Visiting the New Neighbors

“Yeah, hello?” Keisha said, shading her eyes against the morning light. Then she blinked. One of the prettiest men she’d seen in a long time was standing on her front boardwalk, one brown fist raised toward the rusty old door-knocker. She said to him, “Seung said he heard you coming.”

He swished that long hair back. Blue notes in the black. Seung’s hair would look like that, if he ever let it grow out. But the world would be a very different place if Seung ever let his hair get that long.

Keisha blinked away the distracting thought of combing her hands through long sheaves of stuff like that draped over Seung’s shoulders. Seung had shoulders.

This guy smiled. He had shoulders too. He was used to distracting women, too.

“Can’t sneak around with a naga in the house,” he said. He held out the hand to her instead. “My name’s Hal. I’m one of the folks who tries to organize some care for the folks who come to the clinic.”

Keisha held out her hand, bandages and all.

He supported it without gripping onto it, kissed the air just above it, murmured in French, and released it gently. “I’m so sorry to hear about the problems you folks had the other night. Fozzie wanted me to come by and let you know we found Mike, and the truck, and I think–”

“Mike’s got some questions to answer,” Keisha said, baring her teeth.

Hal just smiled tiredly at her. “Join the line.”

“Our stuff got left on that red truck.”

“Yeah. It’s weird, but the bugs drove it for about twenty miles, dumped it, and wandered off. We found them all in a pile head-down in the bayou, looked like they were trying to kill each other. Hard to tell, by then they were coming apart. They’re down to bug parts and pretty rank after they’ve been dead about eight hours. Now, personally, I think something happened on that truck after your bunch left it. Like some kinda bug-jamming signal. I’d love to know what it was, me.”

Keisha stared at him. “Bug-jamming signal.”

“Yeah. You think of anything on that one, you let us know. Now, what do you want right away from the stuff in the truck?”

“My laptop,” Keisha said, without thinking first.

“Yeah? Well, that looks okay. A little scraped up, one of the bugs tried to scissor it. Ain’t never seen a hunka plastic that could stand up to that. It broke the claw. So nobody’s messing with it. We knew you wanted it back for Seung’s sake.”

Keisha took a step forward into the guy’s space. “Who told you that? I mean, about Seung maybe needing the laptop?”

“Dance and the doctor told me,” Hal said, not even blinking. “Dance thinks it might be involved in how to finish unpinning Seung.”

“Finish it? That pin came out of that man’s back–”

“That may not be all there is to it. Dance needed to find his viola after his pin came out. I was there when that parasail finally came ripping out of Dance’s back. We don’t know what else Seung has going on.”

Keisha looked into the big brown eyes. The eyes were a little odd. Not enough white around that iris. This was not just a human being either. Something else was going on. She’d heard some very wild stories about Hal. Seeing how pretty he was, some of it made sense. This guy could induce a lot of silly behavior in other people, men and women both. She meant to sit down for a talk with the guy she’d heard about. Now seemed as good as any time for that. He was watching her, waiting for her to make up her mind. She took a deep breath. “Well, I just made a pot of coffee, and we got some oatmeal going, and I was gonna whip up some eggs. Why don’t you come on in and have some breakfast and talk to Seung. He’s bored looking at the walls.”

“How’s he doin’?” Hal seemed to be genuinely concerned.

“Things are healing, but it’s hurting. Tail’s hurting him, the hole where the pin came out is hurting him, and he’s not about to admit to a coupla women that he’s cryin’ every time he has to use the can. He doesn’t wanna eat cause he doesn’t want to visit the little boy’s room, but he can’t help it. I make him eat. He’s starvin’, he oughta be snarfin’ down anything I can give him, especially if it’s got protein.”

Hal nodded. “We’ll get him some more fish and seafood and easy stuff that won’t upset his system, Dance knows what ought to go down easier. Keep your guy from having mineral problems like Dance did.”

“And he’s nuts for that apple butter Dance likes, got to be the cinnamon. Emma says she ordered a big can of it for us, waitin’ for that to get here.” Keisha led the way down the hall to the bedroom. She spoke into the closed door. “You heard? Hal here is visiting for breakfast. Are you dressed?”

“Yes, I’m coming,” Seung’s voice said.

Keisha opened the door, and smiled at her snake man. He was up, he had his two hospital gowns wrapped on front and back, and he was up on his feet, leaning on the wall. His tail was dragging on the floor. Keisha didn’t stare at it, but the lower half of it was the same color as the carpet it was lying on. That was new, as of two days ago. When Hal walked in the bedroom, most of it faded out so close to the background Keisha couldn’t see it at all. She didn’t comment when she saw it doing that. Even when it was invisible, she knew where it was. What gave it away was the long skinny shreds of skin peeling off it. Lots of them. The scraps of skin didn’t go invisible. They glittered like shards of glass. They felt like it underfoot, too. Drin knew what that was like. She was glad he had lino installed all over this houseboat, instead of carpeting the bedroom like normal people would. The tail stirred, and Seung winced.

Hal saw it too, but he didn’t say anything. Didn’t blink. Hard to fake that reaction. This guy had seen Dance doing things like it. Hal just bowed a little, said, “A pleasure.”

Seung blinked at him, bent at the waist to bow, and then he held out one hand, Western-style. “Good to help the doctor’s clinic. Help Keisha and Peach. Help me.”

Hal nodded, took Seung’s hand, gripped carefully–as if he’s used to shaking hands with people he could hurt if he’s not careful–and released it. Then he said, bluntly, “But I hear you guys were maybe having some friction with Drin and Emma over what they were doing with the clinic?”

Seung took a deep breath of air, looked at Keisha, and told Hal, “Not fight of two bosses, but like that. Proud, we do for us, no strings. Not want take things maybe Doctor Alexander need for other folks instead, yes? Not use up money Drin need to help other zoomorph rescue. Only borrow, give back, only use up what we have to. Not working, got buy meat for Peach and me. Keisha stay here for me, I be very–” he gave Keisha a quick smile, “–very expensive pet.”

Keisha nodded. “But cute, gotta say that. Worth every steak bone.” She chuckled and held her hand out above his tail, clicked her fingers, and waited.

Seung just blinked at her, mouth open, and then he smiled back at her, and the tail tip glided up through her fingers, hugging around her wrist. Seung gave a little noise in his throat, took a deep breath, blinked again, looked at Hal. “Not– not wanting problems. We not want give Dance’s people insults.”

Keisha’s fingers tightened on Seung’s tail. He looked at her steadily, waiting.

Hal nodded. “I know folks who don’t want nobody else pokin’ round in their business, tellin’ them what to do, or when. Sometimes you gotta think about everything, all the different factors that come into play, gotta let it shake down for awhile before you decide. ” He gave a little shrug. “Boy, Drin, he come outta somewhere you make your decisions bang! like that.” He clicked his fingers. “And Emma–” he shook his head. “She ain’t afraid of nothin’. She just come right at you. She don’t get how people gossip on her being so rowdy, you know? She’s like those horse ranch folks, moving all day. You ask her anything, man, she gets that thing done. Running all day long. The salon ladies tell me they been tryin’ to get her to calm down and take a minute, chat with folks. She’s one of them quick folks, she can’t just sit with the pain, let it be what it is. She always got to be up doing for folks. But lots of times, out here in the swamp, all these problems, there’s just nothing you can do. Nothing.”

Keisha blinked. That was a view of Emma’s history that she hadn’t expected. “Sounds like she’s running away from something.”

Hal tilted his head. “Yeah. I ain’t asked her, though. She’d probably tell me!” And he laughs, giving an exaggerated shudder.

Seung chuckled, pointed his thumb at Hal. “You tell them about us?”

“Oh, hell no, I ain’t had some good long visits with you yet. I don’t know what’s up. But I can do that, if you want me to.”

Keisha said, “Most people don’t feel a need to get into other people’s business. Especially when they’re heading out in the country cause they don’t want no human company.”

Hal looked at her calmly. “It don’t matter if they got zoomorphs who need medical help. Most people who got the luxury to walk off like that in the woods and put up fences, like the bug labs do– well, they do not have wolf-faced cousins with CP and cow-legged aunts with seizures and sick babies with cleft palates and kitty ears who can’t go off to a regular hospital. The Trio ain’t been here long. Hell, you’re new when you’ve lived here thirty years. Oh man, the gossip they caused. They’re gay on each other, urban folks who like weird food, they’re from the west coast, and they don’t think anybody’s lookin’ when that boat rocks? Can we count on them helping a year from now, who knows? They might leave, you know, might get fed up, they might need to go somewhere else. They ain’t made promises on that. But when Dance heard bug troop transmissions, he was the first one out there in front of somebody’s place to stop ’em. Bug wars this summer kinda convinced people the other two weren’t gonna dump Dance and take off for nicer places. Ain’t much nice about this swamp in a bug war, either.”

“Heroes,” Seung said wryly, before Keisha could open her mouth.

“Yeah, but so were a lot of other folks who just ain’t got all the fancy tools they do, and they’d be the first ones to say so.” Hal nodded at Seung’s tail. “You learn to fry things with that, and you can kill any bug you get close to, and most of their machinery. Take out the girders in buildings, demo work of any kind you like. Build things, too. Amazing stuff.”

“Not sure I can do hero stuff,” Seung said, in spite of the name he chose for himself.

Keisha gripped onto his tail, hard. “I know you do, you saved Peach and me,” she snapped, angry suddenly. What do those people want out here, anyway?

Seung looked at her. “Not brave like you. I know hurt.”

Keisha lifted her other hand, about to poke him hard, and then she changed her mind. She flattened her hand, rested it on his collarbone, slid it up into his hair. Stroked his neck. “I know you do, my man. I know.”

Seung rubbed her wrist with his hand, too. She felt how his callouses were peeling away in rough patches. He said, “When you know bugs go hunt Peach, you go stop them. You know bugs chase me, you stop them. You know bugs chase Dance?”

“Oh hell yeah, I’d stop them,” Keisha growled, “and you know it. Nobody wants bug troops taking you or Dance.”

“Or Drin?”

“Oh hell no,” Keisha said.

“Or Tee Pom, or his wife?”

Keisha glared at him. “No! I’m not walking away if bug troops show up, and you damn well know it. I’m gonna spank you, you keep that up.”

The smile on Seung’s face was totally bald evidence about his tastes in leather gear.

She added, sternly, “And not in a nice way!”

“Well, damn,” Seung said, leaning his head into her shoulder, and surprising all of them into laughter.

“Let me know if you want to borrow some dungeon gear,” Hal said, dryly.

Keisha blinked at Hal. Oh yeah, that meant what she thought it did. He was not exactly what she’d expect from an actual local-style Master–but then, she had only seen the costume versions at parties, and their entourages were pretty sad. Their manners sure lacked any kind of dignity. Peach had more dignity when she was giggling her head off, just stepping into a boat for the first time, trusting Keisha. Seung was like entire mountain ranges of challenge, looking up at her with those eyes unfocused with pain, straining to meet her, needing her, making demands on her that she’s never felt before. Hell, demands that she’s never seen anybody handle before.

Hal nodded towards Seung, frowning. “We’re a little on the home-made side, but we do manage to build sturdy. I don’t think you’ll get any restraints that could hold him for real. Dance asked me to think about restraints and how he might break out of them. He’s not kinky, I don’t think he’s wired that way. But he just doesn’t want bug troops to be able to hold him prisoner. I made him promise not to use his fry-cook tricks, either. So far, that tail is strong enough to break anything we can build. Tell you the truth, it’s kind of fun watching him pull things apart. I’m sure he’d be glad if Seung wants to collaborate on that project.” And Hal smiled. Something about the eyes that didn’t have enough white in them made Hal convincing.

“I’ll think about it,” Keisha said, and she can see Seung sure as hell liked the idea. His tail started stroking stealthily along her arm, sneaking its way upward. She smiled. “Tell you what, Seung, I’m gonna help Peach lift that tail up for you, and we’re gonna go sit in the kitchen where you can get some sun, and you’re gonna get some decent coffee in you.”

Seung squinted at her. “Not you. Bad. Hurt hands.”

Hal said, “If you don’t mind my help, we could spare Keisha’s hands a little bit.”

Seung looked at him. “Yes,” he said. Then he turned his head, and looked at Peach, and the pain eased away from his face.

“Peach, come up and shake hands with Hal.”

Peach was wearing her cute new pink sweats. She looked good, all fluffy and brushed, but she seemed flustered. She was reacting to Hal, looking away from him, getting all shy like a kid. She gave a little bob of the head and held out her hand and blinked, big-eyed, when Hal kissed the air over her hand in the same way as with Keisha. She ducked her head and muttered, “Hi, Hal.”

Keisha sneaked a quick look at Seung. Seung wasn’t even looking at Hal. Tracking him, yeah, but not staring. Certainly not cracking jokes or teasing, the way Dance would be, saying things to such a pretty man, flirting just a little. Seung was focused on Peach. He wasn’t jealous of her reaction to Hal at all. He just thought it was cute. He thought all of Peach’s odd litle quirks were adorable. Seung smiled, leaning on the wall. Forget the lace Valentines, he was gone, floating away on watching his little kitty gal.

Keisha groaned. She knew what that look meant.

Peach knew that look too. She knew what Seung wanted, what she was going to do with him. She kept glancing at Seung, and away again. She got more flustered. She blushed. It was unmistakable, her skin went all pink along the inside of her ears.

It shocked Keisha totally cold. When did Peach pick up enough savvy that she knew she wasn’t supposed to show those kinds of thoughts to guests?

Keisha was perfectly clear on what Peach wanted to be doing. Hell, the whole room was perfectly clear on it. Seung would let her do him right there on the spot, too, too. The eyes were so soft. His face was totally absorbed in admiring her, no pain showing at all.

But Peach knew she was supposed to behave. She had learned that. She looked up at Keisha, who gave a little shake of the head, and Peach bobbed her head again.

Hal flicked up a glance at Keisha, and back to Peach, and he smiled too. Hal said gravely to Peach, “I’ve heard stories how brave you were. Making sure Seung was okay, that he got a good doctor.”

Peach’s eyes got even bigger, and her ears pinker. She ducked her head and mumbled something.

“You gotta ask Hal first if it’s okay to sniff him,” Keisha said.

“Okay?” Peach asked, looking up.

“Certainment,” Hal said, and held out both hands toward her, open and flat, palms up, as he might for a dog to investigate.

Peach lowered her head close to his hands, looked startled, and backed off hastily. “Dog stable horse,” she said, confused. “Goat. Rabbit. Something. Big hairy mossy thing. What is that?”

Hal grinned. “Yeah, you’re absolutely right, Miss Peach. We call the last form a goblin. I’m a shape-changer.”

Some Questions

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

“Made by the swamp?” Keisha said softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about that oatmeal?” Keisha said.

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

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

Hal moved over, got a nod from Seung.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keisha grunted, and made him laugh.

“Anything I can do?” Hal said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seung nodded. “Good coffee.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Seung said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peach smiled at their praise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Somebody been gossiping,” Keisha said.

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

“So what else they say?” Keisha asked.

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

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

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

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

Some Unpleasant Answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where was it coming from?”

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

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

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

Keisha clamped a wrist over her mouth.

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

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

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

“What?” Hal said, surprised.

“I don’t.”

Hal tilted his head, looked at her.

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

“Pictures of dead girls,” Seung said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Others?” Keisha said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Hal said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why,” Seung said softly.

Hal nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seung sighed. “Tar. Lots money.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seung sighed again. His face was looking thin.

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

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

Keisha looked at him.

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

“I been worrying on that,” Keisha said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seung nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seung waved it off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keisha gave a skeptical grunt.

The Fishing Hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would,” Dance said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Provoking Seung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your spanking is coming after you.”

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

“Hungry,” Seung reminded him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Harmony of Snarling Nagas

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

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

Dance was out of the water, on the dock.

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

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

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

Then Dance was limp in his grip, dangling loosely.

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

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

Dance blinked once.

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

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

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

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

“No,” Seung said.

Dance blinked twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I not fall down,” Seung objected.

“Yours will be different,” Drin said.

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

“Yeah,” Drin said.

“Why–” Dance said, still breathing hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both blinked at him.

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

“Probably,” Drin said.

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

“I assume so, to slow you down.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ye-eessss,” Seung said, puzzled.

“Tee is a sheriff,” Dance said.

“Yes,” Seung said, still puzzled.

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

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

They both looked at him.

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

Seung just shook his head.  “Mike talking.”

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

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

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

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

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

Seung glared right back.

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

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

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

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

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

Both nagas looked at him flatly.

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

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

“Is pisshole,” Seung said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seung stared at him, shocked. “No!”

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

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

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

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

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

Keisha’s Rules

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

Seung mumbled into her neck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Seung said. “No.”

“All right then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?” she said.

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

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

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

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

“Better?”

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

“Lick it,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seung mumbled into her shoulder.

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

Seung shook his head.

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

“Please, I need you–need Peach–”

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

“I not hurt you. Not hurt Peach.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seung lowered his head.

“You always could, you know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh-huh,” she said, softly.

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

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

“No,” Seung whispered.

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

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

“Can you apologize to Dance?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boss,” he said, drifting away.

“Talk to me.”

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

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

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

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

“Temper run faster than brains,” Seung said.

“Yeah,” Keisha said dryly.

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

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

“She sent over cinnamon! You smell?”

“Smells good,” Seung said.

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

“Much better,” Seung said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t want me take you?”

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

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

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

Peach wiggled. “Fun licking Keisha too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You still mad,” Seung said.

“You know why?”

“Not hear you calling.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” Seung said.

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

“Not think of that,” Seung said in surprise

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

“Head jerk.”

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

Seung frowned “I ask him.”

“Good.”

Seung turned his head then, listening.

“What is it?”

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

“What?” Keisha demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seung was asleep by the end of the words.