They’re all standing on the banks of the waterhole, kids in various raggedy shorts and overalls, some babies-in-arms in little wet ruffled swimsuits, looking startled. A lost-looking group of the blocky-headed people are being herded along by a couple of the older girls. When the girls turn on their ghetto blasters and music howls out across the muddy water, the blocky-headed people start smiling and dancing, and some of them join the kids in the water, laughing and splashing.
On the banks, scattered among the trees, a whole pack of women in wild-colored hair and big sunglasses and huge fingernails are laying around in old aluminum folding chairs and lounges, shouting jokes at one another and doing one another’s toenails and yelling at their kids. Nobody comments if there’s a few whose wild roaches of bleached leonine hair are rooted halfway down their backs. Nobody comments when Lacey shades her eyes and explains to Emma that a few of the thin chicks in the interesting leather garb get precedent on the patches of shade under the trees, and not just because their skin is pearly pale as ghosts.
Nobody comments when Lacey and Emma and Dance walk down the bank into the water, and Lacey shakes back her head, and the water around her is full of the movement of dark bodies. She opens her eyes, and looks back at them both with her eyes as gold as coins.
Emma reaches out, gravely. One of the serpents leans out from Lacey’s shoulder, and looks at Emma with smaller gold-coin eyes, black tongue flicking out just above Emma’s palm.
Lacey smiles. “Damn, she smells good, doesn’t she, Dance?”
Dance nods, moving his hands in the muddy water. “Always did.”
“You’re not afraid,” Lacey says, wonderingly, while more of the black serpents lean forward gently, politely tasting of Emma’s scent without actually touching her.
Emma reaches out toward Dance, who takes her hand, and then slides his arm around her waist. He holds his hand out, with hers, toward the serpents rooted among Lacey’s dreadlocks.
“I had help,” Emma says. She glances upward, to the women watching them, standing guard but not making it look like much. But she knows they’re ready to move. Some of them are probably at least as fast anything Dance could do. “They’re not afraid.”
“Well, they’ve seen me lose it when I was wading in to save somebody’s life and I just got there too late,” Lacey says, wryly. “Ain’t nothing else quite like that to let people know you really mean it when you tell ’em to move.”
Muscles in Dance’s back flex, and Emma feels something brush up against her legs, the touch a light question asked where it can’t be seen. She looks at them both. “Times like that, I’m good with getting out of the way and letting people do their job. Or holding things.”
Dance looks at her, and then at Lacey, and smiles. “Don’t let Emma fool you. She’s a total brick in emergencies. She sat me through that first peeling of mine–”
Lacey bends, lowering herself in the water, and shakes water streaming out of her dreads and the live bodies twining among them like they’re climbing tree branches. “Man, shedding time? Let’s just say I have the world’s worst case of dandruff about three times a year. And that first time of yours? That sounds like it hurt way more than it should. Accelerated growth pain, tender skin, all kindsa hurt, right?”
Dance nods, and kisses Emma’s cheek lightly, and lets go of her.
“So you feeling comfortable about taking a swim?” Lacey says to them both, with her pupils narrowing down into thin vertical ovals.
Emma looks at Dance. She’s here to smell familiar, to be reassuring, to be stable ground for him.
He looks around at the others splashing about in the muddy water, stretches out his arms into bulges of muscle, and nods.
“Right then,” Lacey says, grinning a very wide white grin, and arches over backwards into a long powerful stroke of her arms. Then she’s halfway across the safe little pocket in the river, flashing upstream. There may be a black stretch of tail whipping through the water also, but Emma isn’t sure.
Emma hears a bubble of laughter from Dance, sees a blur of brown stripes zipping through the air, and then he’s underwater, invisible.
Emma sighs, splashes a lonesome little wave of water ahead of her legs, and starts walking upstream. Fine clayey bottom squishes under her toes. She’s cautious, because the occasional twig is down there too, ready to poke the unwary heel as well. They can only comb off so much of the fallen wood with rakes, trying to make it safe for the kids. Where the water gets too deep, she pushes off and takes a few lazy strokes, floating as neatly as a beach ball, until she reaches the far end. She expects one or the other of them to surface around her, grab her, dunk her, or for both of them to get into a splashing match on either side of her.
Instead, when she hauls out onto a fallen log, sits up and rests her palms on either side of her, they both surface in front of her like a couple of otters. They come up grinning at her, and lean on her thighs, and shake out their wet hair, splattering water all over her.
Emma splutters, blinks down at their wet faces, and smacks them on their outside arms. “Behave!” she says, and Lacey chuckles, and dives away again, with Dance lunging after her with a shout.
They chase each other all up and downstream, laughing, sometimes climbing trees, and Dance will push off bellyflopping powerfully into the water as happily as if he’d been doing it for years.
At one point he catches Lacey, and they go rolling and flopping about in the mud by the edge of the water, laughing, and then Lacey is tickling him into submission and he lets go, throwing her off into the water, where she swims away teasing him to try it again, and he just pants there happily, covered in mud and grinning, with his tail the same color as the stuff plastered up his chest. Then he pushes off with his tail, and flashes away into the water, and dives.
Emma glances up as Drin sits down by her on the log. He’s wearing shorts like the kids. He looks incredibly freckly. He’s waded across, and he sits dripping, looking at her, smiling a little.
“Are we all going to come down with Giardia?” she asks.
“Well,” he says, consideringly. “It’s certainly possible. There’s waste water that gets properly treated upstream in a couple of places, but there’s also some wild stretches where beavers and feral cats can get to it. We might be at more risk from the kids there, they’re forever passing around junk like that at daycare, honestly.”
Emma nods. “That and colds, the little germ factories,” she says, out of firm experience dealing with the way that waves of absences used to work at the library.
He puts his arm around her, and Emma leans into his warmth. The wind comes up, cooling her skin, and patches of sun and shadow waver across their pale legs. Drin rests his face in her damp hair. “Better, cooled off a little bit?”
Emma closes her eyes and nods. “How is Fozzie feeling about his lady being attracted to — well, to me? It just sounds ridiculous when I say it.”
“Don’t know, haven’t asked him. It’s not like either of you planned it. And I’m not sure how Dance is involved. It’s possible that it’s his scent on you that’s part of the attraction. She’s come over and sat in my lap a coupla times, too. Told me she’s not sure why she’s so strongly into how we smell. Could be nothing more than Dance’s tail being such a new young baby and he’s got some kind of scent to him that–”
A great whoosh of water slops over both of them, and then the geyser erupts into Dance lying gasping across their knees, on his belly, naked. A long whippy black cable rises out of the water, curled into a loop, and it starts whacking him across one side of his bare butt hard enough to leave red marks, and then the other. There’s a very deliberate care about it, she’s not hitting the root of his tail. Lacey’s strong hands hold him there, squirming.
“That’s what you get for cheating,” Lacey says, shaking water out of her face, and smacking Dance’s butt a final time, before she laughs at the looks on their faces, slides back into the water, and disappears, leaving Dance there spluttering.
“Bleargh,” Dance says, spitting out a wad of green algae, and twists around.
The black cable rises out of the water holding a draggled pair of Lycra shorts, and flings them in his face. Lacey surfaces just long enough to laugh, and disappears again.
“Well,” Drin says, looking at the body stretched across his knees. “I guess you got told!”
Dance makes a face, rinsing out his mouth, and spits. Then he accepts Drin’s hand bracing him, and he sits up on the log between them. He wipes wet hair out of his eyes, and begins to untangle his shorts. He glances up at either of them, where they are looking at him, and he sighs. “She asked me when was the last time I– the last time I wanted to have sex,” Dance says.
Emma blinks in surprise.
“I told her I want to, all the time, but nothing is happening, and she asked me if I was still trying to please you two in bed anyway, and I said we didn’t want to offend anybody, and she said that was the wrong answer and stuffed a wad of weed in my mouth, and it got kind of confused from there.” He sneezes, and wipes water out of his eyes. “I didn’t mean to pull her hair, we just got tangled up. I guess that’s kinda fragile, all that weight hanging on her scalp.”
“Uh huh,” Drin said, amused. “I think Lacey knows how to defend her hair from getting pulled by little kids just fine. I think it was a great excuse to maul you around in a way she can’t do with many people. I mean, aside from Fozz Bear.”
Emma and Dance both look at him. Emma says, “You know, I was trying to avoid thinking too much about that idea.”
Drin just grins at them. “They’re cute together. I mean, Christmas ornament, Valentine lace cute. Fozz is such a big ol’ puddle of goo.”
There’s suddenly Lacey’s tall thin figure standing among the trees next to them, and she sits down demurely on the log next to Emma, hip to hip, and she leans forward and looks at Dance and grins. “You feel better, honey chile?”
Dance wipes his face again. “Aside from my butt.”
“Oh, well, that’s traditional,” She says, and pats his rather muddy knee. Then she looks at Drin, and at Emma. “The thing you got to remember about Fozz,” she says soberly, “is that he don’t ever remember to pay the bills. He don’t remember how much it always costs us in doctor bills to get that shit pulled off the bug boys and clear out their systems.” She nods at the group of blocky-headed people, mostly now in the water, stamping and laughing in time to the music, and yelling a lot.
Emma looks into the gold coin eyes with the long oval pupils, and then away at the clumsy, soft, pale people who sound to her just like some of the kids’ groups at the library. They love music. Down’s Syndrome kids. Slowly, she looks back at the gold eyes. “Those folks are– they were–”
Lacey doesn’t blink. “Yeah, they used to be. Those are the ones who survived. It hurts Preacher, too, trying to help them, and he can’t always help them live past the pain, depending what kind of mods got done to them. But he’s always willing to try. We couldn’t do it without him. We’d have to kill them, instead of freeing them. It’s a tossup, most of them, whether they’d call it freeing them or not. I try to make sure we do things to keep them happy. Least I can do, to my mind. None of ’em asked to be in this kinda war. They just got unlucky, being the right genotype or something.”
Drin sighed. “Some places, they were breeding people for it, till those labs got shut down.”
Lacey glances away, hunches up and rests her face propped up in her palm. “Yeah, I get busy with my own load, I tend to forget it gets even rougher out there, some places.”
Emma stares at the people stamping and playing and giggling to the music.
It’s Dance who speaks up, softly. He says, “Lacey, I’m glad you help Fozz out on the bills. I’m grateful I can be here, because you kept all these people going.”
She blinks then, looking up at him, with a little frown creasing her dark brows. The serpents lay quietly among her dreads, looking up at Dance too.
“You and Fozz made a refuge here for people like me. I mean, there’s a lot of different types of…mixtures there.”
“Ah well, you can smell ’em, can’t you?” Lacey says, blinking. “And the goddamn labs weren’t real careful on how well the different parts work together. Let me tell you, the medical bills get pretty fierce. We got a coupla dozen secret-project doctors who just work with us, who don’t care if they can publish about it or whatever, but it’s tough on them too. And babies. Man. That gets hard.” She shakes her head.
Dance frowns. “Secret project doctors?”
Lacey waves her hand. “Drin’s investments paid for that, thank God. Dunno what I woulda done with that first lion king baby otherwise.”
Challenge: both ‘Cornered’ and ‘Diamond’