Title: Jade
Author: Aries
Fandom: XF (M/K)
Rated NC-17 m/m sexual situations, more m/m sexual situations, and oh...didI mention still *more* m/m sexual situations?
Archive: Allslash, Archive X, TER/MA, All Things Rat and Tirinar's Slashville Anywhere else, please ask me, first.

Web page: http://members.tripod.com/~ter_ma3/aries/aries.htm

Summary: The answer...*finally*, to Row's June Alexian Nights challenge, andabout as AU as you can get: long time ago in a land far, far away, there lived a handsome genie prince who, much to his father's consternation had a fascination for humans. This fascination turns to obsession and then true love when one day an amazingly beautiful human catches his eye. As if you couldn't guess, the path to happiness is hardly a smooth one and the star-crossed lovers must endure much pain before they can earn the key to the land of eternal bliss.

Disclaimer: Fox, Alexei, Dana, and any other XF characters belong to CC...damn him to eternal, flaming hell. The rest are mine.

Props to Nic, Orithain, Sue and Tirinar and Niff for all their encouragement, bribes, threats, etc. Big thanks for Ori and Nic for righteous beta. Any remaining goofs, gaffs and blunders are my own.

Feedback is a beautiful thing. You can send me some at MMCUSN@aol.com


The dirt swelled into tiny clouds as the two men walked the crowded streets. The rank odor of the morning's slaughters hung in the air as the oppressive heat of late afternoon bore down on the small village. One of the men watched the activity that surrounded them with fascination. The other twitched anxiously, apparently more than ready to take his leave of the place.

"Really, Alexei, have you not had enough of this foul little town? It smells and it is dirty, and...and..."

The other man ignored the complaints as he continued to look around.

"I really must insist that we leave now. I am beginning to feel quite ill..."

Emerald green eyes flicked away from the street and focused on the red-headed man. "Then leave. I would not want to be the cause of your discomfort."

"You would not come with me?"

"No." The taller man stopped and turned to his companion. The brilliant sunlight fell across his face, illuminating his eyes, dancing off the glossy, sable strands of his hair, and catching the attention of many a passing female. "I wish to stay a while longer."

"But, your father. He will not be pleased..."

"For my father to be angry, Daniel, he must first know of what it is he is to be angry about. Surely you would not tell him?"

The question was more of a statement. A threat, even. The smaller man looked up into the cool green eyes of his friend. "No. No, of course not. But you know he does not need *me* to tell him anything. Your father knows much."

Alexei heaved an exasperated sigh. "I am an adult, Daniel. If I wish to remain here, I will. My father cannot tell me where and where not to go."

"Fine." The other man threw up his hands. "But when he finds out and you must explain why you have disobeyed his rules yet again, I would thank you to leave my name out of the conversation. And furthermore...Alexei...Alexei, are you listening to me?" Daniel broke off his rant and attempted to follow his companion's stare. "What are you looking at?"

A man made his way along the edge of the street, carrying a small package. Tall. Easily as tall as the green-eyed man. Golden-brown hair, kissed with the evening-red rays of the sun, and beautifully full lips, turned into a delicious pout. The clothing he wore spoke not of wealth, but not of abject poverty, either. Working class, most likely. The man wore an air of intelligence, that was a certainty. He was some sort of professional, perhaps. And there was something else. Some intangible something that held the man who watched him, entranced.

Alexei began to move, gravitating toward the object of his attention. His unwitting friend followed, asking over and over again where he was going. He crossed the street quickly and stopped in a doorway a couple of yards in front of the other man's path. As Daniel stood quietly now, confused at his actions, Alexei watched, his heart pounding out the man's every footstep. As he came nearer, his true beauty struck Alexei like an anvil. His features became more clearly defined, and things that were not visible from across the street, now came into focus. Eyes, surely painted by an artist's brush, sparkled a brilliant combination of green, blue and gold. His beautiful face, adorned with a single black mole, parallel to the right corner of his mouth. The marvelously imperfect nose that made him into the thing that fascinated Alexei so much...human. Alexei watched as he passed too quickly. He wanted...he needed to see his face again. Before the man got too far away to see clearly, Alexei pursed his lips, forming with them a small 'o'.

The hazel-eyed man stopped, feeling a cool breeze cut through the still air, ruffling his hair. He turned around, searching the throng. Where could that have come from? It felt very much like a sea breeze, but the ocean was far from here, and besides, there was no wind at all today...

Just as he started to turn back, his eyes caught the gaze of another. A tall, magnificent man with long, dark hair and eyes to rival the greenest gem. He stared for longer than would have been deemed appropriate in polite society and forced himself to move on. Even as he walked away, he could feel the heat of the other's stare on him. He shook off the sensations it aroused in him and continued on his way.

"Now," Daniel chirped up when the man was no longer in view, "would you mind telling me what that was all about?"

Alexei continued to stare in the direction the man had gone. "Was that not the most beautiful creature you have ever seen?"

"There is trouble brewing in those eyes, Alexei, I can see it. You cannot have a human pet, no matter how beautiful he is. Your father forbids it. Please, let us go home. Once you are there, you will find something else to amuse you, and this human will leave your mind. Come, now."

Alexei's eyes fell on his friend, and he gave him an indulgent smile. "Very well, Daniel. You are right. Let us go home and not speak of this again."

"Now you are making good sense," the other man nodded, and with those last words between them, the two set out for home.


"Where have you been, son, I have not seen you all day."

Alexei looked from Daniel to his father. "No place in particular. Daniel and I were just out enjoying the day."

A gray stare was fixed on the other man, and he shrank away from its coolness. "Daniel? You seem so anxious, boy. Is something wrong?"

Now caught between an icy-gray stare and a fiery-green one, Daniel began to stutter. "N-nothing at all, sire. I...I...am just a bit weary, I think."

"Well, by all means then, you should go home and rest."

"Yes...yes, sire. I shall go immediately."

Daniel departed quickly, afraid to look again at his friend, and even more afraid to look at his father. When he was gone, the older man turned to his son.

"Daniel, unlike you, is quite uncomfortable with lying to me. Where were you today?"

Alexei spun away, looking out at the golden stream beneath the main balcony. "We were out exploring, if you must know. Is that a bad thing?"

"Tell me what you were exploring, and I will answer your question."

"We went down below."

"Alexei..."

"Yes, father, to the *village*. I see no crime in it. No one knows..."

The air shook for miles around as the old man's voice boomed. "It is not for you to question! You will obey me!"

Alexei whirled around, shouting back. "I am *not* one of your underlings! You are my father, *not* my master!"

"And you are my *son*! And as such, the others look to you to set the example! What do you think it looks like if the rules I set cannot be heeded by the one who should be helping me to enforce them?"

"They are stupid rules! Humans can do us no harm! *Why* am I to stay away from them....avoid them as though I were afraid?"

"You *should* have fear of them, Alexei."

"But *why*?"

The old man hesitated, then with a wide sweep of his arm, disappeared from sight. Only his voice echoed behind. "Because I am your father and I *say* you should."

Alexei's hands clenched in his hair, and the balcony shook with his anger. He mimicked his father's voice. "Because I *say* you should. What kind of foolish reason is that?"

//I will *not* stay away; I *will* *not*.//

Especially now that he had reason to return.

He went to his room and dropped down onto the pillows that lined his bed. He closed his eyes and thought of the beautiful man with the painted eyes and sighed.

So, so beautiful.

He needed to see him again.

No. He needed more than to see him. He needed to touch. To taste...

He licked his lips absently, imagining what it would be like to possess such sweetness...to woo and to win the heart of one so lovely. Oh, he had his pick of anyone he wanted. As the son of Malik, ruler of the djinn, he had all the lovers he could want at his disposal, but none thrilled him or captured his imagination as did this human.

"I will find you again, beautiful one," he whispered, "and you will be mine."


Hazel eyes searched the growing darkness. For what, the man could not exactly say. He felt a keen longing tonight, and it made him restless. His dinner, long ignored, was finally taken away.

The young servant girl who had picked up his plate, stood at a distance, watching. As he continued to stare out over the land, she stepped forward timidly.

"Are you not well? Should I inform the master?"

The man turned and bestowed a warm smile on the girl. "No, Jamira, I'm fine."

"But, sir. You ate nothing. Not a morsel..."

"I'm not hungry tonight, that's all."

The girl bowed. "Very well. Do you require anything more?"

His eyes took on an odd look, then cleared. "No. Nothing. Thank you, you may go back to the house."

Another bow and the girl was gone, leaving him to his thoughts. He wandered the rooms of his small house, unable to free his mind of the image of the man he'd seen this afternoon. Perfect lips, silky dark hair and matching eyelashes, framing hypnotic green eyes. Flawless olive skin lent the perfect background, making his eyes all the more outstanding. They stared unblinking into his, arousing a heat in his body such as he had never known. He thought about these odd feelings as he walked home from the market square and even after he arrived here at his house, and still they perplexed him. He wanted to understand, but the feeling was strong that he never would figure it out. Not on his own. He wondered if Dana would have any better clue than he.

Dana, his best friend, had come here from the west for the express purpose of teaching the master's children western history and behavior. She arrived four years ago, just five months after he had come to live here with his mother. His father and the master of the house had been close friends and associates, and before he died, his father had asked that his wife and son be taken care of. And so a fortnight after his death, they were moved into a small house on the master's property where they lived quietly until his mother's death two years ago.

The master came to him one day not long after she had passed, and said to him, "Boy, your father was my good friend. And I had a certain...fondness for your mother, but now they are both gone. I feel no responsibility to you, but I come to offer you a deal. You may keep this house...live here as long as you like, for a price."

The man studied him warily. "What price is that?"

"Your mother taught eastern civilization and philosophy in the west before she married your father, and she schooled you well. Miss Scully is a fine tutor but knows little of our culture. If you agree to teach my children, you may stay."

He thought on the offer for a short time. He had no more family, and since he did not wish to be alone in he world, he agreed. And so he lived here, in this modest little house, alone. The only other people who ever set foot inside were the servants who came to clean and bring him food, and Dana, who came to visit a few times a week.

The petite woman with fiery-red hair and a spirit to match, kept him intellectually stimulated and was a loyal friend, but that was all. There was no romance between them, no spark of that kind, and that was fine with him. He saw Dana more as a sister than a lover. In fact, though he often had physical yearnings, he had given romance very little thought. He had never been in love before and had no experience to speak of when it came to such matters. And now, the older he grew, the more frightened he became of the prospect.

But there was the matter of this man, this green-eyed mystery who, with one look, awakened a longing in him so intense it made his body ache and his thoughts jumble.

Yes, he must speak to Dana. Perhaps she could help him sort this out.

An hour later, a knock startled him out of his thoughts. He turned away from the windows and walked to the door. Bright blue eyes smiled up at him as he swung the door open.

"I saw Jamira passing through the house a while ago. She told me you hadn't eaten. Are you all right?"

"I'm *fine*. I told her that I just wasn't hungry."

The woman brushed past him and entered the house. "That isn't like you. Are you sure you're feeling all right?"

"*Yes*." His answer came out with a bit more insistence than he intended.

"Fox..."

The man turned away from the door, sighing in response to hearing his name. "Dana, may I...I...I need to talk to you."

"So there *is* something."

"Yes....no...I don't know. I'm not even sure if you can help me."

"You know I'll try my best." Dana sat and beckoned to him to do the same. "Now what is it that has managed to rid you of your appetite?"

Fox took a deep breath and started with his trip to the market. "I went into the village today to get some school supplies. I was on my way back when I felt this...this breeze. A fresh, sea breeze. Gentle, but not so much that it didn't disturb the hair at the back of my neck. My first response was to turn around, and as I searched the crowd, these eyes, these...beautiful green eyes were staring at me. It was very disturbing."

Dana smiled. "I should think I would be disturbed too, if a pair of disembodied eyes were staring at *me*."

Fox shook his head. "Very amusing. The eyes were set in the most handsome face I've ever seen."

"Handsome? These eyes belonged to a man?"

"Yes. Yes, they did. He stared at me, Dana. He didn't move, he didn't blink. He simply stared. And that stare....it.......it did something to me."

"What did it do?"

"That's what I was hoping you could help me with. My entire body reacted to that one look. It's still reacting."

"Reacting how?"

"It trembles, it...quivers when I think of the way he looked at me. I feel....I feel...."

One red eyebrow quirked. "Desire?"

Fox looked up at her, more than a bit startled to hear her say it. "Is that what it is?"

"Is it exhilarating?"

"Yes..."

"A bit frightening?"

"Definitely."

"Have you entertained the thought of what it might be like to touch this man?"

Fox blinked in surprise. "*Dana*..."

"I'm sorry my friend, but the night is growing short, and I have no time for delicacy if we are going to solve this dilemma of yours."

"I have....I *have* been thinking about what it might be like to...kiss him."

Dana smiled. "Sounds like lust to me."

Fox shook his head. "I hope you don't speak this way to anyone else. You would find yourself in great trouble if you did..."

"Don't worry, I wouldn't dream of being this candid with anyone other than you. Now...getting back to your problem...not that there's a problem that I can see...well, except for the one slight matter of him being a man..."

"Are you saying that it's wrong?"

"Fox, how is it that you've lived to adulthood and still remained so innocent about certain things?"

A shrug was her only answer.

"Yes, Fox, in lots of societies it is wrong for two men to be together sexually."

He thought on this for a while, then responded, "But...why?"

"Religion dictates that men are to lie with women and produce children. It is a sin for a man to lie with another man."

"I've read your bible, Dana. My mother kept one, and now it is mine. I know what it says, but I don't understand why it should be that way. If there is love...shouldn't that be all that matters?"

"I believe so, but I never was one for social correctness. Fox, if you felt an attraction to this man and you think he was attracted to you, I really don't see where the problem is. Except of course, that you only met in passing, and you have no idea who he is, *and* there is the chance that you may never see him again..."

"That thought makes me very unhappy."

Dana laughed softly. "Yes, my dear friend, I do believe you've had your first crush."

"I don't understand. How can this be? I've seen nothing more of him than one fleeting glance allowed. How can it affect me this way?"

Another amused chuckle. "Happens all the time, Fox." She rose from her chair, and preceded Fox to the door. Once there, she turned and gave him an affectionate hug. "I do hope you see him again."

Fox watched his friend disappear in the direction of her own little house, and then he shut the door. He stripped, crawled into bed, and fell into a fitful sleep, waking again and again to thoughts of a man who very possibly had entered his life for the first and last time.


Morning.

And Alexei had slept not a wink, for thinking of the man he'd seen yesterday.

He rose from his bed, the morning sun playing over his magnificently bronzed body as he executed a long, sensuous stretch. He walked naked to his balcony and looked out over the lush fields and sparkling streams of his domain. Three females passed below, hoping to catch a glimpse of the most beautiful of King Malik's sons, and giggled uncontrollably as they found him in all his natural splendor, looking back down at them. He grinned at the small group, turning and moving in his own good time to the doors, giving them the added pleasure of viewing his backside before he disappeared into his bedroom. He paused just on the other side of the curtains, chuckled at their squeals of delight, then set about the business of his quest.


Fox walked the streets slowly today, searching the crowd for the eyes he'd seen only briefly, but knew he would never forget or mistake for another.

He'd performed his teaching duties for the day, managing for the most part to stave off thoughts of the man he was now looking for. Only twice did his attention wander, and of course both times, it was picked up on by the eldest of his students.

Jeffrey, named for his maternal grandfather by his Western born mother, was the unpleasant disruption in Fox's otherwise quiet life. Easily in his twenties, the young man had the intelligence of a nine- year-old. His younger brothers far surpassed him in academics, but what he lacked in intellect, he more than made up for in the ability to irritate Fox. Jeffrey's dislike for his tutor was only amplified by his father's constant derision. He would blow the smoke from his opium pipe in the young man's face while he criticized and compared his intelligence to things such as stones and the rear end a horse. Then in the same wheezing breath, he would give high praise to the mind of the man who taught his children and asked why it was Jeffrey could not allow some small portion of Fox's acumen and disposition to rub off on him.

This morning after a disastrous early riding lesson, the father had cursed the young man for a coward when he refused to re-mount after his horse threw him, and Fox bore the brunt of his frustration. Jeffrey sat sullen and non-responsive throughout his classes, and when Fox had had enough and decided to speak to him about his behavior, he came to life, screaming with rage, making horrible comments about Fox's mother, and throwing everything that wasn't secured to the floor around the room. Fox dismissed the rest of the boys and left Jeffrey alone to have his tantrum. Later in the afternoon, the master learned of his eldest son's outburst, and the desert wind carried his furious response across the property to Fox's door. When he'd heard enough, he retreated, walking into the village allegedly to replace the supplies that were ruined in Jeffrey's tirade, but in truth it was only an excuse. The reason for his journey to town could be found in the haunting gaze of a beautiful, emerald-eyed stranger.

Fox wandered the square for over an hour, finally coming to the disappointed conclusion that the man was not there and that the one glimpse he'd gotten of him would probably have to last him for the rest of his life. He sighed heavily and convinced himself to head for home.


Alexei lingered unseen in the same doorway from which he had watched the man yesterday. He'd been here for hours, looking and hoping, and finally his patience was rewarded. He spotted the man across the road, walking slowly, and...

It almost seemed as though he might be looking for something...or someone. Alexei chewed on his lower lip as the man moved closer.

"Oh, my beautiful one," he spoke aloud but unheard. "You are looking for me, are you not? I am here." He made himself visible to any eye that might turn in his direction. "See me," he now whispered, also able to be heard.

An odd feeling washed over Fox as he approached the spot where he'd encountered the man yesterday. Assuming it was just wishful thinking, he avoided looking into the doorway at first, but the feeling became stronger, and he glanced up. His heart began to race as he saw the face...those eyes. He stopped in his tracks, consumed by the heat in the stranger's gaze. His feet began to move again of their own volition, slowly carrying him closer.

Alexei stood stone-still, silently beckoning the man forward. But before he moved close enough to be touched, he stopped.

//Come to me.//

His lips had not moved, but Fox heard the words clearly. He stopped walking and studied the man.

//Come.//

He flinched, not understanding how this was possible. Was he mad? How could he hear words that had not been uttered? Suddenly frightened but determined not to let the man see, he straightened his posture, gave the other a haughty glance, and moved off in the opposite direction.

Alexei smiled at the display, comprehending the man's trepidation. He allowed him to leave without incident, but followed stealthily as his quarry made for home. Finally the man reached his destination, and Alexei followed him inside the little house, standing in the middle of the main room, looking around. His attention was drawn back to the other man as he tossed his packages down onto the table, then entered the bedroom and fell onto his back on the mattress. He crossed the room and came to stand over the bed, looking down into troubled, hazel eyes.

"Why so sad, lovely one?" he asked, heard by no one but himself. "You need not fear me. I would not harm a single hair of your head. I must make you understand that somehow. And I will." He leaned over, straddling the prone man's chest with his hands. "I must leave you now, but I will return." He stared down into the eyes that had begun scanning the room curiously. "Until tomorrow, my treasure."

Fox gasped as the sudden feel of the sea breeze turned into a soft caress across his lips. As quickly as the sensation came upon him it was gone, and he was left to wonder if he truly was going mad.


Alexei tossed restlessly amongst the pillows, unable to sleep for this, the second night. The sweet taste of those magnificent lips lingered on his own, making sleep impossible. Morning was too far away. Too far. He needed to see him again, and he could wait no longer.


Moonlight streamed in through the windows, casting a pale light across the face of the sleeping man. His night visitor prowled into the bed chamber and sat quietly at the edge of the bed. He studied the sleep-softened features and spoke softly.

"You become more beautiful every time I look upon you." He traced the outline of the man's lips with the tip of one finger. "Whatever this life is that you live...it does not suit you. You, my jewel, should be a king, revered by all. You have not once spoken to me, and already you rule my heart. Yesterday I said that I would make you mine, but the truth is now known to me. I am yours, lord, heart and soul, and I pray you will come to know me and accept my devotion." He tenderly stroked the golden-brown silk atop the sleeping man's head. "I shall come to you gently...in your dreams perhaps, at first, until you begin to find yourself longing for your dream lover in the waking hours. Then I shall reveal and offer myself to you, and you will take me to be yours." Alexei closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. "All in good time." The sable lashes lifted halfway, and dark eyes glittered down at the peacefully slumbering man. "Sleep well this night, lord. Tomorrow is soon enough for us to taste love." He brushed the other man's mouth once more with his own, then left him to sleep away the remainder of the night.


"Fox!"

"Hmm? Yes?"

The red-head could not help but demonstrate her exasperation. "What is wrong with you today? You've been so distracted."

"I know. I'm sorry, Dana."

"Would you like to talk about it?"

Fox sighed softly, watching the horses prance around their enclosure. "I...looked for him yesterday..."

"Oh. No luck, I take it."

"Yes and no."

"How can it be both?"

"I saw him in the same place."

"Did you speak?"

"No."

"Did *he*?"

"No..."

Dana cocked her head. "That wasn't an emphatic no."

"I...I didn't see his lips move, but I heard a voice. Low...soft...like the finest velvet. Exactly the tone I would have imagined him to have."

His companion eyed him doubtfully. "What did this...*voice* say?"

"He was calling me to him."

"And did you go?"

"No, I...I started to, then I backed away."

"Why?"

"I was frightened. I thought I may have taken leave of my senses. How could he have spoken to me? He never opened his mouth. I just wished so much for him to speak that my mind heard it."

"But he did look at you."

"*Yes*. Of that I am sure. And I thought my eyes saw what my mind heard." He closed his eyes and turned away. "I don't know..."

A soft hand caressed Fox's shoulder. "And so you just left?"

"Yes. And later...in my own house, I..."

"Yes?"

"I felt that breeze again. And then..." His fingers absently brushed his own lips. "...a kiss, softer than lamb's wool. Dana, what's wrong with me?"

"*Nothing* is wrong. You're simply entranced by a handsome man..."

Fox turned to his companion. "He is exquisite. Just the thought of him...and now I don't know if I will ever see him again. I had a second chance and I let it slip away."

"Don't be so sure, Fox. Did it occur to you that you saw him in the same place because he was looking for *you*? Why do you think he stares at you?"

Fox shrugged uncertainly.

Dana smiled reassuringly. "You will see him again. I'm sure of it. Now, come. I'd like you to review tomorrow's lessons with me."


Alexei lay on his back by the stream, staring up into the cerulean sky. He inhaled deeply, taking in the sweet scent of wildflowers and sun-warmed grass. He lived in utter beauty, yet now it seemed ordinary in comparison to the magnificence of the man he'd fallen so deeply in love with.

"Tonight, love," he whispered. "Tonight, I will again look on your beauty."

"Well, the young girls think that I am rather appealing, but I had no idea how *you* felt about me."

Alexei's head snapped to the right, and he looked up into Daniel's amused face. He grunted good naturedly and again turned his face up to the sky.

"You should not speak such things aloud," the other man warned, dropping into the grass beside him. "It might have been your father standing here instead of me."

No answer.

"Alexei, what are you doing?"

"What does it look like I am doing?"

"You have not given up on that human, have you?"

"No."

"My friend, you *must*. He can bring you nothing but grief."

Alexei refused to listen. "If you have come to scold me, Daniel, you may go back the way you came." He waved the other man off.

"Is a moment's pleasure worth incurring your father's wrath for ages to come?"

Alexei rolled onto his side and looked at his friend, eyes sparkling. "Who said anything about a *moment*?"

Daniel's mouth dropped open.

Alexei continued. "Even if that is all it turned out to be, I believe I would have to say yes. Yes, a moment of pleasure with him would be worth all the torment my father could throw at me."

The other man shook his head. "You truly mean that."

"Yes," the dark-haired man answered softly. Then softer still, he asked, "May I tell you a secret?"

Daniel looked around. "Yes...yes, of course."

"You must swear to tell *no one*."

"I swear."

"I saw him again. Yesterday. I followed him, and I now know where he lives." Alexei moved closer. "I visited him last evening."

"You what?"

The other man nodded. "He did not know I was there. I just needed to see him. Touch him. I watched him sleep for a short time. He is *beautiful*, Daniel. I wanted so very much to lie down beside him and lay my head upon his chest..." Sable lashes swept downward, giving his eyes a sleepy appearance. "...just to feel his heart beating beneath my cheek."

One red eyebrow arched. "Are you sure that is all you wanted to feel?"

The lashes lifted and deep green eyes stared over at the other man. "You do not understand, Daniel. I did not expect that you would."

"I think I have been insulted."

"Daniel, I..." Alexei stopped in mid-sentence.

"You what?"

"You would not understand."

"Well, *help* me understand."

"You will not tell a soul?"

"I said I would not."

"Even if my father threatened you with punishment?"

Daniel opened and closed his mouth, not knowing what to say.

Alexei turned his head. "Forget it. You cannot be trusted."

"No! I mean, yes! I promise. Nothing will make me ever breathe a word to anyone. Now tell me!"

"All right. But if I discover that you have gone back on your word, my father will not be the one you need to fear."

Daniel nodded, knowing full well that Alexei would and could make good on his threat.

The glacial green stare warmed and softened, and a tiny smile curved the perfect lips. "I am in love."

"Love? But...but how can you be? You do not know this man! And might I remind you that he *is*..."

"*Human*...I know, I know! Why is that such an issue with you and my father?"

"It is an issue with me *because* it is an issue with your father. I do not want trouble for you, my friend, but it would appear to me that you are bent on embracing chaos."

"I am not *looking* for trouble, Daniel, but I will not stay away from him simply because my father cannot abide humans. It is not his life to live; it is mine."

Daniel studied his friend in silence for a moment. "You are a stubborn mule, Alexei. I hope this human of yours can appreciate that trait."

Alexei gave Daniel a brilliant smile. "I am going to see him tonight."

"Are you going to make yourself visible?"

"No. Not just yet."

"Then how do you expect him to fall madly in love with you?"

Green eyes shone as brightly as the sun. "I have a plan."

Daniel fell onto his back, emitting a hearty laugh. "Allah help this poor man."

"He does not need Allah. All he needs is me."

Daniel shook his head, chuckling. "I hope for the sake of your ego, he agrees."


Fox wandered the perimeter of his rooms, disappointment weighing heavily on his heart. After class today, he had gone again into the village, hoping to find the green-eyed stranger waiting for him in the crowd, but he had been nowhere in sight. Fox concluded that either he'd given up, or he'd read far too much into those intent stares, and the man had no interest in him at all. Either way, he was depressed.

Night had long since fallen, and his body began to hint at its fatigue. When he could fight it no more, he obeyed the command to sleep, and he undressed and slipped between the sheets. Now suddenly wide awake, he tossed restlessly for a long while, then drifted off slowly, pillowed on dreams of ocean breezes and love with a mysterious emerald-eyed man.


The diaphanous curtains barely moved this evening. The still, dry air hung in the room, emphasizing the silence. The new presence in the slumbering man's room made not a sound as it drifted across the floor and settled at the edge of the bed.

"I have returned, my love," Alexei murmured to the unconscious Fox. "I saw you in the village today...searching for me. Did you miss me? I truly hope so, for I have missed you terribly. But now I am here." His fingers whispered over the surface of Fox's hair. "Do you dream tonight, lord? No matter. Let it fade." Alexei continued to stroke the golden-brown strands. "You see nothing but darkness now. Your mind is clear, and now you are ready." He lowered his head until his cheek brushed the other man's, then whispered into his ear. "Dream of me..."

The immobile man began to stir ever so slightly and his eyelashes fluttered. Shapes began to invade his peaceful world. Nothing discernible as yet, but anticipation began to build. The shapes became recognizable, but none were familiar. A room...large...airy...almost completely empty...free floating curtains in gossamer silk hung from huge windows, and in the middle of the floor, a bed. Large, overstuffed...carved wooden posts...scattered with pillows in various shapes and sizes, all covered in the finest ivory silk. Its cool comfort beckoned to him, and he answered, moving forward and lying down. He stretched lazily, sinking into the pillows and idly wondering where he was and how he got there.

Movement caught his eye, and he slowly sat up, looking toward the windows. From the folds of the billowing silk, a man emerged. Draped in flowing robes and turban, he was a vision in ivory. The moonlight caught in the golden earrings that framed his beautiful face, and his eyes sparkled like gems. He approached silently, stopping at the end of the bed. Fox looked up at him, entranced.

//Will...will you speak to me?//

The man smiled, his olive skin the perfect backdrop for strong, white teeth. //What would you have me say?//

//Tell me who you are...and where I am, and...what you want with me...//

//You are in a place better suited to you than that modest little house in which you live. *I* am the one who adores you, and as for what I want...//

Fox felt his pulse quicken.

The man shook his head. //I am here to give you what *you* want. After all, this is *your* dream.//

//Dream?//

//Yes...you look disappointed.//

//I...I thought...I hoped that you'd be...//

//Real? I am. You did not dream, nor did you imagine our two meetings in the village.//

//You...you said you...adore me?//

//Does that make you uncomfortable?//

//It...I...I don't know. I'm not sure how it makes me feel.//

//But you feel something?//

//Yes. It's very...confusing...//

He smiled sweetly. //Tell me your name.//

//You don't know it?//

//No. Do you wish not to tell me?//

The other man hesitated, then managed to stutter, //F-Fox.//

One dark eyebrow arched. //Fox?//

//Yes.//

Another smile. //It is an odd name, but...// he studied the man on the bed, //..very fitting, I think.// He sat carefully at the edge of the mattress. //You are so very beautiful...//

Fox turned away, discomposed by the statement and the closeness of the man.

//Do you fear me?//

No response.

//There is no reason to. This is your dream. I cannot harm you.// His fingers whispered across Fox's cheek. //I would not.//

Fox shivered under the stranger's touch, and all at once he was made very aware of the fact that he was naked. He pulled a large pillow into his lap and again avoided the green gaze.

//I am quite aware of your arousal, love,// the man said softly. //It pleases me very much.//

Fox chewed on the inside corner of his lip, but said nothing. The hand at his cheek drifted downward, skimming the side of his neck, the curve of his shoulder, then stroked a path down his arm, finally coming to rest over his hand. The voice sounded again.

//What do you wish of me tonight?//

Hazel eyes blinked up into his face. Lush lips parted and the first sounds that left them were soft gasps of confusion. Then Fox spoke.

//I don't...I...// His voice faded, then went silent

//What is it, love? I can give you anything you desire. Just tell me.//

Fox shook his head. //I don't know, I've never...// Again he fell into frustrated silence, and an understanding smile graced his visitor's lips. He sucked in a breath as the man slid closer and, pulling the pillow away, slipped an arm around him. His heart thrashed in his chest at the sensation of a warm, soft mouth brushing his. When he did not shy away, the arm around his waist pulled him closer, and the kiss deepened. Tentatively his hands slid up to the other's back. The sensuous feel of soft linen beneath his fingers added to the overwhelming pleasure he was already experiencing, but...how could this be so real? He'd had many, many dreams, but none like this. Every touch, every taste...every small sound, vibrated through his body with a very real intensity.

Gently, the man lowered him to the pillows, maintaining contact with his lips. In one fluid, barely noticeable moment, they were lying together, and the stranger's hands were wandering slowly over his body, eliciting soft moans from his throat. The moans turned into a surprised gasp as he felt a tongue, gentle but insistent, parting his lips. His surprise deepened as he felt himself so easily submit, opening his mouth and allowing the man to explore at his leisure.

Timidly, Fox's tongue inched out, touching the one invading his mouth. It withdrew quickly then returned, coaxed back into play by its mate.

He tasted of fruit and rich wine, this dream lover of his, and it was intoxicating. Fox ventured deeper into his mouth, gaining confidence, and soon their tongues were tangled together in sensual bliss. His hands wandered up the other's back, stroking over the finely chiseled muscles, marveling at the feel of another man's body beneath his fingers. He wondered idly if the man in the village would feel anything like this apparition his mind had conjured up.

A hand traveling down his chest, coaxed his attention back to the present situation. Fingers lightly combed through the scattering of hair then drifted to the side, circling one nipple and teasing it to hardness. Fox broke from the mouth covering his, arching his back and gasping at the intimate touch. His hands fell away from the man's back and into the sheets, gathering fistfuls of the silk between his fingers. Silently, the man smiled down at him and moved to the other nipple, treating it to the same loving attention. When the second nipple was as hard as the first, he continued on, slowly working his way down Fox's torso and sliding his fingers through the dark patch of curls surrounding the length of solid muscle.

Fox fought for every breath as he felt the stranger's hand brush the base of his erection, then close gently around it. Their mouths met again, and his hand began to move, tenderly stroking the impossibly rigid shaft.

There was sound in Fox's head...a distant rumble that soon became a roar resembling the storms that sometimes blew violently through the desert. He whimpered softly into the mouth still feeding on his, feeling the tension build in his body to the point where he was sure he would snap in two if it was not relieved.

The man above him understood his torment and sought to put an end to it. He pulled away from Fox's mouth and kissed a path to his ear. //It is time, beautiful Fox.// He increased the speed of his strokes, prompting desperate cries from the beneficiary of his attention. //Take your pleasure.//

Fox's hips jerked upward once, twice, and then his body was spasming uncontrollably, releasing a long, thick stream of fluid over the hand that quickly but gently milked him. His cries of fulfillment echoed around him, and as they faded, he felt the other's lips, soft and sweet on his own. His eyes fluttered open when the gentle pressure was removed, and he blinked up into sparkling, forest- green eyes.

//Remember well this dream, my treasure. I will return to you again soon.//

//Please,// Fox breathed softly, //don't leave.//

//But I must.// The visage began to fade. //You must awake soon and begin your day.//

//I don't want to. I like it here. Don't go...//

Alexei watched the restless shifting of the sleeping man's body. He raised a hand to his cheek and whispered to him, "Rest easy now, love. No more dreams tonight." He stroked Fox's face and hair. "Rest..."

All movement soon ceased, and Fox's respiration became slow and steady. Alexei leaned in for one lingering kiss, then rose from the bed. He smiled softly down at the other man, then faded back into the night.


"There you are." Daniel approached his friend, lounging lazily by his favorite stream. "I should have known to look here first."

"Hello, Daniel."

He sat beside Alexei and waited. When the other man did not speak again, he nudged his arm. "Well?" he asked impatiently. "How did it go?"

"How did what go?"

"Last night, Alexei...with your human." He whispered the last word. "Was it *so* forgettable?"

A smile curved the other man's mouth, and his eyes fell shut. "My Fox is anything but forgettable."

"Fox?"

"That is his name. Beautiful...as he is."

The other man rolled his eyes. "So, have you enchanted him, then? Made him your love slave for life?"

"I do not wish to enslave him, Daniel. I want his love, but I want him to give it freely."

"And you think this is possible once you reveal your true self to him?"

"I do not know. I can only pray that it is."

The other man shook his head. "You have the advantage, Alexei. If you want him so badly, why not use it?"

"Because it would not be real. Do you not understand that? I want to look into those magnificent, painted eyes and see *true* love. Not a product of some spell."

Daniel stared intently for long moments, then asked, "Who are you and what have you done with my friend?"

His response came in the form of a brief grunt.

"Seriously, Alexei, this is not like you. If you want something, you take it. What is so different about this?"

Alexei began to speak, paused, then began again. "It....it is difficult to explain, Daniel."

"Try."

"You will not understand until you are truly in love, but...I could not bear it if he were changed in any way. I want to experience true love...to see the glow in his eyes when I come to him and know that what he feels for me is all his own emotion and nothing that I have manipulated him into feeling."

"But have you not already done that? You have insinuated yourself into his dreams..."

"I was there. I instigated the dream. That is all. The rest was left to him."

"But why?" Red eyebrows arched in curiosity. "Why not just speak to him in the village?"

"I saw him in the village again. For a time, it looked as though he would come and speak with me, but he became frightened and turned away."

"What frightened him?"

"I was not sure at the time. Now, I suspect that my jewel is even more precious than I thought."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that my sweet Fox is an innocent."

The other man cocked his head curiously.

"I believe he has had no lovers," Alexei explained.

Daniel burst into laughter. "Are you serious? Alexei, do you truly believe that one as delicious as he has not had even *one* lover?"

"I know it does not seem possible, but after last night...it is what I believe."

"What happened last night?"

Alexei smiled and shook his head.

"But you tell me about *all* of your liaisons! Come now, do not tease me so."

"Sorry, my friend. Fox has stolen my heart and my soul, and I will not speak of him as if he were just another meaningless conquest."

Daniel folded his arms across his chest and pouted. "You used to be fun, Alexei. I do not think I like what this human is doing to you."

"Really?" White teeth flashed in the morning sun. "I like it very much." Alexei rose to his feet and grinned down at his friend. "I will see you later."

Daniel blinked up into his face. "Where are you going?"

"To see my love."

"It is morning, Alexei. You cannot infiltrate his dreams, so what are you going to do? Linger about unseen, just mooning over him?"

A soft laugh was his reply.

"All right, fine. Keep it to yourself. Go on to your Fox, and leave me to find my own amusement."

"You do not have to look far," Alexei answered. "This morning, I heard Suni and Jameelah talking about you."

"Are you sure they simply were not plotting to do away with the prince's red-headed friend so they could get closer to his magnificence?"

Alexei broke into a hearty laugh. "*No*. They were speaking very well of you...and giggling."

"*Really*. Hmm. This could be interesting."

"Indeed it could," Alexei encouraged. "Go find them. I will see you later." He watched his friend shuffle off in search of the females they spoke of, and smiled. "And, my precious Fox, I will see *you*, now."


Fox picked at his breakfast, his mind reviewing again and again the events of his dream and the condition he'd found himself in this morning. Sheets, stuck to his lower regions and smelling of his own semen. His body pleasantly drained, and his memory full of the mysterious, emerald-eyed man who had come into his dreams and done to him what no other ever had. His body tingled at the thought, and he found himself hardening.

//No. Think of something else. You must leave soon. The children will be waiting...//

Distraction came in the form of a large, black cat that had wandered in through the open doors and was now rubbing insistently against his leg.

Fox smiled down at the animal. "Where did you come from?" he asked softly, reaching down to scratch behind the feline's ear. The loud purrs encouraged him to continue. "You are very handsome. Do you belong to the master?"

The cat jumped into his lap and looked up at him with emerald-green eyes. Fox looked into them for a moment, stunned. He regained his composure and chuckled softly. "Why does it seem that suddenly I am to be constantly seduced by beautiful green eyes?" He stroked the cat's back, enjoying the ripple of muscle beneath his fingers. "Have you had breakfast? I'll share mine with you, then I must get to class. I cannot keep the children waiting." He finished his breakfast, feeding a good portion of it to his new friend, then set off for class, leaving the cat stretched lazily across his bed.


Fox made it to class only a few minutes late and had little trouble getting the boys under control before settling down to the day's business. From his seat at the back of the room, Jeffrey brooded silently as usual, lending an air of gloom to the otherwise cheerful morning. Halfway into the second lesson, Jeffrey made his presence known, shouting and attempting to shoo away the cat that had hopped up into the window. The cat crouched on the sill, ears flattened, eyes dilated to near-blackness, snarling at the young man.

Fox calmly walked to the back of the room and stood beside the window. "Stop shouting, Jeffrey, you're frightening him."

"*Frightening* him? That animal is vicious! See how he hisses and growls at me!"

Fox emitted a patient sigh. "He is *not* vicious." To prove his point, he reached out to the cat, murmuring softly to the animal as he stroked the top of its head. "You were just frightened, weren't you? It's all right, no one is going to hurt you."

In answer, the cat arched its back, purring loudly.

"No?" Jeffrey fumed. "I would not be so certain about that. If *I* see it alone, I will snap its neck!"

The other children gasped in horror at their brother's proclamation.

Fox leveled a stony gaze on the younger man, and picked the cat up. It settled comfortably into his arms, still purring contentedly.

"Don't touch this animal, Jeffrey. It has done you no harm."

"It would have attacked me!"

"Your wild exaggerations are going to get you into very serious trouble one day. Now, calm yourself."

"My father will hear of this! And he will..."

Tired of the young man's ranting, Fox cut him off. "By all means, Jeffrey, if you feel this very serious matter must be brought immediately to your father's attention, go on and tell him. But do not disrupt my class any further."

Jeffrey fell silent, staring daggers at him.

"Make your choice, Jeffrey. Go, or stay and be quiet."

The younger man retreated back into an angry silence for the rest of the morning, refusing to participate in class. He became even angrier when, at lunch time, Fox allowed the boys to come up and pet the cat who had been lounging in the window closest to him.

The animal lay quietly, tolerating the children's gentle attention, and when class was over, he climbed onto Fox's shoulder and allowed the man to convey him back to the little house. From a wine colored pillow that he had claimed as his own, he watched Fox bathe and change, and soon afterward a petite woman appeared at the door.

"Am I early?" Dana asked as she passed into the main room and took a seat.

"No," Fox answered. "Jamira should be here soon with dinner." He took a seat across from her, and Dana's eyes lit up as he was immediately joined by a lovely black cat. The animal seemed to appear from nowhere, jumping up and settling at Fox's side, rubbing its head against the man's leg.

"Oh, how beautiful!" Dana squealed in delight. "Where did he come from?"

"I don't know," Fox replied, reaching down to gently pass his hand over the cat's body. "He appeared this morning and refuses to leave me. He even followed me to class." He began to chuckle. "He and Jeffrey did not exactly hit it off."

Dana grunted. "Is there anyone or anything that Jeffrey *does* hit it off with?"

"Good point."

"So, are you going to keep him?"

Fox shrugged. "He may certainly stay if he wants to. I'm enjoying the company." Fox looked down at the animal, who had now rolled onto its back, legs splayed, purring happily as its throat and belly were scratched. "He's got the most incredible green eyes. They remind me of..." He cut himself off, refusing to allow himself the indulgence. But Dana caught the soft words and prodded her friend.

"What do they remind you of?"

Fox shook his head and continued to pet his new companion.

"Still thinking about him?"

The golden-brown head jerked up, then slowly lowered again. "Yes. I....I dreamt of him last night."

Dana saw the slight blush tinge his cheeks, and she decided against asking for details.

"Your subconscious mind is speaking to you, Fox. It's doing what you want to do in consciousness but can't."

Fox sighed and shrugged. "Dreams are probably all I will have of him now, anyway."

"You never know, Fox. He may turn up again when you least expect him to. And if he does, what are you going to do?"

Fox closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I will speak to him...I hope."

"Don't hope. Do it or the regret will be deeper than it is right now."

Before Fox could answer, dinner arrived, and they sat down to eat, Dana digging in hungrily and Fox again only picking and sharing part of his meal with his new friend.

An hour after dinner was over, Dana went back to her own house, leaving Fox alone to contemplate her words. He lay across his bed, the cat curled up against his chest, thinking. "Dana is right," he told his sleeping companion. "If I am fortunate enough to see him again, I must not let fear stop me from speaking to him." He lay quietly for a moment, then flung an arm across his face. "Who am I fooling? I can't just walk up to him and strike up a conversation. What would I say? What if I'm completely wrong about his intentions?" He groaned heavily. "Am I insane? What makes me think that someone as beautiful as he would want *me*?"

The cat opened its eyes and uncurled its body, stretching and yawning. With a soft thud, it jumped to the floor and disappeared through the open door.

Fox watched forlornly as his beautiful companion left him alone with his woe. "Well," he whispered to himself, "that's more like it. Alone and lonely." He stared up at the ceiling until sleep came for him nearly an hour later.


The soft whisper of a silken caress opened Fox's eyes. He looked up into now familiar emerald eyes, and smiled.

//You came back to me.//

//Of course I have returned. You summoned me.//

//I did?//

//Yes, love.//

//I don't understand...//

//Did you not wish for me to come to you?//

//No...I mean...*yes*, but...I don't remember summoning you.//

//The subconscious mind is not always an easy thing for us to understand. Sometimes it is best not to try.//

A gentle kiss brushed across the tip of Fox's nose, then one landed on each fluttering eyelid, and finally settled on his full mouth.

With only a bit of coaxing, Fox parted his lips and allowed the other man to sweep inside. He teased the soft interior for a moment, then pulled away. //What would please you tonight, my jewel?// he asked softly, tracing the curve of Fox's lower lip with his index finger.

Fox blinked, then looked away.

//Do not be afraid. Anything you wish for, love. Anything at all...I will not reject you.//

//I....I can't, I don't...//

//Shh. All right. I understand.// Fox's visitor stroked his face. //You trusted me last night. Will you trust me again?//

//Y-yes.//

Fox sighed into the mouth that came down on his, again opening himself to the teasing tongue. He squirmed under the other man's touch, wanting to feel his hands everywhere at once, and shocked himself by arching against him, attempting to obtain the contact he sought. The soft chuckle tickled his lips.

//Not so timid once your desire is aroused, are you, sweet Fox? I like that.// He nuzzled Fox's throat. //Please touch me.//

Tentatively, Fox lifted a hand to the other man's throat, tracing a line downward as far as his clothing would allow. He then stopped, gently rubbing the spot on the other's upper chest.

//It is easily removed,// the soft, silky voice coaxed, //if you wish...//

He did wish. But it was fear...that crippling, damnable fear that made him hesitate. His visitor smiled indulgently and loosened the fastenings of his robes, allowing them to hang open. He gently grasped Fox's hand and placed it upon his bared chest.

//You see? There is nothing to be afraid of.//

Fox stared up into the other man's eyes, motionless for a moment, then his hand began to move, cautiously traveling the hard planes of the chest under his fingers. Dark lashes fluttered and closed as the man sighed softly, encouraging him to continue. He watched his hand moving of its own accord over the bronzed skin, stroking and petting, listening to the deep, rumbling sounds of pleasure. Slowly, his fingers slid over to the left, brushing over one nipple.

//Oh, yes, love. Oh, yes...//

Unsure of what to do next, but positive that he did not want this moment to end, Fox's hand traveled over to the other nipple, teasing that one as well. A shy but satisfied smile curved his lips as the other moaned aloud.

//You have a magical touch, my love,// the man panted softly. He shifted until he was on his back, and looked up at Fox, waiting. //Please, Fox. Will you continue?//

Fox gazed down into the passion-glazed eyes and fell on the other man with a soft moan. His mouth found its mate, and he attempted to imitate what had been done to his own mouth. A deluge of impassioned moans and fingers clenching in his hair told him that he must have been doing it right. As his confidence and his passion built, he moved away from the other man's lips, kissing down his throat to his chest. His mouth followed the path that his hands had earlier taken, licking and nipping, finding one nipple and flicking across it.

The man beneath him arched and whimpered, begging incoherently for more, sending the blood pounding through Fox's veins. His hands stroked the heated skin of the man's torso as he sucked the pebbled flesh into his mouth. Above his head, a breath hissed sharply, and a cry caught in the constricted throat.

Working on sheer animal instinct, Fox moved lower, his hands grazing the other's slim hips, and began to work at loosening his pants. His task accomplished, he began to pull the material down, when suddenly, something did not feel right. There was sound. Distant, but unable to be ignored. Unwillingly, he turned an ear to it.

//Fox...love...please...//

His voice was fading. Drowning behind the alien sound. The feel of his skin...his smell...that too was fading.

//No...no...I won't...I won't...want to stay...//

Fox blinked in the darkness, wincing at the painfully swollen erection he sported. He attempted to focus on the accursed sound that woke him from his beautiful dream, and found that the noise was coming from outside. Two voices rang out. One he recognized as Jeffrey's, and the other as his father's.

"You *will* obey me, you cur. You are the oldest of my sons, and Allah forgive me, but you will be educated even if it kills you!"

"I will not go back to class, I will not!"

"You will! I will not be humiliated, do you understand? You will learn, or I will send you so far away, you will never find your way back!"

There was quiet after that, but the shouting had gone on long enough for Fox to have awakened completely. His fingers clenched in his hair, and he groaned into the blackness. "Come back to me, my lover," he whimpered softly. "Please..."

He lay awake until dawn, tossing and turning, unable to sleep a wink. As the sun rose, he did also, bathing in cold water in an attempt to wake himself up and cool his still smoldering desires. He sat down to breakfast, looking up at every sound, hoping that his feline friend had returned, but when he left for class, he'd seen not a hair. He worked through the lessons, ignoring the pouting young man at the back of the room, and when lunch time arrived, he stumbled back to his house for a rest before the afternoon classes. He dropped across his bed and closed his eyes, fully aware that it may not be the best idea. He'd slept so little last night, he might just drop off and miss the afternoon classes all together. Unable to gather enough energy to care, he closed his eyes.


Alexei brushed his fingers across the cool water, conjuring up the image of his love. He gazed down into the stream, watching Fox nod off to sleep.

"You are so very tired," he whispered to the swirling image. "I am truly sorry for last night. It should not have ended that way..."

He closed his eyes and thought of the night before. He had come to Fox again, but did not instigate the dream. He merely lay beside him and watched it progress, taking great pleasure in watching his flower unfold. When that blasted Jeffrey and his slack-jowled, opium puffing father woke him with their screeching, it had all come to an end. Instead of *helping* Fox to go back to sleep, he allowed him to toss about for the remainder of the night, thinking about the dream and becoming more agitated with each passing hour. Now, he was exhausted and sad, and Alexei had to do something to relieve his unrest. "Sleep, lord." he whispered, "I shall wake you when it is time."


A soft rumble roused Fox out of his slumber. He executed a long stretch, then slowly opened his eyes. As his arms slid from above his head, down to his sides, one hand came in contact with a soft, silky object. He opened one eye and glanced down at the cat snuggled to his side, staring at him. A trace of a smile crossed his lips, and he sat up. "I didn't think you would return," he said, stroking the glistening fur, "but I'm glad that you did." He glanced around, shaking his head. "And thank you for waking me. I may actually be on time for afternoon classes."

Green eyes watched as Fox gathered up his supplies and rushed to the door. The soft meow stopped him before he could exit the house. He turned to find his friend at his feet, looking up at him.

"What is it? Would you like to come with me?" He held out his arms, not really expecting that the animal would leap into them, but that was exactly what it did. The cat draped itself over his shoulder, nuzzling Fox's cheek, and the two headed back to the classroom.


Jeffrey scowled from his seat at the back of the classroom, growing angrier with every admiring remark from his brothers about the tutor's cat. Finally, when he'd had all he could stand, he lashed out.

"What is so wonderful about some flea-bitten, mangy cat?" he bellowed, startling the younger boys.

"He is not mangy," Amir, the youngest of the group, chirped up. "You are just jealous because he likes us and not you."

"Jealous?" The young man laughed bitterly. "I am jealous of nothing and no one!" He glared at Fox. "No one, do you hear?"

"I hear you, Jeffrey," Fox said softly.

The younger man continued to rail at him. "You lie. You think I am jealous of you! What is there to be envious of, tell me! Your brain? Your looks?" He laughed again. "That will be the day when I am jealous of *you*, tall and gangly as you are, with your...your droopy hair and lips that look like someone hit you, and...and...freakish eyes that cannot seem to decide what color they want to be!"

Fox stared sadly at Jeffrey, saying not a word. Such a pathetic young man. Not an ounce of self esteem did he have. His father had failed so miserably with him...

Jeffrey recognized the expression and shook with rage. The next thing Fox knew, the younger man was hurling himself at him, but before Jeffrey could reach him, the cat pounced, sinking its claws into his face.

A loud, pained shriek rose from Jeffrey's throat as he clutched at the animal, trying to pull it away. Fox leapt forward, grasping the cat and gently prying its claws from Jeffrey's skin while at the same time trying to hold the young man still. When he'd finally succeeded in separating the two, he held on to the growling cat while instructing the other boys.

"Take him to the house, and find Fatima. She will see to his wounds. I will go see your father."

The boys led their wailing brother away, and Fox gathered up his supplies, carrying them and the cat back to his house. Once inside, the cat jumped down from his shoulder and joined him in the chair he dropped into. He looked down at the animal, then sighed, scratching its head. "I know why you attacked him, but...you shouldn't have. No matter how obnoxious he is, he is still the master's son, and I fear you may well have gotten us both into quite a bit of trouble."

Wide green eyes stared up at him as if the animal were actually listening to every word. It sounded a tiny meow, then climbed into Fox's lap, rubbing its head against his chest.

Fox sighed and smiled down at the animal. "I don't know what I did to inspire such devotion, but I do appreciate it." He lifted the cat, dropped a kiss on the top of its head, then set it back down in the chair he'd just vacated. "Well...I'd better get this over with. You and I, my friend, may be living in a tent soon. I hope you don't mind." With one last smile and a deep breath, he opened the door and walked out to meet his doom.


Smoke swirled through the room, the acrid smell hitting Fox's nose as he came through the door.

"I heard about the excitement in class a while ago," the soft, raspy voice sounded from the other end of the room.

Fox stepped forward. "Yes. I am sorry, I should not have allowed the cat into the classroom, but the children enjoyed him so..."

"The children." The master pivoted, now facing his employee. "Yes, the children. They are very fond of you, Fox. They have preceded you here."

"They...they have?"

"Yes. To explain that this unpleasant incident happened through no fault of yours. They have informed me that Jeffrey is entirely to blame, and I am inclined to believe that. Will you kindly confirm or dispute their report?"

Fox lowered his eyes for a moment, then leveled an earnest gaze on the older man. "I cannot dispute it sir, but...Jeffrey is a troubled young man. He desperately wants your approval, and when he can't get it, he reacts badly."

The old man cocked his head. "You defend him after he tried to attack you?"

"I...I am simply trying to give you a reason for his behavior."

"So you are telling me that I am to blame for the way he behaves?"

Silence answered his question.

"I should have you whipped for such an implication."

Still, no response.

"You would not plead for leniency?"

"No, sir."

The master studied him for long seconds, then, "If Jeffrey had a fraction of your grace and bravery, I would not be so hard on him...you may go, Fox. I must go see to my...*son*."

Fox executed a shallow bow and exited the room and the house.


Alexei impatiently paced around the room, awaiting Fox's return. Arms folded across his chest, he muttered to himself.

"I swear...if that pathetic little weasel has caused you any trouble, my love, I will shred him from head to foot."

He dropped into the chair that Fox had been sitting in before he left, still talking to himself.

"Perhaps I should find you...just to insure that nothing is wrong."

Just as he made the decision to go out in search of Fox, his ears detected the faint click of the door...

Fox entered, finding the cat in the same spot he'd left it. He smiled as he approached the animal, then squatted down in front of it. The cat rose, butting its head against his chin, purring softly.

"Well, my friend, we've been pardoned. But from now on, you must behave yourself. No more attacks on Jeffrey, is that clear?"

His answer came in the form of a barrage of laps of the small pink tongue at his lips. He giggled softly, pulling away. "Hey, that tickles," he said as he rubbed at his mouth with the tips of his fingers. Lifting the cat and hugging it to him, he rose to his feet. "I was thinking of going into the village for a while. When I return, we'll have dinner, all right?" He placed the cat down on the chair, and walked to the door. Just before he walked out, he turned to once more look at his companion, who had twisted into an impossible position and was drifting into sleep. An uncontrollable smile lit his face, and he closed the door behind him.


There was no smile as Fox returned from his trip into the village. For over an hour he milled about, stopping at this shop and that, looking for the mysterious green-eyed man, but to no avail. Finally, he gave up and headed for home.

A soft meow greeted him as he pushed the door open. He looked down at his new housemate, breathing a soft sigh of relief. "Thank you for still being here." He dropped into the chair, patting his lap. His companion joined him without haste, sprawling comfortably across his thighs. "He wasn't there," Fox said softly, scratching the animal's head. "I may as well give up."

The cat watched him intently for a moment, its tail lazily curling and uncurling. It then pulled itself into a sitting position and lifted a paw to Fox's chest. Fox gave it a trace of a smile.

"What is it?"

The animal sounded a low but insistent meow, and removed its paw.

"I suppose that in time I will learn to recognize all your different sounds and gestures, but for now, I will just have to guess. Are you hungry?" He repeatedly ran his hand down the sleek back. "Jamira will be here soon with dinner."

Seemingly satisfied, the cat turned around once, then curled itself into a ball and closed its eyes. Fox decided to follow his companion's example and let his head drop back against the cushion of the chair. He closed his eyes and in no time was hovering between sleep and consciousness. The knock on the door shortly after brought him back to full awareness. He picked the cat up and, carrying it with him, went to open the door.

Dana smiled up at her friend, then at the bundle of shining black fur in his arms.

"Hello, Fox." She reached out to scratch behind the cat's ear. "Hello, beautiful. How are you today?" She passed them by, allowing Jamira to enter with the evening meal. "Hope you don't mind, I thought we could dine together tonight."

"No...no, of course not." Fox followed the women into the dining area and thanked Jamira as she silently placed the tray down and slipped back out the door.

Dana went to him and took the cat from his arms, nuzzling her face into its neck. "I'm happy to see that you decided to stay. Fox is such a loner, you know. If it weren't for me, sometimes I think he would have no social life at all..." She broke off her sentence, and looked to her friend. "Have you named him?"

"No..."

"Well, what are waiting for?"

"I...I don't know what to name him. I've never had a pet."

"Hmm. Well, let's see." She sat and placed the cat on her lap. "What do you look like?" She smiled up at Fox. "His eyes are a beautiful shade of green. Like jade."

"I actually thought they looked like emeralds," he said, a distant tinge to his voice.

"I suppose, but Jade is a better name. Short...easier when you're calling him..."

Fox shrugged. "It's fine with me if it's fine with him."

Dana giggled. "Really, Fox, I don't think he'll have any objections. He's just a cat..."

"A smart cat."

A knowing smile crossed the woman's face. "I saw Jeffrey." She snickered softly and kissed the top of the black head. "Good boy."

"Dana..."

"What? Oh, he's a pain in the...well, you know where, and he deserved what he got for trying to attack you."

"He's very troubled..."

Dana rolled her eyes, rising from her seat to uncover their meal. "You are a very generous man, Fox. More generous than young master Jeffrey deserves."

Fox ignored the comment, and the two sat down to eat.

"So," Dana began a few bites later, "I assume you haven't seen him."

Fox fed a morsel to the cat who sat beside him. "No," he said barely above a whisper.

Dana looked on her friend with sympathy. "You'll see him again, Fox, I know you will."

Fox shook his head slowly. "I don't think so."

"Don't be so negative. Of course you'll see him. He's seen *you*, remember?"

"What does that mean?"

Dana grinned. "How could he look at that excruciatingly handsome face and *not* want to see you again?"

Fox lowered his eyes and said nothing.

"Goodness, Fox, don't look so dour. You should be enjoying your dinner...*and* your company."

Fox looked down at the cat, and a tiny trace of a grin curved his mouth. "Well, he *is* good company."

"I meant *me*!"

He looked up into irritated cerulean eyes and burst into laughter. "Oh, yes, you're also good company."

"Isn't this lovely? I'm second choice to a cat," Dana complained good-naturedly. "Tell me, Fox, when your mystery man shows himself again, which of them will hold the bigger place in your heart?"

"Dana, if this man was interested in me..."

"He is..."

"You're assuming that his interest would be for more than just a moment's pleasure."

Dana shook her head. She'd never known a man as beautiful as this one to be so humble. "Fox," she sighed, "no person who had a romantic interest in you would be stupid enough to settle for one night of physical pleasure. You've got so much more to offer, and if you two talked even for just a short time, he would know that."

Fox fell silent, pushing his food around with one finger. He picked up a sliver of meat and held it above the cat's head. The animal sat up on its haunches and daintily picked the offering from his fingers.

Dana said nothing more, allowing Fox to digest the things she'd said to him. When dinner was finished, they sat quietly discussing classes and their problem student for a while. When they'd exhausted all conversation, Dana stretched and announced that it was time for her to go. Fox walked her to the door, gave her a chaste peck on the cheek, and bid her goodnight. Once she'd gone, he walked back into the main room and dropped down on the floor, lying on his back. His companion was there in an instant, crawling up onto his chest and staring down at him. He stroked the cat's fur, enjoying the rumble of its purr against him.

"So...Jade...is Jade all right with you?"

Soft, raspy meow.

"I'll assume that meant yes...what do you think? Could Dana be right? Is there any chance that I'll see him again?"

Somehow, Jade's answering purr lulled and reassured him the way Dana's words could not. Before he could have another coherent thought, he found his eyes growing heavy and sleep quickly overtaking him.


Fox wandered the perimeter of the same room he'd been in twice before.

Waiting.

Finally, he called out.

//Where are you?//

No reply.

//Please...you must be here. Please come to me.//

Still nothing.

//I didn't want to go last time. I tried to stay, but the voices. They were so loud. Please. I'm sorry...//

//There is no need to be sorry.//

Fox spun around, his heart leaping into his throat as his mysterious lover came into view. He stood silently as the man slowly circled him.

//Why do you look frightened?//

//I...I'm not, I'm just...you startled me.//

//But you were looking for me...you were calling to me...//

//I didn't expect you to come.//

//I cannot keep myself from you.//

//I thought...//

//Yes?//

//I thought I'd done something wrong.//

//Wrong? No, love, you made me feel so wonderful. The only thing that was wrong was that it ended far too soon.// He studied Fox through a slitted gaze. //I still see apprehension in your eyes.//

//I'm sorry.//

The other shook his head as he approached. //Please do not apologize. Just finish what you started last evening...// Their bodies were now touching. Then their lips. Teasing brushes of flesh across flesh. //I could feel the passion in you last night. It flowed through every pore in your body into mine...//

Fox shuddered at his words.

//You set me aflame, love, and left me smoldering. Please...finish. If you do not, I will surely go mad.//

The stranger's words...and his lips continuously teasing Fox's, shook him to the point where word and thought were impossible. His arms clamped around the man before him, and their mouths fused, drawing a long, hungry moan from both.

Suddenly finding that they were standing beside the bed, Fox sank down upon its softness, dragging his lover along to lie sprawled on top of him. His tongue thrust into the man's hot, sweet mouth even as his hips rose to press into those resting against him. He found the other as hard and ready as he was, and a thread of anxiety rippled through him. The stranger knew in an instant and set about putting him at ease.

//You cannot displease me, my lover. It is impossible.//

//But...I know nothing of this.//

//I did not lie to you last evening when I said that your touch was magic. Trust yourself as I trust you, and together we will discover a whole new world.//

Fox stared up into his eyes, captivated by their depth. The other man lowered his head and kissed a line along his jaw and up to his ear. His soft whisper resonated through Fox's entire body.

//Love me.//

With a low growl, Fox rolled over, pinning the man beneath him, and tore at this clothing. When the last bit of material drifted to the floor, he removed his own garments, pushing aside his surprise at being dressed this time, and dropped to the silks beside the other. His hands and mouth began a restless exploration of his lover's body, tasting and touching everywhere he could reach. The desperate cries he evoked from the other man excited him beyond reason and encouraged him to continue from where he left off the previous night.

Slowly, Fox slid down the lean body, his tongue leaving a moist trail. He groaned softly as gentle fingers threaded through his hair, restlessly combing the strands. His head moved lower, and his palms stroked the long, well-muscled thighs as he finally reached the thick shaft that stood out from their juncture. He paused for a moment, listening to the pleading whimpers of his lover, then opened his mouth and took him in.

The other's body bucked and shook as he sucked hungrily on the rock-hard shaft. His fingers dug into the clenching muscle of the other man's buttocks, squeezing the flesh and encouraging him to thrust into his mouth, which he did, feverishly. The whimpers turned to harsh cries, and Fox instinctively began to swallow the fluid that was now being pumped down his throat. His own excitement, which had been building, then bubbled up and spilled over, and he achieved his own mind-numbing orgasm. When both their cries had been reduced to soft moans, Fox released him and slid up over his chest. Gently, he kissed the trembling lips and tucked his head under his lover's chin. A pair of arms wrapped tenderly around him, and a soft, tired voice sounded, declaring undying love.


Fox blinked in the early sunlight, finding himself in bed with no recollection of how he got there. Last he remembered, he was lying on the floor with Jade curled up on his chest. And he remembered the dream. The third in as many nights. Explicit in nature, so very strange and sweet, and it left him this morning with a craving for this man so intense he could taste it.

He covered his face with his hands and moaned aloud.

"This can't happen, it *can't*." He dropped his hands and found Jade perched beside him, staring. He scratched the cat's head and spoke to him. "I *cannot* go through life haunted by dreams of a man I will never have. I mustn't think about him." He blinked up at the ceiling. "I can stop. I have only to put my mind to it."

Jade's tail twitched as Fox continued to speak to him.

"Everything will be fine. I just have to forget I ever saw him." He closed his eyes, chanting to himself, "I can do it...I can forget..."

A short time later, he rose and got himself ready to go to class. He said goodbye to Jade, gathered up his things, and left the little house.

From amongst the pillows on the bed, Alexei stared in the direction that Fox had gone. "You will not forget me," he murmured. "I am in your blood like a fever, as you are in mine. A little more time, lord. And you will know as I do that we must be together."


Almost three weeks passed, and Fox's endeavors to cease his obsession with the emerald-eyed mystery man became more and more maddening. The harder he tried, the more explicit his dreams became. And the more explicit his dreams became, the more he obsessed. He was traveling in a never ending circle with no visible exit.


"Well, look what the wind blew in."

Alexei grinned at his friend. "You behave as though you never see me."

"No, not never, but very seldom," Daniel complained. "It has been four days since we've spoken. And your father is getting suspicious. Are you spending all this time with your human pet?"

"He is *not* my pet..." A secretive smile crossed Alexei's lips. "I am his."

"Sorry? Alexei, what are you talking about?"

"Nothing...have you told my father anything?"

"No, I promised you I would not. But it is getting difficult, my friend. He sees me without you far too often. He has inquired a few times as to your whereabouts, and I have managed to remain vague, but I see the way he looks at me. He knows something is amiss, Alexei, and I do not know how much longer I can hold him at bay. You must do something. This cannot continue."

Alexei gathered his friend's hands into his own. "Thank you, Daniel, for continuing to help me. I need your assistance for only a little bit longer. It is time now for me to reveal myself to him, but I will still need some time to help him adjust."

"You speak as though this is a sure thing. How do you know that once he knows who and what you are, he will *want* to adjust? He may bolt, friend, and you must be prepared for that very real possibility."

Alexei shook his head. "I will not lose him, Daniel...I cannot."

"He may think differently."

"No...you do not know....you do not see..."

"No...it is true, I do not see. But Alexei..."

"No buts, Daniel. You shall see. Soon I will introduce you to my love, and you will see for yourself why I adore him so."

The other man sighed and nodded. "I hope so. For your sake."

Alexei displayed a dazzling grin. "Do not worry. I must go now. I will see you soon."

Daniel watched his best friend leave, then looked into the sky, speaking up at it. "But I do worry, my friend. Oh, do I worry..."


Fox walked through the village with purpose today, stopping only to take care of the business he'd come for. He'd given up on looking for his beautiful stranger, though the dreams and fantasies persisted, usually in vivid detail.

He balanced an armful of books while picking his way through the swelling crowd. Not an easy task, as this particular section of the road was fraught with potholes and rocks.

As he made it to the end of the road, Fox congratulated himself for managing to hold on to all his purchases. A few seconds too soon as it turned out. A herd of children thundered past him, one tripping over his foot, and in his effort to prevent the child from falling face-down into the dirt, his books tumbled from his arms. The child was sent on his way, then Fox bent and began picking up his items. As he reached for the last book, a hand came out of nowhere, grasping and lifting it from the ground. He rose to thank the person for their help and was stunned by a pair of deep green eyes.

The world dropped out from under Fox at that moment, and everything in it ceased to exist. Everything but those eyes and the man they belonged to. He stood in utter silence, staring. He could not move, and at this particular moment, speech eluded him.

Alexei stared back, searching Fox's eyes for any sign that the man might bolt as he did the last time they met. Deciding that he would rather not take any chances, he smiled gently and spoke up.

"Good afternoon."

Fox regarded him warily and said nothing.

Alexei raised his hand, offering the book. "I thought that perhaps it was time that we introduce ourselves. I am Alexei."

As if in a trance, Fox reached out, relieving the other man of his burden.

Alexei cocked his head slightly. "You do not wish to tell me your name?"

Fox opened his mouth to speak, but no sound would come forth. His teeth worried his lower lip, and he stood there in silence. The other man moved closer, speaking just above a whisper.

"It is all right, Fox. You know I mean you no harm."

Fox blinked and drew back as if scalded. The words left his lips in a rush of breath. "H-how did you know my name?"

"May we go someplace else? Someplace quiet, and I will explain."

Fox looked away, unsure of what he should do.

"Please?"

His eyes flicked back to the man's face and found such a sweet, earnest expression in those deep pools of green that he found the words 'all right' leaving his lips.

A beautiful, warm smile graced the other man's lips, and he led Fox away from the busy area to a secluded spot, shaded by a small grouping of trees. Once they were alone, Fox turned to him and reiterated his question.

"How do you know my name?"

"You told me."

Fox frowned at the man. "How could...we've never spoken before."

Alexei seated himself on a large, flat rock and looked up at Fox. "But we have."

The standing man shook his head, preparing to again refute the other's claim, but all at once he was not so sure. He inhaled deeply, telling himself that it could not be. His gaze fell to the ground, and he asked softly, "When have we spoken?"

"The look on your face tells me that you already know the answer to that question."

"But..." Fox's head began to spin. "No. It's impossible."

Alexei smiled up at him. "Nothing is impossible. Let me prove that to you."

"Dreams are only the workings of one's imagination." A look of distress crossed his face. "This is only...it's another dream. That's all it is."

Alexei rose, shaking his head. "No. I can assure you, you are quite awake."

"No, I'm not. You're not real...you always...I think you are, and then I wake up."

"I *am* real. Touch me and you will see."

Fox backed up a step. "It wouldn't mean anything. My dreams are all very vivid. Everything looks real. Everything *feels* real." His last statement garnered a look from the other man that made him blush.

"But it is not. And if you will touch me, you will see the difference." Alexei stood immobile, watching and waiting for Fox to act. The only movement from him was the slow, steady rise and fall of his chest and the occasional sweep of his thick, sable eyelashes.

After long minutes of silent debate, Fox inched forward, reaching out when he was near enough to touch the other man's shoulder. The material felt real enough, but Fox's doubts were far from relieved.

Alexei remained still, allowing the other man to continue his cautious exploration. His lids dropped over his eyes as gentle fingers found his cheek, and he couldn't fight the urge to turn his face into the touch, softly nuzzling Fox's palm.

Fox's breath caught in his throat at the sensations aroused by such a simple touch. All at once, the need for more was overwhelming, and he moved closer, irresistibly drawn to the body he'd come to know so well in his dreams. Both men trembled at the contact, and Fox leaned in, tenderly brushing the other's mouth with his own. The faint moan snapped him out of the sensual haze he'd become immersed in, and he backed away, staring wide-eyed into oceans of shimmering green.

"Do you believe now that I am real?" Alexei breathed softly.

"Yes," Fox croaked. "But...how do you know my dreams? I don't...don't understand..."

Alexei looked up at the sky. "The hour grows late. You do not want to miss dinner with your friend."

"How...how do you know that I am having dinner with someone?"

"If I may, I will come to you tonight and explain everything. You have no class tomorrow, and we will be able to talk all night if it is your wish."

Fox blinked, shocked by the man's seemingly extensive knowledge of him. The intellectual part of his brain told him that it wasn't so sure he should be doing this and that he should be very cautious, but the emotional part screamed loudly that he would regret it for the rest of his life if he pushed this man away.

"Y-yes," he stuttered softly. "I think that may be a good idea."

Alexei smiled and bowed from the waist. "Until tonight, then."

Fox nodded but continued to stare, unable to take his eyes away, still harboring the fear that this vision before him would evaporate into a cloud of nothing.

"I *will* come to you," Alexei reassured him. "When you are ready, summon me."

Fox frowned in confusion. "How do I do that?"

"Simply call my name. Do you remember it?"

As if he would ever forget.

"Alexei."

Alexei shuddered as the sound of his name on his beloved's lips rippled over his nerves. "Yes, lord," he whispered. "Call to me and I will be at your side instantly." He began to back away. "Now...Dana awaits you."

Fox nodded and reluctantly turned away. He walked a few yards and turned back for another look, but the other man was gone. His heart began to thud painfully in his chest, but he spoke softly and calmly to himself, and his pulse slowed.

"It is not a dream. His eyes...the taste of his lips...it was real. *He* is real. Mysterious and strange, but very real."

He rushed home, anxious to tell Dana of his eventful afternoon, and the first thing he noticed when he arrived was that Jade did not meet him at the door as he had every day for the last few weeks.

"Jade?" Fox dropped his books down and wandered the house, calling the cat's name. As he came back into the main room, he noticed Dana standing in the doorway.

"Looking for your cat?"

"Yes. Have you seen him?"

"No, I haven't."

"He meets me at the door every day, but I can't find him anywhere."

"Don't be so concerned, Fox. He's a cat. Cats like to prowl. He'll be back soon."

"I know, but I sometimes think about Jeffrey. He threatened Jade once..."

"Fox, that cat is a dozen times smarter than *Jeffrey*. He's fine. He's probably just found something that's caught his interest."

Fox nodded, smiling. "You're right, of course.

" "Well, *that* was easy." Dana's eyes narrowed. "And I can't remember the last time I saw you smiling. What have you been up to?"

"Nothing, I just...Dana, I saw him today."

Dana entered the house and sat down. "*Him*...oh! Him! Fox....tell me you spoke to him."

"I spoke to him."

She tossed her head back and shouted, "Thank you! And?"

Fox cast his gaze toward the floor. "We're going to meet and talk tonight."

Dana's eyes lit up. "Where?"

"Here."

"Well, why didn't you say so sooner?" She jumped to her feet and began to move to the door.

"Where are you going?"

"I don't want to be here when he arrives...much as I'd love to get a look at him."

"No, no. He'll come after we're through with dinner."

"But how will he know..."

Fox shook his head. "I'd tell you if I knew."

"All right...well, let's eat. I know how anxious you must be to uh...talk with him."

Fox bowed his head to hide the furious blush he felt creep into his cheeks. "Dana..."

"I know, I know. But I never *claimed* to be a lady. Now come, let's eat."

Dana hurried Fox through dinner in record time, then with a joyful hug and a wish for a wonderful night, she made her exit, leaving him alone.

He bathed and changed, and finally as night fell, he gathered up the courage to call to the one who had passed from his dreams to reality.

"Alexei," he called only once, feeling terribly foolish. But he'd been so sincere that given time enough, Fox would have believed anything he said. Now he stood here in the middle of the floor, eyes closed, waiting.

//For what? Do you really believe...//

"I am here."

The soft voice startled him, and he spun on his heel to find Alexei, looking exactly as he did in his first dream. Fox's lips parted as if to speak, but no sound would come from them.

"I know there is much you do not understand, but I am here to answer your questions to the best of my ability."

Fox found his voice, and his words came out in a rush. "How did you...where..."

"*How* is not very simple to explain. I am not quite like you. I possess abilities that you do not. I can...appear and disappear at will. Move from place to place in an instant..."

"You are telling me that you're a wizard?"

"Of sorts."

Fox shook his head in utter confusion.

"This is very difficult, only in that it sounds so fantastic. But I swear to you, every word I speak is truth. I...I come from a race not unlike your own. We are alike in many more ways than we are different. Only these special abilities separate us."

Fox studied him for long seconds, unable to detect any deception. He didn't know if he was more relieved or frightened. "What are you?"

"Genie."

And all at once his apprehension turned to amusement. "And you live in a bottle..."

"Those are old wives tales, passed down through the generations. The only true part of those stories is that as punishment for serious transgressions, some genies are condemned to serve a human master for as long as our king deems necessary for proper penance."

"Your king...you live under a monarchy?"

There was hesitation in Alexei's voice as he answered. "Yes. We do."

Fox watched his expression closely as he spoke. "You....you really are not lying, are you?"

"No. I am not."

"But...what...what do you want with *me*? I'm no one..."

Alexei's eyes raised to his. "There you are wrong. You are *my* king. Absolute ruler of my heart and soul."

"How can you say that? I've done nothing to warrant such devotion."

Another smile flitted across the other man's face. "And there you have but one of hundreds of reasons why I adore you. Your humility is astounding. You are kind, intelligent, generous, patient...would you like me to continue?"

Fox shook his head and lowered his eyes.

"There is one more thing that I *must* add." Alexei approached, stopping when their bodies were just barely touching. "The first day I saw you, your beauty awed me. Today, I say that you are infinitely more beautiful than you were one month ago. And if you will allow it, I will spend every day from now until eternity as your obedient servant."

"Servant?"

"Yes, lord."

Fox shook his head. "No....no, I don't want a servant." He rattled on before he could realize what he was saying. "I want...I want a companion. Someone to talk to, someone who will listen...a friend. I want..." he cut himself off in mid-ramble, and looked away.

Alexei touched his arm, sending tingles up and down its length. "What is it that you want, lord?"

Fox chewed on his lower lip for what seemed like an eternity, then looked up into the other's eyes. "A lover."

A look of pure joy washed over Alexei's face. "This is what you wish of me?"

"Yes," Fox rasped, unable to believe that he had said it but unwilling to take it back. "More than I wish to breathe."

They came together slowly, embracing, kissing and tasting...sharing breath. They kissed endlessly, neither man wanting to relinquish the sweetness he'd found. But when Fox became vaguely aware of a change in his surroundings, he pulled away from Alexei's mouth, staring in mute shock at the very room he'd often dreamed about.

"Is it just the way you dreamed?" the other man asked hopefully.

"Yes, but...how did you..."

Alexei gave him an indulgent smile. "Anything you desire, my treasure. Anything you have ever dreamed of...I can give it to you."

Fox looked around taking in the elegance, then his eyes fell back to the man before him. "There is only one thing I truly desire."

"Name it."

He searched the other's eyes for a moment, then answered.

"You."

Alexei's heart swelled. "I am yours, lord. Body and soul."

Fox lifted a hand to his face, tracing the line of his jaw with the tips of his fingers. They wandered over his mouth, making it tremble at the feather touch. "You really aren't a dream."

Alexei shook his head, momentarily incapable of speech.

Not breaking eye contact until the last possible second, Fox leaned forward, bestowing a single, soft kiss on the other man's lips. He hesitated for a moment, then deposited another kiss as tender as the first. He drew back and brought his hands to Alexei's chest, skimming his palms over the silken material of his robes. Slowly, he worked at the fastenings until the material hung loosely, baring Alexei's chest to his gentle touch. He listened to the labored breaths and frowned.

"Are you all right?"

Alexei laughed softly through his sensual agony. "I am fine. It is only that you arouse me so."

"I've barely touched you."

"Yes, but...your touch...it is like fire. It consumes me."

As he spoke, Fox busied himself, stroking and kissing his chest. Alexei's eyes closed and a long sigh escaped past his lips as the other man pushed the material away from his shoulders and down his arms, letting the garment drop to the floor. He stood trembling, attempting to control his breathing, and tried to give Fox all the time he wanted to explore.

Fox kissed one bronzed shoulder and moved slowly to Alexei's side, then behind, his fingers and mouth traveling the contours of his back, learning its length and breadth, committing to memory the scent and texture of his skin. As he continued to kiss and nibble at his lover's back and shoulders, Fox's hands wandered over his sides to his chest, caressing the warm flesh.

Alexei tilted his head back and to the side, offering Fox his mouth, which the other man took without hesitation. His hands lightly covered those on his chest, and they moved together, flowing down over his ribs then back up, teasing his hardened nipples for a moment. Then slowly, he guided his lover's hands back down, pressing them against the solid bulge in his pants. His mouth fell open as Fox took things from there, teasing him to greater hardness.

Fox took advantage of his lover's parted lips and swooped in, probing the smooth interior of his mouth. One hand came up to Alexei's head and pulled the turban away, allowing his hair to tumble free. His fingers combed through the long silk, then finally wrapped themselves in the strands, holding the other man's head still as he continued to feed on his mouth. Alexei's increasingly excited moans vibrated in his own mouth, and he unconsciously ground his hips against the other man's rear.

Alexei broke from the kiss, panting as though he'd been running for miles. "Oh, my love...please...I beg you..." he continued to gasp as Fox trapped his body between his hands and hips, "...take me..."

Fox froze, suddenly reminded of his inexperience. Alexei turned in his arms, writhing against him.

"Please, do not tease me. I need you so."

Fox opened his mouth to speak, swallowed down the lump that had begun to form, then tried again. "I don't...Alexei, I've never..."

"It is all right." Alexei lay his head on Fox's shoulder and stroked his back soothingly. "Follow your instincts. They have done very well by you so far."

"Are you sure?"

The other man lifted his head and stared into Fox's eyes. "Look at me," he whispered in a strained tone, then rubbed against him. "Feel me. *You* have done this to me. I am *very* sure."

Fox stared for a moment, lost in the turbulent sea of green, then his hands journeyed down to his lover's pants, undoing and pushing them down. When Alexei stood before him completely naked and gloriously erect, he began to shed his own clothing, letting the articles fall to the floor beside the others.

Alexei reached out, tentatively caressing the golden-brown hairs scattered across his chest. "Truly, my jewel, you are more beautiful than anything in heaven or on earth."

Fox shook his head and lowered his eyes.

Alexei moved forward and slid his fingers through Fox's shoulder-length hair. "So regal," he murmured between steadying breaths, "yet so humble. How I do adore you."

Fox raised his eyes and again met Alexei's gaze. He grasped the other man's hands and brought them up to his lips, pressing a tender kiss into each palm. He released them and laid a soft kiss on his lover's mouth, then his chin. Very slowly, he sank down to his knees, kissing and licking every inch of the way. Alexei sucked in a harsh breath as he cautiously nuzzled the rigid shaft that bobbed so invitingly in front of his face. He hesitated, gathering his courage, then opened his mouth and took the head in. Alexei's head fell back, and he moaned his pleasure, fueling Fox's confidence. He grasped the shaft at the base, taking a little more into his mouth. His tongue slid along the underside, then circled the flared head, prompting a choking sob from the object of his attention.

"Please," Alexei begged, "oh, please..."

Fox pulled away, licking the lingering taste of his lover from his lips. He rose to his feet and kissed the other man, backing him to the bed.

Needing no prompting, Alexei let himself fall back onto the mattress, assuming a wanton sprawl. His eyes glittered up at his lover through half-mast lids. Shallow breaths moved past his parted lips, and he moistened them with a pink flash of tongue.

Fox watched the other man writhe amongst the pillows, silently inviting him to take what he was offering. He drew two deep breaths, then lowered himself to his lover's body, feeling how perfectly they fit together. Alexei's arms came around him and one long leg draped itself over his hip. As they thrust and squirmed against each other, trying to get closer, Fox felt a coiling begin in the pit of his stomach, one that all inexperience aside, he knew was the onset of orgasm. He pulled away quickly, panting through clenched teeth.

Alexei stroked his temple, murmuring soothing words. "I understand, love." He gently pulled Fox back down to him. "Easy. Do not move. Just lie still, and we will let it subside." His other hand rubbed the length of Fox's back as the other's breathing steadied. "Very good. That is much better. We will just lie here until you tell me you are ready..."

Fox lay passively in his lover's arms for a while, soaking in the warmth of his tender caresses, then he began to move slowly, beginning with tiny kisses scattered over Alexei's neck and shoulders. The other man smiled, combing his fingers through the thick length of golden-brown hair. A tiny shiver passed through him as Fox's soft voice trembled in his ear.

"Alexei...I want so much to please you. Please....show me."

Alexei's fingers closed around the silken strands, and he pulled Fox's head up so that their eyes could meet. "With the greatest pleasure, my lord."

One hand fluttered to the side, then came back and worked its way between their bodies. It encircled Fox's straining erection and began to stroke its length.

Fox's eyes dropped shut at the feel of the slick coolness that enveloped him, then snapped open when all too soon, it was gone. He watched Alexei shift beneath him, then again grasp his glistening shaft. He bit down on his lower lip as the other man worked the head between the muscular cheeks of his bottom, and positioned it at the tight entrance. Alexei rocked slowly, giving encouragement.

"Gently, love...push." He pulled Fox down to him, noting his hesitation. He stroked his back and planted loving kisses in his hair, providing needed comfort. "You will not harm me. Only earth shattering pleasure awaits us, lord. I promise you."

Slowly Fox entered him, whimpering almost inaudibly with every tiny push.

"Yes, beautiful Fox. Oh, yes..." Alexei thrust against him, giving gentle assistance. "We are almost there, love. Just a bit more..."

Fox clenched his teeth until his jaw ached, trying to hold himself together. Thankfully, with only one more push, he was finally, fully embedded in his lover. He rested his head on Alexei's shoulder, gasping heavily.

"You feel...so good, my Fox...as I knew you would. Rest, love. We are in no hurry."

Fox clung to his lover, overwhelmed by the riot of sensations ricocheting through his body. He shook violently, and Alexei raised a hand to his back, quietly soothing him until the trembling abated.

"There, now," he cooed, gently contracting his muscles, trapping Fox inside of him. "Is that good?"

"Ohhh, yes....so good. So..." Unaware of what he was doing, Fox began to move slowly, fraction by fraction, pushing and pulling.

Alexei arched his back, whimpering with joy as Fox became aware of his movements and began to thrust with more confidence, lengthening his strokes.

Fox found his lover's mouth and fed hungrily, letting the moment sweep him away. Nothing in his life could ever compare to this heaven he'd found...the earth-shaking pleasure that one exquisitely beautiful, green-eyed man gave to him. He increased the strength of his thrusts, reveling in the impassioned cries of his lover, and again felt the tightening of his own body. Just as he was about to slow down, Alexei's hand grasped one of his own, lowering it between them. Both hands wrapped around the throbbing length of muscle pressed between their bodies and began to milk it gently.

"Take...take us to the heavens...my love," Alexei pleaded breathlessly and removed his hand, sliding it up and around Fox's back to join the other.

Never taking his eyes from his lover's, Fox increased the pace of his hand and hips, awkwardly at first, then with more finesse as he found his rhythm.

Alexei matched him breath for breath as he thrust forcefully now, feeling his release building to the point of no return. As the explosion came, his head pressed back into the pillows, and he released a thunderous roar, shaking everything within the immediate vicinity.

The sounds of his lover's pleasure and the feel of his muscles clenching around him sent Fox over the edge. Only a few more hard thrusts and his cries of satisfaction joined Alexei's. Exhausted and completely drained, he fell limply into the other man's arms, gasping for breath.

Long moments went by as the two lay clinging wordlessly to each other, then Alexei shifted, allowing Fox to pull his hand from between them. As Fox did so, he simultaneously disengaged himself, breaking their connection. Both men moaned at the loss, and Alexei encouraged him to settle back on top of his chest. "Magic," he whispered, stroking the damp, golden-brown head.

Fox lay silently, too weak to move or speak, lulled by the strong, steady heartbeat beneath his cheek. Before he could gather enough strength to speak, he was asleep.


The insistent knocking at the door roused Fox from sleep. He buried his face into the pillows and moaned, not wanting to leave his beautiful world. But the blasted knocking would not stop, and his eyes opened.

The first thing he noticed was that he was back in his own bed, in his own house. The second thing he noticed was that he was alone in that bed. He sat up quickly, glancing around.

Had it really been all a dream after all?

He thought back to the night before.

The scent of his lover. The satiny feel of his skin...the sound of his passionate moans...

It couldn't have been a dream, it couldn't have been.

But where was he?

Fox slipped out of bed and hastily dressed himself, then made his way toward the door.

Dana looked up into her friend's face, noting the heavy eyelids and tousled hair.

"Where you still in bed?"

"Y-yes..."

"Do you know what time it is?"

"No."

"It's after one. Fox, are you all right? Are you ill?"

"No..." Fox turned and walked back toward the center of the house, looking around.

"Then what?" Dana followed his searching gaze. "What are you looking for?"

"Jade. I haven't seen him."

"Since yesterday?"

Fox nodded.

"Well, if you're just waking up, you don't know that he hasn't been here this morning..."

"That's true."

"Now...let's get back to why you're still in bed at this hour. You say you're not sick."

"I'm not."

A faint smile crossed her lips. "Late night?"

Fox spun to stare at her. "What do you mean?"

"You said he was coming here last night. Did he?"

"I told you that?"

"*Yes*. You don't remember?"

"Yes, I remember, but..."

"But what? Fox, you're acting very strangely."

"I'm sorry...it's just that...I wasn't altogether sure that I wasn't dreaming."

"You told me...now did he show up here, or not?"

Fox moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. "Yes...he did. I don't..." he looked around the room. "..I don't know where he is..."

One red eyebrow arched. "He stayed the night?"

A slight blush colored his cheeks. "I thought he had."

"You....*thought*."

"Yes, I...I don't know why he would leave without even waking me."

"Maybe there's someplace he needed to be. He'll come back."

Fox looked around once more, then nodded.

"So..." her eyes sparkled. "Was it wonderful?"

Fox closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, but said nothing.

"I'll just assume that meant yes."

More silence.

"I've been curious. How did he know when to come?"

"I don't think you'd believe me if I told you."

"Try it and see."

"I...I shouldn't. Maybe after we talk some more."

"Can you at least tell me his name?"

"Alexei."

Dana smiled. "Nice. Well, Fox, *Alexei* will return. Now...it's a lovely day. How about a walk?"


"You had him."

Alexei cocked his head. "Excuse me?"

Daniel nodded. "You did. You had him. You have this look on your face..."

"Would it surprise you, dear Daniel, if I told you that you were wrong?"

"Yes, it really would."

"Well, you are wrong...for the most part."

"Meaning?"

Alexei closed his eyes and tipped his face up into the sun. "He had *me*. And he was magnificent."

"You are telling me that a *human* satisfied *you*? A human that you insisted was an innocent at that? What did he do to you?"

"Love, Daniel, makes all the difference, and that is all I will say."

Daniel spun around, turning his back. "*So* secretive. You never used to be this way, you know."

Before Alexei could respond, another voice sounded.

"Well, look who is here. My errant son."

Alexei turned to face his father. "Good morning, father."

"Where have you been, my son? I have seen so little of you lately."

Alexei shook his head. "I have been around..."

"Around where? Have you found yourself a companion? You look very...content."

Alexei lowered his eyes and said nothing.

The older man gazed upon his son through squinted eyes. "All right. I can see you are not willing to discuss it. But...when you have decided if she is worthy enough to bring before me, I will be happy to greet her." He nodded to Daniel, then left them alone.

Daniel blew out a long breath. "Alexei....you must tell him..."

"I *will*. Soon."

"Not soon enough. He already believes that you are involved with a female. And that comment on your companion being *worthy* enough to bring before him...a thinly veiled threat."

"I know that, Daniel."

"Then why do you not seem to be afraid? *I* am terrified!"

"He is your king, Daniel, but he is *my* father. He will be angry, yes, but for the sake of my happiness, he will get over it."

"Oh, my friend, I do pray that you are right."

Alexei grinned at Daniel. "Do not worry so much. Now, I must go."

"So soon? For goodness sake, why did you bother coming at all?"

"I had to leave him for a while. His friend was knocking at his door, and I do not know how he would like to explain me to her...if at all."

"Her?"

"Yes. She is his best friend and confidante. As you are mine."

"Ha! You mean as I *used* to be! You do not confide in me anymore..."

"I promise, Daniel, soon there will be no more secrets."

"Yes...soon there will be only the mountains rumbling with Malik's rage..."

Alexei shook off the comment. "I must get back to my love. I shall see you soon."

And with that, he disappeared, leaving Daniel alone. The remaining man turned in circles, shouting into the air. "You did not even ask me about Suni and Jameelah!" He grunted at the answering silence and went off in search of the afore mentioned females.


Fox returned from his walk with Dana, opening his door and finding a deafening silence. He sighed softly, closing the door behind him.

No Alexei. No Jade.

He used to enjoy his solitude. Looked forward to it at the end of the day, but since Jade had come into his life and he found how nice constant companionship could be, he didn't enjoy the absolute quiet as much.

And now there was Alexei. His dream lover come to bone rattling reality. He had wanted so much to wake up wrapped in his arms this morning, but...

He entered the bedroom, and his heart began to pound.

Sprawled across his bed, perfect lips turned up into a soft smile, was the one he craved.

"I have missed you."

The quietly uttered statement rang in his ears and set his stomach to fluttering. He moved forward slowly until he was standing by the bed.

"Did you?"

Alexei rolled onto his back, arching his back and reaching out to caress Fox's leg. "Desperately."

"But...why did you leave this morning?"

The remaining hand stroked his other leg. "I did not know if you would have wanted your friend to find me in your bed."

"You left when she came?"

"Yes." Alexei twisted, flipping onto his stomach, then pulled himself up to his knees, wrapping his arms around Fox's waist, and rubbed his cheek against the other man's chest.

Fox threaded a hand through his hair, petting and stroking the glossy sable strands. "I thought you may have left after I fell asleep."

"No, love. Why would I do that? If Dana had not come to the door, I would have still been here with you."

Suddenly, Fox clamped both arms around his lover, hugging him tightly to his chest. "Thank you."

"Why are you thanking me?"

"For being here...for returning to me...for...wanting me."

Alexei's eyes sparkled in the sunlight that streamed through the windows. "I love you, my jewel. My place is here at your side."

A sharp breath rushed past Fox's lips, and his mouth covered the other man's in a fierce kiss. They sank to the bed, stripping each other of their clothing, and made love with an almost frightening urgency. When at last they collapsed together onto the pillows in satisfied exhaustion, Alexei curled into Fox's side, delicately licking at the beads of sweat that rolled down the side of his neck. Fox smiled, moaning at the feel of his lover's tongue against his sensitized skin.

"I didn't think that anything could be better than last night," he whispered to the other.

Alexei kissed the curve of his shoulder. "Last night will always have a special place in our hearts because it was our first time together, but today and every day after will only get better. You were so much more confident today, and that confidence will only build as time goes on." He raised his head to meet Fox's eyes. "There are so many new pleasures awaiting us, my lord."

Fox gazed up at him, bringing a hand to his cheek. Slowly, he traced a line down to Alexei's jaw, then over to his lips. "I want us to experience them all."

A dazzling smile curled Alexei's mouth as he moved in for a kiss. "We will, love. Oh, we will."

Fox broke the kiss and guided the sable head back down to his chest. "Alexei?"

"Yes?"

"Dana...my friend...is very curious to meet you..."

"Is she?"

"Yes. She is so very much like my sister...I don't want to keep you a secret from her...is that all right?"

Alexei tightened his arms around Fox's waist. "If you wish me to meet her, I would be most happy to."

"Good. I...I didn't know how you would react to having someone else know about you."

"You trust her, Fox. And so I trust her."

Fox kissed the top of his head.

"Now...since we are on the subject, I also have a best friend who is more like a brother, and he is very anxious to meet *you*."

"Really?"

"Yes. Daniel cannot wait to get a closer look at the man who has taken up all my attention."

"You make it sound as though he's jealous."

"In a way. But he really does wish for me to be happy."

"And are you?"

Alexei scattered small kisses over his beloved's chest. "Deliriously."

Fox fell into a contented silence for a time, then spoke again. "I think you and Jade would get along well...if I can ever find him..."

Alexei chewed on his lower lip. "Jade..."

"My cat. Well, I say he's my cat. He may not feel that way, but he certainly did seem to like me quite a lot."

".....He adores you."

"How do you know?"

Alexei hesitated, then pulled himself up to nuzzle Fox's ear. When he began to purr softly, Fox's head turned. He searched the emerald eyes, then gasped.

"Nooo..."

Alexei again began to worry his lower lip. "Are you angry with me?"

"No, but...why?"

"Because I wanted to be close to you, and I knew you were frightened. I could see it in your eyes the second time we met...are you sure you are not angry?"

Fox pulled Alexei close. "How could I be? It's flattering to think that you wanted that much to be near me." He smiled and laughed softly. "It also clears up a few things."

"Such as?"

"Jeffrey...it really wasn't nice of you to claw him like that..."

"*Jeffrey* deserved so much more than what I gave him. Honestly, Fox, I do not know how you can be so generous."

"Thought that was one of the things you loved about me?"

Alexei frowned. "It is. But he tried to attack you. He should have received much worse."

"You sound like Dana. You two are going to just love each other."

Alexei rubbed his head against Fox's shoulder. "I like her very much already."

"Oh, yes," Fox chuckled. "In a way, you've already met...did you mind that I let her name the cat?"

"No. In fact, I think she has very good taste."

"So do I." Fox went quiet for a moment, then spoke again. "I'll miss him."

"Jade?"

"Yes."

"He will still be with you in instances when it is not appropriate for me to be." He draped a leg over Fox's hips and snuggled against his chest. "And...if you would like, I can still wrap myself around you..." he strung a trail of kisses up his lover's throat. "...eat bits of food from your fingers..."

Fox grinned and shook with silent laughter.

"...purr whenever you touch me..."

"Mmmm...."

He reached Fox's ear and tickled the sensitive interior with the tip of his tongue. "I will answer to either name..."

Fox pulled away reluctantly and looked at him. "I like that."

"What?"

"I like the idea of calling you by a name that no one else does."

Alexei tucked his head under Fox's chin, a deep rumble sounding in his throat. "I have never been so happy."

Fox wrapped his arms tightly around the other man. "I love you. I think I've known that from the first day I saw you, though I didn't know if I'd ever be able to admit it."

"You do not know how happy it makes me to hear that," Alexei sighed. "If you please, lord...tell me again."

Fox stroked Alexei's back. "I love you."

The other man shuddered with joy, writhing against his lover. "So very happy."

"I can't believe how easy it is to say. I have never been in love before. It was a frightening notion."

"It *can* be a frightening and confusing thing. Especially for one who has been faced with the prospect of a forbidden relationship. I think you are coping extraordinarily well." Alexei raised his head and deposited a soft kiss on his lover's lips. "But then, my lord is an extraordinary man."

Fox stretched up for another kiss, then let his head drop back to the pillows. "Why do you call me that?"

"Because it suits you so well. Because...you have so completely captured my heart." His voice dropped an octave. "Because I am yours and yours alone."

Fox's eyelids dropped with Alexei's tone. "Ohhh, love. The things you do to me with only words..."

Alexei smiled, happy to have the information. He kissed the sensitive area behind Fox's ear, then whispered into it, "You are my lord and master, and I will devote my life to pleasing you..." One hand crept slowly over the other man's chest, teasing first one nipple, then the other. "Command me, master, and I will obey."

Fox moistened his lips while attempting to control his breathing. He grasped a handful of sable hair and pulled Alexei down to his waiting mouth, probing the warm interior, and when he finally released him, he issued a hoarse command.

"Take us to our room."

And they were there, sprawled across their soft bed, Alexei stretched lazily over his body, stroking and teasing...gently rubbing their erections together until Fox began to whimper.

"What is your wish, lord?"

Eyes of glittering green and gold stared up at him, and luscious lips parted to allow sound to pass.

"Take me, Alexei...my beautiful Jade. I want to feel you inside me."

"Now?"

Fox considered the question...not an easy task as jumbled as his thoughts were at the moment, then said, "No. Not...not just yet." He pulled his lover down to him, engaging in a slow, seductive kiss that left them both shaking.

Alexei pulled away for a second then returned, recapturing Fox's mouth, feasting on its softness. Gently, he coaxed the full lips open and ventured inside, sliding over the smooth and ridged surfaces, teasing Fox's tongue into a playful duel.

Fox moaned into his lover's mouth, tangling his fingers in the sable hair. Then, in a move that surprised the other man, he closed his mouth and sucked hungrily at the tongue he'd trapped.

Alexei's hips bucked involuntarily, forcing their erections together and a clipped groan from Fox.

"My love..." Fox murmured between frantic kisses, "..I can't...can't seem to get enough of you..."

Alexei left his mouth, kissing and nibbling down his throat. He paused at the curve where neck met shoulder and sucked the flesh into his mouth, drawing a loud cry from Fox. He continued to suckle on the tender flesh, stopping a few seconds later. He smiled at the mark he left, then, gently soothed the small wound with his tongue. Sinking lower, he continued to nip and kiss the pale flesh. He worked his way over to one aroused nipple, flicking at it with the tip of his tongue, pleased at the sounds it elicited from above. After treating the other nipple to the same torment, he moved downward, his tongue leaving a moist trail.

Fox's head rolled from side to side on the pillows, gasping for breath, but the request for Alexei to stop was not issued, and so he continued on.

Lush lips parted and a sobbing groan escaped as Fox felt Alexei's mouth brush the tip of his erection. When he suddenly found himself fully engulfed in wet heat, he arched his back, nearly folding himself in two, and an anguished scream filled the room.

"No, *please*!"

Alexei pulled away and slid back up along his chest. "What is it, love?"

"Too close," Fox panted, "too....I can't...can't...take me now, *please*..."

"All right," Alexei whispered softly. "Shh..."

Fox felt movement, then Alexei's hands under his knees, gently lifting, encouraging him to wrap his legs around his waist. As he did so, he felt the cool, slick sensation of his lover's fingers working themselves between the tight muscles of his buttocks. He attempted to control his respiration and listen to the words Alexei was speaking.

"Relax, Fox. Relax your muscles....easy...that is better..."

Fox sucked in a harsh breath as he felt one finger begin to stretch him. He forced himself to relax, and when he did, the pleasure washed over him in waves. His eyes fluttered and closed, and a long moan vibrated in the still air. The second finger turned the moan to a frantic whimper, and then he was clinging to Alexei, begging to be taken.

"This is your first, my love. I do not wish to hurt you."

"But...I need you," he sobbed, clutching at his lover's shoulders.

Alexei slowly removed his fingers, twisting and turning them as he did, then grasped his erection with one hand and, steadying Fox with the other, guided it in fraction by tiny fraction. The man beneath him bucked and moaned, not satisfied until Alexei was buried completely inside him.

Fox lay panting heavily, overwhelmed by the presence within his body. "Oh...my...my Jade....so...wonderful..."

"Yes, love...you are." Alexei began to move cautiously at first, then with increased vigor as Fox's impatient cries for fulfillment increased. He thrust again and again, using long, deep strokes, and Fox shimmered in his arms, totally wrapped in his spell.

"Oh...I...I'm...Alexei, *please*..."

"Yes, lord. I know...I am ready too..." Alexei wrapped Fox's erection in his hand and began to stroke it in perfect rhythm with his thrusts.

As Fox's head snapped back and a furious snarl erupted from his throat, Alexei exploded as well. His movement grew erratic as he lost control, then he collapsed onto his lover's chest, his loud cries reduced to soft whimpers.

They lay motionless for a very long time, then Alexei stirred, rubbing his perspiration-slick cheek against Fox's, purring softly. Fox twisted to capture his lips in a tender kiss, then displayed a weary smile. "I wonder if anyone has ever died from too much pleasure."

Alexei licked the curve of his ear. "I do not believe so...do you plan to be the first?"

"Why die?" Fox laughed. "I'm already in heaven."

All was quiet for a while, then Fox heaved a long, stuttering sigh. Alexei's head rose, and he looked curiously into his lover's face. Fox smiled and shook his head.

"It's just difficult to believe that my life has changed so drastically in such a short period of time."

Green eyes sparkled at him. "It is a good change, yes?"

Fox tightened his hold on the man in his arms. "Yes. It's just so...unexpected." He stared into the gathering darkness, then back down at Alexei. "Where do you live?"

"Not very far from here." The other man's voice softened to an almost inaudible pitch. "Very high in the mountains..."

"Mountains?"

"Yes."

"I didn't realize that there were any habitable mountainous regions around here."

"My people have made it so. It is a beautiful place, Fox. Lush and green...trees and streams...I thought it was paradise."

"You *thought* it was?"

"Yes. While it is still a wonderful place, my paradise is here in your arms."

Fox closed his eyes and buried his face in Alexei's hair. "If I'm dreaming, please let me never wake." He gasped in surprise as the other man rolled them both, landing Fox on top of him.

"You are *not* dreaming," he growled, grinning up at his lover, writhing against him. "Must I prove it to you again?"

"Well..." Fox nuzzled the other man's throat. "..now that you mention it, I don't believe that I'm *quite* convinced."

They made love again, Alexei giving up complete control to Fox, and when at last they lay exhausted in each other's arms kissing and snuggling, the moonlight had faded and shadows of the coming dawn fell across their bodies, painting them in a dull reddish hue. Fox tucked his head under Alexei's chin, luxuriating in the feel of his lover's warm body beneath him, and without a word, the two finally passed into sleep.


"Fox....*Fox*!"

One sleepy hazel eye opened and stared up at the small, worried face moving back and forth above him.

"Hmm? What?"

Dana stopped shaking him. "I was beginning to wonder if you were dead!"

"What?"

"Do you know how long I've been knocking at your door? Do you know what *time* it is?"

Fox stretched, then both eyes snapped open, and his eyes flicked around. "I'm...uh...I'm sorry, no. What time is it?"

"It's mid afternoon. Are you all right?"

"Fine."

"Fine? You don't look fine. You look exhausted, and..." An understanding smile curved her lips. "Was he here again last night?"

Before he could answer, a small thump, then weight settling itself low on his belly, drew his attention.

"He's back!" Dana squealed with delight.

Fox's eyes shifted down to the cat who had just settled down on top of him, purring loudly.

"Uh....yes," he said, trying to keep the grin from his face. "he is."

"Hello Jade," Dana cooed. "Where have you been? We've missed you."

The cat looked from her to Fox, meowing softly.

"Do you think he may be hungry?"

Jade continued to stare at Fox, his tail now swishing lazily over the tops of his sheet-covered thighs and crotch.

Fox gritted his teeth, trying desperately to remain in control of his body. "I'm *sure* he is."

"Well, why don't you get up and feed him?"

"No need to get up..."

"What do you mean?"

"Hmm? Nothing. Uh...I will."

The cat rose to his feet, picking his way over Fox's chest, and dropping down between his head and shoulder, rubbed his head along the man's jaw. Fox bent the leg closest to Dana so that she wouldn't see his burgeoning erection under the light sheet.

"You know, Fox, I've had cats...I've known friend's cats, but I have never seen one so affectionate. He really adores you."

Fox rolled his head to the side, coming face to face with his feline companion. "Are you having fun?"

Jade stretched forward, licking Fox's mouth. Fox groaned softly and closed his eyes. "I thought so." He turned his face back to Dana. "I'm going to get up now..."

His friend cocked her head, curious about the exchange. She chose to let it go for the time being and backed toward the door. "It's about time. Would you like to have lunch with me?"

"I think that's a good idea. We need to discuss a few things."

"You bet we do. You've ignored my question about your Alexei, but I haven't forgotten."

"I know you haven't."

Dana clapped her hands and disappeared from the room, calling out, "Hurry along! I'm very hungry, and so is your cat."

Fox heard the door close, and he turned to face the man grinning down at him.

"Did you enjoy that?"

"Very much...so did you. Now..." He threw the sheet off, and fell on Fox's erection, sucking it into his mouth without haste.

Fox arched his back, emitting a harsh cry. "You're trying to *kill* me..."

The vibration of Alexei's moan sent a surge of electricity straight through him, and suddenly, there was no way he could hold back. He arched into his lover's mouth half a dozen times and exploded, sending a stream of warm fluid down his throat. Alexei swallowed greedily, lapping at the softening shaft when he'd finally sucked it dry.

Fox sighed wearily, momentarily unable to move. The weight of his lover's body settling over his, opened his eyes. He blinked up at Alexei, moistening his lips before he attempted to speak.

"You are magnificent."

Alexei slid his tongue along the line of Fox's lower lip. "My lord is pleased, then?"

"Pleased is much too mild a word...Will you join us for lunch? It really is time Dana met you."

"Of course. If you like, I shall bring Daniel along so we might get this all over with at once."

"Good idea."

Alexei covered his mouth in a long, sweet kiss, then rose from the bed. "When you are ready, call to me and I shall return."

Fox nodded, smiling softly up at the other.

Alexei vanished and he shook his head, still amazed. He lay in bed for a few minutes more, then vaulted to his feet and set about preparing for lunch.


Alexei sat back watching his friend pace. When he could take the silence no more, he spoke up.

"Are you coming or not?"

"I am thinking..."

"You have *been* thinking. How much is there to think about? You said you wanted to meet him, so what is the problem?"

"If your father finds out..."

Alexei sighed impatiently. "My father again...look, Daniel, if you are so afraid, do not come."

Daniel stopped pacing. "You would not even *try* to convince me?"

"Why should I? It is not *that* important that you meet him."

"But I am your best friend! How can you say it is not important?"

"Easily. I would like you to meet him, but it is more important for you to do what you feel comfortable doing. If your fear of my father is stronger than your feelings of friendship for me, then by all means, do not come with me. The progression of my relationship with Fox is not dependent on whether or not you meet him."

"Well no, of course not, but..."

"I will not keep him waiting, Daniel," Alexei interrupted. "So I suggest that you make up your mind and do it quickly."

Daniel paced for only a few seconds more, then made his decision. "All right, all right. I will go and meet your Fox. I only pray that if Malik finds out, he will be merciful and not relegate me to a lifetime of service to some ignorant, stinking human with aspirations no higher than those of a circus monkey."

Alexei rolled his eyes.

"Do not mock, Alexei. I still shudder when I think of poor Walter."

"Walter?"

"Yes. Strong, squarely built...balding..."

"Oh, yes." Alexei hesitated, then raised his eyebrows. "Ohhhhhhh, yes."

"Exactly. I do *not* want his fate to be mine."

Alexei laughed softly. "You really do worry too much."

"And you do not worry enough."

Alexei merely closed his eyes and smiled.

Daniel covered his face with his hands and mumbled into them. "So when do I finally meet him?"

"Soon. He is so very beautiful, Daniel," he moaned seductively. "And he wants me. I cannot believe my good fortune."

"Surely you are not surprised. Everyone you turn that smoky look on, *wants* you.

"This is different. I have never loved any of the others."

Daniel sat in front of his friend. "Above everything else, Alexei, this is what I find most difficult to believe. Do not take offense my friend, but...you *truly* love him? Are you sure it is not the fact that he is forbidden fruit that draws you so strongly to him?"

"And when I am through amusing myself I will throw him aside?"

Daniel raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

"You simply do not get it." He patted his friend's knee. "But you will."

Daniel studied his friend, dismayed by the look of complete sincerity. "This should prove to be a most interesting afternoon. Very interesting indeed."


Fox opened the door and stepped back, allowing the petite redhead to enter.

"My," Dana looked him up and down as she walked past. "Don't we look nice. I think black is your color."

Fox cast his eyes downward, a bit embarrassed that his friend had noticed and commented.

Dana observed the slight blush, and decided to tease him a bit. "You never take the time to look so handsome for me...is there something I should know?"

"Yes." Fox paused, then began again. "I...I have asked Alexei to join us."

Dana beamed. "Wonderful! I'm so anxious to meet him."

Fox smiled nervously. "Dana...we must talk before lunch."

"All right..."

Fox guided her to a chair and waited until she was comfortably seated before beginning.

Bright blue eyes watched the man pace slowly, then Dana cleared her throat. "I'm waiting."

Fox continued to walk back and forth. "Dana...Alexei is.....different."

The red head cocked to one side.

"He's special..."

"Obviously."

"I don't mean it that way...well, I do, but...he's...he's..."

"You're stammering, Fox."

Fox dropped his head and exhaled deeply. "I know. I...don't know any other way to say this other than to just be direct."

Dana nodded in agreement.

"Do you believe in legends? In things you have never seen and cannot explain?"

"This is direct?"

"Dana, do you believe in the existence of magical beings...like genies?"

Dana frowned. "The djinn? I've heard stories, of course, but...what has this..."

"I can say it to you, Dana, and you'll only laugh at me, so..." Fox turned and walked to the center of the room and drew a long breath. "Alexei," he called softly, "will you join us, please?"

Dana frowned, glancing around the room. "Fox, where is..." Her attention returned to her friend, and a small yelp of surprise escaped past her lips. There behind Fox, one arm wrapped around his chest and the other draped across his shoulders, was a stunning, dark-haired man. The man nuzzled the side of Fox's neck, prompting a soft sigh from him, then turned a smoldering green gaze on the speechless woman.

"Dana...this is Alexei." He grasped the arm around his chest and reached behind him, threading his fingers through the other man's hair. He turned his face, and Alexei immediately met his mouth in a tender kiss. When Fox finally broke the kiss, both men again turned their attention to Dana. Alexei unwound himself from around his lover and stepped forward, bowing deeply.

"I am honored to meet you. Fox speaks very well of you."

Dana stared up at the man, still unable to respond.

"Dana?" Fox moved past Alexei and squatted in front of her. "Dana, say something."

The breath left Dana's lungs in a rush, giving her back the ability to speak. "What....*how*..."

"That's what I was trying to tell you," Fox explained warily. "When I said that Alexei was different..."

"You're telling me that he's...he's...." She looked beyond the two men to the one who was standing by the windows, staring wide-eyed at her. "And who...is he another one?"

Fox followed his friend's stare to the other man, then looked back to Alexei.

"I am sorry, I almost forgot." He held out a hand, beckoning his silent companion to come forward. "This is Daniel. He is to me as you are to Fox."

Dana blinked up at the man who had taken three shaky steps forward, but said nothing.

Alexei glanced from Dana to Daniel, and a small grin twitched at the corners of his mouth. "Daniel, would you like to say hello to the lovely lady so that she knows you are indeed capable of speech?"

"H-hello," Daniel croaked, barely able to get the single word past his lips.

"And this," he said softly, moving to the man who had now risen to his feet, "is Fox." He gazed adoringly at the man beside him and reached up to stroke the silky, golden-brown mane.

Fox tore himself away from the magnetic stare and smiled at Daniel. "Very good to meet you."

Daniel nodded, his eyes flicking from Dana to Fox, then back again. "Yes...yes, good to meet you also. Alexei has not stopped talking about you since the first day he laid eyes on you."

"Well," Alexei murmured in Fox's ear. "It would seem that Daniel is quite enamored of your friend."

Fox nodded. "But Dana is still in a bit of a shock."

"I know. Do you think she will be all right?"

"I hope so." Fox again came to squat in front of her. "Dana? Are you all right? May we talk about this over lunch?"

"Oh...um...yes. Yes, I'm sorry. I...I'm all right. I..." she looked at the two newcomers. "You really are..."

Alexei gave her an indulgent smile. "I will answer any questions you have over the mid-day meal." He stooped and offered his arm. "Will you allow me to take us someplace nice for a relaxing afternoon?"

Dana glanced apprehensively from the man now at her side to Fox. Noting the encouraging smile, she daintily wound her hand through the crook of his arm and rose to her feet. The next thing she knew, they were in a great, cavernous room done in marble and gold, with billowing white curtains suspended from ceiling-high windows. Enormous plants filled the room, and in one platformed area, dozens of large, overstuffed pillows surrounded a low table upon which sat golden platters, overflowing with food of all types. Not even in the old master's house had Dana seen a feast such as this.

Alexei stepped up, gently pulling Dana with him, and seated her comfortably amongst the pillows. He nudged Daniel, prompting him to be seated beside her, then he and Fox made themselves comfortable across from them.

Dana's eyes quickly flitted from one thing to another, trying to drink it all in at once. "This place...the food....the elegance of it all is befitting of a king."

Alexei smiled in her direction, then turned to Fox. "And does my lord approve?"

Fox lowered his eyes for a moment, then looked back up into his lover's eyes. "Yes," he whispered, rubbing two fingers across the other's lips.

Alexei's eyelids drooped, and he parted his lips slightly, allowing his tongue to inch out and touch Fox's fingertips as they passed. He then sat back against a mound of pillows and coaxed Fox to turn and lie back, settling his head in his lap. As he idly stroked his lover's hair, he smiled up at Dana and Daniel. "Come, let us eat."

As they dined, Dana watched, fascinated, as Alexei plucked morsels of food from his plate and fed them to Fox. Finally she gathered up the nerve to actually speak.

"I...I'm still having some difficulty understanding all of this. Forgive me..."

"I understand," Alexei said softly. "It must be quite shocking to say the least. But I hope you *will* come to understand that I adore this man." He glanced down into Fox's eyes, then back over at Dana. "He holds my heart now and forever."

"I can see that you are certainly smitten with him, but..." Unable to find the right words to express herself, she fell silent.

Fox sat up, kissing his lover, then looked to his friend. "What do you want to say, Dana?"

"I'm just concerned, Fox. A man with his...abilities...someone who can do things like this..." She swept her hand through the air, then focused an intent blue gaze on Alexei. "Don't misunderstand, Fox, but what does he want with an ordinary man?"

Alexei smiled brightly and answered before Fox could. "You are very direct, Dana. I like you." He drew a slow, steady breath and released it. "Fox is anything but ordinary..."

"But he's not like you."

Another voice sounded, capturing the attention of the others.

"My concerns were the same as yours." Daniel finally got far enough past his fixation on Dana to speak. "But Alexei's intentions are pure." He looked to the other man and smiled, shaking his head. "He is so madly in love with your friend here, he cannot see straight. He would never harm him in any way."

Alexei locked eyes with his friend, a tiny smile curling his lips. "Thank you, Daniel."

Fox looked from one man to the other, then leaned into Alexei, rubbing his head against the other man's jaw. Alexei wrapped an arm around him, and Fox smiled over at Dana. "I'm happier, Dana, than I have ever been. There's no need for you to worry."

"Well." A bit of a smile played at Dana's lips. "It would seem that I am outnumbered. All right. I will trust that you are not simply toying with Fox."

Alexei bowed his head. "I give you my word that I am not."

"Fine. I'll accept your word..." she responded slyly, "..because Fox does, not because I'm a pushover for a handsome face."

Fox chuckled softly, gaining a gentle squeeze from the man behind him.

"You find that amusing?"

"No. I just found it taking her rather long to notice."

"It didn't take me long at all," Dana answered. "Your taste, Fox, is impeccable."

Fox grinned, then returned his attention to Alexei. He wound his arm around the other man's neck, stringing warm kisses along his jaw. "My beautiful Jade..." Their lips met and the two men lost themselves in each other, completely unaware of the confusion and then shock that registered in Dana's face.

"Who?"

Fox broke the kiss, hearing his friend's screech. "Oh...uh..."

Alexei buried his face in his lover's hair and began to laugh. Daniel looked at the three in utter confusion.

"What am I missing?"

Dana narrowed her eyes on the two wrapped around each other. "That's what I'd like to know."

Fox looked up to his lover. "She really likes him, you know."

Alexei smirked. "Yes, I know."

"She's going to be upset..."

"Upset about *what*?"

Alexei grinned at her. "Thank you for a very nice name. I quite like it, and as you can see, Fox has taken to it as well."

Dana's mouth hung open, and she gaped at her friend and his lover.

Fox raised his hands in an act of defense. "I didn't find out myself until yesterday."

"This is..." Dana raised a hand to her forehead. "..unbelievable comes to mind, but I hardly think it's really a strong enough term."

"I'm still getting accustomed to it, Dana. It takes a while..."

Dana turned her attention on the fourth in the group. "What about you? Do you have the same abilities?"

Daniel stared, momentarily disconcerted at the woman's attention to him. "Um...well...yes...more or less."

"More or less?"

"With one exception, Alexei wields more power than any of us."

Two pairs of eyes shifted to Alexei. Dana was first to speak.

"Only one exception? Sounds as though you hold some position..."

Alexei glared at his friend. "It is nothing. Some of us are simply a little more accomplished than others."

Fox accepted the explanation without question. Dana, on the other hand, was more curious. She turned back to Daniel.

"So in time and with some practice, you will obtain the same amount of power?"

"I was not born with the same...capacity...that Alexei was. I will never be his equal in that respect."

Dana nodded, casting a mildly suspicious eye from one man to the other. She said nothing more, and they finished their meal.

Half an hour later, they all sat quietly, Dana and Daniel exchanging brief glances, and Alexei and Fox curled together, watching in amusement.

"Daniel," Alexei called softly. "Perhaps Dana would like to take a walk. There is a lovely view outside. She may enjoy it."

Dana looked hopefully at the man beside her. "Yes, I would very much like to take a walk." She looked back to Alexei. "I thought that this was all there was."

"No. It is a whole house, and the grounds are quite beautiful." He turned his face into Fox's neck, kissing the tender skin there. The other man closed his eyes, glorying in his lover's touch. One more kiss, and Alexei turned away, again focusing on Daniel. "Take good care of the lady, Daniel."

"Oh...of course." Daniel rose nervously to his feet, extending a shaking hand. Smiling, Dana took it and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. Before they turned to leave, she smiled down at the remaining two.

"Behave yourselves, now."

"Oh," Alexei gave her his best serious face. "we will."

She turned away, talking to Daniel. "Now why don't I believe that?"

"They make a nice couple, do they not?" Alexei asked Fox, watching the two redheads walk away. "Daniel is quite taken with her."

Fox laughed softly. "So I've noticed." He laced the fingers of one hand through Alexei's. "And if I didn't know any better, I'd think you actually sent them for a walk to be alone with me."

Alexei emitted a small gasp and gave him a mock look of surprise. "Me? I would never do such a thing. That would be deceitful..."

"Oh..." Fox pushed the other man back, falling on him the moment his back hit the pillows. "...of course. What was I thinking?"

Alexei shook his head. "Truly, I do not know, but this much is clear. You have a most impure mind."

"Strange thing is, I never had thoughts like this before until I met *you*." Fox pushed his lover's clothing away, baring his chest to an onslaught of ravenous kisses.

"So I am to blame for *this*?"

Fox's head rose, and he focused a sparkling amber gaze on the man beneath him. "Actually, I was giving you credit."

A brilliant smile flashed up at him. "I see. Well, let us see how much more you have to credit me for."

Quickly Fox rid Alexei of his clothing, then shed his own garments. As skin slid over skin, soft sighs echoed through the room, and the two men writhed together

"We may not have much time," Fox moaned into his lover's mouth as he ground their hips together.

"If Daniel brings her back here any time soon, I will turn him into a goat, I swear."

Fox laughed at the threat. "Is that any way to speak of your best friend?"

"When he may possibly lay waste to a very intimate moment with my beloved? Yes."

"Well, in fairness to Daniel, this is not exactly the most private of locations..."

"I suppose you are right." He slipped a hand between them, stroking Fox to a greater level of hardness while lubricating him. "Then by all means, lord...take me quickly."

Fox sucked in a fast breath, comprehending the other man's meaning.

Alexei positioned himself for his lover and trained a glittering green gaze on him.

Fox sounded a soft growl and grasped Alexei's hips, pushing himself into the other man.

"Yes, my love," Alexei groaned. "Quickly...before they return..."

Only halfway inside his lover, Fox gritted his teeth and slammed home, pulling a loud cry from both men. He recovered and resumed his assault, driving into Alexei with short, brutal strokes. His desperate cries told Alexei that control had quickly hurtled well beyond his reach, and the other man took immediate advantage of the situation.

"Harder, love. You...you will not harm me...please..."

Fox bucked wildly into him, a scream making its way through his chest and up into his throat...


Dana and Daniel walked slowly through a maze of trees, silently enjoying each other's company. Finally, Dana spoke up.

"How long have you and Alexei been friends?"

"A very long time."

"I'm surprised. You two don't seem like you have a lot in common. He seems to be very much the aggressor, and I don't see that in you."

"Alexei is very self assured."

Dana grinned. "Alexei is very self *aware*."

Daniel emitted an amused laugh. "And why should he not be? He is powerful...intelligent...handsome...but you know, since he has met your friend Fox, I have seen an amazing transformation in his attitude. He has always been the compassionate sort but aggressive in many ways. He has softened considerably. I have heard that love can work miracles, and I am witness to that. He truly adores Fox."

"You're really convinced of that?"

"Absolutely. Alexei has risked much for this man..."

Dana quirked an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

Daniel bit his lip, silently cursing himself for this, his second slip of the tongue. "Well...what I mean is....um....he..."

Mercifully, Dana's attention was drawn away by the echoes of a scream carried to them on the light breeze. The sound was soon joined by another, almost identical in urgency. She whirled in the direction of the place from which they had just come and started toward the sound.

"Dana!" Daniel ran after her. "I do not believe you want to go back there just yet..."

"Didn't you hear that? What if something is wrong?"

"I do not believe anything is wrong," Daniel offered, trying to be diplomatic in his response.

"Listen, I know what their plans were when we left them, but that was *screaming* for God's sake."

Daniel blushed furiously. "Yes...I *know*. Please, trust me. Everything is fine."

The small woman blinked up at him, then looked in the direction of the house. "Are...are you sure?"

"Yes."

"I....I've never..." she sighed loudly. "I suppose I still have a lot to learn. All right. I'll take your word for it. We'll give them a bit more time before we go back."

Daniel released a relieved breath. "Thank you."

"What for?"

The man gave her a sheepish smile. "Now I may live."


Fox lay panting on top of his lover, only vaguely aware of the hand that traveled lovingly over his back. He willed his eyes to open, but they refused to cooperate. Only the voice, soft and sweet, whispering in his ear kept him from slipping into unconsciousness.

"Fox....my love....they may return at any time..."

Fox groaned into Alexei's neck but did not move.

"You know...if they found us like this, I would not be the least bit embarrassed. But then, I am shameless." Alexei smiled into his lover's hair. "You, on the other hand, may be a bit more modest?"

Fox forced himself to lift his head and meet Alexei's gaze. "I don't know if I've got enough strength to get dressed."

Green eyes twinkled up at him. "Did you enjoy that?"

Fox growled in response, and the other man laughed softly.

"I would love to take the time to bathe and dress you myself, but...in the interest of time..." Alexei waved his hand and they were both once more clothed, all traces of their previous activity gone. "There," Alexei brushed a few stray hair away from Fox's face. "Beautiful again." He leaned in, rumbling into the other man's ear, "Although you are equally appealing when you are naked and disheveled...and the perspiration is trickling down your magnificent body..."

Fox squirmed in his lover's embrace. "How is it that you can satisfy me to the point of exhaustion, then fill me again with such strong desire only a short time later?"

"I would like to take full credit for that sweet Fox, but I do think that it may in part have something to do with the fact that you are incredibly insatiable."

"If I am indeed as you say I am, my love, I must again give all the honors to you. It is *you* I can't get enough of."

Alexei fell back against the pillows, pulling Fox with him. "I pray you will always feel that way."

Fox nestled against his lover's chest, pressing warm kisses between the opening of his robes. "Always." He lay quietly, stroking Alexei's thigh, Dana's words suddenly haunting his thoughts.

Alexei felt the slight stiffening of Fox's body, and he slipped a hand under the other man's jaw, tilting his head up. "Fox? Is something wrong?"

"No..."

"Come, love. Tell me."

Fox's gaze fell away from his lover's, and he began to speak, stopped, and began again. "I...I know what you said to Dana. I know what Daniel said, but..."

A frown creased Alexei's brow. "But?"

"How can you be sure that you won't tire of me? I am, after all, just an ordinary man."

"Fox..."

"May I ask you a question?"

"Of course, love."

"You've had many other lovers?"

"...Yes..."

"Of your own kind?"

"Yes."

"Am I the first human you've ever been with?"

"Yes..."

"How do you know then, that I'm not just a novelty? How do you know that in time you won't begin comparing me to others of your own kind and find out that I am sorely lacking?"

Alexei tightened his hold on the man in his arms. "Never. Fox, listen to me. I *have* been with many others of my kind, and none of them...do you hear me? *None* of them could ever compare to you. You are far more superior to any of them. There is so much to you." The tips of his fingers slid over Fox's cheek. "More than they could ever dream of. I know that this has happened quickly, but I swear on my life, my love for you is true. *Please* believe me."

Fox looked up, seeing a combination of love and anxiety swirling in the deep green depths of his lover's eyes, and his heart leapt. He wound his arms around Alexei's neck and hugged him tightly. "I believe you."

They lay wrapped in each other's arms, kissing and caressing until Dana and Daniel returned. At the sound of the others' deliberately loud conversation, they rose into a sitting position and watched as their companions entered the room.

"Did you have a pleasant walk?"

"Yes, Alexei," Daniel smirked.

Dana studied them intently. "Did you two enjoy *your* time together?"

"Very much," Alexei answered softly, stroking the back of Fox's head. Fox merely smiled and lowered his eyes.

"Well, as illuminating as this afternoon has been, I think it was time I returned home." Dana turned her focus on Fox. "Are you coming?"

"Oh...uh..." Fox looked from Dana into the pleading eyes of his lover. "No, I don't..I don't think so. I will be in class on time tomorrow."

Dana nodded. "All right, well..."

Daniel stepped forward quickly. "I will see you home." He breathed a sigh of relief at Dana's accepting smile.

Both men rose to their feet, and Alexei took her hand. "Thank you for your company, beautiful lady. And thank you for your trust." He kissed the back of her hand, then released it.

Dana eyed him warily. "Thank you for lunch. Fox, I will see you tomorrow." She turned away, then stopped. She pivoted, stared long and hard at Alexei, and shook her head. "I'm sorry, but...honestly, *you* are Jade?"

A soft chuckle was all the response she received before Alexei vanished and the familiar black cat stood at Fox's feet, rubbing itself against his leg.

A tiny, surprised cry escaped Dana's throat, and Fox smiled, holding his arms out to the cat, who immediately leapt into them.

"Fantastic," Dana uttered breathlessly as she watched the cat settle into the crook of Fox's arm, purring loudly.

Fox lovingly stroked the glistening fur and directed his attention to his friend. "Do you believe now?"

Dana closed her eyes and reopened them as if doing so would change what she'd seen. But still, the vision remained. "What choice do I have?" she finally answered. "The evidence is right here in front of my eyes." She shook her head briskly and smiled. "I really must be going. Have a good night, Fox." She looked down at the cat in his arms. "And goodnight to you, Jade....Alexei...whoever you are." She took Daniel's arm, and they were gone.

The cat jumped from Fox's arms and Alexei returned.

"Do you think she will come to truly accept me?''

Fox turned to press his body against the other man's. "Yes. She's a bit overwhelmed." He smiled "*I'm* still a bit overwhelmed...she likes you. I can tell."

Alexei grinned. "She certainly likes Daniel. And one would have to be blind not to see that Daniel likes *her*. I thought he was going to stumble over his own tongue at least a dozen times."

"Well," Fox said, changing the subject, "you wanted me to stay, and here I am. Have you got something special planned for the rest of the day?"

Green eyes glittered with a mixture of humor and lust. "Yes, I do."

"And what would that be?"

"Would you care to take a walk with me? The grounds really are lovely."

Fox regarded him with narrowed eyes. "All right..."

Linking hands, they left the house and walked out into the gentle light of the waning day. Fox looked around, taking in the view before it would become shrouded in darkness. Trees and flowers surrounded them. Such pristine, sparkling color. He'd been for the most part deprived of such lushness, but such was the life of a desert dweller, and he'd known little else.

The faint gurgling of water captured his attention, and he gravitated toward it, Alexei following behind.

Alexei watched, tremendously pleased as Fox dropped to his knees by the stream, drawing a hand through the cool water. He knelt beside his lover and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"This is very much like my home...it could be *our* home..."

Fox looked to him, momentarily speechless. Then, "I...Jade, I could not leave my children. There is no one else to teach them."

"I understand. I would not ask you to give that up. But when you are not in the classroom, you could be here. We could be."

"You would leave *your* home to live here with me?"

"No place is home if you are not there."

Fox searched his eyes, slowly and methodically chewing on his lower lip.

The longer Fox stared, the more unsure Alexei was that he would agree, but when the other man moved forward, gently pushing him to the ground, his doubts began to ease.

Fox lowered himself to his lover, draping himself over Alexei's body. He wrapped his arms around the other's torso and tucked his head under his chin. "I would love to live here with you," he finally answered softly. "But I must somehow maintain a presence there, or my employer will become suspicious."

"That is not a problem," Alexei assured him. "You can be there in an instant if it is necessary."

Fox thought on the offer for a minute more, then looked around. He scanned all his eyes could see, then they came to rest on the man beneath him. "Our home?" he asked softly.

"Yes, my lord," came the equally soft answer.

A wide grin spread across Fox's face. "Yes," he whispered. "Yes, I'll live here with you."

Dark lashes swept down, for a moment hiding the deep green pools behind them. Then they rose to reveal a moist glaze. There was the slightest tremor in his voice as he spoke.

"I have not the words to tell you how happy you have made me."

Fox laid his hand to his lover's cheek and brushed his thumb across the full lower lip. "Words are not necessary." He lowered his head and let his tongue follow the path that his thumb had just taken. "Just show me." A soft rush of breath was all he heard before Alex's lips found his and he was rolled onto his back.

As he feasted upon Fox's lips, Alexei's hands wandered over his body, expertly disrobing him. His fingers followed the length of bone and muscle, stroking and kneading, pulling more than a few impatient whimpers from the one beneath him. He broke the kiss, dragging his mouth over Fox's chin and down his throat, pausing at the base to nibble the sensitive skin there. The feel of Fox's hands clenching in his hair drove him to bolder action. Alexei moved to the curve of his shoulder and bit down gently, loving the taste and feel of the muscled flesh in his mouth.

Fox groaned, rubbing his cheek into his lover's hair. He felt Alexei's lips close over the area he'd been biting, then the addition of a moderate pressure that made him wince. He tightened his hold on the other man, his body involuntarily writhing and arching, making the extent of his desire well known.

A tiny sucking sound could be heard as Alexei released his prize, then lapped tenderly at the reddened patch of skin. He continued on his downward path, tasting and teasing, taking note of any newly discovered ticklish spots and gauging the intensity of Fox's moans of pleasure. He paused briefly at his lover's navel, the tip of his tongue flitting in and out of the small hollow, then moved on toward the flushed length of rigid muscle standing proudly from the thatch of dark curls.

Fox bucked, hissing at the first sizzling touch of his lover's tongue on his erection. He fought to remain still as Alexei...his beautiful Jade, worked his magic.

Softer than the flutter of a butterfly's wings, Alexei's practiced tongue moved over the velvety shaft, sending tiny ripples of pleasure through his lover's body.

"Please..."

Alexei nuzzled the swollen head, then looked up into passion-darkened eyes. "You said something, love?"

Fox took a long, stuttering breath, then restated his request. "Please. I feel like I'll go mad if you don't relieve this ache soon."

Alexei flashed him a wicked grin. "A little madness never hurt anyone."

Fox released an agonized groan and let his head roll to one side.

"Patience, my jewel. I promise you, you will not regret it." Alexei rose to his feet, holding Fox's passion-glazed eyes as he slowly stripped away his own clothing. As the last piece of material sank to the ground, so he did, kneeling beside his lover's hip, drinking in the sight of Fox stretched out before him like some sort of erotic offering. The urge to touch him made Alexei's hands tremble, but he held his desire in check, instead focusing on driving Fox to the brink of insanity with nothing more than his words.

"You are so very beautiful, my love. The very sight of you sets my blood afire." His fingers drifted above Fox's mouth, just millimeters from the swollen flesh. "One taste of your sweet lips and I want to devour you..."

Fox twitched and moaned, responding as if to some passionate caress. "Alexei, please...I need you so..."

"No more than I need you." His hand moved downward slowly, always hovering just above Fox's heated skin but careful never to make contact. "Every time I take you, it is like being caught between heaven and hell, and you are both my angel and the demon who torments me." He leaned in and murmured into Fox's ear, creating a teasing vibration that resonated all through his body. "I love you as I have never loved any other, and your innocence brings forth in me a gentleness I had not known I possessed. But then you turn your smoky gaze on me, and I come undone..."

Fox squirmed beneath his lover, attempting to make the tiniest bit of contact, but Alexei stayed just out of his reach.

"...The way the colors in your eyes swirl and change with your mood. So much turbulence...so much passion. They challenge me to take what I want and dare me to give you all that you need, and to hell with gentleness..."

Fox's breaths now came in ragged gasps, and Alexei watched his hands clench in the grass he lay upon, tearing out great clumps of green.

"I see it," he taunted softly. "The wildness. It is there in your eyes...your touch..." His head moved, his nose and mouth almost brushing Fox's jaw. "I smell it on your skin..."

Fox whimpered frantically, half mad with desire for this man who insisted on torturing him so mercilessly. He reached up, attempting to wind his arms around Alexei's neck, but the other eluded him easily.

"When we are apart," Alexei went on, letting his breath flow over Fox's mouth, "I often immerse myself in fantasy to pass the time. Would you care to hear about some of them?" He swung to his hands and knees, straddling his lover's body. "Or would you prefer to act them out?"

"Yes," Fox choked, "please..."

"I have a favorite," Alexei moaned, rocking back and forth, simulating the sex act. "Unfortunately, we are already disrobed. No matter. We can take it from the point where *after* we rip each other's clothing to shreds, we mate as a pair of tigers would...brutally...biting and scratching...growling..."

Fox's eyes dilated to near-blackness, triggering an answering spark of triumph in Alexei's. He reached up again, this time successfully catching his lover's head in his hands. His fingers tightened in the sable hair, and he dragged his prisoner down, flipping him onto his back. Before Alexei could take a breath, Fox was over him...on him, fiercely possessing his mouth as one hand held his head anchored to the ground. The other hand moved restlessly, stroking and squeezing every inch of flesh it could reach, and when the hands at his own back began to answer in kind, any control which he'd possessed withered and died, and he broke from his lover's mouth, sliding downward, biting and sucking, leaving small marks of possession everywhere he touched. As he moved over Alexei's chest and latched onto one constricted nipple, a tortured growl rose into the air. The growl turned to a shriek as he felt teeth close around the hard peak and pull.

His lover's harsh cries sent a surge through Fox's body, and instead of letting go, he increased the tension and shook his head from side to side. The fingers digging painfully into his shoulders did little to dissuade him from his course. He pulled back, letting his teeth drag along the throbbing nipple, then assaulted the other in the same manner, but before he could get a firm hold, Alexei suddenly bucked, knocking him off balance. Together they rolled, each struggling for control.

As Alexei landed on top of Fox, he went on the attack, sinking his teeth into the side of his lover's neck. As Fox fought against his possession, he snarled, refusing to relinquish control and daring the other man to take it from him.

More than up to the challenge, Fox lifted his head and closed his teeth over the muscles of Alexei's shoulder, applying brutal pressure there, his ferocious growls vibrating against his lover's skin. The action distracted the other man's attention just long enough for Fox to regain control, shoving Alexei off of him and pinning him face-down to the ground. He plunged the fingers of one hand into the perspiration-dampened hair, holding Alexei's head down while he hooked his free arm under the other man's hips and jerked him to his knees.

Alexei trembled in anticipation as Fox grasped his own erection and worked it past the tense muscles of his buttocks and to the tight ring hidden between them. He pushed forward slowly, the tip of his engorged shaft stretching his lover, then all at once he surged forward, wrenching a loud cry from them both. The surprise of a slick, relatively easy entrance registered only fleetingly as Fox plunged in to the base, then immediately withdrew and thrust forward again.

Soft mewling growls gurgled up from Alexei's throat as his lover pushed into him with increasingly brutal lunges. Each completed thrust was accompanied by a harsh cry, and Alexei's body throbbed in matching rhythm. He managed to wrench his head from Fox's grasp and pulled himself up on his hands, giving himself more leverage. Quickly, he rocked against his lover, pushing them closer to the edge.

Fox clamped one hand on Alexei's shoulder and the other at his hip, seeking to control his movements. Using short, hard strokes, he rammed into him, his barely maintained rhythm quickly turning to chaos as completion neared. He leaned over Alexei's back, one hand wrapping around his chest and the other closing around the swollen shaft that hung heavily beneath him. Any remaining shreds of control lost, they began to thrash against each other as Fox jerked the throbbing length of muscle in his hand. His body shook violently, and as the scream bubbled up in his throat, he turned his face into the curve between Alexei's neck and shoulder, biting into the flesh there. As a sudden warm, wet, but completely alien taste invaded his mouth and Alexei's roars shook the earth around them, he exploded and the scream escaped, the sound rising into the air to meet his lover's. He shot hot and hard into Alexei's quivering body, then both men slumped to the ground. Fox lay on Alexei's back, intermittent shivers running through him, and that taste still strong in his mouth. He gathered the strength to open his eyes, and realized with horror, that his love was bleeding. He gasped and slid off of the other man, staring in shock at his shoulder.

"What have I done? Alexei...I'm..."

Alexei blinked slowly, turning his head to see the look of panic on his lover's face. He rose, wincing at the discomfort in his shoulder, then looked down and saw the cause of Fox's distress. He turned to face Fox completely, intent on comforting him, but before he could say a word, another gasp tumbled from Fox's lips. He followed his lover's wide-eyed stare to his chest to find three scratches running horizontally, one of which was also trickling blood. He looked up and reached out to his stricken Fox.

"Do not be distressed, love. It is all right."

"How can you tell me that?" Fox choked. "Look what I did to you." He raised the back of his hand to his mouth, preparing to swipe at the lingering traces of blood, but Alexei quickly stopped him.

"Give yourself up to it, my love. Let go of the thought that you have done something wrong, and admit to yourself that it is an exhilarating feeling. You unleashed the animal within yourself, and it felt *good*." He moved closer and lapped at one corner of Fox's mouth, then pulled back slightly, licking his own lips. "Look at me. Look at what you've done to me and tell me that you do not gain at least some tiny shred of satisfaction."

Fox shook his head uncertainly. "I...I've wounded you...it may even leave permanent scars..."

Alexei nodded and moved in again. "If I wish it to...and I do."

"Why?"

He hovered near Fox's lips but did not touch them. "Because they are your marks," he purred. "They will be an eternal reminder that I am yours."

Fox stared into his lover's eyes, mesmerized by his words and the tone in which he spoke them. He allowed Alexei to gently push his head forward and down, guiding his mouth to the wounds at his chest. Unable to refuse his lover's silent request, he hesitantly touched his tongue to the thin line of blood and quickly withdrew it. Alexei held his head in place, tenderly stroking his hair as his tongue ventured out again, lingering a little longer before again withdrawing. A third time, longer still, and then he was licking hungrily, removing all traces of blood from Alexei's chest. When he was done, Alexei pulled his head back up, and they kissed, sharing the coppery taste. He drew back a short time later and smiled. "You see?" he asked triumphantly.

Fox growled softly, rising to his knees and moving behind Alexei. His mouth came down on his lover's shoulder, and he sucked at the already closed wounds, cleaning away the drying patches of red.

Alexei rubbed his head against Fox's as the other man completed his task, rumbling contentedly. Fox moved in for another kiss when he'd finished, and Alexei leaned back, pulling his lover with him to lie in the grass. They lay kissing and nuzzling each other for a while, then Fox rested his head atop Alexei's chest and closed his eyes.

"My precious jewel," Alexei whispered into his hair. "How I do adore you."

In response, Fox wound his arms around his lover and hugged him tightly. Alexei stroked his back as the two lay quietly, listening to the gentle ripple of the stream. Soon after, both drifted into sleep.


Fox opened his eyes to darkness, briefly disoriented, but the comforting thump of his lover's heart put him at ease.

"I would say good morning, but we are a few hours away from that still."

The soft voice made him raise his head. The faint sparkle of Alexei's eyes could be seen, and he smiled down in their general direction. "Have I been asleep that long?"

"A while."

"Why didn't you wake me?"

"You were sleeping so peacefully. I could not bear to wake you."

Fox leaned down, laying a kiss on what turned out to be Alexei's collarbone. "Why didn't you just..." he laughed softly, snapping his fingers, "...take us there?"

He felt his lover shrug. "I like it out here. I like the sound of the water."

"Oh. Do you want to stay?"

"If you wish to. If not, we can go to our bed."

Fox went silent for a moment, then spoke up. "As much as I like it out here, I think I'd like to wake up with you for the first time in *our* own bed."

Almost the instant he finished speaking, they were lying in the softness of their bed. Fox shook his head, blinking quickly. "I don't know if I'll ever get used to that."

Alexei moved over his lover, settling himself on his chest. He tucked his head under Fox's chin, sighing contentedly as the other man wrapped him in his arms. "Of course you will. Soon you will not even think about it."

Fox laughed. "My lover appears and disappears at will. He transports us from one place to another in the blink of an eye. He turns himself into a *cat*, and then tells me that I'll get used to it. Now why don't I think so?"

Alexei lifted his head, his eyes twinkling in the dim light of the few candles scattered throughout the room. "You will. I promise you. And now my lord must rest. You must teach your class tomorrow, must you not?"

"Yes."

"Then sleep." He resettled his head under Fox's chin. "I will wake you in the morning."

Fox lay staring up at the ceiling for a time, then called softly to his lover. "Jade?"

Alexei's mouth curved into a half smile, and he rubbed his face against Fox's chest. "Hmm?"

"Does it hurt much?"

"What? Oh...no, love. I have a bit of discomfort, but that is all. And before you begin to fret about that, I am enjoying every tiny throb." He chuckled softly. "A gift of love from my sweet Fox."

Fox shook his head, hugging Alexei tighter to him. He kissed the top of his lover's head and closed his eyes.


Alexei paced slowly, reviewing the staff. Satisfied with his choices, he began to dole out instructions.

"You have been chosen from amongst my servants for your unwavering loyalty to me and the outstanding performance of your duties. You will now perform those duties in this house. Any questions or problems will be addressed to me. The master is not to be disturbed with trivial matters..."

A couple of the servants looked from one to the other, then one spoke up hesitantly. "But...my prince...are *you* not the master?"

"You are to serve me as well, and I will oversee all household matters, but no, I am not the master. He will be home later, and you will all meet him. Any other questions?"

The same young woman spoke up again, confused at Alexei's revelation but unwilling to question him further on the matter. "Will...will you choose which of us is be his personal servant?"

Alexei fixed a steady gaze on her. "That is my privilege."

This time, the girl could not keep her surprise to herself. "You...it is not seemly for our prince to perform such duties. It is the responsibility of the servants to draw the master's bath and serve his meals..."

"I understand your concern, Ali, but service to my lord is my responsibility...and my deepest pleasure. That is, of course, not to say that you will not obey his slightest command should he issue one to any of you. And one more thing. None of you are to refer to me as my prince, sire, or any of the terms you usually use."

The staff regarded him in confusion, but no more questions were asked. They were dismissed, and Alexei retreated to their spot by the stream to wait for Fox's return.


Class drew to a close, and before the boys left, they stopped to ask Fox if he might please bring his cat back one day. Fox smiled, looking from the small group of boys to their older brother who stood glaring in the doorway.

"We shall see," he answered softly. "The last time he was here, things did not exactly go smoothly."

"But it was not his fault!" the youngest wailed. "It was Jeffrey's fault. He *made* Jade attack him."

"Whatever the cause, Jeffrey was injured, and we can't have that. If Jade promises to behave, maybe I'll bring him back to see you soon."

"How can a cat promise you anything?" Jeffrey glowered from just outside the room. "He is nothing more than a stupid animal! And if I see him again, I will gut him and hang his hide on my wall!"

The small boy lunged at his brother, but Fox quickly wrapped an arm around him and lifted him off of the floor.

"You will not harm him," he waved his little fists, threatening his eldest brother. "You will not!"

Fox held onto the child, softly shushing him. "Don't worry, Amir. There is no way that Jeffrey can hurt Jade."

"You think not?" Jeffrey huffed. "Let him cross my path, and we shall see." With that, he stormed off, leaving Fox to deal only with the agitated little one.

"He will do as he said," Amir cried as Fox set him down. "If he gets his evil hands on Jade..."

"He will not," Fox assured him. "Jade is too smart to be caught by Jeffrey. No harm will ever come to him."

The boy settled down a bit, then began to smile. "It is true that Jade is a very smart cat. Smarter than that horse's ass."

"Amir..."

"Well," the boy pouted, "that is what Father calls him."

"That doesn't mean that you should. Your brother is a very troubled young man. You should try to be kinder to him."

"But...but he's so mean to all of us! *Why* should we be kind?"

"Because..." Fox sighed. "The meaner a person is, the more insecure they are. Maybe if someone was kind to him, he wouldn't feel the need to lash out at everyone. Do you understand?"

"Yes, but it is so difficult to be kind to someone when they are pushing your face down into the sand..."

Fox laughed and ruffled the boy's hair. "Go on now, and join your brothers. It's almost dinner time.

Amir ran past Dana, shouting a greeting as he disappeared from the classroom.

"Well, good afternoon."

Fox smiled at his friend. "How was your day?"

"Fine. I wanted to string Jeffrey up from the highest tree, but that's hardly news. How was your evening?"

Fox blushed furiously as he recalled the events of the night past. He lowered his eyes, giving Dana a tiny, secretive smile. "It was very nice."

"Very nice," she repeated. "That look on your face tells me it was a lot more than *very nice*."

Fox gave no response.

"All right, fine. Don't tell me. I suppose I'll just have to come to my own conclusions."

Fox took the opportunity to change the subject. "What do you think of Daniel?"

Dana gave him an impatient glare, then answered his question. "I like him. He is very nice, if just a bit awkward."

"Alexei and I discussed that this morning. He says that Daniel was quite taken with your beauty, and it made him a bit nervous. He will be more self assured as he comes to know you better...assuming you *want* him to know you better."

Dana grinned. "I suppose I wouldn't mind that. Well...would you like to have dinner with me? Or have you got plans with your handsome genie?"

Fox pulled out a chair and motioned for Dana to sit. "Dana...something happened last night..."

Dana gave him a concerned look. "What?"

"Alexei asked me to live with him in the house we visited yesterday."

Blue eyes opened wide. "And what was your answer?"

Fox broke into a grin. "I said yes."

Dana stared in shock for a moment. "What...what does this mean? Are you.."

"I will continue to tutor the children. I will be here whenever I need to be. No one but you will know that I am actually living elsewhere."

"What about your house here on the property?"

"Everyone will still be under the impression that I live there."

"How will you manage that?"

"Alexei will take care of it."

Dana nodded, then lowered her eyes. "I'm happy for you, of course, but I have to admit that I will miss you."

"You will still see me. Often. I promise. Dana?"

The woman lifted her head to meet his eyes.

"Please understand. Being with Alexei has become as necessary to me as breathing. And now we're together in a home that's *ours*. I'm happy, Dana. Happier than I ever dreamed I could be."

Dana studied her friend, then a slow smile spread across her lips. "I know you are. I'd have to be blind not to see that. I'll just miss you, that's all."

Fox pulled her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her. "You won't have a chance to miss me. We'll still spend lots of time together. And now that you and Daniel are friendly with each other, it'll be even better."

"All right, all right, you don't have to sell me any more on the idea." Dana stretched up for a light kiss on Fox's cheek, then moved away. "He must be waiting for you, and I know you're anxious to go to him. Have a good night, and I'll see you tomorrow."

"Thank you, Dana. Come, I'll walk with you. I'm going to the house and leaving from there."

After leaving Dana, Fox picked up his pace, hurrying to his little house. He closed the door behind him, immediately calling to his lover. Before he could call a second time, he was home, smiling down at Alexei, who lay naked in the grass by the stream where they'd made love the previous night. The other man executed a long, sensuous stretch and blinked sleepily up at him.

"Hello, my love. How was your day?"

Fox looked down at him, slowly removing his clothing. "The same as every other day. Only now, I've got something to look forward to at the end of the day."

As the last piece of clothing was removed, Alexei held his arms out to Fox, welcoming him into the warm circle of his embrace. As the other man sank to the ground and melted into his arms, he sighed happily into his hair. "I have missed you. But now you are back in my arms, and all is right with the world."

Fox laughed softly and kissed his lover's chest. "You make me feel so wanted."

"You are, my love. Will you allow me to show you just how much?"

Fox matched his smoky tone. "Must you ask?"

They made love again there by the stream, but this time there was no violence in their coupling. There was only a sweet urgency that took them soaring to the heavens, then gently deposited them back on the soft green grass.

As they lay recovering, Alexei tenderly massaged his lover's back and scattered a number of kisses in his hair. "Fox?"

"Hmm?"

"Are you awake?"

"Mmm hmm."

"Come, love. Let us go up to the house. I have a surprise for you."

They dressed and Alexei led his curious lover to the house where the staff was waiting to greet their new master.

Fox cast a confused gaze at the small group that had assembled in the great room, then looked to Alexei. The other man moved from his side and came to stand in front of him, bowing deeply. "My lord...these are your servants. They are here to care for the house and provide anything you may require in my absence."

The group behind Alexei bowed to the perplexed man, then stood silently as he composed himself enough to question his lover.

"*My* servants?"

"Well...*our* servants, but you are master in this house. You are their first priority."

Fox shook his head. "No...Alexei...*you* created all of this. *You* are master...not me..."

Alexei dismissed the staff, then turned to Fox, taking his hands in his own. "No, love. The land, this house, and everything in it belong to you." He stepped forward, wrapping himself around his lover. "*I* belong to you."

Fox petted the sable head against his shoulder. "Only as much as I belong to you."

Alexei raised his head and turned sparkling eyes on the other man. "What do you say to a long bath before dinner?"

Fox studied him intently, easily recognizing the smoky look in his eyes. "A bath sounds wonderful."

Alexei led him to a spacious room in the center of which sat a large, sunken tub. Two servants stood by, ready to assist, but Alexei took the towels from them and waved them off to a corner of the room. They stood in amazed silence as their prince slowly undressed the man he referred to as his lord, then removed his own clothing, and the two sank up to their necks in the scented water. Gently, Alexei bathed Fox, teasing him with subtle little touches and tender kisses, and when he was through, Fox reciprocated, stroking the sponge over his satiny skin and following the path he created with his mouth. He paused on the rapidly healing wounds, paying them loving attention, then backed Alexei against the wall of the tub.

Alexei closed his eyes and rested the back of his head against the tiles as he wrapped his legs around Fox's hips. He moaned softly, feeling his lover's mouth at the his throat, kissing and gently sucking the fragile skin. As Fox moved up along his jaw and then to his ear, teasing the sensitive interior, he turned his head into the caress, and his hands began to restlessly wander over his lover's back and shoulders.

One final dip into Alexei's ear, and Fox pulled away, opening his eyes. In his peripheral vision he saw the two figures standing at a distance, trying for all the world to look as though they were not watching. Naturally, Fox knew they were, and he was a bit disturbed by it, but Alexei pulled him back down to his waiting lips, completely obliterating everything but the desperate need to be inside him. He tucked his hands under his lover's knees, lifting him higher, then positioned himself and thrust home.

Alexei's head fell back, and a soft gasp escaped his lips as Fox made love to him with all the considerable tenderness he possessed. Soft kisses rained down on his face and neck as Fox thrust slowly into him, establishing a lazy, sensual rhythm. He lifted his head, and his love immediately met his lips, kissing him deeply as they moved in unison.

Fox stroked the underside of his lover's thigh with one hand, sliding from the back of his knee to the firm, rounded muscles of his rear and back again, eventually moving between them to gingerly grasp the swollen shaft awaiting his touch. Alexei sighed into his mouth, reveling in the sensations Fox evoked in him, and the other man firmed his grip ever so slightly, stroking with more purpose. The water swished about the two bodies in the tub, splashing up onto the floor tiles as Fox increased the strength of his thrusts. Alexei moved with the water, being lifted and lowered as his excitement rose, higher and higher until there was no place else to go but down.

Fox supported Alexei's head and continued to feed on his mouth, refusing to let go as he brought his lover to the brink of shattering release. As he felt Alexei's body jerk and a loud sobbing groan rose up into his throat, Fox finally broke the kiss to allow it to escape. He held his lover's passion-glazed eyes with his own, taking great joy as Alexei's mouth fell open and the groan tumbled out and grew louder. The sound, in combination with the sensation of gliding in and out of his lover's violently spasming body, took Fox over the edge. Two more thrusts and he joined Alexei in ecstasy, crying out his lover's pet name, then collapsing against his chest. They floated together for long minutes, moaning softly as the water gently lapped at their skin. Fox was the first to move, picking his head up off of Alexei's shoulder and kissing his lover's parted lips.

"I love you, my beautiful Jade."

The mouth he'd just been kissing curled up into a weary smile. "And I love you, my Fox."

Fox again rested his head on Alexei's shoulder. There was humor in his voice even as he felt the warmth creep into his cheeks, "Do you think that the servants enjoyed that as much as we did?"

"Maybe not quite as much, but I am sure they got some thrill out of it. Do not worry love. Their discretion is exemplary. Now..." Gently, he pushed Fox away, rising to help the other man out of the tub. "Tell me about your day."

"I did, remember?"

Alexei wrapped a towel around his lover, patting the beads of moisture from his skin. "Yes, but 'same as the day before' does not say much. How is my friend Jeffrey? Is he just as miserable as he was the day I visited the class?"

"Oh, yes. I see that young man headed for great difficulty if he does not alter the course he's on."

Alexei shrugged, completing his task and securing a dry towel around his lover's waist. As he began to dry himself, Fox stopped him and took the towel. As he rubbed away the droplets, he continued to speak. "The other boys, however, keep asking me to bring Jade back to visit them. I promised them I would ask him if he would like to return."

Alexei smiled. "You told them you would ask a cat if he would like to visit them?"

Fox laughed, wrapping the towel around Alexei's waist as the other man had done for him. "Yes, I did. So...what does he say? The children really love him."

"Especially Jeffrey, yes?"

"Ignore him, please? The last thing I need is another audience with his father."

Alexei's eyes flashed with mild irritation. "You need not answer to him or anyone, Fox. You *should* not. You are far superior to that man and his demon spawn..."

Fox rolled his eyes and began to walk slowly for the door, linking fingers with his lover and leading him away. "Will you visit the boys and behave yourself?"

"Of course, lord. The question is, will Jeffrey behave *himself*?"


Expecting Jeffrey to behave was the equivalent of expecting a snowstorm in the desert.

The younger man sat casting evil stares in the direction of the teacher and his pet stretched lazily across his desk. And although Jade looked as though he were almost asleep, he was not. His slitted gaze rested on the young man at the back of the room, the tip of his tail slowly curling and uncurling.

Fox ended class a few minutes early, allowing the children to visit a while with Jade. The cat sat patiently, being stroked and petted as the children marveled at the shimmering softness of his coat and deep color of his eyes.

Furious with the situation, Jeffrey rose from his desk, throwing his chair aside. The cat's ears automatically flattened, and blackness swallowed the green of his eyes as the young man approached, but Fox's comforting hand on his back held him in place.

Remembering his last encounter with the vicious beast, Jeffrey stopped at what he considered to be a safe distance and glared at the group. "Enjoy yourselves," he muttered. "As soon as I get my hands on him, he's done for." The young man made a twisting motion with both hands, then turned his attention on Fox. "And you," he spat, "your day is coming as well."

A sound that started out as a high pitch mewling and then dropped to a low growl rose from Jade's throat, and Fox picked the cat up from the desk, hugging him to his chest.

"Leave my classroom, Jeffrey. And do not come back until you learn to behave in a civilized manner."

The young man's eyes blazed with hatred. "My father shall hear of this."

Fox shook his head sadly. "Yes, Jeffrey. He shall indeed. Now please leave."

Jade hissed softly from the cradle of Fox's arms as Jeffrey stormed past.

"He will not go to our father," Amir offered once his eldest brother was gone. "He will only land him*self* in trouble if he does."

Fox looked into empty doorway, stroking the cat's back. "I know. Now why don't the rest of you children go on. Don't be late for dinner."

The remaining children said goodbye to their teacher and the animal they'd grown so fond of and tumbled out into the afternoon sun, waving to Dana as she passed them. As she entered the classroom, a smile crossed her lips, and she rolled her eyes.

"Can you two not stay away from each other for more than a couple of hours?"

Fox kissed the top of the cat's head and set him down on his desk. "The boys asked to see Jade, and he was good enough to oblige them."

Dana shook her head, laughing softly as she dropped into the chair behind the desk. As soon as she was settled, Jade stepped down off of the desk and into her lap, rubbing his head against her chin. She stroked the cat's back, listening to the contented purr. "Have you no shame? Soliciting my attention this way with your lover not more than four feet from us."

Fox smiled as he watched the two, pleased that they were getting along so well. "Have you plans for dinner, Dana?" he asked, hoping that Alexei wouldn't mind the last minute invitation.

"Yes, actually," she answered. "Daniel is coming to call, and we're dining together."

One golden-brown eyebrow arched upward. "*Really*."

The petite redhead gave him a mischievous grin. "Yes, *really*."

"So, you like him..."

"Yes, he's very nice." She looked down, scratching behind the cat's ear. "I'm very glad we met." She glanced back up to her friend. "I should be going. I need to prepare."

Fox nodded, grinning broadly, then pointed to Jade, speaking in a mock-stern voice. "You. Stop accosting my friend, and let's go home."

The cat meowed softly at him, then hopped back to the desk and up into his arms. Dana rose from the chair, and they walked out together, each looking forward to starting their respective evenings.


The two men lounged together in the comfort of their bed, basking in the afterglow of their lovemaking.

"Sometimes I still can't believe that this is real," Fox murmured into his lover's chest. "I'd never have dreamed that I could have something this beautiful."

"You deserve the best the world has to offer," Alexei whispered to him. "Grand houses, servants, jewels..."

Fox raised his head, gazing down into his lover's eyes. "I meant you."

Alexei's next words faded from his mind as he stared up into Fox's loving gaze. He brought a hand up to the other man's face, gently cupping his cheek. His thumb stroked across Fox's lower lip, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to taste that lip. As often as he'd done so in the past days...the past hour...he wanted more. His hand slid around to the back of Fox's head, and he pulled him down for a long kiss, licking and nibbling the succulent flesh. A sudden tremor ran through him, and he pulled Fox closer, deepening the kiss to an almost desperate extent.

With a bit of effort, Fox pulled away and smiled down at Alexei. "And you call *me* insatiable." The unfamiliar glint in his lover's eyes filled him with curiosity and something else he couldn't name. "Alexei? Are you all right?"

Alexei swallowed hard, his eyes burning into Fox's. "Yes," he responded just above a whisper. "I just...I..." He shook his head and pulled Fox down to him, again initiating a desperate kiss. He rolled them until Fox was flat on his back, still feeding hungrily on his mouth. Finally, he pulled away, sitting up and rocking against his lover's growing erection. Stroking the scattering of hair that covered Fox's chest, he looked down into approving hazel eyes, then reached behind, making Fox ready. That done, he held his lover's now rigid erection at the base and lowered himself onto it.

Fox gasped as Alexei sank down, taking him in as far as he could go. They'd made love not more than an hour ago, yet Fox was as ready to go again right now as he would be a day later. One hand linked fingers with Alexei while the other wrapped around his erection, stroking its length as he pushed up again and again, carrying them quickly toward release.

Alexei rocked frantically, feeling his climax move in like a violent storm and knowing that his Fox was right behind him, he took no action to slow it down. The hand around him pumped harder, and the world exploded into a million shards of light as he came long and hard over his lover's hand.

Fox jerked up into Alexei only a few more times before he found his own satisfaction, emitting choking gasps as he climaxed. Alexei crumpled onto his chest, and Fox wrapped him in his arms, kissing the side of his head and murmuring soft words of love. A short time later, sleep came to claim them both, leaving any thoughts and questions for the morning.


Fox entered the great room, approaching Alexei from behind and wrapping his arms around the other man's shoulders.

"Good morning, love."

Alexei grasped his lover's wrists and turned into a soft kiss.

"Good morning."

Fox hugged Alexei tightly then released him and moved to sit across from him. "Sleep well?" he asked softly, hoping for more than a simple yes or no.

"Yes. You?"

Fox nodded, picking at the breakfast that had been set before him. He looked up from his plate and dove in. "Alexei...last night...there was a look on your face...an inexplicable change in your behavior. I don't know if it meant anything; maybe you'll tell me it didn't, but for a while, it seemed as though something was very wrong."

Alexei shrugged and reached across the table to take Fox's hand. "I do not know that I have a reasonable answer for you. It was just so..." he stopped, trying to find a way to articulate what he'd felt. "...I had such a strong feeling of...the word *dread* comes to mind, but I do not know if that is exactly the right term."

"Concerning what?"

Alexei shook his head. "I only know that...I felt the overwhelming urge to hold tightly to you and never let go."

Fox gave him a teasing grin. "Afraid I'd disappear?"

Alexei's gaze dropped from Fox's face as he considered that very likely possibility.

Fox squeezed the hand that still rested in his. "Jade?"

Alexei lifted his eyes and looked into his lover's concerned face. He gave Fox a reassuring smile. "No," he answered softly. "No, of course not. Come, let us finish our breakfast so you may get on to your pupils."

Fox shook his head. "No. I'll speak to Dana. Ask her to tell the master that I'm not well today. She's quite capable of giving today's lesson."

Green eyes stared over at him. "Why would you do this?"

"Because something is troubling you and I don't want to leave you until you're feeling better."

"No...Fox...I am very touched that you would stay home for me, but I am fine now. Truly. I do not know what it was that came over me, but the feeling is gone now."

Fox eyed him doubtfully. "Then why do I still see an odd look on your face?"

"I..I am simply troubled by the fact that I do not know what had come over me. I will get over it."

Fox still wasn't sure, but he didn't want to push the issue. "All right. I'll go to class." He smiled. "If I don't, Jeffrey might fall under the impression that he has frightened me away."

The mention of Jeffrey's name brought a scowl to Alexei's face. "I do not trust him, Fox. He is stupid as a stone, but he is certainly capable of doing you harm."

"He is an angry young man, that's for certain, but I can take care of myself. Now, if I'm going to be on time, I really must go."

Both men rose, Alexei planted a tender kiss on his lover's mouth, then he sent him off. As soon as Fox was gone, he left as well, in search of Daniel.


"Well, well, well. Look who has decided to grace us with his magnificent presence?"

"All right, Daniel. Your sarcasm is not called for."

"Forgive me, my prince, but I do not know how else to react when your father harps on me every day, asking where his son is!"

Alexei softened his tone. "I am sorry, Daniel. I just wanted to insure that Fox was settling comfortably into our home."

"Your home. We must discuss that, Alexei."

"What do you wish to discuss about it?"

"Do you really think you should have gone and taken such a huge leap with him before you spoke to your father? And let me stress again how much you need to do that..."

"I *know*, Daniel. And what is it with you? Are you not smitten with Fox's lovely friend?"

"Yes, but I have not conjured up a house for us to live in together. I have not given her any false impressions."

"Are you saying that I've lied to Fox?"

"By omission, yes. He has no idea who you are, really. Why, Alexei? Why have you not told him?"

"Because," Alexei began to pace, "it was so much to comprehend. I did not want to overwhelm him..."

"Seems to me that he took the news of your true nature very well. I do not think it would have been too much for his delicate senses to hear that you are crown prince of the djinn."

Alexei continued to pace.

"Alexei..."

The other stopped and whirled to face his friend. "I was afraid that he would not take me seriously, Daniel."

"He believes that you are a genie, but you felt he would not believe that you are our ruler?"

"I am not your ruler. My father is. And no, it is not that I think he would not believe me about that but rather I feared he would think that I was merely toying with him. I wanted him to be sure of my love before I told him."

"And so now you are prepared to do that?"

"Yes. But first, I will tell my father about him."

"Well, unless you want to go chasing halfway around the world, it will have to wait. Malik is not here. He told me, that if I saw you, to tell you that he would return in a couple of days." Daniel raised one red eyebrow. "So you still have time to decide exactly how you want to tell him."

"*How* I want to tell him..."

"Yes, Alexei. You cannot just blurt it out. He must be adequately prepared, though I do not know that any amount of preparation is going to soften the blow."

"For the love of Allah, Daniel, you speak as though it is some great tragedy."

"Not in my mind, Alexei, and certainly not in yours, but for your father? Knowing how he feels about humans? I shiver to think about how he is going to react to your news."

"Well, however he reacts, he will have to just learn to deal with it. I love Fox and nothing will change that. Malik must accept that."

"He is our king, Alexei; he does not have to do anything he does not want to do."

"No, you are right. But if he wants me to assume the throne, he will have to accept Fox as my mate."

"Alexei, do you respond well to ultimatums?"

The other man's eyebrows took on a sarcastic arch.

"Exactly. And neither does your father. But I do not have to tell you any of this. You *know* it."

Alexei ignored his friend's last statement and strolled over to his favorite stream. He skimmed his hand across the water and smiled down at the image of Fox speaking with his class. "I do not wish to shun my responsibilities, Daniel, but this man is my every breath. He is first in my heart, and if I must give up my crown for him, I will."

"And what makes you think that he will allow you to do that? He does not strike me as the selfish kind."

"And that is why I will not tell him until I speak to Malik. If he forces me to choose, I will choose Fox, and there will be no need for him to ever know what I did." Alexei turned his attention back to the stream, and a look of anger flash across his face. "I will hang that little weasel by his own entrails..."

"What? Who?"

Alexei sprang to his feet, hands clenched at his sides. "*Jeffrey*. The eldest of Fox's pupils. He has been threatening Fox for some time now, and he just tossed a fit and threw a book at him. I must go."

"What are you going to do?"

"Master Jeffrey has used up his last chance. I will see you soon."

And with that, Alexei was gone, leaving his friend in mid-conversation. Now used to his friend's sudden departures, Daniel merely walked away, muttering to no one. "Very well then. Perhaps you and Fox and Dana and I might get together soon. Oh, yes, Daniel. What a splendid idea. Well, enjoy your day..."


Fox stood in the doorway of the bed chamber, watching Alexei's eyes open. The other man stretched in a purely feline fashion and smiled up at his lover.

"Good afternoon, my love. How was your day?"

"Interesting." Fox sauntered across the room and sat on the bed, sliding to lean back against the pillows.

"Oh?"

"Yes. I had another unpleasant encounter with Jeffrey this morning."

Alexei looked up at him, doing his level best to look innocent. "Did you?"

"Yes. Directly afterward, he went out for his afternoon riding lesson, and what do you suppose happened?"

Alexei arched his eyebrows and shrugged.

"He lost control of his horse. It took off at a full gallop, with Jeffrey screaming all the way."

"*No*."

Fox nodded. "Yes. When the stableman finally caught up to them, they were almost a mile from home. He found Jeffrey in a heap on the ground and the horse nearby."

"Goodness, how awful."

"He's got two broken legs."

"Did they have to shoot him?"

Fox narrowed his gaze on his lover. "Not the horse, *Jeffrey*."

Alexei averted his eyes and toyed with one earring, giving no response.

"And you know what's very odd about it?"

"No. What?"

"The stableman swears he saw a small black animal darting between the horse's legs just before it bolted. But when he looked around for it, it was gone.

Alexei knitted his brows. "Yes, that *is* odd."

Fox folded his arms across his chest and cocked his head. "Alexei..."

"Yes, love?"

"What did you do?"

"Do?"

"*Why* did you frighten Jeffrey's horse? He could have been killed."

The pretense melted away. "I take it as a personal failure that he was not."

Fox's eyes grew wide with shock.

"I will not sit idly by while young master Jeffrey assaults you."

"I can handle him."

"I know you can, but he needs more than *handling*. He needs a good lesson."

"What do you really think he's going to learn from that?"

Alexei heaved a hard sigh, then looked up at Fox, pouting. "All right, so it was nothing more than retribution. But it was not uncalled for. He had it coming."

"That isn't the point. He's a human being."

"If you insist..."

Fox covered his face with one hand. "Alexei...please...don't do anything else to him. Just let him be."

"Make no mistake, Fox. If he sees his opportunity, he will take it. And I will *never* allow that."

Fox bowed his head, at a loss as to how it was that he was going to make the other man understand. "I appreciate your concern, Alexei, but you *must* not harm him again."

"Even if he is preparing to kill you?"

"You're impossible!" Fox leaned his head back and closed his eyes in frustration. The gentle depression of the mattress a few minutes later drew his attention. He opened his eyes to find Alexei crawling toward him. The other man crept slowly between his legs and brushed his head against his chest.

"Are you angry with me?"

Fox looked down at the emerald eyes partially hidden by downswept lashes and glanced quickly away. Alexei nuzzled his chest again, demanding his attention.

"You are angry. Perhaps..." he fell silent, doing a fine job of trying to look repentant.

"Perhaps, what?"

Oceans of green sparkled up at him through a thick curtain of lashes. "Perhaps I should be punished."

Fox fought to keep the smile from his lips. "Yes...perhaps you should." He pushed Alexei away and rose from the bed. Alexei's voice, tinged with curiosity, reached him as he moved to the door.

"Where are you going?"

"Thought I'd take a walk before dinner."

"But...aren't you going to punish me?"

"Yes," Fox gave him an evil grin. "I am."

Dismayed, Alexei watched as his lover glided out of the room, leaving him alone. He waited a few seconds, sure that Fox would come back, but he remained alone. "Fox?" he called softly. Only silence greeted his ears. A tiny, incredulous smiled curled his mouth. "It would seem," he told himself, "that my sweet Fox has a bit of a sadistic streak in him. "Oh my love," he groaned, "I adore you more every day."


Dinner began quietly.

Fox joined Alexei a short time after he'd entered the great room. The other man waited for him to speak, but he merely seated himself and began to pick at his dinner. Drumming his fingers softly, Alexei watched and waited.

Nothing.

Finally, he sidled over to Fox and plucked a morsel from his plate. Tentatively, he held his fingers to his lover's mouth, chewing on the corner of his mouth as he waited.

Fox raised his eyes to Alexei's as he considered the offering. Finally, he opened his mouth and allowed the other man to feed him. When his entire dinner was eaten that way, he sat back against a mass of pillows, staring sedately at his lover.

Alexei shifted his body and lay before Fox. He wrapped his arms around his lover's legs and resting his head on his knees, looked up at him. "Is my lord still angry with me?"

"No, I'm not angry."

"Am I still being punished?"

Fox considered his question, then nodded. "Yes, you are."

Alexei gave him a beautiful pout. "Then...you will allow me to give you no pleasure tonight?"

"I haven't decided."

Alexei moved upward, burying his face in Fox's chest. "Please, lord. A night without your love would be a torturous thing."

Fox petted the sable head for a moment, then closed his fingers around the satiny strands, lifting Alexei's head until their eyes met. "Even I do allow you to pleasure me, there will be none for you."

Green eyes stared up at him, pleading. "You...you would torture me this way?"

"It's not torture," Fox corrected him gently. "It's punishment. A punishment you asked for."

"I would rather be whipped by my lord's own hand than endure this type of punishment. I beg you to reconsider."

The corner of Fox's mouth twitched. "I suppose it's possible that you could somehow convince me."

Alexei stared up at him for a moment, then rose to his feet and slowly began to remove his clothing. When the last bit of material slipped from his body, he lowered himself to the floor, kneeling beside Fox's outstretched legs. He bent at the waist, laying his torso and arms out in front of him.

From the comfort of his pillows, Fox cocked his head, admiring the body stretched out before him. His eyes followed the strong, clean lines of the muscles, imagining feeling them tighten and relax under his touch. He mentally caressed the smooth, tanned skin and heard the faint sigh that drifted up from the floor. Realizing that Alexei must have been tuned in to his thoughts, he attempted to shut them off and leaned forward, placing his hand on the other's back, stroking up and down its length. Enjoying the twitch of muscle beneath his fingers, Fox continued for a bit longer, then slid his hand down under Alexei's jaw and lifted, coaxing the other man upright.

Alexei remained on his knees, staring into Fox's eyes as his lover caressed his jaw. As the hand drifted closer to his mouth, he gently grasped Fox's wrist and placed a soft kiss in his palm. His tongue followed, slithering up toward Fox's fingers where he then drew one into his mouth, delicately sucking at the tip.

Mesmerized, Fox pushed his finger forward, watching as it disappeared into Alexei's mouth, then pulled it out, adding a second finger. Alexei accepted the addition, licking and sucking with increased enthusiasm. He moaned in protest when the fingers were suddenly removed, and Fox sat back, staring quietly at him, waiting.

Alexei pitched forward, supporting the weight of his upper body on his hands, and crawled torward Fox. When he was almost parallel to Fox's chest, he reached out and parted his lover's robes, baring his chest. Gentle fingers danced across the warm skin before Alexei leaned in and began scattering soft kisses over the same area. When Fox's head fell back and his eyes closed, Alexei's tongue inched out to take his pleasure a step higher.

A servant came in to clear the remains of dinner and gasped softly at the sight of her prince, naked and sprawled over the master, thoroughly bathing his upper body with his tongue.

Not entirely oblivious to the girl, Alexei continued his task, lingering over one puckered nipple, drawing breathy moans from the man beneath him.

Completely oblivious, Fox lay amongst the pillows, accepting the intense pleasure of his lover's caress. The warmth moved lower, flowing over his taut belly, teasing and tickling every inch of skin. He removed Fox's pants, and finally, what seemed like ages later, his mouth gently brushed the glistening head of his rigid erection.

Sounding a tiny, shocked yelp, the girl gathered up the last of the dinnerware and vacated the room, leaving Alexei smiling as he lapped at the pearl of bitter fluid at the tip of his lover's swollen shaft.

Fox twitched and released a small grunt at the most intimate touch. He breathed deeply, willing himself to relax and enjoy every caress, but when he found himself engulfed in wet heat, all good intentions evaporated like so many drops of rain on the desert floor. His hips bucked as he sought to push himself deeper into that wonderful heat.

Alexei relaxed his throat muscles and took all that Fox had to give him. His tongue fluttered over the long shaft each time it slid into his mouth, and his deep groans of pleasure vibrated along the thrusting muscle. As Fox's movements became more erratic, Alexei regained control, grasping his hips to hold him still, and slowly began to back off.

Fox issued a sharp hiss as Alexei pulled away, but the protest died a quick death as his lover's tongue moved to the fragile skin of the sac that hung heavily between his legs. He squirmed within Alexei's firm grip, his soft whimpers conveying his need.

Gently rolling the sac on his tongue, Alexei slipped a hand underneath his lover, his fingers burrowing between the rounded muscle, and then ever so gently, first one then two digits teased their way into the tight opening. Fox cried out and began to rock his hips, but Alexei's free hand once again steadied him. Knowing that Fox was now teetering very close to the edge, he licked his way back up the length of his erection. Once at the tip, he teased the tiny slit for a brief moment, then abruptly swallowed his lover to the root.

Fox's mouth fell open, and a tormented sob tumbled out. Somewhere between heaven and madness he floated, aware of nothing more than the exquisite torture that his lover was inflicting on him and the desperate need to bring it to a shattering end. His fingers clenched in the pillows around him as Alexei increased the pressure, and each labored breath left his lips in a loud hiss. The fingers sliding in and out of him slipped deeper, stimulating a spot that made his back arch high off the floor and a long, broken cry rip from his throat.

Alexei's head rose and fell faster as he felt Fox's body hit its peak. In an instant, the man beneath him began to lurch and scream incoherently as hot fluid hit the back of his throat. A thin line ran down one corner of his mouth as he swallowed his lover's seed. When Fox collapsed in utter exhaustion, Alexei lifted his head. Slitted hazel eyes watched as he lifted his hand to his mouth, wiping the moisture away, then licked it from his fingers. That done, he again lowered his head and began to gently clean his lover's spent organ. Golden-brown eyelashes swept down, and the other man sighed softly.

When he'd completed his task, Alexei rested his head low on Fox's belly and one hand on his hip, drawing lazy circles on the skin there, with his thumb. His eyes drifted shut, but he did not sleep, could not until the screaming of his own body was silenced.

Fox opened his eyes long minutes later and looked down at the top of the sable head resting on him. He raised a weakened hand and combed his fingers through Alexei's hair. The other man lifted his head and looked up at him expectantly. A weary smile trembled at his lips, and he tugged at the hair beneath his fingers, prompting Alexei to slide up until they were face to face. He pulled the other man down for a soft, lazy kiss then murmured against them, "Let's go to bed."

Alexei gazed down at him, a soft smile playing at his lips. "As you wish, my lord." He rose to his feet, helping Fox up, and the two walked together to their bed chamber.

Fox dropped to the mattress first, then Alexei, right along beside him. He reached over and lovingly caressed the other's cheek, provoking the gentle nuzzling of his palm. His eyes sparkled as he attracted and held his lover's gaze.

"Goodnight, love."

Alexei's mouth fell open as he watched Fox settle onto his back and close his eyes.

//No. He....he *would* not...he...//

Fox heard what sounded like a soft gasp and opened his eyes halfway. "Did you say something?"

"N-no, but..."

"But, what?"

"You truly mean to sleep?"

"Yes..."

Alexei shook his head slowly. "You could be so cruel?"

"My love...I would never be cruel to you. But if you recall, I told you from the beginning..."

"But you said I could convince you. Did I not please my lord?"

"Of course you did. Very much. But I believe my exact words were it was *possible* that you could convince me." Fox brushed his fingertips across the other man's lips. "You have not. Your punishment will continue." He moved his hand from Alexei's mouth to his own, kissing his fingers, then bringing them back to press against his lover's. "Now go to sleep. We will re-evaluate the situation in the morning."

Alexei watched, disbelieving, as Fox removed his hand, draping it across his chest and closed his eyes. For over an hour he watched in silence, waiting for Fox to open his eyes and tell him that he was only joking, throw him onto his back and make passionate love to him.

Nothing.

Coming up on an hour and a half, he gave up and curled up on his side, facing away from Fox. His body begged for relief, but he denied it, refusing to interfere with his lord's punishment. Despondently, he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. Just as he had begun to finally drift off, he felt a hard warmth press up against the length of his body. He shook off the darkness that was just about to claim him and came to full consciousness. He shuddered uncontrollably as a soft mouth kissed the back of his neck. The warmth ebbed, and Fox turned him onto his back. The other man smiled down at him in the near-darkness of the room.

"Did you really think I would sleep tonight without hearing you scream my name?"

Alexei shuddered at the soft words. "I...not at first, but..." He fell silent and turned his best wounded look on Fox.

"Ohhh," Fox cooed, petting Alexei's hair, "is my love suffering?"

Alexei looked away and nodded.

"Well. Let's see what we can do to remedy that, shall we?"

Dark eyes rose warily. "You are not going to tease me then tell me to go to sleep, are you?"

Fox lowered his head, brushing his lips against Alexei's. "No."

Alexei wound an arm around his lover's neck and writhed against him. "My love...my body aches for you. Please..."

Before he could utter another word, Fox's mouth came down on his, muffling his pleas. His lover's weight settled over him, pressing him deeper into the mattress and pulling a strained whimper from his constricted chest. Fox slithered against him, feeling the full extent of his arousal and leaving no doubts in Alexei's mind about his own renewed passion.

"My beautiful Jade," Fox murmured against the other's mouth, "you must know that I would never let you suffer the entire night..." He slipped a hand between them, stroking the column of velvet-sheathed stone. "So hard," he moaned, lightly fingering the shaft.

Alexei stared up at him through glazed eyes. "For you, my lord."

Fox squeezed him gently. "It is a lovely gift. Might I ask for another?"

"Your slightest wish is my command."

The words brought a smile to Fox's lips. "Open yourself to me."

Without question, Alexei spread his legs and wrapped them high around his lover's waist. He waited, trembling as Fox positioned himself at his entrance, then stopped. He turned pleading eyes up to Fox's face but remained silent.

Fox looked down into his lover's eyes, glowing with love...and deep, uninhibited lust, and he could hold off no longer.

Alexei's head pressed back into the pillows, and a loud, sobbing wail escaped past his lips as Fox drove into him.

Every bit as overcome, Fox shuddered, gritting his teeth in a valiant effort to stave off the violent rush of sensation that rumbled through his body. He froze, struggling for composure, but Alexei would not be quieted. The other man bucked impatiently beneath him, sobbing his name, and he lost the struggle. Taking his lover's stony erection in one hand and anchoring the other in his hair, Fox pulled out almost to the tip, then surged forward again.

Alexei's fingers dug into the muscled padding of Fox's shoulders as his lover remained deeply embedded inside him and rocked forward then released the pressure, allowing his body to lurch back to where it had been. He repeated the process several times, never leaving the heat that surrounded him, and each thrust brushed over that magical, mysterious spot, leaving Alexei quivering beneath him, delirious with pleasure.

"Fox..." Alexei panted, "...my....my love...please...I..." He stiffened, groaning through clenched teeth as Fox increased the tempo of his thrusts and matched it with the movement of his hand.

"Are you..." Fox swallowed hard, trying to hold on for just a second more, "...are you ready, love?"

Alexei whimpered and nodded as he clung desperately to his lover.

"Then show me," Fox hissed as he began to slam into the other man. "Let me feel it...let me...hear..."

And at that moment, the damn burst, the flood of sensation carrying both men screaming over the edge.

Fox's name rang in his own ears, cried out again and again by the man who shuddered and thrashed endlessly beneath him, and he was never more sure of Alexei's love than at that precise moment. When the storm had finally passed and Fox's weakened arms could hold him up no longer, he lowered his trembling body to rest on top of the one he loved so dearly and wrapped Alexei in his arms.


The shrieks and wails coming from their masters' bedroom died down and brought knowing smiles to some of the servants and looks of profound embarrassment to others, but all went about their duties quickly and professionally and never spoke a word of it to each other...while working. In the privacy of their quarters, they often discussed their prince and his chosen mate...the one he referred to in their presence as the master. Privately, they'd heard him call the other 'Fox' and assumed that this was his name. In some of the more intimate moments that they often bore witness to, he was heard to call Fox 'my lord', and they thought that even if this man was indeed a nobleman, he was still human, and therefore not anyone that their esteemed prince would or should bow to. Still, in light of all they did and did not know, one thing was crystal clear. Prince Alexei loved this man with his whole heart and soul, and the feeling was more than mutual. That knowledge brought happiness to the attendants, and they vowed to serve both men well and maintain the blissful atmosphere that reigned on their home.


The two men lay clinging to each other, Fox's head nestled against Alexei's shoulder, and all was quiet except for the soft purr that rumbled in his ear. He smiled wearily and lifted his head to gaze down upon his beloved. Luminescent green eyes stared back and perfect lips attempted to form a word. Unable to resist temptation, Fox moved in for a long, tender kiss. When he'd drunk his fill of his lover's sweetness, he slid down a bit and laid his head on Alexei's chest. The other man raised a hand to his head and lazily stroked the damp, golden-brown silk. After a long silence, Fox's voice drifted up to the other's ears, soft and weary.

"Jade?"

"Yes?"

"Do you feel better?"

"So much better. I cannot believe my astounding luck to have the world's greatest lover fall in love with me..."

Fox shook with silent laughter. "There's sarcasm in there somewhere, I think."

"Oh no, lord. I say this to you in all sincerity."

Fox laughed again, this time audibly. "That isn't what I meant, anyway."

"No?"

"No. I'm actually referring to last night."

"Oh. Truly, Fox, I do not know what happened to me, but I feel fine now."

"No more anxiety? No unexplainable fears?"

"None."

"You aren't just saying that so I won't worry?"

"No, I promise you, everything is fine. Now it is time that you slept or you will be falling over your desk tomorrow." Alexei wrapped his arms around Fox and dropped a number of soft kisses in his hair. "Goodnight, my treasure."

Fox mumbled a sleepy goodnight and in no time was soundly asleep. Alexei stayed awake a bit longer, enjoying the peaceful sounds of his love's slumber and the comforting warmth of his naked body resting on his own.

//The world will never know a more perfect love.//

He fell asleep finally, smiling at the thought.


The next morning, Alexei sent Fox off to class with a lingering kiss and a promise to behave himself, then drew a deep breath and went to see if his father had returned.

Indeed he had and was anxious for his son's visit.

Alexei entered the grand salon, followed by Daniel, and found the elder reading.

"Father."

"Well," Malik closed his book and smiled on his eldest son. "I was beginning to think you had run away from home."

The young man strolled past his father, stopping at the edge of the doorway that led out to the balcony. "I realize that I have been spending quite a lot of time away."

"Yes, you have. I have given you your privacy, my son. I have not questioned you or Daniel, but now I must ask. What is it that keeps you away for such long periods of time?"

Alexei inhaled deeply, then released the breath slowly. "You remember you told me that if I had found myself a companion, you hoped that I would bring said companion before you?"

"Yes, son. I remember well. I am an old man but still perfectly capable of recalling something that I said only a matter of weeks ago."

Alexei gave him a brief smile. "Well...it is time I did that."

Malik broke into a wide grin. "Wonderful! Bring her to me this evening. We shall dine together..."

"Father."

"Yes?"

Alexei shook his head. "There are two things you must know."

The smile faded from Malik's face. "Your solemn expression tells me I may not be pleased with whatever these things are you must tell me." He sat down and looked up at his son. "Say what you must say."

Alexei nodded. "You said 'she', Father. My companion is not female."

"Oh?" Malik paused thoughtfully, then spoke again. "Oh. Well, my son, you know that from birth we are taught that in matters of love, gender is not an issue. Your grandmothers were very happy together all their lives and raised me in love. Now, I admit that I am a bit surprised, considering all the females I have seen you with in the past, but if this man means enough to you that you would have him stand before me, then I accept your choice."

Alexei executed a shallow bow. "Thank you, Father."

Malik nodded to his son. "You said there were two things."

"Yes."

Daniel tucked himself into the nearest corner and watched warily.

"Father, I know your feelings regarding humans, but..."

The older man stopped him cold. "*Humans*?"

"Yes..."

"Alexei," Malik's voice took on a warning tone. "Surely you are not going to tell me that this companion of yours is a..." His hand tightened on the book he still held. "...*human*."

Daniel watched his friend's chin take on a defiant tilt and the green of his eyes all but disappear, and he wished he could do the same, but he had given his word that when Alexei told Malik his news, he would be there for moral support.

//Were you *insane*?//

"Yes, Father. He is."

Malik closed his eyes, and the room began to quake. Or maybe it was just Daniel. At this point, he really couldn't be sure.

"Why," the older man asked softly, "do you insist on defying me at every turn? *Why* do you find my rules so difficult to follow? No one else seems to have a problem with them."

"Everyone *else* fears you and the punishment you will bring down upon them if they do not adhere to your stupid rules."

"And you do not."

"Father, I cannot obey a law that is so blatantly unreasonable. Contrary to what you may believe, I do not do this to spite you."

"No? Then tell me why!"

"I love him, Father. Deeply and completely."

Malik's eyes widened and turned blacker than coal. His response came out in a barely audible hiss. "Nooo."

"Yes, father."

"Alexei...son...*please*...tell me that you are not mated to this...this...*human*."

"I will thank you not to refer to him as though he were some contemptible monster. His name is Fox, and yes, we are lovers."

There was a loud crack as a large vase behind Malik cracked and exploded into hundreds of pieces. Daniel trembled in his corner, too afraid to move or speak, but Alexei stood unblinking before his father, completely unwilling to back down.

"Did grandmother not give you that vase as a wedding gift?" Alexei scolded softly. "She would *not* be pleased."

"Your impudence is *not* helping your situation, boy," Malik warned. "Now you listen to me. You are not to see your human pet again, is that clear? If you walk away now and make absolutely no contact with him again, I will forget this whole sordid incident."

Alexei shook his head. "I will do no such thing. My place is with Fox. And if you cannot accept that, Father I am sorry, but I will not give him up."

"That was not a request, Alexei."

"No, of course it was not. All you know how to do is issue commands and proclamations. You are not listening to me, Father. I *love* Fox. Does my happiness mean nothing to you?"

"*Yes*! Which is why I insist that you put an immediate stop to this!"

Alexei's voice raised to match the volume of his father's, shaking the entire house. "What is it about humans that makes you so unreasonable?"

"I do not need to explain myself to you, Alexei. I say that you will not see him again, and you *will* *not*."

"I *will*." Alexei raised a hand to his head, then lowered his tone. "Father...this is getting us nowhere. Please. For me...let me show him to you. Watch him for a bit. Listen to him..."

Malik closed his eyes and turned away.

"He is a teacher, you know. A very intelligent man. He is handsome and he is kind...he makes me so very happy, father. Please just see him."

Malik's failure to answer was interpreted as consent, and Alexei moved to the large mirror in the far corner of the room and waved his hand across it. An image of Fox appeared, and an immediate smile came to Alexei's lips. He watched quietly as Fox taught his class, moving slowly, up and down the aisles between the desks. He turned to Malik and called softly.

"Father, please. Come and see the man I adore, and you will understand."

Slowly, Malik moved before the mirror and raised his eyes to the image. Daniel unfolded himself from the corner, now standing to stare, amazed at what his friend was able to accomplish. Malik watched in silence, then turned to see the look of pure devotion in his son's eyes. Daniel's tentative smile vanished as he saw Malik's face harden and twist into a mask of frightening emotion.

"Fine. I have seen him. Now get rid of this image and erase him from your mind, or so help me, Alexei, you will never assume the throne. I will strip you of your birthright and pass the crown on to your brother Amed."

Alexei stood his ground. "You are forcing me to choose."

"Yes."

"Then there is only one choice I can make..."

Malik nodded, finally happy that he had gotten through to his wayward son.

"I choose Fox."

A look of sheer fury washed over the king's features, and objects all over the room began to shudder and break. "Very well, Alexei. I give you a new choice." He waved his hand at the mirror, and Alexei watched in horror as Fox suddenly fell to the floor, hands clenched in his hair, writhing in agony.

"Father! What are you doing? *Stop*!"

"I will stop," Malik hissed. "But you must agree never to see him again."

"*No*!"

"Then you choose for him to die."

Alexei flattened his hands on the mirror, watching helplessly as his Fox screamed out in pain. "*No*," he sobbed, knowing that there was no way for him to undo what his father had done. "Father, *please*! *Stop*!"

"Do you agree?"

Tears sprung to Alexei's eyes, and he shook violently. "You are killing me as well!"

"You will get over it, Alexei. Now, what is your decision?" He raised a hand. "Do I finish him?"

"*NO*!"

"Then you agree?"

"*Yes*," he dropped to his knees, leaning against the mirror. "*Yes*, I will stay away from him. Please...do not hurt him anymore..."

The tears steamed down Alexei's face as he watched Fox stop writhing and lie panting on the floor while the children surrounded him. Seconds later, Dana raced in, followed by the youngest of the boys. She hovered over Fox for moment, then helped him to his feet. They spoke a few words, then she helped Fox from the room.

"Say goodbye, Alexei."

Alexei gripped the mirror and pressed his face to it. "How can you be so cruel? You are not my father. You could not be."

Malik spoke softly to his son. "You hate me at this moment. But soon you will come to realize that it is best."

More tears rolled down Alexei's face. "Never," he said in a choked whisper. "You have taken my only love. I will never forgive you."

Malik blinked and pressed his lips together in a grim line. "You are my successor. The future king. You must learn to behave as such."

Alexei turned red-rimmed eyes to the man standing over him. "I do not want your crown." He shook with rage. "I do not want your house or your lands. I do not want your subjects, and I do not want your power. The only thing I ever wanted, you took from me." He rose unsteadily to his feet, and Daniel came to his side. "From this day on, you have one less son."

"Do not say things you do not mean."

Alexei took one shaky step forward, his eyes blazing with hatred. "I mean it," he whispered through gritted teeth. "You have seen me for the last time."

Without another word, Alexei disappeared, leaving a stunned Daniel alone with Malik. The old man looked up at the other man, reading a look of profound sadness in his eyes. He drew himself up straight and tall and gave the younger man a hard stare. "I will be watching him every minute. You would do well to tell him that."

Daniel merely lowered his eyes.

"He *will* get over this."

"No, sire." Daniel hesitated a second, then doing something he'd never done, looked up and gazed steadily into the king's eyes. "He will not." And he was gone as well.

Malik paced the room, shattered bits of glass and china crunching beneath his feet. "I am right," he told himself, "I *will* do what is best for him whether he likes it or not..."

Having again worked himself into a high state of self-righteousness, Malik whirled around and was gone.


A group of servants watched as Alexei stumbled blindly past them on his way to his bedroom. One began to follow to ask if there was anything he required, but a voice from behind stopped her.

"Leave him."

The girl turned to face Daniel. "But, sir...he does not look at all well!"

"I know. But there is nothing at all that any of you can do for him."

"The master then? Can he help?"

Daniel looked from the girl to the direction in which Alexei had gone. "Would that he could," he whispered softly.


Alexei entered the room, closing the door softly behind him. He wandered the room slowly, his shaky legs doing a less than adequate job of holding him up. Pain seared his chest as he looked around.

Such joy in this room. Such love.

He moved to the bed and sank down amongst the pillows, burying his face in them. He inhaled deeply, taking in Fox's lingering scent...memorizing it so that when it faded from the material, it would still be vivid in his mind.

He turned over, clutching a pillow to his chest and stared up at the ceiling. Tears again welled up in his eyes and spilled over as he recalled helplessly watching his beloved suffer the agony inflicted on him by Malik. He was sure that Dana was caring for him sufficiently, but that was *his* place. Fox should be here. Home. In bed resting while Alexei attended to him...held him and kissed him and promised that no harm would ever come to him again...

He sat up suddenly, trembling as his name sounded in his head. A number of seconds passed, and he heard it again.

Fox was calling to him. Wanting to come home.

Violent shudders coursed through him as for the third time the voice sounded, this time laced with a tinge of anxiety. His fingers clenched in his hair, and he rocked back and forth. Tiny whimpers began to push their way past his compressed lips, and the fourth and last time that Fox called to him, the fear in his voice coming through loud and clear, it finished him.

Daniel and the small group of servants looked up, more than a bit startled as the floor beneath them shook with Alexei's roars of anguish. Daniel instructed the servants to keep their distance, and he rushed to his friend's room, throwing the door open to find Alexei lying across his bed, heaving great sobs. He approached cautiously and seated himself at the edge of the bed.

"Alexei," he called softly. "I...I am so sorry. So very, very sorry. I wish with all my heart that this had not happened.."

Although his loud wails had begun to abate, Alexei issued no response. He lay face down in the pillows, intermittent tremors wracking his body.

"I must tell you..." Daniel lay a gentle hand on his shoulder. "...in case you are entertaining any notions of trying to contact...him. Malik is watching and will be every minute. To insure Fox's safety, you must not have any contact with him...none."

Still, nothing.

Daniel squeezed his friend's shoulder. "I can only imagine the pain you have to be suffering, Alexei. I feared something bad would come of this, but I never imagined...I never dreamed..." He took a deep breath and went on. "If there was something I could do to ease the pain of this, I would. Please know that."

Alexei remained still and relatively quiet, giving no indication that he'd even heard Daniel's words. The other man rose and drifted silently from the room, leaving his friend alone with his grief.


"Fox, are you sure that you are not in any more pain?"

"Yes."

Dana sat quietly for a moment, stroking his brow with the cold cloth. Then, "He's probably just someplace where he can't hear you."

"He can hear me anywhere. He said that to me once."

Dana shook her head, starting to speak half a dozen times, then rethinking her words. "I don't...I don't know what to tell you. He's all right, I'm sure he is. If something was wrong, you would have heard from Daniel."

Fox nodded.

Dana patted his hand reassuringly. "You'll be home soon. And you'll see that there's a reasonable explanation for this."

No answer.

"Now tell me again what happened."

"How many times must you hear it?"

"Until I can make some sense of it."

"How can you if *I* can't?" Seeing Dana's insistent expression, he sighed and went through it again. "All right. I was in class. Everything was as normal as usual...except that Jeffrey was not there disrupting the lessons. I *felt* fine. Then all of a sudden this pain came out of nowhere. It was so bad that it knocked me to the floor. I'd never felt anything like it. I could barely see, and I couldn't hear at all, and then it got worse. Excruciating doesn't even begin to describe it. I thought I was dying. And then it stopped. As quickly as it began, it just...stopped. You came in a while after, how long I have no idea. I was very disoriented, and it took a while for my vision to clear and my hearing to return, but now, aside from complete exhaustion, I'm perfectly fine. Now what do you get out of that?"

Dana shook her head. "Nothing."

"Right. Now why don't you go on? You've been here for hours."

"I'd really rather not. Not until you're back with Alexei and *he* can look after you."

Fox lowered his eyes at the mention of his lover. "But we don't....we don't know when that will be," he said barely above a whisper. "Please, Dana. Go. I'll be fine. I really think I'd like to be alone anyway."

"To do what? Brood?"

"No..."

Dana rose and leaned over him, hands gripping his shoulders. "I don't know what's going on in that mind of yours, but I do know that it isn't good. Fox, you will be home before the night is out, and tomorrow you'll tell me how foolish you were for worrying."

Fox released a stuttering breath and nodded. "You're right. Now, go. I'll see you tomorrow."

Reluctantly, Dana walked to the door, looking back once more to see Fox give her an unconvincing smile and a wave. Once she was gone, he rose from the bed and sat in his favorite chair. Taking a few calming breaths, he closed his eyes and concentrated.

"Alexei...Jade. Can you hear me?" He waited for long moments but received no response. His heart began to thud painfully in his chest, and he blinked back the tears he felt stinging his eyes. "I don't...I don't understand. Why won't you bring me home? What...have I done something...something to upset you?"

Still no answer.

The tears won the battle and began their lazy trek down his face. "Please," he issued a broken whisper. "I'm so tired. I want...want to come home..."

More silence greeted him.

He bowed his head and wept softly.


"What is this place?"

Daniel spun away from the window he'd been staring blindly out of and took a step back. "S-sire..."

"I followed you," Malik answered the startled man's unspoken question. "But where is here? And where is Alexei?"

Daniel clasped his hands behind his back and remained silent.

"Like my son, you are developing quite a stubborn streak," Malik observed. "There is only one difference. "*You* are not my son."

The implied threat visibly shook Daniel, but he stood his ground.

Malik ran a hand through his silver hair and sighed deeply. "Your loyalty to your prince is commendable. Foolhardy, but commendable. I give you fair warning, Daniel. If he is with that human..."

"He is not, sire. He will do as you command. Not out of fear or loyalty or sense of duty, but out of deepest love for the one you have forbidden him to see."

Malik stared at the young man for long seconds, then, "You have not answered either of my questions. What is this place?"

"Alexei created it. For his love. It is...was...their home..."

"Their *home*," Malik spat the word from his lips. He has but one home."

Daniel lowered his head. It was quite obvious that Malik could not and would not be reasoned with. Still, for the sake of his friend, he had to try. The old man's venomous tone snapped him out of his thoughts.

"Where is he?"

Daniel straightened up and again risked looking his king in the eye. "You wish to see him, sire? Follow me."

Malik walked with Daniel through the grand house and stopped at a room at the far end.

Daniel placed his hand on the doorknob and spoke. "He has been in here since he left the palace." He opened the door and stepped aside, allowing Malik to enter.

The older man took two steps in and stopped. At the other end of the room on the oversized bed, lay the crumpled form of his son. He studied the motionless heap for a time, then stepped closer, calling Alexei's name. When he received no response, he moved in a few more steps.

"Alexei. Get up and stop behaving like a child. I am not asking you, I am ordering you."

Still, the figure did not move.

"Sire," Daniel called softly. "You can order him all you like. It will do no good. He has stopped speaking. I have tried three times since we have been here. He will not even so much as look at me. He just lies there."

"Well, I will not put up with this. He will come home with me now."

Daniel shook his head. "He will not, sire."

"He will when this place is in ruins..." Daniel's shocked voice cut him off.

"His heart is shattered. He is completely and utterly destroyed." The fear of what Malik would do to him had somehow become less important than what he had done to his own son, and Daniel continued to speak his mind. "You have seen to it that this is all he has left. How much more would you hurt your own son?"

Malik stared at the other man, amazed at his bravery. Giving no immediate response, he looked once more to the tormented shell that was his son. His jaw clenched and unclenched, and he turned toward the door. "Inform me when he tires of this little drama."

Once Malik was gone, Daniel nearly sank to the floor with relief. He moved to the bed on wobbly legs, and sat at the edge. "Alexei," he called softly to his silent friend. "Congratulate me, friend. I have won a reprieve. For how long I do not know, but for now at least, I have prevented him from laying waste to this house."

Alexei lay motionless, eyes closed, his face pressed to the pillow he hugged to his chest. It almost looked as though he might be asleep, but Daniel knew better. He was awake, and he had heard all that had gone on. He was merely refusing to respond.

Daniel sighed softly and stroked the side of Alexei's head. "I will be here in the house if you should need me." He rose and vacated the room quietly, leaving Alexei to the deafening silence that surrounded him.


"Fox! My God, you're here!" Dana squatted in front of the man slumped in his chair. "And from the looks of you, you haven't *left* here. What happened?"

Fox's head remained at downward tilt, and his voice was barely audible, but Dana strained to hear his words.

"Did you think he loved me, Dana? I know...you haven't kn...known him for more than a few days, but...would you have thought him capable of doing this?"

"*What*, Fox? What do you think he's done?"

"Do you think he loved me? I thought he loved me..."

"Oh, my God." Dana gently rubbed the spot on his leg just above his knee. "Yes, Fox. I only knew him for a very short time, but I was positive that he loved you."

"You haven't seen Daniel either, have you?"

"No."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be, Fox. I liked him. I thought that *maybe* we could have a nice relationship, but I wasn't in love with him. I'm not hurt, I'm angry. *You*, on the other hand..."

"He was just...just toying with me...is that possible? Could the things he did and the things he said to make me fall so deeply in love with him be nothing more to him than careless lies? Could this all have been just an elaborate plan to get what he wanted from me, and when he tired of the game, he just..." Fox leaned forward, pressing his face into his hands. "No...noooo. Dana..." he raised his head and tangled his fingers in the folds of her dress. "...please...wake me up. This is a dream. I'm dreaming and I can't wake up. Please..."

Dana gathered her friend into her arms and hugged him tightly. "I wish that were true. I would give anything in the world to fix this for you. Or at least to explain it. I can do neither. I'm sorry, Fox. I am *so* deeply sorry..."

Fox released her and nodded. "I'll be all right." He gave her a tremulous smile. "Good lesson, yes? Don't believe a handsome stranger when he swears undying love and devotion. And whatever you do, don't let yourself fall in love with him."

"Fox..."

"You're going to be late for class, Dana."

"I can't leave you this way."

Fox rose from the chair and took a few shaky steps over to a window. "I'm fine. Go to class."

Dana cursed softly under her breath, wishing that there was some way to cancel class, but the master would not be at all pleased. "I'll...see you later, all right?"

"I'll be here," he said softly, making her heart ache.

The click of the door signaled Dana's departure and set off a series of violent tremors in Fox. He took several large gulps of air and fought to steady himself. When the shaking diminished, he turned toward the bedroom and lowered himself to the mattress. He pulled his knees up to his chest and, hugging a pillow to himself, lay staring at the wall.


Morning light filtered into the room, casting its cheerful glow on the one who lay oblivious to its presence.

Slumped in a large chair beside the bed, Daniel blinked and stretched. His eyes fell on Alexei, who lay on his side, hugging a pillow to his chest. He got up and moved cautiously to the bed, peering over the lump of green satin, surprised to find matching eyes open and staring.

"Alexei? How long have you been awake?"

The other man continued to stare down at a spot low on the wall and said nothing.

"Alexei? Please...you are frightening me now. *Stop* this. I know how much you love Fox. I *know* it hurts, but what are you going to do? Lie here and let yourself wither away?"

No answer. Not even a blink.

"Fox would not want you to be doing this..."

The soft croak startled him into the silence.

"What must he be thinking?"

Daniel took a seat at the edge of the bed. "I do not know."

"He must be so confused...so hurt. He....called to me yesterday..as he did everyday when it was time for him to....come...home. I could hear the fear in his voice." A single tear rolled from the inside corner of his eye, tracking a lazy path to his nose. It disappeared over the bridge and dropped off onto the pillow. "And there was nothing I could do.....how will he ever understand? How can he ever know that I deserted him because I love him?"

"Do not torment yourself this way, Alexei," Daniel pleaded. "Undoubtedly, Fox is suffering just as you are. But in time, the pain will fade, and he will pick up and go on. Just as *you* *must*."

"*Why* must I? What reason do I have?"

"You have an entire kingdom at your feet."

"No."

"*Yes*. Assume the throne when it is time, Alexei. Change the laws that you detest so much. See to it that this never happens to anyone else."

Alexei shook his head and closed his eyes. "Amed will make a fine king."

"He will be adequate, yes. But you, my friend, would be a great king. Amed is a fine man. Earnest, intelligent...but you have so many qualities that he sorely lacks. For one thing, I do not think he knows the meaning of the words fun or humor. Remember that story that I told you once about the three Bedouins and the camel? Remember how we laughed until we cried? And Amed just stood there looking at us like we each had two heads? And what of the time when we were young boys...we ignored your father's curfew and did not come in until almost dawn? Malik never would have known if not for your brother. I never knew a boy who followed every rule down to the last letter..."

Alexei lay quietly unresponsive.

"My point is," Daniel rambled on, "he is much too straight an arrow. He does not know *how* to bend. He would more than likely adhere to every law Malik ever laid down and never deviate from them an inch! And you, my friend, are living proof that this would be a very, very bad thing."

The other man tightened his arms around the pillow he held and said nothing in reply.

Daniel ran a hand over his face. "All right. I know it is much too soon to be discussing such things. You need time. It will get better, Alexei." He touched his friend's shoulder. "I know that seems impossible right now, but it *will* happen.....Alexei?"

Alexei did not hear Daniel's last words. He had again retreated into himself, and no amount of coaxing would draw him back out. As was quickly becoming habit, Daniel quietly slipped out of the room, leaving him alone with his misery.


Fox sat in the gathering darkness, staring out at nothing in particular. The day came and went without much notice, and when Dana appeared after class, he barely spoke to her. Almost three hours passed before she finally gave up and went home, leaving him sitting in the same chair she'd found him in.

He sat mentally torturing himself, reviewing every word, every look...analyzing every minute of the time he and Alexei had spent together, trying to pinpoint a time when he should have realized that it had all been a ruse. He could recall not a second when he might have detected a shred of insincerity. But then, was there not a saying pertaining to one being blinded to the truth by love?

"No," he whined softly, hands clenching painfully in his hair. "I was so sure you loved me, Alexei..." He rose from the chair and moved to a window, staring out into the burgundy sky.

"My..." He tried to swallow past the burning lump in his throat. "...my beautiful Jade. Did you never feel even the slightest bit of something for me?"

The thought of Alexei laughing at his stupidity brought a rush of tears to his eyes.

"No...you wouldn't. I can't believe....we made love...so many times. I saw your face. I heard your words. How could they be false?" The tears flowed freely now. "How could I have been so foolish?" He closed his eyes and bit his lower lip, fighting the sudden urge that had bubbled up inside him, but he was overwhelmed by it, and he had to. He could not stop himself from opening his mouth and calling out once more.


Alexei sat bolt upright, startling the man in the chair by the bed. Even in the dark, Daniel could see that he was shaking.

"Fox..."

Daniel moved quickly over to the bed, and touched Alexei's arm. "You were dreaming."

The other man shook his head and spoke, his voice quivering with restrained anguish. "He called to me."

"Alexei. You were asleep. It was just a dream."

"*No*. He called me." He buried his face in his hands. "I feel him." He began to rock back and forth. "So much pain."

"That is your own pain that you feel, Alexei."

"*And* his." Alexei wrapped his arms around his middle, squeezing as tightly as he could. "It is unbearable......my love," he whispered to his absent mate, "my precious Fox...I am so sorry. I promised you nothing but happiness, and look at the misery you are now suffering. If I could take it away...if I had the power to erase the past weeks from your memory, I would do it and suffer this eternal misery alone..."


Dana stood at the head of the classroom as the boys filed in. When all were seated, she smiled and spoke to them.

"Good morning, boys. How is everyone today?"

The boys looked at one another in confusion. Amir popped up from his seat, questioning her in typical vociferous fashion. "Where is Mr. Fox? This is *his* class."

"Yes, Amir, I know. But Mr. Fox is not feeling well. I will..."

"Thank you, Dana, but I'm all right."

All eyes turned to the door.

"Fox," Dana went to him, speaking confidentially. "You look terrible. You shouldn't be here. I can handle your class for a day or two. Go home and get some rest."

Fox shook his head and brushed past her. "Can't." He placed his books down on the desk and turned to the class, trying to give them a smile. "Good morning, gentlemen."

"You look sick," Amir pointed out, accusation in his tone.

"I have not been well, it's true. But I will feel better if I'm here with you boys." He looked around. "How is Jeffrey?"

"Miserable!" Amir piped up. "He is driving everyone mad with his whining and complaining."

Fox nodded. "Sounds like Jeffrey." He glanced over to Dana, standing in the doorway, staring at him and shaking her head in disbelief. He gave her a smile that did not reach his tired eyes and turned back to the business of teaching his class.

That night in his little house, Dana tried to get him to eat, but her success was extremely limited. Trying to get him to talk was an even more challenging mission. "I'm all right," was all he would say when she attempted to confront him.

For many days he went on that way. Little food, less sleep, and there was nothing Dana could do or say to change it. The mention of Alexei's name never failed to bring a stone wall down between them, and she quickly learned to avoid the subject.

At night he lay in his bed, staring up at the ceiling or out at the window, wrapping himself in the memories of soft whispers and loving touches and the mesmerizing passion he found in the green depths of the eyes that burned into his soul. And then the pain. The consuming, agonizing pain that left him exhausted and more withdrawn with each passing day.

Even his students had begun to worry that their normally good-natured, exuberant teacher was no longer himself. One day, almost three weeks later, Amir tried to draw him out as class was ending.

"Mr. Fox?" The young boy approached warily.

Tired amber eyes rose to meet wide brown. "Yes?"

"We wondered...my brothers and me..."

"I."

"I...could you bring Jade to visit us one day soon? With Jeffrey not here, there would be no trouble..."

Fox stared, frozen in place.

The boy went on, a little less hopeful than before. "Please? We miss seeing him." He pulled a small object wrapped in a bit of white silk out from between his books. "I have a present for him."

Fox looked down at the small bundle in the boy's outstretched hand. Slowly, he reached out and took the offering. He pulled the edges of the cloth back, and an immediate lump formed in his throat.

"I noticed that he does not have a collar, so I thought I would make him one. Do you think he will like it?"

Gingerly, Fox picked up the string of green glass beads and draped it over his fingers. He stared at the collar until hot tears blurred his vision, and powerful tremors shook his body. Unable to speak, he curled his hand into a fist and rose from his chair, practically toppling it in his haste to leave the room. Blindly, he made his way to his house and throwing the door open, staggered inside. Stopping in the middle of the room, he stood looking dazedly at his surroundings, then back down at the object still clenched in his hand. He choked back the beginnings of a sob and sank to the floor, leaning back against the chair behind him. Another strangled sound pushed past his lips, and another, and then he couldn't hold it in any longer. Loud, sorrowful sobs echoed in the silence of the room as the emotions he'd tried so hard to hold in check exploded to the surface. He wept uncontrollably for long minutes, and when the sounds slowly faded into soft, shuddering gasps, he turned sideways, laying his head upon the cushion of the chair, and placed the beaded collar down in front of his eyes.

A simple gift.

The innocent, thoughtful gesture of a small child.

How could the boy know the unbearable ache it would cause in his heart?


"Miss Dana!"

Dana turned around just in time to catch the boy as he ran at her, just barely avoiding a collision.

"Amir! What's wrong?"

"I meant no wrong!" The child sobbed. "I only wanted to make him smile. I wanted to see him happy again..."

"What are you talking about?"

"Mr. Fox." Tears welled up in the big brown eyes. "He has been so sad. I only wished to make him feel better."

"Of course you did." Dana hugged the boy to her. "What do you think you did wrong?"

"I gave him a gift. Well, it was not for him, exactly. It was for Jade."

Dana groaned softly. "Jade?"

"Yes. I made a collar for him out of green beads. I thought Mr. Fox would like it, but I think I just made him more sad."

"Why, Amir? What happened?"

"He started to shake, and then his eyes filled with water, and he left the classroom. I do not understand. I thought it would make him happy!"

"Oh, sweetheart." Dana kissed the top of the boy's head. "How could you know? Amir, Jade is no longer with Mr. Fox."

The boy blinked up at her. "He...is he dead?"

"No, no. He just...he left."

"You mean he ran away?"

"Yes. He ran away."

"No! He would not! Why would he run away from a place where he was so well loved?"

"I...I don't know. Cats are odd creatures, Amir. They are not always easy to understand."

The boy shook his head. "I do not believe it. Something must have happened to him. He may have gotten accidentally locked up somewhere. Or he got lost on his way home. We should look for him..."

Dana stroked the boy's hair. "He didn't get lost. And he isn't locked up anywhere. He's just...gone. We have to accept that. And so does Mr. Fox."

"*No*. Jade loves Mr. Fox. He was always on his lap or sitting on his shoulder...as soon as Mr. Fox spoke to him or touched him, he would begin to make all those little cat noises. You can tell me that he ran away from now until forever, and I will never believe it."

"I'm sorry, sweetheart. I know you liked Jade very much. So did I..."

"He will come back," Amir insisted, unwilling to believe what he was being told. "If it is possible for him to do so, he *will* come back."

Rather than upset the boy further, Dana broke off the discussion and changed the subject. "Why don't you come with me back to the house? I'm sure your dinner is almost ready."

The boy went along with her, walking a few steps, then stopped. "But...what about Mr. Fox?"

"I'll take you up to the house, and then I'll go and check on him. All right?"

"All right. Please tell him how sorry I am."

Dana slipped her arm around the boy's shoulder and led him in the direction of the house. "You had no idea, Amir. Mr. Fox knows that your gift was from your heart."

As soon as she saw Amir enter the house, Dana went off to see to Fox. She walked through the open door to find him on the floor, head on the seat cushion, fingertips gently tracing the circle of green beads.

"Fox."

No response.

She kneeled beside him and slipped a hand under his cheek. "Fox, look at me."

Bloodshot eyes shifted and gazed up at her.

"I know what happened. Poor little Amir is so upset."

"He didn't know," Fox rasped, his voice hoarse from crying.

"I told him Jade ran away. He refuses to believe it. Maybe if you told him."

Fox closed his eyes and turned his face back down to the chair.

Dana sighed and hooked a finger in the ring of beads. "I'll...do something with this if you like...so you don't have to look at it."

Before she could lift it away, Fox's hand came over hers, stopping her. "I want to keep it," he whispered.

"Fox...you shouldn't. Look what it's done to you."

Fox pulled the collar from her grasp and closed his fingers around it. "I want it."

She'd tried. For weeks now, she'd been patient and sympathetic and understanding, and finally, Dana lost her temper. "*Why*? Why do you want to torture yourself with a reminder of a man who *used* you for his own selfish pleasure....who...who thought of you as nothing more than temporary entertainment? You should be angry, Fox! You should be furious! I know you loved him, and for a long time I hoped and prayed that he'd come back and offer a simple explanation for why he'd disappeared, but I've come to the realization that it just is not going to happen! He manipulated you, got what he wanted from you, and now he's gone. Off probably doing the same thing to some other poor unsuspecting soul..."

Dana rambled on, but those were the last words that stuck in Fox's mind. 'Doing the same thing to someone else'...

In his mind he saw Alexei naked and drenched in perspiration. Writhing in the bed they'd shared, with some faceless man...doing the very same things that Alexei had done to him. Crying out a name that was not his...

Fox's hoarse cry interrupted Dana's rant and startled her into silence. He slid away from the chair and down to the floor, curling into a ball of abject despair.

"Oh, God." Immediately regretting her tirade, Dana crawled toward her shuddering companion. "Fox...please. I'm sorry, I just...I've tried everything to help you. I don't know what else to do." She lightly caressed his head. "It hurts so much to see you suffering like this. I want to kill him for what he's done to you, and I guess I just wanted to see a little of that anger in you too. But it isn't fair to expect that. You loved him. I can't know how deeply this has affected you. Please, Fox. Tell me what to do. Tell me."

After a long silence, she strained to hear the two barely audible words.

"Leave me."

She didn't want to. Her mind screamed at her to stay, but she'd asked, and he'd told her.

Dana kissed the back of Fox's head and quietly left the house, closing the door behind her.


Daniel walked through the house, checking room after room. When his search had not turned up his friend, he went to the kitchen where the servants were preparing the evening meal. "Where is Prince Alexei?" he asked when the two women and one man looked up.

Concern creased all three brows, and Ali stepped forward. "You have searched the whole house, sir?"

"Yes. I cannot find him anywhere."

"That is strange. He never leaves the house...only wanders from room to room like a wraith."

Daniel raked a restless hand through his red hair. "I'm going to check the grounds. If anyone sees him, call me immediately."

The young woman bowed as Daniel blew past, and went back to the pointless task of preparing dinner.


Alexei sat by the stream, hypnotized by the lazy push of the water. He had not been here since he and Fox had been together, and now, over a month later, he felt an inexplicable pull...an urge to leave the shelter of his house and come here.

He stared into the sun-dappled water, hearing the sighs of his beloved Fox carried within the tinkling rush of the current. His eyes drifted closed, and he saw them together, the day's dying light washing over their bodies as they moved together in such perfect harmony.

His respiration quickened and his tongue flicked out to moisten suddenly dry lips as he imagined the velvety slide of skin against skin...the flow of golden-brown silk through his fingers...the sweet shock of urgent possession...

"*Alexei*."

Glazed, nearly black eyes snapped open and stared dazedly up at the man who loomed over him. Alexei struggled to control his breathing and fought off the sensual lethargy that had turned his bones to fluid.

Daniel sat beside the other man. "I am sorry, I hope I did not startle you."

Giving no answer, Alexei looked back out over the water.

"This is the first time in many weeks that you have been out of the house." He placed a hand on the other's shoulder. "This is good. We are making progress."

Alexei's eyes searched the flowing water. "He liked it here by the water," he whispered hoarsely. "We made love here...here is where I asked him to share a home with me...and he said yes." He closed his eyes and lowered his head to his bent knees. "We were so happy..."

"Alexei..."

"He does not call to me anymore."

"...What?"

"He does not call me. The last time was one morning a little over two weeks ago. I have not heard him since."

"He has come to accept what has happened, Alexei," Daniel reasoned. "As you must."

As usual, Alexei was not listening to him. Moisture spiked his lashes, and his lips trembled. "If he has accepted it and he is no longer thinking about me, then I am glad for his sake. I do not want him to suffer, but....I miss his voice..." His shoulders slumped, and he began to cry.

Daniel sat trying to console his inconsolable friend while something bubbled up inside him. The emotion could only be described as anger, and the longer Alexei cried, the angrier he got. When the other man's sobs finally faded, he coaxed him back to the house, put him to bed and instructed the servants to leave him undisturbed. Fury securely in place, he left the house, spoiling for a fight he could not possibly win.


"Sire."

Malik and his second eldest son Amed looked up from the table at which they sat. Daniel strode purposefully into the room, stopping when he stood directly in front of the old man.

"Daniel. To what do I owe this unexpected....unannounced visit?"

"I must speak with you."

"Speak."

Daniel looked over at Amed. "Privately, sire."

Malik studied the determined young man for a moment, then waved his son away. "Now," he said softly, sitting back, folding his hands in his lap, "What is so urgent? Has Alexei finally come to his senses? If so, it is not a moment too soon. I was just discussing Amed's training with him."

"I am here to discuss Alexei, yes, but not to tell you that he has come around to your way of thinking, because he never will."

"Then we have nothing to discuss."

"Fine, sire. Then I will talk and you may listen." He took a breath and plunged on. "Your son has become completely unraveled, and it is your fault."

Malik's face reddened with quiet rage. "You are indeed a brave man, Daniel."

"Do to me what you feel you must, sire, but I will remain silent no longer. Is a grossly unreasonable rule and your pride worth losing your son and heir over? Because that is exactly what is happening. Every day he slips farther beyond reach. He refuses food, he speaks only a handful of words to me if I am lucky...if he is not sleeping, he is wandering aimlessly through the house or sitting and staring at nothing. He was strong and enthusiastic about life, once. His eyes held a mischievous glimmer. Now they are dull and vacant, and only one thing can make them shine again..."

"Do not say it."

"The return of his love."

"You said it."

"I had to say what I came to say, or my punishment would be meaningless. Sire, please. I implore you. You can put an end to this tragedy. Let me go and get Fox..."

"You will do no such thing!" The house shook so hard, Daniel was nearly knocked off his feet. "*Why* can he not understand that this is for his own good?"

"*How* is it for his own good, sire? It is killing him!"

Malik stormed the length of the room. "The little bit of pain he is suffering now is *nothing* in comparison to the pain he *will* feel!"

Daniel shook his head in utter confusion. "I do not understand. *What* pain?"

Malik stopped pacing and sank heavily into a chair. "The pain I must endure every day of my life."

"Sire, I must repeat. I do not understand."

"I have never told this story to anyone," Malik rasped. "But if my son is ever to understand, I suppose now, I must." He took a great, heaving breath, and began. "I was in love once. With a human..."

Daniel sat quietly, gaping at the man who now seemed so much older than he ever had.

"She was exquisite. Long, dark hair and the deepest green eyes..."

The younger man raised a disbelieving eyebrow.

"She had...an adventurous spirit and an infectious laugh, and I adored her. I made her my queen, and we could not have been happier. But after forty-one years together, her time on this earth grew short. I watched her decline...grow old. She became frail. Her hair grayed. Skin wrinkled." He smiled sadly. "But her eyes never changed. They remained as green as ever. She...slipped away from me one night, and as powerful as I was, there was nothing I could do." He looked up at Daniel through watery gray eyes. "You see, nothing can stop the progression of time. And time is something humans have very little of in comparison to us." He looked away and went on. "I loved my Katarina with all of my heart and soul. Losing her was devastating. It hurts as much today as it did those many, many years ago. You see, Daniel? I am not the heartless, unreasonable monster that you and my son think me to be. Alexei means the world to me. I do not want him to suffer the heartache that I did when I lost his mother..."

Daniel heard the words, knew they were coming, but still they shocked him.

"No, Daniel," Malik answered the question he saw in the young man's eyes. "Alexei does not know that he is half human. The djinn blood runs strong, and he has inherited all my power, so I supposed I thought there would never be any question." Another sad smile curved his lips. "He looks like her. He is the only one of his brothers and sisters who does. He has her eyes. Her heart...her fire."

"The fire is fading, sire," Daniel said gently, then paused before resuming. "Sire?"

"Yes?"

"A question if you please. Now knowing that you would most certainly outlive Katarina for many, many years and knowing the pain that you would have to endure when she was gone...would you have preferred never to have loved her?"

The king drew himself out of the chair and whirled toward the window. "*Never*!" He turned back to Daniel, eyes glittering. "If I had only a year to spend with her, it would have been worth every..." He stopped, locking eyes with Daniel for a moment, then bowed his head. He stood quietly for a time, then spoke in a weary voice. "He loves this Fox that much?"

"Yes, sire. As much as you loved his mother."

"You say you know where he is?"

Daniel's eyes lit up. "Yes, sire."

"Go get him. Take him to Alexei."

"Daniel emitted a gasp of relief. "Thank you sire."

Malik nodded. "I do not expect that he will ever forgive me for what I have done."

Daniel rose from his seat. "I cannot speak to that. Only Alexei knows what is in his heart."

"I understand that....you are a good friend to him, Daniel. Thank you for standing by him."

"Thank *you*, sire, for not turning me into anything with six legs."

The old man gave him a weary smile. "Go."

"*Yes*, sire." Daniel bowed deeply and was gone, leaving Malik alone with his regrets.


Fox had just shifted position for the fourteen time. It had been over two hours since he'd come to bed, and he was no more tired now than he was then. He flipped onto his back and folded his arms across his chest, one hand absently playing the with the string of beads he now wore around his wrist.

After his last breakdown, Dana had forced him to take a week off to rest, and he did, but all that time off with nothing to do but think only succeeded in making him crazier. He went back to class this past week and at least had his mind occupied during the day.

Nights were as bad as ever. He lay awake as he did tonight, thinking about the beautiful, green-eyed man who had literally blown into his life, turning it upside down, and blown back out just as suddenly as he had come.

It made no sense to him. Yes, he was inexperienced, and yes, he was naive, but how could he be so amazingly stupid? He was completely taken in...so in love he couldn't see straight, and it was all a lie. He had been in love with a lie. He knew it, and yet he couldn't stop. The beads he wore around his wrist attested to it. He loved Alexei still. Even knowing that he was out there tonight, in someone else's arms, giving them all the pleasure he thought was reserved only for him, he couldn't help himself. And the pain of it was unimaginable.

He closed his eyes and again tried to sleep, but the sound of a soft voice brought him into an immediate sitting position. Heart pounding, he blinked rapidly, trying to adjust to the darkness.

A figure stepped out into the band of pale light that fell across the floor in front of the bed, and his heart leapt into his throat.

"Daniel."

"Hello, Fox."

"What are you doing here?"

"I have come to talk to you."

"About what?"

"You...Alexei..."

A hard shudder ran through Fox, and he shook his head. "Go...go away, Daniel. There is nothing for us to talk about."

The other man took a step forward. "But there is. There are things I must explain..."

"No, there aren't. I understand perfectly. He used me." A bright gleam coated Fox's eyes. "I was nothing more than a plaything for him. And given enough time, Dana would have become the same to you. Get out of my house."

"No, Fox, you do *not* understand. It is a long, complicated story. Please allow me the time to tell it to you."

"What happened, Daniel? Was his latest toy smarter than I was?" He fought to keep the tremor from his voice. "Did they figure it out, and now he has no one to play with?"

"No. There is no one else. There never could be. There is no one for Alexei but you."

Fox laughed bitterly as two tears dropped from his eyes. "Really? Is that why he deserted me without a single word?"

"There is a very good reason for what he did. Fox, your life depended on it."

"What? You expect me to believe that?"

"I wish you would. It is the truth. You see, for as long as we can recall, Alexei's father was always dead set against any relationships between our kind and yours. He laid down the law, and everyone heeded it..."

"His...father?"

"Yes."

"He never talked about family."

"No. He did not. But he was going to."

"What stopped him?"

"He was not sure how you would take it. And then when he *was*, he wanted to break the news of your relationship to his father first..."

"Take *what*?"

Daniel bowed his head. "Wait. This is...let me say this to you so that hopefully it makes sense..."

"What's wrong, Daniel?" Fox croaked, "The lie not going as smoothly as you'd hoped?"

Daniel ran a hand through his hair and walked away. When he came back, he sat on the edge of Fox's bed and looked the other man directly in the eye.

"Listen to me. This is *no* lie. The last morning you were together, you went off to class, and Alexei came to tell his father about you. Malik was furious. He insisted that Alexei not see you ever again or he would never assume the throne..."

Fox's eyes narrowed. "The what?"

Daniel closed his eyes. "The throne. Malik is our king. Alexei is his first born son and crown prince."

Fox's head began to swim.

//You're not actually believing this, are you?//

"Alexei suspected that his father might make such a threat. He did not care. He was ready to give up his birthright to be with you, Fox, and he told that to Malik..."

//Don't listen to him. Don't *believe* it...//

"Malik did not expect that Alexei would be willing to renounce his crown. Alexei tried to make him see reason, but he would not be persuaded." Daniel paused, making sure that he had Fox's full attention. "You collapsed in class that day. You were in tremendous pain..."

Fox's lips parted, but he remained silent.

"Malik was livid. He caused your pain. Threatened to kill you if Alexei did not give you up immediately."

Fox blinked in disbelief.

"Make no mistake, Fox. He would have done it, and there would not be a thing that Alexei could have done about it. Remember once I told you that Alexei is much more powerful than the rest of us? But Malik's power is even greater. Once he does something, there is no undoing it, however much Alexei might wish to. Can you see what I am saying to you?"

Fox lowered his head and stared at the sheet pooled between his legs, trying to process all that Daniel was telling him.

"You would have died on the floor of that classroom, Fox, unless Alexei agreed to leave you and never have any kind of contact with you whatsoever. He had no choice. As soon as he agreed, Malik broke off the attack, and you were allowed to recover. Alexei turned away from his father. He told Malik that he was no longer his son and fled to the house you shared. He has been there ever since, grieving for his lost love. He will not eat, he barely speaks...and every day it gets worse. He is dying a slow, painful death, and he will do nothing to stop it. As far as he is concerned, living without you is pointless."

Fox felt the tears again begin to sting his eyes. "No...you're lying..."

"I am *not*," Daniel whispered harshly.

"Then, what are you doing here? Isn't this considered contact?"

"Yes. But I have not finished my story. Today, I had had enough. I could not go another day seeing the agony Alexei was in. So I took my courage in hand, and I went to see Malik. Truly, I never expected to walk out of our meeting in one piece, but I guess I must have said the right things to him, because he explained his very personal reasons for wanting to keep Alexei from you, and somehow I made him see the harm he was causing. He agreed to let me come here and take you to Alexei."

Fox's heart pounded frantically in his chest, and he felt the room begin to spin.

"Fox? Did you hear me?"

Fox shook his head, and the tears began to flow freely. "Don't....please don't do this to me..."

"I swear on all that is holy that I am telling you the absolute truth. Alexei has never for a second stopped loving you, and he never will. He will go to his grave loving only you. And the way he is declining, Fox, that should be very soon."

Fox bit back a whimper and rocked himself back and forth.

"Fox, I am begging you to believe me. Come home. He saved your life, and now you can save his....*please*."

Fox stared at the blurry figure before him. He clenched his hands together in front of him and closed his eyes, releasing the residual moisture that had pooled in the wells of his lids. Afraid to trust his voice, he simply nodded.


Alexei dozed fitfully, awakened every so often by the haunting images of him and Fox in happier times. Laughing. Sharing a meal. Kissing by the stream...

He moaned at the thought.

He'd kissed and been kissed by many, but no one did it the way Fox had. Hungry...always as though it would the very last time, yet tender. All his love...all his soul went into every kiss, and Alexei could never seem to get enough.

He missed those kisses. And his touch. And that soft, low tone in which he spoke when they were alone.

Alexei whimpered in the darkness, softly crying his name.

"I'm here."

Alexei jerked himself up against the pillows, his eyes immediately finding the dark figure near the doorway. Any distinguishing features were obscured by shadow, but he did not need to see the man's face to know that this was his beloved Fox.

As if in a trance, he rose from the bed, willing shaky legs to take him closer. As he moved, a few candles flickered to life, lending just enough illumination to allow to him to see, for the first time in over a month, the face he'd thought he'd never see again.

Except for the uncontrollable trembling of his body, Fox stood motionless, waiting for Alexei to reach him. The other man stopped mere inches away, and they searched each other's eyes, one man looking for understanding, the other for truth. Both looking for the love that neither was sure existed.

Finding what he sought, but also tremendous hurt and uncertainty, Alexei reached out to touch his love's face and make the dream real. But just before his fingertips could brush the stubbled surface of Fox's cheek, the thought of the terrifying consequences of such an action came crashing down on him. He recoiled as though he had been burned and began to back away. "No," he whimpered softly, "I cannot, I...what are you doing here, Fox? How did you come to be here?"

Before Fox could speak, a voice sounded behind him.

"I brought him."

"Daniel?" Alexei stared in shock at his friend. "*Why*? You know what will happen. You *know*!"

Fox turned away from Daniel and watched Alexei. The fear in his eyes and in his voice was undeniable and, in Fox's estimation, could not be faked. In that moment, he decided.

"Alexei..."

Wild, green eyes turned back to him.

Tears again filled Fox's eyes. "It's all right."

"No! You do not understand, Fox. You cannot be here!" He choked on his next words. "Daniel, take...take him....take him back..."

Daniel stepped forward, holding up a hand. "Alexei. Listen to me..."

"No," Alexei grated. "If anything happens to him because of what you have done, I swear to you, Daniel, there will be no death slow enough or painful enough for you!"

"So..."

Alexei broke off his threat, and all three turned in the direction of the new voice.

Malik stepped into the room, giving Fox a brief glance, then focused on Alexei. "...this is the one whom my son would give up an entire kingdom for."

"Father."

In an instant, Alexei was standing between Fox and Malik. "Please...I did not bring him here. I did not *ask* to have him brought here. He will be sent home immediately, and I promise I will never..." He stopped to take a sobbing breath. "...never see him again. Please...*please* do not hurt him."

Malik looked into his son's tear-filled eyes and despised himself for all that he'd done.

"My son," he began gently, "no harm will come to him. Now, please. Listen for a moment to a foolish old man who regrets with all his heart the hurt he has caused. I sent Daniel for Fox...after he forced me to stop and see the harm I was doing."

Alexei's head snapped around, and he stared at Daniel in amazement. Malik's voice brought his attention back.

"There are so many things I must tell you, Alexei, if you ever decide to speak to me again. But for now, just please know that I am sorrier than you could ever know for what I have done to you." He looked at Fox. "Both of you. I would certainly understand if you never forgave me. If someone had done to my love what I did to yours, forgiveness would be the last thing on my mind."

Alexei simply stared at him.

Malik began to move away, then stopped. He looked again to his son.

"One other thing before I go. Whether or not you decide to forgive me, I wish with all my heart that you would reconsider assuming the throne. It is your birthright, child, and you should not allow my mistakes to keep you from claiming it. I have decided that at the end of this year I will step down. I have been considering this for some time, and now I am sure that it is right. Before I am too old to enjoy it, I would like to see my son become the great king I know he will be. Please, Alexei. Take your place on the throne." He looked past Alexei to the man who stood behind him. "With your Fox by your side."

Without another word, Malik vacated the room, followed by Daniel, leaving Alexei and Fox very much alone.

Alexei stood with his back to the other man, almost afraid to turn around for fear that this would turn out to be yet another dream. Finally, he gathered his courage and slowly spun to his right, stopping when Fox came into view. Hesitantly, Fox raised his head, and their eyes met. Alexei took two steps forward and raised a shaking hand to his love's face.

The touch of Alexei's fingertips on his skin released a tiny gasp from Fox's lips, and he attempted to swallow past the large lump that had formed in his throat. His eyes refused to stay open as gentle fingers traced the line of his jaw, then wandered over to his mouth.

"Will you ever forgive me?"

Fox willed his eyes to open, and he attempted to blink back the deluge that threatened to flow. He looked into sorrowful green eyes and slowly shook his head. "There is nothing to forgive. You did what you had to do."

Alexei's hand slid from his face to the front of his robes, joining the other that had anchored itself there, and he leaned forward. Fox did the same until their foreheads rested together. His own hands slid up to Alexei's back, and he felt a tiny tremor begin in the other man's body. The tremor grew into a violent shudder, and Alexei began to cry.

The tears Fox fought to hold back sprang forth then, and he let them come. He pulled Alexei into his arms, and they clung to each other, crying themselves into exhaustion.

When their sobs faded, each man lifted his head from the other's shoulder and gazed into watery, bloodshot eyes.

Fox studied Alexei for a moment, brushing away his silently falling tears, and suddenly he felt very ashamed.

"Fox?" Alexei saw Fox's expression change, and his heart leapt into his throat. "What is it, my love?"

"I..." He shook his head, lowering his eyes. "I thought..." He couldn't finish.

Alexei sniffed and swiped at his own cheek with the back of his hand. "What did you think?"

"I thought that...you were...toying with me. That you had used me, tired of me, and moved on to someone else..."

Alexei shook his head as Fox spoke.

"...It killed me to think of you in the...in the bed we shared, with s-someone..."

"*Never*." Alexei plunged his fingers into Fox's hair, curling them around the golden-brown strands. "You are my only love. *Always.*

"I'm sorry," Fox murmured. "Please forgive me. I should have known. I should have..."

"You could *not* have. I left you without a word...without a clue. And when so much time passed, what else were you to think?"

"I...I don't know..."

Alexei leaned forward, brushing their noses together. "It is all right, love. We can talk it all out later." His lips hovered near Fox's but never touched them. "For now, I am just happier than you can know to have you back."

Fox nodded silently and leaned forward for a kiss, but Alexei pulled away. He turned his head to the side, looking in the general direction of the bed.

"Will you come back to our bed, lord? It has been so lonely there without you."

Fox's fingers clenched, squeezing the muscles of Alexei's back. "Oh, yes."

Gently but efficiently, Alexei rid Fox of his upper garments and backed toward the bed, pulling the other man with him. When he reached his destination, he unfastened Fox's pants and let them drop to the floor. Fox kicked them aside and stood trembling while Alexei began to reacquaint himself with his body.

Soft, warm lips grazed his collarbone, followed by the gentle flick of a moist tongue, and Fox moaned softly, letting his head roll back against his shoulders. Loving hands stroked and massaged everywhere they could reach, and his respiration grew shallow. His hands began to tug at Alexei's light clothing, and when the other man was completely stripped, Fox returned the touches, licking and nipping hungrily, pulling identical moans from his lips. He pushed Alexei onto his back and immediately covered him, both men groaning at the feel of their bodies pressed together.

"Fox," Alexei breathed, barely able to speak coherently as the other man bathed his chest. "Mmm...Fox..."

Fox raised sparkling eyes to the man who was once again his lover.

"Kiss...kiss me...."

Fox pushed himself up, stopping when the rock-hard length of his erection pressed up alongside Alexei's. He moved in slowly, exchanging breath with his lover, then their lips touched, tentatively at first, brushing ever-so-lightly, then his mouth opened and covered the one beneath him.

Alexei's fingers dug into Fox's shoulders as his lover claimed his mouth as only he could. He squirmed beneath Fox's weight, rubbing their erections together and drawing a desperate moan from the man on top of him.

Fox fed hungrily on Alexei's mouth as he ground their hips together, sucking on his lower lip and tongue, probing the warm interior, and pulling away momentarily, only to move right back in for more. Alexei whimpered into his mouth, his hands stroking restlessly over Fox's back and buttocks.

Insatiable.

That's what Alexei called him, and right now, Fox could not argue with that assessment. He felt like a starving man before whom a banquet had just been placed. He devoured Alexei's lips, his desperation ringing loud and clear in every touch...every sound.

Alexei broke from the kiss, breathing raggedly against his lover's mouth. "It has been far too long, lord. I need you...please...my body cries for you...take me now."

More than willing to oblige, Fox nodded and kissed his lover once more. "Prepare me," he requested softly and gasped at the feel of a warm, slick hand encircling his erection. He forced himself to keep from squirming as Alexei completed his task, and as his lover raised his legs and wrapped them high around his back, he pressed forward.

Alexei cried out with joy as he felt himself being stretched and filled. He clutched at his lover's back, whimpering frantically as Fox lay panting on top of him.

"Fox," he wailed, "Please...I cannot wait....the ache...the ache...it is unbearable..."

Fox trembled at his lover's words, feeling them skitter along every raw nerve in his body. As much as he wanted to draw this out, to stretch out every second...linger over every touch, every tingle, he knew that it was impossible. The long weeks of torture they'd endured without each other built their desire to such a feverish level that holding back was an impossibility. He drew back just far enough to look down at the man beneath him, and a deep shudder passed through his body.

So beautiful.

Alexei writhed under the weight of his lover's body, the pale candlelight reflecting in his heavy-lidded gaze...absorbed by the thick tangle of sable mane that flowed over the pillows beneath his head. His mouth...that perfectly bowed, kiss-swollen mouth begging for the relief only Fox could give him...

Fox plunged one hand into his hair and tucked the other under his hip and began to move. His mouth again found Alexei's, joining it in a desperate kiss as he repeatedly pushed his lover's body into the mattress.

Alexei arched against Fox, meeting his steady thrusts and contracting his muscles every time the other man withdrew. The increasingly harsh groans that vibrated against his mouth told him that Fox was very close to completion. He found the hand at his hip and encouraged it to wrap around the shaft that throbbed between them. Fox's hand began to move, milking him in time with his thrusts, and Alexei's head snapped back. His eyes, glazed and unfocused, stared up into the near-darkness, and clipped, incoherent sounds fell from his lips.

"Yes," Fox choked, "yes my...my Jade...been so...long...." He gritted his teeth and increased the strength of his thrusts. His hand moved faster along Alexei's swollen shaft, and seconds later, his lover's strangled cries rose into the night air. Warm, slick fluid coated his hand as it continued to slide up and down the still-rigid length. Fox thrust into Alexei a few more times, and his own climax rumbled through him, rocking his body with a series of bone-jarring explosions. He sobbed his lover's name over and over as he emptied every last little bit of himself into the trembling body beneath him, then collapsed, his hand still wrapped firmly around the softening muscle.

Little shocks of pleasure still rippled through Alexei's body as Fox lay limply on top of him. Weak arms rose and wrapped themselves around the other's back, and when the residual tremors faded, his body began another kind of trembling.

Gathering up the strength to move, Fox lifted his head and found tears filling Alexei's eyes.

"My love...what is it? What's wrong?"

Alexei shook his head and pulled Fox against him, holding him as though he would never let go.

"I n-never thought w-we would be together again."

Fox squeezed his eyes shut, holding back tears of his own. "I know," he whispered. "But we are...we are."

"The agony of every...every day was worse than the one before..."

Fox nodded against his lover's chest. "It was unbearable. In such a short time, you'd become my entire world, and suddenly you were gone. The pain was like nothing I'd ever known. Even that day in the classroom didn't compare..."

Alexei rolled, depositing Fox on the mattress beside him. He combed his lover's hair back away from his face and looked him in the eyes. "I never felt so powerless in all my life as I did that day. Malik insisted that I give you up then and there, and there was no way out of it. The only way to stop him from hurting you was to agree to his terms. My heart stopped beating that day, Fox. I merely existed from day to day, living inside my head. It was the only thing he could not take away from me..." Alexei's eyes took on a cold glint. "I will never forgive him. He has finally righted his wrongs, but only because Daniel confronted him, and not before he caused you a tremendous amount of pain."

"What about you?"

"If it was just me, I could accept it and possibly find a way to get past it, but he *hurt* you. He almost killed you. I cannot find it within myself to forgive him."

Fox lowered his eyes. "Would...would you think me crazy if I asked you to please reconsider?"

Alexei's brow wrinkled, and he stared in astonishment. "Yes," he said softly, "I think I would. He would have *killed* you, love. You are saying to me that you could forgive that?"

"I'm merely saying that he has things to talk to you about. Things to explain. Why don't you go and hear him out? Then if you still want no part of him, I won't say another word about it." Fox let the backs of his knuckles slide down the side of his lover's face. One golden-brown eyebrow arched upward as he held Alexei's gaze. "You must consider carefully whether or not you really want to give up the throne...Prince Alexei."

Alexei's eyes dropped quickly from his lover's. "Is my lord upset with me?"

Fox kissed the downturned head. "No. I just don't understand why you didn't tell me. And you know, it's now *very* strange to be called 'my lord' by a man poised to become a king."

Alexei burrowed into the warmth of his lover's arms. "I could rule the world, Fox, and you would still be *my* lord and master."

Fox hugged him tightly. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I did not want to throw so many shocks at you all at once. I wanted to give you time to adjust to me being djinn. And when the time came that I thought you were ready, I realized that I had to tell Malik first. Knowing how he felt about humans, I thought that he might try to make me choose between you and the crown. If he did that, I would have chosen you, and then there would have been no need to tell you anything."

"You would have kept such a secret from me?"

"Yes." Alexei pushed back so he could see his lover's eyes. "Fox, what would you have done if I had come to you and told you what I had given up in order to be with you?"

Fox lowered his head, knowing where Alexei was going with this.

"You would not have wanted me to make such a sacrifice." He slipped a hand under Fox's chin and lifted. "Your unselfishness is one of the hundreds of things that make me love you." He bestowed a single, tender kiss on the other's lips. "It would have disturbed you greatly to know that I had given up my birthright. That is why I would not have told you. I would not have wanted you to go through life feeling any guilt over my decision."

"But now your father brought us back together, and you still don't want anything to do with him or the crown."

"After what he did to you...I want nothing from him."

Fox sighed softly. "He's not giving you a gift, love. You said it yourself. It's your birthright."

"I don't care...Amed can have it."

"Amed?"

"My brother. He is second in line."

"You have a brother..."

"Three brothers." Alexei glanced apologetically up at Fox. "And five sisters."

Fox closed his eyes for a moment, then reopened them. "Is there anything else I should know? Any other surprises?"

"I...do not think so." Alexei thought for a moment. "No, I think that might be all. Are you sure you are not angry?"

Fox kissed his lover's lips, then the tip of his nose. "How can I be?"

Alexei gave him a beautiful, heart-melting smile, then snuggled into his arms. A tiny flash of green caught his eye, and he turned to get a better look at the string of glass beads that Fox wore around his wrist. He linked their fingers together and lifted Fox's hand before his face.

"What is this?"

Fox smiled and kissed Alexei's hand. "It's yours."

"Mine?"

"Well...it's Jade's. A gift from Amir." He removed the adornment from his wrist and fastened it on Alexei's.

"That was very kind of him."

"He's a good boy."

Alexei grinned. "I assume, since you said this was for Jade, that it is a collar?"

Fox nodded. "He actually thought it would make me smile. I hadn't exactly been myself, and he was concerned. He thought a gift for my cat would cheer me. Poor child. He didn't know that it would affect me the way it did." He stroked Alexei's back, lulled by the soft purr that rumbled against his hand. "Dana explained to him that Jade ran away from home, and he wouldn't accept it. He kept saying that something must have happened to keep him away. Looking back, he had a lot more faith than I did. I should have believed in you."

Alexei pulled away, taking Fox's face in his hands. "Stop. I will not allow you to take any guilt upon yourself. It is not yours to bear. Malik is to blame." He searched the beautiful ocean of blue and green for some sign of capitulation and found only love and profound exhaustion. "It is very late," he whispered, brushing his fingers over the magnificently pouty lips that he loved so much. "Sleep now. We have all the time in the world to talk."

Fox smiled, turning onto his back and pulling Alexei into his arms. "So we do," he replied softly, and in no time at all, both men were soundly, peacefully asleep.


Fox blinked sluggishly, only vaguely aware of his surroundings. He grunted softly, attempting to rouse himself from slumber, but before he could lift his head from the pillows, a warm, hard weight settled itself over his back. A voice, smoother than fine silk, stroked his auditory nerves.

"Good morning."

He smiled and snuggled deeper into the pillows. "It wasn't a dream."

"No, lord," the voice moaned into his ear, then a soft, moist presence made itself known, gently probing and tickling.

Fox shuddered at the sensation and felt himself go hard immediately. The tongue continued to tease as Alexei's hands now also took an active part in this early morning seduction. One threaded through his hair, gently tousling the silken strands, and the other stroked up and down his arm and the side of his torso and hip.

"I adore making love to you in the morning," Alexei purred, "when you are so sleepy and easily taken advantage of..."

Fox chuckled into the pillow. "I'm easy in the morning?"

"Mmm hmm. So sweet..." Alexei pressed his erection against his lover's rear. "...and submissive."

Fox gasped and wiggled against the hardness that pushed against him.

"What is it, my love?" Alexei's voice sent a twinge of fresh desire rushing through him. "Tell me what you need."

"You," Fox grated, never ceasing to be amazed at the desire this man could stir up in him so quickly, "I need you..."

"I am here..."

Fox whimpered and shook his head. "I need you inside me. *Please*."

"Ohhh," the amused voice tickled the spot just behind his ear.

"Please."

"Soon, my treasure. Very soon. Just relax and let me love you."

Fox's arms closed around the pillow that his head rested on and he moaned into it as his lover's mouth wandered the span of his shoulders, his tongue flowing over the flexing muscles then down, kissing and licking...tickling the downy hairs that trailed down to the base of his spine.

The lower Alexei moved, the more frantic Fox's whimpers became. Gentle hands glided over his lover's firm buttocks as Alexei's tongue stroked over his lower back. His fingers pressed into the twin mounds of muscled flesh and separated them, allowing his tongue to dance into the crevice and over the small, tight ring hidden within.

Fox clawed at the sheets, groaning into the pillows as his body reacted to this new stimulation. Gentle hands held his clutching hips steady while Alexei's tongue continued to flick over the puckered muscle, and Fox found himself teetering closer to the brink of orgasm than he ever had. He begged. He sobbed for Alexei take him over the edge, but the other man ignored his pleas, and when he felt that fleshy instrument of sensual torture breach his entrance, he screamed, attempting to drag himself away from the unbearable pleasure.

Alexei held Fox securely, pulling his hips back and up so that his lower body had no contact with the mattress. His tongue plunged deeper, fluttering within, and his overwhelmed lover's shrieks faded until only tiny choked gasps fell from his open mouth.

The room spun around Fox at breakneck speed, this thing Alexei was doing to him, robbing him of the ability to sob or scream. All he could do was clutch at the sheets by his head and hold on. Violent tremors ran through him as the presence inside him withdrew and pushed back in slowly, again and again. To increase the torment, gentle fingers reached beneath him to stroke over the fragile surface of the sac that had begun to pull up close to his body. Fox sobbed inaudibly, his weak attempts to free himself easily kept under control by his tormentor.

Very well aware that Fox was at his limit, Alexei withdrew, smoothing his tongue over the opening once more before licking and nibbling his way back up. Once he reached the small of Fox's back, he deviated from his course for a moment, moving back down to one quivering cheek and sucking at the flesh. Leaving his mark, he then moved on.

Too wrung out to do much more, Fox lay trembling and softly whining into the pillow as his lover played his body with masterful precision.

Slowly, Alexei moved up the length of his spine, leaving a tingling trail of gooseflesh. By the time he reached the back of Fox's neck, he was draped over his back, and his erection was again pressed up against the place his tongue had just been.

A gentle hand swept the hair from Fox's neck and over his shoulder, and he felt the warm, sweet breath fanning the sensitive spot just at the hairline.

"Now," Alexei growled against his skin, making him flinch at the sensation, "I will have you."

Fox's cries pierced the morning air as Alexei sank into him with one stroke. His muscles failed him, and his lower body began to drop to the mattress, but a strong arm came up under him, lifting him again to his knees and holding him there while his lover established a steady, driving rhythm. A small sob was forced from him with every thrust, and when Alexei shifted slightly and drove into him from a different angle, a wild scream tore from his throat.

Alexei answered Fox with a low snarl, and grasping his lover's long-ignored erection, he began to pump it in exact time to his thrusts. Loud, angry grunts made their way past his gritted teeth as he moved faster and harder, taking Fox with him into the sweet madness that they only knew together.

Wave upon wave of excruciating pleasure washed over Fox, and his cries joined Alexei's as both men weakened and fell to the mattress. They lay twitching together, both too drained to move. The weight of Alexei's relaxed body crushed Fox to the bed, but he had neither the strength nor the inclination to push him off.

Alexei lay stretched along the length of Fox's back, purring softly with every breath. His tongue inched out to lap at the droplets of perspiration that dotted his lover's shoulder, and he smiled weakly at the soft moan. "Did my love enjoy that?"

"Mmmm. You're wicked. Wicked, wicked...wicked..."

"I shall just take that as a yes."

"Please do."

"Ready to go again?" he asked, gently nipping at the slick skin.

"Are you insane?" came the muffled answer. Fox lifted his head just far enough to speak clearly. "I'll be lucky if I can *walk* after that."

"Ah, my beautiful jewel," Alexei whispered softly against his skin, "there is so much I want to do to you."

"Will I survive it?"

"Of course." Alexei gave him an evil little chuckle. "But just barely."

"Well, *that's* comforting."

The smile that Fox could feel against his shoulder faded, and Alexei looked down at him. "I love you, my precious Fox. More than you will ever know."

Fox called up the energy he needed and rolled Alexei off of his back. He turned onto his side and snuggled into the other man's arms. "I know. After yesterday, I know."

They fell silent for long moments, then the sound of Alexei's voice brought Fox back from the edges of sleep.

"Do you really believe that I should see my father?"

They shifted again, and now Alexei was on his back, Fox pressed to his side, golden-brown head resting in the cradle of his arm. He lightly traced the faint scars on his lover's chest. "Yes. He's your father, Jade. What he did may be reprehensible, but he regrets it now. Don't you want to know why? Not to take any credit from Daniel, but there's *got* to be more to it than what he told you tonight."

Alexei heaved a long sigh. "I..I am really having a very difficult time getting past the fact that he almost killed you. I could have lost you for all eternity. I could not have lived knowing that you were not on this earth. How can I forgive that?"

"But it didn't happen..."

"Because I agreed to never lay eyes on you *again*...which was a death sentence in its own right."

"He's remorseful, Alexei. He listened to Daniel and sent him after me. He didn't have to do that."

Alexei's eyes rolled up into his head, and his lids closed over them. He lay quietly for a few minutes, then opened his eyes, turning them to the man who watched him intently. "You are a truly remarkable man." He bent his head to capture Fox's mouth in a tender kiss, then released him. "All right. I will go to see Malik....will you accompany me?"

"Do you want me to?"

"Yes." Alexei brushed the hair back from Fox's face. "From here on out, whatever happens, happens to both of us."

Hazel eyes sparkled up at him. "I'm glad you feel that way. *We* need to see Dana."

"But...does she not wish to murder me?"

Fox laughed softly. "Oh, yes she does."

Alexei drew back, eyes wide. "And you would just throw me to the lions?"

"Aww, my love. I promise I'll be standing right behind you."

Alexei sank down amongst the pillows. "Why do I not find that particularly comforting?"


"Fox?"

Dana moved from room to room looking for her friend, growing more frightened with each step.

"Fox? Oh God, please. Where did he go?"

"Dana."

The petite woman whirled around and practically fell into Fox's arms.

"Thank God! Where have you been? I..." She cut herself off in mid-rattle and set an icy stare upon the man standing a few feet away. "What are you doing here?" She stepped between Fox and Alexei. "Why are you *here*?"

"Dana..."

She turned to face Fox, saw the look in his eyes, and shook her head. "No...oh, no. Don't tell me..."

Fox smiled reassuringly. "Dana, there's so much to explain."

"And who's going to do the explaining." She turned back on Alexei. "*Him*?"

Alexei's gaze lowered to the floor.

"Dana, listen to me." Fox touched her arm, drawing her attention back. "There were very good reasons for him to stay away."

Dana sighed sadly. "Oh, Fox. I know how much you wanted him back. But you can't *do* this. You're setting yourself up to be hurt again."

Alexei spoke for the first time. "No, Dana. I love Fox. I would never do anything to hurt him."

"Oh, *no*? What do you call what you've done for the last several weeks? That wasn't hurt? I was afraid every single day that he would go and do something *stupid* because of you! And now you're back. Why? You haven't tormented him enough? Maybe you can do a proper job and *really* kill him this time!"

Alexei flinched at her words and looked away. Fox was at his side instantly, pulling him into his arms.

"Dana...you don't understand. If he *hadn't* left me, I would have died."

"*What*?"

"Please..." Fox waved her toward a chair. "Let's sit down. Let us explain it to you."

At the end of their story, both men fell into silence, watching the woman who sat across from them, waiting for some reaction.

Dana looked from Fox to Alexei then back again. "That is one fantastic tale."

"Any more fantastic than Alexei being a genie?" Fox challenged.

"N-no, that was quite unbelievable."

"Yet, you believed it."

"The proof was in front of my eyes. I couldn't dispute it. All I have here is this...story."

"A story that *I've* told you. It's true, Dana. Every word."

Dana looked back to Alexei, studying the expression in his eyes. "I can't believe I'm going to trust you again."

"I do not know how to prove to you that I live for this man, Dana. Every breath I take...every beat of my heart is for him, and I was every bit as devastated as he was while we were apart."

Dana sighed heavily, then nodded. "All right. You've got another chance. But I'll not take my eye off you, and I will not hesitate to advise Fox if I feel that something is not right."

"I am very glad he has a friend as devoted as you."

Fox rose and drew Dana up and into his arms. "I'm happy again, Dana," he whispered. "Please don't worry. He *does* love me."

Dana pulled back and gave him a soft smile. "It's so good to see you back to yourself. But I mean what I say. If I see something I don't like, you *will* hear about it."

"I'd expect no less." Fox kissed her cheek, then turned to his lover who had come to stand a few feet behind them. "We must go now. Alexei has to prepare for the meeting with his father."

"All right."

Alexei kissed the side of Fox's head and gave Dana a wary smile. "May we have your company one day soon for dinner? Daniel will be so pleased to see you."

"I'll let you know."

Alexei nodded and bowed. "Goodbye, Dana. Thank you."

They vanished before her eyes, and Dana raised her hands to her face, covering her eyes, and groaned softly. She stood quietly for a moment, then walked slowly from the house.


After a long, leisurely bath together, the two men returned to their bed chamber where Fox dropped naked across the bed and watched Alexei choose his clothing.

"I'm glad you decided to speak to your father."

Alexei grunted. "I am only doing it because you asked me to. I could very easily go the rest of my life without..." He turned to face Fox, and his words left him.

"Go the rest of your life without..."

"Hmm?"

One gold-flecked eye opened and focused on the standing man. "You said that you could easily go the rest of your life without...then you stopped. "Go the rest of your life without what?"

"I do not remember...have you any idea how incredibly delicious you look lying there?"

Fox turned his head, chuckling to himself. "Something tells me that I had better get up and get dressed or we'll never get out of here..."

Before he had a chance to rise from the bed, Alexei was kneeling over him, nuzzling his face and throat. "But I would much *rather* stay here."

"I know," Fox cooed, "but the sooner we go, the sooner it will be done."

"All right, all right." Pouting, Alexei rose and helped Fox to his feet. Unable to help himself, he allowed his hands to skim over his lover's body as he walked past.

"Behave," Fox warned, smiling as he continued on his way. A few minutes later, he was dressed and ready to go, and Alexei was still fussing with his clothing. He approached his lover and wrapped his arms around his chest. "You're stalling," he whispered into one gold hoop-adorned ear.

"No..."

"Oh, yes, you are." Fox finished helping Alexei dress, then led him to a chair, and pushed him down into it. He retrieved his own hairbrush from the nearby table and began to run it in long strokes over his lover's head, and down the length of his hair.

Alexei's eyes drifted shut, and a soft rumble sounded in his chest.

Fox smiled as he watched the other man writhe in sensual bliss. "You behave as though no one has ever brushed your hair before."

"No one ever has," Alexei sighed, eyes still closed. "I simply just..." His hand fluttered through the air as he spoke.

"Not even when you were a child? Your mother? A servant?"

"I do not recall. That was a very long time ago."

Fox continued drawing the brush through the silky strands, following each stroke with the palm of his other hand. "Odd that a man who has introduced me to such extreme pleasures would know nothing of ones as simple as this." The brush left the surface of Alexei's hair and came up from underneath, starting at the nape of his neck and grazed upward. Again, his other hand followed, gathering the sable tresses together and holding them for another pass of the brush.

Alexei groaned audibly and arched his neck, prompting an amused laugh from Fox.

"It's not supposed to be arousing, you know."

"No?"

"No. It's *supposed* to be relaxing."

"Sorry. It is simply that your every touch sets my blood to boiling."

Fox put the brush down and combed his fingers through Alexei's hair, letting the heavy strands fall into place against his back. He leaned in, wrapping his arms around the other's shoulders, and strung a trail of kisses along his jaw. "Well, turn that boil down to a simmer, because we really must get going."

Alexei sounded a frustated growl, then wound an arm around Fox's neck and brought their lips together before releasing him. Fox assisted with his turban, Alexei made one last check of his appearance, and finally, they were off to see Malik.


Malik paced the room, stopping only long enough to throw an occasional glance at the door or the man who sat watching him.

"Sire," Daniel began, "you must remain calm..."

"How can I, Daniel? My son is coming here to confront me with the terrible things I have done to him and his mate. He may leave here today and never see me again. He may walk away from the throne and everything that is rightfully his because his father was a blind fool."

"You will not know that until he tells you. Getting upset about it now before you speak to him is not going to help..."

The doors opened, drawing the attention of both men. Alexei stalked in, the stark white silks he was attired in billowing out behind him. He looked more like himself than he had in several weeks, and the defiant set of his jaw and arrogant gleam in his eye were a welcome sight for Malik. Gray eyes flicked from Alexei to the one who walked beside him. He was beautiful, this Fox. Graceful and regal in his flowing robes of blue and gold, he and Alexei struck an exquisite picture.

Glittering emerald eyes flashed from Malik to Daniel, and Alexei walked over to him. He stood in front of his friend, speaking softly despite the combative gleam in his eye.

"I did not get to thank you last night."

Daniel grinned. "The look on your face as we left was thank you enough."

"No. I do not know that I will *ever* be able to thank you properly for the risk you took for me. And I also must apologize and beg your forgiveness for the threat I made to you."

"It is all right, Alexei. You had no idea. As far as you could see, Fox was in danger, and I was the one who put him there. There was no other way for you to react."

Alexei stepped forward and wrapped his arms around his friend, hugging him tightly. "Thank you," he whispered. "Thank you for giving me my life back."

"My pleasure, my friend." The two men separated, then Daniel leaned in again, murmuring in a confidential tone. "Might we uh...discuss what I am to do about the lovely Dana later on?"

Alexei grinned and nodded. Then, taking Fox's hand, he turned toward Malik. The humor vanished, and his tone turned business-like.

"Well, Father. I am here. Say what you wanted to say."

Malik drew a deep breath and motioned to a pair of tufted chairs. "Please. Sit. This may take a while."

Alexei led Fox to one of the chairs and, once he was comfortably seated, took up position behind him.

Malik looked from one man to the other. "You do not wish to sit, son?"

"I prefer to stand," came the acid reply.

The older man sighed then lowered himself into a facing chair. "As you wish." He watched his son catch his lover's hand in his and bring it to his lips. The two exchanged a tender glance, then their attention focused back on him.

"Now. What do you wish to say?"

Malik paused a moment, then began. "Alexei....Fox....allow me to say again how terribly, terribly sorry I am for what I have done to you. But if I may try to explain my actions...Alexei, I know all you saw was a cruel deed committed by a man who, for his own selfish reasons, wanted to keep you from your human lover. This is not true. In my own way, I was trying to protect you..."

"From *what*?

Malik ran his hands over his face and through his hair. "Alexei, I know of no other way to say this except to just say it. You know that I never spoke much of your...your mother."

"Yes, but what has she..."

Malik held up a hand. "She has much to do with it. After she was gone, I never found reason to tell you or your brothers and sisters that she was..." He took a long, deep breath and released it. "...human."

Alexei's fingers tightened around Fox's. "What?"

"You are half human, Alexei."

Alexei stared, for a moment too shocked to respond, then the room shook with his anger. "And you did not think it important enough to tell us?"

"*No*. All of you seemed to have inherited much of my genes. The others all took only minor characteristics from your mother as far as I could see. Except for you. You look so much like her. But...there still seemed to be no glaring discrepancies...there was nothing that you would question..."

"I do not understand! Why was it such a *secret*?"

"I was not ashamed of your mother, Alexei, before that idea comes into your head. I loved her with all of my heart and soul. The simple matter of it is, it *hurt* to discuss her. She was *human*, son. I know that you have not given consideration, as I did not, to the fact that we outlive humans by many years. *Far* too many, when you are deeply in love with one." He looked from Alexei's distressed face to Fox's. "I knew how much you loved him. I knew it immediately that day you came to me. And it frightened me more than I had ever been. You are my son, Alexei. The closest connection I have to your mother, and it tore at my heart to think of you in years to come, as devastated at the loss of your love as I. I thought if I could stop it now, if I could..." His eyes continued to jump from one to the other. "...but it is too late for that now, and all I can do is apologize."

Alexei fixed an unfocused gaze on a spot on the floor just beyond the chair in which Fox sat. Thoughts of himself in years to come, spending decade upon decade without his precious Fox, sent tremors through his body.

Fox pulled himself out of his chair and came to stand before his stricken lover. "Alexei? It....it is inevitable in every relationship that one partner will die first. The difference here is that we can be fairly sure it will be me. If...if you feel that you can't, or...or you don't want to...to deal with that for as long as you will obviously have to...if you want to...." Fox paused, looking for the strength to say it, "...to end this..."

Alexei's head snapped up. "*No*." He practically fell into Fox's arms. "No. How can you even ask me that?"

Fox wrapped his arms around his lover's back and held him close. "I don't know. I just...I just don't know what else to say to you. I just want you to know that I would understand if you felt you wanted to..."

"*Never*, Fox. I love you and I will *not* walk away from you. If we had just two more *days* together, they would be worth the agony I would suffer for the rest of my life."

"That is exactly the way I felt about my Katarina," Malik offered softly. "It was wrong of me to try to take that decision out of your hands..."

Alexei did not hear a word that his father had just said to him. He was too wrapped up in his present pain to process anything more. Eyes closed, he clung tightly to Fox, needing the warmth only his love could provide.

Fox rocked Alexei gently, drawing a hand up and down his back. "Jade...my love, listen to me. You've had quite a shock today. You need time to absorb it all. Come. Let's go home." Fox looked to Malik. "Unless there are any other disturbing bits of news you'd like to share."

"No," Malik sighed. "No, you are right. He needs time to accept what he has learned." He reached out to touch his son's shoulder. "He has never had to face death, Fox. I did all I could to shelter him when his mother passed. And everyone else he knows is of our own kind. I can see that it was wrong of me to keep it from him....*and* his brothers and sisters. They are all adults now and incapable of dealing with a natural fact of life. Forgive me, but as I am sure that he will not allow me, I believe it is now up to you to make him understand."

Fox gave the old man a chilly stare. "I'll take care of him," he said, an air of authority in his posture.

"I know you will. I will see that you both get home now."

At this, the other man who had been observing silently from a far corner of the room now stepped forward. "I will take them home," Daniel offered. "Fox, would you mind if I accompanied you? I will remain unobtrusive, but I will be there if you need me."

"No, Daniel, I don't mind. Thank you."

"If I might," Malik broke in just as they were ready to leave, "I would very much like to visit you tomorrow...to see that he is all right."

Fox paused to see if Alexei would answer for himself. The other man remained silent.

"I will speak with him tonight about it, and Daniel...." he looked to the man who had come to stand beside them. "will let you know?"

Daniel nodded his agreement.

"Very well." Malik ran a hand lightly down his son's arm. "Alexei, I am so very sorry. All the pain you have suffered these past weeks is my fault. If there is anything at all that I can do..."

No response.

Malik turned his focus on Fox. "You are indeed as special as he said. I do not know if I could be so generous as to speak civilly to the man who had done what I did to you."

Fox gave no answer, only tightened his hold on the man in his arms and looked over at Daniel and nodded. Seconds later, the three were standing in Fox and Alexei's bed chamber.

"We're home now," Fox murmured against Alexei's cheek. "Come. Why don't you lie down for a while?"

Alexei released his grip on Fox just long enough for the other man to help him out of his clothing. When only his pants remained, Fox settled him into bed. Before he could straighten up, Alexei clutched at him, holding him where he was.

"Do not leave me."

"I'm not going to leave you," Fox reassured him, happy to hear him finally speak. "I'm only going to step out of the room with Daniel for a minute, and then I will be right back, I promise."

Reluctantly, Alexei loosened his hold and allowed Fox to move away. He watched as his lover retreated to the door and with a soft smile, disappeared with Daniel from the room. Once Fox was out of sight, he propped himself up against the pillows, waiting less than patiently as he tried to rid his mind of thoughts of a time when Fox would never walk back through that door. But the images grew stronger and more vivid, and soon his attempts at normal breathing fell to a series of panicked gasps.

Unable to stay put any longer, he leapt out of bed and began to pace, raking a hand through his hair. Movement seemed to be doing no good, and he turned to the open doors that led to the veranda. He stepped out onto the cool marble and gulped in the fresh air as he tried yet again to stop his mind from working. As he battled to shut it down, another thought pushed its way in, and he found that the more he considered this new notion, the calmer he grew. His breathing slowly returned to normal, and the frantic pounding of his heart quieted. Alexei looked out over the land and nodded.


"I thought all the pain was behind us," Fox said, looking down at the patch of floor between him and Daniel.

"There is much for him to absorb," Daniel reasoned. "Fox, Alexei will be all right. With you by his side, he will snap out of this state that he is in."

"Yes, and what about when I am no longer by his side?"

"He will be shattered, there is no doubt of that. But he is a stronger man than his father, and if Malik can survive such a loss, then so shall he. He only needs time for it to sink in. When it does, he will find a way to put it into perspective."

"I hope so," Fox said softly. "Usually, this is a subject confronted when most people are children. The older one gets, the more....Daniel?"

"Yes"

"How old is he?"

"In human years?" Daniel closed one eye and counted silently. "Ninety-eight."

"And you?"

"In your years, I am considerably older than he. I am....one hundred and eighty-two."

Fox cocked his head. "When you were his age, how mature were you?"

Daniel shook his head. "Not very, now that you mention it. Alexei is far more mature at this age than I was. What are you thinking?"

"He's half-human, Daniel. His aging process is not like mine, but it's not like yours either. It would seem that it may be somewhere in between."

"So....so you are *saying* that he will *not* outlive you by as many years as Malik says."

"It's possible that he may be even more human than his father thinks."

"How could Malik not realize?"

"I don't know. In all walks of life, there are those who mature faster than others, but there may be more to this than Alexei just being an early bloomer." He looked toward the door. "I should go back in. He wasn't especially thrilled that I left him in the first place."

Daniel nodded and backed up a step. "All right. I will be here in the house should he decide he wants to talk to me."

"Thank you, Daniel. You are a very good friend."

"He is the closest thing I have to a brother. I will do anything I can for him." Daniel gave Fox a warm smile, then turned and disappeared from sight.

Fox re-entered the room, and his heart immediately leapt into his throat as he viewed the empty bed.

//Where is he? Where would he have...//

The panic seeped away as he caught sight of his lover just outside the doors, looking out over the trees. He walked over toward Alexei, stopping just inside the room and called softly.

"Alexei? Are you all right?"

Serene green eyes turned to him. "Yes."

Fox smiled. "You look better."

"I feel better."

"What brought the change?"

"I have been thinking. There is nothing I can do to hold you to this life when it is time for you to leave, but there *is* something I can do about staying behind."

Fox's eyebrows lowered into a frown. "What are you saying?"

"It is very simple, my love. The day you leave this world, I will leave with you."

"No..." Fox shook his head. "..you can't do that."

"The thing that I cannot do, Fox, is live without you. And I will not."

"No..."

Alexei tilted his head. "How can you love me, yet ask me to stay behind and suffer your loss for the considerable number of my remaining years?"

"Alexei, listen to me. You've received two very large shocks today. You've found out that your mother was human, and you've only just been confronted head on with the idea of the death of a loved one. Everything your father has done or in this case has not done was to protect you. I'm just coming to realize how very much he loves you. He's just gone about it in the wrong way. He thought he was protecting you, but all his protection did was leave you totally unprepared for a perfectly natural progression of life." Fox reached out to cup his lover's chin. "It happens all over the world, every day. People lose their mothers, their fathers, husbands and wives. They hurt, they grieve, and then they go on. If they didn't, there would *be* no world."

Alexei blinked, unable to understand how Fox could speak so matter-of-factly about something so horrendous. "If..." He stopped then started again. "If it were reversed and it was you who would have to spend years and years alone...could you still be so objective?"

Fox stepped forward and wound his arms around Alexei's waist. "I'm not trivializing your pain, love. I'm simply asking that you don't dwell on it. It won't make the years we do have together very pleasant if you're brooding every day about something you can do nothing about."

Deepest green eyes burned into his. "You did not answer my question."

Fox stared for a moment, then let his gaze drop away. "No. I could not be so objective. From my experience, no one can be. Not at the time of loss. But with time, it gets better. And then the things that used to bring unimaginable pain become a comfort. And you can remember and smile instead of cry. I have lovely memories of my mother and father, and though I'm still greatly saddened that they are no longer with me, I am comforted in the knowledge that they loved me and someday I *will* see them again....you and *I* will be together again..."

Alexei nodded. "Yes. We will be. Only I will not wait a few hundred years for it."

Fox stroked his lover's face. "You *must* stay until it is your time to go. There is much you have to accomplish. You've got a kingdom to rule. People to care for..."

Alexei shook his head. "I have yet to agree to assume the throne. Now I have even less reason to want to."

Fox released him and took a few steps away. "I'm turning your life upside down..."

"No. Not you."

"If I were not in your life, Alexei, half of the things you learned today would be of no consequence to you. You would fulfill your destiny and live your life the way you were meant to. I hate thinking that this is what loving me has done to you.. If I had known, I..." Fox bit off his words, but Alexei finished them for him.

"What? You never would have come back to me?"

Fox shook his head and said nothing.

"That *is* what you were going to say."

"Yes. But what is the point? Whether I returned or not, either way, you would be suffering."

There was anger mixed with the hurt in Alexei's tone, and for the first time, it was directed at Fox. "And so it would have been better if we had never met at all."

Fox closed his eyes and lowered his head. "No," he said just above a whisper. "I didn't say that."

"You did not have to. It is what is in your mind."

"It's not the way you think..."

"You wish we had never met. How many different ways can I understand that?"

Fox whirled around to face his irrational lover. "How can you know what's in my head but not my heart? I *love* you. Why do you think I hurt so much when we were apart? Why do you think I buried all my doubts and fears and came *back*?"

Alexei shrugged. "You did not expect more problems. You think that the decisions I am making are your responsibility, and you do not want to carry that." He moved around Fox and came to stand before him. "Do not concern yourself with it. All decisions I make are my *own*. If you cannot live with them, I will not ask you to stay!"

Fox looked up into glittering dark pools. He wondered if Alexei realized how easily his eyes gave him away. The words were cold, the tone angry, but the fear in his eyes negated all that he said. Fox could have called his bluff and asked to be sent back, but he would not heap that trauma on top of all that Alexei had to deal with already. In the heat of the moment, he might very well send Fox back, then spend who knew how long hating himself.

Fox took a deep breath and walked to the door. With a slight hesitation, he swung it open and walked out of the room. Alexei watched silently, biting down on his lip to keep it from quivering as the one he loved disappeared from his sight.


Daniel raised his head from the book he'd been reading just in time to see Fox walk past him and head out of the house. "Fox?" He rose from his chair, tossing the book down onto it, and began to follow the other man. "Fox, where are you going?"

The answer was vague and went almost unheard. "For a walk."

Sensing something was not right, Daniel stayed on Fox's trail, their journey ending at the stream where Alex and Fox spent so much of their time.

"Something is wrong," Daniel observed softly as Fox sat on a large rock and stared down into the water.

"He's very upset."

"Well, we know this..."

"With me."

"But...not more than a few minutes ago, he was clinging to you like a burr. I do not understand."

"Neither does he. Alexei is feeling very helpless right now, and he doesn't know how to handle it. He's not thinking clearly, and he sees my attempts at reason as indifference to his feelings." He shook his head. "I didn't help. I was so upset at the things he was saying that I started thinking that he would have been better off if he'd never known me. That truly upset him. He suggested that if that's the way I felt, I might want to just leave."

Red eyebrows drew down into a confused frown. "Fox....he did not mean that."

"I know."

"And I cannot believe that you really think he would have been better off without you."

"I was thinking that, yes. But that isn't the way things worked out. We *did* meet. We *are* together, and I would never give him up now. He's my life, Daniel. Those weeks without him almost killed me. Alexei can't see this, but perhaps you can. I love him, but I've hurt him. Not purposely and not knowingly. If I had walked away from him the day he spoke to me in the village...if I had taken my book and left, his life would have gone on. He might have been a little disappointed that I wouldn't speak to him, but his life would not have been turned inside out."

Daniel stared at the other man. "Do you not know that Alexei has loved you from the first time he laid eyes on you? You were all I heard about from sunup to sundown. *He* pursued *you*. It was his sworn mission to win your heart, and in case you have not yet noticed, Prince Alexei is one very persuasive individual."

"He told me that he loved me from the beginning."

"Did you not believe him?"

Fox opened his mouth as if to speak but fell silent.

"Fox, what I am saying to you is no matter what you said or did not say...not matter what you did or did not do, it would have made no difference. He has loved you since he first set eyes on you, and from that moment, he became susceptible to hurt. So if you think that if you had never talked to him, he would have been all right, you are wrong."

"But the hurt wouldn't have been as deep."

"I am not so sure about that. Alexei is a deeply passionate man...not that I really need to tell you any of this...the day he fell in love with you, he did not only fall part of the way. He plunged headlong. And so, what I am trying to say is I believe that if you had rejected him that day in the village, he would have been *quite* heartbroken. I am sorry, Fox, but it seems as though in laying eyes on you, Alexei was destined for pain."

"Well, thank you," Fox said in his soft monotone. "I feel so much better."

Daniel clenched his hands in his hair. "I am sorry. I knew it would not come out right. I am simply saying that it is not your fault that he is hurting."

Fox closed his eyes and drew a deep breath as he turned away. "The day that I leave this earth, he wishes to follow."

"What?"

"He wants to end his life. He says he refuses to stay without me." Daniel rested his head in folded hands. "He means it."

"I know he means it. I can't let him."

"What choice will *you* have?"

"I have to talk him out of it *now*."

"That is where all this trouble began, is it not?"

"Yes. He doesn't understand why I would want him to stay behind and suffer."

"Why *do* you?"

Fox directed a stunned stare at the other man. "You too?"

Daniel said nothing.

"Of course I don't want him to suffer, Daniel. But he would have an entire kingdom to rule...though he is more determined than ever that he will not...how could he just throw aside such a tremendous responsibility?"

"We would not be without a ruler. Amed would assume the throne."

"How...how can you say this so easily? Life is precious, Daniel. You would just stand by and watch your best friend end his?"

"If my choice was between that and watching him live in agony for the rest of his days? I would miss him terribly, but yes. Yes, I would. Fox, you and he are obviously at opposite ends of this issue. I suggest you find some middle ground, and I suggest you do it soon. I went through *weeks* of watching him brood. I will not do it with two of you."

Fox sighed softly and turned his attention back to the water.


The sun began to set, casting long shadows on the ground, and still Fox sat quietly by the stream. He had moved from the rock to the soft grass, leaning against a tree and listened to the drone of Daniel's voice. He appreciated the other man's attempts to keep his mind occupied, but soon, his voice and the babble of the stream blended to the point where Fox could no longer distinguish between the two.

The approach of a third presence drew him out of his thoughts. His eyes rose and did a quick search, revealing the form of his lover drifting into the shadow of a nearby tree.

Alexei stood quietly, head tilted downward. He risked a brief glance at Fox through downswept lashes, then turned his gaze back to the ground.

"Well," Daniel broke the thick silence. "You two have much to discuss...or at least you should have. I will just leave you to it." He laid an understanding hand on Alexei's shoulder, then he was gone, leaving the two men to each other.

Each man remained motionless, eyeing the other warily. Finally, Alexei spoke.

"I...the way I behaved was inexcusable. You tried to help me understand a thing I know nothing of, and I turned on you. I do not know why I would do such a thing. You are every beat of my heart, and I would sooner die than hurt you."

Fox rose from his perch and closed the distance between them. He slid his fingers under the other man's chin and lifted. Once he had Alexei's attention, his fingers caressed the underside of his jaw, then moved to cup his cheek. "You were very upset." His thumb rasped against the lightly-stubbled surface. "Understandably so. I should have been more sensitive to what you were feeling."

Alexei shook his head and started to speak, but Fox stopped him. He leaned forward until their faces were mere inches from each other. "We'll work it through. Right now I think we need to back away from it, though...concentrate on something else for a while."

The question in Alexei's eyes was answered as Fox's lips covered his in a soft whisper of a kiss. He stood trembling as Fox pulled away, tilted his head in the opposite direction, and kissed him again. He felt the warm pinprick of rushing blood through every part of his body as his lover's mouth slid across his then away. His eyes fluttered then focused on the sea of glittering blue-green before him.

"Come lie down with me by the water," Fox whispered. "Let me love you." He backed up slowly, and Alexei followed, hypnotized by his voice and the look of desire dancing in his eyes. Once he reached his destination, he stopped, raising both hands to his lover's chest. Slowly his fingertips teased the warm flesh, pulling breathy moans from the other. He slid the already open robe from Alexei's shoulder's and kissed a gentle trail along his collarbone, winning a long, soft gasp. When he reached the curve of Alexei's shoulder, his arms slipped around the lean waist, pulling his lover close. Their mouths met once more, as tenderly as with their previous kiss, and Fox's hands wandered the length of Alexei's back, stroking over bone and quivering muscle.

Alexei whimpered softly, the vibration tickling Fox's lips as he felt his lover's hands move lower and lower until they slipped beneath the white silk of his pants. He writhed and ground his hips against Fox's, and the hands that covered his rear gently squeezed and caressed the muscle, encouraging his responses.

Fox's hands glided up and down over the rounded flesh, alternating between firm and gentle strokes and driving the recipient of his attentions to the edge of madness.

"Fox," Alexei panted, breaking from his kiss. "Please...."

"Shhh..."

Alexei sucked his lower lip into his mouth in an attempt to remain silent as Fox slipped the silk down his legs, kneeling in the grass before him, and pulled the material away. He forced his eyes to open and looked down into his lover's aroused face. He emitted a soft grunt as Fox's eyes closed and he leaned forward, brushing his full lips over the trembling flesh of his abdomen. Gentle fingers slid up his thighs to his buttocks, holding him in their light grip as that mouth continued to work its magic, moving lower and lower until he could feel Fox's warm breath playing over the glistening tip of his erection.

Fox nudged the head of the engorged shaft with the tip of his nose, the scent of his lover's arousal feeding his own. His fingers flexed involuntarily in the taught muscle they held, and his tongue inched out, stroking along the large vein on the underside of Alexei's erection. As he reached the head, his tongue flicked around the surface, lapping off every last bit of moisture there. The man standing before him let out a strangled sob, and restless fingers raked through his hair. He could feel Alexei's impatience and his struggle to hold himself together, and Fox decided to torment him no more. He pulled his lover down into the grass, laying him on his back, then removed his own clothing. That done, he kneeled over Alexei's prone body, straddling his hips.

Alexei looked up into eyes that had turned almost black with passion. His hands skimmed Fox's thighs again and again, each time coming closer to the twitching muscle that strained toward him. Finally he reached the base, sliding his thumb up and down along the shaft, his tongue slithering out to moisten dry lips. He watched Fox's eyes close as his other fingers curled around the hard warmth and squeezed gently.

Fox's hips shifted, and he pushed himself into Alexei's hand, pulled back, then moved forward again, encouraging his lover to slowly pump him. His neck arched, and a deep moan rumbled in his chest as his body began to throb in time to Alexei's lazy caresses. He kneeled there above the man that he adored, accepting his loving attention until he felt that all too familiar coiling in his lower body. He knew it must stop, or there was no way that he would be able to do what he asked Alexei to let him do. Gently, his hand covered the other man's and stopped his movement. He pulled the hand away and laid a kiss in the palm before shifting position and coming to kneel between his lover's parted legs.

"Are you ready for me?"

Alexei nodded and moved closer, lifting his hips toward Fox. The other man grasped and pulled him forward onto his thighs, and Alexei's legs immediately clamped around his back. He felt the thick presence pressing toward its goal, and he lay trembling as it burrowed into him, stretching him to accommodate its width. Once completely embedded in his heat, Fox stopped moving, provoking a groan of protest.

"Easy," the soft monotone whispered. Fox caressed his chest, tracing the barely-visible scars that ran across it. "Easy, my love."

Alexei breathed deeply, trying for all he was worth to keep himself from bucking against his lover. He shook with the effort, and a stream of restless whimpers fell from his lips.

"My beautiful Jade..." Fox pushed forward, wedging himself even more tightly inside of his lover, watching a grimace cross his face. "Feel me inside you." He withdrew a fraction, then pushed back in, attempting to reach deeper. "We are..." he paused for a shaky breath, then continued, "..are part of each other forever."

Alexei sobbed at Fox's words, which were punctuated by another deep thrust. "Fox," he cried, "please...it is such...such torture...*please*..."

Fox grasped the hard column of flesh that lay between them and slid his hand along its length. Alexei thrashed beneath him, wailing his name, and he began a series of long thrusts, accompanied by the matching rhythm of his hand.

Alexei arched, lifting the whole of his back off the ground as he growled through clenched teeth. The action tightened his muscles, squeezing Fox and shredding the other man's control to bits.

Fox barely heard his own choked moans above the roar in his head. Working on blind instinct, he held Alexei's hip in the bruising grip of one hand while the other jerked his erection in time to increasingly harder and faster thrusts. His body began to shake uncontrollably, then all his muscles suddenly seized as his orgasm blasted through him, releasing an endless gush of hot fluid into his lover.

Alexei felt the warmth flood his insides and heard Fox's harsh cries of completion, and then he found his own release as his lover froze for an instant, then started to thrust again, erratically. He clutched at the grass beneath him, and a long, feral scream gurgled past his constricting throat. A warm, slick geyser shot endlessly over Fox's hand and his own belly, and when it was finally done, his legs slipped from around Fox's back, sliding down to rest on the cool green ground, and the other man fell onto his chest. They lay together panting and gasping for breath for a long while before Fox lifted his head and looked down into damp emerald eyes.

"This is the way I want to spend our lives. Just like this."

The eyes crinkled and a smile curved the other's mouth. "I think we would have to eat and sleep sometime."

Fox returned the smile. "You know what I mean. No anxiety. We've had enough of that. And no worrying about things we cannot change." Before Alexei could respond, he went on. "I know that's so much easier said than done, but can we try? Can we just love each other and let the rest take care of itself?"

Alexei raised a hand to his lover's face and slid his thumb across the exquisitely full lower lip. "I promise you, my sweet Fox, I will try."

Fox kissed the thumb as it made another pass. "Thank you." He looked over Alexei's head and in the direction of the house. "Now, perhaps we should go and find Daniel? I'm sure he'd like to know that you're all right. He was very concerned."

Alexei nodded his agreement. "All right." He thought for a moment, then grinned up at Fox. "We should do something for him to show our appreciation for all he's done for us. Do you think Dana might be open to having dinner with us?"

Fox squinted. "Well, she's still a bit worried...but on the other hand it might be a good opportunity for her to see that everything is fine. I suppose we could ask her and see."

"In that case, would you be averse to a little detour before we go back to the house?"

Fox leaned down for a brief but thorough kiss. "Not at all. Let's go pay Dana a visit."


Dinner went well. Better than they had hoped, actually. Dana agreed to come to dinner, and though not immediately thrilled with the idea, she soon warmed up to Daniel again, and the evening ended on a definite high note.

That night, after Dana and Daniel had left, the two men lay in bed, Alexei propped against the pillows with Fox lying back against his chest. His arms encircled his lover gently, and he pressed a number of soft kisses into his hair.

"Malik would like to speak further with you."

Alexei opened his eyes upon hearing the soft voice. "I thought you may have been asleep."

The silky glide of Fox's hair against his skin as the other man slowly shook his head gave him a delightful shiver. "He has not tormented us enough?"

"I believe he's genuinely sorry, Jade. His eyes...they were so very sad. All he truly wanted was to protect you..."

"I thought you wanted us to love each other and let the rest take care of itself?"

"I was talking about things we could do nothing about. You *can* repair your relationship with your father...if you want to."

"He almost killed you."

"To protect *you*."

"There is no excuse. Killing you would have killed me. I do not view that as protection."

"He was desperate, Alexei. He is your father, and he is king, but he has a heart. And when you believe that someone you love very much is in danger of any kind, the heart often overrules the head."

Silence met his statement.

"Please? See him...for me?" Fox wiggled back against him, smiling as he felt the organ between them begin to grow.

Alexei groaned. "You are playing dirty..."

"I know. But it's for a good cause. Will you see him again?"

"All right, all *right*. I will see him. For you. Now." Alexei tightened his arms around the other man and pushed against him. "What are you going to do for me?"

Fox laughed softly, sliding onto his back between his lover's legs, then turned over, nuzzling the now full-blown erection. "Oh, I don't know. What would you *like* for me to do?'


The next afternoon, Daniel entered the house followed by Malik. The masters of the house stood side by side, offering a courteous but cool greeting.

Alexei bowed only slightly, and motioned his father to a comfortable chair. "Please be seated."

Malik looked from one man to other. "Thank you." He took his seat and again looked upon his son. "You look well. I trust you are feeling better than you did yesterday?"

"Yes, I am." Alexei turned an adoring eye to Fox and brushed his lover's cheek with his knuckles. "Now what else would you like to speak to me about?"

"There are no more surprises, Alexei, I simply wanted to know if you were accepting what I have told you."

"What choice have I? It is a shock, to say the least, to find out that I am indeed half human, but it is not an unpleasant one. I am only angry because for all these years you saw fit to keep it a secret from the others and myself. You had no right."

"I know that. I am heartily sorry, my son."

"Have you told them?"

"Last night I gathered them together, and yes, I told them. They are unhappy for the same reasons that you are, but they are all still speaking to me."

"And why should they not? You have not tried to assassinate any of their mates..."

"I know you will never forgive me for that."

"You are so right. I never will. There is nothing you will ever be able to do to rectify that wrong."

Fox touched his arm. "Alexei..."

"I cannot help the way I feel, Fox. He almost took you away from me forever."

"I have already told you, my son, that this is not an excuse, but I was only trying to protect you from a broken heart..."

"By breaking it first yourself? It makes no sense!"

A thick silence fell on the room, then Fox spoke. "Your majesty?"

Alexei cut in. "Do not call him that. He deserves no respect from you."

Malik heaved a great sigh. "My son is correct. Call me Malik."

Fox rubbed his temples for a moment. "All right. Malik....may I ask you a question?"

"Yes, of course."

Fox looked to his lover first. "I thought of this yesterday, and I just want to satisfy my curiosity." He turned back to Malik. "The djinn live a very long life."

Malik nodded.

"But your children are half human. Would that not change their life expectancy?"

Alexei's head snapped from his mate to his father, awaiting the old man's answer.

"I...do not know for certain. I do not believe so."

"But Alexei is considerably younger than Daniel, yet he matured at a rate which made him equal to Daniel, physically."

"Well...yes...I suppose all of the children had matured rather quickly, but..."

"Then is it not possible that they are different from full-blood djinn in that respect?"

"It...it may be so."

Alexei broke in to the conversation. "Do you know of any other half-bloods?"

"No, I do not."

"You must know of *one*."

Fox noted the rise in Alexei's tone and laid a calming hand on his shoulder. "Easy, love."

Alexei closed his eyes and took a steadying breath. "Is there someone who *might* know?"

"There is only one I can think of. Selima is the oldest of our kind. She lives alone at the very edge of our realm. She knows all there is to know about us. If anyone can give you the answers you seek, it is she."

Alexei spun to face Fox. "I must see her."

"Yes, but...Alexei, keep in mind she may not tell you what you want to hear. This was just a curiosity. It may mean absolutely nothing. After all, being half human has not diminished your djinn power any."

"I know, but..." The desperation began to show in his voice. "...there is at least a *chance* that I may not spend as many years without you as we thought...."

"Alexei."

Both men turned their attention to Malik.

"Even if it is true and you will not live for hundreds of years, you will still live far longer than Fox."

Alexei knew this. He knew it, but somehow the words coming from Malik's lips angered him all over again. "No. I will not."

Fox closed his eyes and bowed his head. Suddenly, he was sorry he'd ever brought this up. "Alexei," he called softly. "Please..."

Alexei heard his lover's plea. He kissed the side of Fox's head and murmured against it, "I need an answer. Even if it is not the answer I want." He turned to Daniel. "Will you stay while I go to see this Selima?"

Worried at what his friend's state of mind might be after his meeting with the old woman, Daniel stepped forward. "I wish to accompany you."

"No. I will be fine. Please stay with Fox until my return."

"No, Alexei," Fox spoke up. "Let Daniel go with you. Please, my love. I would feel much better if he did."

Malik watched with mild surprise as his son gave in so easily to Fox.

"All right. Might I at least bring Dana to you? She can keep you company until we return."

"I will stay if it is company you wish for him," Malik offered.

"No. I do not want you near him while I am not here."

"My son, I would not harm him in any way; you have my *word*."

"Your word means little." Alexei lifted Fox's hand to his lips and bestowed a soft kiss upon it. "I shall fetch Dana to you, my lord. We shall be back in an instant." He turned a cold eye to Malik. "Please take your leave."

Utterly dejected, Malik nodded and was gone, leaving only the three men. Alexei stepped away from Fox and also disappeared, returning five minutes later with Dana. She and Daniel exchanged greetings, and then the two men set out in search of the old woman named Selima.

"Explain this to me again if you would be so kind, Fox," Dana demanded once the other two were gone. "Alexei really didn't want to waste time on it, and he said you would tell me."

Fox summoned a servant and asked that some refreshments be brought in for him and his friend, and then he sat Dana down and, step by step, explained the events of past days.


Alexei and Daniel approached the small house that Malik had described, and Daniel knocked at the door. Long seconds later, the door swung open, and sharp brown eyes set in an ancient face peered out at them.

"Bless me, Allah. It is the crown prince himself come to visit me in my humble house." The old woman began to bow, but Alexei stopped her.

"No. Please. There is no need for that."

The tiny woman blinked up at him. "What is it my prince wishes of me?''

"To come in for a moment if you do not mind. There is a question you might be able to answer for me."

"Of course, sire. T'would be my honor to be of assistance to you." She stepped aside, allowing the two men to enter and beckoned them to sit. "Now, sire. What is this question you wish to ask of me?"

"Madame...my father the king says that you are the oldest and wisest of all genies. You know our entire history. You know of everything that makes us what we are."

"T'is true, I have been alive for many more years than any. I have seen much, and I keep our history."

"Selima...have you ever known of any of our kind who were only half-bloods? Those who may have been half human?"

"I see the king has finally decided to tell his son what he should have known many years ago."

Alexei hesitated, momentarily surprised by the old woman's perception. "Yes. And now I need to know if there have been any others."

"Yes, sire. There certainly have been."

Alexei closed his eyes, willing his heart to beat normally. "Then this is my question to you. Were these half-bloods different? Were their powers diminished at all? Did they live shorter lives as a result of the mixing of human blood with djinn?"

The old woman cackled softly. "The djinn blood is very strong. There is never a decrease in power. And the only change occurs when the children are young. There is a period of rapid development, then it stops and reverts back to that which is normal for us. You will live a normal existence, my prince. Does that ease your mind?"

Alexei covered his face with his hands and sat quietly for a moment. He then lifted his head and breathed a long sigh. "Thank...thank you for your time, Selima. I will not trouble you any longer."

Before he could rise to leave, the old woman began to speak again. "The king adored his wife," she rambled. "Amazingly, you resemble her quite a bit. That you do not look like the rest of your sisters and brothers is indeed a mystery." She shrugged, smiling indulgently. "Some mystery is a good thing. It shattered his heart when she passed." She shook her head sadly. "Such a tragedy. He kept her illness a secret, you know. Not a soul in the kingdom knew until she was gone..."

Sable eyebrows drew down into a frown, and Alexei cocked his head. "No one?"

"No one."

"But why?"

"Only your father can answer that. It is so terrible. Had I known. Had I only known..."

Alexei and Daniel exchanged curious glances, then Alexei asked, "Had you only known what?"

"I never told your father, because after your mother was gone, there was no point in increasing his torment..."

"Never told him what?"

"She could have been saved."

Alexei's heart felt as though it would leap out of his chest. "*How*?"

"He never told anyone. He never said a word. Had I known...had I known that she was human, he could have had her with him still."

Alexei rose from his seat, no longer able to sit still. "Selima...please...*how*?"

"You recall what I just told you about djinn blood and the fact that it is strong enough to counteract human blood so that half-breeds such as yourself still live normally."

"*Yes*."

"If djinn blood is mingled with human blood...that is if the djinn blood, even a very small amount, is introduced into the human body, it fortifies the blood of its host, effectively making the human resistant to all that we are resistant to. It strengthens the human and prolongs their life as it does ours. It does not bestow on them any of our magical abilities, but..."

Alexei paced frantically, raking his hands through his hair. "Are you sure? Are you absolutely *sure* about this?"

"Of course, my prince," Selima smiled indulgently. "I am only sorry that the king did not let *someone* know. You...you will not tell him? T'would only add to the torment he still suffers..."

Alexei's only answer was to twirl the twig of a woman off her feet and plant a noisy kiss on her withered face. "Thank you, Selima. You have no idea what you have just done for me."

The old woman cackled, holding her hand to her cheek. "Goodness, sire. You are right. I do not know what it is I have done, but if it makes you this happy, that is all the thank you I want. I saw a very sad young man enter my house, and now someone new stands in his place."

"And I have you to thank." Alexei kissed the woman again, drawing another giggle from her. "I will see you again, Madame. Thank you!"

The two men fled the house, and Alexei grabbed Daniel, hugging him fiercely. "Daniel! My friend, do you know what this means?"

Daniel laughed maniacally. "Yes! All you have to do is introduce some of your own blood to his system..."

Alexei burst into laughter. "Though I would certainly welcome another opportunity, it is not actually necessary."

"What?"

Alexei displayed a knowing grin. "It is already done. Come. I must get home immediately."


Fox paced slowly, his every movement tracked by a pair of bright blue eyes.

"Fox, you're going to wear a hole in the floor if you do not stop that!"

"Hmm? Oh. I'm sorry. I just think they're taking rather long. Don't you think so?"

"No, I do not."

Fox sighed. "It's true, Dana, what Malik said. Even if the human blood *does* affect Alexei's life span, it won't be enough to make any real difference to him. He's got to be able to cope with it, or I'm afraid that it will eventually destroy us."

"He'll be all right, Fox. He won't allow that to happen. He's not going to do anything that will take you from him any sooner than you have to go."

"He wouldn't mean to, but I'm afraid he won't be able to help himself. We found our way back together, I'm afraid only to be ripped apart again. Maybe next time for good."

"Fox," Dana scolded. "Stop thinking that way. Everything will work out for the best. Alexei adores you, and he *will not* allow anything to come between you again."

Hazel eyes flicked up to meet blue. "I see you are firmly planted on his side again."

Dana smiled. "Yes, I suppose I am. I am not blind, Fox. It is very clear that he loves you and what happened before was not his doing."

"I'm glad you believe it."

"I do. I am also glad to see Daniel again."

A smile twitched at Fox's lips. "Are you now?"

"Yeees, I am."

"Good. I know he's glad to see *you*."

Suddenly sensing that they were not alone, Fox turned to find Alexei and Daniel standing behind him. He searched the solemn eyes of his lover, and before he could put a question to him, Alexei turned to Dana.

"Dana, would you mind going for a walk with Daniel? Fox and I must talk."

Dana cast a wary eye from one man to the other. "N-no. Of course not." She gave Fox's arm an encouraging squeeze, then preceded Daniel out of the room.

When their friends were gone, both men stood a few feet from each other, staring. Fox was first to speak.

"Well...did you get your answers?"

"Yes," Alexei whispered. "And then some."

The golden-brown head cocked to one side. "I don't understand."

Alexei slowly approached. "I had a very interesting visit with Selima. It was quite illuminating."

"How is that?"

"She told me something that no one else knows. Not even Malik."

"Will you share it with me?"

He barely heard Alexei's 'yes'.

Alexei began to undo his robes, letting the garments fall to the floor. He stepped closer to his very confused lover, then turned his back to him. His hand came up, lightly fingering the scars on his shoulder. "Do you remember when I called this a gift from you?"

"Yes."

"Well, what neither of us knew was it was a gift *to* you as well."

Fox placed a hand on Alexei's shoulder and turned him back so that they were again facing each other. "What do you mean?"

"I mean..." Alexei's eyes began to shine, and a smile graced his beautiful lips. "...that on the night you tasted my blood, it did so much more than simply free the animal inside you. It sealed our fate. Yours and mine."

Fox shook his head. "Alexei...I don't..."

"I knew life could not be that cruel. I knew we were meant to be together for all of our lives...our equal lives."

"Wh...what?"

"You will live a long, healthy life, my Fox. As long as mine."

"But...how?"

"My blood strengthens yours. It makes it like mine. Your aging process has slowed. You are now resistant to illness." A wide grin spread across his face. "In short, my love, I do hope that you will be able to stand me for the next few hundred years."

Fox blinked as the room began to spin. "Alexei...are you sure about this?"

"My question exactly to the old woman. She was emphatic in her response. You will live as long as I will."

Fox stared, dumbfounded.

"Now," Alexei continued, "I reiterate my question. Will you be able to stand me for the next few hundred years?"

Fox nodded, suddenly blinded by tears. "Absolutely."

Alexei threw his arms around his mate, wrapping him in a fierce embrace. "It is as you said, love. We are part of each other forever."

They stood clinging to each other, letting the tears flow silently. When a long while had passed, they separated, attempting to dry each other's eyes. They laughed together as the drops refused to cease and finally gave up.

"Is Daniel telling Dana?"

"No," Alexei sniffed. "I wanted us to be able to tell her together. Do you think she will be happy?"

Fox lowered his head and smiled. "I think she will."

"Then let us tell her so that we may celebrate."

Alexei retrieved Dana and Daniel from their walk, and he and Fox shared their news. After her shock, Dana threw her arms around both men, tearfully wishing them every happiness, and then they celebrated.

A fine feast was laid out, the wine flowed, and Alexei brought in entertainment for the occasion. Music filled the room, and colorfully garbed dancers whirled about them for hours, eventually making the more than slightly inebriated revelers a touch dizzy. At Dana's request, they were sent away. Then deciding she needed some air, she tottered off onto the terrace, tripping over a potted palm and landing square into Alexei's arms. Fox went out to help, and the three wobbled back into the house, the men supporting Dana between them and letting her drop against Daniel, who promptly lost his balance, and the two tumbled to the mass of pillows on the floor.

Daniel groaned as Dana sprawled across his chest, giggling hysterically. This was the first intimate contact they'd ever truly had, and even though it was quite accidental, it was no less arousing. Still left with enough good sense to know that he could not take advantage of this situation, he looked up to the other two men for help.

"Please," he squeaked, "get her off me, or I will surely die."

Laughing continuously, Fox bent to assist, rolling Dana onto her back and away from Daniel.

"Thank you," Daniel panted as Dana reached over, tickling the inside of his ear with one finger. He flinched and shuddered, trying to elude her, but for a drunk woman, she was astoundingly accurate, and she continued to tease him.

"Come on, Danny," she cooed. "Hold still. I'm trying to seduce you..."

Alexei broke into fits of laughter, and Fox immediately took advantage of his enhanced discomposure. He grasped the other man by the front of his robes and swept one leg under his, knocking him off balance and sending them falling together onto the pillows. Immediately, Fox was on him, draping a leg over his thighs and writhing against him as he began to slowly lick a wet trail up the stubbled face.

Alexei half-giggled, half-moaned. "Fox...What are you...what...what are you doing?"

"If you must ask, I can't be doing it right."

"Oh no, my lovely...loooovely sweet, lovely....what was I saying?"

Fox's tongue slithered into his ear, and any rational thought that he may have still possessed fled.

"I believe," Fox snickered into his ear, "that you were going to say that we have guests."

"Right," Alexei breathed, "Yes. Yessss. Guests. We must...we *must* beheave...behave ourselves..."

Fox's hand wandered over Alexei's chest, teasing his hardening nipples through the gauzy material. "But my love...how can I? When you are laid out so...temptingly before me?" The leg over Alexei's thighs inched higher, and now Fox's knee was pushing against the very visible bulge. "You know I can't resist you."

Alexei arched, making his throat vulnerable to attack, and attack Fox did. A low growl sounded, then a soft female gasp as his teeth clamped down at the base of his lover's neck.

Dana had long since stopped teasing Daniel and watched entranced as her best friend seduced his lover right in front of her. Alexei's pained groan startled her, yet she knew with certainty that he did not want to be rescued. She watched him curl his fingers in Fox's hair and arch further into his mouth, and she was fascinated. She saw the muscles in Fox's face and neck working as he sucked voraciously at the fragile skin, and she marveled at the cruel red marks he left when he had finally finished.

Completely overcome, Alexei fell into Fox's trap, pushing him onto his back and ripping at his clothing. Fox squirmed beneath him, now completely submissive and begging for attention.

Dana's mouth hung open as she viewed her friend half-naked and shamelessly writhing against his lover. She looked to Daniel, who could not decide whether to be more aroused or embarrassed. Blue eyes met blue eyes and suddenly the room had become far too crowded. Daniel shook his head and looked away.

"I believe," Dana began, hesitated, then began again, "I believe that I am not as drunk now as I was a while ago." Daniel looked at her, and she nodded at the two writhing together not more than five feet from them. "Our friends have seen to that."

"What...what are you saying?" Daniel's eyes squeezed shut at the sound of tearing material followed by a sharp yelp.

Dana's eyes traveled from the sight of Alexei pulling at Fox's nipple with his teeth, back to the shaken man beside her. "As entertaining as they are, let's leave them alone and seek our own...entertainment."

After picking his jaw up off the floor, Daniel cleared the gravel from his throat and asked, "Are you sure?"

Dana inched closer and let a hand trail up his leg. "Yes, I do believe I am."

Neither man noticed that their friends had left. Alexei tugged at the remaining scraps of Fox's clothing, leaving the other man naked and wiggling beneath his searing gaze. His hands and his mouth increased the heat, stroking and sucking every inch of flesh they could reach, and when he ran out of fresh territory, he slid lower, teasing the flesh around Fox's throbbing erection, nipping at the insides of his thighs and licking the heavy sac that hung beneath.

Fox gritted his teeth, whimpering his need. His back arched, and he groaned as he felt his lover's tongue flicking its way up his long shaft, then circling the head. Ignoring the pearly fluid at the tip, Alexei pulled away and lifted himself so that they were again face to face. His mouth covered Fox's as he attempted to devour his lover whole, sucking hungrily at his lip and tongue. When he finally released Fox's swollen mouth, he mumbled against it.

"I want to be deep within your mouth, my love. And I want you deep inside mine. I want you to drink from me as I drink from you."

Fox shuddered at his words.

"May we?"

Fox nodded. "Yes...yes...Alexei...sh...show me..."

The other man licked at the dip just below Fox's lower lip. "Are you comfortable?"

"Yes..."

"Then remain where you are and turn onto your side."

Alexei shifted, removing the scant bit of clothing that still clung to him, and settled himself beside his lover. He twitched as he felt Fox's warmth breath flow over the moist tip of his erection, and he nuzzled the shaft that bobbed before him. The soft groan coming from the vicinity of his groin prompted him to open his mouth and let the head slide in. He closed his lips around the flared tip and sucked away the bitter fluid.

Fox cried out and acted in kind, sucking Alexei into his mouth and wincing at the groan that vibrated against his own organ. His hips began to move, thrusting of their own accord, deeper and deeper until he was immersed to the root in his lover's hot mouth. The pleasure of being steadily sucked and the excitement of having his lover gently begin to pump in and out of his own mouth drove Fox to complete insanity. He gripped Alexei's buttocks and rolled, forcing the other man to lie on top of him. Now in a more helpless position, he encouraged his lover to thrust deeper.

Alexei resisted Fox's wordless request at first, afraid to hurt him, but Fox's excitement had built to a fever pitch, and he would not be put off. He twisted, he writhed, he moaned around the shaft that filled his mouth, at the same time pushing one finger past the ring of muscle hidden between the taut cheeks of Alexei's rear. Alexei sobbed his name, hips bearing down to push himself as deeply down Fox's throat as he could go. Quickly, Fox relaxed as much as he could, and took all that his lover had to give him. As he adjusted to the intrusion, he pushed up against Alexei's hips, then pulled him back down until the other man began to move on his own, driving in and out of his mouth.

Fox whimpered wildly, sucking his lover for all he was worth and repeatedly pushed his own hips up, loving the warm friction of Alexei's mouth sealed around him. His muscles began to convulse in that familiar rhythm that heralded the onset of orgasm, and Alexei pushed faster into his mouth, sobbing incoherently. Suddenly the explosion hit, and he jerked upward once, emptying himself down his lover's throat even as he gulped and swallowed the fluid that was being poured into him.

When it was over, Alexei rolled away and sprawled weakly over the pillows, panting heavily. Fox turned himself around and crawled into his lover's arms, resting his head on the heaving chest. Alexei's fingers wandered over his upper back, then threaded through the golden-brown hair and rested there. A heavy lethargy washed over both men, and before either could speak, they were asleep, their soft snores the only audible sound in the great room.


Bloodshot hazel eyes blinked slowly open, then closed again as the blinding light of day hit. Fox moaned softly and made another attempt. Even more slowly this time, he opened his eyes, and movement caught his attention. He squinted and shifted his gaze, watching the staff move quietly and efficiently about, cleaning up the remnants of last night's celebration. The fact that he and his still unconscious lover were lying naked and tangled together amidst the rubble apparently did not faze the servants in the least.

A faint stirring beneath his cheek drew his attention up to his lover's face. He smiled then winced at the pain the action brought.

The soft groan opened Alexei's eyes, and he looked down at the man in his arms. "Good morning, my treasure," he rasped. "You look terrible."

"Well, thank you," Fox muttered. "You don't look exactly wonderful either."

Alexei laughed softly and kissed the top of his lover's head. "Why is it so bright?"

"I don't know, but I do wish it would go away."

Before Fox could say another word, they were in the comfort of their own bed, and the curtains over the large windows were drawn, filtering out a good portion of the daylight.

Fox sighed deeply, snuggling against Alexei's chest. "Much better, but oh, my head aches so."

"Mmm," Alexei rumbled softly. "I should have told you. We are not immune to getting drunk."

"Now he tells me." Fox went quiet for a moment, then continued on. "I have never been drunk before. If this is what one feels like the morning after, I don't believe I should like to do it again."

Soft chuckle. "Do you remember any of last night?"

"Bits and pieces." Fox's arm suddenly tightened around his lover's bicep. "Alexei?"

"Yes?"

"Where did Dana and Daniel go?"

"I...I do not know. I am trying to remember the last time I saw them..."

"The last I recall of them was pulling Dana off of Daniel, and..." Fox groaned.

"What is it, love?"

"Then I remember throwing you to the floor and..." He groaned again. "How much of that do you think they witnessed?"

"I could not say. How much of it do you remember?"

"Fragmented bits, but enough to know that if they had lingered, they got quite a show."

Alexei skimmed Fox's back with one hand. "Perhaps we gave them ideas."

"No. Oh...no....not Dana." Fox paused, then looked up as far as his now-throbbing head would allow. "Do you think so?"

"My love, your friend Dana is no fragile flower. If they *did* spend the night together, I will wager that she initiated it."

"She *is* like no other woman I know," Fox mused.

"I am sure we will see them soon. Now. How would my lord like to spend the first day of the rest of our very lengthy lives together?"

Fox thought for a moment, debating whether or not he should bring up the subject, then decided that he would.

"There are still some matters that must be settled."

"Such as?"

"This morning, things are very different for us than they were yesterday. You must speak again with your father..."

"Why?"

"Because he is the one who directed you to Selima. If he had not done so, you would have gone on in a perpetual state of depression and sooner or later, it would have ruined us."

Alexei closed his eyes and grunted.

"And," Fox continued, "he will be back to find out what you discovered. If you turn him away, he will simply go directly to the source. In one way or another, he *will* find out what you know, and he will begin to grieve all over again. Wouldn't you rather tell him yourself and be there for him? He will need you."

"I will tell him, fine. But he has many other children to comfort him."

Fox slid up to face his lover, wincing with the effort. "Jade...it's you that he needs. Though they are all her children, you are the closest link he has to your mother. I know how angry you are with him, but can't you please put that aside and see for a moment how much he loves you and how hurt he is?"

Alexei searched his lover's eyes for a short while, then pulled him down for a soft kiss. "You have the gentlest heart I have ever known." He brushed a finger down the bridge of Fox's nose. "My precious jewel. I love you so."

Fox said nothing. He merely gazed down into Alexei's eyes, a tiny hint of a smile twitching at the corners of his lips. The other man released a soft rush of breath.

"All right. For you, I will do my best to be kind, but I make no promises."

"It is not for me you should do this, Alexei. It is for your father. And it is for yourself."

Alexei watched Fox as he spoke. His ragged state showed in the half-mast, glassy depths of his eyes and his sluggish, slightly garbled speech. Gently, he pushed his lover down to the pillows and caressed his forehead.

"Rest a while longer, my love. When next you awake, you will feel much better."

The thought of more sleep sounded like heaven to Fox, but he would not sleep until a few things were settled.

"What about you?"

"I do not believe I feel nearly as bad as you do." He smiled down at Fox. "I am able to function."

"Dana and Daniel..."

"I will find out where they went and make sure that she is all right. Anything else?"

"Your father."

"I will see him later when you are feeling better."

"No. Don't wait for me, Alexei. I think you should see him alone. This is a very private matter."

"Nothing is too private that I cannot share it with you."

"I know that. But I mean private to Malik. I just think that this should be between the two of you."

Alexei thought a moment, then agreed. "Very well."

"But please...*please* behave."

"I will."

"Promise?"

"Yes, love. I promise. Now close your eyes and go back to sleep. No one will disturb you."

Alexei lay beside Fox and watched his eyelids drift downward. When his respiration became deep and even, Alexei planted a light kiss on his cheek and dragged himself out of bed.


The old man rose from his chair as Alexei was announced, and the younger man strode in. Executing a shallow bow, he got right down to business.

"I am here because Fox thought I should give you the courtesy of hearing what I had learned, since it was you who suggested I see Selima."

"Fox is a very kind, thoughtful man."

Green ice stared into weary gray eyes. "Yes. And to think you almost wiped that kindness from the earth."

Malik closed his eyes and said nothing.

"But that is not why I am here. I am here to tell you that Selima gave me some very interesting information. Information that has altered our lives, mine and Fox's."

Malik waited in silence.

"We will live out our lives *together*. He will not leave me alone and in misery for decades on end."

Malik shook his head in confusion. "I do not know if I understand what you are saying, Alexei."

"I am saying that Fox will live as many years as I do."

"How...how is this possible?"

"All he needed to do was ingest some of my blood." Alexei could see understanding dawn on his father's face...and then despair. He continued in a softer, gentler tone. "The djinn blood transforms human blood..."

Malik began to tremble, and for an instant, it looked as though he might collapse. Alexei was at his side instantly, helping him into his chair.

"Katarina," the old man whispered, grief stricken. "My Katarina." Eyes glazed with tears looked up at the younger man. "You children could have had your mother if only I had known..."

"Yes, Father."

"I told no one. No one knew that she was human. I never thought it to be anyone's business, and when she began to fail, I kept her away from the public eye. Not because I was ashamed, I was never ashamed of your mother, I swear to you. I only wanted to protect her from gossip. She never left the palace, but perhaps if someone had known...if Selima had known, she would have been able to tell me what to do and..." Malik broke down, sobbing. "..and she would be with us still."

Alexei stood over his father, shocked by the man's tears. In all his years he had never seen him cry. In fact, he thought Malik was incapable of such extreme emotion until this moment and the revelation shook him. He kneeled before the weeping man and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Father..."

Malik continued to cry, unaware that his son had called his name.

Slowly, Alexei's arm circled the man's shoulders, and he placed his other hand at the back of the silver head. Without much coaxing, Malik leaned forward into Alexei's arms, allowing his son to comfort him. When his sobbing finally ceased, he leaned back and cast a red-rimmed stare at the younger man.

"I loved her with all of my heart and soul. Just as you love Fox. I know the joy you must feel knowing that he will be by your side for the whole of your life. I wish you every happiness, and if that means that I must lose you as a son and heir, then that is how it must be." He straightened his back and dried the dampness on his face. "Thank you for being generous enough to stay and offer me comfort."

Alexei's gaze lowered, and he covered the old man's hand with his own. "Perhaps..." he looked up into his father's face. "..perhaps we can try again."

Shock and hope filled the king's eyes. "I would be so very grateful for another chance to be your father. And though he has no reason to, if Fox will allow it, I will treat him as though he were one of my own."

Alexei nodded, treating the old man to a tiny smile. "Father, Fox is the easy one..."


Fox stood at the window, inhaling the sweet, mid-afternoon air. As Alexei had suggested, the extra sleep did him a world of good. The headache was practically gone, and he could actually keep his eyes open for more than five minutes without the room whirling around him. Now he waited, anxious for his lover's return.

It had been hours since Alexei left, and Fox was eaten up with curiosity, wondering what could possibly be taking him so long. He thought of calling to him but changed his mind. Alexei would come home when he was through with his business, and besides, Fox did not want him thinking that anything might be wrong.

He drifted from the window, sank into a comfortable chair, and closed his eyes. Not long after, a pair of lips softly brushed his own. He smiled and without opening his eyes, reached for his lover, bringing him in for a deeper kiss. After a thorough probing of the interior of Alexei's mouth, Fox released him, and the other man growled against his lips.

"Feeling better, I see."

"Yes, I am." Fox opened his eyes. "Much better. Did you find Dana or Daniel?"

A wide grin spread across Alexei's face. "Yes, I did. I found them both...together and in not much better condition than either of us this morning." He began to laugh. They were quite embarrassed, but neither was the least bit repentant."

Fox covered his face with one hand and laughed. "Oh, no. Well, as long as they're happy."

Dark eyebrows arched and Alexei nodded. "Oh, I would say that they are happy."

"Good. Now what about your father?"

Alexei grasped Fox's hands, pulling him out of the chair, then sat in his place and hauled his lover down onto his lap. Fox curled himself around Alexei, head nestled against his shoulder and waited to hear what he had to say.

"Remind me to always listen to everything you say."

"I'll do that. What happened?"

"It was as you said." Alexei stroked his mate's back quietly for a moment, then went on. "I have never seen my father cry before. The sorrow...he was so heartbroken. I could not walk away from him. I had to stay and comfort him."

Fox smiled and kissed the side of Alexei's neck. "Of course you did."

"Afterward, he wished us the best and backed away."

"Backed away?"

"Yes. He released me from my obligations as his son and future king."

"Oh?"

"Yes. But I could not erase him from my life. And...I told him that I wanted to discuss it with you, but I would consider claiming my birthright."

Fox lifted his head and stared down at him. "Why would you discuss it with me before giving him your decision?"

"Because it is *our* life, Fox. And when Malik steps down at the end of this year, our lives would change dramatically. I just need to know that you are very sure about this before I accept. Please..take some time and think about it. As long as you let me know sometime before the coronation..."

Fox laughed and turned Alexei's face up to his. He kissed the other squarely on the mouth, then on the tip of his nose. "How many times have I told you to take what is yours? The only thing I ask is that I am still able to teach my children. That's very important to me."

"Of course, my lord. Anything you wish...are you sure you need no more time to consider this?"

Fox shook his head. "Tell your father that at the end of this year, you will assume the throne."

"Very well." Alexei gently massaged Fox's back. "I shall tell him tomorrow. And now, there is one more thing."

"Yes?"

An odd expression crossed Alexei's face, and he fumbled for the words he wished to speak.

"There...there is a...a ceremony performed amongst our people...for same-sex couples who wish to pledge their lives to each other. It is not exactly a...a marriage ceremony, but rather simply a joining of hearts before friends and family. A declaration of the couple's love and commitment."

Fox's eyes sparkled. "But isn't that what a marriage ceremony is?"

Alexei's mouth opened and closed. He thought a minute, then answered softly. "I suppose it is, yes."

Fox nodded. "So what are you saying to me?"

"I just...I thought that possibly..."

"Yes?"

"Would...would you go through the ceremony with me?"

Fox began to laugh. "Are you asking me to marry you?"

Alexei frowned, confused and a bit hurt at his lover's reaction. "N-no," he stammered, "I only thought that since we were already committed to each other, that..."

"So you do *not* want to marry me?"

"Yes, of *course* I do..."

"So you *are* asking me to marry you."

"Fox, you are making this very difficult!"

Fox burst into laughter. "I'm sorry, love. I couldn't resist. You were so adorable as you were trying to explain it. Of course I'll go through the ceremony with you, what*ever* you call it."

Alexei grinned up at him, relieved. "You are going to pay for tormenting me that way."

Fox leaned down, nuzzling Alexei's cheek. "You promise?"

"Oh, yes," Alexei moaned as his hand slipped down to cup his lover's linen-covered bottom. "I promise." He squeezed the firm mound of flesh, pulling a soft groan from the other man, then abruptly pushed Fox off of his lap. "Remove your clothing."

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me."

A lazy smirk curved Fox's mouth. "Yes, your majesty."

The soft chuckle that rose from the chair ended on a soft whimper as Fox's clothing fell away, revealing a grand erection standing proudly from the thatch of dark curls at his groin.

"Well," Alexei whispered. "Is that for me?"

"No," Fox purred, giving Alexei an evil little smile. "Tariq, the gardener, and I were having a little fun a while before you got home."

The corner of Alexei's mouth twitched. "And you are still so aroused?"

"He was very good."

"You are in a terribly wicked mood this afternoon."

Hazel eyes sparkled mischievously, and the other said nothing.

Alexei rose from his seat and approached his lover, removing his own clothing. "Let us see if we cannot put it to good use." The last of his clothing fell to the floor beside Fox's, but the sash from his robes remained in his hand. "Come here."

Fox obeyed, his body beginning to tremble as his mind speculated on what new pleasure he was now to be subjected to.

Alexei raised the sash to Fox's face, covering his eyes and tying the material into a firm knot at the back of his head. He moved away for a moment, located another sash from his wardrobe, and pulled Fox's hands behind his back, securing them there with the length of red silk.

The throbbing between Fox's legs increased as his lover partially restrained and deprived him of one of his senses. He felt Alexei's hand grip his upper arm and gently pull him forward. He heard the soft swish of material being depressed and felt the faint whisper of fingertips over the hard shaft that unerringly strained in his lover's direction, and he pulled in a sharp breath..

"What is it, my love?" The silken voice slithered around his senses. "Would you like for me to call Tariq inside to finish what he started?"

Fox released a shaky laugh. "You know that no one but you has ever touched me."

Alexei's fingers skimmed the standing man's thighs, sending a shiver through him. "Yes, I know that. Not that Tariq would not love to have you. I have seen him sneak glances at you when he thought I was not looking."

"And you have not been tempted to turn him to dust?"

"No. The man has exquisite taste. I cannot fault him for that. Who would *not* want you?" Alexei leaned forward and licked the viscous pearl of fluid from the flushed tip of the organ that pointed in his direction. "But you are mine and no one would dare challenge that."

Fox flinched and choked back a moan as his mate sucked his complete length into the wet heat of his mouth. Alexei sucked at him greedily, bringing him along quickly, then abruptly pulled away. Ignoring the whimpers of protest, he instructed Fox to kneel, then placed a hand at the back of his head, pulling it down to his lap.

Fox rubbed his face against Alexei's thighs as his hips involuntarily jerked forward. Higher and higher he moved until Alexei's hand came down to cover himself.

"Slowly."

Fox lifted his head, and Alexei caressed the underside of his chin, then rubbed his fingers across his mouth.

"I think I am in the mood for a good long tease."

As he spoke, Fox's lips parted, allowing his tongue to slip past. Tentatively, it stroked over the tips of Alexei's fingers, teasing the sensitive pads until the other man pulled them away. He coaxed Fox into a sitting position between his spread legs and grasping his own erection at the base, brushed it against his lover's lips.

Fox shuddered and opened his mouth, blindly searching for the elusive velvet-sheathed muscle.

"Would you like to taste me?" Alexei purred, only giving Fox teasing touches. He smiled at the whimpered yes and grasped Fox by the hair and pulled him forward as he slid into the desperate mouth. He emitted a shaky breath and pulled Fox away as he started to suck with a bit too much enthusiasm. "*Slowly*, my love. Are you so impatient?" Receiving no answer, he again pushed his lover's head down to his groin.

Fox forced himself to move slowly, first finding and thoroughly bathing the thinly sheathed sac that hung beneath his mate's pulsing erection. Every stroke of his tongue brought a muffled groan from the man above him and set off an answering throb in his own groin. Carefully, he made his way up along the long shaft, covering every inch of skin with delicate licks and kisses, and by the time he reached the head, he felt Alexei begin to squirm. He swirled his tongue around the prominent ridge, occasionally lashing at the head and feeling Alexei's harsh response. He strained against his bonds, wishing that he could touch his lover with his hands as well, but Alexei had secured the sash well, and there was no escape.

As lightly as Fox was touching him, Alexei could feel the tightening in the pit of his stomach. The sensation of that wonderful tongue combined with the sight of his lover bound and blindfolded at his feet was more than enough to take him over the edge. He threaded a hand through Fox's hair and gently pulled him away.

"Nooo. Please. I did as you asked..."

"Yes, my angel, you have. But I want you so much, it is still too much stimulation." He pressed Fox's head to his lap and petted the golden brown strands beneath his fingers. "Just allow me to rest for a moment."

Fox sat quietly, inhaling the intoxicating scent of his lover, listening to the labored breaths...desperate to let his tongue touch the flesh beneath his cheek. Fortunately, before he lost his internal battle, Alexei rose from his chair, helping Fox up.

"I cannot." He spun Fox around so that they were front to back, and he dropped back into the chair. "Sit down."

With Alexei's hands at his hips for balance, Fox lowered himself until he was sitting on his lover's lap. Alexei pushed him up just far enough to position his erection properly, then let him sink back down, slowly swallowing every last inch of the thick shaft. Small whimpers pushed past his lips as he felt himself being filled, and when their joining was complete, Alexei's hands wandered over his chest, stroking and lightly pinching his nipples.

"I cannot wait, Fox," Alexei panted over his lover's gasps. He bucked and fell back to the cushion, spurring Fox to action. Quickly the other man established a countermovement, their bodies slapping together then separating again and again. "Yesss..." Alexei hissed, gripping Fox's hip with one hand while the other clamped over his shoulder. On his every upstroke, he forced Fox down, making the other cry out with the shock of each hard thrust.

Fox's head throbbed and his teeth clenched as Alexei slammed into him. He again fought against his restraints, but Alexei's hand left his hip to wrap around one of his wrists, putting a stop to the struggle.

"Please...Jade...I need..."

"No," Alexei rasped. "Not...not yet."

Fox emitted a frustrated sob as he was again roughly propelled downward. The assorted grunts and whimpers coming from beneath him became as frantic as their pace, and soon a harsh groan rose into the air as Alexei's body spasmed and a fast gush of fluid warmed Fox's insides.

Alexei stilled, the only movement coming from him now the labored rise and fall of his chest. He drifted in blissful semi-consciousness until a faint stirring roused him from his state. Fox, wriggling on his lap and whining softly, encouraged him to move. He directed Fox to stand, both men moaning as he slipped out of the tight warmth that surrounded him. As he moved his lover to the bed, he began unknotting the sash, but instead of removing it altogether, he merely laid Fox on his back and repositioned his hands above his head and tied them to one of the bedposts.

Fox pulled on the material that restricted his hands and looked over at his mate, who had since lain down beside him and propped his head up in his palm. Sedate green eyes watched him thoughtfully as his agitation grew.

"Are you just going to leave me here like this?"

Alexei smiled at the annoyed growl, then shrugged. "Perhaps." He ran a finger down one outstretched arm, to the decidedly ticklish curve underneath, then cut across to Fox's chest. "You are so very beautiful when frustrated." He flicked at a nipple and watched, pleased, as Fox arched and moaned. "So, so very beautiful," he whispered as he took the hardened nub between his thumb and forefinger and pulled gently.

Fox twisted and emitted a loud gasp. "Please," he begged, "*please*. I can't...I can't take...any more..."

Alexei's hand moved away, swept through the air, and came back with an enormous ostrich plume. Fox's eyes narrowed on the feather, then cut to his lover's smiling face.

"What are you going to do with...." He arched high off the bed and shrieked as Alexei let the plume dance across his sensitized skin.

"Is this not soothing, my lord?" Alexei asked innocently. "I thought it would be."

"Oh, you thought it would be," Fox snarled. "Let me arouse you to the point of insanity, tie you to the bed, then tease you with that thing, and you can tell *me* if it is soothing."

"Ohhh," Alexei cooed. "It is because you are so tense. Relax, love." His hand made short, uneven movements, causing the feather to twitch over Fox's skin as it traveled down his chest and belly. He stopped just short of the place he knew would drive the other man completely insane, then swept back up over the path he had just taken.

Fox's nose wrinkled as the feather whispered over his face, then down again. His pleas for mercy were muffled by Alexei's mouth as the feather continued to skip downward, zig zagging over his torso, curving around his straining erection, then stroking up and down his legs. Alexei's mouth left his and traveled south, kissing and nipping a steady path to his nipples.

As Alexei drew one brown nub into his mouth, he willed the sash to loosen just enough to encourage Fox to continue to struggle against it. As the feather approached and slithered over his lover's aching shaft, his teeth closed around the nipple, incurring an infuriated growl and a barrage of threats. He gave Fox a little more slack and switched to the other nipple, the tip of his tongue flitting around it before he sucked it into his mouth.

Fox twisted and howled, feeling the binding give a bit more. He started to struggle harder as Alexei raised the plume and, with a flick of his wrist, began to lightly flog him. The sensation of hundreds of wispy fingers tapping his flesh combined with the sting of teeth drove him over the edge. He pulled frantically on the sash and felt it begin to release its silken hold on his wrists.

Wild amber eyes met satisfied green as Fox yanked the sash from the wrist it remained tied around and snatched his lover, tossing him onto his back against the pillows. Without a moment's hesitation, he yanked Alexei's legs up and back, positioned himself at his lover's entrance and drove home.

Fox was now used to being automatically prepared, so it was no surprise when there was no friction as he buried himself inside the other man. He simply planted his hands on either side of Alexei's shoulders and established a ferocious rhythm, half growling, half whimpering with every thrust.

Knowing that Fox was far beyond realizing anything but his own desperate need, Alexei grasped his renewed erection and began to stoke it in time to his lover's thrusts. In no time he reached the same level of passion, and he grasped a handful of golden-brown hair, pulling Fox down to him.

Fox landed on top of Alexei's chest, feeling the other man's hand moving between them. The knowledge of what Alexei was doing somehow filtered in past the wall of lust that surrounded him, and he squeezed a hand between them, helping his mate as he continued to pound furiously into him.

Alexei's mouth curved into an agonized smile as he felt his lover's hand wrap around his own and fall into the rhythm he had set. He buried his face in Fox's hair and, digging the fingers of his free hand into the exquisitely rounded muscles of the other's buttocks, he let go of every last bit of his control and allowed the devastating sensations to carry him away.

The fury of Alexei's orgasm raged through one body and then the other. Fox's roars of ecstasy joined his lover's, echoing throughout the entire west wing of the house and reaching the ears of a few servants and the two who had only just arrived.

Dana smiled at the sound and looked up to her new lover. "They're at it again."

Daniel chuckled softly and kissed the top of her head. "I suppose it would be a good idea to wait a while before we announce ourselves."

"I hope they aren't too much longer. I'm anxious to know if Alexei's met with his father again."

Daniel directed her to a velvet-cushioned divan and sat beside her. "I was wondering that myself. Alexei is so angry about what Malik did to Fox, I do not know if he will ever forgive him."

"Well, I must say that I wouldn't blame Alexei in the least," Dana huffed. "I know what his reasons were, and as far as I'm concerned, it is still unforgivable."

"Fox thinks Alexei should forgive him," Daniel countered meekly.

"Fox is so reasonable and kind-hearted that sometimes it drives me absolutely mad. We have a student who is such an obnoxious monster...does everything and anything to disrupt class, and for whatever insane reason he has, he despises Fox, yet Fox continually excuses his deplorable behavior, saying that it is a cry for attention from an unhappy, neglected young man. And *I* keep telling him that the only attention that demon needs is from the business end of a horsewhip."

Daniel frowned and sucked in a quick breath. "You are a hard woman, Dana. Remind me never to get on your bad side."

Dana rolled her eyes and said nothing.

"I assume this terror of which you speak is Jeffrey."

"You know of him?"

"Alexei has mentioned him. With as much distaste in his tone as you, I might add."

"Yes, Alexei cannot stand him. In fact, one day he had all he could take of Jeffrey attacking Fox and finally took action."

Daniel chuckled. "Yes, how is he?"

"Miserable, but all right. He will not be able to get around for some time yet. and I pity the staff members who have to take care of him." She thought a moment, then continued. "You know, it's a terrible thing to say, but he got what he deserved."

Daniel nodded. "He is fortunate that is all that happened to him. Alexei was furious. No one will hurt Fox and get away with it."

"I know," Dana breathed. "It's so romantic. You can see the adoration in Alexei's eyes when he looks at Fox...do you see the way they can't go for long without touching each other?" She sighed wistfully. "I almost melted when I found out that in the beginning, Alexei would come to Fox and make love to him in his dreams..." She smiled. "...and then he turned himself into a cat just to be close to him...it's so very sweet."

Daniel moved closer and wrapped an arm around Dana. "You like that, do you?"

"Oh, yes."

"Well...I can turn myself into animals also."

Dana raised an eyebrow and gave him a sideways grin.

"What would you like, m'lady? Cats have been done, so...a bird? I will sit on your shoulder and sing to you..."

Dana giggled.

"A monkey? Your pupils would enjoy an entertaining chimpanzee far more than a lazy cat...wait...I know...a horse."

Dana cocked her head. "A horse? Why a horse?"

A pair of red eyebrows waggled suggestively, and Daniel fixed a leering grin on her.

Dana's eyes grew wide, and she began to laugh as Daniel backed her into the corner of the divan.


Fox lay on top of Alexei, so completely sapped of strength that he could not even manage a smile when the rumbling purr sounded in his ear. He merely sighed softly then fell into contented silence.

Alexei drew his hand up and down the perspiration-drenched back, immersed in sensual bliss. He loved this time afterward, when the fires of their passion were reduced to softly glowing embers.

He kissed the top of the damp head that lay nestled under his chin.

And he loved this man.

So easily driven to a ferocity that was only matched by Alexei's, he just as easily slipped back into his quiet, sweet character when satisfaction was reached. He was amazing, this beautiful creature with the sinfully lush lips and painted eyes, and Alexei gave thanks every day for him and vowed that he would always feel as wanted and loved as he did at this moment.

His thoughts were interrupted by a soft utterance of his name.

"Daniel?"

The two men spoke to each other without Fox ever having heard a word.

"Yes. Are you two going to pass the entire day in bed?"

"Possibly."

"Do you not care that you have guests?"

"What guests?"

"Dana and myself."

"How long have you been here?"

"Long enough...do you both always make so much noise?"

No reply.

"He looks as though he is asleep. Can you not slip away and come visit with us?"

"I do not wish to leave him."

"He will not even know!"

Alexei combed his fingers through his lover's hair, letting the damp strands fall back over his shoulders. "No. I spent far too much time without him, wishing that I could have him back with me. Now he is here and it feels so good, Daniel. When he wakes, he will find himself right here in my arms where he fell asleep."

"Very well," Daniel grumbled. "I shall inform Dana that we are to..."

Fox stirred, diverting Alexei's attention from his silent conversation with his friend. His head shifted a fraction, and he moaned almost inaudibly.

"Hungry."

Alexei hugged him and placed a tender kiss on his head. "Are you awake enough to eat?"

Fox stretched within the circle of his lover's arms and opened his eyes. "Mmm hmm."

"Our friends are here."

Fox blinked and lifted his head. "How do you know that?"

"I was just speaking with Daniel."

"Oh. Well. We each have news to share," he whispered, his eyes glowing softly. I suppose we should go have dinner with them."

An hour later the four were celebrating again, this time without benefit of spirits. Daniel and Dana left early, as Fox had to be in class in the morning, and soon after they were gone, the two men were back in bed.

"Will you come with me to class tomorrow?" Fox asked the man dozing in his arms.

"If you wish," Alexei murmured sleepily, dropping a kiss in the center of his lover's chest.

"Yes. Just for Amir's sake. He misses Jade, and he was so adamant in his belief that he would return. It will thrill him to be able to tell me that he was..."

The faint sound of snoring reached Fox's ears, and he smiled in the muted candlelight. He kissed the top of Alexei's head and joined him in sleep.


The children filed into the classroom, smiling when they saw Fox at his desk, but it was Amir's sad little face that prompted him to speak. "Good morning, Amir." Deep brown eyes remained cast toward the floor. "Good morning." "Are you all right?" "Yes, Mr. Fox." The little boy looked up with pleading eyes. "Have you been ill again?" "Ill? Oh. No." Fox smiled at him. "I'm fine. I just needed a little time off." The boy scrutinized his teacher. "I can see your smile in your eyes." "Can you?" "Yes. It has been a very long time. Are you happy again?"

"You are a very intuitive boy, Amir. Yes, I am happy again. And I have a surprise for you."

"For me?"

The appearance of a dark blur in the corner of his eye drew Amir's attention to the window. There, balancing on the sill, was a big black cat with deep, sparkling green eyes.

"Jade!"

The cat meowed softly and leapt to Fox's desk.

"You came back!" The small boy bounced up and down. "I knew you would!"

The other boys crowded around the desk, also expressing their happiness at the cat's return. Jade stretched unruffled across the desk and allowed himself to be petted by many small hands.

Fox sat back smiling and watched Amir break from the group and walk over to him.

"I told Miss Dana," the boy stated in his most confident, 'I told you so' voice, "that if he could, he would return."

"Yes, you did, Amir," Fox told him, laughing softly. "It would appear that you were smarter than all of us."

Slowly, the other boys drifted back to their seats, leaving Amir alone at the desk. He reached over and stroked the cat's head. "I see you are wearing your collar," he observed, looking at the circle of green glass around the animal's neck. "Do you like it?"

The cat stood up and butted his head against the child's chest, giving him a small meow.

Fox covered his mouth with his hand to hide the amused grin. "I believe that was a yes, Amir."

Swelling with happiness, the boy hugged the cat and kissed the top of his head. Fox asked him to then take his seat, and he began class.

Hours later, the boys said goodbye to Jade and went off to enjoy the rest of their day. As usual, Fox walked to his little house with the cat riding on his shoulder. Seconds afterward, he and Alexei were back in their house. They made love for hours that night, slept peacefully, and the next day after Fox's class, they paid a visit to Malik to deliver their news and announce Alexei's decision.

Genuinely overjoyed, Malik insisted on an elaborate ceremony, but Alexei refused, contending that they wanted it to remain intimate. After much haggling, they reached a compromise. On the day of the bonding ceremony, only Alexei's family, Daniel, Dana, and the old woman Selima were in attendance, but afterward there was a huge celebration, and Fox was formally introduced to the prince's subjects.

That night after many hours, the party was still going strong, and Alexei was beginning to weary of sharing his lover with everyone. He well understood their enchantment with Fox, but possessiveness was beginning to get the better of him, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, he swept his lover away to a secluded corner.

Fox's eyes sparkled in the candlelight as Alexei backed him against the wall. His mate leaned in, pressing the lengths of their bodies together, and rested his hands against the gilded walls on either side of Fox's head.

"I have missed you," Alexei moaned against the other man's cheek as he gently rocked against him.

Fox laughed softly. "We've been together all day."

"Yes, us and about three thousand others. I need to be alone with you."

"We can't leave," Fox reasoned, "all these people are here for us."

"I know, I know," Alexei pouted, "but they keep pulling you away from me. I would feel better at least if we were within touching distance."

Fox merely smiled.

"Do I sound like a jealous fool?"

"Jealous, yes. Foolish, never. I am flattered, my love."

Alexei moved in and brushed Fox's lips with his own. "What you are is beautiful...and mine." He kissed his lover softly, then pulled back to speak again. "I am sorry that I forgot to mention the ritual bath before the ceremony. Did you mind being attended to by someone other than me?"

"It was strange and a bit awkward, I must admit." Fox stroked the side of Alexei's face. "But I lived through it. Maybe I would not have been so uncomfortable though, if it were just one man. But four?"

"I cannot tell you why four are needed, only that it is part of the ritual." Alexei gave him a lascivious grin. "I must say that while the thought fills me with jealousy, it also sends a twinge of excitement through me. I think perhaps I should like to watch a group of handsome, muscular men bathing my beautiful Fox."

One golden-brown eyebrow arched upward. "*Really*?"

"Possibly. They are well-trained in their duties and know exactly what is expected...and what is *not* expected. I certainly would not have to concern myself with any of them behaving in an inappropriate manner." He tilted his head and drew his tongue along his lover's jaw. "But while I was being bathed, I thought of them touching your wet, bare skin..."

Fox's eyes fluttered, and his respiration deepened.

"...being so close to your mesmerizing beauty and knowing that they could never have you. How frustrating it must have been for them."

"How do you know they were frustrated?"

"They were breathing, Fox. No one who is even only half alive could do what they had to do and not be affected. I *know* that I will have you when we leave here, and yet being this close to you and not being able to tear your clothes off right now is frustrating *me* beyond words."

Fox grinned and pressed his hips forward, coming in contact with the solid evidence of his lover's desire. "That's nice," he purred. "Can you hold that thought for a few hours more?"

Alexei groaned deeply and ground his hips against Fox's. "I honestly do not know how I will be able to. Do you really think anyone will notice if we slip away for a little while?"

"Yes, many will notice."

Both men turned in the direction of the amused masculine voice.

Alexei turned and glared at the fourth oldest of his siblings. "Go away, Omar."

"People are asking for you. I promised Father I would go and look for you."

Alexei turned his focus back on Fox, more specifically Fox's mouth, and spoke again to his brother. "You have found us, now go away."

Fox submitted to a long, sensuous kiss, then attempted to put some distance between them. "We will be there shortly, Omar." He observed his lover's exasperated expression and took him by the hand. "Come on, you know we must get back to our guests."

"Fine," Alexei muttered, "but two more hours at the most. Then you and I are going home; I do not care *how* much my father protests."

Over four hours later, they were tangled together in the comfort of their own bed, sweat-soaked and deeply satisfied.

Alexei moaned softly and rubbed his head against the shoulder it rested on. "Perhaps you might explain to me how such a wonderfully sweet, quiet, dignified man can turn into such a demon in bed?"

A faint growl rumbled in Fox's chest as he gently bathed the small trickle of blood from Alexei's shoulder. "I believe..." His tongue swiped once more at the tiny wound. "..it has everything to do with *inspiration*."

"Oh?"

"Yes. The right inspiration can do wonders for a person."

Alexei raised his head, and his eyes twinkled with lurid merriment. "And I inspire you to such debauchery?"

"Yes, you do."

Alexei chuckled as he moved in to capture his lover's mouth. "Why, Fox. I do believe that is the sweetest thing you have ever said to me..."


Five months later

 

Alexei sat quietly by the golden stream, looking out at the lands that in just a few short hours would come into his possession. So deep in thought was he that he did not hear Fox's approach until his lover crouched by his side. He smiled up into sedate, gold-flecked eyes, then again scanned the area.

"Are you sure you do not mind moving into the palace?"

Fox combed his fingers through the shimmering length of his mate's hair. "No. I understand that the king must live amongst his people. Our house is still there when we feel the need to get away once in a while."

There was a brief silence between them, then Alexei spoke. "Fox?"

"Yes?"

"Do you think I will make a good king?"

"Of *course* I do. And so do your brothers and sisters...and Daniel and Dana...and your father. He is so proud of you, Jade."

Alexei looked once more into his lover's eyes. "You knew I would not have been able to live with myself if I had cut him out of my life."

Fox nodded.

"You are so very wise. I think it is a very good thing that I have you to rule by my side." A soft smile curled his mouth. "And with Daniel as my premier advisor, perhaps I will not make too many terrible mistakes."

Fox shook his head and laughed quietly. "You will be a marvelous king. With or without Daniel and me."

"You have so much faith. I pray that I will never disappoint you."

"*Never*. I love you , Alexei. And your love is all I will ever need to make me happy." Fox leaned in and planted a tender kiss on the other man's lips. When he pulled away, Alexei gave him a more confident smile and changed the subject.

"Is Dana settled?"

"I was with her just before I came here to find you. She is all settled and when I left, was immersed in plans to change the whole house. Poor Daniel. I hope he is not having second thoughts about marrying her."

Alexei laughed. "Are you serious? Daniel is so in love with her, he almost reminds me of myself."

"Almost?"

"Yes." Alexei drew his fingertips down his lover's cheek. "He could never love Dana as much as I love you. No one has *ever* loved anyone the way that I love you."

That statement prompted another kiss, then Fox slowly stood and held his hand out. "Come. It's time for you to get ready."

Alexei took a deep breath and reached out for Fox's hand. Fox pulled him to his feet, and they embraced for a long moment before moving off in the direction of the palace.

"So...what will your first official act as king be?"

Alexei glanced over at Fox as they walked, displaying that familiar wicked grin.

"To bed the royal consort...what else?"

END

 

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