Fic: LOVE IS STRONGER (Fall Challenge)

Author:  lucel

Pairing:  Ray/Nat

Implement:  Hand

Warning: Magic and possible cosmic happenings, road trip,

                A Halloween Romantic Fable  (November 20,2005)


"I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge,

That myth is more potent than history, That dreams are more powerful

than facts,

That hope always triumphs over experience, That laughter is the only

cure for grief, And I believe that love is stronger than death." Erich Fromm



"One and-a Two and-a Three   and  FOUR!   One   and-a   Two and-a
Three and  FOUR!"  The young man's voice carried rhythmically around
the rather dingy multi-purpose room as he clapped the count, his
graceful hands held high and strong near his face.   It was a good
face, with the clean lines, expressive gray eyes, and high cheekbones
of his Gypsy heritage.  A few unruly dark curls fell over one eye as
he concentrated.

Very slowly, Nat demonstrated the syncopated heel-toe step that could
carry a Flamenco dancer through any sweeping pattern or allow him to
dance in place to dominate one certain position onstage.  Behind him,
an odd group of men and boys tried to follow their lithe young
teacher.  Vaguely formed into two scraggly lines, each would-be dancer
had plenty of room to move and a good view of their teacher and the
mirrors.  Though he was in the same worn levis and tee shirt ‘uniform’
favored by most of the class, the young teacher's black dancing boots
set him apart, the high, thick heels giving definition and authority
to his steps.

As he moved forward, Nat watched his class in the floor to ceiling
mirrors lining the long wall of the big room.  Donated by the
Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, the mirrors were among the
recent improvements to the Eureka Valley Recreation Center.  Nowadays
Eureka Valley doubled as both community center to San Francisco's
Castro ‘Village’ and night time shelter for 25 young homeless gay men.
In fact, Nat knew that some of his Flamenco students slept in this
same multi-purpose room at night.   That made him grin as he turned to
face his class. 

"OK, now, everyone try clapping the count…come on, culpas,
culpas…ready… and One and-a Two and-a Three and FOUR!… OK… One
and-a Two and-a Three and FOUR!…  OK," said Nat as he whirled back
to face the mirrors, "Now, everybody, try the steps.  Just in place
for now…  Step heel-heel, Step heel-heel, Step heel-heel, FOUR!  …
That's it, keep going…  Watch me, watch the mirror… Great, you're
doing great… heel-heel, FOUR!  Ok, now forward," he commanded.  Nat
couldn't help but grin as the rhythmic thunder of the dancing lines pushed him forward until he was in imminent danger of smashing into the mirrors.

He turned again, signaling for the class to stop, his face lit up with
a big smile of triumph.  "That's it, you've got it!  I didn't see or
hear anyone off beat.  Are there any questions?  We call this the
traveling step-- it can move forward or back or stay still, whatever
the dancer wills."  Looking quickly over at the wall clock on the
other side of the room, Nat could see that time was almost up. 

"OK, for next time, I just want everyone to practice this step until
your friends think you're crazy!  And don't forget to practice the
lunges and the clapping and the hand movements.    Remember what
Jimmie said about using a dish towel:  if you drape one from wrist to
elbow on each arm, they hang down like the kind of sleeves I wear in
the show at the Gypsy Cavern.  If you can keep the towels from
slipping off, you know your moves are good…

"Oh, and don't forget, I won't be here next week because my family
have been invited to dance in the traditional Halloween Party Show at
the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas-- I know you guys are getting
ready for a big All Hallows' Haunt-n-Bash here at the center, so I
don't think you'll miss me too much…"

There was some chuckling, and someone sang out, "Yeah, you're such a
slave driver!"

One of the older men yelled, "Nat, before we go, couldn't you just
show us some of the `fireworks'?  Give us something to shoot for?
C'mon, Nat…"

Nat laughed at the general clamor that rose up from the group.
Tossing his head with a grin, he acceded gracefully.  "OK, but you
guys will have to clap for the rhythm since my cousin, James, isn't
here to play guitar for us… And Tommie, could you sing the beginning
of that Cante we've been working on together?"

"Sure, Nat," said a smaller Hispanic boy.  "Just tell me when to start…"

"OK, you go ahead and start.  The rest of us will follow you…Go
on….One, two, three…"  Nat nodded to his young student, and Tommie's
slightly raspy voice rose in the old, old music… of fear and death and
darkness… and of the spark of love… illuminating the dark… as the
first spark from match or flint ignites fire in the night… 

Even in tee shirt and jeans, Nat's lithe form loomed somehow darker
and more commanding as he began with a classic pose and the strong
sweeping arm movements that seemed to mesmerize and enthrall his
audience.  With a hot and fiery look, he once again began the
clapping, the culpas, to set a strong rhythm against Tommie's haunting

Suddenly, Nat twirled into a series of dramatic spins and stamps, then
leaped into another classic pose before beginning a pass using the
strong arm movements and the classic Flamenco toe-heel steps and
stamps he had been slowly teaching this morning.  Faster and faster
his feet moved until they were a blur of explosive staccato beats…

which stopped as Nat made a final whirling leap and Tommie's song
ended with a shout!  Nat broke his final pose to bow, then to pull
Tommie into a hug as the others clapped and yelled and crowded around
to congratulate Nat. 

Nat grinned happily at his students as he grabbed a towel from his bag
to wipe his face.  Then his eye caught the clock.  Damn, it was
almost four, and he was going to be late!  Quickly, he changed
his boots for his well-used trainers, slipped into his black leather
jacket, and slid his backpack over one shoulder.  "Sorry, guys, I've
got to run.  The downtown shelter is opening today, so I can't stay
for refreshments.  But Mrs. Grady promised cider and brownies out in
the foyer after class…"

The guys were appreciative.  Mrs. Grady had been the center's director
for years, and her brownies were famous.  "Hey, thanks Nat!" 


"Good luck in Vegas!" 


"Good lesson, today!" 


"Yeah, thanks!" 


"See ya later, man." 


"Knock `em dead in Vegas, Nat!" 


"Have a Happy Halloween!"

Nat smiled in response and tossed a quick "See, ya, and don't forget
to practice…" over his shoulder.  With a farewell nod to Mrs. Grady,
Nat was through the crowd, out the door, and hurrying towards upper
Market to catch a streetcar, bus, or cab, whichever he could find
first!  He had promised his partner, Ray, that he would be there at
the newly renovated Homestead Inn when the official ribbon was cut. 

Ray's architectural firm, Jennings & Associates, had found backers to
fund refurbishing the old Jefferson Hotel on Turk Street.  Located in the heart of The Tenderloin just a few blocks from San Francisco's
impressive Civic Center, the crumbling old hotel had been little more
than a flop-house for boozers, druggies, and prostitutes.  It was little more than a cockroach spa due to be condemned. 


Ray appreciated its good "bones" and had found sponsors to donate money to buy it.  His firm had redesigned the interior space and created plans to bring all the plumbing and mechanics up-to-date.  Then, using his formidable powers of persuasion, Ray got contractors and builders to sponsor the renovations. 

Working with Social Services and City Hall to secure permits and
staffing, Ray's plan was to open the place up to the City's homeless.  Anyone who wanted to clean up and look for a job could check in and
take advantage of having the all important address and telephone
number needed for serious job applications.  Social Services liked the
idea enough to staff an office there to help with applications,
vocational testing, and finding decent professional clothing and
haircuts.  Families would be allowed to take one or two adjoining
rooms and stay together.  Meals would be provided, and they had made
space for a cooperative day-care facility.

Nat shook his head and grinned when he thought of helping the homeless
families as he hurried along, almost running to Market Street.  He
could hardly believe it had been almost a year since he had met Ray
.  So much had happened…  Nat made a flying leap to  clear the closing doors of Bus 39:  he flashed the driver a smile and his Muni Card and swung into the first vacant seat.  Yeah, Ray had swept him off his feet, alright, first in the dance, then rescuing him from that jerk, Sam, and finally carrying him off, literally, to the big Victorian that was now their home on Buena Vista just off Haight Street.

That Halloween had been dark, and the mostly empty, echoing old house
had been rattling with "haunts"!  Ray and Nat had helped each other
face their fears and the disturbances:  Ray was mysterious and tall
and strong, and Nat brought all of his natural Gypsy affinity for the
supernatural to the effort.  What they found was a group of homeless
kids camped out in the huge basement of the old house.  When their
parents were desperate and had no other options, they had found they
could leave the children in the deserted old house to shelter each

Ray and Nat had ordered pizza for their unexpected little
trick-or-treaters and roasted marshmallows in the huge basement
fireplace.  They had also made sure each child had warm bedding, and
the two men had stayed among them for the night. 

The following morning, Ray had called in some favors:  Social Services
sent over a team of teacher, nurse, and social worker to
take charge.  Ray persuaded his main plumbing contractor to do a rush
job expanding the existing plumbing to include a basement shower room
and multiple stall bathroom; Sears had donated a mixed collection of
bedding and cribs, bunk beds, and cots; and the Salvation Army had
delivered two folding banquet tables with folding chairs and benches.

Nat had to grin as he remembered.  He had certainly been strangely
attracted to Ray when they had first met after Nat's Gypsy Cavern
floorshow, but Nat really fell for him the next day when Ray ‘moved
mountains’ to be sure the homeless kids had somewhere decent to stay! 

To make the arrangement legal and permanent, Ray had closed off the
basement and made sure it was finished off as ‘warranted according to
spec’ space, which he then offered to the city as a temporary
children's shelter.  There were usually between eight and 15 kids
staying there, and Nat and Ray enjoyed reading or playing with them or
sharing some treat from time to time.  The idea for the Homestead Inn
had come from Ray and Nat wanting to continue to help ‘their’ kids'
families and friends.

"Damn!" Nat muttered to himself.  "Could this bus go any slower?  It
feels like it's stopping at every street corner and stoplight…"  He
grinned apologetically to the lady in black leather sitting across
from him for mumbling to himself.  Ray would be upset if he missed the
ceremony.  And so would Nat… he wanted to be there for his partner… 
Ray was his partner! 

After almost a year the excitement still had not worn away.  Somehow
Nat had known from the first moment he had seen Ray and felt his touch
in that Paso Doble dance that Ray was for him.  He knew they shared a certain electricity, but it took Nat a while to understand exactly
what was happening with Ray. 

Ray was tall and good looking, but he was also mysterious and a little
menacing.  Still, Nat had not been afraid to go with him, it had felt
strangely right.  But there had been moments of blank coldness in
Ray's dark eyes that had been disturbing and a little daunting.  Nat
remembered thinking it was as if Ray were two people… later, Nat had
realized that he was!

Auntie Mir had *seen* it when she first met Ray in the dressing room.
She knew he was there for Nat, to take him after Sam's brutality
finally left him broken and hurt with his life force all but spent…
But something stranger still had happened when Miranda the Seeress had
locked gazes with the handsome stranger as he held her nephew in his
arms.  Nat trusted that Ray would do him no harm, and Ray had promised
Auntie Mir to care for Nat, "to see him right."

With each passing second, Ray had fallen more under the spell of the
sensitive, intrepid young Gypsy, falling in love with his warmth…
with what he brought to life. Ray had recklessly put off the finality
of completing his task, refusing to acknowledge the approach of
midnight.  And Ray, for all his power, risked being flung back into
the cold and lonely dark, where not even a shadow flickered. 

But somehow Raymond Jennings' love of life and very human feelings had
mingled with young Nat's loving warmth and surging power.  Nat's hands
in his held Ray steady through the dark moments of midnight… held him
in this living world where love and light were possible.  If Raymond
Jennings had been a different kind of man, less receptive to new ideas
and experience, Ray would have disappeared during the first moment of
All Saints' Day.  Instead the creative architect had made room for
Ray, and his generosity was rewarded with a gift of knowledge and
power that balanced and complimented Raymond Jennings' generous good

Nat shivered with excitement as he thought of his handsome partner.
Since that fateful midnight moment, the man who was now Ray Jennings
had made it plain over and over again that he loved Nat in every way
possible.  That first Halloween, Ray had put aside his own growing
need and attraction to cherish Nat, soothing his physical hurt with
salve and his spiritual hurt with caring appreciation and respect for
all that Nat stood for and had inherited from his family. 

The two men had spent all of the next day together enjoying solving
problems for ‘their’ kids and learning more about each other.  By
evening, Nat knew that this new relationship was what he had been
waiting for all his life.  He also understood that Ray had no
practical experience in real relationships and that whatever happened
would depend on Nat.  And Nat needed to know that Ray was with him,
that he would *stay*… 
The bus lurched back into traffic after the last stop on Market Street and would soon turn left onto Van Ness.  Nat held on to the vertical pole in front of his seat.  He knew he would be able to
get off at the first stop past the Civic Plaza. Leaning on the pole, Nat’s heart and mind focused on Ray, and his body
was suddenly
suffused with heat as he was flooded with memories of their first time

He would be able to
get off at the first stop past the Civic Plaza, but his body was
suffused with heat as he was flooded with memories of their first time

They had been cuddling on Ray's big brass bed and watching a little TV
after eating the Thai take-out they had ordered delivered for dinner.

Fearlessly and with love, Nat looked deep into Ray's eyes and said,
"I want you inside me."

Ray held Nat's intrepid gaze and asked, "Are you sure?"

"Yes," came Nat's whispered reply.

Full of appreciative wonder for the lithe young dancer, Ray gently
began to remove Nat's tee shirt and jeans.   Nat did the same for Ray.
By the time they finished, both were hard and dripping with need,
each wanting the other.  Ray first gathered Nat close, then
placed him in the center of the bed and knelt between his legs. He
leaned to kiss Nat's lips softly once, then again, until the kisses
became more intense, until they were forced to release each other
gasping for air.

Ray had seen much and had all of Raymond Jennings' memories to draw
from, but he had never imagined this intensity of feeling … how it
felt to hold someone you love and who loves you back… He knew what to
do, but the firestorm of emotion raised and intensified by every
movement and touch left him shaking and amazed, and even humbled…

Ray reached over to the nightstand for condom and lube. He began to
warm a generous amount on his fingers as he covered Nat's neck and
well-defined chest with kisses.  At Nat's urging, he slowly inserted
one finger inside him, and Nat gasped. When Nat began to relax, Ray
kissed him again and added another. Nat writhed and ran his fingers
through Ray's hair to bring him closer.  Ray continued to prepare him.

"Now, Ray, please!" Nat pleaded when he thought he could stand no more.  Ray removed his fingers, and Nat moaned…

Ray ripped open the condom and placed it over his throbbing erection,
then coated himself with lube before gently rubbing some into Nat.

Nat remembered that he had laughed and said, "It's cold!"

"Don't worry, it'll soon warm up," Ray had replied, and they both

smiled at each other. Then Ray slowly lifted Nat's legs over his

Using all his will, Ray struggled to be controlled and smooth as he
pushed in through the first ring of muscle. Nat moaned and gripped the
sheets. Ray stopped to let Nat relax, then slowly continued to push
forward until he was completely buried in the warm tightness of Nat's
hot channel. Then he began to move very slowly…in and out… each time
finding and stroking his amazing young lover, driving him wild.  More than anything else, Ray wanted to please Nat, who had made it possible for Ray to feel this…this…life. 

When Ray knew his own orgasm was close, he took Nat's leaking cock and
gently began to stroke him, matching each stroke to the rhythm of his
thrusting.  Though Nat knew he wanted the sensations to last forever,
he could only moan louder, needing to finish….

"Raaaay," he moaned as his orgasm hit, and both men came within
seconds of each other.  Ray collapsed on top of the younger man,
making sure Ray's arms supported his own weight as he began to withdraw.

"No, stay," Nat had whispered.

Ray stayed but gently turned them so they could cuddle, and Ray
nuzzled Nat's ear as he whispered, "I love you, Nat, you mean the
world to me..."

"I love you too, Ray," Nat smiled.   "I think I've been looking for
you all of my life… I think you are my life…" 

And Ray had pulled Nat impossibly closer, and they rested, and finally
slept in each other's arms.

And since
then, they had been almost inseparable.  Ray seemed to know almost every detail of Nat's life, but it also seemed as though everything they did together was something new that he had never before experienced. When Nat showed Ray how he liked to cook, Ray was more that appreciative:  he loved eating everything from Nat's complicated gypsy goulash to apple pie and ice


Sometimes Ray would become all excited over memories and skills he shared with Raymond Jennings.  Nat loved to hear Ray say in a voice full of wonder, “Hey, Nat, did you know I used to go sailing every summer with my Dad?” And when Ray came home from work at Raymond Jennings, Architect, it was “Nat, you know what?  I can draw!  Practically anything I want!”

Somehow Nat knew that Ray counted on Nat's support to move through his
new life and to work for good in his new world.  Ray seemed to have an
uncanny sense for when his "special" knowledge was needed, for knowing
when his familiarity with another kind of power could make a
difference.  It was amazing to Nat how the word spread, especially
after his family knew he was with Ray. 

Nat had never seen his Auntie Mir so astonished as when she first saw
him with Ray a few days after Halloween.  They had gone to the Gypsy
Cavern for one of Nat's shows.  At first, she had been speechless.

"What are you doing here," she had demanded as soon as she could
speak.  "I thought…"

Ray laughed a little self consciously, but said with pride, "Nat…  Nat
kept me here… he has so much zest for life…  And I think we loved each
other at first sight, first touch, first dance…" 

"But I knew you were here for him… I thought you would take him…"
Miranda's expressive eyes begged for understanding, her strong and
beautiful face showing her age as she paled with fear and concern. 

"Well, even I am not quite sure how, but NAT took ME, or rather
somehow made it possible for me to stay.   He is so strong…   Don't
worry, Miranda, Raymond Jennings and I have become one and the same.
And I would never hurt Nat…" Ray held Auntie Mir's gaze until the
petite Gypsy's strong face relaxed and broke into a beautiful smile.

She even laughed a little as she said, "Well, welcome, Ray, you are
very well come!  And we have great need of someone as powerful and
strong in the ways as you…  Welcome to our ranks and our family!" 

Soon Ray was in demand whenever people needed powerful help or advice,
and Nat could testify from personal painful experience how strong and
clear was Ray's sense of values…. 


The 39 Bus was just passing Civic Center, and Nat got ready to get
out.  He pulled the cord as they drove past City Hall, then hurried
off when the bus stopped at Turk.  It still wasn't quite 4:30 p.m.  He
just might make it if he hurried.  The new Homestead Inn was in the
middle of the third block, but the blocks were short. 

Nat flew down the street, and he was just in time.  Ray and the Mayor
of San Francisco, Gary Oldham, were just coming out from the side
door.  A big red ribbon encircled the central revolving door. 
Various media technicians and reporters had arranged themselves out
front, and staff people, both from the Inn and City Government,
mingled to the side. 

Nat's run took him in the middle of things before he knew it, and
Ray's solid arm caught him as he tried to stop.

"Hey, you made it!  I was certain you would be late because of your
class…  You’re just in time," Ray said, his pleasure evident.  He
checked to see that his young partner was all right before withdrawing
the support of his arm.

"Ray!" said Nat as he fought to compose himself.  "I hurried!"

Ray turned to the young Mayor.  "Mr. Mayor, I would like you to meet
my partner, Nat Pacheco."  Ray's voice rang with pride.  "Besides
working with me here, he teaches a Flamenco Class for Social Services
at the Eureka Valley Rec Center twice a week.  He’s a student at the
San Francisco College of Performance Arts and Music, and he dances at

his family's Club Gypsy Cavern several times a week."

"I'm glad to meet you, Nat.  You certainly sound as though you have a
lot to do… I'm glad you could be here today.  Ray has been showing me
some of the improvements you two have come up with for this facility.
It should really help the city's homeless…" The Mayor held out his
hand to Nat.  

"Thanks, Sir," said Nat shaking hands, while letting Ray take his
backpack to hand to one of the Homestead Inn Staff.  "Where do you
want me," Nat asked Ray quietly.

"Anywhere I can get you," Ray whispered with a little grin for Nat's
instant blush.  "Actually, I want you front and center," he said out
loud as he pulled Nat over to stand between him and the Mayor.  "You
and the Mayor are going to cut the ribbon."  An aide handed Ray two
very large pairs of scissors.   "Here you go, Mr. Mayor…   Nat…  Now
if you will both prepare to cut the ribbon?  ...maybe we can get some
pictures now?"  Ray's calm presence kept everything moving, but Nat
could feel him almost shaking with excitement.

"OK, folks, this is it:  If Nat and the Mayor will just cut the
ribbon, I declare this Homestead Inn open to receive residents!"
Flashbulbs popped, and everyone applauded, even some passers-by who
had stopped to see what the commotion was all about.  Some of the Inn
staffers guided several homeless people who had been patiently waiting
into the Inn to start the registration process.   Then the whole party
went in to celebrate by sharing the Inn's first dinner.


Later that night, Ray and Nat settled in for some quiet time in front
of the fire in their recently reclaimed living room.  At first they
were quietly content just to watch the fire and experience the harmony
of the comfortable room they had created together. 

The mellow wood paneling and built-in bookcases glowed on the
fireplace wall.  Fairly large oriental carpets gave the space a
certain richness. The carpets suggested the deep blue tones of
the overstuffed sofa and matching easy chairs, which were set off by
stacks of colorful floor cushions near the fireplace and by accent
pillows on the furniture. 

A large leather ottoman did double duty as a convenient table for the
sofa or extra seating.  A big bay window overlooking the back garden
had been fitted out as a window seat.  The high tech look of the media
corner had been softened by a nearby potted palm, and the corner had
been given distinction by two nicely framed and matted drawings.  One
was an artist's impression of a beautiful old Victorian House, and the
other appeared to be an architectural drawing of the same house.  Both
were signed with a neat, "R.J."

Over the sofa, Nat had hung a large oil painting in an ornate antique
gold frame.  It was a beautiful rendering of an old-fashioned
horse-drawn gypsy caravan.  Nat knew it had been painted by Constable,

but it had never been catalogued or appeared for auction because the
artist had given it to his family as soon as he finished it.  It had
been proudly handed down since then, and Auntie Mir had passed it on
to Nat when it was clear that he would be living with Ray.  It served
to remind Nat that no matter where he went or who he was with, the
family was part of him, too.

And since Ray filled the role of senior partner in their relationship,
Nat really wanted to talk to him about the family plans for taking the
special Halloween holiday gig in Las Vegas.  They had been too busy
until today, and Nat had been a bit uncertain… but now that the
Homestead Inn was finally a going concern, and any Inn problem could
most likely be fine-tuned by the Inn staff instead of Ray, Nat thought
that this might be a good time...  and Nat had become increasingly
aware that time was running out!

"Ray?" Nat lifted his head from Ray's shoulder where he had been
resting while Ray read the paper. 

"Yes, Imp?"  Ray continued to read.

"Could you please put the paper down and let me talk to you for a few
minutes?"  There was an imperious touch of exasperation in Nat's tone.

"Why, yes, I would be happy to hear the great Ignacio Michel Pacheco,
III, on any topic he might care to discuss!"  Ray's voice was warm and
teasing.  Nat had once told him he used to be called "Imp" because of
his initials, and every once in while, Ray enjoyed trying to get a
rise out of Nat with it.

"Oh, Ray!  This is important."  There was something in Nat's voice
that got Ray's instant attention.  He put the paper down and turned on
the sofa so he was facing his young partner but still close enough to
take his hand.

"Nat," he replied, "Tell me.  What is it?"

"Well, you know we have been planning to take the family Flamenco act

for that special gig in Las Vegas over Halloween?"  Ray knew; it had
already been discussed and decided.  Nat was supposed to fly to Las
with the family on Friday, October 28th, and Ray would join them

Saturday afternoon after closing his office Friday for a long weekend.

"Yeah, you go on Friday, and I follow on Saturday.  I'll be there in
time to catch both the Saturday performance and the big one on
Sunday-- or rather "Zorro" will come Sunday, since everyone will come
in costume."  Ray grinned.  "You'll be glad to see `Zorro' again,
won't you?"  Some of the ‘tease’ was back in Ray's voice.

"Oh, Ray-- you know I will," Nat all but purred.  Then with a typical
mercurial switch, the worrisome portent was back in his voice as he
said, "But, Ray!  Quit distracting me!  I need to tell you that none
of us can fly… all of us need to go by car!  We need to plan extra
travel time…"

"What?  Why can't we go by plane?  Look, Nat, the plans are all made,
we can't go changing them at the last minute on a whim…" 

Nat just looked at Ray until he stopped talking and just raised his
eyebrows in the quirky way that Nat had grown to love.  "But this
isn't a `whim,' is it, Nat... you've… what have you seen?  Is it
danger for us? Or others? Tell me…"

Ray knew how sensitive Nat was, what strength he had, even though he
didn't always know how to control it.  If something were coming their
way, Nat would know it.

"Ray, I'm not sure exactly what I'm seeing, but I know I have the
very strong feeling that we must all be in Las Vegas together, and
that we absolutely must not fly.  I know it will be problematic to
rearrange all of our schedules, but we just have to do it even if it
means closing the Gypsy Cavern for a few days."  Nat was kneeling in
front of Ray now, gripping both of his hands, needing him to understand.

"I keep seeing a brilliant flash, then darkness; then the darkness is
pushed away by giant rainbows and an explosion of sound.  I'm not sure
why, but we all need to be there."  Ray nodded and pulled Nat close
for a comforting hug. 

"All right, Babe.  We'll do it your way.  Have you told Auntie Mir and
Carlos and the girls?  We probably need to leave by tomorrow to make
our timetable."   Now that he was convinced, Ray was all business.  He
pulled out one of his ever present legal pads and began to make lists. 

"Ray, I didn't want to tell anyone until I talked it over with you,
and I was more certain.  I'll go call Auntie Mir right…."  Nat was
interrupted by the deep clang of the front door bell, which Nat
hurried to answer saying, "I'll bet that's her… she always knows…"

Ray had to laugh when Nat came back from the front hall followed by a
worried looking Auntie Mir.  Of all the weird families to get involved
with, he had to pick this one… or did it pick him?  Truth be told, he
reveled in the complications and intensities of this life.  He loved
being involved with people's lives.  Even as the architect, Raymond
Jennings, he had been too much alone!  And he loved Nat and all of his
relatives, too!

In the end, after talking it over and making several phone calls, it
was arranged that Miranda and Carlos would rent a van and drive with
the girls and the band south from San Francisco on I-5 then across to
Las Vegas through Fresno and Lone Pine.  Nat and Ray would take a
different route. 

When they were checking the map to estimate travel time, Nat had
suddenly pointed to a spot on the map and said, "There!  I've got to
be there at dawn on Friday!"  There was command in his voice.  "Ray!
You've just got to get me there…"

"Where, Nat?  Where are we going?"  Ray accepted the inevitable. 

Nat bent closer to read the map.  "Glacier Point.  We've got to be at
Glacier Point in Yosemite at dawn on Friday.  We'll have to get to Las
from there.  Is there a way we can do it?" 

"Yes," said Ray simply.  "I've been there twice before:  once on a
college trip with roommates…"  Nat knew that must be a memory shared
from Raymond Jennings' experience. 

"…And once when I went to Death Valley, before it got its current
name."  Nat surmised that to be a very old memory of Ray's.

Ray moved his finger to trace a route on the map.  "We can drive right
from Yosemite up over Tioga Pass and through Death Valley to Las
.  If we can leave the Yosemite Valley floor by 10 am, we should

make the Las Vegas Strip by about 8 pm.  That should be OK, shouldn't it?"

Auntie Mir looked at Nat, and Nat put one hand to his temple and
stared rather desperately at the map.  Ray felt a wave of tenderness
for this beautiful, talented, complicated creature he loved with all
his heart and soul.  Finally, Nat looked up with a tentative smile and
said, "Yes, that should work.  The way seems clear for us, and I
should be able to finish at Glacier Point soon after dawn."

Miranda soon left to tell the others, pack, and arrange for renting a
van.  She promised to call before leaving the next morning. 

Nat heaved a great sigh as he neatly folded the maps into his ever
present back pack, then said, "We will need to get to Yosemite before
5p.m. tomorrow so we can be sure to spend the night in the park.
Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to get to Glacier Point for sunrise."

Ray nodded and wrote on his pad.  "Maybe we should make reservations
at one of the lodges.  I think it will be too cold to camp, and we

will need our rest." 

Ray looked up just in time to see his young partner slip something out
of his backpack and under a sofa cushion as he studiously examined the
guide books lined up on the ottoman.   After a moment, Ray was moved
to inquire mildly, "How did the meeting with your history professor
go?  Was he happy with your progress on your senior thesis?"

Predictably, Nat froze.  He couldn't believe that with all that was
happening, his action oriented partner could and would spare a thought
for Nat's always bumpy academic career.  As luck would have it,
however, Raymond Jennings took a great deal of pleasure in academic
pursuits, thought very highly of education in general, and had himself
been a Rhodes Scholar.  

As he watched Ray's expressive eyebrows begin to angle up in a
particularly devilish way, Nat furiously searched for something
acceptable to report.

"Ah, I didn't get to see him until 10 minutes before the class… but I
was able to tell him about the family engagement in Las Vegas, and we
agreed to meet the second week in November… I was able to tell him of
my plan to research my family history in the US and in Britain, and he
was fairly positive… but he said we couldn't really discuss it in 10
minutes…"  Nat was conscious of his partner's eyes boring into his as
he told his sad little tale, and he was conscious of … of… well,

Ray walked over to where Nat was standing.  He reached over and lifted
up the cheerful golden cushion.  He picked up the book and binder he
had watched Nat place there, read the titles, and handed them back to

"Why did you only have 10 minutes for the meeting, Nat?  Could it be
because you were a half an hour late?" Intrepid Nat jumped as his
partner thrust the book and binder at him. 

"Well… I …I may have been a few minutes late… but we weren't really

prepared to have an in depth kind of talk… I just thought…" Nat took
one step back.

"Apparently, Professor Reynolds was prepared. He called my cell when
you were late.  I think he thought he had your phone number.   I had
to tell him I didn't know where you were, but that I certainly thought
you intended to meet with him and attend his class.  That is correct,
isn't it, Nat?" 

Nat nodded as Ray held him with his intense gaze past the point of
reasonable comfort.    Finally, Ray looked away and shook his head. 
"Take your books and go wait for me in the corner of the study.  You
might as well take down your jeans and underwear.  I'll be up soon…"

"But Ray…"  His partner's forlorn voice and tearing eyes cut into
Ray's resolve. 

"Go on, Nat.  We have talked about all of this more than once.  You
asked me to watch this for you.  You know what you are supposed to do.
Now, GO!"  Nat went.

Ray paced in front of the fire trying for some calm.  Finally, he made
sure the doors were locked, checked that the fire was well contained, and last, turned out all but the security lights.  Sometimes it really
threw him:  most of the time Nat acted more adult and responsible than
Ray felt.  But then there were times when Nat was pure kid-- he seemed
to need to know that Ray saw him-- would be there to catch him if he
started to fall. 

Ray knew that sometimes Nat needed to stretch to the end of his
strength-- to hold nothing back-- as he had earlier today running full
out to make the ceremony-- or perhaps making a stunning, whirling,
impossible leap on stage.  And there was the problem of Las Vegas… Nat
needed to know that Ray would always be there to catch him, steady
him, lend him strength.  And Ray would.  He went up the stairs.

As soon as Ray reached the hallway, he could hear Nat through the

study door.  Nat's voice was a steady drone; he was making a small
chant to gather courage:

"I am Ignacio Michel Pacheco, the III.  I own my error and accept my
deeds.  I gather strength by trial…  I am Ignacio Michel Pacheco, the
III.  I own my error and accept my deeds.  I gather strength by trial…"  

Ray stopped in the study doorway to look at his partner.  For a
moment, a small smile of pride brightened his face.  Even waiting for
punishment, Ray thought Nat beautiful.  He was standing tall with his
hair tousled and his books held firmly chest high.  His white tee
ended at his clearly defined waist, just where the curve of his full
and alluring bottom began.  His legs were long, muscular, and
shapely-- dancer's legs.  His bare feet were long and slender, and his
ankles promised grace and strength.

Ray walked into the room, and Nat's chanting stopped.  Ray pulled out
the straight-backed chair that they used and put it front and center
in its usual place.  Ray sat down, then called, "OK, leave the books
on the desk and come here, Nat." 

Ray made himself look into Nat's searching eyes as he took Nat's right
hand in his rock steady left.  "You are getting this spanking because
you have not given proper weight to your school work, you wasted your
time with your professor, and you tried to lie and hide your

Ray pulled his young partner over his lap and rested his hard right
hand on his partner's bottom, making sure he was positioned correctly.
Nat was trying desperately not to sob, and his breathing was
beginning to come in big gasping hitches.  "Now, why are you being
spanked?"  Ray held his breath. Sometimes Nat acted up at this point. 

Nat tensed away from Ray's jean-covered lap.  Ray gentled him by
pushing down and making soothing circles on his back.

"I let my history work go, I wasted time for me and my professor, and

I tried to hide what I had done."  Nat's voice was soft and a bit
tremulous, but it was clear. 

"And?" Ray tried to keep his voice very neutral.

Nat's tense body sagged onto Ray's lap, held there by Ray's strong
arm.  "I will not let any of that happen again!"  Nat's voice was a
bit stronger as he made his promise. 

Ray waited, gathering his strength, then brought his large right hand
down hard on Nat's bottom.  As soon as he saw the blush begin in one
spot, he moved on, until every inch of Nat's bottom was fiery red.
Then he did two more rounds, as Nat finally gave way to heavy sobs.
Ray stopped; it was over.

Gently, Ray raised his young partner up, settling him so his sore
bottom rested as comfortably as possible between Ray's legs, and he
could lean against Ray's chest.  At first neither of the two men said
anything.  Ray just rubbed comforting circles on Nat's back until his
sobs began to taper off. 

Finally Ray raised Nat's chin and gave him a comforting little kiss
before saying, "All done?  All right, now…?"

And Nat nodded wearily and said, "Ye… Yes… I'm Ok, now…"

Ray stood them up, then gathered Nat up in his arms.  He carried him
down the hall to their bedroom and laid him down gently on his side of
their bed.  Quickly stripping off his own jeans, Ray laid down next to
Nat to cuddle him and make sure he was warm.  Said Ray into Nat's ear,
"Sleep now, little Imp.  I'll make sure we have time to pack in the
morning, and I'll make some reservations for us at Yosemite.  Just
rest… We have a big week ahead of us!" 

Nat sighed and nestled in and was soon asleep.  Ray got up to make
some phone calls and make sure his lists were in order.  He knew
tomorrow would be a busy day… 

In the end, Ray had decided to rent an SUV for the trip rather than

drive his new car that was so nimble and easy around town.  The little
blue Mini Cooper with the jaunty white racing stripe was better in
town than on a road trip. 

Ray did his packing early, and while Nat finished up, Ray went to get
the SUV from Hertz.  Nat already had his costumes and stage kit ready
to go, and it was a simple matter to fold the rest of what he would
need into the suitcase he was sharing with Ray.

As he closed and belted the bag, Nat couldn't help smiling.  He was
thinking of how loving and almost playful Ray had been this morning.
Checking to see if Nat was still hurting from last night, rubbing in
soothing cream just to be sure, then taking great joy in taking Nat to
the edge of pleasure and beyond as they soaped and showered together--
Ray had been wonderful.  They were wonderful together.  Nat knew their
trip might be dangerous and hard, but he was really looking forward to
spending some time alone with his partner…

By the time Ray returned with a sparkling white Tahoe, Nat had set out
fruit, juice, and toast for breakfast and had filled their large
thermos with coffee for the road.  Soon they were on their way:  they
crossed the Bay Bridge and drove through the hills beyond until they
hit the rich flatland of the San Joaquin Valley.  They listened to
country music and tried to make sense out of crazy call-in talk shows,
and Nat enjoyed Ray's amazement when they caught sight of their first
produce trucks loaded to the brim with red, shiny tomatoes. 

Just after noon, they left the Interstate to connect with the smaller
California Highway 120, which would take them right into the Sierra
Nevada foothills and Yosemite
They soon spotted a convenient roadside diner with attached farm produce stand and decided to pull in for lunch. They chose thick ham sandwiches on home baked bread washed down by farm pressed cider.  They couldn't resist a basket of strawberries, which Nat went to great trouble to rinse at a faucet in the yard under the watchful eye of the farm's pet pig.  And Ray just had to laugh at his partner nose to nose with a pig. 

"Hey, cut that out!" said Nat with a laugh.  "The lady said there's a
picnic place by the stream under those trees." Nat peered down the
path to one side of the fruit stand.  "Let's stretch our legs and
finish eating over there."

When Ray couldn't stop laughing about the pig, Nat went into a royal
snit and stomped ahead, but Ray bought homemade oatmeal cookies and
some "plum-cots" by way of apology.   They sat down on a little stone
bench overlooking the stream.

"I don't think I can remember ever having a "plum-cot" before," said
Ray reflectively.  Nat picked one up, rubbed it on his shirt, and took
a big, juicy bite, which he promptly shared with his partner by gently
transferring the fruit with a kiss.   Nat loved seeing the beatific
expression on Ray's face as he took his first taste. 

"Mmmmm," moaned Ray.  "You and plum-cots.  Heaven."  Ray reached for
Nat.  They were making good time.  They could afford a little rest
stop-- to feed each other plum-cots-- eat the strawberries…

Soon they were refreshed and on the road again, climbing out of the
farmlands and beginning to see lone pine trees and huge black oaks
giving way to pine thickets. The dark green of the trees was soon
reaching up the hill sides and showed an occasional burst of golden
color that was part of fall in the Sierra foothills.    It was getting
on toward 4 p.m., and Nat was anxiously watching for signs announcing
their arrival at a Yosemite National Park Gate.  "We are going to make
it, aren't we, Ray?  I mean get into the park before the gates close?"

Ray stole a glance at his partner.  He was so appealing when he was

--not ‘worried’-- but ‘concerned.’  "That's about the 10th time you've
asked that same question, Imp.  And the answer is still the same.  We
will get there before the park closes.  I have a wonderful room
reserved for us at the Ahwahnee.  And we should get there in plenty of
time to hike to one of the falls before dinner."  Ray looked at his
watch.  "In fact, we should be seeing signs for the park entrance just
about …"

"Hey, there it is!!  We made it…"  Nat busied himself with handing
over the fee for their car and took the information packet with
multiple use ticket and map from the park ranger.  "Well, that's a
relief," was Nat's heartfelt sigh as he settled back down.  They still
had to drive through the park to the lodge.  "At least now we don't
have to worry about getting into the park in time for dawn at Glacier

The tall pines began to crowd the road, but occasionally opened to
reveal slopes scoured to bedrock by the long ago passage of glaciers.
Open meadows were full of wildflowers and tumbled boulders.  They
twisted through a series of hairpin and "s" curves.  Suddenly they
found themselves in a rather long dark tunnel blasted through bedrock.
Just at the other end was the Tunnel View turnout, and Ray pulled in
so they could get their first look at Yosemite Valley

The sun was hitting the giant granite massifs of Half Dome and
Capitan, which towered sentinel over the valley, and it looked as
though the rugged peaks continued on forever, as far as Nat and Ray
could see.  Nat felt a bit intimidated, as a cadet might feel if
called before generals.  Ray sensed his need and drew him close
resting his chin on Nat's curly hair as they both looked on in silence. 

Finally Ray said, "I know I've been here before… I wish I could remember… but it is certainly a place of old power…"

"You feel it, too?"  Nat shivered and leaned into Ray's warm strength.
"I am so grateful to be here with you, Ray…"  And Ray held him closer still. 

Then he gave Nat a little shake and said, "Well, come on, Nat!  Time's
a wastin'!  Let's get to the Ahwahnee."

The roads were actually well-marked, and soon they were checking in at
the beautiful lodge built of natural stone and wood.  It had an
unexpected grandeur:  its reaching towers thrust towards the peaks
above with a clean and simple elegance.  The stone lobby soared with
massive, exposed beams gleaming in the many lights of the chandeliers.
Nat could see that the lobby opened into a vast lounge of heavy sofas
and cushions, with fires warming the giant stone hearths at each long
end of the impressive and comfortable room.  Native American Artwork
gave rich color and texture to every available wall.  Floor to ceiling
windows framed in stained glass captured natural light to warm the
room with elegance even in the waning hours of the afternoon.

Their room on the seventh floor was very well appointed.  It had a
kind of rustic baronial décor, and extra cushions were piled on the
queen-sized bed.  Their small balcony looked toward Half Dome and the
hotel gardens giving way to the surrounding meadows

"Well, Imp," said Ray, "I'd guess we have about an hour until full
dark.  Would you like to go out and explore a little, or are you up
for that?" 

Nat looked wistfully out the balcony windows towards Half Dome, then
shook his head decisively.  "Much as I would like to do that, I think
we should just have dinner and try to settle for an early night.
We'll need to be up very early to get to Glacier Point before sunrise.
Maybe the lodge ranger at the front desk would know how much time
it will take us to get there…"

"Yeah, that shouldn't be any problem.  We can go down now and find

out."  Ray started to gather up the room key.  Then he noticed Nat was
looking pensive, ‘concerned’ again.  "What's worrying you, Nat?  You
know, whatever is coming, we will deal with it… together.  Right?"
Ray held out his arms.  Nat moved into them, almost without thinking…

"It's not that, Ray," he said looking up earnestly.  "I'm just
wondering how we will get anything for breakfast if we have to leave
the hotel before Dawn…"   

Ray laughed and gave Nat a hug.  "If breakfast is all you're worried
about, then I think we can stand up to anything."  He chuckled again
and kissed the top of Nat's head.  "I don't think it would be a good
idea to eat before sunrise… but maybe after we're finished with
whatever it is, we can come back here for breakfast before we go on to
Las Vegas.  After all, it's included in our room rate!  Now, let's go
see how early we have to rise to beat the sun and if we can find some

After getting squared away on directions and timing, Ray and Nat
enjoyed a simple but elegant meal in the Ahwahnee Dining Room with its
own complement of floor to ceiling windows and high ceilings.   A
smooth but fiery Gazpacho was followed a succulent steak smothered in
a mélange of forest mushrooms and served will dilled green beans.
After, they were tempted into sampling the chef's very traditional
crème brulee and found it both delicious and comforting.  Since they
had asked for a 4 a.m. wake-up call, both men decided against coffee.

As they returned to their room, Ray kept checking for signs of unease
in his young partner.  Nat was quiet, but he seemed very calm.  Too
calm?  Finally Ray just asked him, "Nat, are you worried about
tomorrow?  What do you think will happen at Glacier Point? Is there
anything we should be doing…"

"Doing?  You mean to prepare?" Nat turned to his partner after

carefully closing and bolting the door.  Seeing Ray so serious sparked
an impish smile on Nat's handsome face.  "No, I don't think so," he
almost purred as he drew his partner to him, "but we can help each
other to relax and enjoy this early evening…"


By 4:15 a.m. Ray and Nat were heading down the valley toward the turn
off for Glacier Point.  Faint starlight helped them to see the turns
despite the almost impenetrable dark of the shadows cast by tall
conifers, the occasional spreading black oak, and the towering stone.
Ray was intent on the road, and Nat was fairly thrumming with tension. 

Finally they turned onto Glacier Point Road, which climbs 3000 feet in
16 miles to end at Glacier Point.  As they climbed, the trees thinned
somewhat, and Ray and Nat were able to see more of the starry sky.  At
last they came to a turnout for cars with a sign saying "Glacier Point
Car Park."  Quickly, Ray parked, and they both got out.  Nat started
walking for the stone-walled edge and a path leading up to the

The sky was beginning to lighten as they crunched up the trail
together, Nat slightly ahead of Ray.  They seemed to be the only
people on earth… in a place out of time where people had never been… A
short stone wall encircled the cleared space of the viewpoint, with
sheer drops to the valley floor on three sides.   Nat stood near the
middle looking out toward the dropoff, turning to pan blindly from one
side to the other.  Ray stood behind him feeling him tremble.

As the predawn began to overtake the stars, only the faint sound of
wind in the pines could be heard.  "Ray," whispered Nat.  "It's
coming-- I can feel it coming!"  He stepped forward, closer to the
stone edge.  Ray moved with him… put his hands on Nat's waist,
anchoring him, holding him.

Then with a burst of firey light, the march of stupendous domes and
cliffs and distant wilderness peaks were ablaze with the redgold of
alpenglow and seemed to turn with a cacophony of color and light
toward where Nat stood.  The sky got impossibly brighter.  He raised
his arms and faced up to the light…

It seemed to Ray that Nat was ready to float away as the light
reflecting from the massive rock formations came pouring down to them.
There was the blood red of ancient battles and burning burials and
the bright promise of rebirth.  There were comrades greeting comrades…
and they were glad of Ray.  There was ancient knowledge and ancient
strength, gone deep and tired into the stone.  It was offered up… with
cymbals of light, new… to… Nat… as to Alexander…and Eric… and Arthur…
and more.

Against the sound of so much clashing color, Nat's voice could be
heard rising clear and strong in the early morning light:  "I hear, O
my fathers, O my brothers.  Clothed in your light, will I fight.  The
gold of your trying makes my shield.  Strong with your triumph,  I
hear, O my mothers, O my sisters.  I will bear the light for your sake…"

Finally, as the sun rose higher, the alpenglow began to fade, and Ray
became aware that Nat was almost a dead weight in his arms.  Suddenly
fearful, Ray sank to the ground, cushioning Nat's body with his own.
He reached to turn Nat toward him and was rewarded with a tremulous
smile despite the tear tracks on the beloved face.  "Nat, are you all
right?" Ray asked urgently.  "That was … I don't know what that was…!"

Nat gave a shaky little laugh.  "Well, I think we just got… marching
orders… and maybe a few gifts."  He looked up at Ray from under
impossibly long lashes and seemed suddenly shy…  "Ray, did you
understand what they were telling us?  It's hard to believe I'm not
dreaming… You heard… about Arthur and Alexander… And I felt you

holding me, keeping me safe…  I know I would not have been able to do
this without you…"  Nat's eyes were tearing up again.

Ray gave his young partner a kiss and a little shake.  "Yes, Imp, yes.
You will be able to do exactly what you need to do, and I plan to be
right there with you…"  Ray looked at his watch, then back at Nat.
"Well, we need to move if we are going to get back to the hotel for
breakfast.  It's almost 6:30 a.m. and they will be opening the dining

That was all it took for Nat to feel suddenly ravenous.  He struggled
to stand, then pulled Ray up as well.  They leaned together for a
moment taking one last look out at the stupendous vista stretching
before them:  forests and meadows, cliffs and lofty domes, and a
perfect wilderness of distant mountains and valleys.  "I'm hungry, and
I want to go.  But, Oh, Ray!  I hope I never forget…" 

Ray put his arms around Nat and drew him close.  "I have a very strong
feeling we will be back here many times.  And I'm certain we won't
forget…  Now, come on, let's go.  I want us to be on the road for Las
by 10 at the latest!"



"OK, OK!  Here it is-- at exactly 9:20 a.m., mind you-- the turnoff
for California 120, the Tioga Pass Road!"  Nat was not above crowing
when he felt relaxed, full, and in the right.  "See, I told you we'd
make it out of Yosemite Valley before 10!"  He strained his seat belt
with another happy bounce and threw a side-long triumphant look at his

Ray had to laugh.  "Yeah, the way you were tucking into that second
helping of pancakes I thought we'd never get away from that breakfast

"Well, you didn't do half bad on those eggs and that gigantic piece of
ham, yourself!" was Nat's intelligent comeback. 

As soon as they made the turn to head for the Tioga Pass, the road
started to climb.  Soon they were in an area of fragile meadows, rock
domes glittering with mica, lofty peaks, and alpine lakes sparkling
like the glacial ice that covered them only 10,000 years ago.  Just as
they came to Tuoloumne Meadows at 8,600 feet, they had to slow for an
unconcerned family of deer crossing the road.  There were wildflowers

After getting gas one last time, they continued climbing through every
turn of the road, watching the tall stands of pines give way to piney
thickets and the occasional drifting gold of trees dropping the golden
leaves of fall.  Ray stopped twice so he and Nat could admire the

rippling landscape with the Nevada desert and Death Valley stretching
before them and Sierra Mountains cresting all around them.  Finally
they saw the summit sign:  "9,945 Feet"!  They started down.  

At first there were trees, wildflowers, and thickets:  juniper and
mountain mahogany; pinyon, limber, and bristle-cone pine.  As the road
descended, it got dryer, and the green and gold of plant life gave way
to the mottled grey of sandy rock, then the ashy black boulders left
by volcanic activity. 

They got out at the last turnout, called Dante's View, before the
final descent into Death Valley.  All they could do was stare in
amazement at the desolate landscape of sinuous dunes, rugged canyons,
and cracked dry river and lake beds 280 feet below sea level.  It
seemed as though all the color had been leached and blasted from the
notorious badlands.  Ray began to move his head from side to side
saying "No, no, no" over and over again.

Nat reached up and pulled himself into Ray's arms, kissing his neck
when Ray rested his head on the younger man's shoulder.  "Ray, Ray,"
whispered Nat.  "What's wrong?  What is it?...  Shhh, sweetheart, I'm
here…"  Nat did his best to support and comfort his tall partner.

Finally Ray pulled back, but left his hands on Nat's shoulders.  "Nat,
it seems crazy, but I… I remember this place… I know I've been here
before… there was a battle…"

"Oh, Ray!  When?  When were you here?  What battle was it?"  Nat was
frantically trying to remember his history.  Maybe it was something
left over from the early frontier days with the Indians…

"I don't know when, exactly… I just remember this beautiful green
valley, full of farms and people…"  Ray was having trouble controlling
his voice. 

"But Ray, I don't think there has ever been any kind of real farming

done in Death Valley.  Some people came here for mining, but very few…
Are you sure you remember?"  Nat was still trying to comfort the
obviously distressed Ray by gently rubbing circles up and down his arms.

"Yes, I'm certain, Nat.  We fought here for days-- until the battle was
over, and there were no farms or people left-- there was burning, and
smoke-- and then came the sound of explosions.  Missiles-- rocks from
the sky blasted and burned everything to bedrock.  All …all that was
left was death and hell on earth…  I swore that I would never let that
happen again…. You believe me, don't you?"  Ray was looking almost
desperately into the younger man's clear gray eyes, searching to see
if he could understand.

"Yes, Ray. I believe you…  I hope you never have to go through such a
terrible defeat again…"

Ray cut him off with a terrible look of pain in his eyes.  "But Nat, I
didn't lose.  I won-- my forces won-- and I have spent ages fighting, in every conceivable way, trying to give that victory back!  But here
Death Valley remains-- as some kind of twisted monument to all that
destruction and pain-- senseless war--  I hate it so much--"  Ray angrily dashed the tears from his eyes, then pulled Nat close.

Nat put his arms around Ray.  Earnestly he said, "This is all
terrible, Ray.  But you are no longer that person from so long ago.
Today we are partners.  You help me keep track of my work, my studies,
and my chores; you make a home with me; and you stood with me in the
light.  Ray, you were *recognized*. And I think if this morning is
anything to go by, we will have a lot to do in the world, and I want
to do it… with you."  Nat suddenly pulled away and bent to make sure…

"Look, Ray, you are wrong about there being no life in this valley.
Here are some little wildflowers, and I'm sure that if there are some

here, there are more.  Now come on!  We still have to get to Las Vegas
so we can meet the rest of the family.  It should only be another
couple of hours." 

Ray looked from Nat to the little flowers and out to the beautiful and
terrible desolation of the valley.  Nat was right… they could work
together, maybe keep this world and its people safe…. And Nat needed
him to be strong and sure, to ‘guard his back.’ "OK, Imp," he said.
"Let's get going."

Nat hesitated as they headed back to the white SUV.   Then he asked,
"Would you like me to take a turn driving, Ray?"

Ray looked at him with his eyebrows beginning to angle up.  "Nat, you
know perfectly well that I do the driving in this partnership.  Now
hurry up and get in.  We have a few little towns, more like bend-in
the road trading posts, before we get to Pahrump in Nevada.  Then
we'll be less than two hours from Las Vegas… we should be there by
late afternoon."

Nat hurried to get in and buckle up.  He shot a little sideways grin
at his partner's profile.  It seemed he had really helped:  his Ray
was once again in charge!

They left Death Valley and got to Pahrump in due course and decided to
stop to stretch and rest and grab a quick bite at the little café next
to a gas station.  Pahrump was a rambunctious little desert town with
sprawling ‘developments’ of mobile home and cinder block mansions
built around the brilliant green of golf courses.  It boasted a park,
a two-story bank, several casinos, and its own winery, not to mention
traffic lights, supermarkets, and shopping centers. 

Ray and Nat heard in the café that the town owes its existence to a
mysterious gold find that went missing after samples were assayed.
When the miner couldn't find his strike site again, people stayed in
Pahrump to search every inch of ground, but without finding it.  After

the desolation of Death Valley, it was a revelation to see the teeming
life the folk of Pahrump were digging into the desert.

They were soon on the road again, leaving the last of the town quickly
behind them, Nevada Highway 160 speeding them on to merge with
Interstate 15 for the last miles into Las Vegas.  It had taken longer than Ray had hoped. The last of the afternoon sun was fading fast into full dusk.  Nat was checking the map with the highway signs and was soon able to direct Ray to take the Las Vegas Boulevard turnoff to the north.  That would lead to the famous or infamous Strip, where all the big hotels were located, including the Mandalay Bay.

Lights were coming on all over the city.  Suddenly, a veritable
rainbow of lights seemed to flood the Strip.  It looked as though
every holiday and every joyous occasion and celebration had been
immortalized and was sparkling gem-like in neon.  And there were
floods of people, all kinds of people, all intent on flowing with the
rainbows and traffic lights to good times.  Soon Nat and Ray were
shouting out the famous names to each other, laughing and marveling
over each new discovery.

"Look, there's Treasure Island!" sang Nat.  "I can't believe there are
actually two pirate ships out front!  And there's Circus, Circus, and
Harrah's and the Venetian.  And look at the Fashion Show Mall-- it
looks like a space ship ready to take off for the future!  Look, Ray!"

"I'm looking!  And there's the Mirage and Ceasar's Palace-- it looks
just like it came out of time from `the glory that was Rome'!"  Ray
watched the early crowds hurrying along Las Vegas Boulevard dressed in
everything from tee shirts and flip-flops to silks, sequins, and
spiked-heeled sandals.  He found it hard to believe the life, the
colorful noise, of the place.

Nat was chanting names almost as a kind of roll call of glitz and
glamour.  "Imperial Palace, Flamingo, Barbary Coast, Bourbon Street,
Bally's!  And look, Ray!  There's `Paris' with it's Eiffel Tower, Arch
de Triomph, and Opera-- I read there was shopping inside that looks
like a Parisian street!"

"Yeah, well look at the beautiful Bellagio:  it's supposed to be built
as a Venetian Palace.  See all the water in front?  That’s actually a
fountain with a dancing water and light show.   We can check it out
when it's actually dancing later."  Ray thought there would be time to
sightsee all the special places, at least he hoped so.  He was a
little surprised at how excited he was by all the color and life on
the Strip.

"Hey, Ray!  There's Aladdin-- it looks like something out of the
Arabian Nights, and there's the Empire State Building and New York,
New York
!  And check out the lion at the MGM Grand!  And Excalibur is

Camelot!  And that must be Luxor-- it looks like it's an Egyptian
pyramid built of obsidian!"  Nat felt like a kid on his first trip to
Disneyland, but these places were built for adults!  To let them play
and gamble-- maybe to trick people, make them want to do something
they really couldn't or shouldn't afford…

"Ahuh, there's our Mandalay Bay-- I just have to turn onto this entry
street, I think."  Ray was trying to maneuver the Tahoe towards the
main door and check-in.  The golden hotel rose simple and elegant to
tower as a graceful golden crescent over the jumbled jewel tones of
the kaleidoscopic Strip

"Wow!  The street is named `Road to Mandalay'!  How funny is that?"
Nat was really enjoying all the luxurious detail of the place.  "Do
you think we'll be able to find Auntie Mir, Carlos, and the others
fairly easily?"

"If we don't, I'm sure we can leave word for them." Ray was all

business as he handed bags over to the Bell Captain.  Then he shared a
delighted smile with Nat as they pushed through the shining brass of the big revolving door together. 


Inside they found all the tropical enchantment of the fabled Orient of
Kipling and the British Empire with ceiling fans, sandalwood, and
brass.  Palm trees were everywhere, and tropical flowers, including
every color of orchid, adorned the fountains.  Beautiful porcelains,
exotic sculpture, marble floors, and many pieces of oriental art added
depth and beauty to the décor.  All the mystery and allure of faraway
journeys was laid at their feet, and they loved it! 

Check-in was effortless, and they learned their suite was on the 20th
floor near the rest of their family.  In the elevator, Nat looked at
Ray with devilment in his eyes as he said archly, "Well, check-in was
a tropical breeze…what's next?"

They had the elevator to themselves.  Ray laughed and grabbed his
young partner for a quick kiss as the floor numbers climbed.  Luckily,
they came up for air just as the doors slid open at 20.  They
were looking for 2018 and arrived just in time to go in with the
bellhop delivering their luggage.

Their suite was spacious and luxurious with king-sized bed, sandalwood
fittings and furniture, rich brocades, beautiful oriental artwork,
and a marble bath.  A rather large fruit basket was waiting for them
on the low table in front of the sofa.  Nat loved how the sitting area
flowed toward the huge picture window all along one side of the room.

"Look, Ray, we have a wonderful view of the Strip, and we can see
some of the airport.  I love to watch planes take off and land,
especially at night."

Ray had to laugh. 
His ‘mature’ and ‘responsible’ Nat had a boyish streak running straight through him.  Then again, so did Ray!  "You're right," he
said as he moved to stand beside his partner, "this is wonderful!  But
maybe we should try to find the others, see if there are any messages
for us.  Do you think you will have to do anything at the theater

Nat snuggled into Ray's side as he said, "I don't think we have any
stage time until tomorrow when they’ll want to check sound and
costumes and light, but I think it's a good idea to get in touch with
the others.  Maybe we can all eat dinner togeth…"

Suddenly, a huge flaming flash lit up the night sky from the direction
of the airport, followed by a popping boom, then another, smaller
flash!  Nat and Ray could feel the floor sway slightly beneath their
feet.  Though the bright lights of the Strip continued to sparkle and
gleam in the night, there was now no light from or near the airport.
In fact, the night seemed even blacker there due to what appeared
to be a thick cloud of smoke and dust. 

"What was that?"  Nat clutched at Ray, not quite believing what he had
just seen. 

Ray's voice was grim.  "I'm not sure.  It was either a bomb or maybe a
meteor strike.  We need to find out, and we need to get down out of
this tower in case there is another strike.  Come on, let's go…"  Ray
all but shoved Nat towards the door of their suite. 

"OK, Ray, I'm hurrying."  In the hallway they found other guests being
shepherded to the elevators by the floor manager.  In the elevator,
Nat caught his breath and said, "We need to get outside, Ray.  There
may be something we can do.  This is just like the first part of my vision
in San Francisco when I saw that we shouldn't fly here
today… Oh, we would have been at the airport-- Ray, I hope nothing
important was hit!  Oh--"

Ray could see that his young partner was beginning to get all worked
up and emotional just from speculating about what happened.  "Now,
Nat!  Don't you go and borrow trouble until we know what has actually

Safely back on the ground floor, they looked for an exit on the
airport side of the hotel.  They stopped to listen to the concierge
tell a small group of guests that a small meteor had come through the
atmosphere in several pieces to take out the electrical generator for the airport.  No more were expected, but they were asking guests to stay on the ground floor until the all-clear came from Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

Nat and Ray looked at each other and hurried outside into what
appeared to be a tropical retreat where guests could rest and smell
the flowers, float down the lazy river, or bodysurf waves reaching as
high as six feet.  A little closer to the silver ribbon of water, Nat
was glad to spot Auntie Mir and Carlos and the girls, Anita, Consuela,
and Michela.   "Hey, Carlos!  Auntie Mir!  We've found you…"  Nat
rushed to hug Miranda and the others.  "Did you see it?  Did you see
what happened?" 

Ray hugged Carlos and Miranda, then the girls.  "We were just checking
in to our room," he offered.  "We saw everything go dark and heard the
`boom' from there.  What happened to you?"

"We were all walking around looking at all the facilities here
including in the theater.  We just happened to be outside when it came
roaring down," answered Anita. 

Nat looked at Auntie Mir.  "Can you see?  Will there be more?  Is
there anything we can do?"

She started to nod, but Ray answered.  "Another is coming, and soon.

Make a touching circle, quickly.  We just might be able to keep it
from harming anyone…"

They jumped into place, hands touching each other's shoulders, looking
in at each other-- they all knew each other, they shared blood, they
shared love.  "Nat," said Ray carefully, "I think you have to be the
spearhead on this…"

"Anything you say, Ray.  Just tell me what to do…" There was a little
fright in Nat's determination.

"Everyone look up.  Try to feel where the air is in motion, where the
meteor mass is coming from…Got it?"

The answering ‘yes’ chorus made everyone relax a little.  "Now,
Nat, try to feel the shape, the size, the weight, the heat of it-- think of it getting hotter and hotter…think of it bursting to crumble like ash-- then being taken by the wind--" Ray's voice was measured, sure, and experienced.  He was calm; he was in control.  As Nat listened to his partner, he visualized what his perception sought.  He felt the power of their circle build and weave around him as he strained to follow Ray's lead.  Nat's body hardened with the tensile strength of a great bow pulled almost to the breaking point.  The
others could feel him tremble in their circle.

Suddenly his body sagged and would have fallen if it were not for the
others holding him upright.  Ray caught him and held him close,
murmuring encouragement and approval into his beloved ear.  The others relaxed as a small bit of flaky ash drifted by on a sudden breeze toward the desert.

"Did we do it?" Carlos' eyes were big with questions.  Auntie Mir
laughed and said, "Well we did it for this time.  We probably won't
see any more of that for another 100 years… We did well, and we
were lucky to have Ray and Nat with us.  And now I think we should
all go find dinner."

"That sounds good," said Nat, who, thanks to Ray, was beginning to
feel less like a jellyfish and more as if he could stand on his own.
"Will we be performing early or late tomorrow?"

Carlos could answer that.  "Neither!  They want the show to be a
surprise for Halloween, so we'll get some practice time if we want,
but they want to save the real performance for the holiday."   They
made plans to meet at the theater for a run through rehearsal at two
p.m. to check lights, sound, costumes, and choreography. 

When they came back into the hotel, they all drifted to the Casino,
where the noise level and flashing lights were amazing, almost
rivaling the Strip itself.  It was loud, but Nat didn't find the
sounds totally unpleasant.  At first he didn't pay much attention to
his funny mixed reaction:  the place felt evil/good, dangerous/safe,
sad/happy, cruel/kind, ugly/beautiful, cacophonous/musical.  Then, it
began to niggle at him, preventing him from relaxing-- like a gnat
flying around near your head keeps you wide awake. Finally he turned
to Ray to see if he noticed anything.

"Ray, I keep getting these funny feelings in here-- I know we've been
through a lot today, and I am probably jumpy, but do you notice
anything-- well, wrong-- in here?"  Nat felt a little foolish and
wondered if he was just having a kind of ‘drama queen’ moment.

Ray and Miranda exchanged looks brimming with amusement.  He nodded
for her to explain.  "If you are feeling that this place has evil
forces at work, you are correct.  But there are good forces in motion
as well, and they just about serve to cancel each other out!"

Ray jumped in.  "For some reason, evil has always found it easy to
attack in this part of the world.  You saw the desert and Death
.  You just dealt with `fire' from the sky!  And people can be

tempted into such evil that whatever they do will result in destruction."

"Well, what can we do about it?  Isn't there any way to help people
avoid these horrible temptations?"  Nat was predictably ready to rush
to battle. 

Ray reached over and pulled him into a calming hug.  "Yeah, Imp, there
is, and it has already been done."  Both he and Miranda looked a bit
smug.  "It was discovered that sparkling lights, pretty patterns, and
cheerful noise would pretty much flatten any wraiths of the dark
leaving the various playing fields pretty level."

"Oh, you both think you are so smart, don't you?" Nat was amused but
still a bit worried.  "What about people such as that woman, then?
What about her?"  An older woman in a loud Las Vegas Tee shirt and
Havana pants was sitting at a dollar slot with tears rolling down her
cheeks.  It appeared that she had lost everything--

Ray grinned, walked over and handed her another silver dollar.  "Play
this, sweetheart," he said and stood behind her while she did.  As ‘luck’ would have it, lights blinked and bells dinged for her Jackpot
of $3,000.

Nat was laughing when Ray strolled back to him and Miranda.  "But
you're not here all the time," Nat protested. 

"No," replied Miranda, "but someone is!"  At that, Nat could tell that
the little frisson of unease he felt in the Casino just seemed to fall
away.  In  fact, in some ways this seemed to match his earlier seeing
about rainbows and sound pushing at the dark…


In the end, after a relaxing dinner at the China Grill, a gourmet
Chinese restaurant on the mezzanine level, Ray and Nat decided to opt
for an early night.  They loved helping each other experience the
amenities of their room including sharing the Jacuzzi, thoroughly
enjoyed finding chocolates on their pillows, and ‘christening’ their
big comfortable bed.  They fell asleep in a very comforting tangle of
arms and legs with Ray holding Nat as close as possible.

The next day the papers were full of the near miss of the meteor
showers which only seemed to hit the airport power center.  There were
many questions about the larger meteor that was being tracked to Las
Vega, but which apparently disintegrated in the atmosphere.  After
what they had done yesterday, Ray and Nat were a bit subdued at
breakfast until they realized they could do anything Las Vegas had to
offer until rehearsal at 2 pm. 

Deciding to be tourists, they visited Paris and New York, took in the
car museum at Harrah's, and went to the Bellagio to see the impressionists, have a quick lunch, and go shopping along the elegant and trendy Via Bellagio.  Tired, but relaxed and happy, they arrived at the theater just in time to hear Miranda say, "I wonder where Ray and…"

And Nat yelled out, "Here we are!"  Ray sat in the front row as the
dancers walked around the stage striking poses and trying bits of
steps.  When the technician  arrived to work on light cues for the act,
Ray took a stroll onstage to see how it felt to face lights and
audience.  He heard Carlos, Miranda, and Nat trying to decide if
"Miranda the Seeress" should appear in performance. 

"I think she should definitely tell some fortunes. It's part of the
act, and people like to see the magic happen.  I think you should have
audience participation in the Paso Doble, too, just as you do at Club
Gypsy Cavern in San Francisco.  People like to be part of the action,
and they like to play new parts on Halloween."  Ray had a plan, or
rather, Zorro did…

Miranda and Carlos agreed that Carlos would announce the act, the
girls would dance a set, Miranda would tell three fortunes, the girls
would dance another short set, Nat would solo with star billing using
his whip, then all the dancers would go after people in the audience
to dance in the finale Paso Doble.  After setting the act, they
checked the music and mike sync, then rehearsal was over. 

Ray surprised everyone with tickets to see "Mama Mia," the Abba
musical that would be playing in the theater at 7:30 tonight.   They
all agreed to meet at the Trattoria Del Lupo for pizza before the
show.  Then they all scattered, thrilled to have more personal time.
Ray and Nat decided to relax and possibly nap in their beautiful
suite-- unless more interesting activities occurred to them-- and of
course, more interesting activities did.

"Mama Mia" pleased everyone with its humorous storyline, vigorous
dancing, impressive costumes, innovative set, and the great old Abba
songs with their timeless themes and hair-raising close harmonies.  By
the end of the evening, however, everyone was very tired and beginning
to feel jittery about tomorrow night.

Nat wanted to go once more around the Casino with Ray to see if there
were any cases where they might have to ‘step in’ to make sure the
balance held.  They spotted one young man in trouble at the ‘21’ table. 

"Look, Ray, you can see how terrible he feels, but he just keeps
digging into his pocket for more money.  Why does he do it?"  Nat felt
sorry for him and indignant with him all at the same time-- then he had
to laugh-- the balancing was working on him too!

"Some people are just more susceptible…we can help him if we reset the
cards in the dealing machine.  Help me focus…"  Nat brought his arm
around Ray's waist, then felt himself go instantly hard as he felt
Ray's cock stir.  Ray grinned devilishly and gestured up with his
eyes.  It was all Nat could do to help turn the cards… Soon the young
man had a pile of chips he was willing to cash out.  And Nat was more
than ready to go upstairs….

The next day, Ray surprised Nat with a room service breakfast complete
with strawberries and champagne.  At 11 a.m., they continued the
surprise by going down to the Spa for a tandem work out, massage, and
hair styling for both men.  Ray declared, "I want this to be Nat
Pacheco Day, and I want you to feel special and very relaxed for the
performance tonight… Because you are special… very special to me..." 

Nat was delighted, and he was able to show Ray many times during the
day how much he appreciated his partner's thoughtfulness.  Finally, it
was time to dress for the show.  They had watched the Mandalay Bay ‘dress’ for Halloween all day, and they knew people were looking
forward to the special Halloween show the family would be part of

Ray had kept his promise and brought his Zorro outfit:  skin tight
leather pants worn commando, black silk shirt open at the collar,
short black leather grandee jacket with red silk peeking from the
pocket, back supple boots, and the distinctive Zorro mask and hat.
When he was dressed, he belted on his wicked looking rapier and draped
his red-lined black cape from one shoulder.  He struck a pose in front
of the full-length mirror as if daring Nat to speak. 

Nat felt like swooning!  Ray looked so hot and downright dangerous!
"Well?" Zorro commanded comment.

Nat went to him, threw himself in the beloved arms, and kissed him
passionately, loving even the feel of the mask against his
face.  Then he said, "Ray, I love you so much.  Being with you, doing
everything we do together, feeling how we are together, knowing how
much you care for me-- for me that is all that is best in life-- Thank
you, thank you for being my partner…"

With a suspicious gruffness in his voice, Ray replied, "You know that
I love you, too, Nat.  I knew from the first moment I saw you that you
were special and my only hope for a life of happiness."  Ray pressed
Nat closer still, then, regretfully, released him.  "You better finish
getting dressed-- Auntie Mir will kill us if you are late!" 

So Ignacio Michel Pacheco, III donned the high heeled boots and
costume of a Flamenco dancer, the black form fitting suit contrasting
vividly with the blood red silk of his shirt.  With a graceful gesture
he shook out the cuff of each wide silk sleeve, loving the feel of the
flowing sweep of his arms as he moved them experimentally as if for
the Paso Doble.  Taking up his mask, his hat, and his whip, he bowed
to Ray and said, "Shall we go?" 

The tall Zorro and the slim dancer drew all eyes as they made their
way across the hotel to the theater.  Nat went in the backstage
entrance, and Ray went through the main foyer to his designated front
row seat. 

Backstage, Nat and the girls warmed up with a series of stamps,
stretches, and rhythmic tapping patterns.  Nat snapped his whip to get
a good feel for its length.  Finally, Carlos, Miranda, and the
musicians joined them, and it was their turn.  In fact, theirs was the
last act, the finale to the show.  

With a flourish of guitars and clapping, they took the stage.  The
girls flourished their ruffled skirts and fringed shawls tied in a
dancer's knot.  Carlos announced the girls, then began singing the
haunting refrain of their song, which was soon followed by a solo turn
each.  Then Auntie Mir astounded the audience by her mysterious
ability to *see* for anyone crossing her palm with silver in the
time-honored tradition.  Finally, Nat heard Carlos announcing him.  
"Ladies and Gentlemen, Goblins and Ghosts, the Family Pacheco is proud
to present our finest dancer--El Gaucho!"

The spotlight caught him flying in mid-leap, and the audience gasped
through the first whirling intricacies of his solo.  Then his whip
flickered to life in cracking counterpoint to the blurring beat of his
feet.  The whip was a ribbon of light as it moved with him through a
series of spectacular leaps.  Releasing the whip to skitter across the
stage and spinning his hat off into the audience, Nat showed his proud and firey spirit with an elegance and precision that made the most of
his costume and his own slender form.  He gestured for silence.  The
only sounds that could be heard were the intricate rhythms his
blurring boots pounded into the boards of the stage.   Then with an
explosive crescendo from the big gypsy guitars, he made one final leap
into a classic pose.  The audience applause thundered long and hard
and was punctuated by cries of "Bravo" and "Magnifico"! 

Nat bowed, then gestured for the others to join him for another bow.
Carlos stepped to the microphone again.  "Now, all you Ghosts and
Goblins, please join us for the final Paso Doble…"  They all went out
into the audience to encourage others to join them, but Nat found his
way blocked--by a tall and mysterious Zorro, who gentled the young
dancer's half-hearted resistance with his intense gaze and an
imperious swirl of his red-lined cape.

His was the matador's commanding dance, with masterful, mesmerizing
steps that celebrated life and love despite death.  The two handsome
men moved perfectly together, illuminated in a glowing circle of light that warmed all it touched.  The audience could not take their eyes off of them and were moved to clap with and for the complicated rhythms of their steps.  As the music finished with a romantic flourish, Ray's strong arms caught Nat's slender form and dipped him down, like the first time, almost to the floor, only to end their dance with a kiss of commitment, passion, and love, which both men knew to be stronger than anything.  Love is sharing life, love is stronger…

Carlos took the microphone one last time.  "Thanks for coming,
everyone.  HAPPY HALLOWEEN!"