The Case Of The Caribbean Bubbly
by Glossolalia

This is the perfect Saturday morning.

Ozzie has his tongue caught between his teeth as he beats the brioche batter, too fast to count the strokes, the egg foaming up like postcard-glittery snow. The wide bell-sleeve of his blue kimono fills with the motion, dwarfing his hand as he beats.

In shirt-sleeves and an unbuttoned vest Ozzie knit him for his last birthday, Bert reclines on the davenport in the sitting room, drifts of newsprint — Herald, Times, Evening Post, last night's Dispatch — rising around him. Just the whispery rattle of paper and the clang of the whisk against the bowl, and Ozzie is lulled by the close, calm quiet all around them. Just a Saturday morning, little traffic down six floors to interrupt them, and he grins when Bert looks up and catches his eye.

"Something funny in your eggs?" Bert asks, folding and creasing the international section. War, famine, unrest in Ethiopia: the headlines are inkily outraged.

Ozzie prefers the ladies section, and the funny supplement. Even sports — Charley has him following the Negro League's Mobile Monsters — to distressing, cataclysmic news.

"Just happy you're home." Ozzie doesn't watch Bert's face for a response, but busies himself with pouring the frothy, golden batter into its tins.

He has his back turned, getting two pears out of the icebox, when a knocking at the door starts up. Urgent, frantic. Ozzie remains bent over, cradling a pear in each palm, admiring their bosomy shape. He doesn't like to answer the door; Bert calls that whimsy.

So Bert, sighing, wading through the newspapers, unlocks the three deadbolts and whispers the key-spell to lift the ward he set after the last time Ethan appeared in the dead of night, wearing a scarlet and green cloak, yellow powder in his hair, laughing maniacally.

"Thank God you're here!" Bettie's high, girlish voice, louder as she pushes her way inside. Ozzie straightens up and sets the red-gold pears on his cutting board. Bettie's bright candyfloss hair stands out as she yanks off her cloche with one hand and grabs Bert's arm with the other.

"Of course I'm here," Bert says mildly, patting Bettie's hand, guiding her into the sitting room. "Where else would I be?"

Bettie chatters — she has been looking for Bert all last night into the wee hours of this morning. Anyone at the Arabian Knights could have told her that Bert had last night off. Or she might have remembered that herself, Ozzie thinks; Bettie was Bert's lovely lady assistant for nearly three years, after all. Mondays and alternate Fridays are dark for Bert the Scandalous Sophus.

"Where's the little woman?" Bettie asks, hanging up her cranberry wool three-quarter coat.

"Kitchen," Ozzie calls and waves, paring knife in his hand when Bettie glances over her shoulder. Her smile, the one that enchanted even the most desiccated, mummified old queens in the very last tier of tables, is as bright and sweet as ever.

"Everything peachy?" she asks.

Ozzie lifts the pears and juggles them. "Pear-y. You?"

"Need the old man's expert wisdom," Bettie says. "Don't go anywhere, though. Aurora gave me some notions for you. Pearl and some jet."

Bettie's little sister is the lightest-fingered gal Ozzie's ever known. He gets a warm, fraternal glow at the thought that he first taught her the tricks of the self-administered discount (finger-high kewpie dolls in riding costume from the bins at the five-and-dime). Aurora, however, surpassed his own skills a long time ago and now Ozzie depends on her for the daintiest, most precious items.

Bettie and Bert speak in low, familiar voices while Ozzie checks the brioches and potters around the tiny galley kitchen. Bert has always been hopeless in the kitchen, too tall and gangly and thoroughly male to be of any use. The narrow, cracked stretch of floor between stove and counter is just right for Ozzie, however. This is his other world, another corner of what Bert calls his pretty cosmos. The day Ozzie moved in, Bert leaned on the counter, arms crossed, and simply watched Ozzie exploring and acquainting himself with the set-up. Bert's smile was unwavering and broad then. "Clearly it was meant to be," he said, reaching for Ozzie's hand — it was dripping juice from the lemons he was peeling and squeezing for curd and, if there was enough left over, Tom Collinses — and kissing Ozzie's knuckles. "You fit here."

Ozzie does fit here, turning on his toes, sliding transparent slices of pear into the small saucepan and adding several jets of bootleg Hungarian red wine. It's crushed by Lili Morganthaler's entire family in the side-yard of their Queens house, and Ozzie's never tasted anything quite so rich. A good dollop of white sugar — Ozzie will budget and scrimp and work magic from short rations (and enjoy all of it), but he refuses to economize on sugar — follows before he drops the lid on the pan, checks the rate of the brioches' rising through the tiny convex window on the oven, and then it's just a matter of waiting.

He should find out whether Bettie will be staying for lunch. Ozzie adjusts the hang of his kimono, then thinks better of it. In the bedroom, he changes into streetclothes — flannel trousers and one of Bert's dress shirts, pink, that he cut down and retailored. Fair-isle socks, soft pinks and dove grays, on his feet, and he pads back through the kitchen to the front room. The rooms of the flat are stacked one behind the next — like railroad cars, most say, but Ozzie prefers to think of them as pearls on a string, clacking and bright.

Bert leans forward, half-off the edge of the chesterfield, almost scowling at Bettie, whose back is to Ozzie, her shoulder narrow in a wine-dark crepe dress, her head held high.

"It's not like that," she says, and Ozzie pauses, realizing that he's missed something important. At some point, Bert and Bettie shifted into argument. Simmering like his pears, threatening to boil.

"Oh, on the contrary. I think it's exactly like that," Bert says, clipped West-End stage voice giving way to a reedy, cruelly accurate mimicry of Bettie's tone on the last two words.

They rarely fight; they're more like brother and sister, teasingly loving and utterly familiar with each other, than they are the father-daughter they appear to be, or the tutor-student they used to be.

"In fact," Bert continues, "I'd venture to say that the wages of your, your —"

Bert stammers occasionally at home, never in public, never on stage. Late at night, too much to drink and sodden with affection, he'll stutter endearments into Ozzie's ear: Beautiful boy, lovely hermaphrodite of my heart..., his voice catching and echoing on the Bs and Hs.

Hearing the stutter now, Ozzie feels his hands clench.

"My sin?" Bettie asks, disgustedly.

Bert sits back. "Your indiscretions, my dear." He appears sobered by his own anger, and his voice is much gentler now. "If you insist on courting that thick-ankled, rock-headed Irish girl —"

"Angela has nothing to do with this!" Bettie's voice is hoarse, wet, and desperate, but her posture remains straight and defiant. "Believe me. This is between me and my parents. I need you, Bert, I —"

Ozzie clears his throat. There's never a good time to interrupt people, so he might as well do it now.

Bert starts, then gives Ozzie one of his relieved smiles. Another private thing, only seen within these walls, and if that were anyone but Bettie sitting there, Ozzie would feel both embarrassed and slightly tetchy.

But Bettie knows Bert as well as Ozzie does; sometimes, Ozzie thinks she knows Bert much better in certain ways than Ozzie ever will. But those ways — performance secrets, Oriental fighting skills, dead-as-dust languages — are things in which Ozzie has little interest and even less aptitude.

She twists around now, smiling at Ozzie.

"Wondered if you'd like to stay for supper?" Ozzie asks.

"Bettie's been summoned to the — what is it, lass?"

"Scarlet and Brass Ball," Bettie says dejectedly. "The cruciamentum of the social scene."

"But that's wonderful," Ozzie says. "Stunning! Lavinia van der Zee will be hosting at the Bismarck with —"

"Rialto," Bettie says. "Not called the Bismarck any more. Germans."

"Yes, yes, yes," Ozzie says, waving away the correction. "Regardless, it's the crowning event of the early season."

"And I have to go," Bettie says, with the sort of resigned finality with which she might announce an irrevocable diagnosis of tuberculosis and her imminent departure for the dry air of Sedona.

"I don't understand," Ozzie says, looking back and forth between their equally grave faces. "I'd give anything for a peek at what Mrs. van der Zee's wearing. Let alone get to hear Lester Lehman's Luscious Orchestra. Charley sits in with them sometimes, you know —"

"Charley Gunn?" Bettie asks, wrinkling her nose. "He's such a schlmiel."

Ozzie shrugs and continues. "Charley Gunn. He says Lester's fully hooked into the voices of the angels and the shrieks of the demons, thanks to his special morphine cocktail. And then there's the Rialto's house recipe of savory salted pecans, I've heard they're impossible to resist, and —" Both Bert and Bettie stare at Ozzie, mouths slightly open, and he realizes that he has been babbling. That's another thing about being at home; outside, he doesn't talk very much. "Sorry. What's wrong?"

"Yon Bettie requires an escort to the festivities," Bert says.

"Or else Daddy's fixing me up with one of his junior execs-in-training," Bettie says morosely. "Thought bringing Bert along would be a nice fat juicy raspberry in Daddy's face. Only the limey bastard —"

"Has respectfully demurred," Bert finishes.

"But why?" Ozzie asks.

"It wouldn't be seemly," Bert says.

Bettie's laugh is almost a cackle, shrill and humorless. "Not seemly? Oh, rich, Bertie, coming from the same old pederast who taught me how to shoot a Tommy gun and hide cards up my brassiere."

"Your parents —" Bert begins, then pauses. He folds his arms loosely across his chest and Ozzie can tell that he is working very hard not to let his amusement at Bettie's predicament show. "Your parents rather dislike me."

Ozzie can't help laughing. Bert's statement is a mild, Zwieback-harmless version of a truth that involves screaming, threats of lawsuits both criminal and civil, investigation of the Arabian Knights Gentleman's Club by the state liquor board and its morals authority, all because sedate, owlish Mister Bert Giles, hired to tutor their beloved elder daughter in French, Greek and Latin, was discovered to have lured her onto the stage of a notorious den of perversion and made her a star among the inverts, Negroes, outcasts and viragoes of the city.

"Well, either it's find my own escort or go with Daddy's chosen favorite," Bettie says. "I don't know what else to do."

Rubbing his jaw meditatively, Bert smiles again as his eyes flick up to Ozzie. "I'm sure Osbourne here would be delighted to accompany you."

"What?" Bettie and Ozzie ask at the same time. Bettie turns to look at Ozzie again, cherry-red lips open in a perfect O, and Ozzie matches her surprise.

"You did just say you'd love to go, dear boy," Bert says, smooth and amused and entirely too comfortable with the idea. "And Bettie, you'd be lucky to have such a gentleman accompany you."

"But Ozzie's —"

"I'm no gentleman," Ozzie says, interrupting Bettie, feeling not a little affronted.

"You're a wonderful actress, love," Bert says. "Think of the costume you'd have to don. The illusion you'd build with the striking young lady on your arm."

Ozzie thinks about it; he could cut quite a figure in the right dinner jacket and waistcoat. Like William Powell in Escapade, debonair and fluidly graceful. Thin as he is, he doesn't even have to worry that the bow-tie would make his face look chubby. Furthermore, doing this would mean an opportunity to glimpse the Rialto and Mrs. van der Zee and the rest of society in the flesh, in color, rather than in thin columns of newsprint and grainy high-contrast photographs.

To Bettie, Bert says, "It's quite the raspberry, if you'll only think this through. Such balls are rarefied, sublimated mating rituals, aren't they? No less brutal than a Papuan devirginization, though with a bit more dress, I believe. How better to stick out your tongue at the ridiculousness of this ritual than by bringing along Ozzie here? Small, pretty, keeps-his-hands-to-himself Ozzie who'd not know a mating ritual if it buggered him first."

Ozzie flushes at Bert's crudity, but neither he nor Bettie can dispute the logic.

"Think of it as a grand undercover excursion," Bert tells both of them. "Infiltrating the highest levels of the social hierarchy. With the added bonus of —" He smiles at Ozzie and gestures him over, pulling him down into his lap and kissing his head. "Of Mr. Lehman's dulcet sounds and the best salted pecans you've never tasted."


Despite his care, admonitions to stay boring and cheerful and thus perfectly All-American, Ozzie cannot help gasping when he first sees Bettie. Panels of floating organza over a bias-cut, cap-sleeved clinging crepe gown that he'd give his left eye to wear. Even just to hang in his wardrobe and admire.

"Now, now," Bettie laughs, kissing his cheek. "You look very handsome."

"Thank you," Ozzie says, holding her at arm's length, admiring the gown's drape, the various shades of carnation and primrose that warmed Bettie's already beautiful cream-and-rose complexion, her tiny round-toed dancing shoes. "You're a vision and a half."

Bettie laughs again, shaking her head, the gentle marcelled waves of her hair rippling. "We're not going to have another green velvet incident, are we?"

"That was as much Bert's fault — and yours — as mine."

"Odd," Bettie says, wrapping herself in a gunmetal-silver cloak and taking Ozzie's arm. "I've always blamed the Canadian cocaine —"

"An accessory and willing accomplice," Ozzie says, nodding gravely, holding the door to the taxi open for a still-laughing, nearly effervescent Bettie.

That night, Ozzie was as pretty as Bettie; everyone said so, and he felt fully transformed, alight and aglow, and their hands on him, grasping and pulling and petting, confirmed everything. He was not Bettie, all girl and beautiful for it, nor was he Bert, masculine and brilliant and powerful, but he was Ozzie, wrapped in Bettie's green velvet tea dress, and they loved him for it. He and Bettie played at schoolgirls, exploring and whispering urgently to each other, rubbing tribadically and necking fiercely while Bert reclined, watching, his hand on himself, until he offered to show Bettie how best to deliver a gob job on a willing woman. Such a tangle of mouths and hands then, all night long, and Ozzie radiated pleasure, though the tea dress was never the same.

Tonight, however, he has to be a sober, boring man, blank-faced escort to the girl. He could act the part superbly because he knew it would soon come to an end.

The Rialto's ballroom is much larger than Ozzie had expected, studded with potted palms and featuring a skylight in the ceiling wrapped in lights and loaded down on top with snow. The effect everywhere is of twinkling silver and gold, from the waiter's corsages of gilded carnations to the matrons' old-fashioned heavy necklaces and droplet earrings, to the small fountains of champagne at each table.

Bettie looks wondrous in the light, gold and pink as a pear, smiling and chatting brightly. Ozzie wonders if this is how men feel when they have such a pretty girl on their arms — slightly proud but mostly overwhelmed.

They queue up to be presented to their hostess for the evening, Lavinia van der Zee, draped in violet and charcoal point-de-Venise that falls from a modest bateau neckline over her impressive form.

Ozzie's fingers dig into Bettie's arm in his anticipation, and she pats his hand consolingly. "You're doing very well," she whispers. "Quite the boy, Ozzie."

Smiling tightly and thinly — men don't really smile, it's one of the saddest things in the world — Ozzie nods and exhales slowly as they advance in the line.

What he used to appear to be — a society boy, groomed for success and wealth and power — he never could have been. Not like this broad-shouldered, ruddy-cheeked young strivers here at the ball.

"Osbourne Daniels," Mrs. van der Zee says, pursing her burgundy lips. "Not of the Philadelphia Danielses, are you?"

"Yes," Ozzie says.

"Didn't they have some trouble a few years back?" She turns to her companion, the strangely dusky Mr. Shameddy who has been accompanying her ever since her husband departed for a sanatorium in California. "Remind me — something about the scion running off join the circus or some such marvelous thing?"

"My cousin," Ozzie says (lies), blushing fiercely. He's heard several tales of his escape — locked up on the top floor of Bellevue, eaten by wolves while on a shooting trip to Conception Bay, abducted for the white slave trade in North Africa — but this is, disturbingly, the most accurate version yet. "My poor Aunt Loretta was never the same."

While Shameddy strokes his chin and looks bored behind his smoked eyeglasses, Mrs. van der Zee squints at him through her sparkly lorgnette, her boulder-heavy bosom lifting in warning. "But of course such scandal should have no bearing on the present festivities. Welcome."

Ozzie nods, smiles, and remembers all too well the insipid mask one slips over bruised and bloody reality.

"Nice job," Bettie whispers as he guides her further into the ballroom. "You come up with all that on the spot?"

"Theater, sweets," he tells her and Bettie grins.

Inside the ballroom, his sense of the twinkling artifice and spectacular, trembling loveliness only increases. Lester Lehman's Luscious Orchestra is tootling along a hit from a few years ago, accompanying the buzz of excited chatter as guests move among the tables, skirting the dance floor, greeting each other effusively.

He spots Charley in the first row of the orchestra, sober-faced in his lavender dinner jacket, indistinguishable from the rest of the band. Ozzie raises his hand in a discreet wave — he'll play the dutiful escort, but he won't deny seeing a friend — and Charley nods just once, his eyes sliding away.

"He's so grave," Bettie says, jerking her head toward Charley as Ozzie hands her a glass of champagne. "I can't imagine what you two find to talk about."

"Lots of things," Ozzie says. "He's a funny man, once you get to know him. And his music's —" He pauses, unsure how to translate into words how Charley's music makes him feel at once sorrowful and comfortable, at home and slightly, permanently lost. "It's beautiful."

"It is," Bettie says grudgingly. "I just — I don't understand his schtick, that's all."

Ozzie smiles; Charley has said almost exactly the same thing about Bettie herself.


Hiding in plain sight: Ozzie is doing it, Bettie is doing it, and Charley, passive and blank in the first row of the orchestra, is certainly doing it. Ozzie wonders how many others here are doing the same thing, how many weekend-pansies have drabbed their exteriors to please mothers and wives, how many odd women and occasional Sapphists have donned bright silk stockings and stuck ribbons in their hair.

He wonders if they know just how lucky they are to have the clothes and accent and vocabulary to pull this illusion off.

Theater, Bert told him very early on, its essence, is not found on the stage beneath the gelled lights, but behind it, and below. In scripts, prompters, the false bottoms of Bert's boxes and the rest of his tricks. A coin up the sleeve, a card curved into the palm: The moment before the reveal, the hush as the curtain rises, that is theater, that is magic. Ozzie pulling up his dress trousers, Bert helping him with his tie, his large smooth hands on slippery foulard. Or, Ozzie imagines, Bettie shimmying her hips as she slides this dress over her head, pink organza and crepe clinging to a bruise on her hip, the scar across her breast. Not hiding, not revealing, but transforming over the course of a moment.

"You make a very handsome boy," Bert said when Ozzie was half-dressed, his shirttails still hanging loose, his trousers hanging off his hips. "Would that I were some flighty young deb to fall into your trap."

"Vaguely debauched professor," Ozzie said, backing Bert onto the bed and standing between his spread legs, bracing his hands on Bert thighs and kissing him, "is a far better and more appealing role for you."

Bert ran his hand down Ozzie's side. "Is that so? And what does that make you? An untouched American prince?"

"Eager to learn, Professor," Ozzie breathed, resting his hands on Bert's broad shoulders, kissing his hairline.

This was intoxicating, this shimmering, slightly unfocused, yet brighter, more saturated, version of their actual experience, and Ozzie knew Bert felt it too, in the grip of his palms on Ozzie's buttocks, the hot slide of his mouth up Ozzie's belly.

"No time," Ozzie said, reluctantly drawing away. Bert gaped up at him, silvered brown hair standing awry, eyes wide and wet. Ozzie kissed his forehead, already slipping into the pretense of strong young buck. "Later, Bertie."

"Promise?" Bert caught Ozzie's hand and mouthed kisses over his palm.

"I promise," Ozzie said between kisses to the crown of Bert's skull. "Play at anything you want. Later."


Ozzie soon spots Mrs. van der Zee's rival, the widow Mandeville, a darkly-tanned, hawk-faced old woman in black satin designed for someone three decades her junior. She is accompanied by her dull, dishwater-pale daughter Blossom, who keeps casting hopeful glances at the dance floor. Ozzie knows from certain blind items in the columns that Mrs. Mandeville is deadset on marrying Blossom off to Chester van der Zee, a notion that is apparently enough to send Mrs. van der Zee off into fits of giggles and gales of laughter, one of which lasted for the entire second act of the recent premiere of Carmen at the Uptown Opera Gallery.

The ballroom fills rapidly with young people in bright dresses and dark dinner jackets, as he munches the savory pecans, trying to identify each of the spices. Salt, of course, and cayenne, and perhaps even some nutmeg.

Soon the orchestra plays in earnest, the music slamming through Ozzie's disguise, urging him to whirl and dip and dance.

He is careful, however, mindful of his role, and Bettie encourages him with frequent pecks on his cheek and squeezes to his shoulder.

Bettie dances like a dream, lighter than meringue in his arms, her cheek resting against his own. Lehman's orchestra slides into hotter music, faster and nearly shimmering through the glissades. Ozzie picks out Charley's sax lines, floating and twitching around the rest of the music, always just out of reach.

They shimmy into the Piccolino, and Bettie laughs as Ozzie croons the lyrics into her ear. Her hair tickles his lips as he whispers: It was written by a Latin, a gondolier who sat in/His home out in Brooklyn and gazed at the stars.

Music, like love and dreams, moves endlessly and effortlessly.

"Elizabeth?" the round-faced man asks diffidently, then clears his throat and licks his plump pink lips. "Elizabeth Summers?"

Bettie's grimace at the name slides into a smirk as she discreetly elbows Ozzie. "It's just Bettie."

"Quentin Travers," he says, wiping his palms on his trousers before offering a hand to Ozzie. "And you are?"

"He's my date," Bettie says, taking Ozzie's hand before Travers can make contact. "You're my dad's flunky, right?"

"Your father suggested that we might, ah —" Travers' eyes widen as the orchestra kicks into a fast number, chasing Charley's sax line like a pack of hounds. He leans closer, but Bettie's tugging Ozzie toward the dance floor. "Miss Bettie —?"

"Sorry, Mac, bank's closed," she calls over her shoulder.

"Sorry, brother," Ozzie offers, but Travers ignores him and remains frozen at the very edge of the dance floor, a civil cousin of outrage distorting his smooth, mild face.

Bettie is laughing as Ozzie spins her into a fox-trot, her grin as wide as the skylight over their heads, her cheeks flushing two shades darker than her frock.

"You're the best date I've ever known," she giggles, curling her fingers into the short hair on the nape of his neck.

"Really?" Ozzie asks, returning the smile and dipping her. "Why's that?"

"'cause you're funner than three jitneys," Bettie says as she rises from the dip like a strawberry mousse pouring upward, "and you don't take any of this seriously —"

This, she indicates with a sweep of her small hand, includes the dour matrons arrayed like crows around the dancers, and the dancers themselves moving carefully around each other like each partner's afraid the other will break, like strangers.

Up close, Mrs. Mandeville is not at all terrifying, nor formidable. The aquiline nose and close-set eyes that, from afar, suggest something of the serpent or bird of prey are, actually, delicate and almost sad in their faded grandeur. She glares myopically at Ozzie as he approaches her table, the ruffles on her black satin bodice trembling slightly.

"Would you like to dance?" he asks Blossom. Though twice the size of her mother, she is shadowy and insubstantial next to Mrs. Mandeville. The girl starts and glances wildly at her mother.

"My daughter already has a partner," Mrs. Mandeville says. "We thank you, however, for your interest."

Blossom's eyes are globular and slightly watery. Ozzie thinks of iced grapes, insipidly flavored. She drops her gaze from his as her mother pats her hand. Her croquignole curls, flat and old-fashioned, ripple over her head like a neglected topiary.

Ozzie nods his apology and turns back toward the spot he left Bettie. She whirls past him, however, on the arm of none other than Chet van der Zee, so he takes the opportunity to visit the washroom.

Smoking a fat brown cigarillo and resplendent in a purple waistcoat patterned with black checks, Mr. Shameddy leans against the urinals when Ozzie slips into the washroom. In the harsher light here, Shameddy looks even stranger, almost greenish, with burning black eyes visible when his smoked spectacles slip down his nose. He grins at Ozzie, showing blood-red gums and dazzling white teeth, and says, "Emptying the pipes, boy?"

"Yes," Ozzie says, unbuttoning his fly. Remembering his role, he adds, "And how are you, sir?"

"Got some sausage that needs a roll," Shameddy says, tongue flicking over the pieces of tobacco on his lip. "Your girl the blonde princess, pink as a cherry?" Ozzie nods, willing himself to finish quickly. "Think she's interested in a little walk in the park?"

"Maybe," Ozzie says carefully, shaking his prick and tucking it back inside his fly. He swallows hard.

"Not from you, though, eh?" Shameddy asks and his laughter barks and echoes sharply off the tiles. "More like a flight of the fey with you."

Coughing, Ozzie backs up. "I don't know what you mean —"

"Sure you do," Shameddy says amiably, following him, tapping his walking stick against the tiles. "Party's the pits, isn't it? You get very bored, you just say the word, and we'll liven things up."

Ozzie blinks, the menacing chalky-faced figure before him replaced by a friendly, companionable fellow. "I'll keep that in mind."

Shameddy claps his shoulder and leans in, his breath soaked in rum and tobacco. "You do that. I get any more bored, I'm liable to dry up and blow away like unto the state of Oklahoma."

"Gotcha," Ozzie says and glances behind him as he washes his hands.

Shameddy's laughter is richer, far more pleased, as Ozzie departs.

He takes a wrong turn and finds himself in a warren of rooms behind the hotel kitchen. It stinks back here of smoke from the coal furnace and boiled cabbage and close, uncomfortable sweat. In the gloom, he nearly trips over a small circle of waiters sharing a bottle of champagne and a pack of Lady Marlboros. They are, to a man, spifflicated, utterly fried to the hat.

Ozzie starts back the way he came when their hooting and backslapping makes him turn around; they sound just like the troop of chimpanzees he likes to visit at the zoo in the park.

One waiter, even drunker than the others, stands up unsteadily and shakes a lock of red hair from his eyes. He clutches a napkin to his breath, screws up his eyes, and lets out a perfect imitation of Mrs. van der Zee's cackling laugh. "And then, listen closely, darling, and then he fell off the pony. Right there on Aloise's lawn in Sharon in front of God and the mayor and simply everyone."

It's a fabulous, pitch-perfect performance, and Ozzie still clapping as he picks his way back to the ballroom through another series of narrow passages and the odd line of drying linens.

He runs smackdab into Charley Gunn ducking behind one line, his tie loosened and a cigarette between his lips.

"Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, my brother," Charley says, grasping his hand. "Nearly swallowed my damn eyes when I seen you out there. What are you doing here?"

"Undercover," Ozzie says and leaves it at that, all mysterious-sounding. "You sound right on top of the hill tonight."

Charley nods and, glancing away, smiles to himself. Praise makes him shy, though he deserves it.

"Straight up the express tracks," Ozzie adds, just to see Charley smile some more. "Fit to burst and bake a pie, I'd say."

"Hush," Charley says, sucking deep on his cigarette and exhaling a spiraling series of smoke rings. He lets them quiver and break apart before he adds, all too coolly, "So who's the leggy Goldilocks, anyway?"

"You know Bettie Summers," Oz says.

Charley lets out a long, meditative whistle. "That Bettie? Really?"

"In the lusciously-draped, perfectly-cut and -tailored flesh."

"Huh." Charley runs his palm back and forth over his close-cropped hair. "She's looking all kinds of Mad Ave, that one."

"Gunn —" Lester Lehman's strange, half-choked upstate accent makes Ozzie's stomach hurt. "You back here? Back on in two."

"No rest for the wicked," Charley says, rising to his feet and clapping Ozzie on the shoulder. "You tell Miss Bettie I say — second thought, never you mind."

Ozzie grins up at him. "Mum as the flower, Charley."

"Gots to be heading back," Gunn says, and Ozzie nods. "Lehman might be a gong-addled cracker, but he's a damn good leader."

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," Ozzie calls after him and Gunn's laughter booms out.

Back in the ballroom, he finds Bettie poking at a limp tart dressed with flaccid, pale winter cherries. She grins when she sees him. "Finally! My brains were just about leaking out."

"I got lost," Ozzie admits, kissing her cheek as he slides into his chair.

"Sounds better than listening to Chester van der von de Poop or whatever his name is drone on and on about the skiing in Bremen Woods," Bettie says. "What time is it? Can we go soon?"

Ozzie checks the wristwatch he borrowed off Anthony on the first floor, a prop from a recent touring production of Ibsen. "It's half-gone never, sweetie."

Bettie blows a light raspberry at him and pouts, crossing her arms and slumping slightly in her chair. "Travers stepped on my toes and slobbered in my ear forever. You know he and Daddy already have a lot picked out in Oyster Bay for our house? Probably naming my unborn brats, too."

Ozzie wants to tell her that will never happen. That he could never let that happen. He'd sooner go ride the rails or work in the lime kilns of northern Connecticut than see her married off and dulled down, roped into the most prevalent form of white slavery he can think of.

His life with Bert is different, of course; Bert is his husband. There was even a ceremony at the club and Ozzie wears a small band on his ring-finger.

But for the girls here, marriage was never the fun and love he enjoys. He's read most of Bert's books, all of the ethnological volumes, and he knows that every culture has its own complicated forms of control and rituals to tame the unknown. This ball is a perfect example of a North American puberty ritual, after all, but at least, like the Maori red-hut ceremony and the low German Splenderspiegel, it's pretty. Marriage, on the other hand, around the world, is constricting and cruel and ought, Ozzie thinks, be outlawed.

Especially for a girl like Bettie who is, as Bert would say, sui generis. She certainly is; she fits none of the categories in any sexologist's scheme that Ozzie has found.

Ozzie wants to tell her this, but the band is tuning up again. He's not very good for that kind of reassurance, anyway. He's better as decoration; wisdom, care, and advice, those are things for Bert.

Bettie pats her hair into place and rises. "Dance with me," she says, taking his arm. "Might as well enjoy ourselves."

Ozzie is enjoying himself. Lehman's orchestra is in fine form tonight, aided by Charley's alternately soulful and joyous saxophone, and the dancers are like bright scraps of Christmas paper whirling over the glossy floor. No one's dancing with poor Blossom, he notes, whose arm is still clutched by her viper-faced mother. Chet van der Zee dances with a tall brunette who stares up at him with something that might be love, but is more likely greed, in her eyes.

This is a wonderland, Ozzie thinks, a single room full of the richest and loveliest people in the city. He could not live among them — he would suffocate in trousers and ties every day, he would have no Bert to hold him on his lap and read to him and stroke him to shivering pleasure — but he is thoroughly enjoying his visit in disguise.

He can love this life now because he is only visiting. After midnight, he'll be home, whether that's the flat he shares with Bert or the Arabian Knights Gentleman's Club, and this will all be a fond dream. He couldn't stand this life when he had to live it and pretend it was real. When he was at Groton and home in Philadelphia for the holidays, the stifling reality and desperate normality of it all nearly smothered him.


Travers continues to haunt them, entirely ineffectually. He appears beside their table as the gelatin dainty is served at ten, and Bettie breezily asks him for another glass of seltzer water; he attempts to cut in during a dance, but Ozzie turns Bettie around and dances them away. He's a strange man, teetering on his tiny, patent-leather-encased little feet, his cheeks fat as an autumn squirrel's.

"That's really who your father wants?" Ozzie asks. Anyone should be able to see that Travers is three flavors of creep.

Pressing the corner of her napkin against her mouth, Bettie nods, her eyes crinkling up in another grin. "Hank's got it into his head that I need to settle down."

"Never," Ozzie says lightly; they're alone at the table and he lets his voice slide into its more natural, higher register. "Inconceivable, utterly and completely."

"Never ever," Bettie agrees, but she's looking past him, a frown forming over her brow and mouth. "Did you see that?"

Ozzie twists in his seat and sees Mrs. Mandeville grasping the arm of a waiter with a large bottle of champagne. "What's happening?"

"She just —" Bettie starts to say, but Mrs. Mandeville's voice cuts scalpel-fast and -sharp across the ballroom.

"That's not what I ordered! I requested the Maison de Cimetiere for that table! You're serving —"

The waiter attempts to free himself while the crowd hushes and stills, watching the spectacle.

"Georgianna," Mrs. van der Zee says, warningly, her voice carrying as she rises from the nearest table. Chet lays his hand on his mother's shoulder but she shrugs it off.

"This is wrong!" Mrs. Mandeville shrieks, grabbing the bottle with her free hand and shoving the waiter away. As he stumbles, Ozzie thinks he recognizes the waiter as the mimic from the back; hard to tell, however, in their uniform coats. Swinging the bottle over her head, she advances on Mrs. van der Zee, who clears her throat and raises her opera glass to her face.

Mrs. Mandeville halts and lowers the bottle. As if transfixed, she changes in an instant from shrieking harridan to meek, abashed girl. She hands the bottle to Mrs. van der Zee. "For you and yours," she says in a high voice. "May the spirit of the season be upon you. The staff seem to have lost the bottle I brought you."

"Thank you, Georgianna," Mrs. van der Zee intones, handing the bottle without looking to her son. "Enjoy the rest of your evening."

Mrs. Mandeville turns to slink back to her table, but the false train of her gown — Ozzie recognizes now as a knock-off of a Schiaparelli two seasons ago — catches the foot of the still-stumbling waiter. She shoves him away and he finally pulls himself upward, lunging for her.

Something in his contorted face, or perhaps the lock of hair slipping free of its brilliantined hold, confirms for Ozzie that this is the waiter from the backways. Mrs. Mandeville screams as his hands near her neck, and then her daughter, stolid old Blossom, lets out a matching scream and lumbers for the waiter, knocking him aside.

They spin slowly, locked together, the waiter calling out hoarsely, desperately, and Blossom matching the sound with her own.

"Blossie!" Mrs. Mandeville shrieks and in the tumult, her wig has slipped slightly toward the back of her head, exposing an expanse of bone-white forehead stark against her tan.

Bettie is half out of her seat when Ozzie realizes this fact and she nearly grunts when he grabs her arm. "You can't," he says lowly. "Bettie, think of your father —"

She looks around wildly, at the three other waiters lumbering slowly into the room as if called by the wounded-cow bellow of their brother. They all look frighteningly alike, slack mouths and shuffling gait and a strange, greenish-gray tint to their skins. Ozzie feels that he should want to throw up at the sight, but instead is strangely mesmerized.

"Not him! Blossie, no, not a waiter!" Mrs. Mandeville screams while Blossom and the redhead continue their slow, grotesque waltz. One of the waiters advances toward her and slaps her across the face, cutting off her shrieks.

"Georgianna, really," Mrs. van der Zee intones, standing up, but, Ozzie notes, carefully keeping the table between herself and the waiters. "Whatever is going on?"

Beside her, Mr. Shameddy is laughing like a kid at his first three-ring circus, clapping his hands and bouncing in his seat. Someone across the room gets a door open and frocks tear and fraternity brothers shove each other in the rush to escape. A waiter turns slowly, noting the riotous movement, and starts after them.

Bettie wrenches her wrist from Ozzie's grip. "I have to," she hisses. "Something's wrong, Ozzie —"

The waiter who smacked Mrs. Mandeville is pulling her back to her feet and wrapping his arms around her, dancing and stumbling, and burying his face in her ropy neck. Mrs. van der Zee has shrunk back behind Mr. Shameddy as Blossom and her waiter waltz clumsily closer, and Ozzie nods.

"You're right, this isn't —"

Bettie breaks free and runs after the waiter following the escapees, calling, "Hey, ya big palooka, you want something?"

For half an instant, Ozzie lets himself admire how well she can run in heels, before a low, insistent cackle catches his attention. Mr. Shameddy is sauntering into the melee, one hand in his pocket, the other swinging his mahogany walking stick. He's still laughing, looking for all the world delighted by the bizarre spectacle unfurling around him. He pauses, right in the center of the dance floor, and twirls his stick like a baton, then starts to draw on the parquet with its tip.

Ozzie doesn't know what to do. Bettie has clobbered one waiter with her rhodophane clutch and, when that breaks, a silver dish of savory pecans. He goes down heavily right on his keyster and she turns, eyes scanning the room, evaluating the next threat.

This is a nightmare-version of the ball, strange and slow and clumsy, and Ozzie wishes desperately that Bert was here; he's a real man. Bert always knows what to do. Ozzie's just playacting.

Mrs. Mandeville dances with her waiter-suitor, the bite on her neck oozing black, slow blood. They bump into Blossom and her waiter, and there is a round of muted bellows and thumping limbs before the waiters switch partners.

Bettie takes off after the second lone waiter, a slighter kid with a pockmarked face who's gotten himself trapped between the punch table and one of the small dining tables. He grunts and moves forward, hitting the punch table and backing up, trying again. As she runs, she jostles Mr. Shameddy with one pink arm and he looks up, mouth twisted in a snarl, before sweeping his foot over the floor and starting again with his walking stick.

"Bettie, don't!" Ozzie calls when Bettie pulls away the punch table to get at the trapped waiter. Sherbet punch splashes her dress, but it's worse that he's free now, lumbering towards her.

Bettie stands her ground, fiercely assuming the fighting stance that Bert taught her, the one that also gets her served in the most crowded of chophouses before everyone else. She delivers a left hook to the waiter's jaw, but he only pauses before continuing to move forward, his mouth opening lasciviously.

"What is wrong with these farleys?" Bettie yells, rubbing her knuckles, stepping neatly out the waiter's path. He doesn't seem to notice the lack of obstacle, and continues forward at the same steady, stomach-churning pace, heading, it seems, for the band. "Ozzie?"

Ozzie knows. Like the last thread in embroidery drawing taut and pulling together the scene on the hoop, like the right pinch of allspice to a simmering cider that spikes the flavor up to the sublime, like just the right accessory falling into his lap, he understands. Champagne, Mrs. Mandeville's ambition, Mr. Shameddy's maniacal cackle, even the savory pecans: It all comes together in a beautiful, sensible rush.

"Zombies!" he calls to Bettie and rushes toward her. Bettie stares at him, open-mouthed, and Ozzie regrets he doesn't have the time to enjoy having flummoxed her, of all people. "Zombies. The living dead, found in the sugar-cane fields and villages of Haiti, brought back to earth and controlled by Ngangas or auctioned off to do the bidding of the rich and —"

"Clap it, Bert Junior," Bettie says. "How do I stop them?"

"That's the question, isn't it?" Mr. Shameddy says, sidling over. "Why would you want to stop them? Best party I've seen all year."

"You —" Ozzie says, jabbing his finger at Shameddy's chest. "You did this, didn't you?"

Shameddy raises his palms, startlingly pink against his jacket, then wipes them both over his face, streaking off pancake make-up and revealing oaken-dark skin. He grins and shrugs, pushing his spectacles back up his nose. "I do nothing but have fun, my boy."

"Witch-doctor?" Bettie asks Ozzie.

Shameddy laughs. "Much more than your silly superstitions, little Jane. I just came for the fun, you see." He speaks in his real voice now — Ozzie is sure that's his real voice, silken and lilting, filtered through his nose — and laughs again. When he snaps his fingers, a black top-hat pops into his hand and he taps it over his head. "I just like me some fun. Care to dance?"

He reaches for Bettie's hand, grinning all the while, but Ozzie steps between them. "Sorry. She's taken."


Carefully, Ozzie slips his arm through Bettie's and leads her away. "Not a witch-doctor," he says under his breath. "Loa."

She wrinkles her nose. "Like in Hawaii?"

"Loa," he says, more distinctly. "Not lei. Never mind. To stop a zombie, you usually have to behead them."

Squaring her shoulders, her mouth pinching up in disgust, Bettie nods. "That's great, because I've got so many weapons to choose from in the ballroom of the —"

A long, high wailing note off Charley's saxophone cuts her off, and they both rush toward the band. Lehman and the timpanist cower behind the drum-set, the rest of the musicians scatter, and only Charley stays where he is as the waiter crashes through the tissue-paper barrier, arms waving like a broken windmill.

"Hit him!" Ozzie calls, stopping short at the next table as Bettie hurries on. "Hit him really —"

Charley raises his beloved sax and brings it down on the zombie's head. It seems to stun him momentarily, and Bettie grabs him from behind, whirling him around and beating his face and arms while Charley pins the zombie with his sax.

"Hard," Ozzie says uselessly. "Bettie! Catch!" He lobs savory pecans, one after the other, toward her, and Bettie catches each one, her mouth opening to ask him what the hell he's doing. The zombie struggles in Charley's grip, moaning harshly. "Feed them — Give them to him. Stuff 'em in his —"

Going up on tiptoe, Bettie crams a handful of pecans into the zombie's lolling mouth. For a moment, the three of them are frozen there, sweat streaking Charley's face, the zombie twitching, Bettie teetering on her toes. Then the zombie groans and slumps to the floor.

"That's it!" Ozzie calls. "It's the salt, see, it —"

"Never mind," Bettie and Charley yell in unison as they scramble across the dance floor toward the Mandevilles and their zombie lovers. Shrugging, mentally patting himself on the back for figuring it out, Ozzie joins them.

Once you know how to solve a problem, Bert has always said, the rest is a cakewalk. He's right. They make short work of the dancing foursome, although the pecans have no effect on poor Blossom. Her mother and the two waiters fall to the floor as expected, but Blossom sprays out a mouthful of pecans, shakes off Ozzie's hand, and stumbles to a chair.

"Are you —?" Ozzie asks, following her.

Blossom has her head in her hands and when she speaks, her voice is muffled and wet with tears. "I thought, thought, he —" She hiccups, then coughs up more pecans. "Thought he liked me."

"You're not a zombie," Ozzie says slowly.

Raising her head, Blossom fixes him with a scornful stare. "No."

"You didn't have any of your mother's champagne?" That's how the bewitching powder was delivered, Ozzie is sure; Mrs. Mandeville intended it for the van der Zees. Blossom shakes her head. Flushed, her hair loosened, she looks remarkably pretty. Perhaps it's being separated from her mother that's doing it. "You sure?"

"I don't drink." Blossom says. "It killed Papa."

"Right, then," Ozzie says, patting her shoulder, cursing himself for his forgetfulness. Lyman Mandeville's suicide, in the poolhouse to the family's compound on Fisher's Island, was widely blamed on a lethal combination of bootleg whiskey and a showgirl named Belinda.

"Excuse me," Bettie is saying behind them and Ozzie pats Blossom's shoulder once more before turning around. "But a little light battery with a wind instrument hardly qualifies as essential help."

Charley's laughing, his jacket off and bow-tie loosened. "But feeding the monsters like you did, girlie. Sure, that's of the utmost importance."

Bettie nods furiously. Her hair has come loose from its chignon and her lipstick is smeared. "That's exactly what I'm saying. I could have brought them down whether you were here or not."

"Lucky for you," Charley says, "I was, or all of the morning papers would be abuzz with the zombie infestation of high society."

Bettie slaps him and Charley grins more widely. "You're a jerk."

"And you're a brat."

Ozzie's about to speak, but he's too busy admiring their unwilling courtship, expecting them to break out in a wrestling match any minute, when strong arms enfold him from behind and breath warms his neck. "So this is what you children get up to while Daddy's working."

Ozzie twists in Bert's hold, pleasure unrolling through him in hot, soft waves at the sight of Bert's face and the solidity of his body. His arms go up around Bert's neck and he says seriously, "It was a madhouse."

"You seem to have tamed the inmates," Bert says, kissing his forehead.

"Missed you," Ozzie says and cranes upward for a kiss. "What are you doing here?"

"That's really quite enough," Charley says jovially, shaking Bert's hand when Ozzie steps back. "You old Fagin, should've known you'd come running when your boy wandered into danger."

"Zombies!" Bettie tells Bert excitedly, barely pausing for him to kiss her cheek. "Ozzie wanted me to decapitate them, but then there were the nuts and that seemed to work, and —"

Bert glances over at Ozzie, one eyebrow raised.

"The salt," Ozzie says. "Hurston and Boas, and that German chappie, they've all found that salt can revive at least three types of zombie."

Bettie frowns and crosses her arms. "Three? There're more than that?"

"They might've been the damned," Ozzie says simply. "If you die without ever having been ridden, see, then you're damned to wander the earth —"

"Moral of the story, though," Charley says, clapping Bert's shoulder; he's as impatient with explanations as Bettie. "Pretty Ozzie here, he figured it out."

Bert's still looking at Ozzie, fixedly, the expression somewhere between a stare and a glower.

This is both a private and a public look, but more often private; it can mean any number of things, an invitation to come and play in bed to recrimination for having burned the roast. Ozzie flushes under the scrutiny, but does not look down, as much as he wants to.

"Been getting into my books?" Bert asks.

"Yes," Ozzie says. "Although the Hurston, I bought that one for your birthday next week."

Bert smiles at that, wider and wider, and then he's embracing Ozzie. It feels a little different, more solid, more enthusiastic, than usual. "Marvelous," Bert says. "Utterly marvelous."

"Met a loa, too," Ozzie tells Bert in the cab downtown to the club. He and Bert, and Bettie and Charley, cannot dance uptown, not in public, and they need to celebrate.

Bert tousles his hair. "You did not."

"I did," Ozzie says, shooting his shirt-cuffs and smoothing back his hair. He's enjoying playing at the boy tonight, and he's not ready to change masks just yet. "Handsome fellow, too. Seemed to like me."

Grimacing playfully, Bert nips down on Ozzie's ear and pulls him closer. "Wicked, teasing boy."

"Yes," Ozzie agrees. He cannot seem to stop grinning.

At the Arabian Knights, they share a bottle of French champagne amongst the four of them, toasting the voodoo and effervescence and the miracle of the Rialto's savory pecans. Charley reclines in the banquette, his arm loose around Bettie's shoulders, and Ozzie thinks they're the most handsome couple he's ever seen. They fit together, sparkly and brave and beautiful, he thinks, even — especially — when Bettie petulantly dumps her glass in Charley's lap in retaliation for a jibe and he grabs her in a headlock that becomes a kiss.

Ozzie pulls Bert to the dance floor. Only when sufficiently sozzled on bubbly will Bert ever dance with him, and tonight, Bert clasps Ozzie's head in his hands and kisses him, long and deeply, as the rhythm slides sinuously around them. The queens and pansies around them ooh and ahh, but Ozzie barely hears them as he shifts his feet and starts to lead Bert into a slow waltz.

As the music fades out, Bert kisses him again and leads them back to an unoccupied table. Right against Ozzie's ear, he says so softly that the shivers run down to the soles of Ozzie's feet, "Your wonders never cease, do they?"

"Not if I can help it, no," Ozzie says. He sits with one leg thrown over Bert's lap and rubs slow circles up and down Bert's chest. Bert looks eminently debauched right now, relaxed and smiling, his hair sticking up and cheeks flushing darkly. Ozzie pulls him closer and says against Bert's neck, "The things I'd like to show you, darling, you have no idea —"

Bert actually trembles slightly in Ozzie's hold and Ozzie hears his lips working wetly together. "Is that so?" he asks hoarsely.

They can play countless games, and they have, from schoolboy in short pants (gray flannel, with a round red cap and sagging knee socks) to oiled, naked Spartan wrestlers to Boston wives tipsy on the sherry to their usual, and favorite, dedicated inverts in a matched pair of masculine and feminine, but this is a new one, one that makes Ozzie's fingertips dance across Bert's chest and his hips start to work insistently against Bert's side.

"Take me home," Ozzie says, wrapping his hand around Bert's tie and tugging gently, "and we can get started."

Bert's eyes flutter closed, but then Ozzie clucks his tongue, and they fly open, staring at Ozzie. "Not home," Bert says, glancing around and spreading his legs under the table. "No time. Here, dearheart, please —"

Ozzie has lost count of how many times he's waited for Bert in the last dressing room at the end of the hall behind the stage, waited anxiously, soothing his nerves with ironing and tidying-up. Waiting and reading, only to find himself taken by Bert right off the stage, hot eager hands and suckling mouth on the back of his neck, bent over the rattling vanity table or on top of the sagging armchair in the corner.

Tonight, however, they crash into the dressing room together, wrapped in each other's arms, Bert pulling Ozzie up onto his toes and mashing their mouths together.

"Marvelous boy," Bert is breathing, gasping, between kisses, tugging Ozzie's dinner jacket off and kicking closed the door. "Show me."

Bert sprawls over the divan, one hand wrapped around Ozzie's wrist, thumb working over the tender skin there. Ozzie wobbles, fighting to remain upright, and then Bert removes his spectacles. His face is still handsome, but now slightly soft, almost unformed. Ozzie catches sight of himself in the vanity's mirror, his rumpled dress shirt and neat black tie, and draws a slow breath.

In Escapade, William Powell waltzes with the innocent and angelically beautiful Luise Rainer, and she looks up at him with just that sort of softness in her eyes that Bert is giving him now.

Ozzie cups Bert's cheek, still growing accustomed to being the taller of the two, and kisses him searchingly while his other hand runs down Bert's chest. His palm comes to rest on Bert's thigh, and he presses upward, curving his fingers and squeezing until Bert gasps into his mouth.

Ozzie slides his mouth across Bert's cheek to his ear. "Let me," he whispers wetly, trailing his fingers up the line of shirt-studs. "Be mine."

"Yes. Yes." Bert's voice is hoarse, softly edged with urgency, and when Ozzie grasps his hands and brings them to his waist, Bert's mouth opens and his fingers dig in. "Yes."

He's a magician, and a scholar, and Ozzie's best friend as well as lover and husband, but just now, leaning up into the kisses and shivering, he's helpless, entirely in Ozzie's hand. He murmurs low in his throat when Ozzie pops open the studs and spreads open his shirt, gasps when Ozzie kisses the tracery of shrapnel scars on his belly. Those scars are older than Ozzie, gained at the Somme and infinitely tender. Older, but as Ozzie leans over, sucking the glossy skin, making Bert tremble and fist at Ozzie's hair, they could be birth-scars.

Ozzie is no longer William Powell, but himself, whoever that is, all liquid under the skin, flooding heat that yearns for Bert. He's simply a little more solid now, his touch firmer and needs sharper as he adjusts Bert on the divan and, painting Bert's face with kisses, strips off both sets of trousers.

Pond's cream from the vanity, the squat jar cold in his hand, and Bert hooks an arm around Ozzie's shoulders, pulling him back down, laughing into his mouth. "She's beautiful, she's engaged, she uses Ponds —"

"— tubs are too small," Ozzie answers, slicking his fingers as Bert draws one leg up against his chest.

Laughter ripples into groans, something symphonic and swelling as the climactic scene in the top-of-the-bill picture. Ozzie cannot quite believe he's doing this, feeling this; it's all too rich and too elegant, feels too sweepingly overwhelming, to be real. This is all fantasy, played out with flesh and love and Bert.

Bert bites his lip and reaches for Ozzie's prick, his fingers long and terribly hot around Ozzie, sending sizzles throughout Ozzie. His back bows as he pushes into Bert's hand, forward momentum and need and urgent, confident love shaking him free of Bert, holding Bert's arm to his side as Bert lifts his hips and Ozzie braces one foot up on the divan and pushes.

His pulse catches in his throat, fills his mouth with unutterable sighs and endearments as he enters Bert, impossible tension trembling around perfect softness.

"Ye-es," Bert gasps again, one hand grasping Ozzie's shoulder, the other on his waist, guiding him and pulling him in. "Oh, beautiful — just like —"

Bert's accent strengthens when he's aroused, goes grittier, and Ozzie loves to have caused this, to brought this out, and he listens with his whole body as he rocks more deeply inside, the pressure everywhere threatening to squeeze him to nothing, to diamonds. Bert's eyes shine and his mouth works, no words but sounds, and scraping fingernails, and there's welcome and gratitude in everything he does. Ozzie wants to do more, to do better, to give back everything Bert's ever given him, doubled and tripled and wrapped in glossy silver paper.

"Wonderful man, so wonderful — and right — and —" Ozzie cannot speak, the words back up in his mouth, and he cannot breathe, as the feeling of Bert, surrounding and encasing and holding him, increases to a fevered, perfect pitch, an achingly endless note. He chases it, like Charley chases the tune or a hophead chases the smoke, chasing and burrowing and grabbing at Bert, pulling him up and pushing into him and biting at his neck. "Touch yourself for me, let me see —"

Bert's words, Ozzie's tongue, and it all slides together, transmuting and transmogrifying into something new, as Bert's stunned, flushed face drops back and he wraps his hand around his prick and pulls in time with Ozzie's thrusts. Large and small, in and out, bony and muscled: All the jostling juxtapositions that usually divide and categorize them are melting, whirling, together, and Ozzie's throat rasps out in a long grunt that yields into a cooing murmur as he comes and comes again.

Bert shakes, gone all to silk in an updraft, beneath him, sucking in air as he spasms and shoots hot against Ozzie's belly. He pulls Ozzie down with a thump against his heaving chest, kissing his forehead and petting back his hair.

He's gone slack, every inch of skin thrumming and overstuffed with heat, but Ozzie kisses Bert back as best he can.

"And what, my dear, what should we call this game?" Bert whispers after several dry smacks of the lips.

"Call it —" Ozzie thinks it over as he draws spirals and vines through the sweaty hair on Bert's chest. Escapade, he thinks, or maybe caper. Neither feels quite right. "I don't know."

"Ozzie's Big Night," Bert whispers, chuckling and kissing him.

"I like that," Ozzie says. "Like the finale the best."

"As do I, sweetheart, as do I."