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.

The Emperor’s Thumb

It was fucking noisy the next day. Keisha stared at the window. She’d never been a morning person. She was more the midnight party sort of gal. But it was dawn. Somebody showed up at dawn with a weedtrimmer and a mower and waded into the junk growing around the head of the dock next door to the clinic. Then there was a chainsaw. Then more guys in trucks, with ladders. Then they were doing something on the strip of land next to the clinic, guys tromping back and forth along the dock, whacking down loose boards and replacing others and swearing like dockhands and whistling, happy as some kinda silly Disney dwarves banging away.

Then, for hours, there was the racket of an old diesel chugging away, towing in a heavy load on the river. Tugboat, nudging in a houseboat in a manner leisurely even for them. Then it racketed away, and returned again with a second one, which got moored on the other side of the same dock. Hours passed as it maneuvered. The guys, meantime, were swarming over the first houseboat. A couple of plumbers hauled in their bags, and then boxes of flooring got carried in. Coupla women in both those groups, looked like wives.

They stopped frequently for breaks by coming over to the clinic, wiping off sweat and cracking jokes with Doctor Alexander and drinking up all the pop and bottled water in the fridge. They took the liberty of popping in and saying hi, grinning at Peach and shaking Keisha’s hand and saying nice things to Seung about his younger brother Dance. Seung didn’t try to argue. He just looked tired. When she asked if he wanted Dance to come by and translate for him, he shook his head.

It was the big older guy, Drin, who restocked the drinks. He came in with a couple more guys carrying about ten cases of new bottles. They stacked what they had in the fridge, and stashed the rest in the bottom cabinets nearby, while Drin flopped down in a clinic chair as if he had been visiting there for years. Asked the cute volunteer lady out there in the next room what they needed for next week, writing down notes like he owned the damn place. Hell, maybe he did. He was the one who bought all the stuff going into those houseboats next door. He was not hurting for investment money or places to park it, that was plain enough.

But he’d done time soldiering in some nasty places, judging by the way he kept his wallet, how he kept his hands free and how he didn’t wear any watch or rings. It was obvious in how he moved, how his eyes constantly checked things out. He was always watching the windows and doors and who had their hands in their pockets. He had eyes like a mercenary. Or some weird kind of cop, come to think. Dance’s husband being some kind of undercover spook, now that’d be a laugh. Military, at least.

It suddenly made some kind of sense that his partner Emma was not just that nice chatty librarian lady with lovely blue eyes. More like gun bluing, in Keisha’s opinion. A very pretty finish on a thick chunk of steel. How many people were ice-cold enough to measure their lover while he’s turning into an alien and screaming in horrible pain? Measuring him and writing notes. Doctor Alexander seemed to be grateful for it. He was a scientist, too, he didn’t see it as a sign of serious mental malfunction.

What was wrong with these people? Keisha asked herself grimly.

Drin seemed like the most human, but she was beginning to wonder. The eyes didn’t fit with the easy way he talked to everybody. But it did fit with the way all that expert authority was laid down so lightly that most people didn’t feel the effects on them at all. They just swerved off into new directions like it was their idea all along to go out and fetch back more cases of drinks, instead of annoying the pretty black lady receptionist with the feathers on her arms.

When Drin looked off into the room she was in, dimmed down so Seung could sleep, his gaze was cool and thoughtful and remote. The warmth, the affection, the jokes, all set aside. The guy underneath was not sentimental. He decided what needed doing, and he got it done. His own partners took up whatever human being was left in there. The remaining parts whirred around in calculations, and they were full of extra bits most people didn’t have. Scary bits, some of them.

The little timing wheel that considered whether some of his tasks required him to take Seung over permanently instead of borrowing sometimes, for instance.

No,
the decision came down, from that look.

Power requirements? Stature in the community? Conflicts with a different naga handler besides himself?

No.

He was just not interested in the flashy kind of power that mastering two nagas would give somebody in this community, or any other. Not his thing. Can’t be bothered. Too showy.

Oh, he could grab onto Seung, just take him over, fuck him through the mattress and make him like it, just like Dance. She’s seen the little flicker of interest, the stir, of course Drin likes looking at Seung. All those boxing muscles? That strange quick mind? Hell yeah, he likes all that. Seung would have very little to say about it. This guy had so much grip he could warp Seung into anything he wanted, and Seung would still end up better off, more comfortable. Oh yeah, Drin could find ways to accommodate the little things, like sex. They’d figure it out. Make Seung really happy.

But he was not going to do it.

Maybe Keisha should give up Seung for his own good. Just hand him over to Drin, tell him who his new master was, and take off. Responsibility over. It was not like Seung could follow her. Well, not right away. Seung would be so much better off with them than with her, and they all knew it.

Keisha ought to open her coward mouth and beg him to take on Seung, give him over to the guy, and please take Peach too, while he was at it.

But she didn’t move, and neither did he.

It made her suddenly furious.

Seung deserved better than she could offer him. So did Peach, dammit.

But no, Drin wouldn’t take him. Wouldn’t take Peach from her, either. Oh, he was probably sure that it’d be safer for everybody all round if he did command both of these Black Ops Nagas. It’d be a public service. Maybe he should, too. God knew the military would think so. But he was not going to do it.

Drin was not going to make Seung change his mind.

Cats choose their masters.

Seung chose her. It was called free will. Her naga, nobody else’s. That was it. Game over.

He could.

But he won’t.

The Emperor’s thumb goes downward.

Keisha looked at the guy with the tiger-yellow eyes, and she decided that she was taking her own crew somewhere else as soon as she could. But she was going to learn as much as she could before she left. She might need it.

Keisha’s Rules

“So I guess you got some issues,” his Boss said.

Seung mumbled into her neck.

“You okay, Dance? Good. And thanks. I’m gonna take this guy home now, cool him off.” She gripped Seung’s hair, tugged at him. “Manners, my man.”

Seung took a deep breath. “Thank you, Younger Brother.”

Dance was standing on the gangplank near them, giving Drin a hand to help him climb out too. He looked over at Seung with his tail shifting in agitation. “I am sorry, I understand the urge–”

“Is my problem,” Seung said, feeling Keisha’s hand gripping the nape of his neck.

“All right,” Keisha said. “You guys both okay? All right. Seung, it’s time for you to get a bath, my man, and then we’ll have a little talk about when to use fatal force or not.”

Seung felt himself sag a little into her, and she scruffed him just as she might have done Peach. “Up,” she said firmly, and pushed him along naked, not even bothering to pick up the clothes he left behind at the rail. “I ain’t ashamed of you,” she said when he jibbed; “I ain’t ashamed of your tail or your ass or your pouch, and I sure as hell ain’t shamed to have people see you with me. You got that?”

“Bosslady,” Seung mumbled, and felt the heat pounding in his head, in his ears.

“You ashamed of walking with me in front of people? You ashamed of people seeing you hug Peach?”

“No,” Seung said. “No.”

“All right then.”

“Ashamed I get mad. So quick, so– losing it. Fucking whore, that Mike–”

“Then you can apologize to your brother and everybody else, for hurting their ears.” Keisha pushed him into the rail of their own houseboat. “Later. And do a good thoughtful job of it, too. Now stand here, while I get the hose and rinse off some of that muck.”

“Ahh,” Seung flinched. The tapwater from the hose was colder than the pond was, chilling the sensitive tip of his tail.

“All right, bath,” Keisha said. “And don’t you go tryin’ to do that dog thing with me. Don’t you lick my hand, I ain’t a dog person, not interested in happy dog spit and runnin’ away from talking about shit. It was remembering burying those girls, wasn’t it?”

Seung curled his tail into the bathtub, swearing in three languages, while bosslady sluiced hot water and soap over his back and his hair and his tail. She’d done a lot of washing off his tail and his ass and shampooing his hair for him when his spine hurt, over the last month, and he was suddenly conscious of how well her hands knew him. His cloaca gaped wide for her, and she washed down in the soft pocket of it, making sure it was all soaped clean, rinsed it. She was upset with him, but her hands were careful in there.

“Not killing Mike is wrong,” Seung said, reaching out blindly, hands open.

She turned the water down, let the tub fill around him. Sitting down on the edge of it, she gripped his hands as hard as her new scars let her. He lowered his head onto her knee. “I got no answers for you, my man,” she said, and slid her hands loose, stroking soapy water up onto his ribs, along his hip. “I just know what you tell me. You gotta talk.”

“I talk lots, not words,” Seung said then, turning his head into her hand, kissing her palm. More urgently, up her arm, into the soft skin inside her elbow, and he groaned. There was the little click first, up in the roof of his mouth. Then that thump in his head. “Boss, boss,” he said, urgently, squinching his eyes shut.

“Your fangs think I need a booster shot?” Keisha said, calm and steady and not even surprised.

“Not hurt you,” he said thickly, with the fangs getting in the way, making him sound funny.

“Where?” she said.

His hands scrabbled at her shorts, pawed at her, got his head away from her legs. “Butt,” he said, keeping his eyes shut. If he saw her moving, he might strike out, and hit her in a place that hurt too much, bruised too easily. Dance warned him about that. He waited, he let her give him the right body part. That way he let it happen without twisting or jerking at her.

Keisha sighed. “All right.” She moved away, clothes rustled. The flat slap of her shorts hitting the floor was one of the sexiest sounds in the world to Seung. He couldn’t help the little moan of need that came out of him. “Easy, baby, I know. Deep breaths.”

It was a command. He took deep breaths, waiting.

Then cloth touched his face; her panties dragging over his nose, along his cheeks. He took a deep grateful breath, got a lungful of her scent, and then he was halfway to coming right there in the bathtub, hips twitching in place. “Ahh,” he snorted again.

“Better?”

“Yes,” Seung said, the most heartfelt yes of his life.

“Lick it,” she said.

His tail came up, slid along the side of the tub, wrapped around her leg, and he licked at her underwear with his tongue.

“You got a good taste of it?” she said.

“Yes,” Seung said. He was feeling a little light-headed, but a whole lot calmer.

“Bringing it to you,” Keisha said, and brought up both his hands, cupped them around her hips, and pushed one buttock into his face. The click and thump of his fangs flipping forward and striking seemed easy, relaxed, mellow. Loving. She was still as rock, not moving, not breathing at all. Seung felt the double strike, her skin warm against his stretched lips, and then the fangs came loose of her skin, and hinged back in place in the roof of his mouth.  He drew in a deep breath, tonguing his way across her buttocks to the abrupt cleft between them. He sighed, and licked her, and leaned his head into her skin.

“So brave,” Seung whispered, and kissed her hip, up onto her loin, and then her back, as she sat down on the rim of the tub.

“Oh hell no,” Keisha chuckled, and pulled his arms forward around her. “It feels weird, yeah, but then it’s like a high. Wow. You got a bite on you, man, worth a million bucks.”

“Only for you,” Seung murmured, with his hands stroking her belly and breasts and down between those strong thighs.

She leaned back into his support, moving his hands where she wanted them. While his hands kept busy, he kissed her neck, along her traps, down her shoulder blades, nipping a little bit, pushing his cheekbone into her tight back muscles, licking her. “It tingles a little,” she said.

“I lick you wherever you like it, ” Seung said.

“No, stop,” she said then, and took his hands away. “You know Dance was mad too, but he didn’t go chasing off after Mike, he stopped you doing dumb shit. You owe him for that.”

Seung mumbled into her shoulder.

“I heard you thank him. Did you apologize?”

Seung shook his head.

“We’ll talk about that later. Stand up, and we’ll get these suds rinsed off you. Good. Towel off.”

“Please, I need you–need Peach–”

“I can see that,” she said, still in that dry tone. “But I got this problem. You got all mad and you didn’t hear me. How can I trust you with Peach if you don’t hear me? She could seriously bite down and claw you and hurt you, and if you don’t hear me, how am I gonna keep both of you safe?”

“I not hurt you. Not hurt Peach.”

“If she gets frightened of something and rakes you down to the ribs? If she bites? Look at those teeth, Seung. She can take your wrist off.”

Seung looked up, miserable, and saw Peach was equally miserable.   She was right there, and tears were running down her face. “Not cry, Peach,” he said, reaching out.

“Put your hand down,” Keisha said, harshly. “Get dried off and go sit on the bed and think about what you can do better on this. Peach and I got some thinking to do.” When Peach would have said something, Keisha lifted a finger, rested it right across Peach’s nose and mouth, and warned her quiet. Peach looked at her solemnly, blinking down tears.

Worry and terror and misery ought to be incompatible with a raging hard-on, but Seung found, to his further misery, that they were not. They seemed to make it worse for him. He was desperately trying to think of anything but the warm smell of the rumpled bed behind him, and the bubbly smell of Peach’s soap and shampoo as the two women bathed together at length in the little room. It was both reassuring and a torment that at last Peach started singing again, slow, sleepy little lullaby-like kid’s songs and not just the outright silly ones, as Keisha brushed her fur out in there. He listened to them talking gently, where Keisha was asking Peach to sing out all the words for her, expanding Peach’s ability to speak English clearly.

When they came out, Peach went off to work on cleaning the kitchen and putting away dishes. Keisha picked up the phone, spoke briefly to Emma about sending over Peach to help clean up their kitchen as well, and give her a couple of hours to turn her attention completely to Seung. From the sound of it, Emma was very grateful for the help.

Then Keisha sat in the chair furthest from the bed, hands drooping as if they hurt from all the brushing she did for Peach. She seemed to be listening to Peach in the other room. They both listened for awhile.

Peach had nipped or scratched him now and then, but he never thought of asking Peach to do any of the things that Keisha might try on him. The idea that Peach could seriously injure him hadn’t crossed his mind. When Peach was in bed with them was the time to explore the softer things, find out what she liked him to do, for her to laugh at what licking his cloaca lips could do to him. It was Keisha who gave him everything else; the strong sensations, commanding his entire focus, pushing his pain tolerances.

“Sit,” she said. Seung would have liked to rest against her legs, but at her gesture he sank onto the rug in the middle of the little room. Keisha rarely made him sit quiet. He watched her profile anxiously, waiting for her to tell him what she wanted.

Keisha turned her head and looked at him. “If you don’t need us, you can get up right now and walk out and go anywhere you like.”

Seung lowered his head.

“You always could, you know.”

“Not could.” Seung shifted into a kneel. He linked his hands and rested them on his neck.

“Is that a position they made you take when they had you in chains?” Keisha said softly.

He didn’t answer for a long time. She let the silence stretch.

It came out a whisper. “Yes,” Seung said.

“That was about walling it off? Shutting it out?”

“Go away in my head,” Seung whispered. “Just fall away on pain. It’s like… swim in pond.” He struggled a moment, found the word. “Float.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, softly.

“When I kickboxed, got hurt, it felt that way. I knew it. But I just…not care about pain. Not act normal, other fighter get confused.”

“I bet,” Keisha said. “But that’s not the same as getting so crazy-mad you can’t hear me, is it?”

“No,” Seung whispered.

Keisha looked at him silently. He could tell she was thinking over questions, things to say, commands, and deciding none of them would work. Finally, sounding tired, she said, “We got to fix this, Seung. If you stay with us, we got to.”

Seung felt the pit of his stomach drop away, hollow and empty and dizzy. He closed his eyes, hung on tighter to his own neck. Slowly, trying to say the words right, he told her, “Keisha, I need stay. I need you. I need Peach. Please let us stay. Please let me apologize.”

“Can you apologize to Dance?”

“Yes,” he said, and opened his eyes, blinking at her in surprise.

“Mm,” Keisha said. “Okay, you’re on probation for now. We’ll talk about it some more, and I better not get any sulks about it. You were good on talking about it now. Go get the lube and the harnesses. I got some work to do on your prostate, remind you why you like bending over for me. Remind you why maybe you need to show Dance a little more respect too.”

He gave a little mumble of a groan. She was always just rough enough to remind him of it later, whenever he sat down. She’d also laid down a rule that he couldn’t ask for it more than once a week. Dance had warned her that it was very difficult, during a heat, to remember to pace themselves on any kind of rough penetrative sex. He remembered how she stared at Dance’s dignified face when he was saying these outrageous things.

When Peach had gone, singing her way out the front door, then Keisha turned to him. “What else you want? I’m gonna put a cockring on you and make you wait for it, you gotta earn it today. The switch, or the flogger?”

“Yes. Yes, please. Boss.” He knew what would please her. He said, “Please fuck me with the harness. Flogger, please. Please hit me hard,” Seung whispered, eyes shutting again. And then her skin was right there, and he was licking it. He licked his way up the knobs of her spine and down again, down onto the flare of those glorious hips, the softer slopes of her buttocks. Whenever she used the cock ring, she only released him to climax while she was penetrating him with a dildo or exploring his pouch with her fingers. He knew he was begging to be tormented for a very long time, begging to feel it later, to able to remember exactly how she’d taken as much as he could give her, how she’d penetrated him, how she’d pounded his skin with the flogger and stung it into painless, numbed silence. He’d needed it. In the last month, the endorphins from the different pain of a good thrashing had helped him live through the pain of his tail growing so rapidly.  He moaned. “Boss, make me come lots.”

Which she did, exhausting both of them. That afternoon he learned all over again how strange his prostate and his cloaca really were. She worked on it, explored it, tried to figure out how the nerves ran in there. It was so much, so much sensation, that it made him scream like a cat in heat each time, at least four times, and they both knew none of that could possibly be normal. All she had to do was bring his nose up to her pubic hair, and he was up hard again. So long as he kept hardening, she kept putting the cock ring back on him. She brought him up hard three times in servicing her to orgasm, pleasuring her with his tongue and his hands and his tail, without allowing him to enter her at all.

He had learned earlier that month how much it pleasured him to be taken from behind, or to lie on his back with his knees spread. They were both too tired to use the full array of her equipment, most of it things she’d made herself or got from Hal, but she still managed to reduce him to a quivering pulp spread out on his belly underneath her weight, panting hard. In his ear, she whispered, “You think Dance likes that?”

He gasped a laugh. He respected Dance, who knew what he liked in bed and spoke bluntly to Seung about what the growth of his tail had done to all of them. “Oh, yes. I think he likes giving it, too.”

She grinned, and bit him lightly on the ear. “So do I.” Instead of smacking him or clenching her hands on his butt, the way she said she really preferred to do, she’d grabbed his ass with her teeth, and she’d left bruises.

He sighed, and helped her get the more complicated bits of harness off him. She left hers on; she wasn’t done with him.

Between bouts of sexual exercises that turned him inside out, there were intervals of thumping the meat on his bones with the soft suede tails of the flogger that Hal had made for them. She made him stand, stretched out, so she could hit him with the dull thump of the flogger until his back and legs throbbed without boundaries, no single distinct areas of pain, just a broad expanse of noise that did not let him think any more. It just all shouted together, as one, and the knots in his lower back, where the weight of the tail dragged on his spine, just gave up and released. He cried quite a lot, and thanked her for all the hard work. Gripping the flogger handle made her hands hurt badly, he knew that.

It amazed him, afterward, that she had the strength to cover him with a light blanket, afterward, to keep him warm as the sweat cooled. He floated in a calm, placid sea of trust.

“Seung, don’t go to sleep yet,” Keisha said. She picked up the phone again, spoke, chuckled, and said, “Yeah, sure, send our kitty girl on home, glad she did such a great job over there.” Then she unlocked the front door, and flopped on bed next to him, sprawled on her back with her head next to his on the pillows.

“Boss,” he said, drifting away.

“Talk to me.”

Seung blinked up at the ceiling. He could hear Peach singing, in the distance. “Drin told us Tee Pom is being brave man to drive Mike around.”

“Yeah, he’s probably takin’ his life in his hands doing that. I hear there’s quite a lot of folks not happy with Mike,” Keisha agreed.

“Drin say I must not hurt Tee Pom here, or people hunt us, you and Peach never find safe place,” Seung said, rolling over to her, and hugging his arms around her hips.

“Mmm, maybe it’d make things harder, yeah,” she murmured, in that dropping tone which meant she maybe didn’t like it, and maybe she didn’t appreciate somebody else messin’ in her business with Seung, but maybe Drin was right anyway.

“Temper run faster than brains,” Seung said.

“Yeah,” Keisha said dryly.

The front door opened, and Peach came in purring, mumbling a tune in her throat.

“Back here, baby, come talk to us,” Keisha said. “I hear you did a great job for Emma.”

“She sent over cinnamon! You smell?”

“Smells good,” Seung said.

Peach hummed for a bit in the kitchen, and bounced in the bedroom smelling happily of soap, shedding her clothes. She rubbed herself happily against them both, licking them. “Oooh, you two were busy!” She leaned down and kissed Seung. “You feel better now?”

“Much better,” Seung said.

“Mmm, make you all better,” Peach said, and licked his face, making him smile.

“You can smell that on him, that he feels better?” Keisha said.

Peach nodded, and curled up next to Keisha, licking her chest and up her neck, with a sigh. “Everybody work hard, Seung all tired out.”

“Yeah, but I’m not,” Keisha growled into Peach’s neck, making her giggle. “You done with the kitchen? You in the mood for cuddles and love?”

Seung just smiled at them. He was incredibly happy to lick his way up and down Peach at leisure, bringing her several times, until she was eager to wrap her thighs around his hips. “Keisha,” Seung said, sprawled on his belly, limp, with his head on Peach’s shoulder, and his hand on her little plump furry breast. “I want make you both happy.”

“My man, I think you’re pretty tired out.”

“You don’t want me take you?”

“Well, I’m pretty tired too, but it’d still feel good.”

Peach bounced up. “You put cock in Keisha, lick me.”

He smiled. “I like that. Is that okay for you, Peach?”

Peach wiggled. “Fun licking Keisha too.”

Keisha sighed. It was certainly a lot easier on her, which was why it seemed to Seung that it was a good idea all round. “All right, that’s good. That’ll take it a little easier on Seung’s butt. Wouldn’t want to wear that out.”

“I like wearing it out when you fuck me,” Seung said, lifting his nose out of Peach’s crotch, and blinking at Keisha.

When she locked a cockring on him with Peach in bed too, then he didn’t get the release he needed until he’d licked Peach to climax first, and then he would get to take off Keisha’s harness and replace her double-ended tool with his own more modest phallus. Bringing Keisha to climax was easy then. Those were spectacular. It made his balls ache, waiting for it that long, but she’d made it into the cherished pinnacle of his sex life. He got a hardon when she just pulled that ring out of the bag and fondled it, looking at him.

Well, he got hardons just from looking at them walking around the kitchen. Or the bedroom. And the stiff ones that he got when they were outside in public were impossible.

Keisha rolled around on the much-abused pillows, and handed him a new condom. “All right, gimma some kisses, my man.” She was very ready. It didn’t take long before she grabbed his back, grabbed his ass, and told him where she wanted him. He groaned as he sank in, and groaned again when she got her fingers up there under his tail and pushed inward, probing.

“Going, I’m going–” he gasped into Peach’s cunt, licking frantically where Peach lay next to Keisha, while the two women were kissing. Keisha’s fingers hit that live-wire spot inside his ass, and he convulsed, and he felt her start moving too, belly clenching, body muscles stuttering madly, while Peach crowed in triumph and laughed.

They were sprawled out across the bed with only their shoulders touching, allowing the passes of the one small fan to cool them, when Seung said, “What words should you want me to say to Dance?”

“I said apologizing, and doing a good job of it,” Keisha reminded him. “Tonight.”

“You still mad,” Seung said.

“You know why?”

“Not hear you calling.”

“Good as your hearing is, how come? What was going on, you didn’t hear me?”

“Mad,” Seung muttered bitterly. “So fucking pissed off.”

“How can I count on you if you don’t hear me when you’re mad?”

Seung pushed his face into her warm, strong belly. “I don’t know.”

“How do we fix that? How do I know if we got it fixed? You’re a big powerful guy, and if we’re in some scramble with bug troops and you’re not paying attention to what Peach and me need from you, it could get pretty bad.”

“I know,” Seung said.

“You’re a free man, you’re not a bug, you can ignore me when I’m yelling, that’s a good thing to know,” Keisha said then, unexpectedly.

“Not think of that,” Seung said in surprise

“Yeah. You ever see what happens when Drin calls to Dance and it surprises him?”

“Head jerk.”

“Like he’s got Dance dialed up on some private channel, right? You think Drin got some mojo there, or you think Dance just listens for it?”

Seung frowned “I ask him.”

“Good.”

Seung turned his head then, listening.

“What is it?”

“Emma and Dance and Tee Pom walk by, talk,” Seung said. Then he sat up sharply with a grunt, staring at the wall.

“What?” Keisha demanded.

“Emma say best bodyguard for taking Mike back to Fozzie would be me. Put me on my honor. Have us three sit guard on Mike, Tee Pom drive us. Tee Pom laugh a lot.”

Keisha’s eyes opened wide, staring up at him. Then she started to laugh. “Good God damn it, it’s perfect. And we end up goin’ to see if my auntie is the one running Fozzie’s place, too. I been wanting to get up that way, just waiting on your back to heal. If it is my auntie, oh boy, Mike has got some fun ahead of him.”

Seung blinked at her. “Tee Pom not be nice kind man at all.”

“No, my man, I think maybe he’s not.” Keisha smiled, gestured, and Seung rolled around and rested against her, put his head down on her shoulder. Peach was already half-asleep on her other shoulder, purring in little rusty fits and starts. Keisha’s hand came up and stroked through his damp hair, closed on the base of his head, gripped his neck lightly, as if she might scruff him again. “You think you can do something like that? You think you can stick with me and listen?”

The vast quiet in Seung’s body let the question drop through him as if he was a big cave. Nothing echoed back. He lay still, breathing slowly, resting against her, and there was no noise, no anger, only quiet. “Yes,” Seung said. “I remember.” Then he took a deep breath, and sighed. “You test, okay?”

Keisha nodded, and he felt the pull of her neck muscles under his cheek. “I will.”

Seung was asleep by the end of the words.

A Harmony of Snarling Nagas

Dance was in the water ahead of Seung, swimming hard in the other direction away from the truck, back up toward the clinic dock.

Seung wasted some moments getting his ribs to work again, whooping for air, and then he was after Dance, driving that tail as hard as it would go and scraping his way through dead branches he would have gone around before. He roared, coming up for air.

Dance was out of the water, on the dock.

He flung himself up on the dock after Dance so hard that he overcompensated and rolled off the far side, diving all anyhow into the water again. When he got his face up and spluttered away the water and got some air again, he saw Dance’s shadow on the dock, and he heaved himself up on the boards with a push of his tail, panting. Dance stepped back, pivoting, and Seung saw other people crowded back behind Dance, as if he was protecting them from Seung’s temper, which only made him angrier. He roared at Dance, which made the other naga flinch at the punishment to his ears. Dance said something, but Seung was so deafened by his own racket he couldn’t hear any of it. Seung flunt out  his tail, and didn’t even feel the impact when Dance’s tail parried it and slipped by, whizzed past it, tapped him on the back and overbalanced him over into the pond again.

When he came up again his mouth was full of algae and flat, muddy pond water, and he spit it out with a grimace, and breathed hard, hanging onto a piling.  Now Dance was down there in the water with him, too, poised behind him, as if he was going to draw Seung away from the people up there above by any means he had to. Seung couldn’t hear any of them, even though they were all yelling. Well, everybody except Dance himself. He turned, glared at Dance.

Seung didn’t even feel the jolt in his muscles as he started to move.  He was lunging at Dance.  What he did feel was Dance’s tail shifting and his weight arching up perfectly, rolling both of them up and backward. They crashed awkwardly in the water, thrashing together, and they banged into tree branches, thumping around.

Then Dance was limp in his grip, dangling loosely.

A heartbeat, two, and Seung was dragging the other naga to the surface, pushing the man’s head up for air.   Dance responded.  Dance took a big gasp of air. But that was all.  His body hung loose.  His eyes rolled unfocussed, he was dead weight in Seung’s arms.

“What is wrong?” Seung demanded, and his brother’s eyes just blinked at him, mouth open. But Dance was breathing all right. “Blink twice for yes, once for no.  Did you hit your head?”

Dance blinked once.

There was movement, and Seung looked around, and then he relaxed.

Drin had swum up tot he nagas.  The big freckled guy squinted at Seung, swiped water out of his eyes, then his ears, and gestured a question at Seung.

Drin made finger-counting gestures with his free hand, and tapped his ear. He repeated the counting gesture.  He seemed to be asking for them to wait until they could hear again.

Judging from the silent glare he got from Dance, somebody was going to be having a heated little discussion about all that when everybody got back home.  Drin drifted over closer, arm outstretched until he can reach them. “Did you hear something odd?” Drin asked, grasping a branch near them.

“No,” Seung said.

Dance blinked twice.

“You are making me very angry,” Seung said in the rudest possible Russian, and Drin smiled a little, as if he’d heard plenty of those words before.

Then Drin frowned, cupped his hands together with part of them in the water, and he made a soft whistling sound. Then another one, and still another. With great concentration, he slowly whistled a series of notes.

Dance’s body arched up backward in Seung’s grip, and then he curled up forward in a fetal position, and he started gagging, and Seung hastily shoved him over so Dance could hold onto to the support of a branch while Dance heaved up everything he ate that morning.

When he recovered a little, Dance gasped, blinking at them both. “What the hell–“

“Those are generic control notes.  That last bit was a variation on the handler’s release.”

“You can–” Dance panted, “You can just knock me down–”

Drin smiled at him. “Yes, I can. If I can get to you in time. As fast as you guys are?”

“But I not fall down,” Seung objected.

“Yours will be different,” Drin said.

Dance said a few rude things in Korean which made Seung blink at him in surprise.

“Yeah,” Drin said.

“Why–” Dance said, still breathing hard.

“I didn’t realize until I’d done it,” Drin said. He put out his hand toward Dance. Dance deflected it with an angry swat of one hand. Drin let go of the branch, and swam away in that human-slow crawl that he used. He headed off away from the dock. Dance drifted along in his wake, looking furious. Seung followed them too, while Drin led them far enough away from the dock that people there wouldn’t hear them if they spoke quietly, and it took him long enough that by then their hearing had finally recovered enough for whispers.

“Any turtles or gators along here?” Drin panted, hanging off a log protruding out of the muddy bank.

Dance wiped his hair back out of his eyes. “I don’t feel any close. There’s a big wallow by that tree right under your feet, but the big snapper is gone right now. All the yelling, maybe.”

“Shit,” Drin said, curling up his knees to his chest as close as he could, and making a wry face.

“I’ll let you know if it comes,” Dance said.

Seung drifted up, tail gripping a branch underwater. “You not worry, we not hurt you.  I not hurt you,” he said to Drin, with dignity.

“Thank you,” Drin said, with equal dignity, and that made Dance grind his teeth, which somehow pleased Seung.

Seung said, “You do it to stop me.   You make me think Dance is hurt. We fight under this water too long, yes?”

They both blinked at him.

“Yeah,” Dance said, rubbing his skull with one hand. Then he smacked Drin, pushed him. “You can’t help it either, yes?  I am betting you have that– that stuff built in.”

“Probably,” Drin said.

“Is the vomiting also?” Dance said, still furious.

“I assume so, to slow you down.”

“Not stop me go killing Mike,” Seung said flatly.

“You must not. It would be murder, and Tee has him in custody now. We have got to get answers out of him,” Drin said, just as flatly, meeting Seung’s gaze.

The flush of rage along Seung’s shoulders, down his spine, along his arms, made him want to strike out. He bared his front teeth and snarled.

Drin held up a hand, palm flat. “I know, believe me, I do. I’ve got to think past it myself.  We have to ask the smart questions, get Mike to roll over on the guy giving the orders.”

Seung roared, and felt something pop outward in his head, and then he shuddered to a halt, looking his clone in the eye, with their tails locked together.

“Please not fighting, Older Brother,” Dance said quietly in Korean. “I beg you. Please.”

Seung gripped hard on the other man’s tail, feeling no fight there, only passive resistance. He jerked away, releasing Dance’s tail, and roared again.

Dance winced, tail tip and hand cradling his ears while the other hand gripped tree branches. He looked like he had a bad headache.

“You stop me,” Seung said to Dance. “Not good.”

“You meant to chase the truck and take Mike out and tear him to little pieces,” Dance said, a little too loudly, and Drin made a hushing gesture with his free hand, dripping.

“Ye-eessss,” Seung said, puzzled.

“Tee is a sheriff,” Dance said.

“Yes,” Seung said, still puzzled.

“You can’t just– you must not take a prisoner away from him!”

“Why not? Mike not a prisoner. No chains. No duct tape. He sit up. He talk. He not prisoner. Prisoner not able go on arguing.”

They both looked at him.

“Well, shit,” Drin said. “If that’s how things go where Seung’s from– yeah,  I get it.  We aren’t letting Mike get loose, I promise.”

Seung just shook his head.  “Mike talking.”

“Because Tee Pom doesn’t beat up his prisoners,” Dance said impatiently.

“Oh?” Seung said, with a wealth of disbelief in his voice.

Dance pointed a finger at him. “You’re different. And he didn’t beat you, I did. I only beat you up to help, you know that now.”

Seung snorted, making a face. “Some help!”

“You’re welcome,” Dance said sarcastically, glaring at him.

Seung glared right back.

There was a moment of silence, and then Drin smiled unbearably at them both. “No killing each other, boys.”

There was a harmony of snarling nagas for a moment,  silly hissing and snarling growls like tomcats, only louder, which made Drin turn away to hide his smile.

“You know Tee Pom picked up Mike in official custody in his truck,” Drin said, sobering.

“Why did he have to drive past right there?” Dance demanded.

Drin wiped off his wet face with a wet hand, gave a shrug that he didn’t know why, and sighed.  “God, this pond tastes bad.”

Both nagas looked at him flatly.

“Okay, it tastes really horrible,” Drin said.

“Oh, this isn’t bad compared to–” Dance waved off southeast, int he general direction of the sea, and New Orleans.

“Is pisshole,” Seung said.

Dance looked at him. “So what happens when Tee drives back to hand him off to Fozzie again? You know Fozzie’s the only one who’ll stand bail for Mike around here–”

“–and then God knows what he’ll do with him,” Drin finished it, grimly.

“Fozzie is his boss, his great friend,” Seung snarled.

Drin looked at Seung. “Oh no. No. Mike betrayed his trust. Mike betrayed everybody when Mike handed you over to bug troops. Fozzie has to show everybody exactly what happens when you do that.  It was Fozzie’s crew who ran Mike to ground, and Fozzie handed him over to Tee Pom for arrest.”

“But why?  Why did Fozzie do that?” Dance asked then, frowning.

“He probably didn’t want to lose his temper and kill Mike. He probably wanted somebody new to ask questions,  to keep up the pressure on Mike, make sure Mike didn’t rest,” Drin said, dryly. “Fozzie has a bad, bad temper when you really roust him like that. As in, old-fashioned logging camp bad temper, not police rules and regulations like Tee Pom has to go by.”

Seung looked at them, and for some reason he believed them. Frustrated, he bared his fangs. “Kill Mike! He should die.”

“Oh, stop being so impatient,” Drin said, and his eyes were the coldest tiger-yellow predatory eyes that Seung had ever seen in his life.

Even Dance looked a little surprised, eyebrows lifting high. “So you think Fozzie is not letting Mike die that easy–”

“No.  Oh no.  Well, Seung doesn’t know Fozzie that well.  So let me lay it out, here.  Seung, if you attacked Tee Pom and took his prisoner away, and the guy died during the escape, yeah, Mike will die. Big deal. I’m sure that’s going to happen, one way or another. If Fozzie gets his way, Mike’s going to have a long rough ride first. Tee’s a brave guy, he knows the risks hauling Mike around the bayou.  Lots of people pissed off right now. Somebody might shoot Tee Pom trying to get at Mike. But it doesn’t have to be you doing it,” Drin says, glaring into Seung’s eyes. “You hurt or kill a local sheriff? Out here? Do you want Keisha and Peach to live on the run the rest of their lives? That’s what will happen.”

Seung stared at him, shocked. “No!”

“Think about it,” Drin said, with those cold, logical eyes. “All right, you got the picture, lecture done.  C’mon, guys, let’s get out of the water, get cleaned up.”

Seung shook his head violently, arching up higher in the water, ready for an argument. “I want to kill Mike! It is nothing, nothing!” he told both men.

“I think Keisha’s calling you,” Drin said quietly.

Seung jerked his head around, horrified. He’d been hearing her voice. He just didn’t notice it before.

That shocked him cold.  He pushed away from the branches, dropped lower in the water, driving his tail in s-curves, to get to her and hug her very hard, soaking her shirt and shorts.

Provoking Seung

More people stood by the houseboat rail, staring and pointing. Emma was out there with her mouth open–talking–and Keisha was just watching, grinning her widest grin.

Seung said, “I’m hungry. Show me simple things here. Mudbugs, yes?”

Dance nodded. “Back this way, wave hello to the nice ladies. Don’t stop.”

Seung waved, and let his tail push his body in lazy s-curves. “Swim feels good,” he yelled up at the people leaning far over the railing.

Next to Dance, something long and thin and dark whipped up out of the water very fast; there was a splash behind them, and he heard Emma yell. “Faster?” Seung said.

“Now, yes,” Dance giggled, and took off.

What distracted him from diving after Dance was the splash of a different, bigger body coming into the water.  Drin surfaced and gripped a dock piling midway between them. He was reddened from sun in some places and pale as an oyster in others.  He gave a whoop and started swimming.

“Your spanking is coming after you.”

“Worth it,” Dance said, looking back. “Okay, I let him catch up.”

“Hungry,” Seung reminded him.

Dance looked at him, nodded towards the pale man plowing along vigorously toward them, and then pointed at brush hanging over the water. “Wait for the fish. Your skin knows. Don’t think too much. Just listen with your skin.” The sleek dark head dropped lower in the water, and he moved off a little to one side. “Can you hear me moving?”

Seung thought about it.  “You are beating grasses underwater.”

Dance grinned. “Excellent. There. I’m driving bottom fish.”

Something brushed, tickled his skin. His tail snapped through the water, and then he got his fingers buried in the thing’s eyes, and the body was flopping violently in the coils of his tail, and he was squeezing down thumbs under the big plates of the gills. It had huge steely scales and a weird mouth and even weirder tail–

“Sturgeon,” Dance said, rising up in the water, and smiling. “Hit the base of the head to mercy-kill it.”

But Seung had already done that very thing, faster than Dance could say the words. His tail tip punched upward, he raked his hands apart. The fish split along either side of the spine as neatly as a filet, the muscles still twisting, and the viscera dropped into the cradle of tight loops of Seung’s tail.  His tailtip curled daintily, yanked out the raw spine, and flicked it off tidily into the water. Slowly, he held out the viscera toward his brother. Seung panted, watching Dance’s eyes darken.

Dance was breathing hard too. He jerked his head away, took deep breaths. He waved one hand at the water. “Cook it first,” he said harshly.

“But you want raw right now,” Seung whispered.

Dance flung up both hands. “There’s plenty, they just stocked the pond. I’ll eat.”

“But you never get the right things, you’re always hunting,” Seung said.

“I need more as I’ve got longer,” Dance said, sinking back down in the water.

“As you got longer,” Seung said, shaking his head. “Does it feel weird to say that?”

Dance nodded, looking down at the water. His eyes sought fish movements, tracking shadows automatically. “What feels weird is to be swimming in this bayou grabbing fish with my bare hands. Grabbing nutrias and rabbits and squirrels.” In English, he growled, “I’m a musician, dammit, I play Bach and Mozart and Vivaldi–”

“And you’ll eat rats if you can get them,” Seung said.

“Or anything else,” Dance said wryly. “Radishes, salad greens–”

“Fry it for me, please,” Seung said, and held out the viscera.

Dance’s tail swirled up the mess in some coils, there was a brief puff of smoke and the stink of burnt liver.  Then he tumbled it into the coiled bowl of Seung’s tailtip.  Seung ate it off his own tail, mumbling a little as he held out the raw fillets to Dance instead.

“Good, huh?” Dance said, eyes still watching the pond.

“It was eating mud and frogs,” Seung said, ecstatic. “This thing is big!”

“Yeah, I didn’t know there were any sturgeons down here. And I don’t know how something that big got past me and Estania. We usually fish this hole pretty bare.”

Dance fried the filleted halves of the sturgeon, too, each in turn. After he handed them back to Seung, Dance licked the crispy burnt leftover parts off his own scales at the lower curves of his own tail. It was something like watching a guy picking crispy bits out of the bacon pan. Or like watching a cute little housecat grooming itself. Too much like Peach. He did not want to think about Dance like that while his brother was talking about the different fish he might catch in this pond. Dance’s accent was so funny. Seung’s style of speech eroded Dance’s fussy old tutor’s precision in Korean, but he sounded still pretty goddamn prissy.

Dance was talking about gar and croppie when he stopped talking, and turned around, frowning, listening to something that Seung couldn’t quite hear yet.  What he did hear was the rumble of truck tires on the levee road above.   It got loud, vibrating into the water of the pond. The force of it made Seung’s tail jerk in pain.

Dance grimaced. “That doesn’t get better,” he said, and then he was looking up. “Oh fuck–” Seung saw him move, saw Dance come at him in giant hug,  but Seung stood there, puzzled, while the smaller naga wound around him like a constrictor.

Seung watched him, concerned, once Dance had his tail wrapped tightly around Seung, pinning his arms to his sides, and crimping Seung’s tail up against his legs.

“Come, explain,” Seung growled, making no movement to use his own tail to peel off the intrusion.

“You’ll get it–” Dance said, glaring up at the bank.

They both heard two familiar voices, shouting at each other in the cab of the truck as it rumbled past.

Tee Pom was yelling at somebody to shut the fuck up.

Mike’s voice persisted in arguing. It was a very distinctive voice.

Seung opened his mouth, and Dance tapped him on the face warningly, making a hushing gesture. His finger pointed for Seung to stay quiet and listen. “Mike,” Seung growled. “Mike who gave Keisha and Peach to bugs–“

Dance nodded, made the hushing gesture again, pointed at the near bank, and when Seung nodded, the other man’s longer tail released Seung.

“My kill,” Seung growled, crouching as he followed Dance.

“No killing yet,” Dance whispered. “Listen first.”

That was when Dance’s human reached them, his slow crawl-style swimming stroke finally brought him level with them. He blew air noisily, he sputtered, he grabbed a branch and reeled himself in to the bank near them, and hung in the water resting.

As the truck drove up, the horn honked, and Drin grinned up and waved at it. Waved at it!

It kept going, rolling dust clouds over them as it passed.

Seung was already moving, his tail driving him up the bank, a good hard push and he had jumped past the line of riprap and broken concrete that stabilized the bank at the waterline. He was up onto the crown of the road itself, running barefooted in the gravel without even caring what it did to his feet, when something long and hard and incredibly strong whipped around his chest and his waist and down onto his hips and jerked him off his feet and slammed him down onto his side like a roped calf, knocking the air out of him.

He twisted around, grabbed onto the cable, and realized that it was alive.   Dance was up standing on the bank below him, jerking him back off his feet again, before he tried to tear that damn cable around in half to get free.

“Get Mike– truck– I get him–“ Seung mouthed, unable to get air, and felt Dance’s tail tightening on his ribs every time the air exhaled. His lungs struggled. His own tail was wrapped up in coils, he was counter-squeezing down on the cable that was extended out past him, but it didn’t let go.

“No,” Dance said, quite softly, and they both listened to the truck rolling away, heading off down the bayou road, and away.

“Get him–“ Seung mouthed, with little black and white sparkles dancing over his eyesight.

Dance’s tail jerked under the pressure of Seung’s, and then Dance braced himself, the base of the tail pushed into some boulder.   His tail lifted out all that weight and uncoiled, whirling Seung in a spin, and dropped him into the bayou.

The Fishing Hole

“Older brother, there is good hunting tonight, I would like to share it with you.” Dance said, and then repeated it in English for Keisha. “He would benefit from the exercise, if that’s acceptable,” he added in her direction.

“Feel up to it baby?” Keisha asked. “You got to be missing hunting. He was doin’ it before he ever started turning, used to catch coneys for Peach,” she told Doctor Alexander and Dance.

Seung flexed his back muscles, and found no pain there.

“That wound is adequately healed,” Doctor Alexander observed. “You may resume your normal activities– even immersion in doubtful swamp water.”

“Yes, I go,” Seung said, and lumbered to his feet. He craved cool water on his itching skin, suddenly, imagined it running past the new scutes with a hallucinatory clarity.

“Seung, right here,” Dance called him back from the gangplank. He was untying the drawstring of his modified sweats, letting them puddle at his bare feet. “Probably not rabbits, but lots of fish,” he says, amused.

“One moment,” the doctor said. “Would you mind if I take a quick look for comparison?”

Seung nodded, divested himself and stood at his brother’s side.

“Damn,” Keisha said grinning. “Y’all got the look for sure… ” Seung ducked his head and caught a glimpse of Dance, wearing the same goofy grin that he knew he had on his own face.

“Your cloaca has nearly grown in, the two of you look very much alike now,” the doctor said. “No collar ruff or sensor ribbons, but everything else. Your tail…”

“Still grows,” Seung said. “Tail is learning every day.” He told it to make itself visible for the doctor, and twitched the nearly nine feet of it forward. Dance shifted his fourteen feet over the deck for comparison. Then Seung matched the color of his tail to the lighter flecks and dappling of Dance’s tail, frowning a little in effort. He couldn’t maintain it, and gave up with a huff of a sigh.

“Let’s go now,” Dance said after they’d stood through Doctor Alexander’s silent assessment for a few moments. He twisted and went over the houseboat railing. There was a small splash when his body hit, and a long, barely heard, whisper-hiss as the tail followed him.

Seung was after him almost instantly. The water was the same temperature as his body, opaque with algae and mud. It tasted like rotting limestone and duck poop and catfish and frogs and dead bugs. Blinded by the murk, he felt brush reaching for him, scratching at him. Branches and drift clogged up the bottom dangerously. But he heard Dance’s movements; the echoes of it in the water pressed here and there like fingers on his irritable skin.

Dance rolled and looped and laughed to himself, like a seal, doubling back toward him, as if he were going to reach out and guide Seung with a touch.

Seung gave a shout, and pushed his tail in a hard arc at the water. He was going too fast; a giant stump on the bottom loomed up at him so fast it made him yelp out into the water. Then Dance grabbed onto his shoulders and gave a body-twitch that redirected both of them expertly through its branches.

He gave another powerful twitch, and they dove deeper. They glided under the trunk of a fallen tree, and then upward again, and they surfaced. Dance wasn’t winded, but Seung was gasping hard, as much from surprise as being unfit. Dance pushed him to the support of a log, and rested there with him, tail moving gently along Seung’s back. “Okay?”

Seung nodded, feeling his neck muscles stretching with the movement, everything moving and shifting and settling differently with the water’s support. “Feels good,” he said in Korean. Then he smiled; “Younger Brother.”

Dance’s face fell into open, round lines of surprise. It made him look like a child. “You never call me that!”

“So I’m a grumpy old fucker,” Seung said in English, smoothly.

“You’re pretty fast, old guy,” Dance said in Korean, laughing. His wet tail thumped Seung gently, glittering.   “I have to take you into open water once you’ve got your swimming legs back, you’ll love it.”

“You start laughing so loud, you scare off all the fish.”

“My secret plan. Make fish run away, make you work harder! No technique, just chase hard!” Dance’s hand made a looping, ribbony gesture above the log, dripping.

Seung grunted. “Maybe I teach you how to catch things better, huh? I learned to fish with two hands first.” He held up both hands, knotted into fists.

Dance grinned. “Maybe so. You want to swim back and get people to stop worrying?”

“How do you know they worry?” Seung said, not turning his head.

“I would,” Dance said.

Seung reached out and smacked him lightly on the loose folds of the collar ruff. “Such a girl,” he said.

Dance simpered, and batted his eyes, and fluffed the edges of the ruff in a silly actressy gesture. He switched to English. “But, you lovely big badass brute, I know what you can eat around here, and what will make you sick as the trash-eatin’ dog, to quote my lovely wife Emma.” He points. “Those are carp. You can eat them, but they taste terrible from this pond, no matter how you cook them.”

“It is a pisshole, this pond. We should catch the ducks instead.”

“Only if you want to be facing angry people. These ducks are pets, what are you thinking? You might as well eat their puppies.”

“You mean that Emma and Drin will get mad at you and spank you,” Seung said in Korean.

Dance made a face. “Well, sometimes too many little things pile up and they get mad. Then they want to spank me anyway, ” he said, wryly. “And not because I asked for it! Not like you!” And he thumped Seung gently with the tail.

Seung lifted both eyebrows at him. “You think I have to ask?” he said solemnly.

Dance laughed. Dance’s tail lashed in the water, making loops and glittering. It made Dance look about eight years old. And yet he still sounded, in Korean, like some solemn stiff old schoolteacher, blinking at him owlishly.

“Yeah, I get lucky,” Seung told him, and watched him crack up all over again. He clapped Dance on the shoulder with a meaty sound of his fist. Dance was smaller and thinner than he ought to be. Too academic, too skinny, if he was going to be fighting bugs and sparring properly with Seung, that’s for sure. Give him some decent boxing practice, that’d help. Besides, the man really needed to build up more shoulder muscles if he was going to make their houseboat rock on its moorings so outrageously all the time.

Some Unpleasant Answers

Hal blinked. His pupils were changing. Sliding round, going oddly-shaped, as if he was halfway turning into a goat.

Seung propped his head into his hand as if he was about to go to sleep. “I got back to lockup shed once to let women out, like Peach and Keisha, get them safe.” Then he rubbed his fingers over his eyes, up his forehead. “Too late, other times.”

“You know how they killed those ladies–” Hal said.

Seung sighed. “Oh yes. Bodies, they talk.” He waved one hand, dismissing it. “Nobody stop it. Nobody speak. Police no good. Boss put me in cell. First time they let me out from cell, I got chain on my legs. I see dead girls down the hill. Nobody care how bad they stink, leave those dead girls down there. I get shovel and chop chains off and knock down those men, I go down that hill, I bury them. Lots guns take me back. Boss say, okay, you coming with me, you stand guard on tar bricks, you bury these girls too. ”

Keisha clamps her jaws shut, tight. Let the man talk. And he does.

“Go on trip, I bury them too. First chance, I run away. Dumb. Need money, got nothing. Okay. Take two bricks tar, pay third brick get away. Police raid gets dealer, me, tar. Police take me back. Lots chains, long time, take me on trips, dig in chains, bury dead girl, ride truck in chains. Take chains off, I be good two months. Second time, I got coin. Wrong kind. Money-changer tell secret police, they raid village, they say not kill anybody if I come quiet, but they shoot moneylender right there. Third time–” he taps his forehead, “–I remember what things they did to me. They put tracer in me, like pet dog. I cut it out.” He showed them a messy little scar on the inside of his forearm.

Keisha settled back in her chair, listening. From the corner of her eye, she saw Peach scurry to get the hot oatmeal into more bowls, moving as if she was nervous of the tension in the room.

“Good, tracer all gone. This time I got rich man’s cards, but I know all those money card, they ask, Swiss bank trace cards, find me. No use cards. No take tar. I start hitch rides, mujahadeen very nervous, I walk lots, go hungry. Not bother nobody. But I see troops come in trucks, take village, start shooting. I get mad, stop them. I find their boss, I find his other troops, I stop them too. I blow up things. Put wood bridge on fire, take out train car that got more guns for them. Ammo blow up, boom boom. Crazy man. I forget gas knockout. Americans blanket-gas caves, take everybody, find me. Chains, all of us. Americans give some guys in chains to some other bosses. One boss, he take them off in town, shoot those guys on wall.”

Keisha glances at Peach, worried if she’ll understand, and worried if she doesn’t. Peach glances up at Keisha with tears filling her eyes, and buries her nose down into Keisha’s shirt. Keisha looks up at Seung, and nods once.

Seung inclines his head, and goes on. “Some stay in American jail, lots questions. But me, no questions, no nothing. Somebody American know my boss. Pay good get his men back. They take me back.” He waved one hand tiredly. “Boss laugh. Stupid Americans not know me, give me back to him, not know what I am.” He held his hands up, and there were odd little nicks everywhere along the backs of his hands. So they weren’t just fight scars, the way Keisha had assumed. “Boss say not kill me, Americans pay good for my skin. ”

Well, now they have some idea where those two hundred white nagas came from, Keisha thinks grimly.

Seung taps the table. “That boss die, his sons same. Shoot each other. Shoot men don’t pay right, shoot men ask too many questions. Tell me bury those bodies too. They like shooting. Sons all get to kill girls and be boss and sell tar bricks. I go trips all different sons, they put me in karate tournaments so nobody fight me for tar, good as crazy dog. Me, same job.”

Keisha found herself wobbling right there in the chair. She braced one elbow on the table. She felt Peach put up a steadying hand on her back.

Hal’s pupils were totally u-shaped like a goat’s and his ears looked deformed. Keisha looked away, dizzily, and saw Seung’s tail shifting restlessly on the floor, winding around on itself. She looked up and Peach was right there peering into her face with those lagoon-blue eyes, fur all disarranged, looking anxious with her ears flattened. Keisha closed her eyes, swallowed hard.

Hal said quietly, “That third time, when the Americans took you back. When was that?”

Seung sighed. “Two months after Russian troops go away, leave Afghanistan.”

“Christ,” Keisha said, eyes jolting open. When was that? Twenty, thirty years ago?

Hal said, “Tar bricks, is that bricks of black tar opium?”

Seung said, “Yes, so big,” and sketched the size in the air.

“Where was it coming from?”

Seung frowned, lips moving. “Most grow at home there. Others trade in, you say, Burma, Pakistan, some Thailand.”

“So the sons, they all liked killing girls too?” Hal asked, carefully.

“Some more, some less,” Seung said, looking tired.

Keisha clamped a wrist over her mouth.

Hal said, quietly, “So you could’ve stopped them, too, the way you stopped those other troops.”

“Maybe so,” Seung agreed, looking even more tired.

Keisha took her wrist down from her mouth. Her hands were hurting, badly. She took in hot, deep breaths. “No. I don’t believe it. No.”

“What?” Hal said, surprised.

“I don’t.”

Hal tilted his head, looked at her.

Keisha leaned forward. “Doctor Alexander said that Dance and Drin and Emma all have false memories that don’t match up on the real history at the time. I bet if we checked on those names and dates and crap in Seung’s head, we’d find out it’s cobbled together nonsense. You go back poking around, I bet you find out Seung was never there, nobody knows him, it’s all made up. Somebody brainwashed him into believing these horrible things. Maybe they meant to scare him away from getting help, keep him isolated–who knows. Yeah, I think Seung’s done some fighting, but he’s no old school Afghan cave-war-type guy. I knew vets like that. Seung’s not the same. Doesn’t have the right ‘tude for a vet like that. He’s too damn young.”

“Pictures of dead girls,” Seung said quietly.

Hal pointed at the table. “Dance had pictures too, of his family, and now Drin and Emma proved none of them were real.”

“Doctored,” Keisha said. “Not hard to do, just takes time. Digital to start with. It sure ain’t on film, honey.”

Hal leaned forward, tapping the table. “Those girls, lots of those names Seung remembered for Preacher, those were the same as the digital pictures that got sent to Drin and Dance and Emma, Emma thinks they were sent on purpose, so they’d hate Seung. That’s weird too. Why would anybody care?”

“You think I not do those things–” Seung’s eyes looked pale again. “Fake things shove in my head. Who can do that?”

“Well, our local telepath here, Preacher Slick, he can sure do things like that,” Hal said. He gave a grim little smile. “But he won’t. Preacher’s got standards. I’m not sure all of the others do.”

“Others?” Keisha said.

“Oh yeah. There’s others. You met him, Seung. Brother Slick preaches on the Bible, does radio shows and broadcasts by CB when we need him to block bug raids, and cable interviews and all kinds of stuff. Always reading, taught himself Greek and Hebrew. Tall thin black guy with a terrific grasp of a lot of the various Bible translations, and always eager to hear about new ones.”

“You met this guy?” Keisha said, staring at Seung. “When?”

“Yes,” Seung said. “Pin come out. Dance do things, I have insides feel like guts fall out, hurt lots. Preacher come, speak, stop it hurting. All good. Magic. Feel good. Floating. He say, you show me all pictures, all dead women, we find them. Give them back to families. All of them. Is good. I tell him, I get tired. Tears like blood, Preacher cries. So many murdered, he weeps. I get so tired. Sleep.”

“Oh shit, man, you’re kidding me,” Keisha said. Nobody had told her any of that. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Seung tilted his head a degree, tapped his forehead. “In here. Silly dream, yes? This Preacher man, he come back see me in clinic, before you and Peach safe. He walk in, he talk, Dance talk to me in Korean, be sure we got it right. Preacher talk to Emma, they bring lots pictures from lots of places. Yes, I point, this is one, this is one, this too. Lots dead girls from Moldova. How you say–that place is a total pit. Pretty girls, they want out. Sons, bosses, guests, tell me oh, go buy girls like fries with soda. Bury them after. Preacher and Dance tell me lots of dead girl names. Emmma looks it up, learn what real names they had. Not all, no, but he gets help, he will find families. All real.”

Keisha frowned. “You’re talking about guys who can go into your head and figure out what you really meant when maybe you don’t even know yourself?”

“I remember those dead girls,” Seung said, eyes so pale they were almost a white gold color.

“And you believe all this stuff?” Keisha said. Then she stared at Hal.

“Oh yeah. We know Preacher. He vouched for Seung around here,” Hal said, and there was no mercy whatever in those strange dark eyes. “Yeah, however he’s doing it, Preacher comes back out with stuff like that, names, lists. He says go look, you bet we check on it.”

Keisha turned her eyes to Seung. “Okay, how did he do it to you?”

Seung held out wide-open hands, as if he had no guesses at all

Hal smiled. “Nobody knows how he does it. Hey, ask him. He doesn’t know. He feels it as a burden, a large duty laid on him by the Lord, and he don’t hardly ever sit down. I don’t think it’s by smell, or by just being good at reading people. Hell, I can do that, and I’m not getting the kinda of things he hears coming outta of people.”

“You put him on Mike,” Keisha said, leaning back.

“You got it,” Hal said. “They both gonna be crying, cause Preacher don’t ever give up on somebody’s soul. Never.”

“So you think there’s other–other preachers–like him?”

Hal pushed his chin forward. “Preacher was made. He knows that. He was made in a lab, just like Dance and Seung. Yeah, we know there’s others like him. Not so many now. Preacher says mostly they suicided right away. Good reasons, too. He says he’ll set himself on fire first, he’s not letting bug troops take him. No telling if the black market labs got hold of tissue from those other guys, but they’d sure try repeating it with bug mod methods.”

“That’s no good,” Keisha said, shivering. “I mean, if it’s true.”

“Yeah,” Hal said.

“I haven’t met him,” Keisha said, frowning.

“No need. Seung vouched for you and Peach, talking with Preacher. Preacher’s call on it is good for us.” At the look on her face, Hal smiled a little. “Welcome to Bayou Rainette.”

Keisha swiveled her head and glared at Seung. “You don’t even hardly know me!”

Seung smiled at her. “You teach Peach how to eat off rabbit bones. I know you.”

Keisha rubbed the back of her wrist across her eyes. “Oh, cut it out. Just stop. We ain’t gettin’ anywhere wallowing in goo.” She blinked fiercely, and felt Peach’s hand slide around her shoulders, and then Peach gave her a little whispery-soft kiss on the ear. She leaned into Peach a moment, breathing hard. “Okay, enough silly stuff. I know we’re missing something here. Something important.”

“Why,” Seung said softly.

Hal nodded.

“Did Preacher check on Mike like that, too?”

“Early on, yeah, of course. But Mike been going on the road a lot, and Preacher always wants to be right there with the person. He don’t want to go pushing Mike’s brain around when he’s driving a truck, right?”

“So all Mike had to do was stay away from this bayou. Stay away from Preacher.”

“Hell, he stayed away from me and a couple other good sniffers, too, maybe he knew we’d smell something wasn’t right,” Hal said.

Keisha thought about it. “Would Preacher know if somebody way back when had got into Seung’s head and twisted things around?”

“He might. He doesn’t say much, not unless people got a need to know.”

Keisha frowned. “Yeah. But you know what I think? Sure, there was some guy who saw the Russian front in Afghanistan, but it wasn’t Seung. I know that. Stop arguing, I know it. Other guys like Preacher could have doctored Seung’s head. But why do it? Why would somebody push it into Seung’s head in the first place?”

Hal frowned back. “Maybe it was accidental. If he was poking around in Seung’s head, maybe he shared stuff, didn’t even know he was doing it. Preacher says it’s real hard keeping things sorted out.”

“Okay, that’s random. That shit happens. What about reasons to do it on purpose?”

Hal shrugged. “To go out and testify what happened. Let’s say, maybe that head-guy can’t leave, but he thinks hey, maybe this Seung guy will get out.”

Seung nodded. “Get lists out. Send it out, away from tar bosses.” He lifts one forefinger. “Maybe not just me. Maybe tell others. Maybe lots guys got same bad dreams too, huh?”

Hal looked at him, nodded. “Do you know who that head-guy maybe was? Why maybe he couldn’t leave?”

“No. They bring me back–” Seung waved it off. “Hurt lots. Chains. Lots bad things. Forget lots.”

“Yeah,” Hal said, pushing his empty oatmeal bowl to one side.

Keisha pointed her bandaged hand at Seung. “But why would any dumb-ass tar boss make this guy bury your bodies? Seung ain’t your boy. He thinks he’s run away a coupla times already.”

Seung leaned into the wall again, sighed. “Some guys like to make you do things. Do things nobody like.”

Hal nodded. “Yeah, I get that part. Make a big show of it. Prove to everybody your boss controls you absolutely, he’s not afraid of proof coming out later, you’ll never escape. Chase you down.”

Seung sighed. “Tar. Lots money.”

“Oh yeah. But Keisha’s right. That’s lousy leadership. Running a gang, you gotta be better than that. It’s stupid, it’s wasteful, people betray you and wreck things and do sneaky stuff. Somebody else who’s smarter and not so–so showy–might end up controlling that trade instead.”

“Guy like Drin. People like run, do things for him,” Seung said coolly.

“Oh yeah,” Keisha said. “Over here, Drin’s too smart to bother with shit like tar. But what if he was some Afghan warlord with nothing else to sell?”

“Still smarter. Get off tar into better profit, lower risk trade,” Seung said.

“Insurance or credit cards?” Hal said, wryly.

“Guns,” Seung said, and they both nodded.

“I guess Drin was stockpiling aluminum while it’s cheap, last I heard,” Keisha said wryly. “But damn–“

Seung sighed again. His face was looking thin.

Damn fool’s not getting enough food for that tail, Keisha thought, looking at him.

“Now, the other question I been wanting to ask–” Hal began.

Keisha looked at him.

Hal smiled, let out a sigh. “Why hasn’t one of that gang come to pick up Seung by now?”

“I been worrying on that,” Keisha said.

Seung waved it off. “I know why maybe. Long way here, boss not like trip but he gotta do it anyway, I kill him, all messed up on orders. Boss got boss who got boss.”

Hal frowned. “Plus those bug troops. Do they always use bug troops?”

Seung waved in a negative gesture. “First time I know about, but I not know everything.”

“Hope this time got written off as a big honkin’ six-truck disaster,” Keisha said.

Seung held both hands wide again, that it was anybody’s guess.

“As Aunt Frog would say, ‘From your mouth to God’s ear’,” Hal said cheerfully.

“Can’t count on it, though, we oughta move on soon as Seung can handle it,” Keisha said.

“Make good use of the time you got here, that’s my advice.” Hal smiled, and patted his stomach happily.

“Yeah, we will. Peach and me got lots to learn about, and I figure on visiting your Aunt Frog at the first chance I get,” Keisha said.

“You let me know, I’ll get your a ride over to our place.” Hal pulled out a card from his shirt pocket. “There you go. You need anything, if you can’t get the Trio first, cause they’re so close, then you call us, we’ll get somebody up here right away. We ain’t letting no damn bugs or tar-traders take Seung away from you. Anything you need, okay?”

She took a couple of deep breaths, picked up her fork, and said, “Okay. That helps. Okay. Seung?”

Seung nodded.

“Peach? Can you read this number?” Keisha pointed. “Can you remember that number?”

Peach peered at it, nodded. Somebody did teach her to read words and numbers, at a very low grade school level. She repeated it, slowly. “Use phone? I know how.”

“Yeah. You tell them who you are, that’ll be enough, somebody will come,” Hal said to her, and she nodded.

“That’s good, Peach. Real good,” Keisha said, and got a hug from her.

“My Aunties can give Peach the right level of reading books, figure out where she is,” Hal said.

Keisha took another deep breath. “Thanks. That’d help her a lot.” She looked at Seung. “My man, if you want those eggs heated up again, I can do that. Hate wasting good food.”

Seung waved it off.

Keisha leaned over, rested her aching bandaged hand on his, which made him blink at her. Keisha said, “Outlive the bastards. You need to eat. Take another bite of that bacon for me.”

Seung frowned a little, looking at her. Then he leaned toward her, turned his head, and kissed her cheek. “Okay, boss lady.” Then he did. He didn’t look like he’d keep it down, but he ate it.

Hal took a deep breath, nodded when Peach offered to heat up more oatmeal in the microwave for him.

Keisha watched their kitty gal punching the buttons carefully in order. First thing Emma insisted on giving them as a housewarming present, was that microwave. Keisha blinked, looked down, saw Hal watching her with those u-shaped goat pupils. “Okay, Mister Community Organizer,” Keisha said to him firmly, “I got some questions for you, too. About these damn bug labs round here, those places you guys destroyed. I wanna hear how you did that.”

Hal smiled. It was not a nice smile. “I’d love to tell you about it, if–” and he turned his gaze on Seung, “–Seung is okay with getting something to eat when I talk about this stuff. I’ve upset you guys enough this morning, didn’t mean to.”

“I eat well, if you teach us how to knock down bug labs,” Seung said, with that stubborn look on his face.

Keisha gave a skeptical grunt.

Some Questions

“I was born this way, here in the swamp, maybe from wild stuff dumped out here.” Hal shrugged.

“Made by the swamp?” Keisha said softly.

“Yeah, I guess so. So yeah, I ain’t always this normal-looking. I can’t stay just one thing all the time. I have to cycle through or my muscles get all messed up. So I get it when people say they’re afraid to come out in daylight and they’re going hungry when somebody’s away out of town and they ran out of food.”

Seung blinked away from his absorption in Peach and looked at Hal. “You are all these forms.”

“Well, it’s a little messy in the house stumbling into things when I’m a goblin, I can’t see for a damn. And when I’m a goat, people who don’t know me keep trying to turn me out onto a fenceline to clear out the weeds for them.”

Peach laughed, delighted. “Big brown goat! See, I know you in that smell–I do! I know you! I give you lots good hay, make you go out from Dance’s garden, remember?”

Hal grinned. “Just workin’ on the weeds for him, no harm done. Well, mostly. Dance’s radishes, man, I could eat those all day long. I get tired of chompin’ down kudzu, gotta say.”

“You must make a pretty big goat,” Keisha said.

“Well, some of it goes off into a zero-g box. Or that’s what Dance calls his, anyway.”

“We gotta talk some more about that. First let’s get Seung sittin’ down, get some sun on him. Makes him feel better.”

Hal nodded. He said to Peach, “Now, I know about bagheeras, I don’t wanna make you nervous or anything getting too close too fast. Are you okay with me helping you on Seung’s tail, Peach? I know how heavy Dance’s tail is, believe me.”

“Okay,” Peach nodded, and touched Hal’s hand lightly, and then she darted back to Seung. She gave Seung a kiss on the nose, and asked him for help on her clothes. He tugged up her pants, adjusted a zipper, smoothed her fur under the bra’s shoulder straps, checked that it was lying smoothly at the back strap, and did it so politely under her shirt that nothing much showed. “Okay, wiggle,” he said to her, which meant, dance around so he could be sure nothing was going to fall down on Peach’s skinny little frame.

Peach hopped around singing, grinning at them all. Seung, he was gone all over again. That solid tough-guy face went dopey as a stoner.

“I understand Seung doesn’t seem to have a zero-g box?” Hal asked Keisha, politely.

Keisha nodded, and glanced at Seung, who was gone, drifted back into looking at Peach. He did that when he hadn’t got laid for a couple of hours. His next stage would be leaning on them both, wanting to smell them and kiss them and go to sleep holding one or the other of them. It let him sleep easier, without hurting so much. The he would wake up hard as a rock. Peach got enthusiastic about climbing on him and trying out everything on offer frequently enough to leave him a bit stunned-looking.

When Peach was tired out enough to sleep–which took a bit of doing when sex was involved–then Keisha took over. Keisha was happy to settle into that saddle. She rode him pretty hard, in spite of all the workarounds they had to do for his back and his tail and her aching hands. It relieved his pain better than anything Caleb gave him in pills. And what sex with Seung did for her and Peach was… amazing. Her hands were healing up a whole faster than they should, too. She would be glad when she could get a decent grip on him.

He had his ways with both her and Peach, too. There was nothing like that tail coming up and moving, squirming around trying to make them both happy, without rubbing them raw on the scales either. He was very careful of them both, which was always a surprise.

Keisha realized she’d been staring at him and at Peach, too, with that dumb look on her face. That poleaxed look.

And Hal, a total stranger in their bedroom, was looking at all of them and seeing it. And smiling, as if it was his idea in the first place. The way you smiled at newlywed friends being incredibly cute, or something. Gaaah.

“How about that oatmeal?” Keisha said.

Peach nodded. “I help Seung’s tail!” She frowned a little, got her hands under the thicker end of Seung’s tail. There was still more of it on the floor. “Okay, I’m ready. Want breakfast!”

“Not by yourself, mama, it’s getting too heavy. You’re gonna get some help from Hal, now.”

Hal moved over, got a nod from Seung.

“Hal? Thanks,” Keisha said. She grabbed the front end of the man with the tail, tugged his hospital gown straighter. Touching him made him blink and flocus on her. He looked at her with those big wide-open dopey eyes, too. “Seung, you hungry? Eggs? What is this, with the no eggs thing? How many pieces of bacon you want?”

“No,” Seung said. He smiled, leaned into her.

“Ahh, c’mon, you always change your mind when you smell it cooking. Be honest,” Kiesha said, brushing his hair back out of his eyes with her fingertips. “C’mon, my man.” She gave him a little yank, and started walking backwards.

By then, Hal had picked up a wad of tail, and they were all walking up the hallway. Slowly, but walking.

Seung looked back at Hal, surprised. “You’re strong!”

“Compared to some, not to others,” Hal said agreeably, holding up about seven feet of tail.

Keisha spoke to Hal while she walked backward in front of Seung. “So tell me about these Knights guys I heard you were gonna talk to.”

Hal turned the corner outside the bathroom door, edging the tail around it. “Well, truth be told, I went up for this meeting because we need their help keeping bug labs from coming back, but it’s also to help Seung. Dance’s zero-g box is some kinda invisible physics construct where he can stuff his tail in and it just disappears, most of the weight goes away, he only has to watch out if he turns or shifts speed. I’ve seen him having some fun learning how to walk again when he started using it. He says it carries a lot of the extra weight so your back doesn’t hurt.”

Keisha blinked at him. It was a bit of a shock, this fountain of words pouring over her. Took some getting used to after days of dealing with two people who mostly talk with their bodies. It was getting better, but they had such limited vocabularies. “That would help.”

Hal shrugged. He didn’t seem to have any trouble hauling a big heavy pile of snake tail and talking at full bore at the same time. “Well, he can’t feel one of these things working for Seung, and he thinks it should be there. Seung maybe ought to have one. Dance’s box got damaged when he froze, maybe Seung’s did too.”

“Now, these Knights guys, some of them know how to make similar things, in physics or whatever it is, and he wanted me to ask them to check on it and get some expert to come down and look at Seung, figure out if something different is going on, or what. Somebody who can see it when the rest of us can’t, maybe. Okay, this chair? Right. This here’s just the right chair for the man with the tail. You comfortable?”

“Yes. Better,” Seung said, down safely, leaning one arm hard on the kitchen table. By God, he was sitting upright, and he was talking, and he was not half-passed out on painkillers. He looked at Hal. “Good. Sun feels good.”

Hal grinned with very white teeth. “You’re not one of those disgusting morning people, are you?”

“He is,” Keisha grunted, getting things out of the fridge. “I’m not.”

“It helps to think of it as a hangover cure for the night before,” Hal assured her.

Keisha grunted, and made him laugh.

“Anything I can do?” Hal said.

“Nope, sit and talk to Seung, Peach has got it for me.”

“Pan,” Peach said, producing it. “Spatula. Um, oil. Butter. Syrup?”

“No, we’re not making pancakes today, I’m out of syrup,” Keisha said. Seung ate all the syrup one night when nothing else would stay in his stomach. “Toast, though.”

“Bread. Oatmeal, ooh hot. Seung’s apple butter. Seung eats lots apple butter. See, new jar! Happy Seung! Umm…”

“Dishes,” Seung said gently, looking up at her, and she smiled.

“Dishes!” She got them out, put them on the table, and utensils.

“Good,” Seung said, and stroked her arm lightly. “Go help Keisha do bacon.” Louder, he said, “Keisha? Please bacon?”

“I knew you’d want some,” Keisha said, smiling. “Hal?”

“Oh yeah. Three pieces, please. Every animal in the woods loves bacon.” Hal grinned.

Peach dealt out the last of the bacon strips quickly into the hot pan, to spare the bandages on Keisha’s hands. Then Peach washed off those dainty little pink fingertips, fussy as always. When she got out juice glasses, she was humming more kid’s songs. Then she went to Seung and gave him a kiss on back of the the neck, mainly because he invited it by tilting his head, even though that must have hurt his shoulder wound. Peach knew that, too.

Solemnly, she told the two men, “We got good food now. We got cranberry juice and milk and ice tea and chicory coffee and water. Emma says me and Kiesha must drink lots and lots of cranberry cause we got girl parts having sex so much with Seung, but I got lots cranberry. I share, you can have some cranberry juice too.”

That recital made Hal chuckle. “I would love some of that chicory coffee.”

Seung nodded. “Good coffee.”

“I don’t have any beignets to go with it, which is a shame,” Keisha said.

“Oh man, you come over and visit us, my aunt Frog and Penelope will gang up together and make everybody beignets like you’ve never had,” Hal said.

“That would be a pleasure,” Keisha said, with a pang of longing. What wouldn’t she give for a nice long chat with some of the older women who’ve handled all this zoomorph stuff for years! Getting Seung tail-friendly pants, for the love of God! She had ideas about a nice sturdy pocketed manly kilt with sturdy dark stockings held up by a non-frilly garter belt. The rest of his ass totally bare, let him go commando. Handy, that. But she was having trouble figuring out how to convince him that nobody was going to look twice at him. They would. She sure as hell would, even if the tail could make itself invisible. A big meaty boxer’s ass like that, in a kilt? Come to think, the pants were gonna provoke looks too.

Hal’s nice trim shapechanging butt was wearing a pair of raggedy faded jeans, no help there. He saw the stare. He looked at her inquiringly.

“Got one question maybe you’d know,” Keisha said. She pointed the spatula at Seung’s tail. “Finding clothes that fit over this bad boy.”

Hal nodded. “We got some ladies who make clothes or tailor stuff you already got. Not cheap, it takes ’em awhile, but they’re willing to teach you how to sew it yourself, too. You ask my aunt, she’ll give you their phone numbers and such. She might tell you without having to ask. Oh, you think I’m bad for chattering, you wait, they’ll talk your ear off. Ask lots of nosey questions, too.”

“I haven’t gone visiting cause I heard your Aunt Frog was busy. Folks said she was up all hours, putting together another pottery show?”

“Yeah, she’s doing really well,” Hal said, enthusiastic. He talked about it over the frying noises of the bacon.

“Drinks!” Peach exclaimed, bringing coffee mugs to Hal and Seung, and pouring in milk to command. She looked so pleased it was cute.

“You’re a big help to Keisha, Miss Peach, a big help,” Hal said to her, and she bobbed her head again.

“Peach washes dishes real well now too,” Keisha said, glancing round.

“So you’re leaning lots of new stuff,” Hal said.

She nodded, grinning. She darted in and gave Seung another kiss, this time on the cheek. She took the milk back to the crowded fridge.

Seung was watching Peach walk away. How he sensed that Hal was watching him was anybody’s guess. But he said to Hal, quite calmly, “I worry Peach want sex, say okay to me, not know how to live first. I want her know things too. Want learning. Maybe not say okay to me after she learns lots, but better for her, I want her learn lots–”

Peach gave a very fierce cry, whirled around, and ran back to him. She grabbed his wrist, yanked it up, gave it what must have been a sharp nip, as Seung gave a hard breath of surprise. “No! I say! Mine!” Peach leaned in and grabbed his ear in her teeth. He gave that gasp again. She grabbed at his neck, too. When she pulled back, she bared her fangs at him. “Mine! Yeah, you yell, I bite you hard! Stop it! You grow out anything, you be biggest goblin ever, no not go away, mine! Don’t you say I not want you!” And she smacked him on the face, leaving the slightest little white scratch-marks, and she stomped off into the bathroom, and slammed things around in there.

“Such a mess!” Peach exclaimed, hurling things in drawers. She was the tidy one, a total surprise. She hated things getting dirty and coming off on her fur.

Which made it kind of amazing that she liked wallowing around getting all sticky and wet in bed with both of them. Keisha shoved away a memory of Peach rubbing her jaw along Seung’s cock, getting cum all over her face. And the other times, raking her mouth along Keisha’s thighs, burying her mouth in Keisha’s pussy. She loved to get their scent on her, all over her. Seung liked doing it too, he’s just as nose-driven as Peach.

“That kitty got sharp teeth,” Keisha observed, watchful.

Seung blinked up at Keisha, rubbed his wrist. “Yes, she bites.”

“You get why she did it? You clear on that?” Keisha said, glaring into those big surprised eyes of his.

“Yeah,” Seung said.

“Good. Goes double with me. Just remember that.” Keisha smiled, and nodded to Hal, and strolled back to the hot skillet.

Hal didn’t blink. He just said wryly, “I just got to learning about apologies a little while ago myself. Don’t look at me, I gotta make it up as I go along too.”

“Hard when I can’t chase Peach,” Seung said, in the same rueful tone, and then both men were chuckling a little.

“Boy, that food sure smells good,” Hal said, sighing.

“Peach,” Keisha said, not loudly. The bathroom door creaked, and Peach came out and looked at them miserably, with her eyes all red. “Peach, gimme the last of those shrimp, I’ll throw ’em in the omelette.” Keisha could manage the spatula if it was light enough.

Peach nodded. She detoured on the way to give Seung an apologetic lick on the face, and he smiled at her and kissed her hand. Then she was giving Keisha a similar lick on the jaw, and she was quick on retrieving the shrimp. “Good girl. You’re a big help.”

Peach mumbled. “Mine. Keep Seung. Keep Keisha.” She leaned in and wrapped both arms around Keisha’s waist, and Keisha stroked her face and ears and down her neck.

“Okay, go wash your hands,” Keisha said to her, which wasn’t fair. She knew that soothed Peach. After awhile, she chuckled. “Okay, okay, that’s enough. We need you to serve up the eggs and carry those plates.”

Peach nodded, and concentrated on getting everything placed just so, and carrying it in to the crowded little table. “Salt, pepper, Cholula sauce, Tabasco sauce, ketchup,” she said, giving those to Hal.

“Thank you, Peach,” Hal said. “Oh man, Miss Keisha, that is good, good food.”

Seung growled wordlessly in agreement. At least he was eating the bacon and the shrimp and some of the eggs.

Keisha clicked her tongue. “You guys are easy. Throw enough hot sauce on it, you’re happy.” She sat down, patted the chair next to her in command, and worked with Peach on her dexterity with a knife. “Okay, mama, let me move your fingers a litte bit, you see if that works for you better,” Keisha said, and gave her a kiss. “Okay? Not so good? Let’s try this way instead.”

“Like chopping carrots?” Peach asked. The pads of her fingers just didn’t like pressure on them all the time, so she had to keep shifting her grip. Keisha could sympathize.

“That’ll work,” Keisha agreed. “Peach chopped up all the stew vegetables and stuff the other night, that was a big help.”

Peach smiled at their praise.

“Peach helps lots. I don’t do much,” Seung said. “Sun here is good. I get sleepy.” He looked drowsy, propped up against the side wall, with one arm on the table, and the tail curled around his ankles.

Hal agreed. “That sun does feel good. Not so fun later, when it’s hot, but right now it’s nice.”

“Doctor Alexander tell us sun makes Seung heal up lots goddamn pisswind faster,” Peach said solemnly.

“Well, Doctor Alexander is a very smart person, even if he swears sometimes,” Hal said, smiling.

“Possibly because he does it and lets some of that pressure off,” Keisha agreed. “We’ll get Seung out on a deck chair when it cools off this afternoon.”

Hal smiled. He said to Seung, “So what kinda seafood you like to eat right now? Dance said he kept wanting different things at different stages.”

Seung frowned a little. “Not your job, bring us food.”

“Oh hell it isn’t,” Hal said mildly. “Now stop that. Dance has helped out a ton of people round here, he went divin’ into goddamn cellars after the storm, risking gettin’ caught on all kinds of junk. Pulled me outta a coupla bug battle messes. He needs you healthy, and you need him healthy, and that’s that. So I got some folks willing to swap around food for labor, and I don’t mind kicking in a coupla hours getting something worthwhile done, fixin’ up some place for my folks round here. So don’t worry about it.”

Seung frowned at him. He was having trouble remembering words, Keisha recognized the look.

Hal pointed a finger. “Ain’t Tee Pom given you this lecture yet?”

Peach said, “He did. He said oh just shut up and eat this and stop giving him grief.”

“Bossy,” Seung agreed, making a face, and made them all crack up. He sighed. “I like mudbugs, shrimps, can tunafish, catfish…” his voice trailed off. He must not remember the rest of the words.

“Last week Dance brought him some eels, gar, stripers, grass carp, and croppie. Wild stuff. He really liked those,” Keisha said. The houseboat smelled like cooked fish the whole week. She told herself to get used to it.

Hal nodded. “That grass carp is full of bones, but you can take as many of those damn pests as you can catch, you do us all a favor. Strip the bayou bald, those things do. We’ll put out word, let folks know if they got extra on some of the unusual stuff, too. You want it if they can bring you alive? Sometimes folks like us need the motion to make ’em feel hungry, they can’t eat it if it’s just flat on a plate.”

Seung frowned, flapped one hand. “I don’t know. Flat is okay.”

“Give him some oatmeal, Peach,” Keisha said. “And don’t you make that face at me, Mister Seung, unless you want us to discuss the sorry state of your innards with a guest at breakfast.”

Hal grinned. “You’re a credit to your aunt Lacey, I must say.”

“Everybody,” Keisha said, nodding for Peach to stir up the steaming oatmeal in the bowl, “seems to think my aunt is a rowdy zoomorph-rescuer who stomps around the house in dirty cowboy boots–” She dusted black pepper and a modest dose of both hot sauces in one bowl of the oatmeal. Spice, but not too much of it, seemed to settle Seung’s stomach.

Hal just grinned wider. “Oh, I guess you’ll find out when you see her on her own ground. I heard you didn’t believe a word of it, a’ course, but you know how people talk.”

“Somebody been gossiping,” Keisha said.

“And what else is new?” Hal asked, quick as somebody who’s dealt with grumpy senior women all his life.

“So what else they say?” Keisha asked.

“Asking what kind of job Seung had when he was hauling around dead girls killed by somebody else, like he done it all the time,” Hal said, just like that.

The place got still. There was only the sound of the hot bacon grease still slowly hissing in the skillet as it cooled.

“Well, people realize that ain’t a neighborly thing to ask, but they still talk,” Hal said.

Seung stirred, and sat forward, and looked up at Keisha, with the sunlight turning his eyes a pale golden brown. Keisha gave a slight nod of permission. Seung turned his head slowly toward Hal, tired as an old man, and he said, quietly, “It was my job.”