Once upon a time there was a boy named Ray. (His real name was Stanley, but only his mum called him that.) Ray, unlike most heroes of these sorts of stories, was not a prince. Normally, this would not have caused him any trouble; after all, most people are not princes, and live their lives in happiness. But Ray had fallen in love with a princess named Stella.

Ray thought that Stella was the most beautiful princess in the whole wide world. After he saw her for the first time, he hadborrowed his mum's library card and gotten on his bicycle and ridden to the library, and looked up her name; he had learned that it meant "star," and that seemed right and good, because in his eyes she shone, bright and lovely. His own name, he knew, meant "mighty protector," and he vowed that he would protect Stella until the day he drew his final breath.

Time passed, and Ray grew into a man, and still he loved his star-princess. And somehow, through what good fortune he knew not, she had grown to love him, too. They married, in due time, with the pomp and circumstance due to a princess, and he took her to live with him in his little house.

Now, in the normal course of things, this would be the time to speak of how happy Ray was with his princess-- for he was-- or of how they lived happily ever after. But not even princesses always have happy endings, let alone ordinary men; and after a time Stella grew unhappy. She had hoped that marrying Ray would let her live a different life than that usually granted to a princess; but he wanted always to protect and shelter her, never thinking that perhaps she had grown tired of being protected. Their problems grew and worsened until one morning Ray awoke to discover that his star-princess had slipped away from him, and he was alone in his little house, and his heart grew sore within him.

With no princess to come home to, Ray found his only solace in his work, for he was a protector of the kingdom, true-hearted and valiant. Still, he ached; for every time he was able to rescue a woman or a child, he saw the princess he'd been unable to keep, and the children she had never borne him. And so, when it came to pass that his commander was looking for a volunteer to do a difficult and lonely job, he offered himself; for surely, he thought, anything was better than endless days of helping other men's families, and nights of sitting alone and sad in the little house he had bought for his Stella.

His task was to take the place of another protector, one who was away on a mission himself, to spy on the enemies of the king. Ray learned that the man he was to replace was also named Ray, Ray Vecchio; it seemed to him a good omen. Perhaps, he thought, he could find in his new life the peace that had eluded him since his princess had gone.

Alas, this was not to be; for the dearest friend of the man whose life he was to live was a prince, as fair and pure, it seemed, as the unbroken snows of his homeland, far to the north. The prince was a man noble and valiant, although at times foolhardy; and though at first he was grieved to find his friend replaced with a stranger, he was willing to find friendship with the new Ray as he had with the old.

Ray's heart was glad for the friendship of the prince, and as time passed, he began to wonder if, perhaps, he should have sought his mate in the snow, rather than the stars. He did his best not to reveal his secret thoughts, but within himself, he began to love the prince; he longed to see an answering heat in his eyes, to kiss his mouth, to be allowed to touch his skin, so pale and fair. But Ray was afraid of losing the prince as he had lost his princess, and so spoke nothing of what was in his heart, instead seeking to aid his prince on his many quests for justice, and to protect him from evil men; and if he was not fully happy, he was at least content.

And it came to pass that one day, the man whose life Ray was living completed his mission, and returned home a hero to resume living as he had been before. The prince was delighted to welcome his friend home, and for a time the two Rays and the prince went questing together.

But in time, the prince's desire for the snows of his homeland grew too great to be borne, and he returned to the north. It seemed to Ray then that all the light was gone from the sky, and his heart burned with pain both for the princess he had lost and the prince he had never gained. But the commander of his post asked him to stay and work with the Ray he had at one time replaced; and, seeing no other option but returning to his empty little house, Ray agreed.

Ray and Ray were not very much alike, it seemed at first. Ray had hair the color of straw, that stuck up untidily on the top of his head; his clothes were rough, and his speech unrefined. The Ray that he had replaced, Ray Vecchio, was sleek and smooth, with dark hair and golden skin, and his eyes were as green as the jade necklace Ray had bought for his princess, long ago. They fought, at first, over many things; but in time, they grew to become friends.

But Ray's heart still ached within him, for he had an emptiness inside; he had filled it, for a while, with his princess, and then had tried to fill it with his dreams of the prince; but now they both had gone, leaving only vacancy behind.

Now as they worked together, the heart of Ray Vecchio had turned toward Ray, and he had come to wish that Ray might love him. But Ray Vecchio knew that Ray had loved a princess, bright and lovely as a star, and then a prince, pure and fair as northern snow; and he grew sad, for he thought that surely Ray would never look upon him with favor, a man of hot temper and little beauty, roughened and scarred by the dangers of his life. So he continued without speaking to Ray of love, seeking only to enjoy the solace of his friendship.

One day, as they were going about their duties as protectors of the kingdom, an evil man, fleeing justice, pulled out his bow and arrow, and made as if to shoot Ray; but Ray Vecchio, seeing the danger, threw himself into the arrow's path, knocking Ray aside and taking the wound in his own shoulder.

Ray seized his own bow, and shot the evil man; and while other guards ran to capture him, Ray turned to his partner, angry and afraid. Ray Vecchio lay in the street, red blood staining the fine clothes he wore; but the first words he spoke were to assure himself that Ray was unhurt.

Ray stopped, and stared at him in wonder; for in the green eyes of his friend he saw love; and when he thought, he realized that it had been there for a long time. And his heart, bruised and sore, began to stir within him.

He bound his partner's wound, and took him to a surgeon, and while they worked to remove the arrow he thought of Ray Vecchio: of his bravery, and his kindness, and the love in his eyes. And he thought of Stella, his star-princess, and of his northern prince, and of the way he had always had to reach for them, only to have them slip out of his grasp; and the way he had always tried to protect them, although they didn't want protecting.

And he remembered the way his partner had taken into his body the arrow meant to pierce Ray's own heart, and he thought that maybe it would be better to be protected sometimes than to always be the protector.

And then the surgeon came to him, and told him that he had removed the arrow, and that Ray Vecchio had asked to see him; and so he went into the room where Ray Vecchio lay, pale and bandaged, but alive. And when his partner saw him, he smiled, a smile of warmth and sweetness that seemed to creep into the empty space in his heart and make a home there.

And he took his partner home, to his little house, and he spoke to him, fearfully, of love, and his heart was filled with joy; for Ray Vecchio held him close to his body with the arm that was not wounded, and whispered tender words to him, soothing and healing as aloe to a burn. And as, at night, they lay down to sleep together, close and warm, Ray felt his partner's lips upon his skin; and he thought that truly, he was happier in this man's embrace than he had ever been when he was reaching for the stars.

~The End~

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