Living Gold

closeup yellow head of honey bee
Bee Head with pollen

Emma is expecting something, as she pulls up in front of the house. Dance’s phone call alerted her.

“Honey bees, all in the garden. A swarm!”

But–she wasn’t expecting anything like this. The roaring of uncountable wings penetrates the closed windows and engine noises of her old Volvo. In the sunset light, the air in front of the house is blurred with tiny golden bodies in vivid motion; whorls and streamers and galaxies— tornadoes and skyrockets of bees. The neighbors all stand on porches, safely across the street, turning wondering faces towards her home.

The noise increases in pitch as she opens her door. The bees spill over the boundaries of Dance’s garden into adjacent lawns, and eddy against the her car now that it’s still. Some of them land on the hood, crawling across the pinging surface– responding to the warmth, she figures. They tickle, and are unexpectedly heavy, on her bare arms. She lifts her hand to study one crawling on her wrist; the fine plush banded in nickle yellow and rusty black, the delicate, impatient wings, the glossy little head with its sturdy antennae. She can feel its claws release her skin on take-off.

bee hovering at flower
Bee with pollen sacs full

Emma walks slowly to the sidewalk. Close up, she can hear a slightly higher pitch of individual thrumming as they flash past, and the hurtling bodies make her blink reflexively. She wants to call out to house, but is afraid to open her mouth, lest they fly into it. The family across the street is shouting at her to get away, get to safety, but Emma walks steadily between the bees to the gate, and into the maelstrom. Turning to her left, she sees them in sunlight– brilliant glittering gold, like champagne bubbles or confetti, and she finds herself laughing helplessly at the fantastic beauty. Bees rush towards her, part and head to the right, the left, over her head, while others are coming from behind her at the same time.

Dance comes out of the house, and she watches him glide through the golden cosmos towards her.

“This is many swarms,” he says loudly over the booming. “I have counted at least eight beeballs, and they won’t settle– too many other swarms, I think, not enough trees for them. I have never heard of this.” Living gold besprinkles his black hair.

“You are crying? I did too.” He reaches up and wipes her wet face.

Bad Dreams to Share

Emma slouches back in the hard metal patio chair and hoists up her foot.

Dance, without comment, pulls off her shoe and starts rubbing her arches gently, pulling on her toes and making crackly noises come out of her bones. “Other one,” he says. “Please to step out of the stockings. No giving you rug burns.”
She does as he asks, then sits back down again and lets her head flop back over the top rail of the chair. “What happened to all the bee swarms?”

“Oh, Drin called old buddies he used to know. They came today.” He lifts one hand, makes a scoop of it. “Just shovel up bees into some wooden boxes, and that’s all kids. They told me pro guys don’t pick up swarms in this neighborhood, all those dead trees there, the bees got infected with some mite. They told me they would doctor these separate from their own hives. I don’t know what kind of mite.”

flying bees photo by Alexander Wild
photo by Alexander Wild

“Varoa mites, at a guess,” Emma says, staring into the distance. She blinks. “They carry some nasty bee viruses. You could have looked it up.”

“Got you,” Dance says, smiling, with her feet in his lap, working his hands up and down her calves and her shins. She just grunts.

“Your turn,” she says after awhile, making him turn in his chair. She doesn’t have the strength to pummel or squeeze or argue with the muscles in Dance’s shoulders. She just has a conversation with them, tries to persuade them that they can loosen up a bit. As he puts it, she lets them make their own decisions.

But they’re in the worst shape she’s ever encountered, tonight. Something is up. What is really odd is that he’s not talking. He’s buttoned up so tight. If it was work, he’d be furious, he’d be talking to her. He almost can’t help himself, if it’s work.

Usually if he was this tense, he’d be pacing the kitchen, waving his hands and banging the cutting board around, halfway shouting, and saying unpleasant things in Korean while he tries to explain to her–or to Drin–what’s driving him so crazy. He cares about things. He gets so frustrated. Or he’d be out on the street, running it off, trancing out on the movement, trying to let the anger unknot itself, trying to work out what to do. And it would be about work. There’s been nothing like this about Drin, not so far.

So buttoned up. “What are you not talking about, with Drin?” Emma says. “Have you talked to him?”

Dance is silent for quite a long time.

“It is about Drin, isn’t it?”

Dance gives a long, tired sigh. “Yes. I am… worried.”

Emma knows when to shut up. Just wait it out, said the sharp voice in her head, and it’s worried too.

“He dreams a lot,” Dance says. “Rough ones. But he– he says it’s better, now. My God, Emma, better.

“I know. I hear him say it. I still can’t believe it.”

“He says it’s not so rough, over here. Better than before he came to stay with us.”

Emma sighs. She’d know about it whether or not they asked her to join them in Dance’s bedroom. When she gets up in the morning she finds coffee already made and Drin slumped at his computer, looking tired.

“Fighting… dreams about fighting… dreams about the boxes.”

divider wall

“Yes,” says Emma. “Like mine. But in mine, the boxes have… those dead things in them.”

“I wake up and he’s having that, and I only woke up because I fight my own nightmare things. Crabs, lobsters, cyborgs with bug antenna, beetles with pincers–whatever those things are,” Dance says. His voice says he has no doubt they are totally and completely real. He just doesn’t want to find out where that place is.

Emma agrees it is a reasonable attitude. Some of the dead things in the boxes, in her nightmares, look exactly like what he’s described. They stink, in her dreams. Dreams aren’t supposed to have smells, but in their dreams, all three of them smell that reek of bug, and that’s how they know it’s going to be a really bad ride, every time.

She knows that because she’s sat up talking to Dance after some of his really bad ones, his first few months here in the States. He’s had some real doozies since Drin started staying over, too. It’s as if the other man’s sleep disturbances set off Dance.

They all learn a lot more when Drin is sitting there with both of them, asking questions, poking at it very gently, clearly looking for more information.

Oh, Drin knows exactly what it’s like to have a wobbly cellar door with horrors locked away under it. But it doesn’t stop him.  Something that she’d never have got Dance to talk about a year ago, Drin can ease him into it, and then Emma can help. Dance can talk about more of it when both of them are there to talk him down from the terror in those dreams.

Part of this is that Drin is the sort of guy who wakes you up by touching your big toe, letting you thrash your way to consciousness without getting in your way.

Part of it is that he can get Dance to focus on one tiny part at a time, keep it from getting so bad. And such tiny watchmaker’s parts, indeed.

Dance is very precise, very careful, he makes measuring gestures when he tells you how these creatures, these things, are put together. He could draw pictures of them that would give other people nightmares.

It must be all horribly well-lit in his dreams. He calls them memories, though he can’t explain how. Most people could never describe, in such coolly precise detail, how the jointing on the little forehead antennae works, or how the short eyestalks have compound spider-like eyes on the ends. Or how there’s pointy knobs on the forward edge of the jointed arms, like the bumps on horseshoe crab carapaces, or sea-spider arms.

He even says, when they move, they are admirable to watch. They’re so incredible fast and graceful, they’re eerily beautiful in motion.

bug tattoo art by artist Follow the Wind on DOA
So Fast in Motion

He says they used to be people. He says sometimes the bug-people remember that, and it hurts them. Sometimes they defy orders, refusing to do things that they wouldn’t have done when they were still human.

He says nobody asked them if they wanted to become monsters, before the faceless authorities in the helmets laid the screaming people down in those boxes.

In the bad ones, he says, nobody asked him, either.

What’s the odds of three strangers having conjoined nightmares of the same things– before they ever met?

Mostly her nightmares hit worst when she’s really tired and there hasn’t been time for the boys to massage any of the spasming out of her bloody stupid lower back. Or else it’s been too long since she got to sit with her boys. She needs it. Hugging Dance, warm, breathing, letting her lips form a smile, is the only way to dispel that one.

What’s the odds, she hears herself arguing angrily, of three strangers all having bizarrely atypical vital records, all having blank mental periods for one reason or another just before they took new jobs in the same new place, all having bad dreams that overlap to map the same ugly terrain, and all being wildly attracted to one another for no damn good reasons at all?

Look at him, the voice says, heavily reasonable. No good reason? C’mon. You’d take him to bed every chance you get, and love every minute of it. And let’s not get into Drin’s extremely persuasive charms. Last time I looked, neither of the boys lacked appreciation for being fucked senseless by a beautiful woman with a nice juicy bod who knows exactly what she wants, either. Not that you let them ask for it. Yet.

Which makes her mad. The sex is not the point, it’s a part of the syndrome.

What, says the voice without pity, you went lookin’ for love to fix what all’s broken in you? I don’t think so.

Emma feels her lips pressing tightly together into a line. Firmly, she tells the kvetcher in in her head, nobody was fucking like rabbits before Drin got here, either. What’s with that? He shows up and unlocks Dance’s chastity belt and huzzah?

The voice chuckles. Are you sure it was chastity belts you two were wearing, or just plain old fear?

Emma looks at Dance. No, she tells the stubborn old thing in her head. No, it wasn’t just fear.

Ha! says the skeptic, enjoying the argument. You know, Dance doesn’t have any memory gap. Just ask him!

Dance has gaps all over. He just doesn’t know it, she reminds the skeptic. He can’t see it.

But Drin certainly did see it. He asked, didn’t he, girl?

She pounces on it. You concede my point!

Your point? Drin made the point, and you couldn’t avoid it.

Oh yes, wasn’t that a horrible conversation, she and Drin standing there washing dishes, while Dance is getting dressed for some evening event.

“Have you talked to Dance about his box of pictures?” Drin asked her.

That nasty stab of fear in her gut, her eyes flashing up to meet his. Seeing the same fear, the very same fear, in the big man’s eyes.

If she had ever wondered about it, she knew then that Drin loves their musician as much as she does. That gave her the courage, somehow.

She nodded, and handed him a plate, and she told Drin, “He can’t wrap his head around it. You can tell him that man’s watch wasn’t sold after 1959, anywhere in the world, and he just laughs at what stick-in-the-muds his parents must have been, even back then, and he talks about how happy they look in the pictures. Not like real life. He remembers them arguing. His mom crying.”

She saw the flinch in Drin’s face. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, lots of arguing, I think. And the rest of the pictures?”

“You mean the ones that aren’t printed? The negatives?” she said, meeting his gaze as steadily as she could.

“The ones you left in there to keep them safe,” Drin said it quietly.

reversed negative image of piano
As in Dreams

“Yes,” she agreed. “Those negatives. I didn’t add any of those in, you know. Those are all his, they came with him. The numbers are contiguous with his other negatives, if you check. He won’t look at the negatives. I’ve tried. He just blinks at them and sets them aside and goes back to talking about his music teacher. I don’t think he can see what’s in front of his nose. Not like we can.”

“I’ve noticed he goes back to talking about his teacher for anything about that era. It can be on TV, if they show pictures of people dressed like his family–you ask him, he talks about her.”

“I think she must have saved his sanity, whatever it was happened,” Emma told him.

Drin said the terrible thing, the thing she can’t bear. The thing she has never been able to think past.

Maybe, agrees the skeptic in her head, Dance’s music teacher, his Grandmother-teacher, never existed at all. She sounds a bit unreal, all right.

“Then who’s answering his emails?” Emma asked Drin, half-angry, all frightened.

And he told her. Scared her to death. “A secure server in a military node here on the West Coast. Heavy encryption, I’m not taking the time to hack something like that. Draws attention.”

Typical, says the voice in her head. Drop it on you like that, and then turn around as if nothing is wrong, kiss the kid for being so pretty in his new silk tux. And then kiss you, with a nice big cuddle and a hand on your fantastic ass.

That’s the most disconcerting part of that kvetcher–the distinctly masculine tone of the advisor who troubles her meetings with her co-workers, and disrupts her inner thoughts with rude remarks. She would not have described herself that way at all. She can’t think of herself that way. No woman on earth, after the conditioning of school and peers and relative’s cruel remarks and women’s magazines, would think of herself that way.

And it’s not always right, either. Most of the time, yes. Helpful as hell at warning her that the complicated sports-team competition logic in some group dynamic doesn’t match her natural instincts for a damn, and she better watch her step. Good guessing, maybe. But right? Not all the time. This is certainly not the voice of God telling her to siddown and shuddup. It’s much more like some raspy rude old boss who used to know what the hell he was doing, not that she’s run into many of those lately.

Much more likely you’re just borrowing bits of bad shit from each other, telling each other frilly stories. It’s so handy when your subconscious needs a spare part to make a point, says the skeptic in her head.

Dance is twisted around, looking at her with those alarmingly big, unblinking eyes, just waiting. Watching her think. Watching her battle down that unyielding inner crapmeister, so she can try her best to be civil. He knows about that too, God knows she’s let that one out to air often enough when she was careless. He speaks to it very politely. He says things like, “What’s your name? Can I talk to Emma now?” and smile.

“God, we are a collection, aren’t we?” Emma says.

“He says– he thinks– he knows where to find out why.” Dance is taking such shallow, squeezed breaths that he can’t even get out a whole sentence.

Emma checks several conflicting impulses, and she speaks quietly. She says, “Where is that?”

“Drin said something about his next trip, having to go check on some property he owns part of, I think it is a horse farm or something,” Dance says, turning away, and putting his chin back down on his chest, stretching his neck.

Emma waits him out. Her fingers resume moving on his shoulders, approaching the knots and retreating gently. His shoulders don’t get like this for no reason.

“I am afraid–” Dance draws in a deep breath.

Emma says, as briskly as puncturing a road-blister that happens to be at an awkward angle for him, “You’re afraid he won’t come back?”

“Yes. Or he won’t come back the same,” Dance says, in a rush.

“Why do you think that?” Emma asks, neutrally.

“He doesn’t want to go. It makes him afraid,” Dance says. “Some part is fighting what the other parts say to do.”

She leans her head in and rests her forehead on the nape of his neck. Dance knows what he’s talking about, stuff like that.

“I asked– I asked if I could go, too,” Dance says.

model Adrian Allen before tiled Arabic architecture
Travelling

Emma lifts her head, blinking in surprise. Most of the time, Drin is the one thinking up crazy trips and places to visit. He’ll call them from some business trip, asking them to fly in and see something with him, and ride back with him after. He loves to have them come along, whenever they can. He’s always the first to invite them. Dance never asks things like that. He has never needed to.

“He said no,” Dance says, turning toward her in the chair. “He said he wants me here, with you, so both of us are safe.”

“Did you tell him that just makes you very afraid?”

Dance looks away.

“Oh my dear, you didn’t,” Emma says. “You started to cry? You big brave guy, you’ll stand up and do solos in front of heads of state, but when your partner says no, you can’t come–”

Dance’s eyes flash. “My fiancee,” he says then, with his head coming up stiffly. “Even if I’m such a– a–weeping willow boy.”

No wonder, if his neck has been as stiff as this–as stiff as it’s been all afternoon, Emma realizes. She gives a rough laugh. “My dear, he values your skills very highly indeed. He’s wanting to make sure he doesn’t leave either of us alone for too long. I feel horribly guilty that I’m keeping you here. It’s my fault, my dear. He asked me, you know, if we could all go together.”

Dance blinks, and looks at her.

She shrugs. “It’s the end of inventory that week, I simply can’t. I’m so sorry, Dance. He did ask about my schedule three weeks ago.”

The shoulders ease considerably under her touch.

“But what is he afraid of?” Emma asks then.

“He doesn’t know,” Dance says, staring past her shoulder. “I asked, ‘Why go? Why do this, if you have so much fear?’ He doesn’t know.”

He lifts one hand and scrubs his face with his knuckles, until she reaches down and pulls a tissue from her purse for him.

“He started to cry too.  He said he loves willow trees. I said they have horrible invasive roots that crush plumbing. He said he’s not surprised, and he made me laugh. He always makes me laugh.”

“Oh my dear,” Emma says. “Oh, that big damnable lummox of a man, anyway.”

“Now I’ve made you cry too,” Dance says.

Emma manages a crooked smile. More tissues, dammit.  “What did he say?”

“He said if there is that much fear, he has to find out why, before it–” Dance draws in a deeper breath, “–before it comes down and bites us all on the ass.”

Emma gives a choked noise, it isn’t really a laugh.

Famous last words, says the sardonic voice in her head, but she doesn’t say it.

Dance doesn’t need to hear it. Whatever fears are choking off his breath like that, he doesn’t need help at making it worse.

What Dance needs, Emma tells the sarcastic observer in her head, is reassurance.

And a damn good therapist, says the voice.

She ignores it in favor of wrapping her arms around her musician and kissing him very hard.

Pillow Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you know the people in the car?”

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

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

“Stop what?” he says, surprised.

“Thinking that,” she says.

“What?” he says.

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

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

Dance starts to laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

If They Could Talk

The guitar’s notes rise and fall, plangent as rain falling in a dark pool. Echoes ripple through the house and its wooden floors just as mysteriously. The dawn sun throws odd shadows through the tule fog. Gray curls of mist twirl visibly against the window panes, curling into plumes like the tails of the fluffy gray cats that live next door, sitting in the windows. The foglight throws blurred light across the floor in shafts without clear edges.

It is a house where Dance’s music practices sound different whenever the weather changes. For that matter, so does the thump and hiss of his martial arts practices, when he is not trying to be quiet.

Emma tilts her head, frowning at the glare of the computer screen, where her work is frustrating her. She would rather slip away from its challenges and go answer the whisper of the guitar’s strings speaking in the rhythmic accents of Anduluz of centuries ago.

He’s been up all night too, playing through all his instruments, playing pieces he needs to practice. He’s been swearing sometimes in frustration at the very same time as she was.

She recognizes the composer that is a ghost presence at her ear now, dead at least three hundred years now, from a time and a culture that is as alien to her beliefs and her life as a priest from an Aztec blood cult would be. She knows enough to know that it would be that strange, or more. She can hear how strange those accents really are, in the way Dance plays them.

Dance’s interpretation does not make the Pavane for a Dead Princess a melancholy piece. Nor does he make it dripping with fury, as she’s heard sometimes. It is balanced in a nicely terrifying tension between anger, grief, loneliness, tenderness, and a clear unflinching memory of what really was, not what one wished it had been.

A very clear remembrance of all those times a busy person gave up the chance to be with someone they loved, frittered away their shared time, turning away to some other higher task–and now they are gone, and there will be no more chances. Ever.

Sometimes when Dance plays, she finds him quite the most terrifying creature she’s ever met.

She has been struggling with the sense that her lovers live an interior life quite as different from hers as the unseen side of the moon.

While the two men may be the kind of men who are deft with a joke and wonderfully sociable on their own terms, they do not unveil their inner mysteries by choice. She’s not sure they know how.

But Dance is a musician. He speaks to her across the house that way, in the silence.

She doesn’t bother to shut off the computer when she gets up. She just crosses the house in swift, loud steps, letting him hear it.

He has set aside the guitar by the time she reaches him. He stands up to meet her, shorter than she is. He looks up at her with that steady face that is not a mask at all. It speaks to her now of endurance, of setting aside something that is as close to pain as he ever shows.

“Musicians!” she says, her Aussie accent getting away from her. “If they could just talk, they wouldn’t be musicians, would they?” he grabs a wad of his hair, tugs on it, wraps both arms tight around him.

Dance is not as angular and uncomfortable this morning as he has been in months past. He can make himself all bony angles and sharp points, like a cat trying to escape, when he wants to. Right now he just feels bulky and solid and warm, standing there letting her hold onto him. And then, very gently, he lifts one hand and strokes the back of her elbow, and then he traces her shoulder blades with his fingertips, as if he wants to memorize what they feel like. It drives her perfectly wild sometimes.

Muffled against his hair, she says roughly, “He’ll be back tomorrow night. They just got delayed. He’ll be fine. He said he was fine. I hate it when he leaves too.”

Dance turns his face into her collarbones, leaning into her.

After awhile he says, “You always smell so good.”

She smiles into his hair. “I’m all nasty from working all night, I should get a shower–”

Dance turns his head, with a sigh. “I just like how you smell.”

b/w m/w couple urgent hug
urgent hug

Emma starts to smile. Some things are not a mystery. About some things she’s been reassured numerous times. He might not talk; but he will sit nearby listening, he will rub her stupid back if she asks for it and he will warm that stupid back with his own, all rolled up warm in the blankets. But he won’t ask first. There he hits some kind of internal boundary he won’t cross.

Softly, Dance murmurs into her neck, breathing along her collarbone. “Want company?”

===

July 21, 2008 Challenge: Fog  Author’s Notes: The music sounds like rain to a lot of people, but I always recall this piece when I am watching tule fog in motion.

Fozzie’s Rent

Drin is fighting off a desperate sense of deja blank.

The social part of his monkey brain is screaming, “Come on, get with it here–I ought to know this person, I ought to know about the business I’ve been investing in, and I’m coming up empty!”

File 404, file not found, says his brain.

That has been happening more often as he’s been poking around his older investments. Yes, he’d been checking through those investments made by his former self, gradually, swinging through in person to see what’s been happening with those properties and those stocks. Generally they’ve been doing fine, against all odds, and there’s nothing to worry about.

After this many days of trying to track down who really brought Hyphen into the world, Drin had been uncertain where to turn for help. He had dug out some tantalizing hints by way of angry blog comments from people who object to how Hyphen has been operating, comments on who has been pulling Hyphen’s strings. The name of Fozzie kept coming up.

Fozzie wasn’t found directly online, only by inference. Fozzie was probably one of those folks who doesn’t like attention, somebody who’s seen only by indirect reference from others. The shock was to find any facts floating around online. Vague talk about Fozzie and his trucks started surfacing in blogs talking about military secrets and kidnappings. How many “Fozzie”s can there be?

Especially ones who lived north of NOLA, who bred rare pigs and dogs and horses, and who somehow gave refuge to folks running away from the black helicopter contractor crowd for unspecified reasons. Something to do with illegal gen-eng labs running projects that aren’t even hidden very well.

Drin hadn’t gone to the talkers, no; many of them wincingly impulsive and incautious in what they say. But Fozzie, as the authority they refer to, might be of some pragmatic help to them.

It had been almost embarrassing to remember that the same name showed up among his own files, stashed in a large folder he’d been ignoring for lack of time. He’d been meaning to call that very person for some time, and once his memory finally coughed up a photographic image of the page–wonderful how it could react under real stress–then arranging to meet Fozzie had been quite simple. But not knowing the faces of people he has records of talking to, that’s alarming.

“Got your rent check for you,” says the enormous hairy man, sliding an envelope over the table toward him.

“Hey, Fozzie, man,” Drin says, making no move to touch the envelope. “How’s Lacey?”

“She’s great, real happy, got her a new baby colt this week to look after,” Fozzie says, sucking the foam off his beer.

“So how’s the rest of the horse farm doing?”

“Good, we’re all good,” Fozzie says. “Trucking is going well too, I got me two new guys from the prior batch of kids you brought us. Be awhile before some of ’em can grow up into themselves, you know how it is.”

Drin blinks at him. “I don’t remember–”

The big hairy hand waves it off. “You wouldn’t. Back awhile, your last trip up the Underground Railroad. Not sure about this more recent batch of rescuees.  I ain’t trying with more and worse like that. The labs must be veering a whole long way off specs, dunno where they think they’re headed. Bugland, man. Out of the ones we could save, I dunno they’ll ever be able to help out much.”

Drin just stares at him. The words don’t mean anything, connected in that order.

Fozzie looks more closely at Drin, leaning his bulk over the diner table. “Don’t remember, huh? Christ, man, they really smudged you out bad, this time. You know, you first woke up, you reported they said not to come back? Well, the kind of rescues coming in now, there’s no damn point anyway. Law of diminishing returns. Can’t work with ’em, I’m sorry, man. Knew we was gettin’ too old for this shit, but this is ridiculous.”

“Fozzie,” Drin says slowly, puzzled, and he shoves back the envelope across the table. “I don’t need your money right now. Put it back into the farm, get the new folks there back up on their feet, like always.”

The big man sighs. “I knew I was gonna have to do this. I hate this part, man. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” He glances aside at the doorway, where a tall, thin, dark figure has ducked beneath the shortness of the public lintel, and is walking steadily toward them. In the diner’s light, it becomes a black man in a dark suit with a long sad face. He is carrying a Bible. “Preacher Slick is gonna testify a little bit here.”

Drin knows that figure. Somewhere, somewhen, he has been afflicted with this experience before, the long thin sad figure reaching toward him, and it has hurt him in places he didn’t know he had. He knows it is associated with pain.

He feels his feet scrabbling under him, and then the wave of the Preacher’s voice is rolling over him. “For we are all of us one, We are, All of Us, made in God’s Image,” says the Preacher, with his terrifying eyes, and then all Drin can hear is the roar of bees.

Millions and millions of bees.

They are combat bees.

They are his friends, thank God. The bees have kept him alive this long, but they aren’t going to survive the aerial crap that’s on its slow, horrible way.

They are the only thing he has left, in a position he can’t hold, with everything else knocked out and his ammo gone but for three remaining starburst shells and a rifle that jammed earlier or it’d be gone too. There are dead people on all sides of him, and the gagging stink of the new ones, the bug-mods, everywhere, reeking of stale engine oil and honey. This is not your grandpappy’s Afghanistan.

He sends the bees off to go wild in the hill caves, go far, go forty miles or more, he sends them, where they can’t be so easily captured for the information coded into their mods and their genetics.

bee swarm on ceiling
bee swarm

It’s the nicest thing he’s ever done for them, freeing them. He doesn’t expect gratitude, he doesn’t expect to feel good, or to hear it coming.

He doesn’t expect to feel anything, after that.

But there’s pain. Quite a lot of it.

There is, when you live through it.

Remembrance of Horrors Past

When he wakes up, in the dark, his body is rocking back and forth at some indeterminate height, on inadequate padding, and something is brushing at his hair. He blinks, twists a little, and relaxes. He is in the upper berth of a sleepover cab swaying on a fairly rough road, with the roar of the reefer going about five feet from his ear, outside. Somebody has shut the little curtain so he isn’t blinded when he wakes up. The hem is touching his head.

He suspects the somebody is the person whistling cheerfully along with the Preacher’s voice, slightly crackly, on the local broadcast station. The Preacher is singing to the universe, via local radio, in a nice basso, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“Hey, Drin,” Fozzie says, to the creak of the driver’s chair, and the rig sways on a corner. “You feeling hungry yet? Got some pop down here in the cooler, if you’re thirsty. Just be careful crawling down. Preacher’s giving your head a massage that hard can make you dizzy, sometimes.”

Drin curls up, clutching his head. Covers his eyes.

“You let me know, I got some fries left here,” Fozzie says, with the faintest twinge of worry in his voice.

“I’m okay,” Drin manages, and knows he sounds funny. It’s not all there, it hasn’t all come back. But enough to hurt like hell. He doesn’t bother to fight it. Let the water run down his face, what the fuck does it matter? Fozzie’s seen it before, God knows, and Preacher sees it all from the inside, like no confessor on earth.

He understands now what Fozzie meant. This time, when he made that long rough trip back down the Railroad, bringing along some of the most difficult rescue projects he’s ever brought to Fozzie’s horse farm, he was told that was it. That would be his last trip. The folks who were left back there, knowing they were in a position they couldn’t hold, knowing, too far up forward there, too close and too exposed near the Asian labs, the only ones left to help him, they insisted on scrubbing out as much of his memories of it all as they could. Forget, live out your life in in peace, at the end where the zoomorph people are freed.

Don’t come back again, they said, too risky, too much to be lost if you’re caught, and they have made it as close to impossible as they can. How the hell did they do that, without someone–or something–like Preacher Slick at hand to do it? Is there another like Preacher out there in the world? Can you make somebody like Preacher?

Much of it was too seriously smudged out for even a miracle man like Preacher Slick to recover the expertise that was once there, but the stains and the grief and the music of it are still there.

He was married, a long time ago. His wife’s face is gone, her name, what she liked to do, all of it; there is just the fact of how much it hurt to lose her.

The military labs were never that secure, or that careful, or that bright, about keeping their modded creatures from contaminating the civilian environment. Offer any security gap at all, and the black market will find a use for it. Kiplings, the early prototypes were called, somebody’s romantic notion. Kipling himself thought war was a fun, romantic occupation, he never saw the real horror, or the waste, or the corruption. Aside from being a racist in the way that all of his generation was, of course–quite advanced for his time, really. The project leads who borrowed those names didn’t have the same excuse.

One of the last war-spec creatures grown in the contract labs ended up on the black market afterward. It was used idiotically, used in ways that drove it quite mad. Drin came out of retirement, and he killed it, a mercy. But not in time. That Shere Khan killed a lot of innocent people first.

He testified, with helmet-mounted video records. Talked about the Shere Khan, about how it killed his wife. Made no difference at all. Oh, they jailed a few scapegoats, they actually fined a few others, but it didn’t stop the trade at all.

head of shere khan in gear
Hidden Moves, Infinite Toy Box

The contract labs remain busy, years after the end of that unlabeled war. The labs have never stopped growing out things based on combat blueprints, at quite a nice market price, and washing their hands of it, just walking away from it, when something turns into the monster image that its new owners never acknowledged was there all along. He doesn’t believe the news reports of man-killing tigers in Asian provinces that are stripped bald to the dirt by too many people in search of firewood and too many goats and too many skinny cows.  Those things were never tigers.

He’s never forgotten the inquiring yellow gaze of the first, the very first, of the Bagheeras he’s had to put down. Ever since, he’s been going in and rescuing the creatures he can, and killing the ones that nobody can handle, ever. Fucking. Since. Call it job security, for a retired military handler of zoomorphs.

And now those people, on the forward line, as Fozzie puts it, they’ve made it impossible for him to go back. Impossible to find his ass with either hand, in this context.

The folks fighting on their own over there, on hostile ground, with all the money against them, facing what comes out of self-determining factories that are building their own bug-mod assembly lines and their own bug-mods and their own entirely alien agenda.

Go home
, those people said, and if you can’t forget about this, then stop the Bugs from growing out in your own area, before they can get this far out of control. You have more tools than we did.

Fozzie’s horse farm, at the end of the Underground Railroad, is where lost wild zoomorphs drift in on the tide and get clean clothes, some food, and attempts at direction to some kind of new life. Not all of them are creatures that Drin brought back with him, rescued from Third World labs. Very few of them are children of zoomorph people, either. Most of those women couldn’t carry to term if they had the best care in the world, and most of the men are infertile at best.

But the bugs, man, Fozzie says the bug-mod are testing his perimeters all the time. They’re coming from somewhere. Fozzie and Preacher said there’s scam-artists out there, cheap black market suppliers running bug troop labs, impossibly, right out there in American swamps.

That swamp sounds like a pretty busy place, what with the nutjobs protecting their pot and their meth labs with booby-trapped rifles and the wingnut militia compounds with barbwire fences and highly illegal artillery, and the bug labs, with their greenhouses full of green sarcoboxes in the back, where they don’t let anybody look too closely.

Some of the people Fozzie rescues aren’t Kiplings in any form, they were accidents. By-products.  They’ve come out of the woods like feral dogs, fearful and covered in ticks, unable to tell anyone why they suddenly started growing wolf teeth in their long jaws, or a nose capable of outdoing a bloodhound, and no memory of how far they’ve hiked through the nights, or quite where they were coming from in the first place.

“Over the mountains,” they say, and tell you about drinking from park fountains along the Appalachian passes. Their families sometimes show up with them, even, talking about drifts of pink fog swirled around by almost-silent choppers running sweeps over the trees, at night, when everybody is asleep. Dumping stuff that didn’t work, Fozzie says grimly.

Some battles, there is no retirement. You just get tired.

“Yeah,” Fozzie says to the silence, as if he does know what it’s like. “You let me know.”

Standards

Drin scrubs the heel of his hand across his eyes. “Sweetheart, what are you–why are you up this time of the night– Oh.”

Another bad dream, no doubt of that, and some time ago. The kitchen smells of cardamom and cinnamon and mace and nutmeg and a dozen other aromatics. There’s a dirty teapot and a mug by the sink, a bread wrapper in the trash, and an empty jar soaking in the sink. Apple butter doesn’t last long in this house, not these days.

Dance’s eyes come up to him, and when Drin reaches out, he flinches away. Instead of trying to touch him anyway, Drin pulls out a chair, moving slowly. He’s about to ask when Dance starts talking. He sounds odd: flat, toneless, blurred, as if he’s talking with something in his mouth, like he’s chewing gum, but he isn’t.

“You had a blue uniform. It had gold bees here.” Dance touches his own collarbone. “You had a– a black thing in your hand. A tool. How do you say, a baton. I don’t know, a taser, I guess. It zaps me, it feels like a stinger, it hurts. I was waiting for you in this concrete pit, this cell, I was going to bite you and make you all better because you were sick, but you didn’t want me to. You– you zapped me with the stinger to make me stay back. I bit you anyway. Then I carried you to bed in white hospital room, I made you stay there while the medicine worked, and other people tried to sting me, and I wouldn’t let them. I let you, but I wouldn’t let them. I was too fast. I made them stay out of this hospital place, and leave you alone so you could get better, and it made them afraid. They kept chasing me. Why didn’t you want me to bite you all better?”

Drin sits on the chair so he’s not looming over his lover. “Did I get better?”

Dance rolls his head away, and then he’s covering his head in his hands. “I don’t know, I don’t know–”

“It’s all right,” Drin says. “I’m here. I guess it worked, huh? I’m fine. I’m all here, and you’re here, and it’s fine–” And then his arms are full of heavy muscle and bone, and he gives a grunt of surprise, and kisses the hot skin. Dance’s head is pushed against his chest. “It’s all right.” He’s not sure why it makes sense to say, “I’m not wearing any uniforms with bees, not ever again,” but it does. He can see the uniform as clear as if Dance had given him a picture of it. He’s not sure why the act of seeing it makes him feel so tired. That horrible dread: More doors to things he doesn’t want to see. “Never again, I swear.”

Dance gives a big sigh.

vintage locket

Drin kisses his forehead, murmuring, and hugs the smaller man. Hugs him very tight. “You’re safe, it’s all over. We’re home.”

“Home,” Dance whispers.

“Home,” Drin assures him. “You don’t have to fight anything now.”

Dance burrows in tighter. “‘m lucky, I’m so lucky,” and he’s shivering.

“I think I am, too, yes,” Drin tells him, stroking his back. Dance feels as hot as if he’s been running, when all he’s been doing in gobble up slices of toast with apple butter on it. Doctored up with an amazing collection of spices, if Drin is any judge. “Did the cinnamon help?”

Dance shivers. “Yeah. So hungry. ‘m always hungry. Want more. Something. Korean food. Indian food. Tex-Mex. Afghan. Chinese. Ethiopian–”

Drin strokes the man’s knotted back in long, slow sweeps. “It’s all right. We can get some chilihead goodies. Just chili heat, or lots of different spices?”

“Lots of things,” Dance says. He lifts his head, kisses Drin’s shoulder, and leans his head back into Drin’s arm, stretching back so his throat is exposed to Drin’s gaze. It’s a very odd posture. Drin used to think it was just Dance stretching out those violinist’s muscles. He’s not sure what to think any more, after hearing some of Dance’s dreams; but it’s a request, and he knows what to do.

Drin leans down and kisses him on the cords of his throat, up along under his ear, rubbing his hand along the warm skin, licking thoroughly along the side of Dance’s neck, and as he’s noticed before, those muscles ease. Those all-important shoulder and arm muscles, the sinews for playing violin, gradully relax, the incredible knots and bulges smooth out.

Dance gives a little groan of relief. “Better.”

“Good.” Drin reaches around with his thumb and kneads at the base of Dance’s skull, feeling around for any last resistant fibers, and massages them into submission. Massage will fix just about anything with his partners, he’s found. Well, anything except not being there to do it, or being too busy with work, and he’s not letting that happen again. Dance’s head rolls limply as he rotates the skull and pushes his fingers along in slow sequences along the man’s spine. “There. Magic reset button, yeah? Are you still starving for something spicy?”

Dance gives another sigh. “No, I’m… I’m not. That’s weird. I’m okay now.”

“Maybe it just took a few minutes for the toast and apple butter to kick in?”

“Maybe,” Dance agrees. He stares up at Drin. Solemnly he says, “You’re very scary with a stinger in your hand, you know.”

corridor in rainbow colors
corridor in color

“Hell, anybody would be, that’s the whole point of weapons like a taser,” Drin replies. His own sudden rush of anger is… odd. He’s not angry at Dance. He’s angry at something. Somebody else. What an appalling image– him going after Dance with a goddamn taser, of all things. How stupid. The image infuriates him, angers him, he can imagine it as clearly as it did happen. Like watching a disaster unfurl on a video, and nobody can stop it. Damn fools would do better to walk in on Dance unarmed, talk him down. A tool like that is an idiot’s caution, somebody’s smart idea of going after a bear with a peashooter. He sounds a little too fierce when he tells Dance, “I would never do something like that.”

Dance rolls his head down into Drin’s shoulder again. “You would if you thought I was going insane, if I was killing people, but that’s all you had.”

Drin snorts in disbelief. “I hope I’d never do something that stupid.”

Dance nuzzles into Drin’s shoulder with a huff of warm breath, and gets hugged tighter. Why would Dance dream of being abused by such a thing in his lover’s hand? What is going on, that he has fear dreams like that? Fears of going crazy, yeah. Pictures of dead girls, that’s enough to worry anybody. But would it do any good to tell him that nobody was going to chase him with a taser? Especially not any of the local authorities. Not after that one wacko silly interrogation they pulled on him. Hell, nobody is fast enough to stop Dance from taking such a tool away from them. Nobody. He says so.

Dance stirs, chuckles. “Oh, I’m not that good. Tired. I’m not practicing enough to keep up on my speed drills, you know.”

“You and your impossible standards, man.” Drin shakes his head.

“And yours, my love?” Dance says.

Drin smiles at him. “My standards say I carry you back to bed and kiss you and make you come until you are so tired out that you just can’t stay awake and you sleep like a baby.”

Dance rolls his head up higher on Drin’s shoulder. “I like your standards.”

The Geek Grrl Works Out

head of red-haired woman
Swear I’m Gonna Cut It All Off

Emma hates tying her hair up in a ponytail. It makes her look like a middle-aged bitch trying to play cute and drop twenty years, in her not-so-humble opinion. But it’s the only thing that works when she’s trying to complete a Wii workout, using the gear that Drin gave her for her birthday. By God, she will use it, and be seen using it on a regular basis. At least it’s decent cardio, she thinks grimly. It’s not a patch on the yoga she does, or on the kind of merciless exploratory stuff that Dance will put her through in his damn dojo, trying to find out what she needs to strengthen for the next month, but by God it does get her blood pumping, and–

“You look fine, stop fussing,” Dance says, reading her mind effortlessly as he pulls out a cookbook, and walks back into the kitchen.

She throws a look at him, and misses her next sequence. Catches up again.

“You should play him the MUD games,” Dance says then.

“What?” Emma exclaims.

“You only not play because of winning too much,” Dance says.

“They’re not even very inventive on the ordered sequences, how hard is that?” Emma snarls, speeding up the Wii unwisely, and stomping through the set of steps.

Dance clicks his tongue. “No pounding, I hear your ankle bones breaking. Stepping on paper, no rustling, Grasshopper, yes?”

“God, how long am I gonna rue the day I ever let you watch Kung Fu–” Emma growls, softening her stomps a little. No point in being noisy, but she wants to pound on something. It’s been a helluva day, including comments from the unseen coach from the back of her skull, laughing at her puny efforts.

And no yelling at Dance either–he’s had a helluva week. He only starts yanking the fancy cookbooks and trying complicated things when he really, really needs to focus on just one thing, and force his brain off all the things that are giving him fits. Performing an egg-oil suspension well-mixed means no thinking about how they can’t afford things at the grocery store, or how Drin covered the gas bill last week, or how the Metro is talking about paycuts and laying people off, with some very nasty specifics on laying off the more expensive, competent, experienced musicians and admin folks–or how their ticket sales are going way down, or how they need to hire somebody to assist a conductor who’s openly courting other jobs anyway–

“–goddamn that sonuvabitch anyway–” Emma growls.

Dance doesn’t look up from his cookbook. Absently, he says, “We’ll survive him, too.”

“Who him?” Drin asks, standing suddenly in the doorway.

“Richard Young,” Emma snarls, and simply flings herself at Drin.

He catches her, of course. He always does. Just plucks her out of the air, both big hands around her ribcage, swings her around tidily in the limited space, puts her back down on her feet, and drops a kiss on her forehead. Then he picks up a thick couch cushion, holds it up, and says, “Box it, man.”

She hunkers down, clenches her fists, and starts pumping knuckles into the cushion. Rising uppercuts, wild roundhouses.

“Don’t lean into it, keep your weight balanced over your feet,” he murmurs, watching. “Keep that other forearm up, fist guarding your face. Good. Bring on that Mohammad Ali lacing-twist. Now gimme a side kick. Ooh, nice. Combo. Chicken kick. Spinning kick. Back up now, you got me on the wall.”

Another two advancing trails, back him up into the wall each time, and Emma is panting hard, mopping stray curls out of her eyes.

“Jog in place, shake out your arms, loosen up,” Drin says, smiling. “Feel better?”

“Yeah,” Emma pants, stretching her hamstrings.

“I had to go to the dojo and get Dance to beat me up last week,” Drin says. “I need him to do that anyway, remind me to get out of my boxing bias now and then.”

She gets down on the floor, stretches more thoroughly, twists, while her muscles are warmed up.

“Pretzel woman,” Drin says fondly, and drops the cushion back into the couch. He yawns and scrubs at his face tiredly.

“When did you get in last night?” Emma asks.

“Oh God, with the flight delays I think it was about 4 am,” Drin says. His hair is sticking up in awkward cowlicks. “Decided to come home instead of layover in an airport hotel. How come Young always pulls this shit when Bud and I are out of town?”

Emma laughs, and Dance cocks up a sardonic eyebrow at Drin.

“Now what is this bit about getting bored playing on the MUDs, because you’re just that damn good?” Drin asks.

“Emma is,” Dance says, stirring something in a bowl. “Emma plinks on parameters, makes programs go hinky.”

“Hinky, huh?” Drin asks, looking at Emma.

“Emma gets design code to make new game variant herself. Reprograms. Here look, your orcs are too easy. Make mine realer orcs. Eat coprolites and die, suckers!” Dance waves his hand like a magician.

Drin looks at her sternly.

“Tattletale,” Emma says.

“Meanie. You make baby gamers cry.” Dance goes on stirring things.

Drin just keeps looking at her, under those bushy brows.

“Well, their game balance was way off, and a lot of people complained, but they didn’t want to stop with the easy win. It was one of those sites where they ask everybody to help out. Here, you want feedback, I’ll give you some goddamn feedback–”

“Coprolites?”

“They have a net-nanny filter for underage players. Hey, the twelve-year-old dorks all got it. And you should’ve seen what they did with the restriction codes–” Emma rests her ankle behind her ear for awhile, gesturing. Then her other ankle, yoga-style.

“Dance,” Drin says.

“Yes?”

“Your best girlfriend is a secret gamer dork and she never told me,” Drin says. “And she talks sexy. And she’s making herself into pretzel shapes right in front of me.”

“I did warn you. She’ll kill you if you tickle her.”

“Coprolites,” Emma says, drawling it out, and starts giggling just before Drin flings himself onto her.

By the point they have rolled over almost under the TV, and Drin has admitted defeat in the tickling department, breathless, Emma is sitting straddled across him with game controllers in either hand, and she’s got their net connection open on that same crude shoot-em-up game. “Here,” she says, and starts playing herself, controller in either hand. “Now this is the way it ought to run.”

“Ho shit,” Drin says, watching.

“It’s a little awkward with just one thumb, so I changed the controller buttons.” Her body rocks and sways, she grimaces, leaning into it, with her knees clamped on his hips as if he’s a horse. “Die, you sonuvabitch,” she growls, playing both sides, “Oh no you don’t, take that, ah hah! Didn’t expect that one, did you–”

She only blinks and comes back to herself when Dance is standing over them, holding out bowls with spoons. He had to thump her on the back to get her attention.

“Okay, enough beatings up. Eat your chocolate pudding.”

She blinks. “Ahhh, you made us pudding for dinner?”

“A lot of it, mine with cinnamon, bad me,” Dance says.

“Oh good,” she says. She takes both bowls, looks down at Drin’s interested face on the floor. “Here, have a bite,” and she feeds him a spoonful.

“Oh man,” Drin says, licking the last of it off his lower lip. “Sex in a spoon, my God, Dance.”

“When we have sex, there should not be spoons.” Dance looks at him, shakes his head, and walks away.

“So much for you two. Moan about bruises from the floor, I give no pity.”

“More please,” Drin says, eyes twinkling at her. She spoons another bite into that big lush mouth of his, and watches him smile. Dance is right, of course. Three more bites, and she’s set aside the empty bowls.

She figured she’d look up and find Dance sitting there happily observing them. But she hadn’t counted on having Dance pick up the game controllers, hand one to each of them, give that evil little chuckle, and say, “Now play fair,” and settle back to watch her and Drin battle it out like two obnoxious little kids, yelling at each other.

woman at table, knees up, holding teacup
nice warm tea

There was warm soup for dinner, afterward. It was very satisfying. It was even better when Dance asked her to pile into bed with the two of them in Dance’s new bed, with Drin in the middle, a warm heap cuddled together under the blankets in the cold house.

“Coprolite,” Emma mutters into Drin’s neck.

“Gamer dork,” he mutters back.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

b/w kid carrying a bass
Heavier Than It Looks

Dance has fallen asleep, head curled up on his arm against the passenger window of the car. His torso is twisted in that funny position again, the way he does when his lower back is hurting him.

He’s been doing that a lot for the last three months, and he won’t go to a doctor about it, any doctor. Shies away from talking about it, too. Talk about passive resistance! How come Drin had no idea how stubborn and prideful the guy could be? His beautiful musician can be elusive as a cat at bath time–and Dance cries as pathetically as a wet cat if he’s caught, too.

Last week he didn’t want to admit he’s been giving money to Miss Twillzer’s new baby rather than buy himself new running shoes. His buddy Amalia Mortkowicz got fed up and ratted him out to Drin on that one, jabbing her finger and glaring up at Drin to fix him, dammit.

Of course Dance made a joke of it, clutching his crotch and squawking as he dodged away from her, and then he slid away from Drin’s flailing grab. Dance ended up running up the stairs with Drin arguing after, until he let Drin grab him on the landing at the top. Then Dance wasn’t interested in making excuses, he just tried to hush everything up by kissing everything he could get his mouth on. Drin dragged him by the scruff of his jacket into the little green room with the lockers, locked the door, and mauled him all around the room until it reeked of mansex in there. One of the folding chairs had to be snuck out into the trash, too; Dance forgot how strong his grip can be.

Drin steps out quietly, comes around the car, opens the door, catches Dance as he slumps outward. Dance doesn’t even both to properly wake up. He just lolls into Drin’s support, yawns, and closes his eyes again.

The smaller man eats more than Drin does now, he’s always apologizing for eating second and third helpings, but he’s been inhaling food as if he’s starving for weeks now. Drin is always finding empty sauerkraut and kimchee jars in the trash, cabbage and carrot wrappers, empty oatmeal boxes, where Dance is filling up his stomach like a dieter. Drin has been taking him out for steaks or seafood as often as time allows, and he’s still hungry an hour later. Drin checked for symptoms of bingeing and purging, but he’s not finding anything like that in the house.

Dance feels heavier, and his pants are too tight. But his face looks thinner than ever, and his muscles are cut almost as sharply as when they first met, when he was living on very little food indeed. He wants to sleep all the time, too.

“Umph,” Dance grunts, with Drin’s shoulder ridged into his gut. “Just wanna li’l nap–” Drin doesn’t let go when Dance squirms. He just marches through the house to the bedroom. Drin rolls the man down onto the bed, hauls the shoes off him, and drags a blanket over him. Dance is gone again, out cold by the time Drin kisses his cheek. Not even a mumbled noise.

Drin marches back through the house, closes up the car and puts it away, and comes back into the house more quietly. When he closes the side door, he finds Emma sitting at the kitchen table, yawning also, with her cheek scrunched onto one hand and her ratty old terry robe twisted awkward around her body.

“Sorry, did I crash you out of bed just now?” Drin asks, and pours out the hot tea she’s started. Hands her the mug.

“Gawd, thanks love,” she says, holding the hot mug and breathing in the steam. “No, woke up with my face on the table again. Hate that.”

“You can’t possibly get more done tonight when you have to work in the morning–”

“Tell it to Dance,” she yawns, and slurps down half the mug, scalding hot. The woman has a mouth of leather for hot drinks.

“His back’s hurting him again,” Drin reports.

“Jesus Christ on a buttered biscuit,” Emma mutters. She stretches her hands. “Isn’t one of us gimps in the house plenty?”

“Kind of messy biscuit, isn’t that?” Drin responds, pouring himself coffee.

“Fortified,” she says, automatically. “Better than bloody saints on soggy crackers.”

“I daresay,” Drin says, and slurps coffee gratefully. It’s not like he can point fingers, either. The last few weeks, he’s also been getting dragged off his laptop and put to bed by his partners.

They sit blinking at one another over the steaming beverages. They both know the caffeine won’t help a bit.

Emma gives a questioning noise.

Drin sighs. “You know where I found him? Asleep in the storage room. He was copying out part of an old score. Got done, he curled up right there between the boxes.”

“Sad. Oughta let him sleep for two weeks,” Emma says, scrubbing at her eyes.

“He’s got plenty of leave time for that, if he’d take it,” Drin says.

“Let me sleep for two weeks, I’d take it,” Emma says.

He smiles. “Me too.”

“So why don’t we? Jesus Christ in a bread basket, when was the last time you had a day off? And not the crazy hang-gliding vacation. Neither of you slept on that trip, or so I heard.”

“More sacred carbs? Oh God, Emma, Dance was on my laptop looking things up about learning to fly whenever we weren’t out on the cliff, I don’t think he touched the bed unless we were making out. Before that? I forget. Um, sometime last year.”

two people at table drinking coffee
thank goodness for caffeine

“You’re getting punchy too. Have some damn toast,” Emma says, ratcheting their cranky old toaster and reaching for a plate.

“Thank you, I will,” Drin says, pushing over the butter bell toward her. That’s something he found for Dance, one of the cooking toys they’ve found useful.

“And the two weeks of leave?” Emma says.

“You’ve got that conference, right? I’ll start setting up a trip tomorrow. It’s the only way we’re all going to get to fall over and rest.”

“Stop yawning, man,” Emma says crossly. “Once I start, I won’t be able to– dammit.” And yawns.

“So where are we going after the conference, Madam Librarian Panelist?”

“Hot or cold place?” she asks, thumping the toaster expertly.

“I’ll ask Dance.”

“What do you feel like?”

“A nice big warm bed,” Drin says.

“Sounds excellent to me too. Let me check on dates. They promised us Spain and fabulous European caves, but they never actually deliver, come the time.”

Drin smiles. He’s heard about last year’s change of venue, and the one before that.

She butters the toast, hands him one piece, crunches into the other. “Dance postponed on the checkup again.”

Drin scrubs his face in his hands, rests his chin in his palm. “Right.”

“He’s afraid what they’ll say about his weight. He says he forgets ‘how to make himself be light’ when he’s nervous.”

“‘Being light?’ What does that mean?”

“You know how literal he is. He borrowed Melanie’s scale in the Metro office. He told me he’s a hundred forty US-el-bee if he’s ‘being very light. ‘ If he lets it all hang down, as he put it, then he weighs two hundred and thirty pounds.”

Drin blinks at her. “He can’t possibly! I just carried him in the house myself!”

“Uh huh,” Emma agrees. “Apparently he was helping you out there. When he first started going to the dojo, he weighed about a hundred ten with his shoes on. Granted, he’s put on muscle, but not that much. Hey, go check it yourself. My weight was correct on it. Darn it.”

“Um, have you– asked him to demonstrate this?”

She smiles crookedly. “Yeah. But the formal version, I figured we ought to both be around.”

Drin stares at her. “Right now?”

“If you like,” Emma agrees, and yawns again. “I can go get my bathroom scale. It’s not terrifically accurate, only to a half pound or so.”

“It’ll do, thanks.”

Drin goes back to the bedroom. “You heard us talking?”

Dance blinks up at him sleepily, nods.

“Hot place or cold?”

“Caves,” Dance says happily. “You should hear Emma talking on caves, so much talking.”

“Okay then,” Drin says, with a nod. “What does being very light mean?”

“Walking lightly,” Dance says.

“Can you show us?”

Dance sits up, leans into Drin. “So tired. Just wanna nap.”

“Can you do it?”

He nods.

Emma comes in, puts the scale on the floor, and folds her arms. She says, “Do the heavy bit first.”

Dance stands on the scale’s mat. It gives a groaning noise and a sproinging and a crackling of metal, and collapses a very final quarter-inch.

“Right,” Emma says, looking down at it. “Guess that answers that. It was cheap, only went up to three hundred.”

Drin props up his chin in his hand. No wonder the poor bed frame groans under them during sex, if that’s Dance ability to exert force. The other hints of it have been in the dojo, and he’s careful there. “Now do the light bit.”

Dance steps off the scale, takes a couple of strides back and forth in the limited room, and perches on Drin’s knees. “Can’t be more than a hundred ten to thirty, max,” Drin comments, and gives his lover a kiss on the cheek, hugging him. “Do you know how you’re doing that?”

Dance shakes his head, leans back into Drin, curling up into Drin’s shoulder. “Not forgetting lightness when I can sit with you, when I sit with Emma.”

“Is he asleep yet?” Emma asks, looking down at her bent scale.

“Mmmmff,” Dance mumbles into Drin’s collarbone happily. And then he is. Sitting on Drin’s legs, leaning in as limply trusting as a little kid, and yet he still weighs no more than he did before. Drin rolls him under the covers, turns off the light, and glances up into Emma’s skeptical gaze. He shrugs. “Must be that gung fu mojo of his.”

“Or something.” Emma picks up the remains of the scale and carries it out to the trash can in the kitchen.