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Catching Light

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They didn't dream during the day. When the sun rose it was like a switch being flipped; everything stopped, and started up again abruptly at sunset as though no time had passed at all. But Jedediah slept, sometimes, when the nights were at their longest and the hours of working and fighting and exploring had worn him out. He'd stretch out on a bedroll with his hat over his eyes and let himself drift, and when he did he'd dream, images and impressions of things he almost knew.

A woman in a gingham dress rolling out dough, flour up to her elbows. The recoil of a rifle against his shoulder as he practiced shooting bottles off a fence post. The hard wood of a church pew, legs dangling, fidgeting in a too-warm jacket with a tight collar, seated between two adults whose faces he couldn't quite picture.

Trying to hold onto those images was like grabbing fistfuls of water; the harder he tried, the faster they slid away. It left him unsettled.

Luckily distraction was easy to come by, in the early days. The railroad was his driving purpose, fruitless as the continuing construction might have been. That, and fighting off the Romans. Once Larry had established peace in the miniatures room, things changed. Sometimes in those quieter moments thoughts crept in, feelings of why am I even here and what even are we and we shouldn't even exist.

"You ever think about where our memories come from?" he asked Octavius once. They were lying on their backs across the hood of the car, soaking in the moonlight coming through an upstairs window. Jed had never talked about this with anyone before. "Sac and Teddy and Attila, they were real people once. But what about us? I get these feelings like I know things, but I don't know how I know 'em. You ever wonder about that?"

"No," Octavius said.

Jed didn't doubt he was telling the truth. Octavius didn't have a whole lot of imagination, which was kind of comforting in its own way.

"If I try real hard, I think I can almost remember my childhood," Jed said. "But we didn't have childhoods. We just kinda woke up the way we are."

"Like Minerva from Jupiter's brow," Octavius murmured.

"Yeah," Jed said with a chuckle. "Man, you Romans got some wild mythology." He stretched, and let his fingers brush against Octavius' elbow before he tucked his hands under his head.

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Being a leader had put a certain distance between Jedediah and the rest of the folks in the Wild West diorama – he was well-liked, he didn't doubt that, but he'd never really had a friend. It was just plain good, having someone to spend time with. Octavius turned out to be brave, and loyal, and more surprisingly, fun. Together they explored every inch of the museum they could reach, which was most of it thanks to the car and the ramps and cables the Romans rigged up to help them get to higher areas (Jed had to admit, grudgingly, that they were pretty damn good engineers.) Somewhere in there, as the months slid by, he started to notice things. Octavius looked at him a lot, for one. And he touched him a lot, for another.

At first Jed ignored it, because of course when you spent almost all your free time with a person you were going to look at them sometimes, and when you were getting into the Lost & Found box via a complicated hoist system you had to hold onto each other a little bit, and when you were watching movies in a corner of the Mineral Wing on an iPhone you'd pulled out of said Lost & Found box, it was natural to grab onto one another's arms at the exciting parts.

When a flashlight beam suddenly blinded them they grabbed each other again, shouting in surprise.

"What the heck are you two doing in here? Is that a phone?" Larry asked.

"We were gonna put it back 'fore morning," Jed said with a sigh.

"...are you watching Netflix?"

"It was logged in already," Octavius said defensively.

"Something's weird with the sound on this thing, though," Jed said, turning the volume up and down again as though that would accomplish anything. "Their mouths don't line up with what they're saying."

Larry got down on one knee, squinting at the screen. "Oh, A Fistful of Dollars! Great movie. There were a bunch of these, they were made by Italians and dubbed over in English later. I'm not really sure why; I guess people from Italy just have a thing for the Wild West for some reason." He stood up, brow furrowing. "Wait a minute. Which of you picked out this movie?"

Eyes still glued to the screen, Octavius raised his hand.

"I should've known. Well, I'll let it slide this time, but no more stealing things out of the Lost and Found, okay? I'll see if I can get Dr. McPhee to let me get a computer for the information desk. I guess you guys need something to do now that you're not fighting all the time."

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They had movie nights. They had dance parties. They organized a baseball league, and even the Mayans ended up joining in, although communicating the rules across the language barrier took some time. Years slid by. Larry left the museum, and then came back again; Jedediah came closer to actual death than he ever had before, and Octavius risked his own life to save him. The museum's night hours gave them something else to do, a new purpose.

But sometimes Jed still dreamed.

Other things slipped into his dreams, now, warped shadows of things he knew were real: the car skidding across the snow, sand falling endlessly across his face and shoulders, Octavius' grip solid and heavy on his arm. But they never entirely displaced the other things, things he knew he'd never actually seen. Sunsets over the prairie. Herds of buffalo so vast they seemed to stretch to the horizon. And people, people he knew were his family even when he couldn't remember their faces, even when he knew that plastic statues didn't have parents.

He tried to bring it up to Octavius a few times, but he'd shy from the topic, visibly fidgeting and insisting that dreams didn't have any weight to them.

"Why?" Jed would say, smiling. "What're you dreaming about that you don't wanna share?"

Octavius was just about the bravest person Jed knew, but that was one thing he didn't seem ready to face, and Jed didn't press it too hard.

--------------------------------

"Ma'am," Jed said, tipping his hat. "Don't suppose I might have a word?"

He'd managed to climb to the top of the information board in front of the Lewis & Clark exhibit shortly before sunrise, and Sacajawea smiled down at him. She had a certain stillness about her, and Jed was certain that if anyone else in the museum gave half a thought to the nature of their existence, it would be her.

"Of course," she said, kneeling down so they could speak eye to eye.

"Apologies if this is gettin' too personal," he said, "but the sign here says you had a son."

"Yes," she said with a solemn nod.

"You remember him?"

Her dark eyes took on a far-away look. "I do," she said, slowly. "Of course, I know that this body never actually gave birth to a child. Yet I remember nursing him, holding him in my arms, watching him sleep." She frowned. "Why are you asking about this?"

"I dunno," he said. "I just think about this stuff, for some reason. Where it comes from. What we are."

"You know, there is a creature that lives in the ocean called a starfish, with five arms. If it loses one of its arms, it regrows one, but the lost arm also grows a new body. I've wondered if that might not be true of spirits, too – that perhaps we're made of a little part of our ancestors' spirits, grown into something new."

"...huh. That's kind of beautiful."

Sacajawea smiled. "There's a display about it in the Ocean Life hall. Wherever our old memories come from, they're a part of us. Yet it would be senseless to waste away yearning for them when we have lives here and now, wouldn't it? I think of my child, at times, and it's true I miss him, yet I have purpose here."

"And Teddy."

"Yes," she said, and he thought he saw a hint of color in her cheeks. "And I'm very grateful to have met him. He makes me feel..." She trailed off. "He makes me feel alive," she said simply. "Do you have anyone like that?"

"Sure do, ma'am," Jed said. It was his turn to blush. "Sure do."

He stopped by the entrance to Ahkmenrah's tomb on his way back. The young pharaoh was chatting with his jackal-headed guards in his own language, and Jed just watched them for a minute before deciding against talking to him. Ahkmenrah didn't actually know much about how the tablet worked anyway. And Ahkmenrah's memories were really his own – he'd really had a family, a kingdom, a life, a death. Jed wasn't sure if he should be envious or feel sorry for him, and settled for a little of both.

He realized halfway across the mezzanine that he'd lingered too long; there was no way he was making it back in time. A certain heaviness crept over him when the sun was about to rise, dogging his footsteps, and there was no time to do anything but hide. Jed threw himself onto his belly and slid under the corner of a display cabinet. For the briefest of instants, as the sun slid above the horizon, the whole lobby was filled with light, dazzlingly bright to the point it hurt his eyes--

--and then he was blinking up at a shadowed ceiling.

"Thank the gods," a voice sighed near his ear. "I thought we'd lost you."

"What... why in the hell am I in the loading dock?"

The corrugated metal floor was cold under his legs, but he didn't try to move. Octavius was behind him, arms hooked under Jed's as though he'd been dragging him backwards. His grip loosened a bit, but he didn't let go entirely.

"We've been searching for hours," Octavius said. "Larry had to review the security tapes. A child found you under a shelf and then his parents threw you away. I'm afraid you were, um, gnawed on, a bit."
"Sorry 'bout that," Jed said with a chuckle. "I owe you big-time."

"I know it isn't in your nature to be careful, and if circumstances demand it, you know I'd do anything in my power to save you," Octavius said. "But all the same, I much prefer being on the verge of death with you."

"Thanks, Ock. That means a lot."

"...I don't like seeing you like that."

Octavius' voice was so low and quiet that Jed wasn't sure he'd heard right. "Like what?"

"Like a... a statue. Still and lifeless."

"That's just how we are," Jed murmured, relaxing against him. "It's our nature. No sense denyin' what we're made of."

Octavius' hands were clasped across Jed's chest and he lifted his own hand to rest it on top of them. There was a precariousness to the moment, the feeling that this was the chance for either of them to say something, to do something, to acknowledge what they had and change it into something else. But Jed did nothing, and the moment passed.

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Nobody had expected the new planetarium to mean a whole host of constellations flying overhead. After a the first night of chaos, though, things calmed down, and eventually Larry even talked them into doing a show for the rest of the museum.

Jedediah drank it all in from where he sat, legs dangling off the end of an armrest as the solar system wheeled above their heads. He could feel Octavius' eyes on him, so he shifted, let their thighs press together, pretended it was unintentional.

"It really makes you think, doesn't it?" Larry sighed as they left the planetarium, Jed and Octavius riding in his shirt pocket. "The vastness of the universe. Just makes you feel so--" He caught himself, glanced down at his friends, who looked up at him with raised eyebrows. He ended the sentence with some vague hand gestures and a shrug.

It didn't make Jed feel small, though. Somehow seeing the planet's place as an invisible speck in the spiraling arms of the galaxy made him feel like his own relative smallness didn't make much difference. On that scale he was practically the same size as the whale hanging from the ceiling of the Ocean Life exhibit. And if something as huge and complex as the universe could exist, he figured that everything in it must have a purpose. Even a plastic cowboy brought to life by magic.

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Obviously nobody expected the opening of the new planetarium to mark the beginning of the end, either.

Jed had never been particularly scared of death. He always figured that if he ever managed to die for good it'd be doing something exciting. Cornered by a lava flow while exploring a strange city was up there in the "acceptable" range; a slow fadeout while lying immobile on a snowy rooftop, not so much. But Octavius was there, as always, and holding his hand made it a little better.

So the tablet was saved, and they were all going to live, and Octavius was looking at Jed again instead of that stupid knight. And Jed was happy about all of that, even if the Octavius thing also made him a little bit nervous. But when they were back inside the British Museum, and Ahkmenrah was reunited with his parents, Jed found himself saying, "Everything we are right now, we owe to them."

He felt the eyes of the others on him. "They should be together," he heard himself say.

Octavius touched his arm, but Jed just kept looking at Ahkmenrah, at the way his mother's face lit up every moment he was in her sight, his father's stoic pride. And the others must have felt something similar, some tug of memory from their broken-starfish souls, because no one spoke a word of disagreement.

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It wasn't like they were going to die anyway, not really. Maybe this wasn't even going to be the end. Maybe they'd wake up again in a year, ten, forty; maybe by then whatever it was that made them them would have drifted on into the Great Beyond. There was no way of knowing, and Jed's whole existence had been decades of not knowing. He was starting to feel pretty okay with that.
In the dark beside him Octavius made a sound, a little choked sound that might have been a whimper, or might have just been him clearing his throat. Jed tugged his glove off before reaching for his hand again. One thing was definite – he was going to have to kiss Octavius before the night was over or he'd never forgive himself.
The flight from London to New York took eight and a half hours, and Jed didn't sleep for even a minute of it.

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"I was actually a little bit ticked off at you," Jed said.

Three years later (which didn't really count, since they'd passed in the blink of an eye) found Jed lying on a blanket under a cabinet full of igneous rock formations. Octavius was spooning him, which was weird, but in a way he was happy to have a chance to get used to. When Jed fell asleep nowadays it was usually after screwing, and he didn't dream at all. It was a deep, warm sleep, and he was never alone.

"Really? For what?"

"It was pretty obvious you were carrying a torch for me," he said. "By the end I bet everyone could see it. I started having to deliberately play dumb 'cause I was waiting for you to man up and say something, and you never did, and it got damned frustrating. I reckon I spent so long pretending not to notice I didn't think about why I was pretending. I should've pushed it a little sooner. Here I was all annoyed at you when I was the one with the yellow streak."

"You haven't got a yellow streak," Octavius said.

"Sure do. Bet it's on my back." He flopped onto his stomach, out of Octavius' arms.

"I assure you, there is no such thing." And as if to prove it Octavius kissed him at the base of his neck, right at the top of his spine, and then worked his way down, a kiss every few inches. By the time he licked the small of Jed's back Jed was squirming, fingers digging into the blanket.

"See, right there," he panted. "This is something we could've been doing for, what, eight years."

"Sooner, if we'd dispensed with the fighting."

"The fighting was fun."

"It was," Octavius admitted. "You had a formidable left hook I always admired. But isn't this more fun?"

Jed rolled over. He couldn't really argue with that. "You sayin' you're ready for another round?"

Octavius chuckled. "I don't know if I have the stamina. We've gone twice already, and I'm not as young as I once was."

"Are so," Jed said, sitting up. "You're exactly the same age you've been since we first woke up."

"Well, then, I'm not as young as I could be."

"Fine, fine." Jed kissed him, briefly, and ran his fingers through Octavius' hair, taking note of the gray in it. "We'll do somethin' else." He leaned over to grab Octavius' helmet, brushed a dust bunny from the plume, and put it on, then wrapped the cape around his shoulders.

"What on earth are you doing?"

"Bein' you. How do I look? Should I put your skirt on?" He'd gotten very good at helping Octavius get in and out of his armor over the past few days; he could probably figure out how to get it on himself.

"It's not a skirt," Octavius said. The fact that he could still sound annoyed about it even though he'd probably said it close to a thousand times was impressive. He reached into the pile of discarded clothing and came up with Jed's vest, which he shrugged into, and then put the hat on. "Howdy," he said flatly.

Jed started to laugh, but it caught in his throat. Terrible accent aside, the hat actually suited him. He wondered what might have been, if they'd met working the railroad in Nebraska, or if Jed had been an officer in the Roman army, or if they'd just been two ordinary-sized people passing each other on the streets of New York City.

He pulled off the helmet, because he knew the cheek plates would get in the way, and kissed Octavius again. He'd never stop wondering, and he'd never have answers, but he had this, even if it was only going to last until the tablet went back to England at the end of the year.

"Let's do something we've never done before," he said.

"Oh," Octavius said. "I was just thinking I might be up for a third round after all."

"We got time for both."

--------------------------------

"'scuse me, ma'am." Jed managed to catch Tilly's attention as she neared the information desk, no small feat considering she kept turning around and blowing kisses in the direction of the neanderthal display. "My partner and I were wonderin' if we might ask a favor of ya."

"Oh! Um. Partner?" She blinked down in confusion. "Do you mean 'partner' like because you're a cowboy and that's just what you call everyone, or like you two are boyfriends?"

"Both," Octavius said. "It's both."

"Well, that's just adorable."

Jed bristled, just a little, at being called "adorable", but brushed it aside. "We thought it'd be nice to watch the sunrise for once," he explained.

"But as we can't see it from inside the Hall of Miniatures," Octavius continued, "which means we have to come out here, and hope some kind soul – such as yourself – would be gracious enough to carry us back to our places."

He might have been laying it on a little thick, but it worked. "Of course! That's so romantic!" Tilly gushed. "I'll just leave you two alone, then."

They weren't alone for long, though. As Rexy came lumbering up to his pedestal, another familiar figure brushed past the desk.

"Larry! Hey! What're you doin' here?"

"You were here and you weren't even going to come say hello?" Octavius said, a little hurt.

"Oh, man, sorry guys. I was talking to Ahkmenrah." He glanced around furtively, then bent down close. "I shouldn't really be telling you about this since we don't know anything definite yet, and I don't want to get your hopes up, but I think I might've found the priest who made Ahkmenrah's tablet. But the mummy's in the Museum of Cairo, and the only way to know for sure is to take the tablet there, so Ahk and I have to figure out how to get there, but..."

"Hot damn," Jed said with a whistle.

"You guys get what this means, right?"

"It means," Octavius said slowly, "That he might know how the tablet was made."

"Which means he might know how to make a second one. I'm hoping I can get a flight to Cairo within a couple of days. ...wait, what are you doing out here anyway?"

"Just watchin' the sunrise," Jed said, gesturing toward the windows.

Larry glanced over his shoulder, then back to the two of them. "I'll see you later. Not a word to anyone else yet, okay?"

"Got it."

"Understood, my leige."

"I don't work here any more, I'm not your- whatever, never mind. Sleep well, guys."

They stood in silence for a moment, watching the sky lighten behind the dark silhouette of the trees in the park.

"So we're definitely going to Cairo," Octavius said. "Should we ask Ahkmenrah first, or just stow away in the luggage without telling anyone?"

"Hoo boy," Jed said, punching Octavius' arm. "Now that right there is why I love you."

Dawn burst over them before he heard Octavius' reply.