Fiction by Pen . . . . . not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

Perceptions of Reality

sequel to Dragon Country
with thanks to Chalcopyrite and Brandywine for the betas
nb the dragon in the header comes from

"Good mor—good grief!" Joey said as Chris walked through the door to Fatone's Bakery at just before nine on Sunday morning.

Chris aborted the retort he was about to make when he realised Mama Fatone was sitting behind the counter, and greeted her instead. Joey was loafing on the customer side, but swung himself behind the array of pastries and assured his mother that he could cope with this particular customer, and she deserved a coffee break.

After she'd gone, Joey grinned at Chris. "So, what brings you here so early? We don't get a lot of customers in before ten on Sundays. We're only open because Mama's awake anyway, and she doesn't like to nap until after midday."

"Dinner tonight," Chris said. "Dessert. I figure, you said you'd come, so you have to be prepared to eat what I cook, but I'm not going to compete with —" he waved his hand at the glorious display—"this."

"Kelly's really looking forward to it," Joey said. "Me too. We don't often get invited out to eat, I guess people are intimidated, but you know, I can appreciate a break from the best Italian cooking in the world. Good call on the desserts, though, you couldn't do better. Kelly won't let me eat them, most of the time, so, uh. Who else have you got coming?"

"Britney and Justin. I figure, my boss needs a break just as much as JC, with the exhibition so close. And Lance and Adam."

"How is Lance?" said Joey.

"I'm guessing he's good," Chris said. "I mean, last we heard was when he called us to say he was fine and he and Adam were together again. He sounded happy." He'd sounded ecstatic, in fact, and JC hadn't had the heart to scold him for disappearing and worrying them all like that. "JC was the one who called to invite him round, and he was all, oh, he's fine, when I asked him, which wasn't, you know, very informative." JC could be the most astute person in the world if he was paying attention, only right now he wasn't really thinking about anything except his sculptures.

"He hasn't been in to the restaurant," Joey said. "I'd have been really worried, except Lisa comes in, and she says he's walking on air these days."

So, not flying on a dragon's back, Chris noted. Fair enough. "You'll be able to see for yourself tonight."

"Good," Joey said. "I mean, I feel like I lost my best customer. Profits will be way down this month. I'll have to tell him to bring Adam in for dinner sometime. So, have you decided?"

"I think Adam's touring," Chris said, staring forlornly at the array of cakes and pastries. How was he supposed to be able to figure out which six would be perfect for dessert? They were all perfect! "I guess people don't want to go to concerts on Sundays, so he has the evening off. Man, I don't know. I want one of everything, and the rest of you can watch me eat it. I probably wouldn't even make it home before I gave in to temptation."

"I know what you want," Joey said, turning to the chilled cabinets at the rear of the patisserie. "You want this." He presented a large pale green and white cake, decorated with candied peel and elegant wisps of chocolate. "Cassata. Sponge cake infused with liqueur, and plenty of cream. Plus, it's big enough that you can get seconds."

Chris's salivary glands were already on full production, but was that cake really more desirable than cannoli, or chocolate eclairs, or cheesecake, or the legendary Fatone's sfogliatelle?

"Trust me," said Joey, who was already putting the cassata into a box. "If you take a bunch of different stuff, everybody will be wondering if they should have chosen one of the others, plus we'll be forced to watch Britney feeding Justin mouthfuls of her dessert, and nobody needs that."

"Oh, you know those two?"

"Not exactly, but Lance brought Britney and JC for dinner a while back, and she came in for lunch with her boyfriend one time."

"Yeah, Lance was doing his personnel genius thing," Chris said. "Fixing them up to work together, which was a good call, I gotta give him that. The exhibition's almost ready to open."

"Howie D's gallery, right?"

Chris should not be surprised that Joey seemed to know everybody. Sooner or later, everyone ate at Fatone's. "Yeah. Anyway. Dinner, tonight. I should get back. JC's not going to be any use with the cooking."

Joey took his money and handed over the elegant box. "Keep it cool. Oh, wait a second." He picked out a cannoli from the display. "Can't have you eating the dessert on the way home," he said, and waved off Chris's thanks. "Go, go. Cook! You have visitors tonight."

Yeah. Joey and Kelly, Britney and Justin. And Adam. And Lance.

They hadn't seen Lance since that time Britney invited them all round for lunch at her place. A fun afternoon, though as JC pointed out afterwards, it had to have been a whole lot less fun for Lance. Him being the one person there who wasn't in a happy relationship, the one person there who'd just had a painful breakup. Yeah.

Lance had been amazingly drunk when he'd told them about breaking up with Adam—all kinds of guff about dragons fighting for his honour, crazy nonsense, but the breakup was real enough, and Lance had been quietly miserable for weeks. And he'd rushed out of the house, leaving them startled and not at all sure how to handle the situation, and when he and JC had gone out to see if they could help it turned out Lance had disappeared into the night, well, the late afternoon, and the party was pretty much over at that point. Britney, bless her, had been much more worried than annoyed at the abrupt end to her party. In fairness, Chris thought, she'd had such stars in her eyes while Justin played that song he wrote for her, she probably forgot all about her guests and just dragged her man straight upstairs.

Anyway, Lance had called, and he'd been happy, and he'd gotten back together with Adam, so whatever that was all about, it seemed to be good now. Chris was glad of it. He liked Lance, and he liked Adam, and he liked to see his friends happy.

That had been a couple of weeks ago. They hadn't heard anything from Lance since. JC had been absorbed in his art, struck with the inspiration for a new piece which he'd been determined to finish in time for the exhibition, and Chris had been kept busy with Britney's boys while she was in a creative frenzy getting her paintings ready. The poor kids had hardly seen their mother, and it was that, plus JC's distinctly unsexy habit of working through the night and grabbing a few hours of sleep while Chris was out of the house, that had pushed Chris into suggesting this dinner. If he could get Britney back into 'normal' mode, he and the boys would be able to persuade her to leave her art room and take them out for burgers and maybe some kite-flying, if the autumn winds held up. And if he could get JC into 'normal' mode, or as normal as it got, with JC, they could go to bed together, and that would make a very nice change.

So Lance and Adam were coming for dinner this evening, and Chris intended to offer some kind of commentary on the whole dragon thing, and Lance would blush and look embarrassed, and embarrassing Lance had been one of Chris's favourite things to do for a long time. Because Chris did not believe that Adam Lambert was a dragon.

What he did believe, was that Lance, normally one of the sanest people Chris knew, was besotted. Okay, being besotted was… actually kind of sweet, and Chris did understand it, since he was pretty much besotted himself, although in Chris's case it did not take the form of believing—or at any rate, saying—that his boyfriend was a dragon. JC was an angel (according to Chris's mother), so Chris understood that Lance didn't mean it literally. Adam was not literally a dragon. Lance was just…

So Chris would tease, and Lance would blush, and Adam would laugh, and probably look tender and lovey-dovey, and Lance would have to admit that he didn't mean literally a dragon, he never meant it to be taken literally, and then things would be back to normal.

Well. Normal-ish.

It wasn't really the dragon thing Chris was worried about.


The dogs were excitedly pleading for their breakfast, but in the middle of doling biscuits into their dishes and opening cans, Lance paused.

"You know what, guys? You're going to have to wait for a minute."

He took himself to the front door, and opened it just as Adam was raising his hand towards the wyvern door knocker.

Adam, grinning despite himself, attempted to look reproachful. "I was trying to surprise you."

"Try it when you're not sending me waves of glee," Lance suggested, and grinned back. "Come on inside."

Once inside, Adam enfolded Lance in his arms, and the dogs' plaintive whines faded to the background of Lance's mind as he and his dragon boyfriend kissed, held one another, and let their thoughts merge for a while.

I don't think I can help it, Adam conveyed. The waves of glee. I can't hide that from you.

"I'm glad," Lance said aloud. "I like the honesty." I don't mean to hide from you. I suppose… I've been used to filtering how much I receive, for years, in self defence. It seems to make it easier for me to control how much we share. "I won't ever hide anything important. But don't expect me to give away what's in your Christmas presents. And I might try jumping out to startle you, because I'm evil that way."

Adam grinned, and hugged him tighter. So, can we…?

"I'd better feed the dogs first," Lance said. "Otherwise—" he pictured the hungry quartet howling on the other side of the bedroom door, and Adam snorted. So they went back to the kitchen, and Adam greeted the rapturous dogs, and Lance fed them. Then they went to bed.

Lance was not confident of his ability to locate JC's place well enough to lead them through a dimension fold, and Adam had never been there, so they went by tram into the middle of town. It was a pity Adam's motorbike was currently in a lock-up garage somewhere inconvenient. Lance liked riding on the bike. But by the time they'd retrieved it, the north-east bus could have taken them out most of the way to the barn—and the bike would be a nuisance at the end of the evening, when they could transit home without difficulty.

"I still use the snowglobe, when I'm on my own."

"Good. I don't want you getting lost. I mean, I'd find you, but." You'd throw up, for sure.

"Sounds like a fun time," Lance said. "Hey, isn't that Joe and Kelly?" They were waiting at the bus stop, so there were a few minutes of cheerful greeting, of admiration for Kelly's figure-hugging red dress, and of pleasure at seeing Lance after his apparent disappearance.

"I thought maybe you gave up eating," Joey said, "but you look pretty healthy."

"You know, I have been missing your mama's cooking," Lance said.

"You'll get a taste of it tonight," Kelly said. "Chris came in this morning and bought a cassata for dessert."

The bus arrived during the explanation of cassata, and the bus ride passed happily enough in contemplation of what Chris—Lance hoped JC would not be the cook for this evening—might have prepared for them.

"I'm just glad to be eating something totally different," Joey said. "I love my mama's cooking, but sometimes you just need a change."

"We all love your mama's cooking, Joe," said Lance, and made a mental note to have lunch at Fatone's soon, with or without Adam.


"Is it me," said JC, "or is there kind of a weird atmosphere out there?"

Chris put down the stack of salad plates. "It's not just you."

"I thought Justin and Adam would have a lot in common, but they don't seem to be getting on too well. And I thought Brit and Kelly would, I don't know, bond over both being mothers, or something."

"Yeah." Chris pulled the tray of baked potatoes out of the oven and began transferring them to a serving dish. Justin was like a cat facing off against a dog, with a big bristly tail and fur on end all over. Not that the kid was being rude, he wasn't. Didn't matter. And Adam wasn't behaving like the sweet, open guy Chris thought he knew, he was distant and suspicious, and Chris could not figure it out at all. So much careful preparation, and this dinner party was looking more like a disaster with every minute that passed.

Maybe Lance could explain it.

"And you—" JC swung around, his oven-gloved hands full of the heated platter of chicken pieces. "You are being really off with Lance."

"I—I know. I'm not, I'm trying not to…" Trying not to think, Chris didn't say, but it was what he meant. How was he supposed to act, when Lance could hear his thoughts, clear as day, Lance had proved that back when he'd explained about being a receiver. It had taken Chris a while to process what that meant. He'd been okay with it to begin with, it was even cool, being able to think stuff at Lance and have hidden conversations, but how could he—how could anybody deal with a person who knew what they were thinking? "It's all right for you," he grumbled. "You have a natural shield."

"Lance never abused his secret superpower," JC said. "Just relax! I'll take these through, you bring the red wine. Let's see if we can loosen everybody up a little."

It was hard, really hard, to be a merry and convivial host when you were trying to keep your thoughts to yourself. He kept sneaking looks at Lance to see whether Lance was receiving all his thoughts. It was impossible to tell. Lance was being charming, for which thank God, with Britney oddly sullen and Justin and Adam so on edge. Joey and Kelly were radiating friendliness, and JC was doing his best, although he was plainly a bit distracted by the odd atmosphere at what should have been a fun party. Chris would have been a lot more in the mood if he didn't have the idea of Lance's eavesdropping so firmly in his head. And he kept trying to think of other things, innocuous things, but 'Lance can hear me thinking' was such an overwhelming concept that it kept swelling back up to the top of his mind, and he'd try to hide it, and. Shit.

Everyone ate their food happily enough, and complimented Chris on the cooking, which he deserved, because the chicken had been perfect. JC helped clear the plates, and Chris brought out the cassata cake to oohs of anticipation, and there was a reverent silence while the first slices, at least, were consumed. Joey had been right. It was a glorious confection, and nobody was willing to share their slice with anybody. Most of them managed a second sliver, to Chris's disappointment, but there was a wedge left which he could not give away, so he bore it carefully back to the kitchen and returned with coffee, cream and an offering of liqueurs which nobody took him up on.

Lance looked a little pale, JC thought, but even as it registered, Lance sent Adam a very particular smile, almost a grateful smile, and seemed to relax.

"So, JC, do we get a preview of your exhibits tonight, or are they down at Gallery D already?" Lance asked.

"Oh!" JC said, gratified. "Sure, you can see them now if you want. But it might be a better experience if you, I mean, the barn isn't the best, they'll be properly displayed at the gallery. Right now they're all crowded together upstairs."

"Howie's actually arranged for a cherry picker to come and get them out," Chris put in. Chris had hidden his amusement very badly, watching the collection of gallery owner, artist and labourers staring at JC's sculptures and trying to decide how to get them to the gallery. Large trucks would be no problem, but they were going to have to come out through the windows. Fortunately, the windows were large. That was why JC had bought this place, the fantastic light quality upstairs.

"They're being moved in a couple of days," JC said. "Howie measured everything, and we've been talking about where my pieces need to go in relation to each other, and which of Britney's can hang in the same spaces and which are to go in the upper gallery." JC had never liked this phase. He wanted to be creating, not pondering floor plans and trying to be intelligent about brochures and pricing and… he just wanted to be creating. Of course, it would be good if people wanted to buy what he had made. That was the other thing about this phase, wondering whether his art would speak to other people, wondering if anyone would understand what he was trying to do, wondering if anyone would need to own it. He could do with the money, of course, but that wasn't what art was about. Art was about communication. He'd rather give his pieces to people who loved them, who understood them—or at least, sell them for not very much to the right people instead of for a lot to people who were buying them as investments or suchlike crap. Sure, it was nice to have money, but that wasn't what art was for. Howie wasn't likely to agree about that, of course.

"I'd forgotten how exciting it is, preparing for a show," Britney was saying. "I mean, I hate trying to decide which ones don't need to be part of the exhibition, but we did that already, so now Howie and me are working on where they belong, and the gallery is such a great space. It used to be a factory, you know. And, um, since we've been working together I think JC's art has influenced mine, and I think maybe mine has influenced his, I hope?" He could never resist her big brown eyes, and concurred, although in truth he'd discovered his concept before they got together. But he wouldn't deny that working with Britney had given him fresh confidence, fresh impetus.

"So, how do you choose?" Kelly asked. "Is there a—a theme, a connection, or do you pick the ones you think are the best? Or something else?"

"There's definitely a theme," JC said. "Perceptions of reality. At least, that's what it says in the brochure." It wasn't wrong, it was just not quite adequate. But he hadn't been able to think of anything better.

"Are there more like my dragon picture?" Lance asked. "It's amazing, you can look at it and just see swirls, and then when you look again, it's dragons."

"It's a remarkable picture," Adam said.

Britney launched into a description of her work, with Justin adding enthusiastic endorsements and the others asking questions in between mouthfuls. Chris didn't say much. In fairness, he'd seen Britney's paintings already, and she'd probably told him all about them, too. She was a lot more interested than JC in the thematic placement of her work, and had some smart things to say about the way the exhibition would be arranged.

"You know what," Joey said at last, "I think I'm gonna wait until I can see everything in the gallery, set out like it should be. I'll definitely be able to get there, just not for the opening."

"I definitely want to wait," Kelly said. "I'll be there on opening night, of course. We're catering the event, and I'm the outside business manager."

Britney looked surprised, and for a moment JC wished he had Lance's ability to catch other people's thoughts. Hers would be something like But you're just a waitress, he suspected. Still, she wasn't saying it out loud, and he could be wrong.

"Yeah, Kelly's the one who'll make sure every guest has something to eat and drink," Joey explained. Obviously he was catching the same vibe. "You want all the critics in a good mood, and it's amazing what some really choice canapés will do to mellow a guy. And wine, obviously. We've done a couple of events at Gallery D before—you're in good hands."

"If there's time before we open the doors, I could take you round and show you everything?" Britney offered, much to JC's surprise. She was a good kid. Kelly accepted with alacrity, but said it would have to depend on everything being perfectly ready, and there might not be time.

"Speaking of time," Joey said, standing up, "we have a babysitter to relieve. It's been great, guys, thanks so much for asking us over." There was the bustle of collecting coats, and hugs, and they were gone, so quickly that JC had to wonder if the weird atmosphere was more responsible than the waiting babysitter. But he hadn't been able to do anything about it.

As soon as the Fatones were through the door, Justin and Britney decided to make their move as well. Justin's mother was apparently looking after the boys tonight—JC had assumed they were with their father for the weekend—and although she had been an eager volunteer for the job, Britney was clearly anxious not to overstep.

Their dinner party seemed to have ended with spectacular abruptness. JC turned to Lance and Adam.

"I'd really love to see your sculptures," Adam said, brightly.

"Cool!" JC was gratified. "You're sure you don't want to wait and see them all, um, presented? Are you coming to the opening? I asked Howie to invite everyone I know, my family's coming, obviously, and I hope you guys—it's good to have friends there, you know?"

"I'll be there for sure," said Lance, "but Adam may not be able to make it. He's in the middle of a tour, and he can't always get away."

"Oh, right," JC said, disappointed. He wanted a lot of people at the opening who'd be on his side. It was so difficult, talking to the critics, if they didn't understand what you were trying to do, and he had a feeling a lot of people just weren't going to connect with his art. "Sure, then, uh, let's go up to my workshop."

He led Lance and Adam upstairs. Chris muttered something about clearing up, and retreated to the kitchen.

"So, here they are," JC said, as he turned on the lights. After that, he pressed his lips together and willed himself not to babble. The work had to stand on its own merits. He shoved his hands into his pockets and watched as they looked at his sculptures.

"Ah, you've done more," Lance said, sounding pleased, as he moved to examine the newest work. "Wow, yeah. It makes me think of flying. Adam, what do you see?"

Adam was staring at 'Landscope' and JC had no clue what he might be thinking. He was looking very intently at the lines and junctions, though, so JC hoped that maybe—what the fuck? "What—what—what happened to Adam?" he yelped.

"Oh, dear," said Lance. He appeared to be trying not to laugh.

"What? What the fuck—what?"

"Don't worry, 'C. He'll be back, any second now."

Right on cue, Adam reappeared. Blushing fierily. "I'm sorry! I didn't realise I was going," Adam said. "I just, you know. Followed the lines, and. Uh. Sorry about that."

"I guess that means it worked," Lance said. "You know, 'C, you told me you wanted people to connect with your work. I think Adam just did."

"I don't understand." JC wasn't sure that was a big enough statement to encompass the swirl of bewilderment he was feeling. "What happened to you? You just disappeared, man!"

"You wanted more dimensions," Lance said. "And there are more dimensions, if you know how to get to them. That's where Adam went. Do you remember," he turned to Adam, "that I told you about JC's work? That it helped me understand how to transition?"

"I can see why. It's remarkable."

"But," said JC, "other dimensions? How—what? Where are they?"

Lance and Adam seemed to share a moment of silent communication. Then Lance said, "Would you like to see for yourself?"

JC's brain seemed to freeze. He blinked rapidly. "Yes. Uh. Please."

"Not here," Adam said. "I was airborne when I arrived."

"Good thing you can fly, then," Lance said, sounding unworried.

Really, this was. What? "Er. Should we go outside?" JC suggested. There was a set of iron steps leading down the outside wall from the far end of his workshop, so the three of them descended and stood, awkwardly—well, JC felt awkward, even if the other two didn't—with Lance and Adam each holding one of JC's hands.

"Close your eyes," Adam suggested. "Now, think about that sculpture I was looking at. Think about the angles, and where it's supposed to go next. Step forward. Okay. Open your eyes."

In the starlit darkness, JC could tell that his barn was… not there.

"How do you feel?" Lance asked him. "Nauseous, anything?"

"I'm fine," JC said. "That was. Wow." He stared. No lights anywhere below the sky, just a sliver of moon and the bright multitude of stars. No city lights, not even a lantern. "Wow." It was incredibly beautiful.

"It's Dragon Country," Adam said.

"In the dimensions that aren't there," Lance added. "And it's just spectacular here. It's a pity you can't see much of it right now."

"How come you aren't a dragon?" JC asked Adam.

"Actually, I am a dragon. I just prefer human form. You can do a lot more with it, singing, and, uh, other things."

"Oh, yeah," Lance murmured.

In the dark, JC grinned to himself. It would probably be difficult to have sex with a dragon, he thought. But he felt a bit let down. He'd taken Lance literally. "So you're a dragon, but you look like a man. I thought, I assumed Lance meant you were, uh, giant and scaly with wings and such. But it just means that you come from here? From Dragon Country?"

"Would you like to see?" Adam asked, and before JC had time to reply, Adam was changing, swelling to impossible size, his black clothing taking on a sheen that glittered in the starlight. Huge sail-like wings blotted the background stars as he reared up. JC gaped, delighted, and tried to discern every feature.

Above them, the dragon left the ground. "He loves flying," Lance said. "It's the essential thing about being a dragon, they all love it, I think. Truthfully, I love it too."

"I'm not surprised," JC said, absently, as he tracked the dark shape against the background of the Milky Way. "Wow. I have to see this in the daylight. This is incredible."

"I expect he can bring you back in the daytime," Lance said. "You obviously won't have a problem doing dimension folds, not with Adam along to help you. I'd volunteer, but I'm still learning. It'll be best to have Adam along."

"That would be awesome," JC said, firmly. A chance to see a dragon, a real, living dragon, in broad daylight and in a place where there was no city, no evidence of humanity existing at all? Amazing. "We can't do that now?"

"It'll have to be another day," Lance said. "We can't do time jumps. I don't know if it's possible or not, but as far as I've ever seen, we always travel in the same moment. It looks like there has to be a constant factor, although I can't even begin to make sense of the mathematics."

"You know what, can we get Chris here? I'd really like him to see this." It was way too amazing not to share.

"Uh," Lance said. "I'm not sure it'd be possible. I don't know if we could get him to believe in it, to understand it enough to actually get here. I had to understand where I was going to go before I could get through. Obviously, you're really open to all kinds of stuff, you kind of understood about the other dimensions anyway, but Chris doesn't think the way you think. And Chris—it's difficult, right now. He really can't deal with me being a receiver. I thought he could, he was great when I explained, he seemed to be okay with it, but he isn't any more. I guess he thought it through and, well. I had to get Adam to extend his shield to cover me, earlier, because Chris's thoughts were so loud and so panicked I couldn't escape and it was giving me a hell of a headache."

"I didn't realise," JC said. "I thought he was okay."

"I can filter most things, but Chris is a friend and he's so open that it's really hard to keep him out. Adam doesn't receive other people's thoughts, only mine, but he has an amazing natural shield. Dragon thoughts are," Lance hesitated, "they're quite powerful. Adam says they mostly use a permanent barrier, so as not to stun everybody within range. I don't like being shielded that way, usually," Lance went on, "because I'm used to the… the quiet noise, the extra information I get just as an everyday thing. Shutting it out is like cutting off one of my normal senses, it's, it's like not being able to smell. But Chris was too much."

The dragon loomed over them, landed, and shrank down to human size.

"I guess Chris can be a bit overpowering, in his own way," JC said. "And he's very firmly rooted in—I was going to say, in reality, only I'm standing in Dragon Country right now, but, you know what I mean. He might find it hard to deal with this."

"Chris is pretty good at deciding what reality is by deciding how he thinks it ought to be," Lance said, ruefully. "He doesn't believe Adam's really a dragon, either."

"Really?" Adam said. "Why? I thought you told them."

"I did."

JC coughed. "I believed you," he pointed out. "But, you know. It is kind of unlikely. You can't really blame Chris for not realising you meant it literally. But if we could bring him here, if we could show him—"

"It might take a while to teach him how," Adam said. "Your sculptures weren't enough for Lance, he needed the hatchling too, and he was already looking for Dragon Country."

"He'd probably resist the whole idea with all his might," Lance said, "especially if it came from me, because of the—wait a second. JC, you have a natural shield."

"If you say so." It was a relief to know Lance couldn't read—hear—sense his thoughts in any kind of detail. JC wasn't surprised that Chris was freaking out about Lance, only that he'd hidden it so well. JC trusted Lance, of course, but still. "I mean, I didn't know that until you told me, when you said you were a receiver."

"Maybe you could teach Chris how to shield?" Lance said. "I asked Adam about it, but he doesn't know how he does it, he just does it."

"I learned it in the egg," Adam said.

"In the egg?" Lance looked a bit croggled, but JC thought it seemed reasonable enough. Why shouldn't a dragon learn while it was in its egg? Human babies were supposed to be able to absorb things while they were in the womb, music, and rhythms and such. Though it must be a little weird to have your boyfriend talk about being in the egg.

"Sure," Adam said. "There's not much else to do, when you can't fly yet."

JC could figure out Lance's reaction to that even without having Lance's special talent, and he could also see the exact moment when Lance decided not to touch it with the proverbial bargepole. He suppressed a grin, though Lance could probably tell he was laughing on the inside.

"Anyway," Lance said, firmly, "I think the shielding's an instinct thing, like knowing how to transition through dimensions, or turn from dragon shape to human shape."

"It's not quite the same," Adam said. "It's more, it's like, good manners. My broodparent helped me turn it on and now it's always on."

"At any rate it's not something Adam could teach Chris. But maybe you can take a look inside your own brain and see if you can figure it out? I've been friends with Chris so long without a problem, and now I've been honest it's made things difficult, and I wish—well, if anyone can do something about it, I'd really appreciate it."

"I guess you wouldn't be able to teach him yourself," JC said, thoughtfully. No, if Chris was that paranoid about Lance getting into his head, Lance was the last person who'd be able to teach him to protect himself. "I'll definitely try. But, um. I don't actually know how it works. So I may not be able to help."

"You probably have a better chance than most people of being able to conceptualise what you're doing. A wall, or curtains, or something? Even a box. Something to keep your, and Chris's, thoughts inside. Adam's felt like a wall made of diamond, when I was on the outside."

"Hmm. Interesting. A wall—is that what you do?"

"No, for me it's kind of the opposite process. I'm not trying to keep my own thoughts inside my head, I'm trying to filter other people's thoughts. It's more like… a sieve, except that I let the big things through and keep the little things out." Lance looked dissatisfied with his own explanation. "Maybe I should say, the strong thoughts get through and the weak ones stay out of my head? Chris, tonight, he was thinking so hard about me being able to hear what he was thinking that I just couldn't keep it out. Hence, headache."

"Like Adam did?"


"Back when you broke up, you said he gave you a headache."

"Oh, right. Not the same. Adam's thoughts filled me up from the inside. Chris's were hitting from the outside, like, like when you get a kid bouncing a tennis ball on the wall all the time. After a while you just can't help but notice it. It's hard to figure out an analogy that really works."

"No, it's good, I think I get it. I will try, with the shielding thing."

"Thanks, JC. I kinda miss Chris." Lance sounded so forlorn, JC had to throw an arm over his shoulders and hug him briefly.

"We should probably go back," Adam said.

"Please tell me you'll bring me back here in the daylight," JC said, and Adam smiled. There was a touch of relief amidst the brilliance, and JC realised Adam had been just a bit worried about what JC might think. "Seriously, I want to see what you look like, properly, you know?"

"Consider it a promise."

"Yeah, but right now Adam's right, we should go back," Lance said. "Don't want Chris to think you've been kidnapped. Take my hand." JC closed his eyes and thought back to creating 'Landscope' and followed the paths of the sculpture back towards his workshop, and when he opened them, there they were.

"I will come to your grand opening if I can," Adam said. "I really wanna see these all in place and shown off like they should be. Only, I'm touring, so I have to know where I'm supposed to be."

"We caught the bus to your place this evening," Lance put in, "because I wasn't sure I could find it otherwise. But we'll take the fast way home."

JC took a moment to process this, but when he realised that Adam and Lance meant, he was filled with envy. How much time it would save! "The exhibition's open for a month," he said, "so if you can't make the opening, you'll still get the chance to come see everything. Britney's been doing some amazing work, you definitely shouldn't miss that. But, you know, it would be good to have you at the opening."

"We'll be there," Lance promised, and hugged him briefly. "I'm sure it'll go really well. Howie's good at this stuff, you know?"

JC did know. And his work was good, it was. If only he could be sure there'd be other people out there who would think so.

Chris looked around the kitchen with satisfaction. Every surface gleamed. He'd washed, dried and put away all the glasses and china, the pots and pans too, all the leftovers were neatly wrapped and in the fridge, and aside from two very damp dishtowels there was no sign remaining of the evening's meal.

It occurred to him that he should not have had to do all the cleaning up by himself. JC was taking a very long time to show Adam and Lance his sculptures. Not that it was particularly surprising. He'd probably started trying to explain what he was trying to achieve with them, and the resultant verbal tangles were taking a while to unravel. Chris could go up to the studio… but that would mean being back with Lance, Lance, whom he'd totally failed to tease about having a 'dragon' for a boyfriend, because it was just too scary knowing that Lance knew what he was thinking. Chris was used to having his own thoughts tumble over each other at breakneck speed, but knowing that somebody else could ride along with it all like a white water rafter, he didn't know how to deal with it. He'd meant to—he just hadn't been able to stop thinking about it. Which of course Lance knew, now.

"Oh, fuck it," he said, and made for the door. He would go up there. He'd drag JC back into the house, say goodnight to Adam and Lance, and if he was really lucky, persuade JC into bed five minutes after they'd gone.

With all that determination fired up, it was a bit of a let-down to find JC just coming down the stairs, and to discover that Lance and Adam had already left.

"They said to tell you the meal was great," JC said. "Which it was. You did an amazing job, babe. Oh, shit, you cleared up? I'm sorry, I meant to—I didn't realise we were gone so long."

"Not a problem. It was quite…" cathartic was the word that sprang to mind, and Chris couldn't quite bring himself to say anything so pretentious. Not that JC would mock him, but he'd mock himself. He leered instead. "So. Alone at last!" He slid his arms round JC's slender waist and tugged gently.

"I just had—I saw—" JC stopped, and looked down at Chris. "You had a hard time tonight, didn't you?"

Chris couldn't quite look at JC. JC hadn't changed a bit, after Lance's revelations. It was only Chris who couldn't deal.

"Lance said I might be able to teach you to shield your thoughts," JC said, gently. "It has to be tough, knowing he knows what you're thinking."

"I kept telling myself it didn't matter," Chris mumbled, "but it does."

"We'll work on it, I promise."

"You are the best boyfriend ever." Chris emphasised his statement with a firm squeeze of JC's slender middle.

"I don't know," JC said. "I left you to do all the clearing up."

"You can make it up to me."

"What did you have in mind?"

"I'll leave that to your fertile imagination," said Chris, and JC grinned.


"Hey, Lance! Welcome! You on your own tonight?"

"Hi, Joey. Yeah, Adam's away. He's performing in Daverring tonight."

"This do?"

Lance sat, pleased. He could see the whole restaurant from this corner—far from empty, but not busy yet, it was still early—and look out of the window too. He wasn't precisely in the mood for company, but he wasn't quite ready to go home to his Adam-free house just yet. Sometimes Adam transited home for the night, but they'd agreed he shouldn't to it too often. He had to be fully engaged with his tour, and that meant enduring the cramped hotels and the same food everyone else had to eat and spending time with the crew and the other performers. So Lance wouldn't be seeing him again until the gallery opening on Friday. Adam had assured him he'd be there even though he was performing that night.

Joey set down a carafe of the house lemonade and a dish containing half a dozen tiny treats.

"Am I hungry enough for a starter?" Lance asked, amused.

"Have I ever fed you wrong?" Joey said, faking a wound to the heart. "We're serving them on Friday, so Mama's practising. She wants to know what you think. That's Bruschetta with Gorgonzola, Balsamic Figs, Watercress and Mint, that one's Polenta with Mushroom Ragu, that one—ah, never mind. Just tell me what's good."

Lance reached for the polenta square. "Oh, my lord, this is amazing. You wanna sit for a minute and watch me go into ecstasies?"

Joey grinned and slid into the spare seat. "Lucky I ate already." He watched with proprietary pride as Lance ate his way through the canapés.

"Wow," Lance said. "There are going to be some really happy critics at this thing."

"That's the plan."

"As long as it goes better than the dinner party," Lance muttered.

"Yeah, that was strange," Joey said. "I don't even know what was going on, but it was uncomfortable. Did Adam and Justin know each other already? I would have thought they'd have a lot in common, but it was like oil and water."

"Ah." Lance grinned. "Have you seen Justin perform?"

"Not yet. Is he any good?"

"He's very good, but there's—he does this telepathic appeal thing, totally unconscious. I guess he wasn't completely comfortable at dinner with people he didn't really know and he wanted everyone to like him. I think Adam was picking up on that and he didn't like it."

"I thought you said Adam didn't get anyone's thoughts but yours?"

"He doesn't, usually, but Justin wasn't broadcasting his thoughts like everybody does, he was sending out an imperative. Maybe it's because Adam's a dragon, or maybe it was just a kind of natural reaction to being ordered to like somebody." If Adam even knew what it was that set his teeth on edge, which, as far as Lance could tell, he didn't. "Or it could have just been two people in the same business jockeying for position. Maybe that was Justin's deal, too. I couldn't really tell."

Joey frowned. "I don't know, they both seem pretty confident to me. Wouldn't they just talk about the music business? When Mama meets another chef they get right into it, talking about ingredients and suppliers and kitchen disasters. Only time I ever saw that not work was when she met someone who ran a crappy kitchen, and knew it."

It did seem a bit strange, when Joey put it like that. "It's all I've got," Lance said, ruefully.

"I'd better get back to work," Joey said, and a few minutes later was back with a beautifully arranged Cobb salad which, after those appetisers, was exactly what Lance wanted. Of course. He ate it, drank his lemonade, and directed a careful thought to Adam wishing him an enthusiastic audience tonight.

Joey appeared with coffee, and asked if Lance would like to try the dessert canapés, to which, after careful consideration, Lance reluctantly said no. He'd wait until Friday.

"Thought so," Joey said. "Uh, Lance, Adam and Justin weren't the only ones with a problem. Were you okay? Because you didn't seem okay."

"Well, I—Chris was, he." Lance shook his head. "I thought he was okay with me being, you know, but he was actually terrified. He was thinking so loud about how I knew what he was thinking that it was all I could hear. That's why I couldn't work out what Justin's problem was, or I'd have tried to smooth things over, you know? But Chris was overwhelming."


"Yeah. I hope JC's going to be able to help him. JC has a natural shield, had you noticed?"

Joey shrugged. Maybe it didn't matter to how Joey's gift worked.

"Well. I hope he can do something. I used to get on so well with Chris, and it never mattered that his head was—I kinda wish I hadn't told them, but I thought I had to. If he can learn to shield, just a little bit, we can maybe get back to being friends. I mean, I don't pry, it's just that Chris is so open the thoughts spill right out, but he's so upset by it."

"Do you think it's something that a person can learn? To shield?" Joey looked dubious.

"Why not? I control my boundaries, not totally but, you know. I don't have to let everything in." Unless there's a dragon involved, Lance thought. Or a friend with a repetitive brain-worm cycling round and round like a relentless pop song. "No reason he can't learn not to let everything out." He hoped so, at any rate.

"So long as he doesn't end up with a stone wall six feet thick around his head," Joey said. There was a distinct flavour of pique to his thoughts.

"I guess it must be really weird for you when I come in with Adam," Lance said. "It's a good thing you actually have printed menus."

"I don't like it any more than you did. But I guess Chris isn't going to be able to do something like that. I'll be surprised if he manages a shield at all. I don't think Chris has a gift."

"I wondered for a while if he had a gift for engines," Lance said.

"Is there such a thing? I never heard of one."

"No, me neither. Anyway, I don't think he does. He's a good mechanic, simple as that."

"Which means," Joey said, "he's going to have trouble putting up a wall round his thoughts."

"I don't want a solid wall. Just enough for him to feel okay around me." Because I kinda miss him, Lance thought. "Okay, I'd better stop monopolising you and get home to my dogs."

"Save room for the desserts on Friday," Joey said.


Looked as though Adam wasn't going to make it to the exhibition's opening after all. He had a show tonight, and sneaking away, even this early in the evening, was a tall enough order that he'd warned Lance not to expect him. So, time to get going. Lance checked his pockets, and went into the kitchen to pick up his keys, and as his hand closed over the key ring, all four dogs raised their heads from their bowls and made for the living room, yipping excitedly. Lance followed.

"You made it!" He fought his way through the ecstatic dogs and flung his arms around Adam.

"I really shouldn't be here," Adam admitted when he could relinquish Lance's mouth. "And I'll have to leave early. I'm on at nine."

Lance looked at him. "Are you sure you should take the time out? I mean. It's not like this is the only time you can get to see the exhibition. Maybe you should go back—come over on Monday afternoon instead? It'll probably be quieter then, easier to appreciate the art."

"No, no, it's good. I planned for this, and I will give myself plenty of time to warm up and get ready, trust me. I want to see JC's work in its proper setting, and I want to meet—I want to see who else is there."

Lance looked at him. There was something Adam wasn't saying, something he didn't want to share. Fair enough—it wasn't as though Lance had a right to know all his beloved's secrets. "So long as you're sure. I know JC will be really happy you showed up. Speaking of which, we should get going. The invitation said six. You remember where my office is? We can walk from there."

There were several people already inside Gallery D when Lance and Adam pushed the doors open, even though it was barely ten past six. Howie greeted them cheerfully, handed them a handsome brochure, and urged them on into the open display area.

"Careful, now," Lance said, slyly, as he and Adam ventured towards JC's sculptures. Don't disappear on me!

I'm definitely on guard, Adam replied, and then, "No, thanks, I have to stay sober this evening," as a waiter Lance vaguely recognised approached with a tray of champagne glasses. Lance, under no such constraints, took one and sipped appreciatively.

"Lance, Adam! Thanks so much for coming." JC looked a bit wide-eyed, and was emitting definite panic vibes. "Come and see the, uh, did you get your, oh, you did, did you read it yet?"

"Breathe, JC," Lance said. "We wouldn't miss it."

JC actually did stand still and heave in an enormous, deliberate breath. "It's just, you know."

"This is a great space," Adam said.

"Yes, yes, it really is. My work is down on this level, mostly, there's just a couple of small pieces upstairs, and Britney's paintings are up there and down here."

"Then we should take a look," Lance said, grinning, and JC nodded.

"Uh, you won't, er, you aren't going to… you know?" he said to Adam.

"Promise I'll be on my best behaviour," Adam said. "Although I won't be staying much more than an hour. I have a show tonight. Now, this looks like that piece you had at the back of your studio, I didn't really get to see it when we visited."

Howie appeared at JC's shoulder. "I need you to come say hello to someone," he murmured, so Lance shooed JC away, and stood with Adam staring at the sculpture. It was quite an experience looking at JC's work now that he'd had so much practise in transitioning, Lance found. He could almost see it reaching into the other dimensions—almost, but not quite, because it didn't exactly go there, it just wanted to. He wasn't going to follow the angles, but he could feel Adam's firm control, and stifled a smirk. It wouldn't be fair on JC, or Britney, if Adam stole all the publicity by disappearing into thin air.

In his head, there was a very rude noise and a poked-out tongue.

They moved slowly through the exhibition, admiring Britney's work on the walls as well as JC's extraordinary sculptures. Howie—and the artists themselves, Lance supposed—had done a great job of integrating their different pieces. Lance's own painting, the one Britney had given him months ago, was on loan to the exhibition, and here it was, right behind one of the sculptures. The dragon connection pleased him, even though he knew it was pure chance. Unless JC had suggested putting that painting there? He should ask.

JC was talking to an older couple and a young woman. Should he interrupt, Lance wondered, and decided to wait, but JC waved them over.

"You've never met my parents," JC said, and introduced them all. The young woman proved to be his sister, and she'd been admiring the dragon picture a few minutes before, so Lance explained how he'd always been fascinated by dragons, and Britney had created it for him.

"Yeah, Lance was the one who brought Britney and me together," JC explained. "He's, like, a genius at matching people up. Not, I don't mean a matchmaker, but for business."

"I'm so happy things turned out this well," Lance said. "You've both done such great work." He and JC's sister—Heather—fell into conversation about how crucial it could be to form the right working relationships. He liked her at once. There was a calm, open quality to her thoughts, and she radiated pride in her big brother. Lance asked a couple of questions about the exhibits, and they had a pleasant conversation while Adam charmed JC's parents.

Heather was talking about visiting JC's barn for the first time when it occurred to Lance that he had not seen Chris. Surely he must be here? He couldn't be babysitting Britney's kids—no, not when Chris's boyfriend was one of the exhibitors, that wasn't reasonable. Maybe… maybe he was just avoiding Lance. Which was depressing, but not surprising, given how Chris felt about Lance's receiving abilities. Lance had his filters set to opaque this evening, not wanting to be influenced by other people's thoughts about the art. Or other people's moods, come to think of it. It didn't stop him getting input from people he was actually interacting with, so Chris would still be painful, but he ought, Lance felt, to go find Chris at some point and tell him… tell him something. That he could be proud of JC. That he was partly responsible for Britney's success.

Because Chris would love to be patronised, obviously. Perhaps he should just leave Chris in peace, since their last meeting had left him with a headache, and Adam wouldn't be around for much more of the evening to help with the up close and personal shielding, the kind Lance wasn't able to do for himself. But it seemed wrong not to talk to Chris. Not so long ago, Lance had imagined that the two of them would be able to side together, standing for the pragmatic against the extravagances of their artistic boyfriends.

"Chris? I think he's upstairs. He was showing someone Britney's pictures," Heather said when he asked.

"I definitely have to go say hi to Britney," Lance decided, and excused himself from the group. Adam was good where he was, chatting to JC's parents. Lance headed for the spiral staircase.

He found Britney almost at once and congratulated her, and she gushed at him and introduced him to the people surrounding her and told him again how grateful she was that he'd given her the impetus to paint and the chance to work with JC. She was calmer and happier than he'd ever seen her, more secure in her own talent than she'd been before. Justin was not in evidence. He was performing tonight, it turned out, but Britney confided that she was pleased to be doing this on her own. "He's kinda distracting, you know? And with the critics here, and some influential buyers, I need to be professional."

"I was wondering if I'd need to run interference between him and Adam tonight," Lance said. "They didn't exactly hit it off, did they?"

"I know! That was so weird!"

"Do you have any idea…?"

Britney did, but she definitely didn't want to tell him, and it wouldn't be fair to push.

"Never mind," he said. "We'll have to try again sometime. Maybe at one of Adam's concerts, or one of Justin's?"

There was a flash of something, but he didn't catch it. Britney wiped her expression, and smiled at him. "We'll do that," she said. "Chris says Adam is good people. And he has great taste in boots!"

Lance grinned at her. "I shouldn't be talking to you about my boyfriend's boots when your art is on display and there are people here wanting to talk to you about it, but you're right, he does."

"Can I tell you a secret? Most of these people don't care about art, they just wanna know if it'd be a good investment." But her eyes were sparkling. She was loving the attention, and the acknowledgment.

"And I will leave you to make nice with them all while I go look at your work," he said, so she hugged him again and kissed his cheek.

He was gazing at a large blue and green canvas, trying to decide whether it was composed of layers of reflections or not, when someone loomed at his side and said, "Hey."

Stifling a shriek, Lance stepped backwards, and realised to his astonishment that it was Chris staring at him with a defiant glint in his eyes. Lance was too startled to speak, because he was getting nothing from Chris, nothing at all, and usually he could tell that someone was close by just from the low-level emissions that everybody put out.

"Wow," he said, pulling himself together. "You startled me."

"Sorry," Chris said, though he didn't look it.

"I, um, how are you?"

"You can't tell?"

"Not a thing." It was so weird not to have Chris's frantic thoughts tumbling in his head. "I guess JC's lessons worked."

"Eh. Kind of." Chris grinned suddenly, and that was a relief. "No, his lessons were crap. He kept trying to have me visualise all kinds of stupid stuff, but I figured it out in the end. Looks like it works."

"It really does." Lance felt a pang of regret at the loss of that uninhibited openness. "So, um. Yeah. How?"

Chris beckoned a lurking waiter and they helped themselves to more champagne. "He took me to a pottery studio."

"He what?"

"Yeah, I know. This woman had me sit behind a wheel and make a mess with clay. I was supposed to make a bowl. JC thought if I could feel it growing in my hands I'd be able to do the same thing in my head. Which, you know, neat idea, typical JC. Trouble was, my so called bowl was more like a giant clay turd. They make it look easy, when you see someone who throws pots all the time, but I don't think my hands are built for it."


"He thinks in art, that's the trouble. I don't."

"So what did you do?"

"Thought about engines," Chris said, and Lance really missed the overlay of triumphant glee that ought to have accompanied that expression. "I figure my brain is like jet fuel, so my skull is the fuel tank. No leaks."

"That makes sense." There was, now Lance thought about it, an oddly metallic quality to the barrier. "Jet fuel. I can see that."

"You don't seem very happy about it."

"I—no, I—I am. I mean, last time we met it was just painful. For both of us. It's just so weird not getting anything from you, it's strange. But I'm glad if it means we can talk."

"Maybe not for too long," Chris said, and made a face. "It's kind of a strain."

"Oh. Okay. Well, um. Keep practising?"


They looked at one another for a moment, then Chris gestured that he was going downstairs, and headed off, and Lance took a deep breath and turned back to the artwork.


It was a few minutes after three. His dad was bidding the final group of customers a cordial goodbye, and Joey at last allowed himself to wonder what there might be in the kitchen for him. Kelly had eaten when the lunch rush slacked off a bit, and since his father liked to schedule his meals at the same time as Mama (except for the really early breakfast), Joey would be eating on his own. Tuesday lunchtimes weren't that busy, and the evening's staff wouldn't be in for a while.

There was unexpected noise at the door, and he looked up, wondering if Papa needed backup, only to see Chris and JC sidling in through the door. Papa flipped the sign on the door and locked it, and conducted the guys towards Joey, who grinned.

"Joey, we have guests today. You look after them, okay? I'll find you dinner, sit, relax."

"Hey, guys! Bit late for lunch, aren't you?"

"We got sidetracked," Chris said, and he looked furtively at JC, and JC grinned in a very self-satisfied way. Joey deduced that sex had been had, and he approved, but decided not to say so. He just offered them beer and ushered them to a table.

"Are you sure it's okay, us coming in now? You look like you're closed," said JC.

"We turned a tidy profit last Friday, with your gallery show, and Kelly got three more jobs from people she gave a card to. Also, Howie gave all the waiting staff huge tips, and there was no food left, and my Mama's always happiest when there's no food left."

"You realise that's because Kelly put every last remaining morsel into a box for JC to take home at the end of the evening? He didn't eat anything all night, and I think she thought he was going to pass out from hunger," Chris said.

JC huffed very pointedly in Chris's direction, but said, "And it was all delicious."

"Of course it was. Sit, sit. Anyway, my Papa's more than okay giving you lunch on the house. I was just about to sit down for mine, it'll be nice to have the company. Mind," he warned, "if you had something particular in mind when you came in, you might not get it, because the kitchen's closed, but you know everything's good here, right?"

"I'll eat whatever's going," Chris said.

A moment later, Papa bustled out with a large bowl of salad and a pan which contained enough lasagna to keep all three of them very happy. Joey would have guessed it had been made specially for them, but he had served lasagna to a lonely guy in a hurry not so very long ago, and there was a portion missing. Somebody always needed lasagna. His mother emerged bearing freshly heated garlic bread, and had to hug Chris and shake JC's hand and kiss his cheeks before disappearing again.

"That looks fantastic," JC said. Chris already had a mouthful of bread, but nodded and made enthusiastic noises.

"Seriously, I think my parents would be happier if we didn't have to charge for the food," Joey said, expertly dishing lasagna onto plates. "So," changing the subject, "the grand opening was a great success."

"He sold one piece to a museum and two of the other big ones were bought and he got commissions as well. And sold some of the little pieces," Chris said.

"Britney did so well," JC added. "She sold a lot of work, and the critics were impressed."

"Everyone's a winner," Chris said. "Howie was practically rubbing his hands by the end of Friday night."

"Did you see it yet?" JC asked, trying to be nonchalant.

"I did, this morning. Kelly took me round while Briahna was at school. They're off at a friend's house this afternoon," he added. "I thought it was amazing. I have no idea what your sculptures are about, but I couldn't stop looking at them. I really liked the one that looked like it was trying to take off. And there were a couple of paintings that were just beautiful. Kelly tried to remember everything Britney told her—she got the exclusive tour before everything got started, and she said it was exciting being there when the place got buzzing." Joey realised he was waving his fork about, and put it down. "So, congratulations. Great job."

"Thanks. It was good, actually. Yeah. People were very nice."

"There were way too many people, but I guess that adds to the atmosphere," Chris said.

"My family made it to the city, though," JC said with obvious relief, "and Lance and Adam were there. And a few friends from all over, you know."

"How'd it go with Lance?" Joey realised he wasn't being exactly subtle here, but he wanted to know how Chris had managed.

"He talked to you about that?" Chris said.

"He said you were going to try to put up a wall around your mind, or something?" Chris didn't feel any different to Joey.

"It worked," Chris said, and smirked.

"It did?"

"He said he couldn't hear anything at all. Matter of fact, I made him jump when I said hello."

"Wow. Impressive," Joey said, thoughtfully, though he was wondering how Lance actually felt about that. It had been really strange not being able to understand what Adam wanted to eat, that time they'd been in for lunch together, and Joey had not liked the feeling, not at all. If Lance was completely shut out of Chris's thoughts, well. Hmm.

"It wasn't easy, but I can do it when I'm around Lance. Which is good to know, 'cause I think I'm gonna be looking for another job soon," Chris continued. "Thing is, Britney and Justin are so—I'm pretty sure they're going to get married. And his mother is going to be good for Brit, and in any case the boys are going to be spending more time at school and on playdates and all the after-school stuff, and I'm pretty sure Justin has a housekeeper anyway." He paused for a mouthful. "And it's fine. I already lasted longer than anyone else she's ever had! And it's not over yet. It'll take Brit a while to notice that she doesn't really need me, so it's not like she's throwing me out into the snow."

"I thought you moved in with JC?" Joey said.

"Well. Not officially," Chris said.

"He stays over a lot. It's convenient," JC said.

"I still have a room at Britney's place."

"But you'll be going back to Lance for a job," Joey said, to get the conversation back where he wanted it.

"And I can do that without being, without him knowing exactly what I'm thinking," Chris said.

"It might make it harder for him to do his job," Joey suggested. "Although I guess he knows you well enough by now for it not to matter."

"Huh," Chris said. "All this time I thought he was really good at figuring out how people fit. Turns out it's just this mind-reading thing he's got going. It's more like cheating."

Cheating? Using his gift counted as cheating, did it? Joey was irritated, and couldn't say so. If Chris was going to react like that to other people's hidden talents, Joey was going to keep damn quiet about his own.

"It's not really cheating," JC was saying. "It'd be like shutting your eyes and not looking at a person when you're interviewing them. For Lance. It would be, I mean, if he didn't."

"It's not like he uses people's thoughts to blackmail them," Joey said, a bit stiffly.

"Of course not," said Chris. "But, you know. Anyway, he won't be able to do it with me, so I can relax. Well, not relax, because it's hard to do, but it's worth it. I won't have saved enough for my garage by the time I stop working for Britney, so I'll need a new job. Don't get me wrong, this job has helped a lot, but I want to do it properly."

Joey had nothing to contribute to a conversation about being a mechanic, so he went in search of dessert. His sister was in the bakery and waved him in the direction of the cheesecakes, which didn't seem to be selling well today, and he snagged a couple of cannoli as well. JC seemed to be in hungry mode, and Chris could always manage another pastry.

But when he got back into the restaurant, he very nearly dropped the dessert plates. JC's appetite had gone, and he looked as though he was desperate to get away. And Chris…. Joey turned around and ran back to the bakery for a box. Chris was going to eat all of these, and he wasn't going to want to eat them in front of a twitching boyfriend.

"Guys, I think you'd better take these home," he said as cheerfully as he could manage. "I have to take a nap before we open again tonight. Is that okay?"

Chris clutched at the box and mumbled his thanks, and JC thanked Joey again for the meal, and Joey unlocked the front door to let them out, and gazed after them as they walked away, not holding hands. What the hell had happened?

He should have known better, Chris thought. JC was skittish, he knew that, he knew it, he'd been determined to wait, there was no need to hurry, and then he'd gone and blurted it out anyway. And he wasn't going to take JC's money to start up his garage, that wasn't how it was going to work, but it had been so totally sweet of JC to offer, and Chris had been so overwhelmed, and he did love JC, and why the hell was it so wrong for him to say so?

At least Britney and the boys were out. He took his box of desserts up to his room and ate the lot.

It didn't really help.


Chris did his best to act normal on Wednesday morning when he got up to give the boys their breakfast. The kids knew he wasn't at his best in the mornings, and being with them was as good a tonic as anything he'd find. He took them off to playgroup, chatted on autopilot to the other adults, brought them home, gave them lunch and settled them for a nap, then poked his head round the studio door to see whether Britney needed him for organiser-type duties and if she wanted to take over the boys this afternoon or not.

His boss was still riding a work-related high and didn't notice anything wrong with Chris's mood, but it turned out there was some bookkeeping to be done which she did not want to do. He'd have to persuade her to sit down with him soon, Chris thought, so that when he'd gone and she hired someone else to deal with her finances, she'd at least know enough to notice if anything was wrong.

When he was done with the books, Britney, Sean and JJ were in the cellar playroom happily engaged on a project involving fingerpaints and a giant white canvas. His schedule had him down for a free evening, but going up to JC's place just didn't feel like a good idea right now. What the fuck would he say? Ha ha, just kidding? No. He wasn't going to lie about how he felt. When he thought about it—and he had to, like poking at an aching tooth—he couldn't fathom how to bring it up at all.

Screw it. It was getting dark but the garage was well lit. It wouldn't hurt to give the car another inspection, and he'd been neglecting his bike lately.

JC, JC, JC throbbed in the back of his head, but working on the engines helped. Chris had too much of an imagination to be a careless mechanic, and always focused on the job. The car was fine, of course. His bike he could work on a bit more. Once he got the engine purring, though, he had headspace to think about—no, he was not going to think about JC, he was going to think about his garage. His own future.

He should start investigating startup costs, and the revenue rules for small businesses, figure out where he stood and what he needed to learn before he invested his savings. Finding a place he could afford to rent and setting it up, buying parts, he needed to do the sums. He'd learned quite a lot about taxes through looking after the bits of Britney's life that she thought were boring, and bookkeeping didn't frighten him. On the other hand, it wasn't exactly something he wanted to spend his time on. Maybe he could get a part-time accountant. Maybe Lance would know someone. Who was he kidding—Lance would know half a dozen people who offered accounting services and be able to vet them for honesty.

Which was—no. He wasn't going to think about Lance either, not right now. He didn't need an accountant until he had a business. He'd have to talk to a specialist about finding premises, maybe speak to someone at Wright's about costing spare parts. And he'd have to hire people, another mechanic or two, a receptionist—it'd be useful to have Lance sit in on the hiring process. Chris could tell if someone was a good mechanic or not, but Lance would know if they were good people.

Okay, Chris was going to have to think about Lance now. Anything rather than think about JC. Because here he was, planning on using Lance's special abilities to make sure he didn't hire someone who'd steal from him, or try to con the customers, or skive off early when they got the chance. Despite the fear he'd felt, and it was fear that had given him the impetus to build himself a protective box just so that he could stand to be in the same room as a guy he'd been friends with for years… he was apparently okay with Lance looking inside other people's heads, if it was going to benefit Chris Kirkpatrick.

It wasn't exactly… a consistent worldview. What was it JC had said, yesterday—for Lance not to use his secret powers would be like shutting his eyes and deliberately not noticing stuff about people.

Man. Sometimes Chris just wanted to get on his bike and ride off into the sunset.

He didn't, though. He went inside, cleaned up, went to his room and dialled his mother's number. There were times when the only person you could talk to was your mother.

Of course, expecting Mom to be wholeheartedly sympathetic was kinda stupid. She took it as her maternal duty to tell him when he was being an idiot about something, and she mostly wasn't wrong. She certainly wasn't wrong about the way he felt about JC, and the metaphorical kick in the backside was just what he needed.

Feeling mostly better but also just a little bit bruised, Chris made himself a gigantic cup of hot chocolate and even whipped a giant peak of cream to go on top of it. Sadly, there were no chocolate logs left, but there were marshmallows. He took it upstairs, pulled on his snuggly pyjamas and got into bed to drink it in comfort. When he'd finished he felt a lot better. And not at all sleepy.

He lay back on his lonely pillow and tried to figure out what to do, how to talk to JC, what there was to say. He had never considered how he ought to tell JC he loved him. JC wasn't some great big sap—like, say, Lance—who'd expect a big production number with hearts and flowers and dancing animals and bluebirds tweeting on boughs. JC and Chris didn't need all that stuff.

But until today, Chris had been secure in the belief that they loved one another. That their relationship was solid. Fuck it, they felt solid. He knew he loved JC, and he'd assumed—except JC hadn't said it back, and okay, he might just have been taken by surprise, but he hadn't looked happy about it, and what the hell was Chris supposed to do if JC didn't want his love? It wasn't like he could stop loving JC.

He'd just have to take his mother's advice and be patient. Which sucked.


Next morning dawned way too early, and Chris dragged himself out of bed to get breakfast for the boys, but he still hadn't worked out what to say to JC to make things go back to normal.

To his astonishment, Britney was in the kitchen already, pouring milk onto cereal and making toast.

"It's a beautiful day," she said. "I was looking at the sunrise and I got an idea."

"Um. I was hoping, can I take today off? I—JC and I—I kind of need to sort stuff out with JC."

"You guys didn't have a fight, did you? Oh, Chris, you go round there right now and make up. Of course you can have today. Don't come back until Monday! I was thinking I could take the kids out of the city this afternoon. I saw a notice in the paper about a farm that does pony rides and they have rabbits for petting, and we can pick out some pumpkins. I'll call Lynn, see if she wants to come with us. Although, can you drive them to nursery before you go?"

So he took the boys to their nursery school, drove back, swapped the big car for his bike, and went straight to JC's barn.

He still had no clue what to say, but he walked in anyway, and JC was sitting at the kitchen table hunched over a coffee, and when Chris opened his mouth what came out was, "Didja miss me?" And JC leaped up and wrapped him in his arms and kissed him like a man demented, and they'd never actually had sex on the kitchen table before but it turned out to be a really good idea.

JC was predictably ravenous afterwards, so as soon as Chris felt reasonably confident he'd be able to stand, he made his way over to the fridge and got out the eggs and bacon. Bread. There were some sausages here some—ah. JC liked mushrooms, too, and there was always room for more coffee. JC draped himself over the back of a chair and watched Chris cook, with a bright, goofy smile that made Chris's heart turn over.

Chris knew it would be crazy stupid to ask. He knew. He knew. But he couldn't help it.

"JC, what I said? At the restaurant?"

JC's smile solidified.

"You, um. Didn't seem very pleased about it." It was like a sore tooth. He knew perfectly well it would just hurt more, but he couldn't help poking at it.

JC shrugged.

"See, that's not exactly the response a person mostly hopes for when he tells another person, when I said I love you, I kind of hoped you loved me back."

JC stared out of the window, although Chris didn't know if he was seeing the garden.

"People make such a big deal of love, but it's just…. " JC shook his head. "Other stuff is way more important. Being interested in what a person does, and being proud of them, and taking care of them. That stuff matters. That's important. Love… " He shrugged again. "I don't believe in love."

It hurt, and Chris wasn't even sure why it hurt. "I don't even know how to deal with that," he said. "I mean, I love you, but if you don't think it's real, what then?"

JC crossed the room and held onto Chris's arms. "Forget it, doesn't matter. I know you. You're here, you do all that stuff. That's—you're important to me, Chris. I care about you, and you—you amaze me, you're strong and I admire you and you make me laugh and you make breakfast for me and, and that's what counts."

It sounded like love to Chris. Why didn't it sound like love to JC?

He was going to have to call his mom again, although some things might even be beyond a mother's capacity to solve.

"Eggs are done," he said. "You wanna pour some more coffee?"


Lance's bones had melted. You did this. I was ravished. Helpless. I may never move again.

"Just don't expect me to apologise," Adam yelled from the bathroom.

Lance grinned. Will you feed the dogs?

When I'm done, I will bring you breakfast in bed. There was a distinct undertone of and then we can do that again in Adam's thoughts, which was fine with Lance. Adam was home for two weeks. There were more shows scheduled next month, then in the New Year he'd be working on his next record, and would be living right here. Sex every day! Adam thought joyfully, and Lance laughed aloud. Twice!

I do have to go to work, you know.

Not today!

Lance smiled. He inventoried his liquefied bones and managed to twitch a finger or two, but there seemed to be no reason to move, not even when he heard the shrill tones of the telephone downstairs. Adam could deal with it. Lance dozed until the breakfast tray arrived. The bacon was a little more blackened than Lance generally liked it, the toast rather pale, and the scrambled eggs a little on the slippery side, but he really didn't care. The coffee was excellent. "Who was it on the phone?"

"It was JC. Did you know he doesn't have a telephone at his place? He walked all the way to the public one by the bus terminus."

"Yeah, he doesn't like having people call, he says it's distracting when he's trying to work. What did he want?"

"He wanted to schedule a trip to Dragon Country. I said this afternoon if it was all right with you. I'd like you to come with us." Might be easier if you're along. "Is that okay?"

"Sure." Lance was quite impressed with JC's restraint, waiting this long. I suppose he's been busy with the exhibition. And Adam had been away, of course. "Did you fix a time? We shouldn't be too late. It gets dark early, and he'll want to see you in the daylight."

"He wants to take Chris, too. To prove that it's real, I think. He was going to talk to Chris about it today."

"I don't know," Lance said, warily. "Do you think Chris will be able to transit? 'Cause I don't see it, honestly."

"I thought of that. The barn's isolated enough that I can dragon up, and then you can all ride on my back and I'll take you through that way."

"You are one smart dragon," Lance said. "Kinda sexy, too."

Hurry up and finish your breakfast.

Lance had not forgotten the strangeness of Chris's new mental shield, but it still struck him afresh as Chris and JC emerged from the house and he had to rely on his eyes to be sure that Chris was there.

JC had an ancient camera on a leather strap round his neck, and carried a large sketch pad, and he engaged Adam in conversation at once to make sure these were acceptable items to take to Dragon Country. To Lance's surprise, Chris gestured him aside and leaned close to say, "So, I guess you got here in the blink of an eye, right?"

Lance shrugged. "Pretty much."

Chris rolled his eyes.

"What do you want me to say? I assume JC explained, Adam said he was going to."

"JC told me a bunch of crazy shit. I'm asking you what the fucking deal is, okay?"

"I don't know what to tell you, Chris. JC wanted you to come and see Dragon Country, and I don't think you'd be able to manage a dimensional fold without a lot of coaching, so Adam came up with the idea. He'll turn into his dragon self, we'll get up on his back and he'll fly us through. It'll be fine."

Chris stared at him. "Okay, fine. Whatever." He stomped back to JC, who was shifting excitedly and emitting great waves of anticipation.

"So, Chris, are you ready?" Adam asked.

"Sure. Go on, impress me."

"You guys want to stand over there?" Adam motioned them over to where Lance was standing, and transformed.

The magnificent black dragon loomed before them, JC gave an ooh of delight and Lance was hit by a tsunami of churning terror as Chris's mental barrier shattered. He gasped with the shock of it. "Go, go!" he shouted. Take JC, I'll stay with Chris. JC stared at them, startled, and Lance waved impatiently. The black dragon offered an elegant foreleg and JC clambered up and settled himself, then Adam took off and disappeared through the dimensions.

Chris stumbled to his knees and vomited. His thoughts roiled. Lance was queasy with it, but he was determined not to be sick. He handed over his handkerchief, hauled Chris to his feet and more or less carried him into the house. He leaned Chris against the kitchen counter and brought him a glass of water, but Chris's hands were shaking so much he couldn't drink it. Lance pulled him close and held him, keeping out as much as he could of the desperate, horrified morass of thoughts, until Chris stopped shaking and the wildness in his head distilled down into distinct strands. A vast and primitive terror of the Monster, the upheaval of everything he knew about reality, an overwhelming sense of his own helplessness, and the fear that he must be losing his mind.

"I'm so sorry," Lance said. "I didn't realise. I thought you understood."

"That thing—fuck—so big, and I—"

"I know, I know. I've got you. It's all right."

Oh, the colours!

The intense blue of the endless sky. The greens below, brighter than springtime. The purple of distant mountains. Trees, enflamed with late autumn leaves. The colours of Dragon Country.

The black dragon glided in a downward spiral and landed so lightly it took JC a moment to notice that he should get down. "Don't change back," he pleaded. "Let me see you!" Adam the dragon reared up and spread mighty black wings that gleamed with hints of colours JC didn't even know the names of, and his shining scales glittered in the sunlight. JC grabbed the pencil from his shirt pocket and sketched the long, sinuous lines, and the dragon posed for him, showing off, he thought, and who could blame him. Adam was magnificent.

The dragon took off again, and he flew, and JC watched it, saw the joy of it, and his heart seemed to resonate with the beating of Adam's wings. To be able to fly! It was a dance, an aerial dance, and it spoke of freedom and beauty and things JC couldn't articulate, could only feel. He filled his sketch book with frantic pencil strokes, and when he could draw no more, got out the Leica and aimed it at the colours of this new world. He made no attempt to photograph the dragon. Somehow, and he knew it made no sense, it felt as though the dragon should not be captured on film.

Adam landed, and turned back into Adam, and smiled at him. "Welcome to my home."

JC couldn't speak. There weren't the words. He laughed.

Adam seemed to understand. He sat on the grass, and when JC could control himself again, he showed Adam the sketches, some of them just wild strokes of movement, like trying to draw the wind. "It is just as beautiful at night," he said, "but I'm so glad to be able to see this, all this. But why didn't Chris come?"

"Lance told me he was scared. He didn't expect a real dragon, I guess."

"But I told him," JC said. "Honestly, Chris is—he didn't say anything when I told him." Chris had just looked at him with those beautiful brown eyes, and yes, he'd had his cynical face on, but that was nothing new. JC had thought it was his own excitement that caused Chris to dial everything back and pretend to be blasé. A chance to ride on a dragon was not something to be blasé about. And JC had wanted very much to share this. This beautiful place, the trip of seeing a different world, and a real, live dragon.

"So he knows now," he said. "Maybe next time he'll listen to what I tell him."

"Did you," Adam hesitated. "Did you believe in dragons before Lance told you about me?"

JC thought about it. "I think… I think I knew Dragon Country was real before I knew it was there. No, I mean, I thought dragons were real, but somewhere else, you know? In the past, not in a reality I could ever connect with. I mean, they used to be real, I've seen dragonhide bowls and such, in collections, but I thought dragons and humans went their different ways a long time ago, so we just had the idea of dragons now."

"That's not far from the truth," Adam said. "You know, it's weird that you can accept this so easily."

"Lance did."

"Yes, but he—we—he was looking for dragons for a long time, and he didn't get through until after he met me."

"Oh," said JC.

"We're heart mates, you see, although I didn't know it at the time. But you—I thought, because you got here so easily last time, because of your sculptures, I thought—well, obviously not. I mean, I met your parents."

JC blinked. "Um. Yes?"

Adam hitched a rueful shoulder. "I thought you must be a dragon's child. But your parents are both human, no question."

JC went rigid. "A dragon's child?"

"Yes. I mean, you obviously didn't hatch, you're not a dragon, but I thought it explained, you know. Anyway. Perhaps it's because you're an artist, you see things differently."

"But my parents… I'm, I was adopted."


"My mother, when I was five, she gave me to Karen and Roy." She said she loved me, JC thought, and then she went away. "I never knew who my father was. Do you—do you think he might have been a dragon? In human form, like you?"

Adam opened his hands. "It makes sense."

It did make sense. It made sense of many things. If his father was a dragon, no wonder he hadn't stayed around to take care of Mama, to take care of JC. It explained so much. Had his mother been waiting for her lover to come back? The constant uncertainty, not knowing whether she'd be staying or going, had that been because the dragon had visited? And never stayed long enough to meet his human child? Had she ever even known the truth? Surely she would have told him, or told Mom if she'd known. Maybe she hadn't known. Mom would never have kept it secret from him.

"That's a lot. A lot to think about," JC said. And yet, it fitted. Not-quite-properly human. He'd sometimes felt that way, and to find out that it might be true—it felt true—was, oddly, a relief.

By the time Adam and JC returned, Chris was more or less back to normal. Lance had held him and comforted him. He'd gone through the whole saga of his own attempts to find dragons, and how he'd managed it, and how he'd discovered that a dragon could look human. He'd even shared some of the terror he had felt when the golden dragon found him, though he hadn't—there were some things he was not ready to share. But it was important to make Chris understand that it wasn't wrong or weak to be afraid of a dragon, and that Lance knew how it felt.

"It just didn't make sense," Chris said. "I thought you were kidding. I thought you and Adam were pulling some kind of prank on JC. I thought you hid the motorbike down the road somewhere. I didn't know." And it was so huge, so appalling. His thoughts were less frantic now, but far from calm.

"It's just Adam," Lance said, gently. "And you know Adam. You know who he is, in the ways that matter. You know he wouldn't hurt you."

How can Lance not be afraid of that? "I guess so," Chris said, with a desperate veneer of courage. Lance was proud of him.

"I'm sorry it was such a shock. If I'd known, I could've, I don't know, made it clearer. Got Adam to transit without changing. It wouldn't have been so scary to see him disappear."

"I'd probably have been looking for the mirrors," Chris admitted. "I didn't understand it was real."

"I know. And it's not like we tell people. That's the last thing Adam needs."

"I don't think I could have ridden on a dragon even if I had been expecting it," Chris said, with the faintest hint of a laugh. "I mean, the fucking size of it! And you thought I'd want to fly? I don't even like going up the iron staircase at JC's barn."

"You don't have to."

"Yeah." There was a strange undercurrent to Chris's thoughts now, a flurry of JC-related questions that Lance couldn't chase down. Lance had been doing his best to barricade his own mind against the onslaught of Chris's reactions, and now that Chris was settling, the filters were doing a fair job. Lance would make no attempt to get more. Chris hated it enough to block him out, so he wasn't going to take advantage. He was getting plenty of input as it was.

"They're back," he said, and a moment later, Adam and JC walked through the door.

Is everything okay here? Adam sent.

Mmm, not quite. We're getting there, Lance replied. "So, JC, what did you think of Dragon Country?"

"It's beautiful. The colours are—I can't describe it. I'll have to—" JC made odd motions with his hands, which Lance interpreted to mean that he had some more sculptures to build. "And Adam! Chris, you should have seen."

"I did," Chris pointed out. He'd tensed up the instant Adam came through the door, but he was putting up a good front and Lance was not going to draw attention to his problems.

"You should have come with us to Dragon Country." JC was still feeling the awe and delight, but Lance was getting something else from him, something unexpected. "Adam went to the trouble of coming to take us both through, and he didn't have to do that."

"I didn't ask him to," said Chris, reasonably enough.

"No. I did. And I told you what to expect. I don't know why you couldn't have said beforehand that you wouldn't come. I wanted you to see it for yourself." Irritation. JC wasn't worried about Chris, or sympathetic. He was annoyed.

"Well, I'm sorry," Chris said, with a side order of resentment, mortification and still-bubbling horror.

"In fairness, JC," Lance said, "it isn't easy to believe that one of your friends is a dragon. An actual dragon."

"I'm sorry," Adam said, unhappily. "I didn't mean to—I didn't realise."

"You didn't do anything wrong," JC said. "I told Chris you were going to be a dragon and we'd ride on you to get into Dragon Country. If he didn't want to believe me, it's his own fault."

"I believe it now," Chris said. "And I don't know what made you think I'd be happy to ride on a thing that size."

"Adam is not a thing!" JC said, louder and harder than Lance had ever heard him speak before. And now Lance was as confused as Chris, and all Adam had to say was, I'll tell you later.

"Look. Maybe we should be getting back?" Lance ventured. "You should tell Chris what Dragon Country was like, JC. And, um. Don't be too hard on him, okay? It's a big deal, seeing your first dragon. It is for most of us, anyway."

Once they got home, Adam's explanation didn't help.

"That's possible? A human and a dragon can have a child?"

"I told you we'd make fine babies. Did you think I was making it up?"

"Oh. Yes." Sorry, my dragon, I'm finding it a bit hard to imagine you laying eggs. "I just—but you said JC didn't hatch."

"No, he didn't. But I think he has a dragon parent, and so does he."

It did explain quite a lot about JC, Lance thought. "I wonder how Chris will take it," he said out loud, and tried to keep his misgivings to himself.

"JC's fully human," Adam said. "He can't transform. His dragon parent was in human form, so he made a human baby. I don't think Chris has anything to worry about."

"That might not stop him," Lance said. "Honestly, I hope JC doesn't tell him, not for a while. Chris has enough to cope with already. Like, his whole concept of reality being turned upside down."


When Chris woke up, JC's side of the bed was already cold. He grumped to himself for a moment, but he wasn't really surprised. He'd been around JC for long enough now that he could recognise the signs of inspiration, and JC had been twitchy since he got back from wherever he'd been with Adam yesterday. He'd been willing to put it off last night, he'd talked to Chris, and held him, until he'd more or less understood why Chris hadn't gone with him and... and Adam, but Chris knew JC didn't really get how he felt. How he'd been completely overwhelmed—

Chris didn't want to think about that. That gigantic—he felt ill at the memory, and he did not want to think about it. He would not think about it.

He did think, though, that JC was unlikely to have fed himself before he got going, and it was now almost eleven o'clock. So he hauled himself out of bed and got himself moving, muttering as he washed and dressed about the vagaries of the artistic temperament.

The kitchen betrayed no signs that JC had even passed through it this morning. He'd starve to death, Chris thought, if there wasn't someone a bit more practical about the place, and he set the coffee going. Bacon, he thought, staring into the refrigerator. Bacon sandwiches. Lunch time was not that far away, and a mighty bacon sandwich would work as breakfast and lunch, and it'd be something JC could eat while he worked. Probably. Chris added a couple of napkins to the tray, poured the coffee with a heavy hand on the cream jug, and took his offerings upstairs to the studio.

He was surprised to see that, while JC was indeed working in there, and muttering to himself as he did, he wasn't welding or gluing or screwing or doing any of the things Chris had come to associate with the construction of those peculiar sculptures. He appeared to be taking things out of some of his storage bins and putting them into other bins. It didn't look particularly creative.

Chris decided to wait for JC to notice that sustenance had arrived. He set his own plate and mug aside and parked the tray within range of JC's nose.

He was only part-way through his first sandwich—and seriously, bacon had to be the food of the gods, who gave a shit about nectar and such, if he was a god he'd be sitting around all day being fanned and eating bacon sandwiches—when JC paused, sniffed, and followed his nose round to the tray. He sighted the coffee, pounced, and apparently inhaled about half a mug's worth, then set about his sandwich with determination. He still hadn't noticed Chris.

Chris waited until JC had eaten half his food, then spoke up. "Would it fuck up the creative process if I ask what exactly it is you're doing?"

JC spun, and grinned at him around a mouthful of sandwich, that beautiful scrinched-up grin that Chris lo—that Chris liked so much. "You brought me food!" he said. "And coffee!"

"Don't want you starving to death in the cause of art. So, what'cha doing? I thought you'd be making something, not tidying your studio."

"Oh, no, yes, I am. I'm—I have to get everything ready first. All the pieces I have that will fit."

"Huh." If Chris had thought about it, and in truth, he hadn't, he'd have expected JC to just get started, reaching for the bits of junk as he needed them. JC's storage system was amazingly precise, surely everything was easy to find? "You're not twitching to get creating?"

"I am creating. I love this phase. It helps me solidify everything in my head. When I hold the pieces I can work out where they belong. It helps get the structure clear."

Chris took a closer look at the new bins and trays set out on the floor. Lots of metal struts and chunks, spoons and shards, fragments of machinery, glass pieces of all sizes, and a tray full of blue—broken pottery, bits of turquoise and coloured glass, buttons, feathers, even an alarm clock with no hands, all kinds of stuff. "Your mind is an amazing place, you know that?" JC could turn all this crap into something wonderful and strange. "I guess... Dragon Country inspired you."

It made him uncomfortable even to say it, but JC smiled again. "It's so vivid there. It's like, it's like it's done in oils and this world is in watercolour." He stopped, and frowned. JC was always having trouble putting what he meant into words, although Chris thought that explanation had been clearer than most. "You'll see when this is done. Um."

Yeah, 'cause Chris was going to understand it. Well, whatever. He wiped his hands on his own napkin, and squeezed JC from behind, his face buried between JC's shoulderblades. JC was still holding his sandwich in one hand and his coffee in the other, but Chris could tell he was eager to get back to work.

"Do you know what it is yet?" In the light of some of JC's previous artistic efforts, this was not, Chris felt, an unreasonable question.

"Oh, yes. Essence of dragon. It's so clear in my head, it's going to be—it's going to fly."

"Fly? Are you going to suspend it on ropes? Or, um, balance it on one foot, or something?"

"No, no," JC said, impatiently. "It's going to be on the ground, but it'll look like it's flying. It'll convey flight. It'll be Art. If it was dangling from a crane, it'd just be mechanics."

"Oh," said Chris. Of course. And the idea of JC constructing a giant metal dragon didn't unnerve him at all, no sir. Not at all. "It's going to be awesome," he said. "Look, I'm gonna go for a ride. I'll come back and feed you again later."

"You're good to me," JC said, and wiggled his shoulderblades, these being the only parts available for expressing appreciation right now. Chris would take it.

He enjoyed his bike ride, he fed JC again and even managed to lure him back to bed at the end of the day; next day he went back to Britney's house to do his job, and returned that evening to stuff meat and potatoes into JC's mouth, like a large, flightless bird with one chick. It was okay. Chris was fine with ministering to the creative process. It wasn't like he had much else to do, as Britney was currently very much in 'Cool Mom' mode and kept taking the boys on outings when they got home from nursery school, and he'd already gotten her finances untangled so keeping the books took no time at all. And Britney was delighted to hear that JC was working on something big, and kept encouraging Chris to go over and take care of him. So, fine.

After a week, though, he was beginning to get bored. JC was still working until the wee small hours, but now his creation was burgeoning in the garden behind the barn. He'd set up three giant lamps so that he could progress through the dark of the early evenings, and Chris added "bring JC a sweater" to his mental list of chores. The weather was mild for almost-winter, but it wasn't warm.

"I don't even get sex out of the deal," Chris reminded himself as he rode over to the barn again. When JC could be prised away from his project, he fell between the sheets and was asleep pretty much instantly. Chris didn't mind sleeping, just sleeping, with JC, but it was not doing his insecurities any good.

Chris really needed to get on with other stuff.


Lance was astonished to discover that the lunch date Lisa had informed him of just that morning was with Chris.

"Not that I'm not pleased to see you, of course I am, but I wasn't exactly expecting you. I thought you said the, uh, shield thing was kind of a strain."

"I've been practising," Chris said. "And I can't tell if I'm any better at it if I never see you, can I?"

"Is everything okay?"

Chris shot him a suspicious look.

"It's working, I promise! I just—you seem a bit down," Lance said.

"Eh. I figure Mama Fatone's cooking will cheer me up."

They were greeted and seated with the usual enthusiasm, and a slight reproach from Papa for not coming in to eat in so long. Joey showed up with a smile, and brought them steaming bowls of meatballs and spaghetti which, Lance thought, would probably cheer up Job. It was irritating that Chris's defensive 'fuel tank' seemed to have no effect at all on Joey's ability to divine what Chris wanted to eat. He tamped down the urge to say something pointed. As far as he knew, Chris wasn't aware of Joey's gift, and Joey probably preferred it that way.

Chris was applying—apparently—his full attention to his food. If there was to be conversation, it looked as though Lance was going to have to initiate it. "Can I ask you something?" Lance said.


Lance was sure there ought to have been suspicion surrounding that brief response. He wasn't sure he'd ever get used to this. "I just wondered if you had any idea why Justin and Adam didn't get along, when we had dinner at your place."

"Oh, yeah. Brit said something about it." Chris ate a mouthful, the spaghetti slapping him on the chin as he slurped and leaving a tomato stripe. "She said Justin didn't think Adam was serious about his music."


"Don't ask me why. Something about him not putting the work in, just going straight to Cowell and being picked up as the latest toy."

Lance hadn't thought of that. "Well, but… I put him onto X-Works," he said, feeling oddly on the defensive.

Chris shrugged. "Not saying Justin's right. 's what Brit said he said."

"I should do something about that," Lance decided. "Maybe I can get them to work together. I wonder if Justin wants to do some producing? Or Adam could be his opening act—"

"Not unless he thinks Adam's any good," Chris said. "He'd have to hear him sing. Come to think of it, I haven't heard Adam sing either. Is he any good?"

Lance glared. "He's—next time he performs within forty miles of here, we are all going! You'll see!"

"So, he didn't just luck out by getting a boyfriend with connections, then," Chris said, with an evil glint in his eye that Lance didn't need corroboration to understand.

"He's good," he said, refusing to rise to the bait. "I place people where they belong, not where they want to be."

"And that's why I wanted to talk to you," said Chris, in an unexpected turn of subject. "I'm gonna be needing a new job soon."

"What? I thought you and Brit were a perfect fit! Do not tell me I'm getting back on the old merry-go-round of trying to find her another assistant every five minutes!"

"Come on, how hard can it be? She's a sweetheart, and the boys are great. But I don't think she's going to need me for long. She got her mojo back, and a lot of why she wanted an assistant was because she didn't think she could do it on her own."

"True," said Lance. "But—"

"And she and Justin are a real thing, now, and Lynn loves helping out with the boys, and she's exactly the kind of mother Britney needs, which is okay, kinda weird because when you look at Justin, you just know his mother never spanked him when he was young enough for it to make a difference, but she's really great with Brit anyway."

Lance tried not to laugh.

"Anyway, she doesn't need a live-in assistant. She hasn't realised yet, but she soon will, and I don't want her to feel guilty about firing me. I want to be able to quit at just the perfect moment when she won't panic about it, and before she starts to feel that she has to keep me on for my sake."

Lance really wished he could catch something of what was going on inside Chris's head. If Chris was feeling really down, he might be trying to talk himself out of a job because he didn't believe he was useful, and Lance was not at all sure that Britney was going to be happy without a personal world-wrangler and miracle worker on the premises. He was worried about Chris's relationship with JC, too, and it would have been incredibly helpful to know whether JC had said anything about his dragon parentage. Lance didn't dare mention it or even hint at it, because if JC had not said anything, the consequences didn't bear thinking about.

"Anyway," Chris went on, "it's been a great job, totally not something I ever thought I'd be doing but a whole lot of fun. So I thought, since you found me one great job, how about you find me another one? I saved quite a bit, but it isn't enough to get me my garage yet."

"Your—oh, of course, you want to run your own business. Hmm." Lance applied himself to his food for a few mouthfuls, considering. He ought to be able to find Chris something, even without the usual input from inside Chris's head. Even if it did feel weird and uncomfortable and like being underwater.

"I know there's nothing around for a mechanic," Chris was saying, "at least, not anywhere I want to work. But I need something. Can't make a living as JC's chief cook and bottle washer."

"But if you want—" Lance began, and paused to get his thoughts in order. "If you want to run your own garage… wait, let me think about this." There were a couple of vacancies for chauffeurs, but he would not send Chris to work for those people, no way. That bodyguard company… but JC would never speak to him again if he sent Chris there. "Yeah, you really need to be working in that kind of area." There wasn't a lot going in Lance's main field, but he could probably ask some contacts in the non-showbiz field if they had any openings. "I… don't suppose you want to sell used cars?"

Chris nearly choked on a meatball. "Me? Can you seriously see me selling cars? I'd be all, No, you don't wanna buy this one, the transmission's crap. How about a nice little blue rustbucket with a faulty door lock? I'd be out of a job in a day."

It was true, and actually… Lance sniggered. Chris would be the anti-salesman. "Maybe you should hire yourself out to people who want to buy used cars, to tell them what's wrong with them?"

"Sounds like a service people could use. But how'd they pay me? Commission on the car they didn't buy?"

Now, that was Chris's cynical face, and Lance didn't need the mental echoes to enjoy it.

"It'd get you a reputation as an honest guy who knows about cars," Lance began. "I mean, seriously, it's not a bad idea, not bad at all." The more he thought about it, the more he liked it.

"Except I never heard of anyone having a job like that," Chris objected.

"No. True."

"For Hire, Roving Mechanic. Have bike, will travel," Chris said, and looked as if he had a whole spiel ready to deliver, when he stopped. "Roving mechanic. I—do you think—"

"You could go to people's houses, repair their cars in their own driveways," Lance said.

"Yeah. Might have to refer some stuff to an actual garage," Chris said, and there was a tiny crack in his mental fuel tank, he was leaking enthusiasm, "but I could take a lot of tools with me on the bike, maybe even get a trailer, or a backpack full of—and I could do that, you know, offer advice on whether to buy a car or not, for a fee, and, holy shit, Lance, do you think that would work?"

"I actually think it would," Lance said, considering.

"And I could help people who broke down on the road. Repair it right there, instead of hiring a tow truck."

"Well," Lance said, "only if they happen to break down right next to a phone box."

Chris rolled his eyes. "If they can call out the tow truck, they can call me."

"And it'd build up your reputation as a mechanic," Lance said, "so that when you have enough to open your garage, you'll have customers already." He could feel Chris's excitement. "Holy crap, did we just invent a whole new job?"

"Sure as hell did! I'm gonna have to think this through, but it sounds kind of perfect. I'll need a phone line. Don't need an office, just an answering service… Plus a lot of business cards."

"Chris Kirkpatrick, Scourge of the Automobile Sales Industry."

"Not snappy enough. But right idea. Scourge… I like that. I can totally be a scourge." Chris looked a whole lot happier than he had when they came in. "I'm gonna have to—wait, you know everybody. You could, uh, hand out cards?"

"Absolutely. I will recommend you to everybody I know."

They celebrated with chocolate cheesecake, and Chris paid for Lance's lunch, then went into the bakery to buy sfogliatelle for JC. "He's gonna be so impressed when I—actually, I might just wait until he's finished the thing he's working on before I tell him, otherwise he won't notice. But it's going to work. It's definitely going to work."

"So JC's creating again?"

"Oh, yeah."


Standing back, looking at it whole amongst the trees and shrubs on his land, JC was quite surprised at its stature. It was bigger than he had expected, bigger, he thought, than Adam's dragon form. At least, it was mostly air but encompassed in a frame that had grown huge. No wonder Chris had taken to avoiding it. JC was sorry that his sculpture upset Chris, but he couldn't help it. The work wanted to be this big, and he couldn't compromise with the work.

He was not going to sell this one, not ever. Part of his soul had been built into the framework, not just his ideas and his vision but something more, something he couldn't define.

Also, he couldn't imagine how to put a price on it. No. It was going to stay here on his own ground, where it belonged.

So. Was it… done?

He thought it was done, but it had to be perfect. He would check. The sun was too low in the sky for detail work so he turned on the big floodlights and meticulously went over the entire form and checked every joint, every angle, every element. It was perfect, which really, he had known it would be. Somehow everything had just worked, without the usual stresses and fumbles along the way.

He stood back again to stare at the whole mighty shape, metal struts and wings that glittered with glass and flint and ephemeral shreds of cloth that would float in the breeze on a less quiet night, and although it was standing on the earth of his garden with his stools and ladders around it, it was flying, it was essence of dragon, it was the embodiment of flight, reaching into the skies of Dragon Country through the dimensions that weren't there. JC followed the lines of his sculpture and—

—and he was in Dragon Country. High, high above the hills of Dragon Country, and falling.

Oh, shit.

Chris screamed. He ran forward to the dragonish head of JC's sculpture, praying for JC to have ducked out of sight behind a bush or to have stepped inside the dragon's mouth or anything, anything but what he knew he had seen, JC disappearing into nothingness like a switched-off light.

JC was gone. Gone to Dragon Country. Where there were motherfucking dragons.

Chris ran back to his motorbike, fumbled and kicked and hurtled down the track, back to the road, back to town, back to Lance's office, and he ran the bike right up on the pavement outside Lance's building and ran in without a pause. "Lance, you have to help. JC's gone."

Lance, and the woman he was interviewing, gaped at Chris in astonishment.


Such a turmoil in Chris's head, Lance could hardly make sense of it, but the fuel tank was gone without trace and the urgency and the terror were compelling. "Mrs Morris, I'm so sorry, it's an emergency. Can you reschedule with Lisa?" Lisa had hurried into the room in Chris's wake, and was already making the right soothing noises. She ushered Mrs Morris out and closed the door.

"Chris. Calm down. Breathe. Tell me what happened."

Breathe? No time to BREATHE! Not with JC vanished to a world of monsters. Motherfucking dragonsdragonsdragons ohgod JCJCJC.

Lance felt the clutch of panic in his own chest and reached for reassurance. Adam's instant response in his mind helped steady him. "Chris, slow down. Clarify. What exactly happened?" And he saw in Chris's mind the huge metallic shape amid the bushes, and JC winking out of the world of humans.

Oh, not good. Very, very not good.

"Lance, you have to help him. We have to rescue him." There are dragonsdragons there monsterfuckingdragons helphimhelphelp!

"I'm telling Adam what happened," Lance said, conveying the information at once. "Chris, Adam's out shopping. He'll find somewhere private and transit through at once. He'll find JC for you. We won't let anything happen to him."

"Make him go now! Please! I can't—dragons, Lance!" Chris clutched at Lance's shirt, and Lance felt a terrible chill in his belly as he thought of what might happen if JC met a dragon. A golden dragon filled his mind, and images of fire, and Adam's thought cut across it like cool water. Heart's mate, I'm going now. Take care of Chris.

"Okay, Adam's there. Don't worry, Chris. Try not to worry."

Like a puppet with cut strings Chris flopped onto an empty chair. His mind was still roiling with panic, but Lance could sense that he was getting himself back under control.

"Sorry about—" Chris waved vaguely towards the door.

"Not a problem. You did right to come here. How long ago did, did JC go?"

Chris didn't know how long his frantic bike journey had taken. Lance tried not to let the worry show. Adam was having no luck finding JC. "I think we should get back to where it happened," he said. "Maybe it'll give Adam a clue where to look if he knows what JC was looking at."

"I came on the bike," Chris said.

"Good. You can take me back with you. Come on."

The journey back to JC's barn was uncomfortably fast, and Lance revised downward his estimate of the time Chris had taken to reach him in the first place, but it was still long enough for JC to have found himself in real trouble. If Adam couldn't find him…

The ground was getting closer awfully fast. Chris, JC thought, oh, Chris. He'll never know how I—

Something closed around him, pinning his arms firmly to his sides, and he soared upwards. A few seconds later, his stomach caught up. Dizzy with surprise and relief, secure in the dragon's grasp, he could feel the ends of claws like drill bits along his sides, but they didn't pierce. The dragon held him firmly and flew towards the mountains and the setting sun.

It was amazing.

Also, he wasn't falling to his death, and JC was good with that.

The wind was chill against his cheeks and he shivered a bit as the dragon rose higher, but JC didn't care. He drank in the rich colours of the mountains in fading sunlight and the scope of the purple sky, and most of all the unbelievable fact that he was flying above it all in a dragon's claws, and it felt as though his heart was expanding. Nearer to the mountain they flew, above a little cup-shaped valley and there the dragon set him carefully down on his belly and settled itself onto the ground, its enormous wings half folded to shield him from the breeze. JC struggled onto hands and knees, suddenly aware that his legs might not hold him after the experiences of the last few minutes, so he knelt, and turned to the dragon.

Oh, it was glorious. Its scales were the colour of April skies, purest blue, and it glittered all over with silver points, and its eyes, its eyes like the sea, focused on him.

"Hello," he said. "I've been looking for you."

The dragon's head shifted to one side. It looked pleased, JC thought, though he could definitely have wished for some of Lance's gift to be sure of that, because what if his father really didn't know who he was or want him at all? The dragon might after all have plucked him out of the sky because it was hungry, or something… JC kinda wished that had not occurred to him.

The dragon blurred and shrank and became human-sized and—oh. Oh!

I can't find him.

Adam, we're at JC's barn now. Come through to where I am, maybe the sculpture will help.

Chris flinched mightily as Adam stepped into view from elsewhere, but Lance had no time to indulge his fears. "Right. Where's the sculpture?"

"Other side of the barn," Chris said, and ran ahead.

The three of the stared at the giant edifice.

"Oh, my," Adam said. It's flight. How does it do that?

"It's amazing," said Lance.

"Yeah, does it help?" said Chris, which was more to the point.

Lance could feel the pull of the dimensions that weren't there. And JC had managed to—never mind. "Adam, can you get anything from this?"

"I think so," Adam said, puzzled. "It's heading for another part of the sky. I think I can follow—"

"Wait!" Chris stepped closer. "I want to help. I have to—take me with you."

"Chris," Lance began. "I don't know if there's anything we can do."

"I have to try. Please, I have to try." There was desperate hope in Chris's thoughts. "I love him, and I can't—I have to do something. Please."

He needed to help, Lance realised. The terror was still spilling out from Chris's mind, but overridden by his need to be doing something to help JC.

"Okay," Adam said. "But, you know, I think the only way to get you through is if you ride on my dragon self."

"I know. Wait, let me just get something." Chris dashed into the house.

"Are you sure he can deal with this?" Adam said.

"He loves JC." It's a powerful force.

Chris ran back, brandishing a pair of binoculars. "Let's do this."

"Right, hold on to me," Lance said, briskly. Chris grabbed him from behind, and Lance held Adam by the shoulders, and Adam changed and swelled, and paused for a moment to let Lance and Chris get comfortable on his back. Chris's head was jammed against Lance's spine, and he was mumbling a ceaseless stream of obscenities, but he was determined and he was as ready as he was going to be. Go for it, my dragon.

They left the ground, and left the barn behind.

"Hello, little one."

JC couldn't speak. Somehow his throat was clogged and his eyes were full of tears.

"I knew you would find me when you were ready. But you should not have tried to fly. That was foolish."

That surprised a laugh out of him.

"Still, you did well." His mother waited. Obviously it was JC's turn to speak.

"I, um. I thought you were my father."

Her forehead wrinkled. "Father. Oh. Otherparent. Why would you think so?"

"I suppose… I never knew who my father was, but I remembered you, and when Adam said I was a dragon's child I just assumed that my father was the dragon and that was why he was never a part of my life."

She was silent for a full minute. "I would have stayed, if I could. But I needed to fly. Human hatchlings need so many things, and I did not know how to do those things. Karen and Roy were better for you. And I needed to fly."

"Did I, uh, I didn't actually hatch, did I?"

"No, no. I carried you in my human body. So much time, and I could not become myself again. I didn't know if it would hurt you, while you were growing, and I was broodparent and I had to take care of you." She looked at him earnestly. "I tried to teach you what I could, as I would have taught you in the egg. How to retain your thoughts, and how to, how to move between places. I did not know what humans teach their offspring. I tried to learn, when you were very small, but it was difficult."

"Uh. I—I don't even know what to ask. When you went away, when I was little, was that so you could come back here and be a dragon again?"

"I am a dragon."

"No, but, when you were pregnant with me, you were a human."

"Human shape. Ah, I see. Yes, when you were very small, I had to come back home to fly, sometimes. It was very hard to go back."

"And after a while, you didn't come back."

"I couldn't bring you with me. I considered it, but how would you live here? I left you with Karen and Roy. Humans need other humans. And you grew strong." She looked pleased. "You look like the otherparent."

"I look like my father? What was he like?"

She smiled. Expressions seemed to be coming more easily to her now, as if she was remembering a language she'd once known how to speak. "He was beautiful, and sweet."

"Did you…" he hesitated. Was it even a concept she would understand? JC had only understood it when he'd thought he was about to die and Chris would never know. "Did you love him?" Did dragons love?

"No," she said at once. "He was beautiful, and sweet, and his body pleased me."

So much for Dad. Sounded like a one night stand, and all things considered, he'd heard worse epitaphs.

"But he didn't stick around to care for you, for us, when you got pregnant?"

She frowned again, puzzled. "What purpose would that have served?"

"Well, he, uh. I mean, you struggled, you were on your own. I just wondered if he was the kind of guy who didn't stick around when he should have."

"He was not necessary. I grew you inside my body. How could he have assisted with that?"

It probably wasn't worth trying to explain. It sounded like dragon reproduction didn't really map to human. He'd ask Adam about it, maybe. Adam seemed a lot more human than this dragon who'd given birth to JC.

"I did not inform him that I was… brooding. Was that wrong?"

"Oh." So his father might have stuck around, if he'd known. JC would hang on to that thought, he decided. "I guess it would have made things really awkward for you, if he didn't know you were a dragon. He might have wanted you to get married and spend the rest of your lives together."

She looked horrified. JC imagined having a conversation with a pregnant lover who told him she was a dragon, and decided there wasn't a good way for that to have gone. "You know, maybe it was for the best that he didn't know," he said, gently.

She smiled. "Yes. You understand. Good. I hoped you would think so. Karen and Roy asked me if I wanted to tell the father—is that what they meant? They said it would take two humans to care for one small human."

"Yeah," JC said. He shifted position, sat cross-legged, and his mother bent awkwardly and sat beside him. "It's good to have two parents. It means they each get a rest, and somebody to sympathise." He could tell she didn't really follow, but it didn't matter. "You chose good parents for me."

"Yes," she agreed. "They were kind. I could tell that they loved you." To his surprise, she placed her hands against his cheeks. "I loved you, my hatchling, but I have to fly. Six years I took, so that you would be strong enough without me, but it was very hard."

Six years? "But I was only five when you… left."

"Yes. I grew you, and then you… emerged." She scowled at the memory. "Hatching is better." Did that mean he had dragon siblings? JC decided not to ask. "And then you grew. I thought you would be bigger after so much time. A dragon is big enough to be alone after six rounds of the sun, but you were very small still, so I left you with Karen and Roy." Her hands fell. "Do you understand? That I had to fly? You were so precious to me, and sometimes when you smiled at me I felt, I felt that I should be with you always, but I could not—I am still dragon, and I must ride the wind."

She'd given up her true self for six years for him, JC thought. She really had meant it when she'd told him she loved him. It felt as though a knot inside him had been untied.

Her head jerked up, and she snarled. "Stay! I protect." A moment later the glorious sky blue dragon was crouched above him. JC scrambled to his feet and turned to see what was the matter, as his broodparent let out a shriek of challenge.

Another dragon was approaching, flying towards them out of the sunset.

The gibbering terror from Chris's mind was hard to shake off. "It's going to be all right," Lance lowered the binoculars and called over his shoulder. "Adam can fight it, but he'll have to set us down first." He shook his head. The input of thoughts not his own was getting really hard to deal with. The wild emotions from Chris—fear and rage and the desperate need to protect JC—and Adam's wary confusion about the other dragon and its intentions, between the two of them he hardly knew where he was.

I'm sorry, heart's mate. Adam offered the vision of their secret lake in the mountains, but Lance declined it. It wasn't the moment to take a peaceful escape, they had a strange dragon to deal with, one that was bracketing JC under the spread of its great front limbs.

Can you extend your shield to me? I need to be able to think. It helped so much to be protected by Adam's dragon-calibre shield. Lance really didn't need the details of exactly how terrified Chris was, or the many hideous ways in which the blue dragon might be about to kill JC.

The black dragon let out a bellow, and the other dragon bellowed back.

Wait. That was odd.

That wasn't what I expected, Lance thought.

It thinks we are dangerous. Adam was puzzled, too. It intends to protect JC? They flew closer, and Adam began to look for a convenient landing place.

JC, tiny under the great canopy of blue wings, didn't appear the least bit worried. At this distance, Lance couldn't have picked up anything from him even without Adam's encompassing mind-shield, and the other dragon was holding its thoughts inside, except for the bursts of communication encapsulated in its roars. He didn't understand the language, but the emotion came across.

"What's happening?" Chris, over Lance's shoulder.

"We're going to land, I think," Lance said.

"So Adam is going to fight it?"

"I… hope not." It had been terrifying to witness a dragon fight when he didn't know that Adam was involved. Now, his beloved would be at risk. Lance really didn't want that to happen. And that blue dragon was huge.

I can fight it. I am strong. But I don't know if it is necessary.

As Adam approached the mountain, JC began to wave. The blue dragon roared again, and somehow, it didn't sound hostile.

I think this is good. I think this is the dragon JC came to find.

You mean, JC's dragon parent?

Yes. The blue one claims him as hatchling.

Adam approached slowly, careful to avoid any suggestion that he was trying to get into a position to attack, and landed so gently Lance hardly felt it happen.

"Chris, I think it's—"

The tight grip around Lance's waist loosened and Chris was gone, sliding down Adam's scaly shoulder. He wobbled a bit as he hit the ground, then ran full tilt, straight towards JC and the blue dragon. Astounded, Lance and Adam watched as he grabbed JC, whirled him round and stood deliberately between him and the blue dragon, radiating defiance.

The blue dragon bent its scaly head to inspect the newcomer. Lance could see Chris literally shaking with terror, but Chris stood there, defying a dragon, and Lance had never seen anything so outrageously brave in his life.

You can't have him, Chris thought, furiously. He might even have been shouting it. He'd never been so frightened in his life. Even the gut-melting terror of seeing a dragon for the first time was nothing to this, because this dragon was going to eat JC, or flame him to nothingness, or whatever it was that dragons did, and that scared him more than anything had ever done. "Get back!" he yelled at the giant blue beast, and knew it was futile. "Run, JC! Run!"

Then he felt JC's arm slide around his waist.

"Hey, hey. It's all right. Nothing to be afraid of."

Chris did not take his eyes off the blue dragon.

"Chris, it's all right. This is. Okay, this is going to sound really strange, but the dragon isn't going to hurt me. She's, it's, this is my mother."

That… what? "How—what are you talking about? Holy fuck!"

The blue dragon was gone, replaced by a human woman in a hideous bright blue trouser suit and hippie sandals. Chris gaped at her. JC's mother? His mother?

"Hey," JC said, and pulled Chris into a hug. "Yeah. Um. My Mama."

"I don't—" Was that why JC didn't believe in love? Because his mother was a dragon? Chris had followed weirder trains of thought in his time, but this one might actually be correct. He didn't know if it made him feel better or worse, but at least it was an explanation. Of sorts. It didn't make sense, but nothing in his life had made sense for a while now. Not since he'd seen a big black dragon in JC's back yard, anyway. Oh, hell, if Lance's boyfriend could be a real, live dragon, why shouldn't JC's mother be a dragon, too? Why should anything make sense?

"is this seriously my life?" Chris complained. "Seriously? This is my life now?" My boyfriend is half dragon? Seriously? He wondered if Lance had caught that thought, and glanced back to where Lance—and Adam, now human—were standing a way back. Lance shrugged and tilted his head sideways to his own dragon boyfriend.

"It's not so bad," JC said. "Let me introduce you properly. Mama, this is Chris. And those two are Lance and Adam. Adam was the black dragon."

Oh, yeah, Chris thought, things were practically normal now. No dragons for miles. Plus, it felt like his heart probably wasn't going to explode after all. His pulse rate had slowed down a lot. So that was okay. He was on a mountain, being inspected by some woman in a Charlie's Angels outfit, and apparently he didn't have to kill a dragon today, so, woo hoo. Practically normal.

"Um, Mama, I… don't actually know your name," JC said. "What should everybody call you?"

The blue dragon lady in the pantsuit snorted in an entirely dragonish way. Chris clutched at JC's T-shirt. "Humans do like their labels," the woman said. "So silly."

"It's actually quite convenient," Adam said, tentatively. "There are an awful lot of them. Names are useful."

She looked at him with disdain. "You are very young. You are the loud one who shows off. Your heart's mate is the one who understands. My hatchling dreams and gives his dreams form. I live on the wind. We know who we are. The labels mean nothing." Her attention reverted to Chris, whom she looked at with something like approval. "So, this one would stand in front of a dragon, although he smells of fear. Who is he?"

JC wrapped his arms more tightly around Chris. "He's Chris. He's—he's my heart's mate."

Chris froze.

"Ah," said the woman in blue. "You love him."

"I—yes. Yes, I do."

JC's mother smiled. "He is fierce and strong. A good choice."


"So what happened next?"

"I don't know if I should be chatting with you right now, Joe. Shouldn't you be waiting tables or washing dishes or something?"

"You know I never sit down with a customer unless it's you or Chris, right? And that the restaurant's been closed for nearly an hour?" Joey's wounded, soulful eyes were the best Lance had ever seen, and he'd thought Dingo was the all-time champ. "Besides, in about two minutes my Mama is going to bring me a plate of something, so you, my friend, can keep talking. What happened next?"

Lance grinned. "JC told his mama about the sculpture that helped him get through, and she wanted to see it, so we got back up on Adam and the blue dragon picked up JC and we came back through the dimensions to JC's barn. I am so glad that place is in the middle of nowhere. JC showed her his sculpture and she was quiet for a while, then she said he could visit whenever he wanted, and she went back to Dragon Country."

"Was she… proud? Or, I don't know, surprised?"

"Who knows? You remember what Adam's shield is like—well, the blue dragon's way more of a dragon than Adam is, you know? You never really forget that she's only in human shape, she's not human at all. And she has a shield like a cliff face. She could've been irritated for all I know. I mean, I'd guess not, but." He shrugged.

"You really got nothing." Joey sounded disappointed.

"Trust me, it's better that way, with a dragon. If they don't shield, their thoughts are way too powerful."

Mama Fatone appeared with a bowl of linguine with shrimp and tomato sauce, plus another coffee for Lance. Joey set about his dinner for a few moments, and Lance thought back to the strange scene in JC's garden. The dragon woman inspecting that incredible construction JC had built, while JC fidgeted, hoping for approval, and Chris sat on the grass and tried to get himself back together. Adam, meanwhile, was still affronted by the blue one's characterisation of him, and eager to leave. Dragons did not appear to get along very well, generally speaking. No wonder a gregarious soul like his boyfriend preferred to live with humans.

"Speaking of shields, uh, how's Chris?"

"Oh, great segue, Joe!" Lance said. "Chris is—mostly, he's ecstatic."

"Ah. JC."

"Yup. I don't think we'll be seeing much of those two for a while. They'll be busy." If you know what I mean, Lance thought. Joey obviously knew exactly what he meant, and grinned into his linguine.


Lance was wrong, though. Two days later, Chris showed up at his office with a fist full of brand new business cards and a very satisfied grin.

And… "So, this is different," Lance said.

Chris didn't pretend to misunderstand. "Yeah, well, it seems like there've been some times lately when it would have been kind of helpful for you to know what I was thinking," he said, cheerfully. "And I gave it some thought—"

"In between the sex." Lance couldn't help himself. And he managed to keep a straight face.

Chris frowned at him, then grinned even more broadly. "I thought about it, and I swapped my fuel tank for a set of pistons. Or, no, the whole engine. Wait, it's more like a combustion chamber, with valves and—okay, your eyes are glazing over, never mind. Upshot is I don't have to be paranoid about you knowing what I'm thinking, and you don't get bothered by the little stuff, but if there's something big going on, it'll be obvious. Is it working?"

"It is," Lance said, delighted. He wasn't getting the full-stream tumble of Chris's second-by-second thoughts, but the emotions were coming through loud and clear: astonished happiness, with a side order of smug. It was sweet. "I don't have a clue what you're doing, but it's working really well."

"Plus I think I can put the brakes on if I need to," Chris said.

"That's good, 'cause I do not need the full details of your flourishing sex life," Lance said, evilly.

Chris laughed. "You should be so lucky."

"Oh, I am."

They looked at one another ruefully for a moment, until Chris said, "Life is a whole lot weirder than I ever thought it would be."

Lance laughed. "Did you ever think you'd be the normal one in the relationship?"

"I know! I could deal with his creative jags. And the insecurity. And the mood swings, and the way he gets kind of pompous sometimes, all that. Now, I have to deal with him being able to disappear off the face of the earth if he feels like it." Under the bafflement and the worry was a hint of pride. Lance knew how that felt, too. "It's not like I didn't know JC was a weirdo before," Chris went on, "but his mother is a dragon! I mean. Fuck!"

"Still think I win on that one," Lance murmured.

"I guess you do." Chris hesitated. "How do you deal with having a dragon for a boyfriend?"

"One day at a time. Sometimes I wonder what the hell I'm doing."

"But you were all about the dragons. You must have loved it, that Adam was a dragon. Just what you always wanted."

"I wanted Adam," Lance said, thoughtfully. "I wanted Adam, and I got a dragon. I still want Adam. The rest is—I just—I love Adam, and he is who he is, so."

"I guess it is that simple."

"Like I said, one day at a time. And JC is human, after all. He's unique, but you already knew that."

"I didn't know he'd be able to disappear into a different dimension."

"My boyfriend can lay eggs."

Chris's eyes grew huge. "Okay, you do win." He stared at Lance for a moment longer, than burst out laughing. "Seriously! Eggs!"

"That's dragons for you," said Lance. He'd take it, he thought.


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