“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.”