A Swedish Bedtime Story
A. Leigh-Anne Childe

Once upon a time there was a lanky, dark-haired boy with eyes the color of the dark-green sea. He lived in a small coastal village on the edge of Sweden, Kungalv was its name. The village was like a barnacle attached to the inhospitable rocky coastline, lapped by the cold ocean to the west and shadowed by tall moutains to the east. The people of Kungalv made their living as best they could by fishing the cold salty waves that gave them their dinner and their life.

Alex, which was our boy's name, worked for his father, a hard taciturn man who smoked cheroots and mended fishing nets ever since a fishing accident had left one leg twisted and useless. There were those in town who whispered that one leg was enough to get by--who needs two legs to sail his boat or to fish--especially when he has a strong son to help? But Alex's father had sold his boat and retreated into his cottage like a hermit crab into its shell.

Alex's mother had died long ago, and so it fell to Alex to take care of his father. He was young and strong, but none of the fishermen would let him apprentice on the many boats that sailed forth each evening, fearing that his father's ill luck and ill humor would pass themselves on to the son, and show up at an ill-fated moment. He was forced to take what jobs he could find, helping his father mend the nets, or performing small tasks around the docks, now and then finding work repairing a damaged ship, or boning fish, when hands and help were running low.

It was a hard life, and not the best upbringing for a youth. People shook their heads and murmured that young Alex's prospects were poor. Pity his mother died, they said, she would have kept the old man in line. But she was dead, and he had sold his boat and spent the proceeds on the bottle, until nothing was left. And nothing was exactly what he'd given his son. With no boat, no savings, and the cursing mark of his father's ill luck and temper, young Alex could not hope for much future.

For Alex, life was as lonely as it was hard, especially since his mother had died. He never seemed to fit in with the other village youths. All the other inhabitants of Kungalv were stocky, blonde, sturdy people who looked suspiciously at Alex's dark lankiness. His coloring was that of the mother he‚d barely known, a slim graceful woman who had arrived in Kungalv as a mysterious stranger, washed up on the shore one night by the tossing sea. They had thought her as good as dead, half-drowned by the storm-tossed sea, but after three days she had opened her eyes--brilliant green eyes the color of the sea. She had awoken to life, but with no memory of her past. Neither the origin of her rich rags or the medallion around her neck had been known to her, and the name of the ship that had carried her, or that of her people, had been enshrouded in the mists of her failed memory and lost forever with her death.

Alex, despite his resemblance to his frailer mother, had grown up strong. He had always been able to defend himself. He was a good fighter, and so he was able to hold his own against the taunts and fists of the other boys in Kungalv. But he was lonely all the same, cruelly lonely at times. He was handsome, but in such an odd unfamiliar way to the people of Kungalv that none of the girls in town would have anything to do with him. Not that any of them appealed to him. Curiosity and the aching need of his body sometimes led him to attempt a shy courtship of those girls who were known to be free with their favors, but even they spurned him, and with every mocking rejection he drifted farther from the possibility of their comfort, and was more alone.

He drew on an armor across his hurt soul until the jibes of the youths and of the callow girls of Kungalv could no longer penetrate his defenses. And then alone, isolate, he admitted that what he sought was not among their kind. There was something he wanted, something he couldn't name--and it was something not of this small village. And so every night he sat on the cold rocks on the edge of the bay and stared out into the sea, looking out across the water, which was dappled with the red golden light of the setting sun. He watched the criss-cross knitting of the waves and listened to the harsh, dry cries of the sea-birds, the terns, which wheeled above. The rocks were always cold, even in summer, and the nights were long there in the dark wild lands of the Swedish coast.

Alex was lonely and cold, too. Clad in his big bulky fisherman's sweater, whose dark green somehow matched the wild cold green of his lovely eyes, he could still feel the cold of the rocks on his flesh--even through the thick denim of his faded jeans, even through his sturdy boots.

Sunset poured its light across his pale face. Every late afternoon the same light, and then the disappearance of the day, the cold night encroaching and rolling in with the sound of the waves. Alex could not stay too long; it was just a short interval between work and more work.

But for that brief time he could steal on the rocks he was bathed with a soothing light, the light from above and the warm light of his dreams. For that brief time, he would sit on the windy, wild, and rocky coast, and he would stare out into the sea and sky and dream of his perfect friend. This was a friend he'd never had, not in his little village, which was peopled with dull blonde sturdy youths, boys he'd always known, who held no mystery, who smelled of fish and talked of nothing but raising families and catching fish and the boats they would someday own.

What did he want if not this? Alex wasn't exactly sure, but when the wind was biting like a knife into his flesh, sometimes he imagined the knife being wielded by warm long-fingered hands, the hands of some kind stranger who came up from the sea, whose warm body blocked out the chill wind, whose shadow overlapped Alex's own as he neared. Alex would close his eyes as he sat in the cold air and listened to the waves. Behind his closed lids he envisioned the man, the stranger.

He was tall and slim. His body was like Alex's own, lithe and strong, but subtly different, other. His eyes were the color of the afternoon sun striking the sea, a deep green-grey flecked with gold, bright with spilling laughter, and his own laughter was like the high tossed spume of a wave that crashed like lace in the rocks. He moved with a grace that was unlike that of the men or boys of Alex's town. He moved like an alien, with the strange swaying movements of a tall man. He moved, in Alex's imagination, like a deerhound, or one of the elegant bucks that sometimes wandered from the nearby forest. And Alex, thinking of the movements of this stranger's body, would sometimes lie back on the cold rocks and stare into the mutating sky, streaked with all the colors of the gods‚ palette--orange, green, gold, blue and red--and he would touch himself.

If anyone had come upon him there in the rocks--the boys of the town, his limping father, or one of the grizzled elder fishermen--he would have been caught out cruelly with embarrassment at his own actions. But his fantasy sprung to life by the ocean, and that was the only place where he could take his pleasures, away from his father's narrow, suspicious, ever-watchful eyes. The cold rocks cradling his aching, lonely body, the wind cracking like a cold whip across his face and hands and exposed flesh, he would give himself up to his dream and his own touch. He dreamed of how the stranger would come to him, and see him and how his green eyes would light up at the sight of him--him--Alex. He would near, his lips parted slightly. And those lips would be soft and warm and full, like the lips of one of the girls Alex had always known but never wanted, and they would be sweeter than a woman's. Warmer and more kind.

Those were the lips he imagined as he touched himself. Lips that could draw the blood from a man's wounded flesh and make him whole again. Lips that tasted of salt and the sea, but which were not cold, which beat with the heated blood of human flesh.

Sometimes, sliding his fingers into his unzipped jeans, Alex could imagine the feel of those lips on his straining erection. Digging the splayed fingers of his left hand into the cold hard rocks, digging his boot heels into the coastal crevices that he knew like his own body, he would stroke himself with his right hand and strain toward that imagined touch. It was always so cold there, in his rocky bed, but the dream was always luminous, welling up from his body with a heat that left him sweating.

He couldn't give his imaginary lover a name. No name would suit--he couldn't know what perfect word it would be until he heard it from his dream's own lips. But he sought for that word instinctively as he stroked himself. His own lips moved as if to form the name of his love, but the only sounds he made were the soft, incoherent sounds of his own pleasure, and the shy endearments he could whisper only in private. "Alskling," he would sometimes whisper.

"Alskling--beloved--" And the dream stranger would answer by pressing warm lips to his cold flesh, lips that burned and sent a blaze of heat through every pulsing inch of his body.

The lips moved everywhere on his body, under his bulky sweater, which seemed to disperse from his heated body like a fog, leaving him bare to the stranger's kiss. They traced across his collar bones, where he had never been kissed, and across his bare chest and aching nipples. No woman or girl had ever kissed him--not anywhere on his demanding body. He could only imagine how it would be to have a beloved bestow such gentle touches, such kind caresses.

Would it feel like the touch of his own hand, his own stroking finger? It could only be better, he thought.

"Alskling, beloved--" he whispered, imagining, begging forgiveness. There could be no comparison to his beloved's touch. It would be like the kiss of the wind on a warm summer day, the rare wind that slid down off the mountains, tasting of wildflowers. It would brush across his flesh until every hair on his body stood on end, electrified and stroked by that buttery flower-scented heat. The kisses would taste of honey, and would carve his body into a thousand petals.

Sometimes his imagination was roused so strongly by this dream he would arch off the cold rocks, straining to his own touch, translating the touch of his beloved. He would arch and cry out, his cries blending with the wind, his gasps merging with the crash of the waves. His nipples were stiff as ice under his sweater, and their sensitive skin chafed against the rough wool until he wanted to cry louder, to scream his desire to the sea. His hand usually remained lower, melded to his aching manhood. He could not bear to remove his own touch, needed it to sustain the ghost of his beloved. But he could still feel, like blossoming flowers, his lover's soft kisses on his nipples, and elsewhere on his chest, the sensations spreading out like ripples, curling outward and downward like vines. Even with his cheek pressed to the cold coastal rocks, and his body straining against their rough hard edges, he could imagine the soft, warm touch of his lover. Not even the cold laughter of the sea, the knives of the wind, the faint scents of death and decay, could break his lover's mastery. Touching himself, he would not feel his own hand, callused and rough from his work on the fishing nets, but would feel instead the stranger's hands: warm, strong, with supple skillful fingers that knew every place he wanted to be touched--needed to be touched. They would close around his aching shaft just like this--would stroke just like this--would draw up slowly, tightening, learning him--just like this, but better, so much better. He bled with the touch of those fingers, like warm dull knives, so like the strong, wild caress of the wind but so different. His heart bled into his body and his need bled into his aching shaft. And the need burned there like a growing fire, like a torch that flared in the flesh.

Stroking himself, he would try to hold his dream lover fast, lacing his fingers with his beloved's own strong ones. Twined, their fingers would stroke, and Alex would feel his lover's caress where his body bled hardest and his need burned strongest. He was so hard, always so hard, as hard as he was lonely. His own hand was never enough, but merged with his beloved's it could be enough. It had to be enough.

Lying back on the rocks, his strokes growing longer and harder, he pushed himself forward into his dream, into his beloved. "Alskling," he gasped, gripping himself tighter, finding the rhythm his lover would find, feeling the kindling in his flesh, the impossible striking of fire in bone and blood that would waken his beloved. "Alskling, please--" That would waken his beloved's teasing laughter and his gentle, knowing touch.

He could never last long, his longing was too great for his body to contain. Not even the cold and the mocking laughter of the sea against the rocks (not his beloved's laughter, which was never cruel) could chill the ardor of his flesh. Hand clasped to his strumming, aching arousal, he nonetheless tried to sustain his union with his beloved as long as possible. This was their only time together, this dreaming twilight time on the edge of land, on the edge of the sea, the edge of the world.

"Beloved," he would whisper, as he whispered now, his own flesh-and-bone hand wedded to the gentle caress of his love. "Beloved--please--" And his lover laughed again and gripped him more strongly and Alex arched off the rocks, pushing up from their hard cradle into his hand, pushing from cold into warmth like a creature being born from the edge of the sea. He lifted and felt his hips twist as he rolled back and forth against the fanned heat of his palm. His flesh drove itself now, thrusting into his fingers, stroking there and nearly vibrating, like the strings of the fiddle players whose mournful songs reverberted into the village late at night. The terns cried overhead, wheeling and screaming. The waves crashed higher on the rocks as the tide came in, as night fell, and he knew he was near.


And his beloved whispered yes, only yes, and thrust to meet him, fingers gliding like warmth and wind and honey across his stretched, aching manhood, and Alex cried out. Behind his closed eyes he sought his lover's face, and in that darkness felt the ghostly touch of lips against his own. He began to buck into his hand, and into the dreamed hand that held his own, and that touch and that kiss and that soft whispered "yes" wrapped their tendrils around him all together. And that touch tightened until he could bear it no longer and he cried out again and spilled like the sea across his own straining body, as the sea itself crashed around him, sending cold curls of spume into his face, his hair. . .spilled like the sea. . .

It was the same this night, like any other. His pleasure over, Alex was left chilled. While his eyes had been closed and he had been with his love in dream's embrace, the night had ridden in hard, and now the darkness filled the sky. The waves sounded like hooves now, beating hard and close. He sighed and drew away his hand from his softening flesh and felt his lover dissipate into the insubstantial dream he was.

Is this all for me? Alex asked himself, staring out across the ocean, where the horizon separated darkness from more darkness. Is this all I will ever have, alskling? When will you come to me? How long must I wait here for you?

He felt as cold as the rocks themselves now that the fire within him had died. He felt as large and emtpy as the icy sea that bore no ships. As dark as the night sky, whose stars were obscured behind the drifting fog.

Behind him the lights of his town twinkled, pin-pricks of light in the chilly darkness. But they held no welcome for him. No love waited for him in the arms of the village girls, and in no boy or man did his dream live and breathe.

Why was he a stranger among his own kind, he wondered again. What fate had cursed him to be born to this world, in this time and place, where he could have no hope of finding what he searched for?

This he asked the sea and the sky, but the sounds of the sea were still mocking, and all around was silence. He got up slowly and zipped up, shivering suddenly, feeling a small, familiar pang of shame, but feeling more strongly the loneliness and frustration that itched and ached like long-buried thorns in his flesh.

He climbed back up across the rocks, treading carefully; for even though he knew the rocks like his own body, it did not do to place too much pride in this knowledge. One false step could send him crashing to the sea below. But tonight as other nights his careful footing carried him safely up to the hillside until the reached the summit of the rocky bluffs. He stood then for a moment on the edge of his village, still caught in that brief limbo between darkness and light, reluctant to enter the small familiar confines of his town. In the distance he could see the fisherman trailing down to the docks toward their boats, heading out for the night. They walked in pairs and groups, laughing. When they returned in the morning their arms would be laden with the night's catch, and they would be wending their way homeward. Every man had a home here, except him.

Oh, but he had a home. With shame at his disloyalty, Alex began slowly making his way homeward, toward the small shack where he lived with his father. His father would be waiting there, sitting at the bare wooden table, smoking his cheroot or his pipe and waiting impatiently for Alex's return. The bottle would be on the table, too, and his father would be drinking from it, with the fire crackling in the background. And his father would growl for him to cook up a pot of stew and to mend his boots and clean out the hearth grate, and then to go buy another bottle from Helena, boy. And Alex would be forced to scoop their few small coins from the bowl on the shelf, and spend the day's earnings on the night's bottle. It was always the same.

And so Alex's step was slow as he headed into the village, and his heart was heavy. His desires had been swept into the swirling black sea once again, and he was alone and always would be. Passing the edge of the village, he heard youthful laughter drifting out from the windows of the inn. Though the hour was still early it was raucous, half-drunken laughter, and Alex winced and his eyes darkened at the well-known sound. He began to walk by, but then he paused, caught with curiousity as he realized that there was a strange horse tethered outside the inn.

He shouldn't delay making his way home. His father would be waiting for his meal, would be getting slowly drunker and more surly the later Alex was in coming. But Alex sidled up to the horse nonetheless and stroked its side gently. "Hey, boy, who do you belong to?"

The horse nickered softly and turned to rub against Alex's palm. Alex stood in the street outside the inn, stroking the beautiful animal, moved by an odd stirring of a feeling he couldn't quite place. Some sense of prescience was touching his spine, some knowledge was uncoiling in him. Though he knew it could be no more than an empty whim, he could not bring himself to move on. Something was holding him in place. Standing outside the inn, listening to the laughter spill from the lighted windows, stroking the horse's warm flank, he heard some unknown magic speak to him. Something was about to happen. And yet, he felt awkwardly unable to take the step that would carry him over the threshold of the inn. It was foolish, surely, this dream, this undying hope. He had watched so many strangers come through the village, and none had been his beloved. Many were different, yes, not like the folk of Kungalv, but none had carried that familiar difference, the signature of strangeness he would recognize for his own.

And he hated going into the inn. The men who congregated there were burly old salts, widowers whose hearths were cold, husbands who neglected their wives. They sat and drank and played darts, and were joined by those village youths who for one reason or another did not go out with the fishing boats on an evening. Alex disliked the village youths, for good reason. From the time he was very young they had instinctively cut him from the herd, mocking him for faults he could not defend himself against--the color of his hair, his parentage, his manner of talk and walk and the poorness of his clothes. And still he didn't know why they cursed and taunted him and ganged up to attack him. The reasons were not reasons; the abuse was like the buffeting of the sea, a whim of nature, without explanation. It just was. But if he could defend himself against their taunts, he could defend himself at least against their fists. He had always been strong. But he had always been lonely too.

And so he stood outside the inn, feeling his gut tighten and his fists clench. Why go in, he asked himself. The horse would only belong to some trader or tinker, or perhaps some worn-at-the-heels busker with a few cheap tricks to perform for a drink and a place to put his bedroll. They were always the same: shabby, whiskered fellows who travelled the dusty roads, riding from town to town, from one inn to the next, one drink to the next. Could a man like that be his beloved?

No, Alex thought bleakly. But still. . .the horse was so lovely, unexpectedly so. Her brown coat and bright tack suggested a different class of rider, another kind of man. Perhaps of a kind Alex had not yet met.

Slowly he moved to the inn door. It was ajar, and light spilled across the wide stone step at his feet. Heat and more laughter spilled out as well, along with the smells of braised meats and stale hops. Uncomfortably, he pushed through the door and sidled in, then leaned against the rough wood wall, trying to take in the smoke-furled scene. There were the broad familiar faces of the village folk, the wrinkled mugs of the fishermen and the less-lined faces of laughing youths, who would someday grow into their own fathers. At the counter the barmaid, Helena, was pouring from the tap and cracking jokes with blue-eyed Captain Mishagen.

Alex's eyes adjusted to the fuzzy contours of the room, he suddenly saw the focus of the laughter. A crowd, planted on benches and aligned along the walls, was watching a young man perform magic tricks. Alex's heart beat faster and his throat went dry. As Jenny, Helena's young apprentice, swished by with empty mugs in hand, Alex grabbed her arm and whispered'

"Jenny, who is that?" Jenny gave him a broad wink and a grin. "Ah, he's a fine pretty trickster, that one. Passin' through, he says, on his way to the capital." She sighed wistfully. "Wish a few more of that type would ride through." She whisked off, giggling. Alex dropped his hand, not even noticing as she left. His eyes were focused on the man at the heart of the crowd. Is it--could it be--? he thought, feeling his heart stir from its cold bed and warm to tentative life.

He was a stranger, yes. There was no man like this in Alex's small village--perhaps not in any village in all the land. Where he'd come from, Alex couldn't guess, but he was different from the stocky dull youths in the inn-- different the way a cat is different from dogs, the way a tulip is different from the plain buds of the ubiquitious mountain rose. He stood tall in the heart of the crowd, laughing, and that laughter sounded familiar to Alex's ears, though the man was a stranger. And he was beautiful. Alex had never seen a beautiful man--seeing the stranger, he realized that now.

He was tall and lean, with a body like a young fir tree, hair that fell to his shoulders like umber silk, and a face that could have been carved from a single cream-thick petal. His lips curved with speech and laughter, but Alex did not hear the words, he could only look, and see his dream made flesh. He had never been able to envision his beloved's face before, and yet he recognized it instantly, and no doubt lived in his breast. He breathed and felt his heart stammer in his chest and felt his skin flare with heat that didn't originate from the hearth fire.

The man was performing tricks with coins, pulling them out from the ears of the fishermen, astonishing chuckles from the jaded old men with his dexterity. Alex saw long warm fingers tickle an old man's ear and felt his breath leave him as he was suddenly transported by imagination under that touch. He could feel his heart seize in his chest, his skin turn to fire, his throat close up as if gripped by a fist. This was what it felt like to gaze upon one's true love: this was it. Now he knew. And this was the taste of longing, to look upon one's beloved and wait for the touch of his eyes.

He stood by the door, his body turned to stone, his soul like a candle flame that has long felt the tossing, deathly strokes of the wind and which now stills. He was utterly still within his brazen flesh, and still he burned. He no longer heard the crude laughter of the village youths, the jokes of the men, the teasing of the barmaids. He could only hear the warm raspy voice of his beloved come to life. It was a voice like whiskey poured into fire, a voice that crackled and hissed and was braided with flame. It was as rough as the rocks that bordered the sea, as soft as the wind that blew down off the mountain in spring. Even from across the room, Alex could taste the breath of clover and wildflowers that spilled from the man's mouth.

He could not bring himself to focus on the man's words, they were as meaningless as music to him; he might have been speaking in tongues, instead of spilling out the facile patter of his trade to the village folk. But his voice--his voice sung itself endlessly, thick and rough as carded wool, smooth as honey, pure as the mountain water that slid down from the hills after a rain. Alex willed the man to look up at him. But the thick heavy lids remained lowered, as if the man felt his wishes and teased him with his refusal.

You are my beloved, he whispered to the man, trying to catch his notice, too shy to enter the crowd.

The man, laughing, continued his tricks, playing to the mostly seated crowd, never looking far enough up to catch Alex's hungry, longing eye. Alex thought he would stand there forever if he had too, until the man saw him. Until the man noticed him and recognized him for who he was.

I am your alskling, he said desperately, pleadingly, trying with all his heart to compel the handsome stranger to look up from his games and see him.

And then he did. Laughing with triumph as he pulled a scarf from old Petersson's coat pocket, he looked up and saw Alex. Across the heads of the seated village folk, their eyes met. The stranger's eyes were green like the sea, like Alex's own--as he had known they would be, as they could only be. He looked at Alex and straightened slowly, his gleaming eyes losing their gleam--but not darkening--no. The small gleam of light he'd allowed the villagers to see had risen, had altered. It was a full fire now, a flame that rose and grew and burned to meet Alex's own. The recognition Alex had craved was there, and more--feelings he'd never known, feelings that had been bred out of the village folk, that had been driven out of their small hearts. Feelings that had never thrived among the hard, stony fisherfolk, but which had thrived in Alex, unknown until this moment. He saw their flickering light in the mirror of the stranger's eyes and felt his own eyes open: long-shuttered, they showed his feelings now, those he'd always kept hidden. Voiceless, mute in the face of his beloved, Alex could only star and speak with his eyes and hope that his message would reach the man. Dumbly, his throat closed tight, he waited by the door, stricken and made shy. He did not know himself, he knew himself less well than he knew the stranger at that moment.

What could he expect? Had his hopes and dreams nourished him and kept him strong for his love, or was he a disappointment? He could not know. He could only offer himself, with the stupid longing of long desire, of a passion that had built slowly over the years and which he felt might consume him now.

The man, who had paused a moment in his routine, pulled himself together and continued on, his voice somewhat breathless now as he finished out his performance. His hands shook now as he handled the large gilt coins, though perhaps only Alex noticed their tremor. He eyes burned with wild light--but perhaps only Alex could see that inner flame. His heart throbbing and fluttering like a wild bird in his chest, he waited by the door of the inn, ready to stand there, patient and everlasting, if it was required. But the stranger's game ended at last and he collected real coins in his hat with a flourish and many bows. He gathered his take and stashed it in his pack and drew from the crowd, letting it close up behind him. He moved toward Alex, and around them the bright life of the inn continued, like the sea tossing and laughing around their steady bodies. Outside, the cool night seemed to know their meeting and far above the clouds rolled off with majestic quietude and let the light of the stars flash and pour forth their blessing on the moment.

But inside the inn, they simply met, the two men. The stranger, separating from the village folk, seemed more alien than ever to Alex, and more wondrous. As he neared, Alex felt the breath that had carried him through life for every waking and sleeping moment leave him, as if never to return. The long moment between one heartbeat and the next, before the stranger spoke to him, seemed endless. Their bodies were so close that Alex could feel the man's heat on his own prickling skin.

"You were watching me," the man said finally, when their eyes were too full to speak for them any longer.

Alex tried for his own voice, failed, and nodded.

The stranger smiled and his full lips curved like the kindness of a knife cutting through the cottony insubstantiality of silence and dreams that were no longer necessary. "You live here in the village, boy?" the stranger said quietly, eyes flicking gently across Alex's flushed face.

Alex breathed a soft "Yes" in a voice that was like the cracking of ice upon a lake in spring. A feathery touch of joy stroked down the back of his throat.

The stranger nodded, swallowed once. He looked suddenly uncertain and his eyes pinned Alex with steady inquiry. "Your--your parents live here, too--?"

Alex managed to shake his head, then caught himself and said, "M-my dad, I--I live with him, but--" He shook his head, smiled suddenly, blushing and shy again.

The stranger, with equal suddenness, laughed. It was soft laughter but it blossomed as fully as Alex had ever heard the sound of simple happiness made. He grinned back, feeling his own ridiculous wave of happiness rise, hoping he didn't look too cocky or too foolish to this older stranger's knowing eyes.

"I'm fifteen," Alex blurted then, lifting his chin with a touch of defiance. His eyes, though, held only a bright eagerness and hope.

"Old enough, then," the stranger said, laughing again softly. His eyes teased Alex's own. Alex blushed and ducked his head to look around the inn. The stranger followed his look, watched him gently. "What is your name?" he said, drawing almost imperceptibly closer to Alex and edging slightly to protect him from the watchful eyes of those in the room.

Alex looked up from under his heavy lashes. "A-Alex," he said, tripping over his own tongue, feeling heat spill through every inch of his body, with memory, with anticipation.

"I'm Fox," the man said lightly. His lips curved with mischief, and Alex felt brightness reach his own lips. Yes, a Fox, a trickster, a thief in the chicken coop. He felt joy at the aptness: this was his beloved's name--how could he not have known it? Hearing it now, he had always known it.

The man's green eyes danced with light and fire down at him, gaze playing over him, touching his face everywhere. Alex's breath quickened, and his heart clutched in him as he tried to find the thousand thousand words he had meant to speak to his beloved when first they met, but no words came. Seeing the light in his beloved's eyes, he wondered for the first time if any were necessary.

"Alex--Alex--" the man--Fox, his fox--said softly, still smiling. "I need to eat--will you eat with me?"

Alex nodded and they sat in the midst of the crowded inn under the watchful eyes of the village folk while Fox ate. He ate quickly and neatly, and spoke all the while, telling Alex tales and news of the land, anecdotes of his travel, of strange places and people he'd met, and his plans for the capital, where he hoped to practice his act for the court. Alex listened with lips parted, eyes glowing, drinking in the man's words, his own bowl of fish stew untasted before him.

His beloved! This was he--as he'd dreamed--so different, and yet just what he'd expected. His eyes took in every detail of the older man's person. Fox's clothes were of simple color and cut, slightly worn and dusted with travel, but something in their rich blend suggested hidden wealth, as did the sturdy craft of his boots and the length of gleaming sword that lay along the bench next to him. The sword was half bundled in a blanket, but the silver edge of its scabbard peeked out and held Alex's fascinated eye.

"Don't look too long or hard--I'm trying not to call attention to it, my young friend."

"Sorry," Alex whispered, feeling his blush return.

Fox smiled, winked, then looked over at Alex's bowl. "If you're not going to eat that," he said with a rather hungry look, then broke off inquiringly.

Gladly, happily, Alex pushed the bowl across to him. It was a small thing, but any gift he could give his beloved seemed a wondrous joy.

When they finished their meal, Fox continued to hold Alex enthralled with his stories, until it was late and the village folk had mostly left for their own homes. Only a few old sots sat around the fire now, hunched over their tankards, drooling and snoring softly. Fox looked at Alex and suddenly fell silent. The fire crackled behind them, and the bar maids drowsed. Alex felt his body heat under the touch of those green eyes. The stranger was no longer stranger to him, but beloved, and he had waited so long-- so very long. His life, though short, had held so many lonely years they seemed countless to him. He had waited, alone, with only the comfort of his own touch-- But he had always known it was this he was waiting for--this man, his beloved.

Fox, he whispered to himself, tasting the sharp pleasure of the name.

He gave Fox his steady regard and lifted his chin again slightly. With the gesture, he allowed his eyelids to lower, his lashes to nearly brush his cheek. He knew instinctively the language of the body that his beloved needed to hear spoken, and knew he had spoken true when he heard the older man's breath catch and then quicken to a harsh soft rhythm.

Fox glanced around the deserted inn, at the dozing bar maids and the drunks. "I--I have a room," he said, nearly swallowing his words as they spilled into the inn's hushed interior.

"But--but maybe you have to get home--to your father--"

Alex straightened at the thought of his father, whom he hadn't thought of in hours. "Oh--I--"

He scrambled for any convincing word. "No--he, he doesn't really expect me--he--he's okay-- " He gave Fox a bright, innocent look.

Fox's own sensual lids dropped a notch as he studied Alex. His eyes were knowing and amused. "Doesn't expect you? If I were home waiting for you, I'd be expecting you. . .I expect I wouldn't go to bed myself until I was sure you were safely tucked in."

Alex's lips parted on a helpless rush of breath and he could feel the first hungry stirrings in his flesh at the soft teasing. "I--I--" Alex stammered and found he had no idea what he'd been about to say. He tried to look experienced, then reconsidered and tried to look naive but very ready.

Fox laughed at him then, and for a moment Alex bristled with wounded pride, but then his face softened and he smiled sheepishly back.

"It's cold outside," Fox observed. "You can feel the wind in the window there, teasing at the cracks in the board. . ." His eyelids lowered further and he watched Alex steadily.

Alex swallowed. The man's voice was so sensual, so rough and gentle in the same breath--and he could nearly feel that breath on his aching skin now, its heat and gentle caress.

"You shouldn't be out and about on a cold night like this-- even the walk home, alone, even here in your own village--well. . ." Fox paused, licked his lips. "Could be a danger, you know." His eyes twinkled. "A highwayman could swoop down along on his horse and scoop you up, ride off with you. . ."

There was another pause, but Alex didn't know quite what to say.

"I have a room upstairs," Fox continued carelessly. "If you wouldn't mind sharing--?" He gazed warmly at Alex, and Alex felt his heart still for a moment, then leap in his chest.

"Okay," he said shyly. "Yes. . .I--I--yes. . ." He swallowed, met Fox's eyes again. And then they rose. The older man gathered up his satchel and sword and moved toward the stairs, then paused, looking back over his shoulder.

Alex, still standing at the table, took a deep breath and then bravely stepped forward. He moved to Fox's side and looked up, and his longing returned with a rush, all the unspoken words of love he'd saved up for this meeting, this moment. He felt them gather like a knot in his throat until he thought he would choke on his feelings.

As if reading his heart, his mind, Fox reached out and cupped Alex's cheek. His face was gentle with knowing kindness. "I'm not a highwayman, Alex," he said softly. "I don't steal--I only take what's offered."

Alex nodded and lifted his hand to cover Fox's own. "I--I am offering," he whispered, and though he wasn't entirely sure what offer he was making it didn't matter. He was offering anything. He was offering everything. His eyes were bright, spilling his desire out for his beloved to see, shining with his need and love. He could feel the warm strong fingers against the curve of his face, and then felt his own fingers twine with them in a way that was familiar and yet utterly new. Fox considered him for a few more moments, not quite troubled but somehow uncertain.

But then his face eased its hard lines and he smiled. "I never ride out of town in a hurry either," he teased. "Well--not too often."

Alex smiled back, not quite getting the joke, but eager to show his approval. He followed the older man up the narrow stairs of the inn. He'd been up their rickety ascent many times over the years, for one reason or another, but he'd never been as aware of his surroundings as he was now. His senses seemed attenuated, stretched out to enfold the entire town and its sleeping inhabitants, and yet his senses were turned up to their highest level. Every nerve in his body strained and trembled with anticipation and desire. The inn was hushed; its walls were too thick to allow Alex to hear any sounds from the others present within. He could only hear the soft rustles of Fox's clothes as he moved up the stairs, the light creaking of the boards under their weight.

And then they were at the door to the room the older man had taken, and then inside.

Alex heard the door close behind them, and waited immobile and unnerved as Fox moved in the darkness, lighting a candle, then touching the taper to the logs in the fireplace. When he rose and turned, Alex felt something in his body loosen as if cut free, something that he held painfully tight within for all his life. He moved forward unthinkingly and pressed himself to Fox. He gave a small muffled cry into the man's chest, feeling rough cloth stroke his burning face. Fox's arms slid around him and pulled him close, first stroking his back in warm, gentle circles, then gradually sliding down to his waist and then his hips.

Alex barely noticed the slow gathering rhythm of their bodies at first; he was absorbed in too many new feelings. He had never stood against a man like this before, never felt the length of another man's body against his own. The hardness was like his, but different. Stronger--more broad. The older man, though lanky like Alex, was taller, and his body had the filled-out muscles of maturity.

Against him, Alex's slighter form rested, nestling like a shoot, a sapling that was growing up against a close twin. He was drowning in sensation; if there had been sound, he wouldn't have heard it. In the silence of the room, there was only the soft crackle of the fire, Fox's quiet reassuring murmurs, and the accelerating beating of their hearts. Alex pressed himself close to his beloved friend and became at last aware of the other man's hands, which caressed him like no one else's hands ever had.

Alex drew back slightly. "I'm sorry," he murmured, not feeling sorry at all.

Fox just shook his head. "Sorry for what?" he said gently.

Alex's face burned. "I--my da, he doesn't like it when I try to hug him. . .not that I have in a while. . ." He trailed off, shamefaced and not quite sure why.

"I don't mind, Alex," Fox said.

Eyes glowing, Alex looked up at the other man, drinking him in. His face was finely cut and drawn, finer than any sculpture that was turned out from the fishermen's crude knives, except perhaps Old Jack's, who could carve a mermaid that was prettier than a living girl. Fox's face might have been one of Jack's most skillful pieces, hewn from smooth sweet pine bole. Alex reached up before he could stop himself and ran a fingertip along the other man's jaw, felt the light scrape of whiskers under his own skin. With Fox smiling at him easily, inviting him with his open face and warm eyes, he grew more daring, and stroked the soft long hair that brushed Fox's shoulders.

Fox's eyes crinkled and he twitched ticklishly when Alex's fingers reached his ear. "It's warm in here--let me take this off for you," Fox said softly, tugging at Alex's heavy sweater. Alex swallowed and let the rough wool be drawn up off his body. His skin, bared, gleamed in the firelight. "God, you are beautiful, boy," Fox whispered, his eyes glittering as they traced the lines of his flesh.

Alex caught his breath and raised his hands impulsively to the man's shoulders, following instincts he was just learning then. Fox laughed as Alex's hands caught at his neck, then at the back of his head, pushing into his hair with increasing urgency.

"What do you want?" he said to Alex. "Do you want this?" He pressed his lips to Alex's and teased there softly. Alex gasped and Fox went still, his lips a hair's breadth from Alex's own. "Should I stop?" he asked quietly. When Alex said nothing, he drew back further. "Tell me what to do, Alex." He reached out and stroked Alex's dark hair, carding it through his fingers. "I won't be a thief of childhood."

Alex bit his lip. He was confused but he could feel the arousal in his body, between his legs. He knew what he wanted. . . didn't he? But it was so real now. What if he did something wrong, what if he could not live up to his own dream? He wanted so much; this would be only the beginning--or it would be the complete end. If he could not win Fox as his friend, his beloved, there would be nothing left for him but to dash himself on the rocks and seek the sea below.

"I want--I want you to do that," Alex whispered shyly. He hesitated, then tilted his face up slightly to Fox's so that their lips touched again. And then Fox kissed him again, slowly, thoroughly, until Alex moaned with the pleasure of it. He felt the fire leap from the hearth and catch in his body as their kiss deepened. With rising desperation, he opened himself to Fox, pressing his body hard against the older man's, thrusting his tongue and his hips both, with the forwardness of desire, feeling his body surge into the other man's, wave into wave, flame into flame.

Fox groaned and his grip strengthened on Alex's hips, and then suddenly his own urgency snapped loose and Alex felt himself drawn roughly against hard flesh. Broad, warm hands slid down and cupped his ass through denim, stroking and then lifting him purposefully. Alex felt the stiffening evidence of his desire bump against Fox's own arousal and he gasped into the other man's warm mouth. His eyes flew open. He heard Fox's laughter--felt it against his own mouth and tongue--and tried to regain some semblance of poise, but it was hopeless.

"That's good, isn't it?" Fox said quietly, drawing his mouth off Alex's and brushing his lips further down.

Alex felt the fiery tracery of those lips across his throat; the trembling that had been building threatened to send him shaking loose from Fox now.

"Easy," Fox whispered, stroking his nails across the length of his spine, making him jump. "You like--?" Fox kissed his collarbone. "Tell me what you like, my friend--I want this to be good for you--" He drew back for a moment, and his eyes, knowing and warm, held Alex's own. "This is your first time, yes?"

Alex nodded, not quite able to speak. He shuddered as Fox bent him gently but firmly back and let his mouth dip lower still. When the first velvety, concentrated heat blossomed against his nipple he cried out.

"Please--please--I--" He struggled a moment, and then arched and cried out again as teeth nipped at his aching flesh. The hard, sweet bites savaged his body until he was whimpering with pure need. "Oh, gods, I--"

"Easy, shh--" Fox pulled his teeth away teasingly, and Alex nearly fell to his knees as all strength fled from him. "We can do this on the floor or on the bed," he said, his hands never ceasing their strong warm stroking.

Alex's head swirled. "I don't--it doesn't--"

"The floor, then," Fox said, laughing. "I'll put my bed roll down in front of the fire." He released Alex, who swayed and waited helplessly until he had laid the blanket on the boards.

He watched as Fox pulled off his tunic and then his boots. His eyes traced the broad smooth muscles of the older man's back, and then the gleaming expanse of his chest as he turned. Fox watched him in return, holding his eyes as he divested himself of his belt, his knife, his money pouch. When he was wearing only his breeches, he hunched down on the blanket and then stretched out, leaning back on his hands and cocking his head at Alex, who stood bashfully staring.

"Join me, Alex," he said softly. And Alex did, moving quickly to the blanket and kneeling next to him. Fox moved his legs apart and drew Alex in. For a few moments they sat together, Fox stroking Alex's arms and the bared flesh and bones of his chest. When Alex began to shiver again, Fox rolled him over onto his back and lay down next to him, half draped across his body.

"Fifteen, hmmm?" he said speculatively, eyeing Alex's smooth cheeks. "Not even a bearded boy yet, are you?"

Alex shook his head wordlessly and then closed his eyes with a gasp as Fox's lips touched his cheek.

"I like that, I do," he said, brushing the words across his face, then into his burning ear. "Youth is so pretty, for such a short time. . .though something tells me you'll be pretty for a long while yet."

"I'm not pretty," Alex said, flushing with embarrassment.

"No? Handsome then, young Alex." He rolled over further and pressed his hips gently against Alex's own. Alex forgot his brief resentment and groaned, lifting his hips into the flaring pleasure pressing down on him.

"Easy, Alex," Fox said softly, "I want to make this last for you. . .for your first time."

Alex didn't answer. This was his dream come true at last, made flesh and blood. Trembling, he arched his body greedily into his lover's and begged mutely for every touch he'd ever longed for and imagined. When the older man's lips began to travel his body he gave up fighting his happiness; there was no longer any need. He grasped and felt the silky fire-brushed heat of his hair spill through his fingers, and he laughed.

"Fox," he murmured, tasting the name. "Alskling. . ."

Fox smiled and kissed his the taut skin of his belly, just above his trousers. "Alskling? Ah, you are sweet. . ." His lips moved lower and Alex closed his eyes and lifted his hips, offering himself up to his beloved. "Yes, you'll like this," Fox whispered, nudging his trousers open and easing them off the hard flesh within. "Mmm, Alex. . ." He chuckled. "You have been busy today, yes--?"

Alex blushed, realizing the traces of his earlier pleasure were still apparent on his flesh. "I'm sorry," he said, heat flaring in his cheeks.

"Don't apologize for that," Fox said. His green eyes laughed up at Alex and then he lowered his face again and brushed his lips across the strained material. "Let me take these off for you--"

He worked the trousers off Alex's slim hips gently, and then kicked them free, laying bare Alex's entire body to the firelight and his gaze. "Yes. . .fifteen is such a lovely age," Fox murmured, smiling with lazy sensuality. He laid himself gently down against Alex's lower body and trailed a hand over one thigh. Alex's breath rose again and his heart beat in his chest as if it would break through flesh. Fingers stroked slowly up the tensed muscle of Alex's thigh, then Fox began working his thumb gently into the crease where his thigh met his body.

Alex closed his eyes and pushed his hand down to find Fox's own. No dream, he told himself dizzily. Real. The caresses from Fox's hand eased further up, and Alex felt his legs nudged gently apart. He caught his lower lip between his teeth to stifle a gasp. His head began to toss lightly from side to side, and his hair, damp with heat and desire, slipped into his face and brushed across his closed eyelids.

When the first liquid kiss stroked feather-light across the head of his cock he nearly wept with pleasure. It was the barest breath, light as the stroke of a hair, of a thousand silken hairs--was it the brush of his hair? He couldn't tell, his senses were a blur of moving fire. First that touch, then another, firmer and yet somehow softer, the blossoming stroke of opening lips that were melding themselves to his burning flesh. Alex bucked hard, crying out desperately. Fox slid the teasing wet petal of his tongue around the head and then lifted his mouth off--

Then, before Alex could beg, the other man's lips descended again and his mouth closed over the swollen arrowed head. The rhythmic push of Alex's hips began then in earnest; he could not help himself. He drove himself upward into the older man's mouth, trying frantically to fill its molten heat.

"Oh, god--oh min gods, alskling--beloved--yes--"Alex gripped handfuls of Fox's hair in both of his hands and rocked upward off the blanket, trying instinctively to screw himself all the way inside the teasing mouth. He felt what might have been more laughter: it enclosed his flesh and buzzed across his flaming skin like lightning, and then he was sucked in completely, the entire aching length of himself. Lips brushed against his balls for the space of a breath, a heartbeat, then the stunningly tight heat began to rise off his lifting manhood--

Alex cried out, imploring his lover's mercy, but the ascent and withdrawal continued until only the swollen weeping head of his organ was held in the furnace of the other man's mouth. And then this too was withdrawn.

"Alex--please, easy--"

Alex opened his eyes. Fox was kneeling over him, looking down at him with desperate eyes. "I need you, Alex," he said in his soft, husky voice. "Do you know what I need?"

Alex shook his head uncertainly, bit his lip again. His hand trembling, Fox reached to one side.

Almost blindly, Alex followed his movements and watched him pull his battered satchel closer, and then rummage in it. He withdrew a small oiled pouch and worked it open with long, skillful fingers. Alex watched wordlessly, helplessly, as the older man scooped out two fingersworth of thick ungent. He had no idea what this was for, thought perhaps it was something the other man wanted him to eat.

But instead Fox was clumsily untying his own trousers. His own hard shaft sprung from its confine and rose against his belly. Alex watched as the other man began stroking the ointment on his own swollen flesh, easing it up and down the length until it gleamed in the firelight. He hungered at the sight, but still did not know what it signified. And then his beloved's hands moved to him, sliding under his body and caressing the swells of his ass. Still, still, it meant nothing--but he lifted himself eagerly, intuitively, making of his body a gift.

"God, yes, Alex--this you'll like, I promise--"

Alex gasped as he was held in place by one broad hand; the other hand slid down under his balls, and warm fingers brushed him gently. Alex's eyes flew open. "What--what do you--" He caught his breath and words left him as a slick finger slid inside his body. It wasn't a place of his body he'd ever given much thought to, but now he was utterly aware of himself there, where his lover's fingers stroked him. He closed his eyes again and his head fell back. He wanted to speak, but couldn't, and so he let his body speak for him, again. It was an odd sensation at first, like a tickle, and a sense of something backwards and alien--he resisted without realizing he did so, and then heard Fox murmur "Relax."

He eased his body then, to his lover's command. Nothing mattered but what his beloved required, asked--even ordered. The finger inside him began to turn and tease, twisting back and forth. Alex felt only the tip at first, and then suddenly the swell and scrape of a knuckle somewhere inside him. He said nothing but his nerves stirred and his body clenched around the gentle invasion as if undecided whether to allow it. The touch withdrew; for a moment Alex thought he'd done something wrong, but then the finger returned, thicker, stronger--and one was two, working expertly into him.

"You--you're very tight," he heard Fox say, in an odd grating voice. "I--I don't want to hurt you--maybe I--"

"You can't hurt me," Alex said. Happiness had washed across every cell in his body like the tide of the ocean coming in at last. "You can't." He didn't know why his beloved needed this reassurance and didn't care, he said the words and they were true.

Fox groaned. "Oh god, Alex--" His fingers suddenly pushed harder and more urgently inside Alex's body, as if searching, and then Alex cried out as a flare of fire blossomed inside him.

"Oh god--yes--I--please--" He bucked and rode the thrusting rhythm the older man set, nothing in him resisting now. His body clamped down on the thick tease of those strong fingers and his mind was tilted, a bowl that was rolling on its base, filling with white noise, spilling over--

And then the fingers withdrew with almost painful abruptness. He cried out, sobbed, and the touch resumed, but altered now. Something wider, blunter, hotter, stroked the entrace of his body and pressed there gently like a kiss. Stunned to silence, Alex lay sprawled before his lover, boneless and breathless.

"This is--" Fox gasped. His voice cracked and there was a silence before he resumed. "This is-- you need to relax, alskling--relax for me--"

Alex arched his body and felt his thighs nudged further apart, his body drawn up against the chafing material of Fox's trousers. He could feel his naked skin brushing the rough twill, his ass pulled gently across muscle and bone. And then the kiss resting against his body deepened--and deepened further still. Alex felt something turn inside out in him as his lover slid into his body. The sensation was new and old at once, the sharp aching sensation of a knife sliding into its sheath, of a blade driving into a melon or a peach. He felt he recognized it from a hundred other experiences in his life, but he had never felt it like this, in his own flesh. He tried to obey his lover, tried to relax, but the knife's kiss was quickly turning into the long cruel stroke of a sword, and he could hardly bear to remain still, even for his beloved.

"Alskling, I know--I know it hurts," Fox whispered. "But I'm almost there--it will be different, just hold on for me, just wait--"

Alex's head rang like a struck bell and he could not answer, but he held on, gripping the blanket under him in both hands, feeling every muscle in his body clench except for the one that obeyed his lover's command, that tried to. And then the knife, the sword, was in him, like a long clean kiss of steel. He could feel it, knew it, recognized it, and heard the murmuring endearments spill down from above, splashing across him like rain or tear drops, like the kiss of the ocean.

"You are beautiful, Alex--oh gods, you are so beautiful--"

Alex let the words cradle him like the rocks he had inhabited for so long during his dreams, but the words were a softer cradle and he began at last to relax into them. His lover's voice, his lover's body, a dream made flesh--yes, yes, this was real, and nothing mattered but this, not the blade in his flesh, not the hard boards beneath him, not the fire raging in his own body. He felt Fox shift--the tiniest shift, but he felt it all the way down to his bones, felt it like a stabbing pleasure in his heart. He gasped and had arched before he even realized he moved.

Fox cried out once and gripped his hips. "No--not yet-- not yet, alskling--wait, let me make it good for you--"

Alex tried to nod, didn't know if he'd succeeded. He clenched the blanket in his hands and felt another tiny shift, a teasing movement that slid up through his flesh, from the balls of his feet to the crown of his head: a rolling wave of heat that made every hair of his scalp stand on end.

He lifted again, and felt his lover press gently forward to meet him: their bodies kissed in the place where they were joined, and though Alex had never imagined there could be a kiss like that, it was the sweetest, most excruciatingly loving kiss he'd ever known.

"Alex, let me--can you--oh god," Fox muttered. He began then to push. Alex felt the first thrust go through him like a hot knife through butter and nearly screamed his pleasure.

Pleasure exploded in every nerve like a million fires flaring to life and then the second thrust came and nearly split him in two--

"Alex, oh god, yes, you are so perfect--so--" He fell speechless but Alex had barely taken in his words anyway. They spilled over him like music again, and he could only feel the driving knife in his flesh. He could feel his own body wearing the blade's edge dull, polishing its sharp heat and working its length until it burned like steel in fire. He began to gasp as pain lost its edge and turned on itself; a double-sided blade, pain twisted and became a pleasure so sharp that with every driving thrust his screams were being driven higher and higher in his throat until they finally broke free. And he grasped his lover's beautiful knife with his own body, bucking and pushing entirely on to it, as far as he could take it, riding the keen sharp edge of lust until it bled love.

Fox's rough frantic voice broke free and his words snapped across Alex's body like a cracking whip. "Alex-- oh god--yes!"

And then suddenly he lifted Alex up off the ground, pulling him hard against his body, wedding their flesh in desperate struggle.

Alex began to buck harder, riding upright now, oblivious to anything else but the spearing evidence of love inside him, and the molten heat of his lover's body and the fiery kiss of his mouth. Words spilled from the other man into him, words that were muted inside his own mouth; he swallowed them and felt the bursting of his heart and the fiery arc of his body as the blade of his love drove into him and love's arrow struck inside him. And then he was consumed again in the fire, and melted there with his beloved, their bodies molten in the heat, slowly forging together into one.


Later, they lay together in front of the fire, bodies curled front to back and nestled like two shrimp together. Firelight flickered on their bodies and licked at the salty, heated surface of their skins. Fox's fingers twined with Alex's own, and one leg had insinuated itself between the boy's own slim legs. He pulled Alex close, wrapping around him with what might have been protectiveness.

Alex murmured and worked back into the older man's body, feeling its heat like a blanket laid across the length of his back. Eyes closed, he said softly, "Take me with you. You will take me with you. . .won't you?"

In answer he felt the press of lips against his ear, the strengthening and tightening of the other man's muscles in the embrace of his arm, and then quiet sleepy speech.

"An unbearded boy? No skills, no trade, no money--not even a horse of your own? Oh, Alex. . ."

There was a moment when Alex felt his entire world was darkness, and his grief deeper than the sea.

And then Fox laughed. "But of course."

The End