First of all, a word of advice to the reader. This is not a sex story, but a tale that contains hints of gay romance. If this is not to your liking, then please read no further. If you're still here, then I hope you will enjoy Robby's story. Your thoughts and comments would be most welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org
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Summer was turning into fall, and the people of the countryside were busy preparing for the first snow. The weather had been perfect for a couple of weeks now, so much so that some of the townspeople had begun to talk about magic. Surely, such a fine end-of-summer had to be the work of someone powerful mage, bending nature to his or her will for his or her own purpose. Be that as it may, those thoughts didn't stop people from enjoying this gift. Tradesmen wandered from town to town to try and sell their goods. Lovers walked hand-in-hand through the beautifully coloured sunsets or the perfectly pale moonlight. Nobles took their horse-drawn carts for one or two last rides before winter.
And farmers brought in their last crops of the year, stocked up on cattle fodder, repaired their houses, slaughtered the animals they couldn't feed through the winter, or worked to make sure the roads would stay open once snow began to fall, ever thankful for the fact that they didn't have to work with cold rain running down their backs. Everybody on every farm worked, except for the elderly and the youngest children.
And the disabled.
Robby walked slowly along the forest path, not really noticing the generous warmth the sun still provided. He leaned heavily on his walking stick, pausing every twenty or so steps to gather his breath. For a couple of minutes, he would stand there coughing and wheezing until his lungs finally decided to give him the air he needed. Every time, he wondered if it would be the last time. If the gods were finally admitting their mistake, and calling him to them. But always, just when the pain and fear all but had him conquered, the invisible hand forcing his throat shut would let go, and he was able to walk a few paces again. Maybe, he thought, he shouldn't turn back this time, came midday, but keep on walking. Staying out in the damp, chilly night air would send him on for sure. Maybe it would be better that way.
Another fit of coughing racked his thin, underdeveloped body, and he sat down on a boulder beside the path, waiting for it to pass. Tears ran down his pale, freckled cheeks, and he hid his face in his hands in case someone should see him. It did no good to cry. But what else could he do? Two nights ago, he had completed the eighteenth year since his birth, and by rights he was now an adult. Yet he knew, like he had always known, that he had no chance of making a living on his own. Not even a chance of getting married. Without the gentle caring of his parents, brothers and sisters, and the potions they bought from the village's resident practitioner, Robby knew he would perish within days. And maybe that would be for the best. Not that his parents didn't care, because they did. They loved and cherished him as much as they did any of his healthy siblings, but he knew he was a burden to them, even if they never complained about it. He didn't eat much, didn't require much beyond the potions that were bought at a good discount because the practitioner pitied the coughing boy. But he didn't contribute, and that was what hurt the most. Now that Minna, his youngest sister, had grown old enough to work in the fields, there weren't even any baby-sitting chores left for Robby. And he didn't have the strength to do more. Even cooking and cleaning was usually too arduous. So he lived because others worked hard to keep him alive, and this hurt right down to the marrow in his bones.
The few friends he had ever had, who didn't tire of him because he couldn't play with them, were all gone now. They had either moved out or got married, too busy with their new adult lives to pay him more than a casual visit. Yet Robby didn't complain. He felt it wasn't within his rights to be unhappy with what he had or what he got, because he hadn't deserved better. Hadn't earned it.
Again the thought sneaked its way into his mind. What if he were to keep on walking? He wouldn't get far, of course, but far enough so that he wouldn't be able to get back home before nightfall. His family would grieve, of course. The villagers would grieve, because Robby was generally well-liked, even if not too many took the time to slow down and get to know him. But in the end, there would be one less mouth to feed during winter. There would be money to save once no more potions were needed.
He sighed, then got to his feet and started heading for home. There would be hearts broken if he didn't return. Minna would be sad, but she was so young she'd soon forget him. But Lina would cry her eyes out. So would Dag and Marc, but they too were still little children, and their pain would be brief. And then there was Tann.
A year younger than Robby, Tann was the second oldest of them all, and the closest friend Robby had ever had. They shared the same bed at night, and every moment together whenever Tann had no chores to keep him busy. Robby knew that it would destroy Tann if he let himself die, and he just couldn't hurt his beloved brother like that.
Gritting his teeth and fighting back the self-pity, he slowly, ever so slowly made his way back towards his home. Every now and then he would meet someone, or someone would pass him by, but he barely had time to return their cheery greetings before they were gone. He found himself wondering what it would be like to work, to spend hour after hour performing heavy tasks. To run or even to walk fast. They all seemed so happy, even though they were often tired. A chilly wind made him shudder, and the moisture it brought with it set off his coughing again. Reaching into his belt pouch, he pulled out a tiny flask and took a minute sip of the thick, crimson liquid it held. A few more coughs, then the potion did its work and his chest lightened. It wouldn't last, Robby knew. An hour, maybe two, then the invisible fingers would be back to squeeze his windpipe shut once more.
"And after autumn... comes winter," he said to himself in a voice that was little more than a whisper, pausing every third or fourth word to draw breath. He stared up at the gathering clouds. "And there'll be... a mist tonight, too."
The moisture of autumn was the worst thing for him, but though the winter chill drier it was constant. Once the first frost set in, he would be confined to indoors until spring. Then again, so would the rest of the family. Except for minding the livestock, and turning the hay and the fodder leaves every now and then to keep the mould away, there was little to do for farmers during the winter. It would be a time for them to rest after the work of the summer, and the toughest task would be to fight boredom.
It would be a time when Robby would be surrounded by family and friends almost all the time, and that made up for a lot. And it would be time for him to tell all the stories and fairy tales he had picked up during spring and summer, or to re-tell the favourites. Passers-by would often stop and chat with him when he was out on his summer walks, and if they had the time he would ask them to tell him something.
Having a good memory, Robby would then sit in front of the blazing fireplace, recounting these stories almost word-for-word, his slow talking and whispering voice working to his advantage to keep his audience in suspense. Often, he would make up stories of his own; stories about heroes and monsters, about magic and battles, about places so far away he wasn't even sure they existed. Yes, the winter days were often good for Robby, but as the night's cold started to creep into their house and the fire died down, not even thick blankets and Tann's warm body against his own were enough to keep his lungs working properly. Some mornings he would be all but worn out from coughing all night. Luckily, all the other family members were so used to this that it hardly ever disturbed their sleep. Only Tann would wake up from time to time and hold Robby close, doing his best to help, or at least soothe.
It was always a choice between good and bad, Robby mused as he walked slowly back towards the farm. In the summer he could be outside a lot and go for walks, but everybody was always too busy or too tired to spend much time with him, and in the winter he'd have everybody close, but be more sick. Autumn with its rains and its misty nights was the worst. Spring fell somewhere in between, with a mixture of busy people, good and bad weather and travellers on the move, stopping by now and then to share news and stories. A smile crept onto Robby's lips, and the last of his dark mood seemed to lift.
"All in all..." he whispered to himself, "it's really good."
"It sure is."
* * * * * *
Before he could react, Robby was swept off his feet by strong, callused hands and swung in a wide arch. If he hadn't known both the voice and the familiar grip around his waist he might have been scared, but as he was gently put down again his face was flushed and he was giggling quietly. Looking up, he found himself staring into a face that could have been so similar to his own. Tann had, like Robby, unkempt dark brown hair and deep, large brown eyes that were now glimmering with a mixture of mischief and love. But that's where the similarities ended. While Robby was small and thin, his skin pale despite spending much time in the sun, Tann was more than a head taller and several shades darker of hue. His body was rippling with muscles, and if it hadn't been for the constant warm smile on his lips and the ever-present gentle glow of his eyes, Robby knew many people would be intimidated by his younger brother. As it were, though, everybody loved Tann, and none more so than Robby.
"So, little big brother, what is it that's so good?"
"Everything," Robby answered, willingly letting himself get drawn into a tight hug. "Everything's good. Life is good."
"You do look happier than I've seen you in a while. Come on!" Without warning, Tann picked Robby up and sat him on his shoulders. Robby only had time to gasp. "Let's find some nice place for our midday meal, and you can tell me about it."
"About what?" Robby giggled, holding on to his brother's head as he enjoyed the change of view. "It's nothing... special, just a... lovely day. But shouldn't you... be out in the... fields?"
"Everything's just about done. Unless you want me to go around blowing on the haycocks to make them dry quicker." They both laughed. "Marc and Lina are grinding the wheat, Dag and Minna are helping father smoke and salt meat, and mother is ploughing the fields, laying the soil to rest for winter."
"So you thought... you'd find your... big brother?"
"My little big brother," Tann giggled, then yelped as he felt a tuft of his hair being yanked. "Hey, let go or I'll drop you!"
"Be nice, then."
"I am being nice! I'm having a picnic with my little big brother. Ow, quit it! Those strands aren't reins."
"Hi yo, horsie."
Neighing, Tann broke into a trot, making sure to bounce up and down every few steps. Robby laughed, then dug his heels into his brother's sides, spurring him on. After a couple of minutes at a fairly high pace, Tann turned off the country road and moved along a path that Robby had seen, but never followed. Trees crowded in on them for the first couple of hundred yards, but then the path reached a large glade. The ground was covered with moss and soft grass, and when Tann sat down and begun rummaging through the sack he had brought with him, Robby slipped off of his shoulders and lay down. The sun shone warmly on them, and birds were singing in the trees. Still grinning happily after the ride, Robby watched his brother set out a feast for them. There was buttered bread and cheese, sausages, slices of ham and salted beef, roasted parsnips and carrots, and a jug of wine. Robby drew breath to object, knowing that he wouldn't be able to eat much, but Tann waved his protest away before he could voice it.
"Don't worry, I'll eat most of it. We've done well this year, and we can afford to spoil ourselves a little. Just tuck in, brother."
"Thanks." Robby sat up, trying a slice of parsnip before helping himself to bread and cheese. "Mmm, this is... really good. Is it a good year... for cheese, too?"
"This one's just done," Tann said, nodding. "Sweet, isn't it? Try putting some ham on top of it, that tastes great."
Robby followed his brother's advice, smiling warmly as the flavours filled his mouth. He leaned against Tann, resting his head on his brother's shoulder. A shiver of delight went through him as he felt Tann's strong arm sneak around him, pulling him closer. They finished their meal in silence, only pausing now and then to laugh at or feed crumbs to begging birds. As he had thought, Robby couldn't eat much before he'd had his fill, but he made sure to try a little bit of everything. Tann finished off the rest, and after chugging back the last of the wine he lay down, pulling Robby with him. His body pressed against Tann's and his head resting on his brother's broad chest, Robby felt that, surely, life couldn't get any better than this. Humming contentedly, he enjoyed their cuddle, reaching up to stroke Tann's cheek.
"You really are happy today," Tann said, his deep voice making his chest vibrate, tickling Robby's cheek. "Did you meet another storyteller?"
"Nothing like that," Robby said, still smiling happily. "I'm just happy. Can't tell you why."
"Can't or won't? You haven't fallen in love, have you?"
"No, you dummy," Robby laughed. "Well, maybe I've... fallen in love... with the world. I feel like... everything's great."
"That was so poetic. I'm glad you're happy, Robby."
"What about... you, Tann? Are you happy?"
"I'm always happy. Did I tell you about the dream I've been having lately? It's really a good one."
"I always know... when you dream," Robby giggled. "You're quite... pushy."
"Silly! No, this is another kind of dream. One I'm having when I'm working in the fields, or taking care of the animals. An awake dream."
"Is it about... a girl? Or a boy?"
"Not really." Tann rolled over to lie on his side, letting Robby's head lie on his out-stretched arm. Their eyes met, and Robby realised that this was serious. The usual warm love in those eyes was mixed with sincerity. "It's about something I want to do. Robby, it's my dream to take you to see a real magician some day. Not just the charlatan we've got in town, but someone good enough to cure you. Maybe even a dragon somewhere. Someone to make you well."
"A nice dream. But where would... you get money? That kind of magic... is really expensive."
"I don't know, and I don't care. I just know that it will happen, one day. I'll make it happen. You know I'd do anything for you."
"I know." Robby felt a tear run down his cheek, and he hugged his brother tightly, kissing his cheek. "I love you, Tann."
"I love you too, Robby." Tann returned both the hug and the kiss. "I love you more than anything in the whole world."
"Even if it's... just a dream, it's... a sweet one."
"I'll make it happen, you'll see."
"Will you become... a highwayman, then? You could rob people... for years without... getting enough money."
"No, I won't turn into a robber." Tann smiled. "But it's my dream, and I'll make it come true somehow. Afterwards, we'll travel the world, just you and I. There's so much I want to see, and so much I want to show you."
"You're always... so kind to me."
"Because you're my little big brother." Tann sat them both up, giving Robby another warm hug. "And because I love you so much. But we'd better head for home before we fall asleep. There'll be a mist tonight."
"I know. I saw the clouds." Tann got to his feet and helped Robby up. "Thanks. Guess I'll be... sitting in front of... the fireplace tonight."
"We will. I'll tell you all about my day. One of the pigs got away from Minna today. You should have seen her chasing it."
"I can imagine." They both laughed. "Maybe you can tell me... more about your dream. I really liked it."
"It'll become more than a dream one day, you'll see. Let's go home."
Tann picked his brother up, and ignoring Robby's frightened squeal he put him on his shoulders again, then took off back down the path. Once his heartbeat had returned to normal, Robby closed his eyes and enjoyed the feeling of the wind in his face, imagining that he was on the top of the world with nothing but empty air beneath him. Tann kept a steady pace, running faster than Robby ever had moved before in his life.
* * * * * *
Soon enough, other sounds began to intrude on the rhythmical drumming of Tann's feet, and when Robby opened his eyes again they were back in their own front yard. Their father was minding the last crop of herbs and vegetables for the year, but he paused to look up from his garden patches long enough to smile and wave at Robby. Grinning happily, Robby waved back, then turned his eyes downwards to see his little brothers and sisters gather around Tann's legs, begging for a piggy-back ride, too. He felt a surge of joyful pride as Tann waved them all away, and instead paraded up and down the front yard with Robby on his shoulders, completely ignoring their indignant and envious hoots and calls. In the end, though, Robby signalled for his brother to let him down, and climbed off of his shoulders as Tann squatted down. Immediately, Marc and Minna climbed up to take his place, and they took off. Robby watched them, still smiling as a pair of strong arms reached around him from behind. Lina's face appeared on his shoulder, and she, too, was wearing a happy grin.
"Do you think he'll carry me around like that, too?"
"I'm sure he will," Robby answered. "Just let him... rest a bit first."
"They really love him," she said, watching Dag bounce along with the marching Tann, waiting for his turn. "We all do."
"Yes, we all do." Robbie turned to look at his oldest sister. At fifteen, Lina was already taller than him, and like Tann she had the powerful and muscular build of a farmer. "We all love him... so much."
"How are you today?" She pulled him back into a hug. "You've got such a smile on your lips."
"I was a bit... sad at first, but... it got better. Much better. This might be... one of the last days... I can really... walk around." Robby leaned into his sister's embrace, hugging her arms affectionately. "I enjoyed it."
"And a picnic with Tann, eh?"
"Yes. That was... lovely, too."
"There'll be a mist."
"Yes, I've seen that."
"Do you have a story for us for tonight?" She put her arm around his shoulder, and they started to walk slowly towards the house, Robby leaning on his walking stick. "We'll build a nice, warm fire, and maybe burn some cedar wood, too."
"Are you trying... to bribe me?" He smiled, tilting his head to meet her gaze. "Next you'll say... you'll make me... some lemonade."
"I might. But I'll be too slow for that, as always."
"Yes, I know. Precious Tann is... such a wonder. Can you fault me... for loving him?"
"Why should I? But he steals the light from your eyes, little big brother." She squeezed Robby's shoulder. "You never shine so much for the rest of us. Sometimes I'm jealous."
"Like I said... can you fault me?"
"No. And I wouldn't if I could. But I still reserve the right to be jealous."
"All right." He laughed. "But I like you too... at least a little."
"Big brother!!" Having surrendered his seat on Tann's shoulder to his older brother Dag, Marc now came sprinting across the yard, a flurry of blond hair and freckles, slamming into Robby and throwing his arm's around his oldest brother's waist. "Do you got a story for us?"
"We'll see," Robby said, smiling warmly. "Have you... been good?"
"I'm always good!"
"Sure you are." Robby reached down and tickled Marc's ribs, setting of a torrent of high-pitched boyish giggles. "But there's a... mist forming, so you... have to wait and see... if I'm strong enough."
"Marc, be gentle with Robby," Lina scolded. "You're getting too big to pounce him."
"Don't worry," Robby said, swatting the boy's rump as Marc ran off again to beg for another ride with Tann. "He's still so small."
"Just be careful, okay?" She kissed his cheek. "I have to go and feed the pigs. I'll see you later."
"Robby?" Dag's voice interrupted Robby as he watched his sister set off at a jog towards the barns. "There was a boy here this morning, I've never seen him before, but he asked for you. Did he find you?"
"No, I haven't seen... anybody today... except for the... usual people... on the road."
"Oh. He said his name was David, and he'd try to catch you later. Tomorrow maybe."
"Well, if the... weather holds, I'll... be out walking... tomorrow, too. If he comes back... tell him to follow... the country road." This was nothing new to Robby. Every now and then, people asked for him or came looking for him, wanting to trade stories or gossip. Whoever David was, he was sure to come back. Robby was just about to go inside when he noticed Dag was still looking at him expectantly. Tousling the nine-year-old's sunset-coloured hair, Robby smiled. "Did you want... something else?"
"Will you tell us a story tonight, big brother? An exciting one!"
"You too?" Robby laughed. "I told your little brother... I might not be strong enough... tonight."
"Because of the mist?"
"What if I bring you a blanket? And... and we could burn some cedar wood, that usually helps." Dag cocked his head, his eyes pleading. "It doesn't have to be a long story."
"We'll see. Will you go... and help Lina first?"
The boy took off as if he had been chased by a bear, pausing only to wave for his younger brother and sister to join him. They quickly scampered down from Tann and raced Dag, running down the well-trodden path that Lina had just taken. All of a sudden, the yard was empty and silent, except for the metallic sound of their father's secateurs. Tann laughed.
"What did you tell him?"
"I just told him... to help Lina... feed the pigs." He let Tann take his hand, leading him towards the house. "Seems like they've... got their minds set... for a story night."
"Got any new ones? How about something romantic? We could all gather in front of the fireplace, and maybe..."
"Burn some cedar wood?" Robby laughed. "You're not the... first to suggest... that today."
"You know, both Mark and Minna made me promise I'd ask you to tell the story about the beggar boy. They love that one."
"Even though they... cry every time I... tell it." Without warning, Robby suddenly threw his arms around Tann's neck, jumping up as far as he could against his brother's chest. Tann caught him easily, cradling him in his arms as if he were holding a baby. "Maybe you should... carry me inside... to save my strength. Then you could... make me some... nice hot tea."
"Certainly, good sir." Tann bowed, pretending that the movement was making him lose his grip on Robby, who squealed with mock-fright. "Naturally, I will do anything I can to help thee, good sir. Come, let us seek shelter in yon castle, and pray to all of thy gods no hideous, foul, monstrous beast dwells within."
"No, she's still manning the plough," came a voice from the herb garden.
"Father, that was mean!" Tann said as both he and Robby howled with laughter. "Mother will have your hide if she finds out."
"Yes, but not until after she's had a good laugh. Do you want some fresh basil in your tea, Robby?"
"Yes, please." Tann walked over and took a couple of green leaves from his father's hand. "Thanks, father."
"You're welcome. Anything to help you make it a story night."
"I suppose I can... only surrender." Robby rolled his eyes, but the smile didn't leave his lips. "But the next one... who asks me... for a story... will be in it. In the part... of a jester... or an ass."
"Come on, let's make some tea." Tann carried Robby into the kitchen, setting him down on a chair next to the stove. "By the way, will you tell us a story tonight?"
"Silly..." Robby shook his head. "Well, you made a... fine horse. You'll make a fine... donkey, too."
* * * * * *
As everybody had predicted, a thick fog came wandering down from the hills to cover the roads and the fields, the barns and the sheds, even creeping up to touch the house itself. After their evening meal, Tann built a large, warm fire in the stone hearth, then tucked his older brother in with a thick blanket, setting him down atop a mountain of pillows to keep him out of the floor draught. By the time everybody began to settle down the room was really warm, and the moisture was kept out by the sparkling fire. Marc and Dag put in a couple of thin cedar logs, and soon a slightly spicy smell permeated the air. Robby sighed, feeling the soothing smoke widen his lungs and making it a lot easier for him to breathe. He leaned back against Tann's wide chest; his brother had already taken his usual place right behind Robby. A smile spread across his lips as Tann hugged him from behind, and he reached up with his hands to touch his brother's face. Tann pulled him closer and placed a kiss on his cheek, making Robby's heart flutter with love. From someplace only he could know, the younger of the two brothers brought a glass of lemonade, and Robby gratefully took a sip. As always, it was perfectly diluted; not too sweet, not too sour, not too strong.
"Precious Tann," Robby whispered, patting the calloused hands that clasped over his belly. "Precious, precious Tann."
Outside, a few of the brightest stars shone through the dusky half-dark that was late-summer evening. There was no moonlight this night, and no candles or lamps were lit inside, leaving only a soft glow from the fireplace. Robby looked around at the faces of his entire family, all with their eyes focused on him. There was his father, weather-worn yet still ruggedly handsome. His mother, strong and stern, yet with an aura of kindness and friendship about her. Lina, sweet and smiling. Little Minna, bouncing impatiently in her sister's lap. Dag and Marc, a year apart yet still so alike that many thought they were twins, whispering to each other and giggling quietly. And then there was Tann.
Robby turned around and met that smile, a smile so bright that it would light up even the blackest winter night. A smile so filled with love that it, as always, made him smile in return. They were all looking at Robby, waiting for him. Waiting for him to use his one true talent and take them all on a journey through imagination. Sipping his lemonade, he closed his eyes for a couple of seconds, looking for a place to begin tonight's tale. As soon as he had found it, he started talking, while he stared into the fire, his eyes out of focus. Like so often his low, hoarse voice and slow words forced his audience to total concentration, and no sooner had he started than he had them spellbound.
"Once upon a time..."
* * * * * *
"...and they lived happily ever after."
Hours had passed, and the fire had all but burned down when the story reached its end. The heroine, a princess separated from her royal family by the plotting of an evil man, had prevailed against all odds and returned to her rightful place as heir to the kingdom. The villain was defeated and the common folk saved from the threat of his tyranny. The handsome rogue, who had looked very much like Tann to Robby's mind's eye and who had won the heroine's heart as he aided her in her quest, had been named prince of the realm, and had been wed to his beloved by the king himself. All was well, yet the final curse of the villain's death throes might, or it might not, disturb the future peace. Only time would tell.
Time, and my imagination, Robby mused to himself as he drank the last of his third glass of lemonade, his throat sore from all the talking. One by one, his family thanked him with hugs and kisses, drifting off to bed. Lina laid a couple of logs on the fire, stirring it into new life, then she left Robby and Tann alone. Tann picked up his big brother, gently placing Robby on their bed before moving it a little closer to the fireplace. It was still warm, but moisture had begun to seep in through the tiny holes and cracks in the walls and the floor. Robby could feel it as his lungs slowly began to fill with liquid, and he coughed lightly. Tann helped him out of his clothes and quickly tucked him in with several thick blankets, then disappeared for a moment. Staring at the flickers of light painted on the ceiling by the dancing flames, Robby smiled to himself. It had been a good story tonight. Although his eyes hadn't left the fire more than once or twice, he had listened as much to his audience as they had to him. Every now and then, someone would gasp or sigh, or mutter something under his or her breath, either encouraging the heroine and the hero or cursing the villain. Mostly the young children, but sometimes their elders as well.
Coughing again, he reached for his flask and took a good sip, hoping that it would help him sleep. No sooner had he put back the stopper when Tann returned, taking his place at Robby's side. His skin was still slightly chilly from his outside visit, but he soon warmed up underneath the thick layer of blankets. Robby snuggled up to his brother, kissing his cheek as he whispered good night. With the greeting returned, the two of them settled down to sleep, as always with Robby's head resting on one of Tann's strong arms, the other wrapped around his back. With the sweet smell of Tann's breath in his nose and warmed by his brother's body, Robby soon drowsed away.
* * * * * *
His sleep didn't last. Some time during the small hours the fire died down, and the chilly moisture from outside reached his lungs. Robby woke up, slightly panicked as always until he had his bearings. His every breath was a wheezing noise that let very little air down into his lungs. He coughed into his blankets, trying his best to keep as quiet as possible. Forcing himself to calm down, he sat up to help his breathing. He hesitated for a while before he drank some more from his flask; even if they paid nowhere near full price for the medicine it was still expensive, and Robby avoided taking it as often as he could. It was no use fighting it this night, though. Sighing to himself, he took a sip, feeling it warm him up slightly. His movement caused Tann to stir, and Robby soon felt his brother cuddle up to him, wrapping an arm around his thin chest. Robby smiled at this unconscious kindness, but then another fit of coughs racked his body, and this time he could do nothing to keep the noise down. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dag stir, but he didn't seem to wake up. Tann did, though, and Robby felt his brother's strong arms taking him into a warming hug. Tann patted his back gently to help him get rid of the fluids that were clogging up his lungs. Soon enough, Robby settled down, although he still had to fight for every breath. He would have tried to smile at his brother, to assure him that all was well, but since there was no light the gesture would have been futile. Besides, Robby knew, there was no fooling Tann. He often tried to keep up a brave face, but Tann could always see through it. So with no-one else awake, and in the dark where Tann at least couldn't see his tears, Robby let go of his self control and cried softly because of the pain in his chest. He felt himself being pulled into a gentle hug. Tann stroked his hair and patted his back, soothing him as best he could. Pretty soon, Robby forced his emotions back under control, knowing fully well that the crying might start another round of coughs. The two brothers lay there in the near-total dark, holding each other quietly for a long while, until Robby couldn't help yawning. He heard a soft giggle from Tann, and in response he punched lightly at the broad chest. If his breath hadn't been so strained, Robby knew, the next step would have been Tann tickling his sides, Robby doing his best to fight him off until they would have to dive in beneath the blankets to keep their laughter from waking everybody up. Instead, now, he felt Tann's arms tighten around him for a moment. Sighing with content, Robby snuggled up to his brother's warm body and yawned again. It wasn't long before they were both asleep.
Robby woke up twice more that night feeling that invisible hand squeezing his windpipe shut, but both times he managed to get back to sleep without waking Tann up. By the time the morning sun had chased the mists away, he was beginning to feel like himself again. His lungs still hurt and he was tired from the lack of sleep, but the rising heat of another fine late-summer day soon made him feel better. After breakfast, the other family members drifted off to their chores, but not before giving him a hug and a hearty good-bye. Tann lingered until the two of them were alone inside the house, then sat down at the dinner table, taking Robby's hand.
"Will you be all right?"
"Yes, in a little while," Robby said, knowing better that trying to hide anything from his brother. "It still... hurts a bit, but I'll... be all right."
"Want me to fix us lunch again?"
"No thanks." Robby shook his head. "I'll make you... something instead. I think I'll... stay here today."
"Fine." Tann grinned widely, and Robby smiled in return. "See you at midday, then. Take it easy today, you hear?"
After hugging his little big brother good bye, Tann left for the fields. Robby stretched and yawned, still feeling a bit tired. He got up from his chair and walked over to a cupboard by the stove and refilled his flask, then stepped out into the sun. A bit of moisture still clung to the air, but as long as he obeyed Tann's advice and kept from straining himself, it wasn't enough to affect him much. The front yard felt strangely deserted with nobody around, as if it had always been empty; as if no-one had been there for countless years. Robby shook his head to get rid of this feeling. He knew that if he walked just a few paces he would be able to see the barn, where Lina and the youngsters were tending to the animals, and another few paces would take him around the house where his father was working in the potato field. Only Tann and their mother were really out of hearing range, yet Robby couldn't quite shake the feeling that he was all alone. But then a high-pitched giggle finally convinced him otherwise, as Minna came running towards him.
"Robby, what really happened to the prince?" she asked as they sat down on the steps. "He was all right, wasn't he?"
"I'm sure he was, Minna," Robby said, smiling at his youngest sister's worried face. He stroked a tuft of near-white blond hair out of her eyes. "I did say they... lived happily... ever after, didn't I?"
"Yeah, but..." She chewed her lower lip for a minute, frowning as she fell into deep thought. "He's still cursed, wasn't he?"
"Yes, but you see..., there's something... that can break... any curse. I'm sure it... broke his as well."
"Dragon magic?" Minna's eyes lit up. "Tann always says the dragons can fix anything."
"No, not dragons." Robby laughed. "I'm talking... about love. About his love... for his princess."
"You mean like kisses and stuff like that?" She made a disgusted face. "Magic's more fun!"
"Maybe, but true love... is stronger than... anything." Robby laid an arm around his sister's shoulders, pulling her closer to him. "Not even a dragon... can break that."
"So they were all right, then?" Robby nodded. "Good. I think all stories should have happy endings, always. They're better that way."
"But then you... would always know... how they'd end... wouldn't you?" Minna stared at him with her head tilted and a puzzled look on her face. "The possibility... must be there. Otherwise it... wouldn't be exciting."
"I guess so. Can we hear about the beggar tonight?"
"But that's not... a happy story."
"I know, Robby, but I like it anyway. Can we?"
"Not tonight. I'm still weak from... the mist. Maybe tomorrow."
"Okay. I gotta go help the others now. Bye!"
Robby watched her dash off to somewhere, and as soon as she was out of his sight he leaned back against the steps and closed his eyes. The sunlight felt really good, and it seemed as if his lungs would behave, at least for now. He decided to sit there for a good while to get properly warmed up, then perhaps take a slow stroll down to the country road. There would be no long walk today, but he still felt a need to be moving about. As he sat there, the sounds of the farm made themselves heard; animal noises, the distant voices of his siblings, the steady chuck-chuck sound of weeds being chopped away in the potato field. If he strained his ears, Robby thought that he could even hear the sound of the horse and the plough from the wheat fields.
Some of the black mood he had felt yesterday crept back into his mind. They were all working. All, except him. Yet the memory of last night's storytelling chased most of those feelings away. Robby knew that he was appreciated; not only for that gift of his, but also for just being Robby. Tann showed him this every day, all the time when they were together. The others did, too, to a lesser but equally warm extent. Unable to sit still any longer, he got to his feet and reached for the walking stick that stood, as always, leaned against the wall just beside the steps. Feeling mostly at ease with things, he started walking down the gravelled path that would soon take him to the country road.
* * * * * *
Once there, he walked a bit in one direction, then turned back and went the other way. He wasn't really going anywhere, just stretching his legs. After a little while he sat down on a small rock just beside the road, since his vision had begun to get blurry. This was a side effect of his potion that sometimes occurred. In a few minutes, he had almost completely lost his sight, and there was nothing he could do but wait for it to pass. The first time this had happened, Robby had panicked, despite the warnings the practitioner had given him. It had not been a very dignified moment of his life, he mused as he sat there, waiting to see the sunlight as well as feel it. Luckily Tann had, as always, been there for him, and had helped him through that most horrible time. He could hear footsteps coming down the road, and he returned a greeting from one of the neighbouring farmers. Once he was alone again, Robby's mind wandered to what Dag had told him yesterday, that someone had been looking for him. A boy called David. Would he come back today? Robby wondered why David wanted to see him, but decided that he would just have to wait and see. It was probably to trade stories or something like that. A quarter of an hour ticked away before fuzzy grey shades began to appear before Robby's eyes again. At first they were only dim shapes, but soon his vision returned fully. He sighed with relief. There was still a bit of fear every time, that maybe he was blind for good.
By the time midday was drawing near, Robby grabbed his walking stick and started his slow journey back home. He had promised Tann lunch, and maybe there was even time to cook for everybody. He was no master cook, but not completely lost either. There was nobody in sight as he reached the house, but he could hear sounds coming from within. His father had lit the stove, and Robby went inside to help him. Together they cooked up a rich soup of pork and roots and vegetables, with bread and cheese on the side. It was just about done when the young ones came dashing in, craving food. Robby helped them fill their bowls, while his father took three good helpings with him and left for the field. Lina, Minna and Marc were soon happily chattering away while gulping down their soup, while Dag sat down close to Robby and gave him a quizzical look.
"If it's about... the beggar story," Robby smiled, "I already told Minna... maybe tomorrow."
"Nah, it's not that." Dag blushed, clearly stretching the truth a bit. "I just wondered if he found you. That boy."
"David?" Dag nodded. "Not yet. I just walked... down to the... road today."
"Okay. I guess he'll come back again."
Robby's siblings finished their meal, then all of them dashed off except for Marc, who helped clean the dishes. The boy seemed eager to say something, but clearly the word had already reached him that tonight there would be no story. Once they were done, he said good-bye and took off after his siblings. Robby sat alone in the kitchen for a while, sipping a mug of tea, before he went out behind the house to bask in the afternoon sun. The warmth felt wonderful, and he closed his eyes and let his mind wander in search for new ideas and new stories to tell. What if he were to surprise them all tonight with the return of the evil villain and the epic battle for peace in the magic kingdom renewed? No, he decided, better to be back at full strength tomorrow night. The beggar's story was a long one.
Robby woke up at the sound of his stick clattering to the ground. He hadn't even realised that he had fallen asleep, but judging by the sun he had been dozing for a couple of hours. Must be last night's ordeal taking its toll, he thought to himself as he picked the stick up and placed it back in his lap. He yawned and stretched, touching his skin to make sure it wasn't sunburned. The air was nicely dry and kind to his lungs. There would be no mist tonight. For a while, Robby pondered another short walk, but he decided against it. He felt too good, lazing there in the sunlight, listening to the faraway sounds of farmlife. Birds of all kinds had amassed in the potato field, eagerly searching for worms or bugs that had been unearthed by Robby's father's weeding. Their chirps and calls slowly lulled Robby into another half-slumber.
* * * * * *
When he next woke up, it was with a start. Just a few feet away, a boy he had never seen before was sitting on the ground, watching him. It wasn't very often visitors came to the house, and barely ever during work hours. A quick glance at the sun told Robby that it would still be over an hour before the others came back home for the day. The stranger smiled and stood to his feet, then extended his hand.
"Hello, Robby." His voice was mild, and his hand felt warm in Robby's. "I'm glad to meet you."
"You must be... David," Robby said, letting the boy help him up. "Sorry I was... asleep. The weather... was just too nice."
"It is a lovely day." David looked around at the back yard, giving Robby a chance to eye him thoroughly. He was pale, yet had dark eyes and long, black hair. His face was narrow, his arms thin and his body slim, yet Robby had felt hidden strength when he was helped to his feet. His age was indiscernible; he could be anything between fifteen and twenty. "No mists tonight."
"No. No mists. Dag said you... wanted to see me."
"Yes. Can we walk a little while?"
"I'd rather not." Robby gestured to the afternoon sun. "The others will be... back soon."
"All right. Let's just sit down, out here in the sun."
They sat side by side on the narrow stone bench Robby had just been sleeping on, but neither said a thing. Robby waited for the stranger to tell him what he wanted, yet David seemed to be perfectly happy watching the birds. There was a calmness to him that Robby was unused to. The farmers and travellers he had known all his life, as well as the townsfolk he would see now and then, they all seemed so busy. Always in a hurry going somewhere or doing something. And here David was, just sitting there as if no hurry existed in the world. It made Robby feel slightly uneasy, but it also gave him time to look at his new friend again. David was handsome, even beautiful. The sunlight made his eyes glitter, and reflected off his jet black hair in a way Robby found enticing. Something inside him made him reach out and touch that warm hand again, and when he did he was rewarded with a smile that made his heart flutter. And those dark eyes lit up when they met his. It was like seeing a long lost friend, or even like that thing Robby often told of in his stories, but didn't really believe in. Love at first sight. But how could he love someone he had just met? Someone he had spoken no more than a few words to? Just then, David stood up, still keeping his hand in Robby's.
"I have to go, Robby, but I will come back to see you again tomorrow."
"Don't go," Robby whispered. "Stay and meet... my family. Stay for... dinner."
"Maybe next time." He let go of Robby's hand and waved good-bye. "I'll see you soon."
With one more smile and a wink, David walked around the corner of the house, and was gone. Robby got to his feet, but when he reached the front yard all he could see was the path leading down to the country road.
* * * * * *
During the rest of that day, Robby kept wandering in and out of his thoughts. Not even the usual antics of his youngest siblings held his attention for very long. Only a hug or a kiss from Tann or Lina brought him fully out of his shell, and although neither pressed him to tell them what was wrong, they let him know that whenever he wanted to talk, they would be there. Their support meant the world to Robby, and he made sure to thank them. Not until late at night, when the fire was slowly dying and the others were asleep, did he confide in Tann. They lay as always, cuddled together under warm blankets, close to the fireplace. Robby told Tann about the handsome stranger who had felt like a friend, and about the feelings that had stirred inside of him. Tann didn't say much, merely held him close and pressed his face against Robby's neck now and then. When Robby had finished his story, Tann let out a sigh and kissed his cheek.
"I'm happy for you, little big brother," he whispered. "Don't ever think I'm not."
"But I can't say I'm not jealous. I had kind of thought you would never leave us." There was a moment's silence. "That you would never leave me."
"I won't." Robby turned around so they faced each other. "I'm just... curious about him. I could... never leave you, my big... little brother."
"But you should. If he... If David is the right one for you, you shouldn't let me hold you back."
"But what about... your dream?"
"Your dreams matter, too, Robby." Tann reached up with one hand to stroke his brother's cheek. "As much as anyone else's."
"But I don't... even know him," Robby giggled softly. "Yet."
"In any way, I want you to know that I'll be happy for you, no matter what."
"Thanks, Tann. Thank you so much."
"Anytime." They kissed, with more love and more warmth than ever before in their lives. "But if he turns out to be the wrong one for you, I'll personally bring you back home."
"And the heavens help... anyone who gets... in your way." They both ducked in beneath the blankets to stifle their laughter. "My fairytale... hero."
* * * * * *
Robby woke up well rested the next morning, but the bright mood he felt at breakfast soon abated. During the morning tall clouds came rolling in from the north, bringing with them chill, moist air. The rest of the family rushed off to complete as much work as possible before the rain started, while Robby stayed indoors. He wandered around their small house and tried to feel where the coming night's air would find its way in, and then he used spare scraps of fabric to seal up the cracks. It might help some, but he knew he was still in for a rough night. And on top of everything, he wouldn't get to see David again. Surely the handsome boy knew better than to walk the roads with bad weather approaching, maybe even the first autumn storm. Still, Robby kept returning to the kitchen window ever so often, hoping to see someone coming up the path from the country road. To see those deep, dark eyes again, eyes that had spoken to him on a much deeper level than the few words they had exchanged.
Tann noticed Robby's gloomy mood as soon as he entered the house. The rain had started earlier than they had thought, and the last of the hay had just barely been brought into the dry safety of the barn in time. The chickens were all inside, too, as well as the rabbits Lina and Marc took care of. Normally, days like this would be spent in front of the fireplace, talking about what had been done and what needed to be done, maybe listening to one of Robby's stories or just being together. But the tension that occurred between the two eldest brothers, despite all the kind words of the previous night, was so strong it made them all feel edgy. Lina tried to talk to her brothers, but neither seemed very eager to talk. Robby tried to lighten up, but as the afternoon turned into evening and the cold moist air started clogging his lungs he lost all his desire to turn things right. It hurt him that Tann was feeling jealous about what might or might not be between him and David. It angered him that what they had talked about last night still seemed an unsolved matter. Why couldn't Tann accept that he was finding new friends, all on his own?
It wasn't fair.
The more he thought about it, the more irritated he became. They didn't even know what David wanted with him. Most likely, the two of them would trade a couple of stories and then never see each other again. Still... There had been something in those dark eyes, just as David smiled. Something promising more than just an exchange of gossip. Yes, the more Robby thought about it, the more certain he became. David had come to see him for some reason. Some special reason. And it was not fair of Tann to mope about it. Robby had lived so long now with his brother's dream of finding a cure for his illness, then travel the world with him, that it had practically become his own dream. But what did he want? What did Robby want that wasn't part of what someone else wanted? Maybe the answer was... David.
The dour air inside the house lasted until bedtime. Robby was feeling low because he didn't get to see David, Tann was in a foul mood because Robby pined for David. And nobody else wanted to interfere. The two brothers didn't talk much as they crept in beneath the pillows, but as soon as Robby started coughing he felt those oh so familiar arms around him, hugging him tightly.
"I'm sorry for being such an idiot," Tann whispered, and his voice warmed Robby more than any potion could. "I'm just scared of losing you."
"You don't... have to be."
"I have no right to be! You're an adult, and you have the right to your own life."
"I would have... no life... without you." Robby leaned back until his head rested under Tann's chin. "Whatever happens... with me and David... can't change that."
"Precious Robby," Tann whispered, his voice thick with emotion. "Precious, precious Robby."
* * * * * *
Robby woke up after a couple of hours' sleep. Pain was burning in his chest, and his potion could only ease it, not remove it. He tried his best to remain calm, but couldn't stop his tears from flowing. It took him over half an hour to get back to sleep, but at least he managed not to wake anybody up. His sleep was restless, however, disturbed by dreams. He dreamt of Tann and David, and his dream self struggled just as he had while he was awake, to understand why Tann felt such animosity to a boy he had never even met. The David in his dream was not the boy he had seen the day before, though. Gone was the aloft, handsome youngster with the deep, dark eyes and the sparkling smile, and in his stead was someone who looked older, who seemed colder. Tann, at the same time, was younger, smaller. More like the little brother Robby had known years ago. But with one exception. The real world Tann had never, ever looked as vulnerable and fragile as the boy in the dream. Robby struggled to understand, to find the clue, the link to the real world and to what was really happening. He knew that he was dreaming, and he tried to ask them both for help. The answers he got didn't help.
"I have no right," Tann said, his voice thin and on the verge of cracking. "I have no right to be scared."
"I will come back to see you again tomorrow," David said. "Tomorrow."
Robby sat up with a gasp, suddenly wide awake. Tann stirred at his side, but did not wake up. Robby looked around and wondered what had woken him. His chest no longer hurt, so why...? He nearly cried out when he saw David, sitting on the floor beside the dying fire. How could he have come inside without rousing anybody? Why was he even there? Was Robby still dreaming? The questions that raced inside his mind came to ease as understanding began to dawn upon him. It was pitch dark outside, not even a sliver of moonlight to break the total blackness. 'I will come back to see you again tomorrow.' The words echoed inside his mind, and he knew that it must now be midnight, or maybe just before midnight. David had held his promise. The dark boy stood up, and now his eyes were once more warm and friendly. Not as cold as they had been in the dream.
"Come with me for a little while, Robby," he whispered. "We need to talk."
Robby nodded, and eased his way out of Tann's arms. It wouldn't disturb him, Robby knew. They were all so used to each other's nightly doings that the only thing that could wake somebody up would be a cold hand or foot in the wrong place. David handed him a blanket to cover his nakedness and to keep him warm, and to Robby's relief he didn't lead him outside. Instead they went to the kitchen, as far away from the sleeping family as possible. David leaned against the table, while Robby sat down.
"What do you... want?" Robby whispered. "Who are you?"
"The first question is easily answered. I would like you to come with me. I want to show you new and wonderful places."
"Because I have heard a lot of good things about you, Robby." Those dark, deep eyes were so enticing. They drew Robby in, made him want to drown in them, made him want to do whatever David asked of him. "And now that I have met you I know that all of them were true. But you are in so much pain."
Robby didn't know what to say, so they both fell silent. Leave his home? He didn't want to go, but the lure of visiting places he had only ever dreamed about, that maybe he hadn't even heard of, was strong. And to go there with David...
Before Robby knew what was happening soft, warm lips covered his own, and he willingly let himself get drawn into a passionate kiss. This was not like the loving kisses he shared with Tann, and sometimes with Lina. This was a lover's kiss. Robby moaned as he parted his lips and let their tongues meet. The touch was both sensual and erotic, and it made all his doubts melt away. All save one.
"Can Tann come... with us?" he whispered once they had broken the kiss. "I don't want to... I can't... leave him."
"No, Robby." David held his face and looked into his eyes. The sincerity he saw both reassured him and scared him. "Tann cannot come with us on our journey. Robby, do you remember your second question tonight?"
"Yes." Robby nodded, feeling waves of calm spread through his body, obliterating his fears. He knew it all now. "Your name is... not David, is it?"
"No. It is not. But that is the only lie I have told you. I can take you away from here. I can take you to the most wondrous places. And I can stop the pain."
"Do I have... to go?"
"Let me show you something." David stood up and helped Robby to his feet, then they walked back to the bed. "Take a look."
"I never knew... that I was... so small," Robby whispered after a long silence, while he stared at the two figures all but hidden beneath the blankets. "Oh, poor Tann."
"Your first thought goes to your brother." David's smile was a sad one, and in the weak light coming from the fireplace Robby saw the glimmer of a tear running down his cheek. "No wonder they all love you so much. Will my love suffice?"
"Must I go?"
"No. You may stay if you want to. Now is not really your time. But I saw you, and I felt so much for you." David leaned in for another kiss, but a less passionate one this time. "If you come with me, there will be no more pain. No more potions and no more fear of autumn mists and winter colds. No more nights without sleep, no more nights of panic and dread and tears."
"But what about... the ache in... my heart?" Robby was crying openly now. The offer he had been given was as impossible to refuse as it was terrible to accept. Either way lay a different kind of pain. Either way lay deepest regret. Robby's decision wavered, until he saw his brother move, snuggling closer to the still, pale body next to him. He knew what he had to do. "Precious Tann... If I stay... how long...?
"That is not for you to know. Not for me, either."
"I cannot leave them. I need to be with... my Tann. I love him... so much."
"I thought you would say that. I hoped you would come with me, but my heart knew you wouldn't."
"Don't be." David kissed Robby's cheek, and they hugged. "When spring comes and you can travel again, go and see an old friend of mine."
"Near Toussa, down south. Take Tann with you, and go see Kamsiera. She will be expecting you, and she might be able to help you."
"Is she a... friend with wings?" Robby giggled. "And tough green... scaly hide?"
"Blue and red scaly hide, actually. And a fiery bad breath." They both laughed quietly. "But she is very kind. No promises, but I know she will do her very best for you. No fee, because she owes me one."
"Thanks. You are a... good friend... David."
"My name is not David."
"I like David... better."
"Now go back to sleep, Robby. And remember."
* * * * * *
The next morning, Robby woke up in a good mood. He had slept well, without any more bouts of pain during the night. Outside the window, the ground was covered in a thin layer of frost, which was rapidly melting in the rays from the rising sun. Maybe the winter would be early this year. cold wasn't good for Robby's lungs, but at least the winters were mostly dry. Moisture was worse. Around him, people were still sleeping, even though Minna and Marc were beginning to stir. Sounds from the kitchen made Robby turn around, and as he felt the empty bed behind him he saw Tann come towards him, a big smile on his lips and two mugs of steaming chocolate in his hands. Robby gladly accepted one and started sipping it.
"You look... happy today... big little brother."
"I am. I woke up early, and I've been thinking. Whatever happens, you can be sure on one thing, Robby. As long as you're happy, I will be, too."
"I am happy." Robby took another sip of chocolate, then leaned his head against his brother's bare chest. "It looks like... a fine day. I've got my... big little brother... right here. The world is... just perfect."
"But what about him? David?"
"He will not... come back." Robby smiled at Tann's bewildered look. "He left me a... message, but... he won't come... back."
"So you're stuck... with me. Unless you can... get your fat butt... off your seat... and find yourself... someone to love."
"My backside is not fat, thank you very much!" Robby giggled at Tann's indignant snort. "Muscular, yes. Manly sized, yes. But not fat!"
"It is fat."
"I ought to spank you, little big brother." Tann's voice was harsh, but his tone was mild. He pulled Robby's face towards his own, and kissed him. This was much more like the kisses Robby had shared with David during the night, and it made his heart beat faster as he returned the kiss with equal fervour. "But I won't, because I love you too much."
"I love you... too, precious Tann."
"So what was the message?"
"You'll see... comes spring."
"Oh no, I can't wait that long! Tell me now!"
"Nope. And don't... shake me like that... or I'll spill... my chocolate."
"Better you spill the beans," Tann grunted, pouting. "And stop talking about me finding someone, because I won't. Not now, not ever."
"Except for you, no."
"Good. Then we can... make a journey... comes spring."
"Where too? Why? How?"
"That's another... story, Tann. To be told... another time. Tonight I will... tell the one about... the beggar boy."
"Oh goodie!" Dag piped up from the next bed, which he shared with Marc. "That's my favourite!"
"Mine, too," came Lina's voice from behind them. "Hey! Did you make chocolate, Tann? Can I have some, too?"
* * * * * *
Later that day, after the night's cold had been replaced by another warm late summer day, Robby sat out in the sunlight and thought about the future. The others were out somewhere hurrying to complete the work that had to be done before the first real cold set in, and he was not feeling strong enough to walk around much. Instead, he found himself contemplative. For the first time in his life, he was looking years ahead, looking at a life that promised to be good. Whatever happened with David's dragon friend wouldn't change that. Life would be good because it would have Tann in it. The two brothers would always be together, no matter what, he knew that now beyond a doubt. More than anything else, the previous night had been a test of their love for one another. A test they had not failed. Robby smiled to himself; for one, he wasn't scared of things to come. He did not feel at a loss because of his disability. Things were right. Ever right.
Yes, life was good.