Oil is Optional

Title:  Oil is Optional
Fandom:  Lone Gunmen
Type:  "missing scene"
Episode: "Like Water for Octane"
Pairing:  Byers/Jimmy
Rating:  PG (M/M)
This is a slash story. Disclaimers:
  1. Slash is a type of fan fiction, which means I'm writing about someone else's characters without the creator's permission. In this case, the characters were created by Chris Carter and are owned by Ten Thirteen Productions.
  2. As a slash story, this story may imply sexual feelings between same-sex characters, never intended by the creator.

Breathing fresh air felt wonderful, after hours of enduring air filtered through a porta-potty that had been apparently been used by every single one of the local residents who had come to watch the festivities surrounding the silo demolition. Even Langly looked a lot less green. Byers had been concerned that his friend was going to throw up before they reached the surface. Some lowest-bidder military contractor had set up the temporary facilities directly over a grating. Byers supposed that he or she couldn’t have been expected to know that it led to a ventilation shaft through which three underground journalists, illegally searching the silo, were going to have to escape as the silo collapsed around them.

All three of them felt too exhausted to walk all the way back to the farm, and there was no cell phone network out here. They saw a light in the vicinity of the ruins of the silo, half a mile away, and agreed to check it out, in the faint hope that Yves and Jimmy hadn’t yet given up on them. The source turned out to be from Yves’s car, its decidedly non-water-powered engine idling to generate power for the headlights. As they trudged closer, Byers was touched to see that Jimmy was futiley attacking the concrete by brute force with a pickax. Yves was perched on her car, just watching, and no doubt belittling him with her usual sarcastic comments. Byers didn’t need to hear her to know that she would be suggesting, ever so wittily, that Jimmy’s solution to every problem was a head-on physical attack against a brick wall — which was almost literally true in this case. If Jimmy made the mistake of professing his loyalty to his friends, she’d make some kind of subtly suggestive remark turning his devotion into something lewd. Byers wanted to call out to them, to tell Jimmy he could stop now, but he was so tired that he glumly decided that a few more minutes wouldn’t make a difference after the hours of uncertainty.

It was Yves who spotted them first, even though she was facing away. Jimmy was too focused on his rescue efforts to notice them. He didn’t even look up when Yves called out to him; she had to shout a second time. When he did look up and peer into the darkness beyond the headlights, he seemed to identify them almost instantly. The joy that spread across his ruggedly handsome face was like nothing anyone had ever directed toward Byers before. Jimmy leaped out of the rubble, ran up to them with open arms, and gathered them all in a bear hug, slamming Byers against Langly and Frohike so forcefully that the wind was knocked out of him. It seemed like a natural enough reaction from a friend who had thought they were dead, but Langly just yelled at him and Frohike went so far as to say “Don’t make me sorry I lived!” As he released them, Jimmy was still grinning from ear to ear, ignoring the snub, and babbling about how happy he was to see them alive. Byers noticed that he’d stripped to his T-shirt, which despite the cool evening was soaked with sweat and plastered against his muscular body. His sweaty face was grimy with dust from the concrete, except where the tracks of his tears had washed it away. The big jock had been crying over their deaths, even as he worked forlornly to dig them out!

The three crowded into the back seat of Yves’s car, trading off on recounting for the two in the front exactly how they’d darted for one of the air shafts they’d located on the silo blueprints they’d downloaded from a dot-mil site the night before. Halfway back to the farm, Jimmy remembered the pickax that he’d dropped when he rushed up to the three of them, and Byers insisted that they go back and get it immediately. He got out himself, letting Jimmy relax in the car, and walked into the rubble pile to retrieve the borrowed tool. Hefting it, Byers estimated that a dozen swings with it would have been a challenging upper-body workout for him, even if his arms weren’t already aching from the long uphill climb. Jimmy had apparently been at it since before sundown! It was hard to tell at this point how much of the demolition had been done by the tons of dynamite and how much by Jimmy’s determination, but it looked like he’d made an impressive amount of progress for one man with a pick. Not that he would have ever gotten through, of course, but Byers was humbled by the sheer energy Jimmy had poured into his efforts to save him and his partners.

By the time he got back in the car, Frohike and Langly were busy mocking Jimmy for even thinking he could break through nine feet of concrete designed to withstand a nuclear blast. They kept this up for most of the way back. Byers noticed Jimmy’s broad shoulders slowly slumping. His silly grin, whenever he glanced back at them, was wearing down under the abuse. Eventually, Yves shut them up by pointing out that Jimmy had managed to pulverize a cubic meter of concrete in the time it had taken the three geniuses to figure out a way past the porta-potty.

Back at the farm, Byers offered to carry the borrowed pickax back to the tool shed, if Jimmy would show him exactly where he’d gotten it. Jimmy trudged wearily over to the shed with him, apparently on the downside of his adrenaline rush. With a grunt, Byers lifted it onto the hook Jimmy pointed out.


“It’s the least I could do,” Byers said earnestly. “I... I really appreciate what you did to try to save us, Jimmy.”

“I’m just glad you guys are OK,” Jimmy said, but his face lit up again. It took so little to please him! One word of gratitude, one small gesture of friendship, and the guy would be happy for days.

Embarrassed, Byers started walking quickly back to the main farmhouse, and Jimmy tagged along behind him. He was like a big puppy who would remain loyal even though his masters kicked him whenever they were having a bad day. A very determined puppy, who would pathetically dig at his masters’ tomb until he died of starvation. He’d even fetched their newspaper!

It was easier to think of him as a faithful dog than as a man. Byers was uncomfortable accepting that kind of love from a member of his own species.

It wasn’t right! Byers wanted to relate to him as a man, not as genus Canid. He searched his heart, considering whether the words he wanted to say were true. They were. He halted suddenly, and Jimmy, who had gotten a few steps ahead of him, doubled back and waited, looking at him quizzically. Byers took a deep breath. “I, uh, just wanted to say that I would have done the same for you.”

Jimmy looked touched, and quickly took a step toward Byers, reaching out as if to clap a hand on his shoulder. Involuntarily, Byers cringed away, betrayed by some primate instinct that wouldn’t let him stand his ground when a bigger man lunged at him without warning. Jimmy withdrew. “It was a really brave thing you guys did, going down there.”

“We couldn’t have done it without your help, sneaking onto the base to get that document. That took courage too.”

“Aw, the worst they’d’ve done is throw me in jail.” Jimmy looked at him shyly. “Would you really have tried to dig me out if it’d been me down there?”

“Absolutely. Or tried to think of some other way, probably just as futile. If I’d tried your way, I wouldn’t have gotten half as far down as you got.”

“Sure you would have. Between the three of you.”

Byers looked away and continued back to the house, with Jimmy at his side.

The bedroom where the farmer had put his four male guests felt like the next best thing to home after the grueling day. By the time they got there, Langly was getting undressed while Frohike took a well-earned hot shower, singing off-key about a pink Cadillac with fins.

“How’s your stomach?” Byers asked Langly.

“The fresh air did me good, thanks. I won’t be throwing up in your dress shoes. That shower’s going to feel great, though. If Caruso ever finishes, that is,” he added with a mock glare in the direction of the bathroom. “FIFO OK?”

“Sure, you were here first.” Byers started getting out of his filthy clothes. “I don’t think FILO would be appropriate — us stacking on top of Frohike.”

“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it,” Langly quipped.

“We’d have to watch out for pointer violation...”

“Oh, good, he’s finally stopped singing. God has some mercy after all.” The water stopped a moment later, and they heard the Frohike getting out of the shower. Langly grabbed a towel, slipped out of his shorts, and headed in.

Byers turned back to Jimmy, who was looking puzzled by their banter but was smiling as if he liked the sound of their voices whether he understood the words or not. Byers tried to think of a way to make polite conversation while they waited. Byers had finished undressing by the time he decided to settle for a variant on the Lincoln joke: “Other than watching us get blown up, Jimmy, how was the parade?”

Jimmy laughed appreciatively. He probably thought it was original. “Actually, it kinda sucked. The local marching band could use more practice. And the hot dogs made me feel a little queasy.” He grunted as he pulled an arm out of his jacket.

“They made half the county feel a little queasy,” Frohike said from across the room, looking up from his task of taking apart the water-damaged night vision goggles from the van.

“Really? How do you know?” Slowly, he pulled the other arm free of his jacket.

“We know,” said Langly, emerging from the bathroom, toweling off his hair. “Trust us on this one.”

The warm shower did feel wonderful on his sore muscles after the long climb out of their entombment. Byers had felt as though the stench of the porta-potty had been clinging to him all evening, even though he’d touched only the outside. The shower made him feel psychologically clean again.

“All yours, Jimmy,” Byers said, securely knotting the towel around his waist. Jimmy still was almost fully dressed. He was in his bare feet, but hadn’t yet taken off his pants and T-shirt. He crossed his arms and began pulling that off now, exposing his flat stomach muscles, but stopped before he got it halfway up his chest.

“Oh, man,” he groaned.

“What’s the matter, Jimmy?” Byers asked. Langly was typing on a laptop next to Frohike, pulling up circuit diagrams for the goggles by the look of it. Neither of them looked up.

“I’m already stiffening up,” Jimmy explained, giving up and letting go of the T-shirt. “I must be getting out of shape. It’s been a long time since I had a workout like that. I was stiff this morning to start with.”

“That was from playing The Incredible Human Tire Jack yesterday,” Langly said. “At least your little rock pile stunt didn’t leave us worse off than we were.”

“Hey, lay off him, Langly,” Byers said. “He was trying to save our lives!”

“Right. Like he really could have dug us out.”

Jimmy tried again with his shirt, grimacing in pain. “Need a hand?” Byers asked softly. Jimmy relaxed his arms at his sides and let Byers take the hem of his T-shirt in his hands. Standing so close, he became conscious of the strong but not unpleasant musky odor that still clung to his brawny friend from his rescue efforts. He peeled the T-shirt up, noticing how Jimmy’s chest hair, which usually looked curly, was plastered to his skin. He got the shirt up to his armpits and held it there, mentally solving the topological puzzle of removing it without making him use sore muscles to raise his arms. (No, not topological, he corrected himself. Topology would let me do whatever I wanted with his arms. It’s simply a problem in solid geometry. Very solid, muscular geometry— stop that. It would only qualify as a topological challenge if he were, say, in handcuffs...)

He managed to work the T-shirt over Jimmy’s head, and pulled it carefully down his limp arms. The white cotton was gray on the outside with dust from the rubble under which Jimmy had believed Byers and his friends to be buried, and the inside still felt damp.

“Thanks, buddy,” Jimmy said. Then he impulsively grabbed him in a rib-crushing embrace. His bare chest felt warm against Byers’s own, his heartbeat strong and fast. The sweat had still not completely dried on his chest, and Byers felt like he was bathing in Jimmy-odor. Not most men’s first choice of after-shower cologne, but Byers felt he could do worse. It was the aroma of strength and determination and virility and devotion and optimism and concern, all blended together in a combination that was uniquely Jimmy. Byers wrapped his arms around Jimmy’s back and rested his bearded chin on the big man’s shoulder.

“I’m just so glad you guys are alive,” Jimmy mumbled.

“I’m glad to be alive, too,” Byers said. No amount of hugging from Jimmy would make him sorry he had lived.

“You would have been... dead by the time I got to you, wouldn’t you?”

“Of old age, yeah. But thanks for trying. That’s what—”

“Hey, get a room, guys!” Langly called. “You’re making Frohike jealous.”

“Ha!” Frohike retorted. “I’ll have you know I’ve had a lot better than either of those two. Uh, I mean...”

“Do you need any help with... the rest?” Byers asked Jimmy softly, pulling back.

“Naw, I can take it from here. Thanks.” He let go of Byers and unzipped his fly. Byers turned away and added Jimmy’s T-shirt to the communal laundry pile.

Byers had traveled light, leaving his pajamas and robe at home to make room for the cell-phone signal descrambler and the high-gain radar detector. By the time he heard Jimmy turn the water off and emerge from the shower, he had put on a fresh pair of shorts to sleep in, and was still digging in his overnight bag to see if he had any clean T-shirts. He glanced up, saw Jimmy moving toward his own luggage while stiffly toweling himself off , and politely looked away and made a show of towelling off his hair one more time, until Jimmy at least had a pair of shorts on. “I’ll bet that shower felt good, didn’t it, Jimmy?”

Jimmy hesitated a split second, prompting Byers to glance back at him. He was just finishing pulling his shorts on, a little awkwardly. “Very refreshing,” he said.

Byers would have used to word “relaxing” rather than “refreshing.” And something he couldn’t put his finger on, but had apparently noticed subliminally, told him that Jimmy didn’t look like a man who had just stepped out of a nice hot shower. He approached him, asking, “Did it help your sore muscles at all?” He laid a hand on Jimmy’s bare shoulder. “Oh. You took a cold shower. Was that by choice, or...?” Belatedly, he did the math in his head. Six guests plus their host, times moderately lengthy showers, times the estimated rate of flow through a standard showerhead at typical rural pressures, divided into the capacity of the model of hot water tank that a small family farm might be expected to purchase... Replenishment rate was too complicated to integrate without a computer, but probably negligible for the five latecomers... How could he have been so stupid?!

“Well, it was warm for the first minute or two, at least,” Jimmy answered.

“I’m so sorry about that, Jimmy.”

“It’s OK, Byers. You weren’t in there all that long, considering you just spent hours clawing your way out of a silo.”

“I told you, man,” Langly teased Byers. “Parallel processing’s the way to go.”

Byers felt himself blushing. He wondered if Jimmy understood that Langly was pointing out that he and Byers could theoretically have both crowded in with Frohike and used one-third the water. Plus some small constant factor for each man, and the overhead of jostling past each other in close quarters to get to the water... But then, that idea wouldn’t shock a jock who was used to communal showers in locker rooms, would it?

Grimacing, Jimmy stiffly raised the towel to his head and tried to mop at his hair, which was still soaking wet. Byers uncertainly took his own towel from around his neck and held it up, wondering if he should offer to help. Jimmy ducked his head encouragingly within Byers’s reach, and Byers rubbed his towel vigorously against Jimmy’s head, roughly tousling his hair as he dried it. Jimmy grinned through the whole procedure, as though he thought Byer’s intent was playful rather than practical.

Byers noticed that Jimmy still had beads of water all over his shoulders and back, where he hadn’t been able to reach. He stepped behind him to finish the job of towelling him off. He could feel the knots in the muscles right through the towel. Jimmy groaned softly. “Sorry,” Byers said.

“No, that feels great. I haven’t needed a rubdown so bad (umph!) since I had to drop out of college (ugh!) football. A little lower? Oh, yeah! You’d’ve made a great trainer, Byers. Can you do my shoulders? C’mon, you can squeeze harder than that!”

Hesitantly, Byers tossed the towel aside and put his bare hands on his friend’s shoulders and squeezed firmly. Jimmy gave a contented-sounding groan and leaned back against him. His skin felt cool against Byers’s bare chest. Feeling committed now, Byers continued his inexpert massage, trying to recall anatomy diagrams to guide his fingers as he worked his way down to the deltoids. Jimmy put even more weight against him and murmured, “Oh, man, does that feel good!”

After a minute, during which Jimmy rested his sturdy frame more and more heavily against him until he was struggling not to stagger backwards, Byers said, “Maybe this will work better if you lie down.” He led him over to the guest room’s king-sized bed.

“Anything you say, buddy.” He sprawled face down on the rumpled sheets and blanket, his broad back awaiting Byers’s touch.

Byers straddled Jimmy’s hips and gently kneaded the tender muscles, hoping he was doing this right. He wondered if Jimmy would wait while he took out a laptop, went online with a wireless modem, and did a little web surfing to research massage techniques. But Jimmy seemed to be happy enough with his untrained ministrations, and Byers felt reluctant to lose momentum.

After he had slowly and systematically massaged every muscle down to the waistband of Jimmy’s shorts, he sat up, wondering if he should ask him to flip over or do a second pass. He looked so vulnerable lying there, with his naked back exposed and his face buried between Langly’s and Byers’s pillows. It was like he naturally trusted the world not to plunge a knife between his shoulder blades when he wasn’t looking. Byers didn’t think he could ever bring himself to relax so completely. Well, maybe if a close friend he trusted absolutely were watching over him. Automatically, he glanced at Langly and Frohike. The goggle repair did not seem to be going well, and he caught them glaring at Jimmy as though it were all his fault.

Jimmy was blissfully oblivious to their stares, of course. Byers gently massaged his upper back again. The muscles felt a little less knotted than before. He began lightly pounding them with his fists. Jimmy continued to lie there passively. This was close to a fantasy come true, for someone who had often been picked on by bullies in his youth: here he was, straddling a subdued jock and pummelling him with his fists! He leaned further down and dug his thumbs hard into the back muscles. Jimmy gave a startled grunt and tried to rise, but Byers slammed him down and kneaded the sore muscles even harder, putting his weight into it. Jimmy groaned and squirmed, but did not try to rise again. Leverage and gravity were wonderful things. Sweat tricked down Byers’s chest from the effort, as his thumbs sought out the most painful spots. Jimmy moaned softly but put up no further resistance.

Suddenly Byers came to his senses and stopped himself. Jimmy was no bully! He was the most kind-hearted man Byers knew. “Sorry,” he whispered in his ear. “Does that hurt?”

“Yeah, but I needed that! Keep goin’, buddy,” Jimmy mumbled.

Feeling relieved but not completely absolved of guilt, Byers continued a little more gently. Paying careful attention to the soft sounds Jimmy made in response, he tried to keep his friend right on the edge where pleasure transitioned into pain. As his muscles gradually loosened, Jimmy relaxed once more under his hands, seeming to trust him completely despite his momentary roughness. Who’d have thought there would ever be a jock who considered him his buddy — let alone worshipped the ground he and his nerdy friends walked on?

Jimmy’s utterly relaxed body looked more and more like it had half melted into the bed. Maybe Byers should report this case of spontaneous human liquification to— the humorous thought turned to grief as he remembered that Mulder would not be doing any more investigations. He’d been doing his best not to think about Mulder. Now he realized how Jimmy must have felt: the long uncertainty, the pointless search, the gradual waning of hope... He stroked his back tenderly, sorry that they’d had to put him through that. He felt annoyed at Langly, and angry at Frohike, for the way they’d responded to Jimmy’s spontaneous reaction to seeing them alive. If Mulder had been found alive, and Frohike had tried to embrace him, how would Frohike like it if Mulder expressed distaste at physical contact with his friend?

“Want me to do your other side?” he asked softly, climbing off. Jimmy murmured indistinctly and flopped over, still totally limp, his eyes closed, his lips parted, a vaguely blissful smile upon them. Byers straddled him again and began working on his pectorals.

“I’m bushed,” Frohike said when he’d finished reassembling the goggles. He frowned at the limp form of the jock sprawled out across most of the bed. Byers was knealing next to the bed, holding Jimmy’s arm against his own bare chest and methodically digging his thumbs into the muscles one more time. “Well? Are you going to move your buddy off the bed, Byers? Or do I have to move him?”

Looking at the 200-pound slab of relaxed muscle that lay flattened before him, it was hard to imagine it ever moving under its own power, and even harder to imagine lifting it, let alone a little guy like Frohike lifting it. If all else failed, Byers supposed an attack on the unguarded armpits might just get him moving. They made a tempting target.

Miraculously, Jimmy opened his eyes as Frohike finished speaking. He sat up, blinked, and swung his bare legs over the side of the bed, next to Byers.

“Guys? Would it be all right if Jimmy slept in the bed with us tonight? His back is really sore from all that digging. And this wooden floor is awfully hard.”

“Absolutely not!” said Frohike.

“No way is there room for that big lug,” Langly said.

“We were crowded enough last night as it was,” Frohike added. “I almost rolled off the edge.”

“Don’t worry about it, Byers,” Jimmy said. “I’ll be OK on the floor again. I feel great now, thanks!” Last night, he had willingly bedded down next to the foot of the bed without complaining, without anyone asking him to, in fact before anyone had made any move to claim the bed. He had seemed to assume that the three of them would share the bed and that it was his natural place to sleep at their feet.

Byers hadn’t thought much about it, but now it seemed unfair. “It’s really his turn for a spot on the bed,” he argued quietly. “I can take the floor tonight.”

“I couldn’t make you do that!” Jimmy protested.

“I’m still not sure there’d be room,” Langly griped. “He’s bigger than you, Byers. And you and I were practically on top of each other last night.”

“Then maybe two of us should take the floor. Fair’s fair. Jimmy has as much right to the bed as we do.”

“He wasn’t the one putting his life on the line down there!” Frohike said indignantly. “He was up there watching some marching band while we were searching the silo.”

“And he spent hours trying to dig us out,” Byers pointed out.

“No one asked him to,” Langly said. “We were fine.”

“Jimmy didn’t know that. I’m taking the floor. If you feel too crowded, one of you can sleep over there by the dresser.”

“All right, he can sleep in the bed with us,” Frohike said. “But he stays in your third of the bed.”

“Next to the edge,” added Langly, who was presumably sleeping in the middle again.

“Fine,” Byers said mildly. “Thank you.”

“That sure is nice of you guys,” Jimmy said. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“Let’s hit the sack before I change my mind,” Frohike growled.

“This is so great,” Jimmy whispered to Byers, who was lying as close to him as he could get, in order to honor his agreement. They were lying on their sides, with their faces just inches apart. “I mean that you guys are alive,” he added, as though to clarify that he wasn’t commenting on the comfort of the mattress. “It felt like a nightmare and I kept thinking I was going to wake up and you’d be safe, but now I’m afraid if I go to sleep I’ll wake up and find that I dreamed this and you’re still...” His voice broke.

“Shh! I think they’re falling asleep,” Byers whispered.

Jimmy put his arms around Byers and hugged him tightly again, as if he were switching over to tactile communication automatically now that verbal mode was disabled. Byers had not had time to find a T-shirt, and Jimmy slept in his shorts normally. The skin contact, down the length of his body, now felt pleasantly warm.

Jimmy closed his eyes without loosening his crushing grip, like a little kid clutching a teddy bear that was almost as big as he was. Byers didn’t think he could pull away if he tried. In any case, he was reluctant to push Jimmy away; he still felt bad that Jimmy’s attempt to embrace all three of them had been so rudely scorned. Byers decided to wait until Jimmy was asleep and his grip (hopefully!) slackened. Maybe he would sleep deeply enough for Byers to wriggle out of his grasp without waking him. Not that Byers had room to retreat more than a few inches. Not without crowding Langly.

Sleepily, he recalled how he’d met this man who was now holding him, and how serious he’d had been about his football team. Everyone had laughed in his face at the idea of a blind football team — just as everyone always laughed at Byers, Langly, and Frohike, calling them paranoids, or at best, idealists fighting for lost causes. Despite that, Jimmy had stuck to it, using the game to organize and measure the best of their energies and skills, giving a bunch of blind men a self-confidence and team spirit they’d never had before. He’d kept at it when it seemed hopeless, just as he’d kept pounding at that rock pile. Jimmy wasn’t as dumb as people thought he was. He’d known perfectly well that football was not an easy game for blind men. He’d explained that he had done it because it was challenging to them, not because he thought it would be easy. No one else had seemed to understand his point. Frohike had sized up their chances of ever winning a game, and dismissed the whole idea, as if that were all that mattered. Byers had understood perfectly and had felt a kinship with Jimmy ever since. After all, not long before Byers had been born, Americans had thought that trying to send a man to the moon was impossible, not to mention useless and laughable — until their President had convinced them that the very difficulty of the goal was what made it worth striving for. Jimmy thought smaller — not in terms of a nation, but in terms of a small group of guys he cared about — but in his own goofy way he was just as idealistic as Byers’s lifelong hero.

Byers focused on Jimmy’s regular breathing, on his massive chest repeatedly expanding to press against Byers’s own skin, and contracting until just the chest hairs tickled his skin, repeating the cycle over and over, and wondered if he was asleep yet.

Jimmy was sitting sprawled out comfortably on the couch in Byers’s well-furnished house. He was wearing only boxer shorts, looking relaxed and happy as he finished a can of beer and watched a football game on the large wooden color TV set. “Yeah!” he suddenly whooped, jerking upright and raising his empty beer can, then crushing it in his hand. “Did you see that play, Byers?” he asked excitedly.

Byers joined him on the couch, handing him a fresh beer and opening one for himself. He was glad their wives were away on that shopping spree at Sears, leaving the two buddies alone to do “guy things” together. They’d spent the morning mowing the lawns of their adjacent houses, and working together to pull the weeds that grew around their shared white picket fence, and then Byers had invited Jimmy over so they could enjoy the game together on his new color set. Byers tried to focus on the flickering TV screen, confident he could identify the teams by their uniforms and remember which one he was supposed to be rooting for. But just at that moment, the game was interrupted by a special news broadcast. “Oh, man!” Jimmy groaned.

“I believe the American people deserve the truth,” John F. Kennedy was confidently proclaiming before a Congressional hearing being held on a football field. “I chose to do Marilyn Monroe. I chose to do her and do the other girls — not because they are easy, but because I am hard.”

“Gotta like that guy’s honesty,” Jimmy commented. A commercial came on, showing beautiful women in bikinis frolicking on a beach, advertising some new household cleaning product. Jimmy aimed the remote at the big boxy set. He clunked it through a few channels of static, watched a few seconds of a commercial claiming that “Indianapolis racers choose Perrier for top performance,” and continued channel-surfing until he found another football game. Or maybe the same one.

This time Byers had a chance to take note of the uniforms. Only one team wore jerseys; the game was being played shirts-and-skins. It took him two downs before something odd struck him: all the players on the “skins” team were white. In fact, they were all blond — not true blond like Langly, but dirty blond the way Jimmy’s hair looked in the sunlight. Cut the same way, too. He couldn’t see the “shirts” players’ hair under their helmets. A closeup now showed him a good view of the broad backs and muscular arms of the “skins” team in a huddle. Although none of their faces were clearly visible, as far as he could tell they all looked a lot like Jimmy. Maybe they were clones, he thought idly. He examined the bare torso of Jimmy beside him — same musculature, same sprinkling of chest hair that he could now see in a closeup of the quarterback. His neighbor looked back at him and raised his eyebrows. “What?” he asked with a friendly grin.

Byers looked back at the screen, which was showing a wide field of view again. He watched as a marching band filed onto the field, right in the middle of a play, tripping up the “skins” team while playing a strip-tease tune on their sousaphones. “Whoa!” Jimmy whooped again, hugging Byers exuberantly with one arm. “What do you think of that play? Brilliant!” All the shirtless players were now lying limply in the grass, some face up and some face down, all looking helpless as the band walked all over them.

“I thought it was against the rules for the marching band to tackle the players,” Byers said uncertainly. Pulled tightly against Jimmy, he noticed for the first time that he was wearing as little as Jimmy was.

“No, there’s no actual rule against it. It’s just that they’ve always been too scared to try it before.”

For some reason, Byers was heartened to learn this, and felt a rising excitement. It opened up so many possibilities in the game. He looked at Jimmy, who was still grinning broadly at him, with his arm still loosely draped across Byers’s bare shoulders. Byers leaned close and...

Suddenly the door of Byers’s cozy little home was kicked in, and two grim-looking men dressed all in black stormed through, wielding semi-automatic weapons. One short, one with long blond hair. Frohike and Langly! Byers and Jimmy were on their feet facing them.

“Who are these guys?” Jimmy asked, his eyes wide.

“What are you doing invading my home?” Byers demanded.

A shot rang out, and Jimmy doubled over beside him, clutching his chest. Horrified, Byers grabbed his armpits to support him, and placed his own body in between his wounded buddy and the two gunmen.

“Stand aside, Byers,” Frohike said.

“What are you doing?” Byers screamed over his shoulder.

“Your neighbor here has been trafficking in clones,” Langly said matter-of-factly. “He had a whole clone football team decanted by the time we traced him.”

“Stand aside,” Frohike said again.


“He’s one of them,” Langly told Frohike calmly. “The beard fooled me for a minute.”

Both gunmen raised their weapons. Byers let go of Jimmy, who sank to the floor, his back still fully exposed to their line of fire. Where was that couch when they really needed it? Byers stood facing the gunmen, trying to shield his friend’s beefy body with his own frame. Bullets tore through one outstretched arm, feeling like a thousand needles, and into his chest, feeling like he was being tickled with sand paper.

Byers jerked awake. It was just a dream. None of that crazy stuff was true. The massage part had apparently been real, though. He really was holding Jimmy, skin to skin. Both of them really were stripped to their shorts. But he could hear Frohike snoring peacefully at the far side of the bed, and Langly — he found he was half on top of Langly, his sweaty back stuck to Langly’s chest, Langly’s hair tickling his neck. Had he rolled onto him in his sleep, or had Jimmy positioned them that way? He should move, but for the moment it felt embarrassingly pleasant to be sandwiched in between Jimmy and Langly. He was very fond of both men and wished Langly would be a little more patient with Jimmy.

No reflected streetlights were shining in through the farmhouse window, but Byers could see dimly by moonlight — supplemented, naturally, by the glow from LEDs of assorted devices they’d left around the room. Jimmy’s face looked even more innocent and unguarded in sleep than when he was awake, if possible. He was lying with his shoulder against Byers, with one arm flung over him, his body half twisted toward him. His unshaven cheek was snuggled against Byers’s chest. Byers caught himself about to stroke Jimmy’s hair and stopped. But it was good to see and feel the reality of him at his side, healthy and still breathing.

The night was quiet and peaceful in a way it never was in the city. Inside, there was only the sound of four men breathing. Not a single disk drive or fan; the laptops were quietly recharging themselves. Outside, there was no sound except for crickets. The nearest major road was miles away, and no cars, water-powered or otherwise, disturbed the stillness at this hour. The bull lowed softly in the barn, and Byers felt Langly shudder beneath him, but he did not awaken.

Byers carefully rolled off his old friend and held his new one closer. The weight of the big man, pinning Byers’s left arm to the mattress, had restricted his blood flow, which was painfully resuming. Arms still wrapped around Jimmy, he used both hands to massage the man’s back and shoulders again. It helped pump the blood through the veins of his own arm, and it elicited soft moans from the sleeping man. Jimmy’s muscles under Byers’s hands felt much less knotted than they had after the shower, so Byers was hopeful that he wouldn’t feel too stiff in the morning.

His sleeping posture, twisted toward Byers, couldn’t be good for his back. After finishing the brief massage and repositioning the pillows, Byers gently unwrapped the unresisting arms from around his own body and rolled Jimmy flat onto his back. If he could, he’d have translated him sideways too, closer to the center of the bed, but he didn’t think he was strong enough to do that without waking him. He arranged Jimmy’s arms over his head in what he hoped was a comfortable position, so his arm wouldn’t dangle off the edge. His other arm had been tucked under Byers, the fingers curled against Langly’s ribs. He stroked the arm lightly to help encourage the blood to move back toward the man’s heart.

Byers found he had left no room to lie down himself. His options were to settle back on top of Langly, or climb partially on top of Jimmy. Or spend the rest of the night on the hard cold floor after all, crawling over at least one former bedmate to get there.

Knowing now that Jimmy wouldn’t complain, he lay halfway on top of him, pillowing his head on his relaxed chest muscles, near his shoulder. At such close range, even freshly showered, Jimmy exuded a faint masculine aroma. Byers sighed contentedly, pulled the covers up to his own chin, and drifted back to sleep. If he had any further weird dreams, his conscious mind had suppressed them by the time he woke up the next morning.