"So, where's the trailer?"
"What's that?" Alan Grant paused in his survey of the new site. College students and museum volunteers swarmed everywhere, getting set up for another long summer digging for dinosaurs. He turned to face the speaker.
It was a young man, one who looked vaguely familiar. Alan rooted through his memory, without success. Dark brown eyes smiled at him.
"The trailer you used to have on the site. What ever happened to it?"
"Do I know you?" Alan was puzzled. He hadn't had a trailer on site in years. "And the trailer was here mainly at Dr. Sattler's insistence."
"Ah, I see." The young man- hardly more than a boy, really- smiled again and extended a hand. "Billy Brennan. I spent a summer at one of your digs a few years back, when you worked for DU."
Alan clasped the hand briefly, then remembered. "Oh yeah- Jackie and Frank Brennan's kid. Choteau, right?"
"That would be the one."
"Got you hooked, huh?" The kid had a nice smile, warm and friendly. Maybe he'd do better on the dig as an adult than he had- what, six years ago now? Had it really been that long? Amazing.
"Yeah. Enough so I've been trying to sign on with you for a couple years, now."
"Well, we always need more hands around here- it's just the money won't often allow them." Alan spotted something disturbing- a group of newbies, setting up their tent in close proximity to the grid. "Damn fools," he muttered, and strode off to deal with them.
Life settled in rapidly to the familiar pattern of the excavation site in summer: eat, sleep, dig. This was a new site, hand-picked by the Director of the museum, who was showing an unhealthy interest in the Paleontology department lately. Unhealthy because he was only interested in results- quantity, not quality. Since the debacle in San Diego, everyone had gone dinosaur mad. While Alan appreciated the publicity for his field, he was disturbed by the increasing trend towards sensationalism. Forget about the backbone of the industry- people weren't interested anymore in reconstructing the ancient habitat. All they cared about was finding more and more skeletons, and better make it good ones- and while you're at it, could you discover some nests, too? We need some eggs for our display. And try to make it good eggs- none of those measly fragments.
At least the site was promising. All the signs were there that indicated dinosaur fossils- exposed layers dated back sixty-five million years, abundant fossilized remains of plantlife, a geological report that stated clearly the site had once been a prehistoric swamp. And this year the techs had promised to have the imaging system up and running, correctly, which should cut down dramatically on time spent searching for remains. Based on the preliminary survey, he'd had the grid laid out to mark off a starting section of about six hundred square feet. Off to the side, he could see the tarp going up, strung between four poles to provide shelter for the computer equipment. He strode over to lend a hand. Even if he couldn't operate all the stuff, at least he could help move it.
"Anything I can do over here?"
"Not really, Dr. Grant." His research assistant, Kelly Matthews, spared him a glance before returning her attention to the unloading process. "We've got everything under control."
"You sure? Maybe I could just-" He reached out towards a piece of equipment.
"Don't touch that!" she yelped, diving to block him. He grinned at her, hearing the chuckles of her helpers as she fussed over the whatever-it-was, setting it up just so. She'd had ample experience last season with his luck around equipment. Then the kid, Billy, caught his eye.
"Dr. Grant? Could you give me a hand with this?" Billy jumped up in the bed of the nearly emptied pickup and wrestled the gas-powered generator towards the edge. Alan moved over willingly, and together they unloaded the heavy generator and positioned it near the pavilion. "Thanks," Billy said, smiling at him.
"No problem." Alan left them to their job, migrating slowly around the camp and making sure all was going well. He always felt awkward and out of place on the first day of a dig. This time, the feeling was worse, because he'd only been on this job for a couple years. He spared a moment to regret the loss of his DU job, but only a moment. This was his job now, and he had to make the best of it and do it right.
He found his way to his battered old Army tent and sat under the front flap, overlooking the camp. Sometimes, his ego still smarted- reduced to one of the pathetic creatures he'd once despised, a museum curator. Damn. But money was money, and no one else had wanted to offer him a job after... after.
Tomorrow the real fun would begin. Tomorrow, he'd take the newbies in hand, show 'em which end of a brush to hold, set them to work clearing off the top layer of the site. There'd be a few minor discoveries, causing excitement among the newbies and tolerant smiles from the old hands. Then Kelly would have the results from the more detailed surveys, and he'd set the crew to work in earnest.
And maybe, just maybe, this would be a good season.
"Dr. Grant? Dr. Grant, come here!"
A breathless young girl raced up to Alan, nearly crashing into him. He straightened from the skull he was trying to expose, a hand on his back to ease tense muscles. "What is it, Fran?"
"It's Billy- he said to come get you, right away." She grabbed his arm and tugged urgently.
Alan rose, wondering again why he'd continued to allow parents to bring kids along, and followed Fran. She led him around the edge of the dig, past a few campsites, and over a slight ridge. Billy was there, kneeling on the ground.
"Billy! I brought him!" Fran ran up to him, excited. "Just like I said I would!"
"Good girl, Fran. Thanks." Billy smiled at the girl, then stood and beckoned Alan closer. "Dr. Grant, I think you should see this."
"What is it?" Alan moved in close, stepping around the girl. There was a mound in front of Billy, a circular- "Is that-"
"A nest." Billy nodded, eyes shining. "It is."
Alan dropped to his knees beside the mound. Visible through collected dirt and debris were the lumps of intact eggs.
"Holy-" He broke off, with a glance at the girl. "-cow. How'd you find this?"
"Tripped over it, actually." Billy looked both embarassed and pleased. "I almost fell into it and noticed the egg-shapes."
"Amazing find," Alan said. He rose, dusting his pants off. "Better get it marked off and added to the grid. Then you can start excavation."
"Me, Dr. Grant?" Billy's eyes were wide with mingled surprise and pleasure.
"Yes, you, Billy. You found it, so you get to work on it." Alan smiled at the young man's obvious eagerness, then moved away. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a jawbone to work on over there."
"Thanks, Dr. Grant! I'll get right to work."
Alan smiled as he headed back to his skull. He was glad the kid had made such an impressive discovery- give him something useful to do, and keep him happy. Kelly had been running the kid ragged so far. She had taken an instant dislike to him, for some reason known only to her. But he was always cheerful, always ready with a smile and a helping hand.
Alan was out for his nightly prowl through the area surrounding the camp, an effort to stave off sleeplessness, when he encountered something unexpected- Billy. "Uh," he said, startled by the appearance of another person out wandering in the night.
"Dr. Grant?" Billy sounded surprised, as well. "What are you doing out here?"
"Just out for a walk. And you?"
"Same here. I couldn't sleep."
"Oh. Me either." Alan paused, searching for something to say. Billy looked at him, silver moonlight making him seem almost unreal. "Never ran into anyone out here before, not at this time of night anyways."
"You do this often?"
"Often enough." He shifted awkwardly, wanting to get away without seeming rude.
"Me too. I'm a bit of a night owl, myself." Billy smiled, showing no inclination to just move on and let Alan resume his solitary wanderings.
"I never used to be, but... things change." No way was he about to admit the reason behind his insomnia to the kid.
"Yeah... down here, anyway." Billy looked past Alan, to where the Milky Way was visible in a broad spangled band, draping across the horizon.
"What?" Alan tilted his head to the side, wondering what the kid meant.
"The stars never change. Wish I'd brought my telescope along, it'd give me something to do on nights like this."
"Oh, but they do change," Alan said. "Just wait- there's a couple comets coming over the next couple years, not to mention when the planets line up. That ought to be something to see."
It was Billy's turn to be surprised. "You like astronomy too, huh? I almost majored in it, but there's no such thing as an astronomy program out here."
That set off a discussion that lasted until Arcturus was riding perilously close to the horizon. Alan was the first to notice the time.
"Uh," he said, blinking with surprise. Surely it can't be that late... But a quick look at his watch, with its almost painfully bright blue backlight, confirmed that it was, indeed, that late. "Look, it's been fun talking to you, but it's time for me to hit the sack." He rose from the convenient rock he'd perched on some time ago, stretching stiff muscles. Rocks weren't his preferred choice of seating, by any stretch of the imagination.
"What?" Billy blinked in surprise at his own watch, then got to his feet as well. "Yeah, I'll say! Past time, even, with the way you always get people up and working at indecent hours of the morning."
"Hey, we're out here to dig, not nap!" Alan grinned, not too tired to tease the kid.
"Yeah, yeah- let you tell it! Good night, Dr. Grant- or should I say morning?" With a cheery grin and a wave, Billy headed for the camp and his tent.
"Night, Billy," Alan said quietly, then turned towards his own bedroll.
Somehow, Alan found himself falling into a habit of late night talks with Billy. The kid was pretty amazing, really- so young, and yet he'd done so much. He'd spent a couple years in the military, then taken a year or two to travel and decide what he wanted to do with himself, finally settling on college. But he was still investigating multiple avenues of education, and all the while finding the time to keep up on hobbies like astronomy and mountain climbing. Amazing, really, how he could still have so much enthusiasm for so many different things.
And when the kid decided to do something, he did it well. Alan quickly came to depend on him during the days as well. Billy could tame the most obstinate piece of equipment, and do it with a smile. And he was lucky. Alan thought Kelly, his assistant, was going to do something drastic the day Billy found the intact juvenile raptor skeleton- she was trying to put together a dissertation about the early lives of carnivores and hadn't yet found any evidence to back up her theory. But Billy just smiled and stepped back, letting her take over the excavation of the skeleton, and instead helping Alan with his partial adult deinonychus.
"Do you do that on purpose?" Alan asked, as Billy set to work on the thighbone.
"Deliberately piss Kelly off."
"Who, me?" Billy asked, with overblown innocence. "Would I do such a thing?"
"Wouldn't put it past you," Alan said, forcing his attention back to the fossil in front of him. Damn, but why did the kid have to be so young?
"No, really," Billy continued in a more serious tone. "I don't do it deliberately. She just doesn't like me."
"You've got that right." Alan grunted. "If I have to listen to one more of her gripes about you, I think I'm going to throw something."
"She gripes about me?"
"Yeah. She's full of it, though, so I wouldn't worry about it. I think I picked the wrong assistant from the crowd this time."
"How many applicants did you get, anyway?" Billy looked up, curious.
Alan grinned ruefully. "One."
"Yeah, seriously. The media may be going dinosaur-crazy these days, but that doesn't necessarily translate into academic interest."
Silence fell, punctuated by the normal sounds of a dig- tapping, scraping, and the underlying gritty sound of brushes patiently cleaning rock away from bone. Then, with an effort at nonchalance, Billy spoke up.
"So, does your assistant have to be a paleontology major?"
Alan picked a stubborn pebble out before replying. "No, there isn't any such thing at this school." He snorted. He had expressed his opinion, loudly and frequently, of a school which expected a museum team to carry all the weight of research, field work, and publications as well, without the support of a full paleontology department. And he'd been told, loudly and frequently, that there wasn't enough interest or funding to offer paleontology courses. "But it helps. The job is geared towards final year students and grad students who need to get experience on a dig, or material for a dissertation, or whatever. Kelly came from out of state, and actually is a paleontology major."
The disappointment in his voice made Alan continue, even though he knew he shouldn't. "But that's just the official job. You've actually been more help than Kelly has, this time out."
"Better not let her hear you say that," Billy grinned.
"Yeah." Alan focused on the bones again. Safer. Much safer. The bones wouldn't get him in trouble, the way a certain pair of laughing brown eyes might.
"It's become kind of a hobby of mine, you know."
"What has? Pissing Kelly off?"
"Hey now, I told you I don't do that on purpose! No, I meant paleontology."
"You know, I'd wondered about that. When you were out at Choteau, a few years back, I got the impression the dig was the last place in the world you wanted to be."
"Yeah, well," and Billy paused for a moment, cleaning a tricky bit of rock away from the bone. "I changed my mind. It was interesting, you know? Even if I didn't let on. And then I started reading- read your book. Both of 'em, in fact."
"Yeah? And?" Alan concentrated on the ribs a few inches from his nose. They'd been crushed, probably by the weight of sediment on top of them, making excavation rather tricky.
"And I read some other books too, and bugged my parents, and eventually wound up here."
"Why here? I mean, if you were so interested, you could have hit a university with an actual paleontology department, instead of a museum."
"Yeah. Well, basically, it boiled down to in-state tuition."
"Plus I've always liked Bozeman. So I came here."
"And took up digging, along with annoying research assistants." Alan pried loose a bit of rib, brushing sealer over it and laying it aside to dry.
"Would you lay off about that already?" Billy laughed. "Yes, I make a habit of annoying people!"
"Dr. Grant," Billy said, in such a serious tone that Alan glanced up at him. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were developing a sense of humor."
Then he lost the battle to remain serious and smiled.
"Then it's a good thing you know better," Alan replied, unable to restrain the corners of his mouth from twitching upwards. "Because everybody knows I don't have one of those."
"Like I really believe that," Billy said softly, still smiling.
Something in his eyes reminded Alan inevitably of the fierce concentration of a predator, intent on prey. A chill ran down his spine and he turned away. He had to be careful. This kid was dangerous.
The season wound down slowly, each day blurring into the next. Hot days, made bearable only by the steady breeze, contrasted sharply with cold clear nights. Billy became a permanent fixture at Alan's side, always willing to lend a helping hand.
And then came the end of the season. The museum volunteers had long since packed up and gone, leaving behind only the serious scientists and students. Storms were moving in, threatening the dig, and it was suddenly time to get back before school started again. Alan stood on the rise where his tent had been, overlooking the last of the preparations for departure. Kelly was in her element, supervising the final loading of the equipment into the truck. Alan idly considered getting a trailer for the next season- there was getting to be more and more sophisticated crap, which was costing more and more money. Really, putting it all in a trailer would be more intelligent than packing it under a pavillion...
"Hmm? Oh, hello, Billy." Alan turned his back on the activity below and faced Billy.
"I was just about to head out, and I thought... well, here." Billy held out a piece of paper, and Alan took it automatically. "If you ever need anything- help with your computer, or whatever- you just give me a call, okay?"
Alan looked at the paper and swallowed hard. A phone number. Uh-oh. This could be trouble. He pulled out his wallet and tucked the paper away safely. "Thanks, Billy. I'll do that."
"Good. See you later, then."
Billy walked away, back down to where his ride back to town was waiting. Alan watched him go, suddenly conscious of the fact that there would be no more Billy. Not around to help out during the day, not around for a late-night discussion of stars or predator behavior... no more Billy.
He tried to convince himself that that was for the better, but he wasn't sure he believed himself.
Alan stared at the blank screen, too frustrated even to swear. His meager knowledge of computers hadn't been enough to restore the program, and there was no one he could call- especially not at this hour. He checked his watch- ten thirty. Well, okay- not too terribly late, but still, there was no one available that could fix the thing.
He sighed. No hope for it. Slowly, he pulled out his wallet, rifling through it until he found a particular slip of paper.
Bad idea, Grant, he thought, smoothing wrinkles from the worn slip with its seven dangerous digits. Very bad idea.
But he did it anyway. He picked up the phone and dialed, heart in throat. He couldn't decide if he was relieved or disappointed when an answering machine picked up.
"Hello, Billy, it's Alan Grant. I was having a computer problem, and thought maybe I'd take you up on your offer of assistance, but I guess you're not home. My number here's-"
"Dr. Grant?" A breathless voice interrupted him. "Just got in- heard the phone ringing while I was on the way up the stairs, but couldn't get the door open in time-"
"Billy!" Suddenly, this didn't seem such a good idea again. "Uh..."
"Did you say computer problems?"
"Yeah, the damn thing's crashed and been giving me fits for the last hour or so." He took a deep breath, steadying his nerves. Idiot. Overreacting to the kid like that... pure idiocy.
"You at the museum?"
"Yeah, in the basement."
"Be right over."
There was a click. Alan stared at the phone for a long moment before replacing the receiver in its cradle.
Knock it off, idiot, he told himself. Keep it professional.
He tried to ignore the snickering of his subconscious, which knew full good and well that he'd been wishing for an excuse to use that number for a month now.
Alan pushed away from the computer with a decisive motion, raising a cloud of dust. He rose and stalked restlessly around the room, looking for a distraction. He settled on sorting fossils, tagging innumerable bones which were still in their boxes, sealed and awaiting prep work. Brainless work, really- something the preparators usually took care of. But it was something to occupy his hands and fill the time, something to keep him from thinking about a certain pair of warm brown eyes... damn.
He managed to get into the job, so into it that the slight tap at the door startled him. "It's not locked," he called, putting the fragment of femur down carefully.
The door opened, revealing Billy, clad in jeans and a bright yellow windbreaker. "Hi," he said, with that familiar warm smile- the one that reached out and wrapped you up in it, like a hug.
"Hi." Alan felt a rather foolish grin spreading across his face, and nipped it in the bud, before it got out of hand. "Thanks for coming out."
"You're welcome!" Billy glanced around. "Is that it?" He nodded to the blank monitor.
"Yeah." Alan made his way carefully through the long tables to crouch down beside Billy, who was already in the chair, tapping keys.
"What the hell?" Billy muttered, frowning.
"My sentiments exactly," Alan nodded.
"What program are you running?"
"Uh... actually, I don't know its name," Alan admitted.
"Is it Windows, or DOS?"
"DOS- I know that much, at least."
"Right. Then I'll try this..."
Alan watched quietly as Billy did arcane things to the machine. Screens full of information came and went, while Billy muttered to himself.
"Aha!" Billy's smile lit the entire room. "Found it- there was a problem with file permissions, the computer wasn't recognizing your right to open the program file. Wonder how that happened?"
"I touched it," Alan laughed, relieved, as the classification program sprang to life.
"Oh, come on now, Dr. Grant- you're not quite that bad." Billy laughed as well, transferring his attention from the computer to Alan.
"Seems that way, sometimes," Alan sighed. "Otherwise, why would I keep having to call people to rescue me?"
"Hey- you can call me anytime. I'm glad to help." Those brown eyes were smiling at him again, warm and happy. Alan blinked and looked away.
"Better watch out, I might take you up on that," he threatened.
"Feel free! As long as I'm home, anyways. Today I was out with some friends- had just gotten home when I heard the phone ringing."
"Isn't it a bit late to be out, when you have school in the morning?" Alan grinned. After the last summer, he knew Billy was as much of a night owl as he was.
"Late? C'mon, Dr. Grant, it's early yet." Billy laughed. "What are you up to in here, anyway? Putting all this stuff in the computer?"
"Yeah." Alan sighed, looking at the endless piles of fossils. "This is the stuff most people never see, the dark side of paleontology." Billy snorted. "Usually, I have lab techs do this part, but I'm a bit shorthanded."
"Well, why didn't you say something?" Billy grinned. "Just show me what to do, and I'll do it."
"Well..." Alan tilted his head, considering.
"Come on, Dr. Grant- you know I'm a hard worker," Billy wheedled, eyes sparkling.
"Oh, okay," Alan sighed. "On one condition-" and he held up an admonitory finger.
"What's that?" Billy's grin wavered uncertainly.
"Quit calling me Doctor all the time. Name's Alan." With a quirky grin, Alan rose and moved to the table nearest to the computer.
Billy blinked, then his grin returned full force. "Okay, Alan. What do you want me to do?"
"Since you've got the damn thing behaving so nicely, could you put the numbers in the computer? I'll call 'em out for you."
"Sure thing. How's this work? Let's see..." He looked over the screen, noting the required fields. "Okay, looks like I just need a description and the number, right?"
"Right. The rest is already done. Ready?"
"Go for it."
"Okay, metatarsal number 0117635, whole..."
Together, they managed to catalogue nearly half the fossils. Alan completely lost track of time, distracted as he was by Billy's presence. It wasn't until both men were yawning and the numbers were starting to waver in front of Alan's eyes that he thought to look at his watch.
"Good god!" he exclaimed, blinking and looking again, just to make sure.
"What?" Billy said around a yawn. He stretched, rubbing his eyes.
"It's four thirty!"
"No way," Billy gaped at his own watch for a moment, then turned to Alan with a sheepish grin. "Guess we got a bit carried away, huh?"
Alan smiled ruefully. "Guess so. And I suppose you've got early classes, right?"
"Me? Hell, no." Billy's eyes crinkled with amusement. "I know better than that. I don't have a class until 2 today."
"Good." Alan marked the place where they had left off. "Guess we'd better clear out of here, though. I'm surprised the cleaning crew hasn't chased us off- they usually come around at about one thirty."
"Huh. I'm glad they didn't, though."
Alan looked at him sharply. There it was again, the warm and inviting look that he found so dangerous about this young man, with his ever-ready smile. "Yeah. We got a lot done tonight."
"That wasn't quite what I meant. I missed talking with you."
Alan was falling, plummeting through space. Billy's eyes were all that anchored him to reality. "Yeah, me too," he said, voice rough around the edges. Then, "Well, we'd better clear out of here. You may be able to take staying out all day and up all night, but not me."
Billy chuckled and shut down the computer. "Like I believe that- remember, I know how late you stay up, and how disgustingly early you make people get to work."
"Hey, nobody made you sign on with me last summer." Alan waited by the door until Billy joined him, then shut off the lights and locked up.
"I know. Makes me wonder where my mind was." Billy grinned.
"Beats me, as much as you complained."
"Hey- not fair!" Billy laughed. "You have to admit, I'm not the whiny-ass brat I used to be."
Alan glanced at him sidelong, with a faint smile. They reached the stairway and door to the parking lot, and he opened it. "You're right there," he said thoughtfully. "And I also have to admit, you do a damn good job, too."
The single bulb illuminating the parking lot lit Billy's smile softly, transforming his eyes into bottomless pools of shadow. "Thanks." Then he looked away, up at the sky. "Deneb sure is bright tonight."
"Mm-hmm," Alan nodded, with a smile for the memory of their first all-night discussion of the stars. "And so are the Pleiades."
"Who would ever have believed you could find enough time for a hobby like astronomy?"
Alan snorted. "Anyone that knows I stay up all night, that's who. Have you ever seen the scope at Taylor?"
"There's a scope at Taylor?" Billy, startled, looked away from the glittering heavens.
"Yeah," Alan nodded. "Crandall's got an eighteen inch reflector that he pulls out for the meetings on Fridays."
Alan felt a deep satisfaction, even though he knew it was rather... well, silly. At last, he knew something Billy didn't! "Yeah. The Southwest Montana Astronomical Society, last Friday of every month but November or December."
"I never knew about that." Billy turned back to the stars. "Wish I could see the scope. I've got a C-8, but that's nothing compared to an eighteen incher."
"Come by some Friday," Alan invited. "That is, if you're not out having fun. I go over there most Fridays, hang out with Crandall and look at the stars. Been helping him chart asteroids for a while now."
"That'd be great," Billy said. He shivered as a stray bit of chill breeze found its way through his jacket. "Well. It's not getting any earlier."
"You're right." Alan resumed the trek towards his truck. "That yours?" he asked, indicating a dark colored Volvo wagon tucked into his Ford's shadow.
"Yeah." Billy sighed. "Not much of a car, but it gets me around town."
"Give me a good truck, any day," Alan said. "Cars break around me."
"You have some of the worst luck, don't you," Billy laughed. They reached the vehicles, and Billy paused, looking up at Alan in the pool of light from the lamp above. "See you around?"
"Yeah. Thanks again for coming out tonight. And... you got the number for the back room?"
Billy shook his head.
"Here, then," and Alan fished a piece of paper out of his wallet and found a pen in his pocket. He scrawled the number on the paper quickly, before he could think twice about what he was doing. "Don't be a stranger."
"Better watch out," Billy said, stowing the paper carefully in his pocket. "I might come back and bother you if you say things like that."
"Go right ahead- I'll just put you to work!" On that note, Alan turned away and climbed into the truck. He started the engine with a roar and glanced out the window to see Billy slowly turn and get into his Volvo. Alan cranked the heater up and let the engine warm for a couple minutes. Billy pulled out with a wave, and Alan watched him go.
Why does he have to be so damn young?
The phone rang, startling Alan out of his attempt to classify a stubborn bone. He answered it. "Paleontology, Grant speaking."
"Dr. Grant, hello! It's me, Billy."
Alan's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Billy! Hello. What's up?"
"Nothing, really. I just wanted to see if that offer was still open, about the telescope."
"Of course it is." Alan swallowed hard. He hadn't expected... Especially when the kid hadn't called. True, it had only been a couple days, but somehow he'd thought the kid would have called by now.
"What time should I be there, then?"
"Ahh..." Alan tried to think, but his thoughts scattered elusively, refusing to cooperate. "I usually go over there around seven. Meet me here? That way Crandall won't run you off by mistake."
"I'll be there." Alan could imagine Billy smiling, warm and happy.
"Great. See you Friday, then?"
"Yeah. See you."
Billy hung up. Alan set the phone down and tried to turn his mind back to his work, but it was very difficult when all he could see was warm brown eyes smiling at him.
Alan went through the motions of work, pretending that this was just an ordinary day. Pretending there was absolutely no reason to look forward to the evening, beyond the usual chance to play with the big telescope. It wasn't working.
After about the tenth time of rewriting the same sentence, Alan gave up working on his grant proposals and leaned back in his chair, stretching and staring at the clock. 6:31. Well, at least it was getting closer to the time...
A chill raced down his spine. What did he think he was doing, anyway? Meeting up with Billy wasn't just stupid, it was damn near suicidal. Kind of like playing with fire, in the middle of an oil slick... one wrong move, and the flames would ignite, and the only escape would be to dive deeper. Billy was trouble. He should just stay away from the kid.
And yet- he missed him, very badly. Over the summer he'd grown accustomed to having the kid around to help out, to talk to and bounce ideas off of- hell, even to distract him from the job sometimes, and forcibly remind him that there was more to life than digging. Maybe not much more, but still...
6:33. Alan swore and tore his gaze from the clock. It wasn't doing him any good at all to keep staring at it, and certainly wasn't making the time go by any faster.
Okay, what could he do? All the bones had been catalogued and sorted. The ones that needed testing or other special work had been packed off to the labs. His filing was caught up, for probably the first time since he'd started this job. The grant proposals were a lost cause- he couldn't think coherently, how could he expect to write clearly?
Well, there's always the theoretical side of things...
Alan rested an elbow on his desk and propped his head on his hand. There'd been a theory tickling away at the back of his brain for a while now, and he hadn't had a chance to think it out. Something about raptors... He made an effort to seperate memories of the raptors on the island from his beliefs about real raptor behavior. What was known about the ancient raptors... intelligence was obvious. The critters had managed to bring down much larger and stronger prey, and it wasn't from scavenging, either. Scavengers would have only partial kills at the nesting site, and there would be marks of more than one variety of teeth left on the bones. The positioning of the nests suggested some kind of social structure- pack animals?
The dominant female eyed him shrewdly before barking unmistakable commands to her followers...
No, dammit! Hammond's theme-park toys weren't the real thing. Real discoveries were made out in the field, not in the genetics lab. He felt a momentary vindictive glee that Hammond had been taken down by his own creations, then dismissed the feeling as unworthy. Sure, Hammond had screwed up- a colossal mistake that had cost lives and careers and much personal suffering. But the man had also paid the ultimate price, eaten like any other piece of carrion by little scavenging procompsognathids, and thinking vindictive thoughts wouldn't change history.
6:37. Was the damn clock broken? Surely more than four minutes had passed.
There was a knock at the door, and then Billy stuck his head in. "Dr. Grant? Mind if I come in a bit early?"
Alan slewed around in his chair, startled and trying to hide it.
"Billy! Hi. Uh, no, mind? Why should I? Uh, I mean- sure."
Billy smiled and came the rest of the way through the door. He glanced around, then perched on the edge of an empty sorting table. "Sure looks different in here without all the bones laying around."
"Yeah." Alan ran a hand through his hair and regained his composure... mostly. "So how've you been?"
"Oh, pretty good- I was done with everything early tonight, so I came over here a bit early. Hope I didn't interrupt anything important?"
"No- I was just thinking, really, about raptor behavior."
Billy leaned forward, eyes alight with interest. "Really? And what were you thinking?"
"Intelligence." Grant looked away before he could get caught by those wonderfully expressive eyes. "Intelligence, coordination- social structure- it was all there, I'm sure of it, but how can we show it? It's so hard, with only scattered remains."
"What about physical attributes?" Billy suggested. "I mean, brain capacity, stuff like that."
"There's been too few intact skulls in good shape to determine much about that. Although, there is a peculiar formation, which I've no solid evidence for, but it appears to be some kind of resonance chamber."
"Like a dolphin? For sonar or communication?"
"I'm not sure. I need to find an intact adult skull, complete with this chamber, to investigate the possibilities more fully."
"Maybe we'll find one this summer." Billy smiled, and Alan was startled into looking directly at him.
"We? You signing on again?"
"Wild horses couldn't drag me away," Billy said softly. Then his eyes clouded with uncertainty. "That is- if you'll have me?"
Alan's heart pounded. Say no, tell him to stick to photography or whatever the hell he's majoring in this week... "Of course." He smiled. "You're more help than my research assistant. Why wouldn't I have you?"
Relief lightened his features. "I don't know, but it's happened before. You know, I've applied to go on your dig for the last three years, and only made it last year."
"Sorry about that." Alan shook his head. "I'm not really in charge of who goes or not- that's the department head, deciding just how many people we can afford to pay."
"I'd even volunteer, you know."
"That's even harder to get," Alan said. "There's strictly limited space for the volunteers, because they're more of a liability than a help. Just don't tell them that."
Billy snickered and grinned, glancing at him with merry eyes. Alan returned the grin. He was certain he knew what Billy was thinking of- one of the museum volunteers last summer had gotten it into her head that she should be in charge, and had spent the rest of the season in trying to order the project to her liking. Alan could still hear her voice shrilling orders to his crew.
"Especially not Lois," Billy said, confirming his guess.
"Lord, sometimes I wish I had more control over who goes out- I'd damn sure block her from ever appearing on the roster again!"
"Oh, come on, Alan- surely you enjoy letting such a knowledgable personage take charge of your expedition?" Billy's eyes gleamed wickedly.
Alan snorted. "I'd do better letting you take over, and you're a what, photography major now?"
"Actually, I'm thinking about changing."
"Yes, again. What do you think would be better, paleobotany or paleontology?"
"You're asking me? A former professor of paleontology?" Alan shook his head. "As if there's any other field out there. But you know you can't do that here- remember, no paleontology department."
"Oh, damn- you know, I'd actually forgotten about that. Makes no sense, really, that they'd push the museum staff so hard for bigger and better discoveries, yet not be willing to have a real paleontology department." He glanced at the clock. "Hey, it's after seven. Gonna let me see this amazing telescope?"
Alan looked at the clock and blinked in surprise. 7:04. It really must be broken, he thought bemusedly. He could have sworn Billy had only been there a couple minutes. "Yeah, come on." He rose from the swivel chair, which promptly rolled away from him. "Don't you dare laugh," he said warningly. Billy's lips twitched.
"Alan, I can't help it- you and your luck!" He laughed, and Alan swatted at him half-heartedly.
"Well, come on, then. You won't get to the planetarium sitting there laughing."
Billy fell in behind him, double-checking the door to make sure it was locked. Alan grumbled. "Sorry," Billy said insincerely. "Old habits die hard, I guess."
"Habit. Huh. One time, just one time I forget to shut something off, and now you think I need checking up after always."
"But Alan- that one time was pretty major, after all." This time it was Billy's turn to swat at Alan, knocking his ever-present floppy hat off just as he got it settled. Alan caught it and righted it. "I mean, no matter how you look at it, leaving the main generator running when everyone's packed up for a weekend and gone to town is pretty damn major."
"Yeah, yeah. Wouldn't need the damn generator if people didn't insist on the damn computer crap. And I still don't know why I let them talk me into okaying a whole weekend off. Like we really had enough time to spare."
"It was the Fourth of July, Alan!" Billy said, with a long-suffering sigh. They reached the end of the building and followed the walkway to the planetarium.
"Yeah, whatever." Alan shook his head. "Fireworks. They all wanted to go watch fireworks."
"Even you have to admit it was an impressive display." Billy grinned at him.
"Not my kind of fireworks," Alan said, then abruptly realized he'd said it out loud when Billy shot him a startled look. He looked around quickly for a distraction, to no avail.
"And what exactly are your kind of fireworks, Alan?"
There it was again, the speculative look he'd seen so often on the kid's face over the summer. Alan's ears burned. "Never mind. Look, there's Dr. Crandall."
Billy let him get away with it, rather than pursuing the issue. Alan introduced Billy to Pete Crandall, head of the planetarium, and then Billy was all over the telescope. Alan felt a sense of reprieve. He'd better watch himself better. The kid was already getting way too close, no need to encourage it.
"You heard me," Alan said patiently. He looked away from Billy's bewildered expression. It was like the kid actually didn't understand. "Lecture tour. The entire western United States. Four weeks. Got it?"
"Well, hell." Billy leaned back against the wall, arms folded across his chest. "I guess I didn't hear wrong, then. Need an assistant?"
Alan grimaced at the hopeful look the kid wore. "Come on, now, Billy- surely you don't think the museum would allow that? I'll only be gone a month."
Billy sighed dramatically. "A month. Only a month. D'you know how boring that'll be?"
"Not for me. For me it'll be busy as hell, what with this two stops a day bullshit. At least it'll just be talking to kids. They're easier to impress than patrons. And besides, something in me just doesn't like begging for money."
"I can see that." Billy smiled at him. "You're not exactly the begging type."
"Huh." Alan stuffed the last of his papers into his leather satchel, wrestling the zipper closed. "Tell that to the board of directors- maybe then they'd quit making me grovel for the patrons."
"Something tells me they're not particularly interested in my opinions. When was it you're leaving?"
"Monday. They don't believe in much notice."
"Guess not. Oh well." Billy looked at him for a long moment, quiet and remote.
"It's only a month."
"I've heard that before."
"Yeah." Billy's eyes darkened with memory, focused on some distant point. "Chris said that before he took off for a backpacking trip through the Canadian Rockies. Came back long enough to clean out his stuff and tell me he'd found someone else."
"Uh." Alan swallowed hard, throat suddenly dry. "Well, that's kind of a different situation, you know."
"Is it?" Billy's eyes were on him again, sharp as a raptor. "Is it really?"
"Yeah," Alan managed to choke out, willing himself to believe it.
"If you say so."
And then the awkward moment was past. Billy hopped off the sorting table and slung his backpack over his shoulder. "See you later, Alan."
Then he walked out, leaving Alan staring at the closed door in a state of utter confusion. Only one thought remained in his whirling mind: He's too young, dammit!
But even that thought was unable to drown out the happiness and incoherent longing coursing through him.
Home at last. Alan pulled into the driveway and shut the truck off, resting his head against the steering wheel. What a trip. He was so tired that it felt like the wheel was vibrating, a very disorienting feeling... he sat up and rubbed his eyes. There, that was better. He grabbed his travel bag and his satchel, then headed inside.
The door opened before he found his keys. Alan stared at the spot where the handle had been for a moment, utterly confused. Then he looked up.
"Welcome back, Alan," Billy said.
Alan's confusion vanished in a rush of warmth. "Billy." He smiled and stepped inside. Billy closed the door behind him and reached for one of his bags, but Alan shook his head. "Leave 'em." He dropped them by the door- they'd be fine there, where he could find them once he'd had some sleep. "Good to see you, but what...?"
Billy dropped his intense gaze for a moment, a faint flush stealing across his cheekbones. "You gave me a key ages ago, remember? For getting to the telescope if you were busy and I wanted to... anyway, I knew you were due back today, so I came here and waited."
"Thanks." Alan realized he was grinning like a loon and turned away, aiming for the couch. Billy followed.
"So how was it?" Billy perched on the arm of the couch, while Alan sprawled across the cushions and put his feet up on the battered coffee table.
"Hectic," he said. He pulled his hat off and tossed it, rubbing his eyes again. Now that he was home, the stress of the past month was beginning to drain away. "I actually missed you, kid."
A smile broke over Billy's features like a wave, lighting his eyes with joy. "Told you I should have gone along. And I'll bet if I had, you wouldn't be so tired now."
"Doubtful. Even if you were there, you couldn't have done anything about the constant rushing from lecture, to airport, to next lecture... sometimes I wonder who plans these things."
"Was it worth it?"
"Yeah- yeah, I think so. I saw more high school auditoriums than I ever want to see again, but there were actually some kids asking intelligent questions, and quite a few seemed interested in paleontology as a career."
"Why'd you have to do it, anyway? I mean, it's not like there's any hope of attracting those kids here as students."
"Yeah, I know. But it's a publicity thing, you know- get the museum name out, make it look like it's taking an interest in education, all that kind of thing. And maybe, just maybe, some of those kids will wind up in the field, or their parents will make a contribution... see what I mean?"
Billy laughed. "Yeah, but it seems like an awful lot of expense and effort just for some publicity."
"Maybe so, but they do it every damn year." Alan leaned his head on the back of the couch and closed his eyes. Much better. He felt the springs give way beneath him as Billy slid off the arm and onto the cushions.
"Maybe I should go?" Billy's voice was hesitant, reluctant. "You're tired. You should get some rest."
"Don't go," Alan said softly. He reached out blindly and found Billy's leg. "I meant it. I really did miss you."
"And I missed you. Badly." Billy's hand covered his, stroking lightly. Alan sighed and relaxed a bit more. He supposed he shouldn't have reached out like that, but what the hell... bad idea or not, he felt better knowing all he had to do was stretch a hand out and the kid was there.
Alan leaned back on the couch, feeling the day's tensions drain away. It no longer felt odd, after several months of friendship, to relax on Billy's couch, letting his mind turn slowly to mush and watching one of Billy's innumerable movies. Billy was in the kitchen, popping some microwave popcorn- rapidly becoming standard evening fare, along with pizza and Chinese delivery.
"What'd you put in tonight?" Billy called. The microwave beeped and he pulled the bag out, shaking it vigorously.
"Don't laugh, okay?" Alan shook his head. What was he doing here, anyway, in the middle of this oddly domestic scene, with a boy scarcely old enough to call a man, watching old movies and eating popcorn... Then Billy was in the room, giving him an exasperated look.
"Alan, why would I laugh? I mean, whatever it is, it's obviously from my collection- why would I laugh at my own movies?"
"Ladyhawke," Alan said. He reached for a handful of popcorn when Billy set the opened bag on the middle cushion of the couch, then sprawled against the other arm.
"Cool. I haven't seen that one in ages."
"Me either," Alan admitted. "Not since it was in the theaters."
"You actually go to theaters?" Billy grinned and tossed a piece of popcorn at him. Alan batted it away.
"Only when someone tricks me into thinking there's a dinosaur buried in the aisles," he replied. Then the beginning credits ended and he focused his attention on the screen.
"Somehow I believe that," Billy chuckled.
The movie played on, following the adventures of Mouse, hawk, and wolf. Alan relaxed further, slowly sinking down into the embrace of the comfortable old couch. Occasionally, his fingers would brush against Billy's as they raided the popcorn, sending a tingle racing through his hand and arm.
They were interrupted about halfway through the movie by someone banging on the front door, then entering. "Hey Billy, you in here?"
"Yeah, Jack- what's up?"
Alan struggled into a more upright positon as Jack, one of Billy's innumerable friends, came into the living room.
"You coming tonight?" Jack asked. He waved casually at Alan, but focused his attention on Billy, waiting for his response.
"Tonight?" Billy frowned, puzzled. "What's tonight?"
"The lake, man- remember the lake?"
Billy smacked his head in consternation. "The lake! I'd totally forgotten. But Alan and I were going to check out the new software I got for the telescope tonight."
"Hell, man, you can look at stars out there. Come on, you know you want to go." Jack grinned at Alan. "You come, too," he invited. "You'd like it out there."
"Me? Oh, no, I can't-" Alan protested automatically.
"Why not?" Billy looked at him questioningly. "I think that's a great idea."
"No, Billy. You go. Have fun." Alan looked away, hiding his disappointment at losing Billy's company for the night, and also hiding how much that disappointment disturbed him. Dammit, he wasn't supposed to get so attached to the kid!
"Yeah, right- have fun, while you sit here and watch the rest of Ladyhawke without me?" Billy shook his head. "I don't think so. Come on, Alan- he's right. You'd like it." Then, with a wicked gleam in his eye, he chuckled. "Or do I have to convince you there's a dinosaur buried in the beach?"
Alan's mouth quirked in a smile before he could stop it, and he looked at Billy. His gaze was caught and held by the bottomless brown depths of Billy's eyes, so warm and inviting... Alan swallowed hard. He could feel his resolve weakening.
"If I ask really, really nicely?" Billy tilted his head to the side, smiling. "Pretty please with sugar on top?"
Alan burst out laughing. "Okay, okay- you win! I'll go to this lake of yours. Just quit looking at me like that- you look like a little puppy dog."
Jack laughed. "Right on, man. So let's go. The others'll be there already."
Others? Alan thought. What the hell am I getting myself into this time?
Billy had jumped up and started rummaging through the hall closet. He tossed a sleeping bag out, followed by a winter coat and another sleeping bag. "Alan, c'mere a sec," he called.
Alan sighed and got up, feeling in his bones that this was all a very bad idea. "Whatcha need?"
"See if this fits." Billy handed him a heavy fatigue jacket, shapeless and soft.
"What for?" Alan held it up. It looked big enough.
"It's still cold as hell up there, that's what." Billy picked his own jacket up off the floor and put it on.
"All right, then." Alan shrugged into the jacket. It fit just fine. Billy grinned at him.
"Now you look like you're ready for an adventure."
"Adventure, hell- ready for an iceberg, maybe, but you know my opinion of adventure." Alan shook his head ruefully. He'd had more than his share of adventure in his life.
"Yeah, yeah- I know, all you want to do is dig, right?" Billy smiled fondly and tugged at the lapels of the jacket.
"You've got it."
Jack picked up the bedrolls. "You guys ready?"
Alan shook Billy's hands off and headed for the door. "Whenever you are."
There was a truck waiting outside, with someone in it. Billy opened the passenger door. Warm air rushed out, along with the sound of a radio show. "Hey Eric- move it or lose it." He climbed into the big Ford, shoving his friend out of the way good-naturedly. "Why'd you stay out here, anyway?"
"They're running a Coast-to-Coast marathon," Eric replied. "Didn't want to miss any of it."
Alan found himself wedged between Billy and the door, listening to the Art Bell show, as the truck pulled out of the driveway. He considered briefly the best way to get comfortable, then settled on laying his arm along the back of the seat and pushing Billy over, so he didn't feel like he was falling into the crack between seat and door.
He kept his hand clamped on the back of the seat. Why had he agreed to this, anyway? Billy was brushing up against him as the truck sped through the evening, racing the dying sunlight up the mountainside. Alan could feel him, feel every point of contact along his side, warm and friendly. Too friendly. Way too friendly.
"Hey," Billy said, twisting around so he was speaking almost directly into Alan's ear. "Do you get out here often?"
Alan shivered and tightened his grip on both the seat back and his self-control. "Not at all," he confessed.
"Really? Never?" Billy wriggled a bit closer, resting a hand on Alan's leg.
"Nope." He steadied his voice with an effort. "I don't get much chance to get out this way."
"And you've lived here how long?" Billy's smile wrapped him in warmth.
"Don't ask." He wrenched his eyes away with an effort and looked back out the window. The scenery really was breathtaking- the Rockies rose about them, straining to reach the sky. A commercial nattered on aimlessly on the radio. Shadows blended slowly into night as the sun gave up the battle with the mountains. Billy leaned a little closer.
"Alan, you work too hard."
"Tell me something I don't know," Alan grunted. Work. Yeah, that was better- think about work. Keep the mind off the way Billy felt pressing up against him. Or better yet, look at the stars, emerging in the clear brittle air. Look at the shadows clinging to the ridges, look at the changing plantlife, look at anything but Billy.
"Okay," Billy said. "Hmm... well, that's the turn-off for the lake."
Alan was startled into a laugh. "Well- okay, you got me there! I didn't know that."
The truck made a left onto a narrow dirt track. It bumped and rattled, nearly drowning out the "open lines" segment of the recorded radio show marathon. Alan listened with half an ear to the callers, watching the dramatic scenery for as long as it was visible. Then he wrenched his mind away from the possibilities of an evening in the cold, snuggled up with Billy- no, dammit. That way lay trouble.
They reached the lake after about an hour on the road- or off, depending on how you looked at it. A tiny sliver of moon hung in the sky, glinting off the still water of the lake, with its fringe of ice clinging stubbornly to the edges. A large fire burned on the shore, with two other vehicles parked nearby.
Alan surprised himself that night. He found himself talking, laughing, and having fun- despite the fact that he knew no one other than Billy. He wasn't even the oldest one there- always one of his inner fears when hanging out with Billy's friends. Camaraderie, campfire, and cold... He had to laugh at himself.
"Alan," Billy said, "move over."
Alan looked up, away from a conversation with someone about dinosaurs, and saw Billy there in the firelight, sleeping bag in hand. Alan grinned and slid over on his own sleeping bag, which was spread out on the ground, folded into a large square. "Cold?"
"Freezing, actually," Billy confessed, dropping down beside Alan and draping the blanket around both of them. "Warm me up?"
Alan chuckled and wrapped an arm around him. "Not too warm, though- wouldn't want you to melt. What have you been up to, anyway? You disappeared on me."
Billy laid his head on Alan's shoulder. "I got sidetracked," he said. "Jackie caught me and got me started about last weekend- you know, when I went to Yellowstone with the guys?"
"Yeah. I remember. I actually got some work done."
"Hey, be nice," Billy protested with a laugh. "I warned you not to invite me back."
"Damn, Billy," Alan sighed, holding him closer for a moment. "Even though I know I should, I can't tell you to stay away. You know that."
"Yeah. So why do you always think you should try?"
The world narrowed down to nothing but himself and Billy. Alan felt his heart pounding. Too close, the kid was getting way too close for comfort. "Trouble," he said simply.
"Not you. Others. You're a student, I'm not. Catch plenty of hell over hanging out with you, as it is."
"Screw 'em," Billy muttered.
"No, thanks. I'd rather not."
Billy snickered. "What's this- you're making a joke?"
"It happens," Alan shrugged. "Once in a while."
"Just about often enough that I don't actually go into shock when it does."
"Hey, if I'm that boring-"
"I never said you were boring," Billy broke in quickly. His arms snaked around Alan, holding him loosely. "And even if you were boring, you're warm enough to make up for it."
"Very funny, Billy," Alan laughed quietly. "I see how you are. Here I thought you actually liked me- but now I know. You just want a giant hot water bottle."
"Alan," Billy sighed, raising his head. His eyes reflected glints of starlight as they fixed on Alan's face. "Don't be silly. You know I like you."
There it was again- that feeling of falling, drowning in those warm brown eyes. Recklessly, Alan decided to go with it, rather than fighting against the kid for once. He smiled. "Yes. I know."
"Then why do you run so fast, hmm? Every time I think I've gotten through to you, you flip out and run."
"Does it feel like I'm running?" Alan's heart was in his throat. He couldn't believe he'd just said that.
"Not right now, but-" Billy shook his head. "What about tomorrow? Or worse yet, Monday?"
"Look," Alan groped for the words to express his situation clearly. It was hard, because he didn't fully understand himself. "What else am I supposed to do? I'm Curator of Paleontology at the museum, and you're a student. They don't look too kindly on university faculty and affiliates getting friendly with students. And we're definitely too friendly for their tastes."
"That's all it is, then? Not-"
Billy sighed. "I guess I understand," he said eventually. "But that doesn't mean I have to like it. At least I won't be a student forever."
"Amen to that." Alan rested his cheek on top of Billy's head. How could he explain to Billy all the complex reactions the kid caused in him? Easier by far to blame his distance on work.
"I just get the feeling that's not all that's bothering you."
Very perceptive. Alan rubbed his shoulder, feeling the smooth texture of the kid's jacket slide beneath his fingers.
"It's not, is it." Billy shifted, moving away and looking at Alan. Firelight flickered, and Alan suddenly became aware of the people around them.
"Uh..." He glanced around. There was a bit of activity- people were getting up, heading for one of the trucks. "What's up with them?"
Billy looked around. "Looks like some of them are leaving. Wonder why?" Then he returned his gaze to Alan. "You don't get off that easy, though."
"How so?" Alan fidgeted. Maybe running was the way to go, after all.
"Crap." Billy shifted, looking around. "Look, my legs are killing me, and the log's been vacated. Let's go over there, where it's more comfortable, and you can tell me what's bugging you."
Alan sighed. "Must I?"
Billy stood up, pulling the sleeping bag with him. The cold night air hit Alan in an icy wave, and he shivered. "Yes. You must."
Alan clambered to his feet as well. He'd really been sitting cross-legged for far too long- his legs felt like blocks of wood. He picked up the other sleeping bag and followed Billy to the log. Billy took one sleeping bag and laid it out on the ground, draping part of it over the log. Then he dropped down under the other sleeping bag and leaned up against the log, with a challenging grin at Alan.
"Well? Gonna stay out in the cold all night?"
Alan sighed. "Billy- you're going to get me into so much trouble, you know that?" He lowered himself down carefully, wishing he was about twenty years younger.
"Not here, and not now," Billy smiled, holding the blanket up. "Now come here and tell me what the problem is. I'm tired of guessing."
Alan leaned up against the log, legs stretched out in front of him under the blanket. "You were right, this is much better."
"Can't blame me for trying."
"Would you just spit it out already? Is it me?"
Alan blinked. "You? Hardly. The problem's entirely with me."
"So? And no more of that work-related crap. Why do you run from me?" Brown eyes bored into his, every bit as intense as a raptor.
"Billy..." he sighed. "Look, let's just say I have some problems, okay? Nothing to do with you."
"Not even." He snorted. That had been doomed from the start. "But look- friends?"
"Of course. But Alan," and Billy raised a hand to his face, stroking lightly. "I don't give up easily."
Alan leaned into the touch, eyes closed. "Don't think I don't count on that, Billy," he whispered.
"So does that mean I shouldn't give up? That maybe someday I'll get through that barrier and actually reach you?" Alan could hear the smile in his voice, as he curved his hand around the back of Alan's head.
"You already have." Alan leaned closer, safe in the darkness behind his eyelids. There was no one else there, no outside world- no quiet murmurs of voices, as the remaining group broke off into pairs or seperated completely and drifted off to sleep. No rules, no fear of censure or job loss... no fear of commitment, no worries about driving away the person he cared most about...
"I think you're just scared, aren't you." Billy's arms were around him again, drawing him closer still.
"Maybe." Alan was quivering deep inside. He slipped a bit further down, so he was resting more on Billy than the log. "Why do you have to be so damn young?"
Billy chuckled. "Why doesn't it surprise me that you said that? I'm not all that young, Alan."
"Yes you are. Trust me, you are. And I'm not- old, worn out, bitter as hell... and so tired of all the bullshit."
"Hey, what do you mean, old and worn out?" Billy protested softly. "You are not. And as for bitter, well- you have your reasons."
"Screwed, and screwed again." Alan sighed. He wished he could remain like this forever, safe and secure. "Did I ever tell you about the island?"
"No, you didn't." Billy held him gently, not demanding anything, just offering closeness and companionship.
"It was hell on earth. They started out so... so beautiful. But they aren't beautiful. They are dangerous and unpredictable, with no real social framework or established behavioral patterns... I mean, yeah, they operate on instinct. And I swear, there's a lot more going on with the raptors than instinct. They're so smart- they hunted us down so easily, it was terrifying."
"Why don't they have learned behavior?"
"Because," Alan said, seeing the labs again in his mind's eye. "They were grown, not hatched into the proper framework of a community. They were born into a lab, grew up in isolation. There is no way there for them to learn proper behavior. Part of growing up for any animal is learning how to be the kind of animal it is... you know what I'm saying?"
"Yeah- kind of like kittens and puppies. It looks like they're always playing, but they're really learning how to hunt and interact with each other."
"Exactly." Alan nodded against Billy's chest. "No social structure, no way to know how to behave- only instinct. Perhaps, with a proper social structure, the raptors wouldn't have been so vicious- for a long time I had nightmares about their nesting grounds. It was like the ultimate in proof for Malcolm and me, both- that the animals were breeding at all, and that they didn't know how to raise their own young..."
"How did they survive?" Billy's hand found its way into Alan's hair, stroking lightly.
"Luck, I think. Instinct provided them with enough guidance to let them eat what was good for them, luck let them catch or locate what was right for them- like the foods rich in lysine."
The stroking hand felt good in his hair. Too good, but he wasn't fighting it tonight. For once, he felt oddly relaxed about the whole situation- possibly because of how strange this whole night was. The evening had definitely been permeated with a sense of unreality, as though he was on another world, in another life... like he'd wake up at home in his own bed, and it would still be Friday morning.
"Alan..." Billy murmured, holding him closer. "I'm so glad you survived. I couldn't believe, at first- and then I read your second book. It was all real."
"Too real." Alan shivered. "Their eyes were the worst- you could see them working out problems. You know, it was an incredible idea, but it was doomed to failure from the start. Just like me and Ellie."
Alan debated telling him, then figured what the hell. The kid was determined to chase after him, might as well clue him in as to what he was in for. "She couldn't handle me, she said. Repeatedly."
"I get a little... overprotective, I guess you could say. Obsessive. And she didn't like that."
"Well." Billy was quiet for a moment. "I really can't see where she's coming from, on that one."
"She didn't like me worrying about her all the time. And on top of that, she wanted kids. Lots of kids."
Alan laughed. "Yeah. And besides, we got along much better as friends."
Alan sighed deeply. He wished... god, how he wished he was younger, or Billy was older. Or that there was no problem with the ethics of getting involved with a student. Or...
"What's wrong now?"
It was getting colder. A bitter breeze snaked its way down the back of Alan's borrowed jacket, provoking a shiver. He tugged the blanket up further. "Nothing, really- just thinking."
"Hey, leave some for me!" Billy protested. He pulled on the topmost sleeping bag, covering Alan completely.
Alan laughed and threw the blanket back, sitting up and opening his eyes. The burst of cold air was worth it, to see Billy scramble after the blanket. "See what you get for burying me?"
"Now, wait a minute, here." Billy laughed, with a pouty look. He scooted down so his shoulders and neck leaned against the log and pulled the blanket up under his chin. "There- better?"
"Yeah." Alan copied his pose, glad to get back under the warm blanket. Ridiculous, really- being out here in this kind of cold, without even a tent. It was barely above freezing, or so his nose insisted. But then... "You know, the stars look brighter from up here, somehow."
"Yeah. And it's not like there's that much light pollution in town."
"Hardly any. But here it's different- like the mountains lift us closer or something."
"Could be. Or it could just be that this is a special place."
"I'd have to agree with that," Alan said, dreamily. "Very special."
"So are you." Billy found his hand and squeezed it.
"Billy... don't go there, okay?"
"Okay, I won't- for now. But I'm telling you, Alan- one of these days I'll break past those defenses of yours."
"Why?" Surprise colored his voice. "Why? Because I want to."
The conversation continued on into the night, drifting from topic to topic randomly. They kept their voices low, out of deference to the sleepers around them. But they didn't sleep until nearly dawn, and even then Alan remained in a state of semi-awareness. He was both too exhilirated and too frightened to sleep deeply, so he drifted in and out of dreams, and he thought of Billy.
They were stalking him again. He could feel Them getting closer, but he couldn't see Them. Every detail was there- this time was real. He could tell. The air was dripping with that particularly tropical humidity, the kind that made you feel trapped inside a giant sponge. He could hear others crying in the distance, haunting cries that no human ears should ever have heard. And the smell- that peculiar overripe scent of the island. He wasn't sure how he'd gotten there this time, but here he was, and They were hunting them. He could feel Their eyes on the back of his neck. He tried to find Them, but it was useless- Their color-shifting abilities were far too advanced to allow a weak-eyed creature like a human to find Them unless They wished to be seen. Where the hell was his flashlight? If he only had his flashlight, he'd be safe, They couldn't shift fast enough to keep up with the beam of light, and They hated to be exposed."Alan! Wake up, it's okay now."
There, what was that? The rustling was getting closer. They were getting closer, and Billy was out there too. Billy was helpless against Them- he'd never faced anything so dangerous, so ruthless before... where was he? Where was Billy?
Ah, there he was. Alan fought to get to him, to find Billy before They did, before he died.
"Alan! Wake up! It's okay, I'm right here."
He could hear Billy calling him, begging to help him, but They were there already. They reached Billy first and attacked with a shrieking roar, and he could hear Billy calling his name as he died...
Strong arms held him, warm lips kissed his face tenderly, Billy's voice in his ears... Alan woke with a gasp. He halfway sat up, then fell back into Billy's arms. He wrapped his arms around Billy's warm living body, buried his face in his neck.
"Now you know why I don't sleep well," he whispered hoarsely.
"The island?" Billy said softly, stroking tangled hair back from Alan's face.
"Yeah. Damn near every time I try to sleep."
"That sucks," Billy said. Slowly, Alan relaxed in his arms. This was much nicer than waking alone from the dreams.
"Sorry," Alan whispered.
"For what?" Billy's voice, although barely audible, still sounded surprised.
"For waking you up. I should have warned you."
Billy kissed his forehead again, and Alan smiled. "That's all right. I mean- not all right that you're having nightmares, but all right that you woke me up. In fact I think I'm flattered."
"How so?" Alan murmured drowsily. The warmth of Billy in his arms and the soothing comfort of his stroking hands were lulling Alan back to sleep already, despite the glimmering of dawn on the horizon and the icy air.
"Because you were calling my name."
"Had to find you, had to get to you before They did."
Billy was safe. He had Billy in his arms, safe and warm and alive. Alan drifted back into sleep gently, secure and content.
They were at Alan's place, one Friday, for a late lunch and a movie on cable. The remains of a pizza rested on the coffee table in front of them, and the movie wound slowly down into the end credits. Alan reminded himself for maybe the hundredth time that night that he shouldn't let Billy get too close, then gave up. He wanted Billy to get too close. Why bother denying it any longer? Ever since that night, what, two weeks ago now, he hadn't been able to pry the kid away from his side with a crowbar. Hadn't wanted to, either, much to the consternation of his coworkers. But all he cared about was Billy, and the way the kid was showing him how much more to life there could be than dusty old dinosaur bones.
"Well," Billy started, and sat up. Alan caught at him, pulling him back down.
"Where do you think you're going?" He smiled, letting his hands wander for once. Billy shivered and moved closer.
"Work, of course- but you're making that very difficult."
"Good." Alan's hand curved up behind Billy's head, drawing him closer still. "Billy," he breathed. "I shouldn't be doing this."
Billy smiled. "But you are."
"But I am." Alan looked at the man in his arms. Young, so very young, but looking back at him with a kind of transparent joy. Alan smiled and leaned closer, closing the slight distance seperating them. At first, his lips just brushed lightly against Billy's, then it was real, and the world vanished into the pleasure of the kiss.
"You have the absolute worst timing," Billy murmured, against his lips. Alan didn't care.
But then Billy pulled away, and he had to care. "Billy-"
"I'm sorry, Alan, I really am. But you know I have to go now. I have to go to work."
"Damn work, anyway," Alan muttered. Now that he'd finally gone and done it, broken down enough to kiss Billy, he wanted more. He silenced Billy's protests with another intoxicating kiss, not pulling away until they were both breathless. Then he released Billy, panting, and watched him struggle up off the couch.
"See you later," Billy said, then left.
Alan prowled his house restlessly, waiting for later. He had a shower, made an effort at straightening up the living room, gave up on that as hopeless. He tried to watch tv, but that didn't work well. So he picked up a book, but found himself staring at meaningless words.
"Ridiculous," Alan growled. He tossed the book aside and went out the back door to the deck, where his telescope waited. That worked. He was able to lose himself in trying to get a decent image of the fuzzy comet that was scheduled to make a close-in appearance sometime near August.
Billy worked at, of all places, a local Subway sub shop. He was scheduled from five till nine tonight, which meant he'd get back anytime between nine thirty and ten. Alan glanced at his watch every few minutes, but it served no purpose, as he couldn't see the numbers. And he certainly wasn't about to turn on the light, just so he could see that it was only eight o'clock, or whatever time it was. So he glanced, then he returned to adjusting the focus.
Finally, all was set up properly, and Alan clicked open the shutter on the camera for a time-delay shot of the comet. He stepped back and let the equipment do its thing, wishing absently that computers were as easy to master as cameras.
Inevitably, his thoughts turned to Billy. What if the kid just went home after work? What would he do then? Just sit here like a big idiot, trying to deal with disappointment.
And hell, why would the kid want to come back, anyway? Alan dropped to the bench beside the sliding glass door and leaned against the house, legs stretched out in front of him. He still couldn't figure out why Billy persisted in hanging around him, anyway. Not like he was much of a prize- old, tired, and with the social skills of a fossilized velociraptor.
He shivered. Bad comparison. The blasted things had left quite an impact on him, during those hideous days on the island. He still could see every detail of them, from the highly intelligent eyes to the fascinating color-shifting ability. Even modern chameleons didn't possess that degree of control over their skins. An image flashed in front of his memory, of the ghost-white raptor covered in chain-link patterns of shadow. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.
But then his objectivity vanished when the thought crossed his mind that a raptor could blend right in to his bushes and he would never know it was there. He shivered and wrenched his mind away from the thought, but not before he glanced around the porch, making sure there was no motion where there should be none. As if he'd be able to see anything in the darkness, anyway...
Better by far to think about Billy. Dangerous though the kid was, he didn't hold a candle to the dangers of the raptors. Billy's danger was of a more mundane nature, that of caring for another human being. Not to mention what would happen if their relationship was discovered by the museum higher-ups... but worry about that later.
He checked the timer on the camera. It had less than a minute to go, so he waited. He peered through the scope, careful not to bump it, then the camera beeped softly. He shut it off, then swung the telescope around to one of his favorite targets- Saturn. He'd just gotten focused on the rings when he heard the front door open and close. Alan forced himself to stay bent over the scope as footsteps sounded inside, then the door slid open.
At the sound of Billy's voice, Alan at last allowed himself to straighten from the lens and turn around. "Hello, Billy."
"I'm back." Billy smiled shyly, and shoved his hands into the pockets of his battered yellow jacket.
"I see that." Alan swallowed hard. Well, here it was, later, the moment he'd been waiting for... He turned and covered the telescope quickly, snapping lens covers in place and securing the wrappings. "I was just looking at Saturn."
For once, Billy was as ill-at-ease as Alan himself. Alan paused before turning away from the scope, trying to decide one last time if this was really what he wanted. Because once he reached for Billy, there would be no turning back. Even if nothing happened, tonight would mark a turning point, because Alan wasn't running any more.
Alan looked up, feeling a smile spreading across his face. Yes. It was going to be just fine.
"Very much so," Alan said. He gave the telescope a final pat, then left it. He went to Billy, still smiling, and took his hand, leading him inside, where it was warm. "So how was work?"
Billy shut the drapes over the glass door before replying. "Work sucked," he said, turning his intense eyes on Alan. "Because all I could think about was you."
Alan wasn't sure who moved first, himself or Billy, but he was sure that his arms were around Billy, that their lips were meeting with a fiery urgency that dwarfed the gentle passion of earlier. "Missed you," he murmured, pushing the windbreaker off Billy's shoulders.
"Missed you too," Billy said, pulling Alan with him towards the couch.
But Alan stopped him, peeled out of his worn green sweatshirt, and smiled at Billy's look of complete frustration. "C'mere," he said, holding Billy's face in both hands, stroking lightly with his thumbs. "You still sure about this? Still want me?"
Billy blinked up at him, eyes wide. Then he smiled, a slow smile which spread from his eyes across his entire face. "More than anything. You know that."
"Then I'm yours." Alan kissed him, no longer afraid. He moved towards the bedroom, discovering that while it was difficult to kiss someone while walking, it wasn't impossible.
"Mine," Billy said, in a tone of wonder. He sat on Alan's bed and stripped his shirt off quickly. "For real? You're not going to regret this in the morning, run out on me again?"
Alan fumbled with his buttons, frustrated. "No, Billy," he said, finally giving up and just pulling the shirt over his head. "I'm done with running."
Then he was on the bed too. He pulled Billy close, reveling in the feel of warm skin. They sank down together, kissing hungrily. Billy's hands were everywhere, driving Alan over the edge of rational thought and into a realm of pure animal passion. He was peripherally aware of hands undoing his pants, of a moment of seperation- he made an incoherent sound of loss, reaching out for Billy, then Billy was back in his arms, with no more clothing to come between them. Better than his dreams, better than anything he'd ever felt before...
Afterwards, a long time later, Alan was drifting into sleep when he thought he heard Billy say something, very quietly... "I love you, Alan."
Floating free and easy, drift through the grey on wings like a dove... so easy, so free...
Then They were there, so abruptly that it hurt when the pleasant drifting vanished into brittle shards. They broke through with a roar, pinning him against a wall, and They were going to eat him this time-
-and then Billy smiled at him, and They melted, dripping slowly into a vanishing puddle on the floor, with a despairing shrieking wail. They were gone. Billy was there.
He was happy.
Something was missing.
Alan woke abruptly, aware that something wasn't quite right. He lay still for a moment, eyes closed, trying to puzzle out the feeling. Then he heard the water turn on in the tub, and he remembered... Billy.
A rush of warmth swept over him with the memory of last night, of what they'd done. His eyes flew open- well, the eye that wasn't buried in the pillow did, anyway. His fingers clenched at the sheets, then he forced them to relax. There was no reason to get upset.
The running water spluttered, then transformed into the sound of the shower. Alan heard cheerful whistling, then the shower curtain sliding aside. He could easily imagine Billy in there, water streaming over his head, down his strong shoulders, across his chest... Alan swallowed hard, then smiled as he heard Billy singing something- utterly off-key.
Alan rolled onto his back and stretched. Despite his automatic panicked response when he'd realized what they'd done, he felt incredibly relaxed and content. Content- hell, that just wasn't strong enough to describe what he was feeling. He felt like a cat purring in sunshine, like the king of the world... like joining Billy in the shower. Hmm. Interesting possibility.
He rolled out of bed and padded into the bathroom, bare feet making no sound on the carpet. The room was already steaming up, fog creeping from the edges of the mirror towards the center. Alan pulled the shower curtain aside enough to see in, making enough noise to warn Billy that he was there.
"Mind if I join you?"
Billy turned to face him, washcloth in hand. He smiled. "Not a bit."
Alan stepped into the shower, sliding up against Billy for a wet kiss. Hot water streamed over both of them. Billy's hands glided down Alan's back, leaving goosebumps despite the heat.
"One condition, though," Billy murmured when they came up for air.
"What's that?" Alan filled his eyes with the sight of Billy. He hadn't exactly been looking much last night, in the dark... Billy was beautiful.
"Wash my back?" He ran the hand still holding the washcloth over Alan's back, around his side, and up his chest. Alan caught the washcloth away with a smile.
"Gladly. Turn around." He reached for the soap, working up a generous lather on the cloth, while Billy turned around and put his hands on the wall. "Hmmm... better watch out, standing like that- you might get something other than you expect..."
Billy chuckled and wiggled invitingly. "Is that a threat or a promise?"
Alan stepped up close, scrubbing at Billy's back with one hand, while the other hand made explorations of its own on Billy's front. "A bit of both, I think," he murmured, nibbling at Billy's neck.
"Mmmm..." Billy shivered and twisted around into Alan's arms, kissing him hungrily. "Good, 'cause I didn't get nearly enough last night."
"Shameless," Alan teased, then gasped. Billy's hands were convincing him that he didn't really need to take a shower.
"And proud of it." Billy stopped what he was doing long enough to rinse off. Alan watched him with a slight smile on his face, watched the soap bubbles and the water streaming down Billy's skin... nice. Very nice.
Then Billy was done rinsing, and Alan pressed up against him again, kissing him, while he reached down one-handed and turned off the water. "Come on, too slippery in here."
"Agreed." Billy pulled away and opened the shower curtain. He made a cursory attempt to dry off, then passed the towel to Alan.
"Oh yeah, right- give me the wet, used towel..." Alan smiled and rubbed at his hair. He made an even more cursory attempt to dry off while Billy laughed at him.
"Not my fault you've only got one towel."
"And how would you know how many towels I've got, anyway? There's more than one, they're just all dirty."
Then he decided he was dry enough and tossed the now-soaked towel onto the counter, propelling Billy backward out of the bathroom, across the bedroom, and into the bed.
Billy dropped his backpack and perched on the wall beside Alan. "Where've you been?" He didn't look away from the sunset, well aware that he wouldn't be able to control his reactions in public.
"Sorry I'm late- I got hijacked by some friends. They seemed to think I needed to go to the Mall."
"Oh. When you didn't show up, I was worried."
"Sorry about that. I got away as soon as I could- and I tried to call you, but there was no answer."
Alan snorted. No, there wouldn't have been an answer... When the kid hadn't showed up after his last class, he'd gone out to try and find him. No Billy, anywhere- not at the student center, or the library, or the inside of the planetarium- no answer on the kid's home phone... what happened? Where was he? Was he mad? What had Alan done to make him stay away...? "Nah, I wasn't in."
"Alan... what's wrong?" Billy reached out, then thought better of it. There weren't many people around the outside of the planetarium on a Friday evening, but better not to take any chances.
"Nothing, really. Just-" Alan shrugged. He glanced at Billy, then looked away before he could forget where they were and wrap his arms around the kid to reassure himself that everything was alright.
"You really were worried, weren't you," Billy said softly. "I'm sorry, Alan, I really am. I'll make it up to you, okay?"
The soft, caressing tone of the kid's voice was almost enough to make up for the worry. "Is that a promise?" Alan smiled, thinking of ways he could hold the kid to that offer.
"Yes, most definitely," Billy breathed, in that unmistakably sensual tone which sent shivers racing up and down Alan's spine. "I missed you badly, and I wanted to get away- but they were teasing me like hell about, well, about you, so I stayed. But now- I have a lot to make up for, don't I?"
"Yes," Alan agreed. "Yes, you do. And you know what?"
"Crandal can damn well do his charting alone tonight."
Billy chuckled and rose from the wall. "I was hoping you would say that. Your place? So no one interrupts?"
"Sounds good to me."
Alan rose from the low brick wall, starting off around the building to the parking lot. He felt rather silly, now, for his earlier worries and fears- obviously, the kid had a life of his own, and it wasn't like they were out in the open about this anyway. But he couldn't help it- it was part of his nature to worry about things that were out of his control, to stress out over small things... he wondered if Billy could understand.
Once in the safety of the truck, Billy reached out for him. "Alan-"
"What?" Alan threw the truck into reverse, backing out of his spot.
"How's this going to work, having to pretend we're just friends?" He sighed. "Never mind. It's going to work, because you're worth it."
"You sure?" There it was again, the paranoid fear clawing at his throat. He tried to ignore it, concentrating on getting the truck out of the parking lot and through the streets of the town.
"Positive. Absolutely positive." Billy smiled. Alan dropped his hand down to Billy's, where it rested on his thigh.
"I still can't see why you say that."
"Because it's true." Billy's smile widened. "Where else am I going to find someone willing to look at stars with me, or indulge my obsessions for digging up dinosaurs and watching movies?"
"Seems like you could find someone, somewhere."
"But I don't want someone, Alan." Billy grew serious for a moment. "I want you."
I can only hope he really means that, Alan thought. That he won't change his mind, or decide that it was much more fun chasing after me than being stuck with me...
But when they reached Alan's home, his fears dissolved, laid to rest by Billy's ardent apology.
Hmm... Alan looked over the myriad faces in the lecture hall, wondering how to catch their attention. They stared back at him with varying degrees of interest, with Billy being the only one who looked fully alert. Alan smiled to himself. Screw the ethics. This'll really throw 'em for a loop...
"Anyone know why I said the animals of Jurassic Park weren't real dinosaurs?"
A sea of blank faces greeted his question, except for Billy's. He looked puzzled for a moment, then his eyes crinkled and he raised a hand to his mouth, probably smothering a laugh.
"Yes, Mr. Brennan? You have the answer for us?"
"Yes, Dr. Grant, I believe I do." Billy smiled. "Because the animals there had no knowledge of themselves as dinosaurs. They had no parents to teach them behavior, no established social structure. They had nothing to go on but instinct. Am I right?"
"Sounds like you've got it to me." Alan returned the smile, glad Billy was there. Somehow, seeing a friendly face in the mass of students made this much easier. Plus, the memory of that night, when they'd had this discussion before, was very warming.
"And what about these creatures? What exactly are they, and do they have a right to independent existence?"
That woke them up. Students other than Billy began to take an interest in the discussion, although Billy was still the most willing to volunteer information and theories.
The discussion wound down to a natural closing point a few minutes before the end of class, so Alan packed his things away and released the group early. Billy waited, while people made their ways out of the lecture hall.
"Alan? Got a minute?"
Alan glanced at Billy. He quirked an eyebrow and indicated the door, but Alan shook his head and shrugged. Billy sighed, but nodded understanding and left. Alan returned his attention to Dr. Browning, who'd watched the interaction with faint surprise.
"What's up?" Alan asked, burying his regret beneath a layer of firm control and professional demeanor.
"I hadn't realized you knew Mr. Brennan." The somewhat rumpled man peered at him out of sharp brown eyes, not missing a detail.
"Yes, he's spent a couple summers on the dig, and helped out in the lab a few times. Why?" Alan tried for casual, tried not to snap the man's head off. He hadn't implied anything at all, just asked a question.
"Just wondering." The brown eyes rested on him a moment longer, considering, then flicked towards the clock. "I suppose I'd better be going. I was just curious, though- it's not like you to get overly friendly with the students."
Oops. "Well, maybe not- but he's hardly my student. More my research assistant than anything else."
"Good." Browning nodded decisively. "See you Friday, then?"
"Same time, same place," Alan sighed. Really, he didn't like doing these guest lecturer spots at all. He'd gotten out of the habit of teaching. At least this time Billy was here, even if it was in a field he'd never remotely considered teaching in before. "Is that all, then?"
"Yes." Browning shifted his attention to his briefcase. Alan shrugged and moved away, heading for the door.
"Just be careful, Dr. Grant," Browning said behind him. But it was quiet enough that Alan could ignore the warning and move on as though he hadn't heard.
Outside the door to the lecture hall, Billy was waiting. Alan felt the tension lift from his shoulders and his face relaxed into a smile.
"Sorry about that," he said. "I had a feeling you'd wait, though."
Billy smiled and fell in beside him as they progressed through Wilson Hall. "Of course. What was up?"
"Just Dr. Browning, wondering why I'm on such good terms with one of his students."
Billy twitched with irritation. "Nosey old bugger. He bothers me."
"How so?" Alan felt the familiar urge to protect, to take care of someone who was important to him.
"Always gives me the creeps. I'm not sure why, it's just... something in the way he watches us, I guess."
"The students. He gets this look on his face, like- I don't know. I can't describe it. But he bugs me."
"Well, that's not good- considering that he's teaching a course on moral theory and ethics. And why didn't you tell me you were taking that class, anyway?"
"Thought you knew."
"If I'd known, I wouldn't have been so surprised when you walked in."
"And here I'd thought you were just surprised because I was on time."
"Well, that too," Alan admitted. "Where are you heading now?" They'd reached the front door, emerging into the pale spring sunlight. Stately evergreens rippled and shimmered in the breeze, casting shifting shadows across the front of the old building.
"Nowhere, really- no classes until four. How about you?"
"I should go back to work." Alan sighed regretfully. It really was a beautiful day.
"I don't think so." A mischievous grin appeared on Billy's face. "I think you should come with me."
"What?" Alan automatically followed as Billy set off through the trees.
"Is the truck over here, or did you walk?"
"Are you kidding? Nice day like this, of course I walked. Now where are you going?"
"To the truck," Billy replied, with an infuriatingly cheerful grin.
"Well, I kind of figured that," Alan said at his dryest. "Now will you kindly tell me what's going on in that devious little mind of yours?"
"Not now, Alan- I'm plotting!" Billy's eyes sparkled. Alan made a half-hearted attempt at getting annoyed, then gave it up as useless. The kid was just too damn cute for his own good when he got in one of these playful moods.
"Fine, then- plot away, but you're not going to get anywhere as long as I have the keys."
"Yes I will. Because you're going to take me where I want to go. Aren't you?"
One look at the artful pleading expression Billy wore was enough to set Alan off laughing. "Not if you don't tell me where that is," he said at last.
"Hmmm," and Billy smiled, a sly little smile. "The Mall?"
Alan fished his keys out of his pocket, toying with them. "You're just bound and determined to get me out there, aren't you?"
"Yeah, sure am!"
"What is it about that place, anyway, that you want me to see so badly?"
"Nothing, really- just the whole place itself. It's really cool. You'd love it. And they have the best sub shop in town..."
"So you keep saying." Alan tossed his keys, caught them, then nodded. "Okay. You win. I'll go to this mall of yours."
"Ha! It's about time!"
Alan surrendered to the inevitable and went to the Mall. It was a street, really, with dozens of little shops and sidewalk cafes. It was fairly crowded- after the long winter, people were more than willing to get out and enjoy some sunlight.
Alan had to laugh at the name of the place Billy made a beeline for- "The Best Little Sub Shop In Town."
"Billy," he said, "I thought you meant the place had the best subs, not the owners with the biggest egos..."
"The egos are deserved this time. Trust me, you'll see." They carried their orders out to a table in the sun and sat down.
"If I didn't trust you, I wouldn't be here." Alan meant for that to come out light and teasing, but it backfired. Billy caught the serious tone and smiled slowly.
"I know." The sun picked out the highlights in his hair that Alan hadn't seen since the previous summer. For one long moment, Alan was conscious of everything and nothing- the way the wind played with the leaves of the tree down the sidewalk, the warmth of sun on his thigh, the crisp clean scent of spring, the murmur of conversations from other tables- all of which was both intensely clear, yet meaningless, reduced to insignificance by the look on Billy's face.
I do not deserve this, Alan thought, drinking in the details of the moment. What could I have possibly done to merit this?
Alan shook himself, the magic shattered, and turned to face the speaker. "Yes? Oh- hello, Dr. Hutchings. Out for a late lunch?"
"Actually, I had an errand to run which brought me down here. May I ask what you are doing?"
Alan kept his expression smooth and pleasant with an effort. "Just came here for a sandwich. I missed lunch, as I was busy with the Philosophy class."
Her eyes narrowed as she nodded. "I see. And this would be...?" She looked at Billy, hostility flickering under her icily professional gaze.
"Haven't you met before? Dr. Hutchings, this is Billy Brennan, my research assistant. He's the one that's managed to keep the computers running smoothly this year."
"Pleasure to meet you," Billy said, extending a hand. She took it in a brief handshake, then drew back.
"I wasn't aware that you had an assistant outside of the department."
Alan seethed inside. If she hadn't been the head of the paleontology department, he'd have been sorely tempted to say something rude. But she was his boss, so he swallowed his resentment and nodded. "Yes, actually he's been working with me since last season. Billy's been very helpful."
"I'm glad to hear that, Dr. Grant. However," and she paused, with a significant look at Alan, "perhaps you should devote more time to your work, and less time to personal pursuits, especially in the company of students. Or have you completed the work on the fossils for the new exhibit?"
"Very nearly, Dr. Hutchings. Nearly enough that I feel secure in taking enough time off for a lunch break." Alan couldn't keep his voice completely devoid of emotion- some of his distaste oozed through his control.
"Excellent. Don't let me stop you, then."
She turned, with the precision and economy of movement that characterized every gesture she made, resumed her brisk walk down the street.
"Bitch," Billy muttered. Alan waited until he was sure she was out of earshot before he replied.
"There's times I'd agree with you on that, but still- she is my boss. And she really does have a valid point."
"Excuse me?" Billy raised his eyebrows and shot Alan a disbelieving look. "Explain."
"She's right, you know." Alan looked down at his sandwich, which suddenly wasn't nearly as appetizing as it had been a few minutes ago. "I should be back at the museum. I have work to do."
"Bull." Billy was tense, eyes lit with an inner fire. "You know why she said that? It had nothing to do with you having to work. She didn't like me."
Alan shifted uncomfortably. "I noticed. And that's not good, not good at all."
"Why not?" Billy pounced on him with all the intensity of a striking predator. "Why isn't it good? And why didn't you tell her that it's none of her damn business who you've got working with you in your lab, and it's none of her damn business who you're with in your free time."
"Billy, she's in charge of the entire Department of Paleontology. What do you expect me to do, tell her to leave me alone?"
Billy nodded. "Yes, Alan, that is exactly what I expect you to do. Look, how many times is this going to happen?"
"What?" Alan blinked, taken completely by surprise.
"You giving in to some high-and-mighty idiot that's just trying to jerk your chain. Or mine, for that matter. You need to stand up for yourself sometime, Alan. You let them walk all over you. Do this, do that- oh no, you can't do that, it just wouldn't be proper..."
"Billy!" Alan protested, getting over his shock. "Things don't work like that. This is my career we're talking about. Think about it. I have to keep the higher-ups happy. They give me money. I give them dinosaurs, all pre-packaged and sanitized for the general public. If I go against what they want, I'm out on the street."
"Have you ever stood up for anything you believe in?" Billy's eyes bored into him relentlessly. "Have you ever just taken a chance?"
"Not with my way of life." Alan leaned forward a little. "Think about it, Billy. You've got no real worries- got your grants and loans to cover your tuition and living expenses, plus some on the side from your job, and no real bills to speak of. But me- I don't have it that easy. This job is all I've got."
"That's where you're wrong, Alan." Billy pushed his chair back and stood up. "You've got me."
Then he turned and walked away.
Alan stared, heart in throat, for a few seconds, until his mind came out of its stunned state. "Billy!" He scrambled to his feet, nearly toppling the small metal table. Then he steadied himself and caught up to Billy in a few long strides.
"Don't go," he choked out, around a sudden mind-numbing terror. He'd faced a rampaging T. rex and hunting velociraptors with less fear than he felt at this moment.
"Why not, Alan? Going to give me a reason to stay?"
The cold, shuttered look Billy wore was enough to tie his midsection into knots. "Billy- don't do this to me, don't make this a choice between you and my life-" That was the wrong thing to say. He could see it immediately, in Billy's response- a flare of anger, then nothing, and Billy turned to walk away again. "Look, I said that wrong. You're part of my life, an important part- but can't you see where I'm coming from?" He caught Billy's arm. "Can we at least go sit down again, instead of discussing this in the middle of the sidewalk?"
Billy nodded once, sharply. Alan felt a hint of relief- maybe the kid would be willing to listen to reason, to not go running off like that...
They went back to the table and sat down, scaring a pair of sparrows away from the abandoned subs. "Well?" Billy said, arms crossed on his chest.
Alan took a deep breath and tried to organize his thoughts. "I don't know what to say." Billy snorted. "Really- I care about you. You know that. But I also care about my job. I've been out in this world long enough to realize that life's not fair, and sometimes, to survive, you have to put up with getting screwed around. What you said is very..." He paused, searching for the words. Billy's eyes didn't waver from his face. "...very right. I shouldn't let anybody dictate my life, or who I spend time with, or any of the rest of it. But in reality, there's other factors involved. Can't you understand that?"
"I can understand that you always want to play it safe- that you'll never take chances." Billy's voice was still tight with anger, although not nearly as furious as before.
"Billy..." Alan started, then found the answer he was looking for. "The way I see it, there's two kinds of people- the astronomers, and the astronauts." Surprise flickered across Billy's face, but he didn't say anything. "The astronomers are the ones who sit back and observe from a position of perfect safety. But the astronauts are the ones who get out there and go for it, who launch into space at any risk... do you see what I'm saying?"
"Yes, Alan." Billy sighed. "I do see. You're the ever-cautious astronomer. But even astronomers have been known to go out on a limb sometimes."
"I... I can't. I just can't risk it." Alan shook his head sadly. "I need some form of security in my life. Can't you understand?"
Billy nodded. "Yes, Alan. I can understand. Forgive me if I seem unreasonable, but I can't help but think you could find a way to have your security without being a doormat. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll walk back. It's only a couple miles."
This time, Alan didn't stop him when he left, just sat and stared at his forgotten sandwich.
Billy was gone.
He'd never done that before, never just got up and walked away. The ever-present fear within him, the fear of losing Billy, uncoiled and struck full force.
Stupid, Grant- really stupid. You never should have done this. Safer, so much safer to just keep the kid away, to not care...
But he knew, even as he thought it, that it was impossible not to care. He needed Billy. The kid was part of his life now, one he couldn't do without. And now he'd gone and pissed the kid off. Now what? How could he face life without Billy, if the kid was mad enough to just walk away? And all because he was trying to keep his job safe. Maybe the kid was right. Maybe he needed to tell the bitch to shove it, that it was none of her concern who helped him out in the lab. But it was her concern... after all, as head of the department, she was ultimately responsible for everything that went on within the department.
Alan got to his feet slowly. The magic of the day had been utterly destroyed, shattered beyond repair. He walked slowly down the street to where they'd left the truck and got into it. There was no Billy in the passenger seat. Would there ever be again?
You've got me, he had said. Got, not had- maybe that was a positive sign, an indication that the kid was willing to work through this. Alan hoped so.
He drove back to the museum. It was Wednesday. Billy should have been there to help him work with the designer, planning out the new displays for the summer. Somehow, he doubted Billy would be there.
He wasn't. Alan immersed himself in the discussion with the designer, planning what would go where, how the displays would intertwine, what kind of interaction they could manage for the younger children...
But all he could see in his mind was Billy walking away.
By the time Alan got home that night, he was so tense that he had a mind-boggling headache. Billy wasn't there. The phone remained stubbornly silent.
Alan knocked back a few painkillers for his headache and took a shot at proofreading the paper he'd just finished, with Billy's help. Situational Ethics: an in-depth look at the morality of species genesis. In it, he'd followed the course of discussions between himself and Billy, expanded it a bit with material from the class he'd taught recently, and packaged the whole in a form suitable for any one of a dozen science journals. But it wasn't helping to distract him from thoughts about Billy.
The headache began to ease off a bit, finally responding to the medication. Much better. The house was quiet and peaceful... too quiet. Alan would have given anything to have Billy there, with the tv cranked up a hair too loud, flipping through the cable channels and exclaiming with delight over whatever was on the History Channel. Or maybe finding a movie on Showtime or HBO... Alan smiled fondly. He wondered it the kid had ever guessed that the main reason he was willing to sit through so many movies was to make Billy happy. Something they could do together, without worrying what people would think- with or without an attendant crowd of Billy's friends sprawled across his couch and floor. Didn't matter if they were there or not, Billy would be happy...
You've got me.
"Do I?" Alan said aloud. "Do I really?"
He pushed away from his desk, suddenly unable to look at the paper any longer. He looked at the silent phone, reached for it. Then he let his hand fall. Did he really want to make that call, to find out whether Billy was at home or not? No.
Suddenly, the house was too confining. He had to get out, had to go somewhere- the lake. Yeah. That would work.
He went back out, got in the truck. Hmm, looked like getting some gas would be a good idea. He headed for his usual station, filled it up, then hit the road.
Driving steadied his nerves. The steady roar of the engine, the hum of the tires on the road, the rising moon- it was all very peaceful, very tranquil. He followed the road up into the mountains, driving too fast but not caring. There was a certain freedom to the feeling of flying through the night, along the level approach to the mountains, then hitting the first curves with reckless speed.
By the time he reached the lake, Alan was marginally calmer. He parked the truck and got out, wandering along the shoreline. There was the blackened spot where the bonfire had been, there was the log where he'd spent his first night nestled in Billy's arms... He sighed.
Would the kid be there when he got back? He hoped so. He walked along the sandy shore until it changed into a steep rocky incline, plunging into the frigid waters of the mountain tarn. Then he turned and wandered back to the log, perching on it and playing with the sand. Not sand, strictly speaking- more like very fine gravel, a leftover from glacial ice, and worn down by the lapping of the waves on the shore...
Billy. What was he going to do about the kid? He wanted this to work out, he really did- but could he get around his own damn insecurities? Out here he could admit it- here, where the only witness to his thoughts was the whispering wind. He let the grainy sand trickle through his fingers. He was going to have to hope Billy had meant what he'd said... You've got me.
He had to get himself sorted out. He'd let the kid in, let him get close- even though he'd known it was a bad idea. But it was too late now, and he was going to have to strike some kind of new balance. The kid was important. Seeing him walk away like that had only underscored how important he'd become. Alan fought the panic down, before it could take control and undo all the good the moonlit drive had done. The kid still wanted him. He had to. Because he still wanted the kid. Just because he could be an idiot didn't mean he couldn't recognize a good thing when he had his nose rubbed in it... He sighed.
Maybe he'd better get back home. Really, driving out here had been pointless, from a strictly practical point of view, but he felt better. Yes, he'd go home, and call Billy, and apologize.
And he'd find a way to deal with the people at work that wouldn't hurt the kid.
He drove home much more carefully than he'd made the trip up. The night was quiet, with very few cars on the road. Luck was with him- the three traffic lights between the open highway and his house were green. He pulled into his driveway, half expecting to see Billy's car there. It wasn't.
Don't even start, idiot, he told himself firmly, and went inside.
He tossed his jacket and hat in the general direction of the couch and picked up the phone, not even needing to turn a light on to get Billy's number right. The phone rang. And rang.
Somewhere after the tenth ring, Alan gave up. Billy wasn't home. And he hadn't turned the answering machine on, either. He put the receiver down carefully, numb inside. Now what? The kid wasn't home.
He made his way to the couch through the darkness. He wasn't sure how long he sat there, not thinking, leaned back against the cushions of the couch and staring at the shadows on the ceiling. Eventually, he shook off his apathy enough to go in the bedroom. Might as well lay in bed and stare at the ceiling.
He made an effort to go through his usual nighttime routine, although he couldn't quite face the shower. Too many memories in there already.
He paused on his way out of the bathroom, one hand on the light switch. There was a lump in his bed.
A Billy-shaped lump.
Alan shut the light off. Relief made him light-headed. Billy was there. He gripped the doorframe for a moment, then crossed the room. He sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed Billy's back.
"Hey kid, wake up," he said quietly.
"Mmmmmm," Billy responded, moving slightly.
"C'mon, you can do it," Alan coaxed. His hand wandered up and down Billy's back. "Wake up."
"Do I have to?" The sleepy protest made Alan smile.
"Yes, you have to. Wake up, now."
Billy rolled over, stretching, and yawned. Alan rested his hand on Billy's stomach, suddenly sure that everything would be just fine.
"I'm sorry, Billy," he said. Billy sighed.
"I'm sorry, too- I shouldn't have gotten so upset. I know you wouldn't really put your job over me, but I was just so damn mad..."
"No, you had a right to be mad. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have let her get away with that. I'm going to have to find a way to make this work. Because I really want it to, okay? And I'm going to do better."
"Alan," Billy interrupted. "It's okay. Now will you quit apologizing and kiss me?"
"Gladly," Alan breathed. He bent down and kissed Billy, first on the forehead, then on the lips. He felt Billy's hand reach up and tangle in his hair. He transfered his attention to Billy's jawline, to his neck, his shoulder...
"Hmm?" Alan nibbled on Billy's collarbone.
"Got a problem here."
Alan froze, instantly apprehensive. "What?"
"You're out there." Billy moved over, holding the covers up. Alan's apprehension melted away into a warm glow. He slid under the covers, up against Billy.
Their lips met again. "Billy... I thought you'd gone for good." But he wasn't- he was here, in Alan's arms, warm and willing.
Alan shivered as Billy licked along the edge of his lip. "Never," he whispered, then kissed Alan again. "I could never leave you."
"Good-" was all Alan had time to say, before all rational thought was engulfed in a wave of pure passion.
Alan stood behind the chair, resting his hands on Billy's shoulders. The computer beeped, then obediently launched the new program.
"That's it, then? It'll work now?"
Billy leaned back and smiled up at him. "It'll work. All you need to do is click on the little skull icon to start it. Then it'll do the rest. And it'll even remind you if something's missing from the file."
Alan shook his head. "I'll bet I can still find a way to mess it up."
Billy reached up and covered one of Alan's hands with his own, drawing breath to reply, when the door to the lab banged open. Both men jumped and turned towards the door, eyes wide.
"Dr. Grant, I-" The intruder looked up from the papers in his hands and froze.
"Dr. Kessler. Can I help you?" He stepped away from Billy, feeling his guts clench tight with apprehension. Just what he needed, the Assistant Director of the museum.
"Yes." The assistant director's eyes bored into him, cold and grey. "If you'll excuse us?" He glanced significantly at Billy, who rose with a quiet goodbye to Alan and left. Kessler watched him leave, then turned on Alan as soon as the door closed. "Dr. Grant. I've spoken with you before about having people here who aren't affiliated with the museum program."
"He's my research assistant," Alan said flatly. He leaned against the table and crossed his arms over his chest.
"On the digs, perhaps- but this is museum property, and he is not employed by the museum. And he is, in fact, a student not majoring in museum studies, and has no reason to be here. And what's more, I've had complaints about you, involving inappropriate conduct."
"What kind of complaints?" He kept his voice steady, not reflecting any of the sick dread within him. It was happening, oh god it was happening- what he'd been afraid of all along.
"There are people who allege, and based on what I've seen here I'm inclined to believe them, that you are involved in an inappropriate relationship with Mr. Brennan. This behavior is immoral and unethical and must be stopped immediately. This museum is part of the University, and as such must be a safe environment for all of our students. Faculty and staff must conduct themselves appropriately at all times. I'm placing you on probation, Dr. Grant. You have been warned about this behavior in the past and obviously have not heeded those warnings. Perhaps you will heed the official probationary process and cease this shameful abuse of your position."
"Excuse me?" The words were out before Alan could stop them, propelled by the cold fire of rage building steadily within. "I have done nothing wrong. There are no rules, laws, or regulations against someone in my position finding an assistant, regardless of major. And there is nothing immoral, unethical, or shameful about having that assistant install a new program on a computer."
"Perhaps not, Dr. Grant, but it is your behavior in question here, not the duties of the assistant- who, might I add, is still not officially part of the museum staff, and still has no right to be in this employee only area. Consider this matter closed. You will be under official observation for the rest of the semester."
Alan glared at Kessler, unable to think of anything to say that wouldn't endanger his job further.
"Now, I originally came down here to tell you that we must have the nesting display completed by next week."
"Talk to Cass," Alan interrupted. "We finished cleaning the last of the skeletons last week." He remembered Billy laughing at him as he'd packed the last partial skull away carefully. They're rocks, Alan- what, do you think they're going to break? And his own answer, Maybe not, but I just put an awful lot of effort into restoring them, and I don't want to risk any further damage.
Then Billy had caught his hands and pulled him close, his smile lighting the entire room, and kissed him.
"Very well then. Now, make sure you conduct yourself appropriately in the future. And if Mr. Brennan is seen here again, further action will be taken."
Dr. Kessler turned sharply and left.
Alan sank down in the chair, head in hands. Well, it had happened- the jig was up, the word was out, and he was officially a marked man. And all because he had a weakness for the kid.
"Alan? I saw him leave, is it safe to come back?" Billy's voice sounded from the door, and he raised his head and turned.
Billy blinked. "What?"
"I said no. It's not safe to come back. In fact, you have to leave, and not come back here again."
Alan felt cold, distant, as though he weren't really connected to the person saying the words. Billy's eyes, confused, focused on his face.
"What do you mean, Alan?" The confusion in his voice was like a knife to the gut.
"You have to leave. Now. And you can't come here anymore. I'm on probation, and they'll have someone watching me like a blasted hawk for the rest of the semester. And if they see you here, I'm in even deeper. Now go."
He turned away, unable to look at the kid any longer.
There was a long moment of silence, while Alan attempted to go back to work. Then, "We'll talk about this later." And a faint scuffling noise, as Billy turned and left.
Alan buried himself in the mind-numbing work, using it to distract himself from the lost feeling inside. The sorting room was suddenly echoingly empty, filled only by remnants of a past so old they didn't even have ghosts clinging to them. His fingers tapped automatically at the keys, entering information into the new program- that Billy had set up- and slowly reducing the never-ending backlog of paperwork.
After a while, the pain went numb inside. He forced himself to distance his emotions, thinking objectively, until he could see that, yes, continuing the close relationship he had with Billy was a very bad idea. It was bad for the school, it was bad for the museum, it was even bad for him and Billy both. Just a bad deal all around. He would break it off cleanly, he would not ever allow inappropriate feelings to color his judgment again-
-he would go home to an achingly empty house, he would not go over to Billy's for any reason or no reason, he would never taste those warm and willing lips again...
His heart twisted. His soul cried out, a wordless wail of protest that resolved into an all-encompassing why?
Billy huddled in on himself, a bundle of tension. His eyes were wide, staring with blank incomprehension.
This can't go on. We have to stop this, now, before things get any worse.
It had sounded good earlier, in his head. In fact, it had sounded reasonable and well thought out. But now, with Billy in front of him, looking at him... now it didn't sound so good.
"Because this is all a bad idea," he muttered, unable to meet those eyes any longer.
"What is, Alan? Having a part-time lover?"
Alan winced and looked back at Billy, hurt. "You're not- you know I care, too much-"
"Then blow this off. We have something good going here. Let's not let these assholes screw it up for us."
"Billy- you don't understand. It's not just 'these assholes,' it's your future, and mine. You don't need this kind of trouble. And my job is on the line here. And I knew I should never have-" His throat closed up and he swallowed, hard. "Look, personal feelings aside, it looks bad, you know? And this is a small town, a college town- you know how that would affect your future here."
"Alan." Billy shook his head. "That didn't even make sense. I'm not going to let you dump me without a damn good reason, and maybe not even then. Why the hell are you trying to pull this crap?"
"I told you. This isn't working. You're too young, we're too different, and we just can't go on like this. Please understand."
"All I understand is that you're scared again. You're running, just like you did before. Just because Dr. Kessler doesn't like me."
"It's not that. Can't you see? We've been heading for trouble, all along." Alan willed himself to believe it, to remember how awkward it was to hide things at work, even to remember how downright dangerous it could be to be seen together in public. People out here didn't approve of some kinds of relationships, no matter who was involved.
"I don't see that at all. In fact, up until the minute Kessler walked into that room, I'd say things were going damn good. Or don't you remember as far back as this morning?" Billy's lips curved in a gentle smile, remembering.
"But-" Alan took a deep breath. "There's more to life than sex. What's the good of having a relationship if we can't be open about it?"
"Ask that of all the thousands of closeted couples out there. I'm sure they'll tell you there's ways around prejudice."
"Dammit, Billy- think for a minute! Suppose we do stay together. Suppose Kessler finds out. I lose my job. With that kind of black mark on my record, to go along with the aftermath of the island, who's going to hire me? From the viewpoint of the schools and museums, I'm going to look like a pervert, preying on impressionable students. And then we'd be stuck trying to survive on your part-time Subway job."
"If you cared," Billy said softly. His voice trembled. "If you really, really cared about me, it wouldn't matter. I'd give up everything for you."
"But that's not the point." Alan realized his hands were clenched together so tightly on his knee that the bones were creaking. He forced them to relax. "The point is that neither one of us should have to be in that situation. How long do you think this could last if I lost my career?"
"When you said you were mine, I took that to mean forever."
He couldn't do it. He couldn't face the pain in those eyes any longer. He had to look away. "Billy... can't we just be friends? It's safer. I can't be seen with you, I can't have you as assistant at the museum any longer- how can we survive that kind of strain without coming to hate each other?"
"I could never hate you, Alan."
"You could. If I lost everything, if everything went to hell- things would change between us. Better to end it now, before disaster strikes. If I lose my job..."
"So what you're saying is, your job really is more important to you than I am."
Ooh, that hurt.
"And you'd rather give in to the demands of a bigoted asshole than give things a chance with me."
Alan hunched over, curling around the stabbing, twisting pain brought on by Billy's words... and the niggling, guilty little suspicion that he was right.
"And you really don't care enough to try to overcome your fear."
The quiet, calm voice was tearing him to shreds. He could have handled violent temper, rejection, denial- anything but this calm dissection of his motives.
"Billy- you are important to me, and I do care about you, but I can see that this can't go on!"
Billy looked away, eyes glistening. "You've got yourself convinced, I can tell." He swallowed. "And you're one of the most stubborn men I've ever known. Okay." Alan saw a single tear spill over, falling down Billy's cheek. He watched its path with morbid fascination, longing to reach out and brush it away. "I'll go. But I refuse-" and his voice broke. He took a few deep breaths, then looked at Alan and continued. "I refuse to go away entirely. Maybe you can't deal with me as a lover. Maybe you're actually right, and it's a bad idea- which I don't believe for a minute. But I'll be damned if I'm just going to let you walk entirely out of my life like this."
"Billy," he choked out, around the lump in his throat.
"Friends, at least? I don't think I can live completely without you."
"Billy," he tried again. "Can you agree? Can you understand, and agree that we can't... can't..."
"Dammit Alan, I don't understand, but I'll go along with it. Just don't expect to get rid of me completely, because I won't allow it."
"Just friends. No more."
"Just friends." Billy sighed heavily. "Good night, Alan."
And then Alan's life got up and walked out the door.
Billy was there. For a moment, he wondered why it felt strange, but then shook the feeling off. Of course Billy was there. Where else would he be? He smiled and reached out for Billy, to pull him close and love him, but couldn't reach him. Billy lay quietly, staring at the drifting clouds above, completely unaffected by his efforts to reach him. He just couldn't touch Billy- it was like there was some kind of protective bubble around the kid, preventing any contact.
"Billy! Billy! Why can't I reach you? Can you hear me?"
"Why did you do it, Alan?" Billy asked, still staring at the drifting clouds above. "All I ever wanted was your love, but you just kept pushing me away. Why, Alan? Why?"
"Billy!" he cried out in despair, stretching a hand out but unable to reach Billy. He was fading, the kid was disappearing into the grass, still whispering why...
He felt tears stinging his eyes. Billy was gone, gone- his fault. All his fault.
Then the roaring began.
They were there.
Just like before. They were everywhere. Only it wasn't like before- They were mad, now, mad because Billy had kept Them away for so long. He ran, half-blinded by tears he couldn't stop, trying to make the safety of the trees. But They were there too, and he ran away from Them- They were in front of him, They were behind him, They were to the side of him-
He ran towards the one place that They would not go-
Off the edge of the cliff.
Alan woke with a sickening jolt, gasping for breath. No, oh no- not again. He'd thought the nightmares were gone. He'd thought Billy had chased them away.
Then he reached for Billy in the darkness, and found only the empty bed.
"Billy," he whispered in shocked disbelief. "Billy- what have I done?"
The empty place in his bed had no answer for him. But the empty place in his heart told him with a savage wrench of pain that he'd made the biggest mistake of his life.
Alan locked up his office, heart heavy in his chest. Ordinarily, this being Friday night, he'd head over to the backside of the planetarium and a night of stargazing with Billy and Pete Crandall. But now- no. He just couldn't face that. If Billy was there, how could he handle it? Or worse yet, what if Billy wasn't there? That would be even worse, in a way. A distinct slap in the face, absolute confirmation that he didn't consider Alan worth keeping as a friend-
You're the one who dumped him, his conscience nagged. And you think you have any right to his friendship now? Get a clue, old man. Just get a clue.
And so Alan walked out to his battered old pickup truck, opened the door, and drove away. He didn't even glance behind him, just headed off campus as fast as he could, and towards the house that was every bit as lonely as he had feared it would be without Billy.
Try as he would to fight them off, the memories overtook him inside. Billy smiling at him from the couch, the gentle warmth of his eyes as he'd looked at Alan- Rough day? I can make it better... Or that day on the Mall, the last time they'd really been out together, Billy giving him one of those looks, the kind that made the rest of the world vanish. For a long moment, there had been just the two of them and the sunlight waking highlights in Billy's hair...
Yeah, but then what happened? It went to hell, of course, Alan reminded himself sourly. He thought about going out on the patio and setting up the telescope, but just couldn't summon up the interest. Besides, Billy was out there too, hooking the scope into his laptop and playing with that new program. Or fiddling with the camera, before taking the dramatic quarter-moon shot that hung on the wall overhead. Or just looking at him in the quicksilver light of the stars, listening to whatever theory had been currently bothering him...
Alan shook off the memories and pulled out his notes on the new paper he was working on. But he couldn't get rid of the ache inside, or the ever-present feeling that he'd made a huge mistake this time, one that could never be fixed.
"Missed you last week," a quiet voice said. Alan, startled, knocked into the telescope, sending the stars blurring crazily.
Billy was there. He looked just the same as always, standing there with his hands in his pockets and half of a smile. His eyes shone in the starlight. A line of a half-forgotten song ran through Alan's head- and every star in the sky was taking aim at your eyes like a spotlight. He swallowed hard.
"Had things to do," he said, in a reasonably normal tone.
"Too bad." Billy stared at him a moment longer, then started to set up his computer. Alan felt tension settle in iron bands across his shoulders. Crandall looked from one to the other, puzzled.
Bad idea, Grant, he told himself. Bad enough when they'd had to act like there was nothing between them except friendship. Now they had to act as though nothing had ever happened- no, er, relationship, no breakup, no nothing. Just friends. He fixed the focus on the scope again, pointing it at the asteroid belt.
"Got that thing running, Billy?" Crandall stepped up close to Billy and the laptop, and Alan was surprised by a jolt of jealousy. Ridiculous, he chided himself. But the jealousy remained, for the ease of interaction between the two.
"About as good as it will ever get, I suppose." Billy tapped a few keys, then moved around Alan, checking the connections. Alan backed away, feeling a sudden irrational fear of any possible contact. He saw Crandall looking at him again, puzzled, and gave himself a mental shake. He resolved to conceal his reactions better. No need to clue old Pete in that there was anything going on here.
Somehow, he managed it. It was hard, but he made the effort and managed to treat Billy as he had before... before. Like last summer, on the dig, when he was just a friend. When it didn't matter what he wanted, because he knew it could never be... When he'd been able to control himself. He should never have slipped. Never. He wouldn't allow himself to slip again.
But his heart ached within him.
It got easier, somehow. Now that he'd gone and taken the initial plunge, quit avoiding Billy, it actually got easier to deal with him. Somehow, they managed to strike a balance, find a way around the awkwardness. Alan was glad. He'd missed Billy, more than he had any right to. Although he'd never admit it to the kid, he had felt like he was dying inside, a bit at a time, without Billy there to keep him alive. Ridiculous, really, but there was no controlling some emotions. They obeyed their own irrational rules, leaving Alan to struggle through life in an attempt to deal with them.
They never quite achieved the ease of their relationship before, but Alan was convinced it was better this way. And if he sometimes caught Billy looking at him with undisguised longing... well. The kid would get over it. Friendship was better than nothing, after all.
The days sped by, bringing the end of the semester and the summer trek to the badlands. Same site, this year- the museum director had been pleased enough with last year's findings to authorize another season of digging. Alan managed to forget until he actually reached the site that Billy had been signed on the roster for this dig since the department head had posted the sheets last April.
Here, too, Alan found himself returning to the pattern established last summer- depending on Billy's capable assistance during the days, enjoying long rambling conversations in the night... It was scary. He was having a harder time remembering the reasons why he'd broken things off with the kid.
"Look out!" Alan shouted and tried to save the computer. But it was too late- Fran, excited by the activity in the camp, had already barreled right into the table. Alan caught the monitor, easing it the rest of the way to the ground. He felt something in his shoulder give way at the unexpected impact and swore. "Be careful, Fran! How many times do I have to tell you not to run in the camp?"
"I'm sorry, Dr. Grant," she said, green eyes wide and anxious. "I didn't mean to!"
"I know you didn't," he said, bracing himself to lift the monitor back onto the table. His shoulder protested the effort, but the monitor was back in place. Alan felt Billy's sharp eyes on him and straightened his shoulders, rather than rubbing at the sore spot like he wanted to. If the kid noticed, he'd never get any peace. "Got everything working?"
Billy nodded, eyes searching Alan's face. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he said shortly. Great. Just what he needed. "Let's see this imaging thing of yours."
Billy's eyes held his for a moment longer, then the kid nodded and looked away. "I've cleaned up the program and improved the quality a bit- you can see shell fragments, along with many different bones. I'd say this was a predator's nest, and that the adults were feeding the young here."
"Offering evidence for the family unit theory," Alan said, bending closer to the screen, pain momentarily forgotten.
"I'd say. Getting this thing out will be a real challenge. Might just make this whole season worth it, though."
"My mom and dad can do it," Fran chimed in loyally. It had been her parents who'd spotted the odd formation and called for computer imaging.
"I'm sure they can, Fran." Alan wondered what kind of nest it had been, what variety of dinosuar had lived here on the verge of a prehistoric swamp and raised its young. Had they been caring, nurturing parents? Or had they merely dropped prey into the nest and left the young to fend for themselves? Perhaps he'd find the clues underneath the accumulated detritus of sixty-five million years.
People were jostling at him, trying to get a better view, especially Fran's parents. Alan stepped away from the screen, deep in thought. He rubbed absently at his sore shoulder, wondering if he should shift the focus of the expedition from the adult fossils to the nesting area. So little was known about the nesting habits of the predators...
He felt Billy's eyes on him again and stopped rubbing. Damn the kid, anyway- always there, always getting in the way-
And helping out, and trying to make sure you take care of yourself, and making the computers work... his conscience chimed in. Hmph. Still, the kid could be annoying.
Oh, yes- so annoying that you depend on him completely. So annoying that you miss him when he's not around. Badly. So annoying that you'd give anything to have things back the way they were.
Alan turned abruptly and went back into the bright afternoon sunlight. Uncomfortable thoughts had no place here, in a working environment. He ignored the snickers of his mind and returned to work on his hyracotherium skeleton.
He'd thought he'd gotten those awkward feelings under control. He'd thought his armor was secure, impregnable... safe. Maybe he should have just pushed him away completely. Maybe it was a mistake continuing to be friendly with the kid. Maybe he'd better just break it off completely- for real this time. No more friendship, even.
The outline of the hyracotherium blurred in front of him.
Later that evening, Alan sat by his tent, alone. The camp was quiet now, its few inhabitants settling down for the night- even the kids. Some had gone into town for a night in a motel. Others remained, camped out under the vast Montana sky. His shoulder was aching steadily, despite the pain medication he'd taken. But the stars were out, shining cold and brilliant, with their eternal lure.
His head snapped up at the sound of Billy's voice. "Yeah?"
"You still up?" Billy emerged from the shadows behind the tent. He smiled, visible even in the dim starlight, and Alan felt his heart skip a beat.
"Yeah. Just thinking."
"As usual," Billy teased lightly, dropping down to sit beside him. "You're always thinking."
"Yeah, well, better than never thinking at all."
"Hey, that's not fair! I think- sometimes."
"I never said I meant you."
"Yeah, right," Billy nodded. "I believe it." He laughed, then abruptly sobered, playfulness gone entirely. "How's your shoulder?"
"Fine." Alan was taken off guard and rubbed at it without thinking. Billy's eyes narrowed.
"You're hurt, aren't you." It was a statement, not a question. Billy laid a hand on Alan's shoulder, and he twitched. "I knew it! Those damn monitors are heavy. You should have let it fall."
"Yeah, right- and where would I get the money for a new one?" Alan shifted away, irritated. "Better a sore shoulder than a busted computer."
"And wasn't it you that always said real paleontologists don't need computers?" Billy wouldn't be deterred. He felt at the injured shoulder carefully. "Good lord, Alan, this is nasty! All swollen and hot- you must have torn it pretty good."
"Careful!" Alan jumped when he hit a particularly sore spot.
"Here, let me take care of this for you," Billy said, scooting around behind Alan. His hands started to rub gently around the sore spot.
"Billy, what are you doing?" A hint of panic was in his voice. Oh no, oh not this again, make him get his hands off me... But he didn't say anything.
"No, no- I don't want to hear a word of complaint. You have to take better care of yourself. Off with that shirt, now- this just isn't working all that well."
"But!" Alan shivered at the thought of Billy's hands on his bare skin. Not good, not good at all... Too good.
"Quiet, you! I told you, no complaints. Maybe I can't keep you from hurting yourself, but I can damn sure put you back together." Billy's hands didn't reflect the stern tone of his voice as they smoothed the pain away almost magically.
"But it's cold out!" Alan managed, as a last resort. Those hands were wearing away at his self control, at his very sanity.
"Then go in your tent and lay down," Billy suggested. "This'll work better with you relaxed, anyway. You know that."
Relaxed? Alan thought in a daze, as he obediently rose and went in his tent. He was anything but relaxed. Just a backrub, he's given you backrubs before and you've survived. He's not going to jump you. He agreed it was better this way.
"There, much better," Billy said, when he'd pulled his shirt off and laid down on his bedroll, quivering sightly. Billy settled beside him and started rubbing again, lightly, all over Alan's back.
Alan gave up trying to resist and just drifted. Billy's talented hands were turning him into a boneless puddle of relaxation. He hadn't realized how tense he was until the tension was released. Knowing it was dangerous but beyond caring, Alan let himself pretend there was more involved here than a simple backrub- that he'd never pushed Billy away, never hurt him, that there were no reasons why this could never be... it was nice. Very nice, in fact- quite easy to imagine Billy's hands were not only gentle, but loving. Easy to imagine there was more to come...
"Oh, no you don't," Billy said softly.
"Hmm?" Alan jerked his mind guiltily away from the fantasy.
"You're not falling asleep on me now."
"Not sleeping," Alan protested drowsily.
"Sure, sure- whatever you say, Alan. But you're not going to sleep on me, because I've finally got you back where I've wanted you all along."
Then he pressed his lips to the spot right between Alan's shoulderblades, sending an electric thrill through him and bringing him sharply awake in less than a second. "Billy! Don't. Please don't!"
"Shh," Billy breathed, shifting so he was laying half across Alan's back. "Don't you dare tense up on me, Alan, or I'll be forced to do this all over again." He kissed the back of Alan's neck, brushing the hair aside.
"Billy- Billy, no, you can't! You're too young, I'm-" His hands clutched at his bedroll, shaking, as Billy's lips wreaked havoc on his defenses. He wanted this, oh god he wanted this so badly- but it couldn't happen, there were too many reasons why it would never work. They'd been through all this before. It was impossible, doomed from the very beginning, and he couldn't survive it all happening again.
"Don't you dare say you're too old!" The sudden fierceness of Billy's voice startled him. "You're what, thirty-eight? So what? I'm a big boy now, Alan, and I know what I want. And fourteen years isn't enough of a difference to make it worth pretending I don't. It never mattered before, and it doesn't matter now. And if it comes to that, I'm damn sure older than I was when you said you were mine."
"But Billy-" Alan wriggled around, out from under Billy, until he was laying on his side. His shoulder twinged, but he ignored it. He could barely see the kid, but he felt better facing him. "There's no way this could work- don't you realize that? I thought you understood, that we'd agreed..." He reached out, almost against his will, and found one of Billy's hands.
"I realize no such thing, Alan. You want me as badly as I want you. I've seen the way you look at me, when you think I won't notice. You said just friends, sure- but your eyes say something else. Your eyes say you still care about me, and be damned to the prejudiced bastards."
Oops. Alan tried to compose his thoughts, to steady his nerves. But he couldn't bring himself to let go of Billy's hand. "But I know it could never work out," he said softly. "We're too different. There's too many reasons why it would be a very bad idea to go back- back to the way we were before."
"Alan," Billy sighed. He moved closer, rearranging himself until he could run his free hand through Alan's hair. "Different is good. That way there's something to learn about each other, interesting things to discover- I damn sure wouldn't want someone identical to me. What's the fun in that? And we had fun. You know we did. We would still be having fun, if not for that damnfool Kessler."
"But- the school- you're a student, I'm faculty... You think what happened in May was bad? What if there was actually a reason for them to be upset, proof for them to base their accusations on? If they caught us together, after what happened before, my job is gone. So is my career." It was getting harder to think straight.
Billy chuckled. "Doesn't matter. They can't do a damn thing about two people who are both of legal age having a relationship, especially since you're a curator, not a professor anymore. I've checked into it since then. They have no legal grounds for protest, and if they try anything- well, we could make them look like royal fools."
"But-" was all he managed to say before Billy was kissing him. The last of Alan's resistance crumpled and he fell back on his bedroll, pulling Billy with him. The kiss was every bit as good as he remembered. He buried his hand in the crisp brown waves of hair, clutching Billy's head frantically. After a long, breathless moment, Alan pulled away. His fingers traced down the edge of Billy's face. "Billy," he sighed.
"Don't you dare try to make me go away," Billy said shakily. "Not after that. Lord, Alan, I've missed you." He stole another kiss, less intense, but still enough to make the world's foundation rock.
"No- you win, I can't do it. Not again. You win." Alan smiled, knowing it wasn't visible, but helpless to prevent it. "But don't you think you're a bit overdressed?"
A soft chuckle answered him. "I think you're right." Billy sat up and peeled his shirt off. "Better?"
Alan pulled him close again, delighting in the feel of bare skin. His hands discovered once-familiar territory anew, provoking shivers. "Better," he murmured, nibbling Billy's neck. He'd wanted this for so long... damn the consequences. "But still overdressed."
"Oooh," and Billy slid a hand down to tug at Alan's belt. "In that case, so are you."
"Easy enough to fix," and Alan released his hold on Billy, removing the rest of his clothing and his boots in record time. Billy did the same.
Then Alan felt Billy stretch out beside him, skin on skin, and the outside world vanished in a rush of electric shock. There was nothing but Billy, nothing but the fire in his veins and the burning pleasure of lips and hands in the darkness. Nothing but the fulfillment of his dreams, and the feeling of something coming right at last.
He woke alone, from a deep and dreamless sleep. Alan fought down the instantaneous panic and reminded himself that this was the camp, after all. Billy could hardly be seen coming out of his tent, not without causing a world of problems. But still... Alan wished it could be otherwise.
He sighed. Not again. Why had he given in to the kid? Now it would start all over again, the hiding, the attempt to seem just friends, the risk... hell.
But it's worth it, whispered the satisfied voice inside his head. Billy's worth it. Did you really think you could live without him?
Alan shook his head, with a faint smile.No, the voice was right- he couldn't live without Billy. But he could damn sure make the effort to live with him.
"Dr. Grant, are you busy now?"
"Excuse me a moment," Alan said to Lisa, a pretty blonde freshman who'd been driving him to distraction with her utterly pointless questions. He turned, to find Billy watching him, with a sardonic smile on his face. "Not really, Billy- something you need?"
"Yeah- mind if I ask you something? In private?" Billy shot a look at Lisa, who flipped her hair back over her shoulder, clearly annoyed.
"I guess I'll just go help Harry," she said, not quite pouting.
"You do that," Alan nodded. Then he followed Billy into the trailer, easily the most private place available on the site.
"You looked like you needed rescuing," Billy said, with a smile. He turned one of the chairs backwards and sat on it, arms resting on the chair back.
Alan dropped down into another chair with a grateful sigh. "Yeah. She was driving me crazy."
"I could tell." Billy's eyes were warming him inside, filling up the achingly empty place within. "But I really did want to talk to you."
"Yeah? About what?" But Alan knew already.
Billy didn't disappoint him. "Us," he said simply.
"Yeah. Somehow, that doesn't surprise me." Alan smiled, reached out and ran a finger along Billy's arm, just because he could. "What does surprise me is that you still care."
"Always, Alan. Always." Billy's voice shook with the intensity of his feeling.
"I do too, Billy." Alan tried to steady his own voice. "I never stopped caring. Bad idea or not, I still need you."
Alan chuckled. "Why do you say that? Not like I'm much of a prize."
"Bullshit." Billy's response was immediate, emphatic.
"Yeah, right- let you tell it." He smiled, then it faded. "Why, Billy? Why are you willing to take another chance on me? Seems like you should want to stay away from me, very far away."
"Not likely." Billy sighed. "And don't try giving me that line about being better off as just friends again."
"But it might be true." It was hard to say those words, but they needed to be said.
"No!" Billy's denial was fierce and sudden. "I refuse to believe that."
"You're willing to put up with... well, with me?" Alan asked, heart in throat. "Willing to risk losing everything, willing to give me another chance?"
"I always have been."
"Billy... What if it happens again? What if I get... scared?"
"You already are, Alan," Billy pointed out. "I know you. I know how you are. What I don't know is why you find it so hard to believe that I really do care about you."
Billy shifted on his chair, gazing steadily at Alan's face. Nothing about him suggested willingness to back down. Alan felt a momentary surge of panic, but then lost it in a wash of weariness. He was tired of his own reactions, his own paranoia... it had already cost him Billy once, be damned if he was going to ruin this second chance just because he was afraid.
"Why would you?" He leaned on the table, trying to seem casual, even though his entire midsection was churning.
Billy shut his eyes briefly, a pained look on his face. "Alan..." he sighed, then opened his eyes again. "Look. We've been over this before. There are hundreds of reasons why I care about you, hundreds more why I'm attracted to you, and only one why I won't leave. Do we really need to go over that again?"
"One?" Alan asked carefully.
"Yes, one. You."
"I don't quite understand what you're saying." Alan fought to control his automatic reaction- to draw away from the uncomfortable subject, to retreat to a safe distance and not let the kid any closer.
"I won't go away, because I think you're worth sticking around for." Billy reached out and caught one of his hands. "Alan, listen to me. You are an incredible, complex, fascinating person, and I find you irresistable. This isn't something that will go away, either- face it, if getting dumped for no real reason wasn't enough to shake me off, there's no way you are going to be able to get rid of me. You are part of my life, and I need you- I need to be around you, to be with you... How many times do I have to say it before you believe me? You are the center of my universe, and I love you."
"It's hard for me, Billy," Alan said softly. "Very hard. Because I just can't see why-"
"Quit worrying about it," Billy interrupted. "Just take me at my word, and let me be with you."
"I'll try." Alan glanced out the window. The normal camp activity was reassuring, safe. He could look out there without threat to his sanity. But what he wanted was in here... "I'm sorry," he said abruptly, turning his attention back to Billy. "I was scared, and I screwed up. You were right."
Billy squeezed his hand. "It's okay- now. But if you ever, ever pull a stunt like that again..." He shook his head.
"Then it'll be your turn. I won't try and stop you going if you feel it necessary."
Billy sighed. "Hard to imagine, but you've got a deal. But until that happens, which is hopefully never, you're stuck with me, got that?"
"I've got it."
"And you're going to take a shot at believing me this time?" The pleading look Billy wore was enough to unravel the last of Alan's defenses. It was terrifying, yet exhilirating- nobody had ever gotten this close.
"I promise." He smiled and clung a little tighter to Billy's hand, his anchor in a sea of uncertainty. "And I'm not going to let other people's opinions come between us ever again. And while I'm at it, I'll do my damnedest not to hurt you again."
"So let's see if I've got this straight," Billy said, a spark of amusement kindling in his eyes. "No more running, no more trying to dump me, no more letting people push you around. And if you do any or all of the above, I'm gone."
"Yeah." Alan's voice was hoarse with emotion at the very suggestion of Billy walking out on him.
"You've got yourself a deal then, Dr. Grant." Billy smiled.
He was drowning in Billy's eyes, and he wasn't fighting it any longer. The moment stretched on, then both men heard running footsteps outside, followed by the impact of a small body with the door. It sprang open and Fran stuck her head in. "Dr. Grant? Are you- oh!"
"Yes, Fran, I'm here. What is it?" He turned towards the door, mildly irritated by the interruption but too happy to be really bothered.
"They sent me to find you. Dave's got a problem..."
Alan glanced at Billy, with a half grin and a raised eyebrow. Billy returned the look with a smouldering fire in his eyes that promised louder than words, later. "C'mon, let's go deal with this problem, then," he said, pushing his chair back and standing up. Alan followed him out the door, then they set off to work, together.