Copyright 2000 Shadow

This work is not to be reproduced in any way, shape or form nor archived anywhere without the express written permission of the author.

"No, you may not stay up for one more show," Simon said patiently. "You're already way past your bedtime."

SJ sighed, his chin setting stubbornly. Even at six, SJ was the king of stubborn. Kix had giggled and said he got it from Blair. Blair had made an erudite comment about the relative opacity of his kettle and Kix's pot. Simon and Jim had just laughed.

"Not sleepy."

Blair gave Simon a reassuring glance over SJ's head.

"Tell you what, SJ," Blair said, moving around in front so the child could easily read his lips. "Get ready for bed and go on in, and I'll tell you a story. And if you're still awake at the end of the story, you can come back out and watch another show, okay?"

"Okay!" SJ fairly bounced off the couch and down the hall to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He loved Blair's stories.

"Oh, boy," Kix sparkled, getting up. "I'm going to go pee. I don't want to miss a second of this." He trotted off to the other bathroom.

Jim and Simon exchanged glances.

"Race you to the other bathroom," Jim said, grinning, and the two men nearly trampled Blair as they stampeded down the hall.

Blair chuckled and fetched himself a glass of the brewed and sweetened iced tea that Kix pampered them with. SJ would keep him talking as long as the boy could manage to keep his eyes open. By the time Blair had turned off the TV, straightened up the living room a bit (mostly so Jim wouldn't gripe) and walked back to SJ's bedroom, not only was SJ securely tucked into bed, but Kix was curled up at the foot of the bed, his head in Simon's lap as the larger man perched at the end, and Jim sat on the floor in front of the rocking chair that had been placed for Blair at the bedside where SJ could read his lips easily from the bed. The ceiling light was turned off, but the bedside lamp was still on so SJ could see Blair's face clearly. They were trying to teach SJ to develop his lip-reading so he'd be less dependent on signing.

Blair laughed.

"My faithful audience," he grinned. "What kind of story would you like, SJ?"

//Something exciting,// SJ signed, his eyes sparkling. //An adventure with strange places and wild animals.//

"Speaking, SJ," Simon reminded the boy. SJ pouted but repeated his request aloud.

"Strange places and wild animals," Blair repeated thoughtfully. "Okay. Gotcha."

He sat back comfortably in his chair and began.

"Over a century ago, SJ, in the mid to late 1800's, the British had established big trading companies in India and Africa, to ship all sorts of things back to Europe – spices, cloth, furs, gold, gemstones, and ivory. But Africa was still a wild place, full of wild animals, and criminals who'd fled there, and native tribes who didn't like white men very much and often attacked them, usually with good reason, because the white men took their land or killed their game, looted their villages and enslaved them – "

"Why didn't they file a lawsuit?" SJ asked practically.

Blair chuckled.

"Well, for one thing, there weren't really any courts there in Africa," he said. "And the white men there were so far from the courts and police of their own country that they didn't feel like they had to follow any laws at all, that nobody could stop them from doing whatever they wanted. The white men usually had lots of guns, and the natives only had spears and so on, which put them at quite a disadvantage, so a lot of native tribes had gotten in the habit of killing white people on sight.

"Anyway, into this fearsome country came Lord William Ellison and his wife, Lady Grace Ellison, and their toddler, James," Blair continued, giving Jim a grin. "William Ellison was there to oversee one of the trading companies. He was a harsh man, some say cruel, but a good businessman. But he saw that his wife and baby had every possible luxury, so in his own way, maybe he loved them. He had one fatal flaw, though – he loved hunting wild game, the more dangerous the better. He'd hunted great tigers in India – "

"But they're an endangered species!" SJ protested, outraged.

"Well, yeah, but they weren't then," Blair pointed out. "Anyway, I doubt William Ellison would have cared, because like I said, he wasn't a very kind and caring man, and there was nobody and nothing to stop him. Nobody protected the animals in those days."

"I don't like this story," SJ complained. "It's nasty."

"Just wait," Blair told him. "Somebody's coming to protect them, don't worry. Anyway, William Ellison heard stories about a great number of panthers, the most sleek and beautiful anybody had ever seen, living near some remote villages where a good site for a diamond mine had been reported, and he took it into his head he wanted to hunt those panthers while he inspected the mine site. It was a long distance away, so he took his wife and son with him, because in those days it wasn't really safe for him to leave them alone for any length of time.

"Anyway, as they were traveling through the jungle near the village they were going to, William could hear the scream of the panthers through the jungle. He saw a sleek, shining black coat through the leaves, and he thought he could get a good shot, so without thinking twice, he fired, and a panther dropped at his feet. But William was disappointed, because it was just a young panther, hardly even weaned, too small for its coat to have any value as a fur or a trophy – "

"He killed a baby?" Kix protested now. "Blair, that's horrible!"

"Just wait," Blair said patiently. "Anyway, the panthers were so outraged that William had killed one of their children that they all attacked the humans. It was a terrible fight, and from that moment, nobody ever saw William or Grace Ellison again, and it was presumed that everyone in the group had died.

"But one was still alive," Blair continued. "The panthers recognized a helpless child when they saw one, and unlike William, they weren't cruel enough to kill it. So the female panther whose baby William had shot claimed baby James for her own and carried him back to her nest, a beautiful big sleeping-place high in a tree where nothing could get at them, and she fed him and washed him and cared for him like he was her own cub."

Jim snorted.

"This is beginning to sound a little familiar," he teased.

"It's okay, Da," SJ said drowsily. "I bet this one doesn't pound on his chest and swing on vines, huh?"

"Well... " Blair gave Jim a teasing look. "Sometimes, maybe.

"Anyway, the panthers raised him as one of their own, and the toddler grew into a child, and the child grew into a man, a very, very special man."

Jim chuckled.

"Could he lick his own balls?"

"Jim!" Kix chided.


"He learned to hunt in silence and stealth like the panthers, dropping down from the trees on his prey," Blair continued, scowling at Jim, although his eyes were twinkling. "He knew the sounds of the jungle and could hear the slightest, softest noise. He could see far, far away like a hunting bird. He knew the scent of every creature and every plant in the jungle. He could spring through the trees like a panther, silent as moonlight. He was as sleek and muscular and deadly as the fiercest of the jungle cats."

"And every creature in the jungle was afraid of him, right, Da?" SJ asked.

"Well, no, not really," Blair said. "Only his prey or his enemies. See, animals mostly live in the right-now. And like the other predators of the jungle, James only hunted what he needed. He killed to eat, or to defend himself or his adopted family. And he kept his own hunting territory safe, so, see, he protected the animals. But woe to any human hunter who set foot in his jungle and endangered his family, because James didn't even know he was human. Didn't know his own name.

"But others had a name for him. From time to time some of the native tribes might catch a faint glimpse of him, or find a track where no human track should be found. The natives called him Enqueri, which meant 'The Panther Which Walks on Two Legs.'"

"It does not," Jim protested.

"Jim, if you don't quit picking apart my story," Blair said patiently, "it's gonna mean 'The Man Who Gets No Nookie.' Got it?"

SJ giggled. Kix snickered. Simon fairly beamed with self-righteous silence.

"Got it, Chief," Jim said humbly.

"So over the years, legends grew up around Enqueri that rivaled even the legend of the elephants' graveyard, the place where all the elephants go to die," Blair said. SJ's eyelids were definitely drooping now. "Hunters and exploiters who went into that part of the jungle always disappeared or were found dead. So finally people left that part of the jungle strictly alone, and the animals there thrived undisturbed. But back in England, that legend fell into the hands of Professor Blair Sandburg, adventurer and scholar extraordinaire, in the form of a battered, tattered journal from an explorer who had died of jungle fever in Africa. That journal was about the search for the elephants' graveyard, and contained a vague map, but what interested Professor Sandburg were the stories of the panther-man Enqueri. He desperately wanted to put together an expedition, but he didn't have the money."

Talk about journals and finances didn't hold any interest for SJ. His eyes were barely open now, his breathing deepening.

"So Professor Sandburg went to his dearest friend, the wealthy Byron Kingston Thomas, known as Kix to his friends," Blair said, "and showed him the journal. Kix didn't care about panther-man legends, but he was very interested in the elephants' graveyard and the ivory he could find there, enough ivory to pay for an expansion to his shipping line."

"Wasn't he a bad man too, then?" SJ murmured drowsily.

"No, he was a good man," Blair said, smiling at Kix. "See, all the elephants in the graveyard would already be dead, so it wouldn't hurt them to take the tusks. Remember, they didn't think of ivory in terms of supply economics then. Nobody thought about the fact that bringing back ivory created a market for it, and a demand, and then they'd have to go get more ivory, and kill more elephants to bring back more ivory so people would want more . . . "

SJ snored softly.

Blair smiled and lightly kissed SJ's forehead, turning out the bedside lamp. Kix slid off the bed without so much as stirring the sleeping boy, and the four of them tiptoed silently out of the room, closing the door behind them.

"Whew," Blair said, sipping his tea. "I didn't think he'd ever nod off."

Simon sighed.

"What's the matter, Simon?" Kix asked, looking up at his tall mate.

"It was just getting interesting," Simon said softly.

Blair chuckled.

"Oh, do you need your bedtime story finished, Simon?" he asked.

Simon bent down and kissed Blair softly.

"I sure do," he said.

"Me too," Kix chimed in, sliding his arm around Blair's waist.

"I won't pick it apart anymore," Jim wheedled. "Pretty please?"

"Oh... okay," Blair relented. "In bed, all of you."

"Mmmm, my kind of story already," Kix giggled.

They all piled into the big bed.

"Well, since SJ is asleep, I suppose I could give you the unexpurgated version," Blair chuckled.

"Yes, yes, please!" Kix begged.

"Okay, for you, Little One," Blair smiled. "Now, let's see. Where was I?"

"Professor Sandburg and Kix were about to embark on an expedition to Africa," Simon supplied. "Where hopefully they're going to meet this big black guy named Simon?"

Blair gave him a glare of icy dignity.

"If you already know the story, I guess I don't need to tell it," he said.

"Shut up, Simon!" Jim said, smacking Simon's ass. "I want to hear this."

"I'm sorry," Simon said contritely. "Please, dazzle us with your imagination."

"Just for that, I'm going to skip Blair and Kix's shipboard adventure with six sailors and a bowl of strawberries and whipped cream," Blair said sternly. "Any more provocation and I'll stick with the G-rated version."

Simon groaned in disappointment, but a sharp glare from his bedmates silenced him before further penalties could be imposed. Blair took a sip of tea and continued.

"Since Blair and Kix had hardly left their cabin for the entire voyage – not that they could have gotten out the door for the line of sailors standing outside, begging and pleading for their merest touch, or the favored ones who had staggered exhausted out the door and collapsed in the hall – they were glad to land in Africa and get out into the open air again. Kix and his investors, all eager at the mention of possibly tons of ivory, had made all the necessary arrangements, and supplies and equipment were waiting for them on the steamboat that was to take them deep inland to the village where the expedition would start. So there was another two days taking the river inland as the villages got fewer and smaller, and at last the steamboat landed at the village of Makambe.

"At the village, Blair and Kix met their guide, a tall, muscular black man who gave his name as Simon. A fellow adventurer and friend of Blair's had recommended this man as the best guide to be found. Simon had been born to the Masai but had been educated by missionaries, and he could read and write and spoke perfect English. Blair had been cautioned by his friend that Simon was a proud man who had little patience for most of the white men who came to Africa, believing most of them were either incompetent fools or greedy scum with no respect for the land and its people. Blair hoped he and Kix could convince Simon that they were neither.

"But Simon wasn't a difficult man to respect. He was tall and strong, well- spoken with piercing eyes but a ready smile, and both Blair and Kix looked at his handsome face and muscular body and had to suppress shivers of lust. The man was beautiful, but more than that, he had a charisma and strength of character that were irresistible.

"Simon had known plenty of white men who'd come in search of the elephants' graveyard, and he frankly scoffed at the legend, but upon examining Blair's journal and map, he admitted they appeared more authentic and genuine than other such clues he'd seen, and appeared reassured when his conversation with Blair revealed the extent of the scholar's previous travels. He was actually more uneasy about traveling through Enqueri's land. Enqueri, he told Blair and Jim, was more than a legend. Although nobody knew whether Enqueri was man or animal, living flesh or supernatural entity, he was real. He was seldom seen, but his deeds were far more visible.

"Hunters weren't tolerated in his part of the jungle; traps were sprung or broken, and the game immediately vanished from any area being hunted, as if warned or driven away. Branches, vines or even poisonous snakes dropped from the trees onto unwary hunters. Travelers might pass through safely, if they moved through quickly and quietly and caused no trouble; in fact, a family fleeing from a village destroyed in a raid by another tribe were not only allowed to pass through, but woke in their camp to find a pile of fruit and a haunch of antelope by their fire. A child who wandered into the jungle and was thought lost turned up at the border of his village, telling a confused story of a "white panther man" carrying him through the trees and depositing him within sight of his home.

"Simon told Blair and Kix these and other stories as they set out on their expedition. Per instructions, Simon had hired plenty of bearers, and he'd had no difficulty because Kix and Blair were paying them – and Simon – well. Blair was a trained anthropologist, after all, and he'd learned it was always safest to pay and treat well the native bearers and guides who were responsible for his comfort and safety in a strange land. Simon had seemed surprised, but he quickly thawed to the two Englishmen, and soon they were laughing and joking like old friends.

"That evening when the bearers set up camp, Kix and Blair couldn't take their eyes off Simon, the way the setting sun shone off his sweat-covered muscles. He'd taken off his shirt to help work, and the two Englishmen had never seen a vision of such incredible beauty in their lives. When they finally retired to their own tent, set a little apart from the others, they moved their pallets together and kissed hotly, their hands already eager as they stroked over each other's bodies. Blair could see that his friend was completely taken with the big black man. Blair was very attracted to Simon too, but more, he wanted his friend to find the love he'd always searched for, and they talked about ways to lure Simon into Kix's lustful grasp. Finally their thoughts excited them too much for more planning, and they turned to making love with each other instead.

"Simon, meanwhile, was doing his job – setting up guard watches, checking the security of the camp and so on. He realized belatedly that he'd never warned Blair and Kix to check their tents and bedrolls for scorpions. He saw that the lantern was still lit in their tent, and he wandered over to see if they were still awake. But when he got close to the tent, the soft moans and whispered endearments coming from the inside of the tent told him that now probably wasn't the time to barge in and discuss scorpions. Unable to resist the temptation, Simon found a slight tear in the tent fabric and bent down to look inside. And once he looked, he was trapped by what he saw.

"Blair and Kix were spooned together on top of their bedrolls, Blair obviously having entered the other man, his fingers slowly stroking Kix's hard cock as he rocked into him very slowly, very gently. Kix was writhing with pleasure, trying to push back against Blair's thrusts, but Blair was keeping to a very slow, easy rhythm as he murmured into his companion's ear.

"'Just imagine if it was Simon here behind you instead of me,' Blair said softly, and Simon froze in astonishment to hear his name mentioned in such an intimate setting. 'He'd be so big and strong that his whole body would seem to surround you, all hard muscle against your back, big warm arms to hold you tight – and oh, just imagine how big he'd be there, how he'd fill you up, as much as you could take and probably then some! And those lips, they looked so soft and kissable, kissing your neck, your shoulder – but maybe he wouldn't be as gentle as that, Little One. Maybe he'd hold you down and have his way with you, take you hard and strong, mmmmm, so good, surrendering to all that strength! Wouldn't that be wonderful?'

"And Kix was whimpering, biting his fist to try to stay quiet, but he took a big deep breath and tried to calm down.

"'Oh, Blair, I want him so badly,' Kix whimpered. 'I just look at him and feel as though I've been waiting my whole life long, just for him. Forgive me, Blair, I do love you, it's just – '

"'It's all right, Little One,' Blair murmured, rocking a little faster into his friend. 'We've always known you had your destiny and I had mine – I love you too. So for now just imagine that big beautiful man, let me love you while you dream, and maybe someday dreams will come true for both of us.'

"And Simon wanted to turn away, but he couldn't, he had to watch as Kix bit into the pillow and came all over Blair's stroking hand, as Blair gasped and came inside his friend, and Simon wanted nothing more than to hurry off to his tent to do something about the aching erection inside his own trousers. But he was trapped again by Kix's next whispered comment.

"'How can I do it, Blair? How can I get Simon to notice me?'

"'I'm sure he notices you already, Little One,' Blair soothed. 'You're so beautiful, who wouldn't? We just need to turn his thoughts in the right direction. Mmmmm, wouldn't it be so wonderful if he could just sort of chance upon you naked, maybe while you were bathing? That would do it.'

"'I wish he could find me bathing,' Kix sighed, and Blair sighed too, because of course they were traveling across arid lands, and there was nowhere to bathe, and they were hot and sweaty and sticky. And by the time Simon was done... er... thinking about what he'd seen and heard, he was sweaty and sticky too.

"Now, Simon was in an odd position here. Some of the African tribes had severe taboos against sex between men, and some ignored it, and some permitted it. Simon's own tribe thought nothing of it, but of course the missionaries had preached against such things. But Simon was a practical man, and he knew desire when he felt it.

"On the other hand, these were white men, and that made everything different. And of course he didn't want his heart broken when Blair and Kix returned to England. Still, he thought there might be hope. If Kix made a profitable find of ivory, maybe he'd stay in Africa to start a new trading company. Anyway, Simon decided to see how things went.

"They spent another long, hot day crossing the veldt before they reached the edge of the jungle. This wasn't Enqueri's territory, not yet, but there were other dangers here – more natural ones – and Simon kept a sharp eye on everyone. But Blair and Kix noticed that he paid them special attention, and that he seemed to linger around Kix longer than was absolutely necessary.

"They camped early that afternoon near several clear pools at the very edge of Enqueri's territory. Yeah, I know most pools in Africa are probably full of crocodiles and poisonous snakes and leeches and who knows what," Blair said, glaring at Jim before he could speak. "But these just happened to be perfectly clear and safe pools, okay?"

"I wasn't going to say anything," Jim protested indignantly. "Historical and geographic accuracy aren't worth shit when measured against Blair nookie."

"Damn right," Blair said firmly. "So anyway, the expedition camped near these perfectly clean and safe pools, and Blair thought he saw a twinkle in Simon's eyes when the big man mentioned that they'd be safe for bathing. Because he'd seen that twinkle, Blair sent Kix off to a pool by himself, and he found another pool where he could have some quiet time alone, the first since he'd left England.

"Simon made sure that the camp was being set up properly, then wandered off toward the pools. He told himself he was just checking on the safety of his employers, which didn't explain why he sneaked so quietly up to the pool where Kix was bathing, hiding in the undergrowth. Kix had already rinsed off the worst of the last days' road dust and sweat, and his skin was as pale as moonlight in the waning evening light. He was small and slender, and his ethereal beauty made Simon feel huge and clumsy. Surely he'd mistaken what he'd heard the night before. No man as beautiful and wealthy and educated and genteel as Kix would want someone like Simon. The pain of that thought was like a spear through Simon's heart, and he'd started to turn quietly away when Kix's voice startled him, freezing him in place.

"'The water's wonderful, Simon,' Kix said, very softly, still facing away from Simon. 'I bet you're pretty uncomfortable in those bushes, hot and sticky and being eaten up by the insects. You could stay there . . . or you could come join me.' He turned a seductive look right over his shoulder, his eyes seeming to penetrate the brush to where Simon was standing. 'And wash my back.'

"Well, Simon was a man of limited education, but he wasn't stupid," Blair continued, his eyes twinkling. "He was naked and in that pool with a speed that boded ill for his buttons. He took the bowl of soap from Kix, and his hands were trembling as for the first time he touched that beautiful pale skin. He'd never felt skin so soft and smooth in his life, and Kix purred as Simon washed his back. Any doubts Simon might have had about Kix's intentions vanished when the smaller man turned around and pulled Simon's head down for a kiss, and Simon felt the heat of Kix's erection throbbing against him. And thankfully it was a shallow pool, because both of them were drowning in the sweetness of that first hot kiss."

Jim groaned.

"You've been into Kix's trashy romances, haven't you? 'Drowning in the sweetness.' You have, haven't you?"

"Hey, somebody in this family's got to keep romance alive," Blair protested. "It sure won't be the man who bought me socket wrenches for Valentine's day."

"Well, it's your car that keeps breaking down," Jim argued weakly. "You needed those wrenches."

"Yeah, and you're going to need somewhere else to sleep tonight if you keep this up," Blair said sweetly.

"Well, those romances are . . . um . . . a little strange," Simon said, coming to Jim's defense. "I picked one up and it had a kinky scene with an ostrich feather by the fourteenth page."

"Funny how you didn't use the word 'kinky' when you suggested the ostrich feather the other night," Kix giggled. "Now I know where you got the idea."

Simon decided discretion was the better part of valor and shut up, leaving Jim to fend for himself.

"And now I can either continue my story, in whatever language I choose to use," Blair said sternly to Jim, "or I can take my creative talents where they're appreciated."

"Sorry, sorry," Jim said meekly, miming locking his lips and throwing away the key.

"So anyway – where did I leave Kix and Simon?" Blair said with a last glare at Jim.

"Throbbing and drowning," Simon grinned.

"Right." Blair took a sip of his tea. "They washed each other slowly, sensuously, their hands learning each other's bodies like some amazing new landscape to be explored and delighted in. Just washing away the dust and sweat of the past few days was sheer ecstasy, and the newness of each other's touch – Kix's hesitant but hungry, Simon's slow and strong but gentle – was almost more than they could bear. They kissed again and again, deeper and hotter each time as their hands explored more boldly. Simon's hands cupped Kix's buttocks and Kix let Simon support him, wrapping his slender legs around Simon's waist as he covered Simon's neck and shoulders with nips and kisses, one hand reaching down between them to pump lightly up and down Simon's erection.

"Simon groaned and pushed Kix's hand gently away before he could come, then carried the smaller man to the mossy bank of the pool. With one foot he spread their clothes out on the ground; then he gently lowered Kix to their makeshift bed. He licked the water from Kix's soft skin, fighting down the urge to devour the smaller man with his lust. He took Kix's erection into his mouth, moaning at the taste of love and passion, moaning again as Kix cried out in pleasure and arched up against the mouth that claimed him.

"For Kix it was as if Africa itself was making love to him – strength and savagery held in check but never far away, this dark beautiful stranger who already felt like home to him. He writhed in strong dark arms that made him feel enfolded and safe. He twisted around on their makeshift pallet and seized Simon's hard cock, guiding it to his own mouth to complete the circle; if Simon's cock hadn't been so long, the difference in their heights might have made this impossible. But now it was perfect, it was magic, just the two of them pleasuring each other in the light of the rising moon, no sound but their soft moans as they coaxed each other to the peak and over it, drinking each other down; then Kix turned around and Simon pulled him into his arms again, holding each other in silence.

"They were so overcome by the newness of their love that neither of them spared a thought to what Blair was doing at that moment.

"Blair had taken his bowl of soap a little deeper into the jungle and chosen a bathing pool for himself, far enough away to leave Kix a little privacy for the encounter he hoped would take place. He hoped Kix would find the love he was looking for, but felt a little sad that his own destiny seemed no closer than ever.

"The cool water was a blessed pleasure after all the traveling, and Blair gladly scrubbed himself clean, washing the dust out of his long, curly hair, too. As he rinsed his hair, however, he had a vague feeling of unease, a sensation of perhaps being watched. Looking around, however, he saw no one.

"'Kix?' he called, wondering whether his friend had come to seek him out. When there was no answer, more hesitantly, he said, 'Simon?' wondering if the big guide had perhaps come to the wrong pool. But again only silence answered his call. Blair started wondering whether he'd better not just head back to camp. His travels had never taken him to this part of Africa before, but he'd heard Simon's warnings about the dangers here and had no desire to end up at the bottom of a boa constrictor's belly or a headhunter's pot. So he quickly dried himself off and pulled on his trousers and shirt, bundling the rest together in his hurry, and started back for camp.

"He'd barely left the clearing, however, when a dark shape dropped down out of a tree and onto the path in front of him, dark and silent as midnight. Blair froze, staring at the panther blocking the path ahead of him. He didn't know much about panthers and couldn't remember whether he'd be wiser to keep still or run, whether he should flee or bluff an attack, only that meeting their eyes was a challenge. So he simply did what other creatures trapped by terror did in such a situation – dropped the bundle of his clothes and boots, froze motionless and waited for a clue.

"Not that he had to wait long. The panther crouched there, not moving either, its green eyes fastened on Blair's, a low growl coming from its throat. Its ears were back, one hanging crooked, an old wound. The panther crept a little closer, still crouched as if ready to spring at any moment – but why didn't it spring? Why hadn't it simply dropped right on top of Blair? Blair didn't know, and he didn't know what to do other than to back slowly, slowly away –

"Then he collided with a warm, firm object behind him, and despite himself he whirled around and found himself staring into a wall of smooth, tanned muscle. He looked up into ice-blue eyes, the eyes of an unabashed predator, and realized that he was staring into the eyes of Enqueri, the legendary panther-man. But those eyes weren't turned on Blair – they were fastened solidly on the panther in front of them. The muscular man crouched slightly, his eyes narrowing, and bared his teeth at the panther, snarling. The panther snarled back, but gave back one reluctant step.

"Caught between the human panther and the animal one, Blair did what any good 19th-Century gentleman would do.

"He fainted dead away."

"He fainted?" Kix exclaimed. "Come on, Blair, you don't faint. Jim's right, you've read too many romances where the ladies faint away at the slightest excuse."

"Well-bred gentlemen in the late 1800's certainly did faint away," Blair argued stoutly. "Read any of the period literature. Their diet was crappy, they didn't know the first thing about cardiovascular health, and they took laudanum for fun. Hell, Kixster, I seem to recall you taking a floor dive on us a time or two, right here in the healthful modern era, due to stressful situations. I think it's perfectly possible that Our Hero, having marched for days through the African veldt on who knows what kind of food, having just been confronted with a panther about to make an evening snack out of him, then turning around and being confronted by a mythical being, might just possibly lose it, you know? Jeez, would you guys rather tell this story yourselves? Maybe I should quit, since I'm obviously doing such a lousy job. SJ doesn't complain, you know."

"Sorry, sorry," Kix said hurriedly. "My mistake, Professor Sandburg would certainly faint under those conditions. I mean, the first time I saw Jim standing there naked I nearly fainted myself. He is quite a sight."

Jim smiled proudly.

"So Blair quite justifiably fainted," Simon said encouragingly, beaming at regaining his status as best-behaved listener of the group. "How about we get back to what Kix and Simon were doing?"

"Kix and Simon have already gotten some nookie, and they're sleeping it off," Jim protested. "It's Blair and Jim's turn to have some fun."

"True," Blair admitted. "When Blair opened his eyes, he found himself staring up at the leafy canopy of the jungle, and it was almost dark. For a moment he remembered getting out of the pool, and the panther, and he wondered if he'd just fainted on the trail and dreamed it all. Then a face bent over him, and he glanced around him and realized that none of it had been a dream – or if it had, that he hadn't woken up yet.

"He wasn't lying on the ground at all, but in a sort of nest of tamped down leaves over a framework of woven branches. From what he knew about panthers, he knew this nest was probably high in a treetop somewhere, and since Professor Sandburg had no head at all for heights – " Blair glared at Jim, who seemed about to make a comment, " – he kept quite still to make sure he didn't roll over an edge. But the platform was warm and dry and springy from all the leaves, and it was wide enough and the edges raised enough that rolling off accidentally didn't seem too likely.

"Probably more dangerous than the dropoff was the nest's other inhabitant, Enqueri himself. He wasn't naked, as Blair had thought at first, but wore a leather loincloth, and a cord around his hips held a sheath and a knife, too, probably taken from some hunter. The man's hair was lank and tangled, but it had been hacked off reasonably evenly at about shoulder length, and he'd shaved his face, probably with the knife. Those things told Blair that Enqueri had at least studied the humans he'd seen, and in some ways tried to emulate them, so he didn't actually think of himself as a panther. That boded well for Blair's survival.

"But it was the eyes of a predator that swept over Blair now, and Blair wished fervently that he'd taken the time to learn more about panther behavior. Was the fact that Enqueri was staring into his eyes a threat, a challenge, simple curiosity? Blair didn't know, so he averted his eyes to be sure, all the while his mind raced furiously. He'd heard of Enqueri killing trespassers on his domain, but surely he'd never brought them to his den. Why hadn't he killed Blair? Well, Blair was patently no hunter or warrior, having no gun or spear with him. But even those few whom Enqueri had apparently helped had never been taken to his nest. Blair had no idea what to expect.

"What he didn't expect, though, was to suddenly find a couple hundred pounds of sleek, muscular predator on top of him, a warm wet tongue licking up the side of his face. Blair froze in fear and surprise, but to his astonishment Enqueri did nothing more threatening than continue the slow, leisurely tongue-bath down the side of Blair's throat.

"Enqueri was bathing him.

"All right, that was a good sign, Blair thought, or at least a nonthreatening one. Tentatively he craned his neck around and licked Enqueri's cheek; apparently Enqueri was as fastidious as the panthers about keeping clean, because all Blair tasted was the warmth of Jim's skin and a little sweat. Enqueri paused a moment, then unmistakably purred as he resumed licking Blair's face and throat, and Blair, who got the message just fine, thank you very much, continued licking as much of Enqueri's cheek and neck as he could reach without disturbing the larger man.

"Enqueri got as far as Blair's collar, and then he drew back, scowling. Before Blair had any idea what was happening, Enqueri had ripped the shirt open with one yank of strong fingers, and Enqueri was licking his way contentedly again down Blair's chest. But he was heading down toward the waistband of Blair's trousers.

"Blair was caught between panic and pleasure. He was thrilled to have found the legendary Enqueri; he was delighted that he'd made contact – contact! – so easily, and apparently in a positive way; he was terrified of doing something wrong; he was nearly overwhelmed by the sensual tongue- bath he was receiving, and he had no idea what this feral man might want of him next. He liked men, and God knew Enqueri was the most gorgeous thing Blair had ever seen, but he didn't want to be brutally attacked, maybe even hurt in the process. He glanced down and bit his lip in mingled surprise, relief and – to his amazement – disappointment. Either Enqueri was dramatically undersized under that loincloth, or the tongue-bath was doing a hell of a lot more for Blair than it was for him.

"Stupid! he told himself. Grooming each other is a social activity among big cats, not a mating behavior.

"He reminded himself of that fact a few moments later when Enqueri reached his waist and started giving Blair's trousers the same look he'd given Blair's shirt.

"'Hold on, big guy, I need those,' Blair murmured as soothingly as he could, hurriedly reaching down to unfasten his trousers and kick them off before Enqueri could tear them off. 'Social not sexual, social not sexual, social not sexual,' he chanted under his breath, wishing his erection knew as much about feline behavior as his brain did. Then Enqueri's warm tongue licked down over his belly and Blair groaned helplessly, shuddering under the strong hands that held him firmly still.

"Enqueri raised his head, his nostrils flaring as he tested the air, eyes darkening as he smelled Blair's desire. Of course, he didn't really need to smell it; the erection bopping him in the chin might have clued him in too, but that smell seemed to do something to Enqueri. Suddenly the feral man had gone from curious and friendly, even affectionate, to something else. Something... wanting.

"His eyes fastened on Blair's face, Enqueri slowly lowered his head, nuzzling Blair's groin. The rasp of whiskers over Blair's aching cock was enough to wring another groan out of the smaller man. Enqueri sniffed again, then slowly, deliberately licked up the underside of Blair's throbbing erection.

"Blair cried out and would have bolted upright were it not for Enqueri's strong hands holding him still. Another slow deliberate lick traveled up to the head of Blair's cock, collecting the traces of pre-come gathering there, and another – and that was it; Blair simply couldn't stand another second. More excited than he'd ever been in his life, Blair moaned came so hard his balls ached.

"Blair must have grayed out for a moment, because his next awareness was of over two hundred pounds of muscle on top of him, sniffing, nuzzling, rubbing a very large, very hard erection desperately but aimlessly against him. Startled, Blair looked up and saw the puzzlement and frustration on the larger man's face and realized that what they'd just done had no analog in the panther kingdom. Blair wasn't female, didn't smell of a female's heat, and was in the wrong position to boot. In point of fact, Enqueri simply didn't know what the hell to do with him.

"Still a little apprehensive, but much less fearful than he'd been a scant half hour before, Blair stroked the muscular body moving over him, finding the tie to the loincloth and pulling it loose, then stifling a gasp as a very, very impressive specimen of manhood was unveiled.

"'Shhhhh, easy, big fellow, let me take care of that,'" Blair murmured soothingly, trying to get Enqueri to lie back so he could return the favor. But either panther custom forbade Enqueri to turn up his vulnerable underbelly so easily, or he was still trying to assert his dominance, or he just didn't associate such a position with sexual relief, because Blair couldn't for the life of him get the big man to roll over. Finally Blair wrapped his legs around Enqueri's waist, guiding his aimless thrusts to give him more friction over Blair's belly, and snaked a hand down to add its own caresses to the hot length, and with a howl of pleasure and astonishment Enqueri pumped out his come over Blair's hand and belly, then collapsed limply on top of the smaller man.

"Blair grunted as the air was driven out of his lungs; thankfully a moment later Enqueri rolled blearily off him, purring, his face lax and content. Still purring, Enqueri turned on his side and pulled Blair tightly against his body, curling around the smaller man, lazily licking the nape of Blair's neck. Snug against the larger man's heat, soothed by pleasure and the leisurely strokes of the tongue against his neck, Blair let Enqueri's purrs soothe him down into sleep."

"But what about Kix and Simon?" Kix protested.

"Kix and Simon drowsed and cuddled for a little while, then picked up their clothes and went back to camp," Blair told him. "Simon hesitated, but finally got up the nerve to ask Kix to join him for the night, and Kix happily accepted. He stopped by their tent to tell Blair he'd be gone for the night, but saw that Blair hadn't returned yet from his bath, so he left a note and went on to Simon's tent. Simon was still a little nervous about the situation, but Kix knew he'd found the great love of his life and had no intention of letting the big man get away.

"This time it was Kix who took the lead, pushing Simon back to his pallet and stretching out on top of his massive dark body, smothering the full lips with hot, passionate kisses as he pulled the clothes from both of them, Simon squirming around belatedly to help. Kix straddled the muscular waist, stroking Simon's broad chest.

"'I want you inside me,' he whispered hotly.

"Simon groaned with desire, his hands gliding over the smaller man's beautiful smooth pale skin.

"'I've never done that,' he said huskily. 'Won't we need something – '"

"Kix grinned and reached over for his trousers, taking a small porcelain jar out of the pocket.

"'Blair makes this up from coconut oil and herbs,' he said. 'It keeps our skin from burning in the sun. We always carry some with us.' His grin broadened. 'It's good for other things, too.'"

"Simon moaned with pleasure as Kix coated his erection liberally with the sweet-smelling salve, and getting the idea, Simon scooped some out on his fingers, exploring hesitantly at first in the soft-skinned crevice between Kix's buttocks, but quickly losing his hesitance at Kix's murmurs of pleasure as Simon's fingers gently opened him. When Kix couldn't stand another moment of waiting, he slid back over Simon's body and lowered himself slowly, whimpering in ecstasy as he slowly took Simon inside him. Simon bit his lip hard and used the last bit of his willpower to hold still and let Kix take it slowly, rather than slamming up into the beautiful hot body above him. But at last Kix settled firmly into Simon's lap, rocking blissfully up and down on the hard length inside him. The sight of Kix riding his cock was so intoxicating that Simon couldn't remain still, and he grabbed Kix's hips, pulling Kix down harder on him even as he bucked up into the smaller body straddling his. Kix jammed the back of his hand in his mouth to stifle a scream of pleasure and came all over Simon's chest, just as Simon bit his own lip till it bled and came deep inside the smaller man.

"For a moment they stayed frozen, riding out the last aftershocks of pleasure; then Kix collapsed on Simon's chest, barely managing the energy to press a tired kiss on Simon's chin. Simon wrapped his arms around Kix, kissed his pale blonde hair, and flipped the covers up over them before they both fell into an exhausted sleep. They both slept more soundly than ever before, neither of them aware that Blair was missing.

"Blair awoke in the dim light just before dawn. For a moment he had no idea where he was, why there were leaves and sky over him instead of the tent roof, why his bedroll felt so strange, where in the world he'd kicked the sheet. Then he felt a strong arm around his waist, a hard body pressed against him from behind, and suddenly in a rush he remembered: The pool, the panther, Enqueri. He also became aware of two other things – his own come and Enqueri's had dried on his belly to a nasty sticky film, now caked with dead leaf fragments, and he had to pee in the worst possible way.

"Carefully he tried to ease away from the warm body holding him close; for a moment the arm around his waist tightened, then it released him. Blair scooted away carefully, then turned and froze to see Enqueri watching him through drowsy, half-closed eyes.

"'Umm, I've just got to – ' he began, then stopped. There was no comprehension in Enqueri's eyes; obviously he didn't know a word of English.

"Cautiously he scooted over to the edge of the nest. The platform was quite large, almost a dozen feet from edge to edge, and slightly cup-shaped, so there had actually been little danger that he'd roll off in the night. There was what looked like a big pile of rags and debris at one side, but curiosity was no match for Blair's bursting bladder. Timidly Blair peered over the edge, then paled and hurriedly scooted back. He had to be at least fifty feet above the ground. He had no idea how Enqueri had managed to carry him up this high; worse, he had no idea how he was going to get back down. The branches of the tree they were in were quite thick and sturdy even up this high, and there were plenty of handholds and footholds between the nest and the ground, but even the thought of trying to clamber down from such a height turned Blair's stomach.

"Well, if he wanted to empty his bladder, there was only one thing to do, and Blair did it – perching awkwardly at the edge of the nest, holding as tightly as he could to the supporting vines and branches, he relieved himself, giggling a little hysterically to himself as he pictured an unwary traveler walking past below. But there wouldn't be any travelers, would there? This was Enqueri's territory, and nobody came here. Nobody but Blair's expedition, that is.

"Which if course brought Blair to think of Kix and Simon. Surely they were searching for him, probably terribly worried. But he hadn't heard shouts, or gunfire, or any other signs of search parties. How far had Enqueri brought him? Despite the height of the nest, the jungle was far too dense to see far; for all Blair knew, he could be halfway across the jungle from the spot where Enqueri had taken him.

"Of course, he wasn't; he hadn't been taken far at all, if only he knew. But he didn't know, no more than he knew that he actually hadn't even been missed yet. So the next things Blair thought about was what to do next – how to deal with the situation he was in, and how to find his companions again.

"Well, he'd come searching for Enqueri, and he'd found him, although not precisely as he'd planned! So since he had no weapons, nor any reasonable chance of overpowering Enqueri without them even if he'd wanted to, and since at least for the moment Enqueri seemed to mean him no harm, he might as well take advantage of the situation and learn what he could. Sooner or later Enqueri was going to have to let Blair down from this nest or he'd die of thirst, and once he was on the ground there might be a better opportunity to escape, or at least to let Simon and Kix know where he was. He glanced at Enqueri; the big man was still watching him between long blinks, as if he drowsed but yet remained alert.

"Blair found the remains of his shirt and used the rag to clean himself off as best he could, then remembered the pile he'd seen. He crawled over to it. There he found goods Enqueri had probably either stolen or taken from trespassers he'd killed – cloth and a few hide garments, strings of beads and teeth, knives, spearheads, even a few guns, although these were long ruined by the weather. Blair glanced uneasily at Enqueri, wondering what the man's reaction might be to Blair's investigation of possible weapons, but the feral man only yawned, stretched and returned to his doze.

"Under the more recent loot, however, Blair found something far more interesting – an ancient metal strongbox such as businessmen kept their most important papers in, mostly intact and still closed. It was locked, too, but the box was so rusted that a good pull simply tore the lock loose, letting Blair access the mildewed but otherwise undamaged contents.

"Inside were the most prized belongings of Lord William Ellison – stock certificates, deeds, letters of credit and bank records, a pouch of fifty gold coins and an envelope of money, business ledgers, a badly mildewed journal, and a photograph of William, Grace and young James.

"Blair trembled with shock at the realization of what he had found. In his research about Enqueri and the area, he'd found articles documenting the Ellisons' disappearance and presumed death. There was certainly a marked resemblance between Enqueri and both William and Grace Ellison, and the man looked to be about the right age. Judging from what he'd found, plus the research Blair had done, Blair thought there was every likelihood that Enqueri, the panther-man, was actually James Ellison.

"This complicated matters considerably for Blair. Suddenly Enqueri wasn't simply his discovery, a feral man living among the panthers in the jungle to be studied; he was an English lord with blue blood, and, if Blair's remembrance of Lord William Ellison's holdings was accurate, considerable wealth and station. Having been 'discovered,' others might learn these same facts . . . and desire to use them. To use Enqueri – no, Jim.

"A warm touch on his shoulder made Blair jump guiltily, as if he'd been caught stealing. He turned and saw Enqueri crouching beside him, gazing curiously at him. Blair closed the box and turned around, gazing thoughtfully into the icy blue eyes of the bigger man. For all his ferocity and strength, Jim was an innocent. He knew nothing of the outside world – why, he didn't even know his own name. Didn't know, for that matter, that he possessed one.

"Gingerly Blair reached out and touched Jim's chest. 'Jim,' he said softly. 'You're Jim.'

"He touched his own chest. 'Blair.'

"Jim gazed at him uncomprehendingly, then reached out and touched Blair's chest, then his own, saying nothing, his eyes probing Blair's, and once again Blair was struck by the fact that Jim had somehow understood at least partially the distance between himself and the panthers. His gaze was neither challenge nor threat. It was a man's gaze of curiosity, of frustrated desire to communicate, of heartrending loneliness and aching desire and something else, something that looked very much like love. There was more in those eyes than in anything Jim could have said.

"'Jim,' Blair said, very softly, and leaned forward and gently kissed Jim on the lips.

"There was no response, of course; Jim had no more concept of kissing than he had of English. But when Blair drew back, Jim reached up and touched his own lips, and his eyes were wide with wonder, and he was trembling. So Blair leaned forward slowly, giving Jim plenty of time, and did it again, and this time he definitely felt those warm lips moving against his own. Then Jim pulled back slightly, gave Blair a heated glance, and slowly rubbed his face against Blair's, softly, brushing over cheeks, lips, eyelashes. It was amazingly sensual; even the rasp of stubble didn't detract from the unmistakable emotion in the gesture. Blair felt a lump growing in his throat. He'd just said 'I love you' to Jim, and Jim had just said 'I love you too.'

"Then the heat in Jim's eyes grew dark and hungry, and he pushed Blair backward into the nest, rubbing against him again, giving Blair a questioning glance. Blair felt the hardness pushing insistently against his own and moaned with desire, but this time he wanted more. This time he wanted it all. He squirmed backward, smiling reassuringly at Jim's wary glance; then Jim's eyes narrowed and Blair realized a smile for a panther looked a great deal like a snarl. Hurriedly Blair leaned forward and licked Jim's chin, relieved when the anxiety went out of Jim's eyes.

"Blair quickly retrieved his trousers, patting through the pockets for the little jar of salve he always carried in sunny regions. Thankfully he hadn't lost it in all his adventures; what he was about to try was daring enough. He glanced at Jim, then at the jar, then realized embarrassedly that he'd have to do all the work himself. Jim didn't have the faintest idea what was going on, although that hot hunger had never left his expression.

"Blair found himself faintly embarrassed as he scooped out some salve and quickly prepared himself under Jim's curious gaze. Never, not even Blair's very first time – which thankfully had been with his far more experienced friend Kix – had sex seemed this fumbling and awkward.

"But then again, had he ever longed for it this much? He didn't think so.

"When he'd lubricated and stretched himself as best he could, embarrassment notwithstanding, Blair started to lie back, then stopped. Jim didn't understand what Blair wanted; panthers didn't mate like that. Possibly Jim might have seen humans having sex at some time or another, but he didn't know whether Jim would actually equate the activities he saw with mating, or with Blair. All right, they'd do it on Jim's terms. Blair turned over onto his hands and knees and put his head down, arching his back in what he hoped was a feline, provocative manner.

"Instantly Jim was there, nuzzling him rather anxiously, touching Blair with hands and face and skin, and once again Blair got the message; Jim had the general idea, but not the specifics.

"By way of some awkward wriggling and nudging, Blair managed to get Jim kneeling behind him, and Blair backed up, reaching backward to find Jim's hard cock. He guided, and Jim let him; a deep breath and a slow backward push, and at the first penetration, Jim got the idea. Thankfully Jim didn't impale him in one quick shove, but seemed as hesitant as Blair; Blair realized that while he was trying to meet Jim on panther terms, Jim was expecting Blair to teach him human lovemaking. Blair pushed back again, and the brush of Jim's cock over his prostate drove a needy moan out of him; and with that single sound Jim suddenly lost all hesitation. He thrust into Blair firmly, covering the smaller man's body with his own, licking and nipping at Blair's neck and shoulders as he drove his length into his mate again and again, each new moan or cry of desire only driving him to a more assured dominance of his mate.

"For Blair's part, he didn't mind at all the sudden transition from teacher to mindless object of Jim's desire; he was completely overcome with pleasure, lost in the strong body possessing his own, the fierce wild passion that set him on fire, burned him to ashes and resurrected him anew. Primal desire met primal desire, and Blair screamed and howled with ecstasy, bucking back against the strong body covering his, every muscle in his body straining toward release. And when Jim's teeth closed firmly on the back of his neck, that was all it took to drive them both over the edge.

"It was a long time before either of them moved, but suddenly Jim sat up, sniffing the air, every muscle in his body alert again.

"'What, Jim?' Blair said drowsily. 'What's the matter?'

"Jim glanced at Blair anxiously, then sniffed the air again, cocking his head. This time Blair heard it – the sound of his name being called from far away. It was Kix.

"'Kix! Over here!' he called back without thinking. Suddenly he found a snarling Jim Ellison crouched over him, pinning him firmly to the floor of the nest, and when Kix's voice called again, acknowledging Blair's shout, Jim glanced up, his hand going to his knife.

"'No! No, Jim, it's all right,' Blair said. On a sudden inspiration, he licked Jim's chin, rubbing his face against the larger man's. 'It's all right. They're friends. My friends, and they'll be your friends too.'

"Jim looked doubtfully at Blair, but when Blair licked him again he subsided, giving Blair's cheek a tentative lick. Blair sat up and scooted closer to the edge of the nest; when Jim looked anxious again, Blair solved the problem by taking Jim's hands and wrapping them around his waist. 'See, big fellow? I'm all yours.' Which also, by the way, gave Blair a nice sense of security, considering that he was sitting so far up! Jim appeared reassured by the gesture, and licked Blair's shoulder, nuzzling the side of his neck.

"At last Blair spotted Kix and Simon; thankfully they were alone, the others apparently searching elsewhere. Blair noted with some amusement that every so often Simon put his arm around Kix's shoulders. He waved. 'Up here!'

"The two men glanced up and their eyes widened.

"'Uh, Blair?' Kix asked. 'What are you doing naked way up in a tree? And, er, who's that with you?'

"Blair grinned and pulled Jim's arms tighter around his waist, and Jim purred.

"'Simon, Kix, I'd like you to meet Enqueri, otherwise known as James Ellison,' he said. 'My mate. It's a long story – but in the meantime, has anybody got a really, really long ladder?'"

Blair took a big swig of tea, wetting his parched throat. He glanced around at the expectant gazes of the three men on the bed.

"What?" he said defensively.

"That's it?" Jim exclaimed. "That's the end?"

"Well, of course it's not the end," Blair said patiently. "There's lots more – how Blair taught Jim to talk, and introduced him to the world of men, and how Kix and Simon grew even closer – "

"Well, what about the elephant's graveyard?" Kix demanded.

"Oh, that." Blair shrugged. "It really was just a myth, as Jim would tell them later. Elephants die where they die."

"So Kix didn't get the money to start his new venture?" Kix said disappointedly.

"Well, yeah, actually he did," Blair chuckled. "Because while he didn't find ivory, his connections through Simon did allow him to find something else – the fabulous diamond deposits of Africa. So he started up a diamond mine instead and got rich that way. Not to mention that he took care of Jim's estate until Jim knew enough to make his own decisions about that."

"But did they stay in Africa?" Simon asked anxiously.

"Of course they did," Blair said. "Africa was Simon and Jim's home, and Blair, after all, was a traveler and an adventurer, and Kix had to manage his new company. So they all stayed there in Africa, with occasional trips abroad, and had many other fantastic adventures. But as the saying goes, that, my children, is a story for another night."

Kix scowled.

"That's it? You're just going to leave it like that?"

"Well –" Blair grinned. "I thought maybe we'd kind of, you know, review the highlights of my story."

"Oh, yeah?" Jim chuckled, getting the picture. "Such as the part where Jim and Blair make mad jungle love?"

"Or the part where Kix shamelessly seduces Simon?" Simon suggested.

"Or even a later scene, where Blair and Kix taught their men all about sharing," Blair said, joining his men on the bed.

"I think you need to add another chapter," Kix giggled, grabbing Blair and pulling him down. "Where all three men pounce the storyteller."

Blair yanked down Kix's boxers, dribbling the last of his tea over Kix's groin, making the slender man yelp with startlement at the sudden cold against his skin.

"I'll drink to that," Blair said, laughing.

And he did.

But that, my children, is a story for another day.