Pillow Fight

Emma gets up off the rumpled bed and walks back and forth, hands on hips.  “I’m not sure we’ll be able to dodge these people if they really want to find us.  We have no idea what resources they have, what kind of money they put into research, what–”

“Now that’s what I keep coming back to,” Drin says.  “The motive.”

Emma flaps her hand.  “Gimme cop rules, for a moment.  Evidence first, then guesses on motives.”

Dance throws his arm over his eyes with a long sigh.

Emma says to him, “Tell me again about the people at the cafe.”

“I smelled a gust of bad smell, I looked up, the man’s neck blew up and outward and then the car came at us and something hit us–might have been a chair–and we were rolling away.   When we came back past the car, four people in it were dead with their necks blown apart and Drin’s co-worker was crushed under the car tires.”

“Did you know the people in the car?”

“Slightly, from Drin’s work.”  Another shrug, as if that’s it.

Emma walks back and forth, elbows stuck out, hands tapping on her hips in the cheap polyester pants.  Even the pants can’t obscure the shape of those femme fatale hips, whose width gets bemoaned for excess now and then.  Drin wishes he was moaning into them, but of course he wishes that on a very regular basis.  “Stop it,” she says crossly, and thwacks Drin with her knuckles as she passes him.

“Stop what?” he says, surprised.

“Thinking that,” she says.

“What?” he says.

“That,” she says, and thumps him again.

He just makes a leering Groucho Marx face, wiggling his mustache.

Dance starts to laugh.

“What?” Drin says again, waggling his eyebrows suggestively instead.

“That, very much that,” Dance says, waving his hand at them both, and he’s hugging himself, shaking with laughter for no reason.

Drin makes more puzzled faces, exaggerating it, until they’re both laughing, and ducking against the pillow Emma is bashing at them both.  She bashes it hard, too, wading into them, and then she’s sprawling over Dance, and grabbing Drin’s shoulders close, and then they’re all in a heap with Dance on the bottom.  All that weight hurts on his back and low in his pelvis, and he twists around on his side to ease it, still laughing.  Drin puts his hand right there, pausing, and says, “You okay?”

“Oh good, yes please,” Dance says, smiling, and sighs as the big warm hand strokes the ache there.  “Mmmm,” he says, eyes closed.   Emma’s hands start working on his shoulders at the same time, wringing more groans out of him.

“Spoilt,” Emma murmurs, and kisses his cheek, while he smiles.

Consummation

Getting in a shower, or taking a swim first thing at the hotel, seemed like a reasonable plan back when Dance didn’t know where they were going for their first night.  That was another of Drin’s secret gifts.  It turns out their first night requires four hours’ drive up scenic coastline, with Drin hugging him and pointing out landmarks in the declining sunset light.  It’s absurdly luxurious, even in sweated formal shirts and very sticky, wet pants.

Drin hits the intercom again, chats with the driver, retrieves sparkling water from the limo’s bar.  There they find gift bags from Shura, fragile lemon meringues and almond cookies and dried fruit and powdery rich truffles in fancy upscale wrappers.  They feed each other crumbly bits, gobbling it up like children ruining their dinner.  Drin pulls out a tiny pocket camera and snaps pictures of Dance smeared with cocoa, laughing, and after he loses the tickle fight, he allows Dance to return the favor.

By the end, the coastline is all invisible in the dark, outlined only in lights shining on the water, while the road switchbacks over invisible drops.

Drin sits sideways with his arms around Dance, breathing drowsily, but not asleep; he kisses Dance now and then, grinning.  It always prompts Dance to start idly humming again.  He doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, sometimes, until it makes Drin chuckle.

Drin’s choice of accommodations is not a hotel.  It’s a cottage at the base of rugged, twisty cliff roads.  The driver opens the limo door for them under the powerful driveway light, grins at their sleepy expressions, and unloads their luggage inside the house while they struggle back into their shoes, stuff straggling ties into pockets.  Once they’ve hoisted themselves out of the limo, the driver salutes Drin with a touch to his cap visor, hands Dance several rings of keys, shakes hands with them both, and drives away.

Clicking the first fob gives no beep noises; it opens the sliding garage door, revealing a red sportscar waiting inside, under the lights.

“Bud’s idea.  Close it up again, we gotta check out this place.  I asked Shura to find somebody to stock up the kitchen so we’ve got stuff to eat right away.  We won’t have to go shopping, or even cook, if you don’t want to.”  Then he pauses, ceremonially, on the winding front sidewalk.  The front door lock clicks open audibly.  “Okay, you got the door, you still wanna– okay.  Is this trick gonna hurt your back?”

“It’s fine now,” Dance says, bending his knees, holding out his hand, and lifting one foot.

Drin lifts his own opposite foot, wraps that leg around Dance’s waist, grips Dance’s shoulders in both hands, and allows Dance’s leg to slide around his hip.  Dance grips the big man’s upper arms.  They rock in place, and the balance settles.

During rehearsal practices, they had joked about each of them trying to lift the other one over the threshold.  Kibitzing by the ladies resulted in trying out this stunt.  Falling over on the lawn in many varieties of potato-sack-race silliness made all of them laugh a lot.

“Okay,” Dance says, grinning.  “You?”

“Solid as rock,” Drin says, sounding surprised.  He frees one hand, pulls his tiny camera from a pocket, and takes a downward picture of them.   “Pictures, or it didn’t happen,” he says, grinning.  Then he tucks it away, chuckling, and he takes a firm grip on Dance’s shoulders.

He lifts and swings Dance around, Dance gets his one allowed foot on the ground, and then they’ve taken a joint step forward on the pathway.  Odd, how the biomechanics depend on the tightness of the grip with the arms, how the pull of lifting muscle has to come from tension higher in the body.  Thankfully, it’s no great effort to swing Drin’s balance around on the pivot of one support leg.  “Your turn!”

“Step up here,” Drin says.

“Got it,” Dance says, and he’s laughing.  “You cheated, you got the threshold!”

“Gotta time these things,” Drin says solemnly, lifting Dance around.

Dance’s shoe gains the dark slatelike tile inside.  “Got it.”  He lifts Drin around–it’s getting easier as they get used to the motions–and stretches up to give him a kiss.  Drin is laughing then, lifting him around, and they’ve got enough room to close the door.  A little push of Dance’s lifted foot closes the door with a click behind them.  Then they’re each standing on their own two feet, arms still holding on tight.

There’s a pause, a check in Drin’s muscles.  His hand flips the deadbolt shut.

“Yes, I know, you did not go look through the whole house first to see it is safe,” Dance says, smiling slowly.

“No, but I had… house plans,” Drin growls at him, bends swiftly, loops one arm around Dance’s knees, and hoists him up bodily over one shoulder with a shout.  “Now, this is more like it!”   Ten quick steps and he’s dropped Dance into a broad soft surface, yanked off the shoes, ripped open his shirt, unzipped him, and yanked off pants and shorts alike, and crawled up between his bare knees.

He’s chuckling as he blows the world’s biggest, wettest raspberry right onto Dance’s belly.

“Arrrgh,” Dance gasps, sock feet flailing.

“I am so going to–” Drin says, flinging himself down onto Dance, blowing tickly raspberries everywhere he can reach.  When he sits up again, his hand pulls out the camera.  He snaps pictures of Dance.

“Yeah?  Promise?” Dance gasps, and rolls them both over.  “These clothes go–now–”

Drin’s socks, shoes, pants, cummerbund, the camera, it all goes flying.  The shirt gets yanked down Drin’s arms, pinning him a bit.  Dance gasps, fighting with the man’s cufflinks, while Drin lays there grinning up at him, trapped between Dance’s bare thighs.  Then the big man twists, bringing Dance down onto his side, wrapping Dance’s hands in the shirt while his own hands magically slide free.  He rolls Dance flat on his back, puts one hand on Dance’s cock and the other slids down, grips hard on butt muscle.

“Oh, oh–” Dance gasps.

Drin whispers into his ear,”Oh, yeah, that’s a promise, you oughta just open wide now–”

“You just let me get my mouth on you–” Dance gasps, jerking, but Drin’s hand keeps pulling on his stiff cock.

“Oh no, I’d never last if I let you suck me,” Drin says.  He lets go of Dance’s cock, pulls up Dance’s hands, shoves something into his fingers.  A packet of lube, another of a condom.  “Fuck me, sweetheart.”

“You had those in your pocket!”

“Of course.”  He grins down at Dance, his skin flushed.  “There’s plenty more, too. Fuck me, sweetheart.  You need it bad right now.”  He slides his freckled knees around Dance’s thighs, crooning at Dance’s cock jutting up in front of him, teasing it with his fingertips.  “You want it, you do.  Get your fingers in me, I want to feel it inside me.”

Dance groans, tearing open the lube, getting it slathered on and into the hot, moist hole poised so close.  Drin tears open the other packet, rolls the condom onto Dance’s cock, gripping him at the base.  He’s straddling Dance, knees sliding up around Dance’s hips.

“Oh, yeah, hello.  C’mon, yell for me.  Give it to me.  Fuck me.”  Drin rocks forward, and then his weight is all along Dance’s body, and he’s got his mouth wide open on Dance’s, and they’re kissing, the man’s mustache bristling against Dance’s nose.

“Oh,” Dance says, arching up.  “Oh. Oh now.  Now.”

Drin gives fast little grunts at the helpless reflex lunges of Dance’s hips surging up, and he’s pushing back hard onto him.  But the angle isn’t right for Drin.  Drin is doing it out of knowledge, out of love, liking it, but he won’t come properly.  He’s trying to make it last.  Dance isn’t hitting the right place inside to make him really orgasm hard, and both of them know it.  Deliberate, damn the man.

Dance growls.  He’s not settling for a one-off when it would be so much better together.

Dance braces his belly muscles against the weight of Drin’s hips, pushes up with his arms, gets his head and chest up, gets them both sitting up, hugging each other.  Drin is kissing him frantically, trying to distract, but Dance gets them shifted.  Gets the angle he knows they need, even if it finishes them off much faster.

“Oh God yes, yes, there,” Drin gasps.  Then he is pushing himself down onto Dance’ cock, fucking himself onto Dance, crying out each time Dance is hitting that sweet spot, his whole body tightening around Dance, his butt muscles wringing hard against Dance’s cock, and in moments they’re both locked in place, not even breathing.

“Oh,” Drin moans.  “Oh.  Oh.”

“Yes,” Dance says softly, leaning into his husband, holding him up.  He’s suddenly feeling the whole massive weight of Drin’s body resting firmly on his own pelvis, pushing his ass deeply into the mattress, which ought to hurt like hell, after so much standing today.  But it doesn’t.  Something in his upper back crackles like a worn part, something else unknots, his shoulders ease all over, and something down in his tailbone gives a soft, satisfied clunk! as perceptible as a switch being pulled.  He sighs, relaxing, rests his head on Drin’s shoulder, feels Drin stroke his back.

“What was that? That bone noise?” Drin whispers into his hair.

“No idea, but it is feeling good.”

“We can do that some more.”  Drin hugs him tighter.  “Hell, we could do that a lot more.”

“If I didn’t tear up your ass,” Dance says, worried suddenly.

“Oh, it’s happy,” Drin says, laughing with little puffs of breath into Dance’s skin.

“How about later?”

“Well, aren’t I supposed to be walking funny for two weeks after we get back?”

Dance chuckles.  “Hey, supposed to be me, yes, my silly raw ass hanging out of my apron?”

Drin sighs.  “Hate to disappoint you, sweetheart, but stupid porn is not that great.  Yeah, Robert tattled all over about that old guy being offensive to you.  Hell, I wouldn’t mind sharing sexy pictures with you.  I’d love to make some with you.  I mean, more than the snaps I took just now.  I’d love to get you all wound up on a fantasy.  That’d be fun.”

“What kind of fantasies do you want?” Dance asks, licking the sweat on Drin’s hot shoulder.  God, he tastes good.  All day in a suit, being patient, enduring things, and finally, at last, reeking of sex.  Dance could lick that off him all day.

“Fucking on the beach, right outside there,” Drin murmurs.  Then he sighs.  “Cold, though.”

Dance smiles.  “Get you standing up against a boulder, pulling your jeans down, sucking you down until you come.”

“I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of boulders out there, too.”  Drin lifts his weight onto his knees, drawing himself up, and Dance grabs onto the condom, waiting as his penis is released.  He slides the latex off his cock, lets Drin take it away in a tissue.  The big man gets off the bed, tosses the trash out with a thump in the bathroom nearby.  Water runs in a sink, the toilet flushes.  Then Drin stands in the doorway, scrubbing at his eyebrows and yawning.  He puts his big hands up on the door jam and stretches, naked.  He’s been taken, and Dance hasn’t even got started on what he wanted to do.  Every patch of hair on the poor guy’s freckled body is rumpled, twirled, crinkled, wet, or rubbed backward.

b/w picture man's nude muscular back
man’s back, source unknown

“Are you tired?” Dance asks, getting up.

“No, just very, very relaxed,” Drin drawls, blinking at him.  Then he smiles.  “What are you thinking, you wicked boy?”

Dance chuckles.  He wants to cherish all the coppery fur on the man, massage it in all kinds of crazy directions, lick his armpits, rub himself off between those furry thighs.  Absurd, really.  His penis is bobbing, still hard, as he walks.  “Get oil on my hands, rub it all over you, massage you all limp, lick it off.  Bend you over the kitchen table, fuck you a lot.”  He gets his hands on Drin, slides his sticky cock against the man, marking him.  He grabs handfuls of the man’s lean butt muscles.  He leans up into the man’s ribs.  In return, those big hands cup his ass, slide up and span his waist.  Such big hands.  He murmurs into the furry chest, “Get you in the shower, beg you to take me standing up– Oh, my– this tub is big enough to fuck sitting down together–”

“It is,” Drin agrees, looking pleased.  “C’mon, let’s shower off first, then get a good hot soaking.  This thing is a whirlpool tub, you know.”

The tub is massive.  The molded recliner shape at one side is big enough to accommodate Drin, far too big for Dance.  He’ll have to float in Drin’s lap, held in Drin’s arms.  Feel Drin’s cock brushing at his butt.  “Big enough to have good sex in the water.”

“Oh hell yeah.  Get bubble bath all up your sweet little ass, right?”

Dance nods.  “Better than sand.”

Drin laughs.  “Want to just soak awhile together?”

“It won’t end up just soaking,” Dance warns him, bending and turn on the taps, fiddling to get the temperature right.  Big fingers brush his bare ass.

“Oh?” Drin gives him an innocent look.

“You know me better than that,” Dance says, hands sliding onto Drin’s hips.

“Do I?”

Dance sighs, accepting the big sweaty arm resting on his shoulders.  “Oh yes, you big horny dog, you know how much I want you.”

“It’s good thing I brought along toys to keep you busy then,” Drin says fondly, with one hand gripping Dance’s entire butt.  The other one is pulling a familiar toiletries bag out of a bathroom cabinet.  It’s a bit outrageous that the driver unpacked that much for them.  “What?  Why are you rolling your eyes at me?  Isn’t this supposed to be about getting your little man run so hard you can think straight again?”

Dance sighs elaborately.  “Hopeless, this thinking straight,” he says sternly, waiting for the roar of laughter.  “I can think queer all you like, you know?”

Drin bends down to hug him, smiling.  “Okay, okay, you’re absolutely correct.  Where’s the soap?  All right, soap it up, horn dog.  I know I asked for them to get steaks and some good fish into the fridge, so at least there’s plenty of meat to keep you happy.”

Dance growls,”This is the meat I wanna eat,” and he’s kissing down the big man’s chest before Drin laughs, squirming about it feeling ticklish.  Dance fumbles at the taps, turns the flow of water to stream out of the showerhead.  They step into the warm water and settle to soaping each other at length, and then massaging shampoo into each other’s hair, and rinsing it.  By the time Drin wants to fill the tub full and soak himself in the heat, Dance is feeling quite content to settle back in his lap and pull the long arms around him and close his eyes, boneless, almost asleep.

That is, until the big hands start wandering over his skin, learning him all over again, exploring his neck and shoulders and skull and nipples and thighs and ass, moving off the hot zones and hushing him when he starts getting too excited too fast.

The water sloshes a lot when he starts rocking in Drin’s grip on his cock, and Drin chuckles and holds his hips dead still until the sloshing eases down.

“You have to lay still and let it happen,” Drin whispers, kissing his neck, his ear, licking his cheek.  “Lay really still, I’m doing you right, you’re gonna come so hard you scream.”  And then the long arms have moved, doing something to one side, and then they’re under him, and Drin has locked a cock ring on him, captured his balls in a firm hand grip, and a slick, easy pressure is sliding into his ass.  Dance feels the man chuckle as he gives a little mewling sound, his back arches up, and his eyes open very wide.  Drin has deployed the toys already.

“How’s that?  I do love me some waterproof lube.  There’s the first knot on the dildo.  Take it, take it in so easy, yeah, there you are.  Now just relax, I’m stroking you.  Feels good?  Can you take a little touch under your cockhead, down along the vein, yeah?  Good?  Harder?  Tell me.  You like that?  Good.  It’s not too much?  Just let it happen, sweetheart.  Okay, there’s the second knot going in.  I’m pushing it forward, talk to me, tell me when it hits that sweet spot for you–”

Dance gasps, arches, and everything happens at once.  Drin tugs open the cock ring, pulls down on his balls, and pushes inward with the dildo.  Then he pulls it out of Dance in one long drag.  Dance gives a whistle through the tightness in his throat, bucks wildly in midair, flails at the wall, and comes so hard that it feels like everything is letting go.  He makes a high, clenched sound that only small dogs should be able to hear.  Strange spaces in his head are orgasming too.  Stuff comes spurting out from his sinuses, emptying somewhere behind his molars.

And then he’s limp, hanging in Drin’s grip, the man is laughing in delight, and it is completely dark.  The lights have gone out. There is no buzz of power in the place.  All is dark and quiet.

“Now that’s what I call an orgasm!  Sweetheart, you blew out the lights!”

“Did not!”  Dance’s ribs are going like bellows, grabbing for air.  He hangs there in the warm water, feeling the other man’s ribs jerk with laughter under him.  “Um,” Dance says, tilting his head up, heaving for air.  “But we… have to agree, that was… that was…”

“You’re brainless,” Drin says, delighted.  Then he puts his hand on Dance’s mouth, slides his thumb into Dance’s lips.  “Wow.  Tingly.  You came at this end too.”

“Oh yeah.”  Hot fluid sloshes in his mouth under Drin’s touch, runs down his chin, hotter than the bathwater, not as thick as semen but like it in taste.

The thumb spreads it down his chin.

He turns over, straddles Drin, rubs his balls against Drin’s cock, kisses him at leisure, licking at his face, lapping fluid along the man’s forehead and nose and cheeks.  Then he’s kissing Drin again, and the man is rubbing his tongue into Dance’s mouth.  He might be the queen of safe sex whenever he’s meeting Dance’s needs, but crazily, he doesn’t seem to mind getting painted with this odd musky stuff drooling from Dance’s mouth.

“Crazy stoner,” Dance murmurs, and licks it onto the man’s hand.

A week  ago, Dance asked Emma for help looking at his mouth to find out why.  Of course Drin walked in on the middle of it when Emma was poking around his hard palate with dental tools, a magnifier, and a light.   He knew he had plenty of odd bulges at the front of his lower jaw, under his tongue–he always had those.  She had a name for those:  tori.

But nothing showed on his upper palate, where the fluid has been pouring out between his molars.  No shadows, swellings, divots, holes, slits, or puckers.  She even took pictures to check on that with the zoom from a graphics program.

Drin runs his ring finger between Dance’s lips, rubs that fingertip along the roof of Dance’s mouth.

“Oaaah,” Dance says, leaning into it.  It feels really good when the fingerpad touches those places where fluid is still draining out.

“You like that?  Right there, huh?”

“Oh ehh,” Dance makes an affirmative noise, moving his head to rub harder on those spots.  They’re a little tender, the same way his dick feels raw when he’s been masturbating a lot.  Which he has been doing, lately.  Embarrassing, after how much he’s been demanding all kinds of sexual attentions from Drin.

“It’s tingling really strong this time,” Drin says.

“Ah uh?” Dance asks, pausing.

“Hell no, it feels great, don’t worry.  Em looked up more dental stuff about those lumps under your tongue.  She says tori are perfectly normal stress growths in people’s jaw bones, not a problem unless they get in the way, push up the teeth.”  The fingertip brushes at the rounded shapes inside either corner of Dance’s lower jaw, below the gums.

“Uh aa,” Dance says, and the finger withdraws obediently.  A little thickly, he says, “Yes, but the cum thing can’t be tori.  Bone can’t blob out cum like my dick.  And the cum from my dick– my semen– it doesn’t tingle like that.”

There’s silence.  Not even breathing, from the big man under him in the water.

“Right?” Dance demands.

“Um.  Sweetheart, you don’t feel it from the mouth-cum.  You don’t feel any tingling from your dick-cum either, so if it’s the same thing–”

“There is no tube running from my balls up to my mouth!”

Drin is chuckling.  “Hey, not arguing.  We got your basic test case in hand.  Push up these hips for me, let’s get your dick out of the water.”  Drin shifts under him.  The other big hand pulls hard on Dance’s cock, gathers up a final ooze of semen from his slit, and that crazy man slathers it up behind his ears, as if he’s dabbing on perfume.  “Hmm mmm de dum- um, Dance?”

“What?”  Dance clutches at his shoulders in the dark.

“Umm, this isn’t definitive, you understand–” the man’s breathing has speeded up.

“What?”

“It tingles.  A lot.”

Dance grabs harder.  “Are you all right?  Is it hurting–”

“Hell no, it feels great.  Jeezus fuckin’ hallelujah, I keep telling you, it’s wonderful.”

Dance groans, and leans into the man’s chest, feels long arms come up around him.

“Sweetheart, I just want to tell you. I may have been a bit of a stoner in the Army, but I didn’t marry you just for your truly amazing cum.”

Dance can’t help it, he starts to laugh.  He smacks Drin’s chest with both hands.  “We didn’t know about it when you asked me to get married!”

“Shoulda asked you sooner, huh.”  He sounds amused.

“You think that’s what set it off?”

“Or some damn thing.  Hey, maybe it’s all that new kimchee, huh?”  Drin has been joking that it’s all that chili-heavy food Dance has been craving lately.  They haven’t found any better explanation.

“Okay, yes, I admit it, wanting your insatiable dick and your truly superior ass did have something to do with it,” Drin adds, which gets him another smack.

“Oh no, I know why you asked, really,” Dance says sternly, and smacks him again.

“Oh?  Yeah, what’s that?”

“Because I cook.”

Drin dissolves into roars of laughter.  Really, it’s out of all proportion to the joke, but Dance lets him take that exit out of serious conversation… this time.

Drin appears to be taking it all completely for granted–as in, of course Dance has this fabulous mouth thing he does, it’s nice.  He’s not worried even when Dance licks it onto his dry cock and his balls until his skin buzzes, making him orgasm two or three times in a row, getting hard over and over again.  He laughs at questions.  “Hey, what’s not to love?”

Well, Emma warned him about that, too, maddening woman.  While she had Dance’s mouth full of dental tools, she reminded him that it wouldn’t be easy to pin down the big man for this conversation.  She said Drin always displayed a truly alarming ability to deny, compartmentalize, retcon history, confabulate, and outright lie about things.

Dance told her dryly, “Hey, Army vet,” which just got him smacked on the arm.  Hard.  Then she’d stomped off, yelling he wasn’t any better, which hurt his feelings.

Just one of those days where he’d wondered if trying to get married was the worst decision he’d ever made in his life.

“Crazy stoner dude,” Dance mutters, and resumes licking his husband’s face.  He thinks about lapping all over other parts of the man that he hasn’t had the leisure to work on.  Like all those scars on his legs, and his bad arm.  He did that one night last week, as a painkiller, and it worked better than any of Drin’s usual pain pills.  “I want to lick you all over and see if it makes your toes tingle too and–”  He licks sticky fluid along Drin’s thumb, licks it up onto the web of his hand, in his palm, along the back of his fingers, sucks the fingers in two at a time, bites down on them, gnaws at them gently.  Then he licks mouth-cum upward around the slick burn scars on the man’s forearms.  More of it keeps leaking out into his mouth as he works.

“Tingles.  Jeezus fuck, that feels–so good–”  Drin arches up gently under him, and comes, as easy as that, cock trembling against the inside of Dance’s thigh, rubbing against his balls.

“I am such a lazy husband, I lick you to make you come,” Dance says.

Drin’s ribs tighten into a chuckle.  His other hand comes up, strokes Dance’s back.  He says, “But then suddenly in the middle of it you’ll get starving hungry and can’t even wait.  You’d eat raw steak if I let you!  And if it’s daylight, then you’ll want to go run on the beach.”

Dance turns on the tap, cups up water, rinses his mouth clean.  “Oh yeah.”

“You want to make my toes tingle?  Really?”  Drin splashes both hands, rinses sticky drying cum off his face.

“Yes please.  Lots.”

“Okay.  Maybe later?  It’s a deal.  How about, we get out of the water and figure out getting some food into us when the power is still out?  There’s supposed to be a big fireplace in the living room, and a barbecue kettle in a closet off the deck.”

“Right,” Dance says, climbing out.  He grasps a towel, helps steer Drin out onto the bath mat.

“I’m blind as a bat,” Drin says, while Dance helps him dry off.

“Oh, no worries.  I can see a little.  The curtains are open in the bigger room.  It’s not too dark, I can find things.  And you know how to cook on real fires, too.  Here’s the suitcase, some clean pants, yes–underpants here–” he gets them both into old soft jeans in the dark, gets Drin safely parked in a chair by the big cold fireplace in the main room.

“There oughta be some flashlights.”

“Yes, I will find them, probably in the kitchen.  Where do you think the breakers are?”  Dance keeps talking as he moves.  “The kitchen is brighter, there is some moonlight, it’s bright outside there.  I’m going to save opening the fridge, so the food stays cold.”

Drin says, “There might be a circuit breaker panel behind one of the doors, or in a closet.”

Dance rummages behind kitchen doors for awhile, and returns, pressing things into Drin’s hands.  “I have matches, I have a flashlight that is rather dim, I have some tinder, here.  Okay, let me go look for breaker panels while you work on the fire.”

After awhile, Drin has a fire going in the log grate in the fireplace, and Dance has felt his way round the kitchen and the living room.  He hasn’t found the breakers.  “Do you think maybe they were silly and they put the panel somewhere outside in the weather?”

“Possibly.  We can try the garage in the morning.  Do you suppose they plan this, so newlyweds have adventures?”

“Well, these newlyweds are not panicky sorts who need adventures to tell stories about.  We are just going to pretend we planned barbecue cooking as we put our steaks on these pokers and get them blackened a bit.  We just growl over our dinner and feel very happy to be here inside, in the dry and the warm,” Dance says firmly.  He’s in the kitchen when he says the most ridiculous part.  “So long as we don’t dribble meat juice all over the big fur rug there.  Because of course you must ravish me all naked on that fake fur, I insist.  Maybe later, when we’re not so full of meat.”

“Well, you’ve got our priorities sorted out,” Drin says, smiling in the firelight.  He always likes the word raaavish when Dance says it that way, careful and exaggerated and silly.

“Besides, there are plates and napkins and silverware and champagne and even glasses to drink it from,” Dance says, returning with his hands full, and eventually dragging over the living room table to hold things.  He guides Drin’s hand onto the skewers and the oven mitts and pads to hold them.  He returns to the kitchen while Drin is still laughing.

The fire is going quite well by the time he returns with another load.  “They have stocked up kitchen tools and food very well for Western tastes,” he reports happily.

Drin just looks up at him, chuckling, in the early uncertain light of their new fire.

“I am cutting up steaks for you to go spearing onto those skewers–” Dance drags over another chair.

“Like filet mignon is just some blob to chop up for shish kebab?”

“If you do not want it raw, yes.  And sooner.  The very best meat goes into very thin slices for Korean barbecue–” Dance starts sorting and chopping his materials, putting things into bowls.  “Right, there’s pearl onions, there’s green pepper, there’s potato slices very thin, there I am putting the meat.  A pinch of  black pepper on it, some salt, simple.  If you are hungry we can cook a second batch.  This is excellent lean meat.”

Drin starts threading pieces onto the skewers while Dance chops.

Dance says, “Emma would love this.”

“Oh, yeah– that Aussie love for chowing down kebab after closing hour.  Pretty funny, we end up eating her favorite stuff on our wedding night.”

“Except it is not lamb, and not greasy enough!”  which makes Drin laugh.  He and Emma are always visiting Emma’s favorite döner kebab meat and chips place, waiting for Dance to get done with night rehearsals.  Those two say it gives them time to unwind and chat.  Dance teases it is about really about eating enough grease.

Drin is still giggling to himself, which means it’ll show up in some story later on.  The laughter is still in his voice when he says, “The potatoes take the longest, I’m putting that end in the hottest part of the fire.  It smells good already.”

“It does.  Very good planning,” Dance says.

“Oh to hell with planning for awhile!  Hell, I asked Em at one point, why is everything about getting married something to do with serving more food?”

“Let me guess–she swatted you, and she said any big ceremony, getting bored, it is like Army life, small moments of terror with lots of waiting.”  Dance shrugs, holds out open hands toward the fire.  “So, waiting around, bored people think about the next time they get fed.  Bad as slobbering dogs begging at dinner, is that how she was saying?”

“Yeah.  But that doesn’t explain why I’m wanting to take you out to dinner and feed you fabulous stuff all the time.  As much as I want to make love to you.  Or find things you like, or getting distracted at work, just looking at pictures of you when I’m supposed to–”

“–or wanting to lick you all over,” Dance says solemnly.  Dance looks at the man’s moist lips, gleaming in that reddish beard.  “Especially the furry bits.”

“Yeah, I’m kinda fond of your furry bits too,” Drin says, his eyes crinkling up.

“But really, it is not just anybody’s fur, anywhere.  I am not fond of anyone else’s furry bits,” Dance says, wrinkling his nose.

Drin slaps his knee noisily and starts to laugh.  “Goddamn, Dance, you– you just–”

“Well, Emma tells me I am very rude,” Dance says, slicing up more potatoes and scooping them into a bowl.  “Then she hits me.  I think she likes any excuse to swat her boys, you know.  Very hard, on the butt, if she can.”

“She does!”

“I never spank her back, but I think she might like that.”

Drin blinks at him, surprised.

“I only tickle, careful, so I don’t hurt her.  But you could spank her, if she likes it.  I mean, if you want to do small happy things for her.  That makes me happy too.  I don’t think I say it very well, but–”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Drin says, resting one hand on Dance’s knee.  “I know you want Em to be happy too.  So do I.  It’s just that… I guess you’d call it pride… gets in the way sometimes.  What she thinks is right or proper or something.”

“Yes, I know.  I don’t care what is proper.  I want to make you happy, and I want to make Em happy too, however she will let me.  Like cooking.  I like cooking things for you to try.  As you say, to watch you.  It pleases me to give you something you like.”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly.”  Drin puts aside another filled skewer in a bowl.

For awhile they sit quietly working in the dim light.  “If the power is off tomorrow, I can make soup on this fire, I found a cast-iron pot.”

Drin smiles at him.  “You’re not even phased by this.”

“We have food, we have water, we have fire, we have spices and pots and pans–”

Drin starts to whoop with laughter again.  Dance mistrustfully packed a bag full of groceries and condiments that he figured would be hard to find.  The limo driver had put it away in the kitchen for them.

Dance gets up, taking away his chopping board and knife.  “–we have soap, we have tools, we have the awesome Drin who cooks on open flames and barbecues all the time, we are all good.”

He diverts for some moments into the dark bedroom, finds the bathroom, washes his hands, grabs the toiletries case, brings it out with him.  By then the food is sizzling gently, skewers propped at careful angles across the grating that holds the logs.  Drin is sitting cross-legged on the fake fur spread in front of the hearth.  Dance gives him hand wipes from the toiletry kit, since they both had handled raw meat.

Drin says, “C’mere, sweetheart,” and Dance settles sideways with his knees over Drin’s thigh, one shoulder resting against Drin’s bare chest.  Drin sighs, kisses his forehead, and hugs him.  “Perfect.”

wineglass on wood floor in front of fire in a fireplace
wineglass by the fire, source unknown

“Fairytale,” Dance says, looking into the flames.  He leans his head back against Drin’s chest, and feels suddenly, profoundly grateful.

“You want me to ravish you right out here on this rug, huh?”  Drin’s hand strokes his chest.

Dance smiles slowly.  “Oh yes, I do.  I know, this is not a terribly new fantasy, and this is very fake fur, but–”

“We’ll manage,” Drin says, amused.  His hand drifts down, strokes up the fabric over Dance’s thigh.  “Yeah, I was right, I thought I saw your little man was ready to come out to play again.”

Dance squirms.  “Now you’re teasing–”

“Oh, am I?  Doesn’t feel like teasing to me.  Lay down, get the pants off.  You’re going to lay there all naked and hard and gorgeous, while I deal with the food.  And then I’m going to feed you scrumptious hot bits of food and kiss you sometimes, and you’re going to like it.”

“Can I kiss you sometimes too?” Dance struggles to get his cock disentangled from the shorts, which makes his husband laugh at him.

“Of course.  But only after I get you fed and and get some champagne in you.  Now, there you go, a toast–to the most gorgeous husband on earth.  No, I meant you, not me, but that’s okay.  Just lay back and let me look at you.”

Dance drinks some of his champagne and shifts on one hip, finding a more comfortable position.  The fake fur is a bit lumpy, to be honest.

Drin smiles at him, teeth gleaming in that rumpled beard.  Dance starts to sit up, but Drin pushes him back down, putting Dance entirely prone on the rug, and looks down at him a long time.  He strokes Dance’s hair back from his eyes, cups his face, strokes a finger along his jawline, onto his lower lip.

Then he turns suddenly back to the fire, lifts a skewer handle with a kitchen mitt, pokes the potato with a fork, and pronounces himself satisfied.  “I’ll let it sit across the bowl a moment, it’s still hot.”  In rapid succession he pulls off the other skewers.  “Right, now let’s see if this one cooled off enough.  Nope, gotta wait.  So you can get out the lube and the condoms and put them handy.  Do you think regular missionary penetration, me on top of you fucking your queer guts out, my dick stuck up as far as it will go in your nice ass, is gonna make you really, really happy tonight?”

Dance stares at him, a little perplexed at the harsh tone.  “Yes.  I like having you on top of me.  I like you banging me in my good place inside me, it makes me feel good.  All warm and covered and held tight and filled up.  I like feeling full of great big man cock.”

Drin exhales noisily.  “Oh.  Like you’re all hugged, safe, or something?”

Dance moves one knee, making it more obvious that parts of him are in terrific agreement with all of this idea.  “Like I can just trust it to happen to me.  When I–” he takes a deep, hard breath, “–when I started to fuck you, that made me feel different.  Like I must do things carefully, make it right for you.  Make it feel really good for you, not hurting things when I get so tight and I start to come.  I must stay in myself and be careful, I must feel it all happening.  That feels so good too.”

Drin tilts his head.  “I’m still having trouble believing you really want it up the ass.”

Dance smiles wryly.  “Do you want me to not give it to you?  Should I stop doing that?”

“God no, it feels terrific, if God forbid my dick fell off and I never got to do anything else I’d want you to keep fucking me.  Just fucking me, just like that.”

“Then where is the problem?”

“I don’t want to hurt you, sweetheart, being selfish, banging you too hard on this very first night, getting carried away.”

“Oh.  Well, you can just lay on me and rub me, and that will feel good too, it will give me that warm held-tight feeling, I like that too.”

“What else do you like?”

It isn’t the first time he’s asked that.  It isn’t even the fortieth time.  But he goes on asking.

Dance really likes how he keeps asking.  He says so, and lays back, smiling, with his fingers laced together under his head.  “I like you feeding me shish kebab burnt off the fire when I’m naked and I can rub my cock on your jeans and you are asking me sexy questions, reminding me how much I like you taking me.”

Drin starts to chuckle, and to pull bits off the skewer into a clean bowl.  “What else?”

“I like you hugging me behind me, when I wake up, and you rub your dick onto my balls, and you’re so hard you come right away.  Then you’re all relaxed and I’m all hot and wanting to walk this little man and you can do anything to me, it is making me come.”

Asian man standing, nude back, source unknown
standing nude twisting, source unknown

Drin chuckles.  “Not such a little man there.”  Drin settles on the rug beside him, runs a fire-hot hand up along his ribs, and with his other hand holds a lump of meat in front of Dance’s waiting mouth.  Slowly, lasciviously, he lowers it into Dance’s open lips, and tucks it in with a fingertip.  Dance bites down into the steak bit, gets the flavor of it across his tongue.  He swallows, and moans.  “Oh, this is good.”

“Piece of green pepper now, it’s got a bit of char on it.  Don’t be greedy, take your time on it.”

Dance starts to sit up, but Drin puts his free hand down on Dance’s chest, keeps him still with a touch.  “No, this skewer is all yours, and I’m feeding it all to you first.  Don’t worry, you get to feed me the next skewer.”

“Will you take off your pants for me?”

“Oh yeah.  You like seeing me take off my pants?”

“Yes,” Dance says, around a lump of onion, and he lips the fingers that give it to him.

“Cheeky boy,” Drin says, with a smack of the palm on Dance’s chest.

Dance doesn’t try to sit up. Instead, he lifts his foot, slides his ankle up onto Drin’s shoulder, and rolls his other knee wide onto the rug.  The offer is perfectly plain.

Drin shifts his free hand onto Dance’s tensed thigh, grips it, and lifts it aside, so Dance’s knees are sprawled wide on either side of his husband.  Drin leans down into him, resting those worn soft jeans across Dance’s belly, putting his forearm down across Dance’s chest, and then with his other hand, he delicately pops a bit of pearl onion into Dance’s mouth, and lays a big finger squarely across his lips.  Dance squirms, swallows, licks the finger.

“I think you don’t feel very hungry now,” Drin says, with the firelight catching those amused tiger-yellow eyes.  He takes the finger away, and feeds him another bite of steak, watching him.  “Too many cookies in the car, huh?”

“Can I feed you too?” Dance asks.

“Oh, and let you rub on me like a cat in heat?”

“Mmm,” Dance agrees, squirming some more.  “I am in heat.  Please let me rub on you.”

“You’re amazing.  But I’m going to do everything you want.  Everything.”

Dance feels himself panting.  “Oh please.”

Drin gives him a wide smile, and wiggles against him ever-so-slightly.  “Eventually.”

“Aaaaarghh,” Dance moans.

“All right, all right, let me get out of these things.  Didn’t want to cook naked, with the way that wood snaps out sparks, but I don’t mind getting naked now for my beautiful husband to feed me bits of steak and see how turned-on he’s got me already.”

Drin stands up, slides off the pants and shorts in one elegant motion, steps out of them, cock jutting upwards.  He kneels between Dance’s legs, puts out one hand, lowers his upper body over Dance.  He twists his hips almost sideways, his cock does not touch Dance’s hips, and Dance wiggles, frustrated.  But no, Drin presses his torso down on top of Dance, resting that forearm across his chest again.  Then Drin pins down one of Dance’s wrists to the rug, tickling the palm of his hand with his thumb.  “Uh-uh, one hand.  Here’s the bowl, can you reach it?”

“Yes, but I can’t tell which kind I am giving you–”

“I’ll tell you.  God, you have such beautiful muscles.  Yeah, that’s an onion. Caramelized.  Oh God, that’s so good.  Give me the next one. Jeez, that’s ridiculously good– oh man.  Steak.  Oh that is good.”

Dance smiles.  Brushes his thumb over the man’s lips.  “You keep saying that.  I think you like it.”

The man swallows, licks off his lips, and lowers his head to breath across Dance’s mouth a moment.  “If you aren’t the world’s best cook, then I don’t know who is,” and he kisses Dance, filling his mouth with tongue.  He leans up in a moment, saying, “Okay, I’m heavy, I know.  Get some air.  Breathe, here.”

Dance rocks his hips a bit, smiling, and Drin says, “You keep that up and dinner’s gonna get cold.”

Dance laughs, arching in place, and relaxes again.  He picks up another unseen bit from the bowl, lifts it to Drin’s mouth, feels the man’s lips wrap around his fingers.  Dance asks,“Got it?  Do you think we can eat our way through eight skewers without losing our minds and–”

“–and fucking like rabbits?” Drin says, grinning back.  Dance suspects he really likes the feel of Dance squirming under him, the feel of cock rubbing against the tender skin at his hip joint.  Dance is desperately trying to shift his cock over next to Drin’s, to get more friction from the maddeningly harsh curly pubic hair rubbing against his own, but Drin is not letting his hips angle right, refusing to make it easier for Dance.  “I doubt it, but we can try.  Give me another.”

Drin has to pull himself away to empty the other skewers into the bowl, and Dance thinks he will get a chance to mesh their hips together.  But Drin lays down on him in the same way as before, not allowing Dance’s wiggling to take advantage.  Keeping Dance pinned under him, Drin feeds him a skewers’ worth, and then Dance feeds the big man another skewer’s worth, slowly, one-handed.

By then Drin is kissing him a lot all over his face and down his neck, grazing his way down Dance’s chest and kissing his nipples until he shakes in place, rubbing at the little peaks with greasy fingers.  Normally, at home, their earlier intercourse would have satisfied them both for hours, possibly for days.  Tonight Drin clearly wants more.  Dance feels the heartbeat pounding in his own cock.  It’s drooling, ready to go.

“Okay, sweetheart, are you up hard?  Yeah, I am too.  I’m putting on a condom.  Give me that lube, let me see you.  Here, get your feet up on my shoulders, that’s it.  Spread your legs wider, pull up those balls for me.  I’m warming it up for you, don’t get impatient.  No, don’t stroke yourself, you’ll get me going too fast.  Here it is, rubbing it on, nice and thick.  How tight are you, after I loosened you up earlier?  Okay.”

Dance gasps.  The lube is still cool, but it’s not brutally cold, either.

“Slide those legs up higher on my shoulders.  Is it okay on your back?  Good?  All right, if you wanna brace your arms out, that’s good.  Now relax, sweetheart, I’m gonna take you.”  And then Drin’s hips are twisting round, he’s up on his knees, his chest is leaning across Dance, and his cock is stretching Dance wide, a sliding rush of pressure and heat.  He stops moving, buried balls-deep inside Dance, his hips sealed tight all across Dance’s ass.  Dance’s balls and cock are pushed tight against the man’s powerful gut muscles.  The big man gasps,  “God, you’re so– hot inside–”

Dance gives a whimper of need, rocking, and Drin pulls out a little, shifts his hips downward toward the floor, and that strange little pulse of muscle twitches his cock to pointing upward inside Dance.  Then he’s sliding it into Dance, pushing upward, banging hard into that infuriatingly sweet spot that Dance cannot resist, ever.

Dance gives a high noise, and then Drin is sliding away.  That makes Dance give a different noise, panting for breath.  Then he’s giving the high noise again–Drin is pushing into him until Dance is rolled halfway up up onto his shoulders, his knees hooked over the man’s broad shoulders, and he begs for it.  It’s hard to breath, rolled up almost onto his shoulders in that position.  Usually it doesn’t matter, two strokes of Drin’s hips banging into him will finish him in this position, even when he wants to last.  Tonight, he is lasting.

Drin snorts, and the man’s hips start moving, smacking at his ass, the cock sliding in and out of him fast enough to make Dance’s sounds turn to gasps.

“Yeah, give it to me, sweetheart, yell it out, tell me what you like.  There?  Right there?”

And Dance is yelling.  He doesn’t even know what he’s yelling.  He just feels a big hand slide bruisingly between their bodies, grope at his balls and close tight on his cock, cupping the head of it in the same rhythm of the force smashing into that sweet spot and making those silly noises come mewling out of him.  “Yeah, right there, give it to me, come for me, sweetheart, I want you to come so hard.  Come for me, don’t worry.  Just come for me.”

Dance comes so hard, he curls up so tight, that his shoulders lift right off the rug.  He pushes his arms straight up from his hands, locks his elbows, slams his mouth open wide, put his mouth onto Drin’s shoulder near the neck, grips his front teeth around the bulging edge of muscle, and bites him.

Something clicks inside his head, somewhere deep behind his nose, between his back molars.  Something that’s been tensed for hours in his head finally relaxes, and he comes, and comes and comes.  His front teeth are holding Drin in place while thick pale ropes of drool slide past his lips, draining down Drin’s skin.

Drin is shaking in place, hips twitching while he groans, and his cock shudders inside Dance.

Then there’s a tug of something coming free in Dance’s mouth, and Dance opens his jaws, and then somehow Drin is lowering him back onto the rug, where he is panting too hard to move.

Drin is leaning on his hands above Dance, panting heavily.  “Goddamn, Dance.  I don’t… jeez, I’ve never felt anything as good as this.  Are you all right?”

“I bit you,” Dance says, a little slurred with the fluid still oozing out on his tongue.

“Oh, you’re sweet, giving me that mouth cum thing, I got you going really hard.”

“Drin, I put holes in you–”

“Really?  Huh, didn’t feel that part.  Just the cum tingling me.  Feels… wonderful.  God, Dance, it’s wonderful.”  Drin lowers himself, panting, and kisses Dance on the mouth, licking into that sticky fluid, coaxing him to kiss back.  “C’mon, give me a taste of that wedding surprise cum.”  When he’s kissed Dance silly, he shifts one hand, grabbing onto the condom and drawing his cock slowly out of Dance.  That sensation makes Dance shudder in place, groaning, and a final load of semen-tasting goo comes drooling from the back of his mouth.  Drin rolls onto his side on the rug, pulling Dance over with him..

“I bit you,” Dance says, worried.  He can’t see much but bruise marks from his front teeth in the uncertain light.  That’s not at all the safe sex he promised to Drin.

“I love it.  Okay, if you say you cut some skin, I believe you.  Can’t feel it right now.  I know, I know, if you did, it’s not being careful at all.  But damn, you can do that any time, sweetheart.  Aches and pains all gone, I feel great, like I could fuck you all over again.”

“You want to?”

“Sure.  Do you?”

“Yeah, but.. more food maybe.. rest.. don’t want to hurt you.  Not biting you!  Wanting to try… kissing you… somewhere else.  Toes,” Dance says dazedly.  “Maybe give you a hangover?”

“Stop worrying, it’s been fine every time you licked that cum on me before.  I feel great.”

Dance leans over, takes a deep breath of the man’s sweat and he starts licking his way down Drin’s body.  He pulls the condom off Drin, sets it aside on the table, and shifts away from the man’s cock in spite of how much he wants to taste it in his mouth, trying to honor their agreement to keep himself safe.

The taste of sweat tells him how far he’s pushed Drin tonight.  The man’s body is honestly tired, under the artificial stimulus of whatever his mouth-cum does to the man.  Working his way up from licking the man’s feet–and yes, Drin reports it tingles there too–he takes his time, kneeling over Drin and licking thick layers of it upward on both shins, along all those scars, lapping it on over his knees, up his thighs.  He feels Drin shiver when he starts to lick the man’s right hip joint, as if it’s too much finally.

“Tingles,” Drin murmurs.

“Okay, enough pushing ourselves, I should just stop it, get over my silly self and let you rest.  Get you over to bed, and let me put the food away for tomorrow–”

Drin smiles up at him.  “Now you want to take care of me?”

“But I always want to,” Dance says, and gets up to put things away.  He looks down at the monumental figure sprawled out on the rug in complete relaxation.

He’s so big.  The man’s feet stick out well beyond the rug, wiggling his long toes comically in front of the fire.  “Do you want more to drink?  Some water?”

“Dance,” the man says, and a warm hand comes up and rests on his ankle, slides up the calf of his leg.  “Yes, water would be great.  God, you’re so beautiful.”

Dance pats the hand touching him, pulls it up enough to kiss the knuckles.  “So are you.”

“It’s the dim lighting, really improves a scruffy old guy’s looks, don’t you think?”

Dance says, “Oh, no, I think I will like your looks even better in good bright morning, all this big naked man with his big cock fucking me silly.  Maybe I will get on the rug on my knees, waggling at you like a cat and yowl at you a lot to fuck me.  Or you bend me over the end of the bed and fuck me.  I don’t know if it is the right height, but the bed is much softer.  I will check in the morning if there are enough sheets for changing to sleep nice and clean.”

Drin gives a huff of laughter, pats his calf.  “Don’t worry.  There’s a washer and drier somewhere.”

“Oh good,” Dance says.  He steps free, gathers up the food and the trash from the table, starts putting things away in the fridge, rinsing the dishes.  There’s a dishwasher that he can use when they have power, in the morning.  He hears movement in the other room, metal scraping sounds, while he washes his hands.  He twists back and forth, using wet paper towels to wipe his crotch and his ass in the dim light.  He returns with damp paper towels and a glass of water for Drin.

He half-expected Drin to be asleep on the rug, but he isn’t; his husband is sitting up, looking at the fire.  In spite of being naked near the burning logs, he’s been tending it, using a little shovel in the rack of fireplace tools, and closing the little mesh spark-arresting curtain.

“Oh, thanks,” Drin says, and wipes himself clean without embarrassment.  “We can leave the fire to die down now.  Steer me to the bathroom, sweetheart, and then I’ll sort out how to brush my teeth in the dark.”

Dance retrieves the toiletries bag, sharing with Drin the wry thought that it is doomed to follow them all around the cottage.  Drin just laughs.

“Okay, here’s toothpaste, here’s your brush, here’s mine,” Dance says, rummaging in the dim firelight.  Then he takes Drin’s hand, and leads him back to the bathroom, helping where he can with the unseen routine.  Drin kids around, patting at him when he doesn’t really need to.

“Okay, I’ve got the size of the bathroom down, at least,” Drin says, and takes his hand.  “Take me to bed, sweetheart.”

“I thought you’d never ask.  Is it the right height?”

“Well, I don’t know yet.  How about you bend over the bed, get down on it there, and let me check on this.”

They fumble around in the dark, skin on skin, laughing, and determine that the bed is rather low for Drin to stand up behind Dance’s butt, but perfect for Dance to line up on Drin’s.  Drin astonishes him by making the renewed offer, but Dance just pats him on the butt and hugs him.

They curl up under the sheets and figure out they aren’t going to need the blankets for quite awhile in spite of the current lack of heat.  There are plenty of pillows, and they fit elbows and mesh feet together just as they do at home.  Normally Drin would have a bedside light on, reading, with one hand stroking Dance’s head or shoulder as Dance went to sleep, but with the power out they just sigh and turn together and breathe in the quiet.

nude man on bed, source unknown
nude man on bed, source unknown

Dance ruffles the man’s chest hair with a deep sigh.  “You smell so good to me.”

Drin chuckles.  “Hah, knowing you, that probably means I should’ve got another shower.”

“No, I like your smell like this.”

“What can you hear?” Drin murmurs, half of it a vibration in his chest.

“Heartbeat,” Dance says.  “Nice.”

“What else?”

“The ocean,” he says, idly stroking down Drin’s chest.  “There’s rocks, I think.  That splash when a big wave hits rocks.  Wind is getting stronger.  I don’t hear any birds, but I think there will be gulls, at least.”

Drin smiles.  “I brought a guidebook, if you want to go look tomorrow.”

“And we have boots, I know,” Dance says, kidding him.  “Are there hiking trails?”

“There are.  And sea kayaks.  There’s a rental place with guides.”  He chuckles when he feels the twitch of interest in Dance’s muscles.  “Yeah, I thought you’d like that a lot.  Have to get an orientation first, so we reserved a whole day for that, a little later on.  After you’ve had a chance to run around on this beach, look at things up close, get a feel for the place.”

We means that Emma and Drin worked it out together, as they have for most of the three weeks ahead.  Dance submitted general ideas for Emma’s organizational mojo to work on, within the limitation that it’d been a secret from him about just where they were going.

Three weeks is a long time away from the Metro.  The sea air is going to be wetter here than at home, he will have to keep retuning, allowing his two practice violins to adjust to the humidity before he makes any heavy physical demands.

In the days running up to the wedding, he was afraid he would either want to bury himself completely in his music for days on end and bore poor Drin out of his mind, or else he’d cast it aside completely like a bad, bad schoolboy in favor of running wild and never practicing at all.  Emma just told him not to worry, Drin would just spank him if he was too bad.  He will, too, Dance knows that.

Drin chuckles again.  “Amalia said you’d need a good five hours of practice every other day to work on that new stuff you wanted to learn, and to drag you away from it if you went longer.  She said you don’t get any benefit from longer hours, the way other folks might.  So we scheduled in regular blocks of time where you can do that, or walk on the beach, or just sleep.  She said you could use some rest too.”

Dance thumps his chest, with a noise like a melon.  “You, reading my mind again.”

“No mind-reading about it.  I just asked her what I needed to do, that’s all.”

“No, right now,” Dance says, and thumps him again.  Then he’s playing percussion on Drin’s chest with his fingers, sitting up and leaning over him, drumming on him, while Drin laughs soundlessly.  Then he finally drags Dance over onto him and smacks him on the butt, and hugs him.

“Goddamn, musicians.  Settle down, sweetheart, I didn’t mean to get you all riled up and excited all over again.  You need to rest too.”

“You must tell me if I am tiring you out,” Dance says, stroking the man’s beard.  He feels the smile under his fingers.

“I will.”

“This is a vacation, I must not be wiping you out,” Dance says, worried.

The smile widens.  “Sweetheart, it’s a honeymoon.  If it’s gonna make you happy, I’m doing it, I don’t damn well care if I get tired.  And yeah, I’ll try and use common sense so I don’t get myself injured, that’d be a waste.  But let me tell you, I feel great.  A lot better than I figured I would, tell you the truth.”  He puts up a hand, touches the ring on Dance’s finger, then the dragon pendant on the necklace that Dance wears all the time, even showering.  Both of them are Drin’s gifts to him.  Dance wraps his hand around the man’s fingers, so their rings brush together, and then Drin’s hand is stroking down his back and shoulders, and he relaxes.  “Shhh, don’t worry about me, sweetheart.  I’ve got you.  Go to sleep.”

“Kayaks,” Dance murmurs happily, and then he’s asleep.

Reception Conversations

“Well now, congratulations.  Quite a celebration here,” says an older man in a stiff black suit and dark tie.  He looks funereal, gaunt.

“Yes, thank you,” Dance says, looking up sharply.  A cloud of odor hangs around the man, pungent as a cigar-smoker.  Sugary, metallic, stale machine oil.  Dance wants to back away, gagging, appalled at how excessively his nose has been reacting to odors all day.  Instead, Dance chokes down the impulse and holds out his hand, grips the man’s damp, cold fingers.  He’s careful.  The man smells ill.

b/w picture of man's hand extended
man’s hand, source unknown

“Nice, for queers.  No big drag queen show.  Don’t care who’s pitching or catching, if you get my drift.  Big guy musta picked up lots of porn pictures of Asian boys in aprons, huh?”

Dance keeps his smile muscles locked, lips stretched.  “Thank you.  We could never do proper justice to a drag wedding ceremony, so it never crossed our minds.  Did you have a chance to try the appetizers?”

“Well, I found the fizzy first thing.  Pretty mild stuff, y’know.  My name’s Turner.”

“We are so glad you could come.  Are you a friend of Drin’s?”

A snort.  “In a manner of speaking.  I know his boss, one of the Board members, Bud Innes.  Lost track where Bud’s got to.”

“I think he’s organizing the wine-tasting,” Emma says, popping up at his elbow.

“Well, hello, pretty lady, would you like to help me score some wines?”

“I’d be delighted to,” Emma says, with a glance over her shoulder at Dance, who is hastily wiping his dampened hand on his pants, worrying that his fingers feel strange, all stinging and tingly, and hoping that nobody else notices.  Then she’s steering the man away.

The next person in line is giving Dance a highly offended look.  Dance finds his pocket square, wipes his disgusting fingers as dry as he can.

“Did he really mean that?” says Rose, the percussionist with the tats, holding out a hand in fashionably ripped black lace gloves.

“I assume he did,” Dance says, and bows while air-kissing over her hand.  She smells of patchouli over lousy pot, cheap weed tainted by some oil-based pesticide.  The same odor hangs on other musicians too.  Compared to the pampered weed that Robert smokes to calm his nerves, with Bud’s blessing, this stuff smells like rotten hay.  Not the time to say so, however.  The pesticide odor pokes his dizziness, makes it worse.  Hastily he lets go of her gloved hand.

She’s got a new tat on her upper arm, a reddened pattern of drumsticks.  He compliments her on that, so she shows it off to everybody around them, apparently delighted with the wincing sidelong looks from those older people she’d call ‘muggles’.  He demurs over discussing proper tattoos to memorialize his wedding.  Not the time for that conversation, either.

“You have a great long life with your sweetie,” Rose says fiercely, and then she’s grabbed him in a hug. She gives him a kiss on either cheek and a pat on the back.

“Thank you, this is no small blessing to give,” Dance says warmly.

“Hey, we can all use all the blessings we get,” Rose says.

actress smiling, possibly photo from a screening of Inglorious Bastards
b/w picture, source unknown

The next guest is a petite woman wearing bubblegum pink and black, with skull jewelry and black bows everywhere.  He’s never seen her before, but she starts talking as if resuming an earlier conversation.  “Well, I played fairy godmother and wished Drin prosperity, and he just laughed.  I guess beyond a certain point that much money just gets to be more of pain than a pleasure, but really, you guys could use some plain old good luck too.  So hey, best of luck to you!”  She bounces into a curtsey, flouncing out her ruffled black skirts until it shows the striped stockings beneath.  The girly gesture is so unexpected that she starts to giggle at his expression.  He thanks her, she nods, and then she moves off, humming.

“She said it right,” says the next woman in line.  Amalia’s sister rustles around in a crisp, noisy blue fabric.  She smells of perfume and the chocolate from the appetizer tables.  “I always like a garden wedding, anyway.  You guys look great.  Best wishes for a peaceful life together.”  If she’s referring to her own divorce, it’s certainly not the time or place to ask about that.  So many rules.  It worries Dance that he might mix things up, the way he bumbled around on things when he first came to the Metro.  Dance receives a hug from her that drags him nearly off-balance, but he manages to blink away the increasing dizziness.

He breathes a sigh of relief when Robert is next in the line.  Robert doesn’t hug.  Robert stays out of Dance’s reach if he can.  He is wearing a piratical frock coat, a poet’s shirt with soft collar, a wide belt hung with coins and gears and cogs and watch parts, big floppy buccaneer boots, and a red scarf at his neck.  He’s a one-man source of the kind of atmosphere they totally failed to provide.  He wanted them to do it all up righteously steampunk, and he is still striving to provide proper drama.

Muted slubbed silks and perfect tailoring and a nondenominational service run exactly on time by a former Army chaplain wearing a rainbow stole, this is all far too fuddy-duddy old-school for him.

But then, Robert didn’t see the real show.  He arrived too late.

The chaplain roared up on a Harley right in front of the waiting couple, escorted by a pack of  vets on bikes dismounting at the back of the park, all kinds of burly senior leathermen come to bless Drin’s wedding.  The chaplain parked the bike, clapped his gloves together and held up his hands to quiet folks, who were whistling and whooping while applauding.

During the ceremony, the rest of the bikers loomed at the back with longhorn beers in hand.  When the vows were spoken and the recessional music began, the leathermen lined up along the aisle, making an arch of the bottles for the new couple.  Then the leathermen swaggered through the reception line, rumbled their good wishes at the newlyweds, gathered up the club flags and their bikes and their chaplain, and departed in a roar of exhaust.

This surprise presence was in response to Drin’s support for their club’s veterans, and also for an incident where he kept order among some ‘poorly disciplined pups.’  Truth be told, he kept younger leather club members from wrecking Kane’s bar a few months ago.

The barman told that story at their rehearsal dinner.  Kane stood up and thanked Drin for saving his bar from getting trashed.  He framed it as a dire warning to Dance.  Kane told them all that he wanted Dance to know what he is really in for, marrying a guy who can stop a bar brawl.  With a look.  A brawl with sailors, in a Navy town.

He reported that Drin walked up to the drunk Naval desk-jockey who started it, just clotheslined the guy, tipped him right over on the floor.  Then Drin just stood there, looking at everyone.  Stopped everything cold.

It must have been a helluva look.

When things got quiet, then Drin barked the leather pups into cleaning up the bar.  Who needs a swagger stick when you have a mouth like that?

Kane said the big man stood over them, giving them that horrible, old-time, personally-detailed, intimate Army sergeant hell about scrubbing down every last dirty corner, and he drove them at it until their leather daddies showed up to take charge of them.  Kane said his bar got those corners scrubbed cleaner than it’s been in years.  Kane reported the senior guys spanked the ever-lovin’ snot out of those poorly-disciplined pups, too.

So every month since, the pups come back to clean his bar to the same exacting standards, as just another part of their on-going discipline.  Sometimes Drin drops in to make sure of it.  Punishment, or pleasure?  After seeing them today, at his wedding ceremony, Dance is perfectly sure, both.

Drin mumbled into his dinner plate about losing his temper, and everybody laughed a lot.

Dance had to stand up and reply that he was very sad to miss it.

Kane said that was a damn good thing, which made all the musicians laugh.  Oh, they knew.  For the others, Kane explained Dance might not be a huge guy, but he’d have taken everybody apart for threatening his Drin–  more laughter.

Kane was just getting warmed up.  He told some really embarrassing stories about Dance’s history as an informal bouncer– a warning to Drin what he was in for.

Some of those made Drin’s eyes pop open in outrage, and everybody laughed in delighted suspense as Kane built it up.  “So, what you got to say for yourself, Mister Dance?”

Into the microphone thrust in his face, Dance admitted sadly that he only bent that shotgun into that steering wheel because he’d leaned on it too hard.  He didn’t intend to.  Too showy.  Not boring enough to get the brawlers to just go away and sober up.

People laughed at that, too.

Kane closed by saying he really wasn’t joking that, between the two of them, Dance and Drin had saved his stupid thankless goddamn business.  That got general applause.

Dance is still sad that he didn’t see his husband in action, making pups clean things up.

Emma, as mistress of ceremonies, commented that nobody could be expected to follow a show like that, but they were welcome to try, and made them all laugh again.

Now, Robert’s name is called, and he turns from the reception line.  While Robert is chatting to one of the passing guests, a breeze swirls around them.  Dance takes a pleased breath.  His nose twitches at a gust of scents from the wedding’s bar, a gust of orange juice, pineapple and coconut.  Kane is moving around inside an open door nearby, setting up bottles and running the blender at the bar, chatting happily with his customers.  He’s gossipping about morning TV talk shows, showing off his technique pouring fruit syrup for the row of Metro ladies perched in front of him. They’re all wearing fluffy straw hats and sherbet-colored summer dresses and impractical shoes.  Most of them would never guess Kane’s bar turns into a leatherman dungeon on alternate Fridays.

Robert follows his glance.  “Oh, wonderful, Joscelyn’s ancient gang of maenads will get smashed and start baying for blood.”  He sighs that put-upon performer’s sigh that he’ll go over there and throw himself on the altar of duty, if he has to.  They both know he’ll love wallowing in the clouds of attention from the Metro ladies, as he always does.  The guest swats him on the arm to behave, nods to Dance, and departs, leaving them to talk.

“Hey, ya big bully,” Robert says.

“Hey brat,” Dance says solemnly.

“You really did it!”

They both grin.

Dance taps fists and goes patiently through the finger-snapping routine Robert has initiated in the past few weeks.

Robert leans in closer.  The pot scent on him is like a punch in the gut, but it’s familiar.  “So, you guys couldn’t even talk the leather dudes into sticking around a little longer, just for me?”

No point in reminding steampunk diva Robert that it’s his own fault he only got to admire the burly biker honor guard as they left.  That made Robert’s face fall in dismay.

Dance shakes his head.  “No, sorry.  The chaplain had two other ceremonies with members of his congregation, so he had to run like the wind to add ours.”

Dance had liked talking to the man.  The chaplain had been happy to counsel all concerned, sternly, in the weeks prior to the ceremonies.  Emma said she’d been thinking hard about points brought up in her conversations with him.  She said he was good at drawing things out of a person, and Drin agreed, looking very sober about it all.  Dance was mystified by this;  it hadn’t been a burden to answer his questions.  The man had laughed at his answers, and clearly enjoyed teasing him, and he gave Dance a big hug every time they finished another session of questions.  Drin said that was because he was being especially cute.

Robert says, “Hey, Bud told me to pass on an invitation, he says you guys can always come over to our place if you ever want to run away from home.”

Dance smiles wider.  “That is a very generous offer.  Please thank him for me.”

Robert gives a nod toward the wine-tasting tent.  “If that weird old guy Turner knows Bud, it’s from a long time ago, before we got together.  You bet I’d remember him.”

“Yes, he did make himself stand out to the memory, goodness knows why,” Dance agrees.  Then he smiles at Robert.  “By the way, if I ever get offended at Drin about rude pictures, it would only be for not sharing them.”

Robert laughs, and makes a sour face.  “TMI, dude, I don’t wanna know!”

Emma reappears at Robert’s elbow.

“Hey, you’ve lost the memorable Mister Turner,” Robert says.

“Yeah, suddenly he decided to visit the men’s room and then he was gone out the back way.  Bud said the guy wasn’t a freeloader, but he didn’t look happy.  Left me wondering if the guy used to be a business partner or a creditor or something.”

“I’ll talk to Bud,” Robert says, ominously.  Bud must be resigned to Robert’s curiosity since he’s started using Robert’s help at parties.  He might call Robert the Elephant’s Child sometimes, but he has been teaching the boy discretion.  Robert stil blathers, but it’s a wall built to deflect questions about those events, as if the littlest things might betray too much about Bud’s interests.

Emma nods.  “Mister Turner talked a good game but he skipped the drinks and ran off.  Speaking of drinking, do you need some more water, Dance?”

He waves it off.  “I’m good, thank you.”

“Right, I’m off to check on Amalia.  She was fussing about the jazz quartet taking a break.”  And she’s gone, apricot silk fluttering in her wake.  She probably won’t sit down for hours, meaning she’ll be in pain tonight.

Drin joked about that at the rehearsal dinner, when he gave her a gift certificate for a massage and spa.  Amalia got a matching certificate, so the two women can relax and talk after today’s event.  Dance hopes they will be very happy hashing over the details and gossipping about what people told them.

Ms. Edna Lewis, Southern cooking expert, chef  and cookbook writerDance turns to a slow-moving elderly black lady.  She has a grip as soft as a ghost.  He finds himself laughing with her on jokes about Emma and Amalia beating up on slow musicians, like they’re a couple of cane-wielding grannies on a tear.  She pats his hand, saying, “Oh, call me Susan, sweetie, we’ll be talking again one of these days, probably at some Metro event, but nothing like as nice as this wedding of yours.  Hey, sweet boy, you be good, now!” and then her attendant is there, unfolding her wheelchair.

He’s still chuckling when he greets the next Metro patron in the reception line.  The restauranteur, Shura Khorachevnik, introduces his friends with Russian, Armenian, and Polish names, all of them solemn, enormous men in dark expensive suits.  They say they are businessmen, but they stare at people rather than talking.  They stare down at Dance the most.  They don’t blink looking  at Dance, either.  They are very polite, and soft-spoken, and they go off to put some serious cash into the donation bins for the Metro’s charities.  Dance promises happily he will listen to all the new music Shura gifted him, along with the new music player.

When he looks up, he sees the line is slowly dwindling in front of his husband.  His husband.  Drin has his tuxedo jacket unbuttoned, one hand resting on his hip, bending forward and listening, with a grin.  His face looks sunburnt.  The pale shadow of goggles hangs in those freckles around his eyes.  Trimmed and groomed into a well-cut suit, there’s still that craggy Victorian wildness to him.  He’s speaking Spanish to one of the Metro’s staff ladies, and then he solemnly bends to shake hands with her little boy, who giggles.

Drin looks like he belongs on a sailing ship, or climbing mountains, or studying Iraqui architecture or strange primates in a jungle somewhere.  He’s beautiful.

Dance takes a shallow breath.

It’s surprising, the rush of pressure squeezing in his chest, the swoop of emptiness in his belly, as if he’s pushed himself out of an airplane and he’s just pulled on the release cord on the parasail, the way he did just two days before.

source unknown
source unknown

As Robert had said:  Trust Emma to arrange a stag weekend where everybody had to fall out of a plane!  Or else, after the daring parachutists returned to the main party, the noncombatants had to provide very amusing fake stories about why they couldn’t do it, couldn’t get there in time, or couldn’t find the airport at all.  Amalia’s story had been voted “Most Inventive Invective,” which has left her in a pleasant mood ever since.  Robert had achieved “Best Excuses.”

There’s a camera flash.  Dance blinks, refocuses, and catches a delighted grin on the face of the camera-wielding person in front of him.

The woman chuckles.  “Well, clearly this relationship has a lot going for it.”  She thinks it’s adorable.  He’s being cute again.  People have been teasing him about that.  There will be endless pictures of him making cow-eyes at his husband.

Dance can feel the heat coming up all the way from his belly, pounding in his ears.  He’s blushing all over when the lady takes another picture of him, and finally pockets her camera and pats his arm.  Their new Metro Librarian has only been three weeks on the job, and she’s become a firm personal favorite with Dance.  But he also dreads what she’s capable of.  She smells of old books and paper dust, as Emma does after work.  Like Emma, she’ll be able to retrieve those pictures at any excuse, embarrassing him for years to come.

She shakes his hand, saying, “Best wishes for a long, happy marriage, my dear.”  She’s still chuckling as she gives way to the next person.

The next person is their favorite violist on maternity leave, Miss Twillzer, who is wearing her empty infant-carrier.  When he asks, she gestures distractedly at a circle of women on benches nearby in the shade.  They are holding quite a healthy crop of babies and squirmy toddlers.  The whole area smells of baby powder, zinc ointment, and bagged diapers.

Miss Twillzer herself looks good, clearly tired but much more relaxed.  She smells completely different than she used to.  She’s gained muscle bulk, she has freckles on her pale skin now.

“Yes, of course you must go take care of her.  I am glad to say, you do look so good,” he says, waving her off.

The last person in line is a staff lady from the Metro office, who’s grinning like a Halloween pumpkin.  She says nothing at all, just holds out her arms and gives Dance a big, hard hug.  Lavender-scented, one of his favorites–she wore the scent he’s told her he likes best on her.  He thanks her, holding her hands a moment, feeling that odd new pressure on his finger, from his wedding ring.  They both look down at it, up again, and just smile at each other.

When he looks around, the last of the other patrons are shaking hands with Drin; then the patrons all head off toward the bar, and Drin is just standing there alone, grinning at him.

Dance’s husband.

Dance looks up at the big man, feeling bruised, breathless, and completely out of his limited supply of social blather.  “You–” he chokes, waving his hands.

“What, have I got champagne all down my front?” Drin says, teasing.

Dance rests his ringed right hand on the shirt front in question.  “There,” he says solemnly.  “And there, and there–and there–” and then he’s completely unable to stop himself from tickling Drin.

Drin roars out a laugh, wraps both arms around him, and hugs him too tight for tickling.  Then he folds himself over, leaning in close to Dance’s head, and he murmurs, “I could just eat you up with a spoon.  And I’m going to, tonight, dammit.”

Dance hears himself humming something distractedly–he can’t stop that, either–and he leans into the bigger man, hugging him back until he can feel ribs creaking, but Drin doesn’t complain at all.  He lets the grip ease until he isn’t hurting the man, and he says, “Drin, I am so– so full, the words go away and I just lose it– Drin, you are very beautiful.”

Drin chuckles again, surprised, as if he’s not used to such compliments.  “Thank you.”

“And I want you so much right now it makes me crazy.”

“Even after all this extremely public fuss?”

“Even in the middle of people saying incredible outrageous things to us, very much I love you and I think I cannot be so lucky ever, yes,” Dance says.

“I think you’ve got the right words just fine,” Drin murmurs, leaning in and kissing Dance first on one closed eyelid, then on the other.  Slowly Dance opens his eyes, looking up into the frowning, tiger-yellow eyes of his husband.  Who tells him, “I think I need practice saying this, Dance.   It’s hard for me.  I can say, I want you.  I can say, I admire you so much, all that music in you.  I can say, I want to wake up and look at you every morning.  I’m totally soppy about you and I keep thinking of things I want to do with you, and do to you.  I want to buy suits for you, and give you cool things and show you wonderful places and– and–”

Dance touches a finger on the bridge of the man’s nose, tracing up onto the bushy browline.  “I know this from you every day.  Words are so much easier than to do all these things for me.  For both Emma and me.  All the time.”

“I love you, Dance.”

“Not so easy to say at all, but worth it, yes.  I love you to bits, my husband.  When do we get to run away?”

“After drinks and dinner,” Drin says, with a sigh.  “And cutting the cake.”

“Oh, there must be cutting of cake.  Tradition.  Have you decided on the protocol of the cake going neatly in the mouth, or all over the face, or what?”

“Oh, I was going to go with an impulse decision.  Even if you insist on smooshing it on me right back, and then licking every crumb off my face.”

“With no hands.”

“Like I could stop you,” Drin says, smiling.

“It’s our secret,” Dance says, which makes Drin crack up.  It has been a running gag through the whole event, from the very first days of preparation.

At a noise, he looks up, and sees Emma laughing, her shoulders shaking as she hugs herself.  She says, “They sent me out to break up the clinch.  I think they were afraid you guys would run off right now, and they wouldn’t even get fed.”

“If the speeches take too long, I don’t promise anything,” Drin growls, hugging Dance again, and then gathering in Emma and hugging her too, while they’re both laughing.  “Thank God we already did most of the pictures, I’d expire if we had to go through that too.  All right, all right, in we go, I’ll behave.”

The exchange of cake, it transpires, does not become a messy smoosh on the face at all.  It becomes a rather silly braggart’s display of just how much cake that each man’s mouth can accommodate, which makes the guests laugh.  Emma cracks jokes that Dance has a very big mouth.  Bud Innes replies that he doesn’t have to prove it quite that well, and Drin just bestows such a smug look on the company that everybody bursts out laughing harder.

So does the throwing of the bouquet–both men solemnly take off their green carnation boutonnieres, pin them together with a lot of big fake green flowers, and toss the thing over their shoulders, together.  It goes entirely past the ladies jockeying for it.  Behind them, of course Robert catches the green blob reflexively, the fastest hand in the lot.  He looks outraged at his own speed, but people cheer, making him blush happily at being the center of attention.

Then there’s the silly neon-green garter–Dance makes a slapstick display of getting the garter off of Emma, revealing to observers that he himself was wearing it as a sock garter all along–and that Drin was wearing another like it.  He pulls them both onto his wrist, and then twists it around Drin’s wrist too, acting like he’s going to drag Drin off to the restrooms, which makes the big man roar with laughter.  They play keep-away, and eventually Dance tosses away the garter-knot at the men standing around Bud.  It’s Bud, of course, who comes out grinning with it in hand, to claim Robert officially as the bouquet-catcher for their dance later.  Robert clearly doesn’t mind a bit when Bud hugs his stuffings in public very hard.

After that, they hold a contest for best soap-bubble-blower and best bubblegum blower.  Bud and Emma emcee various silly guessing games, and people start queuing for several pinatas hung up in the courtyard.  Drin bashes down the first pinata with a well-timed thwack of a foam pool-noodle–he claims Dance isn’t trying, but honestly, together Drin and a blindfold and a floppy bit of foam, playing at literally slapstick comedy, make it impossible to stop laughing.  As Dance is caught in repeated camera flashes, he’s giggling too hard at Drin’s gangly long-limbed antics to even put his own blindfold back on.

They’ve tried to provide other points of interest for the day.  There’s the usual tables for their guestbook, scrapbook donations, a thumb-print tree for folks to sign, and a table for gifts, where Amalia presides. There’s a picture-taking booth, a nerf-ball batting cage, some pinball machines and old video arcade games brought over by one of Drin’s coworkers, a raffle for performances by various Metro groups, a penny wishing-well, a prosperity tree that donates for Metro charities.  After the pinatas are demolished, Emma drafts teenagers to unfold a ping-pong table in the courtyard.

Drin and Dance go around the tables talking to people, shaking hands with new guests they missed before, standing in pictures that people want of them together.  Dance feels his spine start to ache from standing that long, but dismisses it.  He is too busy to notice exactly when Shura’s caterers get the food tables set up and start serving beverages.  People start settling in place.

At last Bud, as the best man, and Emma as the best woman, stand up together to call for order.  They do a marvelously rehearsed vaudevillian patter together, complete with silly Spike Jones noises banged out by the jazz quartet.  More funny speeches carry into dinner, involving as many musical in-jokes as Robert and Amalia and Shura could come up with.

When dinner seconds have been finished and plates cleared, people start clapping rhythmically, and the quartet shifts instruments.

Drin stands up from the table, bows to Dance, takes his hand, and leads him out on the floor in front of the jazz quartet.  There’s a moment of stillness, poise.

Everyone knows this is a special part of their wedding.  Instead of being a favorite tune, this one is new to everyone.  Their first dance will be a waltz to music they’ve never heard before.  The tempo is all Dance knows.

It’s a gift composed for them by the jazz quartet.  This was Amalia’s idea, buoyed by Shura’s offer to pay the quartet for rehearsal time if they tested it out in his various public venues.

Dance settles one hand on his husband’s shoulder, the other on his waist, and finds himself taking lead as the music starts, shifting direction as easily as if they were dancing in the kitchen at home.

Shura’s support gave the quartet working time to develop the piece, to practice it.  Since various musicians at the Metro have heard bits of it, the great Metro teases knew better what to expect from it than the new couple.  Robert has been collecting all the gossip, too.

As the second and third bars slide like honey from the saxophone, Dance knows it is important.  More, it is brilliant. This is not just a piece of sentimental wedding cake ruffles, it’s not like the schmaltzy two-minute pop chartm ,,  favorites that get featured in karaoke bars for years to come.  This makes his insides tighten, his eyes prickle, that spooky thrill runs down his spine, twingeing down in his tailbone.  Dance relaxes, trusting the music.  This is good.  He moves cautiously at first, conscious of both his own aching spine and his husband’s bigger, slower mass, and finds himself grateful for all the kitchen dancing they’ve done, just enjoying themselves.  The tempo is solid under the complicated exchanges between the bass and the piano, making it easy to stay with it.

The clarinet slides into a jazz theme with an slinky, arch quality that leaves no doubt who it portrays, and then the piano does complicated arpeggios, climbing a backbone of lightning key-changes like a mathematical exercise, reference to all that arcane genius in Drin’s auditor’s brain.

Dance starts to smile.

hands playing piano, source unknown
hands playing, source unknown

As it goes on building, teasing back and forth, finally expanding into achingly soulful flights on the sax, Drin starts smiling too.  They alternate lead without even thinking about it, a little squeeze of the hand for guidance from whichever one can see better where they’re going.

The themes work together so beautifully that, as it slows toward the end, it makes Dance sigh and lean his head happily against Drin’s chest.  His eyes tear up because he is feeling so happy.

Drin leans down and kisses the top of Dance’s head.

There is very loud applause when the quartet wraps it up with a tortuous set of bars thundering up and down the width of that piano keyboard.

“By God that’s beautiful!  I want the rest of it, that’s just the overture.  It’s a goddamn ballet waiting to happen!”  Bud bellows out, clapping.

“Yes, of course.  The sketch for beginnings, yes?  Entirely appropriate for such an occasion,” Shura says, showing big square teeth in a grin, and he picks up his champagne flute and clinks it in a toast with Bud.

Bud’s videographer grins, capturing that, and turns his camera back to the newlyweds.

“You two are conspiring already?” Drin exclaims.  Then he bends down and gives the pianist a kiss on the cheek, making her laugh, and he shakes hands with the clarinet, the sax, and the bass.  Dance bows to them, deeply, and he wipes his eyes, and then he too solemnly shakes hands with them.

Instantly, the quartet strikes up a very pompous John Phillip Sousa waltz.  That sets off both applause and laughter.   The quartet gathers up half the party onto the dance floor when they start doing swing dances, some jitterbug, a medley of classic Louis Armstrong, some big band-era slow dances.  More of the guests move onto the floor when they start doing Argentinian salsas and tango, one of the quartet’s specialties.

The newlyweds each dance with Emma and with Amalia, and after Bud has claimed his dance with Robert, Dance too accepts a turn around the floor with Bud, who gives an excellent lead.  Dance reclaims his husband to do the slower jazz pieces, skipping the faster tangos, as much due to fatigue as to being overstuffed on Shura’s excellent food.  Between the friends of Bud and Shura, there’s plenty of dancers who’d like more floor space anyway.

“You okay?” Drin asks eventually, touching Dance’s lower back.

Dance murmurs that maybe he stood up too long.  The sharp ache in his lower back runs deep into his tailbone.  A bit alarming, professionally, but not a huge surprise.  It’s been a long few weeks.

Some of the guests are getting tired too.  The older fragile guests, the people with babies,  and the folks with other obligations start departing even though it’s only mid-afternoon.  Occasionally new faces show up, signing the guest-book and marching over to shake hands with Bud or Shura.  There’s a lot of back-slapping at the corner where the two businessmen are holding court together.  Emma is flitting everywhere, carrying things, an apricot blur who only slows down when she’s talking to older folks.

Everybody else lingers, the music is good, the snacks and drinks are holding out well, knots of people are talking among the scattered chairs, other people are on the floor dancing, the games seem to be holding the attention of the teenagers.

Eventually, when Emma slips over to tell Dance that the limo has arrived, his first impulse is to feel relief rather excitement. That’s probably traditional too, but he feels that it’s hardly the appropriate way to start the more intimate part of their marriage.

red-haired woman smiling
actress Christina Hendricks

When he says so, fumbling for words, it makes Drin and Emma laugh.  She gets them out the door just as sunset colors the walls in salmon and pink tints.  She snaps a quick picture of them in that gilded light, and takes more snaps as they slide into the open car door.  At last Drin gives her a final wave, and the driver closes the door.

“Ugh!” Drin says in the limo, first thing, and kicks off his shoes.

Dance can’t help it, he starts to laugh.  He pulls off his own tie, and then Drin’s, rumpling the man’s already messy hair, but he’s still laughing.

“What?  First time today I get you in private–well, relative privacy–and you start laughing at me?” Drin says, making a ridiculous face.  “Gimme those feets, I know those fancy shoes were giving you grief all day.  C’mon pretty boy, shift your ass, I’m gonna rub your feet while it’s still easy to reach you.  Oh ho, you still have socks!   So you did cut down those deadly sharp toenails, didn’t you?”

That just makes Dance laugh harder, and flop over on the long seat.  He offers to reply in kind.  But once Drin is done with the feet, the big man shakes his head, not wanting to move.  He just slouches there, stroking Dance’s legs.  He teases Dance about idly humming, but Dance feels the same vibration murmuring in the big man’s body.  It’s the waltz that the quartet composed for them.  Drin looks out the windows and sighs, and pats Dance’s shins, as if he can’t quite believe it’s real.

The ride is smooth enough that neither of them worry about the driver on the other side of the opaque glass, reputedly part-owner of the company, and one of Shura’s buddies.  The only distraction is when he clicks on the intercom, murmurs an inquiry about a rest stop, and responds to Drin’s request for the classical radio station.  It plays some nice things, too, recordings Dance has never heard.

When the radio dj says he’s playing a request, and says the names of the donors involved, Dance kisses his husband.  “You big silly,” he says, hugging him, and Drin gets out his pocket square and wipes Dance’s face and says gruffly that he didn’t mean to make Dance cry.

Eventually Dance curls up on his side, his head in Drin’s lap, feeling the big hands stroking along his neck and shoulder.  He sighs contentedly.  Even the the ache in his tailbone quiets, at last.  He stops worrying that he won’t be able to walk far tomorrow, or to perform any conjugal duties tonight.  He had plans for that.

“Christ, and now you’re gonna fall asleep on me,” Drin says, making that face again.

“Oh, you might have to wake me up,” Dance murmurs, looking up under his brows, and feeling Drin’s hand unbuttoning the tuxedo shirt at his neck.  “It might take awhile.”

“Oh, I don’t think it’ll take long at all–” and the other hand is sliding into his clothes and finding ways to make him very happy.  He’s not going to make it out of the limo without making a mess in his pants.  He figures it’s simply traditional to return the favor.

Long Day

“Dog, stop it–” Emma says, flinging things down on the chairs and sofa, controlling the dog one-handed until Drin calls the furry tornado away.

bag with logo I Like Big Books, source unknown
cloth bag with message, source unknown

While he occupies the beast’s attention, she eases her arm out of the straps of a heavy cloth shopping bag–it is full of books–and pauses for a moment, grimacing while she tests her fingers for remaining function.  “Do you ever have days where everything is just too much– days when even your tits hurt?”

Dance finishes drying his hands on a dish towel and considers her solemnly.  His eyes are amused.  “No, but sometimes mine are made sore, yes, by somebody having way too much fun making me act silly–”

Emma gives him a Look, and he giggles.

Drin arches up both brows innocently, patting the dog.  “Are we going into TMI?  Is Too Much Information going to happen now?”  He pushes away his newspaper and sits up, looking attentive.  The dog, seated at his feet, ears perking up, has the same expression.

“You are too silly!” Dance says.

Emma smacks Dance on the shoulder.  “God, you want TMI, I’ll give you TMI.   I’m too wiped out to play in your league on the snark tonight.  Give me a pinky-push and I’ll fall over.”  Emma bends down to the limits of her aching back, and completely fails to reach the ankle straps on her shoes.  Those embarrassing noises that come out of her are, officially, groans.

Dance pats a straight chair that is not empty, speaking sternly to the cat occupying it, who tries to ignore him.  He bumps the cat gently, ruffles her fur until she is annoyed enough to jump down and depart in a huff.  “Em, sit down, let me take off the shoes, have your tea.  I will finish this dish and put it in the oven and we eat it all up and then you should have a back rub.”

She flops into the chair like a rag doll, groaning.  “God, whatever I did to deserve you, let me figure out what it was and do it some more.”

Dance smiles, slowly and marvelously.  “Oh, I think I will not mind eating this lovely food Drin bought us, and rubbing the tight muscley shoulders on this beautiful Emma woman.”

“I’m glad you didn’t put it the other way round,” Drin says dryly.

“So am I!” Emma says, laughing.  “You make it sound like it’s all the same to you!”

“It is all the same thing, eating up all the yummy things, mmm mmm mm.”  Dance waggles his hips provocatively.  He ignores their outraged laughter and pivots back into the kitchen, where he makes clanging noises, humming.

“Sometimes I kind of worry.  I mean, when you have any bite-able bits, you kind of wonder about Dance–” Drin looks perfect straight-faced saying this.

Emma stares at him, shocked, and starts to laugh again.

“Eat all the things!” Dance says in the kitchen, with growling, ravening noises.  “Start with this.  Here’s your tea.”  He puts a steaming mug on the table by her hand.

She looks down at it, surprised.

“Now, say thank you to Drin for buying us our new electric kettle that is always on and keeps water hot for you all night.”

“He did?  When?”

“With groceries today.”

Emma looks up at Drin.

“Don’t cry,” Drin says comfortably.

“Why the bloody hell not?  Because it’ll make my makeup run?”

“No, it’ll stuff up your nose so you can’t smell Dance’s spicing in the food.  Missing that would be a shame,” Drin says, and crosses one leg elegantly over the other, adjusting the drape of his jeans.  That means he’s embarrassed to be called out on the gift.  He has been threatening to get one of those big electric hot pots to support her tea habit.  Her everlastingly eternally necessary damn tea.

She looks down at the mug of tea.  “Dammit,” she says, and chugs the lot.  “God, I needed that.”

“Good,” Drin says, and smiles at her.  It’s a tiny, slow, pleased smile and yet somehow it looks just like one of Dance’s big delighted window-pane grins.  She’s not sure how.  Not sure she even cares to analyze how he pulled that off.

“Better?” he says.

“Definitely!”

“Well then, have some more,” Drin says, chuckling, and then he bends to the dog and talks nonsense, hands buried in her ruff, while his face is getting licked.  “Yes, she can have lots and lots of tea and bounce all over the ceiling all night, yes she can.  Oooh, yes, very silly.”

“Do you want some more?  You can have more,” Dance asks.

“Yeah, that’d be nice, thanks love,” Emma agrees, surrendering the empty mug.

He looks down, turning, and chirps agreeable noises at the cat, who talks back at him in short scolding noises. The determined little beast starts stropping its sides against Emma’s legs.  Then it jumps up.  When she feels the cat’s weight land on her knees, instead of yelping in pain she endures it, steadying the beast in place, urging it into a better position, and starts scrubbing her fingertips through the soft, soft fur.  Its purring tickles against her hands.  Emma sighs.  She can feel the fibers in her neck and spine easing with twanging sensations, like loosened strings.

Kimchee stew in a steel pot
Kimchee jjigge, or Kimchee stew, photo by Korean Kitchen

Dance returns with the steaming mug, and in his other hand, tissues for her.  He leans down and kisses her forehead.  “You can cry all you want.  I did not tell Drin yet, but this stew will blast out your sinuses and make you taste everything whether you like it or not, I promise.  If you want hot hot food, I give it to you.”

“God, Dance,” she says shakily, and wraps an arm around his hips, and leans into him a moment.  He ruffles her hair lightly.

“You’re okay,” he says.  “You’re home, everything else can go to hell.”

She laughs, grips him tighter a moment, and releases him.  It’s a quote from their mutual best buddy Amalia, old reminder of all the other impossible situations they’ve survived before, and will go on enduring.  Muddling through.  “I’ve been craving– how did you know?”

“Oh, I hear this woman Emma talking, all week.  All that rain.  I know, with so much rain, Em will be craving hot TexMex chili and hot Chinese ginger chicken and hot Indian curries,” Dance says, gives a silly hand flip, and sashays back into the kitchen.

Her stomach rumbles very loudly, and both of the men laugh at her.  They always seem to find her blunt comments charming instead of gross and disgusting, which still surprises her.

“Drin wants hot food too, you know.  He can joke all about it, but he does.  So do I.”  Dance starts whistling over the noise of opening cans.

“It smells terrific, just coming into the house,” Emma says.

“It does,” Drin agrees.

“And I could smell it at all!” Emma adds.

“Good,” Dance says.  A spatula spangs and clatters against the sides of his wok, and gusts of chili and ginger and onion fill the room.  Instead of annoying her nose, it does the opposite.  She can feel her lungs relaxing more open by the moment.  The tea is starting to work its magic on her sore throat, too.

“I needed this,” Emma says, inhaling steam from her mug.  Then she puts her face into a tissue instead, and starts honking into it.  Not exactly gracious living.

“You should stay in bed tomorrow,” Dance says.

“Yeah, of course I should.  But guess what–”

“You can’t go to a gala with enough tissues up your sleeve,” Dance says.

He’s right, of course.  Dammit.  Her shoulders sag.

“More tea?” Drin says.

She looks at him narrowly.

“Herb tea now,” Dance says firmly, and takes her mug again.  “Finding you things that are good for the sad nose.”

“Now I’m suspicious, all this nice attention tonight.  Most days, if you were playing computer games I could be sick to the gills and you guys would never notice me hacking up a lung.  I could be lying on my deathbed practically!  So you’re up to something, the both of you.  I’m wondering what you guys want from me, when my brain is mush and my judgement is impaired,” Emma says.

“Says that massive brain who’s using big words like, ‘Oh, my judgement is impaired,’” Dance mimics her voice, echoing in the kitchen.

“That doesn’t mean anything.  I use those words all the time,” Emma says, annoyed.

“This is true, she says them in her sleep even,” Dance tells the other man, yelling it out as if he’s proud of it.

“If I had a brain worth the word tonight, I’d be using much bigger words to explain that now you’re trying to dodge the question and distract me,” Emma says.  She frowns.  “Words like evasive and–”

“Yes, those words,” Dance says, and a gush of water noises drowns the conversation for a moment.

Drin is looking up at the ceiling, smiling a little, and he shakes his head.  “Told you it wouldn’t work,” he says.

“Worth a try,” Dance says.

“Whaaaat?” Emma demands, scrubbing at her forehead.  She inhales more steam, and honks noisily into a fresh tissue, and stares at Drin with her mouth open so she can breathe at all.

He gets up, stretches hugely, yawns, and wanders over.  “You look terrible, poor baby,” he says, and pats her shoulder.  “Like you should be tucked up in bed.”

She gives a snort that is even more piglike than usual, with the junk clogging her sinuses, and makes him laugh.

Can’t Get There Fast Enough

One of the men shifted, noisily, and Peach jerked around, ears twitching, and bared her fangs.

“Hoh shit,” muttered one of the men further away, and Peach hissed at him, ears flattened, ready to launch off Keisha’s arm at any of them.

Her truncated tail kept flicking from side to side in her sweats, jerking at the fabric. Keisha scruffed the frantic muscles of her neck. “Breath, Peach. Deep breath. Good. Again.”

Tee Pom asks, “Your gal there okay?”

Keisha blinked hard. “Yeah,” she said, “You driving? You let her sniff you, she might calm down.”

“I’d be pleased to,” Tee Pom said gravely, moving around to where the night breeze blew downwind from him, and then he held out both his hands, palm up, as if he met nervous bagheeras every day of the week.

Peach craned her neck forward, eyes wide. She gave a distressed little whine, digging her claws into Keisha’s arm.

“Mama, easy there. He ain’t gonna rush you. Just take your time,” Keisha murmured into the ears. “Talk to me, baby. Tell me what he smells like.”

Tears welled up in Peach’s eyes. “Seung,” she said, more of a half-strangled mew than a clear name. “Blood. Smell of… sick. Two Seung.”

“Two of Seung, huh?” Keisha said.

“Seung hurt!” Peach said, struggling to get it out.

“Yeah, he was, but he’s gonna get better now,” Tee Pom agreed, looking carefully away from Peach’s wild eyes.

“Easy, mama, I hear you,” Keisha said, stroking her neck and the base of her ears.

“I’d like to get you to the clinic so you can see he’s okay now. We took him to Doctor Alexander to get help,” Tee Pom repeated.

“Thank God,” Keisha sighed into Peach’s neck fur. Then she asked softly, “Can you smell that too? Doctor smell?”

“Stinky wash cut.”

“You’re a big help talking, telling me things. I just love you to bits,” Keisha said, hugging her.

Peach looked up at Keisha nervously. “Not bad doctor?”

Keisha drew in a deep breath.

Tee Pom said quietly, “Man, there’s a gal who’s had a tough life.”

“Yeah, she has,” Keisha agreed, stroking Peach’s forearms and neck. “Good girl. Good.”

“Not bad?” Peach demanded, digging in her nails.

“I swear he’s a good doctor,” Tee Pom said solemnly, putting his hand over his chest.

“Good doctor?” she whispered, kneading her nails at Keisha anxiously.

Tee Pom murmured, “Easy now, easy, sweet gal. Seung will be fine. Alexander’s the best doctor he could ever get, I swear. Your friend Seung is gonna want to see you.”

“How bad is he hurt?” Keisha wanted to know.

“You know that thing in his back? Doctor Alexander has to take it out, tout de suite.” Tee Pom said grimly.

“Oh,” Keisha grunted, as if she got hit in the gut.

“Oh yeah. Your guy say he’s not going under without you. Tomorrow, probably. Don’t worry, the doctor takes his medicine seriously. We gotta get you ladies movin’, okay?”

Peach nudged her. Keisha loosened her frozen grip on the girl’s shoulders. Keisha blinked down at her, gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Okay, now? You okay with going to see Seung?”

Peach smelled the wind coming past Tee Pom. “Okay,” Peach growled. “Okay.”

“He smell okay to you?” Keisha asked again, feeling how her legs were shaking, and how Peach was wobbly too.

“Okay,” Peach said, and buried her face in Keisha’s shoulder, and shivered.

“Girl’s getting shocky?” Tee Pom asked.

“Yeah,” Keisha said, feeling a bit shocky herself. Peach, getting fierce like that!

“Truck’s over this way, ma’am.” He gestured, and the other guys moved back, leaving plenty of room.

Keisha took a couple of steps toward the truck. “ID,” she said, a croak with her throat so hoarse.

“Of course,” Tee Pom said, and pulled out his wallet. He turned one of the lights, held his badge into the light. “Some folks don’t believe it when I say the lawman’s gotta be adaptable, workin’ this parish.”

Keisha guided Peach into sitting down first on the truck seat, and then leaned over her, leaning on Peach. When Peach stopped shaking and shivering so much, she urged Peach to get up again, and Keisha slid onto the seat so she’d be holding Peach.

Tee Pom held out another bottle of water. “Want me to open it?”

Keisha nodded, accepted it, urged Peach to drink some more. Then she got them both tucked up into the cab, blankets pulled in, and Tee Pom shut the door. Keisha felt Peach start crying. She just stroked the soft fur, up and down, feeling hair sticking all over her crusted wet hands. Peach was stress-shedding just like a housecat. “It’s okay, mama, it’s gonna be okay. You just cry all you want, it’s okay.”

“Seung hurt bad?” Peach whimpered into her shoulder.

“I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out, mama. I am gonna find out.”

Into their open window, Tee Pom said, “We think he oughta be okay, but the Doctor still gotta figure things out on him.  We all were hoping you could help on that.”

Keisha said flatly, “Maybe you should tell your buddy Fozzie he has a problem with his guy Mike.  Wolfy boy with pointy Doberman ears. Mike turned Fozzie’s truck over to those… things.  The guys who locked us in the shed.”

“Yeah?  We will do that,” Tee Pom said.  Then he nodded and walked away around the truck, talking to the other guys. “Yeah, you heard right. Mike going bad, that’s the worst kinda news. You got Fozzie’s number? You peel off ahead and get you some cell coverage, you call him right away. Whatever those bugs wanted with that truck, or with these two women, or with that other naga boy, we wanna know it.”

Mutters.  Somebody growled, “Oh God, Fozz is gonna blow sky high.”

Tee Pom said, “Sure is.  I want Fozz workin’ his end first. Best chance is Fozz hunting Mike down, oh, you bet–and he’s gonna ask that boy what the hell that was about. You might remind him that we might have some different questions to ask Mike too, I don’t want nobody disappearing into some bayou. Now, what I want is Mike nice and clean and pretty in a cell, ready to load up for conspiracy to commit kidnapping and battery, but we’ll be lucky if that ever happens.  Still, that’s what I want, if anybody was askin’.  Plus, we need pictures of those two ladies right away down the clinic, get some shots of Keisha’s poor hands. Yeah, you know it. Hope she didn’t break any knuckles.”

Tee Pom opened the driver’s side door, watching the flinches of Peach’s ears as he climbed in, as he buckled up and got the ignition going.  He acted like he knew just how fast a nervous bagheera can lash out.

Keisha whispered, “I didn’t know till we tried to run away, but those guys, we saw they got these weird white crab arms… and things. Seung… called ’em bug troops.”

Tee Pom put the truck in gear.  “Thank you for the warning, Ma’am, that’s a mighty big help.”

Kiesha nodded. She tucked her nose into Peach’s fur, drawing in the dusty-flower smell. Dark trees flashed by, and they just couldn’t go fast enough. All she wanted was to get hold of her boy again.

Power Box Drain

“Ask him are they alive or dead,” Tee Pom says.

“Alive, he says.” Dance can hear the change in his doppelganger’s voice. “They were alive when he left them.” The cracked and urgent voice goes on. “He says he hopes they are still alive.”

“Don’t want any more murder charges on his ass?”

“No charges yet,” Tee Pom warns Michel’s boys.  “All right, who’s with me? Good. I’ll be in my truck, you lead.” Dust boils up as trucks roll out. Hyphen can only duck his head and cough.

“They will go? Please tell me…”

“Yes, they are going. Do you know,” Dance says, “who I am?”

The wrapped figure twists painfully to face him. “Yob tvoyu mat.” Hyphen grunts. “Yes, I know who you are, you bastard. I see pictures.”

“Can you be calm?” Dance watches his twin take a deep breath. There’s something setting his teeth on edge, like a sound that makes his teeth hurt. Even as Hyphen slows down, the… sound, very high, nearly inaudible, gets shriller and more painful. Dance takes a few steps to the side. Then a few more, and as he comes around the struggling figure, the sound sharpens.  When the man turns, all the noises shift with him. It’s the other naga’s power box, Dance realises, and the whole world lurches with the sudden twist of fear.

Dance gives a little showman’s flourish with the tail, and extends his hands to the crowd. “Would you mind moving back, please? For your safety, you understand. We don’t want any accidents, do we?”

“What’s up?” Emma asks him while people are distracted, jostling. They’ve cleared maybe three more feet of space. It’s a joke. He can’t get enough room to turn around in a fight, let alone keep them safe, or use his canopy.  He’s going to need it.

“I’m going to drain his power down before he blows us all up,” Dance says, as patiently as he can.

“Blows– right. How much more space?”

“Miles! We must get people away.” Dance frowns. It’s hard to think of the words. “Ahh, you must not hear it. I am having teeth on edge from a high frequency sensation you might call… a creepy-sounding whine. It makes things… resonate. While… my system can insist on stabilizing this… field effect… he is generating… and not knowing it… ” he makes a face. It’s hard to remember the right words. “Better to reduce his power overload. Trying to kill him will destabilize it… badly. I must drain his… power box… which will give him better overload limits.”

Drin’s hand lands on his shoulders. “I’m sure you’re right. Look how the lights react whenever Hyphen moves.”

It’s true. Dance barely noticed that side-effect, blinded in the sea of power gradients swamping the open space, making him nauseated.

“Did you get Preacher?” Drin’s voice, steady as a rock.

Emma nods. “On his way. May take him an hour or so. Can you wait till then?”

“I think we don’t have an hour.”  Hyphen’s screaming tirade– the women, the wharf, as if no one had heard or believed him– are running on and on, a nightmare litany that makes Dance feel helpless and wobbly.

“The truck went to get them,” he tells Hyphen, loudly, in Korean. “Stop, you must calm down. You are going to hurt yourself.”

Hyphen barks laughter at that. “I’m already hurt. My world is… is hurt.” His face screws up, like a puzzled child. “World,” he says again.

There’s a pop, and shrieks, as one of the light bulbs on the outside of the building blows out.

“Get back,” Dance says to the crowd. Tremors are running through his legs. He keeps the tail rolled up tightly, to keep all the shaking from becoming visible to everybody. “Move back.”

Michel, and Emma and Drin, and Grace move through the crowd, guiding people away. Not that a mere hundred feet will be safe, but the illusion is soothing.

“Give me a sightline to the power cables,” he calls out, and people have begun to listen once more, they start moving right and left across the field untill there’s a broad corridor opened straight before him and his… his brother.

Drin trots back. “What do you need from us, Dance?”

Dance grips his hands together, pushes them against his clenched gut muscles, to stop them shaking. Deep breaths. The power whine is drilling his skull in half. “Maybe water, something for him to drink, later on we get into it. He’s in pain, can’t stop overload, can’t get away from the unstable fields–”

“Get a pitcher of ice water,” Drin says to somebody. “Anything else?”

Dance tries to think. “Move away– drive away the truck?” he says doubtfully, and hears Drin’s field-voice booming, giving the orders.

Hyphen totters, Dance shoots out one hand in warning, but with the sickeningly high field gradients squeezed between them, he doesn’t dare touch.  “No– no, don’t let him fall– down–he needs to be on the ground–”

Michel’s gator-wrestling boys are suddenly right there to catch Hyphen, to move in with blessedly electrically neutral human hands, to lay him down at Dance’s gestures.

“Don’t touch his back. Good, let him sit. Move the truck please–” at last the truck roars into life and moves away.

Dance pulls off his shirt, lurching a bit. “Forty foot canopy pop out. Please more room for that side, and that one. More, please. Thank you.” He leans forward, touching his hands to the damp ground. Things unroll. Readjusted blood pressure goes booming through his whole body as the flap of glittery skin around his neck billows outward in an explosion of rainbows and stiffening struts.

“Emma? Do you have anything to help me… anything you can remember?”

“If you give me a minute.” Emma’s face is pinched with worry. He’s seen her when this… strange memory trick starts playing, and he watches her tic and grimace and frown as if from a long way off.  His own heartbeat is so loud, the blood is rushing in his ears.  She says, “Right, this might be– a little difficult–”

Under Emma’s directions, he shifts how he’s leaning down, feels how adjustments in the struts are shunting blood. His parasail makes a double set of cells, hollow at the back, closed at the front, standing upright in its laser-cannon curl over his shoulders. He pushes it up gently until the top of it rises clear of his head.

“Can you stand up straight?” Emma asks. Her hands rub over the canopy skin, testing the tension of it so gently, so delicately.

The closed front surface snugs down behind his head, and the back of it keeps rising, tilting, curling inward at the tips, tipped upward until it has become a big hollow shell towering over his head. It threatens to overbalance him, and his tail tip comes up and twitches here and there at the struts, pushing in places, adjusting things. Then his tail settles down into a wide coil, and Dance bends his knees, settling his weight down into the support of his tail, bracing up against a wind that none of the others can feel.

“Get back please,” he says.

The man restrained by the duct tape is looking up at Dance, Dance’s own eyes staring back at himself.

Dance starts to hum gently, echoing in that shell.

Hyphen starts screaming.

Dance feels like screaming too. But that won’t do. One of them has to be sober, sane, fully awake, one of them has to control their combined fields, keep calm about this whole thing. One of them has to figure it out. Dance starts fumbling among the wavering, uncertain fields, looking for power sinks that won’t arc or leak or backfire.

Dance feels, more than sees, people talking and scrambling around him.  Emma says something, sharply.  Someone darts around the side of the building. Dance can feel the change when the the breakers bang off the building. The music inside goes silent. The only lights left are from the generator–until it gets shut down too, and then the lightbulbs on the little stands go out. It’s calmer, by a very little bit.

In the darkness, Dance tilts back his head, and finds a path threading through the lightning and iron-filing storm. The little lights go back on. The music inside the building goes back on, the lights inside shine out again. After a moment or two, lights in a half dozen of the nearest dark buildings down the street go back on, and Dance is leaning back, clenching his jaw, lips peeling back as that high continuous sound streams past his ears, aimed by the shell that is part of him.

Hyphen is screaming out as loud as he can, mouth gaping open. The screaming, the ragged, breathless cries keep coming from the man writhing in the duct tape.

“Ya see my watch?” Lafayette’s voice says. “Plumb crazy!”

After a few more moments, the lights in all the parked vehicles down the street turn themselves on.

“Shit,” Emma and Michel say in unity– very quietly, but Dance hears them.

Dance manages not to fire off vehicle ignitions when he’s pouring juice through the headlights; it’s hard, but he does. None of the engines turn over. No engines. No heaters. No fans. Nothing that moves. Just lights. More lights go on down along the houseboats. He’s pushing it into the nearest powerlines, pushing all that energy almost faster than the lines can absorb it.

“Careful, careful man, you don’t want to overload those transformers here, they ain’t built for really high level stuff,” ‘Toine says to Dance, as if Dance can hear him past everything else he’s doing.

It hurts to take the attention to do it, but Dance nods. Yes, he heard ‘Toine. He will try to be careful.

The man in the duct tape is rolling about like a worm, screaming and struggling, apparently trying to get closer to Dance. Maybe he doesn’t have any choice about it, either.

To calm him, Dance’s tail lifts, stirs, and he shuffles forward nearer to Hyphen– and steps into a place where everything is still. Hyphen is quiet, gasping with the aftermath.  The overwhelming grating frequencies are gone.  He can hear only a few simpler harmonies, all well within the pain threshold.

Dance is not moving, his body grows heavier, set in stone, he’s not going anywhere. He doesn’t dare move any more, with all those confusing magnetic fields going at once.

“You want him yanked back off you, Dance?”

Dance’s hand comes up, flattens, makes the ‘no’ gesture they’ve used on raids.

“Okaaay…”

The canopy tightens in closer around Dance’s head, and Dance draws in a deep breath, and the lights and the music in the building die out. But not the vehicle lights, not the house lights, and not the lights in the little stands nearby.
Reach farther, Dance says, just lips moving, unable to tell if he is speaking it into the air at all. He pulls on the fields from the other naga. You can help me do this. Save your life. Save your women. Help me reach further.

The power plant is in a complicated jury-rigged web of power lines, only three-quarters of them actually on the owners’ maps. It glows in the distance among the lines, some distance over the horizon.

Push it there, Dance whispers. They need it. They can use it, they can spread it for us. It’s been so hot today. They’re on power conservation, nearly brownout, warnings. Give it to them. All those air-conditioners and tvs and radios and fridges and stoves and–

Take it, Hyphen yells at him.

It’s like having a massive hand grip him all over his body, and squeeze. Too much for his skin. He’s overflowing.

There, put it there! Dance shrieks.

Streams mingle together and they both are vomiting power into the lines, the glow in the distance brightens unexpectedly, relays are issuing warnings and some failure points light up red bulbs. Speakers and klaxons are pulsing, dials running backwards.

You could power the whole grid for the Southeast with this sonuvabitch, says one of the nearby telephone lines, but Dance can’t tell who’s reporting or who is listening.

Seung’s Women

A flash of light speared his brain; Seung shut his eyes once more and kept them that way. Everything hurt. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like this, hot and chilled at the same time, every joint either throbbing with a dark ache or painfully on fire. Someone told him to stop screaming for fuck’s sake and take this, which he did, washing down the single pill with a tumbler of blessedly wet water, and he went back to sleep again.

The next time he woke he cataloged the sounds of water hitting a fiberglass hull, frogs and crickets, people talking nearby in a lilting dialect, a buzz of activity. There was only a dim light burning, and through his carefully slitted eyes he could see the beginnings of dawn light outside the window.

“…coming in, got about five more minutes on the road, Tee Pom says,” a woman’s clear voice remarked. “Dance, can you.. thank you, lovie.” The scent of the other one– the snake– came to his nostrils, and with it a flood of saliva. He swallowed past a raw throat.

“Older Brother,” Dance’s upper class Korean, “Our outriders are coming back with your friends, will you wake for them?”

“Women?” Seung mumbled.

Dance repeated it in English.

“Yes, your women,” Emma said. “Tee Pom says they are a little bit hurt, he’s bringing them straight here.”

“My women hurt!” Seung tried to sit up at that, struggling with his restraints. “Let me–”

“Older Brother, be calm,” Dance said. “The doctor will attend them, here in your presence. You must rest and grow strong once more.”

The snake man honored him? Seung drew in a great, gasping breath and lay still, listening to the rushing of his own blood in his body, and listening for the diesel engine.

“Get her head back,” the doctor’s voice came from outside.  “You ignorant sonofabitches, back!  No, no, let her go– let go, give her a minute, you sorry bastard.”

“What is happening?” Seung asked the snake man.

“Your woman is a scrapper,” Dance said at the window, and charged out, his tail whipping once against the doorjamb as he went. It raked a vivid scar down into raw wood.

The doctor’s strident voice was going on. “Never try to restrain someone in convulsions like that.  What the hell are you thinking, she’ll tear her own muscles apart!  Dance, thank God you’re here…” The voices sank to mumbles, but Seung heard Peach now, her growl rising and falling rhythmically, and he felt choked with frustration.

He heard movement in the next room now, the creak of cot springs. A sad little meow from Peach ripped a bellow through Seung’s throat, leaving him coughing. And the next thing he knew was a warm furry weight landing upon him, Peach’s dry-grass fragrance and her glass-blue eyes inches from his. “Seung!” she said. “Seung, Keisha, Seung!”

“What about Keisha, dushka moy?” he croaked out.

Dance came to the door. “She’s well, Older Brother, only dehydrated. She will be with you in only a few more moments. She was convulsing and is now not awake, but you will have her quickly, I promise.” He said into the doorway, “Bring the whole cot in, we’ll get her fluids hooked up in here.”

“Who died and made you the doctor?” the doctor groused, but Dance only laughed, and and Seung heard the gurney casters protesting as Alexander and Emma wheeled it into the room, maneuvering it into place next to him.

Keisha lay limp, dark against the white sheet. There was a thin crescent of white showing under her eyelids, which hadn’t completely closed, and Seung wanted badly to stroke them shut. Her skin was ashen. Doctor Alexander, muttering, shuffled into the cramped space with a glittering bag of saline to hook up to her arm; Peach all but leapt at him, growling.

“Hey! I’m not hurting her, kitty, swear it.” Doctor Alexander said. It was, Seung realized, the first sentence the man had said without swear words. He spoke differently, talking to Peach. “C’mon, little girl. Lemme do my work.”

“Only I hold Peach,” Seung said, and rattled his restraints. Doctor Alexander looked over, measuringly, nodded at Emma, who reached over and unbuckled the leather bands on Seung’s bedframe.

“My dushka, you come here now,” Seung ordered. “Come.” And Peach actually did so, nuzzling into his armpit, licking his face frantically. Wads of shed fur came off her. Seung wrapped grateful arms around her, crooning. “Little love, little love…” Together, they watched the doctor clean wounds and wrap white bandages around Keisha’s hands. “What did that?” Seung demanded.

“Keisha hit house.” Peach whispered. “Hit door, hit wood house, many hits. Kick lots.”

Seung was surprised into a bark of laughter. He reached painfully across, rested his hand on the dark, soft skin of Keisha’s shoulder.

“Tee Pom says she was that close to breaking right through the wall,” Emma said. “She’s a fighter, your woman.”

“Is good, my woman,” Seung said. The saline bag shifted as it emptied, trickling its lifegiving fluids into Keisha’s’s bloodstream. Contentedly, he watched the steady rise and fall of her breathing, and held Peach close.

Helping Keisha’s Crew

It ought to be Dance’s twin curled up in the clinic bed. But this man isn’t identical. Dance says he calls Seung Older Brother in Korean, and it fits. Seung looks older, more weather-beaten, heavier through the shoulders and torso, his hands are scarred up from fights, and his eyes are deadly quiet. He makes Dance look like he’s all bubbles and froth and witty jokes and queer as hell. That’s freaky. Dance hasn’t changed a bit.

Seung just doesn’t talk, not in any language. In the hours since he was brought in here, Dance practically had to pull teeth to get him to admit he needed more painkillers for his back.

So it’d been a shock to see Seung’s face open up like that, to see him hugging the poor skinny gray tabby bagheera girl so close. There– there’s Dance’s twin. Emma feels the all-too-familiar twist of blind anger at the bug labs, the rotten war machine that sacrificed this beautiful creature to the filthy alleys of Earth.

“Smelling the girl stomach is empty,” Seung says, working at it slowly. “Not eat, sick, fall over, yes?”

“Yeah, that wouldn’t help one bit,” Doctor Alexander says briskly. He smiles at Peach. “When did you ladies eat last?”

Peach’s ears go flat against her skull.

“Easy now,” Doctor Alexander says, and takes a step closer to Peach, who growls.

“She wants to rip your guts out,” Emma warns, from across the room.

“Well, of course. You know how bagheeras get twitchy when their people are hurt, just part of the business,” Doctor Alexander says, as if he’s been doing it for years. He looks at Peach, waiting for an answer.

Peach bares her teeth, and nobody takes the slightest notice of it. Seung just clicks his tongue, and Peach looks at him, clearly anxious. Seung strokes the ears back upright, as if he knows exactly how to get her to calm down again.

“How many days since you ate?” Doctor Alexander repeats. He’s far more patient with her than any other adult so far.

Peach just shakes her head. She’s struggling for words, the mute look on her face is just like one of the tiny kids at the library.

“One day?” Seung murmurs into her fur. “Two?  Many? How many?”

Peach shakes her head. Holds up three fingers, puts up a fourth, frowns, puts it down again.

“Okay, you want a bag of glucose?” Emma asks Doctor Alexander.

“Yes,” he grunted. “Peach will need some protein, too.   They run off calories so fast.”

Emma nods, hands him another of the floppy plastic bags of fluid, and walks away. “I’ll bring over some of Dance’s food from the house later.”

“Emma,” Seung says.

She turns, enquiringly.

“Good.”

“You’re welcome,” Emma says, surprised and pleased.

She finds herself smiling again at home in the kitchen as she puts together a baggie of sandwiches and another of plain, cooked bluegill fillet.

She glances into the bedroom, finds Drin is still conked out in bed, exhausted. He sat up most of the night going over every inch of Dance’s parasail skin, obsessively working out every last bubble of extra pooled blood that might leave bruises and damage, muttering to himself sometimes and adjusting the lamp. Dance was asleep under his hands before he got halfway done. When Drin did finally curl up next to Dance, he kept one arm around him possessively. As the Intarwebs might put it, pwned, and who pwns who there? Emma asked herself, wryly. Neither of them had stirred when she pulled a sheet over them both.

Now she adjusts the floor fan to make Drin more comfortable in the warm room, and he gives a little sigh and goes back to sleep.

Then she rummages for paper plates and plastic utensils, and she thinks about where to find mules or flipflops that might fit Peach’s feet comfortably enough. She’s got frequent lectures on it from Doctor Alexander while they’re waiting for things to cook or things to cool or things to arrive, like the other volunteers at the clinic. Alexander insists that cheap flipflops have kept more people worldwide from getting nasty parasites endemic in the mud than anything else they know. He hands them out from a huge box to the children. She’s ordered some more adult-sized ones.

Back at the clinic, she finds none of the ones in the box are Peach’s size. She makes a note on her shopping list, and goes in the back room to ask what else the clinic might need from town. Clothes for the new Trio, certainly.

“Oh, you’re awake!” Emma says, putting things down on a counter and turning, speaking to them. She smiles at the dark woman on the gurney next to Seung. The woman is not quite sitting, propped up on pillows, with the IV taped on her wrist. Peach is leaning into her on the other side from Seung.

“You hold a minute,” the woman growls at Seung. Her face looks so strange and harsh that Emma takes a couple of steps toward her. From the new angle, Emma sees now that woman’s other hand is busy. She’s got a pair of scissors in her fist, and she’s digging the points into Seung’s throat. He’s got his hands down, not stopping her. Just looking at the woman.

Emma stops short. “Alex,” she whispers.

“Ahh,” Alexander says, from the door, and he stands still. “Dance went to get some–”

Peach gives a soft little cry of distress.

“Quiet,” the dark woman says, and Peach is silent. “I want my boy to tell me.”

Seung looks at the woman. Then he says, “I was slow. Bugs fast.”

“Yeah, I know. But you knew those guys.”

Seung looks aside, lowers his eyes, turns his chin up. It’s remarkably doglike.

“Don’t you be belly-uppin’ on me,” the woman growls at him, eyes narrowed.

Seung swallows hard enough to make the scissors move. “Mike surprise me. Not good, I was slow.”

The woman glares. “No shit. So you saw those guys on the road, and–”

“For Peach,” Seung says. “They put you off locked up safe, I get you out later. I hope.”

“Keisha?” It’s the tiniest whimper.

“Hush Peach.”

“First thing is keep you alive, Keisha. Most important. I fight, you be killed, I know this, know.”

“They ain’t after me, they came after you.” Keisha says.

“They don’t kill me. They kill you.” Seung’s eyes go pale.

Emma knows that look, those pale eyes, and she draws in a shallow breath.

“Don’t you say nuthin’,” Keisha growls, one quick glance up at Emma and down again to Seung, just that fast.

Emma knows it was plenty of time for Seung to reach up and disarm her. Keisha probably knows it too. But she’s staring into Seung’s face, leaning close, jaw muscles bulged out.

Seung puts up his hand and rests it on Keisha’s hip, and she growls, and he takes it off again. He lifts it toward her arm instead, and she jerks in place, growling. “Talk to me,” Keisha says.

Seung takes several deep breaths. “Okay,” he says, gulping. He lifts his hand again, frustrated, and puts it down on the pillow next to him instead. “Okay.”

“Tell me how you know those guys.”

“Boss buy them.  Bugs. We get on ship, come here, boss say get cargo, tell me go get Peach and get laptop on the other ship. Not telling why.”

“Sonuvabitch,” Keisha says, and draws in several hard breaths, nostrils snorting wide. Then she turns the scissors away from his throat, and down onto his forearm instead, pressing in a dent. “Doesn’t that even hurt?”

He waves it off with his other hand, which is still bandaged from the claw-marks Dance reports came from an initial tangle with Peach. “Not big hurt. Back is big hurt.”

Keisha looks at him, and nods, and throws the scissors down on the floor, and covers her eyes with her knuckles.

“Boss lady,” Seung says.

Keisha sits up, and gives a yelp of pain. “Damn, my back too. Okay, you tell me where your damn boss found those damn bug things, I swear I’ll kick me some bug ass–”

“Would you like some help?” Emma says, amused. God, she is a fighter!

Keisha glares up at her. “Yeah?” Her tone says, plain as words, What the fuck would you know about bugs? and Emma is surprised at the sting.

Doctor Alexander grunts, carrying in folders, and shoves them into a filing cabinet. “You want to learn how to stop bugs, ask Emma. She goes with her guys on bug raids, they’re the local snipers we call for help. She’s given me a dozen of her kills as bug cadavers to dissect. Stinking worst dissection jobs I ever dealt with, too.”

Keisha narrows her eyes. “What do you shoot those fuckers with?”

“Stuff that leaves a big fucking hole,” Alexander growls, glaring at Emma.

Emma shrugs. “I’m backup with one of our smaller shotguns, for closeup stuff like head shots. Don’t bother with gut shots, it won’t stop ’em. We’re overloading with lots of duck or goose shot pellets. When we’re down to scratch and I’m borrowing a machine pistol from Michel’s crew, those guys use crazy crap like flare guns and stuff, I never know what the hell they’ve got in there. I think a .32 round is about as small as you want to use. Armor-piercing shells make me feel better, but not if you’re trying to hold bugs off somebody’s house. Go right through six walls and somebody’s kid.”

Keisha grunts. “So you musta grew up shooting?  Fox hunts, that kinda crap?”

Emma gives a grim smile. “Not exactly. Dingos and kangaroos and saltwater crocs and rabbits. Lots of rabbits, even the ones getting mangled by myxo disease. Oh, and cane toads. God, I hate cane toads.”

Seung growls. “Toads blow,” he says, when Keisha looks at him.

Emma smiles. “Yeah. So do saltwater crocs.”

Keisha narrows her eyes again. “So you’re Dance’s bitch?”

Emma lifts her hand with a little flourish, bowing. “And Drin’s. No, they never put the toilet seat down. But I forgive that one, because Dance is such a damn fine cook.”

“I cook too,” Seung says, looking at Keisha, and stroking Peach’s ears.

Keisha looks at him. “That’s good, my man, because you’re my bitch.”

“Okay,” Seung says. He knows perfectly well what the slang means. “Pussy-whip me.”

Keisha growls at him.

He just smiles. It is a very wicked, merry smile, and eerily familiar. “Dance tells.”

Keisha glares up at Emma, and Emma just holds up both hands open and flat, chuckling. “You’d have to ask Dance about that one.”

“I do, I ask him,” Seung says. “Younger Brother say to me, oh yes, Keisha say jump, I am asking how high. Want so bad, beg and beg. Screwed six ways from Sunday, no need on wearing stupid dog leash.”

“He said that?” Emma says.

Seung says, “Oh yes.”

“Oh Christ, that probably sounded worse in Korean than it does in English,” Emma says, chewing on her lower lip.

“Yes,” Seung says. “Lots and lots rude. Like man schoolteacher in girl panties, not even sorry.”

Keisha’s eyebrows are a sight to behold.

“No lie, true,” Seung says. He holds up his hand, palm flat. “Worse than wearing dog leash.”

Emma opens her mouth, sees Keisha’s skeptical eye, and shuts her mouth again.

“Okay, my man, that’s enough TMI for today. Peach, give that boy a smack, I gotta wait till my hands aren’t sore.”

Peach reaches over, frowning in concentration, and delivers a open-handed swat that leaves scratch marks on Seung’s shoulder. He flinches, making a face, as if movement in the wound in his back is what hurt him. Peach gives him a worried look, patting him lightly on the forearm, until his face calms down again.

“Okay,” Keisha says firmly.

Peach looks between them, and says, “Okay now?”

Keisha reaches up her hand, the one with the tape and the IV drip in it, and rests it on Peach’s shoulder. “Yeah, mama, we are all right.”

Peach leans in closer, uttering a sigh of relief. So does Seung. Keisha reaches up and grabs a wad of his hair and grips it hard, in spite of how much it must hurt her. She leans her face into his, and kisses his forehead, more like a bite than a caress. He gives another big sigh.

Alexander snorts and starts pulling out folders, muttering. Then he blinks at the three people in the beds. “You folks need anything?”

“Water,” Seung says firmly.

“I got it,” Emma says. She fills glasses, drops straws in them, hands them around. Peach croons at Keisha, nudging the glass in her hand, and Keisha glares, but sips at it.

“If you guys are hungry, I can get some sandwiches from the fridge here–” Emma offers.

Keisha glances away. “S’okay.”

Emma has the suspicion that Keisha doesn’t want to admit she can barely sit up enough to eat. Alexander had said something about muscle cramps, that she needed to get more potassium in her, from sweating so long out in the heat with no food or water.

Emma knows better than to get pushy finding out where Seung’s former boss picked up those bug troops, but it’s hard to control herself. Emma looks at Seung. “If the place where your former boss picked up bug troops isn’t close here, we maybe could pass it along to some friends in that other area to knock ’em down.”

Seung points at his head. “I tell Preacher where, loud.”

“Ah, then he’s dealt with reporting it,” Emma nods. She looks at Keisha then. “Oh yes– Tee Pom tells me Michel’s boys got in touch with Fozzie, they let him know about Mike. I guess Fozzie about blew a gasket.”

“That’s the problem with havin’ too many friends, one of ’em always likes to roll over on the whole party,” Keisha says.

“Fozzie rescues a lot of people,” Emma says quietly.

Keisha grunts. “Hey, everybody needs a hobby.”

Emma aims a pointed look at Seung and Peach, and Keisha glowers back.

“We are not being your hobby,” Seung tells Keisha, to no reaction.  “Is not,” he repeats, crossly, glaring at Keisha, who only glares right back.

“Why not?” Keisha growls.

“You get only me and Peach. We lots work.”

Emma can’t help it. She tilts her head upward, smiling. “You have been talking to Dance.”

“What’s so funny?” Keisha demands. “You think that sounds too much like your snakeman?”

Emma nods. “When those two get to cracking jokes, it’s gonna get tough.”

“You think Seung would be better off stayin’ with you guys, after he heals up.” Keisha is wooden-faced.

Emma shakes her head. “What? No. That’s up to all of you. But you’re all welcome to stay. The whole bayou here is zoomorph families, it’s safe for us to walk around in daylight here.”

“Much as anywhere is safe, huh? Except when guys like Mike start handin’ you over to the Man.”

Emma shrugs. “Nobody expected that.”

Keisha shrugs too, like a sharp little imitation. “Always some damn fool spoils the party.”

“I don’t know how they paid Mike off, if they did. Far as I can poke around, nobody in Mike’s family got new money. Now, I talked to Michel about old-time ways to bribe.  His family are all old-school smuggling, old-style discipline.  Oh lordy, they were pissed off, Tee Pom had quite a job talking them down from just shooting Mike on sight. Now, on tracking down newer ideas, things like internet chats and payments, that kind of thing, that’s where we could use your ideas.”

“I think maybe Fozzie got too many friends.  It’s too easy for some crooked parish guys to use other things.  Get somebody’s dumb kid brother outta jail, no money down.”

Emma blinks. “Thanks. I’ll look into friends and relatives getting off on some criminal or civil charges during the last few weeks.” She makes herself a note to follow up on certain arrest records. “So if you don’t like big groups like Fozzie’s bunch, why would you want to go visit your aunt Lacey?”

“What about my aunt Lacey?” Keisha’s voice sounds flat, spooky.

“Well, she is the one running Fozzie’s horse farm.  Hell, she runs Fozzie, and he’d be the first to say so, she’s his wife from way back, nobody knows how old they are.  The horse ranch is, oh, about sixty miles from here. He’s always out on the road.  Lacey is the one who sorts out zoomorph rescues, keeps the farm and the lab functioning, keeps the trucks running, the whole thing.”

“Aw, shit.” Keisha, for once, is honestly astonished, her dark eyes round. “That’s– shit, man, my auntie? I remember her puttin’ on her gloves for church, man.”

“There’s only one Lacey in the swampland,” Emma says, grinning at the idea of Lacey wearing gloves to church, enjoying some well-deserved peace and quiet while she visited a wandering niece. “We owe her big time.  That horse farm lab of hers helps out patients here all the time, they helped sort out Dance’s changes, so–”

“Just– no.” Keisha holds up her hand, half laughing. “No, that’s just too weird, I get me these zoobabies and the person I was going to see anyway is all over it– Nuh-uh.”

“Oh, I know.  It’s been like that for me as well, all these Odd Coincidences. Well, anyway, I’m running off to the store now and pick up some sandals for Peach. Are there any clothes I could pick up for you guys? Jeans or tees or–”

“No, we’re good,” Keisha goes flat again. “Don’t worry about Peach, we’ll see to her.”

“It’s clinic policy,” Emma says. She feels her backbone stiffening up. Seung looks over to his boss as if he’d like to contradict her. Time to get out, before she snaps back something regrettable.

Fozzie even warned her, once, that some folks weren’t happy about needing help, and they hated admitting it when they got it. Some other folks were sure the world owed them everything, so they took it all for granted, and treated their rescuers like dirty servants. And some people were just too angry to keep a lid on it.

Fozzie just smiled, telling her. It didn’t bother him.  He’s seen too much weird to get ruffled over it.

Doctor Alexander gives Emma a glance, eyebrow raised.

She nods stiffly, and says, “So after I get back from that, I’ll head off to my laptop. Give me a call if you need anything, Doctor.”

Keisha gives one of those grunts that says worlds.

Emma heads for the door, tight-lipped.

File drawers clatter. Alexander’s voice comments, “Busy lady. Works on all kinds of stuff on her computer, tracking things, keeping up on legal cases, running business stuff for folks. No time for visiting like this, most days.”

“Good for her ass,” Keisha’s voice replies.

Then the latch clicks, and their voices are muffled. Emma lifts her head and folds her arms and walks away, disappointed. She was looking forward to talking to another woman about Dance, about Dance’s genetic twin, hoping for some common ground with the fierce black woman. But she’s been living in the South long enough to know that plenty of folks will not respond kindly to innocent West-Coast-style overtures from her.  She’s never cautious enough.

It always makes her so furious.

Alexander’s Prelim Findings

“Okay, I got some good news and some bad news. Question is, do you want me to tell you by yourself, or share it with Peach and Keisha?”

Seung blinked at Doctor Alexander. The painkiller was starting to take the sharp edges off. He thought he’d have a twenty-minute window of sense before it really kicked in and put him back to sleep. For several days now, he was on a teeter-totter between too much and too little medication. The doctor said his liver was knocking it down faster than normal. A lot faster.

“You mean, tell them or not?” Seung said through the fog.

“Yes,” Doctor Alexander said shortly. “It’s your rights.”

Seung didn’t let anybody else into his personal business since he was about twelve. But when he opened his mouth to say one thing, he heard himself say something else completely. “Want Keisha to hear.”

“And Peach?”

“Peach is okay too. Small words, simple.”

Doctor Alexander waited until Peach and Keisha came out of the restroom. Peach steadied Keisha, who was having headaches bad enough to make her dizzy. Doctor Alexander had talked to them about maybe treating her for a sinus infection. Keisha settled onto the gurney, making a grim face. She complained, once, that her hipbones hurt from the thin bedding. She was a woman, dammit, she had a big old pelvis to haul around. Seung worried about her hipbones, when he had a brain. He liked her hipbones as they were. Peach, too, winced sometimes when she turned onto her side, squeezing in on the gurneys next to them.

“Look like you got a hairball, doctor,” Keisha managed a little smile. She concentrated when Alexander was working with any of them, no matter how crummy she was feeling.

“Well, we thought you two ought to hear this too,” the doctor said. “I’ve got some of the blood work results back from our specialty zoomorph lab. Seung’s doing fine getting over the infection from that metal pin stuck in his back. Now, as I told you last night, we can’t get an Xray to work on him, same as Dance. I checked his reflexes and manipulated his spine this morning when we redid the bandaging–” he nods when Seung makes a sour face. “I really don’t think he’ll have any lasting neurological damage from it. I don’t get any impression of bone fragments to worry about. He might have soft tissue scar tissue and develop reactions like arthritis in later life, but I think it ought to be healthy for a long time. Now, on some of the other things, we don’t have answers yet. They’re still waiting on the DNA sequencing.”

“Who’s they?” Keisha asked.

“The horse farm lab prepared the samples and sent them off to some of their military buddies. I understand the military lab has been studying the zoomorphs for oh, twenty years now. We always send the difficult stuff to them, plus they have better security. Don’t worry about them doing crazy stuff like detaining either of our boys here. I’ve talked to them many times before. They want Dance down here living quiet with other zoomorphs, learning what he can do. Now it’s the same for Seung. They don’t want either of these guys getting provoked or chased around. Now, whether they’ll step in and send some damn troops and help us keep the bug labs cleared away out here, that’s a different problem.”

Keisha frowned. Alexander held up a stern finger and kept talking. “Turns out all of Dance’s different parts are all him. One guy, not Frankenstein. The lab who made him did the stitching at a genetic level.” He looked at Peach. “Dance’s different parts get along fine. We don’t know how they did that. It could really help other people who have problems, if we learned that.”

Peach nodded.

Doctor Alexander nodded back. “Nobody knows how they did that, or how that works. Just for that one thing, Seung and Dance are…valuable resources. We don’t know for sure about Seung yet, but we’ll find out. Anyway, the lab guys are working on identifying Seung’s tissues, and figuring out if Dance and Seung are different. The early gel electrophoresis shows they’re very close, but not identical. I mentioned the military folks wanting things kept quiet, that’s the first big reason.”

Keisha was just staring at the doctor. Seung couldn’t tell if she understood it all. “Not twins?”

“Not identical. Fraternal, maybe.” Doctor Alexander waved one hand impatiently. “One reason we know how Dance grew out is that Emma took pictures and measured him through it. He grew out at a faster rate than any snake we know about. Seung’s tail is growing out at a rate faster than Dance’s did at the same stage. Since Dance had problems with bone growing pain and hurting new raw skin as it was shedding, we’ll have pain meds in case Seung needs them. I’ve got in an order of topical cortisone cream to ease the pain levels if Seung reacts in the same way. We can go to shots if it gets worse. I’m not assuming that you two are the same, but just in case. Do you want me to show you file pictures on what Dance’s scales look like under a microscope and what they can do?”

Seung glanced at Keisha, helplessly. He barely understood half of the words, and putting them together was more than he can manage.

“I thought they were just scales, like a gator, or a cayman,” Keisha said, frowning.

“No. Oh no. Now, Seung hasn’t been feeling good enough to go into details, and Dance is always careful not to scare anybody around this place, but there’s stuff that maybe can get out of hand. Dance’s scales can manage light. They change color and become virtually invisible to infrared sensors. That thing can disappear.” Doctor Alexander shook his head. “From what I’ve been able to see of the larger scales at the base of Seung’s tail, his are the same or close to it. Dance’s scales can throw coherent light–laser light. That collar thing around his neck has scales too. It can generate focused laser light. He shoots bugs with it. That unfolds, it’s huge, got struts, he can actually glide on it as a parasail. The thing can stand up into a band shell for directing the noise when he shouts. That’s completely lab-built, I don’t know of any animal like that.”

Keisha frowned, looking at Seung. “That’s what you saw?”

Seung gave a tight little nod. He’d thought the other man was turning into a helicopter or something. He remembered the tail turning colors, too. Blinding him. He tried to tell Keisha that first night, warn her, but he didn’t have enough words. She said she expected weird stuff when she saw Dance the first time, but it nearly gave her a heart attack to wake up and see him sitting there in a chair near the gurneys, reading some kind of sheet music and humming while his tailtip was conducting it–and arguing with him, in gestures. Enough to give anybody a heart attack.

Doctor Alexander nodded. “Dance grew out other snake parts too. He can adjust the chemistry in his venom sacs. He makes different kinds of drugs against infections and deficiencies, injects a sort of anti-venom. Seung, you gave me that tooth that fell out this morning? Some of Dance’s teeth fell out to make room for his fangs. Looks like it’s the same premolar as his were.”

“Fangs?” Seung said.

Alexander nodded, watching Keisha, not Seung. “Two of them about an inch and three quarters long, midway back along the upper palate.”

“Like mine?” Peach said, baring her front teeth and pointing. Seung blinked. He didn’t remember her fangs being that large, and he’s been kissing her past them.

“Yeah, sweetie, except these teeth fold up, and yours don’t.” Alexander made hinge gestures.

Peach leaned down, peering at Seung, and she put her hand on his lip, happily asking him to open his mouth.

Seung opened his mouth.

Peach stuck her fingers in his mouth, poking around gently, feeling upward with the pads of her fingers. “Oooh, there it is–pull,” she commanded him.

“Careful, don’t get your nose too close in there–” Doctor Alexander said.

“Yes!” Peach said triumphantly, and held out her hand. One fingertip had a little nick on it, and blood welled out of it. “Seung got fangs! Cool!” And she grabbed Keisha’s hand. “See–feel–”

Keisha looked into Seung’s eyes. Then she put the bruised, meaty base of her thumb into his mouth, pushing. “Bite,” she said. “If Dance can heal people, so can you. Fix this sinus infection for me, that’d help a lot.”

Seung made a guttural noise in his throat, protesting.

“I’ve been hearing stories about Dance,” Keisha said, and nodded. “Give it a good hard push, the rest oughta take care of itself.”

Seung closed his eyes, shoved his head forward, pushed his mouth onto her hand, and nothing happened.

Then she popped her other hand on his jaw, a good hard noisy slap.

He felt something click, snap, and thump in his head. He jerked under the force of it, three times. It hurt. Keisha gave a yell too. Then he was tasting blood in his mouth, impossible to tell whose it was. He jerked upward frantically, dragging something up out of the meat of her hand, and then she was free of his grip, gasping.

Seung found himself lying flopped over to one side, hanging onto the gurney, panting. “Sick!”

Peach leaped for a trashcan, and held it for him as he gagged. She patted him. “Keisha get better now,” Peach told him.

He felt their hands supporting him when he finally fell back into the bedding. “Uh uh uh,” he heard himself panting.

“Better?” Keisha said, looking at him. Her hand was bleeding. There were holes in it. Seung pawed frantically, lifted her wrist, turned her hand to see it.

“Oh, don’t you worry, I’m all good now you fixed me up,” she told him.

Seung made a desperate little whine in his throat, unable to find any words at all. He reached out toward the doctor, gestured wildly, unable to reach far enough.

Keisha grabbed his head in both hands. “Look at me,” she said.

He panted, looking.

“You did exactly what I told you,” Keisha said. Her eyes were very big and dark and fierce, a little frightened, a little tired.

He gave another murmur in his throat, unable to stop himself.

She jerked his head slightly, determined. “Look at me,” Keisha said.

He blinked, and watched her.

“You see I’m okay,” Keisha said.

He nodded a little bit.

“That’s good. That’s what I wanted you to do. I’m gonna ask you to bite me again tomorrow. I want you to trust me it’s gonna be okay. Better than okay.”

Seung blinked, squinted, took in deep breaths. “Okay,” he said, hoarsely.

She smiled. “Maybe in a different spot next time.” And she leaned in and licked the side of his face, licking away the smear of blood she left like a thumbprint on him.

“Why?” Seung gasped.

“We gotta clear out those baby venom sacs nice and clean, so they don’t swell up and get infected. And if you know it’s me, it’s gonna be good sweet stuff coming out of you, nobody needs to worry.” Devious woman!

She grinned over at Alexander then. “Think we got it worked out now, oughta be easier next time.”

Doctor Alexander looked a little pale. But he nodded, and he said to Seung, “You got a good taste of her there. You might need to bite her tomorrow too, just to be sure you gave her immune system enough boost.”

“Bandage?” Seung said, worried, frustrated, and touched Keisha’s wrist again.

“Oh yes, if Keisha would like to wash her hands first, we will proceed to bandage her up even more,” Doctor Alexander said.

“Don’t cry,” Peach said, while they were busy, and she hugged him. Seung hugged her very hard, until she squeaked.

Keisha turned from the sink. “We ain’t done yet, Seung, you know that. But we’ll pick it up tomorrow, same time.”

“Same bat channel!” Peach said, and giggled, and yelped when Seung swatted her on the butt. But even her laughter couldn’t keep him awake after that.

Pins from Nagas

Next afternoon, Seung couldn’t make himself do it. All he wanted to do is roll in her scent and lick her skin, especially when she pulled down her sweatpants and presented that soft skin along the curve of her butt for him to sniff. “Mmmm,” he said, leaning in her, and sighing happily.

“Bite it, don’t kiss it,” Keisha grumbled.

He just leaned into her harder, murmuring silly things in his throat.

“It’ll hurt a helluva lot less there,” Keisha said, annoyed.

“Yes, I know,” he said, resigned.

“Well?”

“You feel better today?” Seung asked.

“Oh hell yeah,” Keisha said, and chuckled.

“Not need biting?” Seung pleaded.

“You’re not getting out of it that way,” Keisha said.

“What’s the problem?” Dr. Alexander said, carrying in files and stashing them neatly in the cabinets, not even glancing at either of them.

Keisha said, “He ain’t biting.”

“Why not?” The doctor asked, flipping through files.

“Want fuck, not bite,” Seung said, feeling rebellious.

“Really,” Dr. Alexander said, peering among his papers. “You don’t think maybe Keisha could use more help with that sinus infection?”

Seung rubbed his face along the soft dark skin of her hip. Put one arm around her, stroked her thigh. It’d be a crime, tearing up such smooth warm skin with the kind of ragged, amateur bite he gave her hand.

The doctor pulled out other files, and went out in the front room again. Over his shoulder, he said, “Well, if he’s getting that stubborn, you can probably smack him silly and he won’t do it.”

Keisha glanced up. “What do you mean?”

“Dance can smell when it’s time to stop, but it’s usually after he’s given someone a whole series of bites first. Maybe Seung gave you one heavy dose and that was enough.”

“Big help you are,” she told the doctor, and patted Seung’s cheek again. “All right, lie back. We oughta ask him questions while you’re awake for a change, too.”

“Oh,” Seung said. They talked about it earlier. He knew what kind of questions she wanted to ask.

“I ain’t gonna let you off this one,” Keisha warned him.

“Not want,” Seung muttered.

Keisha’s jaw muscles clenched. She looked at Seung, looked at his legs, at the restless lump moving under the sheet.

Seung reached out to her. “Okay.”

She gave him that look again. “I’m gonna ask him. We got to. I’m gonna ask Dance, too.”

Seung drew in a deep, painful breath. “Okay.”

“Doc, you got a minute for some questions?” Keisha said, yanking up her pants.

“I can spare a moment,” Dr. Alexander said, bringing in more stacks of paper.

“You just needed to get more files in here,” Keisha said.

“Perhaps,” he agreed, finally glancing up from his paperwork.

Then she said, quietly, “That ridge all around Seung’s crotch, Dance have anything like that?”

“That grew out to be a full pouch that seals shut. On a lizard or a snake it’s just a flat area, and the opening is called a cloaca. The genitals and anus are all inside that, protected from the environment.”

“The lab put a snake pouch over their stuff?” Keisha said.

He nodded. “I have no idea whether it was an accident of tying in the reptile tissues to the base of the spine, or whether they meant for it to protect the genitals. It’s not heavy armor, though. It’s tied to a lot of nerves, it’s much more like a woman’s vulva, except of course it encloses the anus too. Makes it harder to keep everything clean and dry when the tail skin is shedding, that takes special attention. On Dance, it needs care much like the parasail. Of course the blood supply and skin on that collar needs to be clean and dry too. It needs attention all the time. Dance tells me that’s a lot more work than the cloaca.” He gives her a stern look. But then, which of his looks aren’t stern?

Seung fell back into the pillows, staring up at the ceiling. “I get a pussy.”

“Your penis won’t go away,” the doctor said. “Dance doesn’t say much, but Emma says that his genitalia got bigger.”

This guy ain’t exactly Mister Tiny now.”

“Well, they were designed in a lab,” Dr. Alexander said, dryly.

“Shit, that’s stupid.”

Seung blinked tiredly. His back hurt. “Need bigger pussy.”

“Something to look forward to, huh?” Keisha said, with a crooked grin.

“Later,” Seung said, making a face.

“You see any of this on Dance?” Keisha asked, waving at Seung.

“Dance was willing to let me take pictures for you, or have you look at him yourself, if you didn’t want pictures. He’s glad to help.”

“Why?”

“There are no other nagas that have unpinned that we know about. These two only have each other to learn from. He doesn’t want to explode, either. He needs your help as much as you need his. He’s always helping out around the clinic; his bite has saved people’s lives with its antibiotic properties.”

“Explode?” Seung was wide awake.

“Dance says that both of you have a power pack hooked on the spine and the ribs just below the kidneys. Since we can’t check inside either of you with Xrays to back him up, we’ll note it as a theory. That energy he was using comes from somewhere. The boxes can’t be very big. Drin thinks it has some kind of biological interface with a nuclear power source. Dance said he can feel his and Seung’s packs are different, Seung’s was bigger and overloaded and generating a kind of unstable whine. Dance did something to drain away enough of the power in Seung’s pack to make it less likely to blow up. The power sources and interfaces are one reason the military really does not want undue attention.

“Power–” Seung said, confused. “Radio?”

“Well, you did say to use little words,” Doctor Alexander said.

“So many,” Seung complained.

“Are you done?” Keisha sat there, arms folded, glaring into space.

“Did you not want the answers when you asked the question?”

Peach came around and leaned into Seung, rested her head on his chest, and kissed his chin. He put up his hand and stroked her back. Her hospital gown didn’t get in the way. Warm fur felt good on his aching fingers. Her tail curled a bit around his wrist, as much as the short length of it could. Peach’s tail had a knotted scar at the end, as if it was cut off. He asked the doctor about it, last night, and the doctor explained the Xrays showed the tail was a “real” one, with regular tail bones like a cat or a monkey. She didn’t have that shrunken human tailbone curling under her pelvis like other, human, women. The doctor showed that to all of them too.

But he couldn’t get x-rays on Seung last night, hard as Seung tried to cooperate. He said he couldn’t get them on Dance either. Seung had scales like Dance’s, scales that could do weird things if he wasn’t careful, like reflect the x-rays all round the room.

Peach kneaded her claws on his forearm, hard, and it helped him wake up. Seung took a painful deep breath, trying to pay attention. “More?”

Dr. Alexander nodded. “There’s more.”

“Why do they leave these guys down here, and let a backwater doctor like you poke them around?” Keisha said, very fierce.

“Excuse me?” he said. “Because Dance said he wouldn’t tolerate anyone else. He said he wasn’t going anywhere he didn’t want to and Seung wasn’t going anywhere Seung didn’t want to, either. Having the swamp turn into a large radioactive hole might not persuade anyone that the two of them are dangerous, but having an important part of Virginia turn into a crater, that’s different.”

“Okay, so the military guys… there must be some story about the lab that made these guys,” Keisha said. She was shivering a little.

“Of course. Dance knows a little about it, but he doesn’t remember how he knows it. So do his partners. I’ve spoken to a local man named Pen who told me that he worked at a place that made many zoomorphs, and he confirmed some of the odder details. But his term of service apparently ended when someone tossed him in jail and brainwashed him, which implies he doesn’t remember much.”

“Brainwashed him?” Keisha said.

“Correct, that is what I said,” he said coolly. “Our Trio here, they have a history they don’t remember clearly. They have nightmares similar to Seung’s.”

Seung stared up at the ceiling. At the cracks. Things that leaked. Like his brain, really.

“Bad dreams,” Keisha said. She looked at Seung, and then around the clinic. Not a great place to try to sleep. Besides, pain like that was enough to give anybody bad dreams. Keisha was starting to not believe it when he said it. It’s not just this place, she told him without a word spoken, just glaring into his skull. But we’ll talk about it later.

“You’re telling us a lot about their problems,” Keisha said slowly.

“They offered to help. You might have some of the other puzzle pieces.” Dr. Alexander shrugged. “It is up to all of you to put them together.”

Seung was still staring at the ceiling. At the water stains above him.

“You got a helluva bedside manner, Doctor,” Keisha said.

“So I’ve been told. So that’s what I’ve got for you so far. I should know more in a few days.” The doctor pushed himself away from the counter, started washing his hands again, even though he didn’t touch any of them.

“Wait, wait–” Keisha said, frowning. “You said no other nagas unpinned. That mean there’s other nagas somewhere?”

“See, I knew you’d want the facts. Are you guessing there’s money involved?”

“Brainwashing,” Keisha repeated grimly, folding her arms again. “Stinks of money.”

He nodded. “I’ve told you about the military lab that is working with the horse farm lab. They tell me our two nagas were made in a secret military project, no records, nothing to see. Our two are genuine Black Ops Nagas. The military lab supervisor told me they hope these two were the only ones ever made.” He gave a grim little smile. “Not the end of it, of course. Some black market operation stole scraps, and they cloned things. They grew out a watered-down version. Cloud nagas have light skin and hair and sometimes light eyes. The makers used a ceramic as the pins in their backs instead of the metallo-ceramic the original lab used on Seung and Dance. It’s much better.Tthe ceramic substance isn’t able to start migrating the way it did on these two. The cloud nagas stay stuck in purely human form, they just have this potential tissue buried in them. They only grow out if the pin is broken out of them like Seung’s, or if somebody does surgery to take their pins out. Now, who might try unpinning them, and when, that’s something the military have been watching for.”

Keisha grunted. “Do those white nagas get sick from back pain like Seung?”

“I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did have pain. I’ll see if I can find out about that.”

“How would a chunk of metal pressing on a nerve keep your fangs and your tailbone from growing out?” Keisha objected.

“The lab is working on the metal from Seung’s back, so they can find out if someone manufactured it with a substance to inhibit growth or neural transmission. They want to know if it matches the pins from autopsies on cloud nagas.”

“So they tried unpinning white ones?”

“Yes, killed them on the table. They claimed all three were sick anyway with immune system disorders that developed as they aged. We know some of them have died of simple old age.”

“How old?”

“Apparently in their eighties or nineties or something, with records like old photographs to match.”

“That makes no sense. Dance and Seung aren’t even thirty–”

“We don’t know that.”

Keisha’s back was very straight, standing between Seung and the doctor, as if she would guard him from the unkind truth.

The doctor stared back at her. “It’s impossible to guess the age for these two. The scientists from the first lab were able to prevent tissue rejection, they inserted the metal to stop the tail growing out until later, they somehow connected the power plant to those scales, and then there is that parasail structure–” Dr. Alexander faded off for a moment then snapped back to reality. “The military lab technicians don’t know how any of it was done, or much about who did it. When I ask for lab work, they jump to it. I ask for records, I get it back overnight. Our scientists don’t even know how the bugs are being made. They’re watching how they grow the bugs in tanks right now, they know what goes into those tanks and what comes out, and they still can’t figure it out. This is a different window into maybe how that gets done. We’re trying to find our way around somebody else’s work, and frankly, it’s horrible because these so-called researchers clearly didn’t study or anticipate the consequences.”

Seung took in a deep breath, and Keisha put out her bandaged hand and rested it flat on his chest. “Easy,” she said, looking at him, and he got the breath in, and another, and he nodded. “Good,” she said, and brushed his face with that mittened hand. She looked at the doctor. “Okay. Go on.”

Doctor Alexander jabbed a pointing finger toward the window. “Our technicians have no idea how they did it, or how long ago they did it. Emma and Drin say they believe Dance and Seung were decommissioned like weapons, boxed and thrown into frozen storage for years, nobody knows how long. That’s when Dance got those freezer-burn scars on his face. Seung too, perhaps. Dance remembers the freezebox looked just like the bug-boxes do. Emma remembers seeing Dance frozen in the box.”

Seung dragged in a breath deep enough to make his back hurt but it didn’t help.

The doctor pointed a finger at the fridge sitting next to the sink. “We don’t know how they did the freezing, or the unfreezing either. Someone took all the nagas out again, unfroze them, somehow got them back up on their feet, and sent them on their merry way with what appear to be false memories. What they know often doesn’t match up on dates or styles or records or anything. There’s always a blank spot, too. Hey, just a traffic accident, nothing special, minor little head trauma caused that hiccup in their memory, happens all the time. Until you start digging it all up, the way Emma does.”

Seung couldn’t get enough air. He felt himself thrashing a little, trying to sit up, and Keisha rested that hand on his chest again. “Doctor Alexander, you want to raise up the end of the gurney for him, get him more comfortable?”

“Sure,” the doctor said, and started working the old-fashioned crank.

Seung heard himself panting.

Keisha looked at him, her hand moving up and down when his chest sucked in air. “We can stop, talk about it later,” she said in that tone that meant, it’d be better if we keep him talking now.

“Not bug,” Seung said, looking up at her.

“Oh no, you’re no bug. I know that. My man, you’re a lot tougher and more dangerous than those damn bugs, and you gonna get even more tough,” Keisha told him, with those fierce dark eyes on him.

Doctor Alexander stood up, looked at him. “Okay?”

“Outlive the bastards,” Seung said, angry suddenly.

Keisha put up her hand, and with one bruised fingertip she traced the high curve of Seung’s near cheekbone. Then she touched the far one. “You did.”

Seung sighed noisily. “Okay. I’m okay. Go on.” He glared. “Tell more.”

Keisha nodded, and turned her gaze back to Doctor Alexander. “Okay. What else can you tell me about these cloud guys?”

“Emma says that during the time Dance and Seung were frozen, that’s when the second labs cloned the scraps and grew out those cloud nagas. She calls them black market labs, so does Drin. They say the procedures must have been organized illegal activity.”

Keisha stared at him. “Why? Why do it?”

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?”

Keisha grunted. “Money again. But who’s the market for it?”

“Bother you,” Peach said, looking up at Keisha.

“Yeah, mama, you’re right,” Keisha said, and stroked Peach’s hand.

Seung stared at the ceiling. Then he rubbed at his eyes, leaned his face into Peach’s shoulder, and felt himself falling toward a pit of sleep.

“Seung,” Keisha snapped, and he blinked at her.

“Boss lady,” Seung said.

“You got questions on any of this shit?”

“Later,” he said.

“Seung, you’re mine,” Keisha told him, leaning in close, glaring into his eyes. Then she gripped his ear, hard, and jerked him alert enough to listen again. “Don’t you be running off or anything. I don’t care what’s growing in you or what’s hanging off your ass, you’re my business. Mine. We’re gonna take good care of you. You got that?”

His eyes drifted shut, and he smiled. “Yeah, boss lady.” And sleep fell on him, hard.