Chapter 16

" . . . so the coppersmith said, 'You expect me to believe you slept with my daughter by accident?' 'Oh, absolutely,' the traveller said," Kix continued merrily. "'So what were you doing on top of her in her bed, then?' the coppersmith demanded, and the traveller said, 'Why, sir, I thought she was your wife!'"

Skip snorted cider up his nose and choked. Blair laughed.

"Gods, Kix, is there no end to those tales of yours?" he said, reaching for the sweet rolls again. "I think you know more bawdy songs and stories than all the servants put together."

"I doubt it," Kix pouted, "since I get to talk to nobody else to tell me more." He smiled coaxingly at Simon. "It's been a long time since we've had a feast, Simon."

"And it'll be a long time more before the next, if I have my way," Simon chuckled. "Find some other amusement, Dove."

"Well, then – " Kix perked up. "What about a picnic out in the country?"

"Now, Dove, that would be rather unkind, wouldn't it?" Simon said gently. "Since Skip can't join us."

"Oh." Kix sighed miserably.

"Besides, you know I'm to take the carriage to Lady Joan's this afternoon," Simon said. "You could come with me," he suggested.

Kix grimaced.

"She hates me," he said.

Simon chuckled.

"I can't deny that, Dove," he admitted. "But Daryl would love to see you, and while I'm visiting with Joan, the two of you could take the carriage and the guards to the market."

Kix considered for a moment, then smiled.

"All right, then," he said. "I'll go with you." Then his eyes widened. "Oh, gods, what'll I wear?" Simon laughed, rolling his eyes.

Skip leaned closer to Dante.

"Who's Lady Joan? And – what's his name?"

"Daryl." Dante surreptitiously stroked his fingertips up the inside of Skip's thigh under the table, making Skip shiver. "Joan is the High Lord's lady wife, and Daryl is his son and heir."

Astonishment overrode even the arousal of Dante's touch.

"I didn't know he was married!" Skip whispered. "The way he and Kix behave – "

"It's all right," James said from across the table. "It's no secret." He glanced sympathetically at Kix, who sighed.

Dante chuckled, mercifully removing his hand from Skip's thigh.

"It was an alliance marriage," he said. "Their wedding joined two great houses. Then once Lady Joan bore him an heir, they reached a settlement whereupon she would oversee his southern holdings, and he need not formally divorce her. If they divorced, Simon would be expected to remarry, which would hurt Kix. And Lady Joan is happy, too, because she has far greater wealth and power than she could expect if they divorced. So they remain wed in name alone."

"It's too bad he can't marry Kix," Skip said without thinking, cursing his stupid mouth when he saw Simon's eyes darken with pain, and Kix flushed, dropping his eyes.

"What?" Blair said from across the table.

Skip sighed. Well, he'd already put his foot in his mouth; he might as well bite off a good mouthful and chew.

"Men can marry other men in my world," he said awkwardly.

Dante patted Skip's arm comfortingly.

"Here too," he said gently. "James and Blair are wed." His fingers tightened gently, halting Skip's next question, and he leaned close to speak quietly in Skip's ear. "Simon cannot marry Kix, because the law is that a High Lord cannot marry one who cannot give him children. If Joan had failed to bear him an heir, he'd have been obliged to divorce her and marry again."

"We could," Kix said, gazing at Simon. "If you'd only – "

"No." Simon slapped his hand flat on the table. "We'll speak no more of it."

"But I've read and studied," Kix argued. "And I've talked with Orend and Blair and – "

"No!" Simon said harshly. "I've spoken, and that's the end of it. Do you understand me?"

Kix's lips thinned, and he wadded up his napkin and flung it on the table, silently sliding out of his seat and running out of the room.

An awkward silence filled the hall. Simon sighed, rubbing his eyes. Blair started to stand, but James took Blair's hand.

"Don't," James said quietly. "Give him time to think. Simon's right."

"Of course you'd think so," Blair said, glaring at James.

Skip suddenly realized he was already on his feet. He glanced at Dante, only to find the halfling smiling at him. Dante nodded, saying nothing, and Skip ran out of the room, trying to remember his way around the halls; he hadn't bothered to bring his map, since Dante was with him.

He found Kix and Simon's room and pounded on the door, calling Kix's name, but without result. He hesitated, but concern overcame scruples; he pulled out his Swiss Army knife and picked the lock. To his chagrin, Kix wasn't in the opulent room. The kitten Rif, on the other hand, was, and Skip retreated, sneezing, to the hall.

Of course, Kix was angry at Simon; he'd have gone back to his own room. Knocking at that door produced no result, but this time Skip didn't bother picking the lock; he could smell the powerful aroma of violets even through the door. Kix certainly wasn't there.

Where else? His workroom? Skip hesitated. No. It just wasn't the sort of place Kix would go when he was sad and in need of comfort. Then inspiration struck, and with one or two false turns he finally found his way to the library, where the faint sound of sobbing from a corner told him he'd guessed correctly.

He found Kix tucked into a dark nook in the corner, squeezed down between bookshelves, and he felt a pang at the familiarity of the sight. His Kix had always retreated somewhere small, like a wounded animal backing into its den. Or to their treehouse. Silently he scrunched down beside Kix and gathered the other man into his arms. Kix turned, buried his face in Skip's shoulder and wept silently, and Skip leaned his cheek on the soft fragrant hair. Kix had never been a noisy crier – God knows they'd gotten it worse from Daddy if they "made a fuss," but unlike Skip, Kix had never learned to lock the tears way inside.

"Shhh, it's okay," he murmured. His hands remembered the comforting strokes on Kix's back, even though the man in his arms wasn't as thin and bony, and his hair was long and fragrant, not short and rough with neglect. "It's okay, I'm here, I'll take care of you."

He held Kix, rocking him slightly, until the other man got all the tears out of his system. Bittersweet, holding Kix like this, feeling his familiar warmth, smelling his familiar scent, remembering the sound of Kix's sobs, the wetness of his tears on Skip's shoulder, and the old ache welled up again – hating the sorrow, loving the fact that he could give comfort again.

"What is it?" he whispered. "What was that all about? Can you tell me?"

Kix sniffled loudly, and Skip chuckled and pulled the handkerchief from his pocket, fighting down a semi- hysterical giggle as Kix gave the loud, unrestrained HONNNNNNNNK that he remembered so well. Kix scrubbed at his red eyes with the back of his wrist and took a calming breath.

"There's a spell," Kix hiccupped. "It's old, powerful, but I could do it. I know I could do it." His swollen eyes dared Skip to disagree.

"I don't know anything about magic, Kixster," Skip said, stroking Kix's rumpled hair. "What kind of spell?"

"So I could – carry Simon's child," Kix sniffled, honking resoundingly into the handkerchief again. He glanced at Skip again. "I suppose they don't do things like that where you come from."

"Mmm." Skip frowned. "Scientists were working on it. Male pregnancy, I mean. I mean, they'd already done it as an experiment, I don't know how it worked, but supposedly in a few years it would be available."

"Really? Without magic?" Kix looked astonished.

Skip shrugged.

"I guess one man's science is another man's magic," he said sheepishly. "Frankly I don't know how it would work either way. So you say there's a spell that would let you carry Simon's child. But he doesn't want you to, huh?"

Kix shook his head, new tears welling up in his eyes.

"He says it's too dangerous," Kix whispered.

"Mmm. And is it dangerous?" Skip asked softly.

"Well . . . " Kix squirmed. "The spell's not that dangerous. Not for a mage of my experience. The pregnancy is tricky. It involves a lot of potions and special diet and so on."

"And?" Skip probed when Kix stopped.

"It's delivering the baby that's dangerous," Kix admitted. "I mean, a man obviously can't birth it like a woman could. It has to be cut out."

"So what's the – Oh." Skip stopped in realization. A caesarean section in 21st Century America was one thing. A c-section in a medieval technology where nobody knew what bacteria were, where sterile technique and blood transfusions and antibiotics were unknown and the surgeon had never even heard of medical school, was another matter altogether.

"Am I a fool, Skip?" Kix said miserably.

Skip bit his lip. He wanted to say yes. In fact, he wanted to say Hell, yes. He remembered that physician wanting to bleed Kix. And Kix wanted to let somebody cut a baby out of his belly?

"I don't think you're a fool," Skip said carefully. "I think maybe you ought to try listening to Simon instead of just assuming he's wrong. I mean, it sounds to me like it really is dangerous. God, Kix, you almost died just a couple days ago. Are you really so eager risk your life again?"

Kix took a deep, shuddering breath, wiping his eyes.

"I don't want to die," he said simply. "But I hate it that Simon's married to someone else, and that no matter how he loves me, no matter how respectfully everybody treats me, I'm really just a whore with a fancy title."

Skip winced and fought down the urge to snap that he could tell Kix a thing or ten about whoring, and that a rich, devoted lover keeping Kix in luxury didn't even come close. Kix didn't need Skip's pain right now on top of his own.

"I don't think Simon thinks of you that way," he said softly, stroking Kix's hair soothingly. "See, right now all you're thinking is that since Simon won't give you what you want, he doesn't really love you enough. But at the same time, Simon's thinking that if you loved him enough, you wouldn't risk dying and leaving him alone. So maybe it's hard for both of you to understand what the other one's thinking. I know it's hard for me to think about you risking your life like that, so I can just imagine what Simon feels."

"Oh." Kix sniffled. "I suppose – I didn't think about it that way."

"Well, here's something else to think about," Skip said gently. "Do you want a child, really? Or are you just wanting to be able to marry Simon? Because that's a heck of a thing to do to a child. Children should be born to parents who want them for themselves."

Kix winced, and Skip remembered that even though this Kix hadn't suffered the abuse that Skip and his twin had, Kix's own parents hadn't been exactly approving and kind.

"You're right," Kix said, almost inaudibly. "I do want a child – I do, really. But I don't know if I'd be a very good father. I don't know much about it. I know I wouldn't want to be like Joan. Poor Daryl was mostly raised by governesses and tutors. But Simon's so busy, and so am I. I never even asked myself whether he'd want another child," Kix added abashedly.

"Well, there you go," Skip said, kissing Kix's temple. "Sounds to me like you'd better not get your heart set on the idea until you've done a lot more thinking about it, hmmm? I mean, come on, look at Simon. He's a lovestruck fool. Most of the time you've got him wrapped around your little finger. He's obviously not going anywhere – heck, he can't go anywhere. And you told me you were Vizier before you became his Consort, so there's no reason for you to feel like a whore. You're both men with important jobs who just happen to love each other a lot."

Kix sighed.

"I hate it when he's right and I'm wrong," he said.

"Don't let me convince you you're completely wrong," Skip said, rubbing Kix's back. "He doesn't need to be so arbitrary, either. He may be the High Lord, but that doesn't mean he can get away with laying down the law to you, treating you like a child who can't reason for yourself. Thing is, it doesn't sound like a decision either of you should make alone. He needs to understand that too." Suddenly he thought about his misunderstanding with Dante. The earring.

Maybe he hadn't been completely wrong, either?

Kix blew his nose again, HONNNNNNNK, and Skip barely choked back a laugh.

"Thanks, Skippy," Kix said softly, nestling his head against Skip's shoulder. "You're good to talk to."

Skip froze, his heart pounding. Kix detected the change and looked up.


"You – " Skip cleared his throat. "My brother used to call me that sometimes. Skippy."

"Oh." Kix frowned anxiously. "Should I not call you that, then?"

Skip fought back tears, but they weren't tears of sadness.

"No," he said softly. "No, you can call me that if you want to. I – I like it."

"I do too," Kix said, smiling slightly. "So this is what it feels like to have a brother. I like that too."

This time Skip couldn't fight back all the tears, but by leaning his cheek on Kix's fragrant hair, he could at least hide them from view.

"So do I," he whispered. "I like it a lot."

Kix gave a watery laugh and honked his nose again; this time for the life of him, Skip couldn't help giggling.

"Aren't we the pair," Kix said, giving another resounding honk. "Come on, let's go back before the others think we've run off somewhere together and start turning the city upside down to find us."

Skip had a mental image of James sniffing his way down cobbled streets like a bloodhound, and fought down semi-hysterical laughter.

"Well, we could cover up our tracks," Skip suggested, trying to keep a straight face. "Problem is, I smashed your perfume."

"Don't I know it," Kix said ruefully, accepting Skip's hand to help him to his feet. "The maids scrubbed that wall with everything but cow dung, and we can still smell violets in Simon's room next door."

"Well, I threw my fit and you threw yours," Skip chuckled. "Dante threw his the other day. Simon threw his when you were poisoned. So I guess it's Blair or James' turn."

Kix shuddered.

"Don't even say that," he said. "I don't know what's worse, James going off on one of his possessive fits, or Blair giving James the cold shoulder after James has gone off on one of his fits. The last time, Simon talked about evacuating the castle."

"So what are you going to do?" Skip said, not releasing Kix's hand.

"Hopefully he's going to come back to our room and let his bad-tempered lover spend the afternoon apologizing to him," a gruff voice said. Skip and Kix spun around to see Simon in the doorway, looking more uncomfortable than Skip could remember seeing him. He glanced uneasily at Skip, and Skip almost laughed. Yeah, he could see how the High Lord probably resented this relative stranger being the one to comfort his consort – resent it that Kix might turn to Skip for comfort. Skip didn't feel particularly inclined to let Simon off the hook, either.

"You going to be all right?" he said softly to Kix, squeezing his hand. "Remember what I said."

"Yes, I'll be all right," Kix said, smiling shakily at Skip. "Thanks for listening."

"Turnabout's fair play," Skip said, returning the smile. He jerked his head at Simon. "Go on. You know you want to."

Kix took a deep breath, turning his reddened eyes to his lover. Simon silently held out his arms, and just as silently Kix went to them, letting his breath out in a shuddering sigh as Simon held him close. Skip sighed too and slipped unnoticed around the lovers.

Well, he'd missed out on his meal, and he was pretty sure he'd find Dante back in their rooms, maybe waiting for a report. Dante was in fact there, but he only steered Skip firmly to the tray he'd brought up.

"Playing peacemaker now, eh?" Dante chuckled as Skip dug into his food.

Skip shrugged.

"In a way, he's still like my brother," he said awkwardly. "I hate to see him so unhappy. They're both right in a way. It's too bad Simon can't marry Kix, but I don't think it's worth such a crazy risk, either."

"Mmm." Dante shook his head. "It's an unfortunate situation, aye. If there was an advantageous marriage to be made – for the good of the kingdom, I mean – Simon could ill afford to keep up the charade of a marriage with his wife, and even his love for his Consort must come second in such an event. His duty would be to divorce his wife and remarry. I know Kix thinks of that sometimes and fears it."

Skip grimaced.

"God, I'll settle for staying a street kid, then," he said. "I don't know how Kix stands it."

"He is a sweet and patient man," Dante agreed. "I've never known a kinder, more loving soul."

A nasty suspicion struck Skip and he glanced at Dante narrowly.

"Dante, I don't know how to ask this except straight out," he said. "Am I some kind of Kix-substitute?"

The absolutely astonished expression on Dante's face answered Skip more quickly than the halfling's words.

"Never. How could you think such a thing?" Dante demanded, scowling.

"I'm sorry, Dante," Skip said sheepishly. "It's just, you know, he's so sweet, and everybody loves him, and I look like him, but he's taken and I'm more, um, accessible."

Dante sighed, shaking his head.

"Spencer, whatever am I to do with you?" he said wryly.

"Well, I've got a few ideas," Skip suggested, grinning apologetically.

"Come here, muírnigh." Dante scooped Skip up and carried him over to the bed and depositing him there gently. Dante slid onto the bed beside him, pulling Skip over tightly against the muscular body, Skip's head cradled on Dante's shoulder.

"What I feel for you, I have felt for no other, nor likely ever will again," Dante said quietly, his fingers carding through Skip's hair. "Why canna you believe me? Can you not feel it for yourself?"

Skip squirmed, hating his own doubts, hating his runaway mouth that inevitably engaged before his brain geared up.

"I'm sorry, I can't help it," Skip sighed unhappily. "Even in my world, Kix was always the beautiful one, the sweet one, the smart one. I can't help it, it's just hard to imagine someone wanting me and not him."

"Spencer." Dante sighed, then was silent for a long moment, simply stroking Skip's hair. Then he turned Skip's face gently up to his, his finger softly tracing the contours of Skip's face. "D'you know what I find most attractive about you, muírnigh?"

"What?" Skip propped himself up on one elbow, displacing the tickling finger.

"You have a sort of beauty – " Dante half smiled. "You know, to look at you and Kix, you're so alike and yet so different. His beauty is delicate and ethereal, somehow untouchable, like a fine crystal goblet too valuable to handle. But you – ah, muírnigh, you have an almost profane beauty, a beauty of the flesh, a beauty that demands touching."

Skip winced, saying nothing.

Huh. Yeah, I've been handled plenty.

Dante frowned, and when Skip turned his face away slightly, Dante cupped Skip's cheek in his hand, gently but firmly turning him back.

"Nay, don't take hurt from my words, mo anam," he said softly. "Kix is a fine Vizier and a good friend, but never could I love such a one as he. To me, his love would be like those sweets he fancies – tasty at the first bite, but quickly cloying on the tongue, never truly satisfying to the likes of me. Your love, ah, muírnigh, you're strong wine, rich and deep and filling up my senses and yet ever taunting me to drink deeper. Even in your pain you're strong, my soul, strong enough to bear a love such as mine, for the gods know it demands so much of you. What you've suffered, aye, it's left worn places on your heart and soul, but a warrior's hand is the stronger for the calluses it bears, and no warrior comes through many battles without wearing a scar or two."

Skip swallowed, powerfully moved by Dante's words.

"Except you," he whispered, running his hand over the Dante's tunic, remembering the amazing smooth softness of Dante's skin. His own skin was almost unmarred now.

The corners of Dante's lips twitched in what might have been a smile.

"Ah, you and me, muírnigh, now we wear our scars on the inside where nobody else can see them," he said. "Some scars are best shown only to one who understands them, eh? Tell me, Spencer, do those scars on my soul lessen my beauty in your eyes?"

"God, no," Skip murmured. "To me you're perfect."

Dante shook his head.

"Not perfect," he corrected. "Never that. But because we're alike in that way, my own, I needn't be perfect for you, nor you for me. And that's the beauty of you, Spencer. Do you understand me?"

Somehow he did, and it made Skip smile.

"Profane beauty, huh?" he chuckled, running his thumb around the curve of Dante's lips.

"Oh, aye," Dante said heatedly, nipping at Skip's thumb. "A positively criminal beauty."

Skip's breath shortened, and he scooted over, pressing himself boldly against Dante's body.

"Then how about you profane me some more?" he whispered.

"Ah, Spencer, the hunger for you is ever in my blood," Dante growled, running his hands over Skip's back, cupping his buttocks. "Were it not for my obligations to this house, I'd likely never leave this bed."

"Who says we have to stay in the bed?" Skip purred, nuzzling Dante's chest, fingers cupping the hard length of Dante's erection through his trousers. "The bath wasn't so bad, was it?"

"Ahhhh, no, Spencer, the window was very good, so very good," Dante gasped, arching into Skip's touch.

"And I thought the window was pretty damned good too," Skip whispered hotly, unlacing Dante's tunic.

"Ahhhhh – the bath – " Dante almost tore at Skip's tunic in his hurry to bare them both. A moment later they were pressed skin to skin, hands roaming hungrily.

"And you know what?" Skip murmured into Dante's ear. "Those soft, thick furs would feel sooooo good in front of that fire, don't you thi- – hey!" Skip yelped as he found himself whisked out of the bed and damn near teleported to the floor in front of the fire, several layers of thick furs covering the hard stone.

"Mmmm, very nice," Dante whispered against Skip's belly, where his lips and tongue were making Skip shudder. "And what other good ideas have you for me, muírnigh?"

"I – there's something I want," Skip murmured, gently pulling Dante's head up. "Something special."

Dante's eyes were dark and hot.


Skip took a deep breath.

"I want the earring back. The sapphire earring."

Dante went very still, some of the desire fading from his eyes.

"But not like that," Skip added hurriedly. "Not like a thrall piercing. Here." He touched his earlobe. "And – and I want you to wear the other one. Here." He touched Dante's left earlobe.

Dante took a deep breath too.

"Why, muírnigh?" he asked softly.

"It's a custom from my world," Skip said awkwardly. "For a long time, two men couldn't get married, only a man and a woman, and wedding rings sort of went with traditional marriages. So men would exchange some other kind of jewelry, bracelets or earrings or something, to show that they were, you know, together. Committed. In a way it's almost the same, but it's just – it's belonging to each other. That's what I want, us belonging to each other."

For a long moment Dante didn't move, his expression blank, and Skip felt his heart sinking. Then Dante raised a trembling hand to stroke Skip's cheek, and Skip felt such an outpouring of love through the bond between them that his eyes filled and spilled over. Gently Dante wiped the tears away.

"How I envy you," he whispered, licking the tears from his fingertips. "Darklings cannot weep."

Abruptly he sat up.

"Wait, muírnigh," he said, grabbing his robe and vanishing down the stairs.

Skip stared after him in astonishment.

Shit. I shouldn't have brought it up, at least not now. Talk about a mood-killer. Two minutes from what probably would've been mind-bending sex and I have to start talking commitment and crying like a fool. Shit. What's next, Thomas? Gonna grow breasts now? Wanna shop for curtains and china and watch Martha Stewart? He snorted bitterly. At least here I can't fall prey to that perversion.

Footsteps on the stairs, and Dante, flushed and out of breath, reappeared. He fell to his knees in front of Skip, one closed hand extended in front of him. Gazing into Skip's eyes, he opened his hand to show Skip the two sparkling earrings and the needle.

"I'll have you know I interrupted the High Lord and his Consort at their leisure to get these," he chuckled. "Simon's tone was most displeased, and even Kix looked . . . frustrated."

He handed Skip the needle and earrings, brushing his hair back over his left ear.

"Put the earring in quickly, or my ear will have healed already," he warned, smiling into Skip's eyes.

Skip's head swam with relief and love, but he retained the presence of mind to scramble for his lighter and pass the needle and earring clasp a few times through the flame. Dante didn't even wince when Skip pierced his ear, but as soon as Skip inserted the earring, Dante tugged on it and turned it, presumably to keep the flesh from healing to the metal. Then he held out his hand.

"May I?" he said softly.

Skip swallowed hard, not wanting to cry again. He flamed the needle again and handed it to Dante, pushing the hair back from his ear. He'd never had a piercing before – earrings were Kix's thing, not his, but he had two tattoos and he figured one pierced ear couldn't hurt much worse than that. He was right; it was over almost before he knew it, and he felt the unfamiliar weight of the earring dangling from his ear again. He watched as Dante bit his thumb lightly – he had to admit, Dante's bites had hurt less than the thick needle – and rubbed the welling drop of blood over Skip's earlobe. The slight sting of the piercing vanished almost immediately; following Dante's example, Skip hurriedly turned the earring for a few moments, until he figured it had healed completely.

Skip rolled to his feet, extending a hand to Dante.

"Come here," he said quietly.

Dante took the hand and followed Skip to the mirror, then pulled Skip back against him, Skip's back to Dante's firm chest, strong arms wrapped around Skip's waist. Together they admired the symmetry of the earrings.

"Another good idea," Dante murmured, bending down to kiss Skip's neck. "Yes, you were right. We belong to each other." One hand drifted over Skip's belly, tracing the dragon tattoo at his navel with a gentle fingertip. "So beautiful. You are the light in my darkness, muírnigh."

"That's funny." Skip turned in Dante's arms. "I think of you the same way. My life – my existence, I can't call it a life – was all darkness until you."

"You amaze me, Spencer." Dante gently coaxed Skip back to the pallet of soft furs in front of the fireplace. "Let me treasure you. Let me love you."

"I want that too." Dante's hands on his skin felt hotter than the fire; his lips were hot enough to burn clear to Skip's soul. Skip panted for breath, fighting to think. "I want to make this special."

Dante chuckled patiently, raising his head.

"I thought we had done that already," he said.

"No, I mean – " Skip licked his lips. "I'm ready to try, I mean, you inside me. If you want to."

Dante went very still, and Skip felt that wondering outpouring of love again.

"Oh, mo grá," Dante whispered. "What you make me feel. Just when I think my heart could feel no more joy."

"I'm – a little nervous," Skip said unsteadily.

"Fear nothing, muírnigh," Dante murmured softly. "Nothing but pleasure, I swear to you. I beg the gods I can give you half the ecstasy you've given me."

He kissed Skip gently but deeply, weaving a spell of slow languid kisses and soft soothing caresses until Skip was almost hypnotized, caught between relaxation and arousal, drunk on Dante's exquisite gentleness. When he made a lethargic move to reciprocate, Dante pressed him back to the furs again, not pinning Skip's hands but laying them firmly against the furs.

"No need to worry about me," Dante whispered. "The pleasure you are giving me, my Spencer, has no equal."

Then the massage oil was back, warm hands melting his body until the warmth soaked into his bones, into his blood; when Dante rolled him over and worked over his back and legs again he only moaned contentedly. His momentary surprise when Dante rolled him back to his back flew out the window when that hot mouth enveloped him. It was some time before Skip even noticed that an oil-slick finger was circling his opening, gently and unhurriedly but persistently, barely pressing against him, then penetrating so smoothly and effortlessly that Skip realized it had happened only when that skillful finger stroked unerringly –

"Oh God!"

-- right there. Skip trembled, trapped between that wonderful finger and that exquisite mouth. His hands tangled in Dante's hair like so much silk spilling over his thighs and belly and groin. Thankfully Dante withdrew his mouth a split second before Skip could lose control entirely, but when Skip started to turn over, Dante gently stopped him again.

"Nay, like this, muírnigh," Dante breathed, his finger still moving gently inside Skip. "You must see every moment that it's your lover inside you, one who'd never do you harm, and you'd not rob me of the joy of seeing that light in your eyes when the pleasure takes you, eh?"

Skip moaned as one finger effortlessly became two, the other oily hand gently stroking his erection, too lightly to do anything but keep him on that squirming plateau.

"More?" Skip whimpered. "Please?"

A third finger entered, stretching him slightly, and that sensation made Skip tense briefly before a new flood of pleasure made him cry out and bear down on the probing fingers.

"Hurry, hurry," Skip pleaded. "Now, now, now, NOW!"

"Shhhh, soon, I promise, muírnigh," Dante soothed, working the fingers slowly until some of the stretchy feeling abated, his other hand liberally coating his own erection with oil. "Almost time, mo grá. No hurry, no hurry at all. Only pleasure, only joy."

Dante stretched out, blanketing the smaller man's body with his own, and Skip trembled in eager anticipation, the last traces of fear swallowed up in raw aching need; to Skip's surprise and confusion, however, Dante rolled them over, putting Skip on top of him and gently coaxing Skip to sit up and straddle him.

"Raise up a little," Dante said hoarsely, and Skip got the idea. He hurriedly scooted back a bit, raising up on his knees, reaching behind him to guide. The angle was awkward, but he had plenty of experience and all the time in the world, and he moaned loudly with nothing but pleasure as he lowered himself ever so slowly onto the hard length.

God, incredible, so wonderful – never felt so good before, never – Skip cried out as he settled on Dante's hips, the whole pulsing length inside him, but when he'd have started moving, Dante seized his hips, holding him still.

"Wait a little," Dante gasped. "You feel so good, muírnigh, so tight and hot, I need a moment or I'll spend myself too soon."

Skip didn't mind the pause; quite the contrary. He'd never known the feeling of just enjoying the tight warmth within his body, the pulse inside him so intimate that he moaned and trembled. To distract himself, he ran his hands over Dante's chest, shining in the firelight with sweat and oil from Skip's skin, and the vision of his lover there on the furs, black hair spilling everywhere, that expression of blatant need on his face, almost undid Skip. He thumbed Dante's nipples, and Dante's moan, the involuntary thrust of his hips, were so intoxicating that he did it again. Thank God, Dante released his hips then, and Skip rocked slowly on the hard length, shallowly at first, then longer, deeper strokes; fast, then slow when he felt Dante getting too close to the edge, then fast again, adjusting the angle slightly so each stroke rubbed over his prostate. Oily fingers clasped his erection, pumping lightly, teasingly, and once again Skip had to pause to regain control.

Oh, yeah? Well, two can play at that game.

Skip reached down behind himself, cupping and gently massaging Dante's scrotum; then his fingers slid down further and he rubbed firmly over Dante's perineum. Dante cried out, his hips jerking, and the sudden thrust drove directly into Skip's prostate. Skip howled and froze, barely clinging to his control, but this was too good, too good to end –

"Ah, muírnigh, such a minx you are," Dante groaned, plucking Skip's hand from between his legs. Strong hands cupped Skip's buttocks, kneading them restlessly; then long fingers slid between his buttocks, exploring their joining. Skip whimpered with almost unbearable arousal, not daring to move. Then Dante's hands cupped his buttocks again, and suddenly Dante pulled himself up to a sitting position, somehow magically getting his feet back under him so he sat back on his heels, Skip in his lap. The change in position sent him thrusting deep into Skip, and Skip howled, collapsing forward against Dante's chest, trembling on the edge.

Then he was moving again, his legs around Dante's waist, Dante's strong hands almost lifting him up and back down for each stroke. Skip clung to Dante's shoulders, crying out with each deep thrust, trying to hold out just one more stroke, one more, just one more –

"Together, muírnigh," Dante growled against his throat. "Mine – as I am yours – "

"Together," Skip agreed in a gasp, and bit hard into the joining of Dante's neck and shoulder as sensations overwhelmed him from all directions at once – the faint sweet sting of Dante's bite, the taste of Dante's sweat and blood in his mouth, the hot hard pulsing of Dante's cock spurting inside him, the racking spasms of his own climax, and through their bond the overwhelming ecstasy, the hot tightness enveloping him, pure ambrosia flowing over his tongue, incredulous joy, sweet delirious tang of pain from Skip's teeth and Skip's nails digging into Dante's back, the echo of Skip's pleasure reflected back at him again, and again, his pleasure, Dante's, his, Dante's, spiralling higher and higher with each echo – Skip heard a muffled scream and realized dimly that it was his own voice, echoed by a howl from Dante. And for one pure sweet moment there seemed to be no boundaries between them at all, no Skip or Dante, just the hot fused pleasure of them.

It couldn't last forever; the cynical part of Skip's mind observed that while love might last forever, orgasms and erections had a finite duration. But even the ebbing pleasure was wonderful, a slow drift back down as if sinking into a warm, comfortable bed. But this slow descent left Skip someplace even better, cradled warm and sweaty and oily and sticky with his own come in Dante's arms, feeling Dante's heart gradually slow in time with his.

"Ah, gods, Spencer, love," Dante gasped hoarsely into Skip's hair, still holding him tightly. "Criminal beauty was right. You've done me near to death."

Skip laughed, wheezing. It felt wonderful to laugh. It felt wonderful just to be.

"Ditto," he choked.

Dante pulled back slightly, giving Skip a quizzical look.

"What's a ditto?" he asked, and the question, coming from that gorgeous sweat-shiny, sex-flushed face, chin stained with Skip's blood, black hair lank with sweat and oil and probably Skip's come, was just too funny, and Skip laughed until tears squeezed out of his eyes.

"Well, then, ditto to you too," Dante joked, smiling. "Come, love, we're a fright, and I mislike to lie so close before the fire with oil all over us and splashed on the furs, too."

Even the threat of immolation wasn't enough to stir Skip from the most wonderful position he ever hoped to be in, but when Dante shifted, his cock slipped out of Skip, and Skip sighed regretfully, letting Dante help him up. His legs had turned to pudding and his spine had melted.

"Well, we've a choice," Dante chuckled, scooting the furs back from the hearth. "We can go down to the baths, the scent of our rut plain to anyone who passes – it's still early, and doubtless the household is still about – or we can tidy up a bit at the basin and go to bed."

Skip snorted. Dante's hair – and probably his own – was stringy with God knows what combination of fluids, he had so much massage oil all over him that he'd probably squirt right out of bed, and he could feel Dante's come trickling down his legs.

"Sorry, Dante," he said wryly. "I need a bit more than a tidy up at the basin, and you do too." He chuckled again. "Besides, we probably 'entertained' the servants again, and I'd pay good money to see their faces when we walk out in the hall and catch them listening at the door."

Dante laughed joyously, hugging Skip to him tightly.

"There is that," he agreed, and reached for their robes.

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