“What?” Joseph stared in shock, glancing between the two Zales until reality clicked into place. He had been tricked in the most awful way, and he was too stunned at first to react.
“Lance,” Zale, the real Zale, snarled furiously, and the entire building shook with his fury.
“You fucking bastard!” Joseph’s anger matched Zale’s and he finally knew just what to do. He reared back and socked Lance right in his mouth.
The blow made his face flicker, and Zale’s false face turned back into Lance’s true visage. He pouted, complaining, “Hey! We were just having fun!”
“Fun? This was your idea of fun?” Joseph growled, shoving at the god as hard as he could. “You’ve ruined everything, you son of a bitch!” His eyes turned to Zale as he pleaded, “Listen, please. I had no idea it was him! I thought it was you—”
“Not now,” Zale cut in coldly, snatching Lance up by the back of his neck. The building was still vibrating from his rage, and he dragged Lance off the bed like a rag doll.
“Brother, I’m sort of getting the impression that you’re mad at me!” Lance protested innocently.
“Shut up!” Zale barked.
Joseph pulled the covers around himself. “Please, Zale!” he cried out, still trying to explain. “I didn’t know! I wouldn’t have ever—”
“Silence!” Zale bellowed, the whole room shaking violently. “I’ll talk to you when I’m done with him!”
Joseph cowered, watching in horror as Zale disappeared with Lance. The last thing he saw was Zale’s hands wrapping around Lance’s neck, and his heart sank down into his gut.
This was it.
This was the end.
He’d told the wrong Zale that he was falling in love with him and he didn’t know how to fix this. He was torn between anger and regret, and he was mad most of all at himself for not having realized sooner that it wasn’t the real Zale.
Joseph wished he could run away, and he looked miserably at the door. He had no idea where it would lead, but he couldn’t stand being in this bed another second.
It felt soiled.
He got up to find clothes and get dressed. He headed to the door and then pulled it open, bracing himself for a crowd of screaming souls.
What Joseph found instead was an empty cavern, and he hesitated to leave.
He looked back at the suite and decided that a quick walk was exactly what he needed. He had to clear his head and he had no idea how long Zale would be gone.
Or what kind of mood he would be in.
Joseph shuddered as he recalled Zale’s rage, walking into the cavern with his head down. He didn’t know what would be involved with Zale’s talk upon his return, but he was fairly certain that he wasn’t going to like it.
Joseph berated himself again for not realizing Lance was an imposter sooner, and he couldn’t blame Zale for being upset.
He just wished he’d had a chance to explain.
Joseph vaguely noticed the door shutting behind him and disappearing, leaving him trapped in the dank caves. He was too upset to care. He thought this area looked familiar, and he found a large sea of glowing orbs floating above his head.
Heavens, he thought, looking over them in awe.
He wondered which one was Sally’s, the little girl he had met before, and he was tempted to try and visit her. He had no way of knowing which orb would lead to her, ultimately deciding it wasn’t worth the risk.
Joseph couldn’t be sure that he would be able to travel into those little worlds.
Ugh, or even if he could get back.
Not without Zale, he thought sadly. He couldn’t do anything without Zale. He was so damn helpless here.
Some great queen of the Underworld he was.
No, prince consort.
It didn’t matter now, did it?
As Joseph walked along, he stumbled across statues of men and women. They seemed to be coming out of the walls and the floor, all of them carved in strange positions. Some were curled up on their sides, others were holding their heads as if weeping, and a few were positioned as if they had simply collapsed.
They were eerily beautiful in spite of their sad expressions, and Joseph stopped to examine them more closely. The statues looked so lifelike, and the amount of detail was absolutely haunting.
Joseph couldn’t explain the sadness that was suddenly coming over him, and he dropped to his knees and held his face in his hands. He looked just like the forlorn statues as he cried softly to himself. He really had ruined everything, hadn’t he?
He loved Zale so much and none of this was fair.
Why couldn’t Lance have shown up as a goose or a bull, some sort of creature Joseph would have been able to refuse? A shower of gold? Something, anything other than the face of the man he loved.
Joseph didn’t think Zale was going to forgive him, and he sobbed harder. He would have to return home to his boring and lonely life without ever getting to experience the love he felt when he was with Zale ever again.
His tears were falling faster and faster, and he cried miserably, groaning in pain. He swore his heart was breaking, certain that he’d lost Zale forever.
The agony was horrible, his chest was too tight, and his legs…
His legs hurt.
Joseph looked down through his fingers, and he gasped when he realized his legs were turning to stone. His feet had melded with the cavern floor and he was becoming a statue like the others.
Joseph should have been terrified, but any will he had left to struggle was leaving him in a wave of despair.
What did it matter?
Zale didn’t love him and he didn’t want him any more.
Who would, after the awful things Joseph had done?
He groaned again, the strange transformation reaching his hips now. He was starting to feel numb, his mind clouding, and his lingering thoughts were of Zale.
Beautiful, funny, charming Zale.
“Joseph!” Zale’s booming voice echoed throughout the cave. “Where are you?”
Joseph thought he was hearing things. Zale could not possibly be looking for him. The stone was creeping up his chest, forcing his breath to catch as he sobbed quietly. He didn’t bother calling back.
It wouldn’t change anything, so why did it matter?
“Joseph!” Zale shouted, more desperate now.
Joseph fought to take another breath.
One more, maybe two, and everything was getting dark…
Wait, was that Zale running toward him?
Why was Zale here?
Joseph’s vision went black and he forgot all about… Whoever it was. His thoughts were curiously calm and blank now, and the pain was finally gone.
He was no longer in the cave. He could see warm light all around him, so bright that it blinded him at first. When it dimmed, he realized he was on board Serenity, the ship from Firefly.
Every detail was perfect, exactly as it was on the show, and Joseph was stunned. He hurried to the helm to check everything out, and he laughed in delight.
He was looking out into a sea of stars and he’d never seen anything so beautiful before. He didn’t understand how he was here, and he couldn’t remember why he had been so upset. He ran his hands over the controls and colorful buttons, but he paused when he heard a tiny yip.
Joseph looked down, laughing when he found a basket of puppies tucked away by his feet. “What in the world are you little guys doing here?”
His question was met with lots of little happy barks, and he kneeled down to cuddle with them. They were puppies of all kinds, shapes, and sizes, and he laughed as they wiggled out of the basket and into his lap.
They were all his favorite breeds, from mastiffs to Boston terriers, each one perfectly adorable in every way. He snuggled with each and every one before his legs began to fall asleep. He groaned as he finally got up to stretch, and he grinned at his new army of pups. “Ready to go explore?”
All the pups yipped at him happily, following right behind him as he went to check out of the rest of the ship.
There were some doors he knew weren’t part of the original Serenity. Everything else about the ship was so perfect, so they were very out of place to a super fan like himself.
Curious, he opened one to see what was going on.
Inside was a sauna room with a massage table, and Jonathan Frakes was standing there wearing his Commander Riker costume and a warm smile. The uniform was definitely not Starfleet issue, as the top portion had been split open to reveal Frakes’ very broad chest.
“In need of a massage, Master Abrams?” Frakes asked politely.
“Oh, fuck,” Joseph squeaked, blushing vividly. He’d had a crush on Riker ever since he was a teenager and here he was, chest bulging in all of his bearded glory.
“Oil’s all ready for you, sir,” Frakes urged. “Nice and warm.”
“Uh, uh, maybe later!” Joseph squeaked again.
“I’ll be here,” Frakes promised, giving Joseph a lusty wink.
Joseph shut the door with a dopey grin and then stared at the puppies. “Holy crap, that was Riker! Wow! This place is incredible!”
They barked in agreement.
He hurried into the kitchen and discovered that the dining area had a steaming hot Chinese food buffet. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was, and he eagerly dove in to fix a plate. He sat down at the crew’s table to eat, sneakily passing some sesame chicken to the puppies still crowding around his feet.
Every time he scooped up a spoonful of food, the dish magically refilled itself. Joseph couldn’t believe it and laughed giddily. Everything here was so perfect and all of his unhappy memories had been forgotten.
This place was paradise.
Joseph found a bunk with a big plush bed and cuddled there with the puppies. He was so happy here, totally at peace. He wasn’t sure what he had been doing before, but this place was awesome.
He definitely needed to go see Riker about that massage.
Joseph could suddenly hear someone’s footsteps above him, and he looked up to see a man climbing down the ladder into his bunk.
He knew this man. He did. His name was…
Joseph laughed. “Zale? What in the world are you doing here?”
“I’m taking you back,” Zale said with a sad smile. “You don’t belong here. It isn’t your time, Joseph.”
“My time?” Joseph cocked his head. “What are you talking about?”
“Joseph.” Zale sighed, his hard expression cracked by a bittersweet smile. “Don’t you understand where you are? Do you even remember what happened? This is your Heaven.”
Joseph stiffened as realization crashed over him like a bucket of ice water. “Wait. This is… this is my Heaven?”
“I’m dead?” Joseph struggled to pull his fuzzy memories together. “I died in that cave?”
“Yes, but not for long,” Zale said earnestly, holding out his hand. “Come with me. Right now.”
“Come with you where?” Joseph frowned as he looked down at all the puppies. “I’m so happy here.”
“If you come with me now, I promise I’ll get you a puppy,” Zale swore. “But we need to go now.”
“You’ll really get me a puppy?”
“Any puppy I want?”
“Yes, I swear.”
“Okay,” Joseph finally agreed, reaching out to take Zale’s hand. The second Joseph touched him, the ship disappeared.
No more puppies or Riker or Chinese food.
He was back in the dank cavern, and he was definitely alive because he was in utter agony. The pain was horrible and he stared at his body with a strangled gasp. Most of it had turned to stone and he was unable to move.
“Zale!” Joseph cried, shrill and frantic. His lungs were horribly tight, and he struggled to inhale.
“Hang on,” Zale murmured, pulling Joseph against his shoulder and kissing his brow. “Oh, my sweet boy. Hold on.” He slid a hand over Joseph’s chest and the stone disappeared instantly. “I’ve got you.”
Joseph could finally breathe normally again. “Shit! What, what happened?” he said, wheezing a little.
“I’m sorry,” Zale said urgently. “I had no right to take out my anger on you. I never thought it would drive you here, I never—”
“I don’t understand!” Joseph panted. “Where did I go? I really died?”
“Hold on.” Zale moved faster, gliding his hands over Joseph’s legs.
The stone vanished away, and Joseph’s mind started to clear. The overwhelming sadness and confusion was finally fading, and he stared up at Zale in bewilderment. “What is this place?”
“This is the Pit of Despair,” Zale explained, gently petting Joseph’s hair. “Souls are drawn here when they’re in pain. The misery takes over and traps them forever. I don’t know how you got down here—”
“I wanted to go for a walk, I just, I just—!”
“It’s all right,” Zale soothed. “I’m not angry. I promise I’m not angry.”
“Is a disgusting excuse for an immortal and I tore him into pieces for touching you,” Zale said, a hint of a growl roughing up his smooth tone. “I’m sorry that I was so unkind to you. You didn’t deserve it. Please. Forgive me.”
“You really aren’t mad at me?” Joseph groaned as he stretched his legs, sore from being frozen.
“No,” Zale assured him. “I shouldn’t have left you without talking to you first, but I was distracted.”
“Too focused on kicking your brother’s ass?”
“What did you do?”
“Exactly what I said.” Zale stroked Joseph’s cheek with a smirk. “I tore him into pieces and threw them all down into the deepest part of the Underworld.”
“I’m not sure if I should be flattered or terrified.” Joseph laughed. “I mean… Is he dead?”
“No,” Zale grumbled, sounding vaguely disappointed. “He’s immortal. He’ll be able to drag his worthless carcass back together eventually.”
“The other gods can do that, but you can’t?”
“The other gods don’t have their very essence tied into the seasons.” Zale smiled. “Some of us drew short straws, I’m afraid.”
“Sorry. And I’m sorry for leaving. I wanted to get away for a little bit, that’s all. Definitely didn’t mean to go and die.”
“I’m just glad you’re all right,” Zale said, looking very relieved. He smirked. “Although this does mean you get to claim another first. I haven’t had any of my spouses die on me before.”
“Ha ha ha.” Joseph rolled his eyes.
Zale kissed his forehead, chuckling. “Too soon?”
“Hmm. Come on. Let’s get you home and I can tell you more terrible jokes.”
“Hey, Zale? I don’t think I can go back in that room.” Joseph hesitated. “Not after all of that.”
“No,” Zale said, shaking his head with a fond smile. “You misunderstand my intentions. I said we’re going home. To my home. Well, now I suppose it’s our home.”
“What?” Joseph blinked in confusion. “What do you mean?”
Zale swept Joseph up into his arms as he said, “Well, as it turns out… Joseph Abrams, I’m falling in love with you too.”
Joseph’s face flushed a lovely shade of red and he was left staring even more dumbly. “Uh, uh, uh, so, you… you heard that?”
“I did,” Zale said, kissing him deeply.
“Oh, Zale.” Joseph swore he was going to melt right in Zale’s arms—and just his arms, since he still didn’t have a chest yet—and he kissed him back passionately.
“Now, my dear groom, close your eyes,” Zale purred.
Joseph did so, clinging to Zale’s shoulders as he felt wind rush by him. Zale nudged him and he opened his eyes, taking in the interior of a small house.
It was hardly the grand mansion that Joseph was expecting, finding hardwood floors and hundreds of books, a few paintings, and worn furniture. It was warm and cozy, and he could smell cinnamon and sandalwood.
“This is your home?” Joseph asked, hoping Zale didn’t mistake his surprise for disappointment.
“Yes.” Zale set Joseph down. “Over the years, I’ve found I need very little in the way of material things.”
“Says the richest god ever,” Joseph teased, exploring the kitchen and fridge with a grin. He looked around with a big smile and laughed. “Seriously! This is perfect!”
“You like it?”
“I love it.” Joseph circled back to hug Zale’s shoulders and kiss him sweetly. “And I love you.”
“You’re going to stay,” Zale said quietly, his eyes shimmering with raw emotion. “That means you’re going to stay.”
“Yes. I want to see where this goes, okay? It’s still crazy, and what the hell, your family is really super insane, but…” Joseph took a deep breath. “I can’t imagine being with anyone else now.”
“And these humble accommodations are satisfactory?”
“Pffft! You should see my apartment. It’s a freakin’ closet compared to this, okay? Trust me, this is perfect.”
Zale smiled, pleased at that. “Mmm, would you like something to eat? Drink?”
“Honestly, bed sounds awesome,” Joseph confessed. “That whole being turned to stone and dying thing wore me out. Also, what the hell?”
“Those people! Are they just trapped there?”
“They’re souls who have refused their eternal resting place.” Zale sighed. “Whether a Heaven or Hell, their misery is too much and they’re lost there forever.”
“When I got trapped and died temporarily, I went to what? My Heaven?”
“Yes.” Zale nodded. “Living souls aren’t meant to go there. When you died, your soul passed on to your final resting place. Those other souls there died long ago and they’re trapped.”
“Can’t you wake them up?”
“Yes, but they always go back there.”
“There has to be a way,” Joseph said earnestly. “Maybe while we’re hunting body bits, we can try to think of something?”
“For you, my prince, I will try,” Zale promised.
“Come on,” Zale urged, taking Joseph’s hand. “Let’s go to bed.” He guided Joseph to the bedroom, scooping him up and playfully tossing him onto the plush bed.
Joseph giggled, watching his clothes transform into a pair of fleece pajamas. Being married to a god was pretty darn cool. He got under the covers and snuggled up to Zale’s shoulder as soon as he joined him.
“Mmm, this is nice,” Zale murmured contently.
“Be even nicer when you’re all back together. I swear, I’m not going to be able to keep my hands off of you.”
“Mmm, I look forward to it.” Zale laughed.
“Thank you,” Joseph said, quiet and sweet, his heart fluttering in his chest. “Thank you so much.”
“For saving me, for believing me, for… for loving me.”
“Loving you, Joseph Abrams, is the easiest thing in the world,” Zale said with a soft smile.
“Loving you is a challenge but totally worth the effort,” Joseph teased sweetly.
“Thank you for rising to the occasion.”
“It’s my pleasure,” Joseph said, nuzzling their noses together. “Also, I’ve gotta say, my Heaven looked pretty awesome, by the way. Riker as my personal masseuse? That was a nice touch.”
“It’s a work in progress, but I do try to create a worthy resting place for every soul.”
“It was pretty close to perfect,” Joseph said with a casual shrug. “It was missing one pretty important thing, though. I mean, like, crucial.”
“What?” Zale frowned. “There were nine breeds of puppies, I counted them all myself. What did I forget?”
“You,” Joseph said with a loving smile. “No way that place or any other could be my Heaven without you in it.”
Zale was stunned, actually blushing and apparently at a loss for words. He just kept staring at Joseph with the most adorable expression on his face.
“This would be a great time to say ‘I love you, Joseph,’” Joseph whispered loudly. “Just a thought.”
“Ah, of course.” Zale laughed, kissing Joseph with a grin. “Joseph Abrams, my beautiful prince? Light of my life? I love you.”
Joseph smiled. “I love you too.”