Teo holds up one open hand toward the swarm, expecting some reaction. He is somehow not surprised when a line of bees zip up around him and a dozen at once settle on his sweaty palm, walking around, apparently tasting him. The yellow stripes all over them manage to sparkle in the hot, dusty strips of sunlight through the trees. The feet catch and tickle a bit on his skin. He is very aware of how many there are, and how he really doesn’t want any surprise to alarm them.
Drin says, “The climate is crappy, the terrain can be treacherous as fuck, the people are suspicious and ungodly quick with a snare trap and a sawed-off shotgun, and the reliable ones will tell you stories that make your toenails curl. You’ll bunk in the houseboat opposite the floating clinic, you’ll be helping out there as first priority. If the buzz gets loud or if it spikes, let us know right away. If you have any alarms or suspicions at night, you call us immediately. Yell out the window if you have to, Dance will hear you. Yell loud enough, Seung will hear you too.”
Teo laughs, an honestly delighted sound. “I’m two steps ahead of you, brother. I actually helped Doctor Alexander buy and outfit that clinic boat, I’ve just been holed up doing research and out in the swamp with Doctor Caleb giving injections. Alex and I arrived at the same time. He adds, in a very broad patois, “Don’ you worry ‘bout me none.”
“Oh good. Obviously I’ve been out on bounds patrol enough that I’m not keeping up on the local gossip a t’all well. Okay, we also need to get you trained on emergency treatment by some of the folks who operate on rescuing bug-bit humans, that’s not going to be easy or fun or quick.”
“Who made you the Captain round here?” Teo grins at him. It’s such a relief to have him back, bossiness and all.
Drin looks under those bristly brows at him. “Oh, I was volun-told, you know how it is. Oh look, here’s a guy got money, decent shot, got combat experience with zoomorphs, fails to run away when things start blowing up. It’s a huge goddamn character fault.”
“I can see that,” Teo agrees.
“And I’ll still worry about you.”
“Hey, I’m a research scientist, not a soldier. I don’t do ‘stupid’ as a general rule. ”
“Good, that’s what I like hearing in a doctor.”
Drin starts walking away again. How the hell do you have a conversation with the man when he never faces you and never stops moving? Hmm, didn’t he see a tranquilizer gun in a case at the clinic?
“So how do we have to decontaminate this bug lab, if it’s abandoned?”
“Gotta touch nothing and take samples first. I’ll have to get somebody to come back with proper tools.”
“Right,” Teo says. He has a suspicion that somebody might turn out to be him, once he’s given direction on what kind of samples they’ll want.
Drin stops, turns his head. The bees swirl around them both.
Then Teo knows why he stopped. “What the fucking hell is that smell?”
Drin just glances at him dryly.
Oh, Teo knows what some of it is. Cadaverine is a very distinctive stink, one that’s hard-wired way down in the ancestry of every pathetic little creature who ever ran away screaming from a leopard’s old kill.
It’s the other nauseating components that puzzle him. Sort of a weird diesel or burnt machine lubricating oil stink, and a sugary sweet component on top of acid, stronger than vinegar.
Then Drin points down a slope into heavier brush, where a trickle of a strange, oil-sheened, multi-colored stream is draining through a tangle of scrubby fast-growing trees. His eye traces back upward where the water comes from, and it reaches the dark mouth of a pipe about the size of a medium-grade water main. It’s some kind of green plastic, not a metal pipe, even at that unexpected size, and the stink exhales from it in a visible fog. Bright yellow sulfur has just begun to crust in a thin lining on the mouth of the pipe
“Stay away from the gas,” Drin says.
“Does it rise, or sink into hollows?” Teo asks.
“Sink,” Drin says.
“Do we know what’s in the gas, or the drainage water?”
“Gas is usually carbon dioxide with methane and sulfides and trace organics. The fluid is usually thirty to forty percent water – not fresh, sodium chloride salts. The rest of the liquid is long-chain organic fats and oils, lots of metallic compounds, magnesium, zinc, copper, iron chelates, trace selenium…it’s not the same balance as you’d see in normal salt waters of various kinds.” Drin turns and starts walking upwind of the thicket, staying to open areas on the higher ground above the hollow. He doesn’t go far before he says, “We’ll have to come back with diver’s tanks and masks to trace this one safely.”
“Does it worry you that they managed to put this together right under your noses without anybody noticing the noise levels they must have been venting?”
“It probably got buried under all the other shit going on at the same time,” Drin says bitterly.
“Samples. Yup, I’ll put it on my list of things to do.”
“It’s open.” It takes a minute for the spreadsheets to clear from his mind, but Teo looks up to see who’s at the entrance to the clinic’s living quarters. The barely-cool autumnal breeze ruffles the papers spread out in front of him. Dance is standing on the doormat holding his tail in both hands amazingly like an anxious kid holding a stuffed toy. Except most stuffed toys don’t squirm. “Good morning.”
“Good morning.” Teo waves Dance all the way into the room, and shifts a wad of papers from the bench along the wall. The room is full of paper. “Hal brought over his records last night, and the piles of paper just keep growing–” He can feel the headache lurking behind his eyes.
Dance smiles. “I know that look very well. Do you have perhaps six minutes of time?”
Teo watches as the tail taps itself off on the mat, and Dance swipes at a grimy patch with a tissue. It must suck dragging it through the dirt and the swamp muck. Teo says, “Of course. Can I get you anything to drink? Must be hard to keep that tail hydrated.”
“It is rather a feat,” Dance agrees, with a sigh. The tail tip swipes a trickle of sweat away from Dance’s forehead. “Yes, please, water would be very nice, but I don’t want to take away from your work.”
Teo hands him a glass of ice water from the pitcher on the desk, which Dance accepts with a smile. “Not a problem. It’s not like the paperwork will disappear if I stop looking at it. If anything, it grows exponentially when I turn my back on it.” He notices that Dance takes inventory of the cabin and its exits before taking a cautious seat on the bench. Caution is justified — it gives a metallic creak under the weight. Teo resumes his seat. Having the desk between them might make Dance a little more comfortable.
“Oh yes, I remember that, too, paperwork at the Metro.” He makes a face, sips from his drink. Then he looks down at the floor. The tail winds into a coil, uncurls under the bench, rewinds itself. Dance is preoccupied enough that it’s not being careful, it’s not silent. The scales make a soft rasping noise against the metal deck. “I have a big– a very big favor to ask. Yes. I ask if you can– if you can come down and talk again to Drin, please.”
Teo leans back, lifts one eyebrow. “I thought you’d ask me to stay away from him. Why do you want me to come and talk to him? What are you hoping to accomplish?”
The tail tip comes up and wipes off another bead of sweat from Dance’s face, and he shifts on the cushions. “He has– bad dreams. We all do. We have the feeling we are back in the event, blinding us to things that are real now.”
“Flashbacks,” Teo says. “They’re a fairly common phenomenon.”
Dance nods, drinks more water. “Drin’s are sometimes set off when he–when he suddenly recalls something, when he learns something new about what happened to him. I was hoping that more knowledge would– would resolve some things.”
Teo leans forward a little, sliding his arm along the table, and Dance flinches back, his head rears up, the canopy stirs, his whole body tenses up. Teo retreats, holds up one hand, flat, open. “It’s okay, I’m listening, we’ve got plenty of time to figure out what to do.” His voice is soothing, but his eyes are flat and blank. A scientist’s gaze. He knows this. He’s been dreading this moment for days; perhaps cool professionalism will get him through.
The tail is moving nervously over Dance’s knees, brushing along the edge of the desk. Dance grimaces. “I am too twitchy. Being what I am, nervous is not good. I am– I have bad dreams too, and we–wake each other up. Emma, too.”
“It’s all right. Take a deep breath.” Teo’s voice is firm, but soft. “Now let it out. Again.” Dance breathes as Teo instructs, and his shoulders drop incrementally. The canopy settles flat again. “You’re not in any danger right now. Do I make you nervous? Is that it?” Teo asks, genuinely curious.
“Pen Howell had codes. Secrets. He unlocked the viola case during the storm–has anyone told you about that? He could have unzipped me into… god knows what. A robot, maybe.”
“How would Pen Howell know anything about you?”
“Ahh, he was one of my makers. He went to prison and they wiped his mind for him, and he says he’s glad to forget.”
Teo sits rigid. He stares at the body, at the tail, at the canopy, and never for long at the eyes, which might be taken as threatening body language. He’s pretty sure he can confirm the technical epoch in which those slidecoat scales were designed; the canopy design is slightly newer, but only by a decade or two. The gene-eng work is old-school, detailed, fabulously labor-intensive. It’s rather like looking at a brocade fragment of an Emperor’s silk gown, all of it hand-embroidered. The fingerprints of the program that made him are there, distinct, unmistakable. Shockingly different from the program known to have made all the creatures that Teo has ever worked with, agonized over.
All the details shriek of a mythical program that reportedly never existed. Dance’s fear is perfectly reasonable. Who knows what they might have built in by way of back doors, hidden priest’s holes, code harpoons?
Dance sits there and lets him look.
He’s Black Ops, all right, probably on a budget that dwarfs all of the programs Teo’s ever worked in, put together. When Dance is agitated to this pitch, he still has the flexibility not to shout, not to make threat gestures with his fangs, to keep the tail moving quietly. The Black Ops Naga could spray venom from eight feet away and kill him entirely by accident, and no one who knows about the tech involved would even be surprised.
But what Dance is choosing to do with all this free will is to push back civilly, arguing with Teo. It doesn’t surprise Teo as much as it would have before he got here. He was schooled, drilled, brainwashed during his training to believe that the morphs weren’t entirely sentient. When he came to Detroit, he saw the result of World 1 technology on World 2 creatures. Those morphs were either born with zoomorphic traits due to contamination, or they were human fetuses with gene-eng traits deliberately added, mostly for the sex trade. The community had rescued a lot of bug-bitten, but they took in at least as many escaped or abandoned sex toys.
But Teo had never worked on a morph from World 1, his world, who had more than a rudimentary intelligence. As far as he knew, anyway. It was a horrific thought, but he tucked it away to ponder later, when he was alone.
Dance lets him wander around in his thoughts for a while. “Yes, that Pen Howell, the scientist,” he says, at last.
“I didn’t know.” He certainly isn’t going to tell him that he had known Pen Howell once, back home.
Dance lifts one hand, points upward. “So how do I know what secrets you bring? Drin has flashbacks where we must take the gun from him before he shoots bugs who aren’t there.”
“I have no interest in tormenting you or anyone else.” Teo shrugs. “Perhaps I should not have spoken to Drin at all. It… It just seemed like it was… something I should share.”
“You are really brothers, I smell it. So does Seung. If anybody could tell Drin his own history so it is taken in, so it is believed, re-known, brought back to him, you could do that for Drin.”
“Perhaps Drin was right. It’s not really relevant anymore. Besides, he doesn’t want to hear his history. He has all he needs right now. His money. His lovers. He doesn’t need–” He doesn’t need me, Teo thinks. But he doesn’t say it. He’s not a petulant child.
The tail tip makes a whirring noise, and a smoking mark mars the corner of the table. “This is untrue. You look at me, and tell me Drin’s history as a zoomorph handler is irrelevant. He saved my life.”
Dance’s eyes are a startling bright gold. Angry, Teo thinks in that cool remote part of his observer’s mind. “They’re his words, Dance. He’s the one who said his past was irrelevant.”
“I am not just his lover, Teo. I am his husband, for better or for worse. It is the proper duty, for me to find what will help him heal from this. Everything was taken from him. You were taken from him. I want him to have his brother and to laugh together, the way it should be!” Dance pulls out another tissue and the tail takes it, swipes it in jerky motions at his eyes, while he clenches his hands on his knees. He takes deep breaths, nostrils flaring. “But what I want most is to help him with these new things in the flashbacks. They bubble up like swamp gas in tar.”
“And what if the process succeeds in ripping me apart?” Teo asks quietly. “I don’t have anyone to lean on, as he does. No husband. No wife. No family save him. I’m not sure I’m willing to take that risk anymore. Besides, I have no idea if he’d even listen to me.”
“Yes, I understand. Those are valid fears,” Dance says quietly, but his fists clench so hard that the muscles stand up in his arms. “I understand.” After a moment he says, “It is true, Drin can refuse to hear what you have to say. But we can… be patient, too.” Those gold eyes look very, very stubborn.
“All right.” Teo’s hand scrubs away at his face. He’s so tired suddenly. “Fine. I’ll do whatever you want if you think it’ll help Drin.” It’s not like he really has anything left to lose.
“No defeating!” Dance snaps. “None of the ‘hey, give in, why not?’” He leans forward, glaring into Teo’s face. “Only because you choose. Because you want it for Drin. Not what I say best, what in hell do I know about this other world, back where they grow me in a bucket like a frog? No. You say from what you know best, from knowing Drin when you grow up together.”
“They did not grow you in a bucket like a frog,” Teo says, amused.
“I do not know that. You do. He does, maybe. But you know what family Drin had. I do not.” Dance’s pointing finger jabs defiantly at the ceiling, almost too fast to see at all. It’s a classic handler’s gesture, never pointing directly at another person unless you are commanding an attack on them.
“I also don’t know what he remembers and what he doesn’t.” Teo pushes back a little more from the desk, watchful.
“I can tell you some of that, from what he says to me,” Dance says. “But how do I know you will not use codes, like Pen Howell, to unzip all of us?”
Had anyone ever considered what their creations might say to them? The very idea of unzipping Emma Watson, the ultimate keeper of Uncle Wojo’s codes, might be really funny on another day. He gives Dance a point-blank glare. “You don’t. Ultimately, either you trust me to do this or you don’t.”
“I have trusted you, telling you things,” Dance says.
Teo puts his hand on the table over the charred mark, toward Dance. “All right. We can form a trust bond. Bite me.”
“You are not ill, just tired,” Dance says.
“So biting me won’t hurt me, right?”
“I anticipate biting an old lady at the clinic for rheumatoid arthritis, in maybe half an hour, I must concentrate as much as the fangs can give her. I do not waste venom on people who just need more sleep,” Dance says. The dry austerity of that tone surprises Teo. “But I understand you have had bronchitis and pneumonia. The colds could be hard this winter. After I bite some of the children with problem sniffles, and I go to bed for two days, then I have antibodies too. Then I ask you if you want from me…what do you say… a booster shot.”
“How sick do you get from biting someone?”
“Less than does Seung, who has less often these exposures to sick people. Seung has this big bite, dangerous. He bites on cancers, drug-resistant infections, nasty stuff for adults. I can do kids. The flu, the colds, the ear infections, the pneumonias, they get fierce in this swamp. Surely you see how bad numbers are down here. We talked about it with Doctor Alexander. He was shocked.”
Teo gives a rough laugh. “Shocked? Now that I’d like to see. But I’ve seen those numbers, too, and I’ll do what I can to help.”
“Yes, thank you.” Dance’s tail reaches out and touches Teo lightly on the arm, retreats instantly.
Teo’s rather surprised that the tail wants to reach out to him. “It’s okay,” he says, and holds out his open hand toward it.
The tail hesitates, gives a flippy little what-the-hell sort of gesture, and the tip lowers itself into Teo’s hand. Teo says, “Is it okay if I look at your tail more closely?”
Dance nods, with that medical look — braced for some kind of pain. It can’t possibly be physical pain, either.
“It makes the kids giggle a lot, I’ve heard them,” Teo says, keeping his eyes down on the smooth, glassy surface in his hand. He strokes it softly with a fingertip, almost reverently, admiring the sheer beauty of its design, of its… biology.
The tail brightens in color, the muscle tension relaxes.
“For kids, we want to be all clown side,” Dance says. “Also for lots adults.”
“But not for me?” Teo says, making a sad face. The defensive keels only start about two feet up from the tip–the very end is nearly as fluid and prehensile as a cephalopod’s tentacle.
The tip comes up at him and pokes him in the chest like a finger, and at his startled look, again. Then it smacks itself down in his hand again.
Teo is quick enough to catch the moment when Dance stares down at his own tail, mouth open in surprise. Dance’s brown face flushes darker and he says, “I beg your pardon.”
“It has ideas all on its own?” Teo says. None of the programs he knew ever allowed use of spinal node reflexes because of the dangers once a creature went from combat to civilian life–but clearly, Pen and his colleagues pulled off that trick, too.
“Oh yes,” Dance says, looking away. “And not always waiting for filters from slow head-myself, up here at the other end.”
Teo nods. The wording Dance uses intrigues Teo. They both know that Dance is letting Teo examine something as personal as his hands or face, usually a manipulative organ rather than a weapon. And often enough, a sexual organ. He’s quite sure the designers planned for that too, while they built the weapons specs into it. They must have made Dance totally susceptible to courtship by somebody as adept as his brother Drin. “Has Seung learned how to flash-burn things with it, like you have?”
“Keisha has him practice on what I say to him, but he’s just now growing out as long as I was at the start of that ability. He’s blown off a few times, not so good control. Like doing yoga maybe, putting mind in that right place.”
Teo looks for the point where the belly scutes stop, and the entire surface becomes scaled in the same size, which defines the true tail on a snake. Normally it would be found about one-third up, out of the overall body length. He was expecting to find a marking, a knob, a button, something.
“Are you looking for the snake vent? Emma found the spot where the belly scales stop.” Dance rolls a curve of tail upward, presents it to Teo’s view.
The change in scaling is about three feet up from the tip. There’s a couple of paler, larger scales, nothing very obvious. There’s no visible ventral cloaca opening among them. It’s a gesture of trust on Dance’s part, it seems almost painfully personal.
Teo says, “What happens if I just touch it, or if I push hard on it?”
Dance is amused. “If a strange person does it, I pop my fangs out and spray venom. Not nice venom, either. The bug who grabbed me, the venom hit, their skin and clothes started smoking like chemical burn. But that was during bug raid, running a lot. You– well, I don’t know. Conflicting messages. You asked first. And smell a lot like Drin. Well, I tell him he can do what he likes. He might not agree there is no risk!” Dance smiles a little.
Teo says dryly, “I’ll be careful.”
“Thanks. Emma put on mask and raincoat and poked at the scales there, she used some fancy lab lenses to look, she says no macroscopic opening in it.”
“Did she need the mask?”
Dance gives a crooked smile. “Well, yes. That poke she gave, it surprised me. It was like she just cut puppet strings, down I went. Couldn’t move my legs. Peed on her like a baby in diapers, couldn’t move any belly muscles below my lowest ribs for half an hour. Scary. Em was very angry at the designers. She thought it might be a partial sedative switch if it is pressed by somebody I trust. Not so nice if I don’t.”
Teo nods. Dance’s story will help keep his partners alive through any kidnapping attempt. He probably wants Teo to spread it around. Depressing, really.
“What did you expect from it? What do you know?” Dance asks.
“I know a little.” Now is the time to show Dance a little trust. “I doctored zoomorphs back home. Nothing like you, though. Mostly quickly-assembled cannon fodder for the war. Sometimes something put together with more care, meant as elite troops. I wasn’t a soldier, not by a long shot. Not even military. But we ran a facility that was dedicated to physically patching up those who could be patched, adjusting damaged psyches, making them fit to serve again if we could, and neutralizing them if they were too unstable or dangerous.”
Dance’s canopy stirs again. “You mean killing them.”
Teo sighs. “Yes. But I always tried to treat them with respect and help them the best I knew how with the knowledge I was given. He looks Dance in the eyes, then. “More often than not, ending their lives was the kindest thing I could do.” He looks away, refocusing, and is surprised to see Dance’s tail still lying in his hands. He takes a deep breath, amazed by the man’s composure.
“I am guessing, based on my training in biology,” Teo points at the thicker upper slope of the curve. “that this part is built from the snake genetics for a body cavity, not for merely spine and muscles. The designers could have packed support functions like extra kidney or liver lobes, or power transformers, into the cavity.”
Dance says, “No gut tissue inside my tail, as far as I know. Any pain I’ve had along the tail has been muscular, the vertebrae, or in my skin, so far. I pray I do not get kidney stones. Some players in the Metro Symphony suffered that.”
Teo nods, releases the tail tip. “I’m looking forward to hearing you play.”
“Oh, thank you,” Dance says. The tail tip makes a little flippy gesture, like a kid’s hand waving goodbye. “Ahh, time’s up.”
“It has a clock?” Teo says, bemused.
“Oh yes indeed,” Dance says, with a groan. “No, no, stay, I know my way out.”
Teo rises also. “I’ll come around to the clinic with you.”
“With me?” Dance seems discombobulated.
“Yes. You wanted me to talk to Drin, didn’t you?”
Dance sits down again, suddenly. “Oh, when he comes to pick me up, after.”
“Yes,” Teo agrees. It would be hard to miss their departures. The naga staggers out of the clinic boat, after biting some of the patients. He gets half-carried by both his spouses to get him home. It’s clearly not easy on him. Teo hadn’t realized that the naga might spend a few days outright ill from it. He holds out his hand. “I know Emma’s busy in her own research. Would you like me to help Drin get you home, after?”
Dance takes it, gets up again, and grips Teo’s hand lightly in both of his hands, releases it. “Thank you. That would be most helpful. I am not taking you too long from your work?”
Teo looks down at the short person with the tail rolling about his own feet anxiously. “Don’t worry. It’ll be waiting for me.”
Dance looks at the piles, and chuckles. “You and Emma. She says this planet is too backward.”
“It’s quite oddly beautiful, though,” Teo says, closing the door after him. He gestures up at the uncertain clouds. “It took me a while to see that. Some of the spiders and reptiles are amazing, things that are long gone from where we came from. Must be heaven for an animal lover like Drin.”
“Drin and I grew up on a rather sprawling estate with all sorts of creatures. Blooded saddle horses, half-feral barn kittens, hunting dogs, lap dogs, an elderly iguana named Pablo, even a rather awful tarantula that sort of frightened me. It’s a horrible cliche, grubby kids coming home with something or other clutched in-hand, asking, ‘Mother, may we keep it?’ There was a whole lot of that going on in our house, and our mother never said no. Not once. I think she was just as interested in the menagerie as we were.”
Dance cocks his head. “He does surprise people, sometimes, the way he talks about orb weavers and the big tropical spiders you see here as what he calls ‘smuggler escapees.’ He likes talking to Michel about some of the weirder things the family brings in. They go over things very carefully, because the accidental creatures also can have value.”
Teo shakes his head. “Still weirds me out that the smuggling family is the one enforcing a lot of the order around here.”
“Michel had enough of chaotic war zones, he will tell you, he tells anyone. They wish to carry on business in a stable manner. And the authorities supporting bug labs, they are importing chaos. It makes all backwards.” Dance pauses at the entrance to the clinic proper. “You are giving me that look.”
“‘The weird guy with the tail who should grunt is discussing politics’ look.”
“I am very sorry, Dance. I’m not used to the differences that I’m seeing here. I do not mean to condescend or offend, I really don’t.”
“Give him a little while,” Doctor Alexander says, inside the open door. “He’ll adjust. Ready?”
“I am, thank you,” Dance says.
Teo stops him with a hand on his arm. “You know, I’m not just good at vaccinations and research. I was a fully-licensed psychiatrist. If you or Emma would like help with that PSTD, feel free to call me. Drin may be my brother, but he’s not the only one I care about.” He grins, dropping his hand. “I took that oath, you know.”
“All right, she’s ready for you,” DA says, holding aside an ER-style curtain. In the loud voice he uses for patients who are hard of hearing, he says, “Mrs. Carter, we’ve got your friend Dance here.”
“You mean my angelic cross to bear!” a woman’s voice bellows out. “Now, Dance, you tell me the truth, do you know what your damned husband Drin did yesterday?”
Dance doesn’t even wince, loud as it is. “No indeed, I do not, you tell me,” Dance yells back at her. He gives Teo a wry look, and slides past the doctor, who pulls the curtain shut again.
“He outbid Minnie for that empty dock on the end of Rainette!” It’s a roar that fills the whole place.
Teo glances at the stunned-looking volunteer at the waiting room desk. The various retired RNs who normally cover the desk on clinic days are mostly from the extended clan of red wolf zoomorphs, all of them off right now on what everyone calls a powwow. Nobody really knows what they call it, though. They play their cards really close to the vest. All the RNs, human or not, are needed to patch up wolves after fights. The limitations of local help, DA said dryly when he complained of it to Teo.
The current volunteer, Lucida, is a lady in black and red corvid-type plumage with a lovely glossy décolletage of fine black feathers. He smiles at her sympathetically. It clearly wouldn’t do the bird-lady any good to cover her ears. Her bones probably rattle to this kind of noise. She’s pretty sturdy, but by the pained look of her right now, some of the bones are still hollow and air-filled.
“Oh really? I thought Minnie wanted to sell it to her cousins from Poughkeepsie?”
“She did, the damn fool! We told her not happening, not around here, but no, off she goes with her stupid designer purse! Like anybody from Poughkeepsie would last two seconds down here, once they get a good look at you!”
“Thank you, it’s a small service I do, scaring off tourists, but–” Dance says.
The woman laughs. Teo thinks the windows are rattling in the frames from it.
“So now she can’t, and she’s talking lawsuit!”
“I daresay some of our lawyers will be glad to speak to her lawyers,” Dance tells her.
She just laughs. She gives a louder whoop then. “One down!” she says, and laughs again.
“There,” Dance says. “Two more bites, okay? Are you feeling brave today?”
“Oh yeah, you do what you need to, you’re the snake!” Mrs. Carter bellows, and laughs again. “So you tell your husband watch for that Minnie, she’s got a mean mouth on her, and thanks for helping me!”
“I will,” Dance says.
Mrs. Carter comes out in a wheelchair, with the help of the bird-lady volunteer. Mrs. Carter waves at the next people who are waiting–a family with a baby who’s been through recent cleft palate surgery–and when the bird-lady volunteer comes back, she’s breathing hard. She confides, “Wow, she’s a hoot. She threatened to shape-change on me, which she hasn’t been able to do for ten years. I guess those bites are doing her some serious good. She drove herself down this time. Used to be, she had to ask a neighbor to give her a ride.”
Teo grins. “What does she turn into?”
“Some kind of big draft horse. We’ll have to run a sling up on a barn rafter to hold her up when Doctor Alexander finally lets her try changing. I bet her horse legs are totally atrophied, she’s been stuck human with this arthritis so long.”
Teo does not mind sitting in the waiting room watching the clouds go by outside, and people-watching. It makes a nice change from stacks of paper covered in improbable and very likely fraudulent medical statistics. After an interesting succession of patients, most of them zoomorphs themselves and all of whom seem to know Dance already, they get a tired, thin father carrying a little kid who’s crying continuously. Both of them have bunny ears and furred arms and a fine greyish down on their faces. Doctor Alexander discusses the medical history with the father in low tones, and the clunk of the trashcan says he’s taken a temperature and examined the kid’s ears behind the curtain. Another clunk of discarded covers after the father’s exam.
He prescribes some veterinary medicine for ear mites for them both, and suggests quietly that a bite each from Dance might help with the ear infections. Teo knows it isn’t offered casually; if DA thought the kid could get by on standard antibiotics he would give those. They give out a lot of drug samples, as most of their patients can’t afford to buy what’s prescribed, and they will never have any official presence in the medical welfare world. He says, “This is the same virus that’s been going around, leaving people wide open to pneumonia, or close to it. Dance will be able to smell if it’s close enough that his antibodies will work.”
The father hesitates, the kid cries, and the doctor says, “I’ll let you talk to Dance,” and whisks out of their cubicle, into the other one.
Teo sighs. They have no idea how much medical sophistication was packed into Dance. They have no idea what he is, what he could be doing. All they can care about right now is getting the bunny-kid something to knock down the infection. Teo needs to do more research, but he sleeps far more than DA, and he was out in a motorboat all week, giving vaccinations up and down the bayou. He doesn’t mind, though. The simple medical procedures give him time to talk to people, help them get a grasp on their issues, reframe them. It’s not just physical problems that people have out in the swamp. Life is difficult out here.
It takes about five minutes, a few comments too soft to understand, and DA is called back. More consultation, a good loud yelp from the child, another from the father, and then Alexander whisks out to the waiting room. “They need a ride. He’s in no shape to drive. Shouldn’t have driven down, if you ask me. They’re up a trail at the far end of the bayou, they have a pretty clear road along the creek, it’s not bad.”
Teo looks up. “I was going to see Dance home, but these people need some rest ASAP.”
“Good.” Then, over his shoulder, “Thank you.”
“Who’s going to pick up their truck?” the bird-lady asks. No answer. Lucida glares at Teo. “Well, I can come along too, I’m headed out to Nicky’s bar anyway. Won’t take me long to swing over there and drop off the truck, if you can give me a ride over to Nicky’s.”
Teo smiles again. “Glad to be of service.” Teo feels like a coward, but at least this will buy him a little bit of time to find something useful to say to his brother.
It’s quiet when he opens his eyes in a shaft of bright light. He frowns, feels that the hollow next to him is barely warm, and that Drin must have tucked up the sheets around him. He feels a hot coal of warning light up in his tailbone when he twists, and then something clicks down there, relaxes, and the pain goes away, just like that. He frowns, stretches body parts in slow testing motions, and sits up, puts his feet down on the cold rag rug beside the bed.
There’s a clicking noise in the house, and lights come on. Air starts moving.
“Ahh,” Dance says. “You found the breakers.”
He starts to stand up when he hears a door close.
Drin’s talking to him from that other room before he gets three steps across the bedroom. Just talking, not raising his voice to yell across the house, knowing exactly how well Dance can hear him. “Sweetheart, it’s just me. The breaker panel is in the garage. Looks like everything is working fine now, huh?”
Dance nods, scrubs at his face. “Come talk to me, tell me what you found.”
Drin is grinning. “When I could be getting the coffee maker going? Heating up the kettle for your tea?”
Dance yawns. “Yes, you are right. We need caffeine now.”
He gets swooped up naked into a hug made chillier by Drin’s puffy outdoor jacket and rough jeans, and he yelps.
“It’s great outside, you’re gonna love it.”
“You vicious cruel morning person,” Dance says, which is something Emma would say.
“Oh, yeah,” Drin agrees, hugging him tighter, lifting him right off his feet, and his whole spine gives absurd clunking noises and relaxes. Drin releases him. “Better?”
Dance stretches again. “You are going to be good for us, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Okay, sleepy boy, have your shorts. You’ll need your pants, a heavy shirt, jacket, good socks, your boots. It’s cold out there, wind is going a bit.”
“Brrr,” Dance says.
“Where’s my hot jock guy who did that five am run every morning, huh?”
Dance sighs. “Tired out from late night corrections.”
“Yeah, that’s why we needed a trip away. So we’ll just walk a bit and look at the beach, and then we’ll thaw out with a nice hot shower.”
“After having your wicked messy way with me?”
He just gets a kiss from chilled lips in a spot which makes him yelp again.
Drin saunters off into the kitchen, laughing that maddening, superior, up-earlier-than-thou laugh.
By the time Dance has laced on his hiking boots, there are mugs sitting on the kitchen counter, steaming. “Ahhh,” he says, burying his nose in the warmth.
Drin perches on the next stool, unzips his down jacket, puts his nose in his own mug. “Ahh, they gave us the good stuff.”
“Indeed,” Dance murmurs, and leans his elbows on the counter, blinking.
Drin ruffles his hair. “You look like an owl!”
“Well, I am,” Dance says, and opens his eyes very wide. “I am a night owl now, right?”
“I’d like to get back some of that five am jock back from Maestro Young’s evil clutches,” Drin says. The man’s eyes are not joking at all.
“Yeah,” Dance agrees, and yawns again. Then he taps his own neck with two fingers, and beckons at his husband.
“What?” Drin says, but he unbuttons his shirt, he lets Dance pull the cloth down, and he lets Dance look in bright morning light at the bite marks on his trapezius muscle.
The bruises are just where Drin would sling a strap for a bag or a backpack, halfway between his neck and the tip of his collarbone. That won’t be fun if he does try to wear a pack.
Purpling teeth-marks on either side of the muscle map out Dance’s upper and lower dental impression. Two more marks, scabbed, sit in the middle of the ellipse on Drin’s back. Nothing like that shows on the front side. Two deep marks, bruised in a maroon red, obviously inflicted by something thin and sharp. They look just like needlemarks from a blood draw or an injection.
Dance looks at them carefully, and attempts to use that to map where the “needles” came from. When he runs his tongue over the inside of his own mouth, there is nothing new. No trace of extra holes, nothing hiding sharp bits. There’s just the same bulges and ridges on his upper palate as ever, the same as they always felt.
“Did you look at these in the mirror?” Dance asks, staring at the two scabs.
“Yeah, in front. When you bite, you don’t fool around. But it’s not bad. Feels a little stiff. Reminds me of you, when I move my arm and stuff.” He smiles.
Dance shakes his head. “Did you see these holes in back? Here and here.”
“Doesn’t hurt there. I didn’t notice anything special. So what’s it look like?” Drin says.
Dance says, “If our Drin was a beautiful actress, we ourselves must be playing the bad vampire.”
“Sweetheart, if you were a vampire, I’d invite you in and ask you to be especially bad to me,” Drin says solemnly, but his eyes are laughing.
“How bad?” Dance asks, unable to resist, especially with Drin’s arms hugging around him and the man’s mouth kissing his cheek, then his ear. Dance helpfully tips his chin out of the way.
“Very,” Drin murmurs, kissing his way down Dance’s neck. “Mmm, nice.”
“Is the actress supposed to– oh, yes, please,” as he feels a hand unzipping his pants.
“Is she supposed to do this?” Drin says. He slides his fingers skillfully into Dance’s shorts, rubbing lightly at Dance’s balls. “Or is she supposed to kneel down and plead for you to let her suck your dick? Begging you to let her get it in her mouth?”
Dance looks down. “No,” he says. “She’s not supposed to. But if she does it anyway, and gets the bad vampire all carried away and–” he sighs at the hot, moist mouth covering the tip of his cock, and drawing back coyly, “–and he gets very bad.”
Drin smiles up at him, licks his lips, breathes on the tip of his rigid cock. “What if she wants that bad vampire to be really bad to her?”
“Oh, he might have to grant her whatever she wants,” Dance says, watching the mouth close onto his dick, draw him in. “That is– making me really–” he sighs as the heat draws back.
“Morning wood, gotta love it,” Drin says, stroking Dance with one hand. Then he stands up, looks at Dance, pulls Dance’s hand down. “Come on, show me how you like it.”
“Ah, no, I’ll come–” Instead, he reaches up and tugs at Drin’s shirt.
“Just like that? What a hasty vampire!” Drin pulls off the jacket and the shirt for him.
“I think our actress kind of knows something she wants, even if she’s a big tease and she doesn’t really know what she’s getting into right now,” Dance says, harsh and low, and he crowds Drin’s hips back into the kitchen counter, and grinds against him. Kisses his nipples, tonguing them, nibbling at them. Then he pulls his head away, and he says, “Oh, getting all wet, so these–come down–”
He unzips Drin’s pants, grabs the waistbands, yanks down shorts and jeans, frees the dick jumping to his attention. He fists Drin, stroking up and down, stops to spread his hand and stroke the man’s balls instead. With his other hand on Drin’s neck, he pulls Drin’s head down to kiss him thoroughly, taking the man’s mouth, shoving his tongue everywhere.
Drin moans a little, and Dance draws back. “Yes?” he asks.
“Maybe she wants him to bite the other shoulder too. Maybe she really wants him to fuck her until she comes, and bite the fucking silly daylights out of her.”
“Even if it hurts?” He slides his hand along Drin’s hip, cups one buttock. “So much fucking. Maybe this is too rough. We could get this coming a lot of times without putting a dick inside.”
Drin’s hand finds Dance, strokes his cock. “Yeah? What if we’re asking really nicely–”
Dance grips the man’s arms, turns him away, guides him over to face the table, pushes him down onto it, and says, “Stay.”
When he returns, he finds Drin slowly masturbating, pants around his ankles, with his chest down on the table and his face quite red with arousal.
He comes up behind Drin, slides his gloved hands onto the man’s hips, spreads the butt muscles apart, and looks at the man’s anus for any problems. It moves, clenches and relaxes gently as the man breathes. Beneath it, Drin’s balls are tightening, drawing up, knowing he’s being examined. It turns him on. Satisfied, Dance warms up lube on a latex-gloved hand, strokes lube across the pink tissue, and slides two fingers easily into the opening, sinking them in up to the base.
Dance says, thinking it out, “Telling about it really turns her on, and maybe she comes before bossy vampire allows it, doesn’t she?” Another finger slides in. He starts probing for that prostate gland.
Drin gives a little surprised wheeze. “Fuck, yeah.”
Dance spreads his other fingers wide, strokes at the man’s balls. More lube on his anus, drooled on cold, without warming it. Drin gasps.
“Maybe the vampire puts both hands inside her, one in her cunt–” he slides his free hand between Drin’s thighs and starts stroking his balls and the base of his cock. “–and the other one in her ass–” He moves his fingers, making room. “Maybe she comes twice, yelling names, and he will be very surprised who taught her so well!” The little finger slides in. His middle fingers stroke that spot he knows works so well for Drin.
“Or it hurts too much the first time, and no, she doesn’t like it.” Dance slides out his hand, lets go of Drin’s balls.
“Jeezus fuck,” Drin gasps.
“I think this bad vampire will keep coming back, fucking her on logs in the woods, swoop down in the big fancy maze and taking her on a bench at some night party. Drag her out behind the mansion, in the stable at night, make the stable boys all lick her cunt and then she sucks them off, and then that bad vampire fucks all of them. But he makes her use that dildo and peg him, too, he makes her happy about a lot of surprising things,” Dance murmurs, and rolls on a condom. He squeezes more lube onto the condom, stands behind Drin, lines up his cock on the man’s hole, pushes into him in one long, slow stroke. “And– what– what does the young lady say now?”
Drin swears in high stuttering gasps, breathes out hard, and growls, “Do me.”
“Right,” Dance says, leaning over the man’s back, pressing wet kisses along his spine. His mouth is drooling cum already. He licks it onto Drin’s back. “How does that feel?”
“Please,” Drin says, and tightens his buttock muscles down hard, pulling slabs of muscle tight against Dance’s cock. Dance gives a sigh, jolted by that pressure, and the thrust gets a grunt, and a breathless chuckle, from Drin.
“Yeah–” and Drin is pushing back, hips rocking back and forth, impaling himself.
“You feel– too good–” Dance moans. He’s pistoning away, losing it, and jolting to a stop again, coming back to himself with a horrified cry, gripping Drin’s hips to a stop, alarmed.
“I’m good,” Drin wheezes. “Jeezus, Dance, you’re so fucking–long–feels like you’re way up in my lungs there–”
Dance leans on the man’s back while the man’s ribs keep heaving for air. “Bend a little more, turn back this shoulder you want–I need to, I need to– do you really want me– to bite? Oh yes, good. I’m going, Drin, I’m going–”
He arches in hard, hips rocking slower than he really wants, and he closes his mouth carefully on the ridge of muscle that Drin offers him. He feels the pressure building hard at both cock and mouth. He tries not to grip down with his front teeth, he tries to just let it build up and happen, while they rock together. Drin moans under him. Drin’s pelvis is pushing back, rocking up at Dance just as fast as Dance is slamming down into him.
Then Drin tightens down his buttock muscles, clenches everything tight on him, too much.
Dance grabs on with his mouth, pushes his cock to the root inside Drin, and comes.
There’s the little clunk! relaxing in his head, mouth-cum slides out of his open lips and down Drin’s skin, but he doesn’t feel the odd little lock coming loose again. Something pulses rhythmically in the back of his mouth, it’s coming as hard as his dick, but it just keeps going. His bite is pumping whatever it is directly into open wounds in Drin’s body. As it keeps pumping fluid, there’s resistance coming back at him, fluid is building in Drin’s muscle tissue, slowing down on accepting any more of that injection.
“Oh fuck me, fuck me,” Drin moans, pushing upward hard, almost lifting Dance’s boots off the floor. Dance reaches around, grips Drin’s cock, pumps him twice, and feels spurts of hot fluid fill his cupped hand. Drin’s cock twitches in place, his hips push Dance up once more, and then he’s poised there for a long moment, not even breathing.
Then the big man draws in a long breath, under Dance’s chest, and suddenly everything relaxes. All the muscles slacken under Dance.
Somehow that makes the little click! of release happen in his mouth.
Gradually the pulsing in his sinuses stops, and Dance opens his mouth, releases Drin’s shoulder, feels himself drooling onto Drin’s back. He licks the mouth-cum around wider on Drin’s skin. He feels like it ought to be an apology instead.
Drin sprawls down onto his elbows on the table, gasping.
Dance licks cum onto Drin’s shoulder blades, down his spine, feeling how relaxed those muscles are. “Hurting?”
“Fuck no,” Drin says. He shifts one arm, turns his head. “Dance–”
“Yes?” Dance murmurs, licking the man’s trunk muscles just below the floating ribs.
“–you could do that all day, if you want.”
“No hiking the beach for you, if I did,” Dance says, and resumes licking fluid across freckled skin, while Drin chuckles under him. But he can feel the man’s ass twitch, starting to think about being stretched open for so long. He reaches down to draw back, intending to grab the condom and pull out.
“Where the fuck did you get the idea for that whole amazing story?”
Dance smiles. “Amalia was telling me to be more inventive, to use imagination, to make both of us think in different sexy stories than what we say at home.” He spreads out mouth cum along Drin’s neck with his fingers, massaging it into the muscles as if he was using a massage oil. “Is that feeling okay?”
“It’s totally excellent.” Drin sighs, and his eyes close. Then they blink open again. “But that whole fantasy– how the hell did you guess that would get me rigid that fast?”
“Straight boy porn.”
Drin wheezes a little, laughing. “Research. Like Emma.”
“Oh yes. You like women a lot, I see the way you talk to them, the way you touch them, the way you look at them. It makes me feel good too, the way you look at Emma. All warm and turned on and interested. She needs that, too. It’s so good, I really like watching you do that.”
“You’re stupid in love with her too,” Drin says, and he’s got a wry grin on his face.
Dance sighs. “I think so, yes. You know very well that she would make a truly excellent bitch-boss domme. Boots, straps, cane–stockings, yes, a garter belt, something frilly at the back, I think–”
“Oh jeez,” Drin says, squinting.
“Yes? A pretty good fantasy, huh?”
“Not fair,” Drin mumbles.
“I want to turn you over and suck you now,” Dance says.
“You– fucking hell–Jeeez, boy, that’s one helluva hose you’re got up me–”
“Sorry,” Dance says, hanging onto the condom as he drags himself out of Drin’s body. Then he deals with the mess. “Hold still, I will wipe you clean.”
“Not fair,” Drin says, with his ass flinching as a warm damp washcloth wipes him clean.
“Okay, that is looking okay. Good. Turn over. Do you want a hand– okay. Is that okay for your back? Cushion?”
“No worries,” Drin says, sprawling back, knees apart as wide as the tangle at his ankles will allow. It’s an Aussie phrase he’s borrowed from Emma. That’s unfair of him, too. “You’re really gonna– you are. Well, damn, that feels good.”
“Good,” Dance says, and he kneels down on the tangle of the man’s pants, with his own pants still pushed down, and he starts licking mouth-cum onto Drin’s left shin, where old scars have left damaged, swollen tissue. It hurts him when he has been up on his feet for too long.
Drin’s hand flops down beside his knee, and he strokes the top of Dance’s head, threads his fingers into Dance’s hair. “Guess I should tell you a story while your mouth is all busy.”
“Mmm,” Dance hums in agreement.
“Okay, our little actress doesn’t know half what’s going on in that mansion. Her boss is a lady in black leather everything with lots of dildos for bad girls. Her mean boss has a giant mirror. It’s one-way, with a nice big room behind. Madam likes to take these poor straight schlubs of clients back there for the show when she has her wicked way with that nice young thing. Or any of her other girls. And she’s totally pegging all those burly pink boys who work on the grounds, they all beg her for it. Me now, me now, please Mistress.”
Dance hums appreciatively.
Drin pats his hair. “But sometimes she throws queer parties, very hush-hush, everybody wearing masks and throwing down their furs to reveal they’re naked underneath, lots of fumbling in corners–it’s all terribly Victorian, all lace and Edward Gorey–”
Dance finds himself smiling, making it harder to keep his tongue moving on Drin.
Drin must be able to feel it, because he pats Dance’s head and goes on, “Now the strapping gardener’s lad gets a lot of attention, you know, lots of oiling up and posing in a jock strap down in the parlor downstairs until he gets to lick the ladies and suck the men off, but there’s plenty of action upstairs too. There’s a bathtub where the guests can wallow around and get bathed by the footmen in soapsuds, there’s a nursery where the baby contingent get diapered by male nannies and given milk bottles and fucked if they beg for it. In the kitchen they play with food, the guests get fucked with shortening, or they get sucked off by cooks with nothing on but aprons. Stop laughing!”
“Hentai?” Dance murmurs.
“Oh yeah– yeah, of course, gotta please the tentacle-kinksters. Okay, there’s a kinda lab place. Weird scientist guy has a dark basement room with tanks gurgling for exotic saltwater critters like nautiloids and squid–but no actual octopi, they always crawl out of the tanks and they’re very delicate, way too hard to keep–”
Dance has to pull back for a moment to let the giggles escape.
“–I mean, he really is trying to get his own work done, between these tiresome visits by sex kinksters, but darn it, that’s who pays the bills, even when they do kick over the test tube racks sometimes. Anyway, he doesn’t use any real animals for sex. No, he has lots of floppy silicon toys in wild colors that he coats in really thick lube, no matter where he sticks it into you. Yeah, when he’s upstairs on display for regular days, this poor guy is doomed to fuck busty girls with teeny little silicon toys that make them scream. The voyeur clients love that–I mean, have you heard those girls screaming in hentai anime? It’ll burst your eardrums. Jeez, you’re laughing again.”
Dance quiets himself by spluttering into Drin’s knee.
“I mean, that’s all upstairs straight stuff, by the mirror. Our skinny lab-coat guy is downstairs for queer parties. He spends hours on end servicing kinky queers in his very own lab with his silicon toys, like the octopus arms. And none of them appreciate how much work went into being accurate about the number of suckers on the giant squid arms. You’re not laughing again, are you? He’s quite an artist with the silicon, you know. He can let the twinks crawl up under that lab coat and suck him all day, too, he never gets off on it.”
Dance mumbles a sympathetic noise into Drin’s calf muscle.
“Yeah, poor guy. He is seriously lusting after one of Madam’s more interesting employees. But his love is not requited, of course. He pines after a heroic-looking artist’s model who turned out to be transgender, and she sits all naked and elegant in an artist’s atelier with a couple of dykes in bike leathers and a few men in gowns who are transvestites. They pose for guests, they have these very slow beautiful orgies together, until the dykes get impatient with the whole thing and fuck everybody very hard with strap-ons.”
Dance makes a surprised noise.
“Yeah, me either. I really wouldn’t mind getting pegged by a big tough bike-riding dyke with a strap-on, would you? But you know it’d never work out, she’d never settle down with some nice boys like us. She’d get bored and she’d always be running around to bars and getting in fights and having to find new jobs. Which is why the transgender gal will never pick any one of the dykes Madam brings for her to look over. Yeah, there’s probably way too many tattoos going crazy there. Madam likes to hang up all this artsy erotica, like photographs where you can’t make out which body part belongs to who– yeah, there’s a gallery, too. A gallery of parts fucking other parts in closeup. Peppers and tomatoes getting it on. Are you laughing?”
“Never,” Dance says solemnly, and resumes licking.
“Right. So, this transgender model doesn’t even notice how the scientist guy might wear glasses and look funny but he’s an expert on making sex toys and he is really quite strong from hauling around tanks and changing water all the time–”
“Shortsighted,” Dance says solemnly, which makes Drin laugh instead. When Drin is done spluttering, Dance goes back to licking the man’s other knee.
“So every day at breakfast, our scientist guy has to look at Madam’s pictures of this beautiful object of lust who doesn’t want him, and he starts to hate the whole idea of oatmeal, and he even hates having to go get coffee. I think I better stop talking about him, you keep laughing at him, it’s really very heartless and cruel of you.”
“Sorry,” Dance mumbles.
“I should think so. Well, poor guy, he’s only happy when he gets to hang out upstairs with his friend the Professor, who has a lewd picture gallery and illegally stolen Indian sculptures where you can’t even tell how many people came to the orgy. Oh yeah, and a lot of Greek pottery plates with really elegant whorehouse pictures of older men with boys. The Professor brings in all those rich posh undergraduates who wanted to learn Latin for the naughty bits. Hey, it’s not that funny!”
“It is, Drin! But does the Professor–” Dance trails off uncertainly.
“Oh, he picks out twinks among the queer party guests, all legal age, students. He only likes them in real academic gowns, too. He feels them all up first, lubes them up, jacks them off, each one in turn. Then he picks out two of the weediest, skinniest, youngest-looking kids in the lot and sucks one off, while he pets the other one a lot. Then he lets that one screw the daylights out of him. He likes getting done in front of everybody, but he doesn’t mind going into his office and getting done on top of his desk, either. Those skinny little guys have the most stamina, he’ll get the best ride.”
“No punishment first?” Dance asks, stroking his wet fingers along the inside of Drin’s thighs, shifting his hands up toward the man’s hips.
“Oh, they have a proctor for the undergraduates who are begging for that, he switches them a good number of times and makes them lick his boots before he lets them sit on the Professor’s lap for a good fondling. The Professor tells them they’ve been naughty and makes them wear a big butt plug that sticks out the back of the gown so everyone knows they got switched.”
Dance slides his fingers in the damp fluid he’s licked onto Drin’s knees. The drip from his sinuses is steady enough that he could start coating both the man’s thighs with it. “Does Madam punish them for being bad boys?”
“Yes, but she delegates that job to her pretty gardener boys. The students get whacked off by her staff, they’re not interesting to her. Not enough of a challenge. She only takes over on the odd ones, the disabled ones, the truly horrible-looking ones, what you might call the neglected ones. She likes to take her time with them, study them, trace out how their personal issues work with their kinks. Those guys, they love her. Downstairs, where Madam presides during her leather parties, there’s a caning room and a rope suspension room and she’s hired the local leather club. Lots of bulky tops like Madam’s butler, a very stern bald guy who’s all muscle under that suit and really strict with his subbies–I mean, all these plump Tom of Finland types he picks out to pinch and prod and fuck the hell out of, they never know what hit ‘em– you’re laughing again!”
“You are too funny,” Dance protests.
“Oh, never! You can never be too funny.” Drin flips one hand nonchalantly, and strokes Dance’s hair as Dance resumes lapping fluid from Drin’s knees upward.
“Okay, Madam’s dungeon crew make toys, all the toys you could imagine. But the real attraction is up in the parlor with that mirror. The blacksmith– are you giggling again?– he’s in an apron and nothing else, the hairy bastard, he’s strapping down frail undergraduates in front of Madam’s mirror, he jams big dildoes up their spoiled pansy asses, and he only lets them come when the other guys watching, the guys wearing those big butt plugs that stick out at the back of their robes, when they have all sucked each other off. What’s so funny?” His head pops up, looking at Dance.
“Every student’s wet dream, the way you tell this story,” Dance says, and licks his lips.
Drin reaches down and slides his fingers through Dance’s hair. “God, look at that mouth of yours.”
“Look at this mouth licking cum on you,” Dance says, and starts licking the ticklish spots at his hip joints.
Drin watches awhile, stroking his hair back from his face, touching his ears, cupping the back of his head. Mouth cum gleams along the man’s body hair, all across his belly, when Dance lifts his head and says, “When you get me excited, that makes me leak more mouth cum.”
“That’s the idea, yeah.” Drin grins at him.
“Who makes the blacksmith happy?” Dance asks.
“Oh, well, he loves this beautiful slim curly-haired boy who’s a contortionist and likes to have sex with everybody else first, right in the same room, on display where his daddy can see him The boy has lots of them at once before he finally lets the blacksmith touch him. The boy likes to have three guys doing him at once, one for each hole and his dick, and more coming on his back, before he will even kiss the blacksmith.”
Dance makes a sympathetic noise.
“Yeah, but it’s not all sad. After this boy has got his jaw muscles stretched and his ass fucked wide open, he’ll suck the blacksmith all hard. Then he’ll get in some weird position and sit right down on the blacksmith’s cock, and fuck himself onto it until the blacksmith comes. Because he knows the blacksmith just loves sliding in all at once, boom, and he’s a pretty thick cock, and the boy gets all stretched open for him by these other guys.”
Dance lifts his head and says, “Such a slut, huh?”
“But he’s got a reason. The boy likes to get him all jealous and hard and excited from watching his boy performing, getting fucked by all these other men first. He’s so jealous, you know, he puts these dildos in all these fucking weedy undergraduates after they’ve been fucking his boy where he can see it. The boy is leaking lube, he’s all stretched open from these other dicks, and then the blacksmith has to cover him and fill him up. See, his cock is so thick, the boy tells him how much he wants to feel it, his big cock is fucking him the way none of the puny little guys can do.”
“Is that how you like it, all wet decks and stretched for you, like a pirate captain taking the greedy cabin boy after the rest of the crew has fucked him wide open?” Dance asks, spreading a puddle of mouth-cum with his fingers up onto the base of Drin’s cock.
Drin starts to laugh. “Meanwhile, back at the mansion–”
Dance smiles at him, and purrs, “Pirates.”
“Okay, okay, your pirate captain guy visits every time he’s in town. He brings Madam stuff like–oh, I don’t know, brandy and sex toys and ex-whores running away from France–but he likes queer parties the most. He shows off his great big whanger after everybody else fucks his boys. He always has three of them play with each other for Madam’s mirror. And the blacksmith’s boy gives the captain’s boys lots of personal attention.”
“For him to watch?” Dance says, spreading cum with his fingers along his husband’s balls.
“Jeez, I keep forgetting you’ve got your hands on some pretty raunchy Internet porn yourself.”
“You were right, though. Like the pictures, most of it is pretty sad.” By then, Dance is licking down onto the seam of his husband’s balls, down behind them, then taking the entire sac into his mouth, feeling them twitch and stir.
When he pulls back this time, Drin says, “You do know how to get a guy going.”
“So do you,” Dance says, smiling up at him. Then he looks at Drin’s cock thoughtfully, looking at how it’s stiffened upward over Drin’s belly, studying how the slit is welling up with runnels of semen, drooling onto the red fur. It’s impossible for him to tell where it has already mingled with his own mouth-cum on the man’s pubic hair, dripped down onto his balls.
Drin gives a little moan, hips stirring, watching Dance merely look at his cock. Dance leans one elbow on the table next to Drin’s hip, and lifts the stiffened cock with his other hand, and lowers his face very close to it, not touching. “I love how you smell. I want to taste you coming.”
“You want to suck me off bare.”
He hoists himself up on his elbows, looking down his own length at Dance. “Oh fuck, Dance, don’t look at me like that. You’re asking if being married to me is enough protection from whatever dumb shit I did when I was younger, even if it’s something they don’t even know to test for yet!”
Dance tilts up an eyebrow. “This from you, who’s letting me bite you when we don’t even know the least thing about whatever this stuff is–” he gestures at his own face.
Drin flops back on the table, folds his hands under his head, and sighs deeply.
“Drin, those bites went into your muscle, the little holes bleed when I bite you. Those– whatever they are–when those biting things come out of you, they come out of your muscle and they go back up inside my head.”
The big hands slide around on Drin’s face, scrub at his temples, cover his eyes, press there. But he doesn’t say anything. Dance is about to move when Drin lowers his hands at last, and reaches out, and covers Dance’s forearm with his hand. “I know. Goddammit, sweetheart, I know.”
“Okay,” Dance says. He lowers his head, starts licking on Drin’s ribs, nowhere near that much-desired cock. But he pumps his hand slowly up and down the length of Drin’s shaft. Drin’s knees stir wider, his grip tightens on Dance’s arm, his hips strain upward, and he turns his head restlessly.
Dance lifts his tongue away, leans in closer on his elbow, and murmurs, “You know something about it, don’t you?”
Drin tugs on his arm, pulls Dance in across him, until Dance consents to lower his weight onto Drin’s body on the table. Their bellies meet, their cocks rub together. Drin cups his hands around Dance’s ears, around the back of his head, down onto his neck. Drin says, “You’re so goddamn fierce sometimes. I’m just– sometimes I’m not very brave, you know?”
Dance props himself up on his elbows, rocking his hips very slightly, and he looks straight down into his husband’s eyes, waiting.
Drin lowers his eyelids, he looks aside, he fiddles with Dance’s necklace, he strokes Dance’s face in both hands, and finally he lifts his head and kisses Dance on the forehead.
“Like pulling teeth,” Dance says, which is another wry quote from Emma. He lowers his mouth and kisses his husband on the mouth, deeply. He finally draws his mouth back, having said what he wanted without any confusion.
Drin’s eyes fill up, glitter. He blinks hard, and lets Dance lick him on the forehead and the nose and the cheeks, and down onto his neck, and then onto his chest. “Sweetheart, I told you a long time ago– goddamn bad dreams, right– you saved my life. You did. You came down on a belaying line and gathered me up and they hauled us both in, and that’s all– that’s all I could say, for a long time.”
“Mmmhhm?” Dance goes on licking his nipples.
“How could I tell you that you– I couldn’t say a damn thing before– before this happened– but I always–” He gives a little groan. “Dance, I dreamed you bit me, just like you did tonight. Oh God, Dance, you bit me and it made all the pain go away. I was fucking dying of burns, Dance, and you bit me, and made it all go to sleep. I was never, ever afraid of you biting me. Never.”
Dance tilts his head. “You knew all this? And you never–”
“Hell, it’s this recurring dream, we know none of the equipment is really there in Afghanistan– not the way I saw it was– those fucking damn bees, and the bugs– who knew what parts were real?”
“Mmm,” Dance says, and resumes licking the man’s chest while he thinks about it. He nudges Drin’s nipples into tight points, pulling on them gently. It makes Drin’s cock stir against his, makes it twitch and stiffen harder. He lifts his head. “And the bees? You said you told bees where to go.”
“Oh yeah. Hell. If anybody knows how to command bees, it’s probably classified so deep we’ll never fucking find out.” Drin’s belly heaves a deep sigh against Dance’s weight.
Dance rocks his hips gently, aware that the table is very sturdy but even it might have trouble under their combined weight plunging around. He’s feeling a bit ridiculous, with his pants tangled around his ankles and his knees losing purchase on the table between Drin’s thighs. But then Drin puts down his big hands and grabs Dance’s butt muscles and hauls him up higher.
“Slippery,” Drin says, hanging onto Dance’s butt, with some of his fingers digging in, already halfway to sliding inside Dance’s hole. Dance rocks his hips up, pushing up into that grip, rocking downward to push his cock against Drin’s. “Easy, sweetheart, I’ve been giving your ass a hard time the last few days–”
“I like it,” Dance growls.
“Uh huh. And you want to suck me bare.”
They rock together a moment, making the table creak.
“Are you afraid of my– my teeth– biting your cock?”
Drin chuckles. “No. Oh hell no. But I’m afraid I’d never come down again from that kind of high. Or I’d never want to.”
“I’d think your mouth would feel it even more–” Dance pushes hard with his hips, takes the man’s mouth, delivering over the drool sleeting down the back of his tongue. He paints the inside of Drin’s mouth with it, and feels the man’s ribs move, breathing harder, deeper.
He puts down his hands, pushes himself up, lifts his weight off Drin’s chest. Then he slides off the table, stands up, and grips Drin’s cock firmly on both hands, and looks down at him, waiting. “Roll on your side.”
“What? Why?” Drin says dazedly.
“I’m going to bite your ass. That’s where I should– where I know– where you need me to bite this time.”
Drin pushes himself up on one elbow, staring at him. “You’re really– Right. Okay, if you’re sure.” And he turns, pulls up one knee, belly muscles drawing tight, cock bobbing stiffly onto the table.
Dance reaches down, pumps the man’s cock a few strokes, leans down, and starts licking Drin’s hip, and then down onto the meat of his buttock, and with his other other hand pushes up under that muscle, pushing it into his wide mouth. There’s the click! in his head, and he’s spasming, locked in place with his jaws hung wide open, his front teeth not biting closed at all. Something in his sinuses pulses, and the pressure drains from his head in huge sucking bursts.
“Ahh, there–yeah, that’s good, don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt at all,” Drin murmurs, and his hand fumbles around and strokes Dance’s arm. The man’s body relaxes under him, and he gives a little happy sigh.
There’s a barely perceptible release somewhere inside Dance’s head, that click, and then he’s free to move his jaws. He presses his lips down on Drin’s butt muscle, kisses it, lifts his head. Then he licks across the wounds he’s just made. At least this way there’s no bruises from his regular teeth.
“Okay,” Drin says, and slowly rolls onto his back. “Wow. Just… any time you want, you just… That was… really nice.”
Dance looks down at the man’s cock, and up again at his face. A hard pulse throbs down in his own groin, making demands.
“You want it?” Drin asks.
“I want it,” Dance says.
“Take whatever you want, sweetheart. Anything you want. Suck me bare, yeah, you’re right. Biting me, you’re already getting exposed to my stupid germs.”
Dance looks at him. “You’re not just saying that because biting made you too happy?”
“Well, it makes me think I’d really like getting sucked, but if you’d rather do something else–” he shifts his knee, offering to roll around in other positions.
“No, this,” Dance says, and starts licking the man’s cock. Puts his mouth down on it, gets the taste onto the back of his tongue. Those drooling spots flare hotly in his mouth, making things pulse like his cockhead, and he groans. He draws up again, gets his hand onto the shaft of Drin’s prick, pumping it.
“Yes, oh God please yes,” Drin says, chest heaving.
Dance works his tongue around the tip of it, gets his lips wrapped around it, and pushes it in as far as he can, until his nose is pushing down into wet pubic hair. Get that taste of musk and salt and Drin down into his throat. There’s another ecstatic throb from those tender spots on his upper palate, and he moans, bracing out his feet, and he starts bobbing his head up and down, thrusting it in, pushing the tip up against those drooling spots. He wraps his hands around Drin’s hips, gets his hands down onto the man’s butt muscles, grips them so he can work with the rhythmic clenching of the body working under him.
“Oh fuck, oh fuck oh, oh,” Drin gasps, his gut heaving in and out with each breath. “Oh God, I’m coming, I’m going to– “
“Mmmmmm,” Dance hums, holding it in place against those tender spots, feeling fluid spurting, the man’s penis stuttering into him, pushing into his palate, shoving into his throat.
Drin’s body holds that position, arched up, belly taut, for a long time. Then he grunts, his hips jerk, and he falls back panting. The man’s body finally relaxes, the butt muscles slacken, his knees sprawl limp. One hand flops wide on the table. His belly balloons and caves with each breath.
Dance resumes sucking him gently, finally sliding off his cock and licking those mingled fluids down onto the man’s gut muscles and onto the cords of his thighs at his hip joints, returning over and over to lick and suckle at his husband’s penis. It is oddly intimate, feeling the rigid penis slowly soften, the skin crinkling. His balls slacken very gradually too.
“You…” Drin says. “God, you weren’t fooling… what you wanted… that’s a helluva thing, Dance…”
“Not ticklish yet?” Dance asks.
“No, I just… I’m just floating off, man… best of all possible worlds.”
“I think so,” Dance says, deeply pleased. He surveys the supine state of his beloved. He worries that the bite marks might hurt like hell in a few hours, considers distractedly whether it would do the slightest bit of good to put some antiseptic on them, and takes himself firmly in hand. “Drin,” he says.
“Yeah?’ Drin turns his head, blinking.
“You said you wanted me to show you how I jack off, but you’ve seen me do it. Why now, what’s different?”
Drin’s eyelids relax. He smiles. “Everything’s changed, sweetheart. C’mere, let me touch you, get my hand on your balls while you make that man of yours happy. Not so little, either.” His touch is as languid as he is, brushing up and down Dance’s belly and thighs, cupping his balls and sliding fingers up behind them, stroking lightly into his ass, then pushing his palm firmly onto the head of Dance’s cock.
Dance leans on the table, leans into Drin’s supporting hands, crawls right up onto him and pumps the tip of his cock into Drin’s leg, groaning.
“Yeah, sweatheart, I know, I know you like to be held when you come, it’s good. C’mon, give it to me, let it happen, just let it go and lose it for me.” He hugs those long arms around Dance, kisses his forehead, and slides one hand under him, cupping all of his cock and balls and jerking it in his big hand. Dance shudders and feels Drin’s fingers finally, finally stroke it out of him, and he groans, and he comes, at long fucking last.
“You know, these damn beach hikes are so tiring,” Drin murmurs, and strokes his hair.
Dance huffs out a laugh. “Hard on your back, too.”
Emma gets up off the rumpled bed and walks back and forth, hands on hips. “I’m not sure we’ll be able to dodge these people if they really want to find us. We have no idea what resources they have, what kind of money they put into research, what–”
“Now that’s what I keep coming back to,” Drin says. “The motive.”
Emma flaps her hand. “Gimme cop rules, for a moment. Evidence first, then guesses on motives.”
Dance throws his arm over his eyes with a long sigh.
Emma says to him, “Tell me again about the people at the cafe.”
“I smelled a gust of bad smell, I looked up, the man’s neck blew up and outward and then the car came at us and something hit us–might have been a chair–and we were rolling away. When we came back past the car, four people in it were dead with their necks blown apart and Drin’s co-worker was crushed under the car tires.”
“Did you know the people in the car?”
“Slightly, from Drin’s work.” Another shrug, as if that’s it.
Emma walks back and forth, elbows stuck out, hands tapping on her hips in the cheap polyester pants. Even the pants can’t obscure the shape of those femme fatale hips, whose width gets bemoaned for excess now and then. Drin wishes he was moaning into them, but of course he wishes that on a very regular basis. “Stop it,” she says crossly, and thwacks Drin with her knuckles as she passes him.
“Stop what?” he says, surprised.
“Thinking that,” she says.
“What?” he says.
“That,” she says, and thumps him again.
He just makes a leering Groucho Marx face, wiggling his mustache.
Dance starts to laugh.
“What?” Drin says again, waggling his eyebrows suggestively instead.
“That, very much that,” Dance says, waving his hand at them both, and he’s hugging himself, shaking with laughter for no reason.
Drin makes more puzzled faces, exaggerating it, until they’re both laughing, and ducking against the pillow Emma is bashing at them both. She bashes it hard, too, wading into them, and then she’s sprawling over Dance, and grabbing Drin’s shoulders close, and then they’re all in a heap with Dance on the bottom. All that weight hurts on his back and low in his pelvis, and he twists around on his side to ease it, still laughing. Drin puts his hand right there, pausing, and says, “You okay?”
“Oh good, yes please,” Dance says, smiling, and sighs as the big warm hand strokes the ache there. “Mmmm,” he says, eyes closed. Emma’s hands start working on his shoulders at the same time, wringing more groans out of him.
“Spoilt,” Emma murmurs, and kisses his cheek, while he smiles.
“I called your beekeeping friends, as you say to do.”
“Oh, that explains it,” Drin says.
Dance tilts his head up in a precise jerk just like the little bright praying mantis they had been watching. The garden is full of insect life attracted to Dance’s plantings.
“How Fozzie knew my phone number.”
Dance says, cautiously, “Who is Fozzie?”
“A big old bear. Knows everybody, all the beekeeping guys. Possibly the biggest bear you’ll ever meet.”
“Am I meeting Fozzie?”
“Yeah, as soon as I can arrange it.” Drin says. “He’s really out of this world.”
“It’s an expression of admiration. You and Em are out of this world.” Drin cups the deeply muscled shoulder, rubbing a smutch of dark clay away from the smooth skin.
“Then, you are out of this world as well.” Dance starts picking up his tools. There won’t be any more work done in the garden tonight.
“When is Em supposed to be home?”
“Late, maybe nine or so,” Dance says. Then he smiles. “Are you hungry? You look tired, my Drin.”
“I am,” Drin says. Dance still looks too much like a praying mantis, and not enough like Drin’s lover, beautifully warm and sweaty and wearing nothing but stained baggy shorts in his garden. The white smile has too many teeth in it, and they are someplace dark, against a backdrop of flight harness cords and glittering expanses of… something. The brown face twitches, triangulating in tiny gestures on distant targets, a distance which doesn’t seem to stop him doing… whatever is causing the shock waves that rock them both. Somebody farther away laughs in triumph in the dark, to music. “Do you feel lucky? I feel lucky! No tropical depression gonna steal my sun away, I feel lucky!” Voices sing verses along with Mary Chapin Carpenter. Not all of her words match the version he knows from the radio now. “Still think you’d rather fuck a laser cannon, boys?”
Drin shakes off the weird alienated crawling sensation, leans in, and kisses Dance on the cheek. “Food is a great idea too. Want to jump in the shower and then cook something?”
Dance gives him a searching look, before he nods and carries his tools over to the faucet. Drin bends down by the hose, helps him wash them off and put them away. “No, no, you must get all the clay off the metal parts, Drin,” Dance chides him, gently. “On this I am inflexible.”
“Bite me!” Drin says, laughing; the tools are spotless.
“If you want,” Dance responds, not even blinking.
Drin holds up one wet, washed wrist, offering him the childish dare.
Dance moves forward and mouths Drin’s forearm, proving his bite is even bigger than Drin realized. “Yeth? More?” Dance says with his mouth full. His teeth prickle gently at the skin, something catches, snags when Drin pulls away. They both look down at the two cuts on Drin’s forearm, barely big enough to bleed. Dance clutches Drin’s arm, staring at the tiny drops of blood there. Then his hand drags up the hose, splattering Drin’s shirt and drowning the cuts in water, as if diluting it might help.
“Yeah,” Drin says, and something hard and lumpy and heavy settles with a bump in his unsettled stomach. Instead of lurching about in space, weightless, it has become a solid, unexpected burden. The cuts could have been made by slivers of glass. Out of this world.
Dance’s eyes are wide open, pale with alarm. For a wordless moment Drin stares into that panic. He cups Dance’s chin, strokes his lover’s jawline. Dance swallows, under that touch, and closes his eyes, and starts to turn his head away. Instead, Drin folds him up in the grip of both arms, and holds him close.
“It’s all right, sweetheart,” he says into Dance’s tumbled, sweaty hair. “It’s going to be all right. Whatever it is, hey, we’ll figure out how to handle it. I’ll get help. Em will get us help. Whatever we need. Don’t worry.”
Dance’s shoulders bunch tight under the touch, incredibly knotted, and then he lowers his head into Drin’s collarbone, and the shoulders suddenly relax limp, and his weight leans into Drin’s chest. “We are so… sorry. I can’t… I don’t know anything.” He gives a breath of laughter. “You see how it is?”
“Damn silly of me,” Drin agrees, and kisses him on the top of the head.
Dance gives a big bone-deep sigh, and leans into him. The hose runs unnoticed over Dance’s bare feet, soaks Drin’s socks.
“Tired, too, right?” Drin says. “Haven’t been sleeping well?”
Dance nods into his chest.
“Me either. Needed my Dance. I kept waking up, reaching over.”
“Yeah. You too, huh?” Drin feels his ribs bump Dance with an almost silent chuckle. “The worst. And meeting Fozzie didn’t help that a bit. He… helped me remember stuff.”
Dance pushes closer yet into Drin’s body. He’s shivering.
“Okay, time for a shower. That’ll help. And then food. Some of that good Dance cooking to bring me home.”
“Sweet talker,” Dance murmurs, and if he’s laughing a little, it sounds like it’s so he won’t cry instead.
Drin kisses Dance’s head again, and sighs into the heaps of black hair. He pushes that other darkness away from the edges of his mind, and takes a deep breath.
“Come on now,” he says. “What can I help you chop?”
He follows Dance into the house, leaving a burning battlefield somewhere behind him.
Doctor Alexander nods politely when the Chu twins settle on stools on either side of him. He appreciates the strength in the slender fingers as they touch his shoulder in greeting, the claw prickles gently reminding him they could rip him stem to stern. Their muscles are not as subtle. There’s a few white streaks of scars marring that glossy fur, too. They don’t have to wear such tiny little clothes for propriety’s sake, they could walk in here naked. According to Hal’s stories, they’ve walked in here covered in blood, torn up, lame, and nobody said a word. People just scuffled around and dug up bandages and antiseptic for them. Hal says that bullet scores are fairly common. Just an little FYI for the doctor in the house, that’s all.
Alexander winces at a live harmonica note pushed its breaking point.
Kelli Chu snorts. “He ain’t gonna give Muddy Waters any run for his money, not with that harp.”
“Poor guy never met an off-note he didn’t like,” Kerri agrees, and chugs her beer.
“Oh hush, he thinks he’s bending notes,” says Kelli.
The Chu twins grin at him when he winces at a note so blue it’s almost purple. It’s interesting to see that he is being cut out of the herd like a springbok under their green-eyed regard. He takes it as a spooky sort of flattery on their part. Or just plain old boredom. Their round furry cat ears flick irritably at one awkward transition after another.
Kerri snorts. “Oh now we doing calypso?”
“You could cut a stump with that nasal Cajun whine,” Kelli says.
Alexander makes a face.
“Oooh, whassa matter baby, wuggums doesn’t like our sweet country music?” Kerri says.
Alexander says, “Oh, I just adore songs about wallowing happily in the results of child abuse, water contaminated by sewage, and the gun and tobacco industries. Have I left anything out?”
“Probably,” Kelli says. “I’d kill for a cigarette.”
“I’ve heard that about you,” Alexander says.
They both stare at him, and crack up.
“Education,” Kerri says. “Or lack of it.”
“Poor diet,” Kelli replies, clopping her canines together with a clashing noise. “Gawd, I wanna ciggie.”
“You’re quitting, remember?” Kerri reaches past Alexander and smacks her sister on the shoulder with an audible thump.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kelli says, scowling. “God, these guys don’t even belong in a garage. Total abuse of sheet rock.”
Alexander winces. “Is the drummer stoned?”
“You need to ask?” Kelli says, and bares her teeth at him. He has plenty of time to notice that she has healthy pink gums and her teeth have excellent deep roots. Her tongue papillae are only a little deeper than a regular human’s would be. Not enough to rasp meat off the bone in one swipe, like a leopard’s, in spite of the stories he’s heard.
Alexander holds out his hand, wiggles his fingers, and gives a shrug.
Kelli makes a sad little moue with her mouth, and Kerri signals for another beer for him. He notices the beer arrives immediately, too. He pays for the round. Alexander sips his beer. It has the benefit of being slightly colder than the humid air whiffled past them by the fan.
“Have I mentioned how much I hate badly done blues?” Doctor Alexander says.
Kerri makes a face, showing her long canines. “Is there such a thing? Can you ever define that sliding edge where bad starts?”
Alexander grunts. “Why is Nicky allowing this– experiment– when he has proper musicians like Rene and Tiny?”
“Oh, Nicky stiffed Tiny last time–“Kelli says.
“–and Rene twice before that–” Kerri growls.
“Those guys, they put up with too much shit,” Kelli agrees.
“So they ain’t gonna give up paying gigs for this dump,” Kerri says.
“Just when you think Nicky’s Bar can’t slide any further down the greased pole of pathetic bars…” Kelli shrugs.
“…then you visit the restroom!” Kerri makes another horrible face, wrinkling her muzzle.
“Is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘Oh, it really isn’t so bad since you two came in,'” Alexander says, with a sort of academic interest.
“No,” Kelli says sternly. Kerri giggles, and Kelli glares at her.
“Oh,” Alexander says. He shrugs. “I have to practice these things. I’m not very good at it.”
Kelli rolls her eyes. “On top of everything else, inept geeky flattery! Gaaawd!”
“Well, if you wanted to make the whole experience even more dreadful, I could ask you to dance. I mean, both of you, and very badly. I’d do my best to make it very embarrassingly bad, if you like.”
Kelli makes a gagging noise, slapping her sister past him, and Kerri bursts into laughter. It doesn’t matter, the sound is covered by the triumphant screech at the end of the band’s first set.
“C’mon, you flatterer, I’ll give you a fucking dance,” Kelli says, grabbing his arm, and they drag him outside.
“Oh yes, fresh air, I remember it now,” Alexander says. “Peace and quiet. It’s a shock, but I’ll be brave.”
Kerri is laughing again.
Kelli growls, leaning into a truck. “God, there’s nowhere closer than town for anything else to do.”
“Watch a movie? TV?” Alexander suggests, although it’s a rare practice for him. “Sorry, my set is making wavy lines at me. I think it might be the cable feed.”
“Oh fucking hell,” Kelli grumbles. “I fucking hocked our last decent screen–” she swears.
Kerri points a thumb at her sister, and confides, “She threw our crummy little TV out the screen door last week.”
“Why?” Alexander asks.
Kelli growls, shaking her fists at the sky. “Do you know what they’ve done to Alcide on True Blood? How could any decent wolf ever—“
“C’mon, you don’t even like wolves,” Kerri says. She turns to Alexander. “Well, you know how we do production and editing work. They keep firing people we know, all over the area, doing this absurd overnight out-sourcing.”
“They had Hindi cusswords coming in on their feed and they didn’t even catch it in time!” Kelli snarls.
“Her editing standards are just too high.”
“What does it mean to be a fucking pro when assholes like that–”
“And don’t ask if we could get Nicky to put the sports on his big screen,” Kerri says, sadly. She reaches out and fiddles with a button on Alexander’s shirt.
“Just don’t even fucking bother asking Nicky, he only watches those idiots, that fucking Grunter and Potato Head,” Kelli snaps, pointing warningly at Alexander.
Alexander smiles. “I’d bet any of those single guys in there would let you watch sports with them. You’d just have to behave and not eat their spleen when their team won instead.”
“Like I’d stoop to eating their stinking spleens!” Kelli snarls, dropping her sandal and kicking the truck’s front tire with her bare toes. Clawed toes. The tire gives a sad little pooting noise, and then hisses steadily.
Alexander blinks at the license plate on the truck. Nickysbar.
“Feel better?” Alexander asks.
“Yeah, goddammit!” Kelli says. She kicks the rear tire, with the same results. At the tire, she shouts, “Your damn lazy family is letting your tire inflation go too low, asshole! It don’t puncture if you keep it at the right inflation! Last time you let Tangerine get stuck out there in some hellbilly hole with the tires cut to ribbons onna rocks, and it took me three weeks to get over the damn wolf bites we took getting her outta there in one piece, you lazy piece a’ shite!” She punctures another tire.
“Is she angry like this all the time?” Alexander asks.
“No, just when we get stiffed for a coupla jobs in a row,” Kerri says. The shirt button comes off in her hand. Boy, the Chu twins are just as destructive as everybody says, but Kerri looks down at it like she’s about to cry. “Can’t make the rent, we gotta move again.”
“You two hungry?” Alexander asks, and pets the back of Kerri’s hand, taking the button from her. “I think I’ve got some rather elderly frozen venison steaks and some croppie fillets that Hal gave me. You can make me happy by taking my annoying tv away and do whatever you like with it. Make a fish tank out of it or something. I have no idea what kind it is or anything. It’s about, oh, this big.” He holds out his hands.
The green eyes stare at him. Kelli leans into him then, with a sigh, and Kerri comes up and smacks his jaw lightly, very lightly, with her hand. She growls at him, “You’re way too nice.”
“Don’t tell,” Alexander says solemnly. “Can’t help you on the broken screen door.”
The car murmurs with Drin’s voice. “Yeah, the Board decided to pay for guest conductors for the two shows after that, because Bud lined up a couple of his candidates for demonstration purposes, and Young will finish up this next event, unpaid. If I was the insurance adjuster I wouldn’t let him in the building, but they signed off on it. Yeah, Amalia and Dance and Rosie get to sit it out, on leave without pay. For now, at least.” Drin holds the phone away from his ear at that squawk of outrage. “Em, love, yeah, I hear you. I know. I know it’s probably not legal. You should have heard Shura–he knows his labor law. Yeah, it’s such a mess.”
Dance leans back in the car seat, resting his head in his hand. All he wants to do is sleep. Or possibly eat his way through the grocery store, he’s not particular which. He’s past worrying what Drin thinks of him going through entire jars of kimchee or apple butter or olives or artichokes or pickled beets during his midnight snack-attacks the past few weeks. Oh, and loaves of bread, too. Drin hasn’t even teased him about being pregnant the way Emma did. He just asks what Dance wants, and brings home more jars of stuff.
Drin closes his phone, drops it in the holster on his belt. Then he does that weird Drin thing, reading somebody else’s brain without even looking at them. “What’s going onto the grocery list tonight? Sweetheart, what are you absolutely craving today? Mangoes? Peanut butter? Saurkraut?”
Dance yawns. “I put carrots into vinegar to marinate this morning, that’d be good.”
Drin looks at him sideways, and puts the car gently in gear. “Uh huh. You’re trying to be good, aren’t you?”
Dance sighs, shoves his hair out of his eyes. “Well, I want to try–”
“Sushi,” Drin says. “Sashimi.”
Dance finds he’s gripping one hand into Drin’s pantsleg, very hard. “Oooh. Oooh, you make my mouth go crazy. You are so mean!”
“Uh huh,” Drin says. “Or nice thick rare steak?”
“You only do that when you’re driving, so I won’t be chewing on your leg instead!”
“Yeah, exactly,” Drin says. “Barbecue ribs.”
Dance moans, clutching at his seatbelt instead. “We—I– can’t afford to eat like that all the time!”
“Well, you’re not gaining weight where it shows, that’s for sure. What else do you really really want to eat?”
“Strawberries. French onion soup. Peanut butter. Cheese. Roasted garlic. Bibimbap with lots of spicy pork. I don’t know!”
“You sound pretty sure,” Drin says.
Dance leans over and pushes his head into Drin’s upper arm, even while the man is driving, and he opens his mouth and drags his teeth over Drin’s shoulder. Lightly chews on Drin’s shoulder through the cotton shirt. Licks the warm cloth. It is soothing. Drin tastes like he smells. Dance sighs. It quiets the roar of need in his bones, in his gut.
Drin puts up a hand and strokes Dance’s neck. “Better?”
“Uh huh,” Dance says, mouth full of shirt. His tailbone is going off in white hot pulses again.
“How about cantaloupe for dessert with your strawberries–more minerals. And maybe about six pounds of tilapia instead of a quarter pound of tuna?”
“Okay,” Dance says.
“How many onions? Some garlic for that pork, too?”
Dance closes his eyes. “I love you,” he says, muffled.
Drin pats his head. “Even when I’m mean to you, and I’m going to smell of garlic when I start kissing you silly tonight?”
Dance bites him gently through the shirt. “Yeah. Oh yeah. Oh please.”
“Your back hurts?”
“Mmm. Fuck me all better, please.”
Drin glances in the mirrors, not saying anything. Dance knows that he’s thinking about the more clinical conversations they’ve had. But the big man’s hand slides along Dance’s thigh, strokes him expertly through the loose sweatpants, and he pulls the car to a stop neatly in a parking slot just before his fingers slide into Dance’s pants and finish him off. Then he leans into Dance, kissing him a moment. “Better?”
“Oh yes,” Dance says, sprawled back in the passenger seat, blinking up at his husband. Dance struggles back to the present. He says, “You don’t have to eat any garlic if you don’t want, I can just roast it and leave it out of the bibimbap–”
“No, if you can stand us smelling of it, then you can pile it on all you like. Man, your roasted garlic, that’s heaven on earth. See, you’re not the only one with funny cravings,” Drin says.
Dance squints his eyes tightly shut. “What’s wrong with us?”
“Don’t know, sweetheart, but I’ve never heard of something driving you to have sex more often, not some disease you catch like measles. I mean, not the psychological stuff, like satyriasis.”
Dance snorts. “Our Em can find out. She may know already.”
Drin smiles. “Yeah. She’s so amazing. Have a tissue.”
Dance sighs, blinking down at the other man’s hand cupping him in his pants. He will never get over finding that amazing. When he says so, Drin leans into him harder, kisses up and down his neck.
When the big man draws back, his tiger-yellow pupils are relaxed wide open. “I love you so much,” Drin says, stroking Dance’s hair, and he just accepts Dance’s urgent hug squeezing his ribs until they make creaking noises. When Drin’s spine makes popping noises, he sighs in relief, and they both laugh.
It’s just more comic relief when Dance takes the tissue and squirms around getting himself cleaned up. Nothing to be done about the wet spot in the sweatpants, and saying so makes Drin laugh. It’s always gratifying when an attempt at a joke comes off well. It always pleases Dance to make people laugh, anyway, since it means he’s understood the social interactions well enough. Fights and tension makes that white-hot tingling in his tailbone get worse. Sometimes when he tells jokes, that cluster of nerves will open up and relax, as it is doing now, so it gives a kind of satisfied thrumming sensation instead–much nicer. He sighs in content. “Garlic,” he says.
“Indeed,” Drin says, chuckling, and they climb out of the car.
The Board meeting is quite different from anything they’d expected. Something had certainly changed, as the just-elected Chairmen is the new member, Evans, who is known now to be retired from federal tax law enforcement work. Richard Young is not attending. Plus, some of the usual obstructionist faces are missing. Things go far more briskly than anybody is used to. Explaining the fight itself is handled in less than ten minutes, with a few quick questions to Rosie about her written report.
She looks pale and sounds subdued, even with her goth black eyeshadow carefully elongated into an Egyptian Horus loop on her right cheekbone. But she speaks clearly when she answers, turning to everyone on the Board, making sure they can all hear her. “So then I got mad, I don’t remember every word he said after that, not perfectly. I wrote that, in my report.”
Drin sat back in his folding chair, observing, and looked pleased with himself.
Then Rosie says, “But I’m sure Mister Dance did, if you want to hear it in order. He remembers stuff like that, I mean, like, everything.”
Murmurs–after all, they have the report that Dance wrote out so carefully on his computer, listing down precisely every word he’d heard, which took him ten pages to do properly.
The Chairman thanks her, dismisses her to sit in the audience again, and nods for lights to be dimmed. If he was being strictly formal, he’d have kept everybody testifying separately, but he’s letting them hear one another. He flips on the laptop in front of him, clicks silently through the pictures in the display. Dance was shocked to see several blurred cell phone shots of himself in motion, pulling away from Maestro Young’s flailing efforts, one where he is clearly deflecting Young’s arm away from striking out at Amalia’s startled face, with her cello bow fallen off to one side. Bad site awareness: He hadn’t noticed anybody back there, involved, able to take such pictures. That must have been Robert, dodging in.
“Now we have the consequences,” says the Chairman dryly.
Dance winces. There is the dented wallboard, taken at angles from both Amalia’s cell phone and from Drin’s, and several others. There’s a shot of Dance looking annoyed and ruffled in the Metro restroom, changing into his dress shirt for the hearing this morning, with the bruises on his chest gone dark. From that downward angle he looks bony and small and about as threatening as a feral kitten. That was Robert’s fault, grinning at him and running away with a joke.
There are also shots of Richard Young sitting in a blue-lit hospital area, looking cadaverous, with a sling being adjusted on his arm, and dressings taped over his knuckles. The crazy eyes don’t help. No question, those unflattering angles are Robert getting his own back, on behalf of all the cellos.
“We have estimates for wall repairs coming this week,” said the Chairman briskly. “I have a query in to our lawyers about the liability on our insurance covering the cost of medical care for Maestro Young. Now, the Maestro was personally invited to speak today, but he said he did not wish to appear for us. Maybe later, if the Board feels the need.” There is an odd dry note in the man’s voice. Evans is not just another suit, panting to be treated with the showbiz-style rudeness that Young dished out, lapped up so easily by other Board members.
Joscelyn, sitting near the Chairman, gives a snort and taps her rings on the table. “I tried too, Bert. I’m sure he needs some time off too, he couldn’t stop talking about how our Metro folks are a real handful, and it’s all beyond him. Honestly, the man does not look well.”
“Thank you. We do have our Concertmaster here today, Dance of Knives, who gave us quite a detailed report. Any questions for him?”
Joscelyn growls, “I have one. Dance, did you think about who will have to conduct the next three concerts, before you beat up Maestro Young?”
Dance stands up, bows to her. “Yes, ma’am, but I was not wishing to–”
“Yeah, yeah. I got an earful from Dickie Young last night. You want my opinion, folks, I think Young was basically committing some crazy kinda suicide by cop, no huge surprise. Trust me, folks, we’ll end up writing it all off. Dance, you lucky boy you, how fun that you got to be the one to kick his ass for all of us, and speaking both as an offended Board member and as another woman pissed off by Dickie Young’s lousy behavior–” she nods over at Rosie, who is looking astonished, “–I have to thank you for doing that.” Joscelyn’s gaze comes back to Dance with the slow, merciless smile of a lioness. “So you want to share what you decided?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Another reflex bow. “If Amalia and myself excuse ourselves for next week, if the Maestro conducts this first one, then the second chairs can cover our duties. On the second concert, Amalia can rehearse us, and conduct if necessary. For the third one, by then either Amalia can conduct and perhaps the Board can invite the guest candidates to come early. Two weeks’ notice is not too early for a professional to prepare on our repertoire, even if we cannot pay them–”
“We’ll see about pay, too, since Young breached his contract in such a big showy way,” Evans says.
Joscelyn nods. “Can’t even have him in the building for a show, just to be safe, so we need next week’s conductor like now, today. How come we shouldn’t fire your sorry tush right along with him, and Amalia too, no blame, hey, the no-fault insurance waves good-bye?”
Dance shrugs. “You may have to yell at the insurance to keep us. But it does show them our Metro is a venue with people who know how to handle moderately violent situations and keep the public safe.”
Joscelyn raps her rings on the table with a bang. “Really.”
Dance bows again. “Also, please remember, we all of us will be happier to play here with the Metro, where we have invested so much effort. We will be happy to work with guest conductors rather than to lose our positions and be forced to make union lawsuits over harassment by the Maestro, when he has forced us to defend our reputations, and will try to force us to leave the Metro, through no fault of our own.”
“Ah! and here, people tell me that you never make threats!” Joscelyn says.
“No threat, please, ma’am. I only tell you what actions I will choose if I can.”
Joscelyn makes a face. “Back over to you guys. Bud, your pet bites.”
Bud Innes waves a dismissive hand. “Looks pretty safe to me, if you gotta poke him that hard to get a reaction… As Young obviously found out.”
Nobody had expected somebody as busy as Bud to show up. Since he’d joined the Metro Board, his position was often handled by his proxies, usually with notes texted to them from foreign cities. He sighs. “I’ve sent along lists on guest candidates who’d be able to pop in on a weeks’ notice, another list for two weeks, and so on. We can go over ideas later in the week, after we have some answers from the insurance and everyone has time to look them over.”
Evans nods. “Excellent, thank you. Any other questions for our Concertmaster? None? All right, Bud, if you’d like to explain?”
Bud says, “Dance, you told us where you were standing when you first heard the conversation in Young’s office and you thought something was wrong. Can you normally hear things from that spot? Would you be willing to demonstrate it this morning for us? Good. If any Board members would like to join me, I’ll be happy to explain what I have in mind. Thank you, that’s all the questions I have.”
They all troop downstairs and look at the bent and crumpled drywall. They ask Dance to stand next to the dented outline. Bud takes pictures with his cell phone at different angles than Amalia or Drin did. Then Bud asks Dance to stand where he first heard the sounds in Young’s office. Some of them stay with Dance and Drin, others join Bud in the office while he sets up whatever equipment he brought along with him. He gives the playback job to a volunteer staff member who’s also an audio engineer as their day job. Then Bud and the rest of them come trooping back to where Dance and Drin are standing. By then, one of Bud’s assistants is carrying a big pro videocam on one shoulder. He takes up position, clicks on his camera quietly, nods to Bud, who looks at his watch. Bud holds up a microphone attached to a sleek tiny pocket phone and nods for Dance to start talking into it. Asks Dance to tell what he hears in the office.
“Well, they’re counting down–four, three, two, one, and a machine clicks on, so quiet.” Dance frowns. “Murmur, we cannot make it out. Oh, a cat mewing, this sound is on a recording. Not a tape, perhaps a cell phone, by the distortion. Yes, in the room and not on the recording, somebody coughs– coughing twice. Okay, between the recorder and your speaker, the recorded sound has distortion in the midrange. The recording has a bow drawn on strings– a cello. Someone is playing the cello part of Brahms’ Lullaby adapted for quartet, soft. Getting louder.” He hums along with it, nodding. “Oh, it must be an informal practice, they are jazzing it up at double speed–oops, they bobbled the fast notes in that fourth bar–”
People are starting to laugh behind him, trying to be quiet.
“–Oh, yes, it’s a recording of Robert’s playing,” Dance says between humming bars of it, eyes shut. “Yes, that resonance is Robert’s cello. He’s playing from memory, I think. Yes, Robert in the last few weeks, because he’s fixed that hand movement when he does his tremolo– yes, definitely, much better–”
Drin claps him on the shoulder, laughing softly.
Dance blinks and looks around. “Oh, now he’s stopped playing. He says, very loud, ‘Is this enough for tonight, Papi, my back is killing me.’ Then some kind of machine humming. I’m not hearing any other–”
There’s a general roar, and Bud Innes nods, and clicks off recording on the little pocket phone. Bud flips on the phone and calls his engineer, and says, very dryly, “Yeah, we got it. I think that’s enough to make the point.” Then he clicks on the microphone again, but he does it without showing it to everybody else. The videographer is still running his camera, aimed at Dance.
Dance frowns, looking at Bud. He’s not sure what Bud wants to record. So he asks about Robert’s well-being, which he would normally do anyway. “Has Robert got a massage therapist to work on that back yet? It always gets worse under stress. Was this recording done last night?”
Bud looks at him a moment, and smiles. “Yeah, about three AM after he got home from dealing with getting Young from the ER back home, and yes, he’s gone to his new therapist this morning, and it helped a lot.”
“Oh good. Thank you, Bud.”
“You’re welcome.” And he grins, and clicks off the mike again. The videographer thumbs off his camera at last. “I assume you’re eager to go talk to Brian now, he was chewing his nails off, down in the lobby.”
Dance sighs, collects the folders of papers that he put together for Brian, and hurries away. Reassuring Brian about what he faces if Young is not coming back will be the big job of the day. Brian is suddenly asking all those questions he was far too proud to ask before, with more time, back when he viewed Dance as an immovable object.
Dance remains puzzled by much of that morning’s meeting, and Bud’s questions.
When he asks Drin about it, that night, Drin shrugs too. “He gets precise like that when he’s checking on the specs on some piece of equipment, I know that. Maybe he just never connected the dots before, things like, oh, yeah, you do actually practice in the dojo. I assumed he wanted to nail the point on how extremely well you could hear what Young was saying, to help defend against any lawsuits by Young.”
“Shura is going to be unhappy about Young fighting himself out of a job, if Young is still owing debts and gambling badly,” Dance says.
“You got that right,” Emma says, pouring Drin more coffee. It’s looking like a long night for all of them, with deadlines that won’t conveniently postpone just because they need to make statements to the police. Or because they have to make arrangements to help out Brian if Dance is removed from his post as Concertmaster.
He’s too tired to think about the bubble of hope hanging tightly in his tum, the one that says, hey, if Young is leaving, maybe we could get a really good conductor? He ignores that misleading little voice. He had the same hopes when Walstad left, and they got Young instead.
Besides, he’s almost too tired to respond when he rolls into bed with Drin. Almost. Drin wants to kiss him and touch him all over and take him with a kind of reassuring, possessive anger, and Dance is happy to have his brain shut off in favor of his dick by a demanding husband. Plus it makes his back stop hurting so much. Ever since the fight with Young, his tailbone has been achingly alive, throbbing up his back and across his pelvis. It’s got a constant tingling sensation like one of Drin’s July Fourth sparklers spitting onto his fingers. That itchy, crawling, white-spark sensation burning along the base of his spine quiets down for hours when Drin brings him to climax. Getting fucked into totally limp satisfaction is a real improvement.
Emma is cursing when they get home. She bangs things around in the kitchen, throws herself into a chair at the table, and points at steaming mugs of tea sitting on the table.
“Thank you,” Dance says, and settles into his usual chair, and sips carefully at the hot fluid. After the lift of the chatter and jokes in the car, he is suddenly exhausted.
Drin drops into his chair, scrubbing at his hair with both hands, and then leaning on the table. He looks at the tea like he had something stronger in mind.
“Just heard about it from Amalia on the phone just now. Did he hurt you?” Emma demands.
“No, it was nothing much, not even so hard as a dojo workout, honestly–”
Drin reaches over, tugs at Dance’s shirt. “Just show her.”
Dance pulls his sweatshirt off, holds up his hands.
Emma leans in, peers at his chest, touches his ribs, and nods. “You might get some bruises there.”
He shrugs, and sips some more tea. They have that exchange of looks where she’s looking at his chest for other reasons, and he knows it, and she knows he knows it, and Drin is grinning at them, and she’s annoyed at Dance for distracting her. It cheers him up.
Emma smacks his knee, and sits back, satisfied. “I heard from Robert at the ER, too. Couldn’t wait to spread it around. Young broke two fingers and needed his knuckles sewed up, and may have sprained a knee.”
Dance shrugs again. “We were trying not to injure him.”
“I wasn’t that careful,” Drin says.
Emma looks at Drin. “I bet. Probably a good thing I wasn’t there, huh?”
“Yes,” Dance says, and smiles at her crookedly. “You with the bad ladyheels. You might have got your purse scissors out.”
“Not the scissors!” Drin hugs himself, knees together, with a silly grimace, and they laugh.
“Damn, I oughta just spank your ass,” Emma says, and smacks Dance again on the knee.
Dance smiles. Then a yawn catches him by surprise.
“Losing your temper like that and letting Young pull a full-on stompin’ hissyfit–turns out there’s just one thing you didn’t think of. Amalia and I were talking about it. The schedule.”
Dance feels his shoulders sag.
Drin says, “What about it?”
“Young’s contracted for the next three concerts, before the guest conductors come up on deck. Don’t know if we can come up with anybody at such short notice.”
“Dance, if they have you back to work, can you act as Concertmaster and conduct next week?” Drin says.
Dance nods. For the last four months he’s been working up memorization of the entire orchestral score, prepping how to smooth out transitions, as a routine backup. It’s been a lot of extra work. Getting Brian up to speed as his backup has been more work.
Emma shakes her head. “The Board will never go for that if the insurance lags dealing with it. They won’t like it if there’s a fuss in the papers, especially if Young gets his version out there first. But half of them know any PR is better than none, and they’ll whip it up for all it’s worth. They’re gonna talk all about how Dance is an unranked martial arts nutball or whatever, that Young was at danger of his life and fought him off and all kinds of nonsense. They’re gonna make us put up with Young showing up for another performance, possibly all three.”
Dance can feel the cringe all over his body. He can’t imagine how Rosie will feel when people remind her of this.
“He fucking assaulted you, Dance,” Emma growls. “They just got lucky it was you, because you know how to handle it.”
“No, my choice. Mine. I did not want him to bully Rosie. She is fearful with large men. Drin always gives her lots of space so she is calmer.”
“Oh God, Dance,” Emma says, and puts her hands over her face. “Oh, that poor girl, when the gossipmongers get hold of her–”
“Yeah, you’re right. Poor kid,” Drin says.
Emma says, “Plus the Board will have a union problem if they make people work under Young’s supervision.”
“Well, the other way doesn’t work either, politically. They’ll accuse Dance of provoking Young’s infamous temper to get rid of Young at the last minute, just so he gets to lead the performance as Concertmaster,” Emma says.
“You have a very nasty politicking mind, young lady,” Drin says.
“But I don’t want to–” Dance begins.
“Of course not,” Emma says. “You want Young to do his damn job, gods rot him, so you can do yours, which is playing, and maybe I’m the only one who remembers that any more?”
Emma levels a warning finger at Drin. “You guys and your damn testosterone–” And then she gives a big sniff. “You should have heard Amalia talking about how you damn well marched in and rescued that poor little punk Rosie. God, I could just–” She stands up, puts both arms around Dance, and squeezes him very hard.
He hugs her back, and kisses her cheek, and leans his face into her shoulder. She always smells good to him, even when she’s practically metallic with rage and leftover worry. It’s even better when he feels Drin’s long arms loop around them both, and Drin kisses them. Dance heaves a big sigh. The pressure of their bodies quiets the nerves sparking and tingling in the base of his spine.
“Better, Em?” Drin murmurs.
Emma sighs. “Yeah. I needed that.”
“Me too,” Drin says.
Everybody sits back down, shuffling around clumsily. They look silly, and Drin pats Dance on the shoulder, chuckling. Dance watches gravely as Emma refills their tea mugs again. “Okay?”
“Yeah,” Emma says.
“Any ideas?” Drin asks him, leaning in.
Dance nods. “Rosie and Amalia and I could excuse ourselves on this first concert. Brian is Concertmaster. That makes it possible if the Board insists on Young this one time. After that, to conduct, Young will have to practice somewhat with players, and as you say, his supervising is unacceptable now. Insurance and the union will not like it. If insurance will be okay with Amalia conducting, I can get her ready on the rest of the parts. I’ve been saying she would make a great conductor, she’s been to more modern workshops for conducting than Brian or me.”
“Isn’t that going to dump a really big performance on Brian in your section, and on Robert in the cellos?” Drin asks.
“You look tired out, love,” Emma says.
Dance nods again, making it a silly puppetlike gesture.
She says, “Well, I bought extra deli sandwiches for lunch tomorrow, but we can have those for dinner and let you go to bed early, love.”
Dance nods wider yet, and grins.
Drin chuckles. “Now I want to hug you again.”
“Just because?” Emma says, chuckling, and she gets up. She ruffles his hair in passing, and lays her hand on Drin’s shoulder briefly. Drin pulls out his phone and starts dialing numbers, murmuring messages, arranging for a seven AM meeting. Dance sighs, and closes his eyes, and leans back in his chair, trying to find a position that eases the tingling in his tailbones. He’s asleep before Emma even opens the fridge.