gave Beau a shove and cuffed Maverick around the ear, startling them out of stillness into movement. "Come on, fellas, shake a leg!"

"Retreat!" the Roman general ordered, just a beat behind him, and they all took off at a run. Still thrashing wildly around to try and get at the weasel, the cobra's tail lashed out wildly just as they were passing. Jedediah threw himself flat, but it caught the fella behind him, slammed into him and knocked him tumbling.

Purely out of reflex, Jedediah rolled over, grabbed the kid, dragged him up onto his knees and then to his feet. "Keep running!" -- aw, hell, it was one of the Romans, a skinny carrot-top with a speckly face. Well, he was quick enough once he got started. Maybe those skirts were some kinda advantage after all.

*

"You saved Rufus?" Octavius said, startled.

"Well, you know, it was just the kinda unbelievably brave, heroic, unselfish thing anybody woulda done, really..." Jedediah said, brushing a few crystals of snow off his shoulder.

"You just said you thought he was one of your own men!"

"Oh, is that less brave?" Jedediah demanded. "Come on now, you want to tell this?"

"No, no," Octavius said with a sigh, "go on..."

*

"This is not over," the Roman commander roared. He was hamming it up, really playing to the gallery. "You barbarians will bend the knee to Rome! Er, your knee, that is!"

"You ain't even fit to shoot at, you gump!" Jedediah yelled back. "But you're right about one thing: this ain't over!"

*

Jedediah paused. Octavius had that sulky look on his face after all. Meant he had something stuck in his craw. Breathing shallowly as he slogged up the hill, Jedediah waited for it.

"Did... did you really think I was a ham?"

Jedediah laughed. "You're a huge ham! That's like, the first thing I ever liked about you."

"Oh." Octavius blinked.

"Now listen," Jedediah ordered, "settle down an' quit interruptin'. Or do you want to tell this?"

"Maybe I will!" Octavius said. "We Romans are trained in rhetoric, you know."

"I know! That's what I'm afraid of!"

"Hush," Octavius said, "and hear me."

Jedediah hushed. Mostly. "...This oughta be good."

*

Day Three. When Rome awoke the wall was shut and locked, and the world outside was strangely silent-- no more cracks of thunder and lightning, no more howls from the great beasts.

Octavius' men tried battering through the wall but it would not crack. They tried burning through it but it only scorched and made the whole world smell of smoke. Lucius, the architect, said he didn't think it could be melted without burning down Rome in the process, and the senators were against that. Besides, after hearing the tales of massive giants and and hostile barbarians of unknown numbers, the Senate concluded it would be wise to assess their strengths before proceeding outward again.

Soon enough, Rome's citizens returned to a predictable routine. Octavius divided his time between attending to political business in the Forum and his responsibilities to his soldiers. His first duty assigned by the Senate was to make a thorough census of Rome's inhabitants and their various roles, with a strong focus on their military resources, and draw up a comprehensive report which could be presented to the--

*

"Okay, stop. Are you serious?" Jedediah burst out. "This is how Romans tell stories? Just-- leave me behind. Okay? Push me in a snowbank and let me die."

"Ah, well, I suppose you iron-horse builders were up to all sorts of mischief, were you?" Octavius scoffed. "Your history has been no more eventful than ours. Sometimes a guard went sick or missing, and we had a night of freedom. But we were always locked in again, denied our rightful freedoms."

"Oh, no! Not so fast! I could tell you tales that'd make your head spin."

Octavius squared his shoulders. "Go on then!"

"I will, but no sulking," Jedediah said. He took a deep breath, the icy air stabbing into his lungs. "Don't look at me like that, you know you do. Okay, let's see..." He gave Octavius an assessing look. "Oh yeah, I got a good one!"

*

Well, there was always track to lay, horses to gentle, stories to tell 'round the cast-iron stove in the general store...

... but it turned out? The world didn't actually seal up too tight at the very edges, especially up near the top. The West had an advantage over the Romans and those devilish bad-tempered pyramid-builders-- they had mountains that went halfway up the sky, and from there with a pick-axe and some rope you could squeeze into that corner, between the sky and the wall, and inch your way up. And once you were up, you could worm your way through to the outside. It took a while, and sometimes you fell down again and knocked yourself silly-- but sometimes you could get out! And if you could find a good spot to lie low and hide during the day, then you had all the next night to explore and go anywhere you liked.

*

"I notice you don't claim to have done it yourself," Octavius said.

"I'm just getting to the good part. Shush! No spoilers."

*

Now, getting out of the West was hard enough, but that rigamarole was sheer elegance in its simplicity compared to getting back in. To get back in, you had to try to get caught by the guards (and nobody wanted that) or else wait for the day when one of 'em didn't show up to work for some reason-- the weather, or maybe one of 'em fell ill. Anyway, whatever the reason, with only two guards on duty they usually couldn't get to the dioramas right away. And there weren't no sense in locking the barn door after the horse got out, so everybody got to roam free for the day, and a couple times they even stayed out all weekend. Sure, it always seemed to end up in a three-way land war between the railroad men, the Roman army and those pesky pyramid-building Mayans... but at least it gave you something new to jaw about when you got locked back in.

Anyway, one day a while after one of them weekend free-for-alls, Jedediah had just been for a walk out in the trees to clear his head, and just at the edge near the wall, he noticed some of the Chinese railroad gang seemed to be having a party. He wandered closer, breathing deep. There were a couple of 'em playin' some kind of domino game. Fella called Chon had tried to teach him once, a couple years back, but Jedediah could barely pronounce the name of it, let alone memorize all those little pictures, and he got tired of losin' his money after a while.

A few more of 'em were hunkered around a cookpot, and whatever it was sure smelled good. "Howdy Chon, howdy Sam, howdy Quong," Jedediah said, "how's this fine day treatin' you?"

"Just fine, Jed," said Chon, "so, you up for some mah-jong today? I think you were really getting the hang of it!"

A few of the other fellas laughed, and one... giggled. Jedediah blinked and looked closer. All of a sudden he realized there was a stranger in the group, and he almost jumped a mile. "Who the heck is that? Is that a girl?" He ducked down to see under the brim of her hat. It was a girl! She was wearing the same shapeless togs as the rest of them, and to put it kindly she was plain as a penny, but she was definitely a girl. "Where'd she come from?"

"None of your business," said Ah Ben, a skinny fella with a pointy beard, stepping out in front of her and squaring his shoulders.

"Oh, c'mon," Jedediah said. "You know as well as I do, you can't just harum-scarum grab some gal and run off with her--"

"这还了得!" said the girl, peeking out from behind Ah Ben's shoulder with a mighty glare. "我不是随便出去结婚的!"

Jedediah stared. "Married? Excuse me, you just say married?"

"Indeed!" Ah Ben said proudly. "She comes from a little fishing boat model on the first floor. Her family approves, and it was all very proper. Stick your nose out."

"What? Oh no, no. Listen, I am gonna stick my nose in, because it is my business if the giants come round and start fussing because your new missus ain't where she's supposed to be!"

"Oh, I see," Chon said. "The giants!"

"Right, the giants," said Sam. They looked at each other knowingly.

"Hey now," Jedediah protested, flushing, as the rest of the tunnel crew raised their eyebrows at each other. "Look, I ain't no lily-liver! I ain't scared of them-- no way! I just want them to keep outta our business like I warned them to! ...yeah, that's it!"

"她会做饭!" Quong spoke up. "Tell him, Ah Ben!"

"是的!" Ah Ben's wife said, sticking her chin out. "猪肉,鸡肉,蘑菇 ,面,什么都会做!"

"What? Noodles?" Jedediah said hopefully, glancing at the cookpot. "Did you say chicken and noodles, ma’am?”

"No noodles for you, cowboy," Ah Ben said, folding his arms over his chest.

"Aw, c'mon. Look, she can stay, I'm a big fan of romance. I wasn't sayin' she couldn't stay. Mrs. Ah Ben, you're very welcome here," Jedediah said. A man could only eat so much pork and beans. He looked pleadingly at the new girl. She looked over his shoulder and pretended she couldn't see him. Yeah, she and Ah Ben were gonna be a cute couple, all right.

"Why don’t you come back tomorrow," Sam suggested. "We’re having abalone… and mah-jong!"

"No!" Jedediah protested. "I ain't playin' that game with you! I'm no good at it!"

"Oh, we know. That's why we--" Sam said, and broke off as Chon elbowed him. He coughed. "Just come back tomorrow! We’ll make plenty enough for you!"

"Okay, fine, just... keep her out of sight," Jedediah said, retreating back to the corral. He had his doubts about the exhibits mixing like that, but Jiang (as it turned out the lady's name was) and Ah Ben had been happily pickin' on Jed and throwing great dinner parties for the last fifteen years, so... well, what did Jedediah know, anyway?

*

His tale complete, Jedediah fell silent as they slogged up the gentle slope of the hill.

Earlier, Octavius might have prodded him to continue, but now he was saving his breath for the climb, and it would probably do Jedediah good if he could concentrate on keeping his feet. They were both breathing heavily now; they'd been trying to keep a steady pace but both had slowed tremendously since hitting the slope. This stretch of the path was deep in shadow, and therefore icier, and wetter, and it required great effort to keep one's balance in the slick slush and mud. Every now and then one of them would place a foot wrong and skid to the left or right, and have to be grabbed and pulled upright by the other. The third or the fourth time that Octavius slipped, Jedediah didn't manage to get a solid grip on his arm. Without the counterbalance, he went sprawling into the slush.

"Sorry, hoss," Jedediah said breathlessly.

"No, it was my own clumsiness," Octavius said. He got up and started brushing himself off, but between the soot and the snow it was a lost cause, really.

Jedediah had taken the opportunity afforded him by their brief pause to stop and look up at the sky, shading his eyes with his hand. "Does it look like it's getting lighter to you?"

"No," Octavius said.

"You didn't even look!"

"There are hours till dawn," Octavius said in his most nonchalant voice.

"Oh, there are so not." Jedediah sounded almost charmed by the obvious lie.

"Just keep marching," Octavius said, setting off again. Jedediah fell in behind him, and they continued in silence. The sounds in the wood around them suddenly seemed very loud-- water dripping, tree-branches hissing past each other in the chill breezes. Occasionally, far in the distance, a great electric wagon would whoosh past, wheels splashing through puddles, and disappear into the dark again.

Octavius glanced up sharply every time this happened, trying to mark the distance to the road. It had not seemed so far on the way in. Of course, then they had been riding, not walking.

He shook his head, trying to keep his thoughts on the path ahead, but it was of no use. His thoughts kept straying back, to the words and actions that had set them on this trail. Whose idea had it been to turn the bone-lizard to their own ends? It had all happened so quickly. For a while, Octavius had truly believed that their reckless plan would work.

*

It had not taken long to taunt the terrible bone-lizard into following them, trailing his stolen rib behind their mighty yellow wagon. And it had been equally simple to follow the trail of the faithless guard who had stolen the golden tablet.

To be outside the walls of the museum, to be truly on an adventure, and not just wasting day after day in endless, pointless squabbles over territory-- Octavius had been almost drunk with joy. Unexpectedly, the best part had been the presence of Jedediah at his side. How odd, that this mannerless barbarian from an unknown future land was as good a warrior and strong right hand as any Octavius had ever known! How strange, that he had never seen the man's true worth before this night!

Of course they had known they were risking death by leaving the museum. And even as they chased the thief who had stolen the king's tablet, Octavius had comforted himself with the knowledge that even if he were to die, he would die as a true hero of Rome, defending its citizens from traitors and thieves.

But as the yellow wagon had slipped out of control on the slushy road, spun wildly and flipped into the air, he had clung to a simpler thought, warmer and more comforting-- that he had a friend at his side. He was not alone.

Octavius had blacked out briefly as smoke erupted from the wagon's broad nose. When he'd come to, heat and smoke were clogging the interior of the wagon, and Jedediah was still and silent beside him. The paint on the wagon was beginning to bubble in the heat, and Octavius had kicked the door on his side open and pulled Jedediah out.

Throwing Jedediah's frighteningly limp body over his shoulder, he dragged him to a sheltered spot between two thick, gnarled roots at the base of an immense tree. Lowering him gently to the ground, Octavius' breath caught in his throat as he saw his friend's features, scorched black as coal-- no, he realized, as his trembling hand passed over Jedediah's face, it was only soot from the wagon fire.

"Jedediah," he had said, his voice shaking. Surely, if their unnatural lives were prolonged within the bounds of the museum, they would not die simply because they were outside its walls? "Jedediah!" he repeated stubbornly, stung by the great unfairness of it all, by the dark tragedy of this brave man's fate.

Jedediah had not answered, only coughed, a frighteningly weak and small sound, almost lost under the whispering wind.

"My friend..." Octavius had protested. "You are stronger than this! Don't..." But his words were hollow, and they mocked Octavius even as he spoke them aloud. Jedediah's breath was faltering-- slowing, even as Octavius watched in horror.

How could he even be avenged? Octavius was lost and alone, and surely all their fellows would assume they had perished in the great conflagration. There would be no rescue.

Kneeling beside his friend, Octavius had steeled himself, his heart pounding. Jedediah had no family, no dear ones gathered around his dying bed. There was no cherished relative here to receive his last breath and keep it from being lost among the nameless shades. If he could do nothing else, Octavius could do that much.

He leaned forward, pressing his lips gently against Jedediah's, tasting soot and salt, and claimed his last struggling breath.

As he'd pulled back, eyes closed, gratified to have performed such a service for his friend, he heard a strange choking sound. His eyes had flown open again just in time for Jedediah to sit upright, smashing his skull into Octavius' jaw. "Owwww!"

"Oww!" Jedediah had reeled back, still coughing, then pounded on his own chest with a fist until the coughing stopped. He looked around, eyes wide with apprehension. "Okay, first question: Are we dead?"

"No! I mean, I thought you were!" Octavius said, rubbing at his sore jaw. "But, no!"

"Second question, what happened to the-- oh," Jedediah said, peering past Octavius at the remains of their yellow wagon. "Well, that answers that. Uh... third question..."

"No one is coming for us," Octavius had said hurriedly. "We have to find our way back to the museum before daybreak. We haven't much time, and we are on our own. That answers your question, I hope?"

"Hey now," Jedediah had said, sitting up further. "Don't you go losin' it on me." He reached out, gripping Octavius' arm just above the elbow, and squeezed hard. The warmth of his hand was a shock, compared to how cold his lips had been.

He'd met Jedediah's gaze, wondering. Jedediah's eyes were as bright and as searching, as wild and free, as they had ever been. Octavius cleared his throat, struggling to his feet in the slush, brushing it away where it clung to his cloak. "If you are well enough to walk, we should be on our way."

Jedediah had reached up a hand, and Octavius caught it and pulled him to his feet. Out of the corner of his eye, Octavius watched as as Jedediah brushed himself off and looked around, quick tracker's eyes recognizing the danger of their position. He steeled himself to meet Jedediah's gaze again, but saw only resolution and focus-- not that searching, puzzled look that had called up such confusing feelings in his breast. He nodded shortly, confirming Jedediah's wordless assessment of their situation.

"Yep," Jedediah had said, squaring his shoulders, "time's a wastin'."

*

Octavius sighed and shook himself out of his reverie. He had asked Jedediah for tales to pass the time as they made their way back to the museum, but he himself had no stories that he could tell-- not safely, anyway. Every memory of the museum, every interaction with the barbarians of the West, they were all now permanently tinged with the feel of his own mouth brushing against Jedediah's soft, soot-stained lips, and with the feel of Jedediah's shoulder flexing under the grip of Octavius' hand as he began to choke and to breathe. How long had he wanted to be closer to Jedediah than an enemy and an invader had any right to be? As the cold battered at him and his legs grew tired, Octavius could find no energy within himself to deny it. He had, for some time now, been held in a strange fascination, and now that fascination had bloomed into... well, into something else.

It was not exactly a dignified turn of events, not for a man of Octavius' age and rank. But at least Jedediah was a man he could respect, a man of bravery and ingenuity, with a warrior's spirit and a leader's heart.

"What are you thinking about?" Jedediah asked idly.

"Nothing! Nothing!" Octavius said instantly. "...Nothing."

"Ooooo-kay..."

They walked on for what seemed an hour. Octavius tried not to look up at the sky too often, wondering whether it had lightened in the east or whether it was merely a moonlit cloud or a distant lantern. It was useless anyway, he told himself; they were surrounded on all sides by colossal trees, and above the trees the great buildings stretched up like mighty mountain cliffs to block off the horizon. They would hardly see a hint of the dawn before they died a lonely death.

"Good thing you decided to wear your long underwear under your little skirt," Jedediah said, reaching out and flipping the edge of Octavius' pteruges up.

Well, maybe not so lonely.

Octavius glared, continuing to trudge onward. "It's not a skirt, and they're not... whatever you said. They're called bracchae and they're a perfectly appropriate addition to the uniform in colder areas."

Jedediah said nothing, just exhaled, his breath turning into a misty white cloud in the night. They were making a good pace, Octavius thought. It was hard to navigate this strange place with its twisting paths. Great trees with black branches stretched up to block out the stars, and every time he thought he saw the moon out of the corner of his eye, it turned out to be one of those coldly burning giants' lamps.

"You 'spose everything turned out all right?" Jedediah said after a while.

"If Larry was able to return the tablet to the great king, then our two peoples will survive," Octavius said. "And we shall be remembered. Without our combined valor, surely no victory could have been gained over those faithless sorcerers and thieves. No, we shall not have died in vain-- I was a great general, and you a great warrior, both of us men of might and cunning--"

"Don't say 'was!' We ain't dead yet. Great horny toad, I'm sorry I asked," Jedediah said, laughing. "You Romans!"

"Well, pardon me for trying to say something-- invigorating," Octavius said, marching ahead a few steps.

"No, you're right! I mean you're totally right," Jedediah said encouragingly. "Roman heroes! History of Rome! You all ain't been forgotten. I mean it's the nineteenth century and we still think you guys were great! Um... like Euclid, and Socrates, we still study on them. I mean, I say 'we,' not me personally but--"

"Euclid and Socrates were Greeks!"

"Huh. Really?" Jedediah said. He thought for a while. "How about Archimedes? Homer? ... Pythagoras?"

Octavius shook his head, baffled. "If you're attempting to lift my spirits, please stop."

"Aw, come on," Jedediah said, throwing his arm over Octavius' shoulders. "Don't get your cape in a twist."

"It's not a cape, it's a cloak."

"Sure it is." Jedediah said, squeezing and shaking him a little. "Whatever you say, hoss. Whatever you say."

Octavius sighed. He knew that his part in this game was to push Jedediah away, but the other man's warmth against his arm was desperately welcome. The border of the park was still so far away, and in a moment of weakness he wondered if continuing on was really the best use of their remaining time. If they stopped, perhaps they could find a dry place where the snow had not reached. If they built a fire, they could spend their last hour in warmth and companionship, rather than this grim, breathless struggle. He looked sideways at Jedediah, and opened his mouth to speak-- and at that moment, a silent shadow fell over them.

"Hello, little ones," said the native maiden from Jedediah's tale, crouching down and smiling. "Are you lost?"

"Hoo-eee!" Jedediah yowled, an ear-splitting screech, and Octavius pushed him away, laughing in relief. Removing his hat, Jedediah waved it in the air and did a little dance. "Hey, it's you! By golly are you a sight for sore eyes! Where you been, ma'am? We been more lost than a ball in the high grass!"

"We were not lost!" Octavius shouted. The tracker looked over her shoulder at her companion, a shivering pale woman with red lips, bundled in a gray coat. Octavius couldn't tell, but he thought they rolled their eyes.

"Men!" the red-lipped woman said, and the tracker sighed wearily and nodded. "But oh my gosh, Sacagawea, I can't believe you found them! You're so amazing! To track even their tiny, tiny little tracks!"

"Oh, well," Sacagawea said modestly. "But it was you, Rebecca, who mentioned the animal tracks in the park, and reminded me to look for them!"

"Oh gosh!" Rebecca blushed. "I'm still just so, so, super impressed."

"And I'm super impressed at this little mutual admiration society..." Jedediah yelled. "But if you wouldn't mind, the two of us fellas got some important places to be!"

The two women shared one of their looks again, and Sacagawea smiled and gathered them up in her nice warm hands. As the two giants finished the climb to the street in a few great strides, they chattered on about some journey Sacagawea had made, and whether the history books had it right. Octavius sat down and tried not to look over the edge of the cup of Sacagawea's hands, fearing seasickness would be a poor response to the lady's generous rescue.

As they crossed the street and mounted the first set of steps, they encountered a trailing crowd of others heading for the rotating doors to the museum-- a few hawks swooping overhead, a massive tortoise slowly mounting up each step, some clanking suits of armor gleaming wetly in the snow, and others straggling behind, all the way down the block.

As Sacagawea paused politely to let an elderly Inuit woman pass, Jedediah looked at Octavius and made a face and a few gestures. Octavius blinked, then grimaced back.

"Well, you tell her!" Jedediah whispered, and Octavius cleared his throat with determination.

"I think you may set us down now, my lady," he said. Then coughed and said it again louder, so she could hear.

Sacagawea blinked and looked down. "Oh?"

"Yeah, you don't need to carry us in! I mean... we wouldn't want to put you to any trouble," Jedediah added sweetly. "I'm just sayin'. Just set us down and we'll make our own way."

"I think that can be arranged," Sacagawea said. She set them down and straightened up, looking slyly at Rebecca. "Should we let them have their little surprise?" she said softly, but not so softly that Octavius and Jedediah couldn't hear her. Jedediah coughed.

"Oh, that's all right with me..." Rebecca laughed and linked her arm with Sacagawea's, and the two proceeded around in the direction of the side entrance.

"She didn't have to say little surprise," Jedediah complained. "That was just unnecessary, wasn't it?" But Octavius could hear the disbelieving joy under the words; it was the same feeling swelling in his own breast. They were going to live!

"Come now," he said, "we aren't to be beaten in a race with a tortoise, are we?" He pointed to the great lumbering beast, now almost halfway up the steps.

"Nah," Jedediah said, "not us. Come on!"

With matching expressions of determination on their faces, they headed for the stairs side by side.

*

Some weeks had passed since the defeat of the thieving guards, and the true establishment of a new way of life in the museum. Citizens no longer had to steal out of their places and skulk in the halls, or bicker over small areas of overcrowded territories.

"Still," Octavius told Gaius, his second-in-command, "we have no excuse to let our guard down! Indeed, we must never forget it was Roman might that did much to save the museum when it was under the greatest threat it had ever known!"

"I had some ideas about that, sir," Gaius said. "Some of our men have been speaking to the Mayans, and I think if we sent them an envoy, a profitable discussion could be had..."

Indeed, the discussion had been most productive. Now, only a few days later, Octavius was standing atop the dark wooden bench in the middle of the room and watching his legion advance across the line the Mayans had drawn. They massed themselves behind their shields, pushing forward inexorably as the Mayan warriors hurled themselves into the fray. Far below, Octavius could hear Gaius shouting orders with a raw throat, and watch the far-off gesticulations of the Mayan warleader. He smiled. It was all going quite well, he thought.

"Hey there, Ockie!" Jedediah said, coming up behind him, and Octavius started.

"Don't call me that," he said for the fifteenth or sixteenth time that week.

"Sure, sure. Hey, this is a real nice view you got here," Jedediah said, dropping into a cross-legged position next to him and looking up. "Listen, you gonna be busy with your parade all day?"

"It is not a parade."

"Okay," Jedediah said easily, "your little games, then."

"They are not games!" Octavius said sternly, just as Rufus clambered up from the floor and saluted Octavius.

He smiled at Jedediah, then stood panting for a moment before delivering his message. "I am bid to tell you: the war games go well, sir!"

Jedediah started whistling a tune under his breath which, just the other night, he had insisted was called "The Cowman And The Roman Can Be Friends." Octavius ignored him, facing Rufus instead.

"Yes, thank you. Now go and tell Justin's squad to straighten up and work on falling in more quickly when the order is given. After all, we must remember! It was Roman might that did much..." He looked down, his eye drawn by the motion as Jedediah mouthed the words along with him. Octavius kicked him in the leg. "That did much," he said with finality. "Dismissed!"

Rufus saluted again, clambering over the edge to drop down to the ground.

Jedediah snickered, rubbing his leg. "You didn't have to kick me!"

"Hush," Octavius said.

"Are you a hundred percent sure those Mayan fellas know this is just a drill?" Jedediah inquired as a few Romans fell, struck by numbing blow-darts.

"Absolutely. Well, mostly sure," Octavius said. "It is good practice, though. We are soldiers; we must keep in fighting trim!"

"Sure, absolutely," Jedediah said agreeably. "If ol' Akhmenrah ever has a problem with mice in his mausoleum, sure as shootin' you'll be the first name he'll think of."

"Did you actually want anything?" Octavius said. "Or are you merely here to torment me?"

"Yeah, I want you to play hooky!" Jedediah said. "I got somethin' to show you."

"Nonsense," Octavius said. "I have my duty."

"This is gonna be good for Gaius, though," Jedediah argued. "What if you're off doin' somethin' else and he's the one that's gotta take the supreme command? Have you trained for that? See, I didn't think so. Now come on, you'll enjoy this, I promise." He smiled up at Octavius with a pure sort of innocent joy shining from his face, and Octavius couldn't help but smile back.

He shook his head, looking out over the great hall. Had it really been only a few short weeks ago that this same man had thrown him into the pillory? "Well..."

"Great! Let's go!" Jedediah said, scrambling to his feet, and Octavius followed.

"You fetch the car," he said, "I must give Gaius his orders."

Jedediah straightened up and gave Octavius a mock-Roman salute, and Octavius smiled helplessly as he retreated.

*

Of course Gaius agreed that for Octavius to depart in the middle of the battle, leaving Gaius to lead the charge, was the cleverest idea he had come up with in weeks.

"Ah, it was Jedediah's idea," Octavius said; he didn't know why. Surely it couldn't matter to Jedediah whether Gaius had a good opinion of him or not.

"He is a clever fellow, for all that he is a barbarian," Gaius said. "And the men do like him, sir."

Octavius looked at him, confused. "Do they?"

"Well, sir, I only meant," Gaius said, and coughed. "Well, I think it was very wise of you to-- choose a friend from another land. To avoid any-- signs of favoritism, among the men under your command, that is." He was stammering slightly by the end of it; Octavius still wasn't sure exactly how to respond.

"...Thank you?"

"Oh! Look at that! Excuse me, sir, I must be going!" Gaius bowed shortly and whirled away, shouting as he went for the legionaries to tighten up their square.

Avoid signs of favoritism among the men? Octavius stood still, staring after him. The shape and meaning of Gaius' words loomed over him like the shadow of a giant, and for a moment he tried to deny their sense. He meant, of course, that Octavius had no particular close friend-- no particular friend--

"Hey-o," Jedediah called as he pulled up in their little car, the one Larry had given them the night of the great victory celebration. It was a pleasant-looking device, sleeker and prettier than the yellow wagon. It even had a red stripe, like a racing chariot. "Hey! Giddy up!" Jedediah prodded.

"Yes, all right!" Octavius removed his helmet and tucked it into the back seat alongside Jedediah's own hat, climbing in to settle in the passenger's seat. "Where are we off to?" he asked, still distracted by Gaius' words.

"Just gotta pick up one thing and then we're hittin' the trail!" Jedediah said, and put his foot down on the gas with a whoop.

*

Jedediah drove in a large arc around the edge of the hall, and parked at the far end, where a few of the residents of the West were idling and watching the war-games.

"Just a minute, I'll be right back," he said, jogging over to a small group sitting on blankets and having a picnic lunch. A few cowboys perked up, seeing the car, and drifted over. Octavius got out, stroking his hand over the hood possessively. Of course, the truth was that Jedediah had not yet let him drive it, but at least he got to ride in it; he had earned that much.

"Howdy, General," said the one they called Beau, a slim fellow with a brightly-colored neckerchief. "I heard our Jedediah's got some plans for you." His friend Maverick elbowed him in the ribs. "Ow! I'm only kiddin'." He glanced over his shoulder in Jedediah's direction, but Jedediah was negotiating intently with a dark-haired woman and seemed to be taking no notice of them. "Well, well," Beau laughed. "We'll see if the bull-rider can pay for his supper, eh?"

The phrase caught Octavius' ear, and he leaned forward curiously. "The bull-rider?" he inquired. "Have you such things here? If it be no secret," he added swiftly.

Beau flinched as if he had indeed given away a secret; it was his friend Maverick who answered, drawling softly, "It's what we call a rodeo. Sort of a sportin' event. A man climbs on the bull, and it tries to buck him off. Whoever stays on longest wins the prize."

"And you have--" Octavius began, but Beau interrupted quickly.

"General, I've always been meaning to ask about the Romans," he said. "Um... is it true, now, or is it just a tall tale... is it true there were oracles in ancient Rome? Like, that could tell the future? Is that true? Do you think they could help a fella win bets? Like, suppose a fella had a bet with a friend about a..."

He stopped as Maverick shoved him again.

"Pardon my friend, he's been drinkin'. Gets real stupid when he's drinkin," Maverick said with a sigh. "Come on, Beau," he said under his breath, and dragged his friend away just as Jedediah returned, followed by the dark-haired woman.

She was carrying several small round boxes that looked to be woven out of thin strips of wood, and each one carried a delicious scent. Jedediah opened the car door for her with a bow, and she stowed them gently in the back seat. Straightening up again, she smiled at Octavius, then said something to Jedediah in her own language.

"What? That's completely different! No, it was different! Okay, thank you very much, scoot," Jedediah said, shooing her away as she laughed.

"What was that? Something about Romans?" Octavius asked.

"Well, first she asked if Romans prefer oysters or-- You know what, never mind, get in the car."

*

They had driven for a while towards their eventual destination before Octavius remembered to ask about what Beau had said. "What does it mean, the bull-rider?"

"Uhhh!" Jedediah said, and swerved widely to miss the bony claw of some skeletal creature. "Where'd you hear that?"

"Your men called you by that name. Have you triumphed in the coliseum against such a challenge?"

Jedediah looked sheepish. "No-ooo, not exactly," he said, "not what you'd call exactly. See, back in the early days, we just called some of you by nicknames, you know, Red, and Sunshine--”

“Do you mean Rufus and Felix?” Octavius blinked.

“Yeah, them! And you, I mean, with that kinda dark look you got, and that bellow-- well, we weren't makin' fun, you understand--"

"I'm the bull," Octavius said flatly.

"Like I said, it ain't meant to make fun!"

"Well... we revere the bull, you know," Octavius said. "He is the symbol of Mithras, and the test of his strength."

"Oh?" Jedediah said. "Who's Mithras? That sounds exciting. Tell me about Mithras."

"Ah, well. Many of our military men hold him sacred, but we do not speak of his mysteries except to those who have been initiated." Octavius stopped. "Why do they--"

"So he fought himself a bull?" Jedediah interrupted, but Octavius would not be led off the trail this time.

"If I am the bull," Octavius said slowly, and Jedediah winced. "Why do they call you 'bull-rider?'"

"Oh, you know... people talk! I mean--" Jedediah brightened suddenly. "See, they think-- well, I try to manage you, don't I? And I'm about as good at it as one of them bull-riders that flies off and hits the dirt afore you can blink. Yeah, that's it. You were always just too tough." He nodded, drumming his hands on the steering wheel as they approached the elevator.

"Where are we going?" Octavius demanded.

"I told you, none of your beeswax. In fact, when we get there, you gotta close your eyes."

"I absolutely will not! Under no circumstances. Ridiculous!"

*

Octavius got out of the car, groping awkwardly to make sure he wasn't going to slam his cape in the door. "Can I open my eyes yet?"

"Not yet!" Jedediah said, coming around the car to grip him by the arm.

"Wait, my helmet!" Octavius protested as Jedediah started to draw him away.

"Okay, fine, hang on," Jedediah said, rummaging around and adding Octavius' helmet to the pile of things he was carrying. "Ready? Okay?" he said, reasserting his grip on Octavius' elbow. "Come on... okay, you can close the door now, Mr. Buddha," he said, and Octavius felt a great wash of air roll over him. "Thank you sir, namaste," Jedediah called, drawing Octavius forward.

The noise of the museum fell away as the door closed behind them.

It's too quiet, Octavius almost said. Somehow over the past few weeks he'd gotten used to the museum's new normal-- where there was always someone singing or chatting, always the sound of animals calling to each other, the hoots of the ape-men, the low rumble of some terrible lizard's great footsteps. But this room held only silence, and it would have been strangely soothing if not for the fact that Jedediah had fallen silent as well.

"What is this about? What are you going to show me?"

"You really don't know? You don't pay attention, ol' hoss," Jedediah said, a strange fondness in his tone. Octavius' heart thumped hard within his chest. "Here we go, it ain't much further... little further now... just a bit... hang on," he said, and let go of Octavius to set down the food-baskets and Octavius' helm. "Okay, now! Open your eyes."

Octavius blinked. Ahead of them stretched a massive winding pathway of pebbled tile, closed in on both sides by towering forests, consisting of shrubs, bushes and trees of many kinds. The massive garden was adorned with vibrant blossoms of every color. Far above, there were great metallic lamps installed in the ceiling, each one creating a great pool of light that made the flowers almost glow. The room was as bright and hot as a warm summer's day in Rome, and Octavius swept his cloak back off his shoulders, luxuriating in the heat.

"Nice, huh?" Jedediah said.

"A garden?" Octavius argued, merely out of habit. "I was prevented from drilling my legion just so we could visit a--" He stopped as a fluttering shadow passed over them, swooping low over their head, silent but for the soft breath of wind passing over its great wings.

A giant butterfly, each wing as wide as both Octavius' arms spread, had landed on the roof of their car, perhaps attracted by the red stripe. Octavius stared. It was golden-yellow, like sunlight through honey, and it seemed to watch them idly as it tested the car to see if it were worth eating. Unsatisfied, it fluttered its wings faster-- Octavius could almost feel the breeze on his face-- and took off, circling towards the upper reaches of the garden.

Octavius turned around slowly, realizing that some of the round things he'd thought were lamps were actually dishes of sugar water, with great butterflies perched on the rim of each-- some lying still as if resting, some slowly stretching their wings open and closed.

"A vivarium," Octavius said, stunned. He turned around, finding more and even more butterflies within his range of vision, and then turned around again, aware of Jedediah laughing at his amazement. Finally Octavius began to laugh as well. "Amazing!" he said. "How long has this place existed?"

"I know, right? I guess they do this every winter!" Jedediah was almost bouncing in his excitement. "That Roosevelt fella told me about it-- I guess he brought his lady friend here and she liked it. Uh--" Jedediah coughed suddenly, turning away.

"So many different kinds! Look at that, I've never seen a black and white one like that!" Octavius said, hardly paying attention, and then he peered at Jedediah, who was still coughing, and had flushed red. "What's the matter with you?"

"Nothing, nothing!" Jedediah said, sounding strangled. "Anyway, I figured we might as well take a look, you know? Come on, I found a cool spot a little further on."

"Yes, of course... Wait, our lunch! And my helmet," Octavius said, turning back for the little boxes.

"Hang on a sec," Jedediah said, a devilish look in his eye. He hadn't put his hat back on after exiting the car, and now he reached out and gently set his broad-brimmed black hat on Octavius' head, tilting it rakishly over one eye. Octavius frowned slightly, knowing he must look terribly foolish. "Strange," Jedediah said, eyeing him consideringly, "strange..."

"What is?"

"Oh, it's not such a big change, but all a' sudden you look like someone I might know," Jedediah said with a shrug.

"I am someone you know."

"Sure, but you always look like such a Roman."

"I am a Roman," Octavius said. He was terribly uncomfortable now. Jedediah's piercing, wondering look was sounding in him like an alarm. Low and ghostly, like the horn they would blow at the forts on the frontier to wake the men in their beds. Faint for now, but growing louder.

"You are," Jedediah said, his voice hoarse and vaguely melancholy. Octavius refused to flinch, looking back calmly though every hair on his head was prickling beneath his borrowed hat. "Yes sir, you are that. Pure Roman..." He leaned back suddenly, grabbing his hat off Octavius' head and replacing it on his own. "Well, grab them grub boxes, we got us a bit of a hike."

*

They settled at the top of a small hill, under some broad, dark leaves that cut the glare of the lamps to a dull yellow-green glow. The food Jedediah had bargained for with his neighbor was delicious-- rice, with some sort of fish, and noodles with chicken and vegetables. They sat in the shade of the leaf and ate slowly, watching the great colorful butterflies flicker to and fro above them in the canopy of green. It was incredibly relaxing; Octavius didn't even bother to put his helmet back on.

"So," Jedediah said, and looked at Octavius, waiting till he'd finished chewing his last bite of noodles, "why'd you kiss me?"

Octavius still choked. He searched Jedediah's eyes for the right answer, but no hint was forthcoming. "I-- I didn't," he said finally. "That wasn't a kiss."

"I'll agree it wasn't much of a kiss," Jedediah grinned.

"No, it's not what you think! It's a Roman custom. If I hadn't caught your last breath then your soul would wander forever," Octavius said firmly.

"What...? My soul? You think we got souls?" Jedediah said skeptically.

"I don't know," Octavius said, but Jedediah stared pointedly at him, eyebrows raised. "Look, I haven't really thought about it!"

"You haven't thought about it?" Jedediah made a face and flopped down on his back, shaking his head. "It's been nigh on sixty years we been livin' this way, a buncha little blobs of plastic come to life and walkin' around-- and none o' you Romans ever gave it a thought? I thought you-all were supposed to be great philosophers! What about Plato?"

"Also not a Roman!" Octavius said. "We were never great philosophers; we concerned ourselves with the world as it was, and is."

"Sure," Jedediah said, still staring at the leaf above his head, "the world as it is. A little scoop of dirt plucked out and put behind glass in a museum, with the clouds painted on the sky!"

Octavius felt strongly that they had gotten off track somehow, and that he was at a crossroads of his own fate. Jedediah was still refusing to make eye contact-- for all the preparations he had made, getting Octavius alone and wooing him with fine food and drink, now that they were at the precipice he seemed as hesitant as Octavius himself, and as ready to let the moment slip away.

Octavius knew he could shoot back, "Well, what do you think, then? Have we souls?" And their friendship would, perhaps, continue on as it had been. But if the events of the last few weeks had taught him anything, it was that even here in the museum, life was precarious, and precious-- and you had to take your chances where you found them. So instead he moved closer, propping himself up on one arm and looking down at Jedediah. Cautiously, he put his hand on Jedediah's narrow waist, feeling the warmth and strength of his body, feeling the muscles move as he drew a quick breath.

"Even the birds and the beasts can feel love and tenderness towards their own kind-- not just lust," he said. "So right now, in this moment... does it matter whether we have souls?"

Jedediah looked up at him, his blue eyes wide. "Just towards their own kinds, you think?"

"You tell me," Octavius said, and lowered his lips to Jedediah's.

Jedediah was warm and sweet beneath him. It was the perfect inverse of that horrible moment in the dark and the snow, alone and lost, when he had tried to catch Jedediah's last breath. Something of that urgency caught at him now, and he slid his hand around to the back of Jedediah's neck, gripping him tightly. Jedediah answered his passion in equal measure, then shifted under him, pushing gently at Octavius' shoulders.

"You're squishin' me a little here, sweetheart; how about we get some of this off?"

Octavius drew back, feeling as though he'd been stripped. As Jedediah's fingers began to play at the ties to his armor, he realized that was about to become literally true. He stilled, swallowing hard.

"Aw, lookit you. Like a turtle on a fence post," Jedediah said fondly.

"He knows not how he achieved the heights, nor how he shall descend," Octavius said, breathless. "Yes-- we have a similar saying."

"See, we ain't so different," Jedediah said. "Now, turtle... tell me how to get this here turtle-shell off you." His hands slid down to Octavius' sides, moving so swiftly and cleverly that Octavius felt no need to direct him from one step to the next.

"Don't call me turtle," he said instead.

"Don't like that?" Jedediah said. "Rather I call you the bull?" He laughed as Octavius flushed anew. Pushing Octavius over onto his back, Jedediah sat up and swung his leg over Octavius' waist, settling himself easily astride his hips, pinning him under his weight. Octavius drew breath sharply, his hands moving to steady Jedediah by grasping his waist.

He opened his mouth, but could find nothing to say. He wanted to say something clever, something lovely, but he knew he would only stammer if he tried to speak. All his rhetoric seemed to have been burned away by the heat rising between them. And anyway this was no time for a Roman general's speeches; Jedediah wanted the man under the armor, in more ways than one. "Can this-- can we--" Octavius frowned, staring searchingly and willing Jedediah to understand. "Jedediah--"

It seemed he did understand; at least, he smiled. "Hey, Ockie," Jedediah said. "You got it if you want it."

"Can you doubt it?" Octavius said, with all his heart.

Jedediah grinned wider, and leaned down for another kiss.

[end]