In the Park with Dance

“So,” Amalia says, looking immensely pleased with herself.  She shifts in her chair, looking at Drin.  “When are you taking Dance out to dinner?”

Drin starts to chuckle.  “You know his schedule right off the top, Ms. Yenta?”

“Pretty much.  I think he’s got a Monday free next week, but of course those are lousy for decent restaurants being open in this damn town.  I swear, they roll up the pavement at dark.  No noisy tourist traps for Dance, right?  He doesn’t like loud bangs and surprise noises and yelling.”  She smacks her palm on her purple muumuu in punctuation.

“Neither do I when I’m trying to eat decent food, so that works out.  Any other advice?”

“He doesn’t drink.  Dunno why, maybe he knows better.  Offer him freebies and he turns it down.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, yeah.  He’ll eat anything that isn’t nailed down, and put up with the most godawful muzak, my God.  Most places, I don’t think you need to worry about his irrational hatred for boring 19th Century ooom-pa-pa pieces–”

“That’s your bias thing, not mine,” Dance says, coming up at her elbow and pouring more soda from a liter bottle into her cup of ice chips.

She clutches her purple-flowered bosom.  “Don’t give me a heart attack, sneaking up on me.  So what was all that muttering last week about those stupid Barber of Seville excerpts, huh?  Was that my imagination?”

“Yes, of course it was,” Dance says in precise mimic of her voice, without even blinking, and walks off.

Drin stares after him.

“Hooo boy, Drin, I think you got some surprises coming,” Amalia says, breaking the silence.

“I guess so,” Drin says, settling back in his chair.  He looks at her with satisfaction.  “I could be having with that, yeah.”

“Oh, one more thing.  Sometimes he forgets, he licks off the plates.  He does quite a number on a soup bowl.”  Amalia looks as if it’s perfectly normal to say it.

Drin stares at her.

“Boy’s gone hungry,” she says, fanning herself with her folded newspaper.  “Just can’t throw enough food at him.  Metabolism like a kid, burns it all off.  Won’t cheat on mooching unfair extras, but he’ll clean up every scrap.  Says he’s better now, he doesn’t stash food in his pockets any more.  I’m more used to those buffet towers from the older folks from South Korea, not the younger ones.  But I guess you might see it with any North Koreans who got out.  I hear they’ve been starving.”

“You think Dance’s family is North Korean?”

She shrugs.  “He says not.  But their manners sound like it, not Southern style at all.  From everything I heard from him, they’re pretending they live in the Forties or Fifties.  Bad as some of our helmet-headed Junior League sorts who started off as trailer trash.  Ask us to play for free, wear mail order party clothes once and send ‘em back the next day, spend all their money on a fancy car and live on booze and pasta.  Pretend they’re not crazier than a bedbug in a frying pan.  Smile, and lick all the pans clean when they think you won’t see it.”

Drin frowns.  “Well, those folks think the same way about us crazy ivory tower privileged–”

Amalia snorts.  “You mean the thin white prince club?”

“Sorry, neither.  Those guys are further right-wing than the churches or the politicians.  And you forgot to add crazy.  Crazy thin white prince.”

Amalia slants a glance at him under her hat.  “That’s a lot scarier coming from you.”

He smiles.  “Yeah.”

“Shades of Howard Hughes and other eccentric millionaires.”

“Oh, I only let the hair and the beard get real wild when I’ve been sailing for a long time.”

“Now, there’s an image that sticks with a gal.  Vikings, man.”  Amalia fans herself for a thoughtful moment.

“Ha.  Don’t let any of those hairy North Atlantic sea-apes fool you about the romance of the Outer Banks and that crap.  It’s all wet clothes that smell like rotting kelp, fish breath and chilblains and stiff joints and sunburn and not enough sleep.”

“Which is why an old Mainer guy would say you’re not a real sailor.”

He laughs.  “That’s right.  Man, that first day on shore, you get your dry laundry, a haircut, a soft bed, and a big old steak?  Heaven.  Just like coming back from camping.  Any long trip, I guess.”

She waves the cup of ice chips in agreement.  “Back when I was a kid, before I started going to music camp, my uncle used to rent this huge beach house every summer.  Running hot and cold relatives, packs of kids, screaming babies, plastic toys, piles of boiled food.  Sand everywhere.  Of course, music camp, band camp, those are a whole other kind of crazy.  Get Dance to tell you some of his stories.  I thought mine were silly enough.”

“Why do I have a bad feeling about that?”

She laughs, and whacks him with the newspaper.  They both pause when Dance trots by with cases of soda on the handcart, braid flying gently.  He’s whistling something complicated and Mozartian this time.

Drin starts to shift his grip on the chair to get up.

“Stop,” Amalia says, barring the way with her newspaper.  “You’ve done plenty, take a load off.  We’ll need your help later, talking to folks who show up in an hour or so.  I’d die of heat prostration trotting round like that, but not him.  Let him run it off.  He’ll fade later.  Trust me.  Whistling like that?  He’s happy as a clam in a tomato cocktail.”

He blinks at her, struggling with the image.  “At least there’s no shortage of food.”

She snorts.  “Yet.  Give it time.”

Drin settles back with a sigh, watching the concertmaster.  Amalia is watching Dance too.  He doesn’t even have to say anything.

“Tell me you don’t love all that hair, huh?” Amalia adjusts her straw hat.

“Well, I do.  But he keeps talking about cutting it,” Drin says.

“That’s new.  He never used to let anybody touch him except me, and hell, do I look like a hairdresser?”

Drin looks at her, lounging in her orange flipflops, and her straw hat with floppy sunflowers, and purple muumuu.  “No.  Jersey on vacation in Florida, maybe.  Definitely a member of the Red Hat Ladies.”

“Thank you, Mister Reality.”  She points her newspaper at him in agreeable satisfaction.

“Well, I hope so,” Drin says, bemused.  That reference worked beautifully; but it usually does.  Goodness knows he’s signed enough birthday cards  at work about wearing purple.  Just mention it and their eyes light up.  Amazing.  It really doesn’t take that much, picking up this stuff–just paying attention to things happening.  He never understands why the younger guys miss all this stuff.  But then, apparently they don’t regard their work environment as a challenging social engagement in a virtually foreign language.  Somewhere he picked up the impression that it is, and that he’d better pay attention to all the odd nuances, years before he ever went into combat.  He’s just not sure where he learned it.

“Well, gotta hit the little boys’ room.  Should I pick up a plate of food for you, before it’s all gone?  Any preferences?”

She reached out and pats his arm.  “No, thanks, I’ll just rest right now, chat to people.  But yeah, you could grab Dance in a little while, make him take a little break.  End of the day, he will run himself ragged, trying to make up lost time at work.”

Drin looks at her.  “Like you do too, huh?”

She gives a broad wave of her hand.  “Takes one to know one.”

Drin chuckles, gets up, stretches, and yawns.  When he goes strolling around putting food on two plates, he’s not surprised to find Dance popping up at his elbow.

“I locked the handtruck in the van.  Keys,” Dance says, holding them up.

“Shirt pocket,” Drin says, since both hands are occupied with floppy plates.

“Okay,” Dance says, stepping close between outstretched arms.  He drops them carefully into the pocket on Drin’s Hawaiian shirt.  “Is that food for Amalia?  Shall we take it to her?”

“Nope, got hers done up already, it’s for you,” Drin says, presenting an overflowing paper plate.  They’ve already run through all the nice donated plastic plates.  “Need any more  condiments?  Oh good.  We got a date with a checkerboard table, if somebody hasn’t nabbed it already.”

“Taken, yes.  But there is another one,” Dance says, pointing.

“That’s got better shade anyway, good.”

“Also, we have collected acorns and caps.  Checkers are good.  No arguing about whether a chess piece is a rook or bishop or the Queen when everybody got confused.”

Drin finds himself grinning.  “I take it you’ve had to keep some bored musicians out of trouble.”

“Like Amalia told you to keep myself out of trouble?” Dance says, getting his plate safely onto the table.

Drin laughs.  “And Bud, too.”

Dance waves his hands in defeat, and sits down.  “We wondered maybe so.”

The benches are far too low for Drin.  He puts on a silly expression as he perches on his bench.  He’s delighted to see Dance’s face split into a wide grin.

Drin says solemnly,  “Now, let’s see about taste-testing this galbi of yours.  Here’s the chicken, here’s the spicy pork, here’s the– oooh I knew this was gonna be good, but daaayum, this is–”  He forks up another bite, making appreciative noises.

“Okay?” Dance says, pausing while he is emptying his pants pockets of acorns and empty caps.

“Okay, I am kidnapping you for dinner officially, and I might not give you back.  This–” he points at the really hot stuff, “–would have cured my flu last month in about three bites.  That is radioactive.  That is exactly what I wanted all this week, too.”

“Very good,” Dance says, and he starts taking tiny, careful, controlled bites of food, pausing between arranging rows of bare acorns in front of Drin.  Then he starts placing the caps in front of himself.  “There’s plenty in our galbi pans now, if you want more food,” he says.

Drin frowns.  Something bugs him about seeing those empty acorn caps in front of the concertmaster.  He puts an acorn back in its cap, and places that on the concrete checkerboard in front of Dance.  Then another.  And another.  He reaches down onto the scraggly grass and retrieves three more to finish the board’s layout.

Dance just watches him, head cocked a little to one side.

“There, that’s better,” Drin says.

“So you do with the Metro too, filling up empty acorn caps,” Dance says.

Drin huffs out a noisy sigh.  “I hope so.”  He palms acorns in either fist.  “Pick a hand.”

Dance smiles.  “This one,” he says, and he touches Drin’s knuckles.

Drin opens the hand.  The acorn is bare.  “You did that on purpose.”

The smile widens.  “We always remember which acorn is the bishop,” he says mildly.

“So you’re a mean hand at a poker game too, huh?”

“Oh, you mean card-counting?  We have not practiced it, we are not smooth.”

“Oh, what you mean by practice, huh?”  Drin shakes his head, moves an acorn on the board, and keeps taking small bites of the different types of galbi.  “Mmm hmmm mmm.”

“You must stop making these happy cow sounds,” Dance says after several moves.

“Oh?”  Drin smiles at him, and licks his lips of extra sauce.

The musician’s eyes are following the gesture.  Then he gives himself a shake, and frowns.  “Miss Amalia will think very naughty things.  Then she will say them, you know.  Yes, too distracting.  We begin to wonder if you play tricks on your brothers during games.  Tap the board until it falls, surprise body noises, jumping, whistling, yelling–”

“Here I thought you didn’t have any brothers!”

“Oh, our cousins make all the belch and fart and armpit noises.”

Drin can’t help it, he starts to laugh.  Then he can’t stop.

Dance arches up an eyebrow.  “What, am I too rude?  No?  Oh good.  Am I allowed to make happy happy moos when I eat new food at a restaurant and I like it very much?”

“I’d be honored if you would!” Drin says.

“And no whistlings or yells or ketchup squirting noises, I promise,” Dance says, and tilts his head and gives a shy little smile.  “See, now I have reached the end row, I get a double cap.  We–I– am marking it with two caps, very silly.”

“Sonuvabitch!” Drin says, astonished.  “I should have seen that–”

“Happy food distracted you,” Dance says, looking pleased.

Drin nods.  “It’s damn good food.  Let’s see if I can stop you this way…”

“Oh, you want to make us work now,” Dance says, steepling his hands and resting his chin on his fingertips.

Two games later, Drin says wryly, “Remind me never to play for money with you.”

Dance looks up, smiling.  “If you wish, of course I will remind you, but it is just practice. There is always a Metro game when we are waiting on something, and there is always the gambling pride, you know, that gets people in trouble.”

Drin sighs and rakes aside the acorns to set up the next game.  He’s got nowhere else to be now, and he fully intends to be waiting around until dark anyway.  He will be making sure that Amalia and Dance and all the neglected stuff that needs hauling afterward makes it safely out of the park.  He’s much rather be here, listening to Dance whistle and conjugate rude verbs, than at home sitting alone on his comfortable chair staring at his investment algorithms.  Dance is a much more interesting subject of attention.  The investment programs will be waiting tomorrow.

Pushing acorns around, Drin asks, “Say, what do you know about computer programs to compose twelve-tone music?”

“Only book knowledge.  But we could find out.  In what way could we help?”

“It might be just a silly idea, but there’s guys trying to map stock market trends onto regular music notation, trying to predict things.  They’re getting pretty mediocre results, but possibly they’re not using the right kind of notation, or the right type of compositions, and I’d like to try some twelve-tone mapping instead–”

Dance tilts his head slightly to one side.  “How careful should we be on who we ask, and how we ask persons for help on the right information, on which computer programs?”

Drin stares at him.  “Careful?”

“Perhaps you do not want the gossips to share your stock market ideas too early?”

Drin blinks at the man.  An odd little flare of delight warms him.  “Damn, you’re fast.”

“Are we wrong to ask?  Is it less like testing a light bulb shape and more art form like–oh–” Dance frowns, apparently grappling for words.  “More like playing the same score of Mozart between different performers?”

“Yes, it’s how you apply it.  More like the different performers,” Drin assures him.

Dance’s shoulders relax.  He nods.  “How did twelve-tone music theory come up?”

“Oh, Engerman was raving about experimental music.  I guess his favorite flautist is working on some performances up at the college.”

“Oh yes, we would start by asking her about who to consult, if that is all right with you?  She may mention these questions to Engerman if we are careless or weird.  We are not always asking things in ways that people expect.”

Drin smiles at him slowly.  “But that’s one of the things I like about you.”

The musician flinches back a degree, hand flailing, and then he’s bending away to retrieve fallen acorns.  “Sorry,” he says, coming up with a handful of them, looking flushed and awkward.  Stiffly he resets them, scanning the board carefully.  “There.”

“It’s all right,” Drin says.  “You’ve already won this game.”

“No, if you moved this piece–”

Drin just smiles wryly.  “But I wouldn’t be able to get away on the next move.”

Dance frowns at the board.  “Oh, yes.  That would be awkward.  Perhaps here?”

“You never give up.”

Dance looks up, still frowning.  “Musician, yes?”

Drin starts to laugh, and can’t stop for a long time.

 

 

 

 

 

Father’s Day

Drin wipes his forehead and says, “Do you think we ought to start hauling burger boxes again–”

“I think you need three minutes more rest,” Dance says sternly, frowning up at him.

Drin is absurdly delighted by this.  “Yes, Mom.”

“Right,” Dance says, and his gaze goes past Drin.  He turns, scans all the Metro food prep in the park.  It’s early to shut down the grills, they’re expecting a lot more patrons with tickets.  Finally he relaxes, settles more firmly, and looks at Drin.  He says, “The Romantic violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate wrote a piece called the Navarra, after a province in Spain.  Is that where your last name comes from too?”

“Yeah,” Drin says.  He wonders if this will turn into one of Dance’s solemn jokes.

“Your first name Don, is it a title?  Just a name, Don?  Or no, it is the long name Donald?”

Drin sighs.  There’s a reason he uses the nickname.  Just trying to explain the middle parts of it, the Ridcully Innocencio bit, is even more difficult.  “Yeah, just Don.  It’s meant to be Don from the title.  But we never were traditional nobility over there.  Not since the thirteenth century, I think.”

“Then your parents wanted you to live like a ranking noble from the Spanish province?”

“Well, in my dad’s dreams, maybe.”

“And do you?”

Drin snorts.  “I should hope not, if you look at some of the history more closely.”

“Father’s dreams might not want good research chops on real history.”

Drin sputters into laughter.  “Yeah, he sure didn’t appreciate it when I brought up the details, how’d you guess?  He was kinda stiff, formal, you know– big on saving face.  Gotta have that dignity in public.  But he was gone all the time, traveling, career military.  Fond of order in his house, making sure the rules got enforced, when he was home.  ‘Course, I might too if I had as many kids as he did, and all of them noisy clumsy impudent long-haired snots like me.”  He squints as if he can’t see under imaginary long bangs, cranes his head out at a giraffe angle.

The corners of Dance’s eyes go crinkling upward.  “How wonderful, this image of tall furry youth.”

“Oh, I was a sad case.  Way too much roaring and fur.  Embarrassing how predictable it all was.  All simple action-reaction, not terribly inventive.  The aunts and uncles fuss at me, and they get my parents riled up, and then the more that my parents make threats about my weird music, my weird hair and habits and weird friends, and weirder food, then I act up worse.  That was before rainbow flags and pride marches, or I’d have been doing that too.  I guess I pissed off everybody back then.  I mean, the maids were turning me in for all that stuff nobody wants their mother to find under the bed, you know?”

Dance’s mouth rounds into a wincing oh! of sympathy.

Drin jerks his gaze away hastily.  “I mean, the more they fussed about the hair, the longer I let my beard go, the more they threatened to shave my head–”

“Cutting such ginger hair, that is tragic,” Dance says, one hand coming at him.  “May we?”

“Of course,” Drin says, surprised.

Dance’s hand stirs curls near one of Drin’s ears.  Drin just keeps breathing quietly, not moving, same as tolerating a wild animal sniffing at him.  Just… don’t… startle the man.

“How far was our Mister Drin’s very red hair growing?” Dance asks, drawing back.

“Oh, about here,” Drin says, marking the air above Dance’s bicep. Not touching him.  Don’t spook him, let him come to you… That length was far shorter than Dance’s own braided tail of hair.  “Curly, knotted, complete rat’s nest.  Annoying as hell in the heat.”

Dance’s eyes smile.  “As my hair does, too.  Amalia yells at me, she says not cutting it is just my flapping my ego, yes?  But salons, yuck.  We– I am– disliking the yanks, the cutters all sloppy, careless, too busy gossiping about dramalama queens who can’t sing, who can’t act.”

Drin finds himself laughing.  “Hey, you want help, I’ll find you somebody who pays attention.”  At Dance’s skeptical look, he holds up his open palms, chuckling.  “Promise!”

“Okay,” Dance says, just like that.  One finger touches Drin’s forearm lightly.  “So, tell please, what happened with your parents making the threats?”

“Oh, I got shipped off to military school.  First thing, they buzzcut our sorry scalps. Silly uniforms, fancied they were doing things very boot-camp style, make their cadets run everywhere.  But lots of the teachers were really vets, totally cool, nothing fazed them.  Total change from school in the burbs, all that idiot raving about their damn pathetic sports teams.  These professors, their whole deal was saying, hey, the world’s a big place, not everybody’s gonna like you, or live the way you do, or eat what you do.  My first classes I got to argue about gunnery physics and the history of Rommel’s campaigns, and I was debating about authoritarian politics–tons of people to talk to on new ideas, totally new kinds of music.  At home, no way was I ever going to hear African club swing or experimental twelve-tone stuff.”

Dance nods.  “Wanting things besides the strict few pieces edited for home, yes.”

“Edited, yeah.  Good word for it.”  He swipes sweat off his forehead.  “It’s kinda strange.  I’ve been thinking about it lately.  My stuffy old dad was right about a whole sad load of stuff.  I’d still totally hate to admit that to him, after the way we fought.  Hell, I’d love to sit down for a consult with him now on lots of things, even if he’d still drive me batshit insane, the grouchy old coot.”

The concertmaster’s eyes are smiling again.  “You are not turning into your father, surely?”

Drin shakes his head.  “I hope not!  But I’m seeing in my job the same sort of crap he was seeing in his job.  To a kid, society looks like solid brick walls.  Kick it all to hell, scream up a fit, sit on your ass out there in the rain waving signs, nothing.  Nothing, no difference, right?  But no, my dad swore our entire civilization was a very weak shell, the whole social contract deal was a complete farce, it’d all collapse if you blew at it too hard.  I didn’t believe him.  Hell, he even made me lay out maps of trucking routes, arguing with me how to plan emergencies if we had an earthquake along major urban faults, or if an attack destroyed the pump stations for the aquaduct north of Los Angeles.  But, you know, the old grouch was right.  Turns out it’s made of really thin stuff.  He saw all the cracks coming apart inside, all the idiots ignoring the really horrible things the monsters get away with.  I mean, not just our domestic crooks and liars.  Bosnia, Syria, Somalia, you name it.  He was desperately running all the time, plugging holes.  Took me years to figure out why.  It was about his devotion to an idea, yeah?  It wasn’t about protecting the damn fools in power who kept screwing things up.  That was just how he had to finagle, how he got it done.”

“A life of service, not just military duty,” Dance says.

“Oh yeah.  Thankless job, who wants to waste your whole life at it?  But he did.  The rules, that’s all he had.  It was all falling apart on him.  Anything, any challenge might topple this tottering fragile old corrupt regime he was sworn to uphold, so he had to keep plugging the holes on their goddamned secrets.”

Dance says, in bitter quote, “Stop asking where all the money is going.”

“Yeah, that’s always such a good sign!  Then it turns into that other one:   Stop asking where the money went.  And they gotta stop people getting too curious.  Just don’t.  Not worth getting killed for.  Yeah, he warned me to stop poking my big honking nose in where nobody wanted it.  Pushy kid, stop risking your luck, stop asking all those damn nosy questions.”

The musician nods.  “But you still ask, yes?  Now.  You ask.  You ask why.”

Drin frowns, struggling with it.  “Yeah.  Back then, things were so fragile that anything might set off a scandal.  Any shakeup was too much.  Youth protests, uppity grammas shouting about desaparecidos, professors publishing reports on people taken away to prison, the unions on strike, any little thing might end up in anarchy.  My uptight old man, he knew how fragile organizations are.  He saw incompetent leadership, and how things go bad really damn quick.  Hell, ask nosy questions, you won’t like what you find out, so don’t do that.  But me?  Hey, asking questions is my job.  You know that’s what I do for a living, right?”

“We are just beginning to, at the Metro,” Dance says, in that dry tone of his.

Drin smiles.

The musician asks, “What would your father be saying about this job you have now?”

Drin snorts in amusement.  “He’d get in a few digs about me doing the opposite of what he told me.  Oh, and about him being right all along.  Then he’d stomp my sorry butt playing chess.  Him and his chess.  Damn, but he was a competitive old fart underneath it all.”

“But do you like it, the game?  Do you like it now, playing chess?” Dance asks mildly.

Drin catches his breath, looks at the solemn face.  “You’re dangerous.”

Dance smiles.

“I like that in a man,” Drin says, admiring him.

“Thank you, but we have this strange idea that you maybe like it in a woman too?”

Drin starts to laugh.  “Oh hell yeah.  Gets me in trouble, too.  You?”

Dance just flaps his hands, waving it off.  “Emma for roommate, that is enough trouble for me.”

Drin laughs harder.  “Do you like chess?”

Dance shrugs.  “Sometimes.  But no time for it, until we are overworked in the brain.  We do all our other chores before sitting down to play chess.  So tired.  Maybe too much brain lost to even play checkers.”

“Oh, hey, checkers.  You saw there’s a board built in that concrete table?  We can use the oak litter, play acorns and caps, how’s that?”

“Because you are having mercy today on my tired brain?”

“No, on mine,” Drin says, grinning at him.

“Oh, we might like playing checkers too much, and I want more, but cannot get it.”   Dance makes a sad face at him.

Hell, it’s an outright invitation.  Drin pulls himself together.  “So hey, you can call me up tomorrow night.  Gimme a chess opening move.  Say, you’re making dinner, you call me on breaks when you’re doing stuff, cook between moves, right?  Cook things while you’re thinking about your next move.  Call it back and forth.”

“Yes, we see.  Phone chess.”  That accent drops to a dark, chesty tone.

Oh, unfair.

Drin drinks some more water, hastily. Talk about something else, anything.  Quick.  Cooking.  Cooking questions.  “Yeah, and tell me about what else you’re cooking, yeah?  Man, I do want to try your galbi, both kinds.  Didn’t have that when I’ve been to Korean restaurants.  It was always grilling these amazingly thin strips of stuff.  Grilling it there at the table, something like Mongolian barbecue.”

Dance props his elbows on his knees, leaning forward.  “Do you like trying new foods?  How does Amalia say it– ethnic cuisine.”

“Oh hell yes.  Love it.  How about you?”

“Eating things in good places, yes, very.  Last year for premier, Mr. Bud Innes took patrons and many musicians to a big boozing Mexican party place.  Good food, but more about the booze.  Lots of margaritas and drunk musicians to push into taxis.  Very… popular.”  Dry tone of voice.

“Whoooh boy.  Not for me, thanks.  Not these days.”

Dance’s eyes slant upward into a very feline smile. “Then for winter season, our patrons went to the teppan restaurant up by the county courthouse.  We–I– was helping organize.  Very crowded.  Good sauces, nice soups.”

Drin wipes sweat off his hairline, nods.  None of those places are on his short list.  A noisy tourist dive will not do.  He’s got to be careful on a first date with somebody as skittish about surprise noises as his concertmaster.  He has a few ideas in mind.

Looking over at the muscles in the man’s forearms, he really wants to feed the man bits of exquisite sashimi with chopsticks, and crack jokes, and watch him laugh.  Instead of letting those parts of his brain get too happy, he holds out the water bottle.  “Speaking of drinking…”

Dance swigs down half of it, and sighs.  “You are right, we both are needing to cool down.”

Drin clicks his fingers, and points at him.  “Hey, how about a foodie swap?  You teach me about your cooking, and I take you out to good places, show you stuff I know about.  Afghan kebabs, palau and qorma, and of course there’s sushi, sashimi, Ethiopian tef –I could just work my way down the alphabet, you know–”

Dance stares up at him.  The man’s pupils dial wide open, black as gun bores in the glare of light.  “Yes, please, I like learning new foods very much.  Yes.”

“Good.”  Drin reaches out and pats the concertmaster on the back, gently.  The man’s shirt is damp to the touch.  Well, no surprise if he’s sweaty, he’s been trotting all day like a dog herding sheep.  Drin is dripping with sweat too.

Dance waves one hand.  “Sashimi, I have not tried.  No leftovers at Metro parties, you see, with some musicians going more hungry than we are.”

That jerks his attention back to the man’s face.  “Good grief!  Never?  Okay, that settles it, right?  Sashimi for dinner.  Let me know what evening you’re free, I’ll get reservations at a decent place.”

“We must consult our schedule notebook.”  The concertmaster startles him by resting a hot leathery palm on his forearm.  “I will consult evenings for making you a galbi dinner too. And if you like that dish, I can make jjigae next, that is a stew–”

“That sounds even better,” Drin agrees, not moving, in fear the man might flee.

“Thank you, we will enjoy it.” Dance grips his arm firmly, oddly like a handshake, and releases it.  Then he twists his head around like an owl, looking away into the park, as if somebody’s yelling in the distance has got his attention, although Drin can’t hear it.  Then he gazes over at the parking lot.

“Young is yelling about more burgers?” Drin asks, guessing.

A grimace proves him right.

Drin nods over toward the rental van with supplies.  “I figure we can drag out those last four boxes of burgers on the handcart, check on the need for wieners and make that run if we need to, and then load up another batch of soda and water.”

“Getting you more cold water too,” Dance says, looking at him.

“Wee-eell, did they ever get the park restrooms unlocked?”

“Oh yes,” Dance says, shoving the water bottle at him.  “In this heat, you are too big, you must not be playing camel!”

Drin makes silly camel faces at him, wiggling his mustache.

Dance is up on his feet again, and he’s shaking his head as he tilts the handcart into motion.  He looks sternly at Drin.  “We– I am– hauling both ourselves over to the restroom, just to make sure you are not doing the camel thing with the not-drinking-water trick.”

“Really,” Drin says, slouching onto his feet, and looking down at the musician’s solemn face.  If it’s an invitation to anything, he can’t tell it.  And the place is far too busy for playing any  risky games in the men’s room.

“Really,” Dance says.  He smiles, and taps the hand cart.  “Hop on.”

Drin is in a silly mood, he steps on.  He finds himself whizzing along the sidewalk as Dance jogs to the restroom.  Drin says, “Lemme guess– you’re feeling a little bit of– hydrostatic need– water pressure– yourself.”

“Oh, you mean, we so need to run here in the boy’s room before we are actually losing it–” and he’s thumped the cart to a stop.  He vanishes inside the cement block breezeway.

Drin leans on the cart handle, waiting.  He’s not going to leave their precious handcart unattended.  There are antic stories about the Metro’s cart showing up in suggestive places, covered in rude in-joke messages.

Two of the Metro’s younger patrons stop by, chat with him about the schedule for volleyball matches.  They brag about their weekly handball games; the real athletes are already busy playing pickup games on the courts nearby.  Bud Innes’ buddies are more interested in showing off their midriffs than in getting sweaty, but Drin doesn’t mind feeding them some of the ego-boost they’re looking for, poor insecure kids.

He really can’t help smiling a lot wider when he glances around and sees Dance is standing there, waiting politely.  He introduces them to Dance, handshakes all around.  Bud’s entourage skitters off almost instantly.  Odd.  Dance tilts his head, watching them go.

“Did you crunch their widdle fists too hard?” Drin asks.

Dance coughs into his cupped hand.  “They were speaking on athletics, perhaps we are assuming they had more hand strength–”  He looks up at Drin under his brows like a scolded puppy.  “–and also I am not wanting to share your company.”

Drin starts to laugh.  “It’s a big orchestra, I’m not gonna be able to hog you all to myself today, either, the way I’d like to–”  He sees another batch of younger musicians on the way, and grimaces.  He offers Dance the handcart grip.  Time to head off before he can get entangled again.

When he comes out, wiping his wet hands on his jeans, he finds Dance is alone, leaning one ankle up on the cart handle, stretching out his hamstrings.  The borrowed slacks are two sizes too big, sliding off his skinny little waist.  His back displays a redneck tan, brown as caramel above a crescent of paler brown skin where his sweat pants normally hang.  The borrowed pants are caught up on a butt that clearly got stolen from some hockey player.  Apparently it makes equally outsized demands to be stretched out.

“Well, Fred Astaire used a cane, Gene Kelly used an umbrella,” Drin says, gripping the handcart and bracing it against Dance’s ankle.  The man’s shoes are cheap loafers with worn soles; the socks are unseasonal black nylon.  He resists the temptation to just pick up the man’s ankle off the hand cart.  “Can you really– why yes, I guess you can.”

“Thank you,” Dance says, comically pulling up the loose pants and shaking down his shirt tail.  He makes flappy arm gestures, grinning.  “We are feeling very guilty about missing three days of practice in the dojo.”

“Well, a break probably isn’t a bad thing, but it can’t be good for you standing around getting stiff all weekend, either,” Drin says.

Dance indicates the handcart.  “Would you be pleased to ride to the van?”

“I would.  Is this also in aid of your stretching–”

“No, my running,” Dance says, jogging with Drin’s weight rolling ahead of him.

“Aahh,” Drin says, bumping as Dance shifts his grip to the other hand, and the cart’s motion changes.  They bump down a driveway into the parking lot.

“There’s just something wrong about a guy who smiles while he’s running,” Amalia says as they go whizzing past her open car door.

“That was not a smile, that was my terrible grimace of agony at thinking we are unloading your garbage scow car,” Dance throws back over his shoulder, not even out of breath.

“Yeah, you great kidder, just see who picks you up tonight with all the leftover stage crap somebody else was supposed to load up.”

“That would not be Robert, you wise lady, because you know better,” Dance flings back, and there’s grumbled curses from her direction.

I’ll give ‘em a cute lil quartet at the park– wasn’t my idea in the first place–” Amalia growls into her car.

“What’s so funny?” Dance asks Drin, pacing along as if it’s perfectly easy to push Drin.

“You two are,” Drin says, flinging his arms wide like a kid on a swing, feeling the breeze tickle damp palms.  “We should rent out rides on those scooter things–you know, those Segway carts that the zoo uses.”

“We did not know you visit the zoo,” Dance says.

“Well, I do now, since you guys arranged for big concerts there all summer.”

“Oh yes, that was Emma’s idea, wrangling things for two years on the Metro and the zoo working together.  She is very good at it.  We did not know you came.”

“Oh, I didn’t bug you, everybody was too busy.  Damn good concerts, too.”

“Thank you.  The lions roaring at the climax of the Brandenberg Concerto added something, don’t you agree?”

“It sure did!”  Drin finds himself laughing, unlocking the doors of the jumbled van.

“What’s so funny?” Amalia demands, pausing by their supply van, grunting as she puts down bags and boxes.

Dance frowns at the interior of the van.  “Elephants playing tag in here.”

Amalia snorts.  “So yeah, you bums, step on it, huh?  The Great Maestro is bitching about his burger supply already.  Acting like he can go through a whole box in five minutes.  Or maybe he just thinks you two are making out in the restroom all afternoon, the way he was talking.”

“That’ll be the day.  Have you seen the plumbing leaks in there?”  Drin makes a face.

“Well, there’s green scum trying to build a space program in the ladies’ room,” Amalia says, and hands him cloth shopping bags of staggering weight.  She’s much stronger than people realize, with those misleading plump cellist’s hands.

Somehow he’s not a bit surprised, when he straightens up from stowing the bags in the van’s locking storage, to find her smiling at their backsides in a distinctly predatory manner.

“What?” Drin asks her, distracted.

Dance beside him is still bent in half like a pretzel.

“Now that’s a fine view, a very fine view,” Amalia says, and when Drin rolls his eyes, she chuckles and dusts her hands off and walks away.

Dance mutters something that isn’t English.  The concertmaster is too busy wrestling a broken box to care that his shirt tail and his pants are parting company again.  “What?  Oh, yes.  You’re just lucky she didn’t crack her bow to thwack you a good one on the nice Drin behind.”

“Or on the nice Dance one,” he says, eyeing the posterior in question.

Dance points at him sternly.  “More water.  You are getting all red and silly.”

“So are you!”

“Water,” Dance says sternly.

“Don’t tell me–your dad was the total ruler of the house, wasn’t he?”

Dance’s mouth quirks.  “Those are just the rules in a Korean home.  He was– some call them a salaryman.  Work long hours, no union rules, no stopping.  Busy busy go away, I am working at home, do not disturb.  He spoke only Gyeongsang dialect, very stern, not Seoul dialect like my aunts.  He didn’t speak so well in Seoul dialect, but he never admits it.  And also, to my mother, to my aunts, to my grandmothers–” a grim look, “–stop asking where the money went.”

“Ahhh,” Drin says.  He picks up two cases of water.  “That past tense, went, that’s the killer.”

“Yes.”  Dance waves one hand in exasperation.  “Auuugh, the English, all irregular verbs.”  Then he places a final box at the top of the cart’s load of boxes.  He pops the handcart into movement, and starts reciting irregular verbs.  He strolls along conjugating them like some pompous Shakespearean actor, but he puts them in such a rude order that Drin starts to laugh.  “No, oh no, Drin, fuck is not irregular verb, so we cannot put it in this list.  But it is so flexible, use it for everything in a sentence.  Fuck, fucks, fucking, fucked, to fuck, to be fucked, to have fucked over, to go fucking around, to have been fucked royally, to– to stop saying rude verbs where nice children might be hearing me, too.”

“You did that on purpose.  I’m onto you now, you can’t fool me!”

Dance gives him an innocent look.  “The hard part is when to shut up, guessing how far away people might hear the rude words.  We are not practicing our– my– rude list like other words.  Some of them are old– yes, archaic.  To roger, to get rogered, to be rogering, to have rogered–” He stops when he gets a choked laugh from Drin.  Then he says innocently, “They sound so silly, they make Amalia laugh.  Which is good, making people laugh.”

“And now I’ve joined Amalia in the list of people trusted with your archaic rude words?”

“Oh, not saying these words if you do not want–”

Drin laughs some more.  “Oh, conjugate as much rudeness for me as you please, sirrah!  But yeah, save it for later, you’re right.”

They unload boxes here and there, cut open cases, load more bottles of water and soda into coolers of melting ice, and swing around the park in a wide loop.

“So, Miss Amalia, do you need more dogs for the grill?”

By then, she is sitting in a folding chair, fanning herself, and slugging down something with ice chips clattering in it.  She waves at Robert, who’s been joined at the grill by his patron, Bud Innes, and there are handshakes all round.  Somehow Drin and Robert get maneuvered into sitting down with Amalia, while Dance wheels around offloading the cart and Bud takes a turn serving from the grill, cracking jokes with everybody in line.

“More dogs coming,” Dance promises, popping up at Drin’s elbow with a chilled soda can and a bottle of water.

Drin blinks in surprise at the offer.  Somewhere the concertmaster overheard Drin giving his choice of fizzy drinks, and remembered it.  Wordlessly Drin digs out the van keys for him, and Dance trots off into the heat with the squealing handcart.  Apparently he trots everywhere at these events.

Amalia opens her mouth, looking after him.

Robert says crossly, “Don’t say anything about his ass, okay?”

They look at him, surprised.

“Well, who’s Captain Grumpy Underpants?”  Amalia says.

Robert sighs, wiping his red, sweaty face.  “Just don’t!”

“Here, you look like you need this,” Drin says, and puts the water bottle in Robert’s hand.

He does need it; the cellist gulps it down carelessly, until Bud warns him to slow down.  Then their beloved Robert the Nasal New Joisy Byotch really gets going.  “All anybody ever says to me, swear to God–  Robert, why don’t you practice like him?  Robert, why don’t you get into some kind of aerobics and you’d have an ass like that?  You’re looking so plump, why don’t you join a gym?  Never mind that one visit costs more than I get paid in a month–”

“Robert, my boy, your ass is just fine the way it is,” Bud says calmly, adjusting the hot dogs to his satisfaction.  “I told you I am all for getting skilled advice on what kind of workouts you need to support your playing.  Straining the wrong things is stupid, I’ve said it before.  I know you’re not picking up any of that fat-phobic crap from Dance or Amalia here, and they’re the only ones with an opinion worth  damn, far as I’m concerned.  Any other silly bitch can go take a long dive off a big building.”

Amalia looks at Drin, who lifts his eyebrows.  Oh, he knows this voice, all right.  Managers where Drin works dive for cover when they hear it.

“But Papi–” Robert begins, in a pathetic whine.

Bud waves it off fiercely, glaring.  “I don’t give a shit what anybody else thinks you should be doing.  So I hate you repeating other people’s put-downs, tearing yourself down.  It’s not good for you.  I don’t like it.  Stop.”

Robert stares up at his patron with his mouth open, completely silenced.  It’s amazing.

“Well, there you have it,” Amalia says, and nods to Drin.

He’s having trouble keeping a straight face.

“Robert, you have nothing to apologize for technically, at the stage you’re at,” Bud goes on.  He points the hot dog fork at Robert, narrowing his eyes.  “I believe you merely suffer from a lack of inspiration, some shortage of motivation.  Hell, you need some more joy in your work, you need to like what you’re doing a lot more.  So we will be finding all of those things for you.  I’ve talked to Dance and Amalia about it.”

Robert stares up with his mouth open a little, as if God has spoken.  It makes him look a bit addled.  Then he blinks.  Tears are spilling over.  He scrubs hastily at his eyes with his knuckles, smearing grill soot on his face.  “Oh, Paaaaapi–”

“Drink some more water, it’s hot,” Amalia says gruffly, and grabs paper napkins.  “And wipe the schmutz off, silly boy.”

Drin finds himself smiling.  When Bud says he’s ‘finding something for you’, it always means ‘there’s gonna be a whole helluva lot more work for you.’

A glance at Amalia’s grin says, oh yeah, she knows that.  That’s one of her really evil grins.

Robert is going to find it out the hard way.

When he looks up, Bud gives him a wink, and then a director’s tilt of the head.  Sure enough, when he looks around, he finds Dance on his way back, pushing the loaded cart as if it weighs nothing, and whistling a Bach cantata.

“Take good care of him,” Bud says flatly, looking at Drin with a stare that’s known and feared at work.

“Yes, Dad,” Drin says, and smiles.  “I promise.”

Bud snorts.  “I ain’t your dad, and I ain’t done giving the damn silly Board folks shit about what all papers went missing in that stupid burst pipe suspiciously soon right after you started doing the books, and I ain’t got half these folks in line loaded up and fed yet–”

Robert comes up and wraps both arms around Bud and kisses his ear.  “Thank you, Papi–”

“–and I ain’t gonna get dogs off the grill if I’m busy getting a big proper hug.  You get that batch off that grill, right this minute, and you’ll get a proper hug.”

Which takes a bit of maneuvering, but they manage.  The people in the line clap and whistle in approval, which prompts Robert to bow, with a flourish.

Fiddles at the Metro

“Need another carton, you think?” Drin asks, opening the top box of hamburgers.

“In ten minutes,” the grillmaster commands, flinging up one hand in grand dismissal, as if he’s conducting the finale on a Wagner piece.  It pleases Maestro Richard Young to turn brusquely away to a woman in line.  He skips the student volunteers in front of him, who wobble in dismay about presenting their plastic plates.

Young’s target is a new patron who’s looking pouty; she overspent on clothes for such a casual event, as if she’s feeling under-appreciated.  She ignored mere musicians greeting her, and sniffed at attentive first chairs in disdain.  Odd, how much she enjoys Young’s flirting, but he does have that heavy-handed charm of older Prussian conductors.  It’s amazing that Young doesn’t just drop the spatula on the grill and walk away with her, carrying the plate for her.  Young murmurs something to the lady about how much she improves his Father’s Day.  There’s an eyebrow wiggle that’s meant to be roguish.

Ah-one-two-three, flourish, that nasty auditor in the back of Drin’s mind starts counting.

Is there a problem?… No,  just she’s just slow… Yes, there it comes.

She giggles behind one hand.

Young bows her off graciously, and skips the students a few more times as he goes back to working the grill.  They huddle, looking embarrassed, while he plucks out all the patrons in line.  But Young’s unpleasantly right about priorities–they aren’t very patient.  He flatters all the ladies exactly as he did the first one.  It’s a formula that works for him.

Drin hasn’t engaged with any of them, wary of all that raw hunger for attention.  Maestro Young certainly won’t hesitate.  He’s good at dragging certain sorts of patrons into the Metro’s insatiable maw for funding.  They’ve come on the promise of things that nobody can guarantee them, chattering brightly, making the best of it.

Drin can’t help but worry about the student volunteers instead.  They aren’t going to get handholding from anybody today.

Soft touch, he scolds himself.

“No worries, sweetheart, isn’t the weather just lovely!”  The Library coordinator is greeting everyone in that killer Aussie accent, getting them to laugh.  She throws an approving look at the huddle of volunteers and waves at others in the line, who brighten up.

Drin relaxes.

The Aussie takes off her hat, revealing untidy red curls.  She pats people’s arms, and gets the volunteers to laugh.  Then she works her way up the line, ending up with a cluster of older women, reaching out to them, and she’s cracking jokes.  She halfway kneels to speak to one of their grandchildren, rumpling her cheap flowered dress in delightful ways.  However, the fluttery dress camouflages her true nature.  The summery mood is a nice respite, but Drin’s riotous imagination insists on decking her out in muddy BDUs, a gunbelt and a clipboard, yelling from a beatup truck that’s armed with a machine gun.  She’d look just as fabulous, but a lot less friendly.

Or maybe he’s just seen too many family snapshots of women like her.  His brain keeps slotting her into uniform next to the fluffy great-grandmother who spent the Great War driving ambulances.  Or the grandmother fabricating parts during the second World War, face weary under a welding helmet, tired from wrestling cranky chunks of aircraft and wrangling entire crews of equally cranky women fabricators.

The red-haired siren glances up, looks squarely at him across a dozen yards, and gives him a little smile.  Oh, she knows who he is, all right.  Your turn is coming, buddy.

He finds himself smiling back.  Give it your best shot, sweetheart.

Silly of him, but he can’t help it.

Then he looks at the students, and back to her, and oh yes, she’s got the message.  She heads up the line for them.  She’ll catch him too, if he lingers.

Oh well, time for honest work, stop admiring the view.  Drin wipes sweat off his forehead, grins at everyone waiting nearby for burgers, and heads back to the parking lot.  The empty hand truck squeals all the way.

“Are you needing box help?” Dance asks, swinging into step from tree shadows.

“Warn a guy!”  Drin exclaims, jumpy.  Of course Drin exaggerates, to make him laugh.

The man has a terrible habit of pouncing at him, delighted as a kitten that he can surprise anybody–and the concertmaster was totally invisible in the heavy shade under the park’s trees.

When Drin has been really surprised, he’s swatted the musician away with a bang like a gunshot echoing in the Metro building, a reflex he can’t control.  It’s just luck so far that he’s never hurt Dance.  The man rolls easily with such back-handed blows, flipping off inconvenient walls as if he’s in the dojo.  He always bounces up gracefully, and praises Drin’s reflex speed.  He just giggles at Drin’s horrified apologies, and both of them walk away embarrassed.

But Dance is clearly happy about the whole thing, so it’s a game.  Drin suspects he ought to introduce the concertmaster to better games.

The musician smiles, holding up a bottle of water that beads moisture.

“Oh God yes, please,” Drin says, and gulps a blessedly cold mouthful.

“Here, please sit, there is a bench.”

He’s blinded in the dim light under the trees.  He holds out his hand, waving.  The musician’s calloused fingertips touch his wrist.  They feel hot as an oven, guiding him.  “Our Mister Drin must cool off, resting in the shade.”

“Jeez, you should talk,” Drin says, wiping his face again.  He pats the bench slats next to him in demand.  He earned that much from Dance last night, helping the concertmaster haul endless thirty-pound boxes of meat up to a large facility kitchen.  While stacking things, he started humming sea chanties at Dance as a joke, but it took off.  The Metro cooking folks sang all kinds of silly songs.  There was yodelling.  No burden to haul pots and crack jokes and sing, while the hardcore Metro volunteers got things cleaned up.

The Aussie gal had been there too, ferrying people and things around in her ugly old stationwagon, a blur of motion.

He asks, “So did you sleep at all last night?”

Dance perches on the edge of the bench, lets his hands dangle between his knees.  He shakes his head.  “This gala– our main summer event–” a wave at the seating area, full of chairs and people chatting and the smoke wandering from the grills, ”–this is not forgiving our regular work for next week.”

“I snuck a bite of that medium hot pork galbi of yours,” Drin says, gazing out at the crowded wiener line, where Robert and Amalia dish up baked beans and silly patter along with the grilled dogs and the crumbly veggie patties that Young disdains to grill.  Robert makes  faces, acting out as Amalia does different voices in some story.  Performers!

Dance tips down his chin, as if he’s hiding it, but there’s a tiny quirk to his mouth.

Drin says sternly, “You’re just lucky I didn’t gobble the whole pan.  I’m behaving myself, you know.”

Dance just starts to smile, wider and wider.

“But I don’t promise to be good about the chicken.  I mean, if there’s any left in the pan by then.”

Dance starts to chuckle.  “We will make galbi for our Mister Drin on another day, please, it is our privilege.  But our spicing for you– should it be that much hotness in spice, or more?”

Drin frowns.  “Don’t know, until I try your really hot pan.  Is it gonna kill me daaaaaaid, or just make me wish I was dead?”

That gets a belly-laugh that roars across the park at startling volume.  Then Dance claps a hand over his mouth, stifling it, but his eyes are still laughing.

Drin squints at the Concertmaster, distracted.  Happy day, the man is wearing short sleeves.  Good God, the forearm muscles.

Drin blinks.  Anatomy is completely distracting.  Also, he’s not used to seeing Dance in such bright colors.  “When did you sign up for the marching band?”

The man’s laugh breaks out again–damn, he’s got a singer’s lungs on him–and Dance admits he borrowed the eye-punch turquoise pants and acid yellow embroidered guayabera from the guys in the horn section of the Metro.

The horn section have been screaming since they arrived.  Those guys are all yelling in some village dialect out of Luzon.  There’s wizened old Pilipino guys running a noisy bucket line of supplies from the parking lot to the really ancient guys running the deep fat fryer.  The whole crew of reprobates showed up in matching tropical pareus and shirts with their foreheads painted in their soccer team colors.  Sports announcer howls in Spanish erupt from a massive old TV set up from a car battery.  They chant for their home team, waving for everyone in line to join in.

The fry crew is vital for this event.  Nobody ever worries about their safety around the huge vat of hot oil because they used to be stewards in the US Navy, then they went sailing out on cruise liners, moonlighting in swing bands on shipboard.  They can play anything by ear, even if most of them don’t sightread quite so well, and they all struggle to pass Young’s annoying chair auditions.

Of course Drin heard the gossip.  The most reliable story had it that, at last week’s section auditions, Young started pounding on his music stand in rage.  “The horns can’t read music!  They can play Dixieland all night but they can’t read!”

Drin blinks at the chrome-yellow shirt next to him.  In context, the borrowed clothes become a blunt political statement.  “I heard Young accused you of helping the horns cheat.”

Dance shifts his chin sharply forward, curls his upper lip until his teeth show, and he clicks his jaws together like a horse biting somebody.  There are a lot of teeth in there.  Snap-snap.  “Briefly,” Dance says, giving a soft huffing noise of laughter somewhere down in his chest.  “We changed his mind.”

“Oh?” Drin says, fascinated.  The biting gesture does not look at all Korean to him, which is odd, because all he knows about basic Korean manners is what he’s observed from the concertmaster himself.  Scattered memories of military bars in Seoul aren’t helpful.

More chesty laughter.  “Maestro Young got a reminding that no one else has test sheets of his new compositions.”

“Wait, he was picking audition music from his own compositions?”

“Indeed yes.  He lacked time to choose ordinary pieces they don’t know by heart, he is looking for their problems with sight reading.  Robert says Bud Innes will add this… irregularity… to the Board agenda next week.”

Drin scrubs at his forehead.  “Well, there goes the board meeting.”  He cuts another look over at the Concertmaster.  “Out with it.”

“Oh, he agreed they all make the same mistakes.  He agreed those are errors which no string player would be making.  Yes, indeed, they all learned to read orchestral scores from one old guy aboard their first cruise ship.  We tell him we can guide Young to that person’s house in town, to hear exactly what he does to poor innocent music students.”  Dance makes a face.  “We warned him he will not enjoy it.  We warn him the teacher is a very grumpy man who throws shoes and large canned goods at people.”

Drin starts to laugh.  “You’re kidding!”

“Oh no.  Last time, it was big pineapple cans in the street.  Boom!  Boom!  These guys–” he gestures at the fry cooks, in obvious frustration, “–they cannot be putting in time on music classes.  Every year, the Board says we first chairs can tutor them free.  Oh, yes, get on that right away.  But they have no time.  Session work in LA pays them better than our Metro.  They are still playing better than anybody else the Metro hires on a union card.”

Drin scrubs at his forehead again.  Money again, the root of so many Metro ills.  “Robert bragged that Young hasn’t caught up to the real cheating going on.”

Dance tilts his chin up.  “Do you want to ask when Robert is trash-talking?  Do you really, our kind lovely Mister Drin, as our volunteer auditor who must fix things?”

Drin doesn’t meet that gaze.  He knows better.  He sighs. “Oh hell and little greased pigs.  No, but okay, tell me anyway.”

“We have a bigger– how do you say– tricking.  A finagle by the saxes.  This trick is so good it fooled all conductors before Young.  This a hotseat swap.  Three session sax players are sitting one Metro chair. They have one guy who passes all these sight-reading auditions, but he’s too busy in LA to be here for performances.  So they swap just like hotbunk aboard ship.  They are all one guy on our paperwork. They sign one social security number, they take turns getting paychecks.”

Drin closes his mouth.  “Okaaay.  I can see how that’d be hard to catch, they all travel in such a mob with hangers-on and relatives.  Can you point out which guys?”

“They’re in LA today–”

“–doing studio gigs?  Right.  Of course they are.”

Dance nods.  “Two of them also swap clarinet with a fourth guy, so it’s much harder to remember those changes by Maestro Young. We are making sure they keep up.” Dance gives a little embarrassed cough, admitting to it.  He nods toward the fryer crew. “That fourth guy, our first clarinet, he is there on the end, cutting turkey.”

Drin sighs.  Of course that guy is their best clarinetist.

“All the horns, sure, they know about it.  But perhaps people won’t say so if you ask them.  We would–” he waggles his eyebrows, “–well, we would have to tell them to speak to you.  The bassoons and the French horns are serving at the pans.  See, they serve our dwaeji galbi and dak galbi pans on the end.”

Drin stares at the Concertmaster, who clearly has all this firmly under control.

“How many other finagles–fiddles–messes–am I missing?” Drin demanded.

Dance lowers his head, coughs into his cupped hand, gives a little wave.  “Eee, more or less, it is all in how we count.”

Not reassuring.

Blandly, Dance says, “Can we ask your help on clearing up the taxes and the employment paperwork to make this first little finagle into proper shared positions, all correct under the union contract?”

And dammitall, he says it so innocently, as if fraudulent income tax reporting is just a minor issue among all the Metro’s other problems.  But there was the glint of something under that solemn expression.  Resignation, amusement, a sort of pride, just as it looks when Robert’s bragging about his stunts.  Look, they’ve got away with it, until Drin came along and asked.  Nobody noticed it before, look how clever Drin is, here he is now, asking the right person.  The man is teasing him a little.

Drin gives him a stern look.  “It can get fixed, of course.  But it might go beyond my level of union contract expertise.”

Dance frowns as if he’s coming up with his next question, but their conversation is interrupted by a distant boom, and some odd whooshing noises.

Flatly, Drin says, “Who’s setting off the fireworks?”

Dance looks away in that direction, frowning.  He says, “You know, the really big nutjobs are the trombones.”

The Concertmaster is clearly waiting for him to ask, but he’s not going to.  Not.

Who let the trombones take charge of the fireworks? is not a question he wants answered.

Road Trip Discoveries

They’re edited people, Drin says.

Dance looks over at the game controller, and away at the wall again. Drin got him that to keep him from getting too bored. He still loves to find things that please them. Their big rangy freckled husband, the guy who laughs with his whole belly, and loves spicy food… Drin still can’t resist Emma reading him stories in her Aussie accent, and he still snores a little when he sleeps on a hotel bed, the way he’s finally out of it at Dance’s back right now.

Dance has been shocked and upset at other changes in his partners. Losing everything all at once is quite a learning experience for them all. He was startled at how they have stuck it out in this room. They’ve clearly got colds or something, but they’re still getting up to take care of him.

They should be snoring their heads off, exhausted, sick, cranky. Emma and Drin are both sniffling and sneezing. Everything aches, and their noses are raw from using tissues. Drin says the other symptoms that they all share are an immune system overload of some sort, and possibly it’s just a cold, possibly something more. Drin waved it off, saying they’re all getting such bad headaches that they couldn’t be make much mileage if they hit the road anyway. Disappearing into a hole for awhile is a nice trick anyway, he says.

Drin might be a veteran, he might be an auditor with a gift for numbers who speculated brilliantly on stocks and got rich at the right time, but he was something else before. Drin isn’t just the kind of fabulously popular symphony patron who gets to fuck the Concertmaster against the storage closet door whenever he takes the notion into his head. Drin is able to remember there’s some other story to tell.

Drin tells him that it was all made up. Like them, Drin was made to remember things that never happened to him. He says most of his memories are borrowed time. He too has had his awkward bits blurred away, leaving imperfect traces. Drin isn’t sure of his own mind. He clearly doesn’t have answers to some of the most obvious things: Oh, yes? How it was done?

Something like that slidecoated tail on the bed comes from some other place, and so does Drin, the only one of them who remembers entire chunks of that other time, not just nightmare fragments. He will blurt out the most startling things–elaborate, detailed, harshly expert–clearly knowledge from some person that he once was–and then the edges of that selective knowledge go all fuzzy on him.

That’s when Drin stutters to a halt, confused. His descriptions of that, trying to explain why he can’t explain, are painfully, nakedly, upsetting. Dance has noticed that Emma has been cautious of pushing Drin for more talking when Drin has run out of answers.

It’s Drin who has the most fundamental craggy outcroppings of some former life washing up, suddenly visible among the mess, hard planes of basal rock that resists the tide that’s swirling away with their ordinary lives.

Drin proves to have new words for old games. It used to be just horsing around. Now it’s called testing Dance’s reflexes. Drin carefully massages Dance’s legs and feet to help manage the pain, but he also tests the feeling in Dance’s toes. He asks Dance to perform simple exercises as diagnostics on his coordination. Sometimes they toss small juggling beanbags back and forth, within the limits of Dance sitting or lying on the bed. Drin kneels or sits on the bed next to him sometimes, steadily juggling the beanbags, and invites Dance to snatch the bags out of the air, just as he used to invite Dance to horse around in the living room.

Now Dance’s hands can swat up and grab fast-moving bags idly, precisely, in a way which he was never able to do before. It’s a strange improvement, among many other changes that are not helpful at all.

What’s disturbing is that now he recognizes that Drin has played some of these testing games with him before, horsing around, laughing, not making a big deal out of it. Dance used to love grappling around with him, they always ended up in tickling or wrestling matches and then rolling around making love somewhere unlikely.

Then there’s Emma wither her scholarly precision, all those uncanny things she says. Who knew that Emma gets cranky when she’s isolated from all her reference sources for too long? Who knew that she remembers everything after she’s watched the news?

It turns out that some of her odd pauses in conversation, over the last few years, actually meant that she was locking onto whatever she’s looking at, remembering if she’s ever seen anything about that object, anywhere, in any source. She just didn’t say it, before. She knew it was weird. Now, she will share it, just in case they’ll need to know.

shadow of cat behind shade
cat's shadow

Emma is one tough, resourceful chick. She used a chain of anonymizer computer websites as a phone service, called the Humane Society back at home, asked them to check on the crying puppy in their abandoned house. She was even able to call a second time, to learn the animals were picked up and safely in the animal shelter. She said their pets might be at risk of euthanasia, kennel cough and distemper, but they weren’t going to die for lack of water and food.

Dance is not going back to see his garden and his potted plants and all his instruments. That part doesn’t hurt at all, oddly. There’s just a numb place, ever since they worked out how to get the pets out of there. He’s content with that, knowing things are out of his control. She’s not, but she’s aware that getting sentimental might endanger other people, and she won’t do that.

Dance hasn’t had enough brain cells to knock together to begin to ask the real questions, honestly.

They agree that all his memories of growing up and family and silly songs and learning to play guitar and then the violin, those were all lifted in a bad copy from somebody else’s mind, not even from the correct era. But what makes him ask questions about himself, is the money. Classical musicians do not often make enough money to save up that far in America, let alone in Korea. Where did the money to immigrate come from?

It wasn’t just the Metro’s prize grant. He doesn’t remember how he must have got his savings built up enough to immigrate, who provided the necessary regular income to satisfy the IRS. He’s forgotten the face of whoever it was did the right letters to sponsor him to come, some name on the symphony patron’s list he never met. He doesn’t remember exactly who gave him the final amount of money to cover the first few months in the US, he has no idea where some of it came from in the first place.

It bothers him that he doesn’t recall any of his family ever visiting the States in person. Not even any trips to Disneyland. He doesn’t recall ever seeing his family, doing trips back in Korea, not since he first auditioned for the Metro Symphony. But people can go for years on their own, that is not unusual for the first immigrant to a new country, when they’re poor and struggling just to pay the rent. Nothing strange in that.

He did have that box of family prints, old color prints with a few random strips of developed film in there. The prints were faded, cracked, irreplaceable. When Drin scanned in each picture, he commented on the odd unrelated pictures on those strips. But there were real people in those pictures. Yes, Drin said their memories were all doctored. Yet, there were real people out there talking to him, to Emma, to Drin himself. Live people left him voicemail messages, sending him increasingly concerned emails over the last few months. He doesn’t know why they were growing worried.

Whoever they might really be, they spoke to him as a person in the last few months, talked to him in the way that concerned, decent people do. Dance knows they’re going to worry about him disappearing, just as Emma’s sisters and mother will do back in Australia, the people he heard her laughing with in an accent so broad he couldn’t make out the words at all.

Dance kept emails from his teacher in Korea, short messages full of kind thoughtful advice. He especially remembers those. His grandmother-teacher seemed to know all about dropping everything and starting over. She talked about being stubborn on choosing to be cheerful, be brave on accepting the strangeness, just let it pass through him so he can move on.

She told him–and she was right, of course–that his first six months in America had to be the hardest for him, then it would get easier. After that, he would find himself adjusting to the new country, the new food, the new rules, the new people.

He should be using that attitude for this strange new life, too. It’s useless wishing that he could talk to her. It doesn’t matter if they really are related or not; he wouldn’t dare contact any of them now, purely out of fear for their safety. The person who doctored perfume for Emma can find their families too, easily enough.

Looking at the dents laid in the mattress by his invisible tail, it’s hard to dispute the story that maybe those people aren’t his blood relations and he doesn’t come from Korea. And Emma isn’t from Australia. Or at least, not the same country that they could fly to right now.

Simon Berendt Gives a Lecture

My name is Simon Berendt, and I’m here to explain. Even senior alchemists must emerge from their laboratories now and then to share the kind of history that people don’t really like to talk about.

People You are Meeting
I won’t dare introduce Dance, Emma, or Drin, but if you are here at this stage of class, I will assume you have met these three already.

Auren Han once worked for Zelin Industries. His rescue of Ira Zelin, their subsequent life on the run, and the collapse of their temporary haven make up the Strangeways story arc. Auren was desperately in love with Greenlaw Tewkes Barret, whose sudden reappearance in his life was the catalyst for much of the ensuing chaos and destruction he experiences. Auren controls a small consulting firm that takes advantage of his previous contacts in the criminal underworld and his extensive experience with shadow operations.

Greenlaw Tewkes Barret is a well-regarded young composer who was trained by Easley Blackwood. When they were in college together, Barret and Auren were lovers. As he became more and more complicit in Zelin’s criminal designs, Auren severed the relationship. At the time of the Snake Crossover, they have reunited, but there’s a lot getting in the way of Auren’s happy ending, including Barret’s refusal to be kept hidden for his own safety.
Barret knows Drin and Dance peripherally through some common aquaintances in the music world, and has taken matters into his own hands, hand-carrying a mysterious viola case to a certainly dangerous rendezvous.

Maxwell Bennie is an ex-cop from Hong Kong with considerable forensic background. He prefers to go by Bennie. How he and Auren first got to know each other is murky, but what is known is that he once worked under Auren Han in Zelin’s Ways and Means Division. He now works as Auren’s operative in Auren’s consulting company, Atsidi. Auren has sent him to investigate worrisome trends that I identified, and to lay a trail to attact Turner, a chemtrail assassin who has targeted Drin for unknown reasons.
Bennie is meticulous, dedicated, intelligent, and quite mad.

I, myself, do not work for Auren Han. I own Strangeways House and created and secured the Strangeways network. I let Auren and his people live here; occasionally I make myself useful to Atsidi.

Other Names to Know
Pen, himself a war relic with strange modifications and a patchy memory, is a mutual friend.

Turner, a very serious threat indeed, has not yet made his formal appearance.

We are in the Deep South, but the location is secret. Fozzie’s down-home Rancho Deluxe for rescued Kiplings (lab-created zoomorphs with many special functions in the last couple of wars) has already repelled attacks from an increasingly creepy collection of altered trackers and assassins.

Please stay tuned for further dispatches from Barret, who will in time find himself getting peeled off a really horrible tour bus.

ATTN: TS

curving grid, switching station pic by Kim Høltermand
Switching Station - photo by Kim Høltermand
Hi Susan,
Just making sure your little … surveillance problem … got sorted out. Your friends seem like lovely people; would hate for them to have any trouble.
As for the other matter … well, I’ll be in touch.
Have a nice day.
AH

The Mayor Does Home Repairs

By the time Drin moved in with Dance and Emma, he knew the charm of the little house was not in its smallness. Any charm it had came from constant work done just to keep it functional. No boxes on the floor, or they can’t get to the bathroom; no clutter left on the sink, or they can’t brush their teeth; no dirty dishes scattered, everything must be clean in its place, or the kitchen is a death-trap. Dance stores his three good skillets in the oven–the drawer beneath the oven has his other pans. So Dance’s skillets get stacked on newspapers on the living room floor when he bakes.

Drin is familiar with theories on tiny working kitchens, from those friends who tell hilarious stories about cramped New York apartments. It’s not funny in their little house.

Of course he’s wary when he comes in the front door. He’s been a soldier too long, he looks first, always–so he’s never tripped on the skillets. But when he sidles around them, he’s wrong-footed to get around the next obstacle in the course, the big flour and sugar canisters. Turn wrong after that, and he’s knocked stuff off Emma’s cramped little desk.

When Dance is tense, when he is worrying about something else, things get piled in the way. He has a knack for setting up pathways nobody can run, a mysterious ability to space perfectly ordinary objects into barriers that would baffle a fire team of perfectly decent Marines. Most days, Drin and Emma can get through all right, because Dance allows for their different stride lengths and handedness. Some days, nobody can get through. This is one of the habits that worries him most about Dance.

When Drin feels claustrophobic enough, sometimes he insists on taking them off with him on a road trip, for sanity’s sake. In hotel rooms, he learned that Dance will blockade any space when he’s nervous. Dance will make the passage negotiable for somebody of their stride and handedness up until they go to bed, and then the portcullis around the bed is dragged in place. Emma just asks Dance to move things for her to reach the bathroom, in the middle of the night, and yawns back to sleep while he rebuilds it. It’s quite something to see him pull it off with perfectly ordinary luggage. Even more infuriatingly, Dance doesn’t even notice he’s doing it.

Neither does Emma. She just assumes it’s routine to go falling over boxes of music manuscript or spare instrument cases or books. She also assumes that Dance will get there in time, if he’s home, and pirouette around to catch either of his partners as they’re falling, saving them neatly from cracking their heads. Even if they weigh twice as much as their beautiful musician does.

The risky part is when he’s not home, and they’re threading the maze he’s left behind. He’s got better about clearing these traps just before he leaves.

Dragon on ceiling tile in Japanese temple

It’s always wiser to open the door, check the pathway first, and then go get bags of groceries from the trunk of the car. Drin would do this anyway–that soldierly habit of checking security in the house first, before loading himself down–but such evidence always makes him sad and worried about Dance. Also, it makes him irritated about the tight, unforgiving spaces in the house. It’s like living in a rat’s habitrail made of breakaway stunt glass; ding the slightest thing and they have to replace another part which wasn’t designed for repairs.

It annoys Drin to fix shoddy goods. It annoys him to constantly watch himself, to move carefully in cramped quarters like a submariner, to grip gently, to avoid breaking things that were not built well enough to withstand ordinary wear and tear. It annoys him to see Emma and Dance put up with broken shelves and faucets and cabinet hinges that should have lasted better.

It outright angers him to see them flinch at perfectly common repair bills and the cost of quality parts. But he gulps it down, waits it out, watches them carry on. He listens in amazement when they just start cracking jokes as Emma’s car dies. The rent costs more than they can afford in this tiny place, but hey, at least they can do transit for groceries and walk to work, if they have to. Right, two miles in the rain just before an evening performance.

They don’t have a clue how different their lives could be on just slightly better salaries.

Installing them in ten times more square footage of conventional housing would not solve all the problems. He’s seeing, on a daily basis, how carefully Dance moves, how precise his daily gestures are. Dance has to be, he’s just too bloody strong. Distract him too much, and Dance breaks doorknobs, toilet levers, closet doors, plastic parts, patio chairs. He’s putting on more muscle every month, with more food in the house, he’s getting stronger, so he’s having to adapt to those changes. Dance tries pathetically hard not to damage things, but he also takes alarm easily.

His jumpiness has him leaping back like a wet cat at sharp sudden noises–especially at night, in the dark, jumping from things nobody else even noticed–and he’s described seeing some pretty strange things outside the house. Big enough jumps, he leaves dents in walls, and even in the low ceiling. Well, in some places, it’s a very low ceiling.

Drin himself is wary of barking his skull on low doorways and open cabinets. Dance is meticulous about always closing the cabinets, but Emma occasionally forgets, in her typical rush. It makes Drin feel silly when he bashes his head on them and she apologizes for it.

After the tight quarters in the house, it seems quite odd that Dance wants a great deal of space to exercise; running in the streets, digging in the garden outside, practising at the dojo, swimming in the largest pool he can find. Dance liked Drin’s huge, wide-open apartment for the space it allowed him to practice his katas in the morning, not for sleeping.

In their little house, there’s no space for the athlete to really loosen up during bad weather. The living room is the only place they have to stretch, to sprawl out on the floor, or practice sparring, or use any kind of large equipment; it’s barely ten feet across with all the furniture taken out. They should really carpet it in gym mats to accommodate two of their favorite activities. Both of those involve wrestling around, but only one involves their trio of video game controllers. Mentioning the idea of gym mats makes Dance get a wistful look, and Emma gets pinched-looking about the cost.

Fixing things often brings up nagging money issues. Drin automatically adopted a mental schedule for repairing and replacing nearly every functional part of the house—including the old, fragile, and uncertain plumbing and electrical–but he doesn’t want to frighten his partners by taking over everything, overwhelming their input on finances.

They are, come right down to it, no good as courtesans. They just don’t know how to accept gifts gracefully. They don’t even know how to elicit the gifts they actually need, either. They try very hard not to ask him for things, which is maddening when he really wants to get them something special.

They may be grateful, but it makes them twitchy, and it makes them sad to know they couldn’t take care of themselves. They aren’t independent enough to survive without help, and they don’t really want to think about how to manage without him if something happens.

He does take care to make sure they’ll be okay, if God forbid they ever have to survive without his ongoing salary. He simply confronts them with awkward big gifts to their savings, not even softening it. This embarrasses them, which he just finds charming and irresistible.

Dance will ceremoniously refuse it twice, and pummel Drin about the shoulders–carefully– when he finally accepts it. Emma just yanks Drin close and smacks him, or she bites his ear, or she pulls his hair, and then she kisses him sloppily, making silly noises while she pretends to chew on him. “Ommm nom nom nom,” Dance says, eyes laughing, and ducks when she smacks him too.

He knows there’s going to be bruises from this one.

“Hello, love, you’re home early,” says Emma, blinking up owlishly from her laptop.

Dance comes out of the kitchen, wiping his hands dry on a towel, and there’s a little quirk to his mouth. Oh, he knows something. Then the inquiring gaze narrows. “Oh nooo, you wicked husband you, what did you do?”

Drin coughs into one cupped hand, and rummages in his pockets. “Em, happy birthday.” And holds out a ring of Volvo keys in Emma’s direction. They are much newer keys than hers were.

“Whaa-aat did you do–” she repeats.

“Well, I was taking in my car for an oil change anyway, and the mechanics knew somebody who wanted their old wagon to go to a good home.”

Dance starts to chuckle. He looks over at Emma, grinning, while she just blinks at the keys.

She completely lives up to everything Drin expected when the little frown smooths out and she asks, “Is that the key fob from two model years ago?”

“Yeah, it’s in the driveway,” Drin says helpfully, and puts the keys in her hand. He shrugs. “Easier than borrowing a loaner car, and I needed to pick up stuff to fix the bathroom anyway, you know.”

Dance’s eyes fly wide open, and he makes an outraged noise, and then he’s laughing.

Emma is up on her feet at last, mouth open. Drin pivots neatly aside, just in time, and gives her a tiny little push between the shoulder blades, and says, “Now, you’ll want to go take a look and make sure it’s going to fit you just the way you like. I mean, it is a used car, yeah? And if it doesn’t, we’ll just go back and find you another one that does, how’s that?”

Dance is laughing in delight behind them, and he pounds on Drin’s back as they spill out the front door. Emma is still making confused broken little noises, hands flying about. She exclaims at the very conventional, unremarkable brown vehicle in the driveway, and gives it an awkward little set of pats, as if she’s not quite sure it’s real, or where the key goes in.

“It’s a fob type, you click it–” Drin says, showing her, and the door lock chirrups, startling her. “Here, slide in and let’s see if the driver’s seat works okay for you. And they told me the manual is nice and clean. It’s in the glove compartment if you want to take a look.”

There is some time spent on seat adjustments and trying levers and learning where to change the mirrors, and eventually he admits he also bought them a new bathroom cabinet and some panelling and tools that are taking up space in the back. By the time he’s got those supplies shifted inside the tightly-organized garage, she’s carried the car’s manual away into the house, he has been well and truly pounded about the back and shoulders, and he’s got most thoroughly nommed and kissed silly by both of them.

By the time Emma sits down with the manual and her laptop at her narrow little shelf of a desk–no project is well and truly begun until she’s got the available research under her belt–Dance is bringing out bowls of soup and fresh-cut bread for them all, looking pleased with the world.

Drin turns at the kitchen table and hisses at his husband, “You heard it coming up the street, didn’t you?”

Dance smiles a tiny little smile, and whispers back, “I can keep a secret.”

In Vino Violent Veritas

blurry glass and bottle
A Few Too Many

“I know, I know, I said bring along your little Korean boyfriend,” says Smithers Popwell, aka Kane, the bartender with tats. It’s true that he sends problem vets to get help, calling up people like Drin, rather than report them to cops. Kane has told him that Dance shows all the symptoms of being a veteran too.

“He was funny. Skinny kid, yeah, but I didn’t realize he’d get shitfaced that fast on three shots of whiskey. Or that he’d stomp Armand at arm-wrestling and Wingert at poker, and tell me half my collection of music is all bootlegged cause he can hear the copy distortions. Or knock over Jam for calling you a faggot. I mean, who asked that asshole Jam to come? You know Jam played defensive end for that farm team in Arizona for a coupla years, ‘fore his knees gave out. The taller they are, the easier it is to tip ‘em over, I guess.”

“Yeah, the poker kind of surprised me too,” Drin says.

“We shoulda been wise to that. Musicians, ya know, they always playin’ cards, waiting when technical shit breaks down. You think he’s gonna be okay?”

They listen to the noise of Dance heaving into a bush next to the open car door. He’s moaning sometimes, but not in English. He only spoke that when he asked them to back off. They’re leaning on the front of Drin’s car instead.

Drin says, “Oh, I think so. Don’t worry, I’ll pour lots of Gatorade into him, I’ll check on him during the night.”

“Shit, man, I had no idea he’s never had that much booze in his life,” Kane says, which is just his guilty conscience talking. “But hell, any of these damn memorial services, we all of us drink more ‘n we usually do. Bet he ain’t gonna want to try it again. Not necessarily a bad thing, the way he went after Jam, about ready to peck him to death.”

“Jam’s a pretty mean drunk.”

“Hell, if any of his punches connected, we’d all be in the ER, one way or another. You notice I ain’t nurse-maiding that asshole. Dunno who did.”

“Armand told me he’d take Jam to a hotel room, put some ice on his face and arms. Wasn’t sure if the fall broke his nose again. But he didn’t think Jam was gonna want anybody to know about it.”

“And good luck to ‘Mando on all that, better him than me.” Kane pats the hood of Drin’s car lightly, mostly to check where it is. “Well, I’m heading off for a bottle of Gatorade and some aspirin myself, call it a night. Thanks for giving me a ride, and hey, thanks for coming, I appreciate it, I really do.”

Drin nods, watches him slope off toward the trailer he calls home. Kane stumbles on the steps going up, fumbles with his keys, but makes it inside all right. Lights come on gradually through the trailer’s rooms. Drin looks up at the stars, closes his eyes a moment, and pulls himself together. He walks around the car.

“Right,” Dance says wearily, sagging in the front passenger seat.

Drin squats on his heels at the open door, rests a hand on Dance’s leg. “How are you doing?”

“Things are still… what did you say… helicoptering. But not so bad if I hang on.”

Drin smiles at him in the dim light. “I’m sorry. Really, really sorry. Let me get you home, sweetheart.”

“I do not smell so sweet just now.”

“We’ll get you cleaned up, just hang on till we get home. I’m lifting your feet in the car again, you just let things turn, don’t try to move your tail end until you’re ready, okay?”

“Right.”

Once they’ve got Dance shifted and his arms inside the car, hanging onto the dashboard instead, Drin gets into the driver’s seat. He pulls out the plastic bag from the day’s purchase of cheap whiskey. “Sick bag, if you need it.”

“Thanking you.” It comes out odd, between gritted teeth.

“Okay, I’m going to start the car, but you tell me when we can move. Take your time.”

“You… seem to know… how it feels…”

“Hey, I was young and stupid once. Plus, I had brothers with a sense of humor.”

“Oh Gaaawd,” Dance moans. “Let us go. Drive, okay? I do not want to think about… how your evil brothers would take advantage… of our Drin being sick.”

“Let’s just say I’ll never touch Creme de Menthe again, okay?” Drin drives as if he’s hauling a crate of broken eggs he doesn’t want to spill.

After a few carefully negotiated turns in the road, Dance says, “Why would anybody think this is a solution to their… pain…”

“Numbing agent, self-medicating,” Drin says briefly.

“And you had… pain that needed… numbing?”

broken crystal, Fractured Aquamarine, photo by Sea Moon
Fractured Aquamarine, photo by Sea Moon

Drin smiles. “I guess I thought so then. I don’t remember why, exactly.”

“Oh. I do. Just nothing… to fix it. I remember… being so ashamed. Failing… auditions. Wanting… the wrong things… and not… anything the other kids talked about. The whole… miserable… attempt to… figure it out.”

“I guess that’s part of what being a teenager is about, yeah,” Drin says.

“Being queer?” Dance asks.

Drin keeps watching the road. “Oh hell yeah. I was okay about liking boy parts too, and I liked ‘em a lot. What bothered me was the idea that maybe I’d get caught by the assholes at school, shit, that’d be a fight. Then I’d have to explain to my folks why I like dick too. I mean, if I survived that long. But mostly, later on… like you saw, flashbacks on all that bad shit in the military. You hope getting blotto will stop bad dreams, but it makes them worse. A lot worse, after awhile.”

“Well, damn,” Dance says, imitating his accent.

“You must be feeling better.”

“No, but I am… putting my face together… to explain… to Emma that I am… fine.” And then he throws up into the plastic bag. His body hardly moves at all but his jaw opens very wide. He makes odd squeaky noises like a cat with hairballs. When he sits back, gasping, his hairline and his neck glints as if he’s rolled in glitter dust. A line of sweat trails down his brow.

Drin flips open the console between the seats without looking, pulls out a bottle of water, twists it open with three of his fingers still on the steering wheel. “Here, rinse your mouth.”

“If I ever… say I want to do this again… just shoot me.”

Drin chuckles. “I don’t think we’re going to fool Em into thinking you’re okay. She’s going to worry. We’ll just ask her not to hit you tonight.”

“She’ll beat me up tomorrow.”

“I don’t think you’re going anywhere tomorrow, either. Don’t kid yourself, neither is Kane, or any of those guys. Which is why they scheduled this whole thing for the weekend.”

“I do not know how… musicians drink and work too. Em is going to kill me.”

“No, she’ll make you go to bed, and stay there.”

Dance moans. “Bad idea, those last two drinks. They didn’t even taste good.”

“I know, and I talked you into trying it. I figured it’s a good idea to know that stuff. I’m really sorry. I was bad to you. Em’s gonna spank shit outta me, too, and I know how mad she’ll be at me.”

“Drin, eating this apple of knowledge is… not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“I didn’t set up the situation right, that’s why. If you wanna whack me for it, I completely understand.”

“I do not want to whack you. I want to whack Jam for calling you a chocolate-packing wick-dipping ass-sucking faggot. Very hard. When he’s not drunk.”

Drin winces. “All the guys said he’s just a mean drunk. Oh, hell, what am I saying– he was mean on the football field, too, Kane told me that was why the team owner kept him around. But what Jam, the damfool, was saying to me, some of it was just the truth, you know, even if it lacks respect.”

“That is why. I want him… to learn respect. Whacking is all he knows.”

“Pretty sad, come right down to it. And you, Dance–”

“Your skinny funny little Korean boyfriend,” Dance repeats bitterly.

“Yeah, and let me just add, outrageously sexy and totally brilliant.”

“And completely unable to drink,” Dance says, enunciating far too carefully.

“We don’t know that. Unable to hang around mean drunks, how’s that? I mean, you took down this great big guy when you were so shitfaced that you were puking. You stomped a former pro linebacker, man. How sad is that?”

“Perhaps he needs the excuse to cry,” Dance says, not sounding sorry about it at all.

“Man, you’re tough,” Drin says.

“I am a musician.”

“Yeah. I’ve been learning what that means.”

Dance takes a deep breath, makes the effort to talk. “People come to performances when they know… it will make them cry. And we know… we will make them cry. We just hope… it isn’t the critic who starts to weep in horror.”

Drin finds himself laughing. This was the Dance that Kane and the other vets got to see that evening, cracking jokes with that lethally solemn face and the careful enunciation. Drin takes another turn gently, climbing another of those damn mesas that make the car bob like a tilt a’whirl, as if he’s trying to make Dance sick. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he says.

“I am hoping I do not have the bad dreams tonight,” Dance says then.

“I’ll be there as long as you want, I promise,” Drin says.

“I want,” Dance says, and rests one hot palm on Drin’s leg. “Please.”

Twenty minutes later, Dance has been pulled out of the shower, dried off, dosed with plenty of sports drink and aspirin, and put to bed looking exhausted; he’s asleep within moments. Drin brushes back the man’s dense, damp hanks of hair. Under Dance’s hair, around the nape of his neck, his skin is dry, but it still glints as if he’s rolled in finely-powdered glitter, and he feels hot.

Drin straightens up wearily from checking his pulse, and meets Emma’s glare. He jerks his head toward the living room.

She leads the way, turns on the light, and he sinks into the sofa, puts his throbbing head in his hands. He’s wearing a robe himself, feeling damp and achey, nauseous, totally miserable in spite of dosing himself too. And he only had one shot the whole evening, since he takes seriously the role of the designated driver. Stress, all of it. Living like this, with better things to do every night, he’s clearly lost whatever moderate tolerance he ever had for drinking.

woman's hands with black rings holding binder
hanging on

Emma pulls up a chair facing him, looks him over. “Where did those bruises come from?”

“Pulling Dance off an ex-defensive-end football player who started to hit people and called me lots of bad names for faggot.”

“Because otherwise Dance wouldn’t stop?”

Drin sighs. “I don’t know, honestly. He put down this great big guy on the floor so fast none of us could stop him. Had him down in a grappling lock that could have dislocated the guy’s elbows. I mean, Em, he is so damn fast.”

“Ye-esss,” Emma says, arms folded.

“I’m sorry, I’m just such an idiot– dumb accidental things happen, you know. None of us knew this monster guy was gonna show up at all, he was smashed as hell before he walked in. Dance was already three shots down by then, not putting up with shit like that. Just locked him up. Then he started taking the guy’s brain apart. How the guy was disrespecting the vet who passed away, giving the finger to everybody in the military, dissing the guys who cared about the memorial services enough to fucking show up. Then he started whispering. Asking how come the damn fool kept talking about asses, maybe he’s a closeted queen, maybe he wants somebody stronger than he is to give him lots of dick up his manhole, maybe he wants somebody to hump his prostate gland–I’ve never heard Dance like that, just peeling off strips of hide. You could see all the straight guys going totally green.”

Emma touches his face. Tilts his chin up, looks at his jaw, then at his hands, lets go of him.

Drin rakes his hair back. “God. You think Robert is bad, going bitchy at the Metro, he’s a fucking amateur. Dance can drop Robert in his tracks.”

Emma shrugs. “Sure. All the Metro folks know he’ll hurt them with the truth. That’s what makes Dance so good at auditions. Competitive, hell–he eats judges. Those bowing attacks of his don’t come outta nowhere.”

“If Dance ever goes off on Young, he’s gonna take him to bits.”

“Oh yeah, he’s not the mouse that Young’s crowd likes to think. He goes to that dojo for a reason.”

“Yeah, I believed you. But I’ve never seen him like that–”

“I bet you won’t, either. He’s never gone off at me. Not once.” Emma stares at him with those pitiless storm-gray eyes. “But real early one morning he heard me yell for help, out there in the driveway, and he took down a guy who tried to assault me. Just laid him out. Said a few things I’m never gonna forget, let the guy go, and the bugger just took off screaming.”

“Oh Christ,” Drin says, wincing at the very idea.

“Said it was better than hitting him. Honest to God, Dance didn’t want to damage the guy. And he said there’s guys who don’t hear things, so talking doesn’t stop them–so then he’d have to really hit them. Your not-so-buddy Jam got lucky.”

Drin locks his fingers together over his forehead, pressing hard on the skin over his eyeballs with his thumbs. “I never meant to get Dance that trashed–”

Emma sniffs. “Yeah, I figured that out by the third time Dance told me it was his own fault, not yours.”

“Em, I’m so damn sorry. I’m a crappy boyfriend and a bad patron. I’m a shitheel. I’m untrustworthy.”

“No, just a fallible human, you silly wanker.” She snorts. “Well, I was at fault too. I knew that event was basically an excuse to drink. I was hoping it’d just be your vet buddies there, folks like Kane who he kinda knows, keep him calm, and so nobody’s shocked at whatever flashback weirdness he might get. Because he might, drinking that much.”

“Em, I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect this. I shouldn’t have talked him into–”

“Yeah, yeah, you wanker, don’tcha hate learning experiences? Hold out your hands.”

Drin holds out both hands. She whacks him firmly on each hand, across the knuckles, and makes a face, shaking her own hand, saying, “Ow! Bugger, that hurt! I shoulda grabbed a ruler, give you that whole evol nun experience. And stop giving me that puppy look!”

He looks at her hands. “When parents say, ‘This is going to hurt me worse than it hurts you,’ it’s not supposed to be true.”

She grimaces. “You think I’m feeling righteous here? Fuck and bugger, man, we should have tested things here where things are quiet and he didn’t need to go into defense posture.”

“I should’ve taken him to a scuba diving class instead, like I wanted to in the first place, not let myself get talked into this dumb stuff,” Drin says. He heaves himself up on his feet, pads back to the bedroom.

He speaks softly to Dance, checks his pulse and breathing again.

Dance sighs, turns toward him with a blurred mumble, and falls back into deeper sleep. He pulls up the bedding higher around the musician’s neck, and returns to the living room blinking hard.

Emma swims into focus, sitting with her arms folded, swinging her foot with the slipper dangling. She lifts one eyebrow. He’s not fooling her.

“Want some fresh tea?” he says.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” she agrees, rising.

Filling the tea kettle at the sink, Drin says, “He’s fine, sleeping hard.”

“Good. Bit of a head tomorrow, for sure. If this scared him, knowing he might hurt other people, that might help him stay calmer when he’s dealing with Maestro Asshole Young.” She rummages in the cupboards. “So he’s too damn fast and aggressive for any of your vet friends, and he’s sure too badass for anybody at the Metro. What if Young finally pokes him into losing it? Who’s gonna haul him off chopping Young up into fucking diced radish? I think you’re the only one he allows to yank him round the paddock a few turns, if his temper blows.”

“Besides you.”

“Well, and Amalia, probably. But we’d all have to get his attention first, so he doesn’t hurt us accidentally.”

“I’m just hoping the ex-football player won’t sue for assault, for tonight.”

She spoons loose tea into the teapot strainer. “If the damn fool was that big, then wouldn’t admitting Dance bunged him up just look pretty damn silly? Hell, if he started making threats at you and Dance, that’s self-defense. Besides, they can’t get blood out of a rutabaga, Dance has bugger-all to take. The only reason an attorney would go after it is to snag your money. And you’ve got lawyers on retainer already, right?”

Drin smiles crookedly at her. “Oh, well, I could strike first with a suit for threats and slander, but that might just provoke the dummy into trying a counter-suit of his own. So I’ll need to check on the calculated risks.” That just makes his head throb worse.

She sticks out her jaw just like Dance does, looking stubborn. “So you want me to blow part of our Sunday on getting you some backup documents, huh? You know, like arrests and convictions on this bugger, records of the football career, fan pictures that show off how big he is, stuff like that.”

“Yes, please,” Drin says, meekly. He slumps into a kitchen chair and rests his face in both hands. Finally he asks her, “Shall I take Dance in for a nice chat with my attorney about it? Really rub it in, make sure Dance understands all the consequences? I mean, hardly fair to him, but–”

She snorts. “You have no pity in you.”

“Well, it’s not gonna be any fun for me, either.”

She pokes him, hard. “Your own fault, if you talked him into drinking that much.”

“Yeah, and now Dance probably thinks he’s not safe to drink at all, which is a damn shame.” Drin folds his arms, leaning against the table. “Dance is not a mean drunk, you know. He giggles a lot. Everything is funny. He was laughing at the asshole at first, until the guy started threatening me. Hell, it was out of hand before the rest of the guys understood what the hell the idiot was even saying.”

She glances over at a clock, drops the tea strainer into the hot pot. “Oh bugger, that’s too damn slow for Dance, he’s done with it by then.”

Drin sighs, scrubs at his face again.

She pokes him in the chest. “You’re missing something, ya big nong.”

“Ow.”

“Thing is, you kept up with Dance. You’re about the only one I know could do that. Think about that, ya big fly-bit bushie wanker.”

“Well, yeah, that’s just cause I was paying attention.”

“No, people at the Metro pay attention, too, believe me, and they’re still about ten steps too slow for Dance. I had to teach him to wait. Taught him to give it a count of eight or ten, and clarify twice if he has to, when he tells anybody anything. I made him practice waiting for the rest of us idiots to catch up.”

Drin thinks about it. “Yeah, I’ve seen him do that.”

“But you saw it. You’re fast enough, you could watch Dance doing it.” Her hand comes shooting out, the nail posed to poke him even harder.

He stands up, picks up her hand instead of letting her hit him. He folds it in his hands, kisses her knuckles. “And bushie tricks like that, too,” she says, glaring up at him.

“I think you let me,” Drin says, just to be provoking, and then he’s catching her hands smacking at him. She throws a couple of direct punches, which he deflects easily off his forearms. Finally she opens her arms wide, flings her hands around him, and gives him a rib-cracking hug.

“See? You see? You big silly bugger, you knew what I was gonna do,” Emma says.

He gives a deep, tired sigh, and feels everything relaxing, his shoulders drooping. Why does a hug from our Emma always make him feel better?

“You stupid wankers coulda got seriously hurt,” she growls into his robe.

“Yeah,” Drin says, using the hug to grip her tight enough that he is lifting her off her feet for a moment. He puts her down again, kisses her cheek. “Yeah, I know. But damn, that was something to see.”

She growls Aussie footie curses into his robe, and pummels his back for awhile. “Aren’t you gonna stop me?”

“No, it feels pretty good,” Drin admits. He closes his eyes, smiling, while her fists pummel up and down his back, and her front is plastered up against his front, jostling and moving and totally distracting him from the dread of having to drag his ass into the law offices of his family, first thing Monday morning.

The expense is big enough reason to avoid it if he could, but he’s got other reasons. The younger attorneys veer into way too many damn questions about inherited accounts which he can’t answer. The senior partners are worse. The oldest of them is a woman who keeps vast tracts of genealogy charts in her head for dozens of rich families, apparently without effort; and she’s never been happy with his documented place in it. He always ends up feeling like a poor disreputable orfink cousin whose true antecedents could somehow get him murdered.

A woman so much like Emma, shaped by twenty years of corporate law, on the hunt for something, is not a comfortable experience. Sometimes she drags him over to discuss new accounting tricks with other senior partners, who are affable and relaxed and only occasionally show the same reflexes under their low-key surfaces. He hates to draw the interest of any of them to his activities, interests, or resources.

Emma says suddenly into his ribs, hugging him, “You wanker, you’re afraid of your own attorneys, huh? Face ‘em down! You got nothing to apologize for, and hell, you went to the services and the memorial to be supportive of these other vets. How much more all-American can you get?” She makes rude noises into his robe, tootling the national anthem through her nose. She tries to make it sound like a kazoo.

Drin snorts, and leans back into her. “Might be simpler to just have them arrange some way to hire on the ex-football player for a decent job in some podunk town back near his grandparents. Don’t give me that look!– he’s that sort. Have to think of something he can do that’d keep him out of trouble. I expect there’s some brain damage there from playing.”

“Listen to you, always with the managing,” she says, pummeling his back again. “Well, you oughta email teslamomma, right, she’ll have some ideas. And I can come up with lists of what jobs other ex-jocks guys like that have been doing, how’s that?”

He sighs. “Thank you.”

She snorts again. “Might be, meeting you two was the luckiest thing that’s happened to the damn fool since he quit playin’ gridiron.”

“I’d rather he didn’t find that out,” Drin says.

“Yeah, yeah, I bet you do shit like that all the time,” Emma says fiercely, pummeling him.

“Can you get that knot just under my shoulder blade– aahhhh,” Drin says.

“Ya big wanker,” Emma says.

Fucking Gun Carriage

Grace starts to smile. Lucas plays that music on the chimes all the time.

Bach’s Air on a G String.

“Ohmigodchristit’s Dance–” Emma shouts, and that carries too.

Drin grabs her tight, holds her back. “Wait for Cesar and Aaron to check it out,” he tells her, and kisses her.

The voice shifts into a different piece of music. Tchaikovsky’s Dance Of The Swans, no less, and a third one — something familiar that she can’t quite name. Boccherini, maybe? All of them soar wonderfully among the trees.

“Oh Christ,” Emma says, and then she’s saying muffled things into Drin’s shirt, and Grace thinks it’s all rude or cursewords or both, promising what she’s going to do to Dance when she gets her hands on him, and Drin is just smiling, hugging her.

Ruby is grinning, showing all her teeth, even when she goes back to staring back the way they came, watchful.

It’s all the more shocking when the gunfire starts, somewhere up ahead.

Then there’s two people running through the tangles of brush toward them, heads low.

“Caleb?” Grace exclaims. “Oh God, Estelle! Estelle!”

“Oh my dear!” Penelope exclaims, hugging them together.

“Dance–” Estelle pants. “He saved me, he sailed on the wind like a kite, so beautiful– He’s coming–”

Caleb gasps, patting Penelope, patting everybody he can reach, and they’re all right there. “Holy shitballs, is that you, Hal? Can you carry Estelle? She’s got some goddamn nasty cuts on her feet. Kim and Roi told us to get moving, head back to the house, they’ll catch up, they’re faster–” Hal snorts and nods his shaggy head, and Penelope is between the two of them, unfastening the coupler between the two werebeasts.

Grace cups her hands around Estelle’s knee, boosts her up onto Hal’s back. Estelle hisses from the exertion, and Grace buries her fingers in the hurt woman’s leg feathers and smooths them gently. Instead of showing her how to grip the harness bits with her clawed feet, Grace bends Estelle’s knee further and urges her to shift up toward Hal’s withers to brace her knees against his collar. Estelle’s poor feet are pretty ripped up, and Grace can feel the heat and swelling just in running a hand down her feathered leg.

“If he has to gallop, you can wedge your hands under the collar, too, and hang on for dear life,” Grace says with a wan smile. God, it’s good to see Estelle in one piece!

Back at the bend of the trail where Caleb and Estelle came from, a dark figure is moving. Shifting forward, and pausing oddly. Brown loops and rolls of tail coil into a broad pile, pause, and hoist the human part of the body about ten feet up. Something broad and fan-like snaps up around the figure’s head, and twitches, focusing. Then there’s a thunderous crack, a distant boom, and a billow of smoke rolling up from the woods.

It’s far enough away that they can only see smoke billowing up in the patch of sky left open where the big tree went down. There’s another huge report, and then the figure slumps down into the heap of his tail. He lays there, with fast random glints of color glittering all over his tail and up his back, across the flap of loose skin fallen along his shoulders and over his head. The air shimmers above him.

The bees stream into a little confused blob in the air, well away from him, and then they pool in the air above Estelle, and then they pool around Drin’s head as well.

bees orientation flight
flight of bees for orientation, swarming

Drin looks up, smiling, as they land on his hair, crawl around briefly, and depart. In a few minutes, they’ve checked on him, and on Estelle, who sits quietly, biting her lip nervously. And then they’re gone, the trail of bees vanished as mysteriously as it began.

“They figured out we don’t have any food, and I’ll bet that Lucas has just put out a bowl of honey for them back at the house,” he says. He glances over at Grace. “He’ll be careful. That one sting is usually plenty to teach a guy about consequences.”

Grace is about to reply, when Ruby jerks her head around, and Hal and Jack both jerk their heads up high, ears twitching.

There’s more gunfire somewhere on the trail beyond the shimmering person slumped in the trail.

“Dance! Dance!” Emma yells, straining at Drin’s grip on her.

“He’s a fuckin’ gun carriage,” Caleb pants. “Some sort of energy weapon, some hotshit coherent light beam thing. The goddamn beam doesn’t even come into focus up close, can’t even see anything happening. That damn hood of his aims it out a good three, four hundred feet. Gotta be that far away, or he’d fry off his own sorry ass. Christ, whose idea was that, anyway?”

“Military design,” Emma snaps, grabbing Drin’s arms and tugging at him, straining.

“Well, there ya go,” Ruby says, nodding at Caleb.

“Emma, look at him, look at that heat shimmer,” Drin says, hanging on to her. “Give him a minute. Let the rain cool him off.”

She sags onto her knees. “Dance,” she cries out.

Dance stirs. His arms move, he shifts onto his side, the tail moves, and then he’s standing on his feet, swaying a little, and the tail rolls into s-curves, tiredly, hauling its own weight forward as he stumbles toward them. Puddles hiss and bubble as the tail rolls through them.

The big flap of skin, or hood, or whatever it was, has deflated and fallen limp over his shoulders. It seems to be lined with little glassy tiles, like a mosaic, and it glitters all on its own. Ribbonlike streamers hang down from beneath it, as if he’s wearing a collar of ivory mylar ribbons around his neck. But they move, sluggishly. Some of them are trying to pull up into snail-coils and failing, hanging crooked. They look broken and somehow painful.

Emma reaches out toward him. Her hand rises toward the streamers, one of the broken ones, as if she’s going to coil it up for him, automatic as fixing a bent Christmas ribbon.

“Emma,” he says, scuffing his bare feet sloppily in the mud. “Drin. Don’t, I’m still too hot, it might burn you. Let me cool off and then hugs all around. What are you all… doing out here?” He trips over a branch, but the tail catches him, and he keeps going.

The tail hisses and steams when it touches mud, and leaves char marks on damp leaves and branches. Everybody is staring at the marks he’s leaving.

“Comin’ ta find you, cher,” Ruby says at last when they all just stare at him. “Ta find you and Estelle.”

“Well, I’m very glad you did,” Dance says, panting hard. He grabs a stumped tree, leaning, and his hands don’t do anything unusual to the tree. By then, it’s just the tail that seems to be a problem.

Estelle points. “He saved my life.”

Hal whickers, and it’s such an imperative demand that they all smile. Jack snorts too, but warily, jerking his head away, as if he doesn’t like the hot resinous smell coming off Dance’s skin.

Emma frowns, spreading her hands near him, testing how hot he might be, and she nods at Drin.

Dance lets go of the stump, staggers upright, holds up his hands. “Later, I tell stories. Let us go so our gun squad can save bullets, yes? I slow you down out here. I have to walk as fast as I can–”

In spite of the warning, Emma reaches out then with a wad of her jacket sleeve over her hand, and she grabs one of Dance’s arms, and Drin uses the same trick and grabs his other arm, and they start bracing him up, carrying some of his weight, almost dragging him over the thicker wads of branches in the way.

“Boy, you weren’t kidding about the heat load,” Emma says, making a face and shifting her grip on him.

“You are so getting spanked within an inch of your life, you know that, right?” Drin says, nodding toward Emma in warning.

Dance just grins. “Hey, I am alive to yell… I am alive to beg… I will say, oh please, please stop hitting me!”

“If you ever do that again–” Emma says. “You know, I am going to stop saying that. It’s getting boring to hear myself repeating it all the time. I’ll just whack on your sorry ass until I’m tired.”

“That won’t take very long right now, neh? Maybe I should ask you stop walking and hit me now?” Dance says.

Grace blinks, startled by the sly humor.

Emma sighs, rolls her eyes upward, and grins back at Grace. Then she leans into Dance and shouts in his ear, “You’re gonna be so sorry!”

“Ouch,” Dance says, wincing.

“Just keep it in mind, okay?” Emma says, yanking him along firmly.

blue mushrooms and moss
mushrooms on log

“Okay,” Dance says meekly. “Drin, I think I am still… a baby naga…” Dance pants. “I should not overheat. I don’t believe it is right. It should all be going into the focus, all of it. Not so much waste heat.”

Drin nods. “Maybe there’s some things that still need to grow up to full size, or they’re so new they aren’t quite working right?”

“I could blow myself up if I am made wrong!” Dance says.

“Well, yeeeah!” Emma snaps. “So stop doing that!”

Caleb turns his head, grins at the look on Ruby’s face, and on Grace’s face–even Hal’s equine face is looking a little dubious, something about the angle of the ears–and Caleb starts laughing. “What is this, some fucking damned assembly required, and they didn’t even give you the shitty little Allen wrench or something?”

“No… manual… included,” Dance says, panting.

There’s more gunfire behind them. Dance’s tail shifts in agitation, but Drin grasps his arm firmly and pulls him along. “You’ve done enough. Quit the fancy stuff today. If it has to come down to fighting bugs by hand, do that. You just ripped that canopy out of your shoulders today. I mean, damn, pulling off both of those, brand new? You’re pushing it too hard. That’s probably why it’s overheating, it just isn’t fully expanded yet.”

“Christ,” Caleb says, slogging. “Not fully expanded? Fucking Teenage Jesus jumping on a goddamned–“

“–purple pogo stick with a koala bear, thank you,” Emma says to Caleb. “No Allen wrenches, no. And I think that lost owner’s manual ain’t posted on the Internet either.”

Caleb laughs.

Drin says dryly, “It was always ‘making things up as you went along.'”

“Well, somebody sure as hell had a fucking whacko imagination, didn’t they?” Caleb says.

“No comment,” Drin says lightly, as Dance glances up at him. “Not implicating myself!”

Four armed men appear on the trail behind them, two teams overlapping one another as they shift guard-duty at the back end.

“Oh good, they caught up,” Ruby says then, and heads back the way they came, reversing the column to lead the way, along with Penelope.

Cesar and Aaron remain at the back, and the other two come forward to join Ruby.

“What the hell–” Drin says. “Marcel Roi? Jay Kim? What the hell are you guys doing–”

“Whassup,” Jay Kim says, with a little smile, and he exchanges a high-five with Drin as he passes. This is odd, because he does not look like the kind of guy who normally smiles a lot. His other hand is holding some kind of large gun, and not any type that Grace recognizes.

“Dead bugs, mostly,” Emma says coolly.

“Good, good, I like ’em that way,” Jay Kim says, nodding to her and grinning at Dance, not even breaking stride. “Nice job, Dance. So, you’re done playing fry cook today?”

Dance nods, panting, and leans into Drin’s support more heavily a moment.

“Good to know,” Jay Kim says, and grins.

Roi looks at his partner in obvious disbelief. “God, I hate it when you get happy.”

“I’m beginning to see why,” Emma says.

Kim’s smile just gets wider. He pats the stock of his gun and keeps walking.

“So did Cesar and Aaron get back to their car and their guns?” Drin asks.

“Yes, they knocked down some bugs for us, ran down the road to get those, came back and blew away some more bugs,” Roi says. “Real fast guys, your buddies. Even lent us some backup artillery.” He shifts the even bigger gun he’s holding. “Believe me, I’m grateful.”

Jay Kim murmurs something, watching the woods ahead of them, and he laughs.

Marcel Roi shakes his head, rolling his eyes. Then he says, “So you’re Ruby? Pleased ta meetcha, ma’am, I do like a lady who knows what to do with a shotgun. And it’s Penelope, yes? Guiding us? Very good, we’ll stay just back of your elbows, if that’s okay with you.”

“Perhaps we need to get a move on,” Grace says with an anxious look behind them. She’s sad to see the bees retreat; they had been a reassuring link to the people in the house, to Lucas.

They file down the narrow way past the fallen tree, and then they’re moving as fast as Dance can go. On the clear stretches, he rolls up onto sidewinder-style loops of tail, shifting along at better than a running pace, but it tires the muscles so much that it makes him struggle to lift it over tangles of brush. After awhile it has cooled enough that they can lift it for him, as long as they keep some layers of cloth over their hands. Hauling that weight, they still average a pace fast enough to make all of them pant.

It’s strange how much farther it seems going home than it did outbound; but Penelope is taking them along a different trail, one that loops and meets the outbound one sometimes. Penelope calls rests whenever she needs to stop at the boxes and return the keys; there are different key boxes on this route. Grace scrambles up and down, getting her knees muddy, blowing in the little tin whistles or the pan pipes or the ocarinas that came from the box just before.

“How many bugs are we talking? How many did you guys see?” Drin is asking Dance.

Dance frowns, waving one hand. He speaks in short little bursts, but he keeps talking for some time. “I believe… Jay Kim said he knocked down eleven bugs outright… and he shot six more I saw… I am uncertain if those are kills. Your two friends–Cesar and Aaron, yes?–they knocked down four more kills… I know that… they may have injured seven more. I think Marcel Roi shot five… and injured two more. They all seem to be good at snap shooting… which is why Estelle and I… are here in one piece. But there are more bugs out there… I can hear them chattering on certain frequencies. Those were just advance scouts… like loners from an ant colony.”

“Christ,” Drin mutters.

“And nineteen choirboys singing soprano for a deaf Pope,” Caleb growls.

Dance looks at him and says, “Are there pogo sticks and koalas? Or bicycles?”

Emma laughs. “Nineteen?”

“Hey, one was out sick and the other choir boy knew why they were really there,” Caleb says.

“Ouch,” Emma says, and flounders. Dance’s tail comes up and catches her– Grace hears them all gasp, worried–but Emma gives a little nod, and grabs onto it with her bare hand. “It’s cooled off, we’re okay, thanks.”

“Ahh,” Dance says, making a pained face. “That part got dinged–”

Emma lets go of the tail. “Sorry. Are the– the ribbons okay?”

“Some of them got dinged too. I made such good friends… with a tree when we landed… it wanted to… well, never mind. I had to… decline the invitation.”

Estelle laughs, looking at him. “You broke the tree apart!”

Dance grins as he pants. “Hey, we did. This lady Estelle… gotta warn you guys… she’s so tough… if it was just me, you know… the tree would have had its own way with me…”

Penelope is grubbing around in a hollow tree, swiping at her lank hair. The fine white fluff that usually floats around her head lies in tangled strands down her shoulders. She looks tinier when she’s wet, more fragile, but the dampness just seems to make her more irascible. She yanks out a long black cord, and another little silver ball pops out of the hole.

“Ananda, do you hear me?” Penelope says. No response. She shakes the little ball, swings it by the cord, makes an annoyed noise.

Caleb catches the little device in his hand before it comes to harm. “Be nice. It’s not a morningstar,” Caleb says, examining it, “it’s– some sort of communications device.”

woody conk of fungus
Bracket fungus conk

“Of courssse it issss,” Penelope grumbles. “Ananda!” A staticky crackle comes out of it. Caleb looks perplexed, but Penelope seems to understand. “No, Amit? Where issss Ananda?” Another crackle. “Well, I have to asss well, but I am not toddling off to the lavatory, am I? Well, kindly tell her that we are coming in, the long way.” The next bleat out of the thing makes her cackle, and she stuffs it back into the hollow tree, a bit more carefully than she pulled it out.

She takes inventory of the little group gathered around her, and waves a spindly arm imperiously. “Well, what are we waiting for, another storm? Move along!”

Roi gives a little bow, and invites her to lead the way, and chuckles when she snorts at him.

There’s a distant snapping sound that doesn’t sound like a gun at all. Then Dance is spinning around in mid-air–the tail actually half-launches him into the air, the hood is snapped erect high above his head. What ever it is, the hood bends back almost horizontal above them all, catches it, deforms, and volleys it back.

There’s a cracking report like air split in a sonic boom. It’s followed by a much louder report, and a lot of oily smoke boils up in that one patch of visible sky.

Dance falls back to the ground with a grunt, half in Drin’s arms, half on his knees, and he’s panting in loud, hard gulps. He opens his eyes, scrabbles to get up. “Aaron–”

“Nice save,” says Aaron’s voice from the trees. “New kind of mortar. Ranging shot.”

Drin snorts. “What did he blow?”

“Mantid thorax,” Cesar’s voice says.

“Start jogging,” Aaron replies.

Dance gasps, sagging. But he gets his feet under him, he pushes himself up into Drin’s grip, and into Emma’s. He leans forward, letting them hold him stable, and he just keeps pushing the weight of his pelvis with all that tail on it. He looks like some crazy little theropod dinosaur who needs crutches.

Drin says, “Your tail isn’t burning my hand off. If Hal and Caleb can help carry part of Dance’s tail, Emma and I can try shifting a little faster. It’s the mud.”

Caleb says, “Goddamned sticks in the mud. Gimme some of that fucking amazing snake, we’re gonna do this thing. Here, put the end of it up on Jack’s withers, let him carry that part, and Grace, you help me–”

Grace joins the line, and then they’re all moving, Drin and Emma staggering just ahead of the bull as Dance’s arms lean into them, and Grace is trotting as fast as she can alongside Jack and Caleb. Her hands are holding up a good forty pounds of struggling, straining tail that’s covered in what feels like very hard alligator belly leather.

Hal strides ahead of them all, using a pacing movement that’s smoother for Estelle as his rider, and even he’s skidding sometimes in the slick mud. Hal stops and pushes aside tangles for them with his nose whenever he can, or lifting trees in his teeth. Sometimes he and Roi work at it together, ahead of them, clearing the trail.

“Sonuvabitch and all the baby putti painted on the Sistine Chapel –” Caleb grunts, when Dance hears something behind them and twists his body around, poised. He doesn’t rise up this time, thank God, he just twists back in place and drives himself forward harder and faster.

Emma is stabilizing him in the gloppy mud of the trail more than carrying his weight, but Drin is actively carrying quite a lot of weight, and when he loses his footing and skids, they all stagger and curse and grunt. But Dance keeps pushing. His legs keep shoving at the muck, and he’s going at the same speed as Hal’s pacing stride.

At last a blur of iron pipes, fencing, and native trees looms up over them. Nonflammable things like barbed wire and thick cables and spiked fencing have been woven in and among the uprights. Somebody’s made it into a formidable tangle. The spiky bits point outward. They all have a pretty good guess who gave instructions for it, and who did lots of the smaller weaving herself.

“What the fuck–“ Caleb says then, awed.

“Ever heard of a thorn boma in Africa?” says Grace.

“Forty, a fort, yesss, our fortificationsss, for our Back Forty,” says Penelope, and she is gasping hard enough she stops to lean on a tree, and beckons for Cesar to use the same whistle-pipes as for the laser field. “Sssame pattern, now.”

“You’re a goddess, Penelope,” Drin says, blinking upward.

She pushes back her tangled hair, with a grin. “Nice to be appressssiated, yesss,” she says.

“Tell me where the bloody goddamn front door is, okay? All I want–” Caleb gasps.

They all hear the gunfire, close behind them. Ruby, Jay Kim, and Roi are all facing forward, though, just in case there’s already loose bugs roaming the grounds. Just because they didn’t get any warning of it from Ananda or Amit earlier means nothing.

“We wait,” Penelope says, in an icy calm, “until Ananda getssss it to work–our magician. It won’t speak to Amit since the Storm.”